Friday, February 27, 2015

Hidden With Christ in God

There were just a handful of people at the visitation and funeral, but two of them were adults with Downs' syndrome.  One was a member of our congregation who was 101 years old.

Her family was small:  just two children and their spouses, four grandchildren and their significant others, a few cousins.  She was well over ninety, so many of her friends were already gone.  Her husband had preceded her over forty years ago.

Her family was small, but it had been bigger.  Her tall son and smiling daughter told me that she had borne five children, actually.  One of them I knew about:  a daughter born with cerebral palsy, who lived in a facility for adults with disabilities.  She had died just a few years ago.  I remember that she would speak of her daughter.  The other pastor officiated at her funeral.

She had had two other children.  One was born with a hole in her heart, and died when she was 9 months old.  The other had Downs' syndrome, and died when he was four years old.  "It seemed like he was always sick," her daughter recalled, with sorrow.

She loved piano and singing, and especially men's voices.  Her husband had a wonderful singing voice.  She was proud of her Norwegian heritage, and her Korean grandchildren.  She loved to cook and bake, and she always made too much.  She had a good sense of humor, and could laugh especially at herself. She had a calmness and a light about her.

She always wondered why.  Why did she have so many children who died, who had special needs?  Did God ever answer her question?

She was an elementary school teacher.  It was her vocation, her calling.  Being a mother was her calling too, a mother who laughed and cooked too much food and made her children take piano lessons and go to college.  She took time off when her children were young, and when she went back to teaching, she decided to study Special Education.  She taught many children with Downs' Syndrome.

Did God ever answer her question?

I don't know if she would ever had said she was passionate about her work, her vocation.  I know she loved the children, and she was good at what she did.  We often use the word passionate to indicate the fire and enthusiasm with which we work.  But there is another side to passion.  Passion also means suffering.  Her suffering was a part of her vocation.  She loved her children who had died, and she loved these children who lived.

There were just a handful of people at her funeral.  She was 90 years old, after all.   And she had a small family.  At least the ones you could see.

Now I am sure, though, surer than I am of many other things, that her life is hidden with Christ in God. And that her family is so big, so much bigger than the eye can see, so much bigger than the heart can hold.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


On Tuesday, I went over to visit with a family to plan a funeral.

We picked hymns, planned the funeral lunch (they wanted bars, not cake), looked up possible Scripture readings.

His wife and two adults daughters reminisced about their husband and father, a quiet man who was not demonstrative, but clearly well-loved.

"He was not a hugger," they said, "but we knew he loved us."

He worked nights, for Ford, as a maintenance engineer.  He worked for thirty years, and then he retired.  He was retired for longer than he worked, he liked to say.

He could fix anything, they said.  He loved his tools, and to garden, especially roses.

And he loved the neighborhood children.  He would play stickball with them anytime they asked.

Sometimes the children would come over, knock on the door, and say, "Can Glen come out and play?"

Then they told me that he made jewelry, beautiful jewelry out of scraps of hardened paint from the Ford plant where he worked.  The scrap was created because of the way they painted the cars long ago, and how layers of different colors of paint would accumulate.  I'm still not sure I get it, how they explained it.  But they showed me some of the scrap material, and some of the jewelry he made.

And I tell you, I would never have guessed that those beautiful gems were inside of those thrown-away scraps of hardened paint.

But he saw it.  He saw treasure there.

It turns out those scraps are a thing.  They are called "Fordite."  (It is also known as Motor Agate.) You can google it and find out what it is.

It takes a special kind of insight to look at scraps of painted metal and see beauty inside them.

They said he didn't talk about his faith much.  He just lived it.

I can't help thinking that this is one of the ways he lived it.  Looking inside.  Seeing the beauty.

There are many ways to speak about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.  Here is one:  to look inside another person, and see the treasure inside.  To be a disciple of Jesus is to learn to recognize the image of God in one another.

Maybe that's why the neighborhood children loved him so much.  It was so simple.  He saw them.

Maybe that's why they stood at the door and asked him, "Can Glen come out and play?"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Ashes

After our noon service today, we got a phone call from a woman who had missed the service, and would not be able to attend in the evening because she had to work.

