Testing God

How important is going to church for you? What would you do to be able to go to worship? Would you kill someone for it?

Christian worship is a big deal. At our last in-person gathering on March 11 which happened to be a Bible Study, we learned about why going to church matters. In a series created by Lutheran pastor David Lose, he reminds us that after seven days, we start to forget that we were loved by God. We need to be in church to remember what God has done and how much God loves us. So, going to church in-person matters.

So, yeah gathering together for worship matters.  It isn’t secondary or nonessential. We can’t phone it in. 

But can something that we think matters, something that is deemed important become an idol?  Can we put the forms of our faith, that help us connect to God ahead of compassion?  When is attending church something that becomes selfish, reckless and not even something that is Christ-like? In these days of COVID-19, when is going to church a sin?

Three days before our worship service on March 15,  I made the decision to cancel Sunday worship. I didn’t want to do it. We are a very small congregation and at the time, we could still gather because of our small size. Then I thought of the three octogenarians in our midst. There is a member, a gentleman in his late 60s,  that takes medicine that suppresses his immune system. When we don’t know who might have the virus, it didn’t make sense to have worship when it might put those people and countless others in danger.

Pastors in Florida and Louisiana have flouted laws and common sense by having large worship gatherings. Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne went as far to say that going to church was macho.  He was focused in “raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

R.R. Reno, the editor at First Things, demanded that church, especially Catholic Churches, must stay open. Reno says the coronavirus is “serious business.”  He then says that the spiritual care of flock is more important than their physical health:

The coronavirus pandemic is serious. Perhaps political leaders are correct to take stern measures to slow the spread of the virus. (Although I am increasingly convinced that we may look back and judge the shutdown of the global economy an ill-advised course of action, no matter how dangerous the virus is for those vulnerable to complications.) Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care. 


He then says that closing churches during a pandemic is about bowing down to the powers of death:

It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways.

Reno wants to believe that if churches practice safety, then the people can worship freely. Reno might want to talk to members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State. They were wondering if they should have their choir practice. They went ahead with a lot of precautions. The end result? A number of members came down with the coronavirus and two died:

On March 6, Adam Burdick, the choir’s conductor, informed the 121 members in an email that amid the “stress and strain of concerns about the virus,” practice would proceed as scheduled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. “I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he wrote. Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes. “It seemed like a normal rehearsal, except that choirs are huggy places,” Burdick recalled. “We were making music and trying to keep a certain distance between each other.” After 2½ hours, the singers parted ways at 9 p.m. Nearly three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.

They thought they were being careful and still the virus wreaked havoc on the chorale. If that could happen with 60 people who show up for a rehearsal, what are the chances someone or someones sitting in a church sanctuary could spread the illness to hundreds if not thousands?  

Worship matters to the Christian faith.  But like anything, when you put something ahead of anything else then it becomes an idol.  Pastors can talk about religious freedom, but I don’t think God is calling me to gamble with people’s lives.

The thing is, the two pastors and Mr. Reno are interested in looking holy.  Worship is supposed to draw us closer to God and prepare us for mission in the world outside the church. But in the midst of a deadly pandemic with people who could die if they catch the virus is not about drawing closer to God. Instead, it’s about looking “good” or holy.

David French mentions the temptation of Jesus in his writing which is found in Matthew 4. I never understood the temptation where the devil takes him to a high place and tells Jesus to throw himself down and that God would command the angels to protect him.  Jesus declines saying that it was wrong to test God.

I never understood what it meant to test God, but I French makes it rather plain: it’s when someone is trying to tell others how religious or holy.  It’s a performative faith.  

Jesus never tried to do things to seek attention.  Jesus healed people and people were amazed, but the miracles were never to draw attention to Jesus, but point to God.  Having a worship service during a pandemic is not about being faithful to God, it’s about showing off.  It’s less about serving God than it is making God our butler who obeys our commands.

It may look unfaithful to suspend worship for a time being.  But the reality is that we aren’t meeting in-person (we are meeting virtually) because we care for the other.  Jesus lived for others and that is what we are called to do.  Caring for your neighbor by preventing illness is what God calls us to do.  Going to worship now is not about caring for the neighbor.  

