Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Blessings on Your Right and on Your Left (More Prayers for the Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost)

The Exodus passage begs to be performed in some way and may be best done in a blessing. Using the aisle in your sanctuary (whether formed by pews or chairs), invite those being blessed this morning (Sunday School teachers, backpack holding kids, adults holding their iPhones or calendars, and anyone else) to stand in the aisle. Use blue streamers or even long bolts of cloth to create the “waters forming a wall” and invite those on the right an those on the left each offer a blessing to those in the aisle. Streamers should surely be waved as that blessing is offered — and if a wall is used, then it may end with a big hug wrapped in the waters of baptism.
This was the prompt that I wrote for the United Church of Christ's Worship Ways for the Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost (or September 14). What is mysteriously missing from this prompt is how to do this. There is a reason for this. I was rushing and uncertain. I had missed the deadline -- and was trying to at least leave myself (and hopefully others) a suggestion that something creative could be done here. Now, as I prepare for worship one week ahead of time, I'm setting out to write that liturgy for all to share.

In verse 22 of the Exodus reading, we are told: "The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left." Walls offer support and structure. They define space, creating a boundary where there wasn't one before. Sometimes walls separate and divide, like the Berlin Wall. Sometimes they go on for miles, like the Great Wall of China. But, they can also be something to lean on. Walls can be something that offer support.

This seems particularly important for the Israelites making their way through those blue walls of sea. Walking on that dry land, they would have been protected by those walls. It would have been a reminder of God's support and guidance. On their right and on their left, they would have seen and felt that sacred and mysterious feeling of begin held -- like a hug. As we move into this next season, where things go back to "normal," I hope that we all feel that sense of being held by each other and by God and I hope this liturgy will offer a reminder.

First, we need two walls -- which is gleefully provided through the architecture of our Sanctuary. The center aisle will be the dry land that the Israelites find. It will be upon that dry land that all those seeking blessing in the midst of change will stand: children with backpacks, adults and teenagers with smartphones, folks with paper calendars, Sunday School children and their wonderful teachers. But, those walls don't just appear with architecture. Those walls appear and reappear when God tells Moses to hold out his hand (Exodus 14:16, 26, CEB). So, it will be the action of those on the aisles that will form the walls by extending their hands in blessing. In their hands, they will have the option of waving blue streamers simply because some blessings need streamers -- and because it is way too difficult to hold your hands out in blessing, wave a streamer and hold a bulletin, it will not be a litany. The dominant voice will be my own, as the worship leader. Here is the blessing that we will share with necessary instructions.

These words will welcome the worshippers:

As you enter worship this morning, you are invited to take a blue streamer to use in a ritual of blessing for our calendars, our backpacks, our children and our Sunday School teachers in this new season of life together.

Beside these words will be a heaping basket of streamers pre-torn to 2-3 feet in length. 

Then, we jump ahead. After the Words of Assurance & Passing of the Peace, the children will be invited forward and share in a story that sets the scene. (Because our Director of Youth and Children's Ministries is truly awesome.) That is when the worshipper will see Blessings on Your Right and on Your Left listed next in the bulletin followed by this prompt.

Anyone who finds themselves in a season of change is invited to come forward 
and find a place standing in the center aisle wearing their backpacks, with calendars, briefcases or smartphones in their hands, with Sunday School curricula under their arms or with any other symbol of that recognizes a change in their routine. Those in the pews will reach out their hands to offer the blessing of God with the streamers provided. 

I will offer these words to the congregation. (I will actually have them practice making the wall before it happens because even holy moments take practice.) 
When the people were afraid, when they didn't know how to move forward, Moses told them: "Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you. God will keep you safe." But, even Moses had a hard time believing these words. It wasn't until God told him to reach out his hands over the sea that he found that faith.
Look! See now, how the hands of God's messengers stretch over your heads! See how these tender, loving hands make a wall on your left and on your right. See the shimmering light of the sea waving in their hands. See how they encourage you, bless you and urge you forward, saying like Moses, "Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you." With Moses faith, we offer this faith to those in need of God's blessing.
This is our prayer for every child seeking knowledge.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every retiree carefully keeping a calendar of activities.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every person who struggles to sync their digital calendar.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every person bustling to find meaningful work.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for teachers looking to share their love even more than their wisdom.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for teenager that struggles to get up with the alarm.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for all that worry that there is not enough time.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
In this faith, we pray with hearts full of blessing and our hands stretched out in love: May we all remember how these walls on our left and on our right wave not only streamers but songs of joy and love so that whenever we doubt and worry, we only need to lean upon these hearts and these hands. Because in these hands, there is the glory of God. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Better Pastor

