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.

 

 

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.

Everything is New

Last week, I had an interview with a church seeking an interim pastor. I knew what would happen even before that meeting. I knew it because it’s what always happens. As I sat there talking to these faith-filled, hopeful people, I came to love them. It wasn’t even a slow progression. It basically walloped me from the moment I said “hello” on the church’s steps.

Love is where ministry starts. It has to start with love because there is no way that we can say and do hard things without love. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m grateful for the people who have shown me this love both as a pastor and a fellow disciple. So it happened again. They told me their story and I loved them even more. My smile broadened. My cheeks hurt as I got in my car to drive home. But, it was then that I was able to admit something to myself that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe yet.

I couldn’t believe it because I could only hear that question that I didn’t know how to answer: So, what are you doing with yourself now? It’s a question that has been asked all summer by friends and family. Ever since people found out that my husband and I were moving to Kansas, they’ve wanted to know what church I’ll be serving and where. And then, when I told them that it wasn’t likely that I would get to serve a church in the very short time that we’d be here, they’ve furrowed their brows and asked: So what are you going to do then?

I haven’t felt like I had an answer to this question. I have really, really wanted an answer to this question but I haven’t had one. I wasn’t sure.

And then, I met with this church to talk about their past and present. I dared to imagine how I could be their interim pastor and realize that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. They are lovely people and I really wanted to help them. I knew I could help them but sitting in my car on the drive home was the first time I asked myself what I wanted from these four months. What was it that I wanted? What was it that I needed?

The first thought was honestly that this summer sucked. It was a good time with my dear friend Corey and I’m so glad to have strengthen our bond these many years after college, but it was also the first three months of my married life. And I was in Pennsylvania while he was in Kansas. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It sucked. We’ve done long distance and the military will probably require us to do it again but we chose it this time. I chose it because I wanted to have something on my resume for a year. That sounds callous, but it’s true. Just as callous and true as it felt to withdraw my name from this lovely congregation’s search for an interim pastor, but that is what I did yesterday. And it is right. It is good.

Over a year ago, I blogged about starting over again. I’ve started and restarted and tried to understand what God is calling me to now when everything is so new. I’ve been at this a year and still everything feels so new.

The apostle imagines this is a blessing to the church in Corinth, saying unto them, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, CEB). I am a bit uncertain about the blessing bit but new things have arrived. That much is true. New things continue to surprise me. I am not choosing a pulpit but I am choosing my marriage.

I don’t know if I’ll get this time again but if we can swing it, I want to be around on weekends. I don’t want to be away from him in his downtime. I want to be here. I’m choosing  that, but I’m choosing much more than that as anyone that has ever asked me “So what are you doing now?” knows well. I am trying to be a new creation in this new season of life. I  am choosing my marriage but not just my marriage.

img_1648I’m choosing writing. I’m trying to carve out time for the writing process even daring to wade into the National Novel Writing Month tomorrow. I won’t be writing a novel. I’ll be continuing to write this memoir of my own grief and loss that keeps changing every time I sit down to write it. There are other things I’m writing too and much more that I would like to write.

I’m choosing a new path in spiritual direction. I am honored to have been accepted just last month to the San Francisco Theological Seminary to delve into their certificate program in spiritual direction. I start in January. The check is in the mail.  I’m nervous and excited but that is how it is with new things. And right now, everything feels new.

I’m choosing new things — wonderful things — but everything is so very new.

 

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.

How We Write Clergy

I am a character in a book.

I learned of this news from a Facebook message. A member of the community had written a book and he wanted to know if it was alright to name the church in the book. That wasn’t my call anymore. I was no longer the pastor there, except that I was in the book.

While I was still in ministry in that place, I had had coffee with Ned Hayes many times. He was someone who came to worship on occasion. It was always clear to me that he was seeking something. He was incredibly well read. He’d read all kinds of theology and had even gone to seminary but there was still something he was looking for. I did not know in the middle of writing another book and that I would end up being a character. Of course, I said yes. By all means, print it. Publish it! I can’t wait to read how those cups of coffee and mornings in church translate into a character like Pastor Ilsa.

See what he did there? He changed the name by one letter. No doubt he was trying to avoid the connection to Disney’s Frozen that I cannot quite escape. Smart move. I borrowed a copy from my goddaughter and started to read at the pool.

