Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Just A List...

...of books I've read. I haven't had time to report. Let me know if any of them picque your interest, and you want to know more.

11. The Girl who Fell From the Sky, Heidi Durrow
12. On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther (re-read for a short essay I wrote recently; the essay may be published!)
13. Preaching from Memory to Hope, by Thomas Long (He's awfully hard on Marcus Borg, but I like the idea of movement, and how hope is integral to good preaching).
14. The Book Thief, Marcus Zusack (May book club book)
15. Instructions, by Neil Gaiman (counter-intuitive life instructions for graduates and others)
16. Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, by Peter Steinke (I posted a little about this here.)
17. Jesus Freak, by Sara Miles. (The first book I read on my "nook".)
18. Leaving Yesterday, Kathryn Cushman. (June book club, religious fiction)
19. The Underneath, Kathi Appelt

Not so impressive, actually, if you consider that it is June 30, and I'm not to 20 yet! I have two or three books I'm working on right now. But I've been distracted, and reading magazine articles and essays rather than books right now. I've been having fun re-reading Little House in the Big Woods right now (looking at the old, original illustrations by Helen Sewell.)

So -- any book here you want to know more about? Let me know.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Early last week, I was on my way out of a local bookstore and coffee shop, when the proprietress thrust something into my hands. "Here, read this," she told me.

I took a look at the cover. It was a local publication called, "Lavender." The cover story was about a well-known (some would say infamous) pastor in our community. He has been well-known for his angry and vehement positions against Gay and Lesbian people in the church.

I didn't read the story right away. I was actually surprised by the headline, which proclaimed that this pastor "had something to hide."

Turns out, that Rev. Brock struggles with same-sex attractions himself. The article in question was by a "journalist" who infiltrated a confidential support group to get a story. Since then, the questionable ethics of "Lavender" have been as much a part of the story as the story itself.

I don't know Pastor Brock, but I've been familiar with his rants for a long time. He used to write mass letters to congregations in our region about abortion as well. He's also angry that we entertain any other position on Christ's atonement than the "correct" one, which is the theology of substitionary atonement.

Many have called Pastor Brock a hypocrite for deriding same-sex relationships publicly while secretly struggling with these same feelings. There's a particular part of the (supposedly confidential) meeting where he confesses that on a trip to Slovokia he "fell into temptation." Some have supposed that this meant that he "gave in" on that trip. But, not necessarily. Temptation to sin is not the same as succombing to sin. (Please be aware that I am not saying that I believe that homosexuality is a sin. I am just conceding that Pastor Brock does.)

However, it did start me thinking about temptation and sin, particularly as regards pastors. I remember once at a Bible study breakfast, saying something like, "Well, you know, I struggle with sin all the time." And though I didn't mention any specific sin, one of the men acted like it was still a little too much information.

One of the temptations that pastors face is the temptation to believe "the hype" -- that we are holy people, and because we are committed to the gospel and prayer and the life of the church, we are somehow immune to the struggles of other people. And it seems to me that when we are tempted to believe "the hype" ourselves -- that's when we are most in danger of abusing the power, the authority given to us. When we have to keep our struggles to ourselves, and pretend that we don't have any -- that's when we are most dangerous to ourselves -- and to others.



Saturday, June 26, 2010

Waiting for the Storm

I'm spending Saturday evening at home, watching television, reading, trying hard not to think about work (although an embryonic children's message is at the back of my mind.) I secured a supply preacher for this weekend, so for the first Saturday this month, I did not have the Saturday evening service. (It is also the first Saturday in three weeks that I have not had a funeral.

We went to breakfast at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, The Birchwood Cafe. It's not in our neighborhood, sadly; it's in the Seward neighborhood. But it has all the great appeal of an establishment which is firmly a part of its community, dedicated to serve the community. Then, people from outside the community want to stop in too.

I'd like our church to be a little like that. Firmly established in our community, but welcoming to others who are drawn to our mission.

We returned to a Used and Rare Book Sale we visited last night. I pined after books by Helen Sewell (the original illustrator of the "Little House" books.) Just so you know, first editions in dust jackets run to about $700 (or so). After purchasing a dear book illustrated by her called Ten Saints, I have been looking out for her illustrations everywhere.

Otherwise, it's been kind of a lazy day. I've been thinking that I need to make some Significant Blog Posts. There are so many weighty subjects lately. I'm thinking about the local pastor outed by Lavender magazine. I jotted down some notes. But tonight I'm sitting here, trying to be relaxed, and succeeding a little.

