Children, Church Life, Ministry, Ordination

10 years

The picture that later became my purple avatar, remember?

It’s the tenth anniversary of my ordination to ministry in the United Church of Christ.

The service took place at Woodfords Congregational Church UCC here in Portland. The service is less of a blur that I expected, as I look back on it.

I remember the wonderful sermon by my friend and mentor, Paul Shupe, and the surprise on my dearly beloved retired pastor’s face when he realized I had changed my name (no worries, it’s back now where it belongs).

I remember the smooth re-supply of Communion bread by my old friend, Nelson Toner, one of the Deacons that day.

I remember that a pick-up choir sang music I chose, as a celebration of our many years singing together in that sanctuary, especially a shape note setting of Ten Thousand Charms. “I will ri-i-ise and go to Jesus,” they sang, and so I did.

“He’ll embrace me in his a-a-a-arms.” And so he does, each day, thankfully.

I remember that when the clergy came forward for the laying on of hands, Gladys York, an elderly clergywoman who had arrived late, came all the way down the long aisle, hair braided on top of her head, dressed not in a robe and stole but in a sensible cardigan. I preach from her longtime pulpit now; it’s a privilege. Years later my younger son recalled that moment as having the gravity of an Entmoot.

I remember the friends who made the reception happen, and the care Kathy Helming took in making sure the bulletin was just right.

I think fondly and wistfully of Kathy MacGregor and Marion Hack and others there that day no longer with us.

We always say there’s a “sacrifice” in every picture. Lucy, it was clearly not you!

But most of all I remember that when it was time for Communion, the first people to come forward were these three precious children.

I’m grateful for ten years of ministry, for the five churches that have allowed me to love them, for the many times I’ve broken the bread and raised the cup and spoken the words, for the spectacular thrill of baptizing dear ones of all ages, and for the chance to share the Good News week in and week out.

It’s not clear what the next part of the work journey holds for me, but I thank God for this decade, whatever may come.

Acts 17:22-29, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Ordination, Sermons

