Sunday, August 23, 2009

Not Back to School

My new favorite coffee shop is full of 19-ish-year-olds. The facebook news feed from my undergraduate alma mater is announcing the official welcome activities for incoming freshman. Hordes of elementary school children are storming Staples, Office Depot, Target and *disapproving scowl* Wal-Mart in search of crayons, safety scissors, pens, pencils, and notebooks. The television ads have changed from bright sunshine, swimwear-clad individuals, and beach images to brilliant fall leaves, tweens in backpacks, and announcements of Labor Day sales. The youth at the church are talking about new classes and band camp. It's back-to-school time and, for the first time in two decades, I'm not a part of it.

I have no clear memories of a time when I wasn't in school. That is, perhaps, because the last time I wasn't in school was when I was three. At the time, I was very upset that this whole "school" thing was forcing me to miss my morning Sesame Street fix. In retrospect, it was a very reasonable concern, as I haven't seen a full episode of Sesame Street since then. But I digress.

All summer as I've gone to work each day, it has felt a bit like a summer internship. Even with all the responsibilities I have, even though it's full-time work, even though a lot of what I do is preparing for future programs and events that will take place through the fall and into the new year, it has still felt as though, eventually, this work would be wrapping up and I'd be returning to school. As much as I've tried to adopt the mantra, "I'm a pastor now. This is my vocation. I'm going to be here for a while," it hasn't fully sunk into my identity just yet. I still feel like I should be purchasing new notebooks and pens, picking out my first-day-of-school-outfit, going over and over my class schedule, and doing my annual new-school-year panic. After all, that's what I've been doing every autumn for as long as I can remember.

Instead, this fall I'm adopting new traditions. I'm focusing on New Member Sunday instead of new school supplies. I'm wearing my new white robe instead of my first-day-of-school outfit. I got a library card instead of a new class schedule. I'm panicking about being the substitute Big Kahuna while the lead pastor is on vacation instead of panicking about the new school year. But before the back-to-school sales end, I'll probably buy a new pack of multi-colored pens; I don't want to get whiplash from the transition.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pastor in the Tub

As a pastor, one of the things I am supposed to do is study. I'm supposed to study theology, the Bible, read devotions, and have an active spiritual life. I attempt to do this, though, admittedly, I'm more successful some times than others. Most people assume that these activities are a morning discipline, when the pious people of the world wake up at the crack of dawn and go to their prayer closet for an hour of silent reflection, or sit at the table with a bible, a book, and a cup of coffee. Pastors are probably supposed to do this in our offices or studies. But those aren't places or times for me. I would prefer, if I could, to wake up at the crack of noon, which makes devotions early in the morning a struggle, and I can't seem to get into my spiritual zone in my office. So I study theology and Scripture in coffee shops, and do prayer and meditation in my bathtub with a book by Anne Lamott. As odd as it sounds, those are places where I engage best with God.

And that is fine with me, because God is there, too. I see one of my main roles as a pastor to be helping the people around me to recognize the presence of God. I imagine myself standing among the people, periodically pointing around me, saying eagerly, "Look! Do you see it? It's God, right over there!" In the mundane, extraordinary, hectic, calm, joyful, tragic, broken, healing, sinful, redeeming, cacophonous, quiet, love-filled, lonely, difficult, ugly, and beautiful moments of our lives, I want to be announcing, "Look! Right here! It's the Spirit at work!" In the midst of sales pitches, funeral dirges, news reports, and music of our everyday lives, I want to be whispering, "Did you hear that? The voice of Christ?" I believe that as I point toward God, everyone around me will start pointing, too, but in different directions, seeing God all around us, showing God's presence to even more people.

I'm re-reading The Little Prince, and I'm amazed at how I feel myself resonating with the title character. He finds himself suddenly on earth, trying to explain to a grown-up, that in a picture of a box, there is a sheep going to sleep. He sees things that others can't, and doesn't allow others' skepticism to diminish his confidence that those things are real and present. He's pointing to the reality that the grown-ups miss. But The Little Prince is not alone. The author, despite his age, also sees what the prince sees, and carries on the prince's legacy by sharing his story with readers. And so understanding grows. Perhaps that's what evangelism should be.

