03 October, 2014

Let The Children Come!

  I remember those days when my oldest son, Andrew, was very young and my middle was bulging with my second son who even in utero did not hold still. I chose to sit in the back pew of the church so Andrew's incessant questions and boisterous objections would not disturb the mostly "chronologically advantaged" people in my husband's congregation. The embarrassing moment of which I will forever remind Andrew occurred when his plastic truck rolled down the raked sanctuary floor under the pews toward the chancel steps. As a toddler who had not yet refined his speaking motor skills, all of his consonant clusters in front of words were pronounced as F's. In the silence of a pause in the pastoral prayer, a loud voice rose to the rafters proclaiming for the entire world to hear, "Mommy, ##uck! Mommy, ##uck!"  
     At that moment, I wanted to disappear into the woodwork. His father looked up, saw my utter dismay, and warmly wrapped into the prayer thankfulness to God for the voices of children that remind us to laugh and to welcome the sleep deprived parents who care enough to bring their children to worship. 
     I remember those tired days of bringing my children to worship: the struggle it was just to get to church on time, how hard it was to make the children behave or at least not disturb the others around us, and how no matter the effort, someone was usually disturbed. The backward glances, the glares when I stood rocking a crying infant while shushing the talkative toddler betrayed the feelings behind their kind words during the passing of the peace. I felt guilty bringing my children to worship! I did not feel welcome or wanted. 
     It was a moment of relief when Helen Straub offered to watch after my little ones so I could sing with the choir. I remember feeling that it was a huge sacrifice for her to sit with a fidgety toddler and an infant when she was there to spiritually fed. When I raised this with her, her response was joy filled and uplifting. She said she loved to have children in worship because children are holy; they bring a layer of hope to the congregation and especially to those, like her, whose children are grown and whose grandchildren live far away. She said that the children were for her a lesson in wonder as they followed the light of the acolytes' flames to the altar candles, as they watched the fly in the window, as they caught glimpses of the holiness of worship in between their wiggles and their squirms. And, she said that whenever people told her to hush the children, she reminded them that they too were once children and that a church without children has no future.
     Helen Straub was my angel in disguise! With her caring and her warm words, she helped me to feel welcome. Her attitude of gratitude helped to build a culture of acceptance of all within the congregation. Her advocacy for the children and families of the church was what kept me going to church each week. 
     What a blessing it is for those of us who are beyond our youth to have the energy of little ones to lift our spirits and help us sing praise to God. And what a joy it is to have children with us in worship to remind us to laugh, to not take ourselves quite so seriously, to raise our sense of wonder, and bring out the child in each of us. What encouragement and hope young families bring to our congregation! Thanks be to God for new generations of young people who will unwrap and unfold God's promised future for our congregation!
     You see, a church without children will cease to be the Body of Christ. God requires of each generation to make the faith their own; that will happen only if we welcome the future into our present. Jesus said, "Let the children come to me ....for such belongs the Realm of God." The reign of God is not ours; it belongs to the children. 
     And all God's children said, "Amen!" 

24 September, 2014

Fall Fell

This from the archives of my hard drive.  Written in 1997.

This past weekend brought Fall to a climax here.  The maples, sumac, and beechnut trees were glorious in their brilliant colors.  The air was cool and crisp to breathe, like a polar bear swim for the lungs -- shockingly cold, yet tantalizing.  On my way home from church yesterday, the sky was deep blue. Together with the Fall foliage and the deep green evergreens, it was wonderful.   A colorful picture using every hue on the palette.

I made another batch of grape jam from my dwindling stores of frozen pulp.  The house is more comfortable when the air is filled with the smell of something cooking.  My mind goes back to the smell of Mom making stew or goulash and it feels like home.  The grape pulp simmered its scent throughout the downstairs as it reduced down to just the 6 cups I needed for jam. When the pectin and sugar had been added, and the hot jam ladled into waiting jars, I spread the scrapings from the kettle onto some warm toast.  It's a good batch of jam, deep purple and sweet.

As Andrew and I walked late in the day,  the clouds on the horizon created a new palette of color as the sun settled in behind it.  The sunset's colors clashed with the colors of the trees.  We couldn't believe how many squirrels there were -- everywhere they were gathering acorns, beechnuts, black walnuts, and even pampas grass seeds.  Their cheeks were swollen with their harvests, and they scurried around digging holes to bury their treasures.   Andrew noticed the geese first.  He heard them coming.  They visit every year about this time in the park next to the house.  There's never more than 12. Their calls resemble the faded off-key melody of the ice cream vendor's truck in the height of a humid summer's day.  When the geese landed in the field, they circled around one another as if counting noses.  They made themselves at home on the carpet of grass and settled in for the night calling to one another like feathered Waltons on Walton Mountain.  Good night John-boy. Good night 'Lizabeth....

Night fall brought the cold rain. In the last light, the leaves began to flurry toward the ground with the added weight of the rain.  And the north wind bustled them along toward the ground.  As the street lights fragmented the darkness, the leaves, just hours ago a sight to behold, flew about the street and sidewalks, scattered and torn, no longer the palette of color. Like the snow that is to come, they are blown and gathered into drifts and piles that will have to be moved.

As the clock turned over to a new day and I wandered toward bed, the moon began to peek through the clouds, showing the faded glory of the foliage strewn like rags about the neighborhood.  The trees, still clinging to the last vestiges of their wardrobe, are notably more exposed, almost quivering in the night air.  Under the moon's dim glow, the geese in the field look like lumps of cold earthen clay;  they'll be gone with the first glimmer of morning light. Gone to their warm winter home, leaving behind the barren trees and drifting snow.

This morning the sky is cloudy.  The trees stand with carpets of faded color at their feet.  And the park field is empty.

Fall fell.

