Thursday, October 23, 2014

Nomination Season

In and around my church, committees and ministries have been meeting to find their agendas include the topic of nominations. It's that time of year where we are looking to renew our leadership and invite those that have never considered leadership to take that bold step.

Like so many churches, my church has a huge slate to fill with 76 positions. It appears that this shouldn't be a problem. We have 351 people on our rolls, but we see only 150 of those people each Sunday. I'm exaggerating a tad I fear. We might be closer to a weekly worship attendance of 125. I don't focus on these numbers. Obviously. I don't even know the actual average. Clearly, I don't spend a whole lot of time fretting about them while the rest of Christendom seems to be crying that the sky is falling. I don't think it is. Because, more and more, I find myself in conversations with people where I get to ask this question: where do you feel God leading right now?

It happened just yesterday. I had coffee with a newcomer to this Christian thing. She's trying to figure out how things work and why we do things the way we do. She wants to know if every church functions like our church or if it's just the particular personalities of our members. (There's no judgment there. She's just genuinely curious.) It's all new and mysterious and wonderful. Earlier this year, she found herself serving on the Christian Education Ministry. And she has thrived. She is teaching Sunday School and revamping the children's library and bouncing with hope and enthusiasm. It's hard not to get excited just sitting across from her in a coffee shop.

Here's the kicker. Our governance works in such a way that each ministry has a representative on the Council and there is no one currently serving in that representational role from the Christian Education Ministry. She wanted to know if she was crazy to consider it. What pastor would say no to that? I'd be a moron to say no -- but I'm really not interested in filling positions. That's not why I do this work. It's not about the numbers but instead about the discipleship of each and every person taking a risk to live out their faith. So, I asked her that wonderful question: where do you feel God leading right now?

She hesitated to answer. And she's right to hesitate. It's a huge question. So, I told her this story of leadership. Because this is the story that was echoing through my head as she spoke. Like Samuel, she's hearing a call. She's feeling a pull. It's not just the empty seat but the desire to use the energy and talent that she has to truly transform the world. There's something about this big picture thinking that the Council does that captivates her. Maybe. Maybe. But, she's not sure if that call is coming from God or some sense of obligation. So, I asked her to read this story again and again when she wakes up, before she goes to sleep and while she's brushing her teeth to try to discern if this pull she's feeling is really God. I told her I'd check in and see what she's thinking in a few weeks -- but today, I'm hoping that it's not just this wonderful soul that is considering this risk. I hope that there are others that are praying with Samuel to see if God is leading them toward the risk of leadership. Maybe that's true for you. Pray on it and let me know.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Praising My Savior All the Day Long

Years ago, I read about an opportunity to explore narrative leadership in the back of The Christian Century. (Yes, it really is that wonderful of a publication that I mention it in two blog posts in a row.) I signed up and headed to DC where I found myself among a group of Cooperative Baptists who were befuddled that I had found my way there. It was the first experience I had ever had where I tried to align this work that I do with the stories of my childhood -- the random and chaotic events that have shaped who I am.

Because, honestly, I would rather forget most of these stories. It's not that my childhood was bad. It wasn't. It was just complicated and no matter how much I might identify with the wounded healer, there is some part of me that just wants to be freakin' healed already. But, I have not been so lucky. I would like to meet the person who is. No, really, please do introduce yourself because I want to know what it is that you feel when you stand and sing Blessed Assurance. Because when I sing "this is my story, this is my song," I'm praising my Savior that I got through those things and wondering where in the world that story and song will lead me next.

So, it's no surprise that I found myself leading such a conversation on Sunday night. Or it shouldn't be but I was surprised when one of the participants exclaimed, "Oh my! This is something I ask my staff to do but never give myself permission to indulge in." It seems -- in fact -- that I'm no different. I needed to create an adult education opportunity wildly adapted from something I found on the Thoughtful Christian to find the space myself. A space that would allow me to draw this story.


