Friday, January 20, 2017

Vocation

I have been thinking a lot lately about a pastor friend of ours.  He died early this year, after a battle with brain cancer.

He worked with my husband as the Executive Pastor of a large church in suburban Twin Cities.  He was the pastor who worked most, and appreciated most, the contemporary worship service.  Mostly I knew John because I often came to worship on Monday evenings.  It was a small, informal service, a great contrast from all of the other services at this church.

Once I suggested that he take prayer concerns on Monday evenings.  As long as he had a small service with a very different DNA from all of the others, why not make use of that distinctiveness?  Of course, he took my suggestion, and tried it a few times.

After leaving my husband's church, John went on to become the Lead Pastor at one of the largest congregations in the Twin Cities.  After that, he became the Senior Pastor at (I believe) the largest Lutheran church in the United States.

John didn't fit my stereotype of what a Senior Pastors of a large congregation looked like.  First of all, he was humble.  Second, he admitted to being dyslexic.  Also, he wore his piety on his sleeve.  I don't know why it is that I thought a senior pastor of a large congregation wouldn't have these qualities, but there you go.  He was also interested in leadership:  both pastoral and lay.  He was a leader who invested in empowering other leaders.

A year after he began his last pastorate, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  It was just about the time I was getting ready to leave Minnesota and journey down to Texas.  I got on his Caring Bridge site and read about his progress.

I've kept track of people on Caring Bridge before, but John's updates were unlike any others.  Updates on his progress were slight.  What he shared, day after day, was encouragement.  From his hospital bed, from where-ever he was, when he couldn't speak or preach, he shared his faith and encouragement with everyone who read his words.  He shared the importance of joy.  He shared his conviction that all of our lives make a difference.  He shares his love of God, and God's grace.

John did some impressive things in his years in ministry.  Because of his passion for the least and the lost, he was instrumental in developing both local and global outreach ministries.  He wanted to make the world more like the Kingdom Jesus envisioned.  But in the last years of his life, when he couldn't do the impressive things any longer,  I saw so clearly the spiritual foundation of his ministry, his call.

It was Grace.  He had this profound experience of God's grace, the love of God given freely to him.  It broke his heart to know how many people did not believe that God loved them, did not believe they were worthy of God's love.  He wanted everyone to experience that.

And he wanted to build bridges, not walls.  Underneath all of the ministries and foundations, what he wanted was to reflect the love of God in Christ, and that this love was for ALL people.  So he loved people who disagreed with him, and disagreed with him passionately, and he showed that.  And he said, you  might consider him naive and a Pollyanna, but he had been called the worst of names because he dared to reflect Christ's love, and build bridges.

It is not often that we get to see someone's calling, distilled to its most basic form, and then reflected so clearly.  But that is what I give thanks for in the life of my friend John.  I give thanks for his clear reflection of the grace of God, which is love.  

I give thanks for John.  And for the love of Christ, which filled him, and fills him still.

A colleague at his last church said of him, "He taught us how to live, and he taught us how to die."

Whatever else you say, this is what it means to be a leader.

And today, and at such a time as this, when divisions and hatred are so high, somehow, his calling, and his life, give me hope.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Loving the Children

I will freely admit that I didn't really know what I was doing.  I thought I was planning the children's message.  This is something I do every week, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes we crash and burn.  Sometimes the light shines.

There are a lot of opportunities for failure in a children's message.  I can tell you stories about times when the whole enterprise got away from me, when I thought I was going to have a heart-warming conversation, and instead 20 children at once wanted to share with me embarrassing details of their morning.  Or, there was the time when, for some reason, in the middle of a children's message, one child solemnly raised his hand, and asked the question, "Is there a mean God too?"

I had gotten some on line inspiration to connect with the first chapter of the gospel of John:  the spot where John the Baptist points to Jesus and declares him to be the Lamb of God.  We were going to have Show and Tell, just like we used to do when I was in grade school.  I emailed a few parents, to see whether their children could share something for a brief time of "show and tell."

But something happened at the children's sermon time.  Two of our youth and one younger child had something to share this morning.  A young confirmation student stood up and shared a lap blanket, a gift from a beloved aunt that meant a lot to her.  A high school student shared a remote control plane, which he had "take off" from the floor and fly around the sanctuary for a moment.  And a little girl shared a box her father had bought her from one of his trips overseas, a small, beloved box where she stored treasures.

And I shared about John the Baptist, the one who showed the disciples who Jesus was, and then told them about him too.

So, that was the gospel message.

