Thursday, July 2, 2015

In Memory of Jean

I was going through boxes in my office this morning, and a sermon fell out.  It was from a funeral I officiated at one year ago today.  Jean was a member of my church, a friend, a reflection of Christ.  I loved how she would stop by my office to ask me questions about a particular passage of the Bible.  I loved how she and her family would all help with communion together.  I still miss her.  Here is the pastoral reflection I wrote for that day:

          July 2, 2014

            My last pastoral visit with Jean was a week ago Monday, at her home. 
            She was sitting in a chair near the hospital bed you had put up near the back window.
             The back yard was so green and full of life, and when I remarked on the view, Jean said, “Well, it’s Honduras out there.” 
            We had a good conversation, talking about her decision to start hospice care, the peace she had,  what she was still seeking, life in general. 
            We talked about big things, some little things, how glad she was that Allison was home, that her family was together.  
            She asked about my family too – she did things like that.   
            After awhile I asked her if she wanted to have communion, so she and I and Gary sat down and shared communion together.

            I remember having this little conversation with myself – what scripture reading should I share? – and I immediately thought, I didn’t want to share the Sunday gospel, which had been some of Jesus’ hard sayings about discipleship.
             “So have no fear of them,” Jesus begins. 
            He is talking about discipleship and persecution  and hard times and division, and I thought those verses just couldn’t be applicable on this particular day.
             I just didn’t want to read those words. 
            But then I remembered that there were those verses about God watching over the sparrows, so I decided to read part of the Sunday lesson anyway. 
            I remember getting to the part of the gospel reading where Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul….”
            Right after this Jesus reminds his disciples about the sparrows…. And says again, “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

            Well, we talked about that for awhile; we talked about death and life and not being afraid, and about always being in God’s hands.  
            We talked about sparrows and how much God loves us and numbers the hairs on our heads. 
            We talked about the fact that Jesus doesn’t promise us that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  He just doesn’t. 
            But when I left, I still thought that I would see Jean again. 
            I was surprised and heart-broken when I got the message that she had died on Thursday morning.

            In the gospel reading that you chose, Allison, Jesus tells his disciples, “I came  that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 
            I can’t think of any verse more appropriate for your mother – for our sister in Christ, Jean, than this verse that reminds us of Jesus’ promise of abundant life.     Appropriate and heart-breaking, because we are here today to celebrate Jean’s life and to mourn her death. 
            We are here today to remember her, to give thanks for her, and to give thanks for the promises of God for her. 

            And one of those promises, a promise that Jean embodied, is this one:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            How can I say this? 
            How can I say it about one who I am sure died too soon? 
            She died even though I am sure if she had her way she would still be baking bars for funerals, still be working in her garden,
            still be giving good advice to her children,  
            still be working and living together with her good husband, still be helping to nurture healing with patients,
            still be discussing scripture in Bible studies with good friends.  
            She loved you and she treasured her life, and she knew what was important, she knew what was precious. 

            “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
             It’s hard to read this and not to think, just a little, that this particular life should have been a little longer, a little more abundant. 
            It’s hard to read this and not wonder a little about what Jesus means by abundance.
             I will tell you one thing:  it is not exactly what our culture often means when we talk about abundance.
             It’s not just about “more” – whether it’s more space, or more ‘stuff’, more success or more popularity. 
            Abundant life is not about what you can acquire. 
            But it is about loving and being loved.  It is about believing you have a purpose in life, and that your purpose is to reflect your creator.
             It is about living not for yourself, but for something bigger for yourself – for other people, for God.
             It is about knowing that each day, each moment, is a gift – both that you receive – and that you give.

            Perhaps Jean came by it naturally – as she was raised on a farm near Stewart Minnesota, and surrounded by life in many forms. 
            She entered nursing school, where she learned both the skill and the compassion needed to be a healer, and where she developed enduring friendships.           She practiced hospitality (I have a couple of her recipes), she nurtured gardens of beauty and deliciousness (raspberries, yes?), and she treasured relationships above everything – with her parents, her husband, her children, her extended family -- her friends.
             A good conversation was worth its weight in gold to her.  

            Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 
            Right before, he calls himself the gate – the gate for the sheep, where they can go in and go out and find life. 
            He calls himself the gate – but the sheep don’t just follow him into the pen – they follow him out into the world, where there is adventure and pasture and life and freedom.
            They follow him out into the world, and they go where he is – because the truth is – wherever he is – there is life. 

            Where-ever he is, there is life.
             Abundant life.  Eternal life. 
            Here in this world that Jean loved, that Jesus loves so much, there is life. 
            And there, in the world where he welcomes us, in the new world where there will be no more cancer and no pain, no hunger and no homelessness.  

