Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. Read more

Commended to God: A Service for Embryos

A few years ago, a couple came to me, because they had to make the difficult decision of what do with the leftover embryos that were created as part of the process of conceiving their twin children. They were so grateful for these embryos—and the beautiful children that had come from the two used embryos. They wanted a liturgy to honor those embryos and the potential life with in them. Together, we adapted the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer’s funeral service for a child and created the following liturgy.

Embryo

A Service of Thanksgiving for Embryos

Gather in the Name of God

All stand while the following is said

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 19:14)

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he
will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away
every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:17)

The Lord be with you

People And also with you

MinisterLet us pray.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of children. We thank you for name(s)—their joy, curiosity, kindness, boldness and infinite appetite for life. We thank you for the embryos and science that gave us the gift of name(s). Your beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them. We entrust these embryos to you and pray you will care for and bless them. Amen.

The Lessons

Romans 8:31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Prayers of the People

In the peace of God, let us pray, responding, “Oh, God, have mercy.”

Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness to parent’s name and parent’s name as they journeyed through the wilderness of infertility. You remained faithful to them along their entire journey, and strengthened their faith and love in You and in each other.

Oh God, have mercy.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of science and technology. We thank you that it can be used to help create life. Lord, this presents us with many difficult decisions to make. Your Holy Word does not speak of these choices. We pray your grace and mercy upon all choices parent’s name and parent’s name have made and make today.

Oh God, have mercy.

Gracious God, we thank you for the longed-for gift of name(s). We pray that they will always feel loved and cherished—by you and by those around them. We pray that in their relationship with their parents they could experience a taste of the kind of love you have for them.

Oh God, have mercy.

Embracing God, we pray for these embryos. However you acknowledge them to be—as a life or as the hope of a life—they were created through love and prayer. Welcome them into your kingdom, Lord.

Oh God, have mercy.

Bless parent’s name and parent’s name, Lord, as they complete this journey. Help them know your love and peace.

Oh God, have mercy.

The minister concludes the prayers with this Collect:

Compassionate God, your ways are beyond our understanding and your love for those whom you create is greater by far than ours; comfort all who grieve. Give them the faith to endure the mystery of life and the mystery of faith and bring them in the fullness of time to share the light and joy of your eternal presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The Commendation

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of all mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

We commend these embryos to the mercy of God, our maker; redeemer, and comforter.

We entrust you to God. Go forth from this world in the love of God who created you, in the mercy of Jesus who died for you, in the power of the Holy Spirit who receives and protects you. May you rest in peace Amen.

The Holy Communion

The blessing and dismissal follow.

Friend, Move Up Higher

Wedding banquet placecards

I can’t remember which member of the search committee said it. But I definitely remember their words: “Now that you are moving to Portland, no more Starbucks.”  And it’s true. There are so many locally owned coffee shops in Portland…  But I have to confess. I still love Starbucks. Starbucks was my first job. They were the first ones to offer me health insurance. And their coffee is just so good. I can’t help it. I love Starbucks.

Of course, there are problems with this love. There are things that I really don’t like about them. I don’t like that Starbucks destroys local businesses. I don’t like that each and every store looks exactly the same. I don’t like that they don’t even attempt to provide a living wage to the coffee pickers.

Read more

Two New Hymns: We Have Often Called You “Father” and Christ According To Your Measure

medium_8329857232Before I began the ordination process, I wanted to be a writer.  I also come from a musical background and am a life-long choral singer.  So when I discovered the art of hymn-writing, it seemed like the perfect intersection of three things I love: words, music, and worshiping God.

I wrote both of these hymn texts as part of my coursework at Yale Divinity School.  “We have often called you Father” was my final project for a course called “Hymnody as a Resource for Preaching and Worship.”  It was inspired by the challenges involved in trying to use more inclusive language in worship, particularly when it comes to describing and addressing God.  Rather than simply writing a hymn that used inclusive language, I wanted to engage the medium of hymn-singing itself (which is often heavily dominated by patriarchal imagery) to help congregations explore the whole question of how we name and picture God.

