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.

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.