Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Song and Thoughts to End the Year

As 2009 winds down, it is coming to an end in a flurry of activity. For the first time I can remember, I officiated at two funeral/memorial services on the same day. That was Monday. Today I officiated at another memorial service (that makes five this month). This time I was filling in for a pastor on vacation, but in many ways it was serendipitous. The funeral was held at the church I grew up in here in Duluth, and the man whose life we were celebrating was someone I knew as a kid, someone whose children I went to school with. Yes, Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” has been floating around in my head a bit.

Joni Mitchell, "The Circle Game"

Rather than a short essay to finish the year, there is the gift of song (Joni Mitchell) and a couple quotes.

I have only what I remember.
W. S. Merwin, from “A Likeness” in The Shadow of Sirius

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver, from “Sometimes” in Red Bird

The function of Reason is to promote the art of life.
Alfred North Whitehead, in The Function of Reason

Remember well the year gone by and live so as to create wonderful and kind memories in the new year. Use your reason to live well. Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When Christmas Breaks Your Heart

This is the reflection I offered at the "Blue Christmas" service held at our church last Sunday.

When Christmas breaks your heart. There are a lot of reasons why our hearts may be breaking this Christmas – this may be your first Christmas without a loved one who has died in the past year, you may have lost a loved one around this time of year and so the season is a reminder of your loss, a relationship important to you may have ended, maybe there has been a divorce, a job has been lost, this is your first year in a new place and you cannot get home for Christmas, a loved one has to be away this holiday season. So we gather, the heartbroken and those seeking to stand with us in heartbreak.
Christmas itself can seem pretty fragile. We often cloak Christmas in sweetness and light – we think of children’s Christmas programs, holiday music that is here for a few weeks then disappears, movies where all the endings are happy ones, trees laden with just the right gifts. Christmas can seem as fragile as a crystal angel hanging from a tree or fragile as a snow flake.
When we think of Christmas like that it doesn’t seem able to handle our grief, our pain, our sorrow. We find no place in it for sadness, no place for the blues amidst the greens and reds of the season. Our heartbreak seems to break Christmas, and we don’t want to do that, so we keep our distance. Because we don’t think Christmas can handle our pain and grief and sadness it makes this time even lonelier, even more difficult.
Yes, Christmas is more about joy than sadness, more about singing than silence, but it is big enough to hold both, strong enough to take our grief and sorrow. When we see Christmas as only sweetness and light, we see it too one-dimensionally. We miss important parts of the story, we miss the strength and resilience that the story offers.
The Christmas story is not just about angels and shepherds. It is also a story about an unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about a people under imperial rule. Mary and Joseph are made to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by order of the Roman Empire and there seems something just a little bit cruel in making a pregnant woman travel a distance for purposes of taxation and a census. It is a story about a young family with no place to stay. It is about a birth outside.
When we begin to take in these dimensions of the story it seems less fragile. It seems more resilient. It seems like it might hold our pain and grief and heartbreak. I think it is meant to do that. While I think the Christmas story is for everyone, I think it is especially for us when we are hurting, when we are experiencing difficulty, when we feel sorrow and grief and pain. I think it is for us at such times because ultimately it is a story about a God who is with us even in, and especially in, such times. God does not abandon us when times are difficult, instead God walks the road with us. God does not shy away from our grief or pain, God shares them with us. The light of God’s love finds its way even into the darkest corners of our lives and our world. The Christmas story is about a God who is, in the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”
If we hear no other word this season amidst the carols and bells and chatter, may this word penetrate our hurt and sorrow – God is with us. God holds our breaking hearts. With God there can be healing, even when that takes time, and it does. With God there is light, even when that light is but a tiny sliver peering into a dark room. With God there can be joy, even if it is on the other side of deep sadness. God be with you. Amen.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prolegomena to any Future Children’s Christmas Program

With apologies to Immanuel Kant

Sunday was the Children and Youth Christmas Program at First UMC. It was presented during worship. The worship service was well-attended, even a bit better than last year, and people were very pleased with how the program and service went.
So is this worship? In many ways the children’s Christmas program is all sweetness and saccharine and sentimentality with little emotional depth. It is true, you really can’t go wrong by wrapping a few preschoolers in cotton balls or crowing them with donkey ears. Bathrobes make wonderful wrappings for wise men from the east when those wise men are under ten. Cows in spotted smocks and even some cats made this year’s manger. Can this really be worship?
Well if worship is meant to tell the story, if it is intended to evoke gratitude, if it is intended to remind us of who we are and what we are to do, if it is meant to connect us more deeply with One in whom we live and move and have our being, then maybe…
The story was told in familiar and more hidden ways. Mary’s voice rang out strong and true. I happen to know that Mary’s grandpa is battling cancer. One narrator was a middle school girl fairly new to our church. When she stepped into the pulpit to speak her lines, her voice was clear and steady. Maybe she and her family are finding a faith home here. Two little girls in the cast are being raised by their father because three years ago their mother died in an automobile accident on her way home from work. The Scriptures were read, the story was elaborated with characters and song – and it was told for all to hear. And a lot of us found a place in that story.
There was much to be grateful for: the patience of the staff and volunteers who worked so hard to make this happen, the energy of the children as they sang songs and led us all in singing, the people who came to be a part of this special day. It is a day to be grateful for the gifts of life for they run down like oil into Aaron’s beard (Psalm 133).
We were reminded of who we are. Didn’t Jesus say that there is something in children from which we can learn, that there is a childlike quality necessary to be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world? Which childlike quality is most a part of God’s dream for the world? Is it wide-eyed wonder? Is it a willingness to display joy, like jumping kittens in Sunday’s manger? Is it a willingness to try something, to take a risk? Is it a willingness to love with an openness that is soon lost when one hits adolescence? Maybe it is all of these.
We were reminded of what we need to do as God’s people. During the announcement time I shared two thank you notes our church received from children who had been given clothing through a clothes closet our church has made a commitment to stock. The clothes closet is in an elementary school where there are a number of children who could benefit from such a ministry. One young boy was thrilled with his new winter outdoor clothing. Now he could be outside and not be so cold. Another child, a girl, was delighted with new shoes. Now she did not have to wear boots all day in school. These children are a part of our care as were the children in our Christmas program. And among the cast members are children from a local children’s home who come to First UMC for children’s church school every Sunday. We could only use their first names and last initials in our program because they are in that home because life has been difficult and they have not always made the best choices in the face of that. But they come to our church to learn and to pray and to be a part of another caring community. We care about all God’s children here. It is who we are and what we do.
And we care about children, some of whom we will never meet except through little thank you notes, because we know that we and they are connected to One in whom we all live and more and have our being. This One came close in Jesus. This One comes close in Jesus even now when love is shown, when children are welcomed and celebrated, when cows sing and sheep wiggle and kittens jump.
Yes, this is worship.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Little Bragging

