Saturday, June 30, 2012

What To Do When You Don't Know What To Do

A long time ago, when I was studying to become a pastor, the husband of one of my colleagues gave me this gem of advice, "A professional is someone who knows what to do when she doesn't know what to do."

At the time, I didn't know what to do.  I was just out of my first year of seminary, running a summer program for kids in inner-city Minneapolis.  One day the refrigerator broke down and all of the lunches spoiled.  Another day one of my counselors (a fifteen year old African American) was yelled at by one of the parents (white), and the counselors were divided about whether the angry exchange was a legitimate grievance or an example  of racism.

Clearly, I didn't know what to do.

But, that experience was a good training for me.  Because, as a pastor, I have often been in a position where I didn't know what to do.  What do you do when you don't know what to do, if you are a pastor?

1.  Ask questions.  One of the traps of ministry is thinking that you have to have all of the answers.  Other people sometimes think this, but sometimes we think it too.  Therefore, asking questions is a good thing to do.  I don't mean just asking questions to which other people will have the answer (although sometimes that is the case).  Ask questions to help you remember that the right question is as important as the right answer.  Ask questions to keep yourself humble.  Ask questions to cultivate a sense of wonder.

2.  Pray.  I mean it.  Pray alone.  Pray with other people.  Pray without words.  Pray with words.  There have been times when I have been visiting with someone, and I'm not sure what to say, I will say, "Shall we pray?"  I remember meeting with a young mother one day.  She was about to have heart surgery to repair damage she had sustained as a child.  But our conversation ranged over many topics.  At the end, for some reason, I said, "Shall we pray?"  When she had her surgery later, she did not recover.

3.  Listen.  Listen to God, listen to respected friends, listen to parish members.  But then, find some quiet.

4.  Sin boldly, that grace may abound.  Make mistakes, that forgiveness may abound.  Fail, so that you can learn from failure.

and finally,

5.  Sing.  I'm not sure why, but it's about the most radical thing you can do if you don't know what to do.  I still remember one of the first times I went over to a nursing home, because someone was dying.  I was a new pastor, and I was even filling in for another pastor.  I didn't know the person who was dying.  I didn't know what to do, and that's a fact.  I had my prayer book, I had my prayers.  But the person I didn't know who was a child of God was simply dying:  not talking to me, not asking questions.  So I sang.  I sang "What a Friend we Have in Jesus".  I sang "Beautiful Savior."  I sang "Amazing Grace."  I still sing when I visit people who are dying and I don't know what to do.

At the heart of it, that's the truth:  we are all dying, and we are all being born, and we don't know what to do, professional or not.  And of all the things we can do when we don't know what to do, this is the most important:  Sing.

That's what I do, anyway.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Desperate Faith

Is there any other kind?

I'm thinking about those two stories we will hear on Sunday, the one about the little girl and her desperate father, and the one about the woman who is desperate enough to go out in public (she should not be out in public) and actually reach out and try to touch Jesus.

On the one hand, I can imagine the desperate father wondering what Jesus is doing, stopping on the way to come and heal his daughter.  Doesn't he know that this is a matter of life and death?

On the other hand, we know a little bit about the woman's backstory, how she has been suffering from this flow of blood for twelve years, and how she has spent all of her money going to doctors who didn't help her (but took her money, anyway).  If we know a little more, we know that her particular illness makes her unclean, and she should not even be out in public.  Can you imagine twelve years of isolation?  If I were her, I'd be desperate too.

She's breaking the rules, but what choice does she have?  She has no options, no other choices.  She is at the end of her rope.  Jesus is her last chance.

I think that all faith is desperation, in a way.  It's faith when you are willing to break the rules, or suspend your skepticism, or put aside your pride, because you just have to.  It's that important.  It's a matter of life and death, somehow.

When I was seventeen, I went through a period of pretty intense doubt.  This wasn't a personal crisis based on things that were happening in my family or in my life, but it was important to me.  I was reading and learning about the way the world really was, about evil and pain and suffering, and it just was hard to believe that God was in the world somewhere, because it was so screwed up.  How could there be a God? I thought it was a good idea to learn more about Jesus, so I read some of the historical Jesus books in the library, but I didn't understand everything in them (for example, what did that work "eschatological"  mean?)  The books made me more skeptical.

But for some reason, I was desperate to believe.  As much as I doubted God, I had this weird feeling that the world needed a savior (and that's exactly the way I thought about it, then.  Not that "I personally" needed a savior, but that the world needed a savior, because we had not gotten it right yet, and we were not going to get it right.  We were going to go right on killing each other.)

