My father was a military chaplain so I moved around quite a bit growing up. I have always gone to church! Even when we traveled we went somewhere to church. I met and married my husband, Garrett, at Chicago Theological Seminary where I earned a Masters of Divinity degree. He and I were ordained together at the First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ in Lombard, Illinois on June 14, 1987. My first act as an ordained minister at the end of a tremendously hot ordination ceremony was to baptize my daughter, Lisa Marian! We added two sons and a daughter to the mix: James, Joseph and Maria. We have girls on either end and two boys one year apart in the middle. They range in age from 33 to almost 22. I love them!
I have been in the parish ministry for 35 years, serving at three different churches. I have joyfully served the people at the First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ in Rockford, Michigan for 24 years.
We live on family land about 3 miles from the church. In random free moments I enjoy cooking good meals, reading, writing, gardening, traveling and spending time with my family. I am blessed!
She came walking down the hallway of the locked unit, looking stiff and suspicious. I was newly serving as a chaplain in a Christian psychiatric hospital. I was trying to figure out what it means to be a pastor to a continually changing “congregation” comprised of folks experiencing some sort of mental health crisis. I asked the woman if she wanted to talk and she nodded, mutely. We sat down in a nearby room and she began to verbally examine me to understand if I was one of “them.” She didn’t trust the staff in this foreign land and she was furious that family members dropped her off in this place. I did my best to reflect her feelings, validating her emotions rather than getting pulled into a defensive posture. I named anger, frustration, sadness and betrayal as possible emotions she felt as she sat in a sitting area where furniture is intentionally so heavy that it cannot be thrown. Her shoelaces had been removed, a risk factor in an institution where patients can get very clever about how to harm themselves or others. Her phone had been confiscated and she didn’t know or trust any of the other women in her unit. She did not wish to be there and was suspicious of all of us. She even railed at God who was, in some way, to blame for her psychiatric imprisonment.
Much to my surprise, she began to talk about her own mother, a woman who paired up with a number of violent men over the course of this woman’s childhood. She condemned her mom for being willing to put the well-being of her children second to her desire for male companionship. “I never let any of my children get hurt by anyone I was dating,” she proclaimed. She had decided not to imitate the mistakes of her mother. She missed her children and worried how they would fare without her. She wept…and the defensive shield came down.
I was new to these “spiritual consults” with patients and had a seasoned chaplain with me for this visit. As our conversation was reaching its natural conclusion, I was ready to wish her well and move on. This encounter had sapped my energy! The other chaplain who had been largely quiet asked if she would like to end our conversation in prayer. I was surprised. She had given no indication that she was a person of faith. She had made it clear that she was mad at God so why would she want to pray? By this time she sat limply in the chair, drained from the emotional impact of recounting her story. She heard the chaplain’s question and simply nodded her head, eyes lowered to the ground. He motioned to me to pray and I spoke words to God that I thought might resonate with her. With the “Amen” she opened her eyes and, with a flat affect, thanked us and moved down the hallway to resume her pacing. Our encounter with the suspicious, angry, guarded in-patient ended with prayer. My understanding of chaplaincy grew in that moment.
While serving as a parish pastor, whether preaching, leading a Bible study, or meeting with someone for pastoral care, I have always wanted to answer the question, “So what?” In order for a sermon to land, there has to be an application to our present situation. For the Bible to come alive, as it has for countless generations, we need to cull from the text a meaning that connects with us. The work of our Christian faith is to make the ancient Judeo-Christian story our story. What I need to hear is different from someone else. When we believe that there is good news to share from our own faith perspective, we look for ways to interpret it so that others with different life experiences will grasp it–and find peace!
This has become more crucial in recent decades. Fewer and fewer people are seeking meaning for their lives in houses of worship. Congregations that were depleted five years ago have been decimated by COVID. Pews are empty while on-line motivational TED talks and podcasts draw rave reviews. Listeners repost them with evangelistic zeal. Folks who have been hurt by the Church will probably never walk through the doors of a gathering that goes by that name. Do we give up? Do we preach our message more loudly, letting them know just what they need to do to be saved? Do we type-cast strangers into categories and withhold our own belief system accordingly?
Or do we love them? Do we sit with them and listen to their stories? Do we validate their feelings and affirm their dignity? Do we rail at our neighbors for not going to church or do we let the light of Christ shine through us so that they meet Him through our actions? In our increasingly secular society that is suspicious of the Christian faith, we must extend our outreach to others through the filter of “So what?” How can my belief system and life experiences bring hope and joy to those who aren’t looking for God? Can we be contented to live it and not insist on always preaching it with words?
That’s a question we chaplains in a Christian mental health hospital had to wrestle with. There were countless times that I was amazed at who asked to meet with me for “a spiritual consult.” One woman had fled from her abusive husband, bringing three children under the age of eight to a new state so that the four of them could be safe. With her head resting in her arms, she disparaged the possibility of God being real since her life was so difficult. As we talked, she spoke of the women’s shelter where she lived and the generosity of that institution that raised over $10,000 to defray the cost of her legal bills that kept her children away from a violent father. She wept and told me she was grateful to God for their kindness. We closed our conversation with a prayer. God bless the shelter workers who reflected the love of Christ to battered and broken women!
Now that I work as a grief counselor for hospice, I continue to stretch in the ways I extend Christ’s healing mercy to the broken-hearted. Many of those I serve do not know Him or seek Him out. So I listen. I reflect their feelings back to them so that they feel heard (a complete novelty for many of the youth I met with at the psych hospital). I accept them and listen to what they have to teach me. I thank them for sharing their gifts and quietly offer my own. When we do that with each other, some of our questions are answered. For the unanswerable dilemmas, being heard and valued will allow for some of those questions to be laid to rest. We don’t have to have the answers or give our advice. We listen. We affirm. We love.
I was led to the room of a woman who had recently been admitted to Hospice care. This is never a decision that is made lightly and it wasn’t for her. She had recently fallen and broken her hip. Her physical well-being, already in a delicate balance, quickly declined. This injury exacerbated existing challenges and her family gently convinced her it was time for palliative care. I was invited to talk with her and offer a sense of peace about this momentous decision.
She was lying in her hospital bed, hands politely clasped across her abdomen. Her bare feet stuck out from the end of the covers. I introduced myself and asked her how she was doing. She answered clearly and honestly. Though much of her body was immobilized, her mind was very much alive. She acknowledged that she wrestled to accept her mortality, an inescapable truth when signing on to an end-of-life care program. She shook her head over the significant decline she had experienced after the fall. How could things change so fast? As we established a trust between us, she readily shared her Christian faith.
“You know, I’ve never felt as close to Jesus as I do now. I can feel Him in me—is that strange?” She had leaned toward me when she said this, lowering her voice as if she was sharing a crazy, delusional thought. Her self-revelation was vulnerable, an insight offered to a stranger about her spiritual well-being. “I’m not afraid of dying and I’m not angry about the fall because I don’t feel alone. I feel Jesus inside of me and that gives me a sense of peace.”
From the inside, flowing out, she felt the power of the great Healer she had always served but never met so intimately. Is it possible to be this physically broken yet so spiritually alive?
I visited a man who had lost his spouse of 47 years. He said he wandered through each day, lost without his longtime companion playing her part in the usual rhythm of their home. He wept as he extolled her gifts and entrusted precious memories to me. “What gives you strength for each day,” I asked him. Without hesitation, he answered that he stretches his arms above his head, holds his hands out in a receiving position and cries out to God. His eyes bright with intensity, he assured me that he always feels power travel through hands, into his arms, and flow into his body. From the outside, in, this influx of spiritual energy gave him enough strength to travel through another day.
Give us this day our daily bread. Just enough for today. That is sufficient.
I think of the strange language used to describe how Jesus arrived amidst our struggles to bring us peace. Ancient Christian writings affirm that Jesus condescended to live among us. Condescended is usually employed as an adjective in our culture and has a negative connotation. We’ve all experienced someone being condescending toward us, which can easily challenge our fragile self-confidence. If exposed to condescending words and attitudes long enough, this abuse can leave a damaging life-script in its wake. So what does it mean that Jesus condescended? He could have stayed in the far reaches of heaven, sending blessings from afar. Instead, He chose to leave His high throne and the glory of heaven to live as one of us. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “condescend” as “to stoop voluntarily and graciously.”
