Monday, December 31, 2012

It Was All Singing -- And Weeping

Just before Christmas, my husband and I went to a theatre production.  At least, I called it a theatre production.  I said it was a play, before we went.  Someone had told us about it, because I had preached Advent 1 and used an illustration from the 1914 Christmas Eve Truce.  She said, "You have to see this."

So two nights before Christmas Eve, we went to the final performance is "All is Calm."

Except that it wasn't a play, really.  It was all music:  all music from the war, and from Christmas, sung by nine men from a well-known local vocal ensemble.

The performance took place in an historic theatre downtown here.  We sat up in the balcony; the theatre was packed.  I wondered if there had ever been vaudeville performances in this place, long ago.  I had a little chat with the woman who sat next to me.  She was a teacher.  The lights went down.

Nine men began singing, Christmas carols at first, and then: songs from the war:  Happy songs, sad songs, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Keep the Home Fires Burning," "Pack up your Troubles."  The  songs were interspersed with readings:  Letters home from soldiers, for the most part; the names of the soldiers were read at the end of each reading.

Then the songs shifted, as Christmas neared.  The letters spoke of singing in the trenches, and how the trenches were so close that they could shout across the trenches to one another.

The British soldiers started singing a bawdy Christmas song, with a rousing chorus of "O Tidings of Comfort and Joy."

And then, the strains of "O Tannenbaum."

A french soldier spoke of coming to the front that Christmas eve, hearing the hymn with the sound of gunfire.

"Poor little God of love," he wrote, "Born on this night.  How could you ever have loved mankind?"

The German troops spoke of putting trees in their trenches; the enemy did not know what the lights were.

British soldiers recalled hearing the Germans' singing "Stille Nacht" as the greatest moment of their lives.

They sang.

They read the letters, letters that spoke of singing, and courage, and grief.

They created peace, brief as a candle, but the troops themselves created peace, from the bottom up.

And we wept.

It was holy, holy as church, brief as a candle.

They sang, "Stille Nacht," and we wept.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Christmas Presents

I ever gave (I think).

1.  The green scarf I got for my Mom at Walgreen's, because I thought it matched her coat.  I was 10 years old.  It cost $1.50
2.  The red and yellow book light I got for my stepson for Christmas before he was my stepson.  He was 10 years old at the time, and I heard later that he kept saying to his dad, "I've just got to thank her."
3.  The box of chocolates we got for our parents and put under the tree on Christmas morning, with a tag on it that said, "From Santa Claus."  The next year my parents went out and bought themselves Christmas stockings.
4.  The time I made hand-stamped Christmas cards for every family in my parish.  Luckily, I did not count the number of families before I began.
5. The guitar-shaped spatula which was a stocking stuffer for my husband, but which turned out to be fun for the whole family.
6.  The boom box we got for my in-laws one Christmas.  "Oh, it's something big!"  My mother-in-law exclaimed.  I never saw anyone so excited.
7.  hand-knitted scarves for my sister, her husband and my niece.
8.  for my brother, a polo shirt I happened to see which had a small Pokey riding a Gumby figure on it (this is a family joke, but 'Gumby' is one of my brother's nicknames).
9.  old-fashioned ribbon candy for my mom who has a sweet tooth.
10.  a particular cookbook for one of my husband's neices who likes to cook.  I marked some of my favorite recipes.

When I think about it more, sometimes I think that the best presents I ever gave were these:  listening to my dad tell stories, learning and singing a song in Swedish for my grandmother, spending time with my mom over coffee, singing and listening to my stepsons play instruments (although it's hard to say whether that was a gift given or received).

What do you think?  What are the best Christmas presents you ever gave?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


For about a year or so, I've been having problems with my voice.

Not big problems, just little problem, just enough to make me worry neutorically on occasion, as I am wont to do.

Mostly, I've had this off-and-on cough.  When I'm coughing, people will say, "you sound awful!", and think I must be really sick.  I don't have any other symptoms, though.  I just cough sometimes.   But then there are lots of times when I'm not coughing, and even when I am, I don't feel sick in any other way.

But I've noticed that there are times when I just don't have the singing-voice-power that I used to.  I went to a funeral recently, and I just felt sort of squeaky and weak on all of the hymns.  The older lady sitting in front of me said, "why didn't you sing out like you usually do?"  So, I've been wondering.

Maybe I am just getting older and my range is getting lower.  I hear that it happens.

Anyway, we have been singing Holden Evening Prayer during Advent.  I have known this service for a long time, and even taught it to my internship congregation.  I love to lead the singing.  Last week, it was my turn to chant, but I was a little nervous because of the squeak in my voice.

I practiced in the afternoon.  I drank plenty of water, and that tea that is supposed to be good for you.  And when I started singing, I felt pretty good.  But as I went on, I could tell that I was starting to get hoarse.

When I got to the litany, I just squeaked out the high note on the first petition.  I felt sort of in despair, but I kept going, and I did get a couple of the high notes, but others I just squeaked on.  At the end of the service, I left feeling a sort of lostness, wondering if I should just stop singing Holden, if those notes were just gone forever.

So here's the thing:

Some people have mentioned the squeak, and said that they could tell I was still fighting a cold last week.

But others have said that they thought my voice was exceptionally strong.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3: "What do you Really Want for Christmas?"

“What do you really want for Christmas?”

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen

            “What do you really want for Christmas?” 
Truthfully, I’ve been considering this question for the past week or so – and even more so for the past couple of days. 
“What do I really want for Christmas?”  I’ve been asking this question in part because I actually don’t make Christmas lists any more – not like I used to when I was a kid, and I paged through the JC Penney catalog and circled the things I wanted.
 I don’t make Christmas lists any more, not like I did when I was a teenager and made lists of the things I hoped would make me popular.
 I don’t make lists any more, and I would bet that’s the case for a lot of people here.

            But a couple of things have made me think about the question, “What do you really want for Christmas?” 
although, I will be really honest with you – the question sounded much different at the beginning of the week than it does today, with the events of Friday right before me. 
It’s still a good question – but it takes on a whole different meaning for me now, so – I’m still asking it. 
I asked it on Facebook the other day –and got a variety of answers – from “I want a love letter from my husband,” to “Toleration/Peace/Cooperation,” to “A sense of purpose.” 
And that was before Friday, when I heard the horrible news about the shooting at the elementary school in Sandy Hook.

            In light of all I heard, what do I really want for Christmas?  I mean really?  What about you?

I’ll tell you, when I first considered this question, I was reading the
gospel reading – Luke 3 – and not thinking so much about John the Baptist, but thinking about those crowds who came out to hear him. 