The same thing that caused my doubt, also fueled my desire to believe.

So, I reached out.  In some weird way, it was desperate faith.

"Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."

Is there any other kind?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Printing the Bulletin, Hearing the Word

Bulletins and I  go back a long way.  When I was growing up, the church bulletins were much less elaborate than they are now;  we were supposed to look up both the hymns and also find the correct liturgy (though there were only two options back then).  We did both.

Nevertheless, the appointed readings were printed on the back of the bulletin (it was not called a "worship folder" back then.)  I remember reading the lessons and thinking how cool it would be to cut them out and save them for a couple of years, because then I could cut and paste them together and make a whole Bible!

Lately, in the interests of being more hospitable, we've taken to printing more in our bulletins, now called "worship folders."  Most of the liturgy is printed in the bulletin now, so that we don't have to look it up.  We print the lessons, but not on the back page.  We print them right there in the middle of the worship folder; you don't even have to turn the page.  And, because some of our worship is more contemporary, we even print some of the songs now, because they aren't in the hymnal.

So in the past few weeks we have a new parish administrative assistant who is learning to put together worship folders.  Though she is an extremely competent person, it's a pretty high learning curve, so we've been simplifying our worship. 

For the past couple of weeks we have not been printing the scripture readings.

Some people have said that not printing the readings actually helps them listen better.  One woman said that her adult son actually looked up the readings in his Bible when he got home from worship, which can't be a bad thing.  It is also nice to have people looking at me or the reader instead of staring down at the page.   It made me wonder about how hospitable it really is when everyone is staring down at their paper all the time instead of paying attention to the singing and the liturgy, and one another.  Yeah, one another.   Could those really helpful worship folders be isolating us from one another?

On the other hand, sometimes I think I have seen some eyes glaze over during readings, as if we should have some sort of visual aid, at least, if we're not having printed words.  I also  noticed at worship last weekend the man from Ethiopia seemed a little disappointed that the readings weren't printed.  He is excellent at English, but I'll bet the printed word helps him. 

I'll be honest, the bulletin seems a little bare to me now, after seeing the printed word on the page for so long. 

On the other hand, what is it that makes our worship hospitable, that makes our congregation welcoming?  What is it that draws people to engage in worship together?  What is it that helps us hear and sing and pray as a body?  And what is it that keeps us separate?

How about you?  Do you print less in your worship folders these days?  How do you hear the Word?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sunday Sermon: John the Baptist/Pentecost 4

"Hope for a Child"

Last weekend, my husband and I made a journey I haven’t taken in fourteen years – we drove out through Western Minnesota and into Eastern South Dakota, until we finally landed in the tiny town of Vienna, South Dakota. We were there to celebrate a church Centenniel.  Long ago, I had served as pastor of three churches out there – Bethlehem Lutheran in Vienna, Naples Lutheran in Naples, and Our Savior’s in rural Henry. The town of Vienna was listed back then as "population – 90" – the membership in the three churches was about 275, I think. I was surprised, when I got there, to find out that they had a pretty healthy youth group and confirmation class. I had thirteen 7th and 8th grader confirmation students that first year when I was still getting used to being a pastor.  And a few years later a healthy dozen youth took a bus down to New Orleans for a Mission trip. On the other hand, there were only a handful of baptisms during my time there. I presided at many more funerals than weddings. I remember so clearly the few baptisms I had, because each one was precious; I remember the people in the congregation with stars in their eyes, looking at the baby. All their hopes were right there – in that tiny tiny child.

Perhaps this seems an odd way to begin a sermon about John the Baptist – but maybe it seems odd to you that we are even talking about John the Baptist this summer Sunday. We’re used to hearing from John in about December, as we are getting ready for Christmas. We’re used to hearing his warning "Prepare the way of the Lord," when there is snow on the ground and when everyone is fixing their hearts and minds on their Christmas preparations. We have a picture in our mind – don’t we? – of John the baptist out in the wilderness, a sort of a severe, wild-eyed person, clashing with our Christmas carols and urging us to repent. And here it is a nice summer day, so far from Christmas, so far from snow, so far from Christmas presents, and we’re hearing about John the Baptist – or actually, we’re hearing about his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth and about their own hope for a child. Or, to put it more accurately, their lack of hope for a child. Because they were past hoping. They had given up hope. They were too old to have children.

