Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Note to Self: Next Time Get Here Earlier

I do not remember the year, but I do remember the traffic jam.  A friend and I drove to Ladue in St. Louis County to hear a lecture by Dr. Elaine Pagels, the renowned religious scholar who has done extensive work with the Gnostic gospels.  We left for the lecture at a decent hour with plenty of time to get there, but as we approached the local church where Pagels was scheduled to speak, we got into a major mess.  All brake lights and no movement for blocks.  Surely there must have been some kind of accident ahead or, maybe, some St. Louis sports star was in the neighborhood.  What a surprise to find that the traffic jam was for a scholar!  We spend the two hours of the lecture in a fellowship hall, listening to the lecture over a cracking speaker.

Tonight I had a similar experience.  I am in Denver for the Festival of Homiletics.  The evening worship was scheduled for 6:45 p.m.  The preacher was Dr. Walter Brueggemann.  When I arrived a half hour before the service was to start, the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church was packed to overflowing.  The balconies were also already full.  People were in chairs in the narthex outside the sanctuary.  I finally found a seat on the second floor outside the sanctuary--just beyond the narthex.  Wish I had packed my binoculars!  This is the view from my seat:

If I sat up really straight, I could peak between the banisters and wooden posts to see into the sanctuary to catch a glimpse of Brueggeman.  The sermon was powerful, reminding me that I am one of those little ones, those babes, whom God has chosen.  Fortunately, the sound system at Central Presbyterian is good; no static tonight.
What I learned from this experience is that I need to get there earlier if I am to find a seat in the sanctuary.  I am getting up early in the morning so I can arrive earlier than just get there "on time."  And, here's a thought:  Wouldn't it be wonderful to have this kind of problem in your church next Sunday.  You don't need Pagels or Brueggemann to be there, for you have a preacher, a pastor and teacher.  Rather than arriving at the last minute with plenty of places in the pews for you--what if you had to get there an hour ahead of the service just to get a seat in a pew?  Imagine that, it might still be possible even in New Hampshire. 
 O God, prepare me to get to the church, ready to worship, ahead of time.  Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Called as Friends

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 
--John 15:15, New Revised Standard Version

 In the church of my childhood, our pastor was a great preacher.  He was ordained in 1920, and his deep booming voice sounded like claps of thunder.  No microphone needed.  He had learned the art of projecting well.  What I remember today is the way he addressed us:  "My Dear Christian Friends."  I took those words literally.  For him, they might have been part of his rhetorical style, but I heard them as an affirmation of friendship.  To be a Christian and a member of Christ's church was to be rooted in a relationship of friendship.  No matter what, we were still in this together.  We were friends.

What we call each other matters.  A classmate in preaching class would use "Folks" repeatedly in sermons to address his listeners.  There was neither affirmation nor affection there.  "People of God," "Brothers and Sisters," "Disciples of Christ," are often spoken today--but they do not satisfy my deepest hope for the church as a community: Friends with God and one another.  And sadly, I often hear "they" or "them" when I am working with churches that are caught in chronic conflict.  There is no friendship there--no love professed or lost.  No church left.

So today, I am praying for "My Dear Christian Friends"--friends who are far away and friends who are very near, friends who bear heavy burdens with great courage and friends who inspire my heart to sing, friends who confront and friends who comfort.  I thank God this morning for that aging preacher whose greeting still echoes in my mind.  I praise God for all friends in Christ who share this journey with me.     

Monday, April 27, 2015

Tiny Harbingers of Hope

It was a long weekend with nearly 400 miles spend staring through the windshield of the rental car.  Winter continues to influence my spirit.  Saturday I drove in light snow.  The car got salted on the treated North Country roads.  I have yet to meet the person who is claiming that ours was a "mild winter."  It's been long and wearisome, even for those who enjoy winter.  My soul is gray.

Last night after a busy Sunday, I walked from a meeting and prepared for the drive back home.  My spirit was done for the day--depleted and drained.  And then, I heard them: Pseudacris Crucifers, chorus frogs, spring peepers.  These tiny creatures sing of hope; they make my heart sing too.  They fill the night with cheerful assurance.  The winter is gone now.  Spring has come though it may not yet have arrived in all its fullness.  There is hope in the night.  There is a song that beaks the silence.  It comes from an unexpected and invisible source--from a community of tiny, little frogs.

So tonight, step out onto your porch.  Listen!  Listen for the hope that creation sings.  Listen for the peepers with their chorus filling the damp night air.  Then rest in the assurance that the song instills in your soul.

Thank you, God, for the songs of the peepers that come at just the right times.  Fill our lives with your hope.  Amen.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Temple Cleaning

Then they came to Jerusalem.  And [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He saw teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crow was spellbound by his teaching.  And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.   (Mark 11:15-19, NRSV)

Today is the day for cleaning up the temple.  Some of my fondest memories are those times when church members gathered together to clean out the closets of their buildings.  Over time, our sacred spaces get overladen with junk--old costumes from Christmas pageants, crumpled copies of bulletins, broken folding chairs, plastic flowers.  You name it, local churches have a way of holding on to it.  Those major cleaning days brought together folks who had energy for making their space less cluttered and more inviting.

