Why I Smile When I Remember 9-11

I remember staring at the television screen in disbelief and horror.  I was 23 and working as a youth pastor at a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001.  Someone came into my office and said to come to the television. The other pastors, the janitor, the church secretary, and the guy who shredded our paper stood around the TV in the church nursery as the towers fell.  I remember saying out loud as I watched people jumping to save their lives: “Those are real people.”

It was later that we heard that the planes were landing at our local airport, not very far from where we were sitting.   It was later that we found out that 150 people were coming to spend the night in our church gym, and we would need to get ready.  It was later that the day started to change in my memory.

Of course, I remember the devastation and the heartbreak.  I will never forget.

But, because I was living in a city in the most easterly part of Canada, where planes diverted from the U.S. air space were forced to land,  and because I was working in a large church, and because our church had a gym big enough to hold a lot of people, I remember a lot more about 9-11 and the days that followed, than the horror. I remember how people came together and created something beautiful, when it seemed like there could only ever be room for ugly ever again.

I remember the generosity.

I remember when we had to start asking people to stop bringing sleeping bags to the church that first night.  Our church was listed as a temporary shelter on the news, and within an hour, we couldn’t handle anymore blankets or pillows.  People just kept showing up with more, and more, and more. Everyone wanted to help. Within a couple of hours of being told we would have 150 people staying with us, we had set up 150 beds, each with air mattress, pillow, sleeping gear – all donated.

I remember walking through Sobey’s at 1 in the morning, the only grocery store in town open that late, buying breakfast for 150 people.  I remember that the next day, we had so much food donated that we didn’t even need what we’d purchased.

I remember walking into the church every day for the next five days that the plane people ended up staying  to tables overflowing with donations of food and clothes. I remember when a small town on the other side of the island donated a gourmet fish buffet hosted by a local restaurant for everyone staying at our church. I remember when the most expensive restaurant in town came and hosted a prime rib dinner, with their top chef carving the beef for 150 guests.

I remember  when a few people couldn’t sleep one night because of snoring.  I went to a Shoppers and asked if we could get some ear plugs for our church because we were hosting plane people.  They handed me over a box of 200 packs, no more questions asked.

I remember moments of joy.

I remember taking people around the city in a borrowed van.  I remember watching their amazement when they got to the top of Signal Hill and said “we didn’t even know this place existed in the world!” I remember walking into stores and tourist spots and being told everything was free because we had “plane people” with us.  

I remember staying up late with the stragglers and singing karaoke. I remember how much our English friends ended up loving Tim Horton’s, especially Tim Bits. I remember when one guy decided to dress up as Santa for the children.

I remember laughing until our sides hurt when a woman came to a group of us saying she couldn’t find her “nickers” – her underwear – which had been sent out for dry cleaning.  When she explained where the dry cleaning rack was,  one woman realized she had taken them thinking they were a donation.  “I’m wearing your nickers!!” she declared, to her shock and shame.  And we all cried we laughed so hard.

I remember friends.

I remember forming a group with six people that became our pose.  I remember one of the guys showing me the engagement ring he was carrying his pocket, ready to propose at just the right moment when they finally got to Los Angeles. I remember bringing one woman to my house so she could have a bath.  In our bathroom there was a little wooden sign that said, “Baths’ -5 cents.” I remember a few days later discovering a nickel left on top of the sign.

Yes, I remember the hard stuff too.

I remember the stares of people who didn’t turn away from the TV news.  I remember the never ending lines for the phones, those desperate to get home, the couple that missed their son’s wedding and the woman who sobbed on my shoulder because she was so tired and overwhelmed.  I remember how scared everyone was to get back on a plane. I remember crying together, often.

But I also remember…love.

Yes, it sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of a better word. It was a surreal time –  we had just witnessed the worst act of hate most of us had ever seen in our lifetimes, and I was living in a corner of the world where love was everywhere.  It was like we were surrounded by an anthem everyday: “Hate will not win.”  

Terror had happened, it was true, but we were still able to eat together, laugh together, cry together – and accidentally share each other’s underwear. 

It is one of the times in my life that I have felt the very closest to God.  God was everywhere it seemed to me, reminding us in our little corner that what seemed like the end wasn’t going to be.  Hate would not win.    

So forgive me if it seems a bit callous to say, but it is true that on September 11, even as I feel very sad, I can’t help but smile a little, too.  I smile because – I remember.  

