Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What I Didn't Say

I preached this past Sunday. It was a celebration of the first Pentecost and along with it, the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. It was those fabulous Ezekiel and Acts texts about gifts of new life. It was a decent sermon.

But I was saddened by what I didn't preach. Reading through the texts, preparing for the sermon, I felt the Spirit Whoosh. It's my term. Think of it as a compound noun, not a noun and verb. The Spirit Whoosh. It's not uncommon, but not particularly common either. It's the spine-tingling, stomach flip moment when I know where the sermon is going and that yes, it is a word from the Lord. It usually means a really good sermon, too. I'm willing to admit, some sermons are more God-breathed than others.

The Spirit Whoosh came with I realized the Acts text, at least for this moment, was speaking to the possibility of new things. Actually, the expectation of new things. I love the doctrine that says the Holy Spirit is always with the church. I gush about it from time to time. It's the thing that says more stuff is coming from God. I could rant and rave for much longer, but will stop at simply reiterating: more stuff is coming from God. God will call the church to new places.

That's where I stopped in Sunday's sermon. But there was something missing. Mostly, I didn't name all the new places I think the Spirit may be calling the church. The thing that kept coming to mind was, not surprisingly, the church's acceptance of LGBTQ folks. I knew I couldn't say anything to my full congregation during a sermon. I'll admit, I didn't want the backlash from such a sermon. More than that, though, I knew they couldn't hear it. It would be alienating and troubling instead of liberating. I knew that. So instead, I laid the framework for openness. I preached that we should expect more things to come from the Spirit.

It's days like this, though, that I realize I'm still a fundamentalist in my marrow and it sneaks up from time to time. That means that somewhere, I am always, always conscious that I'm breaking the rules. I can admit that now. As a woman, standing in front of the assembly preaching, I'm breaking the rules. And I'm good with that. I've been led by God to do that, along with thousands of others, probably millions. The Spirit moved.

It's through that moving of the Spirit that I changed ideas about many other things, mostly a long list of things I had clearly labeled "sin." That's another story. Today, though, I mourn for what I didn't say, or what I couldn't say, take your pick. It's heart-breaking and troubling and just plain annoying.

But it causes me to pray that the Spirit keeps moving in ways that all can hear. After all, isn't that the Pentecost story?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why I'm Still Here

Last weekend, I talked a friend who doesn't do church at all into going to a church-related but not over the top churchy 5k. Mostly, I just didn't want to go alone. Afterward, I found out how much she doesn't want to be part of anything to do with Christianity or any religion for that matter. What she said wasn't offense; in fact, I quite understand, actually. I've already named my own difficulties with being in church.

The question remains, though, why am I still here?

There was the minister who didn't believe I should go to seminary, not because it was wrong for women but because it was too much of a struggle for the church to handle.

There were the friend's parents who went against their better judgement when they didn't kick me out of their home once they found out I was a minister; this same friend had asked me if I could perform her wedding.

There's the reality that the perceptions of church people as sheltered might be a very accurate perception.

Then there's just the day to day craziness.

Why am I still here?

I'm here, quite simply, because in the name of Christ I have been transformed.

In the name of Christ, I was given an abundance of people who flooded me with support for attending seminary. I still gratefully hold the memory of the dean of my college who came to me and said, "You'll have whatever you need," when I couldn't get the ministerial reference from the minister I grew up with. The one voice still hurts, but the ones that rose up because of it are deeply, deeply cherished.

In the name of Christ, I was given a place to run to when I didn't know where I would go next, after deciding not to go ahead with my life plan--one that involved a move halfway across the country, two weeks later. There, I was reminded, again, that this life is not about the papers we earn or the things we achieve; everyone still matters, no matter what.

In the name of Christ, I was asked to teach and plan for little kids' life in the church. When I said yes, the transformation that took place was unlike anything I have ever known. The love was overwhelming, deep in side me. It was a Thing I had never known before.

In the name of Christ, I was given a free education. It sounds crazy to add that to the list, I know, but it matters a lot to me. If not for people who believed not in me, but just in the idea of me, I don't know how I would have paid for seven years of higher education. I cannot begin to list the transformations of college and seminary.

