Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Good Friday World

I just placed the metal bowl in the Sanctuary for tonight's worship service. It's the bowl that will eventually hold the 30 pieces of silver from each person who gathers tonight. It's an action we'll share as we remember what those 30 pieces of silver will do in the story that we'll live out this weekend.

I placed the bowl there and then paused -- to wonder about my own betrayal. And then, just as quickly, I swept that thought away because I don't like it. I don't like to think that I've done anything wrong -- but that doesn't mean it's true. It doesn't mean that I haven't betrayed myself or betrayed my God in some way. But, like so many, I shirk away from this feeling. I don't want to admit that I live in a Good Friday world.

Several years ago NPR did a story in which Anne Lamott said: "We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world." She was quoting the author Barbara Johnson. They were not her own words. But, she doesn't let those words stand alone. As poignant as they are, Lamott goes on to explain:
"I think that every year the world seems more of a Good Friday world. And it's excruciating, whether it's Japan, or Libya, or whether its your own best friends and their children who are sick, which is something that makes no sense when you think about a loving God. But it's a time when we get to remember that all the stuff that we think makes us of such value, all the time we spend burnishing our surfaces, is really not what God sees. God, he or she, loves us absolutely unconditionally, as is."

As Christians, those that choose to live in the hope of the resurrection, we claim a loving God. We claim that God has the power to redeem and restore. We believe as Frederick Buechner says: the worst isn't the last thing about the world. There is something else. There is something beyond that horrible pain. There is something beyond that loss. There is something beyond that horror. We call it resurrection. But, as I try to write my Easter sermon, I'm finding this mysterious term really hard to describe -- if that is ever possible. It's hard to describe because we live in a Good Friday world. It's not just Japan or Libya. It's Ukraine and Janet's cancer. Lamott is right. It's excruciating. So, how do we talk about these things with each other?

Because we know what suffering does. We can talk about that -- most of the time. But, when pushed, we hesitate to answer the question: what pain are you willing to sustain? We'd rather skip that question and get to whatever is beyond that. But, it doesn't seem to work that way. It seems we have to go through the pain to get to the other side. I wish that were not true. Man, do I ever. But, resurrection doesn't come until something dies. Something has to kick the bucket before that mysterious renewal can happen. And I guess I'm still trying to figure out what that is. As the real work of Holy Week begins, I'm wondering where I'll find myself in the story again. What will die? What will I betray? What, in the end, will live?

It's time to begin this holy work again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


If I could have any superpower in the world, I would want the superpower of having the right words to say in the right moment. It's the superpower that I have always wanted -- and will never have.

Because we never have exactly the right words.

We try -- and God knows I try so very hard to find the right words every week with each new sermon -- but words will never be enough. As one pastor says, “Words are never enough, and yet words are all we have." I am reminded of this each and every time I turn to the liturgical tradition to speak to the reality of life. In the United Church of Christ, or at least the particular persuasion of the denomination that created me, we don't recite the same words each week. We don't return to familiar prayers recorded in a prayer book each time we gather. We change the words. We seek new words. We declare that God is still speaking, and then try to fill in the spaces where it seems God is silent. We fill the space between God and us with words -- so many words.

The United Churches of Olympia blessing two saints.
And I love words, so I'm OK with this. It's really not a problem for me -- until someone dies or life changes. Then, I don't look for new words. I turn to the prayer book I've got and immerse myself in the words I have spoken so many times before. And sometimes these words overwhelm me so much that my voice cracks as I speak them, as it did on Sunday.

On Sunday, we said goodbye to two wonderful people who have been such a blessing to our church for 40 years. They are moving into assisted living outside of our community -- and he let me indulge in the blessing of words. Using the liturgy that I have used each and every time I have left for a new ministry, we spoke the words of change. It was as powerful as it looks in the photo.

And then, two days later, I get a phone call from the son of one of our other wonderful members. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor last spring and it's been a long, long road -- but the end is near. He wanted us to know -- her church family -- so that we could go and say goodbye. I hung up the phone, breathed a heavy sigh and wrote an email to the whole congregation. Since that email was sent, I have spoken to a number of people who don't know what to say. They feel that they should say something but this is new (or way too familiar) and they are lost for words. So, they call me asking what they should say. (Can I add that I love that this is what I do? I get to answer these questions. How amazing is that?) So, I tell them what I do -- in the hope that it might help them.

