Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learning to See: God-sightings, Part 2

As our informal summer outdoor worship service, "picnic church", winds down, we have added one additional element to our weekly order of service. " God-sightings", it is called.  Instead of bird-watching, keeping an eye out for cardinals, or sparrows, or even the occasional catbird, we are to keep our eyes open for God, lurking about in our lives and neighborhoods.

Two weeks ago, we introduced "God-sightings" after our high school students returned from their annual mission trip.  We asked two of the young people to share a bit of their experiences, and called them  "God-sightings."  Easy-peasy.

The next week, after the message and after the scripture reading, we asked again.  We began by affirming that God is with us through every aspect of our lives.  God is in the world.  God is very near, we reminded people.  Then we asked the question, "Where have you seen God lately?"

There was an awkward silence.  I felt a little disappointed.  Hadn't anyone seen God in the last week?  God really is all around us.

I realized later that it perhaps was not a fair experiment.  We don't have a lot of practice in my faith tradition talking about where we have seen God.  Even I didn't realize until an hour after the service that I could have testified that I saw God at two weddings the previous weekend.   Four people were brave and foolish enough to pledge lifelong faithfulness to one another, holding hands out on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon.  I saw God in those four hands, and heard God's voice in those promises.  But it took awhile to remember, even for me.

I also realized a deep truth from my own faith tradition:  yes, God is everywhere, God is very near, but God is also hidden.  Sometimes God is very hidden, especially in the dark tragedies of so many current events these days, in the personal griefs and fears of our lives.  Why should I be surprised when it is not automatically easy to testify about where you have seen God hiding during the past week?  God is everywhere, but not obvious.  Seeing takes practice.  Speaking about what we have seen also takes practice.

With these realizations in mind, here are a few practices that might help us to see God:

1.  Begin with prayer.  It is as simple as the request of blind Bartimaeus, outside Jericho.  What do you want me to do for you?, Jesus asks him.  "My teacher, let me see again,"  he replies.  That's all.  Just "My teacher, let me see again."  And then, let Jesus teach us.

2.  Go small.  Go for the fleeting glimpses, for the whispers, not the shouts.  If God is present (as we say) in water, bread and wine, God is present in other small, and ordinary things.  And people.  The cardinal may only be in your front yard for a moment, not long enough to take a picture -- and yet, yes, in the cardinal I recognize something.  A tongue of flame, perhaps?  A moment of glory.  I love the beginning of Luke, Chapter 3.  While Luke sets the scene and the timing by telling us all about who was emperor of Rome, and who was governor, and who was ruler in Judea, he goes on to say that the word of the Lord came to "John, in the wilderness."  Rather than in the seats of power, where everyone expected the action to be, the people saw God out in the wilderness, standing in the river Jordan.

3.  Look not for individuals, but relationships.  Pay attention to service, acts of mercy, small sacrifices, what we do for love.  Imagine what "grace" would look like, if grace were a painting, or a sculpture, or a movie.

Once, long ago, I was at an outdoor concert.  I saw a couple not far from me, a man in a wheelchair, along with his wife.  At the start of one of a song, I noticed from the corner of my eye, that she began to dance with him, moving the wheelchair gracefully.  They turned in circles together, moving to the music, pirouetting back and forth.  I saw God then.  I saw God in the dance.

4.  Pay attention not just to success, but to failure.  Pay attention to what is broken. Pay attention to the broken pieces, the shards, the tears, and to joy.  Pay attention to what, and who, needs healing.  Pay attention to what is bent over.  

I see God every week in a man from my congregation.  He walks bent over.  I know the reason why.  I knew his wife, who had contracted polio as a young mother.  She recovered, but later on contracted post-polio syndrome.  Every week they came to church together, and he had to help her, to carry her.  They also often went out to concerts and theatre.  For many years he lifted her and carried her.  Now he walks bent over.  And I see God.

Where have you seen God this week?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

God-sightings

I like this picture so much, from one of the two weddings that I officiated last Saturday afternoon.  It was a hot and sticky day, but it did not rain, and for that we gave thanks.

t am not sure, but I think this picture
was taken when a friend of the couple read a poem, "How Falling In Love is Like Owning a Dog,"by Taylor Mali.  The poem was so funny, and so truthful.  It even had these great lines in it,
"Love leaves messes.
Love leaves you little surprises here and there.
Love needs a lot of cleaning up after."

