Thursday, April 30, 2015

Today, I Cried

For a long time, I have seen a certain hand-made book on a shelf at the Book Arts Center, and coveted it.

I realize that a "Book Arts Center" is an odd and mysterious place, perhaps one you never knew existed.  At the Book Arts Center I learned to make a couple of basic hand-sewn books, and learned a little about the construction and history of books, as well.  And at the small gift shop, where the tools for making your own books are sold, I also saw this book.

It was called "Sightings."  Inside it there were beautiful small poems and colorful drawings.

I wanted the book because it was beautiful.  It was art.

I also wanted the book because of its title.  When I saw the title, "Sightings," I thought of God-sightings, and trying to teach my congregation how to see God in their lives.

But, it is a hand-made book.  It would have been an extravagance.  There were other books more extravagant, of course (some that took my breath away), but this one was just enough out of my price range to make me sigh.  So I just coveted it, and looked for it on the shelf every time I went into the book arts center.  It was always there, although sometimes they moved it to another location so I would have to hunt for it.

But, this month was my birthday.  My husband has known that I have coveted this book and he gave me the money so that we could go get it.  On my birthday we went to the book arts center, ate lunch at the small cafe and hunted for the book in the gift shop.

We didn't find it.

I asked the clerk to hunt for us.  They said that they were sold out.  I asked if they could find out if the artists had more, or if the edition was sold out.  They said they would try.

Then the emails began.  They were indeed sold out.  There were no more copies.  I sighed and asked the "hail Mary" question:  if they found out that someone didn't want their copy, would they give me a call?  That was it.

And then I started getting emails from one of the book artists.  There were, indeed, no more copies, she said, but one:  the artist's proof.  Would I like to see it?  I might not like it, but if I did, she would sell it to me, for slightly less than the finished book.  She told me about another of her books that I might like, and I told her why I had a special affection for "Sightings."

She said, "If you decide to purchase it, I will tell you the story about it."

So today, I went over to the book arts center, and found the artist, and she showed me the book.  The pages are stitched together, and the title is hand printed in marker.

She told me that she first began to think about this book when she was taking care of a friend who was dying of cancer.  And while she sat with, cared for, her friend, she started to see, and to write, and to draw, what she would miss, if she was dying.

My eyes started to hurt.  I have sat with many people who were dying.

Today, I officially announced that I have taken a call to another congregation, to people I have just met, and to places I have only seen once or twice.  I am thinking about what I will learn, and who I will meet, and what we will do, together.

And I am thinking about what I will miss.

Sometimes, many times, that is just where I see God.

But, it makes my eyes hurt.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cut Off

It was unusual to have visitors in my little churches in South Dakota, unless they were visiting and related to someone else in the church.  This was not because the church was so unwelcoming; there were just about sixty-three souls in the town (give or take a few), and most of them were already members of my parish.

So that April morning in 1997 I couldn't help but notice the new couple, sitting on the aisle, near the back.

"We'll be back," they told me as they shook my hand at the end of worship.  "We're refugees from Grand Forks."

Refugees.  That's the word they used.  And I knew what they meant.  There was water everywhere that spring, and not just in that good, life-giving way we think about.  It had been a terrible winter, and now there were roads under water, and detours around the roads under water, and some places where you could not go.  But it was worse in Grand Forks and in East Grand Forks.

This couple had left their home and left their church.  They were staying with relatives in a small town nearby.  They were told to go.  They were not sure how long they would have to stay.  They were not sure when they would be told they could go back.  There were not sure what would be there when they returned.

They were refugees.  That's what they called themselves.  They were cut off from their home and their church.

They didn't know anyone at my congregation.  But, for about a month, they worshipped with us.  One evening they made an appointment and came by the church office, just to talk, and to pray.

I remembered then that the community of John's gospel included Jewish believers who had, at some point, been told that their confession of Jesus as Messiah made them unwelcome in their synagogues.  They were cut off from the community that had sustained them and given their lives meaning and were struggling to know who they were now apart from that identity.

Cut off.

"Abide in me," Jesus says to his disciples in John 15, "as a branch abides in the vine.  Apart from me you can do nothing."  It makes sense, but it also seems harsh, thinking about those dead branches, cut off.

I thought of all of the places we call "home" -- the farms of South Dakota where my farmers earned their livelihoods and made their lives, the city where my Swedish grandparents moved and learned a new language and raised their children, the congregation that has called me to be their pastor.  They are all places.  We can be cut off from every single one of them.

But when you are cut off, when you are a refugee, when you are told you are not welcome, when you are kicked out, Jesus says, "I am the vine.  Life is in me.  You can bear fruit anywhere."

