Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Foreign Languages

On Friday, my day off, my husband and I drove south into Houston to attend the annual Christmas Bazaar at the Norwegian Seaman's church.  In some ways, going to this event seems a lot like going home:  my home state in Minnesota has a large Scandinavian-American community, and the decorations and the flavors and the sounds had a comforting familiarity.

And yet, it wasn't exactly the same.  This wasn't a church for people with a nostalgic, distant memory of their homeland, but for strangers and sojourners, people getting used to a new country.  Instead of feeling like the closed ethnic communities in my home state, there was an international flavor as we bumped into people from all over the country.  We talked to Minnesota Swedish Baptists and Wisconsin Lutherans and Norwegian immigrants planning a pilgrimage to the northern regions of the United States over the Christmas holiday.

While milling around a large crowd shopping for Scandinavian Christmas decorations, I happened to overhear some familiar sounds.  I recognized the sound of the Japanese language, although (sadly) I didn't understand any of the words.  I turned around and noticed four women perusing the Swedish linens and the Christmas trolls.

It has been over thirty years since I left Japan, after three and a half years as a missionary and teacher.  I recognized the sound of Japanese.  But I no longer understand the actual words.  Still, I wanted to make a connection.

'Are you from Japan?" I asked (in English).

"Kyoto," they told me.

"Ah," I answered.  "I lived in Japan a long time ago."  I emphasized word "long" so that they would not misunderstand that I was fluent in any way.

"Where did you live?" one of the women asked.  "Tokyo," I answered, ".... and Kumamoto."

"Ah," they answered.  (Kumamoto is not known as a haven for foreigners.)

We all nodded to one another in the Japanese way, and then we parted.  It was a small encounter.  I didn't find out why they were here, or for how long, or how they found this place.   It was almost as crowded in the church as in a crowded train in Tokyo; hardly room to turn around, much less to have a conversation.

A little later I was standing in line to buy some Christmas decorations.  Right in front of me was one of the four women from Kyoto.  She had some small decorations, and I said, by way of making conversation, "Those make good gifts."

"Not gifts," she answered.  Then there was a pause, and she said the word, "Souvenir."

I paused too, and I remembered something -- one word -- in a language I (mostly) no longer understood.  I remembered the word for souvenir in Japanese.  "Omiyage?" I said.

I remembered what it was like to be a tourist and a teacher and a missionary, and the "omiyage" that I brought home.  A Japanese ningyo, a handkerchief with flowers, a teacup, a pair of bamboo chopsticks.  I was buying memories, hoping that so many years later, I would remember something about living in that strange place.

And there is so much that I have forgotten.  I recognize the sounds, but I no longer understand most of the words.

But there is omiyage.  There are souvenirs, and somehow they still do the job:  they make real the memories that seem so far away.  Was my life transformed on that narrow island so long ago, when I taught students English and Jesus, and saw God in their faces?   Did I listen to church services in Japanese, and join the members afterwards for curried rice served by the pastors wife?

Sometimes it surprises me how spiritual we think we should be.  After all, we believe that God became flesh and blood, and that his disciples touched him and he touched them, and that they ate and drank together.    And when he left, I wonder if there were times when they forgot what the sound of his voice was like, or forgot the meaning of his words.

But there are still souvenirs -- things we taste and touch -- that suddenly bring the meaning back to us.  All we need is a word -- or a phase sometimes -- "Bread of Life" or "Good Shepherd" -- to remind us that we once spoke a foreign language, and hoped for a better country.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Seen and Unseen

Early this week a woman from my congregation stopped by and said she needed to talk to me.  She told me about a couple in her neighborhood that she visits.  They are somewhat shut in, so she has been checking on them and visiting with them to make sure they are okay.  Lately, the husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  She asked him if he wanted a pastor to come and visit him.  As it turns out, he had an affiliation with our denomination earlier in his life, and when she asked him, he got tears in his eyes.  She wondered if I would be open to paying them a visit.

Not too longer before that, a man from my congregation mentioned that his family had taken a single mom and her son under their wing.  They have gotten to know each other.  The mom has to leave early in the morning for work, before her son has to get up to catch the bus for school.  So sometimes this man will go and knock on their door in the morning to make sure her son is up and ready for school.

Recently our congregation completed a modest capital drive.  For part of our capital drive, we finished a modest face-lift of our sanctuary.  Now that we're done, we're asking, what's the next step? We are talking about the necessity to reach out in our community in new ways -- to know our neighbors, and think of ways that we can meet the felt needs in our community.  We are not a large congregation, but we know that we need to be a part of our neighborhood, know our neighbors, and care about them in real and concrete ways.

