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Bill McKinneyWe’ve asked Bill McKinney, PSR’s President Emeritus, to write a regular blog for this website, and we’re delighted that he’s agreed. Bill’s academic training in Sociology of Religion, his long tenure as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and his many years in theological education make him one of the keenest observers we know of American churches and the public voice of American religion. In his new position as Senior Consultant for the Center for Progressive Renewal, Bill continues his work toward greater vitality for both “historic and emerging faith communities.”

Bill will post regularly in this space. He speaks for himself, of course—not on behalf of PSR or the PSR faculty—but we think you’ll find his words insightful and provocative as always. You’re welcome to post comments, but Bill also welcomes your e-mail to him directly, at wmckinney@psr.edu.

The Latest from Bill's Blog

When Our Reach Should Exceed Our Grasp, or What’s a Heaven For? (Rev. 21:10 – 22:5)

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Or What’s a Heaven For?

William McKinney

A Sermon Preached at South Congregational UCC, Centerville, MA

May 5, 2013

Text: Revelation 21:10-22:5

When Michael McSherry asked me to be with you this morning he warned that you would be pretty exhausted. After all, you have come through Holy Week and Easter and the selection and call of a new pastor. Maybe you, like Michael, deserve a couple of weeks off!

But Michael was concerned that you not lose this moment to celebrate what you have done and to reflect on what lies ahead. So I would like to think with you this morning on this Sunday-After. I was surprised to see that one of the Lectionary readings for today comes from Revelation and that it seems just right for a moment like this one. It focuses our eye on the future.

My friend James Hopewell was an Episcopal priest with a PhD in anthropology who served as a missionary in Africa. He returned to the States to teach in theological schools and was assigned the task of helping seminary students understand congregations. He had been out of the country for a while so in a sense American congregations were somewhat new to him. He approached the task in a fresh way by viewing congregations in the way would try to understand tribal villages in sub-Saharan Africa.

What Jim Hopewell discovered is that local churches have an ability to construct distinctive ways of understanding the world around them. Somewhat unconsciously, they construct what anthropologists call world views. These aren’t doctrines or rules and they are rarely written down. They don’t have to be recorded or named but they are shared and taught.

I’ve been working recently with a church in the Middle West that has been experiencing some nasty conflict. There are divisions over music, staff performance, money, who is welcome in worship – and who is not — and lots of other things. As I talked with members and heard them talk with one another I became aware that the members were not simply in disagreement with one another, they are almost living in different worlds.

Hopewell identified four characteristic ways churches build a world that make sense to them.

One he called a Canonic or Tragic world view. Here the world is headed toward a fixed ending that is largely beyond our control. We do what we need to do to cope with events but there is little we can do to shape them. The best approach is to follow the rules and await our fate.

A second world view he called Charismatic or Romantic. We can’t do a lot to control or shape our fate but we wait faithfully for God or other forces to intervene and change direction. This is a world that expects radical ups and radical downs. It’s volatile and unpredictable.

A third world view is more hopeful. He called it Gnostic or Comic. It proceeds with an assurance that all things are working toward a satisfying end. Our job is to go with the flow, to savor the journey.

The fourth is rather different. He called it Empiric or Ironic. We may not know where things are heading but we are called to watch for empirical hints of what the future looks like. Think of Walter Cronkite as the high priest of this view: Show me the facts. Tell me the truth and I’ll deal with it. “That’s the way it is.”

My friend Jim Hopewell went on to write an important book called Congregations: Stories and Structures, which was designed to help people in congregations understand the diverse narratives that shape their life together. It’s a quirky little book that incorporates insights from literary theory, anthropology and case studies. Everyone who reads it ends up being a little bit confused because it gives no hint what one should do with its insights. He has no “44 answers” to propose about what a congregation ought to do to be better.

But he does lay on our hearts a new set of questions: How does this congregation view the world around it? Why do people stay together despite their differences and conflicts? What is this congregation’s shared story and how does it reflect the broader biblical narrative in which it also participates?

I bring this up because the world view we create for ourselves has a lot to do with how we approach the Book of Revelation.

