Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Second Commandment: "Love one another."

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary suggests Chapter 2:8-13 from Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) as the scripture reading; this is the only time in the three-year rotation where this book is preached. The reading is all about love. Church should be filled with love, but many will not preach this passage because it seems, somehow, to be erotic.

I imagine that my sermon will be rather short, not because I don't know how to preach about love, but because I expect my congregation already knows and practices love. This is how they know and practice: While I was gone, this tiny congregation in north central Penna hosted a supper for any person who is hungry for food or fellowship in the (broadly speaking) county. This was our third Sunday supper. In June, perhaps eight people read the ad in the paper, saw the flyers or heard about the supper and joined us to eat. Last month, July, we had about 25 guests; this month (August) more than 60 guests came. Sixty people ate this meal. Sixty people shared this interesting type of communion. Sixty people left with full bellies. Thirty people - just about the whole congregation - rejoiced at the smashing success of our efforts to be Jesus-people in and for our community.

I was on vacation and am so sorry to have missed the enthusiasm and the love of all who participated, from the young guitar player I invited to the oldest couple who came to eat to the college student who was so excited about the idea of actually helping people who needed help that she gave up her Sunday afternoon. (She was on her way back to grad school, but promised to come back to help at Christmas.) Tables were set with real dishes and real tablewear - no plastic for these guests - all were served as they arrived. There was no preaching, no proselytizing, no means test, no donation, no fee. Just nourishment for body and soul.

I cannot say enough for the love this congregation offers. Perhaps this paraphrased prayer helps: "May the work of their hands and the love in their hearts be pleasing to you O Lord." Amen!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Advance Prep

This week, tomorrow actually, I am going to Chicago for a week to a relative's wedding. I am honored to go, even more honored to perform the ceremony. Getting ready to go, on the other hand, has been a challenge. Part of the challenge is that when I return, I am here for a few days, then go again for three weeks. That, for those not actually counting, is four weeks of missing church - but four weeks of having to prepare. It has been a marathon and I am very tired. I am reminded of my first, but not last, triathlon last Saturday.

In June I was asked to be the swimming component of Team Gustafson - three clergy women out for fun. Some part of me really wanted to be in this competition, so I agreed and trained. I was unsure about the swimming distance so trained to swim more than twice as far as necessary. Good for me; good for my arms and legs. When I was asked to submit my time, I offered the time I was swimming in an Olympic pool. Turns out the competition pool is quite a bit smaller so I was placed toward the end of the 370+ entrants. Too late to change, I realized my mistake. I was in the line with the non-swimmers or the barely swimmers - people who bike or run but are challenged at the swimming part. Many 30-40 year olds! What I remember most about the swim is that first, people where yelling my name when I came up for air (THANKS Y'ALL) and second, the swimmer I wanted to pass was set on remaining in front of me. Each time I signaled I would pass, he frog-kicked me out of the way. Not very fair. I did finally pass him, swimming twice as fast to get by. I made it out of the water, ran to the transition area, passed the magnet to the biker and still managed to be standing. (Almost forgot: my time was respectable.)

So how does this experience remind me of vacation from church? In this small new church plant, we have no administrative help, so, wanting an informative bulletin, I fill it with news and information, then type and print it. With four supply pastors coming, I have prepared four weeks of bulletins including appropriate hymns, have arranged worship leaders to help the pastors, even as I have tried to keep up with regular work. I am relating, not complaining. Just exhausted! Church planting consumes much energy even before I double the work load.

The lessons learned? Next year, I will give a more realistic time for the swimming component of the clergy team. And next year, I will take vacations in two-week increments.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Growing into prayer

Ah, Tuesday. Tuesday morning. Some asleep, some awake, some blogging.

During my morning prayer time recently, I decided that I too often spend time thinking and not investing that time in prayer. I drink coffee, sit in the dark, listen to birds. But maybe not "pray" in any sense of the word. This is contrasted to the time when I was engrossed in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and my prayers followed set scripture and became a lively interchange between my imagination and the scripture. Without this guidance, I quickly sink back into my own thoughts, but not prayer. To help, I need a focus; yesterday, I decided to reread Matthew Fox's Prayer: A Radical Response to Life."

