Heart’s Desire

A-hand-drawn-heartFor months, at the urging of my spiritual director, I have been praying to find my heart’s desire, to find that thing (not a person – I have those) that inspires me, energizes me; my flow.  But you pray for something long enough, and the prayer goes unanswered, and eventually you stop praying for the thing.

The last few months have found me in the doldrums. (Excellent word, by the way, with possible origin in the words dull and tantrum.)  Yes, you could say I’ve been having a dull tantrum for a season, the result of an unusually warm summer, a not-fun spring at church, and continued physical pain as my hip heals more slowly than I would like. Plus sometimes I’m just a big baby.

And then I got an idea.  I would write a book, a novel, about a church, because I am the First Pastor Ever to think about writing a novel about a church.  I thought about it all spring, and I thought about during our first week of vacation, and I thought about it some more the week our kid was at sleep away camp.  And then I went away for a week, to the lovely shores of Lake Tahoe with a plum assignment of leading worship once a day.

In my free time, I powered up the ol’ laptop and started writing.

I am having a ball.

Today when I met with my spiritual director I told her I had started writing my book and she commented that light was bouncing all around me.  She noted my energy and joy.  And then she said, “I think you found your heart’s desire.”  I will note that God took God’s sweet time answering my prayer, but a thousand years are but a day, etc. etc.

Here’s the thing: writing this puppy is cathartic, and in twenty years of ministry I have met amazing people who have done strange and wonderful things that inspire the characters.  There’s swearing and liturgy.  Twists and turns.  Recipes.  Lists.  Thwarted romance.  A Yorkie Poo.  It is so me.

Back in high school, I aspired to be a writer, but college and theatre and then seminary and ministry got in the way.  To be truthful, my daughter’s own love of writing has inspired me, and maybe some day we will write a book together.  (I can just hear her saying, in about eight years, “As if.”)

This book will never see binding or a spine or a listing on Amazon.   I’m pretty clear about that.  It might show up on this blog.  It might be a Christmas present to my friends and family. But maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to have a purpose or action plan.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to lead to success, fame, or fortune.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire is simply the thing that leads out of dull tantrums to joy.

That’s all for now – chapter nineteen awaits.writing

Skipping church

It’s Sunday morning and I am home and we’re not going to church today.  We are on vacation, enjoying one of our six Sundays a year not in church, but I’m feeling a little naughty and a little guilty about the whole thing.  The truth is, we could go to church – if not the church we serve, then another church.  A church of another denomination, in our neighborhood, whose pastor we admire.  A church served by one of our Presbyterian colleagues whom we never get to hear preach.  The hipster church down the road which brings in millenials in droves, for reasons we simply cannot fathom.

But no, we’re staying home this morning.  We might go to brunch – isn’t that what people who don’t go to church do on Sunday mornings? We could drink coffee and read the Sunday paper, but I’m the only one who drinks coffee and we cancelled the paper until tomorrow, thinking our vacation would last one more day than it actually did.  Instead, I was up at six (why?????) and the others are sleeping in.

Here’s the thing: pastors (and other church professionals) need a break from church and from Sunday morning worship.  If I were to go to my own congregation this morning, and sit somewhere in the sanctuary, it would be hard for me to let go and just worship.  If there were a mistake in the bulletin, I would see it.  If the sound system was wonky, I would notice it.  I would have to work hard to worship and not to critique, and that’s not fair to those who are leading worship today, or to myself.

And for me, it is hard to do a one-off at another congregation.  It’s hard to go to a brand new church whose traditions are not your own.  Did I sit in “someone’s” pew?  Do we kneel, come forward, stand up, sit down, fight fight fight?  If I sing the alto line to the hymn, will I get funny looks?  Will my child be bored to tears, or invited to leave to go God knows where for a Bible lesson, juice, and animal crackers?  Will the sermon move me or annoy me, or worse, bore me?  Will I be welcomed or ignored?

In the twenty-two years since I’ve been ordained, the most I have not gone to church is three weeks in a row, and that was when my daughter was first born.  Did I miss it?  I was so overwhelmed by my newborn, and breast feeding, and exhaustion, and healing from a C-section, that worship was the last thing on my mind.  But that fourth week, I couldn’t wait to take our daughter to church for the first time.  She was cooed over and held and I was loved and cared for.  We were home.

This morning we are home at our home.  The spouse and the kid are still asleep, and the dog just woke up and it sitting on my lap.  The morning coffee has been consumed.  I might make scones.  I might read.  I might do laundry.  I won’t go outside, because the smoke from the fires east of us is looming over all the city and it’s nothing short of gross outside.