  

 

I Want to Stop Being a Unicorn

I admit I didn’t notice it at first.  I went to church after church.  I shook hands. I met pastors. I heard good music and good preaching.

It was at about week twelve that I realized:

“I haven’t heard a woman preach in three months.”

A couple sang.

Some made announcements.  

Not one preached.

And I sighed a heavy sigh, as I wondered: “How is this still happening?”

As part of a recent Sabbatical leave I took from my role as a pastor, I had been visiting different churches to learn from them and experience worship in new ways.  I had gone to a couple churches who had theological positions that wouldn’t allow women to speak, but most churches I visited did not fall in that category. This is what made it so shocking when I realized that I had managed to go several months without hearing a woman preach.

What was even more shocking?  When I realized, with even more sadness, that in that time I had only seen one preacher who was a person of colour – a guest speaker at Hillsong New York.

In fact, by the time I got to the end of my season of visiting, with the exception of the guest mentioned above, I had only heard the Bible taught by white men between the ages of 35 and 60!!!  IN FOURTEEN WEEKS AND FOURTEEN DIFFERENT CHURCHES!!!!

My friends, this is a problem.

Before everyone freaks out at me, let me say to my Caucasian brothers: I love you.  I’m thankful for you. I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing. Please keep preaching and sharing about God.  We need you.

But we need more than JUST you.

The family of God is diverse.  And we live in a diverse country.  With diverse churches. We NEED the voices of people from different ages, and genders, and races.  Different voices speak from different eyes that let us see things in new ways and, I would argue, let us see the fullness of God and God’s Word in ways that we can’t if we only ever hear from one particular cohort.  I would go so far as to say that when we DON’T hear from these range of voices that we will actually MISS things God has to say to us. Seeing the fullness of the family of God represented in preaching also says to those of us often in the minority: “Your voice matters in this family. You can do this, too.”   

I can only speak as a woman, as I am not a person of colour.  But as a woman, it matters when I see people like me do what I do.  I can forget how much it matters sometimes. I was reminded again when  I spoke at a youth conference this spring. After I shared, I lost count of the number of girls who came up to me saying: “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a woman pastor!”  And it mattered to them.

Men, can you imagine being 18 years old and never hearing anyone like you preach? EVER?  Can you imagine what would happen if you did?

Now, I’ve heard the arguments about the “feminization of the church,” and how too much female leadership “turns off” men, etc. etc, blah, blah. A couple of years ago when I published a blog that mentioned that our church’s three pastors were all female, an angry commenter talked about how this was what was wrong with the church and why men don’t go to church anymore.  I laughed out loud. I didn’t bother to respond, but if I had my response would have been: “I think men will have no trouble finding churches with male pastors.” For example, they could attend ANY OF THE CHURCHES I VISITED IN FOURTEEN WEEKS.  

But where, angry commenter, might you suggest I go, or my sisters go, or my daughter go, even once in a while, to hear voices like our own?  To remember that God has also called us, and wants to use us and that the word of God can be spoken through our lips?

(Of course, women are welcome at our church, but we only have 220 seats and our city has half a million people, so we may need more than MHBC as an option…)

We need to do something about this.  We need to make space at the table – by making space at the pulpit.

This starts by giving women the chance to speak.  This is as simple as adding women to your preaching rotation (and please, please, please don’t talk about how you “can’t find” any women to preach. Look harder.  We haven’t had a lot of chances, as you know, so you may need to take a risk or two, but we have to start somewhere). In my church, with its all female staff, I consciously make sure to have men speak when we need guests, because having different voices matters to us.  I realize that we have not done a good job with diversity in our speakers in terms of race – I name that that needs to change.

Obviously, this message isn’t relevant for churches that don’t allow women to preach for theological reasons.  I’m not trying to address that here. If I had only attended complementarian churches, I wouldn’t be writing this post because it wouldn’t make sense to do so.  But I didn’t. Most of the churches I attended fully ordain women because they feel convicted by Scripture that it is right to do so. And still, I didn’t see any women preach in four months.  I know you’ll all be able to give me examples saying “You should have went here!” or “There’s a women at this place!” Before you do that, stop and see the point. When I didn’t go specifically looking for women preachers – I didn’t find any.  