In the name of Christ, I was given Fruit Loops necklaces and an apron made out of a dishtowel. Those simple things are some of my earliest memories of being loved by someone not in my family. They were objects that represented welcome, hospitality by others in a community. Those things gave me a glimpse of how I could love and welcome, too.

In the name of Christ, I was taught to sing. I'm not a great singer; our culture has shifted so that church may be the only place for group singing. Yet, it is practice dear to my heart. The songs that I learned are often the prayers that I pray. They are the words I know when I cannot find words of my own. Often, in the afternoon, I sit in my office singing the ones I need to hear. I cannot imagine life without those words.

I'll choose to stop there, even though I could go on. I don't deny the brokenness of the church. It's visible to those within and without. But I'm still here and, God willing, I'll keep saying that. I'm still here because the greatest treasures in my life have been given to me in the name of Christ.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tell Me Something Worth Hearing

Two or three Sundays a month, I attend an evening worship service at another congregation. Intentionally, it's not the same denomination as the one in which I minister. It's the liturgical style I prefer, despite the fact I will never minister in a similar style. It's a place of anonymity, for the most part, and one that I cherish.

It's interesting to be in that setting, one where always, no matter what happens, I will be an outsider. I don't make small talk. A couple of the ministers there know that I'm also a pastor, and graciously leave me alone. I smile and shake hands if necessary, but that's about it. I'm there to worship. I'm there to hear the Gospel. I'm there to receive the bread and the wine. I'm there to rest in God.

This practice has taught me a great deal about ministry. There's a reason I sit in this pew and pray alongside these people. Likely, I've already participated in two other services that days, services that aren't all that different from this one when it comes right down to nuts and bolts. It's the likely the third time I've received the bread and the wine--a whole other topic entirely.

I come because I want to have my spiritual hunger sated.

My own preparation for leading worship feeds that hunger. But there's never another time in my life when I get to sit, hear someone else read from my holy text, and simply let it wash over me. There's never another time when I sit in great anticipation to hear some bit of Gospel, something that will speak to my heart, draw me closer to God.

Unfortunately, some days, I walk away wondering why I bothered coming at all. Why, you ask?

Because our churches sometimes substitute the church's plans for the coming year for the Gospel.
Because our churches sometimes read the words of a denominational leader, that may be all well and good, but are words of guidance, not words of life.
Because our churches sometimes forget that studying the text is not the same as hearing a text.
Because sometimes, we're not sure what the Gospel is at all, and struggle to make it more palatable. 

The list goes on, but it's a list of things that mean we didn't proclaim the Gospel; often, that thing is that we worried more about our congregations and their lives, which yes, are important to the Gospel, but aren't synonymous with it.

I'm sure all churches do it. I'm sure, as a congregational leader, I've done it. But those seemingly wasted twilight hours have convinced me: I'll do better.

I'll pray for the word from the Lord. I'll wait to hear the word. I'll offer it to my parishioners, trusting that it is Good News to them. I'll exegete and study to the best of my ability. I'll remember the struggles of those around me. I will speak words of grace, words of comfort, words of hope and transformation, if God will provide them.

I'll do it because I've learned my deepest hope: that somewhere, somehow, someone is doing this for me. I've learned that I come because I need to hear.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gettin' Dirty

The list of things not learned in seminary can get quite long for most people. I never would have guessed that the thing I mentioned was burning the palm leaves for Ash Wednesday.

Let's recap: yes, I really do save the palm fronds from Palm Sunday in the spring, letting them dry all winter for use the following Ash Wednesday. It's a real and powerful reminder of "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The first time I had to burn the leaves, I never considered asking for directions. After all, I love playing with fire--literally, not figuratively--and well, since it's been going on for a few hundred years, it can't be that hard. Yeah, right.

Those dried up, nearly year old leaves burn quickly and they burn high, with nothing in between. Seriously, they go from smoldering to waist high flames (even though I'm burning them on the ground) in about three seconds. They also smoke a lot. And oh yeah, when you burn them, they smell suspiciously like pot.

Last year, I burned them in my garage, which created a temporary disaster for all the reasons mentioned above. This year, I was smart enough to go outside; other than the fact I was wearing ill-suited for burning things work clothes, it went pretty well. Then I went inside to the magic that is Google and found out the "correct" way to do it. Braziers are for sissies, in my opinion--and oh yeah, my church doesn't have any of those.