The Evangelism committee at my church sees it, too. Before I arrived, they ordered the creation of signs that ask, "Where have you seen God today?" The signs are in random locations in the church, stuck on the tops of doorframes with magnets. So as we pass through the church, we are reminded to look around us for the presence of God and to cry out, "Look! There! It's God with us!"

My very wise preaching professor emphasized this sort of observation, too. He taught me that one of the main roles of the preacher is to be on the lookout for things in the world that connect the words of Scripture to the world in which we live. He encouraged us to write down things that caught our eyes, ears, and hearts, and to keep a box of these observations, which we could sift through when writing sermons. I don't have a box, but I have a space, right here, where I can write things down.

- You cannot spill water in a bathtub. It's not possible. Sure, the water can run over the rim of your glass, it can pour on you or into the water around you, but it can't spill. It doesn't stain, dye surfaces, or leave a water mark. The moisture isn't a nuisance, and there are absolutely no consequences if it dribbles down your chin. It's beautiful. But sometime you have to get out of the tub, and you cannot live on just water, you have to consume messier things. I'm sure there's a metaphor here, or some sort of connection to something, but I'm not there yet.

- As I was enjoying my burrito in the airport the other day, I was watching two small children, probably ages three-ish and two-ish, playing nearby. They were playing as children do, testing to see how far they could wander from their mother before she called them back, gazing at the faces of strangers and trying to decide what their meaning might be, when their father returned with lunch. The family unpacked their food, and the kids settled on the floor to eat. Before the three-ish boy would eat his lunch, he chanted what was clearly the family meal prayer. It was a simple, four line grace, with a gentle rhyming pattern, and he said it in a singsong way, as though it were a limerick or a stadium chant. He didn't stop there, either. He repeated it several times, all the while with his food sitting before him, until his mother finally told him he needed to stop talking and eat. Were the words heartfelt or habit? Did he repeat it out of excitement, or just to get his mother's acknowledgement of his devotion? I'm still pondering.

-On airplanes humans are at our most sheep-like. We are herded by the announcements of airline employees and the instructions of flight attendants. If our flight is moved to another gate, we move obediently in a flock across the airport, guided by our airline shepherds. We are, for the most part, docile and quiet. We go where we are told, do what we are told, and move together, even though we usually don't know one another. In a way, it's beautiful. On the other hand, we are a mass of humanity, with at least our shared travel in common, and yet we usually don't engage in any sort of community. We sit together, but don't converse. We go the same place, but with our own reasons and with little to no interest in the reasons of others. In that way we are a terrible example of community; we don't support one another, we simply gather for an event and leave again, without ever really connecting. I feel like there's an ecclesiology metaphor in this somewhere, but I can't quite nail it down.

What Didn't Make the Toast

There, in the white dress, is the girl who stood up for me to the bully at the babysitter's house in kindergarten. That's the girl who helped me survive the bugs, homesickness, heat, and long, dark, nighttime walks to the outhouse at Girl Scout Camp. She's the one who taught me to wear makeup and to curl my hair for showchoir, the one who helped me when I forgot my dance steps or the dance briefs to wear under my dress.

Under that veil is my doubles partner, who covered the backhand side of the court, talked me down when my serves were off, yelled "Alons-y!" to get ready for the match, and cried with me when we lost our last match and were eliminated at sectionals our senior year. She's my study buddy: I corrected her spelling and she checked my equations, we stayed up late working on group projects and homework. We giggled together backstage during musicals, drilled each other on lines for our plays, and whispered answers to one another during quiz bowl matches. And even though we've lived in different places for seven years now, we're still close. We still call each other after rough days and to share giggles.

Congratulations, best friend. You've grown up beautifully, and I'm happy for you, Mrs.

