Strangely Familiar

Moses is weary. He’s on a journey with no clear destination and just wants to see God. He says, “We don’t want to go a step further if you can’t assure us that You will be with us.” He’s been leading a nation of complaining wayfarers through wilderness and is tired of trying to figure out correct directions with none of the usual road signs.  God has been leading the way—a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night—but Moses yearns to know this God: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…Show my your glory, I pray.” Or, in Modern English parlance, “For Pete’s sake, will you just let me catch a glimpse of you?!”

It makes me think of a memorable dream I had recently. I seldom remember my dreams but I awakened from this one feeling like I had been in it for hours. In the dream I was at the church I previously served. That church has an enormous facility with three floors of classrooms at one section. In the dream I was in charge of leading a memorial service and I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. Somehow there was no easy route on the main floor. I was given the advice that I should go up to the third-floor to cross between two wings to then descend into the sanctuary. I knew that the service should have already started. While anxiously running into dead ends I met up with the custodian. I told him I needed my clergy robe and my notebook. He assured me he could get those for me. I was relieved but still anxious because I was barefoot. Typically my bad dreams have to do with not being able to pull off worship in the right way at the right time. People are waiting and the prelude loops back several times, waiting for me to show up. In the worst worship nightmares I am barefoot, a sign of my vulnerability and humiliation. In this dream my clothing wasn’t suitable for leading worship so I wanted to wear my clerical robe over my clothing. When the custodian did mercifully arrive back by my side he brought some sort of dry cleaning items and not a robe. Useless. The notebook he brought me was not for worship but a cookbook our church had put together some time ago. That was not going to help me with the eulogy! To make matters worse there was an all-male group of musicians in burgundy costumes who were scheduled to rehearse in the sanctuary immediately following the memorial service. So there was a time crunch. Because I wasn’t starting on time we were running late with the service and that was going to be inconvenient for the musicians. Mourners were already gathered for the memorial service, upset that nothing was happening. Yet I was powerless to find my way into the sanctuary in this space that was strangely familiar.

I met by zoom with my spiritual director last week and brought up the dream. She quietly asked me what I thought was the message of the dream. As you might guess, it was not all together apparent! So she helped me examine it.

I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. I have led worship in sanctuaries for 35 years. This is familiar territory for me but I was confused. I had gone back to a church that I served before but I’d forgotten some of the landmarks. It was both strange and familiar. I couldn’t navigate my way into the sanctuary in spite of the guidance of people around me. Because I wasn’t prepared for this situation I wasn’t dressed appropriately for it and, in fact, I didn’t even have shoes to make the journey respectable and more comfortable.

Do you remember what God asked Moses to do when he was called into service? Moses saw the burning bush which was a remarkable spectacle. As he went over to examine it God spoke to him from within the bush. Remove your sandals, Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.

Sometimes God gets our attention when we have forgotten our shoes. Sometimes we are most apt to see God when chaos surrounds us and we lose our way. When we can no longer take refuge in our sanctuary, our safe space, our faith wanes. We find ourselves among a nation of people who are all looking for sanctuary, buzzing around with arguments over masks and political candidates and church programs that have to adapt to survive. But even though we’re sharing space with a lot of people, we’re not really connecting with them. We go into Meijer now and can barely recognize anyone because of our masks. Our goal is to get in and out of the store quickly so that we don’t end up carrying COVID out of the store along with our groceries. So we put our heads down, throw a few items in our cart and run out. We head home feeling more alone than ever. Our grocery trip feels strangely familiar.

Moses has been leading a huge congregation of people at the time of this passage. They’re in the wilderness. They’re complaining. They’re blaming him. They’re picking fights. And Moses is weary. He suggests to God that it might be wise to take good care of these people. “These are your people, God, remember?! Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if other nations who worship other gods saw the Israelites perish in the wilderness because You failed to provide for them?” I find it funny that Moses thinks he can manipulate God by threatening international humiliation if the chosen people languish. Hoping for swift action to keep his people—and himself—sane, he cries out in desperation to God: “Show me Your glory, I pray.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but tensions run high these days. With forfeited agendas, lack of employment, and frazzled parents homeschooling their children,  tempers flare and chaos ensues. Those in leadership positions face unprecedented pressures in making decisions. In today’s climate, there is no way to please all the people all the time. Just ask Governor Whitmer.