06 August, 2014

Piles, sinkholes, and climbing out.

It's been a weird day.  I woke up early after a late night.  All day I've had a nagging desire to skip over what has to get done and make a phone call.  So much to get done, I really don't have time to go there. 

 I used to call every Saturday morning. Not because there was anything new to talk about but because it was a good way just to check in and make sure everything was okay.  

I called Dan earlier than usual this morning.  I woke him up.  And chitchatting with him was a great.  About nothing really: our schedules for the day, whether and what time we could talk tonight, a bit of politics and a bit of church talk: nothing of earth shattering importance. A good conversation nonetheless; but not really the one for which something deep inside of me is longing. Why? and Why today?

Every time I picked up the office phone, I considered twice the number to be dialed.  I still remember the number -- how weird is that?!  It was never my home phone number.  These days calling someone is choosing an icon from the phones screen.  But those 10 digits -- area code, town code, number -- still echo through my head. Numbers have always stuck in my head so that shouldn't surprise me; when I was just a puny 3 year old and was accidentally left at the lake, I was able to tell some tourist from New York City what my phone number was so she could call from the payphone and scold whomever answered the phone. 2269.  Just 4 digits then.  

0417.  That's the number.  255 the town code.  I wonder who would answer that phone number now. I see the number in my mind and my thoughts drift toward the wall phone in that kitchen. There were speakers plugged into it so everyone could hear every conversation, but most of all because the handset could never be loud enough.  Big, lit numbers replaced an old dial, the pale beige phone attached to the end of the upper cabinet over the end of the snack bar that divided the kitchen between work and dining space. Inside the cabinet and under the back side of the phone jack was a warm spot over the florescent lights on the underside of the cabinet; every night that warm spot held hearing aids with the battery case open so those tiny batteries would not wear themselves down.  Next to them, stacks of dishes -- unmatched and cracked -- that fed so many of us over the years.  And plastic tumblers that held ice tea with a splash of diet cola. Memory is a curse sometimes. 

I hadn't been clear about why this particular day this craziness popped into my head for the first time in a long time. Maybe because there's so much to do or maybe because it's a cool summer day.  When I accidentally put the cursor for the mouse over the bottom of the computer screen, however, it all became clear.  The date.  Another curse:  I cannot forget dates.  Yes.  It is August 6th. The first day of a long last 10 days.

It's been a long time since I've dialed those 10 digits and called.  And longer since I was there.  But it was on this date that I arrived for the last time.  The long, sandy driveway covered in crushed oyster and quahog shells, the buoy and lobster pot markers hanging off the rail of the deck, the bristly Cape Cod grass under my bare feet, and the faint smell of musty, marshy saltwater bogs.  Bikes were on the back of the minivan to keep two teenage boys occupied while I spent days cooking and caring.  Those last days I spent with my dying mother.  

Don't ever believe that the pain of a loss leaves or heals; that is a lie.  The pain is there forever; we just learn to live with it.  With time we learn to jump over that hole, or walk around it in our travels. But it's always there, lurking and luring.   But even now -- 13 years later -- I've fallen into it again today by just looking at a date on a tiny calendar in the corner of my computer screen.  

So with stacks of paper and even more digital stuff piled on my desk and desktop, I've stopped to assess how deeply I've fallen into an old wound, and process a plan to climb over the memories, through the streams of thought and tears, and back onto the road of the living.  And assess the real value of that stack of things to be done.

Perhaps it is time to leave the stacks where they are and go for a walk on this lovely August evening.  It will all still be there in the morning, but the evening will pass.  Yes. The evening is more important. 

30 June, 2014

Hospitality? Extravagant Welcome?

You know that car advertisement where the song from Cheers! is playing whilst a known character walks in the convenience/gas mart and is warmly welcomed?  Then the guy driving the fuel efficient car walks in, and the music stops.  And the conversations stop.  The warmth of the gathering goes cold while the second guy is buying a bottle of water. It's an awkward moment. 

That was my experience at a gathering of "the church" a while ago.  I was the unknown person in the diesel car. Only instead of everyone staring at me, I was alone in the crowd.

I entered the gathering not knowing anyone; but, hey, it's  a church gathering and I'm an extrovert, so I wouldn't leave that way, right? Not! I've never felt so unwelcome and alone at a gathering of church people. The only people who spoke to me were the person who received my attendance fee and handed me a name tag, another person who I approached but who didn't remember me from when we both worked for the same entity, and the person who was there from my church. To be fair, the person from my church did introduce me to a few people before the meeting. And each welcomed me as a new person. But no one continued the conversation after the gathering or sought us out during the break.

While worship was lively and rousing, for me it was a solitary and not a corporate experience.  The printed worship outline was very sparse.  Music was sung from memory; only I didn't know all the melodies or the lyrics.  The accompanist was so loud I couldn't hear the song leaders or soloists.  A couple of prayers were recited from memory; only, again, I didn't know them.   

Throughout the gathering,  "Insider" language (terms for undefined groups, ministries, property names, positions, etc) was used and unexplained, assuming all knew to what it referred. I took out my phone and looked up the website of the gathering only to be further stymied by there being no definitions there either; and the site had not been updated in a number of years!  In the gathering, nothing was explained. References were made to narratives with which I was not familiar.  The leaders and attendees assumed all knew what was going on.

The most painful time, however, came after the business of the gathering at what in my previous experiences of gatherings would have been a time of fellowship and widening the circle... lunch. Where two or three are gathered, Christ is present!  While waiting alone in line for lunch, people ignored me when I tried to introduce myself; without offering their name or eye contact, they turned to the person they were with in line and continued to talk to one another. After 4 attempts, I decided that either my breath was really foul, or I was not welcome to join them. I stepped out of the line and left the gathering. On my way to my car, even the people on the street were more friendly and welcoming than had been the "church."  I drove home without lunch feeling very much alone and wondering why I had spent my day off at this gathering.

