Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

Recipe for Discernment

I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Liebert last month in San Anselmo where I began my studies in spiritual direction. I had read her book The Way of Discernment way back when I was discerning whether or to leave my first call. I was testing the spirits and her words were amazingly helpful as she reminded me, in her own words, that

discernment … is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.

Convinced both then and now that faithfulness great or small is going to be lost on me, I also read this article from the Christian Century. The author simply says God has no secret plan but only asks any of us into the greater faithfulness of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Still, this feels lofty and overwhelming and I know it will for Central Congregational Church in Topeka tonight when I lead them through this exercise in discernment. Tonight, we’ll look at all of the data that we can find about the mission field in Topeka. There will be holes. We won’t have everything we want or need, but with what we’ve found and what I have gathered as their consultant, we’ll try to discern the greater faithfulness of this congregation.

To do so, we’ll borrow questions from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment. In other chapters, she encourages listening to the heart’s desire and paying attention to your body. She invites dreaming and prayer but in  the third chapter, it’s all about the data. We’ll repeat the questions she offers twice throughout the night but as I review my notes again I hope that these become familiar questions that recur in the months ahead when this church will need to make still more decisions. I don’t expect that we will come to a clear answer tonight, but I do hope that these questions will guide us in the ongoing process and it’s why I want to offer these questions to you.

Whether it is your church or your own self that is in the midst of discernment, here is a recipe that might helping you get cooking toward knowing what that greater faithfulness might be.

recipe-for-ministry

It didn’t fit on my cute little design but there is one final step which is to give thanks. There may not be clear answers to where God is leading, but God is still leading. God is present in every questions and soon enough we will know what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Until we’re clear, both you and I will return to this practice and ask these questions over and over again until we have a clear sense of where that greater faithfulness is.

If you are interested to learn more about my consulting practice or how I might help your church, I hope you’ll contact me. I would love to hear from you.

 

What I’m Up to Now

Holy threads are hard to see. They are as invisible and hidden as God. Even when we can see threads stitched through the fabric of our existence, they are often jumbled and knotted. We try to pick up those threads but we cannot untangle them from all of the rest.

The poet William Stafford observes, there is a thread. There is a thread that you follow that can be hard to see and harder still to explain. And yet, even when it feels like it might all unravel, it feels important. It feels like there is something happening and so you can’t help but wonder. I’ve felt like this for a very long time.

If you’ve been following along with my adventures in the kitchen, you know already that I’ve tried many things. I got married and ministry changed. I would no longer be a local church pastor. I’m still holding onto this hope. It hasn’t yet gone away. It is still where I hope God will lead me when we finally stop moving every three years, but until then ministry will look different. And it already has.

I had this idea about somehow ministering to the military community. I began to get some training and tried to imagine doing this thing I had no idea. I went for some more training where I was asked to assert this purpose of the thing I was doing. I couldn’t do it. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t an entrepreneur. Or at least, I didn’t see myself defined by the enterpreneurial model of my training. I felt more called to the local church then ever. And so, I let that idea go. From there, I found myself as an interim pastor and then as a consultant. I’ve found myself to be a writer and even been published by some small miracle. You might also know that I’m working on a book. That project is ever in the background as I try to understand my ministry in this time.

Years ago, when I was interviewing for what would become my first call, the search committee googled me. In that internet search, they found two postings to my college alumni notes. The first bubbled with enthusiasm upon finding my first job at a place that felt every bit as exciting as the art studio where I spent most of my college years. The second was more sullen and downtrodden. I was disenchanted, only one year later, with that same job and was instead applying to seminary. They wanted to know if my feelings toward their church would be as dramatic. They’d already had a rotating door of associates and they wanted every assurance of security they could get. It was, however, the wrong question. What they should have and could have asked me was how I was discerning my call at that time.

Frederick Buchner writes that the “place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I was still looking for that place and the truth of the matter is that it is never one place that God calls us.

God continues to work through our lives so that that call changes as we learn of new hungers and discover things that we never, ever thought that could make us glad. There is a holy thread of gladness that I’ve struggled to name but one that I’ve felt the power of in coffee shops and living rooms. I’ve been blessed — as a pastor —  to listen to all of those little stories that are being carried around that seem so insignificant. But, I listen. I listen and I share my gratitude for these gifts. I assure those that have entrusted these stories with me that they matter. Because they do. That holy thread has woven through the words I’ve tried to write and the interim ministry I’ve tried to do and it’s led me to this place where I am embracing the many years of spiritual direction I’ve received and stepping into the role of director.

img_1648You may have seen on Facebook that I sent a letter off in the mail to San Francisco Theological Seminary. In January, I spent the whole month in rainy California where I officially began a program in spiritual direction and began to pull all of these threads together.

