Sunday, July 31, 2011

What I Saw Today

It's Sunday, and I went to church.  I know, it's summer, and why would you go to church in the summer?  There's no Sunday school, and no choir, and there are plenty of other things to do.  At least, that seems to be what several people think.  But I AM the pastor, and I was presiding, so I went to church today.

Here's what I saw there:

I saw a smile on the face of a woman who told me that she wanted to give thanks for three years being cancer free.  I saw tears on the face of a woman who wanted me to pray for the family of a friend of hers who died last week.  I saw a teenager walk into the sanctuary by herself, sit down by herself, and then move to sit down next to her mother's best friend, and her friend's mother.  I saw a three year old boy run up to the front of the church to get a small loaf of bread, and then run back to his mother and father -- and then run up to the front of the church again.  I saw an older woman give our contemporary pianist a hug.  I saw him smile.

I saw a plastic bag of weeds next to the wooden church that holds prayer concerns.  The note with the weeds said, "These reminded me of the weeds that look like wheat, that we are not supposed to pull."

I saw little kids handing out small loaves of bread to people in the congregation.  And then we began to sing, "Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, Pass the word around, Loaves abound!"

I saw the face of a four year old girl when I said the words, "The body of Christ, given for you."  I saw a couple hug one another while singing the hymn of the day, "Lord Whose Love in Humble Service."

I saw a woman in a wheelchair come up for the prayers and anointing after the service.  When I asked her what she wanted me to pray for, she said, "Pray for the church."

I do.  I pray for the church, the people of God, the ones who came and sang and prayed and cried and laughed with us today.  I pray for the ones who were not here, for whatever reason, whether they are travelling or whether they are busy or whether they just can't figure out a reason to be here with us.

We miss you.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Jeremiah and Company

As many of you know, I've been "Reading the Bible in 90 Days" this summer.  For the most part, I've managed to read a portion of the Bible every day (ok, I confess, I've gotten beyond once or twice).  But for the past several days, I've been reading the prophets, and lately, I've been spending time with that cheery guy, Jeremiah.

In my head, I know about Jeremiah.  I know that he preaches almost unremitting (and truthful) warnings to the people of Judah, to the point that he was regarded as a traitor by many.  But the snippets I mostly hear in church from Jeremiah, are the few haunting, hopeful passages, like this one from Jeremiah 31:  "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'know the Lord,' for they shall all known me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more."

That's what I know and remember from Jeremiah:  the comfort, the forgiveness, the new covenant.  But actually, most of Jeremiah is filled with God's anger at Israel's idolatry and selfishness.  The two things I hear over and over and over are about the faithlessness of the people, how prone to wander and to serve other gods, and the lack of care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, the stranger. 

Jeremiah and the prophets have never seemed more contemporary to me.

"Everybody does whatever they want."  "Nobody pays any attention to God.  and nobody pays attention to the poor."

I have never heard God angrier than in these passage.  Joel Osteen is WRONG -- sometimes, God IS mad at us. 

God is mad at us when we engage in class and race warfare, stereotyping whole groups of people when it's convenient.  "Some of those people really aren't poor," they say.  "The Bible says that no one should eat unless he's willing to work," they say.

(what is interesting to learn is that this particular verse probably referred to the 'idle rich' who didn't need to work.)

You know what I find incredible, though?

There are places in Jeremiah when God re-affirms God's love for Israel.  "I have loved you with an everlasting love," he says.

I'll be in the prophets for awhile yet.  It's not a comfortable place to be. 

But, before I go, I leave you with a few thoughts:

I find there are not so many prophets around lately.  Maybe there are, but no one is listening to them.

But there are plenty of false prophets.

They are all the people who say that you never have to change.
They are all the people who tell us exactly what we want to hear, what makes us comfortable.
They're the people who tell us, "you don't consume too much, you're not wrecking the environment, there aren't that many poor people, not really."

What does God say?
And, "I have loved you with an everlasting love."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Right Words

Based on Romans 8:26-39

An old, old story:
It is the night of Passover. A peasant is rushing to finish his work in the fields so that he can attend the holy service. But, alas, the sun drops and it is darkness when no travel is permitted.
The next day the rabbi spots him and asks him where he’s been. “Oh, Rabbi, it was terrible – I was stuck in my fields after dark and had to spend the night there.”
“Well, says the rabbi, “I suppose you at least recited your prayers.”
“That’s the worst of it, Rabbi, I couldn’t remember a single prayer. “Then how did you spend the holy evening?” says the rabbi. “What did you do?”

