Clergy Couple’s Lament

screenshot-2016-12-03-09-40-21IF…

IF…you assume that the Spirit needs me here and you there for whatever inexplicable reasons…

THEN..

THEN…it behooves us to find joy in the journey, in the service of the One who loves us and brought you and I together.

ALAS…

ALAS…I struggle with finding the joy when the sun begins to set and you are not beside me for the evening meal and sleeping.

STILL…

STILL…IF…THEN… joy is necessary and is actually present when I look for it.

SIGH…

SIGH…just SIGH.

Love you.

It’s What I Do. 

When one of our beloved flock are nearing death, we live in dread of the next phone call or text. That’s the way it is for clergy.

When the call comes, our carefully planned day or day-off drops to the bottom of the priority list. The dreaded communiqué and our response disrupts schedules and family time. Yet, we don’t complain. This is the job. We respond in love without resentment. That’s how it is when you’re called by the divine. Though I don’t exactly find joy in this aspect of my work, I have a sense of satisfaction and peace in being with families.

I also feel a private sense of grief. Always.

My grief can be simple and straightforward: I feel sad for others. If it is someone with whom I’ve had a deep or longterm relationship my sadness can take awhile to process. Nonetheless, out of love I set my feelings aside to be God’s presence for the deceased’s family and friends. That’s the job. That’s the calling. It’s what I do.

Sometimes, however, the death triggers a personal emotion. That’s what happened recently. Both clergy, my wife and I minister 165-miles apart. We manage the distance well. I feel as called to my rural congregation as she does to the suburban hospital where she is chaplain. Still, I don’t like it.

Dealing with unwanted separation in my own marriage I am sensitive to the grief of departures and time apart. The death of a parishioner’s spouse is prone to trigger my own feelings. This can especially be true when an aspect of the couple reminds me of my own relationship.

***

When the text came recently, I was over a hundred miles away. When the text came recently, I didn’t question where and with whom I must be. This is the job. This is the calling. It is where I needed to be.

This time the triggered emotion, coupled as it was with a tragic death the week prior, and the too soon departure from my own wife, I found myself sobbing as I drove the freeway to be with the widow.

I thought about the grieving family. A family I love has been struggling for far too long. I sobbed and prayed for them. Without the drive, my emotions would have remained in check until the quiet of the evening or days later.

I didn’t just sob for the family, however. I sobbed for myself. My personal feelings had been triggered. This is the job. This is the calling. It is what I do in my alone time surrounding a death.

My own overly sensitive feelings about detaching from my wife cascaded down my face. I thought about the choices we make for our jobs, our God. I thought about quitting outright and becoming a househusband. I fantasized about living with my beloved full-time. This is what I do when we must part. These were familiar thoughts, not enough to cause sobbing.

And, so, I prayed for my own relationship. I did not pray for our circumstance to change. I know that, at least for now, this is the job. This is our calling.

I thought about our deaths with eyes open. One day, one of us will die and leave the other. The widow with whom I would soon sit, was not an aberration. This is the nature of life, death will come.

I thought about the depth of aloneness one of us will one day feel. I prayed that when the time comes, my wife should die first. I hate the constant separations of our present, dread going on alone after her death, but I do not want my beloved to have to feel that pain. I will gladly take it upon myself, I told the loving spirit that connects all of creation.

This is the marriage. This is a calling. This is love.

Am I Wasting What Time I Have?

It can be extremely rewarding and gratifying but this month, it is hard. Ministry is hard.

We spend half our time 165-miles apart and I’m done with it. Done, done, done. I ache. We’ve been at this for over three years. Before that we dealt with 350-miles for the three years while I was in seminary. There was a brief period between in which we lived together, in which we slept in the same bed every night.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re challenged by separation and distance. In my focused meditative Bible reading leading up to my seminary years, I perceived the Holy Spirit speaking to me about the cost of my call. Following God can sometimes involve leaving family behind, at least for a time.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said,  “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-27 CEB

No, I don’t think God is trying to break us up.  The still speaking God, however, hinted to me about the very kind of challenges we’re enduring. I naively thought they would end once we finished my seminary years.

