The categories of refugee and pilgrim don’t just apply to individuals. They apply also to communities and institutions. No one can miss that we live in a time of great upheaval, and the section of the culture where church lives is a transitional neighborhood with a vengeance.
At my school we study times of social change: early Christianity, say, or the Reformation ---a moment when everyone had to become a new thing, a new Protestant thing or a new counter-Reformation Catholic thing, or a wild Anabaptist thing. But the one thing you could not be was just the same as what was before. I had studied such times of social change for a long time before it dawned on me that I lived in one. A job at Kodak or at the postal service once looked like a punched ticket for life. No longer. Much higher education and a lot of churches have that queasy look about them, like the cartoon character who has run off the cliff into thin air but hasn’t quite realized it yet. In the movie Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges’ character has a song with the refrain “Falling feels like flying….for a little while.” Entrepeneurs may delight in the adrenaline surge that goes with timing the leap from the plane that’s crashing to the one that’s taking off, but most of us don’t.
In many of our religious institutions, it is as though we were exiled in place. Our denominations, our buildings, our institutional structures, our memories of the way things were just one generation ago, and many of our assumptions are very much still here. But they belong to a world from which we are exiled. No one volunteers to be a refugee. At times it feels as though our tradition is being left behind, just as the people of Israel in exile in Babylon remembered the temple in Jerusalem, and could hardly remember there was a time they knew God without the temple.
Refugee or Pilgrim? This does not just apply to individuals. Social movements are pilgrims…they set out to change or go outside existing institutions to realize something not known before: religious freedom, a market economy, same sex marriage. Institutions are the preserved achievements of past movements, past pilgrimages, the realization of great hopes. When they are threatened or dissolve, their constituents and leaders are exiles, feeling the loss of so much good and longing to retain or restore those blessings.
Churches, and that includes this one, are living in this tension today. One approach is to say that we will do whatever dramatic, costly, unconventional thing that might be required…..to get us back to that golden land we remember. We are exiles, who will put up with almost anything, if we can go home. Another approach is akin to being pilgrims. We are more like people who have run away to join the circus than people waiting in a red cross shelter until the flood damage to our house is repaired. We will pitch our tent but we need to keep going….toward somewhere we’ve never been and a life we’ve never had.
Exiles are trying to get back to something…and feel alienated from where they are. There is faithfulness in that alienation, a countercultural power in insisting on singing our old songs in a strange land. Pilgrims are also not natives. They are passing through. They going somewhere they haven’t been and the journey is part of the purpose. Where I am right now---in all its uncertainty—is where I set out to be, for the purpose of changing and growing.
Our religious communities are increasingly themselves mixtures of refugees and pilgrims. The two have a lot in common. Both have to travel light. Refugees have things taken away; pilgrims leave things behind. Both fall back on essentials. They are not yet where they long to be. Both share the curious experience that there is a special poignancy, power and sweetness to the present moment when we know it is not where we are staying.
I feel that sweetness here, in this community of refugees and pilgrims. Flying or falling? We call it faith, because you can’t entirely tell.
Sometimes the sweetest hope is to get back to Eden. Other times we are on fire for a new creation.
One of my oldest and dearest friends was hospitalized for an operation, for one of the very worst kinds of cancer. Feeling perfectly fine, at a regular checkup, he went in a couple of weeks from a normal, happy life, to the prospect that that life would abruptly be over. I came to the hospital where his wife met me with the most sweetly dazed and quizzical look I have ever seen. She had just left the post-surgery meeting with the surgeon, who had told her that what they had found was a fluke, one in a million, benign result. Despite all the indications, all the tests, there was absolutely nothing wrong….well, except a major abdominal incision of course. But at that point, who was quibbling?
For the next few months I watched him, both of them, grapple with this extraordinary state of affairs. Waking up in the morning, then remembering that a cataclysmic darkness has descended on everything and then remembering that everything has been given back. Because the one thing that is impossible in such a situation is to say “never mind,” “as you were,” back to normal. It seems that nothing will ever be normal again. Are we trying to return to the way things were, or are we in a whole new country?
