Monday, August 28, 2023

The Power of “Amen”

 It was Saturday afternoon.  I was ready for Sunday, and getting ready to go out of town with my husband on Sunday afternoon, for a quick anniversary trip.  Just overnight. 

I got a text from one of our new members.  If there is such a thing as a “desperate text”, that is what this was.  Her good friend, the man who used to attend church with her and her granddaughter, was dead.  Heartbroken was not a strong enough word for what she was feeling.  I called her.  She wanted to know if it was possible for us to have a funeral the next Friday, even though he had not joined the church.

I said yes.  It didn’t even seem like a hard decision.  She was hurting; how could we not do this for her?  He was her best friend, had been like a father to her granddaughter.  It was even more than that.

And, she said, he had taken his life.  When we met together to discuss music and scripture readings, the first thing she said to me was, “What is a scripture reading that lets people know that a person took his life but he is in heaven?”

I knew my task then.  We chose his favorite songs, and sang Amazing Grace.  I chose Psalm 130, and parts of Romans 8.  And I started to write, or tried to write, a sermon.  I felt the weight of saying the right thing, and not saying the wrong thing.  I didn’t know anyone else who would be there, but this heartbroken, grieving woman.  

I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again.  I think I was afraid of naming the reality because there have been times when people have not wanted the reality named.  The most important thing is to tell the truth.  But it seemed hard.  

So there we were, at 1:00 in the afternoon.  There were a respectable number of people there  on time, but they kept coming during the first part of the service, slipping in and taking a seat.  These were people that this man had worked with at two different jobs.  All of them thought it was important to be there for him, for his family, for each other.  

I remember that my parish member wasn’t sure about having remembrances.  She couldn’t think of anyone who would be able to speak.  I decided to do something a little risky, and invite people to share something they remembered.  Five people raised their hands and stood up and said gracious words about their friend.

Then it was time for me to speak.  By this time our little church was pretty full.  I began.  I shared a couple of memories.  I acknowledged this man’s struggle with depression, and how depression lies, and we were here to tell the truth.  And then I came to the hard part.  I said these words:

“And I am glad you have come here to the church as well, to T’s church, to the place she and K and her granddaughter worshipped.  Because, I am sad to say, there was a time when the church would not have had his funeral in the sanctuary.  There was a time when the church believed that people who took their lives were somehow beyond God’s mercy.  We preached judgment then, instead of grace.  And that makes what you are all dealing with even harder.  

“And so today I want to be very clear — that K was and is a child of God, athat God loves him, knew his pain, and received him as his own.”

It was then I heard it.


A chorus of voices from the pews.  They said Amen and they keeps saying Amen, whenever the grace and mercy of God was proclaimed, whenever words of eternal life invoked.  


This is not a common practice in the denomination to which I belong.  But I felt the power of this one word.  The Amen of agreement, the Amen of encouragement, the Amen of radical mercy.

In that moment I felt that the words I was saying were not mine alone, and that the ministry I was offering was also not mine alone.  All of these people who came — they came to grieve, and to receive hope — but they also came as ministers and witnesses to the power of the gospel.


After the worship service, the congregation shared food and stories, hugs and tears.  So many people said to us, “Thank you for letting us come here.  Thank you for your welcome.”  The gratitude overwhelmed us.  

But also — I heard so many stories, from this man’s co-workers, stories about all that they shared with one another at work.  These people who worked together were a family, bonded together both by the work they did, but also by dinners and stories and lives they shared.  

I have worked as a pastor for so long that I have forgotten the kind of bonding people can do at work, the ways in which our coworkers can become our family, and even — our church.  A community of support — and faith.

A community of “Amen.”

We can be that for one another.  When we are afraid to tell the whole, hard, and merciful truth.  When we need to name the pain, but also the love.  When we need the mercy of God to be shown in each other’s arms, and eyes, and voices.


May we say it, and hear it, and be it, for one another.


Saturday, July 29, 2023

Make America Godly Again

 It was back in June, and I was shopping for clothes to take on a retreat.  I suppose it was an excuse — do I really need more clothes? — in a nice women’s shop. I had picked out a couple of sale items, when I turned and saw her.  She was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Make America godly Again.”

And immediately I wondered, I wonder what godliness would look like to her?

I didn’t ask.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into a theological discussion right then, and, it was June, and out of the corner of my eye I also spied what I THINK was their tasteful and sort of understated Pride-themed shirt.  It was white but had all kinds of colors woven into it as well.   

The woman’s “godly” t-shirt:  gray.

Maybe this was a coincidence, but it did make me think.

I posted about the incident and my question on facebook.  Some people did ask me why I didn’t ask HER.  Maybe I should have.  But I thought possibly it would have been a longer conversation.

On facebook though, I did get a response that made me think.  One of my friends talked about godliness and how people just went to church more back in the 1940s and 1950s (and even 1960s).  The church where I grew up was full, and, I will admit, I sort of wish that the church was full like that again.

