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.

 

The Tradition of Vacation Bible School

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Lights used to symbolize our daily God Sightings during the week.

Recently I had a brief conversation with another person about Vacation Bible School (VBS).  I referred to VBS as a mission project and they inquired why I would name VBS as such.  VBS has long been considered a program of the church, an event that happens because it has always happened.  I have learned in my travels and conversations with others this is not the case anymore as many congregations around the nation have let go of VBS, allowing it to be a piece of their history.  That we host VBS and consider it a mission project seems odd to others, but for those in our presbytery, VBS is still a vibrant part of our identity.

For us and others in our region VBS is both a traditional program of a congregation and a mission project.  VBS in a small community requires ecumenical relationships to gather enough staff to host a week of VBS, to be sure you are not hosting the same week a nearby community is hosting, and to share supplies those years you can.  VBS in a small community requires maintaining relationships with the local library, sports organization, and school because all have summer programs and the pool of children is small so we organize ourselves to not be in competition the best we can.  VBS becomes a mission project for us because the nature of the work requires us to go outside of our building simply to begin planning.  It continues as a mission project as we welcome children and adults from the larger community to join us in a week of learning and fun, and as we dedicate our efforts to raising money and/or supplies for a designated need.

Growing up some of my only contact with a worshiping community was through their VBS programs, I was one of those children who showed up unregistered, covered in summer sweat and dirt, for only a portion of the week.  I was the child who was reluctant to play the games, sing the songs, and would sit sullenly (sometimes) and quietly (most times) while I tried to figure out who this Jesus was they kept talking about.  I do not have a long history of VBS to inspire me to serve in this capacity.  But I was called to a community that has a long vibrant history of VBS and for them the thought of VBS being relegated to history is not an option.  Thankfully they have taught me what it means to love this mission project and how to find God at work in something so foreign to me.

This last week we joined together to host the VBS service in our town and once again I was amazed at how so many people come together to spend five mornings in a row providing a safe, fun, welcoming environment for our children and adults to learn about God’s action in the world.  I know for others VBS might not seem much like a mission project or even a viable program for a congregation, but for me, an adult learning what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ, VBS remains one of the undertakings that reminds me of how different people united in one cause can glorify God through their work.

 

222nd General Assembly, Final Post

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Sunrise from the airplane.

It is Sunday night as I type this and I have been home for over twenty-four hours.  I arrived home having slept only a few hours between the two plane rides in the previous thirty-three hours.  I was so tired but I know enough about navigating time changes to know I needed to stay awake for a few more hours.  I do not recall falling asleep later in the evening but I awoke fully clothed and on top of the covers in time to get to the church this morning so it all worked out.

I have been summarizing my thoughts about GA for many people today, in person and in writing.  I wanted to make one final post on this topic for those of you accompanying me electronically.  Thank you for reading all my reflections on this incredible experience.

It was a joy to come home and be hugged and shake hands with people I love dearly.  Re-entry is always a challenge but today it was made sweeter with hugs, smiles, e-mails, and questions.  I have spent the last nine days thinking about church on a large level, discussing money to be spent, arranging the work of many, what message we are sending to the world, and how faithful we are to our call as followers of Christ.  I returned home to our Session meeting (governing board) and we talked about these same items.  The similarities between the meetings was comforting.  The differences not so great.

I am thankful for the way our denomination governs itself, from the local to the national level.  I know we are not perfect, that we sometimes get our decisions and our words wrong.  But mostly I think we try at getting it right, we are honest with each other and when we listen we are changed even as we change someone else.  This afternoon as I sat around the table with my partners in service, others moved around us setting up for Vacation Bible School, and children laughed as they played in the building waiting for all of us to get done so they could go home.

It is good to come home and see the people that make being a part of a large denomination worth the work.  It is good to see how we vary in politics and theology and yet sit at the table together breaking bread, sharing stories, challenging each other, and laughing together.  This was just as it was a GA in those moments I had to sit and talk with others.  It is what we were trying to do on a larger level, and I am thankful there were moments when this reality shone brightly as we gathered in Portland.

GA was well worth the sacrifices made to attend.  If you ever get the chance to go I highly recommend it.