Sunday, April 29, 2012

Many Kinds of Grace

I preached this weekend again (two weekends in a row), but won't again for a month, which is an unusual arrangement.  As well, I went down to the 9th grade confirmation retreat Friday night through Saturday morning, to help them prepare to write their faith statements, to lead an evening devotion, and to walk through the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism with them. 

I drove back to church Saturday afternoon to meet a couple who is preparing for their wedding, and to get ready for the Saturday evening service. 

There have been a large group of young adults staying in our church all weekend.  They are training  with an organization called YouthWorks,  and will go all over the country, leading high school students on mission trips.  I had brief conversations with a few of them (mostly consisting in "How are you doing?"), and ran into a couple of young women having a heartfelt conversation in the chapel Saturday afternoon.

This morning they all came to worship.  They came to worship at our traditional, early service.

Our early service (may I say) sort of skews older.  It is also the smaller of our two services.  But it was twice as large this morning, with this large group of twenty-somethings and this large group of sixty and seventy-somethings, and some (of course) between. 

My sermon had a sort-of good shepherd theme, lifting up the idea that perhaps we err in focusing so much on the deficiencies of the sheep, rather than the goodness of the shepherd.   I shared about the messages we all get that highlight what we are lacking, and promise to give us what we need (There is even a perfume called "Amazing Grace."  We can buy it and be more beautiful.) 

Borrowing an idea from a popular preaching site, I closed the sermon by asking people to say to one another, "You are a beloved child of God, and you are enough."

After the service, I saw the young people and the older people talking to one another, making connections and sharing about their lives.  Several of the young people thanked me for the opportunity to stay in our church this weekend. 

But I was thanking them too.

There are many kinds of grace; there are many ways the shepherd helps us know that, though we are imperfect, we are beloved and beautiful and worthy.

He lays down his life for the sheep.  And he takes it up again.

And then he gives us to one another, young and old, and everyone in between.  And that is also grace.  Amazing grace.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Nothing in My Hands I Bring

I went to the hospital yesterday.  For some reason, I like to have a prayer book with me when I go to the hospital, even though I rarely use it.  It's not that I don't pray; I always pray.  I just don't use the prayer book.  But, it's sort of a security blanket for me.  I got used to bringing it long ago, when I was in seminary.  And actually, it's not true that I never use it; there has been the odd occasion when I've needed to look up a psalm, or find a particular prayer.  It's nice to have it in my hands, though.  It seems like a small reminder of who I am, what I am called to do, sort of like wearing a clerical collar. 

On a couple of occasions I have gone to the hospital in an emergency and discovered that I did not have my prayer book with me.  I will confess that this always feels a little awkward, at first;  it turns out that I want to have something in my hands when I visit, something I can hang on to.

The past few years, our congregation has also begun a prayer shawl ministry.  We bring prayer shawls to people who are in the hospital, as a sign of the whole congregation's love and prayers for that person.  I love handing the shawl over to the person, and seeing their delight in this physical thing that they can touch and see, a gift from our congregation to them.  I love to have something, some-thing to give them as well.

Of course, every once in awhile, I forget to bring a shawl.  I come, just me and my prayers, alone. 

"Nothing in my hands I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling."

Then I am acutely aware of my sense of inadequacy, and the promise that God gives us that God will minister to others through us.   It is not the prayer shawl, not the prayer book, not anything that I bring with me, it is the Word of God that God gives me and the treasure of God in the clay jar of my body. 

"Nothing in my hands I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling."

I come empty-handed to the hospital, to the nursing home, to the places I go to proclaim God's love and mercy.  But I come with the Word of promise, which is Christ's presence in me, and Christ's presence in us together.   And we cling to the cross together.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Truth About Sheep

I know a little about sheep, having lived in a rural area for a short while.  I know a little about sheep, but unfortunately, I have used all of my (few) good sheep stories in the years since then.  So you have all heard about the time I walked out of the door of the church one Friday morning and saw a small group of sheep standing in the church parking lot, with kind of blank looks on their faces.  And of course, I may have mentioned that though most of the members of my parish were farmers, only two of them kept sheep.  The others were dead set against them.  My small neice came to visit one year and asked one the farmers why they didn't have sheep on their farm.  "I can't tell you," the farmer told her sweetly.  "Why not?" she said.  "It isn't nice."

I've also heard any number of sermons about the dubious character of sheep.  They are not the brightest animals in the barn.  They are stubborn.  They are disobedient.  They have a habit of getting lost.  And then of course, we are all supposed to make the connection:  we too are wandering, disobedient and stubborn.

