Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The 99%, Singing

It wasn't long ago that my husband and I were watching (again) the quirky little picture, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."  I'm not going to say that this is one of my favorite films or anything, but it was on, and I do kind of like the whole idea of the action and plot revolving around these rituals.  Near the beginning, during the first wedding, actually, there's a great scene of the congregation SINGING.  And some of them, when they zoom in, are singing quite badly, which, I suppose, is meant to be funny, but I found it to be charming.  I noticed this little moment more than usual, because it is really quite unusual for people to be singing at a wedding anymore.  There have been lovely exceptions, in my experience as a pastor, but those singing weddings have been the exception, and not the rule.

It's not just at weddings that people don't sing.  People just don't sing together like they used to. (Do they?)   We had a piano in my home growing up, and my mom and dad used to sing while my mom played standards from their era.  We used to sing songs while we were traveling in the car together -- you know, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Are You Sleeping?, Down By the Old Mill Stream.  And at the church we visited last weekend, a lovely church by many accounts, mostly the people stood and remained silent during the hymns (some of which I didn't know, either), except for "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." 

Church used to be the last refuge of group singing, except that people don't even sing in church the way they used to.  Maybe it's the numbers of people getting smaller, or maybe it's the songs getting newer, or maybe it's the loud bands, or maybe it's just that people think that, except "Happy Birthday" and "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", singing is for professionals, not for them. 

You know, the 1%.  The wealth of singing is being re-distributed upwards.  And that's as much a shame as our other forms of wealth being re-distributed upwards.  Because there's a poverty in losing our singing voices and our songs, and there's a power in singing.

I was so excited this year that one of the new features at the Minnesota State Fair was the "Great Minnesota sing-along."  The idea was there was this list of 100 favorite songs and a specially designated area for people to stand and sing along while the words were posted for all to see.  But the song that played while we visited?  "Benny and the Jets."  Now, I have nothing against this song as a SONG, but it really isn't a sing-along type of song.  It's a song for soloists to shine while people maybe join in on that fun little phrase, "B-B-
B-Benny and the Jets."  And Elton John, the star, plays that mean piano.

Like I said, the 1%.

When I was in high school, I sang in the choir.  I never got into the choir in college, but I enjoyed singing in choir in high school, and in church, and on other occasions.  And of course we weren't the 99% but we were more the 1%, those of us who took the course and learned to read music and sing in harmony.  We were a choir, but still a bunch of amateurs who did the best we could.  Even though there were mistakes when we got to the concert, I experienced this great power in singing together, in breathing in and out and hearing the sound come out of all of us.  Afterwards, I would go home so high on singing that I would go downstairs and play the piano and sing for another hour or so, until I was hoarse. 

There's a power in singing.  I can't grasp it with my hands, or explain it entirely.  Singing makes you feel like you can do things that are impossible.  Singing unites people, while respecting their individuality.  Each voice particular, but singing songs about Jesus, about love, about justice -- together.  Singing expands you.  The things you sing get way down into you.  Sometimes it's the blues.  Sometimes it's a song of thanksgiving.  Sometimes it's a vision of a better world.    But the wealth of singing is being re-distributed upward, and there's more than one kind of poverty among us. 

There's a place for soloists, and a place for good singers, too.  I'm no singing socialist.  But there also needs to be a place for everybody to sing, and to know the power in singing, even badly.   It's not all about the perfect soloist and the band that never makes mistakes.  It's about us, in our imperfect lives and voices, reflecting God.   The church could lead the way, help people to open their mouths, expand their lives and find out how powerful they are. 

Since it's Advent, maybe we can start with "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."    What do you say?

Saturday, November 26, 2011


On Thursday morning at 10:00 I was standing in front of a congregation in my church for Thanksgiving Day worship.  It was a small but active group (many good singers among them); we also are a part of an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service where our choir joins with three other churches.  I preached on both occasions so the sermon was the same, but we did a lot of singing on Thursday morning, including "Sing to the Lord of Harvest."  It just isn't Thanksgiving if you don't sing this particular tune.

A couple of hours later, we were on a plane and landing in a Nearby Large City where my husband's sister and extended family were hosting Thanksgiving Dinner. 

It was a large, happy, noisy crowd.  There was lots of laughing, there were lots of children (eight and under), lots of food, including the famous White Jello, which I have made on occasion, with some success (some of the time.)  At one point I went upstairs and crashed, missing the pie.  They did leave some for me.

It's good to get away.  It's good to give thanks. 