I long for the Sunday when my congregation can meet in person and celebrate communion.  But for now, we worship in different ways because God calls us to care for the weak among us.  Worshipping God and not caring for the other is not true worship.  


Brighter Days Ahead


Since there isn’t a lot to do in these days of COVID, my husband Daniel and I went for a walk Sunday.  We walked up and down one of Minneapolis’ many parkways. We were walking back towards our car and past a number of houses on the parkway.  Maybe a block or two from our car, we saw someone- probably a child- wrote in chalk on the sidewalk.  The writings were all positive sayings that really spoke to the times.  One of them seemed bold in saying “brighter days ahead.”

It was an interesting saying to make at this time. All around us, it feels like brighter days are never coming again.  All around us, we hear people getting sick and people dying and dying and dying.  We have no idea when this crisis will end. We have no idea how long we have to keep our distance from each other.  We don’t know when the virus will dissipate. In my own life, I had just heard a few hours prior of the surprising death of young colleague in Oregon, who died of a heart attack.  It didn’t feel like brighter days ahead.

I think about trips to the grocery store or Target and seeing the bare shelves. People are taking toilet paper, eggs, and bread because they don’t know if there will be a time when they can’t leave their houses.  The people don’t think there are brighter days ahead, those empty shelves are a sign of fear.

When I was in college, my church group would sing a song that began, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”  I didn’t know it then, but the phrase was from Lamentations 3:21-23.  Lamentations is an interesting book because it is written after a devastating event.  The writer searches for God in the midst of the chaos and they move from utter helplessness to a sense of hope.  Things are still horrible, but they have hope.  They trust God is faithful and never gives up.  They believe even though the environment around them is bleak.

Daniel showed me a performance of the St. Olaf Choir in Norway.  They sang a song by Kim André Arnesen called “Even When He is Silent.”  The text was found at a concentration camp after World War II:

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I feel it not. I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Someone who very well may have faced death at a concentration camp still believed in God even though life would tell you God isn’t there.  That’s hope.

I think that is what we have to have these days.  Brighter days ahead is not a nicety to make us feel better when life is crappy.  It is lighting a candle in the darkness, believing that whatever evil seems ascendant and in control will not ever have the last word.

We believe in life even when there is death all around.  Because we believe that in Christ there are brighter days ahead.




So is brighter days ahead just a nice trope to



Jesus of Suburbia:An Update

This is an update of a sermon I wrote in 2014 on suburban ministry.

Mahtomedi Water Tower at Sunset. Photo by Tony Webster.

It’s been over six years since I started at First Christian of St. Paul which is in the suburb of Mahtomedi, MN.  One of the things that was kind of hammered home to me in seminary is to learn to do ministry in a certain context.  And with this call, context matters, at least to me.

I’ve shared before that I’m a city kid that grew up with an antipathy towards the ‘burbs.  So as my mentor Bob Brite has said, “the Holy Spirit, the practical joker that she is” has me preaching at a church in the suburbs.

And I don’t think I’m prepared for it.

I’ve noticed over the year that our seminaries prepare students for one kind of context: cities.  The urban context has long been what our seminary education has been based on.  I can understand the need to focus on cities; it is where the majority of Americans live.  But most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt.  In a blog post last year, I shared what an evangelical blogger wrote about the suburbs and it wasn’t a love letter.  A fellow Disciples pastor has said that the only message we seem to have for suburbanites is how they are bad people for abandoning the city.  Surprisingly, people tend to not be crazy to being called sinful because of where they decided to live.

Most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. 

A lot of the Christian antipathy towards suburbia mirrors the larger culture’s view of suburbia.  Hollywood has long depticted the ‘burbs as a place of conformity and blandness.  Growing up in 1970s Michigan, I was told that the nearby Detroit suburbs were made up of former white Detroiters who wanted to get away from African Americans. But the thing is, as I said in a 2013 post, suburban America is far more diverse than we think:

Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs.  They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs.  Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis.  I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit.  I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay.  I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world.  What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.

