Monday, October 28, 2013

Flunking Sainthood: A Review

How can you not like a book with a title like this?  That's what I thought when I first saw Jana Reiss' book in the seminary bookstore.  After all, if we're truthful, aren't we all sort-of sainthood flunkees?  And I was intrigued by her desire to master a different spiritual discipline every month, if not also a little skeptical.

Partway through this book, though, I became annoyed at Jana Riess, wondering why she ever thought she could master a spiritual practice in a month, and what even gave her the impression that the idea was to master them? I even thought (for a moment) that she knew all along that she would be a failure. Her (mostly) self-deprecating humor, though disarming, also made me think that she had to have known that spiritual practices wouldn't be that easy. I also thought it was weird of her to try to take on a spiritual practice alone, when they are really meant to be practiced (at least for the most part) in community.

But a funny thing happened. I started to get to know her. And sympathize with her. And realize that even though she is ironic and sarcastic and funny, she took on these spiritual practices in all earnestness. She often makes the point that she is from a low-church tradition that doesn't have much experience with disciplined prayer and spiritual experiences. Whether she failed or not (and I actually think that she didn't) she learned a lot during the year, and I did too. Even the practices I knew something about (and I am a constantly failing practicer of 'fixed-hour prayer', for example) I learned something new about.

And in the end, Jana made several of the points that I did: that she should have practiced spiritual disciplines in community more than in solitude, and that 'getting good' is not as important as learning to trust God. She finds that however much she considers herself a failure, the year of practicing prayer and fasting and generosity and gratitude (among other things) has prepared her and helped her mature as a Christian.

As I reflect back on reading this book, I think that one of the things that most churches are not good at is Adult Faith Formation. We teach Sunday School and try to run awesome confirmation programs, but for some reason Adult Christian Education Falls flat. It seems to me that Adult Faith formation is actually more important that Sunday School, and making Sunday School our priority gives the impression that the things of God are childish things. 

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Faith, real faith, faith that goes the distance, is NOT for sissies. This book could be a good start of a conversation about how we nurture adult faith in congregations.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Shelter of One Another

Not long ago a young woman from my congregation died, after a very short battle with cancer.  She was just 24 years old, had a major in sports biology, and was just about to begin a graduate degree in physical therapy.

We prayed without ceasing, it seemed literally, at times, and we all thought that this was just the sort of case that miracles were made for.  How could she die?  She had just gone to Europe with a friend, earlier that summer.  She was healthy.  She was beautiful.  She was kind and generous.

The grieving punched us all in the gut; there was no breath left in us.  Her family, reeling from  suddenness and shock, didn't have the strength to plan a whole funeral.

But there was a Gathering.

They asked me to say a prayer, and to say a few words

I sat up the evening before and typed and thought and prayed, and thought that all of my words sounded hollow and useless.  I wrote a few words about love, and about God, and about promises in the midst of so much loss.  I thought about the words from 1st John, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.... and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God."

The Gathering was Sunday afternoon.  It had rained earlier in the afternoon.  The family decorated our fellowship hall with pictures and autumn scenes.  There was plenty of food.

The people came.  The people came and they just kept coming.  There was plenty of food but most people didn't come to eat -- at least it didn't seem that way.  They just came.  They came to hug each other and to cry and to laugh together.

So I said a few words, brown leaves of words tossed about in the air.  I felt that it wasn't enough.  I said something about the young woman who died, and her family.  I said something about love, and that it is what God has put us here to do.  And I said something about God, and God's promises of life.  And think I said something about the importance of showing up.

Later I wished I had said something about the fragility of life, how it catches us all off guard, how we think we can solve everything, and that we will live forever.  Especially in times like these, when it seems that medicine can solve more and more.  And when we discover again that life is fragile and short, and that we can't do everything, what do we have?

We have these promises from God, promises that what we see is not all there is, promises that life will come from death, promises of resurrection.

And we have one another.

