Saturday, September 3, 2016

City of Light

Last weekend, I drove to Atlanta to visit some good friends. We had a great time, as we usually do when we get together. Atlanta is a fun place to shop and dine and catch up with friends, but that is not the point of this story.

Sunday morning, I visited my friends' church home, City of Light. I may be hopelessly nerdy, but I always enjoy visiting churches. I am interested in how different churches approach "doing church." My visit to City of Light gave me a lot to think about, and I would like to share some of my ideas.

It's not about being a member

If you were to visit City of Light, one of the first things that you would see in the lobby is a table with bulletins, information, and sign-up sheets. There are four clipboards with attendance lists for people to sign in: members, regular attendees, regular visitors, and first-time visitors.

Many people are reluctant to join things. They may be afraid of commitment, or they may shy away from a perception of responsibilities. City of Light does not let that reluctance get in the way of reaching people. Is "member" a scary word? Fine! If you are more comfortable with "regular attendee" or "regular visitor," City of Light will accommodate you. Whatever you call yourself, they are happy that you are there.

It's not about the church building

When I visited City of Light, they were in the middle of a big change. This change is so big, and potentially traumatic, that some churches do not survive it. City of Light sold their building and were preparing to move into a new building.

City of Light has been in its current building for over twenty years. They have obviously put a lot of time, effort, sweat, and money into creating an attractive, welcoming sanctuary. But, the building's location puts it in the path of the local children's hospital's plans for expansion. Project Q Atlanta did a story about the move.

City of Light could have dug in their heels. They could have fought the hospital's plans. They could have refused to sell and refused to move. They could have made a stand to save their building. They did not do any of those things.

Instead, City of Light saw an opportunity to expand their mission and reach more people. As much as they love their current building, they do not exist to support the building. Rather, the building exists to support their mission.

It's not about the numbers

I have a mental tendency to count things. I noticed, for example, that approximately 40 people were in the worship service that Sunday. The choir numbered ten or fewer, but it had the energy of the Mormon Tabernacle. City of Light's youth group serves about 15 kids. The Project Q article stated that City of Light's membership is around 230.

Some people would look at a membership of 230 and conclude that their church is "dying." They would bemoan how empty the sanctuary looks with "only" 40 people. They would shake their heads about having "only" 15 kids in youth group. They would complain how much better the choir sounded when it had more than "only" 10 people. Not at City of Light.

It does not matter whether there are 40 people in a church on Sunday or there are 4,000. What matters is this: How deeply is the church affecting people? City of Light has fellowship opportunities and opportunities to serve others throughout the week. It has a theological institute where anyone can take life enrichment classes. It is apparent that City of Light's emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

It's not about the worship style

City of Light has one worship service every Sunday, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. Some parts of it I found extremely touching and meaningful. It was only later, as I reflected upon the worship service, I realized I could not categorize it as either "traditional" or "contemporary." It was informal, like a contemporary service. They played traditional hymns like "Softly and Tenderly." They also played contemporary worship songs. True worship is neither traditional nor contemporary: Worship just is.

It's not about the pastor

I brought the City of Light bulletin home with me. The bulletin lists six pages of church activities. On the last page, the bulletin says, "Please let us know if you are going to go to the hospital or are ill. Our Congregational Care team wants to be there to offer prayer and assistance if needed." At the City of Light, the congregation is responsible for visiting people in the hospital.

I suddenly realized: I did not see the pastor when I visited. I do not know if he was there or not. A cheerful face greeted me at the door -- but it was not the pastor. A friendly person helped me to a seat -- but it was not the pastor. I heard a meaningful sermon, participated in a rich worship service, and received the Lord's Supper -- and I never saw the pastor. Churches can do so much more when they do not rely on the pastor to do everything.

So, what is it about?

As it happened on this particular Sunday, there was breakfast before service. My friends and I shared a table with several other people who were strangers to me. They caught up on each other's lives, and I was content to dig into my eggs and bacon and sausage, and generally listen to the conversations around me.

Many of the members and regular attendees at City of Light are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. One young man described being followed in a grocery store by a person who shouted "faggot" at him. One woman talked about going to the pharmacy and being called "sir" by the cashier. The people around the table discussed these insults as if they were everyday occurrences; I am afraid they probably are. If you were surprised that a man could go into a gay nightclub in Florida and kill 50 people, if you thought that such a thing could not happen in 2016 . . . well, I do not think that these folks were all that surprised.

And something remarkable happened during communion. We all shared the bread and the cup together. Church elders offered to pray over anyone needing a special benediction, and several people came forward. Elders put their hands on people's shoulders and spoke quiet words of healing to them. It was a profound moment that brought tears to my eyes.

Can you imagine what powerful work that is? Can you imagine the prospect of being insulted and despised any where, any time? And can you imagine having one safe place where you could go every week? Where someone would touch your shoulder and tell you that you were known and loved and accepted?

Jesus sought out the despised and the condemned. He touched them and told them how much they meant to him and to their creator. I know that I saw Jesus' love made real that Sunday morning.

