Tuesday, April 13, 2010

So this is what is like to be a pastor...

Since Thursday of last week my supervisor has been out of town, leaving me as the only "pastor" on site. He got back today (Tuesday) and it took until today to really feel like I can be a pastor. And there is a couple of reasons why. First was the monthly pastor's meeting (local ELCA Lutheran pastors, don't get too excited). There was no preset agenda for the meeting for the day so what we did was go around the room, just checking in with each congregation that was represented there. Now, normally I go with my supervisor and neither one of us says much. I say little because I defer to Pastor Joe (my supervisor) for any information about what is happening at church. And Pastor Joe says little because is rather introverted and doesn't say much to begin with. But today was different, Pastor Joe wasn't there, so I said very little for the majority of the meeting. I listened to each pastor and/or intern say something about the congregation that they were at until everyone had their turn and finally someone said that we should hear about what is going on at Family (Family of Christ is the congregation that I am at). Now I finally get to speak as an equal. Pastor Joe isn't here to speak to the rest of the group on behalf of Family, it is now my responsibility. I reflect on what is going on at Family as well as a couple of other things that I noticed during the course of the meeting. I felt like I was on equal terms with everyone in the room, and not just the interns! After the meeting was over, a couple of the pastors came and talked to me about what I had said and I finally felt like I was able to make a connection with the people that were present in that group (after seven months of going to these meetings!).

The second thing that happened was that after I got back from my meeting I talked with the church secretary and asked her what it was that I had missed while I was gone all morning. I fully expected to have missed nothing but I was told that there was a small emergency that happened and instead of having my first thought be that I should defer to Pastor Joe for whatever might end up happening, I took charge and made phone calls. It was an interesting transition to have the thought that I can't take care of this emergency to this is something that I need to address and it will do no good to wait until Pastor Joe can take care of it.

The reality of the situation is that these are rather small incidents in the course of the week, but it made me feel like I am finally filling this role. It is one thing to lead worship and preach and teach confirmation and to help with the youth, but it is another to add this pastoral element that has been lacking so far in my experience. In seven and a half months of time at this church, today I felt like a pastor; and I think that I can live with that position. I don't think that I have to run away from it or fear that I will be inadequate. If there ever was an experience that was going to reaffirm my call, today was just that.

Reflections on Lent and Holy Week

I have found that if there is one major difference about Lent as an employee of a church versus simply being a church member is that as an employee you are held much more accountable for your Lenten disciplines than you are as a church member. I made it no secret that I had given up junk food for Lent (no soda, cookies, candy, chips, fast food, etc), and people didn't let me forget; especially the youth that I work with. One Sunday night, during youth group, I had brought strawberries and whip cream for the kids to snack on. I had a strawberry with whip cream and one of the kids started to give me the third degree for eating whip cream. I never thought of whip cream as junk food, it's more of a condiment, but after that point I didn't eat whip cream.

But there was more to Lent than not eating junk food. I taught my first Pre-Communion (First Communion) class. It was a small class of just four kids, but I really enjoyed it. And, after five weeks, when Maundy Thursday rolled around and it was time to give communion to the kids for the first time, I was almost in tears. I don't think that I have ever been a part of or worshiped in a Maundy Thursday service that moved me as much as that one did. Communion, especially now, has lost some of it's luster, but seeing the pure joy and excitement in the eyes of the children as they held out their hands and received communion for the first time was enough to make anyone's heart leap with joy. And then to see the parents overflowing with joy as their child fully enters into relationship (communion if you will) with the rest of the congregation, there was so much joy present in that moment. I don't know if I will ever be able to top that Maundy Thursday experience.

Good Friday service was enjoyable, but the Easter Vigil was another special experience. Instead of just having people read through the many readings of the night, people volunteered to read and had creative liberty to do as they wished. Some simply read, some did a creative narrative retelling, but one parent was rather creative. He read through the passage of Ezekiel talking about the dry bones and each time he said "dry bones" he had the half a dozen kids that he had up there with him shake, rattle and roll the various instruments that they had. The kids got so into it, it was hard not to smile at this somber passage.

Easter Sunday came, bright and early with the sunrise service at 7am. It was a small service, but it somehow set the day apart from other Sundays. Not to say that Easter Sunday is just any Sunday, but it somehow changed the tone for the rest of the day. And perhaps one of the most joyful parts of the day for me (and simply because it is something that I have wanted to do since I was a kid) was to stand at the front of the congregation, at the start of the service, before announcements were given and say, "Alleluia, He is Risen!!!" And then have the congregation respond, "He is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!!!" There is power and joy in those words and it is such a different experience to say those words from the other side of the pew.

