Friday, March 30, 2012

What Love Will Do

"He could have been anything he wanted.  But he chose to stay here."

It has been many years now since the funeral of the elderly bachelor farmer.  He died at 88, well-beloved by the people of the small rural community where he made his home.  I particularly remember how he used to visit his sister, who was an invalid.  Her face would light up whenever he came into the room. 

Between the funeral and the cemetery, a man came up to me and introduced himself.  One of the nephews, I think.  I don't remember that.  But I remember what he said: 

"He could have been anything he wanted.  But he chose to stay here."

Perhaps he looked at me, a city girl transplanted to the country, and thought:  She doesn't really know him.  There's so much she doesn't know about him.  He might have thought that when I looked at this elderly gentleman, I only saw the surface, and I made assumptions.  I saw a man who had lived a small life, in a small community, who never married.  I saw a stoic Norwegian, a man of simple habits and few words.  But he wanted me to know things that I couldn't see, or at least that I couldn't see with my eyes.  He wanted me to know that this man didn't have to stay here.  He had choices.  He could have been an engineer.  He could have been a lawyer.  He could have moved away to the big city.  He could have done anything he wanted, been anything he wanted.  But he chose to stay.  Why?

It's not the success story that we usually hear, that we have grown familiar with:  the story about getting to the top, the story about leaving behind the small life and making it in the big city.  It's not a rags to riches story, not a story about how intelligence, creativity and drive won the day.  But the words still haunt me, "He could have been anything he wanted.  He chose to stay here."

He chose to stay here.  That is the point the apostle Paul is trying to make, in the reading we heard from Philippians.  Here is Jesus, the eternal Son of God, familiar with glory, and power and honor, and yet.... he came here.  He came here, and he stayed here, with us.  He opened his hands and healed people.  He opened his hands and fed people.  He taught and forgive and loved.  He wept with those who wept.  He raised the dead.  He rejoiced.  He walked around.  He felt pain.  He died. 

It came to that. 

It goes in the opposite direction of the success stories that we usually hear.  First, he gave up his power, his glory, to come here.  He came here, and he stayed here.  He stayed so that people could feel his touch, could hear his voice, could be healed, and fed.  He stayed even when sky became dark, and everyone turned away.  He stayed when all that were left were taunters, saying, "He saved others.  He cannot save himself."

It came to that. 

We looked at him but didn't see.  On Palm Sunday it seemed so clear.  He was on his way up, and that was the way it was supposed to be.  But, in reality, he was on his way down, further down, all the way down, all the way down to the depths of human sin, and misery and injustice.  He was on his way down, for the sake of the children and the Pharisees, for the sake of the beautiful and the ugly, for the sake of the successful and the failures.   And no one wanted to go there with him, but he went there with us. 

Because that's what love will do. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"We Wish to See Jesus", part 2

"Trust me."

These are words we hear on this 5th Sunday in Lent, as Holy Week approaches, as the shadow of the cross falls nearer.  "Trust me."  These are words we hear as well in the early spring, as we're looking for signs of life.  We're looking for signs of life, and I don't mean just spring, or even primarily spring, since in most places other than my yard there are plenty of signs of spring.  There are lots of ways that we might be looking for signs of life:  maybe in our own families, maybe in our communities, maybe in the world.  Like the Greeks, "We wish to see Jesus.  We heard a story about him raising the dead."  We want to see life.

I need to tell you, that the verses we just heard, the verses about the seed falling into the earth and dying -- the verses about bearing fruit -- these verses I associate with cemeteries, because that's where I often hear them, and that's where I often say them.  I say them while I am standing at a graveside with a family, saying goodbye to someone they love.  I say them while I am standing in front of a casket, or an urn.  And I love to hear the words about the seeds, because they do remind me of unseen new life.  I remember hearing more than once a story about a little boy, who was driving by a cemetery with his parents.  "Oh!"  he cried out.  "That's where we planted grandpa!"

It's the words that come after that bother me -- words about how the ones who love their lives inn this world will lose them, and those who hate their lives will gain them for eternal life.  When I read these words at cemeteries, I think about how the person who died loved hte life they had been given, loved the families and friends they had been given, loved the work God had given them to do.  And I think:  I don't believe Jesus means that we are to hate this life, the beauty around us, the work God has given us to do, the abundance of friends and family.  I don't think Jesus means we are to hate that life; I think he means us to glory in it, embrace it, love it, live it.  To "hateo ur lives in this world" doesn't mean to hate our created lives, it means something different, I think.  It means to hate the world that has turned its back on God; it means to hate the world that judges people by their success, or their power, or their money, or their beauty.  that tells us that some people are more valuable than other.  It means to hate the world that teaches us to fear people that look different than we do, or who come from a different place than we do.  To "hateo ur lives in this world" means to hate the forces that tempt us to harden our hearts, to despise the weak, to live only for ourselves.