If you view the world through a charismatic or perhaps a gnostic lens, this is the sort of text you might put at the center of your gospel. The heavenly picture John paints bears little resemblance to the known world of his own time or to ours. It is a picture of divine intervention and of divine discontinuity. There is nothing incremental about this picture. “[The] city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp in the Lamb.”

John’s vision is, to be frank, well, fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations. It is not of the world as we know it. From the world view of a lot of us it is, well, odd – even embarrassing — which is why we don’t talk much about it from the pulpit or around the dining table.

I need to confess that I have a rather checkered record when it comes to the matter of heaven.

Almost twenty years ago a writer called my office at Hartford Seminary and asked for an appointment to talk about a book project she was working on. The book was about heaven and she wanted to talk to me as a sociologist about what people believe about heaven. We had a good talk about polling data and what you could call the sociology of heaven.

Toward the end of the conversation she asked me, “Well, what about you? What do you believe about heaven?”

And I made a terrible mistake, perhaps the worst mistake of my professional career.

“Gosh,” I said. “I don’t have a clue. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about.”

I took her to visit with other faculty members who I knew had thought more about heaven than I had.

Six months later, on Easter Sunday, I picked up the Hartford Courant Magazine and read, “I was sitting in the office of the dean of Harford Seminary, Bill McKinney, and asked him what he believes about heaven. “I don’t have a clue,” he said. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about.”

Thinking she was doing me a favor, the author had shared an advance copy of her article with the pastor of one of the largest and most prestigious churches in Hartford, who began his Easter sermon with guess what, my quote. The following week calls came from several pulpits demanding my resignation.

The writer could not have been more embarrassed and the pastor who quoted me on Easter Sunday was extremely apologetic. He took me to lunch and we had a good laugh about dealing with journalists. He gave me a humorous photograph that remained on my office walls for many years.

Until today I have avoided commenting on heaven. I learned that the topic of heaven is one that inspires a huge conflict of world views. My personal faith depends less on bold, audacious visions of future worlds than on day-to-day living. I totally get the Jesus of the gospels when he connects to real people on the journey. I can spend hours reflecting on his teachings and his parables and on Paul’s pastoral epistles.

Similarly, in my work with churches I tend to be research-oriented. I help churches to get in touch with the empirical reality of the challenges they face.

I believe, however, that in the life of congregations there is one moment when heavenly thinking ought to be our singular focus and that moment for South Church is today.

Last week you voted to call a new settled pastor to lead South Church into its new future. This brings to a close a long and not always easy journey. You have been discerned, studied, profiled, interviewed and “interimed” almost to death. You have chosen a new pastor with a national reputation as a theologian and pastoral leader, one who writes significant books on pastoral leadership.

You may be tempted to take a break for a bit, and there are still a thousand details to attend to. But I would urge you to use this moment to think heavenly thoughts and not just practical ones. It will be a long time until South Church again reaches the place where the slate is truly clean.

Robert Browning’s words come to mind, to paraphrase, “This is the moment when your reach should exceed your grasp, for that’s what’s a heaven is for.”

There will be lots of time down the road to develop practical strategies for congregational renewal. You’ll need concrete plans, complete with spreadsheets and budgets and time-lines. You’ll have buildings to keep up and stewardship campaigns to complete and church school teachers to recruit, and they are all important. You will want to say farewell to Michael and thank him for his work during this interim period.

But this is also the moment to contemplate the really big, the heavenly questions: How many hurting people can this church touch with its ministries? Can we make a difference in what our Statement of Faith calls lives of aimlessness and sin? Can we provide a contemporary glimpse of the pearly gates for people who have given up? Can we make a difference in this fragile ecosystem of which we are a part? Can these old bones live again?

These are heavenly questions. They exceed our grasp, and they should. And this After-Sunday is the moment for wrestling with them.

May God bless you and your ministry in this place, in this moment.

Memorial Tribute to the Rev. Nevin Kirk

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The Rev. Nevin Kirk, a United Church of Christ minister and resident of Craigville and Centerville, Massachusetts died April 27 at age 93. I had the honor of presiding at his memorial service at South Congregational UCC in Centerville. Here are my words of remembrance of his life and ministry.

