Vacation Bible School All the Time

splash_canyon_vbs_2018_header_600x400pxThis week is our Vacation Bible School. It is a week filled with Bible stories, crafts, music, recreation and yummy snacks. Most kids love Vacation Bible School and are sad when it is over. Some kids attend multiple VBS’s around town because they enjoy it so much (and their parents enjoy the quiet hours while they are gone). I also love VBS.

A couple years ago, I read an article that critiqued VBS. The author claimed that VBS is deceptive for people who are unchurched or formerly-churched and who brought their children to VBS. The author of the article said that VBS presents the idea that church is fun and kid-friendly, when in reality most churches are rather serious and not always welcoming to children. (By “church” I think he meant worship.) He claimed that when and if these unchurched or formerly-churched folks came to regular weekend worship, they have a very different and rather disappointing experience, especially if they were expecting a VBS-type atmosphere.

I have a few responses to this.

First, I don’t think unchurched or formerly-churched people expect Sunday worship to be like VBS. I think people are smart enough to know that, like camp, VBS is a special event that does not necessarily mirror what happens at church the rest of the time. So I think the author of the article was being deliberately disingenuous and greatly underestimating the intelligence of the unchurched public.

Second, there are other VBS-like moments in church, especially for children. Most Sunday school programs try to make classes fun and experiential, as well as educational. At St. Peter there is also Rally Day, J-Walkers, the Fall Fun Fest, and other year-round, family-friendly, kid-friendly events and activities. Youth Groups for teens fulfill much the same function: combining fun and recreation with Christian education and service work.

Third, there are many ways to learn and grow and experience the presence of God. VBS and Sunday school are opportunities for this to happen. So is regular weekend worship. Sometimes worship is especially joyful (like at Christmas or Easter), and sometimes it is less exciting. Sometimes you love the hymns and/or the sermon and other times you hate the new song and the sermon puts you to sleep. These different ways to experience the presence of God, from VBS to Good Friday, are all valid and important, and reflect the depth and breadth of the human experience.

If church life was always like Vacation Bible School, what would we do with grief and sorrow and disappointments and anger and hopelessness and despair and fear? A VBS-like worship experience every week essentially denies the complexity of life and turns a blind eye to suffering. Since suffering is a part of every life, it is absolutely critical for the people of God and our churches to make a space for suffering to be addressed. Too often I have heard of churches who devote themselves almost entirely to praise, so that people who are in pain feel shut out and isolated by the inability of worship to address adversity or suffering. We need VBS to experience joy and we need Good Friday to acknowledge our suffering In this way, we are reminded that we have a God who “gets” us: who rejoices when we rejoice, who laughs when we laugh, and who grieves and suffers when we grieve and suffer.

Having said all that, I do think that we rather staid and serious Lutherans could do with a bit more Vacation Bible School in our lives.

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Mother’s Day Musings

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June & Beaver Cleaver

Mother’s Day was last Sunday. I must confess that it has never been a “big deal” to me. My mother has been deceased since 1989 and my father died on Mother’s Day in 1994. And although these losses are part of my disinterest, the truth is that I’ve never been big on what I call “Hallmark Holidays.” “Hallmark Holidays” are those holidays that seemed fixated on making us feel obligated to buy something in order to show our mother/father/grandparents/partner that we love them.

For my part, if my kids remember and send me a card, text or other expressions of love for Mother’s Day, I am content. Gifts are a bonus, but completely unnecessary and I am never offended if they don’t get me a gift.

Many people feel differently. They see Mother’s Day as an opportunity to pay their mother special attention, to show their love, and to celebrate motherhood.

Mother’s Day is a secular holiday that has made its way into the church, with some churches offering special gifts, recognitions, or litanies that celebrate moms. I do not object to this, but do not believe that secular holidays deserve the same inclusion in worship as do holy-days. I have no hang-ups about praying for mothers in our prayers of intercession, but that is generally the extent to which I acknowledge the Mother’s Day phenomenon in worship. It’s the same for Father’s Day.

Without getting into theological discussions about why secular holidays should not be treated as church holy-days, there are some very pastoral reasons why Mother’s Day and Father’s Day should be addressed carefully in a worship setting. After all, not everyone has/had a mother or father deserving a $5 Hallmark Card.

Some people had parents who were absent or abusive or who abandoned their children.

Some people have deceased parents, who may have left behind grief or anger or unfinished business.