In the midst of his leadership crisis (which also happened to be a spiritual crisis) Moses begged God to show him the divine face. Moses somehow knew that being able to see God would give him the strength he needed for another day. Remember how Aaron fashioned an idol for the people in Moses absence last week? We worship most readily that which is in front of us and tangible. Moses wanted just a piece, a tiny piece, of God. He experienced God’s glory on the mountain while his people danced wildly around a golden calf in his absence. When he came down into the valley, he was glowing with God’s presence. They called it the Shekinah glory. The Israelites couldn’t even look at him because his face was so brilliant with holy radiance. “Just give me a bit of that light now please, God, because I’m not sure I can hang on for another moment in this land that has become strangely familiar.”

My dream reflects a COVID reality. I was in familiar territory but I couldn’t find my way. I knew the job I was supposed to do but I couldn’t find the tools to do it. I knew my people were gathered somewhere, waiting to grieve their losses, but I couldn’t get to them. I was dressed inappropriately for a search that had gone on much longer than I could have imagined. I was confused, tense and embarrassed that I wasn’t better prepared. All of this was happening in a place that was strangely familiar: God’s house, Christ’s Church, the place where the Spirit guides those who have lost their way. I woke up before there was any resolution to the challenges my dream posed. I was still stuck in an uncomfortable place with no assurance that I would ever find my way into the sanctuary in time to connect with my people. I was barefoot and missing my eulogy.

This story reminds us that the sacred is all around us. We may not be making it into our churches or offices. We may not be seeing family members from across the country. We probably feel vulnerable in this new world where a virus slams our lives into an indefinite hold pattern. But the colorful trees and bushes are all around us. As many as there are flaming trees filling us with autumn awe, that is how close our God is to us. We remember how it all began for dear Moses, who never wanted the job description God gave him. Almost foreshadowing what was to come, Moses met God in the heat of the desert. A bush was on fire: strangely familiar. But from the bush came a commissioning. “Take off your sandals, Moses, for the ground you are standing on is holy.” The road forked at that moment in his life and Moses partnered up with this strange God. Saying “yes” to the summons didn’t get him out of trouble. It didn’t give him clear directions. It didn’t awaken him from a nightmare with an assurance that everything was fine, after all. It didn’t even allow him, after years of faithful service, to enter the Promised Land along with his people. What his partnership with God gave him was a glimpse of God’s glory, just the backside, mind you! But that was…enough.


Uncle Neil

Neil invited us to visit him in Moline, Illinois. He was excited about a condo he purchased on the Mississippi River. It was near his hometown of Erie and it would allow him to have his own place for extended family visits. Of course, being Neil, it allowed him to serve as host in a town where people were dear to him. He breathed in his childhood history with each breeze off the river. We promised him we would make a road trip to see his new digs.

We made that trip this past September. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to stay with Neil at his condo. Wanting to honor our promise to him, we headed to Moline to visit Neil at his final resting place. He died suddenly of a stroke nearly four years ago. We were deeply saddened. Our history with him went way back and we weren’t ready to let him go. Garrett looked for the names of relatives listed in his obituary. I remembered that he had lots of sisters and that some of his family was at the service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Garrett made contact with a nephew he found on Facebook. The nephew connected us with his mother who lives in Erie and we introduced ourselves. I suspect it’s not very often that a stranger stalks you on Facebook, suggesting you meet them at the graveside of their departed loved one. But that’s what we did and two sisters and one brother-in-law gave us their address. We plugged it into our GPS on a hot Thursday morning and turned on the AC for a five hour drive.

Garrett’s and my first date was to one of Neil’s parties. He was the librarian at the Chicago Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard Theological School. He was an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister but spent his career immersed in books. Garrett met him his first year in seminary and I started my theological education a year later. Garrett got up the courage at the end of one of our Old Testament classes to ask me if I wanted to go with him to Neil’s party. I had settled nicely into the North Side of Chicago but I was game. I was intrigued with this guy who wore red-framed sunglasses and a yellow canvas hat, standing out from other seminarians. The average age of incoming students was 55 and we were three decades younger than that. So it made sense to connect with this displaced Dutchman for a few reasons!

Neil loved to have people over even though he didn’t cook. He was a Harvard grad who was modest but loquacious. It wasn’t about the food or the decorations for Neil. He loved good conversation. He laughed easily. His space was your space and you could bring in any kind of refreshment and he wouldn’t feel insulted. When he had us for dinner he gave us several possible entrees from which to choose: Swedish Meatballs, Lasagna, Stuffed Peppers, or Chicken Cordon Bleu. Once we placed our orders Neil started working them through his microwave. His freezer was always loaded with Stouffer’s frozen dinners and we enjoyed great conversation over Neil’s Melt-a-Meals which he always put onto real plates before serving them. That first date party went longer than I expected. By 1AM we were down to about five people. By 2:30 there were four of us left: this guy who had asked me on a date, Neil, and another new seminarian who left a job as a Red Lobster security guard to pursue ministry. Conversation never waned and we finally ended up at a Golden Nugget Café near my North Side apartment at 5AM. I was dropped off at my place around 6AM, after a hearty meal of pancakes and eggs. “Did you like him,” my roommate asked me later that morning? “Yes,” I said, “but let me get some sleep first!” I also have the distinct memory of walking into a White Castle on the South Side of Chicago at 2AM with Garrett and Neil because sliders sounded good at the time. Neil wore his sunglasses into the elite joint and we got the feeling that we should order and get out quickly.

