The Hungry and the Compassionate

 

In this new season of my life, I am not only seeking a new home congregation (see previous post), but also seeking out ways to volunteer and serve. Many ideas rolled around in my head over my final months at Trinity Lutheran Church: Soup kitchens, animal shelters, reading for the blind, visiting the lonely in nursing homes. I kept coming back to hunger issues and food pantries. A tour of New Hope Ministries at its Mechanicsburg site a couple years ago impressed me thoroughly. We pastors at Trinity routinely referred folks to New Hope Ministries to assist them in reaching a goal of financial stability. Parishioners told me how much serving there as volunteers meant to them. So I completed a volunteer application, had an interview, got my clearance, and, yesterday, began my training.

newhope_logo

In those four hours yesterday afternoon I learned three important things. First, you can’t tell from outward appearances that a person is hungry, nor can you make assumptions about those who come in the doors. Those who struggle to put food on their tables are of all stripes. I saw young men and grandmothers, pregnant women, single adults and young children. I saw people who were discerning in their food choices at each station, selecting the most needful items. Some people took less than they were entitled to because they did not wish to waste food that could be of use to someone else. Children were delighted and surprised by some special items available that day—a four-pack of Dannon Yogurt and those Oscar-Mayer Pizza Lunchables (I remember when my kids begged for Lunchables at the grocery store, and considered them a treat). The adults were thrilled to pick out a large pack of chicken breasts (so many packages had been donated that we could give these 3-4 lb. packs out, and only have it count toward one protein choice.) Most people said “Thank you!” as we packed their selections for them in bags and boxes. All were grateful for the variety of foods, the produce on hand that day, the chance to “shop” up and down the rows of shelves with a small cart.

Second, I learned that many stores, companies, and individuals are incredibly generous. Local grocery stores routinely offer items, the US Postal Service just completed a “Stamp Out Hunger” event that brought in tons of good food stuff, and so many individuals offer resources for this ministry. In the back room were boxes yet to be opened of canned goods, pasta, cereals. The freezer had fish and sausage, ground beef and chicken. There were muffins and loaves of bread, bags of spinach and boxes of raisins, and jars of peanut butter. While I have doubts there will be a run anytime soon on jellied cranberry sauce (left over from last Thanksgiving) and matzah crackers (left over from Passover), there was plenty of both to give away as desired and needed. It’s clear that no one HAS to go hungry, and households can be sustained by these generous givers. New Hope Ministries offers what its name indicates.

Third, I learned that the other volunteers tend to volunteer in other places. They sure don’t let the grass grow under their feet. Yes, most of the volunteers are retired and seem to have the time to do this, but four hours on a Monday afternoon at New Hope Ministries isn’t the extent of their serving. I had the sense many of these volunteers serve as a way of life. It was as if it became contagious for them. One opportunity to offer compassion and help leads to another opportunity leads to another. They do their work humbly, they labor joyously, and their serving is one tangible way they lived out their faith.

I’ll have another afternoon of orientation soon, and then be assigned a four-hour stint each week. Those four hours of training certainly helped me learn the ropes of stocking shelves, bagging foods, and assisting guests as they made selections. But more than that, those four hours of training opened my eyes to see my neighbor more clearly, both the invisibly hungry and the quietly compassionate.

Church “Hopping and Shopping”

I’ve found myself in a rather curious position. I need to find a church home.

church-shopping

Having resigned my position as an associate pastor at my previous church last month, I now must seek membership in another Lutheran Church. This was something I promised to do as part of my “Covenant of Closure” that I signed with Trinity’s congregation council. It’s an important way to draw my pastoral leadership there to a close, allow Trinity members to turn to other pastoral leaders for visioning and care, and still give me an opportunity to be nurtured in the faith in these months to come while I am “on leave from call.”

