Friday, March 28, 2014

Faith and Community: Lessons from "Call the Midwife"

Last night our congregation's book group met to discuss Jennifer Worth's excellent memoir, "Call the Midwife."

I had read the book last year, partly because of the tie-in with the popular BBC series.  I was pleasantly surprised, as I read, to find out the the book not only was filled with compelling stories of birth, life, love and tragedy post World War II London, there was also this rich, subtle subtext involving Jennifer Worth's own life and faith.

Jennifer Worth comes to Nonnatus house an avowed agnostic.  She isn't convinced about religion or faith; in fact, suspects that it is a lot of nonsense.  But she is compelled by the opportunity to serve, and she becomes a part of the community of sisters,  participating in their daily life, as well as learning the work.   She tells stories about the women she meets on the East End, tragic figures like Mrs. Jenkins, or Mary, who flees her abusive step-father and has a baby at 15.  She tells stories about the sisters, their idiosyncracies as well as their devotion.

At the end of the book, Jennifer Worth decides to begin reading the Gospels.

For the past couple of years, our congregation has been thinking about our past, our present, and our future.  Born in the post-war era, we boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it seemed that everyone just got up on Sunday morning and picked out a church to go to.  We were a new suburb then as well, filled with young families who were looking for places to educate children in some kind of faith or another.

We know it is not like that now.  We know that we have to do things differently.  We have been talking about what that will look like:  how we need to be more intentional and confident about sharing our faith now; how we need to learn or re-learn how to share our faith with others (although I assure people that we do not need to go around handing out tracts to strangers).

It occurs to me that a few aspects of Jennifer Worth's story from the 1950s may apply us, re-forming church in the 21st century.  What do I want my church to look like?  What do I want evangelism and discipleship to look like in my congregation?

1.  We will be centered on service.  Service to others, and particularly the service of nursing, was the mission of the sisters; it was not a sideline; it was the reason for their existence.  It was this service that attracted Jennifer Worth.  She wanted to be a nurse midwife, despite her skepticism about faith.  The opportunity to serve attracts, especially when it is genuine and not just a tactic.

2.  We will be communities of prayer.  Worship and prayer shaped the daily lives of the sisters.  They invited, but did not coerce participation.  They didn't defend their practice or apologize for it  They simply prayed and lived.  And the sisters were by no means perfect.  But their lives bore witness.

3.  We will live in community.  By this I don't mean that churches will be communes, although I recognize that the sisters did live in close community.  But I mean that churches will be bound together in community by a commitment to service and to one another, that we will realize that we do actually belong to Christ and to one another.

4.  We will take time.  Faith is not instantaneous.  It is a process taking place in each of us, and in all of us in community.  I read an interview with Jennifer Worth recently.  The last question was about her faith and abut whether she ever considered becoming a nun.  Although she didn't answer the question directly, she indicated that her three books document a faith journey that is just beginning at the end of book one, when she decides to read the New Testament.

5.  We will learn to be midwives.  It is God who is bringing faith to birth in people.  The church's job is not to convince, cajole or defend, but it is to attend:  to attend birth, in all its variety.  So Jennifer Worth tells stories -- of birth, of tragedy, of repentance and life.  One in particular tells of a older man who whose wife gives birth to a child who is  clearly not his.  Everyone wondered what was wrong with this man; why he couldn't tell that he wasn't the father of the child.  Jennifer says she thinks that he loved his wife, and when he saw the baby, he decided:  he decided that he would be a Holy Fool, that he would pretend not to see what was clear to all, for the sake of love.  Perhaps Jennifer tells this story because it is a part of hers as well:  for the sake of faith, for the sake of love, she decides to become a Holy Fool.  She decides not to see the things that don't make sense, and to love the faith that has been born in her.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reading, but not to Get to the End

I just started reading Joan Chittister's Rule of St Benedict.

I bought it some time ago, but hadn't started reading it, for some reason of another.  I am interested in Benedictine Spirituality, as much as I know about it:  the practice of Listening, Radical Hospitality.  I wanted to know more.

But I picked up the Rule this weekend because I had just finished a good mystery novel, and I was restless.  I haven't been able to pick up the next mystery in the series yet (I am promising myself that I will get books at the Library instead of purchasing them), and I was restless to start something new.  Before the good mystery novel, I had raced through a work of young adult fiction, loving every minute of it.

I got started late last night, and picked the book up again today, eager to get going.  The Rule is really simple, Sr. Joan wrote.  It should not take very long to read it, I thought.

After a little while, I found myself intrigued the fact that every few paragraphs there was a series of dates:  January 1, May 2, September 1.  That was the first set.