I don't go with a prayer book. It is an incredibly rare occasion that I offer the words from my tradition. Instead, I sit beside the one who is dying and I hold her hand. And then, I tell her three things:
  • God loves you.
  • I love you.
  • I wish you so much peace.
I probably use a little flowery language because I love words so much. I just can't help myself. The first statement is probably something ministers say more than the average person -- but my faith also assures us that we're all ministers. There is no requirement of ordination to declare God's blessings. You only need to believe it's true. And the rest is what I believe matters most. I don't think we can tell each other enough how much we love. So, it's important to say: I love you. Tell a story about how much you love that person -- when she did something amazing, when she cared for you or when you were inspired by her. Whatever that story is, tell it. And then, say the other thing that we don't say enough: I don't want you to be in pain but want you to feel peace. It ain't a superpower. It's just the truth and there is nothing more awesome than that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Tortoise and The Hare

A few hours ago, I sent out an email about this coming Sunday's First Fifth Sunday Potluck at church. Then, I went ahead and tried to update some of the materials on the website -- including sharing a bunch of images from my camera phone. No, they didn't teach this to me in seminary. I am totally making this up as I go along.

But, I really like pictures. There's actually a reference to it in my sermon on Sunday -- about how we see in pictures. We really need pictures. Well, at least, I really need pictures. Maybe it's because I was an art major in college and I can't quite give up that artistic streak. Or maybe I'm a visual learner. Or maybe it's a combination of both. For example, when the Strategic Planning Steering Committee met recently, I had to get a picture for how this whole thing was going to work. I went straight to the white board and started drawing diagrams.

I had to draw a picture -- which we edited together -- about how all of the various committees and people relate to each other. This doesn't even compare to the ridiculousness of the next thing that I drew on the board.

Today was one of those days where I found myself trying to squeeze in a whole bunch of pastoral visits while also preparing for this big meeting. It was one of those days -- and still is one of those days -- where I feel totally unprepared for the work God has called me to do. So, after sending this email, I got a reply from one of our older saints in reply who concluded her email with this line:
Wishing you well on your latest venture - can we keep up with you?
This one line makes me sigh and laugh all at once. It cracks me up that she thinks that this is my idea -- or maybe even thinks that I'm leading this effort. If there is one thing that I am clear about in my ministry, it's that I am called to support this congregation in their sacred work. It is not my work -- but their work. I am there to cheerlead, support and most importantly pastor. (There are obvious questions that dovetail this, right? For example, if your ministry isn't the work of the church, then what is? Welcome my midlife crisis. That's another post entirely. Or maybe a topic for my therapist.) I feel completely and totally unprepared for this strategic planning thing that is happening around me. It's good work. It's the right thing to happen but I have no idea what I am doing -- and I hesitate to claim this as "my venture" when the church has really been moving toward this point for several years. I have been trying really hard to try to provide sacred space for this wonderful group of people not to feel completely overwhelmed after their long-term pastor retired and this new chick (that would be me) came on the scene who embodies change just by standing on the chancel.

That brings me to the next image I drew -- which I think evidences that I have no idea what I'm doing. I had to draw out the process of how this whole thing was going to unfold which I needed a tortoise and a hare to illustrate. The hare is supposed to be ahead of the process -- but not too far ahead. (Notice that the hare is actually behind. I can't explain this.) And then, there are the slower pieces. There is important stuff that still needs to get done -- and is really important - but it can move at the pace of the tortoise without any real worry. There's stuff that has to happen at the beginning of the race and through every step of this race we are supposed to find ways to communicate.

I told you it was ridiculous. You can't say I didn't warn you. And this, friends, is how I try to explain how we move forward as the church. Where I actually become the tortoise and the hare myself -- trying to figure out the right pace for my own self in this weird and wild work. Guide my feet, Jesus. But, not just mine, guide all our feet.

The Son Also Rises

How do you talk about resurrection?

That's what the conversation turned to in our worship planning group for Lent. But, it wasn't just how you talk about it -- because our conversation explored how you experience it. After reading this article, or maybe because of the way we talked about the Revised Common Lectionary texts, we started talking about how any one of us can ever dare to get up in the morning and face another day. That became our question. How do you face another day? What lets you know that it's possible?

