Monday, February 24, 2014

Priests, Multiplied

On Saturday morning, we had our first training session for Homebound Ministry at my congregation.  I have to tell you, that even though I have been at this congregation for a long time, I keep being surprised by the variety of gifts I keep discovering.  Our team leader, for example, is a social worker who deals with Alzheimers; another presenter is a psychologist who works with the Veterans Administration.  Another of our leaders was trained as an elementary school teacher.

It was an exceptional morning, well-organized and planned, and full of knowledge and wisdom.

But it wasn't just the leaders who provided the wisdom.

For the past few years, there have been a handful of lay people who have already been going out, giving communion to shut-ins.  We want to expand this ministry so that it includes more than just communion ministry.  We also want to expand the number of communion ministers.

Among the participants on Saturday morning were some of those visitors.

There are two women who have been working as a team for the past couple of years.  One of them drives; the other one doesn't feel comfortable driving, but she leads the communion service.  They actually came to me and told me that they wanted to visit a friend of theirs who was a member of the congregation and who was experiencing memory loss.  Since it was a transition time in the congregation and we were short-staffed, I was glad to say yes.  Later on, they added one more friend to their list of visits.

On Saturday, during the presentations, we left time for questions and sharing.

One of the two women spoke up about their visits.  She told me of the privilege of visiting their friends, and how one of them even questioned her, "why are you doing this?"  She answered, "Because you are my friend."  She told us now that one of their friends now was not able to receive the sacrament in the same way as she had before.  "So now we just dip the tiniest bit of the wafer in the wine, and put it on her tongue."

She said it with such tenderness and grace, and I thought, "Who says that this woman is not a pastor?"

Though I have always believed fervently in the priesthood of all believers, I confess that I used to reserve the word "pastor" for the ordained.  But why?  After all, the priesthood of all believers means that we are all priests to one another, feeding, reflecting, mediating the presence of Christ for one another.

There are many homebound people in my congregation.  There are also grieving people, lonely people, wondering people, dying people.

As it turns out, there are many pastors too.  More than I ever knew.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Small, Wonderful Mistake

On Sunday at worship, a very small, wonderful thing happened.

During the closing hymn (a rousing rendition of "How Firm a Foundation", by the way), we carried the cross and processed to the entry of the church, as always.  The people turned to face the cross, as always (or at least as they have begun to do during this past year).  We stood there, continuing to sing, as always.

And then, three little girls, about three or four years old, began to dance.

They boldly entered the aisle and moved to their own graceful rhythms.  A fourth little girl, who had turned around to follow the cross, looked at them with wide and wondering eyes -- and then ran out to join them.  Soon there were four little girls, dancing in the aisle.

I wished I had my camera, because I was perfectly situated to take a video of the scene.

I also secretly wished I could join them.  I was a little afraid, I suppose, of what people would think.  I was a little afraid that if I started dancing, they might stop.

And I didn't want them to stop.

During the past year, we have messed with our worship services some.  We are a congregation in redevelopment, which means we are re-learning what it means to be the body of Christ in this place and in this time and for these people, some of whom we are convinced we have not met yet.  So we are talking to each other and asking questions and trying some different things, with various degrees of success.

For this year, we have (for example) gone from two services to one.  People are worshipping together who never worshipped together before.  We are trying to get beyond the catch phrases "contemporary" and "traditional" as well.  For some, the experiment has been a resounding success.  For others, well, the jury is still out.

Our Sunday School schedule has changed as well, at least for this year.  We are trying some intergenerational projects, and a short children's church.  In the past, the children always started church with the whole congregation, and then moved to their classrooms.  This year the children are in Sunday School at the beginning of worship (hence no Children's Message this year), and they come to join us after the sermon, either at the prayers or the peace.

I have to admit, that I do miss seeing the children with their families at the beginning of worship.  Though I have mixed feelings about the "children's message" sometimes, I do miss those opportunities as well.  We probably won't keep the same schedule next year.  It was an experiment.  Some people might think it was a mistake.  We shouldn't have done it.  We should have left well enough alone.


