Friday, August 31, 2012

Stranger at the Funeral

There was a funeral this summer where I felt strangely out of place.

This is a sort of unusual situation for me.  Usually I am in charge of the funeral, and it's in my church.  Even when I have a funeral at one of the local funeral homes, there's a sort of familiar feeling to it.

This funeral was in the evening, which is sort of rare for me, but I don't think that's what accounted for my feeling strange.  It was at one of the local funeral homes, too, but I don't think that's what did it, either.  I was still the officiating clergy, so it wasn't strange in that way.

I was pastor to the mother of the man who had died.  She was a regular at our small Saturday evening chapel service.  She was a tiny woman whose husband dropped her off every week.  She sat in the back with her bright eyes and her oxygen tank.  When she died, I had the funeral.

So her son called me when he received a devastating diagnosis.  I went to visit him a few times in the hospital, in the nursing home.  We prayed, and had communion, and shared.  He hadn't been much of a church-attender as an adult, but the ministry of the church meant something to him now, and I was glad to be with him.

So there I was, at the funeral home, visiting with people while hard rock music blared in the background.  Right before the service started, they shut off the recordings.  There was no music during the service.

I had my greeting and my opening prayer from the service book I use, and I had prepared some scripture readings and a message.  After the opening prayer, the girlfriend and the best friend of the man who died were going to speak.

It was during the best friend's long remarks that I suddenly felt like a stranger.  The friend spoke at length and eloquently about the man, who I had only known for a few weeks.  What I remember is thinking, here I am, sitting here in my prim suit and clerical collar, while this man is talking about how much his friend enjoyed girls, beer and rock music.

There was this time a number of years ago that my husband and I went to a tattoo convention, because our son's band was playing there.  Amid the heavy smoke and tattoos and sort-of motorcycle culture, I had the distinct feeling that I was outside my mileau.

That's how I felt.  I wondered how my words about Jesus and eternal life would sound to the people gathered there.  My craft has been honed inside the confines of a church, with all of its churchi-ness, after all.  I felt like a stranger, with a strange message about grace, and hoped the people would forgive my prim presence, and that the Holy Spirit would bless my words, anyway, and hear the wild promises of grace and life set free.

Thinking back, though, it seemed right that I should be there, even though my presence felt strange, even alien.  Didn't Jesus spend more time eating and drinking with the tax collectors and sinners, and healing the lepers, than he spent in the synagogue?  That's where people need to hear about grace, and forgiveness and life, and all of those alien things.  Maybe if we showed them out on the streets, more people would show up in church on Sunday too.  Maybe.

So, I'm going to own that I'm a stranger, an alien presence, whether I'm in my collar or not.  I'm a representative of a strange and gracious God here.  As in church, the message of the gospel of God's love is wilder than we can ever imagine.  And stranger.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bread of Heaven

Back in the summer of 1997 one of the country churches that I served had their Centennial celebration. We had a big celebration in August.  There were so many people that they couldn't all fit in the beautiful little white church.  We had a great time that day.

But earlier that summer, we decided that we would have an "old-time" service.  We found some of the very old hymnals, and put together an old communion liturgy.  We chose old favorites for hymns.  Some of the people even wore old-time clothing that morning, trying to reproduce what worship would have been like about 100 years ago.

(Aside:  one woman said we should do it again sometime, and get a "real old-time preacher this time."  "What do you mean?" I asked.  "A man," she replied.)

The communion liturgy about 100 years ago was a little different than it is now.  The order was a little different, for one thing.  First there was the Preface and then the Sanctus.  Then there was an exhortation before communion.  We said the Lord's prayer before the Word of Institution.

The exhortation was something most curious for me.  I was curious about what the exhortation before communion would say.  I knew that it would exhort us to be worthy of the sacrament.  Here's what I read:

"Dear Friends in Christ!  In order that you may receive this holy Sacrament worthily it becomes you diligently to consider what you must now believe and do.  From the words of Christ:  "This is my Body, which is given for you"; "This is my Blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins"; you should believe that Jesus Christ is Himself present with His Body and Blood, as the words declare.  From Christ's words, "For the remission of sins", you should, in the next place, believe that Jesus Christ bestows upon you His Body and Blood to confirm unto you the remission of all your sins.  And finally, you should do as Christ commands you when He says:  "Take, eat"; "Drink ye all of it"; and, "This do in remembrance of me".  If you believe these words of Christ, and do as He therein has commanded, then have you rightly examined yourselves and ay worthily eat Christ's Body and drink His Blood for the remission of sins.  You should, also, unite in giving thanks to Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for so great a gift, and should love one another with a pure heart, and thus, with the whole Christian Church, have comfort and joy in Christ our Lord.  To this end may God the Father grant you His grace; through the same, our Lord Jesus Christ."

