Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I am working on my Christmas Eve sermon today.  There is always a flurry of preparation for this sermon as I look forward to preaching to a different group of people.  Christmas is challenging for a preacher; we know there is lots of competition.  We compete with squirmy children, distracted people who are thinking about the next task they need to complete after church is over, people who rarely come to church, and people who wonder what this story of Jesus’ birth has to do with their lives…hmmm.  Maybe this isn’t so different from an ordinary Sunday.

As preachers we do try to do our best at Christmas.  Yet while I prepare this Christmas sermon I wonder if it’s worth it.  There is extra pressure for a big holiday, of course, and I feel that, but what about the faithful who come every Sunday?  Shouldn’t I always do my best for them, every week?  Why do I feel the need to spend extra time on a Christmas sermon for those who rarely come to church anyway?

As I sank into my ritual of preparation and entered my writing zone this morning, it occurred to me that I have a visit or two to do before tomorrow, and I became flustered.  I don’t really have time for these visits, because there are so many details to attend to, so many bulletins to prepare and print, and so many services to finish planning.  I’m overwhelmed.  Yet I know these visits need to be done.

So I placed a phone call this morning to plan a visit with a woman I haven’t seen in a little while.  When I told her it was me, her voice gave away her surprise and delight.  When I offered to visit her this afternoon, she said, “Oh, I know you’re so busy this week.  I can’t believe you’re making the time to see me.  But if you can carve out some time for me I’d be so grateful.”  Her words were sincere, and my heart melted.  Her grace-filled words changed my perspective.  Suddenly all my sermon preparation took a back seat to a few minutes spent with her, and I realized all my writing means nothing if I am not living it too.

This is how the Christmas story came to me this week.  In the midst of the flurry of my preparation, God called me into the home of a woman who may seem insignificant to the rest of the world, yet her witness to me changed the course of my day.  Jesus came as a vulnerable baby, born to a teenage girl and visited first by lowly shepherds.  The story of his birth reminds us that God came to the helpless, the poor, the weak—those who society sees as unimportant and irrelevant.  We are called to do the same.  This woman I will visit, like the irregular church-goer, the distracted parent, and those overwhelmed with Christmas preparations all deserve to hear God’s love, mercy and grace.  They are God’s beloved—we are God’s beloved—filled with the promise given to us in the manger that changes the courses of our lives.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God of the Everywhere

I’ve been in a lot of peoples’ homes recently.  It is easy for me to get caught up in the office and administrative work of the church.  There is always more to do, more to plan, more to organize, more emails to send.  Much of the administrative work feels like it can’t wait, so other tasks get put to the side.  Yet recent circumstances (including reading a book called The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson) served as gentle reminders to me to let go of some of the office work.  I felt encouraged to trust the people of this congregation to run the church without my constant attention—surely they are more capable than me in many ways.  I made the conscious decision to focus on my writing, my pastoral visits and interactions, and my preaching for a few weeks.

Somehow a light turned on in the room of my heart, and I really began to see the homes I visited as holy places.  For all the time I spend in a church building, one would think I often feel God’s presence there, and I do, especially in worship.  Yet sometimes I forget how present God is everywhere—in our homes, our workplaces, in our daily, ordinary lives and in our hearts.  I became a witness these past weeks to God’s presence in the everyday lives of those around me, and what a privilege it has been.  We often talk about what God can do, but do we really, truly believe it?  And do we believe not only in what God can do, but in what God is doing, in the ordinariness of our lives?

I can tell you what I’ve seen.

I saw God in the way an elderly man gently repeated himself over and over to his wife, who is slowly retreating into dementia.

I saw God in a man who has struggled for years.  He sat across his kitchen table from me, looked me in the eye, and said, “I would never have survived all of this without my faith in Jesus Christ.”

I saw God in the face of the newborn baby I held, and in the way his parents looked at him with pride, terrified of this new responsibility, as all baby-parents do.  This baby fussed through my prayer and blessing over him, and I heard God in his baby-cries too.

I saw God in the hospitality of the couple who welcomed a group of us into their home for our annual progressive dinner, and in the fellowship and laughter we shared, especially when two of us attempted to drive up their steep driveway in a snowstorm only to slide backwards, praying we wouldn’t take out their mailbox.

