Sunday, December 25, 2011

Birthing

Friends, this is my last sermon as pastor at New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Mt. Laurel, NJ. I have always called it Tiny Church, and I am profoundly grateful for my time there. I learned how to preach at Tiny Church through the kindness of this congregation. They hired me as pulpit supply during my last year in seminary, and by the time I was ordained I had already preached 30 times in their pulpit.

They have been almost ready to stone me more than once, and yet we have wandered the wilderness with good humor and potlucks. I will miss them deeply.

This will be my last post on this blog, which I will leave up for a while. You can find my further musings at http://insideouted.blogspot.com

Sunday, December 25, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Jonah 4 and Luke 2:1-20
(We used a Christmas Litany by Jennifer Phillips to call us to worship)

We have been following the story of Jonah through Advent, and here we are now at the final chapter of Jonah on my last day of service to this church, on Christmas morning, worshiping with our brothers and sisters from the afternoon church. A truly blessed three and a half years it has been, and I am sorry to be leaving you.

I came into this church with wild children, and I leave you with wild children. In three and a half years, nothing has changed and everything has changed, both for me and for you. We go into the new year, both you as a church and I as a pastor, with only a vague outline of what is coming next. There could be no more appropriate symbol for this juncture than the birth of a child.

The birth of a child is a moment of disruption, hours of labor, a vulnerable time out of time. There are few things more intimate than birthing a child, feeling that tiny body slipping out of your own body into the world, hearing the baby cry for the first time, nursing to offer life and comfort. There are few things more painful than birthing a child. 

Every birth is different. Some births end in death, others in unexpected life. The biggest surety is that the child born is rarely as we expected. Some births are long and painful, others fast and easy. No two births are the same--my first child came fast and hard and hasn't stopped raging at the world yet. My second came slow and easy over many hours, took a nap for several hours (and thereby stalling my labor), and then did not speak for three years.

Every birth is different, and therefore the metaphor of Christmas settles over us with peculiar and particular importance. As we too bear the Christ child into the world in this coming year, we are called to stay present in this birth, to know the cost of bearing the Spirit, to listen carefully for the cry of God, and to offer life and comfort to Christ as we care for one another.

We are not so different from Jonah, this little church. We are a stubborn people—and I include myself in that, for all that I am a newcomer and for all that I am leaving. Our vision is often narrowly focused on what is directly in front of us—as a church we have difficulty lifting our eyes into the future and beyond these walls. We get frustrated—and it has been a frustrating few decades as our numbers have dwindled and EVERYBODY seems to have a better mousetrap or transformation program or a new copier or overhead projector or prayer plan or whatever it is that will supposedly bring life to these bones. It is no wonder that like Jonah we are tempted to wander only a third of the way through Ninevah. It is no wonder that when God declares there is life after all that we prefer to sit on the hill and pray for death. It is no wonder we are angry with God.

Jonah sat on that hill and watched the rebirth of Ninevah. Perhaps what he failed to see was the rebirth happening in himself.

Jospeh and Mary journeyed long and hard in her last month of pregnancy to get to Bethlehem, and then in less than perfect circumstances they gave birth to the tiny Christ child. They birthed the Spirit into the world and changed who we are forever. Nothing came easy, nothing came quick, but they persevered on the journey, and they walked with God. This is my Christmas prayer for you and our churches: May you birth the Spirit into the world, may you be changed forever. May you persevere on the journey, and may you walk with God.

(We closed our worship with this Franciscan Benediction)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fish Guts and Mary

Sheepshead Bay
 U.S. National Archives
Sunday, December 12, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Last Friday, my twitter friend @mayog tweeted: "Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad. That's the point of the Magnificat". In a single tweet of 140 characters she said what it took me 15 minutes to preach on Sunday. But for those of you who like my ramblings, here's the sermon. May you find joy.

