The Church as a Tupperware Cupboard

Over the years I have amassed numerous volumes of books on the subject of the church. As large as the self-help section is in any given bookstore, the religious book trends give equal footing to what I might call the self-help-for-the-church section.  While there are certainly some gems on how to be / do / become church; for the large part, anyone who seems to be able to string a sentence together could market a book about doing church better.

Doing church better written by pastors, for pastors, to make them feel that they are never good enough, that the church congregation that they serve is not good enough, that the grass is always greener on the other side of a denominational fence.  All these things lead to some very destructive thoughts about ourselves and the church.

Besides the piles of books on the church, another thing that seems to pile up in our household (and I am sure yours too) is the kitchen space devoted to food storage containers.  Be it Tupperware, Lock’n Lock boxes, IKEA Förtrolig, or old margarine containers; there is a drawer, or shelf, located in the kitchen where we keep all these lids and containers.

Sometimes I think that the church is represented in that shelf of containers.  While seeking harmony feels like the most pleasurable thing to imagine in the church, it is often frustratingly absent much of the time.  The church is a lot like that drawer of tupperware for a few reasons.

  1. We start off well intended, but soon find it a mess.51UiNsrVRhL._SL250_
  2. We really want to savour the moment, but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess.
  3. We have all the right stuff, but sometimes things don’t click.

We start off well intended but soon find it a mess: Let’s say it is a new school year and you’ve gone out an bought a set of storage containers. Our hopes and dreams of having a nice orderly school career are almost religiously symbolized in the new displayed and neatly stacked set of storage containers.  However, with in a week (and often times sooner) you find that lids are missing, that the base of another set has shown up and it even has a sticker with some other persons name on it. I pretty sure that these storage containers reproduce all on their own when they are left in the cupboard in the dark.  In fact, storage containers are the opposite of socks.  Socks disappear in the wash, whereas containers multiply in the cupboard – so much so that the neatly organized system becomes a hodgepodge of lids and bases which now need to be crammed into a small shelf so that the door of the cupboard barely closes anymore.

We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess: “Wow, that supper/lunch/desert/food brought by guests/ was tasty! Let’s keep some for later, maybe for lunch tomorrow.”  You’ve said these words, only to find that either the food never makes it from the refrigerator to the container and after some time gets gently sorted to the back of the shelf with several bottles of half used salad dressing only to be discovered next time you give the fridge a good cleaning.  OR, that yummy food goes into a container and is packed away for school/work/picnic and maybe you realize when you open up your storage box that the food doesn’t look as it did before, or that the only thing cold the next morning that really has any taste is a cheese pizza as you look at your now limp salad that you enjoyed so much the night before.  The food get’s tucked away, unfinished in the bottom of the school bag, office briefcase, or on the floor of the car where after some months and seasons of sliding back and forth it has become lodged under the seat and we blame the dog for any strange smells whenever a guest rides in the car with us.

We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click. You know the feeling of being on your hands and knees as you search for all the parts of your container system.  Why is it that it is always the bottom shelf that these things go? You have all the parts: you have food, you have a base, you have a lid.  Sometimes you can only find a huge base that is far bigger than the amount of food you need.  Blue berries, and that cheese sandwich will bounce around for hours before lunch until you have your own (unwanted) smoothy.  Or your box and the lid are a different size or shape.  How many people knew that margarine containers are not universally shaped, but can be loosely (and ineffectively) held together with a rubber band? Then there is the real challenge that you think you have all the right parts, but they somehow don’t magically click together.  That pudding desert has managed to find the crack in the seal and is partially pooled at the bottom of your bag, and you may wonder how you are going to put it all back together again in a nice presentation so that it can sit on the table amongst all the other items of food that were brought for the shared lunch.

What then do we make of this when we compare it to the church given that so many want to write books that make us believe that we can be better, do it more wisely, or be more effective.

In a multicultural setting we may have in theory the desire for harmony, but what we must be willing to live with is much more chaotic.  We start off well intended but soon find it a mess.  We need to learn to live with the mess.  Money, sexuality, politics, and religion are all issues we want to find harmony in discussing or sharing, but culturally we come from diverse understandings so we should be prepared to find it a bit unclear.  We may start off with a simple church activity only to find that like the multiplying tupperware, we are now dealing with different issues and perspectives.  We may even be surprised that some unknown item has appeared and we don’t really feel that prepared to begin discussing it, or how to answer.

We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess.  It is nearly impossible to copy a method or system of being church and reproduce it to everyones delight.  The church self-help book market is great at making you believe that if you just follow these 3, 7, 10, easy steps then you too will be the pastor of a mega-church. Yes, it might be great, like that Tiramasue cake, but when we take it home with us and open it up the next night the colours look a bit off, and it seems the coffee has started to separate from the rest of the cake.  Maybe we are surprised when what looked (or tasted) great, has grown into something else mysteriously.

