Be Kind, Rewind

So today this article (Social Scientists build case for Survival of the Kindest) was floating around Facebook, at least on my timeline. The article is from 2009 when I remember writing a sermon about downside to all the “happiness” going around. In the years post 9-11-01 we obsessed with staying positive, we possibly still do.

This is particularly true for us in the church, church has to be a place where only good things happen. Where Mary accepts the announcement of the angel, where a beautiful baby is born and where Jesus concurs death. People have to come to church in their best clothes, with their perfectly behaved children and their saintly, unwavering faith.  God forbid we acknowledge that there were hardships and difficulties like overcoming the possibility of being stones to death by her family and fiance, the slaughtering of the innocents, and a horrifying betrayal and crucifixion. God forbid we acknowledge that we are not perfect and all sin and sometimes do not believe.

There are difficulties in life, we all have bad days, but we still preach kindness, love, goodness- because in our faith, everything did work out in the end… just not the way we expected. This is not necessarily because of kindness, but generosity, love, and commitment, all of which we can embody in kindness. So here are some thoughts:

Take Initiative – My kids and I were shopping for groceries and they were handing out free samples (my kids LOVE this by the way) and one of the samples were apples- yes apples.  My kids (6 & 3) both ate an apple the rest of the trip. At checkout my 3 year old choked on the skin and gagged. He proceeded to spit up in my hand (yes, the things we do as parents). Just then a woman who had seen what was happening ran over with a wad of napkins for me. I was eternally grateful. I never would have asked anyone for help out of my embarrassment, but when I needed it, it was there.

Know When to Restrain Yourself- So the opposite of helpfulness is well, getting on my nerves… There was another time, over three years ago when I was in the grocery (hey- we all spend a lot of time in grocery stores). My son was no more than 2 weeks old and I was using the grocery as an “outing excuse” to walk around, etc. All of a sudden a middle aged woman comes running up to the cart and yells “I just HAD to come see”.  Really… you have so little self control that you just HAD to come see my baby. Try a little restraint, look from afar, I’m not in the mood. Just pay attention and ask yourself if you’re being helpful or selfish.

Keep Hands, Feet, and All Other Objects to Yourself – My daughter and I were in the bank and she was flicking herself, you know where you take your middle finger to your thumb and push, well anyway, she was. She was telling me it didn’t hurt and then she did it to me. It didn’t hurt, but I told her it did because she shouldn’t go around flicking people (off, on, or otherwise). Then I said, “You can do it to yourself, but you shouldn’t do it to anyone else”. The teller looked at me and said “sound advice for many things”.  hmmm… not sure about that, but it worked in this case, and in the cases of little white lies and anytime it involves people’s hair, butts, etc.

Give Generously– Of your time, your talents, and your money. This summer I was working with a seminary intern and a friend called, it was one of those moments where I spent an hour on the phone calming and supporting them. When I came back to my office I looked at her and said, “One of the most important things we do as ministers is to take or return phone calls.” This is true for everyone, it’s what makes us human and able to be kind, we have to support and be supported by our friends. Some people have more time than others and have preferences for phone, text, email, etc. I have people I talk, text, Facebook or twitter to daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly. But I take their calls whenever possible, I followup with them when I can’t, and I tell people when I’m thinking about them. Those conversations, these relationships nurture me and them. Without them I would be but a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

Finally– always, always, always over tip. 20% is the minimum, unless they were REALLY, REALLY terrible and even then it’s 10-15% trust me, they need that dollar or two more than you. Smile at people, all the time, look them in the eye, and even when they are annoying the crap out of you- suck it up, it’ll be over soon.

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Child of Blessing, Child of Promise

Last week was unco West, which meets at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Just like all other uncos (which is short for unconference) it was amazing, and I met people I wondered how I ever lived without and spent some time with the people that feed my soul.  At the end of the last worship we decided to give each other a blessing, with water. We remembered our baptism, washed away our shame, and blessed each other with abundance and permission. As a worship leader the bowl was started near me and I was privileged to be one of the last to be anointed.

So it’s my turn to go forward and I have been holding a 2 year old little girl. We do this at unco, rely on the community for everything, including entertaining each other’s children. It is church and community in the truest form. She and I have been playing for a while now and her mom is in front of us.  Kath turns around and anoints her daughter, a beautiful moment for everyone, but then this precious girl dips her fingers into the water and touches my forehead.

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I have baptized many children- all special, all sacred moments, all a privilege, but never have I received an blessing from a child. Not this way.

I have experienced the grace of both of my children, I have been anointed with bath water, spit-up and snot. I know that this little girl was simply mimicking what her mother did, but she did it. She touched my forehead with her tiny fingers and wiped that cold tap water on my head. She blessed me.

I have a lot to atone for in my life, enough shame to last 10 lifetimes- but in that moment- there was purity of joy, there was innocents in my arms and on my head. God came in that moment in the hands of a child and pushed me out of myself. Love is like that. That sweet girl through her fingers blessed me with innocence and grace.

