Category Archives: Ministry

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

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Today I Am Afraid

*** For those of you in the DSW Conference, no I do not know anything that you don’t. I am just experiencing some anxiety mixed with hope in light of the vote we are about to have this coming Thursday. If I have concerned you because of my personal fear, I am truly sorry.  It’s just a prayer that reflects my own anxious nature.  Blessings and peace…and perhaps prayers that we will all be less anxious. ***

Abba, Father…

I did what I thought was right.  I read their theological exams and I expected from them what I expect from any candidate for ministry: honesty and theological robustness. I expected them to write their exams like they were writing papers for seminary, in conversation with the Scriptures and with the theologians that they studied.  I interviewed them Lord, and I tried hard not to give them breaks that I wouldn’t have given to other candidates.  I did my best to be thorough, firm, and fair…and then I voted my conscience and I approved them.

I approved two LGBTQIA candidates for commissioning and admission to the clergy of the United Methodist Church.

I was proud that day and certain that my colleagues would join me in celebrating their entry into full time ministry. I was certain that our entire conference would celebrate our stand for justice and equality in ministry.

Today I am not so certain. In fact, today I am afraid.

I am filled with fear that my conservative colleagues will unite and stand against these two people. I fear that they will block their entry into full time ministry. I fear they will vote against them, but not because they aren’t fully prepared, and not because they aren’t theologically articulate, but solely because they are LGBTQIA.

That’s not the right reason, Lord.  You have given us ample evidence that You call the weak and foolish to show your strength and wisdom. Goodness knows you called ME and there isn’t much that is weaker or more foolish than I am.

My stomach hurts and I want to cry.

I want to believe that I serve a church that is just and wise. I want to believe that I serve in a conference that will stand for justice even when it means that we will be hated by other conferences within the larger Methodist church. I want to believe that you are leading the Desert Southwest, and eventually the entire Methodist Church, into new spaces of equality and tolerance that our church has never known before.

But I’m so afraid that I’m wrong in what I believe. I’m afraid that I’m about to watch these two poor souls be crushed when they are turned away and labeled unclean and unfit for ministry only because of the way they love.

All I can do, Father, is to put the whole thing into your hands and beg you to have your way with our conference. Let your Spirit move as the clergy votes over these two who have submitted themselves to your will and put themselves into your hands.  Protect them from any harm should my colleagues choose to reject them.  Never let these two children doubt for one moment that You have chosen them and nothing else matters.

You alone can stop the prejudice and fear that runs in the hearts of those who would reject the children you call just because of who and how they love.  Grant me the grace to forgive them for their fear, because you know that I am also consumed with fear. Grant me the grace to remember that they are only trying to do what is best for the church, just as I am trying to do what is best for the church.

Grant us…grace. Lots and lots of grace…because we are going to need it in abundance.

Father God, today I am afraid. But I am trusting that you are bigger than this entire issue, and that it matters even more to you than it does to me.

Thanks for listening. I needed to get this off my chest.  I might need you again later, because this fear doesn’t seem to go away and it keeps threatening to leak out of my eyes and run down my face.

Amen.

Holy Discontent, Batman!

Do you remember when I told you that I had a case of the BLAHs? I realized that God had placed some holy discontent into my life to get me out of my rut and move me forward.

Things were getting better there for a while.  I got a workbook about burnout and compassion fatigue. I started reading it and took the tests to see just how burned out I was, how badly beaten and fatigued that my compassion had become.

Guess what? I’m not burned out and I don’t have compassion fatigue.

Apparently, the longer you are a practicing counselor the more likely you have let go of unrealistic beliefs about what you should be able to achieve and have accepted that you will have unlimited capacity for compassion and giving.

I took those tests and discovered that I was just fine, scoring somewhere in the range where folks who’ve been in the industry over 10 years tend to score.

It was great relief.

I also started doing things that bring me happiness just to do them. I started baking regularly and trying new recipes for weekend dinners.  It was fun! I love to bake and I love to watch baking shows.

I was starting to smile and laugh and feel human again and I felt like my holy discontent was lifting.

