Friday, April 23, 2010

She Thought He was the Gardener...

There's one small detail in John's Easter story which has always intrigued me. It comes at the point when Mary is alone at the tomb. She has just heard the words of the angels announcing Jesus' resurrrection. She turns around and sees Jesus standing there, but she doesn't recognize him.

This detail in itself might seem a little intriguing, and it's always been the subject of intense debate. "What do you mean, she didn't recognize him? Did he look different?" "Was it just that she wasn't expecting to see him? After all, you don't expect to see someone standing there, when you just buried them."

However, it's not this detail that fascinates me. After all, there are other instances where Jesus appears to his disciples, but is not recognized: the familiar story from Luke's gospel, for example. Two disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus. Jesus joins their conversation, but they remain clueless about his identity until he breads bread with them. Or the story many of us heard last Sunday, about Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. He calls to his disciples, who are fishing, but they don't recognize him.

Here's the detail that keeps me thinking. Mary turns around, sees Jesus, and mistakes him for the gardener.

She thought he was the gardener. Of all people.

She thought he was the kind of guy who would like to get down on his knees and plant flowers, who would be pruning back the hedges, who would be paying attention to the weeds. I wonder why she thought that. Were his hands dirty, did he look tired? What was he doing? I mean, I suppose on one level it's supposed to be funny. She is clearly mistaken.

But it got me thinking.

I remembered one spring that I was looking for new places to take Scout for a walk. I was getting a little tired of walking the same blocks every morning, and maybe a little tired of hearing people say, "Hey! I saw you out walking your dog today." So I started taking Scout for just a little drive over to a garden near one of our city lakes. It's a large and well-known garden, filled with many varieties of roses, and lots of other flowers. But early in the morning there were not so many walkers there.

Early in the morning, I discovered, is when the gardeners do their secret work, making the garden look beautiful, planting and pruning and pulling weeds.

Did you notice, perhaps for the first time? Jesus' tomb was in a garden.

Early in the morning he rose, doing the secret work of the new creation, planting and pruning and pulling weeds.

Sometimes in all of our talk about "heaven" we over-spiritualize the resurrection. Jesus rose and walked on this earth, the beginning of a new creation. He is the new Adam, tending God's garden, as we were supposed to do in the first place.

She thought he was the gardener. Maybe he was, and is. Making all things new. Rocks, trees, birds, dogs, rivers, stars -- even us.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sunday Observations: Before I Forget

We always have a time of silence during the prayers on Sunday, a time for people to consider their own prayer concerns, what is on their own hearts. I like to leave just a little more silence than is comfortable.

On Sunday, while praying, I thought: I don't like it to be too silent during the silence. I like to hear some rustling, a stray instrument, a child's cry. It helps me to remember what to pray for, and that there is life going on in our congregation.

We had a baptism at the ten o'clock service. The baby cried and cried while she was being baptzied (and why not? the water is cold; it's a rude awakening to a new identity as a child of God). Then when she faced the congregation again, she was suddenly all smiles. Some in the congregation laughed to see her play to the crowd already at 3 months.

The Kindergarten students completed a "Faith Milestone" on Saturday, and I had them stand up on Sunday and be recognized. But as soon as I said it, I realized that no one would see them from the pews, so I had them come out into the center aisle for a moment. Everyone clapped. Next fall, Kindergarten students will be able to help with worship, as greeters and ushers, and helping carry the baskets at communion.

During communion, a little girl stood in line with her mother. I could tell she wanted to ask me a question, so I bent down to hear her begin, "How old...." "5th grade," I answered her quietly.

Another little girl and her mother were first-time visitors this Sunday. She was so excited when she saw one particular adult: her Kindergarten teacher from her school!

You never know where you are going to make a connection with someone else in the body of Christ.

You never know how important it is for you to show up on a particular Sunday.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There Goes the Neighborhood

The other day my husband ran into acquaintances of his at a Congregational Event. They live not far from our neighborhood and attend a church that we are well acquainted with. In passing, they mentioned that they like his congregation, and if it were a little closer, they might consider going there. Then they mentioned that they are currently looking around for a new church.

It surprised me to hear this; they've been pretty involved throughout the years. They've been without a pastor and in interim lately as well.

Then it occurred to me.

I remembered that their congregation just called a new senior pastor: a woman.

I read the church newsletter relating the credentials of their new pastor, and was very impressed. She is definitely what you might call "Above Average."

Now I don't know for sure that this is the reason this family is "church-shopping." But it seemed like odd timing to me. It also got me thinking about the gifts that women clergy bring to congregations and the pitfalls and the prejudices they face.

One prejudice: a clergy (male) friend said to me once: "Most churches still want a man."

I think there is a stereotype of a "successful", growing congregation, and part of the stereotype is that this kind of congregation will have a particular kind of leader at the helm. That leader will be strong, visionary, attractive and male. I suspect that there are a few people out there who think that having a woman as lead pastor would be a sure sign of decline. "There goes the neighborhood." "They're moving in and taking over." "We'll never be the same."

It reminds me of what someone said after I arrived at my first congregation: they realized that the pastor before me was probably their "last normal pastor" (married man with children).

