Echoing Footsteps

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
– Alfred Lloyd Tennyson 

Our congregation is taking a “slowed-down” approach to Lent this year. Our main theme is “Restore My Soul” – finding ways to feel renewed and refreshed in the faith. We are focusing on being “un-busy.” There’s just too much in our culture that fights against a deeper, richer spiritual life.

I chose to use coloring again for my personal Lenten discipline as a means of reflection and self-expression. Especially with my current physical challenges from knee surgery, I need to be intentional in reflecting and listening to the Divine. So, I pulled out one of my favorite coloring books which has page after page of labyrinths to color. I flipped open to a fresh page and saw this:

labyrinthpast

The colors of a completed labyrinth from a previous Lent bled through the page opposite of the new labyrinth I began coloring today. I paused to wonder, “What echoes from my past am I walking with today??”

Positive or negative, challenges or success stories, I have internalized all of these past events. Some memories are faded, others push through with more of an impact. All of them are a part of me. All of them are essential to who I am and how I serve as a pastor and a chaplain. And even the hardest memories can be an asset and inform how I serve. But they also can be triggers and block me from doing my best.

Stumbling. Falling. Trying again. That’s a life that walks with Christ, day after day, year after year. Walking in the Divine’s grace and love. Always until forever.

Blessed be.

Back-to-Something-Else

Back to my desk

For the first time in 21 years, neither one of our daughters are going back-to-school. Both are college graduates. Both are making inroads on the job market. Both are strong, lively, caring young women. But there’s no “Back-to-School” this year. It’s now “Back-to-Something-Else”!

From their public school days, I don’t miss the homework assignments that the student does not understand. I don’t miss the “creative” book report assignments. I sure as hell don’t miss the group projects. (And I suspect my daughters would agree!)

There’s plenty of appointments on my calendar. But there’s no dorm room to fill. No sweaty elevators or staircases. No jaunt to buy desk supplies or refills for the printer. No awkward good-byes (and tears by Mom in the car on the way home). 

I gotta tell ya, it feels a little weird. 

Ok, a lot weird. But in a good kind of way. 

Now our years now fall into the natural seasons of Creation. The year doesn’t reboot in September every year. Instead, each new day is a new start. 

I’ve put a new practice back in my life called The Daily Examen. You can use the website or an app (scroll to the bottom for the links). You can write out your own questions for daily reflection. It doesn’t matter how as long as you do it. 

When the house is quiet in the evening, I pause and do a mental reset. I wait. Sometimes I worry. I pray. Sometimes, I rage. But always, I feel re-engaged and ready for sleep. 

So whatever your fall season brings, I invite you to embrace it. With questions. With honest reflection. With integrity. And then with action. 

Pruning

5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
John 15, TNIV

2016-04-12 09.19.30 HDR-2

It’s an old, stately crabapple tree. Every year I wait with anticipation for the first blossoms to unfurl. Every year, it is covered, almost overnight, in these deep pink blooms, and the sound of the bees reveling in the branches is like a dull roar. Every year, the petals drop off and cover the front walk with a pink confetti. It’s the first of many trumpets of spring at our house. And it seemed pretty healthy for an older tree…

Yes, there was some sign of disease. There was some dead wood further out from the trunk, but most of that branch had lots of green leaves, and the crabapples had set on after blooming this spring. To our surprise, in a wind gust Sunday, the branch cracked and fell to the ground, blocking the entire driveway! Yes, it was not the healthiest branch on the tree. But it looked OK. At least, it appeared to be.

As my husband sawed it it apart and cleared the driveway, we saw that part of the main support for this branch was hollow all the way through. It appeared alive on the outside. And it was dead, completely dead on the inside. There was no way to sustain life. No way to support new growth. And much of the rest of the branch was well on its way to self-destruction.

BAM. Critical mass reached. Tipping point engaged. Good-bye, branch!

In my studies in church growth, church planting, and chaplaincy, I have learned about the phenomena of a “sick system.” This is when a constellation of relationships appear to be a healthy system, but are actually a very “sick” system. Under stress, or continued neglect, that which appears to be working for the moment is disastrous in the long-haul.

