Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Bible Verse on a Stick

A number of years ago, we had a ministry fair at the start of our program year (sometimes called Rally Day), where all of the groups set up booths or tables, advertising their specialties.  The prayer shawl ministry had shawls; the quilters had sample quilts; the Sunday School had registration tables; the Adult Choir had a tape of their music; the book club showed some of the titles we had read and a free bookmark showing some of the upcoming books.  The social justice group had what I thought was a particularly clever idea:  Free "Bible Verses on a Stick" to take home.  Our local state fair advertises nearly everything on-a-stick, so why not Bible verses?

The verse they chose?  Micah 6:8, or course.  "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

It is the kind of verse you might want on a placque, or a stick, especially if you were a peace-and-justice-loving type.  It is easy to understand.  It is easy to remember.  It could be the kind of verse that might animate and inspire your imagination for your whole life.

Do justice.  Love Kindness.  Walk Humbly.

Seems simple, doesn't it?  How can you argue with a verse like this?

I will confess that I have loved this verse, but not often preached on it.  I mean (I thought), what can you say?  Do justice.  Love Kindness.  Walk Humbly.  Just do it.

A friend of mine, who pays more attention to verbs than I do, apparently, once remarked that though this verse instructs us to "Do justice and Love Kindness," we more often have it backwards.  We love justice, but do random acts of kindness, which is much easier than creating justice.  It is much easier to go to the soup kitchen and ladle soup than it is to address the causes of hunger.  It is much easier pay for the hamburger of the person who is coming after you in the drive through or chip in a few dollars when the person in front of you at the grocery store can't quite pay her bill.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

But maybe we pay too much attention to the different verbs.  Maybe we are meant to both do and love both justice and kindness, and there are other questions to ask about this Bible verse, which is so easy to put on a stick, so easy to understand and remember, but perhaps not so easy in other ways.

When I read the seven verses before the famous one, I notice that there is a conversation going on, a conversation between God and Israel.  Well, actually it is more like an argument, with God sounding a little like a jilted lover.  After all God has done for Israel,  what has happened to their relationship?  Israel seems to be tired of God, tired of being the chosen people.  They are not paying attention.  They have put their fingers in their ears and they are saying, "la la la".  What happened?  God wants to know.

When the people reply, they seem to have heard God's plea.  They are asking, "What do you want from us?"  And they have some examples:  exaggerated, over the top.

"What do you want from us, God?"  do you want thousands of rams?  rivers of oil?  my first born-child?  would that satisfy you?

And it seems like such an odd reply, really.  Not just because of the exaggeration, but because of the assumptions:  what would God want with thousands of rams?  how would all of that oil satisfy God?  Can God be satisfied?  It sounds like they are trying to get God off their backs, buy God off with ridiculous sums.

But here's another thing I wondered, almost wistfully:

Do we even ask that question any more?

"What do you want from us, God?"  I wonder.  Have we stopped asking God, "What do you want?"  I have been thinking about that.  Because if we ask, here is what God wants, something so simple, but not easy.  You can understand it.  You can memorize it.  You can put it on a stick.

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

So simple.  But if you think it is easy, you have never tried it.  One thing is:  it's never done.  You can't be kind once, and then you have met your kindness obligation.  You can't shovel one person's driveway and then you can check mercy off your list.  And doing justice:  well, all you can do is make progress, fail, step back, go forward, fail again.  Sometimes you think you have done justice, and later you realize that you just made things a worse mess.  But you get up and try again.  I suppose that is where humility comes in.

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

"What do you want from us God?"

And the true and terrifying answer, the true and only answer, the true and life-giving answer is this:

I don't want anything from you.  I just want you.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The End of an Era

The church where I grew up held their final worship service on Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.  I have a copy of the bulletin from the service, even though I wasn't able to attend.  The picture on the front of the bulletin is from the church's heyday, in the early 1970s.  I keep looking at the picture, thinking about the past, and where I am now.

When my family joined the church, I was six years old, and the congregation was bursting at the seams.   It was the baby boom, the congregation was a mission start, and the ushers couldn't set up the folding chairs quickly enough on Sunday morning.  There was not enough room for all of the Sunday School classes.  During Vacation Bible School, there were often big tents set up in the back yard, and one summer some of us were even chauffeured over to the synagogue across the street.  The event was noted in the local newspaper.

Though we were still a smaller congregation with one pastor, the congregation seemed destined for greatness.  We purchased land and had a model for our expansion set up in the church basement.  It was all very exciting.  All the time I was growing up we were worshipping in what would be the fellowship hall.  At the first worship service in the new sanctuary, I remember listening to the pastor preach, and thinking, "If I were a man, that is what I would want to do."  It was a fleeting thought then, because there were no women pastors, as far as I knew.  And I was very shy.  I couldn't imagine myself speaking in front of a large group.  I had no idea where that thought came from.

