Ritual for marking a lost year

A friend of mine recently asked, “Has anyone else thought about just starting a new planner because they’ve had to cross so many things out?”. It was half a joke. Half. The last few weeks have not been what anyone planned, and it is unclear how much more will be disrupted by this new normal. Schools in our state were officially closed for the rest of the academic year.  

As I watched that press conference, I thought about my friend’s planner. The greatest struggle right now isn’t that lots of things are canceled or postponed or rearranged. The more significant issue is that we all need to grieve things that are canceled, postponed, or rearranged. What if our now inaccurate planners offer an opportunity to process our emotions and re-imagine what was to be?

This week, try this. Go through your planner or calendar and identify all the things that were canceled or postponed. If you don’t usually keep a planner or written calendar, make a list of these events. (Here’s a PDF chart that might help). Look back a month and ahead a month or two. 

I liked using post-it notes for this next step, but make in a list on a separate sheet of paper or using a new planner works well too. For each event, write down:

  • What were you most looking forward to about this? (moment/ event/ detail)
  • Why was it important to you? (feeling/ desire)
  • What markers of the event are still possible?

Looking at those answers, make a plan for how you will mark that day now. This is not a replacement, but a way to honor what is lost. For instance, if you have a child finishing kindergarten, it might go:

  • What were you most looking forward to about this? Taking pictures of them standing on the stage.
  • Why was it important to you? They’ve worked really hard, and I want to celebrate them becoming a “big kid.”
  • What markers of that event are still possible?  Taking pictures, family cheering as their name is announced, making a memory box of their kindergarten stuff, wearing a graduation cap, having a special meal, etc.

Maybe on the day they should have graduated, you’ll get dressed up, do a “red carpet” photo-shoot in your living room, and then look at pictures of things they did in school this year.

The plans don’t have to be elaborate. What is important is that they are intentional. Don’t merely let special days slide by or spend them wishing for what cannot be. You can put the post-it with the plan over the original date in your calendar, or write the plan in a new calendar, or post your list where you will see it and follow through on the plans. As you cover the original, or write out the new one, say a prayer of thanks for all the work that went into your first plan and for what is possible with this new one.

You don’t have to tackle the whole calendar at once. Pick a few things at a time. Create a many missed event rituals as you need. This is a simple way to acknowledge things we can’t do and work through our feelings of loss. It also encourages us to create memories of joy and purpose rather than absence. I hope it helps.

What other ways are coping with pandemic life right now? Put your ideas and brainstorms in the comments.

Resources from South Central Jurisdictional Clergywomen’s Workshop

Shout out to the wonderful clergywomen who participated in my Discerning and Leading from Congregational Values workshop at SCJ Clergywomen’s conference.

Below are some of the resources we talked about. These will be available until February 1, 2020. Blessings on your discernment.

Imperfect Reflections on General Conference 2019

In the days leading up to General Conference 2019, many of my friends and acquaintances used the phrase “just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you hate them.” I hereby invoke that umbrella, because the last few days would have been much easier if I did not profoundly love people who disagree, and I am not sure I have the perfect words to say at this moment.

I’m not sure there are perfect words.

But this is what I have. Our first rule as a Methodist people is Do No Harm. Yet deep and egregious harm has been inflicted on the body of Christ and especially on our LGBTQAI+ siblings. Their lives, loves, and calls were debated as legislation. Many mourn today because, while they are welcome in our pews, they will still endure sideways glances from brothers and sisters. They mourn because one of the holiest moments in their lives cannot take place in their place of worship and cannot include the pastor who loves and shepherds them. They mourn because they feel a calling to serve and are denied a path to follow. To all who grieve, I see you, I love you, you will always be part of my family.

Many believe the prohibitions left in place by the Conference represent a loving response. For if you love God, you live a holy life, and if you love your brother or sister, you encourage them to do likewise. To these, I honor your faithfulness even though we disagree. And I would remind you, you cannot lecture grieving people on theology, or doctrine, or polity. They cannot hear you. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar knew when they came to Job in his grief, that the first thing they had to do was sit with him and listen and mourn what was lost.

