Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Here, Read This

Sometimes my friend PeaceBang just hits the nail right on the head. Check this out.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More on "I'm sorry"

Just one story I couldn't fit in the sermon, although I really wanted to:
The great conductor, Arturo Toscinini was presiding at a rehearsal and one of his violins was just awful. The conductor chewed this poor guy up one side and down the other, thoroughly humiliating him in the process. Finally the hapless musician can't take any more. He stands up, tucks his fiddle under his arm, and marches toward the stage door. But, just as he gets there, he turns to Toscinini and yells, "Well, nuts to you!!!!" And Toscinini answers, "No! It's too late for apologies!"

Friday, September 21, 2007

Presbytery - What a funny way to tell God we love him

I got up at 4:22 am and drove to Marion, IL yesterday for Presbytery.
We welcomed 4 new ministers to the Presbytery, and said goodbye to two who are retiring. It was good for me to listen to the speeches about the retirees. I don't plan to retire, but if I do, I definately want some speeches!
We talked about what the essential tenets of the Reformed Faith are. We looked at a packet that spelled out 5 "essential tenets" and 4 or 5 "reformed distinctives" that I think might be helpful to Session and Deacons to spell out what Presbyterians believe. But the Presbytery as a whole was reluctant to adopt this formulation, for fear that people will think that then they don't have to read the whole Book of Confessions. (You think I'm kidding, but I'm not.) And some folks are fearful that spelling it out will make us prone to becoming fundametalist about it. Judgemental, you know.
I didn't want to adopt the paper as it was presented, but I do think that with a little softening and clarification it could be interesting and helpful. But, clearly, it was not to be.
Otherwise, we heard about some cool things churches in the Presbytery are doing, and had a worship service and called it a day.
I don't quite "get" Presbytery. But I'm learning to roll with the punches.

I Love You More

Is that the name of that children's book with the Mama and Baby Rabbit who try to outdo one another in declarations of love?
They start out small - spreading their arms, "I love you this much." But it escalates:
"I love you to the moon."
"I love you to the moon and back."
Until the baby rabbit becomes so exhausted that Mama Rabbit tucks him into bed and kisses him goodnight. And the last picture is of her cuddling the sleeping Baby.
"I love you this much."
It's one of those profoundly theological children's books. Have you read it?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More "I Love You"s

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
Psalm 62:3
Experiencing love and reflecting that love back to God in adoration and praise are two strands, spun together, that make up this "vertical habit". (I think I said that more clearly in the children's sermon than in the longer version on Sunday.)
The Psalmist said it in an even shorter and sweeter version!
Here's your love quote for the day:

I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world . . .
The one who loves is a participant in the being of God.
-The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - "The Most Durable Power"
So another way to check on our vertical habit would be to ask,
"How did I participate in the being of God today?"

Monday, September 17, 2007

Vertical Habits

While we are talking about "vertical habits" - I thought it would be a good idea to try to post a thought or prayer each day to encourage us to keep practicing these phrases with God.

This week the phrase is "I Love You". Do you have a favorite saying or story that reminds you to express your love to God? It would be great if we could share those on this site.

Some of you have mentioned that you don't feel comfortable posting. (Finding a name, figuring out how . . . various reasons.) If you'd like you could email me your thoughts (you shy ones have my email!) and I could copy them here with or without your name. You have wonderful thoughts and perspectives to share. I want to encourage you to encourage one another.

Here's a thought for today from a great preacher:

The world is too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but love.
- William Sloane Coffin

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Contemporary Worship

Last night was our first foray into shared "contemporary" worship. It was at Tolono, and it seemed like we made a good start. Jennifer (Little - Tolono's interim pastor) designed the service, which included some singing, some praying, a skit about the theme of the service - "Wake Up", scripture, a message and more singing. It was a worshipful time for me, and for the dozen (maybe 15) folks who came.
In October we're doing a coffee house style service at Philo Pres. I'm planning and putting together, so if you have any thoughts . . . I'd welcome your input.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pic at last

The wonders of technology, in this case digital photography, should increase our happiness by decreasing our frustration, right?

For instance - in the days of SLR 35 mm photography, how long would it have taken to share this picture with you? The person (Margaret K., bless her heart) who took the picture would have finished the roll, taken it to the store or mailed it in, gone back in a day or so to pick up the prints, chosen the best picture, taken it and the negative back to the developer for more prints, put one of those prints in an envelope and either mailed it to you, or brought it to church for you to pick up. How long would that have taken? Days. At least. Possibly weeks. (I've found rolls of film that have been lying around for years. But I'm unusually bad about stuff like that. )

My point is that it would have been a long time between snapping the picture and viewing it.