No wonder girls at conferences keep treating me like a unicorn after I speak!  For many I really do seem like a mythical creature that they had only hoped was real until I prance across the stage.* (Note: I don’t prance).

This is why of all the things I will take from visiting fourteen churches, one of them will definitely be the conviction that I have got to keep doing what I’m doing. I need to keep preaching, teaching, and speaking, because God has called me to do so, and because I want other women to see that God can call them, too.  If I must be the token woman at events, conferences, and workshops, so be it. I’ll token away until we don’t need tokens anymore.

And when I get a little weary, I’ll look at this picture.  My daughter drew this a few months ago. It’s me, doing what I do almost every Sunday. I’m preaching.  And she is sitting in the front row, listening. Learning. Seeing she belongs. I’ll keep doing it for her, and every girl and woman that may sit beside her.

preaching

But please – don’t make me do this alone.  

Brothers, invite your sisters to the pulpit.  Pastors, build up women with the gifts of teaching.  Conference leaders, do the work to find women you can invite to share at your events.  It’s time for women preachers to stop being surprising.

We are tired of being unicorns.      

This is my fourth and final post in my series on what I learned from visiting churches over four months.  You can read the previous three posts on this site.  

We Need to Stop Sucking (or, if I’m Being Polite, “Time For New Wine Skins”)

Dear Church,

We need to stop sucking.

This is part three of my series on things I learned when I spent four months visiting different churches, and, frankly, it’s the one I tried to convince myself I didn’t need to write.  

I don’t aspire to rock the boat too much on this blog, so this one is a bit hard for me, especially since I LOVE churches and I don’t want to sound critical, or self righteous, or like my home church has got everything figured out.  But I can’t shake the conviction I need to write this one, so here I go, with no small amount of trepidation.

“What did you learn as a pastor from visiting fourteen churches over four months?”

I learned that we have GOT to do better.

(Or, if I’m really being honest and saying what I’ve actually said when people ask me this in person: I learned that we have got to STOP SUCKING).

don't suck

I don’t mean that we need to have higher quality musicians for music or that we need to hunt for a preacher that will draw the big crowds.  

If you’ve ever been to my own church, you’ll know that our music is led by volunteers and that this preacher hasn’t attracted too many masses over the last thirteen years.

I’m not talking about adding smoke machines or bigger parking lots or flashy websites or fancy production teams to create swanky slides and graphics.

When I say that we, as the church, often SUCK I mean that we struggle to do the one thing every church is called to do: Make a space where people can meet Jesus exactly as they are… and not as we think they should be.

My time visiting churches made me wonder if most of us are willing to do that.  

Over the last four months, I visited lots of wonderful churches that I would recommend to any Christian.  However, I did not find many churches that, in good conscience, I could send someone who was new to church, discouraged by faith, or trying church again after a long time away.  This is not because I went to bad churches. It’s because most churches have language and customs and ways of doing things that no one explains to people who are on the outside.

More than that, our pattern as churches these days seems to be to keep doing what we have always done and HOPE that people will jump on board with doing things the way WE like them so we can keep doing church that way that makes US comfortable.

And then, when we find that our churches are shrinking in size, or our kids and grandkids are totally disinterested in doing church with us, we blame THEM.  We blame SOCIETY. We blame the WORLD – because that’s easier than looking at ourselves.

When I visited a large cathedral on my travels in the United Kingdom I got talking to one of the volunteers who was offering tours.  She explained that she was a member of the church and that the only way they could afford to keep running the building was through the donations of people who came for the tours.  She explained that their membership had shrunk from thousands to just a few hundred and then said: “But what can we do? No one goes to church anymore.”

Well, I didn’t say this to this very sweet lady, but I wanted to say:  “Well, you can do SOMETHING.”

Friends, do not believe the lie we tell ourselves as church goers that people don’t care about God anymore.  It’s NOT TRUE. It literally only takes two hours and one glass of wine with any of my friends who aren’t Christians for the conversation to turn to faith.  They WANT to ask about God. They WANT to talk about their questions and what really matters in life and how it all fits for them. Yes, sometimes they are angry.  Yes, sometimes they are cynical. And almost always they don’t want to “go to church.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t want God. It doesn’t even mean they don’t want some form of church.