I saw God in the house blessing I did (my first one!).  We carried a candle and cross into various rooms of the house, sharing Scripture and prayer in each one, acknowledging the presence of God in that place—a place where daily chores are done, where even washing the dishes is a holy act.

I saw God when a few of us went to visit an elderly couple who delighted in sharing their pictures and stories with us.  One of them is a wonderful artist, and his eyes came to life as he showed us special pieces he had created.  We shared communion together, and God formed us into a little community of grace, mercy and joy, even at the end of life.

After I absorbed all these God experiences, I began to ask myself, what about my home?  My often-messy, toddler-tornado filled, TV-on-too-often home?  It can be easy to see God in the lives of others, but it’s often hard to see God in my own home, as I often focus on the flaws and what needs to be done next.  Is God really present in my interactions with my children, in our daily squabbles over food and dawdling, in our searching through the laundry pile for a clean shirt to wear ten minutes before the bus is supposed to come?  Oh yes.  And God is in the messy kisses, the days we let the floors stay dirty while we play, and the bedtime stories. 

God is an extraordinary God who we often find in the ordinary.  May God give us all eyes of faith to see what God is doing, right in front of us.  

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you:  Take your everyday, ordinary life--your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life--and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.  Romans 12:1 (from The Message)     

Monday, November 21, 2011

Change of Seasons

I tend to get a bit melancholy this time of year, especially when the leaves have finally left the trees.  The bare branches, dark evenings, and freezing temperatures remind all of us that change happens whether we want it to or not.  It’s no mere coincidence that All Saints Sunday falls during this transition from fall to winter; the seasons mirror all that life brings us, from the beginning to the end.  It’s easy to get frustrated with the cold days and long nights and wish for spring.

My husband and I moved to western Minnesota in February of 2004 for our first calls.  Growing up in the lake country of northern Minnesota, I had never experienced life on the prairie.  I was used to tall evergreens and views of beautiful frozen lakes in the winter.  I received a rude awakening once I started my life in farming country, where we lived in a parsonage ten miles from town.  On my drive to and from my church, all I saw along the way was prairie…and empty fields…and more prairie.  The landscape looked barren and lifeless to me, and the snow didn’t even stay in one place; it swept over the fields and mixed with the dirt, barely covering the dead cornstalks long since harvested.  I was not inspired or pleased with what I saw.

A month after we moved, I was blessed with a conversation with an old farmer, who was a gentle soul and a soft-spoken man.  He took my husband and me out for a special dinner of broasted chicken to welcome us to the area.  He couldn’t see very well (yet insisted on driving us), so our drive to town through the country was quite slow, giving us a lot of opportunity to watch the landscape around us.  He mentioned something about the nice view of the fields (as I quickly learned, it is a favorite past-time of local farmers—especially older farmers—to spend hours driving and scoping out the countryside).  I crabbily responded with something about how everything looked lifeless, as it was still March and the winter hadn’t let go of its hold over the prairie.  The farmer took a deep breath and said patiently to me, “Well, dear, the fields aren’t lifeless—they are just resting.  They need to rest just like we do to prepare for the work of growing the crops.”

The instant he said that to me, I fell in love with that image, and I still carry it in my heart.  It reminds me of the value of rest and Sabbath; it cautions me when I want to rush; it insists on the value of here and now; it prompts me to look for potential when I can’t see any.  For a life without rest and Sabbath is not lived to its potential, and to always live wishing for the next chapter (like a new season) leaves us missing what is right in front of us.  I never looked at the fields of western Minnesota in the same way again, especially after I fell into the endless rhythms of planting, growth, harvest, and finally rest—just like a well-lived life. 

