Saturday, December 31, 2011

On Death

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2011, images of Old Man 2011 passing the torch to Diaper Dandy 2012 abound. It's a hint at our own mortality - something that is all too rare in our culture that is often preoccupied with immortality of various kinds, or at least in seeming denial about death as a fact of life.

Though in my three years as pastor I have buried many people, I have been relatively insulated from death myself. Until the death of my grandfather last week, at age 92 1/2, between my husband and me, all of our grandparents were alive and doing relatively well, ranging in age from 81 to 92 1/2. All eight were at our wedding four years ago - something a number of people commented on at the time.

Longevity runs in my family, on both sides. My grandfather probably would have lived at least a few years longer, but 10 years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and they decided not to treat it. In the end, the cancer spread, but up to the end he said he wasn't in pain - a real miracle. If they had treated the cancer, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him hit 100. Even so, he was ready to go. He felt that he had lived a nice, long life. He had recently seen most of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and he was ready to go home and be with his Creator.

He was ready to go, and that made it so much easier for the family to accept his death, with grief offset by overwhelming gratitude for his life to the end. Not everyone is ready. A church member stopped by to give his condolences, and he teared up as he said, "I just can't imagine what I'll do when my mom dies. I don't know if I'll ever be ready." His mom will be 96 next week, and I don't think she is any more "ready" to die than he is ready for her to go. As opposed to my grandfather, who opted against life-extending treatments, both would opt to do everything possible to extend her life. She also hasn't wanted to talk about funeral arrangements or her wishes in the event of her death. She doesn't want to think about it or talk about it. And I think that makes it harder for both her and her son.

Of course everyone deals with death differently, and there is no one size fits all way to look at it. But it seems to me that one way to help our loved ones in the event of our death is to be as ready as we can be for it ourselves. This includes making plans - wills, advanced directives, medical directives, and such - and letting family members know about one's wishes and desires. In times of medical crisis or loss, decision making is particularly difficult, both cognitively and emotionally. I have seen much more peace with families who are able to make decisions knowing that it was what their loved one wanted.

We all know that death is coming, sooner or later. Some know that it will be sooner, and in those cases, preparing for the inevitable is a gift to loved ones. But we never really know when death will come, and though we may never be "ready," there are things we can do at any age to prepare for it. Make sure your house and finances are in order. Create living wills or advanced directives. Communicate with your family now what your wishes would be in the event of a medical emergency or death. And talk about it. Not morbidly, but openly.

Churches can do more in this respect. In a culture in which death is almost a taboo subject, in which it is treated like an illness to be cured, the church can speak. Death is part of life as we know it. In the service of witness to the resurrection (the Presbyterian name for the funeral or memorial service), we acknowledge that death is as much a part of life as birth, and that in death, our baptisms are complete. Though we worship an eternally living God, we also follow a savior who willingly gave himself up to die. Even as he spoke, "It is finished," and gave up his last breath, that was not the end of the story. One day we will each breathe a last breath, but that will not be the end of the story. It is a completion of one story and the start of another - of this we are assured through Jesus Christ.

I don't know what that new story looks like. I don't know when or how this story will end, but I know that it will. And I know that the ending of this story is written as surely as it began. I don't know if I will ever be "ready" - for my death or the death of loved ones - but I want to try to be, as much as is possible.  So as the chubby baby ushers in 2012, as we think about new beginnings, maybe we can also think about ending things well. That, in and of itself, feels like a new beginning to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Waiting

I am looking forward to our Blue Christmas service tomorrow night. It is a service (also called "Longest Night") that recognizes that this time of year is not always merry and bright. It's almost always frenetically busy, filled with good things that are accompanied by stress. For some people, this is the most depressing time of the year, for many different reasons. For those who have experienced loss around Christmas, the grief is accentuated in contrast to the joy of the season. For many people, societal and self-expectations of how we "should" be feeling at this time just leave us feeling more empty if we don't. I think for many people, to a degree, this is a very complicated season - one in which joy breaks through and sometimes bombards the spirit, and one in which the fullness sometimes leaves us feeling empty.

This has been a very complicated season in my life, too. A month ago, I announced my intention to dissolve my pastoral relationship with the congregation that my husband and I have been serving for the past three years. Leaving a call is difficult, and as this has been our first call, it is particularly so. That difficulty is further complicated by the fact that my husband is staying in this position, and will be moving up to full time. I am leaving, but I am not moving. I will continue to live in the same, small town, and now find myself in a new position - that of Pastor's wife. I never wanted to be a "Pastor's Wife" - my call has been to be a pastor! And to further complicate things, though some church expectations are that I will now be the "Pastor's Wife," as soon-to-be-former pastor, I will need to step away from the church entirely, allowing for the necessary transition for Andy and for the congregation.

I have been in a bit of a lame duck period, still actively engaged in the work that I do here, while also having to hold back, to initiate transitions. I still catch myself saying "Next year we can..." and things like that. I have had people ask what I can and can't do after I leave, and when I can be back in worship. I don't know the answers to those things, in part because I need to feel it out, to discern and exercise discretion, and to play it by ear, case by case.

I also can't answer those questions because I don't know what the future holds for me. I have said that I definitely won't be in worship between Jan. 1 and Easter, but by March I could have a new call. I hope to continue preaching on a regular basis, and as a member of the Committee on Ministry I will also be visiting the churches to whom I am a liaison. I already have a number of things scheduled for January and February, and with three committees that I am serving on (two Presbytery, one General Assembly), my plate is and will continue to be full. I am also looking into contract work options that I could do from home, or mostly from home, but I don't have anything definite lined up yet.

In other words, I am waiting. And this waiting stuff isn't easy. There is grieving over my leaving the congregation - on their part and on mine - but there is also some anger. I suppose that is normal. In the midst of this there has been another difficult personnel change - difficult for us, difficult for the person involved, and difficult for the church - and there are complicated feelings about that, too.

I am waiting, and waiting is not easy. But what better time of year to be in a season of waiting than Advent? And so I wait. I wait for revelation of where God is calling me to be. I wait for better days, and trust that they are ahead. I wait. What more can be done? That's the point, I guess - the waiting is the doing, or at least what must be done. Doing otherwise is just a distraction when what is called for is waiting. And so I wait.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Really. Really?

Three news stories I've seen this week that have prompted me to say, "Really. Really?"

First, in a story that is close to home but made news ripples around the country and even across the ocean, a Pike County, KY church voted in favor of a statement disapproving of interracial couples, banning them from joining as members and leading worship. The outcry prompted an official from the National Association of Freewill Baptists to speak out, and it appears that the congregation might overturn the vote. But seriously. Really. Really?

In other news, apparently as various states are racing to out-anti-immigrant each other, Florida has quietly been enforcing a law that charges out of state tuition rates to the children of immigrants - Florida residents who are US Citizens - if they cannot prove that their parents came to this country legally. Apparently the law, which is currently target of lawsuits, has been on the book since 2005. Really. Really?

Finally, in an article published on the Presbyterian Layman website, there is news of additional churches in Virginia and Florida who have petitioned their respective presbyteries for dismissal. Unfortunately, that doesn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been following denominational issues in the PC(USA). But what was curious to me was the opening line of the article: "As the Christmas holiday approaches, an increasing number of Presbyterian churches have one thing at the top of their wish list – a gracious departure from the Presbyterian Church (USA)."
Really. Really? I find it quite puzzling that this publication that has taken such great joy in labeling the PC(USA) as a church that has "severed itself from 'the faith once delivered to the saints,'" has elevated schism in the church to the level of joy of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Really. Really? 

