Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Conversations

Sometimes I think that my real job is having conversations.

The other day the Office Manager buzzed my office phone.  "There is someone here who wants to talk to a pastor", she said.  "Do you have time?"  I said yes, I would be right out.

I know what this means, usually.  Usually "someone wants to speak with a pastor" means someone is looking for a gas voucher, or a few groceries, or some help for the bus.  Not always, but usually.

I greeted the man sitting in the reception area, and invited him to come back to my office.  "How can I help you?" I asked.

He told me a little of his story.  As it turns out, he was about my age.  He had grown up in this area, but hadn't been back since he served Vietnam.  He had gone over for a year in 1972.  Since then he had lived in a variety of places.  He had must moved back to a Small City near here because we are know for having a good VA system.  (We do, I think.)  He told me that his mother had been the first African-American nurse in one of our local hospitals.  He talked about some of the advocacy work he had done in his life.  He said that he still struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

He said he had been looking for churches in his city, but hadn't found the right one yet.  Still, he found the people around here pretty friendly.  I was glad to hear it.  I hoped that it continued to be true.  I secretly wished he had moved to my city.  I'd invite him to worship with us.

He did need a gas voucher, he said, so that he could get back to the Small City where he now lived.  I gave him a gas voucher, and was grateful for the conversation.  We blessed each other as he left.

A few days later, I went to visit at a building that had a security code.  I was looking for a parish member who had moved, but it turned out that she only moved one building down.  The receptionist gave me the code, which I pressed to get in.

She used to be a regular worshipper at our early service.  I remember exactly where she sat, on the aisle, in the middle.  She had this unmistakable raspy voice, and she always grabbed my hand and asked how I was doing.  She came to church by herself, early enough to get that aisle seat.

She hadn't been to church in a long time, but I recognized her.  She was in a wheelchair now, but she had the same voice.  I don't think she remembered who I was, but when I told her I was from church, her face lit up.  "I go to that church," she said.  "I know," I replied.  "I remember you.  You always sat in the same place."

"I moved here two months ago," she told me.  I wasn't sure if that was true, but I went along with her.  "My husband died two years ago," she said.  She had been a widow ever since I knew her.  We talked for awhile.  She asked me again who I was.  I told her I was from the church.  She smiled, well, beamed, really.  "I go to that church," she said.

She showed me pictures of her two sons, and their families.  She was proud of them.  I admired the pictures, admired the room.  Said it was a great place.  "Do you like it?"

She did.  "Would you like someone to come and visit you, and give you communion, someone from the church?" I asked.  She thought that was a great idea.  When I said the name of the church, she smiled again.  "That's my church," she said.

"My husband died two months ago," she said.  "I am sorry to hear that," I told her, even though I knew  she had been a widow for many years.  She looked me in the face and said, "You're very pretty."  I smiled.  "I'm eighty-eight years old," she said.

Before I left, I mentioned again that someone would come to visit her from the church.  "That's my church," she said, again.  "I know.  I remember you.  I remember where you always sat."

Sometimes I think that my real job is having conversations: simple, small, ordinary conversations.

It keeps me humble to think it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Signs from God

It's a quiet evening at home.  I'm sitting in the bedroom, reading and thinking and relaxing.  I can hear the television in the living room.  It's a re-run of the old show, "The King of Queens".  I recognize the plot.  It's a flashback episode, the one where Doug and Carrie are recalling their engagement and the days leading up to their wedding.

In the episode, Carrie says "yes" to Doug, of course, but now she is having fits of anxiety so severe that they make her literally sick to her stomach.  She loves Doug, but she is plagued by doubts, until they visit the priest, and he remembers that Doug and Carrie met once when they were children at summer camp.  They were on a hay ride together, the priest recalls, and Doug fell on top of Carrie (or did Carrie fall on top of Doug?  I don't quite remember).

All of a sudden, Carrie is calm and relaxed, no longer anxious and sick.  The story of their accidental childhood meeting is proof that they were "meant to be".

