Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"It's Complicated"

You ever see this phrase on the "relationship status" of people you know?  Rather than "married," "single," or "in a relationship", they have chosen to describe their relationship status as "It's complicated."

It does make you wonder what could possibly be going on in that person's life.  There are things they can't talk about.  There are things they probably feel like they can't explain to outsiders.  So they just say, "It's complicated" and leave it at that.

Sometimes I think, "It's complicated" could sum up my relationship with the church.

I just read a little article by Lillian Daniel about people who are spiritual, but not religious.  She seems to sit next to a lot of people like that on airplanes.  As a pastor and a life-long church church member, someone who was both raised in the church and intentionally decided to keep belonging to this community, I resonated with her critique.  How much easier it is to have deeply spiritual thoughts and never have to sing next to someone whose deeply spiritual thoughts are very much different than yours.

In faith communities, it happens.  There are people in my community who are probably relieved that we might have a believer back in the White House in 2012.  And others who are pretty sure we have a believer in the White House now.  And still others might be tempted to remind us that Martin Luther once said that he'd rather be ruled by a "smart Turk" than by a "stupid Christian." 

In my church, though we are all Lutheran, I'd bet we have some pretty firm believers in Christian Universalism, as well as some who would perish the thought.  We also have some people who think that the pipe organ alone is God's instrument, as well as others who think a jazz piano, or an electric guitar, or even an accordian would be nice. 

So, I resonate with Lillian Daniel, at least at first.  I mean, I get tired of the people who think things have to be perfect, and they won't ever be.  The music won't be perfect.  The preaching won't be perfect.  The people won't be perfect. 

But then, on the other hand....

I actually know people who won't step inside a church, and not for all of the usual reasons, like, "it interferes with my football games."  They won't go any more because they have been deeply wounded by people who claimed to be representatives of Jesus.  They won't go because they were abused.  They won't go because they were driven out.  They won't go because they didn't experience much, or any, of the grace we talk about, and that some of us can't live without.  They won't go because they've been at a church that everyone said was so "friendly," and no one talked to them.

Sometimes, it is true about the church, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The thing is, if the church isn't perfect, neither am I.  And if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that sometimes I have been the one who has said the wrong thing, I have been the one who has sung off-key, I've been the one who didn't welcome the stranger.  I've been hurt sometimes by the things people say and do, and I've been the hurt-er too.  It's tempting to go someplace where my flaws and vulnerabilities don't stick out so much.  Maybe a cave.  Or a beach.  Or something.

But then, like Peter, I end up saying, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."

Like I said, "It's complicated."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What I Like About the State Fair

We seem to go to the State Fair every year, for some reason.  This was not the case when I was growing up.  We went to the State Fair occasionally, although my dad told us stories that seemed to imply that he was a regular as a child.

But, we seem to go to the State Fair every year, even though it's mostly the same every year:  same food, same rides, same layout.  Every year I feel a little nostalgic for Machinery Hill, which is not the same as in the old days when my grandpa would go over to kick the tires on all of the John Deere (green) tractors.

We considered not going this year (it gets expensive, crowded, my feet hurt, and I don't really like the midway).  But I think we are going to end up there, anyway. 

Here's what I like about the State Fair:

1.  People watching.  Everybody, it seems, is at the fair.  They say it is the "Great Minnesota Get-Together", and that's what it is.  There are a million stories happening right before my eyes.  I love to watch the people, read the T-shirt slogans, listen to the children.
2.  Free Stuff.  I love getting pencils, booksmarks, free bags and other Educational and Promotional Items.  I know, I'm a little nerdy.  Buy I like it.
3.  Politicians Shake your Hands.  I got a great Paul Wellstone T-shirt there many years ago.  I still have it, even though it has holes in it.  (there are lots of little faces on it, with the slogan "many voices, one message.")
4.  Baby Animals, some being born. I love to go to the animal barns, imagine the rural kids who have been living here for ten days, competing in contests, taking care of their animals.    I like that new life is happening every day at the fair, the most amazing and ordinary thing. 
5.  Remembrances of  Fairs Past.  "Remember the time we were dating and we took the Olde Mill Ride?"  "Remember when we were walking down the street and we saw a Llama?"  "Remember the year we got caught in the rain and the kids all wore plastic bags to stay dry?" 
6.  The Old Buildings with their Art Deco Architecture and Design.  I love some of the buildings that have been around for years and years:  like The Horticulture Building.  I don't garden, but the Horticulture Building makes me wish that I did.  I leave the fair thinking, "next year I will garden."

