Archive for January, 2010

Grieving for Church

I stayed up too late last night; 3:15 am. I know better than to allow myself to get on the computer in the evening! It was facebook, then job hunting, then health information. My son tried to drag me away from it. He’s 4 so I took little breaks and kept coming back. Eventually the little guy fell asleep and stopped coming downstairs after me. I decided when I got into bed to go ahead and set the alarm clock. Sundays are usually the only days I do that. I almost needn’t have done it because my son woke me at 8 to turn on the compter for him and bring up the Lego website.

I tried to sleep until 9 and then the alarm went off. I lay there another 10 minutes and then decided I should do what I had made up my mind to do. Today I wanted to visit the Episcopal Church, my home away from home, my retreat center. A member of my knitting group goes there. I wondered if I should call her or just wait and see if she showed up. The weather’s been foul and she hasn’t been going every week. It is about a 20 mile drive.

I got there in good time, about 10 minutes before the service. I noticed that the other arrivals were going in the NW door, so I went that way too. The sanctuary of this church is unusual in that, though rectangular, the altar is in the absolute middle of the room with the choir loft and organ at the east end behind half of the pews. The clergy and acolytes sit on the south of the altar. There is a raised pulpit north of the altar, and both the sermon and the gospel reading are presented here.

I saw the guest book almost as soon as I got in. Since  I’m so well trained, I went right up to it and put my name and address down. I left off the title.

No one greeted me, which is pretty typical of many churches, I think. They weren’t unfriendly. They didn’t scowl at me, they just didn’t go out of their way to welcome me. And since I am one of those who can easily make myself look like I know what I’m doing, I proceeded to act that way. I walked right across the nave and into the hall, hoping to find a bathroom. I had been drinking tea on the way over and also realized I had forgotten to pack some kleenex.

The worship leaders were robing in a side room and there were a couple milling around in the hall. I noticed there were two unisex bathrooms right there, and they were both occupied. I waited. Small chit chat about the state of the bathrooms, and then a priest emerged. I figured it was probably the rector, but I didn’t say anything, just kind of smiled and went in the bathroom. I took care of business and grabbed about 5 tissues so I’d be prepared for the inevitable flood.

It was the patronal feast day. A lay person, I think the choimaster/organist, did a guitar prelude and sang. It sounded like it might be something from “Gather”, a Roman Catholic contemporary hymnal. It was nice. The guitar and his voice were quite pleasant and even a bit soothing. I was quite solitary in my pew, though there were others seated in my section. I had seen a sign noting the church maximum occupancy was 575, but I would guess there may have been about 150 in attendance. The choir was very small and average, while the music was very good; even had brass.

It was nice to have most of the liturgy printed out (just like my former EC parish, they must be using “The Rite Stuff”.). And nice also to know my way around the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982. I tried to allow myself to get taken in to the ritual, but couldn’t help but make mental notes about how they did things differently from my old parish. I caught myself wondering about the differences.

What I really liked was the kneelers. For some reason I wanted to spend the entire service on a kneeler. I think it must be just a good way for my body to describe how it feels. Not contrite exactly, but certainly humble, meek, needy, reverent. But I knew that my knees would be very uncomfortable and people would notice. I didn’t want any extra attention.

The sermon was more like the rector’s annual report, and he said as much. He was pleasant to listen to and spoke of the trials of the diocese in re-formation and of the hope for the future. There was to be a luncheon and the annual meeting after mass. I so wanted to go, but felt it would be weird. I spotted my friend across the nave. I’d go talk to her after service and see if she planned to stay.
After the sermon/report, the priest called forward those celebrating birthdays and anniversaries this week for a special prayer of blessing. I hadn’t expected it (it wasn’t in the bulletin). But I thought it was nice; it made the church seem more intimate and homey. I was doing quite well until we started to get into the Eucharist. It’s always the Eucharist! I mean, if I haven’t started crying before, it’s gonna happen during communion. I tried hard not to let my eyes fill up with tears as I went forward and kneeled at the rail. The young male deacon delivered the host; and then the female chalice bearer came by. I’m sure she noticed my eyes were welled up. It was also a little extra awkward because I had decided to commune by intinction and I was clearly not allowed to dip my own. I could have sipped from the chalice, but dipping had to be done by the server. I chalked it up to H1N1, but still wondered if it was always done that way, especially since she then placed the host on my tongue rather than handing it back to me. I was, at least, pleased to see two women serving at the altar: this chalice bearer and the crucifer.
After I got back to my pew, the choirmaster, who was already accompanying the singing on his guitar, started in on “One Bread, One Body.” I got out the tissues and kneeled at my seat. We had started the congregational singing with “The Church’s One Foundation” and now this! They really knew how to sock it to me. I think the familiarity of the EC helped me to cry less this week than I did two weeks ago in the Lutheran Church, plus I didn’t have an anniversary this week. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t sing so many songs that I sing in my home church. Then again, maybe I was a little bit higher in spirits today because I had seen several well wishers yesterday.
That reminds me. After seeing several folks at Wal-Mart yesterday, I still needed a few items so I went to the IGA. One of the church youth works there, and though I have seen him several times and greeted him, he had nearly ignored me each time. I hoped it was just because he didn’t know what to say, or that his peers were around, or maybe just because I had told him I thought he might have a call to ministry. Saturday, he was working the cash register and I got on his line. There were few people around. As soon as he saw me he smiled and asked for a hug, then proceeded to tell me that church just wasn’t as good without me there. He made my day. No, I think he made my week.
Maybe it was this teenage boy’s appreciation that lifted me so much; but it also brings out the realization that life is so much harder without the support of the regular presence of fellow believers. I need a church home, especially as I am about to face treatment decisions and actions. And though I know people are praying for me, I also need people standing beside me, hugging me, holding my hand and praying with me in person. I need to be surrounded by the presence of the community of which I am a known and welcomed part. Being a stranger at church only gives me access to group ritual, it doesn’t make me part of the community until people know my name and we care for each other. So I’m grieving that which I don’t have, a church home and family.

