mainestewards

December 12, 2014

Where Do You Go to Church?

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 7:56 pm

Last week I fell into conversation with a new acquaintance around plans for her upcoming wedding. After talking about dates (June) and dresses (She has one.), I asked about her venue.

“I’m getting married at Church of the Good Shepherd.”

(My face is blank.)

“You know….the big Catholic Church on East Kemper Road.

(Still puzzled.)

Suddenly I blurted, “Oh! Is that the one around the curve from the big grocery store? It has ball fields and a walking path around it?”

She lit up, “Yes! That’s the one! I grew up in that church. That’s where my family goes. That’s where we’re getting married!”

I suspect this sort of disconnect is fairly common: I knew exactly what church she meant. I drive past it frequently and have a vivid impression of it as an active, inter-generational community. But I don’t know its name, nor do I have any real connection to it beyond that drive-by impression.

This leads me to wonder, in turn, how many of those “Seekers who don’t know they’re seeking” experience a similar disconnect. We may think of ourselves as members of St. Swithins, but it’s far more likely that our communities think of us as “the church next to the park,” or “the church with the pre-school,” or “the stone church on the corner.”

How might embracing our identity in the community shape our approach to invitation? How would we position our welcome differently if we looked at mission and ministry from the outside in? Could a shift in perspective soften the threshold and make our doors a bit more open?

Try this: In the comment box below, tell your fellow readers where you go to church, without using the church’s name.

As you think about congregational development, ask your congregation to do this exercise with you—not just leadership groups, but everyone, newcomers and long-standing members alike. The responses will serve as wonderful starting points for engaging invitation, building on strength, and understanding the context in which we worship, serve, and celebrate.

November 29, 2014

Arm’s Length Generosity

Filed under: Children and Families,Social Gospel,Time and Talent,Uncategorized — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:56 pm

My latest inner journey began quite innocently. There was nothing particularly unusual about the Sunday morning: I settled into my pew, opened the bulletin, and began to sift through the various inserts that would shape a good portion of my calendar for the next few weeks. The announcements were things I already knew about, but a special green half-sheet offered something new, “Sign Up for Christmas Giving Opportunities.”

It’s been quite a while since we have been part of a congregation that had an active Angel Tree sort of ministry. This is going to be fun!

There were two invitations to choose from: We could provide gifts for a family in need through our relationship with one of the local food pantries, or we could provide gifts for children of incarcerated people as an extension of our parish jail ministry. Aside from some differences in the details, the guidelines were pretty standard for this sort of outreach…until it came to the delivery instructions:

Gifts are to be wrapped and returned to the church office by Wednesday, December 10th. Please put the recipient’s first name on the gift and use the Family # in place of the last name.

Pretty standard. I can do that.

Gifts are to be wrapped and delivered to the children’s families several days prior to Christmas. If you prefer not to deliver the gifts yourself, we can arrange delivery for you.

Are you kidding me?! My reaction was immediate and visceral: Not. gonna. happen.

I would love to be high-minded and claim that I was living into the tzedakah, the Jewish practice of generosity that places a higher value on situations in which the giver and the recipient are unknown to one another. But that’s not my truth this time.

I could also claim that it’s somehow more “Christmas-y” for the recipients to receive anonymous gifts. It’s a little more magical, and it preserves the recipients’ dignity. But, again, it’s not the truth.

No, it’s not the face of poverty that’s the problem here. It’s the face of generosity. The real reason that I recoil from the notion of personally delivering gifts to the homes of children whose parents are incarcerated is not because of their situation; it’s because of mine. Abundance is embarrassing. Admitting to my share in Lady Bountiful Syndrome is simply too big a risk, too raw a truth, too real in its disparity. I drop gifts off in the church office for the same reason that I buy neatly wrapped cuts of beef from the grocery store—it tidies up the reality.

Perhaps it would be appropriate, therefore, on this First Sunday in Advent, to make a New Liturgical Year’s Resolution: I am challenging myself to live openly as a generous person, in spirit and in practice. I will learn to put a face on loving my neighbor as myself, to stop hiding from the light of genuine engagement. Will I be ready to deliver the gifts myself next year? I don’t know. I can’t promise that. I can only promise that I will, somehow, be changed.