Scriptures: Jonah 2 and Luke 1:39-56

When last we left Jonah, he had refused the call of the Lord to go to Ninevah, booked passage on a ship to go in the opposite direction, found himself in the midst of a large, angry sea storm, and was thrown overboard by his shipmates in order to appease God. As the waters closed over him and he began to drown, which it appeared he would rather do than go to Ninevah, the Lord sent a large fish to swallow him up. He sat in the stinking fish belly for three days and three nights. Did he know if this fish belly would be a place of safety or did he imagine he might die? It is not clear in the text if Jonah knew the fish had been sent from the Lord until he had time for reflection. I suspect the narrator would have been explicit if God said, “Jonah…I have sent this fish to save you from drowning and in three days time it will spit you out on dry land. Then you will go to Ninevah.” Instead, we are left with bare bones: Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, and then he sang a song of praise.

What would possess a person, stuck in the belly of a fish in the middle of the sea, cast out by shipmates as a danger to others, alone with thoughts of failure and death in front of em*, what would possess such a person to sing a song of praise?

I wonder how long it took Jonah to stop thrashing about in the belly of the fish. There is only so long a person can continue in full blown panic and anxiety before passing out from exhaustion. A few hours? A day? How long before Jonah stopped pounding on the sides of the fish?

Have you had moments like this? Moments when everything seemed closed down—all options exhausted, no daylight to be found, no open doors, no good choices anywhere you look? The rent is due and there’s no cash? Your loved one is sick and there’s no cure? You know what needs to be done, but depression’s grip is so tight you can’t move—you can’t get out of bed, you can’t care what comes next? Have you had moments like that? Moments where your regret is so deep and so cutting it seems you will bleed out right there on the kitchen floor? You’ve done something terrible and the whole world knows it. You didn’t pick up the phone and your friend committed suicide. Embezzlement, rape, an affair, you lied. Maybe it’s not so drastic--you disappointed your parents for the 300th time--this week. You came out about your sexuality and got a bad reaction. You got divorced and people had things to say. You got married and people had something else to say. Your child hoped you would finally make a soccer game and you had to work. Maybe nobody else knows what you’ve done, and it’s burning through your soul anyway. Trapped in the belly of a fish, cornered by circumstance, unable to see out of the small, unlit, smelly space you find yourself in.

How long do you flail about trying to force your way out the side of the fish? It works sometimes, but there was Jonah on the second day still in the fish belly, alone with his thoughts. I imagine he was hungry and thirsty, although a friend once pointed out that in the belly of a great fish there might be plenty to eat. Perhaps so, but I guess on day two I would still be hungry. Have you had one of those moments?

Years ago I applied to be the youth director of the church I attended. I had been a regular there for over ten years and served on the church council for four years. I was not the easiest of members or elders, I don’t think—I was fairly opinionated and not shy about voicing those opinions. My application to be the youth director was something of a surprise to the pastor, the members of the committee, the church council, and frankly, to myself. Now I can see that it was the perfect fit at the perfect time, but it seemed like a gamble in the moment.

I met with the pastor and the committee. Some concerns were presented; we talked through them. The committee recommended me to the church council, on which I was still serving. There was still business to attend for the church council, and so when it came time to discuss my candidacy for this position, the council excused me to wait in the pastor’s office while they conversed. They expected it to be a fifteen minute conversation. An hour later they came to get me. After fifteen minutes of sitting alone in the pastor’s office had gone by, my thoughts became haunted. I imagined that concerns were being raised in that meeting that couldn’t be answered in fifteen minutes. Every controversial word I had spoken returned to me as I sat there. I remembered saying, “Who needs the Bible?” in my early days as a member. I remembered expressing displeasure in a Bible study that the books of scripture were not in alphabetical order. The time when I was fourteen in the youth group and the youth leader had to separate me from a boy rose up like a vision of Christmas Past. My criticisms of how we did communion, the music we sang, the snooziness of worship. I remembered every meeting I was late to or had missed altogether. I remembered that I had worn jeans to serve communion. As I sat there forty-five minutes past the expected time, I felt trapped by all that had come before, knowing that I was powerless to change who I had been and that it was unlikely who-I-would-come-to-be-in-the-near-future would be much different than the past. I wondered if I would be deemed worthy of leadership or considered unsuitable to work with the youth.

