Monday, November 30, 2015

Watching, At Advent, and at Other Times

Today is the second day of Advent.  It is also my day off, so I slept in a little bit and waited until the dog was good and ready before we went out for our walk together.

It wasn't raining, but it seemed a bit gloomy.  It was cloudy and cold and wet on the ground.  The sun wasn't even trying, I thought.    The dog wanted to go in a different direction than she usually does.  Without thinking, I went that way too.

Back home, it's snowing like crazy.  That's what I heard.  But it is not snowing here.  It does not snow here.  But truthfully, I wasn't thinking about that.  I wasn't really thinking about anything really.  I was just going where the dog was leading me, letting her stop and sniff and go where she wanted to go, within reason.

At some point the dog looked back behind us.  There was a woman standing on the sidewalk, looking toward the other side of the road, to a spot where there was some open land.  She had her phone out, and smiled when I glanced at her.  We both stopped for a moment and then kept walking.  I didn't think much about it.  We were on a mission, and that mission was to keep going and then turn around and walk back in the other direction.

We did that.  We walked a bit farther and then turned around, and walked back.  But, for some reason, when I got to the place where the woman had stopped, I stopped for a moment, and I looked across the road, where she had been looking.

It was then that I saw them.  At least four large deer, off in the distance, on the other side of the road.   One of them actually stood up on its hind legs for a moment.

The dog and I crossed the street, so we could get a better look.  I stood there for a moment, watching them and counting them.  I wondered if one of them would stand on his hind legs again.

After a few minutes we went back home.

I don't know what it is about seeing these unexpected living beings, almost in my back yard.  They are not rare, really.  I used to see them more often, but I have not lately.  I always used to see them in the same place, so that's where I looked.  Until I stopped looking.

Today I was reminded to be vigilant.  It was a stranger who reminded me, simply by her presence, by the fact that she was watching, that she noticed something that I did not see.

Today I was reminded that life is not always in the place we are looking, not always where we expect.  The Angel Gabriel will come to the old man in the temple, to the barren woman, to the unsuspecting virgin.  The conqueror will be a baby, and will be found in a manger.

It seems that this is something congregations need to learn, again and again.  I know it is something that I need to learn -- to learn to look in unexpected places, to to believe that God is leading us, and that we will be surprised.  To be vigilant.

It is the second day of Advent.  I went for a walk with the dog, and saw the deer, even up on its hind legs, rejoicing.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The First Day of Advent

It was the first day of Advent today, in my new congregation.  There were shades of blue everywhere, some deep, some aqua, and there were pink and blue candles, and I chanted the liturgy.  In some ways, the sense that it is advent again is comforting for me.  It is advent, and there is a deep resonance of familiarity, like opening the door and seeing an old friend.

So much is different this year.  I am in a different state.  It is raining, not snowing.  I am in a different sanctuary, one with a balcony up to the choir.  The rhythms of the contemporary service are different as well, with some songs I know well and some that are new to me.  We are all learning, including me.

It was the first day of Advent today, in my new congregation.   It still feels new, to me, and perhaps, to them, as well.

For some reason it seemed like a good idea to use the stories of Luke, chapter 1, for the preaching texts this month.  It's not what the lectionary says that I should do, and I know that the lectionary is wise.  But I have always loved the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and how Zechariah was struck dumb when he didn't believe the Angel Gabriel's message.  All of Luke 1 is about being pregnant -- being pregnant with hope, bearing God into the world.

I want my congregation to be pregnant with hope, to believe that they are bearers of God to a weary world.

I tried something new today:  well, two things, really.  They were not my ideas, actually.  We gave out crocus bulbs to everyone in church today.  I told them to plant them in a pot, or in the ground, and wait, and watch, and hope.  Besides lighting candles, it is something we can do at Advent.

The other thing we did was make a bookmark.  The bookmark had a word on it:  Expecting.  On one side of the bookmark was a definition of the word "Expecting."  On the other side of the bookmark was a short prayer.

Next week's word is "Trusting".  In case you are curious.

