Tag Archives: ministry

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s My Resume?

Self-esteem is such a dicey thing.

When you’re a child, most of your self-esteem comes from your parents and how they treat you. If your parents are kind and loving, you come to believe that you are deserving of love, deeply worthy of time and attention, and that your potential is unknown and therefore you are capable of almost anything!  Sadly, if your parents are unkind and unloving or unavailable, you learn the exact opposite: that you are unlovable, unworthy, and your potential is meaningless.

I was blessed with loving and kind parents and I came away from my childhood deeply aware of my own lovability, worthiness, and potential.

As a teenager, you start putting more faith and weight into the words of others, and your parent’s opinion of you comes to mean less and less.  This is why the teen years can be such damaging years. It doesn’t matter if you are utterly geeky or unbelievably popular, there is always someone in your peer group who is glad to tell you how worthless, stupid, and disgusting that you are. It’s during our teen years that we learn to hide ourselves lest we become open to criticism and character assassination.  Some of us discovered that no matter how much we hid, that we become the target of people whose need for power and attention drove their need to belittle and harass others, and we become the target of bullies.  That’ll kill your self-esteem for sure.

If you aren’t careful, you can come out of your teen years with no self-esteem left at all, believing that you are utterly worthless with nothing to offer and no one who cares enough to challenge your self-evaluation.

It can take years to stop believing in the opinions of others and regain your self-esteem.

I spent plenty of years learning to care less about what other people thought of me and more about what I thought of myself.  I learned to ask myself crucial questions: Would I trust me if I was my own friend? Am I honest? Am I genuine and kind? If I met myself coming down the street would I want to be my own friend?  If I met myself and took an hour to talk to me, would I respect me when it was over?

These questions changed me and how I behaved, because I could no longer betray myself in the interest of getting other people to like me better.  With only myself and my God to judge me, I became less beholden to the opinions of others and more free to be authentic in all my interactions.

This whole experience led me to share what I learned with my clients.  I tell them to be themselves all the time, no matter what anyone else is doing, because at the end of the day there is only yourself, the mirror, and your God to evaluate you.  God will always love you, but…if you met yourself coming down the street, would you want to be your own friend? Would you respect you?  Would you trust you?

Sometimes it is painful to discover how little respect people have for themselves, how untrustworthy they feel they are, and how disgusted they are at the thought of being their own friend.   It breaks my heart.

Over time you learn not to believe what other people think about you because of the damage it can do.  You learn to create your own self-esteem lest you find yourself at the mercy of others who don’t care how their opinions take you apart and render you worthless.

But what do you do when what other people think of you…is amazing?

This week I led a two-day meeting that was supposed to be led by a friend of mine.  It was a last-minute change brought on by a severe illness that he could not control.  He was so sick that I wasn’t even able to get direction from him; I couldn’t call him and ask me what he wanted me to do.

In my own evaluation of me, I was irritable, exhausted, freaked-out and barely functioning.

That’s not the feedback I got.

Certainly people sensed how taxed and exhausted I was.  Many of them asked if I was okay and I was honest with them: I was so anxious that I wasn’t sleeping well at all.  No sleep leads me to be cranky and brainless. I admitted that I was overwhelmed.  Why lie?  It’s not like they couldn’t see it on my face.

But still…when all was said and done, the praise was effusive and more than kind.  After the meeting was over I led a training that ended with even more praise and kind words.

I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to think.

What do you do when you discover that others think you are better than who you think you are? Do you believe them? Do you disagree with them openly and tell them that they are wrong? Do you secretly discount their opinions and ignore what they say?

My daughter is in a 12-step group where they teach that “what others think of you is none of your business.”  It can be daunting to live by the opinions of others, and when you have no self-esteem you can find yourself seeking the approval of everyone, yanked hither and yon as you try to please each and every person that matters.  I get that.  I have it in me to be a people-pleaser, and it has taken years for me to get comfortable with people who are angry with me or people who think I have failed.  I still beat myself up when I have genuinely failed another person because I have trouble forgiving myself for being human.  I am still growing as a person and I hope that by the time I am 60 years old, I will have mastered the art of forgiving myself after I genuinely disappoint someone else. You think that I’d be disgusted with myself for still being this sensitive after 52 years on the earth, but the idea of still growing as a person as I move through my sixth decade of life is actually an exciting thing for me, so hey…I guess I’ve got to be failing somewhere or I’d have nowhere left to grow.