Everything about Jesus’ birth affirms this definition. He was literally born in a barn! He and his parents fled oppression and lived as refugees for several years. They lived and raised their boy in a backwoods town called Nazareth where they had no roots to anchor them. Leaving the safety of Mary’s womb, Jesus came out into the world entrusted to our care. He stooped from the time of the incarnation to His death on a cross.
The Church marks the beginning of Lent today with a smudge of ash across our brow. It is a mark of humility and solidarity. Unfortunately, many of us in Western Michigan tonight are unable to be together because a winter ice storm has cancelled worship services. I’m sad to miss that service. I need the reminder amidst a body of like-minded believers that Jesus is among us and in us. His power is sufficient for all our needs. He shows up when we cry out to Him and when we assume we are unworthy of His attention. In spite of wrong priorities and selfishness, Jesus begins the journey to the cross, voluntarily stooping to our power plays and graciously reaching out to each one of us.
Sometimes we sense Him deep within, then His grace extends out of us. Like the woman lying in a care facility, unable to look away from the truth of her mortality, we are warmed from the inside and we know it is God. Other times, perhaps in the congregational singing of hymns or the kind outreach of a stranger, the goodness of Christ comes from the outside. When we are open to receive His grace, Jesus moves in.
Over and over again, inside and out, Christ condescends to live among us. With or without the smear of ashes, we commit to walk alongside Him in the Lenten journey toward the cross.
One of the descriptions of Jesus that I love comes from the first chapter of John’s Gospel where He is named as The Word. God’s voice was heard in the cry of an ordinary child born in the inconvenient setting of a stable. John’s poetic writing further defines this gift of Love: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” One scholar translates this good news by saying that Christ pitched a tent among us. In The Message translation of the Bible, Peterson says He “moved into the neighborhood.” His birth caused such an uproar that His parents had to flee to another country where they lived as refugees for several years. When they could safely return to their homeland, they were directed to live in a backwoods town where they knew no one. “Home” took many forms for the holy family but the foundational support was always found in their faith. They knew that this Child was of God and that God would shape a home for them wherever they travelled. Theirs is a radical faith that both challenges and reassures me!
Several years ago our church partnered with a new congregation that reached out to residents in a mobile home park. Several generations of absentee landlords have made a healthy living off lot rent from folks who often struggle to make ends meet. As the outreach of this new mission yielded fruit and lives were changed, local businesses and individuals offered support. Someone donated a building that had been vacant for several years and volunteer labor transformed it into a multi-purpose community center. With a worship space, kitchen and rooms for teaching, it promised to shine the light of Christ into a troubled neighborhood. A date was set for a dedication with influential leaders and struggling neighbors invited equally to share in the joy.
I pulled into the parking lot for the consecration of this ministry center, looking forward to the worship service where we would praise God for the provision of a building and laborers. I was struck that there were very few cars and little action outside of the facility. Since virtually everything was cancelled that week due to a damaging storm, I wondered if the dedication had been postponed. As I entered the building I was surprised that it was buzzing with activity! I recognized many of the residents of the nearby neighborhood who were talking and laughing with each other. On a service counter to the right of the entryway, drinks and food were set out. A woman stationed at the door warmly welcomed me and I asked about the service. It would have to be postponed, she told me with a smile. Countless residents had lost electricity in their mobile homes and stories of burst pipes were shared by many. Out of necessity, this fresh, clean church had become an overnight shelter. The cookies and punch intended for the celebration were now part of a meal along with boxed pizzas donated from a nearby restaurant chain.
The greeter invited me to take a look around the facility. The sanctuary of the building was filled with cots, people sitting on their temporary beds immersed in conversation. A small dog in a plaid sweater drew an adoring crowd. Three teenaged girls were clustered together around their phones, eating from cups of grapes that were lovingly distributed. There were smiles on the faces of volunteers which brought smiles to the weary whose dire needs were being serviced. I was struck that this was the perfect dedication of this building. The congregation was gathered for the first time, taking refuge in a sanctuary that was crafted especially for them! Many of the neighbors had taken an active role in the renovation, never imagining how soon it would serve as their dormitory! The carpeting took a beating and the bathrooms were put to the test. But Christ was praised because some folks invited the Word of God to dwell in them richly. They chose to leave the comfort of life-as-usual and trade it in for a ministry launch that was sacrificial.
Not surprisingly, this congregation has thrived. Though the dedication of the church didn’t go as planned, it was the perfect reminder that Jesus disrupts our plans and invites us to clothe the naked, house the homeless and feed the hungry. When we trade in our plans to embrace God’s invitation, captives are released and despair is replaced with hope. Cold bodies warm together in a freshly painted space and the carpet bears stains when the rescheduled dedication happens. No one could be more grateful.
There’s power in the Word of God and our response is always worship—joyful worship! It might not always look the same but, when we meet God and share that love, we follow in the footsteps of the One who reminded His disciples that He had no place to lay His weary head. In our troubled world, Jesus invites us to watch for service opportunities that surprise us and disrupt our carefully laid plans. That’s great news, right?
I arrived at the church to make sure things were ready for the couple. They were meeting a photographer early for pictures. The wedding would be an intimate affair in the chancel area of our sanctuary. A grand occasion of a wedding had been planned for later that winter but COVID regulations made it clear that any gathering would have to be very small. With great regret, they gave up on much of the desired fanfare and decided on an evening celebration just with family. When I planned the ceremony with them, I reminded them that this would be their wedding day, albeit much changed in external details. I urged them to shape it with significant details that would give them joy. I was delighted to see the bride, Eleanor, alight from her car wearing a beautiful white gown. The groom donned a handsome suit. Even as COVID kept our communities apart, there would be pictures of a December wedding on a sparkling winter night.
This was a meaningful ceremony for me. The bride’s family joined the church the same year that I was called to serve as pastor. The search committee told me they wanted to grow and needed young families. They were among the first families to join. I visited in their home and met two darling daughters. I commented to the mother about the different gene pools from which her girls drew their DNA. The elder had dark brown eyes and hair, like her papa. Eleanor was fair like her mother, with blonde hair and blue sparkling eyes. She was sweet and shy and seemed most at ease in the embrace of her mom, Sarah. Sarah responded that she didn’t know why God had blessed her with such beautiful children. She meant those words. The dad, Steve, seemed quietly proud of his life as a family man and provider.
Sarah developed cancer several years into her membership in the church. Sometimes her treatments were so destabilizing that she couldn’t drive so church folks picked her up for Bible Study. She seemed to gracefully accept the help of others as she battled a disease that didn’t seem to abate. When we talked about her life-limiting diagnosis, she described her faith journey as a free fall. She couldn’t stop the fall but she trusted God would never let her hit the ground. Wow. Who’s the pastor here?
Early one winter morning I received a call from the Sheriff’s office. I was needed at the home of a member. A woman named Eleanor had succumbed to cancer after a valiant battle. She left behind her beloved husband and children. I made my way to their home where I hugged the husband and wept with him. Two little girls huddled together on the couch, awaiting the arrival of the mortician who would remove their mama from the home she loved…and from their lives.
This was a gut-wrenching loss for me. I gave birth to my fourth child about that time and could not imagine being robbed of the privilege of raising my little ones. I anguished to think of my husband left alone to tend to their needs. At the funeral, we celebrated her life with family members whose faces were pained with grief. I managed to lead the casket to the hearse before fleeing in my clergy robe to weep in the privacy of my office. How could this be? What would become of these children? In whom would this quiet man confide in the dark of night when life’s fears encroached and the needs of his daughters seemed beyond his ken?
The family drifted from the church after a couple of years. I suspect we became a repository of corporate grief for them as our congregants persisted in carrying a deep sadness for the three of them. Occasionally I saw him at the grocery store, always with his children by his side. He remained single and carried a sadness even when he smiled. Or did I just sense the sadness because that’s what I felt?
