Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Being Religious

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a woman from my congregation in which she revealed that she might not attend worship the next Sunday, but that her husband and her daughter would probably go.

"You know," she said, "he's just more....."

"Religious," I said.

"...than I am."  She didn't seem to mind much that I had ended her sentence for her.  And I said the word "religious" with warmth toward her husband and with no judgment implied toward her.

I realized later that what I meant by 'religious' was nothing more and nothing less than that it seemed to me that he genuinely enjoyed coming to worship.

I confess that, by this definition of worship, I am religious.  Ever since I was a little girl, I have enjoyed coming to church.  I liked singing the songs.   I liked saying the prayers.  I enjoyed reading along with the lessons, printed on the back of the bulletin.  My pastor preached short sermons, so that was a plus, too.  I went through periods of time when I rebelled against or doubted some of what church meant or did, but I always enjoyed going.

I have taken a few short sabbaticals from Sunday attendance, but have not spent long periods away from worship, even during periods of deep doubt.   Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to spend Sunday mornings doing something else.  Sometimes I think it would have been helpful if I had spent more time away from worship.

Now, I wasn't born yesterday.  I know that there are more definitions of the word 'religious' than the one I offered.  I remember reading a book in college called, "How to Be a Christian without Being Religious."   It was clear from that book that "Being Religious" was not a good thing.  I believe that the author equated being religious with doing things in order to curry favor with God.  But Christians don't need to DO THINGS to curry favor with God because Jesus has always done everything.  So, we don't need to be religious.

While I look back now and still appreciate this author's emphasis on grace and living in trust, I find his definition of 'religious' as sort of troublesome now.  It's probably because in the book, the author contrasted Christianity with all other religions, to the detriment of all other religions.

I realize, though, that there are other issues with the word 'religious,' some of them having to do with people who claim to be religious.  There are the people who go to church on Sunday morning, and then go out to eat and don't tip the waitstaff.  There are the people who go to church on Sunday morning, and work hard to keep other people out of their church, or out of their neighborhood.  So the word 'religious' has come to mean 'closed-minded, bigoted, hateful."  Or, it has come to mean someone who outwardly practices, but whose heart is not in it.  It's somewhat understandable that some people have come to prefer the word, 'spiritual..'  It may seem a kinder, gentler word.  (However, it may not be.  I have been told once or twice that I am 'not spiritual enough'.  You can beat another person up with any word, if you want to.  Sometimes 'spiritual' people can be mean, too.)

Still, I think we will miss something if the word 'religious' goes away.  For one thing, to be religious is to practice a particular faith.  Sometimes this becomes confused with practicing in a closed-minded way.  I think you can be religious and appreciate your own faith tradition without being closed-minded.  And then there's the public aspect of being religious:  you know -- going to church.  If you are religious, you are willing to 'go public,' in a way.  At the foundation, for Christians, this means public worship, where we get together with other people, and say certain creeds together and sing particular hymns, even though there are as many days when we doubt as there are when we believe.  

What does it mean to be religious?  Is it simply enjoying going to worship?  Is it an external practice with or without an inner core?  Is it narrow-minded bigotry, reciting creeds?

This is what James says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

So, I admit it.  In a way, I am religious.  I like worshipping.  I like singing those weird songs and I like praying together with large groups of people.  And I aspire to be religious in that other way, the way that James writes about:  in welcoming, feeding and caring for those who are hungry, poor and left out, in whatever way.

(Next up:  Are You Spiritual?)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Back to School

Adapted from the church newsletter:

Last week, my husband and I accidentally discovered a rabbit’s nest in our back yard.  Well, truthfully, our dog discovered the rabbit’s nest; we discovered her excitement before she was able to do much damage.  I spent the next few hours learning about rabbits’ nests (even though I took science in school I don’t remember learning about rabbits’ nests), and what to do when your dog discovers one.  We also spent the next few days checking the area and the nest to make sure the bunnies were all right beneath the earth.

I have always loved learning new things, but didn’t necessarily think my own backyard was a place to learn them.  I actually loved going to school, even though I wasn’t always good at school (I was good at reading, but math was hard for me).  Every year at this time of the year, I wish I had an excuse to buy a backpack and some spiral notebooks and a few new pencils.  Every year at this time of year, I sort of wish I was going back to school.

