Monday, January 5, 2015

Sacraments and Endings


A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time you can see through to something deep inside time. 
Generally speaking, Protestants have two official sacraments (the Lord's Supper, Baptism) and Roman Catholics have these two plus five others (Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony). In other words, at such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life. 
Needless to say, church isn't the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, at any place, and to anybody. Watching something get born. Making love. A walk on the beach. Somebody coming to see you when you're sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger's eyes and finding out they are not a stranger's. 
If we weren't blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.
I have always loved these words by Frederick Buechner. I found them in a book given to me by the committee that walked with me toward ordination. I used them when I found myself having to describe the power of sacraments to the first group of teenagers I led through confirmation. That seems like a long time ago now.

It wasn't. In the grand scheme of things, I haven't yet been ordained ten years. That was only 2007. It was a mere 8 years ago. Big freakin' deal. But so much has happened since then. I have moved away from the ministry of that church. I have become the pastor of another. I fell in love and now I'm preparing to leave another church where each and every moment I can't help but feel the "almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life."And let's be honest, all of this feels a bit more poignant because I don't know what is next. I don't know if I'll be pastoring a church. I don't know what my ministry will look like. So everything in my senses is that much more heightened.

So, there are tears. Obviously. There are tears.

I'm trying to write a sermon about the mystery of baptism. I'm thinking about baptizing a child who is dear to me and to whom I'll become a godparent in the midst of the ritual we'll share. But, I can't stop thinking about communion yesterday. In both services, I was wiping away tears as I tried to voice the liturgy. As I tried to proclaim the wholeness from our brokenness, my voice cracked as I looked into the faces of these people I love, these people I am leaving. In many ways, I'm ready to be done. I'm ready to conclude the work of this church -- but I'm not quite ready to let go of the ministry of loving these people. So that I couldn't help myself from thinking about the diagnoses I know about that have been trusted as prayers and the hurts that others have told me when they finally had the courage. I know that the work of the church will go on without me. I know that the ministry doesn't hinge upon me (or any pastor). I know all of this. Too well.

But, it doesn't stop me from wondering who will carry that prayer when I'm gone. It doesn't stop me from worrying about how this church will learn to bear each other's burdens and do the thing that most churches claim to do better than they actually do: tell the truth. It's my prayer for this church and every church. I so hope that we will be broken open. That we will learn to repent and seek forgiveness. That we'll stop arguing about the words but allow the experience to change us. And just be there for each other. Be there as Christ is there. Christ is always there. We're just trying to catch up of the one going ahead of us. So that I suppose it makes sense to cry when breaking the bread and baptizing with water.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Poetry for Lessons and Carols


Several years ago, Bromleigh McCleneghan offered this possibility of poetry that might be included in our telling of the Christmas story. It's a great list with excellent reflection as to why one would include poetry that you should totally read on Fidelia's Sisters.

In telling this story -- year after year -- I have found that it to be vitally important to find new ways to proclaim the incarnation. It can quickly become a sweet story with some impossible truths that no one wants to tackle. I don't want that to happen. Because I believe in a stillspeaking God -- a God who is still coming into the broken places of this world, a God who is still living in flesh, a God who is still using our words and our questions toward the possibility of hope. And though that stillspeaking hope is there in Matthew and Luke and John, our ears only hear the familiarity of the story rather than the radical justice.

Every year, I look for new poetry to add to the telling of this radical justice -- but I can't help but return to some of my favorites. I repeat them. Because I love them. The words still startle and delight me. I want to hear them. I need to hear them and be reminded that this is what the incarnation is all about. But, as God is stillspeaking, I am always looking for some new poems. I have found that there is not a tremendous resource on the Google if you go looking for Lessons and Carols with poetry. Bromleigh's article pops up first -- as it should. But, we need more poetry.

Hear me poets!?! We need you.

