Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jesus

Today I taught preschool chapel at the church where I work. This happens every Thursday and Friday for the separate, half-day preschool classes that are held here at the church. We usually have a little lesson, sing a song and then pray together.

Today the lesson was about God and rocks, or more specifically about why we sometimes refer to God as a rock (Rock of Ages, Solid Rock, etc.). As many of you have experienced, though, sometimes children are programmed for certain "answers" in certain settings: a prime example occurred today. I asked if anyone knew how old a group of rocks was and one little girl, who always has something to say, answered, "Jesus."

"How old are these rocks?"
"Jesus."

I smiled and said Jesus wasn't the answer to that question, but the situation turned over and over in my mind. I don't think this was some very, very wise child offering an answer, but an very, very eager child who likes to talk.

Yet, the message of the Easter season is that Jesus is the answer to all our questions and problems. How can we be made right with God? Jesus. Who loves us all the time? Jesus. Who was missing from the tomb? Jesus.

Is there a question you have today to which Jesus could be the unexpected answer?

April Newsletter article (Gloria Dei Lutheran Church)

Lately, I have been thinking more and more about the process of becoming a pastor. This process is called “candidacy” in the ELCA- as in, one is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are three main stages of candidacy and I am in the final stage now. That stage, “approval”, involves an extensive essay, several interviews and a review of my seminary education and internship accomplishments. All this information contributes to the decision of whether or not I should be ordained as a pastor in the ELCA.

However, there are other contributing factors as well, perhaps even more important and influential than those I mentioned above: the Holy Spirit and the whole church. A healthy part of Lutheran tradition is that many, many people are involved in the selection and shaping of the people who become our pastors. We ordain people to give “order” to the church, but those people do not come to that position randomly.

Most people eventually find themselves in seminary through a combination of personal insight and public prodding by pastors, family and friends. I first considered going to seminary when people, some of whom I barely knew, began to ask when I was planning to go. One day, I was just doing my thing- listening to people, leading Bible studies, being active in church- and the next thing I knew, I was being encouraged to consider seminary.

Yet many people are active in church and have good gifts for leadership, but do not become pastors. That’s because pastors are not the only people with gifts for spiritual leadership. Many people are good at math, but do not become engineers. Some people are very crafty, but do not become public artisans. Most people who become pastors have a desire and a sense of call that church leadership is what they would like do with most of their time, what they feel is their vocation. The theologian Frederick Buechner says our vocation is where our God-given gifts meet the needs of the world. So people have gifts to fulfill vocations as teachers, builders, accountants, parents and pastors.

When someone, like me, finally gets (God willing) to the ordination stage, it represents the spiritual discernment and support of many people. My sense of call to ministry stretches back to the Southern Baptist churches of my childhood that first gave me a love of God’s Word. The Episcopal church of my early teens gave me my first encounter with a woman pastor. The Lutheran church of my late teens told me where I was spiritually home. The Lutheran church of my college years nurtured me as a spiritual leader and lead me to considering seminary. There are many other people and churches in that great cloud of witnesses that eventually lead me to Gloria Dei. This church has significantly shaped me as a pastor and my understanding of what a church needs and expects from a minister of word and sacrament. So in addition to your own personal gifts that you bring to this church and to the world, you have also joined together as part of the body of Christ to form a minister able to serve in God’s whole church. That is a kind of stewardship not every church can do, but flourishes here in the good soil of Gloria Dei.

Pastors come from among the baptized. That is true both in the sense that we are not set apart at birth for this task, but also in that you, the baptized, shape the people who become pastors. Thank you for your willingness to set up to this challenge and for the gifts you bring to this special ministry.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mother Superior

I was recently thinking about The Sound of Music, one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite stories. The true story of the Von Trapp family is extremely powerful and moving, if you have a chance... look up a little extra information sometime.

But back to what I was thinking about: in the movie, the characters of Maria and Captain Von Trapp are the central figures, along with the Von Trapp children. However, there is one person in the film whose role should not be underestimated. In the movie, the Mother Superior of the convent is kind, benevolent and understanding. She encourages Maria to return to the Von Trapp household, to consider that she might not be cut out to be a nun and then sings the powerful "Climb Ev'ry Mountain".

The strength and spiritual leadership of this woman cannot be stressed enough. Both in real life and in the film, this woman is tasked with the continuation of the life of faith of women within the walls of a convent. She took this job so seriously that she was able to guide a young woman to vows far different from her own (marriage v. poverty/chastity/obedience). What an amazing witness to the Mother Superior's understanding of vocation and openness to the Holy Spirit.

