Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Privilege of Being a Pastor

I know one of the big perks of being a pastor is getting to speak.  I have the privilege of speaking God's word on Sunday, and in many small interactions throughout the week.  I have the privilege of speaking and reminding people of God's mercy.  I get to open up the Scriptures and I have an opportunity to share with people what I find.  I don't take that privilege lightly.

But you know what?  Here's a secret:  the real privilege of being a pastor is listening.

I get to hear stories.  I hear stories about people's life with God.  Sometimes they know the story is about their life with God.  Sometimes they don't.  I hear stories about people who came out on the other side of terrible tragedy, and are still here.  I hear stories about parents and grandparents and children and how they influence faith.  (One woman told me about her great-aunt, who lived with them, and used to talk to God all day while she was vaccuuming.) 

I also get to hear questions.  I get to hear questions from children, and from teenagers, and from adults.  "What does that Scripture verse mean?"  "What does it have to do with us?"  "Why did that boy have to suffer?"  "Why do we pray?"  Sometimes I can answer the question, sometimes I have to say "I don't know." 

I get to hear singing.  I love to hear us singing together in worship, whether that music is an old hymn accompanied by organ, a new song accompanied by piano, or a song unadorned by any instrument.  I remember one Saturday night, at our small chapel service, that the substitute organist stopped short of the final verse of "Lift High the Cross."  The congregation just kept singing.  We sounded great.

I get to hear prayers.  I get to hear people murmur a name during the petitions on Sunday, I get to hear children as they are learning to pray, I get to hear confirmation students as they pray for their friends, I get to hear people in nursing homes and in hospitals and in coffee houses share their concerns and offer a prayer. 

It is a privilege to listen, as much as it is a privilege to speak.  But now that I come to think of it, it's not just a privlege for pastors.  It's a privilege for all of us who are called to be witnesses to God's mercy and grace in our lives.  It's a privilege for us to listen to God's word, to listen for what God is saying to us.  And it's a privilege to listen to one another, and to our neighbors.

It's possible that Listening could be the fundamental outreach strategy, for individuals, and for congregations.  "Listening Evangelism."  What would it look like?  As we share the mercy of God in Christ Jesus with our neighbors, the first task, and the first privilege is to listen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Weak in Faith

I had this experience a few years ago, so I don't remember exactly how it happened.

It was after a funeral.  I was sitting with a couple who were visiting our congregation, but it turned out they had connections with my husband's church, so we began to chat.  And (here's where I get fuzzy) I don't know how this came up or what I said exactly, but I must have said something about "the historical view" or "the critical view" of the Bible, and they both got this stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look, a look that told me that they were afraid, very afraid of what I might be implying with just a few words.  So I remember that I backpedaled, said something innocuous until they looked a little more relaxed, as if it was safe to believe again.

I had just gotten the feeling that they were, without words, telling me "If you go any farther along this line, you will cause us to lose our faith."  I don't know if this is true, but those were the vibes that I got. 

The Bible is a dangerous book.  In many ways.

I just read something a fellow pastor wrote about those "Read the Bible in one Year" or "Read the Bible in 90 Days" programs.  She said she was not sure she wanted to do that again.  Last time she did, she lost a couple of families.  Every time they turned around, they were reading about wars.

I know there are people sitting in the pews every Sunday, reading along with the Bible stories we read, and in their hearts they are saying, "Give us permission to question, Pastor.  We want to believe, and we want to question too.  Because, you know, some of this is hard to believe.  And if we think we have to swallow it whole, we might just lose our faith."

This week, we're reading a section of Paul's letter to the Corinthians.  It's about a certain practice alien to us but intensely relevant to the Corinthian church:  eating meat which had been sacrificed to idols.  Some people think it's okay to eat, and some people have an attack of conscience when they see other people eating.  Paul recommends abstaining from eating if it will help those who are "weak in faith".

All of this might make your eyes glaze over.  It's just not something that we care much about these days.  As far as I know, none of the meat at the supermarket has been sacrificed to idols.  So, we're okay. 

But I can't help thinking about Paul's phrase, "the weak in faith."  Who are the weak in faith?  I mean, these days.   Because the idea is not to do something that will cause them to lose their faith. 

And these days, when I think about what will cause people to lose their faith, one of the first things that comes to mind is how we read the Bible.  Do we refrain from bringing up questions in and about the Bible because it might cause some among us to stumble?  Or is it possible that not bringing up questions is a bigger offense?

I will tell you that I lean the second way.  Because I believe that the Bible is God's Word, in all of its puzzling complexity, with all of its stories, strange or comforting. 

