Eighteen Years

I remember the day clearly. I was 29 years old. I wore my dark brown suit with dark brown heels and a tiger-striped scarf in my hair. My robe was from the on-sale section at the Catholic supply store in Saint Paul, my red stole was made by my grandmother and was a hand-me-down from my father.

I was ordained at my home church – Good Shepherd in Henning, MN. It’s hard to explain how much an ordination day means to those who haven’t experienced it. The vows carry such weight, each word so full. The bishop asks:

“Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account, and in the presence of this congregation, I ask, ‘will you assume this office, believing that the Church’s call is God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament?”

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: The Church in which you are to be ordained confesses that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and are the norm of its faith and life. We accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. We also acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions as the true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures. Will you therefore preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and these creeds and confessions?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you be diligent in your study of the Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people, nourish them with the Word and the Holy Sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all that you do?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.

The ordinand responds: Amen.

Then, prayers are said, blessings are given, the stole is placed on the ordinand’s shoulders, and finally the candidate is ordained. After four years of college, four years of seminary, countless approval essays, interviews, psychological testing, a year-long internship – I had a call to be a pastor.

That first call was in New York State – Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead outside of Akron, New York – to be exact. After all that preparation and training and testing I so clearly remember standing by my window of my office on the first day and not having a clue what to do next. But then the phone rang, and then someone stopped by, and then eighteen years passed.

The feeling I have today is gratitude: the kind like when you sheepishly receive a gift you know you didn’t deserve. A gift you might have easily given back several times over the years, but one that you have come to understand is one of the most precious things you could ever have. I feel that way about this work. This simple, complicated, beautiful, infuriating, inexplicable work.

Eighteen years ago tomorrow, I packed up my two beloved cats, George and Sam, said “goodbye” to everyone who mattered most to me, and drove across several states – smoking Marlboros one after another, listening to the pile of cassette tapes next to me.  There was nothing but this calling, an invitation from a little German Lutheran church next to I-90, a hope, a prayer, a blessing placed on my head by the bishop and those gathered on my ordination day. Those things have proved to be enough. That is what God has always provided: enough.

I am thankful. For today and for anything God still has for me to do, my answer is still, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

I am a Mother

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I haven’t been writing much at all – life is so full all the time. Mostly mothering – mothering my children, mothering my congregation. I am a mother. I am tending to things all the time – tending, nurturing, teaching, caring, loving. I am a mother.

Funny, I never thought I was mom material – maybe because I saw how fully that identity enveloped my own mother. I felt bad for her – all that she gave up for us. I saw my dad take time for himself to write – knowing he deserved to put himself apart and create. He took naps. He lounged like a king on the living room chair telling mom and us kids to bring him this and that. He always chose what was on the television. Mom never did that. She only gave.

I looked at her life and I didn’t want any of it for myself. The monotony, the endless caring for others, the constant pouring out of herself. I interpreted it as that she felt she had to do that to fulfill some societal role: the good wife, the good mother, the nurturer.

I would be different. I would be the scholar, the traveler, the writer, the tattooed, smoking, tequila-drinking pastor who cussed a little. I reveled in being Different! Wild! Free! Driving around in my black GMC Jimmy that reeked of Marlboro smoke, listening to Hole turned up loud. I wore my flannel and my angst so well.

I wonder how many times mom smiled to herself at my angst. Did she knowingly look at me and think to herself, “love your wildness, girl – live it fully – because for everything there is a season.” Did she know that one day I would be her – and I would be glad about that. By the time my mothering years came, I welcomed them. I’ve put away my cigarettes, the tequila is a rarity because it only makes me slow and sad now, and I’m much more interested in a good rest than staying up late.  I only miss the traveling – I was good at living out of a backpack and being in constant motion. However, at the same time, I love our home and that my children have a place to feel their feet firmly set on the ground. I’m thankful that the relentless buzzing in my head has ceased and I’m more interested in being good at loving my kids and my congregation than I am in my attempts at rebellion.