I’ve grown weary about what it means for a clergy couple to respond to our individual calls from God and remain true to our marriage vows. We both work hard in our respective ministries. We also remain strongly committed to one another and make good use of texting, phoning, and Facetime to maintain our relationship.

But it is hard.

Ministry can be lonely work under the best of circumstances. When you are faced with personal struggles of loneliness, there is often no one to whom you can turn. The role of the pastor (me) and the chaplain (my wife) is to listen to others rather than talk about our own problems.

I have found healthy ways to cope. I exercise regularly. I maintain friendships of mutuality outside of my tiny community to the extent I’m able. I sit with my feelings and accept them without judgement. (Well, sometimes.)

But it is hard, especially in weeks like the last few.

Having survived Holy Week with its extra pressures and services, I looked forward to some downtime with my wife. As is prone to happen, death comes on its own schedule rather than on mine. Word reached me that a beloved member of our church was nearing his final breath. I kissed my wife and traveled 165-miles to be with the dying saint of the church. I did not get to pray with him the one last time I’d hoped. He died while I was en route.

The time apart from my wife has been more emotionally difficult since this death. I’ve been weepy. I’ve been clingy. I’ve been a bit on the controlling side.

This is what sometimes happen when standing and praying with a widow as she bids the body of her husband of six and a half decades goodbye. Her emotions mingle with my own and I wonder if I’m wasting the little time I have with my own beloved to minister to others.

Ministry is hard, especially when my emotions get all tangled with others.

I don’t know whether I’m wasting the little time I have with my own spouse. At the end of the day being a non-anxious presence for others, I just don’t know. All I can do is sit as quiet tears fall down my face.

A Maundy Thursday Litany

A Maundy Thursday Litany
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

Across the millennia
our ancestors of the faith call out
to each of us:

Eat.
Drink.
Immerse yourselves in the love, they remind us.

Across the millennia
our descendants of the faith
reach out to hear a word
about the Table:

Eat.
Drink.
Immerse yourselves in the love, we remind them.

Across the millennia
our ancestors and descendants
join us tonight:

We are one people
gathered together in the present, in the past,
and in future.

We are one people.
We are called to love
as Jesus loved.

Jesus is here.
Now.
Always.
Forever.

Jesus is here.
in the past,
in the present,
in the future,
and outside of time.

Come to the Table.
Listen to the voices.
Remember and be changed. Amen.

___

Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

 

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TP on the Communion Table?

TP on the Communion Table?

501-toilet-paperMy snarky and sarcastic side imagines a sermon in which I dramatically remove the cross from the communion table and replace it with a toilet paper holder. In this fantasy, I would point out that our focus should be on the teachings of Jesus rather than toilet paper.

Of course, my pastoral and rational side knows that would be counterproductive and arguably blasphemous. It would also be mean.

I am a part-time pastor. As such, I am very conscious of how I spend my time. I accepted a part-time call so that I had time to work on writing and photography, with a future book in mind. Days like today remind me how I’ve failed at making my non-church endeavors a priority. It also reminds me of not only my humanity but that of those inside the church.

Part-time ministry is challenging. No matter the size of the church there is always something more that needs to be done: someone who could use a visit, a a liturgy that needs tweaking, or study and preparation for a sermon. Ministry can also be filled with issues that, at least on the surface, seem to be silly and absurd.

Today I had a lengthy discussion about the toilet paper holder in our two women’s rooms. The absurdity is that I’ve had multiple discussions about this issue and thought it was solved. Like so many things in the church, everyone has an opinion. Like so many things in the church this is as much about personalities, hurt feelings, and woundedness that has little to do with TP or even the church itself, as it is about a toilet paper holder.

