Monday, August 28, 2023

The Power of “Amen”

 It was Saturday afternoon.  I was ready for Sunday, and getting ready to go out of town with my husband on Sunday afternoon, for a quick anniversary trip.  Just overnight. 

I got a text from one of our new members.  If there is such a thing as a “desperate text”, that is what this was.  Her good friend, the man who used to attend church with her and her granddaughter, was dead.  Heartbroken was not a strong enough word for what she was feeling.  I called her.  She wanted to know if it was possible for us to have a funeral the next Friday, even though he had not joined the church.

I said yes.  It didn’t even seem like a hard decision.  She was hurting; how could we not do this for her?  He was her best friend, had been like a father to her granddaughter.  It was even more than that.

And, she said, he had taken his life.  When we met together to discuss music and scripture readings, the first thing she said to me was, “What is a scripture reading that lets people know that a person took his life but he is in heaven?”

I knew my task then.  We chose his favorite songs, and sang Amazing Grace.  I chose Psalm 130, and parts of Romans 8.  And I started to write, or tried to write, a sermon.  I felt the weight of saying the right thing, and not saying the wrong thing.  I didn’t know anyone else who would be there, but this heartbroken, grieving woman.  

I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again.  I think I was afraid of naming the reality because there have been times when people have not wanted the reality named.  The most important thing is to tell the truth.  But it seemed hard.  

So there we were, at 1:00 in the afternoon.  There were a respectable number of people there  on time, but they kept coming during the first part of the service, slipping in and taking a seat.  These were people that this man had worked with at two different jobs.  All of them thought it was important to be there for him, for his family, for each other.  

I remember that my parish member wasn’t sure about having remembrances.  She couldn’t think of anyone who would be able to speak.  I decided to do something a little risky, and invite people to share something they remembered.  Five people raised their hands and stood up and said gracious words about their friend.

Then it was time for me to speak.  By this time our little church was pretty full.  I began.  I shared a couple of memories.  I acknowledged this man’s struggle with depression, and how depression lies, and we were here to tell the truth.  And then I came to the hard part.  I said these words:

“And I am glad you have come here to the church as well, to T’s church, to the place she and K and her granddaughter worshipped.  Because, I am sad to say, there was a time when the church would not have had his funeral in the sanctuary.  There was a time when the church believed that people who took their lives were somehow beyond God’s mercy.  We preached judgment then, instead of grace.  And that makes what you are all dealing with even harder.  

“And so today I want to be very clear — that K was and is a child of God, athat God loves him, knew his pain, and received him as his own.”

It was then I heard it.


A chorus of voices from the pews.  They said Amen and they keeps saying Amen, whenever the grace and mercy of God was proclaimed, whenever words of eternal life invoked.  


This is not a common practice in the denomination to which I belong.  But I felt the power of this one word.  The Amen of agreement, the Amen of encouragement, the Amen of radical mercy.

In that moment I felt that the words I was saying were not mine alone, and that the ministry I was offering was also not mine alone.  All of these people who came — they came to grieve, and to receive hope — but they also came as ministers and witnesses to the power of the gospel.


After the worship service, the congregation shared food and stories, hugs and tears.  So many people said to us, “Thank you for letting us come here.  Thank you for your welcome.”  The gratitude overwhelmed us.  

But also — I heard so many stories, from this man’s co-workers, stories about all that they shared with one another at work.  These people who worked together were a family, bonded together both by the work they did, but also by dinners and stories and lives they shared.  

I have worked as a pastor for so long that I have forgotten the kind of bonding people can do at work, the ways in which our coworkers can become our family, and even — our church.  A community of support — and faith.

A community of “Amen.”

We can be that for one another.  When we are afraid to tell the whole, hard, and merciful truth.  When we need to name the pain, but also the love.  When we need the mercy of God to be shown in each other’s arms, and eyes, and voices.


May we say it, and hear it, and be it, for one another.


Saturday, July 29, 2023

Make America Godly Again

 It was back in June, and I was shopping for clothes to take on a retreat.  I suppose it was an excuse — do I really need more clothes? — in a nice women’s shop. I had picked out a couple of sale items, when I turned and saw her.  She was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Make America godly Again.”

And immediately I wondered, I wonder what godliness would look like to her?

I didn’t ask.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into a theological discussion right then, and, it was June, and out of the corner of my eye I also spied what I THINK was their tasteful and sort of understated Pride-themed shirt.  It was white but had all kinds of colors woven into it as well.   

The woman’s “godly” t-shirt:  gray.

Maybe this was a coincidence, but it did make me think.

