Mending

I’ve been missing for a while… I moved and had a baby since my last post. I’ve begun writing again. You can see what I wrote for my UM conference here, and what follows is what I am writing as I begin the practice again on a regular basis. 

It’s taken me a while to mend. It has been thirteen weeks since I packed up my house and took a final walk down to the creek and back. I received a gift that day. The Great Blue Heron that frequents that little stretch of water waited until we were down at the base of the hill to take off. It was a bit late for her to be there, the day was growing warm, but still she was there, lifting off into the sky, giving us one final goodbye before we locked the house and got into our cars for the last time.

Twelve weeks ago I was holding my daughter, hours old, wondering at her long fingers and toes, her utter reliance on me for everything, her way of transforming my life completely. I was utterly spent, exhausted from bearing her through her entry into the world.

Eight weeks ago I took another walk, this time from our new home, down to another creek where another heron was taking off and showing me that this, too, is home.

Four weeks ago I began working at my new church, learning people and an entirely new culture. Grace has been extended to me and my family as I have entered this new many-faceted transition. I feel the love that those around me have for my daughter in the way that they have cared for her while I make the transition to working motherhood.

And today I have begun working full time, exploring what it means to be away from my daughter for hours on end. This is not a new thing, but it is new to me. I am learning, still, how I will fit into this new place, how I will live into this new calling.

I had the exquisite opportunity to bless elements today that will be going out into the world, so I had a little Eucharist in my office with a couple of the staff.

Building Family

In about a month, my family is going to go through some significant changes. We are moving to a new place, both my husband and I are getting new jobs, and we are welcoming a baby into our lives. Any one of these things would not be a small thing. Together, they are going to be huge. We are grateful that we are allowed time and space to live into the new identity of parents before we both jump into our new ministries feet first. Not many folks who have so many life changes at once have the kind of support that we have. I am amazed at the number of women and men who have to choose between keeping a job and spending the first few weeks of a newborns life caring for the child. I’m glad the United Methodist church has provisions for leave for new parents. It’s probably not enough, but is much more than what most workers in the States have access to.

Not only are our new churches providing space for grace for us in our transition, our own families are anticipating the new changes and providing good help to us. My parents have come to help pack our house, my in-laws are helping to make sure we have everything we need, and my sister is helping to make sure we all get to the house in one piece (and that I eat like I should). And there will be much more good help from them once our daughter makes her appearance as well.

I really don’t know what I would do without them. We would manage, of course. But my husband and I would be under a considerably larger amount of stress, probably take it out on each other, and our relationship would suffer. That’s why we need support. Because we rely on our relationships with others to build and maintain our own relationship. We are stronger when we work together. We are healthier when we allow others to participate in our lives, choosing not to do things all on our own. And in the midst of it, we have folks who can call us out on our mistakes, our quirks, and our shortsightedness.

I wouldn’t trade my family for any other. We are far from perfect. We have our failings and blind spots and times when we don’t get along. But when it really counts, when I desperately need someone to come and help me, that’s when our love shines through the brightest. We work together to build each other up. We become a new creation in the process.

Stormy Journey

The beginning of this week was filled with rain. The rain fell for the entirety of Monday, reminding me of the Kenyan rainforest and camping as a child. We kept the windows open through the day as we took our Sabbath. For a while, it felt as though we were keeping a traditional Sabbath, because all the lights were off and we only used the ambient light from the cloudy sky.

The rain fell in gentle patterns and in furious downpours. The lightning filled the sky and the thunder shook the house to its bones. The sweet smell of washed soil filled our home.

God made mud in our yard. Rivulets cascaded through the moss and formed streams of water down past the foot of our house. Water swept the dry dust of the early summer away down to join the streams downhill.

The week has since warmed and brought sweltering heat and bright sunlight to the days since. But here in the midst of the south, in the midst of the harsh summer, we received a week of cool breezes and chilly nights to remind us of the spring that has passed and the autumn that is yet to come.

With the reminders of the gentle coolness of nights of soft breezes, God granted us a space to persevere through the stifling heat of the summer sun.

Sometimes it takes a storm for me to see the calm afterwards. Sometimes it takes a storm for me to learn that I need to take shelter and find a place to weather the storm. Sometimes it takes a storm for me to understand the wonder and awe that comes from experiencing God’s presence.

Sometimes it takes a storm to wash away the dust and form the mud that creates miracles.

Sometimes all I do is stand in the storm.

… … …

When I am in the midst of difficulties, it is hard to see the gleam of God’s good work when everything is coated in a film of dust. All I can see is the dust, the dirt, the demands and burdens of the daily drudgery. Life takes a paler view when all I see is the chores of the next day or week. There is a difference between hard work and work that is hard to do. A simple task can either be the work of a moment or the work of a day, depending on the way that the task is approached.

I love to be enmeshed in work that gives me life and calls my attention. I thrive when I can see the good that comes from what I do, even if it is elusive, ambiguous, or undefined. That kind of work gives me life and joy.

