Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Day at Camp

Today, after spending an hour with the gospel of John at the men's breakfast Bible Study (which means a bowl of oatmeal for me), I will be heading down to spend the day with some 8th graders at their retreat.  Tomorrow we'll be having just one gi-normous worship service to celebrate our past as a congregation.  It will be informal, and with plenty of music.  Just part of our transition process.  I'm not preaching.

Next week either. 

I love this retreat, and so, it seems, do the participants.  It is billed as a Holy Week retreat, where we lead activities that help us in our understanding and experience of Jesus Passion and Resurrection.  We try to answer the question, "what did Jesus do that led to his crucifixion?" and show that Jesus was the champion of those on the outside, or on the bottom.  We do a footwashing and discussion about Maundy Thursday.  We have a mock trial of Jesus.  We study the stories of the resurrection. 

On Wednesday, I heard one of the 9th grades say, "It was such an awesome retreat."

In the meantime, I'm getting ideas for Lent and trying to get further in implementing them.  I'm visiting people, praying, covering some of those ministry interruptions that always happen, working with a few couples planning weddings, you know all the normal things.

And thinking.  I have a lot of things on my mind, possible blog posts, which I haven't felt like I have time to fully develop.  The "Aesthetics of Orthodoxy" one is in the back of my brain somewhere, as is a Post I would like to call, "an Inconvenient Truth", about how justice in the Bible always refers to justice for the poor.  The Bible just doesn't seem to be that concerned about justice for the rich.  Also want to write, "Love your enemies, and all that jazz", and "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus", introducing our theme for Lent.  And there are others....

In the meantime, today I'll be just a little away, without internet capabilities. I have the towels, the gospel, the water, and Jesus.  Food is provided.  What else do I need.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Do Pastors Do All Day?

(and even into the evening, sometimes...)

I have heard it said that there are those who believe that pastors "only work on Sundays."  Others know that we're around, but wonder what it is we do all day.  With a confession that, like everyone else, we sometimes use our time well and sometimes badly, here is just a small sample of the way I spend some of my time:

1.  Reading.  I do try to spend a little time each day reading.  Sometimes it's just a magazine article, sometimes a novel, sometimes the newspaper. 

2.  Bible studies.  I might be leading a small group Bible study, or preparing one. 

3.  Checking in with people over the phone.  Making appointments. Letting people know we're praying for them.

4.  Talking to people who come into the office looking for a voucher for gas, or a few groceries.

5.  Visiting people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living.   Some are scheduled calls.  Other times, I get a call about an emergency, and a visit in a very stressful situation.

6.  Getting ideas for special events, and making contacts with people who can do adult forums, or special enrichment series.

7.  Leading classes, or helping lead classes for third graders receiving a Bible, parents preparing for a baptism, 5th graders receiving their first communion.

8.  Helping volunteers organize their fundraiser for a social justice ministry in our congregation.

9.  Grieving with people who have lost a loved one.

10. Helping a grandmother and her grandson prepare to be baptized.

11.  Cheerleading my other staff partners.

12.  Writing the actual sermon.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Five: Words

htt;Jan over at Revgalblogpals offers us this Friday Five:

There is a dramatic and surprising venue for Spiritual Formation/Sunday School classes at my church: Each week a different person teaches about a "word" that expresses his/her passion or interest. The first week someone spoke about "hospitality" with abundant treats on her mother and grandmother's china arrayed on tables. Other words have been "connectivity," "Trinity," "money," and "dreams." No one knows which person will be teaching until the class convenes. I am teaching this Sunday and plan to talk about "stirrings."

For this Friday Five, please list five words that identify your passions, spirituality, and/or life. Describe as much or as little as you wish.

1.  Words.  Seems funny to say "words", but there you have it.  I've loved words, listening to words knocking up against each other, hearing how they sound, what they mean, ever since I was old enough to read and write, I think.  I wrote my first story in the first grade.  I remember reading Robert Frost (I think) say that if her heard someone say, "I want to be a writer because I have something to say," but if he heard someone say "I want to be a writer because I like hanging around words and listening to them talk to each other", he knew that person would be a writer.

2.  Mercy.  Love in action. 

3.  Creativity.  For me, it's words for the most part. (Yarn, a little, lately.)  For others, it's the notes of music, or paint and canvas or a potter's wheel and clay.  It's the spark that connects us with God, our desire to make things.

