Wednesday, January 27, 2010

faith in community, in so many ways

I thought I had a pretty good sermon on Sunday, if I do say so myself. It was called "faith in community", and I made reference to this very blog, as I talked about the body of Christ, and in what ways we need each other. Toward the end of the sermon, I hit one verse pretty hard, the one where Paul says, "the parts of the body that appear to be weakest are indispensable."

At 10:00, the Senior Pastor called the 5th and 6th graders up to the front fo the children's message. There were just three of them on Sunday, a small (but quality) group of young people. He told them about Jesus preaching his first sermon in the synagogue where he had grown up and where people had known him as a child. He asked each of them if they had one thing they would like to tell the congregation, what would it be? They whispered in his ear, and he wrote a few scratches on three pieces of notbook paper. Then he numbered them -- 1, 2 and 3.

He gave each one the paper with their words recorded, and invited them to take their place at the pulpit, behind the microphone, and speak their words.

The first child said, "Jesus loves you."
The second said, "Obey the adults in the church."
The third said, "Everyone has a certain gift."



Today I held the early morning Matins service at the church. It is a small group of (mostly) elderly people who meet together to pray and sing the matins service. There is a short homily. I looked ahead to find some Epiphany lessons that we wouldn't be using this year, and finally settled on Genesis 45 (the end of the story of Joseph) and Luke 6:27-38 (which starts with "Love your enemy" and includes the "golden rule.") For some reason I find this section of Luke's gospel kind of heart-breaking.

Everything that Jesus says seems so out-of-reach, and everything that Jesus says seems so necessary for our survival as humans. "Do unto others..." seems the epitome of essential, good advice, the sort of thing you can clip and put in your pocket; I always think that I'm doing a pretty good job with the golden rule, until I find another instance where I have been insensitive and unintentially cruel.

I'm still thinking about these scripture passages, long after I have had to say something about them, can you tell?

At the close of the service, we sang the old familiar gospel hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story." And two women, a mother and a daughter, always kind of sneak out of the door at this point in the service, because they are in charge of putting out the coffee and treats.

Only today, they lingered for most of the song.

It was the theme song for Sunday School many years ago, when the mother had been in charge of Sunday School.

She's practically blind now, but she can still sing it by heart.


In the meantime, I seem to be inordinately concentrated on knitting. I have finished now my first pair of mittens, a short keyhole scarf for myself, and am still working on the prayer shawl for my dad. I am nervously looking around for the next project, paging through books in the book store, looking at yarns, wondering what I want to create, what skill I want to learn. There are so many patterns I don't know yet.

For most of my life I've felt awkward and clumsy. I have attributed this to being left-handed, although I don't think I can totally blame my feeling on this; I know plenty of left-handed people who have discovered that they are adept at something.

But for me, I finally feel like I have something to give, however small, other than words.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Praise of Small Churches

About a week and a half ago, I had a little tiny funeral in our chapel on a Monday morning. There were just about twenty of us there, and I think that might have included both the organist and the pastor.

Yet, the singing was energetic -- people who knew the songs and believed them.

I found out at the luncheon afterwards that the son of the woman who died belongs to a small church in a small town not far away from here. (He grew up in this church; his mother was still a member here.)

For some reason, I immediately had a lot of respect for him and for his family. I also understood how such a small group of people could make sure a big sound.

In these Wal-mart, Mega-church, Super-size It days, it's not easy to be a small church. Still, I have an affection and an affinity for small churches, particularly those small churches that have always been small. My first churches, in rural South Dakota, were smallish ones (the largest of the three averaged between 60 and 80 at worship). I had a one-day-a-week secretary and a part-time custodian. The three churches shared an organist. I did miss a church choir. There was not a youth director or a children's ministry coordinator. As far as youth events go, we could not raise "Six Flags Over Jesus" with our spectacular youth programs. It was all about relationships.

Yet I suspect (and I hope that people from those congregations will confirm) that the percentage of young people who remain or continue in their faith is larger than at many larger congregations.

