Lent 2019: Preparation

I’ve shared before that I approach Lent a little differently than others might. People ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” and I’ll respond with something like, “This year I’m giving up winter. I’m done with it.” Or, “I’m giving up smoking.” Um, I’ve never smoked, so it’s an easy one to give up.

My focus is not on giving something up just for the sake of it, but more on the question of, how do I use these six weeks to draw closer to God? In years past I’ve given up clutter and tried to simplify my life. Or I’ve added a devotional reading, or picked up a Bible study. And I’m ashamed to say, this year I hadn’t put a lot of thought into what I would do for Lent before it started.

If I had to pick a theme for this Lent, I think it’s going to be Preparation. Not only preparation for the Lord’s sacrifice for me, but preparation for all that’s about to happen to me as I journey to Local Licensed Pastor beginning in June. For instance, I have to order a clerical robe. I think I’ve got one picked out, but there’s so MANY! And I have to prepare for licensing school, and I have a challenging workload in classes to get through before then…it’s going to be a full season, and I think its theme is Preparation.

In each of these, the trick is to live into the truth that God will provide. He will lead me through whatever I need to, in order to achieve Preparation. I can’t obsess over all the to-dos, or all that’s hanging over me. On an everyday basis, I have to let go of trying to be the one controlling it all, and let the Preparation happen to me, and indeed for me.

I think that’s also part of Lent: the surrender. The giving over to the one who gave himself over for us, and recognizing what that sacrifice calls us into.

Have a blessed Lent.

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Somebody Fired The Starting Gun

So let me tell you a bit about the beginning of my week last week.

Sunday night: a close friend reached out to me about his relationship with one of his adult children. Things had been awkward lately, with unspoken feelings piling up and spilling into behaviors that finally came to a head, and text messages started flying. I spent time helping him craft messages that conveyed love in the midst of the hurt, and helping him think through how to approach the topic so his own feelings are heard, but which preserves the underlying relationship.

Monday: another brother in Christ shared that he has been “down the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” in a black depression lately, such that he hasn’t seen seen in years. A familiar tale of trying to keep all the plates spinning at work, at home, with family, with friends, with everybody, and not being able to do so. Marriage, kids, job…sometimes all the facets of our lives collide at once.

Tuesday: a family member has started on a new life opportunity that has her away from home for the first time in awhile, and her start of the program was marred by anxiety attacks. She was quite upset with herself, because if she can’t get them under control she can’t finish her program and take the next step she wants to take. And so the texts I received were panicked: “Help me!”

startinggun

By Wednesday, it felt like someone had blown the whistle to start the race of my pastoral time, and I was still back at the bench getting my laces tied. All of a sudden, out of the woodwork came these people I love experiencing their own crises. I know enough to know that my role is not to solve the problems: I know I can’t do that. Instead, my role is to walk alongside, to encourage, to pray for, to connect them with resources that are trained to do more than I can. And in each of the cases last week, that’s how I tried to act: the ministry of presence, of sharing genuine concern and love. And in each of the cases, I felt inadequate, unsure, a little floundering myself. I can only pray they received each some sort of peace, some sort of help, despite my inadequacies.

Nonetheless, this is the path I’m called to follow. This is the world I will inhabit: sudden panicked texts and painful situations needing help, and more. I know I don’t know enough yet about pastoral counseling, and for the missteps I know I’m going to make in my early pastoral career, right up front, let me beg forgiveness.

And at the same time, let me declare the love that’s out there and available. If, as one mentor put it, “as you go deeper into this, the world will respond to that call [that I’ve been given],” then I celebrate this as affirming what God is already at work and doing. And I know I can’t do this…but He can. So come, Holy Spirit. Fill me, use me, let your words and Christ’s love be what people hear and see, not my own shortcomings.

Let’s go.

A Morning Spent in the Back Office

This morning I got to spend in “the back office” for the first time in forever. And it was excellent!

