20 September, 2012

A Sewing Machine and Ministry

My mother’s sewing machine was a mainstay of our home when I was growing up.  It was at that machine that many of my clothes were made from hand-me-downs and recycled Goodwill clothing, repairs and patches were administered to well loved wardrobe items, my sisters’ wedding gowns were crafted, several sets of drapes were assembled and later repaired, the sails for my brother’s boat were repaired, and the dress my mother wore to
my wedding was created.  The walnut case – assembled at a factory in the early 1900’s – was constant reminder of memories of good times, challenging times, sad times. It was a piece of furniture I received from my brother with great joy.  This I would treasure in my own home; I would use it to create and repair clothing and household items, as well as for my own memory-making. 

But my brother had stored it for 5 years in his basement.  The moisture from that Connecticut River Valley home had caused the walnut veneer to mold, buckle, and peel. The varnish finish was checked from hot summers on Cape Cod.  The machine within this case was still fully functional with a little fine tuning; but the case in which it was housed was in serious danger of being non-useable. Something needed to be done about the case, but I was conflicted about how to proceed.  To re-veneer and refinish the case would decrease its historic value; to do nothing would also diminish its value.  It was not as it used to be and, it seemed, it could never be like that again.  Change had happened and was yet to happen, and there was no course of action that I could take to avoid some type of loss.  Yet the promise – and challenge – of renewal and rebirth engaged me.

The state of the Church, to me, is very much like the status of my mother’s sewing machine.  We are in a time of major transition, and change is not something we do well.  Often when faced with limited choices we find conflict and grief are more comfortable than change.  We know things will never be the same, but we have great difficulty knowing how to proceed into God’s future. 

Ministry happens when the needs of creation, the giftedness of individuals, and the will of God collide.  Ministry is about building trust and strengthening relationships: between individuals, between people and God, between groups, within families and communities.  Ministry is about learning and growing: in our personal and spiritual lives, in our understanding of one another and “the other.”

For most of the last 28 years, my role as a pastor has been to engage, foster, and lead ministry in the settings to which has God called me. My ministry has centered on the needs of congregations and individuals who need healing from conflict, clarity in their mission and purpose, new hope and vision their future, and spiritual and faith renewal. The image of my mother’s sewing machine explains this well.

My wedding band & finger suffered damage in this work.

To restore and renew this treasured item was painful.  As I emptied the drawers, I found spools of thread that matched the colors of many memories: patch-sized pieces of cloth carefully stored to repair long-gone but remembered clothing; bobbins and needle threaders, buttons and snaps, darning needles and crochet hooks; and a shuttle bobbin from the machine that the case previously housed.  Memories flowed as I handled each item to decide what was worth keeping.  But this was just the beginning of the work.

The sewing machine – the heart of the piece, had to be carefully extracted, first by unclasping the leather belt that wound from the wheel to the treadle; then by unscrewing the bolts that held it firmly to the case.  Lifting it carefully, several small metal items fell to the floor; they were straight pins long lost in the midst of a forgotten sewing project.  Each wood screw had to be removed so that the wooden lid, the machine pedestal, and hinged spring could be separated and their veneer layers replaced.  The checked finish on the drawers and lower cabinet needed to be repaired, but was the finish shellac, varnish, or lacquer?  How to proceed depended upon the make up of the cabinet.

Ministry is, for me, a careful study of the history and life of a congregation.  I listen to the memories, hopes and dreams of the church members, and engage the congregation in a time of self study that assesses the strengths and challenges of the congregation and the gifts and abilities of its members.  Together, we carefully examine the layers of history, disclose and address the worn and painful areas, and seek to discern the direction God is calling the congregation.  This is not a painless process; how to proceed depends upon the make up of the congregation and the trust levels of its members. 

Initially, I tried out several approaches to the checked finish of the sewing cabinet, each tried in an inconspicuous place; but the finish did not respond.  I brushed the finish with lacquer thinner and finally the checked finish dissolved just enough to smooth out some of the checked area.  Ultimately, this too did not work in the larger areas, and I had to strip all of the original finish off of the case.  These first attempts were not failures but learnings.

Ministry engages the congregation in learning:  about themselves, about their faith, about their life together, about God’s purpose for them within that particular community.  Not everything works perfectly because we are human and imperfect; but when we view our experiences as a journey of learning, we grow stronger.  The journey into God’s future travels through the valleys of errors, over the mountains of success, and across the flat plains of the ordinary.

On the floor of my garage are ten components that will eventually be reassembled into my mother’s sewing machine case. I am waiting for the right time -- a warm, humid day -- to apply the new veneer with old fashion hide glue.  I have a vision of what the completed project will look like, but need to remind myself to be open to the surprises the wood may yet have in store.  Assembled, it will still be the piece that adorned my childhood home and filled my memories, even though the scratches and finish will be new.  With the Singer machine reattached, it will be put to good use toward the purpose for which it was crafted.  All this will happen in time.

