June 27, 2006

Learning to Grieve as a Pastor

Over the past two days, I have had the privilege of walking with a family through the valley of the shadow of death. It was hard work. A 19 year-old young woman had been killed in a car accident. Her name was Emily and it seems we shared many personality traits.

Her mother, step-father and step-brother met with the pastor, director of music and myself on Sunday to plan the worship service. The family had moved away from town 10 years ago and are currently in the process of moving back. The pastor did not know the family or Emily since he has only been at the church for fifteen months. We spent a good amount of time Sunday hearing stories about Emily – her quirky traits, the things she loved, the stories her family will always remember.

The visitation and funeral service were on Monday at the church. I participated in the worship service by reading the three Scripture lessons. It was so difficult to sit in the chancel area facing a sanctuary packed with family and friends, high school classmates of Emily and sorority sisters from her first year of college. The grief was so raw that you could feel it in the air. The sorority sisters wept throughout the service and my heart went out to them. During the singing of the final hymn, I saw Emily’s mother breakdown and I began to cry silently myself. I composed myself as the pastor and I led the recessional.

The pastor and I debriefed about the funeral today. He talked about learning to grieve as a pastor – working through your own emotions prior to the visitation, funeral service, and graveside service; separating your feelings for a time period. It is difficult work and I don’t know if my heart is cut out for it. It’ll definitely take me time to learn how to grieve as a pastor.

Always Send a Boy to Do a Man's Job

Sunday, June 25, 2006
First-Trinity Presbyterian Church (USA)

1 Samuel 17:32-50

The battle lines have been drawn and it wouldn’t take a military strategist to figure out who is favored here. In one corner stands the Philistine army: many in number, the strongest of the strong, the expertly trained warriors, the very latest in armor and weapons at their disposal. They are a fierce and menacing group, eager to attack and conquer the Israelites, eager to proclaim their victory.

Their leader alone could do the job: Goliath of Gath. Even his name strikes fear. He is a champion and trained warrior. Standing at over nine feet tall, this giant’s business is intimidation of the enemy and victory over him. Loss is not something Goliath is familiar with, for who could scare and be triumphant over a man of this stature? Besides, he has accumulated the best in armor. There’s his helmet of bronze, his coat of mail, bronze plates of protection cover his legs. He has javelin, spear, and sword all sharpened and ready for battle. He is an invulnerable warrior.

Goliath calls out to the Israelites who are camped out on the other side of the battle line: “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us … Give me a man, that we may fight together” (17:8-10). And the Philistine chants and taunts the opposing army, hoping to get a rise out of them, hoping to get one brave man to come from the other corner of the ring and fight.

But, the Israelites retreat to camp after hearing this demand, dismayed. Not one of the warriors in Saul’s army will volunteer to be that man, to be the one to face the giant warrior. A man would have to be crazy to put himself in such a position. And so the army mills around greatly afraid – if they do not send a man to fight, what will become of them and their people? And yet, who would prevail in such a battle? Who would volunteer for what is sure to be certain death? And yet, the whole army may face certain death if no one comes forward.

Enter David, the baby brother. He has come to check on his brothers for his father and bring them some food. But as he draws near to camp, he gets drawn into the talk of the Israelite soldiers. He overhears bits and snippets of their conversation and is soon joining it. In his child-like innocence, David questions the soldiers: “why doesn’t anyone respond to the challenge and take on the Philistine? Why do ya’ll mill around here in fear? Someone should step forward. Someone should do something.”

David’s eldest brother hears this line of questioning and drags David aside by his ear. Embarrassed by his younger brother, he berates him for coming down to the camp and for butting into this manly business. David doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he should just keep his mouth shut and go back to tending sheep.

And by all outward appearances, the eldest brother is right – David doesn’t have a clue about military battles. But the Lord didn’t prompt Samuel to anoint David as the next king because of his outward appearance or his shrewd military tactics. The Lord picked David because of his heart.

