Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Christmas Program Prelude

For some reason, lately I have been thinking about the Christmas program in my first parish.  It was on Sunday morning on the third or fourth Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes the Sunday School teachers would ask me for advice about the program;  was there a theme or a script that I knew about?  Sometimes they had their own idea, and I had very little input, except to open and close with prayer.

What I am remembering right now, though, is not the program itself, but the prelude.  No one asked me about this either.  The Christmas program prelude was a tradition that had begun long before I arrived, and it would continue whether I approved of it or not.  No one was asking permission.

The regular organist did not play the prelude on that particular Sunday.  Instead, the prelude was played by any chidden who were taking music lessons and wanted to play.  They ranged in age from four to twelve, and were all ability levels.  Some children played Silent Night with one finger.  Some children played a recital piece.  They were mostly piano students, but there was occasionally a flute, or a violin.

I keep thinking about the Christmas Program Prelude, and contrasting it with the impressive music at some of the larger churches around.   But I wonder if there is room for the Christmas program prelude.

Every church has different strengths and different faults.  But some churches have a particular strength:  the ability to recognize the gifts of all ages, and even welcome them.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Searching for Christmas

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," was one of my songs, growing up.  My dad and I would sing it in the car, while we were going to get the Christmas tree.  We would drive along the snowy roads of suburban Minnesota, past twinkling lights and shopping malls, and we would sing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" with all of the gusto we gave to the sacred songs.

Back then, I thought I knew what Christmas looked like.  It looked like the creche in our living room, with the figures I loved to move around, so that I could tell the story.  It also looked like the snowflakes on the window, the ribbon candy and peanuts they gave us in Sunday School, the angel wings and haloes, the tinsel on the tree.  It looked like the eighth floor of the department store downtown where we bought each other presents.  It looked like the whole extended family gathered around the table, a tree full of presents.  It looked like the new clothes we wore to the Christmas eve service.  It looked like snow.  I was dreaming of a White Christmas, even while I was singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

This year I am serving a congregation in a different region of the country.  It doesn't look much like my conception of Christmas here.  Most of my Christmas decorations are still in Minnesota.  There is not room for a tree in my apartment.   I will not be surrounded by extended family this year; there will be no snow.  And I have caught myself wondering:  what does Christmas look like?

I would like to know it when I see it.

It is still Advent here, but not for long.  Soon people will be gathering to sing the carols and to hear the story, snow or not.  Some of them will be coming with extended family, reunited for the holiday.  Some will come alone.  Others may not come at all, will stay at home, wondering what Christmas looks like.  If the children aren't coming home, if there is no snow, if you don't have a festive meal with family, if you don't have a tree, if your Christmas this year doesn't look like the Christmases you remember:  What does Christmas look like?

I would like to know it when I see it.

So I am searching for Christmas right now, which is to say I am searching for a light in the darkness, the door that is open, the hand that will not let go.  I am searching for a pure note in the silence, tears of joy and grief, an unexpected gift, the word 'yes.'  I am searching for Christmas, by which I mean the smell of fresh hay, new babies and night air, the sound of whispers, the sight of snow, or a star, or a lightning bug.  The Word made flesh.  Where I am.  Not just memories.

I am searching for Christmas right now.  The Word made flesh.  Where I am.  Where you are.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent Four

Today we lit all four advent candles, a complete circle.  At each service we had a family group come up and light the candles together, children and teens and parents taking turns, everyone making sure that everyone else had a chance.

We are getting near to Christmas Eve, but as for me, I somehow wish we could just keep on lighting candles every week, more and more.

Maybe we could make a wider circle, or maybe a long line of candles, lighting another one each week, each one taking a turn, making sure everyone got a chance.

That's one of the things that struck me this year.  In the groups that were lighting candles, they were careful that everyone would get a chance.  It wasn't a small thing.  It was a Big Deal.  A family came to light the candles and asked if their cousin who was visiting could help.  A mother and son asked if a disabled member of the congregation could help.  They wanted to make sure everyone who wanted a turn could take a turn.

There should be more candles, every week.  We should still go on lighting them, until everyone gets a chance.  After all, it is always Advent, in some ways; there are things we never stop waiting for.

At the first service today, when we lit all four candles, we had some trouble.  They were real candles, and the wicks had burned low, and we could not get all of the candles to light.  We tried and tried and tried, until the song was ended and there was this silence while we kept trying to pass the flame to the last two candles.

In the silence the congregation was standing and waiting.  We had finished singing the verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Someone brilliant had lifted of the metal pieces off of the top of the last two candles, so that we could see the wick and light them.  And in the silence I thought that everyone let out a collective breath.

It was all right.  The circle was complete, for today.  Everyone got a chance.

But still we wait.  Even after Christmas, there will be waiting.  There will be waiting for peace.  There will be waiting for love.  There will be waiting for an answer, for healing, for the footsteps of someone coming home.  There will be waiting for your chance, for someone to hand you the fire, so that you can light the candle.

Someday everyone will have a chance.  Everyone will get their turn.  Everyone will be recognized for their created beauty.

In the meantime, make the circle wider, and let us keep lighting candles in the dark.