I just finished reading a book, The Underneath, by Kathy Appelt. It's supposed to be a children's book. In some ways it felt like a children's book; in other ways, not so much. It's about the love between a dog and two kittens. And it's about evil. Maybe that's what made it seem not like a children's book. But children, sad to say, often know a lot about evil.

Anyway, there's this great quotation on page 201: "Purring is not so different from praying.....a cat's purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer."

Also, we're sitting here waiting for a storm to come through. A pretty heavy storm headed through our city last night. No tornadoes, but heavy rain, flash flooding, high winds. We were out for that one.

We thought we'd stay home for this one.

Tomorrow we'll put our hand to the plow and not look back, even though looking back can be so sweet. And to be truthful, sometimes the future seems so scary, full of uncertainty.

But the truth is, God is here, right now -- and God is in the future, in that kingdom we long for, when we pray.

Tomorrow we'll put our hand to the plow and not look back.

But tonight, we're just waiting for the storm to come through.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today's Theme: Children

We're using a popular soft-evangelical Vacation Bible School Curriculum again this year. Of the many positive attributes of this Curriculum, one is a simple, easy to remember theme phrase every day. This year we've been learning "God's Word is true!" (Let's go!) "God's Word is comforting!" (Let's go!) "God's Word is surprising!" (Let's go!)

(I recalled fondly that the first time we used this curriculum, the theme reply was the word "Awesome!") So we learned "Jesus helps us" AWESOME "Jesus cares for us" AWESOME. You get the picture. A number of the Vacation Bible School children showed up to sing their songs the Sunday after the program. So, I worked the key phrases into my sermon, and told the children to shout out "AWESOME" whenever they heard the key phrase. It worked out great, impressed the adults, and was, may I say, AWESOME. However, I don't remember any more what the theme of my sermon was.)

This year, for the first time, I am key player in a prolonged skit every day. On Monday I played Rhoda, a servant girl who told the story of Peter getting out of jail. The one seemed pretty dramatic until the last two days, when I was involved in a shipwreck. On Tuesday we were on a cardboard boat when a storm came up. There were high winds (fans), something that sounded like hail, and rain coming out of spray bottles. There was also a lot of screaming. We were just getting ready to abandon ship when the story ended.

Today, we swam to shore, where I was bitten by a poisonous snake, but didn't die. Also, an exciting, exhausting day.

I don't remember Vacation Bible School being this involved when I was a little girl. These are the few thingfs I remember: Bible lessons outside, a woman named Ferda singing "God Will Make You Fishers of Men", learning origami, planting flowers in paper cups, making stuff (some things never change). I had fun, too.

Later on, I went to Children's Hospital. The hospital is doing major construction. I wondered if the fun stars on the floor, showing me where to go were just there because it was Children's hospital. I also think Children's Hospital has the most interesting gift shop, with books in English and Spanish. I almost bought a book about "The colors of the Rainbow" in Spanish.

I really want to learn Spanish.

Tonight, at the beginning of our faith-sharing class, we played a game. It was a serious game, in the end, and it had a lesson for us. But it was still a game, and it made me remember that there is a little bit of child still in all of us. No matter how old we get, a part of us wants to over-act, jump overboard, scream, swim to shore, make stuff, follow the stars, play games.

We just get tired faster, now.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Legion

I'll admit it, I haven't thought about the Sunday readings as much as I ought to have, this week. I've been thinking instead about the woman who got a hard diagnosis last week, the young boy who is having heart surgery, the family of the woman who died of a rare disease, the two funerals this week. I've been thinking about another person I heard about who has Alzheimers, about someone I know who is having a leg amputated.

On facebook, one of my friends requested prayers because her cancer (which was in remission) has come back and has metastisized. She's a young woman, in her twenties, I think. At least count, I think there were 36 comments, promises to pray for her.

And of course, there's the oil spill in the Gulf, a story which seems to have no ending, just more polluting, more desecration.

When I've glanced at the gospel story, the only thing that really sticks out is the name of the demon occupying the man. "My name is Legion," he tells Jesus. This could mean a lot of things. Most obviously, "legion" means a lot. A Legion was somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 Roman soldiers. There are a lot of demons in this poor man who resides in the strange Gentile territory.

Legion could also be a kind of reference to the Roman occupation. Just as the Romans occupy Judea, so this man is "occupied" -- by the forces of evil. His name is legion. He's occupied by a foreign army.

