What is the Point of Church?


I am part of the St John’s Lutheran Church community in Sacramento. The leaders are always pushing our community to do better. This Sunday I had to laugh when I shut the stall door in the ladies’ restroom. These two questions (pictured above) were posted there. They also provided paper in the courtyard for us to share our thoughts.

I’m sure this was planned long before Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston. However, in the light of the social media outrage over prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s seeming indifference to the plight of neighbors flooded out of their homes, it is very timely.

Even people who don’t share our faith expect churches, synagogues and mosques to do good together. When a disaster or crisis hits a community, the public expectation is that these communities of faith will organize a response. I admit, I expect this too. I emailed my pastor to ask if St John’s was going to take a collection for the Evangelical Lutheran Church response. (yes) While the media was focused playing off Osteen’s lack of response against the muslim communities collective rescue efforts, I knew that all of the mainline denominations, World Vision and others were also on the ground with supplies and money. As I walked around the church campus on Sunday I wondered if as much water fell on Sacramento and the areas ringed by levees filled up like a bathtub, would St John’s be above flood stage? What refuge could we offer?

Everyday in Sacramento we have an on-going  emergency of homelessness and our church community does a lot with other communities of faith to respond. I participate in that effort. This is not the place to boast, but I did choose this congregation to join, in part, because of their service to the whole community: LGBT, homeless, youth, and the elderly and people like me.

Could I do all of these things without the church? Of course, there are many organizations that I could give to and participate in a variety of ways to address homelessness. And in Houston we see neighbors helping neighbors without being asked. Doctors and nurses reported to hospitals to volunteer. Social workers reported to emergency shelters, and so on.

I could meditate every morning instead of reading scripture and having a quiet time. I could go on a walk along the river each Sunday morning and enjoy God’s creation. But I crave the unique experience of singing, praying, reading scripture with my community. There are many styles of worship but all for the same purpose: to praise God, confess our sins, and experience God together. Do we actually experience God? Yes, but only faintly. Yet every Sunday I participate and marvel at way the combination of ritual, music and sermon ground me again in my values and beliefs for the coming week.

I also look to the my church family to help me through life, and me them. Celebrate the marriage, food and gifts for baby, comfort and aid when sick, comfort and condolence when death comes to someone we love. Again, this can also be experienced with family and friends; however, not necessarily with the hope our faith provides.

It is true that organized religion can also hurt. I’ve experienced the incredible agape love that transports and I’ve been judged very harshly and my family shunned. Some people have been victimized by the authority given to priests and pastors. It is a community meaning it is made up of humans and sometimes the phrase “only human” applies.

The church community can also coddle its members and become another self-help vending machine. There is often very little recognition of the spiritual disciplines and the importance of an interior life in the USA church life.  I want my church community to challenge me to spiritual growth.

Listening to the replay of Krista Tippett’s interview with poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, they discussed whether we are more impoverished than previous generations as to our ability to love and be a friend. He said no, we are just out of practice. This is where the church could be more active: in naming the love and friendship that Christ called us to and modeled for us. In the past the church has been a prophet in the community. The church community should wonder what they are not doing if everyone is comfortable.

Best if we show, not tell.









Maturity Versus Age

I’m on the Isle of Wight for my friend UK Sarah’s 60th birthday celebration. It took quite a lot of effort to physically get here and that somehow befits what it takes to reach age 60 with grace. Last night, in a conversation with two women friends, we discussed how frustrating it can be when family members confuse that grace we’ve earned with luck. They envy our good fortune, glossing over all of the hard stuff we’ve endured or overcome. It is especially confusing if there is a disparity in wealth. This is hardest with family because we all started at the same address so to speak.

Each of us, in our own way, expressed our desire to encourage our family members but couldn’t break through the jealousy or the victimhood or the depression. We paused in a moment of sadness.

This morning I woke up from my first good night of sleep in my travels and remembered my cousin Kim’s meme she shared in honor of her 44th birthday:18953077_10209369588185158_4451343193687950954_n

Maybe life is more like video gaming than we care to admit. Those who persist even after they’ve been “destroyed” reach new levels. Along the way they learn shortcuts that help to seemingly “skip” through levels to get back to where they left off in the last game and work on the next level.

Those of us who persist in life-learning reach new levels too. What we earn is maturity. This is not a guarantee of wealth, some of my most mature friends have not experienced the added blessing of wealth. And I know at least one very wealthy person who did not gain in maturity in spite of her age. Often though, it does result in material blessing because we stop making bad choices about money or we made different choices about work and it eventually pays dividends.

While my cousin’s meme inspired this post, it is slightly off in one respect. Age does not equal your level. If it did my cousin would always be 10 levels behind me. Whereas, in real life, she may well outstrip me in maturity.

How then do we encourage family and friends to live towards lives of maturity? Share our experiences as transparently as we can. Love them just as they are right now. Pray for humility because sometimes life will knock you back a few levels. Value our mature friends.

Hmmm. I have some work to do.

