Sunday, December 25, 2016

Dear Congregation...

(Pastor's Annual Report for Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church)

Sunlight streaming in the glass wall between us and the lake, we were sitting in the library of St. John’s Abbey, pondering, What describes our life together right now? We had all just shared what characterized our own personal lives, the themes we were seeing unfold this year for each of us, and now our attention had turned to LNPC.
What is God doing in and through us in this chapter? 
How is God leading us to respond? we wondered.

Every year the leadership team of LNPC goes on a retreat to discern and plan for the next year.  This year the stories that came out were about new babies and new visitors, about Marty’s illness and our longing to care for him well, about some of our older members moving out of their homes.  We began to envision ourselves as a circle, like a donut, the community forming a loving and protective ring, with our most vulnerable members in the middle as our center, our guides in ministry.  And some of those who used to be in the center, we noted, like our younger members, were now moving to the outside. They were able to help care for others and take on expanding roles and leadership, while some who had been strong for others now shifted into the center where they could be held by the rest of us with attention and compassion.  This flowing shape of movement, change, strength, vulnerability, care and hope was a vision we all shared, and what we felt described who we were called to be this year as a congregation.

I love looking back on that day, and seeing that indeed, we’ve lived into that calling this year.  Caring for one another in our vulnerability, belonging to one another and to God – being the people who define ourselves that way and practicing it with each other- has been the focus of our life this year, the shape of our hospitality.

So, now to the question I asked each of you to answer...

How have I experienced God this year?

I personally experienced God profoundly in the care of the congregation when I was laid up for two weeks after foot surgery: prayers, cards, visits, food…  It’s excruciating for me to feel helpless; I am much more comfortable giving than receiving. This was a beautiful learning and growing experience for me, and a chance to glimpse church from another angle. Thank you.

When we gathered around Marty on Palm Sunday and laid our hands on him (a ring of children touching Marty and the rest of us surrounding them), and commissioned him to a Ministry of Dying, I felt God’s presence.  I continue to experience God in Marty’s ongoing courage to share honestly with us his journey of dying, and his willingness to allow us to be in it alongside him as it unfolds.  He is teaching us how to live even as he is facing death.  I am so grateful for Marty, his strong and gentle spirit, and his desire to live fully and wholly.
Marty on election day,
showing off his collection of
campaign pins from the past

I experienced God in Lee Widga’s funeral – which felt in some ways like the end of an era, a generation that has shaped this congregation with love and tenderness, handing it on to those who are to come.  The patterned dishes his beloved Agnes helped pick out decades ago and the silver tea set were used to host his funeral, the way Agnes had hosted for so many others, for so many years.  God’s faithfulness glimpsed through the light of Lee’s life.  It was a holy day.

I experienced God in the vibrant life and wiggly newness of this year – Helen's and Robby’s baptisms, Baby Louisa’s birth, Jonathan, Brittney and Laurel Anne’s joining, the cohort of tinies and their parents that have made us their community of worship: Helen, Ava, Laurel, Ben, Robby, Svea, Louisa: This is your church, little ones, and we are so blessed to be your people of hope and faith!

I experienced God in our Saturday services, worship designed to give space and rest for prayer and connecting with God.  As a pastor, I am trained to help shape people’s beliefs and thinking about God, (and I do love preaching)! But in these services, it’s my job to hold the space and get out of the way, letting God encounter each person however they need to be met.  That takes courage, and trust that the Holy Spirit is the one who mediates our encounter with God (not the pastor!), which I believe, but it makes me practice and renew that belief on a regular basis.  Every time, I am humbled and grateful, and reminded that when we stop, God will meet us. This is true.

I experienced God this year in the “milestones” times in Sunday worship, sharing the ordinary, notable moments of our lives with each other, and in the prayers, being able to hold each other’s grief and joy, and lift up our prayer for the world in a way that feels shared and powerful.  We are not alone.  And again, God is right here.

I experienced God in Sunday school with our kids, who, in case you didn’t know, are paying attention to life and God and questions.  And I get to sit in that with them, and we wonder together, and explore together, and think about how we are going to teach you grown ups the things we are wondering about and exploring each week.  That is a gift.