But there are other times when the work before me can seem simple as ever but is as hard as pushing a ever growing stone up a mountain. I become drained merely thinking about the task before me, even before I press my shoulder to the stone to begin the climb. That kind of work leaves me numb and weary.

On occasion, it is not the work itself but the environment surrounding me. If I need to push a boulder up a mountain, it is much easier to do if the ground is firm and solid rather than loose and slick. If I cannot find a place to put my foot to support myself, all I can do is slip and tumble down to the valley again, or scrabble at roots in the crumbling soil, hoping to keep from scattering my support like so many clods of clay.

Whatever the circumstance, the work remains, so I try to take small bits of it at a time, looking at the narrow individual task, rather than be overwhelmed by the scope of the work before me. This is easier said than done, of course. I prefer to look at the wide picture, see the broad scope before me, but looking over the whole journey can stall my action and keep me from attending to the present moment.

And so I trudge on, and hope that in my continuing tenacious determination I find a new place to gain a different perspective. The mud might stick to my boots and make them a few pounds heavier, but the weight does not keep me from moving forward. I look for a stream to wash my boots, or a solid place on which to rest for a while.

My endurance grows. I become stronger as I continue to tread the path before me. The stone may not be any lighter, but I learn a new way to carry it so that it doesn’t wear me out as much.

The miracle is that sooner or later I can put it down; I no longer have to carry it. At first, without the weight of it on my shoulders I feel off balance. I forget how I held my body without the tremendous extra weight upon me. As time goes on, and as I continue to move, I remember what it felt like to not carry a burden the size of a boulder. I learn to set my feet in a new way, different than before I picked up the stone, since now I have changed from my long journey. I have grown stronger, and my new strength grants me grace.

I wish that I didn’t have to go through the hard part of the journey. I wish that I didn’t have to carry a burden in order to learn how to be strong and graceful. I wish the mud could just stay by the riverbank and off of my boots.

But the journey isn’t just about the finish. The path twists and turns and makes switchbacks so that I can learn from where I have been and prepare for where I am going. The mud is a messy reminder of the creative work of God in the midst of the harshest circumstances.

And really, truly, my path is not just about me. It is also about the people around me: those who help me bear my burdens, those who need me to help them carry theirs, and those who walk alongside me. When I find folks who can journey with me, my burden is not as heavy, and the path is not as rough.

I keep my ears open, and my eyes wide, looking for people who help me in my journey. I try not to listen too deeply to the voices that say that I cannot do it, that I will fail at whatever I try. I pay attention to the markers on the trail, listening to my fellow journeyers so that I can continue on the right path. I find shelter from the storms. But occasionally, I’ll step into the downpour, because I know that it is good to be cleansed deep into the cracks and crevices of my soul.

Confirmed and Commissioned

When I was twelve, the sixth grade Sunday school class lesson scheduled for the year was confirmation. Confirmation is an interesting practice that the United Methodist Church and other denominations use to shape and develop youth as they grow in Christian faith. We probably do it in part because our practice of baptism doesn’t revolve around believer’s baptism, and so we have created a way to celebrate a profession of faith in the midst of the life of the church for someone who grew up in the church. I think it is a good practice, mostly because it is a way to teach the foundations of faith and allow young learners to ask questions in spaces where it is safe to do so.

When I went through confirmation, it was with the group I had been in Sunday School with for the last six years. It was the last time I was with any particular group of people for such an extended period of time besides my immediate family. Even our girl scout troop was only together for five years. And I wonder why I don’t have concrete ideas of permanency. I haven’t even been with my husband that long yet.

Anyway. As I was saying. Confirmation.

I learned about the church, worship formats, Wesleyan heritage, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Welch’s Grape Juice, and other Methodist factoids. The class had a journal that I remember using for at least four months. We went on a Confirmation Retreat to St. Simons Island and Savannah, Georgia where we learned about John Wesley and the birthplace of Methodist in South Georgia. (Not exactly the way it happened… but South Georgia is pretty proud that Wesley walked under the Live Oaks and through the Spanish Moss there.)

All of our work and class-time culminated in a service of Confirmation during the Main Eleven O’clock Worship Service. We were all supposed to dress in white and sit together with our mentors on the very front row and then go up and kneel at the altar while we were confirmed before all the church. I didn’t have anything to wear, and my mother was still in her ‘make a dress for Kathy rather than go buy one’ phase. Good white dress material is hard to find. However, my very best friend growing up had lost her grandmother a year or two before then, and she still had some of the fabric from her collection. In the collection was a beautiful white fabric that hid a tint of purple depending on how you looked at it in the light. My mother took that fabric and made a beautiful dress out of it for me to wear when I was confirmed.

