Monday, June 16, 2014

what if I gave a sermon and nobody came?

A self-important minister got up one Sunday morning to discover that about six feet of snow had been dumped overnight on the town. He didn't have much trouble getting to church, of course, living in the attached parsonage, so he hurried over to prepare for the morning service. It was about fifteen minutes before service began and he looked out at the pews. There was only one person sitting there: Fred, one of those bachelor farmers of the area, and still bundled up from milking his herd.

The minister dawdled around in the back rooms until it was five minutes to service and then looked out again. Fred was still the only one sitting in the pews. No one else being there to do it, at ten o'clock the minister himself pressed the button that rang the bells in the steeple. They rang a little muffled but enough to be heard. A minute after ten he looked out. Still just Fred. At quarter past ten he looked out again. Just Fred.

Finally, at ten-thirty the minister stepped out from the back rooms and walked to the pulpit and said, "Listen, Fred, as you're the only one here, I suppose we ought to just cancel today's service."

Fred pulled down his muffler. He said, "Parson, when I call in my cows and only one shows up, I still milk her."

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's dreaded the empty church on a Sunday. A couple Sundays ago just such a thing happened which, if I was doing a sermon on it, I'd title "What if I gave a service and nobody came?"

For the past month I've been working at a pair of facilities for at-risk and troubled teenagers, one for boys and the other for girls. The boys' facility, with four units, is on the far end of the rim to the northwest of us; it takes me an hour and a half to drive there. The girls' facility, with two units, is a half hour drive to the southeast. I do the boys' service at four and the girls' at six.

As it turned out, the reason no one showed at the boys' facility was a miscommunication in the daily calendar for the units. But the lack of attendants got me thinking. I give a pared-down service, one heavy on participation and conversation, since each service is likely to trigger some response on their part. This below, for example, is the order of service for that day's chapel.

Sunday June 8, 2014
Joys and Concerns
Reading: A Fable by Rumi
Song: “What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye
Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Ya

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what's going on
Ya, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on - Uh
Right on baby
Right on baby
Minute of Reflection or Prayer (Music by Henry Saimo)
Congregation Dialogue
Benediction: Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.
Our altar is a simple affair. I cut some flowers growing around my house or on the nearby trail and put them in a glass vase, then set a small, flickering LED candle behind it. This is the message I wrote that was undelivered. It's about five minutes to deliver.
For people my age—for many of you I’m talking about your grandparents and for some of you I’m talking about your parents—1971, the year this album came out, is an important period in American history. All sorts of things were happening that no one had experienced before, much of it pretty bad. You hear some of it reported in the song. “Too many of you dying.” “Picket lines and picket signs.” In 1971, the US was years-deep into an unpopular war in Vietnam that would last another four years before the US declared itself spent and got out. The year before members of the Ohio National Guard at a college called Kent State opened fire on students protesting that war, killing four students. This wasn’t the first time American authorities had killed otherwise peacefully protesting civilians—the previous decade had seen many, many violent responses to demonstrations against the war or in favor of civil rights for blacks or better conditions for people in poverty. And the year after a burglary at a hotel called the Watergate in Washington, DC, would lead to the embarrassing resignation of President Richard Nixon and a cynical, distrusting view of government and politicians that, if anything, has only gotten worse in the following decades.
Everywhere kids like me turned, it seemed there was little point to growing up because society was shredding. Families were breaking apart, drug use was skyrocketing, cancer rates were spreading, as were crime rates and unemployment rates. Outside, the way we’d learned the country was a place of eternal beauty and resources was having the lie put to it. Our rivers and oceans were being polluted by industries that found it easier to dump poisons into the water than to pay for proper disposal, killing off fish by the millions. The fish not killed made it onto peoples’ plates, poisoning us. The pesticides intended to help farmers win the battle against harmful insects and agricultural diseases were also killing the birds that ate infected worms and pets that ate the birds or rolled on their carcasses, and the herbicides we relied on to keep corn and wheat and apples healthy were killing our lawns and fields and burning trees from the inside out.
Something we hope for as humans is that things that are bad will eventually get better. Have things improved in forty-one years? It’s hard to tell, sometimes. Late last month a young troubled man not much older than you posted a very angry document on the Internet blaming women for his problems and then went out to shoot several people, eventually killing nearly 10, including himself. America is still fighting two wars, one of which has lasted longer than all other wars we’ve ever fought. Last week was the 25th anniversary of events in China’s Tiananmen Square where the military suppressed a student-led demonstration so forcefully that at least hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people died. We argue whether the world’s climate is changing for the worse and whether people are responsible for it. Our reserves of coal and oil are rapidly depleting and some scientists say will disappear in the next 20 or 30 years and the companies that make money from coal and oil discourage development of other resources. Little is being done to change these circumstances, and the next generation, which is you, is being left to either come up with a solution or learn to live with the consequences.
This is an important weekend celebrated by two faiths, called Shavuot by Jews and Pentecost by Christians. Both celebrate the same thing: a time when god gave them the means by which they could live in the world they found themselves in. Jews celebrate the day Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the holy laws that explain in short form how by not killing or stealing you can live a righteous life, and Christians celebrate the emergence of the Holy Spirit among them, helping them see through the minor differences between them like language or the way they look to see each person’s inner Christ.
How do we live rightfully in a world where people are killed indiscriminately by wars or new diseases or angry people with guns, where because of greed the world changes before our eyes while the people responsible for the changes deny it, where jobs and careers are disappearing and the ones that remain pay so much less than the ones they replace that it’s hard to live at all on what they pay? Jews say the answer is to do justice, to be merciful, and walk humbly with God. Christians say it is to love God with your heart and soul and love other people as much as you love yourself. Those are both very good answers. It’s hard, though, to understand how to do that on a daily basis.
But make no mistake, there are very good things happening in the world too.  People are being born and falling in love and taking care of one another all the time, and just to make it personal and specific, between Bar None and Avanti there were four successful discharges just this last week. People in treatment are getting better and you know some of them. Good things happen all the time all around us, often in very small, very personal ways. In the midst of the painful stuff happening in the world, how do we keep from forgetting the good stuff?
It is, I hope, a teen-friendly and especially fidgety teen-friendly type of service. While they're very curious about traditional religion and ask questions about it all the time, they're also distrustful of traditional answers, traditional ceremonies, church, or anything sounding like piety.
But here is what I got to thinking about. After about twenty minutes, when I realized no one was coming, I started cleaning up around the old chapel where I hold services. I looked out at the late spring afternoon and saw boys canoeing, fishing, playing frisbee, and just walking around. If I were them I wouldn't want to spend a beautiful day in Minnesota indoors, either. I started toying with the idea of holding chapel on a weekday evening, at least during the summer and fall months, when there's more to do on the weekend. Another idea playing around my brain is taking chapel to them. One of the arguments for holding services in the chapel, besides the rather nice rustic charm of the old spare building, is that it gets the boys off the unit for an hour. But when I go to the units to hold groups I have much better attendance that I suspect is both from nearness and from interest in what those who don't start out with us hear from their rooms. It may be, too, that my service format, already scaled-down to take from twenty to forty-five minutes, depending on their interest in talking, needs even further paring. I'm open to doing that if it means greater participation.
And it may be, too, that the idea of chapel is so foreign and even repellent to these kids, who may have been forced to attend their parents' churches in the past, that there is no amount of change in how it's done or on what it focuses that can get them past that resistance. From a purely mercenary perspective that's not an issue for me: I'm paid for having been there whether anyone attends or not. But I'd rather think I am accomplishing something.


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