Learning to rest: The Pastor and Self-Care

My first semester of training to be a chaplain (called CPE — Clinical Pastoral Education) introduced me to the concept of “self-care.” Not in a hedonistic, it’s-all-about-me kind of way. It was instead about the idea of personal boundaries and best use of self. It also was about preserving my longevity as a pastor. And it challenged my understanding of my being.

You see, I was a musician in my first careers. It was all about the product, the performance, the skills like tempo, dynamics and phrasing. The intricate underlayment of scales and arpeggios had to be executed perfectly. A passing grade, we musicians like to say, is 100%.

But that’s not how life works. And it’s also not how things fly in ministry. In the people-caring business, stuff gets messy. We botch stuff. A lot. This rankled. I didn’t like it.

I had to redefine myself. It was not what I could DO. It was not based on my performance. It was all about who I am, down to the deepest part of my BEing.

I struggled. (I still do!)

The pianist/vocalist/worship leader has to take a step back. The person, the pastor/chaplain (who is still a musician, parent, wife and family member) needs to leave room for do-overs. And there also has to be time to rest.

I’ve always been a 1000% kind of gal. My mom once described me as “busy.” As a toddler, I was forever getting into something. As number 5 out of 7 kids, I think I made it to school age because of lots of baby gates, older siblings, and strategic placement of furniture. (This was not my parent’s first rodeo. But apparently, I tried some new tricks.) I would go until I crashed. Get up, and go again. I guess you could say I wasn’t afraid of a challenge.

IMG_6450But ministry is not a race. It is first a relationship with God, and cultivating the soul. That’s not something that survives on speed-dating. It’s a long walk. It’s being still and knowing. It’s finding a way to tune my heart to God’s heart.

So I took a magic pill of two parts Wisdom and one part Peace, and now I don’t struggle with this any more. One day I just woke up and – POOF! – all my problems were gone. I was a great pastor, an amazing chaplain, a good wife and mom and a bestie of friends.

And that was a lie. I hope you caught the sarcasm…

No… it’s much more a process of learning to take breaks. To walk outside. To read, pray and listen. To go get a pedicure and massage. To pet one of our cats, and focus on slowing my breathing. To go swim a few laps not just because I need exercise (though I do) but to feel the pleasure of water sliding across my arms and legs.

To be mindful that this journey I am experiencing is completely in God’s hands.

Even the days that suck.

ESPECIALLY the days that suck.

And to find a way to see God in the midst of my life.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above!
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

– Rev. Robert Robinson, 1735-1790

Why It Matters: Reflections on Ministry, Life and Activism

I am both an idealist and a pragmatist.

This means that I have far too many interests and passions than I have money, time and energy. It also means that I can become distracted from what is most important in my life, and I have to take a step back and reflect.

Inevitably, I come to the conclusion that I can’t do it all, nor should I try. But that doesn’t stop my heart from breaking, just a little, when I hear about a tragedy or an injustice in a place far away from my home.

This was certainly true for me recently with the recent kidnapping of Nigerian female students. (I don’t like calling them “schoolgirls” — it is a slightly degrading term to my mind.) I thought of our own lovely daughters, brilliant, lovely and kind. I thought of the concerns I have with our progeny, living on their own just over an hour away. The “mama bear” part of me was angered, to be sure. Who could DO this to young women, and think that it is OK? Why are they getting away with it?

I know what the kidnapping group stands for (though I don’t name them because they do not need the notoriety.) I know that they do not value women being educated or in leadership. But there is more to my reaction than that.

A lifetime ago, I went on a short-term assignment to Jos, in the Plateau State of Nigeria. I raised my own finances and lived in a place that was well-populated with missionaries. I worked in the local church as a musician, though the Western music they wanted me to teach them was completely inappropriate for the joyous worship and songs of their own people groups. Instead, we figured out a way to add piano to their drums and made a joyful noise. (It was truly a noise of some sort – the piano in the sanctuary was missing strings and badly out of tune. No one cared. It was about worship. I learned something from my Nigerian friends.)

I looked back now on this experience, and I realize it really was not what I came to do with the church, but what I learned about myself.