Three days following the meeting, a person who spoke at the meeting and who needed the support of area "Church" people to raise support for a ministry of the gathered group left a message in my voice mail box.  The person was asking me to attend an informational gathering where financial support would be solicited for this important ministry.  This person was one of those who had turned away when I introduced myself.  Hearing the name on my voice mail felt like a stab in my chest.  I listened to that voice mail twice.  I even wrote down the phone number to which a response was requested.  Inside I raged with hurt.  I checked my reaction and chose to simply delete the voice mail.  I did not pass the message on to others who could have attended.  I could not bring myself to feel at all interested in the cause.  

I am an extrovert.  I have never met a stranger.  Until that gathering.  And I was the stranger.  I did not seek to be the center of attention; I sought to be welcomed as a stranger, as one seeking belonging amid the body of Christ gathered.  I left a stranger unwelcomed.

I now have a much better understanding of the guest who visits a new church.  I understand why some never return after being ungreeted in worship or standing alone in the fellowship hour.  I have felt first hand the sting of being the outsider within a group who see themselves as very friendly and who claim to have an "Extravagant Welcome."  

I believe in the Extravagant Welcome of the my church. I have experienced it in many settings! I'm sorry that it was not exercised or visible at this gathering. We CAN do better!  We MUST do better for Christ commands it!

  • What made you feel welcome in a gathering of people?  
  • What can the Church do differently to aid in authentic hospitality?  
  • What can you, personally, do to help a guest in your congregation feel welcomed and want to belong?
  • Who might be avoiding involvement in a ministry because they have felt unwelcome, and how might the bridges be mended and the hurt healed?

12 June, 2014

Bibs and Aprons, part 2.

This is the second in a three part series.  Here is the first.

Having spent many summers on Cape Cod, I treasure the flavor and messiness of eating lobster.  While my family did not have a commercial interest in lobsters, my father purchased permits for each of his 4 or 5 lobster pots; we enjoyed a lot of fresh lobster.  This was a source of great joy and puzzlement for some of our summer visitors; the flavor and delicacy always brought smiles while the complicated process of eating it always raised the eyebrows of those who had never eaten it before.

Not long ago, lobster was considered to be the food of indentured servants and prisoners.  The crustacean is a bottom feeder and its nickname was the “cockroach of the ocean;” it was considered to be “beneath” the palates of the well heeled.  Often employment contracts for household staff would include a provision that they not be fed lobster more than once a week!  The primary use for these crabs was as fish bait and as fertilizer.  But for the less fortunate, this “bottom of the food chain” was a valuable source of protein and nutrition.  (For an interesting read on how we came to see lobster as a delicacy, see this.)

Steamed lobster is not a clean thing to eat.  Aside from being a gatekeeper for drawn butter, the inner flesh of these water dwelling insects is tough to access. It requires a nutcracker and pick.  The resulting messiness runs down our arms and chin(s).  Lobster is hard work!  But, since we’ve come to regard it as a delicacy, it has become acceptable to wear a bib to protect our clothing – even if doing so causes us to question our dignity!

Wearing a bib is necessary when eating some foods even if we are adults!  The same is true of our faith life.  Every follower of Jesus needs to be nourished with the very basics of the faith “food chain.”  Every believer needs to chew on and digest the scriptures and to crack open the difficult issues of faith.  This feeding is not a once in a life time thing; we don’t contract with God to be fed only once a week, once a month, or twice a year.  It is necessary that each of us be fed and nourished repeatedly so that we can grow in the faith.  Even though we’ve “graduated” from confirmation classes and attained higher things in life and in the Church, we must don our bibs and nourish our faith.

Notice that I did not say we must don our bibs and be fed!  We must still feed ourselves!  We must choose to get our hands and chins into the work of cracking open the Word, wrestling with the hard shells to reach the succulent nutrition within.  It is necessary that the juices flow from our heads to our hearts and from the faith to our hands; only as a result of having worked through the issues of faith will that stickiness pass from our hands to our everyday work and lives.  The bib represents our willingness to delve in; it does not so much protect us as serve as a symbol of our need for God’s ongoing and ever-generous grace and care.  When we don the bib, it is God who feeds and nourishes us so that we will continue to grow in faith.

This is not to say that we wear the bib all the time.  Even an infant dons a bib only to eat!  We must use those learnings, burn those “faith calories” in service to others; for that we must don the apron.  More on that next time.

08 June, 2014


A friend's post on Facebook reminded me last week that I have an anniversary today.  It's not something I think about often, but occasionally the date has happened and I'm reminded of the significance it.  More frequently, the date passes and I never notice.

It's not my wedding anniversary.  That early September date is rarely forgotten.  Although we rarely make a huge deal of it, Dan and I usually do something to commemorate that day in 1983 when we promised to God and one another that we were committed to a life long bond.  And after, now, 30 anniversaries neither of us can imagine having lived any differently.  We could manage without one other and simply choose not to do so.  Perhaps that is the secret to having lived in different homes at least 4 times in our marriage is that we  recognize and appreciate both our individuality and our unity.  But it is not my wedding anniversary.

It's also not the anniversary of that "heart incident."  That also is a September event.  It also rarely passes without my recognizing that it is THAT day.  And while that too is well behind me, that date reminds me of the fragility of life.  Things could have turned out so very differently had I continued to ignore the situation.  The decision to follow the suggestion of one who knew first hand the signs and symptoms changed me, allowed me to witness my sons growing to be men, and so much more. After, now, 10 anniversaries of that day I am a healthier person physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  But it is not the heart attack anniversary. 