For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven. 
Ecclesiastes 3:1       

Thursday, November 17, 2011


My family and I are rejoicing about our new bathroom.  Our house is 40 years old, and our upstairs bathroom was ready to fall through the floor.  A diagnosis of a rotting sub-floor gave us no choice but to gut the old and start from scratch.  We had a very painless construction process, but three weeks without a bathtub was a struggle.  Baths are a regular occurrence at our house (especially on spaghetti nights, of course) and they are a much-loved ritual by both our kids.  After three weeks of showers and baths in the kitchen sink, our bathroom was finally finished yesterday.  Tonight was our first night in the new bathtub, and it was a regular party.  I had no idea how excited the kids would be to get their bathtub back, but there was much dancing and splashing as they embraced their bath time ritual once again.  During my son's bath, my daughter ran around the house and attempted to throw everything she could find into the bathtub--at first it was tub toys, but soon it was books, stuffed animals, remote controls, and various other inappropriate objects.  We had to chase her down each time, but there was no way to keep her out of the bathroom, as a shut door led to very loud protests.  The excitement was more than she could handle.

All of this, of course, turned my mind to God's great bath in baptism.  Families sometimes sound surprised at how accommodating I am when they call to schedule a baptism.  They ask me many questions:  Do I need to be a member of the church?  No.  Is my baby too old?  No, never!  Can we schedule it for next month?  Yes!  They are often surprised at how eager I am to participate in a baptism.  Yet there is something so special and exciting about God's new bath--a bath that leaves us dancing, celebrating, and splashing for joy.  And there is nothing that can't go into that bath.  We throw our guilts, our sins, our hurts, our regrets, our sorrows, and our thanks into the baptismal font, for God accepts it all and leaves clean and new each day.  Throughout our lives, the knowledge of our baptisms gives us an identity and a purpose and place we can always return to.  It is our much beloved daily ritual that starts each day new; for we are new creations, saved by God's grace, chosen as God's beloved, and washed clean over and over again.

So next time your kids are in the tub, make a sign of the cross on their foreheads and remind them that they are baptized.  Whenever you wash your hands, remember God washes you clean each day.  God's new bath is for you too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Let the Children Come

People often ask me how I can keep preaching, seemingly unaffected, when a child (or multiple children) screams or cries throughout much of the sermon.  My first answer is, being a parent of two young kids,  I'm more than used to screaming and crying children.  My house is full of noise whenever they are awake, and often it's full of noise even when they're asleep.  To be a parent is, I imagine, often like living in a circus.  Out of necessity, I have learned how to focus in the midst of a cacophony of sound.  Preaching while someone else takes care of an upset child?  Not a problem.

The other reason I don't have trouble preaching through the sound of kids is that I truly believe they belong in worship, even though I know it can be a struggle.  I have sat through worship with my own squirmy child, and rejoiced when he actually stayed in worship even 15 minutes, because it was the longest he'd been able to sit still in church in months.  I feel for parents who take on the holy struggle of bringing their active and curious children to a church service.  It is not easy, and I can completely understand why some families choose not to take on the task, especially when no one in the family, including the parents, gets a single thing out of worship other than exhaustion.  I see the value and necessity of an equipped nursery where parents and kids can get a break.

I am also informed by the vivid memory of a worship service I attended several years ago.  There was a baptism that day, and the family of the baptized child sat in the front few rows.  During the sermon, a child in that family began to make a huge commotion.  I remember being annoyed because I couldn't hear the sermon, and the pastor became noticeably flustered.  The entire congregation grew more and more uncomfortable as the child grew more and more upset.  Finally, the pastor stopped the sermon, looked at the young mother struggling to quiet her child, and said, "There is a quiet room in the narthex area.  Please take him out of the service until he quiets down."  That young mother, who may not have been used to being in church, had to stand up in front of the entire congregation and walk her crying child out of the sanctuary, her head dropped in shame.  The silence as she walked out was heavy and poignant.  It wasn't until she left the sanctuary that the pastor began to preach again.  I was mortified.  I know it's important to know when to remove your child from a situation, but as parents we are all just doing our best.  I also understand that pastor was in quite a pickle and was not left with much of a choice, as the child was making it difficult for anyone in the room to worship.  Yet I think about that morning and wonder, what if someone from the congregation had come forward and offered to help? What if an usher had handed her a quiet bag and a snack for her child, or even offered to guide her to the quiet room?  Her worship experience, and her family's, may have been very different that day.

