Friday, July 26, 2013

Tell Me Your Stories

"Tell me your stories," my husband says to me as I return home, temporarily, with the dog.

"I don't have any," I reply.  It was a quiet morning, just me and the Office Coordinator and Scout the dog lying zen-like in the middle of my floor.

The phone only rang once.  It was the one of the Women Who Want Food Cards, which I do not have right now.  They keep calling, though.  They would have to come a distance to get a Food Card, and I tell them that they should try churches in their own neighborhood first.  They are persistent.  Or shameless.

Otherwise, I wrote my sermon.

I took breaks for coffee, to talk to the Office Coordinator, to eat the tiniest part of a chocolate pie.

Scout would follow me down the hall each time, an easy loping gait.  She would cruise up to the Office Coordinator to get pets.  She is persistent.  Or perhaps shameless.

I read the story again about the dying young girl who taught the seminary student how to pray, her soft voice urging him when he faltered, "Keep going.  I like to hear you pray, just talking to God like that."

It heard it rain, a little, as I typed, and wrote, and thought, and prayed.

"Teach me to pray," I say, remembering the phrase.  Perhaps I am not as persistent, or shameless, as I ought to be.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Imperfect Harmony: A Book Review

Stacy Horn is an evangelist.

Since she is not a Christian, she might protest this title.  But, be that as it may, she is an evangelist.  She is, specifically, an evangelist for singing.  Specifically, she sings the praises of choral singing.  She has sung soprano with the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York for the past thirty years.  She believes that the experience has changed her life, though not, perhaps, in tangible ways.

Her book, Imperfect Harmony, is an eclectic mix of memoir, history, science and music.  She tells stories of choirs, and the rise of choral singing, beginning with the story of Orpheus Glee Club, a choir borne out of a mining tragedy in in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  She joyfully relays the health benefits of singing (what is that natural high we get from singing together?), and digs into the background of famous choral composers and pieces.  In the midst of all these, she weaves in stories of her own life, and how singing with the choir has sustained her through good times and bad.   She worries about whether her voice is good enough.  She worries that she is losing her high notes.  She shares her financial stresses and relationship woes.

Especially poignant is the story Horn shares about her mother's illness and death.  Though not a person of religious faith herself, her mother returned to the Catholic faith during her illness, and she wants to be able to give her mother something to ease her dying.  Finally, she decides what she can do for her mother.  She can sing.   She can sing Schubert's Ave Maria.  So that is what she does.

I would never talk to my mother again  I sang to take her hand one last time.  If the music successfully carried those words to a place were she could still hear them, somewhere inside she was saying them along with me.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.  I don't need to believe a thing about God to understand and feel the hope in those words, those notes.  My mother needed to hear them and I needed to believe that she had.  (p. 190)
Stacy Horn is an evangelist.  And she reminds me of the power of music, and why it has been such an integral part of Christian worship throughout the centuries.  There is a power in singing, and there is a power in singing together.  The words and the music together bind us together and tie us to a hope that is much deeper than any intellectual assent could give us.

I have to say, in an age where we often let the professionals sing for us, we need a reminder that singing is for all of us.  Stacy Horn will often say that she has an ordinary voice.  She is an ordinary person who is grateful for singing.  She is grateful for a community who sings together.

I have a few friends who have pretty much given up on the church.  They have given up on the church because of deep hurt and pain they have experienced, because of exclusion, because the church isn't always what it is supposed to be.  But when they say they miss something, it's this:  singing.  Singing together.

It's how we believe, even when we're not sure we believe.  Singing binds us together, and carries us through each day.  It binds us together and carries us into eternity.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"General Rules" and Bible Stories

One of the things I love about the Bible is how it resists our efforts to tie everything up in neat systematic statements.  Whenever you think you have a "general rule" about something, there's a Bible story to throw some doubt on your carefully constructed thesis.

So, you have a deep commitment to the idea of an unchanging God, perhaps.  And then along comes a story from Exodus -- one where God has decided that God is done with the people of Israel.  They are down there worshipping a Golden Calf.  God is so angry that God is going to destroy the people and start over again with Moses and his offspring.

