For the rain it raineth every day

Heavy DownpourLong ago, while studying the Hebrew scriptures in seminary, I was more than a little bored while we were in the middle of 1 & 2 Chronicles and their fully detailed description of building the temple in Jerusalem.  Feel free to read 2 Chronicles 3-6 if you want to get a sense of this.  Anyway, dear Marv Chaney noted our rolling eyes and yawns, and said something like this:

“Surely these details are abundant, but I tell you, some day when you’re the pastor of a church and you’re building a new sanctuary, you will want to fill me in on all the details of the plans.”  Yeah, right, I thought, little knowing that in my first call, we would remodel the sanctuary; in my second call, we would build an entirely new sanctuary/office/fellowship hall; in my third call, we would remodel the kitchen and fellowship hall; in my present call, we are figuring out what to do with this building which of late has sprung a few leaks.

When I went into ministry, I did not realize I was signing up for building management.  I wasn’t, of course, but….  We have really, really competent lay folk – architects and engineers and interior designers and contractors – who are able to make informed decisions, and building and custodial staff who deal with the nuts and bolts of our physical plant.  But still, hundred-year-old buildings, like hundred-year-old people, require a lot of care.  So while over the past few months we’ve talked about accessibility and deferred maintenance and improvements, and while in the last week we’ve dealt with significant water damage caused by rain during a re-roofing project, I’ve been a bit convicted by something Frederick Buechner once said in an interview with The Christian Century.

“I say the best thing that could happen to your church is for it to burn down and for all your fax and email machines to be burned up, and for the minister to be run over by a truck so that you have nothing left except each other and God.”  (9/18/02)

There are days.  There are those days when I wish we didn’t have a building to care about.  But then I remember the holiness of a church building and of our church building.  WIthin these walls people have seriously mourned, and riotously praised.  Within these walls the Spirit has led people to join the family of God.  We’ve broken bread and shared the prayers of broken hearts.  We have sung, and those songs still linger like incense among the rafters.  The church building is a holy place, not because of the cross or pulpit or stained glass, but because in the building God and humans have run into each other and laughed with amazement at it all.

So I guess I’m both resigned and grateful to have this building to take care of.  And there will always be something to take care of, because as Feste sang in Twelfth Night, “the rain it raineth every day,” or the boiler will be on the fritz, or a toilet will overflow.  But I would appreciate it if God would stop sending the rain our way so that we can mop things up and get on with the work of ministry.

In Praise of Pastors’ Spouses

lizzy bennettTonight I am going to a rehearsal dinner in the role of pastor’s spouse.  I’m not in that role very often, since my spousal unit and I are co-pastors.  But once in a while someone outside the congregation asks just one of us to do something, and the other tags along in the spouse role.  When I go to this sort of thing, I always imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet, a tactful and witty observer of the human condition.  I look forward to tonight, plus I get to get dressed up a little.

The first time I was in the role of pastor’s spouse was pretty horrifying for me.  We’d not yet been married for a year, and for various reasons too complicated to explain here, I wasn’t working.  My husband was serving as an interim synod co-executive (I kid you not.) We drove five hours for him to be the Honored Guest at the tenth anniversary of a new congregation formed when three congregations merged.  (As a side note, it’s pretty good for a merger of three churches to have lasted ten years.)  Anyway, when we arrived, we were greeted warmly and I was given a nametag that read “Beth Neel, Visiting Pastor’s Wife.”

I almost cried.

I had been a pastor – a real bona fide pastor of a congregation – for ten years.  My husband had never served a congregation, and there I was, thrust into the role of Sunday-school-teaching, jello-recipe-exchanging, cookie-baking wife.  We laughed about it – later.  Much later.

Here’s the thing about pastors’ spouses that I know: they put up with a whole lot of stuff.  They have more expectations put on them than pastors do.  Like pastors, they are punished if they really speak their mind at church and so are relegated to commenting on whether the bark mulch needs some freshening up or if the punch was too fizzy last week.  If they choose to have firm boundaries about what they will or won’t do at church, they’re criticized.  On top of all that, they get to listen to their spouse complain, and rant, and cry, and wonder if it’s time to go sell insurance.

