Closure

My father was a United Methodist pastor, so for all my young life, moving meant transitioning from one church to the next. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I experienced that transition from the congregation’s point of view. Now I have seen that transition in multiple traditions: in United Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, and Episcopal congregations, and as a lay member of two different United Methodist congregations. Each transition had features to recommend it, as well as related features that placed certain burdens on the congregations.

United Methodists have a connectional structure, which (for the purposes of pastoral transitions) means that decisions about which pastors serve which churches is made by “The Cabinet” (a committee of designated church leaders), allowing all of the transitional pastors in a conference to move on the same day. One of the many benefits of this system is that it eliminates any gaps in pastoral care or worship leadership that might result from less exquisitely choreographed transitions. But for some parishioners, this can feel a bit jarring, as if their wife died yesterday afternoon, and they woke up this morning to find another woman snoring softly beside them. Who is this person, and how did she get here? And what makes her think she gets this level of intimacy so quickly?

New pastors can sometimes appear to behave as if the church sprang into being when they arrived – they spend the first few sermons introducing themselves – which is important! – but they focus on building a new relationship with this “new” congregation, without openly acknowledging that the congregation may be grieving the pastor who went before them. When I first started out serving two rural congregations, it took me a few weeks to realize that I was doing this, too.

On the other end of the transition, pastors who are leaving may spend their last weeks focusing on the congregation’s grief (and their own, too!), without helping the congregation to begin the process of detaching themselves, making room in their hearts and minds for the next pastor. Part of readying the congregation for the next pastor needs to occur in worship, as many parishioners likely engage in the life of the church primarily through their one hour of “going to church” a week.

In order to enter into the congregation’s experience, pastors must be in touch with their own feelings about the transition, dealing with them in the early stages of preparing their sermons so that they do not accidentally project their own feelings on the laypeople. As in pastoral care on a smaller scale, in preaching pastors begin with the reality on the ground – what the parishioners’ hopes and concerns are (to the best of your discernment) at the moment – before they can be led to a more God-centered view. When through their worship leadership, both pastors acknowledge the congregation’s experience, the pastoral transition is given a much better chance of going smoothly.

About a month ago, I wrote about the many exciting developments in my life as a writer – one of which was writing sermon series helps. I am excited to announce that the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church has published my first set of sermon series helps: a series for June, written particularly with moving pastors in mind. This series follows the lectionary texts, tying together many elements of healthy closure: celebrating the pastor’s tenure, encouraging the congregation to let go of the pastor, and building anticipation for a new connection with the incoming pastor. These themes are brought together under the umbrella of placing our trust in Jesus – remembering who the true shepherd of the congregation has been and will continue to be.

I feel so blessed to be working with Rev. Dawn Chesser of the General Board of Discipleship, and I hope that the sermon series ideas that I develop under her leadership will prove to be of value to pastors.

Thank you, pastors, for your love and direction at all times, and especially for your faithfulness in times of transition!

My life after I (mostly, kinda, maybe temporarily) gave up Facebook

Dear Facebook friends,

I am sorry if I alarmed any of you with the status I posted on Monday, May 20th, about “shutting off social media before it shuts me down utterly.” In retrospect, that was pretty dramatic sounding. I guess I was feeling pretty dramatic at the time.

It can just be hard sometimes, living in a rich and powerful nation, when the richest and most powerful people keep making incredibly selfish decisions. It can be hard to vacillate between feeling like a rich and powerful person who is also being selfish and thoughtless, and feeling like a person who has been working for justice and trying to move the rich and the powerful in one way or another for decades to no avail – a powerless person with delusions of power. And my Facebook and Twitter feeds had become a constant flow of “CHECK OUT HOW MUCH THIS STINKS!” “AND THIS TOO!” “AND ALSO THIS!!!!”

Not the best time to be reading Amos chapter 2: “People of Israel – you are thoughtless, selfish, unjust covenant breakers! Don’t think you don’t have it coming!!”

Oh! Had I not mentioned that it is pretty much my job at the moment to be reading Amos and writing about it? *sigh*

I am just compulsive enough to need to read my entire feed. Everything I missed. And friends, you read such interesting things, and share them! So when I would sit down at the kitchen table to work, I would first check my e-mail, and see that someone had commented on something or tagged me on Facebook, and I would click over to see what was going on, and next thing you know I would have spent two hours reading one article after another about how racism is as bad as ever, sexism is as bad as ever, Congress is more selfish than usual, and more than half our family income taxes are going to kill various mostly non-terrorist people overseas… but wait – let’s all stop talking about all of that awfulness as we all try to process the new awfulness of someone (or some storm) having killed a bunch of children all at once. Here, look at some kittens.

And having “reached the end of the internets,” I would look up from my screen and see that it was lunchtime, and I would eat because it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t really feel hungry anymore. And then I would re-read Amos chapter 2, and stare at the blank screen for about 30 minutes. Again, le sigh.

