Archive for the ‘Mom Moments’ Category
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.
Mothering God, my son starts kindergarten in the morning. Please watch over my tiny child, my most precious one, as he climbs up those giant steps and into the mouth of the big yellow bus, its insides wriggling with elbows and knees and backpacks and lunchboxes. Give him calm in the chaos. Let him catch the excitement of his peers, but not their cruelty. May it be the grand adventure he dreams it to be.
Once that bus swallows him up, I can’t accompany him. I can’t hold his hand, and I can’t make sure that he gets where he’s supposed to go. So I’m imagining you, Mama God, standing beside him, a firm hand on his shoulder, your swishing skirts providing a path through the chaos and a safe place to hide if he gets too nervous. Take his hand when I can’t, and guide him where he needs to go.
Since before he was born, I have been trying to protect him and keep him safe. I made sure his environment was safe with crib rails and car seats, baby gates and bike helmets. It was a small world, and I could keep it padded and protected. Now his world is getting bigger. I want his world to be as big as it can be, even if it means I can’t protect him from it. Remind me that this whole big world is still in your hands. Show him all its glorious expanse, but promise me he’ll always be in your care.
I want him to go to school to learn, and not just ABCs and 123s. I want him to learn how to be a friend. How to make good decisions. How to get along with all kinds of people, even mean ones. How to say “no.” How to fail and try again. How to lose and still have fun. How to deal with stress. How to overcome adversity. These lessons aren’t learned with books and worksheets. They can’t be learned in a “safe” environment. They hurt sometimes. Teach him hard-won lessons, because those are the ones that matter, but do not let his spirit be broken. Give him courage and resilience and companions for the journey.
Reassure me, O God, that my one precious child will never be lost in your care. Mother him for me when I cannot. Help me teach him to walk away from me. Hold me tight when I have to let him go. Amen.
Sunday morning was the first time (except for six weeks of maternity leave) I’ve ever been in the same town as my congregation and not been with them for worship. It’s also the first time B has ever been away from church, with the exception of attending the church of my childhood when we are home in Virginia. We were getting ready to visit a neighboring congregation, but he didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to our church, to see his friends and be a part of the family he loves. Truth be told, I was having a hard time with it myself.
Separating from my church, now that I am here in the same town, is harder than I anticipated. While I didn’t miss all the business, meetings, sermon writing, prep work, and early-morning scurry to get ready for worship, I desperately missed being there with them. I didn’t want to lead, I just wanted to come and sit in the pew and worship there. They are my home, my church, my Christian family. Going to a strange, new church is hard. You don’t know what to expect, if there will be a connection to God or others, if you will know any of the songs, if you’ll find the theology abhorrent or just feel terribly out of place. Yet part of sabbatical means being away, and there was no way for me to visit with them without being their pastor—which means being drawn into the pastoral care needs, business decisions, administrative matters and everything else that is church work. So I knew why I needed to stay away, even though I miss them.
It’s harder to explain it to B. After all, Sunday mornings are not work for him. He knows the beauty of church as his family. He has friends his own age, and teenage and adult friends that supervise him while I am leading worship and making the rounds at coffee hour. He looks forward to the routine of a Sunday morning—the pre-worship playtime, shaking hands during the passing of the peace, coming up for the children’s time, and getting too many cupcakes during fellowship time. He knows the rhythms of the church, both the liturgical seasons and the all-important monthly celebration of Birthday Sunday.
I tried to make up for all he is missing with the promise that, for once, we actually get to sit together in church. I reminded him of how frustrated he gets on Sunday mornings, when I am too busy to talk to him or play with him. I promised that during this special sabbatical time, I would be with him during church, the whole time, no distractions. I thought this would be poor consolation, but he seemed pleased.
