Friday, August 26, 2016

Conservative and Liberal Are Both Good Words

I was visiting with a member of my first parish one day many years ago.  He was also a tall, humble man, a retired pastor who had spent all of his ministry serving churches in rural Nebraska and South Dakota.  Now he had come back home to retire.  I remember him stopping in to my office often to chat, to ask me questions about the current state of the Lutheran church.  He was a Norwegian Lutheran, and my background as a child had been with the Swedish American Churches.

"We always thought that the Swedes were more liberal," he said to me that day.  "Liberal?" I asked.  "In what way?  Liturgically?  Morally?  Theologically?  Politically?"

He didn't even bat an eye.  "All those ways," he said, with a sweep of his hand.

Liberal.  Conservative.  We bat those words around a lot these days.  Sometimes when we say them, they sound like accusations, or even like character assassination.  "We always thought that the Swedes were more ... liberal", he said.  "Watch out!  He is pretty... conservative," (as if in warning.) Liberals are permissive.  Conservatives are judgmental.

But I can't help thinking:  At their roots, Conservative and Liberal are both good words.

Think about it:  Conservative means to conserve, to recognize value, not to throw out the old in pursuit of everything new.  I love to go to antique stores, and sometimes I think that the treasures I find have more character than all of the new, cheap stuff I can find in the discount stores.  Does this mean I am conservative?

Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, started the National Parks system.  It was a conservative initiative, a movement to preserve something of value for future generations.

My conservative congregations in South Dakota did not chase after brand names with big price tags.  They weren't flashy.  They didn't go in for expensive, flavored coffee (at least not while I was living there).  They weren't caught up in the latest fad.

I knew that they didn't like "Liberals", and I heard it bandied about in a scornful way.  But what does the word "Liberal" really mean?  It means -- generous.  "Apply liberally" -- means -- Apply generously.  Use a LOT.  And whatever you think about people you CALL liberals, it would seem to me that being liberal would itself be an attractive thing.  I want to be around generous people -- people who are generous with their time, generous will their good will, generous with their resources.

So the word "liberal" really means generous and the word "conservative" really means to conserve, to save what is of value.  And maybe what those of us who call ourselves liberal or conservative need to ask ourselves is:  are we really being generous?  Are we really preserving what is valuable?  Are we who we say we are?

Liberal and conservative are both good words.

But are we who we say we are?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Back To School

Yesterday was the first day of school at the pre-school associated with my church.  It was also the first day of first grade for a small group of students, as we have decided to venture just rung up into grade school this year.

The school offers day care as well as school, so parents begin arriving early.  I had committed to be over at the school to welcome children and parents by 7:00 a.m., although after a busy Sunday morning and evening, that seemed more difficult to achieve.

I walked in a few minutes after 7:00, looking "casually pastoral".  I remembered last year being hectic, with many new students needing signatures and forms.  It seemed much more laid back yesterday morning, and I was wandering the hallways and wondering what to do when the skies outdoors opened up and it began to pour.

I watched as beleaguered parents arrived, trying to juggle children, umbrellas, diapers, mats for napping and assorted accessories for the school year.  It then became clear what my job was going to be this morning:  opening the door.

It was a simple, and as necessary, as that.  I picked up fallen items on occasion, held some hands, greeted people and held the door open.  I recognized old friends, cheered for the new first graders, pointed a few people in the direction of the school administrator, who could give directions to the right classroom.  And once (and this made my day) I got my picture taken with a new kindergarten student.  (Really, that moment was worth showing up for.)  But mostly, I just held the door open, and smiled.

It was enough.

Maybe that's what I do, after all:  hold the door open.  Maybe behind all of the fancy theology and studying, what I am called to do is to hold the door open so that people can walk in to the grace and goodness of God.  It's not me:  it's something beyond me and behind me, although I hope the Holy Spirit is also within me.  When I open the door to the pre-school, when I open my communion kit and take out the little cups, when I open up my own flawed life and share a a testimony, when I open my hands to serve -- I am holding the door open.

I'd like to say that this is uniquely part of my vocation as a pastor, but I know it isn't true.  We are all called to do it, although in different ways.  We are all called to hold the door open for one another, so that we can walk into the grace and mercy of God.  And we all need to have the door opened for us -- no one can do it on their own -- even me.

As it turns out, I never stop going back to school -- and the children are my teachers, who hold the door open for me.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Why I Go Over To the Pre-School

Because it is summer, I have not had as many chapel services at the pre-school, and I have been missing my regular dates with the children there.  I try to work in some free time visiting the classrooms, but it's hard.  We are working on so many things at the church right now:  getting people ready to visit homebound members with communion, working on a small group program for the fall, welcoming a group of new members to the congregation, planning worship and some new "All Ages Learning" for the fall.

But today, I took a break, and I went over to the pre-school for a little while.

It is in my letter of call, after all.  Right there in black and white, one of my responsibilities is "relating to the pre-school."

But that's not why I go.

It was lunch time when I walked in the door.  A couple of the classrooms were in the middle of their lunch.  As I approached their table, one little boy jumped up and ran to hug my legs.   A little girl came over and tugged on my skirt.  "I got so big!"  she said.  Two or three others said the same thing: "I got so big!"  they told me.  I agreed.   They are growing all the time.

I admired ribbons and new tennis shoes and t shirts with dinosaurs.  Students told me about baby brothers and puppies and everything they were excited about, which was everything.  When one group was done eating, another group arrived.  Their teacher asked if I would say table grace for them.

Some younger children came in as well, following their teacher like ducklings following their mama. When one little girl saw me, she waved as if I were her long-lost cousin.

I don't go over to the school as often as I should.  There are so many lists of things to do, strategies to accomplish, goals to achieve, and I forget that knowing the children is as important as any goal, task or strategy.

But today I remembered.  I remembered that my work is Grace and Grace is my work.  My work is loving the children and the shut ins, saying prayers and bringing bread and wine, and being there.  All of my lists and strategies are worthless if I forget.   I walked into the school and got hugged around the legs, and I remembered the grace of being known and loved for no particular reason, just because you are.

There are mysteries in the universe, and I am called to make them known, as they are made known to me.  It's not a strategy.  It's just love.  It's just the grace of God, which is being loved, just because you are.