And in that heart is a courage that doesn’t know fear of the enemy and doesn’t understand military strategy; what David holds in his heart is a deep and abiding faith in the Lord, a trust and assurance that God is Lord over all and is the ultimate power and strength. That trust sends David running to Saul to volunteer himself to be the one to face the Philistine when all the other men of the army are shying away and whispering in clusters about the gigantic problem on their hands.

But Saul objects. With no other prospects of a soldier to face Goliath, Saul initially rejects David, saying: “You are just a boy and Goliath is a fierce warrior. There’s no way I could send you.” But over the next few minutes, Saul is somehow convinced by this determined child and his argument of experience as a shepherd and tales of victory over lions and tigers and bears. And oh my, Saul bids him go. Saul bids David go and thus sends a child as the representative of his army to face a nine-foot giant warrior.

But before David faces the giant, Saul offers him the best armor and sword. David tries it on, and like a kid playing dress-up in his parents’ clothes, attempts to walk in it and fit into that role. But David, wise beyond his boyish years, tells Saul he cannot take the armor and sword. He is not used to them and so he takes off the armor and gathers up the tools he is used to – some stones, a sling, a shepherd’s staff – and prepares to face the giant just as he is, as a young shepherd boy.

For although it has been lost on the entire Israelite army and King Saul, David knows where his true power lies – not in the protection of the armor and the might of the sword, not in this outward appearance or experience; it’s in what was uncovered when he took Saul’s best armor off; David’s true power lies in his heart – there in the depths of his heart, where he trusts in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel; in the One who delivered the Israelites out of the hand of Pharaoh, in the One who delivered the chosen people to the Promised Land, in the One who will deliver him from the hand of this Philistine.

And so David takes off his armor; David lets his personal, worldly defenses down and allows God to enter in and do one of the things that God does best – the seeming impossible, what some might even call the miraculous: making a giant warrior fall at the hands of an inexperienced shepherd boy who dared to face him without any armor, who dared to face the giant just as he was.

Just as he was. The boy David has not yet learned the art of protection, of building armors and walls around one’s self for defense and security. In his child-like faith, he still trusts the Lord for all that, even in the face of a giant.

And while few of us have come face-to-face with a nine-foot man, we each face giants of our own – those big ugly things that taunt and challenge us and demand an answer: doubts, pain, suffering, war, death. And the world bellows instructions at us as we prepare for battle: Put on your armor. Build up your defenses. Be prepared for anything. Just don’t feel anything.

But perhaps our preparation should look different; perhaps it should look more like David’s. Maybe we start by daring to take just one piece of our armor off and put aside for the moment the carefully laid plan or the rationale thing or the easy reply; and instead uncover our hearts before God, before the God of the Israelites, before the One who has been there, who will be there, and who is there.

Forever and ever. Amen.

June 22, 2006

Being young, single, and female

Today I had a three hour lunch with the pastor and two older gentlemen from the church. We drove out to Waynesboro to a little place that serves true Southern cuisine buffet style. The food was excellent and the conversation was very engaging.

Throughout our time, one of the gentlemen kept calling me young lady. I didn't take any particular offense to it. However, when he and the other gentlemen were in the restroom, the pastor told me that I should "sock him one" the next time he called me young lady.

While I appreciate his defensive stance on my behalf, it's a difficult thing to address. For instance, on my first Sunday assisting in worship I was referred to as "the 19 year old" by one congregation member (and at this point I was even collared and robed, which helps to give one an air of authority). I kindly told the member that I was 24 and moved on to line up for the processional.

I think I seem younger to these congregation members because I am female and single. But how do I address it? Should I even respond? I would rather focus on the ministry to which God has called me. But what about times when these three factors are a hindrance?

