I used to think I was irreplaceable, indispensable, a cut apart from anyone else in my call to Hope Lutheran.
I tried that approach with two denominations. The first summarily dismissed me, with good cause. The second decided that I was still salvageable.
I think the second also took a chance on me because my father had contributed rather richly (like a chocolate chip in a cookie the size of Chicago) to the history of the Lutheran church. It was, above all, not what you know but who you know. As I’ve often said (impressing no one), my father’s pastor’s wife was a Fritschel. (Her brothers founded Wartburg Theological Seminary.) What was important was that my father’s pastor and my father had the bond of spiritual advisor to disciple. That spirituality, along with his love of all things church (aka Lutheran) made my father a major influence in the lives of a dozen pastors who served in that congregation from 1923-2016. If any one’s faith grew in that congregation, there is a good chance that my father influenced it in someway, as council member, as historian, as Sunday School teacher, as role model, as creative contributor. (Who else hires a cartwheel of ponies to be available to all the boys and girls in the neighborhood?)
Both denominations asked me what ordination meant to me. I’ve gone through several answers.
One, it was a great topic of conversation with my own pastor after he suggested I run the gauntlet. I ran the gauntlet. By then he had moved on to safer grounds as a golf course groundskeeper. I might as well have been beaten by golf clubs; it hurt that badly.
So, another reason: to please my dad: I had done pretty well. After all, I had become a teacher AND a church organist. Just as Pastor Hafner was Dad’s mentor, Dad was mine. He was the first theologian in my life. In our religious beliefs, there were actually two Trinities: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (We are German: Geist) and Martin Luther, Pastor, Organist. But then my Dad died. Suddenly ordination became a rite without the right to celebrate.
Next, I was called (with some political sleight of hand) to serve a Lutheran Church. Because I was (I thought at the time) on track to be ordained in the UCC (Unitarians Considering Christ), that made made me “almost” acceptable. According to the Formula of Agreement (was that born out of desperation or cooperation?), an ordained UCC pastor could serve a Lutheran Church. I was not ordained; I had served UCC churches under a license that was renewed every so often, depending on when the association got serious about such things. That license (and 15 years of experience, of administering sacraments) meant nothing in the eyes of my “new” denomination. But because I declared that ordination was right around the corner, and because of the awesome promises the calling congregation made, I was installed in an actual ceremony straight out of the cranberry hymnal.
Then the crash: at my ordination interview (one per person, I found out later) I gave all the wrong answers. What does ordination mean to you? It means that after all these years of caring for everyone else’s faith, I can care about my own. I may have mentioned an invalid husband. And in a burst of hubris, I claimed that my new congregation could not survive without me. I apologized for my arrogance, but even if God’s self did not believe it, my congregation did.
I also gave wrong answers for atonement theory (nobody in the thirty years with that organization had ever mentioned atonement theory.) Crucifixion—sure on Good Friday. I gave the wrong answers for who is God, what is the Bible? I was basing my answers on the convocations I had attended with colleagues—-Crossan, Borg, Brueggemann, for crying out loud!
I was brutally and suicidally honest. Three days later I received an email (not a phone call, letter or Hallmark card) saying I’d been dismissed from the process. Thirty years of service on every level and I wasn’t good enough. Let me say that in those thirty years of service I had run a program for lay ministry, that I had served on a board that declared yea or nay to candidates like myself. I had learned nothing.
Of course, I stirred up a cloud of sympathetic dust, but that did not take away the fear that my congregation would pay by my losing my authorization. I was on a year by year basis. Now the basis was stripped away—-through my own fault.
I crawled into the Synod office. I had one shred of hope. Fortunately, the AB had that same shred of hope: seminary.
Several months later I could glibly say that for twenty years I had been wishing I could go to seminary. (Like wishing I could learn to line dance.) God heard my wish as a prayer. Prayer answered.
The music has started.
