Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Counting the Cost

Long ago, even before I was a pastor (can there have been such a time?), I was a member of a congregation with a new pastor.  The pastor had put together a long-range planning committee, and they had been meeting for a few months, talking to people about their hopes and dreams for their community and their congregation. 

Then, one evening, the committee was ready to tell us about their findings.  They talked about our neighborhood, both the children and the seniors who lived among us.  They talked about this piece of property that the church had owned for a long time, a property that we never knew exactly what to do with.  They had this wonderful dream, they said, something we could not do right now, but maybe could work toward doing someday, of building a senior high rise on that property, with, perhaps, a day care center in the middle of it.

There was quite a buzz in the fellowship hall while the members of the little church dared to dream a big dream. 

But then, one older gentleman got up and cleared his thoat.

He began to read,

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, "this fellow began to build and was not able to finish."

Well.  I can tell you one thing:  the buzzing stopped, and no one got up to say anything to the elderly gentleman.  And that senior high rise was never built, as far as I know.

At least no one would be able to ridicule us sometime down the line, because we began to build something and could not complete it.

Maybe the Senior High Rise with the day care center wasn't what Jesus had in mind for our congregation anyway.  It's hard to know, when you begin to follow Jesus into the world:  sometimes it turns out that you heard wrong, and that wasn't what God wanted you to do at all.

But I can't help wondering what Jesus had in mind, when he spoke these words to the large crowds that were gathering.  I can't help wondering what Luke had in mind, when he made very sure that this scene was included in his gospel.  Did he mean he wanted us to count the cost and then give up, so that there was no possibility that anyone would laugh at us when we failed?

Because Jesus seems to indicate that the cost of discipleship is more than we have, that there is every possibility that we'll build a foundation and then find out that we are totally spent.  There's the distinct possibility that we'll find ourselves in a position of being laughed at, regarded as failures, regarded as foolish, as we follow Jesus.

Rally Sunday is coming up.  It's usually a big attendance day, with balloons, and registrations for Sunday School, and food.  The "program year" starts out with a bang, and with high hopes.

But somewhere along the line, things usually thin out a bit.  I'm not exactly sure why this happens.  Other obligations crowd out the first enthusiasm of September.  People count the cost, and somehow what we are offering doesn't always measure up.  Or, as a person whom I love dearly said to me, "I don't go to church because it doesn't add value to my life."  Ouch.

Even after all these years, I'm still trying to get my brain around these words from Luke.

All I can say right now, is ... I don't think Jesus wants us to quit.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Short Book in the Reading Challenge

Back while I was helping with Bible School this summer, I noticed a book at the Public Library that I immediately coveted.  It was a children's Bible story book called Tapestries: Stories of women in the Bible.  The pictures of both old and new Testament women were lovely.  I was particularly intrigued by the notion that the author included some women not on the tradtional lists of women in the Bible (for example, The Witch of Endor, and Jael.) 

That alone was enough to make me go on line and find a copy.  This week my book finally arrived, and one evening I sat down and read it (making it #26 in the reading challenge, I think, but who's counting?)  Again,  I loved the artwork.  New Testament women included were not just Mary and Martha, but also Tabitha and Phoebe.

I had to notice, though, that a few details about these interesting women were not included:  Rahab is given a page, but nowhere does the author mention that she was a prostitute.  And the fact that King David committed adultery as well as murder was also left out of the stories.

I don't fault the author too much:  this is supposed to be a children's book, after all, and how much explaining do you want to do?  It just reminds me again that, as my friend Joelle pointed out, the Bible is not a children's book.  The stories contained in the Bible, read properly, are not for the faint-of-heart.  They are stories of complicated people with mixed motives.  They were people worthy of admiration in one moment and of disdain in the next.

For all that, I do love children's Bible story books with their brightly colored illustrations and breathless retellings of famous stories.  But there comes a day, or days, actually, when it's good to know that faith is not just for brightly-colored and breathless days, but is as real and gritty as the people in their Bible.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes It Just Ends Up Being A Good Day

The day began with a cool breeze, and a blue sky, and ended with the bright moon ahead of me.

In between I waited for a friend at what turned out to be the wrong coffee shop.  I'm still not sure where I went wrong.

I had a productive meeting with one of my church leaders in the late afternoon.  We were talking about planning a series of house meetings this fall, house meetings where people would be encouraged to share their faith values, and really explore what it would mean to be a congregation that makes a difference in the lives of our neighbors.  We already have at least four people who are interested in being a part of the planning for this. 