Slowly but surely, I add more to my collection of good poems. Some of my favorites will always include:

BC:AD by U.A. Fanthorpe
Those Who Saw the Star by Julia Esquivel
First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle
The Risk of Birth by Madeleine L’Engle
Christmas Comes by Ann Weems
To Listen, To Look by Ann Weems
All Who Seek You by Rainier Maria Rilke
On the Mystery of Incarnation by Denise Levertov
Che Jesus by Anonymous
Salutation and Descent by Luci Shaw
Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte
The Nativity by Mary Karr
Christmas Comes by Maren Tirabassi
Hush by Lucinda Hynett
Song for the Poor at Christmas by Christine Rodgers

This year, I decided that the silly animated telling of the Christmas story from Luke 2 just doesn't work for the congregation I'm serving now. It's a bit too informal and requires a bit more formality so I'm doing a Lessons and Carols experience that is specifically designed for children. The above poems truly do not work so I had to find some poems with simpler language. As we tell the story on Christmas Eve, we'll include these two poems:

Wishing by Agnes Mary
Let Us Keep Christmas Beautiful by Garnett Ann Schultz

What words of poetry help you to believe in the radical hope of Christmas?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Third Sunday in January

It’s 1963 again. These words ring so true. They speak to what I'm feeling and seeing. It feels like we've gone back in time -- to an era when I wasn't even alive -- to a time that I have heard about every single year on the third Sunday of January.

Remembering Dr. King, in each church I've served, we've marveled that there were some who marched in Selma. Some of them sitting in our sanctuaries. Some that were there that saw with their own eyes the injustice that we have never witnessed ourselves in the white communities that I have called home. First in my hometown and then in Maine which was said to be the whitest state in the union and now in Washington where the population of the town I currently call home is 83.7% white. On that third Sunday of January, each and every year, we've preached tolerance. We've insisted that segregation and brutality and hatred are not God's way and thanked God that that past is behind us. We've come so far. But, now, it feels like 1963 again.

We haven't come that far. We haven't realized the justice that we thought we had so that now the nation is exploding in protest. Not just the nation. I was in Canada for Thanksgiving and was startled to see Canadians protesting through the streets with signs proclaiming #blacklivesmatter.

#blacklivesmatter Protest in Victoria, Canada
Black lives matter. It's something I've been longing to say in worship. To preach. To organize. To pray. But, my prayers have been silent. I haven't raised my voice even though it is the weight upon my shoulders. Even though it is one of the protests that bring to God in this Advent Season. I wonder if I'm on the offense. I wonder how I can be.

My ministry in Olympia is ending in less than two months. As much as I might like to be a leader in the conversation, I know that I can't. I can't be the voice of the church. I can only encourage the members of this congregation to find their own way to live out that social justice ideal that we talk about on the third Sunday of January. I'm not even sure how to do that. In the back of my mind, there is this image from before the December 11th protest in Boston and there is this quote from The Daily Beast:

Seeing white people vocalize the value of black lives and oppose racist institutions is great, but only if they are taking those same values into their day-to-day experiences.

Like so many clergy, especially those that are not people of color, I'm taking the long view. And I hate saying that. It sounds horrible even to my own ears. I'm wondering how this will change our conversations about diversity and tolerance. I'm wondering how we will do our ministry differently and how we might actually step outside of our buildings to proclaim a different kind of faith that even the Civil Rights Movement didn't quite capture. And I know that this makes me part of the problem. Rachel Hackenberg says this way better than I can. Because I'm not being vocal. I'm not stepping out. I'm quietly reflecting. I'm posting articles on Facebook. I'm mostly silent and wondering how to observe that third Sunday in January this year.

Because it will be different. It has to be different.

Our day-to-day experience has to change.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Burst of Creativity

Once upon a time, I did art.

My grandmother taught me to paint watercolors. I would escape with my great aunt to magically beautiful places she once shared with her sister -- but now it was she that was teaching me to paint. I went to college and became an art major. I was an art major. That now seems baffling.