I do not dare to suggest that this is the last place that God is calling me but it is where God is calling me now. There are holy threads that I hope to hold. There are stories I want to cherish. There is something about the art of listening that compels me and draws me near. It is with this hope and this faith that I share HOLY THREADS.

I stumble over the words when I am asked what I’m doing right now. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to say that I’m doing the hustle {cue music} as MaryAnn McKibben Dana suggests. (I don’t think she really says that, anyway.) But, the truth is: I am learning a new form of ministry. I am embracing this art form of spiritual direction as one of the many ways that I try to be true to my calling. It is, of course, because it is my calling that the words get jumbled. It’s hard to talk about this new thing. It’s hard to feel confident or even capable while still being a student even though I am certain that this is what I should be doing right now. If you’re curious about this new practice or might know of someone that might be looking for a directee, I hope you’ll check out my new site.

 

Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant. 

When Twitter Inspires a Story that You Haven’t Told in a Long While

It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.

I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.

It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.

It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that

Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.

Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.

My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.

What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.

She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.

What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.

This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.

Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”

That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.

There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.

If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.

There’s No Place Like Home

Since I moved to Kansas, I find myself clicking my heels more and more.  I have no ruby red slippers but the mantra is the same, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.”

The problem is that I have no idea where home is.

This was made clear to me again when I flew back east for a dear friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since the first grade and so i found myself surrounded by people who have met me or at least heard about me. Some of these good people even knew that I’d already moved several times in my adult life, but most of them had lost track of me after I moved cross the country from Maine to Washington. They hadn’t heard that I’d moved again and seemed to find it a bit shocking. Every time the topic came up, with each new person, it seemed incomprehensible that I’d moved twice since the last time they last knew my whereabouts. Thus, the same confused exclamation came I shared our new location. Every single time, their pitch raised, “Kansas?!? What brings you to Kansas?”

My response was equally repetitive. “My husband is in the military and it is in Kansas that he is required to be right now.”

I am embarrassingly ignorant of military things. This isn’t a new problem, but one that continues to fester in our relationship. So much so that if my husband has heard this response, which he did several time last night, or another like it, he grimaces and elaborates that he is in the midst of his schooling in the Command and General Staff College. After he finishes that, he continues to explain, we will move again. That is when I grimace.

Before I met my husband, I had looked forward to multiple moves across the country. I liked the idea of learning about how people do church in different parts of the globe. I really liked that idea and subscribed to the concept of a shorter pastorate. I couldn’t imagine being a pastor of a congregation for fifteen, twenty or thirty years. It made sense to me if there were kids in the equation, but at that point I wasn’t considering motherhood. I had no interest in being a single parent and was far more interested in what I might do for God. I didn’t want to be bored for God, but wanted to create beautiful things in amazing places with people just as hope-filled.

That hope had already taken me to two places. I’d gone to Maine where I’d stayed longer than I ever thought I would and we did some good things together, but I got bored. I got really bored and so I looked for what was next and found the good people in Washington. When I moved there, I told the search committee I was looking for two things: love and a place to call home. I found one, but not the other.

On our wedding day, my friend Melanie talked about the five mile stretch of road that leads to the farm that was once and is now her home. Just before she led us in saying our vows, she talked about this stretch of road that makes it heart beat faster and always brings a smile to her face before she advised us to

“be home for one another. Be that place, of unconditional acceptance and love for each other.  Be that place that makes your heart beats quicken.  Be that place where you always see something new and beautiful. No matter what season.  Be that place that in the midst of difficulties you can be at rest. Home.  Be each other’s homes.”

I don’t know if other people think as much about the homily offered on their wedding day as I do, but I think about these words all of the time. I think about them every time I step into the crappy housing the military gave us. I click my heels and remind myself that this shelter is not my home, but the place I find in my husband’s arms is home.

We are each other’s homes, I guess. I like that idea. I like it a lot but I have a few questions for I cannot imagine this without a picture in my head. I am a visual learner, after all. So I need to see it but the only image that I can craft is like bad clip art from a church newsletter in the early 90s. I can see the open arms but I do not want to run toward them. I want to run away for the image is so repulsive. Repulsive is a strong word. I apparently have strong feelings about clip art, and so it must be something else.

Is this the same problem that the wandering Israelites felt in all of those many years of exile? They were told their was a new home for them. It was to be a Promised Land, but they could not imagine it. They did not know what to expect or who to expect. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend. Is that what home is supposed to be? Is the sheer idea of it meant to overwhelm and confound?

In her recent book Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy wonders “if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed.” She admits that we wander. It’s what  humans do but she doesn’t find much confusion in that fact. Simply put, to her, “home is the ground we measure with our own two feet. And home is the place that measures us. Home is the place that names us and the place we, in turn, name. It feeds us, body and soul, and if we are living well, we feed it too. Home is the place we cultivate with our love.”