            Where-ever he is, there is love.  Abundant love. 
            Eternal love. 
            Love that looks to the horizon and counts the cost and never looks back.  Love that knows the value of sparrows and sheep and every single one of us.   
            Love that is willing to die.  Love that is willing to live.

            About a year ago, I visited Jean in the hospital. 
            She was there to receive a stem cell transplant.  It was a Sunday afternoon and I brought a church bulletin, again. 
            We visited, talked about the future, the present.  She talked about what was going to happen to her, the risks, the possible outcomes.
             It was all very technical to me, and I didn’t understand a lot, but I knew one thing:  once you begin, you can’t go back. 
            You begin the course of treatment, and your put your hopes, and your life, in other hands. 
            You can only go forward, putting your hope, your trust in those hands. 

            And talking to Jean that afternoon, I realized the truth:  this is what the life of faith is like. 
            It is putting our lives in God’s hands, trusting the one who loves sparrows, and us, knowing that our hope, and all of our healing in his hands. 
            This is what the life of faith is like, day by day, until we, like Jean, stand in the presence of God.

            “I came that you have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says to Jean today.  And then he opens his arms and raises her up to join the feast, the abundant and eternal feast of light, of love, of home.


AMEN

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Early Lessons

So I am about six days into my new call in my new congregation in a new state.  This happens to be Vacation Bible School Week.  A local church camp is in charge for the week, with some of our adults and youth in support.  All I have to do is show up, get to know some people, sing some songs and learn a few actions.  Sweet.

I headed over to the family life center the other day, in search of the worship time.  I was a little early, and was called upon to shuffle cards for a small group of little girls who were spending their down time playing Candyland.  I am a little rusty at Candyland, but I shuffled the cards for them so that they could get their game started.

There was a dispute over rules at one point, and everyone seemed confused about where they should be on the board, so I suggested that we start over.  Fresh starts are one of my things.  One of the little girls asked if I wanted to play, and offered that I could go first.  We started to set up the game pieces but another of the girls started to cry because it turned out that she was going to be last.  Another girl fussed that "she never got to be first."

"I'll tell you what," I said.  "I'll be last."  The little girl who never got to be first could go first, and the other girl who was worried about being last -- she could be second.  Everyone was happy.

One of the girls looked at me and said, "You are really nice.  You are a really kind person."

I thought that it wasn't really so.  It's just that being first or last was not that important to me in this particular instance.  But I remembered what it felt like to be passed over, to feel like I never won anything, to always be last.

We had only played a few minutes when one of the counselors told us we had to pack everything up -- it was time for the next activity.  No one was happy about this, especially the little girl who was always last.  Again, she had not won.  She started to cry.

"You're a sore loser," said another girl, which made the girl who always lost cry even harder. "That's not nice to say," I told her.  As if to justify herself, she said, she said, "Sore loser just means that you don't like to lose."  "Yes, but it's still not nice to say."  The other little girl cried harder.

Later on, we were all singing silly songs together.  I remember catching the eye of the little girl who called her friend a "sore loser".  She looked back at me sort of tentatively, as if she thought I didn't like her any more, because of what she had said.

I smiled back at her.  I wanted her to know that I still liked her.  I hope she believed me.

I just wanted to tell her, "You are not perfect, but I love you."

We learn so many lessons and so early.  We learn to call each other names, and we learn to be ashamed.  We learn to try to justify ourselves.  We learn to be cruel and we learn that we are losers.

We learn so many lessons and so early.   I want one of them to be this:  "You are not perfect, but you are a child of God.  I love you."

And, there is nothing wrong with being last.  Sometimes it is the best place to be.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grace

After a long silence, I am sitting down to write something, and what I can think of is this one word:  Grace.

It has been almost a month since my last sermon, and I feel at the same time a little rusty and also urgent.  It will be a new pulpit, in a church called Grace.  When I stood in the pulpit this afternoon, just to practice and see how it felt, I will admit:  it felt odd.  It felt like I needed an inch or more on the bottoms of my shoes, perhaps.  I felt like I might have to stretch, just a little, to fit.

(Now I am remembering back to my teaching parish in seminary, where they gave me a stool to stand on.  This certainly enhanced the preaching experience in certain areas.  I also remember that in my internship congregation, they actually had a platform that they slid into the pulpit, so that it would be the right size for me.)

After a long silence, I am sitting down to write something, and what I can think of is this one word:  Grace.

I've been on the road and disoriented and unsettled and I haven't written in this venue for over a week.  Sometimes it seems so harder to write than not to write, especially since some of the things I have been thinking about this past week have been weighty ones:  racism, and violence, and my own complicity:  the shame of knowing that I have not said enough, the necessity of listening more truthfully and owning what it is hard to hear.  It seems petty and little to blog instead about moving to a new state and and all the big and small fears and dreams contained within.  So, for over a week, I have said nothing.

