Wednesday, April 16, 2014

To Begin the Three Days: Eat Standing Up

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Great Three Days leading to Easter.  As usual, I am not ready, despite forty days warning, although I will say that I'm doing better tonight than I was this morning.  I am preaching on Maundy Thursday, which will also be first communion for a few of our fifth graders this year.  I have my sermon all written, or, more precisely, mostly written, and Holy Communion is a theme:  bread and wine, body and blood, room at the table.

Despite this, I couldn't help taking some illicit glances over at the Exodus reading, the instructions for preparing the passover feast.  There is the year-old lamb, or goat, and there is the unleavened bread, and there are the instructions for spreading the blood on the doorposts.  And then there is the curious instruction to eat with your staff in hand, your sandals on your feet, your 'loins girded' -- as if you are about to take flight, according to Exodus.

Of course, this makes a certain sort of sense, in the context of the story.  They had to be ready to go as soon as the word came down that Pharaoh had given in to the demand:  "Let my people go."  They were on full alert, waiting and listening for the word that would set them free.

Of course, it is fascinating to me because in our day and time, we eat 'on the go' more often than is healthy for us.  We are urged to sit down and eat together more often, to take more time, to not be in such a hurry.

But this meal was meant to be eaten in a hurry, by a people who were setting out from slavery to freedom.  They were waiting for a word that would set them free, but also set them into a future they knew almost nothing about.

There is something profoundly disorienting about this.  This particular story of eating-in-a-hurry is not about meeting our own deadlines and setting our own agendas:  it is about waiting for a Word from outside ourselves to call us to action.

There is something profoundly disorienting about Lent, and the Three Days.  I never feel ready, even when I am prepared.  I never feel prepared for the bread, the body and blood, placed in my hand, the violence of the cross and all that it means.  I never feel ready for the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the Word I have waited for, that calls me to action, to travel a way not my own.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What I Learn From Funerals

The last funeral I officiated was on a Saturday afternoon in Lent.  The woman who died was too young, had cancer, fought valiantly, put her life in Jesus' hands.  In many ways her funeral was like many other funerals where I officiate.  There is so much that is the same.  There are certain songs that almost everyone sings, certain scriptures that occur over and over.  The liturgy we use is very simple, and so much is nearly the same every time, although, since my father's funeral last fall, I have taken to tweaking the prayers some, using different prayers than the ones that are in the book.

There was this one unique moment, though, at the beginning of her memorial service.

The woman who died had been a day care provider in our community for many years.  She was well known to parent and children for her firm but kind nurture, unapologetic discipline and boundaries, and unconditional love.  It was a powerful combination.

At the beginning of the service, at the direction of her family, I asked all of the children and young adults who had been cared for at this woman's day care to come to the entry to the sanctuary.  Forty or fifty young people stood up and met me and the doorway, where our funeral coordinator gave each of them a small bouquet of white carnations.  At the opening hymn, all of these young people processed in behind me, but before the family.  They each placed  their carnations in the baptismal font, where they stayed for the entire service.

The woman's husband explained why he wanted to do this, "I wanted everyone to have a part."

Not long before this, at another funeral, there were similar words.  A woman, helping to plan her husband's funeral, said, "There are nine grandchildren who all need jobs."  At that service, we had readers, eulogists, and intercessory pray-ers.

This is very wise, I thought.

The more I thought about it, the wiser I thought it was.

I thought about all of those carnations in the baptismal font, and I thought about the fact that, at the most recent funeral, all of the eulogists were participants in the woman's day care:  two parents, and one of the former day care children.

It took me a while to realize that there was a powerful message being spoken that day, not just the message about the love of God, more powerful than death.

It was the message that so much of our society disbelieves:  that we belong to one another.  Our family is wider than we think, wider than we know, wider than we see -- except, sometimes at funerals.  All around us there is the message that we are on our own.  We draw our circles closer and closer, and are told to care only for a few who are closest to our hearts.

But here is the truth:  we belong to one another.  We are members of one another.  Our fates are intertwined.  Life and death and love and pain bind us together.

Perhaps it is why there is so much similarity in funerals:  our common humanity and hope finds words and sighs.  There is bound to be overlap.