That's when George said something about putting on his socks. Another day comes and George puts his feet on the floor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, before he gets up, George puts on his socks. This is what allows George to face another day. That simple action is resurrection.

Maybe it's always that simple. Maybe we make Jesus' resurrection into something so huge and so impossible that we can't find it within ourselves to believe that this could be something that happens in our own lives. So, what if it's not? What if resurrection -- that possibility to move toward transformation -- became something that was as simple as facing another day? What if it's as simple as watching the sun rise or putting on your socks?

That's what we've been doing this Lent. We've been trying to claim a new day. In the later service, we have watched sunrises on a large screen. We've moved from dark to light. We've stretched and proclaimed the words of the psalms. It's a bit more passive. It's something we are watching -- not something that we are taking part in. And I think sometimes that's needed. In life and in faith, we need to know we have a part to play. We need to roll up our sleeves and experience it. That's what has happened in the first service. We have started to make the sunrise.

So, that first Sunday of Lent, it looked like this upon the walls.

Each week, we add new layers of tissue paper to these white walls to imagine that Christ could rise again -- but maybe we can too. Maybe we can make it happen with our own hands. I know. I know. This is something God does. But, what if we need to roll up our sleeves and get involved enough so that we can know (really know) that God is working?

And maybe that understanding changes with each attempt to imagine that we could be resurrected. Sure, Jesus did. But, maybe we could too. Maybe we could find that possibility in the many colors we dare to imagine transforming our worship space.

Or maybe there's just something about full grown adults getting to make a mess -- and calling it holy.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Me and the man I love

I preached this wonderful story about wilderness four years ago and I'm still working on the same sermon from that many years ago. I preached on it again yesterday. And, lo and behold, it's the same sermon. Almost. Because I still have something to say about this word: if. Maybe because I don't have any answers more answers than I did then.  Maybe because there are still things that I'm trying to figure out after turning 33 (and will turn 35 at the end of this month). Maybe because this sermon really just isn't finished. And maybe never will be. Or maybe because a whole new if has appeared and I'm even more confused than I was four years ago. That might not be an accurate statement. I'm confused about different things -- but I'm not sure that the scale has completely tipped.

The examples I used in my sermon all sound negative -- disease, job loss and mental illness. Oh! That's not totally true. There's one glimmer of hope in the hope of graduation. I'm not all doom and gloom in the quandaries I explore -- but there's one I don't mention. I didn't say it from the pulpit. Maybe because I didn't want to edit anymore after it hit me. Ok. That's definitely the reason. I was straight up lazy -- but here I am still trying to figure out how the words I preached yesterday speak to my own life. Because that word -- if -- is weighing heavily on me right now. 

And that sounds bad. Just the way that I said that it sounds like a burden I'm carrying. But, it's not. It's not a burden. Because the truth is: I'm in love. There's nothing depressing about that fact. I am in love with a wonderful man who just so happens to be in the army. We have had wonderful adventures in wine country and Hawaii and Seattle and even cuddled on the couch. He has become such a huge part of my life that it's hard to imagine life without him -- but I have to. In less than a month, he'll deploy. He'll go to make peace in Kuwait. (I'm told that Kuwait is really quite safe and I'm trying really hard to believe that. I am not really succeeding in this fact.) That's where this annoying word -- if -- kicks in. Because there are so many things that are unknown. There are so many things that I want to know about the future and so many more things that I can't know. So, this word bounces around in my head. If… If... If…

And I don't really know how to talk about it. I don't know how to express how this particular possibility    is pulling at all of my heart strings. But, I know it is. I see it in myself every time I'm with this man I love. Because I can't help but touch him and hold him. I noticed the other night that I had wrapped my arms around him in such a way that it seemed I was determined not to let him go. But, he will go. He has to go. And I just don't know what's on the other side of that if. I can't imagine how I will change or he will change. Or what will happen to the ways that our lives intersect. I have no idea what will be and that scares me. And that's really all I can say. This scares me. Good job, tempter. Good job. But, I'm gonna really try not to let you win.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Writing for Lent

There are a lot of practices that one can explore during Lent. This year, I plan on writing more. I'm not going to be quite so insane to think that I'll write every day -- but instead that I'll find the space to write something that won't be preached on Sunday or appear in the church newsletter or even something penned in my journal. I miss writing and I haven't given myself permission to indulge in this passion. It's something I long to resurrect.

