Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy New Year

When I accepted the position of youth director at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Liberty, MO, I did so with the understanding that I would start sometime around January 1, 2011 - the beginning of the year. I was perfectly happy to finish out my last eight weeks at Company X, pulling out commas and inserting hyphens, making sure that "time point" was two words and "predose" was one. I had just reached a point where I felt "up to speed" with the work I was doing. After nearly a month of training I was able to accept amendments, review protocols and create report shells. It took no small amount of time to learn Adobe and figure out the differences between ACS and MLA. I was grateful for my supervisor's patience and felt I owed it to the company to stay there for a solid 6 weeks before announcing my intended departure. And then they fired me. Apparently I was not so valuable as I once thought.
So there I was at the beginning of November, unemployed (again). The good news - I had already secured another job. The bad news - it didn't start for eight weeks, which just so happened to be the eight weeks leading up to Christmas, which just so happens to be the season during which I typically spend a disproportionate amount of my small savings.
This left me with three options:
1) I could spend the next eight weeks in the same manner I spent the end of August - unemployed; cobbling together freelance work; relying on the benevolence of others; counting my pennies; sleeping on spare beds and couches; trusting that there would be provision (or at least attempting to do so);
2) I could spend the next eight weeks in the same manner I spent the month of September - desparately looking for a job; dropping applications at restaurants and bookstores and staffing agencies (and trying not to feel guilty knowing that I would quit less than two months in);
3) I could look for the "seasonal work" that just so happens to be available between November and January; the problem being that just such work would hinder my ability to spend any holiday time with the family members who would be speninding their "last Christmas" at my parents' house (and they really meant it this time).
I was distraught. I did not want to attempt option 1 again and I did not want to miss out on my brother's last Thanksgiving and Christmas in Lincoln, NE. I spent a grand total of 12 hours on option 3 (going so far as to apply with my third staffing agency) before I came to a rather obvious realization: I already had a job. I spent three months applying, interviewing for, and considering that job. It took five days of arduous, ardent prayer, meditation and resignation before I accepted what God seemed to be serving me on a silver platter. Why was I looking for something else?
So I did what I perhaps should have done immediately - asked if I could start early. I'd agonized over whether or not to accept this position, wondering if youth ministry was really a good idea. I'd faced my fear of commiting to a job and living in one place for more than 6 months. I confronted the fact that taking this position might be the only argument I could ever make for the divine intervention that I'd never really seen in my life. I'd made the difficutl decision, why not jump in?

I entered my new office in the middle of November, but didn't really begin working until the following week. It seemed a sort of struggle to start something at this point in the season. It's busy and booked up and far too difficult to butt into. How was I to begin new at the end of the month, the end of the semester, the end of the calendar?
A few days in I started thumbing through the lectionary and looking at the sermon series. I discovered that I wasn't actually make a beginning during an end afterall. According to the liturgical calendar the end of the year has already passed. Sunday, November 28th was the first day of Advent, the first day of a new year in the church. I find the coincidence of this entirely appropriate. If I'd waited until January I would have missed it. I would have missed the beginning.
It's an overstated phrase in the church to say that we get so caught up in the busyness of the season that we leave Christ out of Christmas. It has become cliche to remind congregations to "make room for Jesus." But there are reasons that phrases are overstated and concepts become cliche - because more often than not they're true. During the season of Advent we're asked to drop what we're doing and wait. To start something new at this point in the season. It's busy and booked up and it seems far too difficult to allow something else to butt in, but that's what we're meant to do. Not to fill every free spot in the week with a Holiday party, seasonal mingling or Christmas shopping excursion; but to empty it. To make space so that something new can happen. So that something (even someone) new can come. It is impossible to experience fulfilment when there is no void, no space of waiting, no season of anticipation.
As I start a new job, a new season of my life, a new season in the church, (and a new season of being without facebook), I invite you to start something new as well, to start anticipating what is to come.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I like that answer

This past summer I spent 5 days at Youthfront West, where I "served" as a volunteer cabin leader for a group of 20 or so middle school girls. Following one of our small group cabin discussions, the girls were given the freedom to ask questions about anything they desired.

