Thursday, December 30, 2010

Arrows 2010

I should really be working on my sermon or cleaning my apartment or doing some other productive activity. But I can feel myself sliding into the post-Christmas-and-my-family-just-left-and-January-looks-crazy-busy funk, and I just don't want to. Instead, I'm giving a valiant attempt at good cheer. I'm sitting in Starbucks surrounded by people, sipping a peppermint mocha, and trying to think about the good things that have happened this year and that are still going on. So now seems like a really good time to do my annual report. Here's a look at my 2010, the good, the bad, and the holy, in no particular order:

↔ Ministry
I can't begin to recount all of the events and moments that were significant in my ministry this year. I led the creation of a new worship service by my congregation in February, which was huge. Having a new worship service meant I basically preached every week, and about once a month I'd preach for three different services in one day, which meant writing and preaching two different sermons in a single week. I started attending finance meetings. I presided solo over funerals and weddings. I facilitated and administrated and wrote and presented. The "honeymoon period" ended. There were moments of intense joy, when people shared how a particular sermon or pastoral visit had affected them, when I was privileged to be present for difficult moments and hold people's hands when they needed comfort, when I shared laughter with this community I've come to love. There were moments of deep sadness when I visited people who were in anguish or survived heart-wrenching, cry-inducing meetings. I even had a couple of rough patches when I sat on the edge, when burnout and despair made me wonder if I could keep doing this. But I am thankful for the people who talked me down from the ledge, for the people whose love and servant hearts inspired me to keep going, for the moments when I saw God at work or caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God breaking into an ordinary day. That is what gives me the assurance to say: God is still here. I am still called. So my ministry continues.

↑ Charlie
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a dog. I wanted one as a kid, but couldn't have one because my family members were allergic. I wanted one in college, but I lived in dorms and apartments that didn't allow pets. Same story with seminary. But this year I was settled in an apartment that allowed pets, and I no longer live with anyone who has allergies, so I decided the time had come. On a snowy night in February, Amanda and I trekked a few hours to visit a breeder, and by the end of the night, I had a new puppy. For the first few weeks, it was just a blur of "Aww, that's so cute!" and "Oh, NO, don't pee there!!!" and running up and down the stairs with the scared-of-stairs furball, and hoping and praying that he wouldn't chew anything important. But as the months past, we got into a routine. I discovered how nice it is to come home and have an excited tail-wagger greet me. I learned to play and wrestle and to see theological truths enacted by a four-legged fuzzball. To be honest, even though I'd imagined all the great things about having a dog, I couldn't have imagined just how great canine companionship could be. Now I can't imagine life without Charlie.

↓ Sports
This year was deeply disappointing. The Cubs lost as usual. The Broncos were so bad they were practically a joke. And while my Mizzou Tigers had a ten-win season that I'm very proud of, they lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl. Plus there was that anxiety-producing month when it looked like the Big XII would dissolve and leave Mizzou scrambling to find a B-list conference with which to affiliate. That one still has me nervous; after all, what's going to happen when the Big XII has only ten teams, and what horrible fate will befall my Tigers if the Texas schools decide to go join the SEC? I shudder to think. But, as always, I have high hopes for next season. With a new coach and Tebow at least sharing the QB spot, the Broncos may actually pull off a winning season. Perhaps a little more experience for Gabbert and Nebraska's departure from the Big XII will enable the Tigers to finally win the Big XII and go to a BCS bowl. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that either the Big XII will endure, or Mizzou will get an invitation to join the Big Ten.

↑ Travel
This year began with a trek to the deep south and a fantastic visit to my old haunts in Atlanta. I reminisced in Brooks Commons, caught up with friends, and had a blast with my aunt. In the summer I ran just up the road to Luray, Virginia and spent some time just hanging out with my family. We played in the mountains, visited the caverns, and caught some Sabbath time on the porch. October brought the biggest trip of all: a wild west adventure. I stopped in Las Vegas to catch up with my seminary roommate. We visited the Grand Canyon, saw a show, roamed The Strip, and took a dam tour at Hoover Dam. Then I went on to Long Beach to see a few more seminary friends. I saw the Hollywood sign and Graumann's Chinese Theater, stepped out on the Walk of Fame, gazed out at the Pacific, and had some great coffee conversation with one of my best friends. I made a quick trip home in November to surprise my mom for Thanksgiving and got to see the people who have known me forever and still seem to like having me around. So, I went south, west, and north, I visited old comfort zones and trekked into the unknown. All in all, it was a fabulous year for travel.

↓ Romance
There's nothing to talk about, nothing to tell. Another year of being mostly single, another holiday season wondering if I'll ever have a partner to share Christmas with. In case you don't remember this rant, or this one (scroll down to "Dating", or even this one, suffice to say: it sucks. Maybe next year?