It doesn't seem like enough sometimes.  And it doesn't seem that important, most of the time, as we live in our individual lives, cluttered with obligations.  But now and again, the unthinkable happens, and our hearts break, and we realize that all we really have in this world is one another, to bear us up, to shelter us, when the storms break over us.  That's why we gather, I think.  It is not so much protection, but it is what we have.

One another.

And the promises of the God who who weeps, who breaks, who mends our hearts.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Judges, Widows, and what We Pray For

So I've been thinking about the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge all week.  I've been thinking about prayer, and the problem of the parable, because, you know, it does seem like the parable is encouraging us to be persistent (perhaps not just in prayer, though), even though after 2,000 years it is clear that that all of the prayers and yearnings of all of the saints have not been answered with all speediness.

So I can't stop thinking about it.  Prayer, and persistence, and what we want, and what we pray for, and hope for, and work for, too.  Because all of these things are tied up in this parable for me, in eight short verses.

What is it we really want?  What is it we pray for?  The widow wanted justice, passionately.

So I was thinking about these things on Friday night while we were bookstore shopping, and I came across this issue of Poetry Magazine.  Near the beginning was a poem by a woman named Alice Fulton.  Here are the first few lines:

For your birthday, I'm learning to pop champagne corks
with a cossack sword when all you asked for was world peace.
I'm actioning the deliverables to wish you many happy returns

of the ecstasies that are imminent when all you requested
was a contentment so quiet it's inaudible.  Remember when
I gave you a robe of black silk that floats and does not rustle?
When all you desired was to turn from what was finished and hard

in the darkness.*

What is it we really want?  What is it we pray for?  We pray for our family to be safe, for roofs over our heads, for food, for world peace.

Persistence is not just about prayer.  It is about lived prayer, our efforts, the mercy we show, the peace we work to create.

And yet, when we are honest, we know that the really important things are beyond us.  At our best, we cobble together little pieces of mercy, shards of peace, remnants of the promise of abundance.

So prayer reveals us.  Prayer reveals both the meanness and the depth of our hopes.

As it turns out, the things we really want, really need, are beyond us.

World Peace.

Don't give up.

*Alice Fulton, "You Own It" (October 2013 Poetry)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I Miss

I like being a pastor.  I like visiting people, giving communion, leading worship, singing.  I like praying in a hospital room, celebrating new babies and new members, being able to be with people of all ages, from birth to death.  I love that tonight I was able to get together with two of my former confirmation students for dinner, and learn a little about the directions their lives have gone  And I get to read, and study, and think for a living.

But sometimes, I think about before I was a pastor.  I really didn't like my job.  I worked in an insurance office.  I was okay at it, but I suspected that I wasn't using some of my gifts.

But, here's the thing:  back then, I had a lot of friends who didn't go to church.  I also had my friends from church (I spent a fair amount of time at church).  I had some friends who never went to church, some friends who used to go to church, but stopped, for one reason or another.  I used to have these theological conversations with one of the women where I worked.  She called me her "Lutheran friend."

I remember going out after work with another one of my non-church-going friends.  Sometimes she would confide in me things that had happened to her when she was a child.  Sometimes we would talk about God and life and forgiveness and things like that.

Then there was the Buddhist guy I dated a couple of times.  He used to be Catholic, and he thought it was sort of cute that I was still a Christian.  Still, we had some good conversations.

I miss that.

I don't know if I ever invited my non-church-going friends to church with me.  When I think about it now, I am a little scandalized.  But I wasn't thinking about trying to get non-church-goers to be church-goers.   I was just sharing faith with people whose faith was different from my own.  And then I knew things I have almost forgotten now.  Then I knew that a lot of my non-church-going friends weren't dying to go to church, but they were dying for someone to care about them, listen to them, tell them that they mattered in the world.

I miss those conversations.