All of this makes for the reason that more than one colleague's recommendation was, "Oh, buy the ashes." One colleague even gave me the address of a store that was sure to have them on hand.

From the first time I heard it, I didn't like the suggestion. Deep down, I also was pretty sure it wasn't just the fact that I wouldn't get to play with fire.

Through the evening and the first days of Lent, I considered more and more why I didn't want to purchase ready-made ashes. I thought about it as I watched people during the Ash Wednesday service, covered with ash and clay and water and oil to varying degrees. I thought about it gathering up all the resulting dirty tablecloths to wash. I thought about it as I was preparing for the following Lenten services, finding videos and choosing passages to read.

Finally, I realized why I didn't like the suggestion of buying ashes: it was neat. As in clean. No muss, no fuss, ready to go.

Which is the very last thing Lent is and certainly the very last thing the church is.

Life is messy and dirty and complicated. It just is. We might not always like that it's so messy and dirty and complicated. In fact, we usually don't. We want things neat and tidy. We want people to behave appropriately and clean up after themselves, from the toddler up to the lady who the kids think knew Moses. We don't talk about things that are messy, since that might not be appropriate for church. We like to sweep the messiness under the rug and forget about it.

Yet, Lent is about living in the messiness, knowing that we'll live in the messiness again next year. The Gospel itself is pretty messy, talking about a God who would dare to live in the messiness of human life, die a messy death, rather than staying aloof in heaven which would make us all pretty comfortable.

So I think I'll keep burning the leaves to ashes, with all the messiness that it brings. It's a pretty good reminder to not keep things too neat and tidy, too comfortable. In the messiness, I think we might just find God.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I shall pour out my Spirit on all flesh...

Ash Wednesday is one of those things I didn't know about until I was a teenager. I didn't receive ashes on my forehead until I was leading a service during my final year in seminary. Yet, the service has become one of my favorite worship services during the whole year. Then, there was this year.

This year...this year...how can I begin to write about this year?

I had planned, as I always do. There were stations set up, which I'd never done, to be followed by a traditional service. I had my text, my sermon, my plan, all printed up and placed neatly in a binder. After the call to worship, I took my place in front of the congregation. I opened my binder. I looked out at the congregation.

In an instant, I realized nothing I had planned would work. I looked down at my 12th grade reading level text and out to a congregation where half, maybe even more than half, of the people gathered were between the ages of four and sixteen. It was impossible.

Here is that point where I wish I could say that I thought a prayer, or something to make me sound equally pious. I can't. Instead, I can offer what came next: an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Confessing this makes me uncomfortable. Incredibly uncomfortable. I rationally affirm the presence and action of the Holy Spirit all the time. This was different.

This was standing before a congregation of people, realizing the first step was to offer an explanation of Ash Wednesday. "This service is about saying we're sorry, not just we're sorry to each other, but saying we're sorry to God."

This was standing there as, somehow, the reading of Jesus' teaching about storing up treasures in heaven became a story that children could hear, as did the short homily afterward. It was amazing. The words that flowed from my mouth amazed even me.

But they weren't my words.

I'm serious. I've struggled with the experience. I've struggled with the responses from that service, the "That was a really good service," feedback. Because, you see, it wasn't me.

It wasn't me. Not in an overarching God-called-me-to-this sort of way. Not in a to-God-be-the-Glory kind of way. In a I'm-not-sure-I-ever-could-do-that kind of way.

I have responded, "That was totally God, not me," but I'm still feel as if no one really grasps the fullness of that statement. The experience was surreal, strange, something Other. It left me wanting to grab people just to say, "That was God! Did you hear that?" It made me restless and uneasy and elated. It made me totally unsure of what would happen next.

For other reasons, I had to read the story of Pentecost a couple days later. The mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire, speaking in various languages story of Pentecost. The people must be drunk story of Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit story of Pentecost.

For the first time, I considered those people who spoke in different languages rather than the ones hearing in their language. I realized that was the best means I have to talk about Ash Wednesday. It was sharing the experience of not my words, but God's words, in order that others could receive the Gospel.

Still wondering if this can really be me who is saying this, who is claiming these things, I say to the Church:

God was serious on this one: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy...

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This is God...

