Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brief Encounters While Walking the Dog

Here's something I'm not proud to admit:

I don't walk the dog as often as I used to.

In fact, I am positively lazy in this regard sometimes.

A combination of two things contributes to this reality (okay, really three if you include laziness), the first is my ongoing problem with plantar faschiatis, which seems to have migrated from my left heel to the right one, now.  The second thing is our fenced-in backyard.  I initially began taking Scout for long walks every day because we did not yet have a fenced-in backyard.  But even afterwards, the habit persisted, until laziness and the sore feet conspired against me.

I think Scout does enjoy the free time in the back yard.  Sometimes when I peek out to watch here, she is just gazing medititavely into space, the tao of dog.  Other things, she is taking off as if to chase invisible prey.  This morning, I happened to look outside just at a moment when she was writing joyfully on her back. 

But I know she would benefit from a regular walk, as would I.

So yesterday my better nature won out over my sloth.  I put on my tennis shoes and a sweat shirt, put the leash on the dog and set out. 

It wasn't a long walk, not like the long walks we used to have, anyway.  But at the corner was a young mom who was waiting with her two daughters for the school bus.  One of the girls got on; the other stayed behind.  I recognize this family though I don't know them by name.  It seems they know Scout; she is more famous than I am.  The little girl wanted to pet her.  At first, it seemed that Scout was not going to oblige, but at the last minute she decided that being petted was a good idea.

I decided to take a risk and invited them to our Animal Blessing Service this Sunday.  They demurred; they weren't sure their dog was ready for public appearances yet.   I wondered if they had a church affiliation, but didn't ask.   

We started back down the block toward home when I heard a voice. 

It was our next-door neighbor, complimenting our newly-landscaped front lawn.  He seemed positively giddy with delight that our lawn now does not look as awful as it did before.  He was very friendly for so early in the morning.  I made a comment about the new priest at their church, and he mentioned that they no longer attend that congregation; they've been going to a local mega-church which does not make a big deal about their denominanational affiliation.  He likes it, he said.  I wondered what it was he liked, but didn't have a chance to ask.

So, throughout the day, off and on, I wondered:  I wondered what it is that attracts people to a congregation, what makes them decide to stay, or leave, to set foot in the sanctuary, or not.  I wondered what a person who comes to visit us is looking for, or not looking for.  I don't want to be the kind of person who reads a book (or books) and assumes she knows what people's hearts yearn for.  So, I just had two small conversations, and I wondered a little.

Scout and I have to get out more. 

It's good for both of us to practice the spiritual discipline of walking.

And wondering.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conversion

I'm for it.

Perhaps you are surprised.  After all, I'm a born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool, baptized-when-I-was-4-weeks-old-and-proud-of-it Lutheran.  I do mark that early date, May 19 of the year I was born, as the beginning of my relationship with God.  I love baptisms, whether the baby is 5 weeks old or three years old, or 10 years old, or twenty five years old, or eighty-one years old.  I love baptisms.  I think my congregation will attest to this, the sheer graciousness of the event, every time.

And yet....

We had a guest preacher at church today, a woman from India who is also a missionary in India.  She told us powerful stories of God's movement in her life, her family's life, the lives of the students at the school where she teaches.  She told stories of how she came to the United States with $200 from her parents, and one suitcase, and how her mother said, "you'll make it."  She told a story of a ten-year-old girl praying for her family, a story of God opening a hard heart:  stories of conversion.

Conversion stories have always had a place in my heart.  From Anne LaMott reporting how Jesus dogged her like the hound of heaven, to Lauren Winner's strange dream and warm affinity for the stories of Jan Karon, I've been fascinated by stories of how people have come to faith.  When in high school a friend of my father's gave me the old classic The Cross and the Switchblade, and perhaps started right then and there my attraction to the dramatic conversion story.  It's so different from my own journey, from baptism to Sunday School, from Church camp to college, from Japan and back to the United States, from teaching English to working for an insurance company and then from seminary to where I am now.

Wait a minute.

What about my struggles and doubts in my senior year of high school, followed by that "leap of faith"?  What about the religious experiences I had when I was in college?  What about the experiences I had in Japan, when I realized (suddenly or not) that faith was a much wider, and varied thing than I had thought before?  Or what about the conversion I experienced after reading Ron Sider's Rich Christians in a Age of Hunger for the first time?  And there has been the long conversion I have experienced after knowing Gay and Lesbian Christians.

Perhaps it's wrong (actually I'm sure it's wrong) to limit conversion stories to the once-in-a-lifetime and dramatic stories of people who turn from the gangs of New York to the arms of Jesus.  Conversion is a natural part of the Christian life, even and especially for people who were baptized when they were four weeks old.  And I think that people who think they were converted once, and are now done, are wrong about that:  life with God means continuing to be open to being converted.

I have come to believe that in the life of a believer there are many conversions.  Some are dramatic and some are subtle, and none of them takes away from God's grace, God's coming-to-me-no-matter what.  Conversions don't save us, they don't make God love us any better, but they do something important in us, and, I believe that conversions are God's work in us, too.

When people experience a sort of conversion something is kindled or re-kindled in us, something necessary, I think, when we are in this Christian life for the long haul.  Let's be honest.  Whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool, baptized-when-you-are-4-weeks-old Lutheran or a hands-waving-in-the-air Pentecostal, or even Spiritual-but-not-religious, a lot of life is boring.  Church can be boring.  Seeing God in a cricket or a sunset can be boring.  Following God can be boring, because it is a daily thing, step by step, sometimes tracing the same steps.  Who told us that we needed to be constantly entertained, to entertain each other? You know:  chop wood, carry water.  Before and after enlightenement.

Except that there are these flames, small or large, that turn us around.  Sometimes it's a person you met or a place you went that changed your perspective, and kindled a new flame in your heart.  Sometimes it's a song you sang that was boring every time:  until today.   Sometimes it's the hard times when you thought that faith was gone and then there was a small pin-prick of light, and it got bigger.  Sometimes it happens in a strange place, and sometimes in a familiar place. 

Come to think of it, I do think that conversions save us, in a way.  Not in the long-run, but for continuing daily service and worship in this life, this amazing and boring life. Something is kindled or re-kindled in us.  God turns us around, turns the lights on bright again, for just a little while.

Conversion:  I'm for it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Night

Saturday nights are quiet around the house.  No late night parties, no big plans (usually), no large dinner parties (or small ones, even).  When I preach on Saturday, in fact, I'm usually in the office for at least part of the day, after which we do something really exciting like watching "Antiques Roadshow".  I might glance over my sermon once or twice, or I might avoid it altogether until just before I go to bed.

This weekend I am not preaching.  I'm not even presiding at the early service.  It feels odd, actually.

So, I'm knitting a turquoise footie (the second one, actually).  Last weekend, I started it, found a dropped stitch, and ended up ripping up the whole sock and starting over.  I'm just about where I started again.  (There's a metaphor in there, somewhere, I'm sure.  Or, a sermon illustration.)

I'm reading a little.  I just finished The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, and want to get the next in the series as soon as I can.  I read all of the Little House books when I was little.  Louise Erdrich was inspired to write her counterpoint from the Native point of view, at least in part, because of something Caroline Ingalls said in one of the books, "There's no one here."  I'm glad to know this Ojibwe family; I think in future books they will probably travel from place to place like the Ingalls family, but for different reasons. 

We watched an old movie from 1932, Love Me Tonight, while my husband did interesting historical background on his ipad.  He also worked on an old acrostic.   I could watch over and over the opening sequence, in which the song "Isn't it Romantic?" travels from person to person and place to place.

Tomorrow, I'm looking forward to hearing Nihjar Ekka-Minz preach, instead of me.  I'm looking forward to hearing about work in faraway North India.  Nihjar and her husband tell fascinating stories.  And I can't help loving stories.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Remember Riding in the Car with My Dad when I was Little

"You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you area t home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so taht your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth."

Deuteronomy 11:18-21

I remember riding in the car with my dad when I was little.  I remember partly because when I was small, my dad had a big orange van that he used for his business, which was TV Sales and Service.  It had the words G&B TV on the side in great big letters.  This was an era waaaaay before SUVs, and riding in my dad's van was an adventure.  Sometimes when we set out, he would pretend that we were taking off in a huge jet liner:  "Pilot to co-pilot/pilot to co-pilot, come in please," he'd say to me.

I remember riding in the car with my dad.

Sometimes we'd be going to get the Christmas tree, and he'd be singing Christmas carols all the way there and back.  Sometimes he told jokes, kind of cheesy jokes, actually, and other times we'd have serious conversations, especially as I got older.

We discussed questions, even theological questions, on occasion, talked about (for example) what was the most important day in the church year (Easter? Christmas? Pentecost?), or why bad things happened to good people (neither of us had the answer to that).  I remember on a couple of occasions, he talked about tragedies we had heard about on the news, and people's statements that they were saved from death or injury or some bad thing, becasue "God was with them."  But, my dad would always say, "What about all those other people?  The ones who died?  The ones who suffered?"  Wasn't God with them, too?  Didn't God love them too?

I remember riding in the car with my dad, and the converesations we had.

"Teach (these things) to your children, talking  about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise."

One of the things I think about often is what it means to live a generous life.  What does it mean for us, as individuals, as families, as a congregation, to be known as generous?  There are a lot of components to this, lots of ways to practice generosity -- or not.  There are people who are quick to give, a little or a lot, whenever there is a need.  There are people who are quick to extend their own hearts to others, be vulnerable, share their own struggles, be real.

My dad wasn't perfect by any means.  But it seems to me that he had a kind of generosity, the generosity to count among God's blessed ones the suffering and the sorrowing, the down-and-out as well as the up-and-coming. 

As we contemplate in our congregation what it means to live a generous life, I hope that our definition will include both generous financial giving to the mission of our congregation, and a generous heart, one that extends God's presence and God's love to the ones who need it most.

I remember riding in the car with my dad, when I was little.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Five: Seeking What?

I haven't done the RevGals "Friday Five" for a long time.  This one, from Jan, seemed like a good place to start:

I was struck in our weekly Lectio Divina group by a few verses from Psalm 105: 3-4


. . let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually.


Seeking is rejoicing. Rejoicing comes from the seeking, NOT the end of glory, heaven, enlightenment, or whatever. Seeking is the journey--RIGHT NOW!


So for this Friday Five, list what you are seeking, whether it is trivial, profound, or ordinary--whatever you would like to share.  List 5 and add a  bonus if you feel like it.

Here are my five:

I am seeking:

1.  Community.  Not perfect community, but a community that both wants to work together for a larger purpose, and a community that supports and and encourages one another, and especially those who are most vulnerable.
2.  An Outlet for Creativity.  Some space and some self-discipline for writing.  A know friends who regularly get prayers and worship materials published, and I find myself a little jealous, both thinking about having the venue and also finding the time.

3. Beauty.  I do find myself drawn to beauty, in all its forms.  I just learned that the St. John's Bible is finished, for example.  I bought a little piece of folk art and a storyteller doll when we were in New Mexico/Colorado.  I buy yarn sometimes, even before I know what it's for, just because it looks so beautiful, and full of possibility to me.

4.  Light.  Our church's fall theme (which is actually a stewardship theme, but that's another post) is "Shine!"  so everywhere I go, I'm seeking out light, from flashlights to candles to a video of the northern lights in Iceland.  And mirrors.  And a child's eyes.  The light of a smile, and the way tears glisten.  Help me find some more light, will you?

5.  Laughter.  I just found this great quote, "Laughter is an instant vacation."  So I am seeking opportunities to laugh, sometimes, even when I'm close to tears.

BONUS:  Wisdom.  that's all I'm going to say about that. 

P.S.  the four things that I was missing last week:  a small pen, my watch, a gift card and a knitting pattern -- have all been found, as of yesterday.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

They're Back

This Sunday was "Rally Day" on the church calendar, the day that the prodigal worshipers return (well, most of them, anyway), the day we are most likely to have visitors (other than Christmas and Easter), the day Sunday School starts, and a day when there are always plenty of brightly-colored balloons.

The children are back.  The youth are back.  The babies are back -- I can hear some crying in the back pew.  There are a couple of families that I haven't seen in awhile, a new young couple in the adult choir, and also playing the handbells.  There are teachers starting off the school year, and children with and without backpacks (we ask them to bring backpacks.)

I like to have children and adults help with the service, but we decided that the service was so full already, full of prayers and blessings and the children singing "This little light of Mine."  So we only read the gospel at the second service. 

I asked one of our high school students to do something different instead:  help me in leading the intercessory prayers.  We both knelt at the altar, trading petitions back and forth.  I thought I saw a couple in the front beaming as she went back to her seat at the close of the prayers.

Earlier in the service, we blessed the children and their backpacks.  There were so many up there I thought I would get lost in the crowd (perhaps I did; I'm a little height challenged).  I've never done this before, but I decided to ask the congregation to raise their hands forward in blessing as we said the prayer.  I then invited Sunday School teachers, and all teachers to come forward and be blessed at the beginning of their school year. 

We raised our hands again.

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another -- our children, the single person sitting alone, the grandparents, the parents, the non-parents, the out-of-work, the tired, the stranger, the one weeping, the one whispering.   

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another -- the clerk at the supermarket, the guy on the ladder, the man in the nursing home, the person who gives you a kiss when you walk in the door, the person who hates you, the person who doesn't understand you, or who knows you too well. 

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another, to raise our hands forward, to touch each other's lives, to change the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Just Another Meeting Night

My congregation has been in a pastoral transition for about a year now, which poses its challenges, creates opportunities, and -- may I say -- also causes me, occasionally, to be surprised.

Our congregation, like many other congregations, has meetings.  We have Leadership Board meetings.  We have Worship Planning Meetings.  We have Committee Meetings.  We have Global Mission Meetings.  We have Education Meetings.  We have Stewardship Meetings (sometimes).  Lately, since we are in a pastoral transition, there have been other sorts of meetings as well.

You get the picture. 

As associate pastor, there have been places where my input has been welcome, and other areas that I haven't been much involved. One of the places I haven't been involved has been a group called the "Nominating Committee."  Their job has been to help fill the positions on the Board and other committees as they come up for election.

Like many jobs involving regular meetings, there hasn't been a long line of people waiting to do this job.

But about a year and a half ago, I had an idea about doing something different with this group.  And, since no one told me not to, I started doing it.

Using some principles from the field of organizing, I made the former "Nominating Committee" into a "Leadership Development Committee" instead, with these objectives:

1.  Create connections and get to know other people in the congregation.
2.  Learn more about them as people:  their stories, their interests, passions, concerns.
3.  Help them to find places in and out of the congregation to develop their gifts.
4.  Find out who can be developed as a congregational leader and help them find places to serve.

I didn't get this out of a book I read, and, even now, I wonder if this will work.  We are coming up to the Congregational Meeting at the end of the fall, and will need to have people willing to serve in congregational positions.  That's the criteria I imagine the congregation will use to judge whether this "system" works.

In the meantime, we try to have "one to one" conversations with two other people very month and report out on them.  Recently we discovered in a conversation a retired woman who really wanted to be involved in a Social Service ministry -- so we're giving her the opportunity.  We're making lists of people who like to do "hands on" ministry and hate meetings, who play instruments, who like to sing, who like to clean and to cook.  We're finding out about people who are passionate about being a more diverse and inclusive faith community.

(Now we could use a good method to keep track of all of this information for us.)

When we do ask people to do a task, or lead a group, or be involved in something, we do it in the context of a relationship we are building, and after knowing something about the person we are talking to.  We HOPE that we are asking them to be involved in something that they care about, and that will help them grow in their discipleship.

Every month when we meet around the table, I'm amazed:  what we are doing feels strategic, holy, and risky.  I go away every month impressed by the leadership of the people around the table, the people they are meeting, the circles that a rippling out from six people into the congregation.

As associate pastor, I often had ideas, sometimes ideas that I didn't really have the power to implement.  It's always safer to have an idea if you don't ever had to try it and see if it works.  (something like being a political pundit.)

But here I am, putting an idea into action, experimenting with my congregation, rallying the troops, not really knowing whether what I am doing will succeed or fail.  I do think that this organizational principal will bear fruit, but that we will have to be patient.  But I don't KNOW it.   What I do know is that I am discovering (by experiment) more and more of who I am as a leader.

I'll let you know how it goes.  Okay?

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Labor Day: Respecting All Kinds of Work

The other day, I was doing a little "internet checking" and went into a website called "Viewshound", where anyone can publish their views and opinions on almost everything.  I actually got an article published there once, a few weeks ago; I wanted to check out their religion section, which is listed (interestingly) within a larger section called "Real Life." 

There I was pleased to find an article by a man who took the time and trouble to write about his faith as a Christian, in response to an atheist who had posted earlier.  I resonated with the inclusivity of his faith and his witness of "total dependence on Jesus." 

Then, at the end, came the zinger.  He doesn't go to church, because the churches make him mad.  (Ok, so I kind of get that.)  And, to top things off, pastors make him mad as well, with their "easy jobs and cushy pensions." 

Well, all righty then.

After the defensive knee-jerking (you think my job is easy?  Just try presiding at the funeral for a still-born baby, or coordinating moving help for the woman who's losing her home, or talking to the people who come in looking for cash, or talking to the couple who won't talk to each other, or just standing in front of people every Sunday and looking into their eyes, and knowing they are all expecting a good word for their lives, and for the battles they face....)

After the defensive knee-jerking was done, what I was left with was the understanding of what it feels like when your vocation has been dismissed as something relatively easy and without much value.

I think that pastors are also guilty of doing this, although in more subtle ways.  Sometimes it's not understanding what it's like to work eight hour days, with 1/2 hour for lunch.  Sometimes it's not understanding that there are a lot of other vocations where people need to work evenings or take work home, or where the hours are erratic.  Sometimes it's not understanding that the people who are our church leaders are doing this volunteer work on top of their other work.

But lack of respect for different kinds of work is everywhere, not just the man who thinks that I have an "easy job", but in the people who like to think that teachers and other public employees are the cause of our problems, in the people who think that those who work with their hands have easy work, or that those who use their brains more than their hands have easy work, or that those who get to go home at 5:00 have easy work, or that those who have a flexible schedule have easy work.  Lately there has been disturbing rhetoric that I think tries to elevate certain kinds of work (some people are "job creators" and others are not) without understanding the value and the challenges and the necessity of all kinds of work.

Professional musicians I know sometimes complain that no one really understands the complex set of skills and physical challenges of their work -- after all it looks so fun, and some people do it for fun.  But the same thing could be said about the landscaper who is coming to beautify our front yard, or the hairdresser, or the homebuilder.  And what about the clerk who rings up your purchases, or the waitress that serves you, or the janitor who comes in the night and cleans the building where you work?  I will come right out and say that though I have typed for a living, I have never worked a cash register, or waitressed.  I have known for almost all of my life that I would not be good at waitressing.  I bow to those who are.

So this Labor Day, I give thanks for the garbage collector, the clerk at my grocery store, the teachers and nurses and doctors, secretaries and administrators, those who work on assembly lines, musicians and artists, the landscaper and the person who repairs the roof, I give thanks for those who run companies and those who work for the companies, those who work in the private sector and those in the public sector.

