Sunday, April 14, 2013

The part that remains

First, some background...

On March 18, 2013, a lightning-strike ignited a fire in the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Owensboro, KY, and quickly spread into all areas of the building. Hours later the fire was still burning, and by mid-morning the church had been destroyed. (The photo is from this article on their local paper's website.)

Normally, something like this would be a distant tragedy for us in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. But our pastor at National Avenue Christian Church here in Springfield, Laura Fregin, is one of the mentors to a group of  Disciples of Christ ministers called the Bethany Fellows. And the two pastors at Owensboro - Jake Caldwell  and Rebekah Krevens - are members of that fellowship, and very dear to our pastor. So as the soot and ash were still falling in Owensboro, our church was grieving with theirs.

In the week that followed, Disciples of Christ churches from everywhere sent the Owensboro church copies of the Disciples' hymnbooks, so that as First Christian Church worships in borrowed spaces, they will know that their fellow churches are with them in heart and spirit.

But today, as our Pastor Laura was preaching on life after Easter, the tragedy in Owensboro, and living with many kinds of death and resurrection, an old, old story came to my mind... with a message for our Kentucky sisters and brothers.

For at least a dozen years I have been telling this story, one that I remember from nearly forty years ago. I remembered it from before I ever called myself a Christian; before I came to belief in God; before I could even pretend to have faith.

I don't remember the details any more, despite repeatedly asking folks who might know. All I can tell you is that sometime in the late 1970's, two churches on Glendale Avenue in Toledo were torched on the same night, just about a week before Christmas. (My memory is foggy, but I thought one congregation was east of Byrne Rd., and one was near Green Valley. If you have any information about this, please let me know...)

One congregation's fellowship hall burned down; the other church was a complete loss. Included in the damage were many thousands of dollars of Christmas presents for needy kids, lost in the heat of some arsonist's rage and insanity.

What remains crystal clear for me out of that December tragedy was the image of a TV news broadcast that occurred the day after the fire. One of the pastors was being interviewed by a reporter about the effects of the fire as they were standing in front of the wreckage of the church. The reporter asked the pastor, "How does it feel to know that your church has been utterly destroyed, less than a week before Christmas?"

Unbelievably, the pastor smiled.... and replied, "Oh, no - it's really not as bad as all that."

With a stunned look, the reporter glanced over his right shoulder at the still-smoking remains of the sanctuary in the background, and then back to the pastor. The pastor, however, kept on smiling and said, "No, you don't understand...they destroyed the building, not the church. The church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. "

I can't tell you why or how that idea stuck with me, but it has... for nearly four decades.

Dozens of Christian bloggers I know have published items in the last several years talking about searching for church communities and what "communities of faith" might or could look like. There are an awful lot of people who are searching for what Michael W. Smith would call "their place in this world" - and for a long time, Chris and I were among them.  We're ever so grateful to have found National Avenue Christian and a community of faith that welcomes and accepts us, just as we are. It's a gift beyond imagining, believe me.

One thing I believe that true "faith communities" don't do is what my friend Natalie Lentz would call "worshiping the barn instead of the Savior."  Sadly, I've been a member of more than one congregation who were more concerned with the risk of coffee stains on their carpet than with welcoming strangers into the presence of God and into a circle of faithful friends. In fact, those experiences have led me to believe that the more reverence a congregation puts on its building, the less impressed I am with 'em.

What I remembered, too, is that I've been a witness to several congregations whose buildings have been destroyed since that weekend. Living in Ohio, Kansas and Illinois, there were lots of stories of tornado damage - including a one-year-old church building that was picked up whole by a tornado, and dropped exactly one foot off of its footings - still upright, seemingly intact, but completely unsafe and un-salvageable.

The amazing part in all those stories was that in the aftermath, "the part that remained" became only more enthused, more servant-oriented, and more engaged in the community. They took care of each other, and they took care of their community, too.

I know that doesn't always happen. Sometimes "the barn" is the last thing holding a shaky congregation together - and when the building goes, so does the church.