Neil came to our wedding. He wasn’t afraid to dress with flair and you can see that with his tie. I wonder how many weddings and ordinations he went to over the course of forty years at the two seminaries. Unlike many faculty members, he fraternized with students and became a beloved part of our theological education. When I was expecting our first child we took a trip to Dixon, Illinois with Neil. I don’t remember why we went there but Garrett told me it was to dig into Ronald Reagan’s roots. I remember we stayed at some sort of campground that had rustic cottages. There were two bedrooms, a living room and a sink. We had very little money and it fit within our budget. I remember two things about that trip (and it wasn’t related to any museums we might have seen). We sat around our cabin table getting splinters and playing scrabble. Neil had the first turn of the game. With his crooked grin, he triumphantly laid down all seven of his tiles, spelling out the word TOILETS. He received 50 bonus points for using up all his tiles in one turn plus a tripling of the value of his tiles. We laughed about that for years. The other thing I remember is making my way across a dark campground in the middle of the night, a pregnant mother-to-be who needed to use the toilet in the camp bathroom. The days of using that sort of accommodation in our marriage were short-lived.

After three years of serving a suburban Chicago parish, Garrett and I moved to Grand Rapids with our 15-month old daughter, Lisa. Neil came to visit numerous times. He was an easy guest and interacted readily with our children. I remember Lisa eating a fruit roll-up with a very unnatural turquoise coloration. She was clutching it in her warm hand, eating it while playing. It probably had some hair sticking to it. Neil asked her what it was and she offered it to him. Before I could stop him, he leaned over to her extended hand and took a bite. Ughh! “That’s good!” he exclaimed. Lisa toddled away, happy to have shared. He visited another time with a seminary friend from downstate Illinois. Karen was funny! She threw herself a spinster party when she turned 35. She and Neil agreed that they would marry at age 65 if they hadn’t found anyone else by then. The weekend they came to stay with us our boys had other little boys staying in tents in our backyard. They ran in and out of the house all night, disrupting our conversation and filling our living room with gangly, flying insects. I was horrified as a host but the two of them sat there happily while chaos swirled around them. For two individuals who didn’t have any kids that was extraordinary.

But Neil was one of seven kids. He grew up in farm country. Erie is about twenty minutes from Moline, where Neil bought his condo. Moline is right across the river from Davenport, Iowa. As you drive southwest from Chicago, where he spent his career, the land stretches out in lush fields and stately old barns. Neil traveled “home” often to be with his extended family. He was beloved Uncle Neil to nearly 20 nieces and nephews who, no doubt, offered him molten fruit roll-ups and other delicacies. He left his quiet bachelor pad in Hyde Park to enter effortlessly into the energy of his family in the small town of Erie and the big metropolis of Moline. No wonder he could handle our kids so well. His last visit to us was over Memorial Day weekend in 2016. He stayed with us for four days. So we hit some museums. We ate good meals at our home and in the city. We played games with our grown children. He and I sat on our front porch one morning reading our respective books. When we said goodbye to him we were certain that our next visit would be to his condo on the Mississippi River.

We traveled to Neil’s church in Hyde Park for his memorial service on November 12, 2016. The sanctuary was packed. Various people spoke and we learned that Neil was family not just to us but to countless others. One former seminarian said that Neil kept up with him after he left the Chicago area for ministry. So this former student invited Neil to join him and a few others on a camping trip. Neil said, “Sure.” When Neil met up with the guy and transferred his gear into the guy’s car, he hung a bright, summer suit on the hook in the back seat. His friend laughed and told him he didn’t think they would need a suit at any part of the camping trip. Neil told him that he thought there might be an evening when they would leave their tents or cabins or whatever and go into town, whatever town they would be near, and then it would be nice to have something dressy. The suit traveled with them to their campsite. I don’t know if he found the occasion to wear it but I suspect he did. The point is, Neil didn’t camp. He wasn’t one to go on hikes or put on spandex or sweat pants. He readily agreed to go on this trip because he loved being with people. He had countless good friends whose kids, like ours, knew him as Uncle Neil and offered him prized treats from sticky fingers. And he communed with them.

