I've been in a conference for part of this week, listening for what radical, vibrant churches are doing these days from far-flung reaches of this country. In most Methodist churches there are about 50 families, singing the same songs they've sung for generations, trying to do their best with what they know now. They are comforting and sustaining for lots of families, but, but, but...
My own church is vibrant, between 1,500 and 2,500 people visit each Sunday. We have knock-your-socks off music. It's a beautiful cathedral in a downtown Northwestern city. We are moving, more and more, toward missions and community service. On the walls outside the kitchen are photos of our Mexico trips, our malarial campaign, our Habitat builds, the trip to Oklahoma. We're busy.
But in some communities new things, new thinking are required to meet the needs and expectations of people from a multiplicity of cultures, from spiritual needs that arise out of a very, very complicated neighborhood. Ours, maybe.
Things are a poppin'.
I met three people who are shaping our quiet little Methodists in ways that I'd never dreamed. Rudy who works in Houston, Texas, is a global humanitarian, has the high, high cool factor of a beat poet, presented his material with the poetic cadences, silences, and understandings of high art. He took a tiny, beat-up little neighborhood church, along with his beautiful wife, a spiritual powerhouse her-own-self, pulled out the pews. Everything in the church was a memorial (the pews, the walls, the gardens). They needed to start all over again—with life. The congregation, which had been six little old white ladies (like moi) now has grown into a collection of 3,000 souls who experience a radical love for each other. He's the guy with the luminosity of the saints.
Dottie had a church implode on her. Her church was ruled by the iron fist of a woman who bullied everybody in sight, not particularly liking her racially-economically divergent neighbors either. When it came time to open up the eyes of the church to the multi-racial and economic communities around them; there was massive resistance. The fight made national news, not just Phoenix news. Dottie got death threats.
Now Dottie is an introvert and that kind of attention nearly drowned her. What started the fight? Providing food for the homeless from a neighboring neighborhood. It was those homeless folks who provided protection for Dottie during those hard months. Finally, in a showdown, the bully was forced to leave. And the church began to find it's footing, and then to flourish, with dozens of programs that actively help struggling families in Phoenix, which in this economy was nearly everybody.
Then there was Jason, a techie artist who was helping churches "talk" to his own generation, a thing we haven't been very good at. He's teaching people how to use story, metaphor, and images to present a compelling message. The message is already all right, but how we were talking to young people is dismal and loses relevancy by the second. He was joyously wry and funny, brought a lightness and a thoughtfulness. Turns out we can lose our churchy, preachy ways and focus on the engaging and the compelling. Jason is incredibly bright, humble guy who just wants to help us become the teensiest bit relevant in our culture. He will bear watching.
This little tree is in the basement, our children's wing. The image above is from a little formal chapel on the main floor. Those lillies were supposed to reflect on the loveliness of spring, but they look like a funeral bouquet to me. This morning I'm feeling like we need to be heading more toward this beautiful little tree of life. I'm thinking Jason would point me in that direction.
Lastly, there was Duane, my own pastor, whose history with big trouble goes deep and long. Multiple cancer deaths, permanent grief. Yet there was also this rising toward life present within him, however messy that might be. For people like me, who have lived through their own miswhacks and family wobbles, you don't entirely take people seriously who haven't lived through trouble—and come out the other side with some amount of grace and love for other people. Which seems to me to be the point. Not everything is kind or fair for everybody. What saves people, Pastor Duane believes, are communities of believers working together to serve and love everybody. The more creative, the more energetic, the more relevant, the better.
We will bear watching as well.
Note on Miss Gail. We got to see her last weekend. She was substantially thinner, her hair is shorter, she could come and meet us for coffee. I showed her the hat I'm working on. Her spirits are good, although she was more subdued. She's half way through her treatment protocols, and the first half was rough. The next half will be harder, because she has been through the wars already. She didn't complain, but I know with the doses of radiation and chemo she's getting, it has to be difficult. I respect that. She told us that she would be tough to reach these next two weeks. Too tired; too sick; too monumental a trip. Really, really hard. If you are the praying sort, these next two weeks would be the time.
Here's what she said this morning: