All the big changes in life seems to ask us to step back and take in the big picture, survey the landscape of our lives from beginning to end. Our move into a new house, coinciding with the anniversary of 20 years in ministry, has prompted me to take a look back and say to myself (in the words of an old ad campaign), “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
But I didn’t come a long way alone. I’m grateful to have been surrounded by amazing people who were instrumental in my growth and learning. No, I haven’t “arrived.” And, no, I haven’t figured it all out. In fact, I’m fairly suspicious of folks who think they have. I simply thought that perhaps all of us could benefit by me taking inventory.
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The Book of Proverbs exhorts us to learn, to discern the truth, to devote oneself to Wisdom, Sophia (in Greek), Hokmah (in Hebrew). Even if it costs you everything (which it may at times, because wisdom tends to show up when everything has crashed and burned), devote yourself to getting Understanding (which The Inclusive Bible capitalizes as another name for Wisdom). Eventually, Proverbs says, this wisdom will serve you, bring you honor and glory… or at least, perhaps, help you to serve others and keep yourself out of more trouble.
In a poem by Cynthia Langston Kirk called “Stripped by God,” she talks about pursuing God in a way that reminded me of myself when I was entering my first church appointment: “I filled my pockets with openness and grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude.” I was ready to dive in, young, idealistic, full of the love of God, compassion, and a deep desire to serve and change the world.
But wisdom doesn’t come until you roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, stub your toes a few times, and occasionally fall flat on your face. I’ve done plenty of all of this in the last 20 year and though it was tough, I’ve distilled what I’ve learned into my top four:
4 – Develop an Alligator Skin. I’m afraid I’ve always been prone to taking things personally. And my naïve, idealistic, young self was even worse than I am today. I wanted to be able to reach everyone in my congregations, and felt like I’d personally failed if I didn’t. Now, my theology has always been more progressive than not, and when I got to my first lead pastor appointment there were a few very strong fundamentalists in positions of power and authority in the church. While I couldn’t agree with them theologically, I felt horrible that one by one they were leaving “because of me.” It literally brought me to tears and I just didn’t know how to handle it. My goal had not been to run people off, but to make connections and build relationships with God. Then the Chairman of our Board came to my office and said, “Kaye, you need to develop an alligator skin. You can’t take everything personally. And you can’t reach everyone.” He said those folks probably didn’t belong in the United Methodist Church in the first place and that they’d find somewhere else to worship and we would be just fine, too. This was all true in the end.
But it didn’t just apply in that situation; it applied over and over again when I did or said something others didn’t agree with. I’ve tried very hard to learn that a disagreement does not have to be taken as a personal attack (and I’m still better some days at this than others.) Perhaps I’ve simply gained more confidence in myself, my beliefs, and my experience, and am able to take a step back to try to approach things more objectively, and less catastrophically. It’s ok if we don’t always agree. The world is a more interesting place with different points of view. And most days the things we disagree on really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
3 – Everyone suffers. Sure, some people look like they’ve got it all together, but everyone has something in their lives that they struggle with or that causes them pain. Some are just more private than others.
One of the biggest honors of being a pastor is that people have been more apt to trust me with their vulnerable side. That is a huge gift that I have not taken lightly. Ultimately, it has reminded me to always err on the side of love because we can’t know what someone else is going through. Over the years I’ve met with folks who, in regular interactions, seemed like all was just fine, only to find out that they’d been raped by their husband, dealt with depression and psychological issues because of their time in Vietnam, been sexually abused as a child, were estranged from their child or parent or sibling, had a family member who was gay but they were afraid to tell anyone, were in an unhappy, unfulfilling marriage, had a child or family member who was dealing with substance abuse… the list goes on and on. People are afraid to talk about these things because we’re afraid people will think less of us. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re afraid of becoming the subject of gossip or pity.
Everyone suffers, so hold judgment and err on the side of love.
2 – You can’t wrap your own arms. The first month I in my appointment to Franksville UMC, I had one wedding and three funerals. Somewhere in the middle of that my husband (at the time) and I took our kids to his mother’s house to swim – she had a great pool and hot tub in the backyard. As we were sitting in the hot tub, I noticed how overgrown it was with vines and weeds, and I decided it would be really nice of me to clean that out for my mother-in-law. So, I climbed out, dripping wet in my bikini, and proceeded to pull and bag weeds for an hour or more. Come to find out (the hard way) that much of what I was pulling out was poison oak. By evening I had broken out in a rash nearly everywhere! It got so bad that it became systemic and I had to have a shot of prednisone. My arms were a blistering, oozing mess… and, of course, I had a funeral. It was then that I discovered that I couldn’t wrap my own arms in gauze! I took the roll back to the kitchen and found one of the women of the church wrap my arms and help me slip into my jacket to cover it all up.
We can’t always handle everything alone, nor are we meant to.
I’ve always been a pretty independent sort, wanting to prove that I could do whatever needed to be done. I didn’t need anyone’s help. Plus the hierarchy of the church impressed upon us that we were there to be served. We weren’t supposed to make friends, ask for support, or basically show any vulnerability. After all, the pastor is supposed to be the rock and how can they be if they have struggles? To some extent I get this. But we all need help at times and it is not a crime, or anything to be ashamed of, to ask for help. Being vulnerable is not a weakness.
And, yes, while I learned this a long time ago, I’m still practicing at getting it right.
1 – Trust in the Spirit. Twenty years of preaching is a LOT of sermons. There have been more times than I care to admit when I haven’t known what to preach, or it just wasn’t coming together. And then there were the times when it felt like what I did say didn’t quite click, or that I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be, or I left something out that I’d really wanted to say, and I’d stew over it.
But the truth is that somehow, amazingly, I have never stood up on Sunday morning with nothing to say. So, on a weekly basis, I’ve taken up reminding myself that the Spirit hasn’t let me down yet! And, on top of that, invariably when I feel at my lowest because I wasn’t happy with my preaching, or I screwed up (yes, it happens), or I’m simply not feeling like I’m making that idealistic difference I thought I’d make, someone reaches out to let me know that something I said or did helped them.
I guess the lesson for me has been that the Spirit reaches people despite me. All I need to do is follow where the energy is leading me to speak, and then speak/preach from the heart.
The Divine moves through all of us, even when we’re not operating at our peak, even when our lives are messed up, and even when we’re not trying. We can trust the Spirit to use what we offer. That is the best thing ever to have learned!
Love & Light!