Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Ordinary Baby

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
Christmas Day/ 2011
Psalm 98
John 1: 1-14

It was 1992. And I was a seminary student at Memphis Theological Seminary. I was spending my time studying, reading, writing papers while I served as pastor at a rural United Methodist Church. I remember it was a Tuesday night and I was at the church after a full day of classes. I was getting ready for final exams. A group of us were in the church where the mothers and children were rehearsing the Christmas pageant. There were sheep, cows, goats, angels, shepherds, wise men on the platform. Grandmothers were huddled, talking about costumes and how best to make a child look like a sheep and not like a squirrel. The pianist was trying to get everyone’s attention so we could start practicing our songs. That’s when I noticed that Karen was crying.

The mother of four children: three rowdy boys (ages 15, 14 and 9) and a dainty and darling 4 year old girl. Karen had her hands full. She was new to the church. Karen had only recently moved into the small town. She and her husband, Rick, wanted to live in the country where the boys had room to run and play. And they had found a house, a great deal, that met their needs. Karen worked part-time as a teacher’s assistant. Rick worked for the Tupperware Plant.

Karen was crying. So after the rehearsal I stopped her by the front doors to the church and asked about that. She told me that she had heard from her sister earlier that day. Her sister was running from the law and she was living in an old beat up car. There was a three month old baby girl in that beat up car with Karen’s sister. Karen’s niece. Her sister was apparently in and out of trouble with drug addition, drug sales and theft. Karen said her sister wanted to stop running. She was ready to turn herself in. But she didn’t want the state to take her baby girl. She was in touch with Karen asking her to agree to take the baby. This was terribly frustrating to Karen. She pointed at her four year old daughter and told me, “That’s my daughter now because I adopted her from my sister. But I can’t keep raising and paying for the babies my sister has.” Karen was the first one to tell me about the closing of the Tupperware plant. Rick would be losing his job in a matter of weeks. Many people in our church would soon be looking for new jobs when the plant moved to India.

I put my arm around Karen’s shoulder and said a brief prayer with her before she got in the van and drove home. I could feel Karen’s despair and her anger at her sister. I could also feel her love for a sister who just had not been able to get her life in order. Being a pastor presents so many opportunities to feel helpless. And this was one of those situations. I wondered what I could do, what the church could do beyond loving Karen and her family, beyond praying for them. I wondered what it was like to be three months old and living in a car. Karen said her sister’s car had no back window but was wide open to the wind and rain. I couldn’t imagine it; it was too awful.

On Friday morning I had no classes at the seminary so I was not rushing to get in my car and drive to Memphis. I drank my coffee and stared out the front window of the parsonage. I cleared my mind and listened for a while. I was shocked and a little afraid of what I heard in the silence. God seemed to be suggesting that I could open my heart and home to provide a safe place for that baby. Why not? The more I thought about it the more I realized I had to make the suggestion. After that I would leave the response up to Karen and her sister. I called Karen. “Is your sister still looking for a place to leave her baby?”

It was December 9th. And at 9:00 that night there was a knock on the kitchen door. My daughter, Jennifer, and I went to open it and we received into our arms a little baby girl. “What’s her name?” I asked Karen who was getting a cardboard box of the baby’s things out of her van.

“Her name is Katie Grace and if she could talk she would tell you how thankful she is to be with you guys right now.”

Karen left and Jennifer and I looked in the box. There were plastic bottles and a can of Similac. One diaper. No change of clothes. A dirty blanket. And a plastic butterfly. Tobacco from broken cigarettes clung to everything. I put the bottles and some nipples in a pot of hot water and began to boil them. Jennifer held the baby at the table and sang to her. After we fed Katie Grace all of us went to WalMart on the highway and bought diapers. So many styles and brands!! I had not had a baby around for nearly seventeen years. Back when Jennifer was in diapers the choices were not overwhelming. We chose a box of diapers and we got more Similac. And we bought an outfit that looked like it might fit her. The outfit she had on was too small and the snaps were torn.

