Thursday, July 31, 2014

All the Pretty Little Parables

Here's a secret:  I like the little parables, the ones we heard in church last week (mustard seed, yeast, treasure-in-field, pearl, net-of-fish) better than many of the longer parables that Jesus tells.  I especially like these little parables better than the parables where Jesus has to break down and give an explanation of the parable a little while later.   I prefer the eye-brow raising ambiguity of these stories more than the dreadful clarity of the parable of the sower, or at least its explanation.  Perhaps I just prefer ambiguity.  Or the possibility of a surplus of meaning.

There they are, a handful of one-sentence stories, challenging me to squeeze the Kingdom of God into six words, or a 120 character tweet, or a three-line haiku.  They are the Shortest Parables Ever, full of simple complexity, or complex simplicity.  They seem to mean one thing, but if you turn them over, and look on the underside, you discover unknown worlds.  The mustard seed seems to be a parable about tiny seeds growing into great trees, until you realize that the mustard tree is really a bush, not a tree, and to make matters worse, an invasive species, like buckthorn or creeping charlie or even the oregano I didn't plant this year, but which appeared anyway.  The mustard seed seems to be a nice parable about the smallest amount of faith doing wonderful things, until you start thinking about what it means to be an invasive species in a world that isn't always wild about you.

They are all like that, these parables.  Think harder about the treasure in the field, and how weird it is that the man finds the treasure and then hides it again in the field.  Why not just take the treasure?  No, he hides it and then he goes and sells everything he has so he can buy the whole field.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.  Get it?  (Okay, not really.)  There's an irrational, extravagant, even wasteful joy to it.

I tell you, it makes me hear the story this week:  the story of the feeding of the five thousand, in a whole different way.  Having come from three straight weeks of parables, I can't totally get them out of my system.  I still think I'm hearing a story.  I want to say:  "The Kingdom of heaven is like five loaves and two fish, which, when they were divided up and shared, were enough to feed everyone, with leftovers."

Or possibly, I want to say, "The Kingdom of heaven is like 5,000 uninvited guests (not including women and children) who come over when all you wanted was to be alone."

I used to think that the issue with this parable was whether or not it really was a miracle.  Did Jesus really feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes?  Did the menu literally expand?  There are those who say that what really happened was that hearts expanded instead; when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it, all of those who were so afraid to share what they had suddenly changed their minds.  There was always enough.  They just had to decide to share it.

But now I'm thinking of the story as a parable, just like those last three weeks of parables, just like the little parables we heard last week.  It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, where in the midst of grieving and injustice, God is making a new world:  delicious, messy, with more leftovers than we can handle.  It also invites us to see parables in the stuff of our own lives:  ordinary, abundant, miraculous, ambiguous.

Once, long ago, I lived for a month with a small group of German Lutheran sisters out in the desert in Arizona.  They lived by faith, they said, which means that they did not go shopping, but gardened and prayed and trusted God for their food.  I was not sure how it worked.  But I remember one Sunday evening when our cupboards were bare, that we sat in the living room and prayed and prayed.  While we were praying the doorbell rang.  Someone had dropped off two bags of groceries.  I knew that I couldn't count on things like this happening all the time.  At the same time I also knew:  the kingdom of heaven is similar to this.

So the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast, a pearl, a net -- and five loaves and two fish divided, which were enough.  The Kingdom of heaven is like a fresh bouquet of flowers left outside your door, or like a ball of yarn of many colors, being woven into a mysterious garment fit for a king.  The kingdom of heaven is like a room at the nursing home, where an old woman lays dying, when a young woman runs in and tenderly kisses her on the forehead.  The Kingdom of heaven is like that.

Get it?  (Not entirely, I admit.)

But that is all right.  There is more to life than understanding.  There is the surplus of meaning, the Kingdom of heaven breaking in, breaking our hearts, feeding us, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Bread And Wine: a Love Letter to Life Around the Table": A Reflection

I just finished reading Shauna Niequest's lovely book, "Bread and Wine," which I have been reading in fits and starts for awhile now, mostly just before bedtime.  The writing is lovely, and sometimes even mouth-watering, which is understandable given the fact that the book centers around hospitality and cooking and what happens when we welcome one another and care for one another at the tables we set for each other.  There's an intimacy in this book:  the stories around the table are filled with people she loves, both rejoicing and broken-hearted, in moments of sorrow and celebration.