The second hymn, “Christ, according to your measure”, was written for an assignment in my New Testament course.  In addition to a traditional exegesis paper, we were instructed to come up with a creative response to the passage we had chosen to write about.  This hymn text is based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and is especially appropriate for ordinations, confirmations, celebrations of new ministries, and any other time when the members of a faith community and their many gifts are being celebrated.

Both hymn texts are written in the meter 87.87 Double, which means that each verse consists of eight lines that alternate between eight and seven syllables in length.  Many great hymn tunes use this meter, so the texts could easily be sung to a number of different tunes, in addition to those I’ve suggested.

We Have Often Called You “Father”

Suggested Tune: NETTLETON

I.

We have often called You “Father.”

We have often called You “Lord.”

We have spoken of Your “kingdom,”

and of “mankind’s” rich reward.

We have sung a thousand praises

to the holy Trinity—

Father, Son and Holy Spirit—

to a God we know as “He.”

 

II.

Yes, our theologians tell us

You transcend all gendering,

but we paint a diff’rent picture

with the words we say and sing.

We place human limits on You,

granting You both sex and race,

even though we know Your image

can be seen in every face.

 

III.

If we seek to change our language,

taking out what might offend,

making worship gender neutral,

following the current trend,

then instead of “God the Father,”

we will praise “Creator God.”

And in place of any pronoun

simply say, “God, God, God, God.”

 

IV.

Yet with worship safely altered

to include all humankind,

still we feel the strangest longing

for the language left behind.

Gone the richness of tradition.

Gone the ancient imag’ry.

Gone the words we learned as children,

words that set our spirits free.

 

V.

Some say we should call you “Mother.”

Others like the old way best.

Some are terrified of changing.

Some can never let things rest.

But we know that You are greater

than our words can ever tell.

Teach us how we best can name you.

Teach us how to praise you well.

 

Christ According To Your Measure

Suggested Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN

I.

Christ, according to your measure

you have given each one grace.

Once, for us to earth descended,

now you fill all time and space.

And to this, your humble body

you have given gifts indeed.

So today we thank and praise you

for the gift of those who lead.

 

II.

Some are prophets, some apostles.

Some are preachers of good news.

Some are pastors, some are teachers.

All are gifted as you choose.

To equip God’s chosen people

for the work of ministry:

Building up your holy body

till we come to unity.

 

III.

Christ, who led us to this calling

make us worthy of the call.

One in faith and one in spirit,

one in God who is in all.

With humility and patience,

help us keep the bond of peace,

bearing with each other’s failings,

so that hope and love increase.

 

IV.

Christ, we are your living body,

knit together, each to each,

growing up into your stature

till maturity we reach.

As we seek a deeper knowledge

of the One whose name we bear,

Give the gifts that are most needed.

Lead us in the work we share.

Dem Bones Still Speak

medium_6252133

(Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. I hear the word of the Lord)

Look! Imagine!

We find ourselves in the strange vision world of a 6th century BCE prophet.  A priestly prophet, concerned for God’s holiness and name; a man who seems to have spent time in exile in Babylon, among people who had been taken from their homes, away from Jerusalem and God’s presence, away from land that had sustained them. The book that bears Ezekiel’s name is full of vivid and difficult imagery. There is much not to like.

But the dry bones. Ah. The dry bones are perhaps a different story

We are not people in exile, we ought not minimize that experience but this passage seems to come alive, take on sinews and flesh, when read against the backdrop of our newspaper headlines and seeming perpetual societal pessimism:

The news reporting begins with the sorry state of our politics: Abbot and Gillard racing to see who can create the least humane conditions for refugees who arrive in Australian waters. It moves to Cyprus and the Eurozone debt crisis, through Syria, to working conditions in the Bangladeshi factories where our clothes were made. And we are aware of so much untold– Iraq, the East African food crisis, Kiribati and Tuvalu still faced with rising seas in the midst of a climate crisis.

Does Ezekiel mean something in the face of a cycle of stories that leaves us cold?