↑ Friends
But when you're feeling bad about guys, there's nothing better in the world than a good group of friends. So I'm extremely thankful for the men and women who make my life joyful. There are A&A, my co-workers and partners in crime, who are always there when things at work go sour or when I need someone to stand by me when facing the awkward world of meeting people. There are my clergy friends, especially the strong, capable women, who offer guidance and listen to sermons and tolerate venting and help me to smile, even when I feel like crying. When I think of how close I've grown to those women, and how much I trust and rely on them, it's hard to believe that I've only known most of them for a year or 18 months. I don't know what I'd do without them. There are my college friends, always just a phone call away, who have stories to make me laugh until my abs hurt, and who can help me escape from the world of church and ministry and southern culture. There are my seminary friends, those rare and amazing people who understand the insane and sad and hilarious stories of ministry and who appear at conferences when you least expect them. And then, (drum roll please!) there's that small-and-growing group of non-ministry, non-seminary friends who live right here in this city. They are my best connection to the world outside ministry and church, who remind me that the world is so much bigger than the things that consume my time and energy on a daily basis.

↔ Being a Grown-Up
There are all sorts of coming-of-age rites in our society: high school graduations, first full-time jobs, college graduations, weddings, first-house-purchases, first-lease-signings, first-car-purchases. But the U.S. in the 21st century, there simply isn't one single "Congratulations, you are an adult" moment. I've discovered that there are lots and lots of little ones, and they pop up unexpectedly. This year, getting Charlie and learning to be responsible for someone besides myself was a big step in that direction. So was surviving a car accident, having endless talks with insurance people, and purchasing a replacement vehicle. There were hospital visits and meetings that pushed me to levels of calm and maturity that I didn't think I was capable of reaching yet. When those things occurred, there were definitely moments when I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, and moments when I wanted nothing more than to be fourteen again and not have to be responsible and mature. But at my age, you simply can't do those things. And I guess if I have to be a grown-up, I'd like to be good at it. This year, I definitely improved, and maybe next year I'll get even better at this whole adult thing.

↑ Family
I love my family. They're the people I call when I'm having the worst days, they're the people I text when I see something silly. Next year I'll have one more person to be thankful for in my family: I have a new niece on the way. And I've really enjoyed learning to be an aunt this year. But I worry about my family, too. I have three living grandparents, and all of them have started having serious health troubles in the last year or so. I know it's an incredible blessing to have three living grandparents, especially when they're all in their eighties or nineties. I just hope I can say that next year. In the meantime, I celebrate their presence. I celebrate that this year I've gotten to spend time with so many of them.

? 2011
I never know what to say about the upcoming year. I've never been good at predictions, so I try not to speculate about what's to come. Last year I resolved to "get a life", and this year I worked on that: I joined a gym and lost some weight, I spent more time out with friends and worked harder to actually take my sabbath off. I visited family and took off on weekend trips. I got the dog I've always wanted. (And I dodged that funk I was sliding into an hour ago!) But in 2011, I want to work even more at getting a life. I want to spend more time with friends, I want to keep my job from invading my life, I want to spend more time looking for joy in the everyday. I suppose that's my new year's wish for you, too. May you get a life, live it to the full every day, see God in the world around you, and have your heart filled with joy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Long Road to Christmas

They have come, not because all the world must be registered, but because they want to spend the holiday with family. They have brought gifts, not to the Christ child, but in remembrance and celebration of God's gift of Emmanuel. They have come to my home to spend Christmas with me, and I'm so excited I can barely contain it. I love my family, and I'm really glad to have them here. The preparations, the tidying and scrubbing and shopping and wrapping and decorating, have been totally worth it. Now the people I love most are here, or will be tomorrow. And finally, FINALLY after weeks of Advent preparations, I feel ready for Christmas to arrive. It's excellent timing, really, since Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Joy abounds, my heart is singing, and the Savior is coming. This is why I love Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Sunrise

Last night was the winter solstice. For those of you who didn't pay attention in elementary science, that means it was the longest night of the year. We've now reached the darkest part of the year, the day when we see the sun the least and we are most enveloped in the black of night.

I'm pretty sure that it was only because it was the longest night of the year that I was actually awake this morning and out walking Charlie at sunrise. But for once I was glad to be up that early. This morning's sunrise was simply gorgeous. The rest of the sky was a sort of light blue-gray because of the cloud cover, but in the east, the sun cut across the horizon with bright orange, which faded into a pattern of glowing orange and pink arcs through the blue clouds. It was truly breathtaking. As I watched the sky glow, I thought two things: 1) This was worth waiting all the long night for, and 2) It was worth being awake to see it.

It reminded me of Matthew 25:13, "Therefore, stay awake...!" which was, conveniently, one of the texts for the first week of Advent this year. I think, if the coming of God's kingdom is as beautiful and colorful as the sunrise this morning, it's worth keeping alert so we don't miss it. I believe it will be infinitely more beautiful, and so definitely worth the wait. I just hope I can hang onto that hope when the night is longest and darkest.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Christmas Concert on Sunday included the song "Hope for Resolution." It's a beautiful piece that combines a Zulu song with "Of the Father's Love Begotten", which was written to celebrate the end of apartheid in South Africa.

