Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Praise of Uncertainty

The thing I want to know is:  how can they be so sure?

There is a group of pastors participating in an act of Civil Disobedience in October 7.  To be perfectly honest, I am not one of them, though I am not totally opposed to pastors engaging in civil disobedience on occasion.  I did once stand up with a group of pastors and other religious leaders who were pleading for fair treatment for undocumented workers.

But this is different.

October 7th is Freedom of the Pulpit Sunday.  Pastors all over the country are going to speak from the pulpit on political matters, and even endorse candidates.  They take the IRS restriction on political speech from the pulpit to be offensive.  In acts of defiance, they are going to send tapes of the sermons to the IRS, daring them to take action.

And the thing I want to know is:  how can they be so sure?  How can they be so sure that they know who "God's candidate" is?

An acquaintance of mine, someone I knew long ago, and got re-acquainted with through the wonders of Facebook, told me that he would never go to a church where the pastor was afraid of the IRS.  He also told me that he would vote for the candidate who had broken the fewest of the commandments.  (I did not ask him, but thought, "How does anyone know which candidate has broken the fewest commandments?")

As for me, when I step into the pulpit, there are a few things about which I am certain, and many things of which I am uncertain.  I am certain that God calls me to forgive sinners, which means that there are sinners out there.  I am certain that God is hiding in the poor, vulnerable and unseemly among us, and that God's work gets done in the unlikeliest of ways.  I am certain that God calls us to do justice and love kindness.  And I will admit that I have certain opinions about the best policies to follow to make sure that we do justice and love kindness, but I am not so deluded as to think that my opinions are the same as God's truth.

The thing is:  I am not tempted to endorse candidates from the pulpit, but it's not because I'm afraid of the IRS.  It is because I do not believe that endorsing candidates is what a pulpit is for.  I don't think it's the preacher's job to tell the people in their congregation who to vote for.  I think any preacher who stands up and endorses a candidate from the pulpit is abusing the power of the pulpit.  I'm really sure about this.

There was a time long ago that I spent among the Certain.  They were fervent Christians who explicated the Bible, had prayer meetings, sang heartfelt songs.  There were some things I loved about worshipping with this group of people.  They were Certain about who was saved and they were Certain about who was not saved.  They were Certain about how we should live our lives, and what it meant to be a true believer.

It came to me gradually that there was an understanding that a person could only vote one way and be a Christian.  And I was certain that they were wrong about that.   I am certain that God works in our political system, and I am equally certain that God does not work through one party or the other.   God's in the mess, that's what I believe, and that's what I hope.  And that the love of God will eventually embrace and redeem us all.

If the IRS ever tells me that I can't preach the love of God for everyone, I'll be the first to send them a tape.

And folks:  if that time ever comes, that's when we will need to practice Civil Disobedience.  I'm certain about this.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"I Have My Sermon All Written," She Said

I had been called over to her house by her sister.  She had taken a turn for the worse, she said.  Could you come over and and give her communion?

I had been visiting her for several months.   She had been fighting cancer for several years, and had been in remission.  But now there was nothing more they could do.  The first time I visited, she told me that she was so grateful that she would be able to stay in her home, that hospice would visit her and keep an eye on her where she was.  She told me she was not afraid to die.

"The thing is, I've been walking with Jesus my whole life," she told me.  I believed her.  She is one of the most gracious people I have ever met.  She knows how to see the beauty in the world, but not be tempted by the cruelty in the world.

When I came over that afternoon, her sister was with her.  We all visited together and had communion. And at one point she said, "I have my sermon all written."

I wasn't sure what she meant.  "She means her obituary," her sister told me.  That made sense.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized -- she was right the first time.  She did have her sermon all written.  She had been walking with Jesus her whole life.  She had done some ordinary things, lived and worked in Africa for many years, cared for her nieces and nephews.  She had loved and been loved.