Last Sunday’s church morning tea conversations were all about people in pain – the quiet woman with breast cancer who has questions about whether who she is is enough for God; the gentle woman who is caring for elderly parents and a husband with depression wondering if this would burn her out too; one here despairing for the church’s future; one here desperately lonely.

Is Ezekiel not speaking to them, too, to their very real fears, to the pain of their burdens and their need for community?

Seminarians perhaps still feeling the wrench of moving out of sending communities, the ambiguity of being pulled in between multiple communities in this liminal space. Students feeling the dread swamp of the end of semester and the uncertainty of whether this essay is good enough or that presentation was even intelligible. And we certainly hear often enough that the church we love and belong to isn’t exactly faring well.

Could we not claim Ezekiel here too?

Again, I do not for a moment want to pretend that I, and perhaps others sitting in this room, face the same as the situation of exilic Jewish communities in Babylon. I don’t want to minimize the trauma of displaced peoples searching for meaning. But there is something in this passage that will not let us go, for there is a kind of meaninglessness and fear around us, one that Douglas John Hall, picking up from Tillich suggests is the great question for our time and context: the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness, the purposelessness, the superfluity, the boredom, the escapism. (Just think about the power of Facebook!) In a context like this, good news is a God who can meet us with a word of hope, who will remold our purpose, who will breathe life into the emptiness, and not just for our sake, but for the sake of others.

Yahweh transports Ezekiel into a valley, a valley filled with horror- bones, dry, desiccated, plentiful, dead bones. In what seems almost cruel, Yahweh commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to charge them with reanimation. The ruach, the wind, breath, the Spirit of God, is not far off, but full of creativity and life. Reminiscent of the second creation story, God breathes breath and spirit into what had no life or hope, promising restoration to the land, and a future that for the exiles would have been unimaginable.

Hope here is not a happy, shiny smile that ignores the world around with an infuriating optimism. Hope is being faced with the valley of dry bones, questioning God, but still looking for the Spirit’s work, even in completely unexpected ways, even for a seemingly impossible future. Reflecting on this passage, Walter Wink writes, “It is the prophetic task, in a time of unravelling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.” 

Our journey through Easter has shown us that the God of the dry bones continues to do new things that break open the pattern of our expectations. Jesus words to his disciples from John tell us to expect that the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will keep breaking in, for there is more to learn, for the future is open.

And isn’t that what Pentecost is, really?

A story to remember that God keeps on disrupting what is possible, that the Spirit is kind of elusive, but definitely present, a story that says that the Spirit Jesus sends is the Spirit of hope.

I wonder how the disciples felt hearing Jesus tell them he was going away and then when he left them. I wonder if they wished he would have just stayed, if they feared what would happen to them, their grief at this second loss. I wonder if they gave any thought to dry, dead bones in a valley and the breath that would enliven them, if they made connections between a God who could bring hope into such a painful time of their people’s story and the hope that had begun in the new event of Christ’s resurrection. I wonder if as they experienced the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, the Helper, if they realized just how open the future could be.

How will we look for transformation this Pentecost, as we hear words on Sunday of the Spirit falling like tongues of flame?

How will we claim the presence of the advocate, the comforter, the helper?

How will we too intercede for others, bringing words of truth, of life, of hope?

How will we prophesy to desiccated bones even against the backdrop of the daily news: of Syria, the Sudan, the Northern Territory intervention, climate change?

How will we be a people who have seen the bones knit together, sinews and flesh?

How will we believe that the ruach-wind-breath-spirit will continue to rush into desolate places with great gusts of life?

In a conversation last Wednesday afternoon, sharing a coffee in the sun, sharing conversations about call, messy ambiguity, conflicting communities which demand our time and energy, even being sucked into a place here where at times perhaps we lose sight of the world outside, a dear friend said that even when she is feeling deconstructed and doesn’t quite know what it is she believes in anymore, there is one thing which she holds on to, which she trusts: hope in God.

Let us be people who never lose sight of God’s future.

Let us ask that we would know the Spirit, resting upon us, among us, within us, reanimating our community: breath of life, winds of courage, that we would be people who hope.