As I sat in the Sanctuary watching our choirs sing this piece, the faces of our choir members blurred with my memories of Robben Island and the informal settlements around Cape Town. I remembered the Zulu and Xhosa songs that the members of the Methodist Church I attended in South Africa sang so passionately and joyfully. I loved hearing our adult and youth choirs in Virginia singing a song of hope in Zulu with huge smiles on their faces, while our children's choir sang the credal words of "Of the Father's Love Begotten". And for the first few moments, I thought of the huge steps forward that have been made in South Africa, and the hope for further advancement there.

But as the song went on, I began to think about the places where conflict, violence, and inequality still oppress people. I thought of the slums and the hungry children I saw in South Africa, Peru, and Brazil. I thought of the growing threat of violence in Cote D'Ivoire and in Korea. It hurts my heart to think that we still kill each other, still think one race or gender is better than another, still sit idly by while people barely survive lives of hunger, need, and poverty.

I suppose that's why the arranger mixed the Zulu song with "Of the Father's Love Begotten." The hymn emphasizes the great love in the gift of God-with-us. It's not just God that is among us, it's God's love come to life in our world. That's the greatest source of hope imaginable. What other force, what other gift could transform the world? Now, the world has not yet been transformed completely. We only see glimmers of that hope come to life. But those hints of light, like the end of apartheid, remind us of God's love at work in the world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yelling at God

Lately I've been doing a lot of visits with people who are in enormous physical pain. I've sat by bedsides and been asked over and over, "Where is God? Why is God letting me suffer like this?" It is, I think, one of the hardest questions in anyone's walk of faith. It's not just a whiney "Why me?" in the face of irritations, this is the genuine lament, the cry of deep pain and anguish. It's always hard to hear, always hard to reconcile with a loving God. But this time of year, when so much of our popular culture is focused on joy, and when our churches are celebrating the incredible love of the God who chooses to be God-With-Us, it's particularly jarring.

How can the God who became human in Christ, who has felt physical pain and experienced the loneliness and hopelessness of human mortality, allow that pain to continue. The Emmanuel is supposed to be "God-With-Us", so where are the comfort and healing that are supposed to be part of that?

I do not know. So the best I can offer the people who ask me such questions is to tell them that God is there, even if it doesn't feel like it, and to invite them to yell. I figure that you can be as mad as you want at God, and you may have very good reason. And as long as you're still communicating with God, even if it's angry yelling, you can sustain that relationship. It's only when we get so angry with God, so hurt by the circumstances around us, that we STOP talking to God that we're really in trouble.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Light and Warmth

In the midst of cold and dark, Christmas reminds us of the warmth and light. I was reminded of that particularly this evening. The church had our annual Christmas Concert, and it was awesome. The program celebrated the coming of Christ, the light of the world. The first few pieces talked about our yearning for Christ's coming, our seeking the hope that the light of Christ brings. Then the later pieces described and celebrated the coming of the Christ, bringing light to the dark world and redeeming all creation. The pieces selected were excellent, but the best part was watching our choirs and musicians perform them. The beautiful music poured over us while we watched the joy and hope and peace expressed on the faces of our friends as they sang.

Then, after the concert, I was invited to spend the evening eating dinner and playing games with a family from church. It was a relaxed evening, we shared take-out pizza and played dominoes, but there was a warmth that I don't always experience. For this one evening, I felt like I was surrounded by family, embraced with laughter and conversation and comfort. I miss sharing those moments with my own family, many of whom live far away, so it was a great joy to be a part of a family for the evening.

Usually after such a fun evening, I feel a bit sad coming back to my empty apartment. Tonight was a little different, though. Tonight I curled up on the love seat, turned on the lights on the tree, and just enjoyed a few minutes of quiet. Charlie hopped up on my lap and, for a moment, I got to soak in the light of the tree, absorb the warmth of a cuddly pup, and relax. This time it wasn't lonely, it was simply peaceful.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What I'm Going to Say

Tomorrow I'm preaching. I love preaching. It also makes me nervous. Even when I'm confident that I'm bringing a powerful word from God, even when I think the sermon has illustrations that will connect with people where they are, I get nervous. But I'm never more nervous than the night before I bring a difficult word.

I think sermons are like food. There are cake and ice cream sermons: sermons that are encouraging and heart-warming. There are steak sermons: words that are difficult to dig into, usually with deep theological points that you have to chew on for awhile. There are vegetable sermons, words that are important for people to hear, that speak to their hearts and circumstances, but which are a little easier to chew on than steak. I mostly preach vegetable sermons, and I like it that way. But the sermons that make me most nervous are the brussels sprouts sermons. These are difficult words. Things we need, healthy things to hear, they're easy to chew, but they're not pleasant to digest. We need to hear them, though.