Nevertheless, it is an unfamiliar place in which I find myself. When was the last time I visited various congregations and discerned where to attend regularly? Well, way back in 1994, when Randy and I moved to Camp Hill, we did just that. It was an interesting time—this visiting different congregations, getting the “vibe” of a place, trying it on for size. Ironically, I didn’t care for Trinity in our first visits there. Too big. Too much of everything. I grew up in a small congregation, interned at two tiny churches, and had my first call in a small parish in Perry County. No, Trinity wasn’t what I thought about when I thought about joining a church. I figured that while I was raising our young children, and on leave from call, I’d join—you guessed it—a small congregation.

And then Randy and I and our children visited another local Lutheran Church which shall remain nameless. The Sunday we attended, we were sitting rather far up front, and unbeknownst to us, there was a special congregational meeting immediately following worship. Given where we were seated, it was difficult to exit. We remained. It became clear as the meeting went on that this particular congregation was in conflict. And a lot of it. When we finally escaped, we knew we would not be going back.

We looked at Trinity once more. You might say Trinity won by default. But of course, I look back and am so glad at that turn of events! We became members of Trinity, and ultimately I was called to serve there for nearly 17 years. Now, that’s one way to get involved in a church! Trinity was truly our church home in every sense of the word.

The only other time I sought out a congregation was in 1979 when I graduated from Thiel College and began to work at my alma mater in its Admissions Office. There were two Lutheran congregations in Greenville. The larger congregation was in town, the smaller of the two was out of town. I know, I know—by now you’re figuring I chose the smaller congregation. WRONG. I joined Holy Trinity right in downtown Greenville. Again, by default. I came out of college with little money to my name (except some graduation gifts from family). I didn’t have a car. I walked everywhere for the first six months of employment—to the college campus, to the grocery store, to the Laundromat. And I walked to church—Holy Trinity in downtown Greenville. And I have no regrets about that choice. I joined the chancel choir and participated in as many aspects of the life of that congregation as I could. I made several dear friends at Holy Trinity. And on July 25, 1987, Holy Trinity was the site of my ordination service.

But surely convenience or lack of conflict shouldn’t be the ultimate reason one chooses one church home over another! At Trinity I had oversight of our new member classes, and I’d never have suggested those as reasons to join a place. I always said people should look for a church home where they come to believe they are drawing closer to God.

So maybe that’s what I need to remember this time around.

But I’m visiting other parishes after spending years in the chancel or on the platform in an alb or wearing a microphone. It is oh-so-easy to compare and contrast. (Hmmm. They say the Prayer of the Day in unison. At Trinity, the Pastor voices it.) It is also easy to forget you are not the pastor. (Remember, Nancy, don’t read the Pastor’s lines in the bulletin. Read the congregation’s response.) However, it is fascinating to sit in the pews for once. You gain a whole new perspective on things when you do that. You notice things that, sitting in the pulpit seat, you might not.( Undoubtedly, this would be a wise thing for pastors to do every so often.)

Our visit on Sunday to a local congregation was the start of our journey. I must say, I liked their screen in the nave. Useful for announcements prior to worship, and then it neatly slid up into the ceiling just prior to the prelude. I adjusted to the different options that congregation used in worship—passing the peace near the beginning, for example. I appreciated the friendliness of the pastors and congregation. Did I find myself drawing closer to God? Well, I know that I sang a favorite Easter hymn with gusto, and sharing in Holy Communion was important to me.

But Randy and I will visit some other congregations as well over the coming months. Not because we are looking for the “perfect” church or the “perfect” fit. This side of heaven, our worship and congregational life are never perfect. We always pray God will make them perfect in God’s sight, but we know that in the hands of humans, liturgy can be bungled and church life mismanaged.

Rather than seeking the perfect congregation, I think that there is probably some elusive feeling you need to feel in this church “hopping and shopping” (sorry for using those somewhat derogatory words—I’m using them in a more benign sense here.) Much like selecting a college or even deciding if the person you love should be the person you marry, there is probably a moment when you know the congregation is “right.” Not perfect, still broken, still flawed. But right for you.

