Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On Being Thirteen

One of the things I hate about doing youth ministry is that it reminds me of being thirteen.

I see the interactions between girls, between boys, between girls and boys, I see the one girl who gets left out, the boy who the girls laugh at because his hair is messy, the girls who are already using mascara, and the one girl who is not, and I remember:  I was not one of the cool kids.

I looked in the mirror some days and despaired that I would ever be pretty.  I sometimes thought that other kids were laughing at me behind my back.  I wanted boys to like me, but didn't know what to say to them.  I was shy.  I didn't always know what the latest style was.  I was a little socially awkward, not good at sports.  I did not like to go to youth group much because, despite the fact that I went to the same school as most of the others, I only had one friend there.  I thought of youth group as being a place for the "cool kids" too, not for me.  When I was confirmed I started helping with Sunday School and singing in the Adult Choir. 

I have heard some youth group leaders say that actually the way to grow a youth group is to appeal to the cool kids, the popular kids.  You can't have a good youth group by appealing to young people who are like I was, shy and a little awkward and insecure.  I get that, but it still makes me sad. 

Looking back, I realize that part of my problem was that I was so focused on myself and my insecurities, all that I thought that was wrong with me.  I supposed that is part of being thirteen, whether you are a "cool kid" or not.  But the other thing I realize, when I look out at all those thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year olds now, is that it isn't just the lonely, shy ones who are full of doubts and insecurities, who wonder if anyone will love them, who look in the mirror and despair.  Most of the "cool kids" don't think they are so cool.  Not really.  Some of them are worried that they are going to be discovered.  They're all struggling.  It's just that some of the struggles are so painfully obvious, and some of them are hidden behind the surface of a pretty face or a group of friends, or the ability to throw a ball.

We're all struggling, whether we're thirteen or thirty or fifty four or eighty.  Some of us are able to hide it better than others.  But on Ash Wednesday, some of us go public, come out of hiding, and show the world that we are dust.  You thought we were cool kids?  No.  We're dust.  We're losers.  We're insecure, we can be self-absorbed, we're awkward.  We confess to you, O Lord.

And yet we are also beloved.  God has marked us with the cross, and said, "You are mine.  You are beautiful.  There is a place for you.  Even if you are thirteen."

One of the things I hate about youth ministry is that it reminds me of being thirteen.  But, that's one of the things I love about it, too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Visiting the Dying on Ash Wednesday

Today was Ash Wednesday.  I have the cross of ashes on my forehead to prove it.  I heard again the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  I said the same words this evening and made crosses on babies and on a man in a wheelchair, on a young couple I had never seen before, on a woman whose cancer has returned, on another woman whose husband now lives in a nursing home, on teenage triplets, on a single mom and her son.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  These words mark and form the day, no matter what else I do.  And usually the day gets consumed with the worship services (we have three) and all the preparation for them. 

Today, between the worship services, I spent some time at a home nearby, praying and giving communion to one of my parish members.  He and his wife had been in my office not a month ago, telling me of his diagnosis.  We talked and prayed and they wrote down a few of his wishes for his funeral.  I found out that he had been in the navy long ago, but never on the sea.  He was a navy flyer.  Yesterday they called and said they wanted me to visit.  So today I came with communion and with scripture readings.  "Return to the Lord your God," I read, "For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."  "It's the perfect verse," his wife said.   "Abounding in steadfast love."  "God's arms are open wide."

Later on, I drove down to a nearby nursing home, where I stopped in to see a woman who has dementia.  Her bed was near the floor when I walked in.  I bent down low to hold her hand.  I don't know for sure if she knew who I was, but I said she had on a lovely shawl, and she said "good."  I sang a couple of songs for her, because that's what I do when I don't know what to do.  And I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, "Gloria, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."

