Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My faith, in community

Sometimes I do wonder why I am still here:  in the church, hoping wildly and unreasonably still in Jesus.  It is a mystery of faith, of the working of the Holy Spirit.  Somehow Martin Luther's words ring true:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. 

But just how has the Holy Spirit called me?

My parents brought me to church.  Every week.  My father sang the liturgy, and helped me find my place in the book, so that I could do it too. 

My parents prayed with us before we went to bed.  My father also read us Bible stories, from a book called "The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes."  He also pretended he was Methusalah, the world's oldest man, who knew all of the Bible characters.

My parents' friends were all active in their churches and talked about their faith.  One of their best friends went overseas to be missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

I went to church camp, sang "Pass it On", and learned to put little candles in my Bible next to verses that meant a lot to me.  A camp counselor once confessed to me that she sometimes had doubts about what she believed, but she was comforted by the fact that God knew more than she did, and knew that she was going through a time of doubt.

I went through times when I wasn't sure about what I believed about God or faith.

I had some intense religious experiences as a young adult.

I had great conversations with friends of other religions traditions, which really made me think about my own.

At my church, I taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and went out to brunch with a group of widows.  I knew pre-school children, confirmation students, parents and retired people.

My parents brought me to the baptismal font, where I was joined to Christ, and to Christ's people:  so many people, so many ages, from so many places.  Love, incarnate.  The mystery of Holy Spirit, calling.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I Have Loved Sunday School

I grew up in Sunday School.  From the time I was three years old and we were going to church at Augustana Lutheran, the church where my father grew up, I went to Sunday school every Sunday.  Even when we visited my grandparents in southwestern Minnesota, I went to Sunday School.  I didn't especially enjoy going to Sunday School when we visited a strange church, but I went.  They sent a postcard back to my Sunday School letting them know that I had attended.

I loved Sunday School, mostly.  I loved my teachers, who were not my parents, and who taught me that other adults in the church cared about me.  I loved learning the stories and playing the games with the other students, some of whom were my friends.  I liked when we drew pictures of churches, but then our teacher told us that the church wasn't the Building, it was the People inside who were the church.  I remember learning about the Old Testament and the New Testament, and about the parts of the liturgy, too:  Collect, Kyrie, Agnus Dei.

One week we had a Bible story about forgiveness, about how Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive.  Seven times?  When Jesus told him, "70 X 7", our teacher told us to try to figure the problem out.  But since we hadn't learned long division yet, all we could come up with was that it must be A Very Large Number.

Another time I was in 6th grade Sunday School and we were giving our teacher a bad time.  I think we were already thinking that this was boring and we didn't want to study the lesson.  Our teacher was a new member of the church, a young dad with three little girls.  We were giving him a tough time, so he decided that he would just share a little of his faith story with us.  He told us that they had had one other daughter, who had died of leukemia, and how that affected his faith.  I still remember that.

So, I grew up in Sunday School, and I learned some things.  I learned some things about relationships.  I learned some things about the church.  I learned some things about the Bible, although there were some gaps. For example,  I did not have a very good idea about how the stories went together, for one thing.  This was true even though I went both to church and to Sunday School every single week.

So I have to admit that Sunday School was not perfect, and it is even less perfect now.  Perfect attendance is rare now, for one thing.  It is hard to find enough teachers, and even if you find enough teachers, it is hard to find enough students who really want to go.  There are plenty of other options on Sunday morning.  Every parent can teach their child about Jesus, but not every parent can be a good Sunday School teacher.

I have loved Sunday School, but I have to admit that, for a lot of churches, and a lot of children, it isn't working.  They are not learning the stories of the Bible, but most of all, they aren't learning that other adults in the church care about them.

But one of the gifts of the church is still relationships.  It is a place where we can meet each other and know each other across generations, where we will realize that Forgiveness Is a Really Big Number, and where we can share stories and songs and pray and catch faith from one another.

If only we will only make the space.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Sin Problem

"We Don't Have a Gun Problem.  We have a Sin Problem."

I saw this on social media the other day, in reference, I am sure, to the shooting at the community college in Umqua, Oregon.

We have a Sin Problem.


 I'm a pastor.  It's hard to argue with that.  We do have a sin problem.  We also have a gun problem, which is not to say that I believe that all that we have to do is get rid of all of the guns, if we could even do that.  But yes, we have a sin problem, and yes, I also think that we have a gun problem as well, which is to say, that our sin problem has, at least in part, to do with guns.

Since sin is one of my specialties, let's talk about the sin problem.  I am not sure, but I suspect that when  some people say "we have a sin problem" (rather than a gun problem), they are talking about the individuals who do evil with guns, that the problem is not with guns themselves, but guns in the hands of evil, disturbed people.  It is a problem of individual sin.

But what do you do about that?  There have always been sinners; there will always be sinners.  The increase in these random acts of violence reveal something else about us, not just as individuals, but as a culture.