And that God is at work gathering you closer to him in that place. It may be a place that is highly inconvenient in one way or another. It may even be a place that has some “conflict” going on. So be it.

God, where do you wish me to go so I might listen, learn, repent, receive, give and grow? You know, O Lord.

 

 

Feet in the Aisle

When I wasn’t gazing out the window at the Chicago scenery speeding by, I looked at the feet before me in the aisle. Big feet, in some cases, shod in old sneakers and dirty shoes.

It was 5:15 a.m., and I was riding the “L” (short for “Elevated”) from our hotel in the Loop to O’Hare International Airport. After a wonderful weekend of tooling around the city with our son, Matthew, my husband Randy and I were headed back to Camp Hill via American Airlines and O’Hare.

L in Chicago

The debate all along had been whether to hail a taxi at that wee hour of a Sunday morning ($50 for a 30-minute ride) or take the “L” on its Blue Line (we already had a ride pass, and it would take about 45 minutes). The frugal won out over the time expended. Besides, on a Sunday morning, who would be riding the subway system?

Waiting for the L, we encountered a few police officers with dogs (protective cages on their snouts), plus a couple men with bicycles or backpacks. All was silent, except for the whining, squealing sound of rails as the L approached. Hmmm. Some of the cars were full of people, many standing. That seemed strange. We headed to the front car, and found it the same. The seats were taken up by the homeless.

One seat was visible in the back of the car. Randy gestured for me to take it, while he stood near the door, grasping a pole. I hiked up my carry-on bag and stepped over the feet in the aisle to get there, all the while worrying I might trip on those feet or step on someone’s ankle. But I took my seat and sat in silence for the 45-minute ride.

We hadn’t realized the seats were full because the men were slunk down so low. One man reclined on two seats, legs folded up, arms crossed on chest, two Target bags of belongings near him in the aisle. The other men mostly sat upright, but hunched over, like Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker, with elbows propping their heads up. One man leaned against the window, another tried vainly to lean his head on the seat back, but he was much too tall, and routinely, as he fell asleep, his head would fall, jerk him awake, and he’d reposition himself again.

I’m wondering if the men were slunk down so low just for sleeping purposes. Maybe it was because the L would twist and turn around the curves and could throw a person from their seat if they weren’t holding on, tensing muscles, and keeping alert. But when you make yourself very, very small, and your center of gravity is low, you can stay a bit more balanced as the car jerks along. You shift slightly from side to side and front to back, but you stay in your seat.

And besides those reasons, maybe the men were slunk down so low to avoid being seen, being noticed. They didn’t look at us or talk with us. They gave no acknowledgement that we entered the car or needed a seat. There was no panhandling here, either. No, I think they did not want to be seen, so they could just rest, unnoticed and unbothered, in a warm and dry place. It had been a cold and windy weekend in the city, and I suspect this was a pretty good place to sleep, or rest those aching feet.

Were these the same men I saw all over the city during the day and into the early evening? Huddling in a light blanket near a street corner, sign at their feet: “Homeless Vet—please help!” The smell of tobacco encircling them, as they ask passers-by “Have a light?” At those times of the day, the men wanted to be noticed, to be seen. They tried to catch your eye as you walked past them on the busy street. They held out their bucket to you for spare change, and you could hear the rattling of coins in them.

But now, at 5:15 in the morning on the Blue Line, they wanted to be invisible for a while.

I looked at their clothing. Sweat pants with cargo pockets jammed with belongings. Puffy jackets that still looked too thin to keep out the wind, fiberfill poking out of holes here and there. Shoes worn and dirty. Old weathered hands—gloveless, but in the warmth of the L, they could come out of their pockets.

For 45 minutes, Randy stood and I sat. People entered and departed at various stops, looked at the full seats, and stood and held onto straps and poles instead. One Latino woman came on. I caught her eye, motioned for her to sit beside me, and I moved my carry-on so she could sit down.

