Thursday, December 22, 2011

Play Your Drum

I'm learning what pastors around the globe know so well: that Christmas Is Different For Pastors.
The same truth reverberates - Emmanuel, God With Us. It has, however, sunk in that this year I work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and not only work, but serve to fashion a threshold between tired hungry human hearts and the Trinity.

The Advent season has been joyous at church, candles lit every week, new faces showing up in worship; in the past week I've swung from sitting with a family while a woman has knee surgery to taking the youth roller skating to chatting with a young woman who faces her first Christmas without her mom, a cancer victim, all the while catching Christmas songs on the radio, trying to keep my own Advent calendar up to date and trying new spritz cookie recipes until I'm too tired to keep my eyes open.

At 7:30 last night I told John I was going to bed, then discovered once there that my mind was whirring, despite the sinus infection I'm fighting. A little NyQuil, though, and I was out.

I love Christmas. My favorite time of year, and this year, I'm enjoying watching Jack get to rip paper off packages and exclaim delight at illuminated yards.

I wonder if the poinsettias are watered. I haven't watched "It's a Wonderful Life" yet this year. I need to call and ask who organizes the handheld candles for the Christmas Eve service.
Lots of "I" there, I see.

Truth is, don't say a prayer for me because it's a busy season, it's busy for everyone.
Say a prayer for me because I'm homesick, and say a prayer because I grieve. Those are the emotionally draining things, truly, not busy hubbub. I'm not the only one. Many people in this economy see their loved ones less, and many people grieve during the holidays. Pray for them too. For those separated by distance, separated by hurtful choices, separated by necessity. I think of military families and marvel at their daily strength.

It was a tiring Christmas for Mary, after all - travel over bumpy paths on a stinky donkey 9 months pregnant, then labor pains, then visitors kept bothering her blabbering about visions. I think it took a year or two for the wise men to arrive just to make sure Mary wouldn't tell them where to stick their frankincense.

Truth is, it's hard to feel Not Your Best or Not Your Holiest at Christmas, when you love the season and deeply want to create space for others to worship. Silly human instinct, really, to want to dress up to visit the Manger.

Most of us don't overly love "Little Drummer Boy," but I do, because sometimes I'm keenly aware that all I have to offer the Baby is the ability to bang loudly on a potentially annoying instrument. No bank account of gold, no Neiman Marcus myrrh, just myself, rhythm, playing in thanks for God With Us.

Here's my rhythm, Lord. My excitement at your birth. It's all I have.
I played my drum for Him...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Retrospective of Beauty

How time flies when you are immersed in something new. Since arriving in my little town in July, I have learned names; learned relationships; learned places; I have done many things For the First. Administering my first congregational Communion; interviewing and hiring for the first time; participating as clergy for the first time - at a funeral (when you picture your death, have you ever considered you might be someone's first? A funeral director's first job? A loved one's first eulogy?).

Firsts can be exhausting - as any parent will confirm. Since arriving in my little town in July, Little Guy has climbed up onto the dining room table for the first time; he has expressed preference for juice over milk for the first time; for the first time, he's been excited by a Christmas tree, instead of terrified.

But Firsts are foundations, concrete knowledge of how, introductions to pitfalls and practicalities. More than this, Firsts often show intent because skill is not yet honed. And on these foundations of Firsts, we all want to build Beauty. Real Beauty - not beauty products, like cosmetics; not beauty tips, like moisturizing advice.

I believe that we encounter Firsts, we choose them, no matter how big our learning curve or how fresh and new our enthusiasm, because we love beauty and wish to see it flourish. Every gardener has turned a spade of soil for the First time; every dimpled toddler hand has grasped a crayon for the First time and seen, with glee, the colored mark left on the paper. 
Since arriving in my little town in July, I have seen Beauty; and I have attempted to build foundations for Beauty to take root in, from which to grow and flourish like a scaling, climbing rose up a crumbling brick wall.

When you encounter a First, reflect. Step back, eye it, and say, "what do I want you to be, First? 

A First grandchild is born. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"

A First cancer diagnosis is received. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"

A First day at a new job is approaching. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"

A First move away since circumstances have changed. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"
A First holiday alone is faced. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"

A First daunting success is absorbed. "How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"
Because Beauty is Grace - grace to the giver, grace to the recipient. Think about it: gardeners revel in the sprouting work of their hands, but so do folks walking their dogs past the flowerbeds...