            Instead of focusing on John’s words, I was wondering about who those people were – what they were expecting – what they were wondering about – why they came. 
We don’t know much about them, actually.  We know they were “the crowds”  -- and that is in contrast to the important people. 
These were the ordinary people, and even more than ordinary, some of the low-lifes.  Tax-collectors.  Other various sinners. 
Probably some poor people.  And soldiers.
 We know soldiers were there because soldiers also came to be baptized.  And when Luke talks about soldiers he’s talking about some mercenaries, thugs, really, not like the soldiers we know today. 
That’s what we know about the crowds.

            And here’s one more thing we know about the crowds:  they were listening to John’s words with expectation, with hope. 
Even though he was calling them a brood of vipers and filling their ears with words of judgment. 
In fact, when I read this portion of the gospel, I can almost imagine them leaning forward, saying to one another, “what do you think?  Can he be the one we have been waiting for?” 

            What do they really want?  What are they waiting for?  What are they expecting?

            You know – the crowds who gathered – they were living in an occupied country. 
They were living under Roman rule.  They lived with the threat of violence all of the time. 
They were poor and taken advantage of.  They were at odds with one another.  They were hungry. 
They couldn’t get out from under their debts.  That’s the way it was. 
They came out to hear John, full of expectation, knowing that something needed to change, even though they might not have been sure what it was. 
They just knew that something was wrong, that something needed to change, and John told the truth about that. 

            We know that too, don’t we?  Something needs to change. 
All is not well, even just a little more than a week before Christmas. 
We want to hear the joyful songs of “peace on earth, good will to all, but we know that it’s not just "all joy, all the time” out there. 
And we don’t know what to do about it.  It seems too big, too overwhelming.

            So what John has to say has two parts. 
To the people who come to him, questioning, “what then should we do?”  He tells them. 
He tells them that there is something they can do. 
Maybe they can’t save the world, but they can do something, they can practice kindness and justice, and their actions can make a difference.  In a world where evil seems overwhelming, what you do still means something. 
I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s true.  You can share your coat.
 You can give to someone who is hungry.  You can sing a song, sit with someone who is lonely. 
You can shield a child.

            And here’s the other thing John does:  he paints a picture of the one who is coming after him, the one who can do what we cannot:  change us from the inside out. 
Because that’s the hardest thing to believe, isn’t it?  That anyone, and anything can change.  Even us. 
Because when we look into our own hearts, truth be told, sometimes it’s pretty dark in there.
 We know that it’s not just about the darkness in the world, although that is pretty hard to take especially today. 
It’s also about the darkness in us.

            So we are feeling many things to day – I know I am – I’m feeling deep sadness and anger and lamenting. 
But one of the things that is most painful to me is that whenever something like this happens, we can’t seem to get past pointing fingers at each other  -- and we can’t actually talk about how to make it better, how to make it safer for children. 
That’s the darkness in all of us – each of us – not having enough courage to figure it out.

And yet -- Jesus Christ is still the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.  
Jesus Christ is still the light of the world, and the darkness did not overcome him.
In a little while -- at 10:00, actually -- the children will preach
better than I have
they will share the light
and they will be the light
as they remind of of the baby, the God who came into our dark world

            Good people – what do you want for Christmas this year?  Really? 

I think I know what I want – I want a world where our children can have a future with hope, a world where there is a safe place for them to learn, to speak, to play – and where they can preach the gospel of Jesus’ love, and we can truly listen, and believe.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Children Preach

I am preaching this weekend, but only at the small chapel service tonight, and the early traditional service in the morning.  The 10:00 service (the largest of the three) will be almost entirely taken up with our annual Children's Christmas Program.  They are having their dress rehearsal this afternoon.  All the pastors have to do is welcome people, pray and read a short lesson (I chose Philippians earlier in the week).  All the adults have to do is sing.  And listen.

After hearing the news yesterday, about the murders at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I found myself wishing that the children were preaching at all of the services.  There are a lot of reasons it's going to be difficult to preach this weekend.  Our congregation is far away from Newtown, Connecticut, but I think that the horror of it can't be ignored.  I wrestle with my own despair and my hope in God.  I know that we can't prevent every tragedy in this broken world, but I can't help thinking we can do better.  We are given the responsibility to protect the children, and we fail them again and again.

But the biggest reason I wish the children were preaching:  I really do think the adult world has lost its moral authority to proclaim hope, to tell good news.  We need to hear it from the children, their unadulterated joy even in the midst of horror.  In our church, maybe some of them will not even have heard the news.  So they will tell us about God's coming into the world in the manger, and tell us to take joy, when we cannot.  And we will look at them and realize what a gift they are, in so many ways:   how they show us the world again, for the first time, when we see it through their eyes; how they are honest in their faith, and in their doubt, and in their questions, when we have learned to hide all three; how they still sing, even when our voices are silenced.

And yet, I know that it is we who are adults who have the responsibility in this world.  We have the responsibility to teach the children about the kind of God we have, about grace and love and the value of all living things.  We have the responsibility to tell them that there is still hope, that God is coming, and God is among us, even when our hearts are breaking, even when their hearts are breaking.  We hare the responsibility to tell them that God is love, and that this love means something both for heavens' sake, but even more, for life right now.

For tomorrow, what I most want to say is this:  "Listen to the children." And then ask yourselves, "What then shall we do?"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent Anecdote

So, the other day I was getting ready for my noon Bible study, which entails going over to the local grocery store and buying lunch (usually soup and an orange).  I got to the check-out counter, where they know me almost too-well, and the older gentleman who was bagging my lunch remembered to put it in a small bag, instead of a grocery-shopping sized one.

"Well," I said, making small talk, "I considered buying a few more things besides lunch, but I changed my mind."

"You can change your mind," he said.  "It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind."

"It's anyone's prerogative," I replied.  "You can change you mind, too, is you want to."

He smiled.  "Yes I could...... but it would be painful."

Then I drove back to the church to consider John the Baptist, and Advent.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Advent Bookends

We spend a fair amount of time with John the Baptist during Advent.  Two Sundays are devoted to his teaching, and I am heading, with John, into the third Sunday of Advent.  In liturgical circles, this is called "Gaudete" Sunday, devoted to Joy rather than repentance.  The first reading, from Zephaniah, begins "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion!"  and we hear, briefly from the apostle Paul, "Rejoice in the Lord, always."  John the Baptist, however, appears not to have received the memo.  Luke 3, verse 7 begins on this cheery note:  "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

All righty then.

This reading reminds me of the story I heard a long time ago, about a woman who got up to read the lessons at her church.  A good reader, apparently, she hadn't checked the pericopes ahead of time, and was startled to read, from Ephesians 5, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord."  She closed by looking up from the page and saying, "This is the word of the Lord?"

Don't get me wrong.  John the Baptist is a necessary corrective to the often advent-less Christmas celebration in our culture, the sentimental good news that is shallow often because it doesn't admit that there is any bad news out there.  What difference does it make that the light is coming into the world if it's pretty light out already?