Christie seems like someone who can confidently say, along with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.” Both Christie and my friend Melanie have ended up on farms. They’ve both awoken from the nightmare of aimless wandering from place to place only to find that their place was always supposed to be on this patch of land they get to cultivate with love. I, on other hand, am still clicking my heels and wondering about home. One thing I know for sure: there is no place like it.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year. You just read it. I had some internet issues so it’s late but I did finish it before the second week began. I really am trying to set by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. These essays are supposed to dig deep and so you might not find my weekly essays here but you will find them on Medium. It’s a double experiment for me.

The Rise of the Consultant 

I can’t remember when I first heard the term.

I do remember how I felt about it when I heard that there was such a thing as a church consultant. It was not pleasant.

I was of the impression that it wasn’t anything that a pastor couldn’t do and I was a pastor.  I knew the people in the congregation. I knew their hopes and dreams and was doing my best to understand what ministry we might do together. I wasn’t excited about anyone Lee helping with that discernment. It seemed like a waste of time and an even bigger waste of money to hire someone to help us ask the questions we already knew we needed to answer as a church. No, when I first heard the term, I was anything but excited about the idea of a church consultant.

I didn’t like it but it seemed like they were everywhere. Church consultants were popping up all over the place. They were the hot new thing but I couldn’t quite escape the fact that these were people who had left full-time ministry. That’s how it seemed to me. These were people that couldn’t hack it as a pastor, but they still thought they had something to offer the church. So they became a consultant. At that time, they were all older than me. They’d been in ministry a long time. They had a resume that I couldn’t fathom and most of them were connected to the now extinct Alban Institute as was true for the church consultant that I first considered hiring.

I had a fabulous conversation with this gentleman over email and then on the phone about how we might lead the church I was serving to understand their vision. The church knew that this was a question that they must answer. They were anticipating the retirement of the Senior Pastor and were wondering what their ministry might look like after he left. Ever eager to help, I rose to the challenge and did what I could to help them on this quest. It didn’t work. They didn’t choose to hire him and it became clear that I had stepped into something I hadn’t intended. So it was time and time again as an Associate Pastor.

That was then, but now, there are consultants my age. They have resumes like mine and they are immersed in the wondering what the future of the church might be. I’ve learned a thing or two since the first time I heard the term church consultant for the first time. Most importantly, they don’t have all of the answers. They have ideas and questions. They’ve seen some things work in other places but they don’t know what God is doing in this place. None of us do. Church consultants are curious. They are seekers. They are looking to find God in the midst of numbers and figures. They are trying to ask questions that they can’t answer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and make herself known.

They have some skills too. They’ve studied change and tried to understand how much people hate it and what we can do to manage the inevitability of change still finding its way into our laps. And even though consultancy is an idea taken from the business world, the ones in the church are really people of prayer. They are open to transformation. It’s what they hope to find every time they sign a contract with a local church.

I never expected that I would be counted among this group of people. From the very beginning, when I first wandered into the halls of seminary, I have been called to the local church. I saw myself as a pastor. I still feel that I am a pastor but when I got married to a man in the military, my ministry changed. I got excited about interim ministry and eager to help congregations transition into a vibrant future with God. I got some training and got to use my new skills. And then, we moved… again. I interviewed with another church and they are delightful but I didn’t think I could give them my all. I’m newly married. We are only here for a short time. I just didn’t think I could do both well. So, I turned down the opportunity to be their interim pastor.

It was then that the conference minister in the region I find myself asked if I might consider being a consultant. The pastor that they hired is good and talented but she is not trained. She doesn’t have these skills yet and the church needs this work. They need to ask big holy questions about their future. They are not just looking to call a new pastor. They are looking to sell their building and they have to discern what their ministry might be in that unknown future. There was dead air on the other end of the phone when the conference minister said I could do such a thing. I could be a consultant. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to think about it. “Pray about it,” she said “and if it feels right, write up a proposal.”

Tonight will be the first time that I attempt this new thing. I’ll lead the first session in a series of workshops. I’ll meet with the pastor and share in big questions about what God is doing in this group of people. I’ll be one of those church consultants asking questions and looking for the Holy Spirit.

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

How Grief Works

Since the news early Wednesday morning, a collective cry has arisen from my fellow Americans. Many have said that it feels like someone they have loved has died. In these first few days after the news hit, they feel numb. They are in shock. They can’t believe that this has happened. It feels just like when their dad died.

When that news hit that Donald Trump would be our next president, they couldn’t believe it. They had been in shock. They were numb and they wondered what the world would look like without him.

It has been a few years since that happened though. The grief they remember has changed. It has become something else. It’s not as overwhelming as it once was. They still miss their dad. Of course, they still miss him but those years without him have made grief different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Whether or not we are able to connect it to that loss before, it is grief that is on everyone’s lips. It was the first thing that arrived in my email on Wednesday. With only a few hours of fitful rest after that acceptance speech at 2 a.m., there was an email telling me to grieve quickly.

