Thursday, June 16, 2016

Grace, Grief, and Gratitude

Leave taking is hard.

Since I was a child I have known this intimately. Visiting family often followed this pattern:  Every night before their arrival was sleepless with anticipation, excitement.  But the return to home, often in the shape of a long car trip, was marked by a deepening dread and despair that descended upon my heart with every mile.  Saying goodbye to a loved one felt like a ripping of something essential from my being.

Every leave taking hits me this way.  It doesn't matter what the circumstances are.  When I have loved, my heart bears the imprint of the beloved.  The moment of separation is never easy.

These last two weeks have been hard.  Last Saturday we laid one sweet Grandmother to rest.  This Saturday we will lay my other precious Grandmother to rest.  In the span of one week my family and I have experienced the wresting away of our beloveds.  The expression of grief trickles down my face at odd and unexpected moments.  One friend witnessing my tears explained it simply:  This is love leaking out.

I know that death is certain, but I am sure that our separation is temporary.  And so I am choosing, as someone close to me has suggested, to say "see you later" rather than "goodbye."  In the waiting I will not be wasting the time I have left.  These two precious souls have given me a precious heritage and legacy to live in to. 

This week of grief has been spent in the midst of my church's yearly gathering.  United Methodists from all over the state of Kentucky have gathered in my hometown to worship and work together as we figure out what it means to be faithfully connected to one another in the coming year.  Monday morning as I looked out over the crowd of gathered clergy and laity, my heart uttered the truth of what I was seeing--this is my Family.  And I believe the presence of these two precious ladies have been absolutely connected to the utterance of those words.

They are the ones who have sown the seeds of my faith, in ways far more intimate and profound than simply telling.  In one I found the quiet pastor's wife whose constant prayers birthed churches while blessing and protecting countless souls.  When my Grandfather would extend the invitation of hospitality and the grace of God to those who needed to be shown God's love, my Grandmother did the work of hospitality and grace by feeding every one that found themselves seated at her table.  Their life together exemplified the ministry of Christ to the Church.  And their prayers and faith in me were pivotal in helping me understand and accept my own calling to ministry.

In my other Grandmother I found the faithful lay-woman that every pastor prays for.  She lived her life as a worker not a watcher, one of the founding members of the United Methodist congregation where she will be remembered this weekend.  All my growing up years I remember her working in the church kitchen preparing the Wednesday night meal.  And when it was time to hang her apron up because of age and lack of energy, she sat down at the welcome desk during the week to answer phones.  Even in her later years when my Grandfather's health was quickly declining she would volunteer her time, giving of herself to the church she loved.  Her life is beautiful example of the work of the Church, always in action so that the work of Christ may be lived out in the world


What I understand is that our family is more than the people we are connected to by shared history and family trees.  We are connected through faith.  And the best families connect us beyond ourselves to the Family of God.  During these difficult days this is the Family that has sheltered me and loved on me and cried with me and upheld me as I have tried to release my Grandmothers to Jesus.  This is the Family that has prayed for my immediate and extended family as we have gathered in our grief and pain.  In the Church's embrace I have found hope and the balm for my spirit that helps me minister to my own loved ones.

So I stand on the cusp of another funeral with this desire in my soul-- to continue the legacy of faith I have inherited.  I want to be the blessing that my Grandmothers have been:  The blessing that keeps on blessing.  I want to live in the surety that my prayers and serving matter, no matter how humble, no matter how hidden.  And I want to honor them by leaving a legacy of my own, bringing others into the Family of God, praying and serving, healing and hoping, sowing and reaping for the Glory of His Kingdom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Invitation. . . .or The Parable of the Roast That Wasn't

Once upon a time Preacher Girl got up early, on the one morning she could have slept in.  It was spring break and one of her beloveds had requested a special meal.  In fact, in honor of spring break and all the extra time afforded by unscheduled days, the whole mess of them had been feasting upon special meals all week.  But finally it was time for the crowning jewel of the weekly menu.  That morning she peeled and sliced the potatoes; peeled and sliced the carrots.  Added a few onions, not too many.  Then prepared the cut of beef, a beautiful roast that would rest upon that meticulous bed of veggies.  As she seasoned she considered how it was a bigger cut of meat than usual.  She had splurged.  But she knew it wouldn't be wasted and would probably provide at least a couple of meals.  Somehow leftovers from something hearty and homemade always seem to be more blessing than burden.  The extra cost and attention going into this one would be worth it.  She finished up the roast and then packed a picnic lunch for a whole slew of boys ready to take on an outdoor adventure.  Then they all walked out the door.

