Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Doors

This summer we started a new ministry:  a Wednesday all-day program for children.  The children come for fun and games and Bible stories and crafts.  At the end of the day we invite everyone to stay for a picnic on our front lawn, culminating in an informal church service on our front lawn, which we have nicknamed 'Picnic Church."

Picnic church has been pretty successful for us.  Not all of the children stay for supper every week, but we have had a good mix of people from our own congregation and people from our neighborhood.  Some of them just come for the picnic, of course; others have stayed for church, but I haven't seen them again.  A few have come every week, and we've gotten to know their names.

For me, one of the things I love is that when someone comes in for a gas voucher, I can give the letter, tell them about the local food shelf, and then invite them to Picnic Church.

I have been wondering what made Picnic Church successful where other attempts at evangelism have fallen flat.  I have supposed that it had something to do with the informality of the outdoors and the atmosphere.  I have hazarded the guess that there is an addictive substance in grilled hamburgers and hot dogs that beckons people to come.

But, in the end, I decided that it has something to do with doors.

Or specifically, it has to do with the fact that there are no doors on the Picnic Church.

On Wednesday, out on our wonderful front lawn (our front lawn is wonderful), I have on occasion glanced over at the front door to our church.  It's a beautiful church, with stained glass windows.  The first set of doors, though, just leads into the our narthex.  If you want to go into the sanctuary, you have to go through two sets of doors.

I had never thought of that before.

I considered that it might be intimidating to have to go through not one, but two sets of doors, and to sit down and worship with a bunch of strangers.  They may be singing that "All Are Welcome", but it might not feel like it, not really.  It might just be too hard to go through those two sets of doors, into that building that seems like someone else's house.  The doors are thick and heavy, and mark the difference between inside and outside.

At "Picnic Church" you don't have to go through those doors.  There are no doors.

Maybe there is another reason that "Picnic Church" has been successful.  Maybe it is we who are different.  Out there on the lawn, the church is not a building that we built, that belongs to us, that we have to guard and protect.  Out there on the church, we are neighbors and strangers, not insiders and outsiders.  Out there on the lawn we are all hungry, and the grace we all receive does not belong to us, any more than the church, with its heavy doors, belongs to us.

We have not ventured far:  just the front lawn.  But it is a first step out into the neighborhood, the world where God waits, outside the doors.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday Night: Trying to Figure out What to Say

This week I have been filled up with bad news.  Filled to the brim with sadness, with violence, with despair.  I keep reading stories about police violence and racism, about the despair of being hunted down because of your religion, about death by depression, about pain that does not go away.

And I want to say something.  I know God wants me to say something, too.  I am a preacher, and one of my jobs is to preach light in the darkness.  I want to point to God, and say, despite everything, God has not absconded with the goods.  

Not only that, there have been many essays written this week admonishing us (me) to Say Something. I do take it personally.  I feel like they are talking directly to me, even though I am not preaching this weekend.  They are saying:  Put on your Big Girl Pants and Get Out There and Preach.  Preach the reality of the world, and God's fierce presence in it.

This is where I started:

Sometimes I am rendered 
speechless
at the world.
just at the time
when I think the world
demands a word.

Tonight I am not in Ferguson, Missouri.
I am not fleeing persecution in Iraq.
I am not at the border where children wait.
I am not in Gaza, not in Israel, not in Syria.
I do not know the deep darkness of depression
from the inside out.

Lord, give me ears to hear
in humility
the stories of those who are there,
who live injustice,
who carry fear,
who long for life.

Help me bear witness
when the world demands
a word
and I am speechless.

Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

If I Don't Write it Down, I Might Forget

Not long after I arrived at this current congregation many years ago, we began to get a phone call every Saturday afternoon.  The caller always asked who was preaching that weekend.

The Saturday receptionist started getting curious, so the phone calls got a little longer.  The caller was an elderly gentleman who usually came to the early service on Sunday morning.  He wanted to know if the associate pastor was preaching.  He liked the preaching of the associate pastor, and would make sure to come she was the one who was preaching.

We had a little joke about it.  The receptionist called him my "fan."  It is nice to have a fan, I decided.  If I was in the office when he called, sometimes she would transfer the call back to me.  When I saw him on Sunday morning, I would say hello to him and ask him how he was doing.   He had a round face and thick glasses and a great smile.  He looked like an elderly scholar.

I know that he had a family, because he talked about them, but I didn't know them.  I never met them.  He came to church by myself.  There were a few other widowers who liked to come to the early service.  They always sat together.

I don't remember his name any more.

At some point, the Saturday afternoon calls stopped.

We did a little checking, and found out that he was in a nursing home nearby.  We put him on our shut-in list.  I asked to visit him, but we had a seminary intern at the time, and the other pastor felt that it was better for the seminary intern to be the regular visitor, since he made other visits at the same nursing home.