It means they don’t want to stand and sit at certain times and sing songs they don’t know.  They don’t want to get up early on a Sunday morning. They don’t want to hear lessons on topics that have nothing to do with their lives.  They don’t want to recite words they don’t understand. For many, this is all that church is to them – a boring hour of something they might have been forced to do as kids, that they may or may not be willing to attend at Christmas time to make their Grandma happy.  Often, if people are blunt, they will say: “I went to church and it kind of SUCKED.” Well, after visiting fourteen churches, I can say that sadly there were times I had to agree with them.

There were times no one talked to me, there were worship practices I didn’t understand that made me feel lost and teaching that had nothing to do with anything in my life.  There were times I kept looking at my watch waiting for it to be over. I’m not trying to be mean here, but, can those of us who are church-goers reading this agree that we really don’t want someone who is looking for God to feel that way if they work up the nerve to try church for the first time?

When Jesus came to earth, he shook things up.  When people pushed back on what he was teaching, this is what he said to explain what he was doing: “No one buys new wine and puts it in old wine skins.” Wine skins were pouches used to store wine. Obviously, after a while a pouch could become brittle or stretched, which made it prone to bursting.  No one would put GOOD wine in something like that, right? Basically, he was saying that if you’ve got something amazing, you’re not going to put it in something that might burst and ruin it all.

I think sometimes what we do as churches is like putting new wine in old wine skins (or a broken bottle, or rusty container, or a glass with holes in it or whatever more modern analogy makes more sense to you).

We’ve got this amazing thing we have found in Jesus and often we try to deliver it in something that just isn’t working…and then when no one wants the wine we blame the PEOPLE instead of the wine skin!  “Oh, people don’t want WINE!” we tell ourselves. “What could we possibly do about such a thing?…” And we wring our hands and plan another fundraiser to fix the roof.

Well, we CAN do something about this situation.  We can try a different kind of wine skin, because I promise – people still want wine.

I’m not saying this means all churches need to use praise bands or throw out liturgical readings or try and be like any other congregation.  

What I am saying, after visiting fourteen totally different congregations is this: let’s not be scared to try some new wine skins.  Let’s make space to be innovative, open, and engaging.  Let’s be willing to try some things that might not work until we find some things that do. Let’s listen to thirsty people about what kind of wine skins would make sense to them.  Let’s be open to tweaking things, and open to overhaul. Let’s be willing to try new or go back to old. Let’s start small if we have to. Let’s not see it as “giving up” or “losing” when we ask ourselves what ways we can do things differently.  

So what can we do?  

There are lots of things we can do!  There are a few ideas to get started.

We Can Explain Things

We can tell people how to find things in the Bible if we are asking them to read along, and we can give the backstory for passages that might not make sense and we can use words that are logical to people and explain why we do things like collect money and baptize people and sing songs together.  I have friends who attend an Anglican church that has a formal, tradition service that I have loved attending. They have beautiful booklets they hand out to everyone with the service printed in it, and in a column alongside the service are descriptions of each part of the service and why they do it.  They have put some thought into how they are delivering the wine. It’s fantastic.

We Can Change Things

Sometimes it’s time to look at some new ways to deliver that wine.  Sometimes that is a change in music styles. Sometimes it is a change of when the service happens.  Sometimes it is getting totally innovative and having “church” at coffee shops or in people’s homes or in places where people feel safe asking hard questions.  

We Can Relax About Things That Don’t Matter That Much  

This may be hard to believe, because it still shocks me, but do you know one of the BIGGEST things that almost EVERY SINGLE new person that comes to our church says made them feel welcome?  “I liked that I could bring my coffee into church.”

That’s it.

I have been to churches where I have seen people asked to throw out a coffee before they can come inside.  I went to a church where the FIRST THING the minister said when they welcomed everyone was: “A reminder to please use your cell phones for reading Scripture only and not to be texting or reading email in church.”  Listen, if someone is at church for the first time, and they want to send a text, is it a big deal? And if we have to clean up a coffee spill, would it matter all that much? (And if you want to say right here “But people should show respect in church by not drinking a coffee!” please just go back to the beginning of this post and read the whole thing again.  Please).

Let me be honest in saying that my church hasn’t got it all figured it out. I know there are lots of times people have experienced things at our church that have made them say “That SUCKED!”  We do not have the perfect “wine skin.”

But, as I go back to pastoring after four months of experiencing life as someone on the “outside” of a church, I feel even more certain that we have got to keep trying.

So we will.

How Could I Go to Fourteen Churches and Still Miss Church?

