Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grace

After a long silence, I am sitting down to write something, and what I can think of is this one word:  Grace.

It has been almost a month since my last sermon, and I feel at the same time a little rusty and also urgent.  It will be a new pulpit, in a church called Grace.  When I stood in the pulpit this afternoon, just to practice and see how it felt, I will admit:  it felt odd.  It felt like I needed an inch or more on the bottoms of my shoes, perhaps.  I felt like I might have to stretch, just a little, to fit.

(Now I am remembering back to my teaching parish in seminary, where they gave me a stool to stand on.  This certainly enhanced the preaching experience in certain areas.  I also remember that in my internship congregation, they actually had a platform that they slid into the pulpit, so that it would be the right size for me.)

After a long silence, I am sitting down to write something, and what I can think of is this one word:  Grace.

I've been on the road and disoriented and unsettled and I haven't written in this venue for over a week.  Sometimes it seems so harder to write than not to write, especially since some of the things I have been thinking about this past week have been weighty ones:  racism, and violence, and my own complicity:  the shame of knowing that I have not said enough, the necessity of listening more truthfully and owning what it is hard to hear.  It seems petty and little to blog instead about moving to a new state and and all the big and small fears and dreams contained within.  So, for over a week, I have said nothing.

But the word that I want to say before I retire this evening is still:  Grace.

A while ago, I said Yes to a church called Grace, in a state that I had not visited before.  I prayed and I discerned and I made lists and I talked to people, and still, sometimes, I wonder if I was not crazy.

And then I think:  at the bottom, at the very foundation of everything, beneath the "yes" that I was courageous or foolish enough to say, God called me here.  And that calling is Grace.

I have been thinking a lot about grace.  I have always counted on it.  It is my favorite thing.  The grace of second, third, or infinite chances, the grace of living again, when you thought you were dead, the grace of the unexpected, unasked for gift, the grace of undeserved love.  Grace has many faces.  But I will admit that I never thought of my calling as Grace.

I'll admit that it doesn't feel like grace in every single moment.  Sometimes it feels like sheer terror.  But it is grace to be called here.

Amazing grace.

It is possible that I will have to stretch a little, to fit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Singing Harmony

I went to church on Sunday.  I am not settled into my new call yet, but somehow I just wanted to worship with people, so I went to a church service where I knew the musician, and sat by myself in the middle of a row.  It felt a little odd, and I will confess that I wasn't entirely sure that I belonged, sitting alone in the middle of a pew like that.  I will also confess that while I felt a little lonely, I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to be noticed, either.

It was the late service, not particularly full, but not too empty either.  Respectable, for summer.  Instead of preaching, I listened to someone else's sermon.  Instead of leading worship, I prayed the responses, sang the hymns and liturgy, listened, reflected, meditated.  Okay, maybe my mind wandered a little at times as well.  But I did all right, for someone who hasn't sat in a pew much for many years.  I even sang harmony on some of the hymns.

Back in the day, that was one of the things I did.  As soon as I learned how to read music, I used to try to sing the alto parts on hymns, sometimes.  It made things more interesting.  Later on, I tried singing the tenor part an octave higher.  During my time of evangelical fervor in college, I made up my own harmonies sometimes.

My sister and I used to sing together.  She played a little guitar, and we had a few songs that I could sing harmony on.  Sometimes she sang alto, and I sang the melody.  At my dad's funeral, we were sitting together and she was singing the harmony parts, just like we used to.  I tried it too, but the lump in my throat got in the way.

We all have a place in the body of Christ, and I used to think that mine was singing harmony from my pew.  It turns out God had a couple of other things in mind.  But singing harmony from your pew is not a small thing, even though it is not as flashy as some other gifts.  Back when I sat in the pew, I also used to be one of those adults who would make eye contact with babies, and make faces at them until they responded to me in some way.  Often, they would end up fussing.  (I have occasionally wondered whether God thought I should be a pastor so that I would stop annoying babies and their parents in that way.  Who knows?)

On Sunday, at the end of the service, the woman sitting one row in front of me said hello, and said she enjoyed listening to me sing the harmony.

It was a small thing, but it made me feel glad that I came.  It was good to be there, not just to receive, and not just to 'be fed', but also to give, and to lead, but in different way.  There are leaders hidden all around the congregation, and in the world too, doing important work, even though only a few ever hear or see or touch it.  They are singing harmony.  They are showing a stranger the right page for the hymns.  They are speaking up for the children.  They are making sandwiches for the hungry.

