A Joyful Tradition

Nativity SetIn the fellowship hall (large dining room with the kitchen) in our church building there is an old Communion Table (table used in a worship service for the sacrament of Communion) upon which a plastic nativity set lives during Advent (four weeks before Christmas) and Christmas.  Each year we bring this set out, try to remember to place the step stool in front of the table and a sign that says “please play with this set.”  Some years we forget all but the set.

Then the fun begins.  The custodian and I take turns moving the pieces all around the table and creating a jumble of all the pieces.  The next time a child comes in the room they put it all back together.  On a Sunday morning this can go on for the whole time the building is occupied.  I will walk by the table and mix up the pieces only to come back five minutes later and there are no children around but the pieces are back in an order.  I do what any good humored person would do, I mix them up again.

This year I took baby Jesus from the pieces and hid him in my office mailbox.  When the children seemed too fearful to remove him I handed him off to one of our youngest children and asked him to hold on to Jesus until the older kids came looking for him.  His sparkling joyful eyes were a gift that morning.

This tradition of ours is one I look forward to each year.  It is simple, makes me laugh, and the continued participation of our teenagers in the game fills my heart.  Yes, we talk about the Christmas Story.  Yes, the children lead worship with a program each year.  Those are meaningful parts of the season too.  But it is this simple game played with our children that ushers in the season for me.

The season begins for me with the laughter I overhear when little hands are trying to rush to put the pieces back in the stable as I come around the corner, being sure to make noise so they know it is me; with the questions about a missing pieces asked in the all-knowing voice of a child who has played this game with me before; with the whisper of the teenage voices telling me they mixed the pieces up this time while a little one was taking off their coat; and with the laughter shared with the custodian as we think about what to do next time. Nativity Set 2

As we approach the end of Advent and welcome the joy of Christmas morning I am thankful for the children who remind me of the joy of life that is best when shared with others.

Merry Christmas.

 

Sharing Space

I attend worship services alone every week, sometimes more than once a week.  My family attends our Sunday service and most of our special services, and yet I still feel alone each Sunday because they do not sit with me.  Most Sundays I do not talk to my family members until we are walking home after all the Sunday tasks are finished.  I am no different than clergy all over the world.  In fact, a whole lot of people who are single, widowed, or are the lone person in their family who attends religious services attend services alone.  It is because I attend services alone that the act of sitting next to someone during a worship service is such a profound experience.

Rarely do I get to enjoy the restlessness of a child in a pew, or feel another person lean into me to reach a hymnal.  Almost never do I have someone reach for my hand when a prayer, hymn, reading, or sermon moves them.  I do not share whispered words, elbows in the side, or pieces of hard candy with my spouse or children.  I do not know what my children’s singing voices sound like when blended with the voices in front or behind me, and I have no idea when my oldest child stopped singing in worship.

I am a leader of worship which means I sit alone, sing alone, and never feel the comfort of an arm around me on the back of a pew.  I get to watch the people in worship to make sure the details are happening as they need to, but I do not have the privilege of holding the hand of someone as they sit beside me.

Worship is a communal experience, which means we gather together, we sit together, and we learn together.  Worship as a communal experience means you know what the sigh from the person behind you means, or when the person in front of you is praying or nodding off.  Worship as a communal experience means there is joy in sharing space with others as you build memories and habits.

I rarely get to share space with my family in worship.  I have only a few memories of sitting with my children as they have grown up in the church.  I do not know which hymns make them tremble with emotion.  I do not know what their hands feel like clasped in mine.  I do not know what it feels like to have them squashed between my husband and I in a pew where people know to look for us.

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Sitting with my oldest child.

But today was one of those rare occasions when I did not sit alone.  Though we were not all together in the pew, three of us were, much like a typical Sunday.  On my left was my oldest, on my right my husband.  At one point he sighed, leaned into me, shifted and put his arm around me on the back of the pew and my tears were instantly at the surface.

I was not alone in worship.  I was between my child who no longer sings and my husband who sings with a confidence grown over years of communal worship.  For me today, this was an illustration of joy and goodness, the themes for this third week of Advent.  I hope as you share space in this world, whether it is in worship spaces or other places, you take a moment to appreciate the people surrounding you.  Pay attention to their sighs, their voices, their whispered words, and how it feels to have them lean into you.

Pay attention and give thanks.