This post is PART TWO of a series entitled: “That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months”

Four months ago, I began a Sabbatical from my role as a pastor. One of the things I did during this time was to visit different worship services. I was really excited to get a chance to go to church services that I wasn’t leading.  It would be nice to go to church and show up five minutes before the service started. It would be nice not to spend a whole service checking the order for what came next so I could prepare. It would be nice not to preach for a while!

And it actually was really really nice.

I attended fourteen different churches, and what I can say with confidence is this: There are lots of great churches out there.  I hear a lot of people say they can’t find a church and I get that it’s hard. But most churches I attended were places where it was obvious people were really trying to be faithful.  They loved God. They wanted to help people. And there are so many different churches! if you aren’t finding one church aligns with how you feel most connected to worship, there are many many others who are doing things differently.  Don’t like praise bands? Great news – there are LOTS of churches who don’t use them. Want a church that is modern and not using liturgy you don’t understand? There are churches doing that too.

I had some truly amazing experiences at churches I got to attend.  I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard when I visited my sister’s church near Vancouver.  One of the churches in Hamilton I visited had an amazing 11 piece worship team that sounded like a recording. I absolutely loved the readings in one small church I attended, where someone had clearly thought about every word that we would read.  I heard really cool stories and met amazing people and learned about ministries I had never heard about before. A few weeks into my visiting cycle, I said to my husband: “I LOVE going to different churches so much! Every week is so interesting and different and there are so many good things happening all around us!!!!”  

A couple of weeks later I said to him: “I’m over it.”

What happened?  

It wasn’t that I started going to “bad” churches.  It was that I was encountering something that I had always known, but never really experienced – church is more than attending a worship service.

I realized I had never actually gone more than a few weeks without having a “home church.” I have always made it a priority to settle into a church pretty quickly in new cities, even when I was a student.   I really believe what one woman told me someone said to her after she became a Christian: “No church is perfect. So find a Bible believing church near you and stick with it for six months, and then it will probably feel like home.” (Thirty years later, she’s still at our church, and ten years after she told me that story, I still think it’s one of the wisest things I have ever heard).

So at about week eight of my fourteen-week rotation, even though I was technically “going to church” every week, I discovered I was missing CHURCH. I was missing my family.  I was missing my home.  After a few weeks of loving learning new songs, I was missing singing the ones I knew best.  After a few weeks of being welcomed as a visitor, I was missing being welcomed as an old friend.

I wanted church. I wanted to know how people were doing. I wanted to see faces I knew. I wanted to celebrate the ongoing stories of people with whom I had journeyed.  I wanted people who asked me how my family was doing and commented on how tall my kids had grown and who told me how they had been praying for me. I wanted to be doing this church thing with people – not just standing beside strangers for an hour on a Sunday and never seeing them again.  I wanted small groups and Bible studies and picnics and potlucks and prayer updates on facebook. I even wanted all the little things that annoyed me about my own church. I missed living in the imperfections of a church of real people figuring out faith together. I wanted CHURCH – not just a service for an hour on a Sunday (no matter how great the sermon was).

I do wonder if, on the journey to find a church, we are so busy looking at what happens for one hour on a Sunday that we never really get to experience all that church is, in its messy, complicated far-from-perfect glory.  I do think that it’s little surprise people say “I can’t find a church” if all they see is one or two Sundays at a time, because, quite frankly – that’s not church.

Church is the family of God, and all the relationships, life AND worship that we do together.  I wonder if we gave more time to a community if we might discover we could find a church after all?…

Either way, I could hardly wait to go back to my church this Sunday after four months away, and it did not disappoint.  Our worship team was stripped down for the summer.  We went a little over schedule.  We were short helpers in our Sunday School. It wasn’t perfect; it never is. But it felt like a breath of fresh air to experience all of church again – family and friendship and learning faith together.

One hour each week just wasn’t quite the same.

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That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months

Part One:  “Would I Go Back?” 

“Um, can you tell me where the bathroom is?” I asked the friendly person who welcomed me as I walked into church that day.

“Sure!  It’s just downstairs.”

I found the stairs tucked away in a corner, and began to walk down. As I got near the bottom, I hesitated.  I had entered a basement that was PITCH BLACK. I could barely see a hand in front of my face. I fumbled around on a wall and found a light switch.  When I turned it on, the room flooded with light, and I realized I was in what seemed to be a nursery full of children’s toys. Still no bathroom. It did seem I was in the basement, so I kept wandering.  