I haven’t ever really been a good student. Just a lucky one. Because I went to college in the 60’s, I had some creative professors who nurtured my creativity and ignored my lack of scholarly preparation and ability. I took a class that might as well have been called “Berkeley Hangouts.” We hung out in Berkeley, California for a month. (I never did learn to inhale.) I took classes in art and created a stunner with six Budweiser cans wired to hang out of a Schlitz quart bottle. “First Buds of Spring.” (Schlitz is so obsolete it’s not in Spellcheck.)
How I turned into a pretty good teacher for quite a few kids was the work of the Holy Spirit. There are probably some who are looking for my unlisted number, but they’re the kind who are looking under the “U’s.” U….un….
Now I’m a pastor. And I’m still a teacher to many of those kids. Now I teach them in two arenas: Facebook and the funeral home. I have buried (short for officiated at a funeral) students, their grandparents, their parents, their children. Our relationships have developed into confidant, political role model (Jesus made me do it.), comforter, drinking partner (coffee, beer, doesn’t matter). At one time, I was declared most hated teacher by some students. That changed when I realized that Genesis 1 is right: we are all created in the image and likeness of God. Not just me. Every kid who stole my keys, drew obscene images on my posters, threatened my own children. And every kid who came to me to be safe, to be happy, every kid that laughed at my jokes, every kid that still remembers that 10th grade book report or the sword fights in the wrestling room (no academic teacher used the wrestling room more than I did—mostly reenacting certain scenes from Romeo and Juliet.)
Sometimes we wrote poetry. A daughter read her mother’s poetry at her mother’s funeral—-I’m pretty sure the font looked like it came from a typewriter back in the seventies in the format assigned in my class.
Now I am a pastor—-and a student.
The pastor part has been a natural for me—-only because of thirty years of teaching and being an A+ church member.
I hold my parishioners in my heart and in my hands. We are sinners, so we sin from time to time. We also confess and receive absolution. We come together not out of habit or social convention, but because we need each other, we count on each other. We are, in the vocabulary of a quilter, a scrappy quilt. We are the leftovers of other congregations. Some of our patches are brand new, some are recycled, some are authentic thirties, forties, fifties prints. We are flannel and polyester and cotton and silk. We are neutrals, darks and lights. And frankly, we haven’t totally stitched up a recognizable classic quilt pattern; we change from Log Cabin to Dresden Plate to Baby Blocks to Flying Geese.
We’re taking a step in choosing at least a foundation for our quilt. To fit in with the accepted and acceptable polity of just about every denomination, we are firming up our membership list. On the last Sunday in January, we well welcome EVERYONE PRESENT into membership at Hope Church in Dixon, Iowa. Each of us will say the words that separate us from the rest of the world and unite us with the rest of the Church.
Because I am learning from my upcoming Systemics 1 Class that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is most respected among Christian denominations, we will be using those words as the basis of our confession. (I’ll call it The Nicene Creed so I don’t have to mispronounce it.)
What is it like to be a student at my age? I have survived, that is, received credit for three classes. Thirteen to go. I have mentors, and liaisons, and advisors and supervisors.
I am pushing myself. But I am not pushing myself to be the best or the smartest or cleverest or even the funniest. I am pushing myself to listen, question a little, listen a lot more.
I am pushing myself to finish my classes before “something happens.” What could that be? I don’t know.
I don’t want this to be my last career. I still want to be an artist.
Artist or not, that will be a calling set up by the Holy Spirit, just as wife, mother, teacher, friend, pastor have been arranged by the Holy Spirit.
In the last years of his life, Dad chose Galatians 5: 22-23, the fruit of the spirit, as his guiding scripture. In 2015, he chose patience. My firs thought was that I wished he’d chosen that in 1967. However, he needed patience more in 2015. He was spending most of his time sitting in a chair, not on a tractor seat. After more than 80 years, first on the back of the pony that guided his mother’s plow through the garden, later, on a big orange tractor with more horsepower than would fit in one barn if it were actual horses, he had been in charge. In those last years, he needed patience to get through each day letting God be in charge. Not that he ever doubted God was in charge; he had assumed that God had delegated a lot of the day-to-day operations to him. He was right. He never forgot, though, that God was the real power behind every living thing, behind every breeze, behind every successful harvest. God was the one who kept the rain away until the last load was in the barn. God was the one who blessed the birthing of all creatures. And when despair conquered hope, God was there to listen.
