Thursday, March 20, 2008

The First Easter

Well not THE first Easter, but my first Easter. Or even more correctly, my first Easter in my new call. My first Easter as a solo pastor. It feels sort of weird that I've been ordained for almost 6 years and I haven't yet preached at a strict "resurrection" sermon. I've had several Sunday-after-Easter sermons and lots of Palm/Passion Sunday practice, but nothing on Easter proper. Strange.

I have a little anxiety about this because I feel pressure to "perform" for the visitors. The membership of the congregation will be excited to have visitors among them, and they really want to grow, so they will certainly hope that what I say brings people back another week. My hopes are not as high that one great Easter sermon is going to turn lifelong C & E Christians into fully dedicated and engaged disciples who wish to join the church in ministry and mission. Like a good Presbyterian, I'm not going to say God CAN'T do it, but I'm not holding my breath either.

All that aside, I'm trying to focus in on what I am being called to say in this sermon. After my HORRIBLE newspaper interview experience when I couldn't get my thoughts collected well enough to answer coherently and specifically, I sort of had an idea about the message of the resurrection. I came to the "conclusion" that there is both comfort and commissioning (at first I used the word "conviction", but it sounds more negative than I mean) in the Easter message. Another way to say it is that there is resurrection hope and resurrection responsibility.

I see both of these at work in John 20, from which I will be preaching this week and next. At first I had the inkling to put this twofold message into my Easter morning sermon, but I really think it is too much for one sermon. Easter is 7 weeks long, right? Why blow it all in one week? So, I'm splitting these two up into two different sermons - - the hope one this week (highly appropriate for a week with lots of visitors sitting in lots of different places in life) and the responsibility one next week (maybe when we're back down to the crowd of "usuals" who need a job to do in response to this resurrection).

I think this Easter sermon will be a very personal sermon, meaning it will relate to and speak to folks on an individual level more than a community level. John's details lead me in that direction. Mary goes to the tomb alone. Peter and the other disciple have this sprinting competition and do their thing in the middle, but the overarching feeling for me is this very intimate and private encounter of Mary's. I'm such a child of TV. I imagine this scene in my head like a sit-com trying to have a serious moment. It starts serious, but to break the tension you have these clowns of physical comedy come run in and do their thing. Then the main actress goes back to very serious, very intimate, very dramatic scene. To me her pain and darkness is intensified by the flip way the disciples come in an out of the action. Her agonizing sorrow and struggle to be faithful is highlighted by their quick visit and simple "belief" (belief in what?).

Mary is in a very real place for me, one that many of our members and visitors may be. They have bothered to come. Even if they only come once or twice a year for the "high holy days" they have bothered to come. Some will say that it's because they feel like they have to, that it's a culture thing or a society thing, but really - - if they believed NOTHING, if they gave NOT ONE THOUGHT to the truth or possible truth of the resurrection of Jesus and the love of God they wouldn't even bother. There's not THAT much pressure to be in church on Easter morning anymore. I have to believe that something deeper is drawing them here, and I hope to take full advantage of thta opportunity to tell them they hope we have in Christ Jesus who calls us by name, even or ESPECIALLY in our darkest moments, and promises us new life in the light of God. In John's gospel Jesus comes to Mary just before daybreak. He speaks to her and to us in the dark before the dawn of the new day. That is hope. That is the resurrection promise!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Friday Five on Saturday

This is my first play in a while. Some weeks I have been lazy. Some weeks the questions hit too close to home to weigh in on. This week I'm ready to play again!

1. If you could travel to any historical time period, which would it be, and why?
I am a SUCKER for The Little House on the Prairie. The only time period I have ever wanted to go back to is just that, the homesteading, praire days. I know the horrors that were committed toward Native peoples during that time, but I just can't help being drawn to the danger and excitement and even the really difficult challenge and striking out to parts unknown and starting practically from scratch. I'm sure I romanticize it in my head, but even when I think of the toughest "stuff" I am intrigued by the time period. It's modern enough that inventions and some conveniences are on the way, but primitive enough to still be close to the land and dependent upon hard work for survival.

2. What futuristic/science fiction development would you most like to see?
I am so not into science fiction that I have a hard time even answering this one. It isn't a neat little gadget or anything, but I'd love to travel in space, so I guess my best answer would be space travel that is accessible to all people.

3. Which do you enjoy more: remembering the past, or dreaming for the future?
Probably remembering the past. I can get too pessimistic sometimes in dreaming for the future, because I fear that none of my dreams/ideas/brainstorms will come to fruition and that's just depressing.

4. What do you find most memorable about this year's Lent?
I never did pick out or stick to a particular discipline or sacrifice, so I thought I was "sitting Lent out" this year. In my vocation, however, I chose to preach from the Psalms all of Lent and that turned out to be more of a discipline in my professional and spiritual life than I ever anticipated. It was very difficult for me, but I think very beneficial to my preaching life and prayer life. God can work through anything, right?