Really, nothing more needs to be said.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Pending approval of the congregation on December 4th and Committee on Ministry December 6th, I will be leaving my position as co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church at the end of this year. Pending approval, Andy will be moving up to full time Solo Pastor/Head of Staff here at UPC. Though I currently do not have a call to which I am going, I will continue to be active in "church work" through my increasingly demanding committee involvement, and in supply preaching. For the past year I have been serving on a General Assembly Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. I am also on the writing and editing teams for our final paper, which will be submitted by the end of February. I have also been serving on the Committee on Ministry, and I look forward to continuing that work and strengthening my connections as liaison to five churches in the presbytery. Finally, I have recently agreed to chair a small committee to write a new manual of operations for the presbytery and provide guidelines for congregational bylaws and other policies, a project that will demand more of my time after the first of the year, as well. I also anticipate supply preaching as often as I am needed, and look forward to getting to know more churches within the presbytery through that, as well. I will be searching for new work in the area or new contract work that can be done from home, and I pray that something opens up that will help to pay the bills and be vocationally engaging as well.

Transitions are always difficult, and though I enter this transition with many unknowns, I also feel strongly that this is the right move to be making at this time, and that it is God-led. In spite of facing a reduced household income and voluntary unemployment in a poor job market, I have peace that God will provide, and that this season of transition will lead to a new season of growth and development for me and for Andy, and, I pray, for the church. Prayers are always appreciated!

Below is my final pastor's note to the congregation. I close this note with a quote from Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Amen.

            In this season of Thanksgiving, it is with profound gratitude that I reflect on the three years that Andy and I have had in ministry here at United Presbyterian Church. To say that we are thankful – that I am thankful – for the opportunity to have served here, to get to know and love each of you and this community of faith, doesn’t do justice to my gratitude. I am taking the privilege of writing this, my final pastor’s note to UPC, to express my love for you, and my gratitude for all that God has done and is continuing to do in and through this particular faith community. I know that the news of my departure as co-pastor has come as a surprise. This decision was made after a long period of prayer and discernment, and though it is a deep loss and sadness for me to leave, as well, I also believe that this is God’s leading. I am happy to talk more about this in person with anyone who wants to do so in this final month.
This brings all of us to a time of transition. Transitions by their nature are difficult. They can be divisive. I pray that, through this transition, the unity of the Holy Spirit would rule the hearts and minds of this community of faith. As Paul instructs the church in Rome, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Rom. 12:10)
Transitions also bring opportunities for growth. I believe that this is an opportunity for growth for all of us, if we can accept and embrace it. Transitions remind us that the ground we think is solid beneath our feet is actually sinking sand, unless we are standing on Christ, the solid rock, to borrow words from the old hymn. Transitions have a way of pointing out where we’ve been standing, and upon what we’ve been relying. They can be a gentle, or sometimes not so gentle reminder to put our faith and trust in God.
As we find ourselves now in this season of Advent, we are in a liturgical season of waiting, and anticipation. We are reminded of the promises that God has made to God’s people throughout the ages – promises of light in the darkness, comfort in the midst of exile, healing in places of brokenness, and a final reign of justice and peace. God’s faithfulness is promised to all generations, and I am confident that God will faithfully lead this church through this transition and into new paths of ministry. We all must wait to see what God has in store for us, but my prayer is that we all turn to God in this time, to discern where God’s wisdom and Spirit will lead us, to be transformed into the people of God that we were created to be.
I am profoundly grateful that God brought us here three years ago to join in ministry with this church. I love this church, and I love each of you dearly, and you will always be close in my heart and prayers. I am thankful for the risk you took in calling us here, for the ways in which you have loved and supported us in our first call to ministry, helping to train us in ministry, giving us grace to fail and love along the way. For all that has been, I say Amen!
As I prepare to say my goodbyes as your pastor, I also want to charge each of you first and foremost to love the Lord your God with every fiber of your being, to love and pray for each other, and to continue to love and pray for Andy as your pastor. I believe that God is doing great things in and through this church. I pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to move mightily in this community of faith, that this Body of Christ gathered by God will be an exhibition of the kingdom of God here in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, and beyond.
I close with this benediction from Paul to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Do church like it's 1999...

I recently attended a workshop billed as outlining what is needed for leadership in the 21st century. The title and about half of the workshop were built around a particular video. We were told in advance that the video was not addressed to the church, but it was applicable. The video opened with a very cheesy introduction, and it felt incredibly dated. A quick search revealed that it was produced in 1999. Really? 1999?

I tried to reserve judgment until the very end, and in the end, I am still left scratching my head. Why are we trying to learn about 21st century leadership from a video that is nearly 12 years old? To me, that speaks volumes about why we are still having such a difficult time moving into the 21st century (or in some cases, moving out of the 19th!) as a church.

While I think the church and church leaders can learn quite a bit from many different resources, equating church leadership with corporate leadership is perpetuating the old 20th century model of church – something that is keeping us from moving forward. What we need is not necessarily new perspectives on how to be church in the same way we have been church. We need new understandings of what it means to be church, rooted in Scripture, and informed by all of the resources we have at our disposal from many different disciplines.

I think the leader of this workshop gets it. I think he really has a vision for the church in the 21st century that is grounded in Scripture and conversant with the great diversity of our times. That makes it even more frustrating to experience the same old models in a workshop that is geared towards equipping church leaders for 21st century ministry.

In fairness, there is a bit of a catch-22. To be a leader in the church, you have to be conversant and fluent in the way that we’ve always done things. That’s how we’re trained. That’s how you advance. Then we’re asked to be visionary. We’re invited – through a system that is outdated and needs to change – to take part in that very system. Even if there is desire for change within that system, we are still working within the system that itself needs to be transformed. So how do we work for transformation? I’m not sure, but I don’t think we’re going to find the answer in a video from 1999. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work toward unity in Christ?

We believe that we are united with believers in every time and every place. We believe that we are one body, with Christ as our head. The unity of the church is a key element of our ecclesiology. There is room in our theology and practice for faithful disagreement, yet there are increasingly more individuals and groups within our church that speak of schism and division. Schism rends the witness to Christ that we bear to the world. I also believe that we are a 1 Corinthians 12 church, not just better together than we are apart, but incomplete without each member.

We have to change our focus from the issues that divide us and instead seek unity through Christ in the calling to which we have all been called - sharing the love of God to all the world, in word and in deed, and in our visible witness as a church. "We" cannot move the church past divisions in theology, evangelism, and mission - only God can. I suggest we pray to God for the peace, unity, and purity of the church even as we work to maintain that bond of peace in all that we do.

What unique voice do we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and in society?

We have much to offer the church in the 21st century. We value unity among Christians with Christ as the head of the church, understanding that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, even though we may organize ourselves different and faithfully disagree on matters of understanding and belief. We have a commitment to ecumenical work. We have stated values of celebrating our unity in the context of diversity of all kinds - theological, racial, ethnic, age, sex, disability, and so on, and stated desires to be a church that is reflective of the diversity that God created. We believe in mutual forbearance, that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that we can find greater unity in spite of our differences in loving and joyful submission to Christ as the true head of the Church.

Our Presbyterian system of government is marked by shared leadership. We understand that each of us is called by God to live out our calling in this world - we each have a vocation. Those who are called to the specific functions of ministry of Word and Sacrament as teaching elders, those who are called as ruling elders or deacons, are no more called than others to ministry in the world, to fulfilling the calling to which we all have been called, to build up the body of Christ. The commitment to shared leadership is very important in the 21st century church (see my answer on question #1).

Theologically, we believe we are all in need of God's mercy and grace, all broken people in need of healing and reconciliation. As we move into new ways of being, we also must be able to confront what we have been and repent ways in which we have participated and continue to participate in the world that deny the peace, unity, and justice that prevail in God's reign. We need to exercise greater humility and repentance for what we have done and what we have left undone, and we can do so empowered by the knowledge of God's grace and forgiveness that is extended to us through Jesus Christ.

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda  - This classic statement of the Reformed church is often translated as "The Reformed church, always reforming," but it should be translated as "the Reformed church, always being reformed." We believe that God is still at work in the world today, still at work in the church, and that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to live into new ways of being church. We are always being reformed  by the Holy Spirit. If we truly believe that and can live into that belief, if we can trust the guidance of God to unmask the idolatries that are keeping us from following God's call for our church and our lives, then we will get closer to being the body of Christ in ministry to our changing world and all of the changing contexts because we will be actively discerning how God is calling us to join in God's activity - already at work in the world - to be the church that is needed here and now.

What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?