Because I want to be prayerful but prophetic -- or what I called bold that night, but I don't want to have hard edges. I want to be soft and gentle. I want to be curious and hopeful but I always, always, always want to be grounded in love. This is my story, this is my song. I can sing that now but I must admit that I was completely surprised that this is what emerged from this time. A few days before, I had been trying to articulate my passions. I had been asked to state what I'm most passionate about and I was more befuddled than those Baptists a few years ago. The cursor blinked at me, demanding an answer that I couldn't summon from within myself. No really. It was bad. I hadn't the foggiest idea so I phoned a friend, or rather a group of friends. I asked my covenant group to help me name that thing that I could not name, that passion that most excites me. Their response was monolithic. Because they do know me well. Because my passion is JESUS. That's right all you Baptists and others that think that the United Church of Christ is full of closet Unitarians. I am here to burst your bubble. I love me some JESUS which led me to write this:

I feel like such a church nerd saying this, but the truth is: Jesus Christ. I came into this story as a little girl after my mother had died. Somehow, I found myself in church talking with people old enough to be my grandparents about the healing power of Jesus Christ. I was only eight at the time so that’s not what you would have overheard in our coffee hour conversations. Instead, you would have heard this little girl and these older saints trying to understand life and death, sharing our stories and doing what Christians do best: loving each other. This is what we do because of Jesus Christ. As much as I want to understand this mystery, as often as I struggle to grasp this second part of the Holy Trinity, there is something about Jesus. There is something captivating and amazing so that I am always wanting more. It may forever define me as a church nerd but what I am most passionate about is the justice, the peace and the hope that Jesus Christ offers this world — and I so want to be a part of that story.

This is part of my story and I'm still trying to figure out how to sing it. Clearly, I need some others to join me in singing because it was damn hard getting to just this little paragraph -- but there is more that I want to realize as I praise my Savior. There is more that I'm trying to tell myself and my God. I just have to find the right words.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Words

On Saturday, I officiated a memorial service for one of the pillars of our church. For the past forty years, this man has demonstrated what it means to follow Jesus Christ within this tribe. He's carried the mantle for justice and the leader of nearly every committee. For the past two years, it has been no different for me. I have seen all that this little tribe has admired in him and came to love him. This is always humbling to me -- how quickly I can fall in love with church people, especially the ones who barrage me with things to read and things I should be doing as this particular saint never failed to do. It was this that I remembered in the words that I offered at the memorial service. I remembered his words -- the way he crafted them, the sheer number of them and how much he loved reading them.

In the days since, I have retreated into books. It's partly the weather. Rain has come to the Pacific Northwest and all I want to do is curl up with a good book, but it's also Lee. In his memory, I want to be surrounded by words. Other people's words. Not my own. That's what I realized today at the gym. I'm more than content to read other people's words especially with the recent release of The Christian Century's fall books issue. Ooooh books!

But, I have been avoiding my own words. Beyond my recent sermons, I haven't penned a word. My prayers have been wordless -- and I have delayed on the hope of using my words because of fear... laziness... uncertainty... I'm not really sure why. But, I miss them. I miss those words and hope that I can be a better shepherd in my prayers and in my writing. Because I really do need words -- my very own words.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Prayer for Today

It's been a rough week at church. 

It's been emotional and challenging -- and I really didn't know what would happen.

I wasn't sure if we would be able to move forward. I wondered if we were that stuck. Or maybe if I was that stuck in my own head, my own worries and even my own insecurities. As I end today, this day when I conclude the second full year of serving this church, this is the prayer on my heart. Because Isaiah was right: God is always doing a new thing. And it is good.

For a New Beginning


In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

—John O’Donohue

May it be so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Blessings on Your Right and on Your Left (More Prayers for the Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost)

The Exodus passage begs to be performed in some way and may be best done in a blessing. Using the aisle in your sanctuary (whether formed by pews or chairs), invite those being blessed this morning (Sunday School teachers, backpack holding kids, adults holding their iPhones or calendars, and anyone else) to stand in the aisle. Use blue streamers or even long bolts of cloth to create the “waters forming a wall” and invite those on the right an those on the left each offer a blessing to those in the aisle. Streamers should surely be waved as that blessing is offered — and if a wall is used, then it may end with a big hug wrapped in the waters of baptism.
This was the prompt that I wrote for the United Church of Christ's Worship Ways for the Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost (or September 14). What is mysteriously missing from this prompt is how to do this. There is a reason for this. I was rushing and uncertain. I had missed the deadline -- and was trying to at least leave myself (and hopefully others) a suggestion that something creative could be done here. Now, as I prepare for worship one week ahead of time, I'm setting out to write that liturgy for all to share.