June 15, 2010

A sweet-tempered, round-faced eight-grader approaches me with an earnest inquiry. "How do we know that Lutherans are right?" she asks, waiting to receive an answer she can make sense of. "I ask a lot of people that questioon and they give me a lot of different answers, even when I ask my dad." Based on this answer I guess that her father-figure is the final authority in her 13-year-old life. "He gives me different answers," she continues as we walk up the stairs inside the cabin. "They're kind of the same, but they're different."

When we reach level ground I turn to her, wondering what words of Lutheran wisdom will pour forth from my post-modern mouth, and whether or not I'll be reprimanded for giving a teenager my honest opinion. "Well," I start, "a lot of Christians, particularly Lutherans, follow the practices of their particular churches because those are the churches they grew up in; that's what their parents taught them and what their grandparents believe. Some people question those beliefs, but others just remain in their 'home churches' because they are comfortable there. It's what they've been taught is true, and it makes sense to them to continue believing it's true, and that's okay. That's one way that we come to believe things."

Her eyes are still fixed on me and she nods slightly, as if to indicate that she understands. So I continue, "I grew up in the LCMS [Lutheran Church Missouri Synod], but after high school I attended a lot of other churches and found that what is more important to me than the denomination of the church are the actions of the church. 'Do the people live in community? How do they follow Jesus? Do they feed the hungry and clothe the poor and care for their community?'" As I articulate these thoughts I realize I'm expressing them for my sake as much as hers. "Those are the things I think about when choosing a church."

"Yeah," she responds, brushing aside my subtle pleas for social justice and corporate life, "but there are all of these churches, and they all have different beliefs." I can tell her mind is spinning as she tries to articulate what she's struggling to grasp, "but I guess, what I want to know is who's right?"

"Oh," I reply. "None of them." My response is so simple, so matter-of-fact that I think it catches her by surprise. "They're all wrong." The girls' eyes grow wide, as if my response has totally rocked her adolescent world. "We're humans," I continue. "We make our own interpretations and we make mistakes. We can know about God and do our best to understand what we the Bible that we've compiled says and means, but until the restoration, until Jesus makes new our imperfect understanding we'll never have it all figured out."

She gives me a soft smile. "Thanks," she says, sincerely and with a look of relieved gratitude. "I like that answer. That makes sense."

I like the answer too. And I like that I really meant what I said. I wonder if I was right to attempt to convey something I didn't start to grasp until I was a full decade older than this dark-haired student, but I'm not too worried. I wish someone had told me as much when I was in eighth grade.

Reverse Commute

Every morning of the month of October (M-F, with the exception of the week I spent in Tempe, Arizona), I woke up between 6:15 and 6:30, intended to leave the house between 7:00 and 7:10, and got out the door somewhere around 7:35. I zipped (or crawled, depending on the traffic lights) out of my neighborhood; got onto I-70, Hwy 69, (NOT 69 Highway, as the natives call it) and I-35; and made a 30-mile straight-shot to 179th and Metcalf.
And every morning (unless it was exceptionally cloudy) I watched the sunrise.
In my rearview mirror.

This was really quite a feat and not at all safe. Even as I drove I realized it was quite possible that one of those mornings I'd steer too far to the left and into the oncoming city-bound traffic, but I just couldn't help myself. I love watching the sun rise. When the sun was rising and there weren't cars in the lane next to me I would sneak glances out the back windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the yellows, oranges, pinks and blues that played across the horizon behind me.

Every afternoon during the month of October (M-F, with the exception of the week I spent in Tempe, Arizona) I intended to leave my office between 4:15 and 4:30 pm. Usually I was out the door by 5:00 pm. Sometimes I went straight home, but many days I stayed to run the country roads before heading home around 5:45 or 6:00, just in time to watch the sunset.
In my rearview mirror.

Once again, this was really quite a feat and not at all safe. Even as I drove I realized it was quite possible that one of those evenings I would steer too far to the left and into the oncoming suburb-bound traffic, but I just can't help myself. The one thing I love better than watching the sun rise is watching the sun set. When the sun was setting and there weren't cars in the lane next to me (and sometimes even when there are) I would sneak glances out the back windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the gold, copper, pale yellow, and vibrant pink that played across the horizon behind me as they reached out to the darkening indigo sky above.