But sometimes I think sheep get a bum rap.  It's not that I want to white-wash sheep, it's just that I wonder if we miss the point of the gospel if we focus solely on the deficiencies of sheep.  Or us.

Have you noticed, that almost everybody has opinions about what you and I need, what you and I need to be fulfilled people, to live a good life? be continued

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Genuine Article

Last weekend, my husband and I did some antique shopping.  I, at least, was looking for potential birthday presents.  He said if I found something that just leaped out at me, that he might buy it.  In January I had just that sort of experience, when I spied an Art Deco teapot (all orange and black); the same thing might happen again!

We were looking on all of the shelves and through the old books and in the glass cabinets.  There were many things that I was mildly interested in, but nothing really grabbed me.  Then my husband called me over to one of those locked glass cabinets, where there was a beautiful shiny teapot (or maybe a coffeepot) with a rainbow of colors on it.  Beside it was a creamer and sugar bowl, and a few tiny cups.  The information we could get through the cabinet was that the set was Chinese, and the price tag was beyond our means.  So my husband took a picture, but we went home without it.

Once home, we went on the internet to try to find out more about this piece of pottery.  We didn't find a lot of information, and what we found was not conclusive.  It was possible that this could be a reallly old Japanese tea set, very collectible, but it was also possible that it was a reproduction, as there were reproductions of this style all over the world.  How would we know whether this was "the geniune article" or not?  Was this beautiful piece really valuable, or was it just a lot of glitter, something shiny but not substantial?  That is the question.

It seems to me, at this Easter time, in the midst of all of the glittery and impressive stories of Jesus' resurrection, that this is the question for us as well.  And in fact, this was the question for the disciples as well.  It was amazing to see him again.  They were wondering and disbelieving and afraid and joyful, all at the same time.  But was he the real thing?  Or was his appearance just something shiny and not substantial?  That's the question.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Being a Pastor to a Pastor

I used to love to watch him and his wife, sitting in the front row at church every Sunday.  He always took copious notes during the sermon.  I learned that he called one of his daughters every Sunday night, and they compared notes about what they had heard on Sunday morning.

His first parish was in Hayti, South Dakota, not far from the small three-point parish where I had served for four years.  I couldn't believe that he knew well those small towns where I had just come from.  His last call had been as the senior pastor of a large suburban church.  But he had now been semi-retired for many years.  He served part-time as a visitation pastor at a neighboring church.  But he worshiped with us.

Later on, when his wife became ill, I used to visit them both every month.  We'd read scripture, pray and share communion.  The first time I tried to pray the traditional version of the Lord's prayer, he gently told me, "We pray the newer version." 

My colleague, the senior pastor, told me once that this retired pastor requested that I be the one to come and visit his wife.  She was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  Oftentimes when I visited, she would be anxious or afraid.  She would say, "Don't leave me."  He would answer, "I'm not going anywhere."  She would say to him, "Your face is so wrinkled.  How did your face get so wrinkled?"  And he would just smile and hold her hand.

He was a tireless advocate for justice; he believed that care for the vulnerable was at the heart of the gospel.  He often would go with me to the large rallies for our local faith-based organizing group. 

He had a large garden, with tomatoes and sweet corn and beans and beets.  Maybe he should have been a farmer.  Maybe he was, in a way.

The other thing I noticed was that when he came to worship, I could tell he was remembering the Words of Institution.  He would say them silently along with me.

Just two days ago we got a call here in the office that he had begun hospice care. 

I went to his home.  One of his daughters was with him. 

I did not feel wise that day.  He is wise.  He has been praying with people, and comforting people, and reading to people for so many years.  He has been sitting by hospital beds and in nursing homes for so many years. 

This is what we did:  We read about the trumpets in 1 Corinthians 15.  I read from the gospel of John, the part when Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener.

I did not feel wise.  But I said, "It looks like soon you will be seeing Virginia (his wife) and Jesus."  I said that it's hard when there are people you love here and people you love there.

And I prayed for strength for the journey.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Small Resurrections

Some time ago, I wrote a piece here called Tools for Missionaries, which was formed out of a conversation I had with a woman in my congregation.  She mentioned that they were the only family among their friends that they knew were part of a faith community.  It occurred to me that every single person in our congregation is a missionary of sorts, and I wondered what kind of tools and training we would need to equip people with in order to do this work.

I've been thinking more since then, and it seems to me that one of the most powerful tools (or is it a gift?) that missionaries have is the ability to believe that God is working through them, and among them, and somehow see small signs of that work.  Of course, there are times when the signs that God is working among us are huge and powerful, but I was a missionary in Japan in the 1980s, where the church is very small, and we rejoiced when just one of our students was baptized.

