Thursday, March 20, 2014

god doesn't take, god receives

Last summer two of my Stephen Ministers (lay church people trained to do pastoral care) helped me start a grief support group at church.  If you're not in ministry this may sound weird but... it was great!  We had a good group that was open to sharing, and with three leaders conversation remained thoughtful and purposeful.  

Since last summer, though, attendance has declined a bit.  We're down to three people, and three leaders.  Honestly, I love our small group, but the size has been a bit disappointing to me, personally.  Like most pastors, I get caught up with numbers.  "Where are all the grieving people for our grief group!?" I ask myself.  But then I realize how strange that sounds.  "The number of people at grief group is not a measure of my success as a pastor."  This is one of my mantras.  

In reality we've had a number of people graduate from the group, which is a good thing.  It means that they are processing, and doing well.  The scarier reality, though, is that I want people to need me, which is not a good thing.  Granted, it's something we all do.  And, I'm aware of it, which helps.  

I often find that when I get disappointed or frustrated with my work, God has infinite ways of humbling me.  And I was reminded of this yesterday when our grief group met.  Three leaders, only two participants.  My thoughts going in, while I knew they were irrational, were, "this is a waste of our time," and, "what the heck am I doing here?"  Just keeping it real, folks.  Pastors have bad thoughts, too.

As soon as the conversation started, though, I felt the Holy Spirit moving- as She is apt to do.  We started talking about how sometimes God gives us gifts that are confusing- how grief might be a gift because, in time, it allows us to be more empathetic people.  Sorrow makes way for compassion, and that is how God makes goodness out of the badness in the world.

The question came up, of course, about how sometimes it seems impossible that God could be involved in the bad things that happen, like when a child dies.  "Why would God take a child?" someone asked.  

As per usual in grief group I didn't offer too much, right away.  The talking continued and the question was discussed without interjection from the pastor- I like to hold back and see how the conversation unfolds.  And although I wanted to hear what they all had to say, in my grumbly, self-righteous mood I was not prepared to be blown away by what they had to say.

As if it was scripted by some famous theologian, one of the Stephen Ministers answered, "I don't think God takes.  I believe that God receives."

Tears came to my eyes.  What a response.  How beautiful?  "God doesn't take, God receives."

I had never heard this before, so if it does come from some theological source I'm not aware of it.  And, frankly, how much more of a reminder did I need that ministry is not about me?  Thankfully God doesn't keep score, because I was at a loss for words.

Sometimes we don't even need to pay attention for these moments of grace, because they hit us like a ton of bricks right on the chest.  These words that just flow from people's mouths that are so wonderful they make it hard to breathe in the good news you just heard them say.

I walked away from grief group reminded of why I love church.  Where two or three are gathered, there you will find Jesus.  Whether you expected to or not.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

the internet, and sharing joy with care

We all know that Facebook is not the real world.  It's a virtual world where many of us only show our best, which is, I think, a good thing.  

Facebook is a place where we can share good news, accomplishments, and joy.  It's a venue to showcase our proudest moments.  But, that's also what makes it a rather taxing experience, for some.  

For some people Facebook is not fun place to visit.  It's a world filled with things they don't have, and probably want: the highest degree, a new job, a beautiful family, an engagement or marriage, a new baby, a great group of friends, a wonderful home, etc. etc.  It can be a painful experience to see all the things everyone else has, even if you remind yourself not to compare.  

On an intellectual level, I think we all know life isn't perfect for those people who seem to have it altogether.  But, it can be really difficult to remember that when you see pictures and updates of all the good things other people are getting, that you don't yet have.

I'm not saying that we should all filter to the point of never sharing our joys with our Facebook and internet worlds.  And I'm not saying we should sensor our pride for the accomplishments we've worked really hard for.  I'm also not saying that you should put bad stuff on the internet to "be real" or make other people feel better.  

I have seen some really beautiful posts on Facebook about struggles and grief, and they have elicited some amazingly supportive responses.  There is a place for that on Facebook, among other places on the internet, to be sure.  But, for the most part, you have to wonder what is going on when someone shares their low lows on Facebook.  And, you have to wonder even more when they do it consistently.  Sometimes when I read one negative post after another I cringe, and say a prayer for that person to go find someone to talk to other than the internet.  

What I'm generally concerned about for myself, and for others is this: how do I remain faithful in this specific world?  How do I care about people in this context?