I am going to confess right now that I don't do much entertaining, Christmas and Easter and a couple of other occasions are about all I can manage.  Although all of her recipes sounded delicious, I can't imagine myself trying a single one.  Shauna encourages her readers to plan dinner parties, to make entertaining a Christian discipline, although for most of her book, this is implicit in her writing, not stated aloud.  Life around the table is transformative, she tells us.

I believe her.

I believe that life around the table is transformative, as she says.  It matters not whether the meal is elaborate or simple, there is something about eating together, that activity most necessary for life, that binds us to one another and transforms us, makes us family.

I still remember the rare occasion that my family would go out to eat:  at a popular Italian restaurant in the downtown area of our city.  It was supposed to be a big deal, and of course it was; we all still remember the occasions.  But what I also remember is that all of us knew the truth:  my mom's spaghetti was far superior to what the restaurant offered.   My mom's spaghetti was one of the things that bound us together, and not because it was a gourmet recipe.  Simply because it was my mom's spaghetti.  I actually made it for Easter once, when my niece and nephew were little, and my parents were away for the holiday.  I was exhausted from Easter worship, but I wanted to have my brother and his family over, so I made my mom's spaghetti and salad.

Life around the table is transformative, and Shauna writes so well about how the food and company shared got her through hard times and somehow made life holy.

And yet, believing all this, I still think that something is missing.  As I reflect back on the transformation that has happened around tables for me -- I realize that many of those moments involve not the intimacy of sharing with family and friends, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers.  There were the curry rice lunches after church at Hiyoshi Church in Tokyo, especially at the beginning when I knew no Japanese. There was the meatball dinner my church prepared and served at The Banquet in South Dakota.  Then we sat down to eat and share stories with all who were hungry.  There was the time I was living in community in Denver Colorado, and we were told that a number of Arminian refugees would be staying with us for the weekend.  It was my night to cook, I realized with fear and trembling, as I tried to figure out what to make for twenty people instead of ten, half of whom did not speak English.

Life around the table is transformative.  This is most certainly true.

Shauna Niequest's vision is a compelling one.  She tells us that it's not just Holy Communion, but every meal shared, that can be Holy.  Every table can be the Lord's table.  I can see the candles burning down, the table set, the wine glasses poured.  I would love to be a guest at her table.  I know I would learn much about what it means to be loved and welcomed.  I wish I had her cooking courage.

And yet something is still missing for me.  Perhaps it is because, when she brings up the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, what comes to mind for me is not just the intimacy of eating together, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers, and how our tables and our churches are still, for the most part, not inclusive enough, in matters of race and class.

 The stories she tells are holy, and the tables she sets are holy.  But for me, more stretching needs to be done.  My heart yearns for a hospitality that is even wider, a table set to welcome strangers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Uncle Roger's Arms

On Tuesday, I officiated at the funeral for one of my beloved uncles, my dad's brother-in-law, Roger.  He was 90, so he lived a good long life, just the past few years in a local nursing home, confined to a wheelchair.  He and my Aunt Norma were married for 65 years, which is a pretty good run, in my book.  My aunt and their three children and families were there, at the funeral, and I was honored, and a little nervous, to speak to them.

I have officiated at several weddings for family members in the past, but have never been asked to officiate at a funeral.  I think that I would, in some ways, prefer to be one of the mourners, to be able to hear the promise of the gospel from someone else, to hold my memories and weep and rejoice.  I would like to hear the insights of another preacher, reminding me of all the things I knew, telling me things I never knew.  But when my cousin called me last Thursday evening, I found that I couldn't say no.  I was honored that she asked me, but still, a little nervous.