That's what he says.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I Didn't Preach This Weekend

Since I had preached two weekends in a row, it felt odd not to preach this weekend, a little gulp in the rhythm,  a time to stretch my legs and think about something else for a little while.  Then I remembered that I actually preached at a funeral service on Friday and for a wedding on Saturday.  So you can't really say that I was off.

For some reason I have been reminiscing lately, thinking back on my ministry and my life.  There's something about a funeral and a wedding that does that, especially these.

The Friday funeral was for a man I didn't really know.  He was the son of members of my congregation who were also good friends of my parents.  He had lived far away for a long time, and I had only met him, briefly, for a long time.  Long long ago, back in the glory days of this congregation and in the glory days of mainline churches in general, he had been active in youth and singing groups.  It was very sudden this winter when he became ill and died.

I didn't really know him, but I knew his parents.  I used to visit them in their apartment and give them communion.  I would find out how they were doing and they would ask about my parents, especially my father.   When she was dying, I drove my mother out to see her in hospice care one time.  I remember how at ease she was with her dying.  When she got into hospice, she said, 'Now I can have communion every day!"  It was a foretaste of the feast to come.

But I didn't really know their youngest son.  He had grown up and moved away.  He lived out in the Southwest, where they ended up spending their winters.  I learned some things about him from his father, from his sister, and from old old friends who had come to the funeral.  Their words were about him:  how funny he was, how smart he was, what a good friend he was.  And their words went back to the glory days of this congregation, back when congregations were bursting at the seams with World War II veterans and their children.  I preached about the promises of God and how nothing can separate us from the love of God, even though we wander.  Someone sang a hymn which begins, "When at night I go to sleep fourteen angels watch do keep."

After the funeral on Friday afternoon, I rode back to the church in the car with his father and his sister.  Hie father asked us to avoid the highway and travel the scenic route, along parkways and around some of the lakes of our city.  It seemed fitting, somehow.

Then, I returned to the church for a wedding rehearsal.  I have known the man getting married since he was a little boy.  He and his parents joined our congregation when I was a teenager.  They directed the choir and played the organ while he and his brothers were growing up.  Their family seems like family to me.

His mother grew up in this congregation.  She was away for a long time, and now she returned.  I had her father's funeral here, several years ago.  She has returned and her son decided he wanted to have his wedding here.  The family of musicians provided all of the music.  I preached, talking about what it means to have a good foundation.  I remembered how one of my uncles built a house, and how they lived in their basement, with carpet-squared carpeting, for a long time.  It was a good foundation, but it was messy, and it took time.

So, I didn't preach this weekend, on Sunday anyway.

And here's what I am thinking:  the foundation is love.
It takes time, and it's messy.
And it doesn't solve everything.
Not even close.
But, riding in the car along the lakes, on the way home, I believed that it was true, anyway:
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Nothing can separate us.
In the end.
The foundation is love.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Our Book Arrived! There's A Woman In the Pulpit

The RevGals book arrived at my door yesterday afternoon, not to long before I was supposed to leave to prepare and preach for our Saturday evening worship service.  I'll confess, though:  the night before I broke down and bought an e-copy because I couldn't stand it any more.  I had to start reading, even though I had (have) more than enough to do.

I have an essay in this book (I'm not ashamed to admit), but I haven't read as far as my essay yet.  In fact, I have just tonight gotten as far as page 58.  I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading "By Water and the Word," by my friend Jennifer Burns Lewis.  She is my friend from Western Springs:  I even met her once, when were visiting family in Chicago.  In true RevGals fashion, we took pictures of our shoes (many of us blogged anonymously back then).

Some of the women in the book are "virtual" friends:  people whose blogs I have been reading, off and on, from April of 2007 when I created my own blog with the very basic instructions from one of my stepsons:  "Go to www.blogger.com and do whatever they tell you to do."  About a month and a half later, in ignorance of the rules that said you had to be blogging for six months to join the "RevGalBlogPals" blog ring, I requested permission and became a member.  I began to "meet" other women in ministry from other traditions and other areas of the country, learning about their lives and their families and their hobbies, the joys and the struggles of ministry where-ever we were.

So, the book I now hold in my hands is a writing project, and I'm excited about that, but it's also the product of a community.  It is a virtual community which is a real community of support:  we share stories and wisdom and advice; we read each other's thoughts; sometimes we even get a chance to meet in person.

I'm excited and proud to be a small part of this book, which includes so much honesty, so much wisdom, so much diversity.  They are doors left open into our lives, and the lives of our congregations and our families, if you are curious at all.  

Should you read this book?  Yes.
Should you buy this book?  Yes.
Will you laugh?  Will you cry?
I did.