So, I'm thinking about the man called "Legion" in this strange story, and right now it's the only thing that makes sense to me. Yeah. The evil, the pain, the struggles in this world are Legion. There are so many of them. Sometimes they seem far away from us -- and then, suddenly, one of our friends gets sick, or we get sick, or someone we know goes to Afghanistan, or Iraq -- and we realize the truth of the word "Legion."

Besides "Legion", I've been thinking a lot about prayer this week. I've been thinking about the different kinds of prayer, and how I wish it was just so easy as it looks in the story from Luke. Jesus casts out the demons, and they go.

Because that's not how prayer goes for us, at least most of the time, is it?

In our heads we understand that God isn't a cosmic slot machine, where we put in a prayer, and he gives us what we want. But in our hearts it's hard to understand sometimes: after all, what could be wrong with a person recovering from cancer, getting better, getting up? What could be wrong with that? If we can't count on God to answer our prayers, what good does it do? And if our prayers aren't answered spectacularly all the time, does that mean we are bad Christians?
And if our prayers aren't answered spectacularly all the time, why bother?

Why do we pray, anyway?

Why does the woman on facebook, inhabited by a Legion of cancer cells request our prayers? She knows when she gathers the troops that she may be healed, but she may not be. It's not a sure thing. But still she asks us to pray for her, because whether she is healed or not, she believes, she knows, that something powerful is going on.

I am preparing for Sunday now, praying and thinking, and studying a little (maybe not enough), and wondering about the Legions of evil in the world, the Legions of suffering, and the power to cast it out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

...And a Little Girl Held My Hand

It is summer worship in full force here now, which means, you never know who will show up. Our 8:00 a.m. outdoor service was held indoors today, because with 96 percent humidity and 58 degree temperatures, it certainly felt like rain.

But, it didn't. Rain, that is.

It is the second Sunday since the Senior Pastor retired. I have been making lists of people to pray for, and visit, but working mostly on worship, and funerals. There is another funeral this week.

In the past the person who did not preach has had the children's message. I decided that, for a few weeks, my children's message will be a brief lesson and practice in prayer. This would be easy and would not take much preparation (at least, that is my hope.) So, at the second service (where I felt a little more prepared for the children's message), seven or eight children of varying ages came up, including a two year old girl whose mother brought her up. She shyly toddled over to me, and I took hold of her hand. I had some of the children go to the Lecturn and say something they thanked God for, after which everyone in the congregation would say, "Thank you God."

Except, I forgot to turn the mike on. So my new little friend and I toddled over to the Lecturn and turned on the mike for the children.

I worked from notes for my sermon today, "Passionate Spirituality, or How Not to be Like Simon the Pharisee." I haven't done that for awhile. I was a little shaky at 8, but better at 10. The sermon might have gone a little long though (that's the hazard without a manuscript).

I told a story from my youth as a fervant, hands-in-the-air type of Christian, and how one of my painful memories was how mean and judgmental I was to people who loved me, like my aunt and uncle who are my godparents. I even (I am embarrassed to say) sent them a letter at one time. Thing is, they wrote back and they were still NICE to me.

I looked out at the congregation at the services today, and I saw a few young families with small children, single parents, teenagers; a man in a wheelchair faithfully recording the service; I saw the woman who fell after worship last week, with her arm in a sling; I saw some of the young people who will be going on a mission trip later this summer; I saw a family who got hard news about a diagnosis this week.

And I pray that throughout this coming week, they will know God's presence, God's power, God's love -- that the crucified One suffers with them, loves with them, and will give them courage to be God's people where-ever they are.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Healthy Congregations

I have stayed up the last two evenings reading Peter Steinke's book Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach. Since the Senior Pastor retired last week, I'm temporarily holding down the fort until the arrival of a savior, um, interim pastor in a few weeks. I know when a congregation is in transition as ours is, there is a potential for a lot of anxiety, so I thought it might be good if, as much as possible, I try to be part of the solution more than a part of the problem.

To that end, I'm really concentrating on the basics of ministry: worship, preaching, pastoral care. I haven't really had that much time to think about it, as there were two funerals last week, there is a funeral tomorrow, and I have a funeral again on Wednesday. Next week begins two weeks of all-day Vacation Bible School as well. During the second week, I have some program responsibilities as the daily "storyteller".

Peter Steinke's mantra is to learn to be a "non-anxious presence" in your congregation. I'm really wanting to look at our congregation and not just see the individuals, but look at the systems and how people inter-relate.

