Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Small Things

Just recently a grandmother told me how much her 4th grade granddaughter already loves a new three-year-old in our congregation.  Their family just started visiting, and when the children, all ages, come together for to play and draw and wonder about the scripture readings, the little girl sings her own song about how much she loves Jesus.  They are making a connection, beginning a relationship, not based on being in the same grade, but based on being in the same body of Christ.

A teenager in our congregation recently expressed a similar feeling about a four year old boy who is new to our congregation.  Well, actually her college-age sister told me, "My sister just LOVES him."

They are small moments, I know, not grand programs with scads of children and bells and whistles. We are a smallish congregation, with just a few children right now, but we are beginning to grow, to see more families with young children coming and worshipping and even coming back.

And I have to admit, that I am tempted to try to group them by age, because I am trying to build a children's and youth program, and in the past you needed a certain number in every grade who liked each other and were friends and were developing significant relationships with children their own age.  That's how you did it.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

We put a lot of stock in large, age-segregated programs for children and youth.  In fact, for many churches, the ability to offer that package is the definition of "success."  Parents gravitate to churches with those programs.  But I can't help noticing something, particularly in my congregation:  there are so many people who have a significant relationship with one of our charter members, who is 96.  It doesn't matter that they are nowhere near her age.  They value their connection with her in the body of Christ, and feel enriched by her presence.

Programs can be good things, don't get me wrong.  Even programs tailored for one specific age groups can be good things.  But programs don't transforms us.  Relationships, as in our relationship with Jesus, as in our relationships with one another -- these God uses to form us into people who will go out and share grace with the world.  The 4th grader with the three year old, the teenagers and the pre-schoolers, the 96 year olds and the babies and the empty nesters and the college students --  we sing each others songs, put up with each other's blind spots, learn each other's passions and gifts --  and love each other.

Love one another as I have loved you, he said.  And I catch a glimpse of it, before any program can be planned, or any grand ideas can be implemented:  Love one another.  the 96 year old and the baby. The three year old and the 4th grader.  The pre-schooler and the high school student.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Random Thoughts

I'm not very good at removing stains from garments.

This just recently occurred to me, again, after taking a shirt out of the washing machine.  I had soaked it and scrubbed it and it looked all right until I held it up to the light and thought I still noticed a very very faint discoloration.   Earlier I was soaking a pair of pants with black marks on them.  I had gotten home after meeting a couple of church visitors that day, and noticed these black marks (ink? dirt?  something else?) and had no idea where they came from.  I sprayed, soaked, and scrubbed.  The stains on the pants got lighter but did not go away.

My mother is great at removing stains.  I am sure that if I gave these garments to my mom she would be able to get these stains out.  It is possible that she just doesn't give up, that she uses more elbow grease, that she knows some secret stain-removal ingredients or that she has stain-removal superpowers.  I am not sure which.  Is it a symptom of a terrible character flaw?  When I took that shirt out of the washing machine again, and saw the faint outline of the stain, I wondered about it.

* * *

Recently there was a raging social media discussion about pastors who are introverts, and how they (we) can possibly be effective pastors.  Someone sort of suggested that it was a shame that Lutherans don't have holy orders so that introverts would have a place where they would be more comfortable serving.  The poster intimated that we were perhaps unsuited to "the rough and tumble of the parish."

I don't feel attracted to holy orders.

Just so you know.

The parish is "rough and tumble" in a lot of ways.  Some of them are hard for me, but I am not sure if it's because I am an introvert.  It may be more a function of both my peculiar gifts and neuroses.   Other parts of parish ministry (aka "the rough and tumble) are exactly why I love it so much:  all of the ages together, watching people grow through pain and joy, the chaos, the singing, the people who are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am thinking about the fact that I am an introvert, but also the fact that it is not all that I am, and wondering what it is about us sometimes:  why do we reduce each other to some simple labels?  Do I do that to myself, too?  Sell myself short with some explanatory labels?

* * *

I am not good at getting stains out of clothing.  Maybe it's because I am an introvert, not suited to the rough and tumble of the stain-fighting household.  Maybe I give up too easily.  Maybe I have other gifts.

* * *

I just started reading this book by Swedish author Fredrik Backman.  It's called my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry.  It's about a little girl named Elsa who is 'different' and who his teased and bullied by her classmates, but whose grandmother is her champion and superhero.  The little girl talks about her grandmother's superpower, and says that everyone has them.  One of their neighbors' superpowers is making a cookie called "dreams."

I hope that, at the end of the story, Elsa discovers that she has a superpower too.

Monday, May 2, 2016

An Early Pentecost


Last Wednesday, the lesson at the pre-school was the story of Pentecost.

I know, it was a couple of weeks early.  But it was the story they were learning that week in school, so I went along with it.  I made a few paper "tongues of fire" and a children's Bible and decided to tell the story.

