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.

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.