I've written before about the anniversary of my baptism.  I was unaware or had forgotten that date until I recently wrapped and packed my framed baptism certificate.  It hangs on my wall central to my degrees and certificate of ordination.  I feel that my baptism is more important to me than my birth;  I had no choice to make about being born but being baptized was my decision about how I would live my life.  But it is not my baptism anniversary.

It is the anniversary of my ordination.  Most years I would not remember this date.  Most years, it does not fall on a Sunday, let alone on Pentecost Sunday.  I was not ordained on Pentecost; I was ordained on the Sunday the follows Pentecost, Trinity Sunday.  The day was memorable; the date is not.  For me, ordination was a formal recognition of what had already been; it followed a number of years of licensed ministry.  For me, ordination was the icing on the cake of my call; the inscription that offered the Church's official recognition of my call to ministry. 

Perhaps I don't routinely remember this anniversary because I believe each person who is a follower of the way of Jesus is called to ministry, is called to live a life that proclaims God's unconditional love, grace, and mercy.  Perhaps it is because I don't see ordination as being set apart but rather as being set in the midst of the community of believers as we sojourn together through this ever-changing world.

Today is the anniversary of your call to ministry too.  Pentecost is that day when all are set aflame in the breath of the Holy Spirit; the day when each is given the gifts necessary for God's work in their midst.

So, won't you celebrate with me?  Let's light some fires and change the world.

04 June, 2014

What is the Church?

I'm on an Ann Weems kick this week. As I think about how we witness to a new generation of pilgrims, as I imagine what being authentic means, as I dream about celebrating Pentecost in a new congregation, and as I imagine a new future for an established, traditional faith community, I am drawn to yet another of Ann Weem's poems.

The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary to feed the hungry . . .
is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children run giggling in procession . . .
is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts . . .
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems

Ann Weems is a Presbyterian elder, a lecturer, and a popular poet. She is the author of Family Faith Stories, Reaching for Rainbows, Searching for Shalom, Kneeling in Bethlehem, Kneeling in Jerusalem, Psalms of Lament, and Putting the Amazing Back in Grace.  

03 June, 2014

Happy Birthday Church!

Sunday is Pentecost.
It's What?
What's that?
It's the Birthday of the Church!
Oh, you mean like the anniversary of our congregation?
No.  It's the day we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit upon the early church.
Read all about it in Acts 2.

Then come back and read the poem here by Ann Weems.  It’s called, “Happy Birthday Church!”  [from Reaching for Rainbows, 1980]
There once was a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Do Justice Party Room, the Love Mercy Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room.  In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross:  God’s Party Room.

There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied.  The

people outside the church pointed their fingers and shook their heads:  “Something should be done about that church.”  They were especially upset when they saw that the members wore party hats and smiles both inside and outside the church.

Other congregations came to take a look and were shocked when they saw this church having so much fun during a worship service, snapping their fingers and dancing.

“Sacrilegious,” screamed the crowd.  But the people in the church just smiled at them and went right on doing things like taking people in wheelchairs to the park and playing ball with them.

When everybody else was collecting canned goods for the poor, this church bought pizza and marched right into dingy, dirty, paint-peeling apartments and sat down to eat with the tenants.

They held picnics for the old folks home, and old men ran races while the congregation stamped their feet in applause.  It was at one of these picnics that some of the members climbed up on the roof and shouted:  “Good news!”

“Now we can get them for disturbing the peace,” said one of the outsiders.  The police arrived with sirens, ready for the arrest, and came out two hours later wearing party hats and smiles.

One Sunday afternoon, the entire congregation met at the jail and passed out flowers to the prisoners.  The following week after bread and wine and much laughter at the Lord’s table, the people went to the hospital and asked to see the dying patients.  They held their hands and mopped their brows and spoke to them of life.

“Disgraceful!” shouted the crowd.  “They must be stopped.”  So the crowd appealed to the governing body of the denomination, and this committee of respected church people went to see for themselves.

“Do you deny the charges of heresy?” asked the committee.  “do you deny that you’ve mocked the church and the Lord?”  The people of the church looked into the stern red faces and smiled at them.  They held out their hands to the committee and led them to the Birthday Cake Party Room.  There on a table sat a large cake decorated beautifully in doves descending and red flames and words that read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH!  The people began cutting cake and blowing up balloons and handing out party hats to the committee members.

“Wait!  Wait!” cried the chairperson.  “Can’t you take anything seriously?”

“Yes,” said the people.  “We take our commitment to the Lord very seriously indeed.”

“You don’t take it seriously at all,” interrupted the chairperson in loud voice and red face.  “You have parties and wear silly hats and blow up balloons and sing and dance and have fun.  Do you call that commitment?”

The people smiled at the chairperson and asked him if he’d like a glass of wine.  The chairperson hit his fist on the table.  “I don’t want wine, and I don’t want birthday cake.  We’re here to reprimand you.  We’re here to show you that you’re wrong.  Can’t you be serious?”

“We are,” said the people.  “We’re asking you to take communion with us.”

“With birthday cake?” screamed the chairperson.  “Outrageous!”

“Outrageous?” [asked the people] “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us.  God gave the Holy Spirit to believers, and that is something to celebrate!  It’s an occasion for a party.  We are celebrants of the gift of Life.  We are community.  We are God’s church.  Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy?  Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing?  We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people, who are many, yet one—who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us.  When we weep there is someone to weep with us and to affirm us and to take us to a party.  When we see injustices, we must be about God’s business of freeing the oppressed.  When we are faithless, we have God’s promise of forgiveness.  Isn’t it remarkable that we can be God’s good news?  Is it any wonder we have a church full of party rooms?  There is so much love to celebrate!”

