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Putting on the Feedbag

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, member of United Church of Christ of La Mesa

Potholes…detours…tollbooths…stepping stones…

     Years ago, long before I came to the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM), the idea for my monthly column, “Potholes, Detours and Tollbooths:  Stepping-Stones on the Road to Faith,” popped, full-grown, into my head.  The title encapsulated, I thought, all the roadblocks, missteps and mysteries one might encounter when daring to follow unexpected paths presented by God.

     I was wrong.

     Turns out there’s also the matter of feedbags to consider.

     In a recent Stillspeaking Devotional, Anthony B. Robinson explored receiving, the converse of giving, as addressed by Paul in 1 Timothy, stressing that “…when we see ourselves as only givers and doers, and not also receivers, we become impoverished… unable to receive others’ gifts to us, and, even more sadly, unable to receive God’s grace for us.”

     Paul was talking about the duty of the church to widows and orphans (shorthand for anyone marginalized), feeding them, for example, and of the importance of receiving and valuing their good works and hospitality, of allowing them, also, to give and do.

     Reading this, my mind meandered down a divergent path, à la Robert Frost.  I thought of being fed – not with food but by my church.  That’s when feedbags – and the mechanics of putting one on – came into the picture, prompted, perhaps, by an stray memory – Evy neighing and prancing, imitating her husband’s usually futile attempts to tie a feedbag onto his milk wagon horse in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

     Where was this leading?

     “I wasn’t being fed!”  How often have you heard this from someone for whom this church or that church “doesn’t work?”

     What, I wondered, does “not being fed” mean?  That the sermons, like watery broth, were too thin, their seasoning too bland (or, perhaps, too spicy), the ingredients unpalatable?  Table companions unsociable or their after-dinner conversation somehow offensive?”   Or?

     Or…or…or were they, perhaps, confronted by the churchly equivalent of cod tongues or jellied eel, spitting the food out unchewed?

     Is it possible, as one responder to a blog about not being fed in church declared, that the problem lies not in the preaching or the fellowship but in a church structure that allows members “to consume and consume and never actually respond.”  This the writer equated to knowing what Jesus taught but not doing it.

      In our new “Discovering UCCLM Again for the First Time” transition program, we’re being asked when the church has been at its best for us, including when its worship has brought us closer to God.

     I thought of the times I feel most alive (“ALIVE!!!” with capital letters and exclamation points, that is) there.

     One, working on our newsletter, Joys & Concerns, and, especially, involving others in it, is self-evident.  I’m doing what I love!  The new paths it has opened, serving as one of the editors of Connecting Voices, for one, and discovering the pleasures of poster designing for another, have made of the meal a veritable feast.

     Others, the “cod tongue and jellied eel” ones, are far less explicable.  Who’d have thought, for example, that a 74-year-old would “come alive” to the music and style of the contemporary service.  But there it is – the music I once declared boring speaks to me, sets me swaying.  I attend and love both services, but my heart cleaves to the contemporary.  It is there, most often, that I encounter a thin space, a place where God seems very close.

     Then there’s my PR work. Conned into it, I took it on with great reluctance and even greater anxiety, then fell in love with it and with expanding it, moving way outside what I considered my comfort zone and enjoying every minute of it.  Speaking of cod tongues!

      I’m chewing on a new one now, having once again been cajoled into exploring new territory – presenting a workshop on publicizing churches at the Annual Gathering.  This one’s miles outside the zone!

     Somewhat “quieter,” but equally life-giving, are the more traditional gifts (food) offered by the church – spiritual enrichment, mind-stretching sermons and discussions, caring and good counsel.  Each energizes me and, as do opportunities for service, commands involvement, a willingness to open myself to them.

     It appears the question of when your church is at its best, when it most abundantly feeds you, contains within it a second and more provocative query – and challenge, “What do you bring to the table?”  Until UCCLM I would have had to answer, “very little.”  A sobering confession.

     Second questions may carry with them great cost – and risk.  A classic example involves a Catholic bishop somewhere in Central America.  Seeing people starving, he asked what he could do to feed them – and was called a saint.  When he asked why they were hungry, he was labeled a communist.

     For me the answer to this second question – what I’m bringing to table, – is not simple.  The quid pro quo for putting on the church’s feedbag goes beyond the traditional – and relatively risk-free – time, talent and treasure.  It involves accepting the challenge – and risk – of growing and stepping outside my comfort zone – sampling those cod tongues and jellied eels and, however discombobulating, finding them good.

     Daniel L. Schutte expressed it well when he wrote, “Here I am Lord.  Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go Lord, if you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart.” – or, more colloquially, “feed me, Lord, that I may learn to feed others.”

     A challenging second question.  God grant me the grace to follow and learn.

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