Mystery – Joy and Sadness

coffee mugI walked into the United Methodist Church building where I have served as pastor for the past three years. It was quiet. Of course, it should have been quiet. It was “Conference Sunday” and everyone knew that the pastor was away and there were no evening activities scheduled.

It was a wonderful Annual Conference session. I watched my daughter Erin become a delegate to General Conference in 2016. I took a bit of pride in that – but I thanked God, the one I knew had really blessed her with the gifts that led to that moment. I am just blessed to be her father.

I attended wonderful worship sessions and business sessions that for the most part were filled with holy conversation. Yes, there was a moment or two when people forgot to respect their sisters and brothers as they spoke. There was a particularly painful moment when one of our youth tried to share her faith in the Bible and our need to at least attempt to hear those sacred words the way she hears them. But many good Christians forgot to listen as Christ would and mumbled angrily as she spoke. Lesser things have created great prophets, so I will continue to pray for this brave young woman.

I participated in a service of anointing on Saturday night that reminded me once again just how broken we as Christians really are in this world. We need the Balm of Gilead. We need the healing presence of Christ. We. Need. So. Much.

I wept during the ordination service as I watched five wonderful pastors be ordained. For the past three years I had the honor and the joy of sharing in a covenant group with these five and one more who decided to wait a year for ordination examination. I don’t know why I wept – it was a mixture a joy, hope, and fear – but I do know that a perfectly good stole became a handkerchief for my snotty nose.

I listened with quite a bit of joy on the way home as my youngest daughter quizzed me on parliamentary procedure, rules, and the United Methodist Discipline. Our drive from Conference took more than two hours, but there wasn’t a quiet moment. I was a bit gleeful that she shares some of my love for these tricky little procedures that give us order.

There was a whole lot of joy this week.

And then…after we had been home a little while, my wife and I walked into the “Conference Sunday” quiet church. We gathered a box and she set about taking her personal things out of her office at the church.

On Friday, our Conference debated and passed a petition to General Conference that would change our Discipline to prohibit any member of a pastor’s household from holding a financial office in the church. This was passed in a hope of providing protection to pastors and their spouses of even the “appearance of impropriety.” Yes, I know that this legislation has a long road to make it into our Discipline, but I also listened closely to the voices that were shared during the debate. The voices in support were loud and clear and the favorable vote stated that our Conference did not want our pastor’s and spouses open to this “appearance of impropriety.”

On the other hand, First UMC Princeton had worked so hard to make this a safe place for my spouse to use her gifts. (And she is so very gifted at what she does!) She never touched money – only offering envelopes that had been checked by two (or more) non-related persons and the amounts included written on them. She balanced the counters work with the deposit slips they gave her. She printed out electronic checks after receiving vouchers from authorized persons. She would call check signers – none of these persons were counters – to come and check the validity of the vouchers and sign the checks. She would balance the books and print reports as we needed them. And then, every month, yet another person would come in and audit those books and accounts. First UMC put in processes that kept this gifted woman safe from accusation. But nothing can protect her from “appearances”.

Appearances, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

It wasn’t as quiet when we left the church that evening. There were tears. There was sadness. There was the rattling of coffee mugs and a bowl she often used to fix oatmeal for lunch.

This is all part of the mystery I have grown to know as Christ’s Church: It will build you up and it will pull the rug out of from under your feet.

I am just thankful, that underneath it all, under the mountain top experiences and under the roughly tugged rugs there is a God who is greater than even the Church we make in his name. I know God loves this Church, because God loves me, an imperfect person in an equally imperfect group of people.

I go on because I choose to behold this: Jesus loves me. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves us.


Family Celebrations

In our home, we have a little saying when one of us begins to weep or cry at a movie or some other event like church. We simply say, “It’s a mystery!” rather than try to figure out exactly what triggered the joy or sorrow of the tears. Well, it was a mystery for me all evening…

I stood among the many people holding candles and sang the hymn that so many churches do on Christmas Eve – “Silent night, holy night” – and I thought about the six wonderful months I have had serving the people of First UMC, Princeton. They welcomed me better than the Christ child was welcomed into the world. They cared for me better than the shepherds in Jesus day would ever experience. And they listened, really listened as I led them to celebrate a Different Kind of Christmas by joining Jesus in the battle against malaria. When my daughter got up and began singing “O Holy Night,” I knew the night was almost complete – the singing of “Silent Night” and the twinkling of the candles allowed me to remember the love, the care and the service given by a community of faith.

The Saturday after Christmas found me spending time with twenty one of my family members in the Fellowship Hall of our church. My Dad got up to say a few words and my brothers and I all nervously laughed, not knowing how long this would take or just what might come out. But then he said, “Thank you. That is all.” And he sat back down. We were celebrating the fifty years that my parents had been married but from the stories being shared, I think we were just celebrating! There was laughter…there were crying, fussy grandchildren (yep…mine) and there was food. The only thing missing…perhaps the singing of “O Holy Night” would have rounded it out for me.

“I don’t know how things were going in there, but people were hanging around in the Gathering Space for along time talking to one another.”

It was a report that I really hadn’t expected. The coffee and the sweet rolls were in the sanctuary and people had come and gone for a couple of hours as groups – sometimes families, sometimes a mix of people – served one another in our version of the Moravian lovefeast. Hugs broke out easily when the eating was over. So, why was I surprised that the fellowship, the unity, the “agape” we shared in the sanctuary spilled over into the Gathering Space and probably even home.

Now that I think it about, only one thing was missing that night as well…”O Holy Night.”

Nah, it wasn’t a “mystery” for just one evening, it has been one mystery after another for a while!  Thank God!