Discernment in Coronatide

I never expected that I would be a stay at home mom.

I never dreamed that I would find myself isolated in a city where I know no one because a pandemic has forced us to isolate since we arrived here. I’m not even sure how to begin new friendships with the risk assessment analysis of the various choices people are making in the pandemic. It feels like a bad place to start. I don’t really know where to begin with that.

I never imagined being here now on the other side of thirty-three. It has been eight years since that birthday passed but it still feels surreal. It was that birthday that I never thought I’d live beyond because that was when she died. My mother died at that age and so I was convinced that I would meet the same fate. My eldest daughter turned three just a few weeks ago and I felt a new wave of anxiety arise. I was four when my mother was diagnosed. I only have one year left. What will I teach my children in that time? What do I hope they will remember about my life and our joy?

These are the things that aren’t to be said too loudly but these are the thoughts that are drifting in and out of my daydreams. I never thought I would be here. What does it mean to be here? What is it that I should do with this blessed time?

I decided I wasn’t going to wait anymore.

I don’t want to wait for the right time because none of us are promised that time. It might come. It might but it is not promised. We are given the opportunity to live and to live in such a way that we love this world into something better. I pray I’m doing that.

I also never could have believed that my family would be picking up and moving overseas in a pandemic but we will do just that within a few months. My husband got a super fantastic opportunity for his career in the United States Army and we will be moving our children and our lives to Germany next month.

While the pandemic has caused lots of struggle and grief, it has also provided opportunity for a stay at home mom like me. It has allowed so many of us to be at concerts, classes and involved in conversations that we couldn’t have possibly been present to if distance and cost had been what it was in the Times Before. For me, it meant that I didn’t have to wait anymore on continuing my studies in spiritual direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The three-week January term with children and my husband’s intense work hours hasn’t been possible but the pandemic made it so that I could spend an insane amount of intense time on Zoom and explore discernment as a spiritual practice.

It means that I am now taking steps toward seeking new directees in my spiritual direction practice.

Holy Threads is how I’ve described my work which feels truer than when I first imagined this thing before my first child was born. Now there is quite a tangle of possibility and opportunity in those threads that I am trying to unravel and behold in wonder and delight.

It’s a practice I want to share with others — across the ocean and through the wonders of your favorite video chatting platform and mine — in wondering where these tiny threads are leading us in God’s wonder. And so, I hope that you will think of me in referring the people in your congregation and clergy circles for spiritual direction. You can contact me here.

It is only one of the loose threads that I am discerning right now. An opportunity has arisen where I might partner with a congregation to offer both spiritual direction and occasional liturgical resources. That pastor is very creative on his own and so I would be adding to his creativity but it leaves me to wonder what might be ahead for the pandemic prayers we have shared.

I am not sure what worship looks like as more and more of our communities in the United States are vaccinated. I know that many congregations in this country are taking steps toward hybrid worship in their sanctuaries and outdoor chapels and that many of those congregations are not ready to let go of the worshipful experiences that have been shared online. I started writing these prayers to support clergy in this bizarre season of Coronatide where the prayers in our prayer books were not quite right for the moment. I did it because I love liturgy. I needed an outlet. I wanted to do something that would matter. I wanted to be one of the helpers.

I have received so many kind words even in Holy Week when pastors are so very busy with gratitude for the things that I have offered. It feels like it matters. It has given me hope to share in this practice of imagining what worship should look like now so that now I’m wondering what might come next and I don’t know yet.

I do know that with the move overseas in my very near future, I am especially interested in more collaboration. I have written these prayers while my children have napped. It’s been a solitary practice and a good one. It’s been such a joy but after a long year of isolation and more lockdown in a foreign land, I am eager to share in some creativity in imagining worship in the next year of the pandemic. I want to be in more conversation about what is important and meaningful in this moment.

I had the honor of curating prayers for two pastors sharing in a preaching series through the Epiphany season and it was so wonderful to hear their brilliance and listen to what traditions are holding fast in online worship and where innovation is possible. It was amazing to hear my words in their voice while watching their livestreams. I loved all of the tweaks that they made. I want to do more of that.

I want to do more where we are encouraging each other and daydreaming together. I don’t know if it’s possible. It might be too much but I’m daydreaming about hosting seasonal worship planning workshops over Zoom. There would be a price tag because I’m slowly learning to claim my worth. I hope that’s not a deterrent after a whole year of free resources because I starting imagining how we’d share in this practice across so many different contexts and iterations of worship. I got excited. I would love if those conversations would lead to curating particular resources that you don’t have the time or energy to create, dear pastor, but you still can’t shake this great idea you had. I’d love to make that happen for you.