Parents look for a larger congregation with a good youth group in order to help their children get through the difficult years of adolesence with some wisdom and guidance, with peers and adults who are willing to stick with them and be role models. I understand this, particularly in the light of drop out rates. But sometimes I'm curious about the really long view; for example, how many people in youth groups right now are going to be active believers when they are -- say -- my age? I don't know the answer; I'm just wondering about it.

Small churches can't put together awe-some youth programs; they don't have those large crowds that are so enviable. They can't offer large numbers of Bible studies and Christian education programs. Their social ministry is probably small, and they probably can't have a big praise band with a lot of instruments. Their Sunday School doesn't have a large team of professionals for every age group. And yet, there is something I love about them (or at least most of them): a humble knowledge of their own finitude (they know they can't do everything); committed lay leadership; an ability to keep the main thing the main thing.

While in seminary, I was invited to attend a small worship service which was held in a space above a restaurant. It was a small Episcopalian church, led by an Native American man who was an adjunct professor at my school. I remember that it was a high church liturgy with lots of incense. There were about 26 people sitting in a circle, singing with gusto. When they said the Nicene Creed together, they called the Holy Spirit "she." And when they prayed the prayers of the people, they all spoke in tongues. Very eclectic.

Now I don't think all churches should be small. There's a place, I think, for all sizes. But I think that nowadays small churches have more and more trouble with low self-esteem. There are financial stresses always. Mega-churches get all of the attention.

My aunt likes to tell me about her education in a one-room school in southwestern Minnesota. She believes that in that small school with all the ages together she got a better education than many students do now.

What do you think? Can small churches still be viable?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Few Rare Things

This morning, as I was preparing for worship, the worship coordinator approached me and said, "I really liked your sermon last week."

Last week? How often does that happen? (almost never). I savored the moment, just a little. Usually (and I think that I speak for most pastors in this respect), you have the few minutes right after the worship service. Then it's gone.

After church this morning, we had a birthday dinner for my mother-in-law. This was rare for a couple of reasons: my husband's two boys were both in town and could be there; I do not cook much. I know how to cook, I really do. But I have not so much time, and I have a pretty small kitchen and I do not have a dishwasher, so I don't cook much.

I cooked a kind of a rare dish (I've just made it a few times). It's one from one of the Moosewood Cookbooks, and while I was working on it, I remembered why I don't make it so often: It uses about four pots and a casserole, so it's a little messy and involved.

It's called Baked Pasta with Cauliflower and Cheese, and it also features tomatoes, basil and seasoned bread crumbs. It was worth it, if I do say so myself.

This is not so rare, but my mom called. She visited my dad again today, and went home feeling upset. It's both the sense that he seems to be losing ground some days, and also the level of care he's getting.

He was in another care center for awhile; we thought he got better care there, but it is a private pay only facility, which means it is not available to him.

I've been thinking a lot about health care lately. I know that the current bill is fatally complicated, not perfect, all those things. But I despair of doing nothing, which some people seem to think is just hunky-dorey.

A long time ago, I heard that one of my relatives said, "people should take care of themselves." He said this with regard to Social Security, which he thought was probably a mistake. Instead of Social Security, "people should just take care of themselves", he thought.

In the same town, lives another relative of mine, an uncle actually. He never married; he worked his whole life as a farmhand. He didn't save much money because he didn't make much money. From my vantage point as an adult, I think I can say that my uncle did the best he could with what he had.

He's able to live, and have a little apartment in that town because of social security.

So, even though I will admit to not having all the answers, I will continue to hope that somehow we figure out how to cover all people. Because of my uncle. Because of my dad.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Praying for Haiti

I haven't felt much like posting this week. Besides only sleeping a few hours every night, working on details of a Martin Luther King Day service on Monday, I've been thinking about that line from Casablanca, Rick telling Ilsa that, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

So, although I've been thinking about a lot of things (including whether or not I have a mission in my life), the earthquake in Haiti has been overwhelming.

The ELCA website has resources for worship and donating.

The wonderful website pretty good lutherans has links to several tributes to Seminarian Ben Larson, who was killed in Haiti this week.

I was particularly moved by these powerful words.