It is a sign from God.

Now I'm thinking back to the very last of our summer outdoor worship services, called "Picnic Church."  It seems so long ago now, but it really was only a couple of weeks ago that we held our last Wednesday evening service on the lawn, complete with hot dogs.

It was a lovely summer night, as all of our Wednesday were this summer.  Not one rained-out-Wednesday for our summer experiment.  It was a great end to the summer.  Even though we had a different guitarist for our last two Wednesdays, our substitute's name was Jesus.  You can't do any better than Jesus for a substitute organist.  And he taught us the chorus to a great song, "Montana."  We all danced on the lawn.

My message that evening was all about God-sightings.  I talked about learning to see God in our lives, and to tell about it, and asked people if they had seen God around lately.  We had asked the same question the week before, and there was this uncomfortable pause.

"Have you seen God around anywhere lately?"

No one said anything.

But tonight was different.  They had seen God around lately, and suddenly (I was proud to say), people weren't afraid to tell about it.  They had seen God around every Wednesday, those impossibly sunny and beautiful Wednesday evenings, when it never rained and there were not mosquitos.  They had seen God in other places too, but we kept going back to the lack of mosquitos and the fact that EVERY SINGLE Wednesday had been nice.  And every week, the people just kept coming back, more and more of them, for food, for worship, for community.

It was a sign from God.

It is hard to argue with that, especially in this neck of the woods.  It does seem like a minor miracle for every single Wednesday evening this summer to be sunny.  It must have been a sign from God, a sign that God had blessed our summer plans to reach out beyond our doors.

It was meant to be.

Signs from God are tricky things, though.

I can hear the TV in the background again, the return of the episode from The King of Queens.

As it turns out, the story about Doug and Carrie meeting when they were children:  it wasn't true.  It was actually Doug's cousin Danny that Carrie had met at summer camp.  Doug knew it, but he was afraid to tell Carrie that there was no sign from God.  It was just him, only Doug, loving her, asking her to marry him.  That was the sign.

Signs from God are tricky things.  A sunny day, a chance meeting, a memory of dancing on the lawn:  they are all good things, for which we should rejoice and give thanks.  It was meant to be.  God is working through this sun, this dance, this meeting.

But then, what does the rain mean?  What do the tears, the two left feet, the failures and the missed opportunities mean?  That it was not meant to be?

Signs from God are tricky things.

Even when it rains, even when there are mosquitos, even when you have two skinned knees because dancing on the lawn didn't go the way you planned:

Don't give up.

It was meant to be.  You were meant to dance, to share your food, to be merciful.  For better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Say "yes."


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Under the Sun

When I came to this church 16 years ago, one of the responsibilities  I was charged with was starting a new worship service.  It wasn't exactly supposed to be a creation ex nihilo; the congregation's leaders had been playing around with some things during the 10:00 hour on Sunday morning for a little while before I came.  But I came in to take that time and make it into something new, and energetic.

At first, and for a number of years, that service was (or seemed to be) wildly successful.  It was our largest worship service.  It was energetic.  We learned some new songs.  We tried some things (like learning to pray in sign language, for example, or a reader's theatre based on the story of the fourth wise man, or practicing prayers for healing).  We never achieved perfection, and we did exhibit a few besetting sins, problems that were never quite solved. (At least some of the persistent problems had to do with acoustics and sound.)

Two years ago, we abandoned that service while we dreamed of the possibility of starting something new.  Instead of expanding, our "new thing" was contracting.  We went from two services to one, creating new relationships between people who had been attending the same church but never met.  We experimented in a few other ways, blending styles of worship and having the children with us at the end of the worship service instead of at the beginning of worship.  We tried to create space for failure, for success, for forgiveness.