Several years ago I received a call from the funeral home about a service. A young woman had died of cancer and the family had asked for me. When the undertaker told me the name I exclaimed aloud. Who? How? When? The mortician patiently answered my questions, waiting for me to tell him if I would officiate at the service. I said I would. He gave me the phone number so that I could call the young woman’s father. It was the widower who had lost his first-born daughter to a rare cancer that took her quickly. Once again, I found myself meeting with the family, hugging a bereft father who held himself together remarkably well. But Eleanor cried in my arms and I wept with her. I remembered what she told me at the time of her mother’s death when she was eight years old: I’m going to miss my mommy’s hugs. So I hugged this young woman who grieved the death of her only sibling and stood closely by her father to give him strength.
I carried these memories with me into the church on that snowy wedding night. I wept with my husband at home that day, hoping that my tears at our table would enable me to stay emotionally stable during the service. As I entered my office, I tried to think of anything that might have Sarah’s touch on it. Eleanor’s mother died so long before that I could think of nothing. In looking over my notes for the service I wondered if I had baptized Eleanor. I opened my pastor log and saw that I had! Hers was my first baptism at the church. Shortly after my arrival I had the privilege of anointing this two-month-old baby girl in the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The chancel where Eleanor would be married that night was the same place where her mother, father, and sister had stood as she was welcomed into the embrace of Christ’s Church. God gave me that gift when I was looking for something tangible to present to this bride. This was news I would share in the intimacy of the wedding ceremony.
The bride arrived with her father and maid-of-honor. They brought candles and flowers to arrange in the front of the sanctuary, representing the presence of the mother and sister. They would light those candles near the beginning of the service at my invitation. Also on the table was her mother’s Bible, out of which a cousin would read Paul’s words about love, a sermon he addressed to the Corinthian believers.
I was aware as I started the liturgy that I felt the emotional weight of the occasion. Just a couple of minutes into the service I acknowledged that there was more to our reality than what we see. Our faith assures us that the great cloud of witnesses joins us in these human celebrations. Eleanor and her fiance, Trevor, would light the candles on the altar in honor of her mother and sister. Those were the words I tried to say but they were interrupted by a wave of emotion that prevented me from being able to speak. Finally, with a broken voice, I invited them to light the candles—which they did. The tears released my sadness so that I could continue with the service as planned, even when I spoke of a baptism that happened in that same space for their family years before. I was able to affirm the appropriate re-entry of her mother’s Bible into a sanctuary where she had once held it in her lap in the company her precious family. I appreciated the full-circle significance to the mystery of two lives becoming one on this cold winter’s night. Christmas lights twinkled outside and the incarnation seemed very real in that sacred space. The bride initiated hugs with me twice after the service and I hugged her for her mother. I hugged the graying father who stood with quiet pride alongside of his daughter during the ceremony. After extinguishing the candles and shutting off the lights, I drove home on a sparkly night, crying out to Jesus.
Why was I still grieving the death of that mother? Her departure from this earth and her family seemed so unfair. Was this young mother shocked to find herself enfolded in the bosom of Abraham? Did she desperately search for a way to get back to her elementary school-aged daughters? In a celestial panic, did she assure St. Peter that there had to be some terrible mistake? As she looked in on her sweet family through a telescoping vortex, did she let loose the silent screams of our dreams? Or was she able to flit faithfully among the departed souls, in timeless bliss, knowing that her children would grow in their father’s care without her? Did she have more unfinished business than other saints, trying to part the clouds to glimpse human life lived on a hard planet that sometimes delivers unyielding pain? I wonder if she wished she had the time to teach her girls to tie their shoes and ride a bike. Can we offer virtual hugs from heaven?
The question that gnawed at me cut to the core of Sarah’s free fall theology. Did God fail her in her belief that she would never hit that ground and be taken?
I don’t often question God. I am normally comfortably tethered to a theology of eternal life that assures me that all is well. I trust in an afterlife more beautiful than we can imagine, more peaceful than we’ve ever known. I preach about God’s goodness even if life isn’t fair. But I haven’t had peace about Sarah’s death 20 years ago because two small children and a good man were left behind without the mother and wife who made their house a home. I might have been able to let God off the hook if the elder daughter had not then been stripped from her father’s arms in her early twenties. Her death ripped the crusty bandage off my heart and I stomped my way into God’s presence once again, waving my fist at the Holy of Holies.
Ministering to this family of two, any trite assurances of eternal well-being only added to the sting of untimely death. How could you do this, God of mercy? No wonder this family drifted from the Church! Why does a young bride have to light two candles on the altar of her wedding to invoke the ethereal presence of her mother and sister? As a mother, I grieved for Sarah who was not able to pick out a wedding dress with her daughter or support her husband in the devastating loss of their child. The beautiful trust in Sarah’s free fall theology was mocked.
I came home and continued to weep with my husband. I carried deep grief for this family. Had I whispered “I’m sorry” to this family in so many tender embraces that I did not know how to be joyful with them? Had they possibly fared much better in the grief journey than I? Were my tears disruptive to their wedding celebration?
I found myself lying in bed at night thinking about those tears. I had hoped I would be able to get through that service without crying. But the tears were authentic. I wept for the mother who could not raise her children. I shed tears for the husband who stood alone with his daughter at the altar. I grieved for the beautiful bride whose mother looks back at her from the mirror whether she realizes it or not. I wept that a brown-eyed daughter who so resembled her father would never marry and bring home a brown-eyed baby from the hospital to hand off to her father with quiet pride.
In the dark of night, I wondered if I am crying for my 39-year-old self who lost her mother to cancer much earlier than she or the mother imagined? Was I flashing back to a moment of pushing my mother in a wheelchair through the Cleveland Clinic, knowing her energy and life were ebbing away? Was I remembering when I had to look up the word “palliative” to understand the hospital ward that housed my parents in their last days? Was I grieving the absence of a father who would have been so proud of the ministry work I have been doing? Is it enough to have my parents’ gifts part of the arsenal of personal attributes I use on a daily basis to spread God’s love? Is it enough to have the memories? Or do I, like little Eleanor, still miss my mama’s hugs?
Lying in the frozen silence of a winter night, my mind moved back to my tears. I felt embarrassed. I think of the words to an Annie Dillard poem I read in seminary. Even though my capacity for theological illumination was fairly dim at that early stage in my ministry, I remember the poem clearly. Dillard wrote about a worship experience at an unpretentious congregation on an island where she would spend her summers. One Sunday she took note of the soloist, “a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, a totally secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”
In the dark of night, I fell into God’s grace. What I viewed as ugly tears reflected God’s compassion. I borrowed Sarah’s free fall theology and told God that we did pretty good work together that evening. My tears were real. I wept for the past and the changed course of the present moment. I wept for joy that our church could offer genuine hospitality to this family after such a long absence from our building. My tears came from a heart that has been inclined toward this disrupted family for decades. They felt my love and that was evident in their response to me after the ceremony. No one mentioned the tears or reacted negatively to them.
In church we gladly carry each other’s burdens. We dare to hope for the best possible outcome for others and support one another when it feels like God has abandoned us. We accept each other when we are railing at God. When we feel like we are snuggled into Father Abraham’s lap, alongside the panoply of saints who smile among us, we offer that sense of security to others. We have this precious community called “Church.” With all our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and joys, we celebrate that we are in this free fall together! Moments of doubt are allowed to rock my faith. God invites me to express my anger. Jesus tenderly holds me when I weep for a fallen world where death rocks our faith. What matters is that we support each other on the journey. What allows us to survive our sorrow is trusting that Christ carries our burdens. What this small family will remember is a beautiful expression of love courageously voiced in marriage vows on a quiet winter night. In the embrace of a familiar sanctuary, their commitment to each other was yet another miracle of God’s love melding two lives together as one–while a mother and sister cheered from another shore.