14045951_1068662506550170_8991399356609680619_n.jpgEagle Tree is the story of a boy growing up in Olympia. He is a boy that is somewhere on the spectrum of autism and it is his voice that leads the reader through the journey of saving this tree in the LBA Woods. When I lived in Olympia, there were signs all over town to save this particular park. This is the fictional story of how that park is saved from the hands of developers by this boy named March who sometimes goes to church at the United Churches of Olympia. Church is a confusing place for March. It is a place where the pastor tells strange stories that are true, but not factually true.

This is how Pastor Ilsa is introduced. His mother drags him to church and March offers this narration:

Ilsa says she likes to talk about God because she cannot entirely understand God, but that is not how I feel at all. I need to understand things all the way down to the root.

Though Ned denies it, this could have been a note he jotted down while we were having coffee. This is totally something I would say. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did say something exactly like this. There are, however, other things that don’t line up about me. It is fiction, after all. Pastor Ilsa is married to a professor at the local college by the name of Pierre. His name sounds equally exotic to my husband’s name but their careers are totally different. Ilsa was also a botanist before she came into ministry. There was some kind of accident that shifted her focus. Again, this is not me but makes for a good character. Most surprising to me: Ilsa is old. He husband has grey in his beard. This is not a young pastor. For this, I am admittedly sad. Clergy are so often imagined to be sage and wise because of their many years. It somehow makes them approachable.

I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I’m just interested in how we write clergy. I’m interested in how clergy are portrayed in the media. Consider AMC’s Preacher for example. This is nothing like the pastor that Ned Hayes writes.

Ned portrays someone far less of a bad ass, though she is a police chaplain which I thought was pretty cool. Maybe because Ned isn’t worried about ratings or sensationalism that television seems to require or maybe because he sees that there is something that good that does happen in church. And he thinks that clergy are a part of that. The pastor he writes is approachable and caring. She has an incredible bond with March. She is able to get on his level and welcome him as a full child of God. I can only pray that I do this every day in my ministry, then and now. It is really what I hope not just for clergy but for all Christians.

Ultimately, this is not a book about Christians or even clergy. It’s a book about connections. It’s a book about how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us. No matter what separates and divides, we can come together to do good. We can change the world around us. We can make a difference. I am not in the least bit surprised that this is Ned’s heart or that he still sometimes worships with this brave group of people in Olympia that shares the same hope.

The Imperfect Pastor

There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like I’m a good pastor. I have never felt perfect. I can’t imagine ever feeling that confident in this holy and sacred work. Most of the time I feel like I’m not quite living up to this calling.

I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t want to talk about the ways that clergy are held to a high standard of morality and faith which makes it hard to be a person. I don’t want to talk about any of that because what is really on my mind is one particular pastor by the name of Jack Miller.

DSC_2625_D3Full-LJack was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco twenty something years ago. He
was, in fact, the pastor of that congregation up until 2002. And he’s the subject of the chapter I’m working on right now. For, you see, Jack was my mom’s pastor.

When she learned she was dying, when she was trying to come to grips with what that would mean, someone told her to talk to Jack. Someone advised that he might be a good listening ear. And he was. She would sit there in the balcony of that church next to Jack and talk to him about everything she hoped and feared. She dragged us to church on Sunday. She taught me that the church was a place where we could ask hard questions. And that was because of Jack. When she needed it most, Jack made a space for her. He listened. He prayed. He sat at her bedside. As she was dying, he was always at our house.

This was weird to me. My grandparents had been church goers, but my parents were not. They didn’t care much for that kind of thing until my mom was dying. When she knew she was dying, everything changed and Jack seemed to be always there. (He wasn’t, of course, but it seemed that way to seven year old me.) Jack made a big impact on me. He was a huge help to my mom but Jack was not perfect.

Many years later, the news broke that Jack was being charged with sexual misconduct. It was in The New York Times. I ended up Googling him yesterday. I realized that there were still questions I wanted to ask him. I wondered if maybe I could find him. But, all I found was news story after news story about this scandal. It is revealed how he struggled with his sexuality which may or may not have led to his drinking. The members of that church knew that he wasn’t perfect. They knew that he had some demons. I don’t know if they made the same space for those struggles as Jack made for my mom, but eventually, he was removed. He was forced to resign. He was removed of his ministerial standing. He is, now, what we would call a bad guy.