This is the church where I was nurtured in faith, where I was confirmed.  It was the church that supported me when I became a missionary to Japan, the church that recognized my gifts for ministry and endorsed me for my seminary studies, the church where I was ordained into Word and Sacrament ministry.  It was the church where I taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, read lessons, sat on the church council, preached my first sermon.

It was a congregation where I also saw and experienced a slow process of decline.  Throughout the years I saw wonderful relationships and painful conflict.  Talented people came and went in a congregation which had a reputation for innovative worship.

"Why does a church close?' my husband asked me as we were reminiscing last week.  It was a wistful question.  In number of years at least, the congregation seemed too young to die.

"I don't know," I replied.

And I was being truthful, even though throughout the years, I had had plenty of ideas about what was wrong.  As a lay leader, I even had some strategies for how to fix it.  Better Sunday School, personal relationships, adult education, re-immersing ourselves in the neighborhood.  I was being truthful, even though I know that there were outside challenges, and inside challenges for our congregation.  We were hampered by a highway location that made us easy to see, but difficult to find.  We had had congregational conflicts that left us wounded.  And there were cultural changes going on that I didn't know about then, but have only begun to understand in retrospect.

Why does a church close?

It could have been any one of those reasons, or a combination of them, or something else entirely.

I don't know.

But here's one thing I do know:  people are born, people live, people die.  Congregations are not people, but they are like people in some ways.  When a church closes, it is like a funeral.  It is the end of an era.  When the church is a fairly young one, like mine was, there are exhausting efforts to return to life and health, and there is deep grief when the doors finally close.

Each life has a purpose.  So does a congregation.  Maybe it is an illusion, though, that any one congregation is meant to last forever.  It is an illusion borne of many things:  perhaps our sturdy, strong buildings make us think of permanence.  Perhaps a culture that worships growth and sees a congregation as a simply an organization but not an organism plays a part.

I don't know.

Congregations are born.  Congregations live.  And sometimes, congregations die.  And what really matters, it seems to me, is that while we live, we know we have a purpose, that God lives and breathes and loves through us.

Reformation Lutheran Church, you are the servant of the Lord.  Go in peace.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"What Are You Looking For?"

In the past year or so, we have started using the term, "Faith Formation" at my congregation.  In the past, we talked about "Christian Education," or we talked about "Sunday School," or "Confirmation."  Or maybe, "Adult Study."  Words like that.  But now we have abruptly begun to use the words "Faith Formation," fairly regularly, and it's a fair bet that many in our congregation don't know exactly what we are talking about or why we changed the words we use.

To be fair, it is possible to use the words, "faith formation", and do everything the same way as you used to do it.  You can say that now you have faith formation, but you still do Sunday School, and Confirmation and adult study in exactly the same way as before, except that you have a different catch-phrase attached.  I hope that's not the case with us, but it is something to think about, and guard against.

For myself, though, I really like the term "faith formation."  It gives the impression (true, I think) that the process of forming our faith is eclectic:  faith is formed in worship, through prayer, in service, while we are sitting down at a Bible study, at the dinner table, through informal conversations and acts of love done by us and to us.  Faith is formed through times of doubt or struggle or failure as well.  "Faith formation" also hints at the outcome of study and learning at well:  not the simple intake of information, but who we are becoming as disciples of Jesus.

There's this great scene near the beginning of John's gospel.  John the Baptist is testifying about Jesus, telling people that he's the one they have been waiting for.  He is the Lamb of God, the Chosen One, the Son of God.

Two of John's disciples just up and start following Jesus.  I mean, literally.  They start following Jesus down the street.  Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?"

It's such a great, and ordinary question.  It's the question that the assistant at the grocery store asks you, the clerk at the department store, the guy at the gas station, if you come in and you are looking bewildered.  "What are you looking for?"  It sounds like a marketing question.  The church has been asking people this question, too.  "What are you looking for?"  And people are often giving the answers you would suspect:  "I am looking for a contemporary worship service."  "I am looking for a good youth program."  "I am looking for fair-trade coffee at the fellowship hour."  "I am looking for a good Bible study."

Here's the thing, though:  when Jesus asks those two would-be disciples the question, they don't answer him.  They don't answer the question.  I think this was a moment of brilliance for the disciples (who are not known for often being brilliant, to tell the truth.)  They did not answer Jesus' question, "What are you looking for?"

To me, this simple silence is at the heart of the difference between faith formation and Christian education.  Christian Education is a menu of choices as we grow in our preferred direction of faith development.  In that scenario Jesus asks you the question, "What are you looking for?" and you tell him, and he designs a curriculum to fit your needs.

