Thursday, September 22, 2016

High Expectations, No Judgment

In about a week, my congregation is embarking on a journey.

We are going through a program called "Committed to Christ".  We'll be journeying together on Sunday mornings, but some of us as well will be studying together in small groups, and some perhaps will be doing daily devotions with their families.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to confess that when I first looked at "Committed to Christ", I did not realize that it was a certain kind of Stewardship program.  I only knew that it was dealing with  some of the faith practises of discipleship, and that it fostered participation in small groups.  I was really interested in getting some small groups activated this fall.

Each week, people in my congregation are going to be encouraged to make a deeper commitment to Christ in some area or another of discipleship:  one week it might be prayer, another week reading the Bible more frequently, and still week, on increasing our commitment to serving others.

As I was studying the materials, I was also struck by a particular terminology used:  the book talks about being a "high expectation" congregation.

Now, I know what this means.  This means we want to be a congregation that expects people to do more than just come to worship on Sunday morning.  We want to be a congregation that expects people to live out their commitment to Christ every day of the week, and in more than one way.  We want to be a congregation that is hungry for God, to know and follow Jesus more nearly.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

Nothing, really.

Except.... well, I'll be honest.  I worry a little about the possibility of creeping judgmentalism in a high expectation congregation.  While I love for us to have higher expectations of ourselves as Christians, and I want people to want to worship more,  pray more, serve more, and learn more, I worry a little about our predilection to measure ourselves or others according to these high expectations.  And there is so much we don't know.

When someone doesn't come to church every single Sunday (and by the way, perfect attendance has become increasingly rare), we don't know if it is because they have had to take a second or third job, or because their child had a meltdown right before church, or because they were worshipping somewhere else this week.  When someone doesn't want to sit on a particular committee that is near and dear to our heart, we don't know if it is because they are already overloaded at work or home, or because there is another cause that is nearer and dearer to their hearts, or for some other reason.

Then I worry too that we give the impression that, for the most part, discipleship is about hanging around church a lot.  I wonder if this study will make us ponder what it means to be disciples in our daily lives, in our families, at work, in our community?   Our high expectations for ourselves might be different than someone else's.

And then there's grace -- my favorite thing.  I love grace even more than I love high expectations, and being a high expectation church.  Maybe for me, a high expectation church would have these high expectations -- we would worship more, pray more, serve more, give more -- and we would expect that we would fall down on the job.  We would expect that sometimes we would be bad at it, despite our best efforts.  We would develop high expectations for mercy, and forgiveness, and develop a deeper trust in God who loves us when our prayers fall flat, when our well runs dry, when we fail to show up, when we have nothing to give.  We would develop high expectations for mercy, and forgiveness, and perhaps even learn to extend that mercy and forgiveness to others.

That is the kind of high expectation church I want to be -- starting with myself.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Voice of God

On Thursday morning, I got an email from a member of my congregation, telling me that she was transferring her membership to another congregation.  She had prayed long and hard, she said, but she wanted to go "where her gifts were appreciated."

It was not the best beginning to the morning.  I emailed her back saying that I understood, and that I did appreciate her gifts.  Still, the content of the email followed me around for awhile, whispering doubts in my ears.

Later on, I called the daughter-in-law of a woman who was in hospice.  The hospice care facility had called the day before, saying that the family requested a pastoral visit.  They said I should get in touch with the woman's daughter-in-law first, which I did.  So I called and got directions to their house.

I've been here about a year now, but I still don't know all parts of the community where I live.  This was in an area of town where I had not been before, so I used both verbal directions and my car's GPS and found the cottage where this elderly woman and her husband lived.

I went in, and introduced myself to the man and his wife, explaining that his daughter-in-law had called me.  I found out that the wife was from Germany.  "I found her and I brought her back to Texas," he told me.  He had been Baptist, but she made a Lutheran out of him.  After that, he said he had held every leadership position in the church, except for pastor.  He always wanted to be a pastor.  I sat by the bed of his wife, and we talked a little bit about their lives.  They had lived in Texas for a long time, but were new to this community.  Their daughter-in-law came over, and joined the conversation.  I could tell that this was a family who looked out for one another.  I asked if the husband and daughter-in-law also wanted communion.  They both said yes.