What I’m writing right now in the book I’m writing has nothing to do with this later history. It pains me that Jack’s ministry ended this way. Though, I am not totally sure that’s true. I seem to recall that he continued to pastor a home church made up of former members of that church he was forced to leave. I wish he hadn’t made that move but he is human, just as I am human. He was called into this work and he loved it. That was obvious to me even as a little girl. So, I want to write about that man that presided over my mother’s funeral and sat at her bedside.

I want to write about the man who jumped at the chance to take a ten-year old girl out to pizza to talk about the mom she missed. He ate a lot of pizza together. We drank too many sodas and Jack was who he had always been to me. He was someone who would listen. He was a pastor. He guided me back toward the light. He helped me to claim resurrection even if he couldn’t find that same hope for himself. The fact is: I never knew his struggles. Just as the people I pastor don’t know what’s going on in my inner life, I have no idea what was going on inside Jack. It pains me to read these news stories and I don’t want to write about it.

I don’t want to tell that part of the story, but I don’t want to edit out his name. But, that’s what I’m doing. I’m struggling to write this part. I’m trying to describe him without naming him because I don’t want him to be reduced to a scandal. Aren’t we all better than our worst moments? Isn’t there goodness to be found in everything? Is there no hope of redemption? Isn’t there? He is not a character. Jack is a real person who might one day read these words about him. He is as flawed and human as I am. He was not perfect. I doubt that he is now but I want to write his story without having to explain this scandal because it’s not part of my story. It’s not the Jack I knew. Still, the blinking cursor wins

More Questions Than Answers

old-church-591690_1920

It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

Starting Over Again

hands-way-guide-tourist

My sermon ended yesterday with the bold proclamation that God is just beginning to do a new thing. The words have been ratting around in my head since I first typed them. Pushing and prodding and nudging toward this amazing possibility that no one really understands.

I have to be honest. The whole idea makes me a bit tired. Not just because the church is changing and the future is unknown within the institution but because it’s the reality of my life. God has been doing a new thing this year. God gave me this amazing gift of love. God encouraged me to follow that love and move across country which meant leaving the church I was serving. It meant leaving the life I was trying to create and start over again.

Let me be clear: starting over sucks. It’s exhausting to try to reimagine what life could be when you have gotten so comfortable with the way life is. I’ve heard these complaints from church members so many times and it’s not that I didn’t understand. I did. I do. And I’ve tried so hard to take my own advice — and that of every book on change I’ve ever read — and try lots of things. I’ve tried to throw caution to the wind and imagine crazy things. In doing so, I have had a bunch of failures. Last year, I started a ministry that started to gain some traction and then it tanked. Maybe I tanked. I’m still not sure but all of the sudden it was so clear that this wasn’t for me. I still don’t think it was a bad idea. I just wasn’t the one to make it happen.

Now, as this new year dawns, I’m getting ready to start over again. God is really, truly just beginning to do a new thing. This year, I will get married. (Holy moly. I am getting married.)  It is going to be an epic multi-day event with so much love and so much wine and so many beautiful people. And then, we move again. I get to start over again.

I’m trying to summon all the enthusiasm I can muster. I’m trying to live on the edge of hope and wonder even though — if I’m honest — the prospect makes me tired. Even so, I haven’t stopped googling. I haven’t stopped daydreaming about what will come next in the new year as I try so very hard to chart points on a map into the unknown.

Map Point #1: It all begins with a wedding. I am over-planning the crap out of this event because it’s what I do best. When I say it’s going to be epic, I am not kidding.

Map Point #2: Shortly thereafter, I will return to the place we call home now. I will finish my charge as an interim pastor at this sweet little church. I will bless them in their future.

Map Point #3: And then, I will join my beloved in this new place with lots of BBQ. That’s when the adventure really begins and anything could happen. But, rather than get scared and overwhelmed, the first part is to settle into this new place.

Map Point #4: At the same time I will be settling into this new place, I’ll be sending off applications to continue my education. Gosh. It’s scary to type this and name this thing I’ve been thinking about aloud. Now you’ll know if I don’t get in. Ack! But, here’s the honest truth: I’m seeking to begin a holy adventure into spiritual direction. It’s a call that’s been getting louder and louder so that I feel I can no longer say no. Fingers crossed, I’ll begin this educational wonder in January 2017 — but that means I gotta complete an application or two.

Map Point #5: Of course, I can’t just imagine one education opportunity in the new year so I’m trying to figure out when I might take Part Two of interim ministry training. I am loving the challenging work I get to do right now. I want to be better at it. I want to know all the things which means more education.

