The Compost Heap and the Church: Fertilization (Part Four)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-09-04 15.20.20 Fertilization
The second concept of the compost heap is fertilization. Fertilizer, no matter how we cut it, is rarely pretty. It doesn’t smell good. Fertilizer is not what you take and put in a beautiful crystal vase or gorgeous pottery bowl in the middle of the table—you want those fresh flowers or tomatoes there. But fertilizer is incredibly important, and can be something we intentionally cultivate with our dying leaves.

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Leaves can just fall where they do; our churches and programs and ways of being can just slowly fade away. Or we can ask, “How can we purposefully use this thing that is dying to be the nutrients for what is going to grow?” This is the fertilizer. This is what I believe that we all can be called to, to purposefully put the leaves on the compost heap to decompose into useful fertilizer. And we can stop and remember that fertilizer is what we’re all growing out of. We are all here, being the branches of our denominations and our spiritual heritage because of the people who have put fertilizer on in the past.

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Legacy
Personally I can stand in this room and I can think about my ancestors. I think about my great-grandparents, Anita and Louis Dole who were part of the founding of this camp, my great-grandma who wrote the Dole Notes, a rich resource in Swedenborgian Bible study. Bill and Louise Woofenden, pillars in the church and this camp. My maternal grandparents Dave and Shirley Gladish dedicated their lives to Swedenborgian scholarship and translation. Shirley Gladish, my last living grandparent, who’s still doing working on the New Century edition for the Swedenborg Foundation in her late eighties. And I’m humbled, truly humbled by this legacy and how my ancestors gave their lives to the church, and were that active fertilizer that we are growing out of.
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When we talk about this compost heap, it’s not about throwing out the old. It’s not about how the younger generation wants to come in and change everything and blow off the older generation. That’s not the point. The point is: we are each fertilizer for the next generation, so how do we do this purposefully? Rather than throwing out the old in the trash, can we let it be recycled, composted, and become the nutrients for the next generation?

Both my Woofenden grandparents died recently. They had faded out of active life in the church over the last number of years, with their bodies and minds began to slow down. But their commitment and faith to the Swedenborgian was still central to the ethos of their home.

When I went to visit over the last few years, the way that Grandpa would connect with people was through showing us things around the house and telling the stories. We talked a lot about the paintings on the wall, the little squeaky things that made bird sounds, and inevitably, he’d show me the most recent book from the Swedenborg Foundation. And then he would show me with great pride, the bookstand that the Swedenborg Foundation had given him to honor his work with them. Grandma, even when she was struggling to fully communicate, would still have her Greek New Testament out, which she had read her whole life. And every day, at lunch or dinner, depending on the schedule, Grandpa and Grandma would read a chapter from the Bible, slowly working their way from Genesis to Revelation, and back again. They were faithful to their spiritual tradition in their generation.

What does it look like to be faithful in my generation? I am called to be faithful to God and to walk in the Swedenborgian heritage in my generation. And I, and my generation, know that we cannot do it alone. We are able to be the church for our generation, because of the fertilization that has been, is, and will be done by the generations that have come before us.

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Building or Gardening
Built on” is often the metaphor we hear when we talk about generational shifts. Or “stand on the shoulders of.” I appreciate these sentiments. I hold a deep regard for those who have been living the life of faith, and leading and sustaining and innovating the church for each generation. And I know I would not be standing here without that.

However, I’d like to offer the idea of fertilizer as an alternative metaphor. “Building” quickly becomes a linear or hierarchical metaphor. And it is very bound by form. This generation bought the land and built a small chapel, the next generation built on that by adding a larger sanctuary and fellowship hall, the next the parking lot, playground, and a new roof on the original chapel. Now it’s up to my generation to build on that by getting the new carpet and wiring the fellowship hall with technology—and don’t forget that the playground equipment needs to be updated. Being the church takes on the feeling of another thing on the to-do list or an uninvited expectation.

