Musings from a Pastor, Educator, Wife, and Mother





Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mary's Jar

Mary's Jar
 
 
His shadow fell across the doorway; calmness seemed to settle on the air. As the men took their seats around the table and began to converse, I wiped my sweaty palms on my shroud and retrieved from a dusty corner the jar I had been saving.  I knelt beneath the table without words.  Though his feet were covered with flecks of golden soil, his skin had been smoothed by the coarse sand.  There in the dusk light I opened the jar of nard and its bittersweet scent filled the stifling air.  I poured the contents over my Lord's feet; wiping the grime from between his toes; scouring the sand from his heels; rubbing his toenails to shine.  Bowing before him I let down my auburn hair and wiped clean the dampness on his skin.  Then, never looking into his eyes, ashamed for the tears in my own, I arose. 
 
 
 
 
Loren Tate Mitchell
2/3/08

Thursday, March 3, 2016

From Volunteer to Disciple


Today the staff members of Covenant prepared and hosted a luncheon in honor of our volunteers who aid us in major weekly and seasonal functions of the church.  We had representation from the counters of the offering, the holy-days decorating leadership, folks who maintain the music library, and front desk volunteers who answer phones, greet guests, and get caught doing all sorts of odd jobs for us! Without these individuals many things that seemingly "just happen" would fall into chaos or simply not be done.  We are so very blessed to have them. 

Having an interim minister brings a very different dynamic into the church.  In both staff and congregational responsibilities there is much work to be done. Having an interim pastor means that we have another person who is able to help us step back and reflect on who we are.   That is not to say we are unhealthy or completely dysfunctional as a church, but rather it is to say, we can strive to improve in many ways.  We can breathe new life into this Body of Christ. 


One of the things we have begun to talk about as a staff and also in conversations with elders and deacons is how we empower our congregation to take ownership of the ministries of the church.  Again, we already have a lot of involvement from membership in so many aspects of Covenant's life. But how can we strengthen our efforts?  How can we become a more cohesive, vital, reflection of Christ to one another and to the community?  It may help us if we can shift our thought processes and our language about ministry from volunteer to disciple.  

 

vol·un·teer

ˌvälənˈtir/

noun

noun: volunteer; plural noun: volunteers

1. a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.


I do not wish to diminish the spirit of volunteerism.  To freely offer oneself in an effort to aid another individual or group when work is to be done or help is needed is a wonderful thing.  A volunteer donates of their own time, talents, and resources to the benefit of others. With that basic definition, it works.  However, I wonder if our language has not become so saturated with the idea of volunteerism that it somehow falls flat? It is a term used secularly for all manner of organizations. It runs the gamut of volunteering to be the carpool parent for a week to being a volunteer firefighter (two very different tasks might I add).  Our children are encouraged to volunteer as part of their extra-curricular activities, sometimes ad-nauseam because it will look so good on their college applications! Ah, we've stumbled upon something.  How fine is the line between volunteering for the sheer benefit of another person and doing it for your own self-benefit or even self-worth?  Does it matter?   Or, when does volunteerism become  an obligation? Are you pressed into service because you think it is what you ought to do, or because you wonder how others might perceive you if you don't volunteer?  When your time is already so limited, does the church become a burden on you because you are often encouraged (hopefully not badgered) to do something? 

 

I am wondering if, in the church, perhaps the idea of being a volunteer needs to be taken a bit further.  We aren't called upon to be volunteers for Christ.  No, we are followers of Christ, we are disciples.  

 

 dis·ci·ple

dəˈsīpəl/

noun

noun: disciple; plural noun: disciples

1.      a personal follower of Jesus during his life, especially one of the twelve Apostles.


