We were visited

Aaron was in worship again on Sundayo.  I wasn’t surprised – I’d seen him around the building this week, and had commented on the nice green blazer he was wearing, to which he replied, “I’m a natty dresser.”

Aaron is a friend of our congregation, a man in maybe his 30’s who is experiencing addiction, homelessness, and lives with mental health issues.  He shows up for worship now and then; lately, on high holy days.  I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t a messenger from God.

On Sunday the choir led most of worship.  We (I sang with them) presented portions of a rather extraordinary work entitled “Calling All Dawns” by Christopher Tin.  Twelve songs, incorporating sacred texts and poetry from many cultures, that describe the cycle of day, night, dawn; life, death, and rebirth. We sang seven of the songs, in Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Hebrew, Farsi, and Maori.

I gave a short reflection, and wrangled the doctrine of the Trinity with the Bantu word and African ideal of ubuntu – “I am because we are.”  I think it worked.  Maybe not.  But it was my hope to weave together the context of the music with Trinity Sunday with our call to be community to each other and the world.  Oh, how we preachers stretch sometimes!

So after the service there was much hugging and complimenting and the usual handshaking.  As things started to clear out, I saw Aaron sitting by himself in the back pew in the transept.  I sat with him for a minute or two.

His eyes were watery; he had alcohol on his breath.  I asked him how he was.  “Fine. I guess.”  I asked him where he was sleeping these days. He gave me a look as if I should know better than to ask.  Then he said “On the sidewalk.”  I asked him if he had a tarp or a sleeping bag.  No.  Then he said, “A buddy of mine let me sleep on the floor of his house last night.  This guy – I don’t what he’s been through.  But he’s still really kind, still sort of innocent.  You know, it’s like you said.  Community.  We all need it.”

In the last year I have learned that two things can ground the most ethereal, theological, grand worship: a bald child who is battling cancer and a homeless man who comes to worship because he craves community.

Maybe God sent Aaron to us this morning to remind us that as much as we sing about following the way and praising God and living out peace, we must never forget that it begins in the pews and on the sidewalks that surround the church.

I wish I knew how to help Aaron.  I know how to give him cash and food; I know how to pay for a motel room for him.  I also know he would probably not be accepted into a shelter because of his addictions, and I know shelter spaces are too few in our city.  I wish we had better mental health practioners who worked with the homeless; again, the few we have are overloaded.

So for now, I do what is inadequate: I welcome him in church.  I call him by name.  I recognize him not only as a child of God, but as a messenger of God.

And the message is that we have work to do.

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The grass withers, the liturgy fades

img_8041Does a prayer have staying power?  Does a litany change anything, or anyone?

There are prayers I treasure; I particularly love Cardinal Newman’s “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen….”  When leading worship, I sometimes worry I will forget the Lord’s Prayer right in the middle.  I find comfort, before preaching, in saying the words out loud “may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts…”

Almost every week I write liturgy for the bulletin, usually a call to worship and a prayer of confession, maybe communion liturgy.  I spend a fair amount of time on it (and make it available elsewhere on this blog).  I enjoy the process; it adds the sense of poetry to my usual to-do list.  Some of the stuff I write isn’t half-bad, if I do say so myself.

But occasionally the thought comes: does this make a difference?  People get one shot at their part in the call to worship, and then we’re on to the opening hymn.  Did a word catch them?  Did a phrase redirect their thoughts?  Do the words of confession that I put together resonate at all with at least one person in the pews?

Lately I’ve decided that the liturgy – or at least the liturgy in our Presbyterian worship – is momentary.  The grass withers, and the liturgy fades, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.

And maybe that’s not bad.  A petite-four is a momentary thing; so is a sidewalk drawing.  Which is not to say those things aren’t beautiful, brief though they are.  If everything were eternal, we’d be overloaded.

Maybe liturgy is like KonMari for worship – something non-essential that is done with once uttered.  I think I’m okay with that.

But I’ll write on, not for eternity, but for the moment.