We've been really looking at, and talking about, and working on the racism in our churches and in our communities. But I don't want us to think that sexism is gone, conquered, all fixed. It's not.

There goes the neighborhood.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


It's been unseasonably warm here since Easter. I keep forgetting that it's just the middle of April, and thinking about getting my shorts out, already. Then we'll get a stiff breeze for a little while, and it will all come back to me. It's not quite the end of May yet. We still have a confirmation retreat for 9th graders, and the day of confirmation, and a few other loose ends to tie up.

It's not quite the end of May yet. Just before Easter, the unofficial news broke out that our talented organist and minister of music (who's not quite been with us for two years) will be leaving us to go to graduate school. At our leadership board meeting this week it became official.

We heard as well last Tuesday that the Senior Pastor here intends to retire at the end of May. His wife, who is the parish secretary, will retire as well.

As you can imagine, this is a time of many questions. One question, the most mundane, has to do with simply getting work done. There will be fewer of us, but of course the work of ministry will not go away. I've taken, just in the last couple of days, to bringing some scratch paper with me everywhere and taking down notes and making lists when I think of something. For example: When will we choose hymns for summer? Who will be leading our Wednesday morning Matins services every week? When should I get the list of all of the shut-ins? And oh yes, I'd better call those couples who are getting married this summer!

However, the most important questions won't be about work, how much there is, who will do it, how it will get done. The most important questions won't have to do with logistics, or schedules, but identity, and purpose. Who are we? What is important to us as a congregation? What do we value? Why are we here?

It's been unseasonably warm here since Easter, but it's only the middle of April. There are a few loose ends to tie up before summer; actually, there are some loose ends to unravel as well as tie up, as we travel through ventures to which we cannot see the ending.

In the midst of the unraveling, I hope that we can come to see and to trust that God's hand is leading us, and guiding us, and trust that we still have words to speak to the world, and hearts to heal; we still have strangers to welcome and children to guide.

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Few Quotes and Hmmms

I've been reading a book called "Transforming Congregational Culture", by Anthony Robinson. Here a a few quotations I found provocative:

"The church, once founded and established to make a difference in the lives of others and in society, has in a time of change and confusion tended to adopt a diminished purpose and vision. Seeing or sensing that earlier roles and purposes -- conscience of the community, instrument of aid, and center of the community -- no longer quite worked, and yet unsure of other directions, too many churches have adopted as their implicit purpose the maintenance of a congenial community for their members. And the measure of a minister and church has become how well they keep the membership satisfied." (p. 31)

The purpose of the church is a better word than its vision because: "this (vision) tends to distort the role of leader, or leadership, turning it once again into an answer-provoding agency and relieving the followers of has aplace, but purpose is the more important question."

"Too often worship in the mainline churches is an informational event rather than a formational and transformational event. But if information were all that was needed to save us, we would have been redeemed long ago....worship is the encounter with God -- it is meeting -- and being met by -- the holy the Christendom era, and in many mainline churches today, worship is nice but is not absolutely necessary, not critical... in our new time, worship will be experience as essential, not something you can miss."


I keep thinking about the fact that as a leader one of the few things I know is that I don't know all the answers. I know just a few answers. I'm pretty sure, though, that learning to ask the right questions is one of the most important tasks for leaders these days.

I have quit asking "am I a leader?" because I am a leader, sometimes even whether I want to be or not. But the right question for me is not "Am I a leader?" or "Am I willing to lead?" but, "What kind of leader am I becoming?" and "Where am I willing to lead?" Where do I need courage, and who can help me find it?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Being There

.... is the title of my sermon for tomorrow, regarding Thomas and the other disciples. The idea is taken from that small detail about Thomas -- that he was not there on Easter, when the other disciples met the risen Lord. But he was there a week later. So why did he stay away? And what made him return? Those are the questions that intrigued me.

There was another question as well: what would we be willing to do in order to get "Thomas" back? We don't know what the disciples did. We don't know what is was the brought Thomas back.

But my guess is that it had something to do with love.

During Easter our emphasis is going to be on be on love. Each week we'll highlight love in one of its many forms.

Tomorrow is "love for self", which, I'll tell you, was not my main point for the sermon. It's not that I don't think "love for self" is important. Reallly, I don't think Christians should go around hating themselves. And I'm really on board with people he like to scratch out "saved a wretch like me" in "Amazing Grace" and replace it with "saved a soul like me." Self-loathing can be a real problem.

So why do I feel uncomfortable talking about loving ourselves?

Maybe I do have a problem.

Anyway, I heard last week about a church who had a really (ahem) unique marketing idea for Easter. They offered a chance to win a FREE CAR. A friend of mine posted this on his website, and several people left comments, most of them disparaging, except for one young woman. Her point was that we should be willing to do anything, go to any lengths, to get people to come and hear the good news. How DARE we criticize this church!

At one point, I said something about the car being a "gimmick." The young woman then said, "some churches have programs for veterans returning home from overseas. Are they gimmicks? Someone from our church gave someone a car when they heard that their own car had broken down. Was that a gimmick?"