In verse 22 of the Exodus reading, we are told: "The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left." Walls offer support and structure. They define space, creating a boundary where there wasn't one before. Sometimes walls separate and divide, like the Berlin Wall. Sometimes they go on for miles, like the Great Wall of China. But, they can also be something to lean on. Walls can be something that offer support.

This seems particularly important for the Israelites making their way through those blue walls of sea. Walking on that dry land, they would have been protected by those walls. It would have been a reminder of God's support and guidance. On their right and on their left, they would have seen and felt that sacred and mysterious feeling of begin held -- like a hug. As we move into this next season, where things go back to "normal," I hope that we all feel that sense of being held by each other and by God and I hope this liturgy will offer a reminder.

First, we need two walls -- which is gleefully provided through the architecture of our Sanctuary. The center aisle will be the dry land that the Israelites find. It will be upon that dry land that all those seeking blessing in the midst of change will stand: children with backpacks, adults and teenagers with smartphones, folks with paper calendars, Sunday School children and their wonderful teachers. But, those walls don't just appear with architecture. Those walls appear and reappear when God tells Moses to hold out his hand (Exodus 14:16, 26, CEB). So, it will be the action of those on the aisles that will form the walls by extending their hands in blessing. In their hands, they will have the option of waving blue streamers simply because some blessings need streamers -- and because it is way too difficult to hold your hands out in blessing, wave a streamer and hold a bulletin, it will not be a litany. The dominant voice will be my own, as the worship leader. Here is the blessing that we will share with necessary instructions.

These words will welcome the worshippers:

As you enter worship this morning, you are invited to take a blue streamer to use in a ritual of blessing for our calendars, our backpacks, our children and our Sunday School teachers in this new season of life together.

Beside these words will be a heaping basket of streamers pre-torn to 2-3 feet in length. 

Then, we jump ahead. After the Words of Assurance & Passing of the Peace, the children will be invited forward and share in a story that sets the scene. (Because our Director of Youth and Children's Ministries is truly awesome.) That is when the worshipper will see Blessings on Your Right and on Your Left listed next in the bulletin followed by this prompt.

Anyone who finds themselves in a season of change is invited to come forward 
and find a place standing in the center aisle wearing their backpacks, with calendars, briefcases or smartphones in their hands, with Sunday School curricula under their arms or with any other symbol of that recognizes a change in their routine. Those in the pews will reach out their hands to offer the blessing of God with the streamers provided. 

I will offer these words to the congregation. (I will actually have them practice making the wall before it happens because even holy moments take practice.) 
When the people were afraid, when they didn't know how to move forward, Moses told them: "Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you. God will keep you safe." But, even Moses had a hard time believing these words. It wasn't until God told him to reach out his hands over the sea that he found that faith.
Look! See now, how the hands of God's messengers stretch over your heads! See how these tender, loving hands make a wall on your left and on your right. See the shimmering light of the sea waving in their hands. See how they encourage you, bless you and urge you forward, saying like Moses, "Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you." With Moses faith, we offer this faith to those in need of God's blessing.
This is our prayer for every child seeking knowledge.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every retiree carefully keeping a calendar of activities.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every person who struggles to sync their digital calendar.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for every person bustling to find meaningful work.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for teachers looking to share their love even more than their wisdom.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for teenager that struggles to get up with the alarm.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
This is our prayer for all that worry that there is not enough time.
Don’t be afraid. The Lord will protect for you.
In this faith, we pray with hearts full of blessing and our hands stretched out in love: May we all remember how these walls on our left and on our right wave not only streamers but songs of joy and love so that whenever we doubt and worry, we only need to lean upon these hearts and these hands. Because in these hands, there is the glory of God. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Better Pastor

Tonight, I had the sheer delight of spending the evening with my wonderful friend Sarah sipping margaritas in her backyard, playing with her babies and chatting with her husband. When I say delight, I mean it. These people are delightful. It's delightful to find yourself in the presence of friends who continually say, "Why didn't you move here sooner?"

