Monday, August 31, 2015

My First Funeral

I had my first funeral here about a week ago, which is not the same as my first funeral.  I had my first funeral here, and for some reason, it brought back to me the memory of my very first funeral, when I was a newly-ordained and installed pastor in rural South Dakota.

I remember that I was installed on a Sunday morning in worship, and that there was this big potluck afterwards, and some of my family had come to the celebration.  We worshipped and ate and opened presents from the congregation, and my family all went home.  The next morning I went to the nearby town to open a checking account, and I stopped in at the hospital because I had heard about a parish member who was gravely ill.  I stopped in to see him and to introduce myself.  One of his granddaughters were there.  I think we had a brief prayer.

Early the next morning I got a call from the funeral director.  I remember being a little confused.  I wasn't used to anybody calling me "Reverend" yet.  I remember trying to find my way to the funeral home and later to meet his family.  I was still finding my way around the community, the gravel roads, the farms, the kitchen tables, and the people.

Darwin wasn't a farmer, someone from the church told me, as if that explained something, or anything. To this day I can't remember what he did for a living, but I remember this:  he wasn't a farmer, but he was a gardener.  He grew food, but not for a living.  He did it for love.

He grew food, and he grew a family.  That's what I remember.  And I remember that I had my first funeral at the little country church before I had given a Sunday sermon anywhere, and the whole community came out to hear "the new preacher" and stayed for lunch afterwards.  I remember that a couple from the congregation sang duets, and I remember that I took my preaching text from John 15 -- about God the gardener, and Jesus the vine, and and what it means to die believing that our lives bear fruit.  It's not in the list of the most common funeral texts, and I don't know where I got the idea to preach on it except for the fact that Darwin was a gardener.

I don't remember every funeral I preached, but for some reason I remembered that one.  On a Friday morning when I had been a pastor for all of five days, I had my first funeral, for a gardener named Darwin.  Then I went home and fussed about what I was going to preach about on Sunday, as if I had any idea.

It was so long ago.

So I had my first funeral here about a week ago, for a woman I had not had the chance to meet, a woman named Odessa.  I am still finding my way around here.  The landscape is different;  there are no gravel roads, but there are winding ones.  But there are still kitchen tables, and people to meet, and lives that are hidden still bear fruit.

Odessa was not a farmer, or a gardener, either.  She married and worked at ordinary jobs, some of them hard.  She bore two children and did beautiful handwork, and her life was hidden with Christ in God.

I didn't think to preach on John 15 this time.  I'm not sure why.  It still applies.  Jesus is the vine.  We are the branches.  We till our little patch, and God works in us in mysterious ways, until the end of time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"You Used to Sing to me"

So, I've only been here a couple of months:  not long enough to accomplish anything big or great.  That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.  I keep having to remind myself that I have only been here a couple of months.  I am just getting to know people.  It's too early to (for example) convert Texas, or even the greater Conroe area.

Mostly I have been doing the ordinary things of ministry, listening, meeting people, leading worship, writing and preaching sermons.  I have been going to the council meetings and giving my reports and I am in the process of putting together a series of house meetings for the fall, where we can get to know each other, the congregation and me.  We can find out our hopes and dreams and fears, and start to get glimmers of what we will do together.

I have only been here a couple of months, not long enough to accomplish anything big or great.

But on Sunday, a little girl came up to me after the second service.  I got to know her just a little over the summer, but hadn't seen her for a few weeks.  She and her dad and her little sister were standing around, and she said to me, "You used to sing to me, but now I go to a different school."

She and her sister have been part of our congregation's pre-school.  She graduated, which I suppose means she is in the first grade now.  During the summer, when she saw me on Wednesday at chapel, she would say, "I saw you in church on Sunday!"  On Sunday, she would say, "I saw you at school on Wednesday!"

But this time she said, "You used to sing to me."

It sounded odd, I'll confess.  Partly it was because, as I said, I've only been here a couple of months.  It's hard to imagine that I 'used to' do anything.  I don't have a history here yet.  But I have a history with this little girl, already.  I used to sing to her.

