Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tough Times

There's so much I didn't understand. When I first planned this sabbatical almost two years ago, I didn't understand how hard it was going to be to walk away for three months from the church I had planned for and prayed over and struggled with for 7+ years. It was like ripping out a part of myself to leave the people I loved and to allow someone else to be their pastor for the summer months. As I wrote previously, one of the most painful parts of that decision involved hiding the posts of my Living Water Facebook friends. I knew that if I read about a health scare or job loss or end of a relationship, I would want to pick up the phone, send a note, go see them. I would want to let them know that I CARE - as a friend and their pastor.

But I knew enough about the theory of sabbaticals to know that it wouldn't be healthy for me to weave in and out of pastor mode. It would be too tempting to override whatever the other pastor - Rev. Trish Winters - was trying to do with them. It would derail her attempts to be their pastor and my attempts to find out what a sabbatical is and why I needed one. So I made a clean break. What made this even more difficult in my situation is that my mother-in-law and sister-and-brother-in-law all continued to provide leadership at Living Water all summer. In addition, my immediate family worshipped there a couple of times over the summer.

It was especially difficult to decide to stay away on the day that Living Water had a special blessing for my daughter Bethany as she prepared to leave for seminary. This church, her church, gave her a study Bible and a whole pile of cards with well wishes and blessings. She preached that day. As her mother, I should have been there. As the pastor of Living Water Christian Church, I was not. It wasn't a hard and fast rule I was following. I don't think there is a sabbatical handbook that says you have to stay away the Sunday your daughter is being commissioned and blessed for vocational ministry. But I knew it would be hard for me to step into that congregation for one Sunday, to worship, to hear prayer concerns shared, and not want to respond as their pastor. Besides, one of the things that I knew had to happen while I was gone is that the church needed to discover who they are apart from me. What better way than for them to celebrate and commission one of their own into vocational ministry - and not have it be "this is Pastor Laura's daughter so we need to make a big deal out of this."

But going back has been tough, too. I am going to write a post in the near future about all the wonderful things I discovered about myself and life and ministry while on sabbatical, but for now, I'll just say that I truly felt the mantle of pastoral responsibility lifted from me for three months. Please understand - I love being a pastor. I love my church. I don't want to do anything else with my life. But the weight of carrying pastoral concerns, church financial stress, worship planning, sermon writing, etc. all day and all night for seven years had worn me out more than I realized. So for three months I didn't have to think about finding sermon illustrations or solving building repair issues or filling the calendar with fellowship and mission events. I was just Laura.

Last Wednesday night, I met with Rev. Trish Winters, and we began the passing of the mantle back to me. She filled me in on all the important news from the summer - who had been sick, who left the church, who joined the church, who wasn't around all summer, what events were successful and what events were not and on and on. It needed to happen. It was part of the plan. She did it with all gentleness. And when I drove home two hours later, the mantle was firmly back on my shoulders and I felt the weight of it. It feels heavy, but that's ok. I can carry it now. I'm ready for it. But I'm much more aware of it than I used to be.

Leaving was tough. Coming back is tough, too. I have found that it's often in times when God upsets the status quo that the Spirit speaks most clearly. This upsetting of our status quo is what we all needed - me and the church. I needed to let go for a while. The church needed to hear a new voice and their own voice. And now we are back together, ready to share with each other what we learned.

I'm not sure we did the whole sabbatical experience thing perfectly, but I think we did it pretty darn well. Thanks be to God for a church willing to let their pastor go, for a pastor willing to set boundaries, for a sabbatical pastor willing to experiment and challenge the congregation, for church leaders who dream together, for the Lilly Foundation for providing the funding for this to happen, and to God who brought all of it together for our good. Amen.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Best of Intentions

There was so much more I wanted to write about in this blog. There are things I didn't get to talk about at all - like my retreat at Tall Oaks where I spent time in silence, in prayer, walking the labyrinth and worshipping at the outdoor chapel. I didn't get to tell about my home improvement project - transforming my home office with its awful 70s wallpaper into a sanctuary space where I can pray and write and surround myself with art from all the places I've visited (this would have been an interesting post since early on in the project I discovered ugly black mold hiding behind the ugly wallpapaer, thus requiring a LOT more work and money than I originally planned.) And, it may seem a strange thing to brag about, but I read NINE books while on sabbatical. NINE books in three months. About half of them were ministry-related; the others were for pleasure. Since leaving seminary, I don't think I've read nine books in a year, and if I did, they were all for sermons or small groups at Living Water. How wonderful to re-discover the joy of reading!