Moses argues with God and -- guess what?  God changes his mind.  In some versions of the Old Testament, the word is translated "repent".  God repents.

Or maybe you are looking for some 'general rules' about prayer.  For some people, Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane says it all,  "Not my will, but thine, be done."

This is an excellent prayer.  I can't argue with it.  God's will be done.  It's even in the Lord's prayer.

But then I come across the Old Testament reading for this Sunday:  God's decision that he is going to destroy the city of Sodom, and Abraham's conversation with God regarding this decision.

Perhaps this doesn't seem like a prayer to you.  To be honest, it doesn't seem like a prayer to me, either. But if not (I ask myself) why not?  If prayer is, at its heart, a conversation with God, this does seem to fit the definition, although it's a rather cheeky conversation.  Sort of audacious, in my opinion.  Abraham actually bargains with God, tries to strike a deal whereby God will not destroy a decidedly evil city.  (Whatever you think the sin of Sodom was -- there's no doubt about the fact that it was an evil place.)

"What if there are 50 righteous within the city?"  Abraham asks God.  "Will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked?"

(Wait!  Is Abraham bargaining with God?  I thought we weren't supposed to bargain with God.)

"Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"  That's what Abraham asks God.

And God answers, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake."

Amazing.  God and Abraham have a conversation/prayer.  Instead of saying, 'thy will be done,' Abraham actually contends for the life of an evil city.  Other than his nephew Lot and Lot's family, he doesn't know anything good about that city, and in fact, he knows plenty of bad.

Perhaps "general rules" are made to be broken.

Don't get me wrong; 'thy will be done' is still a good prayer.  It's not the only good prayer, and one of the reasons it is good is Jesus' honesty in saying it.

 Perhaps we work too hard sometimes to find "general rules" and "lessons" in Bible stories, instead of reading them for what they are:  a record of the messy, complicated relationship between humanity and a living God.  Perhaps Bible stories are not so much lessons about "what to do" or "what not to do" as they are pictures of what it looks like to be in relationship with God, to speak up and remain silent, to fall down and get up, to make mistakes and be bold and be your whole self in front of the one who holds you in the palm of his hand, anyway.

I'll admit that I love this story because it reveals something I fervently believe about God:  that God is gracious and merciful, despite some of the stories I have heard.  I love this story because Abraham is willing to stake his relationship with God on this.

May my conversations with God be this honest:  and not only on behalf of myself, but on behalf of others, too.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mary, Martha and Me

I was a freshly minted pastor living in a newly painted and repaired parsonage.  In July I had moved in, and I heard stories of how proud the congregation was of its parsonage.  I could tell that they had modernized both of the bathrooms and redecorated the guest room upstairs.

Once fall hit, I began to hear a few people say it was perhaps time for the new pastor to host an open house.  Some Sunday afternoon invite everyone who wants to come from the three churches.  They will want the chance to visit with you informally.  They will be curious about what the inside of your house looks like.  They will want to see how you decorated it.

It was a small parish, but not that small.  There were three congregations.  There was the potential for a lot of people to walk through my house that afternoon.  I needed to be able to serve them.  I needed to have food and coffee (these are Lutherans after all) and other refreshments.  And I was a single pastor:  there was no pastor's wife to pay attention to what was running out and to replenish.  I started to plan and fret and think about logistics.  I wanted to be generous.  Though I am not an accomplished baker, I wanted to bake something.

In the midst of my fretting and caring, someone from one of the churches took me aside and said:  "If you want to make something, Pastor, you go right ahead.  But don't worry about doing all the cooking. And don't worry about serving.  We will also bring treats, and we will serve.  We want you to be able to spend your time visiting, not serving."

It is something a freshly-minted pastor needs to hear, sometimes:  ministry is not just about how much you do, how you rush around and serve and create programs and make things happen.  Ministry is about how you sit and listen.