But my experience is that people of faith focus on the Resurrection, and the rebirth of life and hope - and not on the whippings, beatings, agony and death that led to it. My prayer is that Jake Caldwell  and Rebekah Krevens will be reminded again and again that the church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground.  And I trust that in Owensboro - like it is here in Springfield - it is the very best part.

This message, however, is not just for the church. So many people I know are dealing with pain, loss, and destruction. For each of them, I share this from another old friend in the recovery community tells me: "If it doesn't bleed, the hell with it!  If it doesn't bleed, it can be repaired, replaced, or done without. It's people! People - that's what's important."

In my experience this is true - even in death. Long after life ends, long after breath ceases, long after ashes are scattered...the love that was shared and the memories that were made live on.  I've seen this in the lives of my own parents, and in the life and death of friends across the country who have blessed me with a season in their path.

The part that remains is almost always the very best part.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Serving "a God who will 'goose' you"

I am one of those people who have heard "a call" and thought it was "a call to ministry" - not knowing, at the time, that these were two entirely different things.

I now know that there is "a call to serve" and "a call to ministry," and while the two "calls" might seem similar in some ways, they are also widely divergent in what is required.  Sadly, for me and many people like me, this knowledge comes at the end of a long, worthwhile, yet painful and expensive education - and it's one of the many times that I find myself saying, "I wish I knew then what I know now...."

This reflection was prompted by yesterday's services at National Avenue Christian Church, my home church here in Springfield, MO. The theme of the day was "Looking For A Calling," and the first scripture reading was that classic call from Isaiah 6:8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Here's what I have learned:

One: The Big One: Being "called to serve one's fellows" is not the same as "a call to serve in ministry." One can have a perfectly valid "calling to serve" without having any kind of "a call to ordination."

Confession time: I was actually told this, a month or so before I left the safety of Kansas. One of my classmates at St. Paul School of Theology, Chuck Murphy, who was already an acting minister in the Disciples of Christ, told me flat-out that he felt I should "drop this whole idea of ordained ministry, of being 'in front of people' in leadership, and stick to the calling you already have in the recovery community."  It was good advice, and would have saved me (and my congregation) about twenty or thirty grand if I had listened.

Chuck's point?  I was already serving. I was already ministering.  I wasn't wearing a robe or a stole; I didn't have a pulpit, and I wasn't preaching. But I was already sharing the love of God with God's kids, and doing a pretty good job of it. But I had come to believe that "ministry" was what The-People-Up-Front-Did - and (if I'm rigorously honest about it) I was a little jealous that Chuck was telling me to ditch congregational ministry, while he already was doing it. So I didn't listen.

I know better, now.

In my current church, I see boatloads of people "ministering." I see my friend Susan Wheeler "ministering" every time she prepares food for the homeless at "Bill's Place;"  I see Terry Heitman "ministering" every time he's helping set-up or clean-up for a congregational event. Brad Wadle "ministers" whenever he encourages folks to support the Rainbow Network's work in Nicaragua.  The list would go on a long time, just focusing on my own congregation. 

 Two: Ministry is doing; but it's also showing.
Being called to serve also involves mentoring, and both modeling and encouraging behavior. Yesterday, I watched Terry not-so-subtly nudge folks to help with the clean-up from yesterday's pancake supper; he was serving, but also reminding the rest of us that ministry isn't magic. It's work, and it's work of the whole body. That comes much less from the pulpit, and much more from an invitation from a friend to participate in what's going on right now.