I won’t go to church today; I’ll take the rare sabbath a pastor gets.  I’ll remember that I am not in charge of worship, nor solely responsible for it, nor the only one who does it right.  I will say a prayer – for my colleague who is on her own this morning; for the firefighters who are so brave and tireless; for those whose health and homes are affected by this fire.  I’ll say a prayer of thanks for this morning off, for vacation, for my family and my dog.

And then I’ll go make scones.morning-coffee

“I don’t want to grow up”

My child has no interest in being an adult, which makes me wonder what she hears her dad and me saying. Then it makes perfect sense.

Debt. Black mold. Mortgage. Death. Weight. Loans. Responsibility. Health. Dentists. Voting. Jobs. Work. The economy. Guns. Colonoscopy.

So, yes, if that’s all I ever heard, I probably wouldn’t want to grow up either.

When I was in junior high my older brother and sister were in high school and were being pretty typical teenagers. I said to my mother one day, ” I will never be like them.”  And I wasn’t.  I was much much worse.

Because what my daughter doesn’t  know, and what my junior high self did not know, was that there are these things called hormones which kick in and for a little while take over your life. You learn to manage them – eventually – and by the mid-twenties the frontal lobe finally develops and things begin to calm down. Then before you know it you’re 51 and tired and there’s black mold in the basement and your kid doesn’t want to be an adult.

But in just a few years she’ll start to think boys are kind of interesting (or maybe girls, just to be fair.) She will want to drive the car and have more independence than her bicycle currently affords. She will want to go away to college as far away from us as possible, in South Africa maybe, or the Arctic Circle.

For some (but not all) there is this little golden time when you get your first taste of independence before responsibility sets in. For me, it was at the end of high school and the beginning of college, when my biggest worries were exams and which Icelandic sweater pattern I should start next.

Job interviews were a wake-up call, as was getting fired from my third job. Going to everyone else’s wedding without having one of my own introduced me to the loneliness sneaks up in adulthood. Also, buying my first vacuum cleaner: a sure sign that I was truly on my own.

I pray my daughter will grow up and live every moment between now and then, the good, the bad, and the pimply.  Because as an adult I have learned that life is to be lived, not rehearsed or perfected.

On cousins

IMG_6390I recently spent a few days with some of my cousins on my mother’s side.  Our families share land that is dear to all of us, and once a year we meet there to do some business and have a picnic and get caught up.

I never lived near any of my cousins; the closest was when three of us lived in a hour’s triangle from each other, and mostly we got together for Thanksgiving a few times.  But cousins were never part of my everyday life.  They were a part of my summers, as we would fly or drive from all over the country to meet at the family place near Mt. Rainier, to be loved by our grandparents, to throw rocks in the creek when we were little and to build dams in the creek when we got older.

Now that we are all older, I have a different appreciation for my cousins.  We’re in various stages of child-rearing.  A few are grandparents while youngest child of our children’s generation is just four.  We’ve had successes and less so of careers and marriages and managing it all.  The oldest of our generation died forty years ago, and I hardly knew him.

* * * * *

This week I am away at Lake Tahoe, the worship leader at a conference for church music leaders.  Needless to say, it’s a good gig.  Lake Tahoe.  Gorgeous choral music all day long. Leading in worship, which is one of my favorite things.  Lake Tahoe.  Our church’s music director is here too, one of four music directors who each brought two pieces for the concert we’ll have on Thursday night.

One of the pieces she chose is a favorite of our choir and of mine: “Entreat me not to leave you” by Dan Forrest.  It’s based on the text from the book of Ruth, when Ruth says to her mother-in-law Naomi, after both have been widowed,

‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’

The song begins with a pattern of the voices singing the words “entreat me not to leave you,” building to this anguished plea that ends when the altos come in with one note that stops the anguish.  And then, like leaving a dense forest to walk into an open meadow, come those words: “For where you go, I will go; And where you live, I will live….”

Last  night I sat in on the rehearsal, listening to the choir learn this, and I started thinking about my cousins and my siblings and I and our parents.  Because that’s the other thing we’re doing now: watching our parents age.  I don’t really like this, but I’m not in it alone.  Some of our parents, these siblings five, are doing well and some are slowing down.  The hearing isn’t what it used to be; neither are the joints.  There’s been more talk of “after I’m gone, this will be yours to take care of.”

So when my cousins and siblings and I get together, we don’t throw rocks in the creek anymore.  Our kids build the dams.  But we sit by the creek, sometimes with our parents, with our aunts and uncles, because we know this time is precious and will not last forever.  We’re all the more mindful of that now.

