This week’s Preacher Woman comes to you from “on location” at Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp. How blessed we are to have this fabulous resource so close by! Today is a bit cooler than yesterday, and I have set up shop at a picnic table near the green playing field. The trees are casting just the right amount of shade, there is a fragrant breeze, and I can watch the campers playing some incomprehensible (to me, at least) game involving soccer balls and frisbees (there is a lot of running involved).
We are having a good week. The staff here is impressive, the meals awesome, and the location couldn’t be more beautiful. Most of the counselors are part of the Resident Counselor program here in the Oregon-Idaho Conference. The conference (our apportionments at work) provides youth and young adults training and support and a small stipend, and they spend their summer traveling between our camps, providing leadership, continuity and the kind of expertise only young adults have (like great energy, new and exciting games, and the ability to go without sleep for long stretches of time). They are an impressive group. I am learning some great new songs and games!
I am one of the chaplains this week, so my job is to help with worship experiences, and be a good listener to campers and staff. Not a bad way to spend a week!
Going to church camp was always the highlight of my summer. Much of who I am as an adult, was shaped during those short weeks spent in that special place. Friends. Crafts. Skits. Music.
My counselors were good listeners, who took seriously the worries of a young, sensitive girl, and provided me with space to say out loud some of the things I didn’t think it would be safe to say outside the comfort of my own head:
What if there really isn’t a God? What if the stories in the Bible are just stories? If we need God, does God need us? What is heaven like? Can you be a Christian if your parents are divorced? If your family doesn’t go to church, does that mean they won’t go to heaven? Does God realize how scared I am?
It isn’t just young kids who need safe space to ask these questions. So many folks—of all ages—with whom I speak are in considerable ambivalence about this whole faith thing. As most of us are aware, the “Nones” are the fastest growing designation of religious affiliation in the U.S. In my world, I often hear doubt, curiosity, cynicism, and lots of questions. Here are some of the questions I hear:
Are we naively holding onto a remnant of hopeful and magical thinking? Or are we settling for a simple way to make the world easier to understand or have meaning? After all, people seem to be able to experience a sense of power and belonging at a college football game or a rock concert. Do we need church for that? Do we need God to be kind, or have integrity, or hold onto a sense of obligation to make the world a better place?
Maybe you recognize some of the questions. Maybe you have them yourself. Maybe you have even more questions than this list provides.
Stepping away to a quiet place can provide the mental and spiritual space to consider the world, our place in it, and our relationship to all that is beyond our ability to categorize and fully comprehend. In the sounds of trees blowing in the wind, the rich smell of pine, wood smoke, sun-warmed grass, our defenses against uncomfortable thoughts can quiet our souls enough to hear that still small voice, or the sounds of sheer silence that the prophet Elijah is said to have experienced when he was at the tipping point of his work as a truth teller. He was tired. He was lonely. He was burned out. Not so different than what many of us experience on a daily basis.
If we get quiet enough, we may have a chance to notice a moment when there is grace where it doesn’t seem possible; where there is love when it isn’t earned or deserved, forgiveness for the unforgiveable; connection between the most unlikely souls. And, my favorite awareness of all– the moments of mystery that calls to us from a place deeper than we ever knew existed in this chaotic and seemingly meaningless universe.
Camp for me has always been about stepping away, letting the mental squirrels rest for a time, breathing deeply, listening and being listened to—and being held by a community—even if that community only existed for that one week of camp. It fed my soul. It nurtured my dreams. It gave me glimpses of Holy Mystery that I had intuited, but rarely experienced. I hope you will join us this Sunday as we worship together at home base, and then join in a time of worship, food, and fellowship up here at camp. You never know what may happen at camp.
See you Sunday. Blessings, Pastor Nancy
Tuesday mornings at 8:30, I sit at a dining table at East Cascade Living Center and wait for the chairs to fill up. We are always a bit slow in starting, since not everyone lives in the same building, and because nearly all of the participants need the assistance of a walker to get to Bible Study. For the past few weeks, we have been reading the same scriptures I am preaching from on Sundays, which means we are in the book of Acts. Since our study is on Tuesdays, it gives me a chance to think out loud about the text as I do my weekly “sermonizing.” And this group is a great sounding board.
There is something mysterious about how a table of strangers can, over time, become a community. I have watched the process happen frequently over the years, and it never ceases to inspire me. This group has been meeting for a number of months, but the change from polite listeners to engaged community seems to have clicked just recently. When we first started, I would sit in the dining hall by myself, while the participants were rounded up by staff. These days, there are always a couple of folks there ahead of me, and we wait together for the rest to gather. If someone doesn’t show up, we have someone check to see if they are coming. No one likes to miss.