What is a disciple of Jesus but a student?  We are all going back to school, really, if we are disciples of Jesus.  And some of the learning is in worship and some of the learning is in Sunday School classrooms and some of the learning is in Bible studies.  And some of the learning is in the strange and familiar places that we travel, and some of the learning is in our own backyards, as we uncover rabbits’ nests and encounter birth and death and suffering and joy.

Truthfully, I could never learned about the rabbits’ nest if I hadn’t been to first grade, and to all the other grades as well.  When we go back to school in the fall, we aren’t just learning:  we’re learning to learn, learning habits that will keep us curious and alive for our whole lives.  And when we come to church, to a Bible study, to serve together, we are learning, but we are also learning to learn:  learning to handle the tools and the wisdom that will keep us curious and alive in our life of faith.

Soon we will bless backpacks, and send students back to school.  At the same time we'll see more families with children back in worship and Sunday school.  And I can't help feeling both excited and wistful at the same time, excited for the new people I will meet and those I will be happy to see again, and wistful because I have missed them most of them in the summer.  I wonder (as I often too) if we haven't been mistaken to tie Sunday School to the School year so closely.  Though there are many reasons why people don't come to worship so often in the summer, I suspect at least one of them is simply that summer has become vacation from worship as well as from school.

But what is a disciple of Jesus but a student? Where-ever we are, where-ever we go, we are learning and being formed by his life.  And worship is one of the places where we get the tools so that we can learn to learn:  so that we can learn to see the presence of God in the weeping stranger, in the tall grass in our back yard, in the faces around our dining room table.  And worship is one of the places where we get the tools, so that we can learn to learn:  where we practice speaking our faith, kneeling in prayer and in service, listening to God, listening to one another.

The rabbits have left the nest.  We don't see them any more.  But there are many more things to learn, in my own backyard, in the sanctuary of my church.  It's true.  Once we learn to learn, there are lessons everywhere.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Under a Flaming Sky", by Daniel James Brown -- a book review of sorts

I have driven by the sign for almost my entire life.  "Hinckley Fire Museum," it reads.

We stop for gas and a bite to eat on our way up to the resort and retreat areas of the North Shore.  Again, I see the sign.  But I don't go into the museum.  After all, Hinckley is a small town.  What kind of a museum could it be?

One of my college classmates was from Hinckley.  He talked about the Fire Museum some.  He talked about the fire a little too, but it didn't make much of an impression on me.  So every year we see the sign and we don't go into the museum.

This year, though, I was reading the book "Under a Flaming Sky" for my church's book club.  I wasn't at the meeting where we chose it, so I don't know the reasoning.  But I decided to bring the book along on vacation and read it while we were away.

I ended up finishing it on the drive home, as we were driving past Hinckley again.

"Under a Flaming Sky" is a harrowing book.  Brown sets the scene for the tragedy, describing life in the booming little town of Hinckley, describing the weather conditions and the logging practices of the day and the lives of several of the families whose lives would be irretrievably changed on the day.  He describes in detail the harrowing journeys of the two trains that left Hinckley that afternoon:  the northbound to Duluth, and the Southbound train bound for Pine City.  The northbound train with its bedraggled passengers stopped in Sandstone and in Partridge, and those aboard urged the townspeople to flee, but almost no one got on the train.  They just didn't believe that the fire would come there, even with witnesses attesting to its power.  The Southbound train left later and did not fare as well; even so, there were people on that train who survived the fire because of the dangerous journey it made.

One of those families included the author's great-grandmother, grandfather and his two sisters.  Brown's great-grandfather died in the fire; his great-grandmother Marie never got over it.  This book is, in part, borne out of Brown's desire to understand as much as he could about his own family, his own history, forged in the fire.

Logging practices and fire-fighting practices have changed, at least in part because of the Hinckley fire, and others like it.   While some fires are necessary and are a part of the natural order for the forest, so much of what was happening at the time had to do with a lethal combination of weather and carelessness.  I suppose there is some comfort in that, although I can't erase the thought of all of the children who were lost, who could not escape.   And it haunts me to think that, even after Hinckley and Peshtigo and Sandstone and a few other places, it still took several years to convince the logging interests that it was in their best interests to find safer logging practices.

