Beyond Grateful (A Slice of Ministry Life)

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.  Acts 20:24

“Just because you go to seminary doesn’t mean you have to be a pastor.”  I’m sure those words have been uttered by other seminarians (?) but the first time I heard these words they were coming out of the mouth of my husband.  Although I knew he would become a Pastor, he wasn’t absolutely convinced at the time.  Silly guy.  Called is CALLED…am I right?  Needless to say, all these many years later, we are a clergy family–growing spiritually and serving in ministry–and I am beyond grateful for this call upon ALL of our lives!  It wasn’t something that I expected or even considered a possibility.  In fact, you just might file this experience right up there with “things that make you go hmmmm….”

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As a pastor’s wife I’ve seen a lot of stuff.  Interesting stuff. Far too much to include here, but one of the things that always stops me dead in my tracks is the way people respond to this vocation.  People (churchgoing and non-churchgoing) seem to have a preconceived notion about our life and us.  My all-time favorite reaction to this calling occurred at a local restaurant a few years back on our anniversary.  While waiting for a table we struck up a conversation (or should I say, Steve struck up a conversation…he’s the talker) with another couple.  We were making small talk when the exchange drifted from “what brings you out tonight?” to “California wineries.”  (Steve is from the San Francisco Bay Area and we lived there for a few years together early in our marriage.)  This was a favorite vacation spot for our new friends and we compared notes about some of our best-loved places in the region.  All was right in the world when suddenly the man asked my husband what he did for a living.  (Insert screech sound effect here.)  Let’s just say in a record amount of time we had gone from potential “besties” to complete zeroes.  The guy actually turned away from us.  I, of course, can’t help but chuckle when I recall the experience (yes, I have a strange sense of humor!)

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this reaction.  And, I’m okay with that.  I only tell this story because time and time again I hear people comment that it must be “hard” to be a clergy family.  They feel bad for our children because they wear the “PK” label.  The general impression is that we operate outside of “ordinary” life.  For some the word “clergy” is quickly linked with judgemental, hypocritical, strict and even boring.  Hey, we’re all entitled to our own opinions!  But for me, it’s just another addendum to that file I mentioned earlier–you know the one titled “things that make you go hmmmm….”  So, I would like to state for the record that we’re just about as ordinary as people get.  You don’t have to feel bad for us or think that we live this horrible, sheltered, recluse life.  We actually laugh (a lot,) disagree occasionally, hang out at places outside of the church, and sometimes we even have interesting things to say (and it’s not always about church!)  Being a clergy family really isn’t all that awful…in fact, it might actually be AWESOME.  And that’s really what I wanted to share with you today.

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So while every vocation comes with its own share of good and bad…ministry comes with an amazingly huge amount of AWESOME!  Not just the parking-angels-smiled-on-me-today or I-found-an-extra-$20-in-my-pocket kind of awesome, but the kind of AWESOME that only God can provide.  Working in a church and being a part of a community of believers comes with a lot of God-moments.  These are the kind of things regularly lifted up as part of Sunday morning worship, in prayer chains and sprinkled in conversations all over the church.  These are the incidents where the impossible becomes possible.  The times where generosity and grace exude from every direction and you just know you’re in the midst of something amazing and special.  And the greatest part is that these AWESOME moments are not confined to the walls of the church building.  This is the part of our life that I wish I could just wrap up and share with everyone…because it’s not exclusive to clergy families.  It is ready and available to everyone.  God’s desire for creation is that we live with our eyes and hearts open to the AWESOME moments.  Saying YES to Jesus is saying YES to life.  Taking nothing for granted, grateful for the good things and seeking out the unexpected.  This is what God can do!

Throughout Steve’s ministry we have been blessed time and time again.  Please do not receive this sentence as boastful.  I type it in the most humble manner possible.  As a kid I remember feeling God’s presence and the comfort and security only He can offer.  Today, as I’ve grown in my own faith, I feel God’s presence not only with the promise of comfort and security, but alongside the assurance of joy and hope!  Our life isn’t easy.  No life is easy.  We all struggle, we all worry, we all fall short, but I am so glad that I never go through anything, good or bad, alone.  NEVER.  Outside of a loving relationship with our Creator and Savior, I think fellowship among believers is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.   Have you seen the good that a church body can do?  I can tell you that this kind of support and encouragement cannot be matched.  When people say “church family” the key word is family!  I cannot imagine life without these treasured friends and we’ve been privileged to be a part of many church families that remain near and dear to our hearts despite the miles.

So, what spurred this post?  (Yes, I actually had a point when I started writing today!)  Our family has recently been the recipient of something so kind and generous I cannot even begin to tell you how astonished we felt in receiving this gift.  It came out of the blue and when we least expected it.  It was an answer to a prayer that we might not have even fully realized yet.  I would gladly share the details, but we received this gift anonymously and I believe in honoring the giver’s intention.  However, I will tell you that this is the sort of thing that qualifies as amazingly AWESOME.  We are a witness to God’s love through the hands of his followers.  This is the “blessed to be a blessing,” that Steve talks about all the time.  This sort of generosity is the kind of thing we practice and diligently try to teach our kids (they’re still learning, by the way.)  And I am beyond grateful.  Not just for this timely gift, but also for so many other things that God has placed in our lives.  To Him belongs the glory.  We do not understand, we cannot explain, we do not deserve God’s marvelous love and grace..and yet it’s my favorite thing to file under “things that make you go hmmmm….”

