Sunday Morning

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the thing where I write a reflection based on a song from that morning’s run)

I didn’t lead worship today. I get a few Sundays off each year and while it is nice to have a Sunday now and then to not extend the mental energy toward preparing a sermon and not be “on” for a Sunday morning, it is equally nice to have the opportunity to worship somewhere else. This morning, I chose to worship at a larger church in a town nearby. I chose this particular church because I like the pastors and because I knew I would be relatively anonymous there. It isn’t a church that typically does a lot with my own so I can slip and out without being noticed by many of the parishioners.

It is important to worship other places because it helps wake up my mind to what other churches are doing. When I spend each Sunday in my own church and focusing on the way we do things, I forget that there is a whole other world outside full of different ways of thinking and doing. I usually come away from other worship services feeling both inspired to try some new things, yet also finding that there are also things I prefer about my own church. Today was no different.

I liked the bright and airy sanctuary, the touches of tradition along with the touches of modern. They recently went through a renovation, so while the outside looks very traditional and a bit cold, the inside is warm and welcoming. The pastors are great – whip-smart, with easy smiles and demeanor. They are both younger than me and have young children, so while I was there I found myself remembering the unique challenges that come with trying to balance all the demands of being a full-time pastor along with all the demands of being a full-time parent to little ones who need you so much. It’s beautiful and hard and precious.

Before we had our boys, I remember thinking parenthood would be a lot like regular life, just with these extra little people around. It was my job to feed them and clothe them and raise them, but it was their job to fit into my world, not me fit into their world. I didn’t realize, because there is no way you can realize until you go through it, how much children alter the world as you once knew it. Nothing was the same anymore. Going out to eat was no longer the same leisurely experience because it became a race to see if we could even get a few bites of our food eaten before one child or the other was in a meltdown. Going to movies was different because for a very long time the kiddos only want to see cartoons or superhero movies – gone were the romantic comedies, dramas, and suspense films. Having a conversation with one’s spouse was immensely different – rather than being able to talk to each other in peace and quiet at any hour of the day, instead we had to cram important conversations into the crevices of our days. There was hardly any room for each other because the children took up so much space and energy. During the worship service I found myself thinking about how quickly the years have passed and so much of early parenthood just felt like trying to keep my head above water. Did we do the best we could? Did we make the most of the time yet savor it as well? What will our boys remember from their childhood?

It was a welcome surprise that part of the worship today was a service for healing. Anyone could come up if they wanted and receive prayers for healing. I wondered if anyone would go forward as sometimes Lutherans can be terribly tentative about things like this – but most everyone in the congregation went forward to receive prayers and anointing. Before they began, one of the pastors said simply that all of us need healing in one way or another. He talked about how it is a flaw in our culture, and particularly in Christianity, that we feel like we need to put on a perfect front. It’s okay to need healing, it’s okay to admit that we hurt and would like someone to pray for us. He spoke those few simple words and a whole church full of people came forward one by one to receive prayers. It was healing for me, too. I’ve done healing services before but usually as something apart from Sunday morning. I’ve never before seen it done like it was done at this church today – and I loved it. I look forward to stealing that idea as soon as possible.

My youngest came with me to church this morning. He sang along loudly with the worship band. Then, we went out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. On the way home, we saw the fish houses and ice skaters out on the lake. We sang along to classic rock and talked about making cookies this afternoon. It is an unusual Sunday, but a good one. A chance to see the world, worship, and my own life from a new perspective. Thanks be to God.

Sunday Morning

By No Doubt

Sappy pathetic little me
That was the girl I used to be
You had me on my knees

I’d trade you places any day
I’d never thought you could be that way
But you looked like me on Sunday

You came in with the breeze
On Sunday morning
You sure have changed since yesterday
Without any warning
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you well, so well

You’re trying my shoes on for a change
They look so good but fit so strange
Out of fashion, so I can complain

You came in with the breeze
On Sunday morning
You sure have changed since yesterday
Without any warning
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you well, so well

I know who I am, but who are you?
You’re not looking like you used to
You’re on the other side of the mirror
So nothing’s looking quite as clear
Thank you for turning on the lights
Thank you, now you’re the parasite
I didn’t think you had it in you
And now you’re looking like I used to!