The chapter I'm thinking most about right now, tonight, though is this: the picture of the congregation and pastor who have a kind of a romantic, "in love" relationship. Steinke says that this is not a healthy situation, because the congregation and pastor aren't looking at each other realistically (maybe also they are not differentiated from one another), so they can evaluate effectiveness.

He also made me think about the aspect of the church as a business from a different perspective. He said that sometimes churches encourage a kind of fuzzy thinking that allows evil or manipulative people get a foothold, because the systems of accountability are not as stringent as they might be in a business. While I can see his point, I do also think that evil or manipulative people have been able to get into businesses as well as churches.

My own congregation is at a cross-roads. These can be exciting times. We are in a changing, diverse community, which means that we are going to be on a high learning curve for awhile, as we learn how to reach out faithfully, welcome others and proclaim the gospel to and with others. But, when we start to realize that "the way we have always done things" doesn't quite work any more, that can be very threatening as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fragments

The Saturday before my colleague's last Sunday in worship, my husband and I decided to do something special. It might be my last unoccupied Saturday for awhile, we reasoned, so we called and got tickets to the special exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, "Words That Changed the World."

It's an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most important archeological discovery of the 20th century. And the day was over-flowing with historical and geographical information -- we learned about all of the theories concerning the community of Qumran and its library; we learned about the different religious factions of the day and what life was like. We learned about the painstaking processes of translation and preservation, and about the sheer quantities of scrolls found there.

Then, at the end of the exhibit, we were ushered into a dark room. In the dark room were just a few fragments of actual scrolls. Just a fragment of a Psalm, a portion of Song of Solomon. Looking at the papyri, it was hard to figure out just how they could tell what the words even were. And, I'll be truthful, it almost seemed a little anti-climactic. These small, fragile pieces of paper, barely decipherable, were words that changed the world?

And yet, these words were 2,000 years old. It was a miracle that they even survived, even these fragments. They were pieces of evidence of early Jewish and Christian communities, giving us a glimpse of the age that Jesus lived in, the age of the early church.

Sometimes I think of the church this way, too. Looking at us, each of us individual disciples of Jesus in the world, I think that we are not always so impressive. On the contrary, we are fragile, just small fragments of the church. Looking at us, it's a wonder that the church has survived so long. It must be a miracle of God that built a church using people like you and me.

And yet, somehow, despite our fragility, despite our failure, despite all that blows away, the fragments of our lives tell the story of God's fierce love and goodness for all the world. Someday we will see the whole story clear in the bright light, but for now, we see only fragments, fragments illumined in the light of a cross.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Raising the Dead

2 Pentecost Year C
Luke 7:11-17

“Raising the Dead”

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Memorial Day, I saw a photograph.
I saw a photograph of a young woman lying face down in front of a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.
She’s lying down as if she is praying. Reading the article which accompanied the photograph, I discovered that she is lying in front of the grave of her fiancĂ©, James Regan.
A photographer discovered her there, “talking to the stone.
He wrote that, “She spoke in broken sentences between sobs, gesturing with her hands, sometimes pausing as if she were trying to explain, with so much left needed to say.”

That was three years ago.
I wonder what has happened to the young woman in those three years.

Does she still haunt the cemetery, speaking to the stone?
Does she still weep? Is there still so much left to say?
Her grief is so personal, and yet I would guess that many of us would understand, would feel a kinship, would say we know something, a little, of what she has suffered.
So many of us would understand, a little or a lot, just as we might understand a little or a lot of the story in today’s gospel.
After all, it’s a story that takes place at a funeral.

“Do not weep.”

These are Jesus’ first words to the widow he meets in our gospel story today.
“Do not weep,” he tells her, which means that we can assume that she is weeping.
In fact, she is probably weeping and wailing loudly, as the funeral procession makes its way through town.
There are so many ways that this woman has become desperate that it might be hard for us to imagine.
First there is the grief that we can understand: a parent losing a child! – even an adult child

It’s hard enough for grown children when their parents die, but for a child to die first – unimaginable
– I once had a funeral for a 99 year old woman in my congregation. Sigrid was her name. She came from Norway, married and lived through the hardscrabble years of the depression, through two World Wars. She had six children, but her two daughters were the only ones I met, the only two left of her children.
At her funeral service, several people asked to stand up and briefly share a memory of Sigrid.
One man stood up in the pew and said that he had asked her once what was the most difficult thing she had to deal with in her life. She replied, “that four of her children died before she did.”