Some people have difficult or painful or ugly relationships with a parent.

Some people have no relationship with a parent.

Some people desire to be parents but cannot.

Some people are adopted and may have feelings of abandonment by birth parents.

Some people have parents who are sick or dying or have dementia.

Some people grew up with no parents except state-appointed foster parents, who may or may not have fulfilled their role with love and compassion.

For many, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can mean something quite different than it does for those of us who were blessed to have good, albeit imperfect, parents. While everyone may understand the concept of these secular holidays, their personal experience can make these days painful or simply meaningless.

So for all of you who did not have June Cleaver or Carol Brady or Marion Cunningham or Lorelai Gilmore as your mother and for whom Mother’s Day is not exactly a day of celebration, know that you are not alone. Many people share your less-than-ideal mothering experience.

And as a pastor, I want to say the regardless of the imperfections of all parents and their (our) tendency to inflict these imperfections upon our children, there is One who is always the perfect Mother and perfect Father, who loves you unconditionally, who forgives you all YOUR imperfections, and who will always be “there” for you.

However, it is important to know that baking cookies is NOT in God’s parental job description. Pretty much everything else is.

May God bless you with the sure and certain knowledge you are God’s beloved child-always.

Gone but not Forgotten

HouseSparrow9Fred the Sparrow is gone. Just a few days after I wrote my last blog, Fred ceased visiting me. I’ve been looking for him the garden area outside my office window, but to no avail. I’m trying to imagine what might have happened:

He found a mate and is busy with her and the children-to-be.

He finally figured out that the windows led nowhere and he went to find a more interesting way to spend his time.

He got caught by a predator.

He found a steady food source and made his new home nearby.

He got sick with some mysterious bird ailment or was injured in some way and is no longer among us.

He is off doing some birdy thing which I cannot begin to guess at.

Fred’s apparent disappearance reminds me that there is so much in this life that is a mystery, things which happen that have no explanation.

It also reminds me that sometimes we simply have to allow people and other beings to be who they are and live their lives the way they wish. We can perhaps hope that we have had a positive influence in some way or that we planted some seeds that may one day come to fruition. But we do not have any control over that and so must simply hope for the best and move on to whatever is next.

This is an experience I have on a regular basis. As a pastor, I understand my mission is to proclaim the gospel and to place the good news of Jesus in front of people. What they do with that good news is not up to me. I often have wondered if people ever really listen to my proclamation and whether or not the gospel changes their lives in any significant way. And if the gospel DOES take root in the heart of another, I have come to realize that I may never see when it sprouts and grows and bears fruit.

Sometimes I get one chance to be a witness for Christ—one chance to plant a seed of faith or hope or grace. Often this may be at a funeral for a non-churched person and his/her non-churched family; or at a wedding, where there are almost always non-believers present; or in interacting with guests who are using our church building. Again, I may never see any results from my efforts to share and enact the good news of Christ, but then such reward is never guaranteed to any of us. We are simply called to be witnesses.

So I do not know what has become of Fred the sparrow. I can only hope that wherever he is, he is content and safe. And I hope he will remember our visits fondly.

Sparrow-Part II

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Fred Sparrow outside my window.

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog and today when I sat down and started to write about something else, I was interrupted by my sparrow friend tapping on my window and singing to me–again.

That’s right. He’s been at it this whole time. It’s now been at least three weeks since Mr. Sparrow started tapping on my window. He’s become a fixture around the church. The entire staff knows about his visits to my window, as does the adult Sunday school class and even a few folks who have been in my office when Mr. Sparrow comes calling.

Last week, I was out most of a morning at meetings and the hospital. When I arrived in my office at noon, my sparrow friend immediately showed up to greet me. One of the staff members commented that Pastor Ann must be here because the sparrow has begun his window-tapping.

So now I am wondering if the bird is actually fixated on me. I’m probably anthropomorphizing the bird, but it sure does seem that he mostly shows up when I’m around. He likes to sit on my widow sill or on the shrubs outside my windows and watch me. He sings to me a lot and his window-tapping has actually diminished, even though his visits are just as frequent. He’s doing more sitting than tapping now, more watching me than flying into the window.

I joked that perhaps this male sparrow—I looked up his markings and he is definitely male—hasn’t managed to find a mate and is courting me. Silly thought, of course. Or maybe he has found a mate and he is keeping an eye on me so I don’t pose any threat to her.