June 20, 2006

Sunday School Challenges

The church I am serving for the summer is considered a small congregation: approximately 200 active members. During the school year, Sunday School classes are available for those aged 3-4 years, Kindergarten to 2nd grade, and 3rd to 6th grade. Each class generally has one to two kids in it on a "good Sunday." During the summer, Children's Sunday School condenses to one room. I am in charge of planning and teaching this one room Sunday School for nine weeks - a daunting task when you consider the range in age, interest, and skill. However, I was feeling okay about it since my first Sunday in the church there were only two children in the Sunday School class.

Then came this past Sunday. My first Sunday to teach. Six children show up - four rowdy, rambunctious boys and two very quiet girls. None of them show up on time, so I thought I might be off the hook and have a free Sunday. Then I find one child and another one joins and another is dropped off and soon I am up to six children. I hold my own for about 30 minutes. I read the Joseph story. We made a Joseph craft. We played trivia with the Joseph story. We did a worksheet.

And then chaos reigned. One boy found gummy, plastic snakes on a shelf and began to throw them at the ceiling. Another boy demonstrated for those present how to make farting noises with your arm pit and how to make these noises sound like a machine gun. I carroled them as best as I could and thankfully class was soon over. I was off and running to get collared and robed for worship so I could lead all the opening liturgy. Needless to say, I felt pretty scattered throughout the worship service.

I returned to the scene of the crime today to clean up the supplies from Sunday and gather materials for this upcoming Sunday. Six brightly-colored snakes are still stuck to the ceiling and I can't reach them standing on a chair. I'll have to find a broom to knock them down.

I shared my story and frustration with my supervising pastor later on. He asked me what theology I could see present in the story ... and I said "the story of humanity: created good, yet" ... and the pastor cut me off before I could say "yet sinful" and told me to just say it and claim it: the sinfulness of the children. I had a hard time doing it. I have a strong, positive theology of children and their participation in the life of the church. Yet, at the same time, I experienced their sinful nature.

I'm still trying to figure out how to reconcile the two ...

June 17, 2006

So They Think She Can Dance

Since I am without a television for the summer and can't join in the summer show crazes, I thought I would just live the shows instead.

Last night I went to a ballroom dancing studio's weekly social dance and I had a blast. I had never taken ballroom dancing lessons before and didn't really know how to do any of the dances.

The personal information form that I sent to the church at which I am interning lists dance as a hobby/interest. Members of the congregation have assumed that means ballroom dancing (because really, what else would there be?). So I was invited to attend this social dance with the family whose pool house I am staying in.

The first hour of the night was spent learning the basic steps to two dances. Last night there was a disco theme, so first we learned the line dance from Saturday Night Fever. It's simple and a lot of fun; it made me want to rent the movie. Then we learned the hustle - not the line dance, the ballroom variation. After that, it was three hours of dancing! Everybody just dances with each other. Every time I was asked to dance, I had to warn the gentleman that I did not know any of the dances. Every one of them said that doing them was the best way to learn. So last night I learned west coast swing, the waltz, tango, foxtrot, cha cha, samba, and rumba. There's no guarantee I'll remember the basic steps to all these different dances, but who knows. Perhaps by the end of the summer I'll have honed my ballroom dancing skills as well as my ministry skills.

June 13, 2006

By day: pastor, by night: ...

bug killing terror.

I've found that another thing to adjust to in the South - besides the heat and humidity of the summers - is a side effect of the warm weather ... huge bugs, particularly cockroaches.

Due to the lack of cold weather in the winter, bugs are not killed off. They continue to grow ... like the three inch roach I killed tonight when I came home from work. And he's not alone ...

A family of cockroaches seems to think my pool house is a great place to live (which I happen to think, but I am also unwilling to share it). I'm starting to lose count, but I believe the current tally is

Emily: 6
Cockroaches: 2

I will win this battle ...

Update as of June 20th -
Emily: 12
Cockroaches: 2

June 07, 2006

Drawing the Line

I've been working at the church for one week now and I finally did it ... I left all the church/work stuff at church and didn't bring anything home. I walked out of the church building with just my purse.