My already busy schedule for tomorrow now has multiple conversations I’d not anticipated. Though I laugh to myself at the superficial absurdity of the attention this requires, I know these will be critical pastoral encounters. Folks need to be heard. Hurts are real. Power relationships are in need of realignment.

Folks need to feel the presence of God as we strive to grow as community. And, so today I laugh to myself, I fantasize about TP on the Lord’s Table, and I pray. I pray the extravagant spirit of love uses me for good. I pray that as flawed human beings we — myself included — grow in our communication skills, are slow to point fingers, and are willing to forgive.

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A Text at the Gym

A Text at the Gym

gymI got a text while at the gym today. While I’m certainly not the first person to get a text while sweating profusely, it jolted me out of my sabbath focus on mind, body, and spirit.

The text was about a church matter: not earth shattering, not inappropriate, not emotionally-laden. It was simply a plain Jane text that required a response. Welcome to ministry in the twenty-first century. The connectedness that allows me to pastor a church in an isolated frontier community while my wife serves as hospital chaplain ninety miles away, also makes it hard to escape.

One of the things I like about pastoral ministry, particularly in a small community, is the holistic lifestyle. Some of my most critical ministry encounters happen at our tiny grocery store or at high school sporting events. My work and daily living are integral to one another. It is challenging from moment to moment sometimes to know whether I’m on-the-job or not.

This is also one of the things I intensely dislike about pastoral ministry, particular part-time pastoral ministry. It is difficult to get away emotionally. At times, I can feel like I’m being stalked by my call. I find it difficult to focus on the projects and work for which my my off-time is designed.

Most of the time, however, I like that being a pastor is about being, about leading a holistic lifestyle. My faith, the essence of ministry, is about presence. I can no more compartmentalize my spirituality to certain days of the week than I can eat every other day.

If the price is an occasional text at the gym, I can live with that.

My Fault and Her Choice

My Fault and Her Choice

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. It was my fault.

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Photo by Tim Graves

The first complaint came on the Sunday I suggested in my sermon that Christians do not have to love their neighbor alone. That is, because the golden rule crosses the boundaries of traditions we can work together for the common good.  I believe she expected me to repudiate the implicit message that human beings can reach the divine through many different paths.

I did not.

I told her that there are multiple ways to interpret her beloved John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Explanations of the historical context in which it exists didn’t soften her stance. Discussing the overall inclusive message of John didn’t change her view. Encouraging her to pray and reflect didn’t help.

In the end, I appealed to her own restoration movement church background, in which interpretive agreement is not required for fellowship. In short I said, we don’t have to agree on this point to live and love others together. That didn’t help much either.

Her tactics to convince me of my misguided ways included drive-by attacks on Facebook when I posted quotes or other items that were, frankly, innocuous by most standards. A Thomas Merton quote, for example, could degenerate into accusations that caused me to finally shut off the thread.

Over time her concern became more and more about me. She called me a “false prophet” or one who leads people away from the truth. The final straw that led to her resignation from membership was that the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC and I took public stances in support of marriage equality in Oregon. But let me be clear: her departure was about how we interpret the Bible.

I read the Bible as the expanding story and theologies of people of faith over centuries. To me, the Bible’s truths are not in the precise words on the page but in the loving God who inspired — and continues to inspire — people to grow into the image of God in which we are all created. She reads our shared sacred writings in a more constrictive manner.

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. Come to think of it, it was her choice.

___

Watch the Golden Rules video I created and showed on the Sunday that prompted the first complaint:

For a good discussion of John’s “I am the way,” read this blog by Crystal St. Marie Lewis. http://crystalstmarielewis.com/2014/05/18/what-theologians-wish-everyone-knew-about-john-14s-i-am-the-way-proclamation/

___

Related Posts

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011
Aliens Among Us (sermon), July 25, 2014
Weary of Literalism, June 21, 2014