And then…

A colleague gave me some feedback that was very uncomfortable, and while I’m not sure it’s accurate, I’m also not sure that it isn’t right on the money.  I have chewed on this feedback for more than two days now, and I’m beginning to find streaks of truth that I want to understand more deeply.

It’s not fun. I’m teary and uncomfortable. I feel vulnerable and exposed. I don’t like this one bit.

On the other hand, I told you that God has this kind habit of putting people in my path to help me discern His will, and then I asked Him to break my heart and set me on fire for His Kingdom.

Well…my heart feels a little broken and this person was definitely in my path.

As much as I don’t like it, I do believe God is answering my prayer.  And while it isn’t comfortable, answers to prayer are always good news.  I also know that following God’s will can be profoundly disturbing when you first start down the path, but God always works amazing miracles around us and in us when we submit to Him fully.

It appears the holy discontent train has left the station with me on board and I am on my way.  I’ll keep you posted as things develop.

Unclean

So…we United Methodists have been in the news lately.

Nothing big, we just elected ourselves an openly gay bishop last July and someone on the other side of the nation got their undies in a knot about it and asked the United Methodist Judicial Council for a ruling about whether or not this was ‘legal’ under the UMC Book of Discipline rules regarding clergy and specifically bishops.

The Book of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church states that homosexuality of any kind (thus including all LGBTQIA persons) is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ although the BOD does say that the UMC affirms “that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”  Then in a later section on ordained ministry, the BOD goes on to restate how “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be…ordained as ministers…or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

Wow…feels discriminatory to me.  Not what I want to see in my church’s polity.

Setting that aside, I have been thinking all week about that statement “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Says WHO??

Who decides what is “Christian teaching”?  Is there a central committee somewhere that I’m not aware of?   I’m really confused about the statement “incompatible with Christian teaching”.

You see…I went to seminary, and when I was in seminary, I read a host of theology books. Some of those books were written by neo-Orthodox theologians like Karl Barth, some were written by evangelical theologians like Stanley Grenz, some were by liberationist theologians like Ronaldo Muñoz or Dorote Sölle, some were written by process theologians like Marjorie Suchoki or C. Robert Mesle, and some were by progressive theologians like Phillip Gulley or Roger Wolsey. Basically, I read a whole lot of theologians who understood God in very different ways, and how they defined ‘Christian teaching’ differed. Some basics (like the existence of God and Jesus) were the same from theologian to theologian, but what each theologian considered important was different and unique, and therefore the things they defined as tenets of ‘Christian teaching’ was also unique.

What I’m trying to tell you is that there very little consensus as to what the full complement of ‘Christian teaching’ is, so to have something as basic as sexuality be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ begs the question “Whose Christian teaching?”  Because it is not incompatible with my Christian teaching or that of many of my colleagues and we all have Master’s of Divinity degrees and are ordained ministers and therefore theologians in our own right.  Moreover, we have a lot of theologians who are far more well-known and well-spoken than we are who back us up.

The thing that strikes me as odd is that the Book of Discipline doesn’t state that homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible (Rom 1:26-27), or that it is an abomination to the Lord (Lev 18:22), or that it is a sin and therefore worthy of condemnation (Lev 20:13).  The Book of Discipline doesn’t cite scripture to condemn homosexuality, it just gives a weak statement about homosexuality’s ‘compatibility with Christian teaching.’

Well, if that’s the argument they are using, then let’s get out our Bibles and turn to Acts 10. It’s time for some ‘Christian teaching’.

9b Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.   (Acts 10:9b-28 NRSV)

Okay, anyone with half a brain who wants to argue with me is going to read this and say “Yeah, but this is about the food laws.”

NO it is not. The vision was about food, but the rest of the passage of scripture is about God sending Peter to teach a Gentile, a man who Peter (a righteous Jew) would have found unclean according to Jewish law. Let me remind you that Jewish law is laid out in books of the Bible like Deuteronomy and Leviticus, a book that I quoted earlier in reference to laws against homosexuality.

In Acts 10:28, Peter tells Cornelius and the people in his home that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit Gentiles, and then Peter says “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”   God didn’t tell Peter that the laws in question were now null and void.  The laws stood as they were written and yet…God was simply no longer interested in maintaining God’s own law when it caused certain people to be cast aside and considered unworthy.