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Another Sunday

You might think that as a minister who preaches regularly and writes newsletter articles even more often, that I’d have plenty of writing to do. But there’s something different about those forms of writing, though they do sometimes allow for poetic expression, their purpose and intent is often something wholly other than the beauty of a thoroughly captured emotion or feeling.

This Sunday mid-day, my husband, who is also a minister, is preaching in another community so I am home, not currently employed, and spending time around my children. I say around, because at almost 5 and almost 8, my boys have developed to that wonderful state where they are able to play together and only occasionally come to me looking for acknowledgment, encouragement or amazement over their latest creation. I am the parent that secretly allows them to build things with the sofa cushions and blankets. (Shh, don’t tell their dad or we’ll all get in trouble!)

On this particular Sunday I had decided that having children ready to go to church in another community would mean having everyone (that includes me) up, dressed, fed and ready to go by 8 am was too much; even though it is something my older child does every day, my younger child and I, not so much. So off preacher daddy went without the rest of the family. At 9 am I was awakened by the yells of “MOM! MOM!” from the younger boy, who, still in his cozy bed, was ready for his morning breakfast of chocolate milk (don’t worry, it’s the breakfast mix kind). So off I trotted, eyes half shut, down the stairs to the kitchen to retrieve said breakfast in a sippy cup for the boy prince. (Yeah, I know. He’s totally spoiled in this regard.)

After a quick trip to the bathroom, I went back to sleep, because I was having some really interesting dreams and wanted to see if I could pick up where I left off. Two hours later, still cozy in my bed, I opened my eyes mid dream and looked at the clock. Considering the fact that marathon sleeping ability is genetic in my family, I decided I had better wake up and not lose another 2 or 3 hours of this lazy day. Both boys were up and playing happily together, but I began to wonder if they were hungry. Since they hadn’t been upstairs to waken me, I deduced they must be satisfied because nothing stops them from bugging me when they want the attention. I turned on the TV and watched a craft show. The reception was wonky, as it sometimes is when the weather is overcast, so I opened the bedroom blinds in hopes of improved reception; not so much.

Looking out the window I noticed there was a bit of fog hanging out in the dell. And the pines in my neighbor’s yard had that beautiful halo of ice on each needle. Slowly the bare braches of the surrounding hardwoods were picking up their halo too. It was a freezing fog, according to the weatherman on TV. I wondered how the roads were since my husband was traveling about 30 miles to the pulpit of the host church.

I weighed the thought of breakfast or shower first, and decided I ought to go to downstairs now and shower later. The boys were glad to see me up and started telling me about their activities. They had helped themselves to boxes of dry cereal, which of course meant they had each taken a box out of the cupboard and into the living room to eat from said boxes. I asked if they were hungry now and the older said yes, so I poured him a bowl of the “good” cereal with milk and called him to the kitchen table. To which he answered, “But I don’t want that cereal.” Well, a few minutes passed and I was now sitting at that table with my own cereal and my son came in and decided he would eat after all.

After I finished my bowl and started in on the pot of tea, I flipped through the pages of Southern Living magazine, getting nostalgic and homesick for the land of my youth. Looking out the window at the worn and patchy snowscape below the beauty of the trees, I couldn’t help but long for the beaches of summer family vacations. Beaches and oceans that my Midwestern children have never seen. I long to share with them the beaches that were the definition of my youthful summers, though those vacations were only one or two weeks long at most.

