Monday, June 30, 2014

Practicing Faith on Vacation

Whenever I go on vacation, I realize again how tangled up my faith practices are with my work.  I am not proud to say it, and I begin each vacation time with a desire to encounter God on vacation in a different way than I do in my daily work.  I bring along a Bible, and I look for devotional reading that does not have anything to do with having a more faithful, successful, growing, deeply authentic congregation.  But I realize as well that I have a lot of those books.  Where's one that is just about faith, my faith, and doesn't have anything to do with my vocation?

I finally found my copy of Debbie Blue's book, "Consider the Birds", and begin to read it, just a little, not as much as I had anticipated, but at least I got started.

One of the things I realize right away on vacation is how much of my Bible reading and study is directly related to preparing sermons, Bible studies and confirmation.  It makes me a little wistful for the days when I used to read large chunks of the gospel of John in the evening, and write in my journal about my insights (yeah, I really did that at one time).  

And then there is vacation prayer.  As it turns out, vacation prayer is every bit as random and undisciplined as it is when I am working.  Vacation is not necessarily a time to learn a new spiritual discipline, although I have tried bringing prayer beads, my "praying in color" utensils, and a small book to pray the Hours by (wait, what time is it?).

What is even harder, though, is to stop to incessant conversation in my head about my work:  to go to a worship service without wondering if we could use that song in my congregation, to read a chapter of a book without thinking about whether there is a good sermon illustration in there, to practice praying with beads without wondering if we could hold a class on this subject at my church, to pray without thinking about all of the saints and sinners back home.

What I recognize, though, is that I really need God with me on vacation, but in a different way.  I need to experience the God who does not require me to be wise or witty or insightful, but who shows me grace, allows me grace, even when I forget to pray at the specified time, even when the Bible studies crash and burn, even when the sermon falls flat, or I sing off key.  I need somehow to untangle so that faith is not just my work, but the air I breathe, the love I seek, not something for others, but for myself.

As it turns out, I don't think I can stop God from coming along, and even though my dreams are still of church services run amok, tasks uncompleted, there are still the birds to consider, the eagles that soar above the river, the sparrows everywhere.   Instead of looking up Bible verses, we practiced looking for eagles this week.  We drove along the river, and considered from where it flows, and where it will go.  These are not bad spiritual disciplines for vacation, I decided.

Someday perhaps I will have it figured out.  In the meantime, I will remember that my work and my faith are intertwined, tangled up, and I can't untangle them.  I can't untangle them, but I can remember that they aren't the same thing, while I am driving along the river, looking for eagles, looking for sparrows, looking for grace.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

His Eye is On the Sparrow, the Caterpillar, and the Polar Bear

Last week, I went to the zoo.  It was a work-related expedition, as I was one of the adults who got to accompany the children from Vacation Bible School.

I arrived at church on Thursday morning, in the middle of what will henceforth be known as "the great flood."  I saw our children's ministry coordinator standing in the entry, and said, "We are probably not going to the zoo today, right?"  I had heard it would rain, off and on, all day, and I believe weather reports.

No, she replied, we're still going.  It will be all right.

O me of little faith.

She was right.  We left after lunch and we were sprinkle free at our local community zoo all afternoon. There were more puddles than usual, of course, and the weather was tropical-rainforest.  We started right off with a reptile exhibit and spent some time looking at the flamingos.  I sympathized with the polar bear, although it was fun to watch him (her?) turning constant somersaults in the water.

We saw a lot of impressive animals that afternoon, but one of the biggest thrills for my group of eight third and fourth graders was the discovery of a monarch caterpillar.  It was on the sidewalk, not in a cage, and after one of the boys discovered it, a crowd of children gathered around to get a closer look, and to wonder what they should do with it.  Some of the children thought the caterpillar was "gross", but others were concerned that it not be stepped on, and wanted to help relocate it to a nearby plant.

Standing there watching them, I couldn't help thinking about the gospel reading for Sunday.  I was preparing to preach, trying to hold together all of the threads of the gospel from Matthew:  you know -- if they malign me, they are going to malign you too, Jesus says.  But don't be afraid of them.  After all, I keep an eye on sparrows.  And don't think I'm going to bring peace to earth.  I'm coming to divide.