May she (and I) grow to be a strong woman of faith and wisdom. In the name of all that is good and holy. Amen.

Account of Ministry

Recently I was writing an application and was asked to access my ministry to date.  I wrote about the 8 1/2 years since ordination as they wanted me to, but here’s where I really wanted to start because my journey in ministry did not start in Ordination.

My church upbringing was mixed at best.  My parents divorced when I was a small child and I spend my weekends split between them- one weekend at the Presbyterian Church, one weekend at the Roman Catholic Church.  Once my mother remarried our family attended a United Methodist church near our home. After a schism in that congregation my step-father wanted to go back to his roots and we attended a local southern Baptist congregation.

By the time we were rooted into the culture of the Baptist church I was around 9 years old. However, I remember having my first theological thought at the Methodist Church as I starred at the stained glass window of Jesus, listened to prayers directed toward Jesus, and the scriptures focused on Jesus.  I wondered where God was in all this (little did I understand).

The southern Baptist was a turn off from the beginning for me, in all honesty.  I remember a Sunday School lesson in Jr. High about becoming a “born-again virgin”, I found this topic not only impossible but also age inappropriate (these days sex in middle school would not be inappropriate, but that was a while ago). Every week I watched altar calls that either ended because parents forced their children to go forward, or people wanted service to end.

Besides their views on women, their view of God, and the fact that we all left church in a bad mood I went each week to church with my parents, until they decided to join.  My step-father had been raised in the Baptist tradition and had a “believers baptism” my mother, however, was raised Presbyterian and had an infant baptism, meaning she would have to be re-baptized.

I watched one Sunday evening my mother, dressed in a white robe, be lowered into a pool in the front of the sanctuary and dunked three times.  It should have been a beautiful moment, not that I was expecting the heavens to open, but I remembered thinking that something should have happened, we should have felt something. At that moment I knew that the promise of baptism had already been given to my mother and this was simply a step she was taking to join the church.  I was done with the church.

I stopped all attendance to church except Christmas and Easter, refused to go to Youth Group, and began pretending there was no God. I say pretending because years later I was once asked when I was “saved” or “found God”.  I explained that I could tell them stories of acceptance or moments where I felt God’s presence, but there was no moment I found God, God found me, before my birth.  God has always been there for me, even in the worst of times, full of self-hatred, starving for love, wandering lonely in the world- God was always there. I was 18 years old and had been attending The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green, KY for less than 2 years.

When I was 16 years old my best friend asked if I would join her church choir.  The choir had 4 “section leaders” in the choir from the University and the tenor and soprano had just split up and the soprano had quit, they needed a fill-in and fast.  I agreed and attended 2 worship services every Sunday and a Wednesday Night choir rehearsal.  I had to do something between services so I started attending Sunday School, then they got me on a ski trip, then Youth Group.  It was in that place, with those youth leaders I experienced love for the first time, I experienced grace for the first time.

It was there that I learned to witness that the greatest gift I could ever give God was to be who God created me to be.  That I am worthy of love and forgiveness, that I must love myself in return.

One night, after graduating high school, I sat on a street in the middle of the night in Montreat, NC with a group of my peers and talked about what it meant to be a child of God. They asked me questions and I told stories and quoted scripture and felt a sense of peace like never before. I was called, I was to devote my life to God and the church, and my ministry was born.

I studied music in college and immediately entered Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  I loved seminary, it was a community of nurturing, caring, and encouraging people.  We shared joys and frustrations; we fought over women’s rights, racial issues, and theology.  We witnessed to each other the best and worst of humanity, the love and forgiveness of God.

My first internship was where the rubber hit the road.  I was nervous, not having been “raised” in the church I felt like there was a set of rules everyone knew and followed except for me. However, they didn’t care (well, most of them).  Since taking my first step in the pulpit my ministry has been confirmed every step of the way.

There were rules, and I naturally broke them by being myself.  I didn’t always have three points in a sermon and I hardly ever used a poem.  The word “refreshing” is used a lot when people encounter me in ministry settings. My ministry began at the moment of my birth, my very existence, with each breath, a witness to our living creator.

This is the Day the Lord has Made

My first year out of Seminary, at my first church as a solo pastor, it just happened to be that Christmas Day fell on a Sunday.  In the churches I have served, like most mainline protestant churches, we have service on Christmas Eve night and only have church Christmas morning, if Christmas falls on a Sunday.  That year, there were mega churches in the area and around the country that decided to not have Sunday Services on Christmas because it was “family time”.

That year I wrote a sermon that “railed” (as much as I can do) against these churches.  I thought it was ridiculous that they would close church on a Sunday morning just because it fell on Christmas Day.  “What better way to teach our children what Christmas is all about than bring them to church on Christmas Day?” I asked (and still say when Christmas falls on a Sunday.)

But here’s the truth, I don’t like it when Christmas falls on a Sunday.  It is a family day. And I am exhausted from the night before.  But I get up, and bring my kids away from their toys to remind myself and them what Christmas is all about, that a child was born this day in the city of David, and he is the light of all the people.  That is why we celebrate.