It is important work.

Soon, I'll be standing in front of a different congregation, finding my place, looking out into new faces, singing the melody with them.  But I hope to get a chance to sing harmony sometimes too, and to give thanks for the gift of all of our voices.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Silence

Once a month, on Monday evenings, I have been worshipping at a new service at my husband's church.  There  is no sermon at this worship service.  There are no hymns, but the service does open and close with a meditative chorus.  There is instrumental music in the background.  There are two or three short scripture readings.  There is plenty of silence between the scripture readings.

The point of the service is prayer:  prayer and silence.  There are prayer stations and candles and places to write down your prayers and invitations to pray with one of the pastors.  When entering the sanctuary, each worshipper gets a page of worship and prayer helps, including some printed prayers and some quotes regarding the value of taking time away from the noisiness of the world for a time of intentional silence.

Every time I go, I am confronted with this quote from Meister Eckhart:  "Nothing is so like God as silence."  And every time I go, I have a little argument with these words.  I don't know exactly what it is.  Maybe it is that I am just a contrary person by nature.  I love arguing, especially with saints.  Yes, Meister Eckhart knows a lot more about God than I do.  He has experience.  And yet….

Silence is good, and also counter-cultural.  I will give you that.  There is not really a lot of silence in world.  But when I see the saintly quote, I get all Lutheran and Word-y and I think that Silence is good, but it's not enough.  There is the space for silence, the space we do not fill with words.  It is a space for trust that God will, somehow, and in some way, speak.  The silence of our listening is not a strategy or a feat.  It is the pause while the conductor raises the baton.  It is the silence before the curtain rises.  It is the silence of trust and expectation.  At least, that is the Christian confession.  We listen because God will speak.  It's not that God will give us all the answers, or solve our problems. But God will call our names.  God will ask us questions.   God speaks.

But if we are honest, this is also the problem.  I remember reading Shusako Endo's historical novel Silence many years ago, when I was a missionary in Japan.  The novel was about the early Christian movement in Japan, and what happened, and what did not happen, when Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed for their faith.  The title of the novel refers to what the author calls the Silence of God in the face of the suffering of Japanese Christians.

So perhaps Meister Eckhart is right.  Perhaps God is really like silence.  But that would not necessarily be good news.

The world needs silence, but not just silence.

The world also needs a word -- not "the answer", not a strategy, not a user's manual.  The world also needs a word, the right word at the right time:  a question, a name, an invitation, a light.





Thursday, June 11, 2015

Colette

Colette started coming to our congregation several years ago.  She came to our early service, which was traditional and liturgically Lutheran.  She came every week by herself.  I didn't get a chance to do more than say "hello" for awhile, but I noticed her right away.

Colette is African American, so she didn't really fit the demographic of our early, traditional service.  Well, actually, she didn't really fit the demographic of any of our services.  Before I had a chance to get to know her, I remember wondering if perhaps she came from an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) background.  One of my friends in seminary was AME, and he told me that they had a 'traditional' vs. 'contemporary worship' divide in his congregation too.

Later on, Colette brought her daughter and grandson with her to worship, and they switched over to the later, more contemporary worship service.  There are more children at that service.  Her grandson was in 5th grade and hadn't been baptized.  Both Colette and her grandson started taking pre-baptism classes.  They asked good questions.  Both of then were baptized at Easter-time,  Colette at the Easter Vigil.

It was wonderful.

Throughout the years, I've had the opportunity to get to know Colette a little better, hear a little of her story.  I learned that she is a woman of courage.  She left her home and came to a new city to make a better life for herself.  And she came to our congregation, and she stays.  For a long time (being clueless, myself), I had no idea what an act of courage that was.  I love how she comes up sometimes on those Sundays when we invite prayers for healing, and simply asks for prayers for the church.  She cares about the congregation and wants us to be faithful and light-filled.  I wish we realized what a gift she is.

Colette has said, more than once that she believes that God sent her here, that she is supposed to be here.  I believe that she is right.  And what if congregations believed that about the people who come?  Those people who visit once, who return, who stay -- what if we believed that God sent them to us, both to receive and to give?  What if we were always on the lookout for the ones that God is sending to us?   I like to imagine that if we began to believe this, we would enter into holy conversations, realizing that we have so much to teach and learn from each other, believing that God has a plan for our lives, together.