Still, we have a hard time, sometimes, hearing John the Baptist, and I, for one, wince at being called a "brood of vipers."  Sometimes I think we would fare better in Advent by paying some attention to two elderly forebears:  Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Luke himself prepares us for the birth of Jesus by telling their story.   Their faith, their hope, their doubts, their failings, and especially their expectant waiting:  all of these preface the story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Luke 2.  Not only that, Elizabeth and Zechariah's story is a sort of a womb that carries within it the story of the Angel's announcement to Mary and her song.

Maybe it is because I serve a congregation with more than its fair share of elderly people, maybe it's because I understand just a little of what it means to be barren, maybe it's because I can feel the interplay of patient hoping and waiting with painful stabs of doubt:  but I think that the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah has much to say to the church and the world today, at least as much as John's warning.

Zechariah has prayed for a child, and for a Messiah, for many years.  His prayers have seemed to go unheard, and at least, unanswered.  And then, after all seemed lost, he receives the too-good-to-be true message from the Angel that his wife is going to have a baby.  And it's hard to blame him for asking, "How will I know?", even though this question is considered by many to be a lack of faith.  He is unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth's pregnancy.  But when his son is born, he writes down, "His name is John," and then becomes able to speak, and even to prophecy about the new thing that God is doing.

I can relate to this elderly, barren couple, hanging on to faith, but harboring doubts.  They want God to do a new thing in their lives, and in their community, but they are past expecting, past hoping.  They don't want to say it, probably, but they have given up.  And after they are past hoping, past expecting, then God tells them they will be parents.  Probably they are wondering if they have the energy for this, at the same time that they are rejoicing.

If we can't take John's judgment, at least, during Advent, we can take Elizabeth and Zechariah's barrenness, and understand the complicated and wonderful promise that God is giving to them, and to us.  Into a world where we have given up, God comes and plants new life.  Into a world barren of hope, God sends the gift of expectancy.  It is enough, for right now, anyway.

Now that I think of it, that's as common thread in John the Baptist's message as well.  Read between his harsh lines of judgment, and you can almost see the people leaning forward, "Is this the one?  I mean, even tax collectors are coming to be baptized!  It could be...."

Advent bookends:  from being barren to expecting.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bold Speech

So, yesterday I was invited to lead the December Bible study at one of the Women's Circles.

They've been inviting me every December for many years, but I always feel honored.  It's their annual pot luck, so I get to share lunch with them as well as lead the Bible study.  They all make salads and Christmas goodies.  They always begin by standing in a circles and holding hands, singing "Be Present at Our Table, Lord."

This year, at lunch, someone passed around old pictures they had found from almost 20 years ago.  The Circle was much bigger then.  Some of the women have died, and others have moved; a couple of them simply don't come any more.  I remembered how there used to be two tables set for lunch, back when I started coming to their December meeting.  So we spent some of our time during lunch remembering some of the people we missed, and sharing stories.

When it came time for the Bible study, the few of us moved to a sofa and chairs.  Two of the women in our group have macular degeneration now, and can't share in the reading of the scripture.  They listen, and participate in other ways.

Our Bible study yesterday was from Acts 4, the end of the story about Peter and John healing a man and then brought before the authorities, who demand that they stop talking about Jesus.  In the very end of the story, the disciples all get together and they pray:  and they ask God for boldness so that they can continue to tell the good news they know.  At the end of the prayer, there's an odd detail:  the apostles actually can feel the earth shaking beneath them.

For what it's worth, I don't think of the word "Bold" when I consider this group of elderly women, some of them frail.  They are quiet Lutherans, and they don't seem the type to make waves.  I was wondering just how this Bible study, with several questions about "Bold Speech", was going to go.

At one point, though, I asked them to tell me what was something really important about their faith, about God, about Jesus.  They all said, mostly in their quiet way, about how their faith keeps them going, about how they couldn't get through the days without it.  One woman ( the youngest in the group) got a little more specific by saying it was the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that was most important to her.

I thought:  this may not seem like a big deal, but it is.  If you aren't old yet, you may not realize that growing old is not for sissies.  When people say that the unconditional love and forgiveness of God for them gets them through each day, they are actually saying a lot.  Older people are dealing with a lot of things:  they are grieving the deaths of family and friends, they are going blind, they are dealing with pain.  And it is the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that keeps them going.

That's what they said.

I said, you know, that might just be the most important thing to be bold about.  Because in this world, love and unconditional forgiveness, unfortunately, are not the first words most people think of when they think of Christians.

Growing old is not for sissies, that's the truth, and I could see it in the lives of the women gathered in that circle.  I suspect that every age has its pains, though.  Life is not for sissies.  The truth worth sharing is this:  we need all of the unconditional love and forgiveness we can get.

It's worth being bold about, at any age.  It might even be earth-shaking.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Luke in "the meantime"

When you are reading Luke 21, and especially when you are reading it with a small Bible study group over lunch, it's hard to avoid the subject of the "second coming."  And it's even harder to avoid the question, "Is this it?  Is this the time?"  There are people (again) who are noticing the weather calamities, the political turmoils, all the signs that make us wonder whether it's time to quit your job and sit on your rooftop, or at least, get in the habit of praying more and going to worship more.

"Is this the time?  And if it is, what is the appropriate response?"

Those are the sorts of questions we dealt with yesterday at our lunch Bible study.  Or at least, those are the questions we started with.  And we came up with all of the usual discussion points too:  the points that there have been many times, in the last two millennia, that people have been sure that This Was It.  And so far, they have been wrong.  The points that Jesus also wants people to know, at other junctures in the Scripture, that no one really knows when he is coming back, so let's not start the count-down too early.

Then there is that verse that sticks out like a sore thumb:  "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."  What could Jesus possibly mean by this?  One person offered the possibility that perhaps the word "generation" meant something different in those days.  Unfortunately, the word "generation" meant then what it means now.  And several generations have come and gone, and "the second coming" has not happened.

So, what does this mean?

I offered the opinion that this scripture was written about the end of the world, but not just about the "end of the world".  This scripture was written about 'the second coming', but not just about the second coming.  It was written both for the end time and for the 'meantime', which is where we are all now.  And the exhortations are for us, whether we are living in the end times, or not.

I couldn't help noticing the juxtaposition of the big and cosmic signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, with the small and ordinary signs of the blossoming of the fig trees.  Jesus is warning his disciples to 'stay alert' to the small things, in the midst of all of the big things that are happening.  It's easy to focus on the big blasts of history and miss the signs of God's grace and unending love that are around us.