And yet:  here is the other thing I learn from funerals.

Despite their similarities, no two are really alike.  They are like fingerprints.  I can't say exactly why, when we sing so much "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine", and we hear so much about the many mansions, or the resurrection and the Life.  But somehow each funeral embodies the hope of a particular child of God, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and they are not the same.  Sometimes they are small things that matter:  a particular story shared, a Scripture verse in German, or a baptismal font full of carnations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prayer and Poetry

I'm not that good at either one.

I know, this is an odd confession for a pastor to make.  You don't like to hear your pastor saying, "I'm no good at praying."  And don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't pray.  It's just that I am apt to compare myself with people who seem to be able to go on and on, pray aloud for hours with no notes.  When I pray aloud, I admit, I'm always afraid I'm going to get myself into a sentence I can't get out of. My prayers tend to be short, inelegant, a little undisciplined.  

I love both poetry and prayer, even though I confess to being good at neither one.  I love the formal prayers in my prayer books, eloquent and elegant.  I notice that some of these prayers are poetic, using literary devices and structures:  metaphors, allusions, alliteration.  I love all kinds of poetry, too:  from the deceptive simplicity of Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, to the complex rhymes and dense metaphors of Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne.  And I have tried writing a little poetry too.  Though I admire sonnets from a distance, and have even memorized a few, the complexities of rhyme and meter have so far eluded me.  Like I said, I am not good at it.

Some of my favorite poets (though not all by any means) have been the devotional ones.  Some of John Donne's Holy Sonnets were really prayers, addressed to God -- the same can be said of Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, and others.

For the past year or so, I've been writing occasional "haiku prayers" -- not quite "sighs too deep for words", but at least trying to pray using as few words as possible.  It has made me think that perhaps prayer and poetry have some things in common, some things beyond the eloquence of the prayers in my hymnal:  something more basic, more elemental than literary devices, something that goes beyond tradition or eloquence.

1.  Both prayer and poetry have a necessary honesty.  A good poem is, above all, honest.  It doesn't pull punches.  It tells the truth.  In fact, poetry is one way of getting deeper into truth, an expression of joy or lament or love that strips off artifice and reveals the depths of pain and hope.

2.  Both prayer and poetry are elliptical.  They are honest, but they leave some things unsaid.  Perhaps there are 'sighs too deep for words'.  Poems make you read between the lines.  They do not say everything.  Prayers do too, but in a different way, and perhaps for other reasons.  Prayers a elliptical, because it is impossible to say all that is on our hearts.  The apostle Paul has it right, "We do not know how to pray as we ought," and so prayers will always leave some things unsaid.  And yet, not saying everything, a poem or a prayer somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.

3.  You don't have to be good at it.  That's right.  You don't have to be good at praying to pray.  Just say a name.  Cry.  Rejoice.  Stumble through a few words.  Don't let the eloquent prayers discourage you.  You don't have to be good at poetry to write a poem either.  In this era of the professional poets with their bound books, we have forgotten.  In the past writing poetry was a hobby for some, like knitting or collecting stamps or playing the piano.  But you didn't have to be good at it, to enjoy writing limericks, or rhymed couplets, or blank verse.

Prayer and poetry.  I am not good at either one. Still, I will lift my voice, my heart, my pen.  I don't have to be good at it.  Just honest.  That's the harder thing, anyway.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poetry is Prayer/Prayer Is Poetry

A prayer is not a poem, and a poem is not a prayer.  But they do, somehow, have something in common, both in theory and in practice.  For today, it's just practice.

I.
O Lord, look kindly
on my heart, broken, bruised, black:
backward, still, but Yours.

II.
what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
I want, O Lord, 
so many things
softness, color, weight
weightlessness
a mountain to climb
and strength to climb it
sleep when I am tired
an unexpected sunrise
to thirst and to be sated
what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
Teach me how to lie down
in righteousness, to love the
still waters, to eat what is
set before me
to live in the valley

of the shadow of death.

III.
God questions me.
O mortal, what do you think?
Can these bones live?
Can these tears flow?
Can these hearts of stone break?
Can these barren bodies bear life?