But now - here it is. Three days later. Amazing.

But I wanted it sooner. Technology seems to be shrinking my patience in direct proportion to the speed with which it gets things done.
PS Aren't they cute kids? And such a pretty picture!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Rally Day Highlights

I hope to have pictures to post soon. The best one will be the "window" that the Sunday School kids created over the summer. It is beautiful. They all gathered around it during the children's sermon and Margaret took their picture. I think there were 16 of them . . .

Windows on the World/Who is My Neighbor

The simplest answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbor” is that your neighbor is who you see when you look out the window.
Or maybe, your neighbor is who can see you when they look in. When I first moved to Philo, a parishioner took me aside and said, “Pastor Cindy, let me give you some advice, now that you will be living in the manse.” All right, I said. “Get some curtains.”
Probably good advice. It certainly got me thinking about windows and looking in and looking out.
I thought of that little exchange as I pondered our theme for Rally Day – and for the Christian Education Year – Windows on the World/Who is my Neighbor?
There aren’t a lot of window references in the Bible. Noah had a window in the ark. The spy Rehab let the spies of Jericho escape through her window. But when you get to the New Testament – the most famous window is the place where a young man sat, listening to Paul preach on and on and on. And the young man- Eutycus – fell asleep and fell out the window! This may be the reason that none of the windows in this sanctuary open!

In fact, church windows, not just our church windows, but the vast majority of church windows, are different than normal windows. Because you can’t look out of most church windows. The professor who taught my preaching seminar this summer, Scott Hoezee, finds this more than a little strange. In his book, Remember Creation, he notes that “within most church’s sanctuaries worshippers proceed through the weekly liturgy without seeing or thinking much about the outside world. We gather in buildings crafted of man made bricks, illuminated by artificial lights, and walled in by stained-glass windows – window which though lovely and rich in holy symbolism, point to heavenly things, not earthly ones. Also, the mere fact that these windows are made of stained glass – as opposed to the clear glass of most windows – prevents us from seeing God’s creation. Although the presence or absence of sunlight is noticeable through the stained-glass windows of my congregation, not much else is. There are many occasions when, upon exiting the building after worship, we are surprised to see that it had rained or snowed at some point during the service and we had been wholly unaware of it.” (p. 6-7)

Most of us know how stained glass came to be used so widely in churches: In medieval times, before the printing press, when most people in Christendom were not literate, and, even if they had been able to read, Bibles were few and far between – people could “read” stained glass windows. At a time when church services were conducted primarily in Latin, a language very few people spoke, the stories of salvation were conveyed in the illuminated windows in which people worshipped. The glories of heaven, the magnificence of the creator, the dignity of the Biblical characters, the tenderness of Jesus, the struggle of the faith, the crucial moment of judgment at the end of time. These and other truths of the faith came alive for people through stained glass art. The sun, streaming in through the pictures, made them glow with heavenly light. It wasn’t that the churches were trying to block out the view. On the contrary, they were trying to give a vision of God and his love that otherwise people might never see.

Some windows depicted scenes from the Bible. Zion Lutheran has two windows like this: One is of Jesus as the shepherd in the parable he told about the shepherd who left the 99 to search for his one lost lamb. Of course, that’s my favorite. The other one, the one on Harrison Street – is of Jesus praying, probably in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Those simple windows are seen in many churches.

Other windows told stories – panel (or lite) by panel. Here’s Noah building the ark. Here are the animals boarding. Here’s the ark on the sea. Here’s the raven and the dove. Here’s the ark on the mountain. Here’s Noah under the rainbow. Six lights – and a whole story to stick in the imagination. These narrative windows are kind of like comic books. You don’t see many in the East or the Midwest, but out in the Southwest, where Catholic missionaries built churches to proselytize the indigenous peoples, where language was still a huge barrier to understanding, you see narrative windows sometimes.

Stained glass windows were originally supposed to help people see and understand the mysteries of faith. But during the Protestant reformation, the branch of Christianity out of which Presbyterians have grown, stained glass was condemned as idolatrous, needlessly ornate, drawing attention to its own beauty rather than God. As was any church decoration that took people’s minds off the hearing of the Word. Protestants removed (often with bricks and stones) ornate stained glass windows and replaced them with plainer, less showy substitutes.