I think the single biggest challenge will be for the church to let go: to let go of who we used to be, who we think we should be; to let go of "traditional" measures of success such as members and giving. We need to let go of the thought that the church is "our" church. We need to let go of our fear of change. We need to let go of the fear of failure, the fear of dying (as a church), and the fear that we will soon have to close our doors forever. We need to let go of our desire for control, and recognize that the church is in God's control (and thank God for that!). We need to let go of our desire for power, social standing and privilege. We will need to let go of some churches that should be closed, some buildings that should be sold, and ideas about doing things the way we have always done them before. We need to let go of the idea that ministry is in the hands of those of us who are paid and trained professionals. We need to learn to let go.

We must prioritize worship, faith formation, community development, mission, and outreach. We need to focus on the ancient (timeless) practices of prayer, reading Scripture, corporate worship, and hospitality and discernment, but in ways that blur distinction of insider/outsider into seekers together. We must prioritize sharing the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ with a world that is so desperately in need of God's grace, healing, and reconciliation. We must reclaim and live into the joy of living as redeemed people, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and let our life speak to our faith, let our faith show in the fruit that we bear. We must re-engage with the world and with the culture in ways that promote healing, justice, peace, and reconciliation; that speak prophetic truth to power; that repent of our participation in sinful systems; that speak God's eternal and timeless words of truth to new generations in language that is authentic and meaningful to ever-changing contexts. That is quite a list of "highest priorities," though it could be longer! To sum it up in one word, in one priority, I would say "discernment" - we must discern how God is calling us to be church here and now - and then do it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?

One simple "answer" to this question is: when the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ is shared in word and in deed, in ways that speak authentically into the cares and concerns of our lives today; when faith communities gather around the table of the Lord, sharing joys and bearing each other's burdens; when we take seriously the task of spiritual discernment in our communities and in our lives; when we follow God's leading out from the church and into the world in mission; then, I believe, a great diversity of people will be gathered by God into one body of Christ.

In other words, there is nothing we need to "do" to attract the great diversity of our country to Jesus Christ. The person and message of Christ alone speaks to people from every race, ethnicity, gender, etc... In many ways, it is our job not to get in the way of that.

That being said, we must identify the ways in which we do get in the way of being the inclusive and diverse community of God that we are called to be. Here are a few thoughts.
1 - We wear blinders. 
Some blinders we willingly put on ourselves, when we decide to whom we will reach out, who we will welcome into our communities in genuine ways, and what our concerns are as a church. Necessarily, every sermon, every class, every discussion, everything we do has a particular focus. When our focus is primarily on the concerns of white, middle-class America, who do you think we will attract? When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I think that one reason we (when I say "we," I am referring to white, middle-class America, because that is the majority of the PC (USA) and I am part of it) were so shaken is because we could easily imagine - "that could have been me." Working in an office building, wearing a business suit...  When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 people, when we saw images of (mostly poor, minority) individuals crowded into the Superdome, we had compassion and pity, but how many of us really thought, "that could have been me"? Perhaps more of us thought that after the tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa (a university town) and Joplin (a town with racial demographics roughly equal to the PC(USA)). How disconnected are we from what is going on in the rest of the world? How disconnected is our worship from what is going on in the rest of the world? From what is happening in our country? If our preaching and worship and the programs and foci of our church are primarily geared to and shaped by the concerns of white, educated, middle-class America, we will continue to attract white, educated, middle-class America.

Some blinders we wear without knowing they are there. If we are ignorant of the privileges in our society (white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege...), how can we address the systems of injustice that we perpetuate? I just saw a tweet from the GAMC meetings remarking about how all of the faces in a new video on evangelism in the church were male. How many people working on that video planned, made, and edited it without recognizing that oversight? 
Do you think people were paying much attention to tax collectors and sinners during Jesus day, or did Jesus draw the attention of the good, upstanding citizens in a new direction? Jesus challenges the authority that we don't even realize we take for granted. In the church, we must seek understanding in the ways that we have knowingly or unknowingly participated in systems of oppression and injustice, and repent. This is a huge educational component that must be undertaken in the church if we are to be a community that truly seeks peace and reconciliation, and preaches that from the pulpit.

We also need to educate our churches about the changing demographic landscape. It is easy for diversity to remain a non-issue in many churches - particularly in communities that remain predominantly white. Even in those churches, and particularly in areas where there is more diversity, we need to be more aware of how our communities are changing, where immigrant populations are coming from and where they live, and where people live on the margins. 

2 - We need to be aware of the power of our structures. Many of our church structures were established by white, educated, fairly wealthy men. Intentionally or unintentionally, our structures have served as gate-keepers, ensuring a continued homogeneous body of church leaders who often lack the very awareness of the privilege of the majority to make any substantive changes. We have tried to insert structural "fixes" to the lack of diversity, but they are still part of an overall structure that is blind to its prejudice. As a result, we have "let in" some additional diversity, but how much of a voice have we allowed that diversity to have in terms of making substantive changes? I think particularly of immigrant communities and the many structural hoops that make it much more difficult to receive official recognition and inclusion into the PC (USA). The new Form of Government makes some strides in loosening certain structural obstacles, but more work needs to be done.

3 - "We" need to be willing to let go! So much has changed in our lives and in society in the past century, except in many of our churches, where 19th and early to mid 20th century models for church are alive and well! Perhaps not well, but still alive... In times of change, we anxiously hold on to the familiar. Perhaps we equate the saying "In times of change, God is still the same" to "In times of change, the church is still the same." In our churches, we need to honor what has been without idolizing it, and let go to make room for the new thing that God is doing through the Holy Spirit. In our churches, we need to be open to receive and use the gifts of a diversity of people - even if it means doing things differently or dropping some beloved traditions.  We need to enable diversity in our leadership wherever we can - on sessions, in committees, in worship leadership, and in programming. We need to let go of the idea that this is "our church," we need to stop worrying about "the way we've always done it," and instead recognize that in God's church, when the Holy Spirit moves, it can be a bumpy and ever-changing ride!

4 - We need to broaden our horizons. Most of the growth in Christianity is now happening in the Global South. There is a wealth of music, liturgy, stories, images, and resources that are being created and used across the globe, and we can benefit by incorporating it into our own worship and mission. If we truly believe that we are joined with believers in every time and every place, our worship should reflect that! Our fellowship should reflect that! 

5 - We need to have courage! We need to be willing to try new things, willing to do things differently - and willing to FAIL. The church does not exist to continue in perpetuity. It exists to follow Jesus, and that ultimately leads to death before resurrection can take place. Are we willing to risk even our existence for the sake of being the body of Christ that God is calling us to be? Are we willing to use the resources that we have  - and let's face it, many of our churches have *substantial* resources, even as budgets, membership, and giving decreases - in order to fund new initiatives and new ministries specifically to reach out to those who are missing from the church? To meet the needs of a changing world without any agenda but sharing God's love and hope to a world that hungers for it? I write this from my office in a large church building on Main Street, in the "new addition" that was put on to the church in the 1960s. The congregation was founded 228 years ago, making it (we think) the oldest Presbyterian church in Kentucky. And this church is one of the last mainstays of a "traditional" worship service in town. In other words, I can appreciate what a huge, scary, challenge this all sounds like. But we must have courage, grounded in the hope of Jesus Christ, who came and shook things up, and hasn't stopped shaking since.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Once and Future Church?

I am currently serving as a member of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. Quite a mouthful, isn't it? It's an even bigger task. Our committee was formed by an action of the 219th General Assembly in 2010, and our task is to present our findings and recommendations to the 220th General Assembly, in Pittsburgh in 2012. We first met in January of 2011 and determined that we needed to listen to many voices, throughout the church, as a central part of our task. Over email and various technologies we came up with a list of 5 questions to help focus our work, and over the past 6 months we have been circulating these questions far and wide, asking for input from church leaders and individuals at every level of the church.

In May we met again in Louisville, where we had two and a half very full days of listening to individuals at the denominational headquarters. In July we had a presence at the Big Tent in Indianapolis, where we talked to visitors to our table in the exhibit hall, and also had a special session for conversation during lunch one day. We are grateful to everyone who has responded!

