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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Mortal, after all

Yesterday I led a memorial service, a celebration of life, for a two-day old.  It was excruciating, as you might imagine.  It was also stunning and beautiful, as you might not imagine.  Pain was real and evident, but more present was the love that surrounded these two parents and these three grandparents.

That service came on the tail of four other deaths in our congregation, all women in their 90’s.  Those deaths were sad, but not unexpected, and really, not tragic. My colleague’s husband finally succumbed to the cancer he fought bravely and vehemently.  That was awful, too.

A long-time friend of mine – would I call him a friend? – lost his battle to ALS.  We went to junior high and high school and college together, but we didn’t run in the same circles and we never really hung out, except for long drives across Texas to out-of-town debate tournaments.  Still, his death has hit me hard.  Maybe I’m facing my own mortality.  Maybe I’m owning up to the fact that we are mortal, after all.

Add to that the violent deaths in St. Paul and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and Baghdad and Nice; aging parents and more cancer and random car accidents and plane crashes: mortality is announcing itself, loudly and proudly, and I want none of it.

My daughter is fed up too, maybe not with death but with the professional call of her parents to deal with death and dying.  It feels like all the time to her.  Evidently there is some sound I make, some short expulsion of air, and a way I say “oh no” that makes her look up from her book or computer screen and ask me, “Who died this time?”

That’s a question I never asked my parents when I was ten.  My grandparents were alive and healthy, as were my friends and their parents.  No one I knew had cancer; no one I knew got shot.  A cousin I didn’t know died in a motorcycle accident, but that’s it.

Why do we have to die?  I know the answer to that, and I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know that getting each other through the grief of death while we’re still this side of the grave is one of the highest callings we have, which doesn’t mean that it’s all pretty and lovely and tied up neatly with a sweet little bow.  Grieving and sitting with the grieving is most often awkward and inconvenient, messy, full of swear words and uncomfortable silence and wadded-up tissues and casseroles that will be reheated for the week.

But then sometimes the light breaks in, through the stained glass window of a sanctuary, or across the row of crosses at a cemetery, or glistening on the water where ashes are scattered.  Sometimes laughter sneaks in, in gallows humor or a hilarious memory. Sometimes some a minuscule thing happens, and the grief is eased an iota, and the future shimmers for a moment with hope – a mirage in the desert of sadness while we wait for the real oasis.

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The gathering

angel weepingHaving just led my third memorial service in three weeks, and with All Saints still fresh in my mind, and with one of our members in her last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death and grief and community.  I’ve also had a lot of stiffness in my “angel wing spots” – that place just inside the shoulder blades that get tense and knotty.  I’m thinking it’s accumulated grief, having witnessed a lot of tears and soggy tissues lately.

I’m one of those who often says, “I don’t know what people who don’t have a church do when someone they love dies,” except now I do, because I’ve been a witness to that, too.  The first of the recent memorials was for a woman whose husband described her as “a very lapsed Catholic.”  Church is not his thing, and was not hers, but they needed a place to have a memorial for this woman who was an extraordinary advocate for justice in many ways.  The church, full of faithed and non-faithed people, was packed, like Christmas Eve packed. People wept, and sang, and gave testimony to her life.  I offered a prayer and a blessing.

The second memorial was for a woman who was a person of faith, but who had so many different communities of which she was a part – 12 Step, running, partying, engineers.  Again the people gathered, some have nothing to do with God, some relying on their Higher Power, at least one who follows the path of Buddhism.  God didn’t matter to so many of them, but gathering in community mattered very, very much.

So to my own question of “what do people who don’t have a church do when someone they  love dies?” I now answer: they gather.

And sometimes they gather in a church, because (at least for me) churches still offer the witness of hospitality, opening our doors to those who grieve. We don’t ask for proof of baptism at the door; we don’t preach that those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell when they die.  We open our doors. Because they – whatever they believe – need to gather, we do what we can – offer pews and organs and pianos and chairs, and tea and coffee and cookies.  We have projectors and screens for their slide shows, and tables for photographs and flowers. We have deacons who pass out programs and hosts and hostesses who refresh the bowls of nuts.

I think people are surprised that churches do this sort of thing, at least in this neck of the woods.  “You would let us have your service there?  But my loved one wasn’t a member/ didn’t go to church/ maybe didn’t believe in God.”  Yes, we would.  That’s what we do.  We witness to the hospitality of God by offering hospitality to the community.

