Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday

Tonight I went to worship at my husband's church.  He is one of the church musicians at a large suburban congregation.  For many years they have had a small evening worship service every Monday evening without fail.  No matter if it is a Monday holiday, or if the 4th of July happens to fall on a Monday, or if Christmas Day is Sunday morning, there is always a Monday evening worship service.  It's always a small congregation on Monday evening, but some Mondays are smaller than others.

Easter Monday is one of those days.  It seems like the point of Easter is to worship with a large congregation.  The point is to go and be with the large crowds and the trumpets blasting and the choirs singing.  Somehow this affirms the truth of the resurrection, because people show up in large numbers, and you have to get out the folding chairs.

This evening, the extra chairs were still all set up in the narthex from the morning before.  The large crowds had come and gone, and now it was Easter Monday.  The numbers were thinner even than a usual Monday evening service, but the music was wonderful; the trumpeter hit every note perfectly.  I remember looking around at the faces during the opening hymn and smiling at a few of the people.  The rest of the world doesn't know it, I thought, but we are listening to a perfect trumpet solo right now.

The large crowds are exciting, but there is something true about Easter Monday.  There is something true about a few people gathered together listening to the Easter gospel, not because they want to be with the large crowds, but just because they need to be together:  they need to taste the wine and share the bread and encourage one another.  There is something true about coming together, when it's not even Sunday any more.  There's something truthful about coming back together after an ordinary day's work, after making lists, buying groceries, adding up numbers, talking on the phone.

Somehow the evening Easter gathering reminds me of the first Easter evening, with the disciples gathered together in the upper room.  They are not an impressive bunch.  There are just eleven of them.  But the Lord appears to them and sends them out.

Not all churches have large crowds on Easter morning.  I suspect that it is not standing room only everywhere.  But perhaps the large crowds are not the point.

Maybe the point is this:  that the Lord appears to us, and sends us out, sends us back out into all the dying world.

Easter: What Difference does it make?

Starting on April 1st, I have been trying to write a poem a day.  It's National poetry month (I admit to knowing this).  At first I thought that I would find a favorite poem for every day of the month.  But then I threw caution to the wind and decided to write a poem a day instead.  I have never considered myself much of a poet, but I did it anyway.

I have been writing and posting the poems on Facebook, which is odd in a way, but for some reason I am the sort of person who writes a poem if she knows that she has a commitment to post it publicly every day (sort of the anti-Emily Dickinson.)  

Late on Easter evening, I had not written or posted a poem yet.  But here's what came out:

what difference does it make?
on this Easter evening
this question I take to sleep with me.
You rose.
what difference does it make?
what difference to my
lying down,
dying every day

You rose.
on this Easter evening
I take this prayer to sleep with me.
What difference will it make?
lying down,
dying every day,
make me an instrument
of your love.

As I reflect back on this Lent and Easter, the question I want to ask is not “What is the meaning of Easter?” but “What does Easter mean to me?”  Not just “What difference does it make that Jesus rose from the dead?”  but, “What difference does it make to me?  What difference does it make to us, the church?  And what difference does it make to the world?”

The more I think about it, the more I want to reflect on this question for the next fifty days.  For I suspect that there is not just one answer to this question, "What difference does it make?"  Perhaps there are fifty answers.  

What is your reason?

What difference does Jesus' resurrection make to you?  


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

To Begin the Three Days: Eat Standing Up

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Great Three Days leading to Easter.  As usual, I am not ready, despite forty days warning, although I will say that I'm doing better tonight than I was this morning.  I am preaching on Maundy Thursday, which will also be first communion for a few of our fifth graders this year.  I have my sermon all written, or, more precisely, mostly written, and Holy Communion is a theme:  bread and wine, body and blood, room at the table.