It's been noisy and it's been quiet this Thanksgiving.  I miss the smaller celebrations with my family, but I do enjoy being a part of the bustle and hustle, and I love all the children. 

This morning it's quiet again, but last night the family came over again, and we had a noisy delicious dinner of spaghetti casserole.  My husband's sister is a good cook, one of her many gifts.  She also has the gift of making people feel welcome, and of not making a big deal about mishaps.  She rolls with the punches.  They were the first place we took our dog when she was a puppy, and it turned out to be the best idea.

So at the large Thanksgiving Dinner, I talked to a couple of people from the family I knew well, and met a new member of the family.  Among other things, she recommended a book to me:  "The Warmth of Other Suns."  (I will read this.) 

The next day we did a little shopping (though not at a large mall), and I found this wonderful picture book, "Balloons Over Broadway:  the True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade".  (links later, I hope).  I am still working on the shawl with bobbles. 

And I'm reading, at odd, quiet moments, Father Greg Boyle's book, "Tattoos on the Heart."  Makes me cry.  And it makes me realize how many of us, and how much of the time, we really really don't believe in the power of grace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bringing in the Harvest

(this is the beginning of my Thanksgiving Eve sermon)

I remember sitting at the kitchen table one day when I was small, talking to my mother.  I had just gotten home from a  trip out to my grandparents'farm in southwestern Minnesota.  As we talked and conversed about the days, what was good and what we wished was different, I suddenly blurted out, "Oh, I wish we could go and live on the farm!"  My mother looked at me, smiled, and said, "you have no idea what you are wishing for."  Her response deflated me, a little.  I didn't know what she was talkinga bout.  I thought i had a good idea!  And it's also true, as well, I didn't know what I was wishing for.  I didn't know then, andp robably still don't, all of what would be involved to "go and live on the farm."  I didn't know, esepcially as a young child, that the life I experienced as so gracious, so abundant, so full of adventure, to her was a life of hard work, long days, and sometimes even isolation.

ONce, a long time later, I asked her more about what it was like to grow up on a farm.  She told me a little about the different chores she had, some things she had to do, and she said that she really didn't miss the farm that much.  She liked living in the city, liked the opportunities, liked the community, liked the kind of work she did.  She didn't really miss the farm -- except at harvest time, she said.  She missed the farm at harvest time.

I wondered what it was about the harvest, about that time of year, about this time of year, that made the hard work and long days of farm life worth it.  I wondered what it was that made harvest different than every other time of the year.  I wondered, but I didn't ask her.  It is the nature of children to be no quite curious enough about their parents.  Still, her statement haunted me, "I really don't miss the farm.... except at the harvest."  What was it about the time of harvest that made it different, that made it special, especially on the farm?  What is it about the harvest -- this time of year when we celebrate Thanksgiving?  It's not an accident that Thanksgiving is at the time of year when some of us are also bringing in the harvest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Not Giving Up

In the scheme of things, I suppose it's a small thing, but knitting has taught me something about not giving up.

I've known the basics of knitting since about the 7th grade, when a kind Home Economics teacher taught me the basics.  But until the last couple of years or so, I've never made much progress.

About the time our congregation started a prayer shawl ministry, that began to change, slowly.  I decided to get back into knitting.  And I stopped into a few yarn stores, asking whether they had classes.  Yes, I was going to make prayer shawls, but I thought I'd also renew my irrational quest to learn how to make socks. 

Though I haven't gone from novice to expert knitter these past two years, I have learned how to make basic mittens, basic socks, and have also knitted a couple of simple lace pattern scarves.  I started a sweater about a year ago (don't ask me why).  Trying to knit a sweater has taught me how much I still don't know about knitting.

For example, "short rows."  I discovered that I did not know how to knnit short rows when I attempted to bind off the shoulder seams.  I had to take the sweater into the yarn store, where the store owner patiently tried to show me what to do.  We also tried to figure out how to do it backwards (I'm left-handed, which complicates everything.) 

After not learning how to do short-rows, I decided I needed a pattern which would force me to learn it.  (This would mean another break from the sweater; oh well.)  I got a ruffled scarf pattern and began.

After a few rows it was obvious to me and everyone else that I really didn't know how to do short rows yet.  I ripped out my stitches.  And started over.  Again.  And Again.  And Again. 

I watched right-handed people do short-rows on you tube.  I downloaded explanations.  I made swatches.  And I also, many times, said, "This is it!  I give up!  I am not going to ever figure out how to do this!"