In the middle of thinking about what our "church" could do, I thought about these two small encounters that I knew about -- the woman who visits her shut-in neighbors, the family who has befriended a teen-age boy and his mom.  How many other unseen encounters are there in my congregation, just like these?

It's easy to focus on the things we can see.  In fact, it pretty much all we can do.  I can see the people who come to make supper for the homeless families who stay at our church a few times a year.  I can tell you all of the names of those who help serve communion or help with the children's church or make breakfast one Sunday a month.  I am grateful for the quilters who gather on Fridays, the altar guild who prepare the altar on Saturdays, the Bible study leaders who meet in homes.

But it suddenly occurred to me that so much may be going on that I cannot see, and that because I don't see it, I don't honor it, and make sure people know how important it is, and that this is a part of their calling to love their neighbor.

I keep reading things about how the church is too inwardly-focussed, too much worrying about maintaining their property and membership and comfort, and not enough focussed on their neighbors.    But maybe part of the problem is that this is what we can see -- but there is so much going on that we can't see and don't notice.

The same person who tells me she doesn't know what it means to be outwardly focussed -- just got home from going to the funeral of a neighbor's son.  She didn't know that what she was doing was ministry.

I noticed recently that a woman had not been to church for awhile.  In fact, it occurred to me that I had only seen her in church when she had a role in worship.  I will admit that my first thoughts were that she only thought it was important to come when she had to do something, but instead I decided to email her and ask how she was doing.

I found out that she had been through so many stresses in the past few months, illnesses and deaths in her family, people she was supporting with presence and prayer.  I had no idea.  So much of her life was unseen to me.

This is the church.  Seen and unseen.  But so much unseen.  Except by God.  The One who has planted us deep deep down in the world, from which we do spring up.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Following Jesus

Once upon a time, there was a church that thought they wanted to follow Jesus.  I'm not sure what it was, maybe it was the new pastor, and the fact that, after a few years of decline, people were beginning to visit the church.  Some of them even joined!  For the first time in a long time, they were hopeful about their future.

That new pastor even encouraged them to have dreams, to think about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do.  She asked them what they thought God wanted them to do.  Groups of people from the church began to meet and consider what the gifts and needs of their community and their congregation might be.  They studied and they prayed.  And when they looked out of their back yard they saw something -- they saw a piece of property that they had had for a long time.  Many years before, they had been growing and they thought that their church would be larger.  They bought that empty land then but they had not kept growing and the land became a playground and a ball field.  They even considered selling it once or twice.

But after studying this time, when they looked out of the window of their fellowship hall, they had different dreams.  They had learned that there was a need for senior housing in their area, and so they had a dream about creating housing for senior in that back yard.  They even went a little farther, and considered that in the middle of the senior tower -- they should create -- a day care for children -- so that the old and the young could learn from and bless each other.

The members of the groups were excited about their ideas.  They knew that they were challenging goals, and that they probably would not be able to do everything at once.  But they called a meeting of the congregation one evening, where they shared their dreams with others.

After they got done sharing, one of the older members of the congregation stood up.  He opened his Bible and began to read from Luke, chapter 14:

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'"

That was it.  That was all he said.  Then he sat down.

But it was enough.  The disciples who had come to the meeting dreaming of following Jesus did not have a reply for the gentleman who spoke.  They did not know what to say.  They left their dreams behind when they left the meeting that night.

I wonder about the large crowds who were traveling with Jesus, and what happened when he told them this parable, and the other one, about the king going out to make war against another king.  I wonder what those large crowds following Jesus thought when he told them that they needed to hate their lives and carry the cross if they wanted to be his disciples.  I wonder if the large crowds got smaller after that.

Why were they following him in the first place?

He was eating and drinking with those who were left out; he was giving sight to the blind and restoring lepers to community and making the lame leap for joy.  He was multiplying loaves and casting out demons.  He was giving life, but there was a cost, and it was everything.  They should know that.

I wonder still about the dreams of that little congregation.  Maybe it wasn't what God wanted us to do, after all.  Maybe it was all right to give up when we heard those words about counting the cost.  But is that why Jesus spoke those words to the crowds?  Did he want them to turn away?  Did he want them to give up, knowing it was too hard?

Follow me, he still says, knowing that it is too hard, knowing that we will fail.

What does he want us to do?

Maybe he wants us to ask the question.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hospitality to Strangers

My memories of Hebrews 13:2 go back to my childhood, and a book that I received from my godparents.  It was called, "Angel Unaware", by Dale Evans Rogers (remember Roy Rogers?) and was about their young daughter who died while she was yet a  child.  I remember the positive message that caring for a sick child turned out to be a blessing and a transformation rather than a hardship.