There's a popular book out called "The Hunger Games."  In fact, it just became a movie; I know some young people stood in line at midnight on Thursday night in order to see it.  The Hunger Games is a dark story about a future world where resources are scarce, and where many people had turned against one another to survive.  The games themselves are cruel tournaments where young people are forced to fight one another to the death, for the entertainment of others.  But in the midst of the story, one of the young people, a boy named Peeta, says that there is something he fears more than death.

What he fears most is being turned into someone else by the games, turned into someone cruel, and hard.  He tells one of the other players, "I want to die as myself....I don't want them to change me in there.  Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not." 

To me, this is what Jesus means by "hating your life in this world."  Peeta knows that there is some thing worse than death, and that is becoming a part of the cruelty, a part of the "game."  Jesus tells us as well, that there is something worse than death, and that is turning our backs on God, turning our backs on love, turning our backs on compassion, honor, grace.

I read the passage of scripture from John most often at a cemetery, and I think of the life that is seen, and the life that is buried.  "Trust me," Jesus says to me there.  "Trust me that the seed will come up.  Trust me that goodness and beauty will win.  Trust me that you will see one another -- and me -- again."

But it's not just at the cemetery that I need to hear it-- that we need to hear it.  In fact, if we only hear there words of Jesus at a cemetery, I think we hear them wrong.  They aren't just for the promise that we will live after we die.  They are for us here each day, whenever we are looking for signs of life.

"We wish to see Jesus," the Greeks said to Philip and Andrew.  We do too.

We wish to see signs of life where there is death.  We wish to see signs of compassion where there is cruelty.  We wish to see signs that God is working inthe world, evven in us, that God can transform our own hard hearts. 

Jesus points to the seed buried in the ground, he points to a cross, and he says, "Trust me..... and follow me."  AMEN

Friday, March 23, 2012

"We Wish to See Jesus"

It wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the early spring around here.  I mean, I know that spring has, literally, sprung.  Spring was March 20.  But here in Minnesota, March 20 is usually just a day, a day when we are often still covered with snow, and expecting more.  But most of last week, the week before spring, the weather around here was up in the 70s.  And I've been noticing that, much earlier than usual, there have been buds on even leaves on some of the bushes and trees.  There is a magnolia outside our church that is blooming, at least a month early.

Except in our yard, it's not happening.  We had some new work in our yard last fall, which was really exciting.  We got some new, beautiful bushes, which we watered carefully every day for what seemed like a long time until we were given permission to stop.  They're all dead now.  At least they look dead.  I've been watching them, over the last week or so, worried about whether or not they were going to come back. As I said, I don't think it would be a problem, if it were not for the early spring around here.  I wouldn't be watching already.  But now I'm worried, so I sent an email to our landscaper asking him about our new plants.  Of course, he told me not to worry.  He said that everything would be all right.  Everything comes up at its own rate.  I emailed him back.  Are you sure? I asked.  They look dead to me.  He emailed me back again.  They only look dead.  I felt like he was saying, "trust me."  But I want to see those new buds, however tiny.  I want to see that new growth appear. 

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus."  It was nearing the Passover, and some Greeks came up to Philip and said these words.  I don't know who these Greeks were.  They may have been Jewish people who lived in the Greek-speaking world; they may have been Greek converts to Judaism.  But whoever they were, they were curious.  They wanted to meet Jesus.  I can only imagine that they had heard stories about him -- stories perhaps about how he fed thousands, or healed a blind man or, most recently, raised a man named Lazarus from the dead.  They had heard the buzz, and they wanted to see for themselves.  And I can't say that I blame them.  Staring every day at the dead branches in the bushes of my house, I want to see life. 

So what does Jesus say?  He tells them, "Unless a seeds falls to earth and dies, it remains alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit."  He points to the earth where the seed has disappeared, and says, "trust me."

To be continued....

Monday, March 19, 2012

Liturgy Is Not The Problem

At least, I don't think so.

In some circles, it seems like the word "liturgy" has a connotation somewhat like the word "liberal".  "Liturgy" is a code word for everything that is wrong with the church:  ritual and repetition without meaning, doing the same thing over and over again.  Liturgy is boring and not spontaneous.  It is right up there with organ music and hymns written before 1980.  In many many church growth books out there these days, at least one of the steps is something on the order of "get rid of liturgy".