Two things struck me, though:

1.  If we were worshipping the same way as we did last year, we would have never had this small, wonderful moment.  The children would be safe in their Sunday School classes, with parents hurrying to retrieve them.  This moment was made possible by our 'mistake.'

2.  No one who saw the tiny dancers tried to stop them.  No one told me, "They shouldn't have been doing that in church."  One person even said, "That was an Alleluia moment."

I am not sure which of these two things gives me the most hope.  Perhaps it is the first one, to think that out of our missteps and miscalculations can come such grace.

But the more I think about it, it is the second thing that strikes me as most hopeful for our redevelopment.

One of the things a redevelopment church must learn is to create a space, to embrace a wider welcome for people who do not worship in exactly the same tones that we do.  We don't need to give up liturgy, but we do need to recognize that it's a skeleton that can be fleshed out in many ways, some of them even unscripted.

One of the tasks of a redevelopment church is learning to welcome the stranger.

We might as well start with our children.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"You All"

For good or for ill, we are on an extended trip through the Sermon on the Mount this year.  Can Epiphany seem uncomfortably long sometimes?  Maybe there is too much light.  Sometimes the light hurts my eyes.

Last week, I got together with my noon Bible study participants.  We ate our lunches and read together:  first Isaiah 58, then Matthew 5, beginning with the wonderful section about being salt and light.  We talked about justice and we talked about potholes (you know, 'restorer of the streets to live in') and how the work of justice is never really done.  (At least in Minnesota, you have to keep filling in the potholes, every year:  you can't do it once and say you are done for all time.  I said I think that is what Jesus means when he says that not one letter, or stroke of a letter will pass from the law...)

One of the Bible study participants turned to me and asked this question about saltiness:  She said, what if I'm supposed to be salt, and somehow I turn away and start going in the wrong direction?  Can I turn around and go back, and change my ways and become salty again?  Because Jesus seems to think that I can't.

(You know how sometimes you have a sudden realization in the middle of a conversation?  That is what was happening while she was speaking.)

I assured her that she absolutely could become salty again, while recognizing that Jesus' words about losing saltiness and being no good for anything except being trampled ---- well, they did sort of imply something else.

But then I said, "I know that betting is wrong, but I will bet you a quarter that when Jesus says to the people, 'You are the salt of the earth,' he doesn't mean, 'You, Diane,' or 'You, Mabel,' he means, 'You all'.  He is speaking to us not primarily as individuals but as a community.  And I think that that changes the meaning of the sentence some."

For one thing, when Jesus says "You ALL are the salt of the earth," it is possible that one of us could go astray, go off track, but the rest of the salty community would be there to draw us back.  And Jesus is not primarily judging the effectiveness, or "saltiness" of individual efforts, but the saltiness of communities. The question is about whether we as a community of faith are providing a distinctive flavor that is good for the places where we live.  If we aren't, what good are we?

The conversation got me thinking about how often when we read the word "You" in the Scripture, our default interpretation is that Jesus is talking about us as individuals, and about our individual actions, our individual trust, our individual relationship with God, our random acts of kindness.  I know that even though I know that the Bible often uses "You plural" that I am inexplicably drawn to stories of individual, rather than community action.  My brain is hard-wired to read the Biblical "You" always as singular.  That is my default interpretation.

It's just that this is not the default interpretation in the Bible.  The Bible does address us as individuals, but not solely, or even primarily.  More often than not, the Bible addresses us as "you all", as members of a community, as people who are inextricably connected to one another, whether they like it or not.

I think of the story of Rosa Parks.  We like to tell the story of her courageous action, when she decided to sit down, and not move to the back of the bus.  We tell the story as an example of individual action, but the truth is that Rosa Parks was a part of an organized network of justice-seekers, the salt of the earth, bringing a distinctive faith and flavor to their community.