And when you come to the end of your life - as four people have done since I arrived in my little town in July - you will reflect on your Firsts, your foundations of Beauty, because you will be meeting yet another First - the First time saying goodbye for the final time. And when you reach the Last First, the question still remains:
"How can I build from this a foundation of Beauty?"

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sac-a-Burger and Daleks

I have become resident of two places since last posting here (eons ago): small-town Texas and a TARDIS.

It's been a whirlwind of Sac-a-Burger and Daleks, new faces and new species, cardboard and sonic screwdrivers.

First United Methodist Church of Kemp has a new pastor: yep, that's me.

And the Doctor has two avid fans - well, three really. John and I have been traveling space and time on a regular basis as we catch up on Dr. Who, and Jack rocks and bounces excitedly every time the theme music starts up. Of course, he does that to his favorite Geico commercial, too.

The dust is settling - we have more empty boxes than full, the stove has been toddler-proofed, I finally know how to unlock the front door of the church, and I know almost everyone's name.

The dust is flying - there are still boxes waiting, Jack's arms keeping getting longer and reaching new things, I'm still navigating the huge bunch of unlabeled keys, and shut-in's await visits...

But we feel at home. After a long, long journey, we are settling, and perhaps that's why we love watching the Doctor travel. We know newness and familiarity, we know homesickness and hearth contentment, we know the brazen allure of horizons and the traveling bug and we know the good warmth of an old kettle on the stove.

Pilgrims - every one of us. Finding our way, whether homeless and alone, or lifelong residents surrounded by community. 

Still - it'd be quicker to open the front door of the church if I had a sonic screwdriver...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Day of MotherJoy

For me, Mother's Day feels - yes, partly a day to be celebrated and appreciated. But mostly, and especially this year, Mother's Day for me is a time to reflect and give thanks. A day to relish being a mother, to think about the profound change wrought in my life by bringing forth a new life.

I love being a Mother. I was 28, barely, when I got married; a year and a half later, we learned we were expecting. Becoming a mother was something I'd thought about, pondered, kept in my heart.

It is everything and more.

This Mother's Day weekend, I celebrate my mother; my grandmothers; my mother-in-law; I celebrate women who have a newborn, a toddler; those who are single moms, moms of three children, moms who have lost children; aunts, godmothers, honorary aunts. But mostly, I celebrate being a mother.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Put Me on a Stretcher and Take Me to Jesus

It is Vigil still, the dark before the dawn. We are exhausted, the Church, weak with fasting and grief, but the drum beats a message in the watches of the night: morning, morning, morning will come, a reason to believe that Morning Always Comes.

Yesterday I said "I think that faith, at its core, is the man on the stretcher whose friends carried him to Jesus [eventually damaging a roof in the process]. Faith is saying yes, fine, take me to Him, I'm too tired to argue, whatever. Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus."

Friends, that has been my refrain this week: somebody put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus.

Monday: the innocent-looking box that held the prep kit for Sweet Husband and sent him into spasms of agony (colonoscopies are no picnic). Poor bloke is only in his twenties. Jack's molars are cutting through. Existential fall-out: hosting in-law's with whom we've set up camp are being appointed to a new church - two hours away. Existing pressure to find permanent work heightens to countdown pressure or move with them, about which they are extremely welcoming and kind. I didn't imagine moving out as moving out - all together, and moving in somewhere else - all together. Jack's molars erupting noisily. I go to the dentist with dental pain, fearing an expensive cavity. With laughter, discover the discomfort is caused by grinding my teeth at night. Purchase Nightguard  at Wal-Mart. Still stress, but stress that doesn't wear away mommy's molars. John can't sleep from the discomfort: he is awake all night. Monday finally over. At the end of my rope.

Tuesday: Jack wants to do anything but eat breakfast cooperatively. He senses tension in the air. Jack goes to play with tiny tot friend while I take John to have an endoscopy and colonoscopy. We pay $1200 down payment on this scoping and I'm thankful for the Nightguard. I sit in the waiting room, watching others being summoned to their loved ones. Is it cancer? Crohn's disease? Or something manageable - Celiac disease? Bacterial infection? It's not cancer or Crohn's, no ulcers in the stomach, little to explain the raging illness that comes in waves, leaving a pale, weak writhing figure in place of my strong, energetic, confident husband. Biopsies taken: maybe it's Celiac, maybe it's bacteria, maybe it's they don't we begin the wait for test results. I get my husband back to bed, and fetch my Sweet Baby from his play, and he's in a raging burst of energy, and I count hours til bedtime, and I'm so tired I take a wet diaper off and begin to walk away before I realize I've forgotten to put a clean one on. Tuesday finally over. Haven't been this tired since Jack was born - maybe not even then.

