For youth group Wednesday I had scheduled a session about "walking through the valley of the shadow of death." (I threw up a bunch of random things on a list and had them choose back in September, and then I randomly scheduled them. Often it has been perfect.) So we talked about the movie, again, and I asked the youth what they would do, since they believe in God, to comfort themselves in an isolated, terrifying situation such as Will Smith found himself in, yet again. I was all thinking about how I would be repeating the Jesus prayer or Psalm 23 ad nauseum to keep myself sane, but, of course, they surprised me with the direction of the conversation.
It didn't take long to get to what the youth do to cope in hard times -- watch funny movies, play video games, read books, listen to music. So I've been thinking about that the last few days, inbetween doing my work (reading hundreds of pages of theological statements for people coming into the ministry and finishing our year end tables, along with all the other duties of the week), sneaking in a mystery novel, and watching old Star Trek movies with Zane or reading The Hobbit to him before bed. Well. I like their strategy.
I find myself immersing myself in narratives whenever life feels a bit too much. Zane and I have read all the Harry Potter, the Dark is Rising, classic Hardy Boys, and are now starting the LOTR series. Together we watch Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Karate Kid, Indiana Jones, and several generations of Power Rangers. And left to myself I've got my head in the books or movies: the Matrix, the EarthSea chronicles, LOTR, a pile of mysteries, Star Wars, martial arts and action movies. I love the grand hero narratives, and when I stress out that's where I go.
I do have a template for them, though -- this grand anti-hero narrative that forms my work -- this Christ story I keep wrestling with.
Which brings me back to the Jesus Prayer, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."
And back to movies which haunt me. Well, I do hope I never have to stand up to vampire/zombies, and if I do, I hope the video store is still open.
Today I spent the morning with my Bishop and District Superintendent, a few other clergy, and four seminary students. We had a long and lively conversation about integrity in ministry, making the transition from seminary to the pastorate, and committing to itinerancy, among other things.
This week I am also reading, for my work on the Board of Ordained Ministry, the papers of people seeking to become clergy in our conference.
All of this is stirring around in my head just now. What does it mean to be clergy, how do we commit to this work, how do we stay in it for a lifetime? Here I am almost halfway through. I have thought of quitting a few times, but that seems a distant memory now. How did I end up here? How do I keep going?
I keep coming to what a privilege it is, though sometimes an exhausting one, to walk this path with people. I get to ask the deep questions, I get to see the whole spectrum of life and growth, I get to be a part of the big moments and I get to search together with folks for God in the midst of all of it. I said this morning that I can't imagine another job where I get to "make a difference every day." (Perhaps especially one that uses my gifts. There's no chance of me being a doctor or lawyer or...lots of other things.)
Niebuhr did great things but I am disappointed with him for bailing on the ministry. He got a little sentimental at the end, stating it would be good to watch the little "kiddies" grow up, etc., but it also seems he was looking for his out. I don't know. Lots of folks leave, and it makes sense, and lots of folks are wise to wrestle hard before they commit in the first place. I realize I'm lucky to know what I'm supposed to do and to be able to do it and to even get paid for it. It is a privilege, a grace, a blessing and a life.
This morning the New York Times has an article, front page, about two United Methodist churches in Washington D.C., one white and one black, using the inauguration as an opportunity to come together. They were one church in 1829, but
the white members of Ebenezer Methodist Church cast out their black brethren: You tap your feet too insistently, they said, and sing too loudly. So the blacks walked around the corner and founded Little Ebenezer Church.
Each Ebenezer thrived. Middle-class whites drawn by a prosperous capital crowded into their church, and 1,200 blacks filled the other, the balconies creaking beneath the weight of worshipers. The white Ebenezer — known today as Capitol Hill United Methodist — now has about 150 members, mostly liberal young people who work on the Hill. At Ebenezer, about 60 elderly blacks attend services; its funerals greatly outnumber weddings.A few years back, the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church ordered these churches, sundered by the sin of racism, to reconcile. Congregants broached tender questions of race, and this weekend they joined as a youth group from Maryland spread its sleeping bags at Ebenezer while Capitol Hill volunteers fed and cared for them.
