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?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Back To School

Yesterday was the first day of school at the pre-school associated with my church.  It was also the first day of first grade for a small group of students, as we have decided to venture just rung up into grade school this year.

The school offers day care as well as school, so parents begin arriving early.  I had committed to be over at the school to welcome children and parents by 7:00 a.m., although after a busy Sunday morning and evening, that seemed more difficult to achieve.

I walked in a few minutes after 7:00, looking "casually pastoral".  I remembered last year being hectic, with many new students needing signatures and forms.  It seemed much more laid back yesterday morning, and I was wandering the hallways and wondering what to do when the skies outdoors opened up and it began to pour.

I watched as beleaguered parents arrived, trying to juggle children, umbrellas, diapers, mats for napping and assorted accessories for the school year.  It then became clear what my job was going to be this morning:  opening the door.

It was a simple, and as necessary, as that.  I picked up fallen items on occasion, held some hands, greeted people and held the door open.  I recognized old friends, cheered for the new first graders, pointed a few people in the direction of the school administrator, who could give directions to the right classroom.  And once (and this made my day) I got my picture taken with a new kindergarten student.  (Really, that moment was worth showing up for.)  But mostly, I just held the door open, and smiled.

It was enough.

Maybe that's what I do, after all:  hold the door open.  Maybe behind all of the fancy theology and studying, what I am called to do is to hold the door open so that people can walk in to the grace and goodness of God.  It's not me:  it's something beyond me and behind me, although I hope the Holy Spirit is also within me.  When I open the door to the pre-school, when I open my communion kit and take out the little cups, when I open up my own flawed life and share a a testimony, when I open my hands to serve -- I am holding the door open.

I'd like to say that this is uniquely part of my vocation as a pastor, but I know it isn't true.  We are all called to do it, although in different ways.  We are all called to hold the door open for one another, so that we can walk into the grace and mercy of God.  And we all need to have the door opened for us -- no one can do it on their own -- even me.

As it turns out, I never stop going back to school -- and the children are my teachers, who hold the door open for me.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Why I Go Over To the Pre-School

Because it is summer, I have not had as many chapel services at the pre-school, and I have been missing my regular dates with the children there.  I try to work in some free time visiting the classrooms, but it's hard.  We are working on so many things at the church right now:  getting people ready to visit homebound members with communion, working on a small group program for the fall, welcoming a group of new members to the congregation, planning worship and some new "All Ages Learning" for the fall.

But today, I took a break, and I went over to the pre-school for a little while.

It is in my letter of call, after all.  Right there in black and white, one of my responsibilities is "relating to the pre-school."

But that's not why I go.

It was lunch time when I walked in the door.  A couple of the classrooms were in the middle of their lunch.  As I approached their table, one little boy jumped up and ran to hug my legs.   A little girl came over and tugged on my skirt.  "I got so big!"  she said.  Two or three others said the same thing: "I got so big!"  they told me.  I agreed.   They are growing all the time.

I admired ribbons and new tennis shoes and t shirts with dinosaurs.  Students told me about baby brothers and puppies and everything they were excited about, which was everything.  When one group was done eating, another group arrived.  Their teacher asked if I would say table grace for them.

Some younger children came in as well, following their teacher like ducklings following their mama. When one little girl saw me, she waved as if I were her long-lost cousin.

I don't go over to the school as often as I should.  There are so many lists of things to do, strategies to accomplish, goals to achieve, and I forget that knowing the children is as important as any goal, task or strategy.

But today I remembered.  I remembered that my work is Grace and Grace is my work.  My work is loving the children and the shut ins, saying prayers and bringing bread and wine, and being there.  All of my lists and strategies are worthless if I forget.   I walked into the school and got hugged around the legs, and I remembered the grace of being known and loved for no particular reason, just because you are.

There are mysteries in the universe, and I am called to make them known, as they are made known to me.  It's not a strategy.  It's just love.  It's just the grace of God, which is being loved, just because you are.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

God's Grace. Our Hands.

I just got done meeting with a group of people who say they want to affiliate with our congregation.  There are 19 of them in all, families with children and empty nesters, a widower, a grandmother and a young adult.  It's a diverse group;  a few of them have been Lutheran all of their lives; some of them come from other faith traditions.  And I am amazed by them:  by their presence in our congregation and everything they bring.  We spent a couple of evenings getting to know each other, learning a little bit about our congregation, and finding out just a little bit about what that word "Lutheran" means.