In the meantime, I’m off to buy “Jenny, Family #16” that sturdy lidded stock pot she’s wishing for.

November 21, 2014

Why Not?

Filed under: Financial Commitment — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:21 pm

Our ingathering was a wonderful celebration, but now we find ourselves chasing down pledge-stragglers. I didn’t realize the annual commitment season would have such a long tail.

First-Year Pledge Chair

The most common question that I hear in the month of November is, “What can we do about the pledge stragglers? We have a number of people who give faithfully—and generously—but getting a pledge card out of them is like pulling teeth! We know some just aren’t going to give us a pledge card. What can we do?”

The short answer, of course, is “not much.” The more discerned answer, however, is “more than we think.” In my years of sitting with vestries, bishop’s committees, stewardship committees, and congregations, I have seen patterns emerge among the non-pledgers. In my experience, these faithful and generous members fall generally into three categories:

Matthew 6: 1-6

The first group is the one from whom I have learned the most, and through whom I have grown the most as a steward myself. These faithful members look to Matthew 6:1-6 in discerning their response:

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I have tremendous respect for these members of our congregations and I in no way seek to persuade them to alter their faithful response. You may find that some give in cash, so as to fully preserve the prayer-integrity of their giving. Others will write checks, sometimes even noting “pledge” in the memo line. This gives you some indication for your records and does allow you to do some “soft” planning around income, even without a formal pledge.

None of Your Business

The next group are those whom I lovingly refer to as the “none of your business” folks. And I do mean “lovingly.” Early in my ministry, I found this group to be incredibly frustrating. But as I have grown to know them better, I have grown also to appreciate the pastoral opportunities that they bring to our communities. We all have our own histories when it comes to money; for some, it is simply more comfortable to by-pass on the pledge, knowing in their hearts that they will give along the way.

Sometimes the roots lie in family politics or differing views on giving within a household. Those who perceive themselves as having less than others may feel uncomfortable, or even ashamed, in making a modest pledge. More affluent members might fear that their pledge will be judged as too high or too low. All of these represent opportunities for pastoral engagement. It might be as simple as getting to know people and understanding their lives—a bonus for the community on many fronts—or you may want to do something more structured, such as the Talking About God and Money discussion series.*

With pastoral care and encouragement, some of these members may move toward a pledge. Others will remain faithful and beloved curmudgeons. That’s OK.

Variable Incomes

The third group are those who do not pledge simply because they honestly cannot predict their income. Those with a variable income (farmers, lobstermen, fishermen, guides, small business owners, hotel and guesthouse owners, artists and artisans, the independently employed, retirees with market-based income, and hourly wage-earners) offer us some wonderful opportunities to bring a creative approach to the annual commitment.

One congregation experimented with moving the annual commitment into the Lenten season. This not only shifted the spiritual appeal from gratitude and “should” to a more contemplative discernment, it moved the practical aspect of pledging into a season when people have a more concrete sense of their income—put simply, April is when we know what we’ve made for the year. This practice of “giving in arrears,” if you will, actually has a Biblical foundation—the tithe was brought at the harvest, when the farmers and herdsmen celebrated their yield by bringing crops and livestock to the temple. If your community is predominantly one of variable income, why not take this as your model, why not make April 15 a time when due is rendered not just unto Caesar, but unto the Lord as well?

Another approach is to invite members to pledge a percent of their income rather than a dollar figure. In this way, the church lives into the message that it is part of the community; it rides the tides of fortune in communion with its members. It also brings people into a more intimate relationship with their income and their giving habits. By asking people to commit to bringing forth a certain percentage whenever they receive income, giving takes on an immediacy and abundance becomes tangible. This is equally true for variable-income households as well as for retirees and salary-earners who have a fixed income.

None of these insights solve the Finance Committee’s need for concrete information, but they do offer some various ways of thinking about those who choose not to complete and return the pledge card. Ambiguity is hard, especially when budgets need to be passed, contracts need to be renewed, and bills need to be paid. But, Thanks Be to God, we are a community of faithful souls, with all the quirks and habits that make congregational life all that it is. To all of you who read this, I wish you a harvest season of abundance, in whatever form that season takes.