Wednesday - I can't remember Wednesday. I think there was a poached egg in the morning. Jack was a wild man, I'm pretty sure. John was very ill, I think. I don't remember. Maybe that was the day I ran errands to stay awake.

Thursday: Took a walk in the rain by myself with an umbrella Thursday morning. Blissful. Wish it would rain every morning just so I could enjoy the ritual daily. Quite an Oxford experience. Mostly a sanity-saving experience. John up a couple hours, resulting in pale fatigue. I think that was one of the days I napped when Jack napped. Started to worry about when I was going to get my freelance work done with all this illness in the house. Nana verbally processed various details of the summer move. Began to fray around the edges pretty critically, I think: I remember Nana and my mother in law murmuring and taking Jack to Maundy Thursday communion so I could rest and coming back and putting him to bed. Maybe that was the day I had melted down and sobbed in the bathroom for a while. Yes, I think it was. John watched Jack for a few hours so I could Cope. Still waiting on Sweet Husband's test results. Kept forgetting to check into oral surgeons in the area for his tooth-with-bizarrely-long-roots removal.  Jack still cutting molars, climbing on furniture, asking for DaDa.

Friday: Couldn't take any more stress. Took another walk around the Texan neighborhood with Sweet Tot in stroller. Got a call: brother taking Mom to emergency room. In Michigan. Go into surreal tailspin. Still waiting for John's test results. He watched Jack in the afternoon so I wouldn't lose my mind. Too exhausted to change pants to go to Good Friday choral presentation in the evening. And I told my mother in law, "I think that faith, at its core, is the man on the stretcher whose friends carried him to Jesus [eventually damaging a roof in the process]. Faith is saying 'yes, fine, take me to Him, I'm too tired to argue, whatever. Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus."

John is still suffering. Jack is still breaking molars. We still await test results. Mom is still being treated, in an ICU, for a strep infection in her blood, being tested and scanned and tested. We still await responses from cover letters and resumes.

Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus.

Tomorrow is the Hallelujah.

Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus.

Never has a Holy Week been like this, before - for me...

Take me to Jesus.

If I hear one more platitude, one more well-meant assurance that my troubles will cease (when I've learnt my lesson?), if I hear one more silence because my pain and circumstances are awkward for someone else to bear witness to...

Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus.

I don't know what I'm going to do with Sweet Tot, he keeps trying to roll over and crawl off the changing table when I'm changing diapers - sometimes, dirty ones...but he certainly won't stay still anywhere else, either...

Put me on a stretcher.

And they thought it was pneumonia but now they're not sure, they just know infection is traveling through her bloodstream, and they don't know where it's coming from, and she is hooked to IV's and I'm so tired I can't remember to put on a clean diaper after I've taken off a wet one, and prayer? What is prayer? Prayer is something someone does when they summon energy - isn't it? What energy?

Put her on a stretcher. Take her to Jesus. 

How much longer will my Sweet Husband be so ill? He's had it in waves off and on for two years. Don't tell me it's IBS. Is this related to his international travels a few years ago? Does he need probiotics? Antibiotics? Gluten-free diet? Stress-free diet?

Put him on a stretcher. Take him to Jesus.

I love making Easter dinner: ham with cognac glaze, asparagus gruyere tart, home-baked hot cross buns, cream cheese mashed potatoes, bleu cheese deviled eggs with dill, lemon tart. But the oven is cool, the pots and pans are empty and still, no sweet, no savory aromas steep in the kitchen, spilling out into hallways and closets. Easter dinner will have a waitress present.

Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus. I'm too tired to argue. My grief is my faith, my faith is my grief, all I have is tears and even they will soon be gone.

But there are those grasping the corners of the stretcher and taking me: in law's, cousins, uncles, friends that stick closer than a brother, and they count and on three they lift - one, two, three: she is risen.

Put me on a stretcher and take me to Jesus...He is risen indeed.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why I Like the Dallas Arboretum...

