Friday, August 26, 2016

Passion, faith, and just a touch of craziness

I’ve been ruminating today about Labor Days past. Hands down, the most memorable for me was  Labor Day 1977. I had just begun my internship at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Marine City, Michigan.

Marine City is a magical kind of place right along the Saint Clair River, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Saint Clair like a little patch of ocean separating Michigan and Canada. It’s not all that wide (you can easily see the Canadian shore), but it’s very deep. So humongous freighters pass by from all over the world, and you can see them up close and personal, like you’re standing on the side of the freeway watching semi-trucks go by at a snail's pace. At night I would lie in bed and hear the ships blowing their horns. The water was deep blue. In the winter it froze, and then when it broke up in the spring, the ice chunks had a brilliant turquoise cast that looked other-worldly. 

My internship supervisor, Howard, was completely enamored with anything having to do with the sea. Every morning he ate breakfast with a retired captain and his cronies in a little restaurant that looked out onto the water. He kept track of the ships that would be coming our way that day and knew them all by name. 

On the first day of my internship, a new freighter, the longest ever, was coming down the river, and Howard was like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. I was in the car with him as he drove down the road watching for it. As soon as saw it, Howard quickly turned onto a side road and drove down to the river, where we got out of his car to watch the freighter go by. As I recall, he took pictures. Then we got back into the car and drove to the next side street and did the same thing. We did this all the way down the river. I can’t remember how many times we pulled down a side road to get a view of this massive freighter making its trip down the river. I do remember that I stopped getting out of the car with him. And I also recall wondering at the time, “Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”

Not long after I began my year of internship, Howard really wanted to get me out on the water. Although later he bought a boat, at this time the only seagoing vessel he owned was a canoe. It sounded like fun to me. I enjoyed canoeing, so why not? On Labor Day, we put the canoe out on the water. 

Well, in hindsight, I have to say that it was insane. Can you imagine being in a tiny canoe, paddling in choppy water as deep as the ocean, while you’re looking up at ocean-going freighters? It was bordering on terrifying! (I do have to admit that the adrenaline rush was one of my best ever.)

The next day, when I told members of the congregation how their pastor took me canoeing on the Saint Clair River, they were incredulous. Some were furious with him for putting me in that kind of danger. 

Now, I don’t think Howard was a madman. He simply had a passion in his life, and he wanted to share it with me. What may have seemed crazy and maybe even foolhardy to most people, was an adventure for Howard. He wanted me to experience it as he did. 

As I think back on my year of internship, I don’t remember much that I learned. I’m sure I learned a lot, I just can’t remember exactly what it was. But I do remember that Labor Day paddling like crazy alongside the big ships. I didn’t know enough to be afraid at the time. And I remember trusting Howard, a man so smitten by the sea that he wasn’t about to let a little thing like not having the right kind of boat keep him on the shore. 

There’s a metaphor for ministry in there for me. 39 years later, it still holds true. What may appear foolhardy to some people has been an adventure of faith for me. I never caught Howard’s love for the sea, but I like to believe that I did catch the way he embraced life – with passion, faith, and just a touch of craziness.

Ascension 101

I’ve spent the month of August getting to know the people of Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, Maryland. I made flashcards to work on names and faces. (The stack of cards stands about 8” high!) But the main way I’ve gotten to know them is through a series of cottage meetings, 15 altogether. As of today, I have 13 down and 2 more to go. They’ve been graciously hosted by folks in their homes, where anywhere from 6 to 30 people have shown up. 

As a talking point, I asked each person to bring an artifact that represents who they are. These have been fascinating little widows into their lives. They’ve brought well-worn Bibles, vacation photos, original artwork, and weird things like a turkey syringe, a saddle, and a temporary tattoo.  At nearly every event someone will joke that they brought their spouse as an artifact; I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve come to expect it. Some of the best stories have been from people who forgot to bring their artifact; they haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about it and odd little episodes from their lives pop up. Many of the stories I've heard have been hysterical and some tearful. At each event, not only have I learned something about my new faith community, but they’ve learned about each other as well. It’s been a great way to begin my time here.

As I reflect on these gatherings, here are my take-aways:

1.     Maryland is in the South. Yes, people here consider themselves Southerners. Who knew?
2.     I realize that where you attended school reveals something about the way you were raised and how you experienced the world, but I’ve never been any place where people were so interested in learning where you went to high school as they are here in the Baltimore area.  
3.     People tend to live here forever. And if they should happen to move away, sooner or later, they return.
4.     Not only do they live here forever, but their ancestors go back for generations. I don’t know what the equivalent to coming over on the Mayflower is in Baltimore, but whatever it is, the ancestors of those who got here that way are still living here.
5.     At Ascension there are so many people who are related to one another that it’s an ecclesiastical version of incest. (And this is not a small congregation.)
6.     People who aren't from around here are warmly welcomed. The natives will gladly tell you all you need to know so you can love Baltimore as much as they do.
7.     The very young and the very old are cherished by the members of Ascension.
8.     The people in my congregation are enthused about horses, the Orioles and crabs.
9.     I have yet to hear one person say a negative word about any former pastor of the congregation. (As someone who will one day become a former pastor of Ascension, this brings me great comfort.)
10. Overall, the people at Ascension are more Lutheran than I am. It courses through their veins and it’s very clear that “Here I stand.”  (It’s not always that clear for me, and I often find myself standing here, and there, and over yonder, too.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Falling in love...again

