Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From My Missionary Days

This week's gospel reading has to do with being salt and light, and for some reason, it makes me think back to my days as a missionary in Japan.  I suppose when I considered what in God's name I was doing over in Japan being a missionary, I more often thought of it that way:  I may not be making great big visible waves (I thought), but I was being salt and light by being God's person in Japan.

But when I start thinking back to those days so long ago, I also remember a particular passage of scripture.  It was the scripture verse that I used for one of the only two sermons I preached in Japan.  It was a scripture verse from Ephesians 2, about how Jesus has broken down the walls that separate us, and made us into one people.

Of course, the author of the letter to the Ephesians is referencing two particular groups:  Jews and Gentiles.  They were divided by culture and religion.  The Gentiles were regarded as far away from God.  There was a 'dividing wall of hostility' between them.  But, not any more.  Jesus reconciled them to one another on the cross.

Think about that.  Jesus reconciled them not just to himself, but to one another.

So, I'm thinking about dividing walls of hostility right now.  And not just that great big long expensive one that the President wants to build on the southern border.  And actually, not even primarily that one.  I am thinking about all of the other dividing walls of hostility that there are, even though Jesus says that through his cross, they don't exist.

I recently saw a message on social media about how terrible it is to care more about refugees than it is about homeless veterans.  And I thought:  who told us we had to choose?  Someone is erecting a dividing wall of hostility, and to what end?  There is the wall between the women who marched and the women who did not think it was necessary to march.  There are walls between immigrant and native, documented and undocumented, and Christian and Christian.

I was not born yesterday.  There are real differences between us.  There are things that each of us are right about, and wrong about.  But you know what?  There are also fake differences between us.  We really are all in the same boat.  We all bleed, we all fall down, we're all going to die.  We are also all beloved by God, for some strange reason.

Another person wrote on a social media post that he is not going to care about refugees because, "their lives are not more important than mine."  All right.  But their lives are not LESS important than mine, either.

I am a person of privilege.  I have never been a refugee.  I have never had to flee my home.  In fact, for most of my life, I have fit in with my surroundings pretty well.  But for a few years I at least knew what it felt like to be a stranger, a foreigner whose tongue tripped over the new words she was learning, who often got lost and had to rely on the kindness of strangers, who stuck out where-ever she went.

And I tell you what:  that experience made me cling to the cross, and find my hope in the demolition of those dividing walls.  For in all of our beautiful diversity, and for all that we refuse to see it or believe it, it is still true that we are no longer strangers or sojourners, but we are children of God, with Christ himself the cornerstone.

Friday, January 20, 2017


I have been thinking a lot lately about a pastor friend of ours.  He died early this year, after a battle with brain cancer.

He worked with my husband as the Executive Pastor of a large church in suburban Twin Cities.  He was the pastor who worked most, and appreciated most, the contemporary worship service.  Mostly I knew John because I often came to worship on Monday evenings.  It was a small, informal service, a great contrast from all of the other services at this church.

Once I suggested that he take prayer concerns on Monday evenings.  As long as he had a small service with a very different DNA from all of the others, why not make use of that distinctiveness?  Of course, he took my suggestion, and tried it a few times.

After leaving my husband's church, John went on to become the Lead Pastor at one of the largest congregations in the Twin Cities.  After that, he became the Senior Pastor at (I believe) the largest Lutheran church in the United States.

John didn't fit my stereotype of what a Senior Pastors of a large congregation looked like.  First of all, he was humble.  Second, he admitted to being dyslexic.  Also, he wore his piety on his sleeve.  I don't know why it is that I thought a senior pastor of a large congregation wouldn't have these qualities, but there you go.  He was also interested in leadership:  both pastoral and lay.  He was a leader who invested in empowering other leaders.

A year after he began his last pastorate, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  It was just about the time I was getting ready to leave Minnesota and journey down to Texas.  I got on his Caring Bridge site and read about his progress.

I've kept track of people on Caring Bridge before, but John's updates were unlike any others.  Updates on his progress were slight.  What he shared, day after day, was encouragement.  From his hospital bed, from where-ever he was, when he couldn't speak or preach, he shared his faith and encouragement with everyone who read his words.  He shared the importance of joy.  He shared his conviction that all of our lives make a difference.  He shares his love of God, and God's grace.

John did some impressive things in his years in ministry.  Because of his passion for the least and the lost, he was instrumental in developing both local and global outreach ministries.  He wanted to make the world more like the Kingdom Jesus envisioned.  But in the last years of his life, when he couldn't do the impressive things any longer,  I saw so clearly the spiritual foundation of his ministry, his call.

It was Grace.  He had this profound experience of God's grace, the love of God given freely to him.  It broke his heart to know how many people did not believe that God loved them, did not believe they were worthy of God's love.  He wanted everyone to experience that.

And he wanted to build bridges, not walls.  Underneath all of the ministries and foundations, what he wanted was to reflect the love of God in Christ, and that this love was for ALL people.  So he loved people who disagreed with him, and disagreed with him passionately, and he showed that.  And he said, you  might consider him naive and a Pollyanna, but he had been called the worst of names because he dared to reflect Christ's love, and build bridges.

It is not often that we get to see someone's calling, distilled to its most basic form, and then reflected so clearly.  But that is what I give thanks for in the life of my friend John.  I give thanks for his clear reflection of the grace of God, which is love.  