This week, I met with my mentor for the first time. The hard questions begin. What do I believe? What do I have to believe? How can I keep the red flags to a minimum. If I have any fears, it is that I am not suited to be a Lutheran pastor.
After today (Sunday, Janaury 13) that worry has decreased significantly. I went to church this morning, but because of bronchitis, I did not participate. Anne-Marie led the entire service and did so with a faithfulness that was inspiring. After church, Tony led us in Bible study through Genesis 1. His passion and enthusiasm were mesmerizing, as is his knowledge. (He went to seminary for 6-7 years because he didn’t know which career to pursue.)
So, let the Holy Spirit lead…my arrogance has been knocked down to neutral, if not reverse.
My fears for the future are alleviated. Hope Church will be fine. Who is in charge? Not me. God has delegated some very important duties to me, but it’s not all on my shoulders. The Keys to the Kingdom is a term not much used, but I think I was claiming them for myself. God forgive my arrogance. God be in my hands and heart and mind, in my cries and in my laughter, in my loving and living. Amen.
John 8:12-20 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
12 Once again Jesus spoke to the people. This time he said, “I am the light for the world! Follow me, and you won’t be walking in the dark. You will have the light that gives life.”
13 The Pharisees objected, “You are the only one speaking for yourself, and what you say isn’t true!”
14 Jesus replied:
Even if I do speak for myself, what I say is true! I know where I came from and where I am going. But you don’t know where I am from or where I am going. 15 You judge in the same way that everyone else does, but I don’t judge anyone. 16 If I did judge, I would judge fairly, because I would not be doing it alone. The Father who sent me is here with me. 17 Your Law requires two witnesses to prove that something is true. 18 I am one of my witnesses, and the Father who sent me is the other one.
19 “Where is your Father?” they asked.
“You don’t know me or my Father!” Jesus answered. “If you knew me, you would know my Father.”
20 Jesus said this while he was still teaching in the place where the temple treasures were stored. But no one arrested him, because his time had not yet come.
John 1:1-9 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
1 In the beginning was the one who is called the Word.
The Word was with God and was truly God.
2 From the very beginning the Word was with God.
3 And with this Word, God created all things.
Nothing was made without the Word.
Everything that was created 4 received its life from him, and his life gave light to everyone.
5 The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out.
6 God sent a man named John, 7 who came to tell about the light and to lead all people to have faith.
8 John wasn’t that light.
He came only to tell about the light.
9 The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world.
We, here at Hope, represent the Light of the World. We are not wired for electricity. We aren’t born with cords or switches or light bulbs. But we provide light in dark places.
I had an interesting phone call the other day. The council arranged for the church number to ring into my cell phone. That means that anytime someone calls Hope Church, they get an answer—-from me.
The gentleman on the other end gave me his name and then asked if he could meet with me. I don’t think he really knew where our church was and of course he didn’t know where I was.
He was in a dark place.
He was about to be deployed, with little warning, and the arrangements he had made for his family’s housing had fallen through. He had made other arrangements, but the home wasn’t available for another week. He was desperate. This was way out of my range of experience, but I know people. My cousin is a counselor employed at the Arsenal by the Army. I called him, got his permission (I owe him a nice dinner now) and his phone number and called the soldier back. I gave him Scott’s number and said that Scott knew how to help him. I also gave him some ideas about where else to get help. His army chaplain had given him a list of numbers and we were the first one he called.
We represented light in the midst of his darkness.
Now, that could have been a bogus call. He didn’t call my cousin. He did text me last night, to thank me. Nonetheless, we still represented a light, a hope, in the midst of darkness. That doesn’t change anything.
Many times, we don’t get a reward for being a light in the darkness. That makes some Christians mad.
