Thursday, July 30, 2015

Listening to the Rain

I am listening to it rain outside.  It sounds a little beautiful, for some reason:  not too hard, not too gentle.  We need the rain.

I am surprised to hear myself say that.  We came here just after a season of torrential rain.  I thought that I would never say "We need rain" again.

I am listening to the rain and reflecting on the fact that I have been here just over a month now.  Tonight, I'm a little down because I thought that I would be bringing my car home and it would be all fixed up and I could check that off of my list.  But they told me that they got the wrong part and I would need to bring the car back tomorrow.

For some reason, tonight, I am thinking that ministry is hard.  I am not whining about it.  There are a lot of hard jobs in the world, and they are hard in different ways.  But ministry requires skills and also trusting God, which is tricky for everyone.

There are different kinds of hard, of course.  There are the hard times of ministry in tragedy and grieving.  There have been times when I thought my heart could not bear it, when I held a stillborn baby, or heard a terrible diagnosis.  There are the hard times of ministry when your congregation is struggling and there do not seem to be any good solutions.  Faith is not magic.

Then there is the hard work of starting, of not knowing people yet, of finding my way. There is the hard work of feeling the weight of expectations, some of them my own. There is the hard work of being patient, even with myself, of trying to find my own pace. There is the hard work of learning to fail, and to succeed. There is the hard work of trusting God, trusting that God has given us the gifts we need. There is the hard work of listening, listening to God, listening to each other, listening to the rain.

I need rain.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Using GPS

Since moving here, I have become more and more thankful for an innovation known as "GPS."  I have some form of this in my phone.  I downloaded it last year and learned how to "start navigation" just in time to be lost on the way home from a book store in a strange city.

Now I use it almost all the time.  I use it and I follow the directions slavishly.  I put in the address where I am going, and I put in my address again when I am on the way home.  That voice has to know more than I do, doesn't it?  Because I don't know anything about the area where I have moved.  I have a map, it is true, and I have even stared at the map, on occasion, but it is by driving around and listening to the voice saying, "in 1,000 feet", turn left, that I have begun to get my bearings.

Not that there haven't been some rough spots.  The GPS knows much more than I do, it is true.  But it doesn't know when a road is under construction.  On the rare occasion we have had to disobey instructions because, well, the road GPS was telling me to take was CLOSED.  I thought the voice sounded rather insistent and perturbed then ("take a U turn"  "get back on that road!") before giving up and re-routing us.  And a couple of times I have been traveling a route that I have sort of gotten to know when the GPS will give me an unexpected direction.

Once it (she?) told me to get off the freeway several exits before I usually do.  Another time she instructed me to turn right instead of left.

This created a trust dilemma.  Should I obey?  Should I take a different road?  Or should I disobey and go the way I have been accustomed to traveling?

So far I have been too timid to obey.  I have stuck to the route I know.  Last night, I did take a very short GPS-inspired detour, it's true, but it wasn't much of a risk, at that point.

Too timid to obey.  It's one thing to admit that I do not entirely trust the mysterious voice of the woman who gives me directions from my phone.  It is another thing to admit that I do not entirely trust the mysterious voice of God, that this trust is a work-in-progress, that I would rather stay on the tried and true route even when part of me senses that God might be calling me to choose an unknown pathway.

Too timid to obey.  That is where I am, a lot of the time.  It is a failure to trust.

It occurs to me that there are many ways to speak of 'sin' in our world, and a lot of them have to do with morality.  A lot of them come down to behaviors:  the things you do, the things you don't do.   But what if at its very core, a definition of sin is:  a failure of trust.  Then we're all in it, a work in progress, trusting in one moment and not trusting the next.

Too timid to take another road home.  Too timid to say something I have never said before, even though I suspect that God wants me to say it.  Too timid to jump, when God says, "I'll catch you."

One of these days I will turn at an unexpected intersection, just to see where it leads.  And I will trust that the mysterious Voice, though perhaps alarmed at first, will still show me the way home.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Human Being

It was a long time ago now -- but you don't forget some things, even after many years.  It was a long time ago that I lived and worked as a missionary in Japan.  I was a stranger there.  Although I worked very hard to know and to be known, to learn Japanese, to understand, there were also many other forces that made that difficult.  In some ways, I would always be a stranger.