When I was little, my parents required me to eat a little bit of all the foods I didn't like. They called these small portions, "No, thank you helpings." The sermon I'm reaching tomorrow is, I fear, a No-Thank-You helping of brussels sprouts. It's a Word that I need to hear, and that the congregation needs to hear. It's the Word God has laid on my heart this week as I've wrestled with the lectionary passages. But it's not an easy Word, or a pleasant message to hear.

Tomorrow I'm going to stand in the pulpit and hand out brussels sprouts. I know its healthiest for all of us, but I feel a little like my parents must've felt at the kitchen table as I whined and complained and made faces until the awful green vegetables on my plate had gotten cold and rubbery. I believe that this is the right thing to do, but I'm not looking forward to the response.

I just hope no one brings their rotten tomatoes to worship.

Friday, December 17, 2010

R.I.P. Emma

On December 1, I was rear-ended. And while the damage to my car seemed minimal in the dark that night, closer inspection in the sunlight the next day revealed significant problems. A week later, my baby, Emma, was declared a "Total Loss".

Emma was my transition car. My previous car, an ancient Buick Century named Jack, died while I was in the middle of moving. So getting Emma marked a significant shift. She was my first grown-up car. I loved having a red car.

I had inherited Jack, so Emma was my first purchased car. She carried me to my first day of full-time work. She transported me to the first wedding and graveside I ever performed. She took me to meet my niece for the first time.

And her final gift to me was safety. Thanks to her safety features and crumple zones, I walked away from the accident with just a little back pain. She hobbled away to the junkyard.

Now I have a replacement. I haven't given it a name yet. I'm not even sure yet if it's a boy or a girl. I'm excited for the adventures we're going to have. But it's bittersweet because I'm still getting over Emma.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yellow Snow

"And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!"

Everything was cancelled today. Work, school, all the things that usually require me to leave my apartment were cancelled. But the snow didn't begin until mid-morning, so a friend came over this morning before the roads got bad, and we spent the day relaxing and watching movies. We both worked a bit, but most of the day was just a bit of Sabbath. I walked Charlie and watched him play in the snow. I cuddled up on the couch and watched movies with a friend. I did some work from the comfort of my home. It was an ordinary day. But it wasn't an ordinary Thursday, and it wasn't what I had planned for the day.

Which made it AWESOME. In the midst of this crazy season, this unexpected day of rest felt like a great gift. On what was scheduled to be a day of hard work and strict deadlines, the snow seemed to soften everything, including those expectations. It's not that there's less to do, the list is just as long with the snow as it is without, but the snow gave me a chance to breathe a bit. It shifted the pace and tone of the work just slightly. And I'm thankful.

Awaiting the Call

The forecast for tomorrow is nasty: lots of snow with accumulation, mixed with freezing rain and ice. It's going to be ugly weather, and the road conditions are supposed to be terrible. So, since this is the south, people started freaking out and canceling things. I don't really object. I could use a day to get caught up on things while wearing my pajamas.

So this evening I sat, waiting for the call. I sat checking websites and watching the news for word about cancellations. Our church policy is to cancel all church activities if the county schools are closed, so I watched carefully to see if our county would cancel. Waiting for news about school cancellations gave me a remarkable sense of deja vu. I remember spending hours next to the radio, waiting for the DJ to go through the list one more time, hoping and praying that the next recitation would bring good news. I'd wait impatiently, and sometimes a friend would call with a rumor that things had been delayed, but you could never count on news unless it had been confirmed.

I imagine this may have been how John the Baptist felt as he awaited news of the Messiah. He desperately wanted the Messiah to come. He'd heard rumors and prepared the way. But he couldn't trust to hope, he couldn't count on the news, until he heard a report back from Jesus himself, by way of his disciples. I can just imagine him sitting in a prison cell praying under his breath, "Please, let this be it. Please, God, let it be what we've hoped for. This just has to be it!" While I don't know the depth of the feeling, I know John must have yearned for news of the Messiah. He probably felt this exhilarating anxiety, but a hundred times more. So he must have been ecstatic when his disciples reported back that Jesus was fulfilling the prophets' promises by making the blind see, making the deaf hear, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. Maybe he even jumped up and down whooping the way I used to when I heard that school had been cancelled. Or perhaps he simply sat still while his heart filled with joy and peace at the knowledge that the Emmanuel had come.

Maybe I'll find time to ponder that tomorrow as I'm enjoying my snow day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Car Shopping

I don't want to buy a car. There are no cars on the market that I really like, no cars that I look at and say, "Oooh, I want to drive THAT!" And I haven't been looking and considering cars much because, let's face it, I wasn't planning to need one. I really liked Emma and was planning to spend the next ten years with her. But, thanks to circumstances beyond my control, Emma is no longer in my life. And I found myself today forced to look for a car.