Who are these warnings written for?  someone asked at the Bible study on Wednesday.  I thought it was a very good question.  We might think that the warnings are for the doubters and the unbelievers, but they aren't.  The warnings and the exhortations are for us.  They are to remind us that to hold fast to God's promises even when the signs of the times are against us, even (and especially) when the darkness descends.  These verses from Luke aren't all that different from Paul's in Romans 8:  "Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  not life or death.  Not sun or moon or stars.  Not wars or rumors of wars.

Hold fast to God's promises.  Hold fast to the cross.  Hold fast to the love of God in Christ.  And live a life worthy of those promises:  a life that values the vulnerable and honors the poor.  Hold fast to God's promises.

Perhaps this is a message as much for the 'meantime' as it is for the end times, because the meantime can be pretty mean sometimes.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Righteous Branch

I know this is not the image Jeremiah has in mind, but when I think of this scripture about the "righteous branch", I can't help getting this picture in my mind:  I am amid the dangerous waves of a churning river, either in a boat or capsized, and I am heading toward the rapids.  Suddenly, I look up and there it is:  a Branch, a strong Branch bending over the river.  I grab it and hold on.

Somehow, that's the picture I get in my mind, even though, like I said, I'm pretty sure it's not what Jeremiah had in mind.  I'm pretty sure that he is using the imagery of a Branch to connect with Israel and Judah's family Tree.  There have been plenty of unrighteous branches -- Kings who has not been faithful, have not worshipped Yahwah and who have not cared for the poor.  There hare been plenty of leaders who were shepherds who led their people astray.  But Jeremiah is saying that there will be a day when the King will be a true shepherd, who will be do justice and love mercy.  This King will not come from outside, but within the flock.  He will be "a shoot out of the stump of Jesse", to use words from another prophet, Isaiah.

Still, I can't get the picture of the low-hanging branch over the water out of my head.

"The Lord is your righteousness," the branch declares, just by hanging there.

It is an invitation to trust:  not my own wiles or wits, not my ability to swim, not my cleverness or even my own piety.  It is an invitation to trust the Branch.  Hold on.

So, on the first Sunday of Advent, the simple message may be this:  Hold on.  Trust that the one who hangs on the cross is your righteousness.  Trust that the one who fed the hungry, healed the sick and cleansed lepers is your righteousness.   Trust that the branch is strong enough to hold you, even though it looks weak.

Trust that the life he invites you to live is wise, even though it looks foolish.  Trust that doing justice and loving mercy is really the only way to life, even though the way leads through death.

Hold on.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Soon and Very Soon

We sang the old gospel song, "Soon and Very Soon/We are Going to See the King" on Sunday.  And I couldn't help it, while we were singing I could see them sitting near the front of the church.  They have both been gone for a few years now, but they always sat in about the same place near the front of the church, pulpit side.

Whenever we sang this particular song, I always saw them sitting and holding one another, and tears would be streaming down their faces.

This song, I learned, had been sung at their daughter's funeral.  Their daughter, their only child, had died of ALS, too young.  They had two beloved grandchildren, and now three great-grandchildren, but whenever they heard this song, it reminded them of their daughter, and they cried.

So when we sang the song on Sunday, I couldn't help but see them still, even, sitting and crying, even though they are both gone now.  They cried even though the song said "No more cryin' there...." even though the song said, "no more dying there".. And I suppose they cried from a combination of grieving and hope.  They cried because in this world children should not die before their parents, and no one should go hungry, and young men should not have to go to war, and old people should not be left alone, with no one to care for them.  And they cried for the vision that God promises us:  a world where there will be no more crying and no more pain and no more death, a world where there will be enough water and enough light and enough love and enough life, where the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations.  They cried because they remembered the past and they yearned for the future.

Soon and Very Soon
We are Going to see the King.

What is it about singing?  As soon as I hear the song, my mind conjures up the memories; I see them so clearly.  It's as if that couple is still with us, singing and crying and worshiping.  Singing does that; it conjures something up, and helps us go on living and working and yearning for the future God promises, but that we can't quite grasp.

Sometimes, all we can do is wait.

And sing about it.

And that is enough.

Monday, November 26, 2012

It's the Week Before Advent

....I keep reminding myself, because it seems like such good news.

This means that Advent services start next week, not this week.  I have a few more days to iron out the details in our theme, to find songs prayers that match, and to make sure everyone knows their role.  It also means that I have a few more days to get my Sunday Advent schedule organized:  I'm preaching on the first and third Sundays in Advent, and I have time to make preaching folders and study ahead and fill those folders with ideas.  Theoretically, at least.

It means that I have a whole week to find that Advent Wreath that I bought a few years ago, but never put up on the dining room table, because Advent sneaks up on me right after Thanksgiving, and I'm not ready.

Perhaps this year we'll really observe a regular advent discipline in our home, like I've always wanted to.  Perhaps every night I'll light a candle and say a prayer during advent, the way I've always wanted to.  Perhaps every night I'll open a window on an Advent Calendar, and everything will go According to Plan.   Instead, our Advent observance has always been sort of haphazard and random, mixed in with some craft-making and shopping and (truth be told) Very Little Baking.

I am all for meaningful Advent traditions and rituals.  But Advent (and Christmas) always sort of sneaks up on me, even though I know it's out there, and I'm waiting for it, and anticipating it with both joy and fear, fear and joy.

I have this recurring dream that it's Christmas eve, and the tree is lit up and the house is arranged, and the dinner is ready (by some miracle), but I am not ready.  I have not bought some of my presents yet, and I have run out of time.  All of the stores are closed, and the feast has begun, and I am empty-handed.  I wake up (sort of) relieved, and with a new sense of urgency.  How many days left?  I wonder.

Advent themes are repentance and hope, waiting and getting ready.  The one word theme of Advent is "Come."  "Come Lord Jesus," and we are getting ready, we think.  We're decking the halls and making the feast and wrapping the presents (although some of us are better at these preparations than others).  Others of us are repenting all the time, every time we forget to light an Advent Candle, or make some small (or large) mistake, or take a wrong turn.

So it's a week before Advent, and maybe I'll really find that Advent Wreath this year, and I hope I do.  But the One we are waiting for, the One who is coming doesn't depend on my candle-lighting or my prayers.  He's coming for those who can't light the candle, who are too weak to pray.  He's coming for all of the ones who have lost their way, who have fallen and can't get up, who have died and need to be raised to new life.

He is coming to save us.

Whether I light the candle or not.

He's coming.

And he's here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holy Work

This year, for the first time in many years, my congregation did not have a Thanksgiving Day worship service.  We still participated in an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service, as we have for many years, but we did not gather at 10:00 a.m. in the Sanctuary and sing "Come, Ye Thankful People Come", and "Sing to the Lord of Harvest".  (One of our families always says that it isn't Thanksgiving until we've sung that particular hymn.)

