Moving Day

I drove up and saw the moving truck was already parked in the driveway.  She had enlisted help from me and three others – all friends in the community.  She is a pastor, too – which means there were many boxes of books, plenty of religious art, scads of paperwork from this seminar and that continuing education class. She already moved her cats to the new apartment yesterday.

She is a single pastor, which I think may have to be the loneliest thing in the world.  I was one for a few years, before sweet Chad came along.  I can’t count how immensely thankful I am for my tiny little family particularly when I am feeling on the edges, alienated by whatever community God has called me to.  My husband and sons help me weather the inevitable storms that come with my work and they help me remember I’m not just Pastor Ruth.  They keep me real and happy.

I did a paper many years ago on Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained woman in the United States.  She was an ordained pastor for only a few years before she left the ministry.  She was single when she served at her first call in a small community in Upstate New York.  I read letters she wrote to a friend in which she talked about how hard the long winters were.  It isn’t hard for me to imagine how it was for her because my first call was also in Upstate New York and I had a couple winters there alone in a parsonage.  So silently the snow drifted up against the brick walls of my house.  So surely I felt the winter would never end.  Kind families invited me over for Thanksgiving and Christmas but I never really belonged.  I was called to love them and I did.  There were many lovely people in that church and some, a few, deeply awful ones, too.  When I called the parking lot gossipers and the hateful council members on their crap, I knew it would shortly be time for me to go.  And I did.  I wept to leave that wonderful/horrible church, but I chose to go and I had a new call waiting for me across the country.  It took me a few years to recover from my first call, but I was able to do that.

My friend didn’t choose to leave her call.  Her church decided to let her go and so now it is very abruptly time to pack up her cats and books and papers and go.  God called her there and now she is left to figure out why it was only for such a short time and what is she supposed to learn from it?  It’s hard enough to leave everything and follow God’s call.  Then infinitely harder when that call seems to just evaporate into thin air and without warning.

I know all the old sayings – “God has a plan” and “you never know all the lives you touch even if it is just a short time” and of course there is a part of me that believes those things.  However, as the years unfold and I meet more and more dear clergy who are hurt and abandoned by their churches, it is difficult to not get disheartened.  Most lay people will never understand the kind of sacrifice that goes into being a pastor. Yes, I know that every job is hard and requires sacrifice, however there are few careers where one’s work bleeds so fully into the rest of life. There is no way to be a half-hearted minister.  You simply must love your congregation and when you love them, it is so easy to get hurt by them.  You simply must pick up your life and go to where the call is, yet usually that means leaving behind every friend and everything familiar.  Sometimes it works out fine and great, good connections are made and it becomes home.  Sometimes, though, you are packing up a moving van after just a couple years in a place, wondering what the heck happened, and dreaming about whether or not it is possible to use that Masters of Divinity degree for any sort of gainful employment in the secular world.

We stuffed the last boxes and bits of lawn furniture into the remaining crevices of the moving truck and shut the door.  By now she is probably unloading its’ contents into her new place. She has already asked that some of us, her pastor friends, might come and help her do a blessing of her apartment after she has settled in.  Of course we will.  We know well that our homes dearly need God’s blessing to ward off the hard things that come with what we do.  Go away isolation.  Go away depression.  Go away spiritual confusion and endless longing for God and wondering if we really are serving God in the best possible way through the vessel of the church.  The same church that sometimes welcomes us warmly with potlucks and coffee cakes, and then sometimes spits us out.

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The Bell Tolled 91 Times

The church bell tolled ninety-one times this afternoon as we brought her out to the cemetery.  The wind swept like a brush through the grass and picked up bits of dust, carrying it far off over the cedars and live oaks.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said and sprinkled the sand over her coffin.  I drew the indentation of a cross and watched granules slip into the grave below. I stepped aside as we silently observed the flag folded and presented.  She had been a Navy Nurse. The gun salute sounded.  The trumpet haunted in echo.

I thought of my mother and my father, their bones resting so far away.  I saw the man with the cane let his tears fall onto his jacket. We prayed an ancient prayer and headed back toward the church, still keeping watch over her dead all these years.