You came in with the breeze
On Sunday morning
You sure have changed since yesterday
Without any warning
And you want me badly
Because you cannot have me
I thought I knew you
But I’ve got a new view
I thought I knew you well, oh well

On Sunday morning
And I don’t want it
Sunday morning
I thought I knew you
Sunday morning
Oh you want me badly
Can have it
Sunday morning
Sunday morning
Sunday morning

 

Betty’s Diner

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Betty’s Diner

By Carrie Newcomer

During seminary, I was a bartender for a few months in a tiny northern town bar. My mother needed some major surgery and so I decided to take a few months off from classes to live back at home and help out – although I’m not sure how much help I was. My dad and I couldn’t get along and so I spent much of that autumn smoking and reading in my makeshift office I had set up in the garage, and working at my jobs.

First, I worked as a telemarketer, which was horrible and easily the worst job I ever had. If you would like to steal someone’s spirit and their will to live quickly and efficiently, make them be a telemarketer. I was only there a few weeks when I just stopped going back.

Then, I tried to be a cook at a nursing home. I like cooking but since I am not a picky eater, I am not a picky cook.  Who cares if the toast is a little dark, the eggs a little crisp around the edges, the soup not piping hot – food is food, right? Well, turns out others care much more than I do about these little details. I quit before I could be fired.

Finally, I got the job as a bartender – I liked making and pouring the drinks. I liked talking to the regulars who came in, giving free drinks to friends and relatives who showed up – heck, if it was up to me, I would have given everyone free drinks. I liked the sense of community, the music, and how when the night was done, you cleaned up and went home and it was over. It was carefree for me, I didn’t have to figure out the books or wonder which rotten bartender was giving away all the free drinks and costing the bar big money. Luckily for the bar, I was only there a couple months before I went back to school.

While I may not have been a grade A bartender, that experience was a great one for me.  I still often say that people were much more honest with me about their lives when I was their bartender than they are with me as their pastor. People would come in after a hard day needing a place to sit and decompress or just be with friends and they knew they could do that at the bar. The bar was always open, warm, and waiting. If it wasn’t too busy, you could depend on the bartender to listen or just shoot the breeze.

It seems to me from what I know of Jesus, he would have probably much rather been a bartender than a modern-day pastor. He probably wouldn’t have cared a bit about church budgets or if the confirmation kids could recite the parts of the Small Catechism and their meanings. But I bet he would have liked being in a place where people felt welcomed at any hour, to listen to their stories and share some of his, to serve a hot meal and fill some stomachs, to warm some hearts in the process.

There’s a bar a quarter mile from our church – the last time it was up for sale I thought about how perfect it would be if our church could buy it and run it. A place to hang out, eat, listen to music and listen to each other without all the baggage that the church seems to bring with it for so many people.

The church’s baggage has never bothered me and I’ve always felt at home in a church. I grew up there and felt welcome. I see the steeple with a cross on top and it represents love and grace to me, a place I can completely be myself.

However, I know this isn’t the case for so many and when we invite people to church, we are inviting them into our experience of what church is even though they may see the church very differently.

So, I’m thinking about the middle ground between a bar and a church. How to create a space like that? We do Beer and Hymns. We have done Pub Theology. What’s possible now? How can we blend the best of what church and a bar/restaurant are? Here – in rural Minnesota. A place where people stop in after deer hunting or while out snowmobiling – come as they are and know they are welcome. Real community, real welcome – plus spiritual and physical nourishment.  Now, that is a place I would like to see…to serve…to hang out.

Betty’s Diner

Miranda works the late night counter
In a joint called Betty’s Diner
Chrome and checkered tablecloths
One steamy windowpane

She got the job that shaky fall
And after hours she’ll write till dawn
With a nod and smile she serves them all

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Arthur lets his earl gray steep
Since April it’s been hard to sleep
You know they tried most everything
Yet it took her in the end

Kevin tests new saxophones
But swears he’s leaving quality control
For the Chicago scene, or New Orleans
Where they still play righteous horns

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Jack studies here after work
To get past high school he’s the first
And his large hands seem just as comfortable
With a hammer or a pen

Emma leaned and kissed his cheek
And when she did his knees got weak
Miranda smiles at ’em and winks

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

You never know who’ll be your witness
You never know who grants forgiveness
Look to heaven or sit with us

Deidra bites her lip and frowns
She works the stop and go downtown
She’s pretty good at the crossword page
And she paints her eyes blue black

Tristan comes along sometimes
Small for his age and he’s barely five
But she loves him like a mama lion

Veda used to drink a lot
Almost lost it all before she stopped
Comes in at night with her friend Mike
Who runs the crisis line

Michael toured Saigon and back
Hair the color of smoke and ash
Their heads are bowed and hands are clasped
One more storm has passed

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

 

When it’s Time to Go

I have loved each of my churches I have served. I remember each of them so fondly and hold such a dear place in my heart for each of them.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead in New York was a great place to learn how to be a pastor. There was a lot of energy there and people who were dedicated and active in ministry. There was also a bit of strife. It was a very happy call, until it wasn’t.  After three years, I got married and my husband and I set our sights on settling somewhere new together. It was time to go.