Then I would look at the four balls of yarn, beautiful yarn, sitting there on the sofa, and I would begin again.

It's a mystery to me sometimes that I am actually doing this, and not giving up.  I still look at the really complicated patterns and I will say that I can't imagine that I will ever be able to do them.  But I look at the next project, one step up, and think:  maybe, just maybe, I can imagine doing that one.

In the scheme of things, I suppose it's a small thing not to give up on:  but it's practice for the big things in life, like relationships and ministry and myself.  It's a reminder that I don't have to imagine myself doing the really hard things 8 steps down the line, I just need to imagine myself doing the next project, one step farther.  It's a reminder that when I'm tempted to give up on something that really matters, it's good to think about what is good and beautiful and true.  

And then remember, of course, that even when I do give up, that God doesn't.  Ever. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Old Neighborhood

Earlier this week, as I was visiting shut-ins those in the hospital, I ended up in the Old Neighborhood.

Not my Old Neighbor, at least not exactly, but my dad's old neighborhood, where he grew up, and the community that formed him, or at least, his faith.

I was at the nursing home across the street from the church where he was baptized and confirmed, Augustana Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.  It is now situated across the street from the Metrodome Stadium.  The nursing home where I visited was begun by the church many years ago.  It's a large complex, with different kinds of nursing facilities, assisted living, and apartments. 

But the church itself is very small, or, at least it is now.  In fact, I heard recently that the church building is up for sale, and that the tiny congregation is looking to move to another location not so far away. 

Like I said, it's not my Old Neighbhood exactly; it's my dad's old neighborhood.  He grew up at this church.  In fact, when my parents were first married they belonged there.  I was baptized at Augustana Lutheran Church, and started Sunday School there.  I remember climbing up the many steps to the sanctuary, and having one of the ushers hand me a bulletin.  That old entry with many steps was closed up many years ago; too hard for the elderly members to navigate. 

I remember the large sanctuary and the tall ceiling, and the man who spoke from the pulpit (but I couldn't see him).  I remember getting picked up for Vacation Bible School by the associate pastor and his family.  They had a station wagon.

When I was in first grade, we moved to a church in our neighborhood, away from the city, into the suburbs.  It was the first great migration, and many of the families that belonged to Augustana moved as well.  They enlivened the churches in those first ring suburbs, the churches that are now experiencing decline, and wondering what their mission is.

Augustana became a small congregation, but it did not have a small vision.  As I went in the door to the Augustana Home last Wednesday, I considered the ongoing legacy of care.  The church may be tiny, and the church may even die, but Augustana gave itself away for the sake of the gospel.  They gave themselves away starting mission congregations, too, some still going strong out in the suburbs.  But at they gave themselves away most of all for the sake of the mission of caring for the elderly, for the vulnerable, for those who could no longer care for themselves. 

It seems to me that there are worse things that could happen to a church.  A church could disappear without ever giving itself away, preserving itself until everyone is gone and the doors are locked.  The only legacy would be the building standing unused. 

Of course I wish that Augustana Lutheran church, and those hardy Swedish immigrant like my grandparents could have found a way to reach out and  be a vital worshipping community to the people who live there now.  There is another church, I hear, who wants to buy their building perhaps.  I wish that of all of our churches, in fact -- that we could learn a way to welcome one another, worship together, offering the bread of life to people who are our neighbors, even if they aren't Swedes or Germans or Irish anymore. 

But it seems to me that there are worse things that can happen to a church than what is happening to Augustana.  The faith of the our ancestors continues to bear fruit there, in the Nursing Home, in the Assisted Living Center, in the chapel where people gather.

I hope we can say the same when we are done.  I hope they will say of us that we had dreams worthy of the mission of God, that we gave ourselves away for the least and the lost.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Got Talent?

Here's a confession that may tell you more about me than you want to know:

As an adolescent, I was haunted by the this Parable, "The Parable of the Talents." 

Perhaps you think it odd.  I know I do, if I really consider it much.  What was I doing, anyway, thinking about this parable?  It's really not all that well-known, and it's not the most-discussed parable in youth groups, either.  (I would give that honor to either the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:  lots of good skits on those two.)  Nevertheless, it is a lesson for preachers:  you never know who is listening out there, and what they are hearing, when you get up and simply read the Gospel.