I made the sign of the cross on many foreheads today.  I visited the dying.  They were dying, and they were being born again, by the mercy of God.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tools for Missionaries

Recently I had a conversation with one of the young parents in my congregation.  We were talking having a far-reaching discussion that included Sunday School, next summer's Vacation Bible School Program, and the changing nature of our culture and church attendance.  When I offered the idea that "going to church" is not as culturally normal now as it was when I was growing up, she replied, "That's right!  I think we are the only ones who go to church among all of our friends."  She continued that she knew that her friends had a wide variety of opinions and emotions regarding faith, from some who clearly were not interested, to others who were more ambivalent. 

I blurted out, "So, you're sort of like missionaries to your friends."

I immediately regretted the statement.  In my experience, the word "missionary" can have several negative connotations.  The rigid, judgmental missionary of James Michener's Hawaii comes to mind, along with images of people who pass out tracts on street corners, coerce people to conform to Western standards of behavior, and fail to learn cultural languages.  I was a missionary myself, once (long ago), so I know all of the stereotypes.  They have sometimes been deserved.

But instead of recoiling, this parent responded, "yes, we are sort of like missionaries," which made me wonder if we are equipping the people in our congregations to be missionaries, in the best sense of the word.

I thought about the missionaries I knew, long ago.  They were passionate that people know Jesus, certainly, but they were also passionate about justice.  They immersed themselves in another culture and learned another language.  They talked about transforming lives, but their own lives had been transformed by the people they met and by the experiences they had. 

What would it mean for us to do faith formation in our churches as if we knew that all of the people in our congregation were missionaries, in the best sense of the word?  What sort of practices would we teach, or engage in?  What would we do differently if we believed we were teaching people to be missionaries?*

1.  We would teach people how to listen first.  Listening evangelism, that's what I'd call it.  Teach people to listen, truly be curious, ask good questions about their friends and their friends' lives.  Teach parents to listen to children, children to parents.  Teach people to listen to the strangers who visit our congregation, to their neighbors and coworkers and the immigrants who move in across the street, to the spiritual but not religious friends. 

2.  We would teach people that they each have a faith story, and help them learn to tell it.  The story has something to do with grace, something to do with love, something to do with forgiveness, everything to do with God.  It might be big and dramatic or small and ordinary.  I will always remember hearing Lauren Winner (author of "Girl Meets God") say that she had a hard time writing her memoir, until she realized that the main character was really God.

3.  We would teach people that they don't have to know everything to know something about the love of God.  They don't have to defend, just invite.  Teach people to be gracious inviters, able to deal with both a "yes" and a "no". 

4.  We would create safe places of invitation in our churches, whether that is a Sunday worship, a day of service, a shared meal or a time of fellowship.  What would you be proud to invite a friend or neighbor to participate in with you? 

Tools for missionaries.  Here are just a few.  What are some other tools that you think modern-day "missionaries" should have?

*if you can think of a better word than "missionary", please feel free to tell me.  I won't be offended.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

If Only it was This Easy

On Monday morning, my husband and I went out to breakfast, as is our habit.  We went to a sort of healthy eating breakfast place, where I could have pumpkin pancakes and he could have oatmeal with all sorts of extras.   I brought along a pair of footies I am working on right now.  I'm almost to the toe on the second one, happily knitting along in a circle.  I've got this beautiful variegated yarn that I'm working with; it must have been visible from the little green bag on my arm.

The woman who seated us stopped over at our table a little while later.  "What are you working on?"  she asked.  I pulled out the sock I was working on, then the other, finished one.  She admired them.  I asked if she knitted, and she said that she did.  "But I can't read a pattern," she said.  "I can't imagine NOT using a pattern," I admitted.  I had to admit that I admired her creativity. 

"What do you make?" I asked her.  "Mostly baby blankets and scarves," she answered.

"That's really beautiful yarn," she offered.  "Where did you get it?"

I told her the name of the yarn store where I do most of my shopping, where I not only purchase yarn but also go to get knitting help and advice.  I told her about how much they have helped me in the past couple of years.