She told us her name, and wondered if she could stop by in a little while for prayer and to receive the ashes.  I said that I planned to be around and would wait for her.

At the appropriate time she came by the church.  We went into our small chapel, sitting in the narrow pew nearest the chancel.  A small shiny black teacup with ashes sat between us.

I had brought one of our bulletins and decided to read the poem that opened the service.  It was so beautiful, evoking the frailty of our mortality and the ashes of our lives with the fire of God's love and promise for us.  Afterwards, she opened up and her life poured out:  her desire for a clear purpose and work that mattered, her care for a troubled child and grandchild, other grandchildren that she never knew.  As she shared from the depths of her heart,  I looked down at the cup of ashes, and I thought, What good are these ashes?  Does she really need today to hear that she is dust, and to dust she will return? 

Then, it was time to pray, and just as I opened my mouth to begin praying for her, as I thought she wanted me to do, she broke out in prayer herself. Seeing my surprise, she stopped momentarily, and said, "is it all right?" When I nodded, she continued.

And oh my word, this woman could pray.  She prayed for a friend who had experienced loss.  She prayed for her family, and she prayed for her work.  She prayed for purpose and she prayed for strength.  She prayed citing scripture with ease, words she knew by heart.  She prayed until I wondered if there was anything left to pray for.  She prayed for me, and that God would bless me, and my work.

Later, I prayed too.  I prayed for her, especially, although she interrupted to make sure I included someone else she prayed for.

Then I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, saying "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"Amen", she said, as if it was the best piece of news she ever heard.

"Wait," I said.  I wanted to read one more thing for her, something from our bulletin.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of your resurrection.

"That's beautiful," she said.  Then, "Tell me, when you came to faith, did you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?"

"Every day," I said.  "In my tradition, it's not a one-time-only thing."

We walked together back down the hallway from the chapel.  "Where do you go to church?" I asked.  I couldn't imagine someone who knew scripture by heart like she did was not going to worship somewhere.

"I haven't been to church for a long time," she told me.  "I always have to work on Sunday.  I usually work Saturday night, too.  I haven't been to church for a long time.  But they told me that I might be able to start getting Sundays off now."

"Thank you for praying with me," she said.  "Bless your ministry.  You are a blessing."

O my heart.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

You Don't Know Me

The other day I opened up my daily devotional book (the one I call "Spiritual But Not Religious") and this was its first line:  "Perhaps we all sound better on paper."

For more than one reason, that sentence seemed oddly appropriate for me.

Of course, I couldn't help thinking of the blog that I have been keeping, lo these many years, where I have written about my life as a pastor and a step-mom and a wife and a lover of dogs, and knitting and good books.  I have worked hard at good writer, which includes (to me) being truthful and vulnerable and honest, and trying to write a few shimmery sentences along the way.

And yet, if I am truthful, my life on paper sounds at least somewhat better than the life I know I am leading.

For example, I will admit that my life and my house (and my brain) is messy, but I am not (for the most part) showing you pictures.  I do keep some secrets.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.  I think it is good to have boundaries around our lives, to be able to choose what we will share and what we will not, what becomes public and what remains a secret.  Some things it is not wise or safe to share, for our own sake, as well as others.

It's just good to be aware that we are doing it:  that we are, in fact, carefully curating our image of ourself, for others, even for ourself, sometimes.  Because it's not even just safety or privacy:  maybe just a wee part of myself thinks If they knew that about me, they wouldn't think quite so well of me.

"Perhaps we all sound better on paper."

While I was in seminary, I interviewed for a summer job at the congregation where I was doing my field work.  It was an activities program for the children in the neighborhood of this inner city church.  I loved children, I was idealistic about inner city ministry.  It had not seemed that long ago that I had been a missionary in Japan.  I really wanted this job.  I wrote up my application, interviewed with the two pastors who oversaw the program and got the job.

After the first week, it was clear to me that I was in over my head.  I was much less sure of my qualifications than I had been the week before that.  When I mentioned my misgivings to one of the pastors who hired me, she said, "Well, you interviewed really well."

"Perhaps we all sound better on paper."