God is good all the time.  And all the time…God is good.

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Gonna Make My Black Thumb Green (aka A Lesson in Faith Planting)

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Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.  Liberty Hyde Bailey

I didn’t just believe that I had a black thumb, I had confirmed it…time and TIME again.  You probably think that I’m exaggerating, but it’s a well documented  fact.  Have you ever had someone take a plant AWAY from you?  Yes, that has happened to me (and not just once.)  I was a cold-blooded plant killer and I’m not proud of it.  I wanted to be able to grow things, I really did.  I potted, watered, and adjusted for sunlight and shade.  I wasn’t above asking for help, checking out library books and looking up tips on the internet.  It just wasn’t my knack and, honestly…hey, I was cool with that.  But for some unknown reason, people kept giving me plants (I think that happens when you move as often as we have…let’s face it, a plant is a pretty safe “welcoming” gift.)  In defense of these plant-bearing gift givers, I realize that you all had no idea what these little green treasures were in store for once they were under my care 🙂

Fast forward several years and while I’m certainly no green thumb, I’m not quite the plant killing queen that I used to be.   So, I still can’t grow ANYTHING from a seed, but I have managed to keep three plants alive (and mostly thriving.)  One plant has actually been around for nearly five years and I’m proud to report that it has somehow managed to survive three repotting stints as well.  (Yes, it’s the little things.)  In fact, I actually purchased a plant (my first time) just last month and so far…well, so good.  I think my mother-in-law would be so surprised and my mom, well I’m sure she can just hardly believe it’s true!  (The black thumb thing runs in the family.)

Thinking about this shift in my gardening abilities reminds me of another change in my life.  This one pertaining to my faith in God.  While I’ve been a believer just about as long as I can remember, I was never really comfortable sharing that faith.  To be honest, I didn’t know how.  As  a kid I can remember occasionally going to church, however, I really didn’t have any formal faith upbringing.  Despite all this, I considered myself a hard-core, pint-size prayer warrior (and I’m not even sure that was a term at the time.)  I prayed about anything and everything.  My overactive imagination, news junkie status (even as a kid) and an overwhelming realization that we lived in a broken and scary world would occupy my thoughts from the time my head hit the pillow until dawn.  So often I found peace and comfort in prayer and somehow knew that there was a great, big God out there who loved and cared about me.

In time, those little prayers eventually turned into a desire to read the Bible…which gets easier once you learn how to read and possess a  vocabulary.  By the time I was in high school I was working on reading the Bible all the way through.  I would read one chapter a night before bed–and I don’t think anyone ever knew.  I really didn’t talk about it.  I just did it.  Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t understand much of what I read.  I just felt called to do it.  And when I finished, I started over.  Look, I’m no theological scholar and I certainly didn’t consider myself holier than my teenage counterparts.  All I know is that the more I learned about God, the more my love for Him continued to grow.

I wish I could say that my Bible reading led me into church as a young adult.  It didn’t.  Of course, I did do a lot of praying in college…it WAS college after all!!!  I had tests to pray for, temptations to avoid, friends who needed help, and then of course there was safety and an entire crazy world out there to worry about.  I think in some ways my desire to get into journalism was a love for writing tied into an off shoot of a faith that I was trying to figure out.  My end goal in my pursuit to become a reporter was always to make the world a better place.  I wholeheartedly believe that knowledge is power.  I thought if we could just gain an awareness for the people in our neighborhoods, community and world that we would all have our hearts transformed–we could BE BETTER and DO BETTER.  Little did I know that this warm stirring that I so desperately wanted to impart on the hearts of others was in line with a desire to share with the planet the God that I was coming to know.

My faith journey goes on from there, but those early years–the faith planting years–came to mind today as I watered and tended to my plants.  Now, I look forward to attending church every Sunday (actually I’m something of a church nerd as I love visiting new churches whenever I can.)  I also love being a ministry volunteer and a pastor’s wife.  I continue to read and pray and discover more ways to draw closer to God.  I often thank God for putting people in my life to inspire and encourage me to pursue this faith.  What I once kept guarded and close to my heart, I now openly talk about.  I’m not afraid to share what I know about God.  In fact, I feel called to talk about Him often…especially with young people.  I remind them (and myself) that it takes time to develop and foster any kind of worthwhile relationship.  The same is true with faith.  The world won’t know about our awesome Creator, if someone (you?  me?) doesn’t share it with them.  I still wholeheartedly believe knowledge is power.  And if faith and following Jesus is the most powerful choice we can make in our lifetime, I want every person to have that option.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to have my children grow up in the church.  Faith planted…I see their early development (and that of their peers) tended to by good men and women whose lives serve as living testimonies to faith in a mighty God and who desire nothing more than the same for my kiddos and others.  In this season of my life, this is where I focus my attention.  What a blessing it is to witness a child’s heart discovering God for the first time.  Connecting with a young person and letting them know that there is a Creator who loves them.  Sharing scripture and Bible lessons with new believers and fostering the kind of environment that says there is so much more out there for each of us.  Seeing Christ’s love influence the thoughts and actions in so many young ones…well, it takes my breath away.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have an opportunity or even the ability to share and witness faith  like this.  I didn’t think I was capable or qualified.  I didn’t think I could GROW into that person.  God had a better idea and I really can’t wait to see what blooms as a result.