Sometimes, every now and again, I'll do some art. I've set up a studio in each home I've had and sometimes I even use it. There is even evidence on this blog. Oh, you can even find hints that I took my paints outside like I was taught to do by my masters. I've painted prayers and even wrote about it for Fidelia's Sisters. A few weeks ago, I went into my studio and did that thing that I do where I pretend I'm going to paint again. I painted and then it... stopped.

I need a burst of creativity so I'm going to claim it for Advent. My whole world feels like it's turning upside down as I try to figure out exactly what's next after I leave Olympia to follow my heart. Will I have job? Will I be in ministry? What in the world is going to happen? I don't have answers to these questions even though I'm working really hard at figuring it out. This is something artists know. Staring at blank paper or a lump of clay, they don't always know what is going to happen. They don't know what they will create. Michelangelo is said to have seen what form needed to exist in each piece of marble he chose, but I don't buy it. Genius though he might be. It's not how it works for me. Creating always starts with a gesture. It starts with a movement that slowly begins to fill in the page until something starts to appear. Something like the Christ Child or something like art.

So, I started with that burst. I created an image of the cover of the bulletin that will slowly morph into something new over the next few weeks. But, for now, this image speaks to what I imagine God is doing in Isaiah 64:1-9.


I'm hoping that this burst of creativity doesn't stop with me. Inspired by the talented and fabulous Theresa Cho, my church is going to journal their way through Advent. The kids made these terrific journals and we sold out of all of them in one Sunday. I'm still shocked by this. So, I created a guide for the DIY version which you can find here. Follow along with your own burst of creativity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thankfulness

Two weeks ago, a letter went to my congregation and I began the difficult work of saying goodbye. It's different this time. I suppose it's different every time. Last time, there were a lot more prayers. It's not that I'm not praying right now. I am. Really, I am. But, this time is different.

We haven't had the same amount of time. In my last call, I had the blessing of cultivated deep and abiding relationships over six wonderful years. Ok, ok, it was mostly wonderful. I still complained. But, this time, we've only shared in this ministry for two years. It feels too short. There were so many dreams that I had and so many things I still wanted to do -- until love got in the way.

Even though it was the obvious answer, and I really couldn't have done anything but follow the man that I love, it means that I'm leaving behind some things that I really wanted. There were things I was going to do here. There are things that I had already started that I had to drop because I couldn't follow through -- and I'm really sad about this. There is a big part of me that continues to wonder if I did anything while I was here in these two short years.

Especially this week, when injustice stomps heavy on our hearts, it's hard to believe that this ministry has mattered. What good does sitting sipping cider with some 93-year-old do when this is happening in our world? Why bother sending thank you notes to faithful volunteers for their quiet service? Why waste my time writing a sermon about hope? What does it matter? What difference can it possibly make? But, then, I get two emails from two different church members with so much thanksgiving. One was thankful for my energy. Another told me I had encouraged her into deeper awareness of how scripture speaks to her (rather than just what the pastor says). She's deepened her faith in these two short years because she's had to search herself. Earlier this week, I was told that I've somehow encouraged an ownership of the ministry so that the church really isn't as pastor-centered or even staff-centered. There is a greater sense of responsibility where somehow by the grace of God this church feels moved into greater service to each other and to the world. I don't know if I did these things. I'm not sure that it was me that made the vitality that another church member now sees. I tend to think it was God. Ok, ok. I totally think it was God. Because I really think that it's God that makes these things happen. But, I am so grateful.

I am thankful for these small reminders that my work matters. I'm thankful for the people that have offered such kind words -- and I'm grateful for the ministry we've shared. Oh, and might I add. We've still got three months. We aren't done yet.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

90 Days


Our church recognizes that most relationships do not last forever. We also acknowledge that many reasons can lead to a separation. Thus, this pastoral call agreement can be terminated by either party giving at least 90 days’ written notice to the other, or upon other terms to which we both mutually agree. 