I suppose that this verse is one of the best known passages of scripture.  It's right up there with, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever."  Or "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen".  And who wouldn't want to entertain an angel (even though you didn't know it until afterwards)?

But since I am now a student of Biblical languages (especially Greek), and since I have been thinking more deeply (especially lately) about the word "stranger", I can't stop thinking about this passage of scripture.

I start with that really disarmingly short first verse.  "Let mutual love continue."  You know what "mutual love" is in Greek?  Philadelphia.  The city of brotherly love.  So love your brothers and sisters.  That's the first thing.  And that makes sense, right?  Not controversial at all.  Not that I'm saying that it's always EASY, but it makes sense to love "one another."

But the next part -- about showing hospitality to strangers -- well, that's another thing, if you really think about it.  Without any disrespect to Dale Evans Rogers, the word "hospitality to strangers" in Greek is really one word "philoxenia" -- which means "love of the stranger."  To be hospitable is to love the stranger.   And the word entertain?  is the word "xenos" in Greek, which means both to be a host AND to be strange.  To be a good host is -- in a way -- to be strange.  Or maybe -- just maybe -- the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

This blows my mind.  This blows my mind as an American and a Christian and a pastor.  Partly because when I hear the word "stranger" -- this is a word that I don't associate with angels so much as I do with fear.  Especially these days, but not only these days.  These days we are afraid of the strangers at the border, people whose lives and poverty we cannot seem to imagine.  But most of us -- were at one time strangers and sojourners in this land as well.  We were immigrants from somewhere, poor or hopeful or fleeing oppression.  Most of our families have a story about when they were strangers, when they didn't know the language, when they prayed that someone would be kind, speak slowly, help them count their change in the grocery store, help them find their way in a strange city or a strange neighborhood.

But perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger, and perhaps this applies to the church as well.  We have become too at home here in this world.  We have forgotten what it means to be a stranger, and this affects our ability to truly share the good news.

I remember that long ago, I lived as a missionary in Japan.  I was there to share the gospel, to invite people to the great feast, which is Jesus and his love.  But most of the time, I was a stranger.  I couldn't read the labels on food in the grocery store.  I didn't know how to cook most of the food I found there, at least at first.  I only knew a few other people, who came to Japan with me.  I understood the rhythm of the liturgy, but not the words.   And it seemed to me (although I didn't realize this for a long time) that this was a part of the point.  To be a stranger.  Not to know everything.  Just to know Christ, and him crucified.

We used to get off the trains in our neighborhood, and walk through the streets, smelling the good smells coming from people's houses.  We would joke about knocking on stranger's doors and invite ourselves in for dinner, but we had learned enough Japanese culture to understand that we should never do that.  But we knew that we were vulnerable, and needed help to navigate the world.

Perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.  I can't help thinking about Jesus, who was guest at so many parties, and how many people thought they knew him, but they didn't.  He was the best host who, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and shared it with his disciples.

The truth is, the world is a strange place, and the Kingdom of God is stranger still.  Love your enemies.  Forgive people, and keep forgiving them.  Be generous.  Give everything away, and you will be rich.  You are deeply flawed, and you are deeply loved.  You are not what you do.  You are not what you buy.   Love the stranger.

There is no "strategy" to mission.  It's just love.  Love one another.  Love the stranger.  Love yourself, in all of your strangeness.  Love Jesus.  After all, the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


The other day a woman I am acquainted with startled me by saying that she has experienced people telling her to "go back where she came from."  I knew that she was born in the United States, so I could not imagine the scenario where someone would say something like that to her.

"When does this happen?" I asked.

"When I am talking to my 92 year old father," she said.

So people assume that, because she is speaking in another language, a language that they perhaps do not understand, that she is somehow less-than.  That she does not belong.

Things like this happen.  A woman from my congregation took her daughter to get her driver's license.  She has an hispanic last name, and the woman at the office asked if she or her daughter had a green card.  She is from CHICAGO.  But for some reason or another, because of the arrangement of certain letters in her name, it is assumed that she is less-than.  That she does not belong.

Like my new acquaintance, the one who speaks to her father in Spanish, and to me in English.  The fact is (and perhaps this is what really makes people uncomfortable) she is not less-than.  She is more-than.  She is bilingual.

I remember going to Disneyland when I was sixteen.  It was a long time ago, and we went on a tour with a number of other first-time visitors to Disneyland.  The tour guide was telling us all about the history of Disneyland, and then, she turned to some other guests sitting next to us, and she started talking to them in French.  I was fascinated.  I couldn't imagine being able to just switch languages like that.  I couldn't imagine being bilingual.