In the end, the job didn't go as well as I had (in my starry-eyed way) hoped, but probably not as badly as I had feared, either.  My perception of myself probably needed adjustment at both ends.

We all sound better on paper.  There is no perhaps about it.  And as I round the corner into Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, it is here where I begin:  with the confession that my truthfulness is approximate, that while I strive to be vulnerable and give to the world an honest representation of myself, for a variety of reasons, I leave things out:  abject failures, wincing moments of ugliness, some of the darkest of self-doubts, even successes.  

I may curate my self-image, but that is not all that I am.

That is my confession, for Ash Wednesday.

And it is also my glory.

If only I remember.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Questions We Don't Ask

The other day my husband was telling me about a conversation he'd had with a young colleague of his, recently married.  They have been contemplating getting a dog, a big move for them.  When he asked how the process was moving along, his colleague confessed that he was very nervous about the prospect, and thought it might be a mistake, although he also thought it might also be inevitable.

"Did you ask him why he was nervous about it?" I asked my husband.

"No," he replied.  "Why?'

Long ago, when I took the training for church-based community organizing, we learned the art of the 'one-to-one' conversation.  We learned to have intentional conversations with parish members and neighbors, and one thing we really worked on was listening for the next question, learning to be curious about the person we were talking to and the stories they wanted to tell us, not just what we wanted to hear.

I'll tell you what: it's not as easy as it sounds.

I don't know why my husband didn't ask his friend the next question about the dog, something about which (I'll admit) I was quite curious.  Possibly he didn't want to pry.  Or perhaps he was already thinking about something he was more interested in than the story of the dog.  Maybe he thought he already had a pretty good idea why getting a dog sounded stressful, and assumed that the reasons would be the same for his colleague.

I find that it is, more often than not, and despite my training, the same for me.

It's not the questions I ask that get me into trouble.

It's the questions I don't ask, because I am not curious, because I think I know the answer already, because I am making assumptions based on my own life and my own experiences.

 A member of our congregation, a young single dad, started bringing his significant other and her children to church on occasion.  I started getting to know them and having conversations with them.  They even asked if I would officiate at their wedding, to which I said, gladly, "yes".

And then one day, I saw pictures of them on Facebook.  They had been visiting a relative's church.  There was the opportunity to be baptized that day.  There were pictures of them all, spontaneously, getting baptized.

"I have always wanted to get baptized with my children!" was the caption underneath the pictures

Though I am a pastor, and I think that Baptism is one of the Best Things we do (or, more precisely, that God does), I never thought to ask her the question:  "Are you baptized?  Would you like to be?"  I made assumptions based on my own experiences -- assumptions about what she needed and didn't need in her faith community, assumptions about her hopes and dreams for her family.

I can't help wondering what I might find out if I learn to listen, and be curious, and ask the next question, the question I'm not even thinking about, at least not now.

I think I know why people are here, or even why they aren't.  I think people are here because of Sunday School, or because we play the hymns they like, or because our worship service is at a convenient time for them, or they have friends who go here.  Maybe that's it.  But how do I know?

But maybe they really want a transformed life.

It's the questions we don't ask that get us into trouble.

Sermon for February 8, 2015: Ruthless Trust, part II

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Using the Fire You Have

It has been many years now since I was a pastor to three small churches in rural South Dakota.  Some things you never forget, though, like the evening I was dozing on the sofa when I heard a knock on the door.

It was the youngest daughter of one of my parish members, who was part of the town's volunteer fire department, the only female member.

"My mom wants to know if you wanted to come and see the fire," she said.  "It's almost out, but there's still something to look at."

The house closest to mine had been deserted for some time.  The fire there was not an accident.  The fire department itself set the house on fire.  They did this sometimes, if they could get permission from whoever still owned the house.  The fire department would burn down the house, and then come and make sure that it burned down safely.  It was good practice.

You might wonder a little about the town I lived in.  This was not the only deserted house in the neighborhood.  It was a tiny town with a Lutheran church, a post office and a large grain elevator.  There was a deserted gas station across the street from the parsonage.  About a century ago, the town had been a lively place.  Two trains passed through.  There were four churches then.  There were parties every Saturday night.  The town had been declining for a long time, but they were not dead.

