Friday, August 29, 2008

Hats On for Her

I spent a lot of time today looking for a hat.

My grandmother died very suddenly yesterday (8/28). She was shopping for groceries and may have had a massive stroke. She was dead almost instantly. In addition to the shock and sadness of the event, I was overwhelmed today with trying to make arrangements to get to the East Coast for her funeral on Sunday; hence, the search for a hat.

My grandmother was Jewish and it's appropriate for women to wear hats in the synagogue as a part of sign of respect. It's also okay not to wear one, but I had a mission. My grandmother really liked nice clothes. She appreciated being dressed up and she appreciated the effort others would put into looking nice. She was very accomplished woman- a Ph.D, three children, owned a home... She always, always said what she thought- especially about what one was wearing. A hat, for me, was necessary for this funeral.

Despite our religious differences, my grandmother was very supportive of my becoming a pastor. It might have made her happier if I was a rabbi, but she never said that to me. She was hoping to coming to my installation at the end of September, but she couldn't and she sent me this message the day before she died:

Dear Julia,
I hadn't checked the calendar before I spoke with you. There is a conflict with dates of your installation. Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on Monday, September 29 and I plan to attend services at a synagogue. In addition I have some preparations to make for myself to get ready. Perhaps this is a doubly auspicious occasion: your beginning your first ministry of your own church at the beginning of the Jewish New Year.
My best to you always.
Love,
Grandma

When I read those words, they are her blessing to me- that she's proud of what I'm doing and she's happy for me. I'll miss her, but I want to make her proud even now. So I found a hat. Hats on for you, Grandma.

Rest in peace.

Labor Day Friday Five

Recently I joined a ring of blogging women (and men!) pastors; the link is here. Every Friday, they post five themed questions- just to stir the pot and get us thinking a little bit differently. I'm going to try to participate, so here goes...


Here in the USA we are celebrating the last fling of the good ol' summertime. It is Labor Day weekend, and families are camping, playing in the park, swimming, grilling hotdogs in the backyard, visiting amusement parks and zoos and historical sites and outdoor concerts and whatever else they can find to help them extend summer's sun and play just a little bit longer.

It is supposed to also be a celebration of the working man and woman, the backbone of the American economy, the "salt-of-the-earth neices and nephews of Uncle Sam. With apologies to those in other countries, this is a Friday Five about LABOR. All can play. Put down that hammer, that spoon, that rolling pin, that rake, that pen, that commentary, that lexicon, and let's have some fun.

1. Tell us about the worst job you ever had.
I think the worst job I ever had also taught me more about people and caring for them- than anything else I've ever experienced. I worked as a cashier in a grocery store for two years (whole years!) between the ages of 16 and 18. That is a nasty, hot, tiring, thankless job. But I also felt like I became part of the lives of a few people. They asked how school was and gave me cards when I left the store to go to college. Yes, I did have a lady threaten to spit on me, but I also had a man offer to marry me. Watching and observing people in a grocery store was probably the best pre-pastor training I could have gotten.

2. Tell us about the best job you ever had.
Well, I love being a pastor. I did, however, adore working for
KNOM. I worked for two years there as the "deputy news director". Between traveling to villages, interviewing everyone (!) and always being in the know, through that job I learned that I loved being in Alaska and that I would try almost anything once. Talking to people through my work there made me sure that I did want to be a pastor.

3. Tell us what you would do if you could do absolutely anything (employment related) with no financial or other restrictions.
Probably still be a pastor. But I would (**secret dream alert**) love to write an etiquette advice column, a la Miss Manners. I do love the questions she gets and the snarkiness with which she answers.
I would really love to be a writer, but I need the discipline of having other things to do in order to appreciate and fully use writing time.


4. Did you get a break from labor this summer? If so, what was it and if not, what are you gonna do about it?
I did take a break this summer... between the end of my internship and the start of my new position. It wasn't as restful or as productive as it should have been or as I planned, but that's what happens sometimes.


5. What will change regarding your work as summer morphs into fall? Are you anticipating or dreading?
I'm full of anticipation about the work that lies ahead of me and the people with whom I will be working.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Restlessness

Today we observe the feast day of St. Augustine. A theologian of the early church, Augustine's life has been much chronicled- from his early debauchery to his later dedication. Much of the significant theology of the Reformation stemmed from the writings of Augustine as well.

I have a quote from him that I have been pondering for many months:
"Thou madest me for thyself and my heart is restless until it repose in thee."

There are several things I like about this: the acknowledgment of God as creator and of creation and created beings having a purpose for God. I also appreciate the description of restlessness.