4.  Community.  I really think that we experience God most fully in community, as we are in relationship with one another.  I come by this honestly as a Christian, as I find in the doctrine of the Trinity that community is in the heart of God.  There's a quote somewhere in G.K. Chesterton's book, Orthodoxy, "To us, God is a society."   So it's possible that God will give some people a special mystical experience, but all of us experience God, however imperfectly, in one another.

5.  Jesus. I tried to get to the bottom of the historical Jesus when I was in high school.  Never did.  There are always more questions.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Recently I've been going through some of the children's books in my office at church.  One of the things I'd like to do for Lent is recommend a few books for parents and children to read together.  While looking through some of the books I've collected, I found this one, which, as it turns out, is exactly perfect for Valentine's day:  Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.

I picked up this book a few years ago at my favorite restaurant/bookstore/meeting place, St. Martin's Table, which closed this past December.  St. Martin's Table featured healthy soups, sandwiches and salads, great homemade desserts, and lots of books with themes of nonviolence, social justice and Biblical studies.  Oh, and a selection of quality children's books, too.

Whenever I walked into St. Martin's Table, I could count on Kathleen to get a stack of books that she thought I would like.  If I was not meeting someone, I could look through the books on my own, and decide which ones I would like to purchase.  Kathleen was always excited about the new arrivals.  "Mr. Hatch" was one of the books she was really excited about.

You'll need to read it for yourself, but its theme:  the power of love to transform a life.  Oh, if only we in the church truly lived the power of the gospel, the explosive at the heart of our existence.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"It Didn't Turn Out Right"

That's what she said when I walked into her room at the nursing home.

I was there to help plan a funeral on Saturday, for her daughter.  Her brothers were also with us.

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from this woman's daughter.  I didn't know her terribly well;  I saw her fairly often when she came to church with an older gentleman, a friend of the family.  He couldn't drive anymore, so she volunteered to take him to church.  She said it would help her be more regular in her own worship attendance.

When she called, she was excited.  She wanted me to officiate at her wedding in May.  "I'm 60 years old and I'm getting married for the first time!" she told me.  She couldn't believe her luck.  She had gotten re-acquainted with an old friend, the son of the man that she brought to church, and they had decided to get married.   They met because he would often come and make a nice dinner for his parents after church.  We talked to each other a few times, trying to figure out dates and times.

Last week, she was hospitalized with complications from a cold. 

On Thursday night, she had a stroke.

On Tuesday, she died.

"It didn't turn out right", her mother told me.

Some people talk about the "sovereignty of God" as if God has orchestrated every single blessed and tragic small and great thing in the world.  Every single solitary thing that happens is "God's plan," as if God is pulling all kinds of strings all over the place.  I believe in the sovereignty of God, but I'm not sure that's what it means.  I think that somehow, in the end, God will work everything for good, that there will be a time and a place where there is no more crying and no more death, where every tear will be wiped away, and where we will cast our crowns before the throne of the Lamb.

In the meantime, sometimes, it just doesn't turn out right.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It Takes a Congregation

Sometimes you just get lucky.

Sunday was like that.  You can go for months with people just shaking your hand and saying "Good sermon, Pastor" (or, perhaps, "Good pastor, sermon), not know whether or how the Holy Spirit was working through the worship service and the sermon.  Actually, it's usually like that.  You just have to trust God.  And that's good.

But sometimes, you get just a little glimpse.

Sunday was like that.

For my sermon on being salt and light, I had quite impetutously gone to the grocery store and gotten a butt-load (the technical term) of tiny birthday candles and little packets of salt.  I wanted people to have something to take home with them.

Two young men were visiting their grandfather on Sunday.  On the way out of church, one of them said, quite gravely, "those packets of salt were a good idea."

At 10:00 there was a sound system malfunction at the very end of my sermon.  We started getting broadcasting from a local Christian radio station.  I'm not sure I was quite unflappable, but I did manage to have some sort of an ending.  People made sure that I knew that they liked everything about the worship service:  the children's message, the sermon, "even the interruption."  Maybe there's something about having the unexpected occur that is refreshing.  It reminds us that God is in the interruptions and the unexpected, when things don't go as planned.  I'm not making an argument for chaos in worship, but perhaps for leaving room for the Holy Spirit.

Today I was having coffee and banana bread with a group of parish members.  One of them said that she has her little candle and salt packet in the middle of her table, and tells everyone who visits about them.