5. How will you spend your time during this upcoming Holy Week? What part do you look forward to most?
I've got two more bulletins to put together, Good Friday and Easter. I'll spend much of my time trying to figure out what an Easter sermon really is all about. I've been ordained and preaching for almost 6 years, but as an associate pastor in my previous call I've never preached on Easter. This is a first for me. Maybe in my sermon I'll be able to redeem myself (or better yet God will redeem me) from the pit of my horrible interview. I'm also interested in going to the children's Good Friday service that my daughters MO Synod Lutheran daycare is holding. I don't think of Good Friday and children together very often, so I'm curious, but I'm also worried about bringing her in case it's a theology or presentation with which I'm not comfortable. I think what I am looking forward to the most is our joint Good Friday service with the Baptists. I love my new friend the Baptist minister, and I can't wait to hear him preach. We host in our church, and he preaches. A great set-up for my first Holy Week as a solo pastor, but it has me a little nervous about next year!

Interview: Failed!

I'm back after a horrible interview for the local weekly paper. I'm so upset about it I can barely think about anything else. He told me it would be about "explaining Easter, the meaning of the resurrection, that sort of thing". Well, it was, sort of. I was already stressed enough about figuring out how to put the resurrection and Easter into a newspaper interview, but I thought of a few stories I could tell that had images of resurrection hope in them from my life, times when I really "got" Easter. I did a little reading of some of the resurrection section of the RevGalBookPals Lent selection to get some insights from the "masters". I was feeling OK.

Then the bad news. He told me when he sat down that what he really wanted to talk about was what message Easter and the resurrection has for our country this day.

I KNOW I should be able to answer that. I KNOW I should, but I was just floored by the question and bumbled my way through a 90 minute interview. I just wanted to cry. I didn't want to be trite, and I didn't want to be too esoteric, but I also didn't want to go into politics. I wanted to answer with specifics, but I didn't want it to sound like I have all the answers (because I don't!). He kept trying to take it to the oppression of consumerism, materialism, or greed, but frankly I just wasn't there this time. It really pushed me on questions that I have in my own faith, so I didn't know how to participate in the interview. I was giving him the answer that I don't know, but I didn't mean it to move on to another question. I meant it as my answer to print - - I don't know some of these things, and I'm OK with not knowing. I know that God knows and there are things for me to learn someday, sometime, when God chooses to teach me. I spoke a lot about hope and the promise for the future, and Christ as the "first fruits". I borrowed C. S. Lewis' image about the battle being won, but not yet the whole war. I don't know. The whole thing just STUNK. I don't think I made much sense and I have no idea how it came off. I'm so upset about it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Easter Explained

I got a phone call at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. Friday is my day off. It was a reporter from the local weekly paper. He does articles on religious holidays the week of major celebrations and observances, and wondered if I would be willing to be the Christian pastor interviewed about Easter. I guess it pays to be the new gal in town.

In setting up our appointment he let me know the paper is put together by Tuesday noon, so we really needed to do this by the end of day Saturday or so. Fantastic. So tomorrow, Saturday, is my interview. I think this is a great opportunity for my ministry with the church and a great opportunity for some publicity about the congregation, of course.

I just wonder what the heck I'm going to say!!! He tells me that this article is supposed to be about the importance of Easter, and then he sort of chuckles. He knows how the topic sounds simple enough, but nothing is ever that easy. It shouldn't be that hard, right? Why is Easter important to Christians? I believe it is the CENTER of all that we are and all that we do, but it's one thing to believe that or even talk about it in a well-crafted well-though out sermon, and another to talk about it to a reporter. I mean, I believe it, but can I say it? I feel stupid admitting this (do I even deserve to be a minister if I can't talk about this?), but I don't know if I will be able to speak well about this topic tomorrow "on the record." I hope I don't blow our good opportunity.

When I think about Easter I'm drawn back to the one that stands out above all the rest. It was Easter 2002, my last year of seminary. The year before I had sworn I would never spend another Easter with my immediate family (mom, dad, sister and her husband, etc.) because it was just painful to spend the holiday at the center of my Christian faith with people who just saw it as an excuse to hear beautiful trumpets at church, eat chocolate, and have a great family dinner. It hurt me and troubled me that one of the most important days of my year was not shared with the same sense of faith by my family. The members of my family have never been what they or others would consider faith-filled.

But this particular year, Easter 2002, it ended up that my grandmother was very sick at the time of the Easter holiday. I don't know what Granny's faith tradition was earlier in her life, but in the last 10 years of her life or a little longer, she became quite involved in a Lutheran church in Phoenix, AZ. The church and its missions were her life. I know her faith had become quite strong. Although I had vowed internally to never spend Easter with my family again, there was no question that I would travel with them to Phoenix over the Easter holiday as we all got together to make some decisions about Granny's treatment and possible end-of-life care.

Saturday night was the night of the big family meeting. I felt sort of strange about my place at the table. These decisions were really more for Granny's children to make, and I was not even actually a biological grandchild. Although I had known her since I was 6 or 7 and she was my only living grandparent, she was my step-father's mother. It never mattered in anyone's eyes since my sister and I were the only grandchildren she knew, but inside it all of a sudden started to feel a little different in this important moment.