It got me nostalgic for awhile, thinking back on the crowded Sunday School Rooms, and youth group (although I didn’t really like youth group, but that’s another story).  I thought about every Sunday worship and what it sounded like when a lot of people are singing hymns they know and love, together.  Most of the stores weren’t open and there wasn’t much on TV.  If you asked people, almost everyone said they believed in God.

The Good Old Days.

But was that godliness?

I’m older (and still Christian, by the way), but I know some things about the “good old days” that I didn’t when I was growing up.  The good old days weren’t good for everyone.  I just didn’t know about it then.  I didn’t know about segregation.  My northern suburb didn’t really have any people of color.  I didn’t know about lynching.  I didn’t know that people thought it was somehow godly to bar the doors of their churches and not let people of color worship with them.  It was considered godly to have separate schools and separate water fountains.  

But everybody went to church.  And believed in God.

So “Make America Godly Again?”  How do we know we were godly before?  How are we even defining godliness?  What is our criteria for godliness anyway?

When I think back on my childhood, (and frankly, even parts of my adulthood), I think I defined godliness as what I wasn't supposed to do -- drink, smoke, swear, be too familiar with the opposite sex before marriage,  My grandparents also included dancing and playing cards (they believed it was a sin to use face cards and we only played Rook.)  So godliness was a sort of respectability, although that turned out in some cases to be outward respectability.  And perhaps, in some cases, that included going to church.  

I still remember my aunt telling me once, when I talked to her about the "good old days" in her hometown and home church, about men being active in church, that she replied, "And then they went home and beat their wives."

So, "make America godly again?"  I have mixed feelings.  I would want to know what the definition of godliness was.  I would want to know what the criteria was.  I would hope that rather than barring the doors and keeping people out, true godliness would include mercy and wide welcome.  It would include seeing the image of God in one another, and even the stranger.  You know, like Jesus, who hung around with sinners and accepted dinner invitations from them.

I think as well that I would be careful about wearing a "Make America Godly Again" t-shirt.   If I did, it wouldn’t be gray.  It would be all the colors.  Godliness would be vibrant, with open arms.  Godliness would rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  Godliness would laugh, and sing.  And be humble.  Godliness would have room for more people, not fewer, because it would be based on the huge surprise of grace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

What makes a church good?

 Early one steamy morning my husband and I were walking our dog around the common areas of our community.  It was early enough that the lawn workers were out, mowing and weeding and beautifying, and as we walked along the circle, one of them paused mowing to let us pass.  I thanked him, and asked him how he was.

“I want to quit!”  He said.  

“How long have you been doing this?” I replied.

“Three days.  But I know I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.  I think I might want to go to college.”

I asked him which college, and he quickly named a well-regarded college nearby.  I offered that one of the young people from my church would be attending that college this fall.

He asked if I attended the church down the street, and I said, No, and I named my church (Grace) and where it was located.

Then he asked, “Is it a good church?”

Before I could say anything, my husband responded, “SHE’S the pastor!”

The young man looked surprised.  “YOU’RE the pastor?”

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that after all these years (women have been ordained for over 50 years in my denomination) people are still shocked that I exist.  And yet, it’s not his final comment that reverberates; it’s his question:  “Is it a good church?”

It made me wonder what a “good church” would look like to him.  Maybe that’s why I hesitated to say “yes."  I think that my church is good (after all, I’m the pastor), but in what way is it good?  Would he think so?  And even though I think we are “good” (whatever that means), I don’t think we are a perfect church.   There are times that I am amazed by our love and generosity — I still remember the Spirit I felt when our congregation blessed our two high school seniors and gave them quilts that our quilters group made.  On that day, I thought, “This is a great church!”

One of our newer members lives alone; when he had medical appointments, some of our other members gave him rides to and from the doctor’s office.  And when the son of a friend of the congregation needed to get married over a weekend leave, members of the congregation made sure he and his fiancĂ© were welcomed, and made the celebration happen.

When an older member of the congregation died suddenly, almost 30 members of the church attended her funeral, even though it was at another venue about forty miles away.

But, if I am honest, there are other moments too:  times when someone (even me) said the wrong thing at the wrong time.  There have been moments when the livestream failed, or the sermon fell short.  The music isn’t always perfect.

But, what makes a church good?  That’s what I am thinking about.  I don’t know what this young man thinks.  I don’t know if a good church for him is large, and has a band, or small, and has prayer groups.  I don’t know if a good church for him is sure about everything, or leaves room for doubt.  

For me, this is what makes a church good: a church that listens to the children and the shut ins.  A church that hears the voice of God, in scripture, but also in outcasts.  A church that practices forgiveness.  A church that knows Jesus, and wants to know him better.  A church that cares for one another, and for others.  This church doesn’t need to be large, but there is always room for more.

What makes a church good?