We talked a little bit about the church where I serve.  The daughter-in-law was familiar with it, in fact had attended for awhile.  They were members when it was a larger and livelier place, about the time when her children were small and the day care was just opening.  I said it was smaller now, and that it was my job to build it up again.

She said, "Well, you have the right personality for that."

I don't know why she said that.  We had known each other for about 20 minutes.  I immediately felt a small voice, a tiny piece of hope, for no reason.   I felt for a moment that perhaps I could do the work to which I had been called, in this place far from my home.

We began the communion service.  The daughter-in-law knew the words of the confession by heart.  I read from John 10, about the gate, and the shepherd, and the one who knows our names, and whose voice we know, and who leads us out, and in, to find pasture.

We prayed together.  We shared the bread and the wine.  We shared words of blessing.

The husband told me again that he had held every job in the church, except the pastor.  I told him that all of those others jobs were important ones.  They were callings from God.

I told them if they needed anything, they could call.

And the words of the conversation followed me around for a while, whispering in my ear, reminding me about the shepherd whose voice I follow, even though I do not know exactly where He will take me, and who has brought me here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

More of That

On Sunday, September 11, I went to church.

It was a regular Sunday morning communion service, although, because it was 9/11, I had more time for praying and singing, and slightly less time for preaching than usual.  The children's message featured a cloth globe that I passed around to the children, so that we could all hold the world in our hands, and pray for the world.   As well, each bulletin had a colorful cardboard hand.  During the prayers, everyone was encouraged to write their name on a hand, to think about how they could be an instrument of God's peace, and then put the hand in the offering plate.

We are still thinking about what to do with those hands.   Should we make a collage?  Should we fasten them all on a ribbon and hang them up around the church?  More creative minds than mine could think of many more ideas.

The choir sang for the first time on Sunday, a gospel song called, "Lord, Have Mercy."  I always run up to the balcony to sing with the choir, and then back down to preside at communion.  The ushers usually follow me with the offering plates.  Today they were filled with these colorful hands.

But on Sunday something else happened.  One of the ushers decided to give the offering plates to her two year old great-nephew.  They walked together down the center aisle, just behind me.  When I turned around there he was, standing there gravely.  I stooped down to take the two plates from him.

I turned to the usher and said, "Thank you. that was wonderful.   I want more of that."

More of that.  I don't just want to see the children in church; I want them to know that they belong in church, that they are an important part of the body of Christ, that we are poorer if they are absent.  I want them to light the candles, read the lessons, share the peace, carry the offering baskets, help with communion,  do things I haven't imagined.

I want more of that.  I am not exactly sure why I said it, or said it like that.  Maybe it was just seeing him get to do something I never got to do, when I was small, even though I was there every. single. Sunday.  Maybe it is because I believe that children learn not just from sitting around tables in Sunday School, but from sitting next to their parents in worship, carrying offering plates, packing socks for homeless people.  Learning to be Christian is not just head knowledge, but whole body knowledge, and we learn it from one another, not just listening but doing and being.  Or maybe it was this, even:  a flash of a vision.  A little child shall lead them.  The lion shall lie down with the lamb.  This is what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.   All of us together.  All of us playing a part.

I know that's not the current wisdom.  The current wisdom says to separate us into different learning groups, different worship styles, different ages.  Have Children's Church and the Hip Service for teenagers and the Baby Boomer Service, and the one that the Greatest Generation goes to.  We are all different, after all.  We speak different languages.  We need different things.

But the truth is, that what we need more than anything else is one another.  We need one another to grow up into Christ, and we need one another to do the mission to which he has called us:  to love and heal the world.  