And I think about the commitment our parents made to their spouses, and in a way to us their children, and the commitment we now make to them: where you go, I will go; and where you live, I will live.  We can’t always fulfill that promise, but more true are the words that begin and end the song: Entreat me not to leave you.  I am not ready to let you go, not to follow you, not to live near you or even visit you.  I am not ready for death to part us.

So, cousins, here we are.  I am grateful for you, and I have your back whatever will come.

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Clang, clang, clang…

trolley song“Went the trolley.”  You knew that.

I think my favorite role of Judy Garland’s was as Esther Smith in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  The Gibson-Girl look suited her well, and she was so young and vibrant and in such good voice. There is nothing quite like the joy of “The Trolley Song”.  Ah, love.

I recently had dinner with two of my friends who have fallen in love, and hearing their story of getting to know each other and realizing, pretty early on, that there was something very good there made my heart go zing.  At one point during the conversation, one of them turned to me and said, “Could your smile get any bigger?”

No, it couldn’t, because I love these two people and they suit each other so well, and finding that Someone is one of life’s grandest joys.  Hearing their story took me back to my own story of falling in love with the man who would eventually become my husband – pretty much once that train left the station, it was never going back.  We thought we had been quite clever keeping our relationship secret, but once we started telling people, they all had a “No duh” kind of reaction, which was a little anti-climactic, but I was in love so I didn’t care.

“Meet in St. Louis” ends with the family and love interests gazing at the lagoon at the World’s Fair.  All is well, all crises averted or resolved, all unrequited loves requited.

Life isn’t like that.  People don’t spontaneously burst into song and dance, and happy endings are never perfect.  Some love goes unrequited; some relationships don’t last.  Judy Garland lost that voice and that vivacity, but she never really lost her presence.

My friends who have fallen in love know that, because they’ve endured their fair share of disappointment and sorrow.  That does not erase the elation they now know.  And if this relationship moves to something deeper, that elation will get burnished and shine differently.  I hope that for them.

When I was growing up, my parent had this funny whiskey decanter set that was a trolley car.  The center held two different cut glass decanters, and at each end of the car, roped off with a little chain, were two shot glasses.  When you lifted one of the decanters, a music box started playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

I supposed we all leave our hearts somewhere.  Perhaps it’s best to leave our hearts with someone.

Clang, clang, clang.

 

heart

“May I speak with you…”, part 2

OpenDoorLogoYesterday’s post about my visit from Joy was read by many, at least in terms of my stats.  I appreciate the comments, likes, and shares.  Today I received a message from a minister colleague in another part of the state a few hours away.  Joy had visited her, too, a few weeks ago, and my friend had a similar experience of listening to her and helping her out.  I am grateful she let me know.

And then I checked to see if I felt that thing I sometimes feel when I’ve helped a complete stranger: did I feel as though I had been duped, taken advantage of, conned?

In every church I have served,  people come to church to ask for help, some in truly desperate situations and some looking for a handout.  I believe in handouts, to a point; I think sometimes what a person most needs is $20 to buy what they want.  But I also know that sometimes I have helped someone who then tells all his friends who also come seeking help.  Or in one town where I worked, I listened to a guy poor out his soul about his family being innocent bystanders victimized by a crime, only to learn a a few weeks later that another pastor in town had heard the same story from the same guy the year before.

After twenty or so years of pastoring, I’ve decided I would rather err on the side of kindness, knowing that some of the people I help are really not all that desperate. So with regards to Joy, did I feel duped?

No.

Anytime I hear a stranger tell me his or her story and then ask me for help, I know that person might not be telling me the truth or even the whole truth.  I know people take advantage of the kindness of churches and pastors and church secretaries.  I also know that sometimes a church is one of the few places where someone will be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their truthfulness.

My parents were both born in the 1930’s and their early childhoods were marked by the Great Depression.  Neither grew up in families that were neither destitute nor wealthy; my grandfathers were both employed and my grandmothers ran their households with great efficiency.  My dad was one of three children, my mom one of six.  My mother remembers that whenever someone would come to the door looking for food, my grandmother would give that person something – a sandwich, an apple, toast with jelly.  My grandfather worked in construction, and if a day laborer was needed, my grandmother would mention that to the person at the door.

To be kind is to risk being taken advantage of.  To be generous is to choose to use resources for one thing and not for another.  As a pastor, I have a sense that the time I have and the resources I offer are not solely mine; they are part of the congregation as well, and I want to be a good steward of their gifts. And sometimes I act on behalf of the congregation to live out the commands that Jesus gave.

So I don’t know if my Joy will come your way, or when another Joy will present herself to you.  I don’t know what you will decide to do. I don’t know how you will make your decision.  But maybe we all need a little Joy in our lives, for so many reasons.

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“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.

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