I feel like we are on the cusp of something right now as the pandemic shifts into whatever this next phase will be. It’s not over. It will not be over until our children are fully vaccinated and even then I’m not sure. I’m not one of the brilliant scientists leading us into this unknown future but it feels like there is a shift. There is enough of a shift that I want to make room for my spirit to imagine new wonders. I want to collaborate with you in realizing this goodness and if that excites you too I hope you’ll take 5 minutes and fill out this shared discernment questionnaire so that we can do great things together. I believe we can. I never would have imagined myself here but there is always resurrection and I’m excited to get to work in making that hope come alive for you and me.

Words to Speak to the Unknown

I am as uncertain what tomorrow holds as anyone. I’ve done my part. I’ve cast my ballot and now I can only pray that I live in a land that chooses love over hate.

I pray so much and fumble for the right words to speak my hope. I admire you so much, dear pastors, for your courage and strength in reminding us what the gospel calls us to do and be.

I find myself tripping over words in my worry for what 2020 will dish up for us now. When I don’t know how to pray, I sing broken and out of tune. Only my kids really suffer the discordant praise while we are under lockdown. Still, I sing.

i

I don’t know why this is the song on my heart right now but it’s what I’ve been singing all morning. It got me thinking about other words that speak to the unknown fears so many are carrying right now. There are other songs, of course. Even when we cannot sing together, there are hymns that can proclaim our hope like a good poem. Among my favorites are these wonders of words:

  • This Is My Song
  • O for a World
  • God of Grace and God of Glory
  • For the Healing of the Nations
  • We Would Be Building
  • Toda la Tierra
  • Come, O Long-Expected Jesus

I haven’t included links as I hope that these are familiar enough that you can sing a few bars even if you were confused why Advent songs appear on this list. Isn’t that how we feel right now, like the whole earth is waiting even if it’s actually just those within the borders of these United States of America? There are two more newer hymns that I would add to this list. One of these songs was included in the All Saints liturgy I shared a few weeks ago. Those songs are:

There are, obviously, poems that dare to name our hopes and fears of all the years of 2020. (That carol is another I’ve found myself singing lately.) Here are some poems that have spoken to my heart recently and I hope dare to dream of what will be beyond the election results.

There are certainly more words to speak to this moment. You, dear pastors, are offering so many wonderful words of life. Thank you for reminding us all to hope.

Pandemic Prayers for Proper 25

My constant refrain in these days is to bellow “what is time?”

I think I might intend it as a joke when it shows up as a blue bubble reply in a text message chain, but I’m not really sure. Time feels elusive. I decorated my house with tons of fake pumpkins (real ones rot fast in Texas and it is gross) in order to create some sense of time. Or was it that I wanted to feel festive? Or that I hoped that my children would remember these strange days with delight even while we were stuck in the house?

Psalm 90 made me laugh out loud after reading that fourth verse and so I find myself drawn there to meditate on the mystery of time in the pandemic. I’m thinking particularly about the way that time is unfolding in our congregations. My sweet Texas church is building a time capsule for future generations to muse over how we spent these days. At the same time, they are in the middle of an interim season asking all of the big questions about what it means to be a church now and into the future. As US churches are considering the harvest, the gifts of stewardship and Thanksgiving, it feels important to keep God’s vision on these pandemic days — and I don’t mean like all the white men who have already published books and articles about what churches have learned from the pandemic.

We do not know yet. We are not gods.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Matthew 22:34-46

We hang between
question and answer.
We hang in the tension
between what is known 
and unknown. We hang
on every word 
of hope and possibility.
We hang our
whole lives
on the law and the prophets
trying so very hard to
love God with all our hearts
with all our souls and 
with all our mind.
And so, we come
to hang out
by internet wires
and wi-fi devices
to find answers
to questions we haven't 
yet thought to ask.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 90:1-6

Dwell with us
here, O God.
Dwell in
our screens
and in our hearts 
as you have from
generation to generation.

Dwell with us
in this time 
of worship
enough that we can 
feel the ground begin to shift
and new horizons emerge.

Dwell with us
in all our pandemic 
confusion and worry
to find new
dreams and wonders
for ourselves
for our church
and for the world.
Dwell in 
our worship,
O God.

