Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't Make the Gift Too Ethereal

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down for supper at the community meal hosted by our congregation.  At the table was a young family from our congregation and a woman from our congregation, a woman I didn't know.  We had a good time sharing small talk with one another, trying to convince the two young children that the turkey casserole was just as delicious as pizza, and sharing small bits of our lives.

After some time the children and their father left, the children off to choir practice, and I continued to talk with the woman for a little while.  I don't remember either of us saying anything very earth-shaking.  She praised the food and the company.  She said she really enjoyed coming here for supper and mentioned that she had attended funerals at our church, on occasion.  Then she looked around and said that she really liked the fact that there were all ages, including children, eating supper together.  "There aren't any children in my life right now," she said.

This past week I didn't see her at supper;  I had finished early so that I could prepare my short advent meditation for the worship that evening.  However, I saw her in passing right before worship and she mentioned that she had left a small gift in my mailbox.

The next day I discovered it:  a short note thanking me for our conversation the previous week, along with two bottles of Ensure and a "Bless Our Home" wall-hanging.  She said I should use those things however I saw fit.

A lot of people say they are praying for me, but I have to say that I was touched by this particular gift.  It was something simple and ordinary and real, and it was not ethereal at all.  It was not a symbol of Hope or World Peace, not a great grand gesture which is a symbol of Something Else Entirely.

It's been one of those Advents for me, when everything seems to be getting away from me.  I always have these great intentions of devotional discipline during Advent.  I will light candles.  I will write.  I will read.  I will pray.  I will move along the path toward enlightenment, and then I will share that enlightenment with my congregation.  But, to be honest, the enlightenment has mostly eluded me this year.  I keep saying that Advent is about waiting, about watching, about preparing.  But all of those things seem very ethereal to me right now, slipping through my fingers like a piece of thick fog.

But then there are two bottles of Ensure and a wall-hanging.  I can hold them in my hands.  They are a gift to use as I see fit.

I am thinking about laying off the deeper meanings of Advent for awhile, and just holding on to the ordinary things, the things I can touch:  a simple meal, a few words, a small gift to use as I see fit.  Instead of straining toward a far horizon, I will touch, and look at what is right in front of me.  And I will say that somehow, God is right here, at the table, in the simple mess, not ethereal at all.

Take and eat.
Taste and see.
The true meaning of Advent.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Say You Want To Be Inclusive

My church wants to be more inclusive.  We have been saying this for awhile now.  We have been saying it more and more, as we look around the neighborhood where we are located, and notice that more and more people who live here don't look like "us".  Some of our neighbors are immigrants, and speak other languages.  Some of our neighbors have less money than "us" or are from different ethnic groups than those traditionally associated with our denomination.

So, my church wants to be more inclusive.  We understand (or at least a substantial number of us do) that it is theologically right for us to want to be more inclusive.  We understand that the realm of God is much more diverse than our congregation.  We understand that when we gather at the river, by and by, when we look around at who is gathered with us, it will look a lot different than our congregation does now.  Our hearts are in the right place, as far as it goes.

But I suspect, deep down in my heart, that we have no idea how hard it will be, how hard it really is.  For one thing, we don't even know each other -- not really.  We don't know many of the daily experiences and stories of the people in the pew next to us.  We don't know that some of "us" have less than we think they do, struggle more than we think they do, feel differently than we think they do.  Sometimes I worry that we do not always want to know.  I also suspect that the very word, "inclusive" even has something to do with it.

In the aftermath of the deaths of two unarmed black men, and the grand juries' decisions not to indict the police officers responsible, the slogan #BlackLivesMatter has taken hold.  Though the experiences of people of color often teaches them a different reality, they want to take back the value of their lives.  #BlackLivesMatter, they tell us.  Can we say "Amen"?  Can we affirm that yes, black lives matter, even when so many of their daily experiences tell them otherwise?

But some people want to be more inclusive.

So there is an alternative meme going around:  #AllLivesMatter.  And, although I understand the sentiment, just like I understand the desire of my congregation to be more inclusive, I think it is fundamentally misguided.