I posted about the incident and my question on facebook.  Some people did ask me why I didn’t ask HER.  Maybe I should have.  But I thought possibly it would have been a longer conversation.

On facebook though, I did get a response that made me think.  One of my friends talked about godliness and how people just went to church more back in the 1940s and 1950s (and even 1960s).  The church where I grew up was full, and, I will admit, I sort of wish that the church was full like that again.

It got me nostalgic for awhile, thinking back on the crowded Sunday School Rooms, and youth group (although I didn’t really like youth group, but that’s another story).  I thought about every Sunday worship and what it sounded like when a lot of people are singing hymns they know and love, together.  Most of the stores weren’t open and there wasn’t much on TV.  If you asked people, almost everyone said they believed in God.

The Good Old Days.

But was that godliness?

I’m older (and still Christian, by the way), but I know some things about the “good old days” that I didn’t when I was growing up.  The good old days weren’t good for everyone.  I just didn’t know about it then.  I didn’t know about segregation.  My northern suburb didn’t really have any people of color.  I didn’t know about lynching.  I didn’t know that people thought it was somehow godly to bar the doors of their churches and not let people of color worship with them.  It was considered godly to have separate schools and separate water fountains.  

But everybody went to church.  And believed in God.

So “Make America Godly Again?”  How do we know we were godly before?  How are we even defining godliness?  What is our criteria for godliness anyway?

When I think back on my childhood, (and frankly, even parts of my adulthood), I think I defined godliness as what I wasn't supposed to do -- drink, smoke, swear, be too familiar with the opposite sex before marriage,  My grandparents also included dancing and playing cards (they believed it was a sin to use face cards and we only played Rook.)  So godliness was a sort of respectability, although that turned out in some cases to be outward respectability.  And perhaps, in some cases, that included going to church.  

I still remember my aunt telling me once, when I talked to her about the "good old days" in her hometown and home church, about men being active in church, that she replied, "And then they went home and beat their wives."

So, "make America godly again?"  I have mixed feelings.  I would want to know what the definition of godliness was.  I would want to know what the criteria was.  I would hope that rather than barring the doors and keeping people out, true godliness would include mercy and wide welcome.  It would include seeing the image of God in one another, and even the stranger.  You know, like Jesus, who hung around with sinners and accepted dinner invitations from them.

I think as well that I would be careful about wearing a "Make America Godly Again" t-shirt.   If I did, it wouldn’t be gray.  It would be all the colors.  Godliness would be vibrant, with open arms.  Godliness would rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  Godliness would laugh, and sing.  And be humble.  Godliness would have room for more people, not fewer, because it would be based on the huge surprise of grace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

What makes a church good?

 Early one steamy morning my husband and I were walking our dog around the common areas of our community.  It was early enough that the lawn workers were out, mowing and weeding and beautifying, and as we walked along the circle, one of them paused mowing to let us pass.  I thanked him, and asked him how he was.

“I want to quit!”  He said.  

“How long have you been doing this?” I replied.

“Three days.  But I know I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.  I think I might want to go to college.”

I asked him which college, and he quickly named a well-regarded college nearby.  I offered that one of the young people from my church would be attending that college this fall.

He asked if I attended the church down the street, and I said, No, and I named my church (Grace) and where it was located.

Then he asked, “Is it a good church?”

Before I could say anything, my husband responded, “SHE’S the pastor!”

The young man looked surprised.  “YOU’RE the pastor?”

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that after all these years (women have been ordained for over 50 years in my denomination) people are still shocked that I exist.  And yet, it’s not his final comment that reverberates; it’s his question:  “Is it a good church?”

It made me wonder what a “good church” would look like to him.  Maybe that’s why I hesitated to say “yes."  I think that my church is good (after all, I’m the pastor), but in what way is it good?  Would he think so?  And even though I think we are “good” (whatever that means), I don’t think we are a perfect church.   There are times that I am amazed by our love and generosity — I still remember the Spirit I felt when our congregation blessed our two high school seniors and gave them quilts that our quilters group made.  On that day, I thought, “This is a great church!”

One of our newer members lives alone; when he had medical appointments, some of our other members gave him rides to and from the doctor’s office.  And when the son of a friend of the congregation needed to get married over a weekend leave, members of the congregation made sure he and his fiancĂ© were welcomed, and made the celebration happen.

When an older member of the congregation died suddenly, almost 30 members of the church attended her funeral, even though it was at another venue about forty miles away.

But, if I am honest, there are other moments too:  times when someone (even me) said the wrong thing at the wrong time.  There have been moments when the livestream failed, or the sermon fell short.  The music isn’t always perfect.