I knew my uncle Roger as a child knows an adult.  I remembered how much he loved the water, his silly jokes, the way he would tease me or give me a kiss on the cheek.  He taught me how to surface dive, when I was afraid to dive instead of jump from the deep end of the water.  He had polio when he was young, I knew that, because he always walked with a limp.  But I did not find out until just before his funeral that he had polio as a teenager -- at 17 -- and was in the hospital for a whole year.  According to his family, he never complained about it, always found something positive.

Some things I remember about my uncle Roger in part because of the family movies my dad took.  They have been spliced together and, although they are not in order, I still will force my husband to watch them with me, on occasion.  When I was looking through the movies before I preached on Tuesday, the first image I saw was my uncle Roger in a boat on the lake.  I also saw a clip from Christmas.  Whenever the camera came to him, he would turn and give my aunt a kiss on the cheek.

But the clip I was looking for I could not find.  It's a clip of my uncle Roger on the floor, playing with the kids.  Actually, he is lying on the floor, on his back, and he is lifting us up in his hands, up into the air.  If the clip is as I remember it, I was hesitant.  It looked scary.  He kept coaxing me, while all of the other cousins took turns going up in the air, up in his hands, higher than they imagined they could go.  It was as if he was saying, "Don't be afraid.  It'll be fun!  Trust me.  I can hold you."

On Tuesday, I took Isaiah 43 as one of my texts.  "Do not be afraid; for I am with you.  I have called you by name; you are mine."  I started out thinking about the promise, "I have called you by name, you are mine."  But I kept thinking about my uncle and how he always appeared fearless to me.  He wasn't afraid of the water.  He wasn't afraid of life.  He wasn't afraid of anything.  And I think he wanted to teach us to be fearless too.  I kept thinking about my uncle and his strong arms, and how I was afraid, but I didn't need to be.  I kept thinking about how if we trusted him, we got to go higher and higher in the air, and then I started thinking about how strong his arms must have been.  His legs were weak, but his arms were so strong they could hold us.

"Don't be afraid."  That's what my uncle Roger taught me, or tried to, anyway.  "Trust me.  I may have weak legs, but I have strong arms."

On Tuesday, I did not remember that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength, and the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. I remember today, though.

Today, I am imagining my uncle Roger, going up in the hands of God, higher than he has ever gone before.  I am imagining him going high up in the strong arms of Jesus, up to the place prepared for him in the love of God.  I am imagining how strong the arms of Jesus can be, even though he was struck down, maybe because he was struck down.

And my uncle Roger?  He is not afraid.  He never was.

May I someday learn to be so foolish.  And so fearless.  And so wise.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why I Love "Picnic Church"

another version of this article will appear in my congregation's newsletter.

This summer our congregation has introduced a new program, which we call “Picnic Church.”  After our week of Vacation Bible School was over, we decided to continue to offer, once a week on Wednesday, a full day of programs and activities for children, including Bible activities, crafts, stories and field trips.  At the end of each Wednesday we have a pot luck picnic, with salads and desserts provided.   A different volunteer grills hamburgers and hot dogs every week.  Afterwards, we get out lawn chairs and blankets, and enjoy a simple worship service on the lawn.  That’s “Picnic Church”, in a nutshell.

Even though I missed the first two weeks of “Picnic Church”, I already love Picnic Church, and it’s not just because they gave me a cake for the 20th Anniversary of my ordination last week.  I have been hoping that our church would start a summer mid-week service for a few years now, and am glad that a group of people took the vision from theory to reality.  And it doesn’t hurt that we have gotten consistently wonderful weather so far.

Aside from that here are some of the other reasons that I love picnic church.

1.  We practice the priesthood of all believers.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that “Picnic Church” invites participation.  From the opening prayer to the benediction, the songs and the scripture reading and even the “sermonette”, the people gathered participate.  One week a teenager demonstrated his gift of the Spirit – dancing – as part of the sermon.  Another week, we heard the Scripture reading in Spanish.  One of my favorite things every week is the time of prayer.  Everyone is invited to share a prayer request, and people of all ages raise their hands and their voices.  I am not sure, but this simple act of prayer may be my favorite part of picnic church.

