Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Broken Hallelujah

A few months ago, when our youth group learned about David and Bathsheba, one of the kids said - oh, it's like that song. He was remembering a verse from Leonard Cohen's 1984 song, Hallelujah.

"You saw her bathing on the roof" was the lyric. It refers to King David lusting after Bathsheba. The same sinning King David wrote Psalms in our Holy Scripture. Sin and grace reside together in"the baffled king composing Hallelujah."

I knew the song because a few years back my younger brother made me a CD with the Jeff Buckley version. I fell in love with it immediately. This time around, I'm noticing how heartbreaking it is and how hopeful. It intertwines those two realities - longing and fulfillment, love and heartache, sorrow and hope.

I am moved by the Cohen song because he gets something about this faithful life that I need to remember: it's not simple. It's not all arrival or victory and sometimes it's terribly hard. But sometimes it's terribly fulfilling. It's always resounding with grace.

"There's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah."

Watching our youth sing Hallelujah, I imagine all the heartache, longing, fears and sorrow that echo inside of them. They pour them out into this song and I find I can pour mine out too. And in the end, what's left is "nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

So Pastor Sarah, can we hear it? Yep - at church tomorrow (8:30 and 11) and also online. There are loads of versions - the most popular is Rufus Wainwright's for Shrek. But I'm taken with a video with Leonard Cohen singing that I found on Utube. It's cheesy, but I love it. Also, to read more about the process of this song (it took him 5 years to write), check out this interesting interview with Leonard Cohen.


Friday, January 23, 2009

What can the church learn from the Obama campaign?

I started this a long time ago. My thoughts aren't complete, but before the lessons of the Obama campaign fade, I want to post it. Regardless of your politics, most would agree that the Obama campaign was successful (he won) and innovative.

I've thought about how much the church could learn from it. I've talked about this casually in a couple of pastor's circles. Somewhere an enterprising church-lover is probably writing the book. Great. I'll read it. I'm going to start a list here of things I learned as a pastor from observing that campaign. Please weigh in with what you think the church can learn.

1) People had ownership. The campaign made every person's contribution count. Along with noting the record amounts raised, the media repeatedly commented on the total number of people giving time and money.

The campaign took a big risk reneging on their promise to take federal campaign money, but the end result was that more individuals took ownership. They gave time, money, energy, and soul. Many Obama volunteers paid for months of volunteering out of their own pockets.

The result? After the election, people could say: WE did it.

The church sometimes begs people to give time or the money without giving ownership. When people have ownership, they give their hearts. Money follows hearts. In a political campaign, as in a church, if you have someone's heart, you really don't need to worry about the rest.

2) Non-cynical vision. Obama cast a vision and projected that he really believed it. What's more, his vision basically just recast America's vision. His speeches pulled in tens of thousands of people who came to hear what they already knew. The formula: a) Obama's story was possible because of America; b) as Americans we have a great history and tradition and c) we can be excited about the future. There wasn't a shred of cynicism about his vision, even when it got quite grand.

His ability to cast a non-cynical vision that resonated with people came through careful knowledge of our foundations (he's a constitutional scholar) the belief that despite all the challenges we've seen since, our future can be secure because of who we are.

The church is most effective when our vision is non-cynical, aka: hopeful.

We can even follow his formula: a) proclaim how our lives are possible because of our faith; b) remind people who they are as people of faith (based on scripture and tradition) and c) tell each other that despite all the sin in our history and our lives, the future is full of promise.

3) Community organizing. The principles that guide community organizing were at work in the campaign.It was based in one-on-one encounters with people who listened and cared. The agenda was set by hearing the reality of the people. The campaign grew out of relationships and it took off organically (keep in mind that organic things are highly organized). This isn't the big speech part of the campaign, but the small, living room/coffeehouse/dorm basement meetings where passions and concerns were honestly shared.

Key is that #2 and #3 - the grand vision and the careful listening - go hand in hand. Churches can only cast as large a vision as the smaller inter-personal work can sustain.

4) Belief. Obama and his campaign never wavered in their belief that they could transform the country through the political process. Whether they can remains to be seen, but I heard people believing in Obama and our country in a way I wished people believed in Christ and the church.

People joke about him as a messiah figure, but it's because he renewed faith in politics for many people who'd lost it. For those who believed his message, he didn't just talk a good speech, he delivered. He gave people a reason to believe.

The lesson: even people who have lost all faith can find it when something to believe in comes their way. The church's faith is a great gift that becomes greater when we show that we believe it.

5) Simple, consistent technology. The campaign ruffled feathers by not making yard signs easily available, but it realized that yard signs don't reach people like the web. You couldn't participate in the campaign without giving an email address. I joined both Obama and McCain's campaign's email lists. Obama's were much more consistent and simpler to follow. Each communication indicated a clear need and made me know exactly where my money or time would go. With a click of a button, I could sign up for events and get calls. The technology was important, but it wasn't difficult to use.

Churches are often slow to enter the digital age. User-friendly technology will help us innovate in our web ministry and reach more people without leaving too many techno-phobes behind.

6) Relax and trust. Obama often seemed relaxed, and his campaign did too. They worked hard - no one could question that. But their hard work didn't seem anxiety driven. It seemed like a labor of love. They projected an image that they trusted their own message and capabilities.

It's remarkable that the church, which is built by God and has God to trust, often fails to project that same relaxed, trusting image.

Those are just some lessons that come to my mind - there are doubtless many many more lessons for the church to learn. I know that at least a few other people will want to comment. Please do so...I want to hear from you!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Creative maladjustment

In church on Sunday I encouraged the congregation to read MLKs Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We gave out copies and I hope at least a few people read it (or read it again). If you did, please let me know what you thought.

