I was visiting church members today. They have well launched children and umpteen grandbabies and what we agreed upon is this:
The lives of our children go so fast. One minute, they are handed to us wrapped in swaddling clothes and we commence to loving passionately and then, after countless breakfasts and shoe ties and recitals and games and wet beds and school conferences, they are grown and gone to the lives we helped ready them to live.
Watching my children unfold into their beauty is probably the greatest miracle I’ve been given to witness. I like them so much. I love discovering that they are funny and wise and interested and I love knowing that I will never be able to know them fully, these persons who resided next to my heart for nine months and who walk with my heart for the rest of their lives.
It goes fast. I watch families now. Cooper and I are those slightly creepy old people who ooh and ahh over the children of strangers. They interact with us, these kind parents, with a wary sort of appreciation. What I want to say to them is savor it savor it savor it savor it.
When your eyes are crossed with fatigue and you are not sure you can stand one more question or interrupted whatever, take a breath and take your babies on your lap and smell their heads and listen to their hearts because before you know it they are launched and gone and you too will be one of those people who tries hard to live in the present whilst mewling for the past.
It goes fast.
At a training I attended a few months ago I encountered a great bit of teaching.
Peter Steinke is a trainer and teacher who has dealt plenty with churches. And anybody who deals plenty with churches deals plenty with conflict and finding ways to work together as the Body of Christ. Steinke has written godsend books about how to navigate church systems. When I am feeling near overwhelmed by the tangle that is church, Steinke is gift.
So at this training, he had this story to tell about how to navigate church conflict. He told the story about a friend who was working in Alaska for the summer. He was engaged by a fishery to process fish back in the days when that work was done by hand. He watched for a while, overwhelmed by the flash of knife and his own incompetence and inability to enter the filleting fray.
He shared that anxiety with a seasoned worker. What the worker’s advice was is this:
“Just get the fish on the table and go to it. You will find and learn your way. If you don’t get the fish on the table, nothing will get done.”
The metaphor helps me when considering how to navigate challenges and conflict at church. Often I coach myself: Get the fish on the table. By putting issues in the open where they are seen and felt and concrete, things get done. We find our way. We learn from each other.
And we have that greatest of gifts as we go about the cleaning up of the fish of conflict: we have the teachings of Jesus to guide us. He was really clear about how to deal with snarl. Matthew 18 is bedrock: Talk to your kin in Christ about the ways you are feeling overwhelmed or hurt or frustrated or confused or concerned. Put the fish on the table in order that you share the power of learning and stretch together.
So we are living as best we can the way of table fish. It’s messy and smelly and we’re getting better at it as we practice and trust.
It is holy communion.
I’ve been thinking a lot about soul hunger these days.
What is it this over-stretched world of ours needs in order to feed soul? For many, that answer lies in church buildings and pews and the community we call “church”.
Others have been put off by the organization calling itself church. For years they have heard words of condemnation emanating out of organized Christian outposts and they want none of it. Rather than do the hard work of interpreting long-used language in order for it to be meaningful in ways life-giving, many don’t even try to find soul food in church.
I smart about that. I want to argue. I want to say that “we aren’t like that here!”. We welcome all, we seek to see the Christ in all, we want people to know the glory of their messy humanity and the power of joining together with other imperfects and we want to learn and work together in such a way that our lives and our world are transformed.
But how to get past the barbed-wire of unsafe many have put around the thing called “church”?
I’d welcome your thoughts on that.
I just read my daughter’s Facebook post and I am heart happy for two reasons.
First, she mentioned that she had been at a performance of Handel’s Messiah at a cathedral in Denver.
Leah was raised by a father who conducted choirs and a mother who sang in a semi-professional choral ensemble. Every year at this time of year our children could count on Christmas concerts to attend. At the high school, at various venues in Duluth and the surrounding area, our children heard harp and voice spin seasonal beauty. And the Messiah? Well, that was a favorite at home. Whether it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the Arrowhead Chorale, we heard the words of scripture set to song and string and the unfolding of the Jesus story.
So Leah took herself to a concert to open herself to that heart rhythm.
And at that concert she heard a transgender artist sing “And Who May Abide the Day of His Coming”.
There. In the midst of a story-telling centuries sung, new hope for God’s people shines. For unto us a child is given; A child who grew to be a man who knew and taught that the bounds of God’s grace is Hallelujah material for all people and sing that grace we must.
I wish I had been there to hold her tiny hand and share Kleenex.
It is a fabulous day. We have had a major snow dump and wind sweep and we’re socked in. I love it.
Today we ventured out to get the necessaries for such a time. We were out of coffee. It was not fitting. And, our snow blower was broken and after many nursings was declared dead.
So off we went to the local hardware store to get a new snow blower and to the grocery store to get the goods of happy life.
We got stuck in our alley. There was nothing to be done, since the snow was up higher than the bottom of our four wheel drive car and we were going nowhere.
So, out of the back of the station wagon came the new snow blower, and we blew out the alley in order to find our way to the garage. It was a hoot.
Today has been spent nesting. I’m not sure if there will be church tomorrow. The big choir do scheduled for worship has been postponed to Epiphany Sunday. If we do have church, it will be gentle and savored by the few who love the challenge of clomping through drifts to share survivor stories.
Living in Minnesota is so fine. Sometimes the elements trump our best laid plans. That works for me.