I had a huge wicker basket that I had used to hold toys for children at the local shelter. It seemed the right size for Katie Grace. I put two pillows in the basket and put a sheet over them. Then I laid her down to sleep. She slept from eleven o’clock until five. I got up and fed her again. Jennifer came into the living room and we turned the light on. That baby, Katie Grace, looked like an entirely different baby than the one we had met at 9:00 the night before. That baby had looked pinched and drawn, fearful. One night’s rest had made this baby look alert, curious, her face full and soft. “Wow Mom! Look how different she is.” It was amazing.

That day, a Saturday, we had a house filled with adoring visitors. Church families came to see the parsonage baby. By noon we had two car seats, a crib, a play pen, and beautiful booties of many colors, frilly dresses from a swanky shop in town, night gowns, bibs, boxes and boxes of diapers. Somebody even brought a picture of two angels praying and we hung that on the wall over Katie Grace’s crib. People brought food and fed all of us just so they could be with us and admire the baby for a while. It was an all day party.

That evening Jennifer and I started decorating the house for Christmas. Curtis Vaughn had brought our tree and stood it up in the front window. We put the lights on it and hung ornaments. We put a wreath on the front door. Katie Grace watched it all while we sang Christmas carols to her.

She wore a red velvet dress to church on Sunday. She was the church’s baby. When I went to the seminary for class Katie Grace stayed with church ladies who stared at her and made a fuss over her all day long. She went to the Tuesday night rehearsals for the Christmas pageant and Vivian Long made a special costume for Katie Grace. Karen thanked us all over and over again.

The Tupperware plant closed on Christmas Eve. Six church families were affected by it. There wasn’t another plant of that size anywhere near so people would soon be considering relocation or job training for new careers. It was a stressful time and might have been a sad time. But we had a Christmas pageant to attend, cakes to eat and gifts to share.

The cows came in from the sides of the sanctuary and the sheep followed. They stood in the bundles of hay by the manger. They sang while the holy family slowly took their places. Justine, a twelve year old girl with bright eyes and a blue shawl over her head, put her child down in the manger. Katie Grace kicked and reached for the air above her head while the children sang. Her pink booties were visible above the edge of the wooden manger. It couldn’t have been any better. This ordinary baby who had been living in a beat up car was now resting in the manger while the shepherds and the wise men gathered around her.

The Word was made flesh and came to live among us—full of grace and glory. Bringing us together. Bringing out the best in all of us. Reminding us, even in the toughest times, that we are not alone or forgotten. The Word was made flesh and came to live among us bringing hope and joy. An ordinary baby created the extraordinary. By the presence of love among us our eyes have been opened to see the holiness of our ordinary lives.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coming Home With Shouts of Joy

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
December 11, 2011

Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Learning to trust the God who created us is the biggest challenge of our lives. All of us will grow older. Some of us will grow fatter. Some of us will grow thinner. Any of us can grow smarter with study and effort. But what truly matters in life is the ability to grow deeper into trust: trusting ourselves, trusting others and trusting God.

I was raised in a very religious family. We were as close to God as you can get without being Jesus himself. We were Nazarene people, called unto holiness. We were pious people. We lived our lives in such a way that God couldn’t possibly find anything not to like about us. Somebody somewhere had studied what God likes best and we were doing it. That’s what I thought. I truly felt sorry for people who were not Nazarene because I believed they were not as close to God’s heart as we were.

There were members of my church family who were saved from their sins AND sanctified entirely. My understanding was that they were no longer bothered by sin.

Of course I wanted this same experience, this blessed assurance that I was right with God and bound to stay that way forever. So I went down to the altar every Sunday night and during fall and summer revivals. I implored God to make me perfect too. But I knew it didn’t take because the very next day I would get out of bed and get mad at my brother, Stanley. I would call him a name. He would call me a name. Somebody would push and then there was a shove. And it was clear that I was not free from sin. I was not sanctified.

So I came up with a plan. In order to gain God’s favor and be perfect I needed to be busy with God’s work. I was seven years old. It was the fall revival. Rev. Tom Jernigan was our evangelist and his wife, Juanita, was our special singer. On Friday night I went down to the altar and asked God to save and sanctify me.

The next morning I got out of bed and I went outside before Stanley could have a chance to annoy me. I simply didn’t look at him. I carried my Bible outside. I had a refrigerator box waiting for me. I had gotten it from Chases Home Appliance Store on Friday afternoon. I put the box on the corner right in front of the church at First Avenue and Second Street. Cut a door in it. Then I went back inside the church and got the heavy brass cross off the communion table. I got a ladder and put that cross on top of the box so it was clear that this was not just a cardboard box but a church. A cardboard church. I held my open bible in my hands as I sang “Just as I Am without One Plea.”

