Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Meetings and More Meetings

Stay on the path, and watch for alligators and snakes!
Charleston, S.C.
Do you enjoy meetings? Some people do. Even the people at Aldersgate who like meetings are weary of them these days. We’ve had a lot of meetings.

We needed to meet a lot because you cannot over-communicate in church.  During the spring, when members missed an important meeting, they wanted me to hold the meeting again so they could get the information first-hand. I always offered the same meeting multiple times. Some people came to every single meeting; others, to only one or two. We had informational meetings, prayer meetings, discussion meetings, “dreaming” meetings, and official meetings.  I met with individuals when they asked, to explain the concept of “house-church” and intentional living community.

Interestingly, the people who missed the most meetings were not the ones who asked me to meet with them personally.

Most of our church meetings focused on: Should we sell the church property? If we do, what are our options? If we don’t, what does the future appear to hold?

The coming threat of light rail construction was usually a part of our discussions, but there were a number of people who believed light rail would not happen. That spring, it was less of sure thing than it is now. Even now, it is not a sure thing.

A black thread running through our spring-time and early summer meetings was the way building-and-grounds safety issues seemed to be falling through the cracks. One of the community groups who use our building accidentally left on an old coffee maker on a Wednesday night, and it wasn’t discovered smoking and stinking until Friday morning. It might have caused a fire, but it didn’t. The handicapped button on the main door didn’t work right, and when it got pressed, it occasionally swung violently outward and almost knocked people over – but never did. A large tree that was leaning over the playground and needed to be cut down – wasn’t. It fell on a Sunday night, smashing through the playground where – thank God – no preschool children were playing. One or more of the toilets would run without shutting off, and we’d get a horrific water bill. The thermostats were always messed up. Weeds grew in the flower beds and Memorial Garden.

The poor Trustees had to meet a lot, dealing with other building issues. I felt the dwindling membership could no longer adequately handle all the problems involved in maintaining a large, aging building and grounds.

Some of our many meetings were “official.” At our April 1 congregational retreat, we had a show of hands that indicated a large majority of people wanted to move forward with potentially selling the property, which required the permission of the Corridor District Board of Church Location and Building.  I explained that the Board could give us permission to sell the property, but we would need to present a plan of what we were going to do should the building actually sell.  The meeting was scheduled April 27.

Ironically, the Orange County commissioners met the same evening to vote on moving forward with light rail plans.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Prayer Images

Not my photo; it was sent in an email to me. But it's pretty cool, don't you think?

In prayer over these past months, I repeatedly have experienced two “images” – the first, of Christ wanting to plant a seed that required the church’s permission, or at least our acceptance.  I perceived that whatever came from the seed would be strong and robust.

I spent a lot of time considering, sometimes with my spiritual director, what the seed might represent.  I didn’t feel particular pressure about the planting of this seed – I felt that God wanted me to know that Christ has plenty of seeds and would plant it elsewhere if necessary. The seed was an invitation to both the church and to me: We were invited, encouraged even, to help plant this seed.

The second “image” was the sense that we (the church and I) were together on a boat. My hands were on the wheel, but Christ stood behind me with his hands on top of mine. I felt that things would work out as long as I didn’t abandon ship or try to wrest the steering wheel from the hands of Jesus. 

The boat image in prayer is a familiar one to me. I often tell Bible study participants that the church is like a boat, and our sanctuaries often resemble an upside-down boat.  I enjoy studying the New Testament stories that take place in boats.  I am fond of saying: “As long as Jesus is in the boat with us, what have we to fear?” I’m fond of saying it, but I certainly have not conquered my own fear.  

There also was the problematic “voice” I twice heard in my heart – “Go to St. Thomas More first.” I wrote it down in my journal and underlined it. The second time I also heard, “I have that priest well in hand.” That seemed an odd thing to “hear,” or whatever you want to call it.   St. Thomas More is a huge Catholic church and school located next door to Aldersgate.  My education in a Catholic high school made me permanently intimidated by nuns and especially priests. I assumed this prayer experience was about selling Aldersgate’s property, but I did not intend to have any personal contact with St. Thomas More.

Of course, that is exactly what happened…. later.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Does "House Church" Look Like?

There's a mountain to climb
Pilot Mountain, N.C.
The pastor of Refuge Home Church in Durham is Megan Pardue, who was one of two Duke Divinity field education students assigned to the Rougemont Charge in the summer of 2011. I was her supervisor. I remember telling her she had the gifts and graces to be a pastor if she felt called in that direction; she wasn’t sure at the time.