The Thanksgiving Day service has a long and illustrious history at this congregation.  Our former church administrator, who grew up at this church, told me that back in the 1950s and 1960s, the sanctuary was full on Thanksgiving Day -- all with men and their children, worshipping while their wives prepared the feast.  To be honest, I couldn't even imagine that.  Crowds have not been so impressive the last few years, although the singing has always been pretty enthusiastic.  Singing the Thanksgiving hymns has always been my favorite part of the service.

This year, instead of going over to church and finding the bulletins in the usher's closet, I got up early and went to my mom's house, so that we could prepare the dinner together.  I haven't prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in years, since I have always had worship responsibilities in the morning.  But since I had the day free, my mom and I decided we'd do it together.  I had come over briefly the evening before, to help prepare the stuffing and get the turkey ready.  In the morning, we set the oven and stuffed and basted, set the table and and put out the decorations.  We made salads and cup up vegetables and wiped down counters, and took a couple of breaks with coffee.

Then my brother arrived, with his grown children.  They went over to the nursing home and picked up my dad.  My husband, his mother and his son arrived a little later.  We took trips down to the social room where we got everything ready to be served.

And we prayed:  "Come Lord Jesus/Be our Guest/Let these Gifts/To Us be Blest.  Amen"

My brother and I did a little impromptu singing:  a couple of little-known songs from the Bing Crosby Christmas Album.  We tried to engage my dad, but he was not joining in, at least not then.  We wheeled him out to the piano, where he listened to my husband and my nephew play for a little while.  During the pumpkin pie, though, my dad started to smile, and when I tried again to sing a little of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he said, simply, "Bing Crosby."

"Do you remember when they sang that song, Dad?"  I asked.  I answered myself,  "It was during World War II."

Later on, my brother took my dad back to the nursing home, and we vacuumed the floor and put the leftovers in little tubs to send home with people.  I gave my neice a pair of homemade footies that I had been working on for an impossibly long time.  She liked them, and that made me thankful.

So, I didn't sing "Come, Ye Faithful People Come" this year, and I supposed I missed hearing that song in the foreground, with the stalwart members of my congregation.  But I still heard their voices in the background, the memories of the voices of my community the foundation of my Holy Work on Thanksgiving.

This meal we prepared together, my mom and I, this is Holy Work too, isn't it?  This table we set and the conversation we shared, this is Holy Work too.  It is not just when I break the bread in the congregation that I am doing Holy Work.

Don't get me wrong:  I love being a pastor, and I give thanks for the opportunity that I have to consecrate bread and wine, to speak words of grace, to gather and to send out people into God's world. I am thankful for this Holy Work.  But I am thankful for the opportunity to wipe down the table and to sing with my Dad, and to lift the turkey out of the oven with my mom as well.

I could still hear "Come Ye Faithful People Come" in the background.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

That Moment When...

I had a pile of phone calls to make today, most of them asking people whether they would serve in a particular capacity, or be involved in community ministry.

But a few of them were just checking in.

I had this one piece of paper on my desk, a phone call I had tried to make a few days ago, because the woman's husband ask that I check in.  Her mother had died recently, he said, and she was taking it hard.  I had left a message before, but didn't throw the piece of paper away.  I decided I ought to try to reach her one more time.

It was almost the end of the day.  I dialed the number.  The first thing I heard on the other end of the line:  uncontrollable sobbing.

The woman had just found out, within the last hour, that her daughter had died.

"Who told you to call me?"  she asked.

The Holy Spirit.


Sometimes I don't pay attention.  Sometimes despite myself, I do.

That's all I have to say, tonight.  That's all I have to say.

Except this:  when I arrived at her house, three of her friends from work were also with her, sitting with her, talking a little.  God has many comforters.

That's all I have to say.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Makes It Worthwhile

I went home early today, coming down with a cold, feeling low, sore throat, all those things.  I've been calling people for a community meeting lately, and a lot of people are not able to come, for a variety of good reasons.  But you know what?  It's discouraging, especially when you have a cold and are feeling sorry for yourself already.

That's one of the things they don't teach you about in seminary:  calling people on the phone to do stuff, especially when they have a variety of good reasons for saying no.

Of course, I (kind of) already knew about this, as I used to call to recruit Sunday School teachers.  It was long ago, even before I went to seminary, and I learned a lot from that experience.  Mainly, I learned what it was like to call a lot of people on the phone and hear them say "no".  I also learned some things about how busy people are, all the things that people juggle in their lives.  Sometimes they sounded like excuses, and sometimes they sounded like the weight of the world, griefs and worries I could not imagine.  I would hear about it.  It's one of the reasons I think, discouraging as it might be, that it's a good thing to call people on the phone and ask them to do things.  Even when people say no, I learn.

Sometimes they say yes, anyway.  Sometimes they (not only) say yes, but it turns out that I have asked them to do just the right thing.  It could be washing the dishes or watching my dog, or leading a Bible study or praying in front of people.  It could be singing a song or bringing brownies.

I want to see more of it.  I love when the sixth grade girl sings a solo in church, or when the 75 year old woman decides that she wants to begin reading the lessons in church, or when the young man who hates public speaking gets up and tells us how the church is not "them", it is us.  "They" aren't asking for money, he said.   Ir's us.  It's our community.  That's what he said.

That's what makes it worthwhile:  when someone prays who has never prayed before, when someone stands up and leads (who isn't me), when someone claims their identity as a child of God, and shines.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Holy Conversations, if we can have them

I just started reading a book recently.  It's called "Holy Conversations", and it's about strategic planning in congregations.

You might think, "why write about a book that you have barely started reading?"  That would be a good question.

We will be embarking on a strategic planning process in my congregation soon.  The other pastor thought that this was the book we should use to go through the process at our church.  He wanted me to get ahead on the reading, so that I could be help discern the right mix of people to be a part of the conversations.

Coincidentally, I already had a copy of the book.  I've been thinking about strategic planning as a spiritual discipline for awhile.

So, while beginning to read this book at the end of last week, one sentence struck me, and made me think:  "The plan does not transform the congregation; the conversation transforms the congregation."

I'm not sure that I've ever really intentionally thought about it this way, but I immediately realized that it was true:  Conversations transform us.   Conversations change the way we think and feel, and affect who we become.  It isn't always or necessarily and positive transformation, either.  I remember the conversations I overheard as a young girl -- the arguments between two of my uncles:  one a staunch Democrat and proud 6th grade teacher, and the other an extremely conservative Republican (he used to remind us that the founding fathers only intended landowners to vote).  Listening in on those conversations affected my politics, made be both fascinated by politics, but also anxious about political fights.

Of course, the more powerful conversations are the ones in which we are active conversation partners, listening and speaking, telling and hearing stories.  Perhaps these are the ones called "Holy Conversations", where we dare to take time to find out what it important to one another, what we agree about, where we disagree.