But the word that I want to say before I retire this evening is still:  Grace.

A while ago, I said Yes to a church called Grace, in a state that I had not visited before.  I prayed and I discerned and I made lists and I talked to people, and still, sometimes, I wonder if I was not crazy.

And then I think:  at the bottom, at the very foundation of everything, beneath the "yes" that I was courageous or foolish enough to say, God called me here.  And that calling is Grace.

I have been thinking a lot about grace.  I have always counted on it.  It is my favorite thing.  The grace of second, third, or infinite chances, the grace of living again, when you thought you were dead, the grace of the unexpected, unasked for gift, the grace of undeserved love.  Grace has many faces.  But I will admit that I never thought of my calling as Grace.

I'll admit that it doesn't feel like grace in every single moment.  Sometimes it feels like sheer terror.  But it is grace to be called here.

Amazing grace.

It is possible that I will have to stretch a little, to fit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Singing Harmony

I went to church on Sunday.  I am not settled into my new call yet, but somehow I just wanted to worship with people, so I went to a church service where I knew the musician, and sat by myself in the middle of a row.  It felt a little odd, and I will confess that I wasn't entirely sure that I belonged, sitting alone in the middle of a pew like that.  I will also confess that while I felt a little lonely, I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to be noticed, either.

It was the late service, not particularly full, but not too empty either.  Respectable, for summer.  Instead of preaching, I listened to someone else's sermon.  Instead of leading worship, I prayed the responses, sang the hymns and liturgy, listened, reflected, meditated.  Okay, maybe my mind wandered a little at times as well.  But I did all right, for someone who hasn't sat in a pew much for many years.  I even sang harmony on some of the hymns.

Back in the day, that was one of the things I did.  As soon as I learned how to read music, I used to try to sing the alto parts on hymns, sometimes.  It made things more interesting.  Later on, I tried singing the tenor part an octave higher.  During my time of evangelical fervor in college, I made up my own harmonies sometimes.

My sister and I used to sing together.  She played a little guitar, and we had a few songs that I could sing harmony on.  Sometimes she sang alto, and I sang the melody.  At my dad's funeral, we were sitting together and she was singing the harmony parts, just like we used to.  I tried it too, but the lump in my throat got in the way.

We all have a place in the body of Christ, and I used to think that mine was singing harmony from my pew.  It turns out God had a couple of other things in mind.  But singing harmony from your pew is not a small thing, even though it is not as flashy as some other gifts.  Back when I sat in the pew, I also used to be one of those adults who would make eye contact with babies, and make faces at them until they responded to me in some way.  Often, they would end up fussing.  (I have occasionally wondered whether God thought I should be a pastor so that I would stop annoying babies and their parents in that way.  Who knows?)

On Sunday, at the end of the service, the woman sitting one row in front of me said hello, and said she enjoyed listening to me sing the harmony.

It was a small thing, but it made me feel glad that I came.  It was good to be there, not just to receive, and not just to 'be fed', but also to give, and to lead, but in different way.  There are leaders hidden all around the congregation, and in the world too, doing important work, even though only a few ever hear or see or touch it.  They are singing harmony.  They are showing a stranger the right page for the hymns.  They are speaking up for the children.  They are making sandwiches for the hungry.

It is important work.

Soon, I'll be standing in front of a different congregation, finding my place, looking out into new faces, singing the melody with them.  But I hope to get a chance to sing harmony sometimes too, and to give thanks for the gift of all of our voices.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Silence

Once a month, on Monday evenings, I have been worshipping at a new service at my husband's church.  There  is no sermon at this worship service.  There are no hymns, but the service does open and close with a meditative chorus.  There is instrumental music in the background.  There are two or three short scripture readings.  There is plenty of silence between the scripture readings.

The point of the service is prayer:  prayer and silence.  There are prayer stations and candles and places to write down your prayers and invitations to pray with one of the pastors.  When entering the sanctuary, each worshipper gets a page of worship and prayer helps, including some printed prayers and some quotes regarding the value of taking time away from the noisiness of the world for a time of intentional silence.

Every time I go, I am confronted with this quote from Meister Eckhart:  "Nothing is so like God as silence."  And every time I go, I have a little argument with these words.  I don't know exactly what it is.  Maybe it is that I am just a contrary person by nature.  I love arguing, especially with saints.  Yes, Meister Eckhart knows a lot more about God than I do.  He has experience.  And yet….

