Monday, February 17, 2020

A Tale of Two Funerals

A week ago on Monday afternoon I was here for the memorial service of one of my parish members.  That's probably not an unusual thing for a pastor to say.  I've held a lot of funerals through the years.  But, until recently, i have not had many in this little congregation.

I remember meeting with the family the Thursday before.  She wanted to have two hours visitation starting at 12:00.  The service would be at 2:00 p.m.  They chose two hymns; I urged them to include one more.  They had two friends as eulogists as well.  The man's wife and children spoke so warmly of their husband and father, memories of family events and things that he had done in the communities where they lived, including (I remember) that he liked to read to the children at Head Start.  And I remember that she was concerned that our church would be large enough.  They had heard from many people who planned to attend.  We had extra chairs ready for the narthex and the balcony, just in case we would need them.

As it turned out, we did need them.  This little church of ours was packed that Monday afternoon.  I have never really seen anything like it before.  I have been to a few other large funerals, but it felt like people just kept coming, squeezing into every nook and cranny, singing "Beautiful Savior" at the top of our lungs.  I did not see this, but i was told that there was a line of cars stretching down the highway waiting to get into our small parking lot.

It is not very often that you get a glimpse of the impact that one life can have.  One ordinary life.  This man, though beloved, was not in any way famous.  He did not have an especially large family. He was active in his church and he was active in his community.  There was something humbling about trying to squeeze all of those people into our little building that day.    It felt like God was shouting at us to have faith -- that though we are small, God is mighty.  Just look around.  Look at all of the people.  Look at how God works in the world.

That is how I felt that day.

Inevitably, though, I thought back.  It was early December, the beginning of Advent.  I was preparing for a funeral that day too.  We had gotten word that an elderly member of our congregation had died on Thanksgiving Day.  Her daughter called and asked if we could have a small memorial service in our church.   Of course we could.  This woman had been a faithful member of our congregation for many years.  I remembered where she always sat, every single week.  I remember that she wore a sweater, even when it was hot.  I remember how her son started bringing her to church, when she became ill.  During the last several months, people asked after her when she was not able to come to church.

On that day in early December, there were not many people in the church.  A few family members, a few faithful members of my congregation, who had looked out for her.  My heart warmed to see them.  One woman who came expressed dismay at the small group of people gathered.  She was as shocked to see this small group of worshipers as we were shocked to see the great crowds last week.

I don't remember much about the funeral, except that her granddaughter gave a lovely solo.  I remembered a particular sermon I had given, when I asked members of the congregation to share their favorite Bible verses, and this quiet unassuming woman had raised her voice and quoted Isaiah 59:1, "The arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor is his ear too deaf to hear."  Her family shared stories of her love and faith and strength.

And it was no less true that day in December -- though we are small, God is mighty.  Look around.

This is how God works in the world.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Following Jesus

It's that time of year again:  it's the time of year that we hear Jesus calling disciples as he walks alongside the sea.  It's the beginning of his ministry.  He has gotten baptized, and gone into the wilderness, and now here he is, saying "Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  And he walks along, and he sees Peter and Andrew, and simply says, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  And they follow him.


This blows my mind.  I mean, simply the word "immediately" blows my mind.  They don't have to think it over?  They don't have to make a list of pros and cons?  I just can't imagine "immediately."  They just leave everything they know in order to "fish for people."

They are fisherman, and some people think this is what is so attractive, this is the thing that intrigues them.  They fish for fish, and Jesus says they will fish for people instead.  Jesus has used exactly the right words to catch them.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about this.  All they know about Jesus is one phrase:  "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near."  That's all.  He hasn't healed anyone.  He hasn't preached.  He hasn't multiplied any loaves or cast out any demons.  He has said this one sentence, and it is "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near."  And then he calls them.

And they follow.  Immediately.

He gives them no details.  They don't know where he is going.  There is no "strategic plan", no monthly goals to meet.  I'm not saying that Jesus doesn't know where he is going, but he doesn't tell them, at least not at this point.  Later on, he will let them in on the secret of his death and resurrection, but the words will not sound so clear to the disciples as they do to us.

I keep looking for something that will explain the disciples' eagerness to follow.  Immediately.  Perhaps when they heard the words "Kingdom of heaven" they saw a vision -- maybe those words conjured up a dream.  What kind of dream could it have been?  What did they think the kingdom of heaven was, that made them want to get up and start fishing for people?

What could someone say to you that would make you want to leave everything behind?  What is so good that you will risk everything for it?

The Kingdom of heaven.  A place where there is enough.  Where you don't have to lock your doors.  Where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations, or for you.  A place where those crushed by life will be restored.  A place where they would finally be out of debt, forgiven, free.

Is that what it was?  Is that what made them follow?