Over the years of being a minister I struggle with the commercialization of Christmas, yet as a woman who grew up in America and has small children I also get caught up in it.  It is an opportunity to give gifts of appreciation of others, it is a time to overload my kids with toys they don’t need just to see the smile on their faces.  It is also a time to put up a Christmas Tree, decorate my house and bake cookies.

None of these things are biblical, and yet, I love them.  It’s not Christmas without them, my heart feels.  Yet my head knows that if we didn’t decorate our house or church or sing Christmas Carols, Christ would come anyway.

As much as I love Jesus, I also love hanging my stockings with care, and putting out the ceramic Christmas tree my beloved Aunt made years ago, and unwrapping each baby ornament as if they were as fragile as babies themselves.  And this decoration takes place the first weekend in December just as it did for my mother and her mother before that.  And the decorations don’t wait to come down until Epiphany, but come down New Year’s Day, just as it did for my mother and her mother before that.

There is something sacred for me in the non-sacred traditions of Christmas.  Not just following the routine my mother did, but wrapping the creche in the same paper I unwrapped it from. Each year getting a little softer and one or two more tears until when my children are older the paper will no longer be there to protect, but the paper itself will become an integral part of the tradition.

So yes, my Christmas decorations when up before Christmas and yes, the came down before Epiphany- but I still say, it’s okay.  Christ lives on despite our rules.  I can honor God and my family despite when the decorations come up or go down.  And yes, I will also remain hypocritical when I will follow this practice of Family tradition and not church tradition, because in 2016 (which I’m already not looking forward to) I will rail against churches who close on Christmas Day because it happens to fall on a Sunday and as they say that is Family Day.  Because Sunday is the Lord’s Day and despite everything, it is the day God made to come and adore.

Just though I would give you fair warning.

Why a Church Community Makes All the Difference

ASH_0180There have been many times in my life I have not wanted to go to church.  All of Jr. High is a pretty good example… but more realistically, in my life when things are dark and dreary all I want to do on Sunday morning is crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my head.

But I can’t.

I wish I could tell you it’s because I was healthy enough to recognize that it was better to get up and get going and be around people during the dark times of our lives.  But that’s not why.  It’s because it’s my job. It’s my job to be in church every Sunday morning and lead worship and proclaim the good news even when I feel like everything around me is going to pot.

Yesterday was one of those days.  This has happened before in more personal tragedies, but the school shootings of Newtown hit me hard.  It didn’t help that I had a child around the same age as the children.  It didn’t help that my husband was gone all weekend and this flaming extrovert had no one to talk to.  But I walked into church on Sunday morning and there was a crowd of people waiting.

Now until this moment I had felt melancholy but I was able to keep it at bay, but then I started talking to people about it and the flood gates opened.  I barely made it through announcements and then in my infinite stupidity read the third verse of Away in a Manger as a prayer.  I lost control and cried.  And of course, everyone else cried too.

Thank God the choir was singing the cantata for the service so my talking was to a minimum.  But about halfway through one of our youth sang a solo “come little children, come one and all”

Come little children-I lost control and I wept.  I left the church ran to my office and openly sobbed.  Several other rushed by my door on the way to the restroom. When I came up at the end to give the benediction all eyes were red, tear stained faces met my return.  The narrator lost it when she proclaimed that the darkness could not overcome the light. It was one of the most holy services of my life.  Even when I didn’t want to get out of bed.  EVERY TIME it happens, God calls me and begins or continues the healing process in my church community.

I am so thankful for them.  I am so thankful to God for calling me here for such a time as this.  And for the angelic voices who helped us all release some of the pent up sorrow deep in our souls.  The Holy Spirit was here in this place, God is present in my church community.  You can’t get that on tv, or through your quiet meditation (although valuable for other things) this kind of mutual support and love comes in a room of people loving and lifting you up as you worship God together.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to Live with Thee there

 

Exhaling

Today is my 6th month anniversary at Ashland.  I cannot believe it’s been 6 months.  And I cannot believe it’s ONLY been 6 months.  I have enjoyed everyday I have been here.  I am thankful everyday for the staff and creativity that surrounds this place.  I am thankful for the opportunity to minister in a place I am so deeply called.

At the same time I admit that I have been holding my breath for the last 6 months.  Partially waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, but partially because accepting a new call is always a leap of faith.  While interviewing I tried to present myself authentically, showing them I was human, but you know… not “too” human.  It is the nature of the call process in the Presbyterian Church that Pastoral Nominating Committees have to remain secret.  And on the side of the pastor, there is simply only so much they can see, we are both taking a leap of faith that we are both being honest.

How do we do that? We rely on the Spirit, it is the only way.

So today is the same as any other day, but I am willing to exhale… a little.  We are still honeymooning, I know we are still getting to know each other, but I am so thankful, everyday to be here and in this place.