Despite this, I couldn't help taking some illicit glances over at the Exodus reading, the instructions for preparing the passover feast.  There is the year-old lamb, or goat, and there is the unleavened bread, and there are the instructions for spreading the blood on the doorposts.  And then there is the curious instruction to eat with your staff in hand, your sandals on your feet, your 'loins girded' -- as if you are about to take flight, according to Exodus.

Of course, this makes a certain sort of sense, in the context of the story.  They had to be ready to go as soon as the word came down that Pharaoh had given in to the demand:  "Let my people go."  They were on full alert, waiting and listening for the word that would set them free.

Of course, it is fascinating to me because in our day and time, we eat 'on the go' more often than is healthy for us.  We are urged to sit down and eat together more often, to take more time, to not be in such a hurry.

But this meal was meant to be eaten in a hurry, by a people who were setting out from slavery to freedom.  They were waiting for a word that would set them free, but also set them into a future they knew almost nothing about.

There is something profoundly disorienting about this.  This particular story of eating-in-a-hurry is not about meeting our own deadlines and setting our own agendas:  it is about waiting for a Word from outside ourselves to call us to action.

There is something profoundly disorienting about Lent, and the Three Days.  I never feel ready, even when I am prepared.  I never feel prepared for the bread, the body and blood, placed in my hand, the violence of the cross and all that it means.  I never feel ready for the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the Word I have waited for, that calls me to action, to travel a way not my own.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What I Learn From Funerals

The last funeral I officiated was on a Saturday afternoon in Lent.  The woman who died was too young, had cancer, fought valiantly, put her life in Jesus' hands.  In many ways her funeral was like many other funerals where I officiate.  There is so much that is the same.  There are certain songs that almost everyone sings, certain scriptures that occur over and over.  The liturgy we use is very simple, and so much is nearly the same every time, although, since my father's funeral last fall, I have taken to tweaking the prayers some, using different prayers than the ones that are in the book.

There was this one unique moment, though, at the beginning of her memorial service.

The woman who died had been a day care provider in our community for many years.  She was well known to parent and children for her firm but kind nurture, unapologetic discipline and boundaries, and unconditional love.  It was a powerful combination.

At the beginning of the service, at the direction of her family, I asked all of the children and young adults who had been cared for at this woman's day care to come to the entry to the sanctuary.  Forty or fifty young people stood up and met me and the doorway, where our funeral coordinator gave each of them a small bouquet of white carnations.  At the opening hymn, all of these young people processed in behind me, but before the family.  They each placed  their carnations in the baptismal font, where they stayed for the entire service.

The woman's husband explained why he wanted to do this, "I wanted everyone to have a part."

Not long before this, at another funeral, there were similar words.  A woman, helping to plan her husband's funeral, said, "There are nine grandchildren who all need jobs."  At that service, we had readers, eulogists, and intercessory pray-ers.

This is very wise, I thought.

The more I thought about it, the wiser I thought it was.

I thought about all of those carnations in the baptismal font, and I thought about the fact that, at the most recent funeral, all of the eulogists were participants in the woman's day care:  two parents, and one of the former day care children.

It took me a while to realize that there was a powerful message being spoken that day, not just the message about the love of God, more powerful than death.

It was the message that so much of our society disbelieves:  that we belong to one another.  Our family is wider than we think, wider than we know, wider than we see -- except, sometimes at funerals.  All around us there is the message that we are on our own.  We draw our circles closer and closer, and are told to care only for a few who are closest to our hearts.

But here is the truth:  we belong to one another.  We are members of one another.  Our fates are intertwined.  Life and death and love and pain bind us together.

Perhaps it is why there is so much similarity in funerals:  our common humanity and hope finds words and sighs.  There is bound to be overlap.

And yet:  here is the other thing I learn from funerals.

Despite their similarities, no two are really alike.  They are like fingerprints.  I can't say exactly why, when we sing so much "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine", and we hear so much about the many mansions, or the resurrection and the Life.  But somehow each funeral embodies the hope of a particular child of God, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and they are not the same.  Sometimes they are small things that matter:  a particular story shared, a Scripture verse in German, or a baptismal font full of carnations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prayer and Poetry

I'm not that good at either one.