Our hearts do wander. We wrestle over our control issues, our agonies and ecstasies, and our hopes and fears. We repeatedly forget that we are not God and the One who is (God) waits in everlasting welcome for us.

As we struggle, we look for the equilibrium, the balance, between accepting God's mystery and seeking out further answers. Somewhere in there, when we relinquish control, or the idea of control, we find ourselves held in God's arms, a place that is our home, a place in which we were created to reside.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Evil

My devotional for today was titled "Evil", which immediately intrigued me because I have been thinking about the presence of evil and sin in the world a lot this week. This week's gospel contains Jesus' famous words, "Get thee behind me, Satan." That phrase has churned up different thoughts and emotions about Satan's work, presence and purpose in the world.

When people ask about sin or about the forces that oppose God, I admit that sometimes I am at a loss for how to explain this. In truth, the presence of evil and God's allowance of it in this world is another mystery of our faith (like the presence of God in the sacraments or the resurrection). Some people aren't very willing to embrace "it's a mystery" as a real answer to their questions, but in the life of faith- sometimes that's the only answer we have.

Theologian Frederick Buechner had this to say about evil: "Christianity... ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil] at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene- not even this- but that God can turn it to good."


We Confess (Sermon 8/24)

Below is my introductory sermon for the Lutheran Church of Hope. I prayed about this sermon for a long time and thought about it for many weeks before I managed to get one word on paper. It was interesting to deliver it to people I don't know well and who don't know me well yet either and yet we are all living together in hope for what is to come.


Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

We Confess

It was very difficult to know where to begin with this sermon. There are things you want to know about me and things I want to know about you. We are looking at one another and wondering what the next two years will bring. There are lots of new phrases that we keep hearing and keep using over and over. In our newsletters, in our conversations, all around us we hear about “change” and about “transition”.

Though these two things often happen near one another, change and transition are two very different phenomena. Change means something different than before; change almost means the facts. A new pastor, a new church building, the loss of old members, the addition of new members- all these things are changes. In a way, change is not something we can do anything about.

Transition, on the other hand, is. Transition is how we respond to change. How do we re-envision ourselves in this new place, but with all our history behind us? How will we move in new ways in accordance with the changes all around us? We cannot resist change for it simply keeps happening. We can try to resist transition, but then we struggle with our mission and our identity. In essence, we end up asking ourselves, “Who do we say that we are?”

That question is in the forefront of all of our minds today. I wonder who you will say that I am- a good pastor, a strong leader, a helpful teacher, a caring partner in ministry, no good at anything. You are wondering who I will say that you are- a welcoming congregation, a blessing to Anchorage and the Alaska Synod, dedicated servants of God, a group of people with a lot happening.

We get into a little trouble there, though. When we are focused on one another and how we want to be seen, we almost forget the One on whom we are to be focused, the One who has called us by name, the One who says who we are, the One who has brought us all to this place.

In our gospel story, Jesus asks his disciples what they are hearing about him and what has been said about prophets who have gone before. Yet Jesus is asking for more than gossip and even looking for more than mere knowledge. He wants to know what these men see in their hearts- what has been revealed to them through their encounters with God in the flesh. Simon Peter, who always has to be the first one out of the boat, the first one into the crowd and the first one to answer, says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In my mind’s eye, I can see Peter- a man with rough hands from handling nets, scruffy, wind-blown hair and always covered in dust from walking. I can see him blurting out his response to Jesus before he has even thought about it. “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter would have to be as surprised as anyone, except Jesus, to hear those words come out of his mouth. For a good Jewish man, those words would have been nothing, but blasphemy. This man, the Messiah? Son of the living God?

God’s Spirit had been stirred up in Peter- making him as stubborn in faith in Christ as he was in fishing and in friendship. That stubborn faith would make him stick to what he believed to be true. He would stick to his confession of Christ as Lord through his betrayal of that Lord, through the death of that Lord and through the resurrection. He would continue to blurt out the grace of God’s presence in Jesus through the rocky start of the early, early church. He would stubbornly cling to that faith all the way into Rome where he was mostly likely killed for that stubbornness.

From the time Peter uttered his confession of faith change was upon him. He suddenly became aware of a time when he would not be following Jesus in person, but would be leading others to the knowledge of Christ. Peter had to transition from being a physical disciple, actually walking behind Jesus, to being a spiritual disciple, remaining behind after Jesus returns to the Father and instructing others in the faith.

A confession of faith is a scary, scary thing. In those moments in our lives, when we are pressed to say what we believe- we can be as surprised as Peter when the words come out of our mouth. We say yes to things we never thought we would try. Certainly I will go to the Lutheran Church of Hope and work alongside them in mission. Certainly we will accept Pastor Julia to guide us as we look toward our future as a congregation.

