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.