Monday, May 31, 2010

"I see you out walking your dog in the morning...."

About twelve years ago, when I moved here, I thought I was moving from the claustrophobic microscope of small-town living to a relatively anonymous life in the big city. The retired couple who lived across from the parsonage used to greet me in the morning with words like these: "Your light usually goes on at about 7:00 in the morning, but it didn't come on until 7:30 today. Is everything okay?" One day, at the post office, one of the farmers said, "I saw you leave town the other day and I thought your car was going to turn left, but it turned right. Where'd you go?" (As I was opening my mouth and trying to form words, another farmer interrupted, "She doesn't have to tell you where she's going." Bless him.)

Don't get me wrong. I loved this town and its people. They were, in many ways, an extremely gracious parish, a lovely place for a first call pastor to get her start. They greeted me when I arrived at the parsonage, helped me to unload my car and then left me to unpack in private. They knocked before entering. I never found them in the parsonage without my permission. But I was unused to the feeling that I got that people pretty much knew where I was at all times, knew which house the pastor lived in, could see my car come from a good distance away.

So imagine my surprise when, shortly after I returned to what I thought was big-city life, I was getting tickets to a movie with a date and the teenage clerk blurted out, "Aren't you the new pastor at Brand X Lutheran Church?"

I run into parish members, community leaders and neighbors regularly at the grocery store, as well as the Big Store with the Red Circles and other places of interest. Once, after Good Friday Tenebrae services, I ran into a couple from church at the grocery store. We greeted each other silently, I leaned in and whispered, "I think it's all right to talk now."

But I measure most of all my lack of anonymity by the people who tell me, "I see you out walking your dog in the morning." Maybe it's because in this particular case, they see me, but I never see them. I am blithely going along, getting in exercise and bonding time with Scout, while unbeknownst to me, I Am Being Watched. They don't wave to me. I don't notice them. But people know I'm around, in the community. And they feel compelled to tell me, "I see you out walking your dog in the morning."

I'm enough of a believer in the priesthood of all believers that I don't believe that I'm a "sign of God's presence in the community." The truth is, we're all that: each and every one of us mostly anonymous Christians. We're all signs of God's presence in the community. And, like a lot of God's signs, they are mostly small or invisible. The pastor walking her dog. The young woman next door who works with child protection. The teenager helping younger children learn to read. The older couple who have opened their home to young adults.

You never know where we are. But we're God's people, and we're on a lot of streets.

An inelegant postscript:
actually, upon thinking about it, I think I am a sign of God's presence in the world -- in particular as a pastor. Here's how: when you see me, you know there must be a congregation around somewhere. You know that God has called me to serve God's people in the world. Sometimes I happen to be more visible because I'm wearing a collar, or I'm standing up in front. But I'm a small visible sign of the presence of God's people, the ones who have called me to lead them, provoke them, listen to them, and equip them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

My Colleague Is Retiring....

...after 40 some years in parish ministry.

I know I should know the exact number, but I'm terrible at that sort of thing. Besides, maybe he wouldn't want everyone to know the exact number.

A lot has changed in the years he has been in ministry. He started his ministry in a more conservative branch of the Lutheran church, but now is in a branch of the Lutheran church which, for example, ordains women. He has a persistently inquiring mind and is an expert at historical Jesus studies. But, he's also quite insightful when it comes to interpersonal matters and counseling.

He works harder than any pastor I've ever known. But, that doesn't mean that he doesn't know the value of spending time with family. Recently, I've confessed being conflicted regarding my work and my need to spend time with my dad. My colleague said, "You will never regret the time you take for your dad now."

In the event we have an misunderstanding, he's always willing to hear me out, and to work through it.

I'm thinking right now about all the changes that have taken place in the past forty-odd years -- changes in the culture, changes in churches, changes in the expectations for pastors. Forty-odd years ago, no one talked or worried too much about whether or not a particular church was "growing". People were pretty loyal to their denominations. The big revolution called "women's liberation" was just beginning. Women were on the verge of being ordained in my denomination.

So many things are different now -- we are in a "paradigm shift", as some say. The church is no longer in quite the same position of respect as it once was. There is much more competition in making meaning for people's lives.

In the midst of many changes, it's a good time to celebrate forty-some years of faithfulness to a call, and to pray for courage in times of transition.