Then she wanted to let me know something she witnessed in church on Sunday.  At the sharing of the peace, she turned to speak to a young boy who usually sits in back of her.  She overheard the older man who sat next to him say this, "You are salt and light to your classmates."

It takes a congregation to share the gospel.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sunday Sermon: "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

Some of you know that one of the forming experiences of my young adult life was living and working in Japan was I was just out of college. Now there are a number of reasons for this. I had not been really much away from the Midwest or even from Minnesota before that – in fact, I had always lived in about the same place. So, this was a time in my life which seemed like high adventure to me – and that too was different. We were not a family that engaged in high adventure much, or ever, really, and I was not the kind of person to go off and do something impetuous, like learn to hang-glide or climb a mountain or speak in front of people – or get on a plane and go to a foreign country. But most of all, I discovered for the first time what it was like to be different, to look different, to speak a different language, to suspect that I even thought differently than the people around me, and to know that I stuck out, that people would be able to find me in a crowd without much trouble. In other words, I found that I was distinctive, and once I learned a little Japanese, I also discovered that people would ask me a certain question where-ever I went: “What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here?” They wanted to know. Obviously I had come there, or been sent there – for a reason. It was obvious that I didn’t naturally belong there. So “what are you doing here?” they asked.

This last week as I was studying and thinking about the gospel reading from Matthew, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, I came across this version, from Eugene Peterson,’s “The Message”:

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.  Here’s another way to put it. You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16.

Let me tell you why you are here – that’s one way to begin our gospel reading for today, answering the question: What are you doing here, the question I got asked all the time when I was overseas, living as a teacher and a missionary in Japan. But I’ll tell you what – something interesting, something kind of funny happened when I got back to the United States. People no longer asked me that question. No one came up to me on the street any more, or stopped me when I was at the grocery store, or when I was in the library, or waiting for the bus, and asked me, “What are you doing here?” I wasn’t distinctive, I didn’t stick out. I fit in. I knew the language, the customs, the people. And in a way, that affected me just as much – no, even more – than when people started asking me in the first place.

According to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, this question, “What are you doing here?” is one of the basic questions of our lives. And also according to Matthew, here is the answer to the question: “YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.” That’s who you are and that’s why you are here, as well, to be salt and to be light. That’s why as well you each got a tiny candle and a tiny packet of salt to take home with you today – so that you can remember who you are and what you are here for.

But wait a minute – just want does it mean to say that we – disciples of Jesus – that we are salt, that we are light? After all, these are metaphors, we aren’t literally that white stuff that comes out of the box and that we shake out on our food (though not too much these days!), on our sidewalks, in the water that we gargle “for medicinal purposes.” In a Bible study last Wednesday it wasn’t too difficult to come up with a few things about salt that we thought might be important. Salt, like water and bread and wine, for example, is pretty common, not exotic. In the old days, back before refrigeration it was used to preserve food, so that it would keep longer. Salt makes food tastier, and in fact, brings out the flavors in food as well. And even though salt can sting us, it is also used in healing.

At bottom though: salt is necessary for life. We can’t live without it. We may worry about having too much, some of us – but we have to have salt in our lives. Jesus is saying that we are like that. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world, showing forth the truth of God’s love and mercy – showing forth the truth of God’s justice, showing the power of the love of God in our lives – the power of the one who went to the cross for us.

I read a story in the paper yesterday (this morning) which is really a story about being salt and light. It’s a story about a couple from Winnipeg who were driving back from a bicycle event they had gone to in Arizona and thought they could make it to North Dakota when they were suddenly and it seemed without warning trapped in a blizzard. They couldn’t see anything and finally had to pull over and stop by the side of the road. They thought they were prepared for everything, but as they ran out of gas and were starting to get cold, they began to worry. At some point a trucker also pulled over, concerned about the snow drifts and afraid that he might rear-end someone. As he looked around the road, he saw a little light flickering. It was the light in the car of the couple from Winnipeg, part of their “winter survival kit.”

When I first read this story – I thought it was about the light. The small light they carried that saved their lives, that signaled their presence to the trucker. But really the salt and the light in this story is the trucker – he saw the little light, and he put on his snowmobile suit, and he got out of his truck and he went to the stranded car where the couple was shivering and desperate. He invited them to stay in his truck, where he gave them coffee and a place to sleep. He literally saved their lives. He was light and he was salt for them.

