Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Some Snapshots from My Week

Sunday afternoon

We were done with Sunday worship and had taken a nap.  My husband and I decided to take a short jaunt over to a nearby antique mall to see what they had to offer.  While on the road, my cell phone rang.  It was a woman from our congregation, letting me now that her husband of 54 years had just died.  He had suffered from a rare degenerative disease for the past few years.  He died on his birthday.


This is my day off, but I made a little time to meet with the woman whose husband had just died.  We planned his memorial service for the next Monday.  His family told me he loved to try to figure things out (he had been an electrical engineer).  They also told me that he donated his body to the University, so that they could study his condition and perhaps, someday, cure people who had his disease.


I had a memorial service for a woman I knew from a monthly communion service I used to do at a local high-rise.  Her daughter told me that her mom "talked about me all the time."  She also told me that her mother was 100% Lutheran and 100% Norwegian.  She wrote a wonderful remembrance for her mother that called to mind her childhood in rural Minnesota.  She was poor, but didn't seem to mind.  After the short service, we had lefse, kringla, sandbakkels and krumkaka.

We also got news that a woman I had visited on Saturday died early on Tuesday morning.  The other pastor went to visit with the family.  They wanted a funeral service on Friday morning.


I visited another older gentleman in the hospital.  He had just gotten news about his cancer.  We had a wonderful visit, though he cried, a little.  He was grateful for his family.  We prayed together.

In the afternoon, I sat in with the other pastor while he planned the Friday service.  They had a first wanted me to do the service for them, but I was preaching, planning another funeral and presiding at a wedding on Saturday.

Later we had a wonderful meeting with our Stewardship planning group.  There is so much creativity, commitment and energy in this group.  What did I contribute?  I remembered the rationale for making out pledges on Commitment Sunday, not before:  because we wanted to make our gifts together in community, in worship and in prayer.


I wrote the sermon for my Saturday wedding.

In the evening, there was a visitation for the woman who had died on Tuesday.  Toward the end of the evening, I gathered everyone together for some scripture readings and prayers.  I invited people to share some memories and stories.  At the close, we sang two choruses of this old song, "All Night, All Day, Angels watching over me, my Lord, All Night, All Day, Angels watching over me."


I worked on bulletin proof-reading with our secretary, and went away to try to write my Sunday sermon.  I got some done, but not as much as I had hoped.   For some reason, I was having trouble putting it all together.


The wedding at at 3:00.  The bride cried.  Our small chapel service was at 5:00, the "first run" of the weekend.  After the service I went out and bought some yarn for the children's message.  (and hoped that the idea would work)


I preached.  Christian Community, rooted in baptism. So close to an election, remember that we are not united by politics, but by God's grace.  We sang "A Mighty Fortress", and "Shout to the Lord."  I thought about how mighty our God is, mighty and vulnerable, dying on a cross.

A tattooed young woman came up to me before the service and said, "thank you for visiting my grandfather in the hospital."  She had tears in her eyes.  I saw a two-year-old dressed up in her Halloween costume.  She was a bumble-bee.

Afterwards, we had our annual Sunday School Fundraiser:  a spaghetti dinner.  A little later I was getting ready to go home, laden with left-over spaghetti for my husband's lunch.  Two little girls (about 4 years old) walked up to me gravely and presented me with:  my glasses, which I had left on a table in the Fellowship Hall.  "Are these yours, Pastor?"  they said.

I am tired.  It's a privilege to know people, to receive ministry from grave four-year-olds who find what I have lost, to be present when tears of joy or grief are shed, to sing and remember and hear stories.

Some days I am lost.  And it is the four year olds who find me, and help me to see again.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Startles Me

Someone asked me today, "What startles you?"  I was asking people for topics to write about, and this particular question piqued my interest, even though I'm not sure what was meant by 'startled.'

So, what startles me?