When I think about it, I realize how seldom we really have a "Holy conversation" with one another.  I wonder why it is, and the first thought that comes into my mind is this:  we don't have time.  We are busy people, and it's hard to find the time to sit still, look into each other's eyes, see the image of God in each other's faces, and know who we really are.

But I don't think that's the only reason we so seldom engage in a Holy Conversation.  I think it's also because it is risky to find out that we don't all agree with one another (and I'm not just talking about politics, here, not even mainly).  Perhaps it's easier to assume that we all agree: about which hymns are the best to sing, which way we should pray, how we should reach out and serve, which community issues should most define our discipleship.  There's a risk to finding out that your community contains a diversity of pieties as well as politics.

But even riskier is this:  I suspect that in a truly Holy Conversation, all participants are open to being transformed.   What will happen to me if I listen to an older person tell me of their experience of the liturgy and how it has formed them, or if I hear a new member talk about what it means to feel welcomed, or excluded, by the way we worship?  I just had a conversation with a woman who brings her granddaughter to church with her on occasion.  She told me that her granddaughter would like to go to church more often, but it's hard because "she doesn't know what's going on."  This statement cuts me to the quick, which is the beginning of transformation.

So we're going to do this thing called 'strategic planning,' and I don't know much about what it will look like yet.  But, as we move along, I will be reminding myself again and again that it is not the plan that will transform us.  It is the conversations, the holy conversations that will transform us, turning us again and again, back to God, and back to one another.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Confession

It is the night before the national election.  I plan to go vote before I go to church in the morning.

I have voted in every election since I was eligible,  except one:  in 1984, I was in Japan, I was a poor student, and I couldn't afford to make all of the different train trips it would take for me to apply and get an absentee ballot and send it in.  I voted as a college student and as a worker, as a seminary student and as a pastor.  I loved that my little church was a polling place for elections.  I liked following and voting on the local ballot initiatives as much as nationwide elections.

I have strong political convictions, although in my deepest heart of hearts, and as a Christian, I recognize that the Reign of God is deeper than any of my convictions, and there will never be a political candidate that will bring in the "Reign of God."  I do believe that there are policies that better honor the image of God in all of us, but I know that others feel differently.  I also believe in my deepest heart of hearts that even though I have strong political convictions, nobody knows everything or is wise about everything.  To have a democracy, you have to have at least two different points of view (preferably even more); if you don't, you don't really have a democracy.  So I believe that the best community decisions and the best policies really are created as people with different commitments and visions talk to one another and hash it out.

So, in this very wearying election season, I've been reminding myself and reminding others that, as Father Greg Boyle has said:  "There is no them and us.  There is only us."  I have been reminding myself and reminding others that faith in God unites us, not faith in whatever political project we believe in, however much we believe in it.

Here's the confession, though.

It's really hard.

It's really hard because there are so many venues that speak lies and half-truths about things that are dear to me, and I see them.  For example, I see someone joking that "Barack Obama will take an early lead, until all of the Republicans get off work."  I see another set of statistics that blame one particular political party for the budget deficits and debts, when I know (even though I don't know everything, I know a few things) that the picture is much more complicated than that.  And if we don't ever realize that it's more complicated than that, we will never get the will to fix it.

I hear people pointing fingers and saying, "It's all your fault!"  People on all sides stretch the statistics to fit their own devices.  I want to be able to say, "There is enough blame to go around," because I suspect that is the truth, really.  And (to be honest) there are times when I want to say to someone I love, someone who is a fellow member of the Body of Christ, not "I love you," but "give me a break."

Tomorrow is Election Day.  I keep believing that what unites us is the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for all of us.  But it's hard.  And I fear that it's going to get harder.

But I pray that we will all have the strength to do that hard thing:  to come together to make good communities, and to see the imprint of God on each other's foreheads.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sunday Sermon for All Saints

This week my challenge was to weave together the themes of All Saints Sunday and of Reaching out to Welcome the Stranger (part of our fall theme).  Here's what I came up with....

A long while ago, I live for a year in a Big White Three-Story House in inner City Denver, along with 10 other people --- none of whom I had ever met before.  It was the year I was doing my seminary internship, and I lived in something called a "Community House", along with young people from all over the country, as well as one exchange student from Japan.  We were all there to serve, but in different places, and for different reasons.  We each had our own space, but we shared meals twice a week, and took turns cooking, and also go together on occasion for other social events.  As you can imagine, we had some great times together, and also some times when things didn't go so well.

An then there was this day -- when we got a phone call from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.  They wondered if we had space to temporarily house about twelve people who were refugees from Russia.  They had just arrived -- and we had this Big White Three-Story House -- what did we think?  It wouldn't be for very long----

We said yes.

So they were coming over, and we were going to have dinner together.

It was my night to cook.  And I'll tell you a little secret -- I don't cook for 23 -- especially on short notice.  So I had to get someone to talk me through the meal preparation for that evening.

Finally everyone arrived.  I had managed to get dinner cooked.  We found places for everyone to sit and we were just getting ready to eat --  when we found that there was another dilemma.  What would we use for a table prayer?  We did not speak Russian.  They did not speak English.  But we had to pray, didn't we?


So today we celebrate All Saints Day.  It's a day we remember the saints who have gone before us -- it's  the day we remember the saints who have been important in our lives.  -- and it's a date when we remember what a saint is:  after all, a saint is someone who has lived trusting Jesus, hoping in the life he promises us, and holding on to the vision of his reign. One of the promises that we hold on to, one of the central visions that we see is this one from Isaiah 25:  the mountain of the Lord, with all of the people streaming to it, and the great banquet that awaits us there.  What is the hope of the saints?  It's the banquet table filled to the brim, the feast of victory, the great celebration where we will all be re-united, and where there will be abundance of food, and abundance of fellowship.  This is a wonderful image of our hope, and a wonderful vision of the saints -- to imagine those people who we will name shortly sitting around this table together, isn't it?  To imagine our friends Chuck and Vernon and Mark and Shane, Jeanette and Clarence and Mae and Harriet  --- and well, all of the others, sitting and celebrating at this table together, with Jesus the host.

Except that one thing is missing from this vision -- it is the names of all of the people we don't know, all of the saints who are strangers to us, all of the people who maybe aren't even saints yet, because they haven't heard of known to trust Jesus with their lives.  But the vision from Isaiah, if we really hear it and imagine it, is wider than that -- the vision talks about all nations being drawn to the mountain of God, all nations coming together at the banquet -- not just friends, but strangers, too.  So we have to adjust our vision, on All Saints Sunday, to see the wideness of God's reach.