First, we practiced making sounds like a mighty wind.  We practiced starting to make the sound when I said the words "mighty wind" and we practiced stopping when I raised my hands.

After practicing, I asked for twelve students to be the disciples, standing around in a circle, praying, and waiting for the Holy Spirit.  It wasn't hard to fine twelve disciples, although it was a little hard to get the youngest of them to understand the concept of standing in a circle and holding hands and praying.

But when we finally got into a circle, and began to pray, then there was sound of the mighty wind that filled the room (cue: mighty wind) and then the tongues of flame appeared from the pages of the children's Bible and given to a few children to hold up in the air.  Then the disciples began to speak and everyone could hear them speaking in their own language.

"Does anyone here know another language?" I asked the twelve who were standing in a circle.  I said it without thinking about it.  After all, the oldest of them was about five years old.  It just came out of my mouth on that that early Pentecost morning.

But one little girl said, "Hola."

She got my attention.

A little later, I gave some children the microphone and told them that the Holy Spirit gave them the power to tell people something very important.  They got to speak into the microphone and say it.  Jesus loves you.

Then, we sang "Jesus Loves Me" too.

We sang it with hand motions.  We sang it in a whisper.  We shouted it at the top of our lungs.  I was sure that they could hear it across the highway.

And a little girl said "Hola."  Because she knew another language.

It was an early Pentecost.

And somehow, the Holy Spirit came down, like a mighty wind, like a gentle breeze, like a paper tongue of flame.

O Holy Spirit -- you had me at "Hola."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Communion

I held two small first communion classes for a few students from the church.  It had been awhile since I organized a class like this, so I felt a little rusty.  The book that I used to use (and that I loved) had gone out of print.  I cobbled together some resources and we talked about baptism and sacraments and words along with things that you can touch.  We drew pictures and watched a scene from the movie "Holes", and read a couple of stories about meals in the Bible.  We talked a little bit about the Passover, and we ended up talking about trusting God, that God comes to us in this meal.

It was not everything but it was something.

Holy Communion is a meal with many names, I said.  There is more than one meaning to it.  It is life and forgiveness, communion with God, bread for the journey, and even more.  Someday you will know.

We made tiny individual cups at a place called the Potter's Wheel.  We did not bake bread.  I made note to include bread-making the next time I have a first communion class.

And then on Sunday at church two of the three young people were invited to put out their hands and eat the bread and drink the wine.

Then, today, I sat down with two women from my congregation and we talked about taking communion to shut-ins and people in the hospital.  We want to put together a workshop so that a few people from the church can engage in this ministry along with me.  One of the two women talked about how it was important to know who can receive and who can't receive communion.  Her words brought back a memory.

I came with communion to a woman in hospice care.  Her daughter and her daughter's best friend were there.  So were other members of her family.  Her husband was there too.  He had been pretty open with me about his questions about the Christian faith and about his exploration of other spiritual traditions.  So, when we all gathered around in a circle to begin the communion service, I did not know what he would do.

I was surprised when he joined the circle and decided to have communion with us.

It was a long while later that I found out two things:  he was getting remarried, and he was re-commiting to the Christian faith.  He was becoming Catholic, in fact.

What was it that drew him back?

It was the Mass.  Holy Communion.  That's what he said.  There was something about taking communion.  What was it?  Was it life or forgiveness?  Was it bread for the journey?  Communion with God?  Or even more than that?  A foretaste of the feast to come -- all of us sitting in a circle, hands outstretched, the borders between life and death erased?

Someday you will know.

In the meantime, take and eat.

It is Holy Communion.

It is everything, in your hand.



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Today

I have been here almost a year, someone reminded me today, which felt a little to me like chiding.  It felt a little like, "You have been here almost a year; why isn't everything different by now?"  But that might be just me.

Last year at this time I was deciding whether to come; I was praying about whether this was a call from God.  Was God calling me to leave my home in Minnesota and travel south to this congregation called Grace?

Now, I am here.  This morning I had a baptism at the early service, and two young people receiving their first communion at the late service, and the time between and the time after was full as well.  And there are a few things I want to remember from this full morning.

I want to remember the young family sitting in the front pew, with their just-turned-three year old son  on the floor, and their baby boy in their arms.  The three year old had spilled his cup full of cereal, and at the beginning of the service he was gathering up the fragments, in earnest.  I want to remember how the little boy whispered a little during the service, and how I loved to hear it; I didn't mind at all.  I want to remember the baby's cry when I poured the water over his head, but how he smiled afterwards, and loved to be cooed over by the members of the congregation.  And I want to remember how his big brother folded his hands and said the Lord's Prayer with all of the other members of the congregation.