You can perhaps see why we are all smiling.

That reading, combined with verses from Ecclesiastes 4 and Colossians 3, made it a holy and joyful wedding day.

Here is a picture from the other wedding on that hot summer day:

At that wedding, the readings were from 1 Corinthians 13 (Love bears all things) and Ecclesiastes 4.  The groom wanted them to write their own vows.  The bride felt a little anxious about it.  So they wrote their vows together.  They were beautiful.

At picnic church tonight, someone asked if there were any God-sightings this week.  
No one said anything.
We are not yet used to being asked that question.
We see God in many places, but we don't notice.

Tonight I wish I had said this:
"I saw God on Saturday afternoon when two couples made promises to each other."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Doors

This summer we started a new ministry:  a Wednesday all-day program for children.  The children come for fun and games and Bible stories and crafts.  At the end of the day we invite everyone to stay for a picnic on our front lawn, culminating in an informal church service on our front lawn, which we have nicknamed 'Picnic Church."

Picnic church has been pretty successful for us.  Not all of the children stay for supper every week, but we have had a good mix of people from our own congregation and people from our neighborhood.  Some of them just come for the picnic, of course; others have stayed for church, but I haven't seen them again.  A few have come every week, and we've gotten to know their names.

For me, one of the things I love is that when someone comes in for a gas voucher, I can give the letter, tell them about the local food shelf, and then invite them to Picnic Church.

I have been wondering what made Picnic Church successful where other attempts at evangelism have fallen flat.  I have supposed that it had something to do with the informality of the outdoors and the atmosphere.  I have hazarded the guess that there is an addictive substance in grilled hamburgers and hot dogs that beckons people to come.

But, in the end, I decided that it has something to do with doors.

Or specifically, it has to do with the fact that there are no doors on the Picnic Church.

On Wednesday, out on our wonderful front lawn (our front lawn is wonderful), I have on occasion glanced over at the front door to our church.  It's a beautiful church, with stained glass windows.  The first set of doors, though, just leads into the our narthex.  If you want to go into the sanctuary, you have to go through two sets of doors.

I had never thought of that before.

I considered that it might be intimidating to have to go through not one, but two sets of doors, and to sit down and worship with a bunch of strangers.  They may be singing that "All Are Welcome", but it might not feel like it, not really.  It might just be too hard to go through those two sets of doors, into that building that seems like someone else's house.  The doors are thick and heavy, and mark the difference between inside and outside.

At "Picnic Church" you don't have to go through those doors.  There are no doors.

Maybe there is another reason that "Picnic Church" has been successful.  Maybe it is we who are different.  Out there on the lawn, the church is not a building that we built, that belongs to us, that we have to guard and protect.  Out there on the church, we are neighbors and strangers, not insiders and outsiders.  Out there on the lawn we are all hungry, and the grace we all receive does not belong to us, any more than the church, with its heavy doors, belongs to us.

We have not ventured far:  just the front lawn.  But it is a first step out into the neighborhood, the world where God waits, outside the doors.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday Night: Trying to Figure out What to Say

This week I have been filled up with bad news.  Filled to the brim with sadness, with violence, with despair.  I keep reading stories about police violence and racism, about the despair of being hunted down because of your religion, about death by depression, about pain that does not go away.

And I want to say something.  I know God wants me to say something, too.  I am a preacher, and one of my jobs is to preach light in the darkness.  I want to point to God, and say, despite everything, God has not absconded with the goods.  

Not only that, there have been many essays written this week admonishing us (me) to Say Something. I do take it personally.  I feel like they are talking directly to me, even though I am not preaching this weekend.  They are saying:  Put on your Big Girl Pants and Get Out There and Preach.  Preach the reality of the world, and God's fierce presence in it.

This is where I started:

Sometimes I am rendered 
speechless
at the world.
just at the time
when I think the world
demands a word.

Tonight I am not in Ferguson, Missouri.
I am not fleeing persecution in Iraq.
I am not at the border where children wait.
I am not in Gaza, not in Israel, not in Syria.
I do not know the deep darkness of depression
from the inside out.

Lord, give me ears to hear
in humility
the stories of those who are there,
who live injustice,
who carry fear,
who long for life.

Help me bear witness
when the world demands
a word
and I am speechless.

Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

If I Don't Write it Down, I Might Forget

Not long after I arrived at this current congregation many years ago, we began to get a phone call every Saturday afternoon.  The caller always asked who was preaching that weekend.

The Saturday receptionist started getting curious, so the phone calls got a little longer.  The caller was an elderly gentleman who usually came to the early service on Sunday morning.  He wanted to know if the associate pastor was preaching.  He liked the preaching of the associate pastor, and would make sure to come she was the one who was preaching.

We had a little joke about it.  The receptionist called him my "fan."  It is nice to have a fan, I decided.  If I was in the office when he called, sometimes she would transfer the call back to me.  When I saw him on Sunday morning, I would say hello to him and ask him how he was doing.   He had a round face and thick glasses and a great smile.  He looked like an elderly scholar.

I know that he had a family, because he talked about them, but I didn't know them.  I never met them.  He came to church by myself.  There were a few other widowers who liked to come to the early service.  They always sat together.

I don't remember his name any more.

At some point, the Saturday afternoon calls stopped.

We did a little checking, and found out that he was in a nursing home nearby.  We put him on our shut-in list.  I asked to visit him, but we had a seminary intern at the time, and the other pastor felt that it was better for the seminary intern to be the regular visitor, since he made other visits at the same nursing home.

Even so, I did stop by on occasion, especially when I was leading a church service at the facility.  He seemed to move around a lot in the nursing home.  Or, maybe I just didn't visit as often as I should have.

One day, when I came into his room to visit with him, he looked at me over his thick glasses and said, "Who are you?"

It broke my heart, just a little.

And then, one day, I went to visit him and he wasn't there.  He had died.

No one called us.

I don't remember his name any more.

I'm writing this so that I don't forget.  And if I do, maybe someone else will tell the story.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Elijah without Exegesis

I learned the story of Elijah before I ever studied it from a Bible.

This is not because I grew up unchurched and never opened a Bible.  Indeed, I was very regular in worship and went to Sunday School every week, although I really don't remember ever getting to the prophets.  (I feel like our Old Testament study sort of stalled out over Solomon.)  I may have heard the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb in worship, but, if I did, it didn't make an impression on me.

I learned the story of Elijah in public school, when my high school choir sang Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah."

My high school choir's tradition was to learn an oratorio every winter.  When I was in tenth grade, we sang great excerpts of Hayden's "The Creation."  (I used to love to walk into my English class right after lunch, turn on the light, and sing, "AND THERE WAS LIGHT!")  My junior year, we sang the "Messiah."  My senior year, we learned The Elijah.

We did not learn the whole oratorio, but we learned and performed a pretty impressive chunk of it, enough to get the gist of the story, enough to perform for our winter concert.  We also joined area high school for a mass performance later in the spring.

There we were, thousands of high school students, singing about the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al, wicked King Ahab and his even more wicked wife, Jezebel.  It boggles my mind even to think back on it.

What a way to learn the Bible, going over and over difficult musical interludes, listening to soloists practice soliloquies, going into section rehearsals.  I still remember that the first Chorus begins with the word, "Help Lord!  Wilt thou quite destroy us?", and that our choir director warned us to make sure we pronounced the 'p' on Help.  I remember that a wonderful baritone from our school sang Elijah's part (although we had professionals for the mass choir).  Elijah's solo, "It is enough" was so heart-rending.  The song "He watching over Israel" was one of my favorite pieces.

But the action between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al was the highlight of the piece for me.  We played the prophets of Ba'al, with our increasingly frantic prayers, while Elijah taunted us between our outbursts.  The choir director let us in on the secret meaning of some of Elijah's Ba'al insulting taunts. The piece where Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb was also dramatic, the music matching the words in tension, the voices sounding like wind and chaos and -- eventually -- peace.

I went out and bought the three-album set of the whole oratorio.  Eventually I even bought my own copy of the music and looked up Bible references in my Bible concordance (I found out that they aren't all from 1st Kings; not even all from the Old Testament).

I know, it was geeky way to learn a Bible story.  I mean, how many teenagers that you know are interested in singing huge sections of scripture to tunes written in the 19th Century?

We did.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a Bible story.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a sermon.  I learned about Elijah without anyone telling me what it meant, or what it was supposed to mean, or where it fit in the great narrative of the Bible.  I didn't think about what it might mean that the Lord was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.

