Sweet Ghosts of Congregations Past

It’s been a whirlwind these last few weeks.  Just two weeks ago I preached my last sermon at my lovely Norwegian country church in Texas, said a hundred difficult “goodbyes” and then feverishly packed and cleaned and then turned in the keys to our life there.  We loaded up all our stuff into two moving vans and started driving north on a sunny Thursday.  Our younger son, Jesse, rode in the moving van with me and our older son, Owen, rode with my husband.

It was a long trip, made longer because of the fact that we couldn’t drive very fast as we towed our cars behind each van. Every now and then Jesse would think about his friends he was leaving behind and he would get teary-eyed.  These kinds of changes are hard enough for grown-ups who have experienced big changes before and know that we can survive them.  For little kids it has to feel like everything is turning upside down.  We stopped along the way pretty often and now and then I bought him a little toy to help him pass the time.  His only melt-down came after about ten hours of being in the van on our second day when I got him the “happy meal” he had been wanting for the whole trip and he found out that instead of the little transformer toy he had wanted, they had given him a pink My Little Pony.  If you want to see a normally good-natured seven year-old slip into godzilla mode, apparently that is a good way to do it.

We arrived late on Friday night and didn’t do much except unload the necessities and slip into bed.  The boys didn’t want to be away from us in their new surroundings so in our new parsonage with five bedrooms, we all slept in one room.  The next day we got up and some from the church and my brother and sister-in-law and nephews came over to help unload.

My church here in Minnesota is also a little Norwegian church in the country.  It is a pretty white, wooden church that has been rebuilt once after a tornado destroyed the original structure in 1925.  Today we are having a big rummage sale and a fish dinner which apparently brings in many from the community.  I’m glad to be here, glad to be near my family again, glad to experience the traditions of a new church and to share the Good News of Jesus in this place.

But I’ll tell you what few pastors are likely to admit – that the ghosts of one’s former congregation and of one’s life in their midst stay very near for a long time.  I think tenderly of them and I knew long before God called me back to Minnesota that my heart would linger back in Texas for a good while.  I know this is normal.  One does not love a congregation with her whole heart and then just shut off those affections overnight.  I don’t understand the ways that God’s call to something else can become so strong even at the same time that one’s heart breaks to leave what once was – but I know that I trust the One who calls.

And so tomorrow I’ll step into the pulpit here for the first time and I’ll preach the same Gospel that God has let me preach in New York and Colorado and Texas and now here.  I’ll slowly fall in love with this place and these people just as surely as I have loved my other congregations.  I’ll do my best, and while that is never enough – with God’s presence in it, it seems to somehow become enough.

But my other truth is this – that there is a piece of my heart that still is resting among the bluebonnets and abiding in the warm breeze in Texas, laughing and crying with my dear ones there.  God be with you until we meet again.

Preachers. Keep on Preaching.

I read a story yesterday about a campus chaplain, Dr. Randy Beckum, who was demoted for preaching about peace and the false god of patriotism during a campus chapel service.  He had his role as Vice President of MidAmerica Nazarene College stripped of him because many saw his words as inflammatory, yet he retained his role as chaplain.

Perhaps one cannot be both chaplain and hold a role that needs to answer to human beings in power.  In fact, I think it is impossible to satisfy both God’s calling upon our lives and the desires of the human beings around us.  Any preacher understands this – if you are going to preach from the scriptures, you are going to upset people.  If you are trying to actually live by what Jesus taught, most will think you are nuts or naive or both.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ (grace, peace, kindness, mercy) is just too contrary to the gospel of popular culture (war, revenge, violence, materialism) for many people to stomach.

I have seen evidence of this so often in churches – lay people in leadership feeling torn apart because they want to do what is right and yet too often their vision gets clouded because they don’t want to upset anyone.  I hear multitudes of pastors feeling real fear of job loss if they were to proclaim the Gospel fully rather than temper it for their own particular, comfortable setting.  I’ve known  many congregations who compare themselves to a “family” and wring their hands over they don’t the “family” to be disrupted over an issue or, heaven forbid, someone to leave!  When the loudest voices cry that it’s better to stick to what is tried and true, when most decisions are made out of fear rather than faith, eventually God’s holy house begins to look more and more like a feeble social club rather than a place for the Living God to be made known.  It might be a nice place to visit and catch up with one another, but bears little to no resemblance to Jesus’ intention for His church on earth.

I have been a pastor for sixteen years.  I love the church beyond measure.  I love the different-colored banners for the changing church seasons, sharing the stories that Jesus told, and singing the hymns I learned sitting next to my grandmother on a wooden pew in a little Lutheran church in Minnesota.  There is nothing that makes my heart so glad as carrying on the rituals of making ashes from dried palm leaves, reading sacred scriptures as a parishioner takes her final breath, hearing children learn the Lord’s prayer, and the smell of coffee wafting from the church kitchen.  The Lutheran church, everywhere, has always been my second home.  Life looks beautiful to me in the glow of the stained glass and with the sound of Jesus’ words echoing in my mind.

But I’m just as guilty of creating false gods.  Mine might not be patriotism or materialism, however I still like to keep God in the places I can understand God and where I can make sense of God.  Others may catch glimpses of holy things in flags, earthly heroes, or an ideal of a perfect church “family” that exists only in their minds. I have caught glimpses of holy things in quiet country churches and the nostalgia of sacred music.