So I can't help thinking, as I'm wrestling with the hard texts of the Sermon on the Mount, the ones that hurt my eyes, because they speak of murder and anger, lust and adultery, brokenness that can't easily be healed, and ideals we know are good but that we can't attain  -- what would happen if we really heard them as addressed to us as a community, not a collection of individuals?

What if we heard the Ten Commandments that way too?

Someone just reminded me today:  there is no imperative in the Hebrew language.  The literal translation of a commandment might sound something like this:  "If would be better for you if you did not.....commit adultery/steal/lie?"

And what if the *you* was plural?

That would be just the beginning.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

"There is Someone Here Who Would Like to Talk With a Pastor"

It was Tuesday afternoon, and I was sitting in my office, organizing my week, which is to say (in some ways) organizing my mess.  I was looking at sermon texts, and figuring out my visitation schedule, and doing a little beginning-of-the-week reading.

Then our office coordinator buzzed me, and said these familiar words, "There is someone here who would like to talk to a pastor."

This is a familiar sentence, and could mean any number of things, but it usually means that : 1)  the person who wants to speak to me is a stranger to me, and probably to my congregation; 2) the stranger perhaps wants to complete one particular step of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, or 3) the stranger needs gas, or food, or some kind of crisis assistance. Sometimes I can help them.  Sometimes I can't.

"I'll be out in a minute," I told the Office Coordinator, while I straightened my office a little bit, and made sure I had one more chair in my office.

When I went out to meet the stranger in need, I found that it was a man and his wife, as well as their teenager son.  They looked sort of worn around the edges, tired, bedraggled.  They told me that their niece was in the hospital, that she was very sick.  She had already had a couple of operations, and would need more.  They had paid all of their money in rent, and had nothing to pay for gas so that they could go and visit her.  They also wondered about a coupon for some kind of food.  The teenager wondered if we had any coffee.

I told the teenager that we should have some coffee on, and he should ask our Office Coordinator for a cup.  I asked the couple the name of their niece, and said we would pray for her.  I told them that we could give them a voucher for gas, although unfortunately, it would not fill up their tank.  The high prices, you know.  And I told them about a church very close to ours where I thought they could get sandwiches.

I printed the voucher for the couple, and took it out to them.  I asked the teenager if he got his coffee.  He smiled and said yes.  I told them again we would pray for their niece, and wished them well.

After they left, I had a very fleeting thought.

I wondered, for a moment -- what if it was all a story?  What if when they left the building, the three of them collapsed in laughter because I believed their story?

I don't know why I thought that.  Maybe it was because there are warning stories that circulate periodically, stories about scam artists who visit churches with particular hard-luck stories.  Maybe it was the memory of the time, long ago, when I had helped out a few people with gas, and then watched one of them drive off in a large SUV.

But perhaps instead, it was because I had preached on Sunday about the foolishness of the gospel, and the foolishness of what I was doing struck me, for a moment.  There is a certain foolishness to what we do, listening to the stories of strangers, saying we'll pray for them,  giving them a little help for the road.   And yet I am convinced that it is what I'm called to do.  I'm called to believe them.  I'm called to foolishness.

We're called to foolishness, which is to say, we are called to love.  We are called to listen to the stories of strangers, and believe them, and pray for them.  We're called to give out the cup of cold water, or hot coffee, to a stranger, to give shelter to the homeless, and to pray for our enemies.  Foolishness.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  It is hard to be foolish.  I know that if I saw this family standing by the freeway exit, with a sign that read, "Anything will help," I would be tempted not to roll down my window.  It might seem too foolish.

It is hard to be foolish.  But the truth is:  we aren't called to be foolish alone.  We are called to be foolish together.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Particular Story

A year ago last June, my husband and I traveled to South Dakota to help celebrate the Centennial of one of the three churches I pastored back in the 1990s.

