Speaking Grace

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My record book of funerals, weddings, baptisms, and ordinations.

A few weeks ago I was at a concert for our family’s favorite artist and writer, Andrew Peterson.  His shows are my favorite kind of concert because he talks to the audience about the creation of his songs, which come from his life and the many people he has encountered.  At this show he was talking about his dad who retired after fifty years of parish ministry.  Andrew shared a conversation in which he had asked his dad about the number of weddings and funerals he had officiated.  The number of weddings seemed reasonable for the fifty years, so reasonable I did not even remember it.  But it was his dad’s response to the number of funerals that caught my attention.  His dad’s response was that he ceased counting at 300.  The crowd murmured lovingly in response.  I nodded and let the tears fall freely down my cheeks.

Death has been a regular part of my time as pastor in this community.  In my first years there were so many people I did not know who I stood next to their casket and proclaimed words of God’s grace and eternal life.  Now however, there are so few people I do not know.  Even when I do not know the person directly, I know their family a circle or two out.  I know their friends.  I know how they fit in the community and I know the hole they leave behind.  Now when the funeral home announcements come, even if it is not a funeral I am officiating, I know the hole left behind with that person’s death.

I still stand and say words of God’s grace.  I talk about the next life.  I talk about the healing to come, of pain that will change, and of the ways we come together as a community to remember and continue that person’s legacy.  I talk and I sit, I remember and I mourn.

I have not yet reached 300 funerals, but I am well on my way.  I still recall each person’s name, the faces of their loved ones as we sat and planned the service together.  I recall the families who have sat with me more than once, a little less confused, a little less overwhelmed each successive time.  I want to believe it is because the first time I faithfully spoke of God’s grace in a way that was instrumental in their healing.  I want to believe in this time of pain I did my job in a way that glorified the God I believe in by bringing comfort to those in need.  But I always feel as if I am bumbling through a minefield one mistake away from making their pain worse.

It keeps me sane to know there are others who are bumbling through these times the same as I am, trying their best to speak words of grace when heartache is so visceral.  I wonder if I ever make it to fifty years of parish ministry if the stories I will leave behind will be stories of grace.

I sure hope so.

 

 

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Pastor Appreciation Month

 

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One of my work spaces. 

For those of you not on Facebook, this year at the encouragement of a seminary classmate I shared an item of appreciation for ministry each day of the month.  The following are my posts from Pastor Appreciation Month, also known as October.

Day 1: I appreciate the volunteer who on Sunday presented a new mission project in partnership with another congregation. I am thankful for new ideas, courage to try them, and a willingness to expand our relationships.

Day 2: I appreciate the volunteers who serve Home Communion to our members. Today a visit was full of appreciation for the team who served yesterday. I enjoy hearing stories of how the members of our community are caring for each other.

Day 3: I appreciate the steadfastness of those around me in the face of our personal and communal pain. In this inter-generational community the strength of those older than me, hope of those younger than me, and energy of those of my age teaches me daily how we are to work for peace as an answer to the call of Christ.

Day 4: I appreciate the joy shared in the stands as we adults watch the children of our community learn new skills. Watching the children who light the candles on Sunday morning pass a basketball, guard another player, and encourage each other while being cheered on by the members of the congregation they helped lead in worship makes me (as those kids tell me) feel all the good feels.

Day 5: I appreciate the act of having coffee. I appreciate all the time and stories shared that build our life together.

Day 6: I appreciate the connections made with others through seminary, conferences, meetings, and other events that allow me to grow in understanding of the vastness of this world and God’s action. I appreciate the advances in technology which allow me to keep those connections.

Day 7: I appreciate the prayers shared for my family. In particular the prayers from yesterday of a 90+ year old mother for my almost 16 year old new driver. The words and prayers that build up my children are powerful and appreciated.

Day 8: I appreciate the Parish Nurse Program and those who began and sustain that program in our community. I appreciate how our nurses worked to include an anointing prayer each month for those community members in need.

Day 9: I appreciate the work of the volunteers who lead our youth group. These volunteers are many and change from time to time but always they work to provide opportunities for our youth to grow in faith and understanding. I am thankful I get to work alongside them.

Day 10: I appreciate the harvest season scenes as I drive.

Day 11: I appreciate the opportunity to join others in committee meetings. I enjoy the exchange of ideas and the excitement of dreaming and planning shared work.