Like I said, sometimes, it just ends up being a good day.

Tonight was my church book club meeting.  We haven't met for a long time, and tonight we read and discussed The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean.  (22).  Almost everyone was there, which felt so good after a long summer where we have often passed like ships in the night.

The August book was a short one, and rather elliptical, by which I mean, there are mysteries not ever explained.  But I think that is intentional, and not any reflection on a lack of skill.  The main chracter is an old Russian woman living in the United States named Marina.  She has Alzheimers disease, which is why I think the mysteries are somewhat intentional.  She does not remember much in her present day to day life, but she remembers vividly her life during the siege of Leningrad during World War II.  She worked in the museum there, and memorized all of the paintings that were taken down and stored. 

Sometimes she would give tours to older people and to cadets, tours where she would describe the paintings that no longer hung on the walls so vividly, the people thought they really could see them.

It's funny that though this book describes harsh and depressing realities, there is a hopeful and a beautiful quality to it:  maybe it is the visions of the paintings, and the imagination required to see beauty in the world even where there is great ugliness.  Maybe that is what hope really is.

Like I said, sometimes it just ends up being a good day.

Afterwards, I got email messages from two other people who think they are interested in our House Meeting strategy.  They're not sure, but they're intrigued.    Maybe if they close their eyes, they can imagine a faith community that really makes a difference in the lives of their neighbors.

It's been a busy summer, and sometimes a lonely summer. There have been a lot of funerals, a lot of them hard.  I've been missing a couple of colleagues who have retired.  They have not been replaced yet.  I'm behind in my reading (although I have done a little, and I'll try to report later on 23. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, 24, On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet , and 25.
Things I Learned From Knitting.)  But tonight, I'm just watching the moon, and thinking, sometimes it just ends up being a good day.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why The Pastor/Parish Relationship is like a Marriage (sort of)

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as our congregation will soon be in a discernment process regarding who will be our next pastor.  We will prayerfully listen to the Holy Spirit and to members of the congregation regarding our mission and direction, and think about what kind of leader we need in order to fulfill the mission that God has given us.  In our tradition, we interview pastors and then extend a call to a particular candidate, who will either say, "Yes," or "No."

To me, it sounds a little like the process we use to choose a life partner, except possibly for the part where each vows "till death do us part."

I realize that some denominations do not get a say in who their pastor will be.  In that case, consider it kind of like an "arranged marriage", where older and wiser parties choose a partner for you, based on each of your strengths and needs.  In that case, your parents, er, I mean your bishop tells you that you will "learn to love each other."

So, at the beginning, after all that prayer and all that discernment, and all that study (i.e. dating) and interviewing, the congregation is sure that they have chosen the Right Pastor.  Some people may even be so bold as to say that they have chosen the Perfect Pastor.  The Minister as well, is sure that s/he has said "yes" to the Right Church, the Church where s/he is supposed to be.

And then, somewhere along the line....just like in marriage....reality sets in. 

Which is not to say that everything goes wrong, but just that, some things go wrong.  Your partner leaves the cap off the toothpaste, or doesn't make ice cubes, or holds the wrong position about homosexuality, or turns out to have an off-putting sense of humor.  You absolutely got a pastor who is a brilliant teacher and preacher, but not someone who can remember everyone's name.  Or, your congregation is passionately committed to working for justice, but not to having enough money to pay the heat bills in the winter ( for example). 

Then, the question is, can you adjust? 

So, you didn't get a perfect pastor, and you didn't get a perfect congregation.  But the key to success is to be able to adjust to the reality of the flawed, but gifted people you really are.  As you work together, you will discover stumbling blocks and things you didn't know about one another.  You will discover that you were both putting on your best face to impress each other in those Early Days.

But here's the catch.  As you make adjustments based on Real Life, you will also discover (and this is absolutely guaranteed) gifts you didn't know you had.  Given the opportunity, and given the faith that this person, this congregation, with all of their faults, is still the Right One for You, you'll not only fall down on the job sometimes:  you'll also rise to the occasion, you discover new things about one another, new ways you can serve God together.

Just like in marriage, the key to a successful pastor/parish relationship is the ability to make adjustments.  Oh, and faithfulness.  Faithfulness is important too.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dr. Laura and the First Amendment

My friend Joelle has been writing some good commentary over at her blog about the recent outcry over Dr. Laura's use of the "N" word on her program recently.  She went on a rant, but then later apologized.  She also read a letter from a fan about how she's not a racist, but was trying to make a point. 