Still, it gives me pause.

Who are the weak in faith? 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Children of the Bible

When I was 9 or 10 years old, my grandma Gummeson gave me a book called "Children of the Bible."  I didn't have a lot of books that weren't from the library, so this one was pretty fascinating to me.

It featured art pictures of children from the Bible (who knew there were children in the Bible?) and the stories about their lives.  The book featured pictures of all of the children you would expect:  Isaac, the baby Moses, David (well before he was a king), Jesus at 12, the little boy with the loaves and fishes.   As well, there were a few children whose stories surprised me:  not just Moses, but his sister Miriam, who saved him.  The little maid who served Naaman the general, and told him who could cure his leprosy.  Rhoda, the servant girl who met Peter at the door when the angel sprang him out of prison, but was so excited she forgot to let him in!  I loved those stories.

Children of the Bible:  it was a great secret, and it must mean that God loved the children, not just in a sentimental way, but that God loved children enough to entrust his message to them, even them.  I was not just a learner, but I could be a teacher, too.  Children were part of the story.

This Sunday we have the story of Samuel.  It is one of my favorite Bible stories, which is why I always pause before I decide whether I am going to preach on Samuel's call.  Am I just leaning this way because I like this story so much?  Or is this the message my congregation really needs to hear?  Now that I am an adult, I like this story not just because it's a story about a child receiving God's message, but for so many other reasons.  The humor of Samuel hearing God and thinking that it is Eli.  The old priest with dim eyes who, nonetheless, perceives the truth.  The sadness of the message that Samuel must give to Eli, and his humility and grace in receiving it.  The good news of the new thing that God will be doing among the people, beginning with Samuel.   

As I told a few people who gathered this morning, we know this is a true story not just because it is in the Bible, but also because it has sad parts and happy parts, and every good and true story has both happy parts and sad parts. 

"Speak, Lord, your servant is listening," Samuel finally says.  May we learn to say the same. 

"Speak Lord, your servants are listening.  Tell us a story, a good story, a story with sad parts and happy parts, with tears and with laughter, where we have adventures together, but where there is a happy ending.  But most of all, Lord, tell us a story where we have a part, no matter how big we are, or how small, no matter how young or how old, no matter how wise or how foolish."

It's a true story, this story about God and about Jesus and about us:  and we know it's true because there are sad parts and there are happy parts, and because we are in it, too.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Problem

When I start thinking about it, there are several things I would really like to do:

1.  Learn to play the recorder that I bought several years ago in Tucson.  It's a really pretty wooden soprano recorder.  It is not the most expensive, but not the least expensive either.  I can play a C scale, Amazing Grace and the Water is Wide. 

2.  Learn some Spanish.  I am not saying I want to be an expert, reading novels or anything.  But I'd love to be able to converse a little in Spanish, understand and speak a little.  I did buy some flash cards, but that's about all.

3.  Learn to make hand-sewn books.  At this point, I'm not interested in making my own paper.  but I really really want to learn how to make books.  If I ever write anything worthy of publication, I would love learning to print an art book (with some illustrations and perhaps prayers or poetry, maybe).

4.  Become better at knitting.  Make more complicated sock patterns, particularly lace.  By the way, I am still working on the sweater.

5.  Get a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching.  I do have an idea for a theme (and maybe even a book), but I'm not divulging it publicly yet. 

6.  Do a lectio divina retreat at the Benedictine Center in St. Paul.

7.  Take a writing class at The Loft Literary Center, or do one of the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops.

Right now, I am not doing any of these things.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christian Bookstores

So one of my favorite small independent bookstores is going out of business.  It's a small-town bookstore, and I thought they had a lovely ambience and a great selection of different genres of books.  In the back was a children's book section with a mini log cabin and a display of all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books.  (This town is not far from the site of "Little House in the Big Woods.") 

Still, the bookstore is in a small town, and small town economies are in tough shape.  It's in the historic downtown, where businesses are leaving (there's a thriving new area with several chain stores along the highway).   We all know that the bookstore business is in decline.

So I'm walking down the straight and I notice that there is not just this one bookstore in town.  There's also a Christian Bookstore.  And it's not going out of business, as far as I can tell.

Now I can't tell you if this bookstore is doing well or not; all I know is that's it's not going out of business.  I can also say that even though I call this a "Christian Bookstore", it's probably more appropriate to call it a Christian book, card and gift shop.  And of course, it features a modest selection of Bibles (though not the translation I use most), and some devotional books.

