Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What's your Name?

I remember finding the baby name book that my parents used when they were trying to decide what our names would be.  It was, to me, a little like finding the "I Ching" or a pack of Tarot cards, like peering, ever so slightly, into my parents' brains.  Why did my parents give me the names that they gave me, my sister and my brother?  We aren't named after anybody else in our families.  There are no other Dianes, Janets, or Davids in my family.  When grilled about it, the only response my mother could come up with was, "We just liked those names."  No deep mysterious reasons. 

Perhaps, I thought, it had a little to do with the fact that the Lennon sisters were popular on one of my parents' favorite television shows, Lawrence Welk.  Two of the four sisters were named Diane and Janet.  Couldn't that be a little suspicious? 

Later on, I discovered that my name was of latin origin, that there was a goddess Diana, the goddess of the moon, and of the hunt.  She was the twin sister of Apollo (in Greek, her name was Artemis).  I really enjoyed learning about the goddess Diana, although I felt much more ordinary, less lunar, with no hunting instincts that I could put my finger on.

Names are important.  In some mysterious way, our names tell us who we are, but in other ways, they do not.  We remain a mystery:  to one another, even to ourselves, sometimes.  Don't we?  Maybe that's why, as a child, I was so interested in my name.  I was a mystery to myself, and I was trying to figure it out.  Perhaps the name was a clue.

So Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple when he is 8 days old.  There he is circumsized, and there he receives his name, the name the angel gave him.  His name tells us who he is in some ways, but not in others.  Jesus is a form of the name "Joshua", and his name means "the Lord rescues".    That is a clue, but it is really just scraping the surface of the mystery of who Jesus is.

So Sunday, January 1st is called "the Name of Jesus."  It is an odd thing to celebrate, in a way.  Everyone has to have a name.  And what Mary and Joseph do is what every parent does:  they bring Jesus to the temple at the time designated by their faith tradition, and they give him a name.  Jesus.  An ordinary name, but the name that will someday before every other name, according to Paul.  It is a mystery.  Jesus.  The Lord rescues. 

It's not just the meaning of the name, though -- it's more than that -- it's that now, somehow, his life and our lives are inextricably linked, and we know ourselves better in the mystery of his life, and in the mystery of his name.  I suspect that we'll never get to the bottom of who he is, any more than we will get to the bottom of who we are.

All we can do is hold him, and let him hold us.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Notes

....some melody notes, some harmony notes....

1.  At the late service, I was part of a small group of women who sang Selections from Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols."  Six of us, just two on each part.   Singing "This Little Babe" is kind of like going down the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland."  

2.  Preaching at the late service for the first time felt odd and disorienting.   

3.  This morning got up early to start cleaning the house for company before going to church to preside at Christmas day early.  Got tablecloth washed. 

4.  This morning, I also saw a smile on our worship coordinator's face this morning when she said she was going to spend Christmas with her 4 1/2 year old granddaughter.  I gave a brief introduction to the gospel procession to two new worship assistants.  "Always follow the cross," I said.  "Just like we do in our whole life."

5.  At the beginning of the service this morning, I read the Christmas Proclamation, while our bell ringers stood in the aisles and rang softly.  Then, at the beginning of "O Come, all Ye Faithful" they broke out!

6.  After the service, a man asked about "The Christmas Proclamation."  I gave him my copy.  I downloaded it once; I can download it again.

7.  I got my house clean-er for Christmas.  Did not get it totally clean.  Somehow we muddled through in my small kitchen, reheating the Christmas turkey and accompaniments from local upscale grocery store. Everyone liked the mashed potatoes.  We forgot all about the cranberry sauce.

8.  Scout wore her new red Christmas bandana, and was a Good Dog, mostly.

9.  We opened a few more presents.  The hit?  A melodica. 

10. I had this dream of everyone going to the nursing home to visit my dad together, bringing guitars and mandolins and voices and having a little mini-concert with him.  Between the dinner (a little later than I thought it would be), and opening a few presents) and waiting until we could eat again before eating the pie, the dream didn't happen.  We visited my dad in shifts, without instruments, just before and while he was eating his dinner.  I did sing a few Christmas carols with him.  When I said, "I have to go home now," he said, "Take me with you."  I said I couldn't do that and he said, "You could if you really wanted to."

Today is the Nativity of our Lord.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Snow at Christmas

Just a few minutes ago I looked out my window here at the office and got very excited.  "It's snowing!" I called out, to no one in particular.  It looks like it will just be a few snow flurries, but it did my heart good to see it. 

There is no snow here, to speak of.  It is December 21st, and this is Minnesota, and by all rights, there should be snow.  When people from my neck of the woods do a word association about Christmas, one of the top five words would be "snow."  Most of us are dreaming of a white Christmas here.  Though a few of us are happy that we don't have the slippery roads and shovelling associated with a white Christmas, there does seem as well to be a certain sense of disclocation.  Where are we?  What time is it? 

A Christmas tree salesman told us once that when the snow is late in coming the tree sales are slow, too.  We have labelled "snow" as one of the 'signs of the times' and there is some lack of urgency, perhaps.  Some people say they have a hard time getting into the 'Christmas spirit' without snow. 

But why is that?  In a real sense, Christmas doesn't have anything to do with snow.  It's not mentioned once in Luke, Chapter 2, nor in John, chapter 1.  There are lots of places where Christmas comes without snow. 

Maybe it's just a look I've gotten really used to, in my many years living up here.  On this darkest and longest of nights, I have gotten used to looking out into the darkness and seeing something white.  It's not the glow of a candle, but it sparkles and glistens.  The light shines in the darkness. 

Snow is one of the places I have come to look for light.  But there are plenty of other places to look for light, maybe truer places ( who can say?)  I just read the story of the local food drive that three Lutheran churches held.  Three truckloads of food were donated, but one of the truck drivers turned out to be a thief, driving off with 1,500 pounds of food which was meant to give away.  This happened on Monday.

Today I heard that these three churches have received more than enough food to make up for their loss.

The light shines in the darkness.

On Wednesdays in Advent, people from our congregation have been coming together for a short evening service.  At the close of each worship service, we sing a version of the table prayer to the tune of "Tallis Canon."  We have been singing it in canon, a capella.  Last Wednesday there were four parts.  It was beautiful, those bare voices singing.

The light shines in the darkness.

After the church service last Sunday, one man came up to me and pushed a few bills into my hand.  "I didn't get a bonus this year," he said, "but I still want to help someone in our congregation."  A little while later, I heard a woman telling a young African-American girl that she was beautiful.  A little while later, I looked into the sanctuary and saw several people working together decorating the church for Christmas eve.   One word, "Emmanuel" hangs above the pulpit in glittery letters.

The light shines in the darkness. 

Even when there is no snow.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Sweeter Music

It's been unseasonably warm this week, and all the snow is gone.  There wasn't a lot to begin with, really.  Not like last year when we had about 34 inches of snow by this time and had already run out of places to put it. 

There are good things about the weather (especially when you consider 34 inches of snow last year).  It's not bitter cold, and right now driving around for those last-minute Christmas gifts and obligations does not carry additional stress.  But last night the wind came up, and there was no snow, and it just seemed cold, and barren and dark.

We went Christmas shopping, just a little.  We were at a large neighborhood mall, where they were playing particularly taste-less non-Christmas Holiday songs, songs that made my husband want to buy something quick and get back out of there, songs that tempted me, just for a moment, to think there really might be a war on Christmas.  Yes, the music was that bad.  The clerk, however, was friendly and helpful.

We wandered around the mall a little bit, to get some exercise and to look around, maybe to get some Christmas spirit.  Christmas is slow coming this year.  The tree is not up yet, there just a few decorations put up so far.  The creche is missing a wise man.  I am working on a knitting project which will be a gift, and have noticed a couple of mistakes that I can't fix, and get depressed by that.  I wanted it to be perfect. 

We wandered around the mall a little bit, and I heard live music coming from the mall.  It was a small brass band, a community band, I think.  They were playing Christmas carols.  They weren't perfect, but there weren't too many bad notes, actually.  Shortly after I started listening, they began a new song, one that sounded vaguely familiar, but I wasn't sure why.  I stood and listened as the theme returned again and again, and a lump formed in my throat and tears formed at the bottoms of my eyes.

I asked my husband later, and he said that the song was, "What Sweeter Music," by John Rutter.

What sweeter music can we bring,

Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Heart, ear, and eye, and everything.
Awake! the while the active finger
Runs division with the singer.

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

Dark and dull night, fly away, sing the sweeter music
and the imperfect will be perfect
or at least will be sufficient
and the dark will be light
and the house will be bright with God's presence.