            I experienced God in the way the community has supported and empowered me to share our life and learnings with others.  I led a marriage seminar with Andy in Michigan in February, led worship for a Pastor Sabbath event in Kansas City in April, and was the keynote speaker for another Sabbath event in October.  In November I served as a Spiritual Director at an annual youth ministry conference, doing one-on-one what I see my role in ministry as with our whole congregation, that is, noticing together what God is up to in our lives and in the world, and seeking to join in.  Every year when I do this, I feel regrounded in my calling and strengthened for my work with you.  I also led a Sabbath workshop there that was attended by forty-some tired pastors and youth leaders, who left feeling hopeful and inspired by the stories of our life together.  I wish so much that you all could see the ways God is using you in the larger church to bring a message of restoration to so many other congregations and individuals.  Our life together is more unique than you may realize, and people are hungry for experiences of rest, belonging, and trusting in the Way of God instead of the Way of Fear. 

Our story was shared by the Duke Journal of Leadership, Word and World Journal, and Horizon’s Magazine, including visits from a reporter and photographer for a few weeks.  I coached two other pastors through beginning their own Sabbath pattern in their congregations, and gave ongoing advice and direction to a pastor and D.Min. student designing a Sabbath retreat component to congregational ministry with parents and children in his large congregation.  Session recognized these things as an extension of LNPC’s ministry and my own calling, and shifted my job description in October to begin formally including 10 hours a week on “special projects,” with the front and center goal for now being to write a book.  I want to tell you I have begun this, and it is really hard, and I am really grateful for the encouragement and accountability the elders are giving me.

 I experienced God in the many ways other people and communities intersected with us this year.  We joined with six other South Minneapolis congregations to host a racism workshop by Penumbra Theatre company, (a follow-up to our series in Lent on racism), and hosted a half-day grief workshop for the community with Beth Slevcove, author of Broken Hallelujahs.  Iris Logan’s mosaic
Westminster's Day Camp!
pieces and Anne Tiller’s quilts provided the backdrop for so much joy and life within the walls we share.  Westminster’s children flooded our space with songs, games, and stories for their weeklong summer camp (And even though Westminster’s building construction will be finished then, they want to come back next year!).  The young people from St. Joe’s came over for Movie Camp for the 6th delightful year, finding themselves and their world within the parables of Jesus.  Did you know a whole class of spiritual directors from Sacred Ground were trained in our space this year?  And that classes for women coming out of prostitution were held here too? Did you know that La Leche League has been gathering in our building for years and years, and every Tuesday I get to see new little babies come through our doors?  Did you know that a spiritual director meets with clients upstairs, actors practice in the basement, Girl Scouts gather here, and there are so many other people we never see, who think of our space as their own place of sanctuary, learning, support and hospitality?  Speaking of this, I am so thankful for Central Fellowship and for Iglesia Fuego Pentecostes, for whom we get to provide space to gather as church, and with whom we share trust in God’s love and a calling to love others with unrelenting faithfulness.  Gorgeous.

Of course, one amazing way I experienced God this year was through Lisa’s own journey of discernment and eventually ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament, where another one of our crazy “what if…?”s became a reality.  Not daunted in the least by a financial barrier, session moved forward in trust with what they knew God to be calling us to, and the money followed.  And we got to hold this enormous party, welcoming friends from around the country to celebrate with us what we experienced all along but now made official: Lisa is a pastor to this community.  I say it every year, but I am grateful beyond words for her collaboration, creativity, and depth of care for this community. 

When Dee had to move to assisted living, the community rallied, visited, brought housewarming gifts and treats.  Dick hung pictures and Sue drove over some furniture.  Lisa supported Dee’s niece, Kathy, as she did the hard work of getting Dee to accept a new home, and even though it wasn’t easy, it was a good thing. 
Visits with those who can’t come to worship have been lovely.  Remember when we tried to sneak a visit in on Lee, but he was such an avid internet guy at 95 that he’d read the announcements and knew ahead of time that we were coming, and told us when we got there that we were an hour early?  And not just visiting, but all those who drive with others, picking folks up for worship and special events! I experience God in all the ways this community is in it together – meals, prayers, cards, calls, chomping at the bit for a turn to pay for housekeeping for Marty – you all love each other so well and it is beautiful to behold.