Gorgeous blooms: poppies in spring

Stunning water elements with water lilies, koi and shade

A beautifully symmetrical sunken formal garden

Only a few of the unique tulips on display

Artist friend Angie and her son bask in the color

Giant toads spout water alongside a bench

Brilliantly hued poppies

One of the many fairy tale castles to entertain kids with hidden clues

Rocks, stream, Japanese trees

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Tempest of a Lady: Elizabeth Taylor

I've never seen "National Velvet," that paragon of little girls' slumber party entertainment. I've never seen "Cleopatra" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," either - I think, soon, I will. The truth is that Elizabeth Taylor was so much a larger-than-life figure that for me, who grew up in her twilight years, she was already ubiquitous.

Though her Shakespearean contributions most famously included "The Taming of the Shrew," Elizabeth Taylor was her own personal Tempest. She redefined femininity in the twentieth century. She redefined a lot of things: what it mean to be a lady, what it meant to be married, what it meant to be fashionable, what it meant to support a cause. She was a Leading Lady in life.

Taylor's gentle youthfulness in films like the first one I saw her in - "Little Women" - lent charm to early photos that captured a beauty unsullied by heartache and tragedy. One journalist speculated that if her beloved husband had not been killed in a plane crash, she might never have had that infamous series of marriages.

She brought all this to bear in roles as raw as Virginia Woolf - a truly brilliant performance.

A woman who could easily have succumbed to bitterness - and photos from several years suggest she walked that line - Taylor instead turned her furies to humanitarian work. Whatever she did, she was a fierce storm, no matter how unexpected the direction - as when she was godmother to Michael Jackson's children.

Part of Elizabeth Taylor's glamour consisted of the way she deconstructed what it meant to be a lady, in a time when many actresses, like her friend Debbie Reynolds, portrayed a staunchly iconic image.

From a young age, I admired Elizabeth Taylor - partly because I liked sharing her name. Partly because she embodied old Hollywood beauty and glamour. Partly because she was a novelty to a rural, small-town girl (eight husbands??). I was probably the youngest fan of her "White Diamonds" perfume in existence.

It's hard to find a modern actress with which to compare Taylor. So many drown in self-doubt or over-expose. But her besetting fault was also her gift: Invictus-like, she lived with confidence, chips fall where they may. Taylor was never a size zero actress fretting on talk shows about her Pilates workouts. She knew how to maintain her mystique. Perhaps Kate Winslet's passionate emotion captures a glimmer of Taylor; perhaps Angelina Jolie's darker shades reflect the pain that informed Taylor's performances, as well as her humanitarian efforts.

But Elizabeth Taylor will remain untouchable as an on- and off-screen tempest. Remember why her career is so storied by tuning in to Turner Classic Movies on April 10, which will run a 24-hour memorial tribute, including some of Taylor's most famous films.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sharing: God, Myers-Briggs, and Self-Sacrifice

Recently, a friend commented on the links I constantly email her. Something like, "hey crazy, you always find the randomest things" or "hey crazy, you're always hooking me up with weird news" or "hey crazy..." I don't remember, I just have the vague impression of an implied "hey, crazy!"

The point is, I share. If I see an interesting story online - because I do like to take the pulse of the internet regularly - I email it to whatever friend might find it intriguing, or helpful, or bizarre, or hilarious.

It's what I do.

Now, I also engage in actual communication with friends. It's not a substitute for Real Relationship. I just like passing on info, whether it's an article on zombies and Lent (yep. exists.) or a recipe for Guinness ginger cake (if you're on a diet, no, no, of course that doesn't exist).

I think this habit relates to my Super Ultra Comprehensive Inventory. You know, the virtual one in my head, where I compile years of results of Myers-Briggs personality type indicators, spiritual gifts inventories, multiple intelligence theory rubrics, learning style analyses, and DISC leadership style tests. And those don't even begin to touch the "what notable historical figure would you be?" Facebook quizzes.

I'm always highly verbal, interpersonal and intrapersonally aware, encouraging, dominant or influencing, visual, intuitive, teaching, judging (it's a type, a swear!), and my spatial intelligence is somewhere around minus 1,000.

It's the book of me.

Except, of course, it isn't.

Because people are always changing; people are always hidden in some way - staying barely unknowable; and people are infinitely unique.

I know: psychological profiling is helpful insofar as people fit broad categories, or even specific categories, in general. In general, I will never employ my physical senses to interpret information before I intuit it. My friend Angie will. I never will. I will read an expression before I hear literal meaning of spoken words. That's part of what God knit together in my mother's womb, fearfully and wonderfully.