The problem is that I didn't really know what I wanted. I was frustrated with the idea of car shopping, especially when I didn't have any idea where to begin. What I really wanted was to have Emma back. That was when I realized: the next best thing to having Emma back is getting a car that's very similar to Emma.

It was a bit strange, but after a day of car shopping, I recognize in myself the same sort of behavior that drives most pastors crazy in our churches: I'm resistant to change. I would have liked the change, I think, if I had been planning on it and preparing for it. If it had been my idea and I had chosen to go car shopping, I probably would have eagerly tried new things. But I was very comfortable with the car I had, and when I suddenly found myself forced into a change, all I wanted was a return to my concept of normal.

Now that I've been in that position, I have a better understanding of congregations' reluctance to change. People need to feel ownership and control over a change before they're going to eagerly participate in it. If what you know is comfortable, if you didn't want a change and didn't choose that change, you'll probably resist it, and you'll seek out the option that is most like what you knew before.

Sometimes circumstances necessitate a change, though. You can't keep driving a car when it has been totaled. You can't keep living the same ministry model when it is no longer effective. You have to be willing to make changes, even when they're uncomfortable, even if you really liked the way things were. Otherwise you'll never get anywhere.

God's Patience

"Are you kidding? Any second now he's gonna look at me and go, 'Ha. Yeah, right, you're so not worth this.'" - Toula Portokalos, "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding"

Sometimes I wonder what God is thinking. After centuries, millennia even, God still reaches out to stubborn, oblivious humans. God called to us through great leaders like Abraham and Jacob and Moses. God called to us through the prophets. God became human to live among us in order to reach out to us. God nudges us each day through the proddings of the Holy Spirit. And our response to almost every one of those attempts has been rejection or apathy or feeble, short-lived action. We've killed God's prophets, murdered God incarnate, and consistently ignored the work of the Spirit. And yet, God keeps reaching out.

God must have infinite patience. If it were me, I'd given up on humanity long ago and simply wiped out all of creation. Even in our best attempts, we often muck things up. Families, which God has given us to provide the support and love and relationship we so desperately need, frequently become centers of conflict and pain rather than nurture and care. Even churches, we who have answered the call and accepted the responsibility for carrying out God's will for the world by sharing our faith and working for God's kingdom, often become apathetic and ineffective.

Yet God keeps trying. God keeps calling and redeeming and trying to shape us into what we have been created to be. God keeps trying to mold our hearts, shape our families, and inspire our churches. I hope that we will someday have the wisdom and strength to listen and obey, because we certainly aren't there yet.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Have Patience...

I am utterly exhausted. Today I led and helped lead four worship services. I went to lunch with congregation members and a social event with others. And I didn't get my nap.

All day long I've had a song in my head from my childhood. It's a song from a cassette tape we used to have entitled "The Music Machine". While the rest of the songs from this collection designed to teach Christian values have disappeared from my memory, one song lives on in family lore. It goes like this:

"Have patience.
Have patience.
Don't be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient
You only start to worry.
Remember, remember,
that God is patient, too.
And think of all the times
When others have to wait for you."

I have had patience all day. And now the time has finally come: I get to sleep!

Saturday, December 11, 2010


You may have noticed that today is Saturday, and the post before this is from Wednesday. Yes, my friends, I have failed at my goal of posting every day in Advent. I was so distracted having Sabbath and fun on Thursday and Friday that I didn't get anything written here. I apologize, and I hope you won't think I'm terribly disappointing for having not posted as regularly as I'd hoped.

Thursday was a full workday, and then I traveled a few hours away to visit a dear friend. We spent the evening relaxing and playing, sharing in conversations both holy and goofy. It was exactly the sort of unwinding and fun that I needed in the midst of this crazy season. Then on Friday I returned to town just in time to go out with some friends. We saw White Christmas on the big screen, then enjoyed a much-needed girls night out. Again, it was just what I was looking for. But both nights I was busy and out late, so I didn't get to my keyboard to write.

Today has been a much quieter sort of day. I finally hit the deadline for my sermon, so I spent several hours wrestling with ideas and trying desperately to make the words come out clearly. I wasn't the only one struggling this week, though. A few of my friends were also down to the wire on sermon-writing this week, and all of us seemed to be struggling with the same problem: redundancy. The season of Advent and several of the weeks leading up to it are all focused on the same major themes in the lectionary: preparing for Christ's return and the eschaton, which involves repentance and hope. The texts almost seem to repeat themselves. The gospels and Isaiah tell us over and over again to prepare the way, to repent for coming judgment, to look with hope for God's promised future. And after several weeks of these same things, my friends and I found ourselves wondering how many times, how many different ways you can say, "Jesus is coming, look busy!"

A few days ago, a church member asked me how long it takes to prepare a sermon. I explained that it varies. There are weeks when the passage speaks directly to your heart and your context, when God seems to put a word directly into your mind and it flows almost effortlessly onto the page. And then there are weeks like this, when you read and exegete and pore over commentary after commentary, and then sit staring at a computer screen for hours, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, muttering under your breath, and giving your dog and any other bystanders the distinct impression that you've lost your mind. I have struggled and wrestled and I have a manuscript draft. Tomorrow when I preach it we'll see whether the Spirit spoke in the struggle.