I worked at a Lutheran boy's school, junior and senior high school - and I walked home from school every day, to my two-room Japanese apartment.  (One person should only need one room, in Japanese terms, but because I was a Westerner, the school thought it wise for me to have two rooms rather than one).

Every day i walked past a dress shop -- all of the dresses there were too expensive for me, but, even so, I used to stop in on the way home.  I would look at the dresses and talk to the woman who worked at the store.  Sometimes she would make me tea.  It was that time of the day for tea, usually.

She had a three-year-old daughter, who I also like to visit with when I stopped.

One day, we were visiting, and the little girl looked at me and said, "Are you a gaijin?"

The word "gaijin" is Japanese for foreigner.  So, indeed, I was a gaijin.  But the word "gaijin" literally means 'outsider', anyone who is not Japanese.  There is a more polite way to say it, but this is the word I usually heard.  One of the most frequent places I heard the word 'gaijin' was from small childen, unused to seeing outsiders.  I would be walking down the street, and a small child would be shocked to see me, someone who looked so un-Japanese, and would point at me and cry out "Gaijin!"  Sometimes a very small child might even burst into tears.

So when this little girl asked if I was a "gaijin", I was surprised, and so was her mother.

We both laughed, and I said that Yes, I was a gaijin, and her mother said that we were all "ningen" -- which is Japanese for 'human being.'

And then we forgot about it.

Sometime later I stopped in at the dress shop again.  The little girl was there with a friend of hers.  They were playing on the floor.  The friend looked up at me, pointed and said, loudly, "Gaijin!"    This was to be expected.

But the other little girl, my friend's daughter, replied, "She's not a gaijin.  She's a human being."

The Kingdom of God drew near for me that day and in that moment.  I was a stranger in Japan and I couldn't do a thing about it.  No matter how well I learned the language, no matter how well I learned to fit in, I would always be different, I would always stick out, I would always be strange.   It was so different than my whole experience growing up, where I was a member of the dominant culture.  I didn't think of myself as privileged, but I was.  I had the luxury of assuming that when people looked at me they would see a human being before they saw anything else.

Not everyone has that luxury.  I don't know how we can deny it.  That is why it is important to say that "Black Lives Matter."  Maybe it should go without saying, but it doesn't.  Maybe we should be able to say "All Lives Matter" because we are all human beings, but Dylann Roof did not treat those nine worshipers from Mother Emanuel like human beings, and the State Trooper did not treat Sandra Bland like a human being, when he pulled her over that day.

The 9 African Americans did treat Dylann Roof like a human being, though.  Was it simply because he was a member of the dominant culture?  Or was it because they were praying, because they had learned to see the way God sees, the value and humanity in all of us?  Was it because they knew that, since Jesus died for each one of us, we are, all of us,  in all of our diversity, in all of our strangeness, worth dying for?

It was a long time ago now -- but some things you never forget.  I will never forget being pointed and stared at.  And I will never forget being called a 'human being.'

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Leadership and Flying

On Tuesday morning I opened my emails and saw an invitation.  It was from the administrator at the pre-school associated with my church.  I had just met with her for a one-to-one conversation and I thought the invitation was a good sign.  I thought I should probably say "yes."

Then I noticed the fine print.

This was an invitation to do something called "indoor sky-diving", which I had never heard of before.  I consider it sort of a bad sign when the invitation is to something I have not heard of.  Also I have never ever heard anyone put the words "indoor" and "skydiving" in the same sentence, let alone right smack dab next to each other.

I thought about it some more.  I mentioned the invitation to our office administrator.  She thought it was 'really cool", so I went ahead and said "yes", although I will admit to having a few misgivings when they asked me to sign a number of waivers.

Whatever 'type' it is that thrives on adventure and taking risks? --  I'm not it.  I thought coming to Texas was risky enough.  But, like public speaking, once you get up in front of people and open your mouth, you can't run away.  I had signed the waiver, so I was in.