None of the homeless moved a muscle or blinked an eye, except for the man trying to sit up and lean his head on the seat back who kept falling asleep and then falling nearly out of the seat onto me. He jerked away and sat back up, over and over again.

Final stop: O’Hare. The Latino woman and I stood up. She was tiny, and with her tiny feet she nimbly stepped her way between the feet in the aisle. I hiked up my little wheeled suitcase as high as I could, and stepped in between two sets of huge feet taking up space in the aisle. I didn’t trip, nor did I accidentally stomp on an ankle or toe. No one moved or shifted. The feet remained motionless.

I exited the car, all the while wondering how many times the Blue Line “L” would traverse the rails on Sunday morning until the men at last opened their eyes and lumbered off onto the city streets, to be seen again.

Yea, the Sparrow Hath Found Her a House

 

A casual glance out my kitchen window the other day yielded a dilemma. I saw a flicker of movement in and out of our gas grill. I waited and watched to determine what was happening, and, suddenly, a tiny bird exited from the grill’s side and flew off. Before I knew it, the bird returned, bearing a twig nearly twice its own length. It struggled to push the twig inside one of the holes in the grill, thrusting the twig forward, ramming the grill with the tiny branch again and again. Finally the bird angled the twig just the right way in order to transport it into the grill. Bird and twig disappeared for the moment.

sparrow-carrying-twig

And off the bird went once more, exiting the grill in search of more twigs.

Clearly, this bird was intent on making the grill its home. It would be cozy and dark, and the exterior metal would be warmed by the sun. No predators would find their way into any nest built here. It was perfect—the ideal place to raise a bird family.

Except it was our grill, and used on a regular basis. While I have long since given over my flower beds to the bunnies in our yard, I was not ready or willing to let the grill become a nest. And I had no stomach for the thought of accidentally creating a funeral pyre for some dear little baby birds.

I called Randy at work, and his solution, as most husbands offer solutions, was to tell me to use duct tape. (You can guarantee that any household problem can be solved by duct tape, WD-40, or a Phillips screwdriver.) So I taped up the holes in the grill. I didn’t realize there were so many different holes through which a bird could squeeze itself. I opened up the top of the grill and found about 8 twigs or so of varying length, heaped onto the grate. Scooping the twigs up, I placed them on the branches of a nearby shrub. (This shrub being located by my kitchen window, and the site of an active bird’s nest last season, as related in a previous blog post.). My hope was the bird would find some of those twigs, then make the connection that the shrub by the kitchen window was a safe haven as well.

Of course, I didn’t see the bird again, and the twigs remained on the shrub’s branch until last night’s windy rain took them down. We’ve removed the duct tape and have used the grill.

But I hope the bird found a home.

And I simply have to admire the tenacity of that tiny bird, holding a twig twice its length and shoving it in a space that the bird knew would be protected. Nothing was going to thwart this bird from finding the right home. Only duct tape could possibly get in the way.

One of my favorite choral pieces is based on Psalm 84, and speaks of birds building their nests at the Temple. It is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “O How Amiable.” The Psalmist speaks of the beauty of the house of the Lord, and how his desire is to be there always, praising God. Even birds long to be there, and feel safe enough there to build their nests for their children. Vaughan Williams’ version of Psalm 84 goes like this: “O how amiable are thy dwellings, thou Lord of hosts. My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. Yea, the sparrow hath found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young: even thy altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King, and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house. They will be alway praising thee.”

Being in the presence of God is the warmest, safest place to be. It is where we are loved unconditionally, nourished and strengthened continually, and endlessly nurtured to be creatures of the Creator and know that we are at home with God at last. Aren’t we like that bird at my grill, seeking that safe space? Seeking to build a home for our loved ones? Seeking a warmth and welcome that is sometimes difficult to find in this broken world? We may struggle as we seek, angling our twigs this way and that, attempting to settle in. We may be thwarted by the brutality or cold indifference in our world. But still many of us seek this home where we are fully known by God, and come to know God.

