Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Little Bit of Heaven, Here

Last week I was part of a meeting with our church Leadership Board and the mission developer who will be starting a new worship service and ministry in our building.  We worked out the nuts and bolts of the agreement, figured out who was responsible for what, who is accountable to whom, how we will support each other and what our next steps are.  We talked about many of the practical details that need to be worked out.  We also heard a little bit of the mission developer's vision and passion.

The new ministry will be called Tapestry.  It will be bilingual and seeks to welcome people into community across cultures and language.

As we were talking, I thought back many years, to the time long ago when I served as a missionary teacher in Japan.  I taught English as a second language to Junior and Senior High School boys at a school affiliated with my denomination.  At the same time, I worked to get better at speaking Japanese, and better at teaching English.  I worshipped at a local Japanese congregation, and taught some Bible studies in English, too.

There was one in particular, every Monday night.  It had been going on for centuries, it seemed.  All of the people who attended it were pretty fluent in English, and serious about their faith.  They were all ages, and some had been attending for many years.  The Monday night English Bible study took place at one of the large missionary houses across the street from the boys' school.  All of the short-term missionaries took turns leading it.  We worked our way through various Books of the Bible.

One thing we always did, every single week, before we started reading the assigned scripture reading, was ask a particular question, a question to make people think, but also a question to give everyone a chance to speak.  I remember one week, it was my turn to lead.  We were studying Acts 2, the story of Pentecost, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.  My question was "Do you believe in ghosts?"

Some people said 'no.'  Some people said 'yes'.  Some said 'maybe'.

A funny thing happened the second year I was leading the Monday night English Bible study.

A young exchange student from Australia found us, and began attending the Bible study.

After a few weeks a couple more students, one from Germany and the other from Austria, also found our Bible study and became part of the conversation.  A little later a student from Central America also found us.

It was now the International Bible Study, with all of these voices and different perspectives, all gathered in a missionary's living room, having conversations.

All of my memories are old and fuzzy now, but I still remember gathering in the living room, and the students who came, from different parts of the world.  I remember thinking that the Kingdom of God is like this, and how seldom we see it, and how hard it is.  I remember thinking that we were all strangers, in one way or another.  The Japanese Christians because they were practicing a language and a faith not native to them, and the exchange students because they were sojourning in a strange land.  We were all strangers and sojourners, in one way or another, learning new geography, new languages, new practices.  Some of us believed in ghosts.  Some did not.  Some said 'maybe'.  But the Holy Spirit was weaving us together,  just for a short time, and forever.

I wanted the church to be like that.

So I was sitting in the church meeting last week, hearing the nuts and bolts and the visions and the dreams for this new ministry.  All of them are important.   I heard the visions and the dreams of the mission developer, who also taught English as a Second Language but also taught Spanish at a local high school.  "The hallways were integrated, but the classrooms were not," she shared.  But what if we did not stay separate?  What would it take?  I suspect it would be wonderful, and painful, and stumbling, like living in a foreign country, with all of the loneliness that comes along with the adventures and new experiences.

Still.  Even so.  I want the church to be like that.  


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Another Kind of Prosperity Gospel

Have you ever gotten all done with your sermon, gone home, had lunch and a nice nap, and then woke up thinking that you could have said something else about the Scripture reading?

That happened this weekend.  Not that it hasn't happened before.  But we are in the third week (but who's counting) of our grand experiment with the Narrative Lectionary.

Now I am going to come right out and say that I am in favor of almost anything with the word "narrative" in it.  I actually like the word 'story' even better; it's shorter and less pretentious.  So giving the Narrative Lectionary a try was my idea.

Even after three weekends, the stories are playing with my brain a little bit.  I find preaching the stories more challenging than I thought it would be (did I mention before that I love stories?).  I groaned about the "adult content" in the Joseph story, made note of the narrator's repetition of the sentence "God was with Joseph", and ended up preaching about God with Joseph in the thorny ups and downs he is experiencing, about God with Joseph in prison, even.  I was thinking particularly about what it means to be resilient, as people, and as a congregation:  to be the kind of people who don't give up just because there are fewer people in worship, or some of our ideas don't work, or we are criticized for something we believed that God wanted us to do.

Then I preached, and took that nap, and woke up thinking about something else, something that connected back to the story of Abraham, who was promised he would someday be a great nation and be blessed and also, by the way, be a blessing.  People bring this up, sometimes.  Abraham was "blessed to be a blessing."  That is the way it is supposed to be with us, too.