We talked a bit about baptism and dedication of children.  I said that we can baptize at any age, including children and babies.  We had a conversation about sacraments, and about what God is doing in baptism.

But while I talked, I have to admit, I realized the oddness of what I was saying.

If you were watching at a baptism, you would see parents bringing their children to be baptized.  You would see adults saying that they want to be baptized.  You would see a pastor's hands, pouring water over someone's head.  You would see what WE are doing.  Even so, we say that it is God who is at work.  It is God who is doing the baptism.  God is using our arms to carry the babies.  God is using our hands to pour the water.  God is using our voices to speak the words, but it's God's work.

My denomination has a motto:  God's work.  Our hands.  It's a fine motto, but while I was in conversation with our potential new members, I thought it should be this:  "God's Grace.  Our Hands."  I thought this because baptism is God's grace -- God coming to us -- God loving us first, before everything.

Grace is God's work.

And God uses our hands, our arms, our bodies, our voices -- to share grace.

I thought -- when my hands pour water for baptism, somehow and suddenly, they are God's hands, pouring grace.  When my congregation's quilters tie a quilt and send it to the women's shelter, their hands are God's hands, tying pieces of grace into a colorful blanket of comfort.  When we open our doors to house homeless families for a week at a time, we are conduits of God's welcoming grace.

God's amazing grace.  Our ordinary hands.

It doesn't make sense.  But it's true.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Measuring by Tears

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I have been here just about a year now.  I was reminded of this when the "check engine" went on in my elderly car, as that is what happened when I first drove into town a year ago.  I spent those first three months frantically trying to fix things and become a legal resident of the state in which I was working.

But now it has been a year.   On what basis do I evaluate the ministry of the congregation?  The "check engine" light came back on in the car, which can't be a good thing.  Some people have moved away, and don't come to church here.  There are also some new faces.  We have moved from two services to one, at least for the time being, and moved around some other aspects of the Sunday morning schedule.  The one service contains elements of both of the services, which is an adjustment for everyone.  It is neither contemporary nor traditional.  The Bible study which always took place between the services now comes before the one service.   I am not sure whether it is the time change or just summer, but the attendance at the Bible study has been sort of erratic.  A couple of weeks ago we had to put tables together.  But this week it was really small.  I wondered if we really wanted to study.  Perhaps people just wanted to visit and have coffee, instead?

"No, let's get going," one gentleman said.

We were studying the journeys of Paul, and opened by reading excerpts from Acts 13 and 14.  We read and noticed what seemed interesting or odd or what we had a question about.  We noticed that Paul always took someone with him.  He did not travel alone.  We asked questions about Paul's preaching and going to the synagogue and the miracles he did.  We talked about miracles, about how they thought Paul and Barnabas were gods, and tried to make sacrifices to them.

Have you ever had an experience -- like a miracle -- that just made you want to worship -- or respond -- in some way? I asked the small group gathered.

Most people didn't claim to have experienced a miracle, although they had heard of them.  We all believed they were possible.  But we talked about the difficulty of believing in miracles and praying for them, but knowing that they often didn't happen.  Some people shared experiences in their lives and said, "If you believe, you see things that you might not see if you did not believe."

Then one woman shared her story, about being in a car wreck, and being injured, when she was a teenager.  Someone else did not make it.  And she was in a back brace from that, and would have to have surgery.  And how the priest came and prayed and when she went back to the doctor, her back was fine.  No one could explain it.

Later on she shared how she prayed for her brother, who was dying from cancer.  And how he told her, when she prayed, that she could pray for healing for him, but she should make sure she prayed for God's will to be done.  Because God might not want the same kind of healing for him that he had for her.

It was a holy, vulnerable moment, and I thought I saw tears when she shared her story, tears from that small group of scripture-studiers.  We were standing on holy ground, and we knew it.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

At the worship service later in the morning, one young man affirmed his baptism.  He wore a white robe, and made promises, and we laid our hands on him.  We gave him gifts and applauded,  and sang songs of praise.  We pledged to share the light and love together, to live love and not hate, to live hope and not fear

And I thought I saw tears in some eyes that morning, just pooling a little at the edges of the lashes.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I can tally the numbers on Sunday morning.  I can try to chart the volume of singing.  I can count the visitors, subtract those who move away, add those who move in.  I can be disappointed when turnout is small and elated when it rises.