I had not been back in 14 years, though I had thought about them often since leaving.  They were a good parish, a farming community out on a prairie unfamiliar to me.  It was a gracious place to begin ministry, though sometimes I had critiqued myself, thinking that I had not done enough "big" things while I was there.

I wondered what it would be like, to see them again.  I wondered what the community would be like as well.  It's not so easy for rural communities these days:  with farms getting larger, towns get smaller.  I remembered the many funerals, the handful of new members and baptisms, and wondered what it would be like when I returned.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this church, still small, but teeming with children.  Some of them were the children of my former confirmation students.  Some were faces I didn't know.  There was a sense of hope and vitality, a sense of health.  Later on, someone told me that in this small congregation (membership is just under 200) there are 57 children in Sunday School this year.  The church attracts:  particularly young families.

Ever since that summer day, I've been thinking about this congregation, and about the sense of vitality that I found there.  I've been thinking about what makes a congregation resilient, able to bounce back when their are challenges rather than continue to contract.  I have also been considering that growing congregations are not all necessarily large:  there are growing congregations in every size.  I wondered if it was DNA or habits, or something else that mattered.

Here is what I came up with.

1.  This congregation sees each of their pastors as uniquely gifted, and uses each pastor's particular gifts.  Even mine.  So someone came up to me on the Sunday I visited and showed me a copy of a contemporary worship service I wrote while I was there.  They wanted me to know that they still use that service, although they had added to and expanded to what I first put together.  Every year they purchase a couple more copyrights to favorite songs.  Every year the book gets a little thicker.  They took the gift I offered them, and they made it their own.

2.  This congregation has necessarily become lay driven.  This reality is borne out of the challenge that they often got new and first-call pastors who did not stay very many years.  But because of that, they have become a lay-driven congregation.  I never had all of the ideas.  I was just one of the leaders, adding my vegetables to the soup.  I had the idea that we should help serve a meal to hungry people at "The Banquet", but there were plenty of other things that happened that had very little to do with me.

3.  This congregation is inter-generational by nature.  There is no nursery.  The children belong to the congregation, and everyone supported and looked out after them.  The largest service of the year was always Easter Sunrise, which the youth group planned and executed every year (no sermon).  I was also impressed when the leadership board decided that they should cash in some savings in order to build a lift.  They wanted their church basement to be handicap accessible.  The impetus for this move?  a child in the congregation who had Muscular Dystrophy.

And, most important....

4.  This congregation has a Particular Story.  Well, I suppose that every congregation has a Particular Story, a story that makes them who they are, whether everyone in the congregation even knows it or not.

I didn't learn the story for a long time, and I didn't learn it all at once.  I learned first about the cemetery four miles west of the church.  Then I would hear references to "The Pleasant Church."  Finally I learned that there had once been two churches -- the one in town that I knew, and a beautiful, old country church west of town, founded by Norwegian immigrants.

One terrible day the country church burned to the ground.  I don't know if there is anyone alive yet who remembers the story of the fire, but there were some people who remembered it still when I was pastor.  Their voices fell still when they told the story of the fire at their beloved church.

Both churches were still lively and bustling at the time; yet even so, the congregation made the decision not to rebuild, but to create a whole new congregation, together with the people of the church in town. The town church was re-named to reflect the belief that they were now a new community.

My telling does not do justice to the Particular Story of this congregation:  the hard work, the hope, the persistence, the joy.  It is a story of death and resurrection.  It is a story of what happens when the worst thing you can imagine happens -- and you find out that it is the not the worst thing that can happen to you.

Last fall, a house two blocks from my current congregation burned to the ground.  Almost everything was lost.  Our faith community, along with others,  took a door offering for the woman and her family.  When I talked to her on the phone, she said the fire was, "the worst blessing."  It was an odd thing to say, but I think I know what she meant.

A particular story.  That is what this congregation has.  It has a particular story of "the worst blessing."  It has a story that tells them that when the worst happens to them, it is not the worst that can happen to them.  It is a story of death by fire.  And it is a story of life from God.