Preaching: What’s the point?

empty-pulpitOften on a Sunday afternoon, after I’ve changed out of my church clothes into jeans and a sweatshirt, after I’ve had a wee nap in the comfy chair, after I’ve unwound from All Things Sunday Morning, a creeping doubt comes into my head: what difference does a sermon make?  I’m not fishing for compliments here.  I’m pretty realistic about my sermons and I, like everyone else, I am an above average preacher.

About ten years ago I let go of worrying that every sermon I preached had to be Wonderful and Inspiring.  I’d learned that a lot happens between my lips and the congregation’s communal ears, that people hear things I never said and don’t hear things I thought I said quite plainly.  Silly old Holy Spirit, interceding with sighs too deep for our words.

I’ve preached sermons that teach (I hope); sermons that lead (I hope).  I’ve preached and heard sermons that are challenging and inspirational and sermons that are sheer poetry. I have also preached my fair share of dogs but always try, in the advice of my preaching professor, to walk those dogs proudly.   A lot of us preachers spend a lot of time at our craft, and a good quarter of our time is spent planning worship, writing liturgy, coordinating music with the musicians, and writing the weekly sermon.  Some weeks it feels positively prodigal to spend so much time on something that will only play out in a hour.  But like a drama or a symphony, the preparation is as much as the performance.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if it makes a difference, if good, faithful people don’t hear a decent sermon and then go home and go about life as usual.  When I do a sermon series, how does that help when less than half the folks are there to hear the whole series?  And really, if every sermon is exhorting people to go out and be faithful in some way, might that not lead to some spiritual schizophrenia?  Fifty-two ways you can be faithful in today’s world?  Maybe three ways would be enough, and we could dispense with the sermon altogether for the other forty-eight Sundays.

The world is a mess.  A big fat mess.  People are dying from cancer.  Children are drowning as they flee with their parents in search of a safer home.  Religious extremists of all faiths give God and God’s followers a really bad name.  We imprison people for the crime of being poor.  Black lives matter and people don’t get it. How on earth could one 10-20 minute sermon make a dent in the mess?

It can’t.  Fifty-two sermons can’t make a dent.  Ten thousand sermons can’t.

But fifty-two people can make a dent.  Ten thousand people can make a dent.  Maybe that’s the part I forgot.

As the congregation settles in on Sunday morning, I think about all the hidden pain people bring in with them – irreconcilable differences, living paycheck to paycheck, enduring treatment, shredding away from loneliness or addiction or ostracism.  Worry about kids.  Worry about parents.  Worry about friends.  Secrets and lies and shame.  But I also think about the strength they bring in – perseverance, presence, advocacy, grace, hospitality, hope.

So maybe if for one hour a week, these wounded wonders come in and are soothed by music or a prayer or even a sermon, maybe it was worth it.  Maybe if something I or another says in a sermon helps them to hang on for one more week, or gives them that kick in the proverbial pants, maybe if that tricky Holy Spirit intercedes and whispers something perfect that they then attribute to the preacher, maybe then there is a point to preaching.

Or three points and a poem.  But hopefully not that.

 

Skipping church

It’s Sunday morning and I am home and we’re not going to church today.  We are on vacation, enjoying one of our six Sundays a year not in church, but I’m feeling a little naughty and a little guilty about the whole thing.  The truth is, we could go to church – if not the church we serve, then another church.  A church of another denomination, in our neighborhood, whose pastor we admire.  A church served by one of our Presbyterian colleagues whom we never get to hear preach.  The hipster church down the road which brings in millenials in droves, for reasons we simply cannot fathom.

But no, we’re staying home this morning.  We might go to brunch – isn’t that what people who don’t go to church do on Sunday mornings? We could drink coffee and read the Sunday paper, but I’m the only one who drinks coffee and we cancelled the paper until tomorrow, thinking our vacation would last one more day than it actually did.  Instead, I was up at six (why?????) and the others are sleeping in.