Sometimes adjusting means that our vision gets wider, but sometimes it means getting smaller, just for a moment.  Like that tiny story from Mark, of Jesus healing the leper.  The leper was probably a stranger to Jesus, for many reasons -- probably just because he was a leper, and lepers were supposed to stay far away from everyone else.  But he calls out to Jesus, wondering if Jesus wants to heal him, and Jesus reaches out his hand and touches him.  This is an amazing action, for many reasons.  For Jesus to be close enough to touch a leper -- is to risk being contaminated, to risk being associated with him.  But he did it.  And the leper was healed, and he could against be a part of a community -- no longer a stranger. Jesus healed him.

We still don't know that leper's name.  He's a stranger.  But I imagine that he's a saint, too.  He's a saint simply because Jesus reached out to him.  Even though Jesus told him to be quiet, he went out and told people anyway.  Pretty soon, the people were streaming to Jesus.  Some of them came for healing.  Maybe some of them came just to be touched.  And maybe some of them came just because they didn't want to be a stranger, any more.

Father Greg Boyle, a priest who works with gangs in South L.A., slays it this way.  He says, "There is no them and us.  There is only us."  -- In God's eyes anyway.  It's not often that we see it.  Most of the time we fit ourselves into categories:  them and us, friends and strangers, rich and poor, young and old, "good" and "bad."  Most of the time we divide ourselves, but to God we are all the same:  "There is no them and us.  There is only us."  We are all beloved, and of infinite value.  And we all need to be healed, we all need to be fed, we need someone to know our name.

We don't catch a glimpse of it often, but on this All Saints Sunday, I hope, for a moment, we catch a glimpse -- of the saints and the strangers, standing around the throne of the Lamb, seated at the banquet table.  We don't know their names, but we know they are wounded, grieving, hungry, lonely.  We know they need someone to reach out to them -- because they are like us, and we need someone to reach out to us, too.  They are hungry, too, but maybe we don't speak the same language.  How can we pray together?  Saints and strangers, this is what unites us:  our common hunger, our common value to God


So there we were, all together, waiting to each dinner.  Who would pray?  What would we say?  Whatever it was, we know that half of the room would not understand what the other half was saying, at least not with our minds.  After an awkward pause, I asked the Japanese woman, Kayoko, to teach us a prayer in Japanese.  Then we would at least be all on the same level:  no one but Kayoko would know what it meant.  So she taught us this pray, or sang it to us:

"Hibi no kate wo Atetamo
Megumi no Mikami Wa Homu beki kana.  A-men.

So, saints and strangers -- today we give thanks for the feast that is being prepared for all people.  We give thanks for the God who reaches out to us to heal us and to draw us to him.  And we give thanks, because God is teaching all of us a new language, one that none of us is very fluent in yet, but God is teaching us the words, and even singing them, for us, and with us.  God is teaching us a new language, a new Word, and the Word is Jesus, and the Word is Love.  If you listen hard, you can hear just a piece of it:

"Be present at our tables, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that We
May feast in paradise with Thee.  Amen"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Story

It all started while I was driving over to the seminary at the same time as I was thinking about last night's full moon.  I was thinking about the full moon because last night was Halloween, and because our dog was engaging in weird unexplained behavior.  She was digging underneath our back gate, and actually pushed through a fence slat and escaped for awhile, running up and down the streets until the food bowl called her back.  "Perhaps it was the full moon," I mused, and I remembered that it was Halloween as well, and that Halloween was an ancient pagan festival reported to be a "thin place" -- that was why it became "All Hallow's Eve"  - the night before All Saints Day.

So I was thinking about thin places (and I was still driving, and, amazingly, I had not unintentionally gotten off on a wrong street), and I was wondering about them, and I had this thought:

Because of the Incarnation, any place can be a "thin place" -- a place where the veil between heaven and earth becomes sheer.

I thought about this for a moment, the truth of the Incarnation for me -- God taking flesh and walking among us, not just appearing to be human, but being born, having hands, touching lepers, having aching feet.  And I thought, again, well, it's not the Incarnation, really.  Just that one event doesn't mean that much.  The Incarnation, even if it's real, is just a moment in time, just thirty-three years.  

But it's the whole story, starting from the beginning of time and ending when God will fill all the world with glory.  In the middle is the Incarnation -- God walking around in Jesus' skin, and the healings and the sayings and the agony of the cross.  In the middle is Jesus rising, and an incarnation in each disciple on that day called Pentecost.  It is all of these events that make me believe that any place can be a 'thin place', and any person can shine holy, and the veil between heaven and earth can tear at any time

The story is the truth and the truth is the story --  reality is not a set of propositions, but a story, and the story is the truth.  Reality isn't a transaction or a set of math problem or a series of facts, but a story, with a beginning, and a middle and an end.  (but we have not reached the end yet)

In this day and age it may seem amazingly foolish to believe that there is a story that gives shape and meaning to our lives, that there is something more than just the random and haphazard array of experiences, and that even the briefest of moments (like driving down the street and seeing the full moon) can be thin places where the veil between heaven and earth becomes sheer.  

The truth is the story, and the reality is that heaven and earth do meet, and God touches the lepers, and there is a beginning and a middle and an end (but we have not reached the end yet).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Some Snapshots from My Week

Sunday afternoon

We were done with Sunday worship and had taken a nap.  My husband and I decided to take a short jaunt over to a nearby antique mall to see what they had to offer.  While on the road, my cell phone rang.  It was a woman from our congregation, letting me now that her husband of 54 years had just died.  He had suffered from a rare degenerative disease for the past few years.  He died on his birthday.


This is my day off, but I made a little time to meet with the woman whose husband had just died.  We planned his memorial service for the next Monday.  His family told me he loved to try to figure things out (he had been an electrical engineer).  They also told me that he donated his body to the University, so that they could study his condition and perhaps, someday, cure people who had his disease.


I had a memorial service for a woman I knew from a monthly communion service I used to do at a local high-rise.  Her daughter told me that her mom "talked about me all the time."  She also told me that her mother was 100% Lutheran and 100% Norwegian.  She wrote a wonderful remembrance for her mother that called to mind her childhood in rural Minnesota.  She was poor, but didn't seem to mind.  After the short service, we had lefse, kringla, sandbakkels and krumkaka.

We also got news that a woman I had visited on Saturday died early on Tuesday morning.  The other pastor went to visit with the family.  They wanted a funeral service on Friday morning.


I visited another older gentleman in the hospital.  He had just gotten news about his cancer.  We had a wonderful visit, though he cried, a little.  He was grateful for his family.  We prayed together.

In the afternoon, I sat in with the other pastor while he planned the Friday service.  They had a first wanted me to do the service for them, but I was preaching, planning another funeral and presiding at a wedding on Saturday.

Later we had a wonderful meeting with our Stewardship planning group.  There is so much creativity, commitment and energy in this group.  What did I contribute?  I remembered the rationale for making out pledges on Commitment Sunday, not before:  because we wanted to make our gifts together in community, in worship and in prayer.


