You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and falling over.
— Richard Branson
One of the important take-aways from my sabbatical could be things that we were able to see because of my absence (for the congregation) or (for me) because of my change of activity, focus, scenery. We rearranged things fairly significantly for a time so that I could have a sabbatical. Shouldn’t that offer new perspectives?
One of you warned me yesterday that “with your experiences, you must have changed a lot, whereas we who you are coming back to haven’t changed at all.” Hmm, maybe?
I guess my first response is that I am not sure I can yet recognize all that I might eventually be able to claim as having been learned from my time in Italy.. I suspect that I’m going to need to process some more and to wait a bit more for the deepest meanings of my experiences to become more obvious or accessible.
I also wonder if you all really have not changed? Bob was different than me, and, I suspect, worship might have been sort of different too. And church governance and leadership was different without the role I traditionally play. Even in ways having nothing to do with my absence or any consequent changes around the Old First community, you too have had a whole summer of experiences since I last saw you. I bet everyone has changed in some ways, although perhaps to lesser and greater degrees.
Here’s what I want to share now. I was a little worried when I left. I thought, “I’m going to be spending the summer working directly with refugees and immigrants.” In contrast, in my parish ministry, I often see my job as supporting all of you in your direct service. Sort of like that dig against teachers’ competence, pastors don’t do so much as support others in doing! What if it turned out that I preferred the more ‘hands on’ work than the secondhand staff functions, administration and general community-building of local church ministry?
Even at a congregation with as much direct service as Old First, much of my work can feel more institutional and administrative, making sure processes and people and relationships are functioning well together. I wondered, “What if after this summer of direct service, I come back and find the varieties of oiling the wheels (and attending to the squeaky ones), playing traffic cop and the shuttling go-between, and following up with others on what they have to do… what if the relatively less tangibility of pastoring becomes frustrating after doing something immediate and face to face?”
Well, as I said at the outset, it’s early to pronounce much. But as I write this three days back at work, I’m glad to report that it feels good to be here as your pastor. I loved my summer at Centro Diaconale / Casa dei Mirti working directly with unaccompanied teenagers being resettled in Palermo. But, thankfully, arriving back here, it’s wonderfully obvious to me how the mission and ministry goals of this blessed community — and my service, directly or indirectly, to support our accomplishing them — is directly related to the justice work of making sure there is room, support and material resources to welcome, resettle and include refugees and migrants driven from their homes. How is that? We aren’t a resettlement agency. And we do not have any refugees living in residence at the church (though we’ve talked about it).. But Old First is a community, an experience and a force insisting there’s room for all in God’s grace. We work this line locally and, joining with other voices, we preach and practice it farther astream. Because we believe and aren’t afraid to share that despite the scarcity narratives that fear and greed engender, ours is a world with resources for all its people.
And that’s a particularly crucial message these days when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service often feels like it’s on a witch hunt. And when our President and his administration (and a good portion of legislators in Congress too) want to build walls, pull up the ramparts, seal the borders and ignore the cries of refugees without a safe space to call home. They say “the boat is full,” and that makes our message “there’s always more room at the Table” that much more important.
I am sure other learnings and insights will bubble up over the weeks and months ahead. And as they apply to the Gospel we are trying to live out, I will try and find ways to share them, or at least interject them into the common conversation that is our being faithful together. But before that, may I ask you, “What are some of your learnings from this summer?” You can find a time and talk to me. Or you could write back. Or share your learnings with the appropriate leaders or even lift it up in church.
See you in church on Sunday,
P.S. On Sunday, we’ll be modeling what I described above as our mission / ministry, welcoming Ellie Atwood into the church through the sacrament of baptism! Please join us for that celebration.