Saturday, April 30, 2011

I Came Home From the Confirmation Retreat to Preach on Thomas

Those two things seem to be related to one another.

Our 9th graders are preparing for their confirmation this weekend.  I was with them last night and this morning as they did some serious work, completing Spiritual Gifts Inventories, reading stories out of the Gospel of Matthew, doing some initial thinking about the Faith Statements they will be writing. 

Our evening devotions last night was called "Stations of the Resurrection."  It's based on a now-out-of-print book for teens with scriptures, prayers and reflections for different of the resurrection stories.  They move around to different stations and read the stories and think about the experiences the apostles had.

Their favorite story?  Thomas.

This morning one of the confirmands was looking for a scripture verse about doubt, or even questions.  She has faith, but she has questions, and she wanted to choose a confirmation verse that told her it was okay to have questions.  I told her questions are definitely ok, even courageous, sometimes.

Later on, we were talking about confirmation day, and the promises they will be making.  I told them that when they were baptized God chose them to be one of God's people, and that they had gifts to share with the church.  I told them that now they had the opportunity to publicly say that they wanted to be part of the people of God, part of God's mission in the world, and that they promise to "live among God's faithful people, to hear God's word, and share the Lord's supper...." (among other things.)

We talked about faith.... and doubt.  How some days when one of us is doubting, another one of us feels strong in faith, and how, when we gather, we help each other to keep going, keep following Jesus, even when we have questions. 

Tomorrow, when I preach, one thing I will say is that we come to church to hear the Word, but I don't think that's all we come to church to do.  I think we also come to church to see Jesus.  We come to church to see Jesus, if not in our own lives, in one another's lives.  We come to church because we want to know, again and again, "is it really true?"  Is forgiveness possible?  Can enemies really be reconciled?  Is Love really stronger than death?

I think that is what our confirmation students want to see, too.  They are looking at church leaders, their parents, the people they see at church, and they are not asking for perfection, but they are looking for Jesus in our lives.  Do we sing like we mean it?  Do we know mercy and do mercy?  Are we honest about our own questions, and our own failures, because we know that there is someone greater than our failures?

Tonight, I imagine those 9th graders sitting around the campfire, eating s'mores and telling stories and seeing each other's faces reflected in the glow.  I imagine that tonight they feel strong and committed to follow Jesus, even though they have questions, and even though they still (after three years) don't have any idea of all the places where Jesus might lead them.

Tonight, I believe that it is still Easter, and that Jesus is alive.  Forgiveness is possible.  Love is stronger than death.

Even if you doubt, join us tomorrow.

Especially if you doubt.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Detail Oriented

I've been asked before, "Are you detail oriented?"  I think I know what the questioners mean.  I've been in business before, and I think they mean, "do you attend to the administrative details?  And, how do you do this?"

For example, if I am planning a funeral, do I remember to call the servers, the organist, the person doing the bulletins, the custodian?  Do I remember to ask the right questions about music, numbers of people coming, whether they want to have communion or not?  do I remember to have a worship assistant or an usher?  Do I remember to ask for a room for the luncheon after the service?

Ministry is filled with details like these. 

If I am planning a program, do I know all the things I need to do in order to pull it off successfully?  Do I remember that there is advertising and promotions, there are people to recruit and materials to find, and a suitable space to procure?  Perhaps there is training for volunteers as well.  How do you make sure to remember all these details?

There's another way to look at the phrase, "detail oriented," though, and I wish someone would ask questions about this way of being detail oriented.

Do you notice the two women sitting in the back of the church, crying?  Or how that girl in confirmation sits apart from everyone else?  When you meet with the young couple who want to get married, do you notice when they look at each other, and when one of them looks down?  Can you read between the lines when you ask a man who just had to put his wife in a nursing home how he is, and he answers, "Fine"?  Or when you hear a young man read the lesson for the first time, do you notice how he walks back to his seat with just a little swagger in his step?

Do you know the young girl in your congregation who is just itching to take her first communion, but it's a year away?  Or the couple who are looking for a way to make a difference in their community?  Do you know that people are not just the sum total of their needs, but the sum of their needs, and their hopes, and their gifts, and the Holy Spirit working in them, God knows how?