Anyway, my mother and I thought we would wait in the other room or even go out to a movie to take ourselves out of the discussion. When she saw that my step-father's, sister's, husband was going to participate, though, my mother decided to stay and invited me to the table to be her support. To say the discussions were intense would be an understatement. There were struggles among the siblings about what treatments counted as "heroic measures". There were struggles among those who were closest to her day-to-day care and those who only came by for visits occasionally. There were struggles as these siblings realized their only surviving parent and family matriarch was dying and there was nothing they could do.

It was hard, to say the least, and the family was exhausted. We took a break from the discussion after about an hour. My mother found me in the house and asked how I was doing this. She said I didn't seem cold and heartless, but I also didn't seem bothered about the impending death. What was the story?

I simply said, "Tomorrow's Easter. How can I be worried?"

Easter finally clicked for me. I thought I got it in previous years, and even thought I got it more than my family. The reality was, though, that I didn't get it any more than they did until that moment. How could I be worried about Granny's life or death when tomorrow was the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. He lives, and so would Granny. Jesus conquered death, so that we don't have to worry about our life or our death. Dying was the worst part of what was going on here. I mean, the physical pain she might experience the confusion and frustration of a failing body, but death, that was nothing. Or it was everything. It was just another step in Granny's relationship with God who would see to her eternal life because death doesn't have the final answer.

I don't know, I just wasn't upset that at the end of all this ickiness that had become her end-of-life was a promise that she would live again just like Jesus lives again. The resurrection had a whole new importance and sense of hope and promise for me as we faced Granny's death and rebirth.

I think I'll find a way to tell that reporter this story. I think it's the only way I know how to talk about Easter. I don't think I can explain Easter in any other way. I can talk theology, but those are empty words without real faith and real hope in the promise of the resurrection. I think I can talk about that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why did I take the class?

I guess I'm making up for lost time today. Whew! Third post in a few hours.

I just read this FANTASTIC Top Ten list for preachers.

That was a good one. In fact, I don't even know why I took the preaching class. That list and a couple of practice sermons and I would have been good to go.

OK. Just kidding. But it really is what it says it is - - those things I'm sure they tried to teach me, but that I didn't even know I should pay attention to until now.

Good stuff. Had to share. I hope someone sees it.

The Business of Funerals

OK - - fair or unfair my seminary training gave me a bad taste in my mouth about funeral homes. In the last 5 1/2 years I have had a sprinkling of good and bad experiences, but probably more that have left me frustrated than the ones that left me joyful.

Last week was one of those that left me frustrated. The elderly lady who died had ZERO family. Her lawyers had been her power of attorney for everything (money, legal stuff, and health) for the last few years. And apparently money was a bit tight at her death.

Anyway, this lady was, in addition to being a member of the church, also the organist for many years before retired about 18 years ago. She taught piano and organ to just about everyone who played in town, and provided much of the music for funeral homes, especially when the deceased had no church home. My understanding (having just moved here) is that she did a LOT of favors for the funeral homes in town.

So, with that information I was pretty surprised to find out that since there was little money for her services, some of the "extras" people are used to wouldn't be provided. Obviously there was no honorarium for me (TOTALLY fine) or the organist (a former student, she was fine with it). However, they also wouldn't be providing the little folder things or any assistance in planning the service. They wouldn't contact pallbearers or anything like that. They couldn't help out since there was no money.

I WAS FURIOUS, to say the least. This woman had worked in their industry and their own business. It quickly became clear to me from EVERYONE who talked to me about here that, well, she was a pain in the rear kind of lady, but she had saved their rears more than once when they needed her. Now in her death no favors were being returned. That bothered me.

I understand a funeral home is a business and there are business concerns to consider, but this just didn't seem right to me. Hmpf.

Back in the Saddle

So, my new blog has been neglected. I have really missed it, but things have felt so hectic that I couldn't imagine gathering my thoughts. That looks so silly when I say it, because I probably needed the chance to gather my thoughts BECAUSE it was hectice.

Oh well, no more excuses. I did notice myself struggling more in my preaching the last two sermons, and the last one in particular. I wonder if this, too, is related. Of course, it could also have been the extra stuff going on to get ready for my installation a week ago including the WONDERFUL gift of friends coming to visit and celebrate with me.

Then on Monday following the installation I decided to have a chill out day in the office. Seemed like a great Sabbath plan, but then at 4:00 p.m. I got a phone call that a parishioner had died. It was a bit of a scramble getting ready for this one because there was literally NO FAMILY ANYWHERE, lawyers were in charge, finances were tight, there was debate about whether or not she had left plans with my predecessor (she had and he sent them), and not one person she knew could find a nice thing to say about her to help me in my plans. More on the funeral home in another post.

In the end the service went off very nicely on Thursday morning. Whew. With that under my belt I was able to move on to the confirmation retreat Friday night into Saturday (also my first 24 hours away from my nursing baby - not as much fun) and my sermon for Sunday (also not a joyful experience).

Now I'm back to a Monday when I'm feeling exhausted, but I learned my lesson last week. I won't have a lazy day today!! I'll try to stay ahead of the game or at least caught up. Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday will be my lazier day!!