Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Listening Between the Lines

My first congregation was a three-point parish in rural South Dakota.  Three points meant that there were three churches.  Two of them were in tiny towns, and one of them was out in the country.

I lived in one of those tiny towns, in a large parsonage across from the church.  According to the sign on the way into town, the population was 90, but a few of us counted one day (on election day, I think) and we came up with 63.   There was a main street, which held the remains of a bank, the post office and Gizzy's bar.  There were also several open spaces where buildings used to be.  A little farther up there used to be a school.  There was no gas station, and there was no longer a grocery store.  There was still a park and a town hall.  We held Vacation Bible School there.

The town used to be bigger.  I heard stories, and I read some.  I saw old pictures of the glory days.  Four railroads used to intersect in this town.  There were once four churches, too.   The community was settled by Bohemians and by Norwegian farmers.  It was a lively place.

I used to go and visit people who were members of my congregation, but didn't live in town any more.  Some of them lived in nursing homes, or had moved to a slightly larger town nearby.  They often asked me how the town was doing.

"I guess there's not much use for the small towns anymore," they would say.

I heard this sentence, almost exactly the same, so many times, until it finally occurred to me that perhaps they were not just talking about the small towns.

Perhaps what they really feared was that there was not much use for them any more, that the things they valued, that the work they did, that the life they lived would slip away, and mean nothing, in the end.

"I guess there's not much use for the small towns any more."

What do you say?  It seems to be true that there is not much use for the small towns any more.  But I am listening between the lines, now, and I want to tell them that there is still a use for your life, that there is use and a value for your life that goes beyond this life, that lasts forever.  I want to hold that old man's hand and tell him that all is not lost, that what he did and who he was had meaning, that his name is written in the book of life.  I want to tell that old woman that her life has borne fruit, even though the town she loved is mostly gone.

In ministry now, in the midst of change, I am wondering about what it would mean to begin listening between the lines more often.  I wonder what it would mean to listen to what people tell me, and wonder what their real fears and hopes are, what they are really saying.  Perhaps it would mean to listen with less judgment and more grace.  Perhaps it would mean to acknowledge the fear and walk right into the darkness, carrying a light.

Monday, May 30, 2016


This week, I discovered that I was unprepared.

I came home from my unplanned trip to Minnesota.  I had expected to be gone a couple of days, but I ended up being gone for two weeks.  To be fair, I wasn't really thinking.  All I knew was that my husband was in the hospital, that they were x-raying his neck and that he was having tests.  I knew that a drunk driver had hit his car while he was on his way to school.  So I threw a couple of days worth of clothes in a bag, carted the dog off to a parish member's home, and went.

When I returned, I knew that I was behind on many things related to my congregation.  But I was not prepared for the storms that would hit the day after my return.  I was not prepared for the high water and the thunder and the darkness of having no electricity and no way to charge my phone, so no phone.

Somehow the prediction of heavy rains had not come with enough flashing lights.   So I had parked my car at the church, because I was going to return for an evening meeting.  After the storm hit, the water was high and we decided it would not be safe to return to church.

It took awhile that evening to find a safe route back to my dark apartment.  But we finally found a way in, and I was home.  I found a flashlight, and a couple of candles, and my dog.

And we sat alone in the dark and listened to it thunder.  You would think I would be grateful to be home.   I used the flashlight to read for awhile.  I was tired, but I couldn't sleep.  I felt alone.  I prayed that the electricity would come back on (it did not.)   And in the morning, somehow, someone found out about my plight and reached out to me, to offer help, electricity, coffee, company.

You know what?  I found out that it was the company that I needed the most.

I hope that next time I am more prepared, but not for the reasons you might think.  I hope that next time I am more prepared, so that I can be the company someone else needs most.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Small Things

Just recently a grandmother told me how much her 4th grade granddaughter already loves a new three-year-old in our congregation.  Their family just started visiting, and when the children, all ages, come together for to play and draw and wonder about the scripture readings, the little girl sings her own song about how much she loves Jesus.  They are making a connection, beginning a relationship, not based on being in the same grade, but based on being in the same body of Christ.

A teenager in our congregation recently expressed a similar feeling about a four year old boy who is new to our congregation.  Well, actually her college-age sister told me, "My sister just LOVES him."

They are small moments, I know, not grand programs with scads of children and bells and whistles. We are a smallish congregation, with just a few children right now, but we are beginning to grow, to see more families with young children coming and worshipping and even coming back.

And I have to admit, that I am tempted to try to group them by age, because I am trying to build a children's and youth program, and in the past you needed a certain number in every grade who liked each other and were friends and were developing significant relationships with children their own age.  That's how you did it.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

We put a lot of stock in large, age-segregated programs for children and youth.  In fact, for many churches, the ability to offer that package is the definition of "success."  Parents gravitate to churches with those programs.  But I can't help noticing something, particularly in my congregation:  there are so many people who have a significant relationship with one of our charter members, who is 96.  It doesn't matter that they are nowhere near her age.  They value their connection with her in the body of Christ, and feel enriched by her presence.