Three: The answer is already in the question. So many times, I can ask myself, "Yeah, but what can I do?" One of my favorite authors, Ted Menten, reminds me that the answer is just a rearrangement of the question:
What can I do?    Do what I can.
I don't need to be able to cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. I don't have to sing like Larry Stotsberry, or be a spiritual director like Tom Boone. I don't have to be able to paint like John Stone, or relate to children with puppets and stories like Louise Jackson. But there's several sides to this "Do what I can" thing:
  •  Maybe I can't cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. But maybe, if I'm interested, I could ask her to show me what she does and how she does it. Maybe it's about being mentored, about being shown what to do. Part of my "answering the call" just might be getting the courage to say, "I sure would like to do what you do - but I don't have a clue how you do it. Can you show me?"
  • Maybe I've got something that I'm already sitting on - a skill or ability that I can bring to the table just as it is. I learned this the first time I served as "worship leader" - what our church calls the person who begins the worship and reads the prayers and the scriptures. Just being able to speak clearly and with some inflection was enough, for that part. I don't have to be Billy Graham or Bishop Sheen or Orson Welles in order to be a good worship leader; it's not a "big" skill but it's a helpful one. Who knew?  
  • Maybe I see a need that others might not see.  A classic case of this: a lady at the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Leawood, KS noted that there was a desperate need for blood donations in the Kansas City area, and UM-COR had a huge population of able-bodied potential donors. But no one in leadership had the bandwidth to organize a congregational blood-drive.  She took it on; now, the UM-COR blood drive is now one of the largest blood-drives in the KC area - all because someone in leadership simply said, "Well, go ahead and see what it would take..."
Four:  I don't know what other people's calling is, or should be. But I do know that guilt or shame should never be a part of it - ever.

True story: A friend of mine is an emergency room nurse. She's very good at what she does; there are a lot of people who are alive today because of her service. Yes, she gets paid for it - but she feels it is also a calling, an expression of compassion in service. (And I agree.)  Yet people couldn't understand why she didn't want to be "the church nurse" or "the blood-pressure checker" on Sundays - and some were quite vocally annoyed that she wasn't "using her gifts for the good of the congregation." She was more than willing to do other things for the congregation - but being a church nurse felt a lot like she was working-at-church after she was done working-at-work. And after a series of well-intentioned do-gooders told her that she was "hiding her light under a bushel" (and other "loving admonishments"), she solved the problem - and simply stopped coming to church. 
Last:  I think the best words on the topic came from Matthew Gallion - this idea that it is not so much "what I am called to do," but "how I am called to be" for the world. A friend of mine often says, "You may be the only 'Good Book' that someone sees today."
There are various posts floating around this week about the minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who had to apologize to his denomination for participating in an interfaith rayer service after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT. 

It's important to note that he was not apologizing for praying for the suffering people in Newtown. The apology was to the rest of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, because it is their denomination's principle to not ever, ever, ever participate in mixed-faith worship services. The LC-MS doesn't even participate with other Lutheran denominations, not even on Reformation Day (a big deal in the Lutheran world.) 
That minister did the right thing, and for the right reason - but ended up having to apologize for his actions. He reminded me of an old quote from one of Isaac Asimov's characters: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right."  I'm sorry he had to apologize to his denomination in order to keep his job. I'm just glad as can be that he took the right action, at the right time.

More than just dust...

It's the first Sunday in Lent, four days after Ash Wednesday. The discussions around churches turn to thoughts of mortality, the fragility of life, and the certainty of death. And, if you were in a church on Ash Wednesday, it's a good bet you received a smudge of ashes on your forehead or hand, with the words of Genesis 3:19 - "for dust you are, and to dust you will return."

I've been thinking about this a great deal since this morning's worship service. Our pastor, Laura Fregin, was also thinking of dust - what kind of dust we are, what we hope to do with our "dust-y-ness."  I agreed with much of what Pastor Laura shared - she and I are often on exactly the same wavelength. But the more I listened, the more a part of me rebelled at another message I've gotten over the years about "being dust." And here's why:

I accept the concept that that I am formed from dust, and to dust I will certainly return.

What irks me is the idea that I've heard, over the years that I am just dust. Or that the important part of me (at least during Lent) is dust.
Now, to be fair, Pastor Laura didn't imply that message at all. My quarrel isn't with her at all!  But it is with priests and ministers who have implied this very idea for year after year, and Lenten service after Lenten service. I just cannot buy it. Not now - and never again.

The God of my understanding has made me into something that is way more than "just dust."

But that statement almost begs the question: what am I made of?

