Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Communion

I held two small first communion classes for a few students from the church.  It had been awhile since I organized a class like this, so I felt a little rusty.  The book that I used to use (and that I loved) had gone out of print.  I cobbled together some resources and we talked about baptism and sacraments and words along with things that you can touch.  We drew pictures and watched a scene from the movie "Holes", and read a couple of stories about meals in the Bible.  We talked a little bit about the Passover, and we ended up talking about trusting God, that God comes to us in this meal.

It was not everything but it was something.

Holy Communion is a meal with many names, I said.  There is more than one meaning to it.  It is life and forgiveness, communion with God, bread for the journey, and even more.  Someday you will know.

We made tiny individual cups at a place called the Potter's Wheel.  We did not bake bread.  I made note to include bread-making the next time I have a first communion class.

And then on Sunday at church two of the three young people were invited to put out their hands and eat the bread and drink the wine.

Then, today, I sat down with two women from my congregation and we talked about taking communion to shut-ins and people in the hospital.  We want to put together a workshop so that a few people from the church can engage in this ministry along with me.  One of the two women talked about how it was important to know who can receive and who can't receive communion.  Her words brought back a memory.

I came with communion to a woman in hospice care.  Her daughter and her daughter's best friend were there.  So were other members of her family.  Her husband was there too.  He had been pretty open with me about his questions about the Christian faith and about his exploration of other spiritual traditions.  So, when we all gathered around in a circle to begin the communion service, I did not know what he would do.

I was surprised when he joined the circle and decided to have communion with us.

It was a long while later that I found out two things:  he was getting remarried, and he was re-commiting to the Christian faith.  He was becoming Catholic, in fact.

What was it that drew him back?

It was the Mass.  Holy Communion.  That's what he said.  There was something about taking communion.  What was it?  Was it life or forgiveness?  Was it bread for the journey?  Communion with God?  Or even more than that?  A foretaste of the feast to come -- all of us sitting in a circle, hands outstretched, the borders between life and death erased?

Someday you will know.

In the meantime, take and eat.

It is Holy Communion.

It is everything, in your hand.



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Today

I have been here almost a year, someone reminded me today, which felt a little to me like chiding.  It felt a little like, "You have been here almost a year; why isn't everything different by now?"  But that might be just me.

Last year at this time I was deciding whether to come; I was praying about whether this was a call from God.  Was God calling me to leave my home in Minnesota and travel south to this congregation called Grace?

Now, I am here.  This morning I had a baptism at the early service, and two young people receiving their first communion at the late service, and the time between and the time after was full as well.  And there are a few things I want to remember from this full morning.

I want to remember the young family sitting in the front pew, with their just-turned-three year old son  on the floor, and their baby boy in their arms.  The three year old had spilled his cup full of cereal, and at the beginning of the service he was gathering up the fragments, in earnest.  I want to remember how the little boy whispered a little during the service, and how I loved to hear it; I didn't mind at all.  I want to remember the baby's cry when I poured the water over his head, but how he smiled afterwards, and loved to be cooed over by the members of the congregation.  And I want to remember how his big brother folded his hands and said the Lord's Prayer with all of the other members of the congregation.

After the service there was a Question and Answer time with regarding to our church council's one year plan.  There were no softball questions, like last year when I was here for a dinner and a Meet and Greet last year, and people asked me questions about my husband and my dog and "How would I like to go on a mission trip to Peru?"  This year the questions were good but hard, about our specific goals and how we could communicate better about both mission and building goals.  This year someone asked why the plan was only for a year, and that other person reminded everyone that I had already been here "almost a year."

It is true that I have not tried very many new things yet; we have made a couple of small, tentative steps toward Cross Generational Ministry; we are moving forward with a possible new music director; I have tried just a few small things in worship.  I have been here almost a year.