When I pray, I am aware that I don't do prayers of "petition" - I don't ask God for things. Mostly that is because I don't believe in a God in the sky who grants wishes. When I pray with people, I pray for them to receive strength to get through the happenings and events that we encounter in our every day lives. I ask for God to be with them as a source of hope and light. But I don't do "please God" prayers. At least when I am thinking. Sometimes when I am not thinking, the "please God" does come through - those old habits are difficult to unlearn.

Prayers of all types may be needed, as this shows: A minister in a congregation that I belonged to prayed in this way: "God, we ask you to make ____ well - cure the cancer that is killing her. We know you can do that. Instead of hospice, give her back her life. ..." I remember feeling shocked at this prayer. To be more broad-minded, perhaps this is the prayer that person needed. Just as a priest whom I know has performed exorcisms - telling me, when I asked, that "some people just need them." Perhaps some people just need these "please God" prayers. It offers a way to hope in hopeless times.

I am guilty of what I don't want. When in CPE and when I visit the sick in hospitals, I petition - ask God - to give strength to those suffering, the families as well as the ill. For some reason, while I don't ask for miraculous healing, I seem to think that I am not saying a prayer of petition. Yet asking for strength is just that. Petitioning.

I preached on prayer a couple of weeks ago, trying to meet the individual needs of each member of the listening congregation. That means I watered down the message and did not say all of what I think about praying. Even at the beginning of his book on prayer, Fox reminds me that prayer is not changing God, but being changed by God. I wish I had said that when I preached. My congregation has quite a few who don't believe in religion, but who do think and feel spiritual. Perhaps what they really needed was Matthew Fox's take on prayer. For my own prayer life, I need to grow beyond the asking. I can hardly wait to reread the rest of the book.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Music in the Mountains

Today and the first sixteen days of August, the hills are alive with the sounds of music: the Endless Mountain Music Festival brings artists from many places to our corner of the world to play incredible music. Not only do the musicians come from all over - I am privileged to host a horn player from South Carolina in my extra bedroom for this several weeks - but I am learning that the festival draws music lovers from many places. I plan to soak up as much of this as I can; maybe memories of beautiful music will get me through cold winter mornings.

The importance of music is never more real than in church. Three weeks ago, our organist resigned - with no notice - to play at her home church. I understand her leaving and wish her and the home church the best. All the same, I could not help but be panic-stricken. Doing church without a musician is next to impossible. Seems people come to church to experience community and music. Our community is growing and reaching more people. Our music has needed attention. But without any music, can community be a strong enough draw to help us continue to grow? I don't think so.

This is the second time that I have lost a musician without notice. The first was in Denver on a Sunday when the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve coincided. Advent music in the morning, Christmas music in the evening. And no musician. He never came back. I learned then that CD music simply won't do. We struggled, singing without music, for several months until the day David Brussel, horn player for the Colorado Symphony, came to us. With his arrival, the congregation realized how blessed we were to experience this awesome musician.

Now, with no music for Sunday mornings, I put a "Musician Needed" sign up in front of the church with one member's phone number to call. She had three musicians express interest and screened them for me. I have spoken with all three. One man and I decided our theology was way too different for us to even try to work together. That leaves two, both of whom came to church on Sunday morning to check us out. I had expected to meet them both this afternoon, but the piano player with a suspended driver's license, asked if he could play while he was still there. He had walked several miles, in the rain, to get to church. So I listened to him play. Wow! The other, guitar player, auditions today at 5:30. I saw him looking through our hymnal - determining that he could play our music.

One pianist; one guitarist. Broad musical potential. I am greedy and want both, but don't know how we would pay two musicians each week. Whomever comes to our church, I think we are at a tipping point - the point where the excellence of music will help attract the spiritual but not religious - the seekers - this church is intended to draw.

God is always in charge of this church. However, each Monday, I take the day off and let God take total charge (as opposed my "helping" ). I have felt that we are at that crucial tipping point and I think God's total responsibility yesterday will bring the right blend of music to our congregation and spur new growth. I am excited for the future of this church.