 

*I tried to attach Talking About God and Money, but the upload repeatedly failed. If you are interested in this resource, please write to me at mainestewards@yahoo.com.

September 12, 2014

Walking the Way

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:47 am

Are you looking for fresh materials, ideas, or conversation starters for the upcoming annual commitment season? TENS: The Episcopal Network for Stewardship offer some wonderful, flexible tools as part of its Walking the Way 2014 stewardship program. Because Maine is a Diocesan Member of TENS, these materials area available to all Maine congregations, free of charge!

Some congregations find the materials most useful as a complete set–letterhead, stationary, sample letters, pledge cards, and bulletin inserts–creating a theme and framework for the annual appeal. Others prefer to pick and choose, taking ideas from the sample letters, using the introductory material and evaluation material, then filling in locally appropriate tools or adapting the ideas to fit lectionary weeks other than those covered by the bulletin inserts. If your committee–and perhaps your congregation–is ready for a break from the personal testimony style of appeal, perhaps use the bulletin inserts as starting points for small group discussion, or as a basis for lectionary-based Bible study or adult forum. This year’s material also offers special bulletin inserts for the Feast of St. Francis and All Saints, adding even more flexibility to an already rich resource.

The complete Walking the Way toolkit is available via the links below in PDF, Word, and Excel formats. If you have any trouble with these attachments, please e-mail me directly at mainestewards@yahoo.com and I will be happy to provide you with an alternative for fool-proof access.

 

letter-from-senior-warden

letter-from-stewardship-chair-and-ministry-team-1

letter-of-thanks-from-stewardship-chair-ed

pledge-campaign-evaluation-1

pledge-campaign-trend-analysis-template-a

prayer-over-pledge-cards

prayers-of-the-people

rector-letter-of-thanks–2-

rector-letter-to-flat-givers

rector-letter-to-new-members

rector-letter-to-proportional-givers

rector-letter-to-tithers

wtw.-all-saints-alternative-fullpage.english

wtw.-all-saints-alternative-halfpage

wtw-intro-fullpage-english

wtw-intro-halfpage-english

wtw—letterhead-ed

wtw-pledge-card

wtw-proper-22-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-22-halfpage-english

wtw-proper-23-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-23-halfpage-english

wtw-proper-24-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-24-halfpage-english

wtw-proper-25-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-25-halfpage-english

wtw-proper-26-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-26-halfpage-english

wtw-proper-27-fullpage-english

wtw-proper-27-halfpage-english

wtw-st.-francis-fullpage-english-ed

wtw-st.-francis-halfpage-english-ed

wtw-stationary

October 20, 2013

Something (B)old, Something New

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 3:23 pm

Whenever I talk about the gift of prophecy, someone inevitably walks up to me later and says, “So, let’s hear a prophecy.”

So let me begin by dispelling a myth: prophets are not fortune tellers. They are not oracles. They are not soothsayers or magicians. Prophets hear the word of the God and speak truth to power. Prophets speak bluntly in the court of public opinion. Prophets say out loud what everyone else is thinking.

It’s no surprise, then, that prophecy is the spiritual gift that no one wants. Prophets may be summoned for an audience with the king, but they are rarely invited to the after-party. They aren’t known for their extensive social networks. In fact, if scripture is to be believed, their lives are a constant stream of insult, misery, and rejection.

For quite a few weeks Jeremiah has been trying to tell us about new beginnings, about opportunity in what appears to be defeat, about looking at things in a bold and creative light.

Back in September when God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house, he saw the potter at the wheel and watched as he formed the clay into something lovely, yet imperfect. He saw the potter mash the clay back into a lump, wet it a little, and try again.

My first reaction to this scene was, “What?! But the rainbow…the promise…God wasn’t going to do that again!” Yet as I reflected on this reading, I came to understand that while it was true that God had promised he would never destroy creation again, God never ruled out the possibility of a do-over.

In mashing up the clay and beginning again, the potter does not destroy the clay. The potter reuses the same clay, reshaping and redirecting the material at hand through new beginning.

This is a wonderful metaphor for our congregations facing decline, whether the “clay” of ministry resources available for renewal comes from within the bounds of the congregation or, increasingly, through regional ministry partnerships. But because this is a lengthy processes, it will inevitably overlap with at least one cycle of annual financial commitment. The prophets who serve on our planning teams will worry that members will opt not to pledge this year because they aren’t sure what’s going on, or they don’t trust the process, or they’re confused about the future. People may be hearing rumors, or may just assume that the church is going to close.

