Friday, October 31, 2014

The Story of the Quilt

I met my mother for lunch on Wednesday.  It was the anniversary of my father's death, but that wasn't why we were having lunch together.  It just turned out that way.

While we were eating, my mother unfolded an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper and gave it to me.  She said there was something she never told me about the quilt that she had made and given to me a couple of years ago.

My mother has always been good at sewing.  She made most of our clothes, and even a spring jacket for my sister and me.  She made a pants outfit for me once, and matched the plaids so well that people commented on it.  But it is only recently that she had gotten interested in quilting.  It was my grandmother, my mother's mother, that was the quilter.  She was famous for her beautiful hand-stitched quilts.  Everyone tells me that she had an eye for putting together colors.  I have one of her quilts, but I don't remember ever seeing her put one together.  By the time I was born, it hurt her hands and her eyes too much to do the close work necessary.

Recently, though, my mother has begun quilting.  And two years ago she gave me this beautiful lap quilt.  I thought the colors were amazing.  It holds a place of honor in our living room.

But it turns out that I did not know everything about it.

On the piece of paper that my mother gave me, she told me that this quilt was a collaboration, in a way. After my grandmother died, my aunt discovered some pieces that my grandmother had cut out, and a pattern for a quilt square.  She took half of the pieces, and gave my mother the other half.  But neither of them knew what to do with them.  They had a pattern, but were not sure how to put it together.

One day, one of my mother's friends took a look at the pieces and the pattern, and she could figure it out.  Then my mother could begin to make the squares that would form the quilt.

It took a long time; in the process she decided to divide the pieces and make two quilts instead of one; my sister just received the other one.  Until Wednesday, though, I never knew that my grandmother had a hand in the quilt I received from my mother.

I see it differently now.  It is not just a quilt.  It is a story.  It was always a story, but until Wednesday I did not know the language that the quilt was speaking, even though I loved it.

My mother's quilt makes me think of the church these days, what has been passed down to us, what we value, what we know.  I know many of the older people in my congregation value and love liturgy.  They have been singing and praying in a particular way for many years, as it has been passed down to them.  They have learned some new rhythms along the way, it's true, but they still sing and pray the basic pattern, and they find it beautiful, and comforting, even, at times (although a seminarian friend recently scoffed at the idea of comforting religion).

And yet I wonder if we still remember the stories behind the rhythms and the words of liturgy, the ones that change it from a beautiful object into a story about us, about our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers.  I wonder if we still remember the stories that speak about love that pursues us through the ages, that pieces us together, that made us by hand.  I wonder if we still remember the stories of why we sing and say and pray the things we do, and if we are even curious.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Here I Stand

I went to church yesterday.  Actually, I am one of the pastors, so saying that "I went to church" is a bit of an understatement.  But, that's my story, and I am sticking to it.

It was Reformation Sunday.  Even though we are in the Narrative Lectionary this year and the Bible story featured the wisdom of Solomon rather than The truth that will set you free (John chapter 8) or the  grace that justifies (Romans 3), it was still Reformation Sunday.

Sort of.

We were instructed to wear red, and many of us did, although those who did not wear red were not turned away.  Somehow it seemed like the crowds were a little bigger this Sunday, although I don't think it was because everyone suddenly remembered that it was Reformation Sunday, that great festival of grace, faith and Scripture alone (at least for Lutherans).  I saw some people I hadn't seen for a few weeks, and that always feel good to me.

So it seemed festive in worship.  We had a a great choir anthem based on words from Psalm 46.  I even got to sing this week.  (I am sure that is why we sounded so good.)  A parish member gave a wonderful reflection about why she gives, and testified to why our congregation has been such an important place in the life of her family.  The other pastor gave a heart-felt sermon on the wisdom of Solomon, and what it means to be wise.

The bells played.  I prayed the prayers of the church (and, to be honest, stumbled a little.  Everything was not perfect).  We offered ourselves to God, in one way or another.  We shared bread and wine.