As I look around the table, I realize how much this group has come to mean to me. We are an ecumenical gathering—Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, none-of-the-above, and me. I get to hear their stories. I share in their worries about children, their grief, their sleepless nights, their struggle with pain, and the ennui that comes with the gradual shrinking of their world.
I am beginning to feel the first pull of it myself—the awareness that what is behind me is larger than what is ahead of me. That the season of life that seemed spacious with options and possibilities, has collapsed in the realities of time, age and infirmity. The world is getting smaller for my friends around the table. They have had to let go of homes, friendships, favorite possessions, privacy, pets, meaningful work, and independence. It is the season of reductions.
This week, as I prepare to preach about Paul and Barnabas, we shared stories of those people who shaped us and encouraged us in our faith—as Barnabas (whose very name means Son of Encouragement) had done for Paul when he took him under his wing at a time no one trusted the authenticity of Paul’s conversion and call. Holy Ground territory. Where would any of us be without those “Encouragers” who have been there for us, who continue to be there for us?
As I looked around the table, I realized that this small group of people had more power than any of us had realized. For here, sitting together on a warm summer morning, were people of faith who prayed, who cared for one another, who listened, who have the power to influence all those with whom they come into contact in love and grace. As I shared this thought, I saw on their faces the realization that it was true. It surprised us all.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Yes. There are losses. The world gets smaller. There are disappointments. Set-backs. Big dreams may go through a process of shrinking down to the size of a one-bedroom apartment. But God’s dreams don’t shrink! All of us are called. All means all. God calls us, loves us, nurtures us—and we have a job to do, no matter what the circumstance of our life. Sons and Daughters of Encouragement: Who is in front of you, behind you, sitting alone in the corner, who is waiting to be taken under your/my/our wing? It is a giddy thought. God is Good.
Blessings, dear friends of encouragement! See you Sunday, Pastor Nancy
When, not quite a year ago, our belongings finally arrived in Madras, Mike and I went right to work creating home. It was fun finding just the right place for our furniture and books, hanging pictures, figuring out the most convenient places to store special items. We didn’t totally succeed, because all this takes time, and eventually, I felt we just needed to move on to other projects. So, then there was the problem of what to do with the things we hadn’t had a chance to sort through. Some things were still in boxes, others in totes, some just in random stacks that, if I had them labeled properly, would declare as “things to sort.”
Luckily for us, the parsonage had a perfect room for these items, and a door that would close it off from sight and mind. We stacked all the leftovers in this extra room, and didn’t give it much thought, until one or the other of us would be looking for something we were pretty sure we had, but could not locate. Thus, began the next stage of moving. We would go in the spare room, generally in a bit of a hurry, and rifle through boxes and totes looking for the lost item. Sometimes, we would come upon something we had forgotten about, and pull that out as well. Over time, the neatly organized room, became less organized. Then, Devin, the beloved son, moved to Oregon and added some of his own boxes and piles to the room. The floor disappeared, and looking for anything became even more challenging—sometimes requiring the balance of a tightrope walker.
I began to call our convenient storage space “The-Room-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named,” while Mike simply called it the “Wrecked Room.” It became a point of stress in my life—chaos reigned. I can deal with a certain amount of mess and chaos, but there is generally a tipping point, and we had reached it.
This week, Mike and I have been working at trying to put a little organization into the confusion. Mike has built some cool shelves, that will help me know where things are. We have both done some sorting and pitching. We aren’t done, but it feels good to begin to see the floor again.
This could end up being an excursus on the dangers of having too much stuff (a most worthy topic for later reflection) but the thought that has been bubbling around at the edges of my mind this week has more to do with space—spiritual space.
When my physical space descends into chaos, I feel as if I can hardly breathe, until I take time to open things out again by cleaning and decluttering. My spiritual well-being is impacted in much the same way. The clutter just looks a little different, and it is definitely harder to simply “close the door.”
Carrie Newcomer, in one of my favorite songs, sings: “I’m traveling faster than my soul can go.” That is a perfect description of the contents hidden in my spiritual “Room-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.” I can get so distracted by the sense of “hurry,” the 24-hour-a-day pull of electronic connection, the pseudo-urgency that seems to be part of living in this new century and millennia. So, this week, as Mike and I create a bit more physical space, I am wondering if I can make room for my soul as well. Breathe. Listen. Pay Attention.
You may have noticed that I try to avoid the words “you” and “us” when I preach and write. My experiences may not be yours, and I would never assume to know what the deepest needs of your soul might be. But, I suspect that at least some of us may struggle with going faster than the speed of our own souls. I invite you to join me this week in taking some deep slow breaths, in stepping away from the screens and the to-do lists. Let’s be present to this glorious moment that God has given us and allow grace room to do its healing work. I’ll keep the door open.
Blessings, Pastor Nancy