My Confirmation Celebration with Beth and Julie in 1995
My Confirmation Celebration with Beth and Julie in 1995

I still have that dress. It’s in the bottom of a drawer somewhere or in my collection of dress-up clothes, and I know it doesn’t fit anymore. It is still a really nice dress. I have been saving it for something. I don’t want to give it away. I want to keep it for my daughter, perhaps, or make a baptismal gown out of it for my children, or make a quilt out of it for my children. My children, of course, that I don’t have yet. I have moved that dress at least seven times since I grew out of it if not more.

I wore this dress for the first time that auspicious Sunday when I was confirmed. Kneeling at the altar, celebrating with my family, parents, sister, aunts and uncles, mentor Nancy, and fellow confirmands, I was celebrated as a full member of my church. As the Senior Minister and other teachers laid hands over me and prayed for me and my faith journey, I remember that moment as special, even if I don’t exactly remember all the details.

I would leave that church in a few short months because my father was being re-appointed. I went back a few times whenever we were visiting my grandparents, but my membership had moved on. The most recent time I went to worship at that church was for my Grandmother’s Memorial service. I read Isaiah 35 in the midst of the service which was a celebration of Janet’s life, love, ministry, and service in her church, community, and family. My membership began at that church, I was baptized at that church, confirmed when I returned, and now I could share a small part of my ministry with the gathered community present in worship.

Now I have been entered into a different membership. Friday, June 20th I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in my conference of the United Methodist Church. Now, for those who are outside the process, this can get quite confusing, but, it provisionally places my membership in the conference, beyond the local church. In effect, it extends the mission of the church by naming me as a member of the gathered community rather than a specific church family.

Part of the commissioning service includes the Bishop laying hands on each individual being commissioned and praying over them by name. After examining us by asking us questions about our beliefs and willingness to serve the United Methodist Church, Bishop Goodpaster pressed his hands on my shoulders and invoked the Holy Spirit to be present and poured out over my ministry, sending me out to “proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God, and to equip the church for ministry, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

My commissioning continues my call from my confirmation. From the laying of hands and the invoking of the Trinity at my baptism, through the confirming presence of the Spirit in my youth, to my submission to the call of God for me to be a pastor, God has been working in my life through others so that I can fulfill my call as a servant to the Church in God’s world.

I didn’t necessarily feel any different after the Commissioning service was over, but I did feel a great sense of relief along with a continued sense of responsibility to the Church. I don’t have to appear before the Board again this coming March, but now I have begun a new journey of discernment and growth.

Part of me still wishes I could have it more simple: wear a white dress and celebrate my faith. But my faith begs to be lived, not merely celebrated. God calls me to wrestle with the Word and help to build the Body in faith. It is a weighty call. I shall be courageous.

 

PS. Turns out I found that dress… and can put it on… kinda. Don’t worry. It doesn’t actually fit. Thought I’d share anyway. Sorry for the wrinkles. Check out those puffy sleeves!

My Confirmation Dress and Commissioning Cross
My Confirmation Dress and Commissioning Cross

Difficult to Receive

My signoff in my emails, phone messages, and benedictions is a general variation on peace be with you. I seek to grant peace to others as I go throughout my day and my ministry. I pray peace over church members in hospitals, with those who are grieving or caring for the ill, upon those who have difficult decisions to make. I want others to be more at peace because of an encounter with me. I want to be used as an instrument of God so that God’s peace and comfort will rest on others. I can work pretty hard at sending peace. It doesn’t always work.

Sometimes the hardship continues, the stubbornness remains, and the isolation sinks deeper. Sometimes peace is not to be had. Sometimes the situation is without a sense of peace. It’s not anyone’s fault, just that peace is too elusive in certain times in our lives.

See, with all this peace that I am trying to grant when I am with others, the peace that I seek is away from others. I want a porch at a cabin on the beach or in the mountains: no telephones, no cell phones, no clocks, and no computers. Just me, a cup of coffee or tea, a loved one, and nature. I want a space where no one will disturb my peace, where no one will come to disrupt and add their own agitation into my environment.

I think that partly I want that kind of peace because I have a environment where I work where at any moment I can be entered into someone else’s crisis. I can be called up on at a moment’s notice to go and try to bring solace and care and even perhaps peace to a unstable situation. These calls don’t happen very often, but the possibility hovers over me six days a week.

If I’m honest, seven days a week. Even though I keep Sabbath, it doesn’t mean that I will not get called—especially in a dire emergency—during my Sabbath.

I have realized, finally, that if I cannot let go of the need to extend peace to all people at all times in all places, regardless of the circumstance, then I will rarely find time to extend peace to myself. I’ll wear out. There will be nothing left of me. I realize that. But it is so terribly hard to listen to the dual call of God, to extend peace to others, and then also to receive it for myself.

The receiving is the hardest. I don’t really consider how hard it might be for others to receive peace in their spaces from me. But if it is this hard for me to receive it, as I know that I need it and that it will work to help me as I always continue to grow more whole, then I suspect it is equally as hard or more so for those around me.