We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click.  Here I think that there is the biggest area to frustrate as it seems like we have all we need, we are so close, but it doesn’t go like planned.  If we take the parts of any kind of church event we have high hopes for having it all work out, but in reality, we may have all the right parts, but something has failed to ‘click’.  People go to great amounts of effort to dream up, and provide that pudding that will be out for others to share.  Some blame may get passed around as to what part didn’t live up to expectations – that lid should have held together, and it didn’t!  Each of the parts of the package have been designed with the best of intentions, but when we mix a Lock’n Lock with an IKEA Förtrolig the design (and cultural) differences make it more challenging to ultimately what was desired in the first place – to share in the enjoyment.

In the end of it all, the whole desire was that something good was made and there is an equal desire to share it, or have it continue.  Sometimes, however, our expectations are not met and we don’t have that harmony.  In these kinds of moments it is like God trying to tell us something.  Maybe it is not so much about the system, the containers, the organization, the desire to preserve, the desire to have it all come together; but that we have something truly good to share.  We enjoy our enjoyment.  Forcing things to harmonize can be a frustrating experience, but if we take a look at what God has given us and let things work out, maybe as God intends, and despite ourselves, we find that there is a lot of good stuff to celebrate.

Well intended.  Savour the moment.  God provides the right stuff.

 

via Daily Prompt: Harmonize

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To Loiter with Intent

I cannot remember who it was that gave me this piece of advice as I started off in my journey of priestly ministry, but I have a suspicion that it was the bishop who ordained me to the priesthood.

No matter who it was, it has been advice that has stuck with me, and as such, has presented many unique opportunities to reach beyond the walls of the parish church.  A friend recently asked me why I write this blog.  I had to think about this, as I believe, my initial intentions for the blog have changed and developed overtime – an excellent time to reflect.

Many in the english speaking world will be familiar with George Herbert, a Church of England priest famous for just about everything under the sun, from poetry, The Country Parson, the look, feel and presence of an Anglican clergyman.  George is a favourite image of what a great many people hold as the stereotypical Church of England vicar.  I’ve had a rough go with the image that George portrays, and that stereotype, but I do admire his writing abilities.  Perhaps, the gentle idyllic reflections were what I initially hoped to capture for the blogging audience.

The world, and the purpose of my blog, are ever changing things, so much so that I do find it difficult to set time aside for any creative input.  Schedules, demands of an active parish, the loneliness of being geographically distant from neighbouring Anglican clergy, and even, the busy family demands, are completely foreign to the life of George Herbert, who in a sense, rented out the parish to other clergy so that he had the time to write and bumble along.

In 2009 I picked up a copy of a book with the exciting title: If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him, by Justin Lewis-Anthony.  The book proved to be a worthwhile read in that it helped to disprove the myth of the man, George Herbert, and of the myth of the  clergy role which many still hold on to and envision as the gold standard for all other forms of ministry.  If you want a taste of what the book is like, the Guardian article written by Lewis-Anthony summarizes it all very nicely. 9780826424204

As much as I have a dislike for the attitude set by many inside and outside the church with this fascination with George Herbert, I must say that some of what I feel to be my most creative ministry experiences are when I just bumble along as I imagine good old George having done.

Which brings me back to loitering with intent.  Occasionally…well, frequently…I found myself preparing sermons in different neighbourhood pubs.  Maybe the pint of beer helped with the creativity of the sermon writing process.  I’d almost always sit at the bar because it was uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable in that you really didn’t want to stay too long like you would if you had that nice seat at a table that was tucked away close to the wood fire on a cold winter day.  Uncomfortable also because it is usually the lonely people, or the ones with issues and great needs that sat at the bar.  So loiter with intent meant that in my clergy shirt, with a notepad and an open bible I would sit with one hand on the pint glass, and the other clutching a pen as I made my initial notes on the upcoming Sunday’s bible readings.

The man in black clericals at the end of the bar was to many people like a shiny fishing lure to the trout.  “I just gotta ask…”, or “My friends and I were curious…”, were the typical ‘pick-up lines’ of what would turn out to be some curious, and lonely people.

The best people, as I may have mentioned before in another post, were the bartenders themselves.  While there isn’t (to my knowledge) a book that is the bartenders equivalent to the clergy’s George Herbert; it is the standard belief that as people fill themselves with alcohol, they will eventually pour themselves out to the bartender.  So loitering with intent meant to avoid the easy joking conversation of a small clutch of tourists, or hardcore drinkers, that were at one end of the bar, and sit alone and wait for the bartender to unload the problems of the world in the sacred moment with the highly polished wood bar top, and brass taps separating us like the dutifully polished screen of the confessional in a Roman Catholic church.