The fair is a place of abundance and possibilities.  It's a place to buy stuff, eat stuff, get free stuff, talk to strangers, do something new, do the same old thing.  It's a place to hold hands,  hear music, walk around till your feet fall off, and realize that you are a member of a community.  Some of the members of the community wear really weird T-shirts, some of them work at Jehovah Lutheran's diner, some of them are old, and some of them are young.  Some of them stop in the FOX News booth, some of them wouldn't miss WCCO.  We are many voices, and we have many messages, and lately we sneer at each other's opinions more than is necessary.  But we're still one community.  At least at the Fair.

You know, in some ways, it's like church.  The same every week, the same food, the same place, the same basic layout.  Now why that's working so well for the State Fair, and not always for the church:  that might be a subject for another post.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What We Offer

There was a brown bag with handles sitting by the door when I arrived.  They wanted to make sure when I left, I would take a few things back to the church with me, things they were sure the church could use. 

I came, as I usually do, for conversation and communion.  Sometimes I think I could spend all day driving from house to house, praying and talking and sitting in rockers, drinking coffee.  I find out about secret joys and griefs, sometimes answer a burning question or two, ask a few myself. 

Today before communion, I prayed for our country, for our community, that we would learn to see each other as brothers and sisters and work together, despite our differences.  They said "Thank you" for that. 

The wife always washes out my communion cups.  She did the same today.  And before I left, they reminded me about the brown bag with the things they knew the church could really use.

Yarn for our prayer shawls, that's what it was.  It was still in the package, too. 

So I took it with me.  It wasn't heavy at all, no trouble to put it in the car, and no trouble to bring it into the church either.

Except that it wasn't at all the kind of yarn we use for prayer shawls.

In our house, we have an extra microwave.  It works, but we don't need it.  We were just going to throw it away, but found out that the city would charge us to take it away.  Maybe we should give it to the church? I thought.  I can understand why people want to give things to the church, cast-offs, used items that aren't useless, but aren't exactly what they used to be.    Maybe it's because you don't have room any more, and you are sure that if any place has room, the church does.  Maybe it's because you want to think this item of yours is still useful to someone.

In a culture that seems to have less and less use for the Church, and less and less idea about what we are about, perhaps this is who we are:  the place you bring your cast offs.

Old tongue depressers, balls of yarn.  Wrapping paper, tin cans, pipe cleaners.  Cast-offs, used goods.  Faded or new. 

Bring it to the church.  We'll find room.  And if we don't, God will.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We Are Here

I come from a long line of vacation slackers, which means, our family didn't go on vacation much.  We only took two road trips of note when I was growing up.  My dad had his own business and it was difficult for him to get away.  We also didn't have a lot of discretionary funds for elaborate vacations in my family.  This seemed to be the case for me when I first got out of college, or even when I first became a pastor. 

But I've adjusted to the fact that I am going to go on vacation, not just because I was told that  pastors need to get away, but also because my husband really likes to go new places, and we both like to go back to old places too. 

And, humbly I admit:  I need to get away.  I need to get away more than I am willing to admit, even.  I need to get away and I feel a little guilty about it at the same time. 

So yesterday, after church, we packed up the dog and the car and the laptop computers (and a new ipad: a birthday present for my husband) and drove up to the North Shore of Lake Superior.  We had been warned about highway construction, but didn't experience too much delay on a Sunday afternoon (although there was a pretty long line of cars going the other direction).  We got in early in the evening and settled in right away, me reading and knitting, my husband playing with his new toy.

This morning we got up and started on the road to Grand Marais.  We made the obligatory stop at Betty's Pies (where we left Scout yodeling in the car for a little while), and then drove the rest of the way up without stopping.

It's one of my favorite places on the North Shore, this little town where the temperature rarely gets above 72 degrees, where there are artists and a bookstore, a famous donut shop, a Ben Franklin store crammed with everything you might need for wilderness hiking,canoeing or camping.   It's right there on the lake, the greatest lake, where there are sailboats and hydroplanes and people walking their dogs.