Prayer of Confession
Inspired by Psalm 90:1-6

For a thousand years
in your sight, Holy One,
are like yesterday
when it is past.
That is fine
for you but
we cannot remember
yesterday. It feels
indistinct from 
any of the yesterdays
before it. We want
to feel reassured
by your measure 
of time, Holy One,
but it does not feel like
this pandemic season 
will just sweep away.
We want to watch
the night and the day
with your vision
to see this world
and our dreams
renewed each morning
but our hope has faded
and our patience has withered
into nothing. Forgive us
for what we cannot 
see and expand our vision
with your boundless love.
Amen.

Writing these prayers made me remember this lovely essay on roads and pandemic wandering by Emily Scott from several months ago. An excerpt might be lovely as a meditation before the selected scripture for preaching or it might fit as an excellent illustration somewhere in that beautiful sermon you are writing, dear pastor. As it helps, this would be the section I’d feel called to highlight:

Start looking, and you’ll see roads all over the Bible. These solitary travelers journeyed in situations of great uncertainty, much like our own. Their destinations may have been clear, but their futures were less so. Somewhere along the way, however, they always encountered something unexpected: the astonishing presence of the sacred.

Jacob, for instance, ended up in a wrestling match with God as he journeyed. A court official of the Ethiopian queen is baptized by the side of a thoroughfare. Two disciples trudging along a dusty byway, having heard the news of Jesus’ death, find that he was walking with them all along. And Paul hears God’s voice and ends up blind on the way to Damascus.

A road is an unlikely metaphor for a pandemic that has us stuck at home. But what happens when we see ourselves as purposefully scattered — sent out on an unexpected journey, traveling solo? In the bible, the road is often a place of desolation and isolation, but also of encounter. A road has direction; it carries us from an old life to a new one.

Emily Soctt

I would also be inclined to find an opportunity for this hymn to be sung in some way.

Finally, I shared a Prayer for the Church on the RevGalBlogPals’ weekly Worship Words that could also fit with this slight bend toward harvest and thanksgiving. Though it picks up on the epistle from last week, it could also be used along with this theme. You can find it here.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

I am always praying for you, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians. 

The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

Recipe for the Future Church

Every time we dare to talk about what the future of the church will be it feels like cooking. It feels like we are trying to divine a recipe — wondering if a dash of this or a pinch of that might just do the trick. In fact, most of ministry feels like that.

Together, as disciples, we are trying to figure out how to create this awesome possibility of the realm of God. Jesus never told us exactly how to do it. He didn’t leave us any kind of cookbook or even a clear set of ingredients. We know that there will be love and there will be justice, but how much? How much will create what God has dreamed could be? Of course, there are other questions that we ask when we are imagining the future of the church. It’s not just the realm of God we’re imagining. It’s whether the institution will survive. It’s the question of whether or not anyone will ever come and if the message we offer is still relevant.

These are tough questions. They are questions that can’t be answered even though we try very hard. The fact is: we just don’t have all of the information. We are not sure what compels people. We are still learning. We may have been set in our ways for a long, long time. Most churches have and many are ready to answer this question. They want to know what the future holds. They want to be given the answers. We all want the answers. But, I gotta say, I don’t have the answers. I’m a professional leader in the institutional church but I am not sure. I can say everything that I think. I can lead a whole bunch of exercises that make the churched among us feel like we’re back in youth group. And I do. I do those things. But, the questions are so persistent and the answers are so illusive that the questions start to overwhelm. It’s then that we need to read.

There is nothing like a book to challenge our hopes and dreams about the future. Ask any librarian. Books challenge us to expand our horizons and allow us to hear ourselves. That’s why I love book studies within congregations. They shift the conversation so the questions are not quite so loud as our answers. We hear what really matters.

That’s when things really get cooking. So that’s what we did at St. Peter’s United ChurBeyond_Resistance_cover_largech of Christ in Knauertown, Pennsylvania. We just finished reading John Dorhauer’s Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. There are many books that could challenge us to imagine the future but I chose this one because of its author. John Dorhauer is the newly elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and he wrote this book about what he has learned about how the world is changing. It is very much written from his perspective. It’s a book that unpacks postmodernism which it may or not do very well. (Some in our group did not think Dorhauer went far enough.)

What I find most compelling about the book is the challenge not just to think about how one individual congregation might choose to define their future and their mission but how we might think about all of our missional resources. The future of one church cannot be separated from the future of the churches that surround it. It can’t be removed from the future of the denomination it claims. This book is a challenge to think about how we might partner. It’s not as simple as whisk or stir. It requires more of us just as reading a book like this one challenge congregations to think beyond their own resistances.

If your church is trying to imagine the future, but find yourselves tripping over the question, try this book. Here’s a simple recipe to follow.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

It is indeed a recipe for future.