People ask me what my vision for the church is.  It is a two year old carrying the offering plates.  It is the 4 year old who closes his eyes whenever I give him a blessing.  It is the two 5th graders who sing the songs during Lent at the top of their lungs.  It is all of these colorful hands, each of them pledging to be instruments of God's peace.  And knowing that we can't do it alone.  We need each other, not just for that hour on Sunday morning, but we need each other to share the peace of God in the world.

 Because we all need more of THAT.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Homily for September 11, 2016

Anniversary of 9/11 – Luke 15:1-10

            Dear people of Grace – Grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  AMEN

            I could not help thinking about it  this morning, and all week, actually: 
            today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. 
            Fifteen years ago today, I remember – it was a Tuesday morning, and I was on my way to church. 
            We had just gotten done with our congregation’s Rally Sunday.  The theme was “Follow Jesus”, and for my sermon I had brought along a bag full of shoes, imagining which would be the best pair to wear, if I was going to Follow Jesus.
             Then it was Tuesday morning, and I was on my way to church, and on the radio there were these strange reports about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center buildings.
            I imagined it was a small plane.  I imagined it was a mistake.

            It was not a small plane.  It was not a mistake.

            So many images have been seared into our brains from that day,  things we never wanted to see, things we could not have imagined.  
            But I’ll tell you what has stayed with me all these years, which images I most remember, the ones I carry with me – they are images of police officers and fire fighters and other first responders. 
            While everyone else was trying desperately to escape, running down stairs and out of the buildings, they were going in the opposite direction, running into the buildings and up the stairs. 

            All of their training prepared them for this moment – for this work – to reach out and try to rescue the lost.   
            And whether they knew it or not, they were following Jesus. 
            At the very least, they remind me of Jesus, because he ran toward the danger, he went to Jerusalem and to the cross, rather than away from it. 

            Today is the anniversary of 9/11. 
            But, on our calendar it is also a day called “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday.
             It is a day that we have given to serving our neighbors. 
            For us, today, it is fun work – we get to make packages for people who are homeless. 
            We get to use our hands to pack food and socks and gloves for people who can’t live without them. 
            We get to stand with one another while we do that, and also pray and read scripture and eat pizza too. 
            Today, serving our neighbor is fun.

            God’s work, our hands,  our feet – and our voices. 

            The gospel reading today tells a parable about a sheep who was lost, and the shepherd who went to find it. 
            There were 99 sheep who were okay, but the shepherd left everything to go and look for the lost one – because who knew what could happen to it! 
            And of course the shepherd is Jesus, and the feet that go in search of the sheep belong to him, and the hands that bring that lost one home are his. 
            Make no mistake about this.   
            Ultimately, our lives are in his hands. 
            All of us.  Children, and the parents who tuck them in.    Students, and the teachers who guide them.
             Homeless people, and those who find shelter for them, and give them warm socks. 
            First responders, and those they are searching for.    Ultimately, our lives are in the hands of Jesus.

            But sometimes – Jesus uses our feet, our hands, our lives – to show the mercy of God, to show the grace of God, to show the amazing, awesome, unimaginable love of God. 
            Sometimes – more often than not – our ordinary feet and our ordinary hands are call to be there--- to go to Louisiana and help muck out houses, to go to school and read to children, to go to places where people are lost, and to show them the truth: 
            that they are beloved, so beloved of God that he is willing to walk among us, to heal us, to feed us, to die for us. 
            We are called to use our hands for this healing mission, in so many ways.

            Sometimes it is fun.  Sometimes it is scary. 

            But our hands are the shepherd’s hands, because of his calling, his mark, on our lives.  
            And our feet are the shepherd’s feet, because he has called us his beloved children, because he has first loved us.

            God’s work.  Our hands.  It’s true, every day, by the grace of God.

            And the work of God is the work of sharing grace – the work of loving and feeding and lifting up sheep. 
            It is the work of tying quilts. 
            It is the work of pouring water over the heads of babies. 
            It is the work of making food and welcoming homeless people into our church.
            It is the work of holding hands when we cross the street. 
            It is the work of praying together. 
            It is the work of running into burning buildings.