There was no place to go with my thoughts. I certainly couldn’t just leave the meeting. I couldn’t interrupt the meeting to ask if they were done yet. In those days I didn’t have twitter and facebook to sit with me through my anxiety—and that was probably just as well. No need to compound my past sins by snarky tweets from the fish belly.

What was Jonah thinking about in his time alone on day two? Did he regret the trip to Tarshish? Was he angry with the Lord? Did he make bargains with the almighty about what he would do if and when he got out of the fish? Did he think he was dead in the water? Perhaps he used the time to reflect back on his life deeply. I wonder, if in that time of reflection he came to thinking of the joys he had found in his life? Perhaps amid the memories of transgression and stubbornness and refusal, which had landed him in a life-threatening situation, Jonah stumbled upon the good memories as well. Perhaps by the third day he had come to see the moments of love and joy and laughter that inexplicably mingle with our sorrows.

Close your eyes. Let’s take some time to remember. What kind of fish belly are you in right now, and what day are you on? Are you flailing about? Are you alone with your regrets? Do you see in the midst of the sorrows the glitters of joy? Think on it a minute—where are you this advent? Are you so packed with things to do that you don’t even realize you are in a fish belly?

Jonah’s song of praise and trust precedes the fish spitting him out upon dry land. Let me repeat that song for you:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

‘I called to the Lord
   out of my distress,

   and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

  and you heard my voice. 

You cast me into the deep,

  into the heart of the seas,

  and the flood surrounded me;

all your waves and your billows

  passed over me. 

Then I said,
 “I am driven away 
from your sight;

  how shall I look again
  
upon your holy temple?” 

The waters closed in over me;

  the deep surrounded me;

weeds were wrapped around my head
  at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land

  whose bars closed upon me for ever;

yet you brought up my life from the Pit, 

  O Lord my God. 

As my life was ebbing away,
  I remembered the Lord;

and my prayer came to you,
  
into your holy temple. 

Those who worship vain idols
  forsake their true loyalty. 

But I with the voice of thanksgiving

  will sacrifice to you;

  what I have vowed I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
To find his way out of the belly of the fish—to gain daylight and the perspective from which to see his options—there was first the necessity to find joy in his life. One might call Jonah’s attitude resignation—whatever you wish to do with me, so be it, Lord. But we might also find a hint of joy that in the midst of the impossible sorrow of his life (and maybe the end of his life) Jonah found a certain trust in God’s words to him and a purpose for his life. Not knowing if he would be given the chance to live out the call God had sent to him as a prophet, Jonah nevertheless promised to fulfill that call: “what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” In turning over control of his situation, Jonah made himself useful. In returning to the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah found purpose. In promising to do justice, Jonah found life. And then the fish spit him out on dry land. 

It is a risk to seek after joy in the midst of sorrow, depression, anger, and fear. We are called to sing out a song of praise without knowing how the end will turn out. When I emerged from the pastor’s office, I offered a muttered prayer, “Okay then, God. Your show.” No guarantees. No promises. And when I walked back into the church council meeting, they said, “We’ve decided to think about it. We’ll let you know.” As we closed that December meeting, we worshiped together and shared communion. We sang songs of joy and praise. And it was enough to remember I am who God made me to be, redeemed in Christ, and free to start again in the morning. Is this not what Jonah sang? “I am alive!”