It's hard to keep all of the threads together, so I start thinking about the caterpillar, and sparrows, and how (I'll be honest) I would not in a million years have noticed that caterpillar on the sidewalk.  I was too busy admiring the flamingos, and trying to figure out which exhibit we should go to next.   Somehow the children's care reminded me of Jesus, paying attention to sparrows.

I suppose it is a heart-warming scene, but given the fact that Jesus speaks about sparrows in the middle of a series of sayings about persecution and division, I suppose I should guard against the heart-warming interpretation.  There is something about loving sparrows, heart-warming as it seems, that actually goes against the grain, makes people mad.  For one thing, sparrows are not as lovable as it seems, at first.  As well, it seems to be okay to care about animals when we are children, but when we grow up, we are supposed to put away childish things.  And may I say as well:  we SAY we love animals, but if that is so, why are there so many endangered species?

I remember reading about the passenger pigeon a number of years ago.  I had purchased the most beautiful children's book with pictures of extinct animals.  The passenger pigeon was one of the animals, and a little of the story told.  At one time there were so many passenger pigeons that they were considered a nuisance.  They could not imagine them ever being gone.  They were hunted freely, sometimes hundreds in one day.  It's hard to imagine.  Or, maybe it is not.

I come not to bring peace but a sword, Jesus says.
Not one sparrow falls to the earth apart from your father, he also says.

It is easy to talk about the second statement, hard to talk about the first.  But they go together.  The reason that Jesus' disciples will cause division is that they will value the things that God values:  they will care for the widow and the orphan, the weak and the vulnerable, the unaccompanied immigrant children.  And that will go against the grain, at least sometimes.  People will not be all lined up for the sparrows, or the passenger pigeons, or the caterpillars, for that matter.

But have no fear of them.  That's what Jesus said.  Keep following Jesus.  Not every task will be as easy as finding a fresh branch for a monarch caterpillar.  And you won't always come out unscathed.  But have no fear of them.

His eye is on the monarch caterpillar.  The polar bear too.  And those unaccompanied immigrant children:  they belong to him.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"What's A Pastor?"

This week was Vacation Bible School at my church.  I love this week, with children I know from Sunday School all year, and children I don't know, because they have been invited from the community.  It's a good mix.  We are all learning stories about Jesus together.

On Thursday, I went with the children to the zoo.  I got assigned to be one of the leaders for a group of eight boys and girls.  We took pictures of monkeys and tried to get the sea lions to jump.  We were having a good time.

At one point, one of the boys turned to me and said, "Who are you?"
"I am one of the pastors," I answered.
"What's a pastor?" he asked.

There was this momentary silence while I considered what to say.  Could it be that he didn't know what a pastor was?  Or (more possible) did he know a different word (minister, preacher, priest) for what I called myself?

During the second moment of silence, I considered the word "Pastor."  It makes a lot of sense if you are a shepherd, which is not a common occupation these days.  The word "Pastor" calls to mind the one who leads the sheep to pasture, makes sure they have food and water and protection from danger.  My first parish, a set of three small rural congregations, had very little trouble imagining me as their pastor, their shepherd, the one who led them in the way of God.   I like the word Pastor, but it probably does not animate imaginations the way it used to.  Maybe it isn't even a good description for what I really do.

During the third moment of silence, I considered how to describe what I do.  I realized that it was not that easy.  I do a lot of things.  I visit people in the hospital.  I lead worship.  I talk in front of people at church.  I go to the zoo with children.  I hold the hands of people who are dying.  I pour water on people's heads, and say, "Now you belong to Christ."  I place my hand on the hands of two other people, and say, "Now you belong to each other."  I listen to people's hopes, fears, and secrets.  I study the Bible, and other things too.  I pray and I dream, and try to gather people together to make some dreams come true.

I could say that I am a representative of God, but I realize that I don't believe that.  Or rather, I believe that we are all representatives of God.  I could say that I am a theologian, but I actually think that most of us are theologians too.  I have known a fair amount of people who were great theologians but who were not pastors.  I could say that I tell people how to know Jesus, but I really truly believe that all Christians are called to this work.  We all help people know Jesus.

Maybe I will just say this for today:  It is my job to help people remember who they are.  That's what I do when I stand up in church on Sunday and talk, or sing, or pray.  That's what I do in every part of my life.  I remind people that they belong to God.  It is also my job to help people remember who God is. It is my job to help people to remember that God is the one who walked the earth, whose hands held children, who broke bread, and multiplied it, who forgave people, set them free.