Tonight I walked into the narthex for meetings.  Stewardship and worship were both meeting this evening, and I was going to navigate between them.  But as I walked into the narthex, I saw a new group, a small group of people, all sitting in a circle.  I wasn't part of the meeting, but I knew what they were doing.  They were dreaming about a new thing, a new worship service, a mission start right here in our building.  It will be called "Tapestry".  The dreamers and the imaginers imagine it as a multi-cultural and inclusive community which will meet on Sunday evenings.  Worship will be informal.  They will learn some new songs.  They will experiment.  It will never be perfect, but perhaps will welcome people who never felt at home in our sanctuary.

There is nothing new under the sun, they say, but still, we begin again.  We imagine again what singing a new song could be like, what foods might be spread out on that holy mountain, and we try to give voice to that dream.  It is what God is calling us to do.

I can't help feeling a little wistful, looking back to the dreams from when I first came here.  I suppose I am wistful because I am not one of the people sitting around the circle, although I'm not uninvolved in the dreaming.  I am a little wistful because I believe in this new vision, this new Tapestry, even though it was not my idea and I am not the one making it come to pass.

There is nothing new under the sun, they say, but still, we begin again.  We can't help it.  It is what God is calling us to do.  But even more than that:  it is what God is doing in us.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Were We Right to Clap in Church Today?

Today was an odd non-liturgical occasion celebrated in main line congregations.  It is called "Rally Sunday." It is a day usually celebrated near the beginning of the school year, and marks the beginning of what we call the "Program Year."  Sunday School, Adult Classes, Choirs and other music groups begin to gather again for the purpose of singing and playing in worship.  People return from vacations and cabins and other summer retreats.  Although it never feels like the whole congregation is ever together at the same time (what would that be like?), there is usually a larger and more diverse crowd in worship than there has been during the summer.  Plus, at our congregation, there are a lot of colorful balloons.

It is not Christmas or Easter, but it does feel like a celebration.  It certainly felt like a celebration for me this morning, anyway.  Our congregation has been in redevelopment for a couple of years now.  We are still finding our way, re-defining our identity, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit in new ways.  There have been both growing pains and contracting pains as we have tried new things.

This morning we had a new interim organist playing for the first time, along with our gifted pianist.  We installed four staff in new positions.  The new director of children's and youth minister gave the children's message for the first time.  The choir sang "I Love to Tell the Story."  The Spirit Singers (our contemporary music group) sang an original song called, "Do Not Fear, For I am With You Now."  We had a soloist sing a song called "Amazed", one that we hope to teach the congregation later in the fall.

And we clapped.

Of course, we clapped during the original song, "Do not Fear."  I think I even snapped my fingers on that one.  It was a a hand-clapping sort of song,  and a number of the members of my congregation seemed happy to provide hand percussion.

Now I did not grow up with clapping in church.  Organ was the only acceptable instrument in my faith tradition at that time, and we same hymns.  We didn't clap.  It was not our style.

But somewhere along the line (probably first at summer Bible camp) I learned to clap in worship, at least during songs.  I still don't clap when the organ is playing hymns, but I like to clap along when the occasion allows.

Today, however, I believe we also clapped AFTER that particular song was done.  I remember that, and it was loud clapping too, because I was standing at the altar, getting ready to begin the communion liturgy.

It is twelve hours later, and I can't be sure now, but I think we clapped a couple of other times as well.  I think we may have clapped after the new staff members were installed.  And I am not sure, but it is possible that we even clapped at the end of the children's message.  It seemed natural as we had just finished singing a short phrase from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

I know, you had to be there.

At the time, I remember thinking that there was this great, affirming, celebratory spirit in worship this morning.  The clapping seemed to me to be saying, "We are all so happy to be here, in the presence of God."

Later on, I suspected that not everyone shared this interpretation.  In some worship circles, it is not considered appropriate to clap after the special music, not matter how glad it makes you feel.  The music is an offering to God, not a concert, they would say, and I suppose they have a point.  But still, what do you do if the music makes you feel so glad that you want to do something?  What if you want to clap, not because you think you are at a performance, but because the music makes you want to DO something?

