Wednesday, May 29, 2013


A while back, I remember that we sang "Amazing Grace" at our contemporary service.  It was probably during Lent, maybe even on the Sunday in Lent that we hear the gospel reading about the man born blind.  Even though the hymn is in the hymnal, we printed the words in the worship folder, so that no one would have to look it up.

This, in and of itself, is not such an unusual event.  We do sing "Amazing Grace" on occasion.

But what I remember about this time is that later on, I found a discarded bulletin in one of the pews.  Before I could throw it away, I noticed that something was written on it.  Actually, something was written on the lyrics to the song, "Amazing Grace."  Someone had scratched out the word "wretch" in the line "that saved a wretch like me" and written in above it "soul."

This particular person, at least, didn't want to sing about being a 'wretch.'  And they cared enough to actually scratch the word out of their bulletin.

Though I don't know for sure, I think I can imagine why:  maybe this person has spent a few too many years considering herself just 'not good enough'.  Perhaps that's the message he heard, intentionally or unintentionally, all the while growing up:  you aren't smart enough, talented enough, holy enough, good-looking enough, popular enough.  You just don't measure up.  You're just a poor excuse for a human being.  And maybe she is just too tired of feeling like this is the way the church wants her to feel too.  Wretched.

I have to admit, it hits me again when I read the story from Luke, the one about the centurion who requests Jesus' healing for his slave.  "Lord, I am not worthy," he says.  Does he really have to grovel? Really?  Is that what he thinks it takes for Jesus to pay attention to him?  He isn't even fit to have Jesus come into his house?  Is it because he's a Gentile?  Because, later on, Zacchaeus is certainly 'good enough' to have Jesus come into HIS house, and he was a tax collector.  The wretch.

"Lord, I am not worthy..." the centurion said to Jesus.  Maybe he said it because he was a gentile, and he knew that he was not considered worthy by Jewish standards.  Maybe he said it because he thought that was what he was supposed to say.  Maybe he said it because he suddenly began to think about all the things he had done, or had left undone, all the things he had said, or left unsaid, the life he had lived and the lived he had failed to live, and there seemed a great distance between who he was and who he wanted to be.  Sometimes that happens, you know.  Especially when you are standing in the presence of Jesus.

You don't have to claim to be a 'wretch'.  You don't have to claim to be 'unworthy' or promise to be 'worthy'.  You don't 'have to' anything.'  All you do is stand in the presence of Jesus, honestly, and he says the word that bridges the distance between you.  All you do is stand in the presence of Jesus, being who you are, and he says the word.

He says the Word.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Watching the Flowers

Those who know me know this:  I'm not much of a gardener.  I've dabbled in herbs, and while in South Dakota I successfully harvested carrots and rhubarb for a couple of years (although I couldn't take much credit for the rhubarb).  I planted a few peas one year, got excited and planted about three times as many peas the next year.  The rabbits ate them all.

I will confess, I feel particularly inept at planting or growing flowers.  The only flowers we have had here are the hostas and the overgrown peony bushes; both were here when we got here.   I planted a few annuals one summer on the south side of the house, but they didn't do well.

So last year I sent out a cry for help:  a friend of ours is a landscaper by trade, and he dug up the overgrown peonies, and put in a few perennial bushes on the south side of the house, which had been mostly weeds, and he added a few flowers and bushes to the front of the house, where there had been mostly yews, with one mock orange bush.  There have been a few bumps in the road, what with last year's oversupply of rabbits (who ate a couple of our young bushes) and this year's terribly late and mostly non-existent spring.

But slowly, slowly, things are happening in the garden.

For one thing, a few of the peony bushes are back.  They aren't so welcome, but we're going to keep them, at least for the spring.   There aren't so many flowers in the front yet, but things are coming up, a little bit every day.  There are two bushes that just look slightly greener every day.  You have to really keep your eyes peeled to notice the difference.  It started with just seeing a little bit of green at the core, where all of the branches were dead.  But little by little, the stems are turning green, and the leaves are starting to appear.