So I took the nap, and woke up thinking not about Joseph in prison, but about God being with Joseph, in Potiphar's house, and in the prison.  Right after the narrator reminds us that God was with Joseph (even though he had been sold into slavery by his brothers and then bought by the Egyptian official), he tells us that Joseph prospers in Potiphar's house.

Or, more accurately, Potiphar prospers because Joseph is there.

Huh.

God is with Joseph, and what this means is that the people around him prosper.  Even while he is a slave.  Even while he is in prison.  So it's not that Joseph himself is doing so well (he is a slave after all), but he causes blessing and prosperity to come to the people with whom he resides.

It's a whole new slant on the "prosperity gospel."  It is the "prosperity-for-our-neighbor" gospel.  Wherever the people of God go, the blessing means prosperity -- for their neighbors.

It makes me wonder what it would be like for us to believe this now.  What if "God was with Joseph" was as much a statement of vocation as a statement of assurance?  What if the words given to us at baptism, "Child of God, sealed by the Spirit and marked by the cross forever" were as much a statement of vocation as they are of assurance (or of eternal destination)?

What if our neighbors experienced blessing and prosperity because of our presence, our words, our actions?

What if we thought that was the reason God created and redeemed us:  so that our neighbors would prosper?

It would be a whole new kind of prosperity gospel.

I am still thinking about it.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Conversations

Sometimes I think that my real job is having conversations.

The other day the Office Manager buzzed my office phone.  "There is someone here who wants to talk to a pastor", she said.  "Do you have time?"  I said yes, I would be right out.

I know what this means, usually.  Usually "someone wants to speak with a pastor" means someone is looking for a gas voucher, or a few groceries, or some help for the bus.  Not always, but usually.

I greeted the man sitting in the reception area, and invited him to come back to my office.  "How can I help you?" I asked.

He told me a little of his story.  As it turns out, he was about my age.  He had grown up in this area, but hadn't been back since he served Vietnam.  He had gone over for a year in 1972.  Since then he had lived in a variety of places.  He had must moved back to a Small City near here because we are know for having a good VA system.  (We do, I think.)  He told me that his mother had been the first African-American nurse in one of our local hospitals.  He talked about some of the advocacy work he had done in his life.  He said that he still struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

He said he had been looking for churches in his city, but hadn't found the right one yet.  Still, he found the people around here pretty friendly.  I was glad to hear it.  I hoped that it continued to be true.  I secretly wished he had moved to my city.  I'd invite him to worship with us.

He did need a gas voucher, he said, so that he could get back to the Small City where he now lived.  I gave him a gas voucher, and was grateful for the conversation.  We blessed each other as he left.

A few days later, I went to visit at a building that had a security code.  I was looking for a parish member who had moved, but it turned out that she only moved one building down.  The receptionist gave me the code, which I pressed to get in.

She used to be a regular worshipper at our early service.  I remember exactly where she sat, on the aisle, in the middle.  She had this unmistakable raspy voice, and she always grabbed my hand and asked how I was doing.  She came to church by herself, early enough to get that aisle seat.

She hadn't been to church in a long time, but I recognized her.  She was in a wheelchair now, but she had the same voice.  I don't think she remembered who I was, but when I told her I was from church, her face lit up.  "I go to that church," she said.  "I know," I replied.  "I remember you.  You always sat in the same place."

"I moved here two months ago," she told me.  I wasn't sure if that was true, but I went along with her.  "My husband died two years ago," she said.  She had been a widow ever since I knew her.  We talked for awhile.  She asked me again who I was.  I told her I was from the church.  She smiled, well, beamed, really.  "I go to that church," she said.

She showed me pictures of her two sons, and their families.  She was proud of them.  I admired the pictures, admired the room.  Said it was a great place.  "Do you like it?"

She did.  "Would you like someone to come and visit you, and give you communion, someone from the church?" I asked.  She thought that was a great idea.  When I said the name of the church, she smiled again.  "That's my church," she said.

"My husband died two months ago," she said.  "I am sorry to hear that," I told her, even though I knew  she had been a widow for many years.  She looked me in the face and said, "You're very pretty."  I smiled.  "I'm eighty-eight years old," she said.

Before I left, I mentioned again that someone would come to visit her from the church.  "That's my church," she said, again.  "I know.  I remember you.  I remember where you always sat."

Sometimes I think that my real job is having conversations: simple, small, ordinary conversations.