Most of these words won't appear on my blog because let's be honest, I also need to give myself to permission to heed Anne Lamott's advice to listen my broccoli. And I won't do that if it appears here. I will, however, post this here publicly so that you can ask me, "How's your Lenten practice going?" which I hope will not result me in placing my face in my palm.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Doing it Differently

This is the Rev. Maurice L. Haehlen. He was the pastor of the church I serve from 1962 until 1970 and there isn't a week that goes by that I am not compared to him. You see, Maurice was quite the preacher. He spoke with gusto about Veitnam, Jesus and everything else. They give me a knowing glance when they comment on his preaching. Because I'm not that kind of preacher. I preach from a manuscript and I have a little girl voice that sometimes can't be heard in certain points of the Sanctuary. I can't recite parts of the Bible from memory. I use notes. People are always impressed when you don't use notes -- and man, I wish I was that kind of preacher. How I once dreamed that I could fill a huge pulpit and a big steeple with my short stature.

But, I don't look or sound much like Maurice and his contemporaries. I still get measured by this yard stick -- and I'm happy to listen to it because I understand the frustration. I do. I really do. Because I'm frustrated too. Maurice and his boys did ministry one way and it fit their time. It also happened to be around that time when churches were bursting at the seams. So, of course, these guys were doing a great job. And I trust that they were. But, a bunch of things changed in our country and in the church so that a person that looks and sounds like me could break into this old boys club.

The problem is that I don't want to play by their rules. I don't want to join the club. I'm not even sure I want to start my own. I do all of the same things that Maurice did but I do it differently. Just because I am who I am. Even if I try to do it like Maurice, I do it differently. Because… well, I'm not really sure. I know that the church has changed. I know that my world looks very different than the world of the late 1960s in America, but I'm not sure what makes my ministry style so different. I took a whole week last week with a circle of friends with the blessing of a grant from Austin Presbyterian Seminary to figure this out. We won this grant way back in July when I first blogged about it. But, this was the first experiment in trying to understand what makes our leadership as young clergy women different.

Except that we didn't focus on this question. What we spent most of our time talking about was how to lead transformation in the traditional church. There are all of these new church starts appearing where it looks really easy to go and create a new set of norms without any Maurices looking over your shoulder, but where does that leave the churches that exist now? How can we help bring them through this awkward teenage phase that Christianity in America seems to be undergoing right now? Can they (and we) be transformed? We directed all of these questions at Theresa Cho who serves at St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco -- and though I think we might have overwhelmed her completely, here are the things that I heard.

  • Give Permission. Something happens when you let go of the rules just enough that people who wouldn't feel otherwise comfortable in church find a place. St. John's has seen this particularly with children as Theresa and her colleague John allowed those kids to run wild.
  • Covenant. I gotta admit I was surprised to hear this from a Presbyterian because it's so much a part of my United Church of Christ heritage. But, the sacred act of covenanting can hold together so many differences. Interestingly, Theresa wrote the covenant (for which I'm hoping a copy will appear in my email) and handed it down to the congregation as the way that they would live together. My Congregational ways balk at this but…
  • Know where you are. Theresa talked openly about her own journey through call which I even found on her blog here. She's given herself space to work through her own spirit to the point that it's even part of her job description to figure out her vocation.
  • Worship can be the change. I have assumed for far too long that you need all of these other community building things like potlucks and small groups for a church to transform into a community. St. John's has done this in worship. Everything that they do as a church (including their two meetings) happens on Sunday. In our world that is always looking for more, this seems so simple. And that simplicity sounds kinda like Jesus to me. It is a radical new thing to live that simplicity and make Sunday a true sabbath.

I am so grateful for this sacred space and so curious what will happen next with the next site visit and the new insights we glean from other pastors trying to figure out how to do this crazy, wonderful thing that we do with all of the passion and love Christ gives us.

And I'm so thankful for these four women who allow me to be my crazy self. We didn't spend the whole time talking about ministry. We walked labyrinths, ate good food, read, drank wine and laughed. I forgot how beautiful the laughter is in this group of women. And that alone is enough for me.