Silence is good, and also counter-cultural.  I will give you that.  There is not really a lot of silence in world.  But when I see the saintly quote, I get all Lutheran and Word-y and I think that Silence is good, but it's not enough.  There is the space for silence, the space we do not fill with words.  It is a space for trust that God will, somehow, and in some way, speak.  The silence of our listening is not a strategy or a feat.  It is the pause while the conductor raises the baton.  It is the silence before the curtain rises.  It is the silence of trust and expectation.  At least, that is the Christian confession.  We listen because God will speak.  It's not that God will give us all the answers, or solve our problems. But God will call our names.  God will ask us questions.   God speaks.

But if we are honest, this is also the problem.  I remember reading Shusako Endo's historical novel Silence many years ago, when I was a missionary in Japan.  The novel was about the early Christian movement in Japan, and what happened, and what did not happen, when Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed for their faith.  The title of the novel refers to what the author calls the Silence of God in the face of the suffering of Japanese Christians.

So perhaps Meister Eckhart is right.  Perhaps God is really like silence.  But that would not necessarily be good news.

The world needs silence, but not just silence.

The world also needs a word -- not "the answer", not a strategy, not a user's manual.  The world also needs a word, the right word at the right time:  a question, a name, an invitation, a light.





Thursday, June 11, 2015

Colette

Colette started coming to our congregation several years ago.  She came to our early service, which was traditional and liturgically Lutheran.  She came every week by herself.  I didn't get a chance to do more than say "hello" for awhile, but I noticed her right away.

Colette is African American, so she didn't really fit the demographic of our early, traditional service.  Well, actually, she didn't really fit the demographic of any of our services.  Before I had a chance to get to know her, I remember wondering if perhaps she came from an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) background.  One of my friends in seminary was AME, and he told me that they had a 'traditional' vs. 'contemporary worship' divide in his congregation too.

Later on, Colette brought her daughter and grandson with her to worship, and they switched over to the later, more contemporary worship service.  There are more children at that service.  Her grandson was in 5th grade and hadn't been baptized.  Both Colette and her grandson started taking pre-baptism classes.  They asked good questions.  Both of then were baptized at Easter-time,  Colette at the Easter Vigil.

It was wonderful.

Throughout the years, I've had the opportunity to get to know Colette a little better, hear a little of her story.  I learned that she is a woman of courage.  She left her home and came to a new city to make a better life for herself.  And she came to our congregation, and she stays.  For a long time (being clueless, myself), I had no idea what an act of courage that was.  I love how she comes up sometimes on those Sundays when we invite prayers for healing, and simply asks for prayers for the church.  She cares about the congregation and wants us to be faithful and light-filled.  I wish we realized what a gift she is.

Colette has said, more than once that she believes that God sent her here, that she is supposed to be here.  I believe that she is right.  And what if congregations believed that about the people who come?  Those people who visit once, who return, who stay -- what if we believed that God sent them to us, both to receive and to give?  What if we were always on the lookout for the ones that God is sending to us?   I like to imagine that if we began to believe this, we would enter into holy conversations, realizing that we have so much to teach and learn from each other, believing that God has a plan for our lives, together.

What if each one of us believed, like Colette, that God has sent us here?  What if we believed that when we come to worship, when we gather, that we are supposed to be here?  And what if we also believed, when we go, that we are going to the place where God is sending us, to heal, and to be healed?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Between

My last Sunday in my congregation was May 31st.  Technically (and really) it was my last day as a pastor there, although (truth be told) I haven't quite moved everything out of my office yet.  Some things happen suddenly, and other things take more time, it seems.  I had meant to be done earlier, but it turned out that there were things hiding under things, and the books and papers multiplied while I wasn't looking, and there were the unintended pauses while I remembered, and said goodbye, again.

I have been called to another congregation, in another state, some distance away from the state where I live now.  They have asked me questions and I have asked them questions, and we have visited with one another and even begun to dream, a little.  I now have a (still mostly empty) apartment, and three boxes of my books have arrived at the church.  So I have a place, although I am not there yet.

I went to church on Sunday, and enjoyed sitting in the pew with my mother, singing hymns and listening to someone else's sermon (which was good, by the way, and I'm not just saying that).  I enjoyed it, but I had this sort of uncomfortable realization that I missed the feeling I have when I am leading worship and preaching, and then just afterwards.  It's a hard feeling to put my finger on, exactly.  I have worshipped with them, and together we have borne witness to the truth.  It feels a little like how I imagine the conductor of an orchestra might feel.

I have been on vacation before, and technically that is what this is:  a few weeks of vacation before I begin again.  But it feels different somehow. I am between congregations.  My old congregation is not my congregation any more.  I realized on Sunday how much of my identity has become bound up in the rhythm of my week.  I am not sure this is entirely a good thing.  It is not bad to find purpose and meaning in my work, and to derive satisfaction from a job well done.   But I wondered on Sunday if I need it a little too much, and if the between time is a good break, to help me to remember to receive and to be.