 

A Radical Community

20181204_082455[1]I know when people describe our congregation, radical is not the first adjective that comes to mind.  We pride ourselves on being simple people who strive to live showing kindness and respect.  However, the first stories I heard about our congregation when I was making reference calls all those years ago was that the congregation in question was a radical one.

This congregation was radical from its beginning.  Two congregations, one Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the other United Methodist, had leaders in their thirties who saw a bigger vision for the future of the congregations.  They were not the only leaders, leaders with more age and wisdom also saw this vision, but the younger leaders were the ones who filled in the story when I accepted the call to serve.  The radical decision was made to unite the congregations as one and become a brand new congregation.  The leaders made decisions about property, pastoral leadership, and denominational status and the congregations followed those leaders.  I have been told there was much to be afraid of and some struggles in the beginning, but the radical vision of a vibrant congregation kept them going.

The second radical story I was told in the beginning that has been re-told many times, is the decision the congregation made to spend their money to hire a full-time pastor instead of yoking with another congregation or hiring a part-time pastor.  This might not seem radical to you but for a rural congregation living in an area with a diminishing population, the decision to spend money that has been saved for decades is a huge leap of faith.  I was told that the congregation decided the only way to continue to grow into their vibrant vision was to use the resources they had been given.  It was some of those original leaders, now forty years older, who filled in the details of that story for me.

A third, and by no means final, characteristic of their radical nature is that I am the sixth female pastor to serve with them.  This is radical because there are still congregations in our denomination (PCUSA) who have not had a female pastor.

I share this radical nature of our congregation because today they made a new radical decision, they agreed to enter into a sabbatical in 2019.  Sabbaticals, spending money, uniting small congregations (or consolidating businesses), and hiring women may not seem radical to some of you, as in many fields these are normal practices.  But for a rural congregation a sabbatical is typically a brand new experience.

Today we had an honest and heartfelt discussion as a congregation about our concerns and dreams for taking a new radical step into the future.  We decided we would use this tool we have been offered to nurture our pastor-congregation partnership and dream of that vibrant future we have been living and want to continue to live.

Tonight one of our oldest members said to me that a sabbatical is such a good idea and is exciting not only for the pastor but also the congregation.  I heard in their words that same radical nature that has kept this congregation serving God and the community all these forty-nine years.

I am inspired by their faith and thankful I get to learn how to live simply and radically with them.

If the Way Be Clear

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Looking out the windshield. 

In Presbyterian Church U.S.A. vocabulary the phrase “if the way be clear” is used to acknowledge though we plan, dream, and hope, sometimes the way forward is not what we imagined.  I was thinking of this phrase yesterday afternoon while I drove my family home through a massive thunderstorm complete with a tornado warning.  We arrived home safely thanks in part to smartphones, internet access, and my husband’s use of those tools to give me guidance about when to get off on an exit to wait out a portion of the storm.

Yesterday I could not see more than a few feet in front of me, I had to trust my knowledge of the road, the tools I had at hand, and the rules of the road.  I could see the yellow dotted line on my left, and the white solid line on my right, that was about all.  I knew stopping would likely result in a crash.  I knew going forward meant I had to trust what I could not control.  I am not the first person, or pastor, to find the act of driving to be a powerful metaphor for life.

I am thinking about that drive home because I feel stuck in the storm.  About two years ago I reached my tenth anniversary of ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  I was elated to reach this milestone and thrilled to be celebrating it with the congregation I had been partnered with for those ten years.  It is not all that common for fresh out of seminary (first-call) pastors to stay with their first congregation that long.  We celebrated and looked forward to the future.

In the two years since that milestone a fair number of difficult experiences have taken place, making me feel stuck in a storm and surrounded by fog.  Each one has taught me a new lesson and helped grow the Fruits of the Spirit in me, but they have left me feeling as if I cannot see more than a step in front of me.  I have the yellow dotted line of my faith, the white solid line of my partnership in ministry with colleagues and the congregation, the tools or spiritual practices of my faith tradition, and my trust that God is in control.  So I keep putting one foot in front of the other confident one day the storm will cease and the fog will lift.  But as driving in a storm sometimes requires a chance to rest, so does life as a pastor.

Our polity as members of the PCUSA states the elected elders serving on the session (governing board) and pastor are partners in ministry.  The congregation takes a vow to support and care for the pastor and family, and the session vows to help lead the congregation with the pastor.  As I have put one foot in front of the other I have shared my experiences with the elders and they have prayed with and for me, they have walked with me through these struggles, they have helped me find joy, and they have reminded me we are partners. Even as I have felt stretched thin as I care for our congregation and community, they have joined me in carrying out our worship and work.