I wanted to show hospitality:  that's the truth.  I wanted to be a good pastor:  that's also the truth.  What those women were telling me was that their first priority for me, as their pastor, was to know them.  They wanted me to know their names, hear their stories, and listen.  They wanted me to begin to know what the rhythm of their lives was like.  That is as much hospitality as staying up late making brownies and running around filling coffee cups.

These past few days I'm thinking that these lessons apply not just to pastors and parish members, but to whole communities.  I'm thinking that while most of us want to be smart and in charge and running around with the answers, but the first thing we often need to do is sit and listen.  In communities I'm thinking of the conversations we need to have around race and privilege, around profiling and fear.  And I'm especially thinking that those of us who are white need to sit and listen to those communities of color in our neighborhood, to know their names, to listen to their stories, to hear their perceptions and their reality.  But for us it means not being in control.  It means being attentive to someone else's agenda, not just my own.  It means shifting our perceptions.

I think of the women of the church, who wanted me to sit still and listen.  Here I was, a freshly-minted pastor from the big city.  What did I know about the rhythms of rural life?  To truly serve them I needed to sit still and listen.  I think about the pain and fear in our communities, the things we don't know or won't believe because we don't sit still and listen.

There is more than one kind of hospitality:  that's the truth.  But true hospitality always puts the other person in the center, in some ways or another.   Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is to sit still and listen.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Today, and yesterday, I have been doing a little mending.

I don't usually do any mending.  I have a pair of pants, missing a button, that has been languishing in a drawer for almost a year.  It would be in my best interests to be able to wear those pants.  But I haven't sat down with a needle and thread and fixed them.  I also have a pink shirt with a little tear in it.  It would not be so hard to fix, but I would need to find the right color thread, you know.  And thread the needle.  The older I get, the harder it is to thread the needle.

But a couple of days ago, my mother in law asked me to put a button on a shirt for her.  She is temporarily residing in a nursing home, and we've been helping her with a few things since she has been there.  We can't help her with her therapy or serve her meals, but we can do her laundry and help her get stamps for cards.  And I can sew on a button.

I have never been much of a sewer, but I can sew on a button, in a pinch.  And I can repair a hem, if I have to (but I haven't had to, lately.)  But, left to my own devices, I don't seem to get around to it.  It doesn't seem that important.  I can work around wearing that pair of pants.  I can put the pink shirt in the drawer and forget about it.  But my mother in law asked me, so I have gotten out the small mending kit and threaded the needle, however difficult.  I sewed on the blue button, and I am working on the pink shirt, and also the pair of pants.

Today, and yesterday, I have been doing a little mending.

And, it seemed to me, when I was straining my eyes and my hands to thread the needle, that there are more things that need mending in my life, more tears, small or large, in the fabric of life, or of community.  Some of the tasks are hard, and some are not really so hard, but the older I get, the harder it is to thread the needle.  So I'm tempted to put off doing things that really need doing.


It is one of the calls of the church.  Perhaps we have forgotten that.  We come to worship on Sunday, and we can work around wearing particular garments and forget that they have to be mended.  But we are not the church if we don't do the mending that God has called us to.

Some of the mending is personal -- the rifts and tears in particular lives, the holes in hearts overflowing with grief and loss.  And some of the mending is community wide -- there are so many tears among us, so many holes, and so much fear.

I have been thinking about this the past few days as I have thought of the boy Trayvon Martin and the man George Zimmerman.  And what I have been thinking about is this:  they were afraid of each other.   And this is not just true in Florida, it is true in other neighborhoods as well.  We are afraid of each other.

How can we mend this?

All I can say is this:  it is not easy work, threading this needle.  And there is not a neat and near ending when there will be no fear in communities any more.  It is hard and constant work, and perhaps some of us find it easier to put it off, put it in a drawer, and go back to church and sing hymns.  But we are not the church if we don't do the mending that God has called us to do.

Today, and yesterday, I have been doing a little mending.

And tomorrow, by the grace of God and with the help of persistent friends, I will continue.  I will find a place where I can help with the mending in my community.  I will admit my own fears, and listen to those who disagree with me, and I will sew a few stitches together where the garment has unraveled.  I will thread the needle (even though the older I get, the more difficult it becomes).  Someone told me recently that you can thread the needle if you will hold it up against a contrasting color.