We had spent the day hiking the ridge in Mammoth Cave National Park, overlooking  views of the Green River winding its way through the fertile valley awakening with spring.  We had enjoyed climbing rocks with heights that made us feel a bit adventurous without being overly dangerous.  We had exerted ourselves just to the extent that our packed lunch was a welcome refreshment, yet not so much as to spoil dinner.  I drove home from our outing so happy, so looking forward to the meal that awaited us that evening when my sweet husband would return from work and hear the wonders of our adventures from boys eager to tell tales.  And I knew even from the time the garage door opened I would be able to smell something marvelous cooking, something well on its way to being everything our family was hungry for.

Except it wasn't.

When I opened the car door and stepped into the garage I smelled nothing.  And when I walked inside the house I saw the truth.  I had not turned on the slow cooker.  There was the roast in all of its raw, now ruined, glory. 

I wept of course.  Not silent, polite tears that less expressive souls might cry.  I cried heavy and hot and through my snot and anguish called my husband with the news.  He thought one of our children had fallen off the mountain we had just climbed.  When he heard it was just a roast, he offered words of absolution.  "Sami, it's okay.  It's just a roast."  I still felt sick over it.  That night when he came home to a meal of hot dogs, he looked at his plate silently speaking the words,"This is a roast.  This is a roast."

For days afterward I couldn't shake the feeling I had over it.  It moved me deeply in ways hard to articulate.  At one point I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to my heart, not so much in words as much as in an unfolding understanding:  "You know, Sami, it's kind of like the life I have poured Myself into.  All that preparation, the patient tending, all leading to a purpose that is meant to fill the hungry.  And then that person, who has so patiently endured My preparation, doesn't trust Me enough to actually do the thing I created and prepared them for."  This revelation did nothing to relieve my ache.  Mostly it just put a name on it.  I was grieving more than a roast, but a lost possibility.  And it felt like a deeply personal message, aimed directly at me.  But for the life of me I couldn't say what possibility God was asking me to pursue that I had ignored.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with a dear friend.  In the midst of our conversation she looks at me and says, "So Sami, when are you going to start calling yourself a [creative person who has a creative gift and should share it with others]?"  We spoke of the creative process that seems to always happen within and around me and how God might have plans for it beyond the safe boundaries I have limited it to.  I had never thought of myself in the ways she was articulating.  And then she says, "I can't help thinking of the parable of the talents."  At which point the parable of the roast that wasn't made complete sense.  It was like God so graciously giving me a heads up.  He has offered me the invitation to trust Him, to trust that all that has transpired before in my life has had purpose beyond the moment I lived it.  And that there is something greater on the other side of my trust and stepping out in faith.  Something wonderful that will feed the hungry with something extraordinary He wants to do in and through me.  Something that will probably not be easy, but will transform the ordinary offering of my life through the Fire of His Power and Love, into something He can use to build His Kingdom.  Isn't that what I pray everyday? Thy Kingdom come? Thy Will be done?  And in His mercy He has already shown me the results of saying no to the invitation:  the thing I was made for never coming to fruition.  Me sitting in all my prepared glory, ruined for anyone else to enjoy the fruits of His labor and the offering of my life.  That roast simply ended up in the trash.  And something else had to be served in its place.  What I realize about all this inviting stuff takes my breath away; He has already done every preparation necessary for me to say yes.  All I have to do is plug in. 