My father served as an Air Force Chaplain for more than 20 years. When he was serving in Bolling Air Force Base, Washington DC, he got to know Senator Mark Hatfield. Hatfield arranged for him to open the Senate on April 5, 1984 with prayer. With a Masters degree in Political Science as well as a Master of Divinity, he regularly combined religion and politics in his personal life. In this case, he was able to combine the two in his professional life. Fortunately the prayer was printed in full in the minutes of the Senate session that day. I stumbled across these documents yesterday and they seemed fitting for election day. I share his prayer with you here:
Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of each person and each nation, we bow to acknowledge Your sovereignty over us as a people. We know that whatever we do that is not within Your will is futile and counterproductive. We know as well that that which is Your will for us abounds beyond our wildest hopes. Your revelation of Yourself to us has been enough that we know quite well what You would have us do. We understand the goals that You have set before us. We have articulated them in majestic terms in our national documents. So we do not so much pray for wisdom and understanding as we do for courage to do that which we already comprehend. Having received Your directions for our lives, let us have the humility to put aside selfish goals in preference for those unselfish ones which best serve your kingdom. If we can do that, then we shall be known not for personal achievement, but for the shared good of all our people, and through them, the well-being of the wide world around us. In the name of Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.
Chaplain Colonel James W. Chapman. Thursday, April 5, 1984
“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you…”
On April 24, 2022, I walked out the side doors of the church I had served for 25 years, retiring from 37 years of service as a parish minister. Three long-time church members had remained in the foyer, assuring me that they didn’t want my husband and me to exit the church for the last time without support from a representative contingent of my beloved congregation. That small token of hospitality in my final moments spoke volumes about my relationship with that church family. We cared for one another, ensuring that the needs of each member of the church would be spiritually met. Two of the adults had been on the search committee that called me to Rockford in 1996. One of them is the present moderator, leading her congregation through a pastoral transition. Several months removed from my quiet exit out the side door of the building, I am living the disorientation of that transition.
Let me back up a bit in my story. I didn’t go to seminary to become a parish minister. I thought I would become a counselor in a Christian holistic health center, a popular development for treating the spiritual needs of the whole person. I focused on social justice causes while studying at Chicago Theological Seminary. Having just returned from teaching nutrition to African mothers through the Peace Corps, my first internship was with Church World Service/CROP, raising money to combat hunger. I worked with a Catholic organization, the 8th Day Center for Justice. My task was to connect restaurants with soup kitchens so that restaurant leftovers wouldn’t go to waste. My husband, also a seminarian, did an internship with a clergy couple who shared a church together. We saw the joy they derived from shared gifts and shifted our sights to some sort of joint ministry. We received a call to serve as co-associate pastors for a suburban Chicago parish. When I stepped into this form of ministry, I was surprised at how immediately rewarding it was for me. My April 24 retirement concluded ministry in three unique church settings with somewhat different job descriptions. The common denominator for each of them was a love for worship and for pastoral calling.
I grew up going to church. My dad was assigned to a different Air Force base about every four years. We attended worship where he served. I chose to attend St. Olaf College where daily chapel services were well attended. If I didn’t feel like following the Lutheran liturgy (which I grew to love), I would walk about three miles round trip to a United Church of Christ on the other side of the small college town of Northfield, Minnesota. When I spent a semester in France, I found the one Protestant church in town and worshiped in their 12th century sanctuary. I sang French hymns in their choir. When I moved to Africa for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I found a Protestant church led by an American missionary couple who became family to me. The congregation was African and they beautifully harmonized their hymns without 4-part musical scripts! When I settled into seminary life in Chicago, I chose a United Church of Christ within walking distance of my apartment.
I love Christ’s Church, in all its beautiful variation! I’ve never taken for granted that I could plan worship services, starting with a Biblical text and fleshing out the service with liturgy, lay involvement and music. I have said to folks many times, “When else do you get to sing in unison with other people, accompanied by instruments?” My husband has always sung in the choir and his special music offerings were a gift to each congregation (and to me!). The one book I wrote, which was published just one week before my retirement, is a useful guide for worship leaders desiring to enliven their worship services with new ideas and resources. Setting down the mantle of parish ministry was a seismic shift in my professional and personal life.
Having been adrift from any one congregation for six months, I find myself in a strange land. If I am not the pastor of the church, what will I do? Can I sit in the pews and not get caught up in judging the worship service and overall health of a congregation? Where do I begin to look for a congregation we can call home? Why would I, when I can follow countless worship services from the comfort of my bedroom while drinking coffee? This present hiatus from in-person worship has served as a strange sort of sabbatical for me. We have enjoyed open weekends to visit family, take trips, and tune into different worship services when able. This is the first time in 37 years that I have my weekends free—and I’m loving it! Or am I?
We tuned into a service a couple of months ago. Their worship included hymns my husband and I knew with wonderful accompaniment on organ and piano. The liturgy effectively developed a theme that the Bible readings suggested. The preacher offered a message that was relevant, elicited some laughter at a point or two, and awakened a yearning within me to serve. I was caught up with the realization in my heart that I love Jesus. I love His Church! I want to find a place where I can use my gifts, albeit in a new capacity, so that my heart and my voice sing again! Something stirred within me at the end of his sermon and a longing for spiritual nourishment surfaced.
While there are several questions I am pondering in this interim period away from church membership, the one that has my greatest attention is this: What longings do churches fulfill?
What drove me to get out of bed and travel to churches wherever I roamed throughout my life? For what was I hoping when I slipped in doors of an ancient churches and knelt alone in the sanctuary to pray? Why did it matter for me to light candles that parted the darkness in stone cathedrals I visited? From whence does that longing come and how has it taken up residence in me?
While serving as a chaplain in a mental health hospital last year, I was struck with how often patients voiced a longing to connect with God. One man in his twenties shared his confusion about whether the longing he newly felt for God was to be trusted or if it was a symptom of his schizophrenia. Great question! When talking with mental health patients who are experiencing some form of psychosis, it can be difficult to discern when their religious convictions come from an authentic encounter with God or surface from a distorted worldview. I learned he was raised in the church but had abandoned his childhood faith, relying on alcohol to blunt the shame of his mental health crises. He spoke of a longing to know God and access God’s love. He asked for a Bible and we spoke of beginning points for his Bible reading. As our conversation concluded, I was quite certain that his ache for belonging was truly God at work.
Perhaps that longing is our deep desire to belong to someone. When human relationships fail us, we have to look elsewhere. For those of us raised within a faith construct, we are apt to return to that faith. Many of us learned through Vacation Bible School songs and with flannelgraphs in Sunday School rooms that Jesus loves us. Psalm 62:1 reminds us of the source of our longing: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Nothing else will nourish our souls. When our own antics lead to emptiness, we have an opportunity to dig beneath the surface of our daily lives. This search has at its root a question about belonging. From the old English, this verb means to be “together with” or “at hand.” When my patient’s binge with alcohol led to a jail cell and then a locked psych unit, it was the God he met on Sunday mornings who was “at hand.” For the first time as an adult, this young man was searching for a faith of his own.
A woman in her fifties told me of her sexual abuse at the hands of a step-dad, beginning at age 4. She said, “I left my body in those times. But I was never alone. God was always with me. I had this deep relationship from God that no one had to teach me because I met Him.”
Could it be that God searches us out first? Does our longing for God emerge as a response from God’s divine pursuit of us? Must we claim our identity as the prodigal son or daughter in order to see that God is the loving Parent who has not ceased pacing the front porch, scanning the horizon for a sign of our return home? Thomas Merton wrote, “Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”
A woman recently spoke in a worship service about how she ended up at that church. She had moved to a new area, lost two beloved parents, and her relationship with her husband was strained. She felt alone in spite of the fact that she spent Monday through Friday teaching a classroom full of 8-year-olds. She decided to get back into church after letting it slide for a year. The first Sunday was OK. She was relieved. She went the next week and somebody greeted her by name. She said, “Like a bridge over troubled water, I was called by name. It wasn’t just that woman—and I don’t even know who it was! It was Jesus calling me, walking with me. It was the Holy Spirit moving in me, calling me to this church. It was God who had plans for me, plans for a future and a hope. That was twenty years ago and now you are my family!”