Someone else said to me yesterday at church that there was an earthquake of similar magnitude recently somewhere else. There, about 80 people died.

"It's not the earthquake that killed people," she said. "It's poverty."

O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infections and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illuminaiton. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
-Prayer for time of conflict, crisis, disaster, from ELW

O God, open our hearts to feel the earth quake from the oppression of poverty, and free our hearts and our hands to work to heal those things that deal death and suffering. Amen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Scout worries

I am very worried that Scout has been restless and pacing for the past two nights. I will call the vet in the morning.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What I Really Think

I preached on Isaiah 43 for the Baptism of Our Lord this weekend, rejoicing in and struggling with the words of promise there:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel;
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I have to tell you, that as I read, really read these words that I have loved for many years, it felt like I was hearing some of them for the first time. And when I read the words When you walk through fire.... the flame shall not consume you, the word that came to my mind was Auschwitz.

What does this promise mean in the face of the ovens of Auschwitz? Auschwitz seems to mock every promise that God is making the exiles in Babylon. So many people were consumed in the ovens there, and in many god-forsaken places.

And then I thought: wait a minute. Notice who God is speaking to. God is speaking not to individuals, but to Israel, to Jacob. He's not promising the survival of any individual person (at least not in this text), but he's promising the survival of the people, of the nation, of Israel. It's as if God is saying, even if you incinerate 6 million people, you cannot destroy Israel, you cannot destroy my chosen people. Or, if we want to hear this promise in a Christian context, no matter how many Christians are martyred, you can never destroy the Church, because the Church has a purpose in the world.

Now don't get me wrong, I do believe in individual salvation, and that God cares for our individual lives, preservation, and our eternal life with God. But I also think maybe, maybe, there is something bigger than going on here, something bigger than the Evangelical catch-phrase, "Even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you." Yes, our individual lives are important, but it's also true that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, a mission greater than each one of our lives.

Baptism is that way, too. When we are baptized we are joined to Christ, and we are joined to his people too. We become a part of this great mission of mercy, this great mission of reconciliation. We receive the promise of life, salvation and forgiveness of sins -- but we receive this promise as a part of a community, and we are resurrected as a part of a community as well. The reign of God is a community -- a beloved community.

And Isaiah is saying: You can kill us, but you cannot kill this beloved community, you cannot kill this chosen people, because God wants it to exist.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dog Mysteries

Some of you might know that Scout was uncharacteristically naughty while we were away for a few days. According to her dog sitter (for whom she usually behaves exceptionally well), she often would not come in from outside. She would scratch at the door to come in, and when the door was opened for her, she would run away. The cold weather made this behavior particularly annoying. They said a couple of times they had to trap her (although I'm having a hard time imagining how they did this -- she's pretty fast), so they started not to let her go outside very often.

When we picked her up on Wednesday she was pretty quiet. This isn't unusual, since she gets a lot of exercise at the dog sitter's. But she seemed really subdued. I was checking her over, and thought her nose looked kind of funny. It looked like there was some kind of scab or wound on both sides of her muzzle. I called the sitter to find out if she got along okay with the other dogs.

The next day, when the sitter got back to me, she said, no, she got along fine with the other dogs, just like always.

But here's what she said: Scout wanted to spend all her time outdoors -- until the last day. Then, suddenly, she did NOT want to go outside. They found her hiding under a bed and in someone's room, and at one point when someone came to get her and encourage her to go outside, she even snarled a little, very unusual for her.

So, obviously something happened that last day. But what?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Have Called You By Name...Do Not Be Afraid

A couple of months ago, I sent a present to a couple I know who had just become parents. It was a very fine work of art, an original by a local artist, featuring a well-known Bible verse from Isaiah 43 -- "I have called you by your name; you are mine." 

I had inserted the name of their son in the middle of the verse, so it read like this: "I have called you by your name, Owen Oliver, you are mine." 

 Seems like a perfect verse for a baptism, doesn't it? You just have to conveniently lift that one verse from Isaiah out of its context and you get a great sentiment: God calls us by our name at our baptism; we belong to God. God holds us in the palm of his hands. I could go on and on. It's a great verse. 