We were called to Colorado to a large church – First Lutheran in Colorado Springs.  I wondered how it would feel to be a part of a big church. I was up for the challenge and the change as an associate pastor on a large staff. We loved being in Colorado and had many friends both at the church and in the area because Colorado Springs had many people like us – fellow transplants. I met people who inspired me to run farther and I ran marathons – even up and down Pikes Peak. There were excellent people on the staff at the church and it was great to be a part of all the activity there. However, over the seven years there I kept feeling called toward something else. I tried to forget it – we loved that congregation (and living in Colorado!)  I worked hard to distract myself with writing projects and my children and working on a new degree, but I finally knew those distractions wouldn’t fix the restlessness and I couldn’t stay at First Lutheran. It was time to go.

We were called to Texas – a proud little Norwegian congregation, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church at Norse. I loved the people in my congregation so deeply. I adored the quiet country setting. I was enchanted with the history of that place. Walking over to the church on a warm night or sitting on my porch gazing at the cattle in the field, I often felt I could stay there forever. I felt peaceful, happy, and whole. My children thrived in the Texas warmth and were loved well by all their surrogate grandmas and grandpas at our church. For a long time, I really felt life couldn’t be better. But after five  quick years, the restlessness came back. We longed for our family and friends back in Minnesota, the reality loomed that the church wouldn’t be able to sustain a full-time pastor much longer, and while I personally couldn’t help aching for growth and change, that lovely little congregation was very happy just the way it was. It was time to go.

Now, God calls us to be in Minnesota, and here we are. It’s very good to be here and day by day, week by week, month by month, this place feels more like home. We’re happy that our story is slowly being knit into the story of Saint Peter’s.

So tenderly I hold it all in my heart: Each congregation, the faces of dear parishioners, the quiet of hushed sanctuaries, the gravesides, sunlight through stained glass, children stopping to give me a hug after worship, prayers by countless hospital bedsides, the benedictions, the ashes, the anointing oil, the lilies and poinsettias, the struggle and tears, the overflowing joy, the thousands of treasured, evanescent moments that make up this clergy life I get to live.

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5 Words of Wisdom to a New Pastor

On the way home tonight, I was listening to a podcast in which the author, Tara Mohr, was being interviewed. She was talking about her most popular blog post which was entitled, 10 Rules for Brilliant Women.  It includes some great advice for women to be brave about bringing their own particular brilliance to the world. It’s the kind of article I wish had been available to me when I was just starting out in my career.

In 1999, I was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If I could give words of wisdom to someone just starting out in ministry, I would say:

  1. Don’t give energy to the alligators.  In every church (as in any place where people gather) there will be alligators – difficult people – those people who like to find fault, to criticize, gossip or just be plain disagreeable .  Also, in every church there will be people who like to build up others, to be helpful and hopeful. If you give too much of your energy to the alligators, they will slowly drain you of your own joy and peace and positivity. Looking back over my years of ministry, especially the early years, I wish I had not wasted so much energy on worrying about the opinions of the naysayers.   I was never able to turn a disagreeable person into a more positive person, not once.
  2. Build up areas of ministry that interest you!  So often I would come into a church and see what programs they had going and then just try to keep all those things going. It didn’t occur to me until much later that it wasn’t my duty to keep committees and activities going just because they had been happening for many years. Over time I realized that for my own sake and for the sake of the church, I needed to invest my best energy in areas in which I had passion and be able to let go of some other areas and trust that if they were meant to continue, I and the council would be able to find lay leaders to continue those things. A happy pastor is a good pastor – do what brings you joy!
  3. Your churches will break your heart.  It’s true – my heart has never been so broken as it has been by my congregations. I’ve left pieces of my heart all over the cemeteries and sanctuaries and council rooms of my churches. Sometimes it’s been shattered by disagreements and betrayals, sometimes by the weird isolation that comes with being a pastor, but most often by deep love and affection, and the heartache of saying “goodbye” when it is time to go.
  4. Your churches will love you and your family. It was very hard to leave my home and go all by myself to my first call as a pastor. It felt like stepping off a ledge into thin air and not having a clue what would catch me. Oh, the cigarettes I chain-smoked as I drove with my two cats across six states to get to the first church and parsonage I would call home.  I had no idea how each church I served would walk with me so lovingly through the changes life would bring. My first church helped to throw the most amazing wedding party ever when I got married!  My second church helped me usher in motherhood – showering me with gifts for the babies they were so excited to welcome! My third church walked with me on the sad journey of grief when my mother died – they listened to me cry and they showed me so beautifully how a Christian community comes together in times of grief and holds each other up. You think you are leaving behind family to embark on your first call, but you are just on your way to meeting the most wonderful extended family you could ever imagine.
  5. Don’t let the church be your whole world. When times are good as a pastor, I can’t imagine a career, a calling, quite as wonderful. We get to be with people at such monumental times. We get to be creative. We get to be flexible. We get to go to awesome potlucks. But when times are bad as a pastor, it can be really, really bad. To keep it together during the bad times, you have to have a life outside the church.  Nurture your faith!  Keep a spiritual life and discipline outside of what you do for and with your church. Nurture your family! Don’t let the church whittle away your time with your spouse and children. Nurture your interests!  Always make space for the things you like to do, and try really, really hard to have some real friends outside the church with whom you can be honest and laugh (and cry!)

