Changing Out of My Pastor Clothes

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  (Luke 7:1-10)

This time through the gospel text for the second Sunday after Pentecost I am noticing a word that I hadn’t singled out before.  It is the word “worthy.”  It is interesting that the centurion had Jewish elders who were apparently friends despite the fact that he was a Gentile.  I wonder how those elders got around the Law’s prohibitions about associating with this man.   They certainly went to bat for him by urging Jesus to heal his daughter.  They thought the centurion deserved Jesus’ help because he was worthy.

The centurion himself was humble enough, even second-guessing his request when Jesus complied.  I get the sense that he was horrified to realize he had virtually asked Jesus to break religious law in the process of healing his daughter: “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”

I suspect that I noticed the worthy bit in the text because my retirement from full time ministry begins this coming week.  There is much to recommend about being a pastor, but there are many pitfalls too.  One of the annoying aspects of being a pastor is having people think that you are something special, you have a hotline to God, or they have to clean up their language around you.  You are more “worthy” than everybody else.  What is even more troubling is if you as a pastor find yourself slipping into the same assumptions about yourself.  In that case you might want to start considering another way to spend your time.

Misguided arrogance doesn’t last long, because we pastors are put on our place routinely, if not by our own missteps, by the “helpful” observations of those who would never dream of putting us on a pedestal in the first place.  Maybe it is that sort of pinballing between people’s expectations (and our own) that keeps us humble, and exhausted.

There are plenty of moments in ministry that remind us what a privilege it is to serve God’s church as a Minister of Word and Sacrament:  An anxious but holy vigil with a family in a hospital room.  Breathless stories and sticky hugs from little children.  Seeing hope in a teenager pulled back from the brink of self-destruction.  Placing the bread of the sacrament in a hand lined with grease stains.  Worthy?  Of course we are not worthy of this.  Grateful?  Yes.

I have worn my alb hundreds of times, and will wear it for the last time today, as far as I know.  It was purchased for me fifteen years ago by the church where I served as an interim associate during the year before my ordination.  At times I have had mixed feelings about wearing it, but now I will hang it up with nostalgia for the joy I experienced in leading worship.  Chances are, I will no longer need the formal uniform of clergy.

One of the reasons I am hanging up the alb and making more room in my life is that my young grandchildren live nearby, and I want to spend more unhurried time with them.  They call my husband and me “Opa” and “Oma,” the old German/Dutch names for grandpa and grandma.  We love hearing them from our grandchildren’s lips.

I don my most casual, kid-friendly clothes before I pick them up at the YMCA.  Getting on their level and rediscovering the worms in the backyard, rocking our little one before his nap, and singing silly songs together creates the kind of exhaustion I prefer at this point in my life.  I throw my food-smeared and grass-stained clothes in the laundry with a sigh of satisfaction.

As far as I can recall, the last time my granddaughter Rydia saw me in the role of pastor—attired in a suit for the occasion—was at her brother’s baptism a year ago last January.  I’m sure she had some questions about why Oma was doing it instead of her own pastor, and she was told that I am a pastor too. LInk baptism 1

Link put up quite a fuss when it came time for the rite, so the carefully considered remarks I had prepared went out the window.  I asked the congregation to sing “Jesus Loves Me” instead.  Rydia was thrilled to hear everyone singing a song she knew.

A few days ago I took the children to the park, where 16-month-old Link tried to keep up with his 3½-year-old sister.  As we drove home, we passed Hope Church, the Reformed Church attended by my husband as well as our son’s family.  Rydia proudly pointed it out. “That’s my church!”

“I know,” I replied.  “Soon it will be my church too, because I won’t be the pastor of that other church anymore.”

“You will have to wear your pastor clothes when you come to my church,” she reasoned.

“Oh, no.  I don’t need to wear them, because I won’t be your pastor.  You already have one.  Pastor Russell is your pastor, right?”

A beat…then: “Yeah.  You are Pastor Oma.”

That sounds about right.

Baptismal River on Trinity Sunday

Bob Kerry bridge, Omaha          Once I stayed overnight in Omaha, Nebraska, because my flight got in late, and I don’t trust myself to drive the three-hour trip home when I am tired.  I decided to take my morning walk over the nearby Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that connects Omaha with Council Bluffs, Iowa.  It is a graceful structure that spans the muddy Missouri River as it meanders past the city.

Halfway across the bridge I noticed a line painted on the concrete, with “Nebraska” written on one side and “Iowa” on the other.  I couldn’t resist straddling it as I looked down at the river for a few moments.

Did one leg feel warmer or heavier than the other?  Of course not.  Even though I was officially in two places at once, I didn’t feel any different than I did in one state or the other.  In fact, as I drove back to my hotel, I was going back and forth between Omaha, Nebraska and Carter Lake, Iowa, not knowing when I was crossing the lines.  I remember when my kids were small, we’d say “Woohoo!” when we went over a state line.  We never would have noticed it if there hadn’t been a sign to tell us we were crossing the border.  On the pedestrian bridge, and in the car, the scenery along the way and the people traveling through are much more vibrant and fascinating than a line on a map.