Day 12: I appreciate the childhood given to me by my parents and the US Military. A childhood which showed me a diverse world full of unique individuals all doing the best they could to make this world more inclusive, free, and peaceful. My understanding of freedom and unity in Christ comes from those early years when I learned about the reality of racism through the experiences of my friends, classmates, and neighbors. It is thanks to those years that I know about the privileges I have been given, and my responsibility to work to eradicate injustice. That knowledge makes all the difference as I answer the call to ministry.

Day 13: I appreciate head thrown back, deep laughter and the many opportunities I have in a week to share those kind of moments.

Day 14: I appreciate how inviting conversation results in connection and understanding. I appreciate the many people who have engaged in conversation with me over the years and the manner in which their stories have broadened my knowledge, and taught me compassion.

Day 15: I appreciate the time and effort our elected representatives of UCW (aka elders on Session) have put into studying the PCUSA’s “Book of Confessions” and Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” this year. Their willingness to read and discuss these resources has been life-giving to this pastor who sometimes misses classroom discussions. 

Day 16: I appreciate that I get to be a part of some of the big moments in the lives of the children under our care. I get to see them shortly after birth, at baptism, at confirmation, at graduations, at ordination, at their wedding, and upon the birth of their own children, to name a few. It is one of the most precious gifts of this call to ministry to be the pastor who speaks words of grace and love at all those moments.

Day 17: I appreciate the students (and the adults who come with them) who get on the school bus at the church building. I enjoy listening to their chatter and watching them grow taller.

Day 18: I appreciate the creators in our community.  I have witnessed the creation of books, quilts, artwork, buildings, gardens, fields, and music to name a few. I am thankful for the opportunity to see the talents of others bring beauty and function to this world.

Day 19: I appreciate all of the people who make Sunday mornings happen. Attempting to not double count a person, and checking my math with the math teacher, a typical Sunday takes approximately 50 people to make sure we have Sunday School classes and a worship service. Add in the choir, Communion servers, any people needed for a special event, and the number climbs even higher. Thank you all.

Day 20: I appreciate the parents who recognize being a pastor does not mean God gave me perfect parenting skills or children. I am thankful to share the realities of raising compassionate and responsible human beings with these wise and hilarious parents.

Day 21: I appreciate how some of our youngest members in town recognize my face and associate it with happy times even when they do not remember my name. I am thankful for the exclamations of, “I know you! Do you remember me?” Yes, I remember you and I am thankful to know you.

Day 22: I appreciate the people from all parts of my life who traveled to Woodhull in body and spirit eleven years ago to join the community here in worship. Eleven years ago I was ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and installed as pastor at United Church of Woodhull in a crowded sanctuary full of singing, laughter, and prayers. I knew it was a life-altering day in the moment, and I know it still. As those wiser than me have said before, “This is not a job, this is a life.” Thank you to those who led worship that day, who saw in me what I could not see myself. I am thankful for you.

Day 23: I appreciate the storytellers who lay bare my heart through word and song. They inspire me to live with eyes, heart, and mind wide open eagerly searching for Light in darkness.

Day 24: I appreciate my cell phone and how it has contributed to my ability to serve this community.

Day 25: I appreciate study days and learning something new.

Day 26: I appreciate the rhythm of this life.

Day 27: I appreciate the act of sitting around a table with my colleagues and praying together.

Day 28: I appreciate all the people who produce our monthly newsletter, Sunday bulletin, congregation and garden Facebook pages, website, and YouTube channel. I am thankful for all the work done to share our stories.

Day 29: I appreciate that I have the freedom to serve in ordained office.

Day 30: I appreciate the peaceful silence of the church building early in the morning.

Day 31: I appreciate the shared hope for things to come. I am thankful there are always people in the community able to hold hope for those unable to find it.

Thank you once again UCW for letting me be your partner in ministry.

 

 

Perspective

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Our fence with trumpet vine and tiger lilies not yet in bloom. 

Next to our manse (PCUSA term for pastor’s house provided by the congregation) is a large empty lot.  This lot was the location of the old Presbyterian church building before the building was torn down.  Now it serves as a beautiful green space for children and animals alike.  On the back of the lot is a fence that still has portions of the hitching post from a century ago.