The point of today’s Christian teaching is: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

God has shown me that I should NOT call anyone profane or unclean, no matter how nicely I do it, or how sweetly I preface it with a statement acknowledging that “all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”

If God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, wouldn’t it be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ to label someone unfit for ministry because of their sexuality?

Yeah, I’m thinking so.

And if we don’t want to be profane and unclean ourselves, maybe we should knock that off, you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Society of People Who Drown

Today is one of those days when I have mixed emotions.  Let me explain.

I’m sad because all my clergy friends are on their way home from The Gathering, a yearly convocation of pastors in our conference of the United Methodist Church.  I haven’t been able to attend The Gathering for the last eight years, and it’ll be 2021 before I am able to attend.  Bummer!  The reason behind all this is long and complicated, so I’ll simplify it: you can only be out of the office so much if you are going to be a counselor that is effective, and so I allocate my days off to things like family vacation, family emergencies, and the things I do as a Methodist clergywoman that require me to be away from my counseling office.  There are only so many days off that I can take, and when it comes to attending The Gathering, I just don’t have enough days off to make it happen.  Again, bummer!

I suppose I can’t really complain. It’s not like I never get to see my clergy friends. All the clergy in our conference gather twice a year: once in February at The Gathering and once in June at Annual Conference.  And that’s where the happiness comes in!

You see, this week was a rough week: lots of tasks, lots of clients, too many crisis situations, etc.  I’ve written about this in past blog entries—weeks like this can make me feel squished. I start feeling like I am drowning in a sea of endless tasks and endless human need, feeling pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who want to lean on me and believe that I can somehow give them what they want, what they think they need.

This, of course, is why I let my mind wander off to The Gathering, where a good friend of mine was giving her testimony about her call into ministry…and that’s when the happiness started.  I started thinking about her, and praying for her…and then I started thinking about Annual Conference.

Annual Conference is not some playground for pastors; we actually get quite a lot of work done, and I often find myself a bit stressed out during the conference because I have things I am supposed to get done, official roles I have to play, or presentations I have to make.  But no matter what, Annual Conference makes me happy, because in the end, I get to hang with my peeps. I get to spend five days with all my clergy friends. If I were being honest, I would mention that I’m not friends with all the clergy in this conference, but it doesn’t really matter because I’m just glad to be with my clergy colleagues.  When we get together, it is almost always a truly joyous occasion.  We laugh with one another, we pray with one another, and in general we love on one another as much as possible.

Why?  Because we are The Society of People Who Drown.

There isn’t a pastor or clergyperson on the face of the earth who doesn’t understand what I mean.  It doesn’t matter what kind of ministry you do—youth ministry, general church ministry, chaplaincy, counseling, urban ministry, ministry with the poor—if you are in ministry, some days you drown.  The human need is so great!  People come to pastors because they are seeking something, or more accurately, they are “wanting”: wanting answers; wanting connection to something bigger than themselves; wanting to feel God more deeply; wanting to hear God’s voice more clearly; wanting an instant family; wanting to know if what they are doing is right or wrong; wanting to know if they should give up or keep trying; wanting financial help; wanting forgiveness; wanting validation; wanting something that will end their misery and pain, wanting…wanting…SOMETHING.  Add that to all the other demands that go with managing a church (or an urban mission or a vital missions program or a counseling practice, etc.) and suddenly you find yourself drowning in a sea of tasks and endless human need, pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who are leaning on you and hoping that you can help them get what they want, what they truly need.

Together, with my clergy colleagues, we are The Society of People Who Drown, and we are okay with that.

Because we have a Savior, and He has a boat.

And we know exactly whose hand plunges into the water to pull us to the surface.  Even when that hand looks exactly like the hand of one of my colleagues and comes attached to their voice, I know who is reaching into the water after me. And when I plunge my hand into the flood to grab one of my colleagues who is starting to go under, they know exactly who is guiding my hand; they know exactly who is pulling them out of the sea.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

Before we accepted our call to ministry all of us found ourselves standing on the beach, looking out across the water at Jesus in the boat.  There He was, floating in a sea of human need, calling to us as we stood on the shore, and one by one we all said “That’s it! I love you, and I’m coming in!” and then we waded into the water.  It seemed like the craziest thing to do, and yet none of us seemed to be able to choose anything else.