It is not ordinary time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Life and Ministry

It is late on the evening of a day off.  It's been dark for a few hours now.  Actually, it's been dark since shortly before 5:00 p.m., I think.  There's a moon, still, big and round. 

It was an unseasonably warm winter day.  Most of the snow is gone.  When we walk outside, it doesn't hurt.

Inside, it is not so Christmas-y either, at least in our house.  We do not yet have the tree up, but we do have a plan.  We have a couple of Christmas wall-hangings up, and I have begun to set out the Christmas books.

We got up early this morning and went to breakfast in St. Paul, at a great diner near the college where my husband works.  He had music juries today, and I went with him so that I could work on a Christmas present while he listened to music students. 

I also did a little reading.  I have started reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I know, I should have read this book about 20 years ago.  I know I've had it sitting on my shelf for a long time, probably since seminary which is not quite 20 years ago, but close enough.  I don't know why I haven't read it, but I'm reading it now.  I am reading the chapter about being pro-active, which means choosing how you will respond in any situation.

After my husband was done with his juries, we stopped in at a used book store in the neighborhood.  The owners of this particular bookstore are a married couple.  He seems to have libertarian political views, but I prefer talking to his wife, who likes to collect children's and illustrated books.  We talk about Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Wanda Gag, Maude and Miska Petersham.  I can't afford to collect much, but I have a handful of treasures: a copy of A Christmas Carol illustrated by Arthur Rackham (no dust jacket, though), The Tall Book of Make-Believe, illustrated by Garth Williams, a book of hymns illustrated by Gustav Tenggren. 

After returning home, my husband prepared for his evening church service.  I prepared to meet with a young couple getting married in May.  We let the dog out, just as it was getting dark, which we do every day, but appears to have been a mistake.

She did not want to come in.  At first, it seemed normal.  Sometimes she doesn't want to come in right away.  She still has a little playing to do, someone to bark at, something to sniff in the yard.  But usually, a couple of minutes later, she's at the back door, making pathetic whining and yodeling noises, which we interpret as "Let me iiiiiiin!" 

Not tonight.  We tempted her with food.  We cried and cajoled.  We left her in the back yard and went to do our respective ministries.  I met with my young couple.  We talked about the Strengths and Growth Areas they perceived in their relationship. 

I came home and our dog would still not come in.  I wondered if I was being pro-active or re-active.  I wondered if I was a bad dog-mom.  What does it mean if your dog is running in circles around you in the dark back yard, dragging an enormous stick her mouth, trying to jump over the back fence?  An hour ago, I was a wise counselor, asking just the right questions to a young couple who were sitting in my well-appointed office.  Now I am anything but wise, trying to figure out just the right strategy to make my dog come in for the evening. 

Well, she did come in, but I will spare you the details.  It involve my finding the big stick, not for violence, but for a short game of tug-of-war.  For some reason, afterwards the dog sat on command and I grabbed her collar and dragged her indoors.  Her paws were filthy.

Now, I am going to go back to reading about what it means to be Pro-Active, which I think is a Good Idea.  I think it is a good idea for Life, and for Ministry, and Even for Dogs.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Am So Over John the Baptist

So I am going to preach on 2nd Peter, instead.  You know, "we await a new heaven and a new earth"?  Waiting.  I get that. 

Where does this John the Baptist come from anyway?  I end up preaching John the Baptist every year, because if you're in a lectionary tradition, like I am, he just shows up.  On the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  (And on the third Sunday, too, usually.)  And even to people who are used to John the Baptist, because they've been coming to church for YEARS, I still feel like I have to explain, a little.  Because if you are anywhere else than in church, he seems a little out of place.  Even in some churches, he seems a little out of place, actually.

I was in a different church last weekend, where it was the 1st Sunday in Advent, and they were introducing their advent theme, during which John the Baptist would not make an appearance.  The theme for the four weeks of Advent would be the Beatitudes, and the main characters would be the Usual Suspects:  Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the Wise Men.   This makes sense.  These are the people we are expecting, waiting for.  Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men fill the story of Christmas.  I'm sure there is plenty to learn from them, as well.

But for me, John the Baptist just bursts in, sort of rudely, without even giving me time to pick up the mess in my house.  There's not a spot for the Christmas tree yet, though I know where it will go.  John the Baptist bursts in, even more abruptly than usual, because this year we have Mark's version of the story, where there is no Christmas story, and Jesus and John the Baptist both seem to come out of nowhere.

They are adults already, with no hint of where they came from, or what special credentials they have.  They are just here, with words from God on their lips, if we have a mind to listen.  And one of the things they remind us of is that Christmas is just the prologue, just the beginning of the story.  God being a baby is just glimpse of what is to come.  Maybe we want to hang out with the baby Jesus for a long time, maybe we want to make Christmas the whole show, but it's just the beginning, just the beginning of the gospel, just the beginning of what God will do.

Already, on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, we have this weird guy wearing weird clothes and eating weird food, saying, "Prepare the Way of the Lord," and it's a grown man who will come and be baptized.  And people are coming, flocking out to the wilderness to hear him, because they know that their lives aren't just all sunshine and light the way they are, and they want something to change, they want something to be different.  So, they're ready for a weird guy wearing weird clothes.

Yet -- can I say?  Like us, they have no idea.  They may want change, but they don't really know what kind of change they want.  Some of them want to go back to the old days, when David was King and everything was good.  Some of them just want to get Rome off their backs.  Some of them want a little less poverty, a little more peace. 

While we are waiting, we're waiting for a baby.  But he will grow up fast.  John the Baptist reminds us that Christmas is not the end point, just the beginning.  John the Baptist reminds us that some things have been fulfilled, but that there are some things we are still waiting for.  We are waiting for peace in our hearts, and peace in our world.  We are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth.  We are waiting for the dead to rise.  We are waiting for bread.  Some things have been fulfilled, and for some things we still wait.

And you know, though this waiting is hard (all waiting is hard), it is good, I think.  I don't know if this is exactly what Peter has in mind, but one reason I think the waiting is good is because we think we know what is coming, and really, we have no idea.  The future will not be like the past, and the good old days will not return, because God is doing a new thing.  God is doing a new thing in the world, and God is doing a new thing in us. 

And God is saying, "It will not be what you expect.  But it will be good.  Trust me.  Be patient with me.  Because after all, I am being patient with you."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The 99%, Singing

It wasn't long ago that my husband and I were watching (again) the quirky little picture, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."  I'm not going to say that this is one of my favorite films or anything, but it was on, and I do kind of like the whole idea of the action and plot revolving around these rituals.  Near the beginning, during the first wedding, actually, there's a great scene of the congregation SINGING.  And some of them, when they zoom in, are singing quite badly, which, I suppose, is meant to be funny, but I found it to be charming.  I noticed this little moment more than usual, because it is really quite unusual for people to be singing at a wedding anymore.  There have been lovely exceptions, in my experience as a pastor, but those singing weddings have been the exception, and not the rule.

It's not just at weddings that people don't sing.  People just don't sing together like they used to. (Do they?)   We had a piano in my home growing up, and my mom and dad used to sing while my mom played standards from their era.  We used to sing songs while we were traveling in the car together -- you know, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Are You Sleeping?, Down By the Old Mill Stream.  And at the church we visited last weekend, a lovely church by many accounts, mostly the people stood and remained silent during the hymns (some of which I didn't know, either), except for "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." 

Church used to be the last refuge of group singing, except that people don't even sing in church the way they used to.  Maybe it's the numbers of people getting smaller, or maybe it's the songs getting newer, or maybe it's the loud bands, or maybe it's just that people think that, except "Happy Birthday" and "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", singing is for professionals, not for them. 

You know, the 1%.  The wealth of singing is being re-distributed upwards.  And that's as much a shame as our other forms of wealth being re-distributed upwards.  Because there's a poverty in losing our singing voices and our songs, and there's a power in singing.

I was so excited this year that one of the new features at the Minnesota State Fair was the "Great Minnesota sing-along."  The idea was there was this list of 100 favorite songs and a specially designated area for people to stand and sing along while the words were posted for all to see.  But the song that played while we visited?  "Benny and the Jets."  Now, I have nothing against this song as a SONG, but it really isn't a sing-along type of song.  It's a song for soloists to shine while people maybe join in on that fun little phrase, "B-B-
B-Benny and the Jets."  And Elton John, the star, plays that mean piano.

Like I said, the 1%.

When I was in high school, I sang in the choir.  I never got into the choir in college, but I enjoyed singing in choir in high school, and in church, and on other occasions.  And of course we weren't the 99% but we were more the 1%, those of us who took the course and learned to read music and sing in harmony.  We were a choir, but still a bunch of amateurs who did the best we could.  Even though there were mistakes when we got to the concert, I experienced this great power in singing together, in breathing in and out and hearing the sound come out of all of us.  Afterwards, I would go home so high on singing that I would go downstairs and play the piano and sing for another hour or so, until I was hoarse. 