What do you do?”
That’s the question. What do you do? When you can’t find the right words.... it’s not as easy as it appears.... finding the right words, at the right time.
And sometimes, words disappear at just the moment you need them most.
Perhaps it’s a time of stress or grief.
Just when you are trying to write a card to your friend who was just diagnosed with cancer, you can’t remember or think of a single thing to write that doesn’t sound cheap.
Or perhaps you are standing in front of a family who has just lost a child, and you open your mouth and nothing comes out.
Or perhaps you are trying to express your own pain when darkness or fear descends. The right words, or any words, just won’t come out.
Perhaps at a time of deep joy, as you stand face to face in front of someone who has promised to be with you “in sickness and in health, for richer/for poorer”
or when you have witnessed unexpected abundance, and instead of words there is a lump in your throat.
Perhaps you are one who would really like to get up at a funeral and “say a few words” about your mother or your great-aunt, or your cousin, and you know you just couldn’t.
And you envy those who can.

It’s the same thing with prayer, isn’t it?
I know some people who pray easily, and others who can’t seem to get the words out,
some people who seem to know exactly what to say to God in every situation, and some people who have no idea what might be ‘the right words’.
In front of God they are tongue-tied and mute, like the peasant standing in his fields after dark, unable to say the right words. Or any words.

Paul says that this is actually our natural state before God. We are all actually more like that peasant than we care to admit.
“We do not know how to pray as we ought....” not some of us, not those who are shy, not those who don’t know God, just “we” – “we do not know how to pray as we ought....”.
We don’t know how to pray, and we don’t know what to pray. Not really. Even those of us who are most eloquent when we pray, who always seem to know what to tell God, do not know how to pray as we ought.
And others of us are just honest enough to say – we really don’t know what to pray for.

When your child is ill, when a friends’ marriage is coming apart, when terrorists invade, what do you pray for?
Peace? Revenge? Healing? Comfort?
A new start? Or do you just open your mouth and no words will come out, because we really don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for.
We just know that it’s dark, and we feel alone, and every word seems like a foreign language.

And what does it matter, anyway? Prayer is such an odd activity, speaking to a hidden God.
You know, there are people who don’t pray at all. Not even at meal time.
I remember visiting a couple once, from my church.
And they invited me to pray before our dinner, because, they said. They really don’t.
They really wouldn’t know what to say.
So they don’t.
And why is it so important, anyway?
Isn’t it more important how we live our lives, what we do, how we serve?

Except for two things. If Romans 8 is correct – prayer is at the heart of the gospel, the heart of our relationship with God, the God who longs to be connected with us, who promises us that nothing can separate us from his love.
Prayer is not extra-curricular activity, it is at the heart of the promise of the God to be with us in everything, to be out in the fields after dark, to be standing with us, walking with us in our moments of deep joy, in our times of deep suffering, at all the times when the right words will not come out.
Prayer is God’s promise to hear us, to be with us, to walk with us, to make the words come out right, even when everything is going so wrong.
Prayer is God’s promise to be in the struggle with us, with the marriage that’s going south, with the chronic illness, the grief you feel, the daily joys, the daily sorrows.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Prayer is not extra-curricular activity – and it’s not just prayer that we’re not good at. We also do not know how to live as we ought, not really.
We’re stumbling all the time, you and me, and our lives are sometimes as jumbled and tongue-tied as our prayers.
So, what do you do? What do you do?

What did you do?
The rabbi asked the peasant long ago.
Oh, the peasant said, “I could only recite the alphabet and pray that God would re-arrange the letters.”

“the spirit intercedes for us....” The Spirit takes our jumbled and tongue-tied words, and somehow makes a prayer out of them.
The Spirit takes our tongue-tied lives and somehow makes an offering out of them.
That is what it means to intercede.
To intercede is to give a voice to someone who has no voice, to make a bridge to bring people together who were separate, to make communication possible.
Child advocates speak up for children who are vulnerable, making sure their interests are represented, since they have no vote.
Others advocate for the poor and the homeless, for those who are weak, for those who are abused.

