Saturday, May 31, 2014

In the Beginning was the Word

I have been reading, lately, Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  In it, she explores the mostly-forgotten faith metaphor of darkness, encouraging readers to discover the deeper and less obvious benefits of walking by dark.

Why do we fear the dark?  There is pretty compelling evidence that at least part of the problem is in our faith tradition itself, with all of its emphases on the goodness of light, and the evils of darkness.  After all, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  After all, God is our light and our salvation.  Whom shall we fear?  After all, Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  After all….

And yet, I can't help thinking, as I am reading this book.  I can't help thinking that "In the beginning was the Word", not "In the beginning was the Vision."  As much as we love the light, it seems as if our own faith tradition is warning us that light, at least a certain kind of light, is not enough.  Seeing, at least with our eyes, is not enough.  In the beginning was the Word.  Even when it is dark, you can hear.   You can hear the words, the music, the prayers, the Word.

As for me, I am always looking for a vision, or some kind of sign.  I'm keeping my eyes peeled.  Isn't that what I am supposed to do?  It could be a small shiny rock, it could be a story taking place before my eyes, it could even happen to me, but I'm always looking for a vision.  But in the middle of keeping my eyes peeled, sometimes I feel a judgment come upon me, a voice telling me not to depend so much on visions.  "In the beginning was the Word," the voice says reminds me.  "We walk by faith, not by sight," the voice says.  "Sometimes you don't get a vision.  Sometimes you just get a Word.

But what if you can't hear?  In my faith tradition, it seems to me that this can be an even greater alienation than blindness.  The Christian faith is so word-y.  It is story and song and prayer, listening and speaking.  For centuries upon centuries, it has been a feast for the ear, in one way or another.

I love words, almost as much as I love visions.  But I have come to realize the words are not enough, especially lately.  If Barbara Brown Taylor believes that we need to learn to walk in the dark, I am starting to believe that we also need to learn sign language, to write with our hands, to pray without words.

Many years ago, our congregation had a deaf couple who worshipped with us regularly.  We had a sign language interpreter each week as well.  For some reason, we decided to learn a certain prayer in sign language one year during Lent.  Every week, we prayed and we practiced the signs.  On the fifth Sunday in Lent we gave up the words, and we prayed using only the signs.  In the beginning was the Word.  But what kind of Word was it?

I am thinking now of the two creation stories in Genesis.  In the first one, God creates with a Word.  God says, "Let there be light."  And there was light.  In the second story, God bends down and creates a human being out of the dust, and breathes into him.  In the second story, God touches us, and we come alive.

Maybe the point is this:  God touches us, and we come alive.  Darkness, light, presence and absence, word and touch.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How Baptism Saves Us

There's this curious phrase in 1st Peter, chapter 3, that I've always wondered about.  The author is writing a long and sort of confusing sentence that begins with a reference to the spirits in prison that Jesus preached to, continues by reminding us of Noah and the Ark (and specifically God's patience during the building of the ark), and ends up with a reference to the eight people who were saved through water.

Then the author continues, "And baptism, which this pre-figured, now saves you…."

This week, I was looking around for help picking out the strands in that long and confusing sentence, trying to figure out what Jesus' preaching to the spirits and God's patience during the building of the Ark had to do with the saving properties of baptism.  I have to admit that I didn't get much help with the strands, but I did get the clear message that "Of course, it is not baptism that saves."

It's hard to argue with this.  Baptism does not save us.  Jesus saves us.

But that's not what the author of 1st Peter says.  He says, "Baptism, which this pre-figured, now saves you…."

So I've been thinking of the story of Noah all week, an imperfect metaphor for baptism if ever there was one, but still, I've been thinking of the story of Noah, and the idea that these eight people and this motley crew of animals were cooped up together in this boat, living together in close quarters and depending on each other for survival.  And of course, if you have any imagination at all, you have to think that it's probably not all sweetness and light in there; there were probably days when they wished to be anywhere else than where they were.  But salvation meant that they were given to each other; they were in this together.

That's the part of the Noah story I'm thinking about now, the part where salvation means that we are given to each other, that our lives depend on each other.  Baptism means being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ, but it's not simply a vertical relationship; there are all of the untidy horizontal relationships too:  with the people who love us and annoy us; the people who break our hearts and mend our hearts; the people who bear us up, and the people we can't bear; the people who fail us; the people whom we have failed.  And being together with those people, somehow, that is part of how baptism saves us.

I'm really not trying to make the case that only in the church (or the Church) can we find salvation.  But  simply noticing that baptism and community go together, and that salvation has to do with our relationships with one another, and not just our relationship with God.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

You Don't Have to Pray Out Loud, Do You?