Ministry, too, is a matter of vision and of timing.  For the Church to be renewed, rebuilt, and retooled for this Post-Christian era, we must actively watch and listen for the direction and vision God gives us and put our gifts, abilities, and purpose into the hard work of living into God’s future.

     Just as my mother’s sewing machine will find a new purpose in a new place, so my ministry is being transformed and changed.  For six years I led a congregation through healing (from an abusive pastor) to new vision. I have co-pastored a new church exploration.  I have guided 9 congregations through painful transitions and healing to ready them for the leadership of a called pastor.  I have experienced the transitions in these congregations and then left the new life for another to lead.  I feel strongly that God is calling me to a new challenge in leading beyond the transitions and into the new vision God provides.  In the language of my mother’s sewing machine, I have led God’s people through the remembering, disassembly, testing, and refinishing; I feel called to finish the project, to imagine and form new ministries and new life within a now-healing congregation.  

03 September, 2012

Traveling Church

I hadn't had any breakfast; it was a very early flight. As I walked down the terminal to find a cup of coffee, someone called my name. It wasn't a page over the airport PA. It was a male voice behind me. I turned around in search of its source. I recognized no one. I walked on.

He called again. "Carly!"

It couldn't be a family member; they would have called me by my given name, Carla. I still saw no one I recognized. I turned and walked on.

A third time the voice called my name.

It is unusual to hear your name called across the expanse in a strange place. I am alone in this airport and far from home. There is no one I would expect to meet in this place. But it is a holiday weekend. So it is conceivable that an acquaintance from some past existence is also traveling through this hub of an airport. But no one seems familiar within the realm of my vision. I walked on; who ever it was, he had to be calling someone else.

The narrative is reminiscent of Samuel's call in the Temple. God called and the child assumed that the old man, Eli, was calling to him in the night. Eli told him to go back to bed. The voice was unrelenting. Samuel heard his name called several times. Eli discerned the source and told the boy to respond with an appropriate response.

Is there an appropriate response to hearing your name shouted across an airport terminal? Should I have walked around seeking some familiar face? Should I have called back asking for its source to come forward? To where does one turn for direction in such a situation?

The Church finds itself in a similar situation. We are traveling through an unknown land called postmodernity, or if you prefer, a post-christian era. We hear the call to be the Church but we no longer know what that looks like. We don't recognize the faces around us, nor the voices calling to us. We are strangers in a strange land holding onto the promise of a future we cannot yet imagine.

For many congregations, the landscape is as alien as Mars; church members cannot recall a time when they didn't exist exactly as they exist today, when the role of the church in society was not dominant, when the norm was not for children to be raised in the faith. And yet today it would seem that our 1955 church no longer has influence in society and most young people have no interest and little knowledge of the faith.

For others, the change has been happening with varying paces...from a a gradual decline to rapid loss of members either through death or attrition of friends and members. All face financial challenges as the cost of maintaining a building outweighs the available sources of income; mission and ministry are hardly affordable while staff salaries are a luxury.

And still we hear the call to the future. Still our names echo in the halls of time to step forward in faith and be the church. Where do we turn for direction? Where is our Eli? Who will guide us in our response to God's call to thrive? How can we walk through this transitional terminal alone? Where are the familiar faces?

On the return walk to the gate with a strong cup off coffee in hand, I heard the voice again. This time, he called me "Pastor Carly." 

The face was only vaguely familiar, and as he walked toward me it was clear that he knew I didn't recognize him. He stretched out his hand and told me his name. I had been the pastor that married him years ago when I served a church in his town. He recalled the amusing way I had introduced the "church rules" at the rehearsal, the care I had given him and his beloved in the premarital counseling, the way I had included the children from both previous marriages in the vows and unity candle. He remembered that I cared, that I was inclusive, that I embraced the diversity of his new family, that I didn't try to "cram religion down [their] throats;" he remembered too that the other churches in town refused to marry them. Because of their experience with their marriage preparation and ceremony, the couple had become active in that congregation, were raising their children there, were participating in learning opportunities, and were supporting its missions and ministries. I had brought him into the church, he said.

Despite the memories he shared, his wedding did not come to my mind. What he shared could have been any of the marriages at which I've officiated. What I thought was ordinary ritual and liturgy, he found to be meaningful and nurturing. My putting faith in action was what put faith into his own life.

The voice that called to me across that airport was the same voice Samuel heard so many years ago. In the voice of this former groom was the wisdom of God assuring me that this new era of the Church will carry forward the essentials of the faith, that the Body of Christ has a role in the worlds of today and tomorrow, and that we will find the answers that our Still Speaking God still offers to us. If we are open to listening and responding to the call of our names in unfamiliar places.