It keeps me humble to think it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Signs from God

It's a quiet evening at home.  I'm sitting in the bedroom, reading and thinking and relaxing.  I can hear the television in the living room.  It's a re-run of the old show, "The King of Queens".  I recognize the plot.  It's a flashback episode, the one where Doug and Carrie are recalling their engagement and the days leading up to their wedding.

In the episode, Carrie says "yes" to Doug, of course, but now she is having fits of anxiety so severe that they make her literally sick to her stomach.  She loves Doug, but she is plagued by doubts, until they visit the priest, and he remembers that Doug and Carrie met once when they were children at summer camp.  They were on a hay ride together, the priest recalls, and Doug fell on top of Carrie (or did Carrie fall on top of Doug?  I don't quite remember).

All of a sudden, Carrie is calm and relaxed, no longer anxious and sick.  The story of their accidental childhood meeting is proof that they were "meant to be".

It is a sign from God.

Now I'm thinking back to the very last of our summer outdoor worship services, called "Picnic Church."  It seems so long ago now, but it really was only a couple of weeks ago that we held our last Wednesday evening service on the lawn, complete with hot dogs.

It was a lovely summer night, as all of our Wednesday were this summer.  Not one rained-out-Wednesday for our summer experiment.  It was a great end to the summer.  Even though we had a different guitarist for our last two Wednesdays, our substitute's name was Jesus.  You can't do any better than Jesus for a substitute guitarist.  And he taught us the chorus to a great song, "Montana."  We all danced on the lawn.

My message that evening was all about God-sightings.  I talked about learning to see God in our lives, and to tell about it, and asked people if they had seen God around lately.  We had asked the same question the week before, and there was this uncomfortable pause.

"Have you seen God around anywhere lately?"

No one said anything.

But tonight was different.  They had seen God around lately, and suddenly (I was proud to say), people weren't afraid to tell about it.  They had seen God around every Wednesday, those impossibly sunny and beautiful Wednesday evenings, when it never rained and there were not mosquitos.  They had seen God in other places too, but we kept going back to the lack of mosquitos and the fact that EVERY SINGLE Wednesday had been nice.  And every week, the people just kept coming back, more and more of them, for food, for worship, for community.

It was a sign from God.

It is hard to argue with that, especially in this neck of the woods.  It does seem like a minor miracle for every single Wednesday evening this summer to be sunny.  It must have been a sign from God, a sign that God had blessed our summer plans to reach out beyond our doors.

It was meant to be.

Signs from God are tricky things, though.

I can hear the TV in the background again, the return of the episode from The King of Queens.

As it turns out, the story about Doug and Carrie meeting when they were children:  it wasn't true.  It was actually Doug's cousin Danny that Carrie had met at summer camp.  Doug knew it, but he was afraid to tell Carrie that there was no sign from God.  It was just him, only Doug, loving her, asking her to marry him.  That was the sign.

Signs from God are tricky things.  A sunny day, a chance meeting, a memory of dancing on the lawn:  they are all good things, for which we should rejoice and give thanks.  It was meant to be.  God is working through this sun, this dance, this meeting.

But then, what does the rain mean?  What do the tears, the two left feet, the failures and the missed opportunities mean?  That it was not meant to be?

Signs from God are tricky things.

Even when it rains, even when there are mosquitos, even when you have two skinned knees because dancing on the lawn didn't go the way you planned:

Don't give up.

It was meant to be.  You were meant to dance, to share your food, to be merciful.  For better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Say "yes."


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Under the Sun

When I came to this church 16 years ago, one of the responsibilities  I was charged with was starting a new worship service.  It wasn't exactly supposed to be a creation ex nihilo; the congregation's leaders had been playing around with some things during the 10:00 hour on Sunday morning for a little while before I came.  But I came in to take that time and make it into something new, and energetic.

At first, and for a number of years, that service was (or seemed to be) wildly successful.  It was our largest worship service.  It was energetic.  We learned some new songs.  We tried some things (like learning to pray in sign language, for example, or a reader's theatre based on the story of the fourth wise man, or practicing prayers for healing).  We never achieved perfection, and we did exhibit a few besetting sins, problems that were never quite solved. (At least some of the persistent problems had to do with acoustics and sound.)

Two years ago, we abandoned that service while we dreamed of the possibility of starting something new.  Instead of expanding, our "new thing" was contracting.  We went from two services to one, creating new relationships between people who had been attending the same church but never met.  We experimented in a few other ways, blending styles of worship and having the children with us at the end of the worship service instead of at the beginning of worship.  We tried to create space for failure, for success, for forgiveness.