Part of my experience was a bit surreal. I lived by myself in a 3 room apartment (palatial by local standards). I learned how to cope with hand laundry, iffy electricity, water purification, harmattan and buying my groceries at the market. I learned that I could pluck a chicken if I had to. I learned what my privileged birth and citizenship meant in terms of rights, and responsibilties.

Perhaps most important of all, I learned that the unconditional love and friendship extended to me by my new friends in Jos was not based on anything I could DO for them, but instead, because I was a sister in Christ. I experienced agape love — what I had only heard preached about I experiened deeply and personally.

So when I heard of the kidnappings, my heart sank. For the last 13 years, there are have been numerous reports of strife and animosity between factions of Christians, Muslims and animists. These reports tend to get glossed over unless you follow the RSS feed of an advocacy group. It is beyond our understanding as Westerners and outsiders. It is not our country, our culture, or our perspective. Indeed, all we can do is pray.

I pray because I have memories associated with some of the places that you read about in the news. The churches where I worshipped have long since been burned to the ground. While we in the Western world were fixated on the tragedies surrounding 9/11, there were over 1000 people killed in riots in Jos over a 10 day period in September 2011. It didn’t make the mainstream media coverage then, either.

I pray because of the cries of parents and grandparents, siblings and friends. Anyone who has been through a traumatic incident will tell you that the feelings of isolation and powerlessness are overwhelming. Even the most connected among us have this bewilderment, of betrayal, of anger at circumstances that have spun out of control.

I pray because while they are not “my” girls, they are known and loved and cared for by their families. They have a community, a school, a hometown. They have dreams. They live with fear. They have grown up in a world that is so foreign from mine. And yet, as my Nigerian friends taught me so long ago, they are fellow human beings, sisters under the skin. They are of value. They are loved. And — they are being oppressed, their rights invaded, their bodies tortured.

I can’t change anything with one blog post. But I can continue to pray.

The reality of these kidnappings, at first denied and then downplayed by Nigerian officials, was slow to get mainstream media’s attention. Their names have been published. The names — which some say put them at greater risk, actually give an accounting to the kidnappers. It says, “We know they are missing.”

You are welcome to disagree with me. But I will pray. By name. For these young women to be released and safely restored to their families.

As of this writing, the list of names is now being publicized as first names only. Choose a name. Or names. And keep praying.

No, they are not “our girls.” And yet. They are OURS. 

So, I pray.

 

A week of learning

I spent this last week at the ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counseling) annual conference in Baltimore. I came home with information, ideas, lots of free pens and post-its, and some new friends. I also have a mind full of research ideas and questions.

Towards the end of the last day, I sat in the meditation room, overlooking the Baltimore Harbor.

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There was a lot of traffic. Sailboats. Ferries. Pleasure boats. Cars, buses and trucks. And foot traffic.

From my perspective, I could see the ebb and flow of traffic, the places where the traffic patterns would ease soon, and where there would be a longer wait. I watched people shiver in the shade (the breeze was quite chilly) and watched them take off jackets and sweaters when they sat for a while in the sun. In short, I could see patterns and purpose in what were minor inconveniences.

There are many times that I complain, “I JUST don’t GET it, God!”

My frustration, in the moment, is because I can’t see from a Divine perspective. I sat in the room for a while, watching, waiting and praying. My vantage point helped me reflect and be at peace.

I have perspective, but no clear destination. Even so, it is a wonderful experience to sit and feel the warmth of God’s care for me. I don’t need all the answers to experience that.

It brought to mind this quote by Thomas Merton:

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

So, so true. God never leaves nor forsakes us.

Blessed be.

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Watching Expectantly

Throughout Lent, Rachel Hackenberg sent out via email a daily prayer “seed” for reflection and journaling. This is the second year I have done this Lenten practice. Most of my prayers are far too personal (and whiny) that I’d let them see the light of day. But today’s prompt is probably far closer to “real life” for myself and many others…

Rachel writes:

In the stillness and uncertainty of Holy Saturday, we reflect and pray with the sixth of Jesus’ seven last words: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)

Pray for mercy in those things that are ending in your life. Perhaps it is just Lent that is ending. Perhaps a loved one is taking final breaths. Perhaps a ministry is changing, or a job, or a relationship, or a perspective. May grace and peace find you as you sigh with Jesus, “It is finished.”