People were driving up and parking, getting their children out of the car for Saturday morning shopping downtown and they were being wooed into the arms of God by a very young and fervent evangelist whose hair had not yet been combed.

“Won’t you come?” I pleaded with the people who passed by. “Won’t you give your life to Jesus before it’s too late?” Mothers and fathers got between their children and me, walking in the street to keep a safe distance. Some nodded politely. An old black man stood and watched me from across the street. He scratched his chin and I thought I had a convert for a minute. But he walked away shaking his head and saying, “Lawd. Lawd.”

I was feeling hungry and cranky when my brother Stanley came by. I knew him well enough to know he was far beyond saving so I didn’t even try. “Go away!” I warned him.

He didn’t go away. He started grinning at me in a way that let me know he thought I was a fool. I stiffened as he came near my cardboard church. “I said go away!” He snorted at me and peered inside the box. That made me mad so I socked him and when he fell against the box that made the heavy brass cross topple off the top of the cardboard church. And clunk! It smacked my brother in the head. Cut a wide gash that started pouring blood down his neck and across his back. I had to call my mother and she had to apply pressure.

Mrs. Juanita Jernigan rode with us to the Emergency Room. And that’s where I was—sitting in a hospital with antiseptic smells all around me –the first time I gave up on the struggle to be perfect.

It’s hard to be human. Have you ever noticed that? The problem is: Sometimes we look in the mirror and we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t love much about ourselves --if we were God. And when we make God as small-minded as we are then it’s pretty hard to trust anything in this life.

Religion, at its best, ought to help us appreciate being who we are-- just as we are. Religion ought to help us appreciate the opportunity to live our lives. It ought to affirm our authenticity rather than squeeze us into tiny boxes. I am concerned about religious teaching that molds people into manufactured images of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. Religion is about real relationships: our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. Seems to me that religion ought to teach us how to trust God more while we worry less about our own shortcomings. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves. This is God's world and we are here because God loves us.

You may have heard the NPR story, an interview by Guy Raz on “All Things Considered,” with Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Reverend Billy Graham. Anne Graham has become an influential preacher. She’s 63 years old. Apparently huge crowds in this country and abroad, come to hear her preach. She’s been called an evangelical feminist and she likes that description. She says an evangelical feminist is a woman who knows what she believes, has strong convictions and the courage to stand up for them regardless of limitations other people or institutions want to impose on her.

She tells about her parents’ disapproval when she began teaching a Bible class 35 years ago. There was conflict in the beginning of Anne’s public ministry. Billy and Ruth Graham believed that their daughter’s ministry was meant to be in the home as a devoted wife and mother. But Anne felt like God’s intention for her was more important and Anne believes that God knows her better than her parents know her. So when God called her to teach and preach-- she did. Anne says, “I’m living my life for an audience of one. I’ve learned to trust God.”

And as the years have passed, Billy and Ruth Graham have been impressed by their daughter’s faith and the effectiveness of her ministry. Billy Graham has repeatedly said that Anne is the best preacher in the family.

Learning to trust God is the biggest challenge of our lives.

The therapist and writer, Scott Peck, names four stages of spiritual development that we go through in life: 1.) Chaotic/antisocial, 2.) Formal/ institutional, 3.) Skeptic/individual, 4.) Mystic/ Communal. We are not all in the same place spiritually. We grow into trust at different times even as the love of God is revealed to us in different ways.

Our spiritual development doesn’t progress in a straight line going steadily from birth to death. It’s circular. We reach back into the past and pull memories into this moment, allowing memories to inform us and shape our identities. We reach into the future and use the hope we find there to sustain us for getting through the present hour. We open ourselves and allow other people to circle into our lives and experiences. We circle into the lives of others who are willing to include us in their journeys. Spiritual development is more of a spiral than a straight line.

In the letter to the Thessalonians we read instructions: to praise God, to pray, give thanks, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil. These practices are effective tools for spiritual development and growth. I have come to a place in my life where each day begins with scripture reading, prayer, journaling and listening for God’s responses and direction for the day. Our spiritual disciplines draw us closer to God and allow us to see more of God’s reflection in ourselves. That reflection builds trust and feeds our hope.