This leads me to think about the people who have been "Mother Superiors" to me. The main one that comes to mind was my very first religion professor. I took a couple classes from him, but also spent time with him in other contexts. His firmest advice to me was to always seize the opportunity you don't think will come again. Under that advice, I chose to move to Nome, Alaska when I graduated from college to work for a Catholic radio station. And my life has never been the same.

Today I encourage you to think of your own "mother superior". Offer a prayer of thanks for their influence in your life. Whether they are among God's living saints or among the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us, their legacy lives on in choices you and I make daily. Have you considered to whom you might be a "mother superior"?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Good Friday Last Words: "It is Finished" (John 19:30)

In John’s gospel, Jesus seems very systematic. He knows the Scriptures must be fulfilled and slowly, in his experience, they are. Betrayed by a friend? Check. Taken before chief priests and those with power? Check. Beaten? Check. Cast lots for his clothing? Check. Sour wine? Check. Someone to take care of Mother? Check. Most of us don’t have the opportunity or the grace to die this way… with everything finished.

In fact, if you’re like me, you have a house, a car, a room, an office full of projects that you’ve started and you’re going to finish…someday. You’ve promised someone, your spouse, your child, your boss, yourself, that you will finish that project…eventually. And we are God’s projects, works that God has started and will complete. God’s beloved creation… a project God loves and longs for.

So, when God promises to finish something, it gets finished and it gets finished right… maybe not in the way we would imagine, but then we do not have the mind of God. God does not have little projects laying around, thinking “Well, I get to them eventually.” God’s ways are mysterious, but when we look back at certain moments in our lives, we are able to see the work of the hand of God. God doesn’t tell us, “I’ll get back to you.” So when Jesus says, “It is finished,” we know that he is the Son of God. Jesus tells us in the gospel of John, that if we know his mind, we know the mind of God. Through the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, we encounter a God who is gracious and loving.

We experience that same grace here on the cross, in these last words. We do not hear vindictive words, hurled down from an angry God, “You’re finished.” Would that be surprising or unexpected? We do not hear self-pitying words, from a mere man, “I’m finished.” Instead we hear words that can only come from the God who so loves the world that the Son of God was sent to finish this project.

God promised something by sending Jesus into this world. It was a promise to make things right, to make a new covenant, to let us know that our efforts to make good fail, but God can repair the breach. And so Jesus walked with people, touching them, feeding them, healing them- giving them the physical experience of knowing the love of God. Then he was crucified and in that he did something, no other body could do: he gave his life so that we would know our sins are forgiven and we no longer need to fear the death that comes to all of us.

Jesus said with confidence, “It is finished” because he knew he had fulfilled his mission on earth. When we lift our eyes to the cross, we believe God keeps God’s promises and God finishes what God starts. We can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing Jesus has done what we could not do for ourselves. In the moment when Jesus’ life ends, ours truly begin. It is finished. It is finished, this self-sacrificing work of love. It is finished, because of us and for us. There on the cross: a horrible, wonderful, terrifying, awesome moment- where the Light of the world meets the darkness of humanity. But God says, “It is accomplished. It is completed.” Jesus promises, “It is finished.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Endless Love

I'm in the midst of trying to write several sermons for different services during (this) Holy Week. My mind is wandering and I keep coming back to the thought that I have nothing new to say. This is, after all, the old, old story and many have heard it over and over again. And yet this is one of those Sundays in the church year when people show up and long for good news.

In my reading for this week I came across a Chinese saying that was new to me: "The writing stops but the meaning goes on; the brush has been put down but the power is unending."

It is true that the words of the resurrection story have been recorded. They're a little less pageant-y than the Christmas story, a little more jumbled and confused. However, the most powerful, and unquestionable, part of the story is always the same: the tomb was empty. The meaning of that symbol goes on and is the same for us today as it has been since the time of the resurrection.

No matter what words come to me this week, so that I can share this story, the power of the story, God's power, is the same. And that is why people come to hear it.

"I love to tell the story, because I know it's true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else would do."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Procrastination

A friend from high school (thanks, Ruth) introduced me to this rhyme, which was her family's unofficial motto:

Procrastination is my sin.
It brings me naught, but sorrow.
I know I ought to quit it;
Perhaps I will tomorrow.

I've been thinking about that rhyme lately as I have found myself delaying certain tasks. I always find something else that "needs" to be done "first". I hate this behavior in myself, but I do know why I do it. The deep reason is actually kind of vain and embarrassing.