Now, it is our turn. Next week we meet again in Chicago, where we will speak to some more church leaders, but also have more time to begin to collect our work and start the writing process. Each of us is also responsible for answering the five questions ourselves, so my next few blog posts will be answers to those five questions.

To be honest, after all of the listening, reading, thinking, and reflecting, sitting down to write answers has proven to be more difficult now than it would have been before this process. I don't think there is any single right answer to any of the questions, and my responses are just part of the discussion. They certainly aren't "answers," and more than a lot of what I write, they are a work in progress - part of my ongoing reflection on questions even as we live into the reality of what they address. I warn you in advance that I can be wordy, but I do invite your comments and discussion as I post!

 The questions are:

  1. What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?
  2. What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?
  3. What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?
  4. What unique voice do we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and in society?
  5. How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work toward unity in Christ?

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

As I go back and forth between this tab and my twitter feed, I realize that so much communication happens in 140 characters or less, so I thought I would try to answer the question in 140 characters or less. Here goes:

More community, fewer committees. Shared leadership, shared fellowship. More out there, less in here. More questions, fewer answers. Honest.

More community: the church needs to be a koinonia, reclaiming that gift from the early church that is intimate fellowship and sharing - and often tied directly to the act of sharing the communion meal, as in 1 Corinthians 10:16. The cup of blessing and the bread we break is a koinonia (translated sharing, communion...) of the body of Christ. People are hungry for community, and there are many ways to participate in communities today: online, at work, in school, through sports, the arts, civic organizations, etc... But the church has the opportunity to offer something different: community that is intimately grounded in the Holy Spirit, uniting people in time, space, worship, and mission that also tends to the spirit. The sacramental connotations of koinonia are also significant. Regular celebration of the Lord's Supper and remembrance of our baptisms consistently brings our focus back to who we are, whose we are, what unites us, and what sustains us.

The church of the 21st century will be community based. Already the vast majority of our Presbyterian churches have fewer than 100 members. We need to recognize that reality and learn to celebrate the gifts of the gathered community, no matter how big or how small. To be small (especially after having been much bigger) is often seen as a sign of failure or death, but there are opportunities to be church in new and different ways that must be honored and celebrated. I think that many churches will continue to be small, and there might be structural changes that we need to make in order to support those small churches and their ministries.  There needs to be more training and support for bi-vocational ministers. Many small towns that cannot afford a full-time minister also do not have the economic opportunities for a minister or spouse to earn enough to supplement even a part-time income.  If, at the very least, pension credits, death and disability, and health insurance coverage was guaranteed for all ministers, regardless of congregational size, that could help to meet immediate and future needs of the minister, who could then be more flexible in finding other income sources without worrying about those benefits.

On the flip side, there will continue to be large churches, and those churches will continue to thrive - particularly if they can foster growth of smaller communities within the bigger one, through small groups or other similar programs. Our largest churches can also be in a position to plant new churches, or neighborhood fellowships, or they can offer support to smaller churches within the area. Again we can learn from the early church in the sharing of resources.

The church in the 21st century must be a place where genuine community is fostered and nurtured, where members encounter Christ in the body of Christ, and are then equipped within that community to go out and share the good news that they have heard. The community of faith will be a place where lives are changed through encountering the triune God.

Fewer committees: For many elders, there is little difference between serving on the church session and serving on the board of a nonprofit organization. Both involve lots of meetings and lots of work to accomplish the tasks at hand, and often, at the end of one's tenure, one steps down for a much needed break. Sometimes the least active members in a church are the ones who have recently completed a term on session or service on some other major committee, such as a Pastor Nominating Committee.

Church governance structures will be more fluid. Recognizing that we are continually discerning God's call for our ministries, many programs or functions of the church can be organized by ad hoc groups - or communities within the church - for a specific time or season. Church "business" at its best will be carried out in communities of spiritual discernment rather than by standing committees modeled after corporate boards. Just as we now have a leaner "Form of Government," I think we will need to evaluate church structures at the church, presbytery, synod, and general assembly levels and become leaner, more nimble, and more mission-driven.

Shared leadership: As our church communities and structures become more flexible, we must also be more open and welcoming to new members, less rigid in doing things the way they have always been done. People will move in and move out. What works well in a community for one particular season may no longer meet the same needs a year down the road. If we truly believe that we are the body of Christ, and that each of us is a gifted and necessary member of that body, we must actively seek and encourage input and participation from each member of the body. We should also seek out those members of the body who are absent, to invite them to share their gifts so we may benefit from their voices, as well. Authority in the 21st century church looks much different than it did before. It is recognized and shared only within the context of community, and ultimately, comes only from God.

Shared fellowship: Church is not something that we do on Sunday mornings. It is a fellowship that ought continue throughout the week. Weekly worship might not happen on Sunday mornings, and it might not happen in a sanctuary. Worship shapes the fellowship that continues 7 days a week. If we are serious about developing communities of faith, we need to seriously attend to the fellowship that we share - time in worship, communal prayer, study and discussion, support, and celebration. Fellowship will be shared over meals, over drinks, and in mission together. It will all be part of the rhythm of our life together as a community of faith.

More out there: There will be more integration of faith in our daily lives. We will be church in service in the local community and beyond. We will bring church to homes, restaurants, bars, and workplaces. We will see ourselves as members of a community sent out each week to share God's love and bring the good news of the gospel into the places where we live and move. In other words, church will be more relevant in our lives and in the world.

Less in here: Let's first address the building. Many of our churches struggle with dwindling budgets and old buildings in constant need of care and repair. In my humble opinion, the extent to which some church budgets are tied to upkeep and maintenance of a historic building is idolatrous. Then the primary "mission" of the church is literally just keeping the doors open. What if we took the building out of the equation, or at least changed the equation a bit? Some churches have sold their buildings and used the proceeds to fund important ministries. Other churches, building-heavy but member-lite, have opened up their space to community groups, to other worshiping bodies, to service agencies, or for other purposes that can use the space and help to pay the bills. As new church developments or new fellowships begin, existing churches can provide space and support. Or new developments can actually meet "out there" where the people are - in coffee shops, bars, apartment buildings, schools...

What happens in the church building - if there is a building at all - will be a much smaller part of being church. So many of our churches are so insular and inwardly-focused. We want more members to come into our churches (with their wallets) who can take on their share of the tremendous burden of serving on committees, running the same programs that have been run for the last 50 years, and helping us to keep the church going. It's almost parasitic! We are recruiting new blood to come in and give us a transfusion so we can continue to do the same things we've done that have led to our dire need for new blood...

The church is called to ministry at the risk of its own life. We are not called to save the church, to resurrect the body of the 1950s, or anything like that. We need to be less concerned with maintaining what is "in here" and more concerned with bringing God's message of hope and peace to the world that is "out there."

More questions: We live in troubling times. We live in confusing times. We live in changing times. All of that raises questions. As a church, we need to be a place where questions can be asked, where doubts can be raised, where fears and anxieties can be shared. We also need to be asking more tough questions. Questions about the poverty and injustice that we see around us. Questions about greed and ethics. Questions about prejudice and hate. Questions about the implications of our faith in the complex world in which we live.

Fewer answers: Preaching and teaching will be more dialogical in nature. Theological training must also be more nimble, preparing leaders for changing contexts of ministry. We will be in deeper dialogue with Scripture and with each other. Remembering that Jesus often answered one question with another, we will wrestle with the questions that Jesus asks. We will spend time waiting on the Holy Spirit, asking questions that lead to more questions. We will have to become more comfortable living within the tensions of life, embracing the uncertainties while grounding ourselves in the hope of God through Jesus Christ.

Honest: as in authentic. In much of what I have written thus far, I have painted with broad brush strokes rather than filling in details. I think the church of the 21st century will have many different and varied expressions, but each one must be authentic in its context. There must be honesty in preaching and in leadership, authenticity in sharing and in fellowship. The church must respond to the realities of context, and context can vary widely from one place to the next.