Intergenerational Support
Things have changed in how each generation relates to church, and with this change, we have an opportunity to re-imagine the metaphors. Involvement in church is not the assumption that it was 50 years ago. As someone who is called to be a leader in the church, I can speak for some and share that it is hard to be a faith leader in this era. Gone are the days of community respect, assured job security, and predictable employment. In this era, we are charged with re-imagining church, and ministering to a generation that holds no assumption around the need to be part of church. This work is not easy, and we need each generation to play their part.

We need the coming generations to be proactively trained, equipped, and empowered, and our organizations to consciously make space for new voices. We need our systems to be courageous around change, and cultivate creative and present conversation among all of us. To give voice to the legacy that has been written, and to honor the way that compost can be given for the next generation of leaders. To take the time to ask the generations above and below, “What does it look like to purposefully fertilize?” How can we make organizational choices, financial choices, building choices, cultural choices, in a way that makes fertile rich soil for the next generations and for new life to grow?

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To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing together you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Compost Heap and the Church: Decomposition (Part Three)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-08-24 23.07.00Decomposition

It seems in general that we’re more comfortable with changing seasons than we are with change in our own individual lives. We are more comfortable with the leaves dying while displaying their vibrant tones than we are with facing our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love. And then when we move from our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love, to the death of our churches, it brings up another collection of responses. The idea that our churches may be dying stirs up emotions and reactions for all of us, and I believe it’s important to recognize and name that.

I’ve spent much of my career in outreach and evangelization, and I was often the person who would come into a congregation or denominational setting and say, “There’s hope! Try this, try that!” And I do believe there is a place for that. There are positive things that are happening and there are good places to put our attention. I have come to believe that in order to be healthy organisms, we also need to be able to see and name the places that are dying and where things need to end. It gets confusing when the cycles of life and death are going on in our churches and our denominations at the same time. Within a community, it’s not always clear what part of the life of the church is on hospice and what is coming to life.

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Church Hospice
Being aware of what is going on in our churches and having the courage to name it is a call to all of us. When a hospice chaplain walks into a room with a family, often the job to be done is to name the thing that no one is going to say, which usually is, “Your loved one is dying.” This is a hard and painful job, but I find that often this honesty is the greatest gift you can give. To name what everyone in the room is thinking and feeling—and not saying.

And so I invite us—collectively—to be hospice chaplains for each other, and to acknowledge and say, “There are things in our church that are dying.” Aspects of our churches are changing—whether it be it a congregation, a way of doing things, or an idea we’ve held onto. We are called to acknowledge that some of our congregations have died or are going to die in this season, in this giant rummage sale that we are going through. We can be honest by acknowledging that this movement and change is held within the Divine cycle of life.

I believe that one of our callings in this time of change is to be hospice chaplains. A good hospice chaplain is present with the cycle of death, not rushing it and not prolonging it.  Sometimes the loving thing to do is to come in and say, “Let’s celebrate and then let go.” To be able to say together, “ You know what, we’ve always done our worship service this way, and we know it’s time to change.” It doesn’t need to be an abrupt cutting it off, and it also doesn’t need to be drawn out on life-support. We could say, “For 100 years we have said that same litany, with those same words. Let’s celebrate that… and then let it go and see what is waiting to be created anew.” This gets harder when it’s our congregations and our buildings—these places and communities we love. I know some of you have been through this, where you’ve had to let go and say goodbye. Let’s be good hospice chaplains together. Let’s celebrate, let’s look at the legacy, let’s claim the memorial, and then let it die.

I believe we need to be open to the possibility that our denominations hold this process of death as well. I do not know what next season is going to look like. I’m not predicting whether our denominations are going to disappear or not. But what I do know is that something is changing in them, and that there are ways of being, systems, concepts, and cultures, within all our denominations that need to die. How can we be present to that? How can we differentiate between the new growth that is alive and from the Lord and the things that we’re clinging onto, trying to survive?

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How can we accept that death is part of the cycle, and remember that death is not a failure? When our elders die, do we criticize them on their deathbed, telling them how they should have lived longer? No, we celebrate their lives, and then lay their bodies in the ground to decompose and go back to be part of the dust from which we all come. Could we not treat our churches, our worship services, or dwindling programs with such dignity and respect? Could we celebrate the years of legacy, the people, the pastors, the buildings, the events, the marriages, the deaths, the service to the community, the heritage of worship? Grieve the loss of something we love, celebrate life well lived, and accept that our churches have a life cycle. Death is not a failure. Death is a part of life.