My hope is that the seekers keep looking, because God is hard at work creating a space for them. There are congregations and fellowships and communities around this world where there is opportunity to build a nest. In those places, the seeker will find a home and can begin to live a life of praise.

The Last of the Strawberry Jam

It seems I am confronted with the end of an era. Or maybe I should say several eras.

jam 075First, there was the day this winter when Randy and I realized we were scraping the last bit of strawberry jam from a jar. This was jam made by his mother in 2014—the year before she died. We are now a few days away from the second year anniversary of her death. How conscious we were as we ate the last sweetness spread on the bread. It was one of those connections we still had with my mother-in-law. Like calling my father-in-law on the phone and hearing HER voice on the answering machine. (I don’t fault him for leaving her voice there. Were I in his shoes, I probably would do the same.) But the jam, on the other hand, was meant to be consumed, the jar emptied and washed and dried. And it was kind of sad to mark the end of that era.

My daughter Sarah wants to make Grandma’s strawberry jam some day, so we’ll root through her recipe file and find it. But even if Sarah does make it sometime in the future, the point is we ate the last of the jam that Grandma made.

Then, in early March I attended the Camp Hill High School musical, “James and the Giant Peach.” The students did a great job, and my daughter Rebecca (class of ’15) and I enjoyed the evening. But as I looked over the program and read through the names of cast and orchestra pit members, I realized I only knew a few kids. It hasn’t even been quite two years since Rebecca graduated from Camp Hill, and, yet, already I don’t know the students. A few I recognized from the marching band. A few last names were familiar because older siblings went through the school system while one of our three children was there. But mostly these were all new names and faces. The end of an era where I still felt somehow connected with the school district (beyond paying taxes).

Next, in mid-March our subscription to the Harrisburg newspaper, The Patriot-News, expired. Our choice. The editorial decision to move to three editions per week was an unwelcome change for us a couple years back. Nothing like getting a newspaper with three-day old news. Randy and I had already made the switch to reading local news online. We kept getting the paper out of habit. Randy liked the Sunday editorial and finance sections. I liked the grocery coupons and the features pages. We both read the cartoons. But to continue paying that much money for a thin paper three days a week, which often came late, was a no-brainer for us. The end of an era as we moved away from newsprint.

And finally, I am coming to the end of my time as a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church. April 30 is my final Sunday, where I’ll preach at the Contemporary Service I’ve helped lead for 17 years. Now, THIS is the end of an era for me. I can’t quite recall what life was like pre-Trinity. It will seem strange not to pull into the lower parking lot on a Sunday morning. People that I see numerous times in a week I now will probably see only on occasion. Since it is appropriate for me to take my membership and join another congregation, the rhythm of worship life and fellowship to which I have become accustomed will be a part of my past. If Trinity’s members think only they will need to adjust to my leaving, I hope they realize I will need to adjust to my leaving as well!

Of course, the end of things also means that there is a beginning that follows. I see that in the springtime blooms around our yard. As the forsythia and cherry tree blossoms fade to green leaves, it becomes time for the dogwood to shine. And when the dogwood blossoms are done, our azaleas take center stage. After that, it’s up to me to plant those annuals, and hope that my non-green thumb still produces some color in the yard!

Endings and beginnings are simply a way of life. I mourn what is left behind or what draws to a close, but I also await to embrace what is yet to come. So it seems fitting to leave Trinity behind in the season of Easter—the season we most recognize endings and beginnings.

The newspaper doesn’t land in our driveway anymore (but I prefer the larger print on my iPad anyway). New children are moving into our neighborhood, and someday they will march in the band and sing in the chorus and join the Quiz Bowl team. Eventually, Sarah and I will hunt down that strawberry jam recipe, and while we are at it, we can also try making Grandma’s pot pie and crab imperial and custard pie and sugar cakes.