It's good to invite your friends to church with you.  I want the people in my church to do that.  But what I would really like to do is help them have the kind of conversations that I had before I became a pastor.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Life is a Metaphor


Everything has more than one meaning.

Does one of the pictures say something in particular to you?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Reading and Faith

We are starting a new Bible study at my congregation this fall.  Well, actually, it's not a "Bible Study" in the tradition sense, but sort of a course in "How to read the Bible".   There's a video, and a study book, but we do spend some time in the Bible as well.

One of the things that I like about the course, and the author, is that he is honest about the fact that he enjoys reading the Bible, but also about the fact that he didn't always enjoy it.  The Bible is a daunting book, after all, and sort of strange, too.  It has this small print and footnotes, and it comes from this very strange and far away culture that we don't know much about.  It is a story, but probably not like the stories we might pick up in the airport and read on vacation.

One of the theses of the book is that we might not like reading the Bible in part because we think of it as a sort of textbook, or answer book, or encyclopedia of facts, and really, who likes to read those?  The power of the Bible, though, is that it tells stories, and that those stories can change our lives.  I love one example the author tells about his daughter, reading one of the "Little House" books, was inspired by a Christmas story from one of the books to collect and donate toys to needy children.

That has how reading has been to me.  I have gone down the rabbit hole with Alice, out to the prairie with Laura and her family, tried to sell stories with Jo from "Little Women."  I have opened the magic door to the Wardrobe with Lucy from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and have discovered things that have changed the way I look at the world.  Reading has changed my life.  But it is not so much reading for information.  It is reading to enter stories, go to new places, hear new voices.

So I resonate with this study, and I think it could help people read the Bible with more enjoyment.  Not only that, I think that people might find their lives shaped and formed by the stories they encounter there.

And yet.....

What if the problem is not HOW we read?  What if the problem is not that we are reading the Bible in the wrong way?  What if the problem is that a lot of people don't read anything at all (much less the Bible) for enjoyment?

I recently read an article that stated that a strong and growing minority of people don't read anything at all.  Maybe they did read at one time, when they had to, but they really now longer read anything at all, not the dictionary, not a good novel, (or a bad novel, for that matter), not memoirs or the newspaper.

What does this mean?  And what does it mean for a faith that is dependent on a written word?  What if, for some of us at least, it's not a matter of learning to read to be enchanted rather than simply to get information?  Is 'post-literate' a word?  Are we becoming post-literate?

I still know a lot of people who read.  But, I know a lot of people who don't, too.  And I do believe that the central premise of stories -- that they are a means to enchantment offering us entrance to other worlds -- is true.  But I'm wondering how, in the future, people will be enchanted, if the future is, indeed, in some sense, 'post-literate.'

What do you think?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Feeding My Dad

I went to visit my dad yesterday, at the nursing home.

I was trying to get there about mid-morning.  My mom has said that he is better in the mornings, or later in the afternoon.  But then I needed to proof-read the Sunday bulletins, and make a couple of phone calls, and try to make a couple of appointments with homebound members, and help find a microphone for the people who will be using the fellowship hall today.  So I got there just before lunchtime.

These days, I don't always recognize him for a minute when I first walk in.  He was sitting in his latest wheelchair, which is huge and can be used for reclining.  He used to have these lah-di-dah motorized wheelchairs, but he doesn't need them any more.  Now, it's the comfort that matters.

I looked at this old man in his wheelchair, sitting at the head of one of the tables, and for a minute I stared at him and thought, "Is that my dad?  He looks so old."  But as I got closer I knew that it was him.  They had cut his hair recently, and it looked nice.  But he didn't have that nice wave in his hair any more, like when he was young.

I moved toward his table, and one of the aides volunteered to move him to another table, so that I could sit next to him.  "He's a feeder," they said.  "Do you want to feed him?"  I said that I would.

I sat down next to him, and spoke into his ear.  He tried to talk, and mostly stuttered, but he grabbed my hand.  His hand was warm.  In a little while, the food came:  egg bake and red jello, carrots and peas, mandarin orange salad.  I put a little jello up to his mouth, and waited for him to eat it.