And there is always the possibility that he’s stalking me. Think: Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The bottom line is this: I have no idea what is going through his little sparrow brain. I have no idea why he has not learned that the windows will not permit him entry. I have no idea why he seems to have focused his attention on me. And I have no idea how long this may go on. Mr. Sparrow is a mystery to me.

Then again, as I said in a recent sermon, most people are mysteries. We are mysteries to each other, often not understanding other people’s motives or ways of thinking or behavior. Sometimes we do not understand our own motives or ways of thinking or behavior. Life—people, animals, birds—is one huge mystery of which we can comprehend only the tiniest part, including the part that is us.

Thank goodness that we have a Creator who understands the whole—the whole of life, the whole of creation, the whole of us. Thank goodness we have a Creator who embraces, accepts and loves the whole kit-and-kaboodle. Thank goodness we have a Creator who sends little brown sparrows to befriend a pastor who is often too busy, so that she might discover a bit of laughter and joy in the antics of a bird.

Maybe I should name him…what about Fred?

Bearing Witness

Tree_Sparrow_Japan_FlipThere’s this bird. A little brown sparrow I think, although I’m no bird expert. Last week, he decided to fly into my office. The problem was that he was outside and the windows to my office were closed. This did not deter him. He kept flying into the window, tapping it with his beak and eventually knocking himself off balance and falling to the ground or flying off. Then he would stand on the ground or fly to the top of the nearby shrub and chirp in what I can only describe as a frustrated way. He did this over and over and over.

Thinking this might help him, I got my plant spray bottle full of water and hoped to quietly open the window and spray him the next time he approached the window. I thought perhaps a scare might be the way to get him to go away. While I wasn’t particularly bothered by his periodic tapping on the window, I was worried that he’d hurt himself at some point. However, every time I approached the window, he would see me and fly off. I never got to use the spray bottle.

Finally, at the suggestion of another person, I turned off the lights to the office. Perhaps not being able to see inside might discourage him; perhaps not seeing his reflection so clearly might discourage him. It seemed to work. He went away and I heard nothing from him for a couple of days.

On Saturday, as I was in the chapel next to my office practicing my sermon, I heard tapping on the stained glass windows that face the same side of the building as my office windows. Sure enough, it was another little brown sparrow. The same sparrow, I suspect, as tried to get into my office a few days earlier. After he repeated his window tapping behavior a few times, I turned off the lights in the chapel. The bird did not give up as he had before. He kept at it for at least another 30 minutes before going away. I opened the chapel windows and tried to show him away. He perched on the nearby shrub and scolded me.

Then on Sunday morning, as we were meeting in the chapel for Sunday school, guess who tried to join us? Yup, my little sparrow friend was at the windows again. This time, perhaps because it was cold and windy and rainy, he didn’t try for very long and we didn’t turn off the lights. He just gave up and went away on his own after a few tries.

This morning, he’s back. It’s still cold and windy and apparently my office still looks like a good place to be, so he’s trying again. His attempts are less enthusiastic than last week, though. I hope that’s the cold and rain and not because he’s in pain from banging his beak on the unyielding windows a few times too many.

So—is my sparrow friend admirably persistent or foolishly stubborn? Is he developing tenacity or merely too stupid to admit defeat? Is he keeping hope alive or simply banging his head against the proverbial unmoving wall? I’m not an ornithologist so I don’t know the likely scientific answer. I simply know that I both marvel at him and feel sorry for him. And I do not know what I can do to help except stand by and bear witness. Sometimes that’s all we can do.

Oops!

oops-error-mistake-ss-1920Yesterday was a near disaster at the early worship service.

First, the laptop computer, which we use to project the service onto screens, died. We don’t know why. It just blank-screened about 10 minutes before the service was to start. Since we no longer print the entire service in the bulletin, we rely heavily on the screens for words to the songs and the Scripture readings, as well as spoken congregational responses throughout the service. We ended up using my laptop and it worked fine. But since we didn’t have time to fine-tune it, the aspect ratio was wrong and all the words on the screens were squished and harder to read.

Then the second Scripture reading was wrong. Or more accurately, it was correct on the screens, but wrong on the printed copy that the reader was using at the lectern. This was entirely my fault. I inadvertently added a couple of extra verses at the beginning of the reading on the reader’s printed copy. So from the get-go, the screens didn’t match what the reader was reading. The poor computer operator—already traumatized by the computer’s crash—was so confused that she flipped ahead in the slides, thinking she’d somehow gotten behind. By the time the reader caught up to the screen, the reading was over. At least the reading wasn’t too long.