We carpooled down to the iFly center (that's what it was called) where we were all going into a wind tunnel and learn to fly, or float.  We had to have a short training, and learn a few hand signals.  We needed a helmet, and a special suit (like real sky-divers wear).  We were going to get two 'flights':  one where we stayed near the ground and basically learn to float, and the other where we would fly higher up into the wind tunnel.  Both times our instructor was with us, holding onto us and guiding us around. No one flew alone.

A few of us expressed misgivings and wondered what we were doing there.  But, in the end, almost everyone decided to try it.  There is safety in numbers, and the good instruction at the beginning didn't hurt, either.  We all sat together and waited our turn, clapping for each other and giving each other high fives when we were done.

When it was time for the woman right before me to try her first flight, she looked at me and motioned for me to go ahead of her.  I hesitated for a moment.  She was just afraid, and she wanted to delay.  But she motioned to me again, so I got up.

But you know what?  Our instructor pushed me back.  He wouldn't let her back out.  And he wouldn't let me let her.  He probably knew that if she delayed she might back out entirely.  He may also have suspected that she would ultimately regret it.  He knew she was afraid, but that fear shouldn't stop her.

I thought about that.  I thought about my impulse to step in, because she asked me to.  I understood her fear, and felt the same way.  But it was actually a good impulse.  It also wasn't a pastoral impulse, although I might have mistaken it for one.

Pastoral leadership isn't about stepping in with the answers.  It's about letting people wrestle with the questions, actually giving people the opportunity to wrestle.  It's about giving people the opportunity to fly, even if they will also sometimes fail or fall.

For a long time I think congregations thought that the pastor's job was to go into the tunnel and sky-dive, while they watched.  I suspect a lot of pastors thought that too.  But actually I think that the pastor's job is a lot more like our sky-diving coach's:  To teach:  here are the hand signals.  I will teach you.  I will be with you.  And then to invite us to go into the wind tunnel, with some skills but without all of the answers,  to not know exactly what is going to happen, and to trust God.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Beginner's Mind

I am about three weeks into my new call, in a land and to people who are still pretty unfamiliar to me.  I just got an email from my former colleague asking me for the names of people who worked with me on an adult faith formation vision process.  That simple email reminded me of how well I had gotten to know my congregation, at least in some ways.  Then of course I thought again about the geography that I left:  the landscape of my home community and state.  Even the places I had never been, I considered that I knew well.

Here I have preached two sermons, have played with the children at Vacation Bible School.  I have had dinner at a couple of people's houses.  I have co-led a pre-school worship service.  I have found some grocery stores, and a local veterinarian for my dog.  I have held one communion service at a local assisted living residence, and I thank God that it was pretty easy to find, and that the residents were hearty singers.

Often I feel disoriented.  A friend counseled me that a lot of what I am doing I know how to do, which is correct.  I tell myself that when I begin to meet the shut-ins (and find my way to their homes), when I do a few more of the familiar tasks, when a few more of the roads become well-known to me, I will find my sea legs.

On Sunday afternoon I was officially installed as pastor here.  On Sunday morning I presided at the early service.  On the way out, I greeted one woman, who said (I thought conspiratorially), "I'm new here."

I don't know what got into me, but I found myself saying, "I'm new too.  Let's be new together."

I'm not sure that was an official line for a about-to-be-installed pastor to say.  It didn't sound like the resident expert that I suspect some in my congregation hope that I will be.  And yet I'm sticking with it, for now.

I just re-read a sentence from the classic "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," by Shunryu Suzuki.  I had read it long ago and forgotten most of it.  But this sentence stuck out, 'In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

It is not simply expertise that a new pastor brings to a congregation.  It is openness and a willingness to learn:  stories and streets, geography and grace.  It is that tension between expertise (the things I know how to do) and curiosity.  I suspect that to be successful, a new pastor will bring a sort of Beginner's Mind to a congregation, a belief that there are a lot of possibilities and that we can uncover and discover them together.  I'll be honest:  this is part exhilarating, and also terrifying.  It is like an invitation to go sky-diving (an invitation which I recently received, by the way).