There’s a little backstory to today’s gospel reading –- today we heard only the end of the story of John’s birth. The story begins with old Zechariah going into the temple, serving as a priest. This was a regular activity for him, just as weekly attendance at church is a regular activity for some of you. So he didn’t expect anything to go differently that it ever did. But this particular day he was praying, and all the people were outside, and an angel appeared to him, and told him something: he said "your prayers have been answered. Your wife Elizabeth is going to have a son." And of course the first thing that happened was that Zechariah was afraid, not just awe, but all-out fear. And the second thing that happened is that Zechariah did not believe the angel. He may still have been praying for a child, but he had long ago given up really hoping for a child – after all, they were too old to have children. So he said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so?" –which might seem to be a reasonable question to us, but I think what he really meant was, "Give me a break. Because this is not just hard to believe.....this is impossible to believe....." — and the Angel responded by drawing himself up to his full height (which could have been pretty tall) and saying, "I’m Gabriel. And now, just because you did not believe me, you are not going to speak for the next -oh – 9 months." So when Zechariah came out of the temple and he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to him.

Nine months of silence. Nine months to think about, meditate about, pray about what was happening in the world, what Zechariah was hoping for, what he had ceased hoping for. In the meantime, Mary also learned that she would give birth to a child, in the meantime, things were happening, ordinary miracles, but extra-ordinary miracles. Isn’t that what the birth of a child is? It’s something so ordinary it happens every day. But it’s something so extraordinary that it fills us with hope again, every time. And there were promises attached to both of these births: John and Jesus. Promises that God would do a new thing, come in a new way, set his people free from all that kept them weighed down.

What is it about Christmas anyway? What is it about Christmas that gets us all excited and expecting? Oh, I suppose someone out there will say, "it’s the presents" – there they are all wrapped up. It’s the presents and the fact that they are all wrapped up and perhaps they are a surprise. Is that what it is? It’s the possibility of surprise, the possibility of opening up something and not knowing what it is before you open it. Perhaps that’s what it is about Christmas. Perhaps it’s the idea that the thing you think is too good to be true – really might be true. Or maybe it’s this: maybe it’s the child. Maybe it’s the hope for a child, the hope for THE child. Maybe that’s what it is.

Anyway, Zechariah had nine months to think about it: what he hoped for, what he had stopped hoping for, what he was afraid to hope for. He had 9 months to stretch his imagination, nine months to re-consider the promises of God – 9 months to think that God’s dreams might even be even wilder than he had imagined. His barren wife was expecting – God was about to do a new thing. A new thing – wilder than his wildest dreams. He was as good as dead, but he would have a son.

What is it about Christmas, anyway? Maybe it’s hope – the hope that a child brings, the hope that children bring. Maybe it’s hope – beneath the presents and the glitter and the light in the darkness – hope for the future, a future that is based on forgiveness rather than revenge, on peace rather than warfare, a future where God against walks among us, as he did in the garden, back in the beginning. Maybe that’s what it is.  Because we need that hope not just when it's dark and cold and the days are short, but even now, today, when there are storms and when there are floods and when there is grief, and when we still don't know what our future might be.

So when his son is born, Zechariah writes on a piece of paper, "His name is John," even though no one in their family ever had that name before. And when he writes that name, he is able to speak: and this is what he says:

"You child, will be called the prophet of the Most high;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways;
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us."

What is it about Christmas?
Maybe it’s the hope of a child – maybe that’s what it is – it’s the hope of a child when all it lost, when you are as good as dead, when you have stopped hoping. That’s what it is. It’s the hope of a child, a child who brings new life, a child who makes you new. It’s not just his son John – but the one he points to – Jesus.

So it was a bright summer weekend when we drove back to South Dakota – after 14 years away. And I wondered what I would find there, as they celebrated 100 years of God's faithfulness to them.  I wondered who I would recognize, who would recognize me. We drove slowly into town. The church had been repainted. There were a few cars in the parking lot. I recognized a face – the woman who ran the post office. I ran up to her and said, "Do you remember you always said, ‘there’s a lid for every pot?’(she said this to me because I was single but hoped someday to find a mate.)  I introduced her to my husband. I found out that some of my dear friends had died.

And then I started to see the children. There are 25 or 30 children in this little church now. I don’t know any of them. Not one. But they are the children of some of my confirmation students, all standing up in the front of the church and singing at the top of their lungs, "Jesus loves me."