Tonight I walked into the narthex for meetings.  Stewardship and worship were both meeting this evening, and I was going to navigate between them.  But as I walked into the narthex, I saw a new group, a small group of people, all sitting in a circle.  I wasn't part of the meeting, but I knew what they were doing.  They were dreaming about a new thing, a new worship service, a mission start right here in our building.  It will be called "Tapestry".  The dreamers and the imaginers imagine it as a multi-cultural and inclusive community which will meet on Sunday evenings.  Worship will be informal.  They will learn some new songs.  They will experiment.  It will never be perfect, but perhaps will welcome people who never felt at home in our sanctuary.

There is nothing new under the sun, they say, but still, we begin again.  We imagine again what singing a new song could be like, what foods might be spread out on that holy mountain, and we try to give voice to that dream.  It is what God is calling us to do.

I can't help feeling a little wistful, looking back to the dreams from when I first came here.  I suppose I am wistful because I am not one of the people sitting around the circle, although I'm not uninvolved in the dreaming.  I am a little wistful because I believe in this new vision, this new Tapestry, even though it was not my idea and I am not the one making it come to pass.

There is nothing new under the sun, they say, but still, we begin again.  We can't help it.  It is what God is calling us to do.  But even more than that:  it is what God is doing in us.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Were We Right to Clap in Church Today?

Today was an odd non-liturgical occasion celebrated in main line congregations.  It is called "Rally Sunday." It is a day usually celebrated near the beginning of the school year, and marks the beginning of what we call the "Program Year."  Sunday School, Adult Classes, Choirs and other music groups begin to gather again for the purpose of singing and playing in worship.  People return from vacations and cabins and other summer retreats.  Although it never feels like the whole congregation is ever together at the same time (what would that be like?), there is usually a larger and more diverse crowd in worship than there has been during the summer.  Plus, at our congregation, there are a lot of colorful balloons.

It is not Christmas or Easter, but it does feel like a celebration.  It certainly felt like a celebration for me this morning, anyway.  Our congregation has been in redevelopment for a couple of years now.  We are still finding our way, re-defining our identity, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit in new ways.  There have been both growing pains and contracting pains as we have tried new things.

This morning we had a new interim organist playing for the first time, along with our gifted pianist.  We installed four staff in new positions.  The new director of children's and youth minister gave the children's message for the first time.  The choir sang "I Love to Tell the Story."  The Spirit Singers (our contemporary music group) sang an original song called, "Do Not Fear, For I am With You Now."  We had a soloist sing a song called "Amazed", one that we hope to teach the congregation later in the fall.

And we clapped.

Of course, we clapped during the original song, "Do not Fear."  I think I even snapped my fingers on that one.  It was a a hand-clapping sort of song,  and a number of the members of my congregation seemed happy to provide hand percussion.

Now I did not grow up with clapping in church.  Organ was the only acceptable instrument in my faith tradition at that time, and we same hymns.  We didn't clap.  It was not our style.

But somewhere along the line (probably first at summer Bible camp) I learned to clap in worship, at least during songs.  I still don't clap when the organ is playing hymns, but I like to clap along when the occasion allows.

Today, however, I believe we also clapped AFTER that particular song was done.  I remember that, and it was loud clapping too, because I was standing at the altar, getting ready to begin the communion liturgy.

It is twelve hours later, and I can't be sure now, but I think we clapped a couple of other times as well.  I think we may have clapped after the new staff members were installed.  And I am not sure, but it is possible that we even clapped at the end of the children's message.  It seemed natural as we had just finished singing a short phrase from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

I know, you had to be there.

At the time, I remember thinking that there was this great, affirming, celebratory spirit in worship this morning.  The clapping seemed to me to be saying, "We are all so happy to be here, in the presence of God."

Later on, I suspected that not everyone shared this interpretation.  In some worship circles, it is not considered appropriate to clap after the special music, not matter how glad it makes you feel.  The music is an offering to God, not a concert, they would say, and I suppose they have a point.  But still, what do you do if the music makes you feel so glad that you want to do something?  What if you want to clap, not because you think you are at a performance, but because the music makes you want to DO something?

I always thought that the Pentecostals dealt with this admirably by encouraging people to give what they called "a clap offering to the Lord."  If the music makes you feel like doing something, they said, go ahead and do it, but remember to do it for God.  Once, when I told a non-Pentecostal this, she looked at me as if I was trying to sell her some questionable real estate in Florida.