It was a good story, and I was in it.  We were inside the story.  We were playing the people of Israel, and the prophets of Ba'al, the bad guys and the good guys, the saints and the sinners, the doubters and the believers.  We were inside the story, not understanding it, just singing it.

But the thing is, later on, I got curious.  It made me want to study, even.

I know.  It's a geeky way to learn a Bible story.  But still, it makes me think:  being curious is more important, in some ways, than understanding.  And being inside the story, however you might manage it:  is the beginning of wisdom.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

All the Pretty Little Parables

Here's a secret:  I like the little parables, the ones we heard in church last week (mustard seed, yeast, treasure-in-field, pearl, net-of-fish) better than many of the longer parables that Jesus tells.  I especially like these little parables better than the parables where Jesus has to break down and give an explanation of the parable a little while later.   I prefer the eye-brow raising ambiguity of these stories more than the dreadful clarity of the parable of the sower, or at least its explanation.  Perhaps I just prefer ambiguity.  Or the possibility of a surplus of meaning.

There they are, a handful of one-sentence stories, challenging me to squeeze the Kingdom of God into six words, or a 120 character tweet, or a three-line haiku.  They are the Shortest Parables Ever, full of simple complexity, or complex simplicity.  They seem to mean one thing, but if you turn them over, and look on the underside, you discover unknown world.  The mustard seed seems to be a parable about tiny seeds growing into great trees, until you realize that the mustard tree is really a bush, not a tree, and to make matters worse, an invasive species, like buckthorn or creeping charlie or even the oregano I didn't plant this year, but which appeared anyway.  The mustard seeds seems to be a nice parable about the smallest amount of faith doing wonderful things, until you start thinking about what it means to be an invasive species in a world that isn't always wild about you.

They are all like that, these parables.  Think harder about the treasure in the field, and how weird it is that the man finds the treasure and then hides it again in the field.  Why not just take the treasure?  No, he hides it and then he goes and sells everything he has so he can be the whole field.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.  Get it?  (Okay, not really.)  There's an irrational, extravagant, even wasteful joy to it.

I tell you, it makes me hear the story this week:  the story of the feeding of the five thousand, in a whole different way.  Having come from three straight weeks of parables, I can't totally get them out of my system.  I still think I'm hearing a story.  I want to say:  "The Kingdom of heaven is like five loaves and two fish, which, when they were divided up and shared, were enough to feed everyone, with leftovers."

Or possibly, I want to say, "The Kingdom of heaven is like 5,000 uninvited guests (not including women and children) who come over when all you wanted was to be alone."

I used to think that the issue with this parable was whether or not it really was a miracle.  Did Jesus really feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes?  Did the menu literally expand?  There are those who say that what really happened was that hearts expanded instead; when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it, all of those who were so afraid to share what they had suddenly changed their minds.  There was always enough.  They just had to decide to share it.

But now I'm thinking of the story as a parable, just like those last three weeks of parables, just like the little parables we heard last week.  It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, where in the midst of grieving and injustice, God is making a new world:  delicious, messy, with more leftovers than we can handle.  It also invites us to see parables in the stuff of our own lives:  ordinary, abundant, miraculous, ambiguous.

Once, long ago, I lived for a month with a small group of German Lutheran sisters out in the desert in Arizona.  They lived by faith, they said, which means that they did not go shopping, but gardened and prayed and trusted God for their food.  I was not sure how it worked.  But I remember one Sunday evening when our cupboards were bare, that we sat in the living room and prayed and prayed.  While we were praying the doorbell rang.  Someone had dropped off two bags of groceries.  I knew that I couldn't count on things like this happening all the time.  At the same time I also knew:  the kingdom of heaven is similar to this.

So the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast, a pearl, a net -- and five loaves and two fish divided, which were enough.  The Kingdom of heaven is like a fresh bouquet of flowers left outside your door, or like a ball of yarn of many colors, being woven into a mysterious garment fit for a king.  The kingdom of heaven is like a room at the nursing home, where an old woman lays dying, when a young woman runs in and tenderly kisses her on the forehead.  The Kingdom of heaven is like that.

Get it?  (Not entirely, I admit.)

But that is all right.  There is more to life than understanding.  There is the surplus of meaning, the Kingdom of heaven breaking in, breaking our hearts, feeding us, in more ways than one.