What could someone say to you that would make you want to leave everything behind?  What is so good that you will risk everything for it?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Just Mercy

Last Friday my husband indulged me by going with me to the movie "Just Mercy", which had just opened up in our community.  It's not that he didn't want to see the movie, but that I had read Bryan Stevenson's book in 2015, shortly after moving to this community from Minnesota.  I remembered the strong emotions the book elicited, and its stories that put a human face on many death-row prisoners -- some of them guilty, some of them innocent.  I remembered its main story well, about Walter McMillan, framed for a murder he did not commit, and the irony that his story took place in Monroeville, where Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Very near the beginning of the movie is this small vignette, which I remembered from the introduction to his book.  Bryan Stevenson is still a law student, and he is going to visit an inmate on death row for the first time.  He doesn't know the young man, and he doesn't have good news.  He is anxious about the contact on many levels.  He wonders if this inmate will be bitter and abusive to him.  But when he goes to the prison, that's not what he finds.  He finds a young man who is much like him, who had a similar church background, sang the same songs, lived in similar kinds of experiences.  He tells the young man that he will not be executed in the coming year, and he reacts as if it's the best news he ever heard.  Now, he says, he can invite his wife and children to visit him, because there's no danger that he will be inviting them on the day of his execution.

They ended up talking well over the one hour limit (which raised the ire of the prison guard).  As the angry guard pushed the prisoner back out of the room to his cell amid Stevenson's protests, the young man suddenly burst into song, "Higher Ground."  He sang with conviction in a deep baritone voice,

Lord lift me up and let me stand
By faith in Heaven's tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.

Stevenson says that in that moment he experienced grace.  He did not expect to receive hope from this young man on death row.  He wondered how many people we meet, in how many circumstances, we do not really see.

The words Jesus speaks in this week's gospel are his first recorded words in John's gospel.  They are all provocative in their own way.  "What are you looking for?"  "Come and see."

But today I am thinking that it is the third time that is the most powerful.  Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus.  Jesus looks at Simon and sees him, and says.  'You are Simon, son of John."  But that's not all he says.  He continues, "From now on you will be called Cephas" (which means Peter).  Jesus sees Simon, and he sees a Rock.

Bryan Stevenson has spent his life working for justice for those many of us do not see.  He sees people battered by life experience, struggling against disability, some wrongfully imprisoned, some trying to rise above the worst they ever did.  But before he could help them, he had to see them.  It's not as easy to do as it is to talk about it.  But it is a moment of grace.  Both to see -- and to be seen.

How many people do we meet, in how many circumstances, that we do not really see?

Friday, December 20, 2019

In Those Days...

Here it is, a few days before Christmas.  I have been lighting the candles and saying the prayers and going about my duties and my days, meeting with people and reading but not taking as much time for intentional reflection as I'd like.

A couple of days ago I went to visit a shut-in, and I brought my old confirmation Bible along with me instead of the newer, shinier translation.  It's still in pretty good shape, even though it is about 50 years old.  And I read out of that old translation, about Caesar Augustus and swaddling cloths, and I remembered back to when I made it my mission to memorize Luke chapter 2, out of this very translation.

I think I was ten or eleven years old, and I don't remember why I took up the challenge to memorize these passages.  It wasn't required for a Christmas pageant; my parents were not encouraging me to memorize scripture passages.  I didn't go to a parochial school either.  But somehow, one December I decided that this was what I would like to do:  memorize as much of the Christmas story as I could.

Every day I would crunch through the snow on the way to school, and I would start out with chapter 2, verse 1, and see how far I could get.  I didn't know who Quirinius was, or where Syria was, and I didn't know that the word "Caesar" meant "Emperor", but I plowed through the verses, understanding more or less, getting a little farther every day.

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  this was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

I think I may have made it all the way to verse 14, in the end.  Every day I walked and recited, I recited and walked.  It was December.

I suppose it was my Advent discipline, although I would not have said so at the time.  At the time, I don't think I knew what an Advent discipline was.   And I'm not sure that the process of memorization itself yielded any special insights into the scriptures -- at least not at the time.

I think back to that year.  I have been a pastor now for twenty-five years.  At the time I tried to memorize the Christmas story I had no idea how my life would turn out.  I had not an inkling that I would be doing this work, that I would be reciting the story myself every single year.

A few years ago, in another congregation, I was visiting a shut-in just a few days before Christmas.  He was a retired pastor who had served our congregation.  Recently he had had a stroke, and this hearty active man was now in a nursing home, barely able to speak.

I came with communion and the Christmas story.  His wife joined us.  She was there every day, all day, just staying with him.  And when I began to read from Luke chapter 2, he started saying the words along with me.

By heart.