What if each one of us believed, like Colette, that God has sent us here?  What if we believed that when we come to worship, when we gather, that we are supposed to be here?  And what if we also believed, when we go, that we are going to the place where God is sending us, to heal, and to be healed?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Between

My last Sunday in my congregation was May 31st.  Technically (and really) it was my last day as a pastor there, although (truth be told) I haven't quite moved everything out of my office yet.  Some things happen suddenly, and other things take more time, it seems.  I had meant to be done earlier, but it turned out that there were things hiding under things, and the books and papers multiplied while I wasn't looking, and there were the unintended pauses while I remembered, and said goodbye, again.

I have been called to another congregation, in another state, some distance away from the state where I live now.  They have asked me questions and I have asked them questions, and we have visited with one another and even begun to dream, a little.  I now have a (still mostly empty) apartment, and three boxes of my books have arrived at the church.  So I have a place, although I am not there yet.

I went to church on Sunday, and enjoyed sitting in the pew with my mother, singing hymns and listening to someone else's sermon (which was good, by the way, and I'm not just saying that).  I enjoyed it, but I had this sort of uncomfortable realization that I missed the feeling I have when I am leading worship and preaching, and then just afterwards.  It's a hard feeling to put my finger on, exactly.  I have worshipped with them, and together we have borne witness to the truth.  It feels a little like how I imagine the conductor of an orchestra might feel.

I have been on vacation before, and technically that is what this is:  a few weeks of vacation before I begin again.  But it feels different somehow. I am between congregations.  My old congregation is not my congregation any more.  I realized on Sunday how much of my identity has become bound up in the rhythm of my week.  I am not sure this is entirely a good thing.  It is not bad to find purpose and meaning in my work, and to derive satisfaction from a job well done.   But I wondered on Sunday if I need it a little too much, and if the between time is a good break, to help me to remember to receive and to be.  

I Found a Sermon From the Past

In going through my office (over-filled as it is with 17 years of books, memories, and papers), I found some of my old sermons.  I never know whether to save or toss.  This one I preached the year we decided to read the whole Gospel of Mark between Advent and Easter.  The text I preached on comes up only rarely in the Lectionary it is about a blind man who is healed by Jesus.  When Jesus asks him, he says, "I see people… but they look like trees walking."  So, Jesus heals him again.  (Mark 8:22-26)  Anyway, here's what I wrote, back then:

"A Second Touch"

One of my favorite books as a girl was called Half Magic.  It was a fantasy pre-curser to the Harry Potter tales.  In this book, four children find a magic coin.  Of course, they don't realize that it is magic right away.  They simply pick it up from the street and put it in their pockets because it looks interesting and shiny.  Innocently enough, they discover that when they wish for something it comes true.  Sort of. The first thing they wish for on a boring summer day is for something exciting to happen, like a fire.  As soon as the words are out of their mouths, the fire truck races by and they discover that a child's tree house is on fire.  By trial and error, they discover that their coin is actually only half magic, and for them to get their wish to come completely true, they have to wish on the coin twice.

When I hear the story of Jesus healing the blind man, this is the first connection that comes to mind for me:  "you have to wish it twice",  For, amazing enough, when Jesus first touches the blind man in Bethsaida and makes him see, it seems as though he is only half healed.

Jesus, like a doctor checking to see if his operation was successful, asks him "Can you see anything?"  He reports, "I can see people, but they look like trees walking."  Sounds familiar to all of us who wear corrective lenses, doesn't it?  So Jesus needs to touch his eyes a second time, after which he finally "sees clearly."  The sights are no longer blurry for him.  There are no fuzzy edges, no mistaking a human being for a street sign or your garbage can for a pedestrian.  Not only can the ma see, but now he can successfully interpret what he's seen.

In case you are wondering, there is no other story in Scripture where Jesus needs to heal someone twice in order for them to completely healed.  And this particular story is found in no other Gospel.  If it seems unfamiliar and puzzling, that might be the reason.  It is uncommon and out of character for Jesus.  We have seen many sides to Jesus' healing so far.  We've seen him heal with a word or a touch.  We've seen him heal people who have simply touched the hem of his robe.  We've seen people who have immediately gotten up and walked, or who immediately gotten up and walked, or who immediately were cleansed of their leprosy.  The deaf man was commanded "Be opened!" and his ears were opened and he spoke plainly.  So why should Jesus need the touch the blind man twice?  Somehow, like the coin that was only "half magic", it seems that Jesus is less powerful than he was before.

