Sunday, December 21, 2014

Worship on the Streets

Last night my husband and I went out into the December night, headed down to a busy avenue in my city.  We parked on a dark street, walking past a church and a Mexican restaurant until we saw the bright lights of the theatre:  our destination.  We got got our tickets and waited in the lobby, munching cookies and listening to a small ensemble play some impromptu Christmas carols.  Then, finally, a voice called those with the "red tickets" and we were told to follow our guides back out into the street, to an "undisclosed location", which turned out to be a restaurant across the street, which also housed a small stage.

Walking by the window of the restaurant, we spied a few small girls dressed up in white dresses with wings attached to their backs.  They were getting ready for the play.

The first act:  the annunciation, preceded by songs.  Mary, surrounded by small angels, is approached by the angel Gabriel, who reminded of the Ghost of Christmas future:  wraithlike, tall, imposing, with a face like a crescent moon.  Mary bowed before Gabriel in obedient awe, and afterwards she and Elizabeth meet, and Mary gets a gift:  her mask.  There is an announcement of the census; everyone has to return to the place of their ancestors.  The procession begins.

The second act:  we exit the building and round the corner into another small building where there is a small puppet theatre and a few rows of wooden blocks.  There, Joseph dreams, and worries about Mary, and about whether he can care for her and for the baby.  He worries about the journey, and everything that will be required of him.  The angel Gabriel leaves him a message written on a scrap of paper:  "You Can Do it!"  the procession continues.

(while we are crossing the street, stopping traffic, one man shouts from his car that we are "ruining the environment", perhaps because his car is idling more than it should.  Are we disturbing the peace?)

Now we are at the theatre, where the shepherds are "watching" their sheep (i.e. in the midst of heavy snoring).  Small children enter, carrying stars.  They surround the sleeping shepherds while the angel choir/army gathers in the back of the theatre, ready to startle the shepherds awake.   After they sing their announcement and prepare to journey to Bethlehem, a great star appears, and three greater-than-life-size puppet Kings enter in search of a child.  They meet a sinister and worried Herod, who pretends that he too, wants to worship the child.

Now we are out on the street, with Mary and Joseph and the donkey, all following the star.  There is the sound of a chorus from the heavenly choir, a hum that rises and stays with us as we walk in the cold and dark night.  We see the bright lights at a neighborhood house and approach, but its occupant refuses to shelter us.

So we continue to walk and sing, following the Holy Family, following the lowly family seeking shelter.  We continue to walk until again we meet Herod, blocking our way, telling us we cannot come in, we are not welcome.  The hum goes up from the crowd again:  one note that we all sound together.  And then the banner:  "We come seeking shelter" which all of us shout.  Herod tells us that we are not welcome, that we should go home, that he will not let us pass.

We stand in the cold.  But the hum goes up.  "We come seeking shelter!" we shout.

Meanwhile, I see another banner approaching, from the other side of the blocked road.  The sign shouts "Bienvenido", and as it comes closes the blockade comes down and we are able to keep walking and singing in the darkness.  Someone gives me a cup with a small candle.  We all walk holding lighted candles.  When they go out, we scurry to re-light them.

We are on our way to the church, the sanctuary.

Inside, it is warm, and there is more singing.  The star and the lowly family enter, along with angels and shepherds, and stranger and wonderful animals.  There are bird puppets flying and a white dove flies and the child appears, and we are all invited to dance.  We are all invited to dance and sing and join the fiesta.

And what I remember is walking in the dark, and how the story unfolded, and the yearning and the joy in the songs.  What I remember is the darkness, and being out on the street, in the cold,  but walking together, shouting, "We come seeking shelter!"  What I remember is the lowliness of the holy family, how they processed slowly, how they were turned away.  And I wondered:  if we truly followed him, out on the street, where people can see, if we truly followed him, would we be turned away more often?

I am still not sure what I experienced last night.  Was it a worship service or a performance?  Or was it a demonstration?  We were out in public, walking the streets, shouting "We come seeking shelter!" just as surely as others, earlier in the day, had shouted, "No peace!  No Justice!"  For a little while we walked the streets, cold, homeless, seeking welcome, seeking shelter.

"Bienvenido!" was the sign.  It was a sign from God, the lowly God, the one who walks the streets, the homeless one who provides shelter, the disturber-of-the-peace who is our only peace.

Meanwhile, come Lord Jesus.  Give us courage to join the procession out on the streets, to be rejected and turned away, to be disciples of the lowly God, our only hope, our only peace, in the darkness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How I Spent My Advent

It is almost Christmas Eve, and I am thinking about my Advent practices this year, especially those that were unintentional, the ones that just came to me, and for which I am grateful.  I hope that God uses these, even more than whatever devotional practices I try, and at which I fail miserably.  I am not yet ready to Christmas, but I pray that God will make me ready, is preparing me.