At the close of the service, I invited people to come forward if they would like individual prayers for healing and anointing.  A few people did come forward.  We do this every month on the last Sunday or the month, and sometimes the lines are really long.  Sometimes there are just a few people.

But I have come to love this practice.  It is not because I am the best heartfelt pray-er in the world.  I am heartfelt, and I do my best, but I imagine that there are others who are better than I am.  It is not that I don't love the other parts of worship, either, especially the songs.  I do love the songs.  I love singing, all together.

I have come to love this practice because of the little tiny glimpses into people's lives, joys and struggles, the secrets people trust me to pray for, and not to share.  I pray for small things, and big things, for grandchildren and grandparents, for relationships, for health, for comfort in grieving.  Sometimes the word I can speak is just the tiniest word, but it is something.  I say my tiny words, and give everything to Jesus.  That's all I can do.

Some people come for themselves, but many people come requesting prayers and healing for someone else.  I put the oil on their head, and give thanks for them, and then we pray for the other person, or people who are on their hearts.

I have come to love this practice, perhaps because the tiny little glimpses I see there give me hope.  The tiny little glimpses are glimpses of faith, hope, and love.  I see faith and hope and love in the eyes and words of people who stand in line, waiting for a word from me, the tiniest word, sometimes.  There is faith and hope that something can change, our words and actions can make a difference, that salvation is real and takes many forms.  Faith and hope.

But the greatest of these is love:  Love that draws people forward for the sake of someone else, to ask for prayers on their behalf.  Love that hopes for healing, comfort, reconciliation.

The greatest of these is love.

Here I stand.  I can do no other.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Stuck on David

It's easy to get stuck on David.

Of course, the David of whom I speak is King David, and it's easy to get stuck on him for so many reasons.  First of all, the scriptures describe him as someone it would be easy to get stuck on:  ruddy and handsome, strong and confident, both athletic and musical.  He slays Goliath with a slingshot and one smooth stone; he tames the moody King Saul with his music.

Then again, there are so many stories about David in the Old Testament, so many I don't remember them all.  I remember doing a whirlwind tour of the Bible one summer (the goal was 90 Days) and being surprised that there were a few stories about David's intrigues before and after he became King that I either didn't know or had forgotten. There was one in particular I don't remember ever hearing before.  David is on the run from Absalom when a man starts cursing him and throwing rocks at him.  David's men want to kill him, but David stops them, saying, of all things, that the man is preaching God's word to him.  It seemed like an incredibly expansive view at the time.  But, that's David for you.

How can you not get stuck on David?  Half of 1st Samuel and almost all of 2nd Samuel is his story.  And when we get to the New Testament and the stories about Jesus, we are still stuck on David.  After all, didn't the prophets promise that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David?

So, last week, when I prepared to preach on the story of David and Bathsheba, I couldn't help it:  I was stuck on David.  Of course, it was his story:  David's sin, the prophet's confrontation, David's contrition and repentance.  "Create in me a clean heart" is not just David's song:  it is our song, too.  So of course, I couldn't help it:  all of the main points of my sermon were about sin and blindness, and the people who confront us when we have gone astray.  The points of my sermon were all about who are our Nathans, who holds the mirror up to our eyes, and about how God makes our hearts new, again and again.

I was stuck on David.

Perhaps that is how it has to be.  David is one of the Main Characters of Scripture after all.  We are meant to see things through his eyes.  His image fills up the whole mirror, like Abraham,or Moses,  Jesus or the Apostle Paul.

And yet, even while I was writing my sermon, and getting the points I was supposed to get (sin, confession, repentance, forgiveness), I couldn't help feeling this little niggling feeling in the back of my mind:  What about Bathsheba?  What about Uriah?  This is not their story, but they are in it.  They are minor characters.  Do they matter?

It is so easy to focus on the story from David's point of view that we forget about Bathsheba and Uriah.  But it seemed to me (suddenly) that if we do this we are committing the same sin that David committed.  Because he forgot about Bathsheba and Uriah too.  Or at least, he forgot they were actual people, beloved by God as he was, with lives that mattered.  David had begun to regard them as convenient or inconvenient, depending on the circumstances, and forgotten that they were beloved of God as he was.