Every once in awhile he would fade out, but he always came back strongly on three words, "in a manger".  And while we were speaking together, reciting together, I noticed that those three words, "in a manger" -- were repeated three times in that one chapter.  How could I have been reading those words all these years and not noticed this.

There is so much in the Christmas story -- the shepherds and the angels, the long journey to Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest!"  And in the middle of it all is the manger.  The child is lying in a manger.

This is the sign.  This is the sign of Christmas.  It is the manger that carries the child.

All those years ago, I trudged up and down the streets, and I memorized the words, not knowing where the words really led.  And then one day, many years later, they led to the manger.  The lowly place.

And the words became food:  the bread of life.  In a manger.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Foreign Languages

On Friday, my day off, my husband and I drove south into Houston to attend the annual Christmas Bazaar at the Norwegian Seaman's church.  In some ways, going to this event seems a lot like going home:  my home state in Minnesota has a large Scandinavian-American community, and the decorations and the flavors and the sounds had a comforting familiarity.

And yet, it wasn't exactly the same.  This wasn't a church for people with a nostalgic, distant memory of their homeland, but for strangers and sojourners, people getting used to a new country.  Instead of feeling like the closed ethnic communities in my home state, there was an international flavor as we bumped into people from all over the country.  We talked to Minnesota Swedish Baptists and Wisconsin Lutherans and Norwegian immigrants planning a pilgrimage to the northern regions of the United States over the Christmas holiday.

While milling around a large crowd shopping for Scandinavian Christmas decorations, I happened to overhear some familiar sounds.  I recognized the sound of the Japanese language, although (sadly) I didn't understand any of the words.  I turned around and noticed four women perusing the Swedish linens and the Christmas trolls.

It has been over thirty years since I left Japan, after three and a half years as a missionary and teacher.  I recognized the sound of Japanese.  But I no longer understand the actual words.  Still, I wanted to make a connection.

'Are you from Japan?" I asked (in English).

"Kyoto," they told me.

"Ah," I answered.  "I lived in Japan a long time ago."  I emphasized word "long" so that they would not misunderstand that I was fluent in any way.

"Where did you live?" one of the women asked.  "Tokyo," I answered, ".... and Kumamoto."

"Ah," they answered.  (Kumamoto is not known as a haven for foreigners.)

We all nodded to one another in the Japanese way, and then we parted.  It was a small encounter.  I didn't find out why they were here, or for how long, or how they found this place.   It was almost as crowded in the church as in a crowded train in Tokyo; hardly room to turn around, much less to have a conversation.

A little later I was standing in line to buy some Christmas decorations.  Right in front of me was one of the four women from Kyoto.  She had some small decorations, and I said, by way of making conversation, "Those make good gifts."

"Not gifts," she answered.  Then there was a pause, and she said the word, "Souvenir."

I paused too, and I remembered something -- one word -- in a language I (mostly) no longer understood.  I remembered the word for souvenir in Japanese.  "Omiyage?" I said.

I remembered what it was like to be a tourist and a teacher and a missionary, and the "omiyage" that I brought home.  A Japanese ningyo, a handkerchief with flowers, a teacup, a pair of bamboo chopsticks.  I was buying memories, hoping that so many years later, I would remember something about living in that strange place.

And there is so much that I have forgotten.  I recognize the sounds, but I no longer understand most of the words.

But there is omiyage.  There are souvenirs, and somehow they still do the job:  they make real the memories that seem so far away.  Was my life transformed on that narrow island so long ago, when I taught students English and Jesus, and saw God in their faces?   Did I listen to church services in Japanese, and join the members afterwards for curried rice served by the pastors wife?

Sometimes it surprises me how spiritual we think we should be.  After all, we believe that God became flesh and blood, and that his disciples touched him and he touched them, and that they ate and drank together.    And when he left, I wonder if there were times when they forgot what the sound of his voice was like, or forgot the meaning of his words.

But there are still souvenirs -- things we taste and touch -- that suddenly bring the meaning back to us.  All we need is a word -- or a phase sometimes -- "Bread of Life" or "Good Shepherd" -- to remind us that we once spoke a foreign language, and hoped for a better country.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Seen and Unseen

Early this week a woman from my congregation stopped by and said she needed to talk to me.  She told me about a couple in her neighborhood that she visits.  They are somewhat shut in, so she has been checking on them and visiting with them to make sure they are okay.  Lately, the husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  She asked him if he wanted a pastor to come and visit him.  As it turns out, he had an affiliation with our denomination earlier in his life, and when she asked him, he got tears in his eyes.  She wondered if I would be open to paying them a visit.

Not too longer before that, a man from my congregation mentioned that his family had taken a single mom and her son under their wing.  They have gotten to know each other.  The mom has to leave early in the morning for work, before her son has to get up to catch the bus for school.  So sometimes this man will go and knock on their door in the morning to make sure her son is up and ready for school.