But, what makes a church good?  That’s what I am thinking about.  I don’t know what this young man thinks.  I don’t know if a good church for him is large, and has a band, or small, and has prayer groups.  I don’t know if a good church for him is sure about everything, or leaves room for doubt.  

For me, this is what makes a church good: a church that listens to the children and the shut ins.  A church that hears the voice of God, in scripture, but also in outcasts.  A church that practices forgiveness.  A church that knows Jesus, and wants to know him better.  A church that cares for one another, and for others.  This church doesn’t need to be large, but there is always room for more.

What makes a church good?

Monday, April 25, 2022

Practice Resurrection: Doubt and Trust

 Since our service didn't broadcast this weekend, I thought I would share my sermon here:

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

            He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


            I’ll be honest.  I thought I wasn’t going to have a sermon series for the season of Easter.  I’ll just preach week to week, I thought – and then, I came across a poem by a man named Wendell Berry.  

            Wendell Berry is a Christian, a farmer, and a writer.  I believe he lives in Kentucky.  The poem is called “Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”  -- promise, I won’t read it to you – 

            Throughout the poem are strewn odd words of advice like these:   “Love the Lord.  Love the world. Work for nothing.”  “Ask the questions that have no answers.”  “Love someone who does not deserve it.”  “Plant Sequoias.”  “Laugh.” “Be Joyful though you have considered all the facts.”             The last two words of the poem are these:  ‘Practice Resurrection.”


            How do you “practice resurrection”?  

            It’s not a bad question to ask throughout the season of Easter  -- not bad to consider for these 50 days.  How do you practice resurrection?  

            Isn’t it something that is Just given to you?  It just happens.  You can’t do it.  

            You can’t resurrect yourself – God has to do it.  

            And yet—in some ways we CAN practice – by – well – planting sequoias (or bluebonnets) , or being joyful though you have considered all of the facts.  

            So this Easter we are going to practice resurrection – and I hope you will also send in your ideas as well.


            And I can’t think of any way better to begin to practice resurrection than with the story of Thomas. 

            Thomas, the great doubter.   “Doubting Thomas.”  

            I feel a little sorry for him, being stuck with such a nickname.  After all, if you read the gospels carefully, that’s not ALL that Thomas was.  

            In John 11, Thomas was brave – he was the one who said to Jesus – when he said he was going to Lazarus, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”  

            And we have Thomas to thank for asking that great question in John 14, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  

            for Jesus answered him by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Where would we be without Thomas’ question?  


            But “doubting Thomas”, that’s what we remember – that’s what sticks -- but that’s not even really true. 

            I know our translation has Jesus saying, “Do not doubt but believe” – but in reality Thomas wasn’t just doubting – he was unbelieving.  

            He didn’t say “I doubt it”.  He said. “I don’t believe it.”  Or, “I won’t believe it – unless I see.”


            Maybe that’s even worse. But it’s honest.  And You know what?  I’ll take that honesty.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be honest when you are standing in front of Jesus. 


            So maybe that’s one part of practicing resurrection.  

            No platitudes.  Be honest.  

            Be honest about your doubts, your struggles, your questions.  Like Thomas.  Put it out there.  

            It’s risky and vulnerable because there are always people out there who might think you are not a good enough Christian if you have any questions, or if you are struggling with something.  

            But I admire Thomas’ honesty – that he is willing to come out with it right in front of the disciples and say, “Unless I see the nail holes – unless I can put my hand in them – I will not believe.”  


            But I can’t help thinking that this isn’t just about Thomas.  

            It’s about the other disciples too – what they did and didn’t do.      When Thomas wasn’t there with them on Easter evening – they went out looking for him.  

            And whatever flaws there were in the relationships between the disciples – and I am sure there were some 

            -- he felt that he could be honest with them – tell them what he was really feeling – and they wouldn’t cast him into the outer darkness.  


            So a community willing to listen and walk with one another – in both joyful and painful times – is practicing resurrection.


            There’s another thing I would like to thank Thomas for – if it wasn’t for his unbelief – we wouldn’t have Jesus’ words, “Have you believed because you have seen me? 

            Blessed are those who have NOT seen – and yet have come to believe.”


            Because like the words, “I am the way the truth and the life,” those words are for all of us.  

            They are for those of us who have not seen – and yet – somehow – for some reason – have come to believe.  

            They are for those of us who were not blessed with those literal, first-century resurrection appearances – although I will say they must have been as terrifying as they were amazing. 

            Blessed are we who believe that Jesus rose – even though we weren’t there.  


            Or maybe a better word than believe is this “ Trust.”  

            Blessed are those who have not seen – and yet have come to trust.”  

            Because trust is not just about what you know in your mind – but trust has to do with relationships – and it is active.  

