Monday, October 20, 2014

Remembering Why I Said 'Yes'

Tonight I went to an ordination.  I got to be present when a new pastor made her vows, promised to be faithful, put on her stole.  I was thinking about how tired I get, sometimes.  I was thinking about how everyone says the church is declining, on its way out.  Then I went to church, tonight, and I thought back to the weekend.

Well, actually, Saturday.  I remembered Saturday afternoon.

It was a busy Saturday at church.  While preparations were underway for a large wedding in the sanctuary, I was preparing for the evening chapel service, where I was preaching and presiding.

There were also going to be three baptisms at the evening service.

At the appropriate time, children, parents and a host of godparents showed up for the pre-baptism preparation and a little bit of rehearsal.  There were two brothers and a little girl, and more baptismal sponsors than I could keep track of.

I always like to begin with a conversation about the meaning of baptism in our tradition.  I pass out a booklet that I like, and ask everyone to turn to a particular page, filled with scripture passages and small cartoons that illustrate all the different meanings and and dimensions of baptism.  I ask people to pick their favorite "picture", and we talk about why they like that particular picture.  So one of the baptismal sponsors said that she really liked the picture of the ark, and we talked about how the church has imagined baptism to be like a passage on Noah's ark, being saved from the waters of chaos and death.  Another person offered as his favorite picture of baptism the tree, with a branch being grafted in.  Still another person really liked the image of being adopted into God's family.  We talked about baptism being about both our relationship with God and our relationship with other members of God's family.

"Can you get baptized many times?" someone asked.  We talked about the fact that some people do get baptized many times, but that our tradition believes that only once is necessary, that the promise lasts forever.

"Have you ever done a baptism in a river?" one of the baptism sponsors asked, a little abruptly.

"No,"I admitted.  "I wouldn't be against it, but I haven't had the opportunity."

"I have been reading about river baptisms," she said.  "I like the imagery of flowing water, and what it means about life."

"Yes, that is great imagery," I agreed.  "A healthy river has an inlet and an outlet.  But most of our healthy lakes do too.  You could get baptized in a lake, as long as it isn't the middle of winter."

We talked more about rivers and water and God's promises to us.  I felt a thirst in the room, a curiosity, that reminded me of why I went to seminary in the first place, studying Greek and Hebrew, Pastoral Care and Systematic Theology.  It wasn't to prop up an institution, to try to get people to join a social club, to get more people to attend events.

It was about having conversations that mattered, about faith and doubt and questions, rivers, lakes and streams, where to find God.  It was about breaking bread and pouring wine, putting my hands in the water and letting it run through my fingers.  It was about death and life and the yearning inside each of us.

Later on, we all went to the chapel for the worship service and baptisms.  The woman who had the questions volunteered to be my assistant, pouring the water into the font and holding the candles that we gave to each of the children.

I laid my hand on three small heads and prayed for them by name.  And three small hands each tried to push my hand away while I was praying.

When I dipped my finger in the oil and said, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever," one of the fathers whispered to his little boy, "This is the best part."

After the worship service, the woman with the questions came up to me and asked me a couple more questions about baptism.

"You don't do baptisms for hire, do you?" she asked.

I shook my head no.

But I would have loved the chance to have another conversation with her.

Tonight I went to an ordination.  A new pastor heard and made promises, promised to serve Christ and Christ's people.  A new pastor put on the yoke, broke the bread and said the words of life to us.  And I remembered.  I remembered again why I "said" yes.

Water. Wine.  Questions.  Promises.  A river with an inlet and an outlet.  Life.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Give

This year, for the first time, I get to practice and sing with the choir occasionally.  The schedule doesn't always line up:  sometimes I am teaching confirmation on Wednesdays, and sometimes the choir sings during communion (which doesn't work out at all logistically).  But it is great to be with them, to be with the community and exercise my voice and hear and make the harmonies.

The children practice right before we do, in the same room.  So one of the great things that happens on Wednesday evening is the great meeting in the hallway, as the Adult Choir members are walking down to the choir room to take their seats, and the door opens and the children begin running down the hallway toward us.  They are exuberant from singing.

The choir member next to me Wednesday, a mother of four daughters,  turned to me as we walked and she just stopped.  She turned to me and said, "I love this time."  She looked at all of the children running.  She was looking for a particular little girl, and when they saw each other, the woman bent down and the little girl ran into her arms.  Then she lifted the dimpled little girl up in a hug about as wide as the love of God.

This happens every week.

That's why I give.

The woman and the little girl are not related to each other.  The woman is not the little girl's mother, or aunt, or sister, or grandmother.  They are not related.  Except of course, they are.  They are related by baptism, which is thicker than blood, although most of us don't recognize it most of the time.  They are related by this community of faith that they belong to together, where they show each other a piece of the love of God incarnate, and where together they show that fleshly love to the world.

In most of our world, the stories that are told are about us as individuals.  We succeed or fail on our own steam, by our own power.  Our virtues and our sins are individual.  And what we have belongs to us as well, to be generous or stingy with, as we see fit.

But the truth is that we are all related.  We are a part of one another.  Our actions or inactions affect each other's lives.  We are a community, not simply a collection of individuals, and we belong to God, and we belong to one another.  It's hard to notice most of the time, because we are so busy running in so many directions.  When I come to church, I remember.  We run into each other's arms, we open our hands and share bread and wine, we sing harmony, we fight and forgive each other, and I remember.  I remember that we are a part of one another, and that God has given us to each other for a purpose, and I'm a part of that purpose.

That's why I give.

It's true, of course, that I give because I am often overwhelmed by the riches of God in Jesus Christ for me.  I give because my heart is overflowing.