And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.
Full of grace and truth.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rain, Mud, Light

Sometimes I have to remind myself that rain is just rain.  I got here not long after the Great Rains which flooded Houston and made me rethink my plans to move several states away.  There have been some serious rains since then, the kind where you have permission to stay home and read books and watch old movies.  But sometimes, it's just rain.

So I was invited to the 80th birthday party of a member of my congregation yesterday.  It was in an area of town I am not familiar with yet.  But, I have GPS, right?  No problem.  I also noticed that it was supposed to rain.  Actually, it was supposed to rain quite a lot.  But, it was just rain.

So I went to the birthday party, where I was greeted very warmly by the family and introduced as the new pastor, and given appetizers.  Several other members of the congregation were also there.  It was quite a celebration, and quite a crowd, although a bit soggier than they had hoped.  There was a tent in back yard, and we were out there when it was dripping, and then turned into a downpour, and just kept on raining.

We all crammed into the house for the main course and dessert, for a birthday toast and for more conversations.  And it just kept on raining.  But, it was just rain.

I may not have mentioned that people were parked all over in the yard.  There was not enough room in the driveway.

At some point, I thought it might be good if I went home.  I still had a couple of things to do to get ready for the Sunday services.  I heard some mumbling about some people being stuck.  I got worried.

There was a crowd of people outside.  They had flashlights.  There were cars stuck in more than one place in the yard and the driveway.  They were together working on strategies to get the cars out of the mud.  Some of the strategies were wet, and muddy.  But people were working together, to get each other out of the mud, to get unstuck, to get home.

It was still raining.

I noticed that I was parked on the grass.  So I checked to see if I was stuck and found out that I could get my car off the grass.  There was a little issue of where I would go after that.  The party's hostess volunteered that her son could lead me with his flashlight, so I would know where I could drive and where I could not drive.

That's what he did, standing in the rain, getting sopping wet.  He walked right in front of my car, showing me just where to go and where to avoid, where the narrow path was that I needed to drive on, and where I would be on solid ground.

It is Advent, and suddenly I think about the promise that God will come.  I don't know why it is that I think it.  Maybe it's the dark night, or the figure with the light, walking ahead of me.  Maybe it's the mud, and all of the people getting stuck, that makes me think of God's humanity, the incarnation.  God came here to share all of it:  the mud, the rain, the icy cold, the darkness and the danger.  God came here to share all of it:  the fear of being lost, the pain of loneliness, of sorrow, of death:  and to redeem it.

It is Advent, and in the dark, muddy, rainy night all I can think of is Emmanuel.

God is with us.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Culture of Grace

Names are important, I believe.  When I first learned, in junior high Latin class, that my name was also that of a Roman goddess (the goddess of the moon and the hunt, I was told), it had a positive effect on my self-esteem.  At least temporarily.  Some people are named on purpose, after parents and beloved grandparents, after screen stars and presidents.  Perhaps there are hopes involved.  Perhaps this child will be like grandpa Joe, or grandma Ellen; perhaps this child will be President someday, or swing a bat, or sing arias.

Names are important, I believe.  I love the name of my church:  Grace.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that I came here, at least in part, because they were a church named "Grace."   There were other reasons, of course:  they have an amazing pre-school, for one thing.  They love to study and said that they were hungry to learn more about God and faith.  They worship in different varieties.  They actually began a homeless ministry in their county.

And their name is "Grace".  Names are important.  When they were doing strategic planning, they had the name of their church listed as one of their strengths.  Because I believe that grace is the heart and the root of our faith, it is the one thing that we most have to share with the world, but it is somehow notoriously difficult to get ahold of.

What is grace?  What does it look like?  What would it be like to actually practice grace, the grace of God?

I have been thinking about this lately, because I am thinking about culture and strategy, strategy and culture.  Pretty soon, we will start developing a strategy:  where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there?  What will be the steps along the way?  And I can't shake the idea that the name of my congregation is "Grace", and that this name is a strength.  But what does it look like?  And what does it tell us?

Maybe the question before strategy is this one:  who are we, and who do we  WANT to be?  Are we gracious?  Do we want to grow in grace, and in graciousness?  What does that even look like?  Is it just 'being nice'?  Is it biting your tongue and remaining silent?

What does grace look like, in a community of faith?

I can't help thinking about something Nadia Bolz-Weber said, about her church, "House of All Sinners and Saints."  She says to every group who wants to join, that there will be a point where the church, or someone in the church, will hurt them, or disappoint them.  Or, there will be a point when you will be the one who hurts or disappoints someone else.  At that point, she says, please do not walk away and leave.  Because if you do, you will miss the grace of God, the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

That's what she said, or something like it.  And I thought -- this is true, but it is so hard.  There are times when it is true, we need to walk away.  But there are other times, times when someone has disappointed us, or we have disappointed someone else.  There are times when we have hurt one another, but instead of turning away, we have said:  "I'm sorry."  "I forgive you."

And that is Grace.

It is:  I don't agree with you, but you are my sister, and I love you.
It is:  You have hurt me, but I forgive you, and I still want to serve God together.
It is:  I have screwed up and failed and crashed and burned, and you have given me another chance.

Is that who we are?  Is that who we want to be?

Names are important.

I believe.