So it is true that right up through the moment that I wrote that dramatic status that my mental state was… concern worthy. But if you have been at all concerned, rest assured that everything is ok now. Well, probably not everything – I wouldn’t know since I am no longer reading all of those articles about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I am sure the world is still FUBAR in all sorts of ways, and so it is unfair to just stop reading about it and then assert that everything is ok.

Please allow me to rephrase: since (mostly, kinda, maybe temporarily) giving up Facebook, I am ok now. Actually, I am better than ok. I have totally disassembled my KitchenAid mixer and repaired the switch. (The part only cost $10, including shipping!) I have taken my daughter swimming, and bike riding, and made cookies with her. I have not once checked my feeds or even my e-mail on my phone while half-attentively interacting with her. I have done lots and lots of laundry, even folding it fresh out of the dryer! I have mostly overcome my fear of chickens. I wrote long e-mails to friends that I might otherwise have only communicated with via broadcast status updates.

I prayed. I prayed and prayed for so many people that I hadn’t had the time or energy to pray for when their problems were collected in with literally hundreds of millions of other people with also big problems. I prayed that God would call other people to pray for the hundreds of millions of people that I missed, and would inspire me to pray the prayers I most needed to pray.

I scrubbed my shower. And my bathroom counter. And as I was scrubbing the counter, I had an insight about Amos. But it wasn’t ready yet. So I read a book, and I talked with my husband, and I didn’t check Facebook first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. I called my mother and my sister in the same day. I listened to one news story on the radio, and then turned it off to think about it instead of listening to the next one, too. I cleaned 1500 messages out of my inbox. And then I knew what I wanted to write, and I wrote and wrote until time to pick up my daughter from school, and get ready for the chickens who are living in our garage over the weekend. Chickens. I can’t believe it.

Now it is my intention to pop on over to Facebook and post this and set the hearts of all of you, my loving friends and family, at ease.  Pray for me, that I make it in and out of the Kingdom of Zuckerberg before finding something so interesting that I get stuck catching up on my feed.  It is late, and I do not have the six hours that it would take to make headway on the backlog of your interesting thoughts and beautiful photographs and very important articles. Ugh. That sounded condescending and awful. I hope that you all understand that I meant all of that completely un-ironically.  I love you guys and all your posts, or I would have hidden you from my feed, easy peasey.  You’re just so darn thought-provoking!  And funny!  And your kids are growing like weeds and doing interesting stuff, and I haven’t even met them in person yet!!!

OK, I almost talked myself into getting back in there.  But here’s the thing:  I have challah french toast to make in the morning, and then I go to the Farmer’s Market, and then we are letting a bunch of chickens and children loose in the back yard.  After lunch, I am hoping to put my mixer back together.  I have dozens of cookies to bake, a house to clean, and a Sunday school lesson on the 2nd chapter of Amos to finish writing before I can move on to writing the next 3 Amos lessons after that.  And I would like to get around to calling my mother again.  So… I think I am going to stay away a bit longer – at least until I can figure out how to manage my “complete feed-reading” compulsion.  I hope you guys understand.

Grace and Peace, Sarah

“The Talk”

Update / Correction: I have changed this post slightly from when I first posted it in 2013. I have replaced previous instances of the word “breed/breeding” with “mate/mating,” which is more accurate. Otherwise, the piece is just as originally posted.

Several years ago, a friend of mine spent the summer in South Africa.  She stayed with a family in a small town where, as in so many other small towns all over the world, the houses each consisted of one large common room.  After a couple of weeks of sleeping in a room with several other people, she summoned the courage to ask a young unmarried woman about her age, “When do your parents get any… umm… privacy?”  The young woman laughed, “You mean sex, right?  They are modest, of course, but they don’t really get true privacy the way wealthy people do in some other places.  I understand that there are children who have to be told about sex!  Not here.  No matter our parents’ best efforts, most of us have seen them having sex by the time we are 5 or 6.  It is no big deal.”

No big deal! Contrast that with the Kia ad that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl, in which a dad and mom anxiously avoid their child’s question about where babies come from, making up a ridiculous fairy tale, and then drowning out his rejoinder with the car stereo.

About a year ago, my husband and I took the baby monitor out of my daughter’s room, but she still wakes up in the middle of the night about 1/3 of the time, so we leave the door to our bedroom a little bit open, so that we can hear her if she calls.  But she doesn’t always call out, especially in the morning — sometimes she comes to our room instead.  In the past, I had considered the monitor and our doorknob’s creaky turning to be our early warning systems.  Instead, over the past months, I have been trying to work out what we are going to tell her if she walks into the room when we are having sex.

I had been a bit anxious about it, honestly.  More than once I have paused to check the clock and done some calculations about when she would likely wake up that morning before deciding whether I was comfortable having sex right then.  But in the past few days I came up with something to say that has me almost hoping that she does walk in on us one morning in the next year or so.  Remembering my friend’s story – that for many children all over the world, having seen their parents have sex is “no big deal,” I wondered about the difference between that attitude and the conviction of my friends when I was a child and teenager that the mere thought of their parents’ having had sex was “gross!” In movies and on television, I have “walked in on” countless young, beautifully airbrushed couples having sex – but rarely married couples, and never  in real life.