What could that be about?  A few paragraphs later was a second set of dates:  January 2, May 3, September 2.  I soldiered on.

At some point it dawned on me:  this book is meant to be read in short segments, three times every year.  It is not meant to be read quickly, to amass information, to get to the end.  It is meant to be savored, meditated on.

I am not sure I even know how to read in this way.

I have been taught and trained to read to get to the end -- and sometimes, as quickly as possible.  The good mystery is my favorite genre, and of course, a good mystery is a page-turner, a book that keeps you up until all hours of the night, because you have to finish it.  This is a compliment.

I have also been taught that volume is important:  how many books I plow through in a year is a measure of my competence.  For the past few years I have been involved in a reading challenge where we make a commitment to read a certain number of books every year.  Making it through the right number of books is the main thing, although I suppose it is important to pick books you really want to read.

But I can't do that with the Rule of St. Benedict.  It is not a book to be plowed through.  It is to be savored, re-read, meditated on.

I am not sure I know how to read in this way.

There is virtue in reading to get to the end.  There is nothing wrong with a good mystery, one that keeps you up until all hours of the night, racing along until finally you either figure out the mystery or the mystery is revealed.

But there is another kind of reading, just as there is another kind of mystery, one that is never quite figured out, and only revealed in the flashes of stars, in the clouds on the mountain, in a Word spoken over and over, chewed on until its unique character reveals itself, but briefly.

Tomorrow I am going to slow down and start reading The Rule of St. Benedict, but not to get to the end.  Just like life, it will come to an end in its own time.  In the meantime, I will savor it, and try to learn as much as possible from each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word.

"Give Me a Drink"

It's sort of an odd way to start a conversation.

Especially it's an odd way to start a conversation, if you are the all-knowing, all-powerful Messiah and Son of God, and the person who is coming to the well is a Samaritan woman.

I say this because, well, this IS John's gospel, and Jesus does often come off as someone who has-it-all-together.  Even in this conversation (especially later).

But right now, at the beginning, he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink.  It's noon, after all, and it's not Minnesota in March.  He's got to be thirsty.  He asks for a drink.

I can't help thinking, as I read this story, that it's a parable for missionaries.  Jesus has gone into another country (Samaria), and he means to share his life, living water.  He goes with a mission, but the first thing he does is ask for a drink.

In other words, the first thing he does is reveal his own need, risk showing his own vulnerability, admit that he is thirsty.  Just like she is.

Although the word "missionary" is loaded with negative connotations and maybe is not the best word for us to use any more, the truth is that Christians again live in an era when we need to be missionaries.  This probably fills us with dread, but if not dread, it gives us the idea that we need to go out with all of the answers and as if we have everything all together.  We think we are going to meet people and impress them with our superior humanity, our lack-of-neediness, the way we have it all together.

But perhaps the best mission strategy is just to go out and be thirsty.  To meet people on the basis of our common humanity, to risk sharing our own thirst and our own questions, to reveal some of our own wounds and scars.

When Jesus first sent the disciples out, he told them not to carry extra provisions, to depend on the hospitality of those in the towns where they were going.  Don't be so self-sufficient, he told them.  Go thirsty.

It's a mission strategy, and it's a Lenten strategy too:  Go thirsty.  Don't be so self-sufficient.  Depend on God, on one another, on strangers.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Can You Hear Me?"

The other day, I couldn't help thinking back to the little country church I served, the one where there were no microphones.

This small church had the most beautiful oak altar and pulpit  The pump organ played from up in the balcony.  The cemetery was right next door.  You could walk right out to the cemetery after a funeral, and have the committal service right away, the way it ought to be.

I often dreamed of having Easter Sunrise service at this little church, beginning the service out in the darkness of the cemetery and processing into the church for festival worship.  But it never happened,  The facilities weren't adequate for the after-sunrise-service Easter breakfast hosted by the youth.

This church also did not have a microphone.  My other two churches had cordless mikes, which I wore attached to my alb or lapel.  My current congregation has cordless microphones which we wear around our ears.

There is something I hate about those ear microphones.

There is something I loved about the church without a microphone.  It was one less thing to fiddle with, to test, to make sure that I had at the exact right spot when I came into church.  I didn't have to worry about the occasional interference (before one Holy Week Service, we inexplicably were able to listen in a one half of a cell phone conversation).

There is something I loved about the church without a microphone.  I felt that somehow I was offering them:  myself, unadorned, unamplified.  I was proud of my speaking ability.  After all,  the first time my grandmother heard me preach (via cassette tape), her one comment was, "I heard every word!"  I felt confident in my ability. I spoke clearly and loudly.  There was nothing between me and them, not even a set of speakers.