Though I suppose it's not fair as I have not been inside, this bookstore does seem familiar to me, as I have been in a number of Christian bookstore in my life, starting at about the time when I was having my flirtation with the evangelical and charismatic movements.  I started out liking them, but soon began fantasizing about opening my own bookstore, because I wanted a more diverse selection of spiritual books, to match the diversity of my own spiritual journey.

So for many years in the back of mind I've had this "impossible dream" about a Christian bookstore, but also I couldn't help noticing that all of the other Christian bookstores I had ever been in were sort of -- um -- alike (except for one, in Minneapolis, called St. Martin's Table.  Good food and a wonderful selection of books.  Unfortunately, St. Martin's Table closed last year.) 

I couldn't help noticing (and still can help noticing) that, for example, the Christian bookstore I most enjoy right now is located in our local Lutheran seminary, where almost none of the people in my congregation would ever go, and the local evangelical (southern Baptist, actually, though they don't tell you) bookstore is about six blocks away from where I live.  There are wonderful resources that I want the people in my congregation to know about, but some of them they can't find in any bookstore.   Because the bookstore six blocks away won't carry these wonderful resources (not all of them Lutheran, by the way).  I will also say that the fact that my favorite bookstore is located in a seminary might give you the impression that these are, for the most part, books for scholars, and not for lay people, and in that, you would not be totally mistaken. 

I'm pretty convinced that I won't be starting that "alternative Christian bookstore", but I would love to figure out a way to get more visibility for resources that are accessible, theologically sound, compelling and well-written.  Could churches host little satellite bookstores, or perhaps have suggested resources and links on their websites?  

What do you think? 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bookstores, Reading, Community

I opened up my emails this morning to find bad news I did not expect:  another one of my favorite independent bookstores is going out of business.  This is one of the bookstores I visit in a local, historic small town; frankly, I think it's one of the things that make the town worth visiting (besides their fine hotel and antique stores). 

We have been visiting that town, and so we stopped in this morning, though it made us sad.  One woman entering the store said, "Where am I going to buy my books?"  I said, "I think on the internet."  She said, "Sometimes, you have to go into a bookstore."

Apparently, not enough people agree with her.

I love bookstores (yarn stores, too, but that's possibly another post).  I did used to have this dream of opening a small bookstore, though I knew little or nothing about the business angle.  (Just to show you that the dream hasn't completely died, I recently thought a store called "A Good Yarn" would be a great idea for a shop that combined books and knitting supplies.) 

I do remember, however, a time before bookstores.  Our biggest department store had a book department, but the first bookstore I saw (a B. Dalton, I believe) was when I was in high school.  I was very intrigued.  A whole store of nothing but books.  It wasn't a big store, but it was a book store.  It was like a library, except you didn't have to bring the books back.

I went to the library as a kid.  I did not have a large personal library of children's books.  We bought a few books through the mail, but most of the books that I read I did not own.  One of my prized possessions was an edition of Little Men, given to me by a friend for a birthday.  I didn't really start accumulating books until I was in college.

So on a rational level, I understand that markets come and markets go.  When I was small, my dad had his own small business:  G&B Radio and TV.  He sold and repaired a lot of TVs.  He used to win sales contests, and he won prizes.  Then, fewer people bought TVs from small shops, and especially in that neighborhood.  Now I believe that a small TV Sales and Repair shop is a rare thing. 

But there's a part of me that thinks that this is about more than books, and more than markets.  It's about community.  It's about the value of real places where people gather, say hello, exchange goods, opinions, and actually know that they matter to one another.  And those places are not gone, I'm not being alarmist.  But somehow I feel that it needs to be said.

In an internet age, brick and mortar sometimes seems like a liability.  I mean that in a bottom line sort of way.  Amazon can sell more cheaply partly because they don't have brick and mortar stores.  But if you are a brick and mortar store, you also are a member of a particular community, and that is a value too.

In the community where I served for four years, there was a small grocery store.  Most people did their grocery shopping in the nearest city, thirty-five miles away.  But I remember one of my parish members who told me that she made a point of doing some of her shopping at the small store, even though they didn't have everything she needed, and even though the prices were higher.  Because, she said, having a grocery store in her community was a value to her.

So in the race to the bottom line, I still think it's a good question to ask:  where are the places that remind us that we are members of one another, that our destinies are intertwined, that we all do better when we all do better?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Gospel In Seven Words

Because so many others have put it simply, I tried my hand at this:

In Christ, God is joined to us.