Words for Worship: A Collection of Prayers

medium_8770102292A Prayer for when Natural Disasters strike:

Holy God,

You created the earth, and it is Good. You created the universe, and it is Good.  At times we blame and curse the universe for the bad things that happen; we blame and curse the earth for the natural disasters we face. God, call us away from cursing into lives of blessing. Help us to share out of our resources with those in need. Call us to use our hands and feet to act in recovery efforts and in arms that reach out. Guide our hearts to remember all who have lost so much.

We are grateful, God, for the first responders who gave up fear and instead gave into hope to rescue others. We are grateful, God, for all those who have rushed to help, to pledge their resources, to bring comfort. We are grateful, God, for churches and schools who have flung open their doors to be homes for the homeless. We are grateful, God, for the hearts that have been broken open.

And we grieve, Holy God, for all those who have been lost. We mourn with the families who have lost loved ones, especially children. Creator God, who loves us like a mother and father, we cannot fathom the grief that is being experienced in this time. Call us away from the simple answers and responses that cannot heal wounds so deep. Keep us instead to the hope that is in You, the hope of resurrection, the hope of new life.

In the name of Christ, the one who brings us healing, the one who brings us hope, the one who leads us into life, we pray. Amen.

 

A Litany/Call to Worship for United States Independence Day/Canada Day Weekend:

Leader: God of all Nations, call us into Your family.
People: We welcome all people of all cultures and languages, for we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Leader: God of all ages past and present, call us into Your family.
People: We walk hand in hand with our seniors and our children, called to be present and share with our homebound and our young ones, for we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Leader: God of Diversity, call us into Your family.
People: We embrace all people on the margins, including those of different genders and sexual orientations, for we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Leader: God of the Poor, God of the Hungry, God of the Oppressed, call us into Your family.
People: We will speak up and seek justice for all those who suffer, for we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Leader: God of Creation, call us into Your family.
People: Call us to embrace and love, to bless and uphold, to remember we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, as we gather to worship You

 

A Prayer for United States Independence Day/Canada Day Weekend:

Loving God, we give You thanks for the wonders of creation, especially our diversity that is a wonderful gift. As we celebrate our nation’s holidays this week, Canada Day and Independence Day, we give thanks for the diversity of cultures and languages that make up our nations. Remind us of the people who have been forgotten, the people who lived here before many of us came to be. Help us to honor not only the forefathers and foremothers of the current nation but to honor the grandmothers and grandfathers of the peoples of North America, that we may not forget all the people who have called this place home. Help us to reach out to those who are oppressed and marginalized in our country, help us to speak up and be the voice for the voiceless, and remind us to be in solidarity, sharing what we have, including our voice and power. In the name of Jesus the Christ, who came in order that the world might be saved through him, we pray. Amen.

 

A Prayer for Trinity Sunday or Father’s Day:

Abba, Father, Mother, Creator–we call You by many names, but the names we choose show our relationship with You. We desire to draw closer to You, O God. We desire to hear Your voice above the chatter of the world, to know Your ways and to walk in them. Spirit of Life, Wind and Breath among us, we feel You move through us, guiding us on our journey, inspiring us to share Your love with others. Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of us all, our Brother and Friend, we desire to walk in Your ways and to love one another as You have first loved us. Triune God, we desire to relate to You and to each other more fully, so that we might draw into the depths of Your love, first glimpsed at creation, when Your voice called us and the earth forth out of darkness into Your light. Continue to call us, guide us and lead us into this world and beyond. Amen.

 

A Prayer for the Season after Pentecost:

Glorious God, we give You thanks for the seasons, for warmth and cold, sun and rain. We give You thanks in times of hope and fear, in times of frustration and calm, in times of unbalance and peace. We know that You are always present with us. When we fall into times of doubt, draw us out, O Lord. When we stumble into times of despair from the unjust world around us, lift us up, O Lord. When we see injustice around us and we feel hopeless, strengthen us and give us courage, O Lord. We are called to do Your work in our world; grant us Your wisdom, fill us with Your hope and stir in us Your desire to build up the family of God. In the name of our Creator, Christ and Spirit that fills us, we pray. Amen.

