Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Lesson in Mercy

Disclaimer:  I tell this story not to show what a good job I did, but to show how God uses children to teach us. It says in the Bible (Matthew 6, specifically) to do our good deeds quietly, in secret, so that God knows the good deeds we do, but that our right hand doesn't even know the money our left hand gives to the poor. By telling you about it, it takes away the goodness of the deed, as your regard is my reward. But I hope it inspires, as I was inspired by the original idea.

One day last week, HeyMama and I were driving home from school. At an intersection, a gentleman was holding up a sign, walking between the rows of cars waiting at the red light. It was a very cold day to be out holding a sign.
"Mama, what does that sign say?"
"It says, 'Hungry and homeless, please help'. "
"Then we should give him some money."
I spent a few moments talking about how sometimes people ask for money for food and shelter, but end up using it on alcohol and drugs instead of food. They might use our money to hurt themselves instead of helping themselves, and we'd rather donate our money to organizations that we know won't spend it on harmful things. Blah blah blah.
"But maybe he really is hungry. We should give him some food."
Yes Joy, maybe he really is hungry. Your daughter is right. Instead of trying to convince her to be as cynical as you have become, perhaps you should listen to her charitable impulses and give the man some food!
HeyMama was right. She was preaching to me the message that I would like her to carry in her heart throughout her life:  People need help, and we were put on this earth to help them.

I remembered seeing the idea of "Mercy Bags" somewhere online. They were gallon ziplock bags filled with shelf-stable foods, including apple sauce, granola bars, a bottle of water, and other assorted items of daily life. I couldn't remember the details, but I knew they weren't all food... The woman made them and carried them in her car. When she encountered people asking for money to buy food, she gave them the bag.
So I mentioned this to HeyMama. I promised her that the next time we saw him, we would bring him some food.

Today, while tucking healthy and nutritious food into the cart around the carseat of my plump and healthy baby, I remembered the Mercy Bag idea. Certainly, while buying food for my well-fed family, I could pick up a few things for others. So I did. And at the checkout, I saw little boxes of Valentine heart candies. So I grabbed one. And when I got home, I made up a few baggies with the supplies. I packed them into the van on the way to pick up HeyMama from school. And when we got in after school, I told her about them. We had a mission to complete on our way home.

It took a while. I made a wrong turn, and missed the intersection completely. It wasn't our usual route from school. I had to loop back through Brookline to find the gentleman. But there he was, in the cold January wind, holding up his sign. But this time, instead of averting my eyes when he approached my window, I rolled it down and handed him a bag.
"Hi, this is for you."
"Wow, thanks!" His eyes grew big. "Applesauce! Lip balm! Candy hearts! This is great! Thank you so much!"
"You're welcome. I hope you enjoy it."
"I will! My name is John."
"I'm Joy. Nice to meet you John. Have a good day."
And then the light turned green.

I'm not sure if he had a good day, but we did.
And now there's not a homeless guy at the intersection, there's a guy named John at the intersection. And we know he likes Necco candy hearts.
And we'll certainly have a snack for him the next time we're in that intersection.

So now we have a stash of food in the back of the van. Because when your 5 year old tells you to have mercy on a man standing out in the cold, you should. God has spoken through lesser messengers.

Our mercy bag.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What I Know About Pastors

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of joining my parents and their congregation to celebrate my Dad's retirement from the ministry. And then I was asked to say a few words. I can't say just a few. So this is the speech I gave:

Good afternoon. My name is Joy, and as you’ve all probably figured out, I’m Pastor’s daughter. I was quite nervous when I was first asked to be a speaker this afternoon. I’ve never given a speech like this before. How am I qualified to do this?
And then I realized that I’ve known this pastor for all of my life. And I spent the first 18 years of it living with him. So I’m here to share with you what I learned from growing up with him as my dad:

#1: Pastors are people too
Let me tell you a little secret about pastors. They like BBQ. They don’t like lima beans. They like steak. They don’t like salmon patties. They like country music. And camping. And listening to the Beach Boys on long road trips. They like watching football. They like playing golf. And going hunting. And woodworking. And having a nice green lawn when they live in a place that gets more rain than San Angelo. Ok, so maybe these are all specific to my dad. But that’s just it. Pastors are all people underneath the funny white tab collar. Pastors have wives. And kids. And parents. And siblings. And friends. And neighbors. They have many people outside of the congregation who are important to them and need them and love them.
They get sad. And angry. And happy. And embarrassed. And proud. And frustrated. And overjoyed. And tired. And emotionally drained. But you’ll find many people in a church who don’t see this side of the pastor.
They see someone on Sundays who can pray really well and knows his Bible. They see a guy who may sing a little off key and a little too loud in church. They don’t see the guy who might meet his daughter’s high-school date while still in his underwear and bathrobe. You know, I’m not sure there was another date after that incident… Perhaps that was all part of the plan… They don’t see the guy who mortifies his daughter by making fart and booger jokes at the dinner table. They don’t see the guy who led the Cotton-Eyed-Joe at his daughter’s wedding reception. With a glass of wine in his hand. He didn’t spill any wine, by the way. They don’t see they guy who plays “PawPaw Monster” with his grandkids and should probably get a chiropractic adjustment after every visit with them because he spends so much time roughhousing. I have this notion that it takes him at least a week to recover from a week-long visit to Boston. Maybe even two. Can anyone comment on this? They don’t see the guy who every day checks the weather of a city 2000 miles away so he can feel a little bit closer to his girls. When you hire a pastor, you’re hiring a person. They bring a lot of personal quirks to the job.

#2:  The job is bigger than its job description
The second thing I learned is that the job of being a pastor is much bigger than any job description could ever cover. I know other pastors’ kids. We compare notes. And despite having very different congregations all across the US, the job is pretty much the same. There are the basics, of course. Pastors write sermons. Pastors lead Bible studies. Pastors lead worship services. Pastors visit the sick. Pastors visit shut-ins. Pastors visit with anyone who has a reason to need visiting. And there is a very long list of reasons that people might need to be visited! Pastors lead new-member and confirmation classes. Pastors perform weddings. And baptisms. And funerals. Pastors attend Elders meetings. Pastors attend council meetings. Pastors attend a LOT of meetings.
Rare is the person who truly believes that pastors only work on Sundays. But most people don’t stop to think of the things that happen on the other days of the week. Most Elder and Council meetings occur when the pastor’s family is eating dinner. Or when the kids are being put to bed. While pre-marital counseling can happen during office hours, weddings usually happen on Saturdays, a day that is usually considered a pastor’s day off. While most baptisms happen on Sunday mornings, emergency baptisms can’t wait to be scheduled for Sundays. Funerals can’t wait, either. A crisis can happen in the congregation at any time. Crises don’t respect office hours, vacations, or even a pastor’s basic need for sleep. Pastors’ kids all know that a 3am phone call is rarely a wrong number. And it’s never good news.
And we kids all agreed that people expect a lot from pastors. Pastors should know anything related to the Bible, liturgy, religious publications, or anything “churchy” better than anyone else in the world. Well, except for other pastors… They should be more patient than anyone else. They should be more wise than anyone else. They should sing better. They should be more friendly. Church attendance should noticeably go up when they take the reins. And weekly offerings, too. Their wives should be nicer. And their children should be better-behaved.
Pastors get called upon to help with all types of counseling. Mediation. Budgeting. Behavior management of rebellious children. Feeding and clothing the homeless. And they sometimes help fill in for absent fathers. I recall overhearing a single mother and her teen daughter approach my dad to provide his opinion on whether or not the daughter should be allowed to get additional piercings. I think it was just for extra holes in her ears… The mother and daughter agreed that his opinion would have the final say on the matter. Dad, did you ever tell them about the different piercings I got after I moved out of the house? I’m not sure if that information would have helped settle the debate or not…
And at the very least, a pastor is expected to provide a top-notch mealtime prayer on demand at any house he’s dining at. Dad, does that ever get tiring?
The job is SO big that it even expands to include the rest of the pastor’s family. Some congregations are subtle, but some will outright ask for the pastor’s wife’s qualifications. Does she play an instrument? Organ or even guitar for leading Sunday School opening would be nice… Will she cook for the homebound? Teach Sunday School? Lead the LWML? Be a one-woman Altar Guild? Sew new paraments? Run the church office? Scrub the church toilets? You know, I wish I was making that last one up, but my friend’s father’s congregation was in for a rude awakening when her mom declined the job of church janitor.
Despite the fact that she’s emotionally and physically supporting her husband as he performs his ever-expanding  job and doing the family dinners and bedtimes while he’s at evening meetings, a pastor’s wife is often expected to have her own jobs within the church. Oh, it’s ok to have a job outside of the home, like being a teacher or a nurse or secretary. Modern life often requires 2 incomes. But it shouldn’t get in the way of her job as a pastor’s wife.
Children also have a role. Those well-behaved children should be active in the youth group. They should sing in the children’s choir. Or play an instrument at services, if they can’t sing. They should have perfect attendance at Sunday School. And babysit, when they’re old enough. Ok, so maybe this one kind of worked in my favor….
Needless to say, being a pastor is NOT a 9-5 job. You can’t leave it at the office when you go home at night. It permeates the discussions at the dinner table. It provides a robust, if tame, social life.  It dictates family vacations and family routines. It is not a job. It is a calling and a lifestyle.