Are you detail oriented?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Long Wednesday

Wednesdays are usually long around these parts, because they begin with a weekly Matins service at 8:00, and don't end until confirmation is over at about 7:30.  In between, anything can happen.

I was in charge of the Matins service this morning, the first Wednesday after Easter.  We lit the new paschal candle for the first time, I read the story of Mary at the tomb from John 20, and we scattered a few seeds from the new creation.  (You see, Jesus really is the gardener; Mary M. didn't really make a mistake.)

After snacks and coffee, it was my turn to lead the 9:00 Learning Event: a Bible Study.  The Pastors usually take one Wednesday a year and lead a Bible study.  I can't remember now why I thought the Sunday after Easter would be a good idea.  It may be that I had remembered that Holy Week was not quite as stressful for me, the Associate Pastor.  But this year was different, something I will not elaborate on at this particular time. 

Last week, as I was wracking my brain for one-hour Bible story ideas, I thought about "Lessons from (some) Bible Children".  That's what I did, focussing on Isaac, Miriam, Samuel, David, The Young Maid from the Naaman story, The Boy with the Lunch, and The Little Girl Who Got Up.  My Favorite:  Samuel. 

Afterwards, I had a conversation with a church member about some matters of concern, made a few phone calls, led my "Bag Lunch Bible Study".  Thought that my sermon Title might be, "The Next Week."

I picked up my mother-in-law and brought her to church for a funeral this afternoon.  We sat together, except for the part where I assisted with communion.  Sitting in the pew for a funeral in this church was a rare experience.  I've been the chief presiding for the funerals here for the past (almost) year, until this week.  I alternated between thinking it was a nice break, and feeling a bit blue about not being the one to proclaim the gospel to the family of a woman I had known for thirteen years.   (I am a more-than-fair funeral preacher, if I do say so myself.)

Afterwards, we had more coffee and cake, and I took my mother-in-law home. 

I sent a few e-mails, and went to congregate dining (pizza burgers!) before our confirmation session.  We break from our weekly sessions during Lent, so it was the first time I had seen the students for awhile.  I have seventh graders.  We got updated on our ups and downs, highs and lows, had a moderately successful conversation on a variety of topics, including 'what does it mean to you that Jesus is alive?' (I liked that one.)

At the end of class, we took a few minutes to pray.  I had them each pray this way today,  "I pray for..... (someone or something I care about).  Then we would all say together, "Lord, have mercy."  I modelled by praying for my dad and my mother-in-law.

Then they prayed.  They prayed for the world.  One girl prayed that in the future all wars would be virtual, and no one would die.  One boy prayed for another girls' grandmother, who had cancer.  They prayed for their families.  They prayed for their friends.  They prayed for peace.  Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

It was the best thing that happened all day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Holy Week and Easter

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

Sometimes, during Holy Week, it's easy to get caught up in all of the details of all the things that need to happen.  I know that was true for me this year, more true than ever, actually, since last year the Senior Pastor I served with for many years retired.  Even though there is an interim senior pastor, it fell to me to consider many of the details of the worship services for the week.  I spent more time than I had before doing things like proofing bulletins, connecting with our music people, contacting readings (and our sign language interpreter).  In fact, I had a hard time concentrating on my sermons unless I was at home.

Our Easter Vigil service is a small one, but we had a baptism again this year, and  I found out that I was going to be totally in charge of the service, for the first time ever.  It was fun doing the baptism instruction for the adult woman who had not ever been baptized before, to talk together about the Christian faith and Luther's unique slant on it.

Between worship planning sessions, I did get a chance to visit some of the shut ins, something I really enjoy.

So, Maundy Thursday arrived, with the service of Holy Communion and the stripping of the altar.  The music minister and another choir member sang a fantastic, moving version of Psalm 22 at the close of the service.  We left in silence.

I saw that the message light was on for my phone.  When I checked my messages, I thought I was hearing about a parish member who was entering  the hospital. 

But it turns out that he had died that evening. 