Someone told me that St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary."  It seems to me that our lives are a sermon.   Tears, doubts, laughter, adventure, routine, twists and turns.  God is in all of the chapters, though sometimes (or often) hidden.  The last chapter belongs to God.

Her sister came in today with the obituary and all of the scriptures and all of the hymns already chosen. Even the preaching text:  John 15:5.  "I am the vine; you are the branches.  Those who are abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

She has her sermon all written.  God is in all of the chapters.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Dream Team

There's a new senior pastor at our church, did you hear?

He got off to a running start on August 1st.  He's been keeping a pretty even sprint so far, getting ready for fall, getting our fall theme and stewardship campaign underway, working with staff on some transitional issues, starting to put in place a system to help us figure out our worship identity.

He's preached a fair amount, he'll be presiding at his second funeral tomorrow.  He's met a lot of people, and I'm impressed that he even remembers a lot of their names.

Meanwhile, I've been here for (ahem) well, a long time.  A woman doesn't like to tell her age, you know.  I know a lot of people, and a lot of them know me:  my gifts, the places where I sometimes stumble, the ministry tasks I adore, the ones I sort of avoid.  A fair number of people appear still to want me to be one of their pastors, which is a gift, I believe.

I have been enjoying meeting with the new pastor.  I like the way he thinks.  I like the way he listens (to me, especially, but to other people, too).  I think he's going to be good for the congregation.

Much as I'm enjoying this phase of the journey, I also recognize that we are still in transition.  We're still figuring it out.  Sometimes we get our signals crossed in worship.  Not everything runs smoothly all of the time.

Meanwhile, I've heard a few people saying that the two pastors complement each other well.   There have been a few comments along the lines of "we have a good team", which is wonderful to hear, except....

Great as it is to have a good staff, and a staff that complements one another, and whose gifts and personalities work well together, it is not actually we who are the "dream team."

You are.

The whole congregation, working together, is the dream team that is going to create and build the mission and energy in this congregation.  I don't mean that everyone has to be a leader, but we all have a role to play, just as we have a role to play in the body of Christ.

Together, we are a bunch of forgiven sinners, stumbling and getting up again, and running toward that vision of the reign of God.  Together, we are also the dream team, welcoming strangers, healing the brokenhearted, speaking God's word to one another and to everyone who needs a good word.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Going Where the People Are

So, the other day, at the close of a pastor's meeting, one of my colleagues turned to me and said, "You're on Facebook a lot."

He said it as it if was a bad thing.

I'll admit, I had a little knee-jerk defensiveness.  Was he saying that that fact that I was on Facebook "a lot" showed that I was a "bad pastor", or at least, did not have my priorities straight?  Was his comment a veiled criticism or just an observation?

A fair number of my colleagues are also on Facebook.  Some share and post and comment several times a day.  Others have a Facebook account but rarely check in.  Most are somewhere in the middle.

When I was in seminary, there was no such thing as Facebook.  In fact, if you had said the words, "social media", you would have gotten a blank stare.   It's not in the constellation of pastoral skills that we learn and grow adept at.  I had a class in Pastoral Care and Counseling.  I had a class in Mission (although not one in Evangelism, actually).  So if I'm spending time at the nursing home or at the hospital, or even visiting people in their homes or at their workplaces, that's a legitimate use of time.  If you are studying in your office, or leading a Bible study or (better yet) training a group of Bible study leaders, that's a good use of time.  And if you are creating and sending and answering emails, I suppose that's a legitimate use of time.

But Facebook?  Twitter?

A recent article in my denomination's monthly magazine, The Lutheran, had an article regarding the importance of visiting members in their homes.  It was a good article (though the tone was a little scolding, I thought).  I believe that we have neglected the art of visiting with people, in their homes and where they work.  In the church-as-business model of the late twentieth century, we have sometimes neglected the church-as-relationship model of, well, every century.  We need to be out there where the people gather.

But here's the thing:

one of the places that people gather these days is called Facebook.