Trinity Sunday is upon us, and my head has been very much in the clouds, pondering the mystery of God as Three-in-One and what that has to do with our humble feet-on-the-ground selves.  Add the Lutheran Affirmation of Baptism being celebrated today in the congregation I serve, our celebration of the Eucharist, and the fact that it is my second-to-last Sunday with these beloved people.  Spiritually and emotionally speaking, if I had four feet, they would each be in a separate state today!

The manmade structure of a pedestrian bridge spanning the river with its reminder on the walkway of the cartographers’ border is an image I am recalling as I ponder the Trinity and baptism this weekend.  To what degree is the doctrine of the Trinity a human construct?  Certainly the mystery that we call God existed before the three-in-one concept was posited by the church.

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I wonder if the Trinity is as much mystery as we can handle, and there is far more to God’s being that escapes our peripheral vision.  Could it be that Rublev’s “Troista” is a detail in a much larger picture?

No matter.  The Trinity is enough for us, more than enough for us to ponder and appreciate in a lifetime.  Meanwhile, our experience of the Holy One is where the life is.  The theological surveyors help us find the river and delineate the territory of orthodoxy, but that is the limit of their work.

We invoke the Holy Three in the ritual of baptism, baptizing “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  I will say it again as today’s confirmand Emily kneels at the communion rail, my right hand on her head along with the hands of her parents and sponsors.  The rite will have me praying that the Holy Spirit’s fullness be embodied in her as she continues her life of faith.

The baptismal waters will carry her along with the rest of us.  They flow as a river unmarked by political borders, insistent on moving us forward, slowly carving out new territory in its own wise direction.  It offers life to the creatures within and to the lands along its borders.  It carries away detritus from the land and bears to new places downriver those who accept its invitation to ride its current.

Living in the mysterious presence of Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer is a rich life and doesn’t require any understanding of how the three are one and the one are three.  The only theology Emily needs to know when she rises from her bed tomorrow is the sense that it is God who has raised her out of the deadliness of sin to the life that is truly life, that her humble boat is kept afloat by the waters of her baptism, and that the scenery along the way is hers to enjoy in the abiding presence of the Holy One whose love is not constrained by any human boundary.

Notre Dame on Pentecost

My favorite subject in high school was French. I lived in rural northern Iowa, where small schools dotted the landscape in the same way small farms did. Every school was required to offer a foreign language, regardless of how few students were actually interested in the subject. So I was one of a handful of students who counted ourselves lucky to learn such a beautiful language.

I stuck with it long enough to get three years under my belt in high school, then another year in college. However, I never gained fluency. Oh, I can get along fine in Mali, a former French colony in western Africa. It is the business language there, and thus everyone’s second (or third or fourth) language. I go there just often enough to warrant the occasional practice session.

As for using French among the French themselves, my skill can be summed up in one encounter. I arrived at my hotel after an overnight flight from Bamako, Mali. I wearily tried to communicate with the desk clerk in French, and he responded, “Speak English, please.”

My limited ability in the language does serve me well as a tourist though. I can decipher most menus and signs, even museum descriptive placards that aren’t too esoteric. Still, to listen to a native speaking rapidly in that fluid tongue feels like drinking out of a fire hose. I have to ask, “Lentement, s’il vous plait.” Slowly, please!

A number of years ago, I was in Paris on Pentecost. It was my first visit, and I had not yet gone to the trouble of finding the American church I attended on a subsequent trip. Still, it was Sunday morning, and my lodgings were within walking distance of Notre Dame de Paris, so the choice was obvious. I wandered across the Seine and joined the continuous stream of tourists entering the massive doors.

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Worship was indeed in progress, but the worshipping community was sectioned off from those who strolled the perimeter to view the side altars and to gaze at the famous rose window high above. Because there was construction underway, the congregation was literally cut off behind scaffolding. It gave the odd feeling of being on the outer edge of something important and mysterious. I could hear the priest, but I couldn’t see him or penetrate the barrier between us.

In my travels I have learned to roll with the punches. It had taken us an extra day and two extra stops on our flight to get to Paris, in fact. Musée de l’Orangerie was closed. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was under renovation. But there is so much else to see, complaining seems petty. Life goes on and old buildings need repair, after all.

I laid aside my frustration and resolved to appreciate what I could still see around me. Slipping into typical preacher’s mode, I realized that I was experiencing what felt like a profound metaphor. Yet the reality it represented consecrated the moment at the same time. There I was, in a place where I could hear the gospel in a foreign language on Pentecost, of all days. I recalled the story in Acts 2, with the disciples chattering away in unfamiliar languages after the Holy Spirit showed up with a whoosh, sparks flying over their heads.

