Sabbatical, Day Eighty-Five

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Last night’s sunset.

One of the biggest concerns the elders and I addressed when preparing for this sabbatical was how to assure the members of our community they or their families would be taken care of at the time of a death.  Time and again we answered the question, “Who will do the funerals?”  We answered, “The pastor we hire to work during the sabbatical.”  We also reminded everyone when I am gone on vacation/continuing education the pastors on-call have been the one to officiate funerals.  We did not want to make light of the concern of the community, but we did want to remind everyone there was a time before I was pastor and will be a time after I am pastor.  We wanted them to remember their role as a congregation, the people who stay and care for each other for generations through multiple pastorates.  Even though we wanted them to feel confident we also hoped there would not be a funeral while I was on sabbatical.

There have been two funerals since I have been gone.  One for a community member, and another for a person who was a vibrant and active member of our congregation who experienced a rapid decline in health in the last year.  The funerals were held on back-to-back Saturdays.  I have heard beautiful examples of how the congregation came together and cared for both of these families.  I am thankful for the love and grace demonstrated by people I know who are willing and able to walk beside families in their grief.

I have been away before when there have been funerals of members of our congregation and community.  I have experienced the grief and guilt that come when I am not the person who stands before the community and assures them of the promises we hold dear.  I have experienced the overwhelming gratitude for my colleagues who step in when I am gone, just as I step in when they are gone.  Caring for a community is a team effort and the sharing of that work with my colleagues continues to remind me of the goodness of being a pastor.

Yesterday I walked out to the cemetery to pay my respects for the three people who have died in the last two weeks in our community.  I passed by the graves of people I have known, I recalled the words I spoke and the words I heard my colleagues speak at each graveside.  I stared at the beautiful blue sky and reminded myself at this time and in this place I have been given the privilege to care for others, but I am not the only person.  I am one of many who will spend their years among these people.  I am thankful for the privilege of this time to learn from this community how to love and be loved.  I remain hopeful the people of this community will recognize the gift they have been given in each other and in the pastors who get to spend some time caring for them.

 

Sabbatical, Day Seventy-Three

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Lake Superior

To be clear I love all the Great Lakes.  Lake Michigan has claimed the most of my time; Lake Huron never seems that far away while I am in Michigan; glimpsing Lake Erie always brightens my day; and Lake Ontario welcomed me like a long lost friend when I finally stepped into it a couple of years ago.

However, Lake Superior is my favorite.  Since I was a child this lake has captivated me with its wildness and power.  Time spent at Lake Superior always leaves me humbled, in awe, and longing to live on its shores.  As a child I was certain I would one day move north to the sandy land of Lake Superior, never dreaming I would be planted firmly in the life-giving soil of farmland.

It had been years since I had stood on the shore of Lake Superior when I returned this summer.  I returned like an old friend, with memories of other visits playing in my head, excitement for new memories to be made, and comfort in knowing where I stood.  I am certain all of us have places like this, touchstones to ground us in our lives.  Fields of crops, mountains, homes, or towns are a few of the places others have told me ground them.

The purpose of this grounding is not to weigh you down so you cannot go exploring, rather to be a place you touch down on to remind you of where you have been as you find a new place to be.  I wonder if part of the reason the world seems so hate-filled lately is because we have forgotten to return to the places that ground us. . .

I am not talking about just the horrific acts of violence that seem to come regularly around the world, or the hate-filled racism and sexism that is allowed to be spewed at anyone the speaker chooses.  I am also talking about how impatient everyone seems to be, or how easy it seems to be to justify our rudeness, or how people can justify standing in a crowd of people shouting for harm to come to another person.  I cannot understand how we as a people have forgotten who we are, unless we are purposely choosing not to remember, unless we are purposely choosing to live selfishly and hatefully.

Maybe if we remembered the places that have shaped us and we returned to them we would find echoes of our old selves, so we could see if we have lived into the person we dreamed we would become.  And if we found ourselves lacking the grace and kindness we once had, hopefully the power of that place would inspire us to try again.

I stood on the shore of Lake Superior this summer and remembered the tiny, pony-tailed, knobby-kneed dreamer who believed if everyone was kind to each other no child would ever have bruises from angry hands, or have empty bellies, or hear racial or sexist slurs used to describe them.  That child had faith people would always choose the greater good over themselves.  That child believed if adults only knew she was suffering they would step in and make life different for her and all the kids she knew.

I stood on the shore of Lake Superior this summer lamenting the loss of that innocence and trust, while recommitting myself to being the type of adult that hopeful child needed.  I trust you will do the same because the kids of this world need us to be adults who always choose the greater good.  Always.

 

Sabbatical, Day Fifty-Seven

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Looking up on the Kaskaskia Trail.

I have passed the halfway point of this sabbatical.  I have now officially spent as much time away from the church as I typically do in a year given my vacation time and continuing education time/study leave.  All the time after this is extra time, time I would not normally have away from my daily tasks.  I remain thankful for the gift of this time.