I came into church early this morning, to get ready for our Matins service.  When I arrived, there was one woman kneeling in the chapel, praying by herself.

Sometimes there are two of them.

I quietly marked my scripture readings, found the Psalm and flipped on the microphone.  This woman has been coming in at 7:30 on Wednesday mornings to pray for as long as I can remember.  I didn't want to disturb her before she was finished praying.

This morning she finished up a little earlier.  As I was finishing up my worship preparation, she asked me, "Why do you think more people don't come to pray?"

I told her that I suspected not that many people knew that there was a prayer meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning.  They operate sort of under the radar.  I also said that 7:30 a.m. may be a deterrent for some people who are not early risers.   All true, but she was not quite content.

"I don't think people feel comfortable praying," she said.  "I know I didn't, at first.  I learned how from Harriet." (another woman who used to come to pray early in the morning).

I said I thought she had a point, and that people perhaps didn't realize you didn't have to be particularly good at prayer to pray.  You don't have to make perfect, eloquent sentences.

Someone else came in while we were talking about prayer.  She took her usual seat in the front.  She was listening to our conversation when she blurted out, "but you don't have to pray out loud, do you?  It's just between you and God, isn't it?"

"No," I answered.  "You don't have to pray out loud."

I thought about it for a moment.

"Except when you do," I answered.

It's true.  You don't have to pray out loud.  Prayer is a relationship, after all.  It is an intimate conversation with God.  Some prayers are just between you and God, and you and God are the only ones who have to know about them.  There are times when God is the only one you can talk to, the only one you trust with the deepest secrets of your heart.  You don't have to pray out loud.

And yet, as soon as I say it, I am a little uncomfortable with this.  Prayer is not my private possession.  It's not just my individual private relationship with God.  Prayer is a gift to the church, the whole church, deepening our relationships not only with God but also with one another.  There are so many prayers that are not just mine and nor just yours, but they are our prayers.  They are the church's prayers, the church's secrets, the church's burdens lifted up.  Because we are members of one another, whether we realize it or not, whether we pray about it out loud or not.

I had the same four boys in confirmation class for three years.  We started out saying just one word prayers together, out loud.  Just one word of thanks apiece.  We gave thanks for our parents, for pizza, for pets.  As we got to know each other, we gave thanks for deeper things, and one day we started praying for things we really cared about:  a grandfather who was dying, homeless people who were staying in our church, a friend who was struggling.  Our prayers were not eloquent.  But they were true.  We learned to trust each other, to be who we are:  the church.

I can understand why people might not want to pray out loud.  I mean, what if people say you are praying for the wrong thing?  What if someone says you don't have any right to talk to God about your dog when there are so many big things to pray about?  What if someone else despises your prayer, or even thinks you are using the wrong words?  What happens when your prayers are not answered, and everyone knows it?  To put a word, or a few words, a dream, out there -- it's a hard thing to do.

We don't have to pray out loud, I suppose.   We don't have to trust each other either.  We don't have to be the body of Christ, with many members, but a common mission.  We don't have to build homes or teach children or fix meals or sweep floors or share love or unlock the doors of oppression together.

We don't have to pray out loud.

Except when we do.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Saying "Yes" and Meaning It

Today was Confirmation Sunday for our congregation.  Eleven young people stood up in front of the congregation and said, "Yes", they wanted to continue to be disciples of Jesus, they wanted to live their baptism, they wanted be children of God, just as they were called when their parents carried them to the font a few years ago.  Eleven young people said, "Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me", when I asked them "Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism?"

And I think they all meant it.

Oh, I know that some of them have doubts.  Some of them wonder about the stories of the Bible.  Are they really true?  Some of them seem hard to believe.  But despite their doubts, they somehow want to continue the journey, being connected to this particular set of people who bear Christ's name.  Others of them are more certain of God, but they still have questions.  They wonder about how it all works, what eternity is like, why is there evil in the world?  But despite their questions, they still said "Yes" when I asked them "Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism?"

It's a pretty big question, whether you are in the 9th grade or whether you are 90.  "Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism?"  Just to prove it, when we ask 9th graders, we break the question down into five parts.  We say this is what it means to continue in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism:

*  to live among God's holy people
*  to hear God's word and share in his supper
*  to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
*  to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus,
*  to strive for justice and peace through all the earth.

I can't help thinking that, though all of the 9th graders meant it when they said "yes" today, they really didn't know what they were getting into.  In this way, they aren't that different from any one of us, at any age, when we say "yes" to being disciples of Jesus.