After the service there was a Question and Answer time with regarding to our church council's one year plan.  There were no softball questions, like last year when I was here for a dinner and a Meet and Greet last year, and people asked me questions about my husband and my dog and "How would I like to go on a mission trip to Peru?"  This year the questions were good but hard, about our specific goals and how we could communicate better about both mission and building goals.  This year someone asked why the plan was only for a year, and that other person reminded everyone that I had already been here "almost a year."

It is true that I have not tried very many new things yet; we have made a couple of small, tentative steps toward Cross Generational Ministry; we are moving forward with a possible new music director; I have tried just a few small things in worship.  I have been here almost a year.

At the second service we had two young people receiving their first communion.  I want to remember how the two families were sitting in the front rows, nervous and smiling.  I want to remember how the children came up for the children's message, and afterwards shared cards and high fives with everyone in church, telling them that "Jesus loves you!"  I want to remember "Lord, I lift your name on high" and I want to remember the small cups of wine, created by the communion students, and how their families stood behind them when they received the bread and wine for the first time.

Last year at this time, I didn't know them.

After the second service, we had a meeting for Children Youth and Family planning.  We munched sandwiches and shared highs and lows and prayed for each other.  We said "Jesus loves you" with high fives, and we started to plan what our church's Vacation Bible School for all ages would look like.  Some people were in charge of crafts.  Some people were in charge of food.  Some were in charge of clean up.

Half of the people in the room for that meeting today were new.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Geography of Grace

I remember once, long ago, I was at a church council retreat.  It was so long ago that I was not running the retreat -- I was one of the lay leadership attending the retreat.  We were out at a cabin in the woods somewhere, and our opening, ice-breaker activity, designed to help us share our stories and get to know each other better, was to take big pieces of paper and draw our spiritual journey.

As you might imagine, most of us turned the paper horizontally, and drew -- well -- a road.  Everyone drew a road of some sort or another, with a beginning and an end, and markers along the way for events of spiritual significance.

And then there was me.  For some reason (don't ask me why) I turned my paper vertically, and drew three scenes:  on the bottom, I drew a picture of the desert, representing the Arizona desert that I had grown to love, even though I had not grown up there.  In the middle, I drew the lakes of my Minnesota home, lakes that I had swum in, walked around, and picnicked at my whole life.  On the top I drew mountains, the mountains I had encountered while I had lived and worked as a missionary in Japan.

Three actual places (although my crayon drawings did not do them justice), but also metaphors for the all the places I had gone in my life, from church camp (mountains) to painful relationship endings (deserts).

When I think of Psalm 23, I don't only think of the shepherd and the sheep, even though the Psalm begins, "The Lord is my shepherd."  I also think of the geography of the psalm, all of the places where the shepherd leads the sheep:  green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness.  Even the valley of the shadow of death.  Something about the geography makes me think, not just about the shepherd and the sheep, but the geography -- the geography of the journey.

It's hard not to think about this, actually.  I made the journey from Minnesota to Texas last year.  The geography is different here, in both subtle and profound ways.  There are forests and fields of bluebonnets and poisonous snakes; Houston gives "urban sprawl" a whole new meaning.

Then there is the journey to this new calling, being a pastor to this church called "Grace".  We just got done with a council retreat.  The process we used was called a "Roadmap", and we dreamed and made plans and put markers down on our pathway.  What do we value?  Where do we want to be this time next year?  How are we going to get there?  We asked and answered questions together.

On this particular journey, I keep thinking that I am supposed to be the leader.  This is true.  I have a responsibility on this journey.  But it is not always what I suppose it to be.  I think that my job, as the leader, is to ensure success, to crack the whip, to make sure everyone does what they are supposed to do.

But there's the beginning of the Psalm again, reminding me of the truth:

The Lord is our shepherd.  We shall not want.

On this journey, my job is to remind us all that the Lord is our shepherd, and that we shall not want.  Whatever we do, whatever our goals are, whatever our mission is, whatever terrain we travel.

My job is to remind us all that he leads us along the paths of righteousness, which are the paths of trust, the paths of grace.  He leads us along paths that are not easy, but are, even so, grace-filled.

Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (and we will), even though we will stumble (and we will), even though we will fail, (and we will):

The Lord is our shepherd.

Mine,  too.



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

I was looking for a sign from God, and wrote this poem

Confessions:

I ate the cheesecake.
I left my notes at home.
It was not the dog's fault.
I don't know everything.
I need a sign from God sometimes,
just the tiniest little sign.
Just one word,
or a splash of water,
a piece of bread, broken
and multiplied.
Multiplied! 
I need to see just a small piece
of forgiveness,
a little resurrection.
Just one word
Multiplied.
I don't know everything.
It was not the dog's fault.
I left my notes at home.
I ate the cheesecake.
Forgive me.