Unfinished Business

On May 7, Mary and I officially became the parents of a college graduate, as David handed in the last assignment of his undergraduate career. Four days later, Mary and I took a day off and drove down to help David move out of his college apartment. No ceremony, neither pomp nor circumstance, no craning to see David among 2,500 other gowned graduates amid the red and white azaleas and the green of the Lawn at Radford University. This year the Lawn is empty, the buildings dark, and the only ceremony attached to the end of his four years at Radford was his surrendering his apartment keys at the landlord’s office…into a locked box, because no one is working.

He will not admit it, but I think there is a piece of him that mourns the lack of closure. He’s never been one for ceremony, but after seventeen years of formal education, some piece of him was looking for that final moment. I know his mother and I were. Is this all there is?

Others are perhaps in a similar place: graduations from high school, college, or grad school that are deferred, rescheduled, or not to be held, denying closure for the student and for the families. Similarly, for all those moving up from elementary school to junior high, or junior high to high school, there is no final ceremony, there is no final week of joy. Or even those just moving up a grade, there is a sense of unfinished business about the year that I sense in talking with people: is this all there is?

God’s people have seen unfinished business before. On March 16, 597 BC, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem. He destroyed the Temple, the center of Hebrew worship, and carried off most of the nation of Judah into captivity; we read of the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 24, and we see the weeping of the people, and the confusion. The city has fallen, the Temple is in ruins, and the people have been led off into captivity…now what? Is this all there is?

God, of course, had other plans for God’s people. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time of the Captivity, and in Jeremiah 30, we read God’s promise for the future: “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people” (Jeremiah 30:3).

I truly believe that same promise is at work today. God sees all the heartache and distress, and hears the cry of “Is this all there is?” God’s transformative work is already at hand, as we begin transforming towards reopening churches this month. The days are surely coming, when our fortunes as a congregation will change, and we can worship God once again in person as we are comfortable.

And as we do re-emerge, for all those finishing either just a year of school this year, or making a major change such as graduating, know that the same promise holds true for you; God will make everything whole. All you who are students, know that as this school year ends you are being held in prayer by your church family, for the joys of graduation and the sorrows of unfinished business. To all the graduates, God bless you on your next journeys. To all the continuing students, like me…blessings on your summer, and I’ll meet you in class in September.

Thirty Years…Still Miss That Restaurant

On February 2, 1990, I asked my boss out to lunch. On February 3, we met at Carbur’s Restaurant in downtown Burlington, and began a thirty-year adventure that has now spanned two millennia, two centuries, four decades, one marriage, and two children.

I won’t wax eloquent here about that adventure, but I did happen to come across an example of an old Carbur’s menu from the period. Their menu was a stitch: funny names for meals, and odd “facts” about Vermont such as the elusive fur-bearing trout. Part of the joy of going there was lingering over the bad puns and political humor in the menu; their off-beat sense of humor ran throughout. The food wasn’t bad either.

I can’t remember when Carbur’s folded, maybe it was around 20 years ago. But coming across this menu was a step back to the days when Mary and I were first dating, and it warmed my heart. That’s one of the places from my twenties that I miss the most. Savor the menu along with us as well.

Be Not Afraid: Scarcity

Pastor Don suffered the loss of a good friend and mentor in late February; his funeral was this past weekend, so we hurriedly switches places in the calendar. This is one of those times I think he’s glad to have someone like me around, because it’s Communion weekend, and that would’ve been a difficult thing to handle without a licensed pastor around!

It also meant that I got to kick off our Lenten sermon series, “Be Not Afraid,” which will look at all the ways the world wants us to be afraid–and the singular response God has every time. This particular weekend I talked about a fear of scarcity, and how to live into an abundance mentality instead. We have some challenges at Sydenstricker–we have a new building we want to build, and ministries to grow for the community. But we also have passionate people who are putting God in charge, like the young Hawthorn sisters whose story I tell. And in that I see a lot of hope.

Here’s the link to the livestream page, click on the 11am service for March 1 and go from there. Or if you prefer just the audio, click here. And let me know what you think!

Sabbath and Surfing

Last month I wrote about the challenge of committing to a Sabbath, and how difficult I felt it would be. The more I push into 2020, though, the more I am coming to think that is God’s word for me for this year–Sabbath. How God wants me to develop habits of rest in the midst of the crashing waves all around, how I can learn to surf all the things I need to do while still coming to a place of renewing rest.