So after reading the book, I am preparing a sermon for this Sunday.  This Sunday's readings contain difficult pronouncements by Jesus of division rather than peace,  the fire that he longs to bring to the earth, the 'signs of the times' that it seems that no one is heeding.  This Sunday's readings contain warnings by Jeremiah about false prophets and their dreams, lists of bedraggled patriarchs and prophets who live by faith in a world that mostly doesn't listen to them.  This Sunday's readings are all about suffering and struggle and division, and it appears that there is very little good news, just as there is very little good news in the book about the flaming sky.

I'm thinking about the sign that I never pay attention to as I drive past Hinckley.  What will make me stop and listen now?  I'm thinking about the people in Sandstone who would not take the train to safety, even with all of the voices urging them, the clouds of witnesses.  I'm thinking about how we can tell the false prophets from the true ones.  I'm thinking that it isn't easy, never hast been easy, to tell.  But one thing I can think about:  false prophets will tell me what I want to hear, whatever that is.  A true prophet will tell the truth, even if it's difficult to bear.

In his time, the people thought the prophet Jeremiah was a traitor.  But he loved Jerusalem as much as everyone else.  It's just that he saw the signs:  the signs of judgment, the signs of destruction.  He saw that the people were on a collision course with their own greed and idolatry.

I've always thought about the clouds of witnesses in Hebrews as those inspiring people from our past who trusted God and lived grace-filled lives. "Keep going," they are saying.  "Keep running." But now I have added another image:  the people on the train from Hinckley.  They are witnesses too, prophets of a sort, telling me that the life of a disciple of Jesus is hard, and fraught with danger.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Long View

Last week we took a few days off and went up to the Great Lake north of us.  While up there, we find a spot to hunker down, but we drive around to different scenic areas, just to see the beauty.  It's beautiful country, with trails and waterfalls and wildflowers and rivers.  Scout gets to come along, which is a bonus.  She likes to hike too, but I'm not so sure she is as enamored of the views as we are.

One day we drove a bit north, to a great little town way up north, and then we drove up the Gunflint Trail a bit, just enough to get a view from a place called the Pincushion Scenic Overlook.  It was pretty foggy and overcast, though, and there wasn't much to see of the town and the lake below.  The guide hadn't told us about hikes from the place, but I saw a hiking trail, and I thought we should take it.  "Just to get moving," I said.  I wanted to get my thirty minutes a day (at least) in.  So we set out on the narrow uphill path, through pine forest and meadow.  After about twenty minutes, I said to my husband that I just wanted to go far enough to see something, but there didn't seem to be anything much ahead except more trail.  So after walking up a little and down a little again, we turned around and went back.

We both agreed:  we didn't see anything.

As it turned out, we had just walked a tiny bit of the Superior Hiking Trail.  It is 277 miles from Duluth to the Canadian Border.  The trail moves through pine forests and along Lake Superior, through groves of wildflowers and around waterfalls.  But from our perspective, it didn't seem spectacular at all.  "We didn't see anything."

Here's my confession:  I say that we "hike" a bit, but we aren't really hikers.  We gravitate to the short hikes, the ones that quickly lead to somewhere with a magnificent view of something or another.  We are fit enough and are willing to put up with some rough terrain, but only for a little while (we have short attention spans).  We don't come equipped with backpacks and water and special shoes; we don't train to make the long treks that true hikers do.

On our short trip up the Superior Hiking Trail, I briefly considered the life of faith:  discipleship, for all it means.  And I thought that the life of faith is like the Superior Hiking Trail.   If you are only on it for a short time, it might seem like there's not much to see.  If you are only on it for an hour a week, you might see a spectacular waterfall,  but it's more likely that you'll be disappointed. But if you are on it for all 277 miles, all 87 of your years, you might sing a hymn that makes you cry, or give a cup of water to a stranger, or pray with a child.  You'll walk by a lot of ordinary terrain, but you'll walk by some spectacular sights as well.

But there's something else too:  maybe those ordinary places aren't as empty as they seem, especially to a seasoned hiker.  On that short walk up the Superior Hiking Trail, I remember more than once glancing mindlessly at a wildflower, or stopping for just a moment to look at a ripening berry of some kind.  "I wonder what that is," I thought, and then I moved on.  Maybe the meadow and pines are full of wonder, for those who have eyes to see.

Maybe our ordinary days and times, our prayers and hymns,  our ordinary worship and service and sacrifice, are full of God, for those who have eyes to see.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Gift of All Ages

(this is an addendum to my post, "The Gift of Gray Hairs", of a couple of weeks ago).