May the coming generations have even half the wisdom as the ones before us.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Best of Times

We took a day trip to one of our favorite small towns yesterday. My husband swam at the local YMCA, we both got massages, and I spent a little time in their local independant bookstore.

It's a wonderful little bookshop, with a little bit of everything, and nicely arranged. I had a good conversation with the owner, chatted about how much I would like to open up a little bookstore myself, except that I know how difficult it would be, all the different business skills I would need.

We talked a little about the virtues of small businesses, and how (I think) some aspects of the
American business community have gone wrong, by focusing solely on the purpose of creating value for shareholders. I said that a good business has three purposes: to create a good product or service for customers, to create a profit for shareholders (if that is applicable), and to create a good environment for employees. There has sometimes a focus on short-term profit at the expense of long-term value.

"I just wanted my community to have a book store," she confessed.

A bookstore is a business, there's no doubt about it. But a local business is also a part of a community, a part of the "common good" of a community, just like a school or a library or the fire department.

Some people treat the term "common good" as if it were a sign of creeping socialism. However, "common good" is just a word that recognizes that we live in a community.

In the bookstore, I saw and almost bought Neil Gaiman's book Instructions. It was on the table with books for graduates, a lovely and kind of strange picture book with instructions that sound like they have come out of a fairy tale.

"If the Bible is an instruction manual," I said to the bookstore owner, "It is probably more like this book than it is like, for example, your car owners manual." (I'm not really convinced that the Bible is an instruction manual at all, but just for the sake of argument....)

Except for one thing. Neil Gaiman's book is an instruction manual for individuals, for heroes who are on an individual quest. We assume that these days. We are all on a quest to find ourselves. But the Bible is an instruction manual written to a community, not to individuals. We are on a quest, but we are not alone. We travel together, we quest together.

We live in a community.

The best of times.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Yesterday I went with my mom to a care conference for my dad. I went with her to one of these conferences before, when he was going off Medicare and being considered for permanent nursing home care.

It wasn't a long conference, but it was interesting, and hopeful, for a couple of reasons.

First, the different caregivers reported the different things they do for my dad, and what he can do for himself. I got to hear how he's doing. For awhile he seemed to be crabby and critical, not really happy. But now they are reporting that he is happy and social. There are a group of men he likes to gather with and talk to. They all say they like him and enjoy working with them. I felt like they were really talking about my dad, the guy I grew up with. They also said that the infection that he has had off and on for many months is gone now.

The other thing I noticed was my mom. I noticed that when the caregivers said he practiced once a day walking with his walker, she said, "Didn't he used to practice twice a day? he seems better when he gets to walk twice a day. He's stronger then." So the aides and nurses marked and agreed that he would get a chance to walk twice a day.

She asked about when he would get to see the doctor, and encouraged them to clip his fingernails more often when he had a bath. At every turn she was vigilant to make sure that my dad was getting the kind of care he needed, so that he could live with dignity.

She is his advocate.

On Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the church. Given the dramatic nature of the story, I always wish we could whoop it up a little more in church on Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit is a Big Deal, a Bigger Deal than we make of it, a big deal for our day to day lives as well.

The Holy Spirit goes by many names. Helper, Comforter, Counselor. Spirit of Life, Paraclete. There are many names for the Holy Spirit.

Today I'm just interested in one, though: Advocate.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Creative and Redeeming

When we baptize someone in my tradition, we always welcome them with these words:

"We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God's creative and redeeming word to all the world."

I wonder if very many people notice those two words: creative and redeeming.

At church, we spend so much time on the redeeming side. Church is about "getting right with God." Or, especially if you're Lutheran, it's about being made right with God. It's not our work, but a total gift. We all have a special responsibility to make this known in the world.

But there's that other word, "Creative." We are called to bear God's creative word to all the world too. And this is everything we do to keep the world going, to make the world more just, to heal divisions, to teach, to repair, to do our work, and raise our children, to be good neighbors. As much as preaching or praying or handing out tracts (if that is your method of testimony), this is God's work too.

A rather local well-known preacher* told his congregation that it was best if they gave their tithes only to his church, or other mission -type endeavors. In the end, he said, making sure that the name of Jesus Christ is known is the only important work. So your gifts to Bread for the World, for Habitat for Humanity, your endeavors to dig wells in Africa: that's not really God's work like (for example) preaching the gospel.