1.  Babysitting.  
Babysitting was my first job, the one I thought would prepare me for the life I was told I would lead.  But my life went a different direction, and I haven't babysat for many years, not since my nieces and nephew were young.  But the newest member of our family is four years old, and one Sunday afternoon I had the great privilege of watching her.  I got out my ancient Barbie dolls, and we changed outfits again and again.  We had a tea party with apple juice served in tiny tea cups.  We played with the dog, petting her and brushing her (with a little hugging as well).  I put on the song "Let it Go", from the movie "Frozen", and she danced, and danced and danced.  At one point she said, "I need a cape!" and after a moment of wondering, I remembered an old towel I had, with pretty fringe.  I wrapped it around her shoulder and fastened it with a safety pin, so that she could be a princess.   I thought about how I always thought I would be a mother, and my heart hurt a little for what I missed.  But I also felt so happy to remember that an old towel can be a cape, that you can have a tea party with apple juice, that I could witness the dance, even just in a flash.  O God: at Christmas, give me a cape, and help me to dance again.

2.  Blessing Gifts.
One morning I walked into the church building and found a woman from my congregation sitting there.  She wasn't waiting for me, exactly.  She was waiting for whichever pastor would show up first, and that happened to be me.  She said that she had a gift that she was going to send to Mississippi, to a Sister she knew there, someone who changed the course of her life when she was a young woman.  She wanted to say thank you, to let this woman know what she had done, how her life had borne fruit.  Now the Sister was an old woman, still working in the mission, but she wanted to say "thank you; you saved my life."  She asked me to bless her gift.

Now I am not an expert about the blessing of objects, but I put my hands on her gift:  a beautiful tea set, engraved with dragonflies.  And we prayed that God would bless the gift, and its journey, that it would be a sign of love and a gift of love, and that it would bless both the giver and the receiver.  We prayed that it would be used for comfort and for hospitality.  And then we sent it off.  O God:  at Christmas, bless me and send me on a journey of blessing.

3.  Hearing Christmas songs at the Mall.
We were shopping at the large mall one morning, not really finding anything, wandering around, just looking.  It had not been such a productive morning, really, and we were thinking about going home, and doing something else, when we turned the corner and we heard them:  a choir from a local middle school, singing Christmas carols.  They were in the middle of "Deck the Halls" and we stood there listening.  Then they began singing "Joy to the World", and the tears formed in the corners of my eyes, right there in the mall.  I know they say that we should be singing Advent songs now, and I love them too.  But there is something about the Christmas songs, and I don't think it is just the accumulated memories of singing them, or the sentiment, but it is the yearning for the peace they promise.  It is the hope and the faith and the doubt all rolled up, and wanting to grasp something, in the middle of a world where some people can't even find it in their heart to pray for the family of Michael Brown, or dare to feel their pain.  O God:  at Christmas, soften my heart and help me to believe in your world, your peace, and the wonders of your love.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't Make the Gift Too Ethereal

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down for supper at the community meal hosted by our congregation.  At the table was a young family from our congregation and a woman from our congregation, a woman I didn't know.  We had a good time sharing small talk with one another, trying to convince the two young children that the turkey casserole was just as delicious as pizza, and sharing small bits of our lives.

After some time the children and their father left, the children off to choir practice, and I continued to talk with the woman for a little while.  I don't remember either of us saying anything very earth-shaking.  She praised the food and the company.  She said she really enjoyed coming here for supper and mentioned that she had attended funerals at our church, on occasion.  Then she looked around and said that she really liked the fact that there were all ages, including children, eating supper together.  "There aren't any children in my life right now," she said.

This past week I didn't see her at supper;  I had finished early so that I could prepare my short advent meditation for the worship that evening.  However, I saw her in passing right before worship and she mentioned that she had left a small gift in my mailbox.

The next day I discovered it:  a short note thanking me for our conversation the previous week, along with two bottles of Ensure and a "Bless Our Home" wall-hanging.  She said I should use those things however I saw fit.

A lot of people say they are praying for me, but I have to say that I was touched by this particular gift.  It was something simple and ordinary and real, and it was not ethereal at all.  It was not a symbol of Hope or World Peace, not a great grand gesture which is a symbol of Something Else Entirely.

It's been one of those Advents for me, when everything seems to be getting away from me.  I always have these great intentions of devotional discipline during Advent.  I will light candles.  I will write.  I will read.  I will pray.  I will move along the path toward enlightenment, and then I will share that enlightenment with my congregation.  But, to be honest, the enlightenment has mostly eluded me this year.  I keep saying that Advent is about waiting, about watching, about preparing.  But all of those things seem very ethereal to me right now, slipping through my fingers like a piece of thick fog.