All in all, I enjoyed Lent and Holy week. Holy week was not nearly as stressful as I thought that it was, but maybe that is simply because I am an intern right now and not a full blown pastor. But I think that with one Holy week under my belt now, I can say that I can look forward to another ... and another ... and another (you get the idea).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A loss of identity

I had this thought the other day while running...

Being a pastor means a loss of individual identity. Once you are a pastor in a congregation you are forever a pastor. In fact often it means that you lose identity outside of "pastor." Your name is sacrificed for the title and job. You are no longer seen as a person with purpose or identity outside of that of pastor and you undergo a metamorphoses from a normal person with normal hobbies and interest to "pastor."

There are few other professions/vocations/jobs that cause people to undergo the same change as that of the vocation of pastor. Most other jobs you are able to leave work at work and have a life at home away from the stresses of work. Most other professions do not require 24 hour on-call availability and even your days off become work days due to the requirements of the office/members/etc.

And so what does this all mean, especially for me? I'm not entirely sure. Right now I am neither pastor nor member of the congregation that I am working with; I'm in some sort of limbo in between. It's not as if I wasn't already aware of what I was getting into. But the more that I work at the church the more I realize that the role of pastor is not one that just anyone can fill; and how much more I appreciate the 40 years of ministry that my supervisor has done. And who knows, after a few years of my own ministry in the church I'll have a different perspective on all of this.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Time Boxes

Most of us in Western Culture have been taught from a very young age that we must put time in boxes. Our time at school is from A to B and our time at home before dinner is from C to D and homework time is X to Y. We know this because we live and die by the clock. Everything that we do in Western society (most everything) is linked to a specific time. Work starts a 9am. And since work starts at 9am if I am to workout before I get to work I must wake up at 6am. My office hours are form 9am-3pm. Meetings in the evening, dinner at 5pm. I only have a hour for this, thirty minutes for that. We chase hours around so much that we often forget to enjoy the time that we have.

The last two weeks have been extremely busy for me and I have felt like I have not been able to get all the work done that I need to get done. In fact I know that I haven't as I sit here and look at my list of things to do and I see that very little has been crossed off the list. Each day the past two weeks I have felt like I could have used more time across the board. More time in the office. More time for myself. More time to sleep. More time in the morning. More hours of daylight. More time spent on working on my internship project. Perhaps the only place that I wish I could have had less time was to have a little less time at church. Having meetings and other such reasons to come back to church each night Monday through Friday for the last two weeks (plus Sunday nights), I have felt like I'm living at the church. It's been stressful and it has been affecting my productivity.

Part of the added stress comes from a new visitation schedule that Pastor Joe has given me. I have nothing against visiting people, but it is more time that I simply feel like I don't have. So I fully intend on going on these visitations and meet with members for an hour at the most, but once I am engaged with these people I find it hard to leave, and for all the good reasons. I thoroughly enjoy talking with and meeting and knowing the members of the congregation more, but at the same time...it takes time. It is hard to try and manage office hours, meetings, choir, confirmation, my internship project, twice daily exercises and my own personal time (which really is what often gets sacrificed) in a short 24 hour day.

But I suppose that my dilemma with time is not just my own but shared among all of people that work full time and especially among those in ministry and even more so for those that are interns as they are first learning how to deal with a life of full time ministry.

So maybe the solution is to not worry so much about putting time in boxes but to rather enjoy the time that I have. Because after all, there is only so much time before I leave this church, I leave seminary, I leave this world.

Friday, January 1, 2010

God is with us.

I guess the words of my last sermon are a lot more important now:

The end of the year provides us a great opportunity to reflect back on our life. It allows us to look at many of the joys that we have had; at many of our great experiences from the last twelve months; at our disappointments; at the questions of the past year of our lives that we have asked. Our Gospel lesson from today ends with a series of questions. Why have you treated us like this? Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Not a single one is answered. And we’ve all been there before, haven’t we? In a place where we just feel like it is us and God and we ask questions and wait and then…nothing. We feel like we get no answer from God. We sit and wait and reflect on what is going on in our lives and then wait more only to think that our questions and prayers have fallen on deaf and divine ears. Mary’s situation is not far off from that. She is in a crisis situation in her life, at least a situation of great panic; she’s lost her only child and has no idea as to when or where. And upon finding you can almost hear the string of questions that comes out of Mary’s mouth. “Where have you been? Where did you go? Do you have any idea what your Father and I have gone through?” Mary doesn’t get an answer, at least she doesn’t get a direct answer, instead Jesus, the Son of God, the Word incarnate answers much in the same way that any other twelve year old would, “Why are you worrying? Didn’t you know where I was?” It is an interaction that we can all understand (from one side of the conversation or the other) and yet it doesn’t seem to help Mary at all, it doesn’t seem to comfort her at all as she is left to ponder her questions. And it seems that we are at a bit of a disadvantage, if Mary cannot get a straight answer from God, from the very Word incarnate, then how are we to expect to get one from God?