And then there is our inability to take some sort of action -- not to eliminate evil -- we can never totally eliminate evil.  But our inability to do something, anything, to take any steps, to even talk about what might work, to protect the vulnerable against acts of evil -- this also is sin.

We have a sin problem.

My fear is that somehow saying this will seem like enough, that someone will say, "we have a sin problem" and "let's pray about it", without realizing that the next step, after praying about it, might be to listen, really listen to what God wants us to do about it.  The next step is to repent, to change our mind, to change our ways, to change ANYTHING.

We have a sin problem.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"You're So Gracious"

My former congregation had a generous policy about funerals.  There were a lot of people who were connected with us, in some way or another, and we could usually find some way to work it out if someone wanted to have their funeral in our sanctuary.  But, we have always had two or more pastors, so it was relatively easy to work that into someone's schedule.  If it didn't work out for any of the pastors, on one or two occasions we authorized another pastor to come and lead the funeral service.

So it was that one Monday our receptionist got a phone call from a family that desperately wanted their mother's funeral in our sanctuary, even though she had transferred to another congregation many years ago.  They also wanted one of the former pastors at their current congregation to preside at the service.

That sounded like a slightly strange request, but it was a funeral, and I am sympathetic with grieving people.  We said that one of the pastors of our congregation (probably me) would work with them, along with the pastor that they wanted.

The family said that this makes sense.  "After all, it's your church," they said.

We set a time for the family to meet with both pastors.  I found out the name of the other pastor.  I did not know him, but I did know one thing about him:  he came from a faith tradition which does not ordain women as pastors.  I had his number and tried to get in touch with him.  Finally I left to make another home visit.

When I returned the pastor and the other family were waiting.  I sat down with them and took out note paper and a hymnal, so that we could write down hymns and scripture readings.   We talked about the policy of the church, and how we serve the lunch.

Then the other pastor said, "I am sorry to say this, but I am not allowed to serve in public worship with you.  This is the policy of my denomination.  My hands are tired."

I was sitting there with this pastor and a grieving family.  They knew what I had told them before.

I swallowed hard, and said, "All right then.  I will help you plan the service.  I will put you in touch with the musician from our congregation.  I will help your with the luncheon.  I will make sure that the building is prepared for you.  I will pray for you."

"You're so gracious," the family said.

"You're so gracious," the other pastor said.

Is that what it was?  I had a grieving family with nowhere else to go.  I could not pull the rug out from under them now.  The most important thing was the proclamation of the resurrection that would take place at this funeral.  I knew that it was not about me.  I am not the only one who can comfort and proclaim the good news of Jesus' life.

And yet, it sort of felt like it was about me.  "You are unacceptable." That's what they were saying.  And I stood there and I took it, knowing in my heart of hearts that I was not unacceptable, but feeling slimed nonetheless.

"You're so gracious," they said.

Sometimes, grace is hard.  Really hard.

On that Friday I was not allowed to enter the sanctuary of the church where I had been called as pastor.  Other people thought it was so wonderful that we showed hospitality to a grieving family.  I am glad that we showed this hospitality to a grieving family.

And yet….

Recently I met with a young woman who wants to have her wedding here.  She is not a member of my congregation.  She is from another faith tradition, one I am only slightly familiar with.  I told her the policy of our congregation is that if the wedding is here, I need to be involved in the ceremony with that.  "Are you sure your pastor is all right with that?" I asked.

She was sure her pastor was all right with that.

I called him.  He is not sure that he is all right with that.

Sometimes, being gracious is hard.   Really hard.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Double Minded

It was a great week, or it was a horrible week.

Take your pick.

I met with the youth director of a neighboring congregation, had lunch with a bunch of other new pastors, had a great 'meet the pastor' meeting with some of my congregation members, got picked up by the Christian Century Blog network again.  I also had a fantastic dinner and conversation with parish members this Saturday evening.  A lot of good things happened.

And, I lost my billfold.

I am not sure when, and I am not sure where, but I spent the weekend trying to keep my mind on writing a sermon while making a list of every place I had been during the week.  I made phone calls and cancelled credit cards, and, alternatively, considered Jesus' words about suffering and rejection and greatness in the kingdom of God.  I looked under sofa cushions and mattresses, and I wrote paragraphs about disciples following, or not following, Jesus.

In last week's gospel, the disciples don't really understand Jesus' words about being rejected, and dying, and rising.  But they are afraid to ask.  And I attributed this silence to double-mindedness.  They didn't want to ask  Jesus because they were double-minded about following Jesus.  They wanted to follow him, but they also had their minds on greatness.

This weekend, I confess, that I wasn't single-minded either.  I was thinking of my billfold, and I was thinking of my sermon.  I was thinking of following Jesus, and I was afraid and worried and beating myself up with all kinds of words and scenarios.  It wasn't the actual process of having to cancel things and look places that was the problem.  It was the way my heart was so full of recriminations that there was barely room for good news.

The irony there is not lost on me.  Being single-minded is hard.  Maybe impossible, us being human and all.  As it turns out, I am no different than the disciples.  Jesus invites me to follow him in service, and see him in the small and the weak.  I go on looking for him in large signs and miracles.      He asks me to break the bread, and trust that it will be multiplied, in mouths I cannot see.  