But, is this really the problem?  All worship has to have an order to it, just like most of us, when we travel, travel on roads.  Sometimes it is exciting to travel on rough terrain in a jeep, and at other times, the most important thing is simply to get there.  Absolutely, the journey is important, but I am not with those who say that the destination doesn't matter.  At the end of the day, the most important thing is that I arrive at home, and not somewhere else.    In the same way, I have been moved and fed by many different kinds of worship services, from high liturgies to Pentecostal praise services.  Liturgy is not rote repetition to me; it contains the richness of art and poetry and beauty.

One of the problems with liturgy, I think, is that those of us who are used to it take it for granted.  We travel this particular road from week to week; we're used to it.  Some of us are aware of why we take this road and the specific scenery to watch out for; others don't know why, and we have never taught them.  We may hold to liturgy too rigidly, using it to keep the presence of God away instead of to draw near.  We may hold to liturgy too loosely, not recognizing the beauty of the structures in the same way we don't always recognize the beauty in a sonnet.

Not everyone has grown up with liturgy, it may be argued.  But not everyone has grown up speaking in tongues, either, and I don't see Pentecostals casting that element of their faith aside, believing it to be odd and a stumbling block. 

Last week, I presided at several funerals.  The first one, on Monday, was for a dear man who had grown quite deaf.  Yet he came to church every Sunday, even though he could not hear one word of the sermon or the music of the songs.

He was fed by the words of the liturgy, which he recited week after week.  He was fed by the words of the Creed, and by participating in the Lord's Supper with his community of faith.

Liturgy may be a barrier for some, but for others, it is a door to the presence of God.  Some day, it may even be so for you.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rev. Clarence Solberg: 1917-2012 "By Heart"

Today was the funeral of our beloved former visitation pastor, Clarence Solberg.  I didn't preach, but I wrote a few words that I shared at the funeral.  Here they are:

"By Heart"

A year ago at Christmas I was making a visit to my friend and colleague Pastor Clarence Solberg and his wife Jeannette.  I will tell you that sometimes there was a challenge when I would go to the Masonic Home.  the challenge would be to find them, as they did not stay put much.  They might be playing Bingo (which Clarence often won), they might be joining a sing-a-long, they might simply be out in the front lobby, where Pastor Clarence liked to shake hands and greet everyone he met.  This day, however, they were across from the chapel, sitting at a little round table.

Since it was almost Christmas eve, I decided to read from Luke 2.  For some reason, I had brought my confirmation Bible, the OLD Revised Standard Version, that day, and as soon as I started to read, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled"  -- Pastor Solberg began reciting right along with me.  Once in awhile he would drop out for just a few words, but he would come right back with the next phrase, all the way to the end of the Christmas story.  He was especially strong whenever I came to the phrase about the b aby, "wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

All of those many years, repeating that story again and again, had gotten the words of Luke, chapter 2 deep into his heart.  All of those years telling the story to his many  congregations meant that he knew the story by heart.  "God is with us."

That wasn't the only thing he knew by heart of course.  Sometimes he would recite the words of institution with me, or raise his hands and say the words of the benediction.  "The Lord bless you and keep you/the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you/the Lord look upon you with favor/and give you peace."  He was such a pastor; he lived and breathed his vocation, and knew it by heart.  His calling was to speak the Word, and those words were deep within him.

Memory work has fallen on hard times these days, but I can't help thinking how important it is to know things by heart:  the verses of a song, a piece of scripture -- who we are.  Clarence Solberg knew who he was -- he was a pastor, he knew it by heart.  (Of course he wasn't just a pastor, he was also a husband, father, grandfather, and proud owner of Toyotas).  I heard someone say that he tried his hand at farming -- he was even good at it.  But he wasn't a farmer.  He was a pastor.  He could be opinionated:  he let me know on a few occasions when he disagreed with me (just a few!).  And I remember early on that he told me he wasn't quite convinced about women pastors, "but you're ok", he said.  I think he finally came to the conclusion that the most important thing was to preach the gospel.  Gender:  not so much.

Pastor Clarence and I shared a fair amount of funeral ministry, so I can't help thinking that some of the words that we have heard -- and will hear -- were some of the most dear to him.  "When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death."  "What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear."  Saying them again and again, he came to know them by heart.

By heart:  it's also how many of us know Clarence.  We know him by heart.  There are many stories we could share.  I hope we do.  Memory work has fallen on hard times these days, but we know how important it is to know "by heart" -- not just words, but to know one another "by heart".   It is, after all, how God knows us.

"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, goodwill to all."

What Day is Today?

Oh yeah, it's Saturday.

A week ago Thursday we were leaving Wabasha, Minnesota after about a day-and-a-half Lenten respite.  Before we left, we had a little conversation about my anxiety about taking a break during Lent.   (Think of it as a weekend, my husband said.  You don't get weekends.)  We actually left Thursday morning and stopped a couple of places, but I got back to church by about noon.  I wanted to get a few things organized in the office before we went to pick up our dog at the sitter's.