But then there are two bottles of Ensure and a wall-hanging.  I can hold them in my hands.  They are a gift to use as I see fit.

I am thinking about laying off the deeper meanings of Advent for awhile, and just holding on to the ordinary things, the things I can touch:  a simple meal, a few words, a small gift to use as I see fit.  Instead of straining toward a far horizon, I will touch, and look at what is right in front of me.  And I will say that somehow, God is right here, at the table, in the simple mess, not ethereal at all.

Take and eat.
Taste and see.
The true meaning of Advent.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Say You Want To Be Inclusive

My church wants to be more inclusive.  We have been saying this for awhile now.  We have been saying it more and more, as we look around the neighborhood where we are located, and notice that more and more people who live here don't look like "us".  Some of our neighbors are immigrants, and speak other languages.  Some of our neighbors have less money than "us" or are from different ethnic groups than those traditionally associated with our denomination.

So, my church wants to be more inclusive.  We understand (or at least a substantial number of us do) that it is theologically right for us to want to be more inclusive.  We understand that the realm of God is much more diverse than our congregation.  We understand that when we gather at the river, by and by, when we look around at who is gathered with us, it will look a lot different than our congregation does now.  Our hearts are in the right place, as far as it goes.

But I suspect, deep down in my heart, that we have no idea how hard it will be, how hard it really is.  For one thing, we don't even know each other -- not really.  We don't know many of the daily experiences and stories of the people in the pew next to us.  We don't know that some of "us" have less than we think they do, struggle more than we think they do, feel differently than we think they do.  Sometimes I worry that we do not always want to know.  I also suspect that the very word, "inclusive" even has something to do with it.

In the aftermath of the deaths of two unarmed black men, and the grand juries' decisions not to indict the police officers responsible, the slogan #BlackLivesMatter has taken hold.  Though the experiences of people of color often teaches them a different reality, they want to take back the value of their lives.  #BlackLivesMatter, they tell us.  Can we say "Amen"?  Can we affirm that yes, black lives matter, even when so many of their daily experiences tell them otherwise?

But some people want to be more inclusive.

So there is an alternative meme going around:  #AllLivesMatter.  And, although I understand the sentiment, just like I understand the desire of my congregation to be more inclusive, I think it is fundamentally misguided.

We can talk about the value of human life, each life, all lives, in different ways.  We can talk about the realities experienced by people of color, by immigrants, by at-risk children, by the poor, by Alzheimers patients.  But as long as we continue to speak in generalities (We Welcome Everyone!), we are not really welcoming anyone.  As long as we don't listen to the realities of particular people, and particular communities, we won't know how to welcome anyone.  As long as we don't pay attention to the lives, the realities, the stories of those who feel left out, excluded, marginalized, un-welcome, we will not be able to include them.

#BlackLivesMatter.

It's a start.  If we really want to be inclusive.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Small, Important Thing

I had a funeral on Friday, a small funeral in our chapel for a retired teacher from our community.  She had just a few, particular requests for her funeral:  that we would read Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, that we would sing "Beautiful Savior", and that a woman from our congregation would sing.

She did not designate a particular song; she just wanted this woman to sing, an alto from our church's choir.  As it turned out, they had also sung together in a community choir.

I was happy to ask her to sing, and the woman was happy to accept the invitation.  She just had one question for me, "Will you sing with me?"

Back in the day, she and her husband were often asked to sing at funerals.  He had died a few years ago, but people still asked her to sing, on occasion.  So I didn't think she was asking because she didn't want to sing alone.  She was perfectly capable of singing by herself.  Actually, I didn't know why she asked me.

I said yes.

We decided on a song (Abide with Me) and divided up the parts and practiced a couple of times.  I sang soprano on one verse and tenor an octave higher on another verse.  I remembered how I used to sing with my sister, on occasion.  But that was many years ago.  The last time, we sang "Whispering Hope."  I remembered how it felt, singing harmony, singing the melody, hearing our voices blend, the pitches meet and separate.

Afterwards, she said, simply, "I have always wanted to sing with you.  So I thought this was the opportunity."

That's all it was.  It was a small thing.  But it was a gift.

And it is a kind of leadership, too:  to be able to do it alone, but to say:  I have always wanted to do it with you.  I have always wanted to sing with you.  I have always wanted to serve with you.  I have always wanted to teach with you.

It is the grace of leadership.  Or the leadership of grace.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Other Half of the Bible Verse

I worshipped in another church on Sunday, and heard another pastor's sermon.  It was an unusual worship service for me, and not just because I wasn't in charge.  I was also worshipping in a mega-church, with thousands of others (but who's counting), and listening to scripture readings different than the familiar first-Sunday-of-Advent ones.