And I invite you to share your own stories of the unique rewards and challenges of the work you do.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Church-y

Lately, I've been thinking about this thing called "the church", and what it means, and its many forms.  Someone recently intimated that I might be a tad or more invested in the survival of this "institution" we call "the church". 

Maybe she's right. 

I've been a church person since way back.  Can't do anything about it.  I was kind of geeky about it, just liked going to church, singing the hymns.  I even did the "put you hands in the air" thing for a few years. 

There was a while when I kind of wished that I had a terrible past, and a dramatic conversion story.  Perhaps I was reading too many paperbacks at the time. 

Be that as it may, I suppose since I am a pastor, and I do the work of leading a congregation, I can't totally get by with saying I'm not interested in the church as an institution.  That would be disingenous.

However, what I am really passionate about, what I really care about (I think) is not so much the church as an institution as the church as a gathering. 

You know, "where two or three are gathered...."  I really do believe that disciples of Jesus need to gather.

It can be at a high Mass on Sunday morning, or it can be four people in someone's basement on Wednesday evening, practicing Lectio Divina. 

Just being with two or three other people and the Word sometimes has the ability to help me see beyond my own self-importance or my own self-negation.  Sometimes it's despair I need to find a way out of.  Sometimes it's the pride to think I'm always right.

Long ago, I called my blog "faith in community" because I really thought that.  It doesn't mean the community has to be so big, or formal.  You don't have to sing the songs I like.  You don't have to sing at all (although I do like to sing.)  It also doesn't mean that I think that community is perfect, or easy, or that there's no fighting, or hurting, misunderstanding or meanness.

Maybe that's the reason we need his promise, "where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them."  Not just for comfort or for prayer, but for reconciliation.





Thursday, September 1, 2011

Where Two or Three are Gathered

I'm preparing a sermon about this short passage of scripture for this weekend, which means that so far I'm reading and thinking and day-dreaming but haven't put pen to paper -- yet.

I confess a certain fondness for that last verse of the passage, not the whole passage, just the last verse, which says, "Where-ever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them."  I am so fond of this passage that I often use it in the beginning of prayers at hospitals and with shut-ins, a reminder of God's promise to hear our prayers, even if there are just two of us.

But that's just one verse, not the whole passage, which I like to wrest conveniently out of its context, a context that includes instructions for dealing with conflict, and promises that seem too exaggerated to possibly be true (If two of you will agree on anything, I will do it:  really?  Really, Jesus?)

The problem with verse twenty, "where two or three are gathered," is that it's so comforting, so comforting that, by itself, as a verse, it can contribute to a sort of romantic notion of community.  Get two people together in a room, praying, and somehow, Jesus is among them.  No doubt, that can't be a bad thing.

But for the first time, when I heard that verse read, I asked, "Yes, but to what end?  Jesus is among us, but to do what?"  To hold our hands, and dry our tears, and hear our prayers? 

Or maybe more than that:  to hold us together, to send us out, to give us a wider vision when we feel like giving up.  Or maybe to bring us back together when we're fighting, to help us learn the truth, to give us power.

This whole passage of scripture, not just verse twenty, is about two:  two people fighting and two people reconciling, or not; two people agreeing, and two people (or three) gathering in Jesus' name. 

I think what I like about the passage is that it's not about hundreds of people and it's not about one.  And we often skew so often one way or the other, thinking that, on the one hand, something is only really worthwhile if thousands of people are doing it (megachurches, the State Fair, huge concerts, big box retailerers), or, on the other hand, that the most powerful, most virtuous position is that of the rugged individualist, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, standing alone against the mob.

Instead, where two or three are gathered -- could be more but it doesn't have to be -- is the most powerful position.  Not alone, but not a mob.  The basic unit of discipleship is a relationship.

But, what kind of a relationship is it?  What kind of community will we be?  What kind of a community do we want to be?

That's the question.