I recently had a baby, and it really affected my perspective on the internet.  I didn't go to one extreme of never posting pictures of my child- I think Facebook is a valuable way for me to share this joy with those I love around the world.  But, I also limit how much of my joy I'm putting out there.  Do I post pictures of my baby every day?  No.  Did I brag about how easy my pregnancy and delivery was?  No.    There's a fine line, and everyone has to figure it out for themselves.  And the line that I use is this: am I really hurting anyone, in any way, by posting this on the internet?

Here's a re-gram.  Hard to resist as a parent, right?


I'm not perfect.  I've probably posted too many pictures for some, or bragged about something I shouldn't have that affected someone else.  That's not really the point, though.  The point is that I'm thinking about it, and considering the feelings of others.  

In my job I have the privilege of hearing about people's most joyful moments, and their deepest suffering.  It's a gift to listen, but it also makes me hyper-aware of what others might be going through that we don't necessarily see on the outside.  And that's why I try and watch what I put on the internet.  I don't want to put someone who is already hurting over the edge.  

Here's the last thing I'll say: people who don't have everything aren't always envious of what we have, either.  I know plenty of single, childless people making little to no money who are very happy!  And they're happy for others who are married, having babies, and making money!  So, we also shouldn't assume that people who don't have what we have lead unfulfilling lives, and we shouldn't' assume they're not happy for us.  

So, take this as a public service announcement of sorts, or take it as a way to be a more faithful, caring Christian on the internet.  Either way, know that I love seeing what you're all up to, and I love being connected to your joys and sorrows- virtually, and in person.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

this is what a pastor writes like

I am back after yet another hiatus.  Maybe this will just be the norm?  We'll see.  

Maybe I was doubting myself a bit with ye olde blog.  I figure what do I have to say?  Blogs seem kind of self indulgent, sometimes.  And, aren't there enough mainline pastors out there, churning out book reviews, discussing the latest current event through their own theological lens, or trying to amp up their hipster side with a post about how Mumford and Sons will definitely preach?  

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but good to check ourselves once in awhile, no?

So, I'm back because I was inspired last week.  You see, I belong to a little group called The Young Clergywomen Project.  We have a private group on Facebook where we share stories and questions, and offer one another support and ideas.  It's pretty cool.  And, last week, a young clergywoman, while wearing her clerical collar, was told, "you're not what I expect a pastor to look like."  Or something like that.  Well, SHE decided that we needed to band together and share with each other exactly what a pastor looks like.

We all took selfies of what we were doing at that moment with the hashtag #thisiswhatapastorlookslike, and uploaded them to our group.  And all of a sudden there were probably 100 photos uploaded of beautiful, smart, funny, brave, faithful women sharing photos of EXACTLY what a pastor looks like.  

I uploaded mine- actually, I was one of the first.  I added the hashtag #runrevrun.

I decided to come back to blog because my audience isn't just other pastors.  I write as ministry.  I write to support other women (especially young women).  I write as a spiritual practice.  I write because I'm a pastor with a congregation who might want to know what I have to say.  I write because the internet is a magical world where we can all be published.  I write because I am called, and faithful, and I have truth to share.  I write because #thisiswhatapastorwriteslike.

Just had to get that out.  Onward and upward!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Easter Relief

I’ve been hungry lately.  Not physically, of course, but spiritually.  Maybe it’s an after effect of Lent- I’ve been trying to empty myself, so naturally I might feel a few pangs.  Lent isn’t the easiest time, but I’ve been reminding myself that some of the most growing spiritual times in our lives come after, or through, a period of wilderness. 

During an early season practice of cross country one year (this was awhile ago!), I expressed to my friend during a run that ‘this isn’t as easy as some of my runs this summer.’  She quickly reminded me that, ‘it’s not supposed to be easy.’  Good friends tell you the truth.  

I’ve been thinking, though, that Lent might have been harder for me this year because I made an effort to reflect.  Usually it’s easier not to think about our lives- it tends to get messy and difficult when we ask ourselves hard questions (kind of like when you have a coach pushing you to run harder than you did during the off season).  But I did it this year.  And one of the things I think I discovered was this: I’m not always sure what I need.  I can’t always pinpoint where my hunger lies.  

Some of my friends who work in churches that are financially struggling, or in more urban settings, often have a very obvious sense of where the hunger is- they can see it right in front of their faces and it tells them how to get to work.  But for those of us who have everything, we often feel empty and don’t know why.  How could we feel empty when we have so much?

Barbara Brown Taylor hits the nail on the head with the same struggle: “Perhaps there is no proof a famine exists except the fact that people are hungry. In the land of plenty, the sourse of that hunger can be difficult to diagnose. It is often not until we have tried to ease it with everything else we know that we discover by process of elimination our hunger for God.” 