This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.

2 Corinthians 9:10-11 The Message

 

Just Say NO! (And Why Yes Can Leave You Feeling Blessed)

The key to keeping your balance is knowing when you’ve lost it.  Anonymous

Balance.  Very few have it, everyone wants it, and there are a zillion resources out there for how YOU can achieve it.  If only it were that easy.  For me the idea of a balanced life is like trying to catch the wind with a butterfly net.  I keep telling myself that things will all fall into place when I learn to balance my life more effectively.  Like millions of others, I just don’t have the time to make a plan, read all the books or the money to acquire a life coach.  Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of obligations and commitments and not only do I not have a life jacket, I don’t even know how to swim!

For weeks now I’ve been whining (what me whine?  I know you can hardly believe it.) and complaining about being too busy.  I have a list a mile long of things that I “need” to do in addition to the things that I “have” to do.  I am weighed down with housework, parenting, grocery shopping, cooking, organizing, etc….  I am buried beneath books that I promised myself I would read.  I am surrounded by commitments I had made to my kids’ school and our church.  I felt pressure to eat right and get back on track with an exercise routine.  The days were getting longer and nights were getting shorter and I found myself moving further and further away from any trace of balance in my life.  I had so many good intentions, but I was losing the battle.  In sharing these thoughts with family and friends it seems this lack of balance had become some kind of common malady for the masses.  The real kicker was that I felt like I had created all of this imbalance on my own.  I felt like it was all my fault because I hadn’t mastered the art of saying “no.” 

“Just say NO when the requests come.  You can do it,” I kept trying to tell myself.  You don’t have to make cookies for every school event.  Every birthday party doesn’t have to be a big blow out.  You don’t have to get it all done in one day.  No one said you had to be perfect.  I began to think that the key to finding balance was to guard my yeses and carefully weigh my noes.  Simple right?  I was certain that I had stumbled across the answer of a lifetime.  The ultimate trick to achieving balance.  In my mind’s eye I  could picture the scale coming into perfect balance.  I was a genius.

My genius was short-lived.  It wasn’t long before I was back in the pit.  I hadn’t guarded my yeses enough and I weighed only one “no” and that “no” was rebuffed.  I hadn’t thought about that.  I naively thought that if you told someone “no” that they would politely back off.  Note to self–that’s not always the case.  

I was feeling pretty low and right on cue, the guilt crept in (and sometimes that’s the worst part.)  The guilt that reminds you that you have everything that you need and so much more.  The guilt that says stop bellyaching and look around…you have a home, food, money in the bank, good health, a wonderful husband and family, and great friends.  The guilt that prompts you to realize that your life is better than so many others and that you have NOTHING to complain about.  The guilt that says maybe they asked because you can….  Uggg!  Now I was completely out of balance and racked with guilt. 

I was starting to feel nauseous.  I can’t win here.  Life started piling up.  Can you plan the class party?  Can you bake cupcakes?  Can you organize this?  Can you volunteer for that?  Would you mind doing (fill in the blank)?  It was getting to the point where I wanted to stop answering the phone and venture out of the house only in disguise.  My life scale wasn’t just unbalanced, it was on the verge of collapsing.  And that’s when it happened.  Right on time and in His time, the weight began to lift.  I saw the whole situation with fresh eyes. 

I had burdened myself with countless projects and obligations and I asked God to help me honor my commitments.  I asked him to forgive me of the pride that fooled me into thinking I could take on so much.  The Holy Spirit put into my heart a reminder that I “can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  I clearly need His help and I needed to ask for it.  I prayed for discernment and that God would help me weigh my yeses and noes.  What I received was something that I didn’t expect.  In every project that I had dreaded or wished that I had said “no” to, I found God’s love.  In my commitment to teach, I found willing and joyful students.  In my commitment to lead, I found dedicated and giving volunteers.  In my obligation to help a friend, I found time to talk and share life stories.  In mundane office work, I found community.  In tedious organizing, I found a renewed sense of purpose.  In class, I was reminded that God calls us to serve.  As it turns out, I was blessed when I said “yes.” 

My house is still a disaster.  The laundry pile grows in the dark.  I dread making dinner every night.  I’m still not sure that I want to answer the phone.  Obviously, as I write this my life scale remains lopsided (I am human after all.)  But I’m beginning to wonder if the idea of balance is a box we chain ourselves to or an imaginary oasis we’re not meant to find.  In the meantime, I have resolved to keep one eye on the scale, the other eye fixed on God, and my hands ready to serve…when asked.