So I grieved on the day the elders brought in the bright shiny new cordless mike they wanted me to wear from then on.  I grieved and I wondered if it was me, with my inadequate feminine voice, that had driven them to this innovation.  Until then, the unadorned voice had always been enough.  But now, I had to wear the contraption so that everyone could hear me.

Of course, it could just as well have been the fact that the congregation was aging.  It might also have been their desire to be just like the other two congregations where I served.  "We want a microphone!  Just like all of the other congregations!"  That might have been it as well.

Still, I grieved.  What was simple (or at least had seemed simple) now had gotten more complicated.  I was no longer enough for them.  I needed to be amplified.  From now on, the question would always be, in some way or another, "Can you hear me?"

I wonder what churches did before amplifiers and sound systems.  Did preachers just have better voices, or were ears trained to listen differently?  The technologies we use to help people hear us keep getting more and more sophisticated.  At the same time, I yearn to know that I am enough.

It's just me and the Holy Spirit, standing in front of that small congregation with its beautiful oak pulpit and altar.  It's just me and the Holy Spirit, saying, "You are enough.  God can hear you, unadorned and beautiful."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Who Do I Think I Am?

Today, I got my knitting magazine in the mail.  I am always excited to get the new issue, but a little wistful by the time I am done.  In the whole array of possible knitting magazines, I chose this one for its title.  "Knit Simple", it is called.  And yet, truth be told, I can very very rarely find a pattern that is not beyond me.

Still, every other month, I look forward to paging through the magazine, looking at all of the designs for sweaters and scarves and gifts for the children in my life.  Sometimes, I muster up a sigh.  "Someday," I think.  "It's possible that someday I will be able to knit this."  Other times, I am in a darker mood, and think, "I cannot imagine ever being able to knit these.  Why do I continue to waste my money on this magazine?"

Last week, my husband and I were in an historic small town not far from where we live.  On my recommendation we stopped for a bit in a local arts center.  The wonderful old refurbished buildings host art galleries and classes, and even an alternative high school.  There are sometimes concerts as well, and, when the weather is nicer, the sculpture garden is an attractive destination.

But I wanted to stop in at the arts center because I had learned that a well-respected regional literary journal was published here.  It is called the "Great River Review", and, for some reason or another, I wanted to subscribe.  I had been thinking about it for awhile, actually.

So we went out to the arts center one afternoon.  We took a short tour through one of the galleries.  We found out some of the things we could do if we came back in another, better season.  I told them that the real reason I was there was to subscribe to their literary magazine.

They gladly took my check of course, and even gave me a free sample of the journal.

But then one of the managers at the center, perhaps even the director, turned to me and asked, bluntly, "So, why do you want to subscribe to the Review?"

There was an awkward pause, and then he added, "Are you a writer?"

There was another awkward pause, after which I mumbled a few words of aspiration.

"Ah," he said, sympathetic.  "That describes many of us."

I felt that I hadn't really adequately accounted for the hope that is in me, perhaps because I still don't know exactly what it is.  I used to want to be a writer; somehow I still aspire to that, not just to write sermons, but something more, my reach exceeding my grasp.  I know that I like to fit words together as if they were part of a jigsaw puzzle, for the fun of it.  But I don't know what the whole picture should be, even now, even with the years of ministry, even with all of the funerals, all the prayers and all of the baptisms, and the daily mystery of the love of God in the most ordinary moments.

Who do I think I am?  I'm not exactly sure.  Am I a writer who preaches, a preacher who writes?  Am I a prayer who works, or a worker who prays?  All I know is that, somedays I look at glossy pictures and stories and poems, and I sigh, "Perhaps someday I will be able to do that."  And other days, I cannot even imagine it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lent Means Spring

Contrary to what you might have been told, Lent does not mean "40 days of beating yourself up".  It does not even mean "40 days of God beating you up, and reminding you of what kind of a person you really are."

Lent means Spring.

Lent is short for "lengthen"; someone, somewhere noticed that (at least in this hemisphere) the season of Lent was accompanied by the lengthening of the days.

So, it's been a long, hard, cold, snowy winter here this year.  But today, I saw grass for the first time in a long time.  It was at a committal service for a saint of the church, a woman who was known for (among other things) her unconditional love and acceptance of everyone she knew.  She was also beautiful.  Her youngest daughter was one of the speakers at the funeral, and she said that when she was a teenager, she was at church one Sunday, helping with worship.  She looked over to the choir, where he mother was singing, and she thought, "My mom is beautiful."  (If you think that when you are a teenager, she said, you know it's true.)