But it is not our spiritual disciplines that sanctify us and make us blameless. It is God who will sanctify us and make us blameless. And according to Thessalonians: God will do this. It is God’s work and we have simply to trust in God and not ourselves. Being sanctified is not about being pious and perfect. We are sanctified when we celebrate the gift of our own lives and the presence of God's love in it.

We are moving toward the manger. The star shines brightly over our heads as we travel toward Bethlehem. It’s hard to believe that God would come to live among us, that God would care enough about us to join us here on earth, to live among us.

But there are so many things about God we don’t understand. So we do the best we can to trust.

The Psalmist says: The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced.

May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
May those who go out weeping
come home with shouts of joy.

In our joy and in our sorrow—it is God who earns our trust. It is God who sustains our hope now and always.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

ICU Waiting Room

Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Hospitals are places where we go when we are so sick or so injured that we have no choice but to let go and allow the professionals to take control of our lives. They say when we will eat if we get to eat at all. The hospital controls when the lights will go out and when we can have visitors. Nurses and respiratory therapists control the beeps and buzzes that indicate patients are still alive. Nurses, therapists and doctors follow protocols, pump us full of fluids and prescriptions, roll us from x-ray to surgery and keep their eyes on the monitors that measure how we’re doing. We wouldn’t go through all of this unless we had no choice.

The ICU is a particularly fast paced unit in the hospital. ICU nurses live in a face to face struggle against death. A heart stops beating and the nurse instantly starts chest compressions while reaching with her foot to drag an IV pole closer to the patient and at the same time holding a bag of normal saline between her teeth. ICU nurses don’t really have time to focus on compassionate communication. This is not to say that ICU nurses are cold hearted but it is to say that they have lots of courage. They’re equipped with adequate confidence. Have to be. Because they’re fighting Death.

As patients, family members and visitors—we feel lost and intimidated by all of the sounds, smells and the absolute authority of the hospital system. This is no Sunday picnic or holiday parade. We’re scared. We’re grateful for the treatments, medicines and healing. But we’re anxious and fearful the entire time we’re inside the hospital system.

St Joseph Hospital was a special place here in Memphis. The sisters ran St Joseph as a healing center, a place where people mattered. All people who entered the doors were to be received with respect and compassion. I worked weekends in their ICU Waiting Room. I was the liaison between the family in the Waiting Room and the nurses in the ICU. I made coffee, kept the waiting room neat and listened to people’s stories.

Communities would form in that small room with chairs around three walls.
One of the great fruits born of suffering is compassion. Tolstoy said that our great duty as humans is to sew the seed of compassion in each other’s hearts. This happens—for the most part—in ICU Waiting Rooms. Everyone is suffering so everyone becomes family.

I remember a tall Texan, Stewart, a middle aged man who was at the hospital because his wife, Elizabeth, had had a stroke while they were visiting in town. They had been walking on Beale Street when her speech suddenly slurred and she slumped over. Stewart sat and waited. He had a successful real estate business in Austin. He sat with his arms crossed, his long legs and fancy boots stretched out across the floor. He heaved great sighs of exasperation. His mantra was forceful and clear: I really don’t have time for this!”

Sue sat and waited too. Sue was short and round. She looked comfortable in her sweat pants and house slippers. She read romance novels or stared at the TV. Her husband’s kidneys were failing and his heart was struggling too. Information about him from the nurses wasn’t encouraging. Sue cried easily and often. Her mantra was painful: I wonder if I am to blame. I wonder if I fed Howard the wrong food. I should have made him stop drinking a long time ago…

Crystal, a beautiful ballroom dance instructor whose husband had been in a motorcycle accident, had a large group of friends and family who poured through the room in support of her and her husband. Even the media paid attention to Crystal. It was a dramatic story, a hit and run, and the journalists kept it in the papers for a few days. People brought sandwiches and drinks for her. There were people scheduled to keep company with Crystal around the clock. She was wrapped in a blanket and propped with a pillow. Her mantra: Why? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us?