But that's not what we believe. We are called to bear God's creative and redeeming word to all the world. In fact, it is because we know that heaven is a gift freely given that we are able to entirely commit ourselves to the good of our neighbor, without worrying about our souls. Our daily work, in the fields, in the factories, in the family -- this too is God's work: God's creative work.

We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God's creative and redeeming word to all the world.

*Pastor Mac Hammond

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Give me the Microphone

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, a little-remembered observance in most churches these days. But on Sunday I'll be preaching on the Ascension texts, and, in the meantime, I'm thinking back to church last Sunday, when I saw two things that have stayed with me.

(Okay, three, but the third one is more of an aside.)

At our contemporary worship service on Sunday a fourth grade girl read the lesson from Acts: you might remember, if you think -- "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" was Paul's vision. The reading included lots of difficult names of towns. When I heard this young girl was reading, I immediately felt a twinge of pity: almost as bad as getting the Pentecost reading!

But she strode up to the Lecturn, pulled the microphone down so that it was at the right height for her, and read with something like aplomb. When she finished, she put the microphone up in its rightful place and returned to her seat.

That was the first thing that stayed with me.

The second was this: the Cherubs sang a simple song: "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart." They sang that they had the joy in their heart, and in their feet, and in their hands, and in their legs. It was great. And in the middle of the song, it happened: a four your old boy reached up, and grabbed one of the standing mikes and pulled it down so that it was right in front of his mouth.

This was the second thing.

(The third: from the traditional service -- a fantastic a capalla processional with the choir and a drummer: "Christ is arisen, Alleluia." No microphone necessary.)

So tomorrow is Ascension Day. Tomorrow Jesus stands in front of his disciples and tells them that they will receive power from on high and that they will be his witnesses. And somehow these words --power and witness -- connect with the images I saw on Sunday -- the images of the children taking hold of the microphone and speaking.

That's what the disciples are going to do. They are going to take hold of the power and speak. They are going to tell the truth about Jesus, and the kingdom, and the world. They are going to be God's people, and not just in the church on Sunday for an hour, but where-ever they go in the world.

Church on Sunday is not a bad place to practice, though.

First, Jesus has to ascend.

But then, the Spirit will come down, the power will come down. The microphone will be in our hands. That's the way God has always intended it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Gift of Easter is Love: in our families

Draft edition....

Long ago, when my niece was still a very little girl, we were all sitting around the dining room table at my mom and dad’s house.
I don’t remember the occasion – it must have been some sort of holiday, or a family birthday – a few members of our extended family were with us, including my uncle, who farms in southwestern Minnesota, and his daughter.
At some point in the conversation I got an idea, so I turned to my niece and said, “Did you know that Lowell (my uncle) is your grandma’s brother?
And that Lowell is my uncle? And did you know that your grandma is my mother?
And your daddy is my brother?”
As I was going around and pointing to people, she suddenly threw her little hands in the air, and exclaimed, “You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”

“You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”

On this mother’s day, it’s not bad to consider these words as a sort of starting place – you mean EVERYBODY has a family.
And these family relationships were meant to be a gift, a blessing given to us by God.
Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, grandparents, uncles and aunts, other caregivers
– all these are part of the richness of family relationships first created “in the beginning” when God looked at Adam and declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
So all of human community began with family relationships at the very foundation.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus realizes this reality when he is speaks to his disciples.
He is in speaking to them “on the night in which he was betrayed.”
He has one last chance to tell them everything they need to know before he is crucified.
And so today our lesson begins with these important words, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Orphaned -- that's a powerful word -- isn't it?
(You mean not everybody has a family?)
And Jesus uses it on purpose because his disciple would understand the word, and would know that ro be an orphan meant to be cut off, deserted, without anyone to care for you.
To be an orphan meant to have no name, no place to belong, and no inheritance.

Several years ago I happened upon an old movie, made in the 1940s, I believe.
It featured Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon and was based on a true story about a woman in Texas named Edna Gladney who made it her life’s work to help orphans to find good homes.
Before I watched this movie, I didn’t know that at one time children whose parents were not married – who were given up – were considered unadoptable.
If it was discovered that the child was “illegitimate”, “respectable” people would not consider that child to be unfit to adopt,
because of the circumstances of their birth. Mrs. Gladney fought for the laws to be changed so that all children had a chance to be adopted.
"You mean everybody can have a family?"