I have often taught this story to confirmation students and have cleverly asked them to identify how many of the ten commandments David broke.  We can make a case that David broke almost all of them, and so we have a helpful review of the commandments.  But although clever, perhaps that tactic was not quite enough.  Perhaps the larger lesson is this:  the point of the commandments was not so much keeping David righteous as it was keeping Uriah and Bathsheba safe.  The commandments are all about Other People, and especially about those Minor Characters, the ones it is so easy to forget.

It is easy to get stuck on David, but there is always something in scripture, some subversive undercurrent, that whispers to me that there are other stories, too.   In my imagination  I see them:  Jephthah's daughter,  the widow of Zarephath, Uriah the Hittite.  People with no names, but for whom God's heart breaks.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Remembering Why I Said 'Yes'

Tonight I went to an ordination.  I got to be present when a new pastor made her vows, promised to be faithful, put on her stole.  I was thinking about how tired I get, sometimes.  I was thinking about how everyone says the church is declining, on its way out.  Then I went to church, tonight, and I thought back to the weekend.

Well, actually, Saturday.  I remembered Saturday afternoon.

It was a busy Saturday at church.  While preparations were underway for a large wedding in the sanctuary, I was preparing for the evening chapel service, where I was preaching and presiding.

There were also going to be three baptisms at the evening service.

At the appropriate time, children, parents and a host of godparents showed up for the pre-baptism preparation and a little bit of rehearsal.  There were two brothers and a little girl, and more baptismal sponsors than I could keep track of.

I always like to begin with a conversation about the meaning of baptism in our tradition.  I pass out a booklet that I like, and ask everyone to turn to a particular page, filled with scripture passages and small cartoons that illustrate all the different meanings and and dimensions of baptism.  I ask people to pick their favorite "picture", and we talk about why they like that particular picture.  So one of the baptismal sponsors said that she really liked the picture of the ark, and we talked about how the church has imagined baptism to be like a passage on Noah's ark, being saved from the waters of chaos and death.  Another person offered as his favorite picture of baptism the tree, with a branch being grafted in.  Still another person really liked the image of being adopted into God's family.  We talked about baptism being about both our relationship with God and our relationship with other members of God's family.

"Can you get baptized many times?" someone asked.  We talked about the fact that some people do get baptized many times, but that our tradition believes that only once is necessary, that the promise lasts forever.

"Have you ever done a baptism in a river?" one of the baptism sponsors asked, a little abruptly.

"No,"I admitted.  "I wouldn't be against it, but I haven't had the opportunity."

"I have been reading about river baptisms," she said.  "I like the imagery of flowing water, and what it means about life."

"Yes, that is great imagery," I agreed.  "A healthy river has an inlet and an outlet.  But most of our healthy lakes do too.  You could get baptized in a lake, as long as it isn't the middle of winter."

We talked more about rivers and water and God's promises to us.  I felt a thirst in the room, a curiosity, that reminded me of why I went to seminary in the first place, studying Greek and Hebrew, Pastoral Care and Systematic Theology.  It wasn't to prop up an institution, to try to get people to join a social club, to get more people to attend events.

It was about having conversations that mattered, about faith and doubt and questions, rivers, lakes and streams, where to find God.  It was about breaking bread and pouring wine, putting my hands in the water and letting it run through my fingers.  It was about death and life and the yearning inside each of us.

Later on, we all went to the chapel for the worship service and baptisms.  The woman who had the questions volunteered to be my assistant, pouring the water into the font and holding the candles that we gave to each of the children.

I laid my hand on three small heads and prayed for them by name.  And three small hands each tried to push my hand away while I was praying.

When I dipped my finger in the oil and said, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever," one of the fathers whispered to his little boy, "This is the best part."

After the worship service, the woman with the questions came up to me and asked me a couple more questions about baptism.

"You don't do baptisms for hire, do you?" she asked.

I shook my head no.

But I would have loved the chance to have another conversation with her.