There are times when God breaks into our lives in an epiphany that brings us to our knees. Sometimes that “shewing”, as Julian of Norwich named it, is the result of our fervent prayers. Other times it arrives unsolicited and even unwanted. Julian’s profound encounters with the tri-une God, as she lingered between life and death, led to her conversion to an anchoritic lifestyle. She chose to be secluded in a small apartment built into the walls of a church. In that tiny space, she served as a spiritual director in words spoken through her window and through her writings. The comfort she felt anchoring herself in God has drawn generations of seekers to Jesus as the answer to their inexpressible longings. In an era when God was understood as a harsh and punishing judge, she introduced others to a God who seeks us out with love. Five hundred years later, Richard Foster described the spiritual journey in this way: “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.”
God longs for our presence? Is this the source of our own longing? Some people can’t imagine another human being weeping over their absence! One 40-year-old patient last year wept as he stated, “I just want one conversation with my mother before she dies where we can speak to each other lovingly.” Just as quickly as he voiced that hope, he told me he didn’t expect that to happen. We shifted to his desire to know God more fully. This is the One to whom he ultimately belongs. If he anchors himself in the God of Jesus Christ, he will be better able to let go of the wounds of those who have deeply disappointed him. Fully differentiated in himself, he can better endure the slights of his mother.
In the Women’s Lounge in one of the locked units, a woman listened to loud Christian music on her radio. The woman always spoke in Biblical verse. Virtually all of her sentences were formed around a Biblical reference. A song came on the radio: Ten Thousand Reasons by Matt Redman. I sat across from her and quietly sang the words, smiling at her in a shared moment of worship. I sang to show solidarity with her in the midst of her mania. I sang because that has been a favorite hymn of mine and I miss not being able to select songs that I can sing with musical accompaniment on Sunday mornings. In that moment, I was reminded of why I need to be part of a church family. Folks in memory care facilities who no longer know their own names will, nonetheless, sing the words to a beloved hymn in a Sunday afternoon worship service. The rich foundation upon which they established their days was poured into them in their childhood religious education. In singing “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my father…” their foggy mind cannot cloud their feeling of belonging. The yearning is met with rich fulfillment when the hymns of our past make sense of our present. When short-term memory fails, long-term meaning anchors us.
We do not have sole ownership of God as Creator or Jesus as Brother and Friend. Psalm 100 reminds us that all have equal claim to membership in God’s family: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
My brother-in-law grew up on a sheep farm in Morley, Michigan. We have visited in the Spring when his father, a shepherd, sometimes had 200 lambs to care for! When they are a month old, they leave their mamas and “frolic” in the meadow. One sheep runs down the hill and they all follow. Another one runs up the hill and they follow again. Absent a shepherd, who calls them into the barn at night for protection and to the trough for food each evening, they would wear themselves out in mindless mob movement. They congregate together—but they need a shepherd.
I have had the privilege both of being part of the flock that Jesus tends and acting as a shepherd to three congregations. I have known that my deepest longings can only be met in divine encounter. I have sought to convey the Truth of my experience to others so that they, too, might find that lifeline. As pastor, I joined scripture, liturgy and music each Sunday to inspire a multi-generational gathering into following Jesus. Dr. Henry Roediger stated in the Wall Street Journal that musical rhythm and rhyme provide a structure that is key to unlocking information stored in the brain. He writes that words put to music or learned by rote can be easily retrieved. The mom of a five-year old girl, with a keen sense of the Spirit, told me of an outing to a raspberry patch. Raspberry bushes are prickly and some of the outer branches had been picked clean. It was a hot day and the daughter was still searching for berries she could put in her bucket. Her mom suggested she pull back some of the outer branches to see what she might find deeper in the bush. A minute later she heard her daughter cry out, “Glory be to the Father!” She had found a pocket filled with ripe raspberries hidden from sight. The words of the doxology, sung in weekly worship, had taken up residence in her. Having been baptized into the faith, this little girl learned through our weekly rituals, to give God the glory—for life and for raspberries discovered on a hot afternoon. Since then she has been confirmed into the faith and is looking at Christian colleges for next fall. She knows where to turn to satisfy her sense of longing.
Sadly, I hear many stories from people about how the Church has crushed their spirit. They have felt judged, rejected, or devalued. They hunger for God but are not willing to go back to Church. I am deeply saddened by their hurt and search for ways to nurture their spirituality outside of the Church. Fortunately, I know God meets people where they are. I am often impressed with how some folks are able to hang onto their love for God in spite of their rejection by Christians. Many still turn to the scriptures for inspiration even though they will not hear the Word read in a sanctuary. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with those who have made a sanctuary in their hearts because every human institution has failed them. Others can only affirm that there is some sort of Higher Power that has spared their life repeatedly. We talk about what honest conversation with that Higher Power might be (as that is prayer)! The psalmist leads the way for us to express raw emotions as we cry out, “Why me?”, “How long, O’ Lord” or “Where have you gone from my presence?” I can offer the gifts of the Church, as Jesus intends it to be, to those who may not enter a church building ever again. While life lived within the communion of the Church is God’s plan for our corporate lives, we all must watch for opportunities to point folks to God who, alone, can answer their deepest longings.
In this time of transition, I am beginning to feel comfortable in the cloak of “former pastor.” My husband and I have “zoomed” into different worship services but I know that a congregation of two will not fulfill my spiritual hunger. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor who left the Church for a time because of hurtful treatment at the hand of her parishioners. She is known as an advocate for night, the time when we have to squint to make out our reality. We choose every step carefully in the dark because the way is not clear. Her powerful writing points people to Christ who may have lost their way. I have had a beautiful experience in my parish ministry that worries me that I may not find a new congregation that lives the Gospel in a way that connects with me. I could easily settle in with those who choose Sunday mornings as the perfect time to take a deep breath and linger in night clothes, sipping endless cups of coffee. But I dare not. I have felt, in this transitional “dark night”, as described by John of the Cross, how Christ’s light shines brightest when the path we are taking is unknown. The moment of stirring I felt at the end of a zoom sermon summoned me to begin the search for a sanctuary where I can join my voice to that of other Christians, singing hymns and entrusting my heart to the nourishment of scripture. I am meant to join my talents to those of others who are meeting needs of those around them out of a sense of Christian conviction. I must find a safe space for my emotions to be moved by the Spirit in the vulnerable setting of a Church family. My longing is in response to God’s profound love for me in Jesus. I love His Church. I will find a new spiritual home by the power of the Holy Spirit where I can be accepted “just as I am.” In this time of transition, I rejoice that “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10)
I want to be asked to take the stand. I want to be a witness testifying in God‘s defense. I have heard God blamed and blasphemed. In the confessions of battle-weary patients in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve refrained from speaking in God’s defense when they have pressed charges against their Creator.
The hardest allegations to refute come from people who have told me that, in their abuse as children, they cried out to a God who never rescued them. The abuse continued. The need for healing leaves a gaping hole in their emotional and spiritual well-being. Many of them had parents who took them to church regularly, which complicates their theology. “If my parents modeled their faith in acts of cruelty, what does that teach me as an impressionable child? Why would I care about their God?” But something in that childhood religious training awakened a receptive spirit and they believed. They sang about Jesus’ love. They went to Sunday School and learned Bible stories. Yet very different lessons were taught behind closed doors. Many of these patients have spent a lifetime trying to resolve the disconnect between a powerful God that was preached at them and the everyday cruelty they endured.
I have no easy defense for their suffering.
It’s interesting to me how easily people blame God or badmouth Jesus for their life circumstances when they’ve never really invested in a spiritual relationship. It would be as if we blamed our benevolent Uncle Max for all our problems when we never really met Uncle Max face-to-face. He’s invited us to his house for dinner. He’s sent us birthday gifts that we have torn into. We haven’t taken the time to get to know him or thank him. But, when the chips are down and we can’t make sense of the latest crisis, Uncle Max‘s name surfaces. With vehemence, we excoriate the ways he has hurt us.
In the last year I can’t tell you how many times I was sure I had heard it all, only to discover that yet another story leaves me speechless. I no longer find it difficult to believe the statistic I heard many times in parish ministry that one in seven children suffers abuse, most often at the hands of their parent. When those children grow up, they are very likely to struggle with their mental health which prevents them from completing their education or choosing good partners for themselves. One in four men and one in three women are abused by their partners. These are the individuals I sat with on psych units, inviting them to share their story. Through tears and a clenched jaw, they cried out their abandonment not just by those adults entrusted with their care. They felt abandoned by the deity from whom they sought peace.