I could also write about the things I didn't accomplish that I wished I had (besides the home improvement project mentioned above that is still underway). I had thought I would find time to try out a writing project, maybe working with a sermon series I did on the fruits of the Spirit a while back. But my head was never in the right place to begin that project. I had hoped to map out a year's worth of sermons and chart a course for the next five years at Living Water. I have fragments of ideas, the beginnings of things but nothing like a complete plan that I hoped to have. I also had hoped to write much more regularly in this blog. But once I got back from Africa, the things I had to say seemed very mundane and hardly worth mentioning.

I had thought I would spend the rest of the summer re-visiting the Africa experience and reflecting on it in this blog. So much happened so fast while we were there - and we didn't have access to most of our photos to post - that I was only able to give the briefest outline at the time. But moving out of that experience into the rest of my sabbatical - General Assembly, my visit to the farm, moving my daughter to Ft Worth, home projects - I never felt able to truly go back to all that time in Africa meant to me. Clif and I are currently looking through all the hours of video he took of the services I preached in Dodoma. Watching them, it seems as if it just happened yesterday. I want to find a way to share all my thoughts, everything I felt and saw and smelled and heard, but I'm not sure there is a way to capture it. I will share some of the video as part of future sermons, but I don't know what to do with the rest.

I hope to post a few more sabbatical-related thoughts in this blog. I want to share with you what it's like coming back. I want to tell you what the sabbatical experience was like for me, how it blessed me beyond what I imagined. But it's Sept. 1. I am back at work, albeit alongside Trish Winters, the pastor who served Living Water while I was gone. It is a time of transition, but I already have a to-do list waiting for me. The sabbatical is over. The memories remain. Thank you for sharing this journey with me.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Seminary Life

Well, I've been a less motivated to write in this blog since I have heard from several people lately, "I was reading your blog while you were in Africa..." Yeah, yeah, the exciting adventures of a white, suburban pastor in a Pentecostal African church are much more riveting than the mundane adventures I've had since then. But, for the few of you who are still hanging with me during this sabbatical experience, I thought I'd record some of the less-than-thrilling but no less important lessons I'm learning.

Two weeks ago I drove my daughter to her new home in Fort Worth, Texas so she can begin seminary at Brite Divinity School. We drove all day on Sunday to arrive in time for the 5:00 pm service at University Christian Church called The Search. It was an emergent-style worship service with stations for people to explore after the sermon. After the service, Bethany found some other incoming Brite students, so she felt right at home. (She told me that she went back to The Search last Sunday, and she's planning to go again tonight.) As I was driving home after moving her in, I prayed for Beth and all the new students at Brite. Seminary is a place that can often be a trial by fire. In many ways, for me, this worked to my advantage as it burned away the chaff and left me with a strong conviction and identity in ministry. But I have seen other students wilt under the pressure, unsure of what they believe or even if they believe. I praised God that Bethany is already finding a place where she can go for spiritual nourishment, worship and fellowship. It is a strange but true phenomena that many seminary students do not have a church home where they can worship. They have church JOBS, some which are life-giving and some which are not. But if ever a person needed to be grounded in a church, in a community of believers to hold us and remind us who we are and what God has called us to be, it is during this time of intense study and preparation for vocational ministry. Beth, too, is looking for a job to support her financially during her 3-4 years of study. But I'm very encouraged and grateful that she may also have found a church home.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bye Baby, Goodbye

I first said goodbye to her 23 years ago today. She was 2 weeks old, and I was still recovering from the C-section she made me get. But it was our five year anniversary, so we dropped her off at her Grandmother Guy's house and headed over to the Plaza for dinner. I couldn't have imagined a more trust-worthy babysitter. Joann had raised four children very successfully, and I knew she loved this precious baby as much as I did. But it was still hard, hard to let go, hard to hand her over to someone else's care. It was our first goodbye.

Followed by many others. First day of preschool and kindergarten. She wasn't the clingy, tearful type. She bounded off with barely a backward glance at her mother with a lump in her throat. Then there was the first sleepover, a night away from home. The first summer camp. At fifteen she said she wanted to go live with her Aunt Amy's family in China for five weeks. I thought there would be others who would prevent that goodbye - teachers, school administrators, or even my sister who would have to take on this teenager. But my baby girl was persistent (a trait she got from her father), and I found myself saying goodbye once again as I put her on a plane to go to the other side of the world. Just to make sure she was in the care of someone trustworthy, I paid the extra $120 for a United flight attendant to watch over my unaccompanied minor.