Then there are the Bleeding-hearts, two bushes with dozens of flowers.  They are first fruits of those who will bloom.

You know how Emily Dickinson said, "Hope is the thing with feathers"?  Right now I think hope is the thing with flowers.

It's humbling, because, unlike most gardeners, I didn't plant these flowers and bushes.  I don't even know what most of them are called.  (I'm hoping that this will be an occasion for self-education, though.)  I am, at least right now, simply watching, watching the flowers, first the Bleeding-hearts, and who knows what will be next?  First the Bleeding-hearts, then the others that I need to tend, and study, and learn the names.

It's faith seeking understanding in the garden.  Faith that was planted, but not by me.  But now, I want to learn.  I want to learn the names.  I want to know what they are.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pentecost and Confirmation

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday.

It is also confirmation day for our 9th graders.

I was confirmed on Pentecost Sunday a few years ago now.  Back in those days, and in my tradition, I believe that Pentecost was always Confirmation Sunday.  We chose the day that the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles to lay hand on the young people and ask that the Holy Spirit descend on them, too.

Back in those days, in my tradition, anyway, there was no prayer for the Holy Spirit at baptism.  We waited for about 15 years, until your confirmation day, to pray that the Holy Spirit would come to you. But somewhere along the line, when we were reading the Bible (always a dangerous thing to do), someone noticed that, in the book of Acts, everyone received the Holy Spirit right after they were baptized.  So now, whatever age you are, you receive the gifts of the Spirit at baptism.

At confirmation, we pray, instead, a prayer that begins this way, "Father in heaven, for Jesus' sake, stir up in _______ your Holy Spirit."

Stir up.  I like that.

It's a good for Pentecost, as well as for Confirmation.

So we lay hands individually on each 9th grader, each 15 year old, and pray "Stir up your Holy Spirit in this person."  And I suppose that what we are thinking is a sort of "get moving, Holy Spirit!" sort of prayer.  "Get this person through life!  There are going to be a lot of tests, and a lot of trials, and a lot of doubts going on, and be the Spirit that keeps this person faithful through all of those things.  Give them the strength that keeps them going when the going gets tough, when their spouse or child gets sick, when they lose their job, when they are lonely, when they are grieving, when they are dying."

That's sort of the gist of it.  "Stir up your Holy Spirit."

And that's not a bad start.  But "Stir up" has so many implications, complications.  I catch myself wanting to pray more this way, "Cause some problems, Holy Spirit!  Move things around that have been in the same place way too long.  Kick this person in the seat of the pants, help them to think in ways they have never thought before.  Open them to new possibilities, new missions, new ways of loving the world.  Stir up your Holy Spirit so that we might be your troublemaking church."

What I wish for our 9th grade confirmation class, is to be troublemakers -- in a good way, of course.  I pray for the Holy Spirit to stir them up so that the rest of us will be stirred up too -- to be a truly Pentecostal Church.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"We're Not That Different"

During the first few years at my current congregation, I used to be in charge of Small Group Ministry.  I trained leaders and thought of small group ideas, and actually led some small groups, too.

One of my favorite small group ideas was a marriage enrichment group for couples called "Empowering Couples."  I think I had three smalls groups of couples that met about six times, using a prepared book that listed couples strengths and ways you could strengthen your relationship in  about twelve different areas.  At the first meeting, the couples always chose the five areas they most wanted to work on.

I say it was my favorite small group idea, but it was hard to get couples to join.  When I finally got a group together, we had a good time, but I think people were nervous about trusting each other at first.

One fall, I had just two couples who were committed to meet together.  A man from the congregation called up one day, and asked if he and his partner could attend.

I had to admit (to myself), I hadn't even considered the idea.  I knew that this man was in a committed same-gender relationship, although his partner attended a different congregation.  (Like many couples, he preferred traditional worship, but his partner liked a more contemporary service.)  But it never occurred to me that they might want to, you know, work on their relationship, make it better.  It had never occurred to me that they might care about things like communication, conflict resolution, money, role relationships, spiritual values.