So a family is a gift, not just because a family is a place where we are loved and affirmed, and told were are special, (although I hope this is the case),
but for the very practical reason that in the family we are given a name, we are given a place, we are given means of support, a way to live and thrive and grow up.
“Orphans and widows” are the special concern of the old testament prophets for this very reason.
They realized that those without advocates, without a place, without a name, without a family,
were most vulnerable to people who might try to cheat or abuse them.
And orphans and widows were a major concern for the early church.
They nurtured and cared for those who were left out and left behind by society.

But of course when Jesus promised his disciples, ‘I will not leave you orphaned,’
he was not talking about our families here on earth, with mothers and father, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts – as important as all of them are.
He was talking about the community of his disciples, people who gather here.
He was promising them that they would never be alone – even if they were orphans, even if their mothers and father, or their children, abandoned them, even if their family relationships were not perfect.
He gave them a promise of another kind of belonging, another name, another means of support.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he said, “I will come to you.”

And if we are honest, most of us know that we need this kind of promise as well.
If we are honest, we know – even if we have great families, for whom we give thanks every day – that we need the belonging, the love that Jesus promises.
Because even great families for whom we give thanks every day, are not perfect,
and there are times we let each other down, and there are times when we feel lonely, and there are times when we know we have not measured up.

During this time of Easter we’ve been focusing on this theme: “The gift of Easter is love”.
Each week we’ve been focusing on love from a different angle – one week loving ourselves, and one week our enemies, loving the world, and loving creation.
This week’s theme: loving our families – is in a way both the easiest and the hardest to talk about.
It’s easy because today is Mother’s Day – and to love those we are related seems to be the easiest and the most natural thing of all.
But a child’s love for a parent – and parents’ love for our children – can also hard to talk about.
I have a little book that I use sometimes at funerals that speaks about this kind of love.
It’s called “Love you Forever.”
It begins with a mother rocking her baby, and singing a song to him, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always/as long as I’m living/my baby you’ll be.”
I love this little book for the picture of a loving parent it gives, and for the pictures of the child as well, for example:

“The baby grew. He grew and he grew and he grew. He grew until he was two years old, and he ran all around the house.
He pulled all the food out of the refrigerator and he took his mother’s watch and flushed it down the toilet. Sometimes his mother would say, “This kid is driving me CRAZY!”

Well – you see what I mean – family love is both the easiest – and sometimes the hardest kind of love to talk about -- and also to do.
It is both easy – and sometimes difficult – to love the ones closest to us
– Martin Luther liked to call our family our ‘near neighbors’
so the command to ‘love our neighbors’ also applies to our families, the ones who know us best, the ones who we have cared for – and sometimes let down –

the ones we have supported, and sometimes failed, the ones we have listened to – and sometimes ignored.
“Love your neighbor as yourself also applies to our families, which means that loving our family is an action, not a feeling.
If you’re a parent, it includes making tough decisions, listening, making meals and reading stories. If you’re a child, (even an adult child) it includes listening, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, doing chores.

And it involves knowing that the love you have for your child – or your parent – is not big enough – is not enough to carry you through hard times or tough times.
So – and this is for parents – ‘loving your neighbor’ involves telling your children and grandchildren about a love greater than your own,
telling your children and grandchildren about the God who loves them forever – and relying on that love yourself.

I think of Lydia – the successful businesswoman from our first reading.
She’s down at the river and she hears about God’s love – she hears the story of Jesus and his love (You mean EVERYBODY has a family?)
– and what is the first thing she does?

She and her whole household – her whole family – are baptized.
She wants to share what she has discovered with her family
– she wants to share with her family the love of the God who loves us forever, a love that will not let us go or let us down, even when we let each other down.
She wants to share with her family the love of God that will never abandon us, in whom there are no widows or orphans.
And then she welcomes the apostle Paul and his friends into her home – caring for them, feeding them, giving them a shelter as if they were one of her own, as if they were also her responsibility, her family.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promises us.

“You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”

Brothers and sister in Christ – absolutely.


Thursday, May 6, 2010


That's the fastest growing category listed for people in their religious preferences right now.