So here we are, treading water in a sea of human need, and occasionally drowning.  And we are okay with that.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

There is a reason why my clergy colleagues and I love each other so intensely; why we enjoy our time together so much.  There is a reason why we seek each other out to share both tears and laughter and to lift each other’s spirits.

It’s because each and every one of us is crazy.  Only crazy people wade into the water when all the evidence makes it look like you’ll drown!  But here we are, treading water in a sea of human need and occasionally drowning…and while it’s very difficult to do, we wouldn’t do anything else.  And we wouldn’t do it with anyone else.  These are my colleagues and like me, they are all crazy…crazy for the Man in the boat who is going to save us all…crazy for the One who reaches his arm into the flood over and over to pull us up and let us know that it’s okay…we aren’t going to drown, not really, because He has His eye on us, and He isn’t going to let anything take us under for good.

That is as true for me and my clergy colleagues as it is for everyone else. Jesus doesn’t just pull a few of us to the surface. He reaches in for each and every person, everywhere, all the time.

It isn’t just me and my clergy colleagues. It’s everyone.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat!

Hallelujah! Amen.

The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

Knock knock…

Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)     The Request of James and John

“35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I stood there in the dorm for students who traveled to attend seminary every week, feeling deeply ashamed that I had delayed God’s will for so long, so very long.

The first time that God called me into ministry, I was only 17 years old. My friend was feeling the call into the mission field, and I went to the altar rail to pray with her, to pray for her. As I prayed, God spoke to me, saying that He wanted me to go into ministry. This led to my first argument with God.

“I can’t go into ministry, Lord. There aren’t any women in ministry. So I’d have to become a missionary, and I don’t want to go to Africa!”

“I don’t want you to go to Africa, Tina” God countered. But I wouldn’t listen. I was in a fundamentalist evangelical Church that didn’t allow women to enter the ministry. “I can’t be a minister. There aren’t any women ministers, Lord! And I don’t WANT to go to Africa!”

“I don’t WANT you to go to Africa!” the Lord replied “I want you to be a minister for me.” And around and around we went. I think I argued with God for more than 10 minutes. Who argues with God?! Was I crazy?! Was I just disobedient? I don’t know! I just knew that I didn’t want to go to Africa and there was no such thing as a woman minister. Ignore the fact that God had tried to convince me to go to a Methodist school to pursue my undergraduate degree…I couldn’t afford it so I was already set to go to Illinois State University. I had my path set, and I was going to major in accounting and be a CPA.

That’s not how it worked out. Actually, about 9 weeks into my first semester I changed my major to Applied Computer Science, just like my dad predicted. I majored in computer programming and minored in communication and it worked perfectly for me. I loved my fields of study and excelled in both of them. An internship at Citibank sealed the deal and I graduated Cum Laude from the Honors Program at ISU. Obviously I had found God’s path for me; my skills told me so and so did my total satisfaction with my field of study and work. I took a job at Citicorp Mortgage in St. Louis and dived into my adult life head first, only to find God still knocking at my door.

He called again when I was only 22 years old. I felt the call as I read my Bible after a weekend out with friends. God encouraged me to take up my place as a minister in His Church, and all I could think was “Were You watching this weekend? Did you see me telling dirty jokes to a mixed crowd? Did you see me using all the wrong language? Are you kidding? I am absolutely the wrong person to be a minister! You must be out of your mind!” This call was much easier to ignore. I was attending Church regularly but didn’t that that meant much, and I didn’t see how God has set me aside from the very first day to serve His Church. All I could see was my faults, my failures, and my lack of holiness. That was enough to convince me that I was not fit to be anything at all in His Church.