It was such a surprise to me that I gasped when I heard it.  I knew that his health had been declining, but I just couldn't imagine the world without him in it.  Selfishly, I considered this man one of my cheerleaders in the congregation.

Between Good Friday services, we got news that another long-time member of the church had a massive stroke and was not expected to live. 

She died on Saturday.

She was a good friend to many, even to my mother-in-law.

This Easter, my heart hurts.

and yet,

Christ is risen, indeed.

We sang Alleluia and proclaimed the victory of Christ over the powers of sin, death and the devil this morning.  I got a hug from a young man just beginning to wear braces.  I saw babies smiling to the music.  I saw two women crying in the back pew at the early service.    I saw two children standing fascinated and watching and listening to the bells playing.  I heard so many strong voices saying together the Nicene Creed.  I saw friends and strangers, all beautiful, just because God said so.

And even though my heart hurts,

Christ is risen indeed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week: Seeing Jesus, another view

On Sunday in the Sanctuary our worship was focused on both the palms and the passion.  We had the live donkey and the children dressed up.  The choir sang, and four readers and a dancer and the congregation participated in a worship experience called "The Cry of the Whole Congregation."  (There was a drum and a drummer, and they were also not optional.)

In the fellowship hall was our annual fundraiser for social justice issues, a brunch, a silent auction and cake walk.  People from the church created baskets to be auctioned, and there were cakes and cakes and cakes.  (I won a a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, baked by an 11-year-old girl.)

Two little pre-school girls was determined to win a cake.  They walked in circles for what seemed like an eternity, but neither of them won a cake.  One girl's grandmother whispered to the children's ministry coordinator, "I don't know what we'll do if she doesn't eventually win one!"

At the same time, a little boy, eight years old, had won four cakes.  His mother was beside herself.  What were they going to do with four cakes!?

The children's ministry coordinator made a discreet suggestion.  The little boy gave a whole box of cupcakes to the two little girls.  You could see them jumping up and down and yelling, "We won!  We won!  We won!"  (one of the mothers smiled with a little irony:  of course they didn't WIN.  Someone took pity on them and gave them a cake.)

The little boy was so startled by the girls' reaction that he went around the fellowship hall the rest of the morning, asking anyone if they wanted a cake.

As for me, give me grace to recognize that a free gift is a different, and maybe better, way to win in life.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday in Holy Week: Silence

Christianity came to Japan long ago, brought by Spanish and Portugeuse missionaries, Jesuits and Franciscans.  Though many were suspicious, there emerged a small but devoted following of Christ-followers. 

But the suspicion grew, and finally Christianity was outlawed.  Most of the missionaries were banished, or fled.  Those suspected of being Christian were required to renounce their faith.  They were to step on a picture of Mary or Jesus, called a "fumie", as a sign of their rejection of Jesus and the church.  Some did; many refused to step on the fumie, and many were tortured and killed.

Shusaku Endo tells the story of this time in his novel Silence.  A foreign priest narrates the story of his faith, his weakness, his decision to come to Japan, trying to help the persecuted people to hold fast to their faith. He tries to find out about a priest who has lost his faith, and wonders what happened to him.  The title "Silence" refers to the Silence of God at the time of the persecution. 

The priest is asked to step on the fumie to renounce his faith, but, even though he is weak, and has committed many sins as a priest, and has failed many times in his duties, he refuses.  But the authorities do not torture him.  Instead, they torture the people of his parish. 

When he is brought before the authorities again, he says he hears the voice of Christ, telling him to go ahead and step on the fumie.  Christ bore the burden of sin, betrayal and denial before, and will bear it again and again, for us. 

As we travel through Holy Week, I think of our steps through life, and how often we step on the fumi-e, the image of Christ.  We do this whenever we deny or betray the image of God in our brothers and sister, whenever we step on one another, whenever we trample on the poor. 

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week: Seeing Jesus

So, today is Monday in Holy Week, otherwise known as the day after Palm Sunday, the day after Jesus rode into Jerusalem amid much fanfare, waving palms, cheering people. 

I saw a facebook update from a friend today, "Welcome, week that is Holy."  This immediately caused me to think, "as opposed to all the other weeks, which are NOT Holy."


