Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On deep waters and letting go

Photo by Danielle Moir, via Flickr

I have always been afraid of deep water. Afraid to the very core of my being, the kind of fear that made me close my eyes and hold my breath when crossing long bridges (at least until I began driving on my own). Childhood swimming lessons didn't help. It was the week of summer that I dreaded the most, because water and I had an agreement...I would stay out of it and it would not try to drown me. And so I sat on the side of the pool each day like a barnacle refusing to be dislodged. Generally after day one the instructors just let me be with only a few token attempts to coax me from my square foot of safety, and so I passed my childhood never learning how to swim.

Motherhood can change your perspective. It can make you brave in ways you never thought you could be brave, and you will do things for the sake of your children that you were never able to do for yourself. That is why in my mid-30's I signed up for private swimming lessons. I learned that I liked swimming...except for the whole deep water part which still inspired panic and kept me lurking in the lane closest to the side of the pool. But a cross-country move and the unfamiliarity of a new place put a halt to my swimming progress for the next ten years, until this summer when I decided to deal with my fear once and for all by getting back into the water.

One round of adult beginner swim classes at the public pool later and I was ready to hit the pool at the gym. And by ready I mean that I may have posted a specific "I am going to attempt to not drown on this date at this time" status on Facebook because if you tell everyone you're going to do something then the rules of saving face dictate that you must carry through with it and that was the only way I was ever going to get myself into that pool.

Lap swimming in a real pool with a deep end is a lot different than practicing your stroke back and forth across the shallow end of a pool. It's one thing to tread water in pairs of two with the instructor a mere arms length away, it is a different thing entirely to consider heading into the deep end on your own while the person responsible for monitoring the pool sits on the other side of the room. So that first lap session? I grabbed a kickboard and didn't let go the entire time. I still did all of the movements and the breathing and the putting my face in the water, just...as long as my fingertips were touching that kickboard I knew I was ok. I considered the possibility of never getting rid of the kickboard. I was in the water, getting exercise, sort of swimming...it was all good, right?

Except, I was never really going to develop as a swimmer as long as I held on to the prop. I could get most of the movements functionally correct, but toss me in the deep end without my kickboard and fear and panic would still get the best of me. And it was limiting. There are only so many strokes that work while you are still holding on to something, others that just don't work at all.

...........

I love our current pastor. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I have learned more and grown more spiritually under his leadership than I have under any other pastor in the past. That's not to say I haven't had good pastors, most have been gifted to lead in one way or another. Maybe it's because we came to this church at a time when we were desperate for community, having spent several years in the wilderness trying to find our place. Maybe its because it was here that I was finally free to question. I don't know.

What I do know is that I've known for quite some time that this particular season wouldn't last forever. I THOUGHT it would look like our church growing to the point where we planted a second church, and so I pre-emptively wrestled with the thought of being true to where God would call our family to go, even if it meant heading out (or staying put) with a different pastor. As it turns out, that becomes less of an issue when your pastor gets called to Canada.

.........

Sometimes a pastor is a little like a kickboard. We just get used to having that prop to guide us through our spiritual journey. The deep water isn't scary if we can hang on to him (or her) to carry us through all of our doubts and all of our growing, if we can count on him to wrestle with the questions and give us the answers. But if that's where our faith is, we aren't really swimming, are we? Life changes. The average tenure of a pastor at a given church is about four years so chances are good that at more than one point in your life you will experience a pastoral transition in your church. And oh, it can look scary to let go of that kickboard. You've heard tales of people who drowned in such deep waters. Maybe you've been there yourself, seen the struggling and the flailing of a church unable to swim on its own. It's easier to hop out of the pool and go grab another kickboard than it is to swallow a little water but trust in the properties of water and everything you've learned to keep on swimming.

.......

