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.

A Pastor’s Christmas Eve Prayer

I’m listening.

Still my spirit.

Still the voices in my head.

Let me hear You.

Directing my deeds.

Directing my words.

Directing my days.

This Christmas Eve.

Every day.

Every year.

The chatter is loud inside my head –

Presents to wrap!

Sermon to practice!

Chores to do!

Christmas chatter.

So I pray for ease –

To give gentleness and joy and a spirit of peace to all who come to worship today.

Let the anxiety be.

No need for it.

People bring enough of their own anxieties – there is plenty to go around without my contribution.

God is near.

God is here.

Emmanuel.

5 Words of Wisdom to a New Pastor

On the way home tonight, I was listening to a podcast in which the author, Tara Mohr, was being interviewed. She was talking about her most popular blog post which was entitled, 10 Rules for Brilliant Women.  It includes some great advice for women to be brave about bringing their own particular brilliance to the world. It’s the kind of article I wish had been available to me when I was just starting out in my career.

In 1999, I was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If I could give words of wisdom to someone just starting out in ministry, I would say:

  1. Don’t give energy to the alligators.  In every church (as in any place where people gather) there will be alligators – difficult people – those people who like to find fault, to criticize, gossip or just be plain disagreeable .  Also, in every church there will be people who like to build up others, to be helpful and hopeful. If you give too much of your energy to the alligators, they will slowly drain you of your own joy and peace and positivity. Looking back over my years of ministry, especially the early years, I wish I had not wasted so much energy on worrying about the opinions of the naysayers.   I was never able to turn a disagreeable person into a more positive person, not once.
  2. Build up areas of ministry that interest you!  So often I would come into a church and see what programs they had going and then just try to keep all those things going. It didn’t occur to me until much later that it wasn’t my duty to keep committees and activities going just because they had been happening for many years. Over time I realized that for my own sake and for the sake of the church, I needed to invest my best energy in areas in which I had passion and be able to let go of some other areas and trust that if they were meant to continue, I and the council would be able to find lay leaders to continue those things. A happy pastor is a good pastor – do what brings you joy!
  3. Your churches will break your heart.  It’s true – my heart has never been so broken as it has been by my congregations. I’ve left pieces of my heart all over the cemeteries and sanctuaries and council rooms of my churches. Sometimes it’s been shattered by disagreements and betrayals, sometimes by the weird isolation that comes with being a pastor, but most often by deep love and affection, and the heartache of saying “goodbye” when it is time to go.
  4. Your churches will love you and your family. It was very hard to leave my home and go all by myself to my first call as a pastor. It felt like stepping off a ledge into thin air and not having a clue what would catch me. Oh, the cigarettes I chain-smoked as I drove with my two cats across six states to get to the first church and parsonage I would call home.  I had no idea how each church I served would walk with me so lovingly through the changes life would bring. My first church helped to throw the most amazing wedding party ever when I got married!  My second church helped me usher in motherhood – showering me with gifts for the babies they were so excited to welcome! My third church walked with me on the sad journey of grief when my mother died – they listened to me cry and they showed me so beautifully how a Christian community comes together in times of grief and holds each other up. You think you are leaving behind family to embark on your first call, but you are just on your way to meeting the most wonderful extended family you could ever imagine.
  5. Don’t let the church be your whole world. When times are good as a pastor, I can’t imagine a career, a calling, quite as wonderful. We get to be with people at such monumental times. We get to be creative. We get to be flexible. We get to go to awesome potlucks. But when times are bad as a pastor, it can be really, really bad. To keep it together during the bad times, you have to have a life outside the church.  Nurture your faith!  Keep a spiritual life and discipline outside of what you do for and with your church. Nurture your family! Don’t let the church whittle away your time with your spouse and children. Nurture your interests!  Always make space for the things you like to do, and try really, really hard to have some real friends outside the church with whom you can be honest and laugh (and cry!)

There’s so many other things I could say – don’t forget to pray, to take care of your health, to keep going to continuing education, to take ALL your vacation time – but you’ll learn all these lessons and so many more as the years unfold. God bless you in your ministry, new pastor. God bless you every year you get to live in this wonderful, weird, and sacred calling.

 

Transformation is Real

A friend asked me to write a blog post for his blog (http://transformation-is-real.com/). I was happy to be asked because I love to write, but I found this assignment taking me on an emotional journey.  I’m glad to share it with you and even more glad to be telling this story from where I am at now than where I was at a few months ago.

You can read it here:

http://www.transformation-is-real.com/transformation-is-real/2015/9/2/ruths-change-finding-gratitude-in-brokenness

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.

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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