Others have joined that chorus echoing that refrain from the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” They do not speak of joy, of course, but of the work that must be done. Still, there is urgency to grieve quickly.

This is not how grief works. It does not come in a flash only to disappear. It does more than linger when it feels like the world has been ripped apart. This is how it feels when your father dies. This is how it feels right now to a whole lot of Americans. I’m told that it has felt that way to others before this election and that this has been ignored by people like you and me. Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times yesterday,

“Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.

The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear.”

That last line arrests me. For it is not just their inner pain and fear that has gone ignored, it is our own.

This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.

This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.

Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.

I do not intend to wag my finger at you or your pain. In fact, that’s the last thing that I would want to do because I know that it will not work. Grief is what I know best. To borrow a line from Hope Edelman, it is “the most determining, most profound, the most influential event of my life.” My mother died when I was just a little girl and it has forever shaped how I see the world. And so, I know that you cannot shame another into feeling what they do not feel nor can you cannot compel anyone into grief. That’s not how it works. Grief, instead, is paying attention to that inner pain and fear. It’s a practice of noticing what hurts and how it hurts.

It is not so simple as charting through five stages until it is over and done. Grief will seize each of us at different times. Some are feeling it now. It is already real for them while others will need more time. Some will not feel the weight of this news until January when the inauguration when this president-elect will take the oath of office. Some might not even feel it then. Let’s not worry too much about what that might mean but instead let’s try to practice paying attention. Don’t grieve quickly. That’s really bad advice that comes from a culture that believes that the only way to survive is to get over your pain and your fear.

Grief is not something to overcome or achieve, but something to go through. It’s not wise to try to hurdle over it. It’s best to take the risk and allow yourself to mourn. Mourn it all. Mourn every hope and dream that feels dashed. Mourn the idea of America that feels like its dissolved and disappeared. Mourn the safety of your neighbor and yourself. Mourn every bit of it. Pay attention to it. Notice what you are feeling and when you feel it because that will be what teaches you. That will be what leads you to be the change that your kids and your friends need. That will be what allows you to take all of this pain and fear and make it into something beautiful that this country needs. But for now, dear ones, allow the grief to linger. Joy will come soon enough.

 

 

Prayers for Abundant Life

Though it has been a month since I’ve been in the pulpit, and I’ve even said no to a possibility for ministry, I will be preaching again this Sunday at Gower Christian Church. It is their church that is the image above this post.

I had the opportunity to serve a Disciples of Christ congregation while I was in seminary but it’s been ten years and I’m not really sure that I remember it all that well. There is some holy trepidation in my worship planning this week as these are people of the table. These are people that gather every week at the table to share in gifts of God for the people of God. And well, I’m just not in that habit. I’m a bit more informal when I lead worship alone and I’m not used to sharing in this holy work with elders (though I’ve done it before).

Below are some prayers that will lead these good people and I through worship on Sunday inspired by the readings from the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are prayers I’ve written. Some of which I’ll even offer with my own voice. Others will be voiced by others. I am not yet sure where my sermon will go and if it will even hint toward All Saints Day or if I’ll focus on the stressors we are all feeling leading up to election day. But, that last line in the Gospel sent me back to the words in Joel 2 so you’ll surely hear those words in the prayers I’ve written for this day.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Inspired by Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38

One: O that we might live, and live abundantly!
That life everlasting might be more than words
but the eternal hope we keep together.
All: O that we might live in hope!
One: O that we might live, and live abundantly!
That our worship and praise might inspire our sons and our daughters to prophesy, for our elders to dream dreams, and our young to see new visions.
All: May that hope be resurrected in us again this day.

Prayer of Invocation

Come Holy Spirit, come into this place.
Come into every heart and every open hand
for in this place we know that our Redeemer lives.
We know it and we believe it but our words do not always show it.
We open our mouths only to reveal more of our doubts than our hopes.
So, come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come and mediate between the words that we say.
Move through every pause and whisper through every silence
so that our eyes can behold your hope, rather than our own.
So that we can see your grace and hope
standing so close beside us that it becomes our own.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
Come into this place today, we pray.

Invitation to the Table (Responsive)

One: You have heard it said how some Sadduccees came to him saying that there was no resurrection. They had questions but no answers. You may too have heard it said that those with faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, but you had more questions than faith.
All:  Christ invites to come to this table whether we doubt or believe. Christ invites us again, as he has so many times before, to partake of the questions that we have not yet answered.
One: Christ invites us to find life and find it abundantly in the ordinary gifts offered on this plate and in this cup. Might we find here, again or perhaps for the very first time, that our Redeemer lives. There is new life to be shared and hope to be restored.
All: O that we might live, and live abundantly!

I missed last week. Maybe you noticed. Oops! Still, check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!