Philo Presbyterian’s windows are pretty Reformed. Mary and Chris Stasheff, the couple who came at the beginning of the summer to help our Sunday school design the art project we dedicated, helped those of us in SS understand what we have in our sanctuary.
They told us that the windows were fairly typical of rural Protestant churches in this part of the country. They are plain. The colors are the browns and greens and golds of the earth and growing things. They are windows for agricultural people. They told us that the patterns are stylized vines and lilies. They are so stylized, I didn’t even know what they were supposed to suggest – but not only are these growing things, which would have been important to people of the land – they also mean something to Christians – who remember Christ saying “I am the vine, and you are the branches”. Lilies are symbols of resurrection victory and of the trumpet that will sound, as Paul writes in Corinthians, and the dead shall be raised.

The few pictures we have on our windows are also very Presbyterian – the Bible. The Dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the Easter Lilies. The anchor cross puzzled Mary at first. She said that is most common in churches on or near a body of water. Well, I remembered one from my home church in Kingman Kansas, and I associated it with the Mariners – a group of young married people. That may not be right. I wonder – do any of you know? - If the Mariners were in existence when that window was dedicated?

Even our stained glass windows, which we can not see through, can help us see more clearly where we have come from, the saints who have gone before us, and where we are, what we have to work with, now.

Seeing ourselves more clearly is one good thing a window can do. But it’s not enough. Let’s switch to talking in a more metaphorical, spiritual vein: Windows ought to help us see our neighbors more clearly, too.

The intent of the Sunday school program this year is to find out more about neighbors – near and far – of other faiths and cultures. Supt. Mary Simon and her second in command, Teri Patton, recognize that our Sunday school students live in an increasingly global village. We will be followers of Christ if we learn how to be good neighbors to those who live and believe differently than we do. I hope our students will share with us what they learn about Islam and Judaism and Eastern religions. I hope that they will help us see that people who seem strange to us are also our neighbors.

That was, of course, what Jesus tells us when he answers the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” By telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Surprise! Jesus says, “Your neighborhood is bigger than you thought.”

Jesus is always pushing back boundaries and removing walls. He’s always remodeling our spiritual house – whether we think of that as the church, or as each one of our souls.
The medieval theologian, Augustine, wrote a beautiful short prayer:
"O Christ, My soul is like a house, small for you to enter,
but I pray you to enlarge it."

This year in Sunday school, Jesus will be installing new windows. We want our children to have houses with lots of windows, with light streaming into their lives and brightening their routines from dawn till dusk.
We want our children to have lives that are open to the world, that are neither fortresses nor prisons. The priest and the Levite were “saved” (safe) but also pitifully limited by the spiritual homes they had made for themselves.
We want our children to be able to look out and see God’s world. Sometimes what they see will be beautiful and harmonious – like the rural scene they depicted on their art project. Sometimes the creation will be suffused with heavenly glory. And they’ll be moved to praise and thanksgiving.
But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is very realistic. It doesn’t paint an overly rosy picture of what lies outside in the world. And so when our children look out and find that what they see is sad, wrong, unjust, (like the man lying in the road. Ugly. Scary. Wrong.) Then, like the Good Samaritan, like the Good Neighbor Jesus wants us all to be, they’ll be moved to acts of compassion and pity.
The world outside our stained glass window - whether it is beautiful or terrible – we want them to see - we want to see and believe - that the whole world belongs to God.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Who is my neighbor?

This is our theme for Rally Day - Who is My Neighbor: Windows on the World
Which means, I think, that I have to preach on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
My concern is that we've heard that text twice within the last 6 months.
It was Youth Sunday this spring, and it was the text for Connie Bandy's sermon in July.
I like it and all. And I don't think texts (especially Jesus' stories!) ever get "squeezed dry" of meaning. I'm sure there's more in there. I just worry that when everybody hears the story (AGAIN?) they'll turn off their hearing aids. What do you think?
The actual lectionary texts are great this week. Philemon. Luke 14:25-33 (counting the cost of discipleship) and Jeremiah 18:1-11 (God is the potter, we are the clay). Hard to resist any or all of those, but I don't see Neighbors with Windows there. Maybe I'll ponder some more. I don't really have to have the hymns picked til tomorrow.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Turning the Tables