Why ask me, Lord?
You know.
You know I am dust.
I have cried oceans
and all I have left is salt.
I have no breath in me.

O Lord, you know.
My hands are empty.
I open my mouth
and no words come out.

But hear, again, at midnight
my mourning morning prayer:
O Lord, Open Thou my lips
And my mouth shall declare your praise.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Faith and Community: Lessons from "Call the Midwife"

Last night our congregation's book group met to discuss Jennifer Worth's excellent memoir, "Call the Midwife."

I had read the book last year, partly because of the tie-in with the popular BBC series.  I was pleasantly surprised, as I read, to find out the the book not only was filled with compelling stories of birth, life, love and tragedy post World War II London, there was also this rich, subtle subtext involving Jennifer Worth's own life and faith.

Jennifer Worth comes to Nonnatus house an avowed agnostic.  She isn't convinced about religion or faith; in fact, suspects that it is a lot of nonsense.  But she is compelled by the opportunity to serve, and she becomes a part of the community of sisters,  participating in their daily life, as well as learning the work.   She tells stories about the women she meets on the East End, tragic figures like Mrs. Jenkins, or Mary, who flees her abusive step-father and has a baby at 15.  She tells stories about the sisters, their idiosyncracies as well as their devotion.

At the end of the book, Jennifer Worth decides to begin reading the Gospels.

For the past couple of years, our congregation has been thinking about our past, our present, and our future.  Born in the post-war era, we boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it seemed that everyone just got up on Sunday morning and picked out a church to go to.  We were a new suburb then as well, filled with young families who were looking for places to educate children in some kind of faith or another.

We know it is not like that now.  We know that we have to do things differently.  We have been talking about what that will look like:  how we need to be more intentional and confident about sharing our faith now; how we need to learn or re-learn how to share our faith with others (although I assure people that we do not need to go around handing out tracts to strangers).

It occurs to me that a few aspects of Jennifer Worth's story from the 1950s may apply us, re-forming church in the 21st century.  What do I want my church to look like?  What do I want evangelism and discipleship to look like in my congregation?

1.  We will be centered on service.  Service to others, and particularly the service of nursing, was the mission of the sisters; it was not a sideline; it was the reason for their existence.  It was this service that attracted Jennifer Worth.  She wanted to be a nurse midwife, despite her skepticism about faith.  The opportunity to serve attracts, especially when it is genuine and not just a tactic.

2.  We will be communities of prayer.  Worship and prayer shaped the daily lives of the sisters.  They invited, but did not coerce participation.  They didn't defend their practice or apologize for it  They simply prayed and lived.  And the sisters were by no means perfect.  But their lives bore witness.

3.  We will live in community.  By this I don't mean that churches will be communes, although I recognize that the sisters did live in close community.  But I mean that churches will be bound together in community by a commitment to service and to one another, that we will realize that we do actually belong to Christ and to one another.

4.  We will take time.  Faith is not instantaneous.  It is a process taking place in each of us, and in all of us in community.  I read an interview with Jennifer Worth recently.  The last question was about her faith and abut whether she ever considered becoming a nun.  Although she didn't answer the question directly, she indicated that her three books document a faith journey that is just beginning at the end of book one, when she decides to read the New Testament.

5.  We will learn to be midwives.  It is God who is bringing faith to birth in people.  The church's job is not to convince, cajole or defend, but it is to attend:  to attend birth, in all its variety.  So Jennifer Worth tells stories -- of birth, of tragedy, of repentance and life.  One in particular tells of a older man who whose wife gives birth to a child who is  clearly not his.  Everyone wondered what was wrong with this man; why he couldn't tell that he wasn't the father of the child.  Jennifer says she thinks that he loved his wife, and when he saw the baby, he decided:  he decided that he would be a Holy Fool, that he would pretend not to see what was clear to all, for the sake of love.  Perhaps Jennifer tells this story because it is a part of hers as well:  for the sake of faith, for the sake of love, she decides to become a Holy Fool.  She decides not to see the things that don't make sense, and to love the faith that has been born in her.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reading, but not to Get to the End

I just started reading Joan Chittister's Rule of St Benedict.