This evening I popped "The Preacher's Wife", one of my favorite Christmas movies, into the DVD player. I've seen it probably thirty times, but today I saw things I'd never seen before. For the first time, I recognized the clergy burnout in Henry, one of the main characters. Most of the movie takes place during Advent. You see Henry struggling with the feeling that his ministry is failing, worrying that he's not making any difference. You see him struggling to manage all of the church obligations with his family responsibilities, concerned that the church won't have enough money to get through the year or really serve their community. He doesn't even recognize the angel in his midst or believe that God sent help.

Every time I watched this movie before, I saw Henry as a bit bumbling. I'd watch him working instead of spending time with his family, I'd listen to his negativity and his hopelessness, and I'd think, "What a fool! How could anyone get like this?" But that was before I was a pastor. Now his actions make some sense. I get what Henry means when he says he has to make hospital visits in the evening or go to meetings. And I understand how he could wonder if his work is making a difference, or if there will be enough money or energy or resources to accomplish all that we've been called to accomplish. I don't fully understand the family pressures, but I know how he could lose faith like that. It's a temptation every time a meeting goes badly, every time a hospital visit is heartbreaking, every time you preach a sermon to blank faces. But I hope that whenever that temptation becomes overwhelming I'll see a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of God at work. So I'll keep looking for it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Jingle Jumble

Tonight there are no words. I've been sitting at my computer for more than an hour now trying to form my nebulous thoughts into the coherent paragraphs that will hopefully become my sermon manuscript for the week, but nothing is quite coming out right. My learning style, generally, is that ideas will bounce around my brain like rubber balls, jumbling and banging into each other chaotically until, suddenly, a pattern forms. Once I have a pattern, a basic outline, the words will just start flowing onto the page and, after an hour or two usually, the first draft will be complete. Unfortunately, I have come to rely on the pressure of deadlines to help the ideas gel. Tonight, four days from the evening I'll preach this sermon, the pattern simply isn't emerging yet. Things have not yet fallen into place.

I find this frustrating. I love watching things come together. I love putting together jigsaw puzzles and seeing how the pieces fit perfectly, connecting one to another until a complete picture emerges. I love fitting words together to make beautiful, coherent statements and images. I even love crafting the flow of ideas and thoughts in a piece of writing. I enjoy the way words can take us from one idea through a transition to another idea almost seamlessly. So when things are choppy and disconnected, when the transitions don't work or the ideas don't fit or the words won't come, I get irritated.

Right now, working on this sermon is like trying to untangle Christmas lights. Somewhere in this jumble I know there's a single strand connecting all of the little bulbs that will allow the energy and power to flow through it. But just now I can't make it out in the midst of the tangle. And I have found through my history of Christmas decorating that sometimes it's just best to put down the knots of lights and go do something else. Tonight I'll sleep, tomorrow I'll look at this jumble anew.

Be Still...

People often quote, "Be still and know that I am God." I'm pretty decent at the "know that I am God" part, but I'm not so good at the "be still" part. I'm a fidgety person. I wiggle, I move my hands, I doodle, I play games on my phone or computer, but it's really hard for me to just be still. So this evening, for a few minutes, I worked to just be still. I sat, without doodling or playing a game. For a few minutes, I just sat, petting the dog. It was both difficult and a relief.

This is part of why actually observing Advent is such a challenge. We're trained, practiced, in busying ourselves. We are, I think, better at multi-tasking than we are at sitting still. Advent calls us to be still, to turn inward and work on our hearts and our lives. Unfortunately, it's the same time of year that society tells us to be frantic, to be in perpetual motion on outward works. I feel the tension in the church, too. As much as this season calls us to quiet meditation and repentance, the church calendar of events requires us to be out and about, doing service and sharing in fellowship. And, while we offer extra worship opportunities to help people re-focus, for church staff it has the opposite effect.

I'm not good at being still, and the more things I have on my plate, the more difficult it becomes. Which is why, at 1a.m., I'm still not in bed. Yet, being in the quiet of the night, when the phone isn't ringing, when the sounds of passing cars have died away, when there is nothing to tempt me to watch TV, I can be still. I can sit and read, or write, or pray. I can, for a few minutes at least, be still.

I wish for you, whether it's morning or evening or the middle of the day, to find a moment of stillness this season.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A Prayer for Dark Days

Gracious God,
As the days draw short and the weather grows cold,
we wonder where you have gone.
In the light of the summer it was easy to see your face.
In the blooming flowers of spring we are assured of your new life,
and in the blazing leaves of autumn we see the color of your creative power.
But in the winter, when the cold winds threaten to blow us away,
when the dark consumes and lingers, you seem so far from us.
When the bad news comes, when the pain overwhelms,
when the loneliness surrounds, when the despair envelopes,
where is your light?