How can we, as leaders, keep everyone on board?

Jeremiah has some suggestions.

First, it’s OK to be angry. Jeremiah is very clear that we do have the option of not liking what we hear. We can eat all the sour grapes we want. Grief and anger are a normal part of adaptive change. Through our baptism we live as stewards of one another’s hopes and dreams, fears and worries. So if a members needs to set their teeth on edge for a while, we must assure them that they will be met with the love, the compassion, and the prayers of the congregation.

The second option Jeremiah offers is to go “all in.” Jeremiah challenges the people of Israel to move from an external covenant confined to a tabernacle, and move toward an internal covenant that lives within their being, a covenant that is part of who they are. Jeremiah challenges us likewise to move toward being the people of god in a new way, grounded in the baptismal covenant that lives within our being, always present as part of who we are.

In calling the people of Israel to a new covenant, there is one option that Jeremiah explicitly takes off the table: We’re not going to sit and do nothing. We’re not going to ride it out, wait for the crisis to pass so we can get back to where we were.

No. Jeremiah is very clear that above all, the people of Israel—and by extension, we—are called to live in the now. Through baptism, the Great I Am—the god whose very name is the present tense—calls us to radical relevance in mission and ministry.

That is Jeremiah’s call to each and all of us, not just to our diocesan leaders, or clergy, or vestry, or planning committee. In the coming weeks many of us will be invited to make a pledge in support of our congregations—in support of the congregation that is, the congregation of the here and now.

I encourage all members of every congregation not to think of letter and pledge card that you receive as merely a request for money. Think of it as an invitation to partnership in the radical relevance of mission and ministry. The future is a work in progress. The present calls us to make offerings of prayer, of effort, and of dedication; offerings brought forth from the first fruits of our life and labor, in the name of the one whose covenant is written on our hearts.

Amen

October 11, 2013

Here and Now

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 10:05 am

Wherever you are, be there. Peter Jennings

So often in my work with congregational leaders I hear a longing for the way things used to be. This longing is not simply for the financial stability of the past, though that is certainly a component, but for the ways of a by-gone era—a time of identity, of security, of assurance; a time that seemed to have an infinite future, grounded in recognized and predictable social patterns.

Though today’s congregations can hardly claim the overt hostilities known to the exiles in Jeremiah’s day, the less tangible enemies of indifference and perceived irrelevance can be just as formidable.

While the false prophets trade on feel-good predictions, assurances that it will all be over soon, and easy answers for making it all OK, Jeremiah speaks a raw truth of presence: The Lord has put you here. The Lord has put you now. The Great I Am, the God whose very name is in the present tense, wants you to be the light in this darkness, the unfailing strength in this chaos, the place of refuge in this storm.

Jeremiah speaks for a God who calls us not to radical hospitality, but to radical relevance. Jeremiah tells us bluntly to stop treating our Episcopal identity, our baptism, our commitment to felt-need ministry as constraints, but rather to understand them as the very “roots and wings” which allow us to thrive.

Does doing church in a new way throw out history? Does moving the frontline abandon the matriarchs and patriarchs who brought us to this moment? Does radical relevance mean caving in to popular culture? Heavens no!

Jeremiah never tells the Israelites, “Stop being so Jewish; tone it down and you’ll get on better.” Instead he tells them to live life to the fullest in this place where they happen to be: Get married. Have babies. Buy a house. Settle in and get used to one another. Make it work and watch what happens.

OK, so maybe that’s not the exact approach that we are likely to take with our communities, but you get the point.

It’s a point worth getting. It’s a question worth taking to the next vestry retreat, the next planning meeting, the next women’s fellowship or youth weekend: How do we answer the call to radical relevance? How do we live as The Church of the Here and Now?

October 1, 2013

Proper Behavior

Filed under: Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 2:15 pm

It happens every year: At some point in Ordinary Time, I lose track of where we are.

Never mind that the family’s master planner is a liturgical appointment book…and that I have bookmarked a lectionary web site that automatically goes to the coming Sunday’s readings…and that I read not one, but two, lectionary-based resources every week.