But in Faith Formation, when Jesus asks us the question, "What are you looking for?", there is silence.  There is silence, first of all, because we realize that we don't know what we're looking for, not exactly, except that it has something to do with light, and something to do with an ache in our heart.  We check our pockets to see if there are keys, or a quarter, or something that will help us remember who we are.  "What are you looking for?"  he asked us, and the best answer is silence.  And in the silence, we suddenly realize that it is we who should be asking him that question.  "What are you looking for, Rabbi?"

 In the silence, we put ourselves in his hands, we let him form us, we let him form us.  We feel the weight of a piece of bread in our hands, and we see a small shaft of light near his feet.

And we realize that we are the people he is looking for, and that he means to form us, to make us into Light, and Peace, and Bread.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Epiphany: A Day and a Season

Epiphany went by this year, and I hardly even noticed it.  It came and went on Monday, January 6th, when the most notable news was the Polar Vortex, which has plunged our state (and most of the country) into a frozen wasteland.

I love the day of Epiphany, though I had barely a notion of it growing up.  I have grown to love it, I suppose, because there is a certain exotic taste to it.  It's not just the story of the three wise men from an indeterminate country "to the east"; it's not just the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It's also the things I have learned since then, about exotic places where Epiphany is a much bigger deal than it is here:  where they have community festivals with life-size puppets and processions of the three kings; where children leave their shoes out on the eve of Epiphany so they can be filled with gifts; where people gather by Mediterranean waters and bless the sea; where people mark the lintels of their houses for the new year with the initials "CBM" and pray God's blessings on friend and stranger for the coming year.

Epiphany seems exotic to me, and that is why I like it:  finding the revelation of Christ in places and faces strange to me.  It reminds me of that time long ago that I spent in Japan, finding myself constantly surprised and always learning new things.  There are times now that I wonder:  it was so long ago.  Was I ever even there?  Everything was so different.  The streets narrow and winding, with men delivering bowls of noodles (instead of pizza) on bicycles, the children shy or staring, the small churches where we took off our shoes at the entry and wore slippers instead.  So exotic, so far away.  At first I thought I was bringing Jesus to Japan.  But I discovered that instead Jesus was already there.

Epiphany seems exotic to me, but ordinary as well.  It is the surprise of finding Jesus in the strange and the familiar, in the old man making his bamboo baskets, and in the weary cashier at the supermarket.  It is the surprise of discovering Jesus in the words of an old hymn, and in the sounds and lyrics of a top forty tune.  It is the strange taste of bread and wine, so ordinary, transformed.

Lucky for me, Epiphany is not just a day.  It is a season, too:  a season where we hear the call of a strange and ordinary man, walking by the sea.  He says, "Follow me," and for some reason we can't even imagine, we follow him.  We follow him across the sea of Galilee, through storms and fasting, to Myanmar and Japan and Texas and the subzero Midwest.

And because we follow him, we see miracles, both exotic and ordinary.

20  C B M 14.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Walking Down the Street By a River on New Years' Eve

It was early in the evening still.  Later on, there would be loud bands playing music, and vendors selling food, and the street would be one big New Year's Eve party.  But the darkness was still gathering, and the vendors were just starting to set up, and we were walking down the street.

We were looking for a place to have a little dessert, that's all.  We don't do big new years' celebrations any more.  So we walked up and down the street in the darkness, peered into restaurant and closed shop windows, and listened.  The big bands would not start for awhile, but there was still music.

We walked down the cobblestone streets, all the way up and all the way back.  There was an unaccompanied soloist, singing hits from the 50s in perfect pitch.  "Darling, darling, stand by me," he sang out.  "I'd like to buy him a band, just for an hour," my husband said.  Still, we admired his guts.  A little later on, we came across a guitarist, accompanying himself.  He was singing "What a wonderful world", in the style of Louis Armstrong.  Then we thought, he's the best one, so far, which was no small feat.  We walked on a little farther, noticing the partiers with their plastic cups and party hats starting to appear.  

I stopped into one open shop.  They were selling incense and peasant shirts.  They admired my homemade scarf.  

We rode the elevator up to a restaurant where they were serving an elegant five course dinner.  A woman was singing Jazz.  We just wanted dessert, so we rode back down.  But we did stop for a moment, just to listen.

We walked back up the street, where a trumpeter stood, playing bright snatches of melodies.  We recognized a little bit of the "Bonanza" theme.  People clapped.  He seemed to be in love with his own sound, the echoing reverberation of it.  And then we finally found the place where we could have a little New Years' dessert.  

And music.  There were two young women playing guitar and singing harmony.  "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", they sang.
We just sat there, for a little while, when we were done eating cocoanut cream pie and peach cobbler.  It was the music.

It was the music.  On New Years' Eve, it wasn't the noise, or the toasts, or the crowds of people, or the countdown, or even the darkness, or the dinner.  It was the music.

It has always been the music.

Happy New Year.