(Forgive me if I get some aspects of video game playing wrong as I’ve not spent much time actually playing.)

P.S. This TED Talk by Anne Lamott is on topic. Enjoy.

Staying Curious When You Really Want to be Mad

I was cycling down 18th Street–a quiet, leafy street in Midtown–when I saw another cyclist riding on the sidewalk. This always makes me angry because I feel it gives cyclists a black eye with pedestrians and motorists. Yet I am practicing staying curious instead of rushing to judgement. So when I pulled even with him I called out in as friendly a voice as I could muster, “Hey, why do you ride on the sidewalk?” Equally friendly he replied, “I feel safer.” This led to a dialogue where I shared that I actually feel less visible on the sidewalk, but that I do use them occasionally when I have to go the wrong way on a one-way street for a block. He shared that he often rides on the street too and he joined me on the street until we reached K Street and I turned off to the right. We wished each other a good day.

This was a civil exchange and much more pleasant experience than my fuming silently in anger. This is a very quick exchange and I may never see this neighbor again; however, it is good practice that helps me to continue to stay in this open place.

Listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with sociologist Arlie Hochschild on the Ezra Klein Show podcast (September 13, 2016), I realize that I can stretch to another level. She spent 5 years embedded in Louisiana culture to interview 60 individuals deeply and understand how they think and feel. She wanted to make sense of the gulf in values that are polarizing the USA today.

She intentionally acknowledged the deep stories and therefore her study subjects’ identities with the hope of building an empathy bridge. In her research she is seeking to understand but not necessarily to be understood. She turned off her own alarm system and set aside her own values with the purpose of learning, not convincing.

I have only just downloaded her new book Strangers in Their Own Land. I am curious how you build an empathy bridge and not lose your own moral center. I am sure the woman from Lake Charles, LA that she interviewed is a lovely person with many fine qualities. I had similar experiences when I made friends with conservation colleagues from Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Their hospitality is memorable; yet, I still found it very uncomfortable to visit their hometowns and witness the segregation that remains in their communities and the dominant attitudes that people of color are less than white people that some of them tried to defend.

On a different podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, they discussed John Brown’s civil action in Harper’s Ferry and how it influenced the Civil War. Taken together, these podcasts reinforce the idea that we are living through a non-military civil war. Our first civil war was a byproduct of the industrial revolution and the South’s economic dependence on agricultural plantations that could only function with slavery. Now we are going through a similar disruption where the two Coasts are transforming from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies, and the middle and south are being left largely behind.

What then shall be done? Practice patience. Stay curious. Extend compassion and empathy. Respect one another.


Honoring 9/11

Scrolling through Facebook on this fateful anniversary, I see a mirror for the schisms in our country. We cannot seem to embrace the diversity of ways that people honor this particular fraught anniversary. There is a spirit of competition as some people post photos of the World Trade Center towers on fire and say “Never forget.” Others focus on people–survivors, first responders, memorials to civilians who died that day. I posted the Budweiser ad that according to Jim Brooks who originated the post, they only aired once so as not to make money on this tragedy.


Since it is also Sunday, our church at St John’s Lutheran in Sacramento held a Serve Day. We all worshipped together in our jeans and t-shirts and were graced with an amazing sermon from Rev. Dr. Stephen Bourman, who served as Lutheran Bishop of New York on 9/11/01. We then went out in small groups to accomplish projects in the neighborhood. Our group of 6 picked up trash for a couple of hours–a challenge after a second Saturday in Midtown.

These various expressions of remembrance and service are not surprising as they reflect the various cliques of people who emphasize some values over others. Social media facilitates this in a way that the traditional media never has. Traditional media likes to find one narrative for “the country”. There is competition for the narrative right after the event and then most of the media adopt this as “the narrative.” Social media allows us all to find kindred spirits who see things like we do in all of its diversity. Now we compete for “Team First Amendment” or “Team America First”.

When a quarterback decides to take a knee during the national anthem, there are groups who feel everything from support for the racial conflict in the USA, to his right to express his views but they’ll refuse to watch the 49ers play, to people burning his jersey. It often feels like football rivalries.

I wish instead of reacting with anger and competitive spirit, we could all take a breath and get curious. What moves this quarterback so deeply that he’s willing to risk his career and popularity to make a statement? Is there something we can learn from this perspective? If his statements trigger supercharged emotions in us, then what can we learn about our own values?

And I wish the media could continue to do more of what they did after 9/11 when they found many, many stories of personal heroism and tragedy and shared those with us. At least at first the narrative was allowed to include how we all pulled together to help one another grieve and regroup. Before it became the war on terror.

I personally do not to see a photo of the towers with billowing smoke as that image is forever etched in my mind; but I’ll do my best to stay curious about why others do. Mostly I want to remember that it was a time when the world was united behind the USA, when we all shared a tragic experience and looked for ways to help others–from volunteering at ground zero to giving blood. Finally, to search within myself to find that community spirit and act in ways that keep it alive.