But many Christian leaders seem to choose not to care about what is happening there.  Instead, they brand suburban living as unChristian.  This is what someone said on the Fare Foreward blog in 2013:

Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

And this was my response after I picked up my jaw from the floor:

Notice what’s being said here.  It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living.  No, suburban living is unChristian (empahsis mine), it goes against what it means to be a Christian.  I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding.  What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.

Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs. There are people who need God in their lives.

First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996.  I’m pretty sure we aren’t planning on moving back.  So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs.  There are people who need God in their lives. Our church is involved in a coalition of suburban churches that staff a homeless shelter for families in the suburban counties east of St. Paul.  A large Lutheran church down the road tries to help some of these same people get back on their feet.  Suburbanites don’t have to go into the big city to do mission, it’s here at our doorstep.

But there is still more to be done. How we are sharing our faith with others in the neighborhood? How are we showing that this church is an active presence in our community? What does our witness as a diverse congregation speak to the wider majority white community?

The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.

I feel that seminary left me unprepared for how to do ministry in this context.  It’s not urban ministry and it sure isn’t rural ministry.  But how do learn to do church in this context?  How can we preach the good news in words and in deeds in these places far from the urban core?

This is a little tip for seminaries: start thinking about what it means to do mission in the ‘burbs.  Because an ever larger share of American society is choosing to live there.  We have to find ways to help suburbanites join in the mission of God and not feel guilty because they happen to be in the wrong zip code to some urban-centric, snobby Christians.

The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.

Faith, Love and Politics

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-CA) attends the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. – President Donald Trump said Thursday that he suffered a “terrible ordeal” during his impeachment. In his first public comments since being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of office, he said he had been “put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people.” “They have done everything possible to destroy us and by so doing very badly hurt our nation,” he said at a televised prayer breakfast with a Who’s Who of Washington power brokers. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post that stated that First Christian Church was not a progressive congregation. At the post’s heart is how Christians try to deal with faith and politics. Both are important in our society, but when and where do they connect? Or do they never connect?

Some Christians think faith and politics should never be together and try to stay above it all, never mentioning political issues. Coming from the black church tradition, I’ve always found that impossible. You can’t make the church a politics-free zone, because life is about politics. Issues like the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were issues that could not be separated from faith.

The flip side is people who tend to merge their ideological viewpoint with faith until what you end up with is an ideology with a patina of faith to make it sound religious.

This week there were two examples of what faith in the public square should look like and they happen to be bipartisan.

The first comes from Utah Senator Mitt Romney. As most of you know, Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict President Trump during the impeachment trial. In an interview with the Atlantic Magazine, Romney explained that it was his Mormon faith that guided him in his decision making:

Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described to me the power of taking an oath before God: “It’s something which I take very seriously.” Throughout the trial, he said, he was guided by his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. “I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process,” he told me. “But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.”

He made a decision based on his faith, even though that went against the rest of his party. In a speech to the Senate explaining his vote, he said he wanted to go with the team, but he had to follow what his faith and his oath called on him to do:

In the last several weeks, I have received numerous calls and texts. Many demand that, in their words, “I stand with the team.” I can assure you that that thought has been very much on my mind. I support a great deal of what the President has done. I have voted with him 80% of the time. But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.

The true character of how faith interacts with politics is when your faith calls you to do something that will conflict with your politics. Romney is a loyal Republican, but in this case, he felt his call as a person of faith called him to do something that went against his politics.

Another example of this comes from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic representative has said that she prays for the President. In December, she responded to a reporters question about praying for the President:

“I don’t hate the president,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I pray for the president all the time.”

Pelosi was responding to a reporter’s question after she had announced that she was asking the House of Representatives to impeach the president. She was asked if she hates the president by a reporter who cited Rep. Doug Collins’ statement that the Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they hate him. Collins, a Republican from Georgia, has been a staunch defender of President Donald Trump during the impeachment hearings.

Pelosi strongly rejected the question, which she saw as an insult to her faith and her upbringing.

“I don’t hate anybody,” responded Pelosi. “I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world. Don’t accuse me of hate.”

Being accused of hatred was, in Pelosi’s mind, the same as accusing her of being a bad Catholic.

