Tripping Through the Past

October 26, 2013

This Fall has been wonderfully and weirdly full for me.

Earlier this summer, I received word that two of my previous churches were having anniversary celebrations and would I be able to come? Initially, my husband and I decided that we would all go to the church in Illinois, but that we could not afford a trip for even just me to Nebraska. So I sat down to write them my greetings and regrets. And within minutes, I knew I could not simply send a note. I had to be there. I had to go to that church too. So we made it happen.

After we got the arrangements for both trips, I received a phone call from my very first church in Arvada, where I was a youth volunteer and spent a year being co-youth pastor with my then fiance. They needed someone to preach… in 4 days. And I said yes.

So suddenly in the span of just a few weeks, I was walking through these places of memories one after the other.

The church in Arvada was a wonderful experience of preaching. As I drove up that morning, I reflected on those experiences so many years ago. I was a broken-hearted 20-year-old when I walked into that church one Sunday morning, lonely from a recent breakup with a boyfriend who had mocked me when I told him that maybe God was calling me into ministry. That Sunday after the service, a woman turned around and said without even knowing how I was, “You must be here to work with youth!” I assumed it was either the voice of God or the expectation of the congregation that every young person came to work a ministry rather than just be part of the congregation. I still don’t know which. But I told her, “OK!” and followed her directions down to the gym where I met the youth pastor (and the man who would become my husband who was already a youth volunteer there). That next week, I became a youth leader.

I had never planned on a life in ministry. I did not grow up in a church that welcomed women in such roles and I had never considered it for myself. And yet, I could not deny, no matter how much I tried, that there was something very fulfilling and natural about teaching and speaking and leading and planning. The youth pastor I worked under was amazing at letting me try my hand at anything I wanted and he allowed me to wrestle out my faith and theology in the roles he gave me. I don’t remember being very involved in the church in Arvada at the time, but I do credit that church for being “the beginning.”

And so preaching there was a wonderful chance to see some things come full circle for me.

Then came the trip to Nebraska and my first full time call out of college. This trip excited me so much and I was glad to be invited to their 125th anniversary. I was called to this church over 14 years ago. It was this little church in this little town, but they hosted 100 kids every Wednesday night for an amazing ministry to children and youth. As I drove the distance from Omaha to this church, I saw again the countryside that had been so foreign to me back then, but now beckoned me to a place I had come to love- both while I lived there and in the time since. The weekend with this little church in this little town was filled with hugs and smiles, stories and laughter. And I realized that in this is exactly what faithfulness looks like. These “salt of the earth” people who faithfully served Jesus in a place that most people would never even consider and who loved people effectively so much that they were overrun with visitors and well wishes from countless many who had been touched by this congregation. This is in some ways a typical rural church, but in many ways, this church outshines even the big celebrity churches in terms of impact and ministry. And love. It was in Wakefield, I learned what real love from a church looked like. I remember crying for weeks after leaving the first time to attend seminary. And when I left this past visit, I wept too. That matters.

The following weekend my husband, son and I traveled to Illinois to the 135th anniversary of the church I pastored. This was an even faster weekend. We were probably on the ground in Illinois 36 hours total. This was a nice visit as well. Many hugs and much catching up to do. The best part was watching my son be celebrated and loved by these people who weren’t with us when he was born since we had moved well before that.

Both of these trips allowed for reflection, thinking back on my time with these people. Wondering about how my life would be different had I never met them. I remembered the things that touched my heart most with these churches. And I remembered the hard times. And perhaps it was the biggest lesson in trusting God- those moments of reflection- trusting that the gifts I gave them and they me would come to fruition in due time, and trusting that the mishaps and missteps would be covered by the hands of a gracious God too. It is hard to believe how long my journey has been and how many lives I have had the chance to meet and know in that journey. And I am grateful.

The strangest thing however was the return home from these very old churches to the church community I am trying to accept as my own right now (and realizing how hard that is). This church plant we have been with for the last months is fascinating in so many ways. But to think they are only just 3 years old after coming from churches that are over 100 years old. The prevailing attitude is that these older churches are “archaic,” “dead,” “dying,” “useless.” And I sensed that in my small group when I returned to it. And in some ways- yes, there are many old churches that are indeed that. In fact, there are many young churches who are as well! But as I bumped up against this awkwardness in the moments at the group meeting, I found myself both agreeing with that attitude and disagreeing. Mostly because these wonderful people in our church group have never met my Nebraska friends. They have never shook hands with my thinking and loving people in Illinois.  And yet, as I love my “old churches” in my journey, I am learning to love my “new church” too. This baby church plant that is still sorting out what it will be and become. I am honored to have had both these spectrums in my life.

That church plant honored me by inviting me to attend a church planters conference, which I will write about next. It was interesting, but I was mostly fascinated by the group I was privileged to be with from this church plant that we have spent our time with. Their passion, their joy, their desire to think and act and live in a way that makes the vision of God’s mission tangible. That was by far the most incredible thing.

And then to close out my October, I attended part of my own conference’s pastor retreat, featuring my dear friend, Dave Kersten, who spoke so deeply about the vocational call of ministry which is forged in crisis and healing. I will write more about that too.

Regardless… these opportunities to attend to the various phases of my adulthood and ministry were gifts. As much as I want to create meaning for them, I don’t know why they all came at once, one right after the other. And so I am simply grateful in the wonderful weirdness of it all. Grateful to have been given the chance to trip down memory lane and to trip across the grace of God in places and times I may have missed years before.

We are given these graces every day. Too often, we miss them. I do. And so when God gives us a chance to see them again, it would be wise for all of us to take those chances. And lift up our hands in thanksgiving.

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