Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.

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Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

Advent Welcome

What a great time to read this story again!

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

For many are invited, but few are chosen.

—Matthew 22:1-14

Are you widening the welcome this advent?
The guest list is not for us to choose.
It is not for us to decide.
As a new church start, how to we decide whom to invite?
When do we say you are not welcome here? There are so many people looking for light…
Once I knew a man who wore women’s clothing to church.
He was going through the therapy to become a woman and it was going to happen on my watch. He had three young children that he was raising alone. And soon he would be a she.
I was honored to be a friend to him.
But the church as a whole couldn’t tolerate what was happening.
No matter how hard we believed all would be well, wellness was not to be had!

She had her operation but ended up leaving our church.
She said she just did not feel the welcome I had wished for.
She cried with me when she told me she had to leave
and I cry every time I remember her disappointment.
Why do we think can control the light? Why are we such hypocrites?
I wonder what would happen if we would just let go…
For me, I am going to widen the welcome and let God fly this year
I am going to let go of all of my fears.
It’s about time….

***

Michele Mellott, M.Div., is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology, a Member in Discernment with the United Church of Christ, and is starting a new church start called All Creatures UCC in Arizona.

The Empty Chair

empty chair with man's old shoes in a stone room.Two chairs once side by side, both having worn away markings in the carpet suggesting years of permanence.

Perfectly sited for viewing pictures that hang neatly on the walls revealing two lives shared together. These chairs have stories, and if they could speak they would tell you 43 years worth of late night conversations, midnight snacks, newspapers, coffee, and hand holding. Yes, lots of hand holding. At one time, these chairs were solace for the two people.

Now, they are painful reminders of what was.

Using her cane to point, she states, “I would like them back together.” You see these chairs have been separated for some time pulled apart and placed in different rooms. In their place a brown metal hospital bed has now worn its markings into the carpet. Today, the bed was disassembled and carried away as it is no longer needed. Now there is nothing but an empty space. “Do you think you could help me,” she asks. “Sure, just tell me where you want them.” As I begin pushing and pulling them one at a time I am instantly aware of their smell and texture and it’s in this moment I realize what is happening in this sacred space. Like a shattered glass can no longer hold its contents neither will these chairs absorb any more stories…some things really can’t be fixed.

Having found their original markings using the carpet to navigate my way she sits down heavy, as if all the weight in the world now rests on her lap. Labored breathing with dramatic pause she asks…

“Chaplain, tell me how do I live the rest of my life with an empty chair?”

The Three Women

I am not a writer, but there are those times when I feel it necessary to write, if only so I don’t forget the significance of events. Today I experienced something that was so refreshing and meaningful I needed to write about it, as it confirmed in a new way something I have known for some time. I am not a ‘spring person,’ but for some reason this spring I have been enjoying all the pastels and flowers in spite of myself. I also feel I experienced Easter differently than in years past. I am still not sure as to all the reasons as to why, but I am willing to think about them for as long as I need to. I think one thing I have paid more attention to this year is the idea of resurrection and the promise of new life that it offers. For me, as many of you know over the past few years I have wavered between mixed emotions regarding my call into ministry. Anger, excitement, disappointment, discontent, and exhilaration are just a few of the vast numbers of emotions I have experienced. It is interesting to note these emotions are and were usually entwined with a church community; not necessarily my idea of God. I continue to work through them and have found my work as a chaplain to be a major part to my healing and integration. For me this year my resurrection was to consider a new way of serving and ministering as a female minister. I have needed for sometime to step out of the old bondage which was negative comments and negative gender roles that were not only oppressive, but unhealthy and damaging.

Today was just another example of how this work ‘heals’ me. I was making an initial visit with a patient who just came onto service. The patient was in his room and I stayed in the living room with the spouse. For almost two hours she talked about their marriage, their children, and their faith. She brought out pictures of them at their wedding and walked me through in pictures almost forty years of marriage and their life together. As the visit was coming to a close I went into the bedroom and found the patient no longer breathing, he had passed during our conversation.

I waited for the mortuary to arrive and to my surprise two women drove up in a van. The two women in the van and myself attended to the body, cleaning and getting ready for transfer. I couldn’t help but think about holy week and resurrection morning when the women came to the tomb. The women brought their spices and perfumes for proper burial. I can’t explain what I experienced in that room, but I know it was healing. I just finished a class in seminary on worship where worship was defined as “any encounter with God.” For me this experience was worship, a sobering realization of life, death, connection with God and humanity. To experience this with women who came there to work and to help create and bring dignity to the deceased and the family was amazing. At one point we all three looked at each other and just smiled one of us saying, “this was really nice, all us girls.” As we were leaving, the spouse of the patient kissed my cheek and said, “How lovely to have such wonderful girls looking after my husband, I know he is in caring hands.”