I’ve been reflecting on the nature of family this week in preparation for preaching a short series on the book of Ruth. I took a quick look at Merriam-Webster, and noticed something interesting. The first definition of family does not even mention biological relationship; rather, it is called “a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not. The annotation continues on down the page, biology enters the definition at subsection 4.
We all need the things that family is built to provide: unconditional love, nurture, safety, stability, belonging, connection, correction. Not all of us are lucky enough to have received these building blocks of life from the families to which we are born. And even if we are, the concept of intimate, trustworthy “social units” is much too important to only include those who are connected to us through biology.
I am blessed with a pretty fabulous family…only some of whom are biologically related. I have given birth to two amazing sons, Jonathan and Devin. I love them more than words could ever express. I am proud of the men they have become. They are that part of my heart that exists and walks outside my body. Wherever they are, my heart walks with them. Years ago, a quirky Cistercian monk named Theophane, asked me: “What have your children taught you?” I didn’t even hesitate, “unconditional love.” Jonathan married Michelle, who became the first daughter of the tribe. She is a very competent nurse, and promises that she will still love and take care of me when I am old and cranky, and I believe her.
My husband, Mike, became family through our marriage. He is the steadiness to my creative “starbursts” upon whom I can depend. He keeps me grounded. He helps me laugh. He teaches me that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be love. Justin became my son, because I married his dad. I loved him from the first day we met. He in turn married Jonah, who is a delight. From Jonah, our whole family has learned the power of expressing a happy moment with a simple and powerfully enthusiastic “Yay!”
Mike and I also have a daughter, Abbie. I met Abbie when she was a senior in High School. She is not ours by birth or adoption, but we belong to each other nonetheless. For a while, I thought I was helping Abbie to learn and grow what she needed to prepare for life. But, as is often the case, I have learned so much more from her, that I could have ever given. She is a phenomenal woman. We love her to the moon and back.
My sister Judy. Well. What can I say. She came into my life during my first full time appointment as a pastor. She has fed me, encouraged me, stuck with me, and been everything I could have ever wished a sister could be. Our relationship reminds me of the way some cats show up on the doorstep, and decide they have found home. Sometimes it has been me sitting on the porch, and sometimes it has been she.
My family continues to grow as the years pass. My tribe includes many of the folks who have been part of my life as a pastor over the past 20 years or so. Some are friends who chose to be present during some of the darkest moments of my life, those who I know would move heaven and earth to show up if I truly needed them. And those who know I would do the same for them. That is what the best kind of families do.
A few years ago, I was at a workshop where a presenter instructed pastors that if we wanted to grow our churches, we needed to stop referring to our congregations as “family.” Putting the family label on a congregation can inhibit growth. It sets up insiders and outsiders. The old guard become gate keepers, as the circle of intimacy keeps out those who are unaccustomed to “our way of doing things.” We often don’t even notice that we are doing it, declaring to all and sundry that our church is just one happy family. And what about those of us for whom the whole concept of family is toxic. If all you have ever known is a family that is dysfunction, judgmental, untrustworthy, why take a chance with “church” as one more opportunity to be betrayed? There is truth to both of these critiques.
I can totally understand the ambivalence that many folks have these days toward the church. I understand the cynicism and skepticism of our times, when we simply cannot trust that any institution, especially one with the kind of checkered reputation as the Christianity, could provide the kind of unconditional acceptance, safety, belonging and connection that we all need to thrive. But I still believe it to be true.
The church (with a little “c”) has been my family since I was nine years old. Even when I have been hurt by the church (big C and little c) it is the family to whom my heart still turns in times of stress and in times of joy. The church is my tribe. They are my people. They are my hope for the world.
It can get kind of messy—this business of creating God’s dream in the world—the “kin-dom” I like to call it. It is a big table, but about the time it looks like there is no more room, God tells us to scoot over and adds a few more chairs. (No cardboard tables in the other room.) If we get too squished, God will just make the table bigger. It is madness by the world’s standards. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
A family is many things,
Not bound by size or kin.
Each person’s gift a breath of spring,
God’s music can begin.
A dream, a voice, a smile, a prayer,
Together we are strong.
United, coming now to share,
In one accord God’s song.
To celebrate the gifts we bring,
The Christ in one we know,
We dare to hope, to laugh, to sing,
To praise, to dance, to grow.*
Blessings, dear family. May we live into God’s dream together. Pastor Nancy
*©Nancy Slabaugh Hart 1996
One of the hardest transitions for me as a pastor every year is when the calendar slides from July to August. It is still summer, but fall is already casting a long shadow I can’t ignore. School supplies fill the store shelves. Gardens are producing in abundance (well, ours isn’t, but that is a topic for another day). End of summer adventures are squeezed into the schedule.
