Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dear God


I think Holy Week started one week too early.  I thought I was going to walk the way of the cross next week, and I’ve been planning for it for a very long time.  I have all the people in place, the liturgies written, and the hymns picked out.  The choir has been rehearsing and they sound great.  I thought there were only a few last minute details to attend to.  I thought there was lots of time to write my Easter sermon.

I wasn’t ready for Holy Week to come so soon.  I wasn’t ready for phone calls from grieving family members and funeral directors.  I wasn’t prepared for calls from ICU nurses telling me I need to come as soon as possible.  None of this—the death, sadness, or griefwas supposed to happen until next week. 

Maybe it’s why I burst into tears after someone from church called with one more question and I couldn’t—just couldn’t—answer it, and I was short with her.  Maybe it’s why on Sunday afternoon I slept on the couch and my perpetually busy almost-two-year-old quietly sat with me and let me rest, her little warm body nestled into mine.  Maybe it’s why my heart broke when a gentle man looked at me and said, “You have a pastoral heart,” and I thought it was the greatest compliment I’d received in a long time.  Maybe it's why I feel so grateful, and humble, and sad.

Oh God, this has been a Holy Week.  Thank you for showing me Holy Week cannot be planned, just like the cross is not something we can set aside and take out when we feel like it.  We walk the way of the cross each day, falling to our knees as life takes our breath away.  Thank you for flooding me with humility as I realize sometimes it is all too much, and I have no choice but to let others help me and to rely on you. 

Thank you for reminding me the cross is not only a word of violence and death, but a word of joy and hope.  For only through the cross can we see your unconditional and passionate love for us.  Only through the cross can we realize you have walked our paths and know our sorrows.  Thank you for the holiness that can come out of difficult days.  Thank you for showing me that even the most careful plans do not give us security—that comes from you. 

Thank you for reminding me that every week is Holy Week, and Easter is coming soon.  
Amen.  May it be so.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Risky Business

Faith and risk go hand-in-hand.  Some may say faith is in danger when doubt creeps in, or when the attendance at churches drops, or when immorality runs rampant.  I say faith is most at risk when we get too comfortable.  Once we find ourselves settling into life, feeling content and warm like lazy cats stretched out in the sun, it’s time to rethink how we are living.  If we are living too safely, protecting ourselves first and giving in to paralyzing fears, we are missing out on the joys of faith.  Risk looks different to everyone; what is scary for one may not be scary for another.  Yet that is the beauty and challenge of faith—it forces each of us to grow, to stretch, and to step outside ourselves.  

Self-doubt continually whispers temptations into my ear like, “Church needs to be flashier.  People want to be entertained.  Why don’t you have a coffee shop in the narthex?”  It also tells me I am too introverted, too serious, and not charismatic enough to be an effective leader.  If we are not careful, self-doubt (a great tool of the devil!) will fold us into ourselves and we will lose our vision.  We lose the ability to grow.  Risk becomes impossible.  The hard truth is sometimes it is most risky to embrace who we are.

This year the Worship Team encouraged me to use prayer as the theme for Lent.  I first began to think of all the ways I could create experiential prayer in the Wednesday night services—how I could pack in various themes and creative props.  These are my gut reactions to my perceived inadequacies—if I can make the worship entertaining, that will make up for my introversion.  Little did I know this year’s Lenten series at Christ the King would become a personal challenge for me.    

A fellow pastor directed me to Prayer Around the Cross, a tradition started at Holden Village, a retreat center deep in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.  The more I learned about this worship style, the more excited I became to use it during Lent.  I discovered this tradition is used once a week at Holden, and I decided if they can do it once a week, we can do it for five Wednesdays in a row.  I hesitantly gave up all my plans for creative, dynamic worship and instead planned for silence, deep prayer, and lots and lots of repetition.  Each week we repeat what we did the week before.  Each service we sing short phrases of songs over and over.  It goes against every instinct I have to make worship fun and exciting (as fun and exciting as it gets in a Lutheran church…).  I intentionally simplified everything.  I was nervous.  I forgot to trust that they Holy Spirit would move. 

I know this type of worship isn’t for everyone, and it is risky in many ways.  The cross is laid front and center with boxes of sand placed around it.  The service provides a time for people to come forward, kneel or sit around the cross, light candles, place them in the sand, and pray.  It’s risky for people to come forward and pray in front of the sanctuary.  It’s risky to have so many candles lit and moved by many people, including kids, in semi-darkness.  It’s risky to sing simple songs, repeating the same few words over and over without using hymnals.  It’s outside of our comfort zones. 