The committee stared at the people, and the people moved closer to them and put their arms around them.  The committee chairperson stepped up to the table and sliced a piece of birthday cake, took a bite, and laughed out loud.  He began slicing and passing it out.
When the wine was poured and the hands were held, the chairperson raised his glass and said,  “There is so much Love to celebrate!  Happy Birthday, Church!”

30 May, 2014

Donning the Apron of Service

With Memorial Day behind us, the official start of summer is here.  The grills have come out of storage and, in many families, the men have donned aprons while they watch over the sizzling dinners.  The apron is a symbol of the one who cooks, or who hosts the gathering of people.  The one who wears the apron is usually the one who waits upon others whether at home or in a restaurant.

One year my (then) young sons made their dad an apron for Father’s Day.  Using a fabric pen, I outlined their hand prints onto the pocket of the apron and they each filled in their print.  Andrew insisted that we were making a bib for Daddy.  He was remembering his bibs that fit like backward, sleeveless shirts.  The apron we were decorating did look like that wrap-around bib!

The bib and the apron both protect the clothing by adding a layer of protection.  But there is a significant difference in the cultural connotations of bibs and aprons.   A bib is worn by someone who is being fed, being served; an apron is worn by one who is the servant.  A bib is donned by the consumer; an apron, by one who produces and provides. Wearing a bib is a necessary precursor to fitting into an apron.

The juxtaposition of the apron and bib is apt for the Church in this ever-changing time.  As we mature in faith, we move from wearing a bib to donning an apron.  As children, we are fed and nourished in the faith, guided and mentored on the journey by those who have walked their own spiritual path.  We grow out of our constant need for the bib as we learn to feed ourselves and share in the work of feeding others.  We don the apron of service and hospitality as the result of having been fed, nurtured, and growing by the faith community.

Hospitality is an important part of the culture of the scripture:
  • Remember the three men who came to Abraham under the oaks of Mamre – Sarah had to cook for them a meal from scratch while the men waited.
  • Remember the men of Sodom who were destroyed for their lack of hospitality?
  • Remember Jesus’ words “I came not to be served but to serve.”
This is the way of the Middle East then and still today.  A stranger is always to be welcomed, always to be treated as the guest.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

As we grow in faith and character, we become the hosts who wear the apron and allow the guest to determine how they are to be treated.  Being a Christian requires us to give up the bib and don the apron.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,  “To be where God is -- to follow Jesus -- means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as our own possessions. It means sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it for our own consumption.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 2004. p. 81)

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Our society would have us think that life is all about us - our desires, our needs, our achievements. And, so in our pride, we ignore the gospel proclaimed to us by God's love and hope for us. In our greed, we ignore the needs of those God has called us to serve.  We are so afraid of losing what we have, that we hold tightly to it and fail to share God’s love with others in ways that are meaningful and nurturing to them.

I wonder if in the Church, we continue to wear the bib as consumers of church programs and
services, expectant that we will be waited upon by others.  I wonder if there were more apron-wearing servants, would we be able to nurture and grow more seekers toward full belonging?  I wonder if the shortage of leadership in churches is a reflection of continuing need to be spoon fed. 

Friends, it is time for the Church of Jesus Christ to take off our bibs and put on our aprons.
  • It is time for us to live trusting the God who keeps promises, and to do the work of hospitality for people who need the Good News and who need God’s assurance that they need not be afraid.
  • It is time we lived the Gospel of God’s abundance and shared in that grace.
  • It is time we stopped expecting everything to be our way and seek the comfort of those who need God’s abundance and hospitality to be shown to them
  • It is time we stop catering to the needs of those who are here and start serving those who most need to hear and experience God’s promises for the first time.
 Let’s make some new aprons and let us wear them boldly into service in God’s name.

28 May, 2014

See You in Church?

Since my husband is completing his interim position some 3.5 hours away, I often eat dinner out in one of the local pubs or restaurants. Since I dine alone, if the establishment is particularly empty, I will sit at the bar and chat with the wait staff.

Having missed lunch yesterday, I went to the pub nearest my office for an early dinner -- around 4:30. The place is diagonally across the street from the church, and from its door one can see the church's sign and front door.

As the place was quite empty, I sat at the bar. I ordered the special and a glass of wine. There were numerous empty stools on either side of me.

After I ordered, a guy comes into the establishment and asked if he could sit in stool next to mine. What can I say? Not wanting to be rude, I say sure. He was cleanly and neatly dressed; probably one of the local professionals, I thought.

He proceeds to strike up a conversation. I'm polite in a "pastorally" way. We chat about being new in town, and the like. Several times in the conversation I mention my husband. I'm clearly wearing a wedding band.

I finished my meal and asked for my check. When I'd signed the credit card slip, I stood up to leave and bid him farewell. He reached for my hand (still on the bill voucher), tapped it, and said, "I hope to run into you again."

Without missing a beat, I pulled my other hand out of my pocket, handed him my business card, and said, "Maybe I'll see you on Sunday."

I turned and left.

As I reached the door, I heard him say, "You've got to be kidding! I just hit on a minister!"

"Yes, sir. You did. See you Sunday?"

Community presence at it's best!

Postscript:  A colleague has pointed out the irony that the name of the pub is the Wild Monk.... :D

09 May, 2014

UCC and Proud of it.

I am proud to be a pastor in the United Church Of Christ. Here is yet another reason why.

12 April, 2014

Why am I a Christian?

As I was personalizing my new office laptop, I found this little gem in my Dropbox this morning. I believe it dates back to my days at Christian Theological Seminary when I was asked by a professor to write an explanation of:
  • why I am Christian,
  • why do I belong to my denomination, and
  • how do I see ministry as relevant to the first two. 

I believe these words are, for the most part, still true of me today.  How would you respond to these questions?

Here's my response from 1997.