            For example – I’m thinking about when we stayed in an AirBnb one time on travel – and we stayed in a stranger’s home – in one of their extra bedrooms.  

            I didn’t think about it at the time, but that took a certain level of trust – both on our part – and on the part of our host.  


            Doubt AND Trust – both a part of practicing Resurrection.  Because we live in a world where both Good Friday – and Easter – are real – and are happening at the same time.  

            I couldn’t help noticing a news story from Ukraine last week that churches in Lviv were full on Easter Sunday.  Why?  

            They are living in a time of violence and struggle and suffering – which might seem so contrary to our proclamation of the resurrection.              They are looking around and seeing death, and fear.  

            And at the same time – they are proclaiming with their lives the hope of the resurrection – the things they do not see – but trust – the victory of the love of God.


            In you life there will be times you will know – that God is holding you close.  

            And there will be times when you will ask the question, “Where is God?  Why is this happening?”  

            Embrace both of these realities.  They are both true.


            They say that Doubting Thomas eventually travelled far – all the way to India. 

            There are very old Christian churches in India that date themselves back to doubting Thomas.  And who knows whether any of the legends are true. 

            But I like to think that – if he indeed went – that went both with trust and with questions – with struggles and with faith. 

             He opened a door not knowing what was on the other side – except that Jesus was there.  


            He went -- practicing resurrection.


            May we trust that – Christ is risen – every day – and practice resurrection in our lives.




Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Loving the Questions

Lately I have been noticing that I LOVE questions.  Sometimes (I'll be honest) I love questions simply because I know the answer and knowing the answer makes me feel smart and even useful.

For example, on Sunday at confirmation one of the student's mothers asked a question about our worship service that morning.  We had Palm Sunday and included just a portion of the story of Jesus' suffering and death.  On the way home her husband had asked, "Where does Judas come in?"  She said, "I'll ask Pastor tonight at confirmation."  And I felt a surge of pastoral usefulness as I told her that Judas comes in before the section of scripture we read -- he had betrayed Jesus earlier in the story, and he's already out of the picture.

The week before I went to visit a woman with communion in her home.  She was ready for me with "questions for the pastor".  I realize that I love these moments -- she wanted to know the meaning of the phrase, "By his stripes we are healed."  And I could do that.  

I love questions.

But I realize that there is more than one kind of question -- there is another kind of question, and sometimes I am privileged to hear it.  It's not a question that makes me feel smart, or useful.  It is a kind of question that makes me feel humble, and (I'll admit) a little uncomfortable.  It is a question that makes me feel like I am walking on holy ground.  The question is bigger than I am.

Last week, someone asked me a question like that.

He was four.

The question he asked was, "Why is Jesus so important?"

How do you answer a question like that?  That is not a question to be answered (not really), but a question to be lived.  It is a question that I hope will follow this boy his whole life, and I hope he will discover different answers to it at different ages.  I wonder what he will discover by asking why Jesus is so important.

A little while later, someone else asked another question, "Why did Jesus have to die?"

She also was four.

And you may disagree, but I believe that this is the same kind of question.  I do not know the answer to that question, not really.  I know some people say they know, but I don't.   In the same way that I don't really know why anyone "has to" suffer -- but they do.  

And yet

This is Holy Week, and I can't help thinking that this is the week for these kinds of questions.  The second kind.  The kind that humble you, and make you realize that you are standing on holy ground.  The kind that you live with your whole life.  

This is Holy Week.  The week for questions that are bigger than I am.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Wheat and Weeds, Redux

On Sunday I preached the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the one where there is good seed sown by a good sower and an enemy that mucks things up by sowing weeds while everyone is sleeping.  And before that, on Tuesday evening, when we had read this parable and its explanation at an online Bible study, there was silence afterward we finished reading.  And someone said, "I don't like this parable." And I think that part of it was just that the parable itself ends with the image of the weeds being burned and the wheat being gathered, and the explanation has that line about casting out evildoers and the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So, it's not (in some ways) what you would call a "feel good" parable, although I wrestled a blessing out of it, pointing out that God lets the wheat and weeds grow together because God doesn't want to lose even one shock of wheat, and as well pointing out that the presence of the weeds does not mean God has abandoned the field.

Afterwards my husband asked me why I had not used our own yard as a sermon illustration:  with our many weeds that we struggle to control, and our St. Augustine grass (which we had never heard of up north) which we THOUGHT was a weed, and were merrily trying to pull out.  I said that I had thought about it but I had way too much material for one sermon.  So the St. Augustine grass did not make it into the sermon.