Even so, I did stop by on occasion, especially when I was leading a church service at the facility.  He seemed to move around a lot in the nursing home.  Or, maybe I just didn't visit as often as I should have.

One day, when I came into his room to visit with him, he looked at me over his thick glasses and said, "Who are you?"

It broke my heart, just a little.

And then, one day, I went to visit him and he wasn't there.  He had died.

No one called us.

I don't remember his name any more.

I'm writing this so that I don't forget.  And if I do, maybe someone else will tell the story.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Elijah without Exegesis

I learned the story of Elijah before I ever studied it from a Bible.

This is not because I grew up unchurched and never opened a Bible.  Indeed, I was very regular in worship and went to Sunday School every week, although I really don't remember ever getting to the prophets.  (I feel like our Old Testament study sort of stalled out over Solomon.)  I may have heard the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb in worship, but, if I did, it didn't make an impression on me.

I learned the story of Elijah in public school, when my high school choir sang Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah."

My high school choir's tradition was to learn an oratorio every winter.  When I was in tenth grade, we sang great excerpts of Hayden's "The Creation."  (I used to love to walk into my English class right after lunch, turn on the light, and sing, "AND THERE WAS LIGHT!")  My junior year, we sang the "Messiah."  My senior year, we learned The Elijah.

We did not learn the whole oratorio, but we learned and performed a pretty impressive chunk of it, enough to get the gist of the story, enough to perform for our winter concert.  We also joined area high school for a mass performance later in the spring.

There we were, thousands of high school students, singing about the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al, wicked King Ahab and his even more wicked wife, Jezebel.  It boggles my mind even to think back on it.

What a way to learn the Bible, going over and over difficult musical interludes, listening to soloists practice soliloquies, going into section rehearsals.  I still remember that the first Chorus begins with the word, "Help Lord!  Wilt thou quite destroy us?", and that our choir director warned us to make sure we pronounced the 'p' on Help.  I remember that a wonderful baritone from our school sang Elijah's part (although we had professionals for the mass choir).  Elijah's solo, "It is enough" was so heart-rending.  The song "He watching over Israel" was one of my favorite pieces.

But the action between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al was the highlight of the piece for me.  We played the prophets of Ba'al, with our increasingly frantic prayers, while Elijah taunted us between our outbursts.  The choir director let us in on the secret meaning of some of Elijah's Ba'al insulting taunts. The piece where Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb was also dramatic, the music matching the words in tension, the voices sounding like wind and chaos and -- eventually -- peace.

I went out and bought the three-album set of the whole oratorio.  Eventually I even bought my own copy of the music and looked up Bible references in my Bible concordance (I found out that they aren't all from 1st Kings; not even all from the Old Testament).

I know, it was geeky way to learn a Bible story.  I mean, how many teenagers that you know are interested in singing huge sections of scripture to tunes written in the 19th Century?

We did.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a Bible story.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a sermon.  I learned about Elijah without anyone telling me what it meant, or what it was supposed to mean, or where it fit in the great narrative of the Bible.  I didn't think about what it might mean that the Lord was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.

It was a good story, and I was in it.  We were inside the story.  We were playing the people of Israel, and the prophets of Ba'al, the bad guys and the good guys, the saints and the sinners, the doubters and the believers.  We were inside the story, not understanding it, just singing it.

But the thing is, later on, I got curious.  It made me want to study, even.

I know.  It's a geeky way to learn a Bible story.  But still, it makes me think:  being curious is more important, in some ways, than understanding.  And being inside the story, however you might manage it:  is the beginning of wisdom.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

All the Pretty Little Parables

Here's a secret:  I like the little parables, the ones we heard in church last week (mustard seed, yeast, treasure-in-field, pearl, net-of-fish) better than many of the longer parables that Jesus tells.  I especially like these little parables better than the parables where Jesus has to break down and give an explanation of the parable a little while later.   I prefer the eye-brow raising ambiguity of these stories more than the dreadful clarity of the parable of the sower, or at least its explanation.  Perhaps I just prefer ambiguity.  Or the possibility of a surplus of meaning.

There they are, a handful of one-sentence stories, challenging me to squeeze the Kingdom of God into six words, or a 120 character tweet, or a three-line haiku.  They are the Shortest Parables Ever, full of simple complexity, or complex simplicity.  They seem to mean one thing, but if you turn them over, and look on the underside, you discover unknown world.  The mustard seed seems to be a parable about tiny seeds growing into great trees, until you realize that the mustard tree is really a bush, not a tree, and to make matters worse, an invasive species, like buckthorn or creeping charlie or even the oregano I didn't plant this year, but which appeared anyway.  The mustard seeds seems to be a nice parable about the smallest amount of faith doing wonderful things, until you start thinking about what it means to be an invasive species in a world that isn't always wild about you.