We can talk about the value of human life, each life, all lives, in different ways.  We can talk about the realities experienced by people of color, by immigrants, by at-risk children, by the poor, by Alzheimers patients.  But as long as we continue to speak in generalities (We Welcome Everyone!), we are not really welcoming anyone.  As long as we don't listen to the realities of particular people, and particular communities, we won't know how to welcome anyone.  As long as we don't pay attention to the lives, the realities, the stories of those who feel left out, excluded, marginalized, un-welcome, we will not be able to include them.


It's a start.  If we really want to be inclusive.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Small, Important Thing

I had a funeral on Friday, a small funeral in our chapel for a retired teacher from our community.  She had just a few, particular requests for her funeral:  that we would read Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, that we would sing "Beautiful Savior", and that a woman from our congregation would sing.

She did not designate a particular song; she just wanted this woman to sing, an alto from our church's choir.  As it turned out, they had also sung together in a community choir.

I was happy to ask her to sing, and the woman was happy to accept the invitation.  She just had one question for me, "Will you sing with me?"

Back in the day, she and her husband were often asked to sing at funerals.  He had died a few years ago, but people still asked her to sing, on occasion.  So I didn't think she was asking because she didn't want to sing alone.  She was perfectly capable of singing by herself.  Actually, I didn't know why she asked me.

I said yes.

We decided on a song (Abide with Me) and divided up the parts and practiced a couple of times.  I sang soprano on one verse and tenor an octave higher on another verse.  I remembered how I used to sing with my sister, on occasion.  But that was many years ago.  The last time, we sang "Whispering Hope."  I remembered how it felt, singing harmony, singing the melody, hearing our voices blend, the pitches meet and separate.

Afterwards, she said, simply, "I have always wanted to sing with you.  So I thought this was the opportunity."

That's all it was.  It was a small thing.  But it was a gift.

And it is a kind of leadership, too:  to be able to do it alone, but to say:  I have always wanted to do it with you.  I have always wanted to sing with you.  I have always wanted to serve with you.  I have always wanted to teach with you.

It is the grace of leadership.  Or the leadership of grace.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Other Half of the Bible Verse

I worshipped in another church on Sunday, and heard another pastor's sermon.  It was an unusual worship service for me, and not just because I wasn't in charge.  I was also worshipping in a mega-church, with thousands of others (but who's counting), and listening to scripture readings different than the familiar first-Sunday-of-Advent ones.

The sermon that day was on a particular portion of the book of Daniel.  I knew the stories, but had never heard anyone preach on them before.  The stories were carefully set in the context of the Babylonian exile, and the problem of continuing to remember and to worship Israel's God when you are not in Israel anymore.  The stories were carefully set in the context, but the point was contemporary -- the point of the sermon was the pride that leads us to forget that it is really God who is in charge, God who both appoints and rejects rulers.  The ruler in question was, of course, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:  his offending words are "Is this not a magnificent Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?"

The verse that the preacher wanted us to pay attention to is from Daniel 4:17, and it is, actually, just a part of the verse.  He had us repeat the verse with him, as it recurs several times in Nebuchadnezzar's morality tale.  Nebuchadnezzar is going down, says the prophet, until "all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will."

The point?  Don't be proud.  How can you be proud?  If you have anything, it is not because you are so great, it is only because the Most High is sovereign; he gave it to you for his own purposes.  Also:  be a good steward.  Use what you have been given for God's purposes.  That's why you have it, anyway.

So, not bad, really, I thought.  Except that I couldn't get something out of my mind, which was the end of verse 17, which doesn't end with "he gives it to whom he will."

Actually, the complete verse ends, "he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

Somehow I kept thinking that this makes a difference; this changes things.  It's not just a stewardship sermon, not just a morality tale any more.  It's not about power, but inversion of power; it's not just about pride, but it's about looking at the world from upside down and inside out.  It makes me think:  if the idea of my life is to use what God gave me for God's purposes -- well, what are God's purposes, anyway?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to led the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

"He gives [the kingdom of mortals] to whom he will and he sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

This being advent and all, I couldn't help thinking about the lowliest of human beings, the one who came, the one we are waiting for, the one who is here, but incognito.  It's just this small fragment of a Bible verse, but for a moment I thought about the lowly one set over me, the one who guards my life, who has given me his, to use for his purposes.  I thought about the Lowly One set over the world, the prince of a different kind of peace, and what it would mean to live according to his purposes.

