Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unrealistic Expectations

As part of my work, I have meetings and conversations with couples prior to their weddings.  We don't just plan the ceremony.  We also use an inventory which purports to measure the couple's "Strengths" and "Growth Areas".  The inventory gives us many possibilities for conversations that we can have about their relationship.

Some of the possible strengths (or 'growth areas') named are:  Communication, Conflict Resolution, Relationship Roles, Family and Friends, Spiritual Beliefs, Children and Parenting.

You get the idea.

Then there is this one:  "Marriage Expectations."  The idea is that if your expectations for marriage are "realistic", then this is a strength for you.  If your expectations for marriage are "unrealistic", then this is a growth area.

I've been using this inventory for a long time, and I'll tell you what:  I can't think of one couple who scored well on "Marriage Expectations."  Not one.  They all thought that their partner would never disappoint them, that nothing could make them doubt each other's love, that the romance would never fade.

I've taken to reporting these results with a preface:  "Marriage Expectations is a growth area for you," I explain.  "But as far as I can tell, it is for everyone.  Maybe no one would get married if they had realistic expectations."   We laugh about that a little, and go on to discuss their results, bursting their marriage pre-conception balloon, but as gently as possible.

I can't help thinking that the same dynamics could be applied to pastors and congregations.

I realize that there are a number of problems with this analogy.  No, I am not married to my congregation.  We aren't even dating.  But it is a kind of relationship, and I think that congregations have expectations of their pastors, some based in hope, and some based in tradition, and based in some sort of mythic golden age.  They might have expectations of what their pastor will look like, or what kind of a personality she will have (or even whether their pastor will be a 'he' or a 'she').  They might have expectations of what kind of leader their pastor will be, or how he will pray or sing or preach.  They might have expectations of what their pastor can or will do:  bring back the fifties, attract young families, be great with youth or old people, evangelize the neighborhood.

Some of these expectations will (possibly) be unrealistic.

Pastors have expectations of congregations, too.  They have expectations of what their congregations might look like, their piety, their worship life, their eagerness to come out to a Bible study or help with soup suppers or go on a mission trip.  They have expectations (perhaps) about a congregation's faith or their doubts, their neediness or their strength.

Some of these expectations will be unrealistic.

Maybe that's natural.  Maybe it's part of all of life, or at least, every relationship.  We do our best to tell the truth, and to hear the truth about each other.  But in the end marriage, friendship, and entering into every kind of community is a leap of faith.  We love each other and we hurt each other.  We soar and we fall flat on our faces.  We blame each other during the rough patches.  The romance fades.  We are bound to disappoint each other, sometimes.

So we continue to harbor unrealistic expectations.  That's just the way it is.  Only one thing is needful:  not to lower expectations, but to take another leap of faith, and practice forgiveness.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Community

I was sitting at the kitchen table at Hans and Charlotte's house many years ago.  We were visiting, and Charlotte was probably trying to get me to accept a loaf of banana bread to take home.

 Hans leaned in to tell me what was on his mind.

"I hate that contemporary worship service," he said.  "Why do we have to do that one?  It just doesn't seem like worship to me."

Every other month, on the first Sunday of the month, we had a communion service led by guitar and piano.  It had sort of a 'folk music' flavor, and some of our young families really liked it.

I told him this.  I reminded him that we only did this service a few times a year.  I may have even named a couple of names of people he knew that liked that service.  Their children enjoyed coming to church because of the songs that we sang on those Sundays.

He nodded gravely.  He wasn't going to boycott or leave the church because of the contemporary.  He didn't even want me to do anything about it, really.  He just wanted me to know.

So, how do you build community in a congregation?  It is a commodity we all say we want more of, and that people yearn for.  We all say we want more authentic community.  We want a place to belong, and to belong to one another.  It sounds so heady and deep and hard.

Sometimes, it is as simple and unromantic as this:  putting up with someone else's songs, because you want them to be there, in worship with you.