This confusion began with abusive parents whose love the children seek almost no matter the damage the parent has done. A child’s default is to love their father and mother. Patients I met in their 50’s and 60’s were still trying to make that relationship work with their octogenarian bitter parent. The elderly parent continued to curse them and reject their overtures of love. The message was consistently cruel over the years: “You are a burden to me!“ Grown children have wept with me, aching for their parents’ affection before death separates them.
I always commend people for their desire to find an authentic faith when they could easily and understandably ditch the Church completely. Atrocities committed in the name of God would repel most of us for a lifetime. However, many patients clung to a barely flickering divine spark deep within that continued to summon them toward a divine Rescuer and loving Parent.
On the in-patient units, my empathy as a chaplain fueled a desire to find a fail-proof lesson that would assure them of God’s love. I wanted to wave a magic wand over their chaos that would bring healing and restore faith in God. I have learned that they won’t easily hear my assurances. It’s presumptuous for me to think that I have the answers when, in fact, they have been the ones to teach me so often! My theology, cultured in a delightful childhood, often contradicts their experience. Maybe the only solution to their pain is to blame someone who can’t physically retaliate.
In my imagined lesson, I want to remind them about sin, that three-letter word that packs a punch. It reminds us that something other than God‘s will has a grip on our world. We experience trials in our communities and in our families. Some difficulties stem from our own decisions and others result from what others inflict on us. God gave us free will. All you have to do is look at the reactions to mask mandates during COVID to know that we are a people who cherish our free will! “I’m entitled to my opinions and my own choices,” we have yelled. I want to remind these patients that the alternative to free will is a scripted life where God is puppeteer and we are puppets with no choices to make. Some days that may feel like a relief! But few of us would want to be reduced to life as pre-programmed robots who can’t choose whom to love and how to shape our day. Free will is given in equal measure to all. Some use their freedom responsibly and others abuse it, even harming those closest to them. I was reminded in a conversation recently that “Hurt people hurt people.“
Folks who weep about the abuse of their parents will tell me how their grandparents abused their parents. The destructive cycle stretches back generationally and the pattern continues. Many of my patients told me they swore they would never do to their children what was done to them. Many of them greatly improved on their parents’ example and I lavished praise for their commitment toward mercy. The easiest course is to do what was done to us. But so many in my “congregation” this year courageously changed course, raising their own children with great kindness and vulnerability. They used their free will to foster rich family relationships. Even so, they could not let go of the yearning for their elderly parent’s love.
The evening before my final day of work at a Christian mental health hospital, my husband and I went to an outdoor concert to hear Emmylou Harris. We have not followed her in our adult lives. I can’t say that her music has ever been meaningful or known to me. But the venue is a fantastic setting that always entertains and it was a heart-warming evening. I appreciated Emmy Lou‘s banter, perhaps because she is a wise 75-year-old woman who has been humbled by life. She smiled as she stated, “I had one helluva happy childhood. No one’s supposed to. Well anyway, I had nothing to write about … so I made stuff up.” She laughed and the audience did too. She understands what a gift it is to lack tragic content for her songs. She acknowledged that she writes sad songs because those seem to connect with her audiences. The lead-in act was Mary Chapin Carpenter who is equally talented. She commended her band for always being willing to perform her musical laments. In an interview she made this comment: “When songs make that connection, you don’t feel so alone in the world.” That kind of emotional connection is what Carpenter says she’s looking for when she’s seeking out new music: “I want it to take me somewhere and bring me to my knees and make me cry or make me feel great.” At Carpenter’s concerts, her longtime fans laugh when she introduces yet another melody in a minor key. Carpenter says she was inspired by something she heard many years ago from a musician who was asked why she sang so many sad songs. The singer replied: ‘Sad songs make me feel brave.”
One of the greatest strengths for those who wake up to discover that they have been given an in-patient room on a psychiatric unit is the fact that they are not alone. They emerge from their broken lives and whatever recent chaos landed them there and are given an opportunity to share their stories. Very common themes of shame, anger, hurt, and grace surface regularly. I have been so moved to witness the tenderness that emerges from those who have been lifelong victims. With shoulders slumped, they quietly admit to fellow patients that they give too much to others with nothing given in return. The well has run dry. Heads nod around the room. People confess that they have done foolish things. They take responsibility for creating a wedge between themselves and their loved ones. But they’re also weary of being judged by those same people, mistrusted even in their healthy moments because of their past. They admit to being criticized for having a mental illness.
In those groups that I was privileged to lead, people listened to one another and became brave. Brave to share their hurt. Brave to encourage one another. Brave to begin to hope for a different future. Courageous enough to believe that God is there for them even if they felt ignored in earlier times of need. I am so humbled and impressed with the courage of the patients I have met over the past year. I can relate to Emmylou Harris who named her own childhood as rosy beyond all deserving. There is no crime in that. In fact, those of us who have such a strong foundation are often called upon to offer strength to those for whom the water is choppy, the boat is flimsy, and the swimming skills were never taught. Emmy Lou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter “lead groups” through their music. At a good concert we laugh, we cry, and we sing in harmony because it is our life‘s song as well.
We are each invited to find the places where our voice can make a difference; where our voice can point to an ever-present God who knit each of us together in our mother’s womb. The psalms introduce us to One who has never slumbered, never missed a step we have taken. We may not be able to convince those who have been particularly damaged in life of our personal faith convictions. Rather than debate and pressure people into accepting our way, we model it through our kindness. Rather than taking the stand to preach our theology at others and expect it to fit their experience, we offer prodigal acceptance. All of these graces were extended on a regular basis by a compassionate and capable staff in the psychiatric hospital where I was privileged to serve.
On the final week of my chaplaincy, I was able to lead a morning group on a unit that includes folks who struggle with addiction. These patients know how to go deep because they have faced their demons and some confess to having been spared from death more times than they can count. They learn to speak their truth in 12-step program meetings. I wondered what I should choose as my last topic after a year of being blessed by their vulnerability. I decided that the lesson on forgiveness always elicits rich sharing. The class members readily acknowledged their need for forgiveness. Some gave specifics for their embarrassing antics for which they carried great shame. Some spoke of attempts made in vulnerable conversations to ask family members for forgiveness. Most of them said it was particularly difficult to forgive themselves. They encouraged each other. They spoke of the community fostered on that locked unit because folks dared to be honest about the fact that they needed forgiveness. As always, they were the wise teachers and I was in their debt.
After the class I realized that forgiveness is a central theme for me. When my license plate fell off my car and was lost the day before the quarantine began, I had an opportunity for a vanity license plate. What I ultimately decided on was this: 4GIVTOO. Our world would be a healthier, more peaceful place if more of us engaged in the courageous conversations of these patient groups. We need greater trust to confess our sin to one another, to admit to our struggles of faith, and assure one another that God is good and has saved us more times than we will ever know.
We have been forgiven over and over again. Like the fresh morning breeze, each beginning gives us hope for a new day. I don’t need to take the stand in defense of a God who has managed quite well to direct the universe. I show my hubris when I assume that my perspective will be universally appealing. My Christian duty is to listen empathically to those around me, trusting that their perspective will offer me healing even as I do my best to shine Christ’s light into broken places.
I readily forgive because I am forgiven too! Thanks be to God.
My interactive devotion today stemmed from Jesus’ teaching in John 15. I headed out into the wilds of my yard ready to yank, cut, and destroy unwanted growth from my flower garden. This has been the summer of invasive vines. There are two main varietals, one of which is a grapevine. Highly valued in biblical writings, it has become my nemesis. Foolishly, perhaps, I planted two grapevines in my vegetable garden years ago. They have quietly gained momentum and, this summer, climbed to new heights! They are boldly climbing up my fruit trees, inhibiting their growth. They have killed a couple of pin cherry trees near the garden by choking the life out of them. (They’re a weak species and an easy target.) My vision of harvesting healthy bunches of juicy grapes has not been realized. The vines that are weighing down the fence that surrounds my vegetable garden have no grape clusters hanging from them—not one grape is within easy picking distance. When I looked skyward to see the vine that is having a party at the top of an apple tree, I see those grape clusters which are impossible to harvest! I may be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure those vines are smirking at me as I walk around my yard purveying their dominance.