This is the most powerful tool for us, as well, 21st century missionaries in our families, to our friends, in our neighborhoods.  God is working through us.  God is working among us.  God is working in us.  Sometimes the signs are huge and powerful, but more often there are small resurrections in the middle of our everyday life. 

I am not opposed to churches that are growing, but I do think that we put too much emphasis on numbers, at least sometimes.  There's a church in my community that regularly gets young adults in their doors.  But they are a transient community; they come and go; they are not adding to their permanent rolls.  But that doesn't mean that this church couldn't have a vital role in nurturing and helping those young adults grow deeper in their faith, for the season that they are with them.   My own congregation has a handful of regular worshipers from India.  They are only here for a season, to work at a nearby company.  But God has sent them to us for a reason, and they are a part of our community.  Seeing them is one of my "small resurrections", a reminder that God is indeed working among us.

Right before Easter we had a lighting malfunction which was serious enough that it could not be corrected.  So the lights have been dimmer than usual this Holy Week and Easter.  But maybe that's the way it is, more often than not:  the lights are not always as bright as we'd like them, but we can train our eyes to see the small resurrections that are around us.  We can train ourselves to point then out for one another, because sometimes one of us can see better than the others.

On Easter Sunday I saw a few small resurrections:  a confirmation student who has become a regular lay reader read both of the lessons at our late service, and he read them with strength and conviction.  I saw two very new babies here, with proud parents and grandparents; I saw three couples who are getting married this summer; I heard the bells ring loud on the hymn of the day, "Now all the vault of Heaven Resounds."  The sound held on for a few minutes after the end of the hymn, echoing joy.  I shook hands with a man in a wheelchair, someone I had not seen for awhile; I saw people I knew and people I didn't know.  And though I know not how, I somehow believe that God is working through us.  God is working among us.  God is working in us.

Can you see?  If you do, let me know.  I need your eyes as well....

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Water and Whispered Alleluias

a meditation for Easter Vigil.

Last summer my husband and I trekked to an out-of-the way place for the first time – a place I had heard about often but never been.

It’s a famous place, perhaps many of you have heard of it, some have even been there.

But it’s a little off the beaten path. We really had to think about how we were going to get there. The place is called "Mesa Verde."

It is tucked into the mountains of Southwestern Colorado, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, in a beautiful stretch of land.

But it’s not the beautiful, high mountains that are the main attraction there.

The scenery is breathtaking, but the main attraction is something historical – it is a number of cliff dwellings that are almost hidden underneath mesas.


People lived in these places several hundreds of years ago, and yet there is much about them that is preserved almost exactly as it was in about 1200 AD – even down to a child’s handprint on one of the walls.

Standing right in one of the cliff dwellings, our guide pointed out that these houses are so well preserved because the climate is so dry

– there is not much water here – there is not much water to wear down the rocks and disturb the sand.

Of course, that’s probably why the homes were abandoned, finally – there is not much water here.

But the guide asked us to look around and see if we could see any sources of water.

We had to look carefully, but we did see – we saw at first the pockets of green sprouting out from between the rocks, and then we saw small trickles of water too – the water that these people used to live.

We had to keep our eyes peeled, though – and we needed to know the signs, what to look for, to see the signs of life.

Water. We’ve spent so much time during Lent looking for water marks, which is to say looking for signs of life.

We’ve seen how many of the great stories of the Bible have to do with water – the waters separating at creation, the waters above and the waters below, the waters that the Israelites walked through, the waters we are thirsty for.

There’s the water that Jesus was baptized in, and the water the disciples fished in, and the water that Jesus walked on.

There’s the water Jesus washed his disciples’ feet with, and there’s the water that Jesus was thirsty for, and there’s the water that came from his wounded side.


Sometimes it’s obvious and abundant and there is so much of it you can drown in it,

and sometimes you have to keep your eyes peeled, because there’s just a little trickle, but it’s there, for those who have eyes to see.

There’s water. There’s life.

When I think about our gospel reading this evening – Mark’s resurrection story – I can’t help thinking about the little trickle of water I saw in Mesa Verde.

Partly because – well – here we are, it’s Saturday night – it’s dark.

This is the night that it all happened, in the darkness. It's the night that love conquered hate, that hope conquered fear, that life conquered death.

Remember when the women got to the tomb, the stone was already rolled away?

This is the night, the night that Jesus rose,

and even though a huge, momentous thunderous thing happened, it happened in the quiet of the dead of the night, when no one was watching.

Just a little trickle.

In the same way, when we read this story of the resurrection from Mark, might be left wanting a little more.

