It was a long time ago now—but you don't forget some things, even after many years. It was a long time ago that I lived and worked as a missionary in Japan. I was a stranger there. Although I worked very hard to know and to be known, to learn Japanese, to understand, there were also many other forces that made that difficult. In some ways, I would always be a stranger.
Once a month, on Monday evenings, I was worshiping at a new service at my husband's church. There is no sermon at this worship service. There are no hymns, but the service does open and close with a meditative chorus. There is instrumental music in the background. There are two or three short scripture readings. There is plenty of silence between the scripture readings.
When I was learning to be a missionary in Japan, I went to language school. Five mornings a week, we got together in small classes with only about eight students in each classroom, because the emphasis was on oral language learning and drills. There, we met missionaries from other traditions as well as students in Japan for more secular pursuits.
I lived in Japan for three years and never ate raw horse meat, although I heard that it was a delicacy in the region where I lived. It was called basashi, I heard, and kept wondering if there would be a time when I would have to swallow my revulsion and taste it. But it never happened.
There were new and strange foods, though, and I learned that it was part of being a missionary to learn to eat things I had never tasted before, to accept hospitality as well as to provide it.
As part of my work, I have meetings and conversations with couples prior to their weddings. We don't just plan the ceremony. We also use an inventory which purports to measure the couple's "Strengths" and "Growth Areas." The inventory gives us many possibilities for conversations that we can have about their relationship.
I have used a lot of different devotional books in my day, with varying degrees of success. I remember being enamored, long ago when I was in college and sort of a Jesus-fanatic, of a classic called God Calling, which I read more-or-less faithfully for a while. God Calling was supposed to be the voice of God coming directly to me— and all of the other people who bought the book as well. I also vaguely remember a book called Come Away, My Beloved. The title makes alone time with God seem sort of, well, seductive, in a way. I don't remember if the contents of the book delivered on that promise.
Then there was the task of finding a daily Bible reading.
The other day my husband was telling me about a conversation he'd had with a young colleague of his, recently married. They have been contemplating getting a dog, a big move for them. When he asked how the process was moving along, his colleague confessed that he was very nervous about the prospect, and thought it might be a mistake, although he also thought it might also be inevitable.
"Did you ask him why he was nervous about it?" I asked my husband.
I had a funeral recently, a small funeral in our chapel for a retired teacher from our community. She had just a few, particular requests for her funeral: that we would read Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, that we would sing "Beautiful Savior," and that a woman from our congregation would sing.
She did not designate a particular song; she just wanted this woman to sing, an alto from our church's choir.
One time at a women’s retreat, I was asked to tell my call story. I told this woman the whole, convoluted story—about serving as a missionary in Japan, about being restless in my work and volunteering for leadership roles in my church, about discovering old journals where I had written about my desire to study theology, about my memory of sitting in church as a teenager and hearing the pastor give the sermon and saying, “If I was a man, that is what I would want to do.” I told her that it had taken me a long time, but I finally realized that God was calling me to be a pastor.
It was my first winter in rural South Dakota, and despite the worrisome weather, I was planning a road trip. On Sunday morning, one of my parish members came up to me and solemnly handed me a coffee can. It contained a roll of toilet paper, a candle, some matches, and a candy bar. “Put this in your trunk,” she said. I had no idea what this was. “Thank you,” I said.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism is spare. But there is this: Jesus is baptized in a river, in the wilderness. The baptisms where I preside have been relatively tame. Still, the danger of the river is present.
Recently I went to an ordination. I got to be present when a new pastor made her vows, promised to be faithful, put on her stole. I was thinking about how tired I get, sometimes. I was thinking about how everyone says the church is declining, on its way out. I thought back to the weekend before.
We recently added a new element to our weekly order of service. God-sightings, it is called. Instead of bird-watching, keeping an eye out for cardinals, or sparrows, or even the occasional catbird, we are to keep our eyes open for God, lurking about in our lives and neighborhoods.
I went to a wedding the weekend before last, a wedding where I did not officiate. So instead of preaching and coaxing vows out of nervous brides and grooms, instead of praying and being on high alert at all times, I was listening. Intently.
I know, this is an odd confession for a pastor to make. You don't like to hear your pastor saying, "I'm no good at praying." And don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't pray. It's just that I am apt to compare myself with people who seem to be able to go on and on, pray aloud for hours with no notes.
I recently officiated at the funeral for one of my beloved uncles, my dad's brother-in-law, Roger. He was 90, so he lived a good long life, just the past few years in a local nursing home, confined to a wheelchair. He and my Aunt Norma were married for 65 years, which is a pretty good run, in my book. My aunt and their three children and families were there, at the funeral, and I was honored, and a little nervous, to speak to them.
Whenever I go on vacation, I realize again how tangled up my faith practices are with my work. I am not proud to say it, and I begin each vacation time with a desire to encounter God on vacation in a different way than I do in my daily work.
My love affair with milkweed began late: just last summer, to be specific. I had always sort of known about milkweed, the way that I know about cattails and dandelions and even the leaves of the mighty oak trees. But I haven't been much of a gardener in my life, so I didn't really know about milkweed until last summer.