One of the churches I served had rented a parsonage to a house painter.  The painter had disposed of all his old paint pails in a ditch on the church's property.  The cans had been there for years, rusting in that ditch--until one spring day a group of church members gathered with trailers behind their trucks.  They properly disposed of three trailer loads of cans and other metals.  In that clean-up day, someone found an antique pitch pipe that had been lost in the ditch.  It was an amazing discovery! 

I also remember Ella, a member of one of the churches where I served. This woman would spend an entire week detailing the sanctuary when it was her turn to clean.  Although thin and frail, she would arrive early in the day and stay late into the afternoon.  She was never content to run the vacuum and dust the obvious places, but Ella would get down on her hands and knees to clear away the cobwebs beneath our pews.  The sanctuary shined and sparkled when she was done.  It was an offering of great devotion and care for the community that had nurtured her faith over many years.

Today, on this Monday of Holy Week, I see Jesus, tearing up and cleaning out the artifacts and attitudes that clutter up the temple.  I like this Jesus who gets forceful with those who have junked up the sacred space and repurposed religious practices for their own gain.  I seek to follow Jesus, who begins Holy Week by restoring the space for worship and wonder.  Others in that day became fearful and sought to destroy him; but surely there were some who were ready and eager for the changes that he brought--to the temple and to their lives.

Come, Courageous Jesus!  Come and overturn the tables and clear out the clutter that keeps me distant from you.  May your house be a place of prayer and welcome for all peoples.  Help me to join you in this holy work; and at the last, lead me to your eternal life.  Amen.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Transition to the Future

Last week I sat at tables with the United Church of Christ Board.  In a crowded room in Cleveland, we made decisions that will shape the future of the denomination that has been my spiritual home.  Along with the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, our nominee for General Minister & President, I, too, love the United Church of Christ.  This church is an amazing gift from God.  We have been together longer than were the two antecedent denominations from which we were formed.  The "firsts" that we name and celebrate are powerful reminders of the visionary courage, a legacy of our forebears in faith.  This bold experiment in ecumenism continues to be a blessing in villages, towns, and cities.  We are a voice for justice when others would be cautiously silent and complicit in the injustices of the world.  We are a voice of affirmation and love when others are quick to condemn and exclude.  We are a bold, visionary voice that finds its courage in the Spirit of the Living God. Yes, I, too, love this church.

That said, I have a concern about attempts to narrowly define the future of the United Church of Christ, for I am persuaded that the future always comes to us as a gift of God.  The future is about hope--hope that is received, embraced, and celebrated.  The future is not simply for the soaring visionaries, but also for those who are grounded with deep memory and sacred tradition.  My  fervent prayer for the United Church of Christ is that we will walk together into a future that is always shrouded in some mystery, never imposed upon us by elitist powers and principalities.  This transitional moment in our history is not a time for political posturing and management theory; rather, this is a moment for kneeling before God's majesty and mystery.  The future comes to us as a gift.  As we journey together through Holy Week toward the dawn of Easter, we know that transitional times take us to places where we had not intended to go.  Nevertheless, our hope is not in our own reason and strength, but in the mystery of resurrection and glorious life.  Clearly, there are attitudes and actions that will help the future be birthed, but that future always comes a gift.  We can do much to teach and advocate for a just society and a transformed world, but the transformation of heart and mind is ultimately the work of God.  The life and leadership we have experienced thus far have been entrusted to us as God's gift.  It will surely be so as the future comes in all its fullness. 

In closing, I remember the leadership change anticipated by Deuteronomy 31:7-8.  Moses is passing on the mantle to Joshua and a new generation of leaders.  This charge might well be the one for our emerging leaders in the United Church of Christ in this time of transition:  "Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it.  It is the LORD who goes before you.  The LORD will be with you; the LORD will not fail you or forsake you.  Do not fear or be dismayed." 

God of us all,
I pray with humility and with hope in the transforming work that you are doing through the manifold settings of the United Church of Christ.  Bless by your Holy Spirit your servant John that he and we may be strong and bold in the face of the challenges that are before us.  Help us all to move beyond our fears and anxieties to that future that comes to us an amazing gift from you.  Move us from death to life in Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow, to serve, and always to love.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Memorable & Meaningful Christmas

It is no coincidence, I think, that some of my best Christmas memories are those associated with being in church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Morning.  So many sparkling memories and so much meaning are attached to events that happen in the local churches.