I remember having a similar conversation about fifteen years ago with someone else, except I was on the other side.  I had spent the day painting with a young man, a college student who was intricately connected to the campus ministry entrusted to my care.  In praying for him the day before God had shown me piece by piece how He had different plans for this young man's life than the current one he was pursuing. As we  painted a room together in that campus ministry house, I began laying out for him all the pieces of his life God had shown me the day before.  God used me to help him see his life was made for more than he currently understood.  Fifteen years later this young man is living out that call as a youth minister, making a difference in other young people's lives, probably having similar conversations that will change life trajectories for each of them as well.  It never occurred to me that I would  hear God say, "Sami, I'm going to do this for you too."

I share this story because I believe there is more than one roast at stake.  It's not just my life that has an invitation coming to it, but countless others.  WE, are being asked to trust in ways we never have been asked to before.  WE are coming alive with possibilities we have never considered.  WE are being invited to see ourselves in ways we never imagined.  WE are being raised up for purposes we never envisioned.  And so much rests upon our willingness to give ourselves over to God's ideas and purposes and possibilities.  There are other lives that will be touched and transformed by the brilliance of God's power coming through the stuff of who we are.  Now God is incredibly resourceful and always has a plan for our potential no.  But it won't be the original intention. And somewhere down the road of our neglect is a person looking at the their lives and thinking to themselves, "This should have been so much more."  Or looking at the hot dog before them and saying "This is supposed to be roast."

I guess I offer this as an encouragement too.  Our world has a way of dashing hope and pronouncing judgment upon life potential.  In a world that celebrates narrowly defined success and achievement, basing personal value upon standardized test performance, it takes tremendous amounts of faith to believe we have something essential to contribute, especially when we don't look the part of outward success.  According to conventional wisdom we are deemed too old, too young, too inexperienced, too broken, too far gone, too silly, too serious, too whatever.  But the Holy Spirit is moving in ways that confound convention.  And you and I are the very ordinary clay vessels that He has chosen to pour His Glory through.  If God so chooses, why not you? And if God so chooses, why not me?  Is there anything too difficult for Him to do?  And when He does do something amazing through the ordinary stuff of us, doesn't He get all the Glory?  Isn't that what this world needs more than anything?

Friday, April 01, 2016

Catch and Release

Baptism Day
I love this picture.  It is from the day our oldest son was baptized. It was a Holy day as we brought him before the Lord, asking for and trusting the Holy Spirit to work in his life, promising to raise him in such a way that one day Noah could make that commitment to follow Jesus for himself.  Not only were we entrusting him to God's care and Grace, God was entrusting him to our care and grace.

And now the day has come when this son is making his first steps into independence.  I knew it was coming.  When he started attending our church's youth ministry it was as hard as, if not harder than, my youngest boy starting Kindergarten at the same time.  Oh but how he has loved it!  He is surrounded by a group of boys who are sweet-spirited, full of energy, full of life.  Our son has these friends from church that are his core.  I am so thankful.  It makes it easier as I consider the changes our relationship will undergo. 

He is not a little boy anymore.  It's time for him to start charting his own way.  The days when I can lay out a path for him to follow are dwindling.  It's hard letting him go.  And this whole new chapter in our relationship with our son kind of took me by surprise.

Along with this group of young men that have been his best buds since preschool, Noah participated in Confirmation, that sacred and Holy time in the life of our congregation where young people confirm for themselves the commitment to follow Jesus.  On the Friday before Confirmation Sunday, these confirmands attended a retreat.  At the send off parents joined their sons and daughters for a time of worship and consecration.  We watched as our children had their feet washed by their leaders.  At the conclusion of the service, mothers and fathers were invited to anoint each confirmand with oil, consecrating them to the Lord.  We brought them to the Holy Grace of God as infants, and now we stood shoulder to shoulder, releasing them into God's promises for their lives, the journey we cannot walk for them.  The one they have to figure out how to walk on their own.

Confirmation Sunday

I wept of course.  Even as I think of it now my heart aches.  I didn't realize that he would pass out of my spiritual care so soon.  I didn't know that's what Confirmation would mean for him and for us, until the moment it happened.  Sure his father and I will be there to offer guidance and love.  But now Noah is responsible for making his own choices for the life he will live.  He gets to choose what following Jesus looks like for him.  