To me, it seemed Mom was born mild-mannered, so impossibly gentle, so perfectly mom-ish with her gray hair, her wrinkles by her eyes, her big, soft hands. However, as the years go by and my reflection becomes more gray, wrinkly, and soft, I’m living into the age-old truth that every older person was once a younger person. I sit at the table having coffee with the church ladies and think about how the differences between me and them lessen each day. There was once a time when if you came upon us sitting there, it would be obvious that I was different, younger, free-er, wilder…not anymore. The strands of silver in my hair betray me – but it is more than that. Everything in me has changed – my depth of understanding, my ideas of what is important in big and small ways: for example, for the last thirty years I have worn eyeliner most every day but a few months ago I just stopped. I never wear it now. It seems entirely unnecessary, whereas before, eyeliner was a complete necessity – like breathing and hairspray. (but the can of hairspray lasts a lot longer now, too…)

It is liberating. And it is truthfully, a bit melancholic. It is fully both – because I care less about what other people think, and that is good – but it is a bit slightly sad because I realize how little anyone thinks about me at all. I am a middle-aged woman. I am a mother. These are my roles now. They are good roles, I live a happy life, and of course there is always room for surprise – but it is still a tremendous change. Before, in my angsty 20’s, I felt a certain sense of power in my appearance, my youth, my possibility, my constant motion. Now, I’ve worn a hole in the rug of my roles as a mom and a wife and a pastor. I’m fully established in most of what I planned to do. It feels like I was once an exciting, innovative, new top-40 hit…whereas now I am the predictable, established greatest hits album…it’s all been heard before.

I imagine this is the challenge of the late-forties of life if one is lucky enough to get here. To live it and breathe it – to enjoy all that has been established but to also keep my eyes open for all that is beckoning and yet possible.

“Ambition left to itself, always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies, and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place. We find that all along, we had what we needed from the beginning and that in the end we have returned to its essence, an essence we could not understand until we had undertaken the journey.” – David Whyte

“No matter the self-conceited importance of our labors we are all compost for worlds we cannot yet imagine.” – David Whyte

“Perhaps the greatest legacy we can leave from our work is not to instill ambition in others, but the passing on of a sense of sheer privilege, of having found a road, a way to follow, and then having been allowed to walk it, often with others, with all its difficulties and minor triumphs; the underlying primary gift, of having been a full participant in the conversation.” – David Whyte

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abundance

Today was one of those Sundays where no sermon could fully be formulated until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Then, when it came, I wrote about abundance – the text was about how Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly. I asked the congregation what abundance is to them. After church one of the ladies said to me, “my answer is, ‘my life.’

So then I took my after-church-nap and when I woke up I was thinking about that.

What is abundance to me?

Abundance is:

Time with my children

Time in the sun

Time to write

Time to laugh

Time to talk to friends

Time to follow the leadings of the Spirit in my life

Time to read

Time to remember

Time to walk

Time to pray

Time to think about ideas

Having enough.

When scarcity feels far away.

To be loved

By my tribe

By myself.

Abundance is meaningful, joyful work.

Abundance is Jesus – the Jesus I know and love – the Jesus of justice and grace and hope for the poor, the marginalized, the worried, the worn-down.

Abundance is my little sunroom where I write – I have a little desk here and an old lamp, some beloved bookshelves filled plum full with gorgeous books, a map of Norway pinned to my wall, post-it notes of quotes and poems scattered around, twinkles lights on the ceiling; and my treadmill – for when I need to get my body moving because my mind has stopped moving.

Abundance is the wind in the chimes outside

The geese honking at each other in the cornfield

How my son brushed his hair out of his eyes to smile at me as he walked by just now

And my husband clinking pots and pans around in the kitchen now as he is making supper.

Abundance every which way in this life of mine. My cup runneth over.OJDQ4363

Thank you, thank you, thank you God.