This is the immigrant experience.  It was the experience of my grandparents, on both sides.  My grandma Judy came from Sweden as a young woman, worked as a domestic in Connecticut, and kept her foot in both countries for awhile, traveling back and forth from Sweden to American until she met my grandfather.  She tried to teach us Swedish words.  I only remember a few of them now.

What is it that makes us want to believe that someone else does not belong?  That they are somehow "less-than"?  To know more than one language, more than one culture, more than one reality, is rich and necessary in our world.

I think that to be a follower of Jesus is, in a way, to be an immigrant.  When we take the values of the Kingdom of God seriously, we will realize that there is another language in the world.  It is the language of the Kingdom of God, and sometimes it doesn't make sense.  The kingdom of God speaks of valuing those who seem to be less-than:  the widow, and the orphan and the stranger.  The kingdom of God tells us to pay attention to the small and the vulnerable rather than the powerful and the successful.  The kingdom of God speaks of love that asks nothing in return.

And there are people who might hear that kind of language and say, "Go back to where you came from."

The woman I know who was told, "Go back to where you came from" -- she said that her family is from Patagonia.  She showed me pictures.  It's a beautiful place, where she's from. But she is called to be here now.  She promised to teach me a little Spanish.

The Kingdom of God is a beautiful place.  And more and more I hope to learn the language of that place too.   Every once in awhile I hear a new phrase:  "a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench" -- so different than the language of the other world I live in, where the poor are crushed and turned away.

Someday this world will fall away, and all that will be left is the language of the love of God, and we will see the beauty in those we thought were less-than, and we will be astonished.  In the meantime, we are called to teach each other a few words of the New Language, to be bilingual.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Mine, Yours, Ours

This summer we have a tree in our sanctuary, and every week we are hanging a different fruit from the tree.  Every week we are exploring a different fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Preaching in series is something relatively new to me; I'm preaching some old scripture verses in a new context, and preaching some Bible stories I've never preached on before as well.

Last week our theme was joy.  The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  And the text that I chose (usually read during Epiphany in my tradition) was from Nehemiah 8.  And of course the verse itself is so well-known, although most people don't know the story surrounding the verses.  "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

I've seen it on plaques.
I've heard it in songs.

But not really thought much about it.

One of the things i do these days (that I never have done before) is find images for the sermon.  We have projection in my congregation, and I look for pictures and sometimes for words that I can put up on the screen.  And I was looking for this verse, "The Joy of the Lord is your strength", and what was interesting to me is that, for the most part, I found this verse on line:  "The Joy of the Lord is my strength."

It made me think.  Those pesky pronouns.  I thought, of COURSE when Ezra is speaking to the people, he is going to say, The Joy of the Lord is YOUR strength."  But what does he mean?  Does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as an individual believer?  Or does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as a part of a community of believers?

Does it even matter?

Those pesky pronouns.  I was recently reminded in a Bible study that faith is an individual matter.  No one can believe for someone else.  We each stand before God on our own.  No one else's good word can get us in.  (Okay, except Jesus'.  That one doesn't really work.)

It's true; no one else can believe for us.  Except that I catch myself thinking about the times when I went to worship, with all of my doubts, and said the creed along with all of the other believers.  Somehow their faith made me stronger.  Maybe we can believe for one another sometimes.

And maybe the joy of the Lord is not my possession or yours, but it is the gift of the Spirit to the community of faith.  it is the Spirit that doesn't just live in our hearts, but it is the Spirit that also lives in our community, where we share joy and sorrow, fruit both bitter and sweet, and good.

On Sunday morning, I took out a small bottle of bubbles to show joy.  But I wasn't very good at blowing bubbles, and the six year old girl sitting next to me said, 'You're doing it too fast!"  Then she showed me how to blow a bubble properly.

And the joy of the Lord was our strength.

The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy

“The Power of Joy”
Nehemiah 8:1-10

             The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  

            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

            Do you recognize that verse?  I have seen it on placques, heard it in songs, know it by heart.  “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  
            Just one verse – but have you ever thought about it?  How is joy a strength?  Is joy strong?  Is joy powerful?

            Sometimes we think just the opposite – that joy is a child’s virtue.  I know when I close my eyes and think about joy
             – I think about children – the children at the pre-school, who, when I come over to visit – just to check in – are so happy to see me – are so excited to show me their new shoes, or tell me about their baby brother, or their trip to the Coca Cola Factory in Atlanta!  Joy!  
            They are joyful. But then -- they don’t have to deal so much with life – at least – most of them don’t.