At first I took delight in playing this game; peaking out the windows and catching 3-second glimpses of the evolving atmosphere, but then I started to find it quite frustrating. I became so preoccupied with staring at the scenes behind me and longing for that which I was leaving, that I didn't really pay much attention to where I was going. Sometimes I missed my exits. Sometimes I drifted into the other lane without realizing it. Sometimes I let my fuel gauge get ridiculously low before I noticed I needed more gas.

I often struggle to fully enjoy and experience life as it is happening. Years of my childhood, the semester I spent in Oxford, portions of my life in Derby, weeks and months of the four years I spent at Northwestern College - all periods of my life that I didn't really appreciate until months or years after they ended. By the time I began to understand all that I'd had, it was too late. The hours I spent writing to college friends, looking at photos and recounting what had been could not take me back to that point in time; could not make things be the way they once were.

I watched a Nooma video this past summer that addressed the tendency to spend so much of life longing for the glory days (wishing things could be as they were back then, back when we were younger, happier, more centered, more free, more whatever) that they fail to see what is happening now. The concept was convicting (for lack of a less evangelical word). Similar to the way I'd been trying to watch the sun rise and set in my rearview mirror, I'd been caught up in memories of experiences and relationships in Oxford, Orange City, and England. And in the same way that the sun had been keeping me from watching the roads, my longing for what used to be was keeping me from experiencing the present.

October 30th I committed to taking a new position in Liberty, MO. November 2nd I made my last commute to and from Stilwell, KS. I no longer see the sun rise and set in my rearview mirror (due in part to my new location and in part to the time change). Coincidentally, I've stopped making efforts with unreciprocated past relationships. I've taken down old photos and redirected my bills to Kansas City, KS instead of Lincoln, NE. In days to come I mean to watch the sun rise, to meet it straight on even if it blinds me, and to be grateful for the time, place, and situation in which I find myself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lutheran Musings

As a result of circumstances beyond my control and far beyond my understanding, I have recently taken a position as the pioneer youth director at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Liberty, Missouri. Following completion of my integrated field experience at Northwestern College I didn't really think I'd ever "do youth ministry," at least not professionally (i.e., for pay); but as the fates, luck or God would have it, here I am, overseeing the Christian education of 120 students K-12, and at an LCMS church of all places.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I went to an LCMS preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, jr. high and high school. My paternal grandparents were LCMS - hard core (if I'm allowed to posthumously describe them as such). My Dad is LCMS - not so hard core, but definitely to the core. My brother went to an LCMS college in NE and is currently at an LCMS seminary in MO studying to be an LCMS pastor. He married a girl who attended the same LCMS college in NE and is the daughter of an LCMS pastor. When they met, she was considering being a medical missionary or a deaconess (LCMS, of course). Her sister, another graduate of the LCMS college in NE, is an LCMS missionary/teacher and her brother is at the LCMS college in NE preparing to attend the LCMS seminary where my brother is currently. My own sister is also attending the same LCMS college in NE, studying to be a Spanish/ESL teacher (with a Lutheran Teaching Degree). She is dating a guy from the LCMS college in NE who is also studying to be a secondary teacher with a Lutheran Teaching Degree. His father is a pastor at the LCMS church in Lincoln, NE where I once worked.

Then there's me. I tried to "break the mold" by attending non-denominational youth groups in high school (yes, I know, I am such a rebel) and going to a small, Christian liberal arts college that was affiliated with the Reformed church (which I had never heard of during my 18 years in the LCMS). When I went to Oxford I attended Anglican churches, sang my first Hail Mary and even went to a few catholic masses (and I liked it). My last semester of college I attended an episcopal church that was led by a woman (gasp) as I was preparing to volunteer with an international community church in England. I've rarely gotten away from the church, even when I've wanted to. It has been a means of travel, a means of community, a means of employment. Of all the subjects I studied in college (and there were many), youth ministry is actually (surprisingly) the only one that I've found a means of using.

So here I am, sitting at a desk inside an office located in the middle of an LCMS church in Liberty, MO. I'll be "inducted" this coming Sunday (I considered choosing Ave Maria as part of the service, but it wasn't in the Lutheran Hymnal). I'm not quite sure what I'm getting myself into, but that's never stopped me before. Lutheran or not, here I go.