Or I can measure by moments of bravery, stories shared, tears shed.  I can trust that God is changing our lives, and changing the world through us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What to Preach

To tell the truth, I was looking forward to preaching about Mary and Martha last weekend.  Just plain old unvarnished Mary and Martha and Jesus, five small verses that I could turn over in the palm of my hand, ruminate over, shine the light on.

I was looking forward to getting back to the gospel stories after six weeks in Galatians, even though the last week in Galatians was pretty much pre-empted by the shootings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas.  Who is my neighbor?  Whose burdens am I required to bear?  Those are uncomfortable questions, but nobody said that preaching should be comfortable.

But this week seemed like the promise of the gospel came out of a different kind of discomfort.  This short story of Martha and Mary and Jesus spoke to me of the importance of hospitality, and of sitting and listening:  listening to God and listening to our neighbor.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally), our congregation is embarking on a mission initiative that involves listening to God and to our neighbors.   And the discipline of this kind of listening will be a challenging and will make us uncomfortable and will also yield a blessing.

So, Listen.  It seemed clear that this was what to preach this last weekend in my congregation.  Listening is the beginning of mission.  To listen is to put the other person in the center, not us.  It is a holy activity.

And then there was violence in Nice, and an attempted coup in Turkey.  Sunday morning, while we were in worship, three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge.

And I had this sermon which wasn't wrong, but somehow seemed like flecks of dust tossed into the air.


Was that all I had? Had I made the wrong decision?  Had I preached the wrong thing?

All I know is that I am back at it again, reading the scriptures, asking questions, imagining the people in my congregation, and especially a young man who will be confirmed on Sunday.  I am looking out at the world, and wondering what to say.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What is Church?

Last week we held Vacation Bible School at our church.  We had a morning program, mostly for the children at our pre-school, a few of their older sisters and brothers, and a few of our congregation's children as well.

But this year, we added something new:  we offered two "family" evenings where we ate supper, learned to pray and share together, sang some Bible songs and did some crafts.  The theme of the week was "Jesus is the Light of the World", so some creative church members had created a scary cave that the children could walk through (but they had to do it with their parents).  There were glow-in-the-dark necklaces and candles to carry.  The children made pillowcases with a Bible verse.  They made glow-in-the-dark bracelets.  We sang "This Little Light of Mine" and a jazzed-up version of "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" and learned some sign language.

Both nights were wildly successful.  The first night we had 83 people.  The second night was not as large, but we had so many opportunities to get to know each other that evening.  Everyone had fun both nights.

We invited them to come to church on Sunday and sing a couple of their Bible songs.

We had no idea what would happen, but we were excited.

On Sunday, only the families that were already members of our congregation came.

I have to admit, I was disappointed.  I wondered what I could have done differently.  I knew that many families are traveling on the weekends in the summer.  But still, I had hoped that one or two could join us for church.

Then, on Monday, I talked to our pre-school director.  She said something to me that made me think about the word "church".  It would have been nice if some of the families had come on Sunday, she said, but "what you did on Tuesday and Thursday night, THAT was church."

I thought about it.  What did we do on Tuesday and Thursday?  We ate. We prayed.  We shared our highs and lows.  We blessed each other.  We prayed.  We had fun.  We sang songs about Jesus.

She was right.  It was church.  We were the church, worshipping together.  What made us think it wasn't?  It wasn't Sunday morning, and we weren't in the sanctuary, but it was church.

What is church?

I think this is one of the hardest things for us to get our brains around these days.  What happens on Sunday in the sanctuary is important, but the sanctuary on Sunday morning is not the only church.  Maybe it's not even the most important church.  These days.

What is church?

Church is a holy gathering of people, and that was what was happening on Tuesday and Thursday evening, with parents and children and teenagers and grandmothers and grandfathers.  We didn't go far, just across the parking lot, but it was church over at the school those nights.

We didn't go far, but it was a start, and I hope we go farther, a holy gathering of people, sharing the light, being the church.