This is what it must have been like at Easter: the disciples gathering together compulsively, dazed and quizzical, to ask each other “Now what?” How do we live now? When the very worst and the very best come so wildly together.
There are two kinds of travellers in the Bible: refugees and pilgrims. The one is expelled and driven on their way by forces beyond their control (the people of Israel taken away into Babylon). The other hears promises and dreams dreams, throwing a hat over the wall to chase something new. Some of us might feel like we were literally born in church and have never budged. But many of us found our way into the neighborhood of faith on some variation of the refugee or pilgrim path.
We might be refugees who were upended by a tsunami in our lives and washed up here…or maybe we were expelled more gently from some assumptions or stages of a prior life—nudged like a thirty year old still living at home, whose parents’ tough love showed them the door. It’s time. We’re here at FBCN---or we’re sometimes here—because we’re a little bit homeless.
Some of us are pilgrims. We weren’t pushed, we jumped. Or were called. The way God called Sarah and Abraham and just said “Go.” Eventually it was go and start a new family, and go and become a great nation and go to a land of milk and honey. But first it was just the wild romance of going to the unknown. We're here at FBCN--when we're here--because we're a little bit drunk on the future.
Refugees, Pilgrims: two different kinds of trip. Sometimes the sweetest hope is to get back to Eden. Other times we are on fire for a new creation. Sometimes, oddly, these two kinds of trip can overlap.
We are refugees, when everything behind us is lost: it is impossible to simply live the old way. We are pilgrims, when everything that lies ahead of us is open: undetermined and limitless with the possibility of living a new way. There are incredibly disorienting moments, as with my friend, when we are both.
I love that in our worship and gatherings here we reawaken the sense of what a very strange journey it is. Welcome back to the year, and the trip that we're making together.
September 11 was a school night, but three hundred people or more stayed up late at church . They stayed up for a benefit concert that recalled the raw wounds and also the new neighborliness of those 9-11 days. Through Sean's connection with Newton producer Peter Hackel, Hackel's annual September 11 benefit concert in memory of his stepmother (killed in one of the planes on September 11) was moved to FBCN this year. It supports a playground in urban Boston in her name. The concert featured Grammy nominee Jon Butcher, Fly Amero (of the group Orleans), country singer Allen Estes, Chelsea Berry, The Cover Girls, the James Montgomery Blues Band and----as the picture demonstrates--- Lynn and Sean Witty. These terrific musicians lavished energy and love on an incredible evening of music and remembrance. The music went from blues to Beatles, a knock-down rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah to a stand up version of the Star-Spangled Banner and included two opening songs from Lynn and Sean that started a roll that never stopped. This evening put our church and community on a new kind of map, and made a lot of new friends. It was great to see many from our congregation in the crowd.
The post on the benefit's facebook page the next day said it all: "Thank you EVERYONE who came out last night! A special thank you to the folks at First Baptist Church in Newton…we have found our new home!"
Late after eleven, people still lingered under our new lights on the front lawn, savoring the late summer, the sense of community, the beauty shared and some concrete good done.
Kate Hilliker joins the FBC community as the Office Manager overseeing organizational activities, facilities management and administrative support for Senior Minister Sean Witty.
Kate’s professional experience includes 18 years in marketing and program management for non-profits and Fortune 500 companies, as well as independent philanthropic initiatives. She is also a mother of two children.
Kate is looking forward to joining us this week for Blue Ribbon Sunday. Come introduce yourself and offer her a hearty, "Welcome aboard!"
Kate will keep office hours at the church from 10:00a - 2:00p on Tuesday through Friday. What to volunteer in the office? Email Kate[at]fbcnewton[dot]org.
I am excited to begin this critical year in our life together.
One of our more familiar folks who has been understandably hesitant about our evolution recently said to me: "You know, I walked in this morning and looked around the room and it really hit me. This is a group of really great people."