Yet if we were only to focus on Jesus' power here, I think we would be missing the point.  For some reason or another, the blind man needs a second touch.  He needs to see again, and then to see clearly, and there is something that rings true for us in this healing.  Perhaps it is because we don't experience healing so often as immediate, but gradual, and in stages.  So it's comforting to know that there is a second touch available, if you feel that you are on the way, but not quite there yet.  Perhaps it is because we understand the complexity of our senses, sight and hearing and taste and touch, that this healing rings so true to us.  There is seeing and there is understanding what is seen.  There is hearing and there is comprehending what is heard.  For those of us who wear glasses, there is that moment when we saw for the first time when leaves really looked like -- the sharpness of color, the distinctiveness of their shapes.

In the let couple of years, I've learned a little about the procedure called "cochlear implants."  They allow people who have had hearing loss to begin to hear again.  But the effects of the implant are not immediate.  They are gradual.  People begin to hear and distinguish different sounds, then words, more and more.  And every person's hearing comes at a different pace.

Why is this?  It seems that the brain needs to re-learn how to interpret what it is receiving from the ear, and that this is a process that doesn't happen all at once.  It is one thing to hear the sound, and another to understand it.  It's the same with sight -- at least it seems so from this gospel.  It's one thing to see -- and quite another to understand what you are seeing.  It might be the difference between fuzzy and clear vision itself.  But it might be the difference between seeing something and really seeing clearly what it is, and what it means.

Remember that just prior to this healing Jesus becomes frustrated with his disciples once again.  They have not understood his reference to " the yeast of the Pharisees" and are discussing the fact that they don't have any bread.  (Actually, they do have bread -- one loaf.)  Jesus hears them and responds, "why are you talking about having no bread?  Do you still not perceive of understand?  Are your hearts hardened?  do you have eyes, and fail to see?  Do you have ears, and fail to hear?"

It's clear that Jesus believes that the disciples need a second touch.  They see, but they don't perceive.  They hear, but they don't understand.  Their brains have not quite learned how to interpret what they have seen and heard so far.  There is something missing, something for which they need a second touch, so that they can see clearly who Jesus is and what is his mission.

do we need this second touch as well?  Are there blurry places in our lives, where we are not able to see clear or speak plaint about what we have seen and heard?  Right now in our national life we see war with Iraq coming into sharp focus -- but so many things still seems blurry that we aren't sure what to make of it.  The right course of action is not clear to everyone -- the risks of action or inaction are not clear to everyone.  And the same thing is true as we seek to live out our faith in our daily lives, in our work and in our families.  What vision informs our priorities, our values, how we spend our time?  In the busy-ness of our daily commutes to work, to sports events, to evening classes, to doctor appointments, to worship, to school concerts, to family gatherings, what is important to us can become blurry and unfocused.

Oe thing is clear:  the disciples lack of vision focused on bread.  They saw it, but they didn't really see it.  They had seen it multiplied, but somehow still worried whether they  would have enough.  They had seen it broken and shared, enough for everyone with leftovers, and still they missed its significance.  They Syrophoenician woman saw it and demanded the crumbs.  She saw that there was enough for her.  She saw the abundance of bread with left-overs, even though she had not seen 4,000 people fed.  The first thing the disciples missed, that their eyes failed to see, was the abundance of bread.

"Why are you talking about having no bread?"  Jesus asks, and you can't help hearing his frustration.  As our eyes wander through this sanctuary, and out in our community, do we see the abundance -- or only the scarcity?  It's easy to be focused on budget cuts and shortfalls, on what we lack and what we fear.  That is easily visible.  But do we have eyes to see the abundance in this congregation and that surrounds us?  Do we have eyes to see all the gifts of grace that are available to us?  As I have come to be acquainted with this congregation, one by one, I have come to realize the incredible gifts that you bring with you here.  Someone has great artistic skills -- another an inspiring singing voice -- another a passion for working with families in conflict -- yet another a desire to work with new immigrants.  In church-based organizing there is a particular skill or tool we use to uncover these gifts, called a one-to-one.  In an intentional conversation, we respectfully listen to one another, hear each other's stories, frustrations, hopes and disappointments.  We learn about the unique gifts and calling we bring together for the sake of the gospel.  We learn to see in each other the abundance God has given us.