So, sometimes the fire department burned down one of the deserted houses in town.  Tonight, I was being invited to see the fire.  Always up for a little adventure, I said "sure," and went to get my coat.

By the time I got there, it wasn't much of a fire any more.  A few of the firefighters were still there, my friend, her children, a couple of other children.  My friend apologized and said she had tried to call earlier, when the fire was really roaring.  Now it was almost done, but some bright embers still burned.

"So, you want to roast marshmallows?" she asked me.  I did.

She had sticks, and they had marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars in the car.  They were prepared.

So we stood over the ruins of this burning house, and roasted marshmallows, and ate s'mores.  I am not sure if I remember correctly, but it is possible that we even sang some camp songs, too.  Maybe we had a little "Pass it On" action.

Maybe that's how we survive, residents of dying towns, members of dying institutions, people in creaky old bodies.  We are declining, but we are not dead, not yet, maybe not for a long time.  There are still some bright embers left.  So we use whatever fire we have, roast marshmallows, sing songs, invite the neighbors in, share what we have.  We keep warm in the dark cold night.

We hold hope, and we taste its sweetness in our mouths.

My New Favorite Devotional Book

I have used a lot of different devotional books in my day, with varying degrees of success.  I remember being enamored, long ago when I was in college and sort of a Jesus-fanatic, of a classic called God Calling, which I read more-or-less faithfully for awhile.  (I don't remember how long.)  God Calling was supposed to be the Voice of God, coming directly to me, and all of the other people who bought the book, as well.  I also vaguely remember a book called "Come Away, My Beloved".  The title makes alone time with God seem sort of, well, seductive, in a way.  I don't remember if the contents of the book delivered on that promise.

Then there was the task of finding a daily Bible reading.  It seemed so simple back then.  Had I ever read the entire Gospel of John?  No, I had not.  So, I did.  A little every night.  Afterwards, I waded through Romans, with no outside help from theologians.  I had heard a lot of Bible in church, but had not sat down and read most of it for myself.

Sometime later, everything seemed to get more difficult.  No bragging here, but between those old Jesus-fanatic days and seminary and the work of being a pastor, I actually have sat down and read a lot of the Bible for myself.  What do I do now?  I would find myself at a loss as to how to order my days.
I still longed for the structure of daily devotions, but somehow I had a hard time sticking to a daily discipline.  Even now, this is true.  I think I should have a daily discipline, and I have tried many many good daily discipline ideas.  There is nothing wrong with any of them.  (Well, maybe there have been a couple which were kind of cheesy….) I have prayed in color and prayed while knitting.  I have prayed the hours and prayed the Psalms.  I have prayed with beads, with icons and I am now curious about praying the alphabet.

But a couple of weeks ago, I stumble upon a kind of devotional book which I think is absolutely brilliant.  It is not a book of Bible readings and prayers.  The content is not explicitly Christian.  It is such a simple idea that I can't believe I never thought of it.

The book is called Your Daily Rock. The author (Patti Digh) has written a thoughtful paragraph for every day of the year.  Underneath there are two simple questions, one for the morning, and one for the evening.  In the morning, the question invites  me to live what I read in the paragraph during the day.  In the morning, the question is something like this:  "Well?  How did that go?  Did you discover anything today?"

That's all.  So simple.

One thing I have discovered after all of two weeks is this:  It's not so easy to keep what I have read that day with me all day.  More than once I will become immersed in my day, and suddenly look up and say, "What was it that I was invited to reflect on today?"  I feel like the man described in the letter of James, who looks at himself in the mirror, but as soon as he goes away, forgets what he looked like.

Another thing I am thinking after all of two weeks is this:  What if I read scripture this way?  What if I read a passage, however short, every morning, and came back to the same passage in the evening.  What if in the morning I read "Let your light so shine before others" or "Love your enemies" or "You have been saved by grace through faith", and lived with that short Scripture passage all day?  And then, in the evening, what if the only question was, "Well?  How did that go?  What did you discover today?"

So, for today, here is my short scripture reading:  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  And at the end of the day I will say, "Well?"

Maybe it will be the same verse, tomorrow.