Well, perhaps it’s because I haven’t preached for two weeks, but I’ve written beyond what I usually give you in one pastor’s perspective and have spilled over into what I will give you in three installments. All three are inspired by Dr. Oden’s sermon and lecture this past Sunday along with other “touchstones” that I’ve come across lately. I think they will couch quite well the sensibility of the season, as Holy Week is laden with a sense of sacred time as well as place. I hope you’re “here in this place” over the next couple/few weeks (and thereafter!) as we re-tell the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection.
The evening I came home from Dr. Amy Oden’s excellent lecture on “The Earth’s Holiest Places,” I came home and read a poignant feature article in March 19, 2014 issue of The Christian Century called “Holy Stuff: What’s Left When a Church Closes” by L. Gail Irwin. The article, which is linked here, should be accessible via Christian Century’s policy of over-riding their subscriber paywall for a particular IP address once a day. (but let me know if you have trouble accessing it, and I’ll share it with you.) http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-02/holy-stuff I was impressed by the complexity of emotion that Irwin sensitively portrayed in her reporting, and particularly how she captured the same sense of “practical incarnational theology” that Dr. Amy Oden said in her lecture on Sunday underlies the whole concept of “sacred space” that attracts pilgrims and devotees in all the world’s religions to particular places. Sometimes we Christians are called “people of the book,” and what that means is that we are shaped by a story—a story of a people in a place we call “the Holy Land.”
Irwin’s reporting included the practical way that a small rural church had determined would best serve them as they closed their church. She writes,
Some churches hold an auction to disperse those objects that lack sacred meaning. But at one tiny rural church, the members were emotionally connected even to their pots and pans. When the time came to disperse these small items, the 14 members held a meeting. Someone suggested they give each item to whoever was willing to tell a story about why it was meaningful to them. The pastor asked the group what would happen if two people told equally great stories about the same object. There was a silence, until one women said, “Then we’ll have to tell more stories!” The last event the church celebrated together featured the giving away of the objects and the telling of sacred stories.
The telling of stories infuses a place with meaning. When the things in a place have stories of their own, they have an impact on people’s spiritual lives—but the stories must be communicated and passed down in order to survive. I have been able to share stories with people who have visited the church with their children—and one thing I always try to show them are the wooden toys and children’s furniture that were lovingly crafted by Ray Freeman years and years ago. I wouldn’t have known about the origin of those wooden toys if I hadn’t been told them—but since I have been told them, I can pass the stories on to others. However, many times, we don’t really think about the meaning and importance of some of the stuff until it is gone. I’m not advocating that the church building become a cluttered storage shed for all the stuff that has ever made an appearance in a Sunday school class. We have made strides in the past few years in de-cluttering and better using some of our storage space. A church’s vibrant ministry can also get choked with stuff prohibiting the ease of use for present day ministry and education. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a parishioner who had been upset by a particular poster going missing that used to hang in the library. Apparently, around 5 or 10 years ago we had some helpful people volunteer to clear out some of the clutter in the library, but the person I was speaking with was concerned that some meaningful “holy stuff” had been indiscriminately thrown away. This is why communication is a vital part of a church’s life together. Such a day of cleaning should have been announced and planned in such a way that people who have an interest in the stuff in question would have an opportunity to make clear their stories and sense of value for them, and then take them on to their own home if need be. It takes attention and initiative, and communication is a two way street. By the way—that poster, I believe, is now on the wall in the Koinonia room if the person who had raised the concern is interested in its whereabouts.
That’s basically how the Gospel works. The Gospel is “good news” that has been influencing peoples’ lives for millennia. It is a story in which we come to know of a man who is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” As Paul said to the Romans, “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (10:14). Carole Minter and I went to hear a wonderful theologian named N.T. Wright a few weeks ago. I’ll probably be unpacking what he said in an hour (there’s a link to a video of that lecture online) for the next 10 years, but one of those things he said was that we tend to get bogged down in an argument over claiming “objective truth” when it is through “narrative truth” that we find our real meaning and purpose. So, as those powerful words are being shared this coming week, remember our response we follow the scripture with, “This is the story of our salvation: May the story continue in our lives.” We don’t have to get involved in the debate over the hows, whats, wheres, and whens of the miracle of the resurrection. That’s shining a post 18th century rationalistic light on a story that predates that epistemology. Postmodernism has poked holes in the modern rationalistic mindset and shown some of its weaknesses, and is turning back to the power of truth communicated through narrative. Instead, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right. A story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.” Carole shared part of that story when she shared how she was called to ministry with you on March 31st, while I was having an appendectomy. It is in the sharing that the story is passed along and meaning and value is made.