(There's a Woman In the Pulpit is available from Amazon; also check your local bookstores!)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eating What Is Set Before You

I lived in Japan for three years and never ate raw horse meat, although I heard that it was a delicacy in the region where I lived.  It was called "basashi," I heard, and kept wondering if there would be a time when I would have to swallow my revulsion and taste it.  But it never happened.

There were new and strange foods, though, and I learned that it was part of being a missionary to learn to eat things I had never tasted before, to accept hospitality as well as to provide it.  Being a missionary was not about being in charge all of the time.  It was about learning to live in a strange place, and eat new things with chopsticks and humility.  I'll be honest, there were times when I would have identified with Peter -- being offered a meal, and wanting to shrink away and say, "Oh no, Lord, I would never eat that!  It can't be right to eat that!"

I remember the first time I bit down on something deep-fried, only to be told that it was "taco" -- octopus.  It was okay, actually, after the initial shock of picturing an octopus tentacle passed over me.  I also remember the surprise of tasting wasabi (Japanese horseradish) for the first time.  Many times I learned that a new food that I did not want to try was a gourmet dish and an act of extravagant hospitality.

But of course -- Peter's reticence was more than cultural.  These are foods that God had commanded him not to eat.  This was about obedience to God, not just cultural preference or being a 'picky eater.'  And the lesson here is not so much about the food as it is about people -- just as it was when I became a missionary in Japan.  It is about what we eat, but more than that, who we eat with -- who we allow ourselves to eat with, to associate with, to worship with -- to live with.

While we have learned to eat different kinds of ethnic foods these days, we are more divided than ever -- by race and class and language.  I remember the first time I helped serve a free meal through an organization called "Loaves and Fishes."  While I was very comfortable ladling the food, serving food, I became uncomfortable when someone told me to go and sit and eat with the people I was serving.  I have to ask myself why.  I don't like the answer.

I like to think that both Peter and Cornelius were transformed through their encounter:  both by the love of God.  I know that this was true of me, long ago in Japan:  though I thought I was going to serve in God's name and to tell of God's love, I ended up being expanded myself.  I ate what was set before me, with humility and chopsticks.  I learned to be loved at the same time I was learning more and more what it meant to love.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

But Some Doubted

It's true.  I have known this passage of Scripture since I was a little girl.  I have known what it was called,  "The Great Commission", for almost as long.  I probably have those words written in the margin of a Bible somewhere.  Jesus on the mountain, Jesus giving his "last words" to his disciples, Jesus telling the eleven of them, "Go therefore into all the world and make disciples….."

How could I have not noticed those three little words for my whole life?  Were they not present in the Bible of my youth?  Could I have skimmed right over them for all these years?

"But some doubted."

Here's the scene:  It is sometime after the resurrection.  Jesus is on a mountain, one last time.  He is teaching his disciples.  They are all there (minus Judas).  Now there are only eleven.  And on the mountain, in his resurrected glory, they worship him.

But some doubted.

It seems out of place.  Jesus is just about to give a bold command.  Go into ALL THE WORLD, he will tell them, in the next verse, not just to the city nearest you, and not just to your family and friends.  All the world is a Tall Order, especially if you don't know how big the world is going to be.

But some doubted.

I wonder which ones?, I can't help thinking.  The scripture doesn't identify anyone by name, but I want to.  I want to know who was certain and who doubted.  I want to know if Peter, James and John are among the doubters, or if it was Matthew the tax collector, or Andrew or Bartholomew.  I want to know who doubted, and what it was they had doubts about.  Did they have doubts, still, about the resurrection?  Even though they have seen him, they still can't quite believe it.  Even though they are on the mountain with him, still…. how can it be true?  Maybe that is it.  Maybe it is the truth of the resurrection that they are doubting.

 I am tempted to believe that they have doubts about whether they can do what Jesus is going to tell them to do, except that he hasn't told them to do anything yet.  He hasn't sent them out yet.  He has told them to meet him here, though, so perhaps they are anticipating.  What is the next part of the journey?  Where are they going to go now?  What is Jesus going to say to them?  What is he going to ask of them?  They don't know yet, but they are worshipping…. and doubting.

I can't help thinking back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  At the end of time, the King will gather the nations before him, and divide them:  sheep on the right and goats on the left.  But today, here, on the mountain, there is no division.  Jesus doesn't put the true believers on his right and the doubters on his left.  He doesn't give the great commission (Go therefore into all the world….) only to the worshipful true believers, the ones who never doubted.

Of course, there are only eleven of them now.  They are broken.  They are not whole.  And some of them are doubting.  Still, with the utmost confidence, Jesus tells them to go into all the world and make disciples.  And I can't help thinking that Jesus has a strategy here, a strategy in which the doubters will play an integral part.