Tonight, I had the sheer delight of spending the evening with my wonderful friend Sarah sipping margaritas in her backyard, playing with her babies and chatting with her husband. When I say delight, I mean it. These people are delightful. It's delightful to find yourself in the presence of friends who continually say, "Why didn't you move here sooner?"

I'm so grateful for friendships that begin so quickly and so easily. And then, two years later, I get to relish in the pleasure of talking about planning worship, crafting change and having a personal life. That's right. Both Sarah and I are pastors. Which means that even our downtime includes a lot of shop talk. We talk about the things that we're trying, the books we pretended to read, the people that make us crazy and the things that are breaking our hearts. We steal each others ideas and offer each other assurances -- all with the salty blessing of margaritas. Somewhere in the midst of this sharing, Sarah said, "You're such a better pastor than I am."

I was so stunned that I didn't assert what I believe to be true: Sarah is a way better pastor than I am. But, as Sarah pointed out, I make more hospital visits. And I apparently post about this on social media with some frequency. I say things about how deep and profound these visits are. To this, I was able to say, "You know, social media lies." She laughed and said how she wished her life really was how it appears on social media life. Because let's be honest. We put our best faces forward on social media -- for our relatives, our church members and our seminary classmates that may or may not be reading. We want put our best selves forward on social media.

That's social media. I suppose it's fine to sound a little more perfect no matter how irreverent or transparent we think we sound. But, with friends? With the people who feel like long lost friends after only two years? I hope we can be our real selves -- the selves that we claim should appear on social media but always sounds a little too raw or too icky. Let's not worry who is the better pastor. Let's not compare how we sound on social media or what new crazy idea we're trying to realize in our congregation. Because that's not what it's really about. It's not about how big the steeple is or how many people show up on Sunday morning, it's how much we love this awesome work. That's what makes us good pastors. We love what we do so much so that we laugh and cry about this wild work over margaritas.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Solemn Promises

A few weeks ago, my congregation voted to affirm this statement of their Vision, Mission and Values as part of the Strategic Plan. This statement will hopefully be what frames what comes next. It will shape the goals that will determine the future of our ministry -- which feels like such a critical, finite determination. I have to remind myself that congregations need to do this every five years or so. Because -- especially now -- ministry is changing so very fast. This is really hard to hold onto when folks are tired of hearing the word discernment and just want to do something rather than talk about it. 

Luckily, I haven't heard that in a while. 

But, I still know that I need to do everything I can to make this Vision, Mission and Values feel comfortable and familiar for the next step to be as awesome as I hope it will be. And people need to hear something seven times before they remember it -- which is challenging with the modern day worshiper. So, I'm trying to be creative which means it's time for a prayer station. Last Sunday, inspired by Genesis 28:10-22, I preached this sermon inviting myself and the congregation to consider the solemn promise that Jacob makes to remember God's promises -- and then make that promise ourselves.

After the sermon and a brief moment of silence, in the Open Space that we share through this summer, I said something similar to what is written it says on the framed instructions on the table to the right: 
Make Your Solemn Promise

Consider what you might do or say to most act like God looking toward the future of our church.

Upon the colorful paper stones, write that one thing that you might do or say to act like God.

Affix that stone using the glue sticks provided onto the foundation of our church building as we imagine a colorful future full of God’s promise. 
Upon the table, as folks came forward, they found an image of our building in the center of the table. On either side, there were:
  • colorful "paper stones" like the one that Jacob fell asleep on (Well, kinda like that)
  • black markers
  • glue sticks.
All of this was resting upon the requisite cardboard to prevent markers from bleeding all over the pretty altar cloth. There was another set of instructions under the colorful paper stones which said:
Take one of these colorful paper stones.