When we pray here in church for our neighbors, we always remember those who are not able to pray themselves, those who are speechless for whatever reasons, sickness or despair, poverty or weakness or ignorance.

We want to give voice to their concerns, to connect them somehow to God who cares for them.

So the Spirit stands with us in our prayers, and in our lives, interceding for us, interpreting our cries, our groans, our laughter, our tears.
So the Spirit stands with us in our lives, as well, in our service, in our struggles, in our confusion, doubt, fear. We’re not alone in life.
God is in it with us.

When you open your mouth to talk to God, about your life, about your family, about your marriage, about the world, and you don’t know what to say; Take courage. You’re not alone.
God is in it with you.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God, not your worry for your children or grandchildren, not your failures or successes at work or at home, not your grieving or your weakness.
Your life might be as jumbled and confusing as your prayers, but God is in it with you.
You’re not alone.
God is in it with you.

Not to make everything perfect, not to fix every mistake, not to make sure your life flows smoothly all the time.

But to get you through. To work through all things. To make your life a prayer, somehow.
God is in it with you.

After all, that is the point.
The point is: nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Not life or death or grief.
Not dangers, toils or snares.
Not groans or sighs.
Whether you are out in the field and the darkness is descending, or out in the world struggling to make sense of your life: you are not alone.
The Spirit intercedes for you.

When the right words won’t come....
The right word is given.
When our sentences trail off, the right word is given to us.
When there is a lump in our throats, the right word rises up.

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
Full of grace and truth.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stewardship and Me

I've spent most of the past week at a conference, "Rethinking Stewardship Practices."  I wanted to go to this workshop partly because I want to be more comfortable about doing stewardship in my own congregation.  But I also went to the workshop because (I'll confess), stewardship and I have a sort of checkered relationship.  This may be a bad thing for a pastor to confess, but it's true.

I started off very seriously and earnestly, as a young adult, just out of college.  I was a pretty serious Christian back then; I went to church on Sunday and to various prayer meetings.  And I had really gotten the message about tithing.  I did tithe net, not gross, as I looked at my paycheck and just took ten percent of that every two weeks.  That's what I did.

My life was simple, though.  I did not own a car.  I had a modest student loan.  I bought a sofa bed from a department store and made payments on it until my federal tax refund came back and I could pay it off.  I did not have a major credit card. 

When I first got to Japan to begin my missionary work, I was paid in dollars, and I did send a tithe back to my home church during those first six months.  I was very embarrassed to hear that someone from our congregation actually got up and used me as an example during their annual stewardship drive. 

Things got more complicated when we started getting paid in yen.  We were cautioned that we shouldn't be too generous with our Japanese congregations, so that they would not get dependent on our offerings.  So, I didn't give very much.  And, to be honest, there were many beautiful things I was tempted to buy while I lived in Japan.  I gave in to temptation many times.  I came home with a LOT more than I left with.  a LOT more.

When I returned to the U.S., a lot of things happened, too complicated to go into here.  But I bought a car, which I probably couldn't afford on my salary.  I got an apartment (eventually).  I got a major credit card.  Life became more complicated.  My tithing habits had been long gone by then.  I found it very difficult to look at my check and just do the 10 percent math.  It seems like the rent, the insurance, the car payment, the credit card, and groceries (and oh yes, those unanticipated car repairs) took almost everything I made.  (I was not making a large salary.)

I had gotten my finances in order by the time I went to seminary, but afterwards, the high cost of my seminary loans was a wake up call.  Getting used to the discipline of putting something away for quarterly tax payments was a learning curve too.

As I said, stewardship and I have had a checkered history.  And even though I'm talking about giving to my church right now, I realize that my financial responsibility to my congregation is really only a small part of how I steward the whole life God has given me.  It's the work I do, how I use my time, the way I treat people.  It has to do with credit cards, and student loans, but it also to do wtih making time for conversation and prayer and making meals from scratch.

As I said, stewardship and I have had a checkered history.  I am generous and I am stingy, sometimes frugal and sometimes wasteful. 

A friend recently reminded me that stewardship really means, "our lives are not our own." 

Which, I think is good news, when I consider the alternatives....

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading the Bible in 90 Days, day 48: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs

Let me tell you, it's interesting to read Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs on the same day.

