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.
I have been a pastor at the same church for many years, long enough to get to know people, long enough that now I have in confirmation classes some of the children I baptized. Some of my friends are in their third or fourth or fifth call, and here I am, at the same church, still in my second call. There are times, I admit, that I feel a little like a failure.
I have known people for a long time. They have known me for a long time. I don't always know if this is a good thing.
One recent morning I got up early and put on my suit and my clerical collar. Even though it was a hot and muggy day, I was dressed up to go out to our city's National Cemetery for a graveside service for one of our congregation's World War II veterans.
First I had stopped into the office. I had time for a couple of brief thoughts about Sunday's sermon. "Discipleship," I wrote down on the cover of a manilla folder. Not much to go on, but better than nothing.
I've been thinking for some time now that I would like to learn a little Spanish. There are a number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in our community, and a Hispanic Seventh-day Adventist congregation meets in our sanctuary on Saturday morning. Some of the congregation members are fluent in English, but not all of them. It has piqued my language-learning curiosity.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came shortly after one of the first worship services I led as a pastor. One of the parish members came up to me after worship one week and said, "You didn't leave enough room."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I had no idea what she was talking about.
One Sunday at worship, a very small, wonderful thing happened. During the closing hymn (a rousing rendition of "How Firm a Foundation," by the way), we carried the cross and processed to the entry of the church, as always. The people turned to face the cross, as always (or at least as they have begun to do during this past year). We stood there, continuing to sing, as always.
And then, three little girls, about three or four years old, began to dance.
I don't know why you come to church on a particular Sunday, or why you don't. Sometimes you show up; sometimes you don't. When you don't, maybe it's because you are sick or out of town or your alarm clock didn't go off or you just can't bear to be in a room with those particular people on this particular day. Maybe you are caught between wanting your kids to experience God and a faith community, and the reality of what it's really like to be a part of a faith community.
Contrary to what you might have been told, Lent does not mean “40 days of beating yourself up.” It does not even mean “40 days of God beating you up and reminding you of what kind of a person you really are.”
Our local state fair advertises nearly everything on-a-stick, so why not Bible verses? The verse our ministry fair chose? Micah 6:8, of course. "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
The church where I grew up held their final worship service on Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. I have a copy of the bulletin from the service, even though I wasn't able to attend. The picture on the front of the bulletin is from the church's heyday, in the early 1970s. I keep looking at the picture, thinking about the past and where I am now.
In the past year or so, we have started using the term "faith formation" at my congregation. In the past, we talked about "Christian education," or we talked about "Sunday school" or "confirmation." Or maybe, "adult study." Words like that.