I often do try to assuage my hunger with other things besides God.  Food helps for about a minute.  Shopping tends to make me feel good a little longer.  But the hunger always comes back.

Thankfully, like a magic bullet of pure light, Easter came this year with it’s warm, sunny weather and in-laws bringing me Easter brunch to eat after a long morning of services.  And now that Spring has (finally) arrived I’ve started to feel some fullness.  Maybe the weather is a coincidence- to be celebrated at the same time as the resurrection.  

I did a graveside service on Good Friday, which seemed most appropriate.  Jesus had been dying in front of me for all of Lent, this year, but I was reminded that, as we buried her, he never left my side.  

And then, as it always does, Easter came.  Jesus (finally) rose.  I was fed.  And I had this sense that that was all I needed.  Jesus- imagine that.  He was what I was hungry for.  I just had to die with him a bit to realize it.  Christ is risen, indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

the e-word

This is my most recent letter in the church newsletter.  It generated a little commotion... which means it actually got peoples' blood pumping! 

Here you go.

On the rare occasion my whole family is together we almost inevitably end up talking about church.  We’re a churchy family.  We are SO COOL in my family (note sarcasm, here).

The thing is, church isn’t cool anymore.  No one my age goes to church.  In fact, most people of most ages don’t go to church- it’s just not the thing to do.  Granted, most folks in this country believe in something, but you can get that thing in nature (apparently, I’m more of an indoor girl, myself).

But I’m not here to barrage you with woes about church  attendance.  I want to offer a few  ideas, though, on how to get your friends to church.  It’s called… wait for it… evangelism.  And the most important thing about evangelism is building relationships.

Like I said, though, church isn’t cool anymore.  And frankly, relationships are hard.  People spend all their time dealing with relationships elsewhere, and they’re sick of doing it come Sunday.  They deal with relationships in business, with family, friends, children, colleagues, and they don’t want to do more of it in a place that isn’t going to move them, change them, transform them.

So here’s our dilemma: no one’s coming to church because church isn’t cool, but, those of us who are here, who are not cool, are called to evangelize.  Evangelism, I think, is best done in relationships with others.  But, who wants to be friends with uncool people?

Here’s what I think: I think people are craving community- real, authentic community with folks who care about them, and show them the Gospel.  But, they don’t have time to figure us out.  They think we’re weird with our rituals, our stories and our judgmental stuff, and they can’t see past all that muckity muck to the heart of the Christian life.  People don’t and won’t know what we are all about and how wonderful it is unless we build relationships with them.

There are a few people in this church who are darn good at relationships.  They remember your name, they call you up and ask you to lunch, invite you to sit with them in church, they ask about your kids, and, they even do the follow-up work- they tell you how good it was to see you there the other week.  They make you feel welcome, even when you only get here once in a while.  And they do it in a supremely uncool way- they do it because they love Jesus, so they love you, so that you can love Jesus and begin to know and love this community.  It’s beautiful.  It’s church.

There are some downsides to this process, though.  As an uncool person, you can tend to feel rejection easily.  I get it, but trust me, it’s not personal.  People do get busy.  They won’t come to stuff.  But, I beg you, please don’t write these people off.  Show them some grace.  They’ll come around eventually.  Trust that God is working on them.

Evangelism through relationships is hard work.  But knowing that you were  responsible for showing them the beauty of being in community and finding Christ?  That’s reward enough right there. 

So, go out you uncool church people!  Go pursue those people on the margins- write them emails, Facebook them, call them, tell them you want to SEE them, and do it in Jesus’ name.  They’ll think you’re weird, but they’ll love you (and Jesus) for it in the end.

Monday, December 24, 2012

christmas letter

Well, friends, we’re finally doing a Christmas letter.  And while we are not going to grace your mailboxes with a paper card with pictures of us and our beloved dog, you can rest assured that a tree will be saved.  We’re going green over here- check us out on Facebook!

Where to begin?  The last few years have been absolute insanity.  We made the big move from Minneapolis to Indianapolis in 2009.  I spent two years as a pastoral resident at Second Presbyterian Church, and Ben received his Masters in Public and Environmental Affairs from Indiana University (60 miles each way, about 5 days week!).  We loved Indy and all the people from church and school who made it feel like home.  Plus, Butler made it a pretty exciting time to be a Hoo-Hoo-Hoosier!

