Up in the Air
It’s been a long time since I last traveled for business. I was thinking about it the other day, trying to remember my last trip. I think it was all the way back in June, when I flew out to San Francisco and went to a boy scout camp in the redwoods with my then-new colleagues. That may actually have been the last time I was on a plane. It seems a little hard to believe – for several years I’ve been flying every other month or so on average. Sometimes it was all clumped together so that I was hitting Logan every other week. But we drove to Canada for our big summer trip, and didn’t go anywhere over the holidays so… it may have been half a year since I traveled.
I’m traveling now, of course. In that casual miracle of flight, I’m thirty thousand feet over frozen fields. Unlike the April-warmth of Boston right now, these fields are white. Our itinerary brings us over Canada, which is relevant because apparently the inflight internet doesn’t work over Canada, and it’s a bit hard to bring myself to pay $50 for wifi access that won’t work most of the flight, even if I am not the one who is really paying for it. I’m headed to Seattle, and the way the time zones work I’ll have most of a full day’s work still in that office once I land, so perhaps I don’t have to rush. After this trip, there are some more stacked up. Some are already booked (Anaheim later in the month). Some are only possibilities.
I think my least favorite thing about flying – other than how heavy my bags are to schlep – is the sleep I get the night before. If I am flying out and it requires me to get up even 20 minutes before my regular wakening, I don’t sleep well. I’m convinced I’m going to sleep through my alarm and miss my flight and get fired. Or, you know, minority inconvenience people (almost as dire). So I don’t sleep very well. I think I got only about four hours of sleep last night – which was the second night in a row I was significantly short on sleep. Perhaps instead of working on this flight I’ll exchange my time for some very low quality drowsing. On the plus side, hotel sleep is best sleep. Mmmmm…..
The biggest tumult in my life lately has been at church. Church is an unusual place to experience tumult, especially non-drama related tumult. But it is a hard, hard time in the life of my congregation. To sum up – our pastor of 35 years retired about a year and a half ago. There was a triumphal Easter and a farewell to a pair whom I’ve known and loved since I first arrived in Boston. Then there was this long period before we got to call an interim. It was too long. We felt unfocused and drifting, but I was committed to the process. I know that one doesn’t just say farewell to a relationship like that and snap into a new one, but I hated the lingering. We called an interim, and then had to wait almost another year before Presbytery would clear us to start our mission process and begin the work of discerning our mission and calling our pastor.
Before our prior pastor retired, I’d seen the writing on the wall. (Pro tip: when the pastor who lives in the manse buys a condo in a lovely retirement location, the countdown clock has started.) After over 12 years of constantly serving on a board or two, I took myself off all of them. I didn’t even teach Sunday School. I worshipped, and tried to un-burn myself out, knowing that the afterwards would require a lot of energy and leadership. So when we kicked off the New Beginnings process to help us hear God’s call for us, I threw myself into it, organizing meetings and drafting leaders and setting up small groups.
Towards the end of the year, our interim pastor seemed to start to struggle. He had some personal sorrows in his life that kept him in our prayers and that seemed like a likely culprit. In December, he was uncharacteristically late to start some services. At a funeral of a long time member (much lamented in his loss), long pauses punctuated the eulogy, which seemed unusually sparse in details for a man who had served our congregation so faithfully. Then on Christmas Eve, after the children had told the age-old story of a star and angels and shepherds, the meditation was very strange. It was filled with extremely long pauses. It left a biblical exegesis behind. And it went on far longer than any Christmas Eve sermon with a congregation full of excited kids ever should. I went to sleep that Christmas Eve night with a cold knot of worry in my stomach. I didn’t know what was right and kind to do, but the service was not one I’d care to repeat. My brother ended up filling in for the pastor at the last minute on epiphany Sunday (note: it’s good planning to always have a spare Presbyterian minister in your attic for just such emergencies).
And then, just as the year was starting, we learned our interim pastor has an aggressive brain tumor. Ah. That explained much. We hold him and his family deep in our prayers, but his work is now fighting that and not leading us.
I’ve soldiered on with the New Beginning process, reckoning to figure things out as we go. But this is also the time of year when our boards change members and the members change roles. Some of the lay leadership roles in the church are switching. An interim period is supposed to teach you the strength of your congregation, and it certainly has. This last Sunday, with a guest preacher in the pulpit, we stood to sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. On the fourth verse, the organ stopped playing. I figured it was a verse miscount and kept singing, but then… the choir was in motion. One of our older members had collapsed. The notes died on our lips as we called 911. The medical professionals in the congregation (we have a number!) rushed forward. We moved the piano and baptismal font and communion table from the front so the EMTs could bring a stretcher in. The clerk of session rode off with her in a big red ambulance. I watched Grey, sitting next to me, sketching the ambulance on the note pads we keep for the kids. (It seems now that she will be ok.)
At coffee hour we all just looked at each other. We miss our friend who died in December – whose myriad duties we keep discovering. We are shocked and grieved for our interim pastor, and for the dark and difficult road laid out in front of his feet. (And of course, we’re making casseroles, because that’s what we do.) It is a hard time not to have the focusing presence of a pastor.
I’ve been proud at how the congregation has responded. I feel like we’re a patch of woolen cloth. With the heat and pressure and friction of the last few months, the loose weave of our relationships is tightening. We’re coming closer to each other, and bonding together. I think that without the clarity of “who should I ask if I should do this” we’re starting to just do the things that need doing. We are a hopeful people. We want to look forward. We do not wish to stop doing things until we get a pastor to do them for us. I want to make sure we hand out the Bibles to the fourth graders. I want to invite Camp Wilmot to come speak to us. So I will just do those things. We are also leaning forward into the New Beginnings process. It’s not a perfect fit for us. We’re a regional, denominational church, and it’s a community based curriculum. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I could get people to come six times for small group meetings – we condensed to three or four. The curriculum uses these old techniques for running meetings that I don’t know how to do (mostly handouts and paper documents). I’ve converted them as we’ve gone to presentations. (Chromecast turns my tv into a great display for that!) I had this cold-water realization the other day that while I know what we’re supposed to do in the next step or two of the New Beginnings process, I don’t really know how it all ties in to the Pastor Nominating Committee etc. That was all pastor-guided. (Fortunately we have Presbytery resources to help there.)
It has been the sort of time where, when you are through it, you look back and see how it strengthened you. When you are in it, you wonder how much more room there is in the strength and resources of the congregation to deal with more blows.
All this has been very much on my mind, for several months now. The future of the church – both our specific congregation and the larger collection of worshippers – is in great flux. We must change to meet the need where it is. Waiting for it to come and meet what we are already doing is not a winning strategy.
It’s been a hard year for my friends, too. One friend’s husband was in a serious car accident. Another friend’s brother just died, and left a devastated family behind. They are not my personal sorrows, but I share them with my friends.
And then, back to the prosaic, our hot water heater went out Saturday morning. And the new water heater we had installed at great expense on Sunday (which is not as nice as the one we had before) will not keep its pilot light lit. Good times. I abandoned my husband to that particular domestic disaster.
So that’s what’s up with me. What’s up with you?