Edith, Jeffrey and the Saints

A cemetery complete with gravestones is topped by Celtic crosses. Four foot spiders climb the walls of a house. Ghosts, goblins and ghouls hang from trees, windows and lamp posts. Witches are flying through the air. Grinning skeletons beckon unsuspecting children into their grasp. An open coffin adorned with the words, “Rest in Peace” invites a passerby to peek inside.

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Outdoor Halloween decorations are over the top in our area. It’s almost bigger than Christmas.  A month ago I saw a company deliver and artfully arrange several dozen carved pumpkins and other holiday decorations around the property of a nearby house. Our human fascination with unexplained and otherworldly happenings is not confined to the secular world, however. I served a church once where a ghost was thought to inhabit the building. Her name was Edith. I felt her presence as I walked through the huge building, turning out dozens of lights and locking the doors on Sunday night.

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Even John Wesley was thought to have a ghost in his childhood rectory. “Old Jeffrey,” as the Wesley family named the ghost, made his first appearance on December 2, 1716 and tormented their home with mysterious noises and banging. After reports of groans, knockings, stamping and clattering from Samuel and Susanna’s children (ten of their nineteen children lived to maturity), Susanna chalked it off to rodents.

Evidently, the poltergeist’s favorite activity was loud knocking during Samuel’s evening prayers for King George I. John, who was a young teenager at the time and attended Charterhouse School in London, connected the knocking to his mother’s refusal to say amen to Samuel’s prayers for King William fifteen years earlier!

When the ghostly antics continued unabated, Susanna was quoted as saying, “There was such a noise in the room over our heads, as if several people were walking, then running up and down stairs, that we thought the children would be frightened.” As John’s parents tried to track down the ghost, Susanna noted that Old Jeffrey continued “rattling and thundering in every room, and even blowing an invisible horn at deafening decibels.” Susanna began to suspect that perhaps the ghostly appearances were foretelling the death of a close relative. Less than two months later Jeffrey disappeared, never to resurface.

Our contemporary observance of Halloween has long been connected to Christianity, its preoccupation with death inseparable from its religious roots. All Saints Day, November 1, is the day that Christians remember and celebrate the saints of the Church Universal who have died.  All Saints Day is also known as All Hallows. October 31, then, is called All Hallows Eve or Even, which was contracted from the Old English into “Halloween.”

For the ancient Celts, November 1 was also the beginning of the new year.  October 31, which marked the end of their growing season, was a time when the Celts would pay tribute to the spirit world with gifts of food, insuring that next year’s crop would be bountiful. Huge bonfires were set in order to frighten away evil spirits. The Celts also sought to communicate with the dead and receive wisdom from their ancestors to help secure future prosperity.

As with other holidays, Christians merged new traditions with pagan customs, including the observance of the saints. By the Middle Ages, children would go door to door asking for “soul cakes” for the wandering spirits. If householders refused to offer treats, the children would play pranks. Thus, trick or treat. Of course, for Christians the spirits were not evil but were those of the saints.

As a young child I lived in a small town where my siblings and I had a field day on Halloween. I filled pillow sacks with five cent candy bars that cost a dollar today. As a parent Halloween was fun until my children were old enough to beg for home-made costumes. Without a sewing machine and bereft of creativity, I may have scarred my kids forever as they wore store-bought costumes or cobbled together their own creations. The parental shame over my motherly failures was as fearsome as any goblin.

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Kids love Halloween because of the variety of costumes, enticement of candy and excitement of going from home to home. That’s why many churches host Trunk or Treat parties. Children can go from car trunk to car trunk in church parking lots where it is safe and they interact with caring adults.

This past week I heard Bishop Sally Dyck preach about visiting the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The largest children’s museum in the world, this museum contains the latest technology and innovations in non-traditional learning opportunities for children. Even adults are blown away by the sophistication of the exhibits.

Reflecting on the ingenious ways in which children were invited to interact with the exhibits, Bishop Dyck said, “I became depressed and thought, ‘With museums like this, why would any kid want to go to Sunday school in a United Methodist Church? What do most churches offer that engages children in multi-sensory learning?’”

While discussing the future of seminary education later that morning, we wondered whether our Sunday schools have to be mini children’s museums in order to impact the lives of our children.  Are we missing the boat if we’re not on top of the latest methods of teaching Bible stories? Are we depriving our children if we don’t have iPads, biblical video games and highly interactive lesson plans?

Finally someone said, “We really can’t compare a children’s museum with Sunday school because something is missing in the museum. That something is relationship. It’s the connection between teacher and students where the Holy Spirit transforms hearts and minds.”  Ultimately, it’s not technology but caring saints who shape the lives of children and all people because Christ’s love shines in them.