Groping for God

(A sermon for the Ordination of William M. Walsh, Jr. — December 10, 2011 — Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 17:22-29)
Last week I attended the Conference’s Clergy Advent Retreat. One of the first things we learned was how to find the restrooms. The new pastor of the host church said, “I need to tell you the light switches are on the outside of the doors, so you won’t be groping in the dark.” 
If only life were always so uncomplicated, instructions always so clear! 
If only God would always tell us, clearly, where to turn on the light.
But it’s the way of things that we put our hands out into the dark and run them up and down the wall, trying our best to find what is not in the place we are looking for it. We grope. 
The world doesn’t seem to know us, sometimes cannot even say where in town to find our buildings.  We have so many audiences to reach, and we engage in this groping struggle not only for God but for our purpose in our particular contexts. And we do it on the downside of what was an incredibly up market for Christianity only half a century ago. The church of my childhood, the church of which my grandmothers were pillars, did not have to try very hard to fill pews. Now we shake our heads at the number of conflicts people have with our regularly scheduled events. I don’t know about your church, but we’ve been worshipping at 9:30 on Sundays in North Yarmouth since approximately 1806. When did the world’s priorities change? 
We can grope our way around that question all day long, but it’s simply the truth of our time and place that the God we love and seek is still largely unknown to the crowds we meet on the Mars Hills of our lives, at the town meeting or the Presidential caucus or the big box store or the coffee shop or the diner. And it’s the truth that people find their way to us, when they come, for different reasons now, not to be part of a thriving, mainstream institution, but questioning, seeking, groping for a sense of purpose and meaning.
When they do come, when death or loss or rejection or dissatisfaction or even a joyful event bring people through our doors who don’t know us well already, how do we welcome them? It’s one thing to be friendly; please be friendly! But we have to recognize that the things we do and the ways we do them can look very strange and unaccustomed. A Presbyterian pastor wrote recently that her son brought his girlfriend to a worship service, and when the choir came in wearing robes, she asked, “Are all the singers in the National Honor Society?” (Thank you, Jan Edmiston!)
And if our practices are mysterious, our stories sound quaint and arcane, and not in a good way. 
Imagine stepping into one of our churches and hearing the story of the valley of dry bones, with no context. 
You good church people, you’re tempted to chuckle. Surely everyone has heard the song about the ankle bone connecting to the – pause – leg bone. You can find it on YouTube, performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys in smooth harmony, or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians with great percussion, or the Lennon Sisters in skeleton leotards, or even Herman Munster accompanying himself on guitar. But forget all that, if you remember it, because it is in black-and-white and dates us all to the time when everybody went to church and there were three channels on TV. 
Forget all that, because to the contemporary person who isn’t both well-churched and biblically literate, this sounds like a story about zombies. We live in a zombie-loving age, in which the Centers for Disease Control created a web page to prepare us for a Zombie Apocalypse. When a new listener tries to locate herself in the story, she’s not thinking about the condition of Israel’s relationship with God in the time of Ezekiel. She’s hearing the story of a zombie army rising up to fight again. 
I don’t think that’s what we want to be, is it? We don’t want to be a zombie church, stretching our arms out and saying, instead of “brains,” “pledges!”
When finding the light switch requires a theological dictionary or a lectionary resource, and cannot be found in the words we speak to one another or the actions we perform, we’re doing something wrong. We’re not providing the directions that can help turn on the light for the person who is groping. 
And really, we all are. Individuals grope, seeking God, seeking some sense that there is more to life than we can see, something beyond the materially obvious, some quality of hope and love that will make the difference even in the dark. 
In that groping, we make gods of other things. Some of them are easy to diagnose as dangerous, like addiction to drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or overusing our credit cards. We make a god of success, worshiping our rock stars and our sports heroes, giving the benefit of the doubt to anyone who makes a lot of money. And we also make gods of things that might otherwise be good, naming purity and virtue and family as ideals, at the same moment we shut certain people out of those categories simply because of who they love. 
These small “g” gods are not so good. But here is some good news (small g and n). Grope enough and you will surely find something. Even the zombie movie fans are looking for what we have: a hope that death is not the end and love never dies. 
We are people who believe in the Capital Letter Good News of Jesus Christ, that all people are loved by God, no matter where they are on life’s journey.  We grope and we find. We find there is a church, collective, groping for God as a communal act. 
We grope and we find. We find there is a church, particular, compelled, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the gifts of the one we will ordain today, a faithful groper after God whose own journey gives him insight into the greater human struggle. 
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, immanent, whose breath gives life no matter how dead we may feel, no matter how dry and rattling we may sound, no matter how out-of-date we may seem.
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, known, whose love moves us into new life together, not as a zombie army, but as a church, united.  
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, luminous, whose light shines even as the world gropes aimlessly in the darkness. Sometimes we faithful church people are simply part of that groping. And sometimes, like today, we manage to find the switch, and, by the grace of God, turn on the light. 
In the name of the One whose breath blows through all of us. Amen. 

Ministry, Ordination, The Inner Landscape

The End of the World as I Knew It

It’s a season of anniversaries in late September and early October: second wedding, first wedding, my father’s death (which occurred weirdly on the anniversary of the first wedding, just after the first divorce) and more happily, my ordination, which took place on this day, nine years ago. In looking at the pictures from that day, I’ve been inspired to clean up my digital picture files, including deleting some pictures altogether. I threw my wedding album from the first go-round into a dumpster when I sold the house we lived in together after the divorce, which was probably not wise but felt pretty good at the time. Somehow deleting a person from the digital record feels more cold-blooded, but that’s coming, too. 

My ordination is still a happy anniversary. Many of the people important to my journey toward ministry were able to participate in the service. The first people to come up for Communion were my children. A number of the people in the pictures have died since then and are much-missed. In the background I can see the folks of Stevens Avenue Congregational Church, whose pastor I was about to become. In the foreground are the good friends from Woodfords Congregational Church who challenged me to improve my ordination paper, who stood by me when my personal life became chaotic during seminary, and who put on a beautiful party that day.
It was the end of the world as I knew it, and I felt fine. 
Worries about what I might actually be doing from day to day and whether I really knew how were yet to come. 
Old blogging friends might recognize the picture above and its purple companion, my longtime blogging avatar. I’m not so careful about the sharing of my identity now. Instead of a secret club meeting, blogging is part of my ministry, which means this post and the last probably seem uncomfortably revelatory. But this is where I am, nine years after being ordained. Mistakes, I’ve made a few. Revelations, I’ve had several, and I’m grateful for them. I didn’t end up with the biography I expected, but I’m in ministry, and that part feels right, and at 50 I’m finally figuring out who I am personally and feeling better about myself for it. 
God calls us as we are — God already knows our gifts and potential and secret dreams and inner hearts — and if we’re faithful, we become more the person God made us to be. That’s the place I’m in, and it’s in some ways the end of the world of the first nine years I was in ministry, and I feel fine. 
Ordination