As for me, the hook all had to do with that word "Talent."  The Parable of the Talents.  It never occurred to me that a "Talent" was actually a real unit of money, like a denarius.  I went directly to the word "talent", perhaps because I longed to be talented at something:  singing, dancing, painting, embroidery.  I wondered what it would be like to be good a shooting baskets, or hitting home runs, or running fast.  (I was and still am not gifted athletically.)  I was shy, but secretly wondered what it would be like to be a star in some way or another, to get up in front of people and shine. 

To make matters worse, I identified with that third servant, the one who had only one measly talent and buried it in the ground instead of using it.  I was pretty sure that if I had a talent, I only had one, and if I did, it was writing.  But, how to use it?  I obsessed about that as only an adolescent can.   (sorry about that, all you well-adjusted adolescents who do not obsess.  That's what I did.)  I wanted to "be a writer", but I had no idea how to go about it, and I wondered if I was not burying my one measly talent in the ground because I wasn't using it the way God wanted me to.    And I was 17.

Now that I am older if not wiser, with some Biblical exegesis under my belt, I notice a few things that I never saw before:

1.  Since a talent IS actual money, the literal value of a "talent" matters. Even one talent is NOT measly.  A talent is 6,000 denarii, about 20 years wages.  It is a huge amount of money.  It is not measly.  What you have to offer is not measly.   And don't forget that God first gave it to you.

2.  The third servant buried the "talent", or "money," because he was afraid he would lose it somehow.  He was afraid of God's judgment about that.  His picture of God was harsh and unforgiving.  Coincidentally, that's just the way God behaved toward him. 

3.  Now, looking back, this parable seems to me less about singing or writing or baton-twirling, but about taking a risk, and specifically taking a risk for the sake of God's kingdom.  As it turns out, I'm not so great at that either.  Perhaps it would help to consider God more as the one who is willing to take the risk of giving me this ridiculously valuable talent, than as the one who is willing to cast me into the outer darkness.

4.  From the standpoint of being a missionary, it occurs to me that the "talents" might be the ridiculously valuable riches of the gospel, which we can bury in order to "preserve" unchanged for future generations, or share with others, which has its risks.  Our church might grow, but it also might not look the same in the next generation as it did in the last one. 

Forgiveness, mercy, love, embodied in our hands, our hearts, our voices, our baton-twirling, solo-singing, soup-ladling lives:  ridiculously valuable.  Not because of us, of course, but because of the One who threw away his life, risked his life, invested his life -- in us.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shining in the Company of the Saints

I very rarely preach on the Book of Revelation, with its scary, strange images, its shades of "Left Behind," all the connotations of end-time persecution.  Ok, I'll be honest:  I never preach on the Book of Revelation.  Martin Luther carefully situated it at the end of the Bible, and it so rarely comes up in the lectionary, except, once in awhile, during the Easter season, and on All Saints Sunday.

All Saints Sunday. 

We move All Saints Day to the nearest Sunday, kind of like those Monday holidays, because we don't really go to church except on Sunday any more (with the one exception of Christmas Eve.)  So tomorrow we are celebrating All Saints Sunday, in the company of all the saints, the ones who show up to worship, the ones we will remember in our prayers, the ones we will not remember, but who are singing and praying at the throne of the Lamb, whether we remember them or not.

One of the readings tomorrow is from the book of Revelation, the strange book of Revelation.  Interspersed between those apocalyptic visions of war and persecution are visions of the saints, worshiping at the throne of the Lamb.  They are singing, "Blessing and glory and honor be to our Lord, and to the Lamb."  They are gathered at the river that runs through the City of God, with the leaves of the trees, which are for the healing of the nations.  The vision John imagines is a vision of the saints shining:  worshiping God with their lives.

There will be lots of candles tomorrow, more than usual at a Lutheran service, but appropriate for a service which remembers the saints shining.  It is the light of Christ which shines through our saints, the saints we remember, the saints we are.  It is the light of Christ which shines as they worship God with their lives. 

"Blessing, honor and glory be to God and the Lamb" we will sing tomorrow, with our voices.

Blessing, honor and glory be to God, we will sing the rest of the days of the week, with our lives.

Tomorrow, when we light the candles, I will remember Harold and Evelyn, baby Thor and Gladys, Richard and Gail.  I'll remember my grandma Emma, who prayed for us every day, who worried too much, and my grandma Judy, who took me to the Salvation Army meetings once, and my grandpa Lee, who had a hard time trusting God's grace, and my grandpa Folke, who didn't talk about it much.  I'll remember the people whose voices sounded like angels and those who sang out of key, the ones who worshipped in lives of service and justice, and the ones who worshipped God by acts of compassion, the the ones who worshipped God by their heart-felt prayers. 