In my All Saints sermon, I said “I imagine sometimes that the walls of the sanctuary have a patina, invisible layers of our songs and our prayers and the tears shed in this space.”  And here’s the thing: some of those songs and tears have come from people who don’t believe in God, who are shocked to find themselves inside a church, amazed that they are even welcome in a church.  But their tears and songs and silences are part of the patina too. They don’t have to believe in God in order to grieve the death of this person they loved.

There is a holiness in grief, and a privilege in witnessing it.  But I would like a little less of it, please.

Alas.

A Perfect Moment

asteriskThis morning I was sitting in the sanctuary about half an hour before the service started.  I came down from the office because the choir was rehearsing one of my favorite anthems – John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth –  and hearing just once in the service wasn’t going to cut if for me.  I sat down in one of the transept pews, next to a dear, long-time member of the church who comes early, I think, so she can hear the choir rehearse.

As the choir was making their way through the song, one of my other pastor colleagues came in with a family whose infant son was to be baptized.  The parents joined the church at Easter, when the dad was baptized, so there was something lovely about he and his wife bringing their baby to be baptized.  The child was as bald as a peeled peach, with a sweet sweet round face.  Just enough drool to make him adorable hung on his chin, and he smiled at me while I made silly faces at him.

My colleague was showing the parents the baptism choreography, and as he took the baby, so tenderly, and kissed his little forehead, the choir was singing, “For the joy of human love/Brother, sister, parent child,” I thought: that’s perfect.  Everyone is up there practicing for the real thing, and the community isn’t gathered yet to witness it, but I was able to witness this moment when song and delight and love came together just right.

That would have been enough for me, that experience of the holy, twenty minutes before the service started.  But the choir finished and need to trot downstairs to put their robes on, and the family need to do one last diaper change before the service.  I had gone to the trouble to write a sermon, so I figured I might as well preach.

Those perfect moments are rare, especially when you’re in the business of church and you have a fair amount of responsibility for all the details that go into that one hour a week.  Rarely do we conduct perfect worship, nor does God want perfection.  I think God would much rather have something flawed and authentic than perfect and over-rehearsed.  But those rare perfect moments are like little asterisks at the end of the sentence of a hard week, a reminder that the crap gets meliorated by a gracious, patient God who isn’t too high and mighty to show up for rehearsals.

It was good worship today – not perfect, but good – and as one parishioner noted, it thundered during the baptism, which was cool of the Holy Spirit.  It’s so good in the fall to have everyone back together, the fullness of worship and hymns and prayers and rambunctious kids in the children’s moment and all that.

But truth be told, when the service started, I had already done my worship for the day.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

bagpipe darthI was talking with a church member yesterday, who told me the following story.  Over the weekend she and her family had gone down to the waterfront, where they encountered a person wearing a Darth Vader mask riding a unicycle while playing the bagpipes.  Let me repeat:  a person wearing a Darth Vader mask riding a unicycle playing the bagpipes.  Only in Portland.

All of which got me to thinking:  we really are fearfully and wonderfully made, and then we add to that.  Some add tattoos and piercings; some add pounds, stretch marks, cellulite.  Some add hair color, some shave their heads.  We add contact lenses and titanium hip joints and pig valves in the heart.  Our hearts add other stuff too: grief and joy, regret, disappointment that washes everything to a dull grey, hope for something better the next time around.

As a pastor, I think a lot about the community of fearfully and wonderfully made people, and the “I” and “we” of that, and the tension of individual desires and needs and the common good of the community.  Even after twenty years in ordained ministry, I struggle with pastoring well to everyone, knowing that that is an impossible yet necessary (but maybe not necessary) goal.  Several years ago, Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas observed that in the modern day, ministry had reduced to a pastor being “a quivering mass of availability.”  While that is the shortcut to burn out, there is something about the pastor being available, or present, or caring for, our fearfully and wonderfully made folk.

And we aren’t always.  Every time I drop the pastoral care ball, I lose sleep, and the Tums rest on the bedside table for a while.  I hate letting people down, and I do it, and so there’s some therapy in my future, I think.  And I wonder what role grace plays in all of that.

Do I have enough grace to rejoice that someone delights in riding the Darth Vader/Bagpiper unicycle?

Do I have enough grace with myself not to wallow in my regret and self-judgment?

Am I holding out grace as the tie that binds the fearfully and wonderfully made community together?  Do I teach that, and do I practice that?

It takes grace to ride a unicycle, and to play the bagpipe.  I’m not sure I would say that grace is needed to wear a Darth Vader mask in public – courage, maybe, or divine foolishness.  I think there was some grace involved in our creation, too – fearfully and wonderfully and gracefully made.  Amen to that.