These are some of the last words in my terms of call. They are the same words that covenanted me to my previous call in Maine. In each opportunity for ministry, I promised to give 90 days written notice so that we could do the good work of saying goodbye. At some point, I was told that this is just the way we do things. We give ourselves three long months to share in saying goodbye to each other.

On Thursday, the letter went out to the whole congregation of the United Churches of Olympia giving that written notice. Again, this is the way we do things. We send out a letter so that each person can read those words in the privacy of their own homes before the pastor resigns in worship. I did that this morning. I resigned. I gave my notice that in 90 days, I will end my ministry with this congregation. Their ministry will not end. They are on the right path. They know where they are going. They know what they need to do -- but I won't be their pastor which means that our relationships will change. And this will be hard. I said so this morning because this church has let me love them from the very first day. They welcomed me into their midst so that I can't quite stop myself from saying "I love you" to someone each and every Sunday.


It was Social Media Sunday today. So I got a
text message after I shared my news with this sad face
because she loves me. And I love her too.
That's why we need 90 days. We need that much time to say goodbye. We need that much time for me -- for both us -- to figure out how to end this relationship that in some ways feel like it started. When I ended my last call, I was clear about my boundaries. I knew that keeping in touch would be too hard for me and so I was firm. We would not keep in touch. That has eased with time. The privacy setting on Facebook has changed. They can see my posts now. I even had some surreptitious visit from a few of my former church members a few months ago. I haven't stopped loving them and I still miss them.

I know that will be true for this community. All of the stuff that drives me crazy on a day-to-day basis will fade and I'll start to miss these people too. Because I love them. Because that's what ministry does. It makes you fall in love over and over again. So, I need these 90 days. Whoever came up with this as the way things should be was brilliant. I applaud those sage people, whoever they were. It is good and right that in every termination of a pastoral relationship (at least within the UCC), that we get 90 days to say goodbye. Some say 60 is enough. I disagree. Love takes time to heal -- because nothing lasts forever. No one wants to be reminded of this. We all want to think that there is something that is permanent, but nothing is. And we need those 90 days to adjust.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

For All the Saints

There are two days on the church calendar when I simply cannot preach. There are two days when I know that my emotions will get the better of me -- and I will likely not be able to proclaim the resurrection that I so need to hear. One of these days is not liturgical. It's Groundhog Day and the day my mother died. It doesn't matter how much time has passed since she died. I still need this day to be honest with myself and my God that it still hurts. So I do not preach. The celebration of All Saints is no different.

I did not grow up with this tradition but discovered its lush wonder in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Seated upon those green chairs, I was permitted a sacred space for my grief -- and I claimed that space with my tears. And it's that sacred space that I want for everyone.

So, every year, I attempt to create that space where others can feel what I have found so healing and so affirming. In a church culture that insists on an effusive joy all of the time, I long for a place where I can be honest about how heartbroken I still am. This year, this space was centered upon these words from the Gospel of Matthew with familiar words to those that have been attending church for years and years. For those saints, the wisdom that Jesus has never quite felt like good news. Or so I heard it discussed in our study earlier this week. This doesn't feel quite so good: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." So I used it as a way to talk about ourselves as saints, including this prayer of confession that truly seemed to say it all as we prayed together:
Good God, we have heard you say so many times:all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.But, we are so humble that we hesitate to call ourselves your saints.Forgive us. Exalt us a little. So that we might see ourselvesso honored, so respected and so loved that we might be called your saint.In your mercy, we pray.
But, I did not preach. I could not. I choked up even mentioning my mother in the prayers of the people so instead I told a series of stories of the saints of God. I told the story of an old saint (one that is actually canonized), a child of color (who you might not expect) and one of the pillars of this church (who just deserves it). We shared these stories amid our prayers, those wonderful hymns that mark this day and sharing in the feast of God. It was a truly wonderful time of worship.