Batons, Boundaries, Beginnings

On Sunday, at the end of the service, I’m going to ask Bob R. to come up for the blessing. Right in front of everyone, I want to symbolically pass the baton to him. (If anyone can think of a symbol more “ecclesial” than a baton, I’m all ears.)

Then I’m going to ask him to celebrate one of our OF traditions —  sending someone who is going away — whether for good or just for a specific time — out with a blessing. This time, I’m the apostle, as I leave for the summer to serve as a Voluntary Missionary with the Board for Global Ministries. By now, everyone must know, but I will be stationed in Palermo, Sicily, where I will be working with the Waldensian Church, serving unaccompanied minor refugees from North Africa and the Middle East who are seeking asylum.

And after I have given Bob the reins (as much as UCC-pastoring can be described as steering horses, a stagecoach or anything else!) and he has offered me a charge and a blessing for my service in Sicily… then, asking his permission as the Summer Interim Minister (as “in charge” as a UCC pastor can ever be!), I’m going to ask if I can say the final benediction that day over the congregation, and for him… for everyone’s safe-keeping and his ministry amongst you, until we meet again.

This is my first sabbatical leaving a congregation. For my previous one, I was serving on NY Conference staff. It’s different leaving behind a congregation and people you love. Nicely, the sermon this week for Ascension Sunday is titled “Endings and Beginnings.”

And I’m hoping in a few graceful moves, Bob and I can try and illustrate all this complexity and change in front of the whole community. Still, you might laugh, that’s a lot of convolutions in the last two minutes of worship. And you would be right.

But relations and boundaries are complicated. They deserve our respect, and our work. They  provide some public shape to our emotions, attachments and communities, not unlike marriage offering a public form to a most intimate emotion between two people. And like marriage, all our relations and our boundaries… they, inevitably, always involve some gray areas, even if only in our feelings which are usually somewhat mixed, often contradictory.

That’s what I want to write you about this week, before I leave. Some boundaries. If we are right in our current plans, God has asked me to go and do another ministry for a time. It’s about rest. And new perspective.\d And, I believe we are right, God has asked Bob to pick up the pastor’s ministry at Old First.

I deliberately raise all our plans to the will of God, that we might find help and inspiration and hope working within the changes.

As I said at Bob’s retirement party last night, after teaching 28 years at Lutheran Seminary, I cannot imagine anyone I could trust more to stand in for me. Which makes me feel very good.

As I leave, I remember with new urgency the closing prayer we use at the night services of Holy Week:

Care now, dear Lord, for those who wake or watch or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ, rest your weary ones, bless your dying ones, soothe your suffering ones, pity your afflicted ones, shield your joyous ones… all for your love’s sake.

You all will be in my thoughts and prayers. But you will be in Bob’s capable hands and full heart as he serves as your pastor. Likewise, please keep me in your prayers.

And feel free to send me a greeting. Or midsummer birthday wishes! You will know what I am doing too. Global Ministries requires me to report on my experiences. The reflections I write I am going to send back to Teresa for inclusion in the E-piste because I should report to you all to. A sabbatical means I’m still under your employment!

While I am away, I will hear of pastoral concerns like everyone else — from the prayer group or the prayer list in the order of service. And Bob will cover the pastoral needs as is humanly possible. And the whole church will be fine. Even strengthened by the ways he is different from me. And the ways you are different this summer while I am not here.

Trying to maintain good boundaries, I have let the leaders and staff know, if there is something they need that only I know, of course they can e-mail me. And I will respond as soon as I can. But if folks send me pastoral concerns, there will be a pretty standard reply: “I’m so glad to hear from you. You are in my prayers. I trust you have also shared your concern with Bob and he can be of help. I will see you when I return in September.”

One of our families said to me today they had to change their baptismal plans — waiting until I got back. Aww, that’s sweet. But if they had instead said that Bob would do their child’s baptism this summer, I would have understood and celebrated another Christian arriving in our fold.

Likewise, I worry someone will fall sick, or pass away. (We don’t have that many illnesses or deaths, but they often to see to come when the pastor is away?) And I will be sad to miss something or someone. But I will be encouraged that Bob can be here for you.

Church will be in session all summer, even though I will be away. Too often folks figure if the pastor’s not there, they really don’t need to be there either. But I commend attendance to you. One could say that when the pastor is away, that’s more of a reason for everyone else to be there. And there’s always a reason to be part of the beloved community — that you might be ministered to by the sermons and the care Bob will ably provide, as well as everyone else who is there…

I can’t wait to hear what all everyone learned while I was away when I get back in September,

Stay well, stay with God (and support Bob!),

Arrivederci,

Michael