Recently our congregation completed a modest capital drive.  For part of our capital drive, we finished a modest face-lift of our sanctuary.  Now that we're done, we're asking, what's the next step? We are talking about the necessity to reach out in our community in new ways -- to know our neighbors, and think of ways that we can meet the felt needs in our community.  We are not a large congregation, but we know that we need to be a part of our neighborhood, know our neighbors, and care about them in real and concrete ways.

In the middle of thinking about what our "church" could do, I thought about these two small encounters that I knew about -- the woman who visits her shut-in neighbors, the family who has befriended a teen-age boy and his mom.  How many other unseen encounters are there in my congregation, just like these?

It's easy to focus on the things we can see.  In fact, it pretty much all we can do.  I can see the people who come to make supper for the homeless families who stay at our church a few times a year.  I can tell you all of the names of those who help serve communion or help with the children's church or make breakfast one Sunday a month.  I am grateful for the quilters who gather on Fridays, the altar guild who prepare the altar on Saturdays, the Bible study leaders who meet in homes.

But it suddenly occurred to me that so much may be going on that I cannot see, and that because I don't see it, I don't honor it, and make sure people know how important it is, and that this is a part of their calling to love their neighbor.

I keep reading things about how the church is too inwardly-focussed, too much worrying about maintaining their property and membership and comfort, and not enough focussed on their neighbors.    But maybe part of the problem is that this is what we can see -- but there is so much going on that we can't see and don't notice.

The same person who tells me she doesn't know what it means to be outwardly focussed -- just got home from going to the funeral of a neighbor's son.  She didn't know that what she was doing was ministry.

I noticed recently that a woman had not been to church for awhile.  In fact, it occurred to me that I had only seen her in church when she had a role in worship.  I will admit that my first thoughts were that she only thought it was important to come when she had to do something, but instead I decided to email her and ask how she was doing.

I found out that she had been through so many stresses in the past few months, illnesses and deaths in her family, people she was supporting with presence and prayer.  I had no idea.  So much of her life was unseen to me.

This is the church.  Seen and unseen.  But so much unseen.  Except by God.  The One who has planted us deep deep down in the world, from which we do spring up.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Following Jesus

Once upon a time, there was a church that thought they wanted to follow Jesus.  I'm not sure what it was, maybe it was the new pastor, and the fact that, after a few years of decline, people were beginning to visit the church.  Some of them even joined!  For the first time in a long time, they were hopeful about their future.

That new pastor even encouraged them to have dreams, to think about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do.  She asked them what they thought God wanted them to do.  Groups of people from the church began to meet and consider what the gifts and needs of their community and their congregation might be.  They studied and they prayed.  And when they looked out of their back yard they saw something -- they saw a piece of property that they had had for a long time.  Many years before, they had been growing and they thought that their church would be larger.  They bought that empty land then but they had not kept growing and the land became a playground and a ball field.  They even considered selling it once or twice.

But after studying this time, when they looked out of the window of their fellowship hall, they had different dreams.  They had learned that there was a need for senior housing in their area, and so they had a dream about creating housing for senior in that back yard.  They even went a little farther, and considered that in the middle of the senior tower -- they should create -- a day care for children -- so that the old and the young could learn from and bless each other.

The members of the groups were excited about their ideas.  They knew that they were challenging goals, and that they probably would not be able to do everything at once.  But they called a meeting of the congregation one evening, where they shared their dreams with others.

After they got done sharing, one of the older members of the congregation stood up.  He opened his Bible and began to read from Luke, chapter 14:

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'"

That was it.  That was all he said.  Then he sat down.

But it was enough.  The disciples who had come to the meeting dreaming of following Jesus did not have a reply for the gentleman who spoke.  They did not know what to say.  They left their dreams behind when they left the meeting that night.

I wonder about the large crowds who were traveling with Jesus, and what happened when he told them this parable, and the other one, about the king going out to make war against another king.  I wonder what those large crowds following Jesus thought when he told them that they needed to hate their lives and carry the cross if they wanted to be his disciples.  I wonder if the large crowds got smaller after that.

Why were they following him in the first place?

He was eating and drinking with those who were left out; he was giving sight to the blind and restoring lepers to community and making the lame leap for joy.  He was multiplying loaves and casting out demons.  He was giving life, but there was a cost, and it was everything.  They should know that.

I wonder still about the dreams of that little congregation.  Maybe it wasn't what God wanted us to do, after all.  Maybe it was all right to give up when we heard those words about counting the cost.  But is that why Jesus spoke those words to the crowds?  Did he want them to turn away?  Did he want them to give up, knowing it was too hard?

Follow me, he still says, knowing that it is too hard, knowing that we will fail.

What does he want us to do?

Maybe he wants us to ask the question.