This is hard: Pastoring

It is Thursday night, the end of my week. Friday and Saturday are wide open for me this week, two days to relax and clean the disastrous kitchen and do laundry before Sunday starts things all over again.

You'd think that arriving at the "weekend" would be enough to relax me.

But it took a seriously delicious dinner, a FaceTime with my parents, cuddling Sam, taking a long bubble bath while listening to a favorite podcast (using baby bubble bath), changing into PJ's, and half a beer to finally get me wound down.

There are plenty of things to love about being a pastor. That you, in the words of a colleague, "get paid to love people." That I have a super-flexible schedule. That I get to do a wide mix of things, from counseling to writing to music. That I get paid to meet folks for coffee.

But let me tell you. Being a pastor is hard.

I could make you a list of ten people, just off the top of my head, who are going through really rough stuff right now. And I can do a lot of things and say a lot of things, but I cannot - CANNOT - fix what they are going through. It makes your heart tired.

I spend more time than you'd imagine answering emails and managing details, which is fine except for those weeks when you've barely been able to keep up and are anxious that you might have forgotten to do something or let someone down.

There are weeks when I pay my $1.25 for coffee at Java John's, and then a couple dollars' worth of $.50 refills, and still can't come up with a decent amount of inspiration for a Sunday sermon. There are days when I receive more negative emails than positive ones, and days when people seem to understand my professional (and personal spiritual) committment to grace and forgiveness as an open door to say things and act in ways that are less than kind.

Looking for God in everything means that you get pretty sensitive to the needs and burdens of the world. You worry a lot about the state of the world. You feel things deeply. You slip into pastor-speak as your default mode of small talk. You find yourself saying things like "How are you?"

There's a reason that this line of work is called a CALLING. Because you don't do it for yourself. You don't do it for fun, or because you want to. You do it because you can't not do it. You do it because something in your heart has absolutely no choice in the matter.

And so sometimes, you find yourself watching mindless TV at midnight in flannel PJ pants, nursing a beer, and as relaxed as you are and as relaxed as you will be for the next day or so, your head and heart are already turned toward Sunday, toward the start of the new week, toward that irresistible pull to care for hearts and change the world.


What does grace look like?

A few weeks ago, a strange convergence of faith-related things happened in the public eye.

Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died in hospice care.
Mark Driscoll, outspoken writer and pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, posted a public apology letter for some of his actions in leading his church.
World Vision, a Christian child sponsorship and world relief organization, changed their hiring policies to open employment to those in same-sex marriages...and then promptly reversed their decision.

I could spend many words on any one of those three events. We have the death of a man who led his congregation in truly hateful acts, picketing and protesting funerals of soldiers and celebrities, standing outside public events with damning anti-gay signs. We have an apology letter and a "signing-off" of social media from a man who has said terrible things about women, and especially women in leadership, though his apology seems most aimed at his own actions within his own church. And we have a relief organization who, whether you agree with their methods or not, does much good in the world, who opened the doors to more just hiring practices, and then, under pressure from donors, closed that door, and in the process still managed to lose much funding...funding that is crucial to saving the lives of children and families around the world.

What has been most interesting in watching these stories unfold is the gracious response to all three stories by those who, if we're being honest, were most theologically inclined to engage in a bit of Schadenfreude.

I watched Christians of all stripes pray for Mr. Phelps's peaceful passing, and for comfort for his family and his congregation. I watched progressive Christians offer up support and kindness for Marc Driscoll. I watched Christians in support of same-sex marriage say things like "if we think it is wrong for Evangelical organizations to pull support for World Vision when they opened up their hiring practices, then it is equally as wrong for us to pull support when they closed them."

And I was amazed at all this grace.

For as much as I believe I am a compassionate, caring person, I also know that I am stubborn. And when I get into the thick of things with those with whom I disagree, I can become oppositional for opposition's sake. And it is in times like that when I need the Holy Spirit, or my conscience, or someone who knows me well, to gently tap me on my shoulder and whisper into my ear, "Grace, Melissa. Grace."

And when I slow down enough to take a breath from my own stubbornness, then I find myself doing things like rooting for the underdog (or at least feeling empathy for them), taking seriously the real hurts of others (even if they are caused by inaccuracies or misunderstandings), looking for the best in others, and taking seriously the notion that even those with whom I disagree are often also working out of deep-seated convictions and good intentions.

I preached a couple weeks ago about God's call for us to seek loveliness in one another and in our world, rather than setting our sights on one another's sins, limitations, or brokenness. I am thankful for all those in my life who model grace; who look for the holiness in one another, who remember that God has called us all "beloved."

So what does grace look like? I think it looks like taking each other seriously. Taking each other at our word. Looking for points of agreement rather than disagreement. Listening often and listening well. Being bound to one another by our shared humanity, by our shared neediness, by our shared salvation. It's like compassion plus empathy plus being self-aware enough to realize that you aren't right all the time and you certainly don't always need to "win."

May you see grace in one another today, and feel grace extended to you, and be graceful and grace-filled in the people and places you touch.


Alive, I promise


Yeah. It's been quiet around here.

It's not that I don't have a lot to say.

Really, for starters, let me be embarrassed that I didn't even stop in here to post something big and important (that you probably figured out, if you can do math, and that you probably figured out if you are on Facebook or have spent any time near me or my extended family in the last three months):

Welcome to the world, Samuel Tyler! 
(Err...welcome to having spent three months in this world already before your mom got around to posting anything about you here...)

