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.