We all say "yes," because, at the time, we somehow know that saying "yes" means life to us.  Saying yes means grace and forgiveness, love that is stronger than death, a place prepared with many mansions.

Just two weeks ago, members of our congregation gathered after worship to learn the outcomes of some of our redevelopment groups.  We heard reports about the demographics of our community, learned more about the two paths our congregation could take:  either "redevelopment" or "legacy."   We learned that the path of 'redevelopment' is a path of change, and that it leads to growth and life.  We learned that the path of 'legacy' is a path that, eventually, leads to death.  The choice seems simple.  To choose to redevelop is to choose life.

But at the heart of it, it is the same sort of question as the one posed to the confirmation students today.  At the heart of it, to be a redevelopment church is to say "Yes," to the question "do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism?"

"Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me."

On that Sunday two weeks ago, we said yes.  Just like those 9th graders.

And I think we all meant it.

But we don't yet know what it will mean.  We don't really realize how it is that God will transform us, in our encounters with our neighbors, in suffering and service, in worship and joy, in silence and in shouting.  We don't really realize how it is that God will transform us, from one degree of glory into another.

In the meantime, we all said 'yes.'

But more important than that, we asked God to help and guide us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Language Learning, Incarnate

I have been thinking for quite some time now that I would like to learn a little Spanish.  There are a number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in our community now, and an Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist congregation even meets in our sanctuary on Saturday morning.  Some of the congregation members are pretty fluent in English, but not all of them.  It has piqued my language-learning curiosity.

When I first started thinking about learning Spanish, of course I went out and bought the prettiest, flashiest set of Spanish flash cards I could find.  They are quite attractive, if I must say so myself.  They haven't helped me learn any Spanish, but they are sitting right there in my office.

I have asked other people how to go about beginning to learn Spanish.  I have gotten a variety of advice, starting from self-directed courses with tapes and CDs, to on line resources and even apps for my iPhone!  I even downloaded a free app.  Free is free, after all.  With the apps, you can make language learning into a sort of game.

Here's my confession, though:  even though I am an introvert, I can't imagine myself learning a language from a book and a set of tapes, or even a web site.  I can't imagine myself learning a language by myself.

Part of it is accountability.  I can't imagine myself sitting down at the same time every day, or a different time every day, and remembering to take the books or the tapes out, or get on the web site and do the lessons.  I am sadly afraid (and this is a character flaw) that my language learning self-discipline would last all of two days.

But mostly I can't imagine learning a language by myself.  I can't imagine trying to learn a language without the motivation of actually speaking it to someone else, even if the words are as simple as "Buenos Dias."

When I lived in Japan, my best language teacher was the wife of one of the local pastors.  I went to visit her every week, and we sat down and had a conversation.  I don't remember any more whether we had a textbook or not.  But the main thing was, she didn't know any English.  If I wanted to communicate, if I was curious about a Japanese custom or a food or anything else, I had to throw caution to the wind and just ask her, with whatever language tools I had.  If she had questions for me, I had to try to answer, and keep trying until she figured out what I was trying to say.

Now that I think about it, she wasn't my only language teacher.  I had many others, all of them good, in their own way:  the four year olds at the pre-school, the children in my church's Sunday school, the history teacher whose desk was next to mine in the Japanese high school where I worked.  The parents of some of my students, clerks in department stores, people I sat next to on the train:  they were all my teachers.  Because I wanted to know them, to learn about their lives, I wanted to learn more.

Of course, language is a multifaceted thing.  It is not just speaking, but listening; not just listening but understanding; not just understanding but wanting to understand.  It is not just words on a page, but words in the air, between people.  It is not just denotation, but connotation.  A language suggests a world, and opens the door to that world, if only a crack, at first.

It occurs to me that faith is a language too, even a strange one, from a strange land which sometimes feels far away.  But does anyone really want to know the language of faith any more, to open the door, just a crack, and to see what the people know who live there?  Does anyone want to sit down across the table from them, and and listen, and try to understand, and find out what it's like to walk on water, or to find your five small loaves of bread suddenly multiplied?

Faith is a language.
I can't learn it by myself.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Last week, I was preparing to preach on the gospel from Luke 24:  the road to Emmaus, the conversation with the stranger, the breaking of bread, the burning hearts.  I was preparing to preach on that resurrection story, and I thought I even had a pretty good angle, thinking about the very end of the gospel and how he was made known in the breaking of bread, and it wasn't even communion.  It was just an ordinary meal, except with Jesus.  He was made known.

