Archive for the ‘Ministry Moments’ Category
Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.
On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.
Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.
Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.
The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.
All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.
As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.
DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.
DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.
DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.
DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.
DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.
DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.
DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.
DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.
DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.
DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.
DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.
DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.
There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.
This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.
6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.
6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.
6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.
7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.
7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.
8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.
8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.
8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.
9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”
10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.
10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.
10:30 a.m. — Return to the office. The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.
11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.
12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.
2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.
4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.
4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.
5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.
6:03 p.m. — Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.
6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.
7:00 p.m. — Service begins, on time. It’s a miracle.
7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion. I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.
7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.
7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.
8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.
8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.
8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.
8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.
9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.
9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.
9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.
9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.
9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV. Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.
10:59 p.m. — Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.
On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.
Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.
However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.
As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.
I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.
Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.
Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.
Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.
We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.
The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.
It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:
People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.
The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”
The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.
So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.
For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.
We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good. That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.
I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.
Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already. A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”
So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.
And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.
Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.
The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.
The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.
Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.
Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.
As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.
The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.
This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.
The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.
In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.
In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.
That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.
None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!
The first stop on my sabbatical journey was my hometown, Virginia Beach, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, where my parents and J’s mother and our closest friends still reside. My sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmother are all close by as well. As a child, we always gathered for big family celebrations at every holiday.
Since I became a pastor, I’ve missed all the holidays, and all those gatherings. Christmas and Easter (and the school breaks that accompany them) are the busiest times of my year, and the times that my presence here at church is most important. Sometimes it’s possible to slip away for Thanksgiving, but only if we’re back on Saturday—and Virginia Beach is more than 650 miles away, too far to go for just a two-day trip.
Once or twice, before B was born, J and I tried to travel home on Christmas Day, after Christmas Eve duties were done. The last time we tried it was nine years ago, when we both scheduled 6:00 a.m. flights on Christmas Day (from separate cities across the country, but that’s another story). I made it to Virginia by noon, having slept for two hours in my office between the end of the midnight service and a 4:00 a.m. trip to the airport. J’s flight hit a computer glitch, and he arrived at 1:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, having spent all of Christmas Day alone in the Cincinnati airport. We were both exhausted and miserable, and it took days to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t ever want to go through that again, much less risk putting a child through it, so we haven’t been home for a holiday since.
This year, however, my sabbatical made all the difference, and we decided to give it a try. Christmas Day was a Sunday, so there was no talk of departing for the two-day drive any sooner than December 26. We had hoped to make it out before dawn, but J was sick and I was too exhausted from all the Christmas services. We straggled into his mother’s house on the evening of the 27th. After dinner, I felt this strange compulsion. I couldn’t wait any longer—I just wanted to get home, to my parent’s house, the house where I was raised and celebrated every Christmas until I was 23 and left for seminary. Even after a two-day, 13-hour drive, even through a raging storm of wind and hail, I piled B into the car and headed five more miles across town.
I felt the tears creeping into the corners of my eyes as soon as I walked in the door, but it was the Christmas tree that really brought on the joy at being home, and the sense of loss after years of absence. The tree is covered with memories: the angel my best friend gave me in seventh grade; the Brillo-pad bird’s nest I made in art class when I was eight; the baby Jesus in a walnut shell from fifth grade Sunday School; the pair of little girl carolers representing my sister and I; the Snoopy with reindeer antlers that has hung on the bottom branches of my parents’ tree since before I was born.
My son, celebrating his fifth Christmas, had never seen any of these things that meant so much to me, and it felt like such an gift to introduce him to the Christmas things from my childhood. B touched the various ornaments I made when I was not much older than he was, and it was as if he had a tactile, real connection to me as a child. He marveled to think that I made things in school and Sunday school just like he does. And Snoopy with reindeer antlers made him giggle with glee, just like I always do.
The tree was also an aching reminder of how much I’d missed all these years. “Mom, you have a fake tree? You always have a real tree!” “We’ve had this one for five years, and we’re about ready to replace it.” “Dad, where is the cuckoo clock ornament? It always goes right here up top.” “Oh, that’s been gone for a long time—ten years or so. Probably broke or something.” I realized I am now a stranger to my family’s Christmas habits.
All over the house, my mother had carefully arranged nativity sets. When I was growing up, we never had a nativity set. I finally purchased one for my mother at an art show about 15 years ago. Now she has them all over the house, a dozen or more. She had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take B on a tour of each one. “Mom, when did you get all these? I’ve never seen these before.” “Ever since you gave me that first one, I loved it so much I began collecting a new one every year since.” “How did I not know this?” “Because you never come home.”
Instead of the usual defensiveness—“You know I can’t come home. I’m a pastor. I have to work on Christmas.”—I was overcome by what I had missed. There was a moment of grief for all the holiday memories that we do not share, all the family gatherings that did not include me. Even this year, all the family gatherings had already passed by the time we arrived. There was a pain in my heart for the ways that B will never know those kind of big family celebrations, though we often have one set of grandparents or another visit us.
Even more, I felt a sadness and an appreciation for what my family has given up in order for me to live into my pastoral vocation. My parents (and J’s) will never have all their children and grandchildren at home for Christmas, to gather together around the tree of memories.
I love being a pastor. I love spending every Christmas and Easter so thoroughly immersed in the work of leading worship that I cannot get away. The sacrifice feels small when compared with the joy of my vocation—I am absent from my family to be present to the church. I wonder, though, about the rest of my family, who have the absence without the presence to something else.
Going home for Christmas felt bittersweet. It was such a blessing to have a rare chance to be with family for the holidays, and to introduce B to Christmas traditions from home. It was also a reminder of all that we miss every other year.
I am discovering that sabbatical itself is a glimpse of the road not taken. This time apart from pastoral responsibilities shows me what life might have been like without this unique vocation of pastoral ministry. I am glad of my chosen road, and I have no regrets or desire to change paths. Yet there is a painful poignancy to discovering another way of life, a different rhythm, a life not lived. There would be other sorrows and hardships on that road, too, but there would also have been other joys.
Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.
Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.
This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:
- To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
- To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
- To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
- To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
- To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
- To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
- To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
- To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
- To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
- To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
- To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
- To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
- To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
- To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
- To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
- To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
- To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
- To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
- To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
- To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
- To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
- To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
- To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
- To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
- To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
- To undertake too much. Oh dear.
- To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
- To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
- To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
- To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
- To be proud. No explanation necessary.
- To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
- To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
- To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
- To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
- To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
- “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
- To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
- To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
- To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God
James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.
The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain. Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.