At the second service we had two young people receiving their first communion.  I want to remember how the two families were sitting in the front rows, nervous and smiling.  I want to remember how the children came up for the children's message, and afterwards shared cards and high fives with everyone in church, telling them that "Jesus loves you!"  I want to remember "Lord, I lift your name on high" and I want to remember the small cups of wine, created by the communion students, and how their families stood behind them when they received the bread and wine for the first time.

Last year at this time, I didn't know them.

After the second service, we had a meeting for Children Youth and Family planning.  We munched sandwiches and shared highs and lows and prayed for each other.  We said "Jesus loves you" with high fives, and we started to plan what our church's Vacation Bible School for all ages would look like.  Some people were in charge of crafts.  Some people were in charge of food.  Some were in charge of clean up.

Half of the people in the room for that meeting today were new.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Geography of Grace

I remember once, long ago, I was at a church council retreat.  It was so long ago that I was not running the retreat -- I was one of the lay leadership attending the retreat.  We were out at a cabin in the woods somewhere, and our opening, ice-breaker activity, designed to help us share our stories and get to know each other better, was to take big pieces of paper and draw our spiritual journey.

As you might imagine, most of us turned the paper horizontally, and drew -- well -- a road.  Everyone drew a road of some sort or another, with a beginning and an end, and markers along the way for events of spiritual significance.

And then there was me.  For some reason (don't ask me why) I turned my paper vertically, and drew three scenes:  on the bottom, I drew a picture of the desert, representing the Arizona desert that I had grown to love, even though I had not grown up there.  In the middle, I drew the lakes of my Minnesota home, lakes that I had swum in, walked around, and picnicked at my whole life.  On the top I drew mountains, the mountains I had encountered while I had lived and worked as a missionary in Japan.

Three actual places (although my crayon drawings did not do them justice), but also metaphors for the all the places I had gone in my life, from church camp (mountains) to painful relationship endings (deserts).

When I think of Psalm 23, I don't only think of the shepherd and the sheep, even though the Psalm begins, "The Lord is my shepherd."  I also think of the geography of the psalm, all of the places where the shepherd leads the sheep:  green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness.  Even the valley of the shadow of death.  Something about the geography makes me think, not just about the shepherd and the sheep, but the geography -- the geography of the journey.

It's hard not to think about this, actually.  I made the journey from Minnesota to Texas last year.  The geography is different here, in both subtle and profound ways.  There are forests and fields of bluebonnets and poisonous snakes; Houston gives "urban sprawl" a whole new meaning.

Then there is the journey to this new calling, being a pastor to this church called "Grace".  We just got done with a council retreat.  The process we used was called a "Roadmap", and we dreamed and made plans and put markers down on our pathway.  What do we value?  Where do we want to be this time next year?  How are we going to get there?  We asked and answered questions together.

On this particular journey, I keep thinking that I am supposed to be the leader.  This is true.  I have a responsibility on this journey.  But it is not always what I suppose it to be.  I think that my job, as the leader, is to ensure success, to crack the whip, to make sure everyone does what they are supposed to do.

But there's the beginning of the Psalm again, reminding me of the truth:

The Lord is our shepherd.  We shall not want.

On this journey, my job is to remind us all that the Lord is our shepherd, and that we shall not want.  Whatever we do, whatever our goals are, whatever our mission is, whatever terrain we travel.

My job is to remind us all that he leads us along the paths of righteousness, which are the paths of trust, the paths of grace.  He leads us along paths that are not easy, but are, even so, grace-filled.

Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (and we will), even though we will stumble (and we will), even though we will fail, (and we will):

The Lord is our shepherd.

Mine,  too.