Today, and yesterday, and tomorrow, I am doing a little mending.

One garment at a time.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Travel Light

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals....

We just got back from vacation, which included a lot more boarding passes than I thought it would.  One of our planes was late, and one was over-sold, and a very kind ticket agent helped us find a creative way home from vacation, in the end.  (Her name is Aida, and she is from Bosnia.)

During the past few years we have been trying to simplify traveling by plane by only taking carry-ons:  no checked luggage.  This means that our vacations are somewhat shorter (at least the ones where we travel by air), and we try hard to travel light.

I always think I have accomplished this at the beginning of the vacation, when I root unnecessary items out of my purse and consider how to mix and match outfits by color scheme.  But I never travel light enough for the end of the vacation, when the items I thought I needed start to become a burden, and I realize that there were a few things I really didn't need.

For example, as it turned out, I only needed one sweater.  And I didn't do any knitting this vacation, despite the fact that I brought that sock pattern along.

But the final realization came when the security people decided they needed to dump the contents of my entire purse out on a countertop, because they thought my keychain looked like a pocket knife.

Suddenly, I looked a lot like a hoarder, and the purse looked like one of those little clown cars where the clowns just keep coming out......

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, Jesus said to the disciples, getting ready to go on the road.  In other words, Travel Light.  For some reason, it was important to Jesus that his disciples not take too much weight with them when they went to the towns and villages to which they were going.

Maybe this wasn't so hard for them as it is for us.  But there has to be a reason Jesus said it, so perhaps even for first century missionaries, there was a danger of taking too much and being Weighed Down.  There was a danger of getting bogged down in security and not really seeing what they were there to see.

Travel light, Jesus tells his disciples.  And somehow I think he's not just talking about my purse, with the keys and the laptop and the extra book and all of the other stuff that I can't imagine leaving home without.  Somehow I think he's not just talking about the makeup and the aspirin and the lotion for aching feet that I have to put in a plastic bag.

I somehow suspect that Jesus is talking as well about other things that weigh us down:  assumptions, for  one thing.  When we go to those other towns and villages sometimes the things we think we already know weigh us down, and keep us from seeing what we need to see, and doing what we need to do.  Sometimes we hold our dogmas too tightly, until we are weighed down by all of the ideas of what we are supposed to believe.   Sometimes the problem is that we have large suitcases filled with What Is Most Important.

While we were wandering around with our carry-ons, trying to find a plane to take us home, people in San Francisco were quickly evacuating a burning plane.  I heard later that some of them found the time to grab their luggage before they fled.  Their large suitcase filled with What is Most Important.

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.

So, what is most important, anyway?  When the plane is burning, when you are stuck in a strange city, when you feel weighed down?

What is most important?

It seems to me at this moment, that a ticket agent named Aida, from Bosnia is most important.

Perhaps to those on the burning plane in San Francisco, guides who showed the way to the nearest exit were most important.  And the ones they were guiding:  they too were most important.

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.

Just bring yourself.

And show the way.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On Putting Your Hand to the Plow and Not Looking Back

After church on Sunday, I got ready to go on vacation.  But first, I wanted to visit a parish member who is in the hospital.

She is in the hospital for an extended stay.  She is getting a stem cell transplant.

I don't talk in detail about medical conditions.  First, for reasons of confidentiality.  Second, because medicine is not my field, and I would not want to get something wrong.  But people in our community know and love this woman well.  When I said she was in the hospital, a few people knew what she was doing, even though I didn't tell them.

When I visited her the first time, she tried to explain some of the procedures that would take place, what would be happening, the timeline and the things they expect to see over the time she is there.  She tried to explain the places where there was danger, and where the opportunities for healing as well.  Medicine can work miracles sometimes, but those miracles are not without risks.  Maybe it has always been so.

On Sunday, I brought the bulletin from church with me.  Lately we have been printing everything:  music, liturgy and lessons.  I brought the bulletin and read the gospel and tried to summarize my sermon.  My sermon wasn't based on the gospel reading, but somehow the image of putting our hand to the plow and not looking back seemed to have a connection.