            God’s grace.  Our hands.  Our feet.  Our lives.  Follow Jesus.

            To the glory of God.


            AMEN

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sunday Morning Bible Study

One of the things that drew me to this congregation was that they had an active and lively Sunday morning Bible study.  Though attendance varied, I heard that it was not uncommon to have forty or fifty people stay after the first service for the study time.  My former congregation, a much larger one, had a hard time generating half that many.

I looked forward to leading the Sunday morning Bible study as well, although (I will admit it now), I started to find the schedule intimidating.  Every single week, there was worship at 9:00, Adult Bible Study at 10:00 and another worship service at 11:00.  I looked around for different kinds of Adult Studies we could do.  This church does NOT take a break in the summer, so I jumped right in with a study of worship, and began the year with a 10 week video and Bible study of Grace.  We also studied hymns for Advent and Faith Practices during Lent and Easter.

I'll tell you what, it was challenging to do the preparation every week and also to find good study resources.

And then summer came.  We decided to have one worship service during the summer.  We decided to have Bible study before worship, instead of after worship.  And someone suggested that instead of a series, as we had been doing, perhaps we could do something different every week.    That seemed like a good idea, but again, a lot of preparation.

I considered.

Someone ordered a couple of pamphlets:  one, on the life of Paul, and another one, on favorite Bible passages.  After a couple of false starts, I decided that we would use the Pamphlet on the life of Paul, and use selected portions of Acts, until we ran out of time.

There were no video supplements.  There were no workbooks.  There was no "Leader's Guide."  There was just this pamphlet with some of the exciting things that happened to Paul in it.  Every week, I looked at the pamphlet, chose a couple of Bible passages, and on Sunday morning, those of us who happened to be in attendance read the Bible, asked questions and had a conversation.

On Saturday night I spent a little time studying the Scripture passages I had chosen.  Not a LOT of time.  I wasn't trying to study so much that I would impress everyone with my superior Bible knowledge.  Just a review of the narrative, a little bit of commentary.  There were still times I ended up saying, "I don't know.  I'll check that out by next week."

There were no bells, no whistles.  It was just us, and the Bible, and our questions.

And you know what?  I had a good time.  I felt energized by our conversation together, by what we were discovering as we studied the Bible together.  We discovered that when we studied the book of Acts, all kinds of contemporary issues also arose:  persecution, immigration, evangelism, other religions, whatever was happening in the world.

As much as I enjoyed the ten week study of Grace, and the study of worship, and Faith Practices, this was the most fun I had had all year.  It is the thing I love to do the best:  reading the Bible with other people.  It is not Standing Up and Lecturing People About the Bible (which has its place, and I can do that, too, but it is not my favorite thing).

It is just this simple conversation, where I ask people:  what did you notice in this passage of Scripture?  What questions do you have?  What stuck out for you?  What do you think God is saying/doing here?  We all wrestle with the questions, and their meaning for our lives, together.

Together.  Deep down inside, I think this is how the Bible is meant to be read:  together.  Maybe it's just two, or maybe three or four, or maybe a whole congregation, listening together.  Somehow it happens though, when we read and ponder, wonder and wrestle together, that our lives are enriched and transformed, again and again.

Just us, the Bible, and our questions.  That's how God changes us.  That's how God is changing me.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wednesday Chapel

After a week up north visiting family, I flew back home to Texas on Tuesday.  Up in Minnesota everyone is getting ready for Rally Sunday and children were getting their backpacks blessed for the first day of school.  Down here in Texas we have already sent everyone back to school, including the children from our pre-school.

I missed chapel last week.  I did not want to miss seeing the children for two weeks in a row.  But my flight was delayed because of severe weather, and by the time I got back home, it was late.  I did not know what I would do for chapel the next day.  I couldn't remember what their Bible lesson was.

"Well, maybe we'll just sing and pray,"  I decided.  That is what we did.

I have a very old book about prayer that I like a lot.  I brought it with me, just a few of the pages marked.  I wrote down a few of the songs we like to sing (If you're happy and you know it... hug a friend!).  I will admit, that when Wednesday morning rolled around, I wished for just a moment that I had decided to sleep in.