This little phrase made me consider my vocation.  It is clear that this little girl considers me to be her pastor, although she might not know that is what I am called.  How did she describe this calling?  What did I do that made me her pastor?

I sang to her.

I didn't know that was what I was doing, really.  I was there with the children, praying and telling the Bible stories and yes, singing, too.  We were just singing songs.  But she thought I was singing them to her.

 It is the way it always is.  It is not just the body of Christ, it is the body of Christ, given for you, put into your hands.  It is the blood of Christ, for you.  It is the song of God's love, sung into your ear, into your heart.

I've only been here a couple of months:  not long enough to accomplish anything big or great.  But long enough to sing.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Children of God, or, Boys and Girls

For some reason or another, lately I've been remembering a particular Christmas, when my sister and I both got toy dump trucks from Santa Claus.

I can only guess why Santa Claus (my parents) did this.  They were not rigid, but also weren't flaming progressives either.  I'm pretty sure they didn't have an agenda.

Perhaps they saw us playing with a truck our little brother had been given, and took the hint.  Or may it was the fact that we had this new sandbox in the back yard, and they didn't want us taking our dolls out there.  Or it could have been some other inscrutable parental mystery.  Whatever it was, I remember that my sister and I were surprised and delighted.  The supposedly gender-specific toy did not do us any harm.

It's a hot August day in Texas, so it's hard to think why I would be remember a particular Christmas in Minnesota, except for the fact that the Target Corporation recently decided to remove some of its gender-based product signs and also to switch to some "gender-neutral" colors on their displays.  (The color idea does lead me to wonder:  where did the whole 'pink and blue' idea come from?  I can't find it anywhere in the Bible.  Especially pink.)

Target's decision has been met with unexpected ferocity from those who oppose it.  At the very least, I'll admit that I didn't expect it.  Remember, my parents gave us DUMP TRUCKS for Christmas one year.  It just never occurred to me that parents couldn't find their way to the correct toys and clothes and bedroom furniture for their children without big pink and blue signs directing them to the right places.

It is also puzzling to me that a great deal of the outrage is from Christians, who suspect a sinister agenda designed to rob us of our biblical manhood or womanhood.  Now even Franklin Graham has entered the fray, declaring a boycott of Target until they get their act together and put their "boys" and girls" signs and colors back up.

Is this what evangelical Christianity has come to?  Is this what the 'good news' is all about?  Gender roles?  Boys and girls staying neatly in their places?  Long ago, Paul wrote to the Galatians that  in Christ "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female."  Long ago, he celebrated the good news that we are all children of God and heirs of eternal life, that we have, all of us, male and female, young and old, in all of our beautiful diversity, have put on Christ.  Hmmmm.  "Put on Christ."  Is this some sort of gender-neutral wardrobe?  This makes Paul sound a little subversive, like there is an identity that trumps all of our other identities, including our 'biblical' manhood or womanhood.   It is the image of God, and the image of Christ, bearing fruit in our lives.  This is freedom in Christ that we are called to, and it is exhilarating, and, I'll admit, also somewhat terrifying.  Maybe that is the problem.  Being free is not as easy as it looks.  And raising children who are free to be and become the children of God that they are -- well, that's not so easy either.  But we do have resources.

Instead of creating rigid boxes and pink and blue signs with stereotypes about biblical manhood and womanhood (many of which are actually cultural rather than Biblical), why not revel in the incredible diversity of stories of men and women (and children) in the Bible, in all of their individual glory?  Why not just hear the stories about Deborah the judge, or David the harp-playing giant killer, or Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles?  Why not let children imagine themselves as Miriam who danced at the other end of the red sea, or Joseph who told his dreams and forgave his brothers, or Peter, who walked on water (for a little while, anyway)?  Or why not just look at them, your children, and see who they are becoming as children of God?

It seems to me that what Target has really done for us adults -- is to treat us like adults.  We are free to choose the toys, the clothes, for the children we know.   We know their gifts.  We know their fears. We have an inkling who they are becoming.   We don't need color-coded signs to help them grow up, to tell them who they are, to tell them whose they are.

