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The Art of Being Church

The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. – Willa Cather, (1873 -1947) U.S. novelist, poet and journalist

Over the years I have laughed at art critics and historians talk about the abstract expressionism of the great painter Georgia O’Keefe. Her paintings seem quite realistic to me because I have spent a lot of time in the high deserts where she painted things pretty much the way they actually look, albeit from different perspectives. For her flowers, she zooms in on the minute details, while her landscapes are sweeping vistas replete with the amazing colors of New Mexico. But if you’ve never been to New Mexico, these forms seem completely unreal and truly abstract.

We all have the ability to perceive the same things quite differently once we take into account the way our experiences, education, and current life situation affect our ability to make sense of the world. This is a wonderful gift AND it can be a source of difficulty in a diverse community. The difficulty comes when any one of us simply assumes that others share our same point of view or worse yet that our point of view is exclusively correct.

I learned this the hard way. For nearly seven years I served as the one Euro-American pastor at City of Refuge, UCC, San Francisco. City of Refuge is a predominately African-American, metho-bapta-costal United Church of Christ congregation filled with LGBTQQISGL folks. (I know I just lost some of you with THAT description – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and same-gender loving – phew!) In that church none of us could take anything for granted and so we had to practice great hospitality towards one another. We regularly had to wait for the Pentecostals to have their praise time. The Pentecostals sat desperately while those of us who needed more silence took our time. We had to learn to be patient with things we didn’t agree with and didn’t like as an act of radical hospitality towards our sisters and brothers. I still find it hard to remember that “my way” is not the best way and that others have deeply held beliefs and preferred spiritual practices too.

The truth is that individual members of most churches – including Montclair Presbyterian – have many diverse ideas about congregational singing, prayer, preaching, and communion. I know this because you’ve told me in person, or on a white card, or in an email what kind of prayer you do and do not like and so forth. This is great to know!

It’s also impossible for all of you to get what you prefer on any given Sunday. As I said in my first sermon, everyone will probably be frustrated with me at one time or another as I try to figure out how to “serve all of you – some of the time” instead of choosing to serve “some of you- all of the time.” While your diversity may not look as dramatic as the diversity of City of Refuge, you do have a wide range of theological conviction and spiritual practice.

Over the next few weeks, we will use our Sunday Celebration time to explore “Why Church?” and I look forward to hearing from many of you what really makes your heart leap and spirit soar here at Montclair. And through this process, we will continue to map out what really is the “MPC style” and we will continue to find ways to distill the wonderful work of the Mission Study into easily-shared, bite-sized tastes of what a new pastor or visitor might experience as part of this wonderful community.

Our investigation will not be limited to worship, but I hope will spread throughout our activities to encompass how we treat one another in committees, task forces, and in all our interactions.


For example, there is a great desire among many of you to be engaged in a hands-on food program of some sort. But there are great differences among you in terms of schedule and physical abilities and you even have some philosophical differences about what constitutes a beneficial program.

So while some retired adults can volunteer during a weekday that will not work for the youth (who really want to do something meaningful in this area!) and it will not work for other working adults. The Fruitvale food pantry is a worthy activity, but it cannot accommodate a whole youth group as volunteers and so it isn’t enough to satisfy our community’s desire to serve. Philosophically, some would like to identify needs close to the church and others insist that our efforts be limited to the more obviously poverty-stricken areas of Oakland. Some want to host dinners and/or provide lunches and others want to be part of a food pantry. My own contribution to the conversation is to look for partners who are already providing a good service, but could benefit by our participation to create more capacity.

All of these points of view are valuable and helpful, but it is extremely important that we not become paralyzed by these differences and fail to act at all. We have to keep having theses conversations, gathering additional information, and inviting even more voices to the table to see if we can begin to see a path or paths (!) for this ministry. Feeding the hungry – and in fact “being church” – isn’t a zero-sum game. The needs are greater than our combined creativity and many approaches can be beneficial.

A Hindu proverb states: “There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.” May all our divergent paths lead us towards one another and toward our shared desire to serve a hurting world.

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