So, yes, I'm on Facebook, sometimes actually not very much, but sometimes a lot.  On Facebook, I found out that the mother of one of my former confirmation students was seriously ill.  On Facebook, I read the obituary that one of my parish members wrote for her dad.   One man informed me of his father's move to hospice care via Facebook message.  Young adults have set appointments with me in the same way.   I check it out, just like I might walk up and down my block, look out for neighbors when I am in the grocery store, or look for local stories when i read the newspaper.

Once in awhile, I've found Facebook a provocative conversation-starter.  A great theological, missional conversation got started with the question, "What would you do for love?"  Another time I asked friends to share the story of their names (I was musing over a sermon on the Name of Jesus.)  I got 43 comments, and (may I say?) learned some wonderful stories.  I was amazed by what people shared with me.

Pastors share ideas, and wisdom with one another over social media.  It has become a sort of over-the-fence news source.  And of course, it's not just a place to listen to others, but to share:  ideas, quotes, pictures, songs.

Facebook is one of the places people gather, so sometimes I will be there, and even sometimes a lot.  But it does have its limitations as well.  So here are a few caveats:

1.  Some people assume that if they have posted a concern on Facebook, everyone has seen it.  If you have more than a few friends, they haven't.

2.  Some things ARE better left unsaid on Facebook.

3.  Facebook is not a substitute for face to face time with people.  It broadens my world, but it doesn't necessarily deepen it.  To do that, I need to do more than press like, comment or share.  I need to look someone in the eyes, stand shoulder to shoulder, spend time, get tired, disagree, be forgiven, fail, succeed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Letter of James, and Me

I'm considering preaching on the letter of James this weekend.

There's this great imagery about the power of the tongue:  how our words matter, whether we uses our tongues for blessing and cursing.  The author compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, small but instrumental to the direction the ship is going.

This strikes me as true, in an era when we are drenched in words:  written words, spoken words, words over the internet, words over email, words in political ads, words in advertising, words of persuasion, words of critique.  Blessing and cursing, clarifying and muddying the waters.  What we say to one another, what we say about one another matters.

I'm considering preaching on the letter of James this weekend, because I'm drawn to this particular reading at this particular season, but I have to say:  I have sort of a complicated relationship to this letter, and its teachings.

Perhaps it's because I'm Lutheran, and Luther once called the letter of James "an epistle of straw."  It was not his favorite part of Scripture.  (He wasn't a big fan of The Revelation, either, but that didn't stop him from calling the pope 'the anti-christ.')  If you read parts of James, you can't help but get the feeling that James is responding personally and directly to the apostle Paul in some places, especially in his comments regarding whether one is 'saved by faith'.   (This might say something about my personality, but I find myself wanting to mediate their disagreement, saying, "James, I think you might be misunderstanding what Paul is really saying here."  and "Paul, here is where James is concerned about your point of view.")

Perhaps it's because, much as I find wisdom in James' letter, and as much as agree with him, I also find the mirror he holds up to me, to us, a little too much to bear, sometimes.

So, I love the imagery about the tongue being like the rudder on a ship.

Then I think of James' words, "Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  Brothers and sisters, it should not be so."

But it is so.  Brothers and sisters, parents and children, pastors and civil servants, teachers and custodians and neighbors, liberals and conservatives, out of our mouths come blessing and cursing.

It should not be so.  But it is.

Even these many years later, I still remember some family friends who I overheard saying that my sister was "the pretty one."  I know that words have the power to shape our reality, not just describe it.  I remember a tall girl in our school that other children used to taunt and call "daddy long legs."  I didn't speak up; I held my tongue when it could have been a powerful instrument.  And I've said dumb things and mean things to people too.   I'm not just talking about expressing a political opinion that some others disagree with.  I still remember long ago, in one of my fervent religious phases, writing a letter to my aunt and uncle where I said some pretty condescending things about their faith.  I still can't believe that they forgave me.  I guess they love me.