When we met last spring, Megan was glowing, pregnant with her second child. Looking at her, I felt old. I wondered, for the hundredth time, if I have the energy to do something this different and new. Megan described the joys and challenges of worship and fellowship in a house church.

Refuge Home Church members worship in one another’s homes. Are they even members? – I don’t remember asking.  Probably lots of them are worshippers without being members. They tend to be young and have children.  The Nazarene fellowship doesn’t advertise, Megan told me. They are bursting at the seams, partly because of the small worship space, but also because of growth, which has been all word-of-mouth.  She told me that newcomers don’t even typically use the website to find the late Sunday afternoon worship services, which change location every week. People are motivated to come, and so they figure it out.

Megan thought Aldersgate House’s biggest challenge would be changing to the different worship and preaching format required of a smaller, intimate worship space.  She told me I would need to break out of my dependence on what we Duke Divinity graduates call the “well-crafted sermon.” She wasn’t sure I could do it.

Well, I’m teachable, I argued. I can learn! What’s so hard about it?

She explained, and my understanding of the preaching experience at Refuge Home Church goes like this: Megan sits in a chair and holds a cup of coffee in one hand, a Bible in the other. Everyone finds a seat in the living room.  She reads the scripture and expounds a little on it.  She then opens it up to the group. Part of the challenge is getting people to talk honestly, which requires a level of trust in the group. Some of the best discussions have allowed people to talk about how scripture can seem not to have been true for them – illustrating that the kingdom of God is also “not yet,” she told me.  Could I tolerate that? Could the congregation?

Could I let go of the well-crafted sermon? Could I gently direct a topic that is getting dominated by one or two people, but also not control the conversation? There’s an art to it, apparently.  And no, it’s not the same as a good Bible study, she replied to my wondering.

Every Sunday at Refuge Home Church, the conversational sermon is sandwiched between a covered-dish dinner and Communion.  Singing and praying are a part of the worship service, too.

Newcomers don’t sneak in and out of the worship service the way they do in traditional church, Megan explained.  They come for dinner because the worship service starts with dinner. They get to know people in a way that’s unlikely in a typical traditional service.

One of the most interesting aspects of Refuge Home Church is the portability of the service. The Sunday service moves around, and not just to people’s homes. The church supports prison ministry, and so periodically, they take their worship service to a prison. This is not an additional service attended by a handful of dedicated souls, but THE Sunday worship service. I was impressed, thinking of the ways a healing ministry, should Aldersgate decide to embrace it, could be moved around to hospitals and nursing homes as THE Sunday service.

My meeting with Megan left me feeling both excited and scared, which translates as “unsettled.” If I hadn’t continued to feel, in prayer, that God was leading Aldersgate and me in a strange new direction, I would have chickened out. I was often tempted to chicken out. I still am! Prayer keeps me focused. And my, how things keep changing. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reactions

Walking on a snowy road can be both beautiful and slippery
Bunny Road in Rougemont, NC, after a snow storm

Reactions to the idea of “Aldersgate House” have been interesting.  

Some people get excited about the possibilities, but a significant number are perplexed or confused. No matter how many times I explain it, or put it in writing (see http://methodistfindinggod.blogspot.com/2017/07/aldersgate-house-prototype.html ),
they remain confused. Maybe it’s too far out of the box to imagine. Perhaps it must be lived into. Several people persist in repeating they are turned off by the idea of “worshiping in someone’s living room” even though the “great rooms” we have looked at in various houses are beautiful and spacious.  One member said she did not relish more intimate worship services nor did she want to share meals with “those people.”  One shut-in member responded by shaking her head and repeating, “It’s just soooo sad!” 

Sad is the last thing the Aldersgate House is, to me.  It’s scary, maybe; intimidating, for sure; exciting, yes; but not sad. “Sad,” to me, is witnessing the struggling remnant of a church wrecked by its own history.     

Not many pastors know about the idea of Aldersgate House because my experience at Carr UMC taught me that pastors tend to be pessimistic and overly cautious about out-of-the-box ideas.  I have a wealth of pessimism and caution of my own and don’t need to add to it.