Panic

The panic attacks began one sunny autumn Sunday morning shortly after I arrived at that church. Nothing unusual was happening – it was a Sunday like every other Sunday. It was during the final morning service when one moment I was reading the text, the next I felt my throat constricting and my breath slipping away. Heat rose into my chest and face and the words on the page began to swirl. I wondered if I would pass out, I could feel my heart rate accelerating, thumping in my chest. I stumbled over the words as I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to speak them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Senior Pastor. Was he looking at me? Could he tell I was freaking out? Could the congregation see how red my face was? I felt confused, frightened, and extremely ashamed that I was out of breath and faltering over my words. When the readings were over, I went back to my seat with my head held low. What was wrong with me? I went home and cried to Chad in our kitchen as I told him about the terrifying experience. He listened and gave me a hug. I hoped to God that Sunday morning had been just a strange, isolated experience.

It was only the beginning, unfortunately. Panic and anxiety began to accompany me regularly each week to worship. I researched extensively on stage fright and panic attacks and as I did, I tried every tactic I could think of to get “over it.” I quit smoking – which I knew was a good idea no matter what. I began running five miles before church each week and eventually began marathon training. I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. I would write down distracting things on my church bulletin (like the punchline of a joke, or even initial in something dirty and scandalous Chad had said to make me laugh) in hopes that if my mind got distracted with other thoughts while I was reading, I wouldn’t think about the swirling, scary thoughts that made me descend into panic: everyone looking at me, everyone listening to me, screwing up, etc. I took a Benadryl before worship – thinking that maybe if I felt drowsy that would help my heart to not race so much. I did breathing exercises, meditation and visualizations. Everything helped and nothing helped. Sometimes I could go a Sunday or two without a full-blown panic attack, but the threat of them was always there. Nothing could make the threat of them disappear and the worry wore me down. I felt like I lived constantly under the heavy shadow of what my anxiety might do to me. I was not in control of it, I could only avoid it sometimes. Even if it left me at peace for a time, I knew it would be back. It lingered like a ghost in the corner of that big brick box sanctuary – I knew eventually it would always find me again.

Have you experienced panic attacks? If so, what tools have you found to deal with them?

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Hometown

fullsizerender-14I went home yesterday. Well, the place that used to be my home. It’s about 55 miles from where I live now – a tiny town of about 700 people – Henning, Minnesota.

It’s like many small towns in this area – a school, a post office, some business and more churches than it probably needs. Most of the places there that hold the largest amount of my memories are virtually unrecognizable to me now. My grandmother’s house was sold a few years ago and the new owner has painted it a garish blue. The school built a large addition shortly after I left and even my lovely little white church has been torn down and a new, modern worship structure is taking its place.

I drove across the roads that wound themselves between lakes and woods, snow skittering across the highways in the temperatures that hovered near zero toward the place that once was home. I saw the school bus dropping off kids near Ottertail, drove past the areas where many of my classmates used to live – the classmates who lived on the “other side” of town from me. The lake kids.

I went to see mom and dad. I hadn’t been there for many months. Although cemeteries are rarely full of fun, they are particularly desolate during the winter. When the weather is nice, I almost enjoy walking among the gravestones, observing the flowers blooming, the decorations and solar garden lights people have left behind for loved ones. During the winter, however, the cemetery is bitter and cold. I could only stand by their graves for a few minutes. I brushed some snow off their names engraved in the granite, a few tears freezing at the corners of my eyes, and then I shuffled back to the shelter of my car.

I drove around a bit more but it only takes all of five minutes to drive down every street of Henning. Then, I pulled up to the assisted living home where my mom’s best friend lives. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon, likely a good time to catch her. Norma was sitting in her room when I arrived. She makes a fuss over me when I come. I like that. Mom used to make a fuss over me and I miss that. We sat and talked about this and that. Shared some memories about my mom and dad. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet thing to talk to other people who miss the same people as you.

Finally, it was getting to be suppertime and the sun was going down. I hugged Norma goodbye and said I would be back soon when the weather gets warmer. She went into her big closet and brought out some chocolates for me to bring to the boys. She makes a fuss over them, too. I like that.

I left town as the sun set. I saw the water tower, the prairie, the sidewalks where my best friend and I would walk and laugh until our sides hurt, the café where mom and I used to like to go have pie and coffee.