So what should I do with this great insight and wisdom of James?  Certainly understand the power in blessings and cursing, the power in our words to one another to shape reality and not just describe it.

But much as I love James, I also want to hear the word of one who shapes my reality instead of just describing it.

"Let there be light," he said.  "And there was light."

"Your sins are forgiven," he says.

I have a complicated relationship with the letter to James.  He is wise.  But he never says, "Your sins are forgiven."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Day All of the People Come Back to Church

.... well, not quite ALL of them.

But, if your church is filled with balloons as well as people, and if you decided to have just one Sunday service instead of two this morning, it seems like it.

It was the day commonly known as "Rally Sunday" this morning.  Usually we go back to our fall schedule this morning, with two services and the beginning of Sunday School.  But there was just one service at 10:00 this morning, and Sunday School won't officially begin until next week.  After the service we had an all-church cookout, with burgers, hot dogs and chicken breast burgers for everyone who decided to stay.  There was also one of those 'bounce rooms' for the kids.

The theme of the day was "Faith Formation Begins in the home."   Though it is rare to do so, we changed the readings for this morning to three short ones:  Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (read by a 5-year-old), Psalm 1 (Read by a 7th Grader),  and 1 Timothy 1:3-5 (read by a 6th grader).  The gospel reading provided a moment of suspense, as two small boys were assigned to read the short passage about Jesus blessing the children.  I didn't see anyone at the Lectern, so I started my approach.  I was a little concerned when I didn't see the reading, or a Bible to read from.  At the same time, a little girl ran up to me with a printed copy of the gospel reading, and two little boys slowly approached the chancel.  They received the mike and began to read.  The older of the two began, and he gave the mike to his little brother, so that he could recite the words, "let the little children come to me."

I could tell the the older boy was whispering the words into his brother's ear.

That was the highlight of the morning for me.

That, and seeing a woman return after many months away.  She had been living somewhat north of us, and recently moved back to our community.

And yes, seeing children I haven't seen all summer:  that was a highlight.  Watching the interaction between young people and older people, many of whom rarely have the opportunity to worship together -- that was a highlight too.

One of our confirmation students, a young woman with a beautiful voice, sang the Kyrie this morning.  Six of our youth said the prayers of the people.

Those were highlights too.

They were signs of the gifts of the generations among us, all the gifts that we have and that we need to be the body of Christ for each other, and for the world.

It's true, communion took a long time, and some people thought we should have done one or two things differently, and the sticky notes I had put all over myself for the children's sermon didn't stick so well.  It's true that there were a couple of small glitches  (and one person thought I shouldn't have worn the chasuble), but it was the day that all of the people came back to church.

Well, not all of the people, not really, there are always a few people absent.  I forget about that at first, because of the joy of the people I see, and the joy of saying "the Lord be with you" and hearing the great reply, "And also with you."

But later, I think of people who were absent.  Some people are absent because they just had other plans today.  Others have died, and I miss their voices and their faces and their songs.  Still others -- I don't know why they aren't here, but I miss them, and wish they were here.

Some day there will be an even greater reunion, and all of the people will come back, not to church, but they will worship around the throne of the Lamb.  Someday the song will be so beautiful that no one will be able to resist it.  Someday the song will be so beautiful that the dead will be raised, and evil will die.

In the meantime, today I heard two little boys whisper in each other's ears, a young girl sing "In Peace, Let us pray to the Lord," six children say, "Lord, in your mercy... hear our prayer."  Today I saw many faces, some familiar, others strangers.  We ate together.

A foretaste of the feast to come.

Friday, September 7, 2012

God and Political Platforms

I heard that the Democratic Party took God out of their platform for 2012.

I had some misgivings about that.

Then, I heard that this week they put God back into their platform.

I had some misgivings about that too.

When I first heard that the Democrats had taken God out of their platform, I had misgivings because there are so many people who already think that Republicans are the party of God and Democrats are the party of the opposite of that.  And I know that there are plenty of Christians on the left, and that there are also plenty of non-believers on the right.  From a Public Relations standpoint, it seemed like a train wreck.