The doubters have questions.  The doubters are honest about it.  The doubters admit that they don't know everything, that they don't understand everything.

In evangelism, these may not be liabilities.  These may be strengths.  At least, that's what I am starting to think.

This and the promise:  "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  All the way to the end of the doubts, Jesus promises to be with us.  The eleven.  The worshippers and the doubters.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Other Voices

Holy Week is one of those aerobically challenging times for pastors, a marathon of liturgies to plan, sermons to preach, services to choreograph and to lead.   I remember back to past Holy Weeks:  frantic calls to people to request that they consider getting their feet washed or read a portion a scripture, rehearsals for midweek worship services, nestled in the midst of communion visits with shut ins and occasional emergencies.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself sitting at our Good Friday service at 3:00, listening to members of my congregation read portions of Matthew's story of the passion.  I had not called any of the readers, assigned the readings or helped rehearse the readers.  My assignment for the service was to pray, to listen, and occasionally, to sing.

I could do that.

I have been in this congregation for a long time.  I know these voices, having heard them for years.  Some of them have been reading and assisting in worship for a long time.  There were a few who I had never heard read scripture before.  I recognized quiet intensity, faith, passion and pathos in their voices as they read.  They each, in their own way, inhabited the scripture reading.  

I heard one man's voice crack as he relayed Peter's denial.  Another woman's voice rose as the crowd roared, "Let him be crucified!"  

I sat, and I listened, less encumbered than usual with a sense of responsibility for making worship happen.  I sat and I listened and tears collected in the corners of my eyes, partly because it was Good Friday and partly because I could allow myself to be in the story, listening to other voices, voices I knew so well, as they told it.  So well.

Your voices, I want to tell them, your voices are more powerful than you even know.  You can do it.  You can embody the love of God.  You already do.  You have.  For me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Hands Outstretched

Lately I have been thinking about a little boy I used to know.

I didn't know him very well.  I knew his older sister, because she came to confirmation classes.  And I knew his little sister, because she used to come to church and Sunday school by herself.  Everybody called her "the church girl" because she seemed to like it.  People teased her, a little.

The family lived on the edge of town.  You could walk in to church if you wanted to, and the girls wanted to, sometimes, without their parents.  Their parents didn't come.

The boy came too, less frequently.

His favorite service?  Maundy Thursday.  It wasn't a popular service with children, as you might imagine.  He stuck out, especially when he came up to kneel for communion.  I asked him once what it was about the service that he liked.  He just shrugged his shoulders and said he sort of liked having church at night.

At one point all three of the children expressed an interest in being baptized.  So we got them all baptismal sponsors, gave them some instruction and they all got baptized one Wednesday evening in Lent.

Not long after I left I heard that he was killed in an accident.  He was 14 years old.

Now, this is my most vivid memory of him:  kneeling in front of the altar on Maundy Thursday, his hands outstretched.

I imagine him there, at the table where we are all reconciled to God and to one another, where we will all be gathered up together, lowly lifted up, hungry fed, outcast welcomed.

Hands outstretched.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Week

On one level, it is an ordinary week.  I get up, I have breakfast, I take the dog for a walk.  I go to church, and write a lot of sermons and plan a lot of worship, more worship than for an ordinary week.  The worship also takes a fair amount more choreography than ordinary worship.  So, it's not an ordinary week.

But I'll be honest.  In some ways, it does feel like an ordinary week.  I know this is Holy Week, which will be busy, and will be consumed with remembering and worshipping and singing and praying.  The part of me which would have made a good nun would like to think of this week with more intentional and disciplined times to stop and think about the week, and all that happened, how Jesus is getting near the cross.

What did he do today, I wonder?  It is Wednesday in Holy Week.  Tomorrow evening he will be celebrating the Passover with his disciples, one of whom will betray him.  Finally he will be alone.  But what did he do today, Wednesday in Holy Week?

He is in Jerusalem with his disciples, getting ready, I suppose.  He is telling those parables, the ones that make people follow him, or stop following him, the ones that make some people hungry and other people angry.  He is healing people, and getting ready for the Passover.

It is Holy Week.  And it is an ordinary week.  I need to clean the house, because we are having company for Easter.  But really, it is an ordinary week (and the house will not be clean enough by Easter either, but will still look like our house).

Somehow, for a flash and a moment I realize that the task is not to make this week special, not to wonder what Jesus was doing today and pay better attention and pray more, but it is to know that these ordinary moments are holy, that talking to the clerk at the grocery store is holy, that sweeping the floor and dragging the trash cans back from the street is holy, that doing my mother-in-law's laundry is holy.

God is in it, all of life.  In the flesh.

And it matters, every single bit of it.