Before becoming the associate pastor at my current congregation, I was fortunate to serve three small congregations in rural South Dakota.  I was there for about four years, and I never felt that I did anything big or spectacular there (but that's a subject for another post).  But I did some small things, and I learned a lot.

One of the small things that I did while I was there was think of a few "intergenerational events" that we could do as a parish.  I wanted to find activities that got the three churches together; I also wanted to get us out of our age-specific silos sometimes.  So one time the whole parish did a service project together,   youth and seniors and little kids -- we all served a meatball dinner at a place called "The Banquet" in Watertown.  We also once had a fellowship event, an "I Hate Winter" party one Sunday night at the pool in the nearest larger city.  (The "I Hate Winter" party had to be postponed once on account of a blizzard.)

I remember when the group was together at the pool on Sunday night, the lifeguard pulled me aside and said, "What kind of a group is this, anyway?"

"We're a church," I answered.

"I just don't see adults and children playing together very often," she said.

I thought about that for awhile.  In school, and in any number of enrichment events, and even in churches that have large and glitzy children's programs, children are segregated into into age specific groups.  There's a lot of wisdom in this.  Sometimes.  I mean, I know that children of different ages learn in different ways.  But I also have to ask:  if we are talking about faith formation, and if faith formation is important to us, how does that happen?

Certainly, faith formation happens in those age-specific groups where children are all bonding with others in their age group.  But I suspect that there is also a lot of faith formation that only happens when we form bonds with one another beyond our own generation.

Gray hairs are a gift -- that's the truth.  But in truth, in the body of Christ, every age is a gift, and we are meant to sing and pray and serve and play together.

And perhaps, when we do this, once in awhile, someone will even turn to us and say, "What kind of a group are you, anyway?"

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

This morning on a brief walk with Scout, I thought I saw a couple of goldfinches.  They were fast, but there were definitely little flashes of yellow in the trees.  Then they were gone.

I love moments like this.  I know that goldfinches are by no means rare, but I don't see them very often, and then, it seems like I can only get glimpses.  In the same way, I like to catch sight of the one or two cardinals that inhabit our block.  They are so deeply and irretrievably red.

Meanwhile, the sparrows are everywhere.  And I mean EVERYWHERE.   Yesterday while I was out exploring a waterfall up here, I heard a loud peeping sound, very insistent and singular.  I followed it, turned a corner -- and it was only a sparrow.  I didn't even bother to get my camera out.

We have sparrows at home too -- more than enough this year.  The sparrows have built two nests in the eaves of our front windows.  Whenever I go out the front door, I hear a chorus of cheeps.  They fly around our yard as if it belongs to them.  More than once I have been sitting in a chair in the front room and heard a great thud on the window -- one of the sparrows missing the landing, I suppose.  That nest should go on the History Channel's next series about the 10 Most Dangerous Landing Strips.

Even though we live in an urban area, my husband says we are a little too close to nature this year.  It's mostly become of the sparrows, I suppose -- the sparrows that are raising their babies in front of us (although two of them, mysteriously, were found dead a little earlier this summer).  It's because of the sparrows, and those robins that decided to build a nest on our back porch, and the unseen animal that has begun making little holes in our yard (we have not seen it, but hope it is not a gopher).  It is because of the rabbits that eat the daisies, and the crow feather that I found one afternoon in the roses.

But mostly it's because of those sparrows.  They are common as dirt.  They are in the front yard, down the block, up on Lake Superior, everywhere you look.  You could get two of them for a penny, that's what Jesus said.

If I had my choice, I would like to be a goldfinch, I think.  Something special, for people to notice and look for.  Sometimes, I think that I am.  Other times I consider myself a sparrow, one of a long-line of ordinary people.  There are so many of us.  We are sturdy.  We have crossed oceans with just a steamer trunk.  We have raised children, planted and reaped crops, moved to the city, carried burdens, celebrated and wept.  There are so many of us, leading ordinary lives.  Or lives that seem ordinary, anyway.


While I am on the look-out for goldfinches, God's eye is on the sparrow.  Two-for-a-penny sparrows.  Not one of them falls to the earth without the heavenly Father, that's what Jesus says.  It's hard to believe.  So many of them fall to the earth, after all.