I think – or maybe it’s just a hope – that it’s gotten better for pastors’ spouses with an increase in the number of clergywomen.  There are different role expectations for men than for women.  And most pastor families I know need for both spouses to work, so there simply isn’t time to be Number One Volunteer at the church.  As our society moves more toward gender equality, it’s understood that anyone can bake cookies, spread mulch, teach Sunday School, or direct the children’s choir.  They don’t even have to be married to someone on the staff.

Still, it must be hard at times for those husbands and wives.  So this week, if you’re at church, don’t just shake the pastor’s hand.  If your pastor is married, find her or his spouse and tell that person how glad you are that she or he is here. You really don’t have to say anything else.  And if the pastor’s spouse isn’t there, for heaven’s sake don’t ask why he or she is playing hooky.

So, to the pastor’s spouses I’ve known, especially those whose spouses I’ve worked with – Betty, Kay, Kerri, Tracey, John, Anna, Sue, Missy, Julie, Dave, Sarah, Fi, Carol, Barb, Nancy – my hat is off to you.  Thanks for being you.

A Perfect Moment

asteriskThis morning I was sitting in the sanctuary about half an hour before the service started.  I came down from the office because the choir was rehearsing one of my favorite anthems – John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth –  and hearing just once in the service wasn’t going to cut if for me.  I sat down in one of the transept pews, next to a dear, long-time member of the church who comes early, I think, so she can hear the choir rehearse.

As the choir was making their way through the song, one of my other pastor colleagues came in with a family whose infant son was to be baptized.  The parents joined the church at Easter, when the dad was baptized, so there was something lovely about he and his wife bringing their baby to be baptized.  The child was as bald as a peeled peach, with a sweet sweet round face.  Just enough drool to make him adorable hung on his chin, and he smiled at me while I made silly faces at him.

My colleague was showing the parents the baptism choreography, and as he took the baby, so tenderly, and kissed his little forehead, the choir was singing, “For the joy of human love/Brother, sister, parent child,” I thought: that’s perfect.  Everyone is up there practicing for the real thing, and the community isn’t gathered yet to witness it, but I was able to witness this moment when song and delight and love came together just right.

That would have been enough for me, that experience of the holy, twenty minutes before the service started.  But the choir finished and need to trot downstairs to put their robes on, and the family need to do one last diaper change before the service.  I had gone to the trouble to write a sermon, so I figured I might as well preach.

Those perfect moments are rare, especially when you’re in the business of church and you have a fair amount of responsibility for all the details that go into that one hour a week.  Rarely do we conduct perfect worship, nor does God want perfection.  I think God would much rather have something flawed and authentic than perfect and over-rehearsed.  But those rare perfect moments are like little asterisks at the end of the sentence of a hard week, a reminder that the crap gets meliorated by a gracious, patient God who isn’t too high and mighty to show up for rehearsals.

It was good worship today – not perfect, but good – and as one parishioner noted, it thundered during the baptism, which was cool of the Holy Spirit.  It’s so good in the fall to have everyone back together, the fullness of worship and hymns and prayers and rambunctious kids in the children’s moment and all that.

But truth be told, when the service started, I had already done my worship for the day.

Hard Work Does Not a Good Suit of Armor Make

suit of armorOften I am surprised that at the ripe old age of 49, I am still learning things about myself. As a younger version of myself might have said, “No duh.”

This week’s insight: I work hard so as to avoid criticism. Sometimes I enjoy working hard because I love whatever project I’m doing. Back in my single days, when I had more free time, I painted furniture. I could spend an entire Saturday painting squiggles and checkerboards on chairs and love every minute of it. Sometimes I enjoy working hard because of the intellectual challenge – writing a sermon or some liturgy, or preparing for a class I’ve never taught and have to create from scratch.

