Monday, July 25, 2016

Measuring by Tears

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I have been here just about a year now.  I was reminded of this when the "check engine" went on in my elderly car, as that is what happened when I first drove into town a year ago.  I spent those first three months frantically trying to fix things and become a legal resident of the state in which I was working.

But now it has been a year.   On what basis do I evaluate the ministry of the congregation?  The "check engine" light came back on in the car, which can't be a good thing.  Some people have moved away, and don't come to church here.  There are also some new faces.  We have moved from two services to one, at least for the time being, and moved around some other aspects of the Sunday morning schedule.  The one service contains elements of both of the services, which is an adjustment for everyone.  It is neither contemporary nor traditional.  The Bible study which always took place between the services now comes before the one service.   I am not sure whether it is the time change or just summer, but the attendance at the Bible study has been sort of erratic.  A couple of weeks ago we had to put tables together.  But this week it was really small.  I wondered if we really wanted to study.  Perhaps people just wanted to visit and have coffee, instead?

"No, let's get going," one gentleman said.

We were studying the journeys of Paul, and opened by reading excerpts from Acts 13 and 14.  We read and noticed what seemed interesting or odd or what we had a question about.  We noticed that Paul always took someone with him.  He did not travel alone.  We asked questions about Paul's preaching and going to the synagogue and the miracles he did.  We talked about miracles, about how they thought Paul and Barnabas were gods, and tried to make sacrifices to them.

Have you ever had an experience -- like a miracle -- that just made you want to worship -- or respond -- in some way? I asked the small group gathered.

Most people didn't claim to have experienced a miracle, although they had heard of them.  We all believed they were possible.  But we talked about the difficulty of believing in miracles and praying for them, but knowing that they often didn't happen.  Some people shared experiences in their lives and said, "If you believe, you see things that you might not see if you did not believe."

Then one woman shared her story, about being in a car wreck, and being injured, when she was a teenager.  Someone else did not make it.  And she was in a back brace from that, and would have to have surgery.  And how the priest came and prayed and when she went back to the doctor, her back was fine.  No one could explain it.

Later on she shared how she prayed for her brother, who was dying from cancer.  And how he told her, when she prayed, that she could pray for healing for him, but she should make sure she prayed for God's will to be done.  Because God might not want the same kind of healing for him that he had for her.

It was a holy, vulnerable moment, and I thought I saw tears when she shared her story, tears from that small group of scripture-studiers.  We were standing on holy ground, and we knew it.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

At the worship service later in the morning, one young man affirmed his baptism.  He wore a white robe, and made promises, and we laid our hands on him.  We gave him gifts and applauded,  and sang songs of praise.  We pledged to share the light and love together, to live love and not hate, to live hope and not fear

And I thought I saw tears in some eyes that morning, just pooling a little at the edges of the lashes.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I can tally the numbers on Sunday morning.  I can try to chart the volume of singing.  I can count the visitors, subtract those who move away, add those who move in.  I can be disappointed when turnout is small and elated when it rises.

Or I can measure by moments of bravery, stories shared, tears shed.  I can trust that God is changing our lives, and changing the world through us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What to Preach

To tell the truth, I was looking forward to preaching about Mary and Martha last weekend.  Just plain old unvarnished Mary and Martha and Jesus, five small verses that I could turn over in the palm of my hand, ruminate over, shine the light on.

I was looking forward to getting back to the gospel stories after six weeks in Galatians, even though the last week in Galatians was pretty much pre-empted by the shootings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas.  Who is my neighbor?  Whose burdens am I required to bear?  Those are uncomfortable questions, but nobody said that preaching should be comfortable.

But this week seemed like the promise of the gospel came out of a different kind of discomfort.  This short story of Martha and Mary and Jesus spoke to me of the importance of hospitality, and of sitting and listening:  listening to God and listening to our neighbor.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally), our congregation is embarking on a mission initiative that involves listening to God and to our neighbors.   And the discipline of this kind of listening will be a challenging and will make us uncomfortable and will also yield a blessing.

So, Listen.  It seemed clear that this was what to preach this last weekend in my congregation.  Listening is the beginning of mission.  To listen is to put the other person in the center, not us.  It is a holy activity.

And then there was violence in Nice, and an attempted coup in Turkey.  Sunday morning, while we were in worship, three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge.

And I had this sermon which wasn't wrong, but somehow seemed like flecks of dust tossed into the air.


Was that all I had? Had I made the wrong decision?  Had I preached the wrong thing?

All I know is that I am back at it again, reading the scriptures, asking questions, imagining the people in my congregation, and especially a young man who will be confirmed on Sunday.  I am looking out at the world, and wondering what to say.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What is Church?

Last week we held Vacation Bible School at our church.  We had a morning program, mostly for the children at our pre-school, a few of their older sisters and brothers, and a few of our congregation's children as well.