It is from the elders that the idea for us to take a sabbatical came.  In the past year and a half we have prayed, studied, discussed, met with others, and dreamed of what a sabbatical could mean for our congregation and for me.  The dream of a time of rest, reflection, and renewal fills me with hope.  The idea that others would care for me and my family in this way fills my heart.  My family and I have spent over twelve years loving this community and congregation and we have sunk our roots deep here.  Yet, right now, even though I know the road forward is there, the fog of weariness makes it difficult to see.  So, like yesterday while I was driving, it is time to pull off for a bit and rest, to wait out the storm, and trust once I have rested the fog will have lifted.

Life as a pastor is unique and amazing because not only do you get help others be their best self but they get to help you be your best self, and together you get to make the world a better place.  That means sometimes as a pastor you have to let others take care of you and your family, even though that does not come naturally.  I do not know if the way will be clear for a sabbatical, there are more details to work out, but the simple fact that the elders, who I have met in their own storms, are meeting me in mine and are willing to guide me with the tools we have, fills my heart to overflowing.

Food Allergies Are Real

20180925_110859I have a severe allergy peanut and tree allergy.  I carry epi-pens with me everywhere.  I ask questions about the food I am being offered.  I avoid certain restaurants, skip food offered, pack my own food, and often go hungry to avoid ingesting something that could lead to my death.  I did not always have to take these precautions.

Eighteen years ago when my allergies were first discovered my doctor told me as I got older my allergies would get worse.  This meant that while I might be able to eat something processed with nuts at the time, there would come a time when what I was eating would kill me.  I was also warned about kissing my husband if he had eaten something I was allergic to, even a peck could be deadly.

So for a few years I was sort of careful and nothing bad happened.  I went to a new doctor when we moved to a new state and they repeated all the same warnings.  I started to be a little bit more careful.  A few years later I mistakenly ate something made of walnuts (I forgot to ask) and I had a severe reaction.  At the advice of my friends who are nurses and my doctor I started carrying epi-pens in my bag.  A couple years after that I mistakenly ate something made of pecans (again I forgot to ask) and had another similar reaction.

Three weeks ago I mistakenly ate something cooked in peanut oil, again I forgot to ask.  Two epi-pens and an emergency room visit later and I was on the mend, though not healed.  Three days ago I mistakenly ate something that had come in contact with nuts (again I did not ask) and though not as bad as the peanut oil reaction I have felt like an elephant is on my chest since.  Because that is what happens to me, my throat and mouth swell up, my chest feels heavy and it is hard to breathe.  The peanut oil incident resulted in my face looking sunburned for three days.

I share this story because I believe it is important for others to know how deadly food allergies can be.  Some allergies will manifest the way mine did.  Some will manifest in other ways.  All allergies make the person suffer.  Too often I have encountered people who think food allergies are made up because someone is a picky eater.  In my case this has made me reluctant to ask how something was made, which a pharmacist once told me would be the death of me.

I know I am to blame for not asking before I put food in my mouth.  I also know how important it is for me as a host to ask about allergies and to provide safe food for the people I am hosting.  As always I see a connection between my experience and life in a congregation.  We talk in our worshipping community about being a safe place for people to gather.  We put windows in doors, develop habits of supervision, we learn histories and remember important dates so we can offer care during difficult times, and a hundred other little actions to let others know they are important enough for us to remember the details.

Remembering the details is the lesson I take from my food allergy experiences.  When I remember the details no one has to be worried that they have accidentally killed me or made me suffer.  When I remember the details no one has to worry about eating the food I make.  As a community when we remember the details we provide a safe and hospitable place for each other, which means we are answering our call to be God’s hands and feet in a specific place.

Details are important.

 

 

One Sunday Morning

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From the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

One Sunday afternoon I read an article in  The Christian Century about the newly opened Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to  Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

One Sunday morning halfway through our summer vacation traveling through Alabama we had a discussion with our children about foregoing a usual worship service to be confronted with our sins as a country.  My explanation resulted in comments about how even away from the pulpit I could not stop teaching them.  There were a few John Calvin jokes shared before we pulled into Montgomery.

Arriving in Montgomery we parked by a sign that told us Montgomery was the center of the Domestic Slave Trade and that the place we were parked used to be a place where humans were sold.  As we read the sign silence began to descend.  It was an odd silence because the city sounds did not cease, but the other noise of our lives ceased.