And I trust God has new beginnings planned—for me, and for the loving congregation I will leave behind.

The Words That Come Alive in Our Lives (ch. 12)

My reflection on Chapter 12 (“Stories That Shape Us”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

We Make the Road by WalkingSeveral times over my years in seminary, and then as a parish pastor, I have heard the old dictum “One hour of study for every minute in the pulpit.” There was a time, perhaps, in my seminary years where that was possible to live out. I had the luxury of being independent, without family to provide for, and my 24 hours a day were mine. Of course I could spend as much time on sermon preparation as I wanted. And I did.

I recall the day two of my classmates came up to me in the library and lamented that they couldn’t preach as well as I. I was embarrassed by their compliments, but also well aware that I had none of their burdens: Single parents. Holding down near-full-time jobs while in seminary. One raising a special needs child. They were the seminarians to be affirmed—they found a way to prepare sermons. Maybe not as finely crafted as could be accomplished in a few more hours in the study. But still the Good News was shining through. I am humbled today at the thought of their courage going forward in seminary, and their needing to trust God to guide them. How tired they must have been at the end of the day when they put their kids to bed, and there still was a mountain of homework to do!

One hour of study for every minute of sermon? Well, it may have been possible in those seminary years, but that doesn’t happen in my life anymore. (Apologies to my homiletics professors.) But Brian McLaren framed what that process is like for me in Chapter 12 when he writes about biblical interpretation. He says that good interpretation begins with three elements: Science, art, and heart. The science part is the study of the history, language, culture, development of the scripture over time, and so on. The art is the ability to draw meaning from the stories of the Bible which speak of a time long, long ago. One needs to look at scripture as literature, in that case. Finally, McLaren says the heart needs to be involved in interpretation as it remains open to the prompting of the Spirit.

The number of hours spent in sermon preparation (or a Sunday School lesson, for that matter) do not matter so much as having all 3 elements present in the hours one does have. I think about my preaching and sermon preparation over the years, and how all 3 elements needed to be there each week. Some weeks will take more hours than other weeks; some weeks the time is limited and you can’t change that fact. But you need all 3 things—science, art, heart—in order to enter that pulpit and offer a good and faithful Word.

We’re nearing the end of our year-long journey together. Thank you for joining me in any way you did—reading McLaren’s book, participating in my blog, speaking with others about your readings, sitting with me in conversation. You and I are part of God’s story, even as we read the old, old story of His love. May you and I continue to find ourselves caught up in that love, shaped by it, and energized to share it.

It’s Not Too Late?? (Ch. 7, sort of)

My attempt to reflect on chapter 7 (“It’s Not Too Late”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

We Make the Road by WalkingHad to laugh at the title of last week’s chapter from Brian McLaren’s book. Oh, I’ve kept up with my reading, and have already read chapter 8 as well. But the truth is, I have NOT kept up with writing my posts. So here I sit at the keyboard realizing it IS getting a little late, at least in terms of keeping to my reading-writing calendar I pledged I would undertake.

It’s not that I didn’t try to post a blog last week on Chapter 7. But the Spirit didn’t move, or perhaps I didn’t sense its movement. I read Chapter 8 for this week, thinking, well, surely something will strike me regarding this chapter, and the muse will accompany me at the keyboard. Nope.

My guess is that other pastoral tasks have more or less taken over my time and my creative mind. Right now I’m responsible for two rather large programs that typically run concurrently: A New Member program and a 5 week adult learning opportunity. My head is pretty much wrapped in those activities.

All this to say that I may never get around to posting my thoughts on Chapter 7…or Chapter 8. Too early to tell about Chapter 9. We’ll see. In the meantime, keep reading McLaren’s book. I am. I trust his words are meaningful and thoughtful, even if my words aren’t forthcoming. See you on the journey!