But, just like the Holy Scriptures, which I like to say have a "surplus of meaning", so also this children's message carried a surplus of meaning, not intended by me.

All of these young people showed something that was important to them, and told us about it.  They trusted us enough to show us a little bit of their lives, and they trusted us to appreciate this gift.

Show and Tell.

As it turns out, this is not just the building block of evangelism, how we show and tell others about Jesus in our lives.

It is also the building block of Christian community.  The children taught us how to do it, to show each other and tell each other who we are, so that we can pray for one another, be the body of Christ for one another.

Sitting on the floor and listening to the children share, for a moment I thought I was standing on holy ground, and this is what it looked like:  the comfort of a warm blanket, the surprise of a plane lifting up, and the joy of a hidden treasure box.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Little Epiphanies

Friday was the day of Epiphany around here, and everywhere, in fact.  But the date extended backwards and forwards, as I told the story at our pre-school chapel on Wednesday morning, and shared it again with the seniors at the Assisted Living Center in the afternoon.  And on Sunday again, we heard the story of the wise men who followed the star and worshipped the baby king, bringing him gifts.

On Wednesday morning with the children we were done with Christmas carol singing and back to our regular repertoire of simple songs, both new and old:  we sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "My God is so Great!" and "Deep and Wide" and "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands."  When I invited the children to come and sit with me, we all got to remember the Christmas story together, all the way back to Mary and Joseph's journal, and how Jesus was born and placed in a manger, and how shepherds heard the words of the angel, "Don't Be Afraid!"  

But then we got to the wise men with the gifts, and we remembered that Herod was a Bad Guy too.  But mostly we followed the star and when we found the baby, I had a baby doll for them to hold.  And when I asked them what gifts they would have brought for the baby, they had plenty of ideas, "a gallon of milk!"  "Diapers!"  "Food!"  "Toys!"  All good gifts for Jesus, and for all of the little ones we serve in his name.  

Some of the children had other answers.  One little girl wanted to give him her strength.  Another student thought we give our hearts.  

But the thing I remember the most is that so many of the children wanted to hug the baby Jesus before they returned to their classrooms after chapel.  

***

Later that day I was out at the Assisted Living Center.  They are tired of Christmas carols already there.  So we sang "Blessed Assurance" and "Love Lifted Me" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  I don't know how great my sermons, but the singing is always spirited at the Assisted Living Center, and we always have communion.  And they always say that I did a great job.  

I told the story of the wise men and the star again, to them, about how the star guided them, not just to Bethlehem, but to the very place where Jesus was.  The exact spot.  We wondered if the child was exactly who they were expecting.  He was supposed to be a King, but he was not in a palace, after all.  And yet they did not hesitate.  They worshipped.  They believed.  We wondered what brought them from so far away, what they were looking for.  Were they looking for peace?  for hope?  For life?  

And I told them about the children, and we wondered together about what we would give the baby king.  

Ourselves.  

***

And then it was Sunday.  All of the decorations are still up at the church.  It is a late epiphany, two days after the day of Epiphany.  But the wise men came, following the star.  

I had a manger in the front of the church.  I had wrapped up some board Bibles and had 3 and 4 year olds come up to the front of the church.  We followed the star to the manger, and then I had them open up their presents in front of the congregation.

And one little girl cried out, "Oh!  I got Jesus!"

Yes.  Yes she did.

During the season of Epiphany we hear stories about how Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God.  And during the season of Epiphany we keep our eyes and ears open, because he has promised to reveal himself to us.

You never know when you will hear his voice.

You never know when you will catch a glimpse of him, the creator of heaven and earth, who made himself small, so small, for our sake.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What Children Need

After Christmas Eve services this year, I found a note in my box from one of our young worshippers. It was inside an offering envelope that contained a five dollar bill.  The note had hearts on it and also the words, "Best Church Ever."

"Best Church Ever."  At least on Christmas Eve, that's what one seven year old thought.  I wonder what it was that made her write those words.  I wonder what it was she loved so much.

"Best Church Ever."
It's the kind of note a pastor wants to save, and possibly even frame.  Especially it's the kind of note the pastor of a small congregation, with more retired people than children, wants to save.   Our small congregation is tempted to look around and wonder what we have to offer families:  after all, there are many large (some mega) congregations around us.  They have large and busy children's ministries.  They have separate churches for children while parents go to "adult" worship.  They have age-specific ministries.  How can we compete with that?  We can't.

