Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Preacher, Not Preaching

It is Saturday evening.  I'm not preaching again this weekend.  It feels odd, not exactly like a vacation (which it is not) but more like my job description suddenly changed, or someone moved around the days of the week without telling me, or I have forgotten a large appointment in my weekly calendar.

The first time it felt odd was when the preaching schedule came out.  A whole month without preaching.  My knee jerked.  "What am I going to do?" was the first thought in my head.  Not that there isn't plenty to do, even without preaching, but I have grown to believe that preaching regularly sort of justifies my existence.  The reading and the studying and the thinking and the conversations all give shape to my week.  I end up seeing the world in a different way, bringing the scripture readings to the world and the people I know.

The second time it felt odd was on Wednesday, when I realized that I hadn't really studied the scriptures for a few days.  This should not be so, I thought; the discipline of scripture reading is not only for the sake of preaching.  But what should I study?

Why not the scripture readings for this week? I answered, after a short period of angst.  So there I was, at noon on Wednesday, sitting in the common area at our local mall, eating my tuna sandwich and reading the Beatitudes that I would not preach on, hearing the words in my mind, not just the familiar words of uncommon blessing, but also the words about the salt and the light and how our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, which sort of blows my mind, no matter how many times I read it.  I have a hard time quantifying righteousness, I realize.  I actually don't think you can measure righteousness.  I don't think you can measure grace either.  I just think this.  I wonder if I am right.

And now, here I am, on Saturday night.  I am not praying for the Holy Spirit to enliven the words I have written, and I am not wondering whether I should re-write a few of them.  I am not struggling for a little last-minute inspiration.  I am not wondering whether I missed the Spirit this week.

It feels different:  not good, not bad:  just different.

There are times when I wonder what it would be like to have a different weekly schedule, and a different Sunday discipline.  I wonder how it would feel to get up and turn on the radio, and open up the newspaper and fix a pot of coffee, to sit around in my bathrobe and fix scrambled eggs and cinnamon rolls for my families.  Or, I wonder what it would be like to go the bookstore instead of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, to commune alone with books and other people and a gourmet coffee.  I don't say this with judgment, and not a wistfulness either.  It is not that I wish for anyone else's life.  I am just curious sometimes, about how it would feel to have a different rhythm, with no preaching.

Lex orandi, lex credendi -- as we pray, so we believe -- I learned this saying long ago in seminary, but I wonder if it applies to more than prayer, or if prayer is perhaps more expansive than I used to think.  How do the rhythms of my life define what I believe, who and what I trust, and what are my priorities?

All these questions I am considering in the darkness of a Saturday evening, when tomorrow I am not preaching.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Longer Epiphany

I've often wished that the season of Epiphany was just a little bit longer, and not just because it would give me a little more time to get ready to Lent to begin.  It is also possible that I like long Epiphanies because there is a better chance that (at least here in Minnesota) Easter will be a warm spring day with some flowers blooming, which is the way I imagine it should be.

But I also just like Epiphany, as a season, even though, I confess that I don't think of it as much as I ought to.  It is that obscure little season between Christmas and Lent.  Christmas is famous.  Everyone has heard of it, even people who don't ever go to church.  Many people are also vaguely aware that there is something called "Lent", partly because of its reputation as that season when people have to 'give something up.'  But Epiphany?  What's that?  It's an odd word really, that most people don't even use or know.   Even as a Christian-in-the-know, I can't help but think but think of Epiphany as that 'sandwich' season:  a smattering of Sundays after the big high of Christmas, but before the serious discipline of Lent.

Friends, it should not be so.  Epiphany is a season.  It is a season that begins with the wise men following a star to Bethlehem, and ends with Jesus' face shining on a mountain.  In between, we get stories about light, and stories about Jesus calling his disciples.  We get the story of Jesus' baptism and stories of him healing people.  But why?  Why these particular stories right now?  They are small windows of light, small revelations of who Jesus is in the world, and of who we are in the world, as well.