The church must be honest about God, and unabashed in sharing the gospel, in proclaiming the good news, and in inviting others into relationship with the triune God. The church must be honest about ourselves - that we are all broken people, in need of healing and salvation, that we participate in systems that oppress and do not honor the image of God in all of humanity and creation. We must be honest in our encounters with the Word of God, illuminated by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must be honest in our task and charge, to proclaim the coming reign of Christ and to work for reconciliation in the world today.

And honestly, if we try to do any of this on our own, without God's guidance, help, strength, and wisdom, we will fail.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Last week we participated in the Engle Institute of Preaching at Princeton Seminary. Monday and Tuesday afternoon, we took a workshop called "Performing the Sermon," in which we briefly looked at some issues around performance studies, like emphasis, use of the body, and so on. Another participant and I took issue with a dramatic reading/performance/recitation of the story of Abraham and Isaac that had been used in worship the night before. We were both turned off by it, and felt it was overly dramatic. It felt like a performance, and I found that distracting. We had a bit of discussion about "normal" range of public speaking and performance, and the instructor, I think rightly, pointed out that most of us stay so far from the edges of over-performing that most of us could ratchet up our delivery a few notches and still be well within comfortable bounds.

On Thursday, I was one of three participants to volunteer to preach in my morning workshop, and to receive feedback following the sermon. The comments that I received were quite consistent: excellent eye contact and engagement, warm presence, kind smile, very clear message, well-written sermon... and though the delivery was very good, I could use more variation in my pace and tone. Also, while the sermon was a very well written essay, perhaps it could be tweaked a bit more to be written for the ear. Both of those comments resonate with me as things that tend to be true about my preaching - I don't vary much in tone and pace, and my writing is more elaborate, my sentence construction more complex, than much verbal communication.

The professor read one of my sentences back to me and asked, "Is that how you might say the same thing over lunch with a friend?" My response, "Well, actually, I probably would, but I see what you mean." Same thing for my pace and tone, I think. I tend to be very even-keeled, less prone to speaking or communicating excitably either positively or negatively. It's kind of the calm, non-anxious presence that I bring to pastoral ministry, I think.

So here's my dilemma: I want to work more on improving my sermon delivery, and becoming a more effective communicator, but I don't want to be inauthentic, either. My voice - both in speaking and in writing - has a particular cadence and characteristics. I think I could work on delivery to be a more effective public speaker, but I wonder if that would change my "voice" in the process. My biggest concern is that it would be inauthentic. And yet as a preacher, I do need to attend to the ways in which I can improve my delivery.

When I first heard the feedback, I was excited to come home and tackle those things. But then I started to think more about questions of "my voice" and my style. Interestingly, my style is very similar to my dad's style - particularly my writing. And both of us write as we speak, including more complex sentence constructions, etc...

So, where is the balance between being true to one's voice and working on particular delivery techniques?

Saturday, July 16, 2011


When was the last time you sang at the top of your lungs? Without any care of how you sound, whether you hit all the right notes, or find all of the right words? My guess is that for most people, such unabashed singing happens only in the safety and privacy of the solitude.

We have lived in our home for a little more than two years now, and just this morning, I discovered how great our acoustics are for singing at the top of your lungs. Maybe I've done it here before, but I haven't noticed. Andy is working on the roof of our nursery' worker's home, and I am getting ready for a stint next week as a preaching coach in Louisville. Ok, I am getting ready, but admittedly, I was on facebook, twitter, and setting up my foursquare account.

One of my facebook friends put as his status some lines to the song, "The Story." I was introduced to this song earlier this year when Grey's Anatomy did the musical episode, and Sara Ramirez sang a powerful version of this at the climax of the episode. It is a song appropriate for belting. After I saw it for the first time, I listened to it over and over on YouTube - both Sara's version and the original, by Brandi Carlile. I think it is a beautiful song - a song of appreciation for the one or the ones with whom we share our deepest loves and stories.

After seeing the lyrics on facebook, I sang the song at the top of my lungs, and afterwards, I felt as if I had just had a good, hearty laugh, or perhaps a long-needed cry. Music is powerfully cathartic. When I play piano (which I need to do more!) I find the same release. Music is also formational. When I sing or listen to love songs like "The Story," I am filled with a deeper love and appreciation for my husband. When my sister calls me, my phone plays a special ringtone, saying that we can always count on each other - a friendship that will never end, and each time I hear it, my bond to her feels stronger.

A friend who is working in a ministry position that is very heavily administrative said that her colleagues know when she is working on her sermon or planning a service, because they can hear her singing down the hall. When she works on the heavy paperwork of human resources, which consumes most of her time, she is silent.

It's a bit simplistic, but I think the world would be a better place, and we would be better people, if we took more time in our lives to sing. Indeed, to sing is to pray twice. Amen!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A New Discipline

I am breathing deeply. I am breathing deeply. I am breathing deeply.

These past few weeks, and this past week in particular, I feel like my brain has turned to mush. I have been having a hard time finding the right words - and I'm not talking about the particular words that have the precise meaning and connotation that I need - I'm talking about words like "headlight," which I struggled to remember for about a minute at the counter of Advanced Auto Parts yesterday. I was literally doing the hand-blinky motion to try to communicate that I needed a new headlight for my car. It has been a pretty busy week in the office, too, and it is hard to fully focus on any one thing when there are three or thirty new things flying at me all morning.  I have been feeling very ADHD lately.

I think that my mind and body are trying to tell me something. I think they are trying to communicate that they are worn out and need a break desperately, and they are going to take one whether I like it or not. It has been a very busy and very stressful month and a half for many different and varied reasons, but I've been plugging on, regardless.

One of my ADHD activities has been reading a book for review, which thankfully is a collection of short essays that allows some extra grace for this mind that is taking extra time to digest, and will only eat little pieces at a time. In the first set of essays, nearly all of them mention the need for pastors to take care of themselves - eat right, exercise, etc...  It's something we all know we need to do. And sometimes we're better at doing it than other times. When I went to Big Tent (a big denominational conference/gathering) a few weeks ago, I came face to face with the fact that in the past month, as life got crazier, my self-care dropped off sharply, and was almost non-existent.

I had been doing so well for a couple of months at getting up early each morning to exercise.  Then I got sick for a week, and then I got back into my late night schedule, and my body really needed those extra two hours of sleep in the morning. My physical and spiritual disciplines were falling away as quickly as the plants in the rocky soil that wither under the sun (my sermon text from last week).

In a check-in yesterday with a pastor friend/colleague/mentor, she gave me some "homework." I was to write down twelve positive practices to do every day. My first thought was twelve!?! I can hardly keep up with trying to exercise! But some of these practices are things that I already do, and I can bring more intentionality to them. Others are concrete things to get me on the way to improving where I need to improve in self-care. I'm writing them down so I can be accountable to myself, and to her, and I guess to whoever is reading this blog!

1 - Daily Lectionary Readings - part of the practice of the Company of Pastors, getting grounded in the Word
2 - Morning and Evening prayer - ditto.
3 - Get moving - at least 5 minutes a day of walking or yoga or something, but aiming for 30 most days, and for an hour or more on days when I can do that.
4 - Eat something green - most days I do this, and eat more than one green thing. But some days running from drive-thru to drive-thru... And no, the pickles on my hamburger don't count.
5 - Drink lots of water - at least two of my SIGG bottles in the morning, and another two in the afternoon/evening. As I was writing this, I stopped to run down the hall to refill my water bottle.
6 - Say at least 5 positive things to my husband
7 - Write for at least 15 minutes each day - the blog counts, but emails, twitter, sermons, and newsletter stuff don't.
8 - Breathe - at least once each day, stop and intentionally do some deep breathing.
9 - Do something musical - either put on some music to feed my soul, or make some music.
10 - Clean - Tackle at least one project, or spend at least 15 minutes tidying up the office or house.
11 - Get 8 hours of sleep - This will be tough.  My body really like 9 hours, but it's a stretch to get 8, and I can work on that.
12 - Self-affirmation/self-appreciation/grace - At the end of each day, resist the urge to beat myself up over the items on this list that I didn't do, or didn't do as well as I wanted. Don't "should" on myself for other things that happened or didn't happen through the day. Instead, find some room for grace, and affirm the positive steps I did make to build on tomorrow.