 
 
In the gospel of Luke Chapter 9, we have the well known story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  It is the end of a long day of teaching and a crowd of people have gathered in the countryside to hear Jesus.  The disciples approach him and say, "Rabbi, let's wrap this day up and send these folks on their way."  Jesus says, "You feed them."  In astonishment they reply, "Lord, we have only five little loaves of bread and two pitiful fish, what shall we do, walk into the nearest village and shop for this mob in the marketplace?" Jesus tells them, "You make the people sit down." And so they gathered the crowd into groups of about 50.  Let us be reminded here that the gospel tells us there were 5,000 men. It does not count the number of women and children also likely in attendance.   Jesus took the bread and the fish, blessed and divided it and said to the disciples, "You, distribute the food." Everyone ate their fill.  In fact, 12 baskets of extra food were collected when all was said and done.  Twelve, the number for fulfillment.  Jesus Christ had completely fulfilled, in the sight of thousands of witnesses, the very message that he was preaching.  And he did so using the hands, the feet, the bodies of his disciples.
 
 

 
Jesus' disciples were honored to follow in his footsteps.  He was their beloved teacher and by being invited to be his students they were truly in training to be teachers just like him.  In all things they were learning to serve with a Christ-like heart.  Today, as Christians, we are also disciples. We are called as well.  Jesus said, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  In the story from Luke we see that Jesus empowers his disciples to minister to the people gathered there.  It may have been easier for Jesus to simply do all the work himself, to make food simply appear in the hands of the people gathered, rather than argue with the disciples. (Sometimes Pastors, and DCE's, and Youth Directors, think it is easier to do it all themselves too, but nothing just appears, it takes a lot of work and forethought).   But, Jesus knows that he has to teach his followers by empowering them to serve. He directs them, "You feed them. You settle the people down and give instruction. You deliver the needed goods to them."  Jesus relied on God to provide the necessary provisions. But Jesus relied on the disciples to carry out the mission. 


 When calling the disciples, Jesus didn't say, "This will be so easy, you barely have to do anything, just come and give me two hours of your time."  Jesus didn't say, "Hey, this will look really good the next time you go in for an interview."  In fact he says, "drop everything, take up the cross, and follow me." Discipleship is, to my mind, a response to an invitation of Jesus.  To utilize the gifts given to me in an authentic way to further the gospel message in a broken world.  It is a change of mindset to consider that opportunities --not obligations-- for service arise in the church (and community). There are special tasks to which an individual or group of people will feel led by the Holy Spirit to engage in to keep the congregation active and evolving.  Instead of dreading the phone call from a fellow church member to serve on a committee or tune out an announcement for a mission opportunity to sign up for, prayerfully consider how you can best be of service to the Lord through the ministries of your church. What are you being called to do as a disciple?

 

An honor to be called by Christ. And a joy to follow in The Way.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What's The Deal With Natural Disasters?

Wow, we've had some really bizarre weather patterns as of late!  In the last 24 hours I've seen torrential rain and thunderstorms, sunshine and double rainbows, violent wind gusts, tornadoes, and snow flurries.  Sometimes you have to wonder just what God is doing up there! I think his weather machine is out of whack. ;)

In all seriousness though, when I heard that a tornado had touched down in Appomattox County yesterday afternoon, my heart immediately sank as I reached out to my beloved friends in that community to find out if folks were safe.  I am thankful that they have met no bodily harm and that for those whom I know personally, damage can be repaired.  But not everyone faired so well, life was lost, homes destroyed, tangible memories ripped from people's possession forever.  It is good today to hear of the clean up work that is taking place. It is good to hear of people coming together as a community to support one another (as the people of Appomattox have always done in times of heartbreak) with water and supplies, with makeshift shelters, with the support of prayers.  The power may be out, the town may be literally sitting in the dark, but a great light shines in their collective spirit. 

We often beg the question: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Or to phrase the question as Donald McKim does in his book Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers, "Does God will evil and suffering in the world and in our lives?" 

As Presbyterians we believe (or are taught theologically) that God is Good and that all which God creates is good.  In Genesis 1:31 we are told "God saw everything that God had made and indeed, it was all very good."  1 Timothy 4:4 says, "For everything created by God is good."  

In simple terms "evil" is what opposes God.  We use the term evil in multiple ways, to describe groups or individuals that are in opposition of God's purposes.  For an example of what God's purposes are we can look to Christ, who is described as the "image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation" in Colossians 1:15.  What we are questioning today is "natural evil".  Natural evil are those things that occur in creation which bring tragedy and devastation to the human experience.   