The hitching post is not easy to see because the trumpet vine our neighbor planted decades ago and the lilies we planted nine years ago have grown beautifully to create a privacy hedge.  Though it is hard to see the hitching post unless you are right upon it, I look for the post each time I walk the fence.  This practice fills me with a sense of deep connection to the people who walked that route in years past, the ones who lived all the parts of life, the ones who gathered together to create a life together even when it was hard.  I feel connected to the pastors who have served in this community (not just in our congregation) who must have stood before that post themselves wondering all the things I wonder.

I love this messy fence-line because it is a bit of history about the community I serve.  I also love it because of a bit of my history.  My maternal grandma had a flowerbed of tiger lilies (the name she told me) that she worked hard to grow in the sandy soil of her home.  Her lilies were pale imitations to the ones I see each year, but they were her labor of love and no matter where I have roamed the sight of a tiger lily reminds me of her and my grandpa.  My grandma also loves trumpet vine and tried for years to get one to grow with little success.  She even buried my childhood cat under her vine when Princess died while I was away at college.  The fact that I live in a place were we mow down the trumpet vine each week to keep it contained does not cease to delight me.

I have learned in my time here that the beautiful tiger lilies I adore are often referred to with some disdain as “ditch lilies” because they tend to be a bit invasive in the rich soil of our area.  Trumpet vine is also considered invasive and my devotion to ours has caused more than a few heads to shake in disbelief.

But then I share my stories and perspectives change and no longer is our messy fence-line considered a nuisance; instead my stories become the stories others share.  Stories of the hitching post, of baseballs lost (much like the ivy at Wrigley Field), of hummingbirds spotted, and of how far out a sprout of trumpet vine erupted in the yard become our stories, no longer my stories, but our stories.

When our perspective changes and our individual stories become shared stories the world becomes a little bit more peaceful, a little bit better.  This is not easy work, it is messy and sometimes looks as bad as a dormant trumpet vine and wilted, winter tiger lilies.  But when we pause to wonder, to look, to listen, and to share, something beautiful grows.

Hopeful Work

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Saturday morning work days at the Garden of H.O.P.E.

The people who populate my daily life know the value of sweaty, physically exhausting work.  They know how to make the most of a non-rainy day.  Their bodies show the years in laugh lines, stooped shoulders, and calloused hands.  Their willingness to work until the job is done is not the exception, it is the rule.

I spend my days as the pastor meant to inspire and encourage people to work on their spiritual lives.  This type of work is not evident in planted or harvested fields.  It is not evident in well cared for livestock.  It is not evident in academic success.  Spiritual work is the type of work evident in gentle hearts, in compassionate hands, and forgiveness that defies logic.  It is the kind of work that rarely has concrete evidence to be admired from the front porch or tractor cab.

The lack of concrete evidence of spiritual work done well makes for long seasons.  Gentle hearts are grown through many seasons of learning what matters most, laugh lines are often the physical evidence of gentle hearts.  Compassionate hands are developed much like calloused hands, through years of giving until it hurts and your body shows the evidence of sacrifice.  The ability to forgive comes because we have failed enough times to know without forgiveness we would be alone in the world.  All of these traits require years of nurturing to grow.

These long seasons can be disheartening, especially when surrounded by fields that are planted and harvested annually.  Unlike sinking your hands into the dirt of a vegetable bed to plant seedlings you will pick for dinner in a few months, the spiritual work a pastor is tasked with rarely bears fruit in that pastor’s tenure.  It is the work of the pastors who came before me bearing fruit as I work alongside the people of this community.  This leads my prayers to be ones of thanksgiving for the faithfulness of those pastors.

Gentle hearts, compassionate hands, and overflowing forgiveness are evidence of the spiritual work being done by the hardworking people I spend my days alongside.  I remain hopeful the spiritual work I am doing here will continue to bear fruit long after I am but a memory to those who will still be making the most of a non-rainy day.  My work is full of hope, the same as the work of those around me each time they plant a field, teach a lesson, care for a patient, or complete a task.  The fruit of our labors may not be evident right away but it will indeed follow us in this life and the next.

Rural Church Pastor

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The sun shining through the windows in the sanctuary.

In March I had the privilege of attending CREDO, which is a week-long event for pastors to reflect on their call to ministry in community with other pastors.  There are a number of areas we are guided to reflect on over the week, one of which is identity.  Over the course of CREDO I found myself using the phrase “rural church pastor” often.  I used it to explain my own identity and to answer questions about why or how life and ministry intersected for me.  My colleagues understood this answer either from firsthand experience as a rural church pastor, or because they have partnered with rural church pastors and heard their stories.