When we leave tonight, Jesus will not yet have appeared to his disciples, or Mary. The angels promise that he will appear to them, he will meet them, but not yet.

In fact, not only does Jesus NOT appear, but the women are terrified and run away.

They don’t say anything to anyone.

You have to imagine that it must have been very early in the morning.

There was so far just a trickle of light on the horizon.

It’s a sort of eerie, mysterious time of morning.

But there is this: the huge stone has been rolled away, somehow, and he’s not here.

And the angel says it, "He has been raised."

So far it is not the blazing light that will hurt our eyes, it’s not the water that will wash over us, it’s just this: "He has been raised."

And the women can’t say it.

The words stick in their throat.

They’re so thirsty, so thirsty, but they can’t say it.

But we can.

Tonight it’s still dark, which is the case so often for us, isn’t it? It’s still dark.

But he has been raised.

And tonight we can whisper.

Tomorrow we will shout it from the rooftops, but tonight, tonight we will whisper to one another: "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.."

And we will see signs of life, some small – that it is true.

The stone has been rolled away. Someone has taken our hand.

We have seen buds on the trees.

We heard a whispered prayer.

(Whisper: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Washing Feet

Mostly, I don't like washing feet on Maundy Thursday. 

I don't like it for a number of reasons.

Theologically, I don't think it carries the same meaning it did for Jesus and his disciples, for whom the act was a combination of humble servanthood and hospitality.  On the other hand, it does seem to cause a lot of people embarrassment.

We don't use our feet as our main mode of transportation these days.  Feet don't get nearly as dusty and dirty.  I try to imagine, only somewhat successfully, what the water must have felt like to those whose feet were sore and dusty and dirty from all of the places they had been and all of the things they had done.  It's not the same.

Practically speaking, whenever we wash feet, I have to call a few people on the telephone and ask if they are coming to Maundy Thursday services and, if so, if I can wash their feet.  Mostly, people say 'no,' because their feet are ugly, or they just have this thing about feet. 

And yet.....

Jesus said, "Love one another as I have loved you."

It's so tempting just to leave it at those words.  But Jesus didn't do that.  He made the words real by bending down and washing his disciples' feet.  He made the words real by bending down, bending over, getting down on his knees.  He made the words real by looking at each of his disciples, looking them in the eye, making them feel both refreshed and shocked at the same time. 

If these three great days are about anything at all, I hope they are about keeping love real.  The services where we tell the story are not the means simply to manipulate emotions, but they are means to hear the story, and make it real in our lives, and for the sake of the world.

If we do it right,  the world will be both refreshed and shocked.

Triduum:  washing feet, carrying a cross, falling down and getting up, keepin' it real for the next three days.

"Love one another as I have loved you."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Attentive To God

"The Pastor's responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God." -- Eugene Peterson, from "Working the Angles"


It's Holy Week.

What does a pastor do during Holy Week? 

Well, there's worship.  Lots and lots of worship.  Worship every night, the next three nights, to be exact.  And worship preparation, too.  Deciding the format of worship, and who will be participating in worship (readers for Good Friday and Easter Vigil, sometimes who will be getting their feet washed on Maundy Thursday).  There is sermon preparation. 

Holy Week often includes some visiting, some hospital visits, nursing home visits.  This week I led a women's Bible study:  they were reading Mark 14 and 15.  I stopped in to see a woman who has been battling cancer.

I have been making a lot of phone calls to ask people to read a part of John's Passion Narrative on Good Friday.  I've been imagining how the readings will go during Easter Vigil, and wishing that I didn't have to worry about how to work the lights.  (I am technologically challenged).  Also, we baked bread this evening.  One of the 5th graders came and helped.

It's a time to consider that pastoral responsibility:  to keep the community attentive to God.

You might think that this means to keep the community listening for God when they come to church, to hear the story that we tell in the sanctuary, the story about God's fierce love.

But that's not exactly it. 

It's my responsibility to train the ear for signs and sounds of God in the sanctuary, so that we can all be attentive to God in every part of our life.

So, I do want people to come to church during the next three days.

And then I hope that we will all go our and notice God amid the noises and distractions and meanness of our everyday life. 

I hope we will be attentive to God in those who are bent-over from serving, in those who are hungry, in those who are abandoned.  I hope we will notice God in the old woman who counts her pennies at the grocery store, and in the family across the street who does not yet speak English, and in the little girl who made the bread for communion. 

I hope we will taste God in bread and wine, and then go out in search of more.

I hope we will look for signs of God where hearts and lives are broken, and then live for the mending.

It is not such easy work, being attentive to God.  There is so much meanness in the world, and God is hiding underneath such mean things.