Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prophetic Voice

God created us to live in community, in relationships with people who love us, who challenge us, who hold us accountable. I am never more sure of that fact than when I work on sermons with one of my friends.

First, a confession: As a pastor, I tend to allow myself to get busy or distracted all week long, and I often find myself on Friday morning in a coffee shop trying to mix up a sermon with less preparation and less organization than the task requires. It's like going to the refrigerator at 6:00pm and pulling out whatever ingredients I can find, then trying to put together a healthy meal from whatever is in there. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this occasionally works, but the sermons are a bit slapdash, and this gives the congregation and the worship less respect and attention than it deserves. The sermons start sounding too similar to one another, they start to reflect my own biases and laziness WAY more than any sermon ever should.

This is why, as a preacher, I need community. I need accountability. I need this friend. Because she will force me to work harder, to wrestle, to really engage with the text not only from my perspective but through the eyes of the many diverse folks in the pews. She pushes, prods, and pokes holes in what seem like brilliant ideas. She challenges easy theologies. She shakes metaphors and illustrations to see if they can withstand the reality of people's lived experience. She will not let me get away with easy answers. She is the prophetic voice that calls me, and often our whole congregation, to account for our words and our actions. It's uncomfortable, it's difficult, but it is often what I need most.

If not for this friend, my sermons would often be finished a little earlier. But they would also be weaker. They would be straw-man sermons that could not hold up to the scrutiny of real people living in the real world.

All of us need these prophetic voices. We need someone who will tell us, with love, that we need to look again at who we are, what we say, and how we live. We need someone who has the courage to speak up and who cares about us enough to help us be better. Individuals, churches, communities, nations need these voices: they wake us from our lethargy and hypocrisy and call us to do better.

Today, even though my sermon is far from finished, I am thankful for a friend who cares enough about me, about this congregation, to challenge me. And I wish there were more people in the world with the courage and care to be prophetic.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Up in Smoke

It's gone. Those were the only words I could come up with when, on Tuesday, I discovered that my home church in Ohio had burned to the ground. All I could think of were the things that had been lost: the site of so many memories, the items that held so much tradition, the sacred space that had been almost my home for the first seventeen years of my life had disappeared in a matter of hours.


I remember so many important moments in that church. The pews were the site of so many naps, so much coloring, so many childhood hours spent doing everything except paying attention. I went to Vacation Bible School in that church, eating snacks and playing games in the Fellowship Hall. I remember countless potlucks, Kiwanis Pancake Suppers, and Rotary Spaghetti Dinners, gathering around tables with community members of all ages. The classrooms were where I learned the Lord's Prayer, where I became acquainted with the books of the Bible, where I had Girl Scout meetings and MYF gatherings. I remember painting walls and pulling up carpets as training for mission trips. I played in the nursery for years, and can still picture the furniture and toys that had filled that room.

I used to go exploring through the church while my mom counted the offering. My sister and I discovered that, if you used the right pair of safety scissors, you could pick the lock and climb up to the bell tower. We figured out how to get into the organ pipe storage rooms, we crawled under pews and climbed secret back staircases. We uncovered the long-forgotten chair lift and we knew all of the best hiding places for Sardines.

But the Sanctuary... the Sanctuary was my favorite space. It always struck me as the place where God lived: a holy space, but a comfortable one, too. Over my 17 years there, I sat in just about every spot in that room, from the front-center pew as an acolyte to the back corner of the balcony as a youth. I remember going to children's time on the chancel steps and playing trumpet in the choir loft on Easter Sunday. The lectern there was the first place I ever read Scripture in public. I was baptized and confirmed in that Sanctuary, and I stood before the altar there to give the benediction just after I first announced that I was discerning a call to ministry. I learned to play the organ there, while bats flew laps around the ceiling above me.

For seventeen years, that church building was my second home. It was familiar enough to walk in the dark; I knew every inch of the space, every smell, every shadow was as well-known to me as my own reflection. When I moved away to go to school, and then to take my first job, the church was always one of my first stops on my return. I longed to get back into my home church, back among my church family.