Why am I a Christian?
I claim "Christian" as my identity because I am a follower of the ways and teachings of Jesus. A reason for my belief can't be determined by any rational thinking process. Some would say such a belief is a miracle! And I agree! I did not choose to believe in God; God chose me. I am a Christian because it was the love of Christ that found me and turned me away from other paths. I am a Christian because it was the message of God's saving grace that strangely warmed my heart. And I am a Christian because the Spirit has tugged, guided and comforted me along my journey. There is no reason or rationality to my faith. Nor do I feel the need for any. Faith is not of reason and rationality; faith is of God.

Why not some other "Brand" of Christianity?  Though initially by chance, I am a protestant by choice. I was drawn into the church because it was a great babysitting tool for my mother. There were two churches in town, a Roman Catholic and a Congregational; the latter was closer to home and my nine siblings and I could walk home after being deposited there each Sunday morning. In late elementary and junior high school, I attended the Catholic church with school buddies (peer pressure!). While I found the mass fascinating with its "smells and bells," the catechism classes (where the nuns dreaded my questions and, more, my responses to theirs) were stifling and the over all attitude was demeaning and patronizing. Even at that young age, I could not comprehend how I could ever live under such mind-numbing rules and regulations set forth by someone in Boston or in Italy! Only when, at age 16, I studied the Reformation in baptismal/confirmation classes at the Congregational church did I begin to understand the implications of what I felt earlier. I chose to be baptized into the church where I felt encouraged to explore and think through the issues of faith, question things -- even God -- and read and study scripture in light of experience and culture. I am still a protestant today for the same reasons.

I am a member of the United Church of Christ also by choice. There are the practical issues; no bishop to move me around, local church autonomy, my husband and in-laws are all U.C.C. clergy. But from a faith perspective, I belong to the U.C.C. because among the denominations and "non-denominational churches" I've experienced, it is the only place that most closely lives out my understanding of the Church. First is it's unifying goal. The basis of union declared that the purpose of church union comes from Christ's words, "that they may all be one."  All means everyone; the church is intentionally inclusive of all varieties and flavors of Christians. Individuality is accepted and honored. Yet all are one; community and diversity are celebrated. While Synods and Conference meetings may not seem very unifying, we still celebrate our oneness in Christ...even when that's all we can agree on! Christians in this era must accept the diversity amongst us, accept that God is present differently amongst us, and stop trying to prove the other is wrong - or we will die. Second, it is in the U.C.C. that the prophetic proclamation of the Gospel is heard and carried out. Justice and peace are not just catch words that sound good; they are the mission of the denomination; they are also what we disagree the most about! But is that not the nature of any faith stand? Where two or three people are gathered, there will be three or four opinions! But we can agree that Christ calls us to do something! Unity and diversity, proclamation and prophesy call me into the United Church of Christ.

Unity and diversity, proclamation and prophesy are integral parts of every Christian's ministry. I believe that God equips the Church Universal with all the gifts needed to make, nurture, and grow disciples. No one person, congregation or even denomination has all the gifts; but each congregation is a part of the body of Christ and is equipped for ministry where it is planted. The challenge for each congregation is to continually re-assess what the congregation is called and equipped to do, what the needs of the community in which they are planted are, and how the congregation's gifted-ness can be used to meet those needs while making and nurturing new disciples for Christ.

Ministry is sending out growing disciples who seek to live their lives as Jesus lived his; bringing in God's reign in all the earth. Ministry happens in many different forms and shapes. Common to all ministries, however is that at it's core, each strives to make and nurture disciples. Over time, the Church has lost this emphasis. As we enter a new millennium, we need to reclaim Jesus' command to be "witnesses in all of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Disciples. A person of faith never stops growing. The word "disciple" means one who learns, one who listens. When a person chooses to be baptized or confirmed, that person is choosing to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus who learns and listens and who never stops growing in faith. When we stop growing, we die. When we learn, we grow, and we are changed. When any living thing stops changing, it dies. A seed is planted. It germinates, sprouts, absorbs water and sunlight, grows, blooms, and bears fruit and seed. If it stops growing and changing in the life cycle, it would die. Disciples are the same. We are nurtured to grow and bear fruit and plant new seeds of faith. We don't do these things as payment for anything. We do them in gratitude for what God has already done for us.

Nurturing. Most churches are very good at nurturing one another if by nurturing we mean helping one another feel good about ourselves. In a disciple-making setting, however, nurturing takes on a deeper meaning. To nurture disciples means to meet people where ever they are, listen to and seek to understand their life-stories, and move them forward on a faith journey. Nurturing disciples means protecting and advocating for them when necessary. Nurturing disciples is glorifying God by loving and caring for them and leading them in ways that help them grow in faith. Jesus called this nurturing "mother henning" (Matt. 23:37).

Sending out. Jesus' ministry was not just to his disciples and followers. He reached out to all he met, and even went out of his way to meet some. He taught, healed, debated, and comforted. He spoke to the injustices He encountered. He included even the outcast and the unlovable. And He told the disciples to be His witnesses in all of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1"8). So as disciples, we must go out from the faith community and do as Jesus did: heal, comfort, teach, debate, include, and speak against injustice. When God's reign is complete, all of creation will be included.

Ministry is the work of every Christian. Each of us has God-given gifts and passions. Each of us is called to develop those gifts and use them to glorify God and build up the body of Christ. All Christians are ministers.

As a pastor, I am one called out to nurture disciples, enable leaders, and to model ministry. I am the vision-caster, coach, cheerleader, hand-holder, and teacher all rolled into one. I am called to use my gifts and passions to grow and nurture disciples who will make and nurture disciples. I am a gardener who prepares the soil, plants the seeds, nurtures, fertilizes, prunes, weeds, and celebrates the fruit and harvest in the garden of faith.