Anyway, we were at the cemetery, which was snowy and muddy, and where I saw some actual grass.  Some of the great grandchildren were getting their funeral clothes muddy and throwing snowballs at one another.  There was one mother who was watching her her three year old daughter closely.  The girl was wandering in the grass and snow and mud, and was wearing a spring coat and a beautiful absolutely white knitted dress.

Lent means Spring.

Lent means that the days are getting longer, and the ground is getting softer, even if most of that ground is still hidden under a lot of snow.  Lent means that something is changing, and our priorities will change too, sometimes whether we like it or not.  Soon the tyranny of weather will begin for farmers:  they will need to be ready to plant on the days when they can plant; and willing to wait on the days when the weather does not cooperate.

Many of us think of Lent as a season of self-examination and self-denial.  I didn't grow up with the idea of "giving things up" for Lent, but I have learned to appropriate the dreariness as an adult.  In church, instead of singing "Alleluia", we sang, "Christ hath humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross."  That has to have an effect.

Then again, there is the work of a pastor during Lent.  Holy Week is immovable, even if, as it turns out, you have three funerals that same week.  Somehow, when you have three funerals during Holy Week (for example) what Absolutely Has To Get Done, and what is simply Elective becomes crystal clear.  Priorities change. So, you give things up in order to grieve and rejoice and speak a Word of hope to people.  You realize, again, that relationships are important, and that, all appearances to the contrary, there is an awful lot of life you have no control over.

Lent means Spring.

It means lengthening days, opening the windows, letting in life and death, the things we can't control.  It means going to the cemetery and standing in the mud and snow and grass, where the pain and the hope are all mixed up together.

Lent means Spring

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why You Come to Church

I don't know why you come to church on a particular Sunday, or why you don't.  Sometimes you show up; sometimes you don't.  When you don't, maybe it's because you are sick or out of town or your alarm clock didn't go off you you just can't  bear to be in a room with those particular people on this particular day.  Maybe you are caught between wanting your kids to experience God and a faith community, and the reality of what it's really like to be a part of a faith community.

When you come, maybe it's because you heard that lately, some of the little kids get up and dance during the final hymn, and you are hoping to catch a glimpse of that.  Or maybe it's because your kids are singing in the choir today, or you are reading the lessons at the second service.  Maybe you come because you really like that new pastor; he really sounds like he believes what he's talking about. Besides, he has a good sense of humor.

Or, maybe you just want to sing, at the top of your lungs.  Where else can you go to sing?

Maybe you come because deep down, you are hungry for the promise in that little piece of bread and that small sip of wine.  Maybe you come because you need to be reminded that there is something bigger than you, that, even though things seem bleak, somehow, in the end, everything will come out all right.  Maybe you come because you need courage to keep on doing good, to keep fighting the good fight.  Or maybe your come because you need a hand to lift you up, and you are hoping that there will be a hand there today.  Please let there be a hand there today.

If you don't know why you come, here's a reason:

You don't come for yourself.  You come for someone else.  You come for that person who needs a word, a hand up, a heart.  You come for the person who needs someone to sit beside her.  You come for the child who needs to be told he is smart.  You come for the widow who walks in slowly; you come for the teenager who needs someone to say "You belong."  You come and you practice looking for the person, the one you are there for.

You come and you practice, so you can go back out and practice looking all week, looking for the person that God is sending to you.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Whose Lenten Journey is it, Anyway?

There's nothing like being told that a particular metaphor is tired and worn to make you suddenly realize that you see it everywhere.  Particularly in songs.

So on the day before Ash Wednesday I was flipping through the hymnal, looking for something to sing at our Wednesday Matins service.  First there was "Let us Ever Walk With Jesus."  Then "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me."  Then I couldn't help thinking about "Go to Dark Gethsemane" and "Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley" (though that particular one is not in our hymnal).  We sang "Amazing Grace" at a funeral on Saturday, and I remembered the verse that ends "And grace will lead me home."

A colleague of mine recently wrote an article that admonished us pastors that we have over-used the metaphor "Lenten Journey", and it is time for a break.  A long break, perhaps.  It is time to consider some other metaphors:  struggle, training, self-examination; light and darkness, water and wilderness.