That trip triggered a love for travel in my little girl. She went to London with her school band (but there were plenty of chaperons and teachers to keep her safe). I couldn't have been happier when she announced her choice for college - Park University, just down the road from the church I was planting and a short 25-minute drive from home. Sure, she moved into the dorm, but I still saw her at least once a week. It wasn't the same as seeing her everyday at home, but that particular goodbye wasn't so painful.

Then there was the summer she did her study abroad in Copenhagen, with trips to Turkey and Holland. It was only six weeks, and she would be hosted by a recognized school for Americans who study abroad. She would be on her own in a way, but with lots of administrators and teachers to help her out. It was so exciting for her, how could any parent feel sadness at saying a temporary goodbye?

Last year, she found the perfect summer job after graduation - working as a mission coordinator for the Methodist Church in Haiti. Sure, I knew it would be hard work and she would have difficult living conditions, not to mention the emotional toll of living among the broken lives and buildings from the earthquake. But it was only for two months, so our goodbye was a hug at the airport and a promise to Skype as soon as she settled in. I knew that the other adults who were working for UMVIM Haiti would look after this young woman who had never seen or smelled poverty like this. Then I got the phone call from her that I didn't expect - "Mom, I feel God calling me to stay in Haiti." Once again, I thought that circumstances would block this move, but instead every door opened. She came home for a summer vacation, and I knew she'd be home for Christmas. But I didn't know when I said goodbye in August that I was sending her back to a country that would experience a hurricane, a cholera outbreak and political unrest that resulted in rioting and deaths. If I had known, I might not have let her get on the plane.

She survived that year. No, she thrived during that year. She was exactly where she was meant to be, doing work that directly impacted the lives of so many Haitian people. But she knew that a year in Haiti was all her body and soul could handle right now. It was time for her to move to the next thing. Which leads me to today.

She's been home with us all summer. And now it's time for one more goodbye. She's moving to Ft Worth, Texas to begin work on her Master of Divinity degree at Brite Divinity School. She'll live in an apartment and cook her own meals for the first time in her life. She'll make new friends and get a job in a church and come home for Christmas if her church job allows. We'll still see her probably a couple times a year. But this goodbye feels different. It feels more permanent than any of the others. I don't have a trusted adult to hand her off to. She is the trusted adult now.

In retrospect, I guess that's what parenting is - a series of goodbyes. Some of them I didn't even notice. When I look at her baby pictures, I realize I never said goodbye to that adorable infant or precocious toddler. They left gradually and were replaced by an equally amazing preschooler and preteen. And it was illusion that I have "had" her or "held" her. She simply lived here in my care. But she never belonged to me. She was always held by God, belonged to God. I just got the privilege of being her mom.

Goodbye, baby girl. I'm sad to see this version of you slip away, but I can't wait to see the next you I'll meet soon.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


This week has been so relaxing and fun. I guess most people who live on a farm would not describe their lives that way. But since the work I did was all optional, I had a great time choosing what I wanted to do and when :-) The best thing about getting to be here with my sister's family all week is that I got to spend enough time here with them that we actually created some memories. I had conversations with my nieces and nephew. We played games and ate meals together. And last night we pushed back the couches and danced all around the living room - the Macarena, Chicken Dance, Electric Slide and the Limbo.

But another great blessing from this week was a visit from my friend Nina. I first met her when we both attended a Bethany Fellows retreat in Dallas in 2005. On the last night of the retreat, we went for a walk around a lake and got hopelessly lost. We eventually found our way back to civilization, but the laughter about the potential headlines our disappearance would cause sealed a friendship. The next retreat, the following spring, was held just weeks after I lost my best friend Kay to breast cancer. I cried a lot at that retreat, and Nina was there to listen and pray with me. The last day of that retreat (in Florida), we went to the ocean. Most of the other Fellows did some sunbathing on the beach, but Nina and I got in the water and rode the waves -jumping into them and letting them carry us toward the beach. We laughed like little school girls, and I began to find healing from my pain.