I am reminded of my sainted mother, who made my costumes, my sainted Sunday school teacher, Miss Shelley, who taught me about the love of Jesus, and my sainted friend Rosemary, who showed me how to live fully until the end. You and I stand on the shoulders of all the saints who have gone before us: an army of saints guiding us to transcend our divisions, a pantheon of saints who equip us to become the people of God, and the communion of saints whose presence and grace is found in the most surprising of places.

Yes, spirits will abound on Halloween. But so will the saints, for the spirit that disciples of Christ follow is the wind of the Holy Spirit. We can be saints to every child who knocks on our door on Halloween. If we open our lives to offer them grace, how might their lives be changed?

By our smiles and hospitality, we teach children about sainthood whether they know it or not.  So I’ll be home on Halloween with the porch light on, handing out candy and remembering my joy as an eight-year-old running from house to house yelling, “Trick or Treat.” There is something hopeful about welcoming baseball players, angels, California raisins, tootsie rolls and pirates, so excited they can hardly talk.

I won’t recognize the vast majority of these children, even if they took off their masks. Yet there is something sacred about opening our door to others on a crisp, dark autumn night, greeting children with a smile and a candy bar and giving a neighborly nod to parents waiting on the sidewalk. It’s the kind of radical hospitality we talk about all the time in the church.

I’ll be waiting to open the door, along with the fellowship of saints. Edith will be there, too.  She’s not a goblin, you know. She’s a saint, watching over her church. And Old Jeffrey will be there as well. He’s not a ghoul, either. He also is a saint, who kept the Wesley family alert to the work of God in their midst and keeps us awake, too. It’s the entire communion of saints. And I mean to be one, too. Do you?

Blessings,
Laurie

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

My mouth dropped open, and I threw my arms around her. “What are you doing here?” “I have a meeting in the area this afternoon and decided to come to worship.” I hadn’t seen one of my dearest friends in over a year. Lynda has been a confidante, encourager and fellow professional who understands both the joys and failures of my life yet loves me unconditionally.

We had little opportunity to catch up, but there was enough time to tell her once again, “You have no idea now important you have been in my journey, helping to keep me centered and whole.” An ordinary moment became extraordinarily holy.

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Hours later I was sitting in a small group among thirty clergywomen from the Michigan Area who had gathered for a two-day retreat at one of our United Methodist camps. “How do you keep balance in your life?” we were asked.

“I go to movies,” one woman said. “It’s a great way to forget about your problems. I just went to see Dracula Untold.”

“Why would you want to see Dracula Untold? Don’t we have enough draculas in our churches?”

“Well, sometimes it does seem as if a few people can suck the life out of me.”

We call it gallows humor among clergy. In reality, the vocation of ministry is a sacred and amazing calling, but if we are not prayerful and careful, it will wear us down to a frazzle until we flame out. The demands of ministry are literally non-stop. The to-do list is never completed, there is always one more person to visit and one more phone call to make, and from time to time someone has a bee in their bonnet with a painful stinger.

The clergywomen shared other unique ways in which we care for ourselves. Some pray, journal, exercise, scrapbook, listen to music, dig in the dirt and pursue painting or weaving. Others focus on their children’s school activities, try out new recipes, visit museums, attend concerts or spend time outdoors.

There were several common themes, however. Three out of five clergy in my small group mentioned how relaxing it was to mow the lawn. Why? Because the pleasure we derive from seeing something through to completion complements our ministries, which can never be wrapped up, tied with a bow and proclaimed, “DONE.” Mindless bliss was the term we used.

We also lifted up the importance of relationships. Professional coaching, mentoring, therapy, and spiritual direction are all ways in which we can share the burdens of ministry with those who listen well and offer wise counsel. Equally as vital are friendships with clergy and laity who understand the unique stressors of ministry, accept us for who we are and provide support and encouragement.

And then there is family. I pointed out the old, nondescript sweater I was wearing and said, “This sweater belonged to my son in high school. He outgrew it many years ago, but I decided it looked comfortable, so now I wear it all the time. This ordinary sweater is extraordinary because it reminds me of my son and, consequently, what is important in life. When I’m distressed over the expectations of others and the impossibility of getting everything done in ministry, I think about my family and can relax.”

Our truth as clergy is that the daily agenda of endless meetings, looming deadlines, difficult conversations, wrenching pastoral calls, and squeezing in time to study and write, knowing that Sunday comes every single week, can sap our spirit if we are not wise. It’s no coincidence that clergy health insurance is very costly. Clergy don’t take care of ourselves very well because keeping a healthy balance in our lives is so challenging.