Liturgically speaking, I am called and ordained to be a pastor and teacher. I proclaim the Good News and lift up the meaning, relevance, and importance of God's Word in our everyday lives. I am comfortable leading and preaching in traditional worship; I am energized by contemporary worship. I am the conductor of the orchestra where each voice is lifted and celebrated in harmony with one another.

26 March, 2014

Flying High.

It was cold and windy as I left the house to head 20 miles down the road into town for some materials with which to do some repair work on some furniture before I moved the next week.  It's been a tough winter; more snow has fallen in the area than ever has been recorded.  The temperatures have been colder than I remember any winter being in any of the many places I've lived.  While the snow banks had melted to a mere six feet, there was still snow on all the fields and road corners.  I am tired of winter already! Spring can't come soon enough.

As I drove down the narrow county road, the tree tops caught my attention. The tips of the twigs have turned reddish; they were beginning to swell in the lengthening days.  As I was looking up at the trees, I was startled by a flash of black and white filling the span of my windshield.  With grace, it flew out of view and into the tree beside the road.  As I pulled to the side of the road, the creature's outline became clear: an American bald eagle.  From his perch amid the swelling maple buds 100 feet above the road, he could could see the Maumee River overflowing its banks, the greening winter wheat in the fields, and the deep blue sky above him.

This unexpected gift gave me hope that the cold would soon swell into warmer days, the wind would be transformed into spirited breezes, and the trees would blossom into much needed shade.

Looking up has its advantages!

18 January, 2014

From the Sermon Barrell: Beach Plums, Plum Lines, and Bounty

A sermon preached on July 17, 2013 at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Pembroke, Mass.
Amos 7:7-17
Colossians 1:1-14

Along the edge of Cable Road leading to Rock Harbor in Eastham on Cape Cod, there are sand dunes covered with beach plumbs.  On days when my father would be working on the boat or out fishing and digging for clams over low tide, my mother would allow us to play in the dunes, climb on the giant barnacle covered rock, and collect sand dollars and other treasures along the shore of the bay.  The standing rule was, however, that we could go no further inland than the beach plum bushes.  

There was an ongoing, unspoken competition among some of the residents of Eastham centered upon who would pick the beach plums at the height of ripeness.  These tiny, astringent fruit make the best jelly that can be had.  Picked too early, however, and the astringency overpowers the scant sugar in them.  Picked too late, the end result doesn’t set up properly and is a runny mess more like syrup than jelly.  

Beach plum jelly is a coastal specialty.  It’s unheard of in the regions where I’ve lived inland, probably because beach plums are reluctant to be domesticated.  They don’t do well outside of their salty, sandy environment.  They produce richly one year and may barely produce at all the next.  They thrive after a winter of high tides and being buried in the sand.  They thrive in the constant shift of the sands around them.  The normalcy of a cultivated patch does not lend itself to these fruit.  These bushes want constant change.  

It was an area of beach plum bushes that was the boundary of my bay side playground. 
As I listen to and read this morning’s scriptures, my mind is drawn to beach plums, to the line drawn in the sand beyond which we children were not permitted to go, to the fussiness and inconsistency of beach plums harvest, and to their resistance to cultivation.

In Amos’ time, the Jewish people had been divided into two kingdoms for nearly 200 years:   the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time before the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.) to the Assyrians.  Jeroboam 1 feared that if his people were to continue going to Jerusalem to worship, they would be loyal to the southern kingdom, Judah, and would overthrow Jeroboam in favor of Rehoboam, the king of Judah.  1Kings 12:28-30 says, that Jeroboam made two calves of gold; and he told the people that “it’s too much to expect you to go to Jerusalem.  Use these calves as your gods.  It is these that have brought you out of Egypt.”  He put one in the city of Bethel, just a few miles north of Jerusalem,  and the other in the town of Dan, in the far northern reaches of the northern kingdom. The people did as they were told.  They worshiped in those places as well as in the high places – the altars of pagan gods.  

This morning’s passage tells us of the third of five visions of Amos.  The first vision  was of locusts (7:1-3); the second, fire (7:4 – 6).  After each of the first two visions, Amos begged for mercy (7:2, 5), and in each of those instances Yahweh relented (7:3, 6).  However, in this third vision, Amos makes no attempt to ask for mercy and Yahweh shows no signs of relenting. Maybe Amos has decided that Yahweh's judgment is righteous and he no longer has it in his heart to protest the coming punishment.  

It is not a line of beach plum bushes but a plumb line that Amos sees.  A simple weight at the end of a string, this device shows a true vertical – 90 degrees from the horizon – against which a builder measures a wall.  A wall that is not plumb is not structurally sound and is not strong enough to support the weight of the upper structure and the roof; it has to be dismantled and rebuilt.  

When we had an offer from a potential buyer of my parents’ home, an inspector found that the east wall of the basement was not plumb; the block wall was 2 inches off plumb.  In that condition, the house could not be sold.

It’s not easy to straighten a wall that is not straight.  We had no idea that it had shifted.  It was plumb when my father played those blocks 28 years earlier.  There had been no earthquake.  There had been no flood.  But over time and with no one noticing, that wall moved, drifted from its strength and into a compromised state.  We had to hire a contractor to place jacks under the floor joists, take down the cement block wall and replace it.

Yahweh is comparing the Northern Israeli tribes to an untrue wall; they have strayed from the truth with their worship of false gods. The actions of the people do not match the plumb line of God’s grace.  Their leader has led them astray; they have drifted from strength to something less.  God needed to unassemble the people – to unsettle them and dismantle their security – in order to reassemble them into a true and strong community of faith. 