They are all like that, these parables.  Think harder about the treasure in the field, and how weird it is that the man finds the treasure and then hides it again in the field.  Why not just take the treasure?  No, he hides it and then he goes and sells everything he has so he can be the whole field.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.  Get it?  (Okay, not really.)  There's an irrational, extravagant, even wasteful joy to it.

I tell you, it makes me hear the story this week:  the story of the feeding of the five thousand, in a whole different way.  Having come from three straight weeks of parables, I can't totally get them out of my system.  I still think I'm hearing a story.  I want to say:  "The Kingdom of heaven is like five loaves and two fish, which, when they were divided up and shared, were enough to feed everyone, with leftovers."

Or possibly, I want to say, "The Kingdom of heaven is like 5,000 uninvited guests (not including women and children) who come over when all you wanted was to be alone."

I used to think that the issue with this parable was whether or not it really was a miracle.  Did Jesus really feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes?  Did the menu literally expand?  There are those who say that what really happened was that hearts expanded instead; when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it, all of those who were so afraid to share what they had suddenly changed their minds.  There was always enough.  They just had to decide to share it.

But now I'm thinking of the story as a parable, just like those last three weeks of parables, just like the little parables we heard last week.  It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, where in the midst of grieving and injustice, God is making a new world:  delicious, messy, with more leftovers than we can handle.  It also invites us to see parables in the stuff of our own lives:  ordinary, abundant, miraculous, ambiguous.

Once, long ago, I lived for a month with a small group of German Lutheran sisters out in the desert in Arizona.  They lived by faith, they said, which means that they did not go shopping, but gardened and prayed and trusted God for their food.  I was not sure how it worked.  But I remember one Sunday evening when our cupboards were bare, that we sat in the living room and prayed and prayed.  While we were praying the doorbell rang.  Someone had dropped off two bags of groceries.  I knew that I couldn't count on things like this happening all the time.  At the same time I also knew:  the kingdom of heaven is similar to this.

So the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast, a pearl, a net -- and five loaves and two fish divided, which were enough.  The Kingdom of heaven is like a fresh bouquet of flowers left outside your door, or like a ball of yarn of many colors, being woven into a mysterious garment fit for a king.  The kingdom of heaven is like a room at the nursing home, where an old woman lays dying, when a young woman runs in and tenderly kisses her on the forehead.  The Kingdom of heaven is like that.

Get it?  (Not entirely, I admit.)

But that is all right.  There is more to life than understanding.  There is the surplus of meaning, the Kingdom of heaven breaking in, breaking our hearts, feeding us, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Bread And Wine: a Love Letter to Life Around the Table": A Reflection

I just finished reading Shauna Niequest's lovely book, "Bread and Wine," which I have been reading in fits and starts for awhile now, mostly just before bedtime.  The writing is lovely, and sometimes even mouth-watering, which is understandable given the fact that the book centers around hospitality and cooking and what happens when we welcome one another and care for one another at the tables we set for each other.  There's an intimacy in this book:  the stories around the table are filled with people she loves, both rejoicing and broken-hearted, in moments of sorrow and celebration.

I am going to confess right now that I don't do much entertaining, Christmas and Easter and a couple of other occasions are about all I can manage.  Although all of her recipes sounded delicious, I can't imagine myself trying a single one.  Shauna encourages her readers to plan dinner parties, to make entertaining a Christian discipline, although for most of her book, this is implicit in her writing, not stated aloud.  Life around the table is transformative, she tells us.

I believe her.

I believe that life around the table is transformative, as she says.  It matters not whether the meal is elaborate or simple, there is something about eating together, that activity most necessary for life, that binds us to one another and transforms us, makes us family.

I still remember the rare occasion that my family would go out to eat:  at a popular Italian restaurant in the downtown area of our city.  It was supposed to be a big deal, and of course it was; we all still remember the occasions.  But what I also remember is that all of us knew the truth:  my mom's spaghetti was far superior to what the restaurant offered.   My mom's spaghetti was one of the things that bound us together, and not because it was a gourmet recipe.  Simply because it was my mom's spaghetti.  I actually made it for Easter once, when my niece and nephew were little, and my parents were away for the holiday.  I was exhausted from Easter worship, but I wanted to have my brother and his family over, so I made my mom's spaghetti and salad.

Life around the table is transformative, and Shauna writes so well about how the food and company shared got her through hard times and somehow made life holy.