After walking through two more rooms, I found it.  As I settled in my seat later, I thought to myself:  “What would that experience have been like for me if I wasn’t someone used to church?  Would I have felt comfortable looking for a light? Would I have been willing to wander through the nursery until I got where I was going?  Would I have felt welcomed, or lost?”

Would I have wanted to come back?  

It’s a couple of weeks later.  This time my daughter is with me when we go to a church on a long weekend.  It’s a big church, with high energy and great music. When we walk in, the person at the front tells us that if we fill out a card with our information we will get a Tim Horton’s card!  My daughter looks at me with excitement. “Can we fill out a card?” I am a little hesitant, because we already have a home church and I feel this gift can be saved for others. But my daughter is excited so I fill it in.   After the service, we go to the “visitor’s table,” where we’ve been told to drop off the card. There’s no one there. Finally, someone sees us. “Oh hi!” they say. “You have a card?” “Yes,” we answer, handing over our completed visitor’s card.  She takes a long minute to scan the card to make sure we’ve filled it all in. “Okay, let me see here,” she says as she rummages around, and hands me a gift card for $3 to Tim Horton’s. My daughter is happy as we leave, but as I get in the car I realize: She didn’t even ask us our name.

Would I have wanted to go back?

A few more weeks pass and we are at a small church on the English seaside.  As we walk in, a woman’s face lights up as she sees us and she comes to shake each of our hands. She bends down a little as she says hello to the children to reach their eye level.  She explains to us that since it’s hot, there are some glasses of cold water available we can take into the worship service. She apologies that they don’t have a Sunday School since they are so small, but points the kids to some activity bags with colouring sheets they can use during the service. We enter and we are the only people there that we can see under the age of 50.  Most people seem to be over 80. Several more people come to say hello. One man does a coin trick for our son, and he is delighted. “Where are you from?” everyone asks over and over. “All the way from Canada? So wonderful to have you!” After the service, a couple offers to walk us to their fellowship hall where tea is being served and then shows us their community garden. As we are walking through, he laments his worry for their church.  “We are such an old congregation,” he says. “I don’t think any young people will ever want to come here.”

I smile, and politely disagree with him.  “I would love to come back,” I tell him.

And I mean it.

My Church-Visiting Adventure

While I was on Sabbatical from my role as a pastor over the last four months, one of the things that I wanted to do was visit other churches for their worship services. I wanted to see what God was doing in other churches, get new ideas, and experience different traditions.

bulletins
Me and my new collection of church bulletins and welcome cards

I also wanted to learn what it was like to be attending a church for the first time.  I realized that I am always hoping visitors would come to our church, and encouraging our members to invite their friends.  But do I understand what it’s like to go to a new church where I don’t know anybody? As I stepped into the role of “church visitor,” I also tried to consider the perspective of someone who would be attending church who wasn’t used to “going to church” at all.  “How would someone new to church feel in this experience?” I often asked myself.  

In total, I visited fourteen churches, with a range of traditions, sizes and worship styles. I  learned a number of things from this adventure, which I’ll write about over a couple of posts, but one of the things that stood out to me most was something I thought I already knew:  

Welcome Matters. 

It matters even more than I thought.

I did not always attend churches that were “cool,” not by any means.  The church we attended in England that I mentioned had music that was truly painful, and no one our age and I can honestly say that I would go back. Why?  People were warm, friendly, and kind. It didn’t have to be showy or fancy – they simply said: “It’s nice to have you here.”  They noticed we were new and reached out. They showed us where to find tea.

I did not experience this at all churches, sadly.  There were (thankfully, few) several churches where it was so obvious I was the only visitor, and that they weren’t used to visitors, simply by the stares from people as I walked in. There were times that I sat by myself as the “greeting time” started and people shook hands and gave hugs and had conversations with people all around me while one or two gave me a quick hand shake before turning back to friends.  It didn’t make me eager to continue, and I couldn’t help but think: “If I am a MINISTER who is about as comfortable with church as any human being could be, and I’M uncomfortable, how on earth would someone new to church feel?” I’m sad to say – they would bolt. And I wouldn’t blame them.