2013-08-24 23.06.31To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole piece right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Compost Heap and the Church (Part Two)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-09-04 15.05.45Change
This word “change” is not a comfortable word. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a collective embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor.

When Christ was on earth, he certainly didn’t preach comfort or stability, feeling good or that it’s about what we want. That was not Christ’s message, though I often want it to be. But that’s not the message the Lord taught or demonstrated with on earth or that we read about in scripture. Christ preached that we should sell all we have and give to the poor and follow him. Jesus’ call is to take up our mats and walk, to lay down our nets and follow.

It’s so tempting, especially perhaps as Swedenborgians, with our ideas of the internal sense of the Word, to spiritualize these phrases and to push them away into intellectual concepts to keep ourselves comfortable. But I have come to believe that these are direct teachings—God’s call on our lives. I don’t know what it means in your life to sell all you have and give to the poor. But there’s something in there about sacrificing our own comfort and stability to be part of following God and a community. Following the Lord probably doesn’t look like physically putting down fishing nets for most of us, but it might involve letting go of that which has been core to our daily existence, and trusting and following and being changed. Taking up our mats, these things we’ve learned and know, and actively engaging in the work of our lives of faith even when it’s not comfortable or how we’ve always known life to be.

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It’s God then, who seems to be all about change—process, transformation, death, life, letting go, and rebirth. And it’s God who says, “I’ll be with you through it.
” Isn’t that the beauty of the incarnation? God coming to earth in human form, taking on this life process of being born, living, struggling, having joy, being in community, teaching, serving, dying, and then being resurrected, glorified, and coming again. Is this not the call to us individually, this call to the repentance of spirit, to transformation, to death and rebirth, to change? And if this the call to us individually, is not this the call to us as a church?

I think it’s easier to be present to the process of change by looking at the life cycle of an individual. I’ve heard some beautiful stories this weekend about aging gracefully, as people shared about having the courage to let go in a different way in these stages of life. There is a deep wisdom that the generations in their second half of life hold about aging, and that wisdom is needed in this conversation. If I’m standing here speaking as a “voice for the next generation of the church,” it’s important for me to honor and say clearly: this is not about wanting everything to change, getting rid of the old, and swooping in with the new. No, the message is: we need to have some dialog between generations. Because the church is changing, and I believe we all need to be presentto each other and the conversation.

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Giant Rummage Sale
I’d like to zoom out for a moment, and think about not just our local churches or denominations, or even the churches in our neighborhood, but to look at the greater swaths of movement in this cycle. Phyllis Tickle, a scholar of religious history, wrote a book called The Great Emergence. In it she offers a theory that in the sweep of Christian history, every five hundred years there is a giant rummage sale, where things are thrown up in the air and questioned, and then it settles back down and the church is changed in the process.

Tickle posits that the last time this happened was the Protestant Reformation. There was upheaval against the Catholic church of the time, reformers such as Luther and Calvin wrote and preached, and radical break-off groups formed, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, Anabaptists, and a bit later, the Swedenborgians. That was the last giant rummage sale. These rummage sales don’t happen overnight, they stretch over decades. She suggests that we’re in another one of these giant rummage sales in Christendom as a whole. This idea resonates with me within a Swedenborgian framework, and the concept of the Second Coming moving into the world. Maybe what we’re seeing is the actualization of a New Christianity, alive and working in the world. When I look at what’s going on in Christendom as a whole, around the world, something is happening. Something is changing.

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And we’re all in the same boat. From each of our denominations we have story after story about declining membership and churches closing.  So something is changing around us. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. Something is dying, and beginning to decompose.

