Friday, November 08, 2013

God will put love on you

Weldon is preparing to leave our congregation to retirement and we are preparing to bless and release him into life beyond.  This Sunday I anticipate his offering a blessing for us, his congregation of almost the past twenty years.  When we gathered as a pastoral team last week he invited us to consider what blessing means to us. 

We use both the act of blessing and the language of having been blessed often in the church: we invite God's blessing at moments of special transition, like birth, baptism and marriage, or sending and commissioning.  We bless our offerings and meals and at the start of school we blessed backpacks (photo above). We say we have been blessed when life seems to being going right.  But for me at least this language had gotten almost cliche.

A few weeks ago, though, we encountered the story of Jacob.  With Jacob, blessing is a struggle.  Blessing doesn't always come in the form of what feels good and blessing doesn't always come automatically or with gracious words.  Blessing can be messy.  Sometimes we need to demand it of God, just as Jacob did.  I won't let you go until you bless me!  Bless me, God!  It is in our greatest struggle that we are most desperate for the real and living presence of a God who names us and calls us precious.

I'm figuring out that we cannot bless ourselves.  But we can ask for blessing.  Blessing happens in relationship - always with the Divine and often in human relationship.  It is something we do for each other.  It is something that God offers to us without our intercession and which we can offer on God's behalf.  This has been a time of many transitions and changes in the congregation.  Emotions run high and leadership has been listening carefully, committed to the work of spiritual discernment.  I carry the weight of this and I have soaked up blessing at every opportunity when it is conferred upon me.

Pat Shaver recently wrote a beautiful and I think much longed for blessing to the members of Spiritual Leadership Team and to pastors.  My correspondence with her subsequently has also helped me understand that we receive and experience blessing in prayer so much differently than when we pray intercession.  "God help Amy with the struggle she is having" is a prayer I experience as begging God, a tugging on God's hem, working God.  How much more full is the experience of praying over or with the struggling one, "I bless you with God's gracious presence in the face of struggle.  I bless you with wisdom and strength and the fullness of God's discerning Spirit."  In doing so we open a window into the heart of God, into what God already longs for and desires for us.  I feel I can release myself into blessing in a way that is totally different from the pleading of intercession.

I think the one on the right is Jesus.
Not long ago Naomi made a little series of drawings that had written at the top, "God will put love on you."  She also did one that said, "God will put strength on you."  She has no idea how much I need to receive these blessings.  These drawings are a blessing.  Not as well crafted and eloquent as the blessing Pat conferred, but blessing nonetheless.  I asked her to make me one to keep in my office. (Click on the image to see a larger version)  Because receiving blessing can be tough in times of struggle.  And because this is a wrestling time, my prayer is, 'Bless me, God!'  And may I bless God's people.  God will put love on you.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Thoughts for an EPPisode

The following is a reflection I wrote for an Epp family reunion this past summer.  I was asked by my dad to reflect on family and genetic memory.
I’ve lived in Seattle for 8 years and before that most of my life apart from extended family and apart even from immediate family: time spent in Jordan with MCC, here in Rosthern at RJC for high school, in Winnipeg as an adult, and finally the move to the US 11 years ago.  Jesus told his disciples in Matthew that he came “to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” He left his immediate family and the work of his father to be an itinerant preacher and prophet and stir up all kinds of trouble.  While I certainly haven’t been set against members of my family – and I don’t necessarily think that Jesus was either – the call to go to seminary and to get married while there and then to ministry has meant being far from family.

Many of the members of the congregation where I serve as pastor and in fact many if not most of the people who live in Seattle are far from family.  We have all migrated from somewhere else – mostly from other parts of the States, but some like me from Canada or from other parts of the world.  And we build families out of the communities where we find ourselves.  It is a city of people who are looking to new starts and adventure.  Now, I might be one of the only Epps in Seattle (I Googled it and there may be one or two others) but my church family has become my primary network of care and support.

I think it may be true for my generation of this family more than any before that we are spread far and wide and see each other less and less often.  And it is often for really good reasons – I ran into Nathan a few weeks ago when we were both in Phoenix for a church convention.  He, like me has married and serves a church in the US. Others have left for work or to serve or to marry or for education.  David will be off in only a little while with MCC SALT.