There’s so many other things I could say – don’t forget to pray, to take care of your health, to keep going to continuing education, to take ALL your vacation time – but you’ll learn all these lessons and so many more as the years unfold. God bless you in your ministry, new pastor. God bless you every year you get to live in this wonderful, weird, and sacred calling.

 

Of Course He Isn’t Safe. But He’s Good.

Sermon from Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2015

Gospel:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I remember having a conversation with a group of ladies at the first church I served out in Western New York state. We were sitting at a table eating soup and we started talking about table etiquette. Many of the rules for table manners that were mentioned were familiar to me – like no elbows on the table and don’t reach across the table for something but rather ask for it to be passed to you. But others were things I hadn’t heard before – one lady talked about how she had been instructed that it was only appropriate to eat soup by spooning it up away from her in the bowl. She said her grandmother had even taught her a little saying to remind her – it went, “just like ships sailing out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.” Have any of you heard that before? I had no idea there could be such specific rules about eating soup.

Well, our gospel for today centers around manners and rules. On the surface we might wonder how relevant this text actually is to us – I mean, here are some Pharisees and scribes and they are getting after the disciples because the disciples have ignored some of the traditions and etiquettes – they were eating without washing their hands! This may seem at most a little gross to us but not something worthy of much attention – except that to the Pharisees, this went against the traditions of the elders. They had many traditions that were important to them – some of them are listed in our reading – such as how cups and pots and kettles were washed – and apparently, it was very important that hands were kept clean, too.

So the Pharisees ask Jesus why the disciples don’t live up to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands and Jesus talks about how there is nothing outside of a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out defile – defile means to be unclean or filthy.

Verses 16-20 aren’t printed in our insert – but in verse 17, even the disciples are questioning what Jesus means by this. They say, “we don’t get it, put this into plain language.”

And Verse 18 reads (one of my favorite verses of all time), “Jesus said to the disciples, are you being willfully stupid?” (MSG) I always thought that would be a funny verse to put on my tombstone. People would see Mark 7:18 inscribed on my tombstone and wonder what heartwarming verse I chose and then look it up and it would be that.

Anyway, he goes on to explain again about how these dietary laws don’t matter, we can spend all day quibbling about whether certain things are clean or unclean but none of that matters – what goes into our mouths doesn’t matter – what matters is what comes out of our mouths and our lives.

We show whether we are clean or unclean by what comes out of us – and he lists some of these things: is what is coming out of us things like obscenities, lusts, adulteries, arrogance, slander, envy, licentiousness (that means promiscuity), deceit, folly (that means foolishness), avarice (that means greed). He says it is these kinds of things that are the source of our defilement .

