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.