A little later, I felt like I had been a sort of "Knitting Evangelist", inviting her to my Church, showing her the patterns that are meaningful to me, while not judging her ability to make beautiful things without one. 

And I thought, if only it was this easy:  to speak to one another about our faith, about the patterns of our lives, about how worship makes meaning, about the songs and the prayers and the people who walk with us and hold us up when we fall down.  If only it was as easy as holding up a sock, showing off the beautiful yarn, noticing another person's scarf, and sharing the patterns, and who made the yarn. 

If only it was this easy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Defense of Coloring

An older member of our congregation revealed to me recently that a younger relative of hers (a young parent) had left our congregation long ago because of one thing:  Coloring.

Our Sunday School wasn't serious enough.  "All they did was color," she said, conjuring up for me visions of past Sunday Schools with lots of Bible verse memorization and gold stars for attendance. 

Now, I knew that this wasn't exactly true.  I knew that we had Lectionary based Bible lessons, which also included crafts, not just coloring.  (In fact, I had one mother tell me, long ago, that her young daughter wanted to become Lutheran "because of the crafts.")  But I was cut by the word of judgment, even though it was relayed to me at least ten years after the fact.

No one likes to think that they are falling down on the job of transmitting their faith to their children.  No one likes to think that they are coloring instead of helping children learn Bible stories, pray, and know, in an age- appropriate way, what they believe.  And our congregation does plenty of things besides Sunday School, including special Faith Milestones where chldren learn with their parents about Prayer, The Ten Commandments, Reading the Bible, and the Apostles Creed.

But it's challenging to find ways to share faith with the children.  Especially in this day and age when even on Sunday mornings it's hard to find time to gather regularly.  For one thing, there's hockey (yes, I live in the upper midwest).  Families are mobile and have obligations that interfere with regular Sunday School attendance.

And -- dare I say it? -- even if every child was at every Sunday School session every year, one hour a week is not enough time to share faith, especially if we consider friends, TV, school, and the myriad other things that children are experiencing.  Even if all we do is sit in chairs and memorize Bible verses and recite them for the whole hour, it's only an hour.

It seems to me that if we want to share our faith with the children, it's best if we are doing it all the time, not just for an hour on Sunday, but at mealtimes and in the car and whenever we have the chance.  It also seems to me that coloring is not the problem.  It's not so much how we teach the children, but how and what we teach adults that matters.

So, I think:  go ahead and color with the children.  Color with the children, but teach adults:  teach them to pray and to talk about their own faith, teach them to listen and pay attention to children's questions, teach them the vocabulary of faith:  grace and sacrifice, repentance and love, Jesus.  All the Time.

And then, let them color with the children.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All of My Evidence is Anecdotal

Which is to say:  all I have is stories.

I noticed a young family gone absent from worship.  She is a gifted musician and actress; they have two young children.  She did a benefit concert here once full of wonderful musical numbers; all the proceeds went to cancer research.  I had been somewhat connected with them and eventually found her on facebook, where I noticed that her religious affiliation was "atheist."


We had several facebook chats, where she was open about she and her husband's conversations, and that they discovered that "they didn't really believe in a personal god."  Later on, I noticed she had changed her religious designation to "humanist"; I asked her if that was a somewhat "kinder, gentler" version of atheism, especially since I knew that several members of her family were pious Christians.  I thought there was a slight online grin there. 


A young couple is sitting in my office.  They want to get married.  They are extremely nice, interesting, earnest people.  He's a special education teacher, I remember, who considers himself a role model for at-risk kids.

They are sitting in my office, having completed the pre-marriage inventory that I offer.  We are talking about Spiritual Beliefs, which is one of the categories on the inventory.

"We don't believe that you have to go church to be saved," they tell me.  They say it with a slight bit of embarrassment, as it is Sunday, after church, and I am wearing a collar, and until about 15 minutes ago, I was leading worship.  But it's only a slight bit of embarrassment.