The funny thing is that I struggle with praise almost more than I struggle with criticism.  When others criticize my failures, I find myself agreeing with them most of the time.  It’s not like I don’t know where I have failed.  But when they praise me, I feel…

Terrified.

There. I said it.  When other’s praise me, I am terrified that I am not who they think I am. I fear that I am much less than they say I am; I fear that they will trust in my skill and my fidelity and that I will fail them terribly.

I guess that’s because I’ve had people trust me before and I’ve failed them so badly.  I can tell you each and every person I’ve failed because I never let myself forget.  NO…I’m not saying that I don’t forgive myself for being frail and human and incapable.  I just try to remember where my weak points are and how I have failed others in the past, because the past is a great predictor of the future, and I want to do so much better next time.

So why does praise terrify me so much?   Honestly, I don’t know.

I could say that it’s fear of failure or an acute awareness of my own frailties.  Maybe I still don’t have enough self-esteem, but honestly, I doubt that.  I know what I’m worth, and I know what I am good at.

I think the truth is that I struggle to accept how much impact I have on the lives of others.  It’s so much easier to believe that I could fall off the face of the earth and only the people who love me would notice.

I think I struggle to trust in my own worth because my creation is much more magnificent than I can understand, and my potential is so much greater than I am willing to believe.

I truly believe that God created each of us with the seed of greatness already planted inside of us.  I guess that I just want to believe that my seed is smaller than yours and therefore so much less meaningful then yours.  It’s easier for me to see what you are worth and why you have that worth than to actually step back from myself and admit that I have the ability to do great things over and over and maybe even the ability to make a difference.

I think that I struggle…just like everyone else does…with what I’m capable of, and I mean that in all the best ways. And so I’ve come to believe that everyone struggles with praise and positive feedback the way that I do.

I think we struggle with the image of Jesus within us because we think we cannot possibly be that kind, loving, and self-giving.  We like to forget that Jesus was also irritable, occasionally wrong, and short tempered. Lest you not believe me, let me remind you that Jesus went a little off the hook, braided a whip out of cords (wow that’s so loving!!) and then turned over tables, screamed, yelled, and beat people while he chased the money changers out of the temples.  Do something like that in the food court at the mall and you WILL get arrested no matter how much you talk about zeal for your Father’s house.  You can zeal all you want and you’re still going to end up in the back of a patrol car.   Jesus may have been sinless, but perfect in all things?  Not so much.

My point is that we think we are so NOT like Jesus, so not loving, and not patient, and in the end, not capable.

Wrong.

You have been created in the image of God Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.  Jesus Christ dwells within you and guides you with His wisdom.  The Holy Spirit fills you and produces fruit like love, patience, kindness, and humility deep within you when you aren’t looking. Don’t be surprised when other’s see the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing in you before you can see it in yourself.

Give your life over the One who created you and you will discover that your potential is limitless. Your worth is beyond measure. Everything you are is all that God intended you to be and nothing about you is a mistake.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what other people say about you…and believe them.  Not because I want you to become a people-pleaser, fearful of angering those whose approval you seek, but because there is no way to step outside yourself and objectively see all that you have become in the Father’s hands.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what other people say about you so that you will understand just what good you are capable of, what potential the Lord has given you, and the exact ways that you reflect the image of God.  You have an impact on others and you should know what it is.  Let them tell you.

What other people think about you still isn’t your business, but it might be your resume.

Are You Listening?

This election has been frustrating for me, mostly because of the rash of evangelical faith leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump. Recent revelations about Trump’s behavior have caused a number of them to withdraw their support but there are a few, especially Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continue to endorse Trump, even to the point of saying the allegations don’t matter. If I think about it for very long I get so angry that I am almost boiling hot because I cannot understand how a faith leader can support anyone who openly admits to sexual misconduct, and when I say sexual misconduct, I mean sexual assault, unwelcome sexual contact, and voyeurism (Trump has admitted to walking in on Miss USA pageant contestants while they were changing clothes and partially or totally nude.)

While Trump’s behavior disgusts me, Jerry Falwell Jr’s continued endorsement of Trump infuriates me.  Does he not perceive how his continued support for Trump also endorses the idea that women are objects to be used? Does he not understand the message he sends to victims of sexual assault? Does Graham not perceive that God calls ministers and priests to be the protectors of the weak and defenseless, not the yes-men who kowtow to the rich and powerful?