There's a power in singing.  I can't grasp it with my hands, or explain it entirely.  Singing makes you feel like you can do things that are impossible.  Singing unites people, while respecting their individuality.  Each voice particular, but singing songs about Jesus, about love, about justice -- together.  Singing expands you.  The things you sing get way down into you.  Sometimes it's the blues.  Sometimes it's a song of thanksgiving.  Sometimes it's a vision of a better world.    But the wealth of singing is being re-distributed upward, and there's more than one kind of poverty among us. 

There's a place for soloists, and a place for good singers, too.  I'm no singing socialist.  But there also needs to be a place for everybody to sing, and to know the power in singing, even badly.   It's not all about the perfect soloist and the band that never makes mistakes.  It's about us, in our imperfect lives and voices, reflecting God.   The church could lead the way, help people to open their mouths, expand their lives and find out how powerful they are. 

Since it's Advent, maybe we can start with "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."    What do you say?

Saturday, November 26, 2011


On Thursday morning at 10:00 I was standing in front of a congregation in my church for Thanksgiving Day worship.  It was a small but active group (many good singers among them); we also are a part of an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service where our choir joins with three other churches.  I preached on both occasions so the sermon was the same, but we did a lot of singing on Thursday morning, including "Sing to the Lord of Harvest."  It just isn't Thanksgiving if you don't sing this particular tune.

A couple of hours later, we were on a plane and landing in a Nearby Large City where my husband's sister and extended family were hosting Thanksgiving Dinner. 

It was a large, happy, noisy crowd.  There was lots of laughing, there were lots of children (eight and under), lots of food, including the famous White Jello, which I have made on occasion, with some success (some of the time.)  At one point I went upstairs and crashed, missing the pie.  They did leave some for me.

It's good to get away.  It's good to give thanks. 

It's been noisy and it's been quiet this Thanksgiving.  I miss the smaller celebrations with my family, but I do enjoy being a part of the bustle and hustle, and I love all the children. 

This morning it's quiet again, but last night the family came over again, and we had a noisy delicious dinner of spaghetti casserole.  My husband's sister is a good cook, one of her many gifts.  She also has the gift of making people feel welcome, and of not making a big deal about mishaps.  She rolls with the punches.  They were the first place we took our dog when she was a puppy, and it turned out to be the best idea.

So at the large Thanksgiving Dinner, I talked to a couple of people from the family I knew well, and met a new member of the family.  Among other things, she recommended a book to me:  "The Warmth of Other Suns."  (I will read this.) 

The next day we did a little shopping (though not at a large mall), and I found this wonderful picture book, "Balloons Over Broadway:  the True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade".  (links later, I hope).  I am still working on the shawl with bobbles. 

And I'm reading, at odd, quiet moments, Father Greg Boyle's book, "Tattoos on the Heart."  Makes me cry.  And it makes me realize how many of us, and how much of the time, we really really don't believe in the power of grace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bringing in the Harvest

(this is the beginning of my Thanksgiving Eve sermon)

I remember sitting at the kitchen table one day when I was small, talking to my mother.  I had just gotten home from a  trip out to my grandparents'farm in southwestern Minnesota.  As we talked and conversed about the days, what was good and what we wished was different, I suddenly blurted out, "Oh, I wish we could go and live on the farm!"  My mother looked at me, smiled, and said, "you have no idea what you are wishing for."  Her response deflated me, a little.  I didn't know what she was talkinga bout.  I thought i had a good idea!  And it's also true, as well, I didn't know what I was wishing for.  I didn't know then, andp robably still don't, all of what would be involved to "go and live on the farm."  I didn't know, esepcially as a young child, that the life I experienced as so gracious, so abundant, so full of adventure, to her was a life of hard work, long days, and sometimes even isolation.

ONce, a long time later, I asked her more about what it was like to grow up on a farm.  She told me a little about the different chores she had, some things she had to do, and she said that she really didn't miss the farm that much.  She liked living in the city, liked the opportunities, liked the community, liked the kind of work she did.  She didn't really miss the farm -- except at harvest time, she said.  She missed the farm at harvest time.

I wondered what it was about the harvest, about that time of year, about this time of year, that made the hard work and long days of farm life worth it.  I wondered what it was that made harvest different than every other time of the year.  I wondered, but I didn't ask her.  It is the nature of children to be no quite curious enough about their parents.  Still, her statement haunted me, "I really don't miss the farm.... except at the harvest."  What was it about the time of harvest that made it different, that made it special, especially on the farm?  What is it about the harvest -- this time of year when we celebrate Thanksgiving?  It's not an accident that Thanksgiving is at the time of year when some of us are also bringing in the harvest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Not Giving Up

In the scheme of things, I suppose it's a small thing, but knitting has taught me something about not giving up.

I've known the basics of knitting since about the 7th grade, when a kind Home Economics teacher taught me the basics.  But until the last couple of years or so, I've never made much progress.

About the time our congregation started a prayer shawl ministry, that began to change, slowly.  I decided to get back into knitting.  And I stopped into a few yarn stores, asking whether they had classes.  Yes, I was going to make prayer shawls, but I thought I'd also renew my irrational quest to learn how to make socks. 

Though I haven't gone from novice to expert knitter these past two years, I have learned how to make basic mittens, basic socks, and have also knitted a couple of simple lace pattern scarves.  I started a sweater about a year ago (don't ask me why).  Trying to knit a sweater has taught me how much I still don't know about knitting.

For example, "short rows."  I discovered that I did not know how to knnit short rows when I attempted to bind off the shoulder seams.  I had to take the sweater into the yarn store, where the store owner patiently tried to show me what to do.  We also tried to figure out how to do it backwards (I'm left-handed, which complicates everything.) 

After not learning how to do short-rows, I decided I needed a pattern which would force me to learn it.  (This would mean another break from the sweater; oh well.)  I got a ruffled scarf pattern and began.

After a few rows it was obvious to me and everyone else that I really didn't know how to do short rows yet.  I ripped out my stitches.  And started over.  Again.  And Again.  And Again. 

I watched right-handed people do short-rows on you tube.  I downloaded explanations.  I made swatches.  And I also, many times, said, "This is it!  I give up!  I am not going to ever figure out how to do this!"

Then I would look at the four balls of yarn, beautiful yarn, sitting there on the sofa, and I would begin again.

It's a mystery to me sometimes that I am actually doing this, and not giving up.  I still look at the really complicated patterns and I will say that I can't imagine that I will ever be able to do them.  But I look at the next project, one step up, and think:  maybe, just maybe, I can imagine doing that one.

In the scheme of things, I suppose it's a small thing not to give up on:  but it's practice for the big things in life, like relationships and ministry and myself.  It's a reminder that I don't have to imagine myself doing the really hard things 8 steps down the line, I just need to imagine myself doing the next project, one step farther.  It's a reminder that when I'm tempted to give up on something that really matters, it's good to think about what is good and beautiful and true.  

And then remember, of course, that even when I do give up, that God doesn't.  Ever. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Old Neighborhood

Earlier this week, as I was visiting shut-ins those in the hospital, I ended up in the Old Neighborhood.

Not my Old Neighbor, at least not exactly, but my dad's old neighborhood, where he grew up, and the community that formed him, or at least, his faith.

I was at the nursing home across the street from the church where he was baptized and confirmed, Augustana Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.  It is now situated across the street from the Metrodome Stadium.  The nursing home where I visited was begun by the church many years ago.  It's a large complex, with different kinds of nursing facilities, assisted living, and apartments. 

But the church itself is very small, or, at least it is now.  In fact, I heard recently that the church building is up for sale, and that the tiny congregation is looking to move to another location not so far away. 

Like I said, it's not my Old Neighbhood exactly; it's my dad's old neighborhood.  He grew up at this church.  In fact, when my parents were first married they belonged there.  I was baptized at Augustana Lutheran Church, and started Sunday School there.  I remember climbing up the many steps to the sanctuary, and having one of the ushers hand me a bulletin.  That old entry with many steps was closed up many years ago; too hard for the elderly members to navigate. 

I remember the large sanctuary and the tall ceiling, and the man who spoke from the pulpit (but I couldn't see him).  I remember getting picked up for Vacation Bible School by the associate pastor and his family.  They had a station wagon.

When I was in first grade, we moved to a church in our neighborhood, away from the city, into the suburbs.  It was the first great migration, and many of the families that belonged to Augustana moved as well.  They enlivened the churches in those first ring suburbs, the churches that are now experiencing decline, and wondering what their mission is.