So there you have it:  how do we receive the commandment worthily?
1.  Believe that we receive Christ's Body and Blood with the Bread and the wine.
2.  Believe that this is given for you, for the forgiveness of sins.
3.  Eat it.  Drink it.
4.  And give thanks.

So on Sunday we're going to hear some similar words about eating the flesh of the Son of Man, and drinking the blood; they are scandalous words, hard to believe words.  And we are simply asked to trust them.  Trust the words "This is my body.  This is my blood."  "This is my life."  It's as hard to believe now as it was then.

And yet, somehow we put out our hands

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

Friday, August 17, 2012

"What language will we speak in heaven?"

 I wrote this for the funeral of a church member.  I was not able to be at the funeral.  Writing this helped some.

Someone posed this question in an on-line conversation group, “What language will we speak in heaven?”  There were several good responses, I thought.  One person said that we will speak “with one voice”, another that we will speak the language of the angels.  Someone else said that we will not need language, and yet another person said that we will speak the language of love.  But the answer that most stuck with me is this one, ‘Music.”  In heaven we will speak music.

I suppose this answer stuck with me because last Thursday afternoon, I went to visit C.and A (his wife), and members of their family at Nursing Home, where he lived.  It was immediately obvious when I walked in the door that this was a place where C was known and loved; it was familiar and beautiful and filled with people he loved.  And I must confess that, though I have been in many nursing homes and many hospitals rooms, and I’ve prayed with many people, I had a moment of shyness when I saw C.  What kind of prayers should I pray?  What should I say?  Because of his Alzheiemers, C had not spoken for a while, and I didn’t know what he would understand.  I realized how much I depend on words to communicate.   What language will we speak in heaven?

For some strange reason (perhaps the Holy Spirit) I had picked up my small red hymnal when I left the church.  I sort of wondered if we should sing.  A thought we should sing.  So we sang – A's choice – “Beautiful Savior”  -- and everyone was singing, in harmony.  And about halfway through the song C was singing too.  After that we sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in harmony, and some other hymns.  We closed with ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” although I do believe that there were a couple of encores.

I thought I was hearing the language of heaven that day.  Just a few people, gathered around a bed, singing songs of love, and C was singing along on every one.  You can forget a lot of things, but it turns out that music, like God’s love, gets so far down inside you that even if you forget, it won’t let you go.  It’s an imprint on our soul, like the sign of the cross is an imprint on our foreheads, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.”

I thought I was hearing the language of heaven that day.  I came to minister to C and A, and they ministered to me.  I thought about all of the times I have heard C and A sing duets, at Sunday worship, for funerals, at Matins.  I have been humming some of those songs these past few days, the language of heaven, which, as it turns out, is also the language of love, imprinted on our souls, that God won’t let us forget.

Yes indeed, music is the language of heaven, and, as it turns out, that is a language that C spoke well.  He spoke it so well he taught it to his family and he taught it to many, many children, including children in this congregation.  He taught it to me, too.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you….”

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

What language will we speak in heaven?

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above you heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I've been reading the New Testament all this summer, reading a few chapters a day and writing about them.  I decided to use a version of the Bible I hadn't read before (just to mix it up a little), so chose the Common English Bible.

Of course, at some point, I also decided that if I'm going to read the whole New Testament this summer, I should get some sort of reading credit for it:  the New Testament is a Book, after all, so I posted in "Goodreads" that I was reading the New Testament, the "Common English Bible."  You know who the author of the New Testament (CEB) is, according to Goodreads'?


It's not "God"; it's not even "various."  Nope, it's anonymous, which seems somehow an odd thing to say about our holy book.  We don't know who wrote it.  (Well, actually, anonymous is not quite right:  we do know that the apostle Paul wrote some of the letters in the New Testament.  But, what do we know about Paul, really?)

Though mostly, when I think about it, it's accurate:  we really don't know for sure who wrote most of the New Testament, or even the Bible.  Most scholars don't think that Matthew wrote "Matthew" or Mark wrote "Mark".  And part of me wonders if it isn't somehow embarrassing to trust the contents of a book written (for the most part) by anonymous.  No wonder people are skeptical (and more and more people are skeptical these days, if you haven't noticed.)