The saddest part is that I know, intimately, the power of a preacher’s words. My own story and my recovery from sexual abuse was heavily impacted by the words of a preacher.  I want to share my story with you because I believe that we need to fully understand how our words (both spoken and unspoken) have a profound impact and the power to change lives.

Shortly after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I began to have memories of being sexually abused.  My abuser molested me sporadically from the time I was approximately 3 years old until I was 8 years old.  Trying to deal with the memories was very difficult because the emotions were overwhelming and the memories so disturbing that they impacted my ability to function on a daily basis.  I no longer felt safe in the world and every man (except my husband and my father) seemed threatening. I was always on the edge of tears and struggled to not fall back into the eating disorder that I had struggled with as a teenager.  I was so consumed with fear and overwhelmed emotionally that I had difficulty thinking clearly and focusing at my job became almost impossible.  Combine all that with the hormonal fluctuations that go with pregnancy and what you get is a hot mess, and let me tell you that I was a hot mess every day for months on end.

Despite the difficulty I had functioning, I did my best to maintain my routines and one of those routines was going to church on Sunday mornings. As worship began that particular Sunday morning, a woman in the back of the Sanctuary rang a hand bell.  The sound of the bell resonated through the room and then we stood for the call to worship.  I forgot all about the woman with the hand bell until she suddenly rang it again in the middle of the announcements, which was odd because she rang it while the pastor was speaking and the pastor didn’t seem to notice.  She continued randomly ringing the hand bell throughout the service: once during a hymn, once during the Scripture reading, and even several times during the pastor’s sermon.  It made no sense and I was rather jarred by the sound even though the sound of hand bells is normally soothing to me.

The pastor’s sermon was a bit odd as well.  He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar.  Who preaches on that?  And considering the hot mess that I had been for several months by that point, I didn’t really want to hear about sexual violence against women. I had enough to deal with just trying to deal with the sexual violence done to me.

The sermon focused on Tamar’s rape for quite a while.  The preacher highlighted the ways that Amnon (the rapist) treated his sister Tamar as an object to be possessed and used for his needs and his pleasure without regard to the consequences for Tamar.  He stated that not much has changed since then and pointed out the ways that women are still objectified, possessed, and used by men. He preached about the ways that society devalues women and children, counting our lives and our experiences as less valid than those of men.  He especially focused on how society silences women and children when we speak up against the violence done to us because it’s just so unpleasant to hear…and then how they ask how we came to be alone with the man who abused us, as if his choices were our responsibility.   The whole time he spoke, the woman in the back of the sanctuary kept randomly ringing the bell.

The preacher highlighted to us the many ways that the Church has silenced victims of physical and sexual violence by insisting that we need to stop complaining and forgive our abusers, often before we have actually had a chance to recover from the abuse.  He became visibly angry as he spoke, accusing the church of refusing to be a refuge for victims because dealing with their suffering makes us uncomfortable and God forbid the Church should have to bear a little discomfort in the face of human suffering and exploitation. He reminded us that our demand for the victim’s silence was nothing more than another act of violence against the victim.  The bell rang again.

By this time, I could hardly contain myself.  I was doing everything I could to remain seated and hide my tears.  Then the preacher explained the bell ringing in the back of the room; it had rung every six minutes since the service had begun because every six minutes another woman or child in the USA becomes the victim of violence or exploitation.  He said that the worldwide statistics were much worse, and as he said that, the bell rang faster and faster…

I ran out of the room and into the church restroom where I hid in the stall sobbing and trying to breathe.  It was close to twenty minutes before I could calm down enough to sneak out of a side door and sprint to my car.

Later that day I called the preacher at home.  When he answered the phone all I could choke out was “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and then I hung up.

Years later I found out that he was called before the leaders of the Church and heavily criticized for his sermon.  They told him that nobody needs to hear a sermon like that.

I did.  I needed to hear that what happened to me mattered, that it mattered to God and that God expected it to matter to the Church.  I needed to know that the Church was supposed to be a refuge for me, a place where I didn’t have to hide the mess I had become because of the abuse.

That day, that one sermon…that sermon saved me more than I can say, and I have never forgotten the power of the pulpit to welcome someone into the safety of the Sanctuary or to shackle them in silence and shame.  The words spoken in the pulpit are so powerful that they can even lock someone outside the door of the Church and make it clear that they will never be welcome.

Franklin Graham Jr, are you listening?

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.