I know, this is an odd confession for a pastor to make.  You don't like to hear your pastor saying, "I'm no good at praying."  And don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't pray.  It's just that I am apt to compare myself with people who seem to be able to go on and on, pray aloud for hours with no notes.  When I pray aloud, I admit, I'm always afraid I'm going to get myself into a sentence I can't get out of. My prayers tend to be short, inelegant, a little undisciplined.  

I love both poetry and prayer, even though I confess to being good at neither one.  I love the formal prayers in my prayer books, eloquent and elegant.  I notice that some of these prayers are poetic, using literary devices and structures:  metaphors, allusions, alliteration.  I love all kinds of poetry, too:  from the deceptive simplicity of Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, to the complex rhymes and dense metaphors of Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne.  And I have tried writing a little poetry too.  Though I admire sonnets from a distance, and have even memorized a few, the complexities of rhyme and meter have so far eluded me.  Like I said, I am not good at it.

Some of my favorite poets (though not all by any means) have been the devotional ones.  Some of John Donne's Holy Sonnets were really prayers, addressed to God -- the same can be said of Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, and others.

For the past year or so, I've been writing occasional "haiku prayers" -- not quite "sighs too deep for words", but at least trying to pray using as few words as possible.  It has made me think that perhaps prayer and poetry have some things in common, some things beyond the eloquence of the prayers in my hymnal:  something more basic, more elemental than literary devices, something that goes beyond tradition or eloquence.

1.  Both prayer and poetry have a necessary honesty.  A good poem is, above all, honest.  It doesn't pull punches.  It tells the truth.  In fact, poetry is one way of getting deeper into truth, an expression of joy or lament or love that strips off artifice and reveals the depths of pain and hope.

2.  Both prayer and poetry are elliptical.  They are honest, but they leave some things unsaid.  Perhaps there are 'sighs too deep for words'.  Poems make you read between the lines.  They do not say everything.  Prayers do too, but in a different way, and perhaps for other reasons.  Prayers a elliptical, because it is impossible to say all that is on our hearts.  The apostle Paul has it right, "We do not know how to pray as we ought," and so prayers will always leave some things unsaid.  And yet, not saying everything, a poem or a prayer somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.

3.  You don't have to be good at it.  That's right.  You don't have to be good at praying to pray.  Just say a name.  Cry.  Rejoice.  Stumble through a few words.  Don't let the eloquent prayers discourage you.  You don't have to be good at poetry to write a poem either.  In this era of the professional poets with their bound books, we have forgotten.  In the past writing poetry was a hobby for some, like knitting or collecting stamps or playing the piano.  But you didn't have to be good at it, to enjoy writing limericks, or rhymed couplets, or blank verse.

Prayer and poetry.  I am not good at either one. Still, I will lift my voice, my heart, my pen.  I don't have to be good at it.  Just honest.  That's the harder thing, anyway.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poetry is Prayer/Prayer Is Poetry

A prayer is not a poem, and a poem is not a prayer.  But they do, somehow, have something in common, both in theory and in practice.  For today, it's just practice.

O Lord, look kindly
on my heart, broken, bruised, black:
backward, still, but Yours.

what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
I want, O Lord, 
so many things
softness, color, weight
a mountain to climb
and strength to climb it
sleep when I am tired
an unexpected sunrise
to thirst and to be sated
what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
Teach me how to lie down
in righteousness, to love the
still waters, to eat what is
set before me
to live in the valley

of the shadow of death.

God questions me.
O mortal, what do you think?
Can these bones live?
Can these tears flow?
Can these hearts of stone break?
Can these barren bodies bear life?

Why ask me, Lord?
You know.
You know I am dust.
I have cried oceans
and all I have left is salt.
I have no breath in me.