I give thanks for John.  And for the love of Christ, which filled him, and fills him still.

A colleague at his last church said of him, "He taught us how to live, and he taught us how to die."

Whatever else you say, this is what it means to be a leader.

And today, and at such a time as this, when divisions and hatred are so high, somehow, his calling, and his life, give me hope.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Loving the Children

I will freely admit that I didn't really know what I was doing.  I thought I was planning the children's message.  This is something I do every week, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes we crash and burn.  Sometimes the light shines.

There are a lot of opportunities for failure in a children's message.  I can tell you stories about times when the whole enterprise got away from me, when I thought I was going to have a heart-warming conversation, and instead 20 children at once wanted to share with me embarrassing details of their morning.  Or, there was the time when, for some reason, in the middle of a children's message, one child solemnly raised his hand, and asked the question, "Is there a mean God too?"

I had gotten some on line inspiration to connect with the first chapter of the gospel of John:  the spot where John the Baptist points to Jesus and declares him to be the Lamb of God.  We were going to have Show and Tell, just like we used to do when I was in grade school.  I emailed a few parents, to see whether their children could share something for a brief time of "show and tell."

But something happened at the children's sermon time.  Two of our youth and one younger child had something to share this morning.  A young confirmation student stood up and shared a lap blanket, a gift from a beloved aunt that meant a lot to her.  A high school student shared a remote control plane, which he had "take off" from the floor and fly around the sanctuary for a moment.  And a little girl shared a box her father had bought her from one of his trips overseas, a small, beloved box where she stored treasures.

And I shared about John the Baptist, the one who showed the disciples who Jesus was, and then told them about him too.

So, that was the gospel message.

But, just like the Holy Scriptures, which I like to say have a "surplus of meaning", so also this children's message carried a surplus of meaning, not intended by me.

All of these young people showed something that was important to them, and told us about it.  They trusted us enough to show us a little bit of their lives, and they trusted us to appreciate this gift.

Show and Tell.

As it turns out, this is not just the building block of evangelism, how we show and tell others about Jesus in our lives.

It is also the building block of Christian community.  The children taught us how to do it, to show each other and tell each other who we are, so that we can pray for one another, be the body of Christ for one another.

Sitting on the floor and listening to the children share, for a moment I thought I was standing on holy ground, and this is what it looked like:  the comfort of a warm blanket, the surprise of a plane lifting up, and the joy of a hidden treasure box.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Little Epiphanies

Friday was the day of Epiphany around here, and everywhere, in fact.  But the date extended backwards and forwards, as I told the story at our pre-school chapel on Wednesday morning, and shared it again with the seniors at the Assisted Living Center in the afternoon.  And on Sunday again, we heard the story of the wise men who followed the star and worshipped the baby king, bringing him gifts.

On Wednesday morning with the children we were done with Christmas carol singing and back to our regular repertoire of simple songs, both new and old:  we sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "My God is so Great!" and "Deep and Wide" and "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands."  When I invited the children to come and sit with me, we all got to remember the Christmas story together, all the way back to Mary and Joseph's journal, and how Jesus was born and placed in a manger, and how shepherds heard the words of the angel, "Don't Be Afraid!"  

But then we got to the wise men with the gifts, and we remembered that Herod was a Bad Guy too.  But mostly we followed the star and when we found the baby, I had a baby doll for them to hold.  And when I asked them what gifts they would have brought for the baby, they had plenty of ideas, "a gallon of milk!"  "Diapers!"  "Food!"  "Toys!"  All good gifts for Jesus, and for all of the little ones we serve in his name.  

Some of the children had other answers.  One little girl wanted to give him her strength.  Another student thought we give our hearts.  

But the thing I remember the most is that so many of the children wanted to hug the baby Jesus before they returned to their classrooms after chapel.  


Later that day I was out at the Assisted Living Center.  They are tired of Christmas carols already there.  So we sang "Blessed Assurance" and "Love Lifted Me" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  I don't know how great my sermons, but the singing is always spirited at the Assisted Living Center, and we always have communion.  And they always say that I did a great job.  

I told the story of the wise men and the star again, to them, about how the star guided them, not just to Bethlehem, but to the very place where Jesus was.  The exact spot.  We wondered if the child was exactly who they were expecting.  He was supposed to be a King, but he was not in a palace, after all.  And yet they did not hesitate.  They worshipped.  They believed.  We wondered what brought them from so far away, what they were looking for.  Were they looking for peace?  for hope?  For life?  

And I told them about the children, and we wondered together about what we would give the baby king.  



And then it was Sunday.  All of the decorations are still up at the church.  It is a late epiphany, two days after the day of Epiphany.  But the wise men came, following the star.  

I had a manger in the front of the church.  I had wrapped up some board Bibles and had 3 and 4 year olds come up to the front of the church.  We followed the star to the manger, and then I had them open up their presents in front of the congregation.

And one little girl cried out, "Oh!  I got Jesus!"

Yes.  Yes she did.

During the season of Epiphany we hear stories about how Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God.  And during the season of Epiphany we keep our eyes and ears open, because he has promised to reveal himself to us.

You never know when you will hear his voice.

You never know when you will catch a glimpse of him, the creator of heaven and earth, who made himself small, so small, for our sake.