I'm so grateful for friendships that begin so quickly and so easily. And then, two years later, I get to relish in the pleasure of talking about planning worship, crafting change and having a personal life. That's right. Both Sarah and I are pastors. Which means that even our downtime includes a lot of shop talk. We talk about the things that we're trying, the books we pretended to read, the people that make us crazy and the things that are breaking our hearts. We steal each others ideas and offer each other assurances -- all with the salty blessing of margaritas. Somewhere in the midst of this sharing, Sarah said, "You're such a better pastor than I am."

I was so stunned that I didn't assert what I believe to be true: Sarah is a way better pastor than I am. But, as Sarah pointed out, I make more hospital visits. And I apparently post about this on social media with some frequency. I say things about how deep and profound these visits are. To this, I was able to say, "You know, social media lies." She laughed and said how she wished her life really was how it appears on social media life. Because let's be honest. We put our best faces forward on social media -- for our relatives, our church members and our seminary classmates that may or may not be reading. We want put our best selves forward on social media.

That's social media. I suppose it's fine to sound a little more perfect no matter how irreverent or transparent we think we sound. But, with friends? With the people who feel like long lost friends after only two years? I hope we can be our real selves -- the selves that we claim should appear on social media but always sounds a little too raw or too icky. Let's not worry who is the better pastor. Let's not compare how we sound on social media or what new crazy idea we're trying to realize in our congregation. Because that's not what it's really about. It's not about how big the steeple is or how many people show up on Sunday morning, it's how much we love this awesome work. That's what makes us good pastors. We love what we do so much so that we laugh and cry about this wild work over margaritas.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Solemn Promises

A few weeks ago, my congregation voted to affirm this statement of their Vision, Mission and Values as part of the Strategic Plan. This statement will hopefully be what frames what comes next. It will shape the goals that will determine the future of our ministry -- which feels like such a critical, finite determination. I have to remind myself that congregations need to do this every five years or so. Because -- especially now -- ministry is changing so very fast. This is really hard to hold onto when folks are tired of hearing the word discernment and just want to do something rather than talk about it. 

Luckily, I haven't heard that in a while. 

But, I still know that I need to do everything I can to make this Vision, Mission and Values feel comfortable and familiar for the next step to be as awesome as I hope it will be. And people need to hear something seven times before they remember it -- which is challenging with the modern day worshiper. So, I'm trying to be creative which means it's time for a prayer station. Last Sunday, inspired by Genesis 28:10-22, I preached this sermon inviting myself and the congregation to consider the solemn promise that Jacob makes to remember God's promises -- and then make that promise ourselves.

After the sermon and a brief moment of silence, in the Open Space that we share through this summer, I said something similar to what is written it says on the framed instructions on the table to the right: 
Make Your Solemn Promise

Consider what you might do or say to most act like God looking toward the future of our church.

Upon the colorful paper stones, write that one thing that you might do or say to act like God.

Affix that stone using the glue sticks provided onto the foundation of our church building as we imagine a colorful future full of God’s promise. 
Upon the table, as folks came forward, they found an image of our building in the center of the table. On either side, there were:
  • colorful "paper stones" like the one that Jacob fell asleep on (Well, kinda like that)
  • black markers
  • glue sticks.
All of this was resting upon the requisite cardboard to prevent markers from bleeding all over the pretty altar cloth. There was another set of instructions under the colorful paper stones which said:
Take one of these colorful paper stones.

Write upon it what you might do or say to act like God and then glue it to the church.
That’s your promise!
The idea being that when you lay down your stone -- as Jacob did -- you make that promise for the future to remember all that God has done and (hopefully) all that God will do. I don't know if it worked for everyone but I did get one response by email that said: 
I also love the art project you offered - and the discussion of promise - for me, writing on my boulder made me recommit to this process that I must admit I'm getting so tired of - and yet that tiredness is also sadness, fear of what the future holds - can't wait till I get to the JOY part!!!!
To which, I gotta say, amen.

The end result, which now hangs in the church without any explanation, looks like this.

I don't know if I should offer an explanation or if I should just let the experience of creating art and making promises speak for itself. This, for the moment, I'm trusting it to God.