It's not like I brought tons of work home with me before; I've only just started and don't have that much responsibility and a long list of things to do yet. It's just that I would work on some of the seminary paperwork for the internship at night; or I would read through last year's budget at night on my couch; or I would look at the liturgy for Sunday. It was never more than half an hour's worth of work, but it was still "work" stuff.

So now that I've drawn the line once, perhaps I can work at making it a habit.

June 04, 2006

Some Things You Can't Learn in a Seminary Classroom

This weekend provided me with two very different, yet valuable learning experiences.

1. Being willing to do any sort of maintenance work on the church building will earn you your way in with the building and property committee and the respect of most of the men of the church.

Saturday morning was a church work day and my second day on the job. I arrived at the church at 8am in some grubby clothes ready to do some cleaning and maybe plant some flowers around the church. (This is what a church work day entails at my home church.) However, this church was serious about their work day. Before long, I was hanging out of a third story window cleaning up some debris that was caught in the window box. Soon I was all the way out the window and standing on the little landing that was maybe a foot and a half by 5 feet. Once all the big debris had been picked up, I used a shop vac to really get the landing clean. Then I climbed out another window landing that the pastor had been cleaning up and I tarred the space.

Myself, the male pastor, and about ten other men ... four hours of working at the church ... it was quite the morning.

2. Saturday afternoon was the church picnic. It was a great chance to meet congregation members. It also reinforced the fact that I am in the deep South for the summer.

While there were hamburgers and some hotdogs at the picnic, the main food item was crawfish. At a crawfish boil, the crawfish are purchased live and then poured into large pots to be cooked. Once done, they are emptied onto large tables. Everyone gathers around and eats them.

I was brave enough to approach the crawfish tables immediately after the prayer. Everyone was very willing to teach me how to eat crawfish. You have to take one, twist it, and snap it in half. Then you can choose to suck the head or not; (apparently there are really yummy juices in it) that would be something I chose not to do. Then you have to break off the top portion of the shell tail and squeeze the little bit of meat out. It's a whole lot of work for a little bit of food. It was a little too spicy for my liking, but I did eat five. After that I had to leave the crawfish table because it just wasn't appetizing to look at it all.

Pot lucks and church picnics differ by region. Know your context and be willing to try new things.

June 01, 2006

Half the Battle

I'm hoping that getting here was half the battle I'll face this summer.

I left early on Wednesday morning with plans to arrive in Laurel in the early afternoon. All was going according to plan until I was about half an hour away. I felt like I had driven my car over something in the road, but when I looked in the mirror, I couldn't see anything in the road. I continued to drive. Soon the car began to shake. This began to concern me, but I continued to drive. (I really wanted to get to Laurel and be done with the trip.) Then the car began to shake violently and I pulled off at the next exit.

This exit had nothing ... no fast food restaurants ... no gas stations ... nothing as far as I could see. I pull over on a patch of dirt and get out of the car to try and figure out what's wrong. I notice that my back left tire is no longer completely whole and decide it's not wise to continue the journey on that tire.

I call the church I am serving this summer and they send someone out immediately. In the meantime, I've called my dad to get his opinion on it all. Eventually a gentleman arrives and we get my spare tire out. The pastor arrives shortly and puts my spare tire on the car.

I begin to head to Laurel with the pastor following me, but he signals that I should pull over as we head onto the freeway entrance ramp. My spare tire is extremely low and needs more air. So we drive down the freeway at 35 mph ... with our hazards on ... barely missing getting hit by a semi truck ... until the next exit. There's actually signs of life at this exit and we put more air in the tire.

We get back on the freeway and make our way to Laurel. I am able to drive 55mph now, but still keep my hazards on because the surrounding traffic is traveling much faster than this. Finally, I make it to the place I'm staying for the summer, exhausted.

Needless to say, it was a long day and I was so happy to just be here.