In contrast, the reading from James today shows us the flip side of this – we offer up things that are pure and good to this world when what is coming out of us is that we are slow to speak, slow to anger, quick to listen – and James uses this language about defilement again – he says – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this – to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Here we might do a lot of head-nodding because this all makes sense, right? We understand that we want less of those defiling things and more of what is pure and good. However, in our modern churches still – we are pretty good at being Pharisees. If we pause and observe ourselves for even a moment, we can see that while we may not have specific traditions passed down from the elders about how we wash the cups and plates and bronze kettles and no one gets in trouble if they happen to not wash their hands in a particular way, we still have our own traditions that we hold tight to. Traditions that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – yet they become so important to us that if someone threatens them, it’s like they are threatening the very core of who we are.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to serve a term on any church council or most any church committee. I can’t really count the amount of times in my life as a pastor that I have wondered what it would be like if people could get as fired up about feeding the hungry and helping the homeless and immigrants and visiting the sick and the prisoner as I have seen people get fired up about why in the world we chose a particular shade of color for the carpet or why in the world did we change the worship time or how dare we change how we have been doing something for the last 140 years – if it was good enough for our grandparents, it should be good enough for us.

And here I could joke about churches and our difficulty with change – ok – here, let’s do that for a second and get it out of our system. You’ve likely heard the one – How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? We can’t change that light bulb – my grandfather donated that lightbulb!

We like to joke about how hard it is for us to change. Garrison Keillor has made a good career out of poking fun at our steadfast ways. Our quirks sound charming as he spins the tales about Pastor Ingqvist at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church – just down the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

I am as prone as anyone to find sanctity in the many things that stay the same in the churches I have served – the lovely stained glass, the cherished hymns, the predictability about the seasonal colors of the paraments (the paraments are the decorative hangings beside the altar and on the altar and on the pulpit); all the beloved sameness we experience on Sunday mornings. If you grew up in the church you understand what I mean. When we sing Children of the Heavenly Father, we aren’t just singing it in this present time but I’m remembering being a five year old girl standing and singing next to my grandmother at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning. And I’d look up at her and see her dab at her eyes with the tissue she had retrieved from her sleeve or from the very top of her brassiere (she stashed tissues everywhere). Oh, how she loved that hymn. Or when we kneel at this altar rail, we kneel not just for this particular day with these people but we kneel along with all the saints of today and yesterday. Even stuff like going on hayrides with the youth group or having a church supper in the autumn or sitting in the same place every Sunday – all these things can take on an air of importance, of sanctity almost – yet none of these things are God. A treasured hymn – sure, it can point to God, but it isn’t God. A precious, old altar rail? Sure, it can be a place where we remember God, but it isn’t God. Any tradition or thing can be a part of our life together as the people of God, but it also can be slowly elevated in importance until it starts to be treated like a god itself.

A council president I worked with a long time ago at a church established in the mid 1800’s used to say that he thought the best thing that could happen to our church would be if a storm came and blew our whole building down. I was shocked when he said it – but I began to see his point. It probably would have probably been the best thing to drive us deep back into the gospel. The congregation had elevated their building to such a holy status – there were so many rules governing everything surrounding it – and seemingly EVERYTHING in the building had a little metal plate on it that said who it had been donated by so we could never get rid of anything. And I remember thinking that there’s just something seriously out of whack when the mission of Christ’s church on earth is to be about caring for the homeless and the poor and visiting the sick and the prisoner and make disciples of all nations – but instead you find yourself stuck in a room with five other people trying to decide if it’s okay to get rid of the stained and broken picture of the church that was donated by the confirmation class of 1949 because you just don’t want to offend anyone. And again, if you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to spend some time on a church council or any church committee.

What I hear Jesus saying in our gospel is so important for the church throughout the ages. Because we are human, and we like to have order – we establish certain ways to do things, we establish our church buildings, we establish certain rituals and niceties, we may come to expect things or people to look just so – but make no mistake that whenever we put more passion into anything other than caring for those in need, remembering the poor, sharing in baptism and communion and the Word of God and making sure all others are welcomed to do so as well – anything we elevate above those tasks is a false god. And we all have them.

Remembering this is both extremely liberating and terrifying. It means that there is nothing we need except God. There is nothing we need except to love and worship God and serve others in God’s name. We don’t need this church building to praise God – we could gather anywhere to do that. You don’t need me – each of you can read the Word and tell about God’s love, too. We don’t need a Sunday School or circle or ever have another potluck. The church council could pack it up and the treasurer could give away all our money to Lutheran Social services or the Refuge. Our gathering could look entirely different – we could meet on a Tuesday at Pit 611, share in a Bible study and then go out and do service work in our community. We could gather on a Saturday in the park, all ages, pray together and then go pick up garbage or go visit the homebound. We could sleep in on Sunday but covenant to spend an hour in the afternoon reading a book of the Bible in a quiet place.