Blessing and honor and glory be to God, to the Light which vanquishes the darkness, to the light that shines through ordinary lives, through ordinary saints.

I pray there are a lot of candles lit tomorrow.  Not so much in honor of the saints, but in honor of their God.

They are shining.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Five: Time with Friends Edition

Kathyrynzj brings us a great idea for a Friday Five today.  She asks:  What are five things you like to do with friends?  The question itself makes me realize that I don't spend enough time with my friends.  

Be that as it may, when I do get to spend time with friends, here are five ways we spend our time:

1.  Dinner and conversation.  Every once in awhile I'll cook a nice meal, but more often than not it's an evening out at a fun restaurant, like the evening my husband and I spent with blogger and friend Jan at the Dakota Restaurant when she was visiting Minneapolis.

2.  Taking a walk.  Because of where I live, often the walk will be around a lake.  But, not necessarily.  Sometimes it's just a nice walk and a talk through a shady neighborhood.

3.   Going to church.  Admittedly, this is a rare occurrence.  But, last summer, on one of my Sundays off, I had fun visiting the church of one of my friends here in Minneapolis.  I like to worship with friends, when I can.

4.  Going out for coffee.  Or chai. Or, a glass of wine.

5.  Laughing.

In the past, my list might have included:  1) going to the Festival of Animation, 2) renting a lot of movies and making popcorn, 3) trying out a new recipe, 4) writing stories and reading them to each other, 5) singing (I had a couple of friends I used to sing with).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Whether 'they' should be called "Illegal Aliens" or "Undocumented Workers"

I call them "children of God."

Because, thank God, I am not a politician.

I am a Christian.

Absolutely, we can have different opinions about immigration policy.

But let us never forget that we are talking about people, people for whom Jesus died.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween and The Church

On Sunday night, the night before Halloween, we were invited to participate in a Halloween experience different than any other we had encountered.  Younger stepson was a part of an orchestra for an event that took place the two weekends before Halloween.  We were told that this was the 18th year since its inception.  It was the Annual Halloween Extravaganza of the local  BareBones Productions.

So we set out for a park near the Mississippi River, eventually becoming one of a long line of cars on our way to this experience.  When we got there, it was dark and cold and a young woman was orienting us to the story.  It had something to do with the Book of the Dead, and death taking a holiday.  There was humor and pathos.  There was music, acrobats, puppets, people walking on stilts, choreography, lights.  There were some elaborate sets.  There most moving moment for me was when a line of people entered the outdoor stage, singing the chorus of Laurie Lewis' song, "Here Today."  "We're here today/and then we're gone/Our lives are short/Just like a song."  There was a story, but I confess that I didn't quite get it. 

As we were walking back to our car in the darkness, I couldn't help considering the implications for the church (yes, I think there are some.)

1.  We possibly put way too much emphasis on "understanding."  Don't get me wrong, I'm all about 'faith seeking understanding; I'm not giving up on knowing what and why I believe for a kind of fuzzy-mindedness.  But there's also a place for mystery, which I think we sometimes flatten out.  Whether it's our attempts to make Christianity "practical", or figure out once and for all what Jesus actually said, sometimes all  we end up doing is reinforcing the idea that God is less than the sum of our ideas.  Leave room for mystery.

2.  The theme was an adult one:    Simply, as much as I could get, it was "The meaning of life, and the reality of death."  Yet, people brought their children.  Possibly, this was because you could dress up in costumes.  I don't know.  What it means to me is that people are interested in grappling with hard, theological questions.  The church tends to hook adults through their children.  What if we hooked children through their parents?
Leave room for questions.

3.  People will invest a lot of time, energy and creativity in something they are passionate about.  There were a lot of people (many of them young people) who gave hundreds of volunteer hours to make this happen.  From Notre Dame to the St. John's Bible, from storytelling to poetry, from gregorian chant to Amazing Grace, creative endeavors are a powerful vehicle for truth.  Leave room for creativity.

4.  And don't minimize the appeal of standing outside in the dark, wearing costumes, and not knowing exactly what will happen next.  Especially wearing costumes.  There's something about wearing costumes that appeals to people.  There's something about being someone else, whether that someone else is a monster or a queen, someone beautiful or scary, Superman or a bum.  Maybe it's as simple as considering what it means to "put on Christ."  Leave room  for playing Christ.

5.  People are hungry for mystery.  They want to ask, and wrestle with the big questions.   The question is:  will we leave room?