The word Epiphany actually means, literally "a showing forth, a revealing."  An epiphany is a revelation, a flicker or a flash of light, a moment when you said, "aha!" and just knew something, without studying or going through all of the steps.  Or maybe you WERE studying:  you were reading a book, or doing the research, or singing a song at church, or sitting at your desk at work, and in the midst of it all you had an epiphany, which is to say, that the truth just came to you, not as the fruit of your studying, but just as you were going along, in your working, in your playing, in your worshipping.

In some religious traditions, the season of Epiphany is also called "Ordinary Time."  As opposed to, for example, Christmas and your wedding and other high moments of your life.  But perhaps that is one of the reasons that I like it.  Most of our lives are, actually, ordinary time.  I wouldn't trade the high moments for anything, but the promise of Epiphany is that the light shines also on ordinary days.  So it goes like this:  when you are going about your working, studying, playing, regular Sunday morning worshipping life, suddenly, somehow, something will happen, and you will say, 'aha!', and you will know, just know, who Jesus is.  And you will know who you are, as well.  It could be as small a thing as a handful of water, shimmering, a line that leaps out at you from a book, or a song, a small piece of a small conversation that you had, just because you showed up.

So I sometimes wish that Epiphany could be a little longer, just a few more days to hear healing stories and be surprised by the possibility that God could be in this place, although we did not know it.  I do wish that Epiphany could just a little longer, although I suspect that it is the nature of the season to be fleeting, just as fleeting as our ordinary lives.

In the meantime, sing songs about the light, the light of a candle, the flame of the fire, the light in the darkness.

For that is who you are.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Just Do It

A little over a week ago, I had gone home for the day when I got a phone call that a parish member was near death.  It was snowing like crazy, and from the traffic reports I knew that it was likely that I would not make it to their home in time.  So I called his daughter, who was staying with her parents, and talked to his wife for a little while.  We remembered together some of the memories we shared, and I asked her how she was doing.  "Not good," she said, in a small voice.

"Would you like to pray?" I asked.  She said she would, so, over the phone, we prayed for her husband, and remembered God's promises, and prayed for their family, too.

For a long time I never thought of praying with someone over the phone.  I don't know why, exactly.  When I think about praying with another person, I suppose I think about really being with them, and I didn't think the phone really counted.  Or maybe prayer is an ancient discipline and a phone is a modern convenience, as if ancient practices and modern conveniences don't go together.  Or maybe it is something else entirely.  Maybe it seems like such a hard cut on the phone:  one moment you are having a conversation and then suddenly, you have doing something else, a different sort of connection.

Then, on Sunday, after church, I was shaking hands and talking to people on my way out of church, having those small conversations and being introduced to visitors.  One man asked me about the setting for my sermon story:  what was the name of that creek I had referred to?  Then a woman came up to me and said that an acquaintance of hers had lost their home in a fire the night before.  She was quite distraught, and I found myself blurting out, "Do you want to pray about it, right now?"

We prayed, right there in the narthex.

It was so not like me.

A few minutes later, I was introduced to two students, visiting from India.  They belonged to the Assemblies of God church, but happened to come to our worship service on Sunday.  We do have a handful of Indian immigrants who attend our worship service.

"Will you pray for us?" they asked me.

What was this, a prayer epidemic?  On Sunday morning, of all things, after worship, people wanted me to pray.  I prayed for them, that God would bless and guide them in their journeys, send them to the people who need them, help them to learn and to teach.

When I was a child, I said my prayers in the dark.  I worried about God taking my soul before I woke, and I wondered about what it meant to pray.   I prayed out loud because I prayed with my parents.  Later I just said the prayers in my head.

When I got older, I thought for awhile that prayer was magic, and that if I believed hard enough I would see miracles.  I had heard of miracles, and I believed the stories.  I still think that sometimes they do happen.

A little later, I often forgot to pray.  Or I thought that my prayers were my good thoughts.  Sometimes my prayers were the questions I asked God.  I thought those were prayers too, good or not.  Often I just thought they, or said them under my breath, not aloud.