2.  The children lead.  Our song leader always asks children to come up to help teach and lead the songs that we sing each week.  I will always remember the look on one little girl’s face as she held the microphone last week and led one of the closing songs.  Her eyes were wide with sheer delight, wonder and empowerment as she heard her own voice coming through the microphone.  Children read scripture, help lead the call to worship and help us learn the actions to the songs we sing.  If we want to teach children to worship, and to love worship, this is how to do it.

3.  Our community is invited.  The families of those children who are involved in our Wednesday program stay for dinner and worship, so we have the opportunity to get to know each other.   We have also been walking over to a nearby apartment complex, inviting children and families to come for the Wednesday program and also for Picnic Church in the evening.  We are practicing really living out what we say we believe:  "Come as you are.  Everyone is welcome here."  

4.  We have Freedom to Experiment.  Worship is simple, but there are always surprises.  We are not done trying new things!  This Wednesday, or the next,  we will be trying a thing or two that we haven’t done before, always wanting to illuminate something true about God, or grace, or the nature of worship. 

5.  Anyone can bring a dish to pass. In fact, one thing I have noticed is that people have just started to come bearing gifts every week.  There are yummy bars and delicious pasta salads, fruit from the garden and perhaps other surprises to come.  Who knows?  So maybe you don’t want to help lead the singing or say a prayer?  There is room for all of our gifts and there is room for all of our ages.

I can't help thinking that these five practices are forming the heart of our congregation's redevelopment.  To learn to be worshipful and flexible, to welcome one another with true hospitality, to pray truly from the heart and to trust the Holy Spirit's presence:  this is how we will be renewed; this is how we will be the church -- right now, and in the future.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eucharistic Prayer for Pentecost 5 Year A

Gracious and Holy God,
Creator of farms and seeds and soil,
You have given us so many things:
Sun and rain, flower and fruit,
All green and growing things,
All animals leaping or swimming,
Crawling or flying.
Let all who have eyes, see
The abundance of your love.

You came among us, in the hands and the eyes
And the feet and the words
Of our friend and savior Jesus,
Who healed the sick
And forgave sinners,
Who welcomed children
And who spoke to us in parables.
Let all who have ears, listen
And hear the story of your love.

We give thanks to you,
For the scattered words,
For the scattered seeds
Of Jesus’ love for us
Poured out for us
And for this whole creation.

Send now your Holy Spirit to us
As we share this meal. 
As we share your life.
Prepare our hearts to receive you.
Open our Hearts to share your extravagance, your life,
Your love.

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

(to Words of Institution)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Loving a weed

My love affair with milkweed began late:  just last summer, to be specific.  I had always sort of known about milkweed, the way that I know about cattails and dandelions and even the leaves of the mighty oak trees.  But I haven't been much of a gardener in my life, so I didn't really know about milkweed until last summer.

We were getting some landscaping work done in our backyard.  The peonies were all overgrown and had to go.  I wanted something that would bloom more often than just that one glorious week in June, too.  So we got some advice, and planted a few things, and tried to nurse a couple of other sad plants back to health.  While our friend, the landscaper, was over one afternoon, giving us some advice, he looked over at the fence line between our house and our neighbor's, and said, "Oh!  You have milkweed."

I do? I thought, but did not say.  (how could I not have noticed?)  I took a good look, and tried not to look too excited.  I had heard that milkweed was good for butterflies, particularly the monarch butterfly.    And here it was, just growing in our yard, for free.

Before I could alert him, my husband mowed down the milkweed.  It didn't look like it belonged in our yard.  It looked like a weed.  A tall, impressive weed, but still a weed.  After that, I looked around for milkweed everywhere:  on our block, on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, in the ditches, in the city.  And I hoped that it would come back this year, anyway.  It is a wild plant, after all, and it can do what it wants.

For a long time, though, it looked like the milkweed would not re-appear after all.  It was a hard winter, and other people reported that they hadn't seen any sign of their milkweed either.  But finally, one day, late in June when I had given up hope, there it was:  one lonely milkweed plant.  It came back.