All public relations aside though, I have misgivings about the concept of God being in political platforms, and not from a separation-of-church-and-state standpoint so much as from a theological standpoint.

It's not that I think that God has no place in politics.  In fact, if you have a faith, you can't help but express your faith in every area of your life, including how you live in the public arena, including who you vote for, what causes you support, what kind of community you want to live in.  So when people use "separation of church and state" to mean that people of faith should not let their faith influence their public life, I think that is pretty much impossible.  If you are an elected official and you are a person of integrity, your faith and values will influence how you do your job.

I also don't think that Jesus is "above" politics, and doesn't care how we live our lives.  It's true, "his kingdom is not of this world," but it also abundantly clear that Jesus cares about how we treat our neighbor, our enemy, the poor and the weak among us.  Those issues are not apolitical.   The hope that we have for God's reign of love has an impact on how we live every aspect of our lives right now.

But when we talk about God in the context of a political platform, suddenly, instead of listening to God and letting God guide us, we are using God as a rubber stamp for whatever our own political agenda might be.  The question then is:  Who is in charge here?  Are we instruments of God's peace?  Or are we trying to make God an instrument of our own desires?

God will not be co-opted.

(this is a draft and may be changed or deleted....)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Being the Stranger

When I was in seminary, Hospitality Evangelism was all the rage.  We were encouraged to welcome the stranger, making sure that we were being sensitive to those who were new to us.  This wasn't just about making sure we had greeters at the doors, actually; it included an awareness of how our signs helped or hindered a sense of welcome, and how worship felt to those who were new to our congregation.  How welcoming are we?  Are we welcoming at all?

It's still a good question.

Somewhere along the line, though, I started to wonder if "welcoming the stranger" was really going far enough.  Somewhere along the line I started considering that the church needs not just to welcome the stranger, but actually to BE the stranger.

This thought probably comes first from my experience as a missionary in Japan.  What do missionaries do?  They make a commitment to go and live somewhere as strangers, in a strange place, where they do not know the language (at first), where they stick out like a sore thumb, where they are not in the center of things, where they do not know everything, but where they just know one thing:  Christ, and him crucified.

But lately, this thought comes from living in the United States, being in the church in this less-churched era, when people feel put out that they are greeted in December by "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", and where some claim that Christians are a persecuted minority (a claim that cheapens somewhat the experiences of those who are really being persecuted, I think).

No, I don't think Christians are a persecuted minority.

But yes, I do believe that Christians are, to a degree, becoming strangers in this culture.  Christianity is not as dominant, or as favored as it once was.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  Christians are not always are own best PR; there are abusive leaders, and hateful fanatics, and they often define the word "Christian" for people who don't know much about it.  More and more, religious services seem strange for those who are unfamiliar with them.

Not long ago I watched the old movie, "Gentleman's Agreement."  I had never seen it before (which seems incredible), but was drawn in by the idea of Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish to expose the extent of anti-semitism in business and culture.  When his own son is taunted on the playground for being Jewish, his fiancĂ© comforts the boy, saying, "Don't worry.  You're not Jewish.  You're a Christian!."

I was taken aback.  I could not imagine that conversation happening in 2012.

First of all, the word "Christian" seems to have a cultural, not religious meaning, which struck me as odd.  Second of all, we just don't all assume a positive connotation for the word "Christian" any more.  It is true that the Christian faith has lost some of its "most favored status" in the United States.

But maybe that's not a bad thing.

In fact, I'm sure it's not a bad thing.  It's not a bad thing to embrace the strangeness of being a follower of Jesus.  It's not a bad thing to not be "most favored".  It's not a bad thing to consider ourselves strangers who realize that often, people don't know us -- and that we don't know them, either.  It's not a bad thing to be curious, to listen, to learn, to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.