Being a pastor is crazy making work. It’s true.
We exist, we pastor folk, to be in the midst of the community called church whilst being outside of the community called church. We juggle many functions in our day and many of us love that variety and always-changing life.
And we’re oddities. So it is really fun to gather with colleagues who understand the teeth gnash and the soul soar of ministry. I meet once a month with a crew of folk I am proud to call friends and we swap stories and listen and share our care for each other and the movement that has meant our lives.
An article in USA Today speaks of the importance of attending church and having relationships within that church. People are happier and better able to withstand the jolts of life when they have a sense of connection with others that is spiritual in its weaving.
I am blessed to be pastor to a church that provides that network of care for many, including their pastor, while it empowers outreach for many. And, I am blessed to be pastor held by a network of clergy colleague friends who care for me and empower my ministry.
Friends matter. They just do.
This is life tonight at church:
Over my head, children are ruckusing while practicing for the Christmas pageant in two weeks. Energy is high high high and prayers for patience are deep deep deep.
The bell choir is learning “Fum, Fum, Fum” so their clangs and staggered melodies are making their way through the floor into my office.
In the fellowship hall there are pinatas being crafted by an intergenerational crew. Strips of paper are soaked in gunk and rubbed onto balloons and the span of decades between participants seems to sweeten the air.
A meeting just broke up regarding the refurbished organ. There are decisions to be made: what kind of flooring, what kind of new carpet, what finish for the pipes, what, what, what? We seek to come to greater wisdom by sharing around the table and we laugh plenty.
There is a Disciple Bible Study group of 12 engaging with scripture and each other as they will for some thirty weeks to come.
And, tuning up in the sanctuary are the instrumentalists for the upcoming Lessons and Carols to be shared at 9:00 AM this Sunday during worship.
This is church. It’s a holy sort of chaos. Thanks be to God.
I am a Minnesota woman. A Northern Minnesota woman, to be exact. As such, I revel in shine on snow, sparkle on lake, and birch backed by blue sky.
We have a cabin in Northern Minnesota. It has been family shelter for near 40 years. It is now in my keeping, and it has needs.
One of them was dealt with yesterday.
Maybe as important as the smell and wrap of the cabin are our neighbors. They have been part of life for seemingly always, and are the kind of people who mark life with grace and laughter and the good of knowing each other mostly unclothed (swim suit dress code, don’t you know).
We have many birch trees on our lot. They are years old, these sentinels, and they are starting to know the power of rot and gravity. One of them has spread its arms over our neighbor’s cabin. Every wind storm I fret. While there are things that can be forgiven in the neighbor department, harpooning someone’s beloved cabin with birch tree parts is not one of them.
So yesterday, we watched three trees come down. I expected to mourn. But instead I am feeling grateful for the years of beauty they provided, the pile of wood waiting to be split and burned to warm us, and the great good of knowing that there will be no roof smashing under my watch.
And there is this: there is more sun! The spaces of sky opened up are wild in their power. Already plans are underway to purchase birch trees to plant. We will tend the future even as we celebrate the power of the past.
For generations to come, there will be birches pointing the white of their witness toward heaven.
Life is good.
The tree is up.
The nativity sets are unpacked, the stockings are hung by the chimney and the house smells of sap.
The ritual of preparing living space as proclamation of hope is sacred work. There are musts in my home: Julie Andrews has to sing, the stupid looking elf must be at the top of the tree, and the Christmas village has to be arranged and wired to shine.
I wonder sometimes about the hassle of it all. Who has time for such nonsense, anyway? Why not skip the pine needles under foot and the clutter of it all? My kids are grown, the grandchildren not yet, and life is busy busy busy.
But what I have come to is that I need it, this ritual of hope. I need to unwrap ornaments made by my children in kindergarten. I need to remember Christmases past when dressing the tree for Christmas was a work of great excitement and joy. I need to mourn the passing of years and savor the richness of the now and I need to deck our halls with the familiar.
It matters greatly. When my children arrive from places far from home, they will know themselves wrapped in the good of a place where goofy elves straddle tree tops and rituals of hope are commenced and space proclaims through scent and sight:
Een so Lord Jesus, quickly come.
Music grew me.
Always in the house there was music playing. I learned the melodies of operas and symphonies through osmosis – they soaked into my soul as givens.
One of my favorite records was Peter Pan, the Mary Martin version. I can still see the green record cover with a Mary-Martin-in-tights and attitude. The songs were the very best to sing along with, since they were full of bravado and wistfulness, both.
One of my favorites on the album is called “Tender Shepherd”. It is the lullaby sung to the Darling children as they nestle into beds in the safety of the nursery. Their mother seems to intuit, as she sings this song with heart and soul, that her children are soon to fly from her into lands and life far from the power of her tending. It grabbed me then, and does now, as prayer: Dear God, watch over the sweetness of hearts precious beyond the telling. Please.
No one ever told me that having children would require such courage. To love so fiercely and know so fully that life has bumps that will jar our tender lambkins is impossibly painful.
And it is so, this pain.
So we sing. We conjure up days gone by when we could sit by bedsides and songpray our children to the warm of sleep. We remember the smell of their heads and the gentle of the love that wrapped our lullaby times.
And when they are grown, and the challenges they face are grown with them, we sing on, sure that the universe and our God hear the imploring of our hearts:
Tender Shepherd, guard our children, we pray. Please.