Meanness startles me.  No matter how many times I encounter it, I'm always taken aback by the things people say and do to one another.  On the internet, first of all:  I have the bad habit of reading the comments under articles I read on-line.  Reading the comments is sort of like slowing down to watch the aftermath of a car crash on the highway; it's always disturbing, and I'm sorry that I did it.   But on-line meanness is not the only kind that startles me.  I'm often startled by the meanness of teenagers in their interactions with one another, even though I know in my heart how insecure and unlovely some of them feel, and I know where those words come from.  I'm startled when I hear stories of that bring out our lack of regard for one another.  I remember once going to the capital to advocate for funds for education.  In a conversation with a legislator from southern Minnesota, I stated that children are one of our best investments.  He looked at me and said, "not all of them."

But you know what?  Goodness also startles me.  I remember once taking a large group of children from a summer program to a nursing home nearby.  I saw a young African-American girl bend down to hug one of the elderly residents, and I was startled.  I once saw a woman walk into her dying mother's room in a hospital, and kiss her on the cheek.  And I know a man whose wife contracted polio when she was a young mother many years ago.  After her recovery, she contracted post-polio syndrome, and was confined to a wheelchair.  For many years her husband and she went to church together, went to concerts together, and went to plays together, because he lifted her into and out of her wheelchair, and into and out of their car.  He still walks bent-over, because of all of the years he carried her.  Goodness startles me.  Goodness startles me, the small acts of kindness, the large acts of heroism.

And tears -- tears startle me.

A man considers with gratitude his long life and his good family, and the possibility that this life may be coming to an end -- and tears spring to his eyes.  A woman  remembers how her mother held on to her and let go of her at just the right times, and as she thanks God -- tears spring to her eyes.   A woman remembers painful moments from her childhood and the goodness of her life right now -- and tears spring to her eyes.

Perhaps tears startle me most of all, how they come at times of great beauty and great sorrow and great joy, or when joy and sorrow and beauty are mingling.   When I see tears suddenly I feel as if I am standing on holy ground, as if the veil that separates us from God has been torn, and I can see beyond the meanness to the goodness of life.

What startles you?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Visiting My Dad

I got a call yesterday to visit someone in the hospital.  I didn't know her well, but I recognized her name, and when I got to the hospital, I remembered her husband.  Two of her four daughters were there.   They were not sure about their mother's prognosis, so we prayed for strength for whatever the future would bring.

Then I went to visit my dad at the nursing home.

I don't visit my dad enough.  Every time I go, I consider this truth.

When I got there, he was napping, but was ready for a visit.  So we got him up and I asked him about his day.  It was quiet there on a Saturday afternoon, though I thought I heard a movie in the background of the social room.  We talked about his favorite foods (pizza, meatballs, cherry pie, corned beef), and sang a few songs, including Bing Crosby songs and some hymns.  My dad had a pretty good voice back in the day, and he loved to sing Bing Crosby songs most of all.  I tried to get a little crooning in my voice when I sang "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day."   I didn't know all of the words, but then, neither did he.

Then we said the Lord's Prayer together.

My dad used to read Bible stories to us when we were getting ready for bed.  My parents both said our prayers with us, but when my dad said them, he would often pretend he was Methuselah, the world's oldest man.  He would tell us that he remembered Moses and Abraham and all of the heroes of the Bible, and he would talk in an old man's voice.  When we started to say the prayers, he would pretend that he was falling asleep during the prayer, and when his voice trailed off, my sister or I would kick him.

So, that's my memory of my dad teaching me the Lord's Prayer.

My dad wasn't a terribly educated man.  The youngest son of Swedish immigrants, he at first longed to be a high school teacher:  he wanted to teach Shop.  But he found that college was more of a challenge than he imagined, so he changed his plans and opened his own business:  Radio and TV Sales and Service.  I still remember the smells of that old shop, oil and picture tubes and carpeting.

My dad was traditional, which means that he didn't really cook or do much cleaning, unless my mom specifically told him what to do.  He was endlessly fascinated by television and he could fry an egg, grill hamburgers and make a mean bean sandwich.  He wasn't a cat person, but he loved our dog.  He was sentimental, believing that love should always win out.  But I don't remember ever seeing him cry. He liked to cover up tough times with a laugh or a joke.