What is the plumb line against which we measure our life as followers of Yahweh, as Christians in an increasingly unChristian and secular society? Where have we moved away from the grace of God; settled into less than strong standing wall?  What ministry, what attitudes, what mission and purpose measures true to the Plumb, and what needs to be unassembled and rebuilt? What are we doing that future generations in the Church will be able to say that we did our job well in the midst of the change – the shifting sand – around us?  How do we measure, how do we review and assess our lives as Christians to be sure we are true to God’s plan for us? 

The letter to the Colossians gives us some guidance. Paul has never met the members of the Christian community in Colossae.  He has heard about them from his colleague Epaphus.
Paul first acknowledges what the community is doing right and well.  Paul builds up the community by first recognizing that they have gotten something absolutely right. In verses 4-5, Paul mentions three virtues––faith, love, and hope.    He has heard from his good friend Epaphus that this community has demonstrated strong faith, unfaltering love, and a hope for the future.  

Faith:  Paul has heard good things about their "faith (pistis) in Christ Jesus."  In the New Testament, faith has to do with the person's response to the kerygma––the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The Colossians have taken the Good News and acted upon it.  They have internalized it and made it their life story, their purpose and he center of their being.  
Love:  "the love (agape) which you have toward all the saints" (v. 4b).  The word that Paul uses for love, agape, has to do with a concern for the well-being of the other person while philos has to do with brotherly love––friendship love––companion love––the kind of love where a person receives as well as gives.  In other words, friendship love –philos – has to do both with giving and getting, while agape has to do only with giving––with an undiluted concern for the welfare and well being of the other person. 

Agape love is more a "doing" than a "feeling" word.  It doesn't require that we approve of the actions of the person whom we love––or even that we enjoy their company.  It does require us to act in behalf of that person––to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion.  An agape person will do what is possible to feed the hungry––and to give drink to the thirsty––and to welcome the stranger––and to clothe the naked––and to visit the sick and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).  The agape person has little or nothing to gain by helping these hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, imprisoned people.  The thrust of his/her agape love is giving, not getting. Love is the first of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)––and is the greatest of Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Paul calls the Christian community to be future looking.   In verse 4, Paul mentioned the faith of these Colossian Christians––and in  verse 5  he speaks of their hope:  "....because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens" (v. 5a).  Both faith and hope look to the future––to future rewards––to the future fulfillment of present promises.  The author of Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). 

Hope is vital in the full sense of that word.  Hope is life-giving.  Life without hope is drab and meaninglessness.  Prisoners serving sentences with no clear end-date tend to cope much less well than prisoners who can calculate the number of days until they will be released.  They cope less well, because their future is unclear––because they have nothing definite for which to hope––no end-date by which to measure their progress.

We tend to place our hope in all sorts of things:  Personal strength or appearance, academic degrees, 401k's or pension plans, political figures, etc..  But Paul tells the Colossian Christians that their hope grows out of their "faith in Christ Jesus" and "the love which (they) have toward all" (v. 4).  It is a hope that gives them a vision of a strong future, and that gives them strength for today.

Faith, hope and love:  These are the things the Colossians are doing well.  Paul builds up the confidence of the community by recognizing what they have done well – where they are plumb with the life of Grace God intends for them. 

Then Paul moves to those things with which the Colossians are struggling.  He tells them he is praying for those areas:
  • To be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding," (1:9) 
  • To be leading a life pleasing to God --bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God 
  • To "be strengthened with all power… for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to God
To be filled with Knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  When we are faced with conflicts in our lives, how does God want us to respond? How can we seek to be filled with the knowledge of his will in "all spiritual wisdom?"

One way is to look at Jesus Christ. But to know what Jesus would do you have to know Jesus’ ministry, what he did, and what God did in history. To know that, we have to actually read the Bible. That is why studying it is so important. That is also why Bible Studies and Sunday School are important. Yes, you can read the Bible by yourself but studying it with others helps us all gain from the varying perspectives of other Christians. Whether we’re nine or 99, we cannot stop learning about God, listening to the experiences of others with God – both in the Bible and through the voices of our sisters and brothers. 

Paul says he is praying for is that they "lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God."(1:10) It is one thing to know the will of God, but it is another to do it. You can intend and plan to do the right thing all you want but it is no good until you actually do it. This is where the rubber meets the road. You can ask "What would Jesus do?" but then you have to do it or the asking was pointless.

Paul speaks of the Colossians "bearing fruit in every good work." Elsewhere Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit being "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23) A fruit is something that grows on a tree because of the kind f tree it is. Beach Plum bushes produce beach plums; Apple trees produce apples. Peach Trees grow peaches. And we Christians are supposed to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit because we are people of the Holy Spirit of God.  When we show the world lives lived with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we are displaying that we are plumb with God’s way.  It is showing others God’s grace without even using words.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on, "and increasing in the knowledge of God." Doing God's will leads to a deeper knowledge of God. You can't just sit in your ivory tower contemplating God and know God. You have to act on what you have learned to learn more. You have to practice being like Christ to become more like him.

The last thing he says he is praying for is that they may "be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light."(1:11-12) We don't make ourselves strong.  Yes, we have to study the Bible and to practice what we learn. But ultimately it is not our actions that make us stand Plumb. It is power of God that dwells in us. Our actions simply open or close the door to that power.

As I listen to and read this morning’s scriptures, my mind is drawn to beach plums, to the line drawn in the sand beyond which we children of God are to measure our work and play—our lives in God’s way.  Like the beach plums, we too are fussy and inconsistent of our harvest, and we too are resistant to cultivation even when the sands of change drift around us.  Yet God calls us to look at the plumb line of fruitfulness and evaluate where we need to straighten and strengthen ourselves.

May we grow in the strength and knowledge of God, so that we may bear the fruit of God’s spirit and live faithfully and with agape love in God’s way.