Augustana became a small congregation, but it did not have a small vision.  As I went in the door to the Augustana Home last Wednesday, I considered the ongoing legacy of care.  The church may be tiny, and the church may even die, but Augustana gave itself away for the sake of the gospel.  They gave themselves away starting mission congregations, too, some still going strong out in the suburbs.  But at they gave themselves away most of all for the sake of the mission of caring for the elderly, for the vulnerable, for those who could no longer care for themselves. 

It seems to me that there are worse things that could happen to a church.  A church could disappear without ever giving itself away, preserving itself until everyone is gone and the doors are locked.  The only legacy would be the building standing unused. 

Of course I wish that Augustana Lutheran church, and those hardy Swedish immigrant like my grandparents could have found a way to reach out and  be a vital worshipping community to the people who live there now.  There is another church, I hear, who wants to buy their building perhaps.  I wish that of all of our churches, in fact -- that we could learn a way to welcome one another, worship together, offering the bread of life to people who are our neighbors, even if they aren't Swedes or Germans or Irish anymore. 

But it seems to me that there are worse things that can happen to a church than what is happening to Augustana.  The faith of the our ancestors continues to bear fruit there, in the Nursing Home, in the Assisted Living Center, in the chapel where people gather.

I hope we can say the same when we are done.  I hope they will say of us that we had dreams worthy of the mission of God, that we gave ourselves away for the least and the lost.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Got Talent?

Here's a confession that may tell you more about me than you want to know:

As an adolescent, I was haunted by the this Parable, "The Parable of the Talents." 

Perhaps you think it odd.  I know I do, if I really consider it much.  What was I doing, anyway, thinking about this parable?  It's really not all that well-known, and it's not the most-discussed parable in youth groups, either.  (I would give that honor to either the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:  lots of good skits on those two.)  Nevertheless, it is a lesson for preachers:  you never know who is listening out there, and what they are hearing, when you get up and simply read the Gospel.

As for me, the hook all had to do with that word "Talent."  The Parable of the Talents.  It never occurred to me that a "Talent" was actually a real unit of money, like a denarius.  I went directly to the word "talent", perhaps because I longed to be talented at something:  singing, dancing, painting, embroidery.  I wondered what it would be like to be good a shooting baskets, or hitting home runs, or running fast.  (I was and still am not gifted athletically.)  I was shy, but secretly wondered what it would be like to be a star in some way or another, to get up in front of people and shine. 

To make matters worse, I identified with that third servant, the one who had only one measly talent and buried it in the ground instead of using it.  I was pretty sure that if I had a talent, I only had one, and if I did, it was writing.  But, how to use it?  I obsessed about that as only an adolescent can.   (sorry about that, all you well-adjusted adolescents who do not obsess.  That's what I did.)  I wanted to "be a writer", but I had no idea how to go about it, and I wondered if I was not burying my one measly talent in the ground because I wasn't using it the way God wanted me to.    And I was 17.

Now that I am older if not wiser, with some Biblical exegesis under my belt, I notice a few things that I never saw before:

1.  Since a talent IS actual money, the literal value of a "talent" matters. Even one talent is NOT measly.  A talent is 6,000 denarii, about 20 years wages.  It is a huge amount of money.  It is not measly.  What you have to offer is not measly.   And don't forget that God first gave it to you.

2.  The third servant buried the "talent", or "money," because he was afraid he would lose it somehow.  He was afraid of God's judgment about that.  His picture of God was harsh and unforgiving.  Coincidentally, that's just the way God behaved toward him. 

3.  Now, looking back, this parable seems to me less about singing or writing or baton-twirling, but about taking a risk, and specifically taking a risk for the sake of God's kingdom.  As it turns out, I'm not so great at that either.  Perhaps it would help to consider God more as the one who is willing to take the risk of giving me this ridiculously valuable talent, than as the one who is willing to cast me into the outer darkness.

4.  From the standpoint of being a missionary, it occurs to me that the "talents" might be the ridiculously valuable riches of the gospel, which we can bury in order to "preserve" unchanged for future generations, or share with others, which has its risks.  Our church might grow, but it also might not look the same in the next generation as it did in the last one. 

Forgiveness, mercy, love, embodied in our hands, our hearts, our voices, our baton-twirling, solo-singing, soup-ladling lives:  ridiculously valuable.  Not because of us, of course, but because of the One who threw away his life, risked his life, invested his life -- in us.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shining in the Company of the Saints

I very rarely preach on the Book of Revelation, with its scary, strange images, its shades of "Left Behind," all the connotations of end-time persecution.  Ok, I'll be honest:  I never preach on the Book of Revelation.  Martin Luther carefully situated it at the end of the Bible, and it so rarely comes up in the lectionary, except, once in awhile, during the Easter season, and on All Saints Sunday.

All Saints Sunday. 

We move All Saints Day to the nearest Sunday, kind of like those Monday holidays, because we don't really go to church except on Sunday any more (with the one exception of Christmas Eve.)  So tomorrow we are celebrating All Saints Sunday, in the company of all the saints, the ones who show up to worship, the ones we will remember in our prayers, the ones we will not remember, but who are singing and praying at the throne of the Lamb, whether we remember them or not.

One of the readings tomorrow is from the book of Revelation, the strange book of Revelation.  Interspersed between those apocalyptic visions of war and persecution are visions of the saints, worshiping at the throne of the Lamb.  They are singing, "Blessing and glory and honor be to our Lord, and to the Lamb."  They are gathered at the river that runs through the City of God, with the leaves of the trees, which are for the healing of the nations.  The vision John imagines is a vision of the saints shining:  worshiping God with their lives.

There will be lots of candles tomorrow, more than usual at a Lutheran service, but appropriate for a service which remembers the saints shining.  It is the light of Christ which shines through our saints, the saints we remember, the saints we are.  It is the light of Christ which shines as they worship God with their lives. 

"Blessing, honor and glory be to God and the Lamb" we will sing tomorrow, with our voices.

Blessing, honor and glory be to God, we will sing the rest of the days of the week, with our lives.

Tomorrow, when we light the candles, I will remember Harold and Evelyn, baby Thor and Gladys, Richard and Gail.  I'll remember my grandma Emma, who prayed for us every day, who worried too much, and my grandma Judy, who took me to the Salvation Army meetings once, and my grandpa Lee, who had a hard time trusting God's grace, and my grandpa Folke, who didn't talk about it much.  I'll remember the people whose voices sounded like angels and those who sang out of key, the ones who worshipped in lives of service and justice, and the ones who worshipped God by acts of compassion, the the ones who worshipped God by their heart-felt prayers. 

Blessing and honor and glory be to God, to the Light which vanquishes the darkness, to the light that shines through ordinary lives, through ordinary saints.

I pray there are a lot of candles lit tomorrow.  Not so much in honor of the saints, but in honor of their God.

They are shining.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Five: Time with Friends Edition

Kathyrynzj brings us a great idea for a Friday Five today.  She asks:  What are five things you like to do with friends?  The question itself makes me realize that I don't spend enough time with my friends.  

Be that as it may, when I do get to spend time with friends, here are five ways we spend our time:

1.  Dinner and conversation.  Every once in awhile I'll cook a nice meal, but more often than not it's an evening out at a fun restaurant, like the evening my husband and I spent with blogger and friend Jan at the Dakota Restaurant when she was visiting Minneapolis.

2.  Taking a walk.  Because of where I live, often the walk will be around a lake.  But, not necessarily.  Sometimes it's just a nice walk and a talk through a shady neighborhood.

3.   Going to church.  Admittedly, this is a rare occurrence.  But, last summer, on one of my Sundays off, I had fun visiting the church of one of my friends here in Minneapolis.  I like to worship with friends, when I can.

4.  Going out for coffee.  Or chai. Or, a glass of wine.

5.  Laughing.

In the past, my list might have included:  1) going to the Festival of Animation, 2) renting a lot of movies and making popcorn, 3) trying out a new recipe, 4) writing stories and reading them to each other, 5) singing (I had a couple of friends I used to sing with).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Whether 'they' should be called "Illegal Aliens" or "Undocumented Workers"

I call them "children of God."

Because, thank God, I am not a politician.

I am a Christian.

Absolutely, we can have different opinions about immigration policy.

But let us never forget that we are talking about people, people for whom Jesus died.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween and The Church

On Sunday night, the night before Halloween, we were invited to participate in a Halloween experience different than any other we had encountered.  Younger stepson was a part of an orchestra for an event that took place the two weekends before Halloween.  We were told that this was the 18th year since its inception.  It was the Annual Halloween Extravaganza of the local  BareBones Productions.