Could we do this? Can we even imagine doing church differently? Stripping away all the stuff and traditions and the ways we are stuck and moving nimbly forward to just love and serve God? Is the thought of it exhilarating or horrible? Could we let go of our church building, our committees, our traditions, and just be okay to be God’s people – daily fulfilling our mission to love and serve God wherever we are, wherever we happen to gather?

Can we admit to ourselves that any terror we have about letting go of our buildings and our traditions is actually because we have turned these things into tiny but powerful false gods?

Now perhaps we don’t need to toss everything away and start over and I know beautiful things are done in Jesus’ name here – but the main thing I pray for in our life together is that Jesus would keep our vision clear. That we are granted grace to always worry less about being safe and given the bravery and tenacity it takes to keep our eyes fixed on what is good, what is faithful. To keep our eyes and our energy fixed on Jesus. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis when he wrote in the book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.

The Church

I spend a lot of time trying to understand the church.

There are so many things I love about the church.  Here, I will list just a few:

1.  I love the stained glass and the old architecture of churches.  When churches are busy and full of life, that is great, but I’m also partial to when the church is quiet and still and it is a place to pray and think.  This may be why I have always been partial to country churches.

2.  I love the quilting ladies and all they represent.  The fellowship that can be found among a group of women who come together and quilt is a lovely thing.  I like the simplicity of the process of making the Lutheran World Relief quilts – how the women find scraps of clothing that may be otherwise thrown away and they stitch them into pieces of art that are then sent around the world and help people in countless ways.

3.  I love when the congregation sings in harmony on a Sunday morning – or especially how it sounds when a group of pastors sing together.  There is little as lovely as a group of Lutheran pastors singing in four-part harmony.  I cry every time.

4.  I love funerals – and how the body of Christ gathers together to remember the person who has departed and support the people left behind.  I love how Christian people throughout time know that there is real comfort that comes along with the casseroles and plates of sandwiches brought to a grieving family.

5.  I love how the Holy Spirit can still surprise me and show up when I least expect it – on a Sunday morning when I am feeling tired or crabby, and yet something in the music or the scripture will still touch my heart and leave me feeling comforted, better, and whole.

6.  I love how the church has been a home for me as long as I can remember.  Church people have always loved me and embraced me and supported me all through the years of my life.

But there are many things about the church that frustrate me, too.  Here, I will list just a few:

1. I am frustrated that so many have not felt loved or embraced or supported by their churches and thus have given up on the idea that it is a place where worthwhile and wonderful things can happen.

2.  I am frustrated that church is seen as a destination.  At the same time that I love the architecture and the stained glass because of all it represents to me personally and historically, I know that the building isn’t the church, the people are the church.  And too often, we fall so in love with our church buildings and keeping them looking how we think they should look that we forget that we don’t need them. At the end of the day, church buildings are really only so much brick and wood and stone, they are not the living Word.  They will not save us. They cannot comfort or sustain us.  Too many church buildings have become, quite simply, false gods.

3. I am frustrated by apathy, mostly my own apathy.  Long ago, people regularly died for their faith. Now we can hardly get people to make sure their kids come on a confirmation retreat. Jesus and the disciples journeyed long and hard to preach the gospel.  My ministry looks more like this – I moan that church is a whole hour earlier now at my new church than it was at my last church.  When did I become such a spiritual cupcake?  I get frustrated with so much passionless faith I see around me and yet, too often I wonder what exactly has become of mine?  I’m comforted in my knowledge that doubt and faith go hand in hand and I trust that God is just as at work in fertile seasons of belief as well as in all our times of desert and questioning.  However, I can’t get over the unsettling wondering of just what Jesus would think of what we have built the church to be.

No one has said the church is perfect and I have seen incredibly good things happen because of and through the church. However, there are some days I think a lot about  what a church council president said to me long ago.  He said he thought it might be the best thing for the Christian church on earth if all the church buildings burned to the ground.  No longer would we be tied to all our edifices and trinkets.  We’d be forced to go out into the community, meet together in homes, remember that this faith we share is about so much more than a place.  We’d no longer be on the autopilot of “are these the paraments for this church season” and “are the bulletins ready for Sunday yet” and “how much was the offering for Sunday?”  None of those things would matter anymore and we could just get together and pray – in a park, in your back yard, by the lake, anywhere.

I can imagine Jesus entering into that kind of space a lot more easily than I can imagine him feeling comfortable in most any church building I have known.