Church

The church calls me to my best self, the Eden self, the person God created me to be.  In church I shed my old skin, shuffle off the hurtful and ugly like cicada husks hiding with the dust bunnies under the pews.

I wriggle off that judgment that doesn’t fit anymore, or that idea of God that ended up being way too small, and I’m given something else. A second chance.  Some grace which I may or may not find amazing at the time.  It’s like I take off the burlap sack and get to put on a cashmere robe.  And then someone hands me a cookie and a cup of fair trade coffee.

Church, and worship in particular, shapes me.  It forms the pattern of my days: quiet reflection, expressions of gratitude, responding to challenges and teachings, spontaneous song.  People in need and people in joy.

I haven’t been at church for a month but I have been with church and in church.  More cards than I can count.  More prayers than I know of.  Books and magazines.  Food, food, and more food.  People who take me out for a walk.  People who tell me not to worry about it.  People who say they miss me.

I miss them, and I miss worship, which for me is the core of church.  On a usual Sunday when it’s time I zip up my robe and adjust my stole and get the microphone clipped on.  We pastors say a prayer together, and I pick up my papers and we head down the stairs and make our way through the sanctuary to the back.

And then the acolytes’ wicks are lit, and we start down the aisle.  We sit down and while the prelude finishes, I look out at the congregation, at the church.  There they are, the saints and sinners, my sisters and brothers and friends.  There they are, the sick, the grieving, the joyous, the angry, the wondering, the frazzled, the bored.  There they are, the sinews and ligaments and bones and muscles and cells of the body of Christ.  There they are, the church, surrounded by stained glass and pews and unbelievable music all of which adorn the church but aren’t church.  The people are church.

In the next hour we sing and pray and listen and speak.  Hopefully we laugh.  Often at least one person cries.  And when we leave after the benediction and postlude, and make our way home after a cup of tea or a meeting or lunch with the usual crowd, we take church to the streets, to our homes and work places and schools and the neighborhood. We present the pattern to the world: reflection, gratitude, response, song; hope. Church doesn’t need a building, though that makes it convenient.  Church needs people who are willing to say something about God and something about living as human beings and then figuring out the rest together.

We the church don’t always get it right but when we do, it’s pretty incredible.  Life-giving and life-saving.  Amen and amen.

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The place I call my church home

 

 

 

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The grace of the saints, and they didn’t even know it

easter.lily_Well, Easter is over; at least, Easter Day services are done and it’s “get a latte and put on comfly clothes and maybe take a nap” time.  For all of you who are church people, who in some way did something to help make this morning beautiful, thank you.  Thank you, flower arrangers and communion setters.  Thank you, sound system gal/guy, ushers, van drivers.  Thank you, coffee hour servers who had double duty today.  Thank you, bulletin stuffers and tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and organists, and choir directors, and custodians.  Oh, God bless all the custodians.  Thank you egg dyers, and banner makers, and families processing with azaleas and eggs.  Thank you, all you who showed up.  And thank you, all you who celebrated LIFE today.

I was a bit under the weather on Holy Saturday, and tentative about how I would be on Easter.  Admittedly, it was a slow start, but by the time the second service began, it was all good.  The sermon was early in the service, which meant that I got to worship without worrying for the last half.  My colleagues offered a beautiful invitation and beautiful communion prayer.  Our elders helped serve the bread and cup.  And then the saints showed up.

The woman I’ve never seen before carrying up her sleeping toddler.  The woman now using a cane, but by God she was here on Easter despite the recent stroke.  The man who’s mother is dying more quickly than any of us would like.  The person who is still a bit put out with me over a recent unpopular decision, who did not avoid my station but received the bread from me.  The teenager who was just confirmed a few minutes earlier.  The grandpa with his whole family in tow, even though they go to other churches they came with Dad today, because it’s Easter and because they miss their mom who died a few years ago.  Our administrative assistant who makes so much run so smoothly, bringing her mom.  The woman who prays without ceasing for all of us.  My daughter.  Her friend.  The strangers, the leaders, the wondering, the wandering, and the lost.  The saints showed up.

I had one critique after the service, from someone who doesn’t come that often.  She regretted that in my sermon I didn’t mention that Jesus had risen.  I thought I had, but perhaps too obliquely for her.  All the same, whether or not anyone there thought Jesus showed up this morning, spanking-fresh and resurrected, I will tell you this:  the saints showed up this morning.  Thank you all.

And for good measure:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.

The Kindness Place

acts_of_kindness_--necklace_7eb95eceA few weeks ago a child at church came into worship near tears.  Her feelings had been hurt because she perceived that a couple of other kids had purposely excluded her from something.  Normally I would probably not have been aware of any of this but the sad child was my own.  She sat down in the front pew and curled herself up into a little ball.  It was one of those moments when I decided to be mom and not pastor.  I sat with her and cuddled her and tried very hard not to give the other children the stink-eye.  By the time the first hymn started she was okay and life went on.

Kids will be kids and I know that when two kids are gathered, fun ensues, and when three kids are gathered, one of them usually ends up feeling left out.  I harbor no resentment to the other two – it happens, and some day it might be my kid that does the leaving out, because kids will be kids.  But if and when that does happen, I might be in a slight pickle, because I hold fast to the notion that church is a place where you can count on everyone being kind to each other.  I want my child to know that and I want every person in every church to know that.

But it might take me a while.

I grew up in a church where I was very involved as a teenager, and church was, for me, a place where I belonged and was welcomed and where everyone was kind – to me, at least; it was in stark contrast to what I often felt in school.  My adolescent church experience is part of what led me to ordained ministry and it’s definitely shaped my sense of church being The Kindness Place.