The second day of our retreat we were astonished to hear that nothing was scheduled for the afternoon. It was completely free. Many of the women couldn’t remember the last time they had the gift of an afternoon off. “Do whatever you want,” we were told. “Do what fills your heart and gives you joy.” Ordinary moments became extraordinary.

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“I walked the labyrinth.”

“A friend and I talked about the joys and frustrations of ministry.”

“I read a book until my eyes closed, so I took a nap.”

“We enjoyed silly laughter.”

“I sat quietly in the middle of the lake in a kayak and let the beauty of God’s creation wash over me: clear water, seagulls, flaming red trees, clouds and sun, shalom for the world.”

“I had holy conversation with amazing women.”

“I wrote a poem for the first time in ten years.”

“Someone invited me to walk through the leaves in the woods.”

At the same time as my clergywomen friends took time away to revive our souls, my husband was in Alabama with a group of clergy of similar very large churches. Although their agenda was different, they, too, shared the deepest yearnings of their hearts and the painful places of their ministries. All clergy need a safe place to confide in their peers.

It’s not an easy time to be a pastor. The passion and gifts that laity so freely offer to the church for the cause of Christ inspire clergy and make our hearts sing. At the same time, many of our churches are declining, and congregational anxiety over the future is widespread. Leaders can become entrenched, and church members occasionally treat each other in toxic ways. The pastor can also become an easy target to blame for the ills of the church.

How can we become self-differentiated leaders who put on our own oxygen masks first before seeking to minister to others? Perhaps clergy and congregations will become healthier if, rather than frenetically planning more activities and creating more programs, we seek to become more loving in our hearts and more whole/holy in our lives.

Rather than feed the insane pace of life today by following the pack or even setting the pace, perhaps God calls Christ-followers to a different way of living than our neighbors. Rather than forego sabbath because we are afraid of missing a deadline, neglecting emails or disappointing someone who thinks they need us right now, perhaps clergy and laity both need to listen more closely to the God who begs us to stop and see the extraordinary in the ordinary, even if just for one day a week.

Somewhere, sometime, someplace, someone decided that October should be Clergy Appreciation Month. It usually passes me by, but this month I give thanks for the courage of my brothers and sisters in the clergy who faithfully feed their flocks and lead their congregations during anxious times. I am especially grateful for our young clergy, for the deep call that prompts them to offer their lives to God through the itinerant professional ministry. I also give thanks for laity who understand the unique challenges of clergy and their families, provide sensitive, grace-filled support and guidance and give us permission to form healthy habits of self-care.

The day after I returned home from the retreat, Susan, her friend Maggie and I had a wonderful conversation as we waited for her surgery. It was a serious surgery, and Susan had already been in the hospital for a week. Susan and Maggie are highly intuitive and attuned to spiritual matters, and we talked freely about the presence of God in her room that morning. Susan asked about my time at the clergywoman’s gathering and affirmed the need for all clergy to have time away for refreshment and healing.

When we were ready to pray, Susan asked me to sing a song, so I sang, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness; And all these things shall be added unto you; Allelu, alleluia.” During the song a woman named Barbara came into the room to empty trash. As she greeted Susan and quietly went about her job, Susan praised Barbara’s gentle and gracious care and simple ministry of presence. Susan then asked, “Will you join our circle of prayer?” Holding hands around Susan’s bed I asked God to surround her with peace and guide the hands and hearts of the surgeon and all who would be caring for her. Then Barbara proceeded to pray a fervent prayer of power and might and glory as she proclaimed God’s goodness and asked for a hedge of protection around Susan. An ordinary yet extraordinary moment. Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.

In the midst of the very humanness of the church, people like Lynda, Barbara, Susan, Maggie and countless clergy and laity share extraordinary love in ordinary ways by living balanced and whole lives. Sometimes all it takes is an afternoon off.

Blessings,
Laurie

The Three Vows

Awakening at 4:30 a.m., we emerged from darkness into darkness, our solitary tents dotting the plateau in northern New Mexico. In silence our small group of pilgrims drove forty-five minutes to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, marveling at the brilliant colors of dawn welcoming the new day into the desert stillness.

We arrived in time for Lauds at 5:45 a.m., the second office of the day, followed by the mass. My senses were heightened in the silence, solitude and mystery of this magnificent desert setting. “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” If we were sleepy, the monks were, too. One of the monks was struggling to stay awake.

I could easily have become a monk, having always been fascinated by the monastic tradition, with its disciplined spiritual life of prayer, simplicity and balance. Introduced to the Order of Saint Benedict in recent years, I’ve discovered a treasure of wisdom that is easily accessible to all disciples of Jesus Christ.

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St. Benedict was the father of western monasticism and is also considered the Co-patron of Europe along with Saints Cyrus and Methodius. Why? Because the monasteries he established in the sixth century helped to preserve the culture of ancient Greece and Rome after the Roman Empire crumbled.