We talked a little about this during my ecumenical clergy lunch this noon. We talked about a lot of things, actually; we learned that the mayor of our city prays for us regularly, and vowed to pray for city officials as well (school board, police, firefighers, teachers, city board, etc.). We talked about the National Day of Prayer; one of our members is a Police Chaplain in Another City. He had been invited to a Community Prayer Breakfast that morning. When he looked at the website, he discovered that it was run by an extremely right-wing group; the speaker for that morning compares Obama to Hitler. So, he declined to attend.

But, I digress. Among all the things we talked about: how to work for the common good in our community, whether to be a part of the 4th of July Parade this year, someone mentioned that the fastest growing religious category right now is "unaffiliated."

Atheism is growing too, but "unaffiliated" people aren't necessarily atheists. Some of them may be; some of them aren't. They are people who don't affiliate with any religious organizations. They're not Lutheran or Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptism or non-denominational or even Buddhist or Ba'hai. They are 'unaffiliated.'

It seems to me that there are at least two (probably more) reasons for this, but two that I can identify. One I am very sympathetic to; the other, not as much.

First, people have become more and more suspicious of institutions. I'm sympathetic to this particular suspicion. Although the Catholic church and the priest abuse scandal has been much in the news lately, you don't have to search very hard to find different kinds of abuse of trust in other religious institutions. And you can certainly find instances where it seems that people were "using" the religious office for their own, less edifying, goals. Some people have a hard time with religious leaders who, for example, have their own private plane. Others have a hard time with religious hierarchy which protects the powerful at the expense of the weak.

So, people who wonder about the institution of the church, who have a hard time trusting for one reason or another: I get that. We are looking for autheticity, not bureaucracy. I am looking for authenticity, too.

On the other hand, I think there is very much an individualistic impulse in us, an impulse that resists working with genuine (but flawed) community. Community is life-giving, but also risky. When we live with other and let them get to know us, we can be blessed, but we can be hurt as well. It's tempting to opt out. Actually, I can understand part of this impulse, too.

A number of years ago I heard about a little church where the pastor had cancer. The church members supported and prayed for their pastor. They also gave several fundraisers to help defray the costs of his expensive treatments and travels to Another City. Then, it came out: the whole story was a Lie. The pastor had never had cancer. He used the money raised to go to Another City for vacation.

Or something.

Those of us who are disciples of Jesus who also affiliate with churches know both the blessing of living and working together, but also the pain of falling-short. We know when others have let us down, when we have been hurt, when our lofty ideas of what Christian Community is supposed to be about have come crashing down. And yet....

As for me, I struggle with wanting the church to be Better, but knowing it will never be Perfect.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Don't We Run The Church More Like A Business?

I can't tell you how many times I have heard this sentiment, often at around the time of the Annual Meeting. "Why Don't we Run the Church More Like A Business?" Its corollary, a rallying cry, "We should run the church more like a business!"

Sometimes it seems like this sentiment has to do with the church budget, other times to do with personnel issues. When I hear it, I'm left with a sense of uneasiness, and a vague sense of what the person might mean. Some how they are expressing, (I think) a sense that if we did things in a more businesslike, step-by-step, rational manner, we would be in some way more successful.

At least, I think that's what they mean. Maybe they mean that they wish they could fire the pastor if the church isn't growing.

Anyway, if you know what it means to "run the church more like a business", let me know.

As for me, sometimes I think we ought to run the church a little less like a business, at least in a few areas.

For example, I think when we are having a church council meeting, we should pray more: not just a short prayer to open our meeting and a short prayer to end the meeting, with almost no mention of "God" in the middle. What if in our business meetings we were constantly listening to God, listening for God, not as a pious exercise, but as a way to get our of our own mind-sets and knee jerk opinions, and into what following Jesus means?

I'm pretty sure this wouldn't mean less disagreements, but our arguments might get a lot more interesting.

I think we should resurrect the word "discernment" in church meetings. Discussions about how we need to get more money, or how we need to attract more people could be replaced by discussions focussing on discernment of our mission: what is it that God is calling us to do; who is it that God is calling us to be?

I'm lukewarm about Parliamentary procedure. It serves a purpose, it keeps order, I suppose, but sometimes I do think it it gets in the way of the Spirit breaking out. I'm still thinking on this one.

Finally, we could remember what the church is, and what the church is for: the church is the people of God, and its mission is to proclaim and live good news, to be good news for other people. Our mission is to be good news of reconciliation, good news of mercy, good news of welcome, good news of justice.