God, however, was not so convinced. At 27 years old, I found myself serving on a panel discussion about faith in the workplace. One of the older women in the congregation was doing her best to convince the group at the panel discussion of how we needed to have our Scripture memorized and ready to deploy the minute it was needed; that Scripture was our best defense at a moment when we were called to testify. My college memories spoke to me and I blurted out “NO! That is not what we need to do.” Then I told the story of my roommate Nancy, who had remained an atheist for all four years of undergraduate study. She and I had been best friends, living on the same floor of the dorm and then moving together with two other friends to live in an apartment during our final two years of college. One day she said “Do you know when I know you’re a Christian, Tina? It’s not when you tell me about your God.” So I asked her how she knew I was a Christian. She said “It’s when you follow me around the house when I come home upset, trying to find out what upset me.” “Nancy” I said, “I don’t do that because I’m a Christian. I do that because I love you!” “But Tina” she replied, “no one else loves me that way.” At that moment I realized that I no longer knew where I ended and Christ began. I had been Christian for such a long time that I no longer knew what parts of me were mine uniquely, and which parts were expressions of Christ. I had become Christ-like when I wasn’t looking, and now I couldn’t find the edges of me…and I knew that if the love I was expressing for Nancy was mine alone, she never would have perceived it as an expression of my faith and my God. Suddenly I realized that God had changed me in ways I had not realized, and that the phrase “They will know we are Christians by our love” was far more truthful than I knew. So I told everyone who had gathered for the panel discussion that memorizing Scripture wasn’t going to increase the strength of our testimony one whit…we needed to focus on letting Christ into our hearts so deeply that we lost our ability to perceive where we ended and He began. Love was the answer…not reciting verses from some book, even a Holy book. Love would change everything and invite people into relationship with God in a way that book knowledge—even Holy book knowledge—could never approximate. At that moment, the pastor on the panel blurted out “Sounds like we have a future preacher in the room.”  I answered him swiftly “That’s not funny! Don’t say that!” I had no idea how close I was to the ledge.

It was only two years later that I succumbed to God’s call. God’s sense of humor is awesome: He sent a Jewish atheist to ask me questions about the faith. The more questions I answered the more still and thoughtful she became until suddenly my atheist friend exclaimed “You should be a minister!” For reasons I can’t explain, I believed her.

Suddenly I knew that God wasn’t joking anymore. That night as I read the Scripture for the Bible study I attended, I found myself telling God that I would go wherever He sent me and do whatever He wanted me to do, but that I was terrified. God answered “Not yet” and spent the next year readying me to answer the call more completely.

Within 12 months I was enrolled in seminary part-time, and by 18 months I had left my job as a computer programmer and enrolled in seminary full-time, traveling to California every week to take classes and prepare myself for full-time ministry. It was then that my guilt went into overdrive.

Why did it take so long for me to answer God’s call?

What the heck was my problem? God had made it clear from the time I was 17 years old, and here I was at 31 years old with two children and a husband and NOW I finally decide that maybe I should follow God’s will for me. What took me so long? What had I done to the Kingdom by waiting so long? What I denied God by waiting so long? What great things could I have done for Him if I had just answered sooner? I tortured myself with this guilt and with the awareness that God had been infinitely patient with me despite my unwillingness to hear Him.

It took me over a year (and the reassurances of many of my fellow seminary students) before I could realize the truth: God knew that I wouldn’t hear Him for a long time and so He started me calling me far in advance of when I would answer so that I could hear the call again and again and again.

It’s a little like James and John in today’s scripture.

We read this scripture and we think that James and John are just a little over the top. It’s not that they are bad disciples. It’s not that we don’t think they deserve to sit at Jesus’ right hand…in fact, we know that John was the disciple that Jesus loved the most. It’s just that…DANG! Asking so directly is just so BOLD! It seems a little arrogant and pushy and all the things that you think don’t go with being a disciple.
Yet at the same time, we relate.

There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t had the fantasy of Christ saying the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t wondered if they have brought enough souls into the Kingdom to honor God. There isn’t one Christian who hasn’t wondered if they’ve sacrificed enough, or suffered enough, or been bold enough and spoken up enough…

We wonder over and over if we are good enough for the Kingdom; good enough for God.

Jesus’ answer to James and John is very telling. He asks them “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:39b) As Christians, we automatically think of the crucifixion when we read this. We think that Jesus is asking them if they can suffer and die for the Kingdom, if they are willing to lose their lives to spread the word. But I don’t know if that was actually the question.