Last week alone, we had a two teachers, a professor, two doctors and an RN, two lawyers, a therapist, three ordained clergy (unpaid), students, a nutritionist, several professional artists and musicians, and an aircraft pilot. The collective cost of graduate school among us staggering.
Meanwhile, folks come by every week for food cards we offer year round and 'belong' to us as well, as do all our Campus Partners.
We have experienced a rich summer in the Chapel and many responded to the series on the Contemplative Life (which will be online shortly), receiving communion weekly following two different traditions (by receiving simultaneously (passing the elements) and by coming forward individually (intinction), and enjoying a variety of thoughtful music (Sundays and the 3 Summer Concert Series events). The attendance has been remarkably steady for summer and new folks joined us each week.
Please get on your calendar and make personal invitations to the following September events and gatherings:
Sunday, 9/7 Our new and good friend Adam Hearlson ( Professor of Worship at Andover-Newton Theological School ) is speaking and celebrating communion.
Thursday, 9/11 "The Paige Farley Hackle Concert with James Montgomery" co-hosted by FBC and Peter Hackle Productions. World Class blues. Comp tickets available. Email sean[at]fbcnewton.org.
Sunday, 9/14 Blessing and Sending Rachel Kurihara as leaves FBC staff to pursues a PhD.
Sunday, 9/21 "Blue Ribbon Sunday"
Welcome back celebration w/Blue Ribbon BBQ. Come meet new Office Manager, Kate Hilliker.
Sunday, 9/28 "Beacon Sunday"
How will we be a 'beacon of courage and hope' this year?
Open meeting with church Council to discuss strategic growth plan.
A new commandment I give to you...
to love one another as I have loved you.
Dear Church Family,
Last Sunday, we began Holy Week with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We sang loud, shouted Hosanna, prayed, and celebrated together. We ourselves processed, taking steps alongside Jesus.
Now we enter the week framed by Palm Sunday and Easter. We mark the final events of Jesus’ life – his trial, death, and resurrection. We see brokenness in the world. We feel and share the sacrificial love of Christ that knows no measure.
This week, we remember. We will gather as a community to mark Maundy Thursday. Maundy, from the Latin mandatum novum, refers to the new commandment Jesus gives us to “love one another, just as I have loved you.” We remember Jesus washing his disciples' feet. We remember Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. We remember Jesus on the cross.
Please join us on Thursday at 6p for soup supper and 7p for worship in the Chapel. Childcare will be provided. Volunteer to help with the meal here.
The sign out front (on the street and the internet) says “First Baptist Church.”
More than one person who has gotten to know us has asked whether that's really a good idea. Isn't the word “Baptist” a pretty damaged shingle to be hanging out if we value contact with people who aren't sure they like or need church at all? It's a good question. If you played word associations for “Baptist” in the general population you'd probably wait a while before anyone came up with “open-minded” …...or “artistic.”.....or “fun” for that matter. The Southern Baptist Convention is not going to change their name. So maybe we should.
But the Baptist way means a lot to us. We embrace the radical paradigm for life together that Baptists pioneered. Even if we don't endorse what the loudest Baptist voices may have done with it.
We embrace it because:
We want to think critically about religion - especially our own- but want it to touch our hearts and acts as well as our heads. The freedom of a Baptist congregation from any creed or institutional hierarchy makes space for open questions and vigorous discussion. We embrace the Baptist commitment to search the scriptures for ourselves.
To us, learning to love well in the way of Jesus is more important than your church or non-church background, what kind of language you use, what gender your partner is, or how you dress. Baptists are known for loving Jesus and the Bible. They can be obnoxious about it. But we have that love affair too. It's a stormy one. It's a gift we keep receiving, not a message we're trying to sell or an answer we have figured out. We don't own Christ, but we're trying to follow him.
We are not bound to any single form of worship, including a “Baptist” one! The freedom of a Baptist congregation means that we can draw on all strands of the Christian tradition, ancient and new, and any sources of wider wisdom as we grow our worship and life together.
Baptists were long persecuted by governments and other churches, and became advocates of religious liberty for all. We hope that history can help us learn to identify with the oppressed and the scapegoated in our times, to witness to the way of justice and peace.