What are his purposes, anyway?  A world turned upside down.

It is what I am waiting for.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Incredibly Happy, Incredibly Sad

Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, I worshipped at a mega-church.

I have been with family in Another City for the Thanksgiving Holiday, getting acquainted and re-acquainted with new and old family, eating the familiar feast and giving thanks and having conversations, making sure to talk about some subjects and avoid other subjects.  We walked and shopped and ate and watched movies.

This morning we went to church together.

It was my first time at a real mega-church, although I have been at a few large church services in my day, and I even spent a couple of years among the Pentecostals.  But still, I am older now, and wiser, and it was the first Sunday of Advent, and I wondered what I would think, and how I would feel, standing in a row with some new family and some old family, and worshipping at a mega-church.  I wondered if they would have Advent candles, or if they would acknowledge the season at all, and if so, what difference it would make.

They didn't have candles.  They did say the word "Advent," though, as well as the word "Christmas", and they gave out advent calendars at the end of the service.  They had flashing lights, and a thumping bass rhythm, and songs that rocked.  At the beginning of the service, a piped in choir sang O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Then, we were welcomed, and encouraged to sing along as the band began playing a version of Joy to the World.  The lights went down.   The band played and sang.  We sang.  I sang.

And I felt a lump in my throat, and, I don't know why, a few tears sat in the corners of my eyes, and trickled down.  No one saw.  It was dark.  No one knew.  And I don't know why.  Somehow I was incredibly happy, and somehow I was incredibly sad.

There was a part of a verse when the band tried to drop out and encourage us to sing.  I sang so loud.  We knew the song.  And I think that a lot of us were singing our guts out.  But it hardly made a dent in the huge building, even though it was full of people.  Maybe that's why I felt so incredibly sad.  Here we were, all these people worshipping together, and the sound we made felt so small that morning, and it made me think of how much trouble there is, and how small the sound we make can be.  I thought back to the day before Thanksgiving, when I had a small prayer service in my church.  I encouraged those present to write down what they were thankful for.  And during the prayers I read all of the responses.

Someone wrote, "I am glad I live in a peaceful city, and state."

And that broke my heart, just a little, because I knew that this person was saying that they were thankful that they were not in Ferguson, Missouri.  

Maybe I was thinking about that, and all the other sadnesses, while I was singing and the tears were trickling down my cheeks.  Maybe I was thinking about all of the things that are not right, and how I can sing my heart out and sometimes it feels like no one can hear me.

But then again there were the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come."  And in that darkness I couldn't help but feel the joy in the words that I was singing.  They are advent words, by which I mean they are words not just about the coming of the baby, but about the coming of the King, the coming of the King not just of small hopes, but of large ones, the king who will raise up the lowly and feed the hungry and dry every tear.

We are given that song to sing, and it makes me incredibly happy to sing it, even in the darkness.

It is Advent.  The first day.

And I am incredibly happy.
And incredibly sad.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I have only ever lived in a few places.  Well, four, actually.  Most of my life I have lived in the general vicinity of where I live right now.  The house I grew up in is only about a half hour from my house now.  In college, I lived in a town about an hour and a half away.  The other places I have lived were Kumamoto, Japan, for three years, Denver, Colorado, for one year, and Vienna, South Dakota, for four years.  Otherwise, it's been pretty much here, in this largish city known for its parks and lakes and cold winters, the place where my Scandinavian grandparents came, and stayed, many years ago.

I suppose this is my home.

I envy people who have lived many places.  I wonder what it feels like, sometimes, to have experienced many geographies, many terrains.  For myself, it is hard to imagine living anywhere else.  Then I stop and consider that I have lived other places, although briefly.

I don't know whether I ever considered those other places "home"; I somehow always thought that the compass would point me back here, eventually, that I would wander, but that I would return.