It also really struck me how much feeling welcome is about so much more than a greeter saying hello, being asked to fill in a welcome form, or receiving a gift.  I was very sensitive to insider talk, jokes and stories. They made me feel on the outside. As churches, we need to remember that PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT.  They don’t know where the “fellowship hall” is where everyone is heading afterwards. They don’t know who “John” is so they can talk to him after church about the upcoming barbeque. When you say “we all know we have been praying for Katie…” – a visitor doesn’t know. Many don’t know how to find things in their Bible or how to recite the Lord’s prayer or what to do when you pass around baskets asking for money.  It is so important to talk as if there is someone new among you. This is a sign of hospitality.

This can be easier than we think.  If we talk about someone who needs prayer we can simply preface with “if you are new you won’t know this person, but we have been praying for them…”  Don’t start Bible verses and wait for the congregation to finish the end of the sentence (how would a new person feel who couldn’t do this?). Have people at the front introduce themselves. Explain where to find things and get people to wave if they are being referred to as someone to go talk to later.  When you are tempted to say: “But everyone knows that!” remember what you are really saying is “everyone already at this church knows that.” If your hope is to make space for people NOT already at your church, your language matters.  Helping people feel like they are in a safe place matters.  Sometimes it even boils down to little things like making sure the lights in the basement are on so people can find the washroom!

Yesterday, after three weeks in the United Kingdom, my 8 year old daughter said, out of nowhere: “I can’t WAIT to go to our church on Sunday. It is my FAVOURITE church ever.” 

Now of course I am thrilled when my daughter says she can’t wait to go to church, but I know her saying we are her favourite has nothing to do with her ability to discern doctrine or music or Sunday School programs.  So I asked her why her church was her “favourite.”

“Everybody knows me there,” she said.  

We are not going to get everything right as churches.  We won’t all have the best preachers or most talented worship teams.  But we can work to create spaces where people say: “That place is my favourite.” Not because we are swanky or polished or always get it right, but because we are TRYING.  And we are WELCOMING. And we say, with our words and our actions,  “I see you – and you can belong here.

 

Picking Up the Ephod: Am I Ready to Return From Sabbatical?

Four months ago, there was an ice storm.  Remember? It’s hard to picture now when we are basically collectively melting, but it happened.  I couldn’t even fathom then the idea of a day so hot I’d be cranking up the air conditioning, but here it is.  I also couldn’t imagine on that day what the next four months had in store for me, as the day of the ice storm was also my last day of work before I took a four month Sabbatical.  

On that day, I wondered how I would feel when I would turn the calendar to August 13, the day I had written simply: “Back to work.”  I hoped that I would feel ready to start again. I hoped that I would feel rested and renewed and filled with a new sense of purpose. I hoped for all of these things, but, kind of like how it feels when you’re sitting in the midst of a freak ice storm in April and you start to doubt that you will ever feel warm again, I really wasn’t sure.  

I had worries.

I was worried that I would be bored.  I was worried that I would not use my time well and “mess up” this gift I had been given. I was worried, deep down, that time away would make me realize that the calling to which I had given my life didn’t really matter that much.  

Maybe no one would miss me…

Maybe it would turn out my church DIDN’T need me…

Maybe everyone could get along fine without me…  

I actually wanted those things to be true…but I also didn’t want them to be true.  I wanted my church to realize that I wasn’t essential, but I also wanted them to realize that I was.  These paradoxes really made it clear that time away would be good for me, and for all of us.

So on that day of the ice storm, the day my Sabbatical was beginning, I preached a sermon. I preached it wearing yoga pants in my living room via Facebook live since the ice storm forced us to cancel our service.  I preached about ephods.

A few weeks before I had been reading through Exodus in my Bible reading plan, when I got to one of those sections of the Bible that is easy to gloss over – it was about what the ancient high priest of Israel had to wear.  I read that the priest was supposed to wear something called an ephod, which was like a long sleeveless robe in two parts. These parts were joined together at the shoulder by onyx stones, on which, they were to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  This meant that every time the high priest would come before God, he symbolically carried the people he served ON HIS SHOULDERS.

ephod
Here’s a little photo of some person who re-created the high priest’s garmets  – see the shoulder pieces? 