In the Spring of 2011 we were faced with the big decision of where to go next.  It was truly daunting, but we were geographically open.  After interviewing and meeting with the people at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church in St. Louis (the Midwest!!) we felt like that was where God wanted us.  I was called to Ladue Chapel, and, after a few months of networking, Ben landed, first, a short term job at the Regional Chamber and Growth Association where he wrote a project called “Greenprint St. Louis”, and next, a position at Lockheed Martin in energy efficiency (if he was writing this letter, he MIGHT be able to explain what that means!). 

Ben and I are, miraculously, doing what we went to school for (!), and doing what we love.  Needless to say, we are very grateful.

The other big piece of news here is that we bought a house this spring.  It’s over one hundred years old in a historic neighborhood in University City.  We are minutes from Washington University, Forest Park, The Delmar Loop, the Central West End, and so much more.  Ben has been doing project after project, and I have been hitting up estate sales.  It’s fun. 

Life is pretty good these days, but if we had one thing to complain about it would be that we do miss family and friends.  We are constantly aware that the experiences we’re getting by living in different places are invaluable, but we miss getting together with people on the weekend, or seeing family without planning travel.  We miss y’all!

Despite all the change, transition, and distance, we have found a home here.  God is good.  We have dental insurance.  What more could you ask for? 

Our prayer always is and continues to be that God’s grace and peace will find you.  And, may you find joy in 2013!

With love,

Sarah (and Ben!)

Monday, December 3, 2012

listen, friends.

Advent is here, and it’s great- my favorite season in the church year. 
Last night we had our annual Watcher’s Eve event, which includes a casual worship service in the afternoon, bell-ringing, dinner, and a “Hanging of the Greens.”  It’s such a wonderful way to usher in Advent.  Watcher’s Eve, though, is loud and chaotic- it’s a family event and should be that way!  Kids are crafting and adults are chatting, and much merriment is made. 

I had a new member come up to me toward the end and tell me that she never really knew about Advent, before.  She has been Baptist her whole life until recently, and they didn’t observe Advent in her church.  She commented at how much she appreciated this event, to kick-off the in-between time of Advent, when we watch, and wait, and listen, anticipating the birth of Jesus.  She marveled at the tradition of it, and the significance it brought to her heart. 

Needless to say, I was elated.  Someone got it.  Someone NEW got it.  There IS joy and wonder in this season of hope.  Job well done, Sarah (ahem, I mean Holy Spirit).

I read an article in the New York Times recently about listening.  It’s a lost art, apparently, though I don’t think I needed the newspaper to tell me.  Listening makes up a large part of what I do, but I don’t think that’s true for a lot of professions (it doesn’t earn you the big bucks).  Nevertheless, it reminded me of Advent and what we’re supposed to be doing in this season, and other liturgical times of year (like Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.).  They’re helpful reminders to practice things that aren’t quite natural to us, in order to remind ourselves of what’s important- in this case it’s that Jesus came, and promises to come again.

At the end of the article the author writes this: “‘You never listen’ is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

It seems simple, but it’s true.  As a culture we’re not good listeners.  In Stephen Ministry we talk about how, when you’re actively trying to listen to someone, if you catch yourself thinking of a personal story that relates, you’ve already stopped listening.  Think about how often that happens.  Maybe the more interesting point isn’t that we can’t listen, but that we think too much about ourselves?

Anyway, this time of year always clues me into a different rhythm.  Through watching and waiting and listening, I’m reminded that it’s not all about me.  Like the author said, if you listen, you come to new realizations.  If you pay attention you give up the speed of life for something that could be much more meaningful. 

In John 18 Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying (to Pilate, and to us) that you can’t just stop and listen here and there, at random.  To belong to truth you must practice it. 

Advent is a good reminder that to belong to the truth, to really hear Jesus, we must listen for his voice- wherever we are.  His words are a call, a commandment, and a prophecy.  He must have known where we would be some 2000 years later, deafened by the sounds of our divided attention during the craziness of this season.

So, I’d say this: start practicing this Advent.  Begin listening, even in the noisiest of places.  If you do, at some point, you’ll hear the truth, which is in Christ.  And, you’ll find yourself in the most beautiful of places- awake to the wonder and awe and anticipation of Advent.  Maybe it’ll even stick with you- MAYBE you’ll make it your New Year’s resolution (though, disclaimer: that is not a liturgical season). 

If it happens, make sure you tell me about it.  ’Cause dang, I think news like that could get me through this whole year. 

I’ll be waiting, and listening.  Amen.