I realize that milkweed is not the weed of this week's parable, not the weed that goes hiding among the wheat:  similar, but not the same.  No, the weeds this week are tares, not milkweed.   Long ago, when I expressed surprise about the parable's farmer and his methods in a Bible study populated by farmer's wives, they told me they were not surprised at all.  Back before there were chemicals, that's the way it was with wheat.  Wheat is not a row crop, and you couldn't get between the rows and get the weeds.  You had to wait until the harvest.  Only at the harvest would everything finally get sorted out.

So the parable is not about milkweed.  It's also not about the persistence of evil in the world, not at the basic, foundational level.  At least, I don't think so.  It's about sorting things out, or not sorting things out until the end.  It's about not knowing for sure always, if something is a weed or not, not knowing what to pull up and what to fertilize and rejoice over.  It's about not cutting down the good by mistake, because it looks like a weed.

When I got a little curious about "milkweed" lately, I was trying to figure out the name.  Not the "milk" part, but the "weed" part.  I knew that milkweed was beneficial to monarch butterflies, among other things.  But when I went on the internet to find out more about it, I was surprised to find out there are also places that it is listed as a noxious weed, an invasive species.  There are places where milkweed is actively rooted out and destroyed according to law.  To be fair, I have also discovered that in some of those places they are now changing those laws, now allowing milkweed to be protected.  Milkweed:  a noxious, invasive weed that is also a place of transformation for butterflies.  I like it.

It's not so much to hope for, perhaps: that a noxious sinner like me  could also, in God's plan, be a place of transformation for someone else.

A cross says it is possible, and even true.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Good Soil

Late on Tuesday afternoon,  I  walked over to the large apartment complex adjacent to our church grounds, along with the other pastor, the children's ministry coordinator, a new mission developer.  It was a beautiful afternoon.  There was a pool, and some children were playing.  A few people sat at picnic tables in a grassy area.  We came bearing balloons to blow up, as well as flyers inviting people to our Wednesday program for children, new this year.

Some people expressed reservations about our plan.  This large apartment complex is known for being a volatile place sometimes.  Some people are afraid to go there.  It is also home to some of our new immigrants, from many places.

The others had all been over to the apartment complex the week before; I asked if I could go along this week.  Just going out in the neighborhood, talking to people -- it's something I believe I is important, but I'll confess, it scares an introvert like me.  I haven't done it since I headed up an inner city summer program, back in seminary.  It was time to face the fears and go out again.  After all, we had the balloons and the flyers.

There were not that many people out and about this week, the others told me.  At least, not compared to the week before.  We had a short conversation with a woman who did not speak much English.  She was just getting ready to go into the pool area, and she asked us where she could find ESL programs.    We told he we would look into it and gave her a flyer.

We had brief conversations with a couple of men sitting at picnic tables, and gave them flyers.  Then the children's ministry coordinator and I went over to a picnic table with an older woman and two young children.  We struck up a conversation with the two children, Arthur and Maria, who were about five and six years old, and were adamant that they were not related.  Just friends, they said.  We told them about our program and gave them flyers.  The children's ministry coordinator blew up a couple of balloons for them, one green and one blue.  They asked us some questions and played with the balloons.  One of them popped, and we blew up another one.

The older woman did not speak any English.  She was a grandma to one of the children.  We got her name and gave her a flyer too.

On the way back to the church, we talked to one other woman, blew up balloons for her children, and invited them to our Wednesday program.  She asked if we knew any good day care centers near us.  We said we would look into it for her.

On Wednesday morning, I studied the Sunday gospel readings with a few other pastors.  It is summer, so there were only a handful of us, not the impressive crowds that meet sometimes in the weeks before Easter.  But we got together and read Matthew 13:1-9, the parable about the sower and the seeds.  We even read the interpretation, even though the interpretation made some of us grumble.

We like the parable, most of us thought, but we don't like the interpretation.  It takes all the mystery out of it.  And it doesn't sound like Jesus.  We like the parable, with the crazy farmer, and the crazy yields.  Mostly.

But then there's all of the places the seeds fell, the rocky soil, the path, among the weeds, and the good soil.  Some of us said, "what's so bad about seeds getting eaten by birds?  Birds need to eat too?"  Others thought the rocky soil got a bad rap; there are hardy plants that grow in rocky soil, after all.  Not according to this parable, though.