So we set out for a park near the Mississippi River, eventually becoming one of a long line of cars on our way to this experience.  When we got there, it was dark and cold and a young woman was orienting us to the story.  It had something to do with the Book of the Dead, and death taking a holiday.  There was humor and pathos.  There was music, acrobats, puppets, people walking on stilts, choreography, lights.  There were some elaborate sets.  There most moving moment for me was when a line of people entered the outdoor stage, singing the chorus of Laurie Lewis' song, "Here Today."  "We're here today/and then we're gone/Our lives are short/Just like a song."  There was a story, but I confess that I didn't quite get it. 

As we were walking back to our car in the darkness, I couldn't help considering the implications for the church (yes, I think there are some.)

1.  We possibly put way too much emphasis on "understanding."  Don't get me wrong, I'm all about 'faith seeking understanding; I'm not giving up on knowing what and why I believe for a kind of fuzzy-mindedness.  But there's also a place for mystery, which I think we sometimes flatten out.  Whether it's our attempts to make Christianity "practical", or figure out once and for all what Jesus actually said, sometimes all  we end up doing is reinforcing the idea that God is less than the sum of our ideas.  Leave room for mystery.

2.  The theme was an adult one:    Simply, as much as I could get, it was "The meaning of life, and the reality of death."  Yet, people brought their children.  Possibly, this was because you could dress up in costumes.  I don't know.  What it means to me is that people are interested in grappling with hard, theological questions.  The church tends to hook adults through their children.  What if we hooked children through their parents?
Leave room for questions.

3.  People will invest a lot of time, energy and creativity in something they are passionate about.  There were a lot of people (many of them young people) who gave hundreds of volunteer hours to make this happen.  From Notre Dame to the St. John's Bible, from storytelling to poetry, from gregorian chant to Amazing Grace, creative endeavors are a powerful vehicle for truth.  Leave room for creativity.

4.  And don't minimize the appeal of standing outside in the dark, wearing costumes, and not knowing exactly what will happen next.  Especially wearing costumes.  There's something about wearing costumes that appeals to people.  There's something about being someone else, whether that someone else is a monster or a queen, someone beautiful or scary, Superman or a bum.  Maybe it's as simple as considering what it means to "put on Christ."  Leave room  for playing Christ.

5.  People are hungry for mystery.  They want to ask, and wrestle with the big questions.   The question is:  will we leave room?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation Sunday: Be Still and Shine

So I wasn't preaching this Reformation, which means that I had a different kind of meditation time over the weekend, and some time on Saturday afternoon for wandering around the neighborhoods.  We were over in Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon, and ran into an old friend from my church.  I hadn't seen her for several years, and one of the first questions she asked was, "Are you still Lutheran?"

Not the first thing I would think of asking, but it WAS the day before Reformation Sunday, as well as TWO days before Halloween.  "Are you still Lutheran?"  I didn't think to ask her the same question; I kind of assumed by her question that her answer would have been 'no,' and that would have been so awkward, both my husband and I being in church work and all.

"Are you still Lutheran?"

Our theme for Reformation Sunday was "Be Still and Know That I Am God."  I believe that in all of my years of celebrating Reformation Sunday, this is the first time "Be Still" has been our chosen theme.  We had a lot of wonderful music with the "Be Still" theme, including a sermon that included a full minute of silence.   And I will say that, in some ways, the theme did not seem traditionally Lutheran.  We Lutherans are not known for our love for silent meditation; we have not traditionally been proponents of silent prayer or lectio divina.  We are people of the Word.  Some of our preachers might even be called Word-y.  And although "Be Still and Know" is from Psalm 46 (from which Luther's famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" takes its inspiration), it's about the only verse you can can't find reflected somewhere in the hymn.

"Are you still Lutheran?"

All Fall, our over-arching theme has been "Shining", a holistic stewardship emphasis for fall.  Every week, there has been a new glittery word hanging over the pulpit.  "Family."  "Giving."  "Community." "World."  This week the glittery word was "Faith."  During my minute of silence, I noticed the shiny word "Faith" hanging there, and I thought about what it meant that Paul calls us "stewards of the mysteries of God."  And I also remembered hearing somewhere that "Be Still" can also mean "Cease Striving." 

"Cease Striving and Know I Am God."

This doesn't seem like such a bad reformation day theme, after all, especially if freedom, grace, and mercy are your themes.

Be Still.  Cease Striving.  Stop talking and listen.  Stop trying to defend yourself and let God defend you.  Stop trying to improve yourself, and let God make you holy.  Stop trying to save yourself and let God save you. 

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Are you still Lutheran?  Yes, indeed.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Lifts You?

I saw this question on the "Revgals" Friday Five yesterday, but didn't get around to playing. 

But it was such a good question, such a necessary question, and I thought about it all day yesterday, and even this morning. 

What lifts me? 

There are things that get me down, sometimes.  Some of the things have to do with life in the world these days, about the many cares and worries and things that are wrong, some of which I can do something about, and some which seem too big to imagine.  Some of the things have to do with the state of the Church these days:  not just MY church, but THE church.  I think the thing that gets me going is that it's hard to figure out which things I have power over, and which things I need to live with.  The Church is never going to be perfect.  Yet God has chosen the church to bear his love to the world. 

Then there are the little things (or big things) in life that sometimes get me down.  The refrigerator breaks, the dog scratches herself and has sores, the dishes need to be done, I have to rip out knitting (again), I have too much stuff.  Things like that.

So, what lifts me?

Here's a list:

1.  The sun.  I saw it, this morning.  It rises later and later these days, but right now it is bright.  Some leaves have fallen, but there are som bright flashes of brilliant red left, and they glitter today.
2.  A good hamburger, made by my husband.  Who needs gourmet?
3.  A small, independent bookstore, nicely appointed, with friendly, well-read clerks.
4.  Really, really, really pretty, old, books, with nice illustrations.
5.  Someone saying "yes".  Whether it is "yes, I'll help with Sunday School," or "Yes, I'll put address labels on envelopes," or "Yes, I'll watch that movie with you."  YES.
6.  The color lime green.
7.  yarn.  And the stuff I make out of yarn.
8.  Wearing something I have made.
9.  Giving something I have made.
10.  Advent:  four Sundays of Hope.  Coming soon.  Hear about in church.  See it in the world.
11.  Telling and Hearing Stories.  And I'm not very discriminate about this.  I like to hear and tell all kinds of stories, funny, sad, sacred, profane, short, long.  I have just begun reading Mighty  Be Our Powers, the story of the how the women of Liberia worked for peace.
10.  2 Corinthians 4 -- the knowledge that we have the treasure of Christ in the fragile clay jars of our lives.

What lifts you?

What lifts you?

Monday, October 24, 2011


I have a very old, very worn book called Bless My Growing.  It is a book of poems by a Lutheran pastor named Gerhard Frost.  It is long out of print.  It has tape on the edge.  The pages are loose.  I have used it many times since becoming a pastor.

But I lost track of the young woman who gave it to me, someone I attended college with.  I got to know her during my senior year.  She loved this little book, and gave me a copy, just because she loved it so much. 

Once, many many years ago, as a young woman just out of college and just working in an office, I was standing in line to eat in a downtown cafeteria.  I struck up a conversatsion with a woman standing in line next to me.  We were probably commiserating about the varieties of jellos and entrees, I can't really remember.  But in the end, she and her husband and I ended up sitting together and eating and talking. 

As it turned out, she and her husband owned a very small book publishing concern in Menomonie, Wisconsin.  Before we parted ways, she gave me three small hand-sewn booklets from their publishing company, called The Vagabond Press.  I still have them.

Of the many gifts I received when I was leaving Japan, perhaps the most prized was the porcelain doll I received from the 9th grade boys.  A number of them handed me the doll at the very last moment before my mother and I got on a train headed to Tokyo.  I remember them standing there in black school uniforms, and bowing  before one of them quickly handed me a bag with the doll inside.

The 9th grade boys were never my easiest class.  We tried everything to get them to pay attention in class, be more respectful, and learn English.  The gift of the doll was a great surprise, and somehow, humbling

She was a Hakata Ningyo, dressed in kimono, and it looked like she was kneeling in prayer. 

I carried her back with me on the plane, cradling her gently on my lap.  Then, several years later, while I was carelessly adjusting a shelf, she toppled and crashed to the floor.

When I arrived at my first parish in South Dakota, the whole congregation was there to welcome me.  Or so it seemed.  They helped me unpack the trucks, and left useful items like dishtowels, rugs, glasses and tableclothes.  Each church had a women's group; each of the women's groups also presented me with a hand-sewn quilt.