Then I tried to keep a discipline, to pray at certain times every day, although I was, or am, very bad at being disciplined.

Finally, now, my thought about prayer is not so complicated.  It is:  Just Do It.  Someone asks me, will you pray for me?  And I say, "yes, I will pray for you" because I can't imagine saying no.  That is what prayer is.  It's not for me, it's for someone else.

Prayer is saying 'yes', because I can't imagine saying 'no."

Just do it.  Perhaps this is the secret not just of prayer, but of the Christian life in general.  It's not for you, it's for someone else.  And, as with prayer, you might be afraid, at first, or feel awkward, and not know what to do.  And of course you can't say 'yes' to everything, but when you do, it's for the child, or the lonely widow, or the African American teenager who is profiled, or the hungry person.  You just do it.  The reflection can come afterwards.

Just do it.  Jump into the deep end.  Pray.  Serve. Hold a Hand. Go.  Trust that God will catch you.

God will catch you.

Say "yes."  It's not for for you, it's for someone else.

But as it turns out, it's for you, too.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"What's More Important Than Your Eternal Life?"

I was meeting with a family; they were telling stories about their mother, their lively, smart, stubborn, faithful mother.  She loved music and singing, cooking, traveling and learning.  She made and kept friends easily; she was interested in people.  She had been a nurse and an active partner to her husband, a family practice doctor, who had died during the last year after suffering from memory loss.

So we were sharing stories about their mother's faith when one of the daughters remembered their non-negotiable church attendance.  During the time she was growing up, their parish had a tradition of a pre-Lenten family night.  The daughter wanted to stay home instead and watch "The Wizard of Oz."  But her mother was adamant about the family priorities, saying, "What is more important than your eternal life?"

I have to say, I can't imagine any parent these days saying something like this to their children.  And I will also admit that, out of the context of the conversation I was having, it doesn't sound like something I would even want a parent to say to their children.  To the unpracticed ear, it sounds like a threat, "Go to church or your eternal life might be in jeopardy."  Is our salvation dependent on our church attendance?  Does going to pre-Lenten family nights earn us more salvation points with God?  I think not.

But, I am not sure that is the point the mother was making to her children.  It is not that somehow the certainty of their eternal destination depended on attendance at a certain number of church functions.  Perhaps it is more the hope that attendance at those church functions would be part of creating a foundation of trust.

"What is more important that your eternal life?"  Maybe that question doesn't mean "What is more important than knowing where you will spend eternity?"  What if it means more like, "What is more important than knowing God?"  After all, that is the definition of eternal life in John 17:3:  "Now this is eternal life:  that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

One of the things that impressed me about this woman, and her faith, was that she had a list of questions that she was going to ask God, when she saw God face to face.  And the questions she had for God -- they weren't small potatoes.  They weren't theoretical questions.  Her top question to ask God was, "What's with this Alzheimers' crap?"   Deep faith did not mean unquestioning faith.  Deep faith meant faith deep enough to ask questions without fear.  Deep faith meant faith deep enough to know that she could bring her questions, and even her anger, to God.

To me, it's a powerful combination:  to trust God enough to bring to God the hardest questions of our lives.  And to teach our children that they can do it, too.

What is more important than knowing God so well that you can ask God your hardest questions?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Space Between Water and Light

On the last day of our after-Christmas vacation, the weather finally became closer to what you might expect from a Southwestern desert climate.  It was a sunny afternoon, and finally warming up enough so that we didn't need our jackets.  So, on Sunday afternoon, we took a little drive out into the desert.

My sister and brother-in-law had found the ruins of an old ghost town where they thought it would be fun to hike.  We drove down a road that I would have sworn was actually not a road ("No, that's it; that's where we are supposed to go," my sister said).  We got out of the car and stared out at the spare beauty of the desert, not seeing anything but varieties of cactus and palo verde trees.  There were no houses, no buildings, no roads that we could see.

When we got closer, though, we saw bricks, the remains of walls, some old pipes still sticking out of the ground, the last vestiges of the town that used to be there.  We hiked a bit, pointing out the clues to the former times, the times when humans prospered here, until my sister started insisting that we go and find the path to Queen Creek.