I discovered that a gentleman from our church had died on Thursday morning.  So, I got a meeting scheduled for his wife, to come and plan the funeral service.  I also discovered that another older gentleman from our congregation was in the hospital.  I went to visit him late in the afternoon.

He died Friday morning.

On Friday I had sermon preparation, two communion services at senior residences, and a meeting with a family for a funeral.  I wasn't terribly satisfied with my sermon when I left on Friday.

On Saturday, I met with the other family about their funeral service, held a first communion class, and prepared two funeral bulletins.  I also tried to tweak my Saturday evening/Sunday morning sermon.  I preached at 5:00, and jotted down notes for a children's message.

On Sunday, I did the services, met with a couple for a June wedding, went to the 83rd birthday party for my dad, and wrote the Monday funeral sermon.

On Monday, I officiated at the first funeral service.  Afterwards, I got a call from the daughter of the retired pastor who used to serve as our visitation pastor.  Her father was not doing well, she reported.  I went home and wrote a sermon for the Tuesday service.

On Tuesday, I officiated at the second funeral service.  Before the service started, I got a call saying that our former visitation pastor had died.  After the funeral, but before the interment service, I got a call from a woman in our congregation who said her husband had just died.  She wanted me to officiate at a funeral on Friday.  On Tuesday evening, another member of our congregation died.  The other pastor went to be with her family.

On Wednesday morning, I was supposed to do a slide presentation for our senior fellowship group about our trip to Mesa Verde last summer.  It wasn't the best slide presentation ever.  Afterwards, we met with two families to plan funerals on Friday and Saturday (today).  On Wednesday afternoon, I wrote a sermon for the Lenten service.  (Did you know that the story of Jonah is really a story about prayer?  I didn't think so.)  I also went to part of a Leadership Board meeting.

On Thursday, I didn't have a funeral.  But I did write a funeral sermon.  I think I did a couple of other things, too, but I forget what they are now.

On Friday, I had a funeral.  I think I did a couple of other things too, but I forget what they are now.  I went home a little early.

Today, we had a funeral for the former visitation pastor.  I didn't preach for this one, but I wrote a little eulogy, which I will post shortly.  I also met with two couples who will be getting married in May and in July.

It's Saturday. yeah.

Monday, March 5, 2012

It's a Package Deal

Seven years ago we got a puppy.  I saw her when I was visiting in a nursing home.  She was three weeks old, part Golden Retriever, party Husky, part question mark.  All cute.  She slept in my lap while I visited with a parish member.  Though I had never had a dog of my own (just the little dog who grew up with us), I was suddenly considering it.  I "knew" it would be a commitment.  Yeah.

In the past seven years there have been sleepless nights, broken legs, trips to the vet, obedience school.  There have been diet problems and behavior problems.  There have been bills.  We have been worried.  There have also been times when I wouldn't trade our dog for anything, when she has showed her charm to strangers, let a child hug her, walked alongside me, sighed with contentment.  It's a package deal.

It's a package deal, though now that she's seven, there are more good days than bad.

One morning last week, though, I was getting ready for work, and called our dog in from outside.  Admittedly, she was out in our backyard longer than usual, but she seemed to be doing fine.  We are grateful for our fenced in backyard, and we are also grateful that this year the snow is not so deep that she can just walk over to the next-door neighbor's yard.  Anyway, I called her in, and she came, but I immediately sensed that something was wrong.

Maybe the right word is "smelled."  She smelled funny.  And, she looked funny, too.  And she was leaving funny brown tracks in the kitchen, which were not dirt. 

Our dog likes to roll around in the snow.  That's one of the things she likes to do.  But, in our unseasonably warm winter, I guess it's not just snow out there.

So, here I was, all dressed up for work, washing the kitchen floor and making my dog sit and stay while I washed her paws.  And her neck.  And the side of her face.  It's not one of the things they write in the book about the Rewards of Dog Ownership.  But, as we have discovered, it's a package deal.

During the season of Lent, I think it is also well to remember that being a disciple is a package deal.  There are those who would entice us with the Rewards of Discipleship (you know, "Your Best Life Now" and all that), and there are also those who would make discipleship into a cult of suffering.   But being a disciple of Jesus is neither a cult of suffering nor a cult of success.  It is simply a package deal.  It is what you get when you follow Jesus.  It is the way of life, even though the road leads through death. 

Many years ago, when my Lutheran congregation designed and built their sanctuary, they discovered that the pews they ordered came with kneelers.  Even though kneeling is sort of unusual in Lutheran churches, they decided to keep the kneelers.  They were right to do it. 

After all, it's a package deal.