But back to what I would say to my six year old, if she were to walk in on my husband and I having sex in the next several months, and were to ask what we were doing:

1) We’re mating…  This might sound like a weird thing to say, but I would be beginning here by placing what she had seen in the context of what vocabulary she already has.  My daughter LOVES animals, and has been checking lots of books about animals out of the library – and a word that comes up a lot is “mate.”  She doesn’t know what mating entails precisely, but she knows that it is something that two animals do together in order to make a baby (or lots of babies).  So by saying, “We’re mating,” she knows right away that what she saw is related to how humans make babies, without me having to go into a lot of age-inappropriate detail.

2) … but unlike most other animals, humans don’t mate just to make babies.  This is important for three reasons.  The first is because it is true, and I want her to learn what other things sex is for from me, not her peers.  The second is because it is the necessary thing to say before telling her anything else sex is for.  And the third is because, as a family that has been trying to adopt for a few years, my daughter is aware that, “Mommy can’t grow any more babies in her belly.” So if Mommy and Daddy are mating (doing something that makes babies), then already that raises several questions in her head.

3) When humans mate, we call it “sex.” And couples have sex to strengthen the bond between them.  This is the critical part right here.  Too often, “the talk” includes (or even begins with) “when two people love each other very much.”  This can be very confusing.  Love can mean a lot of different things to different people.  Talking about love – about what comes before sex – tends to endorse anything that might happen when swept up in an emotional moment.  Instead, I feel like it is important to frame sex in terms of strengthening of a bond between two people – the results of sex.  Unlike “making a baby,” which only results from sex sometimes, “strengthening the bond” happens every time.  It can strengthen that bond in good or bad ways, it can strengthen that bond with a person who is good for you or bad for you, but it makes the bond stronger each time.  My daughter already knows (from us telling her, and from her observing us) that Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, that we respect one another and trust one another, so there is really no need, if she walks in on Mommy and Daddy having sex, to tell her that it has something to do with love.  But as parents of her friends divorce, I imagine the idea of sex as strengthening commitment will be reassuring to her.

Naturally, this version of “The Talk” leaves a lot out.  After all, I have thought about it with my six year old in mind.  For instance, now is not the time to get into “there are many ways to have sex, but only vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman can result in a baby, unless you take advantage of in vitro fertilization, which is a way of making a baby without sex at all,” or “There are ways to avoid having a baby when you are having sex, and some of them work better than others, and some don’t work at all, for instance…”  These matters can be addressed later, in bits and pieces, as she gets older and as she has more and more questions.  Actually answering those questions honestly (instead of trying to distract her from her questions by singing her favorite song, like the parents in the Kia commercial) will tell her that I am open to this conversation, and that will encourage her to continue asking me questions when they arise, instead of asking someone else.

“The Talk” is not one conversation, but a commitment to years of conversations.  In a sense, I already began talking with her about sex when I talked to her about marriage more than a year ago. “One day, when you are older, you may find someone who you like so much, and who likes you so much, that you want to see them every day, and help one another do everything, and be family with one another…” Liking one another, commitment, helping, family…  again, I didn’t use the word “love” because it didn’t seem to be the most helpful word in the situation.

Love is great and important!  My daughter and I use the word love a lot!  But because there are so many different ways to love people, I didn’t want that to be the only word that comes to mind when thinking about marriage.  Our culture will guarantee that it is the first word she thinks of – I can give her other words as well.  And by giving her these other words when she thinks about marriage, she will think of these words too when she thinks about sex.  As long as the first context she has for thinking about having sex is marriage, and not the sex she will see portrayed in movies and on TV time and again as she grows up — the sex that is simply scratching the inexplicable itch of desire.

Most of us will inexplicably desire many people in our lives who would be poor partners – to whom we know we would prefer not to be strongly bonded.  Respect and mutual support and commitment and enjoying one another’s company and desire? That’s what I want for my daughter.  My hope is that she is given unmistakable clarity in finding such a partner.  But because we are all fallible, because it is so easy to be deceived by our desires, shame is not on my agenda for my ongoing conversations about sex with my daughter.  If she is to flourish as an adult in a sexual relationship, if she is to continually strengthen the bond between herself and another person, I don’t want to do anything to impede her freedom to sever a bond that is better broken.  Especially if the sex was nonconsensual, for instance as Elizabeth Smart spoke about at Johns Hopkins when sharing her experience when she was abducted from her home.  But even if the mistake is hers – even if she chooses to have sex with the wrong person – telling her that she is now something like a “chewed up wad of gum” that no one will want is not simply hateful and contrary to the demands of Love, but also a way of preventing her from being equipped to form a life-giving relationship later.

So I am going to stop eyeing the clock in the morning, and not worry so much about our creaky bed frame.  If our daughter sees my husband and I having sex, it is no big deal.  It might even be a good thing.