But he also told me afterwards that the one thing I mentioned that he had never noticed before was that the reason the sower doesn't want to dig up any weeds is that the wheat would be uprooted at the same time.  In other words, their roots are too close together, even entangled.  He had never noticed that.  Frankly, neither had I.  I had always focussed on the interesting idea that this particular weed looked a lot like wheat.  But the fact that it might not even be possible to uproot weeds without uprooting some wheat along with it -- that never made an impression on me.

But I'm thinking more and more about that entangled wheat these days.  Maybe it's COVID 19 and our attempts to quarantine and protect ourselves from the virus.  Maybe it's the fact that there are many gated communities around me, or the fact that we seem to live in bubbles defined by our race or class or even our politics.  We surround ourselves with people who think like us, whether or not they look like us.

But the truth is, we are all tangled up in each other, and our fates are intertwined.  Even if we live in gated communities.  Even at our most segregated.  I remember that some people would say:  why should I care about the public schools?  My kids are grown up now.  And someone else would say:  I care, because the children who go to those schools will be the teachers and police officers, and custodians and politicians in my community, and I want them all to be well educated.  We touch each other's lives, whether we want to or not.

Our fates are intertwined.  We belong to each other.   That's God's honest truth, although some days it may make us weep and gnash our teeth.

But someday, when all of the weeds inside us are burned, perhaps we will rejoice in this.  Perhaps we'll see the beauty in the dandelion and stop trying to dig up the Augustine grass, and notice that the wheat is springing up and bearing fruit, to share.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Singing, in and out of Church

My dad always sang in the shower.  He sang in the car, too.  And, he sang in church, standing right next to me.  He sang all of the hymns, and all of the liturgy, and even the bass part on the three-fold amen.  Sometimes, in the quiet of my heart, I can still hear him, singing in church.  Because he sang, I sang too.  I learned Beautiful Savior, and What a Friend in Jesus, and Children of the Heavenly Father, and Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.

It wasn't just church, of course. My mom played a little bit of piano, just enough so that we could sing a few of the old standards.  And of course, there was always the shower, and the car.  There was always a lot of singing, and singing along.

So during this season that we have not been in the church building, it has been the singing together that I have missed.  I wanted to make sure that the services that we provided included some singing -- not just music, but singing, even if it was just one person, or two people.  Maybe nobody would sing along.  But maybe someone would.  Maybe even a few people would.  I hoped so.  I imagined just one person, maybe, sitting at their computer, singing along to a familiar song at worship.  I imagined that perhaps a family or two would not just stare at the screen, but sing along as we were singing a hymn, or a contemporary song.

We went to church every single Sunday when I was a little girl.  I mean it.  Neither rain nor sleet nor snow would ever keep us from missing Sunday morning worship (although I think that measles did, once).  We did not travel much, back when I was a little girl, so church was like clockwork; we never missed.  So I have a very vivid memory of the one time that my parents decided to sleep in, and not go to church one Sunday morning.  I have no idea what possessed them, but it did not catch on.  But what I remember is that my sister and I stood in the middle of the living room floor, holding my dad's old hymnbook, and we sang the liturgy.

I'm not sure why we did it.  Nobody told us we could; and nobody told us we couldn't.  But we decided we wanted to do something holy that Sunday morning, even though we weren't in the church building.

So we sang.

These days, I am heartbroken.  I have heard that during the current pandemic, it is not safe to sing in church.  It is not safe to sing together.  That's what they say.  So when we finally do gather, we won't be singing.  And it will feel strange.  Because church has been one of the few places left where we still sing together.

I can't help but think, though, that perhaps this is a time to find our voice, not just in our church buildings, but out of them.  In the middle of the living room, for starters.  To learn to sing, and to speak, even when we can only imagine the other people singing along.

I heard recently from a friend whose church worships on Zoom.  The choir director there tells everyone to mute themselves when they begin a hymn.  Then, he tells them, "you can sing as loud as you want to!"

I love this.  When I think of it, I think of my dad, singing in the shower, or in the car, or in his whole life.  And I think of my immigrant foremothers and fathers.  They didn't have many books, but they had their Bibles, and they had their hymnals.  They carried church with them.  They had home altars. They lit the candles, and they sang.

Every once in awhile, someone from my church will post a picture of their home worship space.  their candle, or their Bible, or whatever it is they need to set the space apart.  It gives me a little bit of hope.  Maybe the children are standing in the middle of the living room, singing.  Maybe they are having a conversation about God.  Maybe they are praying out loud, even when they are alone.

So, let us sing. Alone, for now
.  Loudly or softly.  Whether we sing in tune or not.  And let us sing of a love wider than we can imagine, stronger than death, greater than our national interests, bigger than the whole universe.