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Sabbath: It’s A Commandment

The view from my Porch

The view from my Porch

As I write, I am on my porch at the farm.  The evening meal is over, the work of the day and the scorching heat are behind me.  I have left the kitchen, the computer and TV, with all their temptations, inside the house.

The porch is a place of Sabbath rest.  It’s where I hear the buzz of insects and the barking of dogs a half mile away.  Here, I can study the day lilies I’ve been weeding and a family of cliff swallows nesting under the eave.  I can gaze into the horizon and think weighty thoughts, or just focus on the way the whiskers of the cats twitch as they sleep by my feet.

Sabbath is a clearing in the heavily wooded life.  It is the difference between driving 70 miles an hour and ambling down a path.  In an Alban Institute article I read recently, Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones write that Sabbath is a “neighbor-respecting” behavior in which “life is not madly engaged in production and consumption.”

I imagine, wistfully, that there was a time when Sabbath was honored with more discipline than it is today.  I imagine robust hymn singing on Sunday mornings, front porch conversation with neighbors, softball games, Parcheesi and Sheepshead.

Well, maybe there never was such a time, but there was and is, tucked in the ancient scrolls, a commandment to practice Sabbath.  And why would God command such a thing?  To remind us that we are not, ultimately, in charge of this world.  It is God’s Project.  Sabbath is a time to let God be in charge.

We Christians spend much of our time laboring over the brokenness all around us.  We are in a perpetual state of “fixing” things.  And yet, one of our formative creeds, the Westminster Catechism, confesses that the “chief end of {humanity} is to glorify God, and to enjoy {God} forever.”  Enjoy God and everything God created!  That is your job!  Most days, we are called to patch the holes in this world.  But some days, we are commanded to stop and notice the wholeness, the extravagant perfection God has rendered in spite of our brokenness.

It’s August.  If you are going to get any Sabbath time at all, it better be now.  So go ahead.  Put down the mail and the dishes and your I-Pod.  Go out on the porch or to the park down the street.  Sing to the flowers.  Talk to your cat.  Stare at the horizon.  Play Parcheesi with someone you love.  This is not a suggestion.  It’s a commandment.

There Is None

As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.”

Romans 3:10-11

The Pew Research Center has come out with new data about how many people in the U.S. identify themselves as “nones”–people with no religious affiliation of any kind.  This group is growing quickly and is now at about 20%, the highest rate in Pew research history.  You can read the report here. 

What’s more, most “Nones” have little interest in finding a church.  Only 10% of the unaffiliated said they were still looking for the right church.

This data contradicts a message I have often given my parishioners: the idea that there are people out there lonely for belonging who need to be welcomed into the institutional church.  There are a few people like that, but apparantly, not very many!  Most unaffiliated people are just fine with their status.  They may believe in God (68%) or pray every day (21%), but they think churches have too many rules and get too political.  They’re not buying.

A large percentage are young (34% of 18-22 year olds are unaffiliated) but some are older, and many of them (74%) were  raised in households that practiced a faith, but have not chosen to continue their practice.  In other words, we lost them.

We who would like to revitalize our churches are disheartened by these statistics.  But the truth is about more than statistics.

Last Sunday I was meditating on the text from Hebrews: The word of God is living and active.  As I reflected on this line, I realized that the Word is the thing that lives, not the institutional church.

How does the Word live outside the institutional church?  That is the creative challenge of our age.  It is the question that we who are Christian in this time in history were chosen to pursue.

How is the Word of God living and active in your neck of the woods?  Is it in the hospital or the bar, in the homeless shelter or the health club or the high rise office?  Is it somewhere you haven’t even thought to look?

What’s In the Temple?

Here’s a poem, or maybe just some poetic musing by Tom Barrett entitled “What’s In The Temple?”  It speaks to the loss of space for holiness, and how, in the world as it is today, we may need to look elsewhere for holiness, or at least mourn for holy places that no longer exist:

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.

It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.

The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.

The sages say nothing,

but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.

The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.

The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.