I wrote the sermon for my Saturday wedding.

In the evening, there was a visitation for the woman who had died on Tuesday.  Toward the end of the evening, I gathered everyone together for some scripture readings and prayers.  I invited people to share some memories and stories.  At the close, we sang two choruses of this old song, "All Night, All Day, Angels watching over me, my Lord, All Night, All Day, Angels watching over me."


I worked on bulletin proof-reading with our secretary, and went away to try to write my Sunday sermon.  I got some done, but not as much as I had hoped.   For some reason, I was having trouble putting it all together.


The wedding at at 3:00.  The bride cried.  Our small chapel service was at 5:00, the "first run" of the weekend.  After the service I went out and bought some yarn for the children's message.  (and hoped that the idea would work)


I preached.  Christian Community, rooted in baptism. So close to an election, remember that we are not united by politics, but by God's grace.  We sang "A Mighty Fortress", and "Shout to the Lord."  I thought about how mighty our God is, mighty and vulnerable, dying on a cross.

A tattooed young woman came up to me before the service and said, "thank you for visiting my grandfather in the hospital."  She had tears in her eyes.  I saw a two-year-old dressed up in her Halloween costume.  She was a bumble-bee.

Afterwards, we had our annual Sunday School Fundraiser:  a spaghetti dinner.  A little later I was getting ready to go home, laden with left-over spaghetti for my husband's lunch.  Two little girls (about 4 years old) walked up to me gravely and presented me with:  my glasses, which I had left on a table in the Fellowship Hall.  "Are these yours, Pastor?"  they said.

I am tired.  It's a privilege to know people, to receive ministry from grave four-year-olds who find what I have lost, to be present when tears of joy or grief are shed, to sing and remember and hear stories.

Some days I am lost.  And it is the four year olds who find me, and help me to see again.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Startles Me

Someone asked me today, "What startles you?"  I was asking people for topics to write about, and this particular question piqued my interest, even though I'm not sure what was meant by 'startled.'

So, what startles me?

Meanness startles me.  No matter how many times I encounter it, I'm always taken aback by the things people say and do to one another.  On the internet, first of all:  I have the bad habit of reading the comments under articles I read on-line.  Reading the comments is sort of like slowing down to watch the aftermath of a car crash on the highway; it's always disturbing, and I'm sorry that I did it.   But on-line meanness is not the only kind that startles me.  I'm often startled by the meanness of teenagers in their interactions with one another, even though I know in my heart how insecure and unlovely some of them feel, and I know where those words come from.  I'm startled when I hear stories of that bring out our lack of regard for one another.  I remember once going to the capital to advocate for funds for education.  In a conversation with a legislator from southern Minnesota, I stated that children are one of our best investments.  He looked at me and said, "not all of them."

But you know what?  Goodness also startles me.  I remember once taking a large group of children from a summer program to a nursing home nearby.  I saw a young African-American girl bend down to hug one of the elderly residents, and I was startled.  I once saw a woman walk into her dying mother's room in a hospital, and kiss her on the cheek.  And I know a man whose wife contracted polio when she was a young mother many years ago.  After her recovery, she contracted post-polio syndrome, and was confined to a wheelchair.  For many years her husband and she went to church together, went to concerts together, and went to plays together, because he lifted her into and out of her wheelchair, and into and out of their car.  He still walks bent-over, because of all of the years he carried her.  Goodness startles me.  Goodness startles me, the small acts of kindness, the large acts of heroism.

And tears -- tears startle me.

A man considers with gratitude his long life and his good family, and the possibility that this life may be coming to an end -- and tears spring to his eyes.  A woman  remembers how her mother held on to her and let go of her at just the right times, and as she thanks God -- tears spring to her eyes.   A woman remembers painful moments from her childhood and the goodness of her life right now -- and tears spring to her eyes.

Perhaps tears startle me most of all, how they come at times of great beauty and great sorrow and great joy, or when joy and sorrow and beauty are mingling.   When I see tears suddenly I feel as if I am standing on holy ground, as if the veil that separates us from God has been torn, and I can see beyond the meanness to the goodness of life.

What startles you?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Visiting My Dad

I got a call yesterday to visit someone in the hospital.  I didn't know her well, but I recognized her name, and when I got to the hospital, I remembered her husband.  Two of her four daughters were there.   They were not sure about their mother's prognosis, so we prayed for strength for whatever the future would bring.

Then I went to visit my dad at the nursing home.

I don't visit my dad enough.  Every time I go, I consider this truth.

When I got there, he was napping, but was ready for a visit.  So we got him up and I asked him about his day.  It was quiet there on a Saturday afternoon, though I thought I heard a movie in the background of the social room.  We talked about his favorite foods (pizza, meatballs, cherry pie, corned beef), and sang a few songs, including Bing Crosby songs and some hymns.  My dad had a pretty good voice back in the day, and he loved to sing Bing Crosby songs most of all.  I tried to get a little crooning in my voice when I sang "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day."   I didn't know all of the words, but then, neither did he.

Then we said the Lord's Prayer together.

My dad used to read Bible stories to us when we were getting ready for bed.  My parents both said our prayers with us, but when my dad said them, he would often pretend he was Methuselah, the world's oldest man.  He would tell us that he remembered Moses and Abraham and all of the heroes of the Bible, and he would talk in an old man's voice.  When we started to say the prayers, he would pretend that he was falling asleep during the prayer, and when his voice trailed off, my sister or I would kick him.

So, that's my memory of my dad teaching me the Lord's Prayer.

My dad wasn't a terribly educated man.  The youngest son of Swedish immigrants, he at first longed to be a high school teacher:  he wanted to teach Shop.  But he found that college was more of a challenge than he imagined, so he changed his plans and opened his own business:  Radio and TV Sales and Service.  I still remember the smells of that old shop, oil and picture tubes and carpeting.

My dad was traditional, which means that he didn't really cook or do much cleaning, unless my mom specifically told him what to do.  He was endlessly fascinated by television and he could fry an egg, grill hamburgers and make a mean bean sandwich.  He wasn't a cat person, but he loved our dog.  He was sentimental, believing that love should always win out.  But I don't remember ever seeing him cry. He liked to cover up tough times with a laugh or a joke.

He liked to sing, but he rarely knew all of the words to the songs.  So sometimes, he made up his own words.

When I was trying to figure out whether to change course and go to seminary to be a pastor, I was desperate to know what my parents thought about it.  They're Scandinavian, though, which means they aren't always free with their opinions.  But finally, I practically begged.  I asked my dad, "Do you think I would be a good pastor?"

"Oh," he said, "I think you'd be good at whatever you did."

"You never say that," I told him.

As if thinking it for the first time, he said, "Nobody ever said it to me, either."

I don't visit my dad enough.

But when I do, we sing.  Even though neither of us remembers the words.