But the thing is, it has in some ways, been my Epp family that led me to where I have been and what I am doing with my life.  When they took us off to Jordan and even in the stories of and travel to the Labrador coast, mom and dad were creating the foundation for service and travel.  The songs and stories at home, the visits to the homes of Epps (and Duecks and Reimers) at holidays and vacations shaped me into who I am.  The knowledge that I come from family in which there were many called to serve as pastors makes me feel deeply rooted in and proud of my work.  If genes have a memory, then they are telling their story in my choice of vocation as pastor and in my willingness to venture into a foreign land – in so far as the US is foreign.

Jesus may not have been so positive about the role of family – although clearly his family raised him as a knowledgeable and faithful servant of God – but Paul, a single dude, speaks clearly about the important of honoring the generation before, and about the influence in the life of faith  of parents and grandparents on the young.  He writes to his colleague Timothy in his greeting in 2 Timothy, “I am aware of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.”

It could as well be written, “I am aware of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandparents Paul and Lillian and then in your parents Larry and Denise, and now lives in you.” 

The challenge that I feel is that now I am raising yet another generation Epp.  In fact it was really important for me that Naomi share our name.  I was near Naomi’s age at the first Eppisode, in '81.  I am curious to know in another 30 years what she might remember about her family and its role in her formation.  I pray that God grant me – and Naomi’s dad Joe - the grace and faith and wisdom to be parents like those that Paul commends.  I am very grateful for the family that has formed me.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Easter Sunday: Welcome to the Table

I sent this to members of our congregation in anticipation of Easter Sunday.  I've been wanting to for a long time.
Grace and Peace to you in the name of Christ,

I am looking forward to worshiping with you this Sunday and worshiping in the presence of the risen Jesus.
When we gather at the Lord's Table this Sunday, all are invited to participate.  It has always been our practice to welcome everyone to the table, but we are not always explicit about what that means; people still ask if they are welcome if they are unbaptized, if they have never taken Communion before, if they are too young.  I'm here to tell you that everyone means everyone.  Jesus does not place limits on the welcome.

To that end, we have made efforts to make the bread allergen free (but still delicious) and serve juice as the 'fruit of the vine' in lieu of wine.  Because we have wanted to include children in a special way, we have often offered a grape and a cracker.  However the more I've thought about this (and feel free to challenge me) the more this feels like not inclusion in but exclusion from the open table.  Children have been receiving something less-than, something that marks them as set apart from the people who are really welcomed. I've observed that teens sometimes just opt out altogether - not a kid who eats crackers, but not quite an adult whom the place at the table is more obvious.  So this Sunday we will not have grapes and crackers. 

The invitation to the bread and the cup is for all of God's children, young and old.  To you who have been baptized, may this Communion meal be a re-affirmation of your commitment to Christ and the body of Christ.  To you are seeking, may you find in this meal an invitation.  To you who are hungry, may this meal feed you, as Jesus fed the crowd.  To you who have never participated before, may this meal be the first bite in a feast that goes on and on.  May it be all these things and more as we eat and drink together as the family of God.

The more I hear and read about how other contemporary Mennonite churches commemorate the Lord's Supper, the more I realize that in spite of a history that put limits on participation in Communion, there is no longer (if there ever was) a prescription for how to celebrate this meal.  Our hope in this congregation is to be a place of radical welcome and hospitality.  Our call to be a people that welcomes is rooted in the wide open welcome that God gives to us and that we are shown in the love, life, teaching, healing, preaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, summed up and symbolized in 'Whenever you do this, remember me.'
A holy Holy week to you :)

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Voice of the Gardener

"I’ve been through childbirth, I can handle this." I thought, as I lay on on the table in the gynecologist’s office, trying to relax and breathe and hold it together through the pain I was experiencing.  And then I thought, "But then I was rewarded with a baby.  This is like giving birth to nothing.  To death."
I was taking the final step in physically moving on from my miscarriage.  I was in on the doctor's table having a D&C to remove the ‘products of conception’ that had been stubbornly hanging on (even multiplying, as if there was still a life to support) even though it had been two weeks since I learned of my miscarriage and likely at least a month since it had happened.  I say it was the final physical step because although I had been thinking about 1:00 Friday, March 1 being the end of it, of course it’s not the end at all.  I had been mostly avoiding thinking about it, diverting questions about how I was feeling (I’m fine, let’s get on with the meeting) and focusing on work and the medical follow-ups.  So I was a little caught off guard by my own powerful grief during the D&C.  I knew it would hurt physically.  I was unprepared for how much it would hurt emotionally.