I told him that because the numbers were few, and it was important for the couples to be able to trust and share with one another, I would have to ask them how they would feel if he and his partner joined the group.  He said he understood that, and asked about the different components of the program.

I may have said something dumb, but I'm pretty sure he forgave me.  I'm thinking that I probably said something about being surprised that they would be interested in the group, to which he replied, "Well, you know, we're not that different."

In other words, we have fights, want to communicate better, share our faith, bring our work home, try to figure out who does what in the home, care for children and pets, navigate family relationships, fight about money:  all of the things that all couples do.

"We're not that different."

In the end both couples said it would be okay for this man and his partner to attend.  But, in the meantime, they both decided to buy the books and do the study on their own.  I suppose they didn't want to make an issue of it then.  They just wanted to improve their own relationship, and I hope this book helped them.

They are still together.

And now, because my state has legalized same gender marriage, they are getting married, although not in my church.

I wish them well.  Because I know that marriage is a hard work, but it is a blessing to have someone by your side, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part.  It's hard work, learning to communicate and resolve conflicts, to share finances and trust, to navigate family relationships and household chores, and trust in God, too.  And it's a blessing to have someone who will pray with you, rejoice with you, make you soup when you are sick, hold the ladder for you when you are painting the house, go to church with you, walk with you every day of your life.

We're not that different.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The End of the Day

It is the end of the day.  Most of the lights are off.  I'm ready to nod off.  Scout the dog is on the rug in front of our bed, quiet.  An empty glass of wine is on the nightstand.

There's a cool breeze coming in through the window.  There was a little rain earlier this evening, right before I left the church.

I got up early this morning, let the dog out, got dressed for church.  I needed to print a funeral sermon and some questions for a worship conversation we were holding at 8:30, with our Matins groups.  We want to find out what people in our church value about worship, what is unique about our congregation's worship,  so we are getting together with as many groups of people as possible.

We have a full Wednesday morning program at this church, starting with Matins at 8:00, a coffee and conversation time at 8:30 and a speaker at 9:00.  We were going to sandwich in a conversation from 8:30 to 9:00.  I had a funeral at 11:00.

When I entered the church, I ran into the Program Speaker, a retired pastor who now spends his free time writing books.  He asked me if I was a writer.  (How did he know? I thought, but did not say). "Do you have a manuscript?"  I had to admit, no.  I have a number of haiku prayers, though....

I stuffed the half-sheet of paper with his biographical information into my pocket, and gathered the group for the worship conversation.  "What does worship mean to you?" was the first question, which was met with a full and silent moment, and then a flood of responses.  We went on from there.

Afterwards, the funeral director was already there.  The family started arriving.  I did some practicing, honing the final sentences of my sermon for the morning, talked to the family, put new batteries in my microphone.

I have to admit, funerals have a way of erasing my hard drive, so I made a list of a few things I needed to do after the funeral.  Edit a letter to the congregation about summer worship.  Write a call to worship for contemporary worship.  Call a bride-to-be.

Right before the funeral, a man held out his hand and said, "Do you remember me?"  He and his wife were at the last funeral I had, just a little less than a month ago.  I had not known that their families were connected.

During the funeral, I spotted him, sitting in a pew with his wife.  Tears were running down their faces.

We had communion at the service today.  The woman who died -- loved receiving communion.  When she entered hospice, she said, "Now I can get communion every day, can't I?"  When she died she was 88 years old, married almost 63 years.  She was a woman of strong faith and strong love.  She was also a good friend of my mom's.

My mother came to the luncheon.  She wore the shawl I made for her two Christmases ago, even though it was a little too warm to wear it.

After the funeral I edited the letter.  I sent it to the office coordinator for formatting.  I took a little break and went over to visit with the family of the woman who died.

Then I came back to church, wrote some worship material, made some phone calls, had supper at the church:  sloppy joes.  There was another worship conversation in the evening.  "What does worship mean to you?"  we asked again.  "Why do you come to worship?  Why do you come back?"  One woman said, truthfully, "my son brings me back."