No, this is called Holy Week, the week we Journey to the Cross.  But every other week is Holy, too.  Every ordinary week, every week of doing the dishes and taking out the garbage and going to work and wondering what it all means is Holy.   Every week of watching the news and seeing tsunamis and wars in Libya and in Afghanistan, every week of watching homeless people struggle for dignity, every week of turning away from suffering (or turning toward it), every week is Holy, not just this one.

Some churches have an opportunity to worship each day of Holy Week.  It's a reminder of the Holiness of this week, the Holiness of every week.  It's a reminder that Jesus inhabits every week, every day, the ordinary ones, the heroic ones, the tragic ones.  We don't see it, mostly.

Today didn't seem like 'Monday in Holy Week' to me, at least not most of the time. 

What did I do?  How did I spend the time? 

I tried to get a day off, but kept thinking about Good Friday, the man of sorrows, who bore our sins.  I finished a book while waiting for my mother-in-law to get done with her appointment at the doctor's office.  I went shopping for groceries, got a couple of birthday cards, wiped off the kitchen cupboards.  Ordinary things.

I listened to music, and prayed to hear it. 

Monday in Holy Week.

Where did I see Jesus? 

I think I caught of glimpse of him, with a walker, and two bags of groceries.  Or perhaps I heard his voice in a note of the music.  Perhaps. 

The old gospel song tells us "turn your eyes upon Jesus."  But I confess that I only catch fleeting glimpses of him, and sometimes I have to look away.

When I do, I know he is still looking at me.  He is looking at us.  With love.

That's why they call it, "Holy Week."

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench."

A Few Thoughts About Leadership

Over the past year or so I've been thinking a lot about Leadership, Pastoral and otherwise.  Here are just a few things I've been thinking:

1.  Leaders Don't Know Everything.  I know it's tempting, when you are looking for a leader, to try and find someone who "knows what we should do."  But I'm not sure that is the best model for leadership, at least these days.  Rather than a leader who is sure that he or she knows what to do in every situation, what about a leader who is curious about what s/he doesn't know and listening to the people and the culture around her for ideas and strategies?  I think that curiosity and openness are under-valued qualities in a leader these days.

A parish member once said, "A Professional is someone who knows what to do when s/he doesn't know what to do."  Not a bad qualification for a leader too:  someone willing to say, "Actually I don't have all the answers, but I have some ideas for how we can find out."

2.  Leadership requires courage.  Absolutely.  You can't be a leader if you are not able to step out and take some risks.  And you have to know where the bottom line is for you, what is essential and what is not.

That being said, leadership does not mean standing alone.  And courage is not stupidity.  Leaders cultivate their courage by making sure there are people standing with them, behind them, alongside them, people who see a leader's vision taking shape and are willing to go there with them.   Leaders cultivate people who will have their back in times of stress; that's one place that courage comes from.

3.  Leaders listen and speak.  I think when we think of leaders, we think of speaking.  But actually, listening is just as important to the task of leadership.  What to leaders listen to:  leaders listen to stories.  And leaders tell stories.  They tell their own stories, and they tell stories of the past, present and future of the people they are leading. 

4.  Leading and Pastoring are both necessary, but they are not the same thing.  If you are a good pastor, do not mistake people's respect for you as their pastor, as a willingness to follow your leadership.  It is a separate skill.  I can't imagine being able to be a effective leader in a parish if you're not a good pastor as well.

5  Leaders cultivate hope.  It's not the same as optimism.

I hope to continue, and to develop this conversation.

Probably after Holy Week, though.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life

Cross-posted at our church's Lenten Blog

In my first call, I used to say that I sometimes got to know people only after they died.

This reflected two realities: that some of the folks I visited in nursing homes were not able to share as fully with me as their families did, later on, and that even for those I knew well, new information would often come out as we sat around and shared memories after a death.

At a time of grieving, I often heard wonderful stories that opened up parts of a life that I had never known about. I learned about how an old woman became ill as a young girl, contracting the flu in the epidemic of 1918. I learned about how a man secretly helped many members of his community when they were in financial straits. I saw some secret devotional poetry written by a woman who had never married. I heard stories about grandparents trekking across the prairie to start a farm where there should only be ranches. I heard stories of failure and stories of success, and stories of faithfulness in times of trouble.

