Running With the Wolves

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Running With the Wolves – Cloud Cult

The nights were so quiet there. Seven miles from one town, eight from another – our closest neighbors were cows, coyotes, and wild hogs. The Texas sun nearly melted our Minnesota bones many times over – so when I wanted to run, I ran at night. It was cooler, and I could run undisturbed along the long, thin driveway that snaked along the back of the church property – back and forth – from the church sign to the parsonage driveway. It was nearly a half mile from one end to the other and I never minded the repetition of winding back and forth beside that red brick church with its’ steeple stretching toward the sky, under the cover of the cedars and live oaks. If the moon was bright enough, I ran around the perimeter of the cemetery – round and round. Reverently so. One time around that old cemetery was nearly a mile and I ran there often – I wonder if there is still a path worn in the grass from my five years’ worth of miles?  The rock fence, the moonlight shining on the gravestones, the scent of wild honeysuckle, the Texas sky so big and the stars so bright – they must have all been made of dreams. Sometimes I felt so completely content there, enchanted with everything: the white limestone gravel, the charming balcony in the church, the stillness, the silence, warm winter days, my children so little, my congregation so beloved – I would just whisper “thank you” into the night air.

But the stillness and silence began to get deafening. I didn’t want it to be so. I wanted the enchantment to thrive, but bit by bit, day by day, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay there. I knew the Spirit, my Self, my family, my goals were pushing me elsewhere, onward. Someone else would get to be the pastor there – and even as I resigned, I knew part of me would miss it forever. Even as I knew in my bones I needed to go, I never doubted a sliver of my heart would stay right there.

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“The Escape – Running With The Wolves”
We went running with the wolves. It’s time for us to go.
Left all our clothes with the car back by the road.
We were running for a reason- for the burning in our veins.
We were running for a reason.
I just need to get away.

We’re running with the wolves. We’re screaming at the stars.
We left all we own in a hole in our backyard.
We were running for a reason, left our cubicles in little flaming piles.
We were running for a reason.
I need to feel something different for just a little while.

I’m not coming home, I’m staying with the wolves.
You can burn all my mail and disconnect the phone.
Tell Mom I’m sorry- sorry for leaving, but I’m staying where I’m at.
We’re running to find meaning.
We’re gone, and we’re never coming back.

Losses

Today I led the funeral for a woman whom I hardly knew.  I had just met her in the last weeks of her life and was glad to bring her prayers and communion as her health steadily declined.  When I gathered with the family to pray before the service, I noted my heart wasn’t breaking like it was the last time I did a funeral.  Being relatively new here, I haven’t had time to fall in love with my new congregation yet.  I like them very much and I’m sure I will love them soon enough – but for now I’m still at the brief, easy stage of ministry in this congregation where it’s still kind of just my work.

But in this life as a pastor, I have found that this stage passes quickly.  Soon I will feel at funerals here like I did at my last funeral in Texas – when I walked up the stairs to the church with 92 year-old Olee as we were about the begin the memorial service for his wife of 65 years, Maxine.  The tears were right behind my eyes and my throat was thick and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the words out when the time came. Or just as hard was a few months before that when I made that same trek up those stairs with Joe as we got ready for his wife’s service.  His wife, Audrey, had been one of my favorite parishioners of all time – so wise and kind and altogether lovely.  I didn’t want to commend her to God’s keeping at all – I wanted her to stay alive and well so I could keep visiting with her and absorbing all the good things that one felt whenever you were around her.  I felt the same with Estella, the queen of all quilters, who died three days before Christmas, and Maurine, who died shortly before that of a quick and brutal cancer.  Right around the same time Mickey died, a husband and father and active parishioner, whose death kicked the stuffing out of all of us as he left behind his beautiful wife and two high school-aged daughters.  The pain of all these deaths in the months before I left was so hard on our congregation – and harder on me than I can even still understand.  None of these people were my family and of course it was my job to visit them and then preside at their memorials…but when the funerals were over, and all the crowds were gone, I would walk out to the cemetery and watch the Texas wind whip up the dust and occasionally some flowers left behind, and I would cry like a forlorn child.

Most of my career I have felt very lucky to care deeply about the work I do.  But sometimes, especially my last year at Norse, I knew I cared too much.  I loved them so much and I knew they loved me, too.  But I think a pastor has to be able to keep some distance – if only so that when one needs to push a congregation toward change, he or she is able to do that and not be crushed by the resistance.

Yet I knew I could be too easily hurt if I stayed at Norse.  I no longer had any kind of professional distance in my heart – I just loved them to pieces.  I knew that for their sake and for mine, I had to go.  I needed to go so that my work was just my work again and not every all-encompassing moment of my life.  They needed me to go so that someone new could come in and see them with fresh eyes and challenge them in ways that I couldn’t anymore.

I’m thankful for my new church and all the new life that there is here.  I’m reading all sorts of good books about keeping myself healthy and how to be connected but not entirely enmeshed in my new congregation.  It’s good.

But today after doing this funeral, my mind and heart have decidedly taken a detour to Texas for the day.  I’m thinking of hot breezes blowing through the cedars, a red brick steeple rising high into the sky, a limestone fence surrounding an old Norwegian cemetery, and so many friends buried there.

Joe

I was not surprised when I heard Joe’s heart stopped beating.  We all knew that his heart beat in time with Audrey’s heart and when she died a few months earlier, it seemed so had the spark of his own life.  He spent the last few months journeying through the motions of his days.  He sat in church as usual, but without her by his side he always looked a bit lost.  He welcomed us into his home to sing Christmas carols but he wept as we did so – everything reminded him of her.

When I would come to pray with Joe, I told him how when I lost my mom it helped to write down my thoughts about her.  Joe was raised to believe his pastors had wisdom and so he listened to me.  He poured his time and tears into writing down their love story.  With his failing eyesight he recorded the treasured sum of his days with her – his words spoke of true love, pure and sweet. They were married sixty years.

Joe had always known Audrey was the one.  Joe told his friend, Earl, that he was going to marry Audrey shortly before he even asked her out on their first date.  Sure enough, by September of that year they were married.

What followed was a good life – not an easy life, but a good life made beautiful by two people who knew how to be thankful for all they had, to see the blessings all around them, and to pour out generosity and positivity to all who knew them.

I was Joe and Audrey’s pastor the last five years.  I visited Audrey in the hospital and at home many times as her health failed. I presided at her funeral where her grandchildren sang beautiful songs to honor her memory. My sons and I visited her grave often and picked wildflowers to adorn her resting place.

I moved away to a new call at a church in Minnesota just a few weeks before Joe died.  He had been hospitalized with a heart condition and I came to see him in the hospital up until it was time for the moving van to come.  The last time I spoke with Joe it was right before he had a major surgery.  I told him I loved him and I would see him later.  I meant after the surgery was over but he never woke up again while I was still in Texas.

Nobody tells you when you become a pastor how your heart will break for your congregation.  Nobody tells you how you will love them like family and no matter how much you might like to treat your work like it is just a job, it is never just a job.

Today some other pastor gets to commend Joe to God’s care and keeping.  Today some other pastor gets to gather with this family I grew to love and remind them of God’s eternal promises.  While I am certain God has called me to be right where I am, it doesn’t change how hard this is for me.  I want to be counted among those who grieve.  Because I do.  So much.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face shine upon him and be gracious unto him.  The Lord look upon him with favor and give him peace.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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.

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..”