Advent: Anxiety?

So how has the Sabbath been going, has Advent remained somewhat peaceful?

Yes? And…no?

I’ve been blessed with a fairly stress-free December at work. And with one week to go in the current Continuing Resolution, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Department will be shut in a week (and me with it!), or…not. So there’s a little touch of anxiety there, but perhaps for a reason you might not expect.

You see, if we’re shut, I’m not terribly worried about surviving. Most likely I’ll be paid for the inconvenience in the end. And even if not, we can carry ourselves for a bit here. It’s not like we live paycheck to paycheck like we did when we were just starting out.

No, it’s more an anxiety over, What will I do with myself? My last paper is due Monday, so I won’t have classes hanging over me until February (which will be a wonderful and welcome break). And being bored is…well, it’s terrible for me. I might get some reading done. Maybe tidy the basement. And part of me wonders what’s going on at church that week that I could maybe help out with?

I just know that if I spin down from the pace of classes into a pace of watching whatever the heck I want on Netflix, it’ll be difficult to spin back up again. I need something to occupy me. At least for about ten days before Mary and I go on our vacation to the UK.

Again, I can feel the nudge. Yep, spin down. That’s exactly what I need you to learn how to do. Rest in Me. Then you can do anything.

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Advent: Taking a Breath

Advent is a season of anticipation. There’s the anticipation of Christ’s birth, and with it, the anticipation of his Second Coming. And all the more, there’s the anticipation of everything that the holiday season brings with it–the food, the shopping, the errands, the food, the cards, the food…

Often, the holidays are an insane time for us. Well, sure, isn’t it for everyone? There’s all the holiday parties, the shopping, the various church services, all the obligations of the season. And for me at work, layered on top of that is the fact that OMB’s passback of the next President’s Budget always occurs the week after Thanksgiving, and can linger well into December as we work towards final settlement. Late nights, stress, unpredictable days… And this year, of course, I’m taking two classes at seminary, both of which will wrap up in the middle of the month, with all that entails.

And yet? The early part of Advent 2018 has been surprisingly…calm.

In one of our classes, we’ve been talking about (and I’ve been convicted by) keeping a Sabbath, creating a dedicated time of rest in God. Sabbath?!? Are you KIDDING?!? Have you SEEN my to-do list?

But yet, I feel God is breaking through with a word of rest, a word that reminds me that my to-love list had better be more important than my to-do list. Case in point: We reached settlement with OMB in a surprisingly early, and easy, fashion this year. We didn’t have any ridiculously late nights at the office during passback week itself, and since then things have gone fairly smoothly. I might not have to stress at work this year!

And! The two classes I have are pretty well in hand at this point. For Old Testament, I have an essay due Sunday, and a discussion board posting to make. For Vocation of Ministry, I have a final paper, an essay that just became optional (!), and a quiz, but all those will be done by the 14th. I might not have to stress over classes this year!

And! With the unfortunate passing of President Bush, I even have an extra day off to  do things, yes–but perhaps to rest a little too! As I did: Starbucks in the morning, Christmas decorating in the afternoon, and smoking, slowly, a rack of ribs for dinner tonight. A leisurely pace.

Now, I know all this can be knocked aside in an instant. Work can get crazy again, or it’s harder to finish classwork than I anticipate, or any of a hundred other things could crop up. But y’know, for today, I’m able to rest. I’m able to be at peace, and I can see God’s hand at work in teeing up a wee bit of Sabbath for me.

Thank you Lord. Come into your Sabbath. Come into your world. Just…come. Amen.

Giving Thanks, 2018

Y’know, in so many ways, I am so, so ready to see the backside of 2018 as it heads out the door in another five weeks. This has been a tough year: the loss of Mary’s dad and my mom were certainly huge reasons to wish this year a speedy farewell. But there were other times of toughness in the family: struggles in school, for one. Watching the nest empty a little, for another. An emergency appendectomy on my 25th anniversary, no less. It hasn’t been the easiest of years.