Crystal was gracious and generous. She shared with the other people in the ICU Waiting Room. Tuna sandwiches, potato chips, Oreos and lemonade. She had a huge cooler stocked at her side. Stewart, the Texan, was finally convinced it would be OK for him to accept a sandwich from Crystal. It was easy to see how difficult it was for Stewart to need something from her, from anyone. He gave his business card to everyone who came into the waiting room. He wanted to be seen as a man at work, not a man who was frightened half to death that things could get worse for Elizabeth—and him.

Sue accepted a sandwich, a bag of chips from Crystal. Sue’s lips trembled when she said, “Thank you.” She didn’t feel as though she deserved kindness and generosity. That was painful to see. Sue’s self esteem was so low it was almost a medical emergency on its own—there in the midst of this ICU experience.

Rhonda sat in the corner all alone. Her hair was long and stringy. One of Sue’s grandsons backed up to Sue and whispered so we could all hear him. “Is that lady a witch?” Sue hushed the boy but we could all see why he had made the connection. Rhonda was bony and her nose was sharp. Rhonda kept her eyes on her lap and the needlework in her hands. She was busy constantly-crocheting.

The nurses told me that Rhonda’s daughter, now thirty-five yeas old, was born with cerebral palsy. The daughter was on life support in the ICU. Rhonda didn’t accept sandwiches. She wouldn’t accept prayers when the chaplain stopped by. People in the waiting room learned quickly to stay away from Rhonda. She didn’t have to speak for all of us to know her mantra: Who cares? Who really gives a rip?

Sometimes suffering brings a deep darkness. The light goes out. Faith fades into the distance. Sometimes pain takes people into a place of desolation.

Catholic school girls came through the waiting room, whole classes of them came through wearing their nice uniforms and sweet smiles. They gave boxes of Kleenex and packages of thick socks to people around the room. Rhonda shrugged them off with a sniff and a scowl.

An odd little man, skinny, wiry and wearing a brown suit that was at least two sizes too big, scampered through the waiting room twice a day, morning and night. He brought tracts, slick Christian pamphlets that asked: If you were to die today do you know where your soul would spend eternity? Sue’s grandsons made paper airplanes with those tracts and flew them around the room.

I made coffee and carried the trash out. Church people brought newer magazines to stack on the coffee table. They took the old worn ones away. I went back to the unit every hour to check with the nurses. I looked in on patients. Respirators whirred. Vital sign monitors beeped. Air beds whooshed. Human beings were hard to distinguish under the machinery and the steady activity around them. “No change!” The nurses knew what I wanted to know. They didn’t have to stop working to give me the necessary information.

People can be poor in so many ways. Poverty affects our pocketbook and bank accounts. But poverty can affect our spirit. Anxiety and fear can open a door in our soul and drain away our hope. I fought that kind of poverty of spirit sometimes while I worked in the ICU waiting room. So many people didn’t get better. And if I was fighting to maintain hope—those family members and friends were fighting twice as hard.

I went back to the waiting room and family members scooted quickly to the edges of their chairs and looked at my face—searching for something of hope, some news that would claim a miracle was happening for them and their loved one. I spoke with what I hoped was a reassuring smile and tone: No changes yet. Everything is stable right now.

But then there were the times when I was summoned to the back by way of the intercom system. “Ms Blanchard, could you come back here please?” That was never good. The unit secretary only called for me when someone’s condition went from bad to worse. The family members were alert for the intercom and its messages.

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, glanced around the room with a nod and went back. Norma, the nurse, was doing chest percussions. She was yelling at the patient, “Come on now! Come on now! Don’t you even think about giving up!” The on-call doctors and respiratory therapists were surrounding the bed. Norma shouted, “BP is dropping!” The doctor shouted orders. A nurse took a small bag from the crash cart and hooked it to Elizabeth’s IV line.

Elizabeth, the wife of the tall Texan. I saw Stewart in my mind’s eye, sitting out there in the waiting room, and sitting up as tall as he could sit, eager to take his wife out of here and get back to normal. He had told us all repeatedly about important real estate closings that required his presence and signature back in Austin. Normal would never be the same for Stewart.

I watched as the activity slowed down around Elizabeth’s bed. Shoulders slumped. Dr. Cook called it. Norma cursed. She hated to lose in a struggle with death. So she moved on to the next room, the next patient. Somebody else pulled the sheet up over Elizabeth’s face.