We knew it was near; we could hear it.  But the trick was finding the right path, the safe one that would take us there.  We even once looked down at the creek from a hill, but knew we could not get down to the water from there.

My brother-in-law wanted to go home; we had seen the ruins, after all.  That was the most important part.  But my sister kept talking about the creek; we couldn't go home until we found the creek.  At one point she disappeared for a little while; we thought she was lost.  But she knew where she was.  She was looking for the path to the water.

When we found it, it was just a little stream, tucked away in the middle of the ruins.  It was just a little stream, but once you saw the place, you couldn't help but notice -- in the middle of the desert, everything was starting to be green.  Green was sprouting up there.  We couldn't help it;  we just started taking pictures.  There was something shimmery there, where the light touched the water and bounced back.   It made me feel like this could be a place where secrets are revealed.

We started taking pictures of each other.   I took one of my sister, standing just in front of the creek, with the light reflecting off the water and a finger of the creek in the eeriest shade of blue.   I thought then that I knew why my sister liked this place.  She is an artist, after all, and I thought she must be attracted to the way the light and the shadows and the water all work together to make everything beautiful.

Even us.

On Sunday it be The Baptism of Our Lord, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany.  We hear the same gospel story every year, although a different variation.  This year the variation I am hearing is from Matthew, where Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and John doesn't want to do it.  Somehow,  in the River Jordan, the secret is revealed, and John can see it:  "I need to be baptized by you."  But Jesus knows something else, and he insists.  Somehow his being baptized will "fulfill all righteousness" whatever that means.

In my imagination I have sometimes thought that Jesus had a list, a list of all of the things he had to do to effect our salvation.  "Be baptized" was there, at the top of the list, even though, as the story goes, he had no sins to repent of.  That is what 'fulfill all righteousness' meant.

Today, though, I am imagining something else:  I am imagining Jesus and John, standing in Queen Creek.  "I need to be baptized by you," John says.  Somehow in the space between the water and the light he sees something about Jesus, something about himself.  But Jesus insists.  He insists because there is another secret that the world needs to know.

When he comes up from the water and the Spirit descends, the voice speaks.  "You are my son, the beloved."  And the Words shimmer in the space between the water and the light, and it all works together to make everything beautiful.

Even us.

Even us.

He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 1as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  (Ephesians 1:9-10)


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Solitude

My congregation celebrated Epiphany one week early this year, on December 28, the last Sunday of 2014.  It was the reading assigned as part of our congregation's experiment with a different set of Scripture readings for the year, called the "Narrative Lectionary."  I had also been thinking, since almost this time last year, about a using an worship experience called "Star Words" in our services on Epiphany Sunday.  Different words, suited to meditation and guidance, words you can think about and chew on and even consider a gift, are printed on stars and given out to worshippers on the day we hear about the magi who followed the star.  Each person chooses a word from the pile; that word becomes their word for the year, whatever the implications may be.

Some of the words we used:  vision.  writing.  inspiration.  joy. discernment.  service.  teaching.  time.  comfort.  responsibility.  There were 163 words in all, so some we used more than once.  We printed them on pretty yellow stars with blue backs, the kind you can get at an art supply store.  On Sunday morning, we gave them out as people came up for communion, but at our small Saturday evening service there were only about 12 of us (it was the weekend after Christmas, after all), so I chose my star as part of the sermon, and we had everyone else choose their stars as well.

A new woman, sitting in the back of the chapel, got the word 'wisdom.'  Someone else, who I knew had experienced much loss this past year, got 'strength.'  A 91 year old man got 'leadership.'  Another woman, I remember, got the word 'judgment', and I could tell that she felt sort of uneasy about that.  She wanted a different word.  But for myself, I was relieved that if someone had to get the word judgment, it would be her, because she is one of the kindest, most gracious people I know.  I would be assured about her judgments.