I always thought that the Pentecostals dealt with this admirably by encouraging people to give what they called "a clap offering to the Lord."  If the music makes you feel like doing something, they said, go ahead and do it, but remember to do it for God.  Once, when I told a non-Pentecostal this, she looked at me as if I was trying to sell her some questionable real estate in Florida.

Perhaps one of the first things to do (and not just with regard to clapping) is to take a deep breath and realize that we don't know why someone does what they do during worship.  Actions that are normal for one set of worshippers seem odd or even inappropriate to others.  Yes it is true:  clapping is an act of worship.  (The Psalms even say so.)  Kneeling is an act of worship.  Making the sign of the cross is an act of worship.  Silence is an act of worship, reverent and full for some, odd and maybe even inappropriate for others.

A couple of years ago during the offering, our gifted pianist accompanied himself in a heartfelt version of the gospel song, "To God be the Glory."  It was electric.  He sang and played full of spirit and emotion.  After he was finished, I expected people to clap.  They often do.  But there was silence -- full, reverent and yet somehow also uncomfortable.  One person even asked me after the service, "Why didn't we clap?"  It was as if they did not totally understand their own actions.

It was an act of worship.

It was an act of worship, just like clapping, and the Spirit moved us, just as the Spirit moves us to put our hands together, because we are full of joy, and we want to do something.

Perhaps the question is not whether to clap or to keep silence, but to listen to the Spirit, who is inviting us to do both, and even more: to live to the glory of God.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Beautiful Summer Morning Outdoors with Coffee and Conversation

A couple of weeks ago I had an appointment to meet a young woman whose wedding I officiated at a few years ago.  She and her husband are not members of my congregation; I got to know them through her grandmother, who I knew quite well as a devout and active member.  ("She talked about Jesus all the time," someone said about her at her funeral.)

I had enjoyed getting to know this young couple during our pre-marital sessions.  I remembered their wedding on a September evening in a nearby park.  I remembered how fun it was.  Occasionally, I would still run into them because of our church and family connections.  But lately, she had been emailing me regarding baptism for their two young children.

We have a policy that we baptize people at one of our church services (although I have been known to bend this rule for extenuating circumstances).  We also, generally speaking, baptize the children of members of the congregation.  There have been times when complete strangers call us on the phone and ask if we will just baptize their child.  They have never been to our church before, and they they don't intend to become regular attenders.  They just wonder if we will "do a baptism."

In these instances, it is not so difficult to say "no."

But this was different.  I had a relationship with this couple.  I wanted to know what they were thinking about; I wanted to know about their faith, their questions, their convictions, their doubts.  So one summer morning we set up an appointment to have coffee.

We got caught up with each other's lives.  I learned a little about their two young boys, the ones who would be baptized.  We talked about the importance of growing up in a faith community, the connection between baptism and the people who will help the baptized grow in their faith.

She talked about how hard it was to find a church, although they had visited several.  They just hadn't found the right one yet.  She confessed that the church she liked the best so far was the church her mother went to.  But that church only had baby dedications, not baptisms, and they felt they wanted more for their children.

So we talked a little bit about the difference between baptism and dedication, me being careful to speak with the utmost respect about the practice of baby dedication, even though it is not my tradition.  I also recommended some churches of our denomination in her neighborhood that I thought they might like.  Then I asked (because I was curious):

"Just what is it about your mother's church that your like so well?"

As it turns out, there were two practices that attracted her to this faith community.  At worship, there was a time for people to get up and tell stories about their faith.  These were genuine, warm and truthful moments for her.  She wanted to belong to a community where people shared their faith.

The other practice that attracted her was service.  This congregation gave her opportunities to serve.

*****
It was not the choir, not the dynamic preaching, not even the warm personality of the senior pastor.  It was not the theology (liberal or conservative), not the architecture, not the amazing array of educational programs.

It was the ability to share faith, and the commitment to service. 

Now I know that this was an isolated conversation, just one anecdote.  But something rings true about it for me, as a mainline Christian in a denomination that I am convinced still has a lot to offer.  We don't even know how much most of the time.  We take beautiful liturgy for granted.  We don't often plumb the depths of our own theology, all of the wideness of grace amid the persistent questions.  