Programs can be good things, don't get me wrong.  Even programs tailored for one specific age groups can be good things.  But programs don't transforms us.  Relationships, as in our relationship with Jesus, as in our relationships with one another -- these God uses to form us into people who will go out and share grace with the world.  The 4th grader with the three year old, the teenagers and the pre-schoolers, the 96 year olds and the babies and the empty nesters and the college students --  we sing each others songs, put up with each other's blind spots, learn each other's passions and gifts --  and love each other.

Love one another as I have loved you, he said.  And I catch a glimpse of it, before any program can be planned, or any grand ideas can be implemented:  Love one another.  the 96 year old and the baby. The three year old and the 4th grader.  The pre-schooler and the high school student.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Random Thoughts

I'm not very good at removing stains from garments.

This just recently occurred to me, again, after taking a shirt out of the washing machine.  I had soaked it and scrubbed it and it looked all right until I held it up to the light and thought I still noticed a very very faint discoloration.   Earlier I was soaking a pair of pants with black marks on them.  I had gotten home after meeting a couple of church visitors that day, and noticed these black marks (ink? dirt?  something else?) and had no idea where they came from.  I sprayed, soaked, and scrubbed.  The stains on the pants got lighter but did not go away.

My mother is great at removing stains.  I am sure that if I gave these garments to my mom she would be able to get these stains out.  It is possible that she just doesn't give up, that she uses more elbow grease, that she knows some secret stain-removal ingredients or that she has stain-removal superpowers.  I am not sure which.  Is it a symptom of a terrible character flaw?  When I took that shirt out of the washing machine again, and saw the faint outline of the stain, I wondered about it.

* * *

Recently there was a raging social media discussion about pastors who are introverts, and how they (we) can possibly be effective pastors.  Someone sort of suggested that it was a shame that Lutherans don't have holy orders so that introverts would have a place where they would be more comfortable serving.  The poster intimated that we were perhaps unsuited to "the rough and tumble of the parish."

I don't feel attracted to holy orders.

Just so you know.

The parish is "rough and tumble" in a lot of ways.  Some of them are hard for me, but I am not sure if it's because I am an introvert.  It may be more a function of both my peculiar gifts and neuroses.   Other parts of parish ministry (aka "the rough and tumble) are exactly why I love it so much:  all of the ages together, watching people grow through pain and joy, the chaos, the singing, the people who are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am thinking about the fact that I am an introvert, but also the fact that it is not all that I am, and wondering what it is about us sometimes:  why do we reduce each other to some simple labels?  Do I do that to myself, too?  Sell myself short with some explanatory labels?

* * *

I am not good at getting stains out of clothing.  Maybe it's because I am an introvert, not suited to the rough and tumble of the stain-fighting household.  Maybe I give up too easily.  Maybe I have other gifts.

* * *

I just started reading this book by Swedish author Fredrik Backman.  It's called my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry.  It's about a little girl named Elsa who is 'different' and who his teased and bullied by her classmates, but whose grandmother is her champion and superhero.  The little girl talks about her grandmother's superpower, and says that everyone has them.  One of their neighbors' superpowers is making a cookie called "dreams."

I hope that, at the end of the story, Elsa discovers that she has a superpower too.

Monday, May 2, 2016

An Early Pentecost

Last Wednesday, the lesson at the pre-school was the story of Pentecost.

I know, it was a couple of weeks early.  But it was the story they were learning that week in school, so I went along with it.  I made a few paper "tongues of fire" and a children's Bible and decided to tell the story.

First, we practiced making sounds like a mighty wind.  We practiced starting to make the sound when I said the words "mighty wind" and we practiced stopping when I raised my hands.

After practicing, I asked for twelve students to be the disciples, standing around in a circle, praying, and waiting for the Holy Spirit.  It wasn't hard to fine twelve disciples, although it was a little hard to get the youngest of them to understand the concept of standing in a circle and holding hands and praying.

But when we finally got into a circle, and began to pray, then there was sound of the mighty wind that filled the room (cue: mighty wind) and then the tongues of flame appeared from the pages of the children's Bible and given to a few children to hold up in the air.  Then the disciples began to speak and everyone could hear them speaking in their own language.

"Does anyone here know another language?" I asked the twelve who were standing in a circle.  I said it without thinking about it.  After all, the oldest of them was about five years old.  It just came out of my mouth on that that early Pentecost morning.

But one little girl said, "Hola."

She got my attention.

A little later, I gave some children the microphone and told them that the Holy Spirit gave them the power to tell people something very important.  They got to speak into the microphone and say it.  Jesus loves you.

Then, we sang "Jesus Loves Me" too.

We sang it with hand motions.  We sang it in a whisper.  We shouted it at the top of our lungs.  I was sure that they could hear it across the highway.

And a little girl said "Hola."  Because she knew another language.

It was an early Pentecost.

And somehow, the Holy Spirit came down, like a mighty wind, like a gentle breeze, like a paper tongue of flame.

O Holy Spirit -- you had me at "Hola."