He liked to sing, but he rarely knew all of the words to the songs.  So sometimes, he made up his own words.

When I was trying to figure out whether to change course and go to seminary to be a pastor, I was desperate to know what my parents thought about it.  They're Scandinavian, though, which means they aren't always free with their opinions.  But finally, I practically begged.  I asked my dad, "Do you think I would be a good pastor?"

"Oh," he said, "I think you'd be good at whatever you did."

"You never say that," I told him.

As if thinking it for the first time, he said, "Nobody ever said it to me, either."

I don't visit my dad enough.

But when I do, we sing.  Even though neither of us remembers the words.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Small Picture

Forgive me, for we were at the Biltmore Mansion the other day.  It is the largest home in North America, and it was gorgeous and overwhelming, with all of the layers of history and art and architecture, and even though I am on vacation, it got me started thinking about Mission and Vision and Purpose, big words that help churches and individuals think about Where They Are Going and How They Are Going To Get There.  You Know:  "The Big Picture."

George Vanderbilt had a vision, or a mission, or both:  and it was to build this great and beautiful house, where many people came and stayed and entertained.  The house had its own bowling alley and swimming pool, a gymnasium and a music room and a library.  The garden was designed by the same person who designed Central Park.

As for me, what I remember most is walking across the lawn on the way back to the parking lot, and seeing a small yellow butterfly fly in front of me.

But it made me think, again, about the important and vexing question:  what is my mission?  do I have a vision for my life?  And what about my congregation?  What is the mission of my congregation?

When I was a little girl, I had a simple mission in life, and it was to write stories.  I thought I would be an author.  I didn't have any idea what I would write "about," but I thought I would tell stories of some sort or another.

Then I knew I was going to become a pastor, which also involves telling stories,  and helping other people tell stories, as well as holding hands and breaking bread and pouring water.  Being a pastor involves holding up mirrors to people's pain and beauty, and nudging them forward to do things they never thought they could do.  And Leading -- but where?  I can't seem to get my brain around what is called "The Big Picture":  all I can see is a number of small pictures of daily faithfulness, on the way to the reign of justice and mercy that only God can bring.

A woman from my congregation tutors all of the immigrant children in her apartment building.  A young man comforts his confirmation guide, who is grieving.  A confirmation guide is vulnerable enough to share her grief with her students.  A young mother and her children bring communion to a woman who is shut-in.  They visit every month.  A two year old girl shares the "Peace" with as many people as possible during Sunday worship.  A small yellow butterfly flies across a great garden.

The Small Pictures:  I don't want you to miss them, because if you do, you might also miss the Son Rising every single day.

I still don't know what my mission is, but I pray that God will grant me grace to see my own small yellow butterfly, and courage to follow.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Another Kind of Pastor's Report

Every month I write a report to the Leadership Board about my activities and my goals.  I tell them how I have been spending my time over the past month and what my plans are for the next month or so.  I've also been working on some long-range professional and personal goals, but that's another story.  (and perhaps another blog post.)

But, I'll tell you a secret:  putting together my monthly report doesn't really scratch the surface of the highlights of my month.  And writing what I believe the trajectory of the next month will be doesn't begin to express the arc of my hopes.

So, what have been the highlights of the last month for me?

Perhaps it was the time I spent at a 99 1/2 year old woman's house.  She will be 100 in February, she said.  They had a party for her in the summer, and 139 people came.  She put cookies and coffee out for our visit, talked about her terrible back pain, how grateful she was for the help of her son and daughter-in-law, shared some of her fears and hopes for the country.  When I asked her what we should pray for, she said, "Pray for peace."

Or maybe it was the wedding where the bride chose two hymns for us to sing.  (It seems that congregational singing is very rare at weddings any more.)  It sort of warmed my heart to stand in front of them, and hear the bride singing "Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us" in a hearty voice.