Sometimes it is as simple as listening to each other's complaints, and then being able to say:  You don't have to change anything.  I just wanted to let you know how I feel.  I just wanted to let you know what's important to me.

Community is rarely romantic.  It's more often just putting up with each other, with our different songs and our stranger habits and prayers and table manners, because, for some reason, you believe it's better than sitting at the table by yourself.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What I Learned From a Baby Today

There were two baptisms at church today:  a little girl and a little boy.  I didn't get to baptize the babies, but I did get to hold one of them, afterwards, which is almost as good.

Before the service started, I checked in with the parents of the little girl to let them know I was going to be the pastor carrying their little one down the aisle while the congregation sang our baptism lullaby.  They warned me that their baby was sort of a mama's girl at this stage, and she might not go to anyone easily.

So we devised a plan that mom would walk right beside me when it got to that part of the service, partly so that her daughter could see her and see that everything was okay, and partly just in case we needed to do a quick exchange due to extreme anxiety.

When the babies were baptized and the song began, I took the little girl from her mother's arms.  Her big sister, concerned, wanted to walk with us, so she did.  There was a little scrunching of the face and a few squeaks, but then I started to introduce her to her new brothers and sisters, her big and totally enchanted family.

When she looked them in the eyes, and they looked into hers, she calmed down and forgot her anxiety. Some of the congregation members even reached out and touched her balled up fist, or her shoulder.  They sang the lullaby right into her eyes, her hands, her heart.

A couple of times we looked back just to make sure her mother and sister were still there.  There were a couple of brief moments when we thought she might give way to her fear again.  But she didn't.

"Look at what a big family you have!" I said to her.  "Meet your new sister in Christ!" I said to them.

When we finished our short walk, and I returned the baby to her mother, she looked at me with a sort of pride.  "She did well!" she said.  Somehow I thought that all those small interactions with the congregation had something to do with it.

When I am anxious, I am tempted to look more deeply into myself, and feel my inadequacies, my doubts, my failures.  But what if, instead, I looked around, looked outward, took time to look into other loving eyes, took time to touch and be touched, to hear the singing around me?

Sermon for Lent V

5 Lent Narrative Lectionary A
Matthew 25:31-46

“The Greatest of These….”

            Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  AMEN

            Am I a sheep or am I a  goat?  —I can’t help asking myself this question whenever I hear this parable.  Am I a sheep or a goat? 
            Because at the end of time, when the king comes and stands before the nations, that is what is going to make all of the difference, and I know that I would like to be counted among the sheep. 
            And so when I read this parable, I think about the people who come by the church asking for gas, or a few groceries, or sometimes, even a place to stay for a few nights. 
            And I talk to them, and if I can, I help them, even if it’s just a little.  I help them partly because I want to and partly because I think I am supposed to, and sometimes even when I don’t feel like it.  Am I a sheep or a goat?

            But then – then – there are all those times when I am driving on the highway and I come to an exit ramp and I am stopped there while someone is by the side of the road with a sign:  “Will Work for Food.” 
            Anything helps.”  “Homeless and hungry."  
            And more often than not, I do not roll down the window, and I hope that the light changes, and I wonder in my heart what is the right thing to do.
             Am I a sheep or a goat?  Because that is, in the end, what will matter, when the King returns.

            But maybe that’s the wrong question. 
            I don’t know – but I noticed something this year because we are using a different Lectionary – because we are using the narrative lectionary and we are reading the gospel almost in the order that it was written
            – I noticed something about where this story is located in Jesus’ story. 
            Jesus tells this parable right before he is arrested, right before he is tried and led away to be crucified, right before all of his disciples run away in fear. 
            This is the very last parable Jesus tells, his very last piece of teaching until his resurrection. 
            Does that matter?
             So when the sheep and the goats both ask Jesus the question, “When did we see you…. Hungry and thirsty and naked and a stranger and in prison…” … some of those things are about to happen to Jesus. 
            Jesus will be arrested, he will be thirsty, he will be naked, he will be a stranger…. And almost not one will come to his aid. 
            Every single one of his disciples --- will be goats.  
            When he cries from the cross, “I’m thirsty,” they won’t hear him, because they are all…. Somewhere else. 
            It is Simon of Cyrene who is employed to help carry his cross. 
            And after he dies, Joseph of Arimathea clothes him and welcomes his body by providing a tomb for him. 
            “When did we see you….?”…. and none of the disciples will pass the test.  They will all be goats.