The other thing the disciples missed when they saw the bread was its brokenness.  It was after the bread was broken that it could be shared.  As Jesus goes on to predict his suffering and death, the disciples are steadfast in their lack of understanding.  They never quite get the necessity of it.  And the cross is still a puzzling sign for us -- a sign of victory, but a sign of defeat as well, a source of shame and failure.  In a culture that is success and wealth oriented, what does it mean to see, to really see that the bread that is broken gives life?

Just this:  that God can find we can find a meaning for our own pain, our tragedies, our sufferings.  It means that God has not abandoned us, but is at work in those very places in our lives where we grieve, where we question, where we suffer, where we struggle.  Author Elizabeth O'Connor considers that Alexander Graham Bell's mother and wife were both deaf, and that Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, was afraid of the dark.  "At the center of our pain," she writes, "We glimpse a fairer world and hear a call."  When we receive God's second touch, we see bread broken, we see bread shared.  When we receive God's second touch, we understand our mission both to share the world's pain, and to heal it.

Every week we see bread -- bread that is abundant and bread that is broken for us and for our lives.  Every week we see -- but do we really see that the bread broken and shared, the bread of suffering and abundance, is the bread of life, our Lord?  Do we see that we receive his suffering and his life, to heal and to share with one another?  Or do we need a second touch as well?  A second touch to see Jesus as the bread of the world, enough for everyone, with leftovers.  A second touch to see his power working in us, broken but abundant.

It's the way our brain works, you know.  We hear, and bit by bit we learn to understand.  We see, and finally we learn to understand.  We see, and finally we perceive.  We do need a second touch… and God gives us a second touch.  That is why there are two sacraments -- baptism and the Lord's supper… one happens only once, and one happens again and again.  For we always need a second touch, and another taste…. to see our Lord more clearly.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Between Psalm 1 and Psalm 43

On my last Sunday as a pastor in Minnesota, my sermon text was from Psalm 1.

It was not my choice, exactly, except that, in a way, it was. The reading from Psalm 1 on this particular Sunday was the result of my advocacy, last fall, that we try an experiment with a new set of readings (lectionary).  The Narrative Lectionary runs from September through May, and then suggests that congregations spend the summer doing sermon series'.  May 31st is designated for the beginning of  sermon series on the Psalms.

So my last sermon introduced this series on the Psalms, even though I won't be around to participate in it. I won't get to imagine the sermons, or write the sermons, or listen to the sermons, either.  I won't be arm-wrestling the Psalms (which I love but have never found it easy to preach on), demanding a blessing from them.  I won't be lifting them up to the light, in front of my congregation, inviting them to 'ooh' and 'aah' over them.

Oh well.

I also felt the weight of these being my Last Word to this particular congregation.  What did I want them to hear, I wondered?  What did God want me to say?  I have put my roots down deep in this community, and now I would be uprooted.  I thought about the tree planted by streams of water, and roots sunk deep, not in any particular place, but in the grace of God, the unearned love of God.  I thought that this does not make it easier to leave any particular beloved place.  It just makes it possible.  I thought about what a tree planted by streams of water looks like, and the lives of sinners and saints who reflected this grace, whose leaves did not wither.

I thought about all that, and said a little of it.

I won't be there to study the Psalms this summer, but I found all of these cut out leaves in a school supply store.  I wrote the number of a psalm on the back of each one (but not every Psalm; I selected a few choice ones), and invited everyone to take a Psalm and make that Psalm theirs for the summer.

"Read it.  Sing it.  Pray it," I said.  "Wonder about it.  Meditate on it.  Memorize a verse of it.  Argue with it, even.  Just this one Psalm.  Because someone told me one:  it's not how many scripture verses know, but how well you know them, that matters."

I don't know how many people actually took one of the leaves.

But I took one.  So that I can follow along.  So that I can bring something along with me, from one place to another, when I uproot myself, and then put down my roots in a new place, with new people, but trusting the grace of God has gone before.

My Psalm is number 43.

So this summer, these are the words I will hold up to the light, meditate on, pray and argue with:

'O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling."

May the leaf not wither.