But not today. I covered myself with clothing since a recent spontaneous weeding session resulted in a rash requiring a dose of prednisone. My daughter’s scrubs are my favorite outfit to wear for dirty projects. Instead of a stethoscope, the side pocket holds my phone. I wear a baseball cap that proclaims, “Half Full.” (I’m not so sure about that optimism when confronting these vines!) I have turned old, unmatched socks into arm protection by cutting out finger and thumb holes. They go under my gloves. Boots and socks complete the outfit. With clippers in hand and a tarp for hauling the verdant carnage away, I head to the side yard.
No one looks at that side of the yard. It’s easy for us to ignore it since it faces a big hill and the homes on that side of the house are in the distance. Our neglect of the yard is easy to conceal on that southern exposure. However, I am concerned about our air conditioning unit, which has been a lifesaver many times this summer. I noticed that it was nearly covered with vines, which can’t be healthy for a system whose very function is to inhale air and run it through a cooling system.
I also saw that the same vine had covered a Rose of Sharon bush that didn’t deserve to struggle to bloom in the grip of such an aggressive foe. So I started pulling on vines to find the root. As I jubilantly cut those sturdy stems, I had a pang of guilt. Didn’t Jesus say He was “the true vine”? Should I view this vine positively rather than with murderous zeal? Am I doubly guilty because I am delighting in the notion of doing a follow-up attack with a spray bottle of Round-Up? As I victoriously hauled one tarp-ful of hacked vines after another into the nearby woods, I wondered what could possibly be good about vines!
So I turned to John 15:1-2. “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”
So God prunes the vine. What a concept! I planted a couple of grape root balls more than ten years ago and have never pruned them. In fact, I never really paid attention to them since my attentiveness to the things I plant is greatly curtailed by other obligations in my life (namely the fact that I drive off to work each day and tend to a household). I am certain there is great joy among the vines as I head down our driveway each day, giving them the freedom to wrap their tenacious tendrils onto the plants and trees I value! It’s a veritable reproduction rights rally taking full advantage of my absentee gardening style! God prunes the vine, which is life in Christ, so that all growth that doesn’t produce fruit is clipped off. The expectation is that we will bear fruit, not just grow without purpose.
I’ve heard so many stories this past year at the mental health hospital of how folks have latched onto some of my patients, demanding too much of them and giving nothing in return. In groups that I lead, folks confess how guilty they feel that they need to focus on themselves while hospitalized. They have nothing left to give. We explore if it is “selfish”, as they believe, to value themselves enough to say “no” to the unending requests of others. As the tendrils of others choke the life out of them, they have no energy to bear good fruit in their own lives. This lands them, in an exhausted, hopeless heap, on an in-patient psych unit. Slowly, through good medical care and compassionate conversations, life returns and their beautiful, authentic self begins to bloom.
What I can tell you about vines is that they are strong. They put down roots along their journey at ground level. They have tremendous climbing skills and stretch with amazing determination from one branch of a host tree to another. They reproduce with force, much more easily than the plants I have hoped would thrive in my garden! If ignored, they will waste their energy on overtaking whatever plants surround them rather than producing nourishing fruit. A pruned vine responds to the painful process by producing fruit that is of good use to others. Like small children who yearn for discipline, a productive vine needs intentional cultivation.
As I dumped piles of dismembered vines into the woods, I remembered another teaching of Jesus: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The weeds that grew among the sown wheat were allowed to grow together until the wheat was mature enough to survive the violence of weeds being plucked up around them. The instructions to the gardeners were severe: “Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.” I felt less guilty about yanking out vines and tossing them in the woods to die! If something grows, only to leach the life out of their surrounding culture, it rebels against God’s intent for good harvests. Communities rely on the mutual sharing of our gifts so that all needs are met. What I am able to provide with my gifts is different from others and all are needed. Pruning is painful but keeps us honest about how we need to use our personal resources for the common good.
So my AC unit can breathe and the flowers on the Rose of Sharon bush need no longer fear for their lives. The satisfaction I derived from my morning weeding session spared me at least a couple of therapy sessions! And I’m sure that I have undermined the arrogance of prodigal vines wasting their energy on useless climbing! Further uprooting and pruning are assured as the battle for my yard continues!
Walking back to my car after a day at work, I am tired and gratified. I was the chaplain on duty to lead worship at the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for nearly a year. Worship leadership is different here than in a church building. I travel between locked units, with bulletins and blue tooth speaker in tow. My accompanist for hymn singing is YouTube amplified on a 3” x 3” speaker that fits securely in my pocket. My chaplain badge identifies me as the one who will gather willing patients into the proper room on their unit so that we can attune our hearts to God.
The service I have prepared plays out differently on each unit, depending on how many show up and their level of mental health acuity. Two younger women made up the “congregation” at one of the services, one of whom overshared because of her mania. Her reflections where generously sprinkled with four-letter words for which she apologized halfway through our 45- minute worship window. She explained that she likes to be straightforward with her thoughts. I assured her that I was glad to have her authentic participation. At another service, an older gentleman didn’t want to commit to sitting for the service. He stayed just outside the door, particularly seeming to enjoy the music. I took a bulletin to him which he referenced occasionally. He disappeared without explanation after thirty minutes. A couple of months ago, the staff decided to allow a patient to join the service, something her behavior had prevented her from doing up until that point. Immediately following a responsive call to worship, she grilled me on a cruel God’s justice and how bad things will be for us if we…mess up…our lives.( Her language was a bit more colorful.) After the fourth angry inquiry into my theology on “sinners in the hands of an angry God…”, I suggested kindly that I didn’t wish to use time in corporate worship for theological debate. She wadded up the bulletin, throwing it out as she stormed out of the room. The experiment to include her in groups failed.
It has been a different experience to serve as a chaplain in this setting. The “congregation” continually changes. What inspires on one unit doesn’t work in another. The liturgy and sermon are unpredictably interactive and raw emotions run the gamut from tearful sadness when singing a hymn to fury over broken promises at home. The show must go on. My very first service here, a patient managed to kick their way out to freedom before we could grasp what was happening. Staff were stunned as those windows had not been breached by anyone in more than 40 years. I learned to keep any “equipment” that I carry onto a locked unit small and by my side. I don’t wear dangly earrings that could be yanked or necklaces that could be used to choke. Even my pen, if left on a unit, could be used for harm. While these possibilities are relatively slim, it could happen and I would be the fool for ignoring precautions. After 37 years leading services in congregations, it is safe to say that I have been stretched this past year!
You might think that I dread going into each of these five units on a Sunday. But I don’t! What a privilege it has been for me to bring a Word through the scriptures to folks who are at one of their lowest points in life. (Those who are homeless or who have spent time in jail would argue that those settings could certainly be more confining.) I am moved when I look around the room at those who are mustering the energy to sing the hymns while others wipe tears from their eyes as Alan Jackson sings, “Amazing Grace.” I give God thanks as patients recite the 23rd Psalm by memory, many using the words of the King James version of the Bible.
A couple of weeks ago I led worship on a unit that had several COVID+ patients. Only the healthy residents could attend the service but I still had to wear an N-95 mask, shield, medical gown and plastic gloves. I might as well have been leading a service on the moon! Yet the women who sat with me sang the hymns I had chosen and spoke earnestly of their desire to serve Jesus. I am blessed by the transparency with which these patients speak of their hardships, any one of which could lead to my admission onto one of these units. Our church congregations would do well to mimic the willingness of these patients to share the raw elements of their life that have left them disappointed, angry, or betrayed. I have been surprised so many times when someone who seems particularly psychotic offers to read a scripture and does so beautifully. I was moved as one patient voiced her prayer that those gathered in a circle this Sunday morning would find peace. “We’ve all become so close,” she exclaimed with a smile. She looked around the circle at others who nodded their agreement. These “congregations” may be transient but their sharing is deep. There is no “My life is just fine, thank you” façade. Their prayers are unapologetically from the gut. Jesus is clearly present in the lives of these hospitalized congregants.