Since then we have laughed together, cried together and prayed together many times. There was the retreat when she shared with me that she found a really special guy and her concern that she might never have kids. The only retreat I attended without her was the one that happened right after her brother's sudden death. Soon after that, she married her really special guy (and then discovered a while later that she was pregnant). Since she missed the retreat, she decided instead to come spend some time in Kansas City with me. We again spent time praying together, crying together and doing lots of laughing. My son Rob told me that he can always tell when I'm talking to Nina because we laugh like "freshman girls." That time with Nina was so special because we did a mini-retreat, then a road trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder's home in Mansfield, MO. As we sat eating dinner at Lambert's Cafe in Springfield, getting rolls thrown at us, I mentioned to Nina that Branson was just down the road. My west coast friend looked at me, and in all sincerity asked, "What's Branson?" That did it. After dinner we drove down to the Branson strip and spent the night in the Hillbilly Hotel.

When I heard from Nina last summer that she and Glenn had accepted a position at a church in Canton, IL, I knew she would be about an hour away from my sister's house. So we arranged for her to come spend a night here with me this week and have some time together. I had just seen her family at General Assembly - including her adorable toddler Gabriel - so this was just girl time. Nina loved being on the farm, picking berries and making granola. We went into Galesburg to do some shopping, but first decided to stop into the First Christian Church of Galesburg for a quiet moment - kind of a touchstone of the retreats that brought us together. We had lots of agenda for the day - shopping, lunch, manicures - but as we sat in that cool sanctuary with the stained glass windows and the slighty musty smell, we began to talk about our lives and our ministries. We began to cry a little. And then we prayed. We sat in that sanctuary and blessed the saints in that church and all churches - the ones who make the coffee on Sunday and prepare communion and send cards when people are sick and bring casseroles. It became holy ground, kairos time. We never did get our manicures.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Farm

Life has a different rhythm on a farm. People have to move to a clock that is set by animals who need food, water and attention and by weather that threatens to rain, hail or beat down with oppressive heat. You can wake up thinking that your day will be filled with activity "x" and crawl into bed 20 hours later without ever having started activity "x". My few days on the farm have not included that much hard work or unexpected animal or plant emergencies, but I've heard enough stories from my sister and her family to know that their lives move to a different pace than my own. Some of the tasks that I have helped with this week have included picking cherry tomatoes, weighing and measuring herbs to sell, picking berries, looking for horn worms that are eating the tomato leaves, watering plants, picking off Japanese beetles (mostly Nina did that task) and making granola (ok, which was for my own consumption). I have also helped with cooking and washing dishes. There has not been a whole lot of "down time" to play on the computer or even read a book.

But it's been good to move to a different pace this week. It's been good to sweat in the heat and fill the kitchen with smells of fresh-picked basil. It's been good to laugh at the antics of the burro and chickens. It's been good to find lots of time to begin and finish conversations with my sister.

I was explaining to my neice and nephew this morning that old barnwood is very popular because people like the illusion of the farm life - the simple life. They like to use barnwood in their suburban homes to pretend that their lives involve sitting on the porch shelling peas or shucking corn as the fireflies twinkle. My nephew Matt said, "That's what the farm life is supposed to be like? We've never spent a day like that!" It's true. But it's also true that there are some things about their life on the farm that are "simple", uncomplicated. Not easy, but simple - connected to the earth and its creatures. It's good to be connected here, if only for a short time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Off to the Farm

The only other trip I included in my sabbatical grant proposal beside our trip-of-a-lifetime to Germany and Tanzania was a road trip to Illinois to see my sister. She lives on a farm so it's difficult for her to get away to come see me. I usually get to see her a couple times a year, but our visits are often 24-36 hours, with lots of events packed in like Thanksgiving meals and such. So when I thought about what I want to do on my sabbatical, one of the things I knew I wanted was time with my sister - time without agenda. So today I'm driving to Dahinda to spend the week with my sister and her family.

We've spoken on the phone, and she asked me what I wanted to do while I was there. My response? "Just hang out with you." I'll bring some books and my computer, but I'm really looking forward to just helping her cook and care for the farm. I expect that it will be in those daily tasks that we will have the richest conversation.

As a bonus, my very good friend Nina will drive from nearby Canton to spend a day with me, too!

I really loved our trip to foreign lands last month, but this trip feels more like a sabbatical trip to me - no agenda, no expectations, no set return date. I am hoping for rest and laughter and lots of good talk.