I don’t know if I had ever encountered a passage that spoke to me more deeply about what my job and my calling was about.  As a pastor today, which is admittedly quite different than being an Israelite priest a few thousand years ago, I feel this is so much of who I am.  I carry the people of God on my shoulders. I pray for them. I care for them. I (try to) lead them closer to God. Every day when I wake up and go to work, I symbolically put on that ephod.  The names aren’t the names of the tribes of Israel, but they are names like Darlene and Mike and Diane and Bruce and Christine.

In my “pajama church” sermon (yup, that’s what we called church that day), I talked about Sabbatical being a time for me to “take off the ephod.”  I shared how it would be four months of me saying “These names are off my shoulders for a while” – so that I could remember they are on God’s shoulders first.  I shared how important it was for me to remember that I am not defined by the “ephod” that I wear, and how the best way to remember that was to pause from wearing it for just a little while.

Now here we are four months later, and I can look back and say that taking off the ephod was very very good.  I will write more about the things I learned on Sabbatical over the next couple of weeks, but for now, let me just say that taking off the ephod was one of the best things I have ever had the chance to do – even as I’m feeling ready to put it back on.

Things are different today than that day in April.  It’s not snowing, for one thing. It’s warm and sunny and bright. Also, I am different. My shoulders don’t feel tired! They have benefited from some rest.  The really cool thing is that as they rested, the church has done JUST FINE without me carrying everything. Turns out, God’s shoulders are stronger than mine, and they never need to take a break.  I’m glad we all got to remember that.

I’ve enjoyed my time away, but on Monday I will be happy to pick up my ephod again, and will wear it joyfully, confident that who I am, who God is and who our church is, is not based on what I carry on my shoulders.

This is a great lesson to learn, and I’m thankful beyond words for the chance to learn it.  Thanks, Mount Hamilton, for letting me take off the ephod for a while…and thanks for being a place that makes me look forward to putting it back on.  See you soon!

back to work

 

 

 

Here’s To You, Deanne! A Toast to My Sister on Her Fiftieth Birthday

I am the youngest of four children.  I was blessed to have a wonderful oldest sister named Roxanne and I am still blessed by my other older sister, Deanne, and an older brother, Jason.  Today is Deanne’s fiftieth birthday, and I toast to her! 

Here’s to you, Deanne, on your fiftieth birthday.

Here’s to you, my loving sister, who was always willing to babysit me and made me laugh when you pretended to eat my arm like it was a hot dog. Here’s to you, who would write me my own personal letters, sent just to me, from across the country when you moved away.  Here’s to you, who always makes people feel special.

Here’s to you, my adventurous sister, who moved across the country to follow a dream at 22 and made a new life – but never forgot home.  Here’s to you who traveled the world. Here’s to you who joined me and Josiah on a hike with no idea where it led, and who ran ten kilometres back to get us the car when we ended up in the next town over.

Here’s to you, my beautiful sister, who makes yoga pants look as elegant as formal wear.  Here’s to you who my friend once described as “looking like a goddess.” Here’s to you who buys what she likes and likes what she buys.

Here’s to you, my energetic sister, who hikes the grind without a pause.  Here’s to the one who parks as far from stores as possible to get an extra chance to walk. Here’s to you who wears me out, and then whips up a batch of cookies while I take a rest.

Here’s to you, my efficient sister.  Here’s to you who resents packing anything bigger than a carry-on bag when she travels.  Here’s to you who gets stuff done. Here’s to you who makes a day count.

Here’s to you, my strong sister, who faced the unbearable when both her sons had a catastrophic accident. Here’s to you who was at the hospital by seven every morning and stayed until you got kicked out. Here’s to you who held your sixteen year old son to calm his body while he flayed in a coma. Here’s to you who sat with your fourteen year old in an I.C.U thousands of miles from home. Here’s to you who kept it together.  Here’s to you who inspired me.

Here’s to you, my hilarious sister, who doesn’t always know why she’s funny.  Here’s to you who makes her kids and husband crack up. Here’s to you who always wants to be in on the joke. When others say you’re funny, I say “I confer.”

Here’s to you, my beloved sister, one of our three rhyming “-annes.”  Here’s to you who was the keep-the-peace one. Here’s to you who has always been who we needed you to be, just as you are. Here’s to you who understands that we are now incomplete, but we are whole together.

Here’s to you, my older sister. Here’s to you, my role model. Here’s to you who will always be older – so that I will never stop having someone to look up to.

Here’s to you, Deanne!  Here’s to you, who is loved at fifty and always.

Me and My Fabulous Sister!