Sunday, August 24, 2008

Busman's Holiday

I love the Holy Spirit.
I love the infinite ways in which worship and fellowship,
prayer and community are birthed
and in turn give birth to new life.
I love scripture.
I love old hymns.
I love the ways our legacies of faith bring us together
and then send us forth.

I love worship as a collective and communal “sacred act,” a moment in time that will never be the same again. We come together in a sacred act of worship unique to the time and space and people gathered. Even when we gather again at a similar time and place, the gathering of people is never quite the same; the events of our lives and world – trivial and triumphant, solemn and stunning – have transformed us a bit since last we gathered.

In recent weeks, I have loved hearing a variety of pastor friends contemplate, wrestle with and, ultimately, proclaim scripture passages. I have marveled at the many – likely, infinite – ways the same scripture passage moves through the soul and experience and mission and call of different preachers.

This week I had fun listening to Molly and Elbert in San Diego and Jeri from Mesa, Arizona, talk about what to do with those Egyptian midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders that they kill male Hebrew babies during childbirth. (Elbert chose to start the passage later, drawing a friendly chastisement for omitting Shiphrah and Puah from Molly who said we don’t get to preach enough about wise women in the Bible.) Also this week, on the church web page of a pastor I needed to call for my annual appointment with my District Committee on Ordained Ministry, I noticed that her sermon title for the passage was “Uppity Women.” At that point, I stopped to consider just how many preachers approach the same scripture each week, telling the human faith story, all informed by their own experience, their own understanding, their own congregation’s traditions.

Molly and I had fun this week creating a big storybook to use this fall from which to read and tell the Exodus epic that begins with the tale of the midwives, and I was sorry I could not be at our Water’s Edge worship today to see the story unfold through her reading and telling and preaching. Instead, I’m in Grove, Oklahoma, with my grandmother. After living on her own through her 90th year, she moved to a skilled nursing facility this week after a month’s stay in the hospital where a bone break lead to the revelation that she has cancer throughout her bones.

I have been to a number of churches here as my grandmother has journeyed in faith through several congregations in her 25 years in Grove. Today, for the first time in all my visits, I was left on my own for worship. Grandma and I had planned that I would attend the church service with her at 2 p.m. at the nursing facility. So, I decided to attend First United Methodist Church of Grove in the morning. It was a nice service, with some thoughtful preaching. The pastor had just begun a sermon series on “The Road Back” about what happens to us after mountaintop experiences. His text was not those uppity midwives from the lectionary but the story of the mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus, the Gospel story I preached on the only time I have preached from the pulpit of our main sanctuary. And that reminded me, midway through worship, that there are only three weeks left until I preach in the sanctuary again. Probably time to prepare!

After church, when I got to my grandmother’s room, she was napping soundly, so I left her a note and went to a coffee shop, floral shop, sandwich shop, chocolate shop that is the only place I know of in Grove to get free Wi-Fi. I went to the UMC’s website to download the texts and background and a few key commentaries on the text I will preach on Sept. 14 for the sermon I submit for consideration to the Board of Ordained Ministry. That sermon will be on doubt, preached on Christian Education Sunday, based on a passage from Romans about dealing well with differences.

Back at Grove Nursing Center, my grandmother was out in a common room in a wheelchair, admiring some baby birds that had hatched in a small, enclosed aviary. When it was close to 2, we wheeled over to the area where church was to be but only saw one other person. At 2 o’clock, my grandmother announced the time, almost as a call to worship. After five more minutes, I decided to go check with the activities director to make sure we were in the right place. We were, but the church that was supposed to provide the service was not. So, I offered to lead worship if they wanted, and the center’s staff gratefully accepted. I went to get my glasses and Grandma’s Bible, and they began to assemble the residents who enjoy worship.

I have been amazed all my life – since my high school years – at how every experience or teaching or even conversation I have had has prepared me for whatever I needed to do next. It didn’t matter how different or seemingly unconnected that past knowledge and experience was, it came together in the present in ways that might not be imaginable when the individual elements were absorbed into my experience or understanding. (Not unlike the concrescence of process theology, but in a practical, anthropological theology kind of way. ;)

And so it was today.

As I walked back for my glasses and the Bible, I tried to consider whether I knew the Romans I had just reviewed at lunch well enough to test drive it. But I decided that a sermon on doubt, while perfect for Christian Education Sunday, wasn’t the best topic for some folks who might be gathered for reassurance and hope. Then I considered what I knew about the lectionary for this week and remembered Shiphrah and Puah. I decided that their story, while wonderful, might not be the best way to serve this impromptu call to proclamation either. I did smile, though, at the thought of preaching a liberation sermon in a nursing home. Some day, that might be just what the Spirit calls for.

I returned to the Transfiguration story, mixing a bit of this morning’s message from FUMC Grove with my own from earlier this year at FUMC San Diego. And I thought about the hymns I know by heart that were my staples during hospital and homebound visits in my first two years working in the church: Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, and In the Garden. I needed songs not just that I knew by heart but that others might because we didn’t have a pianist and we only had one hymnal. And then it came to me, the parallels between the mountaintop transfiguration and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary in the garden.

By this time about a half dozen residents had gathered on sofas and chairs and wheelchairs. We prayed, we sang Amazing Grace, and I read the Transfiguration story from Mark’s Gospel and retold it a time or two to illuminate various verses. I segued from the voice of God saying: “This is my son, my beloved, LISTEN TO HIM,” to In the Garden, a song about walking and talking with Jesus and hearing him. Then I told the story of how C. Austin Miles came to write that classic hymn from a meditation on John 20, and then I read John 20. And we prayed.

More and more residents and family members gathered, so, by the time we were singing In the Garden, more than 20 voices ranging in age from one single-digit grandchild to my nonagenarian grandma were singing together. As often had happened on my pastoral care visits, people who seemed non-communicative or in their own world, joined in on the chorus of the familiar hymn.

These words do not begin to do justice to that Spirit-filled, sacred act of communal worship. But it was a powerful time of worship for me. An unwavering reminder to me of my call, a joyous celebration of the faith story and legacy I share with my grandmother, a beautiful creation of community, a gift from God.

And, in a way neither of us could have imagined or would have thought possible, my grandmother got to hear me preach.

That’s the sermon I wish I could record for the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Thanks be to God.


molly said...

good stuff--thanks for sharing!

and the Spirit decided Marian and Wayne should lead storytime, reading my rewrite of Shiphrah and Puah's adventures out of that giant story book.

it was delightful.

i look forward to sharing more worship adventures to come!

Jeri said...

Beautiful words, beautiful experience

Orangeblossoms said...

It is so tender to lead worship where hearts are hungry for love. I love the way you shared this story, the sweetness of it, the love in it....

Marian said...

I loved reading this. I loved it a lot.

Kelli said...

well, it seems that I can't say beautiful and I can't say I loved it because that's already been said. And I agree with those who said them.

What a blessing it was that in a way you got to "concecrate"your grandmother's new home by leading worship there, and marking it with the powerful spirit that moves through you (and all). I pray this experience helped to transform some of the doubt that is always a part of moving especially in transition to a nursing facility. Let the Spirit preach it!

Kelleyness said...

What an incredible experience. So much of your "Karen-ness" got called into that moment. Thoughtfulness, compassion, quick intellect, vocational calling, affirmation of that calling, your personal religious tradition, your hospital chaplaincy...and, I think, the culmination of your time at CST. It has begun to have fruit in the world. i am so happy to have spent our years at seminary together. My world is better for knowing you.

All my love,