            So maybe we are asking the wrong question.
            Am I a sheep or a goat?
            We are all sheep and we are all goats sometimes.
            Maybe this is a better question:   what is it that makes the difference – between sheep and goats?
            You know – I am tempted to say – well, the sheep saw Jesus in the hungry, thirsty hurting people they encountered, and they helped.  Every time I read this parable, I always fall for that, at first, and what I want to say to everyone is “Pay Attention!  Look For Jesus!  He is here, among us, in the least of these.”
            But what if seeing Jesus isn’t the point?
            Here’s the thing – both the sheep and the goats ask the SAME question of the king. 
            They ask, “When did we see you, Lord?” 
            Neither group recognized the King. 
            The sheep and goats are both surprised by the criteria by which they are judged.  It is not about seeing Jesus. 
            It would be good if we did.  But we don’t.  Mostly, we don’t see Jesus hiding in the world.
            But those who were sheep – at least in this parable – saw something. 
            They saw something that made them overcome that fear that makes you look away,
             they saw something that made them overcome the suspicion that makes you judge – do they really need the help?
             – they saw something that made them overcome the prejudice  that makes you assume you already know the story.
            Those who were sheep saw something – not a problem – not a statistic, not even a cause – but another human being.
            Sometimes I think that’s harder than seeing Jesus.

            It’s many years ago now since I ran the summer program at Messiah Lutheran church in inner city Minneapolis. 
            It was the hardest summer of my life.
             I can look back now and see good things that happened that summer.  I was the first director that actually accomplished getting a multi-racial team of high school students to lead the program. 
            But it was not so easy for us to get along or understand each other. 
            I felt the stress of being the only consistent adult there for the eight weeks of the program – though we did have many volunteers who came and went. 
            But I looked forward to the last day of the summer – for more reason than one – because we were all doing a great job planning a carnival. 
            We had gotten the best carnival favors ever – all kinds of school supplies and great and practical things, and my team was doing a good job thinking about and planning what their booths were going to be. 
            We even had a piñata for the close. 
            And so many things were going well.  Until the very end of the day, when a group of teenager boys from the neighborhood crashed our party, smashed a piñata and left calling us -- me – names.

            I tell you – I did not see Jesus that day.
            I am pretty sure I didn’t even recognize that those young men were other human beings, created in the image of God.  Not then. 
            Not that day.
            Later on I heard Father Greg Boyle speak.  He works with gang members in South Los Angeles, speaks of them as his brothers and sisters, and talks about his great affection for the young men and women he knew.
            He said that those in gangs had a ‘fatal deficit of hope’ – it’s not so much that they want to kill, but that they don’t have anything to live for.
            What makes the difference – between the sheep and the goats?
            Why did they do it – it wasn’t for the reward.  It wasn’t so that they could be sure that they were standing on the right side at the end of time.
             It wasn’t because they recognized Jesus.

            St. Paul writes, at the end of 1st Corinthians 13, “But now faith, hope and love abide, these three.  But the greatest of these is love.” 
            And I read these words often at weddings, but I can’t help thinking that weddings are not the only place for them, or maybe even the best place for them.             
The greatest of these is love, Paul writes, but why? 
            Why not faith, after all? 
            Why not faith which is the trust by which you see Jesus in those most vulnerable, even when they do not resemble him at all?  
            That would be so Paul-like, to name faith as the greatest.  And Luther would even agree. 
            And why not hope?  Why not a hope that keeps us reaching out to others, a hope that the world – and we – can be better than we are right now? 
            But no – the greatest of these is love, Paul writes.