We do not believe that God's wills evil or that God wills suffering to happen in the world.  We do believe, however, that God can use such situations for the ultimate good.  That is to say, God did not send a tornado through Evergreen, Virginia yesterday to bring a small community to their knees in repentance for a sinful life.  Such a tragedy is not the result of any immorality on the part of humankind.  It was not God working through nature to create a tool of punishment in any way shape or form.  Nor is any other natural disaster used for that purpose in any other place in the world (remember Haiti...Katrina...Joplin). It is just what we are calling it... a natural occurrence in creation. However, God is already using it for the good, as is being witnessed by organizations and individuals who are coming forward to show love and compassion to their neighbors in a time of great need. 

As Don McKim writes, "We do not know reasons for evil or suffering.  What we do believe by faith is that God will be with us in the midst of our sufferings and that God's grace and power of love will enable us to endure, even in the 'darkest valley' (Ps. 23:4). So we are sustained.  We believe God can use the evil and sufferings we encounter and do within us, 'far more than all we can ask or imagine' (Eph. 3:20).  This is our comfort and our hope."

I hope you will join me in prayer for this little community in the heart of Virginia that has in the past few years had far more than its share of tragedy and grief.  But do not feel pity or sorrow for them, they would not want that.  From my few years living within the community I feel that the citizens that make up Appomattox and Evergreen, they would welcome your prayers, they would appreciate your assistance, but they would foremost want you to know their strength.  Not only their physical strength as a community, but their spiritual strength as well.  

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God."
--2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Coming Home

Last night I had the privilege of participating in the imposition of ashes at Covenant's Ash Wednesday Service.   It is a humbling thing to receive the sign of the cross and hear the words, "You are dust and to dust you shall return."  It is equally humbling to be the individual who is speaking those words to congregants and friends.  I was honored to impart ashes for several of our staff members--my colleagues who I spend time with day in and day out.  It was a powerful thing for me to be reminded in that moment that we are not only working together to provide a place for people to call "home" but also to find that we are also worshiping together in a place that we have come to call "home" ourselves. 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality.  An important moment where we have to pause and confess that this home (both body and church) is in fact temporary, preparing us for home eternal.  Lent requires of us to let some things go, to stop and take stock of our spiritual lives, and to turn --time and time again-- to God. 

Joel 2:13 reminds us of this.
"Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing."


What an amazing gift we are given in the promise of God's steadfast love! It is so easy for us to get wrapped up in the mundane moments of life that we forget the grace that allows us to continue taking breath each day.  I think Lent is an opportunity to be reminded of that.  And to be intentional in slowing down enough to take stock of who we are. Yes, we are sinners.  We are mortals, fallen and broken humanity.  And yet.... At the root of it all, we are God's.  At the root of it all, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  At the root of it all, the Holy Spirit is at work continuously nudging us to make space for God to fill us.  That is what God desires most--to be in relationship with us.    We all know (and have probably learned the hard way) that what relationships need most to flourish is time. 

Since David LaMotte is coming tomorrow, his music has been in my mind, and this song in particular seems to fit the times.  Let's make the time friends, we're called upon to return home.

Listen To "Dark and Deep"

Dark and Deep
Words & Music by David LaMotte

© 1996 Lower Dryad Music/ASCAP
 
from Hard Earned Smile (1996), Good Tar (2001) and Best Of David LaMotte (2013)

On a two lane road through the mountains

I am taking the corners too fast

My head is spinning as fast as my wheels

Shifting from future to past

So many things to attend to

So many places to be

The mountains roll right past my window

Like a half-watched bar room TV
 
       If I could die just for a moment

       Let these worries work themselves out

       If it would all go on without me

      Tell me what's all this worry about?