But you know what? He had to get out of his truck to do that.  Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” You bring necessary gifts: healing, flavor, preservation, love – to this world. You do. But you know what? You have to get out of the truck to do that. You need to be out into the world that God loves to do that.You might at a nursing home, sharing communion with a shut-in, or in a school, helping a child to read, or at the State Capitol, advocating for funds for Domestic abuse victims, or in a warehouse in Chanhassen, packing food to send to Haiti – or in any number of places, but the truth is, we are the salt of the earth, and we are the light of the world. If you are wondering who you are and why you are here, the answer is so so clear, we are here to be salt and light, or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house, and to let the oppressed go free.” And if our worship here does not remind us about this, our basic identity, every week, it doesn’t matter how well we sing or how well we pray.

When we gather here every week – the main thing that we need to go out knowing is that we are marked with the cross of Christ, that we are children of God, where-ever we go.

Salt and light. Please remember, brothers and sisters – the scripture doesn’t say “You should be salt, you should be light.” That’s not who you should be. It’s who you are. This is your basic, identity, and it’s a gift. The world tries to tell us who were are in many ways: the world tells us that we are “just one person”, and that “there’s nothing we can do.” But God says: “You are salt, and you are light.” You are distinctive.
By the cross, God has claimed you, and healed you, and preserved you, and called you. Even in your one, small life, you bring healing, you bring life. You are marked by the cross, sealed by the spirit. Forever.

The same is true of our congregation. The same question applies to us. Who are we?  What are we doing here?  We are salt and light, in our community for good. We are marked by the cross of Christ, and our calling is to give ourselves away for the sake of the world, for the sake of our community. So that they know who our God is, our God who is at work in the world and even in our lives.

Who are you? What are you doing here?
Maybe one of these days, people will turn around and ask us those questions.

When they do, we will be doubly blessed.
“Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good work and glorify your father in heaven.”


Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Five: Perks of Ministry Edition

Kathrynzj at Revgalblogpals brings us this terrific Friday Five:

Thanks to #snOMG this week has had a different rhythm to it for me. Fortunately, one of the perks of ministry is a fairly flexible schedule and quite often the ability to work from home. Another perk of ministry is that I will be part of a worship service that celebrates my friend's gifts in ministry and the ministry she will do with the church she has been Called to lead.

These two things have me reflecting on the gifts and perks of ministry and what else I would put on that list.

What about you? What are 5 perks/gifts of ministry for you?

This is a terrific Friday Five because I've always thought there were som unique advantages to being a pastor (as long as some downsides, but lets save those for another day, 'kay?)

1.  I get paid to think, to study and to read.  Not all the time, but some of the time.  Reading books, thinking about things:  it's part of my job.  How cool is that?

2.  I get paid to talk to people, to listen to people, to hear their stories.  In other words, not only do I get to read books, I get to read people, too. 

3.  Two words:  "all ages."  One of the wonderful things about ministry is the ability to work with all ages, babies, children, old people, young couples.  I once, fleetingly, considered being a 1st grade teacher, because I do love children and I do love teaching.  But, it's good that I didn't.  It's better for me to be around all ages. 

4. Ministry is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you are going to get.  This week I gave a Bible study for 80-100 seniors on the subject "Seven Women from Genesis"; I prayed with giggly seventh grade boys; I was involved in a fascinating conversation about Passionate Spirituality and how Lutherans can learn to speak more confidently about their faith. 

5.  I do love the view sometimes when I stand in the sanctuary, facing the congregation.  I marvel at how a congregation can look small when they are sitting, and suddenly look large and powerful when they stand to sing, or pray.  I like to see the parents returning to worship after delivering their children to Sunday School, families singing together, a child jumping up and down.  I still remember a great view from my first little church:  two little girls who decided to sit in the front row together, with the hymnal open between them, and singing at the top of their lungs. 

P.S.  I like the flexibility of the schedule too, but I know a lot of people mentioned that one.  We pastors do work a lot, but we aside from a few things which are set (confirmation classes and Sunday worship), we have a lot of say in when we do what we do.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Blessed are those who Mourn"

I can't stop thinking about the beatitudes.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. 