If she stands still it will catch up with her. Pause with us here a while. Put your ear to the wall of your heart. Listen for the whisper of knowing there. Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away. They’ve been frightened–sat on ’till the spirit cried “uncle.” Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can’t name. They know he’s out there looking for them, and they want to be found, But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can’t talk about God and make any sense, And I can’t not talk about God and make any sense. So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God. Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur, And sense the whole tragedy of life and death. You see there the consequences of carelessness, And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived. The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

We don’t build many temples anymore. Maybe we learned that the sacred can’t be contained. Or maybe it can’t be sustained inside a building. Buildings crumble. It’s the spirit that lives on.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, What would you worship there? What would you bring to sacrifice? What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?

Go there now.

~ Tom Barrett ~

Thanks to Joe Riley at for posting this poem on his site!

A Time for Breaking Down

I try every day to read the fine Stillspeaking Devotionals that come out of the United Church of Christ on their website.  A recent one by Kenneth Samuel caught my eye.  Although he is writing more about personal life, his thoughts pretty well sum up the thesis of my study regarding the Church, which is this:

In order for the church to move forward in new ways for a new time in history, we must have the courage to break down old forms that are no longer working.  It’s hard to say that outloud, since we love our old forms so much, but Ecclesiastes was right: there is a time for breaking down and a time for building up.

Here’s the reflection.

An Update

Some of you may be wondering how my book project is going, so here’s an update:

I started my research on church closures in April, 2010 and have conducted about 24 interviews since that time.  I received a grant from the Louisville Institute in March, 2011.  Since then, I have been working on processing interviews and have outlined all nine chapters of a future book.  Currently, I have the first four chapters drafted.

In early December, I will meet with my reading group, the three people who agreed to offer feedback on the draft.  They include Rev. Linda Kuhn, a Presbyterian pastor and church consultant, Dr. Michael Lukens, retired professor of religious history at St. Norbert College (and a Stated Clerk in the PCUSA), and Janet Puhlmann, an active lay woman in the United Church of Christ, who has seen two churches through closures.

I hope to glean from them wisdom about how the book can serve laypeople, clergy and judicatory leaders dealing with church closures.

The work has slowed somewhat since I am now serving a church part time.  But I intend to do more interviews in the coming year as I complete the remaining draft chapters.

If you know of a publisher that would have an interest in this topic, let me know.  I hope to start marketing it to publishers in 2012.

Thanks  for reading!!  Please continue to share your comments, questions and wisdom.


In my morning biblical reflection I came upon the poignant dilemma of Paul, who I imagine writing from a cold, dark prison cell, lonely, his bones aching from some ailment or injury, feet broken from long walks between cities: For to … Continue reading

Lively or Just Stayin’ Alive?

Or surviving on resources from a different century?

What’s the difference between vitality and viability when assessing the health of your church?

To me, testing viability is like checking a pulse.  Can your church pay its bills, hire a pastor and conduct the basic business of holding worship, caring for the sick, studying the bible and so forth?  How long can they go on as they are now, accomplishing these tasks?  If no new money or energy is added to the system, when will they be depleted?    Your church may have many more years of viability ahead, even if it is small and doesn’t have much money.  Churches are remarkably resilient.

Viability can be measured by looking at financial trends and worship attendance over the last ten or even five years.  Look carefully.  For example, giving may have remained steady, but on closer inspection, one or two families may be giving more to make up for the 5 or 6 who have left.  Your membership rolls may show a church of 200 members, but you may only averge 50 in worship attendance.

Vitality is something quite different, and not as easy to measure.  Vitality has to do with the inertia your congregation (regardless of size) has for ministry.  Vitality is found where there is a clear mission and goals being attempted (even if not always successfully).  Vitality happens when people in the congregation like working together,  and share common goals that touch others with the Gospel in some way.

There are ways to measure vitality, but it must be done with an objective eye.  An interim pastor, coach or even an astute newcomer can see signs of health or listlessness in a congregation.

What does your congregation talk about the most?  Its viability, or its vitality?

If your church were a human body, would it be viable at this time?  Or would it need some outside form of support (grants, heroic gifts, endowment income, generous but invisible members) in order to survive?

If your church was a human body, would it be vital (lively) in its functioning?  Would it laugh, have moments of creativity, make new friends, grieve in healthy ways, show compassion for others and embark on adventures?

Some churches are viable, but not vital.  Some churches, such as new church developments, are vital, but not viable.

Here’s a resource  from George Bullard  that may be useful in helping you discern viability and vitality in your congregation.

And here is a set of resources called Vital Signs  at the United Church of Christ website you can check out.