In some ways, this is a simple list. In other ways, it is quite daunting. But in the time it took me to write this post, I've accomplished parts of 5 items on this list, and it feels good. Oh, and by the way, I also replaced my own headlight last night. And even remembered what it was called.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting Older

I'm digging my heels into the ground, screeching towards my 32nd birthday at the end of August, as if doing so would slow the march of time. I never thought I would be concerned about getting older, and I fully recognize that 32 is not "old" by any stretch.  My 29th birthday was a golden one - I turned 29 on the 29th - and it was a wonderful, perfect weather, end of summer Friday spent with my husband, and then later my family - Dad, step-mom, sister, brother-in-law, and nephews. Glorious.  Each birthday since has been more difficult - especially approaching them.

I put my finger on part of the reason last year or the year before. Growing up, people always thought I was older than I was - I looked older, and was very mature for my age, and I was pretty darn capable. I enjoyed impressing people when they found out how young I was. Now, for the most part, I think people think I am younger than I actually am. (I know, you're feeling terribly sorry for me right now) Which, all things considered, is certainly a good shift to have. But when they are impressed that someone "my age" is doing something, it's a little less impressive when they know how old I really am. When I talk about future possibilities, the response is, "Oh, you have plenty of time..." and yes, in some ways I do, but not as much time as people think. And not as much time as I used to have.

The issue of childbearing is particularly complex and painful for me, for reasons I can't go into here. I do hope to have children, and hope to have children soon, but as my body aches more and more consistently, I try to imagine running after toddlers a few years down the road. I really don't like the thought of how old I will be when my children will graduate from college, if and when I become a grandparent. My parents were always on the younger side - they were 23 when my older sister was born and 25 when I was born. Their parents were also on the younger side. My two grandmothers became grandmothers (with my sister's birth) when they were in their mid to late 40s. My parents became grandparents (with the birth of my oldest nephew) when they were in their late 40s. It is amazing to see my dad and BOTH of his parents outside playing with my nephews, building forts, running around, and enjoying their grandchildren/great-grandchildren. I may never have the chance to meet great-grandchildren, even if I live to be a ripe old age.

When I was younger (in teens up through my mid-20s) I wasn't at all worried about those things. I never had a desire to marry as young as the rest of my family did, and I wasn't even sure that children would be part of my future. I know that I am not too old to have kids now, but I'm creeping into "advanced maternal age" - when conception becomes more difficult, when problems with pregnancy and risks of birth defects start to rise significantly. It's difficult to face those issues.

When you are in your teens and twenties, the possibilities are endless. I still have many open possibilities, but not as many. Then, of course, are the issues of how various possibilities which all are good and desirable seem to be mutually exclusive - particularly in terms of career and family. This is still MUCH more of an issue for women than it is for men, much to my frustration.

I hate to complain about feeling old, especially when, by and large, I am still younger than most of the people that I interact with - 90% of the congregation, my husband, my family, and most of my colleagues and peers. I   know that this post will generate very little sympathy. I get that. But it is a real struggle, and one that I need to name. I'm not a journal writer, though perhaps I should be. I wouldn't normally risk putting something like this out in public, but perhaps there are others for whom this will resonate. In the meantime, you'll find me silently kicking and screaming my way to August 29th.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Gardening

This is my pastor's note for the July newsletter.  Given the upcoming lectionary texts, I think I'll be digging a bit deeper into the gardening analogy for sermon writing.  Any thoughts?

            I’ve already confessed that I am not a gardener. Both of my parents enjoy gardening, but somehow their knowledge was not passed along to me. However, during our week in Cincinnati, I spent more time working in gardens than I had up to that point. I think gardening offers many metaphors for our spiritual journey and growth. Don’t you think?
            Soil makes a difference.  On Monday morning, we were planting at the Civic Garden Center in soil that had been brought in.  It was easy to work with, and we knew that the shrubs and trees that we were planting would thrive.  Monday afternoon, we were in the community garden of a church, tilling land that had until last year been covered by a house.  We dug up some big rocks, a few bricks, and some other artifacts that showed the ground hadn’t been used to grow much for a long time.  Some areas were very dry, and there was also a lot of hard packed clay, but one of the volunteers noted that the soil would improve each year as they cultivated it. Similarly, we need to cultivate our spiritual soil.  Tending regularly to the practices of prayer, worship, and study of the Scriptures will encourage growth.  Neglected spiritual soil is less fertile.  It is more difficult for our faith to take root and grow.
            Weeds grow like… well, weeds. We spent almost the entire day on Thursday weeding, and while we completely cleared a good number of beds, there were still more areas that we could have weeded.  It seems that the things we want to grow require such tender care, but the things we don’t want to grow have no problem at all taking root and settling in. They rob the good plants of the resources they need to grow.  It’s not enough to pull out what you can see; you have to dig in deep to get out the root.  Otherwise, the weeds will come right back.  And it isn’t easy to get out the whole root.  Even if you do manage to completely clear out weeds from a bed, they will still find their way in one way or another.  Weeding is a never-ending task.
            Our lives are full of weeds – those things that crowd out the good fruit that we are cultivating, the things that sap our time, energy, and resources and leave us without anything left to give.  Weeds can be like sin or temptation – the things that creep into our lives and take root.  Or they can be like an invasive species – something that we initially invite into our lives that quickly takes over. It doesn’t matter how fertile or infertile our soil is – the weeds will still grow.  Weeds keep us from producing the kind of fruit that God calls us to produce, the fruits of the Spirit.  Weeds separate us from God and from each other.  Weeding is a constant task in our lives.  Sometimes, when we realize that our gardens have become beds of tangled weeds, we need the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to come in and till up our soil and start anew.
            You have to know what you’re planting.  When we put seeds in the community garden, we had to mark the rows to remind us of what had been planted.  We had to space things out and plant to the proper depth, and so on. You don’t have to plant weeds – they just come.  But you do have to plant the seeds that will grow into the plants that you want.  I’ve never had to nurture impatience, judgment, or selfishness.  Those tend to sprout up no matter what I do.  But the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – those are all things that need to be planted and tended in ways to make them grow.
            I could go on for a while with the metaphors, but I think you get the idea.  In this growing season, let us consider how we are tending our own gardens, and how we are helping to nurture other fields. Think especially of the younger generations.  How will they be taught to cultivate their own spiritual path?  Let us look to the true Master Gardener for wisdom and guidance.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Roughly 15 years and 50 weeks ago, I went to Cincinnati for the first time with my dad and sister for the PC (USA) General Assembly.  My sister was a Youth Advisory Delegate representing Abingdon Presbytery, and perhaps my dad had a role there, too.  I was long for the ride.  More specifically, I was along for the drive.  I had just gotten my learner's permit at the end of April, and in a few months I would have my full driver's license, so I was eager to get in as much driving as I could.

Little did I know how much driving experience I would get on that trip.  Soon after we got to Cincinnati, a member of our church passed away, and so my dad and I basically checked in and turned around to drive back so he could preside over the funeral.  I drove through the night while he slept in the car, and then while he presided over the funeral I slept at home.  When he got back, I woke up and drove the 360 miles back to Cincinnati.

Now, on the eve of leaving for a mission trip to Cincinnati with some of our youth, I am potentially in a similar situation.  Never would I have thought back in 1995 that, 16 years later, I might be making a round trip from Cincinnati back home to preside over the funeral of a member of my congregation - as pastor.  Whew.  But here I am.

This particular member has been struggling with Alzheimer's disease for the past 5 or 6 years.  We never knew the vibrant and lively woman before the disease, but this past week, as I've been sitting vigil with her family, I've gotten a glimpse of this special woman's life.

On Monday I received a phone call that she was in very bad shape, and probably wouldn't make it past a few hours.  I went right away, and talked with her caregivers and family, praying with them for what I thought might be the last time before her passing.  It wasn't.  It is now Saturday night, and as of my visit this evening, she is still breathing, and her family and caregivers, gathered at her home, continue to wait.  She has been unable to eat or drink since Sunday, and we have all marveled at the strength of her heart, to keep her body going against all odds.