"What's a pastor?"
I lead worship.  I visit people in the hospital.  I go to the zoo with children.  I pour water on people's heads, and say, "Now you belong to Christ."  I pray.  I translate Greek and Hebrew.  I dream.   I do odd things, hoping to jog a memory or two.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Things We Do

This morning I got up early and put on my suit and my clerical collar.  Even though it was a hot and muggy day, I was dressed up to go out to our city's National Cemetery for a graveside service for one of our congregation's World War II Veterans.  A genuine war hero he was, as well as a beloved father, grandfather and friend.

I stopped into the office first to check in on our Senior Matins group, who were having coffee and fellowship.  I also saw a number of the Vacation Bible School children arriving for a day of fun activities.  I had time to have a couple of brief thoughts about Sunday's sermon.  "Discipleship," I wrote down on the cover of a manilla folder.  Not much to go on, but better than nothing.

Yesterday I had spent part of the afternoon drawing eyes with the children.  We were instructed each to take a small mirror provided for us, and to look carefully at our eye.  Then we drew large, dark outlines of our eyes on large pieces of paper.  The inside of each eye would be a collage of colors we found in magazines.  We were encouraged to see all the different colors inside our eyes.  They aren't just "blue" or "green" or even "hazel."  Take a look, and you will see.

This morning, though, after writing "Discipleship" on the manilla folder, I got in my car and headed out to the cemetery.  The honor guard fired their guns; the lone bugle played "taps"; the family received their flag. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.  Still, we wept.

Later, I went over to the apartment of one of our elderly members.  He is making the transition from his home to a nursing home, and he wanted us to look at some of his books, to see if the church might want any.  Some belonged to him, some of his wife, some were from his father.  Another member of the church brought him back over to his home so he could be there while I went through his bookshelves, paging through the books, admiring them, choosing just a few.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Still later, I stopped in to see someone who is homebound while recovering from a fall.  We shared communion and prayed; she said she is a terrible invalid; she is not good at being idle.  We talked about the rain; I saw old silhouettes of her children when they were small, and portraits painted by a friend.  "Not very good," she said, but I could see the resemblance.

Tomorrow I will go to my office, and see the word "discipleship" written on the manilla folder.  I will have meetings where we will try to look into the future like the children study the colors of their own eyes.  I will play with the children, and pray with those who are lonely, and see what I can see.

Flecks of dust, shards of a life, beautiful fragments of colors:  a collage of lives.  Sometimes that is what I think ministry is like:  it is living with this collage of lives, and somehow seeing, in the midst of it all, God's dream.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Trinity, Creation, and World War II

This week I was having a conversation with other pastors over coffee about the Trinity.  Specifically, Trinity Sunday was coming up -- again -- what were we going to preach about?  We read together from Matthew 28, from the end of 2nd Corinthians, and finally found ourselves staring at the creation story from Genesis, chapter 1.


What are you going to preach about this Sunday?

We got to talking about the Days of creation, and God separately Night from Day, and Light from Darkness, and saying that it was good.  We talked about the generative nature of the story -- everything is for the sake of life, night and dark, darkness and light -- even rest.  We moved back and forth from the images in creation to the relationship of the Trinity:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all participating with one another, forming community.

For some reason I couldn't help thinking about something I had heard many years ago, while I was living in Japan.  I didn't say anything, because I couldn't think of any way this had to do with Trinity Sunday, although whenever I read Genesis 1, this particular story and image comes up.

I remembered one of the missionaries told me about a Japanese military man who, after World War II, had become a Christian.  The details of the conversation become hazy now, so many years later, but Pastor Luther Kistler told me the story and that this gentleman (I believe was a member of his church).  He said that this man became a Christian because he was impressed by the story of creation from Genesis.  He said that Japanese mythology only has a story about the creation of Japan.  But Genesis -- there is a story about the creation of the whole world.

So.  I was thinking about this story while I was supposed to be thinking about the Trinity (what are you preaching about this Sunday?).  One of the things I was thinking was, "This doesn't have anything to do with the Trinity."  I was also thinking, "You can use a story like this to assert superiority in a sort of tribal way, I suppose.  You know, Our God is better than your God."  Perhaps it is this sort of tribalism that causes "Christians" to go out and kill Muslims in the Central African Republic, in the name of God.

But I was also struck by something else, perhaps for the first time.