It seems that I’m falling in love with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church. Now, mind you, I loved them before I ever really knew them, back when I was interviewing with them. That’s when I became acquainted with an extraordinary group of people who were forthright with me about the joys and challenges of being Ascension. They helped me to imagine myself as their pastor, using my unique gifts and a lifetime of experiences, and yet still being challenged and stretched in new ways. I came to believe that they needed me. I considered the opportunity with my head, but it was my gut that convinced me I would be their next pastor.

Love always leads me to a new call, even while love makes it so difficult for me to leave the church I'm serving at the time. Whenever I change calls (and it’s happened for me five times now!), before I’m formally called by a congregation, I’ve already started to love them as their pastor. 

If I can’t love the people in my congregation, I have no business being their pastor. And I have loved every congregation I’ve ever served. Sometimes I wonder if I serve them because I love them or I love them because I serve them. Certainly, I feel committed to love my congregation through thick and thin whenever I accept a call to serve them. That kind of love is something akin to loyalty and faithfulness. It’s just what I do as a pastor. It's a commitment and doesn’t have anything to do with my feelings. But then, in time, something grabs me in the gut as I live among God’s people in community. 

A lot like falling in love, it’s a visceral feeling I can’t explain. A week ago, while we were singing “Blessed Assurance” at 10:00 worship, I looked out into the congregation and saw faces that were becoming familiar. I was learning their names and their stories, and I knew how much Ascension meant to them. That’s when I teared up as I felt it in my gut for the first time, I really do love these people.

Last Sunday I preached a hard sermon where I told my congregation that the way to freedom and redemption is preceded by confrontation and conflict. I absolutely hated telling them that and inside I kept wanting to say, “No, I didn’t mean it. Please disregard what I just said; it’s not true.” Of course, I couldn’t say that because it was true. It was love that led me to feel uncomfortable in the role of a prophet within my new faith community, and it was love that compelled me to speak through my discomfort because that’s what it means to love God by loving God’s people. But I knew I was falling in love with them because I didn’t want to be the one to share that hard truth with them.

And so it’s happening. Our journey together has begun, and I’m already falling in love with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church. Experience has taught me I can expect that to grow exponentially. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Then and Now

I find myself doing a lot of comparing these days. I suppose that’s normal when you leave one place behind and move on to another. You can’t help but think about how things used to be and compare them to how they are. Lately, I've been comparing the church I used to serve with the one I currently serve, and the pastor I was in Charlotte with the pastor I need to be in Towson.

I think I basically had Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte figured out by the time I left them. Not much there surprised me after 11 years. I knew how they thought, I could predict how they would react, and I cherished the sweet comfort of the familiar. Now I’m with a congregation of people who seem to surprise me at every turn. I feel awkward and unsure of myself. It’s like dancing with a partner who knows all the steps to a dance I’ve never seen. I know that I need to learn quickly because I wasn’t called to Ascension to follow; I was called to lead. So I’m figuring it out. And as I do, I can’t help but compare the two dances, both beautiful, but distinctly different.

Last week my mind was drawn to the whole idea of diversity. My former congregation was known for its diversity, and it would appear that my current one has hardly any diversity at all. But as I get to know them, I’m starting to think about this in a new way. There’s more than one way to be diverse. At Ascension there is great diversity of thought, which is something I didn’t encounter at Holy Trinity because, for the most part, we pretty much all thought the same way. I've navigated diversity of thought before, in previous congregations, but I’m a little rusty in my skills of diplomacy (not that it’s ever been one of my strengths).

Today, I’ve been thinking about how easy it was to take risks at Holy Trinity because we really had no other option. When I arrived, we were one flush away from going down the toilet. I figured that if we were gonna go out, we were gonna go out following Jesus. So we went for broke and we did the best we could to follow the Jesus Way. It took us places most congregations wouldn't dare to go. In hindsight, I suspect that was exactly what we needed to do to become a church again, and God blessed us in a big way. 

So, now I’m in a congregation that has so much going for it. We’re big (by Lutheran standards), and vibrant, and blessed with incredible leaders, and for the most part, comfortable just as we are. There’s no need to change, and there’s a lot to risk if we should try to do a new thing and fail. And yet, we seem to be stuck, and we’re going to have to risk failure if we want to move forward. I’m sensing that change isn’t going to be as easy at Ascension as it was at Holy Trinity, and if you know me well you know that I’m not the most patient pastor on the planet.

If this is starting to sound like a perfect storm, I want to assure that I'm not seeing any foreboding clouds on the horizon. I came to Ascension because I felt ready to be stretched in some new ways and that’s exactly what’s happening. It was a good move for me and I continue to be thankful for the opportunity. Although it’s challenging, I’m feeling up to it. Mainly because of another comparison that has become apparent to me over the past month. I praying more here than I did in Charlotte!