Tonight I went to an ordination.  A new pastor heard and made promises, promised to serve Christ and Christ's people.  A new pastor put on the yoke, broke the bread and said the words of life to us.  And I remembered.  I remembered again why I "said" yes.

Water. Wine.  Questions.  Promises.  A river with an inlet and an outlet.  Life.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Give

This year, for the first time, I get to practice and sing with the choir occasionally.  The schedule doesn't always line up:  sometimes I am teaching confirmation on Wednesdays, and sometimes the choir sings during communion (which doesn't work out at all logistically).  But it is great to be with them, to be with the community and exercise my voice and hear and make the harmonies.

The children practice right before we do, in the same room.  So one of the great things that happens on Wednesday evening is the great meeting in the hallway, as the Adult Choir members are walking down to the choir room to take their seats, and the door opens and the children begin running down the hallway toward us.  They are exuberant from singing.

The choir member next to me Wednesday, a mother of four daughters,  turned to me as we walked and she just stopped.  She turned to me and said, "I love this time."  She looked at all of the children running.  She was looking for a particular little girl, and when they saw each other, the woman bent down and the little girl ran into her arms.  Then she lifted the dimpled little girl up in a hug about as wide as the love of God.

This happens every week.

That's why I give.

The woman and the little girl are not related to each other.  The woman is not the little girl's mother, or aunt, or sister, or grandmother.  They are not related.  Except of course, they are.  They are related by baptism, which is thicker than blood, although most of us don't recognize it most of the time.  They are related by this community of faith that they belong to together, where they show each other a piece of the love of God incarnate, and where together they show that fleshly love to the world.

In most of our world, the stories that are told are about us as individuals.  We succeed or fail on our own steam, by our own power.  Our virtues and our sins are individual.  And what we have belongs to us as well, to be generous or stingy with, as we see fit.

But the truth is that we are all related.  We are a part of one another.  Our actions or inactions affect each other's lives.  We are a community, not simply a collection of individuals, and we belong to God, and we belong to one another.  It's hard to notice most of the time, because we are so busy running in so many directions.  When I come to church, I remember.  We run into each other's arms, we open our hands and share bread and wine, we sing harmony, we fight and forgive each other, and I remember.  I remember that we are a part of one another, and that God has given us to each other for a purpose, and I'm a part of that purpose.

That's why I give.

It's true, of course, that I give because I am often overwhelmed by the riches of God in Jesus Christ for me.  I give because my heart is overflowing.

It's also true that I give out of obligation.  I know that God wants me to give, because it all belongs to God anyway, and God is just letting me take care of God's 'stuff' for awhile.

But I give to my church because we are all related, we are related to one another by baptism, which is thicker than blood, although it is hard to remember that.  I give to my church because the cross that is traced on my forehead is traced on every forehead; we belong to each other, and that is wonderful, and it is impossible, and it is essential.  We have been given this impossible mission, this story to share, this story of God who created and who mends our hearts, and wants us to join in mending the world.  And it is impossible to do it alone.

That's why I give.  I give because these are my children, and they are my grandmothers, and they are my aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers.

And I am sure of just one thing:  when we give, we are running into each other's arms.  And we are running into God's arms, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Native and Foreign Languages

At our new Sunday evening service and mission start, I am learning Spanish.  I stand next to a woman from Ecuador, and she helps me pronounce the words to songs I am learning.  I don't know the meaning of most of the words yet, but at least I am learning good pronunciation.

In the meantime, I am teaching her a little about intervals.  "We are singing that line wrong," I mention. "It is supposed to be a third.  Like this."  I sing the line.  I am pretty sure I have the musical line down right.  The pronunciation is a work in progress.

It is basic church:  we sing, we pray, we talk to each other.  Our liturgy is simple.  We eat together:  bread and wine, but dinner too.  And we are learning English and Spanish.  And music.

It's a start.

A long time ago, I lived and worshipped and taught in Japan.  I learned some Japanese, a little in school, some more from living and having experiences.  I discovered then that learning a language is more than learning words and pronunciations; that the language you speak affects your perception of reality.  In Japanese, for example, there is no "future" tense.  The way you indicate the future is by speaking of uncertainty.  In English we have no problem speaking confidently about things that haven't happened yet.