Even so, I'll say it again, an invitation:

"Let's be new together."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fear Itself

I remember visiting an older woman in her home.  It was early in my ministry.  She lived just a couple of blocks from the church but had been inactive for awhile.  We didn't know why.  It was one of my jobs to get re-connected with her.

We had a good visit and communion.  We talked about a lot of things, most of which I do not remember any longer.  We talked about the new development that might go in, and the probably would have to move, but that there were not any good options for retired people moving out of their homes to stay in this community.

At one point in the conversation (I no longer remember the context, but perhaps because "the neighborhood is changing") she said, "I used to be okay with black men, but then a black man robbed me, and now I don't trust them any more."

Those were not her exact words, but that was the general gist of it.

I remember as well, that my first instinct was to say, "I understand."  My first instinct was to feel sad that she had that experience, and to sympathize.

It was not until sometime later, after I had gone home, that I thought something else.

I thought:  I can't imagine anyone making that sentence this way, "I used to be okay with white men, but a white man robbed me, and now I don't trust them any more."  Well, I suppose someone could make that sentence, but they would get a lot of pushback on it.

If you have a bad experience with a someone in the dominant culture, someone whose skin is fair, someone who we call "white," you can't get away with being afraid of everyone else who resembles that person.

As well, if you are a white person, you assume that people will judge you as an individual, not as a member of a group.  And if people dare to characterize you or stereotype you or make assumptions about you, you have a lot of venues for righteous indignation.

I think about the nine people who were praying at Mother Emanuel in Charleston.  They had every right to be afraid of that young man who came to the Bible study.  In fact, they should have been afraid of him.  Maybe they should have locked their doors and politely told him 'no.'

But they didn't.  They didn't act out of legitimate fear.  They didn't treat him as a representative of a race that had harmed them over and over again.  Instead, they treated him like a person, like a child of God.

He did not return the favor.

The realization drives me to silence.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Claiming the Space

So, I moved.  I moved a few states south of the state where I grew up and where I have lived most (but not all) of my life.  I suppose that I moved for a lot of reasons, but I suppose one of the most compelling ones is that I have have a sense the the Holy Spirit wants me to be here.

The dog and I are here ahead of my husband, who will join us a little later.  It has been a rough couple of weeks for both of us, at least in some ways.  There was some howling and barking, at first, whenever I left.  There has been some Hiding in the Closet and Not Wanting to Go on Walks.

You know, you can't reason with a dog.

And then one day, I came home and she was lying on the bed.  I mean, she was really stretched out.  She took up almost the whole bed.

In all her life, she never looked so comfortable.  It was as if this has always been her place and she belonged here.

She has claimed that space as her own -- at least until I kick her off.

If only it was that easy.

As for myself, I have a couple of roads down, but I know I have a lot to learn, still, both about the community and about the congregation I serve.  Two weeks ago, I stepped behind the pulpit in the sanctuary for the first time.  This last Sunday, I stood at the altar and lifted the bread and cup.  The morning was not without glitches.  At the first service, the ushers had to remind me to give them the offering plates.  At the second service, I was not quite sure who was doing what during the distribution.    But everything came out all right in the end.

When I was getting ready to leave my last congregation, the executive committee asked me if I would do an exit interview with them.  I wasn't sure what the purpose of the exit interview would be, but I agreed to get together for an informal question and answer session.

Someone said something there that I had heard before, and never really appreciated.  This person said (and I had heard it before) that my sermons and worship presence, while always good, got a lot better after the new senior pastor came.  I have never known exactly what to say when someone has said that.

But during the interview, something occurred to me.  I realized that what people were naming as "improvement" was simply this:  sometime during the time before the new senior pastor arrived, I learned to claim the worship space as my own, to believe that I belonged there, even to stretch out.

Now I am here, in so many ways, in a new space, and the Holy Spirit has called me here.  And I realize that what I need to do, in small ways and in large ways, is to learn to claim the space -- not just the sanctuary, but the deserts and mountains and all the yet unknown places.