393 Things

Charge to the Ordinand for my advisee, Pat            November 7, 2010

I will never forget the Monday afternoon I learned our beautiful, re-designed church newsletter could not be mailed for the then-current First Class postage amount, 39 cents. The newsletter was not overweight; a call from Bob at the Sanford Post Office informed us that the orientation of the address box changed the status of the mailing, and each newsletter would require 13 cents in additional postage. Since it was the eve of the first of the month, and we wanted the newsletter to be not only attractive but also timely, and no one else was in the office, I went to the Post Office myself.

And there I stood in line, for a good, long while. When I reached the Post Office window, the clerk handed me the box of newsletters. I stepped out of line to count them—there were 131—and then got back in line to wait some more. Of course there was no such thing as a 13 cent stamp to be had.  Jim, Bob's comrade, informed me that they probably didn't have enough 10 and 3 cent stamps for my purposes.  He went into the vault to see what he could find. He returned with 131 5-cent stamps and 262 4-cent stamps, a daunting sight. Although frustrated, I decided I had no choice. I stood at a counter across from the window, placing those 393 stamps while my fingers grew numb. 

5 cent stamp As I worked, I thought about the households where the newsletter would be carried by a postal employee, the person who would take the mail out of the box or pick it up on the other side of a slot and be surprised by the new direction and design of five sheets of paper bearing notes and news in the life of our faith community. I wondered what they would think of the four stamps, Chippendale chairs and American Toleware flanking the American flag affixed earlier by a faithful volunteer. I puzzled over the names I did not recognize and smiled at those I did. I was still new to that church, but I was beginning to know who needed a prayer, even a hasty one.

And as I worked, it occurred to me that there are at least 393 things they do not teach us in seminary. 

First of all, it probably could have waited until the next day. Really. Other than what we do on Sunday mornings and any actual emergencies, much of the work we do in pastoral ministry can wait until another day. Take the time to consider what really needs to happen now and what can wait. It will make you more effective.

Second, don’t feel you have to do everything yourself. When the lovely church members who do much of the work at North Parish heard my story the next day, one after another said, “Why didn’t you call me? Surely you had other things to do!” Surely, and verily, I did. Worse, I took away their opportunity to be part of the team.

Third, sometimes you will make the mistake of thinking you have to do it all despite this sincere and articulate wisdom from your advisor. It is the Myth of Indispensability, and all pastors believe in it sometimes. Admit it to yourself. Confess it to God. Confide it to a friend or a colleague, because that will make it easier to be accountable. 

Fourth, admit you are sometimes powerless not to do it that way again.

Fifth, when you feel certain that changing something, anything at church will be the best way to bring in God’s kingdom by noon tomorrow—as I admittedly felt about that newsletter design—pause. Consider. Pray. Reconsider. Seek counsel. Pray some more. Make sure you’ve accounted for as many potential ramifications as possible, including people’s feelings and arcane rules about postage stamps.

Sixth, when you can’t get out of your own way, and that will happen, remember that Jesus felt that way too sometimes and got out of everybody’s way. Retreat time matters, for your body, your mind and your soul. When all else fails, take a nap.

Seventh, remember that you will continue to discover gaps in your education. Please know that we didn’t mean to leave these things out in the classrooms or over lunch. We’re all still learning, too.

Lastly, aren’t you glad this didn’t go on to 393? You will absolutely live and learn at least 393 more things about the intersection of the sacred and the ordinary, the mystery of God’s presence with us wherever we go, including the Post Office. And if you find you are putting the stamps on yourself, be sure to place them with an emphatic “Amen,” even if you have to do it 393 times.