      A promise is not like a moment

      A moment's not something you keep

      I've made too many promises lately

      And the woods are lovely, dark and deep
 
I remember this friend down in Florida

She used to get lost just for fun

She'd take any turn that presented itself

Just to see where the road might run

It's amazing the places they'd take her

The people and things that she'd find

I've been meaning to look her up again

But I can't seem to find the time
(repeat chorus)
 

Trying to make all the ends meet

It's like I'm skating the edge of a knife

I'm so busy making a living

I've got no time for a life
(repeat chorus)
 



 
 
 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Power of an Invitation



I keep this photo in my office.  It is a picture of a trip to Montreat.  My mom and I were hanging out with one of our favorite families, the Buchanan's.  We were playing by the creek, you see, and I am pretty sure Elli and Taylor (who are now of college and high school age) were peeking into a bucket of tadpoles.  They'd also made friends with another boy who you see photographed, whom we didn't know.  You see my mom leaning in to ask the kids about what they have found while Bill and Aimee look on.  I managed to capture this perfect little moment of people so dear to me.

You also see a postcard, handwritten, by Aimee, inviting me to the Girl's Youth Bible Study in her home when I was just a freshman in high school. I was new to the community, very new to the church at the time.   I kept it in my Bible for years.   Bill was the Associate Pastor and in charge of the youth program at my church.  But he and Aimee were very much a team and our program would not have been complete without the two of them teaching us, guiding us, and the most important step, inviting us.  They invited youth to church.  They invited youth into their homes.  They invited youth into their lives.  They became part of my family and they changed me and inspired the course of my life.

Aimee passed away three years ago today.  On that day I wrote another post about her, "She Changed The World," which you can read if you want to hear more about the impact this beautiful individual had on my life.  But for today, I am thinking about the invitation.  All the invitations she extended to me while she was a part of my life.  The first was the postcard pictured above.  

Do you know why I went to that Bible Study group?  It wasn't because my friends were going.  It was because a personal invitation was extended to me by an adult.  An adult who had shown an interest in me.  I had many questions about the Bible and at the time this postcard was presented to me, I felt perhaps this could be the person to help me explore for the answers I was seeking.  Aimee cared about me and knew me by name after the first time she met me.  And she made me feel welcomed from the instant she greeted me and opened the door to her home.

Another invitation came the day she and Bill asked if I would babysit their daughter Elli, who was a toddler at the time.  Oh my goodness, they trusted me with this precious little girl! I loved her to death, still do.  We would play outside in the sunshine with sidewalk chalk.  We would play dress up and read stories for hours.  Now Elli is in college and watching her grow up from a distance, even as I see her express herself in blogs or on social media, she is teaching me about balancing strength and grace as a woman in today's world.  Just as her mother once did.  

So today I am encouraging all of us to consider the depth and breadth of what we think is a simple invitation to a friend, a neighbor, a young family, a teenager, to attend church.  To you it may just be a kindness.  For you it may be your job as minister, director, elder, or deacon, to welcome strangers and bring people into your midst.   It can be so much more than opening a door to a building or a community.  It could influence and inspire them for the rest of their spiritual life.  You may be the person who introduces them to the love and grace of the Triune God. 

This picture reminds me of the value of finding a church home.  It reminds me of the people who model living their faith.   It inspires me to be a servant for God, who called me into the ministry.  Each day, but especially this day, I am thankful. 


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Even Pastors Have Road Rage

I was driving to a committee meeting the other night.  If you are a Presbyterian reading this you know just how frequent those 6:45 PM treks to the church can be.  I wasn't running late and I wasn't in a particular hurry to reach my final destination.  At least I didn't think that I was until I got to a stoplight and c r e p t through the green light to make a right turn.  And then c r e p t through another green arrow, left turn.... then wound my way around a two lane road at a glacial pace behind a driver whose need for speed did not exceed the 15 mile per hour mark.  I found myself saying, "MOOOOVE!" or "GO" with multiple syllables like my son.  He wasn't in the car with me, so I should get points for not being ugly with my kiddo in the car.   Anyway, I had a thought: maybe a good book would be "How To Be Pastoral While Driving."  I'd read it.  And I said as much when I got to my committee meeting.  We had a good chuckle and then another woman said something to the effect of, "Yeah, that is the book you'd read but maybe you need one we all could read; "Even Pastors Get Road Rage!"