You have the world-weary cynicism of "the preacher" and the breathless romanticism of the lovers.  "The Preacher" wants to let us know that he has seen everything and that there is nothing new under the sun.  He has seen the innocent suffer and the guilty get off scot-free.  He's worked hard and seen his efforts come to nothing. 

The lovers, on the other hand, are almost embarrassingly optimistic.  They long for one another.  They are uncensored in their appreciation for one another's bodies.  They have a reason for living:  one another. 

The two books, right alongside each other, couldn't be more different.

And yet, there is something that connects them. 

Both of these small volumes concern themselves more with daily living than they do with salvation and eternal things.  The author of Ecclesiastes, the "preacher" says that since we don't have that much control about how our lives turn out anyway, it is good to eat and drink and be merry, to live fully each day. 

I think that the lovers of Song of Songs would agree.

And now a word of caution:  Tomorrow we enter the prophets.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading the Bible in 90 Days, Day 43: Psalm 89 - Psalm 108

I've been spending a few days with the Psalms now, and it occurs to me, when you read a whole bunch of Psalms at one time (something I don't do very often), that they seem, um, sort of -- Manic/depressive.  One minute, it's "God, don't turn your back on me; this is my cry for help" (from Psalm 102), and the next:  "Oh my soul, bless God!  don't forget a single blessing." (from Psalm 103)

From the height of praise to the depths of lament, the Psalms have a song for it.  There's are psalms that make you blush for the hatred of enemies expressed and psalms that make you ache for the desperation of one hanging by a thread, and psalms that make you want to sing because of the goodness of God, who rescues us just in the nick of time.  The Psalmists do not censor their prayers.  They are honest.  Perhaps that's why I love the Psalms, even when I don't like them.

As high as heaven is over the earth
so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrsie is from sunset,
he has separated us from our sins... (Psalm 103)

Tomorrow:  Read Psalms 109 - 134.
and Friday:  Psalm 135 - Proverbs 6

And if you are interested in knowing more about the Psalms, I recommend Psalms for Sojourners, by James Limburg, which is a great overview.
Or, read Eugene Peterson's book A Long Obedience In the Same Direction, which specifically refers to the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Far Away From Everywhere

On Tuesday we drove from Albuquerque to Mesa Verde National Park, with a stop at Aztec National Monument and a late lunch in Durango.  We spent a short time walking up Durango's Historic Main Street, peeking into a few of the shops, including a terrific Art and Antique Shop, featuring lots of local artists. 

We arrived at Far View Lodge just in time for an impressive thunderstorm. 

Our room is simple but nicely appointed.  There is really a "far view"  -- every room has a panoramic view of some of the mesas, and a little balcony where you can sit and have a glass of wine, if you like.  There is a clock radio, but no television, no internet, and very little cell phone coverage, as far as we can discern.

I think that's a good thing.

There is free internet in the lodge, so you can connect up if you really can't stand being unconnected.

One Wednesday we got up early and got some good advice on where we could go "on our own."  We ended up at Spruce Tree House, so early that we were just about the only people there.  A little later we joined a small group for a ranger-led tour of Long House at the Weatherill Mesa.  If Mesa Verde is a little off the beaten path, Weatherill Mesa is even more so, down many winding roads with no signs that say "keep going!  you are almost there!." 

It was worth it, in the end.

Today we took an all-morning tour called the "700 Year Tour", because it takes you along 700 years of Puebloan Indian History, culminating in a tour of the most famous and spectacular Cliff Palace. 

Both yesterday and today, we found ourselves doing trails and climbs we had thought we couldn't do.  I guess we both have more courage than we think, in a pinch.

But after this morning, I lost an entire afternoon trying to get rid of a persistent headache.  Even had one of the National Park medics up to see me.  We didn't figure out exactly what hit me, but verified that it was not hydration related (though I found out you can actually drink too much water; he had a word for that which I don't remember.)

I can't help thinking about water, when I'm here.  The thunderstorm, the droughts they experienced those hundreds of years ago, the drought they are experiencing now. 

Down at the most basic level of human life, there is water.  And there, at the most basic level of human life and need, there God meets us most of all.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On the Road Again

After a brief stop in Albuquerque where I met friend and blogger Paul and had yummy appetizers, we are back on the road again, headed out to Mesa Verde, somewhere I have heard about for many years, but never seen. 