Today, she quit her show.  She says she quit her show because "she wants her first amendment rights back."  You know, the right to say anything she wants (she still has that right) AND not be criticized for it. 

In other words, she wants first amendment rights, but she wants to make sure the people who disagree with her don't have them.

I've never been able to figure out some people's pouting when they are criticized for something they have said, that "they don't have first amendment rights."  The first amendment gives you the right to say what you want, no matter how stupid or thoughtless it might be.  It doesn't mean that other people don't have the right to disagree with you publicly (a nice way of saying "criticize".) 

In fact, I might venture a guess that part of the point of the first amendment is not just for individuals to have the right to free speech.  The point of the first amendment might also be a robust conversation about competing ideas, a "marketplace of ideas" where people talk, or write, and other people get to decide:  was that a compelling argument?  Or just stupid? 

If you censor yourself because you don't want to have to respond to people who disagree with you (and might even have good arguments),  you are censoring yourself.  Of course, you have the right to do that.  But don't say that your first amendment rights are taken away.  Just admit that you really can't defend yourself, except in the community of the like-minded. 

Freedom of speech:  if it's a good idea for you, then it's a good idea for other people, too.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I am on Vacation


Internet connectivity appears to be anecdotal, but I have it right now.

Here's what I've done so far:

1.  Stopped in a number of places on the way up here, including an Antique Store in Duluth, where I bought three inexpensive children's books, and a Yarn Store (Playing with Yarn) where I haven't bought anything (yet).

2. Had a late lunch at a cool place called Tom's trading post.  They have good tuna salad sandwiches, and they really really liked our dog there.

3.  Watched the old movie, "The Mortal Storm."  Sad, scary movie. 

4.  Had breakfast at Betty's Pies.  Scout made "I miss you guys" noises from the car.

5.  Made a couple of pastoral care phone calls (ah, the wonder of the cell phone).  I'm done now, though.  Promise.

6.  Hiked up around Gooseberry Falls, and stopped in at Split Rock Lighthouse.  Hope to go back for more.  It's their anniversary, you know.

7.  Scout was spooked by a couple of people who wanted to meet her, but, for the most part, she has been friendly and obliging to everyone who wants to pet her.  A couple of people have remarked that she is therapy for them as they had to leave their dog at home.  This is the one vacation where we get to bring her, so I know how they feel. 

It's cool up here, but the sun is shining.  The sky is a beautiful pure blue color.  My feet hurt sometimes, but I keep going.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Do You Come to Worship?

It’s a serious question. Why do you come to worship? A lot of people don’t these days. Some of them are Christian. Anne Rice, a famous writer who converted to Christianity, has now stated that she has “left the church.” She still believes in Jesus, but she’s given up on his followers.

Why do you come to worship? There are lots of different reasons, as many reasons for coming to worship as there might be for not coming to worship. Perhaps you come to connect with your friends who are also coming to worship. Perhaps you come to sing a song, or to hear a sermon, hoping you will get something to take with you through the week. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.

Just lately, my heart was warmed when I read an interview with writer Anne Lamott. She was asked how she kept “charged up” in her spiritual life. She replied, “I go to church every Sunday, which is like going to the gas station and really, really filling up.” That made me smile.

Why do you come to worship? Do you come to get something, or do you come to give something?

You might expect me, a pastor, to take the position that you come to worship to give something, rather than get something. Worship in our tradition is called “the work of the people”, the liturgy, and it is an act of corporate devotion given to God, the work of the gathered community. You might also expect me to take issue with the position that we come to worship to “get something.”

However, I don’t see worship as an either/or. I see it as a both/and.

Certainly, I want us to remember that when we are at worship, we are offering our hearts, our lives, to God, in prayer and in praise. We are giving something to God – and when we come to worship, we are also giving something to one another – by showing up and singing and praying together, by kneeling and standing (as we are able) together, by listening to one another’s joys and sorrows.

But of course, as Anne Lamott wrote, we are also getting something – we are getting something from God – bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood and the assurances of Christ’s presence, not just for an hour on Sunday, but in all our lives. We are getting something: hope, peace, love – from God – and from one another. You never know who might need you to be there in worship today, who might need to hear your voice, singing, who might need to see your tears.

As for me, today I needed to see a three-year-old girl, “running the race set before her”, during the children’s message. (Of course, the other children too!) I needed to hear all of your voices during the hymns, and the murmuring of names of your cloud of witnesses.

So, why do you come to worship? It’s a serious question. I hope you’ll take time to tell me.