In many ways, bumbling does not reproduce fantastic results in a culture – a church culture – that wishes to see the pews fill-up with new members.  However, the ministry always felt creative, vital and in some ways, maybe a little bit like a golden piece of poetry in amongst the commonness of ordinary life.

Looking back over time at what has been creative ministry, and in the case of this blog, some creative writing, it is on one-hand, an outlet, and on the other hand, a way that I, and others, may reflect on what I do, and how God is present – be it in Canada, or in Germany; be it in a church, or at the end of the bar.  While I highly doubt that my writing, either the content or the style, will ever be compared to George Herbert’s poetic prose, at least like the Country Parson I’ve got the name that fits the role.

 

via Daily Prompt: Bumble

Tall Tales

Last week in the midst of some warm and humid weather I decided to ride my bicycle into Freiburg to join one of the monthly church groups – the Wise Ones.  While the group is a fellowship group for those who are retired, they let me join partly because I’m the minister, and partly, I think, because I have some grey hair, and as the Celtic tradition says, a head of grey hair is a sign of wisdom.

As I started out my journey I tried out one of the features of my GPS that will calculate various routes, be it by bike, by foot, or by car.  Having figured that I’d seen a few different routes to the church already, I programmed the GPS to take me on a hilly route.  This is where I think I gained a few more grey hairs, but proved not to be very wise.

After the first 2 kilometres it became evident to me that I was going to get my heart racing.  The suggested road to take turned out to be an over-grown edge of a field that the farm tractor may have seen a few weeks ago.  Nonetheless, I persevered in ignorance.

Next came a short, but steep, jaunt through the vineyards.  The grapes are coming into season, the air was warm, the clouds were darkening and I could hear thunder in the distance.  Of all the days to have a thunderstorm!  The idyllic scenery could not conquer the steady pounding in my ears of my own racing heartbeat as I was set to ignore every possible switchback and continued on my course straight up the hill.  I became mildly concerned to find the hair on my arms standing upright with ever-blackening clouds and ever-nearing sounds of thunder.

With about 200 metres until I reached the canopy of the Black Forest the heavens opened and the rain poured.  Receiving shelter from the tall trees only made me feel protected from the violent crashing of the thunderstorm, yet the rain drops fell more heavily as they gathered their forces together off of the tall leafed trees and plunged down.

The dirt path quickly became a small stream and mud splashed up from my wheels to ensure that whatever dry part of my clothes was left would be properly soaked.  Wisdom tells you to bring an extra change of clothes (which I did, thinking I would be too sweaty), wisdom might also tell you to put your clothes in a dry bag (which I didn’t) and still when I arrived at the church I was allowed to participate in the Wise Ones meeting.  The rain actually fell from the trees so hard that it took me a moment to realize that my route had been changed.  The water drops falling in rapid and heavy succession upon my touch screen GPS had canceled my current route and changed it to something altogether more impossible.

As I stood in the rain pretending to find shelter under the trees and hunching my back over my electronic navigation system so that I might find my correct course, or better yet, my actual location it occurred to me that I had not seen anyone on my ride.  Usually I would have encountered dozens of people out for a bike ride, or a hike.  Either everyone knew that there would be a thunderstorm, or I was so far into the woods that there was definitely no restaurant, or Gasthaus nearby – this by German standards is completely lost.  Your mind begins to play tricks on you as you become more chilled from the rain and you feel disoriented.  Had I been somewhere in Canada I would have felt as if I was on a logging road and been concerned that a bear might come out of the woods.  All the German fairytales started to come to mind, but not in the Disney versions, rather the original German versions which are far more gruesome.

Onwards and still upwards! After the momentary lapse in confusion, I mounted my bike and began to plod my way steadily uphill.  I began to use my better judgement for a change and started reading the signs and ignoring my GPS so that I eventually made my way down the other side of the hill towards my destination.  It was only then that finally the heavens opened and the blue sky and bright sun showed up, a little too weakly to actually dry anything off, but it was good for the mood.

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Bike riding is full of adventure, but later I learned from my parents that sometimes the adventure comes to you…even in your own home.  We might be half a world away, but we find ways of communicating our stories and adventures.  Having a running commentary this morning by text message about the large Black Bear that has found its way into the house and made itself very much at home in the kitchen with several hamburger buns, and a jar of peanut butter would certainly surprise anyone, even the family dog.  Eventually the determined bear was scared off, but surely the story will live on and grow into a family memory, a legendary tale.

I think I will stick to my rainy bike ride up the side of the mountain then come face to face with a large Black Bear and her jar of peanut butter.  At the end of the story I think we are all, a little greyer, and I hope, a little wiser.