So far, I've been asked to do two weddings. One of them didn't happen; the other did, although it was certainly interesting.

However, neither couple had ever had much to do with church. They didn't know anything about Jesus or baptism or communion. They had no idea how a wedding with pastor would be different from a wedding with a judge. Yet, neither struggled to answer my question, "So if you've never been part of a church or considered yourself a Christian before, why do you want a minister to perform the wedding?"

"Because this person is a gift from God." Almost verbatim, all four said just that, with and apart from the other.

Yes, there was a hint of hope of a little mystical help for their future as a couple. More than that, though, it was their deep, deep recognition that the goodness of their relationships had to come from outside them. None of them had anything so good or healing before.

And in that experience of goodness, they came looking for God. They came looking for the place and the people who say, "We know God."

I wonder what they found.

I know what welcome I gave them. Somehow, though, I don't think our churches know what to do with testimony of God that comes from outside Christian faith, or maybe any faith at all. I know the church I serve now doesn't. We still believe that God is present in only the ways God has been made known to us before. We forget that God calls to all sorts of people, even in ways we never expect. We forget that God gives good gifts to all sorts of people.

I had a professor once who said that studying church history was just a means of naming your own heresies. I have to say I've found that endlessly true. Probably the most heretical point of my life was when I owned up to believing that God could become known to humanity in another way, a fourth hypostasis for you theology nerds. Why not?

Truthfully, I don't think any of the folks coming to me, having experienced God, have experienced God in a new way.

Yet, if I believe that God called to Abraham in the desert, why not in small-town Missouri? If I believe that Moses stood before a bush that burned but was not consumed, in the middle of a desert, far away from anyone else, why do good gifts seem so difficult to accept? Jesus called to fisherman, at least one of whom had a non-Israelite name. The man from Ethiopia was reading something he didn't understand. The list goes on and on.

Still, when the young couple comes to the church, saying God brought them together, the first impulse of folks to say, "Oh, you need us!"

I think it should be more like, "Oh, we need you!"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Judgy-Wudgy Was a Bear...

It's amazing how many times I've run up against the criticism that Christians are judgmental. It's been named on numerous websites and a few studies, including the book unChristian. The shortest answer I have for that criticism is, "You're right."

I take quite seriously the admonition to be in the world, but not of it. To not be conformed to the ways of this world. To be a light to the world. All those things. All those things that say, "This world is broken; God has a better way."

My personal life is quite calm, sometimes downright boring. For the most part, I'm the designated driver, plan for a rainy day, think about the consequences kind of person. In ministry, parents love my stable, show up, be consistent traits.

I work to make my faith an embodied, living reality. I hope that faith is evident apart from my work and vocation. With God's help, my life does look very different from the ways of this world.

Yet, I find myself biting my tongue often when I'm with church folks. I try to gauge how much truth I can speak, how much is safe to reveal. Yes, there's appropriate pastoral boundaries, which I hope to employ. Then, there's this...this thing voice that says, "You can't say that here."

I can't say my best theological conversations are over dinner with people who steer clear of church. I certainly can't name the reasons they steer clear of church.

I can't say that the non-clergy friends from my life in mainline Protestant world have absolutely no clue why I would bother with church.

I can't say that, you know what, I really don't know how to theologically process transsexualism, but I want a community that will genuinely wrestle with that question.

I don't talk about the movies I watch or the books I read without careful deliberation, even though I am convinced that some Stephen King works provide better theological fodder than 90% of what is in the devotional section of bookstores. Give me an exorcism movie if you want to talk about the problems of evil and the difficulties of being faithful. I have an ever-growing whole collection if you want a viewing party!

The list of things I don't speak could go on and on.

And every one of those things adds a little bit to that chasm between my world and the church. It's part of the ever-growing concern I have, wondering if there is a church that has room for people like me and people nothing like me. I'm pretty sure the Kingdom of God does.

Oh--and one other thing. I want a community that holds me accountable, and yes, might even judge me. Please, look for the works that are a mark of my faith. See if I have done what Jesus asked--clothed the poor, fed the hungry, visited the lonely.

Look for the fruits of the Spirit. Guide me when I am not gentle enough. Admonish me when I speak in hate rather than love. Chastise me when I am impatient.


And don't worry that the title of this post is a quote from Sex and the City.