As we make our way through the advent season, we are following the story of another person who sang of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances: Mary.**

The gospel of Luke tells the story of the birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus. John was born to a woman too old to conceive. Jesus was born to an unmarried virgin. Neither pregnancy should have been possible, and yet there they were. When the angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her she would bear this child, Mary registered her objection: “How can this be?” But the angel pressed on: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And so Mary said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Then Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, traveled to see her relative, Elizabeth. As Mary approached, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy and suddenly both women were singing with joy and praise. “How can this be? Who am I? Can you believe it? Blessed are you! Blessed am I!” They sang for joy over the life they sustained with their bodies.

Mary sang for joy even though she was very young and pregnant with a child who was not of her husband/fiance. She sang for joy at the possibility this child held for the world’s salvation. She sang for joy that the prophecies would be fulfilled, that justice would be done, the hungry would be fed. She sang for all that had been and all that would come.

Mary sang even though a child would require (at the very least) creative explanation to Joseph, family and friends. She sang even though there are no guarantees in childbirth—this whole process was a risk to her and the baby. She sang even though a thousand things can go wrong before a child reaches adulthood. She sang even through the tremendous responsibility placed on her shoulders. In the gospel of Luke we do not get the angel of the Lord’s visit to Joseph, reassuring us that all was well with Mary and Joseph. Yet despite what she may have feared, despite what he may have said, Mary sang her song of praise and joy—this baby was to come, and the world would be changed, she would step out in faith: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

She met her cousin, who greeted her with joy, and opening her mouth the Spirit poured out of her. To find joy in the midst of struggle is to open the doors to the prison. To sing of joy after three days of rotting in a fish belly is to be vomited out on dry land. To give oneself over to the risky joy of justice, love, and the dance of the Spirit is to be fully alive to the heart of God. Whatever else may come, there is that.


*Gender neutral pronouns are tricky. A lot of times there's another way of writing. But sometimes there's not. "Em" is the singular of "them" and stands in for "him" or "her" instead of tripping all over "one." Whether this is a good thing or not, ask the reader. I'll leave it up to em.

**I must admit at this moment, I am tempted into a flight of fantasy, imagining Jesus in the womb as Jonah in the whale. If this caught your fancy, then here's the sermon on Jesus' temptation to stay in the wilderness (maybe his Tarshish?).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

White Women Do

Update December 2013: apparently what else white women do is hold feminist retreats on plantations. What are you DOING, Ani DiFranco??

I've seen a post going around facebook called "15 Things White Girls Love to Do on Facebook" and I want to take a moment and register my objection.

That post makes white women out to be silly young things that sit around all day taking pictures of their feet. Here's a picture of my grown feet:


But what white women do on facebook and every other place of life is far more insidious and dangerous: we participate in ongoing structural racism; we perpetrate micro-aggressions against people of color; we engage in active oppression of our own selves to further a racist patriarchy that benefits us in multiple ways. We do Bible studies on The Help and enthuse over Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

A lot of us on facebook, we're women, not girls. And in many more than 15 ways we contribute to the suffering of others (including passing on this "15 list" with "oh haha").

A better use of our time is this book: At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. Maguire. Have a Bible study on that, please and I'll be there. Last year I struggled with that book in one of my seminars--our history as white women is painful history created by women misusing power. The picture in that "15 list" of two women "straight thuggin" should fill us with shame, not laughter.

What white women might do is stand in solidarity with our sisters (including our trans sisters!!). If you get a pic of my feet in the meantime, lucky you.

I'll say that from the pulpit any day.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fish Bellies Stink. An Advent Sermon.

Fish Counting Station
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Mark 1:1-8 and Jonah 1

Jonah is not a traditional Christmas story. But as I was away on vacation, I was reflecting on my remaining four weeks here at New Covenant, and the story of Jonah came to mind strongly. Advent is a time of waiting, and nobody waits quite like Jonah. We will come back to John the Baptist and waiting for the Christ child, but listen a moment to the beginning of the story of Jonah. We will be following him all the way through Christmas.

