Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation Sunday: Be Still and Shine

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

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

"Are you still Lutheran?"

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

"Are you still Lutheran?"

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

"Cease Striving and Know I Am God."

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

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

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

Are you still Lutheran?  Yes, indeed.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Lifts You?

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

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

What lifts me? 

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

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

So, what lifts me?

Here's a list:

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

What lifts you?

What lifts you?

Monday, October 24, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Short and Long Pastorates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Hope and Change"

"What do you hope for?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do you hope for?  really

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

So, what do you hope for, really?

That's the first question.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Five: The Things We Do For Love

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

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

She does these things for love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What I Thought I Was Getting Into

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, that's what I thought then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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