While I am on the look-out for goldfinches, God's eye is on the sparrow.   They are bread and wine of creation:  common as dirt.  I can just hear God saying to me, "Go ahead and keep looking for goldfinches.  I love those moments of glory, flashes of brilliance, too.  But don't forget:  my eye is on the sparrow, too.  Every single day.  Every single one of them."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Gift of Gray Hairs

It happened again.  A young family visited our congregation this past Sunday.  They are looking for a church.  They liked the worship service.  They liked the kneelers (this is sort of unusual for a Lutheran church; we have had kneelers since the 1960s); they liked the sermon.  But as they looked around, they made the observation, "There are an awful lot of gray heads out there."

It's true.  There's no way you can get around it.  There are an awful lot of gray heads in our congregation.  This is even more true in the summer when there are no Sunday School classes, and a fair number of our young families are sporadic in their attendance, for whatever reason.  But, even in the fall, when the children and their families return, there are still an awful lot of gray heads in our congregation.

Back in the late 1950s and 1960s, when this church began, it was a much larger congregation than it is now.  Back then, there were a thousand children in Sunday School (they say), and the congregation numbered about 3,000.  The schools were overflowing as well; it was a young community with many families.  The demographics of the community have changed since then, so, even with a steady (if smaller) stream of young families, the community, and the congregation skews older.

There's nothing we can do about it.

Well, there is one thing we can do:

We can start seeing those gray heads as a gift, and as a strength.

It already happens, on occasion.  There is a teenage young woman who sits at worship every Sunday with an older retired woman and her friends.  The young woman is training as a singer:  she sang "Pie Jesu" at our Good Friday Service.  The older women recently gave her a gift:  a number of opera librettos.

After worship, one day, one of our young parents was in tears.  I had announced the death of one of our older members that morning.  I checked in with the young woman, concerned about why she was crying.  "I'm sad about Pearl," she said.  Pearl used to sit near their family and interacted with her children nearly every Sunday.

I suspect that we stereotype older people as resistant to change, stuck in their ways, and old-fashioned.  May I offer this counterpoint:  Resistance to change can come at any age, if we're honest about it.  Some of the most progressive, open-minded, interesting people I know are past retirement age.  Some of them are WAY past retirement age.  It's true, some of them are tired, and have less energy than they did when they were twenty-five.  (I know this because I have less energy than I did when I was twenty-five.)   But they are a gift and a resource that we need to value much more than we do.

Here are just a few ways that older adults can enrich our congregations:

1.  Mature Faith and Life Experiences.  Certainly, you can get old without getting wise.  But the sheer volume of faith stories and life experiences of the older members of our congregations is staggering.  One widower recently told me about how he and his wife used to make the sign of the cross on each other's foreheads, before they went to sleep every night.  One woman told the story about getting fired from a store job once long ago, because she wouldn't follow around "certain types of people" to find out if they were stealing.  Another man talked about his experiences as a pilot in World War II.  "I thought I'd never live to be 21," he said.  There are thousands of stories out there from our older members -- stories of what it was like to leave the small town and come to the city, stories of faith and doubt and hardship, stories of love and loss and life.

2.  Fewer Sacred Cows.  There's something about getting old, and facing death, that clarifies what is important, and what is not important.  My mother puts the liberal bumper stickers on her car, and she doesn't care who knows it.  Older members of our congregation are often the ones who are most open to (for example) women pastors.   In our congregation, it is our older members who have been coming up with some of the most interesting ideas for outreach to our community.

3.  They are Going to Die.  I hesitated to add this one at first, for a couple of reasons.  One, it's true, we are all going to die someday, although it seems like we do a pretty good job avoiding that reality, sometimes.  But then we can't.  And, it's actually not a bad thing to be reminded of our mortality.  It's not a bad thing to spend some time with people who have wrinkles, and whose physical limitations are out there for all to see.  If we're lucky, we're all going to have gray hairs someday.  What are we going to be like when we get there?  What will be important to us then?

A number of young adults train here every spring to go out and lead mission trips all summer.  On the Sunday morning before they leave, they worship at our early service, which is mostly attended by the older members of our congregation.  And it's a beautiful sight, seeing the twenty-two year olds and the older congregation, all singing the liturgy together.  And it's a beautiful sight, watching them after the service, as they listen and share with one another their plans, hopes and lives.