When we arrived as guests at this new church, B decided without hesitation that he did not want to visit the children’s program—he wanted to sit with me the whole time. As soon as the opening song began, my eyes filled with tears. I was overcome by the power of simply receiving the gift of worship alongside my son. It felt like an immersion, like diving into healing waters. Without worrying about what comes next, focusing on my sermon, noticing who was missing or who looked like they weren’t feeling well, I could just open myself to worship. When someone came and sat in front of us, we could move over so B could still see. When everyone else stood, I could stay seated to remain at B’s height. During the sermon, I took notes and listened for the Word of God, which spoke deeply to my heart. When B got bored, I could fish out a pen and paper from the bottom of my purse. When I was moved, I could cry and not worry about holding it together to say the benediction. These small luxuries felt like tiny miracles, each small marvel to behold.
This has been a deep gift already for sabbatical, and there are quite a few Sundays left. While I expect I will still feel a pang of longing for my own church family on Sunday mornings, I am so grateful for the gift of worship. B seemed to appreciate it too, as he snuggled into my lap during the sermon and showed me the drawings he had made in the bulletin.
Also, I promised him that he could join in the February Birthday Sunday celebration when we get back, and we would sing to him with the others. Church folk, I know you’ll understand and welcome him with open arms, because you’re our family.
Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.
To Ringo, My Little Lion
July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011
You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.
That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.
J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.
When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.
When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.
When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.
You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.
When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.
But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.
We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.
Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.
I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.
Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.
Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”
We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”
As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.
We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand, but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class. While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.
It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?
I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.
One of the great joys of serving as a pastor is bearing witness to so many intimate moments in people’s lives. When a baby is baptized, I get to stand right up there with the family and even hold the child. When young people give their lives to Christ at Confirmation, I get to place my hands on their heads. When a couple is married, the three of us stand alone atop the chancel as they make their vows. When someone is facing a health crisis, I am invited into intimate conversations about life and death, and I can sit with people in very deep moments of contemplation. When people discover faith for the first time, or when they take a new step in devotion or understanding, they talk to me about it. I am regularly privileged to be at someone’s bedside to pray as they take their last breath. When a loved one dies, I am honored to listen to the stories their family tells about how much this person meant to them, and then to give them back those stories during the funeral service. It is an honor and a privilege to be a pastor in these holy moments.
However, it is also a disconcerting experience at times. These beautiful moments that I participate in on a regular basis are not my moments. It is not my mother or father or spouse who is dying or being buried. Neither I nor any member of my family is being baptized, confirmed or married. For those at the heart of these life-altering days, these are unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For me, they are just another day at the office. What they are doing once in a lifetime, I may be doing several times that week, or even that day.
I am not being flip. As I said before, these are holy moments, and it is an honor to be present in them. But the reality remains that they are not my moments, I am only a witness. And this can leave me feeling a bit disconnected, not just from those around me, but from my own life.
This was brought home to me last Saturday, when B played in his first-ever soccer game. I had a memorial service at nearly the same time, but I managed to make it for part of the game, cheering from the sidelines in my black suit and heels. After a quick hug from a sweaty kid at halftime, I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was somber-faced, leading a gathering of people saying goodbye to a beloved mother and grandmother. An hour after that, I was handling a phone call from another family in crisis, then heading out to Red Robin for B’s victory dinner (even though his team lost badly) and home to finish the sermon for Sunday.
I was fully present and attentively caring to the grieving family, and I felt genuine love and concern for them and even some small grief for this woman I had come to know. Yet I floated above their level of heartache, distant from their absorbing grief. For them, the moment itself was overwhelming, an emotional experience that knocked out all other concerns. For me, it was not even the most emotional event in my day.
This happens regularly in pastoral life, as we travel alongside people and accompany them through life’s major moments. As witnesses, we are present and compassionate without being fully immersed in the experience. That distance is a sign of a healthy self and functional pastor. Yet, I sometimes think that it keeps me distant from my own life as well. While I was cheering and clapping on the sidelines, I was also distant there, wearing my funeral clothes. I couldn’t give myself over to pride and jubilation, because the 15 minute drive from the game to the funeral home wasn’t going to be enough to change gears so fast.
What does this quick-change pastoral life do to our own emotional depth? Am I a ghost, a hovering specter in other people’s lives, somehow untouched by their hardship? Am I a chameleon, changing my emotional colors to blend in with my environment? Am I a prop, playing a functional part in other people’s scenes? On some days, I think this distance is an obstacle to diving deep into my own emotional well, because I am always present and subject to the varied emotional states of others.