(in some form or another, this will be my church newsletter column this month.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scout Predicts the Weather

Suddenly, this evening, Scout went and sat in one of her safe places.  When my husband tried to get her to come so she could go out for the last time in the evening, she growled at him.

This is not like her.

It rained and rained and rained Thursday evening.  There were flash flood warnings in the morning.  It was supposed to storm a lot on Friday night too, but most of it went around us.

The weekend prediction was that the humidity and the temperature would get lower.  It should be (I hope) a nice morning to have church on the lawn.

Then, suddenly, Scout did her weird "safe place" act.  I was sure that it was not supposed to rain tonight. 

So, we finally got Scout to go outside.

As soon as she came back in, it started raining.

I should listen to her more often, I think.

I think she knows more than I give her credit for.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"My Mom Hates Me"

I heard a young woman I know well say words similar to these recently.  With knee-jerk speed, I shot back, "your mom does NOT hate you."

The thing is, I know why this young woman might say these words.  Her mother recently had to say some difficult words to her, and do something difficult for a parent to do. And yet, I know that her mother doesn't hate her.  In fact, her mother loves her very much.  Her mother, and in fact, many of us, are worried about her.

She's been making some bad choices for a long time:  lying about where she's been, partying with her friends when she says she's studying, not doing the work she needs to do in order to graduate from high school.   She's on a road leading nowhere, and doesn't seem to know it.  She seems to think she's living the high life with "friends", but the people who really love her know it isn't true.

When I think about this young woman I know and worry about, I can't help thinking about the prophets.  Especially Jeremiah.  Jeremiah spoke almost unremitting words of judgment to the people of Israel.  He kept telling them they were heading toward a fall.  He was suspected of being a traitor.  He didn't promise prosperity, rainbows or cheap grace.

It makes me wonder, did the people say, "The Lord hates us"?

I'm told that popular preacher Joel Osteen is fond of saying, "God is not mad at you."  Now I know why he might be saying this; there are a lot of people out there who experience only God's judgment in their lives.  They are sure that God is unhappy with every move they make.  But it's not exactly true that, "God is not mad at you."

Sometimes God is angry with us because God loves us, because God sees us heading down a path to nowhere.  Sometimes God has to speak hard words, give ultimatums, because we don't love our neighbor as ourselves, especially if they're poor, or don't look like us, or are weak and easy to take advantage of.  Sometimes God is angry with us because we think we're living the high life, building bigger barns, but we're really on a collective road to destruction.

I remember talking to a confirmation group a few years ago about the 7th commandment, "You shall not steal."  I had been really moved and angered when I was in high school when I heard that grocery stores in poor neighborhoods charged the people more for groceries, simply because didn't have the mobility to go shop at another store if they didn't like the prices.  (This was the explanation of my high school teacher in the 1970s.)  I shared this with my class, and asked, "is this stealing from the poor?  Is this breaking the 7th commandment?"  And one of the students said, "It's not stealing.  It's GOOD BUSINESS." (Sadly, he also opined that it is their own fault that people are poor.)

Right now, I'm thinking about our inability to create racial equity, our unwillingness to work toward opportunities for all of us.  If we don't work toward a world where everyone has a future, we're on a collective road to destruction, and we don't see it.  We don't see that our futures are connected.  We don't see that the choices we make in our personal lives, and in our collective lives, are leading to death, not life.

And yet, God loves us.  God loves us like I love this young woman, and want her to walk down a different road, a road that leads to life, making choices not just based on what feels good right now, but what will lead to a bright future.

It's always hard to hear words like our gospel for Sunday:  "I come not to bring peace but a sword."  "I come to bring fire."  This is not the same Jesus who has held children on his knee, and cleansed lepers, and fed thousands.  Who is this Jesus? 

But it is the same Jesus.  And it's because he has held children, and cleansed lepers, and fed thousands that he also says these words.  it's because he loves the poor who pay too much and the grocer who charges this much, because he loves the boy who is tempted to join a gang, the girl who is trying hard to learn English, and the congregation who closes their eyes and doesn't see them -- it's because Jesus loves them all that he speaks words like these.  "Can't you see the signs?"  He asks us.  "Can't you see the signs?"

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace Grace

Nothing about my life is perfect right now.

For example:  recently I've been having trouble doing my most regular form of exercise, walking the dog.  My heel hurts, sometimes terribly, and I end up limping like I'm about 30 years older than my actual age.  I haven't been to the doctor yet, but I think I have something called plantar faschiatis.   