But there's nothing like being told a particular metaphor is tired and worn to make you suddenly realize that you see it everywhere.  In songs, for example.  And not just hymns.  There are all those great train songs, like "City of New Orleans", and there are those World War II songs, like "I'll Be Seeing You" (okay, it's not really about a journey, but it is, in a way -- the journey home, whether real or in a dream).  And then there are those immigrant songs -- my sister and I used to sing an old Swedish song that my grandmother loved, called "Greet Those at Home."  It was supposed to be sung by a sailor standing on the deck of a ship, leaving for the promised land, America.

There's a journey for you.

Then there are the sub-sets of the 'journey' metaphor:   getting lost, for example.  What is it like to journey, and to get lost?  What is it like to read the maps and look up and realize you are in an unknown country where you don't speak the language and you don't know the customs?   Another subset of journey metaphors is deciding what to pack and what not to pack.  What do you carry?  What do you leave behind?  One of the things I actually like about traveling is deciding what is most important, what I really need.  It's not the journey metaphor exactly, but it is.

I'm not actually convinced that 'Lenten journey' is so tired.  But what it needs is less generality -- more specificity.  The Lenten journey needs to be the 296 footpath from Duluth to the Canadian border, or perhaps the road trips with the kids, where they whined in the back seat and said "We'll NEVER make it to Grandmas."  The Lenten journey needs to be the one where you mis-read the map, or the GPS told you the wrong thing, and you found yourself out in the middle of nowhere.  Or the Lenten journey needs to be the journey where you could only take ten things.  Or the Lenten journey is the journey by boat to an unknown country, the promised land, the one our parents or grandparents took, but we don't know anything about.

There's nothing like being told that a particular metaphor is tired and worn to make you start seeing it everywhere:  on walks with the dog, where we just go to the end of the block and back home, on trips to the hospital, to hold people's hands and pray, in the wilderness, on the boat that carried us to the new world.

I'm not actually convinced that "Lenten journey' is so tired.  But the real question is this:  whose Lenten Journey is it, anyway?

That is the question.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

We Just Kept On Singing

I had a funeral on Saturday, the day before Transfiguration Sunday.

That in itself is not so unusual for me.

I have had a lot of funerals in my pastoral tenure, both here and at my first parish, back in rural South Dakota.

I used to be jealous of some of my other colleagues, who could go months without a funeral.  They seemed as regular as the sun and the moon and the stars at my place.

While other colleagues were developing ministry plans, creative youth ministry opportunities, dreaming up building programs, I was doing funerals.

Looking back, that is a slight exaggeration.  I did do other things, like create a contemporary worship service, take all of the youth to New Orleans, and start a new confirmation ministry.  But, at the time, that's what it seemed like.  My colleagues were dreaming dreams and seeing visions, and I was doing funerals.  One of my colleagues tried to comfort me once by saying, "Maybe that is why God sent you here.  Maybe God sent you here to bury people and to lament and to preside at funerals."

I know that she meant well, but somehow, it did not seem comforting at the time.

So, on Saturday, the day before Transfiguration Sunday, I had a funeral.

It was a funeral for a former member of our congregation, someone I had not known at all.  I did have the privilege of getting acquainted with some of his family, but I never knew the man who had died.  He was a well-respected doctor, and had been prominent both in our community and congregation for many years.  But he had Alzheimers, and they lost him, bit by bit.

The family chose the readings and the hymns, except that they asked me to choose a gospel reading:  One of the healing stories, they said.  I chose a brief reading, from Matthew.  Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law (there's family practice for you), and the crowds gather.  The reading ends with a portion of Isaiah 53:  "Surely he has carried our infirmities."

The doctor's wife chose the hymn of the day:  "What Wondrous Love", with its last verse, "and when from death I'm free I'll sing on, I'll sing on."  And their choice for the recessional hymn was "Amazing Grace."

I remember that as I led the family in at the beginning of the service, I had walked a little too rapidly at first.  The widow and her oldest daughter were behind me, arm in arm.  I resolved to walk more slowly at the end of the service, to walk with them while we sang.

We were just to the beginning of the last verse of "Amazing Grace" when we reached the sanctuary doors.

There is something that always happens when we reach the doors to the sanctuary and step out into the narthex.  The singing usually stops as soon as we take that first step.  Sometimes, if I'm confident, I'll keep going.

But this time, that didn't happen.  The singing didn't stop.  I kept singing, and the doctor's wife looked at me and kept singing, and her oldest daughter looked at both of us, and we all kept singing.  Some of the other people kept singing, too.

"When we've been there ten thousand years
bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun."

We just kept singing.

On the day before Transfiguration Sunday.

You never know when you will be standing on a mountaintop, and suddenly, Jesus' face will shine.

You never know when the curtain will be lifted and you will dream a dream or see a vision.

Perhaps God has sent me here to do funerals.