Scout made some new friends, and I mean that sincerely.  I think she believes that letting people pet her is one of her jobs.  (although every once in awhile, she will become inexplicably shy.)  She let lots of people pet her, particularly children.  She got to go into a variety/antique/etc store, although most of the time she stands outside with one of us while the other one of us visits the store.  She gets some of her best compliments (and pets) when she waits vigilantly outside a store waiting for one or the other of us to come out.
One of the reasons we drove up to Grand Marais was to eat at one of our favorite restaurants, the Angry Trout.  We love the local, organic, healthy food, and the fact that Scout is welcome at the outdoor tables.  Today I had the most wonderful salad with a little bit of trout; my husband had trout chowder and a burger.

Scout sniffed over to the table behind us where an older woman was eating alone.  I apologized, but she said she was a great admirer of dogs, and we proceeded to have an extended conversation.  She was a retired English teacher.  I confessed that I was an English major, but had become a pastor.  She said that ministry was her second love; she had just finished writing a Bible study on 1st and 2nd Samuel. 

Scout brought us together.

She also introduced us to a young couple with a little girl, who all came up to us at the Angry Trout and asked permission to pet her.  She happily obliged; the little girl even put her arms around her. 

Scout also got introduced to a woman who said she practiced "healing touch" for dogs.  The woman placed her hands right about Scout's head and made some movements until:  what do you know?  Scout laid right down.

So, all in all, it was a good day.  We had to leave Grand Marais, which always made me sad.  But we are still here, on the North Shore, for a little while, anyway.

The dog is lying on the floor.  We are reading, and I am knitting a little.  The lake is just outside, reminding me that there are so many things larger, and deeper and more wonderful than I am. 

Only one of the reasons that I go on vacation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lectio Divina

Thursday morning, I drove over to a neighboring parish to participate in Lectio Divina for the first time. 

I don't know why I haven't done it before.  In the  back of my mind, I knew that the pastor hosted a Lectio group for a few years.  And for at least a few years, I've wanted to learn more about divine reading.

I've collected information.  I've ordered books.  I've talked to people about it.  I've imagined it.  I had a teacher from the Benedictine Center in St. Paul come to do adult forums twice at my church.  But I was never able to attend them, because we have a worship service at the same time.  I also get all of the update from St. Paul's Monastery and dream about doing a retreat or a class.

But until Thursday, I've never participated in Lectio Divina.

There were just six of us, sitting in a circle, with a lit candle, the gospel of Matthew, and a set of chimes.  We prayed.  We read and listened for what emerged for each of us, each saying a few words.  We read again and listened with imagination.  We read a third time for prayer.  There wa also twenty minute of Centering Prayer, another thing I have never participated in before.

I won't say that the silence was always easy, or that I never felt my mind wander.  I became acutely aware, in the silence, of how I am always racing ahead, always making lists in my mind, always thinking about what I should do next, who I should call next, trying to solve problems in my mind. 

We read Matthew 16, Peter's confession, and I heard the phrase "book-learning" and the words "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you."  I imagined the dusty road where Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, "But who do you say that I am?" and thought I heard in his voice the vulnerability of someone who was not sure what the answer would be.  I felt the hardness of Rock, and the keys of the kingdom, the keys that open the door to wide mercy and love and grace.  I heard other prayers and other insights in small phrases that washed over me.

For a moment, I thought I ought to preach on the gospel instead of Romans 12 (my plan), and then I thought again.

Every time I read scripture, it does not need to be in preparation for a sermon.

It's good to carve out a space to hear God, to listen for God's voice, without so many pre-conceived ideas about what God will say.  It's good to remember that my life is not just about the lists I make, the things I do, or try to do, the problems I solve, or try to solve, or fail to solve.

On Thursday, I felt the keys to the kingdom when I entered the circle and and just listened and heard a story from Matthew's gospel.

I'll go again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reading the Bible in 90 Days, Day 76: John 6 through 15

Yes, I've been in the New Testament for about a week now.  It's been a whirlwind tour of the gospels, and today is no exception.

This is familiar territory for many of us, and these chapters contain many stories and famous sayings.  There are the mountaintop stories:  the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, the healing in the man born blind in John 9, the raising of Lazarus in John 11, the footwashing and new commandment in John 13.  There are also so many images -- Jesus as the Bread of Life, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Jesus as the Vine, Jesus as the Light of the World. 