Too many people can tell stories of church being anything but The Kindness Place.  People get the stink-eye when they sit in “someone else’s” pew.  A couple is divorced and one of the parties is told to leave.  Someone spills their coffee during fellowship hour and are yelled at rather than helped.  An LGBTQ person shows up and, while not overtly told they aren’t welcome, receive enough cold shoulders that they decide never to darken those particular church doorways again.

It’s not like kindness is difficult.  It’s not as though it takes a great deal of effort to sit in a different pew for a week, or for always.  Kindness is not a finite resource that when it’s gone, it’s gone.  It is possible to disagree with someone or even to dislike someone and still show that person kindness.

Is kindness the antidote to judgmentalness?  Are we unkind because we lack empathy or are generally clueless?  Maybe acting in an unkind manner makes us feel powerful.  A few weeks ago I snapped at a parishioner (and immediately regretted it) because I was feeling inadequate, which had not been the other’s intention at all.  I’ve known a few curmudgeons who are actually quite kind and considerate so I don’t think it’s a matter of one’s personality.

There’s a lot of pain out there that is utterly beyond our ability to erase.  I am numbed by the news of yet another ISIS beheading.  I still ache for those Nigerian schoolgirls to get home.  I was unexpectedly attacked by grief the other day by something that reminded me of my friend who committed suicide in September.  Kindness cannot fix any of those things, but it can be a balm that alleviates some of their deadening force.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I like to think I’m just getting started.

May you experience some kindness today, and may you create some as well.

A New Thing

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I’ve been feeling old lately.  I have a tear in some tissue in my hip that’s causing me no small amount of pain and discomfort and causing me to limp.  I’ve decided to stop coloring my hair and am a bit surprised by just how much gray I have.  I turn 50 this year, and, well, that’s not the age of a young person.

This week I attend a church conference – a really good church conference – and I feel both old and strangely young and renewed and a bit excited about the future.  Because here’s the thing, at least for me as I limp into the conclusion of my fiftieth year: I’m not really afraid of the things I used to be afraid of.  I don’t really get too excited about pies in my face, epic fails, minor fails, or not being one of the Beautiful People in whatever circle I happen to be traveling.

There is a great freedom in not fearing failure. (I am so sorry for that alliteration.)  Not fearing failure opens up so many doors.  I lived whole lot of my life not doing things because I was afraid I would not do them well, or not be able to do them at all.  And that’s a terrible way to live – a safe way, yes, but a terrible way.  It’s more existence than living, really, and since we only get one go-round on this life thing, maybe we should live it.

Because I’ve been at this church conference, I think about what it means for the church to live and not merely exist.  Maybe some of you who read this blog don’t care much about the churchy posts, so you can just skip this one.  But my vocation and avocation are in the church, the mainline Protestant church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  This is the church that raised me, formed me, challenged my, called me, disappointed me, bored me, inspired me, gave me the best friends one could ask for, and where I found my husband.  It’s the church into which I was baptized and in which I was ordained and married.  I love this church and I want it to live, and not just exist.

That’s true for the congregation I serve.  I am blessed beyond measure to have been called, with my husband, to serve where I do.  There are not mean people in this congregation.  There are not people who complain after every worship service, no people who leave snarky notes in my hymnal.  They are lovely, faithful, honest people, and I hope they are ready because I think I am going home from this conference ready to light some fires under our collective patookies.  (Please substitute your favorite euphemism here.)

One of my favorite lines from the musical Mame is “life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Well, little baby Jesus grew up and gave us a banquet and we act as though we’re getting soda crackers and room temperature water most of the time.  To hell with that – literally.  To hell with the tepidness and things that won’t upset our stomachs.  To hell with fear, because that’s where it belongs.

Come Sunday, I’ll be limping into the chancel because of my hip.  But I’ll be dancing on the inside, up to the pulpit and around the table and down the aisle.

Join me!

The Earthly Cloud of Witnesses

A friend of mine is in the middle of a tragedy right now.  It’s a tragedy of circumstance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There was no evil, no harmful intent.  But she is in the midst of a tragedy, and it is wrenching.

My friend is one of the most faithful servants of the church that we have nowadays.  She has committed her life to serving this funny, flawed, and hope-filled institution.  I consider her a mentor, friend, and yente, as she worked years to get me and my husband together.  I owe her more than I can ever say, and she would never say that I owe her anything.  She’s that kind of person.

Because she has been this faithful servant of the church she knows a lot of people, and I mean, a LOT of people. So when news of this tragedy hit Facebook, our modern and immediate Pony Express, the message boards lit up with prayers that you would not believe.  At the end of the day I read all the comments on all the posts, and I am overwhelmed.  I am overwhelmed by the love and the faith and the hope and the presence that these silly, powerful Facebook comments convey.  And last night, after a long session meeting, as I sat on the couch in my pajamas with the dog in my lap, the husband by my side, and Castle playing on the DVR, I realized that as much as we talk about the great cloud of witnesses in the sky, there is the earthly cloud of witnesses, too.

All these people posting on Facebook – and all those posting on the Caring Bridge site, and emailing and calling and showing up: they are witnesses to love, to the power of love and gratitude.  They are witnesses to the power of friendship, and the church, and belief that you tell people you love them and hold them in your heart.

Love cannot undo this tragedy, and my heart breaks at that.  Love cannot fix what is broken in this situation.  But love might be able to make it a little less worse than it is.  As the tragedy is cauterized, love might distract in that good way.  Love might take away an ounce of the pain.  Love will persist, because I know some of these people in this earthly cloud of witnesses, and like me, they have been mentored and loved by my friend.  They will show up; they will pray; and whether they know or care that they are doing this, they will witness to the Good.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it.”

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