Saturday, August 21, 2021


Congregational Lutheran 
United Church at 
The Lionel Train Set was an unexpected Christmas gift. Even sharing it with both older brothers did not diminish the fun it provided. A few years later I received a microscope set complete with a frog to dissect. It was mine. I could control if anyone else got to use it. From that time on gifts were individualized with no need or expectation to share. 

Our consumer driven society has emphasized accumulation over sharing. Pantries are filled with a wide variety of foods. Sharing happens a couple times a year during an organized food drive. Three or four stall garages have more square footage than the homes to which they are attached. Storage of stuff is a necessity. The seasonal equipment, sporting goods, motorized vehicles, and decorations need to go in an accessible place. Multiple items which I have accumulated are behind every closet door and under every plastic storage bin lid. Outdoor gear (gloves, head wear, snowshoes, etc) command a lot of space. I realize I only use one item at a time. Yet I want to be certain to  have the proper gear for changing conditions. As the saying goes, "You never know when you may need it."

Heirlooms of tableware

Marie Kondo, the decluttering expert says if something does not spark joy, dispose of it. She obviously does not agree with or maybe has never heard the aforementioned phrase. Living by Ms. Kondo's concepts would make for smaller garages and smaller houses. Fewer storage units would dot the landscape. This all may cause a scarcity of thrift stores. 

Congregational Lutheran United Church has been declining for decades. Members are aging. Others have moved. Those who have recently moved into Gardner, ND  are not interested in the congregational community. The church does not spark joy in their daily lives. Even, "You never know when you may need it," has not generated enough discomfort or guilt to create change. Guilt has often been used to promote the "what ifs" in life as a type of religious insurance policy. Maybe it is more about    whole life than a specific event policy?  Hopefully the building will sell and be repurposed as a residence or demolished so a new home can be constructed.  The latest message on the outdoor sign, "This was our house. It can now be your's." 

Moving day.

If it cannot be used often, if it does not spark joy, if its enjoyment value is not readily available it will no longer be used. This is why ride sharing services are available. Why own a vehicle and rarely use it? All it does parked is depreciate. Money can be made delivering people, packages, or both. The shared Lionel train provided multiple people enjoyment. The tableware filling shelves in the condo, which has meaning for my spouse, has no meaning for our children.  The pews, pictures, decorations, books, and kitchen wares of the congregation have little value. No one thought about how to dispose of brass altar ware when the items were purchased  and given in memory of someone. 

Value is not in the accumulation. Value is discovered and appreciated in the usage. The significant life events, the gatherings of families, the noise of church basements filled with children were enhanced by those purchased and memorialized items. People wanted to provide these meaningful experiences for future generations. However, they had no way to foresee the changes. Changes in place and perspective have relegated tableware, pew cushions, combined TV, VHS and CD players, etc. to thrift stores and household waste disposal sites. This stuff is not indicative of the people who gave of their resources to purchase the items. The people sparked joy and continue to spark joy in the sharing of life. It is the accumulation of memories and the stories of relationships with others that will never be discarded!

Communion Set from
the late 1800's
This Communion set has not been used in the 10+ years that I have been involved with Congregational Lutheran United Church. The letter which came with this gift over 100 years ago is framed and legible. Plans are to "regift" it back to the generous congregation which provided it. 

Now everything is disposable. No one wants to wash small, glass Communion cups. During a long period in the ongoing pandemic self-contained, all-in-one Communion cups were used.  It is not the vessels. It is the people who gather and share!

Saturday, August 7, 2021

What Is Church?

They dotted the landscape. Whether brick, stone, or wood the buildings called "church" were numerous. Most were used for generations prior to my arrival on the planet. So often all I noticed were old people. It seemed everyone was at least my parents' age or older. The only time I felt part of the group was with peers in Sunday School or the 2 week summer Vacation Bible School. High School Youth Group (Luther League) was not significant as I made other arrangements to connect with friends.

Both in New Testament Greek and general New Testament Studies at seminary the word,"ecclesia" was central.  It was foundational for my career as a pastor. Ecclesia or church, the place where people gather for worship and education was a significant part of community. I was being trained as a leader in that long established tradition. My role would involve preaching, teaching, worship, and visiting. It checked the boxed of my laid aside desires to be a physician or a teacher, as well as developing new skills.  (See July 11th post for background)

Most of my 40 year career has involved small town or rural congregations. A couple of stopping points: a large, growing suburban church and chaplaincy in a healthcare institution, broke with the general flow. While being a chaplain I served in a couple of small settings. I could not shake the parish pastor role. Chaplaincy provided interactions with a broad spectrum of age groups, religious and non-religious affiliations, the community of coworkers, as well as transitory individuals and families receiving medical care. This, too, was pastoral care but not in a "church" as I had so diligently etched into my psyche. This setting was varied, challenging, and stimulating. However, my own issues with authority and bureaucracy brought about my resignation. 

An endurance athlete, coach, mother, step-mother, and more named Kate Coward refers to her training groups (biking, running, etc) as "church." In interactions with Kate, I asked about her choice of this specific word. This is an edited portion of her response, "In its basic sense it is a group of people, assembly, or gathering. In my case it is a group of people of different ages, genders, and situations in life, who enjoy being together and meet regularly. We listen. We offer advice. We teach. We share our worries, joys, hard times and celebratory times with each other. Our gatherings make us healthier and happier humans, and therefore better serve our friends, families, neighbors, and communities around us."

Kate placed into a few sentences what I have been pondering in my spirit for more than a decade. Recent Gallop statistics on adult membership to a church, synagogue, or mosque: 1999-70%, 2018-50%, 2020-47%. Americans who do not identify with any religion: 1998 to 2000-8%, 2008 to 2010- 13%, 2017 to 2020-21%. The religious church is in a steady decline. The buildings which dotted the rural landscape of my childhood and those which I have had the pleasure to serve are dwindling. Aging population, relocation, mobility, and other groups or organizations have replaced these once stalwart gathering places. The disruptions to communal life and understanding whether it be political, economic, social, or doctrinal are causing the traditional religious church to be less of a support structure and more of a divisive wedge. The push to have 
the correct world view, political affiliation, social awareness, evangelical zeal, nationalism, patriotism, etc. have caused people who are looking for acceptance, hope, support, and spiritual growth to get those needs met elsewhere. The need for an assembly of people of various ages, genders, and situations who listen, support, teach, advise, and share life in all facets remains vitally important. However, the past model of religious church as a homogeneous group or the current model of religious church as a business activity center vying for relevance and membership to secure operational funds appear to be out of sync with the original intent. 

After 40 years of pastoral ministry and pastoral care, my role is to be a person who asks questions, stimulates thought and conversation, and assists others in exploring the spiritual aspects of their being. My role is to equip and support, not dictate, deride, or decide. My interactions are not limited to a building or only to those who have a paying membership. If I can reinforce becoming, as well as providing ways to foster healthier, happier humans, than I am fulfilling my position in church!