It occurs to me that 90% of my funeral sermon material comes from John.  This can't be an accident. 

In the other gospels, Jesus is a healer who teaches.  In John, Jesus is a teacher who sometimes heals.  It feels like every healing in John has a Point, is a sort of Object Lesson, not simply to relieve suffering, but to illustrate a great truth.   And every healing in John is also like a huge spot light, or a strobe light.

One verse stuck out for me in "the Message"; among all the "familiar quotations" in John, I heard it a little differently this time:

Judas (not Iscariot) said, "Master, why is it that you are about to make yourself plain to us but not the world?" 
"Because a loveless world," said Jesus, "is a sightless world.  If anyone loves me he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him -- we'll move right into the neighborhood."  (John 14:22-23.)

A loveless world is a sightless world.

Still true today.  To see Jesus is to learn to love the world that he loves, in all its pain and waywardness.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sunday Sermon: X-Treme Discipleship

Matthew 14:22-33

Recently my family got together for dinner.
That evening my brother told us of a plan of his. He’s going to take some time off, a little vacation time, and see some places he’s never seen before.
And while he’s at it, he’s going to do something he’s never done before as well: he’s going to go sky-diving.
Yes, he’s going to jump out of a plane into thin air with a parachute on, pull the cord, and float to the ground. We asked him “why?”
Turns out we never knew this – but it’s something my brother has always been kind of interested in. Who knew?
My brother, the one who won’t go up in roller-coasters at the amusement park – wants to jump out of an airplane.

I have to say that in my life, I have not considered myself to be a big risk-taker –
the exception being the time I packed up many of my belongings and flew to Japan to spend three years or so –
something NO One in my family could understand – any more than they can figure out why my brother wants to sky dive.
I don’t hang-glide either, or skate board.
So my husband and I told him to tell us when he was jumping so that we could pray for him.
My mother, on the other hand, had a totally different reaction.
She said, “Don’t tell me when you are jumping. Tell me when you’re done.”

I can’t help comparing in my imagination the thought of my brother, stepping out of a plane into thin air, and Peter, stepping out of a boat into stormy water – well, any kind of water, actually.
They are both “dare-devil” kinds of actions – both defying the laws of nature – although at least my brother will have a parachute.
If you think about it, what Peter did could be called a kind of “X-treme” sport.
At least, it is “X-treme Discipleship”, don’t you think? Sky-diving. Hang-gliding.
Walking on water. The stakes are high.

The stakes are high.
I really want to emphasize this. This is very scary.
And the mood is set right away in the beginning of the story.
The disciples are out in their boat in the middle of the night, when the wind and the waves come up.
It’s a spooky time of night, the dark dark time just very dawn, and their boat is being battered by the waves.
Then this spooky figure comes along, walking on the water, which doesn’t calm them down – just makes them more anxious.
This is the scene into which we get Peter, calling out to Jesus, “Lord, if it’s you, call me to come to you!” Get that?
Lord, if it’s you... it’s dark, they can hardly see, it’s stormy.... how does he even know it’s Jesus? Except who else would it be???

“X-treme Discipleship” – Peter, without doing any special training, jumps out of the boat and starts walking on water – for a little while anyway.
It’s hard to tell how long he was afloat – a few seconds, a minute, two minutes tops, but it’s pretty clear that his experiment did not last long.
Two minutes of success – then utter, abject failure.
Two minutes of success, and then he’s flailing around, in over his head, going down for the third time. Two minutes of success, and then it’s “Lord, save me!”

Have you ever felt like that? In over your head? How did I get into this mess?
What am I doing here? What was my big mistake? Have you ever felt like that in your life? X-treme discipleship
 it’s sort of like watching the Olympic skaters or gymnasts, and the young woman is going for a most difficult jump – and right in front of the judges and everything – she falls, and not very gracefully.
It’s the first big mistake you make in your new job, it’s becoming a parents and thinking – do I really know what to do next?
I’m in over my head.
Or it’s when a church begins a new project or program, outreach into our community, and suddenly we think, we’re in over our head. There are waves out there! There are storms out there.This is harder than we thought.