I am convinced that mainline Christians have a lot to offer the world.  But I am also convinced that we have some things to learn.  For example, we have to get over our reticence in speaking about our faith.  Whether we know it or not, we do have a faith story, that we have many faith stories, and we need to learn to tell them, too.  This is something we need to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters, from the richness of their traditions.  

We need to learn to testify.  We need to learn to testify to the goodness of God in our lives.  

We don't have to hand out tracts, and we don't have to accost people on street corners.  We just have to learn to say, "Here's where I saw God last week."

He was in a stranger that I met; he was in the streak of sunlight that fell across the page of a book I was reading;  He was in a conversation I had, a conversation with coffee on a summer morning.

Fully Known

I went to a wedding the weekend before last, a wedding where I did not officiate.  So instead of preaching and coaxing vows out of nervous brides and grooms, instead of praying and being on high alert at all times, I was listening.  Intently.

I suppose that I listened intently at least in part because I will confess that, after twenty years officiating at weddings, and after fifteen years of marriage, I will not admit to being an expert on marriage.  I am humbler every year.  I don't know if this is a good thing or not.

There were three scripture readings:  one was chosen by the bride, one by the groom.  The third they chose together.   A nice touch, I thought, when the officiant launched into her message,what I chose to call a "substantial sermon" (a compliment, by the way).  It was substantial and exhortatory without devolving one of those sermons which warns young couples about the high rate of divorce.

The bride and groom chose 1st Corinthians 13 as their joint scripture reading.  I found myself stuck on a particular phrase that day, and it wasn't the one about love bearing and enduring all things.  It wasn't the one about love being patient and kind.  It was that phrase about being fully known.  I realize that this is part of a large phrase about being a grown up and finally knowing fully, even as I have been 'fully known.'

And it is possible that I heard wrong, but I think that I heard, at one point, about the blessing of being 'fully known' in the context of marriage (not the fact that God knows us fully, something that we can't do one thing about, and is a blessings because, for some reason or another God knows us fully and continues to bear and endures all things with us).

And I wondered what kind of a blessing it is to be 'fully known' in the context of marriage, as far as it is even possible.  I know that being fully known for the last fifteen years or so has felt like a mixed blessing for me, sometimes.  Before I was married, I think I had more illusions about myself.  I believed myself to be a nicer person than I do now, for example.  Sometime after we are married,  we stop showing each other only our best selves, and someone else knows us, REALLY knows us, not just our odd or heartwarming quirks, but our secret fears, our besetting sins, our failures.  ("Did you ever consider divorce?" I once asked a woman married over 50 years.  "No," she replied.  "Murder, but not divorce."  And the thing is, I know that she really loved her husband.  Fully.)

It struck me that this can be a vulnerable place to be.  When we get married, we put ourselves in someone else's hands.  We entrust ourselves to someone else.   And we will always disappoint each other sometimes.

As for me, even though I loved that substantial wedding sermon, I am not sure I could preach it.  Even though everything the pastor said was true, and everything I agreed with, instead of exhortations, I see visions.  I see a vision before me of an old man who visited his wife every day when she had Alzheimer's.  When she would get anxious, and say, "Don't leave me," he would reply, "I am not going anywhere."  I know, I didn't know their whole lives together, I didn't know them fully, but I would just get this glimpse, and that would help.

Today, this is the vision I am seeing, though:  a couple from my church who celebrated 70 years of marriage yesterday.  They were at our Saturday night service, sitting in the front like they always do.  The small chapel community signed a card for them and gave it to them at the close of the service.  (This was not my idea, but the idea of another one of the saints.)  They asked if I would give them a blessing, too.

"The first 70 years are the hardest," was the piece of wisdom they had to share as they left.

And then I watched them as they walked out the door to their car.  In one hand, they each held a cane that they used to steady themselves.

Still, they walked out holding hands.

I don't have any wisdom.  Less and less every year, actually.