I had to set the alarm to get to work on time to begin my sabbath duties. Thanks to coffee and a shower, I felt ready for the day. I played my chosen hymns for today’s service over our sound system so that my husband could hear organ, guitar and voice on surround sound at 7AM. I sang along, even pausing in my kitchen at one point to lift my hands in worship of the One whose glory I seek to carry into weary corners of our world. As I left, my husband reminded me that today would be my last time of serving as a regularly scheduled worship leader. I retired from parish ministry in April and will conclude my Chaplaincy Residency in three weeks. I will not be leading worship at the hospital again. While I may do supply preaching on occasion, I am done leading worship on any kind of a regular basis. My Sunday mornings will be strangely free.
Singing “Amazing Grace” at the last of five services today, I felt a mix of emotions as I reflected on the privilege it has been to craft worship services that have given a variety of congregations an opportunity to attune ourselves—once again—to the work of the Spirit in our lives. One of my scripture passages for this last service was from Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”
What a wonderful season it has been for nearly four decades, praising God alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I wonder what will mark the next season? I choose to trust the One who has guided me faithfully. Walking to my car, I place my badge in my briefcase. For this pastor and chaplain, it’s a wrap!
Driving south out of Grand Rapids, there’s a billboard the proselytizes a product in bold letters:
Church Cannabis Company: Baptism by Fire!
So, I’m confused. Take the word cannabis out and I get it. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing to those who are alienated from each other. The Holy Spirit has power lead us in directions that we never would choose on our own. The Holy Spirit can bring life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion. But what does cannabis have to do with the church?? Can a newly legalized substance bring the same kind of Holy Spirit power as baptism in the church can provide? What is truth in this highway advertisement?
I think of Pilate interviewing Jesus and sneering at him, “What is truth?“ How ironic that he would say that to the One who identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” We continually have to sift through the elements of our culture and our world to understand what is truth and what will fail us.
As Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb, in the dark of morning, she thought she knew the truth about Jesus. She had kept a vigil at the foot of the cross. Most of the disciples were unable to do this. She had seen her Savior die a horrific death. His body had been claimed by two converts to the faith even though it could have cost them their political careers. He was dead and buried and she went to anoint his body to honor Jewish customs. When she saw that the stone was rolled away, suddenly she questioned what the truth was. The disciples, at her beckoning, ran to the tomb to investigate. It says that John saw the emptiness and believed yet we don’t know exactly what it was that he understood as truth. Mary remained and, looking into the tomb, she saw two angels. She gave no indication of being alarmed. She was caught up in the grief of losing her Savior. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that her clouded vision became crystal clear and she could see Jesus. Within the confines of a dark grave, resurrection triumphed over crucifixion. Since that time, generations across the globe have had to determine what is truth about that morning. We are called to consider what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.
We have this wonderful story from the Book of Acts about Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was on the court of the queen of Ethiopia. He had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He was a convert to the Jewish faith and had embarked on a lengthy journey to worship in the Temple. On his way back, being pulled in a chariot, the Rolls-Royce of his day, he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The man was educated. He had access to a library, which was rare indeed. He was trying to understand the truth of the Scripture that he was reading.
Phillip was minding his own business when the Holy Spirit prompted him to approach the chariot. He was the answer to the Ethiopian’s prayers. When the convert to the faith was asking about the suffering servant in Isaiah, Phillip was ready to give his sermon. He preached about Jesus as the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. Jesus was the lamb that was slain and who now reigned over an eternal kingdom. Even the one who served on a royal court with high honors would not be able to imagine the immensity of that kingdom. He wondered what was the truth of that scripture. Phillip dropped everything to give interpretation that would answer the foreigner’s questions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected Savior. The man from the royal court asked to be baptized in a body of water they were passing. Phillip obliged and one of the most unlikely candidates for membership in the Early Church was welcomed into the fold of the Messiah who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.
When I was leading a group discussion on a psychiatric unit recently, there was a man who stormed out, angry at something another class member had said that he perceived to be false. I sought him out afterwards to apologize for any hard feelings. He immediately said he was sorry , admitting that he should have not been so explosive. Then he cried out to me, the chaplain who stopped by his room, “Who will tell me about Jesus?“
The question caught me by surprise. I had gone in to placate someone who was angry about the group dynamics of the class I had led. Now he was asking for a Sunday school lesson. My job is not to convert but to invite patients into their own understanding of the deepest convictions in their lives. So I spent time with him, getting to know his circumstances. I learned that his mental illness and struggle with addiction had cost him his marriage and custody of his children. He was deeply grieved as a young father. He was hopeless about triumphing over a mental illness diagnosis that had put his life on a downward spiral. He was raised in a home where he was told that everything was his fault. There was no appreciation for spiritual matters. He spoke to me of the ways that God has been present to him throughout his life. Years earlier, God protected him during a home invasion when he cried out for help. His addiction had brought him near death several times but God had revived him. He wondered why? What was this purpose for which he was being saved? He named these moments of grace when he could hear a directive from God that led him down right paths. He carried with him a worldview shaped by being demeaned in his childhood home and losing his own family because of an illness that he could not control.
The question he cried out to me became clear when he said that, recently, the Holy Spirit was prompting him to look into the person of Jesus. I was stunned to think that God moved in such a specific manner so as to proselytize this man who was despairing of hope and bereft of joy. Forty-five minutes into our time together, I began to talk about Jesus at his repeated request: “Who will tell me about Jesus?“
What would you say to someone who has no background in the faith and is crying out for understanding about Jesus? As I started offering Sunday School Lesson 101, I was aware of how unlikely some of our beliefs are about this man called Jesus. Born of a virgin, hailing from a backwoods town in an insignificant part of the world, being born a Jew (historically a persecuted race), crucified as a despised criminal and dying a public death to intimidate others into obeying the rules in the mighty Roman Empire.
But wait! Death is not the end of the story! Even though he was laid in a tomb with a boulder in front of it, the Holy Spirit (through baptism fire!) brought him back to life. Truth! Resurrection out of death. Can you believe it? We are incredulous even though we have been going to church for years.
There are people in our world who want to know about truth. In our own city there’s an investigation into the truth of the death of a young African man. During Holy Week, video footage was released and, once again, we recoiled in horror and were filled with grief. Local and national news look in on this senseless death with a question of “What is truth?” A review board investigates the death, but nothing will bring solace to a family who grieves a son.
We are seekers of truth on a daily basis, and we sometimes forget where to turn. We forget our spiritual mooring. This young in-patient’s question, that came from the gut, awakens me to the need to preach my faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I am sensitive to delivering the sermon in the manner that is most likely to be heard. Many times, that will not be through words but by example. When I have an opportunity and an invitation to share what I believe, I had better have a response ready. I am called to have my spiritual antennas up to notice the hunger of those around me who are struggling to believe. There are people at every crossroad in our daily life who are searching for truth. Some are sitting in the pews here every Sunday morning. Some are in our neighborhood or serving on community boards with us. Some are the folks who badmouth religion most loudly. Inwardly they are asking, “What is the truth? Who will teach me about Jesus?”
The truth is, we are all continually learning about Jesus. We meet Him in unlikely corners of our world. We see Him at the intersection when a red light gives us ample opportunity to look into the eyes of the man holding the sign. We meet Jesus when our child or grandchild asks to read stories together from their Children’s Bible. We meet Jesus when one family member finally reaches out to another to invite them for Easter supper after a lengthy stalemate in relationship. We meet Jesus on our knees and at the wheel; in our office and walking a dirt road. We meet Jesus in an African father who asks for peaceful protests after his son is gunned down during Holy Week. We meet Jesus when an American friend crosses the border into the Ukraine to fight for the citizens of another country. We meet Jesus when we whisper a prayer for mercy in the depths of a depression. We meet Jesus when we pack our bags to go where we feel led to go. The Truth of Jesus is that endings are often times beginnings and new life begins when we dare to walk into the unknown.
Who will teach others about Jesus? We need to be ready!