This week has me getting down to the serious work of fall planning. Lots of things start up in the fall. There is the re-gathering of the diaspora of summer adventurers we call “Homecoming Sunday” (September 9, if you’re curious), there is a shiny, new sermon series in the works (called Connecting and Belonging), and finance team and I are working on what we hope will be a fun (yes, you read me right, FUN!) stewardship campaign before advent. I am looking forward to seeing all these things take shape.
On the other hand, I don’t want to let go of summer. My flower beds are finally beginning to fill in, although I can still hear the siren call of all the plants that would add additional beauty and serenity. (The local nurseries love to see me pull in the driveway.) I love how the back yard is shaping up. Last year I could see the possibilities. I wanted it to be a place of peace and respite, and where we could offer friendship and hospitality. And it is! I love having people come over to sit on our back patio and enjoy the flowers, the shade, the gentle sound of our fountain and wind chimes as we share stories and a cool beverage. (Let me know if you want to come, you would be most welcome!)
I don’t want to rush through these next few weeks. There are many, many things on the to-do list, and the calendar is already getting full as we move toward a different rhythm. But I hope we will all have some moments of sabbath rest, even in the midst of this transition. Sometimes it is a matter of intention and attention, and other times, it means stepping away. Next week, I will be taking a few days to be intentional about rest and presence. I will be heading to my happy place—the beach—to enjoy the power of surf, sand, wind and sky to quiet heart, mind and body. There isn’t much on the agenda for these few days, except to eat as much fresh seafood as possible, watch the waves, have great conversations with a dear friend, and walk in the healing presence of the Holy One.
Chris and Mike will be around for any emergencies. And, I will be back in the saddle to preach next Sunday. Don’t forget to savor. Don’t forget silence. Don’t forget that you are beloved.
Blessings and Peace, Pastor Nancy
It was good to get home on Saturday afternoon from camp. I emptied most of my suitcase in the dirty clothes, took a long shower to remove the smell of campfire from my hair, and then got ready to go back for our adventure at camp together on Sunday morning after our service here in Madras.
What a great day! We are already planning for our all-church picnic and worship at Suttle Lake to become an annual event. There were 35 of us, plus staff and counselors gathered on the playing field for barbeque out on the beautiful lawn. The menu was traditional picnic fare with hotdogs, hamburgers, potato salad, chips and drinks. We managed to rearrange the tables so we could all sit in the shade, and even had a bit of excitement when the automatic sprinklers turned on suddenly. The intrepid Resident Counselors ran for the sprinklers to keep the water off all of us—so they were the only ones to get wet. After lunch, we gathered in one of the chapel areas and worshipped together. The Resident Counselors joined us for worship, and provided leadership in “Fred the Moose,” and also sang one of the songs I learned from them in the course of our week together. It is called “Madly,” and I wanted to share the lyrics with you:
I’m madly in love with you.
I’m madly in love with you.
I’m madly in love with you.
I’m madly in love with you.
Let what we do in here,
Get to the streets out there.
We will dance for you.
We will dance for you.
That is the whole thing, isn’t it? Earlier in the morning, a young woman stood out in our greeting area. Gary introduced her to me, and we visited a few minutes before worship. She explained that she was looking for a church. We chatted a few more minutes about this and that, and then she said that she had noticed our rainbow flag as she was walking by the church other day. “Is that for real?”
“Well, yes,” I said, “we are a reconciling congregation, which means that everyone is welcome here.
She paused, “I was kicked out of my home church. My pastor told me I am going to hell.”
Since then, she has been looking for a place to belong. So far, she hadn’t been welcomed in any church she had tried.
My heart cracked a bit as she shared her story.
I was glad to be able to say that I thought she would not experience that here.
She took a seat near the back, and I kept an eye out for her. I saw folks greet her, shake her hand and welcome her. The sermon text for the morning, was about Paul and Barnabas returning to Jerusalem. Some folk had heard about their welcoming the Gentiles into the fold, and wanted to make sure that the new converts realized they would have to change their ways in order to be part of the community of Jesus followers. Paul and Barnabas argued with them until they were blue in the face, and they all finally decided to head back to Jerusalem to see what the Apostles and elders had to say.
The conversation must have been long and intense. They had a hard decision to make—do we insist that all who follow Jesus conform to one orthodoxy—i.e. become Jews—or do we make room at the table for those who had never been invited? Their decision on that day changed everything. Who is welcome? Who can be one of us? How wide is God’s circle? The debate still rages.
After the service, I invited her to join us on our field trip to Suttle Lake. She couldn’t, because she works three jobs. I said, I hoped she would come back.
The card she filled out during the service had these words written in a neat hand: “I felt very welcome here.”
Beloved, may “what we do in here, get to the streets out there.” Thanks be to God.
See you Sunday, Pastor Nancy
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