As a young man, Benedict went to Rome to study. After dedicating his life to God, however, Benedict lived three years in solitude in a cave near the ruins of Emperor Nero’s summer villa fifty miles outside of Rome. After emerging from the cave, Benedict became the superior of a group of renegade monks. Unhappy with his leadership, the monks attempted to poison Benedict, who withdrew to the cave again. Eventually, Benedict established twelve small monasteries in the area.

Later, Benedict wrote his Rule for monks, which is known today as the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule was not only instrumental in the development of Christianity in Europe but is still followed today by Benedictine monks who choose a life of prayer, study and work in community. The principles of this Rule are also practiced by Catholic laymen and women and other Christians who desire to deepen their spiritual life.

St. Benedict taught the simple virtues of hospitality, respect, simplicity and holiness.
His rules for a good and balanced life are contained in the three vows that Benedictine monks take: obedience, stability, and conversion.

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Obedience

Monastic obedience is the relationship between a monk and the monastic leader, which extends to a connection of the entire monastic community in mutual obedience. The object of monastic obedience is the seeking of God. The monastic leader is a “director of souls,” not a manger or boss. The role of the superior’s commands is to help the monk’s search for God.

The word “obedience” comes from the Latin root word audire, which means “to hear.” Contrary to our society’s promotion of anything goes and seeking our own pleasure, biblical obedience focuses on listening to the call of God by responding to the needs of others and our world. How that call is lived out may change over the course of our lives, but we must always focus on that call and not be continually diverted by other voices clamoring to be heard.

Isaiah 48:6b-7 says, “From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, ‘I already knew them.’” Obedience is a continuous process of listening to the new things God reveals to us every day, responding with faith and action to that which beckons us and saying “no” to that which does not further our call.

Stability

Monks in the Benedictine tradition make a commitment to live their entire lives in the monastery they join. But this vow of stability extends beyond stability of place to stability of community and stability of heart. By committing to community, just as with marriage vows, monks promise to work through issues and improve relationships rather than simply run away.

Stability is an antidote to the restlessness of much of our world today, where we love to escape by avoiding problems. If our jobs, family bonds and friendships don’t satisfy, we pick up and move somewhere else or find new relationships. Stability is a vow to pay attention to the movement of God in every moment and not always be seeking more excitement, more stimulation, more toys. Stability counters the unceasing search for the new and extravagant.

Stability of heart is perhaps the greatest challenge of monastic wisdom today. What our world needs more than anything else is disciples of Jesus Christ who display stability of mercy, stability of justice, stability of grace, stability of forgiveness and stability of reconciliation. The world needs to know that Christians will live out what they say and will practice what they preach. Stability is a vow to be consistent in our commitments and in our desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Conversion

At first glance conversion may seem to contradict stability. Conversion is a dynamic vow that encourages us to be continuous learners, always seeking new ways to grow in our faith and practice. Conversion implies transformation, as we become aware of our deepest longings and risk change of heart, mind, and life.

Many Christians groups use “conversion” to explain how a person comes to faith. Often they experience a surprising and even spectacular change of heart where Jesus suddenly becomes real in their life, and they go from having no religion to claiming a personal relationship with Christ. People who are converted in this way can remember the day and hour of their religious experience and cannot understand the long, slow work of God in the lives of other disciples who were brought up in the faith since childhood. Not everyone is “born again” in the twinkling of an eye. Nor is faith always the result of a long process of cultivation.

In the Benedictine sense every person who seeks conversion is always looking for a new way to see life. Every day becomes an opportunity for transformation. Conversion is not a one-time experience but a continuous process of death and rebirth. It’s a way of looking at life that is creative, optimistic, positive and open.

Conversion sees possibilities, not problems. It gives people the benefit of the doubt, always seeking to convert the difficulties of life into opportunities for growth. The person who vows to follow conversion of life wants to transform the whole world from death and despair to new life and hope. He or she is not dogmatic but is always seeking and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Each one of these vows, obedience, stability and conversion, is counter-cultural and challenges the status quo as well as the way we often about our lives. Every day is filled with profound experiences when we practice these three disciplines.

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Whenever I think of that monk who couldn’t stay awake at 5:45 a.m., it reminds me of a story from the desert fathers. Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, “If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?” Abba Poemen answered, “If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.” Then one old man spoke up, “And how do you explain yourself before God?” Abba Poemen replied, “I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’”

I could have easily become a monk, living a solitary life in the desert. Instead, I follow the monk’s life of obedience, stability and conversion in the city, eager to live out the long, slow work of God where I am called to serve.

Blessings,
Laurie