Do we?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Being Here, Not There

On Saturday, I met one of my cousins for lunch.  She has lived in this state for most of her adult life.  I have lived her for about one and a half months.  We've been meaning to get together, but even though we are in the same state now, and even in the same urban area, it takes some coordination to get together.

Her father and my father were brothers.  My dad was the youngest, the baby, they called him.  Her dad became a pastor.  My father looked up to his big brother, and was always very active in church, at least in part due to his brother's example.

I've only seen my cousin a handful of times in these last several years.  But we're family, and we had wonderful conversation and catching up.  In between stories of family and her work as a school counselor, we shared some theological convictions and differences with grace and good perspective.  ("Are you Calvinist or Arminian?" she asked.  There just aren't that many times that question has come up in conversation.)

I felt blessed to be here, to be able to get to know my cousin a little better in this place new to me.

Afterwards I found the local Christian bookstore.  I was searching for just the right gift for a young man from my church who would be confirmed the next day.  I was inwardly congratulating myself for not getting lost while I was standing in the checkout line with my items.

Somehow the location of my home state came up.  The clerk said that her aunt and uncle were from there.  I asked where.  It was my town.  For some reason (perhaps because I was in a Christian bookstore), I suddenly asked which church they went to.  She described the church.

It was my church:  the church I had served for seventeen years.  I knew her cousins.  I confirmed both of her cousin's daughters.  Her cousin's wife was my children's ministry coordinator, had worked with me on the contemporary worship service.

Suddenly, my heart was filled with so many competing emotions:  surprise and joy, grief and homesickness, so many other things.  I was remembering the beginning of my ministry at that other congregation, with relationships and dreams and planning just beginning.  And I was thinking about the beginning of ministry in this new place, wanting to be there for a new family, to be present and walk with them and dream with them now.

I was here, not there:  sitting across the table from my cousin, buying a tie for a confirmation student, praying for him -- not from a distance, but right there behind him in church, with his whole family.

A long time ago I lived in Japan.  I was twenty-five years old, seeking adventure, wanting to follow Jesus and love people.  It turned out that the particular people that God wanted me to love were far away from other people that I loved.  I went and I learned some Japanese and I knelt down to talk to children and I ate with chopsticks.  I learned new places and directions:  to take the train, to take my shoes off, to read, to listen.

And every once in awhile it occurred to me:  I am here, not there.

This morning I got up early and went to the pre-school to greet the children there.  It was the first day of school.  And at first it felt awkward, and I wasn't sure what to do.  But after awhile I realized that it was all right just to be there today, to say hello, to help make a few name tags:  to be there.

At all times one of the tasks is simply to be present, to be fully where you are.  It's not as easy as it looks.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Nice Person, and Racist

At my last congregation, I often preached at a small Saturday evening service in our chapel.  I came to call it affectionately, the "early edition."  One of the occasional attendees was a nice older woman who I came to know pretty well.  Sometimes she came early and we had an opportunity to visit.

Did I mention she is very nice?  She liked my sermons.  She said I gave a good "Lutheran" sermon. Sometimes she worshipped with the Methodists on Sunday, but she was a Lutheran at heart.  I think we have pretty awesome theology, what with radical grace and the reality of brokenness and the paradox of being a saint and a sinner at the same time, so I would take this as a compliment, although every once in awhile, I am not so sure.

A few years ago, well, 2008, to be exact, I remember a conversation I had with her, either right before or right after the worship service.  I remember because it was about the presidential election, and she was afraid.  Very afraid.  She was afraid that Barack Obama would become president.  She was afraid of what would happen if he became president, and she was also afraid of what would happen if he did not become president, because if he lost, she was sure that "the blacks would riot", and terrible, terrible things would happen.

I could tell that she was genuinely afraid, which made me sad.

I like to think that I said something to her.  After all, I had just read a book that traced the history of race riots back to the early part of the last century.  Growing up, I remember hearing about Los Angeles, and Detroit.  But I never knew about Tulsa, or Florida, or all of the other places where whites rioted and destroyed African American Communities.