[Pause. If you do not know the Jonah story, go read Jonah 1. Chapter 1 begins with The Lord's assignment to Jonah and ends with Jonah rotting in a fish belly.]

Jonah was a prophet, but a half-hearted one at best. Called to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, he preferred to go to Tarshish. God said, “Go east.” And Jonah promptly headed west. He traveled some distance, paid for passage on a boat, settled into his bunk and went to sleep. He snoozed through raging storms, and it wasn’t until the sailors on the boat woke him up that he took notice of the damage he had done to others around him by not following his call from God.

The Lord said, “Go to the capital city of your bitter enemies, and cry out against it. Tell the people who utterly dominated your people that they have done great evil, for I have taken notice of their wickedness.” When reading Jonah, it is easy to shake our heads and say, “tsk, tsk,” as if our own habit is to follow God’s call into uncomfortable places. We say, “Oh that Jonah!” As if we had spent a lot of time this week challenging colonial forces, oppressive authorities, systems of racial and sexual discrimination. When is the last time you ran through town, pausing on street corners to shout out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Jonah is, at least, an understandable figure. Reluctant and recalcitrant in responding to God’s call and claim on his life, Jonah does what most of us with a lick of sense would do: he goes in the opposite direction from danger, discomfort, and dread.

Jonah runs off to Tarshish, a city perhaps known for trade. It’s at the other end of the world from Ninevah. It doesn’t have any Assyrians, or at least they aren’t the dominant culture. It’s far enough away to give Jonah good reasons not to go to Ninevah. There is probably plenty of good work to be done in Tarshish—good ministry work too, I bet! One can proclaim the word of the Lord in Tarshish just as well in Ninevah, right? If God is everywhere, then God can use us wherever we are—surely, this is so!

And yet, the trip to Tarshish went wrong from the moment Jonah stepped on the boat. The winds blew, the seas rose, the boat was tossed about terribly. Jonah, sleeping deeply in his bunk, failed to recognize that he had endangered the crew of the boat with his very presence. It wasn't long before the sailors recognized that it was Jonah who brought the curse of bad weather upon them. When he told them that he was fleeing from a call from God, they were terrified, and attempted to row back to land. But the storm would not allow them to land, and Jonah said, “Oh, just throw me into the sea!” Perhaps the seas might have calmed if Jonah had said, “Okay, God. I will go to Ninevah. I will heed your call.” But Jonah preferred to die rather than do what God asked. And to be fair, God was asking him to enter a lion’s den—to go to the capital city of his people’s hated enemies, and wander the streets telling them that the day of judgment was at hand. (The sermon on how we may well be the Ninevites and what reparations we owe is for another day, but not gone from my mind.) God was sending Jonah on a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. Jonah preferred not to. Jonah preferred to drown in the sea rather than obey such a command. And so the sailors threw him overboard.

Instead of drowning (which might have been easier), God sent a giant fish to swallow him whole. Instead of losing his life, Jonah was cast into a waiting room of sorts: the belly of a fish. Our children’s stories romanticize this space! But the belly of a giant fish is no joke. I was watching a show with my son called River Monsters the other day on animal planet. It’s something like the Crocodile Hunter, only this guy wanders the world looking for giant freshwater fish. He had heard a legend of a giant Japanese salamander that swallows children whole. Naturally, he rented a boat and went looking for it. As he wandered about looking for this legendary creature, he filmed a larged salamander eating a fish. The salamander sucked the fish whole into its mouth. As the camera panned down the body of the salamander, one could see the fish banging on the sides of the salamander’s belly, trying to punch its way back out. There was no such luck, and the fish was slowly digested, suffocating in the lightless horror of a fish belly.

This is the place Jonah waited. At first he must have thought he was going to die—from drowning, from the stench of a fish belly, from starvation, perhaps from loneliness and despair. Knowing full well he had not fulfilled the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah sat in a disgusting and hopeless space, waiting to die.