Neil’s family hosted us well when we stopped by to visit him in the Erie Cemetery. We stood at his gravesite with two sisters and his brother-in-law, sharing memories. We could see where his gift for good conversation came from. The heat index that evening was nearly 100 degrees and the sun shone hot. But we lingered there, feeling like we were honoring our commitment to come see him in his new digs. His brother-in-law told us exactly where his condo was in Moline. After a river boat ride up and down the Mississippi River in Moline we looked for it and found it. We saw the third-floor balcony where he would have brought out a steaming hot plate of Swedish Meatballs, fresh from the microwave. We would have squeezed together on the balcony, overlooking the river of his childhood and talked well into the night.

Happy Birthday, Neily. We miss you.


Holy Revelry

In spite of a menacing virus we have enjoyed some parties in the past months. Many of them have certainly looked different from the pre-COVID parties but they have honored the high points in folks’ lives nonetheless. We did a drive-by parade to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduating high school seniors. On Mother’s Day my family gathered on our front porch, balancing plates of hot food on our knees in 42 degree weather! There have been scaled down weddings held in outdoor sanctuaries. We confirmed twelve young people into the church family in our parking lot in June, giving them individually packaged cupcakes instead of a cake reception with the praise of a whole congregation. We have found ways to mark the high points of each other’s lives even with limitations put in place.

But there have been other sorts of parties as well. In Alabama some young adults threw COVID parties, inviting someone who was infected with the virus. Everyone who attended knew that the first person to contract the coronavirus after the party won a cash prize. Over the summer there were pool parties at private homes where people crowded together, eating and drinking happily, only to later be part of an outbreak of the disease. College coeds, despite warnings, went south over Spring Break. They proclaimed to the TV camera that their mental health was as important as their physical well-being. That sounds good until some of them found themselves hospitalized and, in some cases, on a ventilator because of their careless partying. Some who were interviewed stated between gasps for breath that they hadn’t taken the virus as seriously as they should have.

So why do we throw parties? We enjoy being with others. We like to know we belong. We’re looking for joy. Sometimes we walk away from a party getting out of it what we desired. Other times, the only parting gift is a hangover.

In Exodus 32 we witness a party. A gold sculpture of a calf is centrally placed and people dance around it wildly. Their leader, Moses, ascended Mt. Sinai earlier and the people despair of him ever returning. He is their connection to God. Without him, they feel fearful and lost. They cry out to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and he decides to melt down their jewelry and form an idol that they could both see and touch. The Golden Calf Shindig was an effort at bringing God down into our world. Aaron tries to strip away the mystery of the faith and make God into what the people wanted. In Moses’ absence the Israelites become a self-worshiping community.

False worship is a feast we give ourselves. A couple of years ago our confirmation class went to Temple Emmanuel for their Friday evening Shabbat Worship service. Much of the service was led by a 12-year old young man as a crucial requirement for his bar mitzvah. After a year of study with the Rabbi that culminated his leadership of the worship, the family threw a huge coming-of-age party for their son. Some non-Jewish friends ask their parents to throw a bar mitzvah for them. They want the same kind of joy that was shared amongst the loved ones of their Jewish friend. In some cases, parents granted their wish, throwing lavish parties. But these were devoid of any spiritual significance. No prayerful study went into the celebration, as it did for their Jewish friend. With false worship a gathering closes in on itself. We give ourselves our own nice, alternative world where everything centers around us and God is not on the guest list.

In our worship services God is the host and we are the guests. The scriptures we hear, the prayers we say, the words to the hymns we love point us to God. Participants in our services use their gifts not to hear our applause. They hope that others will meet Jesus through their offering. I remember a little girl dancing around the Advent candles one Christmas Eve because she knew the moment was special. Her family was going to light the Christ candle and she offered her own liturgical dance! That was beautiful, unscripted worship of God! One child in our congregation gave me a picture she had colored in Sunday School. It showed Jesus on the cross, smiling. I asked her why this stick figure of our Savior had such a broad grin. “Because He’s dying to save us from our sin,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. She couldn’t believe that the pastor didn’t know that! Her image of smiling, crucified Jesus was an act of worship! We can tell when someone is “performing” for human accolades and that feels very different from someone who loses him or herself in sacrificial giving in Jesus’ name. God must be central to our worship in order for us to find joy.