Fulfilling the Baptismal Promises

Before I was ordained, I spent time as a seminarian intern and youth minister in a total of seven congregations.  The jobs of baptismal preparation and of talking to parents about how to raise Christian children, often fell to me.  In order to have something to put in people’s hands, that would sum up the most important aspects of what it means to make and fulfill the baptismal promises, I wrote up a short list, with explanations.

I wish I could say that as a result of receiving this, every family I ever prepared for baptism became regular, committed church members! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – and, of course, nothing substitutes for a good, in-person pastoral relationship.  But I still believe that the list offered here covers the basics.  Quotations and page number references are from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

**************************************************************

When we bring our children to baptism, we vow to “be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life.” (BCP 302)  This is a tall order, especially in a materialistic, violent, sex-obsessed society like ours.  Here are a few ways to go about it.

  • Become regular members of the church.  The church is uniquely suited to be the “village” that it takes to raise a child.  Its members vow during the baptismal service to do “all in their power to support” the candidates in their life in Christ.  Fellow church members can do anything from sitting with a squirming child during the service so parents can have a little peace, to being Sunday School and youth group leaders, to becoming special friends and mentors to children as they grow.  If nothing else, they show children that their parents are not alone in trying to live as Christians.

 

  • Begin some kind of ritual at home.  You don’t have to rearrange your entire home life, but deciding to take one or more nights a week to have a family dinner, light candles, and pray together can make a peaceful center to a hectic family life.  The family that prays together, stays together.  Prayers don’t have to be long, and you don’t have to make them up; there are many beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book (814-841).  Read and discuss Scripture together, or tell each other what you are thankful for and what you wish for.  Observe the church year with an Advent wreath, Lenten disciplines or offerings, and Easter eggs.  Light your child’s baptismal candle on the anniversary of their baptism.

 

  • Set an example – consciously.  When you do volunteer work, give money to charity, treat an annoying relative with compassion, refuse to buy the products of companies that abuse human rights or the environment, or make another decision motivated by morality or faith, your children will notice.  You can explain to them what you’re doing, and why, without bragging:  “I’m doing this because this is what Christians do.”

 

  • Answer questions honestly.  Parents can get very nervous when their children ask questions about God, but children don’t need definitive answers as much as they need to know that it’s OK to ask the questions.  You don’t have to know all the answers; God is beyond the knowledge of adults and children alike.  Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” and continue the conversation.  You and your child can wonder about God and explore questions of faith together.  If you’re faced with a real stumper, you can always encourage your child to ask the priest!

 

  • Turn off the TV, and keep screen time to a minimum.  The scientific evidence is mounting that TV is simply bad for children in any but the most minimal amounts; and are the values of TV programs, and particularly commercials, really the ones we want our children to be absorbing?  TV wants to make us into pure consumers; is that what God wants?

 

  • Get outside with your kids.  Modern children are frequently cut off from the glory of God’s creation.  Take a walk in the woods every so often to reconnect with nature and get some exercise.  A sense of wonder may be the most valuable thing parents can transmit to their kids.

 

  • Lastly, and possibly most importantly, read to your children and provide them with quality children’s literature.  There is no substitute for stories and the life of the imagination for a child’s developing mind.  Children need to be able to encounter on their own terms (not in a preprogrammed “entertainment” format) stories that are subtle and challenging enough to become part of their ongoing imaginative life.  Start with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and anything by Tomie DePaola, and from age 4 or 5 onward, give them C. S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Winnie the Pooh, E. Nesbit, Lloyd Alexander, The Wind in the Willows, Brian Jacques, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Arthur Ransome, The Phantom Tollbooth, Watership Down, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, and whatever else seems good at the public library.  (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t hurt them, but won’t do much all by themselves, either.)  The three Christian virtues are faith, hope and charity:  to believe in the invisible, to go forward when all seems lost, and to love the unlovable.  A child nurtured on good kids’ books will know these three virtues intuitively, in his or her bones.  Nothing on TV comes close.

The prayer over the newly baptized (BCP 308) asks God to “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”  Children nourished by caring parents and godparents who set an example; take their faith questions seriously; and provide simple home rituals, the love of a church community, judicious screentime restrictions, exposure to God’s creation, and plenty of good books, will have all of these things.