I thought I had a pretty good angle, that is, a good opening, and I thought the sermon would "write itself" (it never does).  I was bemoaning the fact to a colleague one evening late in the week, when the sermon was not writing itself (except for the clever beginning), and out of the blue, my friend asked me started telling me about Biblical Storytelling, and wondered if I would like to try to 'tell' the gospel story instead of reading it.

As if I didn't have enough to worry about.

But I have always been attracted to storytelling, Biblical or not, ever since, in the 8th grade, we were all supposed to tell a story for speech class.  (I still don't remember why I thought it was a good idea to take a speech class in 8th grade.)  Up until then, I had been horrible at giving speeches, all sweaty palms and rapid speaking and forgetting what I was going to say.  But when I told the story, something happened.

I got a good grade.

So my friend asked me, "Why don't you learn the story?" and I asked her what she meant.  "Do you embellish?"  No, she said; you might play with the wording just a little, but basically you learn it as it is in your favorite translation, or the one your church uses.  It's not exactly like memorizing, but it is sort to that way.  She lead me to some web sites that gave me an idea for how to go about learning a story, and then she said,  "if you don't have time to learn the whole thing, why don't you just learn the ending?"

I don't know why, exactly, but that is what I did.  I started at the end, and worked backwards, from the last two verses, and then the last three, and then the verse about the burning hearts, until they were sitting with Jesus at the table.  I just learned that last section of the gospel reading, practicing as I walked up and down the hallways of the church, practicing in front of the daughter of the President of our Leadership Board.  I tried telling the last verses of the gospel reading on Saturday night at our small chapel service, and again on Sunday morning.

One thing I discovered was that many people are busy looking at their bulletins during the gospel reading.  While I was telling the story, their heads were in their bulletins. I wondered if they could tell the difference between what I had done with the first part of the reading, and those last few verses.

However, I did notice that there are people who do not look at their bulletin during the reading of the gospel.  People learn in different ways, and I noticed, because I was telling and not reading, because I was looking at the congregation while I was speaking, that some people were not looking at their bulletin.  They were listening and they were looking back at me.

Finally, I noticed something happening in me, both in my preparation, and while I was telling the story to my congregation.  Something was happening in me, as if the story was getting deeper inside me.  This was a story I already knew well, of course, with a few words and phrases already dear to me.  I could already see those two disciples stopped in the road, looking sad.  I could already imagine the stranger walking alongside them.  But it seemed to me that the story got bigger, and it was inside of me, but also that I was inside of the story, walking around inside the story.

"Were not our hearts burning within us, when he was talking with us on the road?"

On Sunday, when I spoke these words, it was as if I was remembering something -- and not just remembering my muttering repetitions of the last two days.  It was as if I was remembering the times my own heart burned, but I did not realize it until later.  It was as if I was knew that, somewhere deep down, I had broken bread with Jesus before so many times without realizing it.  It was as if, when I was telling the story that I was telling them what I had seen and heard myself.

I don't know what happened in my congregation when I told the story, instead of reading it.  But I know that something happened in me.  I told the story, but the story told me.

So I'm eager to continue to learn to tell the stories.  I'm just starting on Pentecost, now, and wondering what the story will tell me this time.  But I wondering now as well, if I should be the only storyteller in my congregation.

What if we all learned to tell stories to one another?  What would we learn, and what would we hear, and what would we remember, if we told the ancient stories, if we learned to walk around in them, hearing the cries and dreaming the dreams, hoping against hope?

Monday, May 5, 2014

What To Take Along When You Don't Know Where You Are Going

I remember a particular Sunday during our pastoral transition.  It was a Sunday designed to be a pivotal event in our congregation's life.  We were gathered to celebrate our past while we looked to the future.  Our congregational profile had been completed; the "transition team" was about to morph into the call committee.   Every choir and music group had a part in the worship service.

The sermon revolved around a particular event from Israel's history:  just as they were about to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, a representative of each of the twelve tribes took a stone from one side of the river, and brought it along with them to the other side.  The idea was that although our congregation was embarking on a new chapter in our life, we honor our past and take a part of it along with us on our journey.  I think that there were even some stones on the floor by the baptismal font, and a paper cut-out of the river Jordan, so that the children could move the stones from one side of the river to the other side.

I have to admit that, though I have more than a passing acquaintance with the Old Testament, this particular story had escaped me up until then.  I know that I read almost the entire Old Testament during seminary, but I must have skimmed a few parts, a feeling that came back to me a couple of years ago when I decided to read the whole Bible over a summer.  (Wait a minute.  When did David do THAT?)