(And we are joined to God.  Irrevocably.  Inexplicably.  And God wouldn't have it any other way.  We tried everything to stop him.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Few Books on My List for 2012

These are just a few of the books I'm considering for 2012, for various reasons.  They may or may not be on your list, and the list is by no means comprehensive. 

1.  Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson.  This has been on my list for a couple of years; I'm reading it now.  It caught my eye when it was listed as one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

2.  Opening to God, David Benner.  I am more and more attracted to lectio divina.

3.  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand,  Helen Simonson.  Our January book club selection.  Stay tuned for more intriguing choices.

4.  Memoir:  a History, Ben Yagoda.  I discovered this book when Borders was going out of business and the shelves had thinned out.  I'm inordinately interested in the rise of the memoir as a literary genre and hope that reading this will help crystalize some opinions about this.  It also intrigues me that one of Ben Yagoda's other books is a biography of Will Rogers.  (Perhaps that one should go on my list, too?)

5.  Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean.  I mean, look at that face.  How can you not want to know everything about Rin Tin Tin?

6.   Accompany Them with Singing, Thomas Long.  It seems to me that the Christian funeral is one of the most essential tasks of the church.

7.  Simply Christian, N.T. Wright.  I like substantial theological books that I can also share with the people in my congregation.  I think that much of Wright's work is like this.

8.  The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller.  Just because I need to read it.

9.  Another mystery by Henning Mankell.  Not sure which one yet.  But, I'll let you know.

10.  I will be looking for a book or books of poetry by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. 

11.  Also, I want to find at least one laugh-out-loud funny book this year.  Because, as Milton Berle once said, "Laughter is an instant vacation."

It is interesting that there are not more novels or memoirs on this list -- yet.  As the year progresses, I'm sure that stories will form the backbone of what I read.  I just haven't gotten the buzz yet on which stories I need to read.  Anyone?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best Books I Read In 2011

Humbly offered, here are my offerings of some of the best and/or most intriguing books I read this year:

1.  Bossypants, Tina Fey.  I really didn't know much about Tiny Fey but her spot-on Sarah Palin impression.  This is not a book I would have picked out, but I found it provocative, insightful, and of course, laugh-out-loud funny.  Several over her comedy/humor insights work for sermons too. 

2.  Snowflake Bentley, Jacqueline Briggs Martin.  Perhaps it seems like cheating to include this charming little book for children (although it did win a Caldecott prize).  However, the true story it relays is about Wilson Bentley, who loved snow and wanted to share the beauty of snowflakes with the world. 

3.  Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle.  Stories and anecdotes about Father Boyle's work with gangs in L.A., and the power of God's boundless compasison.

4.  Mighty Be Our Power, Leymah Gbowee.  Powerful story of the women behind the peace movement in Liberia. 

5.  A Door Set Open,  Peter Steinke.  I think, anyway, his best book.  Change is difficult, but the best way to effect change is to through mission.

6.  Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean.  Prof. Dean has done a lot of research with mainline youth and finds that most of them hold to a sort of content-less faith in a a feel-good God, that has very little to do with the faith we say we profess.  She also says that it's our fault.  I think I agree with her.  But, what should we do now?

7.  Giving to God, Mark Allan Powell.  I also read (and liked) Not Your Parents' Offering Plate.  While I'm still not about the practical implications of Powell's book, I will say that, in the end, it is actually more radical than the other one.  Especially intrigued by the idea that our gifts to our congregations are actually just our share in an obligation to our community, but not the sum of our giving to God.  But how many of us feel that sense of community obligation to our congregation?

8.  Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell.  I've read a few mysteries this year; I think this was the best one.  I'll be looking for more of Mankell in the next year.  Sort of noirish and dark, but it's Swedish, so what can you expect?

9. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese.  Really epic story that ranges from India to Ethiopia to New York City.  Tragic and beautiful.

10.  Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me, Ian Cron.  I will say that this book was not what I expected, in some ways.  I expected more CIA intrigue, I'll admit.  But I read a lot of memoirs (I'll admit) and this one was compelling for all the reasons that I read memoris -- the narrative of coming-to-faith, the sense of the hound of heaven at the heels, the strange and the familiar (some elements of Cron's faith story, especially the scenes from the 70s charismatic movement, were eerily familiar).

11.  The Grace of Silence, Michele Norris.  Another memoir of sorts, by NPR journalist who grew up in my back yard (south Minneapolis).  She researches the stories of her father and her grandmother, finding compellling secrets, unanswered questions, legacies of the civil rights movement, and our inability to talk about race.