Every year, at some point, I lose my place.

In my defense, some years really do have a very long green season. One of my colleagues once confessed, “It gets a little old. All the parables start to run together and we run out of sermon ideas: It’s a mustard seed. It’s small. But it’s enough. We get it.”

This year I am finding an unexpected grace, an intangible abundance, and the gift of being able to laugh at myself in something that I normally interpret as a failure.

Last Sunday I went to church because it was where I needed to be. I had spent the weekend on an emotional roller coast. I needed grounding. Plus there was a summer person I wanted to see before she headed south. I drove in wondering if those gorgeous words of Eucharistic Prayer C were negotiable…

Could I come to the table for both solace and strength? Could I get a little bigger share of renewal, maybe let the pardon slide this week?

Because I had lost my track, I had no clue what the readings were; my mind wasn’t cluttered with “how I would have preached it.” I was open to the gathered community. And somewhere across the span of gathering, sermon, table, and announcements I was indeed blessed with those offerings that, together, provided the very solace, strength, renewal, and pardon that for which I so deeply hungered.

There has also been an unexpected abundance of reflection in losing track of time. I have caught myself accidentally lingering on a passage, letting it stay in my head for another week. I’ve sat down to write and discovered that the harvest wasn’t ready. I’ve given myself permission to let some readings go. (They’ll come back around in three years anyway.) There is a certain joy in wandering through the readings without the pressure of preparing, arriving, being ready…

As for being able to laugh at myself…. I’m pretty sure my parish read the prior week’s readings last Sunday. (I double-checked when I got home, given my history.) It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one.

September 10, 2013

Sinners and Saints

Filed under: Children and Families,Congregational Development,Leadership,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:57 am

Every once in a while I sit down to write, to reflect on something that has spoken to me, and discover that the source does not want to be quoted, but rather shared. So it is this week with Sunday’s broadcast of On Being.

Nadia Bolz-Weber on Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace

She’s the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She’s a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition.

I found this hour to be deeply moving, funny, provocative, and refreshing. She talks openly about wrestling with her own sense of mission and ministry when the wrong kind of newcomers started showing up in church, and how her congregation opened her eyes to new dimensions of welcome and community. She has the best Good Friday line I’ve ever heard. And in her fierce commitment to liturgy and tradition I found the balance I needed in my understanding of the emerging church.

But here’s my favorite moment of all: Forget the notion that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. That’s Western individualism run amok. The truth is, God doesn’t give any one of us more than the community that upholds us can bear together.

Give yourself a 51-minute gift at http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber-on-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace/5896#sthash.zfW0GJZW.dpuf. I would love to hear your own reflections and talk more in the comments area below about how her words resonate with you.

September 1, 2013

Hosts, Feasts, and Angels Unaware

Filed under: Children and Families,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 2:45 pm

Twenty years ago a middle-aged couple fell in love with a house on the edge of a lake—and on the edge of their price range. In wrestling with the purchase of this beautiful house, they made a covenant that, should Providence deem this to be their home, it would be dedicated as a place of hospitality. They did indeed purchase the home and six weeks later, barely unpacked, they gathered for Thanksgiving dinner with family, friends, and those who were alone.

Among the “strays” gathered for that first Thanksgiving were a foreign graduate student and a young administrator from the local university. Today, that graduate student is a US citizen, father of a lively seventh grader. His career has taken a serpentine course through multiple relocations, landing him back in the community where he started. (The former university administrator now writes a stewardship blog.) In the intervening years, neither has forgotten the gift of hospitality that this couple embodied. Their example has been multiplied many times over, not because their guests paid them back, but because their partners in baptism have each paid the original offerings forward in their own understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Another banquet story tells a less noble tale. In fact, it is the story of one of my least baptismal moments.

Mallory and I were struggling to fill a quiet Sunday—we had managed to do fun things on Saturday, and Monday would send us back to school and work, but the long Sabbath of a Sunday was daunting. We decided to spend the day in Pretoria—the drive alone was three hours round trip, add a visit with my in-laws, lunch, maybe a movie, and we’re set.