This morning I attended one of the last school assemblies Noah will have before he goes into Junior High.  He was being recognized along with others at the monthly celebration for school leaders.  The teacher from a Kindergarten class he helps in came up to me to say how pleased she was to see him recognized.  She spoke of how sweet he is, how much she loves having him in her classroom.  I could feel the tears pool in the corners of my eyes.  I know each day my walk of faith now includes trusting God to guide this young man as much as God guides me.  And though I often miss it, I am touched to see the evidence that God is doing that.

The first few weeks when Noah was born were so hard.  This child who was the answer to our prayers, the one we thought we would never be able to have, spent his second week of life in Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.  He was severely dehydrated with high sodium levels that were wreaking havoc on his tiny body.  It took a week with specialized care to bring him to the place where we could take him home.  His doctor for the week just happened to be doing his rotation on Noah's floor.  He just happened to be an expert on high sodium babies.  He was able to bring everything going on with our tiny son from the brink of disaster to the place where Noah could go home and live a completely normal life.  On the day he was discharged Dr. Cooper stopped in to see how Noah was doing.  We were worried there could be long term affects that Noah would have to cope with as he grew.  I'll never forget Dr. Cooper's words to me, so full of humor, "If he has trouble in third grade with math, you can't blame it on this!"  And then he laid Noah back into the bassinet, made the sign of the cross over him, and said to our tiny son, "Go with God."

It is my prayer now as I release him into a world so full of uncertainties.  It is the best thing any of us can do as we meet each day full of challenges, unforeseen heartaches, injustice, and loss.  I have tried to  show this son of mine what that looks like each day.  And so many days I let my own fatigue and frustrations get the best of me.  Yet I hope what he has received has been enough.  I have found that the work of faith is to trust God, to have confidence in the One who loves us perfectly and Who is telling His story of redemption through our lives.  And so my work of faith is to trust that I can release this child of my heart to the One who first asked me to receive him into my care.  I will go with God.  And I will trust that the One who loves us both will show my son what it means to go this way too.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Staying In Love With God

At church we have been hearing messages that outline good principles to live by for 2016.  Last Sunday (and tomorrow too) the principle is "Stay in Love with God."  Ten years ago living this "rule" looked a whole lot different from living it now.  That was before I stepped into full-time motherhood.  There is a very real sense in which I know this is the most important work I will ever do.  At the same time, it is very unglamorous, very mundane, and often with a good measure of every kind of exhaustion imaginable.  Staying in love with God looks so much different when so much of my life belongs to the needs of others.

I am a contemplative at heart.  I think and feel deeply about things.  But I need time and space to ruminate.  Both can often be in short supply around my house.  I came away from worship last Sunday with the embers of my heart stirred, yet also wondering how a mother with her hands full would deliver that same message.  Then God seemed to tap me on the shoulder, reminding me that not only am I a mom with hands full, I also have an M. Div.  It was like Jesus was asking me to preach the sermon I most needed to hear. 

Staying in love with God begins with the Beginner.  God begins the love.  Always.  I forget it so many times.  The way I forget my husband or my boys love me.  I get so accustomed to their presence.  They are the staples in my day that get me through, that help me stay balanced and focused on the tasks before me.  Yet in pushing through the tasks I sometimes forget the treasures.  Just like I forget God has loved me before I even knew the first thing about love.  But that doesn't even touch on the truth of who God is for us:  God is crazy in love with us!  God's heart beats with love for us we cannot even articulate.  Not sure how it is for men, but I believe women most respond to lavish love.  We want to be cherished and treasured.  We want someone to notice and appreciate who we are.  We want someone to get everything about us.  This is who God is in our lives.  Can you hear the cadence of God's heart in these words:  "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you" (Jeremiah 31:3).  They are spoken in the heart of exile, when the people of God have fallen so far away that they have to be physically removed from their inheritance so that they can remember once again whose they are and who they are.  But even when they have fallen away, God remains steadfastly committed to loving them through to a new beginning.  It helps to know that God is loving me, even on my wits end kind of days, when the best of me is gone and all I have to offer the ones I love are sad leftovers.  To know that I am cherished even then helps somehow.  It makes the mundane Holy, not because I am ever enough, but because God is always enough.