But what we do with what God gave us - that always changes, day to day. We lean in to God's vision of who we are called to be more or less on any given day - that creative masterpiece God had in mind when, in the dark galaxy of a warm womb, we grew. There are some corners of our souls no one but God will ever know, that no profile or quiz or inventory can quantify.

No matter how much I share, part of me is infinitely hidden. The still, small part vulnerable to a Creator who knew me as an idea, a future, a not-yet. This corner of my soul God knows as a parent knows a child, a parent who has gotten up a thousand times in the middle of the night to clean soiled laundry, stinking waste, with love, as if it were the treasure others could never know.

Share as much as I will, I reserve. Which is part of a truth I've long observed: talkative people keep secrets easily, because everyone assumes that because you talk a lot, you say all you know. When, in fact, it's all that much easier to conceal.


But sharing with God is infinitely harder than sharing with friends. At least, it can be. I reserve parts of my soul for God alone, hidden thoughts, like Mary, who "kept these things and pondered them in her heart."

Our human tendency is to hide our inmost selves from God - vain impulse that it is. When God comes walking in the garden, we hide. We make our excuses. We do not share. We do not commune. We do not chat. We promise to return the call.

In fact, God saw it was not good for man to be alone. We need people to email links to. We need flesh and blood to know us.

But that hidden part, unrevealed through texts or Tweets or pen and ink or stone and chisel - it is only known by Shared Flesh - this is my Body, broken for you - by Shared Blood - this is my Blood, poured out. 

We can share with God the Father because God the Son shared with us, shared our skin and organs and all. Shared our pain. Our suffering. Our grief.

Not only did Jesus reveal the nature of God to us - Jesus allowed us to reveal our inmost being. Our Truly Human.

From this place of being known, we can know others' suffering without drowning in it. Others share their pain with us and we remember Emmanuel, God Who Shares.

We need to be known. We need to be infinitely hidden. We need to Share.

AP and Reuters photos.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Burst of Color

The economic mood matches wide swathes of American landscape: brown, grey, invisible under stubborn mounds of snow, dormant. At one point, being dormant means quiet growth deep down, unseen but stirring. Every winter, though, dormancy becomes stale, and we grow impatient for signs of life. We need a burst of color.

In the Southern climate I peek out at from my window, there are a few early daffodils flaunting their arrival, like the first stars to step out onto the red carpet, eager. Down the street a - dogwood? - is wearing a beautiful gown of pink and white, fluffy and elegant and romantic, a sure classic.

But the rest of the world waits, because at this time in winter - even though our lifetimes ingrain in us the truth of spring - at this time in winter, it seems spring will never come again. An Ecclesiastical thought, perhaps, but it is difficult in frost and ice and death to believe that maybe, this year, Aslan will be on the move. We wait for a burst of technicolor, an Oz for the faith that awakens us from black and white Kansas.

You can't own color, you know. You can own red blankets or green houseplants or yellow cushions or purple paint, but you can't own color. You can create with it and arrange it and display it, but no one owns periwinkle. We receive color, as John the Revelator did, attempting to describe as best he knew how the Oz of the senses, in terms of lapis lazuli and pearl and gold and ruby - colors that hold light and shine them back in your face.

Thank you, God, for color.
For pale yellow banana,
Deep teal lake bottoms,
Flirtatious pink blossoms,
Rowdy orange bursts.

Thank you, God, for color -
when gloom clouds our eyes,
sadness weighs our faces,
bad news hunches our shoulders,
weariness stills our hands.

Thank you, God, for color -
That wakes our sepia dreams,
That displays the truth of spring,
That calls us to create,
That welcomes us to heaven.

"Firmament II" by Angela Nicole Lister,

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Sometimes It Takes a Village to Let Seniors Stay at Home"

For the record, this is one of the best articles on aging I've read in a long time.

And I read a lot of articles on aging. Call it a hobby.

It's interesting that in the age of globalization, what used to happen naturally now has to be formalized. But don't get me wrong: it is much, much better to formalize it and keep it thriving than to let community care fall by the wayside. And in an age of relocation, many people can't count on lifelong neighbors.

This is the kind of elder care I wholeheartedly support. Many seniors simply don't thrive in the geriatric dorms that are nursing homes, no matter how high rated a nursing home is. While specialized care is sometimes required, what if it's not needed as much as we think?

