Monday, June 9, 2008

“You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind…”

Yesterday I did a pulpit fill-in at a local Disciples of Christ church that just lost it’s minister, and it was…..interesting.

This is only the third pulpit fill-in I’ve done outside of my home church but I’m starting to feel more comfortable preaching to an unknown audience. I still stress over the usual things – the length of my sermon, the possibility of low attendance, whether people will ‘get’ what it is I’m trying to say – but thankfully I’m starting to feel less concerned over whether people like me and more concerned over whether the message of the sermon is getting through to them.

I admit that when I first started preaching, my ego loved hearing all the “You were great”, “You’re a natural at this” comments, and on some level I still need to hear those things (don’t we all??), but now what I really want to hear are comments on the message. Did they get it - did something resonate with them, did something NOT resonate with them, did something in the sermon make them think, laugh, cry, or piss them off to the point that they needed to let me know.
Usually they don’t let me know. Either they don’t say anything, or on their way out they’ll say “thank you for the sermon, it was (pause) interesting…”
I’ve found that “Interesting” can mean anything from “I don’t know what the hell you were talking about” to “get-your-crazy-liberal-progressive-theology-out-of-my-church.”

While I didn’t get any “interesting”s yesterday, the whole experience was just a little off – like a Twilight Zone episode where everyone except one guy has been replaced by martians and the poor schmuck can’t seem to put his finger on what’s wrong.

It started off oddly.
My SO and I arrived a half-hour before the service and entered through the back of the church, where the parking lot is. While the sanctuary itself is not that large, the church has a large network of classrooms, auditoriums, and offices attached to it. We walked in and had no idea where to go.

The first gentleman we ran across seemed startled to see us. I introduced myself, told him I was there to meet Jeff (their contact elder) and could he point me in the direction of the sanctuary. He nervously stammered that he hadn’t seen Jeff yet and kind of vaguely gestured in the direction we needed to go. He was wearing shorts, sneakers, and a rather large wooden cross around his neck, which was the first tip-off that this was not going to be a typical church experience. His mannerisms and nervousness led me to believe that he was just not the social type, so I moved on through the maze and asked a few more people where it is I needed to go. I introduced myself, told them why I was there, and I was friendly and pleasant and they didn’t seem to know what to do with that.
It was like they’d never had a stranger enter their space before.
No one greeted our obvious confusion with a “Welcome! Jeff’s not here yet but let me show you were to go.” They all just kind of looked at each other and seemed baffled as to how to respond. Very strange.

We finally found the sanctuary and Jeff showed up. He was very friendly and seemed genuinely excited to have me there and to show off his church, but as he took me around and introduced me to everyone, again, it was like bizzaro world. People would kind of half-smile and say hello but not really look me in the eye, and half-heartedly shake my hand. I sensed a real presence of wariness. Not just prior to the service, but during the passing of the peace and afterward as well.

Now, I should point out that this is a church that has a large endowment and does a lot for the local community, they rent space out to numerous non-profits, turned their parsonage into a home for single mothers, they had a craft class for autistic children going on in their gym during the service. But all of this seems to be disconnected from what goes on in worship. They have no announcements so there’s no sense of what’s going on in the community, there weren’t any notices in the bulletin about upcoming events or ways to get involved, and visitors aren’t welcomed from the pulpit or given a chance to introduce themselves. There was even confusion about whether they had a coffee hour or not - Jeff said no, another congregant said yes, either way we didn’t stick around to find out.

It wasn’t all bad. During the sermon I could see some people listening intently and smiling. Afterwards, I did get some comments from congregants that indicated they enjoyed the sermon, and there were a few friendly greetings. But the impression I walked away with was that this is a church that has no energy. The hymns were sung very slowly (and they didn’t ask me to pick the hymns to ensure they fit the theme of the reading/sermon, which was odd), even the few kids that came up for the children’s message just sat there with their eyes glazed over, unwilling to participate at all (which to be fair, happens in even the liveliest of churches sometimes ;-).
At lunch afterwards, my SO and my friend E. who came as moral support remarked about how tired they felt after the service, like they’d just had the energy sucked right out of them.