Finally, I met with a confirmation student and his dad.  We talked about faith and doubt and families.

It is the end of the day.

Calls to Worship for the Easter Season

Call to Worship for Easter 5

Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord from the heavens!
See, God is making all things new.
Praise the lord, sun and moon; sing praise, all you shining stars!
See, God is making all things new.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps;
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;
Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds
See, God is making all things new.
Young and old, men and women, powerful and pauper,
Let us praise the name of the Lord
See, God is making all things new.
Christ has risen.
Christ  has risen indeed.  Hallelujah!

Call to Worship for Easter 6

May God be merciful to us and bless us
Lord, make us instruments of God's peace.
May the light of God’s face shine upon us.
Lord, make us instruments of God's peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, let us sow faith.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is despair, let us sow hope
Where there is sadness, joy.
May the light of God’s face shine upon us
May God make us a blessing
May God be merciful to us and bless us
Lord, make us instruments of God’s peace.

Call to Worship for Easter 7

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
When kindred live together in unity!
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
May we praise the Lord together
Men and women, young and old
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
May we be agents of mercy and justice together
May we walk humbly with you and one another
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
May we feed the hungry and clothe the naked
Visit the imprisoned and heal the sick.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
May we see your face in one another
Brothers and sisters, strangers and friends
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
When kindred live together in unity!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sharing Peace -- a Sermon for Easter 6

Based on John 14:23-29

             I love baptisms. 
            You may have noticed this about me. 
            I love everything about baptisms, from conversations with parents and sponsors, to pouring water and getting my sleeves wet to drawing crosses on foreheads.
             I love getting to hold babies and introducing everyone to our new sister or brother in Christ. 
            I love how the liturgy is almost always the same for a baptism, but how every baptism is different, because different people are involved. 
            So there are all these different stories –- like the three children who all got baptized at the same time, and one of them was so excited he said, “this is fun!  I like baptizing!”
             or the baby that grabbed both sides of my stole as she was being lowered down to the font. 

            One of the things I really liked when I first came to this congregation was that sometimes we would have a number of people, babies and children, and sometimes even adults – baptized at one time. 
            That was exciting to me, both getting to know the people beforehand, and the large crowds around the font on the big day. 
            I remember that one day there were five people getting baptized – a 5th grader, two third graders, a 4 year old, and a baby. 
            They were all people new to the congregation, and one of the families included a single mom. 
            We were putting the service together and wanted her ex-husband and his family to be included. 
            And, as a step-mom myself, I wanted to be sensitive to everyone involved.  But I knew that it might be awkward, and that there are often really deep wounds, even when all the people involved want to work together and do the right thing for their children. 
            So I was nervous about how the day of the baptism would work out,  and the potential for conflict as well as for blessing.   
            I suppose that on this day, I really wanted there to be peace.

            Peace.  That’s what Jesus offers to his disciples, in the gospel reading today. 
            Here they all are, in the upper room again, gathered around, and Jesus is teaching them and telling them the most important things he wants them to know, to prepare him for his death – to prepare them for life in the world – to prepare them to be his disciples. 
            And even though he goes on for five chapters, really, what he has to tell them has a few simple things in it, that he says over and over. 
            “Love one another.  As I have loved you.”  “The Holy Spirit will help you.”
             I am giving you peace.   My peace.  Not the world’s peace, whatever that is.”    
            Over and over he tells them the same simple things.
             Love.  Share peace.   My peace.  The Holy Spirit will help you. 
            And the thing is – he’s not just telling the disciples in the upper room. 
            These are Jesus’s words to us as well.
             “Love.  Share peace. My peace.”  He’s telling us.  “The Holy Spirit will help you.” 