We get some background information about who is at the Golden Calf Shindig in The Book of Numbers. In chapter 11 we read about the Israelites crying out to God for meat in the harsh setting of the wilderness. Verse 4 states: “The rabble among them had a strong craving: and the Israelites also wept again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat.’” As the Jews fled from their masters in Egypt, making their way across the parted Red Sea, there were non-Jews who joined them. These were folks who were caught up in the power of God and whose own lives may have been very difficult. So they grabbed onto the Jewish nation, expecting freedom in a new country and an ease to their difficult lives. But they found themselves eking out a living in the desert. With the miraculous parting of the waters nearly forgotten and the trials of nomadic living a daily challenge, the emptiness of these spiritual interlopers became evident. Not unlike the outsiders who have hijacked peaceful protests this summer and turned cities into war zones, these “rabble rousers”, as they’re called in Numbers 11, aren’t anchored in the Jewish faith. Understandably the Jews’ boundaries are not well in place because of the hardship of their daily lives so they are easily led astray by this small but vocal minority.

“Make us gods who will go before us, Aaron”, cry out the folks who have never bowed down to a higher authority. Their idolatry of self leads the Jews to abandon their faith in the God who has just liberated them. Instead they throw a party and worship an inanimate object that has been crafted out of their family jewels.

How do we establish fail-safe boundaries as Christians when our self-absorbed culture has made gods of themselves? How can we find joy at drunken parties where the desire is to get wasted and not connected? Martin Luther describes this challenge in the words to his hymn, A Mighty Fortress: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” When is our revelry holy because God is the object of our praise? When does the party go south because we’ve decided it’s all about us? We live off our own strength, worshiping our own versions of Golden Calves, until our lives fall apart. Then, maybe through a Moses figure who pleads on our behalf, we see God. We are reminded that God never left us. We reorder the broken pieces to our world and find joy!

Karl Barth is the theologian who suggested that our faith requires us to hold the newspaper (or our smart phone now?)in one hand and the Bible in the other. Daily life collides with our faith and our faith helps us sort out the pieces. Barth writes, “We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but quite simply…we owe him ourselves, since we are his creatures, sustained and nourished by his goodness. We, his children, called by his word, admitted to the service of his glorification—we, brothers and sisters of the man Jesus Christ—come short of what we owe to God.” Karl Barth, Prayer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p.74.

In several conversations with clergy friends we’ve wondered what church will be like when the threat of COVID is over? It felt pretty comfortable to worship in pajamas on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee and watching the service on our TV. Never before have I “led” worship like that in my 35 years of ministry! The longer we stay apart, the more “normal” this new life of being distanced becomes. But what are we missing? Our congregation has responded with great innovation to the challenges of leading worship during a pandemic. But maybe we’ve discovered that the very nature of being Church is bodily presence: sharing from the same loaf for communion, holding hands for a closing prayer in a small group meeting, hugging someone after worship who’s had a bad week, setting out a table of homemade treats for coffee hour after worship. How are we still the Church now, in our fractured state? How do we hold onto our sense of community now and how do we pick up the pieces when, by God’s grace, we can meet safely again?

As usual our congregation is doing a stewardship campaign this fall. We invite our membership to make their financial commitments toward the next year’s budget. This is certainly a strange year to ask folks to fund our ministry given that many haven’t been and won’t be in the building for quite some time. Our Stewardship Committee has followed a four year theme of growth: planting, growing, harvesting and, this year, letting the fields lie fallow. A good farmer knows that the nutrients in soil need to be replenished by leaving the field fallow for a year. We could not have known, when we chose these four stages in growing crops, that our lives would lie fallow in some significant ways this year. As our personal lives narrowed to our homes, our church life became remote as well. We have had to dig deep to find the spiritual resources needed to survive feelings of fear, loss, and loneliness. We have had to learn new tricks—like zoom meetings ad nauseum—in order for our businesses and schools to survive. We have discovered how much personal contact with others matters to us. Though much of what we value has been set aside, we have found joy.

The Israelites set aside a Jubilee year every 50 years when land was restored to families, debts were cancelled and the community lived off of the crops from the previous year. I don’t know if the past eight months have offered you some element of rest? But I am sure you have drawn from a spiritual well to find joy in a time of hardship. When toilet paper cannot be found and hand sanitizer prices soar due to high demand, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. In the midst of these disorienting changes your faith keeps you anchored. Your relationship to your home congregation, though lived out differently for now, is still vital. Teaching your children to love Jesus could not be more important as ugly politics set poor examples for how we do business and classrooms are associated with risk more than learning. As our congregation makes plans for our ministry in 2021 we don’t know what it will look like. But we do know Who guides our way. I hang onto the words of the song we belted out from small chairs in Vacation Bible School years ago when our young voices gave rise to holy revelry: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!”