I hardly cry about her anymore. She’s slipping from my daily memories and yet she’s always there. I hear her in my voice, I see her in my mirror, she rests in the background of every decision I make. “What would mom think? What would she say? I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”

Past the snowy fields I made my way back toward the place life has brought me now. The moon was rising bright and cold. I drove up to my warm house – the lights welcoming me home. My husband and children were in the midst of the evening routine. I could hear Owen practicing his baritone as I got out of the car. Jesse was wrestling with his math homework. Chad was putting away the leftovers from supper.

This beautiful life. These days so near and yet so exceedingly far from my hometown.

Shiny, Smooth Stones

January in Minnesota is like the end of July in Texas. The weather is unforgiving but there is still plenty of beauty if you choose to see it. In Texas, I used to find it when a rare cool breeze would sweep in by surprise during an evening walk in the cemetery or when the boys and I would go outside after dark and lie down on the cement basketball court and stare up at the stars. The cement would still be hot from soaking up the sun all day long. We would lie there in the warm night air and watch for shooting stars, talk, and laugh until one of us wondered out loud if the rattlesnakes liked to come out at night, too. Then, we would get up and make our way back inside into the cool air-conditioned comfort of the parsonage.

In these Minnesota winters, there is loveliness in the sun sparkling off the snow – even though by this time of year we’ve mostly stopped commenting on it. Too many of us are daydreaming about warmer weather to spend much time remarking on the beauty of a new snowfall or even the shocking splendor of the sundogs that come out to hover near the sun. No, these days we are more likely to see beauty in moments like I had yesterday when a friend stopped by when I was outside the church and we stood in the parking lot for nearly fifteen minutes to talk – no hats, no gloves – and the air didn’t even hurt our faces! It was only eleven degrees but it felt like Springtime was crawling up the hill toward us. January in Minnesota, like the end of July in Texas, you get grateful for the small favors that weather tosses your way.

Today I went to visit an elderly lady in my congregation. She lives in a farmhouse not very far from our church, the same church where she has worshipped her whole life. Her dogs came scrambling over to greet me as I got out of my car, sniffing my hands and my legs before losing interest and heading over to smell my car. I’ve been pretty lucky with pets as I have gone on home visits over the years – except for the time a dog decided to pee on my foot as I sat on the couch visiting with a parishioner in her living room.

I visit people in their homes fairly often, but usually it is because they are no longer able to come to church for one reason or another. This isn’t always the case as there have been more than a few times over the last twenty years I have run into my “homebound” members at the grocery store, the vet clinic, at concerts and basketball games, and at all these places they seem to get to just fine but they can’t seem to get to church. One homebound member at my internship church picked me up in her car and brought me to a restaurant in a neighboring town for a nice supper before I moved away. She told me she didn’t come to church because of all the stairs – even though an elevator had been installed fifteen years prior. I don’t ask questions. I figure if people want a visit from their pastor, I will go see them. Most of the time they have their reasons for not being in church on Sunday mornings and none of those reasons mean they aren’t still a part of the church.

There was a time in my ministry when I did not rejoice in the visiting that comes with being a pastor. I was at a very large church at the time, an Associate Pastor serving with another Associate who had been there much longer and a Senior Pastor who had been there for nearly forty years by the time I arrived. Nearly all the homebound people I visited were people who (I felt) saw the other pastors as the “real” pastors and I was the young pastoral substitute who came over sometimes. The list of homebound members was long. It was daunting to visit that many people regularly and really make a connection with them. I often felt overwhelmed at the task of all those conversations and bringing communion to so many elderly people who were dealing with so much that I had no inkling about. I didn’t have children yet. I was interested in climbing the nearby mountains and writing and finishing my doctorate. I felt so separate from these people and their pills and concerns for their grown children and dwindling days.

It wasn’t until shortly before my father died that I began to see the visits I do every day in a different light.  It was then that I finally noticed that my parents, whom I had been living away from for many years as I served different churches, were getting to be the same age as my homebound members. I started to look across the living rooms at the people I was visiting and notice a walker that was just like the kind I got for my dad on my last visit home, or someone’s skin had the same pale, translucent appearance that mom was getting.