And yet…

And yet there remains much to be thankful for. It might seem trite, to do a list at this time of year, but Abraham Lincoln may have been onto something in 1863 when he established Thanksgiving as a holiday in the midst of the Civil War. We do need a reminder, every now and then, to stop down and to be thankful for what is going right. And so, in 2018 I give thanks for:

  • The first 25 years of marriage to the one who is still my bride, Mary. Despite the appendectomy on the day, it’s been a good year for celebrating us. Like dinners out, and plans for a week in the UK at New Year’s. Losing her dad and seeing the effect on her mom, made me imagine what it would be like without her. And I shudder.
  • And the kids, David and Sarah, who each have their own path, and that’s great, and it’s terrific to see the young adults they’re turning into.
  • Quite simply, without them I couldn’t have answered the call that I’m receiving, beckoning me towards ordination. They have given me space to explore this and permission where I needed it.
  • Starting seminary this year, and figuring out how to juggle all that entails while holding down a job and doing everything else. Learning how to do online classes, as well as fitting in with the in-person classes…it’s been a shift, and I’m grateful for it, and for the endorsements I’ve received along the way. (Just a couple of weeks until my second semester is over!)
  • David’s trip to Spain (and Portugal) this summer, where he had the chance to complete his field school, refine his archaeological techniques, and learn about grad school programs that are now his choice for what to do after Radford (can you believe he wants to go to GRAD SCHOOL?!?)
  • Sarah and her servant leader’s heart in being the leader for Chrysalis weekend C-99 in the summer. She had to overcome a lot to get it done, and she had to buckle down in some places where it was hard to do so. But it’s easy to see how she simply comes alive in leading worship and bringing others to Christ!
  • My own teaming experiences on Emmaus weekend E-185, Kairos weekend K-75, and soon to be Chrysalis weekend C-100…for Adam, Michael, Shannon, Larry, Hollywood, Joel, and everyone else who got to experience God’s love (and I got to have a front-row seat).
  • Sarah’s job! She’s experiencing the wide world of work, starting this fall at Sheetz and learning how to deal with managers, customers, managers, other coworkers, and managers. Oh, and managers.
  • The beginning of the emptying nest, as David and his roommate Nathan got an apartment…and David promptly emptied his bedroom. Our baby boy is all gone now! (Ask Mary about her new lounge/study/nook room)
  • Good friends: reconnecting with Adam in a way we hadn’t in the last couple of years, and bowling with Ken and Trish each month, and…so many others!
  • Work–having some, of course, and that it pays well helps, and that it’s a little less crazy lately has been an added bonus.
  • The love and support of Sydenstricker UMC in the candidacy process. I was truly touched and humbled by the unanimous vote to recommend me to pursue candidacy. That was a special moment.
  • Fergie. The Pums. The happy puppy. Despite her entering, technically, into “senior dog” status as a 7-year-old this year, and picking up the first couple of silver bits of fur in her black coat, she’s a 50-pound chicken who truly knows how to love. You cannot out-love a dog.
  • Sharing a weekend in Vermont with Glenn, being able to showcase some of my home state to a Texan who’d never seen it before. And all the more, his support over that weekend as my mom passed away. Truly, a brother.

I know I’m leaving things off…but I also know this is so much already to be thankful for. Lord, you give and you give. And sometimes, yes, you take away. But your love is always constant, and I can see it looking back even in years like this. May your name be praised!

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

Now What Do We Do?

At Sydenstricker UMC, we are at the climax of a year-long discernment process, seeking to identify what it is that God is calling us to do and to be. The process, called Next Level Innovations, culminated in a special weekend recently. An outside team of experts from the District came in to help facilitate conversations about what’s special about SUMC, what needs to change, and where we can make a difference. The outcome of that weekend was a report with a set of recommendations that we’re now considering, and will vote on whether to accept later this month.