But then we were all sitting on the chancel steps, and I was asking them, "When do you pray?  Where is a good place to pray?"

They prayed before bedtime, and they prayed in the morning with their friends.  They prayed when they ate, but they also prayed in the car and when they had a sleepover at their friends' house.  They could pray at their grandma's, and they could pray when they were afraid, too.

Right before chapel, I suddenly remembered what their Bible lesson for the week was.  I remembered that I had a mirror in the pulpit (long story), and grabbed it.  One little boy said, "What is that for?"  I said, "for later."

We continued to talk about prayer, and pray.  I showed a few pages of my old prayer book, with things they could pray for, or about:  water and fun and friends.  My favorite page was about sounds.  We gave thanks for sounds!  "What are your favorite sounds?"  I said.  "boing boing!"  "ding dong"  "Honk honk".  "Meow!"  and then..... "our voices."

Yes, I said.  "Our voices.  We are a sweet sweet sound in God's ear."

We said the Lord's prayer and sang again.  And then I took out the mirror, because I remembered that their Bible lesson this week was from Genesis, chapter one.  "Made in the image of God."   I took out the mirror and said that each of them was made in God's image.  And then I stood at the back of the chapel as they went back to their classes, and gave them a peek at the image of God, in their faces.

It was fun to show the mirror, one by one, and watch them look at themselves, and say the words, "You are made in the image of God".

It was almost as good as saying those other words, one by one, to each individually, "the body of Christ, given for you.  The blood of Christ, shed for you."

Made in the image of God.

A sweet sweet sound in God's ear.

I live to tell it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Conservative and Liberal Are Both Good Words

I was visiting with a member of my first parish one day many years ago.  He was also a tall, humble man, a retired pastor who had spent all of his ministry serving churches in rural Nebraska and South Dakota.  Now he had come back home to retire.  I remember him stopping in to my office often to chat, to ask me questions about the current state of the Lutheran church.  He was a Norwegian Lutheran, and my background as a child had been with the Swedish American Churches.

"We always thought that the Swedes were more liberal," he said to me that day.  "Liberal?" I asked.  "In what way?  Liturgically?  Morally?  Theologically?  Politically?"

He didn't even bat an eye.  "All those ways," he said, with a sweep of his hand.

Liberal.  Conservative.  We bat those words around a lot these days.  Sometimes when we say them, they sound like accusations, or even like character assassination.  "We always thought that the Swedes were more ... liberal", he said.  "Watch out!  He is pretty... conservative," (as if in warning.) Liberals are permissive.  Conservatives are judgmental.

But I can't help thinking:  At their roots, Conservative and Liberal are both good words.

Think about it:  Conservative means to conserve, to recognize value, not to throw out the old in pursuit of everything new.  I love to go to antique stores, and sometimes I think that the treasures I find have more character than all of the new, cheap stuff I can find in the discount stores.  Does this mean I am conservative?

Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, started the National Parks system.  It was a conservative initiative, a movement to preserve something of value for future generations.

My conservative congregations in South Dakota did not chase after brand names with big price tags.  They weren't flashy.  They didn't go in for expensive, flavored coffee (at least not while I was living there).  They weren't caught up in the latest fad.

I knew that they didn't like "Liberals", and I heard it bandied about in a scornful way.  But what does the word "Liberal" really mean?  It means -- generous.  "Apply liberally" -- means -- Apply generously.  Use a LOT.  And whatever you think about people you CALL liberals, it would seem to me that being liberal would itself be an attractive thing.  I want to be around generous people -- people who are generous with their time, generous will their good will, generous with their resources.

So the word "liberal" really means generous and the word "conservative" really means to conserve, to save what is of value.  And maybe what those of us who call ourselves liberal or conservative need to ask ourselves is:  are we really being generous?  Are we really preserving what is valuable?  Are we who we say we are?

Liberal and conservative are both good words.

But are we who we say we are?