I'm knitting another pair of socks, in the odd moment or two, at the end of long days.  I'm still working the basic pattern, with different colors and weights of yarn.  The first pair came out all right, except the kitchener stitch.  The second pair, with exactly the same pattern, stretched out way too big.  The third pair are not exactly the same length.  They all have the little holes that I haven't learned how to correct, although I've tried a few suggestions.  None of these socks are monstrosities, but, they aren't perfect either.

As everyone knows, my dog is also not perfect (although there are times when I think she is nevertheless, the best part of my life).  She was Possessive as a puppy and, although she's much better now, she still has Issues.

I'm currently serving a church in a first-ring suburb, a church in a changing neighborhood, a community with growing diversity, poverty, a growing immigrant population.  I find many things about this stimulating.  I want to be a part of a church that is diverse in age, ethnic heritage, race.  But, this is easier said than done.  So, my congregation is not perfect.  (I'm not either, so I suppose it's a good fit.)

I'm thinking a lot about social justice, the call to do justice in our community, to stand against racism, to stand for equity, to work on behalf of the little ones.  I believe in this.  I try to do it.  I fail a lot.  Sometimes I feel like quitting.  I especially want all children, no matter who they are, who their parents are, where they are from, to have a chance to thrive.

But deep down, what I'm really passionate about, even more than justice, is grace.

Nothing about my life is perfect.  I'm not going to do all the things I want to do with my life (although I still habor a couple of hopes).  I'm going to keep failing, and I need the courage to get up and keep trying, despite my aching feet, despite my roomy socks, despite my church full of sinners (like me).  And the over-the-top, never-ending, over-flowing grace of God is the only thing I know that gives me enough courage to keep going.  The only thing. 

Grace -- God's love to those who waste their whole lives, to those who try with good intentions, to the clueless and the earnest, to the mean and the lowly and the hopeless and those clinging to false hopes.  God's love to Marcus Borg-loving liberals and tongues-speaking Pentecostals and everyone in between. 

I have to preach grace.  But then, say, "Just do it."  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Fail at it, but do it.

After all, what have you got to lose?

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Two Favorite Stories, or "things that make you go hmmm"

About Benjamin Disraeli:

A young lady was taken to dinner one evening by Gladstone and the following evening by Disraeli. Asked what impressions these two celebrated men had made upon her, she replied, "When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England."

From Aesop's Fables:

The North Wind and the Sun

A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other.  At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveller, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak.  The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort; but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself.  Then came the turn of the Sun.  At first he beamed gently upon the traveller, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders:  then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.

I am thinking a lot lately about leadership, or, more properly, about leading (an action, not a status).  Somehow these stories say something about leading.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bonus blessings

We are here in Chicago for the weekend, attending the baptism of my mother-in-law's 6th great-grandchild.  She got to ride along with us this trip.  We left early yesterday (Saturday) morning, took our time driving, and have had one whole day here to feast and celebrate and worship together.

Someone from my church asked me if I did the baptism.  I had to smile. The extended family on my husband's side are Missouri Synod Lutheran, so no, they did not ask me to do the baptism.  I told my sister-in-law about the comment, and she said, "Well, that would have been nice, wouldn't it?" 

This should tell you something about my husband's family.

I'm enjoying the weekend away, although, to be truthful, we are spending a lot of it in the car.  It's not that I don't want to be at my church; I missed them this morning.  However, the fact that I wasn't preparing a sermon for this weekend meant that I could spent some time on a few other parish responsibilities this week.

(On the other hand, in this pre-interim transition time, securing a supply preacher, communicating with them about our services, and preparing everything for them to be here takes a fair amount of time too.)

(I learned something from the supply preacher this weekend.  When I called him, he said that preaching would not be a problem.  However, doing the rest of the service has become more difficult and stressful lately as every church does not use the same worship format any more.  And said something like, "What can we do about that?"  I thought at first he was saying that he couldn't do it if he would have to lead worship, but he was really saying, "how can we make this work?"  And I learned that leadership is not always about simply saying, "Yes", or "No", but about answering the question, "How can we make this work?")

I always enjoy visiting my husband's sister.  She has the gift of hospitality.  She's a great cook,a great reader, and a great conversationalist. She always makes us feel at home. 

There was the bonus this particular weekend of having the baby fall asleep while I was holding him last night.  I was rocking him in one of the rocking chairs, and singing a couple of songs, including "Beautiful Savior."  He was fussing a little, and then he rested his arm on my chest, and his head on his arm as if it was a pillow, and pretty soon he was fast asleep. 

That alone is worth eight hours in the car.