It was the first day of Advent today, in my new congregation.  And I am so busy doing things, and I heard the message that it is God who is doing a new thing -- in us, and in me.  I am so busy trying to figure out what the next right thing might be, and I heard that it is God who is bringing new life to us, and in us.

There was a baptism this morning.  A little boy was splashed with water and the word, received the burning candle.  "Let your light shine," we told him.

Light your candle.  Bury the crocus bulbs.  Walk in the rain, or the snow, and pray, and do the next thing, and find out if it is right, or not.

Ask for forgiveness.  Start again.  Open your hands.  Rest.  Play.  Sing.

God is making all things new.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

What to Pray For

For snow, rain or sunshine.
travelers, pilgrims, wanderers.
For the smallest blade of grass,
the widest canyon's chasm
and the river that cuts it.
The spaces between people.
For peace.

For the breath you hold.
For breath.
For the silence when you yearn to hear your name.
Your name.
For the flower, that it not be crushed.
The bruised reed, that it not be broken.

For the song not to end
the last pure note to go on and on
until the last outcast hears it
and arrives for the feast.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Using your Weaknesses

I went to a workshop for women in leadership last week, driving to another new area of town for the opportunity to receive encouragement, support and the opportunity for growth.  I will admit to feeling isolated at times in this new state.  It was healing to be together and to meet new people.

In preparation for the workshop, we all had to take an inventory that would help us to be aware of our particular leadership strengths and weaknesses.  (Some people call weaknesses, 'growing edges', I suppose in order to avoid using the word 'weakness.')  I was fascinated to learn in what categories I am strong, and a little disheartening to see that one of my particular 'growing edges' was in "Risk-Taking."

But I knew that.

Maybe it's even in my DNA.  I remember being terrified to get on my first bicycle.  It seemed way too tall for me, and there were no training wheels.  So it sat there, in our garage, until my sister finally learned how to ride it.  It took a long time, but I finally got up the courage to confess to a friend of mine that I didn't know how to ride a bicycle, and to ask for her help.  She had a little bike, and we took secret practice rides every day for a week, until I finally got up the courage to try the big one again.

I have never secretly yearned to jump out of an airplane, never gone hang-gliding, and have not gone wilderness camping.  I do not jump into new experiences eagerly.  I have perfectionist tendencies and I fear failure, even though I know it is necessary.  It's a bad combination, I know.

So, I looked at the results of the inventory and my heart sort-of sank, but I also was not surprised.  I am risk-averse.  I like to be safe.  I don't like driving unknown places (something I have been doing a lot, during the past few months).  I don't like it when the 'check engine' light comes on in the car.  I don't like it when I am unsure of the outcome of my endeavors, which is more of the time than I want to admit.  I don't like being very far out of my comfort zone.

I confessed to one of my colleagues my risk-averse nature.  She laughed and said "risk-taking" was her highest score.  I tried to think of some small risks that I could practice taking, so that I could get better at it.

And then I thought this:  I'll bet my congregation is sort of risk-averse too.  It's possible.

One strategy is to get a really courageous, risk-taking pastor in here to jump out ahead of them and show them how it's done.  That could work.

But another strategy could be to use my weakness:  to say, "I'm not very good at this either.  So let's start practicing together."  I'm thinking about this possibility, that there might be times when it is actually a good thing to use your weakness, that it could even be a strategy.


It's funny.  When I think back again, to my risk-averse childhood, there is one place where I was not risk-averse:  in the water.  I'm not a great swimmer, but I have always loved the water, ever since I was little and I first learned to float.  Every year at church camp, I pushed myself to swim the maximum number of laps so that I could be allowed to swim out to the middle of the lake.  I learned to jump in and make a splash, to do a simple dive, and loved to play in the water.   For some reason, I was not afraid, like I was in so much of the rest of my life.

So, as of today, I have two strategies:

Use my weaknesses.
And get a bigger baptismal font.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Only One

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to breakfast with a few other pastors from my community.  It was an ecumenical group, although no one said the word "ecumenical."  I was invited by one of the parents at my congregation's pre-school, a Catholic who love our school and thinks it is awesome.  He has been the instigator of a community "Faith Fest" for the last few years.  There is music and other Texas-style entertainment.  Our school has been responsible for "children's activities."  All of the proceeds of the "Faith Fest" go to support local ministries and charities.