It is holy ground, not just for me, but for us, together.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

In Memory of Jean

I was going through boxes in my office this morning, and a sermon fell out.  It was from a funeral I officiated at one year ago today.  Jean was a member of my church, a friend, a reflection of Christ.  I loved how she would stop by my office to ask me questions about a particular passage of the Bible.  I loved how she and her family would all help with communion together.  I still miss her.  Here is the pastoral reflection I wrote for that day:

          July 2, 2014

            My last pastoral visit with Jean was a week ago Monday, at her home. 
            She was sitting in a chair near the hospital bed you had put up near the back window.
             The back yard was so green and full of life, and when I remarked on the view, Jean said, “Well, it’s Honduras out there.” 
            We had a good conversation, talking about her decision to start hospice care, the peace she had,  what she was still seeking, life in general. 
            We talked about big things, some little things, how glad she was that Allison was home, that her family was together.  
            She asked about my family too – she did things like that.   
            After awhile I asked her if she wanted to have communion, so she and I and Gary sat down and shared communion together.

            I remember having this little conversation with myself – what scripture reading should I share? – and I immediately thought, I didn’t want to share the Sunday gospel, which had been some of Jesus’ hard sayings about discipleship.
             “So have no fear of them,” Jesus begins. 
            He is talking about discipleship and persecution  and hard times and division, and I thought those verses just couldn’t be applicable on this particular day.
             I just didn’t want to read those words. 
            But then I remembered that there were those verses about God watching over the sparrows, so I decided to read part of the Sunday lesson anyway. 
            I remember getting to the part of the gospel reading where Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul….”
            Right after this Jesus reminds his disciples about the sparrows…. And says again, “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

            Well, we talked about that for awhile; we talked about death and life and not being afraid, and about always being in God’s hands.  
            We talked about sparrows and how much God loves us and numbers the hairs on our heads. 
            We talked about the fact that Jesus doesn’t promise us that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  He just doesn’t. 
            But when I left, I still thought that I would see Jean again. 
            I was surprised and heart-broken when I got the message that she had died on Thursday morning.

            In the gospel reading that you chose, Allison, Jesus tells his disciples, “I came  that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 
            I can’t think of any verse more appropriate for your mother – for our sister in Christ, Jean, than this verse that reminds us of Jesus’ promise of abundant life.     Appropriate and heart-breaking, because we are here today to celebrate Jean’s life and to mourn her death. 
            We are here today to remember her, to give thanks for her, and to give thanks for the promises of God for her. 

            And one of those promises, a promise that Jean embodied, is this one:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            How can I say this? 
            How can I say it about one who I am sure died too soon? 
            She died even though I am sure if she had her way she would still be baking bars for funerals, still be working in her garden,
            still be giving good advice to her children,  
            still be working and living together with her good husband, still be helping to nurture healing with patients,
            still be discussing scripture in Bible studies with good friends.  
            She loved you and she treasured her life, and she knew what was important, she knew what was precious. 

            “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
             It’s hard to read this and not to think, just a little, that this particular life should have been a little longer, a little more abundant. 
            It’s hard to read this and not wonder a little about what Jesus means by abundance.
             I will tell you one thing:  it is not exactly what our culture often means when we talk about abundance.
             It’s not just about “more” – whether it’s more space, or more ‘stuff’, more success or more popularity. 
            Abundant life is not about what you can acquire. 
            But it is about loving and being loved.  It is about believing you have a purpose in life, and that your purpose is to reflect your creator.
             It is about living not for yourself, but for something bigger for yourself – for other people, for God.
             It is about knowing that each day, each moment, is a gift – both that you receive – and that you give.

            Perhaps Jean came by it naturally – as she was raised on a farm near Stewart Minnesota, and surrounded by life in many forms. 
            She entered nursing school, where she learned both the skill and the compassion needed to be a healer, and where she developed enduring friendships.           She practiced hospitality (I have a couple of her recipes), she nurtured gardens of beauty and deliciousness (raspberries, yes?), and she treasured relationships above everything – with her parents, her husband, her children, her extended family -- her friends.
             A good conversation was worth its weight in gold to her.  

            Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 
            Right before, he calls himself the gate – the gate for the sheep, where they can go in and go out and find life. 
            He calls himself the gate – but the sheep don’t just follow him into the pen – they follow him out into the world, where there is adventure and pasture and life and freedom.
            They follow him out into the world, and they go where he is – because the truth is – wherever he is – there is life. 

            Where-ever he is, there is life.
             Abundant life.  Eternal life. 
            Here in this world that Jean loved, that Jesus loves so much, there is life. 
            And there, in the world where he welcomes us, in the new world where there will be no more cancer and no pain, no hunger and no homelessness.  

            Where-ever he is, there is love.  Abundant love. 
            Eternal love. 
            Love that looks to the horizon and counts the cost and never looks back.  Love that knows the value of sparrows and sheep and every single one of us.   
            Love that is willing to die.  Love that is willing to live.

            About a year ago, I visited Jean in the hospital. 
            She was there to receive a stem cell transplant.  It was a Sunday afternoon and I brought a church bulletin, again. 
            We visited, talked about the future, the present.  She talked about what was going to happen to her, the risks, the possible outcomes.
             It was all very technical to me, and I didn’t understand a lot, but I knew one thing:  once you begin, you can’t go back. 
            You begin the course of treatment, and your put your hopes, and your life, in other hands. 
            You can only go forward, putting your hope, your trust in those hands. 

            And talking to Jean that afternoon, I realized the truth:  this is what the life of faith is like. 
            It is putting our lives in God’s hands, trusting the one who loves sparrows, and us, knowing that our hope, and all of our healing in his hands. 
            This is what the life of faith is like, day by day, until we, like Jean, stand in the presence of God.

            “I came that you have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says to Jean today.  And then he opens his arms and raises her up to join the feast, the abundant and eternal feast of light, of love, of home.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Early Lessons

So I am about six days into my new call in my new congregation in a new state.  This happens to be Vacation Bible School Week.  A local church camp is in charge for the week, with some of our adults and youth in support.  All I have to do is show up, get to know some people, sing some songs and learn a few actions.  Sweet.

I headed over to the family life center the other day, in search of the worship time.  I was a little early, and was called upon to shuffle cards for a small group of little girls who were spending their down time playing Candyland.  I am a little rusty at Candyland, but I shuffled the cards for them so that they could get their game started.

There was a dispute over rules at one point, and everyone seemed confused about where they should be on the board, so I suggested that we start over.  Fresh starts are one of my things.  One of the little girls asked if I wanted to play, and offered that I could go first.  We started to set up the game pieces but another of the girls started to cry because it turned out that she was going to be last.  Another girl fussed that "she never got to be first."

"I'll tell you what," I said.  "I'll be last."  The little girl who never got to be first could go first, and the other girl who was worried about being last -- she could be second.  Everyone was happy.

One of the girls looked at me and said, "You are really nice.  You are a really kind person."

I thought that it wasn't really so.  It's just that being first or last was not that important to me in this particular instance.  But I remembered what it felt like to be passed over, to feel like I never won anything, to always be last.

We had only played a few minutes when one of the counselors told us we had to pack everything up -- it was time for the next activity.  No one was happy about this, especially the little girl who was always last.  Again, she had not won.  She started to cry.

"You're a sore loser," said another girl, which made the girl who always lost cry even harder. "That's not nice to say," I told her.  As if to justify herself, she said, "Sore loser just means that you don't like to lose."  "Yes, but it's still not nice to say."  The other little girl cried harder.

Later on, we were all singing silly songs together.  I remember catching the eye of the little girl who called her friend a "sore loser".  She looked back at me sort of tentatively, as if she thought I didn't like her any more, because of what she had said.

I smiled back at her.  I wanted her to know that I still liked her.  I hope she believed me.

I just wanted to tell her, "You are not perfect, but I love you."

We learn so many lessons and so early.  We learn to call each other names, and we learn to be ashamed.  We learn to try to justify ourselves.  We learn to be cruel and we learn that we are losers.

We learn so many lessons and so early.   I want one of them to be this:  "You are not perfect, but you are a child of God.  I love you."

And, there is nothing wrong with being last.  Sometimes it is the best place to be.