But those statements are not our confessions. Those are actions that stem our confession, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We confess that God washes us, God feeds us and God has brought us together. We believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that glory reaches us still.

In this gospel passage, through the words of Jesus, we also hear God’s confession of faith in us. That God will use us, just as He used Peter, to be the rocks on which the church is built. We have been given the authority to bring God’s saving word to one another and to the world. And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we learn that not only do we have the authority, but we have the gifts to do it as well.

In God’s church, in this room, we have gifts of prophecy, teaching, ministering, generosity, diligence, patience and cheerfulness. You’ve seen some of these gifts in the past and we only look to see more of them in the future.

Despite all the changes, God is not making a new church here. The Church, the body of Christ, is already here and God is at work in this body. In this time of transition, we look for the Holy Spirit to transform us, the body of Christ, by renewing our minds and our ministry, so that we may discern the will of God.

And we confess before one another and before God that we have not always gotten things right and we are guaranteed to mess up again in the future. If Peter did it, we can expect no less from ourselves. But we are also called to remind one another, through confessing our faith, that Jesus is our Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Can we confess that? (Amen)

We confess that Christ is present to us and in us today.

Can we confess that?

We believe that God has brought us to this place and given us the authority and the gifts to use for many kinds of ministry.

Can we confess that?

We are a people called to live in hope, live with hope and live for Hope as disciples of Christ- our risen Lord.

Can we confess that?

We believe that we can do all things, included transition through a time of change, through Christ who strengthens us.

Can we confess that?

The words of Isaiah call us to look to the rock from which we were hewn.
We are in this place today because of the faithful rocks who gave their time and talent to see the Lutheran Church of Hope grow. And, even more than that, we are here today because of Christ, our Solid Rock, whose life, death and resurrection made it possible that we can live in the promise of unity with God.

Believing this in our hearts, we will go forward from here together, trusting in God’s grace and goodness that a renewed work has begun in us that will continue until the day Christ comes again.

Can we confess that?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Blue Ribbons

I spent a lot of time last night getting plants and baked goods ready to drive to the State Fair grounds today. It was only last year that I discovered the joy of entering the competitions and seeing what would happen. One of my plants won a blue ribbon last year and I've spent the months since pointing that plant out to visitors as my "blue ribbon plant".

Yet I have many more plants that are healthy and in great shape. Some of them will never be blue ribbon winners at the fair because they are too large for entry into the container-grown plant competitions. Aren't they as good (or maybe better) than my blue ribbon plant?

Sometimes we categorize people in the same way. Everyone knows a few "blue ribbon people"- who are so creative, smart, caring or whatever that their achievements have received lots of external recognition. We often discuss their accomplishments as a way of covering what we perceive to be our own shortcomings. Maybe our school wasn't as prestigious, our office as well-located, our promotion as advantageous, our invention as helpful... so we tag along with our "blue ribbon" friends and acquaintances.

This kind of behavior makes us forget what we are good at, all that we have accomplished and the fact that our opinions, assistance and feelings matter just as much. Martin Luther said the woman who scrubbed the floor in front of the altar is as important to God (and God's work!) as the priest who presides behind the altar. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) However, God's grace extends equally to all people- blue ribbons, honorable mentions and no mentions.

So remember that today... There's a joke that asks what one calls the person graduating last in ranking out of medical school... "Doctor."

What does one call the last person in any situation? "Beloved by God."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Renewal

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks as I have had a little "vacation" and made a transition from my internship at Gloria Dei to the position as pastor at the Lutheran Church of Hope. Of course, it's not all about me- both those congregations have had their own transitions as well.

One of the things I have been remembering lately is a passage from Revelation (that book in the back of the Bible): "And the one seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life..." (21:5a, 6)

Now I could exegete, or take apart, those verses all day, but mostly I've been considering the renewal aspect God's work. Though our lives have many beginnings and endings, in reality- all things are flowing from the good and creative work of our God. The ministry of congregations does not start over with a new pastor or a new program, but continues- making new and bolder use of the gifts of the Spirit.

In the fall, it always seems like so much is changing, but, look, God does not promise to make all new things, but to make all things new. God's work renewing and revitalizing work is at hand and within us, even now!

Let us give thanks for that work and pray for the understanding and awareness so that we may participate more fully in it.

Speaking of participation, a blog is a public work. If you read this, I'd like to hear from you. You may comment publicly or anonymously though the comment section below each post or you can email me at lcohpastor@alaska.net and I'll write back to you. Feel free also to email with suggestions of things you'd like me to comment on or share with other readers!