Here is a quick photo timeline - brand new through three months:

Yeah. We think he's pretty adorable. I don't need to litter this blog with incessant baby talk; if you're curious about Sam, his birth story, and random tidbits month to month, feel free to get your baby fix over at Laughing with Sarah.

I'm a month into being back at work, and Sam hangs out here in the office with me every day. It makes for a very full existence. For good and for bad. :) For instance, I have a crying, angry baby on my lap right now, and he's full, and I just changed his diaper, so I really have no idea what is wrong. Which makes me frustrated. And crying baby does not equal amazing productivity. I spend most days alternating between entertaining him (and getting very little done), and then rejoicing when he falls asleep for a nap (and rushing to get as much done as possible in a one or two hour window).

Matt is teaching a course at Luther College this semester, in addition to his regular human resources consulting job out of Chicago, so he is just about as busy as I've ever seen him. Maybe as busy as he was in law school, even? But I hope that he's finding the opportunity fulfilling, and not just stressful. And maybe it will open new doors for the future!

Let's see. What else...

It's cold here. By "here," I don't think I mean Iowa. I think I mean the midwest. But either way, brr. Lots of days below zero. And lots of snow. Exactly what winter should be, in my estimation. But the icy roads and the inability to spend any time outside (lest my face fall off) are starting to get a little old. And so I've been drinking a lot of coffee and hot chocolate to keep warm. And cheating a little and wearing jeans to the office some weekdays, because it is just too cold for skirts or for flimsy dress pants.

I have all sorts of things I want to write about soon: thoughts on family, thoughts on community, thoughts about the spirituality of repetition and routine...so look for more writing on the horizon. Hopefully I can also find the time and energy and organization to start posting my sermons again, because it's nice to have them out and about beyond just the walls of the sanctuary.

Anyway, consider this post a re-entry. Life is busy, and finding uninterrupted time to write is tricky (Sam loves to be held, and I'm terrible at typing one-handed!), but writing is good for me. It is normalizing. It centers me. It keeps me connected.

So watch for more to come. I've missed it here.


Daylight Savings Time

I'm keeping warm with a scarf, a baby belly, and slippers.
My knitting sits on the coffee table, waiting patiently.
Emme claims the blanket on the end of the couch as her own.
This is what happens when the afternoon turns gray.
It is 3:34 p.m. here in Iowa.

I just turned on lights in the living room because it was getting dark. Hard to tell whether the darkness is due to last weekend's time change or whether it is due to a thick, gray mass of clouds that have settled in over the town.

It always takes me a few days to adjust to the time change in the fall. Mornings, instead of looking like dark nighttime, look instead like faintly-lit gray hazes that make you wonder whether it is morning or evening; early daytime or late-afternoon cloud cover. Afternoons turn dark sooner than expected, and night falls earlier, fooling you into thinking that the day has come and gone more quickly than you expected. It takes me a few days of this to settle into it, to get to a place where I don't feel so disoriented and unsure of the time and rhythm of the day.

And then, as I settle in, something switches in me, and I get it. I remember what winter is like, and I understand the new feel of the day, and I remember the parts of my own self that get tucked away when we spring our clocks forward in March.

In other lifetimes, I gave myself an October threshold for listening to Advent and Christmas music. These days, I hold out until at least the start of November. This year, for whatever reason, I didn't even start thinking about it until last week, when I started loading up playlists onto my iPod in preparation for labor and delivery later this month, and I programmed myself a copious amount of Christmas music for those forthcoming hours.

I forget that we've passed Halloween already, and that Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away. My usual rush to embrace autumn feelings and flavors has been a little slow this year.

Perhaps because while the seasons change around me, and the time changes, and the sun sets earlier in the afternoon, my mind is not on the seasons themselves, or on holidays or traditions or even the bits and pieces of nostalgia that late fall and early winter dig up in me.

For the whole span of time we've lived in Iowa, time has been pressing ahead toward only one thing: the birth of this much-loved, much-awaited hedgehog of a baby, whose due date is just two weeks away. Thanksgiving this year will either be a celebration of a very new newborn, or the last few days of a very very uncomfortable pregnant lady. Christmas feels like forever away, because something as big as HAVING A BABY needs to happen between now and then. The whole fall has been a time of talking about this eventual baby and making initial plans and preparations, except that we are now in the last days, and the things that needed to get done "sometime this fall" now need to get done today and this week and as soon as we can manage them.

Today, though, Daylight Savings Time finally caught up to me in a useful way. As I sat here on the couch, watching the grayness of the afternoon creep in through the windows, I felt this urge for something to happen. Tired of waiting, I felt ready for a holiday, or ready for some nostalgia. Ready to knit and make soup and do autumnal things. Ready to scoff a little less at the Thanksgiving and even Christmas commercials on TV. I am ready for something to happen. Ready to meet this baby, or to eat some stuffing, or to start sorting through the Christmas decorations that we might put up right after Thanksgiving with family members who will be coming to see us. I'm okay with the wind blowing outside, and with the fact that it might be time to pull out my winter coat, even if I can't zip it up right now. I am ready for something to happen. Babies, holidays, families, cozy nights, anything to reclaim a space for myself that is no longer a space of mere waiting, but a space of anticipation and joy and movement.

Maybe being nine months pregnant makes me a bit of a crazy-lady. Because I'm not sure how a gray afternoon can somehow make me excited rather than depressed. But maybe the weather just reminds me that the seasons are again changing, and that nothing actually stands still in life, and when the quiet of waiting starts to drive you a little nuts, even the world outside can remind you that change is always on the horizon, and those things that you've been waiting for will indeed come, and all the days that you've been counting will indeed lead to something new and interesting and beautiful.