It takes a minute for people to get it together. Hands were washed. Other patients needed stat meds. There was always that burst of energy after a death when the nurses and staff wanted to escape, to do anything other than the inevitable—tell the family: All that could be done was done. It is over. We’re sorry.

Dr. Cook and Norma followed me through the locked doors and I motioned for Stewart to follow us into the small Family Room, a closet sized space reserved for bad news. Stewart groaned. I think he was trying to say the word: No. I looked at him and anger filled his features, made him look like a mountain lion crouched for the pounce. He didn’t make a sound but his face said so much: No it can’t be. No! I won’t allow it! No! I won’t follow you into that tiny space to hear that nothing more can be done, that I am all alone.

It was Sue, the one in her baggy sweat pants, who found the strength and courage to move quickly to Stewart’s side. She gently put one hand under his arm and lifted the man out of his chair. The two of them walked across the room to the doctor and nurse who reached out to support Stewart. Sue stepped back. It was a dance, a sweet dance initiated by somebody who has total confidence in her capacity to share compassion.

I stayed in the waiting room with the others while the doctor, the nurse and the chaplain gave Stewart some time and space to begin taking in the news. It didn’t take long. They all had more patients to see, more work to be done, more lives to save. Stewart came back in the waiting room and sat back down in the chair that had faithfully held his anxious hopes and fears for days.

One of Sue’s grandsons, an eight year old, was the first to notice Rhonda. She had put down her needlework and she was looking around the room. Tears were running like two rivers across her wrinkled cheeks. The little boy ran over to Rhonda and put his head in her lap. “It’s Ok, lady. It’s gonna be OK.” She cupped his head with her bony hand. And then she stood.

Rhonda walked over to Stewart and wrapped the man in the afghan she had been making all these days. The bright colors focused us. And the kindness of Rhonda’s gesture gave Stewart permission to cry. Leaning into Rhonda’s belly, he allowed all of us to carry some of his terrible grief. We clumped up in a tight circle and held each other.

Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Prepare the way. Make straight a highway. Every valley shall be lifted up. Every mountain made low. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.

It is a universal human need: to belong, to be part of a sacred circle, to be comforted by the compassion of others, to have our own compassion stirred in the circle of human connection.

We are all in some sort of waiting room. We need the comfort of community while we wait.

We are here together in this place and time. And for the journey we have been provided with food and assurances that our journey together is meaningful and full of hope. Our journey will lead us all home. And so it is that we gather together at this table where all are welcome and all are included and all are connected to eternal life and love. The way is prepared. You are invited to belong to those who journey on the way.


We Are God's People

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
November 27, 2011

We are God’s people. And we long for Christ’s return. We look forward to the day when creation will be fulfilled. No more hunger. No more war. No more unemployment. No more environmental pollution. We long for the day when Christ comes to claim creation as home, a safe and satisfying place to live. Home for all God’s people: Christ’s return is something to celebrate and nothing to fear.

Today we enter the season of Advent. We weed the garden of our souls; prepare the soil of our being for birth and new life. It is a time when we cultivate patience, allow ourselves to value the experience of waiting and pay attention to what it is that our soul longs to be and become in this season between what has been and what will be.

This season of Advent is the antithesis of what our current culture is all about. So be prepared for a challenge. It’s not easy to be patient when car horns are blowing at us, when the boss increases pressure on us to market and increase sales, when the wolf is at the front door and our last dollar went out the back door. When our best is misunderstood.

In this first week of Advent we are invited to pay attention to our longings. We long to live the best possible life while we wait for Christ’s return. We want to be among those who have done good things: made the world a better place, fed the hungry, cured the sick, visited prisoners, clothed the naked and set free those who have been oppressed.

We want to be at our best while we wait for the Kingdom to come. And we long to be rewarded along the way with some kind of assurance, some affirmation that we’re on the right path. For that kind of faith building we need each other. The community of faith, your church family, is absolutely foundational when it comes to the challenge of waiting patiently.

In 1990, I went to serve as pastor for a nice church in a rural area not all that far from here. The congregation was made up of cotton farmers and tomato farmers. A few had jobs at the bank or in the Tupperware Factory. My then husband, our daughter (Jennifer) and I were continuing to live in our home. The church I was serving had a parsonage right next door to the church and I planned to use the office there for sermon writing and committee meetings.