Religious organizations need to take notice of this movement:

Thinking creatively about how to age well will be one of the defining conversations of the next 20 years.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Homemade Naan: Naan Your Head Yes

More soon on The Time I Met Pioneer Woman: Sole Numbness, Baby Pee and Epic Thirst.

Totally worth it.

Meanwhile, scanning Ree's website this morning I found this ex*treme*ly exciting recipe from Tasty Kitchen. Given that I just mixed my ethnic foods last night, spreading Mediterranean hummus on Indian naan, I was thrilled. I'm all for making my own naan. 

I hope you try it! Follow the link below.

Step-by-Step: Homemade Naan

photo by Jessica Merchant

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Long Surrender: The Only Way Is Through

Today, I listen to the new album from my favorite band - Over the Rhine's "The Long Surrender." And I lean back, reflecting on surrender, acceptance, and a favorite word of one theologian - "docilitas". Being docile, submitted, accepting, in a peaceful, active serenity.

Sometimes, the only way to escape is to relax, the only way through is to go through.

Last night I met Ree - the Pioneer Woman. She sat for hours signing books, posing for pictures, smiling, writing, making small talk. I was in line for over three hours - and that was with a color-coded wrist band.

And even snaking around the edge of the Border's book store was sublime. I was where I belonged: in a book store, among a bunch of women, waiting for someone I was a fan of. Even though I had a squirmy toddler with me and I was dying of thirst, I was where I wanted to be.

And it's been a while since I felt that feeling: of being where I wanted to be.

We're living with my in-law's at the moment. In a state I'd rather not be a resident of. With my Kitchen-Aid mixer packed in a cardboard box and my Pioneer Woman cookbook packed heaven knows where. I live in a dorm-room set-up, cramming essentials and essential non-essentials side by side: computers, dressers, extravagantly large Craig's List free TV with XBox, my baby on the other side of the adjoining bathroom. Three rooms comprise my life - bedroom, bathroom, nursery. All other space is shared space, shared with Nana and Grandma and the ubiquitously Southern "Papaw." I keep thinking of the nursing home residents I knew who boiled down their possessions to what they could fit in one shared room - one single room if they were lucky and their children were financially able to provide it.

It's been a long surrender. A long way to sharing life with people who were family who I didn't really know. A long way through grieving the loss of cold winters and letting myself enjoy seventy degree February days. I chafe and squirm and wrestle as forcefully as my toddler squirms to escape my arms.

I could pin it on my Scottish blood, where independence is prized above all. I could ascribe my restless angst to human nature. 

What I really wonder is how, every day, I feel gratitude welling up in the midst of my squirming bid for escape. I feel deep contentment when I brush the hair off my little boy's forehead, when I watch the sleeping form of my curled-up husband, when I help Nana reach something. How can I feel both? Because I do. I squirm and smile at the same time. I chafe and rest simultaneously.

I could say something trite, like people should want to be where they are, instead of longing to be where they want to be. But I think that betrays our deep heart-long for heaven, even when we try to make heaven here on earth.

I long to be where I want to be. Sometimes, I don't even know where that is. Last night, I accidentally discovered I was right where I wanted to be. I am where I want to be, most deeply: with spouse-friend and baby. I am where I want to be: listening to lyrics that take me home, wherever home is. I am where I want to be: in a safe place with people who want me.

But some nights, I squirm for my Kitchen-Aid mixer and cookbook, that are not where I want them to be: packed in cardboard that is scampered on by lizards. 

Will I ever surrender? 

Should I, when I long for something good?

Do I have anything left to surrender?

Right now, all I know is that finding ourselves right where we want to be sets us free. Maybe it sets us free to be where we squirm, just a little bit longer.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Do Unemployed People Need from Churches?

It struck me the other day that pastors right now are in a strange position: many churches are struggling to meet their financial obligations, since giving has gone down, and needs have gone up. A lot of churches have hiring freezes or staff cutbacks: even famed Willow Creek went through a round of layoffs. At the same time, worshipers are losing jobs, investment income, and sometimes large chunks of their pensions.

Meanwhile, the unemployed population is often a transient population: folks are downsizing from large house to small, from small house to apartment, or are joining together to share housing with friends or extended family.

When a pastor stands up to preach on Sunday morning, how does she or he reach a guy who is uncertain if he'll be in the area six months from now? Job uncertainty keeps folks in the pews from making commitments to local church service since they might score an interview 2,000 miles away.