I remember giving communion to an ancient woman once. I would be the last time I visited her. We knew she was dying. Her family was gathered. We prayed, read scripture, reflected on her life, and especially the hardships of the great depression.

At the close of the service, I pronounced the benediction, "The Lord Bless you and Keep you, The Lord's face shine on you with grace and mercy, the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace."

The old woman opened her eyes, and with a sparkle, said, clearly, "He did!"

He did! The Lord did bless me and keep me, the Lord's face shone on me....

The Lord is my resurrection and has been my life, all of my days. He has looked upon me with favor, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Such clarity she had. May we all have such moments

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Few Of the Assets of my Church

1.  Two weeks ago a thirteen-year-old girl came up to me and asked if  she could Sing Holden Evening Prayer for one of our Lenten Services.  I said, "yes."  She practiced and she sang this last Wednesday.  Perfectly.  In a beautiful, clear voice.

2.  Tomorrow we are having first communion for ten fifth graders.  One of them is also going to be baptized at the service.  So I thought I'd ask the class members if they would come up for the baptism, and also if a few of them could help with the baptism.  "Who would like to help pour the water?" I asked.  They all raised their hands.  I picked two of them.  "Who would like to give him his candle?"  Several hands went up as well.  I had to pick one.  "And who would like to say the words, 'let your light so shine before others....'?"  They all would.  they all will.  Shine their light, that is.

3.  A couple of weeks ago someone asked about doing a "Pot luck dinner for World Hunger."  They already have asked two other people to serve on the committee.  We do have to find out the rules for pot lucks (according to the health department).  By the way, I think it's a terrific idea.

4.  Five people from my congregation wrote beautiful devotions for each week in Lent, each on one of the "I am" statements.

5.  There is a couple who come to wash dishes every week after the soup supper.  They also like to bring a  goat, a chicken, or some or another exotic animal to our (now it seems) Annual Animal Blessing Service.

6.  A young mom recently emailed me with her passion for "whole family faith formation" -- not just teaching the children, but helping people of all ages grow in their faith.

7.  There is so much music at our church:  piano, guitar, bass and drums, voices, organ,chimes, bells, children's voices, babies crying and babbling.  There is the high school student who plays the guitar at the contemporary service.  There is the occasional flute, or oboe. 

A good pastor is a a wonderful asset.  But so are all of you.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Half the Church: A book Review

This book was not written for me.  But, it could have been, once upon a time.

Let me explain.  When I was growing up, the Lutheran Church did not ordain woman.  As I approached young adulthood, that changed, but at the same time, I had begun to worship with a less Lutheran and more evangelical set.  So, even while women were opening doors in my denomination, I was struggling with whether I thought women should be ordained.

The book Half the Church is not written to address the subject of ordination of women.  Carolyn Curtis James addresses the issues of women's empowerment while side-stepping the issue of whether women can in fact be called to public ministry. 

Make no mistake, she is passionate about empowering women, having been convicted about the de-valuing of women and girls in many parts of the developing world.  Jumping off from the best-selling book, Half the Sky, by  Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, she notes that the key to empowering communities is actually valuing women's contributions, and empowering women.  She also rightly recognizes that it is time for the church to understand that the call to do justice is part of the call to proclaim the gospel.

Ms. Curtis James persuasively argues that scripture is a resource for discovering models for strong women, leaders, crusaders for justice.    If you read this book, you will find some strong women here:  Eve, Ruth, Mary.  Her exegesis and stories are persuasive.  I also appreciated her appropriation of the "bride of Christ" metaphor as a strong church in partnership with Christ, to bring justice and healing to the world. 

However, as one who struggled with the issue of ordination as a young woman, I find myself disappointed in her refusal to take a stand on way or another.  She's passionate about women in leadership; just not willing to take a stand for women's voices in the pulpit.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Zondervan to review, with no expectation that I would give a positive review.  I have another one to give away to anyone who would like one.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why I Like Baptisms so Much

I always wanted a large family.