I also have vivid memories of leading worship at the little town church where I served my first call.  The church was very small, and occasionally there were Sundays without any children in worship.  I remember how terribly quiet the sanctuary was on those mornings, and how it felt as if all the energy had been sucked out of the space.  Worship on those days lacked any joy or vivaciousness.  Those Sundays will always be a reminder to me that, even if they drive us all crazy, kids belong in worship.  Without them, it is so much less.  And they deserve to worship; to enjoy the music, to feel a part of a community, to learn the rhythm of the Lord's Prayer.  To sit next to loving adults who are glad they are there.  To crawl under the pews and make faces at the worshipers around them.  To learn how to sit still and listen.  It's a daunting and challenging task, and it's something we all do together--for the parents need just as much support as the kids.  And for me, to preach in the midst of a lively and noisy congregation will always be a joy and a privilege.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Losing My Composure

I have been the solo pastor at my congregation for almost three years.  This is the first place I have really invested in for the long haul.  This is new to me; after being a transient student for so many years, a pastoral intern for a year, at my first call for a little over two years, and at interim gigs in between, I’ve always been the one leaving to new adventures.   I was the one who received the goodbye blessings during worship.  I was the one who packed up my office and left some of the messiness behind.  I was the one who always said I would write and visit, but then got busy with new responsibilities and relationships.  Yet now I am the one being left behind.

Soon after I started my call here, I was tasked to hire a new youth and education program director.  It was my first experience with human resource work in the church, and I was nervous about hiring a full-time person to work with me.  The staff here is very small and we work very closely together almost every day.  Yet when the search teams and I decided on a final candidate, I felt in my gut it would work out very well.  And it did, for two great years.

The new youth director and I worked together splendidly, and she became my right-hand go-to person.  She was considering seminary, so I knew her time here wouldn’t be long.  When she announced this fall that she was ready to pursue seminary full-time, I knew it was right.  It was time for her to leave, and the congregation embraced her transition with grace and encouragement.  I was so excited for her, and proud of the church for shepherding her call.  It was time for all of us to move on. 

Yet I was also experiencing something very new.  I was the one left behind.  I was left to assure the congregation that things won’t fall apart without our beloved youth director.  I was left to comfort the grieving families and children.  When she packed up on her very last day of work, I was left to look at her empty office and grieve the quietness in her absence.  We spent two years forming a working relationship, and it would not be replaced quickly. She got married while she served here, and her wonderful husband became an active part of the congregation, so I would miss him too.  I was overwhelmed with the responsibilities thrown at me in a short amount of time.  I wasn’t sure how to navigate dealing with my own sadness while supporting the church’s anxiety in her absence.  I felt I needed to keep it all together for them—to be the non-anxious presence.

Then All Saints Sunday came.  It was our youth director's last Sunday with the congregation, and I knew the families and kids were sitting in the pews feeling the grief of goodbye.  At the beginning of worship, I read aloud the names of those whose funerals were held at the church the past year.  As I read their names, the weight of it all started to break me.  I have been at this church long enough that I really knew the people who died.  I walked with many of them and their families and presided at their funerals.  As I spoke their names that morning, I saw family members anxiously listening and pulling out tissues.  I then spoke names people submitted of other loved ones who died, and as I went through the long list, with the poignant silences between each name, I began to fall apart.  Finally, when I read my own mom’s name, who died 15 years ago this fall, I couldn’t go on.  I motioned for the assisting minister to finish the list, turned around, and burst into tears.  The combination of it all was more than I could carry, and something had to give.  That something ended up being my composure.

I kept crying—and not the demure, pretty crying as we all wish we could do in public.  No, I cried and hiccupped, blew my nose time and again, and ruined my makeup.   I cried through the rest of the litany, through the choir anthem (which I attempted to sing—silly me), through the readings, and especially through the hymns.  When it came time for my children’s sermon, I had the presence of mind to talk with the kids about expressing sadness and how it is good, all the while wiping my eyes and pausing for deep breaths. 