It's almost Christmas again, and I remember . . . The 11:00 o'clock Candlelight and Communion services at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Old Monroe.  The Sunday School Program in the new Friendship Hall at California. Spending Christmas Eve with Debby's brother David, who drove all the way from St. Louis to visit and worship with us.  The Christmas Eve at St. John's United Church of Christ in Chesterfield with my good friend, Pastor Dale Bartels.

I remember a particular Christmas Eve when cousins, Charles and Herb, came to church at 11:00 o'clock.  Herb wasn't known as a fastidious dresser, but on this Christmas Eve he was dressed very well, including a little beret atop his balding head as he entered the dimly-lit sanctuary.  He was not a church-going member.  In fact, this was the only time I saw Herb in church.  We had Communion by intinction just before the candles were lit and we sang Silent Night.  Herb was the last one up the aisle.  He took the bread and ate.  Then, he grabbed the chalice from my hands and tipped it up, drinking deeply.  Some were horrified at the sight of this outsider, who did not follow the ritual.  They were worried, perhaps, about getting germs in the blood of Christ.  Maybe Jesus would catch something from Herb.  Well, I think it went the other way that night.  Every time we commune, we catch something from Jesus.  We catch the hope of heaven, the courage to live life to the fullest, the faith to transcend earth's troubles, and the assurance of God's salvation that will see us through everything that comes.  It was truly a memorable and meaningful moment.  Thank you, Herb.  Thank you, Jesus.

And tonight, as we go to worship anew on Christmas Eve, may you and I be ready to experience the great gift of God in Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, the Light of the World, our Savior.  May yours be a memorable and meaningful celebration.  Drink deeply, receiving the Gift that God gives you.  Drink deeply of the love of God for you and for many - for all.

With Phillip Brooks, we pray: 

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel!"

~Phillip Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1868.


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Road Through Rosebud

Sad.  Very, very sad.  That's how I feel when I hear the news from Rosebud.  Rosebud, population 409, is tiny town in a rural landscape that had been my home.  I know it well.  A highway runs through the heart of the town.  On December 3, residents of Rosebud stood on that highway to block the passage of the "Journey for Justice" March between Ferguson and Jefferson City--a march sponsored by the NAACP to protest the grand jury's decision about the death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. 

In recent months our nation has been confronted again with the power of prejudice and racial profiling.  Something is very wrong when folks are viewed suspiciously and treated as sinister because of the color of their skin.  When what appear to be petty crimes are met with fear and excessive force, something is terribly wrong in our land.  The reports from Rosebud leave me sad and depressed.  The hateful signs, the outlines of bodies painted on the highway, a Confederate flag and a white hood--these reveal an evil of the heart. 

Certainly not all residents of Rosebud should be judged by the actions of a few.  But the words and deeds of people, who may well be sitting in the Sunday morning congregations, singing about Jesus and the grace of God, need to be confronted.  This "counter protest" was intended to intimidate and humiliate other human beings, other children of God.  It may all be legal, but it is not right.  This display of intolerance disturbs the peace, perpetuates the distrust, and may lead to the escalation of violence.  It leaves me very sad. 

I wonder what I would be preaching were I a pastor in a pulpit in Rosebud in this Advent season.  I wonder whether I would have the courage to mention the trouble in a prayer of confession or a  sermon or a pastoral prayer.  Would I have the conviction to converse about it in the coffee shop?  The lesson from the First Sunday of Advent inspires a sermon:  "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down" (Isaiah 64:1a).  Come down to the streets of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland . . . and Rosebud right now.  We need you down here now, O God, to help us get things right.  Come with your justice and set everything right.  We're stuck in the ruins of violence and racism.  We need your intervention.  We're sad and mad and confused . . . mired down, stuck.

When I was a child in a country church about ten miles from Rosebud, we learned a life-shaping Sunday School hymn:  "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world . . ."  In that church, missionaries from distant lands would come and teach us the importance of loving and serving others whether they were next door or around the world.  African American choirs would come from St. Louis to sing gospel songs in our little church.  From earliest days, I pictured a lowly Jesus who identified with the little ones of the world and gave them a voice to sing out with courage, naming their oppression and praying for deliverance.  It was the church that taught me to love and to transform the highways of hate.

Well, I'm not in the neighborhood of Rosebud now.  But what will I say and what will I do in response to the hostility that divides people in this world?  The road through Rosebud is connected to all the other roads where old prejudices and profiling still occur.  In this Advent time, I long for new hope, peace, joy, and love to be born--true gifts of God for all the people of God.  My spirit is strengthened by the Gospel news:  "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory" (John 14:1).  The Word becomes flesh--complicated, connected flesh.  God shares our flesh and blood, our sadness and our sorrows, our living and our dying.  God in Christ comes to the world, in vulnerable flesh--our common flesh.  This is the Good News!

O God, come:  Look at the mess we have made of things in this world! 
O Jesus, come:  Walk the road with us that leads to understanding, harmony, and life!
O Spirit, come:  Empower us with your courage that we may embrace one another in peace!

May it be so! 
May it be so now!