When I was an active member of another congregation, we were called upon to host refugees from Hurricane Katrina. At the time, we had an empty parsonage for sale, so it seemed like a match made in heaven. Our members had a great time bringing in furniture and bedding. One mother and daughter brought a whole basketful of shampoo and cosmetics and hair-bows for the twin high school age girls. We welcomed them in every way we could. The girls went to school. We invited the family into our homes for holidays. We helped the father get his elderly mother into a nearby nursing home. We were so welcoming. But when the family never came to church, and the father refused to get a job, our members were hurt. I personally got a scolding at the annual meeting. Fourteen years later, most of us tell each other that we did the right thing, even though we were not particularly appreciated.
But still, we were light in the darkness, and we acted as such.
Another time, a member had major surgery, and with four children and a busy husband, needed meals brought in. We set up a schedule. Some of our members refused to help because the mother had burned a few bridges. Thankfully, some were still able to be a light in the darkness for that family.
My point is that we can’t just hang around like stars. Being a light in the darkness is not a passive position.
The light is not of our own making. Our light is simply the reflection of the light of the world, Jesus.
Every so often I get a call from a funeral home. Someone has died and the family wants a Christian burial, or at least something familiar and traditional that will help them in the grief process. Whether the family knows it or not, they are seeking the Light of the World, the Light that only Jesus can give.. The care I give is a mere reflection of the light of Jesus.
The phone call from the soldier put me in uncharted territories. God’s people have often found themselves in uncharted, unfamiliar places with no previous experience to draw upon. Yet even in those awkward and frightening places, God is always present.
We have all walked in uncharted, unmapped territories. In times of loss, of grief, of challenge, we can hide in the darkness or we can seek the light. Hiding in the darkness is a real temptation. When we are afraid, when we distrust what is happening around us, it seems safer to bury ourselves in the little bit of familiar we do know and hide from the light that can pull us from the darkness to whole-hearted living.
Sometimes those uncharted territories are places of joy. Best practice is to be accompanied by Jesus on these roads, too. In my own experience, joy, good luck, good times, call it what you will, makes me think the World is on my side, that I’m in a great position to call the shots. And then when the good luck runs out, when circumstances change, then I try to fix things myself. Big mistake. If I insist on Jesus walking with me all the time, I’m not as likely to walk in the wrong direction.
Have you ever stopped at a friend’s house or gone to a party, expecting an ordinary good time? And then something happens, wild and crazy or stupid and dangerous, and suddenly the good time turns strange and you find yourself stranded in another city in a houseful of strangers or you’re in no shape to drive or the person you came with has left with someone else or you can’t remember where you parked your car…. the ways of the world can sneak up on us and turn our self-sufficient, independent lives into chaos or shame or anger.
We can play Monday quarterback and go over all the things we should have done. Or we can walk in the Light all the time.
Jesus is the Light of the World. The only way people in darkness can see that light is as it is reflected by each one of us. The light of the world is visible only through us.
Sometimes it is easy to reflect that light. Sometimes it is scary to be the light, the most visible, the brightest, among all the darkest.
An easy time to be the Light is at the Fish Fry. It may seem like just a nice gesture, or it a unnecessary amount of work, but when we spread our desserts on that big round table, they are like little lanterns, casting a new light on people who are well enough, rich enough, confident enough to come into a room of friends and strangers for some food and some conversation. We are not the only Christians there, of course. But, nonetheless, our light shines. Let us remember, with a teaspoon of humility, that it is the light of Jesus that we are sharing and not necessarily the glowing reputation of our baking.
One of the plays I used to share with my students was The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. One of my favorite lines comes in the last act of that lovely play. Portia, the heroine of the play, is reflecting on the events of the characters as she notices a candle burning a distance away. She observes:
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world
(Portia, V:i The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)
How far pieces of cake have shown a light in our own community. How far bottles of water have shown a light in our community. How far a phone call, how far a visit, how far cans of soup and boxes of crackers, how far a shiny new steeple, how far our very presence casts a Light, the Light of the World into dark corners beyond our reckoning.
Never take for granted what and whom you represent. You are not just a good person. You are a reflection of the the eternal Goodness, of the glorious, resurrected Goodness, the Light of the World.
My prayer is that when someone sees any of us, they see the Light of the World. May we be the hands and feet and smiling faces of Jesus wherever we go. Amen.