I am going to brag a little on my church. It is not a comparison thing, just a little horn blowing for the congregation to which I am appointed as pastor.
I don’t usually get into the office before 9 a.m., and often not until 9:30. I am often at the church in the evenings so no one is concerned I am not putting in my hours. But one day a year, I make sure I am at the church around 7 a.m. - - - that’s the day that our church serves as the site of the “Have a Heart, Help a Neighbor” campaign to raise food and funds for the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. The local ABC affiliate, WDIO TV, hosts their morning show from our church parking lot. The director of the food bank is there. A truck receives food. It is a fun morning, and it helps the food bank and through the food bank, a lot of our neighbors. I am glad our church is located in a great spot for this event.
As the food bank event was winding down, a facial-dental clinic was setting up in our building. This clinic serves persons who might not otherwise receive care. I watched with joy as a couple of the children coming to the clinic put dollar bills in the food bank collection.
During all of this time, I also went up to my office a couple of times, and on one such occasion, a member of an AA group that meets in our church on Friday mornings stopped to hand me a small donation for the church. They are glad to have a place to meet.
The congregation I serve is housed in a fairly large building that is architecturally notable and is located in a wonderful spot on the Duluth hillside. Sometimes our big building is a headache, but the congregation is dedicated to using our building as a resource for the community and not just a place for its activities. It is a part of our ministry. We are, at our best, sort of a front porch for Duluth, and we like it that way.
This same week that I am writing about was also a week in which our church hosted three memorial services. One of the services was for a long-time member who would have turned 100 on December 23. The other two services were for non-members, but we open our church so that families can grieve together, support one another, tell stories and offer hugs in the face of loss. It is easy to take this kind of ministry for granted, unless it is your family that has experienced the loss and you are looking for some care and support. The memorial service for the church member who was nearly 100 was held Saturday. That same day our social hall was the location for a new year celebration for the Hmong community.
This is quite a place – better, these are great people to be in ministry with.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Jesus, Mark 9:37

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Jesus, Mark 10:14

Advent is a season of waiting and of surprise. We wait for God to show up and know that we will be surprised when God happens.
One surprising thing about the beginning of Advent this year in Duluth is our lack of snow. November typically brings with it about 14 inches of snow. This year we had closer to one inch, and as Advent arrived on Sunday there was no snow anywhere to be found.
More than that, however, this first Sunday of Advent lived up to its billing – especially the surprise part, and it came from children. God showing up in children? Seems as if this has happened before.
Every Sunday we invite children present in worship to come and share some time. Leadership for this varies some, but I have the joy and privilege much of the time. So I invited children to come up and was going to talk with them about imagining a different world, like in fantasy or science fiction. Anyway, I began with a simple enough question – “Did you enjoy Thanksgiving?” It took me much of the rest of the children’s time to get back to my chosen topic. One little boy, up front with his twin brother spoke excitedly about how he and his dad had been decorating, and they decorated most of the trees in their yard, but there might be a couple left. His enthusiasm for life’s small chores was infectious. In all honesty, while I hope I teach some small lesson during this children’s time, the most important lesson of all happens no matter what I say – that this place is home to children, that they are welcome here and this is their church, too. The enthusiasm of this boy let me know he knew this was his church, too. And God arrived in that somehow. Surprise!
Following the sermon, we celebrated a baptism. The child, a girl, was over a year old (I am writing this from home and so can’t remember just how much over a year). While I was asking her parents questions of faith, and asking the congregation to affirm its faith and pledge support to this family, the little girl waved at the folks gathered. She seemed very comfortable in the limelight. As I was praying the prayer over the water, a prayer I absolutely love, in part because I pray it while reveling in the baptismal waters, the little girl began to get a bit restless. Was this going to be one of those baptisms where every second of holding the child would be an effort?
The prayer finished, I reached for the child and she came to me, then, surprise, she hugged me tight and nestled her head snug against my shoulder and under my chin. Emotion poured through me like the baptismal waters I cupped in my hand and placed gently on her head. “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Grow gently in love of God. May you ever be a true disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life.” She clung to me, as if for dear life, and if the seconds seemed to pass a bit more slowly it wasn’t because I was anxious to return a squirmy child to her parents, but just the opposite.
Something in me was growing gently in love of God. It is Advent, the season where we wait for God’s arrival knowing it will surprise us in some way. And darn if it didn’t happen that way again, and in a little boy, in a little girl.

With Faith and With Feathers,