I had met with a midwife once early on, and although I cancelled this month's appointment with her, I got in touch with her because it was important for me to hear her perspective and her thoughts on miscarriage.  I thought, and I was right, that she might offer a somewhat more holistic sense of what might be happening in me.  And when I talked to her on the day before the D&C and she said to me, "You’ll always remember the due date.  You’ll always get a little pang."  She reminded me that might keep feeling it in different ways.

A congregation member whose sister died this past summer asked for prayer this week as she and others encounter new levels of grief now, these many months after the death.  I can’t really equate the loss of this pregnancy to the death of a beloved wife and sister.  But in terms of the way grief lingers and presents itself in nuanced ways, perhaps there is a correlation.  That pang will return and I will feel it in different ways when I remember the loss of this one-that-almost-was, this dream of someone to be.

The midwife also told me (it was almost the first thing she said), “It’s not your fault.”  I think it was after I heard that that I began to realize that even though I knew intellectually that there was nothing that I had done or not done that had caused the miscarriage, that I was feeling shame and guilt at the loss.  I have for so long conditioned myself to not be ashamed – not of who I am, not of what I feel, of my actions – that I am still somewhat incredulous that shame could be an emotion that I feel at all.  I feel shame that my body failed me, I feel shame that what I announced with joy and excitement turned out to be a lie, shame that there was indeed nothing I could have done to prevent this loss.

It may have been these feelings of shame that fueled the internal voice that asked, ‘Does this mean maybe that more kids just aren’t in the books?’  I tell myself that I don’t believe in signs, but on the other hand I was thinking, 'Maybe what we’ve said all along – that we’re just a one-kid family – is what we need to keep saying.'  I told myself, that maybe my body just doesn’t want to do this – can’t do it.  And maybe God doesn’t want us to do it either.

In the midst of all of this, in preparation for writing a sermon, I have been dwelling with the Luke 13 parable of the barren fig tree, the owner who wants to root it out and the gardener who asks for one more year to dig around it, add fertilizer, tending in with the hope of fruitfulness in the future.  The beauty of Jesus’ parables is how their meanings can have a depth that you never would have anticipated.  I need this parable this week.  I was hearing the voice of the fig tree’s owner in the shame of a failed and ended pregnancy and in all my questions and doubt.  I needed the voice of the gardener.  And I heard it, again from the mouth of my midwife, saying that perhaps I could understand this as a sign not of failure but of my body’s readiness.  My body has told me of its ability to be fertile and that it was only the timing that was not right.  The garden only needs to be further tended.

The pain is still pretty near the surface.  The doubt has not gone away.  Unearthing shame?  Way easier said than done.  However, having heard the gardener’s gentle challenge, I have an easier time understanding the grace that is offered by Jesus in this parable.  There still room and time and means for the tree to bear fruit.  I need to keep listening to that voice. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dust and Sand

This past Wednesday evening members of our congregation worshiped together and were marked with ashes, a reminder that we are made of dust and that we return there.  We also heard and saw the pouring out of sand.  We symbolically poured ourselves out before our God and the sand became a symbol of cleansing, renewal and assurance as we offered ourselves to God for forgiveness.

For the past seven years as I’ve worked with youth, sand has not been a symbol of renewal or assurance.  It has instead been the counterpart of oil, as we share the sand and the oil of our lives with each other.  Where oil is the anointed and assured presence of God with us, sand is the barrenness and where we feel bereft.  Sand represents the all-alone breadth of the wilderness.

This week my experience turned from the former to the latter.  On Wednesday I ran my fingers through the sands of Ash Wednesday and on Friday I felt thrust into the dusty sand of the desert.  I learned that, although my body had given  no indication, had continued giving me all the right (although uncomfortable) signals, I am no longer pregnant.  Probably for several weeks now.  Probably even as I announced the news with joy.  

I was shocked.  I was upset.  I lay on the ultrasound table alone and bereft and totally utterly thrust into the wilderness.  And so Lent becomes something much different than I had ever anticipated.  It was going to be a season of waiting and preparation and growth.  It becomes a season of introspection and discernment and grief, learning to hope and wondering what is next.

When Jesus went into the wilderness, he was driven there.  He was thrust by the Holy Spirit.  That entry too was not gentle.  Although not in the Luke version of the story that we read this morning, it is in the other Gospels that record this story that he was waited on by angels.  Our psalm, Psalm 91speaks of the angels that 'will bear you up.'  In that psalm it is to God that the Psalmist turns for refuge.  This season of Lent I am looking to God’s providence and am grateful for the angels that have already offered comfort, understanding and presence.  I pour myself out to my Creator like sand.  I pray that I may find renewal.