I'm happy to report the services have turned out to be deeply meaningful, and the repetition has created unexpected little traditions.  Four Confirmation students love to walk in candles at the beginning of each service.  The same two boys have embraced the job of turning down the lights for prayer.  The kids have been leaders in prayer and come forward to light the candles first each week.  Yet my favorite new tradition comes at the end of each service.  I like to leave the candles burning for a while as people leave the sanctuary.  Kids now gather around the still-burning flames, lighting the leftover candles and placing them in the sand.  They try to lick their fingers and pinch out the flames.  They gleefully blow them all out at my cue.  I see them playing with fire, but I think it is much more than that.  They are interacting with the sacred.  The candles represent the prayers of the congregation, and the kids love touching the prayers, watching them, adding to them.  The beauty of the candles draws them like moths to a porch light.  It’s risky to let them that near to the flames, but it gives them a chance to be close to holiness.

When I planned these services, I was most concerned about boring the kids.  What a silly worry it turned out to be.  They instead have been an example of what it means to embrace quiet worship, to joyfully try something new, and to find meaning in repetition.  I don’t plan to make every worship experience at Christ the King quiet and reflective, but the kids have been examples to me of how important it is to take risks, and how these risks can lead to finding faith in authentic new ways.  For we are all children of God—saved, loved, cherished as we are—and it is out of this identity that we can experiment, fail, and find joy in the risk that is faith.  And sometimes it is best to just get out of the way so the Holy Spirit can move.

"And sooner or later, if we follow Christ, we have to risk everything in order to gain everything. We have to gamble on the invisible and risk all that we can taste and feel. But we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing more insecure than the transient world. For this world as we see it is passing away." - Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude        

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jesus and the Mommy Wars

I had no idea when I had my first child that I had entered into a new subculture full of unspoken expectations, judgment and searing competition—this thing called parenthood.  I remember being a little uncomfortable when a nurse came into our prenatal classes to talk about breastfeeding in a way that made me squirm in my seat.  She told us about using her breast pump in the passenger seat of a car while her husband drove—because breast milk is that important.  

And so I entered into the Mommy Wars (a phrase I detest).  The only way I knew how to deal with the feelings of guilt and inadequacy I had as a working mom was to turn my anxiety onto the families around me.  I thought of all the reasons why it was good for my son to be in day care.  I thought of all the ways kids with stay-at-home parents might be disadvantaged.  I desperately sought for solid answers that told me I was making the right decisions for my child.

I soon realized this did me no good.  For we, as parents, are all in the same boat, and none of us know how to deal with the storms that rock it day in and day out.  None of us know how to deal with the constant pressures of parenthood—the mind-numbingly boring days that somehow still leave us exhausted as well as the days we’re so busy we think longingly of the days we could sit down and read an entire book.  No one knows what to do when our child throws a monster tantrum in front of the entire Confirmation class and their families and the deep shame makes us feel as if we’re standing in front of them stripped naked.  We’re all terrified that someone will find out our most terrible secret—that we struggle with parenting and sometimes we don’t do it right.

A hard part of parenting is the lack of outer awards and accolades.  No one gave me a medal for breastfeeding my kids.  No one cheered when my son became potty-trained or read his first word.  I didn’t get a certificate the day he took the big step onto the bus for his first day of kindergarten.  And so we try to compete, for as long as my child is developmentally ahead of another, as long as I breast feed longer than another mother, as long as I worked hard enough at labor to avoid the dreaded c-section, as long as my kids only eat organic food—well, then I must be a good parent.  Because otherwise, how would I know?

The truth is that none of it matters.  Parenting makes us all crazy, and we all struggle.  Parenting has a wicked way of turning us inside ourselves, shrinking our worlds into a few rooms of a house or apartment, cutting us off from the world around us.  We find ourselves spending our days looking up the merits and safety of various sippy cups on the internet (not that I’ve ever done that).  We start to look at other parents as sources of competition rather than support.  We have to fight against the isolation and panic, for the media saturates us with messages that we need the newest book, toy, organic food, and on and on…otherwise our children are doomed!

Thankfully, this lifestyle is not sustainable.  God calls us to community, and the church has the fantastic opportunity to give people the gift of relationship.  I am so grateful for the mom’s group at my church.  It is a group focused on shared struggles and rejoicing in each other’s achievements—a counter-cultural message.  I left the last meeting I attended saying, “They know what it’s really like, and I’m not the only one who feels this way.”  This is God’s community.

The church also calls us out of our isolation.  A clear message in Scripture is God’s desire for us to care for the vulnerable around us.  This includes not only our children, but all children.  What if we took the time we put into, say, searching for the right sippy cup, and gave it to organizations that support needy children?  What if we lifted up the single mothers who are working two jobs and still can’t afford decent child care?  What if we took the energy we put into competing with other parents and worked to make early child education available to all kids?  God calls us out of ourselves into the world around us.  In doing so, we will teach our own children they are not the center of the universe.  We will also teach them compassion and the joy found in serving others.

 “The little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay hands on them and pray.  The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  Matthew 19:13-14