There is something anti-tribal about the creation story from Genesis, something that pushes against the old "our god is better than your god" thinking.  If God created the whole world, if that is really true, there is something really expansive about that.  This God does not just care about my tribe or my corner of the universe.  Maybe this is why Jesus said, "Love your enemies."  Maybe it all goes back to the creation story, in Genesis 1.

I still don't exactly know what this has to do with the Trinity, although it seems to me that our talk about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can either expand or contract our views of God.  We can speak of God the Trinity in a way that draws the circle smaller or wider, that turns us inward or outward.  But which will it be?

On Monday I will be having another funeral, another funeral of one of our World War II veterans.  This community was founded just after the war ended, and I have been privileged to hear just the tip of the iceberg of their stories, those they can bear to tell.

This particular man served in Europe during the war.  He saw and experienced a lot of unspeakable things.  But one thing his family told me when we met to prepare for the funeral:  He said that he hated how people used the word "nazi" to talk about the Germans.  He said he knew there was a Nazi regime, and that there were SS troops and true believers, but, for himself, he never met a nazi.  He just met soldiers.  He just met human beings, like himself, created in the image of God.

In the Central African Republic, some Christians are killing Muslims.  In the meantime, other Christians are giving them refuge.  It all depends on what you hear and see and imagine when you read Genesis 1.

What are you preaching about this Sunday?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pentecost: Being There

Sunday was the third of the three great festivals of the church.  And if you were on church on Sunday, you would have seen, heard, and perhaps felt many festive things.  We had new, flame-colored paraments and a streamer with orange and red crepe paper flew above our heads during the opening notes of the prelude.  We had fans blowing on the flame-colored paraments, and perhaps some of us could even  feel the wind of the Spirit.  We had a wonderful processional with the cross and the candles.  We had many candles lit, and the Paschal (Easter) candle for the last time.

The bells played at the beginning of the worship service.  Afterwards the people clapped.  Our contemporary choir, The Spirit Singers, sang during the offering, a jazzy, bluesy song.  The children received crayons as a reminder  that they are creative people, that they have received the creative spirit of God, and that when they are create something, that is an act of the Spirit.

Before the church service, we had put out two large bins of small candles, the ones we used on Christmas eve, and also at the Easter Vigil.  We instructed the people to give each person a candle when they entered.  One of the ushers asked, "What should I say about the candles?  People are asking about them…"  I answered, "Just say it has something to do with the sermon, and it's a surprise."

The other pastor said something similar in the announcements.

Then, at the sermon, I took a small candle in my hand while I spoke.  I began by pointing out the Easter candle, the Paschal candle, which stands in the middle of our sanctuary, right behind the baptismal font.  We have been lighting every Sunday since Easter, but after Pentecost, we will not light it again for a long time, not unless there is a baptism.  There is something sad about this to me, at least sometimes.  I love the light and the dancing fire.  Why don't we just keep lighting that candle every week?  If it has to do with Jesus' resurrection, and Jesus is still risen, why not keep lighting it?

We had read the story from Numbers about Moses and the 70 elders who got a share of Moses' spirit, so I did a little backstory on that.  When I got to the part about the elders prophesying, just once, I lit my own candle from the Paschal candle.  When I got to the part about the Spirit spilling over onto Eldad and Medad, I lit two other candles in the congregation.

Then I spoke a bit about what it means to be prophets, how God wants all of us to be prophets, but do we think of ourselves that way?  Child of God, yes (and I lit a candle).  Image of God?  I hope so.  (and I lit a candle.)  But we don't think of ourselves as prophets.

But God wishes all of God's people would be prophets, which has something to do with carrying this candle, something to do with bearing the Spirit.  As I imagined the role of the prophet in bringing light into darkness, life into death, hope into despair, I continued to light the candles of people in the congregation.

I spent some time with the Pentecost story, the disciples gathered, the people from all the earth gathered, the Spirit spilling out.  Suddenly it was not just one person testifying, but they were all testifying, not just one person with the Spirit, but all of the sharing the Spirit.  Not just one person carrying the light, but they all held the light.

That's what Pentecost was.  The dreams of God becoming the dreams of the disciples.  The visions of God becoming the visions of the disciples.

So after Pentecost, the light of the large candle is extinguished.  You know why?  Here's why:  because from now on, the light is in us.  The spirit is in us.