The history of the UMC involves so much fracture, and then uniting. It is work we still continue, even in Minnesota where it is both more stark and more subtle.
Where this ends is not clear; the churches cherish their separate identities. The question still unanswered in light of the inauguration of a president half-black and half-white is whether these fractured congregations might yet make each other whole.“Reconciliation is jagged and messy, but racism is a sin against the body of Christ,” Ms. Lasater said. “We are broken when we are separate.”
And they thanked me for the nice supper.
We heard a speaker, N. Graham Standish, speak about a variety of things. I was looking forward to hearing him talk about his last book, Humble Leadership, but he didn't get there. A small generational rebellion broke out when he dissed Facebook and then spent the next session teaching us about generational issues from a 1991 book that all of us under 45 know very well, especially since it paints Gen-Xers in a negative light. There was a large crew of folks chattering on the edges about the disconnect, and a lot of laptops using Facebook to process the whole thing.
Despite the generational frustration the bishop got up and said, among other goals, she wanted the Minnesota Annual Conference to have the largest percentage of young clergy in the connection (we are in the middle on that stat.) And we ended with a worship service designed by some of our youngest clergy. They sent us home with gorgeous cards with the names of fellow leaders in the conference, asking us to pray for them, after we had lit candles for them. For me the younger generation of clergy gives me hope that there is life in the church. Besides that they offer so much to me and my view of things. (I am decidedly middle-aged these days.)
My favorite part of the retreat is always being with my colleagues. I love Annual Conference but we are all working so hard and have so much to do; at the retreat it is clear the point is to be together. My next favorite part is when the Bishop preaches to us, because it is the only time she preaches to us. She uses it as a time to address communal issues but also to provide pastoral care for us, to encourage us.
To end she had us stand in a circle putting our hands on each other's shoulders for a ritual of recommitment to the ministry. That's what these gatherings are, in the end -- a time of remembering why we are clergy, why we are in ministry, and knowing we have strength for the journey ahead.
And I think I'll still read the guy's book.
Our theme was rocks and stones and we shared biblical images of stones as well as our own relationship with stones, rocks, and geological formations. We talked of stone searching, rocks in our pockets, cairns, mountain crevasses, north shore rocks pounded smooth by years, and how "life is a tumbler" making our rough edges smooth.
Of course we ate. The food at the ARC is always amazing -- wholesome, introduced at each meal with delight by the staff, and oohed over by all the women.
I stayed in the hermitage. We completely filled the ARC with our group and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try it out. I enjoyed the trudge out to the hermitage when everything was done at night. The moon was full which was a lovely light to walk by, and the coyotes howled the first night I was there, although I wonder if I was dreaming because nobody else heard them.
We spent some time in group worship (with original songs written for the occasion) and conversation together, and we also learned to knit and bead bracelets. Someone taught me to crochet, very patiently.
And then we had free time. People napped,took long baths, continued knitting, or went outside to snow shoe or ski. I took my camera. I walked through waist deep snow to get these pictures.
A few brave souls made snow angels this morning before we left.
(Red berries on a bush.)
We can hardly wait to go back.
"Yes," I said.
"What's the last number?"
"There isn't one."
"Why isn't there one?"
"There just isn't."
"I can't count that long."
At sixteen I was camping with my family and church friends at East Bearskin Lake at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and remember the night that was so clear and so still I could see the stars reflected in the water.
When Kelly and I got married we lived in a small farmhouse outside Winona, at the foot of the bluffs, and would go outside after dark and walk the dog down the lane past the trout stream which never froze. That was the winter of Hale-Bopp. It was beautiful, always perched above the tree that grew alongside the garage.
I shared these remembrances this morning as a way to talk about stars and the affect they have on us. It seems like a self-centered way to preach but I knew I was just jump-starting everyone else's memories of stargazing. And after church I heard where people go, and what they see, and where they went to see Hale Bopp.
Even in these days of urban light seeing the stars is a pretty universal experience, one that moves us all. They are up there tonight, with the half moon, shining above the urban glow.