To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Compost Heap and the Church (Part One)

Presented at Gathering Leaves (a symposium for women from all branches of the Swedenborgian Tradition)
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

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I have come to believe that a compost heap is beautiful. Decaying leaves. Crumbled eggshells. And yes, even that slime oozing off a banana peal. I love a good compost heap. I cannot say that I’ve grown to love the odor—that sharp, putrid smell that reminds us of death as part of the life cycle. But I do love a good compost heap, and I do believe that it is beautiful.

I believe dry leaves are beautiful. Dry leaves hold a set of unique colors. Looking out the window over the Saco River today, we see that the leaves are beginning to turn. And in the next month, thousands of tourists will come to New England. And what will all these people flock here to see? Dying leaves! Millions of beautifully shaped colored flags proclaiming in unison the changing of the season and the decay of their little corner of the nature-scape.2013-08-24 23.00.07

This sense of cycles is evoked by the Gathering Leaves 2013 theme, “Changing Colors, Changing Lives.” As are the seasons of nature, so are the seasons of our lives, of our communities, and of our churches. I believe that the cycles and the seasons—like any spiritual principle—do not just apply to their literal manifestations. These cycles in the natural world correspond, or mirror a spiritual process, something that is going on internally. Emanuel Swedenborg talks about the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and that any one principle is true on various levels, leading me to believe that not only do the season and life cycles show up inside an individual, but also in collections of individuals. What we know about death and life, birth and resurrection, in a human setting, can also be true within a community, within humanity as a whole, within nature, and in the church.

And so within this context of seasons and change, I’d like to consider the following questions: What are the spiritual principles of a compost heap? And how does that apply to the church? What does it mean to be part of an organization that is moving through decomposition, fertilization, and new growth? 


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Intergenerational Conversation
This morning at Gathering Leaves we have an opportunity to engage intergenerational conversations around the future of our church. My experience is that it takes effort and is often uncomfortable to talk about the church between generations. I walk in many circles, and I often end up in conversations about church with various generations. I’ve noticed that particularly from the generation that’s most prominently represented here—those over fifty-five—I hear these types of questions: “What’s happening to the church?” and “What’s the future of the church?” And I hear the questions, some tinged with expectations or disappointment, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they taking over?” Or the laments of, “What are we doing wrong?” “Why didn’t this work? I raised my kids in the church and now they’re not interested.” This is a tender and often difficult subject, and it can be very personal for all of us. I hear and honor these questions.

I want to reframe the questions. I believe there’s great power in how we frame our questions, and I’d like to suggest other options. For example, what about these questions: “What might church look like for different generations?” “What is feeding the spiritual lives of the young people of today?” And the question that is driving my call to ministry, and the reason I’m here today: “What does it mean to be faithful today? What does it look like to be ‘church’ in this generation?”

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To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Call of Change

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First published for Echoes from the Edge for the Beatitudes Society 

My mom tells the story that when I was a child I would often come into a room, bouncing up and down, and tell her, “Mom, Mom, I have the best new idea!” I would then proceed to describe my business plan for selling fresh-brewed mint tea at the end of the driveway, or sketch out how to set up a full-fledged post-office in the living room for all the family communication needs.

As an adult, when I come into a meeting room, or into a conversation with a new colleague, I have learned to control myself from bouncing up and down. But I am still filled with that entrepreneurial spirit, and drawn to others for whom creativity and innovation bring excitement as well.

When I look at our current cultural landscape, it is clear to me that the world is changing and that the church is changing. Change can be unsettling or unknown, and we can become paralyzed by it. Or change can call us to our creative and courageous selves. Change can lead us to re-imagining church, to inventing new ways of encountering faith community, and to being prophetic in the work of seeing all people as precious children of God.

It is that courage and passion—joined with entrepreneurial spirit and deep faith—that I see in the faces of the Beatitudes fellows and in the staff and supporters of The Beatitudes Society. I see people who are actively wrestling with the realities of the culture we are living in and being present in the church in transition, while holding an acute awareness of the culture of the communities and world around us. And I see a community that is leveraging opportunities to weave these conversations together, combining the church and the public square—the life of faith being a life active in the world.

It is my honor to be joining this team and the network of people who share a passion for this vision, and I look forward to engaging in this work together. And sometimes I may just have to bounce.