Friday, September 07, 2012

Scary, I Mean Holy, Business

I happened upon this picture while scrolling through my Facebook feed last Sunday. It was the end of a very long day when I came home with more questions than answers and more tears than joy. A myriad of thoughts were racing through my head.

What does faithfulness look like in this situation when I have been brought into the middle of a pastoral care situation that is downright messy? I have been asked to do something that makes me horribly uncomfortable. God, help me. This is a frightening place to be.

How do I get our congregation to see what all goes into Sunday morning worship, getting more people to help me with so many tasks that need to be done, especially when we are short-staffed, so I can spend Sundays being the most present pastor I can be instead of fighting with a laptop and computer program or tending to details that can be shared?

Why has that person not returned my email? Did I do something wrong?

Well, we had fewer people in worship today than we did the last two weeks. What's this statistic going to say about me when it's reported on the Vital Congregations dashboard? It's a holiday weekend and all, but the denomination seems focused on the bottom line.

There are so many people around us, and 1000 more scheduled to move into new condos and apartments just one block a way a year from now. How will we ever reach them?

God, I know that person is hurting so much. Why have you not answered her prayers? How can I minister to her in a way that brings comfort and hope? I'm at a loss for words.

Look at the schedule ahead. Three evenings at the church. Show me how to be fully present to Craig tonight so he'll be patient with me and the church this week. And how will I ever exercise when the morning commitments start at 7:30 and the evening commitments end after 8:00?

Charge Conference is coming up soon. There is so much vital ministry to be done - so many key roles to be played - such exciting potential all around us. Who will fill these roles?

God, are you sure you want me to be a pastor? There are times when I have no idea what I am doing or what to do next. We have come so far and there are moments where I have a clear idea of where you are leading me and other times when I'm not sure what the next step is to get us there. This is so overwhelming - so scary.

Enough colleagues hit the "like" button when I reposted the picture to tell me that I hit a nerve. The picture says what many of us are reluctant to admit. This odd and wondrous calling is hard at times. While I still believe Mabel was right - that I have "the best job in Washington" - there are moments when I am tempted to believe there are other places I could be that would be so much easier and less demanding - enabling me to live a more balanced and healthy life. Being a pastor is a joy for which none of us is truly worthy - and one that is painfully hard at times.

When I posted the picture, I did not see the bottom words, "but fear is natural, fear is good - it just means you're growing." I'm not sure I would have been so quickly captivated by the picture had I seen the whole thing and not been taken by it's opening upon reading.

As a Christian, I am convinced that fear is not good. Fear is not of God. Time and again, we are told that God is with us. We are not to be afraid.

"When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown."

"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

I've journeyed with God long enough to know that God keeps God's promises. I have seen God at work enough to know that I am, indeed, called to this place. And each time I become overwhelmed and afraid, I hear God speaking words that cast out fear, calling me to return to God.

It's when I am trying to do it on my own, putting God in second place instead of first, that the fear creeps in. I'm in a different place today. The future is still filled with large mountains that need to be climbed and rivers that need to be crossed. But I have felt the hand of God again. I've been infused with the presence and power of the Spirit. I'm ready to step out once more.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Unexpected Barriers

Passing the peace is a ritual at our church. Immediately following the confession, many of us relish in the opportunity to stand and greet one another. Some people know they will receive their weekly allotment of hugs during this time. Other people use it as a time to find a fellow small group member. As a pastor, I utilize these moments to seek out first-time guests to our church, making sure they feel welcome in our midst.

I love passing the peace. It is a time that often encourages me and fills me with joy. But passing the peace yesterday knocked me completely off-center.

I was greeting a woman who I recognized as a first-time guest from the week before, letting her know how happy I was to see her again when she asked me a simple question, "Do you have gluten free wafers or bread for communion?" It is a question I should have thought about earlier but no one has asked me the question before. I ashamedly said, "I'm sorry. We don't." and returned to my seat as my mind raced to come up with an alternative solution.

We created a barrier to her experiencing Christ yesterday. It was far from intentional and more a result of our not being expectant enough about who God might send to our midst. While we gladly and proudly opened the table to all who would come, there was one who was not able to come yesterday - one who could not receive the bread and the cup.

We will have gluten free wafers on the table from now on. But what other barriers have our churches created - aware and unaware? What are the signals and messages sent to others through our buildings, our signs and our actions as people who are part of the church?

We used to have horrible, physical barriers in front of our doors, gates that remained closed six days of the week. I promised myself that similar gates would never go back up once these gates came down. But I know we still have barriers. There are some people who are above the age of 70 and remember what our church once stood for as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. It does not matter how ethnically diverse we have become today, some African Americans who have lived in the city a long time see the historic name of our former denomination etched in a stone building and are reminded of the pain of past separation and sin instead of being able to see where God has led us today.

We are journeying with James in the month of September, and I shared yesterday how our lives can be barriers to people coming inside the church. If people see us professing one thing with our lips and then doing different things with our actions, then the church is not receiving very much positive public relations. If we profess to be followers of Christ who was always with people in the margins - the poor, the sick and the forgotten - but continue as though we can forget about people with real needs, then those on the outside take notice. Hypocritical Christians, myself included, can provide countless reasons for people to continue to use Sunday mornings for sleeping in, errand running and stops at the farmers market. What we do matters.

People of faith have provided countless barriers to keep gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual people away from God's all-encompassing love.

Historic architects have done all they can to preserve beauty at the sake of enabling any with a physical disability to come inside or serve in church leadership on the chancel area.

Good-intentioned church-folk who look with disgust when a baby is crying or someone walks in who is not dressed the ways others are dressed for church can send countless people away with one reactive gaze.

And even the signs in front of our churches can be confusing. What is the "service" we do on Sundays at 11:00 if one has never been to a Sunday service? Or at our place, what does it mean when one parking sign abundantly tells folks coming to church to drive into the garage and take a ticket while the building's sign says the parking lot is full?

I am reminded often of how far we have come and how far we have to go. May God open my eyes to see anything we are doing as a congregation to provide barriers instead of paths to entry. And may God help me to see how my life can be better used by God as an invitation to others instead of anything that would cause harm.

I'm off to order gluten free wafers now.