So here we are. Four days later very little has changed. The Traditionalist Plan passed and has been referred to the Judicial Council for review. Based on my reading of previous reviews, what they found to be constitutional was an expansion of the definition of “self-avowed and practicing,” a stricter complaint process, and a requirement that Bishops not put forward candidates they know to be “self-avowed and practicing.” An exit plan was passed. It permits (again my reading) the lifting of the trust clause between now and December 31, 2023, provided a church pays unfunded pension liabilities, apportionments for the current and next year, and other liabilities owed. However, its constitutionality is in question. We will not have final answers on either until April.

That doesn’t mean nothing has changed. The full effect of the outcomes of the General Conference will take months to play out. However, the process has damaged our witness. I’ve had too many messages from friends outside the church and seen too many articles focused on our infighting to pretend otherwise. We are called to be a city on a hill. I believe we can be a light of hope and graciousness in an era of dark distrust, but we have some work to do.

Part of that is to focus on the work of making disciples. Not as a blithe thing, not a return to business as usual as if nothing has happened. Rather we ought to focus on making disciples through a serious consideration what we mean by discipleship, of who needs to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in our local area, and of how the church helps and hinders that work. We need to learn from this moment without overrunning it or getting stuck.

As my congregation has tried to balance concern about the General Conference with the need to keep working for the future, I have often cited the story of Jeremiah buying a field as Jerusalem was falling. I returned to that text last night with fresh eyes. What I had not fully appreciated before were Jeremiah’s grief and confusion. In chapter 33 he says:

After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, saying:… Yet you, O Lord God, have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses”—though the city has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans.

-Jeremiah 33: 16&25

Even Jeremiah did not fully comprehend what he was doing. He could not see what God was about, but he was faithful to continue following. Jeremiah invested in the future of his people despite the uncertainty that surrounded him. He buried the deeds in an earthen pot so that even if the exile was long, they would survive; his hope would survive.

It was not easy for Jeremiah to proclaim hope, but neither was it hollow. The days to come may not be easy for us either. Even amid uncertainty, we will remain faithful to the hope we’ve known. I believe that hope is open to all. The gospel I proclaim will not change.

Our witness is imperfect, but our congregation will continue to Do All the Good We Can. We will feed the hungry, we will continue to care for and educate children, we will continue to serve our community, we will continue to offer life in Jesus Christ, we will continue to worship, and we will continue to welcome all who enter.

Church, we are imperfect people, and we are beloved children of God. My prayer is that we find ways to live as a body without doing harm to one another. I pray that we do all the good we can for the glory of God. I pray that make use of the means of grace we’ve been given to grow in our love of God and one another. I pray all this because I believe the world needs the witness of the Methodist people. I know the world needs Jesus.

The last few days were hard. This morning I’ve been reminded we are never promised the work will be easy, but that we labor unto glory.

When Christmas Comes with Sorrow

Tonight will be the longest night of the year (meteorologically in the northern hemisphere).  And for some, these nights close to Christmas are long for more personal reasons.  As the holidays approach all the world fills with carols and lights and joy.  Yet when we wrestle with disease or infirmity, we may not fee like singing.  When we have lost loved ones, the lights can blur behind tears.  When depression weighs us down, joy seems like an emotion for other people.

If the Christmas season is more blue than bright for you, know that you are not alone.  And you are not out of step.  The child born in the manager came to comfort the afflicted, heal the broken, and to conquer every darkness, even death.  In 1930, as shadow gathered in his native Germany, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was visiting Cuba.  While preaching to a German-speaking congregation he said this:

We all come with different personal feelings to Christmas festival. One comes with pure joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love…

Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work…

Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy for them. Personal sorrow is especially painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime…

And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here!