I tell you this story because I think this church and my ministry joined together for some of the same reasons. I think God has been calling us east, and we have been walking west. This makes us tremendously companionable traveling partners, and I have loved pastoring here the last three years. I love our mutual stubbornness, and our willingness to care for one another along our journey. But I have suspected for some time now that this church is called in one direction and often goes in another, although I do not exactly know what that call looks like.

I am reminded of this story because I am the 15th pastor at this church in 50 years. That is a lot of pastors and has led to a culture of pastors passing through here rather than making a home. We come with our pretty ideas and newfangled plans. And then we move right on through to whatever is coming next. Folks here know that whatever new projector or computer or answering machine or copier we put in here, that’s not going to change anything. Some of you remember my wild plan to place converted shipping containers on our property to house homeless families. I probably should have waited another year before dropping that on the church council. But not to worry, wait three years and there will be a new pastor here. We wander west for a few years together until the storms rise. And then the pastor or the church jumps ship and ends up sitting in the belly of a fish. Waiting.

Next thing you know we’ll be spit up on dry land again, but not today, not quite yet. In this Advent season of waiting for the advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, the birth of a child, the inbreaking of God to our daily lives, we are waiting to see what’s next. Me too—I don’t have answers for January yet either. I am as uncomfortable with this situation as you are. Worry eats at me about the church and about my own life—it eats at me like the stomach acid of a giant fish. As is so often the case when I struggle with God, I am banging myself on the inside of the belly of the fish, trying to bust out before I die. I imagine anyone looking at my life or the life of this church can see the internal struggle from the outside.

I remember when I was pregnant with my children that as time went on and the due date loomed closer, their internal movements became more obvious to the outside. Oldest took his foot and pressed hard on my lower right rib for days at a time. I used to take my hand and push on my abdomen to try and force him off that rib. Such a tiny little creature, but he left a solid bruise on that rib. Little guy left my ribs alone, but he often had the hiccups. You could put your hand on my abdomen and feel the little pops every time he hiccuped. We are like that right now, this church and I. The internal struggles as we wait in the belly of a fish are evident in how we are perceived from the outside. People can see the outline of a foot trying to push out of the fish, an instinctual effort to survive, all the while we live in a certain fear of getting spit out on dry land. The outward signs of our internal struggle for identity and vision are obvious to those who drive by and see the state of our property, the lack of cars in the parking lot, the neglected landscape. 

And then, once we get spit out, what will we do next? Once January is here, how will I pay my rent? Once January is here, who will preach and care for this congregation? Easier, in so many ways, to stay here in the belly of the fish. There’s a fair amount of digestive enzymes, but we’re not drowning. And as long as we’re in the fish, we don’t have to go to Ninevah.

15 pastors in 50 years. We have been through many cycles of fish bellies. It is a cycle of binging and purging—the hope that a new pastor and their energy, coupled with the congregation’s renewed enthusiasm, might result in growth, stability, something fantastic. These hopes are not always our hopes at New Covenant, sometimes expectations come from others—the community, the Presbytery, other churches, a committee, a discernment group. Nevertheless, we have our own hopes for what might be here. But it’s been a challenge discerning a consistent vision for the ministry of this church. Conflicted and ambivalent we continue on to the next cycle. And now I am leaving, contributing to this cycle, and I have deep regrets about that. It feels right to me, but I think often on how I might have done things differently here. Perhaps you do too.

Advent is a time of waiting, and this Sunday the advent theme is Preparation. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, cries John the Baptist. We hear the beginning of the gospel of Mark—it is a clear call, but it isn’t an easy one. Make the paths straight. Be prepared. The one who baptizes with water AND spirit is coming—is your heart ready? Do you have oil in your lamp? Are your affairs in order? For the new baby do you have what you need to nurture it? Have we prepared ourselves and this church for the Spirit to take residence and transform our life together?

