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

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.

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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