Of course we all know that it is a matter of time, and not much time; hence, I am prepared to make a day trip from Cincinnati during our mission trip to preside at the funeral and burial.  Those around her keep asking, "What is she waiting for?"  Her loving husband of 55 years passed away 2 1/2 years ago, and she has been looking forward to their reunion.  She was not afraid to die, but she also believed that every day of life was a gift to be cherished.  That is a difficult truth to affirm as those who love her watch and wait, each day, seeing her body slowly succumb to the disease that has ravaged her mind and body these past few years.

We all want her to go home, to be released from the disease that has taken so much from her.  But we wait.  I don't understand God's timing, and I have questions about whether this really is God's timing.  The family says, "Well, God just keeps showing us that he is in control."  And I believe that God is, ultimately, in control.  But I don't believe that God has the need or even desire to show us that God is in control.  While I believe that God is in control, I also believe that we are waiting - that God is waiting.  We are still in the "in between" time - the "already and not yet," where we are assured that God has conquered all sickness and death, and yet our current reality is a world marked by brokenness and decay.  I believe that just as God will redeem all of creation, so too, God will redeem time as we know it.  Then time will really be God's timing, and all our waiting will be over.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Fed" - Sermon for Easter 4A

“Fed” – Stephanie Wing, 5.15.11
I think there is very little that gives my grandmother more pleasure than feeding her family.  She knows the foods that we like best and always has them ready when we come for a visit.  One summer, my sister and I were there for a two-week visit, and when my parents came to pick us up, I had gained 7 pounds! My mom told my grandmother we wouldn't be able to come again for such a long visit if that happened again.  One of our favorite treats was a homemade milkshake.  The next summer during our visit, my sister and I would weigh ourselves each night and say, "Grandma, I didn't gain any weight, can I have a milkshake?"  
My grandma can make just about anything, but at the heart of each meal is her homemade bread.  She has a big basin that she uses to kneed the dough - by hand, of course - and because of its size, she puts it right in the middle of the kitchen floor and goes to work.  She makes at least a dozen loaves at a time, and freezes what isn't used right away. Bread is served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and often for an evening snack.  It is true that one cannot live by bread alone, but I'm not sure that my grandmother could live without it!
In our short passage from Acts, breaking bread is mentioned twice as a central act of the early Christians.  In last week's reading from the Gospel of Luke, we read of how the disciples first recognized Jesus after the resurrection.  It wasn't until he broke bread with them that their eyes were opened.  Breaking bread over a fellowship meal was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before his trial and crucifixion.  The breaking of five loaves to feed the hungry crowd of thousands was one of Jesus' most enduring miracles.  In fact, the earliest Christian artifacts incorporated images of bread from Jesus' ministry. 
The earliest images of Jesus in Christian art often depicted him as the Good Shepherd, an image that figures most prominently in the gospel of John.  In the gospel of Mark, when the disciples return to Jesus after having gone out teaching and healing others, Jesus encouraged them to come away with him to a desolate place to rest for a while.  However, the crowds find them and follow them, and we read that Jesus had compassion on them, for they were like "sheep without a shepherd."  Jesus teaches, and as the day turns to evening, he gathers up all the food that can be found - five loaves and two fish.  He tells the people gathered to sit down on the "green grass."  They were in the wilderness, but suddenly they are sitting down in green grass!  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures...
What else does the Good Shepherd do?  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  He anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.  The shepherd feeds the flock, and the Lord, the Good Shepherd, feeds the flock abundantly.  Jesus is both the good shepherd and the bread of life.  Jesus leads us beside still waters, and invites us to drink of living waters that quench all thirsts. 
Have you ever thought about how much eating and drinking Jesus did in his ministry?  The Pharisees noticed it.  In Luke, the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners.  They go on to say, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink."  Jesus' response was that you can't make the wedding party fast while the bridegroom is with them, but soon the bridegroom will not be with them, and then they will also fast and pray.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, there was indeed time for fasting and for prayer.  We read that the early church devoted themselves to prayer, and to the teaching of the apostles.  The believers were all together and kept everything in common, selling their goods and distributing the money to anyone who had need.  Though their fasting included periods of abstaining from food, their fast also included giving up their personal property, the everyday comforts of life, in order to take care of each other, and to take care of those in need.  Perhaps you have heard the saying, "Live simply, that others may simply live." 
Fasting is not about starvation, and giving away the things of value to us is not about self-deprivation.  It is about recognizing Jesus as Lord of our life, and giving up the things that too easily distract us, the things that too easily become of central importance in our lives.  The fast does not deny the goodness of food, or the necessity of certain worldly items, or even the pleasure that we derive from abundance.  A fast reorients us, it re-orders our priorities, and helps to put our needs, wants, and desires in place, so that we may be in proper relation with God and with each other.
A fast also reminds us of our ultimate dependence on God.  We quickly become self-reliant, confident in our ability to put food on our tables, a roof over our heads, and insurance to protect the things most valuable in our lives.  I dare say that many of us have little experience with true hunger, or with deep material need.  A voluntary fast, or truly sacrificial giving, opens us to experience the provision we are promised by the Good Shepherd.
Yet to paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything - a time for fasting and prayer, and a time for feasting and fellowship.  The early church gathered frequently to break bread together, to share with each other as there was need, and to share together the abundance of what God had given them.  It is good for us to eat together.  On Friday many of us experienced that goodness, both in the celebration of Nancy Gabhart's birthday, and in the Bingo night and fellowship dinner later that evening.  It is good for us to gather together and enjoy the gifts that God has given to us.  Doing so gives us an opportunity, like the early Christians, to eat our food with "glad and generous hearts."
Eating together is just one way that we are fed by the Good Shepherd.  We are also fed in devoting ourselves to teaching and learning, to studying the Bible together and individually, to worshiping together and learning more about what it means to follow Jesus.  We are fed in praying together, in being upheld by the prayers of others, and in the gift of being able to hold up others in prayer.  We are fed in community.  We are fed by the work and ministry of the church.  And just as we are fed, so we are called to go out and feed, to invite others to the feast, and to share what we have been given so freely, that others may come to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Our reading from Acts gives us a window into how the early Christians worshiped, as well as their posture of service and outreach.  And we read that day by day, the Lord added to their numbers.  Early in Acts, we read that the followers of Jesus numbered about 120.  Then after Pentecost and after Peter's first sermon, three thousand were added to their number!  The early church grew by leaps and bounds through the proclamation of the good news, and as they lived life together as the gathered body.  As their life and worship and service flowed together, the church grew.
If we, as a church, are faithful to God's call to us for worship and ministry, then we, too, will grow.  That growth is happening now.  It may not be by the thousands, or hundreds, or even scores, but it is growing in the number of youth coming here each Wednesday night, and in the excitement that they have to invite their friends to come and see what God is doing here.  It is growing in the mission and outreach of this church - Little Dresses...., Dress for Success, the Congregational Care Team, the hygiene kits for disaster areas, Second-Wind Dreams, mission opportunities in our backyard and beyond.  It is happening in Sunday school classes, in Bible study, and in our fellowship. 
Each time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we are called to remember the abundant feast that God provides.  We are invited to be fed by the good shepherd, to see the table that God sets before us, and to drink from the cup that overflows.  We are invited to lives of prayer, study, worship, fellowship, and service.  We are invited to be fed by God through those activities, and to be fed by God here at this table.  Eating and drinking at this table reminds us that we are feasting with the bridegroom, that Christ is present with us.  Our prayers and fasting, our giving and our service, remind us that we are also living in a time of anticipation of Christ's return, and the hope and assurance of God's extravagant love and grace. 
Coming to this table reminds us that we are connected to each other, not just those of us gathered here, but in some ways, more importantly, those who are not here.  We are connected to those who do not feel welcome at the table, for one reason or another.  We are connected to those who have not heard the invitation.  We are connected to our brothers and sisters who are still in need, and I can't help but think that we have been entrusted with our riches so that we can use them to share God's blessing with others.
The feast is abundant.  I have not yet been to a meal at this church where we have run out of food, and I know that God's kingdom is like that, too.  So let us come to this table and be fed.  Let us be fed at the hand of our Good Shepherd, and let us devote ourselves to the care and feeding of all of God's sheep.  As we have been fed, so let us feed.  As we have been blessed, so let us bless.  As we have been loved, so let us love.  In the name of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Thanks be to God for the rain...