Maybe it was the day I met with the sister of a woman who had died.  She told me stories about her sister that I hadn't heard.  (I thought I had known her sister well).  She told me more about her sister's time in Africa, about the parrot she brought home, who used to say to her in the evening, "Good night, madam."  When the parrot died, its last words were "Good night, madam."  So we came together to plan a funeral for her beloved older sister, and when she opened up the folder, everything was carefully written out in her sister's hand:  hymns, scriptures, even the liturgy parts.

Somehow it is these moments that have fed me this past month, as well as the passing comments, a woman who asked me to teach her to pray, a couple who asked for my prayers for her recently diagnosed Parkinsons, a man who said "yes" when I asked him to serve.

And just what is the arc of my hopes over the next month?

I think it is the promise of conversations:  I hope to listen to parents who will tell me why they want to have their baby baptized, to young people and retired people and children who will engage in conversations about how worship feeds and empowers them, to older people who will pray with me for the world, their aches and pains and the people they hold dear.

Sometimes what I do doesn't seem like much at all, and sometimes it seems like the world in my hands: simply to listen to the hopes of the world in each aching heart, and to place the bread of life into each waiting hand.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Something in the Water....

Since the beginning of August, I've gotten at least four phone calls from people I don't know asking about baptisms for their babies.

This isn't unheard up, but it is a little unusual.  Most often of course, the people who call requesting baptism are members of the church; once in awhile they are people who have been worshiping with us for awhile, but haven't become members yet.

All of the people who have called are strangers to me -- at least so far.  I've caught myself thinking, "what's going on?  Is there something in the water right now?  Why am I getting all of these requests at the same time?"  And because the families are strangers to me, I've been leaving messages, and then they've been leaving messages, and we've had a hard time connecting with one another.  I've been trying to set appointments, trying to get to know them a little, not just 'set up a baptism'.

I love baptisms.  Infants on up, I consider a baptism a great celebration of God's absolutely amazing and impossibly wide love and grace.  I still remember baptizing all of the children in one family on one evening in our chapel service.  The oldest son was so excited, he blurted out, "This is fun!  I like baptizing!"  Two years ago a 5th grade boy was baptized just before his first communion.  All of his classmates helped pour the water; and all of them declared to him "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."   It it were up to me, we'd have as much baptizing as possible in my church.  It's God's power at work, reminding us every time that we belong to God, that our present and our futures are in God's hands.  I also believe that when we are baptized we embark on a life-long adventure -- being God's representative where-ever we are.  It's a very big deal.

So, I'm more than happy to do those baptisms for the people I called, who I don't know... yet

But (and I don't want them to take this as a criticism) I do want to sit down and have a talk with them.  I want to get to know them and to discover what they believe about baptism and what it means to them.  I don't want to 'just schedule the baptism' -- because baptism is a beginning of a relationship -- not just with God, but with God's people, too.  I don't want to put big requirements on them, and I don't want to twist arms, but I want to get to know them, just a little bit.  Because if their child is baptized at my church, then we'll be bound together in the love of Christ.

Yes, indeed, there's something in the water right now.  I don't know what it is.  But I confess, can't wait to have these conversations, and to see how God is working in all the lives of these strangers.

Most of the time we don't even know it, but there is something in the water, when we are immersed in it, when it is sprinkled over our heads, when it flows over our foreheads.  There's something in the water and the water when we take the plunge and come up sputtering and new.

I'd just like to have a conversation about that.  And after that, maybe we won't be strangers any more.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Animals and Eschatology

We have an Animal Blessing Service at my church this Sunday afternoon.  We always begin out on the front lawn with songs and prayer, and at the end, we process into the chapel, where the animals are each blessed individually.

We would't have to bring the animals indoors.  My husband's church has an animal blessing service at around the same time of year, and the whole service is held at the front entry to the church.  They have horses, so I suppose I can see their point.  But there's something I really like about looking out over my congregation of people, and assorted dogs, cats, gerbils and canaries (and sometimes, a goat).  I'm glad that we bring the animals indoors.  It doesn't seem right to have animals in the pews with people, and yet, it does.