I had a little taste of it this weekend, when we were visiting family for the long holiday weekend. While there’s certainly things to be done while visiting–helping around the house, going places, etc.–there was also welcome time to just sit, to sleep in, to rest. I know I nodded off at least once in the rocking chair while “studying” for class. (Don’t tell the professor.) And I don’t think we got any less than 8 hours’ sleep each night, which means easily 2-3 hours more than usual. It was wonderful to get away, to see family and friends, and to have a real chance to disconnect and recharge.

At the same time, I am working to stay atop the various waves of this season. We started school again at the beginning of the month, and so far I’ve been able to keep up with the work. One of the classes, my first Mentored Ministry class, invites us to update our Rule of Life that we developed in a previous class. Mine contained a pledge to begin honoring a sabbath, to do more physical exercise (time for longer walks with the Ferg), and to not obsess over getting A’s this term–to accept “good enough” and to move on.

So how’s that coming?

The weekend’s sabbath time was much appreciated and needed. I am also keeping a commitment to more social time by having dinner with a friend tonight on the way home to a church meeting (yay me for fitting it in!), and I’ve struggled to not obsess over the posts I’m making in classes–and still doing well, it appears. I have work to do in our Connect ministries this month, and will need to carve out some time for that. But for now, I feel I’m able to keep on the surfboard and ride the waves, and I am learning that in part it’s down to how much I am able to set aside time for sabbath.

I had mentioned that Saturdays would be my sabbath day; how are those coming? Wellllll….  The first one was taken up by a required on-campus class, so, insert irony here. The next, though, was the weekend away visiting family, and I do feel I was able to make use of it. This coming Saturday has very little on it as well. Check back with me on how this develops.

Through The Waters

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. (Isaiah 43:2)

I had previously shared that my January was going to be intense and nuts and just a wreck; and certainly it was. We had two m-a-j-o-r budget processes to complete between Christmas and the beginning of February; I certainly hadn’t planned to come down with bronchitis and an ear infection in the middle of it, or deal with some family matters, but those added to the pressures of the month.

Which brings us to the week just ended. Monday we released the 2020 spend plan to Congress, on time and complete. Wednesday and Thursday we were on the Hill briefing staff about the spend plan; then tomorrow we release the 2021 President’s Budget, again on time and complete. (Watch this space on Monday night for our 2021 work to show up.) I am beyond proud of our team at my Day Job for all they did to get us there.

And I am beyond amazed at the God who got me through it all.

As I write I am at the Orlando airport after a quick weekend class, part of my seminary experience. My coworkers at my Day Job were aghast that I would spend the weekend not resting and sleeping after an exhausting month (and being sick), but flying hundreds of miles within 24 hours for an 8-hour class. What they don’t understand is how incredibly recharging such a time can be for me. This class is one of my required Mentored Ministry classes, and we spent the time talking about all that can derail us from God’s work, and the many ways that ministry can drag us down. Inspiring, I know. But actually, it is: by confronting the reality of the work I am beginning, I can think through how best to stay focused on orthopraxis and not orthodoxy: in other words, on how to lead people to BE the church, rather than to just RUN a church. The key is to remain in connection with the Holy Spirit: as Jesus promised, remain in the vine and I will remain in you (John 15:5).

We still have work to do at the Day Job; the rollout press conferences are this week, and there will be Congressional testimony to prepare. But I’m more excited about the work we’re going to begin at Sydenstricker to reinvigorate our Connect ministries starting this spring. And now that the spring term has started at seminary, lots of reading and writing beckons as well. But you know? The same God who led me through the waters of January will lead me through all that as well. I can’t wait to see what unfolds next.

Amazing Grace

Last weekend I had the second of my “graded” sermons–ones in which the Senior Pastor has to take notes and let me know if my theology is sufficiently correct as a United Methodist. This time, the topic was on God’s grace, and our distinctly Wesleyan understanding of it.

I’m really enjoying our livestream option; click here and look for the February 2 11am service. Let me know what you think!

Sabbath

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:2-3)

My senior pastor asked me a very, very difficult question last week.

“So, what day are you picking for your sabbath?”

He’s right to ask it: he has Fridays as his day off, and I’m trying to make sure to not disturb him then. He wants to return the favor, and know when I’m off as well. Pastoral ministry is hard work, I’m coming to learn, and it’s essential that a pastor not burn out. Especially, perhaps, ahem, one known to always be on the go and doing something, like I am. And I know he’s asking in love: “I don’t want you to burn out, I need you here!”

The trick is, I don’t have a very good answer for that. If–and correctly so, I believe–the purpose of a sabbath is to be at rest, so as to reconnect and recharge in God for what’s in store next, then a day at rest is certainly called for.