I want to share those beaches with my children because those beaches knew every emotion of my developing life: joy, fear, love, grief, wonder, wanderlust, faith and doubt. It was on those beaches that the deepest wishes of my heart were wished on twinkling, promising stars. It was on those beaches where God called my name in the gentle, tide tossed waves and shifting salty winds. I want to go back to those beaches for me, to find that teenager whose heart ached to know what the future held and what blessings would come in time. I want to go back to those beaches to discover the song of my self at mid life. I want to go sit on the beach, after dark, and just be. I long for the stillness of feeling the world move around me, or rather, the world moving me as if I am just another speck of sand. I long to sit and wait for God to tell me what is next and that in all of life’s uncertainties, everything will be just fine.

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The Anniversary

January 10, 2010 was a Sunday, just as January 10 was a Sunday in 1999. It was on that day, in 1999, that I wore a beautiful burgundy wool suit with black soutache trim and black on black embroidered suede pumps. And I celebrated my ordination to the Christian ministry in the congregation that raised and formed me from infant dedication to baptism to calling. My then fiancé and I served my first communion service as ordained minister; and we had bread. My sister/friend baked the bread. It was HUGE! It was shaped like grapes and wheat. There was enough for a serious banquet; and we put it out on the reception table after the service. Bread like that should be consumed by the body of Christ.

Last Friday I had tea with a clergywoman colleague. Earlier in 2009 we had each signed up to “craft-it-forward”, and while she had given me hers before Christmas, I hadn’t quite finished hers before things were too hectic to make the delivery. So we met in the new year. We talked and discussed our holidays and my situations and closed with prayer. She mentioned she was preaching this Sunday and that I was invited to come,  so I did. I couldn’t very well not when it was my anniversary and I needed some church to mark it in.

I had mis-remembered the time. Thinking I was late, arriving minutes past the hour, I arrived at the church nearly 45 minutes early! Imagine my surprise. But once you’ve walked in to a church you can’t very well leave and come back again later. It’s just rude. So instead I put on my best ” I meant to do that” face and went into the sanctuary where the children were putting on a “star procession” for the Epiphany celebration. This was something I had only read about on the internet and done a version of in a previous church. I knew of no one in the US who actually kept this European tradition! So while it would have been very awkward to have shown up so early otherwise, this occasion made it seem like I might have been specially invited; which I was, kind of.

After the procession I spotted the senior pastor and so I went over and introduced myself; which of course, in my honesty, brings on the story of how I came to be there this Sunday and the AP is my friend, and I’m here to hear her preach, well and it’s my anniversary, and I’m not currently serving in a church, but I might again, but I’ve got this health issue I need to take care of, and isn’t it dreadfully could? Yes, I know, -2 when I started the car.

Her church is Lutheran, which I have a little experience with; and the liturgy was very close the Episcopal Church which was just right by me and if I’d missed the time too terribly there is the Episcopal Cathedral just down the road and I want to visit there too. Well, with the liturgy feeling so familiar and the music being particularly beautiful and the scriptures and sermon talking about the Baptism of Christ; well, there were a lot of tears. Fortunately I had swiped a few tissues from my friend’s office and was able to do the dabbing and wiping. And when it came time for communion, this time, I went forward and kneeled and wished I could have stayed there at the rail for the day, but probably the usher would have made me move and then it would have been a spectacle and all those people who don’t know who I am would be wondering who I was and what I was doing. So I went back to my seat and pulled out the kneeler there; and blest it all if they didn’t start singing “I Come With Joy”.

Well the good thing was I didn’t create a scene, and while the tears did flow they were not accompanied by sobbing, because that would have drawn attention and Lutherans in particular might really be uncomfortable with a strange woman wearing a red sweater and crying out loud in church, of all places. Then they flubbed the beginning of the next hymn. (New liturgy, I’m told.) And, yes, there was grace even in a Lutheran Church as the senior pastor had them stop and started the hymn all over. Pretty soon the service was done and I was the first person walking out, so once I greeted the pastors the only thing to do really, was to put on my coat and go to the bookstore. Afterall, I was in the city and with the price of gas I shouldn’t be making special trips for that, so I went ahead on to Target too because I had a list of things we needed at home and if I was going to be gone for over 4 1/2 hours I had better come home with the things we needed.

And so the anniversary was marked on Facebook, in a couple of cards, and in the Lutheran Church. And it has served to stir up the next stage of grief which seems to be anger and deep longing for that which is lost; compounded by the anxieties of health and finance related to future income needs. But I pray and God tells me to work on the health and God will work on the other. And then I start thinking about the idiocy of what happened and the people who keep telling me they miss me and how the church misses me and what a gifted minister I am; and I want to say, “oh, yeah. I think I know who you are talking about. She was the pretty, smiling one who read the scripture so well and was so kind to the older folk and who the children loved and the youth looked up to. Yeah, that’s the one. Whatever happened to her?”