There's another part of me that secretly wonders why I love the Blessing of the Animals so much, if it isn't a flaw in me of some sort, a soft sentimentality.  Instead of putting my hand on the head of a Golden Retriever, maybe I should be Ending Poverty, or Racism, or doing something much more Important, something that will bring the Reign of God just a few inches closer.  In the scheme of things, blessing the animals on Sunday afternoon is not that important.  It's not up there with funerals and weddings, it's not as important as feeding the hungry or standing up for those who have been ground into the dust.

And yet, in its own small way, there's something going on here that is important.  Some people use their  Animals Blessing Service to highlight larger concerns:  the important Christian vocation of caring for creation, for one thing.  Protecting the vulnerable includes the vulnerable animals who live with us and around us.  

But the people who come to our front lawn on Sunday afternoon:  they aren't there just because they believe in caring for God's beautiful and vulnerable creation.  They may believe in all that, but they are there because they love the creatures they live with, sometimes beyond all reason.  They love them, and  and in this relationship they catch a glimpse of the grace of God for all creatures, and in this relationship they catch a glimpse of the world to come.

This isn't about "finding God in the beauty of nature"; we're about as likely to find cruelty as beauty in nature.  But it is about glimpses -- glimpses of the future that we sometimes get, glimpses of a future where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where tears and pain and death will be no more, where people and animals and friends and enemies will finally live in peace, where everyone will have enough.

That is the future that God desires, and that is the future that God is bringing to being, and that is the end that we walk toward in the way we treat each other now.

And every once in awhile we catch a glimpse of it.  When enemies forgive each other.  When health is restored.  And animals and people sing God's praise together in the sanctuary.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lord, Have Mercy

The summer has brought some changes, big and small, to the congregation where I am a pastor.  Of course, the big one is a new senior pastor.  But there have been a few little ones, including some ways that our worship services have changed.  We're trying a few things in worship, without doing anything major yet:  we want the congregation to be the ones who figure out what our worship identity is, and what our worship should look like.

In the meantime, we have been doing a couple of things differently:  1)  we have moved the announcements to near the end of the service.  We decided to do this right after our "Rally Day" worship, when the beginning of the service was delayed several minutes because people were still coming in the front door.  2)  we begun worship with the "Kyrie."

I have a couple of observations regarding these changes.  One is this:  I should not criticize anyone for finding change difficult, because I'm sort of finding it difficult myself.  Doing the announcements at the end of the service does not come naturally for me, much as I like the idea.  And I'm used to beginning worship either with a song, or with confession and forgiveness, so the flow of worship seems a little odd to me, still.

But I do find myself dwelling on those three word, that most ancient prayer, "Kyrie Eleison."  "Lord, have mercy."  It is a confession and it is an intercession.  It is the cry of a disciple, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."  It reminds me that prayer is not a transaction, but a gift.

This morning I had one of those bad headaches I get every once in awhile.  I haven't had one for a long time, and I forget how they feel until one of them comes along again.  I caught myself praying a sort-of prayer, "God, if you will take away this headache, I promise I will do more of the things you want me to do.  I promise I'll write, I'll use my time wisely, I won't procrastinate...."  I was in the middle of this kind of prayer when I remembered the Kyrie, "Lord, have mercy....."

There's no bargaining, no reminding God that I'm an essentially Good Person, no promising that I will be better.  The only chip I have is the mercy of God.   That's it.  And that is enough.

One of my high school friends, one of a different denominational persuasion, visited a Lutheran worship service one time and reported on her experience.  "First you ask God to forgive you," she reported.  "Then all of a sudden, you are saying, 'Lord, have mercy' again.  What's up with that?  Why don't you just believe you are forgiven and be done with it?"

At the time, I didn't know exactly how to answer her.  Maybe it was true; maybe we did wallow a bit too much in our sinfulness.  But now I am beginning to see a little more clearly:  "Lord Have mercy," is the constant refrain of our lives, of our prayers.  It's not that we are wallowing in our sinfulness, but that the foundation of our life is mercy.

The foundation of our life is mercy.

God is merciful.  That alone is enough to transform our lives.