It didn’t matter that, due to the rapid pace of the liturgy combined with the reverberations in the sacred space, I couldn’t understand a word. It seemed all the more like Pentecost, actually. All that mattered in the moment was that somebody there could understand, and that it was holy. I knew that le Saint-Esprit was there among them, the same Spirit I share with them. These people were worshiping God, and we spectators kept a reverent silence to help keep the space sacred for them.

It was a fitting observance of Pentecost for me, one that has enriched my understanding of the festival and of the Holy Spirit. Over the past few years, my perspective on salvation has expanded many fold, through study and travel and daily experience in the parish. I have emerged from my theological roots to branch out in many directions, seeking and finding truth about the divine in numerous contexts. I have stood uncomprehending outside others’ traditions while recognizing that something holy is happening. God is connecting with people in countless ways that I will never understand. But I can be a reverent tourist, trusting that God is speaking the language of each one, and it unites us, and it is beautiful.

Passion, and Passion

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RUDYARD KIPLING   Photo by Roger-Viollet / Rex Features ( 443052f )

When I wrote my credo as part of my preparation for pastoral ministry, I gave it the title, “The Power and Passion of God.”  I took my theme from Psalm 62:11-12a,

“Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
   and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.”

I wanted to express the fact that our sovereign God acts for our sake continually out of God’s hesed for us from everlasting to everlasting.

Those who critiqued my credo were not crazy about the title.  My guess is that the range of meanings for “passion” made them uncomfortable.  But I stood my ground, and it still makes complete sense to me.  In fact, the ambiguity of the word seems appropriate for our understandings of God, populated by the wide range of characterizations of the divine that we infer from the many stories in Scripture.

I’ve begun reading Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s From Times Square to Timbuktu, a scholarly but accessible treatment of the drastic changes in global Christianity, particularly over the past century.  The “denominalization” of the church is credited, at least in part, with our tendency to separate over issues of theology, power, geography, and cultural bias.

Every pastor has seen it up close, in microcosm, if not also having taken part in historical rifts in the church.  Currently the Reformed Church in America is experiencing some anxiety over a potential split over hermeneutical issues regarding sexual identity.

My own experience with this matter stems from facilitating an ELCA congregation’s departure from that body and joining another Lutheran association, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.  Their decision did not reflect my own bias, but it is what they needed to do in order to remain unified.  It was hard, hard work, but we weathered it together, thanks be to God.

What I noticed from my perspective was that people believed and acted according to what they felt in their gut.  I know of only one person who changed their stance on the issue after all the Bible studies and special speakers and sermons and prayer.  Most people voted according to what they perceived as the majority opinion.  Staying together was their highest value, and they acted on it.  Relatively few took the time to study the relevant Scriptures, and I would say they also acted according to their personal passion.  I had to concede that they were acting with integrity, even if I disagreed with the outcome.

People usually do what they think is right.  In the heat of a crisis, they do not stop to think about various positions; they do what their gut tells them to do.  Ironically, it is crisis that often introduces changes in perspective.  It takes great upheaval to shift people’s thinking, for good or ill.  If you question that, try giving up smoking or losing fifty pounds.  Try changing your opinion of an in-law you never liked.  It takes emotional dynamite to make the switch.

My husband and I like to watch the television drama “Madame Secretary.”  The husband of the fictitious Secretary of State serves on the president’s elite intelligence team.  A senior member of the team, Jose, advises him before a dangerous and covert operation in Pakistan.  He cautions him against letting his passion override his common sense in the heat of the moment.

Nevertheless the team of three gets caught in a coup in Pakistan, and Jose is the one who refuses to evacuate as hordes riot outside the embassy.  He wants to stay and face the dangers in order to kill the leader of a terrorist cell.  In the heat of the moment, Jose himself let his passion take over, and the team encountered the predictable opposition but also prevailed in television’s transparent predictability.  (They wouldn’t sacrifice the sexy male lead of a successful drama.  I digress.)

Who can keep a clear head when anxiety clouds our vision?  I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s definition of a man from his poem “If:”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…

Yet Kipling himself is a controversial figure, described by some historians as imperialist or even racist.  Is it any surprise that we fail and fail again at seeking understanding and overcoming our differences?  From an early age we seem to identify those who are different and find reasons why our way/identity/ethic is better.

Yet Jesus prayed that we would be one in his high priestly prayer of John 17.  His passion, his deep desire is that we will unite as his body in the world.  Why?  Not so that we can avoid wrestling with legitimate perspectives that clash.  Instead we need to be unified so that, together, we can participate in the ancient call of Abraham, to incarnate the eternal truth of God’s steadfast love for humankind from everlasting to everlasting.

The Holy Spirit has been given to us to make this real among us.  Because the Spirit has this kind of power, and we are able to come together in that divine, limitless power, it is possible.  We experience it in our best moments, and God calls us forward with the hope that it will come to pass.