This past week I found myself walking along a trail that was beautiful.  The temperature was the coolest it had been in over a week, the trees were a brilliant green, and the trail just wild enough to quiet my footsteps.  I was planning to spend the whole afternoon walking a loop of eight miles so I applied lots of bug spray, put on my hat, and grabbed my full water bottle.  About half a mile into the hike I was doing an invigorating rendition of the slap the bugs away dance.  The bugs were so thick and persistent I was walking faster than normal to get to the first break in the trail so I could get out of the woods.  Even protected as I was against the bugs my skin was swelling with so many bites I was rethinking ever going outdoors again.

True to form I have been thinking of all the sermon illustrations I can get from that abbreviated hiking experience.  One revelation was how the walk reminded me of my emotional state eight weeks ago.  At the beginning of this sabbatical I was deep in the woods, walking through a swarm, looking for a way out.  As protected as I thought I was against burnout I was breaking from the emotional and physical toll of the life I have been called to live.  Eight weeks ago I would not have looked up at the sky because I was barely putting one foot in front of the other to stay on the path.

Today I am finally breathing deeply and looking up.  Today I am not looking for the first break so I can get off the trail.  This feels like freedom to me.  Freedom to dream again.  Freedom to explore again.  Freedom to fail again.  Freedom to delight in the chance to serve God and God’s people.  I have missed that feeling of freedom.

I am thankful today I am getting a glimpse of that freedom again.

 

 

 

Sabbatical, Day Forty-Two

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The River Walk in downtown Spokane, Washington.

As I have traveled I have enjoyed scenery unlike the kind I see every day.  I have spent time in places were there are no people for hundreds of miles; and places where there are so many people I could not move without bumping into someone.  I have not seen a corn field or a soybean field in weeks, and very few people have waved back when I instinctively wave while driving or walking.  I have been outside of my usual habitat long enough that when I spoke to a family from the Mid West I felt my ears relax.  I had not even realized how different everyone sounded until I heard someone close to home speak.  I am still chuckling about this revelation days later. 

I love to travel.  I love what I learn about myself and others while traveling.  I love hearing other languages, watching people interact, making connections because of a t-shirt or food order or children.  I love being surrounded by strangers and finding ways to build connection.  Even if those connections are only for as long as it takes for us to take photos of each other’s traveling party.

Like water shapes rocks, those moments of connection shape me.  I want to find a way to make those connections happen for others so we can all see how connected we are to each other regardless of where we come from.  I want us to realize unless we are willing to listen when it makes our ears, mind, or heart work harder we will not experience the vast goodness of this world God has created for us.

We are responsible for what we learn and how we apply that knowledge.  My hope is that I never get to a point when I decide I am too old, too sick, too cranky, or too comfortable to learn from others.  I may get to a point when I cannot pack a suitcase and travel, but until my last moments I plan to live as a traveler looking for glimpses of home in all my wandering.

Sabbatical, Day Twenty-Nine

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Arches National Park

Yesterday I sat in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church of Albuquerque for the second time.  It is a beautiful building, full of symbols that I find at home or in other PCUSA congregations around the country.  Last time I visited I was greeted warmly by many people, and this time I was greeted even more warmly by some of the people who remembered meeting me three years ago.  I love sitting in the pew in the sanctuary, attempting to follow the cadence and language of this worshipping community.  I love feeling connected to others even as I am away from the community I call home.

Yesterday, I sat swinging my legs in the pew because I am too short for my feet to reach the floor if I sit back in the pew.  The act of swinging my legs was as delightful the second time as the first, I felt like a child enjoying the moment.  I was seated between a friend who has walked beside me all these years as I learn to be a pastor, and my second child who has only known me as a pastor. I sat between these two people I love, who love me, and I listened to another  friend lead a worship service that felt created for me to find God.  The announcements, joys, concerns, and an update of the asylum seeker and refugee ministry were all the things I needed to hear.  The prayers and hymns in Spanish and English felt as if they were cracking open my heart so the words of the sermon could be felt.

Most days, I create worship services for others.  I know the limitations of a pastor in creating a worship service; and how easily Sunday becomes a habit instead an expectation of having your heart cracked open so you can feel.  Understanding how easy it is to forget to expect I will encounter God in worship, I treasure the moments I get to follow instead of lead because it changes my perspective.

Yesterday, I was given the privilege of sitting in a pew, a privilege I do not want to waste.  I learned how another worshipping community is living their faith and call to serve God and others.  I was reminded that I too am loved by God in all my brokenness, and in fact my brokenness is often used for good.   I tell this to others daily, but to hear it spoken to me was life giving.

Yesterday I was told I was loved by the God who created the sandstone beauty I saw and touched today.  I am not sure how to explain how I needed to be reminded that words I regularly proclaim to others are also for me.  But I did.