When I am not situating my life around the needs of my boys, I work part-time at our church's preschool.  I teach, but I also lead chapel services for our whole school.  Each week I get to lead little ones in worship and bring a message from the Bible in a way that ignites their imaginations and helps them understand who God is.  This past week we looked at the story where Jesus feeds the five thousand.  It is lunch time and the disciples don't know what to do.  There are so many hungry people around and the resources needed to fill their hungry bodies do not exist.  But while all the grown-ups are looking at what they don't have, a little boy is offering to Jesus the little bit that he does have.  Sharing the story of the five loaves and two fish has been so powerful for me in the wake of being jolted into an awareness of my own spiritual poverty.  I've been reminded that God doesn't expect my spiritual life to look like what it did back when I was a pastor with an ability to arrange my life around regular spiritual disciplines.  God isn't asking us to give what we don't have.  God is inviting us to bring the little we do have so that it can be transformed into something substantial and filling.  The little in Jesus' hands is changed into more than enough.  Jesus just needs our willingness to bring Him the smallness that we live with, not the abundance we long for.  So I've been figuring out how to do that.  I don't usually have large segments of time to read scripture.  What I do instead is to write some key verses that speak to the season I am in onto loose leaf paper.  Then I tape it to my bathroom mirror.  While I brush my teeth I read the words that give me hope and remind me where God is.  It is a small thing that imprints His truth in my heart.  I am often surprised at the times it returns to me with a nudge of the Holy Spirit.  I am finding when I make  pockets for the Holy in my regular routine, even something so small can provide an opening where God can speak. 

About five years ago my world as I knew it came apart.  While other events in my life had leveled me in powerful ways, I had never felt so upended with unknowns.  I didn't know how things would shake out and if things would ever be okay.  Somewhere in the middle of all the turmoil I began to ask myself how far I could trust God.  Could I trust God with the next four minutes?  While trust seemed impossible in the face of so many unknowns, I found I could trust God in smaller increments.  And as time went on, I began widening my trust.  Four minutes became four hours.  Four hours turned into four days.  Slowly I began to regain a  sense of God's presence holding  and helping  where most needed.  Those hard days taught me that there is often more at play than what the eyes can see.  As I explained it to my husband, we may feel like Jonah stuck in the belly of the whale, but that whale is going places.  God is often doing an unseen work within, around, and through us.  This is why faith is so critical.  Especially when it comes to staying in love with God.  God knows where we are and is vitally interested in keeping us connected.  As I look at the year stretching ahead, I know my own weakness; I know I am "prone to wander, Lord I feel it."  But the Holy Spirit has been reminding me that God is bigger than my weakness.  He is a jealous Lover and will not let me go long without reminding me of Himself.  I can trust Him to do that.  He has a great track record in our history together of bringing me back to Him.  Why would He stop being Who He has always been?  Why would His everlasting love cease to be everlasting?   Life doesn't have to feel super holy to be Holy.  God doesn't have to feel near to be Present.  And I don't have to be great at this spiritual connection thing to be connected.  The truth is that what this year needs most is a God who is bigger than my limitations, and a me that is willing to respond to the overtures of a Love that will not leave me to my own devices.

It's kind of like a sandwich isn't it?  God's Love inspires our response of faithfulness, and then God's Faithfulness sustains our love.  We are smack dab in the middle of a Love that will not let us go.  I think the biggest thing God needs and wants from us is to lean on Him, to bring Him our failures and misgivings, to show Him our desperation when we feel we are beyond our abilities to manage the mundane.  For all the moms out there who would love to stay in love with God, but aren't quite feeling the love because they are surrounded by commotion that renders them senseless, know that you are not alone.  We are all in this together, and God is in it all.