Today there came in the mail a package for me.  It was two skeins of yarn, hand-woven in another state.  It was sent to me by a friend I have never met, someone I only know through blogging.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Short and Long Pastorates

A while back, a friend of mine said to me, in a sort-of-an-offhand way, that she would like to talk to me sometime to find out "what it's like to stay in a church for a long time."

My friend doesn't feel as if she has stayed in one church, or one call for that long, or at least, she hasn't stayed in one place for as long as I have.  This is, by all accounts, "a long time."

I will say that at first the question puzzled me, a little.  Is staying in one place for "awhile" such an odd thing?  And is it a bad thing?  Or a good thing? 

I have heard people speak both admiring and disparaging words about long pastorates.  I've never heard anyone talk about pastors who leave "too soon", although I would think it's as tempting to bail out when we hit a rough patch early on as it is to linger too long if we think that things are going well.  

That being said, I think that there are both pitfalls and benefits to a long pastorate, both for the pastor and for the congregation.  The pitfalls are easiest to identify:  the temptation to identify a congregation too much with the personality of the pastor, the temptation for the congregation to depend on the pastor too much, and the temptation for the pastor to depend on the congregation as well.  There's also the temptation to rely on old patterns and things that have become comfortable when those patterns need to be adapted to a new reality.

But, I think there are benefits sometimes, to a long pastorate, to a pastor and a congregation wrestling together, changing together, as in a good long marriage which has weathered many storms and come out stronger.  I think there are benefits, if the congregation and the pastor are both healthy, can both look at what they need to do to continue to fulfill the mission in that place.   There's the benefit of really knowing each other, being able to get past those first romantic honeymoon years with one another, seeing each other (both pastor and congregation) for who you really are, both strengths and besetting sins, and then looking each other in the eye and saying, "But I believe God has called us to be his people in this place, anyway." There's something good, but really, really hard about that.

So, I'll answer my friend, who asked me, "What is it like to stay in one place for a long time?"

It feels good some days.  I know all of the names of the children.  I know many of the stories of the people who are here:  where they came from, what they have come through.  I have seen people come and go; I have grieved and celebrated, seen success and failure. 

Other days it feels hard.  I have succeeded sometimes as well as failed here.  I have made mistakes and had to say, "I'm sorry."  I have had to pick myself up and start over.  I have had to look at myself in the mirror honestly and admit what my struggles are.  Here, the people know me;  I can't fool them.  

But, sometimes the hard thing to do is the right thing to do. 

That's what I 'll tell my friend, if she asks me again.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On How We Do Stuff, but Doing Stuff Doesn't Save Us

A couple of days ago, I asked a not-so-innocent question on facebook, "What is worship?"  Not so innocent because I know that the word "worship" is notoriously difficult to define, and also because the theme this Sunday (when I am, coincidentally, preaching), is Shining in our Worship.  That's not the Sermon Title, but that's the theme.

One of the first commenters was one of my Lutheran friends (I am Lutheran) assserting that "we don't do anything" and that "we have totally mixed this up."  She actually had some really good points about what God does in worship, coming to us and "making us Christian."  I totally agree.   There is a sense in which "we can't do anything."  As a good Lutheran, I am forced to admit that "I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel...."  In worship, God is coming to us, saving us, working in us. 

And yet.....I'm an English major, and I have to make this sentence.

"We worship God."  It's not the other way around.  "God worships us."  (typing that just made me shudder, a little.)  (I do suspect that my friend's point, though,  is that often the sentence becomes, "we worship ourselves", sadly.)

Be that as it may, we do something.  We worship. We worship God.  Or, sometimes, we worship other stuff.  You know.  football.   money.  success.  our ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  ourselves.  We worship.  And I would even hazard an opinion that it is necessary to worship, just as it is necessary to serve, to work, to pray, to do justice, to love kindness. 

I have always counted the verse in Matthew about how "not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away" as one of the most vexing, most puzzling, until suddenly, recently, it came to me:  it's absolutely true.  Not in a micro-every-verse-in-the-Old-Testament sort of way, but in a more macro-do-justice-love-kindness-walk-humbly sort of way.

 Our responsibilities to our neighbor, to care about and work for our neighbor's good never end.  There's never a time when we can say "we're done, it's all right now."  Our responsibility to worship God, to give honor and praise to God (and not the other way around) does not end either.  So just because we came to worship this week, doesn't mean that we're done now; we don't have to do it any more. 

In Lutheran language, we call this "first use of the law."

Or, "we do stuff, but doing stuff doesn't save us." 

And our obligations don't end -- Jesus saved you now, so you don't have to help your neighbor, or honor your father or mother, or practice stewardship of your resources. 

Sorry.  Not one jot or tittle....You're not off-the-hook for your responsibilities as a human being.

But, this 'stuff' we do, whether it is tithing, or singing our guts out, or shoveling our neighbor's walk, or feeding the hungry -- doesn't save us.    Whether we are abject failures at doing these things, or whether we think we're pretty good at all or some of them, none of this stuff saves us.

In worship, we raise our hands and voices and hearts in offering to God.  But the Offering has first gone the other way.  God comes to us, gives himself to us, saves us, sets us free, makes us God's own people.  All of the important things in our lives are being done, have been done, by God.

All of the important things in our lives are being done, have been done, have been promised by God, in Christ.  Including the promise of a new creation where justice will be done, where the hungry will be fed, where death will be no more, where we will worship at the throne of the Lamb, singing our guts out.

And because of this, because of this gift, because of this grace, because of this promise, we do stuff.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Hope and Change"

"What do you hope for?"

That's the question that has been going through my mind lately.  I'm not sure why:  perhaps it has something to do with the congregational transition here, the hopes regarding a new senior pastor, the changes we see in our community, and what it means for our faith community.  Perhaps it has something to do with our society itself:  disasters both natural and man-made, people occupying Wall Street, warnings about environmental and economic catastrophes.  There is a lot of uncertainty.  In the midst of this, what do you hope for?  I mean, really.  What do you hope for?

I googled the word "hope" recently, looking for quotes, and discovered lots and lots of quotes.  "Hope" is a word that can carry a lot of meanings, both deep and mundane, as in "I hope it doesn't rain!" or "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope."  Whoa.  Hope is a powerful thing, to bring hope is power. 

So, what do you hope for, really?  Be honest now. 

One of the issues in the church today is all of the churches that used to be big, that used to be full of worshippers every Sunday, and now are not so full.  And the temptation is to hope for things to be like they were in the past:  to say, I hope for a day when the churches are full again, like they were before, we hope for a time when we had 1,000 children in Sunday School.  We hope things can be like they were in a decade that we liked better than the one we are in now. 

But is this really hope?  A good hope will point toward something in the future, not to the past.  Christian hope is God's promise for a new world, not a wish for an old one.

I remember once sitting in a shelter, talked to a woman who worked with women trying to escape domestic abuse.  In a way, the woman said, hope is a great enemy, at least if it is a false hope that their partner will change.  This false hope keeps them from making changes that will really set them free for a better future.

So, what do you hope for?  really

For the church, our hopes are based on God's promises to us:  a promise for a new world where the Lamb rules, where death is no more, where tears are dried, where there is enough for all, enough healing, enough love, enough food, enough dignity.  Our hopes are based on a vision of the throng worshipping at the throne of the Lamb.  And these hopes sustain us even when there is not such a great throng worshiping in the sanctuary. 

So, what do you hope for, really?

That's the first question.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Five: The Things We Do For Love

Songbird, over at the Revgalsblogpals site, has this fascinating Friday Five for us.  She writes:

I have a friend who, when she has to be away from her child, goes to the trouble of planning a present for each of the days they will be apart. (This is not one of those stories where "a friend" means the person who is telling the story.) I'm impressed by her organizational skills and her creativity and her thoughtfulness.

She does these things for love.

And although love looks different depending on how we best express it, there are definitely things we do for love. So for today's Friday Five, please share the following five things:

1) Something you did for love that was a hit
Well, I got my husband an iPad for his birthday, even though I really wanted one myself.  It's a hit because he uses it all the time now, and we bring it everywhere we go.  We even brought it to the nursing home last weekend when we went to visit my dad.  We showed him old video clips of movie stars and radio personalities.  His eyes lit up and he said, "get me one of those for my birthday."  So, I guess this was a hit, on many levels.

2) Something you did for love that was more of a miss
Though there are lots of those (and why am I thinking about presents, mostly?)(I don't know) I bought a game for my husband that I thought he would REALLY LIKE.  I had this great dream of how he would sit around and play it all day on Christmas.  It's downstairs, collecting dust.

