Sitting in the Bleachers

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During my high school years I remember only attending sporting events when I was required for Marching and Pep Band, or when my cousin dragged me to a game on a Friday night. I was not a big fan of sitting in the bleachers. In college until my work schedule prohibited my attendance I spent many hours sitting in the bleachers cheering on my friends. As a pastor in our rural community where having a school building in town is a privilege, I have spent many hours sitting in the bleachers cheering on students I know, and checking in with the adults in my care. As a parent and spouse of a coach, I have spent more hours than I ever dreamed as a high school student sitting in the bleachers.

Sitting in the bleachers is different than sitting in the sanctuary, even though many of the same people are present. In the bleachers insults are in abundance, while in the sanctuary words of forgiveness are in abundance. In the bleachers anticipation is in abundance, while in the sanctuary expectation is in abundance.

Sitting in the bleachers is also similar to sitting in the sanctuary, even though many of the people do not sit in the same sanctuary on a Sunday morning. In the sanctuary the monetary offerings are shared for the purpose of caring for others; and in the bleachers folded dollar bills are quietly handed over to hungry children. In the sanctuary conversations about life are shared before and after the service, sometimes even in whispers and notes passed during the service; and in the bleachers conversations about life are continued from event to event, like an ongoing dialogue, picking up where they ended when the buzzer sounded.

It seems we try to separate the bleachers and the sanctuary; compartmentalizing who we are in the bleachers so we are not the same in the sanctuary.  Yet, for some of us the community does not allow that compartmentalization so we see the impossible beauty of what our community would be if the anticipation of the bleachers, forgiveness of the sanctuary, and generosity found in both was shared with abundance in both places.

Imagine the joy if those holy moments of the sanctuary were also looked for in the bleachers.  Imagine the joy if those moments of camaraderie in the bleachers were shared in the sanctuary.  Imagine who we would be and how the world would change. . .

The impossible beauty of that image is what keeps me sitting in the bleachers and standing in the pulpit.

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A Newsletter Article

20170228_123249One of my tasks as pastor is to write an article for the monthly newsletter.  The following is the newsletter article published in our March 2018 newsletter.  It is the third installment in a series reflecting on our eleven years together as pastor and congregation.  Each month this year I am sharing a memory and connecting it to what we are learning today.  This article is longer and a whole lot more personal than usual.  I share it with the wider internet world to add depth to the conversation about caring for the members of our society.  This is a glimpse for you, the reader, into conversations around my dinner table.  I welcome you to come visit, share your story with us, and help us find a way to care for each other.  Thank you for reading.

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In March of 2008 we were in the middle of a long season of saying goodbye-for-now to loved ones.  In a year there were sixteen Witness to the Life and Resurrection Services, two of them were my family members.  In March I did not know the season would continue for months, I was simply a person grieving the death of two family members, who seemed to be spending my time leading others through the first days after death.  I would sit with families, hear stories, pick Scripture and hymns, and then stand before the community and remind everyone of the promises of our faith.

Each Lent I am reminded of that first season of funerals, and the ones that followed.  I sit with the stories of those who have died.  I remember the conversations with families.  I remember the ways our community came together to take care of all of those who were mourning.  I remember the fatigue that I felt deep in my bones and spirit as I tried to be compassionate when yet another family needed me to help them proclaim the promises of our faith.

This month when we are reeling from yet another act of gun violence against our children I find myself thinking back to the fatigue I felt in 2008.  I remember in 2008 some hurtful comments directed my way by people who thought I was not being the pastor they thought I should be.  I remember rumors reaching my ears of the supposed atrocious things I was to have said.  I remember my tears that were always close to the surface that year.  I remember questioning deeply my call to pastoral ministry.  That season was a difficult season for me, and yet there were moments of grace that still shine brightly in my memory as others reminded me of the promises of our faith.

As I write this article my heart is broken with the pain of yet round of senseless deaths, and the truth of the number of gun violence episodes of this year.  I am afraid of the funerals I will have to do if ever there is a tragic act of violence in our community.  I am trying to work for change, to help others see the truth we learn in the Gospel: that there are times when we set aside our own freedoms for the sake of the safety of another.  I am trying to comfort my own children as they talk through their anxiety at the possibility of an active shooter coming into their school, and their firm belief if that happened they would be the ones standing at the graveside crying as their dad’s casket was lowered into the ground.  Because for my children, there is no doubt their dad would die for them, or for his students, or for his colleagues.  My children remind me of the promises their dad has made them, which I know come from his understanding of the promises of our faith.

As adults we know what we would do in a stressful situation cannot be determined until that time.  We know enough to think about it, to talk about it, to prepare with training, and to leave behind the words we want said in the event the worst happens.  But we also know we are responsible for the safety of our children, even at the setting aside of our own freedom.  Because isn’t that what we do when we hold that baby (our own child or a child of our family) in our arms?  Do we not look at that baby and promise we will do everything in our power to keep that baby safe and protected?  Do we not look at our own choices and begin to change them so that that baby would be safe, from even us?  Do we not stand before God and the community and baptize that baby in the promises of our faith?

I know the intersection of gun violence and the freedom to own guns is not an easy conversation.  I grew up with guns, my step-father was a gun dealer, and I know people who hunt and those who enjoy shooting a rifle just for fun.   I can recall conversations about gun safety, and times when there was legitimate fear someone would use a gun in a fit of drunken rage.  The end result of all of those conversations was the belief that the safety of the children and the community were more important than the right to own a gun.  Unknown to my agnostic and atheist family members they were living the Gospel in a way that would make it easier for me to one day recognize the promises of our faith.

I do not have all the answers for how our society needs to change so our children do not fear going to school, our teachers and school staff do not wrestle with what they would do when faced with their life or the life of another, our medical and emergency personnel do not have to be prepared for mass shootings, and our clergy of all faiths wonder about funeral sermons that would have to be preached.  I do know one of the best ways to make change happen is to actually listen to each other, to share our experiences and our fears.  I know it is not to spread atrocious rumors about others, or to call each other names, or to make demands that our freedoms are more important than the freedom of others.  I know we can be the kind of community that has these kind of conversations because we have already had hard conversations.  We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with each other before and we have been changed.  We have lived the promises of our faith.

Our faith is one that requires action, it is one that is all about setting aside ourselves for the sake of God.  Our faith is about setting aside our own freedom so that we can be of service to another, just as Jesus was when he walked this earth.  The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to give up our freedom for the sake of others.  Our faith requires that we love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with our Lord.  Our faith is one full of promises of forgiveness, grace, love, joy, and peace.  Our faith is one full of promises of a community that recognizes they are only as strong as the weakest member and therefore works together to strengthen that weak one.  I remain confident we can become the kind of community eager to learn from each other, eager to protect others, and eager to demonstrate the promises of our faith.

May we be bold enough to work together to insure that never again will we have to hear the cries of our children because they had to watch their classmates and teachers die.  Let our efforts be pleasing to God until the time Christ comes again and fulfills the promises of our faith.

 

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.

 

 

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.