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Two months on in the grieving process and now it begins to be painful; and angry. I went to church Christmas Eve at my home church, with my parents. I sat with my family: boys, husband, mom, dad, brother. It was wonderful and almost without feeling. It was strange and sad, and sweet, and ok. My home church was remodeled the year after my ordination, so while the bones are still there, things look different and it doesn’t feel as much the same as it did when I was younger; and the people have changed. My parents and only a handful of others who were there 11-25 years ago remain. There are many new faces who have no idea of who I am or what I am supposed to be doing. Christmas Eve was both familiar and anonymous. There were absent folk I longed to see, and questions I hoped not to answer. What is a parish minister doing in her parents church on Christmas Eve? Well, of course those who knew who I am knew why I was there.

So we sat. All together in one pew. Younger boy fell asleep leaning on me, and I was glad for it. It meant I didn’t have to stand every time the congregation stood. It meant I didn’t go forward for communion; but thankfully it did get brought to me. I didn’t have to come so close to a chancel that didn’t have a place for me on it. One of the ministers, knowing I would be home, had actually called my parents to see if I would like to do a reading at the late service. Not being there to speak for myself the invitation was declined; we’d be at the early service. And when I called just moments after learning, the opportunity was no longer there, but thank you anyway.

In the church of my youth the sanctuary was very dark on Christmas Eve, save for the candles, the tree and the spotlight. The nave lights were low and the space felt so sacred and holy; whispering space where God might just call your name and tell you of the promise. But under new decor and new pastors, the sanctuary was bright that night. Perhaps to be more family-friendly? Kinder to tired old eyes? More joyful and jubilant? While that may have been on order for others, I longed for the darkened sanctuary and the giant old wreaths in the big clear glass windows. I wished for the great Chrismon Tree mounted in the baptistry recess, covered in white and gold. I longed for the deep red carpet, now replaced with hardwood. I longed for the church of my childhood, and the wonder of Christmas, full of expectation and anticipation and holy bliss. This church was too bright for a world in darkness waiting for the one true Light of the World. I wondered if the person working the lights just forgot to adjust them and then it was too late; but I think this current incarnation of the church just didn’t know any better. At the same time I tried just to find the blessing in being able to sit and hold my babies on Christmas Eve; to remember the last time I had been in this church on Christmas Eve I was 6 months pregnant with my first child and working denominationally. Then it was an honor to be in a parish on Christmas Eve, whether on the chancel or not.

It didn’t hurt so much to be in my home church on Christmas, perhaps because although this church sent me off into ministry it is not a congregation I am called to serve in. When I am home, I may or may not participate in worship. To be truthful there was always an awkwardness that I felt, especially as a teen ager, that this church somehow did not fit or hold me, or perhaps the other way, I did not fit in it. Yes, it was part of my formation and foundation, but both roots and wings were made here. This church is a way station in my life and I am aware of both its good and bad points, it proud and shamed moments. It is a nest but not a cage for me.

And so it was that when Sunday came, and tired eyes gave rise, we chose not to go to church again, but instead to lounge about the house and snack on Christmas ham and goodies. It’s a low Sunday anyway, and if I don’t make it then I won’t have to test out the feeling of being at a regular worship service with nothing to do but be.

The New Year came too and I didn’t even check to see if there was anything on at the church. We had colds and there was still ham; and mom and dad went off to her birthday party leaving my brood at the house to snug. We welcomed the new year with knitting, that is what I did, at least. A new project for a new year; socks, my first attempt. And we watched the parade on New Year’s Day and celebrated mom’s birthday. Then it was time for packing up and Saturday we left to begin the journey back. We spent the night on the road in a town with one of our churches, but again we stayed in and had breakfast and cable tv.

There is something so soothing about staying in hotels. All together in one room, we bring only our essentials. Everything looks so clean and welcoming, and the beds so cozy. We can pretend we are someone else and make up a fantasy tale about where we are going and where we have been. I’ve had healing experiences in hotels, and each time I check-in I wonder if I could have another here. I pray for it.

Having grown weary of the traditional bedtime prayer, I used the pattern but changed the words to suit.

Now I lay me down to rest
I pray the Lord, my sleep be blest.
Heal my body through the night
Restore my soul with morning’s light.

The promise of Christmas and light is still there, but the excitement begins and ends in my children. I thought some this year about what joy I might bring others, but I didn’t dwell in its satisfaction; and the receiving of gifts held pleasant but not much else. Don’t get me wrong, the gratitude is there but it didn’t bring me to my feet or my knees so much; it was more the care from my parents and the thoughtfulness of a favorite but expensive magazine subscription renewed and a check to help cover over travel expenses.

It is a new year and one hopes that starting on the lower side it should improve by days. Thankfully in this  hemisphere there is more sun to fill each day.

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