I guess I dream of what is impossible while I’m still here on Earth – the sacred unfettered by all that we put upon it in this world.  I long for God, pure and only, not God through the eyeglasses of a particular group or faction.

All our best intentions, our righteous rites and wordy words, still only hint at the wonder and mystery of the One who made us.

So why should we be surprised when speaking about God and trying to live our lives in God often gets frustrating?  We are trying to lasso the wind.  We are looking out for the black dog laying on the black pavement on a pitch dark night.  All is hidden from our sight – yet – the smidgen of the Holy One in each of us can’t help but keep searching for and naming God, while at the same time, the sin in us is busy pointing out the speck in one another’s eye and ignoring the log in our own.

I’m proud of Dr. Beckum for naming the false gods he has witnessed.  He is called there to do just such a thing.  I bet he wasn’t surprised at all about the reaction it received.  We preachers know when buttons are being pushed.  But God has called us to do just that.  When we stop having the courage to name sin and proclaim God’s forgiveness to the repentant, it is time for us to step down from the pulpit. Until then, preachers – take heart, fight the good fight, keep on preaching.

Stillness

I am the pastor at a country church in an area known as Norse, Texas. One of the things I treasure most about being at Norse is the quiet. I often feel like I have the best of everything. I get to be a pastor in a great church and I get to live in a quiet place where there is room to breathe and think. My children are growing up being able to see the stars that dot the night sky. We are able to often be outside and not hear the sound of vehicles or other voices – only the sound of the wind and the birds, the cats playing, the dogs barking. It’s heavenly.

My mother used to love to sit outside our house and just enjoy the peace and the seasons as they passed. We lived about five miles outside of a small town in Minnesota. When I was growing up I couldn’t imagine what she could possibly enjoy so much about that sort of stillness. When I dreamed about the future I always pictured moving to the city and being a part of something active and exciting! So that is what I did. Like many small town Minnesota kids I move to Minneapolis and learned my way around. I frequented the bars that had great bands that came to play. I knew where the cool restaurants and coffee shops were. I walked everywhere along the paved streets and I didn’t think twice about the constant hum of traffic, the incessant lights and thick odors. It was like my senses craved being overloaded. So I plugged headphones into my ears and blasted angsty music. I lit my Marlboros and drew in deep, cancerous breaths. I stayed up far too late and woke up late for class quite often. When faced with the decision between whether to go for a run or do homework, I always ran.

Life felt jittery then. I guess days filled mostly with caffeine, nicotine, excessive exercise, a poor diet, and constant activity will do that. There was no space – I filled in all the spaces. Quiet moments were something to be cancelled out with noise as soon as possible. Solitude and silence were lonesome things back then.
The shift happened slowly. I ended up living in the country for my first call as a pastor. I was just a few miles outside a small town but near a freeway so the noise of the trucks and cars passing made it not entirely serene. We then moved on to Colorado and lived in a large city not far from downtown. Within twenty minutes I could be hiking on a mountain trail but it was not peaceful. The mountain was a significant tourist destination. And it began to bother me that when I put my baby in his crib at night, the noise from the neighbor children in their back yard seeped in through the windows and walls. I started to notice that whenever I left the city to go back to Minnesota and spent time at my house where I grew up or by the lake, I felt the tension in my neck lessen and the frantic chatter in my mind would shut up a little bit. I began to dream about my children having the sorts of things I had growing up – gravel roads to walk on, mud puddles to play in, space enough for boredom and thus creativity to enter in. I began to listen for God to beckon us back home to Minnesota. I was certain that was what would happen next.

So this church, Norse, was supposed to be a practice interview. I can admit this now – now that we have been here three and a half years. I can admit that before we came here we couldn’t fathom God could actually be calling us to a church in Texas. We were northerners. We didn’t even like country music! In late 2009, when the call committee invited us to visit and discuss the possibility of me being a pastor here, my husband and I joked privately about how ridiculous the idea was. But leaving wintery Colorado for a warm interview weekend in Texas sounded just fine. And so we went.

We observed everything coolly for most of the trip. We were friendly and polite. The church was wonderful, the potluck lunch after worship was amazing, the people were lovely – they just didn’t realize that we weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t in on the joke yet that God was going to be calling us back to Minnesota any second because that was where I was going to find the quiet place for my boys to grow up. That was where I was going to reconnect with where I came from and figure out where I was still going. That was home. This was just an interesting weekend trip.
I think if it had been any other time of day that we chose to make a quick drive out to Norse from the hotel to return a hymnal I had inadvertently taken with me after church, things might have turned out differently. However, it was evening, and the sun was slanting just so over the quiet church lawn when we drove up. We were flying out the next day. It was all going to be done and we would probably never come this way again. But if you have ever been here in the evening, when the sun goes through the stained glass at just the right angle, and washes over the gravestones in the cemetery, and there is only the sound of the breeze passing through the branches of the live oaks and the cedars, you know how easy it is to fall in love with this place. Although my children were asleep in their carseats, I could hear their laughter echoing over these hills and picture them coming around the corner on their skateboards and bicycles in the years to come. Although every plan we had was to keep working our way back home to Minnesota, I distinctly felt in that moment that perhaps I was already home.

In truth, I imagine that is why I so love to take pictures of this church in the evening – because that is when I first could picture us living life here. It was when the sun was low and turning the grass golden that I first could fathom that the story of my family could become intermingled with the stories of your families and this place. In the stillness of that February evening, I caught on to the notion that perhaps God could be calling us here. I remembered that perhaps God’s plan was still better than mine.

Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God..”