For example, we just had a version of the beatitudes for All Saints Day.  Suddenly, they're in my face and in my ears and in my heart again, as we started winding our way through the sermon on the mount last week.  I wasn't preaching, so I just sat and listened and pondered all the blesseds.  The preacher let us know that instead of "Blessed are the...." we could instead say, "Happy are...."  as in "Happy are the poor in spirit."  "Happy are the merciful."  "Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." 

"Happy are those who mourn."

On the face of it, this seems like an absurd sentence.  Those who are mourning are not happy.  They are the opposite of happy.  They are bereft.  It has only been a few days since I left the home of a woman who was dying.  Her husband of sixty-six years and her two grown sons wept like children.  It's slightly less offensive to go back to the original wording.

"Blessed are those who mourn."

Still absurd, but I keep turning and turning over this sentence, wondering what Jesus could possibly mean.  Of course, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  But, like being merciful or pure in heart or hungering for justice, there must be a positive value, a "kingdom of God" value to mourning.  What does Jesus have in mind?

Who mourns anyway?

Only those who have dared to love.  Only those who have given themselves away, who have shared their lives and risked being hurt.  Only those who have risked throwing in their lot with another person, or other people, people who are imperfect, people who will leave, fail them, get sick, someday even die.  Only those who have opened their hands and opened their hearts, even to be rejected sometime.

Blessed are those who mourn.  You might as well say, "Blessed are those who love," because among us mortals, love always, inevitably, comes to grieving.  Someone dies and someone else is left behind, and it doesn't hurt less if you had sixty six good years, and you trust the promise of the resurrection.  You may be comforted by the promises of the resurrection, but you are still grieving, because you love.

Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who have given themselves away, who hare shared their lives and risked being hurt.  Blessed are those who have risked living in community, who have entrusted their lives, their cause, their hopes, to another person, to other people, who will love them, fail them, hunger and thirst for righteousness with them.  Blessed are those who love one another.  Blessed are those who mourn.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's a Meta-phor?

Almost as soon as we finished reading the Gospel at our Wednesday bag lunch Bible study, one woman asked the question, "So, is this a metaphor?  This is a metaphor, isn't it?"

She was referring, of course, to the beginning of the scripture reading from Matthew,  "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

I thought it was a great beginning, in part because it reminded me of an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday morning.  It was just before the 10:00 contemporary worship service, and I was milling about, welcoming people and making sure everything was in place for the service.  A young mom sitting with her two girls saw me come by and said, "Pastor, you're a literary person.  What's a metaphor?"

This is one of the things I like about my work.  There's so much variety:  you never know what question you will be asked, who who ask you to pray for them, what stories you will hear.  No one had every asked me, "what's a metaphor" before, and I was momentarily flummoxed.  I was thinking on a totally different wavelength, I'll confess, and kept thinking only of similes (God is like... oh, wait!).  Finally,  I partially recovered and remembered that the Bible is full of metaphors.

"Ok, one example," I said quickly.  "God is a rock."  It wasn't the most elegant or subtle metaphor in the Bible, but it worked for about a minute before the worship service was supposed to begin.  God is a rock.  Or, more poetically, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing."

So today I was very pleased when we were done hearing the verses, "You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hid," and someone blurted out, "Is this a metaphor?"

Yes, it is.

Did you know that the Bible is full of metaphors?  I wonder why that is.

I suppose that the easy answer is that the Bible is full of metaphors because literature is full of metaphors, language is full of metaphors, despite my inability to come up with a really good one at a moment's notice.  But I think there's another reason that the Bible is full of metaphors, that we need to speak of God in comparison with something else, and we need to speak of our mission in terms of something else, because we're always grasping at something greater than ourselves, and greater than our ability to express.  As Paul writes in 1st Corinthians:  "as it is written, 'what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him' -- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God."  If you read on in 1st Corinthians, you can tell that Paul alternates between clear, poetic language and grasping at straws, trying desperately to describe the mystery of the great God who chose to be known in the weakness and shame of crucifixion and death. 

So 'you are the salt of the earth' is a metaphor.  and 'a city on a hill cannot be hid' -- which means that the church is prominent and will be watched, to see if we practice what we preach, if we really live by the mercy and love that we say God has given to us.  But it seems to me that a city on a hill might be vulnerable to attack as well.  If we hide, there's a better possibility that we can stay safe.  But the church is not called to be safe.  The church is called to risky loving, all the time holding on to that other great and true metaphor:

"A mighty fortress is our God; a bulwark never failing."