The raw material of what I am is star-stuff; the same atoms and molecules that make up the sun, the moon and the stars. Ninety-eight point seven percent of us are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, nitrogen, and potassium. Then stir in a seasoning of sulfur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, cobalt, copper, zinc and other trace elements for color and flavor. (I shared my original hearing of this idea in an earlier post - but you can also check it out, here if you missed it the first time....)

A whole mess of that hydrogen and oxygen end up as water - a 180 pound person is about 65 percent water, about 117 pounds or about 14 gallons. If one were to just dump in the rest of the recipe into a 20-gallon bucket, one could end up with an slightly stinky slurry that wouldn't resemble star-stuff very much.

But look what happens when God starts cooking the mixture....

Depending on whose estimates one uses, about 600-800 grams of all that stew ends up as DNA - not even two pounds of our hypothetical person. Guided by an unseen hand and a DNA blueprint, that primordial stew ends up as Michael Phelps and Chef Paul Prudhomme and Mr. Rogers and Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Michelangelo and Mother Teresa and The Beatles and dozens of billions of others, including us.

It's what is added to the dust that makes us what we are. The very process of our conception, gestation, and birth marks us as spiritual beings having a human experience; we are the work of God encased in dust, dirt and water.

This concept has become even more important to me because of of the recent experience of two of my dear friends, and an urn sitting in their apartment containing the ashes of their mother, who died way too early, just two months ago.To them, it might seem that the only physical evidence remaining of their mother's life is that urn, filled with fine grey-white powder.  Their grief is still fresh, and the idea that this "dust" is all that remains can be painful to them, at times.

But that dust is not the essence of their more than ashes in an unmarked urn somewhere in Ohio is all that remains of my own mother. Their lives were vastly, incomprehensibly more than just their mortal remains.

My own experience is that my mother's life becomes real and tangible whenever I taste our family's turkey stuffing, or a perfectly cooked lobster, or the hot-breads she loved to snack on at the Northwood Inn. She is present with us whenever her children share her stories, or share the love and care that she shared. Her voice whispers with every gentle rain, and roars right along with every belly-laugh. My mom is also present every time my partner overcomes his innate shyness and engages in conversation with a stranger. He knows my mother is present, because Chris knows from the stories told about her that my mom was rarely a stranger for long. To this day, when he makes the effort to be outgoing, he refers to it as "busting out a 'Helen'."

I was reminded of this recently, when I saw a post on Facebook saying that a physicist should speak at funerals.  The post reminded me that the laws of physics - specifically, the laws of conservation of energy and the first law of thermodynamics - tell us that the energy that was my mother could not be destroyed, nor could it die. All of her energy, every wave of every particle that was my Mom remains in God's creation - not gone, but just a bit less orderly.

In the same way, I believe with all my heart, that my own life is a God-given tapestry, woven from threads taken from my parents, my sisters, my partner, and friends scattered across this country and around the world. My prayer is that long before my life ends, the very best of my own threads will end up woven into the lives of still others, and others, and others. Long after my body is reduced to ashes, blown by the wind across the face of the world, I pray that the gifts given to me by God's kids will continue to be shared, and even the tiniest part the best of of God's gifts to me will go on.

Why do I believe that? Because I believe that faith manages, and love endures - no matter what.

As for the "dust" part?  To me, it just doesn't matter. That's why there will be no casket, no grave, and no stone marker - because I won't be "there."  The dust is simply the end of the human experience - not of the spiritual being.  Simply scatter the dust to the wind, and trust that nature will carry what's left of my physical being to the places where I'm needed most.

Perhaps my favorite thoughts on the "dust" of my mortal remains were penned by Lee Hayes, and sung by Pete Seeger, in a song called "In Dead Earnest."  (You can sing this to many tunes, including the folk tune "Barbra Allen"....)

If I should die before I wake, all my bone and sinew take
Just put me in the compost pile, to decompose me for a while
Worms, water, sun will have their way, returning me to common clay
All that I am will feed the trees, and little fishies in the sea
When radishes and corn you munch, you may be having me for lunch
And then excrete me with a grin, chortling "There goes Steve again!"
The last line is the best - 'Twill be my happiest destiny to live and die eternally."