On Tuesday, at Lectio Divina, we had struggled with the gospel reading.  It was difficult for my little group of listeners to glean from.  Jesus seems to be dissuading people from following him.  He is hard on those who want to get some other task done before they put their hand to the plow.

It's hard work, following Jesus.  And it's singular work.  You can't be distracted by other things and expect to follow Jesus.  When the ground is hard, when the plow doesn't seem to move, perhaps you have regrets and think you should have chosen some other kind of life.

So, I was visiting in the hospital with this woman, who is just a little into a long course of treatment, a treatment that she hopes and trusts will be healing.  And I looked at her and suddenly I thought,

She has put her hand to the plow and is not looking back.

In fact, she told me, she can't look back.  Once you begin the treatment, you have to go through it.  You have to go ahead.

And I thought, perhaps that is what Jesus is talking about.  It's not a choice.  Once you put your hand to the plow, you can't look back.  The course of treatment has begun.  There is no way but forward.

So, you put your hand to the plow and you look at the far horizon, the one with three crosses and an empty tomb, the one with the gleaming city and the vision of God with us.  You put your hand to the plow and you look at the horizon where the blind will see, and the dead will be raised, and the broken will be healed, and the hungry will be fed.

It's not a choice, really.  Your only hope, and trust, is there, on that horizon.  Every strain of the plow is done in that hope, and in that trust.

The course of treatment has begun.  The healing is not in our hands.  It never has been.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Writing a Sermon

It is Friday morning:  a beautiful day.  It's not too hot and there's a little breeze.  I brought my dog Scout in because every once in awhile on a Friday, I do bring her in:  she helps me write my sermon.  (That's what I say, anyway.)

It's the last day of Vacation Bible School around here.  The dog gets to meet all of the children before I go into my office to begin writing the sermon.  She's a great procrastination tool; I stand around for a while, letting groups of children pet her and talk about their own dogs.  Then I go into my office and begin writing.

(My sermon-writing practice is not awfully linear, although I do try.  I make folders of the Scripture readings and try to look ahead for the whole season.  I read the lessons early in the week.  And I read them aloud too.  I carry the words of the scripture readings along with me where I go:  to the hospital, walking the dog.  I journal my first impressions.  I exegete, and muse and remember and read.)

All week I had been thinking about putting my hand to the plow and not looking back.  Or looking back.  Either way.  All week that particular verse from the Gospel had just sort of been niggling at me, as well as a passage from Isaiah 43:  "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old...."

Now it is Friday, and I am sitting in my office typing, writing a sermon and seeing where it went.  The windows are small in my office, but the shades are up and the light is coming in.  The dog sprawled on the floor, doing her 'world's laziest dog' impression.  The children are out on the lawn, playing.  I can hear them in the background, a light buzz.  But I am on a mission, writing furiously, trying to get a beginning, a middle, and an end before my computer runs out of power.  I have my hand to the plow and I am not looking back, although I 'm not really looking forward either.

The buzz gets nearer, as I am thinking about memory and imagination:  the foundations of our memories, how hard it is to imagine the future.  (Behold I am doing a new thing.  Really?)

I look up.  There is a group of children who are not playing any more.  They are just staring in the window, looking at me, looking at my dog.  There they are, their fresh faces looking at this odd woman who is just sitting and typing on a beautiful, breezy day.  And I am looking at them.  We are looking through the small window at one another.

(Behold.  I am doing a new thing.)

I consider the window that looks out onto the church lawn, green and growing this time of year.  I consider the window that looks out on to the children playing, the neighborhood, the school across the street.  And I think of the light and the children looking in at me, and at my life and at my dog.

And I think:  looking in and looking out are both part of the sermon-writing process.  Looking into the scriptures.  looking out at the world.  Looking into my own life.  Looking out at the children's faces, and at the sorrows and hopes around me.  Remembering and imagining:  a window that goes both ways.

The children's faces get into the sermon, somehow.

(Behold.  I am doing a new thing.)