All of the pastors invited are involved in some way or another in upcoming Faith Fest.  There were two from Baptist churches, two from a couple of non denominational churches, and the priest from the large local Catholic parish.  And me.

Did I mention as well that I was the only woman in the group?

For some reason, I was a little nervous about going to the breakfast.  I am not sure why.  I have been doing this pastoring gig for a fair number of years now.  In my defense, I will say that I am new to this particular state, Texas.  There are a few things that are different here.  For example, there are no Cowboy Churches in Minnesota.

The man who organized this event said that the year he started it, he was sitting at a table with a Baptist pastor, a Lutheran pastor and his priest, and he realized that in many different circumstances these Christians would not be sitting at a table with one another.  They probably disagreed about many things, if you got right down to it.  But they were coming together for something greater than the things they disagreed with.

This year, he wanted to make sure I would come.  I would be the Only Woman Pastor at the table.

So I showed up, Minnesota accent and all.  We talked about what was going well in our ministries.  One of the churches was in transition, waiting for a new senior pastor.  Another one was embarking on a building project.  We all talked a little bit about wanting to have a positive impact on people's lives.   That's what it's all about, right?  It's about Jesus, and loving people.  I said I might want to visit a Cowboy Church sometime on a Monday night, just to see what it was like.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around a table with some pastors from other faith traditions.  We probably disagree about a lot of things, some of them important.  I am not so naive that I believe that every one of those men thinks my calling is legitimate.  But, for that hour, we didn't talk about those things.   We just prayed, and talked about Jesus, and loving people.

Maybe, for the first breakfast, that was enough.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Song You Are Teaching Me

Every week, on Sunday morning, I lead two worship services.  And every week, on Wednesday morning, I also lead a worship service -- for about 100 pre-school students, who line up and walk over from the building next door.

I'll admit, when I first considered this responsibility, I paused.  I was excited to be interacting with the children, but I thought I could only remember one children's song, "Jesus Loves Me."  What was I going to do with 100 pre-school students?

A little later, I remembered that I knew a couple of other children's songs.  We could also sing, "This LIttle Light of Mine" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."  And I realized that we could pray.  We pray together every week.  And we tell Bible stories, and sometimes we try to acts things out, although that is, frankly, a work in progress.

One night, I was wishing I knew or remembered a few more children's songs, and I googled a verse I thought I had heard the children singing.  I listened to it a couple of times, determined to add it to my repertoire.

On Wednesday we tried it.  I told them I had heard this song, and I hoped they would help me learn it.  As soon as I started to sing, they sang out loudly -- and they knew hand motions, too.

So now, when we sing it, I refer to it as "The Song You are Teaching Me."  I am getting pretty good at it now, although I sometimes still mess up the hand motions.  I can't help wondering if there are a couple more songs that they could teach me, songs that they know, but I don't, songs that aren't "Jesus Loves Me" or "Deep and Wide" or "I've Got Peace Like a River."  I have discovered that I know more songs than I thought I did, but they probably know some songs that I don't know.

It's true in more ways than one, I suppose.  I stand up in church on Sunday, and I lead the singing, and I think that is what I am called to do.  I am the leader.  I am called to lead the singing, and to teach some new songs, too.  I am called to help my congregation sing new songs and see new possibilities, and discover what God is doing among us and in us.   That's what I think, most of the time.

But then, for a moment, I think of the children, and I wonder -- what is the new song they are teaching me?  They know songs that I have never heard of, or learned.

Every week, on Sunday morning, and also during the week, I am now training my ears to listen:  for a new song, for possibilities, for the things I never knew, for melodies and harmonies.  Every week, I am asking the question, "What is the song they are teaching me?"

I am convinced that is why God called me here.  To learn a new song.

With hand motions.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Another Word for Stewardship

Sometimes I think there should be another word for "Stewardship".  It's always been the word we have used to describe the annual emphasis (usually in the fall) on giving financially usually to your local congregation.  Of course, in seminary, we learned that "stewardship" means something else -- it means taking care of something that belongs to Someone Else.  But still…..