When I served in rural South Dakota, I was pretty sure that we were speaking the same language.  But in truth, there were nuances of language that I didn't understand, that I had to learn:  the language of "yields", the rhythms of the seasons, how to take the wind seriously.

These days, the church I am serving has started a Sunday evening service, in Spanish and in English.  But there are more languages we are learning, or not learning, on Sunday evening, or morning, or at other times.  We have been playing around with our worship services over the past couple of years, going from two different services, to one blended service, and we have been having conversations about worship and faith formation and what it means to be a disciple.  We have realized that it is so easy to speak about "church" and "worship" in terms of "what I like", or "what I prefer."  People choose a church because it has the music they like, or because it has a youth program they like, or because the worship time works for their family.

When I have met with people who are joining our congregation, these are the things that they specify most often:  worship times; times of Sunday school; youth program; worship style.  I think it is unavoidable because this is the language we speak in the rest of our life.

It is the language of choice.  It is the language that consumers speak.  And we are all consumers.  It is the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

But somewhere along the line, if we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus, we will need to become bilingual, learning foreign words like "community" and "purpose", "mission" and "neighbor."   Perhaps at first, it will be enough to learn to sing the line, or perhaps to pronounce the words, without knowing what they mean, or to taste bread with a different flavor than we are used to.  Later we will sit down with one another, rise up to go to the world, and realize that we are here for reasons so different than we had originally planned.  We are being transformed when we just came to get a piece of bread; we are changing the world when all we planned to do was sing a song.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The People Who Raised Me

The other night my mother called and left me a message.  She mentioned a name -- the name of someone I knew a long long ago.  One of a couple that were my parents' friends for many years.  She told me that he had died, and that his funeral would be this Friday.

When she said the name, I felt suddenly transported to my childhood.  I began to remember my parents' circle of friends.  I have known them all for over fifty years.  A few of them had been childhood friends of my father; they went to Sunday school and confirmation together.  They were part of a group for newly married couples, called (of all things) the Merry Mates.

After a few years, none of them attended the same church anymore.  They had moved out to the suburbs and joined other churches.  But they continued to get together for social events:  birthdays, summer picnics, camping, Christmas parties.  There were informal concerts put on by some of the children.  There was the annual "Wizard of Oz" movie viewing event, complete with the children's re-enactment after the movie was over.  A couple of times I remember bringing along pajamas and going to sleep on someone else's floor; later on we woke up and were carried out to our car to go home to our own beds.

One of the couples later became missionaries to Papua, New Guinea.  My Barbie dolls, dressed up, played a featured role in the decorations for their going-away party.

One of my first arguments about contemporary worship was with one of my parents' friends.  I thought we should have a lot of 'new songs', like in Psalm 98.  "Sing to the Lord a new song!"  She said she didn't really feel like she was worshipping if she had to work hard learning all of the notes and words.  At the time, I didn't really know where she was coming from.  Now, even though I still love learning new songs, I also know the special gift of singing what you know by heart, as well.

Two of the friends eventually became estranged.  One of them has a daughter who is gay; the other believes that being gay is against God's will.  My mother remains friends with both of them.

When I think back, these were the people who raised me, not just my own parents, but all of these other couples.  They set examples for me: not of heroism, but of kindness.  They did not make fun of the children.  They were faithful to their friends.  They weren't perfect.  But they were good.

The people who raised me are dying.  One of the men had Parkinsons, like my dad.  One of the women had cancer.  Another of the women has Alzheimers.  Her husband stays with her every day.  I remember when I was in Japan, he wrote me letters.  She told me, "I would write to you, but if I did, he would stop, and I think it's good he writes."

The people who raised me are dying.  They taught me what it meant to be human, to laugh, to listen, not to make fun of the children, to be kind.

They showed me what faithfulness looks like, like a small ordinary thing, rare as a diamond, beautiful as an autumn maple leaf.

The people who raised me are dying.  May they live forever.