Watching expectantly
Watching expectantly

Our big cat, Henry, is a patient sort. He will sit and wait for people to walk through the door. He will sit at a window and watch for birds that land, ever so briefly, on the window sill. He has mastered the art of living “in the moment.” I confess to being envious.

I have been in a state of transition since I started seminary. Like transition in labor, it’s been intense, personal, and painful. And like the course of labor, eventually, it will end. The end result, still known only to God, will come at the appointed time.

I confess I am tired of waiting. I am a “do-er,” not a “be-er.” I want to get up and go, not sit and wait. Perhaps that’s why the walking meditation of my labyrinth is so calming and peaceful to me. I am not choosing the path, I’m just walking the pattern, slowly and quietly. I’m not picking a direction. I’m just following.

Most of us, I suspect, are also not chill-and-wait types. Oh, we can find time to pray, or meditate. But we aren’t skilled at lengthy self-introspection, (or we think it’s a waste of time, this “navel-gazing!”)

I am learning to “be” while I “do.” It’s hard.

For all of his watching and waiting, Henry knows how to be persistent in asking… for attention. For a lap. For a snack. So, it seems to me that even though we may be watching and waiting for that Spirit-breathed change, it is OK to storm the heavens with our prayers.

Oh Lord,
I confess I have not been faithful
in watching and waiting.
Oh, I have watched.
And I have certainly waited.
But even as I do,
I complain.
I grumble.
I give You rather pointed “suggestions.”
I struggle with contentment.

On this Holy Saturday,
I have tasks to do
Like laundry and errands and driving here and there.
So as I “do”
May I be aware
of Your work
Your plans
Your love
Your compassion

I pray for myself, and for friends and family
who are suffering.
I pray for the mundane and the miraculous.
For health
For jobs
For family members
For peace in our world
For clarity in decision-making
For perspective
For joy, even in waiting.
For You alone direct my path
and guide meI love you
and I trust You
Forever and ever,

Amen.

The last days of Lent

It is only mid-April. We have the hints of spring here and there. Last night we had a hard freeze, which meant that the most vulnerable of my plants needed protection from the cold. While I could move the planters into the garage or cover window boxes, I couldn’t move my prize peony, one that is from a start from my grandmother’s garden. (I admit. I baby it!)  Since the peony has just sprouted, it is a little more vulnerable to the frost. I put a box on top of it, weighted it down with large rocks, and hoped for the best.

This morning, I checked the plants, and they are all fine. But the rocks, frozen solid into the top of the box, were stunning. It looked like a modern art piece. You know. Something like “Rocks on a Box.”

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It was lunchtime before the ice had melted enough that I could pry the rocks from the ice. We’ll have to set the box back over the peonies tonight, but for now, the plants are enjoying the sunshine of a fine spring day.

I thought about the changes that have come over my yard since Lent began. When I first walked my labyrinth in the early weeks of March, there was snow…

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In between snow storms, there was a fine sea of mud…

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And now we have the hints of green. It’s time to brush away the leaves, pick up branches and start really looking for signs of spring. Like the forsythia. And the vinca. And the daffodils. And the oak and maple trees.

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Life and growth return slowly when things have been dormant. This is true in the cycle of winter to spring, and it’s true in my own spiritual life.

Change and growth never seem to be fast enough, at least, not for me. The process is not a linear one, it’s more in fits and starts. And it is only looking back, thoughtfully and kindly at ourselves and others, that we see change.

In my Lenten disciplines, I’ve tried to be more intentional about what I eat, and how I spend my time. I’ve worked on mindfulness of my self care and my awareness of God’s work in my life. The changes are slow, but they can be seen.

Thanks be to God.

New life, New growth
New life, New growth

Love lives again, as with the dead has been. Love will come again as fruit that springeth green.

More Lessons from the Labyrinth: Slow Steps

Labyrinth in the snow
Labyrinth in the snow

There’s lots I’m pondering and praying through right now. Especially the last two weeks, I’ve been in a period of intentional listening. I was a finalist for a job, but wasn’t selected.

