One of the shows I’ve been watching

I mentioned in the last blog that I’ve been binging on British TV shows recently. The shows have been set in Scotland, in Wales, on a Scottish island, and of course, in England. I have especially enjoyed learning about other cultural practices from these shows, as well as seeing how people live in these parts of the world.

I have had one problem when watching these shows: the accents. The actors often have very pronounced accents and of course, the various parts of the Britain have regional accents and dialects too. I find that it often takes me watching several shows in the same series to finally understand most of what is said. Even then, I often must stop and rewind in order to listen again to the dialog. And sometimes, even after listening several times, I still don’t know all of what was said.

And these good folks are speaking English! They are not speaking French or Mandarin or Swahili or Portuguese. They are speaking English and I still struggle to understand what they are saying.

Many years ago when I was a social worker at The Salvation Army in Columbus, a young fellow from Mississippi came in to ask for a bus ticket home. His accent was so thick—Cagayan perhaps?—that I could barely understand him. He tried to tell me why he was in Columbus and why he wanted to go home. I understood very little of what he said but felt embarrassed about asking him to constantly repeat himself. The accent made it obvious that he was NOT from Columbus, and he simply wanted to go home, which seemed a reasonable request. When I asked him to tell him where he lived in Mississippi, he told me the name of his town—and I could not comprehend what he said. After he repeated it several times, I finally asked him to write down the name of his hometown. That’s when I discovered that he was illiterate and couldn’t even write his own name. It was frustrating for both of us. We finally figured out the closest major city to his home and I arranged for the bus ticket to that city. He assured me he could get home from there on his own.

Again, this man was speaking English, he was from my own country, and yet I could not understand most of what he said.

Communication is hard. Even when we speak the same language—literally or metaphorically—communication is fraught with misunderstanding. We think and speak differently, we have diverse experiences and personal filters, and we are not always good at being patient with those who express themselves another way.

My experience with the British TV shows has reminded me that if we are patient and listen carefully and if we are willing to be persistent, understanding can come. It may come slowly and it may be an imperfect understanding, but understanding is possible. The only way we can learn to appreciate how unique and special God has made each of us is to be willing to listen to one another and be open to learning a new perspective. Think how much more peaceful and pleasant the earth would be if we all listened to one another with patience and persistence. Maybe it should start with each one of us.



Through the Cemetery

allsaints_01_churchyardLately, I’ve been binging on British television shows via Netflix. On one of the shows, a recurring character is the local rector or pastor in this small town. In order to enter the church where he serves, the congregation must walk through the graveyard which surrounds the church on all sides. In other words, the church building is in the middle of a cemetery.

I’ve never pastored or belonged to a church that had such a set-up. Many churches have cemeteries next to them—especially in rural settings—or across the street or even a bit down the road. I’ve not seen a church surrounded by a cemetery. My closest experience was when I did a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. Here, one had to walk by a small cemetery in order to enter the monastery. Still, the abbey was not surrounded by tombstones.

In one of my first call congregations in Indiana, the small country church had a cemetery across the road from the building. The cemetery had belonged to the church at one time, but its care had been taken over by the township long before I arrived. Still, many of our members were buried there, and I thought of it as “our” cemetery. Numerous times in my ten years in that place, I walked through the cemetery and read the tombstones. There were familiar names whose descendants and family members still attended the church. There were even a few tombstones for members who were still alive, but had purchased their gravesites and installed their headstones in preparation for the time when they would be needed. It was startling to me the first time I saw tombstones bearing the names of people who still sat in church every week. It was a stark reminder of the earthly death that awaits us all.

When I saw that church-in-a-cemetery on the television, I found myself thinking that there is something about walking through the earthly remains of former church members in order to enter one’s place of worship—the place where we weekly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Worshippers walk out of their daily lives, into a place of death, and then into a place of resurrection. Sounds like a perfect metaphor for our lives, doesn’t it?

And let us not forget walking OUT of the that same tombstone-surrounded church. Worshippers must also walk out of a place in which they heard the good news of Jesus Christ, through a place of death, and back into the world, renewed and reminded of what they are called to do: to proclaim a God of resurrection in a world fraught with death and fear and hopelessness. Even those who do not attend a church-in-a-cemetery, this is the call of all followers of Jesus Christ.

I also think that walking through the graves of our spiritual forebears might increase our sense of connection to our past, as well as remind us of our responsibility to ensure the future of this faith community. Church cemeteries should not cause us to cling to the past or mourn what once was, but should encourage us to look forward, knowing that our time on earth is limited and that God’s call is not about what was, but about what IS. The past is important to help us understand who we once were. Yet God calls us to live in the NOW, to speak and enact the good news today, and to trust the future is in God’s hands.


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.

Mother’s Day Musings

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

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.