“The Gospel According to…”

medium_5196311746A few months ago, I attended a conference about storytelling. As I packed my bags and started to wrap my mind around what storytelling and church might have in common, I’ll admit it, I was skeptical. But what came from that conference is perhaps one of the most beautiful, gospel giving moments I’ve ever encountered in my ministry.

One of the nights at the conference, we learned about sharing our own stories and how they impact our communal understandings of well, communion. Our lives together in this beautiful thing we call church depend so much on hearing one another’s stories, living into one another’s joys, hurts, sorrows and celebrations. And how often do we really get to do this during our worship?

For the season of Easter at my church, we decided to take this storytelling idea and put it into practice on Sunday mornings. Because of the makeup of our church, its urban setting and our culture, Sundays are really the days we see each other during the week. For these weeks of Easter, we’ll read two less lectionary texts and instead hear “The Gospel According to…” in their place. We’ll hear resurrection stories that are current, contemporary and contextual.

Taking the basics from the conference, we invited congregation members to share their own resurrection stories in two to four minutes. We pitched the idea on Shrove Tuesday with a pancake dinner and bacon (people will consider a lot of things when you offer them free pancakes and bacon) and invited church members to take the season of Lent to reflect on a story of resurrection in their own lives. During Lent, they met with pastors, reflected on their idea, put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and looked for signs of resurrection all around them.

And this pastor has had quite the moving experience. I’ve sat in my office and listened to resurrection stories full of hope, promise and the presence of God. And I’ve listened to messy stories where everything isn’t resolved, but light still pokes through the darkness. The promise of resurrection leans in and it can’t be stripped from the story. I never would have known these stories if we hadn’t tried this endeavor in worship.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a sermon based on the Magnificat for the season of Advent. She calls Mary’s song “singing ahead of time.” I can’t help but think of that sermon each time I’ve sat down to hear the stories of church members. Over cups of coffee and homemade pastries, we’ve cried and we’ve laughed reflecting on God’s goodness and how we all need to slow down a little more to look for signs of resurrection all around us. We’ll hear stories about lost jobs, lost loves, healed family relationships, experiences in courthouses, our own health and meals around tables.

The fear everyone had in the beginning was that they wouldn’t have a resurrection story in their own lives. They couldn’t think of a tomb-rolling-away kind of situation. Turns out, the stories that most encourage us and show God’s activity in our lives are the stories involving relationships, ordinary time and in the midst of chaos. Life is not peaceful, but resurrection is still present. Life was not peaceful when Jesus resurrected. It was full of questions and chaos and pain.

Our church members are singing ahead of time as they long for the completion of what is to come. They hope, they search for hope and by sharing their stories, we all have streams of light pouring into our lives.

The Marital Politics of Communion and A Letter to Our Son

My husband grew up Catholic.  He still tells his mother he claims dual-citizenship as Catholic and Lutheran.  As part of our decision to get married, we made a decision that we value worshipping together as a family.  My husband joyfully joined the Lutheran church, with the full support of his parents.  However, the things we grew up with have a way of affecting us as adults, even if we think we’ve made a conscious decision.  This has become clear to us as we try to make decisions about our toddler son David’s faith life.  Our denominational policy on communion is that you can have communion as soon as you’re baptized, normally when you can have solid food, but local custom varies widely.

medium_169252325On Sunday mornings, as my husband would bring our son up the aisle for communion, he would smile and happily kick his legs.  Maybe because he saw his Mom, and maybe because he wanted bread.  Then he would look sad when he did not get held by Mom OR get bread.  Around 13 months he stopped coming to the table with that joy he once had, and it broke my heart.  So, we started a discussion in our home about giving David communion.

It was complicated.  At one point, my husband threw up his hands, and loudly said, “Only when you are married to a pastor does when to give your child communion become a martial conflict!”  Since he grew up Catholic, he never imagined he could be married to a pastor.  Most days this gives him joy, but not all days.  After talking and praying, we finally agreed to give our son communion on All Saint’s Sunday.  David is named partly for my father who passed away, but gave me a good foundation of faith before his death.  We thought this might be a meaningful way to honor his role in the faith of our family.