#3:  It might just be the best job in the world
But as an adult, I’ve learned that it might just be the best job in the world. You can’t be outsourced to India. (Although you could be sent there as a missionary if you’d like…) You can’t be replaced by a robot. While your income could be affected by the economy, people will always need your services. You’re not trying to meet monthly goals to make a lot of money for some overpaid CEO. No, your CEO is God. And you’re in the business of saving souls.
In our church, we talk a lot about our “church family”. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. But we also grow together to be an earthly family that takes care of one another. As an adult, I’ve experienced the joy that comes from the baptism of a child in this family. I’ve experienced the joy of witnessing a marriage of two people I care about. I’ve felt the grief of hugging a friend who has just lost a child.
A pastor is the leader of this large, sometimes dysfunctional, family. His job is to pray for his family, rejoice with his family, cry with his family. His job is to cheer for the church’s athletes. Get hugs from the Sunday school kids. Bless new marriages. Cradle tiny babies. Hold hands and give hugs in moments of sorrow. And sit at hospital bedsides, sharing prayers and words of encouragement. His job is to be involved in the lives of his congregations, for richer or poor, in sickness and health.
Being a pastor means that you never have to wonder if what you do matters. You shake hands and move hearts. You accompany people through their earthly lives as you guide them towards eternal life in Christ. And I can’t think of a more important job than that.

A few words of advice
As you look for a new pastor, I hope you’ll keep a few things in mind. I still have the podium here, so I’m going to dispense some unasked-for advice. I’m a mom. I’ve been working on honing this skill. Any pastor you consider is a person. He has strengths and challenges. These may or may not match up to your job description. Oh, and your job description is only a small fraction of the real job description. Don’t plan to interview the pastor’s wife unless you plan to pay her. If she wants to run the Sunday School program or lead handbells, she’ll let you know. Know that any pastor you hire is going to pray for you, each and every one of you, regularly. Know that your burdens weigh on his heart, and your joys brighten his day. Know that he needs your prayers as much as you need his. And whatever you do, don’t try to replace my Dad. He’s irreplaceable.

Thank you.

A New Year

Happy New Year to all! 
I love the joy and anticipation of the Christmas season, but boy was this year's busy. Multiple times throughout the season I felt like I was on a runaway train. I knew we were going the right direction and where we were going was good, but I had no control of the speed and no ability to stop. I'm thankful that our season was merry and bright. We baked lots of cookies. We did crafts. We did Christmas programs and pageants. We really built up anticipation for Christmas! But WHEW! I'm thankful for the relative peace of the Epiphany season. 

I'm writing this on a flight back into Boston. We had a great post-Christmas  trip to Texas to visit my family. We went to celebrate my Dad's retirement. After 37 years in the ministry, he gave his last sermon as a full time pastor. And then his congregation threw him a big retirement party. The ladies who planned it compared it to organizing a wedding reception. It was certainly larger than my wedding. There were people from my childhood who attended. It was like a mini reunion. It was wonderful to see a pastor acknowledged for the legacy of his work - the weddings, baptisms, confirmations, funerals, and regular pastoral care of the hundreds of parishioners who have passed through his congregations. Being a pastor isn't a job. It's a calling and a lifestyle. And I'm very proud of what my Dad's done. 

Of course the girls didn't really understand the party. They just knew that they were spending a fun week with Nana, Pawpaw, and other relatives. They just knew that we were outside in the warm sum and rough housing with Nana and Pawpaw Monster. They just knew they were having a lot of fun. We just knew there were other adults around to play with the girls and hold the baby. It was a great vacation for everyone. 

So here we go, back to reality. I'm looking forward to a stable routine. The days will gradually get longer. The warmth will eventually return. We celebrated the coming of the Son. Now we turn to the anticipation of the sun. 

Until then, we'll strive to keep the days merry, if not bright.