O Lord, you know.
My hands are empty.
I open my mouth
and no words come out.

But hear, again, at midnight
my mourning morning prayer:
O Lord, Open Thou my lips
And my mouth shall declare your praise.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Faith and Community: Lessons from "Call the Midwife"

Last night our congregation's book group met to discuss Jennifer Worth's excellent memoir, "Call the Midwife."

I had read the book last year, partly because of the tie-in with the popular BBC series.  I was pleasantly surprised, as I read, to find out the the book not only was filled with compelling stories of birth, life, love and tragedy post World War II London, there was also this rich, subtle subtext involving Jennifer Worth's own life and faith.

Jennifer Worth comes to Nonnatus house an avowed agnostic.  She isn't convinced about religion or faith; in fact, suspects that it is a lot of nonsense.  But she is compelled by the opportunity to serve, and she becomes a part of the community of sisters,  participating in their daily life, as well as learning the work.   She tells stories about the women she meets on the East End, tragic figures like Mrs. Jenkins, or Mary, who flees her abusive step-father and has a baby at 15.  She tells stories about the sisters, their idiosyncracies as well as their devotion.

At the end of the book, Jennifer Worth decides to begin reading the Gospels.

For the past couple of years, our congregation has been thinking about our past, our present, and our future.  Born in the post-war era, we boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it seemed that everyone just got up on Sunday morning and picked out a church to go to.  We were a new suburb then as well, filled with young families who were looking for places to educate children in some kind of faith or another.

We know it is not like that now.  We know that we have to do things differently.  We have been talking about what that will look like:  how we need to be more intentional and confident about sharing our faith now; how we need to learn or re-learn how to share our faith with others (although I assure people that we do not need to go around handing out tracts to strangers).

It occurs to me that a few aspects of Jennifer Worth's story from the 1950s may apply us, re-forming church in the 21st century.  What do I want my church to look like?  What do I want evangelism and discipleship to look like in my congregation?

1.  We will be centered on service.  Service to others, and particularly the service of nursing, was the mission of the sisters; it was not a sideline; it was the reason for their existence.  It was this service that attracted Jennifer Worth.  She wanted to be a nurse midwife, despite her skepticism about faith.  The opportunity to serve attracts, especially when it is genuine and not just a tactic.

2.  We will be communities of prayer.  Worship and prayer shaped the daily lives of the sisters.  They invited, but did not coerce participation.  They didn't defend their practice or apologize for it  They simply prayed and lived.  And the sisters were by no means perfect.  But their lives bore witness.

3.  We will live in community.  By this I don't mean that churches will be communes, although I recognize that the sisters did live in close community.  But I mean that churches will be bound together in community by a commitment to service and to one another, that we will realize that we do actually belong to Christ and to one another.

4.  We will take time.  Faith is not instantaneous.  It is a process taking place in each of us, and in all of us in community.  I read an interview with Jennifer Worth recently.  The last question was about her faith and abut whether she ever considered becoming a nun.  Although she didn't answer the question directly, she indicated that her three books document a faith journey that is just beginning at the end of book one, when she decides to read the New Testament.

5.  We will learn to be midwives.  It is God who is bringing faith to birth in people.  The church's job is not to convince, cajole or defend, but it is to attend:  to attend birth, in all its variety.  So Jennifer Worth tells stories -- of birth, of tragedy, of repentance and life.  One in particular tells of a older man who whose wife gives birth to a child who is  clearly not his.  Everyone wondered what was wrong with this man; why he couldn't tell that he wasn't the father of the child.  Jennifer says she thinks that he loved his wife, and when he saw the baby, he decided:  he decided that he would be a Holy Fool, that he would pretend not to see what was clear to all, for the sake of love.  Perhaps Jennifer tells this story because it is a part of hers as well:  for the sake of faith, for the sake of love, she decides to become a Holy Fool.  She decides not to see the things that don't make sense, and to love the faith that has been born in her.