At my first church, we even had a big banner commissioned with this verse printed on it; in felt letters, we personalized the banner for every baptism: "I have called you by name -- Alicia, Daniel, Mary, Madison...... you are mine." Yes, this verse seems perfect for a baptism, and it is, conveniently, the first lesson for The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, but really, the words originally had nothing to do with baptism. Also, there is the verse immediately following: 

 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; 
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, 
and the flame shall not consume you.

 Can it be true? What is the Lord promising here? To pass through the waters sounds a lot like the Israelites' first Great Escape, the Exodus from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. 

But what about the second promise? "when you walk through fire..... the flame shall not consume you." 
On our last night in Mexico, we went out in the dark and windy night to stand by the sea to watch what they called a "Fire Show." We didn't know what a "Fire Show" could possibly be, but who is not fascinated by fire? So we stood there, folding our arms across our chests, and watching, listening to the drums beating insistently, and watching as men and women made intricate designs by juggling with fire. The fire made circles and lines and hula hoops around them, but they were not consumed. We were in awe of them, because of their agility, their skill, and because they were not afraid. 

 "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you," says the Lord. Do not fear. Do not fear the fire, or the water, or the chemotherapy. Do not fear the scorn of others, do not fear poverty, or wealth, or prejudice, or oppression. Do not fear. I will be with you. The rivers will not overwhelm you. I see the woman with her chemo cap, or the man who has been out of work for months, or the family who is coming apart, or the woman who's been banging on the door of the state legislature, or the man who needs medical assistance, but he's been cut off. And I think, how can I say, "the rivers will not overwhelm you"? how can I say, "you will not be burned"? Sometimes I can see the burn marks. Sometimes I can see the scars. 
 But there it is, I can also see: the rings of flame, the hula hoops, the figure eights dancing while the crowd gasps at the beauty and the danger. Do not be afraid, they say. You were meant to fly, to soar, to walk through the water, through the flames: to be free. I have redeemed you, he promises. 

 And somehow, somehow, it all has to do with the One who went down into the water, the one called Beloved Child. God knew him by name, and yet he was overwhelmed, he was burned. I can see the scars. 
 First, he walked into the water. That was the beginning.

 Fear not.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Twelfth Night: Mexico

It is Epiphany tomorrow, and we will be spending most of the day in an airport, or on a plane, going from one extreme (climate-wise) to another.

Tonight, our last evening here, I thought I'd try to describe, just a little, what our surroundings are like. As a Midwestern Lutheran girl of modest means and aspirations, these are some of the things I have noticed:

1. When we get off our elevator on our floor, there is a counter with apples, cookies, and champagne glasses. Today I finally noticed, for the first time, that there was also champagne.

2. We are truly on the beach. There are pools for adults and children, as well as sea/ocean access. Still, it seems unreal to me, as if down underneath the sand somewhere, there is a concrete floor, and we are really at Disney World.

3. Our Resort reminds me a little of the one and only cruise we took (we won a drawing for a AAA vacation Voucher several years ago!); you don't really have to leave the premises for anything, if you don't want to. There are five different restaurants, bars, and many different kinds of activities for children and adults, all day (yoga, Spanish lessons, crafts, movies, to name a few). There is a spa, fitness center and beauty salon (I wish I had gotten a french manicure.)

4. People are always asking you if you want a drink. (that reminds me a little of the cruise, too.)

5. The bath products all smell a little like ginger.

6. On the other end of the hall (from the apples, cookies and champagne) is a bar with a bartender, just for our floor; also, in the morning, coffee, orange juice and croissants.

7. Every evening someone stops buy with a special treat, like the chocolate-covered strawberries.

It doesn't seem very much like Christmas here, except for three things:

-a Christmas tree in the foyer
-a creche out near the beach
-our tour guide yesterday did wish us a "Feliz Navidad."

Feliz Navidad! Merry Epiphany!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Day Trip

We left our sandy little Enclave early this morning to take a long bus ride to a pretty impressive historic site. It turns out that the forecast was for rain (don't know if it really did), so perhaps it was a fortuitous departure.