But remember, I still work a full-time Federal job, one that (this month especially) is not known for being reliably only a 40-hours-a-week commitment. So that rules out Monday through Friday. Sunday, of course, is a workday as a pastor, and while I lead services once a month, it would look very, very “off” to declare Sunday as my Sabbath. That leaves Saturday–but Saturday is my day for doing all the stuff around the house, the errands, the things that don’t get done during the week.

Somewhere around now in my chain of reasoning I start rationalizing…maybe what I need is just a sabbath from church work, and I could pick that almost any weekday.  Or, that a sabbath is just a rest from paid work, and so Saturdays could still count because only rarely do I need to work a Saturday.

But somewhere around then the Spirit reminds me that that’s not the point at all. The point is to find rest, to not burn out–and to find that rest, as Augustine memorably wrote, in God. And yes, that includes Type-A people like me who are always on the go and doing something. Rest, God says.

So the search for a meaningful sabbath continues. It’d be easy if they’d just add an eighth day to the calendar…

Christmas Calm

Live view of the family room as I type

Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10a)

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon. The tree is finally decorated, there’s a fire roaring away, and apart from tidying up in the rec room a bit, there’s not a ton that has to be done today. I can sit here in the family room, enjoy the season and the warmth of the fireplace, and just…be, in the moment. (Well, and get a little writing done…)

How unlike my January this moment is!

At my still-day-job in Federal budgeting, we now have a w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l gift (insert eye roll) of having to roll out the 2021 President’s Budget AND report to Congress on our spending plan for the just-enacted 2020 budget, both in early February. Two major, time-consuming, intense processes that normally would be different times are now stacked on top of each other. There will be lots of late nights throughout January as we try to get everything done, done well, and done on time. Plus, at church, I am taking over responsibility for worship preparations each week: having people assigned to the right roles, communicating to ushers and communion assistants, etc. I know enough to know I don’t know everything, and I’m already afraid of what ball will be dropped in the juggling. Oh, and starting a new Sunday School class, and preparing for a Lent evening class on prayer.

Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10a)

I know I need times like this. I know I need recharging and renewal, before taking on what both my God and my job have in store for me in 2020. I know I need Christmas, and to have the faith of a Mary or a Joseph, to see what’s coming and to surrender entirely to God’s will.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38a)

In many ways, 2019 felt like the year of “Follow me.” And I did. As 2020 gets ready to start, with the whirlwind that January will represent, I wonder if God’s message to me for 2020 might be, “Trust me.” I confess I still have trouble with that one; Lord, may I have the strength to trust as I did to take those first steps to following you. Just as a young couple in Judea did two millennia ago, I must trust that what God has in store for me is exactly what God’s plan needs for me to experience, to become who he intends me to be. And that’s a Christmas gift that doesn’t fit under the tree, but rather, comes in these quiet moments on lazy Sunday afternoons.

Advent: All Things New

The year is winding down…but the church year is just starting, and with it, the promise of the coming of Jesus, both at Christmas and in his final glory. What I find so refreshing and recharging is that promise: the hope we have as Christians that Jesus will come again, and God’s plan for humanity will be realized, when we can finally live as his people once again.

This was my sermon last week; give it a listen and let me know what you think!

Thanksgiving 2019

It seems to have been a bit of a tradition for me, year after year, to take note of the things I’ve been thankful for in recent days. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

  • My first five months as a pastor. God has been unfolding, at a measured pace, the full panorama of what this entails. I am so grateful for it, and so amazed at my friends who have gone in full-time and deal with e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g all at once.
  • Over 26 years of marriage. Good start…
  • Thanksgiving dinner with Mary and the kids. We went out again this year, and once again had a lively conversation at dinner that we just never quite seem to do around the house, with everyone going in different directions. It’s special.
  • All the people I’ve met on the journey into ministry who have made it special and have been supporting me at different stages.
  • Greek class is over soon. SO thankful for that ending!
  • Sarah’s 2019, which featured her completing high school, being in her own graduation ceremony, and landing a job in another city that lets her explore the field she thinks she really wants to do. I am beyond grateful that she is loving the work and has such a great opportunity to see what it can be about.
  • Sharing with David–either a steak dinner, or a story and a laugh, or whatever oddity he’s found online that he wants to tell me about. I’m grateful for him and for him wanting to share his world with me.
  • The sacred privilege I’ve had of helping a parishoner transition to death and the promise of what lies beyond. Certainly one of the more moving, significant, and utterly real roles I’ve been able to play since joining the pastorate this year.
  • My new boss at my day job, who has made it an easy transition and who has also been very supportive of my “part-time job.”
  • God’s blessings, abundant such that we can redo our kitchen and make plans to redo the basement without having to take out a loan.
  • Our trip to England in January. Still a highlight of the year, sometimes wish I could be back there.

What have you to be thankful for this year?