The sermon that day was on a particular portion of the book of Daniel.  I knew the stories, but had never heard anyone preach on them before.  The stories were carefully set in the context of the Babylonian exile, and the problem of continuing to remember and to worship Israel's God when you are not in Israel anymore.  The stories were carefully set in the context, but the point was contemporary -- the point of the sermon was the pride that leads us to forget that it is really God who is in charge, God who both appoints and rejects rulers.  The ruler in question was, of course, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:  his offending words are "Is this not a magnificent Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?"

The verse that the preacher wanted us to pay attention to is from Daniel 4:17, and it is, actually, just a part of the verse.  He had us repeat the verse with him, as it recurs several times in Nebuchadnezzar's morality tale.  Nebuchadnezzar is going down, says the prophet, until "all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will."

The point?  Don't be proud.  How can you be proud?  If you have anything, it is not because you are so great, it is only because the Most High is sovereign; he gave it to you for his own purposes.  Also:  be a good steward.  Use what you have been given for God's purposes.  That's why you have it, anyway.

So, not bad, really, I thought.  Except that I couldn't get something out of my mind, which was the end of verse 17, which doesn't end with "he gives it to whom he will."

Actually, the complete verse ends, "he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

Somehow I kept thinking that this makes a difference; this changes things.  It's not just a stewardship sermon, not just a morality tale any more.  It's not about power, but inversion of power; it's not just about pride, but it's about looking at the world from upside down and inside out.  It makes me think:  if the idea of my life is to use what God gave me for God's purposes -- well, what are God's purposes, anyway?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to led the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

"He gives [the kingdom of mortals] to whom he will and he sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

This being advent and all, I couldn't help thinking about the lowliest of human beings, the one who came, the one we are waiting for, the one who is here, but incognito.  It's just this small fragment of a Bible verse, but for a moment I thought about the lowly one set over me, the one who guards my life, who has given me his, to use for his purposes.  I thought about the Lowly One set over the world, the prince of a different kind of peace, and what it would mean to live according to his purposes.

What are his purposes, anyway?  A world turned upside down.

It is what I am waiting for.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Incredibly Happy, Incredibly Sad

Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, I worshipped at a mega-church.

I have been with family in Another City for the Thanksgiving Holiday, getting acquainted and re-acquainted with new and old family, eating the familiar feast and giving thanks and having conversations, making sure to talk about some subjects and avoid other subjects.  We walked and shopped and ate and watched movies.

This morning we went to church together.

It was my first time at a real mega-church, although I have been at a few large church services in my day, and I even spent a couple of years among the Pentecostals.  But still, I am older now, and wiser, and it was the first Sunday of Advent, and I wondered what I would think, and how I would feel, standing in a row with some new family and some old family, and worshipping at a mega-church.  I wondered if they would have Advent candles, or if they would acknowledge the season at all, and if so, what difference it would make.

They didn't have candles.  They did say the word "Advent," though, as well as the word "Christmas", and they gave out advent calendars at the end of the service.  They had flashing lights, and a thumping bass rhythm, and songs that rocked.  At the beginning of the service, a piped in choir sang O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Then, we were welcomed, and encouraged to sing along as the band began playing a version of Joy to the World.  The lights went down.   The band played and sang.  We sang.  I sang.

And I felt a lump in my throat, and, I don't know why, a few tears sat in the corners of my eyes, and trickled down.  No one saw.  It was dark.  No one knew.  And I don't know why.  Somehow I was incredibly happy, and somehow I was incredibly sad.

There was a part of a verse when the band tried to drop out and encourage us to sing.  I sang so loud.  We knew the song.  And I think that a lot of us were singing our guts out.  But it hardly made a dent in the huge building, even though it was full of people.  Maybe that's why I felt so incredibly sad.  Here we were, all these people worshipping together, and the sound we made felt so small that morning, and it made me think of how much trouble there is, and how small the sound we make can be.  I thought back to the day before Thanksgiving, when I had a small prayer service in my church.  I encouraged those present to write down what they were thankful for.  And during the prayers I read all of the responses.

Someone wrote, "I am glad I live in a peaceful city, and state."

And that broke my heart, just a little, because I knew that this person was saying that they were thankful that they were not in Ferguson, Missouri.  

Maybe I was thinking about that, and all the other sadnesses, while I was singing and the tears were trickling down my cheeks.  Maybe I was thinking about all of the things that are not right, and how I can sing my heart out and sometimes it feels like no one can hear me.

But then again there were the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come."  And in that darkness I couldn't help but feel the joy in the words that I was singing.  They are advent words, by which I mean they are words not just about the coming of the baby, but about the coming of the King, the coming of the King not just of small hopes, but of large ones, the king who will raise up the lowly and feed the hungry and dry every tear.

We are given that song to sing, and it makes me incredibly happy to sing it, even in the darkness.

It is Advent.  The first day.

And I am incredibly happy.
And incredibly sad.