3) Something someone did for love of you
My mother sewed almost all my clothes when I was growing up.  Though there were also financial considerations, I think she sewed well and with care for love of us.  I remember wearing a plaid pants suit to high school and having a teacher remark that the plaids matched, and say, "There's a lot of love in that outfit."

4) Something you *wish* someone would do for love of you
Buy me an iPad

5) Something you've done for love of God
Go to Japan for three years as a missionary. 
Sing my guts out.
Stand up in front of people and talk.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What I Thought I Was Getting Into

This summer one of my friends celebrated twenty-five years of ordination.  She had a big party with a dinner and cruise on the St. Croix River.  Today I read in a church newspaper that a young woman has been named as Senior Pastor at a very large church in our neighborhood.

It made me think back to the year 1990, the year I began seminary, and what I thought I was getting into, back then. 

After a year or so of deliberation, and the prodding of the Holy Spirit, I began my studies.  (My year or so of deliberation included preaching at a couple of Lenten services, and taking a class at the semninary.  Maybe I did a couple of other things, but I I can't remember now.)

I remember that I wondered for awhile if God had given me gifts to do this work.  After all, I am slightly shy by nature, and as a child I couldn't imagine myself standing in front of people.  But in the end, I thought that God had given me gifts, and I even thought I knew what they were.

I thought that one of my gifts would be preaching.  I thought this because I write well.  I also thought that my missionary past would be a gift, a passion for reaching out.  (It was just too bad that I served in a country where success in mission was painfully slow.) When I started seminary, my memories of Japan were only five years old, and I still felt sort of exotic because of those experiences.  I loved theology and was pretty sure that this was a good sign as well.    I had done different things as a lay leader in the congregation (teach Sunday School, sit on the church council, sing in the choir), and also liked being with both little kids and old people.  I knew that I would have to do some hospital and shut-in visitation, but I had seen pastors whose ministry became chaplaincy, and knew that I wouldn't want to create a dependency.  "Pastoral Care" would not be one of my strong points.   Oh yes, and I'm creative, and I have had spiritual experiences.  Those would be helpful too.

Anyway, that's what I thought then.

I will also confess to you that, back then, I did not have a good idea what pastors did all week.

So here I am, about 18 years into this pastor gig. 

I still think I have gifts for ministry.  I'm not always sure of what they are, and sometimes gifts (and liabilities) have surprised me.   I have discovered that I love visiting people, both the shut-ins when I take communion, the people in the hospital, but just sharing a cup of coffee or tea with someone, and hearing a little bit of their story.  I am sometimes in awe of a moment in a conversation when a little window opens up.

I have also been told that I "wasn't spiritual enough."  That was a surprise.  So, I have mixed feelings about claiming that I'm "spiritual" or not. 

I really want to connect people with gifts, and people with people. 

I really want the church to reach out to un-churched people, and to show they care about the people who live around them.  But I know I it's difficult and I don't always know how to do it.

I have discovered that churches need pastors and leaders, people who care and people who have courage, and that courage is hard, and that sometimes I fail at it, and sometimes I succeed.

I have discovered that I have both gifts that I didn't know about and liabilities that I didn't know about. 

So, I'm 18 years into this pastor gig.  In a few ways, it's what I thought it would be.  In a lot of ways, it's very different.  It's different than I thought it would be, more varied, more puzzling, more rewarding, but also more challenging.  It's also different than it used to be. 

It seems to me that people used to think of the church as a sort of still point, offering a sort of stability from week to week.  But now I think that the church needs to be seen as moving from 'here' to 'there' -- moving from the old world to the new, and pastors and other leaders need to be like Moses, leading through the wilderness, or Ezra, re-building the temple. 

So, I'm 18 years into this pastor gig, and sometimes I do wonder if I really knew what I was getting into.  Probably not.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brief Encounters While Walking the Dog

Here's something I'm not proud to admit:

I don't walk the dog as often as I used to.

In fact, I am positively lazy in this regard sometimes.

A combination of two things contributes to this reality (okay, really three if you include laziness), the first is my ongoing problem with plantar faschiatis, which seems to have migrated from my left heel to the right one, now.  The second thing is our fenced-in backyard.  I initially began taking Scout for long walks every day because we did not yet have a fenced-in backyard.  But even afterwards, the habit persisted, until laziness and the sore feet conspired against me.

I think Scout does enjoy the free time in the back yard.  Sometimes when I peek out to watch here, she is just gazing medititavely into space, the tao of dog.  Other things, she is taking off as if to chase invisible prey.  This morning, I happened to look outside just at a moment when she was writhing joyfully on her back. 

But I know she would benefit from a regular walk, as would I.

So yesterday my better nature won out over my sloth.  I put on my tennis shoes and a sweat shirt, put the leash on the dog and set out. 

It wasn't a long walk, not like the long walks we used to have, anyway.  But at the corner was a young mom who was waiting with her two daughters for the school bus.  One of the girls got on; the other stayed behind.  I recognize this family though I don't know them by name.  It seems they know Scout; she is more famous than I am.  The little girl wanted to pet her.  At first, it seemed that Scout was not going to oblige, but at the last minute she decided that being petted was a good idea.

I decided to take a risk and invited them to our Animal Blessing Service this Sunday.  They demurred; they weren't sure their dog was ready for public appearances yet.   I wondered if they had a church affiliation, but didn't ask.   

We started back down the block toward home when I heard a voice. 

It was our next-door neighbor, complimenting our newly-landscaped front lawn.  He seemed positively giddy with delight that our lawn now does not look as awful as it did before.  He was very friendly for so early in the morning.  I made a comment about the new priest at their church, and he mentioned that they no longer attend that congregation; they've been going to a local mega-church which does not make a big deal about their denominanational affiliation.  He likes it, he said.  I wondered what it was he liked, but didn't have a chance to ask.

So, throughout the day, off and on, I wondered:  I wondered what it is that attracts people to a congregation, what makes them decide to stay, or leave, to set foot in the sanctuary, or not.  I wondered what a person who comes to visit us is looking for, or not looking for.  I don't want to be the kind of person who reads a book (or books) and assumes she knows what people's hearts yearn for.  So, I just had two small conversations, and I wondered a little.

Scout and I have to get out more. 

It's good for both of us to practice the spiritual discipline of walking.

And wondering.

Monday, September 26, 2011


I'm for it.

Perhaps you are surprised.  After all, I'm a born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool, baptized-when-I-was-4-weeks-old-and-proud-of-it Lutheran.  I do mark that early date, May 19 of the year I was born, as the beginning of my relationship with God.  I love baptisms, whether the baby is 5 weeks old or three years old, or 10 years old, or twenty five years old, or eighty-one years old.  I love baptisms.  I think my congregation will attest to this, the sheer graciousness of the event, every time.

And yet....

We had a guest preacher at church today, a woman from India who is also a missionary in India.  She told us powerful stories of God's movement in her life, her family's life, the lives of the students at the school where she teaches.  She told stories of how she came to the United States with $200 from her parents, and one suitcase, and how her mother said, "you'll make it."  She told a story of a ten-year-old girl praying for her family, a story of God opening a hard heart:  stories of conversion.

Conversion stories have always had a place in my heart.  From Anne LaMott reporting how Jesus dogged her like the hound of heaven, to Lauren Winner's strange dream and warm affinity for the stories of Jan Karon, I've been fascinated by stories of how people have come to faith.  When in high school a friend of my father's gave me the old classic The Cross and the Switchblade, and perhaps started right then and there my attraction to the dramatic conversion story.  It's so different from my own journey, from baptism to Sunday School, from Church camp to college, from Japan and back to the United States, from teaching English to working for an insurance company and then from seminary to where I am now.

Wait a minute.

What about my struggles and doubts in my senior year of high school, followed by that "leap of faith"?  What about the religious experiences I had when I was in college?  What about the experiences I had in Japan, when I realized (suddenly or not) that faith was a much wider, and varied thing than I had thought before?  Or what about the conversion I experienced after reading Ron Sider's Rich Christians in a Age of Hunger for the first time?  And there has been the long conversion I have experienced after knowing Gay and Lesbian Christians.

Perhaps it's wrong (actually I'm sure it's wrong) to limit conversion stories to the once-in-a-lifetime and dramatic stories of people who turn from the gangs of New York to the arms of Jesus.  Conversion is a natural part of the Christian life, even and especially for people who were baptized when they were four weeks old.  And I think that people who think they were converted once, and are now done, are wrong about that:  life with God means continuing to be open to being converted.

I have come to believe that in the life of a believer there are many conversions.  Some are dramatic and some are subtle, and none of them takes away from God's grace, God's coming-to-me-no-matter what.  Conversions don't save us, they don't make God love us any better, but they do something important in us, and, I believe that conversions are God's work in us, too.