I began to really see the people I visited then. I’m sad to say it took me so long, but I couldn’t come to maturity in that until I finally did. As a daughter who grieved the changes and losses my own parents were going through, I became a better pastor to those who were going through those changes and losses in my congregations.

Yet, I often grieved that I wasn’t near my own parents to be more help to them during their final years. I thought about how every day I visited the elderly but I couldn’t visit the elderly people who needed me the most. I didn’t plan it that way. As much as I had always wanted to live other places and was glad that God brought me where God did, I pictured a time would come again when I would be able to be near my parents and journey with them through their final days. But time went by and I was busy – busy with work, busy with my babies, and while I spoke to my mom on the phone nearly every day what she didn’t mention was that time was running out. I did try more than a few times to get back to a church in Minnesota but I could barely get an interview anywhere in the state, much less anywhere near Mom and Dad. So, over fifteen years I served in New York, then Colorado, then Texas, all the while getting farther and farther from home. Dad died when we were in Colorado. Mom died while we were in Texas. Then, when I no longer could wish I was visiting my own elderly parents instead of the elderly parents of those in my churches, I tended the gravestones of the dead in my church cemetery, wishing I could plant flowers and pull weeds from the gravestones of my parents.

I see everything in ministry differently now than I did when I started. I am well-acquainted with the beauty of this clergy life and also the sorrow. When I think of all the cups of coffee shared, the foreheads of babies I have blessed and baptized, the dying I have commended into God’s care, the ways that prayer and mission are part of the fabric of my days, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. The loss of time with my aging parents due to following this calling to ministry is the one shiny, smooth stone of sadness and regret I carry with me when I think about the years that have passed. If anything good comes from that it is this: it has made me a better pastor – because now I understand as I couldn’t before that every single one of us has shiny, smooth stones which weigh us down. I may not know what yours are but I know you have some. Life gives each of us our share.

And sometimes people let me visit them in their homes, or their hospital rooms or nursing home to pray over those smooth, shiny stones. Today, on this January day in rural Minnesota, with the sun sparkling off the snow as I drove along prairie roads, I did that.sundogs-prairie

Nursing Home Worship Service

snow-artMy car crept along the snowy, slippery roads toward the nursing home. Unlike normal, I was not racing to get to the morning worship service at the last minute. I had allowed an abundance of time so that I wouldn’t have to rush. Snow and ice on the roads is terrifying to me and I drive with a whole lot of caution.

Still, I ended up arriving one minute before the service was to start. I’ve led a monthly nursing home worship service for most of my ministry and I bet the average time I arrive beforehand is less than five minutes. It’s a small group that gathers for this weekly service led by different area pastors each week.

There is no musician of any kind who comes to accompany our singing, but we sing anyway. It reminds me of a Saturday Night Live skit as I (who am a quiet, off-key singer) lead this group in singing. I have to sing as loudly as I can into the microphone so they can hear where we are at in the song – but some still can’t hear anything and so our hymns turn into sort of a peculiar little round with some stopping and starting verses at their own pace.

I preach the sermon from the past Sunday, or if I already have a sermon ready for the coming Sunday, I will preach that. However, it is only 1.5% of the time I am ready with a sermon for Sunday by Thursday morning.

The people at this service are so sweet. They are warm and appreciative and kind. One lady grabs my hand to shake it and then she kisses it.  She does this every time I am there and I subsequently feel like the Pope.

While I don’t arrive early to mingle with folks, I do stay afterward and visit for a while. Today when we visited after the service we talked about the weather. They asked how the roads were and I was happy to tell them about my bravery in driving through the treacherous drifts to get to them.

One by one, the Activities Director took each of the worship attenders down the hall to lunch. I washed out the communion cup, put the communion wafers back into a baggie, put on my coat and headed outside.

The wind was brushing the snow into hard, squiggly waves on the ground. I paused to fish my phone out of my pocket and took a picture of it.