I drove up in the driveway at the parsonage with a pick up truck. I had boxes of books and office supplies in the back. As I arrived, a parade of women rushed out of the house. They didn’t speak and they didn’t look at me. Some walked hurriedly down the road while others got in their cars and drove away. I looked at the one woman who remained-- standing in the back door. I introduced myself. “I’m Elaine. I’ll be the pastor here…” She assured me that she knew who I was.

Her name was Carolyn and she was the church treasurer. She handed me a check. “I went ahead and wrote your check for this month so you won’t be worrying about whether or not we’re gonna pay you. And I hope you won’t be worrying yourself about all those women who say we’re all going to burn in hell if we listen to a woman preacher. You just try to ignore them, ya’ hear?”

Being the pastor for this congregation had its good features. I loved being part of a rural community where I was regularly given fresh produce, jams and breads. I loved the way people depended on the earth for their income and how their faith was connected to the work they did in the fields every day. I drank coffee at the one café in town, the place where everybody knew everybody. I enjoyed long, leisurely conversations sitting in the booth while my coffee cup was refilled over and over again.

Being the pastor for this congregation had its challenges. Every Sunday, right after Sunday school was over and before the organ played for the beginning of worship, a parade of women walked outside and went home. It was that same parade of women who had walked out of the parsonage on the day I arrived.

I longed to belong and to be valued—same as everybody does. I wanted to do a good job as the pastor, live my best life for the church, but there seemed to be little or nothing I could about my gender. So I took deep breaths and did the best I could while I waited. I waited for some kind of miracle, some sign that Christ had come among us. Some reassurance that I was not taking us all to hell in a handbag.

I was in seminary and studying while I served that church. I went to class Tuesday through Friday. I belonged to a group of strong and supportive women at the seminary. Gail, Emily, Martha, Ann and I talked about our church work and families. We prayed together. Wasn’t all that unusual for us to cry together. We trusted each other. So we told our stories and encouraged each other.

By my second year of seminary I was developing a new self confidence. My friends respected me and looked forward to my company. Professors at school were glad to have me in their classes. I felt like I belonged there and I knew I was valued at the seminary. Self respect was new for me and it had to do with my developing relationship with God as well as with my relationship with a community of faith. I developed an understanding of God that opened my eyes to see that God had created me carefully and with absolute love. I was and am worthy of respect.

I came to see that it was time for me to leave the abusive marriage I had been in for twenty-one years. Praying for him to change had not changed him. Praying to have more patience had only worn me down. I realized it was up to me to leave, to make the change that would improve life for Jennifer and me.

This was no easy thing. I had never imagined myself a divorced woman. But being divorced seemed much healthier than being abused forever. Jennifer and I moved into the parsonage next door to the church. My ex-husband broke into the parsonage and created drama, chaos. It was a mess. I was stressed. But I believed I had waited long enough for him to treat us with respect. It was time for me to respect myself and protect Jennifer.

I met with the pastor-parish relations committee and officially told them about my decision to take care of myself, to live in the parsonage. Katherine Vaughn, an older woman, a farmer’s wife and the mother of two men who were farmers, put her hand on my knee and looked into my eyes. “Well, if you need to be here in order to be safe then I thank God that we have this place for you and Jennifer to live in.” But not everyone in the room felt as merciful and understanding as Katherine did. Lois Powell sniffed, “Well, I’d like to know what we’re going to do when everyone stops coming to church. Because they will. It’s been hard enough having a woman for a preacher but having a divorced woman for a preacher will be the death of our little church.” And she began to cry. It was sad. For all of us.

We are all God’s people. We know in our heads that God loves us. I knew it. Katherine knew it. Lois knew it. But things can get difficult while we wait for Christ’s return. We need a personal and soulful experience of faith that connects us, encourages us and satisfies us while we wait for God’s Kingdom to come on Earth. We long to live our best lives while we wait for creation’s fulfillment. But waiting is hard on us. We lose our way if we’re not careful, if we don’t love each other into the best possible life together.

I was volunteering those days at the County Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence. Two afternoons a week I helped out around the house: cooked, cleaned and read to children.