Write upon it what you might do or say to act like God and then glue it to the church.
That’s your promise!
The idea being that when you lay down your stone -- as Jacob did -- you make that promise for the future to remember all that God has done and (hopefully) all that God will do. I don't know if it worked for everyone but I did get one response by email that said: 
I also love the art project you offered - and the discussion of promise - for me, writing on my boulder made me recommit to this process that I must admit I'm getting so tired of - and yet that tiredness is also sadness, fear of what the future holds - can't wait till I get to the JOY part!!!!
To which, I gotta say, amen.

The end result, which now hangs in the church without any explanation, looks like this.

I don't know if I should offer an explanation or if I should just let the experience of creating art and making promises speak for itself. This, for the moment, I'm trusting it to God.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Doing a New Old Thing

I don't even know where to begin. There are so many thoughts in my head as I try to figure out this whole missional thing. I've had a few conversations with a few different people where my question has been the same. I've asked them very simply: where are the gaps?

And most of these people want to tell me what to do. That I should see where the interest is within the church. That I should be doing that church thing and not wading into these conversations. That's when I have to clear my throat and ask again: where are the gaps? Because I could start there. And, truth be told, that's what my church is doing. They are dreaming about all of the things that they could do or might want to do. But, I want to know what the needs really are. What's missing? Where can we fit into that God-shaped hole?

In each conversation, I haven't taken notes. I wanted to listen. I wanted to be fully engaged. I didn't want anyone to worry about what I was writing down. But, this is problem for me. Because I'm a visual learner and unless I write it down, it doesn't stick. So, I revived an old prayer practice. One you have seen before if you have followed my blog because for a little while there were lost of these prayers like here and here and here. That's when I was still painting and my painted prayers looked like this. But, I haven't done it in years. Four years to be exact until I sat down to try to think about these conversations. And this came out.

I turned the page and what came out was this.

I hesitate to post these because they have names and information that is pertinent to this community. I don't want anyone to think that I'm not supportive of these people and their institutions. But, these are the things that I've heard. These are the things I'm wondering about and how I'm trying to prayerfully ask others into conversation so that we can discover the gaps -- and maybe even try to fill them. Maybe. But, right now these prayers live as questions. Questions that I'm trying to talk to God about and waiting to hear what she says.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Being Missional

Last year, the Olympia Presbytery asked our churches to read a book. And I tried. Really I did. Especially after one of my very sage and extremely well-read church members bought me a copy of Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren's Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One. But, I hated it. So it sat on my shelf half-read for the better part of a year until I decided to pick it up again when I started to get excited about this missional transformation thing they keep talking about around here in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

According to Roxburgh and Boren, missional is "an invitation for people to consider a new way of being church." That sounds like anything remotely related to church right now. We're trying to figure out some new way of doing the same old thing and there are thousands upon thousands of buzzwords that try to define what that thing is. Missional is just another one of those silly words that pretentious pastors say to each other and then nod earnestly. But, buzzwords don't make a leader.

Still, Roxburgh and Boren elaborate that this missional thing "was intended to create a space in which … a new imagination for what God wants to do in and through the church." 

This still isn't saying much to me. And perhaps this is why I gave up reading this book last year. I was frustrated by this thing that was trying to define itself by what it is not. It's not mission trips or some new outreach program. It's not a label to describe a new model for church growth or some newfangled way to reconfigure the way our church's staff, building or government works. Great. What the heck is it then? Roxburgh and Boren describe it as a river where one wades in to find a way to flow with the current so that it's more like a way of being. And it's this that interests me about being missional. Because we need to figure out what it looks like to be ourselves. We need our own way of being that isn't caught up in buzzwords but in the ways that we engage the world. It's why I asked the church to read David Kinnaman's unChristian this July in our Summer Reads. Because we bump into these attitudes all of the time and it's easy to dismiss them or argue with them or insist, "Oh, but we're not like that." But, maybe we're wrong. Maybe they (those outsiders out there) know us better than we know ourselves. Right?

So, I'm testing the theory. This summer, I'm trying to enter into as many conversations I can where church people don't really go. We might like to go there and get their people to come to our church, but that's not my motive. I'm not interested in growing the membership. I'm interested in how Christians live out their faith missionally. Or maybe without the buzzword. I'm asking the same question each time: what are the spiritual needs in this place? I'm trying really hard not to ask how we  can help because right now I'm interested in the stories. I'm trying to understand where God is moving in this place at this time.