The church is not the pastor. I can't think of any place in the New Testament where church meant anything other than the gathered assembly of believers. It seems that the only time leaders are mentioned it's in the context of divisions being caused by people following one leader or another instead of living out the gospel message of Christ as a community. (Yes, it talks about elders, but always in the role of oversight, not sole responsibility.) So doesn't it stand to reason that we were never meant to hold on to a pastor as if he were our kickboard, our only means of surviving deep waters? Out of all of the grand and beautiful and messy community of believers, the pastor is ONE person, a fellow sojourner who happens to have been given the gift of teaching.

But we've made it out to be something it isn't, haven't we? We've elevated pastors to celebrity status when they are successful, blamed them for the failing churches when they aren't, expected them to be our mentor, our teacher, our compassionate ear, our intercessor, our Bible dictionary and our all-in-one reference book. And while we were elevating them we were neglecting the real church. We were neglecting the people in the seats next to us. The intercessors, the helpers, the teachers, the mentors, the explorers, the questioners, the co-learners. We were neglecting the community that helps us to navigate the deep waters, the ones who swim beside us in the depths, who cheer us on, who extend a hand when we get weary.

Watching a pastor leave can raise intense emotions. It can taste like fear and feel like drowning. Keep swimming. The water is deep, but there's freedom and there's growth to be found in the letting go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Feast

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr

When I was little my mom used to make the most delicious rhubarb custard. Sometimes she made it just as a custard, sometimes she baked it into a pie. At least, that's the way that I remember things. All I really remember is that there came a time after leaving home that I began longing for the taste of rhubarb custard.

One day in town I noticed that a small bakery had a sign advertising 'Rhubarb Pies'. I think I managed to ignore it for a week before I finally broke down, pulled in one day after work and bought myself a rhubarb pie. (And when I say 'myself' I really do mean myself, because I was single at the time so there was no family to steal share my pie. Although given my children's food selectiveness, I am fairly certain I still don't have to worry.)

I returned home, carried my prize inside, got out a plate and opened the box. Only to find that it was NOT the rhubarb custard pie of my dreams, but some sort of rhubarb travesty of the gelatinous goo variety. Now, I do enjoy a good rhubarb crisp or crumble. But at that point in my life, rhubarb belonged in two forms...a crisp, or a CUSTARD pie. It just never occurred to me that someone would create a rhubarb pie that was not a custard. (But then, I'm also of the opinion that most fruit pies should just give up and be crisps instead, as God intended them to be. It's all about the crumbly topping.)

I probably ate it anyway, sharing the taste and my disappointment with my roommate. Later she gave me her mother's recipe for a rhubarb custard pie, and there were two of them cooling on my counter as I wrote this, over twenty years after that day.

Life hands us disappointments like that sometimes. We think we're getting one thing but we open the box to find out that it's not exactly what we anticipated. The base ingredient is the same, but the sweet taste of custard gives way to something with more tartness, less sugared. Maybe its a family life that isn't quite as you pictured it to be. The children are more rambunctious, more opinionated than you ever expected. The spouse leaves dirty socks laying on the floor and wears t-shirts with holes in them. (Any resemblance to specific spouses and children is purely coincidental and not to be construed as a portrait of an actual person.) The pretty new house has plumbing problems or noisy neighbors or an odd way of settling with creaks and groans at night. You take a job as administrative assistant at your church and then the pastor moves (true story). Friends who you thought would be around for years move a world away (also true story). (OK, Canada, they move to Canada. It feels like a world away.)

We get something other than what we wanted. But there, waiting on the sidelines are the friends who sit down with us and share in the feast anyway. And they listen to us talk about what we wish had been and they help us to find what we need to make something new.

I can't promise that disappointment will always lead to something sweet. You may need to eat a lot of gelatinous goo. Maybe you'll learn to like gelatinous goo, or at least appreciate it for what it is without expecting it to be custard. Sit down anyway. Sit down with your friends and your neighbors with your disappointments and their disappointments and dig in. Share in the tart and the sweet and the bitter. Eat with them the taste of tears and longings unfulfilled. And then go to the kitchen together. Pull out the flour and the sugar, the spices and the eggs. Set yourselves to baking something new, something that may turn out and maybe not. But bake anyway. Mix your hopes and your dreams, your longings and your prayers.

And feast together again and again.