I work very hard to keep good boundaries.  I’m aware my position of power could be used to force people to listen to me vent or process my pain, and that is not fair to them.  I am careful about using personal stories in sermons or sharing too much.  I worry that crying may be considered a sign of my feminine weakness, whether that’s fair or not.  Yet my experience on All Saints Sunday brought me to a new understanding of my relationship with the congregation.  I realized we walk together through transition, grief and change.  My tears that Sunday were real, honest, and a reflection of the way the people in the pews were feeling.  I don’t plan on crying in worship on a frequent basis, but to be their pastor means to feel what they feel, and I can’t keep the boundaries neat and clean anymore.  This must be what it feels like to be invested.

I received lots of good feedback from that worship service.  Many people told me how meaningful it was to them.  I realize now how meaningful it was to me too.  I needed to feel the grief and change in my heart that day.  The church didn’t fall apart around me because I shed a few tears while leading worship.  It was a reminder that I am not holding up this congregation by myself—they are my partners in ministry.  It's also a good reminder that God is holding us all up, especially in times of change and uncertainty.  We move forward together as we step into a new phase of our ministry, and I am excited for the future.  And next year, I will have someone else read the names on All Saints Sunday.            

How Do You Do It?

As published in Fidelia's Sisters, May 2011

How do you do it?

I feel like people often ask me this question when they find out I am a solo pastor, part of a clergy couple, a mother of two young children—and I don’t live near my family.  This question immediately makes me feel terribly defensive.  I start to wonder what the questioners are really saying to me.  Do they think I don’t spend enough time with my kids?  Do they think I’m completely nuts and I’m slowly damaging my reputations as both a mother and pastor as I try to merge parenthood and an active congregation?  Am I crazy working without other pastors on staff with me?  Are my children doomed?  A fellow pastor, pregnant with her first child, told me recently of a friend who asked her about what her plans were after she had the baby.  This fellow pastor talked of her dream to be a solo pastor and described how she hoped to manage day care.  Her friend then said, “Well, it won’t be ideal.”  My heart burned for her after she told me of this comment.

In motherhood, like ministry, it’s really hard to tell when I’m doing things right.  And much of the time I feel like I’m doing most things a little bit wrong.  When people ask me “How do you do it?” and I overreact, I realize this reaction is birthed from my own deep insecurities.  The reputation of the behaviorally-challenged, anti-religious, emotionally scarred pastor’s child is powerful.  This reputation formed when most children of pastors had mothers who stayed at home.  How will my children fare with two parents who are pastors?  Whenever my children have challenging days, my first reaction is to blame myself.  Many days I struggle with the idea that I may be a better pastor than a mother.  The guilt I feel as a parent is a soul-sucking, anxiety-producing, terror-inducing emotion. 

Then I take a deep breath.  I think about the many ways my vocations as a pastor and a mother complement each other.  Solo ministry can be a wonderful job for a parent.  My work gives me energy, and I truly feel I am a better mother when I am able to spend time doing ministry (of course, this is not true for everyone, but it is true for me).  My flexible schedule gives me a lot of grace.  I see people at both my husband’s and my congregations embracing our kids with a fierce love and devotion.  On a recent Sunday morning I watched my 8-month-old daughter in the arms of a father whose youngest son just left for college.  I witnessed the joy in her face as she tried to grab his nose as they looked at each other and laughed.  As his family transitions into life without kids at home, my daughter gives them a chance to embrace a new child in their lives.  And she needs them too.  This story could be repeated with so many people in my congregation in many different ways.

The most important lesson I have learned as both a pastor and a mother is I can’t do it alone.  I need people to support me, and that includes my congregation.  I have had to relax some of my professional and personal boundaries.  I now occasionally invite congregation members into my home to watch my kids (after much angst-filled thought) and it has been a real blessing.  I rely on a supportive day care provider.  My husband works less than full-time in an associate call so he has the flexibility to step in when I am called away for emergencies.  On the days I feel crushed under the weights of insecurity and responsibility, I am lifted up by the support of those around me.  It’s a lesson in humility, and it constantly reminds me of how much I rely on the grace of God. 

This life is not ideal.  I am not a perfect mother or a perfect pastor.  I don’t know how I do it all, or if I’m doing everything right.  All I know is this life feels good to me, even with its many unique challenges.  I pray for wisdom as I move forward each day.