But this year, we added something new:  we offered two "family" evenings where we ate supper, learned to pray and share together, sang some Bible songs and did some crafts.  The theme of the week was "Jesus is the Light of the World", so some creative church members had created a scary cave that the children could walk through (but they had to do it with their parents).  There were glow-in-the-dark necklaces and candles to carry.  The children made pillowcases with a Bible verse.  They made glow-in-the-dark bracelets.  We sang "This Little Light of Mine" and a jazzed-up version of "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" and learned some sign language.

Both nights were wildly successful.  The first night we had 83 people.  The second night was not as large, but we had so many opportunities to get to know each other that evening.  Everyone had fun both nights.

We invited them to come to church on Sunday and sing a couple of their Bible songs.

We had no idea what would happen, but we were excited.

On Sunday, only the families that were already members of our congregation came.

I have to admit, I was disappointed.  I wondered what I could have done differently.  I knew that many families are traveling on the weekends in the summer.  But still, I had hoped that one or two could join us for church.

Then, on Monday, I talked to our pre-school director.  She said something to me that made me think about the word "church".  It would have been nice if some of the families had come on Sunday, she said, but "what you did on Tuesday and Thursday night, THAT was church."

I thought about it.  What did we do on Tuesday and Thursday?  We ate. We prayed.  We shared our highs and lows.  We blessed each other.  We prayed.  We had fun.  We sang songs about Jesus.

She was right.  It was church.  We were the church, worshipping together.  What made us think it wasn't?  It wasn't Sunday morning, and we weren't in the sanctuary, but it was church.

What is church?

I think this is one of the hardest things for us to get our brains around these days.  What happens on Sunday in the sanctuary is important, but the sanctuary on Sunday morning is not the only church.  Maybe it's not even the most important church.  These days.

What is church?

Church is a holy gathering of people, and that was what was happening on Tuesday and Thursday evening, with parents and children and teenagers and grandmothers and grandfathers.  We didn't go far, just across the parking lot, but it was church over at the school those nights.

We didn't go far, but it was a start, and I hope we go farther, a holy gathering of people, sharing the light, being the church.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On the Day Before Father's Day

On the day before Father's Day, I am sitting here looking at old photographs.

I've prepared for worship tomorrow.  I have a sermon and a Bible study and some notes in the margins of the bulletin, reminding me of extra things, like the announcement about Vacation Bible School, and the young woman who is going to thank us for helping support her college education.

I've got a few old pictures of my father, too.  The one I am looking at now is a picture of my dad and me, when I was a baby.  I am just lying there, and my dad is bending over me, with his trademark curl hanging over the front of his face.  We are making faces at each other.

I love this picture, for so many reasons.  I love it because it captures my dad's sense of delight.  He did like to make faces, not just at me, and he liked to tell stories, and he liked to talk in different funny accents.  He was the Jewish grandmother, and the Swedish grandmother (he seemed to have a lot of grandmother voices), and he was all of the voices he remembered from the old radio programs in the 30s.

I love this picture because we are looking at each other, too.  I'm just a baby; maybe I haven't even been baptized yet.  But I can tell he loves me; he's my dad, and he thinks I'm all right.  We're a Scandinavian family, and I am sorry to say that we haven't always been that demonstrative.  But I can see his love in this picture.

I also love this picture because I think my dad is handsome.  I am not sure other people can see it in this picture.  But I can.  I have a few other old pictures that I love as well.  There is a picture of my dad standing in his TV and Radio Repair shop, with a whole bunch of radios behind him.  It's a color picture, and I believe it was taken before I was born.  When I looked at that picture, I think, "My dad was a looker."

I am preparing for worship tomorrow, and it seems like it is going to be a busy day.  It's Father's Day, and It is also Juneteenth, the day that the news of emancipation got to Texas.  There will be a special offering, and I really hope that we have a big turnout for our cross generational Vacation Bible School evenings.  And I am preaching on Galatians, what it means to be children of God.

Children of God.

There are so many things I want to say.  There are so many things I want to say, about justice, and the worth of all people.

But really, if you want to know, what I want people to know, every single day, is captured in that picture of me and my dad:  This is how the Father loves you.  With delight and abandon, not counting the cost, the Father looks at you, whoever you are, and says You Are All Right.

That's all I want everyone to know.

Every single day.  Every single minute.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Prayers for Orlando, and for our Hearts

I am remembering the old days when I used to get up at 6:00 every Sunday morning and come downstairs, turn the radio on and write my Sunday prayers.  I would get a cup of coffee and sit on the floor by the coffee table with a sheet of paper folded in half in front of me.  National Public Radio always had a Sunday morning, "Voices in the News", on Sunday morning, and as I listened to that segment, I would consider what to pray for that morning.