And yet, believing all this, I still think that something is missing.  As I reflect back on the transformation that has happened around tables for me -- I realize that many of those moments involve not the intimacy of sharing with family and friends, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers.  There were the curry rice lunches after church at Hiyoshi Church in Tokyo, especially at the beginning when I knew no Japanese. There was the meatball dinner my church prepared and served at The Banquet in South Dakota.  Then we sat down to eat and share stories with all who were hungry.  There was the time I was living in community in Denver Colorado, and we were told that a number of Arminian refugees would be staying with us for the weekend.  It was my night to cook, I realized with fear and trembling, as I tried to figure out what to make for twenty people instead of ten, half of whom did not speak English.

Life around the table is transformative.  This is most certainly true.

Shauna Niequest's vision is a compelling one.  She tells us that it's not just Holy Communion, but every meal shared, that can be Holy.  Every table can be the Lord's table.  I can see the candles burning down, the table set, the wine glasses poured.  I would love to be a guest at her table.  I know I would learn much about what it means to be loved and welcomed.  I wish I had her cooking courage.

And yet something is still missing for me.  Perhaps it is because, when she brings up the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, what comes to mind for me is not just the intimacy of eating together, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers, and how our tables and our churches are still, for the most part, not inclusive enough, in matters of race and class.

 The stories she tells are holy, and the tables she sets are holy.  But for me, more stretching needs to be done.  My heart yearns for a hospitality that is even wider, a table set to welcome strangers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Uncle Roger's Arms

On Tuesday, I officiated at the funeral for one of my beloved uncles, my dad's brother-in-law, Roger.  He was 90, so he lived a good long life, just the past few years in a local nursing home, confined to a wheelchair.  He and my Aunt Norma were married for 65 years, which is a pretty good run, in my book.  My aunt and their three children and families were there, at the funeral, and I was honored, and a little nervous, to speak to them.

I have officiated at several weddings for family members in the past, but have never been asked to officiate at a funeral.  I think that I would, in some ways, prefer to be one of the mourners, to be able to hear the promise of the gospel from someone else, to hold my memories and weep and rejoice.  I would like to hear the insights of another preacher, reminding me of all the things I knew, telling me things I never knew.  But when my cousin called me last Thursday evening, I found that I couldn't say no.  I was honored that she asked me, but still, a little nervous.

I knew my uncle Roger as a child knows an adult.  I remembered how much he loved the water, his silly jokes, the way he would tease me or give me a kiss on the cheek.  He taught me how to surface dive, when I was afraid to dive instead of jump from the deep end of the water.  He had polio when he was young, I knew that, because he always walked with a limp.  But I did not find out until just before his funeral that he had polio as a teenager -- at 17 -- and was in the hospital for a whole year.  According to his family, he never complained about it, always found something positive.

Some things I remember about my uncle Roger in part because of the family movies my dad took.  They have been spliced together and, although they are not in order, I still will force my husband to watch them with me, on occasion.  When I was looking through the movies before I preached on Tuesday, the first image I saw was my uncle Roger in a boat on the lake.  I also saw a clip from Christmas.  Whenever the camera came to him, he would turn and give my aunt a kiss on the cheek.

But the clip I was looking for I could not find.  It's a clip of my uncle Roger on the floor, playing with the kids.  Actually, he is lying on the floor, on his back, and he is lifting us up in his hands, up into the air.  If the clip is as I remember it, I was hesitant.  It looked scary.  He kept coaxing me, while all of the other cousins took turns going up in the air, up in his hands, higher than they imagined they could go.  It was as if he was saying, "Don't be afraid.  It'll be fun!  Trust me.  I can hold you."

On Tuesday, I took Isaiah 43 as one of my texts.  "Do not be afraid; for I am with you.  I have called you by name; you are mine."  I started out thinking about the promise, "I have called you by name, you are mine."  But I kept thinking about my uncle and how he always appeared fearless to me.  He wasn't afraid of the water.  He wasn't afraid of life.  He wasn't afraid of anything.  And I think he wanted to teach us to be fearless too.  I kept thinking about my uncle and his strong arms, and how I was afraid, but I didn't need to be.  I kept thinking about how if we trusted him, we got to go higher and higher in the air, and then I started thinking about how strong his arms must have been.  His legs were weak, but his arms were so strong they could hold us.

"Don't be afraid."  That's what my uncle Roger taught me, or tried to, anyway.  "Trust me.  I may have weak legs, but I have strong arms."

On Tuesday, I did not remember that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength, and the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. I remember today, though.

Today, I am imagining my uncle Roger, going up in the hands of God, higher than he has ever gone before.  I am imagining him going high up in the strong arms of Jesus, up to the place prepared for him in the love of God.  I am imagining how strong the arms of Jesus can be, even though he was struck down, maybe because he was struck down.

And my uncle Roger?  He is not afraid.  He never was.

May I someday learn to be so foolish.  And so fearless.  And so wise.