2.17.2007

Stepping forward

The congregation we've been part of, St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church, is closing at the end of the month. (You can read our story here.) This is part of the reason I've been on a blog-fast. It's amazing how much work, and how emotionally draining, closing a church is.

St. James is a great church. Our laid back authenticity and fun, ancient-future, rockin' worship has attracted an ecclectic bunch of folks, some of whom have moved beyond the traditional Lutheran style, some of whom have intentionally steered clear of it, and some who really like that but like the community more. We've jokingly called ourselves the "island of misfit toys." And I think there's some truth to that.

Time after time, I would hear both newcomers and veteran members remark that there's a spirit (I should say Spirit) to St. James that they haven't found at other churches. For me, that meant finding a sense of adventure and creativity after slamming my head against the glass ceiling of "we've never done it that way before" in other congregations. For others it was the ability to wear jeans (yeah, I love that, too), or to play and sing music in their heart language, or our openness to people bringing their coffee and their kids into the sanctuary.

I remember the first time I visited. I wasn't so sure about the "praise" music (which we've balanced with a lot of fun and profound music, old and new, since then). But I was captivated when, before ending the prayers, the pastor talked about little Sarah and her medical problems. Then he went back and brought Sarah and her mom up front, and people came out of their pews to lay hands on them, and those that couldn't reach to Sarah and Laura laid their hands on the person in front of them. I don't recall what Pastor Paul said, but I'll never forget how the prayer for healing was the people's prayer, and what it felt like to really be the body of Christ. I knew then that this was a community I could be part of.

It's that authenticity that people have responded to at St. James. It's a place where you can be who you are in the presence of God. And there's so much of that I will carry with me wherever I go in the church, or in life:
  • Baptizing the Gallagher clan around a plastic kids' pool in Peace Valley Park.
  • Celebrating Communion after a community dinner at the Blue Dog.
  • Having five or six teenagers make up half of the worship band.
  • Watching Ernie take Clara's hand during a particularly rousing version of "Cry of My Heart" and dance with her in the aisle; and the more subued version we sang at her funeral.
  • The time Steven, then a teen, opened the prayers with "What's up?" (and dared to say that some situation he prayed about "sucked" -- which it did)
  • Cutting a plastic serving plate and wearing it around my neck to be John the Baptist for Bibleween (head on a platter -- get it?) -- though I still don't get the dalmatian costume the pastor wore.
  • People fretting that we couldn't have communion on a week without a pastor present.
  • Abandoning worship practice in mid-stream when a water leak caused Brighten Place (a facility for persons with brain injury) across the street to be evacuated, then singing for hours to the guests being warmed and fed in our fellowship hall, until the wee hours.
  • Dispersing into the community on the first Sunday in September to do Labor for the Lord service projects.
  • The look of joy on the kids faces when they'd get their hands on the evergreen branches to help us remember our baptisms.
The institution of St. James will enter the church triumphant after 150 years. It has a storied history, most of which I know nothing about because St. James was doing a new thing by the time I arrived. In so many ways, despite its history, we're losing a church that was only beginning to achieve its potential. But I'm proud that, faced with the choice of digging in to maintain a building and an institution or stepping forward to find places to do God's mission, we're choosing the latter.

The spirit of St. James will live on in the lives shaped for mission and the quest for authentic community and passionate spirituality that many of us are moving on with. Some of us are going to other congregations. Some of us are meeting in homes seeking a simpler, more flexible expression of church. Still others are discerning where God is leading. Some are doing all of the above. And what is the spiritual life but listening noticing where God is acting, paying attention to where the Spirit is blowing, and picking up and going when we're sent?

If you're around the area, please join us for our celebration of ministry coming up on Sunday, Feb. 25, beginning with music at 3:30 p.m. Directions are here. We hope to see you.

Crying over spilt milk

It's been a rough month. This week we received our last home delivery of milk and juice from Rosenberger's Dairy. Rosenberger's was the last dairy in our area to continue to tradition of "milkmen" bringing milk, butter, eggs and more right to the door.

I can still remember the excitement in our house when the truck from Martin's would pull up on Glenside Ave. and the milkman would bound up the steps with his metal carrier with a couple of quart bottles of milk (the ones with the paper seals), a carton of eggs, a pound of butter and on some special occasions a quart of buttermilk for my grandfather. Though, truth be told, it wasn't as exciting for us kids as when the guy with the big cans of Charles' Chips showed up. By the time I was in high school, all of these home delivery services had stopped in our area of the Philly 'burbs.

So I was excited to find, after being in Bucks County a while, that Rosenberger's still delivered. When we started with Rosenberger's many years ago, they even brought the milk in half-gallon, returnable glass bottles! I swear that you really can taste the difference, that milk in glass bottles is so much better than milk out of those waxed paper cartons. The milkman didn't come to the door anymore -- who'd be home? -- and the milk, OJ and iced tea would appear early in the morning. Then they switched to plastic bottles, but we stuck with it, because there was something so comforting about knowing that these essentials would arrive, like clockwork, every other Friday morning.

Business being what it is, though, the dairy decided enough with this. It's probably very hard to convince folks to get milk delivered when they're stopping at the convenience store for everything else -- hard to get them to pay another bill, expensive to track and manage. Probably, I say, because I was convinced. So last month they announced they'd end the routes but give their drivers the option to buy their routes, and this week our driver, Bryan, left a note saying that it'd been fun, but he was on to other work.

So now we have to remember to put milk on the store list -- lots of skim and a container of whole for my wife's coffee. It's not like I'm going to give up milk. I hardly drink much, anyway, just the odd bowl of cereal and with Girl Scout cookies. But it won't be the same lugging the plastic home from the store, and I'll always remember how much better even skim milk tasted out of glass.

That's kind of how I feel about the other big change in my life this month. More about that in the next post.