I was completely ignorant of “house-church,” but I researched on-line as well I as could. I failed to find any United Methodist house churches (meaning: sacramental house of worship); our denomination favors a traditional church model.  UM churches tend to have a sanctuary with pews facing forward, focused toward a pulpit, Communion table (which probably gets used once a month), and baptismal font (which typically gets used far less than the Communion table). Our churches have educated, trained, paid clergy who have expected tasks within the church.  Worship tends to be passive for most of the laity.  UM churches typically have Sunday morning worship, Sunday school, age-level programs, committees, set ministries – and a need for enough money to pay for all of it.  

House churches attract newcomers who want an alternative to traditional church. They don’t find the spiritual formation and intimacy they crave in traditional church, so they look elsewhere. They want Communion more than once a month, interactive “conversational” sermons, and weekly fellowship meals. They want fellow worshipers to be “real,” to share details of their lives, and to offer genuine friendship. The research said they dislike giving money for the upkeep of a building and prefer their offerings go to meet local needs.   

I felt – still feel – uneasy that Aldersgate, as it currently exists, is exactly the sort of church these kinds of seekers are trying to avoid.  I hope that being located in a house, having a specific shared ministry with a focus on healing, and hosting an intentional living community will be enough to change everything.

Most house churches fail, and usually because of disorganization. The leader is often underpaid and untrained theologically and liturgically.  In the absence of good leadership, the most needy, talkative people tend to dominate the worship service.  If the leader is a pastor, he or she often becomes resentful about working long hours for very little pay. A typical house-church moves from house to house of its own members; the size of the worship space limits the number of worshipers.  Jealousy can develop over whose homes host frequently and whose do not.

In my research, I discovered one house-church in Durham: Refuge Home Church (www.refugehomechurch.org ), a Nazarene fellowship whose pastor is – surprise! – a former Duke Divinity field education student I supervised when I was pastor of the Rougemont Charge. I contacted her, and we arranged to meet. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

One Step at a Time

One step at a time through an alien landscape
Roman ruins in Syria, 2004. That's me at the back of the line.

Elaine Heath’s interest in the potential Aldersgate House surprised me but seemed to be compelling evidence that God was at work. When I sent an e-mail to the dean of Duke Divinity, I expected no response. After all, she is the relatively new leader of a big, busy seminary. But I got a quick response of interest, and a meeting was set up between Heath, myself, and her colleague, Heidi Miller. The meeting at the Div School was scheduled toward the end of March, 2017, a few days before an Aldersgate congregational retreat on April 1.

In the meantime, I researched Elaine Heath. I read two of her books (God Unbound and We Were the Least of These) and studied the website of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which she co-founded and directed (https://www.missionalwisdom.com/). I discovered she had helped start several intentional living communities in Dallas, where she lived while teaching at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

The day of our meeting, Heath was ill and not present, but I met with Heidi Miller, who is a leader in the Missional Wisdom Foundation. She described intentional living communities and explained that she and Heath both lived in such houses in Texas. When they moved here, they started two new communities. She invited me to attend an upcoming covered-dish dinner between three local intentional living communities (hers, Heath’s, and one other), and I accepted. 

She explained that the Missional Wisdom Foundation folks, through trial and error, had formed a process for selecting people for intentional living communities, and rules that govern them. Members of the community pray, talk, and eat together on a daily basis; they accept the oversight of an “abbot”; and they volunteer with whatever ministry the community/house embraces.

Each community is attached to an "anchor church." Aldersgate House would be a new thing, with the church actually worshiping and meeting in the same space in which the community members lived. It presented some interesting challenges and blessings.

I had no idea organized intentional living communities existed for Protestants, particularly United Methodists. I left the meeting feeling both encouraged and a little overwhelmed. I kept repeating to myself what has now become my mantra: “One step at a time.” 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Aldersgate House Prototype

Path to Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, S.C. The house is barely visible.

The latest iteration of "Aldersgate House," presented to the church, the district superintendent, the district board of church location and building, and Duke Divinity: 

“Aldersgate House” – focus on healing and hospitality. House to accommodate both Aldersgate UMC-Chapel Hill, as well as persons living in the house (explanation below)

The Aldersgate House might have:

·         A beautiful “great room,” filled with light, where padded chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, so that people can see the pastor and one another. The church would bring with us the Communion table, baptismal font, paraments, piano, hymnals, Bibles. Worship services would be much the same as they are now, except there would be Communion every Sunday, vital participation by students (see below), congregational meal most Sundays, and more “conversational-style” sermons.