Like many parts of the country, we have been soaked with rain for the past month or so, and though the last week has been dry, I woke up this morning to rain again.  I'm ready for the rain to be done, and the cold front that is coming through is not exactly a welcome visitor, but on this Saturday, I am thanking God for the rain.

We were supposed to take the youth to Shaker Village today (Mercer County day - free admission and free rides on the riverboat), but the rain has given us a great excuse to cancel the outing.  I don't think the ground needed any more rain, but I sure needed the break - and more accurately, the break from one work thing to work on another - my sermon for tomorrow.  I normally have my sermon finished before the weekend so that I can actually enjoy some Sabbath time, but this week has been a beast.  In fact, the last few weeks have been rather beastly.

Andy and I are usually quite good at guarding our days off (Friday and Saturday), but this is the 3rd week in the past four that have been 7 day work weeks for us.  Last week we finally had an entire day off on Friday, but even on Saturday Andy was working on his sermon.  Next week I will also have another 7 day work week thanks to a meeting in Louisville Friday and a called Presbytery meeting on Saturday. 

Yesterday was particularly taxing.  We had a surprise birthday party at the church in the afternoon for a member who has had to move to Louisville to an assisted care facility.  It was wonderful, and a great gift to be part of it, but it was nearly 3 hours of being "on."  We had just two hours between that and the next event, during which I decided to get the oil changed in one of our cars and discovered that one of our tires is close to blow-out - the tread is coming off.  Two weeks ago I had a flat tire on the other car, and so this just adds to the stress.  But I had to get back to the church before I could get it taken care of in order to be there for a fellowship dinner and Bingo night - another great event, but another 3 hours of being "on."  I could feel myself having a difficult time being truly engaged in conversations.  I was completely missing entire sentences of conversations, feeling very fragmented and distracted all at once.  My body and mind were both telling me that I needed a break.

I got home last night and was more aware than I have been in a long time of being completely emotionally tapped.  Even though it was our "day off," it was only really 6 hours of work, and I used to work 50-90 hours a week before Seminary, so what gives?  For one thing, it was 6 hours of very extroverted work, and this introvert was screaming for some quiet.  For another thing, it is coming in the midst of a sustained month or more of working too much without a real break.  Many pastors take vacation or some kind of time off soon after Easter.  All of the Lent, Holy Week, and Easter busy-ness requires some rest.  But we had nothing planned this year, and we've had a number of situations at the church that have demanded above and beyond pastoral care since Easter.

I was recently speaking with another minister about days off.  I said that we really try to preach and model Sabbath, but for some in the congregation who routinely work 7 days a week and all hours of the day (and pride themselves on it), it comes off sounding either lazy or luxurious (nice work if you can get it...).  He realized that a major difference between his current congregation and the former congregation he served is that there are many more professionals in the congregation - doctors, lawyers, and others who routinely put in 70 hours a week.  In his former church, when he was working 45 hours a week or so, he felt like he was on par with most of the congregation, but he now felt an unspoken pressure (probably both internal and external) to put in more time.  Complicating his situation, the church he currently serves has gone (in the past few decades) from being a multi-staff church down to him being the first solo pastor.  His predecessors were a clergy couple serving as co-pastors, each technically 3/4 time, but from what he hears, the wife probably worked time and a half, and the husband full time.

Of course, Andy and I are currently serving as co-pastors, technically each 3/4 time.  Each year we sign something with the Board of Pensions stating that we are both working under 35 hours a week.  In exchange, the church saves money on our medical coverage, avoids having to meet Presbytery compensation minimums for each of us.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes, having that external boundary gives us a little more support in setting certain boundaries.  Internally, it allows me to give permission to myself to be more flexible with the schedule at certain times.  And yet...  we haven't been counting hours, and I don't even want to guess at what our weekly average has been over the past month or so.  It's not fair to us - we aren't getting appropriately compensated for the work we are putting in - and it's not fair to the church, or to the solo pastor who will follow us. 

It's hard to complain about a call that we helped to negotiate and that we accepted.  It's not as if the church can afford to pay us more but isn't.  It is a stretch for them to have us here, too.  And it is hard to "complain" about the work that we have been called to do, when it is a joy to be able to do it. 

And yet...  I'm tired.  I'm tired, and I still have to finish my sermon for tomorrow.  And tomorrow will be a full day at the church (9 or more hours), and the start to another full week.  And so I am thankful for the rain, that allowed us to cancel the event that I didn't have the energy to do today.  Our people need a break, too.  After all, a busy weekend of church activities doesn't just involve us.  Our people also need their rest and re-creation.  And as lectionary readings from Luke remind us this week, when Jesus was pressed in on all sides by the crowds who came to see him, he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.  Shall we follow?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May newsletter note

A pastor friend had the following update on his Facebook page on Easter Sunday afternoon: “It is finished, he cried! and then went to bed for a well deserved nap....or something like that...”  It is no wonder that many pastors take vacation the week after Christmas and the week after Easter.  The Advent and Christmas season is certainly busy, but it is nothing compared to Lent, which culminates in Holy Week and Easter.  It is both the holiest and often most exhausting of weeks for pastors, and by the time Easter Sunday afternoon rolls around, we are all ready for a nice, long nap.
Easter is in many ways a climax and a culmination of the six-week Lenten journey.  It is probably the Sunday when individuals who have any connection to a church are most likely to go.  Then the Sunday after Easter, attendance is often lower than usual.  It seems that pastors and regular church-goers alike feel the need for a bit of a nap after all of the Easter festivities.  And yet…
Easter Sunday is just a beginning.  It is the beginning of our particular faith story as Christians.  The gospel stories – no matter how miraculous, amazing, or inspirational they may be – are simply good stories without the resurrection.  What makes the good stories the Good News is the historic yet timeless event of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The resurrection was an end of sorts, but even more so it was a beginning.  Only after the resurrection took place could the events, miracles, and teachings of Jesus be properly understood.
The Lenten season developed as a time of preparation and self-examination for converts to the Christian faith.  The Easter Vigil was the time when these catechumens would finally come forward to receive the sacrament of Baptism, thus joining the church.  Easter Sunday was just the beginning of their journey in the life of discipleship.  So too, for us, Easter is just the beginning of our journey of discipleship.  Though our self-imposed Lenten disciplines have ended, the practices of daily discipleship remain, including prayer, reading Scripture, worshiping together, and proclaiming the Good News to others both in our speech and in our actions.
Easter is not just a “high” holy day, full of fanfare, pomp, and celebration.  It is not just a once-a-year event.  We are people of the resurrection, and every Sunday worship service is a celebration of the reconciliation that we have through Jesus Christ.   Because of the Easter assurance, because our Savior lived, died, and in resurrection conquered all powers of evil and death, we have hope and confidence to live as we are called to live, as children of God.  When it feels like we are at the end of our rope, when the stresses or demands of life seem too heavy to carry, when we have nothing left to give, we can move forward with the assurance that our redeemer lives.
Easter grounds us, but it also upends us.  It shakes us out of our sleepy living just as surely as a sunrise service.  We are reminded that because of what God accomplished through Jesus Christ, we are changed.  Our lives are claimed – they are not our own.  We are called to be followers of Christ, and only in light of Holy Week and Easter can we understand the implications of that call.  If the disciples thought that the difficult part of their journey of following Jesus had ended with his crucifixion, they were sorely mistaken.    Easter afternoon didn’t include a nap – it included marching orders, as Jesus told those closest to him to go and spread the Good News.
Now that Easter has passed, are we ready to be Easter people?  Are we ready to respond to the resurrection reality of God’s grace and reconciliation through Jesus Christ?  May it be so!