And that is what church is about.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


For more years than I care to remember, one of my best friends was a border collie mutt named Oreo. Her name was Oreo because, like the cookies-and-cream snack, she was black and white. My niece, Arianna, who was at the time three or four, bestowed upon her a majestic, full name: Princess Oreo Cookie Monster. Though she was my dog, the decision to name her was not mine.

In fact, the decision to get her at all was not mine, either. Ricky, a fellow church-member, was trying to find homes for his dog's puppies. My then-partner thought that we ought to have a dog. Some couples have a baby to save their marriage. We got Oreo. In the end, the partner left, but the dog stayed. I think that I made out quite well there.

For the next dozen or so years, she was my "hale fellow, well met." Oreo was Captain of the King's Guard and Chief Jester. Eater of cashmere sweaters. Digger of holes. Pursuer of squirrels. A gourmand whose tastes encompassed hot dogs and Krispy Kremes. Hater of baths. Bed hog.

She was stubborn, it is true, but also stubbornly loyal. A fierce defender of my home, but also friendly and gregarious. Like Winnie the Pooh, "of little brain," but also a cunning escape artist to rival Houdini. (She never went far, though: she just wanted to prove which one of us was smarter.) And not sick a day in her life -- until last October.

She had a checkup in October, and everything was fine. Shortly afterwards, she developed edema in her extremities. In November, the vet diagnosed congestive heart failure and a heart murmur. However, with the prescription medicines, Oreo made a miraculous recovery. She was fine until January, when she got worse again. Another trip to the vet, another prescription. This time, the medicine averted the crisis, but it did not make her better. She continued to decline throughout February.

I tried to be vigilant for signs that the medicine was no longer keeping her comfortable. I could not prevent her getting old. I could not prevent her congestive heart failure. I could not prevent her dying. One thing that I could do was prevent her suffering. In the end, I hesitated too long.

When I got home Thursday, I knew that Oreo was dying. She was lying in the dirt. She could not get up. She just raised her head to look at me, and laid it back down.

I picked her up and carried her in the house. It was a difficult job; she weighed almost ninety pounds. I laid her down in the living room. I cleaned her up with a warm, wet towel. I brushed her coat and sang to her: "How much is that doggy in the window? The one with the waggly tail?" I scratched behind her ears. I lay down beside her and put my arm around her and told her that I loved her.

I wish that I could tell you that I stayed with her until the very end. By God, I was too much of a coward. After awhile, I kissed her on her ear and told her again that I loved her. I told her that I was going to go to bed and that I would see her in the morning.

When I awoke Friday morning, I knew that she was gone. The house was empty in a way that it had not been in over a dozen years. I walked into the living room and saw that Oreo was not breathing. I sat down beside her and felt her chest. She was cool but not cold. A bad dream had woken me at 4.30, and it is easy for me to imagine that is when she died. I really don't know. I petted her coat for the last time, kissed her on the ear again, and told her for the last time that I loved her.

I wrapped her in a sheet and carried her out to my car. I put her in the back seat, and we drove to the vet for the last time together. Some nice, young women came out to the car to take Oreo from me. I cannot imagine that they weighed much more than Oreo, but they handled things competently. In about a week, I will go back, and they will give me a box of ashes. It hardly seems like a fair trade.

For years and years, Oreo gave me unconditional love from a seemingly inexhaustible source, and she asked nothing of me in return. Of course, I fed her and walked her and brushed her and scratched behind her ears. And, of course, she joyfully accepted all of these things with a gratitude that was all out of proportion to my efforts.

For a little while, the bargain was reversed. She required more and more from me: More trips to the vet, more prescriptions, more help. The medicine made her kidneys more active, so we got up to pee a half-dozen times every night. I got little or no sleep most nights. It was a rare day that I did not have to clean up an accident.

I learned how woefully inadequate I am at being good. I could have taken Oreo for more walks. I could have shared more treats with her. I could have been more patient. By human standards, I may have been a pretty good owner. However, even when we intend to do good, our imperfect nature guarantees that we will do an imperfect job.

Saturday morning, I awoke feeling more at peace than I had been in a long time. Karen Armstrong has written that we are meaning-seeking creatures. I believe that I have found meaning in the timing of Oreo's death: We are in the middle of Lent, which is the season of loss for the Christian Church.

It seems to me that love means accepting suffering if it will relieve the suffering of one you love. The central, ineffable mystery of the Christian faith is that "for our sake Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures," as the Nicene Creed puts it. Why would God assume human form to suffer and die? What good would that accomplish and how?

We suffer. Because of our imperfect nature, we cause much of that suffering. Also because of our imperfect nature, we are not capable of relieving all of that suffering by ourselves.

If God exists, and if he loves us, then he would have to find a way to relieve our suffering, even if it meant suffering himself. A loving God must also imply a suffering God; it can be no other way.

So, even in her final illness, Oreo gave to me more than I ever gave to her. She gave me a better understanding of the meaning of suffering, of love, and perhaps even of salvation. She released me from being the person I had become so that I could be whoever I will be next. For all of this, and so much more, thank you, Oreo. Good dog.