When people experience a sort of conversion something is kindled or re-kindled in us, something necessary, I think, when we are in this Christian life for the long haul.  Let's be honest.  Whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool, baptized-when-you-are-4-weeks-old Lutheran or a hands-waving-in-the-air Pentecostal, or even Spiritual-but-not-religious, a lot of life is boring.  Church can be boring.  Seeing God in a cricket or a sunset can be boring.  Following God can be boring, because it is a daily thing, step by step, sometimes tracing the same steps.  Who told us that we needed to be constantly entertained, to entertain each other? You know:  chop wood, carry water.  Before and after enlightenement.

Except that there are these flames, small or large, that turn us around.  Sometimes it's a person you met or a place you went that changed your perspective, and kindled a new flame in your heart.  Sometimes it's a song you sang that was boring every time:  until today.   Sometimes it's the hard times when you thought that faith was gone and then there was a small pin-prick of light, and it got bigger.  Sometimes it happens in a strange place, and sometimes in a familiar place. 

Come to think of it, I do think that conversions save us, in a way.  Not in the long-run, but for continuing daily service and worship in this life, this amazing and boring life. Something is kindled or re-kindled in us.  God turns us around, turns the lights on bright again, for just a little while.

Conversion:  I'm for it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Night

Saturday nights are quiet around the house.  No late night parties, no big plans (usually), no large dinner parties (or small ones, even).  When I preach on Saturday, in fact, I'm usually in the office for at least part of the day, after which we do something really exciting like watching "Antiques Roadshow".  I might glance over my sermon once or twice, or I might avoid it altogether until just before I go to bed.

This weekend I am not preaching.  I'm not even presiding at the early service.  It feels odd, actually.

So, I'm knitting a turquoise footie (the second one, actually).  Last weekend, I started it, found a dropped stitch, and ended up ripping up the whole sock and starting over.  I'm just about where I started again.  (There's a metaphor in there, somewhere, I'm sure.  Or, a sermon illustration.)

I'm reading a little.  I just finished The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, and want to get the next in the series as soon as I can.  I read all of the Little House books when I was little.  Louise Erdrich was inspired to write her counterpoint from the Native point of view, at least in part, because of something Caroline Ingalls said in one of the books, "There's no one here."  I'm glad to know this Ojibwe family; I think in future books they will probably travel from place to place like the Ingalls family, but for different reasons. 

We watched an old movie from 1932, Love Me Tonight, while my husband did interesting historical background on his ipad.  He also worked on an old acrostic.   I could watch over and over the opening sequence, in which the song "Isn't it Romantic?" travels from person to person and place to place.

Tomorrow, I'm looking forward to hearing Nihjar Ekka-Minz preach, instead of me.  I'm looking forward to hearing about work in faraway North India.  Nihjar and her husband tell fascinating stories.  And I can't help loving stories.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Remember Riding in the Car with My Dad when I was Little

"You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you area t home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so taht your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth."

Deuteronomy 11:18-21

I remember riding in the car with my dad when I was little.  I remember partly because when I was small, my dad had a big orange van that he used for his business, which was TV Sales and Service.  It had the words G&B TV on the side in great big letters.  This was an era waaaaay before SUVs, and riding in my dad's van was an adventure.  Sometimes when we set out, he would pretend that we were taking off in a huge jet liner:  "Pilot to co-pilot/pilot to co-pilot, come in please," he'd say to me.

I remember riding in the car with my dad.

Sometimes we'd be going to get the Christmas tree, and he'd be singing Christmas carols all the way there and back.  Sometimes he told jokes, kind of cheesy jokes, actually, and other times we'd have serious conversations, especially as I got older.

We discussed questions, even theological questions, on occasion, talked about (for example) what was the most important day in the church year (Easter? Christmas? Pentecost?), or why bad things happened to good people (neither of us had the answer to that).  I remember on a couple of occasions, he talked about tragedies we had heard about on the news, and people's statements that they were saved from death or injury or some bad thing, becasue "God was with them."  But, my dad would always say, "What about all those other people?  The ones who died?  The ones who suffered?"  Wasn't God with them, too?  Didn't God love them too?

I remember riding in the car with my dad, and the converesations we had.

"Teach (these things) to your children, talking  about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise."

One of the things I think about often is what it means to live a generous life.  What does it mean for us, as individuals, as families, as a congregation, to be known as generous?  There are a lot of components to this, lots of ways to practice generosity -- or not.  There are people who are quick to give, a little or a lot, whenever there is a need.  There are people who are quick to extend their own hearts to others, be vulnerable, share their own struggles, be real.

My dad wasn't perfect by any means.  But it seems to me that he had a kind of generosity, the generosity to count among God's blessed ones the suffering and the sorrowing, the down-and-out as well as the up-and-coming. 

As we contemplate in our congregation what it means to live a generous life, I hope that our definition will include both generous financial giving to the mission of our congregation, and a generous heart, one that extends God's presence and God's love to the ones who need it most.

I remember riding in the car with my dad, when I was little.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Five: Seeking What?

I haven't done the RevGals "Friday Five" for a long time.  This one, from Jan, seemed like a good place to start:

I was struck in our weekly Lectio Divina group by a few verses from Psalm 105: 3-4

. . let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually.

Seeking is rejoicing. Rejoicing comes from the seeking, NOT the end of glory, heaven, enlightenment, or whatever. Seeking is the journey--RIGHT NOW!

So for this Friday Five, list what you are seeking, whether it is trivial, profound, or ordinary--whatever you would like to share.  List 5 and add a  bonus if you feel like it.

Here are my five:

I am seeking:

1.  Community.  Not perfect community, but a community that both wants to work together for a larger purpose, and a community that supports and and encourages one another, and especially those who are most vulnerable.
2.  An Outlet for Creativity.  Some space and some self-discipline for writing.  A know friends who regularly get prayers and worship materials published, and I find myself a little jealous, both thinking about having the venue and also finding the time.

3. Beauty.  I do find myself drawn to beauty, in all its forms.  I just learned that the St. John's Bible is finished, for example.  I bought a little piece of folk art and a storyteller doll when we were in New Mexico/Colorado.  I buy yarn sometimes, even before I know what it's for, just because it looks so beautiful, and full of possibility to me.

4.  Light.  Our church's fall theme (which is actually a stewardship theme, but that's another post) is "Shine!"  so everywhere I go, I'm seeking out light, from flashlights to candles to a video of the northern lights in Iceland.  And mirrors.  And a child's eyes.  The light of a smile, and the way tears glisten.  Help me find some more light, will you?

5.  Laughter.  I just found this great quote, "Laughter is an instant vacation."  So I am seeking opportunities to laugh, sometimes, even when I'm close to tears.

BONUS:  Wisdom.  that's all I'm going to say about that. 

P.S.  the four things that I was missing last week:  a small pen, my watch, a gift card and a knitting pattern -- have all been found, as of yesterday.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

They're Back

This Sunday was "Rally Day" on the church calendar, the day that the prodigal worshipers return (well, most of them, anyway), the day we are most likely to have visitors (other than Christmas and Easter), the day Sunday School starts, and a day when there are always plenty of brightly-colored balloons.

The children are back.  The youth are back.  The babies are back -- I can hear some crying in the back pew.  There are a couple of families that I haven't seen in awhile, a new young couple in the adult choir, and also playing the handbells.  There are teachers starting off the school year, and children with and without backpacks (we ask them to bring backpacks.)

I like to have children and adults help with the service, but we decided that the service was so full already, full of prayers and blessings and the children singing "This little light of Mine."  So we only read the gospel at the second service. 

I asked one of our high school students to do something different instead:  help me in leading the intercessory prayers.  We both knelt at the altar, trading petitions back and forth.  I thought I saw a couple in the front beaming as she went back to her seat at the close of the prayers.

Earlier in the service, we blessed the children and their backpacks.  There were so many up there I thought I would get lost in the crowd (perhaps I did; I'm a little height challenged).  I've never done this before, but I decided to ask the congregation to raise their hands forward in blessing as we said the prayer.  I then invited Sunday School teachers, and all teachers to come forward and be blessed at the beginning of their school year. 

We raised our hands again.

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another -- our children, the single person sitting alone, the grandparents, the parents, the non-parents, the out-of-work, the tired, the stranger, the one weeping, the one whispering.   

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another -- the clerk at the supermarket, the guy on the ladder, the man in the nursing home, the person who gives you a kiss when you walk in the door, the person who hates you, the person who doesn't understand you, or who knows you too well. 

If we learn nothing else in church, I wish we could learn to bless one another, to raise our hands forward, to touch each other's lives, to change the world.