Friday, June 23, 2006

Teaching about death

I remember very clearly a story that was told to me about a five year old boy whose father died. The boy did not really understand what was happening as he went through the motions with his family. But when he was at the gravesite, and he suddenly understood that they were going to bury his father in that deep hole, he threw himself at the casket and sobbed and would not let go.

My heart still breaks when I think of that story. The boy is a teenager by now and I have lost all contact with the family. But it got me thinking about children and when it is appropriate to teach them about death.

A century ago and beyond, death was much more a part of life. Cemeteries on the edge of major cities were considered by laborers to be great places to go for picnics on weekends and breathe fresh air. (Now these cemeteries are in the midst of the down town areas.) Homes used to be built with doors wide enough to accommodate coffins for wakes which were traditionally held in homes. People would lie in state at their homes for days. Dying at home, saying good bye, and grieving together were a part of life.

I think that was a much healthier way of dealing with death. Now we keep everything as sterile as possible, and as far away as possible. I have even had people tell me they prefer that funerals not be in churches, because it makes church creepy. Of all the places where we should be comfortable with death, it's in church! The message of the church is that in Jesus Christ, death has lost it's sting, and Christ has the finial victory. The resurrection is reason to rejoice, even as we grieve.

So I have made it a point to talk about death with Shannon, my four year old. She has had conversations about death with us since she was two. I don't force the subject, but it comes up if it is not avoided. This is of course especially true for me as a pastor. I had a funeral today. Shannon came in and asked if I would please not go to work today and take her to the YMCA to swim. (She keep pestering me to stay home all day- after all, her father does!) I told her that I had to go to officiate at a funeral. She knows what that is; we've talked about it before.

Tonight at bed time, she was asking more questions about dying. She asked me what would happen if she died before my husband and I. I told her we would be very, very, very, very sad and that it was unlikely it would happen that way. She was teary. I told her about heaven, about how it would probably happen that her grandparents would die and go to heaven, and that her mommy and daddy would not die until she was grown and had kids of her own. Then I explained that she would probably die when she had grown children and even grandchildren, and then she would see all of us in heaven. She asked how we get to heaven, how we get to the sky. I told her that we don't know for sure until we die, but that God takes care of it. She asked if Jesus and heaven are very far away, and I said they are in a different place, but that Jesus is also right here with us all the time. She asked if they have birthday parties, and get to play outside. I assured her the weather in heaven is always great, and there are plenty of parties and time for playing outside. Then she asked what Jesus does all day when people are not dying. I explained that people die every day and he is busy welcoming them home to heaven.

She cried softly some more, saying it made her sad. I told her that was alright.

I'm hopeful that I am helping my daughter face life and death with courage, hope, and trust. But who knows, maybe I am setting her up for years of therapy! I guess I won't know until I know.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hope, trust, encouragement, worship

I've been in something of a funk for the past two weeks. It all began at Annual Conference. I'm tired of complaining about it, so I'll just leave it at that.

But today I turned corner. Yesterday, I was truly wondering if it's time for me to seek counseling (the jury is still out). Then last night before Administrative Council, I knelt at the chancel rail, and I prayed. I don't even remember what I prayed, but I do remember looking at the eight sided baptismal font. It has eight sides to signify that baptism brings new life, new creation, new beginnings. Creation is marked by seven days, new creation by eight. It was a hope-filled reminder of who God is and who I am because of that.

Then today in Bible study, I was reminded that God really speaks through Scripture. The appointed lectionary passage for Sunday is Mark 4:35-41. It's the story where Jesus falls asleep on the boat while a storm is raging. The disciples wake him and demand to know why he hasn't stopped the storm. He calls for peace, the storm stops, and then Jesus asks why the disciples have so little faith.

Why indeed? Why do I have such little faith? Why does it take so little to discourage me? I thought of all the storms that rage in life, and remembered that I have much to be grateful for. I have a great marriage, a wonderful church family, and beautiful healthy children. I don't live in a war torn country as millions do, I don't worry where my next meal is coming from, I don't have any abuse in my life (1 in 4 women are sexually abused/assaulted in some way in this country), I am not addicted to anything (as long as chocolate doesn't count), and I have good health.

Then tonight, God really lifted me. I went to a worship service led by Rev. Paul Huebner. Paul has single handedly kept me encouraged over the past five years we've been friends in ways that no other clergy friend has. Tonight, he reminded us that despite all of the world's efforts, the darkness has NEVER overcome The Light.

As I was riding home, I was listening to the news and to our President make troubling statements rattling the saber again about Iran and nuclear war. (We can't handle another war! One is more than Jesus would have waged!) I heard reports that Congress has voted down legislation to raise the minimum wage, and I thought about how outrageous it is that people can work full time in this country and still live well below the poverty line, but according to our government, that's ok. And then I thought about light and darkness. I thought about the truth that no matter how dark it may seem, there is always light. I thought about the fact that I could not see myself anywhere other than the church, because this is the place where actions are called upon to be rooted in love and the message of hope is eternal.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

You know you've been on vacation when...

I just had to look up my sign in and password for this blog! I hope that's the sign of a good vacation. We Methodists have a thing called Annual Conference every June. This was not the vacation part. It is a regional gathering of all the clergy and lay reps from every local church in our geographical area (called a "Conference"). After four days of Conference, then it was vacation time. I joined my family at the beach for four days. They had already arrived three days earlier.

This morning in worship, Paul Huebner, who retired this year from pastoral ministry, lifted a praise that I had been appointed to serve this Charge for another year. It was a blessing to be affirmed in that way. It was also a good reminder that United Methodists are really appointed to serve one year at a time. Every July, the clergy who are moving shift churches and/or retire, and the rest of us are reappointed to the same place. Although I get a voice in the process, and the local church gets a voice, the decisions are ultimately in the hands of the Bishop and District Superintendents.

It is an exercise in faith and trust to live in this way. When the folks from Portable Church Industries delivered the trailer for Jacob's Well, they asked how I decided to serve in this community. I replied that "I didn't decide." This is entirely true. My only part of the decision was that I discerned that it was time for me to seek a new place to serve, because I had done what God had called me to do at Summit. After that, I waited for the District superintendent to call me. He did call in the spring of 2003, and invited me to talk. We met, and he shared with me about Chesapeake City. Ray and I had 24 hours to pray and discuss, and then we called to say that we were excited to serve. (If we truly had not felt called, we could have said that and explained why, but it still would have been the Bishop's decision either way.) Then we met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee...and the rest, as they say, is history.

Many people comment that this system does not make sense, people both inside and outside the Methodist system. I respond by saying that all systems have their strengths and weaknesses, but that I truly believe in this. I say this because the District Superintendent and Bishop introduce a level of honesty and reality that only a third party can bring. In the call system that is used by most (all other?) Protestant Churches, it is something like a dating relationship at the interview. Everyone puts their best foot forward, and no one talks about the problems or weaknesses. Not really anyway. In our system, the District Superintendent and Bishop know the pastors, the churches, and the skeletons in the closets. They try to make matches that will work. Often, it succeeds. Sometimes it fails.

Right now, I feel that God has used our system to bring together this pastor with these churches for just such a time as this. I feel grateful to God to be serving here- some days I still find it hard to believe that God has called me to be a pastor here. I look forward to another year, and hopefully many more years. Thanks be to God.