On other days, I look over the richness of these experiences and understand that they equip me to journey deeper. As a frequent traveler over the terrain of death, of birth, of sickness, of joy, of love, I come to know its contours well, and I can engage my own experience with a richer perspective. Because I have witnessed so many holy moments, I can recognize them more easily in my life. I may have frequent roller-coaster experiences from one extreme to another, but that’s because my pastoral work always keeps me close to the heart of what matters most—which includes both the soccer field and the funeral home.
Yet another tension we hold on to in this pastoral life.
What do you think? Do you ever feel this tension in your personal and pastoral life?
Our family enjoyed a vacation to visit family in Florida a few weeks back, including one morning at the beach. J was building a master sandcastle, I was sticking my feet in the cold water, and B was playing in the sand and chasing seagulls. The beach was mostly empty. His fear of the water kept him far away from danger, so we let him wander freely as we all enjoyed the sun and sand and ocean spray. He generally stayed within a 10-15 yard radius. We kept an eye out, but trusted him to stay close. For over an hour, he ran and returned, up and down the beach. The tie-dyed blue and yellow bulls-eye on his shirt made him easy to spot, no matter what.
Then I looked up one time and decided he had strayed a little too far. I called out to him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the waves. I figured he was running over to investigate some fishermen just down the beach, and he would turn around after he checked them out. When he kept running past their poles and buckets, I started out after him, calling his name again and again. He just kept running down the beach. I started to get angry, quickened my pace to try to close the distance, and waited for him to turn around. He just kept running. He was getting faster, and farther away. I started to run—and I don’t run—and called out to him louder and louder. I started to contemplate what kind of consequences to apply to a child who runs away. He just kept running and running, and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting tired, stopping, looking back. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t catch up to him.
Finally, an older gentleman noticed a young child running alone and looked back for a parent. I gestured that I was trying to catch him, and the man jogged to catch up to B and stop him. He touched him on the shoulder, bent down and turned him around to face me, pointing me out running along behind him. B took off running again, but this time toward me.
It was only then that I realized what had happened. He had gotten confused and thought he was lost. He panicked, and just started running faster and faster. By the time I caught up to him he was red-faced, crying and shaking with fear. All the harsh words I’d been planning vanished, and I simply embraced him in the sand.
B learned an important lesson that day: if you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction. You might just be making it harder for your mother to find you. We had talked about this a few times, but he said he just forgot when he got frightened.
What has been on my mind ever since, though, was the difference in our experiences that day. B was panicked, probably afraid he’d lost his parents forever, that he’d never get home from this faraway place. I remember that fear as a child, the fear of being lost and separated and unable to find your way home. His heart must have been racing as fast as his little legs. I can’t recall another experience in his short lifetime that would have been so frightening or traumatic. Had he even paused to look back over his shoulder, he would have seen me and ceased to fear. But the more fear he felt, the harder he ran—and the farther away he got from me.
While I was annoyed with him at first, I was never afraid. I was never lost, nor was he ever lost to me. I could see where he was the whole time, that electric t-shirt standing out against the pale sand. I knew he was safe. I knew he would not be harmed. I knew I would not stop running until I caught up with him. I knew the way back home. I had nothing to fear.
The whole experience makes me pause and reflect on our relationship with God. How often do we think we are lost, and so we panic and just start running? The more frightened we get, the harder we run. The less we recognize our surroundings, the faster we blow through them trying to recover familiar territory. Like B, we forget the rules when we get frightened. If you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction.
God knows where we are. We may feel lost, but we are never lost to God. Like any watchful mother, She knows exactly where we are and will not let us out of Her sight. When we stray too far, She is in active pursuit. Our reunion with the Beloved does not depend on our ability to find our way home again all by ourselves. All we have to do is stop the running, and She will find us. Sometimes, it takes intercession, direction from another soul who can see our fear, turn us around, and show us God is coming after us. No matter what, God will not stop chasing us until we are safe in Her arms again.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
“Be still and know that I am God.” –From Psalm 46
B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.
The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.
The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior? B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?
“But it’s O.K., right?”
I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”
As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?