Words That I Need To Say

What I am about to suggest is something that might be considered heresy. At least it is not the sort of thing that a pastor might want to admit, given that we see our sermons as the Word of God, and consider the active party in much of what happens in terms of faith to be a matter of the Holy Spirit. But you see, it affects me when you are not here. This is a small enough place that I can literally see and feel your absence.

This past Sunday morning, I looked out on the congregation as I was about to read the Gospel and did the silent assessment that I have been undertaking on Sunday mornings lately. Were there enough children present for a children’s message? Given the way I approach preaching, and seeing that there were not, it is not really all that traumatic of a reality for me. I simply incorporate the children’s portion of the message back into the part intended for the adults.

Still, that you are not here is troublesome for me. I came to this parish because I was increasingly sensing a call to minister to families. I suppose that is a little odd that an almost 60 year old would see that as a ministry niche that he might be called to but it was and still is. I have sensed for some time now that we live in a time when families are increasingly becoming spiritually adrift. So much competes for your time and attention. I came here because I sensed this was a place that was not so far post-Christian, that there was still hope for some of the old structures and that there would be the time and interest in developing some new ones. I have found myself wondering about that lately.

Worship has always been the highest profile expression of a parish pastor’s ministry. It is the place where each week, the Gospel is proclaimed in the context of people who have gathered. Don’t get me wrong. People still gather. It is just that you are not usually there and it has me wondering.

My approach to worship is to make it assessable and family friendly. My sermons are short enough that even the most drowsy ought not fall asleep. I deliberately choose not to preach from the pulpit so that my sermons might be more like conversations then dissertations. I sometimes wear a robe and a stole, but often I do not. I never wear clergy shirts. All of this is done to lower the formality of the affair. I am not sure if any of this really works, but it is my wish that worship be approachable, assessable, and informal enough that it is not something that is stressful to attend.

It is true enough that worship is more or less predictable and maybe not as exciting as it could be. Sometimes my sermons miss the mark. The hymns are sometimes not well known and too slow. The contemporary service isn’t all that contemporary and it’s at 8:30 in the morning.

I come from a different reality than many of you. For the family I grew up in, and the family that Kathy and I raised, worship was the central touchstone of our Christian faith. I understand that there are plenty who question the centrality of worship in the digital era in which we live. I see busy families with all sorts of competing commitments of which worship is simply one among many.

That is a paradigm shift for me, but paradigms can and do shift. What I am not willing to do is to sit back and gently head toward retirement watching the church die for lack of asking what we can do to make it relevant in your lives. How and what should that look like? That is something that we will have to discern together.







I Didn’t Think I Would Be One Of Those Fathers…

I did not think I would be one of those fathers who would cry it his daughter’s wedding. I am not sure if this is because Kaia is the first of our children to get married, if it is because I was completely outside of my considerable wedding experience, or if it is just what happens when your child marries. I do not know. I always tell couples to be ready for the range of emotions that a wedding brings—happiness and sadness, joy and mourning. I just thought I would have been somehow immune from this reality, having officiated at more than 100 weddings in the past. I was wrong.

Perhaps some of that is explained in this wedding experience being something completely different. I never have been a part of a wedding that began with a procession lead by a couple of dancing lions and ended with a fire-breathing Sichuan face changing opera performer. Or a wedding that involved my daughter riding in a Chinese wedding sedan, jumping over fire, a 3 fold bowing ritual, a tea ceremony, a hair cutting ceremony, and a place where we threw peanuts and dates on the bride and grooms’ heads.

The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.
The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.

This wedding was a mixture of the playful and the serious. And while most of it I did not really understand, there were some surprising elements. Kaia and Siheng knelt and bowed, first to the god of heaven and the god of earth, then they bowed to their parents, and then they bowed to each other. That seemed oddly familiar. I do not think I have done a wedding where I did not talk about the contribution God makes, the significance of family and friends make, and the commitment made to each other in my sermon.

There has never been a Facebook post I have made that has had this many likes than the one I posted after the wedding, but here is the thing: there actually have been a relatively small number of my clergy Facebook friends who have hit the “like” button. I understand this. This is a wedding that is way outside of our religious norms—being more-or-less secular, celebrated in a communist country on the other side of the world. This is a wedding that is way outside of my cultural and religious experience as well, but for me it was given with my being Kaia’s father. I think parents always find this out that about their children. They have their own values, make their own decisions, and they follow their own paths. Cross cultural experiences get so complicated so fast that they pretty much defy your ability to make any kind of sense of them. I think that is true for the most part, but even more so if you constrain yourself to the forms and procedures with which you are familiar.

As a pastor I meet with couples and we talk about what might and might not be in their service. While I am the one who sort of “maintains” the tradition, I am pretty open to the possibilities, there are limits: I have a problem with over head wedding veils. I make sure that the bride knows that while her father might walk her down the aisle, she is not her father’s to “give away.” I pretty much refuse to present the couple as Mr. and Mrs. (insert groom’s last name), because she is not a subset of him.   Still in the end, weddings are about a shared commitment, and at least in this world, I am reminded once again that I am not the gate keeper.

The World Has Gotten A Lot Smaller

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forebear to shine,
But God, who called me here below
Will be forever mine.

The plane was descending into San Francisco. It was one of those days when the clouds were thin and patchy. This was not a destination; it was a stop along the way. The uncertainty of everything was flashing through my mind as the verse above was playing through my headphones. While I am not really a fan of Christian music, that revised last verse from the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace was powerful as we entered that final descent, an experience that always makes me a little anxious. It was the end of the second flight of a three-flight day, and I already had plenty of time to reflect. It has been a challenging time for me lately–maybe it was that I was not exactly looking forward to the 23 hours of travel time, maybe it was that my youngest daughter is getting married, maybe it is the pretty obvious anxiety I have been carrying this late winter and spring.

If I am honest, China has never been on the list of places I would like to visit, and as we were chasing the sun to that place on the complete opposite side of the world, all of the propaganda about air pollution and all of my own stereotypes of what it would be like to visit the most highly populated country in the world were flooding my mind. But, when your daughter majors in Mandarin, falls in love with a Chinese guy, and moves to the People’s Republic of China, a trip like this is bound to happen. And to be honest, the sun has yet to shine at least so far and I have never been in a place with so many people in my entire life.

Still, in my mind’s eye, this is not what I expected. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, I was expecting something more austere and perhaps more collective, but what I see here right now looks more consumer driven even than the country in which I live, and in the end I find myself seeing more in common than I see different in this place, for better and for worse

I am finding an odd sense of connection that I was not anticipating, in a place where I am not only out of my element, but I am also unable to verbally communicate. We spent the evening with Kaia’s husband’s parents. The food, which was obviously “comfort” food to them was exotic to us (but if you know me, I like exotic when it comes to food!). We have a couple of English/Chinese speakers in our midst but direct communication has been impossible, still I have always known communication has to do with much more than what you say to one another. So I feel connected in ways that I was not really expecting.

On the other hand, my phone rings every once and a while, and though I let it go to voicemail, it always is someone back in the Midwest who has no idea that I am on the other side of the world. I electronically followed to Tripoli Jr. High track meet from Chonqing, China (I am thinking I am the only one to have done that). Dealt with a couple of work related things. And posted pictures for a wide group of friends back in the USA to see of what we did today!

In the end, the world has gotten a lot smaller and more connected, both in general and for me specifically in the last few days. Of course there is something lost in all of this, it is getting difficult on to impossible to truly get away from it all. On the other hand, connections have become global, right now and for me literally. It is not really a matter of whether this is god or bad, it just is.