The bottom line: when the pressure comes for new growth and new direction, faking it doesn’t make it any more.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I read the latest round of op-ed pieces on church health, church growth and church sustainability. Millennials will engage if we do x, y and z. Boomers and Busters need a program which includes a, b, and c. I read lots of church gurus’ suggestions and mandates. I hear about innovative approaches. I meet passionate, praying, and caring pastors who are following the latest trends and hoping this will be the “multi-vitamin of Jesus” that their anemic church needs. And… I note that the very cancer which has been dogging their footsteps has never been treated.

What might this “cancer” be? Self-centeredness. Anger. Self-righteousness. Prejudice. Misogyny. Homophobia. Transphobia. Entitlement. Exhaustion. Fear of change.

Church… we gotta get over ourselves. That’s the plain facts. The issues we “church people” argue about are not only unimportant, they don’t contribute to the overall health of the church! People OUTSIDE the church really and truly don’t care about our sacred cows and holy hobby horses. They DO NOT CARE.

Really… NO ONE CARES if you had Sunday School at 9 and worship at 10:30 since Solomon built the Temple.

NO ONE CARES if you wear robes/collars/vestments/T-shirts/open-toed shoes.

NO ONE CARES if you use a rock band/pipe organ/bagpipes for worship. (OK, maybe I do care about the bagpipes.)

NO ONE CARES what version of the Bible you use.

NO ONE CARES if you do all sorts of things for God, but never just sit and BE with God.

NO ONE CARES who uses which bathroom.

No one, that is, EXCEPT the people who perpetuate the system. (cough cough: look in the mirror :cough cough)

It’s simply comes down to this… if we (and I am the first in this line of “we”) do not grapple with the things which make us ineffective and dilute the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, our lives and our world, we will never change. And, more importantly, we will not succeed in bringing about change and hope to those who are desperately seeking it. And if we (and again, I include myself!) do not consider where we have made the Church into a hobby and not into a passion, we doom our energies from the start.

I don’t think we (ahem — I) need a another new start or a new program. The journey to healthy growth begins in the heart. It is the pushing, the challenging, the reshaping, the pruning by God. It is the consistent, guiding hand of God. And then. when I’ve mastered some baby steps in change, it points to other places where I need to prune some more. A lot more, actually. It’s shaping the pastor who prays and leads and prays some more.

The result? Pain. Loss. And amazing new growth. In myself. In the work that God calls me to. In the people around me that God cares about more than I possibly can. That’s what I’m going for. Change that means God gives… and takes away.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord…
You give and take away,
My heart will choose to say,
“Blessed be the Name of the Lord”

Blessed be.

Breathe. Even when it hurts. Just breathe. 

  
There is laundry to do. Dishes. Vacuuming. Dusting. Reading and studying. A book review (which really must get bumped up on my priority list!) The list is actually quite long, and just a wee bit annoying.

Being productive by striking things off my to do list was not what I needed to do this morning. Instead, I put on my gardening shoes, walked out into my muddy yard, and enjoyed some moments of beauty. The birds were singing their heads off. The violets were peeking out beside newly sprouted grass. And my grandmother’s peony bush shows the first signs of blossoms!

A week ago this area had snow showers. Today I don’t need a jacket, and I’m swatting at gnats.

The headlong, crazy rush of one week into the next is almost overwhelming. And while I have plenty more yardwork left to do, the most productive thing I did all morning was to sit on this bench, breathe, (and sneeze!) and hear the sound of God’s love deep in my heart.

Find a moment, grab a moment if necessary, and just breathe. Be. Beloved. 

  

Running on empty

Empty from Flickr via Wylio

My parents had some pretty clear rules. One of them was inviolable… NEVER EVER leave the car gas tank at less than 1/4 tank.

This was especially true when one drove one of the family cars. The next driver would not appreciate driving on fumes. And since my parents were generous with gas money whenever we needed it, there really was no excuse!

Growing up in Rock Hill, SC, there was a gas station that kept a running tab for all of the teen drivers. The owner would settle up with my dad whenever he came by for a fill-up. We lived outside the city limits and, at the time, there weren’t any gas stations close by. (Times have changed! I checked out the old neighborhood and there’s been a lot of new developments!)

You’d think, hearing the pointed reminders at the dinner table that I would not forget to keep my car gassed up. And you would be… wrong!

Last week I was running here and there, busy with tasks for work, home and church. The “low fuel” light came on as I was headed home from a big church event. “I’ll fill up on my way to church in the morning,” I thought.