As part of my MLK celebration, I went to a community service event sponsored by the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. Like many such service projects, it was short on service. But that's not LVC's fault - not at all. The work was short because they had such a big turn-out. Far more people came than were expected. I filled one disaster relief box. It took less than five minutes. But at the end of the hour, hundreds of boxes had been made. There was a spirit of fellowship and inspiration.

For me, the best part of the day was catching up with people that remind me that cynicism isn't all there is. Unplanned, I ended up at an event at Sojourners where Vincent Harding spoke. This was the first time I'd heard of him, but I'm eager to check out his work on MLK's shift from working primarily on civil rights to expanding to do poverty and then anti-war work.

I felt blessed to be in Harding's presence and enlivened by a community based in hope. The beloved community. Harding quoted MLK widely, including a call for creative maladjustment. Love that term. Creative maladjustment. For MLK, it meant creatively refusing to adjust to a society that treated him as less than fully human. Its a Jesus-y kind of idea, to creatively maladjust to those elements in the world that are counter the good news of God's love. Where in our world does following Jesus mean that we should creatively maladjust too?

Friday, January 16, 2009

invitation to a garden party.

Hi all - just a little report - still no consensus on the garden location, but it doesn't seem to be stopping much right now. One of two locations will emerge soon as the right place.

Last night we talked about whimsy and gathering space. A playplace in the garden for kids to dig. Inspiring bible quotes painted in bright colors on the fence posts. We shifted between talking details (type of soil, measurements of the beds) to dreaming (how to involve as many people as possible, how to make it fun.).

Key word: Joy. Joy's a theme that keeps emerging. I think that true joy is a gift from God to let us know we're on a good track. If our garden becomes a burden, it's probably not worth doing. But the way we were talking last night, it could be a place of real joy.

Pastor Lee Schray asked us last night: Why work when you can party? Our garden as a celebration of God's goodness. One big garden party.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A garden's bottom line?

We're meeting tonight to plot the garden. I have these little orange flags on my desk and they're ready to be driven into the ground. We need a spot that balances light, visibility, and decent soil all without clearing trees or creating an eyesore in the fallow months. (possible site in photo - back of parking lot).

Our fruitful field is a project that I feel more and more passionate about as it grows.

But I admit some nervousness about it. In a church where we pride ourselves on using our money and time wisely, what's the benefit of a garden? We plan to give away at least some of what we raise. But with the amount of time and seed money we'll invest, we'd be able to buy organic veggies for all the food shelves in town.

We're not gardening to save on food. This community garden will take about $250 in start up costs. It will take people's energy and time. Cash is tight and we are pinching our pennies. So why invest in a new initiative that won't generate revenue?

Like many things that make spiritual sense, environmental sense, faithful sense, a community garden doesn't make economic sense.

But hey - we're the church! We're careful stewards of our money, but we have some strange ideas about what makes economic sense here. Certainly no one is paying my salary because I'm making them money. We don't teach other people's children because we're paid. We don't gather for worship because we know it will make a profit.

There's a different bottom line at work here. It's the life abundant.

Community. Connection. Peace. Fresh air. The joy of watching something grow. The satisfaction of outwitting the deer. The delight of giving the fruit of your labor away for free. The casual conversation that happens while weeding. The unmistakable flavor of a tomato plucked off the vine.

Even if that tomato costs $20 in manure, soil and labor, it's worth it. Okey -back to the map. Hope to eat a tomato from our ground in August. That's a miracle, no?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Report from Gaza

I just heard on the radio that Joe the Plumber - you know, that star of presidential debate #3 - is going to be reporting from the Gaza strip. I sure hope it's a joke, but I have a feeling it's not.

The situation in Israel and Palestine is complex and confusing. The history of these conflicts dates back thousands of years, or 60 years, or 20 years, or a couple of years, depending on how you look at it. Joe will report on the average Joes, so said the news story. Fine. A personal story can powerfully relate an on-the ground reality. But for average Joes (and Sarahs) over here, understanding the current escalation requires reporting that can put an individual experience into a broader historical, political and yes, religious perspective. Call me a snob, but I have a feeling Joe the Plumber isn't up for it.

In Sunday School last week our High School students and adults discussed the conflict as a community. We watched the church's video Peace Not Walls . Though it's a bit institutionally produced for my taste, it's well worth watching to get background, see a possible strategy for a peaceful solution and hear a convincing argument for why American Christians should care. If you have 28mins, I recommend it.

Based on the video, we discussed whether Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship the same God and what difference that could make in creating peace; why land and religion are so tied together in Judaism; the significance of walls (from a German who remembers the Berlin Wall); and more.

My oh so insightful comment was "I think the ground rule should at least be: stop killing each other." Yes that's an easy thing to say when I have nothing personally invested and haven't experienced the devastating injustice and violence that each side claims. But there's at least some basis for thinking of that as a good ground rule (see the Ten Commandments, #5). I can't imagine Joe the Plumber is really going to do much better.

For a fresh, folksy, and yes, faithful perspective on the region, thankfully we don't need Joe the Plumber. Half of the bishops of the ELCA are currently there, including Richard Graham, the Metro DC Synod Bishop and Mark Hanson, the ELCA Presiding Bishop. I've never heard either of these men say anything I didn't trust as thoughtful, intelligent, careful, grounded and faithful. For the bishops' blog, click here. And please keep them and the region in our prayers.

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...