Here’s the thing: pastors (and other church professionals) need a break from church and from Sunday morning worship.  If I were to go to my own congregation this morning, and sit somewhere in the sanctuary, it would be hard for me to let go and just worship.  If there were a mistake in the bulletin, I would see it.  If the sound system was wonky, I would notice it.  I would have to work hard to worship and not to critique, and that’s not fair to those who are leading worship today, or to myself.

And for me, it is hard to do a one-off at another congregation.  It’s hard to go to a brand new church whose traditions are not your own.  Did I sit in “someone’s” pew?  Do we kneel, come forward, stand up, sit down, fight fight fight?  If I sing the alto line to the hymn, will I get funny looks?  Will my child be bored to tears, or invited to leave to go God knows where for a Bible lesson, juice, and animal crackers?  Will the sermon move me or annoy me, or worse, bore me?  Will I be welcomed or ignored?

In the twenty-two years since I’ve been ordained, the most I have not gone to church is three weeks in a row, and that was when my daughter was first born.  Did I miss it?  I was so overwhelmed by my newborn, and breast feeding, and exhaustion, and healing from a C-section, that worship was the last thing on my mind.  But that fourth week, I couldn’t wait to take our daughter to church for the first time.  She was cooed over and held and I was loved and cared for.  We were home.

This morning we are home at our home.  The spouse and the kid are still asleep, and the dog just woke up and is sitting on my lap.  The morning coffee has been consumed.  I might make scones.  I might read.  I might do laundry.  I won’t go outside, because the smoke from the fires east of us is looming over all the city and it’s nothing short of gross outside.

I won’t go to church today; I’ll take the rare sabbath a pastor gets.  I’ll remember that I am not in charge of worship, nor solely responsible for it, nor the only one who does it right.  I will say a prayer – for my colleague who is on her own this morning; for the firefighters who are so brave and tireless; for those whose health and homes are affected by this fire.  I’ll say a prayer of thanks for this morning off, for vacation, for my family and my dog.

And then I’ll go make scones.morning-coffee

There is an “I” in “Worship”

groovy jesusA few Sundays ago, as the deacons brought the offering up to the table and the congregation sang the Old 100th doxology, I found myself doing what I always do when singing that doxology: changing the words to make the God-language more inclusive.  It’s just a thing I do, week after week, my little stab at feminism in the midst of a tradition that is slowly, but perceptibly, moving away from patriarchy.

And then I felt like David when Nathan said to him, “You are the man.”  Not in the “you da man” way, but in the “you yourself do what you’ve been critiquing others for doing” way.  It all started with the Apostles’ Creed.

Our Presbyterian Rules of How To Do Things, otherwise known as the Book of Order, says that the Apostles’ Creed shall be said as part of the baptism liturgy, so when my husband and I arrived at the church we serve as co-pastors, we put the creed (which had been taken out at some point) back in the liturgy.  At first we introduced the creed saying the words I’d memorized in my early years of pastoring.  “Let us stand and affirm our faith and the faith of our church, using the words of the Apostles’ Creed.”

We got some feedback on that, so we changed the intro.  “Let us join in the historic tradition of the church, saying together the Apostle’s Creed, which the church has said in baptism for thousands of years.”  Feedback on that too, but it’s still in.

There are some people who really like saying the Apostles’ Creed, like the way it ties us to the ancient church; some of them probably wish we’d say it, or another creed, every week.  But there are people who really, really, REALLY don’t like it.  They don’t believe some or most of the stuff in there.  They don’t like the Father language.  The Virgin Birth seems to be a tricky part, as is the descent into Hell, as is the resurrection of the body.  (For me, Virgin Birth is non-essential; descent into Hell is another way of saying Jesus died; I love the doctrine of resurrection and believe in it.)

There are some people who don’t like to pass the peace, or to say “the peace of Christ be with you.”  There are some who don’t like opening the service with the words “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  There are some who wish we didn’t do Moments with Children, and likely more than a few who wish there were no sermon, or a more intellectual sermon, or a less intellectual sermon.  Some don’t like the prayers of the people.

You get the picture.  What’s a poor pastor to do?