Thank you to the pastor and the community who welcomed me and reminded me I am loved too.

Sabbatical, Day Fifteen

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Some of the books I have read so far; the others have been loaned out.

Based upon all I have learned from more experienced clergy and read in books my current state of being is just fine.  I have mostly stopped jumping out of bed thinking I am behind schedule.  I have reduced the number of to do lists I have been scrawling on scraps of paper.  I have experienced the crushing emotional weight when I realized I could not answer the hospital call I received.  I have felt the guilt that comes when others make comments about not having adequate vacation time, let alone employment that allows them to receive the gift of a sabbatical.  I have even cleaned some parts of our home that had not been cleaned in some time.

Seven months ago when this sabbatical was approved I was shocked when I did not immediately feel refreshed and restored.  I laugh in disbelief at myself then and laugh still.  For whatever reason my mind believed once the sabbatical was approved I would feel as if I had taken a sabbatical already.  That same kind of thinking followed me all through the planning stages and into these first weeks.  For some reason I thought handing over my keys and shutting off my cell phone would make me feel completely rested, even when logic tells me this is not likely.

Since I am slow in slowing down I have managed to read half of the books from my sabbatical reading list.  Though it has felt luxurious to finish one book and pick up another without worrying about what tasks I should be doing instead.  It has felt wonderful to be in conversation with these authors.  As we have traveled north and south to join some of our dearest friends in their celebrations the landscape and time have given me ample opportunity to ruminate on what I am learning.  I am looking forward to the rest of the books in my pile and maybe discovering a few new books.

I am also hopeful the next two weeks will find me enjoying the rest I have been given.  I believe it is possible, even if I might have to create a to do list for how to make that happen.

 

Sabbatical, Day One

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The view from under our lilac bushes.

Today begins the gift of a fifteen week sabbatical.  I have committed to posting every other week so I begin today. 

This morning I awoke with a jerk and immediately thought I was late.  This is funny because today is a school holiday so there are no sounds in the house or outside of children preparing for school.  There was no reason for me to bolt upright in bed worried about the day.  My arrival downstairs shocked my always early rising spouse and our dog.

I am not surprised by my early rising today, I expect this will last most of this first week and into the second.  I have an excess of energy and my mind is rushing with all the tasks I think I need to be doing; those tasks I have handed over to others to do for this sabbatical.  I know this feeling of needing to get things done will settle down as I ease into the rest of this sabbatical.

To help slow me down I am learning a poem today.  I am memorizing “The World I Live In” by Mary Oliver, found on page five of her book Devotions, published in 2017 by Penguin Press.  I am struck by the reality that I have lost some of my sense of wonder and am not watching for angels.  Yesterday at our monthly session meeting (church board) the elders talked  about watching for God and I realized how much I missed watching for God myself.  I tell people about God all the time, I mention how I see God working in their lives daily, but I have lost the sense of wonder in watching for the Holy Spirit to work.

This first day of this sabbatical gift I am confronted with how I have closed my eyes.  I am committed to opening them again so I can see the wider world.

“You are doing this.”

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Our child’s highchair and graduation gown.

In the last six days I have watched our oldest child receive their high school diploma and dropped them off for their summer dream job.  That job will take them away from our home for the entire summer, returning with enough time to switch items in their suitcase before leaving again for college until the Thanksgiving holiday.  I have rejoiced with our child, our family, our friends, and our worshipping community at these realized dreams.  Yet, my heart is also sad because life has changed forever with these realized dreams.

All those years ago in the delivery room my husband and I chatted about what parenthood might be like, knowing we had no clue what was coming.  Parenthood has been so much more than we ever anticipated or planned.  I have a clear memory of saying in the delivery room, “I cannot do this.”  Just as clear is the Labor & Delivery Nurse’s encouragement and response, “You are doing this.”  I have held on to those words countless times over the years; on the nights when I was exhausted and our children were not sleeping; on the days when no amount of logic or reason could change our child’s behavior; in the moments when I realized how powerless I was to protect my children; and each time I had to watch my children fail so they would learn.  At times I have clung to those words like a lifeline when I thought there was no way I could do this thing called parenting.

Those were the words I clung to as I drove away from our child, watching them walk away in the rear view mirror.  I am so excited for our child’s adventures, and to be a part of all that is coming.  Yet, letting go was the hardest act I have ever committed.  In that moment I was transported to the moment of their birth when I thought there was no way I could do this, yet I did and I held that precious baby on my chest marveling at the gift of we had been given.

I did not think I could do this letting go, yet I did.  Today I am doing it still.  Tomorrow I will continue.   I trust eventually this new stage of parenthood will become more than we ever anticipated or planned.  I remain thankful for the nurse who assured me I could do this, for my partner in parenting, and for the children who are making my life more than I ever dreamed possible.

 

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.