Thursday, July 28, 2016

God's Grace. Our Hands.

I just got done meeting with a group of people who say they want to affiliate with our congregation.  There are 19 of them in all, families with children and empty nesters, a widower, a grandmother and a young adult.  It's a diverse group;  a few of them have been Lutheran all of their lives; some of them come from other faith traditions.  And I am amazed by them:  by their presence in our congregation and everything they bring.  We spent a couple of evenings getting to know each other, learning a little bit about our congregation, and finding out just a little bit about what that word "Lutheran" means.

We talked a bit about baptism and dedication of children.  I said that we can baptize at any age, including children and babies.  We had a conversation about sacraments, and about what God is doing in baptism.

But while I talked, I have to admit, I realized the oddness of what I was saying.

If you were watching at a baptism, you would see parents bringing their children to be baptized.  You would see adults saying that they want to be baptized.  You would see a pastor's hands, pouring water over someone's head.  You would see what WE are doing.  Even so, we say that it is God who is at work.  It is God who is doing the baptism.  God is using our arms to carry the babies.  God is using our hands to pour the water.  God is using our voices to speak the words, but it's God's work.

My denomination has a motto:  God's work.  Our hands.  It's a fine motto, but while I was in conversation with our potential new members, I thought it should be this:  "God's Grace.  Our Hands."  I thought this because baptism is God's grace -- God coming to us -- God loving us first, before everything.

Grace is God's work.

And God uses our hands, our arms, our bodies, our voices -- to share grace.

I thought -- when my hands pour water for baptism, somehow and suddenly, they are God's hands, pouring grace.  When my congregation's quilters tie a quilt and send it to the women's shelter, their hands are God's hands, tying pieces of grace into a colorful blanket of comfort.  When we open our doors to house homeless families for a week at a time, we are conduits of God's welcoming grace.

God's amazing grace.  Our ordinary hands.

It doesn't make sense.  But it's true.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Measuring by Tears

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I have been here just about a year now.  I was reminded of this when the "check engine" went on in my elderly car, as that is what happened when I first drove into town a year ago.  I spent those first three months frantically trying to fix things and become a legal resident of the state in which I was working.

But now it has been a year.   On what basis do I evaluate the ministry of the congregation?  The "check engine" light came back on in the car, which can't be a good thing.  Some people have moved away, and don't come to church here.  There are also some new faces.  We have moved from two services to one, at least for the time being, and moved around some other aspects of the Sunday morning schedule.  The one service contains elements of both of the services, which is an adjustment for everyone.  It is neither contemporary nor traditional.  The Bible study which always took place between the services now comes before the one service.   I am not sure whether it is the time change or just summer, but the attendance at the Bible study has been sort of erratic.  A couple of weeks ago we had to put tables together.  But this week it was really small.  I wondered if we really wanted to study.  Perhaps people just wanted to visit and have coffee, instead?

"No, let's get going," one gentleman said.

We were studying the journeys of Paul, and opened by reading excerpts from Acts 13 and 14.  We read and noticed what seemed interesting or odd or what we had a question about.  We noticed that Paul always took someone with him.  He did not travel alone.  We asked questions about Paul's preaching and going to the synagogue and the miracles he did.  We talked about miracles, about how they thought Paul and Barnabas were gods, and tried to make sacrifices to them.

Have you ever had an experience -- like a miracle -- that just made you want to worship -- or respond -- in some way? I asked the small group gathered.

Most people didn't claim to have experienced a miracle, although they had heard of them.  We all believed they were possible.  But we talked about the difficulty of believing in miracles and praying for them, but knowing that they often didn't happen.  Some people shared experiences in their lives and said, "If you believe, you see things that you might not see if you did not believe."

Then one woman shared her story, about being in a car wreck, and being injured, when she was a teenager.  Someone else did not make it.  And she was in a back brace from that, and would have to have surgery.  And how the priest came and prayed and when she went back to the doctor, her back was fine.  No one could explain it.

Later on she shared how she prayed for her brother, who was dying from cancer.  And how he told her, when she prayed, that she could pray for healing for him, but she should make sure she prayed for God's will to be done.  Because God might not want the same kind of healing for him that he had for her.

It was a holy, vulnerable moment, and I thought I saw tears when she shared her story, tears from that small group of scripture-studiers.  We were standing on holy ground, and we knew it.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

At the worship service later in the morning, one young man affirmed his baptism.  He wore a white robe, and made promises, and we laid our hands on him.  We gave him gifts and applauded,  and sang songs of praise.  We pledged to share the light and love together, to live love and not hate, to live hope and not fear

And I thought I saw tears in some eyes that morning, just pooling a little at the edges of the lashes.

How do you measure what is happening in a congregation?

I can tally the numbers on Sunday morning.  I can try to chart the volume of singing.  I can count the visitors, subtract those who move away, add those who move in.  I can be disappointed when turnout is small and elated when it rises.

Or I can measure by moments of bravery, stories shared, tears shed.  I can trust that God is changing our lives, and changing the world through us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What to Preach

To tell the truth, I was looking forward to preaching about Mary and Martha last weekend.  Just plain old unvarnished Mary and Martha and Jesus, five small verses that I could turn over in the palm of my hand, ruminate over, shine the light on.

I was looking forward to getting back to the gospel stories after six weeks in Galatians, even though the last week in Galatians was pretty much pre-empted by the shootings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas.  Who is my neighbor?  Whose burdens am I required to bear?  Those are uncomfortable questions, but nobody said that preaching should be comfortable.

But this week seemed like the promise of the gospel came out of a different kind of discomfort.  This short story of Martha and Mary and Jesus spoke to me of the importance of hospitality, and of sitting and listening:  listening to God and listening to our neighbor.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally), our congregation is embarking on a mission initiative that involves listening to God and to our neighbors.   And the discipline of this kind of listening will be a challenging and will make us uncomfortable and will also yield a blessing.

So, Listen.  It seemed clear that this was what to preach this last weekend in my congregation.  Listening is the beginning of mission.  To listen is to put the other person in the center, not us.  It is a holy activity.

And then there was violence in Nice, and an attempted coup in Turkey.  Sunday morning, while we were in worship, three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge.

And I had this sermon which wasn't wrong, but somehow seemed like flecks of dust tossed into the air.


Was that all I had? Had I made the wrong decision?  Had I preached the wrong thing?

All I know is that I am back at it again, reading the scriptures, asking questions, imagining the people in my congregation, and especially a young man who will be confirmed on Sunday.  I am looking out at the world, and wondering what to say.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.