We are searching the skies.
We are scouring the earth.
We are waiting--where are you?

The hymns promise radiant beams from heaven afar,
but we would settle for a single candle bringing light to this hospital bed.
The hymns promise heavenly hosts singing alleluia,
but we just want to hear our loved one's voice again.
The hymns promise joy to the world,
but we long simply for comfort in our hearts.

Come bring light to overcome our darkness.
Come bring love to end our loneliness.
Come bring healing to relieve our pain.
Come to us, for we long for your presence.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Long Pedal on the Right

It's Sunday evening and, to be perfectly honest, I'm wiped out. Today I led two morning worship services, taught confirmation class, helped with the Advent Festival, and led the evening worship service. All of those activities, added to the lingering stress of not knowing what's going on with my car and the ongoing pain in my back, leaves me with very little to say this evening, and almost nothing deep or even clever.

As I look at my calendar for the next three weeks, it seems as though someone has stepped on the accelerator. Events and responsibilities are flying at me faster and faster, and it feels like something, I'm not sure what, is going to slip through my grasp. I have this nagging fear that I've somehow forgotten to write something down and will therefore forget it, leaving someone in the lurch and making myself look silly. Plus, the acceleration will continue until we hurtle madly into Christmas Eve.

That's probably how we lose track of Advent. With all of the stuff that has to be done in December, particularly in the church, the time flies. It's no wonder, with this pace, that Advent tends to get overlooked. A little part of us, if we're willing to admit it, just wants all of this stress and preparation to be finished so we can get to the Christmas (or, in the case of the church, post-Christmas) relaxation.

Today, Advent looks like the chaos that used to descend on my household pre-vacation. Everyone would be running around the house, bumping into each other in the hallway with suitcases and laundry baskets, trying to check items off the to-do-before-we-leave list. Everyone was tense, stressed, irritated about that missing sock, or concerned that there's not enough trunk space. For people working in the church, Advent can take on that same tinge: everyone has three too many things on the to-do list, everyone's a little on-edge with the concern that they might not get it finished in time.

I am blessed that the staff I work with by and large handles Advent pretty well. Instead of letting that stress bubble over, most of the time, we let it out in laughter and offer one another support. And many of our laity help, too. So, for the people who made me laugh today, who offered a helping hand, who stepped in to lift things I couldn't manage, who provided Tylenol when my back was screaming, who were flexible with extraneous noise and changing schedules, who gave hugs, who stepped in to make things work, I am thankful.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Christmas Tree

This afternoon I finally got around to decorating for Christmas. I pulled my Christmas tree out of its place in storage, along with the boxes of ornaments and nativity sets, and set about putting them up.

I love decorating the Christmas tree. There are people who organize their tree decorations according to color scheme, but I am not one of those people. My tree is a mishmash of ornaments of different ages, colors, styles, sizes, and materials. There are little wood figurines next to ceramic spheres, tinfoil symbols next to plastic churches, paper snowflakes next to sparkly pipecleaner shapes. But each one has a story. The tree, with all of the ornaments on it, is like a collection of short stories, since each ornament comes with its own narrative, a snippet of my life and history. And almost all of the ornaments remind me of people.

I was the only person decorating my tree this evening, but I was not alone. As I put up the miniature wooden sled and the puzzle-style Santa face, I thought of Harold, now-deceased neighbor who taught me to do jigsaw puzzles and who carved those ornaments. As I put up the Hallmark ornaments from the 90s, I remembered my parents giving me each of them to commemorate another Christmas celebration. As I put up the tinfoil and pipecleaner ornaments, I thought of my seminary friends, and the evening we spent together making decorations for my bare, Charlie Brown-like Christmas tree in Atlanta. There are ornaments on the tree from my sister, from my high school friends, from my elementary school teachers, from vacations I've taken. There are ornaments donated to me by the friends and kind church folks who heard that I didn't have enough ornaments for the 7.5-foot tall tree I purchased last year.

Here, decorating my tree this evening, I was surrounded by the communion of saints, or at least some of them. These are people from all over the country, and even the world, who are helping others to live and grow in faith. They have sung praises to God with their hands and their gifts, and you can see it in these symbols, these ornaments on the tree. You can argue that buying Christmas trees and ornaments is a sign of the commercialization of Christmas if you want. But on my tree I see songs of praise and signs of love, most of them inexpensive and handmade, but more beautiful, in my sight, than any matching ornaments could be.


I visited Colonial Williamsburg today. The interpreter who led us through the Randolph House spoke about the importance of conversation during the colonial era. There were few other amusements, so it was important at the table and following dinner to be able to discuss the events of the day in an informed and articulate manner.