But remember, he's your partner in life, but I'm still be your partner in tennis and in mischief.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Above the Clouds

When I was eleven I took my camera on an airplane for the first time. I spent almost an entire roll of film trying to capture the view of the sky from above. I was mesmerized by the way the clouds appeared to be solid, as though I could step out of the plane and walk on them. I loved the way the light played on the clouds, turning them alternately white, pink, orange, blue, and gray.

I was thinking about that today as I soared above the clouds at sunset, and pondering why it is that people often imagine that God lives in that space high in the sky above and among the clouds. I think we like the image of God above us, with an unlimited panoramic view, ever watching over us and watching out for us. But I think there's more to it than that. When God feels distant, it seems logical that God lives in some remote place that we can't really reach. And, while we can access that space now with the help of aircraft, we cannot be there without special equipment, and we certainly can't remain there for any great length of time. That means that imagining God in the sky adds to the mystery of the divine. The light is somehow different there; whether the brilliance of the sun, the soft glow of the moon, or the tiny pinpricks of stars, the light is never obscured-divine light is always shining. It is an inaccessible wonderland of mystical, ethereal beauty, so it seems the ideal place to imagine for God's home.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that God is a limited being who exists far up in the sky gazing down on us. I believe in an incarnate and ever-present God who is with us where we are. But I can see why God might want to hang out up there, too, and I can understand why we imagine God living in such a beautiful, mysterious place. I'd like to live there, too, if I could.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Six Observations from Week Six

1) I went to a conference last week for a ministry that I'm working with at my new church. I believe in the ministry, and I plan to support it in every way that I can. However, at the conference I was continually stuck in the tension between wanting to support the ministry and being disgusted by the sales-orientation of the whole thing. I understand that the ministry is trying to equip people to run the program, but I felt like I was sitting through endless infomercials for leadership books and extra programs. I hated the corporate, consumer tone. I was torn. Are they providing necessary equipment for ministry? Or are they like the money-changers in the temple, exploiting devout people to make a profit under the guise of serving God?

2) A very elderly widower proposed to me before our first service on Sunday. I said that I hadn't known him long enough to marry him. Why does this sort of thing always happen?

3) Someone asked me the other week, "What is it that you do all day?" The best answer I can come up with, on further reflection, is that I do what needs to be done. Each day I walk into the office and, like Forrest Gump on the bus to boot camp, "I don't know who I might meet, or what they might ask." I don't know if I'll be doing paperwork and administrative stuff in the office, planning worship, visiting in the hospital, or talking with people who come to the church. No two days are alike.

4) In some ways I get more out of worship services when I'm leading than I do when I'm simply attending. Yes, I'm not distracted by the nerves and my inner attitude is calmer when I'm not in leadership. On the other hand, when I'm leading, when I'm in charge of prayers and things other than the sermon, I listen very carefully to the words of the hymns, the sermon, and the anthem to provide transitions and connections that tie the whole service together. I hear the words and messages more distinctly because I'm more alert.

5) I rely on my friends and colleagues in the ministry, even more than I anticipated. I was counting on being able to call my friends to commiserate and stave off isolation, but I never realized how much it would feed my soul and aid my ministry to have clergy friends. When I went to the conference, I got together with a clergy friend who lives in the area near the conference, and it was amazing to hear about the things he's doing in his ministry, to get ideas and energy from hearing his stories. I returned to two pieces of mail, both from friends in ministry that I hadn't even met three months ago, who had reached out to encourage me. They are friends I can call for advice about work and commiseration about social life or lack thereof. They're people who inspire me, whose company I love. What a blessing there is in collegiality.

6) Living in an unfamiliar city without benefit of roommate means I'm struggling to find things to do with my end-of-the-day energy. On the one hand, it's slightly sad. On the other hand, I'm getting caught up on my crime shows, keeping up via phone with my faraway friends, and getting to know the inside of the workout room better than I have in years. The self-care and wellness people should be proud.