What do you want, Lord?

I ask sincerely, not desperately. It’s not like I haven’t been listening all along. I’m on the right track. My Calling is clear: my work will be in some kind of intentional ministry. If not in a healthcare setting, then in a church or nonprofit. Where I can use my gifts in administration, organization, music, creativity, spiritual care and communication. Where I can work towards continuing my education. And where I’m actually compensated for my work beyond a “stipend.”

So I walk… quietly. Thoughtfully. Carefully. I would rather avoid the pain of rejection again, but I also know that part of this process is being willing to persevere. As Eugene Peterson wrote in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships.”

No… avoidance won’t work.

So I walk… slightly shivering. Hearing the creak of frozen snow underfoot. Lots of slow, careful steps, for my labyrinth has an icy snowfall on top of the grass and bricks. Every step made carefully and thoughtfully. And with every step I felt the compression of the fresh snow, sticks and grass under my boots. Every step left an impression, a disruption of what was a cool, clean surface. There were lots of gentle turns and cautious steps. I didn’t try to go too fast, and I didn’t stand still in the cold. When I was chilled through, I stopped and went inside.

So much of walking the circuit in my yard, and processing recent events in my life are the same thing. It’s about being honest about what I can do and what I need to leave behind…

I’m grateful for a quiet space to put my uber-extroverted self in a kind of “neutral” gear and listen to God. Listen for cues, for reminders, for affirmations and most of all, for redirection.

Sarah McLachlan’s song came to mind as I walked. And God is faithful. God will answer. This I believe. I could hear God’s heart reaching out to mine in these words:

I will be the answer
At the end of the line
I will be there for you
While you take the time

In the burning of uncertainty
I will be your solid ground
And I will hold the balance
If you can’t look down

If it takes my whole life
I won’t break, I won’t bend
It’ll all be worth it
Worth it in the end

‘Cause I can only tell you what I know
That I need you in my life
And when the stars have all gone out
You’ll still be burning so bright

Cast me gently into morning
For the night has been unkind
Take me to a place so holy
That I can wash this from my mind
Memory of choosing not to fight

If it takes my whole life
I won’t break, I won’t bend
It will all be worth
Worth it in the end

‘Cause I can only tell you what I know
That I need you in my life
And when the stars have all burned out
You’ll still be burning so bright

Cast me gently into morning
For the night has been unkind

Friday Five: Let’s Pray Together

Anne is in the midst of that lovely winter storm, so our RevGalBlogPal Friday Five comes via phone and the faithfulness of RevGal Martha!

I am always grateful for the prayers of others, but I am especially touched when someone asks, “How may I pray for you?”

During this season of fullness, how may we pray for each other?

How may we:

1. Pray for you

I am still in discernment and interviewing for a job that I am truly excited about… and the forces of the universe are bringing a winter storm to our area in time for Sunday morning when I am scheduled to preach. So pray for safety as I travel, clarity of my words, wisdom as I discern, and joy in my heart.

2. Pray for someone you carry on your heart

Our lovely daughters, that God will continue to guide them and grow them to be the women of God they are destined to be! They are thriving and learning a lot about God’s faithfulness this year. Pray for the decisions that they make which will affect their futures.

3. Offer thanksgiving with you

I posted a month of Thanksgivings on Facebook. I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but it was a good discipline for me. I can too easily get negative and whiny. This helped me “ponder anew what the Almighty can do, Who with his love doth befriend thee.”

4. Ask God’s blessing in your life

For some financial decisions we are making. I don’t want a LOT of money, just ENOUGH.

5. Lift up anything else in your heart?

I have several blog posts in draft mode. I am tinkering, editing and reflecting (a LOT) before I post them. They are posts that have been on my heart for some time. They are not sugar-coating anything (read: they will likely piss off at least one group of people or another.) I have watched as various public figures and friends get blasted on the Intehwebs when they write from the heart… and that kinda scares me. So pray that I use great care in what I choose to post and do so with love and mercy in my heart, even if it is not extended to me in return.