The most that I’ve ever felt like Mary was my sophomore year of college. It was a dark year of my life for many reasons. There were family problems that were almost 150 miles away, I was without direction…not knowing what my major was going to be or what it was that I wanted to do with my life, I was extremely stressed out, I was having conflicts with my roommate and so so much more. As the year went on life became more and more difficult and my multiple prayers, pleads and questions to God throughout the year seemed to go unanswered. I couldn’t wait any long for an answer so I went for a walk. I walked out into the now rainy night and started a tirade directed right at God. I was angry with God with the position that he had put me and my family in. And so I yelled at God. I made ultimatums for God. I said things to God that I would never and have never repeated since. It was a night that I was not proud of but a night that I felt that needed to happen. Now, many years later I can say that many if not all of my prayers were answered, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In times of great trial it is hard to see where God is. When everything around us seems to be falling apart, it is hard to see where God is. And if Mary had issues with this what are we to do? Many of the miracles of the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season are not events that we see everyday…or ever any more. I have never seen an angel before. People aren’t sent to barns to stay some place because the hotel is full. Wise men don’t travel halfway around the world for the birth of a child. And finally, it’s not everyday that God comes down to earth as an infant to redeem the world. It’s not everyday that one can converse with the God in flesh and bone. So what can we do?

What can we do when our world falls apart around us? What do we do when we are ill? When a loved one dies? When we lose our job? When we feel like we are out of control? We often become angry. We yell. We ask God, “Where did you go God? Why did you abandon me? Do you have any idea what I have gone through?” “WHERE WERE YOU GOD?!” We are so wrapped up in the crisis of our life that we cannot see God. And justifiably so, when we are asking God these questions it is normally because we honestly feel like God has turned turn his back on us. We wonder why God hasn’t listened to our prayers, to our questions over the many months or even years before we ask these questions in anger and frustration before God. Ultimately we wonder where is God in midst of this life crisis?

So what is the answer? Where is God? I think that God would say something like this, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And although Mary may have had to ponder the meaning of these questions, we know what this means. We know that God has gone no where. God has always been right here. God does not leave us during times of hardship, rather God stays with us. And although we may not see it at the time, God’s hands are guiding us and those around us to help during times of hardship and suffering.

Now during my sophomore year of college I thought for sure that I had been forgotten by God, but I should have known better. Looking back at that year now, I can see God’s loving presence in each moment. I can see working with my friends and family to help me and my family. In fact, looking back at it now I can see God working hard to make his presence known, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.

So often when we feel like the prayers and questions that we have laid before God remain unanswered it is because we expect certain answers. I know with my own experience I was expecting multiple miracles from God without having to put forth any effort on my own. I wanted God to miraculously fix each of the, what seemed to be, life shattering problems over night. But that is unreasonable. My family crisis was impossible to resolve over night, my relationship with my roommate was not going to be solved over night and even knowing what I wanted to do with my life was not going to be figured out over night (and that might have been the easiest of the problems at the time). Life doesn’t work that way, God doesn’t work that way but we can take solace in the fact that God isn’t going to give up. God is going to stay right beside us as we work through our hardships. God suffers along side us. God is with us in our struggles.

This is the Good News of this Gospel lesson that God will not leave us. One of the commentaries that I read said that it is hard to find any good news in this lesson because of the fact that there is no resolution, no answer to the question; Mary is left to ponder and stew over her brief conversation with her son. But I think that the message is quite clear; Christ is always where he belongs and where he is needed. And he is needed here at Family, here in this building that is our sanctuary, what we call God’s house and here, in our hearts, never leaving us no matter where we go or what we do or what we suffer through. And I know that it may be hard to hear but I hope that if you will not hear it from me that you will hear it from someone because God is with you now and forever. So next time you ask, “Where are you God?” You can know that he is not far, for he is right here and he hasn’t gone anywhere. Amen.