When I think about it harder, though, it's absolutely fitting that "anonymous" wrote the Bible, embarrassing though it may be.  It's fitting given what we say we believe:  that God is made manifest not in the proud and the mighty, but in the humble and the ordinary, the anonymous.  Bread, wine, water are holy.  Ordinary people are holy.  Ordinary words are holy.

There's this odd divide in Christianty right now between traditional Christians who believe that the Bible is a divine book, and more progressive Christians who believe that the Bible is a human book.  But it seems to me that actually the right answer to the question, "Is the Bible a divine book or a human book?" is "Yes."  The Bible is a human book written by anonymous, ordinary people but which somehow reveals God.   The Bible is a holy humble book about a God who came to inhabit flesh and blood in Jesus, and who still inhabits flesh and blood today, humble, anonymous, stumbling flesh and blood.

There's something embarrassing about this.

And there's something wonderful, too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Call and Response

My congregation charged me with coming up with some liturgical pieces to use outdoors for more informal worship (and so people would not have to have so much "paper" in their bulletin.  Here are two that I came up with.  I taught the congregation (in three sections) the three responses, and alternated with pieces that I wrote.  See what you think:


A  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
B  God's mercies never come to an end
C  Great is Your Faithfulness, O God.

In the morning and the evening, in the stars and the sun and the rain

In the strm and in the rainbow after a storm, in the song of birds, iin the beauty of flowers bursting with colors

In the springtime and in the winter, at harvest and during summer

In the wandering in the wilderness, in the manna you provide us, in the waysy ou sustain us throughout our lives

In our families and in the strangers who are your gift to us, in our neighbors near or far

In good times and in hard times, in joy and in sorrow, for richer, for poorer
A, B

In the water that washes over us, in the name of Jesus who claims us, in the bread and wine that feed us

In the man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief, who forgave his enemies, and who promised us paradise

In the empty tomb and the words, "He is risen,", in the appearances to his disciples, as he promised, "I am with you always"


A  Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it
B  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength and all your mind (okay, that one was hard, but they rose to the occasion!)
C  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself

God calls our feet "beautiful" and urges us forward to make God's name known in the world.

God has given us eyes so that we can see the beauty in creation, and the beauty in our neighbor

God has given us eyes so that we can see the pain in the world, and hands to reach out to give comfort and to work for justice

God has given us ears to hear God's word of promise and grace, and God has given us ears to hear cries of joy and cries of sorrow

God calls us to use our hands to comfort, heal, serve and left each other up

God calls us to raise our voices in praise, and to raise our voices to speak up for the powerless
B, C

God calls us to kneel, to run, to stand up, to sit down, to carry each other's burdens, to use our whole bodies to show God's love and care for the world

God calls our feet "beautiful," and urges us forward to make God's name known in the world.
A,B, C

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I've Been Told that I'm Good at Pastoral Care

I have mixed feelings about that.

I don't know why, really, especially after last week.  At the Stewardship Conference I attended, one of the speakers actually admonished us, "If you don't like pastoral care, you should find another line of work."

Well, I do like pastoral care.  That is, I like caring for people, visiting with people, praying with people, listening to stories.  I am sometimes astonished and humbled by what people share.  And, occasionally, exhausted.

But I have still have mixed feelings about claiming pastoral care as one of my strengths.

Perhaps this goes back to seminary, where I loved Greek, Hebrew, Preaching and thinking about God. I loved the academic disciplines that I was immersed in.  I was a little nervous about the pastoral care and counseling class.  And (here I am going to share with you a little secret) some of the Theology and Biblical studies professors were just a titch dismissive of the practical disciplines.  They did make it seem as if the most important thing was knowing whether that verb was present perfect or aortic.  Going to the hospital was Optional.  Also, I was positive when I entered seminary that my gift was preaching.  It was not pastoral care.

It's possible, though, that my prejudice goes back further than academic studies, as I encountered some pastors who were "good at pastoral care."  It's also possible that my prejudice extends to my honest reflection on my present ministry, and how good it can feel to be needed by people when they are vulnerable.  I have seen pastors who were "good at pastoral care" cultivate neediness in others, and create systems that were dependent on them.  I don't want to be one of those pastors.  But, honestly, it does feel good to be needed.

So, I have been told that I'm good at pastoral care, but I fear it, too.  It can be tremendously rewarding to be the helper, be the one people turn to, be the bringer of hope, and it can be tempting too.  It can be tempting to let people lean on me too much, because it feels good to be leaned on.  But good pastoral care only is occasionally about being leaned on.  It is most often about helping people to stand straight and walk.