The thing is, if the sentence is exactly the way they said it, "I don't think you have to go to church to be saved," I don't disagree with them.  I don't think you have to go to church to be saved, if you put it in those particular words.  The sentence makes going to church sound like part of a salvation check-list, and going to church like taking castor oil or eating your spinach.  Good-for-you, they say, but somehow unpleasant.  (Which I suppose it is, for some people.)  There's the problem with the words "have to", but there's also a problem with the words "Go to church", rather than "go to worship."  It makes church sound like a place you spend a little time to fulfill your religious requirement, rather than a community of people who are committed to listening to God and following Jesus. 


Saturday, I met with a couple of women who want to join our congregation.  Mostly, we just had a conversation, although I gave them each a copy of Daniel Erlander's book Baptized, We Live.  And a copy of Luther's Small Catechism.  They asked questions; we talked about a few of the fundamentals of what it means to be Christian, and Lutheran.  I offered my favorite part of the catechism, which is Luther's explanation to the Third Article of the Creed (on the Holy Spirit), "I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith...."

"You're here because the Holy Spirit called you," I offered.  "At least, according to Luther." 

"That's what we think," they both said.


Last Wednesday, I heard a little bit of a presentation by Diana Butler Bass.  The title of her lecture was, "The Great Religious Recession", and was taken from her forthcoming book, Christianity after Religion.  She did a lot of research and told stories about the decline in esteem for religion all over the world, including here.  A lot of what she said rang true.  Though it is not true that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States, it is true that the religious climate is changing, that culture is more skeptical and less friendly to religion in general.

There are days when it can get discouraging.

But somehow I think that the Holy Spirit is still around.

But, all I have is stories.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Saint Audrey and Father Greg

I got a phone call from the hospital yesterday, telling about a parish member who has begun receiving hospice visits.   "She would like you to come and visit her," was the gist of the message.  So I called her and made an appointment to visit with her today.

When I reached her on the telephone, she greeted me, "I've been waiting for your call.  I would like to see you so much."  I felt an over-the-phone warm hospitality.  When I mentioned this woman to another member of our staff, we searched around for the right word to describe her.  Suddenly, it occurred to us.  She was a saint.

Today, when I sat down at her table, she grasped my hand and told me of her diagnosis.  "The thing is," she said, "I am not afraid.  I am not afraid.  I have been walking with Jesus my whole life.  Lately, I've been thinking, 'Soon and very soon, I am going to see the King.'" 

She smiled.  We talked some more.  I asked her about the years she spent in Nigeria, with an agricultural mission there.  She was an Anglican there, she told me, because there were no Lutheran churches, and the Baptists told her she could not take communion until she was baptized again.  She described the large lizards (they were beautiful, she said) and how they came into the church.  She spoke with pride about her nieces and nephews.  We shared communion.

This evening my husband and I went to a neighboring church to hear Father Greg Boyle speak about his work with gangs in Los Angeles.  I read his book last Thanksgiving time.  The stories shared reminded me about the depth and breadth and width of God's love.

The word tonight was "Kinship."  The truth is that we belong to one another, but, most of the time, we do not know it.  Most of the time we think there is a difference between those who have tattoos and those who don't, those who have jobs and those who don't, those who are 'good' and those who are 'bad,' those who are worthy and those who are worthless.  We think that there is a 'them' and an 'us.'  But there is only us.  Father Greg told us that our real work is "to create a community of kinship such that God would recognize it."  And he told us of moments when he caught a glimpse of such kinship:  between enemies who suddenly realized that they were friends, when gang members told their stories, when "the soul felt its worth."  He told us that the line from the Christmas Hymn "O Holy Night, "When he appeared and the soul felt its worth" is really a job description for all of us.  How do we help other people know how much they are worth to God?

Saint Audrey and Father Greg

both of you are practicing kinship, both of you are preaching the gospel, on the streets, at your kitchen table.   You have been walking with Jesus your whole lives.  You have let us catch a glimpse of him.

Thank you.