It was November and I was sitting in the living room with Kelly, Emma and Dianne. The children were all in the play room. I was thinking out loud. I said, “I have no idea what Jennifer and I will do for Thanksgiving this year. For twenty-one years we have had Thanksgiving Dinner with her daddy’s family.” Then I looked up from studying my shoes. I was looking at three women who had run for their lives from Nebraska, Kansas and Georgia. Violence had shoved them out of their homes and into this secret shelter. They certainly had no idea what they would do for the holiday. Any tradition they might have valued was left behind. Nothing was familiar to them. They were just hoping to stay alive and keep their children alive.

So I made a suggestion. “How about we all have Thanksgiving dinner together—at my house?” This was met with happy faces! Emma told us about her fabulous pecan pie. Kelly made our mouths water talking about sweet potato casserole. Dianne said she could make a broccoli casserole so cheesy even children loved to eat it! It was settled. We would be together on Thanksgiving Day.

A few days later I was visiting parishioners and I saw Carl sitting on his front porch. I stopped the car. “You want to eat Thanksgiving Dinner at the parsonage this year?” I asked. He nodded happily. Carl didn’t speak. He hadn’t spoken in years, not since the night he was walking home from work and a car stopped. Three boys got out of the car, beat Carl so badly they thought they had left him dead, took his wallet out of his pocket and rolled him down into the grassy ditch beside the road. Carl survived. But the trauma had taken his voice. Carl came to church every Sunday, came late and left early. He sat on the back pew with his hat in his hands. “Come at noon,” I hollered. “No need to bring anything but yourself,” I told him. He waved me off happily.

So on Thanksgiving morning I got up early. Put a turkey in the oven. Started working on my dressing. The first knock on the door came at 8:00. It was Carolyn, the church treasurer. She had a cake. “I think it’s wonderful, what you’re doing here today,” she said. “We all do.” She hugged me. Then Katherine came with a green bean casserole. Amy came with a fruit salad. Barbara brought rolls and butter.

That same parade of women who had left the parsonage the day I moved in, that same parade of women who left church before I got up to preach… every one of them came through that kitchen door carrying something wonderful to eat. They wanted to contribute something; they wanted to be part of a good thing that was happening in their faith community. I could have turned the furnace off and stayed warm by the heat of all the love that arrived with those dishes.

I drove over to the shelter to pick up our guests. Jennifer had candles lit on the dining room table when we came in. We welcomed our guests: four children, three women and Carl. There were introductions all around. There was much amazement at all the food we would need to eat!

We took our seats around the table and I prayed. Plates were passed. We ate. The light of the candles made everything and everyone beautiful. The world seemed generous and safe as we smiled at each other and chatted. For now we were all safe and well cared for. Affirmed, valued. We belonged to each other.

I picked up the plates and went to the kitchen. That’s where I was when the music started. What? It was a harmonica. I went back into the dining room and there sat Carl at the head of the table, kicked back in his chair and playing a harmonica. “Give me that ol’ time religion; give me that ol’ time religion. Give me that ol’ time religion. It’s good enough for me.” He played and we sang old tunes that everybody knows. He played and we sang as the children played. He played and we sang as we washed the dishes together.

In this first week of Advent we are invited to pay attention to our longings. We long to live the best life possible while we wait for Christ to return, while we wait for God’s best plans to be fulfilled. We dream of getting it right, making the world a better place, writing a song that makes everybody sing together, coming up with a peace plan that puts an end to war. We dream of what it will be like when Christ comes again and hunger is no more, when all people will have enough of what they need to be satisfied and safe.

“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up,” says Paul Valery, a French Poet.

There was something about that Thanksgiving feast at the parsonage that woke some church people up. That parade of women must have waked up to realize some of their dreams for their church had come true.

They began to stay for worship after Sunday school. Carl moved from the back pew up toward the front. He dared to take a risk. And the women from the shelter started regularly coming in car loads to worship with us. They dared to take a risk. They brought their children and for the first time in years there was an ongoing childrens' Sunday school class. The church itself dared to take a risk.

We are God’s people. We long to belong, to be valued in a community of faith while we wait for Christ’s return. We long to live our best life. Our community of faith is absolutely foundational as we wait for Christ’s return, for God’s Kingdom to come on Earth.