We worried a bit about whether we had enough stars (we did).  Someone said if we ran out, people could make their own.  It was hard to explain that making your own wasn't the point; the point was picking a word which you did not choose.   I did tell a couple of people that they could choose another word, if they really felt the first one doesn't fit.  But the second one has also to be chosen from the pile as well;  you can't decide for yourself what your word will be, which is different, I think, from so much of our experience.  Like New Year's resolutions and goals, you make a list of what you want to do, who you want to be, and then you work on making it happen.  But the star is different.   It is not about what you make of your life, but about what comes to you, what is given to you.

As for me, I got the word "solitude."

I thought it an odd choice for the pastor, since so much of my vocation involves being around people.  Someone else did too:  she offered to change words with me.  She got "service", and was willing to take my "solitude."

I won't lie:  I knew what many of the words were, and I was kind of hoping for 'inspiration' (which was at the top of the star pile at one time) or 'time' or even 'writing' (something which would be on my list, if I was constructing a life).  But, instead I got 'solitude,' which I know, deep in my heart, is a gift, and which I both desire and fear, at the same time.  I know I need solitude, but I am not always sure what I will find when I am alone with myself.  Or maybe I suspect that I do know, and that is the problem.  Will solitude be inspiring for me, or will it be a big, empty space?  What will God say to me, if I give God room to say it?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Lowly

"Do you want me to come right away?"

"Can you?"

I had a relaxing day after Christmas planned.  I had a couple of phone calls to make (one about a baptism), and I had to finish a Sunday-after-Christmas sermon.  That was all I had planned.

But then the call came in, about a man from our congregation.  One of his relatives called to let me know that he had just put himself in hospice care.  She thought he would like to have communion.

In my mind I thought that I could probably stop over the next morning, but when I called their apartment and spoke to his wife, she said that he was not eating anything, and that I should not bring communion.  It was then that I blurted out, "Do you want me to come right away?"

He was up in a chair when I arrived, looking pale but smiling warmly.  We started to catch up about his life and his illness, and how hospice was taking such good care of him.  When I mentioned how I had rushed out of church without my communion kit, he seemed disappointed, and his daughter (who was also visiting) said that she could probably find a little wine and some small pieces of cracker.

While communion preparation was underway in the kitchen, I visited with the man and his wife.  I asked him his favorite Bible verse; John 3:16 was what he said.  It was a verse he thought of when he spent two years as a Mission Builder.  He was proud of the work he had done helping build, or remodel three churches, one in Albuquerque, one in Nebraska, and one in Montana.  "We spent two years living in trailers," his wife said.

"What did you do?" I asked him.

"I was the foreman."

The bread and the wine were ready, so confessed our sins and began the communion service.

"What Scripture would you like me to read?  Would you like to hear the Christmas story?"

His daughter thought that was a fine idea.  She remembered how he read the Christmas story for the whole family, every year.  They read the Christmas story as the family grew, with children and grandchildren tumbling through their home.

So on the second day of Christmas, we read the Christmas story.  I asked them which was their favorite part of the story.  "I like the shepherds out in the field," he said.  "Of course, an old farmer," his daughter said.  "I like the angel," his wife said.  A long time ago, she got to be be the angel in a church pageant.  She got to stand in the pulpit, that holy place, and say the words, "Behold, I bring you good news of great joy!"  She has never forgotten it.  His daughter said she liked the angels singing.  His son-in-law said, "I like all of it."  Then we talked and we noticed the part about the manger, how Jesus was laid in a manger.  And he said,

"He had to be lowly.  He had to be the lowliest, to be one of the common, the ordinary.  He couldn't be born in a palace, in a rich place.  He had to be lowly, to be the lowliest, so that he could reach all of us."

Before we took communion, I asked if there was anything they wanted to pray for.

His daughter started to speak, but then closed her eyes and shook her head.  He said, "When I think about my life, my future, I would like to be able to share my faith with my children and grandchildren one more time."

We shared the wine, the bread, the benediction.

I did not finish my sermon.

But I have this:  Lowly.  He had to be lowly. He had to be the lowliest, to reach all of us.