Church budgets are groaning, people have deep needs, staffing is frozen or cut, and faithful parishioners are abstaining from service commitments: what does church leadership do with that?

Here are some ways, Dear Church, that you can take a sticky situation and infuse it with grace:

Resurrect the church van. Why? Because families are downsizing, including their vehicles. Church vans can provide transportation to weeknight and weekend activities that doesn't cut into family gas budgets, and that compensates for busy parents who are working strange schedules due to the economy. It's "mass transit" for the church family.
-Act: Circulate a discreet sign-up sheet. If you're feeling frisky, announce it as "environmentally friendly church transportation" - that'll give dignity to those who are using it because they don't have an extra vehicle or are short on gas money.
-Note: Make sure drivers are properly licensed/insured. Always follow "Safe Sanctuary" practices when transporting children by having two adults present.

Start a job board. Resources may be scarce, but every church has an abundance of bulletin boards. Use one as a place for employers and laid-off folks to post their vacancies and skills on 3x5 cards. It's startling how easily church members pass each other like ships in the night. Provide a centralized location for people to connect.
-Act: Arrange a semi-permanent display in two columns for employers and job seekers. Frequently announce it in services and in bulletins. Have church office assist in keeping it updated.
-Note: Although some congregations use their websites for the same purpose, not all people have easy internet access; additionally, it's helpful for visitors to have an easily accessed bulletin board, and not to have to go online.

Offer one-time service or group activities. Men and women who are job-hunting are often working part-time, juggling childcare, or are in the midst of significant life transitions like moving. With a lot of stress comes hesitancy to commit to weekly studies or volunteer needs. Much more accessible, though, are one-time opportunities or monthly activities that require little commitment but offer fuel for the soul. Re-thinking activity planning can help keep people on the fringes engaged as much as they're able to be. With staff cuts and parishioner stress at a high, it can also be a way to plan successful activities without requiring too much from a bare-bones staff or overly-taxed volunteer leaders.
-Act: Work monthly or one-time events in to your calendar for the next six months. Explicitly communicate that they are "schedule-friendly" ways to be involved in the life of the church. 
-Note: Use one-time service events to help fill gaps from staff shortages - organize church spring cleaning or lawn care, plan a fix-it one-day blitz for senior citizens' homes, etc. Offer one-time creative activities as a relaxed environment for stressed families to enjoy. Another benefit: you're able to try things as a one-time activity that you wouldn't normally risk a six-month investment for.

Preach a Few Sermons on Vocation, Identity, and Spiritual Exhaustion.
When the economy is bad, sometimes God uses career uncertainty to call people into full-time service. While desperation should never be a motivator to enter ministry, sometimes shut doors funnel people towards the Church. A lot of discernment is needed in these times, and folks benefit from hearing sermons on calling and vocation. The psychological side of it is identity: parishioners all around the country are struggling to keep who they are separate from what they do. Do you lose yourself when you lose your job? Men and women who have been unemployed for longer than six weeks are apt to be unemployed a lot longer, even a year or two. Even if the federal government extends unemployment benefits, families are left with extremely tight budgets and sustained periods of high stress levels. Spiritual exhaustion takes its toll: not only are church members fighting to find a job, they're fighting to keep hope, to keep encouragement, to keep faith. Job searches merge with the physical tolls of sustained stress and emotional fatigue, sometimes bringing depression. Folks in the pews worry, "what's wrong with me? I can't feel anything anymore." Or even - "am I still a Christian?" What a ripe moment for pastoral leadership to take the opportunity to reaffirm who women and men are in Christ, to address depression and mental illness battles, and to reaffirm a solid theological understanding of the dark night of the soul.
-Act: Work with your (remaining) staff to plan a sermon series on the spiritual struggles of the laid-off, foreclosed, and broke. 
-Note: If your congregation does not have a pastor of counseling, or if your staff has had to lose a counseling position, liaise with Christian counselors in your area who are willing to partner with your congregation for a reduced fee.

Other ideas? Start a church garden, where participants work a few hours a week in exchange for receiving fresh fruits and vegetables. Plan a liturgy of blessing for job seekers. Offer continuing education courses from church members who are established in their fields: computer training, culinary instruction, management classes, auto mechanic workshops. If you have a growing contingency of newly relocated folks, find congregational "tour guides" who will host them around the city for a day. Begin a "God's Provision Prayer Partners" campaign, where volunteers take cards with a name of a jobless church member to pray for daily.