Thinking of You

Last week was a bad week.

I hit the third month of the deployment at just the same moment that my country decided to send troops back to Iraq. I didn't handle this well for reasons that I think are obvious. Because the man I love is over there and my head races to really scary places. So, naturally, this led to me picking a fight with him on FaceTime. Because that's how mature people handle their frustrations. They place the blame exactly where it doesn't belong... and get a little bitchy.

Needless to say, this was a bad move. And it made the week worse so that I came home one night to fall into a puddle of frustrated tears. And I wanted the man I love to know how upset I was. Not because I blamed him. Not exactly. More so because I wanted to fall into arms and ugly cry on his shoulder. But, that's not possible because he's deployed. So, I sent him a message and told him I was feeling.

I didn't hear from him for two days. So, I assumed that he was mad. Or annoyed. Or something. And then, I got a text message saying that someone loved me because flowers had just arrived at the church. Thinking of you, said the card. Maybe that's all I needed to know. That despite all of the distance and missed calls, he is still thinking of me. That our love will get through this.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Flat Jesus

So, let me start with a confession. Last summer, my first call was in the midst of a pastoral search. They were looking for their next Senior Pastor and I was curious. My boundaries are uber high and I still want to honor that distance so they can get about this next chapter in their life. And I in mine. But, that doesn't stop me from stalking their website and gleefully reading the announcement of their next settled pastor and then going to find out every thing I can about her. (Hey. I'm nosy.) That is how I found myself on the website of the church this newly called pastor was about to leave and I saw -- for the very first time -- this thing called a Flat Jesus.

I pinned it to Pinerest and raved about it to my Director of Children and Youth Ministries. Because I thought this was awesome. Who wouldn't want to carry Jesus around with them every where they go all summer long?

Certainly, I would. Because I love that reminder at the end of Matthew's Gospel where Jesus tells the disciples, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20, NRSV). I never tire of hearing these words. I always need this reminder. I need to know that the presence of Jesus Christ is always with me -- and it just might help to have a little carbon copy of this likeness in my pocket to help with that reminder.

So, this summer, we gave our church members (kids and adults) a laminated Flat Jesus to take with them on all their summer adventures. We talked about the many places that we will go and how Jesus will go with us there too. This was, however, one week after Ascension Sunday when I had stared up at the ceiling asking the kids where in the world Jesus went. This was not forgotten by one of my kids who had some HUGE christological questions in the middle of the Time Especially for Children that I really wasn't ready to answer. Perhaps because as much as I want to believe in that wisdom in Matthew 28:20, the experience and practice of living in liturgical time really messes with my head so much so that I ask from the pulpit, "Where is Jesus?" I'm happy to ask that question and I'm thrilled that this kid pushed me on it -- even if I didn't give his question the justice it deserved.

Me and Flat Jesus at the Hospital
Because the pictures have already started to appear. We've seen Flat Jesus on planes and picnics. We've seen Jesus go to a dance recital, a restaurant and a hospital. We even got a picture from one of our RVing members who doesn't have an actual Flat Jesus in their hands but sent a photo of their travels with the note: Flat Jesus may not be in this picture, but God certainly is! To me, that's the whole point. 

In a world where a media mogul begins a campaign to encourage people to Just Say Hello, because we have somehow become so disconnected from our neighbors and our communities, we need something to hold us together. We need some way to be silly and playful and remember that we're all in this together. And that God is with us too. That, to me, is the whole point of Flat Jesus. It's a way to keep a congregation bonded together during the summer months.

But, it does more than that. Because it also allows an opportunity for public witness which progressive Christians tend to hate. We don't want to offend anyone so we don't talk about our faith. We don't want to sound like those other Christians so we miss a whole bunch of opportunities to talk about why the experience following Jesus Christ really does matter in our lives. And it happens on Facebook where every friend can see (provided the algorithm fits with their interests) what you've posted even if it's on the church wall. It's a way of offering a connection to a church that's willing to have a little fun and take Jesus with them to the end of the age.