We had the stewardship emphasis this past month, and we we did emphasize stewardship as taking care of the things that belong to God.  We did not emphasize our budget, but we prayed and we talked about giving and generosity, and how everything we have -- including our money -- really belongs to God.  We talked about giving as a spiritual discipline, like prayer.  And we planned a special Sunday -- today -- where we would have great music with the organ and the piano and guitar and choir, where we would receive our intentions and then celebrate with a special wonderful luncheon together.  But still…

I was talking with someone at the church during the week, about how we were planning this great event, with great music and great preaching and great food, and how I hoped a lot of people were able to come, and the person turned to me with great honesty and said, "Well, and then there are those who will intentionally stay away."

And even though I felt sad, I understood.  Part of it is that no one wants to talk about money, and there's nothing you can do about that.  And the word "stewardship" has this meaning that has connotations about being guilted and shaken down and provoked to "give more" to this institution that pays salaries and has to fix its building.  And then we get some money but it never seems like enough, so a feeling of failure pervades us.  But still….

Maybe we need a different word, one that somehow brings to our imagination all of the things we can do together, when we pool the resources that God has entrusted us with.  Maybe we need a different word, a word that brings to our imaginations the mission of God and all of the resources that God has given us, so that we can share it.  Maybe we need a different word, a word that makes us excited for the feast that we will share and the songs that we will sing, and the gifts that we will open -- gifts that we have given to one another.

Maybe we need another word, but what would it be?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"Holding on, Loosely" -- a sermon on Generosity, for All Saints Day

John 11/Psalm 24

            Today is All Saints Day – and I can’t help thinking that every one of us has at least one person we are remembering today 
            -- at least one person for whom we will light a candle, at least one person for whom we give thanks because they were ‘saints'  for us
            – they let the light of God’s love shine through them in some way or another. 
            Today is All Saints Day – a day when it has become our custom to name those who have died in the past year – and also to light candles for others who we remember, who we call saints. 

            Saints.  No matter how many times I say it, it still seems odd, at least I some ways. 
            Because we associate the word ‘saint’ with those extraordinary heroes of the faith.  “I’m not a saint!”  Are you a saint?
             It can be a problem, this word.  What is a saint, anyway?  

            Whatever you think, today is a day to remember people in our lives that have been gifts to us, in one way or another. 
            We call them ‘saints.’ 
            But what is it about them that makes them a saint…. I have been thinking about that this week, and I have been thinking about my dad.             
He is one of my saints, even though he would also be someone who would claim, “I’m not a saint!” 
            He is one of my saints, because his life is a gift for which I give thanks, because he taught me so much:  about faith, about love, about holding on, loosely.   
            He loved to laugh, to tell jokes, and to sing, even though he didn’t know all of the words. 
            His favorite Bible passage, he liked to tell me, was from John 11:  “Jesus wept.”
             He said it with a twinkle in his eye. 
            Not only did this verse say a lot about Jesus – but it also was short and easy to remember.  My dad.
             He used to stand next to me in church, singing with strong baritone, helping me find my place so that I could sing along.  My dad.      He and my mom told us Bible stories, and taught how to pray.        Except that my dad had a special way of teaching us. 
            He would sit down at the edge of our beds, and he would talk to us in this creaky old voice, and say, “I am Methusalah, the world’s oldest man.” 
            He would claim to know Abraham and Moses and David.
             But he was sooo old that he would forget or fall asleep during the Lord’s prayer, so that we had to supply the missing words.  My dad. 
            “I’m not a saint,” he would probably say.  He belonged to God, and the light of God shined through him.

            You might wonder, on this day, why we are reading Psalm 24.        John 11 makes sense.
             It is about the hope we have as Christians, what makes us saints.  But why are we reading from Psalm 24 as well? 
            Probably it is assigned for All Saints Day because of the verse about having clean hands and pure hearts, but I can’t help noticing the verse first verses today. 
            They are good verses for All Saints Day too.
             “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” 
            Everything belongs to God – and we belong to God too. 
            We come from God, and we go back from God.
             In the middle – is the gift.  We are gifts to one another. 
            We are gifts to God, too.  Hold your life, loosely.
             My dad did that.  He took Jesus very seriously.  Himself – not so much. 