Map Point #6: Last year, as I started over, I get better and better about answering the call to write. I even got published. There’s a book I started writing last year — and one that I hope to finish this year. It’s a book about what I know best. It’s a book about grief encompassing those things that I’ve learned from the wonderful people in the churches I’ve served and the lessons I’ve struggled to realize over so many years of mourning my mother. I haven’t a clue if it will be published but it’s a point on the map this year.

God is just beginning to do a new thing. It’s just starting in the dawning of the new year. No matter how I might plan, there are things that I can’t pinpoint on any map. God will do what God does and surprise me with wonders. Or so I pray not only for myself but for you too.

What new things is God just beginning in your life right now?

Called to the Local Church

This morning, while on the second retreat as part of the Beyond the Call: Entreprenuerial Ministry, I offered this testimony. It is a truth that I struggled to say out loud. It is a truth I struggled to admit to myself because I’m not the quitting type, but I am in the thick of the discernment. I’m trying to figure out the right path in this new arena of (im)possible things and what I’m finding again and again is something I already knew to be true: I am called to a local church pastor. I’ve been afraid that it is not possible. Loving my future husband has meant big changes in my career but it hasn’t removed the fundamental truth that I’m a local church pastor. Finding this courage and faith within myself, I offered this testimony this morning. In doing so, I’m clarifying my call. I’m quitting this entreprenuerial thing and recommitting myself to the ministry to which I’ve always been called.

Here is how I tried to reveal this truth this morning.

I keep going back.

I keep going back to this one moment in my first call where I was sitting in a coffee shop with a young mother of three encouraging her to believe the crazy, impossible hope that she wasn’t alone. It’s what the church is all about. I made an impassioned speech that boils down to this: this is what we do as the body of Christ. We carry that great commission straight on through to this very moment only to say, just as Christ did, “You are not alone. I am with you to the end of the age.”
She was quiet before she challenged me with this question: “Who does that for you?”

I keep going back to that story with that mother of three and her frustrating question because for the very first time in my entire professional career, I get to have church. I get to have a group of people that are ready and eager to be there for me. I get to have church because I’m in the Army now.

I’m not serving a local church. I left my second call and moved all of the way across the country to begin my new life with my future husband, the Captain in the U.S. Army, where I get to be part of a community. It’s not church — not really — but in many ways it is.

And I’m not willing to give that up. I’m not willing to give up the possibly of having that community within the military because there might be ministry to do. There’s ministry to be done. Of that, I have no doubt. There are progressive people in the military that are hungry for something — but I don’t need to be their salvation. I don’t. I don’t need to be the leader or the entrepreneur or even the first follower. Somebody else can do that work.

Because I keep coming back to that conversation with that mother of three. She hit it. I need community but there’s more than that. Something I didn’t really know until I helped out a colleague out a few weeks ago. A member of his church was dying. He’s on medial leave. He couldn’t go. I got that call — and as my fiancé told me — there was a light in me that couldn’t be put out. That light shined so brightly because I got to do what I loved most.

And what I love most is church. It’s where my passion is. It’s where my heart is. What I told that mother of three is what I most believe because I am a local church pastor.

I am called to serve the broken, bruised and beaten people that make up the body of Christ. It’s my greatest task — my very calling — to remind each and one of those people who dare to proclaim the impossible truth that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior that there is abundant life ahead. I don’t care how many people might say that the church is dying. That’s a crappy story and will only come true if we continue to say it over and over again. But, go ahead. Tell your sob story. Because what I’ve got is hope. What I’ve got is faith. What I’ve got is unending enthusiasm for something as simple and boring and radical as pastoral ministry.

I keep going back to this: I was made to be a local church pastor proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

I don’t quite know what this means. It’s interesting to me that those that heard these words assumed that I’m still in this entreprenuerial thing. It wasn’t clear that this kind of work just isn’t in me. I only know that I’m actually supposed to be rolling up my sleeves not building a new ministry, but helping existing congregations renew and revive.

It’s this work that gets me most excited. It is my passion.

The Time Has Come

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I have been filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 17:1-24. You can find the audio — and even a video to watch — of the sermon I preached entitled The Time Has Come on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Accompanied

This was my very last time in this beautiful worship space but be sure to check out upcoming opportunities for worship and service on the church website.