            Earlier on, he tells us, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.” 
            At the end of time, there will be but one thing left:  love. 
            It is the love of Jesus who went to the cross for people who did not recognize him. 
            It is the love of Jesus who went to the cross for both the sheep and the goats, to raise them all to new life.
             It is the love of Jesus who gives us his life – and his love – and who means to transform us – as well – into people who love – into people who see – maybe not Jesus – but one another.  

            Am I a sheep or a goat?
            Yes.  I am.  I am a sheep.  And I am a goat.  
But maybe that's the wrong question.  Because it's not about me.  It's about my neighbor.  And it's about Jesus, who loves every single one of us.

            And through the love of Jesus who bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and has endured all things –  he will be the sheep when I am the goat.
He will see in those who suffer from a fatal deficit of hope, what I cannot see.
He will be the sheep, and as that Lamb of God he will die
for them and for me
for you and for all.
AMEN


           

Thursday, March 19, 2015

To Visit Or Not to Visit

Back in the day, the Every Member Visit was a thing pastors did.  I remember, even when I was on internship, being asked by more than one potential pastoral mentor:  "Are you regularly visiting your members in their homes or at the places where they work?"  I remember one seasoned pastor giving me the advice that, if I visited people regularly during the week, I would be more likely to see them in church on Sunday.   Another reason to visit, I was told, was because we who do this "odd" work of pastoring need to know how the regular people who come to our churches really live, what are their daily struggles, which questions animate their lives.

Lately though, the Every Member Visit has become an object of scorn.  For one thing, it is impossible, if you have a congregation of any size at all.  And if you want to become a congregation of any more size, you are really setting yourself up for failure.  The Every Member Visit also sounds much like a chaplaincy ministry:  it is "taking care of members" rather than reaching out to care for the world; it is inward rather than outwardly focused.  There is so much wrong with the Every Member Visit, not the least of which is that it is focussed on "members".

Lately, though, I am wondering if the question is not whether or not to visit (and perhaps the "every member" prefix requirement out to go) but what kind of visits we ought to make.

What if we practiced a strategic kind of visiting, both among those inside and those outside our churches, aimed at hearing stories, and learning the passions and concerns, strengths, hopes and fears of those who worship with us?  What if we visited in order to learn what people's gifts were, where they came from, and how they might fit into the mission of God?  What if we visited to learn the capacity of our congregation and the needs of our community?  What if we visited in order to get a better of idea of what God wants us to do, and how we could possibly do it?

What if we believed that the people who come to our churches are partners with us in the gospel?  What kind of visiting would we do then?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Greatest of These

Personally, I don't think Hope gets enough credit.

I know, Paul said it, so it must be true:  Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three, and Love is the greatest of all.

But sometimes I think you can make a pretty good case for hope.

You might think that two people decide to get married because they love each other, or even because they have faith in each other.  But what if it's really hope:  that they have a hope that it will all work out, and work out for the next fifty-odd years or so?  So maybe, if you scratch below the surface, their hope is really a crazy, misplaced dream, and they really were not meant for each other in the end.  But in the beginning, they had hope.  That's why they got married.

 Then there is the opposite:  I remember hearing Father Gregory Boyle say once that young men and women joined gangs because of a "fatal deficit of hope."  People make choices because they have hope, and they make other choices because they have no hope.  Children stay in school and work hard because they have hope that their work will bear fruit and their life will make sense, and their choices will mean something.

At church this morning we hear a parable that makes Lutheran pastors weep.  It is the one about the ten bridesmaids, waiting for the bridegroom.  Five were wise and five were foolish.  The foolish ones were afraid they were running out of oil, and when the hour was late the rushed out to get more, only to have the delayed bridegroom arrive while they were searching around and tell them (gracelessly) "I never knew you."  This being a parable and all, we can expect that the story will jar us and offend us, and the details will go against our grain, but Lutheran pastors like it better when the offense is on the merciful side, and so we don't know what to do with this harsh bridegroom slamming the door in the the bridesmaids' faces.