            When I first learned that we would be in the middle of our stewardship campaign on All Saints Day, I worried. 
            I didn’t’ want something like “Stewardship” to get in the way of remembering the saints and giving thanks for their lives.
             I didn’t want something like money getting in the way of talking about saints as those who trust Jesus and hold their lives loosely. 
            But the more I thought about it, the more I had to wonder why.     What is it about money that makes me want to avoid the subject?            Is it because I have to admit that there are times when I have been good at giving – but there have also been times when I have been bad at giving?
             Is it because I know that money is a touchy subject for all of us, including me?
             I almost have an easier time confessing when I haven’t been so good at prayer – than I do my failures in financial stewardship.

            But you see -- giving – whether money or time or talent – but we are talking about money right now – is a spiritual discipline, like prayer.  We don’t do it so that God will love us more – God couldn’t possibly love us more than God already does. 
            We don’t do it because we have to – but we do it – we give – because God already holds our lives so tightly, because God weeps with us, and rejoices over us, and when we give – we are able to hold our lives a little more loosely. 
             And the two things – that are important in the spiritual discipline called giving are that we give regularly,  and that we give proportionately. 
            We give regularly so that it becomes a habit.  We just get used to it. 
            We get used to it in the same way as we get used to opening our hands and receiving the bread and wine for communion:  Jesus’ life and forgiveness, for us. 
            We get used to it in the same way we get used to folding our hands and bowing  our heads in prayer.   And when we get used to it… it gets down into us, so that, when a young man who grew up in this church got a bonus from his company recently, the first thing he thought of was to share a portion of it with his faith community.

            The second discipline involved in giving is that it be proportional – that is we give according to what we have, not what we don’t have.
             I know a woman who was very intentional about giving more – because she knew her congregation – her church family – well enough – and loved them well enough  -- to know that she could do it while others  – could not. 
            She gave proportionately, according to what she had.

            And the third discipline – did I say there were only two? 
            The third is joy.  Give joyfully. 
            Because your names are written in the book of life. 
            Because God holds your life so tightly.
             Because the whole world, and everything in it, belongs to God.  Because life, in all its terror and all its beauty, is a gift. 
            Because you get to hold babies, to wade in oceans, to break bread, to sing, to hear the stories of your parents, your children, your grandchildren.
            Because this is your church family – because we belong to one another --
             Because the sign of the cross is marked on your forehead.    Because Jesus wept, and rose from the dead. 
            And because God promises – that God will take your life – your whole life – every single part of you, including your finances – and used it to proclaim the glory of God. 
            And the light of Christ will shine through you – through us – as a congregation. 

            Give regularly.  Give proportionately.  Give joyfully.  Joyfully.

            I can’t help thinking today as I am remembering – there was this time I was a young adult, and I was just out of the nest.  And this terrible (I thought it was terrible) thing happened one night.
             It was dark, and I was trying to lock my car out on the street, and the key got stuck in the lock. 
            And I pulled and I pulled and I pulled and the key broke in there.  I went up to my apartment and I called my dad.
             What else could I do?  I explained my dilemma and said I didn’t know if I could afford a locksmith. 
            And he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry.  I’ll give you money.”  And I said, ‘Dad, you don’t have any money.” 
            And he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” 
            I was so depressed.  And I thought it was the end of the world.
            And my dad made me laugh.   

            He was willing to give me what he had – and what he didn’t have.  And he would do it joyfully – -- and sacrificially --because he loved me.     He held his life loosely. 
            But he held mine tightly. 
            Who do you love – that much?

            Hold your life, loosely.
            It’s the only way you can ever hold it, anyway.
            That’s what so many of the saints have taught me -- by the way the lived, by the way they died – by how they gave.
            Their lives belong to God.
            And the light of Christ still shines in them.