Even more amazing to me was that this note was from our 7:00 candlelight service, not our 4:00 "especially for families with children" service.  Now I happen to think that the 4:00 service was pretty great.  There were a lot of children there.  The service was engaging and interactive and we still got to sing a lot of Christmas carols.  Children got to pretend they were angels and adults got to wave canes and umbrellas and pretend they were shepherds.  A four year old boy stood out in the narthex and handed out candy canes to everyone who came.

At 7:00 there was no children's message, just singing and a sermon and of course, candles and darkness at the end.  It was not tailored specifically for families with children, although extended families attended:  grandparents and parents and grandchildren took entire rows.  Maybe that was part of why it was great.  Maybe children actually sometimes like to sit with their grandparents and their parents in worship and sing the songs together.  Maybe they even need to do it.

Or perhaps it was the candles.  There is something about receiving the light, and then sharing it with the next person, and then seeing everyone together in the light of the candle.  Maybe the seven year old who both receives the light and then passes it to the person next to him feels important, as if he is a part of something great and wonderful.

It is great to have programs for children.  Large churches can offer a lot.  But every church can offer what children need:  a place to worship with people older and younger than themselves, learning to sing and pray and know Jesus.  Every church can be what children need:  a place where children both receive the light, and can pass it along to someone else, a place where children learn that they are valuable and worthy, a part of the mission of God.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Introduction to Matthew

For those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this is the year of Matthew's gospel.  It was the first Gospel I studied as a student preacher, when I was on pastoral internship.  For the first time I paid attention all year, every single week.  I noticed the words and the themes and the images that recurred in Matthew's gospel:  how often there were mountains, how much time Jesus spent teaching, the friction with the religious leaders.

Even so, I have to admit, Matthew is not my "favorite" gospel.  Is it even right to say we have favorites?  Mark is the short, and breathless gospel.  Jesus is a man of action.  He is always going somewhere, doing something, healing people, casting out demons.  When I think of Mark, I think of the word "immediately."  I also think of the words "Son of Man" and "Son of God."  I think of Mark's abrupt beginning, without a story of Jesus' birth, and his abrupt ending, with a resurrection announcement but no appearance.  Sometimes I think that Mark is my favorite gospel.

Luke is the gospel of the poor, and women, and children.  Luke includes people that other gospel writers leave out.  Luke remembers the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the poor man Lazarus, the widow of Nain.  Instead of a sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches on the plain.  Luke tells us of Mary and Elizabeth, and Mary sings about a God who lifts up the poor and brings down the mighty.  Sometimes I think that Luke is my favorite gospel.

John is the philosophical gospel.  Jesus speaks in metaphors and performs signs.  There is a depth that we cannot get to the bottom of, a mystery that cannot be solved:  the incarnate Word.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the light of the world, the Lamb of God, the bread of life.  Sometimes I think that John is my favorite gospel.

But Matthew?  Matthew makes me think that God is strict.  Jesus is a teacher concerned with righteousness.  "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribe and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven",  he says.  "You have heard it said," Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.  "But I say to you..." he continues.  And every single time what Jesus says is even harder to do.  Matthew wants me to know that being a disciple is hard.  It is not all sweetness and light.  There is a cost to discipleship.

When Jesus teaches a parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18, he begins with a story about a king who forgives a servant an enormous debt.  It is a story of amazing, unbelievable grace.  But then the servant shakes down a fellow servant for a few bucks, and at the end of the story that forgiven servant is not only thrown in jail, but tortured as well -- until he pay the full amount.  O Matthew, do you really have to include the bit about torture?

I have mixed feelings about Matthew, sometimes.

But if it weren't for Matthew, there would be no wise men from the east, bearing exotic gifts.  Joseph would not have dreamed, and we would not know the promise of "Emmanuel," "God is with us."  If it weren't for Matthew,  we would never know the promise that he would be with us always, "to the end of the age."  If  it weren't for Matthew, we would never know that Peter tried to walk on water, once.

If it weren't for Matthew, we would not have these words, "where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there."

If it weren't for Matthew, we would not know that most difficult of math problems, that we are required to forgive our brother, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.  If it weren't for Matthew, we would not know that the higher righteousness, the impossible righteousness to which we have been called, is forgiveness.  We are called to Mercy.

At the beginning and in the middle and at the end of Matthew, Jesus promises that he will be with us always.  Emmanuel.  Where two or three are gathered.  To the end of the age.  When we try to walk on water, and fail miserably.  When we can't count to seven and struggle to forgive.

I have mixed feelings about Matthew, sometimes.  He tells hard truths.  But he also tells me:  Emmanuel.  God is with us.  In the beginning and in the middle and in the end.