Christmas. It was Christmas in the summer, because of the children, and because, like John the Baptist, they pointed to Jesus. AMEN.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Storms, Death, and Other Things I Can't Control

Sunday night we heard there might be storms heading our way, so we decided to stay in South Dakota for an extra night and head out Monday morning instead.  This was a decision that I regretted then on Sunday evening when it started hailing and everyone in the hotel was instructed to gather in the foyer.  We heard there might be tornados.  I considered if we had started out that we might have gotten ahead of the storm, and not have to worry about our car being picked up out of the parking lot and deposited somewhere else. 

All week I have been watching the news from our northern city of Duluth, all of the storms and the raging water, the floods that have broken up roads and swallowed up cars.  The power and the destruction were so unbelievable.  Duluth and the North Shore are familiar places to us; we have visited often and never experienced anything like this. 

The power of a storm:  that's the gospel reading from Mark -- a simple and elemental story of the power of nature, the power of fear, and the power of a Word.  I like this story because a storm is such a good metaphor, you know?  "the storms of life" -- we all have them, those things outside of ourselves we cannot control.  There are more of them than we know.

It would be nice to have a Word to say:  "Peace!  Be Still." or something like that.  It would be nice to have a Word to say when the roads buckle, and the rain keeps coming down, and we need to know that there is a Lord of the wind and rain, someone who reigns over Life and Death, over all the things we can't control. 

Wednesday afternoon the rain stopped, I heard, although they will be cleaning up for some time still.  Wednesday afternoon I drove to the hospital to see a man who was taken off of life support.  He has been battling cancer for many years.  He has lived without both kidneys.  He has lived by faith. 

When I got to the hospital, there were many people who loved him gathered there.  His father came and kissed him on the forehead.  Someone said, "He is rich."  He seemed to nod.  I made the sign of the cross on his forehead, and said,  "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked by the cross of Christ forever."  And then this Word,  Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the Life.  the one who believes in me, even though he die, yet he shall live."

Peace.  Be Still.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Few Things I Remember

This weekend I was supposed to give a greeting as a part of the afternoon program at the church Centennial.  I shared a few memories, but there were a lot of things that were left unsaid, small things, big things.  Here are a few things I remember:

*the gnarled hands of Jenny, a former organist of one of the churches where I served, and how she loved picked herring. 
*the smell of pancakes wafting up from the church basement during the Easter Sunrise Service.
*the taste of fresh asparagus, home-made jam, deer sausage, pheasant and green beans, among other things...
*the fact that the Easter Sunrise service, led by the youth at 6:30 in the morning, was the biggest service of the year.
*the sound of four young people from the same family, who all played the saxaphone on special occasions. 
*sitting on the front porch of the parsonage with a parish member, talking about which songs she wanted sung at her funeral
*taking a large group from the congregation up to Watertown to serve a meal at a place called "The Banquet."  We made meatballs.
*going to the cemetery with confirmation students to make rubbings on the gravestones.  We displayed the rubbings in the churches on All Saints Sunday.  The trouble was, it was dark at the cemetery.  And, it was Halloween. 
*riding in a parish-member's pickup one icy January evening.  He picked me up to go and visit his mother, who was dying.
*sitting in the kitchen of the wife of one of my parish members, going through the Small Catechism together, so that she could be confirmed Lutheran and join the church. 
*sitting in the kitchen of a young couple, preparing them for the baptism of their first child.

There were many more funerals than baptisms those four years in rural South Dakota.  However, there was a large and active confirmation class and youth group.  A few new members joined.

The little boy that I baptized lit the altar candles on Sunday.  There are many children in the small community now.  They are some of the children of those youth I had in confirmation.  The seeds of faith were watered and nurtured by their parents, their extended families, the congregation, and me.   But mostly they were watered by the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pot Luck

This morning we wandered around Watertown some more, looking into a couple of antique stores, peeking into a flea market that I used to go to when it was a different kind of store.  I recognized the store and said I had bought a library table and a dining room set there.  There was a man who took old furniture and restored it.  "Oh, he passed away a long time ago," one of the current proprietors told me.

We had coffee and went home for a little while, before driving down the country roads to Vienna and Bethlehem.  I wanted to get in a little early, so I could see a few things, drive down a few gravel roads, show my husband at least one of the other small churches where I served.

When we got to town, I saw that the post office was still there.  The (large, agri-business-owned) Grain Elevator was bigger than ever.  The small bar is still there. 

The church looked lovely.  There were cars already gathering for the pot luck.  I felt a little shy.  After all, it has been 14 years since I left, and they have had several fine pastors since I was there.  Would anyone remember me?  (Ok, I knew a few people would:  I'm in touch with a handful of former youth on facebook). 