I haven't found my billfold.  I'm still looking.  And following.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Some Lessons Take A Long Time to Learn

Sometime this afternoon,  I got a "friend" request from someone on Facebook.  I did not recognize the name, for a variety of reasons, one of which was the name was written in Chinese script.  I saw that we had one friend in common, another missionary friend of mine from thirty years ago when I lived in Japan.  Still, I really did not recognize the name.  I couldn't pronounce the name.  I no longer read Japanese.

So, I sent this person a message, asking them this question, "Are you one of my former students from Japan?"

He sent me back a message, writing his name in English letters and saying that he was both a student at the high school, and that he also attended the church to which I was assigned.  Did I remember him?, he asked.

It was thirty years ago.

His name did sound familiar though, even after thirty years, and even though I don't have very many particularly vivid memories left.  I remember the 7th grader who taught me the Japanese word for "Thief", on the first day of school, when I picked up the pencil from his desk to use as a visual aid.  "This is a pencil", I said.  "This is a 'dorobo (thief)", he replied.   I remember a young girl who couldn't remember the difference between "Chicken" and "Kitchen" in English.  She would always sing the "Kentucky Fried Chicken" song to help in remembering.  I remember that I would have simple Bible Studies in English before church sometimes.

So, I accepted his friend request.  Then, he sent me a message back, thanking me, and telling me one thing, which was a gift.

He told me that a year after I left Japan, he was baptized, in another Lutheran church in Kumamoto, the city where I lived.  Another one of my students (I learned) is the pastor of this congregation.

I went to Japan, following the call of the Holy Spirit (so I thought).  Jesus wanted me to go and help him make disciples, so I thought.  I did not know how to do this, but I trusted Jesus, at least some of the time.

But we were not making conversions right and left while I was there.  Many people were interested in Christianity, but not so many seemed interested in actually becoming Christian.  Perhaps we were failures (so I thought).

When I found out that my former student had gotten baptized, I said, "That's wonderful!"  to which he replied, "Yes, God led me."

Thirty years ago I was a missionary in Japan.  I kept telling myself that I was planting seeds, and that God was changing lives, whether I could see it or not.

Thirty years later, I am a pastor, and I am in a new place.  I am impatient.  I want to see things happening in my new community.  I am looking around for signs of some kind or another.  A good old fashioned baptism would be just the ticket.  But I am planting seeds, and (the Holy Spirit reminds me), God is changing lives.

Thirty years later, I am a pastor, and God is reminding me again about what the church is for.  It's not for programs (although we may have them) or potlucks (although they are delicious), or just to add more people to do the work I want to get done.  The church is for changing lives, whether I can see it or not.

"Yes, God led me," he said.

God, lead me too, I will pray, tonight.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Myth of the Single Solution

A long time ago a friend who was seeing a counselor gave me a slice of wisdom she had learned.  "My counselor told me that I should beware of the single solution,'" she said.

The meaning was was not immediately clear to me.  My friend was in a conflicted relationship, so I at first thought the advice had to do with whether she should continue or end her relationship.

That's not what she meant.

"No," she explained, "my counselor means that I should beware of thinking that there is just one thing that I should do, or can do, that will magically fix everything.  There is not one single solution."

I thought about that for a long time.  I thought about it in terms of personal relationships, and (I couldn't help it) I even thought of it in terms of congregations.  There is not a 'single solution' for congregations.

At one time, (a long time ago, this was) I believed that the solution for churches was worship.  If we could get with it, worship-wise, if we could create a kick-butt contemporary worship service, or a sublimely reverent traditional worship service, if we got rid of the organ or got a better organ, if we had a lead vocalist or a string quartet or a djembe, Everything Would Be All Right Again.  The Contemporary Worship Service was the strategy of the hour.  It was the way all churches were going to turn around and grow again.

It was the single solution.

I happen to know a fair number of churches with contemporary worship services.  It has not been the single revitalization tool they thought it was.  There is no one single revitalization tool.  There is good worship of many varieties, and there are healthy relationships and there are disciples growing in faith and serving their neighbors, and there are myriad ways these things work or don't work in a congregation.

It's not just worship, of course.  Sometimes the great youth program is the single solution.  Sometimes the small group program is the single solution.  Sometimes great sermons are the single solution.

Of course, the woman who told me this was seeing a counselor, and she was trying to figure out how to have a happier life, a more meaningful life.  I think she believed that there was one thing she could do that would make her life better, and her counselor was cautioning her:  it's not that simple.

For congregations, perhaps it is simple, in a way.  There is no single solution.  But there are two things:  There is prayer, and asking questions.  The prayer involves both speaking and listening, and expecting to hear God speak.  The questions are all about what God is calling us to be, and to do.  Maybe the questions are just another way of praying.

Now, this is my strategy.  There is not one thing to do, but there are two (or three, really):  Ask Questions.  Pray.  And Trust God.