Meanwhile, a social worker from hospice stopped by.  They are just starting to come and visit my dad, and I was glad to meet her.  She stayed and asked me some questions.  Since I was feeding my dad jello, I remembered how we all used to go out on Sunday after church to the Forum cafeteria downtown.  It was just an ordinary cafeteria in some ways, but it had this awesome art deco architecture.  It was a great building.  And they had every color of jello at the Forum cafeteria.

I got my dad to eat a little of the egg bake too.  I could tell he was getting sleepy, but he ate most of the egg bake, and some of the jello.  I thought about how he used to make us toast in the morning (he was not really a cook); sometimes he would put the peanut butter on the toast and forget and start to eat it himself.  And we would shout, "Dad!  That's our toast!"

The social worker asked me this question, "Did he used to be a sweet man?"  I know what she meant, but it startled me.  Suddenly I got this urge to find pictures for her, pictures of the dad I knew.  I took out my iPad and found two very very old pictures, taken when I was a baby.  I particularly wanted her to see the wave he used to have in his hair.

The picture I really wanted her to see was not so old, and was taken at my sister's wedding, many years ago.  I like my dad's crinkly smile in that picture. He looks so happy.

Yes.  He was a sweet man.  Maybe he was a little too tender-hearted sometimes.  I think he let my mom be the "bad cop" more than she really wanted to be.  But he had a sentimental streak a mile wide.  He really thought that love conquered all.  His favorite movie was Pollyanna.  He liked dogs.  Our cat:  not so much.

He enjoyed tinkering with radios and fixing televisions.  He enjoyed talking to people.  He wasn't that ambitious.  The most important thing to him was that he took care of us.

So now, I'm taking care of him.  Not as much as I should.  Just once in awhile.  I'm taking care of him, and singing in his ear and remembering.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Beautiful and Terrible

A week ago on Sunday afternoon, as the shadows lengthened and the sun went down, my husband and I drove over to a spot downtown along the Mississippi River.  We got out and walked over the Stone Arch Bridge, stopping to watch a bridal party taking pictures, children peering over the railing, young people riding bikes.  When we got to the other side of the bridge, there was a group of children standing with a man and a woman who were dressed like clowns.  They were teaching the children how to blow gi-normous bubbles.

We stood and watched, delighted, for a few moments.  But before we turned to walk back across the bridge, I walked down some wooden steps to get a better view of the river and the  bridge above.  It was not quite sunset, and the view was beautiful.

I thought back to earlier that afternoon.  After worship that morning I had stopped in at the Intensive Care Unit of one of our local hospitals.  I sat for a little while with a family as they waited for good news about their daughter and sister.  They were not getting very much good news, and they grasped every sliver they could find, and held on tight.  We prayed our silent prayers and hoped against hope.  It was a grave place, full of love and pain.

I thought back a little further to the news I had gotten on Friday, news that a good friend of mine from seminary days had died.  She was just 47, with two young children and a heart-broken husband.  I grieved the loss, and also the fact that I had not kept in contact with her over the years since seminary, even though we had been faithful friends through those years of study.  When I saw her picture on caring bridge, I saw first the familiar, beautiful smile that lit up every room she entered.  How could she be dead?  I still couldn't believe it.

"Here is the world," Frederick Buechner once said.  "Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid."

As I walked over the bridge, as I watched the children playing, as I felt the setting sun on the river, it was easy to believe that God was in this place.

But God is in the Intensive Care Unit, too, though often impossible to see.  I don't say it because I can feel the warmth on the back of my neck, or because I got the news I wanted to hear.  I just hold on to it.  God is in the Intensive Care Unit, holding on to all of us.

One of the things they said of my friend from seminary, the one with the beautiful smile, the one who died too young, was that she was never afraid.

Beautiful and terrible.  Don't be afraid.