I bought it some time ago, but hadn't started reading it, for some reason of another.  I am interested in Benedictine Spirituality, as much as I know about it:  the practice of Listening, Radical Hospitality.  I wanted to know more.

But I picked up the Rule this weekend because I had just finished a good mystery novel, and I was restless.  I haven't been able to pick up the next mystery in the series yet (I am promising myself that I will get books at the Library instead of purchasing them), and I was restless to start something new.  Before the good mystery novel, I had raced through a work of young adult fiction, loving every minute of it.

I got started late last night, and picked the book up again today, eager to get going.  The Rule is really simple, Sr. Joan wrote.  It should not take very long to read it, I thought.

After a little while, I found myself intrigued the fact that every few paragraphs there was a series of dates:  January 1, May 2, September 1.  That was the first set.

What could that be about?  A few paragraphs later was a second set of dates:  January 2, May 3, September 2.  I soldiered on.

At some point it dawned on me:  this book is meant to be read in short segments, three times every year.  It is not meant to be read quickly, to amass information, to get to the end.  It is meant to be savored, meditated on.

I am not sure I even know how to read in this way.

I have been taught and trained to read to get to the end -- and sometimes, as quickly as possible.  The good mystery is my favorite genre, and of course, a good mystery is a page-turner, a book that keeps you up until all hours of the night, because you have to finish it.  This is a compliment.

I have also been taught that volume is important:  how many books I plow through in a year is a measure of my competence.  For the past few years I have been involved in a reading challenge where we make a commitment to read a certain number of books every year.  Making it through the right number of books is the main thing, although I suppose it is important to pick books you really want to read.

But I can't do that with the Rule of St. Benedict.  It is not a book to be plowed through.  It is to be savored, re-read, meditated on.

I am not sure I know how to read in this way.

There is virtue in reading to get to the end.  There is nothing wrong with a good mystery, one that keeps you up until all hours of the night, racing along until finally you either figure out the mystery or the mystery is revealed.

But there is another kind of reading, just as there is another kind of mystery, one that is never quite figured out, and only revealed in the flashes of stars, in the clouds on the mountain, in a Word spoken over and over, chewed on until its unique character reveals itself, but briefly.

Tomorrow I am going to slow down and start reading The Rule of St. Benedict, but not to get to the end.  Just like life, it will come to an end in its own time.  In the meantime, I will savor it, and try to learn as much as possible from each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word.

"Give Me a Drink"

It's sort of an odd way to start a conversation.

Especially it's an odd way to start a conversation, if you are the all-knowing, all-powerful Messiah and Son of God, and the person who is coming to the well is a Samaritan woman.

I say this because, well, this IS John's gospel, and Jesus does often come off as someone who has-it-all-together.  Even in this conversation (especially later).

But right now, at the beginning, he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink.  It's noon, after all, and it's not Minnesota in March.  He's got to be thirsty.  He asks for a drink.

I can't help thinking, as I read this story, that it's a parable for missionaries.  Jesus has gone into another country (Samaria), and he means to share his life, living water.  He goes with a mission, but the first thing he does is ask for a drink.

In other words, the first thing he does is reveal his own need, risk showing his own vulnerability, admit that he is thirsty.  Just like she is.

Although the word "missionary" is loaded with negative connotations and maybe is not the best word for us to use any more, the truth is that Christians again live in an era when we need to be missionaries.  This probably fills us with dread, but if not dread, it gives us the idea that we need to go out with all of the answers and as if we have everything all together.  We think we are going to meet people and impress them with our superior humanity, our lack-of-neediness, the way we have it all together.

But perhaps the best mission strategy is just to go out and be thirsty.  To meet people on the basis of our common humanity, to risk sharing our own thirst and our own questions, to reveal some of our own wounds and scars.

When Jesus first sent the disciples out, he told them not to carry extra provisions, to depend on the hospitality of those in the towns where they were going.  Don't be so self-sufficient, he told them.  Go thirsty.

It's a mission strategy, and it's a Lenten strategy too:  Go thirsty.  Don't be so self-sufficient.  Depend on God, on one another, on strangers.