A gift from a friend that speaks to me.
Last week I was sitting at a table surrounded by adults who had come with their children to move them to college. I learned each of those people had lived in some place I had lived. Some of them are current military personnel, some are ARMY children, one is a basketball coach, one a pastor, all of them love to travel and value the gift of education. I sat with them enjoying the chance to talk to others who were letting their babies move away because they knew it was the best even as they wanted to hold them more tightly to keep them safe.
I enjoyed the unexpected morning conversation because I found a place to belong. Among strangers I found people who spoke my language, who laughed easily, who were brave, and who asked direct questions. I found that morning the continued challenge I have encountered this sabbatical – to find connections with others through sharing our stories. I do not want to let that challenge go upon my return to the church.
This sabbatical is ending on Monday. Come Monday I will return to the people and work I have been given. It will be good to see familiar faces and hear the voices of those I love. I have missed being in their presence. I have missed their stories.
Yet, as I return I am struck by my need to continue to make connections to others. I want to help others find a place of belonging. I find when I think about the future of my call to ministry I dream of ways to create moments of connection between people. I dream of people feeling they belong to a group of people who love them. I dream of people seeing the church building and instead of fear or anger, they see openness and love. I dream of people sitting together, singing together, praying together, and listening together as they learn about God’s love for them and how that matters.
As this sabbatical comes to an end I have been reflecting on my call to ministry, which is one of the major questions of this sabbatical. The answer I have discovered is that I have been called to help create community wherever I am planted. To do that I plan on spending my days combating the fear and anger forcing us to isolate ourselves. We are made for community, we are made for each other, and in honor of that truth I plan to spend my life creating connections and helping others feel they belong and are loved.
I am looking forward to the stories I am going to learn and those moments of belonging I stumble upon at unexpected moments just as I did last week.
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.