So there are places that the seed, for some reason or another, does not take root and grow.  And there are descriptions about why that might be the case.  But it occurs to me that the good soil only qualifies for one reason, really:  something grows there.  We only know the soil is good because of the yield.


Picnic church
On Wednesday afternoon at about 4:00 p.m., a car drove into the church parking lot.  It was Arthur and Maria, with Arthur's mom.  She had the flyer in her hand.  Arthur was concerned about possibly getting another balloon.  I had to tell her that the children were already gone.  I told them they could come back for "Picnic Church" if they wanted to eat hot dogs and hamburgers right over on the church lawn.  Arthur said he would like to see what the inside of the church looked like.

So I took them inside and showed them the entry and the sanctuary.  Arthur asked about the bell, and I let him try to ring it once.  He asked about Jesus.  "Did't he die?" he asked.  "Yes, but he rose again," I answered.

His mom said that Arthur used to go to church with a friend of his.  She usually works on weekends.  She does nails.  "Like this?"  I pointed to my pink toenails.

I invited them to come back for supper, once again, and said I hoped to see them again sometime at the apartments.

And I meant it.  I hope I see them again, when I am out with my flyers and balloons.  I hope I see them again, when I am out scattering seeds all over the place, like a crazy farmer.

It all looks like good soil to me.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Paying Attention

This morning my dog Scout and I had a little excitement on our walk.  It wasn't a big excitement; we don't lead really interesting lives, but I credit what excitement we glean from Scout, at least in part.

It was a beautiful, cool morning out, perfect dog-walking weather.  We walked down to the end of the block, as we always do, the dead end which leads to the nature center where there are No Dogs Allowed.  There is also not an entrance to the nature center from our block, but there is some nature there.

Just as we were rounding the corner, I happened to see just the tail end of a deer, disappearing behind the fence line.  I think Scout probably noticed something before I did.  Truthfully, that dog is always looking around, and sniffing around, and walking around as if there is much more going on in the neighborhood than I can see.  She makes me pay attention, because, when I am walking with her, I'm always aware that I might be missing something.

So we saw this little white tail disappearing, and since Scout was with me, we decided to explore a little bit, to walk down into the dead end and see if we could see more.  I could tell that Scout thought that this was a good idea as well.

When we got up to the fence line we could hear and see the deer: a gangly young thing with fuzzy antlers that looked from a distance as if they were slightly different heights.  The deer took a long moment to stare at us, woman and dog, before galloping, no, leaping off along the fence line.

We took our moment of grace for what it was, and gave thanks.  Then we continued on our walk, back up the road toward home.

When we got near the end of the road, my dog-tuned ears recognized that something was not quite right.  But it wasn't until we were just one house from the end of the block that we noticed the deer again.  He had run all the way down the fence line, and was now running (no, leaping is the correct word, again) at the other end of our block.

He stopped between two houses, and we got close enough to stare back at him again.  He had seemed so large at first, but now I could tell that he was all legs and slight.  Scout and I looked at him for another long moment.  I knew he needed to get back to the nature center, the one where there are No Dogs Allowed.  But we stood there for a moment, wishing we had cameras (or at least I did.)  Then we took that one step that would cause the deer to leap off, back in the direction of home.

Before Scout, I don't remember moments like this.  Maybe it's just the walks, but I don't think so.  I think that it's the walks, and it's something else, too.  I am getting a little better at paying attention, to listening and seeing, even if it's just the tail end of a deer, or a rustling in the wind.  It might not be anything, but it might be something, you never know.

Before Scout, I'll bet I wouldn't have discovered two nests of baby rabbits in my back yard.  It was Scout who discovered them, and, even though I admit that her intentions toward them were not pure, her excitement was the thing that tuned my eyes and ears.

Before Scout, I would not have been aware of the imminence of a thunderstorm, just before it erupts.  She has senses to which we do not pay attention, telling her what is most important.

Scout is always discovering something that I didn't even know existed:  a piece of garbage, a turtle, a rock, a weed, a stick.  Her ears (well, one of them, anyway) prick up and I feel as if she is hearing pieces of the universe's orchestra that are too fine for my ears.