But, I digress.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that the story about the stones was a little more nuanced than I had at first suspected.  I remember re-thinking the story a few months later, and coming to the sudden realization that the stones were not simple reminders of the past.  They were specific reminders of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  As the people of Israel was about to cross over into the promised land, they were to take stones from the wilderness, to remember when they were settled the experience of wandering.

The stones were reminders for people coming into the promised land, but they weren't reminders of the 'good old days.'  They were reminders of God's goodness when they grumbled, of God's anger and forgiveness, of dancing around a golden calf, of manna and quails, of manna hoarded that went bad.

I can't help asking myself now:  What does this mean for us?  What stones should we take with us where we are heading, and what do they mean?

The pastoral transition has ended, but in some ways we are still in the wilderness.  Getting a new pastor is not the same as entering the promised land.  In fact, I am not even sure where we are, or where we are going.  Are we in Egypt, living in a culture foreign to us?  Is God leading us into the wilderness?  Or are we in the wilderness now,  wandering without a home, learning to be God's people without the benefit of accustomed markers?

Sometimes I think we need to go back all the way almost to the beginning, all the way to Abraham, to know where we are.  We need to go all the way back to Abraham, who was on the road, on the way to somewhere or another when he heard God say, "Go.  Go to a place where I will show you.  You will be blessed, and you will be a blessing."

What do you take along when you don't know where you are going?  I am not sure, but I suspect you take your family, some stories, a little bread and wine.   You forget about crossing the river Jordan and entering the promised land, and feeling like you have arrived.  You just live here, on the road, sharing stories and bread and wine with the strangers who cross your path, and somehow where you are now becomes the promised land, because it you have come to realize that the promised land is not a place, but the promised land is in the face of the strangers, and in the eyes that look into yours, and in One who called you and accompanies you and will not abandon you.  Somehow you come to see the fleeting vision, where the kingdom of God is in everything you gave away, and somehow (who knows how?) you have finally become a blessing.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Congregational Redevelopment and "Leaving Room"

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came shortly after one of the first worship services I led as a pastor.  One of the parish members came up to me after worship one week and said, "You didn't leave enough room."

"What do you mean?' I asked.  I had no idea what she was talking about.

"During the prayers," she answered.  "You always include a prayer for 'those we now name in our hearts', but you don't leave enough room for me to pray for all the people I want to name."

It was true.  I did always include a time of silent prayer, but I never thought about how much silence people would need if they really took me seriously, if they were really praying for people during that time of silent prayer.  I didn't leave enough room.

More recently, someone at the congregation where I serve now mentioned that they always have a prayer list in their purse or wallet.  They take the list out and pray during the petitions at church.  But the list is getting pretty long.  It is possible that I am not leaving enough room.  

I have been thinking about the term 'redevelopment' for awhile now.  I can think of a lot of words to use to describe what congregational redevelopment means.  Here are a few:  transformation.  overcoming fear.  listening.  creativity.  being and becoming.

And here are a few words to describe what redevelopment is NOT:  getting rid of everything from the past.  cookie-cutter contemporary liturgy.  ignoring your tradition.

I like Matthew's version of the passage about the new wine and new wineskins.  Notice how it reads:  "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins bursts, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.  "Particularly I like how Jesus seems concerned about making room both for the new and the old wine, how Jesus wants to make sure that new wine is put into new wineskins where it can grow and expand, where it won't ruin those old wineskins with the precious old wine.

"Making Room."

The more I think about it, this is one good way to think about redevelopment.  It is not unlike leaving enough room during the petitions for people to say their prayers, leaving room during worship for silence as well as song, leaving room in our lives for God to do a new thing, or an old thing in a new way.  To redevelop is to trust that God is at work in us, in our congregation, in the world, that if we will just leave some room:  some room to fail, some room to try new things, some room to listen, God will lead us.  To make room is to trust that this is God's church, that we are still called to be bearers of hope and grace and faith in the world.  To make room is to listen -- to God, to one another, to strangers.  To make room is to fail sometimes, and trust that God will use everything we do for God's purposes, to bring good news.

To redevelop a congregation -- is to leave room -- for silence, for the Word, for God to work in ways we did not expect, and would not have predicted.

I am not claiming to know very much yet about 'redevelopment', at least not yet.  I am on this journey along with everyone else, this journey of which I cannot see the ending.  I am on this journey, and I love the old wine, but I yearn for the new wine too, even though I don't know what it will taste like yet.    All I know is that I am going to try to make room, to make room for God to work in my heart, in the silence, in the noisiness of our children, in the tears of strangers, in this congregation.