I always assumed that I'd be able to go back. And it was always my church home. When I went to college, that seemed a temporary relocation, and I always came home to my church. My seminary days were the same. When I moved to take my first church appointment, I knew the churches I served would never be my home. As a pastor, I'm a member of an Annual Conference, not a congregation. But in my heart, I never left. That big sandstone building was my sacred space, and the people within it were my family.

That is, until Wednesday. On Wednesday, that sacred space disappeared. In a matter of hours, flames destroyed all of those familiar items, all of the rooms I once wandered, until all that was left was a sandstone shell. After the fire, the pictures showed what looked like a ruined medieval castle with stone walls crumbling around a pile of ash and unrecognizable detritus.

I was devastated. I have grieved as though for a beloved friend. For that church building was a friend, in a way. It was a place that saw me through struggles and joys, the constant that allowed me to change and grow within it. There have been tears, and there will certainly be more as the days and weeks go on. There is a loss, not only of the past, but of the future. I will now never be able to be married in that place. I now no longer have the option of presiding at that table in the stole of an ordained elder. And that is difficult for me to accept.


But I am trying to give thanks, as well. I am trying to thank God for the gift that the building has been for me and for so many others in the congregation and the community.

I give thanks for those who, more than a century ago, gave funds and support for the building of a church. I give thanks for their vision, and for the way God worked through them to provide for generations to come.

I give thanks for a solid sandstone frame that withstood years of frigid winds, torrential storms, blizzards, and steamy summers, sheltering those within as they weathered physical, political, emotional, and spiritual storms.

I give thanks for old, stained carpets crossed by hundreds of feet as worshipers came forward to pray, to receive ashes, to be washed in baptismal waters, to be fed at the communion table, to light candles, and to sing God's praises.

I give thanks for carefully carved pews, worn smooth by countless hands and backsides, that supported worshipers of all ages and backgrounds. I also give thanks for pew cushions, added later, that made that support so much more comfortable.

I give thanks for dog-eared books, Bibles, and hymnals, from which generations of faithful, questioning, and doubting folks read words of theology, history, and praise.

I give thanks for paraments, altar cloths, and banners that displayed the liturgical year so that we could understand it.

I give thanks for stained glass windows with pictures of Bible stories and names of long-forgotten donors, windows that showed that the Light of Christ can be colorful and energizing.

I give thanks for the baptismal font, capped with a dove, which sat always in the chancel reminding us of the Holy Spirit's presence in our worship and, through baptism, in our lives.

I give thanks for the altar table, where so many holy feasts were blessed by Christ's presence and shared by God's people.

I give thanks for chipped dishes over which holy conversations were held and upon which delicious meals were served.

I give thanks for wrinkled choir robes and sheet music, from which songs of praise poured to praise and lift our souls to our Creator.

I give thanks for items now forgotten, and for a building that housed a century of activities both sacred and ordinary, people in all stages of saintliness and sinfulness, and moments of tradition and transformation. I give thanks for what the building that housed Ada First United Methodist Church was.

But I know that a church is not a building. I know that, even without that beautiful building to house their activities, the church will go on. They will heal. They will find hope. They will rebuild. They will thrive. They will grow. Through God's grace, they will continue to be the faithful, fruitful community I have known them to be. They will journey on with the guidance of the Spirit, and they will be in my prayers, as they always have been.

Friday, March 02, 2012

That's What I Said.

Matthew 16:15: "Jesus said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?'"
You are God in the flesh.
You are a human being who has experienced what I have experienced.
You are God seen face-to-face on earth.
You are a human being who laughed and cried and prayed with friends.
You are God who leaves fingerprints on our lives.
You are a human being who ate and drank and shared a table with strangers.
You are God who challenged the religious and political leaders.
You are a human being who embraced outcasts and sinners.
You are God who has existed through all time.
You are a human being who died a human death.
You are God who breathed life into creation.
You are a human being who rose from the dead.
You are God who reaches out with grace and mercy.
You are a human being who taught us to love and forgive.
You are God and human, the bridge between God's kingdom and fallen earth.
You are Creator and Savior.
You are Love Incarnate.