This was Sunday's sermon/communion meditation.
The text is Luke 14:1, 7-14

How many people have email? And how many of you have received a message from Ms. Mary Williams? Or Joseph Smith? I bet you have. These people are officers in a bank in Nigeria, in charge of the accounts of a rich and corrupt government official who has died, with all his family, in a plane crash. At first Mary, or Joseph, planned to just take the money for themselves, but their conscience – of course! Their conscience! – began to bother them, and they have been led to give the millions to . . . guess who? a church. All I have to do is send them the bank account numbers, so that they can transfer these funds. Now, like me, you probably just delete those messages, probably before even reading them all the way through. But, incredible as it seems, enough US citizens are conned by this sort of thing that $200 million dollars is lost to this fraud.
But recently I heard about someone - a man named Mike - who wasn’t content to just delete the message and go on. Instead, he wrote back, saying that he would be happy to help, but that he worked for a church that only could not do any business with people not of their faith. And signed it “Father Hector Barnett of the Church of the Painted Chest.”
Soon, of course, the scammer asked about the church and how he might join. Mike wrote back about how this church was founded by an early missionary to the Masai people in West Africa, who had painted his chest red to establish trust with those people. So everyone who joins paints their chest in a particular way. He sent a photo shopped picture and sure enough, soon received a picture of the bare-chested, painted Nigerian scammer, asking how soon Mike could send him the $18,000 processing fee for these millions. Mike said the church had plenty of money, but required an $80 withdrawal fee to access it. The scammer sent the $80.
The story goes on and on. Apparently, the correspondence is still going on. There’s something really interesting about a situation in which someone “turns the table” on someone else.

That’s what we love so much about what happened in Ann Arbor yesterday. The Michigan Football Team, like many other big, rich football programs around the country, opened their season yesterday by playing an opponent from the Division 1AA. A small school, which Michigan paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of beating up on the smaller, slower players. It was one of those so-called “cup cake bowls” in which the invited team has no chance at all, but comes for the money, knowing they are going to be lose. Badly.
But yesterday, Appalachian State turned the tables on Michigan. Rather than being embarrassed – like the 94 pound weakling at the beach who gets sand kicked in his face by some big muscle man – the little guys embarrassed #5 Michigan. It was a classic case of turning the tables.

The expression “turn the tables” is really really old in English, and none of my usual sources of etymological wisdom could say where the expression came from. But you know what it means: When two people, or two groups, are in a situation and one of them seems to be in charge, directing and controlling things, then the other person does something to reverse the positions and take the lead . . . that’s turning the tables. When the scammer gets scammed. When the cupcake makes the big guy look like a Twinkie.

One of the cool things about our scripture lesson this morning is that in it Jesus “turns the tables” not once, not twice, but three times!
The first time the tables are turned, the Pharisees who have invited him to dinner are closely watching him, They are watching with squinted up eyes and bated breath, for Jesus to betray himself.
But verse 7 says, that, while they were watching for something that wasn’t there, Jesus had been casually, but keenly observing them, too. He’s seen how they are jockeying for position, trying to get the best seat, trying to make themselves look important, trying to get a leg up on the social ladder. He notices the games they play to curry favor with one another. All their petty little jibes, all their scheming to undercut their rivals. He sees it all. Jesus turns the tables on the guests at the dinner party.
Jesus turns the tables and sees them much more clearly than his dinner companions see him.

I wonder how seriously we take this “turning of the tables” that Jesus does. It seems to me that we in the church do an awful lot of talking about looking to Jesus. Maybe that is good. But, occasionally at least, the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, “What does Jesus see when he looks at us?”

The second instance in which Jesus turns the tables is when Jesus offers some very old, very good advice to the guests at the party. Now, most parties we have here in the Midwest are pretty casual affairs. Usually, we go through a buffet and sit wherever there is an empty seat. Sitting beside the host is less important that sitting by someone who will laugh at our jokes. But dinner parties in Jesus’ day were very status conscious affairs. The banquet table was arranged in a U shape. The host sat (or reclined) in the curve of the U. The most important guest sat to his right. The next most important sat to his left. And people arranged themselves by rank accordingly. It was really a bad faux-pas to take a higher seat that you should. And being asked to move down a bit would be public and very humiliating.
So Jesus advises them to turn the tables themselves: to take a lower place at the table than would rightfully be theirs, and wait for the host to say, “Friend, come up higher.”
This is not really very revolutionary advice. It’s found in the book of Proverbs and in the Apocryphal book of Sirach. It’s like “How to Get Ahead without Really Trying” type advice.
Jesus turns the tables by showing that He knows more about how to get honor and how to play the social game than the social climbers he’s with at dinner.
But it’s a game he doesn’t consider worth playing. Instead, he just uses it to point to the character of the kingdom of God: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now we know it doesn’t always work out that way in this life. It seems that often times the bullies get the best seats, and the meek are left standing in the back. God says he’s going to take care of that someday.
But it seems to me that the rare occasions on which a person who humbles himself is exalted on this earth, that it is a sign of the kingdom shining through. It’s a little epiphany of what is to come. So, for me it was a religious experience when I opened the paper on Tuesday night and saw that Jim Evans had been honored with an Abraham Lincoln Excellence in Agriculture Award. Jim would never in a million years have wanted me to say anything about that in church. And I wouldn’t, except that I want everyone to see how God exalts the folks he says he’ll exalt – those who put others before themselves. Some people will not know that honor until heaven. But God keeps us hopeful by signs like this one on earth. We ought to rejoice and be thankful, and be encouraged to trust that God will keep his promises.
The humble will be exalted and the tables will be turned.