A devout Catholic, Pelosi believes in praying for President Trump, even though she strongly disagrees with him and has gone toe-to-toe with him. Praying for an opponent might upset some on the left, but it is her faith that sends her to her knees to offer prayers for Trump. Prayers for a political opponent, even one you don’t like is allowing faith to dictate politics and not the other way around.

Both of these politicians are doing something that is not easy, but their faith calls them to seek a path beyond the partisan fighting.

An example of how some put politics above faith comes from the President himself. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast the day after being acquitted in the Senate, President Trump to say something that wasn’t very prayerful. Arthur Brooks, the former head of the American Enterprise Institute and a Catholic spoke to the audience about loving our political enemies. The President followed Brooks and said the following:

“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you, and I don’t know if Arthur’s gonna like what I’ve got to say,” he began, promptly demonstrating the very contempt Brooks battled with reflections on his impeachment trial and his enemies therein. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.” His apparent targetsSen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), both of whom have cited their faith (Mormon and Catholic, respectively) as an influence on their politics.

The President can’t understand that someone would do something propelled by their faith. Instead, he seems to think politics should dictate one’s faith, not the other way around. It is a pathetic reminder of how some in our culture worship politics over their faith, who see hate as more effective than love.

First Corinthians 13 states that we could do some of the greatest things in the world, but if we don’t have love, it isn’t worth squat. Love is what can move us to pray for someone we don’t like or to do something that might not be popular. Faith and love are important for people of faith and vital to a free society.

As this very political year continues, I hope we will see other examples of politicians that are act out of their faith to do what is difficult, instead of those who act out of their politics to do what is so very easy.


Last week, social media was ablaze with talk of a church in southern Washington County. Grove United Methodist Church has two campuses, one in Woodbury and the other in Cottage Grove. The Cottage Grove Church began as Peaceful Grove United Methodist when it was founded 30 years ago. A few years ago, it merged with Grove and became a campus congregation.

But the congregation hasn’t grown. The church leaders and the Minnesota Annual Conference came up with an idea that might help attract more people to the congregation. Long story short, the story got misinterpreted and what was supposed to be about helping a struggling congregation stay as a vital part of the community, became a story of the old people being told to leave in order for more younger people to show up.

But this post is not about Grove UMC. I use the story because churches are trying to find ways to connect to the wider community, to be a visible presence where we are rooted.

Which leads me to this question. How are we visible?

Do people know we are here? Do they know who we are? How are we involved in the life of this community (Mahtomedi and White Bear Lake)?

For a long time, this church has been somewhat invisible. People know that there is a “little church on the hill,” but don’t know much more.

So the question for First Christian Church St. Paul is how are we going to be a visible presence in our community?

Magnolia United Methodist is a small church just like First Christian. A retired pastor came in as their pastor. Questions surfaced wondering if the church would survive. What she said is key:

When she arrived, members seemed to have one big question on their minds: Are we going to be able to survive?

Manning told them, “Yes, you can. God’s not going to leave you alone in this process. We just need to be patient and faithful.”

She immediately looked for opportunities for the church to turn outward and partner with its community. Members began working with their local food pantry and other social service organizations, and they connected with a home for troubled youth. Manning assured them that their mission was much bigger than keeping their doors open and urged them to discern what it was God was calling them to do.

The pastor then worked to reorient the church outward. Congregants now participate in food pantries and homeless shelters.

So, you might think I’m going to say we need to what Magnolia did and bing bang, we will have people visiting. It would be a good thing to do this, but before you do anything you have to focus on two things: 1) Be patient and faithful and 2) realize our mission is much more than butts in the seats and find out what God is calling us to do.

So, what is God calling us to do? We are doing some things like participate at the family shelter. What else can we do? Can we have patience that God will work and be faithful to God in our day to day lives? Can we trust that even though we are small that God is with us and we have everything we need? Can we open our God-given minds to creative ways of doing mission with our community?

In keeping with our Epiphany worship theme , my prayer is that we are able to trust God and go into the world revealing Christ to others in our words and in our deeds. May it be so.