If only we had kept our eyes on Jesus.
If only Peter had kept his eyes on Jesus. Right? He would be looking at Jesus and just keep walking, instead of looking at the waves and fallen.
Keeping your eyes on Jesus – that’s the key.
As one well-known author put it, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat!”
There will be always be storms in life. There will always circumstances that are unfavorable. But the idea is to step out in faith.
Jesus is calling to us to take a risk, to get out of the water, to do the things that make us afraid.

I have to say, I think I get this. I am by no means a person who is comfortable with risk or with fear.
And I do think that the church is also called to take risks as we follow Jesus.
Loving people is a big risk.
Sharing God’s love is a big risk.
Trusting God is a big risk – for us in our individual lives as Christians – and as a congregation.

However -- not everyone is agreed about what Peter's biggest failure really was.
As you suspect, there are those who consider his biggest mistake was taking his eyes off Jesus.
Peter would still be walking on water, even today, if he hadn’t looked down at those waves.
But other people notice something else about this story.
Just whose idea was it, anyway, to walk on water?
Not something that Jesus suggested to Peter – but something that Peter suggested to Jesus.
It’s as if Peter prayed, “God, I think it would be really cool to walk on water. Can I?”
And Jesus says, “Go ahead, be my guest.” But actually, Peter should have stayed in the boat and left the “walking on water” to Jesus.
Peter should have stayed in the boat, which was headed over to the other side of the lake, to minister to people, to share God’s love, to heal people, to feed people.
Rather than engaging in some sort of death-defying feats, rather than engaging in X-Treme discipleship, Peter should have concentrated on the nitty-gritty of being God’s person in the world, doing the the important things that never get in the newspaper.

What do you think?
What was Peter’s big mistake?
Where we come down might say more about us, than it does about God.

Because, in the end, this story is not so much about Peter’s failure – whatever it might be – as it is about God’s faithfulness.
Whether we fail to keep our eyes on Jesus, whether we fail to take a risk, whether we make a mistake and take the wrong risk, failure is the human condition.
Sometimes we fail to get out of the boat. Sometimes we hear God wrong and end up praying, “Lord save me!” because we have gotten in over our heads, made the wrong decision.

When we follow God, even when we are on the right track, even when jumping out of the plane is the exactly right thing to do
– even then –
we don’t do everything perfectly and we need to be picked up, set right, again and again.

What is constant in this story is the promise the runs through all of Matthew’s gospel
– the promise that “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
What is constant is the hand of Jesus, reaching down to Peter.
What is constant is the voice of Jesus, calling to us, “Fear not, it is I!”
What is constant is the presence of Jesus – in our successes, and in our failures, when we walk on water, when we fall.
What is constant is the body of Jesus, given for you.

We will never hear him perfectly, in this time in our congregation that we are discerning God’s mission for our future.
We will never hear him perfectly, and we will never follow him perfectly – but our failures are not the last word.
Our failures are not the last word. The last word – is the touch of his strong hand.
The last word is the sound of his voice on the waves "It is I."
The last word is his eternal love.

Go ahead, jump.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes

So, I've been helping out with Vacation Bible School (Pre-school edition) this week.  I have peeked in on the song time, but mostly, I tell the story every day.

First, let me say that I am happy that I am not the leader of the Pre-school Vacation Bible School.  I admire our Children's Ministry Coordinator, who is so flexible and patient and yet firm with children, some of whom have not had much experience with any kind of school environment yet. 

It's sort of organized chaos. 

But it's great!  and it's fun to watch them learn the songs, and the stories and warm up to each other, too.  Wednesday, they learned the story of Jonah and Thursday we learned a story about Jesus.  Jonah and Jesus both start with the letter, "J", you know.

When I mentioned Jesus, they told me that they liked Jesus.

Today, on the last day, a grandma who has been helping with the program whispered in my ear. 

She brings her granddaughters to Vacation Bible School.  She's been bringing them for a few years now.  The oldest one is not a pre-schooler any more.  The two younger girls were in the class though.  They don't go to our church, but they're active participants in a Catholic Parish. 

So, she told me that her oldest grand-daughter informed her recently that she wants to be a priest when she grows up.  I said, "hmmm."

Sometime during the week, she let her grand-daughters know that I was their minister.

One of them replied, "When I grow up, I want to be a Lutheran."

Who knows?  Maybe she will be a Lutheran.  Or maybe she'll be one of the leaders who will change her own church.

You never know what will come out of Pre-School Vacation Bible School.