You heard that right.  Even pastors get road rage.  We are just as human as you are.  And we are just as impatient as you are.  And we are just as snarky as you are after a long day of work.  We get road rage.  We get exasperated in the grocery store.  We get toe-tapping irritated waiting at the doctor's office.  If you don't know us as ministers, if we aren't wearing a clerical collar; chances are that we can fly under the radar and be seen as "just another person" in these instances.

I share this because at the end of the day, we don't want to be put on a pedestal by everyone and expected to be model citizens every day or the most pious, patient, practical people in every moment.  I hope this doesn't make us less credible as your spiritual leaders.  I actually hope that it gives us a little more credibility.  I hope that it allows you to feel that you can come to us, confide in us, be your true self around us.  Because we find ourselves in the same life experiences day in and day out as you.  And we long to help you connect those mundane moments, whether good or bad, to the good news that we find in Christ. 

How would you be pastoral while driving?  Use your turn signal.  Let someone merge into traffic.  Give a friendly wave to your neighbor.  Give yourself an extra five minutes travel time so that those individuals who do not have a lead foot like you don't have to see your exasperation in their rearview.    I'll try to do better too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Lightbearers and Peacemakers

When you think about people who inspire you whether it is in your professional or personal life, who comes to mind?  I have lots of individuals who have inspired me: parents, mentors, teachers, pastors, friends.  Sometimes there are individuals that we engage on the edges of our lives that impact us for a season or for a lifetime.  David LaMotte is one such individual for me. 

 I first met David at a Montreat Youth Conference as a high school freshman, my very first Montreat experience! David was the musician who performed a concert one of the nights at the conference.  As is the case with many musicians, especially at conferences or smaller venues, you get an opportunity to greet them, take photographs, get an autograph (I hear people don't do that anymore....I do!) and then you go about your merry way.  David is a little different, I think, because he is so genuine in his performances and he weaves life's stories into his concerts in such a way that you leave feeling like you know him already. He also truly takes a lot of time to "meet and greet" people. Luckily for me, I've gotten to experience multiple concerts and a few workshops along the way too.  I've had a chance to follow David's musical career as well as support his other endeavors.  When David said he was retiring from music to study peacemaking and conflict resolution in Australia I went on a road trip with friends for the "Farewell Concert."  I gave what I could to support the kickstarter campaign that led to the publishing of David's book "White Flour." I've followed his blog posts about PEG Partners and the good work happening in Guatemala. I've read and studied (with great anticipation) his book "Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness."

David inspires me in my personal life as a writer.  His attention to the craft of writing and storytelling is lovely.  I could never put words to music as he does, but all the same, words matter.  I took his writing workshop at ARW when I was in seminary and I remember him saying, "The muse likes to be followed, she doesn't like to be pushed."  Believe me, that is helpful stuff when it comes to sermon writing some days!

In both my personal and professional life, David's work in outreach ministries as well as conflict resolution and peacemaking have made an impact.  David doesn't tell you that you have to do things a certain way in order to make a difference in the world and he doesn't try to change your mind so that your views align perfectly with his own.  What he does is create space for you to move, think, and feel your own way through the obvious tensions and difficulties that we experience in the world.  David will be one to remind you that you can start right where you are to make a positive impact on the world around you.  He always says, "You are changing the world, whether you like it or not." 

As Christians, I think the message from Christ for us is clear.  You don't really get a choice not to make an impact in the world.  Our mission is to love God & Neighbor.  To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  There are so many instances in our world today where that foundational message of the Bible is being overlooked and forgotten.  We are called to address the injustices in the world... we can't fix all of them, or even one of them on our own...but if we begin where we are, with the resources that we've been given....

And now, I get to say that David LaMotte is coming to Covenant next month to perform a concert and lead a workshop on Worldchanging 101!  I am so thrilled that this is happening.  It has been my pet project almost since the very beginning of my ministry at Covenant.  We've had a Christ Connections class meeting this year on Sunday mornings at 9:15 about Peacemaking... about inner peace and social justice.  They've been using David's book and talking about public figures who have impacted our lives throughout history.   I am proud of this congregation for having those difficult but fruitful discussions and I am excited to see how they will respond to David's visit as well as what steps they will take toward making their own ripples in our community and the world. 

To learn more visit www.davidlamotte.com