Prepare prepare prepare. It’s hard to think about preparing for new life, when we are threatened with death in the belly of a fish. It’s hard to think about new life when we are living in regret and nostalgia for the old. It’s hard to think about new beginnings when the path ahead is as scary as testifying on street corners to the Ninevites.

All of us here in this room work hard to contribute to the life of this church—our (yours and my) efforts and love and service to this church are not in question. But the one thing that we struggle with is identifying a clear mission and vision for the ministry of this church, and when asked to do that, most of us say, “I prefer not to.” We each of us have the things we are willing to do for the church, and when we are faced with unexpected, new, challenging, or not desirable work, we often say, “I prefer not to.” And I as pastor, often will say, “I prefer not to insist.” I prefer not to have people doing work they’d prefer not to. 

When I hear the phrase, "I prefer not to," I think of Bartleby the Scrivener. It is a short story written by Herman Melville in 1853 about a scrivener (or a law scribe/copier). The storyteller, a lawyer on Wall Street, tells of a strange man named Bartleby whom he hired to be a scrivener in his offices. At first, Bartleby is an industrious fellow, eager to work. But then something happens:
It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined
Prefer not to? Perhaps those were Jonah's words to God: "I prefer not to." Perhaps those are our words as we contemplate yet another attempt at revitalizing this church: "I prefer not to." Perhaps they are my words as I think about paying rent in January, or finding another call, or attending another parent-teacher conference, or washing another ding-dang dish: "I prefer not to." Maybe there is some merit to opting out of the grind, the rat-race, the rigid norms that hold us in place. But you do not know the ending of the story--Bartleby continued to prefer not to do anything, down to the end of the story when he died in prison because he preferred not to eat.

If we are to continue as a worshiping community, if I am to persist as a pastor in any capacity, we will have to take up the thing that scares us most: discerning a vision for ministry, and committing ourselves to do the uncomfortable.

To continue being a Presbyterian church we need to get elders to Presbytery meetings. To continue financially, we must contribute. To continue hosting churches that help support us, we must be in communication with them. To navigate Committee on Ministry and move ourselves toward calling a pastor again, we will need to communicate with them more regularly. To further a partnership that might revitalize us, we will have to initiate further conversations. To have potlucks where we might share table, we will have to commit to coming out in the dark on a weeknight—we might have to pick each other up and/or accept help in getting there. To get new people to come to church, we will have to ask them. We’d prefer not to, but in January we are getting spit out on dry land again with a choice to get back on a boat fleeing God, or to set off toward Ninevah and fulfill God’s call to this church.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord! This is a challenge for us—a tossing down of the gauntlet. Once again we are about to be spit out of the fish belly. Once again we are slapped in the face with a glove. Once again, an angel of the Lord meets us to wrestle long into the night. This advent we struggle more than we have in the past to birth this child. Yet the child comes anyway. The Christ child follows the path all children follow as they enter the world through a mother’s womb. Once labor begins, there is no stopping, no going back, no handing this child over to someone else to be born. In labor there is only a relentless pressure to move forward and birth.

Next week the theme is joy, and I will surely preach on that! But this week we think hard on preparations. And mostly on preparing our souls. Preparing our souls to accept God’s call on our life. There may be joy found in Ninevah, although Jonah is a contradictory model for sure. But for this week our task is preparation. Prayer. Waiting in the fish belly. Our call from Christ is not to this particular church or institution, but since we are here in this time and place, we might well ask how we are called to this time and place. How do we live out that call in our daily lives beyond the walls of this church, and how do we live it out here in this church so that others might be supported in their walk? As you care tenderly for your home preparing for Christmas, think on this church and how we might care tenderly for it in preparing for January. Change is coming and fast. John the Baptist’s call reminds us of that—the status quo ends with the birth of Christ. The fish will spit us out. The question remains: will we simply get back on the boat to drown in a fish belly again, or will we turn toward Ninevah and seek God’s will?