Why Our Church Isn’t Progressive

As I was scanning Facebook the other day, I noticed a church Facebook page that claimed they are a progressive church. More mainline Protestant congregations are declaring themselves as a progressive congregation, meaning a congregation that focuses on LGBTQ rights, the environment, race, abortion and other issue that would be issues from the political left.

Branding yourself as a progressive church can make the church attract more people. People want more and more to be with people they agree with on various issues.

But is First Christian progressive? I would say no.

Now, before you start thinking that I am a wild conservative, let me explain. First Christian is not a progressive church and it is not a conservative church . Our congregation does do things that might make us appear to be Progressive Christians, such as support of LGBT rights and concern for the marginalized. We want to really study the biblical texts. We do talk about politics in this church. It is not a sin to have strong opinions on things. But churches have to be careful in how we engage political issues.

What I would say is this: we are a political congregation because Jesus was political in his care for the outcasts and critique of the powerful. What this church, or any church, should not be is partisan. We should not be the Democratic Party at prayer (or the GOP at prayer). That

As Christianity Today said in its powerful editorial in December it is never good for the church to get involved with partisanship. Many Evangelicals have decided to support the GOP and the President full force, even if it means abandoning principles they long held. As that Christianity Today editorial notes:

Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.

Now, progressive Christians have not gone as far as evangelicals have under Trump, but what we see happening should make us shy away from using political terms to define ourselves. Bowing down to the gods of partisan politics ends up pulling us away from God and serving an idol.

Every Sunday, we gather around a communion table. That table is a powerful symbol in Disciples theology. It is a place where God calls everyone, not matter their ideology, their race or their ethnicity. The table call us all and that is important in these days when we are so fractured and so tempted to create place where everyone believes the same things.

First Christian is a place where the the Whole Gospel is preached. That means being like the church found in the book of Acts where the apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus calling people to repentance and becoming a place where people served God and neighbor.

So no, First Christian is not a progressive congregation. We are not a conservative congregation. We are a political congregation that sees Jesus as Lord and seeks to live like Jesus, preaching the good news of the Gospel, caring for the poor, welcoming the outcast and trying to be community.

The Most Hopeful Time of the Year

Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate the Christmas song, “The most wonderful time of the year.” It just seems to be a song that is so sickly sweet in a way that just isn’t real. I also don’t understand the part of the song that talks about “scary ghost stories.” Why would you have ghost stories during the holiday season? Don’t we do that on Halloween?

But the main reason I don’t like the song is that it seems to want us to be happy even though at times people are not happy- especially during the most wonderful time of the year.

We are in the closing days of Advent. It is a time of waiting, waiting for the Christ child. But Advent is more than that. It is a reminder that the world is not right. Something has gone wrong in our world. In churches, we read scripture from Isaiah that tend to focus on people looking for relief. “Comfort, comfort you my people,” says the writer of Isaiah in the 40th chapter.

As I write this, my brother-in-law is mourning the death of his mother a day ago from cancer. A year ago, a friend of mine died also after a battle with cancer. Advent reminds us that things in this world are not what God intended. There is death. There are people losing jobs. We are a nation that has become divided and federal government is frozen because of partisan anger. There are other things that tells us that this is a world where sin reigns.

But Advent isn’t only about darkness. It is also about hope. It is about a hope that things will be better. It is a future hope that we may not see, but we have strong faith that it will happen. It can be found in the first chapter of Luke where Mary breaks out in song saying that one day tyrants will be pulled down from their thrones and the poor will be treated with kindness.

We see that hope in Jesus Christ. Jesus came into this world as a tiny baby and turned the world upside down. We know that this hope in Christ is changing the world and we know that all the bad things of this world will not reign over us forever.

It isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. But it is the most hopeful time of the year and we hold on to that.

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Yesterday Once More

Storage near the Buick City Plant in Flint, circa 1971.

A few years ago when I was back home in Flint, a memory came back to me as I went down a certain road.  The memory was seeing those auto carrier trucks lumber down the road.  The trucking company had it’s main garage on the eastside of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points.  That memory came back, because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road.  It was a reminder that things had changed.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them.  Today, there are around 8,000.  

