Monday, July 05, 2010

Falling in Love with God

I was planning to go to bed at a decent hour this evening. I was ready for bed, doing my nightly devotion stuff when I stumbled on the following passage in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home By Another Way:

"This is not a story about us. This is a story about God, and about God's ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow--able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food."

This caught my attention, I think, because earlier this evening I was thinking about my own relationship with God. As I was driving home this evening, enjoying the cool evening air rushing through the open car windows, I decided to put in my old Jars of Clay CD. One of the songs on the album has the refrain, "I want to fall in love with you." I have never been one to "fall in love". I'm very practical and pretty skeptical, and anything as out-of-control emotional as falling in love is a stretch for me. But, as someone who loves God in my own way, I understand the desire to fall in love with God. If I'm going to fall in love with anyone, if I'm going to allow myself to be that out-of-control emotional, it would make sense to fall for the One who is worthy of that love and who can be trusted with my heart. And yet, falling in love has still never been something that I do.

But this Barbara Brown Taylor passage sounded to me like falling in love. Not being able to take our eyes off someone? Being more interested in that someone than in anything else in our lives? BBT is describing Jesus calling the disciples on the seashore, but she could just as easily be describing love at first sight. And there are people who talk about their conversion experience or their first experience of God as being like love at first sight.

I have never been one of those people, perhaps because I feel like I've known God forever. If I had to put my relationship with God into human relationship terms, it would be more like a childhood sweetheart with whom I continue to have a growing relationship. I can't remember a time that I wasn't aware of God in some way. Some of my first memories are of praying before bedtime and meals, of going to Sunday School and church, and of leading worship services for my stuffed animals. God has always been both too familiar and too distant to fall in love with in the way so many people describe. Sure, there have been transformative moments in our relationship, moments when I felt God's presence in new ways or when I made greater commitments to my faith. But I cannot pinpoint a moment of falling in love with God.

Perhaps that's why I love this quote so much. God creates each of us and makes us capable of following--in our own ways. God created me and knows that I'm practical and skeptical. God knows that I live in my head rather than in my heart most of the time. And God made me capable of following in my own way: answering the call to follow with my mind and my feet as much as with my heart. God allowed me to fall head-first and feet-first, not head-over-heels.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

I Have Learned

A few days ago, as I was sharing ice cream cake with several coworkers in our lunchroom to celebrate my one-year anniversary at this church, someone asked me to name five things I've learned this year. All at once hundreds of experiences went racing through my mind, moving so fast that I couldn't even distinguish most of them amidst the blur that whipped past my neurons. But, after giving it some thought, I picked out these few:

1) Funerals are harder than I thought, and weddings are easier.
As a bridesmaid, I have learned that weddings are complicated affairs, with tons and tons of details to take care of. But, as a pastor, weddings are relatively easy. In part, that's because weddings have coordinators: people who are in charge of all of the details so that the pastor doesn't have to worry about them. Whereas I have to help facilitate the receptions following memorial services, I have no part in planning wedding receptions. And since we require people to use wedding coordinators, I don't have to worry about the details of the procession or the recession or the flowers or anything else. I get to chill with the groom and groomsmen while someone else takes care of all of the minutiae. Not to mention that, since weddings tend to be occasions for joy and celebration, most of the people there are going to be happy no matter what I do.

Funerals, on the other hand, are tougher than I thought they'd be. Like weddings, most of the liturgy for funerals is provided by the Book of Worship. But funerals almost always involve some sort of sermon that speaks both of God's grace and of the life of the deceased. And sitting with grieving families, seeing the heartbreak in their eyes and hearing their voices crack with emotion as they speak about their loved ones... it breaks my heart even when I've never met the deceased. When the deceased is someone I know, it's even tougher. Trying to hold it together, setting my own grief aside even while watching the tears streaming down the faces of family and friends is one of the hardest things I have to do as a pastor.

2) When you least expect it, when you're at your lowest, God shows up.
I've preached what I thought were my worst sermons so far, but people have approached afterward and talked about how the sermon touched their hearts or spoke to where they are in their lives. On the mornings when I feel most frazzled, when my nerves are at their worst, God sends a bit of peace through the notes of the prelude or a smile from someone in the congregation, and I calm down. And when I'm having a really stressful day and my to-do list is longer than my arm, a text message from a friend or a kind word from a co-worker makes the day seem more manageable.

3) Dr. Frank was right.
Dr. Tom Frank always talked about how a congregation's history becomes a part of its DNA. He explained that you cannot understand a congregation until you know its past, its stories. He said to ask as many questions as you could and to pay attention to what stories they tell and what incidents in their past they refuse to talk about. In my first year in this congregation I have learned that he was absolutely right. Every congregation has tales, things they're proud of, moments that define the personality of the congregation. And every congregation has nightmare stories, its fissures, and the broken places that the congregation still mourns years later. But both the good and bad endure, shaping how the church functions decades later. And thanks to Dr. Frank's wisdom, I watched where I stepped and stayed mostly out of the doghouse.

4) Burnout is serious stuff.
I've only been doing this for a year, and there were still moments when I wasn't sure I could keep up the pace of pastoral ministry. When seminaries and conferences and boards of ordained ministry tell new pastors to take sabbath and keep in touch with clergy colleagues, they are NOT KIDDING. Probably the best advice I got going into ministry, and I heard it in all sorts of places, is to draw boundaries, to maintain them, and to actually take your sabbath. When I don't take enough time away to read, study, and be around other people, I don't have the energy to write good liturgy, the presence of mind to provide good pastoral care, or the creativity to preach good sermons. I lose my perspective and start to think that what I do is about me. But when I get away from it, I remember that it's about God, and as much as my effort helps, it was never about what I could do. I couldn't have gotten through this year without drawing some intentional boundaries, taking some time away, and having the help and good counsel of friends in ministry.

5) I was better prepared than I thought.
I knew that I had gone to one of the best theology schools in the country. I knew that, academically, I was very well prepared for ministry. But my practical experience was limited. I had preached fewer than ten sermons before I started in full-time ministry. I had only been to a few weddings and had never actually attended a funeral service. But I discovered, once I got into the church, that I was better prepared than I knew. My coursework prepared me well to teach classes, design and lead worship, and preach. My experiences through Contextual Education gave me really good preparation for leading committee meetings and overseeing administrative details. Plus, my travels and other work experiences gave me much better preparation than I realized. Who knew that being a radio DJ and doing home repair would give me skills I'd use in the church? It seems that God was working ahead of me in ways that I could not have foreseen or understood at the time. Oh, how I love prevenient grace!