I ran late on my way to church on Sunday… so I figured I would just stop on my way home. And then forgot. And didn’t fill up on my way to work on Monday morning… And you can guess what happened. I realized in a panic that I was cutting it a little too close when I coasted to a stop at the gas pump, just as the engine cut out.

Whew. (I can hear my dad chuckling…) 

I found out that my car’s 19.2 gallon tank holds 18.55 useable gallons of gas. I didn’t really need to know that bit of trivia.

All’s well that ends well… except… It is a cautionary tale. Beyond the obvious common sense not to run your tank dry, of course.

Whatever the reason, no matter how good it is, there is nothing that should keep us from taking time to refuel. To rest. To heed the warning that we are low on energy. To find ways to rejuvenate that are more than just a pit stop. IMG_0883

In fact, it wouldn’t hurt any of us to just simply stop. Find a moment of beauty, of peace, of tranquility. Celebrate the renewal of the earth, the first flowers of spring, the giddy romp of the rabbits in the back yard.

Too often I push myself past the limits of my energies and emotions. I wear down. I get tired and careless. I lose patience. I don’t have the perspective that I need to solve a problem.

I’m counting the daffodils as they bloom in our yard (so far there’s five!) and remembering I was made to work, create and worship, yes. But also to rest. Refuel. And remember Who created me.

Selah…

 

Healing Rain

Healing rain is coming down
It’s coming nearer to this old town
Rich and poor, weak and strong
It’s bringing mercy, it won’t be long

Healing rain is coming down
It’s coming closer to the lost and found
Tears of joy, and tears of shame
Are washed forever in Jesus’ Name.

Lift your heads, let us return
To the mercy seat where time began
And in your eyes, I see the pain
Come soak this dry heart with healing rain

from Healing Rain by Michael W. Smith

I took off my shoes and carried a stool out to the back porch.

It was the first real rainstorm we’ve had in probably a month. The sound of the rain on the leaves and the patio was a soft, inviting hiss.

I soaked it in.

(null)I listened to the birds calling, watched a chipmunk scamper within inches of my toes. The rain dripped off the wisteria and ran down the trellis. Little by little, the stresses of the week washed away. The rain came down harder, and I realized I was soaked from the knees down.

It was time to retreat and get ready for the next part of my day. It was funny that ten minutes in a rain storm did so much to refresh me.

Remembering to stop, pray, breathe, and be thankful got me through the end of one week and prepared me for the beginning of the next. It refreshed my perspective. It released hope. It reminded me why I do the work I do.

My toes got a little wet. But my heart was refreshed.

Blessed be.

Cold-hearted

IMG_0296

The Mid-Atlantic is not known for supremely cold winters. Oh, we get a “cold snap” here and there in the winter months, but anything that lasts more than a week or two, and the natives get a little restless.

After all, we’re not Buffalo. Or Minnesnowta. We have plows and salt trucks, and it’s not unusual to have to wait a day to get plowed out in our neighborhood.

The last few weeks the temperatures have stayed below 40 degrees. The federal government closed at least once, and schools have been closed or delayed. Even our daughter’s college closed because the roads were not safe.

I know. You’re laughing at us. We accept your disdain. At least we’re honest.

Now it’s been cold long enough that the cumulative effects of the cold are starting to show up. Little by little, I see changes that aren’t “normal” for around here. For instance, I don’t quite remember the color of my car without dried salt spray on it. The back gate is frozen shut. I feel the tension in my shoulders from hunching down into my coat as I go from my car to the facilities and homes where my patients live. And there are very few things which will drag me from home once I’m holding a cat and warming up.

When I drove by this pond near our house and saw the geese scattered across the ice, I wondered at the change. A month ago, even a few weeks ago, the water was open and clear. Normally they would be paddling about, feeding and waddling and honking. Today, they were more like peppercorns spilled over an icy table. Cold. Quiet. Still.

The change was gradual. The result is clear.

In the season of Lent, there is a call to renew the spiritual connection, to find that spark that has diminished and rekindle it. The human heart — my heart — can grow cold and unfeeling.

The words of Keith Green’s song came to mind…

My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me…

During Lent, I’m about this business of renewal. Remembering the mercy shown me. Living into God’s compassion. Reclaiming the love and fire I have for my work.

Spring will come. My heart will thaw.
I’ll join the song…
Blessed be the Name of the Lord.