We don’t usually think of beaches as having pews but at Craigville’s Association Beach on a summer afternoon the seating patterns as fixed as those in any sanctuary I have known. I can close my eyes and tell you where most people will be sitting on the beach on a sunny afternoon in July or August.

For the past fifty or so years the area just south and west of the CBA Snack Bar has belonged to Nevin Kirk.

For some on the beach “their” pew is a sort of buffer, a sanctuary marking off one’s space from that of others. But Nevin’s space was different. It was the center of a complex, but open web of relationships. Nevin’s pew was a public space.

“Hey, McKinneys. ‘ Beautiful day at the beach. Glad you made it down. How are you doing today?”

If Nevin knew you (and if he didn’t, he would soon find out who you are), he was your greeter and your usher. For many of us, whatever our particular religious faith, he was also our pastor. That little “How are you doing today?” was more than a well-practiced script. It was one human being reaching out to another because he genuinely cared for those who shared a beach, a community, or similar interests and concerns.

Those of us who knew Nevin Kirk on Cape Cod knew we shared him with the churches he served in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Springfield and Queens. We knew that in part because we met so many of his former church members gathered on the porch of Lancaster cottage alongside Craigville’s green. Unlike a lot of our homes, as was true on the beach, the Kirk cottage was not a fortress marking off the family’s private space. It was an open and friendly and public space. “Stop,” he’d say to passers-by. “Grab a seat and come and meet our friends.”

Nevin took on difficult assignments as a minister. He started a new church in Allentown and led churches in Springfield and Queens that were at the forefront of urban ministry challenges. Rooted in the traditions of the Evangelical and Reformed branch of the United Church of Christ, he was a missionary to us Congregationalists. For some of us, Nevin Kirk and Pierre Vuilleumier were the first Protestant ministers we knew who regularly wore the clerical collar!

Nevin Kirk, the pastor, was a bridge-builder. He was as comfortable on the beach as in the Tabernacle. His ministry took him from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to the inner cities of our own nation. He was as comfortable teaching tennis to young people as he was preaching and leading hymn-sings on Sunday morning. In his years on the Conference Center staff, he looked out for lonely guests and staff. In the incredibly diverse community of Richmond Hill he welcomed new immigrants from all over the world.

Nevin was an early and passionate advocate for Craigville’s environment. We wouldn’t have the septic system that saved several Craigville homes had it not been for his perseverance and salesmanship. A few years ago Craigville named him as Red Lily Pond’s “First Steward” for his efforts to save our ponds.

But just as important, Nevin Kirk was also a “First Steward” of Craigville’s social ecology. For those who don’t live there Craigville may look to be an idyllic place where everybody is happy just to be there and to be together. Alas, Craigville is not always a happy place. It’s a human place. It falls upon a few people to build bridges across a lot of divides. Some are ideological, some are personal, some are structural, some are even religious. I can’t say this of many people, but I can think of no-one who didn’t regard Nevin Kirk as a blessing in their lives.

I said to the Kirk family the other day that one of things I most appreciate about their dad was his outlandish and consistent liberalism. From his days as a civil rights activist south of the Mason-Dixon line, through the movements for social justice for racial minorities, women and LGBT people; in his forthright opposition to the Vietnam war and on other foreign policy issues, Nevin embodied the prophetic side of the Judeo-Christian tradition. His churches sometimes lost members because of his outspokenness on social issues, but he never wavered. But neither did he write people off who disagreed with him. I’m sure there are people here today who would disagree with Nevin Kirk on many things, but who loved him nonetheless and count him as a brother for a lifetime.

Nevin was the patriarch of a large and complex family who knew and loved him as husband, father, grandfather and companion in life.

Like Nevin, Lizzie Kirk’s impact as the Tabernacle’s music director is a lasting one. She is remembered through the Eizabeth Kirk memorial music series each summer.

Challenging days lie ahead for the Kirk family and our hearts go out to each of them today. Philip, you have been your father’s principal caregiver for much of your life. Tom, you watch over our little village like a hawk all year round and we thank you for that. Mary and John and Elaine, and the next generation of the Kirk family: you know that Craigville will always be a home for you. I know I speak for all who are gathered here today in saying that we will be here for you just as Nevin has always been here for us.

Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of Nevin Miller Kirk!