When I was young, I dreamed of many brothers and sisters.  After a couple of well-placed suggestions, I knew that my parents were not going to budge, so I  wrote stories and read stories about large families.  I was the oldest of eight children in one of them.  One of my brothers collected crayfish, and took apart my bike.  I also read Cheaper by the Dozen, Who Gets the Drumstick, and anything that would give me survival tips for children in large families.

Later on, I dreamed of having children myself.  Maybe not eight or twelve, as I did when I was younger, but five, I thought at eighteen.  Or four, I thought at Twenty five.  Or three, I thought at thirty.  I revised downward probably because as I got older I knew my window was closing.  Also, I realized more and more that raising children is not just all fun and games.  (I also wanted to "go live on the farm with grandma and grandpa", yet another reason my mother thought I was nuts.)

Maybe when I finally gave up and heard God calling me to be a pastor, there was a little bit of this sentiment in it:  Perhaps here is my chance to have a large family!  I was thirty-two, did not have a steady beau, and was beginning to wonder about a particular dream that I had always had:  being a mother.  At the same time, I was brought face to face with the fact that I had been avoiding God's call to me for a few years.  I had gotten very good at making excuses about why God couldn't possibly mean me.  (I'd tell you some of them, but that would be another post.)

I was right to be a little worried at thirty-two.  I never did have children of my own, but when there is a baby at the font, and I get to look into her eyes, or hold his hand while I pour water over his head, when I get to hold him or her and show him to the congregation, I feel like I get a little taste of what it is to be a mother.  I get to say, "Meet your new brother in Christ", and hear everyone ooh and aah.  We have also begun to invite all the children up to the font to get a better look whenever there is a baptism.  So if you can imagine the scene this past Sunday:  little Chelsea Marie, looking so beautiful in her white dress, and surrounded by children from three years to twelve, all welcoming her into the family of God.  A few people approached me after the worship service, but all they could manage to stammer out was, "All of the children!"  I always wanted a large family.

Recently I read an article about Pastor Carol Stumme.  I read with interest about how she, a second career pastor, thought about her ministry as a natural extension of her role as a mother.  She had five children, all grown, when she was ordained.  At least three of them were international adoptions.  When she came to her new church, the synod thought she had come to close its doors.  Instead, she helped create a new community, an international community.  She welcomed Vietnamese children and their families.  New life came to the church.

New life:  nothing says it better than baptisms.  And the gift of baptism is just that:  a gift, totally unearned, given even to the least and the most vulnerable among us.  That's another reason I love baptisms.  They remind me that everything I do is really God's work, God's work in Jesus, opening his arms, welcoming us, loving us, forgiving us.

As it turns out, God wants large families too.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April is the coolest month....

I've always thought that, and not just because April is my birthday month.  April is also the birthday month of several people in my family, which means that, growing up, I associated April with parties.  We always got together with my father's side of the family one Sunday in April to celebrate all of those birthdays, and with my mother's side of the family, to celebrate all of those birthdays, too.  Whoopee!  We were having cake all month!

Easter is also in April, which should be the main thing, and is, really.  It's not just Easter Worship (although you do have to sing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today", and mean it), but it's Easter itself, which is spring, but not the same as spring, more than spring.  Easter means that the things you thought were impossible are possible, that the gardener you see pruning the vines may not really be the gardener, that love and beauty and justice and forgiveness are really true, and possible. 

I used to get out Dvorak's New World Symphony and play it on Easter Sunday because, I thought, Easter isn't just about our own individual lives.  It's about the new world that God is bringing into being.

April is also when spring peeks through here in Minnesota.  Sometimes we don't really get fully into spring here until May, but April is when the hope kicks in. 

In April six years ago our favorite dog, Scout, came home.  She was just over six weeks old.  I picked her up from the nursing home on Friday afternoon and listened to her howl all the way home.  We made many mistakes (all by accident of course) when we first got Scout.  But when she curls up on her bed as we are going to sleep, and I hear her sigh, I believe that she is a good dog.

April is the coolest month.