And it is enough.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent Baptism

Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Advent.  We will baptize two children that morning.

I'm tempted sometimes, when there is a baptism, to say, "there will be no sermon.  The baptism IS the sermon this morning."  And I mean REALLY tempted.  Compared to the parents and the children and the sponsors standing there, compared to the water being poured, compared to the prayer remembering God's mighty acts, and the words, "Alice, Michael, Emily, Matthew.... I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" -- compared to this, what are all of my words?  Compared to the cross traced in oil and the candle given, "Let your light so shine before others." compared to all of this, the words of my sermon often seem tame.

Baptism is wild.  Something is happening.  We can see and hear and touch it, or at least some of it.  Underneath the things we see, something more is happening.

God is with us.

I met with the parents on Monday and we remembered all of the things that God promises in baptism:  safe passage as on the ark, death and resurrection, a new birth, adoption into God's family.  God promises that we will be clothed with God's righteousness, that we will be a part of God's new creation, that we will be grafted into the living vine, which is Jesus.

All of these things are happening.  When we see the water poured, when we feel the oil on our heads, when we hear the words, we catch a glimpse, but only a glimpse.

This is the 4th Sunday of Advent.  Something is happening.  Mary is going to have a baby.  It is a surprise to Joseph, and not a good surprise.  I always think that the promise of a baby is good news, but that is not always the case.  Sometimes the baby is bad news.  Sometimes the news is mixed.  Joseph knows that this baby is trouble.

It's true.  Jesus is trouble.  He is also Emmanuel -- God with us.  He will save us from our sins.  And he will get us into trouble, for his sake.

Sometimes when I have a baptism on Sunday I am tempted to say, "There will be no sermon this morning.  The baptism is the sermon."  But I never do.

Maybe what I should say is this:  Here's what the baptism means.  God is with us.  God is with us and this baptism means that God will never let go of us.  That's how good his promises are.

But that's not all.  God is with us and he gives us this mission -- and that mission will get us into trouble.  Sharing the love of Jesus is not for the faint-of-heart.

The angel says to Joseph, "Don't be afraid."  There is going to be trouble, but God is in it.  Maybe that's what we should say before baptisms too:  don't be afraid.

Baptism is wild.

Christmas is wild, too.  Because Jesus is coming.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Knitting in Advent

I have started knitting again.

I haven't been knitting that much, since moving to Texas last year.  For one thing, I felt overwhelmed at first.  For another thing, people kept telling me that I would never need those warm socks and footies that I loved knitting.  And when it's 100 degrees out, and it plummets to about 85 at night -- well, it just doesn't seem like knitting weather.

But, the temperature has been dipping down a little lower lately.  Also, it is Advent now, just barely.  So I got out my trusty knitting needles and threw caution to the wind.  I started knitting a pair of footies.

It is not a bad way to spend Advent.

One of the first words we hear in Advent is "Wait."  Wait, because it is God who is coming to us, and not the other way around.  And we can pray for God to come quickly (and sometimes we even do), but there is not one thing we can do to MAKE God come.  This one is on God.  Salvation is on God, not us.

I don't know about you, but waiting drives me crazy.  And that waiting when it is clear that what you are waiting for is on the other person -- that drives me the craziest.  Waiting in the doctor's office, so that the doctor can tell me what is wrong and how to fix it, and then give the right medicine -- waiting for the electrician to come and re-wire the basement -- waiting for the plumber to come and fix the leak -- that is the hardest thing.

So I think that waiting in Advent may be in part to remind us about the things that we can do, and the things we can't do.  As it turns out, only God can save us.  Only God can heal what is ultimately wrong.   Only God can bring the kind of light we need, and place that light within our hearts.  Only God can bring the living water, so that we will never be thirsty.  Only God can knit our hearts back together, only God can knit us together with him, so that we are joined unbreakably to love and to life   and to hope and to peace.

Only God can do it.  And he has.  And he does.  And he will, again.

But in the meantime, we wait.  But while we wait, we are reminded that there are things we can do.  They won't make Jesus come more quickly.  But they are things that testify to our hope.

So many of us light the candles.  One a week.  And as the light of the candle grows, we remember that he is coming to us, he is coming to us -- that he walks among us, inhabits our world, our lives, and even our bodies.  Our hands.

So we light the candles.  There are so many ways to light the candles:  by giving away bread, by sharing a cup of water, by holding the hands of the dying, by standing up for the vulnerable, by welcoming the stranger.

As for me, today I will knit.  And I will consider the one who, by his grace, inhabits even my hands, even our hands, and who has knit us all together by his love.