            And you know – we all want peace.  I know I do. 
            Not just on that baptism day long ago when I wanted things to work out well for that little family that had trouble and conflict.
            We really want there to be peace.  I pray for peace in the world, for the wisdom to make peace, for a good night’s sleep when I’m worried.
            What about you? 
            I want peace in my family, peace in my community, peace among neighbors – whatever that is. 
            So when Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you,”
            I know I get a lot of images in my head, from a general sense of contentment – ah, peace – and a good night’s rest – to the peace that comes when enemies set down weapons and sit down at the table together. 
            There are a wide varieties of images for peace – and we want them all.  We want them all. 

            But what I really want to hone in on today is the image of peace between us  -- and peace between us and God. 
            Because I think when Jesus is speaking about peace he isn’t speaking generally about contentment, but he’s speaking about  peace as reconciliation, peace as something between us  -- and peace as something that is between us and God.
             He’s talking about a peace that closes the gap, goes the distance, overcomes fear and gives courage to do what Garrison Keiller used to say that Powdermilk Biscuits do,
             “give shy people the courage to stand up and do what needs to be done.” 
             I want to connect Jesus’ word on this night “Peace I leave with you” with Jesus’ words to his disciples when he came back to them after he rose – he walked right through those locked doors and he stood in front of them and said, “peace be with you.” 
            And we might think he was just saying “hello”  -- after all, the Hebrew word for “peace”  “shalom”  -- is also a greeting. 
            But I think that when he told them “peace be with you”  -- he was not just saying ‘hello,’    He was also giving them peace.  His peace. 
            The peace that closes the gap.  The peace that goes the distance. 
            The peace that won’t let anything – not fear or failure or conflict -- not anger or even betrayal or death  – get in the way of his love – and his presence.  “Peace be with you.” 

            Peace.  We all want peace.  I know I do.
      And we receive this peace and we share peace every Sunday, when we come here. 
      We come and we confess the distance we feel – the distance between us – the distance between us and God. 
      We come and confess our failures, our secrets, our failings, our fears, and we hear again and again that God comes to us, that God forgives and heals and loves and sends us – yet again. 
      Again and again God gives us the peace of his presence – I am with you.  Do not be afraid. 
      And then we share this peace with one another.  The peace of God be with you always – we tell one another. 
      We wish God’s peace on one another – friends, enemies, strangers – we close the distance, bridge the gap.
       It’s only a moment in the service, but that’s what it’s about.  Because we all want peace.  I know I do.  And it’s a gift.  And it’s our work, too.

      Peace.  It’s not about avoiding the newspaper, because knowing the pain of the world can keep you up at night, sometimes. 
      But it’s about reading the newspaper, and  praying for peace, and working for peace, however you can.
      It’s not about simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of God even when there is conflict.
       It’s not saying everything is perfect, even if it’s not.
       It’s about saying even though everything is not perfect,  we will work together, we will serve together, and I will bless you with God’s peace.  
      And we can be instruments of God’s peace…. Together.

            So, on the day, on that baptism day, you know – it was something. 
            All those people, standing up at the font.  The four your old looking all solemn and being able to tell the congregation, “I want to be baptized.” 
            The two third graders and the 5th grader and their families around them – and you know – now that I think about it – they have all been on many mission trips as youth at this church. 
            And the sponsors, receiving candles, and hearing the words, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your father in heaven.” 
            The congregation welcoming. 
            But the moment I most remember is this:  at the close of the service, the single mom and her ex-husband shared a hug.   I don’t even remember who started it, and it probably isn’t important.  
            Peace.  We all want peace.  I know I do. 
            I don’t think that everything was magically perfect for them after that, but they shared God’s peace that day -- the gift of peace.  And  even after that, sometimes, I imagine. 

            Baptisms.  I love baptisms. 
            The wet sleeves, the babies, children, adults – all children of God  The promise of it.  The abundance.  The stories. 
            The images of quiet babies resting in the promises of God, receiving the peace of God, and the images of screaming babies awakened to the less-than-peaceful world, still receiving the peace of God. 
            Walking up and down the aisle and saying, “this is your new sister or brother in Christ.”    Sharing that peace.

            The peace of Christ be with you always.  Amen