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

I was looking for a sign from God, and wrote this poem

Confessions:

I ate the cheesecake.
I left my notes at home.
It was not the dog's fault.
I don't know everything.
I need a sign from God sometimes,
just the tiniest little sign.
Just one word,
or a splash of water,
a piece of bread, broken
and multiplied.
Multiplied! 
I need to see just a small piece
of forgiveness,
a little resurrection.
Just one word
Multiplied.
I don't know everything.
It was not the dog's fault.
I left my notes at home.
I ate the cheesecake.
Forgive me.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Call of Ananias

On Sunday, we hear the story from John 21 of Jesus and Peter on the beach.  Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" and three times Peter answers, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Then Jesus calls him, "Feed my sheep."  We also hear about how Saul became the apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus.  Here he was, on the way to persecute the followers of The Way, and out of the blue, Jesus speaks to him, too:  "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  There he is struck blind, and when he sees again, he has a new calling as a follower of Jesus and a missionary to the Gentiles.

On one Sunday, we hear stories of two of the main characters from the New Testament.

But I can't help being drawn to Ananias.

Who is Ananias?  In all of the drama of the story of Saul, we might not notice another drama taking place on the sidelines.  It is the drama of God, telling Ananias to go and heal Saul.

It is clear that Saul is the main character in this drama.  God even says that to Ananias.  "Go, for he is my chosen instrument," God says.  We are supposed to focus our attention on Saul.  We are supposed to consider how his turn-around life, his passion, his calling.

But I can't help being drawn to Ananias, instead.

Perhaps it is because, in my extremely brief theatre career, I mostly played small parts.  I was the 2nd maiden from the left, a member of the crowd.  Sometimes I had one glorious line.  Once, in a church production of Camelot, I got to sing a wonderful solo as Nimue, the enchantress who lures Merlin away near the beginning of the play.  Unfortunately, my part was heard but completely unseen, from behind a curtain.

I am good at playing the small parts.

Or maybe it's because I tend to look around the edges of things, at the margins, even outside the margins sometimes.  Maybe it is because I am just a little bit subversive, deep down inside.  I am always wondering about the people who get left out, whose stories are not told, whose names we don't know.  I can't help being suspicious of what seems important.  We know so much about Paul, and his adventures, and his churches, and his letters.

And then there is Ananias.  He just gets this short scene in one chapter of the books of Acts.  God tells him to go to Saul, and heal him.  God is sending Ananias into the lion's den, right into the jaws of the man who has vowed to eradicate the followers of Jesus from the earth.  Ananias understandably has a word of protest.  He has this brief, "Wait a minute...." moment, where he questions God's wisdom.

And then he goes, and he heals Saul.

It's a small part.  It's off on the margins, something you notice out of the corner of your eye.  Or maybe Saul is so loud and passionate and such a force for the church that you don't notice Ananias at all.

I can't help thinking, though, that a lot of God's work in the world is like this.

I once did a project where I asked people to send me their faith stories, which I would publish in a booklet and distribute to the congregation.  So many people told me, "I don't have a faith story."  But then we got to talking and it turned out that they did.  It may have been the story of their prayers during their child's illness, or how God guided them from work in one city to another.  It may have been a story from their courtship and marriage, something they learned from their great-uncle or taught their niece.  But they were small stories, not big ones.    

Still, when I think of the scene back in Damascus, when I imagine the hands of Ananias, I can't help imagine that they are really the hands of Jesus, in a cameo role.

A lot of God's work in the world is like this.  It looks like a cameo role.  But it is really the main thing.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

How I Measure

I have a wedding this weekend.  It is my first wedding here, in my new-ish call.  The couple at whose wedding I am officiating are fairly new members of the congregation.  She came and visited not long after I started.  A little later, he visited as well.  I have some affection for the first few people who showed up, the same hot summer that I did.

I took three young people to make chalices on Saturday.  They are going to make their first communion at the end of April.

I have a baptism on the same Sunday, at the early service.  It will be my third baptism, although my first baby.  The first baptism was a three year old, and the second was five.  A boy and a girl.

There are two 8th graders who are getting ready to be confirmed this summer.  I haven't been involved in most of their confirmation instruction, but we are going to get together and design their confirmation service.  They are going to pick the songs and the scripture readings and think about what else they might want to have in their service.