Immediately I thought: No, those are not gimmicks. They are acts of genuine love and caring for people. I don't think that's true about the chance for a free car.

So this weekend, I'm not posting the sermon, which concerns how important it is -- being there. but not just Thomas being there so he can here the Good News.

But it's really more about Jesus being there, being there in the middle of the disciples, in that locked room.

and maybe it's really more about us being there, being there with genuine acts of caring and love for one another.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Easter with My Dad

My dad really wanted to go to church on Easter. He also really wanted to be with us for the great Ham and Scalloped Potato Easter dinner. But he couldn't. Our house is not wheelchair accessible. The church is, but it turned out to be too difficult to get him there.

My dad does get out of the nursing home, on occasion. Once in awhile, my mom takes him out to lunch with friends. He really likes that.

On Sunday, after worship and after dinner, we brought Easter over to my dad. My brother brought him a piece of left-over pie. My mom had been there earlier, recounting the humorous and serious moments of the Easter sermon (at least some parts of the sermon had to do with the words "TA DA!") I brought my red hymnal and sang a verse of "Jesus Christ is Risen today." Then I switched over to "Living for Jesus", which he still knows better (and so does my mom, for that matter.)

There was a big crowd of us for awhile: My mom, my brother, my neice and nephew, and me. We were all talking, telling stories, my dad eating pie. I'm not sure he recognized us all the time. Besides the dementia, he also has macular degeneration, and his glasses went missing some time ago, so we're all kind of fuzzy.

After awhile, it got near to his dinner time, so we wheeled him down to the dining room, and said good-bye.

I didn't like to see the look on his face when we all said good-bye, all at once.

"You're going to have dinner soon. They'll take care of you," we reassured him. I'm not sure it helped.

"Jesus Christ is risen today!" was the song we sang at the beginning of worship on this last Sunday. People we don't see often were there, some visitors, some children and grandchildren. Others, like my dad, were absent. Some have died in the past year. Some live in wheelchairs, or can't remember.

"Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!" But what does it matter? What's it about? Why is this such good news?

I can give you all the stock answers: the defeat of death, the triumph of love, the vindication of Jesus, and his way of living. But today, my answer is this:

Jesus Christ is risen so that all the barriers that keep us separate will come down. Jesus is risen so that someday, we will all be together, we will not have to eat ham in one place while my dad eats his dinner somewhere else. Jesus is risen so that we will not have to say good-bye. Jesus is risen and the kingdom of God will be wheelchair accessible, and poverty and wealth accessible, and color-accessible, even life and death accessible. Jesus is risen, and in the love of God, there will be no more barriers. There will be no "Keep Out" signs, no stairs to climb, no entrance fees that some can't pay.

That's what I think, at least today.
What about you?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Decline of Blogging

Every once in awhile, in a fit of nostalgia, I go back and read old blog posts.

I know, it's embarrassing to admit it.

I'm struck by a kind of golden era, a couple of years ago, when I was writing a lot and reading a lot of blogs, getting sometimes twenty comments on a post. I'm struck, sometimes, by the elegance of my writing (this is sort of embarrassing to admit as well), and I yearn a little for the good old days, when it seemed like I was reading everyone's blog and everyone was reading mine, and we were all on our way up.

It's times like these when I consider what people are saying about the "decline of blogging."

Some people are even more blunt. "Blogging is dead," they say. They mean, of course, that they used to get twenty comments and now they get two, or one. Or none. Or they mean that they just don't have time to "blog" much any more.

I have been feeling the same way. But I don't think that blogging is dead. (Just ask Andrew Sullivan, for one.) However, I do think a particular kind of blogging, the blog-as-journal-type-blog, is in a temporary or permanet decline.

It has to do, at least in part, with a certain popular social media which starts with "FB". There we can leave six word personal updates. I can tell you a little bit about how my dog broke her toe (something I used to do on this blog), and I can update you all on how my knitting is going. I can post a video link that I like, old pictures of my family.

So, what is my blog, "faith in community" for?

When I posted more often, it was kind of a mish-mash: I told stories about Scout, and my church (not revealing any confidentialities, of course); I posted theological and pastoral reflections, and talked about walking around the lake in the summer. Sometimes the connections to "faith in community" were apparent and obvious, other times more tangential. Sometimes (I'll be honest) I just liked putting words together in fun ways and hearing how they sounded together.

I love the title of my blog, "faith in community." I think I would like to keep it, but try to be a little more intentional about what I write about. I'd like to take more risks in what I write, do things that are a little harder for me, that will take some time.

Or, I'm thinking about starting over with a new blog. I have attempted it a couple of times. I have a pretty good title in mind, even posted a little, but found that I couldn't keep up two at one time. Especially in this era of blogging decline.

I know I'll never be a Lutheran pastor version of Andrew Sullivan, but I'd like to create something a little more cohesive. So, I'm searching for themes, ideas, what to keep, what to discard. I don't think I'll be writing about Scout, unless, of course, I can wring some sort of a theological message out of her. (that is not outside of the realm of possibility, of course.) Perhaps I'll do less posting about the books I read, unless I can give a full review.

Also, if there are any lurkers here, is there anything you would like to hear more of? Less of?