One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well.  Once well-kept houses were now trashed.  Stores closed and people moved away.  The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship.  Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born.  Today it is around 99,000.  The city that I grew up in was prosperous.  It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great.  That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

Demolition of Building 44 of the Buick City Complex, 2002.

Last week, I talked about how the Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Baylonians around 585BC.  It was Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place.  So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a far away land.  During the exile, Babylon fell.  In its place, a new empire took over: Persia.  It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live.  Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home.  So, a number of folk decide to make the journey back.  

They come back to a Jerusalem that was in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed.  It was time to rebuild.   It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed.  This is where something interesting happened.  The younger folks who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple were excited.  They had no memory of what life once was in Judah.  They now were home and had a place to worship God.  

Older Israelites were sad.  They remembered what the old temple looked like and this wasn’t it.  This temple was a bit smaller than the old one.  It also wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple.  For these folk, what they felt was a profound sense of loss.  The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back.  They had to live in this new reality, which paled in comparison to the what they remembered. 

Change happens.  But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand)  it was hard to face reality.  Nostalgia can be a tricky thing.  These days people cling to the past in the attempt to hold on to something in a changing world.  And there has been a lot of change.  Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one thought same sex couples could ever marry legally, but now here we are.  We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  Changes in immigration laws have brought people from around the world to become Americans.  Many come from places people know little about and in some cases they worship religions we aren’t very familar with. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were.  It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

This time of year is always an odd one.  There is a festive atmosphere that can put most anybody in a good mood.  But while there is joy, there is also sadness.   Some people are dealing the loss of a loved one or dealing with being newly divorced.  In the midst of this joy there is also sadness.

Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, our salvation.  But it also reminds us why we wait.  We wait for someone will join us in our sorrow and give us strength to move into a new future, a future that is better than we can ever imagine.

I’ve wondered what the people in this congregation were thinking when they sold their old building near downtown St. Paul to move here.  I was never in that building, but in hearing from some of you, it was a sight to behold.  But I also know it was getting harder and harder to pay for the upkeep of this large sanctuary.  I wonder what it was like to worship there for the last time.  I wonder what it was like to get used to moving here and if some people thought this place wasn’t as grand as their old home.  Moving a church is never easy.  And it probably wasn’t for you all.  

Then your pastor of 20 years left.  A number of people stopped coming and the ones that remained wondered if they could continue.  It felt hard being so few, but you came together and worked to keep the doors open and to be open to new adventures.

So many churches hang on for dear life, clinging to buildings that have outlived their usefulness long ago. They remember how things were and wish it could be like that again.  But they stay put, afraid to face an unknown future.  That could have been your experience.  But it wasn’t.

In each of those experiences, God was with you.  God never left.  When we mourn what we have lost, a lost past, a lost building, a lost loved one, we know that God understands.  We can make those changes, we can face the future because we have a God that is always with us as we step out in faith to do mission in the world.

Flint Farmers Market, September 2018.

I miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway.  I miss what it represents. But that is not the only story about Flint.  There is another story that is growing up right alongside this sad story.  If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag in town in downtown, you will see some change taking place.  For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do.  But as I walked, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available.  The area seemed to be buzzing with activity.  We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown.  Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world.  Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area.  This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. It’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground.  There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like my hometown will have a future, just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to.

During this holiday season, there are people who are missing something or someone.  But I also know that our God is with us in the changes in our lives.  We know that hope is on the way.  

Advent In the Hole

Chevy Commons
Chevy Commons, fomerly Chevy in the Hole, in 2018. Photo by Michael Barera.

I’ve talked about the downfall of my hometown of Flint, Michigan before.  I’ve told you about what Flint was like growing up in the 1970s and 80s and how it is so different now. Sometimes when I think about Flit, I think about ruins. If you were to drive around the city, it’s not too long before you find wide swaths of land that is devoid of anything except a giant concrete slab that stretches for acres and miles.  Travel pass the large Buick complex where my Dad worked. This was a huge complex, Donald Trump huge. The Buick complex was miles long. It would start just north of downtown and go almost to the city limits.  That’s all gone now and what is left is…basically nothing. 