But the ugly truth is that much of the time I work hard so that others won’t criticize me. I look at my to-do list and sometimes prioritize based on how much flack I will get from a person or a committee if I don’t do that particular thing. I anticipate all the critiques that could come my way if I don’t do something, or don’t do something well, and I bust my proverbial butt to create something excellent – not because the thing deserves to be excellent, but because I don’t want people to complain if/when it isn’t excellent.

Here are the flaws in this plan:

1. Some people criticize no matter what.

2. Sometimes my best is not what someone else considers good.

3. If I keep this up, I will become cranky, feel put upon, and likely burn out.

I once worked with a pastor who was adamant about not being a people-pleaser, and let me tell you, he wasn’t. There was a big downside to that, because he wore his “I’m not a people pleaser” t-shirt with pride, to every worship service, to every session meeting, to every staff meeting. But there was an upside, too. He was not overwhelmed when he was criticized. He had really decent boundaries around work. And he made decisions and prioritized not to stave off the critics in the church, but because it was the right thing to do.

Of course I imagine more criticism than would actually come my way. I work in a place where people are rather kind, and thoughtful, and gentle with their criticism, which is usually valid. But my imagination has been working overtime lately, with a few big hard decisions that have been made, and with the start of the program year and a long to-do list. With my overactive imagination has come some edginess, and anxiousness, and definite thoughts of being put upon. And I have put them upon myself.

Last week, just before the benediction, I quoted a line from our closing hymn: “My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.” I really don’t believe God is in the criticism business, that God is in the grace business. So I’m working off taking off that suit of armor, and putting on my dance shoes, to work with grace.

“I know nothing, except what everyone knows –

if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

W. H. Auden


My husband and I dancing (sorry the video won’t play) at a concert in a park

The Unknown Owl

eastern-screech-owl-georgia_67926_990x742This past summer while on vacation, my husband and I took a walk in the woods with our dog. I’ve walked this particular path hundreds of times – the woods are on property my extended family has owned since the 1940’s.

Anway, it was dusk and we wanted to take the puppy out for his evening constitutional. The sun had mostly set; it had been a clear day and it promised to be a beautiful evening. As we entered the woods we heard an owl, and as we walked deeper into the darkness, we heard the owl (or what we presumed to be the owl) following us.

I love owls, and I give J. K. Rowling a good bit of credit for that. I also love them because I think they are beautiful, and they eat mice and insects and make a pretty sound. But for some reason, this owl spooked me a bit. I don’t find the woods scary, and I wasn’t alone, and I love owls, but something was amiss.

It was the puppy. At the time the dog weighed about six pounds. He’s a little thing and always will be. And this owl was following us, and I didn’t know if it was just being friendly or if the puppy appeared to be a tasty morsel.

Now I know most owls avoid puppies for dinner. Or I think I know that. Just writing that I worried that the owl would eat my dog makes me realize how ridiculous the thought was – in lawsa bit like that scene from the original movie The In-Laws, where Peter Falk as the maybe mentally imbalanced CIA agents tells Alan Arkin as the hyper normal dentist about the time the giant tsetse flies flew away with the babies from the village.

Still, my husband and I turned around, and I carried the puppy, and we left those woods.

What made it amiss was the realization that I was responsible for a vulnerable creature. Our dog was with us, and we needed to protect it from whatever real predators were out there. The problem is that I don’t know if the predator was real or imaginary.

Everyday people have to decide how to protect the vulnerable from predators imaginary or real. We’re doing it right now with Syria; we do it as we think about how to spend taxpayers’ money in aid programs; we do it as we clarify rights for the mentally and physically disabled. We do it with our kids and with our elderly and with those who look so normal and fine who a few of us know are really in anguish.

The threat of the owl seemed so real; the vulnerability of my puppy was so real. And there I was, at the end of dusk, trying to see what to do.