Being a rural church pastor is an all-encompassing life experience (though my experience is solely as a Christian pastor I suspect this is true of clergy from all faith traditions).  There have been many fiction and non-fiction books written about this truth which help to explain the details and share the funny stories.  Though as a rural church pastor I have found the people who usually read those books are rural church pastors so there can be a lack of understanding about this lifestyle in wider clergy circles.  This leads me to share a lot of stories about life as a rural church pastor in group settings with my colleagues who have not been called to this type of setting.  Thankfully my colleagues speak my language and recognize when it is time to laugh even if they have to ask some clarifying questions because they are not entirely sure why that story was funny.

It is easy to share stories of how as a rural church pastor I have helped in all areas of congregational life; it is not easy to explain how congregational life is more than what happens in the building or on Sunday morning.  Congregational life for a rural church pastor is daily life lived in a community that knows you are one of the town’s pastors.  Just as a teacher is always a teacher regardless of the time of year or their retirement status, a pastor is always a pastor.  In a rural setting each person’s life’s work is their identity regardless of the type of work we undertake.

This was an understanding I had to come to as a rural church pastor because I kept thinking there would be an easy division between when I was serving as a pastor and when I was just me, hanging out, doing regular people things.  Thankfully I am surrounded by a community of people who have modeled what it means to be employed doing your life’s work.  Thankfully these people have taught me it is acceptable to answer a question with the statement, “I am a rural church pastor,” because those who know rural life will recognize how encompassing and vital the role of clergy is in the life of a community.

I am a rural church pastor which means some of my stories are about how spectacularly I have failed at adapting to this lifestyle, and some of them are heartwarming stories of being present at holy moments that would have been missed in a more populated environment.  But most days my stories are about living in a community full of unique people who are doing their best to live fully, while remembering what they do uptown will likely be recounted to their grandmother, father, or pastor.

This all-encompassing life has a way of making a person more compassionate and humble and I am thankful that my answer has for so long been, “because I am a rural church pastor.”  I remain hopeful all of the rural clergy of all faith traditions will know their life’s work is changing the world for the better one day, one story, one failure, and one walk uptown at a time.  I am better for my time surrounded by people who have found a way to meld their life’s work, their passion, their faith, and their everyday life together.

Ten Years Together

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Staircase at Stronghold.

Last month our congregation and I celebrated the anniversary of the worship service when we made our vows to partner together in worship and work.  There were cards, laughter, gifts, good food, and memories shared.  It was a full month of affirmation we had heard God’s call and answered with courage.

Though October was full of joy, our community is often filled with joy so it can be hard to distinguish between regular joy and special joy.  I found myself reflecting on the past decade and wondering how we can be such a joyful community.  I have determined that we are joyful because we have known pain.

We are a worshiping community made up of members who come from many other congregations.  We have closed church buildings and said goodbye to the physical space our ancestors built.  We have watched our children grow and move away to worship in other places, or to not worship at all.  We have learned from experience that when our personal lives are crashing down it is highly likely the person who will come to hold us up under the weight is the very person who vehemently disagrees with us politically and theologically in most, if not all areas.  We have learned to be real people, serving a real God, in the midst of real pain and struggle.

We are not perfect.  We have many more roads to travel, more enlightenment to come, more repentance we must undertake, and we will.  We will do this together.  We will do this joyfully.  We will do this because this is what we have been called to do.  In ten years I have learned from those wiser and more experienced than me, that death is not the worst thing to happen.  The worst is to be isolated and alone, never growing in compassion or understanding.

We are joyful not because we are naive.  Rather, we are joyful because we have known pain and have learned to take that pain to change the world for God’s glory.  I did not know what the first ten years would bring, and I do not know what the next ten will bring, but I am confident that together we will spread joy.

Testimony at Presbytery Assembly Meeting

In August 2014 I was invited to serve at the moderator of Great Rivers Presbytery.  I was elected as moderator-elect in October of that year.  I was installed as moderator in October 2015.  At the end of my term this month I was given the opportunity to preach before the assembly.  I took the moment to share a testimony of how the faithfulness of the presbytery made it possible for me to be standing before them as their moderator.  If you have some time to watch this is the link to that moment.