Perhaps one of the first things to do (and not just with regard to clapping) is to take a deep breath and realize that we don't know why someone does what they do during worship.  Actions that are normal for one set of worshippers seem odd or even inappropriate to others.  Yes it is true:  clapping is an act of worship.  (The Psalms even say so.)  Kneeling is an act of worship.  Making the sign of the cross is an act of worship.  Silence is an act of worship, reverent and full for some, odd and maybe even inappropriate for others.

A couple of years ago during the offering, our gifted pianist accompanied himself in a heartfelt version of the gospel song, "To God be the Glory."  It was electric.  He sang and played full of spirit and emotion.  After he was finished, I expected people to clap.  They often do.  But there was silence -- full, reverent and yet somehow also uncomfortable.  One person even asked me after the service, "Why didn't we clap?"  It was as if they did not totally understand their own actions.

It was an act of worship.

It was an act of worship, just like clapping, and the Spirit moved us, just as the Spirit moves us to put our hands together, because we are full of joy, and we want to do something.

Perhaps the question is not whether to clap or to keep silence, but to listen to the Spirit, who is inviting us to do both, and even more: to live to the glory of God.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Beautiful Summer Morning Outdoors with Coffee and Conversation

A couple of weeks ago I had an appointment to meet a young woman whose wedding I officiated at a few years ago.  She and her husband are not members of my congregation; I got to know them through her grandmother, who I knew quite well as a devout and active member.  ("She talked about Jesus all the time," someone said about her at her funeral.)

I had enjoyed getting to know this young couple during our pre-marital sessions.  I remembered their wedding on a September evening in a nearby park.  I remembered how fun it was.  Occasionally, I would still run into them because of our church and family connections.  But lately, she had been emailing me regarding baptism for their two young children.

We have a policy that we baptize people at one of our church services (although I have been known to bend this rule for extenuating circumstances).  We also, generally speaking, baptize the children of members of the congregation.  There have been times when complete strangers call us on the phone and ask if we will just baptize their child.  They have never been to our church before, and they they don't intend to become regular attenders.  They just wonder if we will "do a baptism."

In these instances, it is not so difficult to say "no."

But this was different.  I had a relationship with this couple.  I wanted to know what they were thinking about; I wanted to know about their faith, their questions, their convictions, their doubts.  So one summer morning we set up an appointment to have coffee.

We got caught up with each other's lives.  I learned a little about their two young boys, the ones who would be baptized.  We talked about the importance of growing up in a faith community, the connection between baptism and the people who will help the baptized grow in their faith.

She talked about how hard it was to find a church, although they had visited several.  They just hadn't found the right one yet.  She confessed that the church she liked the best so far was the church her mother went to.  But that church only had baby dedications, not baptisms, and they felt they wanted more for their children.

So we talked a little bit about the difference between baptism and dedication, me being careful to speak with the utmost respect about the practice of baby dedication, even though it is not my tradition.  I also recommended some churches of our denomination in her neighborhood that I thought they might like.  Then I asked (because I was curious):

"Just what is it about your mother's church that your like so well?"

As it turns out, there were two practices that attracted her to this faith community.  At worship, there was a time for people to get up and tell stories about their faith.  These were genuine, warm and truthful moments for her.  She wanted to belong to a community where people shared their faith.

The other practice that attracted her was service.  This congregation gave her opportunities to serve.

*****
It was not the choir, not the dynamic preaching, not even the warm personality of the senior pastor.  It was not the theology (liberal or conservative), not the architecture, not the amazing array of educational programs.

It was the ability to share faith, and the commitment to service. 

Now I know that this was an isolated conversation, just one anecdote.  But something rings true about it for me, as a mainline Christian in a denomination that I am convinced still has a lot to offer.  We don't even know how much most of the time.  We take beautiful liturgy for granted.  We don't often plumb the depths of our own theology, all of the wideness of grace amid the persistent questions.  

I am convinced that mainline Christians have a lot to offer the world.  But I am also convinced that we have some things to learn.  For example, we have to get over our reticence in speaking about our faith.  Whether we know it or not, we do have a faith story, that we have many faith stories, and we need to learn to tell them, too.  This is something we need to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters, from the richness of their traditions.  

We need to learn to testify.  We need to learn to testify to the goodness of God in our lives.  

We don't have to hand out tracts, and we don't have to accost people on street corners.  We just have to learn to say, "Here's where I saw God last week."

He was in a stranger that I met; he was in the streak of sunlight that fell across the page of a book I was reading;  He was in a conversation I had, a conversation with coffee on a summer morning.