Even so, when I left those other places, I cried.  Every time.  When I left Japan after those three years, I wrote back to my Japanese friends, and said that I felt 'natsukashii' for Japan.  I thought that it meant 'nostalgic,' or that I was simply saying that I missed Japan.  But they told me that I couldn't miss Japan; I couldn't be 'natsukashii', because the word really meant 'homesick', and Japan was not my home.

I cried at the end of that year in Denver too.  All the way to Cheyenne, driving north, I cried.  And I cried when I left after those four years in the big parsonage in rural South Dakota.  Even though I was coming home.

What is home, exactly?  I am not sure.  Even though I call this city 'home', I feel like I have left a part of myself in Denver, South Dakota and Japan.  Each place feels a little bit like home to me, even though I may never see it again.

I think about pastors who have obeyed the Spirit's call to parishes in different parts of the country, or at least in different cities.  If God has called you to Nebraska and to North Dakota, and to Wisconsin, what is home?

Home is a place, but it's not a place, exactly.  Home is a starting point.  From home you know which way is north, even if later in your travels you get confused.  Home is where you are comfortable giving other people directions.  "Home" is a foundation, but it's a destination.  It's where we are from, but it's where we are headed.

 Home is where, finally, you know who you are.

Maybe that's why I cried, when I left those other places.  I knew something about myself when I lived in those places, something different than what I know right now.

I have only ever lived in a few places.  And all of them, and none of them, have been home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Advent Resources

I don't know when I really started loving advent, but I have had this infatuation for a long time.  Maybe it was those four candles on the advent wreath in church.  Who doesn't like lighting candles? Maybe it was all of the verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Maybe it was the Jesse tree.  We never had one, but I had heard of them, and thought they were fascinating.

Whatever it was, it got stronger when I was in college, and I got more pious.  I loved the idea of observing Advent.  I loved the Incarnation.  You can't just rush headlong into the Incarnation.  You need time.  I liked the idea of keeping Christmas at bay, simmering for 24 days or so, until it was ready, really ready.

Despite my love for Advent, though, I have not really been that successful at keeping it.  Although we have an advent wreath, I have not necessarily used it regularly.  I am spectacularly undisciplined, although I have high ideals, and therefore (having high ideals), I have had many many different kinds of advent disciplines and devotionals.  I have had many devotionals which I have mostly left unfinished or become bored with.  After awhile, I can't read the daily snippets any more.

Still, people ask me what I recommend.  Here is what I'll say:

These days my only go-to advent devotional (if you can call it that) is Christmastide, Phyllis Tickle's book of prayers for the Daily Hours.  I think I like it because it doesn't have that daily snippet that most devotional books do.  It just has scripture readings and prayers for different hours of the day.  I am not any more disciplined at doing all of the prayers at all of the hours, but I might hit one or two every day.

One year I used a book of daily essays called Watch for the Light.  I would recommend that one.  The essays are all by different people, with very different pieties and theological backgrounds.  Baptists, Catholics, Mennonites, writers from this century and the 4th century all have a voice.

I find Sybil MacBeth's new book The Season of the Nativity a little too basic in some ways, but very creative in other ways.   I am all for coloring as an Advent discipline.

I think Advent was made for art, so I also recommend Jan Richardson's book Night Visions.

I recommend reading children's books in Advent.  Right now, the one I am in love with is called The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  It is set in Appalachia in 1918.  That is all I am going to say about it.

Other than that, here's what I am going to do during Advent this year:

1.  I am going to light candles.  I might be organized enough to get the wreath out, or I might not, but I will light candles.  I will try to light candles in different colors, at different times, and at different places.
2.  I will take walks in the dark with my dog.  I will think about the dark, and be glad that I have my dog with me.  I will look at the dark, I will notice it.  I will bundle up against the cold.
3.  I will be silent, sometimes.  When I am silent, I will try to remember that the silence is a space for someone else's wisdom, someone else's voice.  I will try to learn from people who are not me.
4.  I will speak, sometimes.  I will try to say things that are hard.  I will remember that the things I say can be short, only a few words.  It is advent, after all.
5.  I will read Luke chapter 1, and Jesus' genealogy in Matthew 1.  Those will be my devotional readings this year.

I might get an advent calendar.  I will let you know.