After advising the guests on their manners, Jesus turns to advise the host that when he is having a dinner party, he shouldn’t invite his friends and neighbors and family. Those people are in a position to invite him right back.
Jesus advises the host to invite those who are poor and blind and disabled. They can never repay the host’s hospitality.
There are two ways to understand what this means for us: The first is that, as Jesus’ agents, the church should be careful to invite those who we might not want to put very high on our guest list. If we were drawing up a guest list – people we’d love to have here in this church, we’d probably come up with folks that would add a lot to the church, and not require very much from us. Jesus’ advice to the host is a clear warning against explicitly or implicitly being choosey about whom we invite.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. The Gospel is not about what we do, or what we should do, or what we’d like to do. The Gospel is about what God has done, and I think that’s what this advice to the host is about.
How many times does Jesus say, “The Kingdom of God is like a banquet . . .”? And in the kingdom of God, who is the Host? In the kingdom of God, the host has issued an engraved invitation to those who can never repay his hospitality. When Jesus turns the table, it is to invite us to take a seat.
Those who are poor, whose “hostess gift” is the tiniest token of a poor little life.
Those who are crippled, by the pain of unhappy families, by the memories of unkind words, who come to the table so disabled they can barely feed themselves.
Those who are lame, hobbled by regrets over the dream that died, the potential that was wasted, who slowly and painfully limp to the party.
Those who are blind, who do not see what God is doing in their lives, who do not see in each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those who do not deserve a place at the table are invited and encouraged to come. Those people who are invited – those people are us. We come to this table as honored guests, not because we deserve to be here. But because at Christ’s table,
we are invited to share
in the bread of life and
the cup of salvation
that we could never earn and never can repay. Thanks be to our Host, Jesus Christ

More name games

That last story reminded me of my second Sunday at Philo Pres. I stood at the back door, shaking hands and greeting the congregation as they left. There weren't very many of them, and I was proud to be able to use most of their names.
But here came a couple whose names I didn't have down.
"Good morning! Good to worship with you!" I said. "Will you please help me? I'm sorry, but will you tell me your name again?"
And the man growled his name. "How many times are we going to have to go through this?"
I remember his name.

I can name that person in . . . 5 seconds!

Yesterday, my dear mother treated Chris, Caleb and me to the CU Symphony Benefit Car show. It was a nice event. Phil (the boy's dad) is in town and he went along. And it was one of those events where you see alot of people you sort of know, or used to know, but don't really know. Ya' know?
One of Chris' high school teachers recognized him. I could come up with the first name (Greg) but couldn't get the last name for nothin'. I stayed out of that conversation, though when Chris finished talking and rejoined Caleb and me, he told me the name and immediately I could remember what subject the guy taught, how Chris had done in his class, how he ran Parent-Teacher conferences . . . all those memories hooked up to the name I couldn't summon.
About five minutes later, I was the one with the name. I looked down (she's short) and there was someone whose first and last names came right out. She didn't know me from Adam, but when I told her my name, she did. We chatted, and she asked me if that was Phil standing not too far away. (I wondered who else in the world could it be? He doesn't look like anybody else! Except maybe his children, who are much better looking, due to MY genes being mixed in!)
Anyway, I said that yes, it was Phil. And she said, "I'm going to go see if he remembers me!" and bolted over there. I followed as fast as I could, but she was little and fast and she arrived at his side with her mouth moving, so I didn't have the opportunity to say, "Phil, look who I found: Mary Smith!" And of course he didn't know her. I managed to work her first name into a sentence. But I don't think he'd ever known much more than her name, and he couldn't come up with that now.
And I was struck with how interested she was in him knowing her. He asked a very generic question about how she was, and she responded with details about her recent life that demonstrated that she thought he knew exactly who she was. It was something to behold.
How hungry we are to be known! How eager to share who we are with someone we think we know. Or used to know. Or thought we knew. How important that, no matter what happens to us or to them or to the world we used to share, they still know our name.