The light is in you.

That's what I said, more or less.  Afterwards we sang "This little light of mine" and extinguished our candles, although I hope some lights still shine.

After church, one woman whispered to me that while I was lighting candles, people were just spontaneously sharing their light with one another, even though I had never said they could do that.  She thought that was a good sign.  I also saw a mom and dad, carrying small lighted candles out of the sanctuary.  When I wondered, they said they were taking them to their children, who had been in Sunday School.

As I consider the day, our Pentecost at church, I realize there were a couple of things I forgot to say, things I wish I had said.  There were few lines that I left out, things I only thought of afterwards.  I wish I had said something about the Paschal candle and the visible presence of Jesus, his resurrection appearances, how he stopped appearing to his disciples, and how now WE are the resurrection appearances of Jesus.

I also consider how I want to remember the day, not just my part in in, but the whole thing.  But how hard it is to hold on to it, like trying Mary trying to hold onto Jesus after his resurrection.  I want to preserve the memory of something good (I think) that happened -- the colors on the cloth, the wind, the tiny lights, the looks on people's faces when they held the light.  Like the wind of the Spirit itself, experience is powerful but ephemeral.

The experience of Pentecost is powerful but ephemeral.  But the important thing to know, when your memory of the day is faded, when you can't feel the wind any more, or see the tongue of flame, the important thing to know is this:

The light is in you now.  It doesn't belong to you.  But it is in you.  All of you.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Meaning of the Light

We're coming up on Pentecost Sunday, and I am thinking of light.

More specifically, I am thinking of a particular light (or is it fire?) -- the light coming from the Paschal candle, the large festival candle that we light the seven Sundays of Easter up through Pentecost.

On Sunday, we will light the Paschal Candle one last time.  Then we will not light it again (except for funerals and baptisms) until we light the new fire in the darkness before Easter morning.

What does it mean?  Do we notice the light of the small fire while it is present?  Do we notice its absence in the sanctuary during the rest of the year?  I wonder.

We used to extinguish the candle on "Ascension Sunday", when Jesus meets his disciples on the mountain one last time.  He gives them instructions.  He tells them to wait for the Spirit.  And then he ascends.  He goes up.  He disappears from their sight.  And in that moment when Jesus disappears from their sight, we paused for a moment, and we extinguished the paschal candle.  The flame, like Jesus, disappeared.  And just like the disciples, now we do not see Jesus any more.  For forty days after his resurrection, he appeared to them, talked to them, taught them, showed them his hands.  And then… he disappeared.

Is that what it means, then?  The light of this candle?  It means the visible presence of the resurrected Jesus. We light it on Easter, and for seven Sundays afterwards.  But after Pentecost, we don't light it any more.  Because Jesus doesn't appear to us.

The light is the flame of his life.  Is that it?  But why do we only light it for seven Sundays of the year?  Sometimes I wonder.

I arrived at my first parish in the middle of the summer.  One of the first questions I was asked, at the little country church, was "When do we stop lighting the candle?"  The instructions they read said that they were supposed to light it through Pentecost, and as far as they could tell, it was still Pentecost.   It was mid-July, and they were still lighting the candle every Sunday.

Was that so wrong?

Anyway, we don't extinguish the candle when Jesus ascends any more.  We keep it lit until Pentecost.  We keep it lit until the tongues of fire dance on the disciples heads.  But then we stop.

What does it mean?  What does it mean that we light the candle, but then we stop lighting it?  Do we notice its presence, and do we notice its absence?  Perhaps if there were more darkness, the light of the candle, the fire that dances for seven Sundays up until today, would stand out more.

Sometimes I do wish we could light it all the time.  Why not?  But there is something necessary about lighting a candle for a time, and then not lighting it again.  There is something true about it, too.  The light does shine in the darkness, but we do not always notice it.  The light does shine in the darkness, but there are times when Jesus feels absent to us.

As for me, I wish we would notice.  I wish we were more able to notice the small things, the light coming from the single candle, and how suddenly, after today, there will no longer be a visible flame.  But there's something else too, something else.

I wish we would notice the presence…. the presence of the flame, the flame dancing in each and every one of us, every broken bruised one of us, bearing the light of His life, now.  After Pentecost, I pray that we will notice that the light still shines.  Only now, the light shines in us, bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, failures and successes, God's only plan for spreading of love and grace and freedom and hope in the world.