I think that Jesus was asking them if they could hang with him in his disgrace, after the betrayal but before the crucifixion. Between those two moments was the time when Jesus was considered a worthless criminal and nothing more than another idiot campaigning for political power. You see, before Jesus was betrayed he was seen as spiritual powerhouse that threatened the religious powers in Israel. After his crucifixion, the embers of Christianity has been lit, and Jesus’ death and resurrection gathered power, marking Him as God’s blessed Son that had come to save us from a spiritual death that was much more profound that physical death.

But during that middle time—after his betrayal by Judas and before his death—Jesus was just a criminal. Before his journey to the cross, he looked like one more political Messiah that failed and was about to die. Jesus looked small and insignificant, potentially worthless and ineffective at changing anything. It was during those hours between His betrayal and His death that every disciple was tested to the maximum. Would they retain their faith in Him and stand strong when the government threatened to reduce Jesus to NOTHING? Because aligning yourself with nothing is humiliating. Giving up your job, leaving your family, traveling the countryside as homeless vagabond reliant on the support of women…all this was stupid if the messiah you followed was worth nothing!

We focus so much on the crucifixion, but Jesus attained His glory in the crucifixion. Jesus changed the world forever through the crucifixion, but in the hours just before that moment he risked being nothing…being worthless…being a total failure. Real commitment to Christ was expressed in continuing to believe when He appeared to be…NOTHING.

We don’t ever have to live through that moment, because Christ has already proved that He is so much more than
nothing. But now the challenge is reversed, because we cannot stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are busy being next to nothing. We can’t stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are deep in our crap.

The journey to faith is long and slow, and there are years and years full of stuff that amounts to a whole lot of crap, a whole lot of nothing. Jesus opts to stand with us no matter what stuff we’re churning out right now diamonds for the Kingdom or total crap, and Jesus opts in all the way. And that’s really uncomfortable, because we think that God wants nothing less than our best; God deserves nothing less than our best.

The truth is, however, that God wants it all: our best, our worst, and everything in between. The evidence of this is given to us in the life of Christ. Jesus was born as an insignificant infant…the only people who knew they were supposed to worship Him were a bunch of smelly, dirty shepherds; a few immigrant Magi; and a teenage girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. This is not a high profile group of folks! Jesus was 30 years old before anyone else figured out that He just might be the most significant human ever born, and even then He appealed mostly to smelly fisherman, prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors that everyone hated. James and John knew that Jesus was the real thing, but in order to know that for sure they needed to hang with Jesus through His ministry, His triumphant return to Jerusalem, a night of doubt in the Garden, His arrest, His conviction, and His execution…all before they could see Him rise from the grave and enter into His glory. To be a real disciple, you had to hang with Jesus through all the crap before you could get to the glory.

It isn’t any different with us. Jesus opts in way before we show any promise, and we have to agree to let Him in, to let Him see us at less than our best, to let Him be with us in our worst moments and all of our crap…just so that He can draw us to those moments of glory. And the moments of glory will be few and far between. I heard God call me and waited for 15 years before I chose to answer…and instead of kicking me to the curb God chose to present that call over and over and over until I answered. When my guilt for failing to respond correctly the first time consumed my soul, God reminded me that He knew me before I was born, and knew everything I needed before I needed it, and knew all the crap I had to walk through before I could answer His Holy call…and that He was good with whatever it took to get me to answer Him. God is not worried about the details…He is only worried that we will never answer at all, that we will turn away from Him and refuse to let Him in.

You cannot be with Christ in his glory if you will not let Him be with you in your crap. If you look around you, the crap abounds, but God doesn’t care because what matters is that you let Him in…after that, it’s all a journey towards the glory, and Jesus had that part sewed up years and years ago, so it’s not like we need to worry if the glory is going to find us eventually. The glory is coming…and between now and then there is just one load of crap after another that will yield small glories along the way, small moments of brilliance that we can attribute to Him and thank Him for. In the end, it is a gathering of glory, one small spark at a time—one small flash of holiness and power at a time, that will gang up on us and overwhelm us with the almighty, amazing presence of God.

And in that moment, we will be with Him in His glory, and we will be His glory, and it be everything we have waited for.

Amen.