It was a good discipline.  It helped me remember what had happened the past week, to be connected with the larger community and world.  Since it was a small congregation, and I was the solo pastor, all of the intercessory prayer responsibility on Sunday fell on me.

I have not listened to the news before church on Sunday morning for awhile.

So I did not know about what happened in Orlando, about the massacre at the nightclub, The Pulse, until after church.  I did not offer a prayer during worship.  I got a text from a friend after church.  That's how I found out.

And I know that we have to do more than prayer.  Prayer is not enough.  But it would have been a start, to have prayed on Sunday morning, if I had known.

So I wish that I had still had that old discipline, that I could sit on the floor and hear the news of the world on Sunday morning.  Because the news of the world needs to come to church, where we can repent, and lament, and ask God to change our hearts, so hard.

O God, heal us.
Is this who we are?  Show us the truth.
Comfort those who mourn.
They are so many, today.
Turn the hearts of those who hate.
Help us to see beauty, again, where we have seen it,
and where we have not noticed it,
because we were blind.
IN the name of your Son, Jesus,
who died, and who lives, for every single one of us.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Listening Between the Lines

My first congregation was a three-point parish in rural South Dakota.  Three points meant that there were three churches.  Two of them were in tiny towns, and one of them was out in the country.

I lived in one of those tiny towns, in a large parsonage across from the church.  According to the sign on the way into town, the population was 90, but a few of us counted one day (on election day, I think) and we came up with 63.   There was a main street, which held the remains of a bank, the post office and Gizzy's bar.  There were also several open spaces where buildings used to be.  A little farther up there used to be a school.  There was no gas station, and there was no longer a grocery store.  There was still a park and a town hall.  We held Vacation Bible School there.

The town used to be bigger.  I heard stories, and I read some.  I saw old pictures of the glory days.  Four railroads used to intersect in this town.  There were once four churches, too.   The community was settled by Bohemians and by Norwegian farmers.  It was a lively place.

I used to go and visit people who were members of my congregation, but didn't live in town any more.  Some of them lived in nursing homes, or had moved to a slightly larger town nearby.  They often asked me how the town was doing.

"I guess there's not much use for the small towns anymore," they would say.

I heard this sentence, almost exactly the same, so many times, until it finally occurred to me that perhaps they were not just talking about the small towns.

Perhaps what they really feared was that there was not much use for them any more, that the things they valued, that the work they did, that the life they lived would slip away, and mean nothing, in the end.

"I guess there's not much use for the small towns any more."

What do you say?  It seems to be true that there is not much use for the small towns any more.  But I am listening between the lines, now, and I want to tell them that there is still a use for your life, that there is use and a value for your life that goes beyond this life, that lasts forever.  I want to hold that old man's hand and tell him that all is not lost, that what he did and who he was had meaning, that his name is written in the book of life.  I want to tell that old woman that her life has borne fruit, even though the town she loved is mostly gone.

In ministry now, in the midst of change, I am wondering about what it would mean to begin listening between the lines more often.  I wonder what it would mean to listen to what people tell me, and wonder what their real fears and hopes are, what they are really saying.  Perhaps it would mean to listen with less judgment and more grace.  Perhaps it would mean to acknowledge the fear and walk right into the darkness, carrying a light.

Monday, May 30, 2016


This week, I discovered that I was unprepared.

I came home from my unplanned trip to Minnesota.  I had expected to be gone a couple of days, but I ended up being gone for two weeks.  To be fair, I wasn't really thinking.  All I knew was that my husband was in the hospital, that they were x-raying his neck and that he was having tests.  I knew that a drunk driver had hit his car while he was on his way to school.  So I threw a couple of days worth of clothes in a bag, carted the dog off to a parish member's home, and went.

When I returned, I knew that I was behind on many things related to my congregation.  But I was not prepared for the storms that would hit the day after my return.  I was not prepared for the high water and the thunder and the darkness of having no electricity and no way to charge my phone, so no phone.

Somehow the prediction of heavy rains had not come with enough flashing lights.   So I had parked my car at the church, because I was going to return for an evening meeting.  After the storm hit, the water was high and we decided it would not be safe to return to church.

It took awhile that evening to find a safe route back to my dark apartment.  But we finally found a way in, and I was home.  I found a flashlight, and a couple of candles, and my dog.

And we sat alone in the dark and listened to it thunder.  You would think I would be grateful to be home.   I used the flashlight to read for awhile.  I was tired, but I couldn't sleep.  I felt alone.  I prayed that the electricity would come back on (it did not.)   And in the morning, somehow, someone found out about my plight and reached out to me, to offer help, electricity, coffee, company.

You know what?  I found out that it was the company that I needed the most.

I hope that next time I am more prepared, but not for the reasons you might think.  I hope that next time I am more prepared, so that I can be the company someone else needs most.