            Joy seems to be a luxury sometimes – for us adults – 
            it’s a serious world after all. 
             There are many wrongs to right, so much pain to heal, so much tragedy ….  A little bit of joy might be okay, but in moderation….too much seems wrong, and frivolous and even – naive …. 
            You know what they say about Pollyannas, and their annoying cheerfulness – their unrealistic idea that you can always find something to be GLAD about….

            Pollyanna…. I even rented that old movie this week –(Pollyanna) in an effort to understand Joy,   
            I remembered that this movie was one of my dad’s favorites – my goofy dad, who liked to tell the same joke over and over, and who made up his own words to songs.  
            Pollyanna was one of his favorite movies.  
            And I remembered again about the girl who played the “Glad Game” – who tried to find something to be glad about everywhere.  Her father taught her the game.
            They were missionaries, and they were poor, and they had to rely on charity.  One thing Pollyanna wanted more than anything else was a doll, but they didn’t have money for it.  
            So they waited for the charity boxes from the missionaries.  There was no doll – but there were a pair of crutches.  What was there to be glad about?  Pollyanna’s father told her that she could be glad – that she didn’t need the crutches…. That was the glad game.  To find something to be joyful about – even In a pair of crutches. 

            And the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  
            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.  But joy doesn’t seem to be that powerful.  It doesn’t even seem realistic, sometimes.  In our world.   In our time. And it probably didn’t seem to be realistic to the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time either. 

            Nehemiah – the book where those words “the joy of the Lord is your strength” comes from.   

            Here’s the scene. It’s about the year 538 BC.  
            The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon and they have finally been allowed to come home. They came back to a temple in ruins and a city whose walls had been destroyed.  And in those days it was important for a city to be fortified to have walls.  So the exiles had a lot of work to do.  
            Under the guidance of the governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and they rebuilt the walls of the city – not easy tasks.  There were a lot of setbacks and arguments and it was hard to unify the people.  
            They were probably tempted to give up.  A lot of times.
            But finally, in today’s reading, the walls are finished, and the people are gathered by what is called the “Water Gate.”  You might call it a sort of resurrection – the resurrection of the city of Jerusalem –
            And while they are there they asked the priest Ezra to read to them from the scrolls of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.  And we don’t know exactly what he was reading from the Torah –
            Just that they hadn’t heard the Word of God for a long time –
            And that while he was reading, he was explaining so that they could understand, and that while he was reading, they fell on their faces and wept.
            And that is when Ezra told them to get up, and stop weeping -- for the Joy of the Lord is your strength.

             Why were they weeping?  They had reason to weep.  
            Some people speculate that they wept because they realized how they had failed their God, and strayed from him.  
            They heard the word of God, and the law of God, and they could not find anything to be glad about. Not just because of the way the world was – a dangerous place – but because of the way they were – turning their backs on God – forgetting his promises, and their responsibility to bless the world.  
            They wept because they realized all these things – and all of them were true –

            But the priest Ezra told them the truth – That Joy is more powerful than tears – and that the Joy of the Lord – is the most powerful of all.

            Get up and realize that despite everything – God is still with you.  Get up and rejoice in the voice of God.  Get up and feast – and share what you have with others who have less. Get up and realize that you are alive….

            It can be like this for many in our own day.  
            Sometimes it seems like our religious institutions are crumbling.  People are abandoning their practice of the faith, churches are closing, the situations in our society are leading to a lack of mercy and compassion for others.  
            When we see how far we are from the Word of God, we might want to weep.  The tasks we face as a church as a big as anything faced by the people of God in Nehemiah’s day.  
            But the joy of the Lord is our strength too.  And if we stand in that joy, the work we must do will be done.

            The joy of the Lord is resurrection Joy.  It is the fruit of the Spirit.  

            It is the city of Jerusalem come back to life. 
             It is the gift of the word of God, the God who is still speaking to you, the God who still has a mission for you.  It is the gift of life – and it is the gift of the community – standing TOGETHER as they listen to the word of God.

            The joy of the Lord is our strength – and it is resurrection joy – and it is a communal joy. –We can give it to one another.  Pollyanna gave it to her community – where she came to stay – and they gave it back to her when she lost joy and felt she couldn’t go on.  

            The fruit of the Spirit is joy.   Resurrection joy.  
            We give it to one another. 
            Where have you seen joy this week?  Where do you find joy?

            I have a friend who has had cancer – who I have prayed for – and kept in touch with – and this week – I saw on video – I saw that she has been raising monarch butterflies – and releasing them.   

            Go out and look for joy this week!   And then come back to witness to the power and presence of God in the world.