The museum is housed in a building that used to hold humans as they awaited the moment they would be auctioned.  The day we visited, the museum was packed.  We slowly made our way to each exhibit between two families.  We never spoke more than the usual whispered “excuse me” and “sorry” of museum goers, yet I was completely aware of their presence.  We were staring at evil laid bare, and my skin color, which was different than theirs, connected me more with the evil than with the good.

The memorial is a sacred place.  We walked through the memorial reading the names and dates of our fellow humans who had been murdered because of the color of their skin.  More than 4,000 names were displayed.  I walked through the memorial reading of the lynchings in towns I have walked the streets, in years people I know were alive.  I wondered if I would learn someone I loved was a murderer.  I wondered how anyone I was walking beside could ever look at me and not hate me on sight for what white Christians had done.

As I came to the last corner of the hanging display section of the memorial I could hear water, realizing I had heard it all along.  I stopped to read the wall featured in the photograph, and the tears could no longer be held inside.  I took a photograph because it was allowed and turned toward the source of the water, a long wall pouring water down like a righteous stream.

I approached the water hearing in my head the words of baptism I say when I baptize babies, teenagers, and adults.  I heard these words and my tears fell as I touched the water.

. . . we set this water apart to be the waters of baptism may the person who now passes through these waters be delivered from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from sin to righteousness.  Grant that they will grow in compassion and humility. . . 

I wanted to put my whole body in the water.  I wanted someone to make the sign of the cross on my forehead and say the words of baptism to me.  I wanted to be reminded that grace and forgiveness is ours to have.  I wanted to know we could still have hope.  I wanted to know evil would not win for one more day.

I reluctantly left the water and walked through the graveyard portion of the memorial holding my daughter’s hand.  I read the invocation at the end of the memorial, wiped at my falling tears, and left with my family.

In the weeks since we visited that morning has never been far from my thoughts.  One of the lessons the creators shared was their belief that With Hope we could change the world, with a determination to never forget and a belief we could be better, we could bring healing, and that evil could be stopped.

I am left with this conviction.  We cannot change our past, but we can change the present and the future.  In order to do that we have to know our history.  We have to admit our sins, the ways the sins of others have benefited us, and our lack of commitment to working for healing.  We have to admit where we have been and are if we ever expect to change, and we must change.

We cannot be who we have been.

We cannot let evil win one more day.

We must change ourselves and the world.

We must remember, have hope, be courageous, be persistent, and have faith.

One Sunday morning the Holy Spirit held me tight and forced me to see.

 

 

Sitting in the Bleachers

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During my high school years I remember only attending sporting events when I was required for Marching and Pep Band, or when my cousin dragged me to a game on a Friday night. I was not a big fan of sitting in the bleachers. In college until my work schedule prohibited my attendance I spent many hours sitting in the bleachers cheering on my friends. As a pastor in our rural community where having a school building in town is a privilege, I have spent many hours sitting in the bleachers cheering on students I know, and checking in with the adults in my care. As a parent and spouse of a coach, I have spent more hours than I ever dreamed as a high school student sitting in the bleachers.

Sitting in the bleachers is different than sitting in the sanctuary, even though many of the same people are present. In the bleachers insults are in abundance, while in the sanctuary words of forgiveness are in abundance. In the bleachers anticipation is in abundance, while in the sanctuary expectation is in abundance.

Sitting in the bleachers is also similar to sitting in the sanctuary, even though many of the people do not sit in the same sanctuary on a Sunday morning. In the sanctuary the monetary offerings are shared for the purpose of caring for others; and in the bleachers folded dollar bills are quietly handed over to hungry children. In the sanctuary conversations about life are shared before and after the service, sometimes even in whispers and notes passed during the service; and in the bleachers conversations about life are continued from event to event, like an ongoing dialogue, picking up where they ended when the buzzer sounded.

It seems we try to separate the bleachers and the sanctuary; compartmentalizing who we are in the bleachers so we are not the same in the sanctuary.  Yet, for some of us the community does not allow that compartmentalization so we see the impossible beauty of what our community would be if the anticipation of the bleachers, forgiveness of the sanctuary, and generosity found in both was shared with abundance in both places.

Imagine the joy if those holy moments of the sanctuary were also looked for in the bleachers.  Imagine the joy if those moments of camaraderie in the bleachers were shared in the sanctuary.  Imagine who we would be and how the world would change. . .

The impossible beauty of that image is what keeps me sitting in the bleachers and standing in the pulpit.