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930

The solstice’s proximity to Christmas ought to remind us that Christ did not come into the best of times and circumstances, but at a difficult time and to the people who needed Him most.  Like St. Augustine, I pray the Lord would keep watch over all who wake or watch or weep in this longest night.  That the saints and angels would tend the sick, rest the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering and stand with the afflicted.  That joy would be a shied for all who celebrate and that all of this would be so for the sake of the Love that is soon to be born.

May God rest ye merry this Christmas.

It’s only the end of the beginning

Huge thank you to all the Deer Park United Methodist folks who have gone above and beyond this week donating to and packing flood buckets, serving in shelters and helping to clean out houses. You have found so many ways to show your faith to others in the midst of this storm.

Thank you to all our brothers and sisters in faith who have partnered together formally and in formally. It is both humbling and inspiring to see so many people go out of their way to help one another.

At the end of this week, I’m tired and I know many of you are as well. I pray you rest tonight for there is so much work ahead. I pray also that the spirit of unity and service that has carried us throughout this week might never be exhausted.

Months from now, when we all look back, I hope we remember the pride and solidarity of this week as much as the tragedy. And I hope it fuels in us the will to keep going long after the cameras are gone and some places are back to “normal”. Because normal is a long way off for some. But if we hold together the way we have this week, perhaps we can do more than return to the way things were.

May we find in these first days the seed of a better future; and however long it takes, may we carefully tend it to fruition.

See, a king will reign in righteousness,

and princes will rule with justice.

Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,

a covert from the tempest,

like streams of water in a dry place,

like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

-Isaiah 32:2

For Pastors (and people) feeling helpless today.

So Houston and South Texas are in the midst of bewildering large scale crisis.  The local news is a 24-hour non-stop parade of anxiety and heart breaking stories of loss and fear. First responders are doing incredible, amazing, heroic, outstand, (insert your favorite superlative here) job in the face of overwhelming need.

For those in other helping professions (like us pastors), watching all of it from the sidelines can leave you feeling both restless and useless.  If your church is a shelter, or supply point or able deploy immediate responders, Way To Go!  Keep it up!  If you’re like me in the “I feel like I should be doing something” but can’t crowd, I present a helpful piece of perspective from the guys at Space City Weather

The situation seems horrible now, and with the prospect of more rain, you may feel hopeless or helpless, or both. From a mental health standpoint, the uncertainty this brings adds a considerable amount of stress to an already stressful situation. I wish we could tell you when the rains will end, but we can’t. Here’s one thing we are sure of, however. The rains will end.

The rains will end, but the work will not.  There will be weeks and months of clean up, rebuilding, counseling, and questions.  Resources will need to be gathered and distributed, work teams deployed, and more than that people are going to need safe places to ask questions and find hope for the future.

Harvey is a relay marathon, and this is only mile 2 or 3.  The baton will come our way.  So be ready.  Spend time in prayer now.  Get what rest you can.  Care for your own congregations and neighbors.  Know how to connect with agencies like the Red Cross and your denominational network and what you have to offer. (for Methodists it’s UMCOR…for Methodists in the Texas Annual Conference it’s also the Mission Center in Conroe).

You might feel useless today, but all of those on the front lines need our prayers.  And when they get tired, there needs to be a fresh wave ready to step in with the next phase of support.  Be ready when your gifts are called.

There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.      – -1 Corinthians 12:4-6

If you’re looking for more than encouragement  the best ways to help at this point are (from the TXAC):

  • Monetary donations can be made directly to UMCOR Domestic Disaster Response, Advance #901670, at umcor.org.
  • Churches and individuals can assemble cleaning kits (flood buckets) and deliver them to the Mission Center in Conroe beginning Monday.  A list of kit supplies can be found at http://www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Relief-Supplies/Relief-Supply-Kits/Cleaning.
  • If churches receive monetary donations for disaster relief, please send these to the conference treasurer’s office marked “Disaster Relief.”  We will utilize the money accordingly.

(image from Laredo Morning Times)