As a fourth-string drummer, I rarely get called upon to fill in in worship and praise bands, especially since our own church’s praise service disbanded about four years ago. But Jerry was desperate, clearly, for he had reached out to see if I could sit in with the band at Old Bridge Church for their 11:11 worship service today. And what made it even sweeter was he also invited my daughter Sarah to play and sing along. The picture above is from rehearsal; Sarah is the guitarist off my left crash cymbal.

It was challenging: none of the songs were ones I knew by heart, and several I hadn’t heard before. (I clearly need to broaden my playlists.) But we made it through, God was praised, and no one threw rotten fruit. So I call that a win.

I truly love drumming in praise worship. I love being a part of bringing praise to the Lord, in perhaps inspiring those in the service to experience God’s presence, and generally to be able to share the experience while helping be a part of creating it, if that makes any sense.  And so when I was invited to be the drummer for this spring’s Emmaus men’s walk, I was thrilled.

It has certainly occurred to me that there is a significant risk that once I join the pastorate this summer, occasions like this one will be even rarer than they are today. And there’s a piece of me that mourns that. Oh, sure, it’s still possible I’ll get to play in worship. Who knows. But as any regular activity, as something part of my ministry? I have a harder time seeing that happen.

Drumming isn’t the only thing that will change, and perhaps disappear, once I am licensed this summer. It is an entire season of change that I will be coming into, and doubtless other facets of my life and ministry to date will change, will fade, will even go away entirely. And yet I take comfort in knowing that despite it, God will be praised. Maybe I won’t be the one behind the kit anymore. But it’s never been about me–or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It’s about the four hardest words in English: Thy will be done.

Anxious: Guess We’re Doing This!

Ten days ago (yep, I’m still processing this somewhat), the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) for the Alexandria District, Virginia Annual Conference, of the United Methodist Church, formally endorsed me as a Certified Candidate for Ordination, and moreover approved me for licensing as a Local Pastor as soon as July. Yep. This year.

I had about an hour-long interview with the ~dozen or so members of the DCOM, who asked lots of questions about my fitness to lead, my understanding of the sacraments, and so forth. (Although interestingly, never asked “Why do you want to become a pastor?”) They asked about my devotional life, my self-care habits, how I developed the sermon I posted to YouTube. They also asked what kind of appointment I’d be seeking, and I told them I’m still committed to the idea of finishing my Federal service in another ~5-plus years while attending seminary part-time, so a part-time posting nearby that allows me the chance to be mentored and get my feet wet, make some mistakes and have someone there to help me understand them–that would be perfect. Later that day I had an email from the DCOM chair that I had been approved.

Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me wanted to cry, part of me said “You fools! If only you knew how unready I am for this!” And so I think the right word is “anxious.” I’m anxious in the sense of, what have I gotten myself into? How can anyone possibly think I am able to do this? But also “anxious” in the sense of, let’s get to it! Let’s go, let’s get started, I’m anxious to begin!

I still have to go to licensing school, ten days in May, but for all intents and purposes, I will become the Rev. Eric Kleppinger as of annual conference in late June. And then…the adventure begins. Part-time pastoring, plus full-time employment, plus two seminary classes a term, plus family, plus life, the universe, and everything.

For I can do all things through the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Amen. And amen. Lord, you have called me to this. In you I find my strength to follow, and in you I will find my strength to do all you’ve called me to do. Let thy will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Because, I guess we’re doing this!

 

C-100 (Woo hoo!)

Over the Martin Luther King Jr weekend, my daughter and I were part of the team putting on the 100th Chrysalis weekend (woo hoo!) in the National Capital Area, for 22 teenagers (“caterpillars”) who came and joined us for a weekend of discovering Christ and learning more about his incredible love.

It was a special time for me, having my first opportunity to team with Sarah. She had walked on C-94, two years before, and when she started teaming a year later I had asked if she would be interested in having Daddy on her team. Nope. “I want to make friends and have my own space,” she said at the time. No problem. But come this year, when the time came to assemble the team for C-100 (woo hoo!)*, she allowed that perhaps she’d done that and it would be possible for me to serve. I was honored to see her lead worship and music, and watch her in her element.