I experienced God in our garden blessing for St. Joseph’s Home for Children at the end of May and our neighborhood prayer walk service in July, moments of recognizing God’s presence and sharing God’s blessing in the world around us.  

And what great conversations we have!  From our chatty Coffee and Donuts with the Pastor, to PW’s theological digging around the women of the Bible over yummy cakes, to Adult Ed discussions, Connections monthly gatherings at Fireroast CafĂ©, and our summer Home Church services, we find solidarity, learning and support with each other in conversation. We are lively talkers.

I experience God in the generosity and faithfulness with which LNPC handles money.  Did you know that, between our monthly tithes and our monthly food shelf giving, (which alone totaled $4000) when the year is out this little congregation (with a 2016 budget of $160,000) will have given over $20,000 to other small, shoestring ministries, organizations and congregations this year?  The thank you notes we get back tell stories of God’s ministry unfolding all over our city and country, and we get to be part of that! At the same time, others are part of what God is doing in and through us – Westminster, in particular, continues to be a huge cheerleader and financial supporter of us.  We all belong to each other, and it’s all God’s ministry; we are the grateful, joyful participants.  

And did I mention yet the wisdom and thoughtfulness of your session? Discerning and intentional, we had some deeply memorable experiences together this year – particularly I am grateful for our meetings with Brittney and Jonathan, and Chris and Jen.  Bearing each other’s joy and pain, your leaders are leading with integrity, insight and compassion.

I experience God through those who sneak in and do things around the building to make it more hospitable for others – Gary repairs things regularly and Kathy keeps things clean. Folks from Fuego Pentecostes come in early Sunday mornings and scrub down the basement, then go home and change into church clothes and come back in the afternoon.  Remember on Palm Sunday, when we arrived and the glass front door had been smashed? The police with their dog checked out the building, then, during Sunday school a few people swept up glass, a few more built a temporary wooden replacement, another person called a glass repair shop and by that afternoon the door was good as new.  Every week Linnea and Jose change the sign, and they serve as hosts to parties that rent the basement on weekend evenings.   Linda D. has slipped in countless times and sorted and organized choral music. The water cooler gets magically filled, the coffee cups in the gathering room get washed from time to time, the sanctuary gets decorated, the communion bread gets baked, the front walk gets shoveled, and it’s not always the same person!  What an impact those with quiet gifts and hidden blessings have on our community.  “We all share responsibility for the ministry of the church” is one of our guiding convictions, and I witness this in action all the time.

I experience God in the unexpected moments that spring up out of nowhere.  On our family vacation to the Black Hills, I found myself on a side journey to visit Dick’s son’s grave, outside the former sanatorium where he lived as a child.  It was so moving, and a deep honor to pay respects there.  
A couple of weeks ago Jeanne and I found ourselves sharing conversation, soup and coffee with a homeless couple who had stopped by the church building.  They ended up keeping one of the crosses from our collection – a cross Barb Day had donated some time ago that said, “rooted in love,” that brought the woman great comfort to imagine carrying with her. When I emailed Barb in Florida and told her about this, she wept at the thought of that gift being a passed-along blessing to someone else.  I am telling you, we DO belong to God and we DO belong to each other, we humans, and that is not a shallow or simple thing.  It calls us to be deeply present, willing to suffer with each other and see each other, and willing to allow ourselves to be seen and known as well.  We meet Jesus, who is with and for us, when we are with and for each other.

In more ways than I could describe or count, I experienced God this year in our life together. We are not trying to be perfect, but to be present, to remember that we are free to be for one another and God.  And we learn from our missteps and keep adapting as we go, seeking always to keep asking, What is God doing now? And now? And what about now?

I am so grateful to be your pastor and co-journeyer in this messy and exquisite life of noticing God, following Jesus, and being with and for each other.

Here’s to another great year!


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