Whatever the reason, we rode and rode, and then walked and walked, and listened to our very earnest and enthusiastic Mayan guide tell us all about the significance of just about everything we encountered. I kid you not, you could spend a couple of weeks inside this place and not see everything. It's incredible.

We were treated to lessons in the Mayan language, the reason for the incredible echo capabilities, all of the symbolism of jaguars, eagles, serpents and other animals. "The missionaries thought we were savages," he said, "But look what we created."

On the bus were vacationers from all over the world, speaking all manner of languages. Our guide stuck to Spanish and English, and I marvelled. We struck up a conversation with a couple from London. I even ended up writing two pages of recommendations for sites they should see, if they ever make it to Minnesota, or to the Southwest. They are old-movie aficionados, and asked both of us if we were stranded on a desert island, what three movies would we bring? (His answers were: Twelve Angry Men, Sparticus, and West Side Story.) Not a bad question.

There are times when I am in a new place, and I feel a certain kinship. Paris was like that. Even not knowing the language, I felt envious, like this was the kind of place that I could stay -- if only I knew how. And there are places that, even while enjoying the time I spend there, I am so aware that I am a stranger. This place is like that. I sit here in the warm weather, and I think, 'What kind of person spends their vacations this way?' and then I reply to myself, almost scolding, 'Well, you are spending your vacation this way, aren't you?' But it doesn't quite feel like me.

When I was about eight years old, I was visiting my grandparents in southwestern Minnesota. The farm and the small town was like a second home to me; my grandpa liked to take these meandering "drives" around the countryside, although it all seemed pretty familiar; we were going to the same places every day. Then one afternoon, he turned south and drove for a few miles. He turned to me in a moment, and said, "We're in Iowa, now."

I thought something must be wrong. Didn't we need passports to go to Iowa? Would they come and arrest us?

"Go back! Go back!" I commanded, with absolutely no sense of adventure. And he did.

In a day or so, we'll go back, and again be an exile in a familiar land, where I seem to know the language, and think I am at home. But I'm not at home, not really, not there. It's true, there are things that comfort me, and things that remind me of my True Home, and there are other things that lull me into complacency.

So it is that there are always two voices inside me, and one says: "Go back! Go back!" and the other says, "Forge ahead!" And it seems to me that at the same time, both of these voices are mistaken -- and both of them are right.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm Still A Simple Girl At Heart

So, we are here in this Lovely Place, this Warm Place, and I said that I wanted to have a vacation where we didn't try to run around seeing things all the time.

So we haven't. Which, even though I requested it, I know, still feels odd to me.

I keep thinking that since I have time, I should write a little bit.

But I haven't.

I've been exercising, though. And eating, regularly. (including chocolate-covered strawberries that I didn't ask for, but were just delivered to our room.)

And reading.

I didn't quite make it to 50 books in 2009, My 49th was a re-read: The Living Reminder, by Henri Nouwen. I read it in college long ago, and was surprised that it was a book about ministry, a book for ministers. One of the things that has always struck me and stayed with from Nouwen's book is that he talks not just about a "ministry of presence", but a "ministry of absence". The minister's absence, as well as her presence, can be a reminder, a living reminder of God, Nouwen says.

(Aside: I do blame the scarf-knitting project for the ebb of reading in December. Anyone who can read a lot and knit a lot in the same year has my utmost respect.)

(Another aside: I fee a little brain-locked because one of the Stepsons said to his dad that I "might be a big shot in the religious blogging world.") I don't think it's true (after all, he doesn't know Songbird or Mimi or Elizabeth Kaeton), but it makes me think that I ought to be having profound thoughts all of the time.

I have read two books in two days here, the beginning of the 2010 challenge. They are:
1. Among the Mad, the 6th and last of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, dark and challenging. (There will be another, I hear).
2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, a Christmas gift from a parish member. Enzo is a wonderful dog-hero.

More later -- although how much later I can't say for sure.

What day of Christmas is this? I've lost track.