Below is the letter I composed to my son on the day of his first communion.  It lays out some of the reasons we made the decision that we made.  Most children in our congregation take communion already, so we periodically offer “New to Communion” class with graduation on Maundy Thursday.

 

All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dear David,

Today you had your first communion.  Tomorrow you will turn 14 months old.  You’ve been stealing bread from Daddy for awhile, but today you got your own during communion.  (Sometimes, before, you got your own after.)  I know you are young, but here is what I want you to know:

  1.  You can always come to Jesus with a huge smile kicking your legs excitedly.  You come to mommy at communion this way now.
  2. Jesus is a good place to go when you are hungry.  Remember that when you know communion is more then a snack.
  3. Jesus is a great place to have a break or to change what you’re doing.  You love getting out the pew with Daddy and coming up front.
  4. Jesus can fill you up with good and yummy things.  In our current church, we use real bread at communion.
  5. Jesus loves and cares for your whole being, including your body and stomach.

These are things you can know about Jesus and communion now.  You will know more later, and will always be on a journey of learning more about Jesus and your faith and the amazing promises of forgiveness and new life we have in Jesus.  It is okay that you don’t understand everything now – none of us understand everything.

Mommy’s heart soared today when I gave you the bread and said “Body of Christ, Given for You”.  Your eyes lit up and you were so excited.  I hope you will, most of the time, always be this excited to experience Jesus.

I love you so very much my son, and God loves you even more.  You are a blessed and loved Child of God for always.  Jesus came for everyone, including you.  I love you with all my heart and pray that you will be strengthened though the gifts of Christ’s body and blood now and always.

Love,

Pastor Mommy (Daddy has you call me this sometimes.)

P.S.  We decided on All Saints Day in honor of your Grandpa David who is with God now, but is watching and encouraging your faith journey from there.

 

 

i  Paraphrase of: The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, Adopted for guidance and practice by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 19, 1997.  Accessed PDF Feburary 18, 2013 from http://www.elca.org/Growing-In-Faith/Worship/Learning-Center/The-Use-of-the-Means-of-Grace.aspx, pp.  39-41

Breathe In The Breath of Life: A Lenten Breath Prayer

FOP2013_400God of all creation, you formed us from the dust and breathed life into us. Our breath is your breath. Your spirit moves within us and gives us life.

Too often we hold our breath, we are so focused on the immediate. Too often we feel choked by the tasks crying out for our attention.

Remind us, Creator, that we are yours, that every breath comes from you, that you sustain us and nourish us from the same earth which you used to form us, and to which we will one day return.

Remind us, Eternal Spirit, how to breathe. Fill us deeply with your powerful presence, open our mouths to inhale your goodness and your grace.

Remind us, O Redeemer, that you have set us free from everything that separates us from you. As we pause now to pray with each breath, help us to let go.

 

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing your sins to God’s grace

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the assumptions that blind us to God’s truth

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the desire to consume things that cannot fill you

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing yourself from the power of false idols

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the fears that lead you to doubt yourself and God

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing your need for control.

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, and let go of all that separates you from God. Amen.

 

With the theme of “Letting Go,” the “Fellowship of Prayer” daily devotional from Chalice Press offers reflections by young clergy on how to free ourselves from sin, assumptions, consumption, idolatry, fear, and control. Then, we can truly celebrate Easter with the freedom of Christ’s death and resurrection. Print copies are sold out, but the e-book can be purchased for download at http://www.chalicepress.com/Lent-Devotional-Fellowship-of-Prayer-2013-EPDF-P1241.aspx

Bethany Fellows seeks to nurture new, young Disciples of Christ clergy in order to help them develop a rhythm of spiritual practices and patterns for a life time of ministry. For four years, Bethany Fellows attend two retreats each year, where they are offered peer support, mentoring, site visits, inspiring speakers, prayer, worship, and a time of silent reflection. More information can be found at http://bethanyfellows.org/