It was an interesting contrast to the dinner with friends I enjoyed this evening. Not that my friends are ignorant or inarticulate, but in our era it's considered impolite to discuss politics at the table. We usually talk about sports or celebrities or people we know. We don't discuss politics or current events because those things are too divisive. But it makes me wonder if, by not engaging in political dialogue, we've lost the ability to talk civilly about politics when we disagree. Or did we stop talking politics because we lost the ability to disagree politely?

I long for the day that we'll be able to find concensus without hurting each other, but I don't think we can get there on our own. I mean, even the colonists, who seem to have been better at it than we are, ended up going to war over their disagreements. So I pray that God will intervene. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Ultimate Gift

Tonight I went to the UNOS Tree of Life ceremony. For those of you who aren't familiar, UNOS is the United Network for Organ Sharing. The Tree of Life ceremony honors organ donors and their families, organ recipients, and those who are still waiting on the transplant list. We were privileged to hear the stories and thoughts of a transplant recipient, a man who is waiting for a liver transplant, and a woman whose husband had been an organ donor who saved the lives of four people. But perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony was the naming of people who gave "the ultimate gift", that is, upon their deaths, they donated vital organs to save the lives of others. A UNOS representative read the names of all those who had given "the ultimate gift" in Virginia in the last year, and members of donor families were invited to put Christmas ornaments on the tree in honor of their loved one.

It was a beautiful event. And when the representative read the name of a beloved church member, my breath caught. I had forgotten that this dear woman had donated her organs, but it shouldn't have surprised me. She had been such a passionate, loving, strong woman, a survivor of her own medical crises, so it seemed fitting to me that her final gift had been helping others to survive and live full lives.

On the way home, I got to thinking about the phrase "the ultimate gift". It, of course, has Christological connotations, and it parallels the language often used to talk about military personnel who are killed in battle. But it's also Biblical. Christ said that the greatest gift is to give one's life for one's friends. This is the same idea, but instead of friends, soldiers and organ donors give their lives and lifeblood for not just their friends but for strangers. These are incredible acts of love, and it seems so fitting for us to celebrate them in the same season that we're celebrating God's great gift of love through the incarnation.

For all of these gifts of life, I say: Glory to God! Amen.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

And then "BAM!"

Today was an average, ordinary day. I went to the office, did my usual work, and was looking forward to a quiet evening at home when, four blocks from the church, WHAM! As I was stopped, waiting at the end of a line of cars turning left, I was rear-ended. The man in the car behind me was distracted, looking at his GPS, and he didn't see my brake lights ahead of him. So, instead of getting home before six, throwing together some dinner, and rearranging the furniture so I could put up the Christmas tree, I spent an hour by the side of the road filling out forms, talking to police officers, and answering questions in the back of an ambulance.

It was a totally new experience for me. I mean, sure, I've been in car accidents before, but this time: a) it was on a major road, b) there were more than two cars involved, and c) the police and EMS were called. So it was thoroughly surreal to stand in the cold on the side of the road, surrounded by flashing red-and-blues and rubberneckers. On one hand, it was a little scary and painful, and it's frustrating and inconvenient. On the other hand, I don't seem to be injured besides some whiplash and my car is drivable and (thanks to insurance) will get fixed.

But the whole thing seemed ironic since I'd just written on my blog yesterday about how so much of what shapes us is so gradual and imperceptible that we don't even recognize its effects until much later. This was definitely not one of those things. While I'm sure its ripples will be less obvious and I may not recognize them for a long time, the accident was an obviously big event, with immediate consequences. (Hello, aching back!)

Now, I could talk about the distractions in our lives, or how we miss important things approaching until they hit us, or the way God sometimes appears in big momentous ways. But instead, this evening, I'm thinking about Charlie. Sort of, anyway.

I arrived home this evening an hour later than I expected, hungry and shaken and sore, and there was Charlie. After a day in his crate, Charlie was hyper. He wanted to run around and play with me. I was in pain and didn't want to move or throw a ball, or have a dog jump on me, but there's really no way of explaining that to a puppy, especially when you don't look any different.

I think often in life the people we see, even the people we know well and love, are walking around in pain. Whether it's because of a loss or difficulty, because they're lonely, hurt, or sad, they're not quite whole. They don't feel up to playing, and small things set them off because there's already so much wearing on their hearts and minds. And there I am, like Charlie, trying to get them to engage or play or act according to my wishes. It's a selfishness bred of obliviousness, but it's where I usually live. The playfulness is fun, but it can come at a cost to myself and others.

I hope that the puppy-ish playfulness comes with the other of Charlie's great strengths: loving. Once he calmed down, Charlie settled in next to me on the couch with his head flopped across my lap. He didn't ask for or expect anything, he just cuddled in beside me as a warm, quite presence. I hope that, once I get past my obliviousness, I can also be that loving. I hope that, once I recognize someone's pain or need, I can sit with them in it. I pray that I can offer them what several of my friends and family members offered me today after the accident: reassurances, offers of care, and willingness to listen. In short, love in practice. It's a gift for which I'm profoundly thankful, and a gift which I hope to share with others.