Nestled into our favorite lunch spot, all was going beautifully until our food arrived. She took one look at her beloved seafood pizza, piled with scallops, mussels, and assorted other delicacies, and her face fell: I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t know that the reason I like this pizza is because I share it with Daddy. It isn’t the same when he’s not here.

It’s OK. I get it. We’ll box it up so it doesn’t go to waste.

Now, here’s something that might surprise you about life in South Africa: It’s incredibly difficult to find someone in need on a Sunday afternoon. I did eventually find an older man, clearly malnourished and living in poverty, seated on the sidewalk outside a small general store, hoping for mercy from the few people who were out and about. I approached, greeted him, and offered him the untouched pizza. He accepted it, thanked me, and immediately began to enjoy this unexpected feast. As I got back in my car, I turned to see two or three clearly affluent young boys on bicycles speak to him, reach into the box, and happily pedal away, laughing and enjoying their “score.”

I was furious. So furious, in fact that I caught up with them, rolled down my car window and told them exactly what I thought of their behavior. Without missing a beat, their leader called back tauntingly, “He said we could have some.”

I was furious. However….

What if he did choose to share his abundance? What if this homeless man was no different from my previous hosts? What if he, too, carried a deep baptismal understanding of Providence, of our very need to bless, break, and share in celebration of unexpected abundance?

Second, with whom was I actually furious? Don’t you think Jesus would have gotten a kick out of a destitute homeless man schooling Lady Bountiful in hospitality? I am so grateful to him for the gift of humility that day, for the gift of allowing me to see an angel in disguise as he hosted those above his station at a banquet on the sidewalk.

I am grateful to both of these hosts for enacting the simplest of sermons, the most elegant of Gospel admonitions: Go, and do likewise.

Amen

August 24, 2013

Twin Peaks

Filed under: Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 10:59 am

I’ve had a song stuck in my head all week. It’s a favorite hymn from my United Methodist upbringing that is sadly not included in the Episcopal hymnal. Evoking Hebrews 12:22, we sing:

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;

Join in a song with sweet accord, Join in a song with sweet accord

And thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

 

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God;

But children of the heavenly King, but children of the heavenly King

May speak their joys abroad, may speak their joys abroad.

 

Then let our songs abound and every tear be dry;

We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground; we’re marching thru Emmanuel’s ground

To fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.

 

(With each verse followed by a rousing chorus)

We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.[i]

If we’re lucky, the preacher calls for an extra chorus

While I was humming my way through the week, it struck me that I couldn’t think of a single hymn about God’s other mountain in the Epistle assigned for this week—the mountain of God’s wrath, the mountain of fear and trembling and death.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder: Of the many conversations I’ve had over the years with companions in my spiritual journey, I have shared and heard countless struggles and joys, wilderness times, mountaintop experiences, moments of knowing and deserts of doubt. But I can’t remember a single conversation around a time when “God just grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me like a puppy.”

Why is that? Why do we resist this other mountaintop, this other face of God? Does it somehow feel un-resurrection-like to embrace God’s wrath and righteous anger?

That is where I lapse into what Gray Temple calls “the somewhat dishonorable Christian habit”:

Christians who … seek to contrast the Old Testament’s God of wrath with the New Testament’s God of grace … betray ignorance of both testaments. If the New Testament God’s mercy is always close to the Hebrew surface, something like judgment is near to Christian texts too.[ii]

In other words, Temple continues, “we cannot escape that fire by leaving the synagogue and crossing over to the church.” Jesus himself knew this truth when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

Perhaps a better way to wrestle, then is in what Lanny Peters sees as the invitation in this text:

What is the pastoral word for (those) who are honest enough to name what they see in biblical texts? Does God have schizoid tendencies? Is God…sometimes really kind and loving and forgiving, while at others God gets all angry and wants to punish and even hurt people? Or might this question instead bear witness to our human ambivalence about the nature of God? Texts like this provide a great opportunity for honest dialogue within faith communities.[iii]

When has your spiritual journey taken you to Sinai…or to Zion…or even to both at once? What songs do you sing in these fairer worlds on high?


[i] Watts, Isaac and Robert Lowry. Marching to Zion.

[ii] Temple, Gray, in Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the

Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. P. 376.

[iii]Ibid., Lanny Peters. P. 378.

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