Then one of our members passed out during the prayers. He’s OK, but it necessitated trying to finish the prayers while a group gathered around the passed-out man and no one was really listening to the prayers any longer. The prayer leader gamely continued to pray despite the distraction. When the prayers were done, we shared the peace and took up the offering and sat for a few minutes while things calmed down. Eventually, the passed-out fellow was alert enough to be put in a wheelchair and we moved him to the narthex to await the ambulance. And the service continued for the rest of us.

But the fun was not quite done. During the distribution of communion, one of the communion hymns on the screen was wrong. The organist played one tune (the correct one) and the words on the screen were from another tune and the words didn’t fit with the tune—not even close. So after a few lines of trying to make the words fit with the music, the congregation gave up singing and the organist just played a solo until the song was done.

Between services, we fixed it all. The aspect ratio, the reading, and the words to the song. For the second service, everything went swimmingly. No one passed out, so that was a plus.

The entire morning service fiasco has provided much discussion fodder both on Sunday morning and today. We’ve had some good laughs about it and everyone involved may do a little more checking their pieces of the puzzle over the next few weeks. For my part, I am hoping we got all our mistakes out of our system(s) so that Holy Week and Easter worship are mainly error-free.

Sometimes life happens. Curves are thrown, we get careless, we misunderstand, we throw up our hands in frustration. Sometimes we can fix things and sometimes we cannot. But in the end, the Lord is Lord and we are not. Life happens, mistakes are made, but we survive and the Lord is still the Lord. In the case of yesterday’s service, despite the human errors, the people of God heard the Word, shared the Meal and gave thanks to their Creator. And at the end of the day, the Lord was still the Lord and that is all that really mattered.

I’ve been thinking about violence…

PeaceI’ve been thinking about violence. With another school massacre, churches developing safety plans, the #metoo movement, and escalating tensions with Russia and North Korea, violence is becoming ever more present in our day-to-day lives. Whether it is gun violence or sexual violence or violence prevention or international violence, it seems that our supposedly-enlightened world is regressing into a place of increasingly primal violence.

If you’ve ever read popular dystopian literature (like The Hunger Games or the Divergent series) or watched futuristic movies set in a post-Armageddon world (like Mad Max or The Hunger Games or The Book of Eli), then you know that many people envision our world’s future as one full of ugliness, oppression, and unmitigated violence. It’s a long way from the idealistic future portrayed in Star Trek or The Jetson’s or Epcot’s Future World. (I, for one, prefer The Jetson’s.) Yet with the direction our society appears to be taking, the dystopian reality seems to be progressively more possible. It’s a vision of the future that can and does engender fear and anxiety—two emotions that are extremely prevalent in our world today.

I learned a long time ago that I cannot control other people—as much as I sometimes wish I could. I can attempt to influence the behavior of others, but ultimately, I only have authority over my own actions. I choose how and who I wish to be in the world. And in these days, I choose to be unafraid.

I choose peace over violence.

I choose mercy over revenge.

I choose mutual respect over condemnation.

I choose inclusivity over exclusivity.

I choose generosity over selfishness.

I choose love over hate.

I choose Christ over anti-Christ.

That’s right. For me, “anti-Christ” is not a person or the devil or Nicolas Carpathia (or the pope, as Martin Luther once said). The “anti-Christ” is anything that is not Christ-like. Anti-Christ is us when we choose violence and revenge and condemnation and exclusivity and selfishness and hatred over what Jesus taught and modeled: peace, mercy, respect, inclusivity, generosity and love. And I do not want to be anti-Christ.

This is not naïve, pie-in-the-sky pastor talk. I am not naïve. I have seen ugliness in the world. I have experienced ugliness. Regardless, I choose to be one who strives—and often fails—to follow Christ.

So I am going to try to stop thinking about violence. Instead, I am going to think about peace and love and mercy and I am going to endeavor to be a person of peace and love and mercy. And maybe, just maybe, someone else might see and decide to also become a person of peace and love and mercy and maybe someone will see them and decide to become a person of peace and love and mercy and someone else will see them and decide…

One action, one person, one life at a time, and we can turn it all around. In fact, it is the only way that we can.