One wedding.  Three first communions.  Three baptisms.  Two confirmations.  That's what I get excited about.  That's how I measure, even.

There are probably better ways to think about this.  I could think about new ministries we have started, except that we are moving slowly and we haven't started any new ministries except for our tiny first attempts at cross generational activities.  I could think about successful stewardship campaigns (which by the way, we had, this fall), or I could think of new members, or I could think of new songs we have learned.  I could measure by the strangers I have met (which would not be a bad way to measure, actually), or the new places I have been.

But I don't.

I measure:  1 wedding.  Three baptisms.  2 confirmations.  Three first communions.

I measure:  the girl who got to help serve communion for the first time on Maundy Thursday, and says:  "I want to do that again!"

I measure:  the woman who said that her granddaughter had her first sleepover the other night, and she invited her friend to our church.

I measure:  the two girls who love to sing Holden Evening Prayer together, and sing so that everyone can hear them.

I suppose that the best measure is transformed lives.  That is what we are about.  But sometimes transformation is not visible to the eye.  It is what goes on inside, and it could be happening, even when I have no idea.  All I can see is the outstretched hand, the singing voices, the little hugs, the food left outside the church door.   All I can do is trust that God is using us, even me, to bring transformation.

1 wedding.  Three baptisms.  2 confirmations.  Three first communions.  And in so many other, ordinary ways, God is transforming us.

That's what I trust.  That's how I measure.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Bluebonnets, Easter, and Faith

Today, the day after Easter, my husband and I had a mission:  we wanted to find bluebonnets.   Bluebonnets are the Texas state flower; I have seen pictures of enormous fields of them, but had never seen an actual field of bluebonnets.

For the last couple of weeks that was one of the main topics of conversation.  "You have to see the bluebonnets!"  "Have you gone to see the bluebonnets?"  It was Lent, and then Holy Week, and I had not taken time to go and try to find bluebonnets, but I knew that I wanted to take the time as soon as I got through the Easter services.

People gave me some ideas and suggestions about where to look, but they also assured me that it would be easy for us.  "Just drive west and they are all over the place!" they said.  So that it what we did, this morning.  We drove west, toward a beautiful historic town just over an hour away, and we kept our eyes peeled all along the highway, searching for bluebonnets.

We found some pretty impressive bright orange flowers (which I discovered later were Indian paintbrush.)  There were some bright yellow flowers too -- whole field of them.  But I was not terribly interested in those.  There were some delicate pink flowers, and there were some occasional dots of purple.  But where were those enormous fields that I had heard about?  Were they legends?  Was this a bad year for bluebonnets?  (I had heard that some years were not as impressive as others.)

We had been driving around for awhile, and I was about to give up.  We actually stopped in an Antique store in town and asked about where to go to see them.  The owner said she didn't know, except that there was a very small clump on the corner of her property.  It was not what we had been expecting.

We turned around and were about to head home when my husband shouted, "There they are!"  Our first clue was that there were two other cars stopped along the highway.  There were two women who were taking pictures of each other sitting in the bluebonnets.  They spoke Chinese.  Three other people with British accents wandered around taking pictures as well.   Bluebonnets are an international phenomenon.

I was about to give up, and there they were.  Not an enormous field, but beautiful enough.

I am thinking about the empty tomb, and Jesus standing in front of Mary Magdalene.  She had given up, and then suddenly, there he is, standing there, alive, the most impossible thing to happen.

I am also thinking about all of the heavy news of the world, the terror in Brussels and in Pakistan, none of which can be fixed by seeing a field of bluebonnets, and by taking pictures of yourself standing among them.  Bluebonnets can't do anything but remind you that beauty is in the world.

They can also remind me not to give up.  Keep going.  Keep doing good.  Keep living as if the promise is true, as if Jesus is risen and the power of unending love will finally triumph.  Keep standing up for the weak and the hungry and the stranger.

Don't give up.  I may not recognize him, but Jesus is standing right in front of me.  Fields of bluebonnets are just around the corner.