Paul Scott Wilson best summarizes my reasoning in relation to sermon writing, but it can apply to anything you know you need to do and put off: "As long as the page is still clean and the sermon is not written, it is a potentially perfect sermon. Most sermons begin in the preacher's mind as potentially perfect. Even the desire for perfection in service of God is a sin, however." (Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon, p. 34)

I do want everything I do to be good- so I postpone it because if I have not yet started the task, I cannot have messed anything up yet. However, Wilson points out even that desire for perfection in my own work is a sin.

I know that everything I do is already going to be far from perfect and yet I look at some tasks as though my salvation depends on them, though I know that it doesn't. I forget the freedom of a Christian- the knowledge that Christ's life, death and resurrection makes me right with God with a power I cannot achieve or produce on my own. Thus my own actions in anything- sermon-writing, family time, exercise, etc.- flow from the gifts God has given me and my appreciation for God's grace.

Nothing I do can be perfect, even in my head, but I can give everything my best effort and rely on the power of Holy Spirit to strengthen me and my efforts to bring glory to God (who does all things perfectly).

So what is it that you put off because you want to "do it right" if you're going to do it all? Wouldn't even a little effort toward that goal (closet-cleaning, volunteering, piano practice, whatever) make you feel better than no effort at all? Seize the grace of this day and give a little bit of your gifts from God (time, talent, etc.) toward something you've been putting off for a while.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Something to think about...

I often write down quotes from articles or books I read and put them in prominent places within my workspace. Usually they are things I think will eventually make their way into a sermon or lesson and sometimes they do. But sometimes they don't and I continue to look at them.

This quote from H. Richard Niebuhr (a theologian) has been on my bulletin board for 5 months: "The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there."

So I've been looking at that quote and thinking about it for about 150 days. Finally, I've realized there isn't that much more to be said about it. We know the tenets of our faith (right?). What is standing in our way of taking them radically? How about radical forgiveness? Radical neighbor love? Radical justice? Radical mercy?

What could you do differently, yea verily, radically today?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When I'm not posting...

Almost every day I make a little to-do list for the day. And almost every day "blog" is on the list. I expect myself to write in this space at least twice a week, but I dream of every day. The thing, I think of things to write almost every day, but then when it comes to taking the time to do it... something always seems to come up or I just don't make myself do it.

Then I get into a dangerous cycle of embarrassment. "Oh, it's been so long now. I need to acknowledge that I haven't been writing...etc." So then my mental "mea culpa" takes up my thought process and I do not write out of shame. In addition, I don't know if people are actually reading this, so I can always assure myself that it's not like anyone is actually seeking desperately needed pearls of wisdom here (as if you would find them if I did post all the time!).

So here I am, without good excuse- just myself.

I often hear the same thing from people about coming to church or about praying or about volunteering. "Oh, I haven't done it in so long... it would be embarrassing to show up now." And, yes, maybe there are a few unsubtle individuals out there who tease or give a hard time to those who have been absent, but mostly that's not the case.

If I haven't seen you in church lately, I'm glad to know you're doing well. If you haven't been praying, God is more than happy to hear from you. And if you fell by the volunteering wayside, people will be glad to see you back again.

The thing is, if you did these things because you wanted someone to notice- it doesn't always work out. So, here's the deal. I need to post more regularly and I will try. And you, faithful reader, if you're mad, speak up. If you're sad, reach out. If you're glad, help somebody else.

Let's try to do the best we can, rejoicing that God forgives and makes up our shortcomings. That is such good news!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Speak up, speak up for Jesus

Yesterday (Sunday), I tried something new in my preaching. I offered a sermon as the mother of the man born blind (John 9). The man is healed by Jesus, but the story involves a whole host of characters: the man's parents, Jesus' disciples, Pharisees.

It's sometimes very interesting and enlightening to think about our gospel stories from different perspectives. A whole host of people moved around Jesus and were touched by his life- not just the people who were able to have their specific stories included. What was the woman at the well thinking? What did Nathaniel think when he saw Jesus coming? Why did that woman interrupt a dinner party to wash Jesus' feet?

Yes, we are speculating on what they might have said, but the author of Ecclesiastes tells us: "There is nothing new under the sun." People, since Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, have longed for acceptance, comfort and closeness with God. We can attribute emotions and reactions to the gospel players because they are just like us. That's what makes the gospel so resounding.

We can imagine how Peter felt when he needed to choose between admitting he was with Jesus or saving his hide. We identify with Thomas; we too want to see. Like the Samaritan woman, we long for words of consolation from someone who knows everything we have ever done.

In your next Scripture reading, think about who is in the story and who isn't mentioned, but might have been there. Picture yourself in the action and rejoice in the fact that the same Christ who was available to those people... is available, through faith and the Spirit, to you still!