Then I saw a familiar face.  The woman who ran the post office.  She always used to say to me, "There's a lid for every pot."  I said to her, "Do you remember what you used to say to me?"  I introduced her to my husband. 

I saw a number of my former confirmation students, some active in the church and community with their own families.  With all of the jokes about confirming young people and never seeing them again, do you know how it feels to see students that I confirmed, taught, got to know -- to see them in coming to worship with their own families?  It's like getting to see the seeds you planted sprout and grow.

Lots of people came up to shake my hand, as if I was a really important part of their community, if only for four years.  And one point, someone said that it was a big deal that someone like me, a single woman from the big city, would be willing to come out to the prairie, the wide open spaces.

But they were welcoming and gracious to me -- both as a pastor and as a stranger.  It wasn't hard to love them.

They also make good pot luck.

Little Vienna, South Dakota -- it was only four years, but you changed my life forever.

Memories and Detours

Yesterday my husband and I drove from Minneapolis to Watertown South Dakota.  I haven't been back to northeast South Dakota since I left 14 years ago.  I returned to be a pastor in the big city where I was born and raised.  But I loved it out on the prairie, and I've been thinking about an opportunity to go back and visit for many years. 

This year is the 100th anniversary of the largest of the three small churches I served.  Tomorrow I'll be a part of the worship there (along with many other of their former pastors, may I say), and each of us has been invited to give a small greeting at the Anniversary Program.  (I haven't written it yet.... but I'm thinking about it.)

So we drove the old route that I used to drive fairly often, the one from Minneapolis to Watertown, mostly down highway 7 to 212 in Montevideo.  (I haven't gone the last leg, to Vienna, yet.) 

I remembered that the first time I drove out to interview, I put the music from "My Fair Lady" on the tape deck in the car (yes, it was 1994) and sang songs all the way out there.  I had just come from my fifteen minutes of fame in a church production of "My Fair Lady".  I had learned the part of Eliza and graduated from seminary:  I thought I could do anything.

I remembered the time we took the youth group to Valley Fair for the day, leaving early in the morning, and arriving back late in the night.  We stopped at a pizza place in Montevideo for a late supper.  I actually used someone else's cell phone (I didn't have one at the time) to call ahead and order the pizzas.  The call broke up and I had to call back a couple of times, but I was finally able to place the order.

I'll never forget the looks on the faces of some of the youth when we arrived at the pizza place and the pizzas was all ready for them.  Later on, I marvelled at the trust of the person who took our order at the pizza place. 

I remembered how I drove back home to Minneapolis on empty roads on Christmas Day.  I remembered how, at my interview, one of the questions was, "how do you think you will adjust to the wide open spaces?"

I started thinking about the high points of my ministry there, and it seems to me that those high points are small things.

At Montevideo we hit a snag:  some really complicated detours due to road work.  We ended up in towns I had never  been before, veering south, and then north to Madison.  We did see some things we had never been before.

Finally we drove into Watertown, to a hotel that was just being built when I left.  We ate at a restaurant that wasn't around when I was in town 14 years ago.  We saw that there were new coffee shops that did not exist when I lived there before.

Tonight and tomorrow, I will see again some familiar faces.  But, the faces won't all be familiar.  The children that I taught for their first communion, the 9th graders that I confirmed two weeks before I left:  they are all now grown and married, with children of their own.

What will I say to them?  I'm grateful to them.  I'm glad to be back.  There are memories and there are detours, and both of them are necessary and I'm not always sure which is which.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Blaspheming the Holy Spirit

It's the unforgivable sin, according to the gospel reading from Mark last Sunday.

I remember reading the gospel at the early service last Sunday, out on the lawn, and when I got to this part, I saw one man near the front row, raise his eyebrows.  I'm not sure if he raised his eyebrows at the part about "blaspheming the Holy Spirit", or about "the unforgivable sin", or if it was a combination of the two, but my immediate thought was, "I should have preached about this.   People are going to wonder about it."

Preachers, does this ever happen to you?  You think you have listened to the Holy Spirit during the week, and as you are reading the gospel, or one of the readings, or as you begin your sermon, you look out at a particular face, and sometimes you even know a story about what that person is struggling with, and you think, I should have preached on this.