There were actually six of us from Sydenstricker UMC on the team, four youth and two adults, which made us one of the largest, if not the largest, church contingents. I’m also proud of that: that our youth are stepping up into this program, and bringing others to Christ through it. We had one more of our youth walk on the weekend, and now maybe Michael will take a place on a future team.

C-100 (woo hoo!) wasn’t without its drama and its challenges, including bitter cold weather. But God was not to be denied, and He showed up in a big way on the mountain for all those kids. And in that is the greatest WOO HOO! of them all.

 

*(Yes, each time someone said C-100, we all had to say “Woo hoo!” It was fun.)

Love Letters

OK, right up front I have to confess to being a bit of a pack rat. This is important to the story because part of what I’ve been doing, while a furloughed Government employee this week, has been cleaning out my basement from decades of accumulated junk. I’m also going through the boxes of mementos, trying to simplify those; for instance, my parents had saved a box of my elementary school work. I don’t think my kids or grandkids are going to find my fifth grade spelling test to be as fascinating.

I came across one set of boxes, though, that contained about ten shoeboxes, each crammed with all the letters from various friends I’d received and then saved from the early 1980s through today. (Although the number of letters saved dropped off d-r-a-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y in the mid-1990s, about the time email came along. Go figure.) I had completely forgotten that I had saved them all!

I went through the boxes of letters, and decided to have almost all of them shredded. I pulled out the stack of love letters that Mary had sent me when we were still dating and just becoming affianced; those I’m definitely saving. But all the rest: they’re going. Ones from my mom and dad, included. And in so doing, I get to say goodbye to a lot of other love letters and ghosts in my past.

Laura, the first real romance I had (if you can count 8th grade as romance, but hey, we exchanged letters about another 7 years). Then Cynthia. Heidi. Dawn. And Julie, my first true long-term relationship. All were some stage of relationship I had, each in some way preparing me to be who I am.

I will confess to a quick peek through some of them before I tossed them in the shred box. They speak of life in a simpler time, when letters were the only way to share (because long distance phone calls were SO EXPENSIVE) and when all of us were young, oh so young, with raw emotions and little experience in dealing with them. The awkwardness, the daring, the vulnerability–the whole range of emotions.

To be honest, it’s with mixed emotions I let these letters go. Of course, I’m not in love with these women anymore, and I certainly don’t need to have these around. I mean, looking at the letters today was the first time in decades that I’d seen them. Some of these young women were more into me than I was into them. Others, I know I hurt when we broke up. All of them, I would apologize to for any hurt I would have caused. All of them, I truly wish well, and hope they’re doing well. One, I know, is a thriving wife and mother. Others, I’m not so sure. But I’m not about to go find out. And yet, they’re just letters, just relics of a time gone by that will never come again, will never amount to anything.

In exorcising those ghosts of my past, it also occurs to me that they each pointed to what I have today. My wife is the total package, if you will, of all I had pieces of over my life. Laura’s smile and (frankly) sauciness is Mary’s. Cynthia’s sense of humor and small-town genuineness is Mary’s. Dawn’s faith is Mary’s. Heidi’s vulnerability is Mary’s. And Julie’s warmth and dedication is Mary’s.

I remember aching for one of my early romances at the time, and wondering if she were the one God had in mind for me. Little did I know he would have many others in store for me, before unveiling the grand prize, the one who brought everything together for me, the one without whom I couldn’t imagine the last nearly 29 years. And as I prepare to put my trust in him one more time, for one more big step, it seems right to let go of all the past, all that’s extraneous, all that isn’t what I have now and need to have in the future.

God bless you all. Forgive me my shortcomings, and allow some fond thought instead. I truly wish you every blessing. And now I’m off with Mary to our next adventure.

Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

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. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.