·         Three to four bedrooms
A.                One bedroom/bathroom would provide free accommodation for the care-giver(s) of a hospitalized person.

B.                Two bedrooms would provide free accommodation for Duke Divinity students – those interested in the concept of New Testament “community living” and/or those dedicated to healing ministries. In exchange for free housing, these students will commit to Aldersgate being their church for the duration of their time in the house. They will assist with worship and bring their ministry ideas to the table. AUMC will dedicate a fund to help give life to their ministry ideas; in fact, one of the purposes of the Aldersgate House will be to become a Spirit-led incubator for new ministry.

·         Office space, to be used as a pastor/church office.

·         Kitchen to be used by everyone

·         Dining room/kitchen area to accommodate everyone for meals

·         Front yard large enough and appropriate for parking (big enough to avoid annoying neighbors)

·         House would be handicapped accessible

·         Current church members would be encouraged to participate in daily activities of those living in the house; ie, fellowship, meals, Bible study.        

There will be a steering committee composed of pastor, several church leaders, a student, maybe a faculty advisor or denominational official. The steering committee will make and enforce the house rules, handle potential conflict, and approve funding for ministry ideas.

Aldersgate would:
·         Purchase the house (about 3,000 square feet) and care for it
·         Furnish the house in a simple style
·         Provide free living space
·         Pay for utilities, if possible
·         Pay for weekly cleaning of the common areas, yard mowing, maintenance, insurance
·         Provide the majority of Sunday meals

The students would:
·         Make Aldersgate their church while living in the house, participating in worship, Bible studies, service, fellowship, etc.
·         Observe house rules
·         Keep their own rooms and bathrooms clean and in good order
·         Agree to work with the pastor and steering committee
·         Agree to respect the church, the space, and the opportunity they have been given
·         Bring their ministry ideas to the table
·         House living arrangements would be single gender but might also include married couples.

The church, the pastor, and the students would covenant to: LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Potential renovations:
1.    Handicapped accessible
2.    Adding downstairs bathroom(s)

After the house is purchased, furnished, etc., the remainder of the proceeds from the sale of 632 Laurel Hill Rd., Chapel Hill, will be invested. The interest from this investment will fund the church through the interim period.

If our house church focus is “healing,” then possibly once a month, we would take our Sunday church service to UNC Hospitals or a nursing home and do our service there.  

Location: The house will be located no more than 15 minutes’ drive from most AUMC members. All houses we have looked at have been no more than 5-6 minutes from the current property. The house will be located no more than 30 minutes away from Duke Divinity.

Because we would remain a United Methodist Church, AUMC still would be required to have certain committees and officers, and we would continue to pay apportionments.

Flexibility – This is a new thing, and we can create new traditions or keep old ones (or both). We hope the more intimate format, spiritual formation through Communion and table fellowship, and the healing/reaching-out focus will appeal to people who are looking for something not available through ordinary church. 

***
Now: can you IMAGINE a small group of elderly United Methodists agreeing to this? What do you think God can imagine?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A New Contact

A pleasant path in Duke Gardens

Because the idea for an Aldersgate house-church included the concept of having Divinity students live in the house, the district superintendent suggested that I contact Elaine Heath, who is the relatively new dean of Duke Divinity School. The dean has a special interest in intentional living communities, she told me.

Right around the time I had that conversation, I received a copy of The 2016 Dean’s Report of the Divinity School. It began with a feature story on Elaine Heath and how she is different from previous deans.

The story included many interesting things, three of which “struck” me.  One, the new dean has a lot of experience forming intentional Christian communities; and two, her method of spiritual discernment involves a process of: “show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome.” I liked that a lot.  

And three, Heath is a mystic. By this, I do not mean an extraordinary person who has esoteric experiences of God. I mean an ordinary person who seeks to know God better and to love God more faithfully through prayer. I mean a person who doesn’t just pray for things but who seeks to know and love God through prayer. These people tend to have experiences of God, in prayer.

In fact, the story ended with Heath’s vision of God as “three wiry old grandmothers.” I was delighted by this image. When Heath, in prayer, expressed her frustration at the long, drawn-out process of change, God said: “We try to avoid coercing people. We work with openings. This takes time.”

Since then, I have thought often of the image of God as three old grandmothers, the truth of what was conveyed in the prayer, and how it might relate to what is happening with Aldersgate.

The article gave me the impetus I needed to send Heath an email.