When you read Isaiah 61 this what comes to my mind.  The glory days are gone and all that is left is, a whole lot of nothing.

There is one former auto factory in Flint that I find interesting.  It was a Chevy plant located just west of downtown Flint. Because it was set at the bottom of a hill, it had a nickname: “Chevy in the Hole.”  Like most of the auto plants I knew as a kid, it has been torn down and there was a giant slab left. But that’s not how it was left. I will get back to that in a moment.

In Isaiah 61, we find a people that are at a loss for words. This passage was written during a time when the people of Israel who had been in exile for decades were allowed to return.  When they were taken into exile, they were going to live in the Babylonian empire. Over time, the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians.  It was common practice among the Persians to allow people of conquered territories to return and set up their lands as provinces of Persia. A number of Israelites made the journey back to the Promised Land.  They carried with them dreams; dreams that the elderly have about the good old days and dreams that the young who never had been there, but had heard stories of a grand place. Maybe they’d need to do a little dusting off, but things would be wonderful, things would be normal.

But it wasn’t.

This when reality hits. Jerusalem was destroyed.  The temple was ruined.   All in all this wasn’t what people were hoping for.

Into this sadness, comes this prophet who tells the people that God’s Spirit is on them to preach good news to the poor (maybe the people who didn’t leave), binding up the brokenhearted (those who returned) and preaching liberty to the captives, those who are still in Persia.  He fashions a world using the practice of the Year of Jubilee, where things are set to right. The desolated cities will become gleaming new metropolises teaming with human life. Things are bleak now, but the prophet says better things are around the corner.

The people hearing this message had to trust and hope that things woud be better. They would never live to see the full restoration. At the end of the day all they could do is hope.

Here’s the thing: hope doesn’t depend on us.  It doesn’t happen our time schedule. We must have hope that things won’t always stay the same even though that hope is a ways off. Think about all of the people who worked for civil rights and never got to see the passage of laws that made my life easier.  Maybe Martin Luther King’s best speech was his final sermon the day before he died and talked about never seeing the Promised Land of Civil Rights.  But he had a vision of what was coming and that gave him hope. Hope comes, it may not come in the time we want or in the way we expect, but it does come.

Advent is a time of waiting and expectation.  Our theme, On the Verge of a Miracle, tells us that hope will happen and we must take part in that hope.  We wait for a Savior to heal us and make us whole. But we wait for this arrival even when it seems the world is falling down around us.  We are all waiting and hoping for something. Maybe we have an illness and we are waiting to be healed. Maybe we are in need of employment and have to wait, because that is the job process. There are those who have no home or no food and are waiting for food or for money.  There are those who depress and wait to have the sun shine again and life their depression. We are waiting and we cry to God asking why we have to wait. The only thing we know is that we have to wait, but what this passage tells us is that we aren’t forgotten. God is with us and hope is on the way.

As Christians, we are called to be bearers of hope.  This is what today’s gospel reading is all about. Jesus uses this passage from Isaiah to announce his mission in the world and this is the mission we are called to do.  We do that in our acts of kindness and justice, from giving food to the hungry to befriending the lonely. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.

So I was going to tell you about Chevy in the Hole.  Like I said earlier this had been a Chevy plant for decades and in its last few years was the Westside plant for AC Spark Plug.  But as the auto industry contracted, excess plants like Chevy in the Hole weren’t needed, so the plant closed.

The big question back home is what you do with these massive spaces.  In many cases, they are considered brownfields because of the decades of industrial use.  With Chevy in the Hole, the site was cleaned up and something happened, something hopeful in a city that has been short on hope.  The old plant was on both sides of the Flint River and the idea started to germinate to make some of this area a park. Some 50,000 pounds of topsoil was brought in to cover up the concrete slab. Over time, trees and grass will grow over what was just a concrete slab.  In a city that has had to deal with the loss of its principal industry and most recently water you couldn’t drink, trees will sprout up, a sign of new life where there was once death. What was Chevy in the Hole becomes Chevy Commons, the new name for this new park.