I remember thinking about it when I was preparing the week before.  There was plenty to wrestle with in the story, plenty to think about, from "family values" to "a house divided," and of course, "blaspheming the Holy Spirit."  Back during my dalliance with the Pentecostals, this was one of the verses they liked to talk about, since it highlighted the importance of the Holy Spirit.  You can even say bad things about Jesus, and he'll forgive you -- but don't say anything bad about the Holy Spirit!  That's what my Pentecostal friends said.  So there was a lot of speculation about what "blaspheming the Holy Spirit" would actually look like.

Actually, though, as a Lutheran, it's the "unforgivable" part that gets me.  How can there be an unforgivable sin?  Confession and absolution is a non-negotiable part of the liturgy for me.  And you notice that we always say, "In the name of Jesus, I forgive you some of your sins"?  Oh, you notice that we don't say that?    We say ALL of your sins.  Because we believe that words have power, and that the Word has power, and that when I say "your sins are forgiven," Jesus has bound the strong man and thrown him out.

You know what I think the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is?

It is to believe that there is any sin that God can't forgive.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gentle Blog Readers

I will still be posting here during the summer.  But I have been doing some intense Biblical ruminating  over here.

If you get bored because there aren't enough "faith in community" posts, you can always go over and take a look.

I've made sort of an insane commitment to blog the New Testament, to support a community Bible reading project.  The community includes both members of my church, and people I know on-line.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Family Ties

Before I left church this afternoon, I ripped a small piece of paper off the wall behind my desk.  It has been taped there since September of 1999, shortly after I got married.  I had been asked to write the weekly Newsletter column, and this is what I came up with:

From the Pastor

"I've had a pretty high "learning curve" the last couple of months -- a new house here in Richfield, a new name, a new husband, a new family.  There have been occasions on which I have forgotten my name -- writing checks, for example, or in these columns -- but other people have forgotten, too.  I had a few years to get used to my old name, so I'm sure the adjustment will take awhile.

"Of course, the name is probably the least of the changes.  Instead of thinking only about a cranky old cat and myself, I am continually thinking about three other people -- my husband and his two boys.  When I go grocery shopping, when I clean the house, when I look at my weekly calendar, I can't be quite as selfish as I was.  My vision has become wider.  I belong to more people now.

"It seems similar to what happens when we are baptized and as we grow in Christ.  It's a name change that means so many others things.  When we are baptized, we receive Christ's name, and all of a sudden we are related to many more people.  As we grow and learn more about our family name, it's harder and harder for us to think only of ourselves.  Our vision becomes wider than it used to be.  As it is written in our baptismal liturgy, "As we live with him and with his people, we grow in faith, lobve, and obedience to the will of God."

"...And with his people."  Now that we have a new name, we learn to live with one another under this roof, as I'm learning to live with more people under one roof.  It can be a pretty high learning curve sometimes, but it's how we learn to be God's family together, considering one another's needs and feelings, listening to one another, widening our vision."

"Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus asks this week.  It is an uncomfortable question.  Or, maybe it's a comforting question.  Sometimes we all feel like orphans, looking for someone to share a road with us.  Sometimes the vision of a few people in a little house is all we can handle.  Other times we look around at the people who share the table with us, and don't recognize them. 

Who are our mother and our brothers and our sisters?  We can't get around it, our vision is wider now, and sometimes this feels like a burden.  And other times, it is the greatest joy imaginable.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What is a Congregation For?

Yesterday, a young man from my congregation died, after a long battle with cancer.  Well, I say he was a young man, but he was my age.  Yes, he was young.

He and his wife were regular worshippers at our early service.  They loved the traditional liturgy, and although they are quiet people, they attended one of our couple's groups, and were well known in our congregation. 

When I announced his death this morning at church, I thought I heard sighs too deep for words.

His wife came to church today, finding comfort not only in the music and the liturgy and the prayers, but in the congregation who surrounded her with words of grief and truth and hope.

This is what a congregation is for.

Nor all people are so connected to one another in a congregation, of course.  I used to be judgmental and think that perhaps they thought of a church as a sort of Big Box Religion store, where they would go to get the Spiritual services they needed, when they needed them.  Perhaps I thought this way because I grew up in a smaller congregation.  But I think that in a bigger congregation, it's inevitable that not everyone will experience the same level of connection with one another.  But they'll be there for a Sunday School class, for the camaraderie of a youth group experience.

This is what a congregation is for.

And then there is the time when the worship service ends, and everyone goes out:  leaves the building, disperses.  They go to families and communities and work.  They go to be larger than themselves, to bear witness to something more loving and more gracious than themselves.  We gather to encourage one another and bind up each other wounds, but when we go, we go to love the world, and apply God's healing.

What is a congregation for?