Paying Attention:  it is a fine art, and I have not mastered it.  Knowing What is Most Important:  this too I have not mastered, even though Jesus keeps reminding me, giving me little pieces of bread in my hand, a sip of wine, a few well-placed words, the line of a hymn.   While I worry, there is a white-tailed deer disappearing into the woods, and I might miss him again.

Or this time, maybe I'll see.

Maybe I'll see, and maybe I'll hear just a little fragment of the song of the universe, the trees clapping their hands, the counterpoint of the streams, one graceful beat of the deer leaping away.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Funeral I Didn't Want

I have been a pastor at the same church for many years, long enough to get to know people, long enough that now I have in confirmation classes some of the children I baptized.  Some of my friends are in their third or fourth or fifth call, and here I am, at the same church, still in my second call.  There are times, I admit, that I feel a little like a failure.

I have known people for a long time.  They have known me for a long time.  I don't always know if this is a good thing.

Five years ago I got a call to visit someone in the hospital, a woman I knew well.  She made special Scandinavian cookies for my wedding, delicate, delicious cookies with pretty shapes pressed into them.  She could also make the most amazing bookmarks, using a fine needlework pattern called Hardangar.  She had a good husband, two beloved children, both of which I had in confirmation.  The confirmation and graduation open houses were amazing.  I do have recipes.  She was also an accomplished gardener, baker, cook, seamstress, and a nurse by vocation.  She attended a regular women's Bible study in her neighborhood, and would come to me on occasion with questions with regard to the interpretations used in the Bible study materials.

Five years ago I went to visit her in the hospital, and she told me she had cancer.  It was a kind that could not be cured, but could be treated, she said.  She told me some of the treatments they had in mind for her.  She was a nurse, so she knew the risks, and she knew the possibilities.  She had hope, but she also knew that this particular hope would have an end date.  Treatable, not curable.  That was what they said.

Still, the first treatments worked almost like a miracle.  They were difficult treatments, but the results were better than expected.  Until last summer, when she went back and had the treatments a second time.  She achieved a second remission.  The angels rejoiced.

This year, shortly after Easter, I saw her with her husband after church.  There was pain in her eyes.  "I'm out of remission," she said.  That was all she needed to say.  I prayed.

Forgive me, but this was my first thought:  I do not want to do this funeral.

I am not a coward, at least I don't think so.  Well, maybe I am a coward.  But I did not want to do this funeral, because I did not want her to die, could not imagine her dying.  I have known her so well, for so long.  I can still see her whole family, standing together behind the altar, when they all came to assist with communion.  I can still see her with the common cup, taking it and sharing it.

I know.  I was only her pastor.  Not her husband, not her friend, not her children.  Just her pastor.

So a couple of weeks ago, right before I was going on vacation, she started hospice.  Her son told me I should come, so I did.  We had communion, but she could only take the wine.  We talked about the sparrows, about her garden, about her goddaughter who became a pastor.  We talked what Jesus promises, and what he doesn't.  He doesn't promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us.

She died while I was on vacation.  And they asked me to do her funeral, on a Wednesday afternoon.  It was the end of a perfect day.  Children from the neighborhood were playing outside.  There were three hundred people in the church.  Her husband and her children gave remembrances.  Two of her friends read scripture readings.  During the first hymn, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," I saw her friends crying, and I wasn't sure I could get through the opening prayer.

Her husband said he didn't want me to give a sermon.  Instead, he wanted it to be a 'pastoral reflection.' When I asked the difference, he said, 'because you knew her so well,' it will be a different kind of message.'

"I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly," Jesus said, describing her life.  Every day was a gift, and she knew it, and not just when she got sick.  Still, I wish there had been more abundance, more time, more gardens, more cookies.

I can still see her, taking the common cup, taking it from me and sharing it with the next person.  Abundant life.

I have been at the same congregation for a long time.  Long enough to know and be known, even when it is painful.  Long enough for my weaknesses to be exposed.  Long enough to wonder, sometimes, what I am doing here.  Long enough to grieve, to doubt, to believe.  Long enough to share abundant life.