As the report was presented, we had a special unified service, at which our NLI mentor, Rev Brian Brown, preached on the ripples we make in life. We then had the NLI director, Rev Dr Sarah Calvert, present the recommendations to the church.

The following weekend, Pastor Don was away on conference business, and I had the preaching duty. I spoke on the question of Now What Do We Do? Once we’ve heard from God, what is our response going to be? Give a listen and let me know what you think.

A Week On Campus

Today wraps up my second-ever week on campus at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I had two classes this week, Vocation of Ministry and Intro to the Old Testament, splitting the week: Vocation Monday through Wednesday noon, and OT Wednesday afternoon through Friday.

These were two very different class experiences, akin to going from a warm bath into a raging Class V rapid.

Vocation of Ministry is all about helping us understand the concept of “call,” and how we may be called into God’s service. We spent a lot of time in small-group accountability groups, and so I had the chance to come to know Mark and Justin better than just online. Pastor Don would also love some of the takeaways from the class:

  • If you build a church, you might not make disciples, but if you make disciples, you’ll definitely build a church.
  • Don’t sweat your ministry. God has far more invested in it than you do.
  • Our job is climate control: creating a set of conditions in which God can do something.

I felt especially convicted in our discussion of Sabbath. I don’t rest. I just don’t, not in the way the Bible calls us to. I do need to be more intentional about that: carving out time to do nothing but to sit and be in Jesus’ presence.

Old Testament moves at a firecracker pace: pop pop pop pop. The class has been a ton of reading (about 648 pages last week to get ready for this week), and I took more notes in these 2½ days than I’ve done in a long, long time. College Boy would have loved the archaeological discussions about various sites (is Mt. Ebal Joshua’s altar, or an Iron Age I barbecue pit?). We also waded into more controversial lanes:

  • What if the Exodus event wasn’t all of Israel, but only the tribe of Levi? And the rest of the tribes never left Canaan?
  • What if “the law” in the Old Testament wasn’t prescriptive, but a set of statements that defined a general approach that the society was supposed to take?

Rolling around on the floor with those kinds of questions was fun; I only wish some of the quizzes in the class weren’t so much a Bible trivia gotcha.

* * *

I also drew reassurance once again at just being here. This does feel like a good place to be. I do feel comfortable here. I can see myself at this kind of work now. And hey, it’s a great place for a selfie with a life-sized John Wesley…

Ten Days On

Today is ten days since Mom passed away.

It’s been an uneven road. For the most part, I think, I’m doing OK. There are moments, though, and there are days that are better than others.

For instance, the other day I saw a trailer on TV for the new Disney movie, The Nutcracker. Oh good, I thought! Mom loves Disney, and she certainly loves The Nutcracker–she always used to collect nutcrackers, in fact. She’d love this, I should…take…her…oh yeah. Huh.

It’s little reminders like that that keep cropping up. Mary and I went to the funeral home to pick up Mom’s cremated remains, and we were stuck in the traffic created by the construction on Route 29 out by the nursing home. Boy, I’ll be glad when this construction is over, I thought…then it occurred to me, I won’t have to drive over here anymore. Oh yeah. Huh.

In these moments of sadness, though, it’s still been possible to find joy. Remember, joy isn’t happiness: there’s not much to be happy about in this at all. But joy is a product of God: it is the security, serenity, and yes, joy, of knowing God and knowing his grace. I can still find joy, in the absolute conviction that Mom has attained the healing that escaped her here. She has a glorified body now, one that works when she wants it to, one that won’t cause her to fall or develop infections, one that’s free of every trace of Parkinson’s Disease. She can run and play with her dog, Kep, in ways that she never could here. And she has claimed the prize of faith.

joy

There is much to be done, administratively, that will be tiresome. There are the dark moments when I wish I could just hear her voice again, or know that hopeful look she would give when I visited. Or take her down to the fish pond one more time. But I also know, she is experiencing the restoration of all things. And in that, despite the darkness, I can take joy.