Just the vision of the hands holding the cane, and holding each other.

Maybe that's the way to do it, until we are finally and forever fully known.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learning to See: God-sightings, Part 2

As our informal summer outdoor worship service, "picnic church", winds down, we have added one additional element to our weekly order of service. " God-sightings", it is called.  Instead of bird-watching, keeping an eye out for cardinals, or sparrows, or even the occasional catbird, we are to keep our eyes open for God, lurking about in our lives and neighborhoods.

Two weeks ago, we introduced "God-sightings" after our high school students returned from their annual mission trip.  We asked two of the young people to share a bit of their experiences, and called them  "God-sightings."  Easy-peasy.

The next week, after the message and after the scripture reading, we asked again.  We began by affirming that God is with us through every aspect of our lives.  God is in the world.  God is very near, we reminded people.  Then we asked the question, "Where have you seen God lately?"

There was an awkward silence.  I felt a little disappointed.  Hadn't anyone seen God in the last week?  God really is all around us.

I realized later that it perhaps was not a fair experiment.  We don't have a lot of practice in my faith tradition talking about where we have seen God.  Even I didn't realize until an hour after the service that I could have testified that I saw God at two weddings the previous weekend.   Four people were brave and foolish enough to pledge lifelong faithfulness to one another, holding hands out on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon.  I saw God in those four hands, and heard God's voice in those promises.  But it took awhile to remember, even for me.

I also realized a deep truth from my own faith tradition:  yes, God is everywhere, God is very near, but God is also hidden.  Sometimes God is very hidden, especially in the dark tragedies of so many current events these days, in the personal griefs and fears of our lives.  Why should I be surprised when it is not automatically easy to testify about where you have seen God hiding during the past week?  God is everywhere, but not obvious.  Seeing takes practice.  Speaking about what we have seen also takes practice.

With these realizations in mind, here are a few practices that might help us to see God:

1.  Begin with prayer.  It is as simple as the request of blind Bartimaeus, outside Jericho.  What do you want me to do for you?, Jesus asks him.  "My teacher, let me see again,"  he replies.  That's all.  Just "My teacher, let me see again."  And then, let Jesus teach us.

2.  Go small.  Go for the fleeting glimpses, for the whispers, not the shouts.  If God is present (as we say) in water, bread and wine, God is present in other small, and ordinary things.  And people.  The cardinal may only be in your front yard for a moment, not long enough to take a picture -- and yet, yes, in the cardinal I recognize something.  A tongue of flame, perhaps?  A moment of glory.  I love the beginning of Luke, Chapter 3.  While Luke sets the scene and the timing by telling us all about who was emperor of Rome, and who was governor, and who was ruler in Judea, he goes on to say that the word of the Lord came to "John, in the wilderness."  Rather than in the seats of power, where everyone expected the action to be, the people saw God out in the wilderness, standing in the river Jordan.

3.  Look not for individuals, but relationships.  Pay attention to service, acts of mercy, small sacrifices, what we do for love.  Imagine what "grace" would look like, if grace were a painting, or a sculpture, or a movie.

Once, long ago, I was at an outdoor concert.  I saw a couple not far from me, a man in a wheelchair, along with his wife.  At the start of one of a song, I noticed from the corner of my eye, that she began to dance with him, moving the wheelchair gracefully.  They turned in circles together, moving to the music, pirouetting back and forth.  I saw God then.  I saw God in the dance.

4.  Pay attention not just to success, but to failure.  Pay attention to what is broken. Pay attention to the broken pieces, the shards, the tears, and to joy.  Pay attention to what, and who, needs healing.  Pay attention to what is bent over.  

I see God every week in a man from my congregation.  He walks bent over.  I know the reason why.  I knew his wife, who had contracted polio as a young mother.  She recovered, but later on contracted post-polio syndrome.  Every week they came to church together, and he had to help her, to carry her.  They also often went out to concerts and theatre.  For many years he lifted her and carried her.  Now he walks bent over.  And I see God.

Where have you seen God this week?