So that grief is hard enough – the grief of a parent losing a child – a widow who has lost her ONLY child, her only son.
But the woman is also desperate for another reason – when her son died, she lost her place in society, she lost her support, she lost the one who could speak for her.
A woman in those times needed a male advocate. First it would have been her husband, but he had died, leaving her a widow.
Then it was her son, her adult son. So the woman was probably not just weeping because she lost her son, but because she lost her advocate.
And when Jesus touched the funeral bier he not only restored this relationship, he also gave her back a place in the community.
He gave her back a voice.
He said to her, “Do not weep,” but he did more: he raised her son, and changed both of their lives. He gave her back her son, restored her hope, restored her life.

And if we are honest, wouldn’t we hope for the same? Don’t we hope for the same?
Imagine for a moment that you are widow, weeping, alone, without an advocate in the world.
Imagine that you are the one standing at the bedside of a friend, or that you are at the graveside, or that you are in the funeral procession, saying goodbye.

I can tell you – I’ve been to a lot of funerals – but I’ve never been to one yet where the dead person sat up.
Instead, we go to the cemetery, where we stand around in a circle and pray, and where people sometimes weep, and where a fresh headstone is laid down.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals, and some were for people who lived long and faithful lives, and others were for people whose lives were too short, and who left people who depended on them, in one way or another.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals, where people speak in broken sentences between sobs ... pausing as if they were trying to explain with so much left to say.

I’ve been to a lot of funerals, and I’ve never yet seen the dead person sit up – and yet, I believe in a God who raises the dead. I believe in a God who reaches out to touch us,
to speak for us when we are vulnerable,
to give us to one another when we are lonely.
I believe in this God because there have been times in my life when I have been lonely, grieving, times when I have needed an advocate –
and God has raised someone up to speak for me, to comfort me, to encourage me.
Not just a spiritual feeling in my heart, but God has sent a real, live flesh-and-blood person.
Has it been that way for you, as well?

As I said, I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life – and some just recently. And I nearly always hear – or sometimes speak – these words

“When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might life a new life.”

....We too might live a new life.

What does this mean? I’ll tell you what – it means that we are wailing widows, in need of an advocate, but that even more so, we are Jesus’ disciples, that we have been raised to new life and called to live compassionate lives, reaching out to touch one another, reaching out to heal, to speak words of forgiveness that change reality. We are raised to new life, to live not for ourselves, but for one another. We are called to challenge the status quo, we are called to restore hope.

We are called to stand in front of tombstones where people are speaking in broken sentences.....
We are called to stand at soup kitchens where people are hungry
We are called to stand up for people who are forgotten and left out.
For ... as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.

If you read the book of “faith stories,” told by a few members of our congregation, some of the stories you will read are stories of grieving – and hope.
They are stories about prayer, and perseverance, death and resurrection.


One story told is about a young woman who lost her mother to cancer when she herself was a new mother just 28 years old.
She speaks about this time as a time when she was raised up. She say that she was “learning to fly,” by which I think she means learning to rely on God, to trust that God was present in her life.
She writes about that time,

“God and my faith in Him got me through each step of her disease. I think that’s how He knew I could handle her leaving – one small step at a time.
One breast removed, spread to another breast and removed, to her hip, to her brain, to her lungs. One small step at a time preparing us, testing our faith, one disappointment at a time.”

She concludes her story, “Then I would take a big breath, take a step, and another.
I would flap my wings;...I would sing a new song about a life with my new family...
I would fly and get to the destination knowing that God is with me and my mom behind me....”

So we too each day rise to new life, we learn to flap our wings, to fly,
because we believe that we have been buried in the waters of baptism, and have risen each day to “live a new life.”
We rise to live a new life for one another.
We grieve and we comfort others in their sorrow; we rise and we help others to stand.

Because in this life we know, like that young woman weeping in front of the soldier’s tomb, that there is so much left to say.
But we also know that when our sentences trail off... there is One who has the last word.
“Do not weep,” he tells us.
He has risen - indeed.



Amen

Friday, June 4, 2010

From "Commendation of the Dying"

N, our sister in the faith, we entrust you to God who created you. May you return to the one who formed us out of the dust of the earth. Surrounded by the angels and triumphant saints, may Christ come to meet you as you go forth from this life.

Christ, the Lord of glory, who was crucified for you, bring you freedom and peac.e

Christ, the High Priest, who has forgiven all your sins, keep you among his people.

Christ, the Son of God, who died for you, show you the glories of his eternal kingdom.

Christ, the Good Shepherd, enfold you with his tender care. May you see your redeemer face to face and enjoy the sight of God forever.

AMEN