Last night we also had a dinner (which I for one didn't really need) at the Church Street Cafe in Old Town.  We walked around the town (most places were closed, but a few were still open), and found a little shop that featured artists from New Mexico, especially as they painted religious folk themes.  I was captivated by a little display for Vicente Telles, and had to buy a tiny piece of art by him, called Mater Dolorosa.

As we exited, the shopkeeper called out, "thanks for supporting local artists!"


We watched fireworks from our hotel room.

Got up early to eat a little breakfast in the downstairs cafe, and listen to the latest on the Casey Anthony trial.

Now we will be traveling scenic routes all day, cameras and journals in hand, until we get to our scenic destination.

My hope during the next few days:  that I will see the beauty in the local artistry, that I will support local artists, and that I will find freedom to be one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Week's Worth of Readings

I am on vacation and will be out of internet range for most of the week.  Here are the Bible readings for those of you who are reading along:

Monday, Day 34  --2 Chronicles 36- Ezra 10
Day 35 -- Nehemiah 1 - Nehemiah 13
Day 36 -- Nehemiah 14 - Job 7
Day 37 -- Job 8 - Job 24
Day 38 -- Job 25 - 41
Day 39 -- Job 42 - Psalm 24
Day 40 -- Psalm 25 - 45
Day 41 -- Psam 46 - 69
Day 42 -- Psalm 70 - 89

Have fun -- especially with the Psalms.

I will try to keep notes and share observations when I return.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reading the Bible in 90 Days, Day 32: 2 Chronicles 8 - 23

The Kingdom is divided now.  The author of Chronicles (at this point) spends more time with the Kings of Judah (mostly pretty good, with some flaws) than with the kings of Israel (mostly bad).  There is no mention of Solomon going after other gods at the end of his life.  Rehoboam (Solomon's son) follows really bad advice in deciding to be a harsh king, and the northern kingdom rebels.  Even though the author considers this an understandable reaction of Rehoboam's cruelty, the fact remains -- Israel turns apostate.  They cut themselves off.  They follow other gods.

The harshness of their king is partly responsible.

Mercy and compassion are not two words we think of associated with leaders.

But Yahweh is looking for leaders who do care about the welfare of the people they serve.

Tomorrow's reading:  2 Chronicles 24 - 35
Monday's reading:  2 Chronicles 36 - Ezra 10

Note:  I will be off line for most of next week.  I'll post the week's reading tomorrow, and try to keep notes throughout the week...

Perhaps that's why he sometimes calls them "shepherds."

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Interesting Way to Spend a Vacation

So I have just about two weeks off now.  I'm on vacation.  But we haven't gone anywhere .... yet.

That's right, we're right here in town.  We're leaving town on Monday.

99.9% of the time, when we go on vacation, we go somewhere else.  Though our family did not travel much on vacation, I was told in seminary that it's important for pastors too get away when they get time off, so I've pretty much done that.

But, so much doesn't get done.  During the last year, there have been a few times when my hours have not been pretty.  So I thought it might be fun to get a longer time away, but not actually go anywhere for part of it.  Just try to get some things done.

So, that's what we've been doing.  Especially yesterday, when my mom came over and helped us wash the venetian blinds, re-organize the pantry, and clean out the refrigerator (which has been dripping water again, so we took all of the food out and turned it off.) 

My mom is the most organized person I know.  I may have mentioned that when I lived in Japan, I always got my Christmas presents from home well before Christmas.  (This was not uniformly the case.)  She is also the best ever at packing a little car so that all the things you need to bring home from internship will fit into it.  (I still remember our checklist for weekend camping trips.)   We took her out to eat as well, which was fun.

We ran into members of my church there.  I said "hello."  As they left, they waved and said they liked this restaurant "because of the pop-overs."  I remembered that I had seen another member of my church the day before at our local Large-Chain Bookstore.  I just said "hello" again, but a few minutes later, the woman came running back to tell me how much she had enjoyed the service on Sunday.  That was nice.  (Especially that she liked the whole service -- not just the sermon.)

I understand why they say pastors should "get away" on vacation.  This is not a small town.  But I still run into people.

So, today we decided to "get out of Dodge," so to speak.  It was waaaay to hot to work outside, which had been our original plan.  We decided to go to a larger medium-sized town where there are some cute little shops and restaurants.  (More about that later, perhaps.)

But, before we left, we went swimming.  Where I bumped into someone from my church.

Really.  This is NOT a small town.