What is the message of the parable?  What is Jesus, on his way to the cross, trying to say to us?

Well, more than one or two things, that's for sure.  Some people think the missing oil is faith.  Some people think that it is good works (as in, "Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works….."); others think the point is staying put, even when your lamp is going out.  Do not leave the church, but stay in the body and keep waiting for the bridegroom!

Me, I can't help thinking about hope.  Being that it's a parable and all, I am sure that it is not just about hope, but there is something there about not losing heart for the long haul that grabs me and won't let go. Somehow I think that is something that Matthew might have latched on to, thinking about the destruction of the temple and the temptation to give up and look for someone else or something else to believe in.  Somehow I think that this is the issue for our age as well:  how to keep going when things look bleak and dark, when all of the news is bleak, and you are tempted to give up and stop voting or at least look for something else to hope for.  Good works play a part:  after all, we study and work and ladle soup and heal and forgive sins and keep on doing it because of the hope that is (however dimly) burning in those lamps of ours.

It's that hope that he told us about, the hope for a place where the least will be lifted up, where sparrows will be noticed, where bread will be multiplied, where all of us will be recognized for who we are, where we will be saved by grace.

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, I can't help thinking this evening, for in the end we are saved … not by grace, and not by good works, but by hope.

The greatest of these.



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Building Trust

I was meeting with a small group of adults who were dreaming about, and hoping for the future of adult faith formation in our congregation.  What did we want faith formation to look like?   What did we hope to accomplish in the life of adults?

It is called "strategic planning", but I also call it hoping.  I call it sharing stories.  We started by sharing stories of moments of faith formation in our lives, things that picqued our curiosity, made us grow.  One person shared the importance of witnessing an adult baptism.  Another person told about shepherding youth through writing faith statements, and how that helped her consider how she would speak of her own faith.  Another person shared faith retreat weekends, and how that intentional time together helped their whole family.

There were just seven of us around the table.  We had considered the purpose and outcomes we desired, and now we were honing in on some values that were important to us.  One value came up again and again, that we want to be a safe place where people can bring their questions, the questions and doubts of faith.  We don't want faith formation simply to be a place where people find answers, but a place where people wrestle, can speak up about the things they don't know, the things they might never know.  They were going beyond information, venturing forth to the deeper waters of formation.

But at the same time were were passionate, we realized that we were stuck.

Someone shared about his daughter's experience in a class at college, where they discussed deep issues of faith and community:  abortion, racism, poverty, and many other areas where faith and life meet.  He said that these conversations were transforming to his daughter's faith.  And someone else said that we should be able to talk about these things in church.  The church is a sanctuary, that is, a safe place, where we can bring our true selves and be assured of God's grace and forgiveness.

There was a deep deep pause.  The word "should" hung in the air, as we realized the gulf between our ideals and where we are.  And we realized that one of our first tasks, if we want to become a community safe for questions, was to inch along toward becoming that place that we desire to be:  a sanctuary, a safe place for questions, for the doubters and believers.

How do we make it so?

I think we can only do this by practicing, and that is what makes it so hard, because we will make mistakes, and there will be some people who are too wounded to try.  We can only do this by practicing, by beginning to have the conversations, practicing grace with one another.  I think there are ways we can lay some ground rules as we begin, and hope that people trust enough to engage with us.  We can lay some ground rules about how we listen, and how we receive each other's stories, about not having to agree with one another to listen.

And then we need to learn to practice forgiveness, which is a part of trust.

It is a great vision and goal that we have identified:  to be a safe place for questions.  We will never fully accomplish it, in this life.  But I like to think that when we stand before the throne of the Lamb, we will stand there with the choirs and the feast prepared, and even our questions will find a home.