First, I am grateful that people in our pews take theology seriously, and want to be authentic about what they say they believe.  We have a broad array of theological beliefs in the congregation, and I would have it no other way, because it enriches our conversation and our life together.

Second, there is room for all of us.  If I choose to sing different words to the doxology, why can’t someone else stand but not say the Apostles’ Creed?  Why can’t someone who is new to Christianity say “Good morning” and in time, may learn to say “The peace of Christ be with you”?

Third, we’re keeping the tricky bits in.  Sure, we could take out “This is the day the Lord has made”, and the passing of the peace, and the children’s time, and the sermon, and the prayers, and the creeds, and a lot of people would be happy.  A lot of people would be unhappy.  A lot of people would be comfortable that we don’t have complex things, or blatantly faithful things, in the service, but without those things, worship would be pretty watered down and if I went to a worship service that didn’t challenge me, or even make me mad or questioning just a little bit, then I might as well go to Starbucks, drink a latte, and read the Sunday New York Times.

Which a lot of people do.  But not those who show up Sunday after Sunday to sit in our pews, to sing, to pray, to get bothered, to be comforted, to be told they are loved, with all their questions and opinions and preferences.  They are loved, and so am I.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;

Praise God all creatures here below;

Praise God above, ye heavenly host;

Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.

But about that “Ghost” part….

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.

Maundy Thursdy

Maybe not the last supper, but certainly a good one.

Maybe not the last supper, but certainly a good one.

There’s no chocolate on Maundy Thursday, but there is bread and there is red wine, and those are part of the four main food groups (along with chocolate and melted cheese.  Take that, food pyramid!)

Maybe things would have turned out better for Jesus had there been a little chocolate that night, but there wasn’t.  Evidently chocolate is a Meso-American thing that the Mayans cultivated in the 6th century, so even if Jesus had wanted chocolate that last supper, he could not have had it.  Bitter herbs and haroset it was.  But that, and the unleavened bread, and the wine, were probably better prep food for what was about to come than chocolate would have been.  Chocolate is celebratory, sumptuous, a little risque, even.  Wine and bread are different.

For several Saturdays in the past few months, I have found myself at 5pm throwing in the towel and declaring that we are going out to dinner.  Since we have made neither plans nor reservations, and since it is Saturday night, and since we have not acquired the services of a sitter, our options are limited.  But included in those options is one of our favorites, a place called Milo’s, where they love our daughter and our business.  Now the great thing about Milo’s is that almost as soon as you sit down, they bring you a basket of ciabatta and take your drink order, so for several Saturdays in the past few months, I have begun my recuperation from Saturday and my preparation for Sunday with bread and wine.

Of course, the Maundy Thursday story tells us that Jesus ended his meal with bread and wine, but I think those elements were preparational, too.  Bread to lay the foundation, fill the stomach that would not be filled again.  It’s simple, bread, not complicated, every day.  An everyday thing before all that was extraordinary in its horror happened.  And wine – wine to take the edge off, relax a little, give some perspective before all that was perspective-shattering took place.

The first time I ever served communion as an elder was on Maundy Thursday.  I was a teenager (my church believed firmly in youth elders) and was terrible concerned about 1) what to wear and 2) tripping on the stairs while carrying the wine tray.  That’s all I remember – I borrowed a skirt and shirt outfit (navy and red) from my mother and wore navy pumps, and I did not trip.  That was about it.

There have been a lot of communions since then, and a lot of Maundy Thursdays, none of which stands out particularly.  Which is not to say I have not enjoyed them, or been moved by those services, or think less of that particular observance.  They do run together a bit, snippets of chalices and liturgy and faces who have offered me the elements, or received them from me.  They mix it up in my memory, and some visceral thing  happens when I have bread and wine that reminds me of all of them.  It’s good.

Still, I wonder if things would have been better had there been chocolate – if Judas had been reminded of the sweetness of God, if things were more of a party and less of a funeral reception.  But I didn’t write the story; it’s a good thing I didn’t.  I would’ve added chocolate, skipped the death part, and been stuck with what to do about the resurrection since in my story Jesus wouldn’t have died.