I like to think that I said something to her, but whatever it is, I am certain it was not awesome.  It was not enough.  I can blame the fact that I was too shocked to have a cogent response.  But I think it was an excuse.

A number of years later, I was preaching the "early edition" again.  My sermon topic was prayer.  I used an illustration from a book I had purchased when my husband and I visited Martin Luther King Jr's home in Atlanta.  The book was called "No Turning Back", and was about a white seminarian who worked with Martin Luther King Sr. in the early days of the civil rights movement.  There was a lovely story about the white seminarian learning to pray from one of the African American teenagers in the congregation.  As a sideline, I got to say something about the struggle for civil rights.

My friend, the occasional visitor, was there again that evening.  I had a conversation with her about the book, and about our visit to Atlanta.

She told me that she had been to the South once, long ago, as a young woman.  She loved it.  She loved the people there.  In the summer, she told me that they felt so safe that they could sleep out on the porches at night.

She felt so safe back then.  You know, during segregation.

My heart sank, a little.  I like to think that I said something this time.  I think it did.  But in my heart of hearts, I know it was not awesome, what I said.  If I had said something awesome, I would have remembered.

I also knew then that whatever I thought I was saying in my sermons, when I thought I was being brave, when I thought I was communicating clearly:  I wasn't.

Racism doesn't just live in the Ku Klux Klan, or in segregation, or in hateful words of violence.  It doesn't just live in the fear of this nice woman, but in me, and every one of us who have not, for some reason or another, spoken out clearly.

Maybe even more.

Monday, August 3, 2015

As The Deer

A few days ago, my dog decided she wanted to go out a little earlier in the morning than I did.  After a short period of sighing and whining (her, not me), she won and I got dressed, pulled on my sneakers and took her out.

I was just getting light.  We took the familiar turns around the perimeter of the apartment where we are living right now, as I am settling into a new community and congregation.

Then we saw them.  Deer.  Just on the other side of the fence, there were several deer.  We looked at them.  They looked at us.  Then they fled, gracefully, as deer are apt to do.

We had seen the deer once before, not long after I arrived.  I thought it was a sort of sign, then, in my heart if not in my head.  Seeing them made me glad.  Back where I came from, there are urban deer at Nature Center not a block from our house.  The dog and I would run into them, on occasion.  So when I saw the deer, I was reminded of home.  Many things are different, but some things are the same, I thought.  There are deer, for example.  We might not see them very often, but you never know when you'll run into them.

Every day when I take the dog out on her walk, I go by that spot, and I don't see the deer.  I had just about given up, just about, when we got up early and saw them again.

It was a sign.  That's what I thought, in my heart if not my head.

But what does it mean?

You have to be careful about signs, I know.  I have said it myself, even though I can't help looking for them.  They are not magic.  They don't mean that everything is going to be smooth sailing.  Sometimes you think something is a sign, and it turns out to be wishful thinking, an old security blanket you were hanging on to, even though it didn't do you any good.  Sometimes you think something is a sign, but it turns out to mean something different than you originally thought.  Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes at the beginning of John chapter 6, and it was a sign, but even so, by the end of that chapter, a significant number of disciples had fled, as disciples sometimes do.

It was a good Sunday, I thought.  It was cooler than usual when I got to church.  I met more people and learned more names.  At both services there were first-time visitors.  We broke the bread and shared the wine.  I saw a worshipper, a guest, in the grocery store after the service, and we greeted each other.  She loved the service, she said.  They are lucky to have you, she said.  Maybe it was a sign.

I saw the deer again, briefly, and I decided it was some sort of sign, although I am not sure exactly what it means.  For now, the deer remind me not to give up, because you never know when you will get a glimpse of beauty, a flash of grace.  The deer remind me that the glimpses do flee, but they are real.  That is the sign I am clinging to like an old security blanket, even though it might not mean what I think it means.

But I think it means, This is where I am supposed to be.  I think it means, God is here, too.

As the deer.