This is what hope is like.  This is what Advent is like.  We all find ourselves in holes that are barren and there seems to be no likelihood things will change.  And yet, where there was emptiness, hope starts to grow.

In these fearful times, we don’t know what the future holds. We see things that makes us doubt hope can be found. But know this: hope is coming.  Just will arrive. Maybe not how you expect, but it is on the way. There can be Advent even in the Hole.

Delis and Supermarkets

Daniel and I in front of Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.

In early September, Daniel and I flew to San Diego to visit a friend. The next day, we drove up to Los Angeles to visit a world famous car museum and other various sites in the City of Angels.

That evening we had dinner at a real Jewish delicatessen that looked like it could have been in New York and not Los Angeles. We had the most fatty sandwiches and decadent desserts you could ever have. There was an odd juxtaposition of having a deli in the land of clean living where people eat in open air restaurants. But this deli was able to stay in business because of the good food and a place of community. You could hear people speaking in Eastern European languages as they ate their corned beff sandwiches.

Presbyterian pastor Jack Haberer wrote back in 2007 about the difference between delis and supermarkets. Delis were small places that had produce that came straight from the farm. But the delis were put out of business by the growth of supermarkets which provides a large selection of items from everywhere. He then relates this to small churches like ours. First Christian is a deli church. We are not large in space or in size. Harberer notes that at times small churches look at the larger “supermarket” churches that offer a bevy of programs and think they can’t really do what they do.

He states one idea: small churches could become places of spiritual formation. But to do that, we have to expect more:

One thing we can do is to turn our churches into universities of spiritual formation.  

We Presbyterians are smart. We are avid readers. We equip our leaders with high quality educations to instruct us in the faith. Some of us are squandering that great asset. I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: “You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.”

What those churches are trying to avoid are too many programs, too many costs, and too many classes to attend. Sunday school? That’s for kids. We have no kids? Then we don’t need Sunday school. Ah, no teachers to recruit. No curriculum to buy. What a relief!

We Disciples are also smart avid readers. Our heritage is one where the congregation was expected to study the Bible for themselves.

But as Harberer notes, small churches tend to think because they don’t have the money or people to do things start to not expect much from themselves or their pastor.

Small churches can at times think they really can’t do anything because of their time. There is some truth that a small church can’t do everything. But are we selling ourselves short? More importantly, are we selling God short? Do we not see how God can work even through the small and weak?

Haberer uses an example when he was a young pastor at a small congregation:

Churches that sleepy are few in number, but like Joe Gatta, many a church leader watches out the narthex window as the population drives by en route to one of those other service providers.

This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was the one who commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” and many in our nation are hungering to live into that commission.

Can that be done in smaller churches? Karen DeBoer, a developer of small church children’s curriculum, says it can be done (article link). I asked her, “How can small churches become magnetic?” She responded with force and enthusiasm, “The biggest thing is for leaders to treat that program big even though it’s little. Whether you have five kids or 50 or 250, you give it the same effort because God led that child through the doors for you to minister to.”

If only to humor my youthful enthusiasm, the elders on the Session and members in the congregation rose to the challenge. They developed more programs and recruited more classes — for all ages — than ever conceived before. Our weekly calendar soon filled like that of churches three to four times our size. We stretched our resources, financial and human, almost to the breaking point but, funny, they never did break. What we did do was to develop a reputation in the community for quality educational ministries for all ages. And we drew in new members at a rate that defied local population growth trends.

Too often what we do is hope and wait that we can get enough people to do programs that will allow us to do all the things we want to do. But why do we need to wait? As I said in last week’s reflection, God gives us what we need to do God’s work. What if we looked at our children and youth and create a program even though we don’t have many kids? What if we had other people besides the pastor leading Bible Studies? What if we used the downstairs to host a community meal?

There really isn’t a silver bullet to help a church grow or become a strong church. What makes the difference is taking a risk, a leap of faith, trusting that God will be with us as we take the leap.

My guess is that deli in LA is doing such good business because they provide great service and great food. Churches need to be doing the same. We have to trust that God will be with us walk together in mission and ministry.