Now, another interesting element to this saga is that there are a few members of this church who defected from my current church soon after our church called a lesbian pastor. I recognized one woman, even though she didn’t seem to recognize me, and as far as I know none of them knew me well enough to know my story, or know that I too am a …..gasp!......lesbian.

I just got the sense that this was an older congregation that is of the generation where being a good Christian meant you went to church every Sunday, heard a comforting, traditional sermon, and that’s it. Hospitality, welcoming the stranger, growing their church, challenging themselves spiritually and theologically – these things just aren’t on their radar screen.

Now I could be entirely wrong about this, this was only my second visit. But when Jeff asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting in on board meetings because they needed a ‘ministerial presence’ to keep the board members “inline” (in other words, to keep them from killing each other), I got the sense that this is not a happy, lets-work-together kind of church.

What added to this feeling was the encounter I had as I went to the pulpit to gather my things after the service. Wooden cross-man, speaking to me much more boldly this time, said “so, do you believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God?”
To which I responded “No”
He seemed to think that I had misheard him, so he rephrased his question:
“Do you think the bible is infallible?”
To which I replied once again, “No.”
After a long and very pregnant pause, he said “Do you know what it is you just said?”
He seemed to think I was confused, that I was answering in the negative because I was misinterpreting the question.
So I said “Yes I know what I said, I don’t think the bible is the inerrant word of God.”
To which he replied in a bemused tone, “Then why are you entering the ministry?”


I hadn’t even stepped out of the pulpit and here I was being challenged to defend my calling.
I very calmly explained to him that I believe that the Bible is God inspired but it was filtered through the mind of man, with all his prejudices, biases, and the unavoidable influences of time/culture/translation errors etc. I believe that there is room in God’s church for all types of Christians and not all of us believe that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally. All in all, it was a very liberal Christian response, and as my friend E. pointed out afterwards, is very much a part of the Disciples of Christ “we follow no creed” covenant. In fact, this particular DOC church has it printed right on the back of their bulletin “There is no requirement that members ascribe to a particular doctrine or theology.”

Apparently those in the pulpit don’t get off so easy.

I don’t know if my answer satisfied Mr. Wooden Cross or not, but he did add that he was going to warn me about my choice of seminary – ‘Andy Newton’ as he called it – because they teach that the Bible is not inerrant.
He then went on to brag about some teaching position he had just been offered but he wasn’t sure if he was going to take it, and his whole demeanor changed. He switched into ‘give me your approval/advice’ mode, and seemed pleased that I was interested in hearing more….

Very, very strange.

Oh, and did I mention that I'm the first woman they've ever had in the pulpit?
Perhaps that's why they were looking at me as if I had two heads (and no winkie).
I can’t wait to go back and preach again this Sunday!


Maryann Miller said...

MoCat, first I have to say how much I like your sleeping cats. Many times I have bustled past one of mine taking a good nap and said, "I want to be a cat." :-)

Secondly, I enjoyed your latest post about preaching. I worried about having to do that when I did services related to my work as a chaplain, but found if I used my husband's trick, I seldom had a problem. Before he preaches he says a short prayer, "God, you got me into this mess, so help me spread your Good News."

That works for him every time he preaches and I am always amazed that it is like he has taken on another persona. I'm sure it is the Holy Spirit working through him.

When I had to preach, I would say a similar prayer and remind myself that this wasn't about me, it was about letting the spirit work through me. Sort of the same approach as the one I used in visiting patients. I think in any kind of ministry, we are more effective when we get ourselves and our ego out of the way.

Keep up the good work.

MoCat said...

Thanks Maryann, thankfully I'm starting to settle into that "Let go, let God" groove in the pulpit.

Of course, if I was receiving negative feedback afterward I might be less inclined to pin the result on God (or the people for not being ready to hear the message) and more inclined to pin it on myself.

As in: the message was there, but I just wasn't clear/good/creative enough to get it across.

My ego loves to throw pity parties for itself! ;-)