Baptists are famously suspicious of the "institutional church," (see above) , and that seems right for a time when the structures and conventions of churches feel like barriers to many people. We're seeking to build relationships and experience transformation more than to run programs or support an institution.
We feel that this is a time for innovation and new life in the churches. In the Baptist way, each local congregation has the charge and the chance to reinvent church anew for itself, just as faith has to be claimed again by each generation.
We value these things because they help us become the kind of community and people we want to be. We are thankful to those who passed them on to us. With the label or without, these are things we will keep.
-- Mark Heim
We know the scene:
the room, variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book; always the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings, the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
More often those moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time, she did not quail,
only asked a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply, the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power–in narrow flesh, the sum of light.
Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love–
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
"The point isn’t that the song isn’t about human love; it is that the raw longing it expresses---the fear, for instance, that I may not be able to love and be loved—is exactly what faith is about."
What is popular music doing in our Sunday morning worship service? I’m thinking of a couple of recent examples: Lynn singing Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” a few months back or Sean singing Marc Cohen’s “The Things We’ve Handed Down” on Father’s Day. What does it mean to have recording artist level renditions of pieces like this rubbing shoulders with hymns, choir, scripture readings, and prayers?
To me it’s as simple as this. We believe and say that faith changes our lives and meets us closest to home, with the things that matter the most. We come to worship and plop ourselves down and take inventory: this is the me that’s here today, feeling tired or burned out in this way, or excited and thankful in that way, or upset in a some nameless way. This is where I need God to meet me. Popular music, at its best, has a way of putting a finger on exactly some such conditions. It blurts out or embodies some elemental moment in life. Its power is to represent that experience so we freshly recognize it in ourselves or are stunned to see it revealed so nakedly in another. We lose track that the faith whose expression has been encased in the form of the church’s greatest hits, its oldies, is directly related to those moments, not some special “made for church” problems.
Talk about being saved may have walled itself off in a narrow precinct policed by ideas of judgment and afterlife. But Aimee Mann takes us straight out of that ghetto:
You look like... a perfect fit,
For a girl in need... of a tourniquet.
But can you save me?
Come on and save me...
If you could save me,
From the ranks of the freaks,
Who suspect they could never love anyone.
'Cause I can tell... you know what it's like.
A long farewell... of the hunger strike.
But can you save me?
Come on and save me...
If you could save me,
From the ranks of the freaks,
Who suspect they could never love anyone.
We can get caught up and embarrassed with the thought “This song is about romance, or sex and the only way it is slipping into church is that we are closing our eyes (and plugging our ears) to the obvious and talking loudly and nervously about metaphors." The point isn’t that the song isn’t about human love; it is that the raw longing it expresses---the fear, for instance, that I may not be able to love and be loved—is exactly what faith is about. On the most encompassing level we can know. It may not only be about what Aimee Mann is singing about. But it’s not different from what she’s singing about. Frederick Buechner said vocation is about finding where our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need. We Jesus trailers think faith is about where God’s best news meets our most honest selves. Music like this helps us bring our most honest selves to that appointment. A piece of music like this lays it out there: “this is the way it is with me.” At least sometimes. Like any prayer or sermon, it might not be dramatically true for everyone on that day and time. But it is an example of how we honestly are. And it poses the good question: what does the rest of what we are doing and saying here have to do with that?
Oh, and why not just play the Aimee Mann CD on the sound system during church? I wouldn’t rule it out—and most churches don’t have any good alternative. But that’s the consumer mode that is popular music’s normal setting (and ours). It’s a special gift to have Sean and Lynn, who can share it on the same musical level but with a heart for the connection we’ve just described, as an act of worship and community. Is popular music infecting our worship? I see it the opposite way around. I can’t hear Aimee Mann’s song ever again without thinking she’s in church. I think she's singing our song.
S. Mark Heim is the Chairman of the FBC Council and Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology and Andover-Newton Theological School. He is author of Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends and, most recently, Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2006).