It's also true that I give out of obligation.  I know that God wants me to give, because it all belongs to God anyway, and God is just letting me take care of God's 'stuff' for awhile.

But I give to my church because we are all related, we are related to one another by baptism, which is thicker than blood, although it is hard to remember that.  I give to my church because the cross that is traced on my forehead is traced on every forehead; we belong to each other, and that is wonderful, and it is impossible, and it is essential.  We have been given this impossible mission, this story to share, this story of God who created and who mends our hearts, and wants us to join in mending the world.  And it is impossible to do it alone.

That's why I give.  I give because these are my children, and they are my grandmothers, and they are my aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers.

And I am sure of just one thing:  when we give, we are running into each other's arms.  And we are running into God's arms, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Native and Foreign Languages

At our new Sunday evening service and mission start, I am learning Spanish.  I stand next to a woman from Ecuador, and she helps me pronounce the words to songs I am learning.  I don't know the meaning of most of the words yet, but at least I am learning good pronunciation.

In the meantime, I am teaching her a little about intervals.  "We are singing that line wrong," I mention. "It is supposed to be a third.  Like this."  I sing the line.  I am pretty sure I have the musical line down right.  The pronunciation is a work in progress.

It is basic church:  we sing, we pray, we talk to each other.  Our liturgy is simple.  We eat together:  bread and wine, but dinner too.  And we are learning English and Spanish.  And music.

It's a start.

A long time ago, I lived and worshipped and taught in Japan.  I learned some Japanese, a little in school, some more from living and having experiences.  I discovered then that learning a language is more than learning words and pronunciations; that the language you speak affects your perception of reality.  In Japanese, for example, there is no "future" tense.  The way you indicate the future is by speaking of uncertainty.  In English we have no problem speaking confidently about things that haven't happened yet.

When I served in rural South Dakota, I was pretty sure that we were speaking the same language.  But in truth, there were nuances of language that I didn't understand, that I had to learn:  the language of "yields", the rhythms of the seasons, how to take the wind seriously.

These days, the church I am serving has started a Sunday evening service, in Spanish and in English.  But there are more languages we are learning, or not learning, on Sunday evening, or morning, or at other times.  We have been playing around with our worship services over the past couple of years, going from two different services, to one blended service, and we have been having conversations about worship and faith formation and what it means to be a disciple.  We have realized that it is so easy to speak about "church" and "worship" in terms of "what I like", or "what I prefer."  People choose a church because it has the music they like, or because it has a youth program they like, or because the worship time works for their family.

When I have met with people who are joining our congregation, these are the things that they specify most often:  worship times; times of Sunday school; youth program; worship style.  I think it is unavoidable because this is the language we speak in the rest of our life.

It is the language of choice.  It is the language that consumers speak.  And we are all consumers.  It is the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

But somewhere along the line, if we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus, we will need to become bilingual, learning foreign words like "community" and "purpose", "mission" and "neighbor."   Perhaps at first, it will be enough to learn to sing the line, or perhaps to pronounce the words, without knowing what they mean, or to taste bread with a different flavor than we are used to.  Later we will sit down with one another, rise up to go to the world, and realize that we are here for reasons so different than we had originally planned.  We are being transformed when we just came to get a piece of bread; we are changing the world when all we planned to do was sing a song.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The People Who Raised Me

The other night my mother called and left me a message.  She mentioned a name -- the name of someone I knew a long long ago.  One of a couple that were my parents' friends for many years.  She told me that he had died, and that his funeral would be this Friday.

When she said the name, I felt suddenly transported to my childhood.  I began to remember my parents' circle of friends.  I have known them all for over fifty years.  A few of them had been childhood friends of my father; they went to Sunday school and confirmation together.  They were part of a group for newly married couples, called (of all things) the Merry Mates.

After a few years, none of them attended the same church anymore.  They had moved out to the suburbs and joined other churches.  But they continued to get together for social events:  birthdays, summer picnics, camping, Christmas parties.  There were informal concerts put on by some of the children.  There was the annual "Wizard of Oz" movie viewing event, complete with the children's re-enactment after the movie was over.  A couple of times I remember bringing along pajamas and going to sleep on someone else's floor; later on we woke up and were carried out to our car to go home to our own beds.

One of the couples later became missionaries to Papua, New Guinea.  My Barbie dolls, dressed up, played a featured role in the decorations for their going-away party.

One of my first arguments about contemporary worship was with one of my parents' friends.  I thought we should have a lot of 'new songs', like in Psalm 98.  "Sing to the Lord a new song!"  She said she didn't really feel like she was worshipping if she had to work hard learning all of the notes and words.  At the time, I didn't really know where she was coming from.  Now, even though I still love learning new songs, I also know the special gift of singing what you know by heart, as well.

Two of the friends eventually became estranged.  One of them has a daughter who is gay; the other believes that being gay is against God's will.  My mother remains friends with both of them.

When I think back, these were the people who raised me, not just my own parents, but all of these other couples.  They set examples for me: not of heroism, but of kindness.  They did not make fun of the children.  They were faithful to their friends.  They weren't perfect.  But they were good.

The people who raised me are dying.  One of the men had Parkinsons, like my dad.  One of the women had cancer.  Another of the women has Alzheimers.  Her husband stays with her every day.  I remember when I was in Japan, he wrote me letters.  She told me, "I would write to you, but if I did, he would stop, and I think it's good he writes."

The people who raised me are dying.  They taught me what it meant to be human, to laugh, to listen, not to make fun of the children, to be kind.

They showed me what faithfulness looks like, like a small ordinary thing, rare as a diamond, beautiful as an autumn maple leaf.

The people who raised me are dying.  May they live forever.

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.


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


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.