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This month, we have been talking about stewardship in church. I think it's time I tell my story and how my understanding and practice of giving started, how it's changed, and what it looks like now.
When I was growing up, my parents were probation officers—just two middle class workers who lived paycheck to paycheck. We didn’t have big amounts of money and we didn’t go on big, fancy family vacations—most of our vacations were actually “staycations” and, funny enough, that included trips to Huntsville to the prison museum or to the duck pond or to the Sam Houston Statue. This lack of money presented a challenge at times to my family because all my mom’s family lived out of state. In order to see my grandma, it required a plane ride and tickets were not cheap! We did not take a lot of trips out there! I was aware of my family’s financial situation at a young age and knew that in order to go to school, I was going to have to work hard and try to get as many scholarships as possible.
My parents did not have a lot of money to give to the church. I’m pretty sure their contribution each week they attended was around $20. But let me tell y’all…if there was an event at the church, you best believe my mom was the FIRST person to sign us up. A fundraiser for camp? We’d be the first ones there and the last ones home. A church workday? We’d be up and unhappy about it and at the church by 8AM on a Saturday and we wouldn’t leave until the work was done. I remember my parents saying, “We may not have a bunch of money to give, but we can at least give our time to God.” And that was my first understanding of stewardship. Maybe there wasn’t always enough money to spare, but there would always be a way we could give back to God.
As I grew from a child into a teenager, money still remained a struggle, but compared to so many of our classmates, we were “rich.” But even though we didn’t have a lot, my parents found ways to be generous to others, to give back, and to make sure we knew to be generous too. So by the time I got to college, and found out most of my first two years of college, which would be spent at Blinn, would be covered by scholarships, I of course began to stress about where I’d transfer, how much that would cost, and all the typical things someone worried about money would worry about! I got my call to ministry while at Blinn and felt God calling me to attend Baylor (a place known for being cheap! Ha!). I was grateful that I had half of it covered in scholarship and grants, that I could take out loans for a quarter of it, and that I had an uncle who wanted to invest in me and cover the other quarter of my two years at Baylor so I wouldn’t have to worry about taking out private education loans. At the same time, I applied for the Texas Annual Conference pastoral internship, was accepted into the program, and was assigned to serve a church in Fulshear, Texas for the summer.
Entering into a pastoral intern role at the church that summer, I began to really struggle with what I should do when it comes to tithing. I knew that I was getting money from my internship and that I should tithe. But y’all, that money needed to be saved for school. I felt anxious about giving up even a couple hundred of it to the church! Although I planned to work, and actually had two jobs that first year at Baylor, I was still nervous about money. What if I would need that money I tithed later in the school year and didn’t have enough money to cover basic expenses? Mom and dad were paying for a car, insurance, and my cell phone—I didn’t want to have to ask for more!
This was causing me so much anxiety that I decided to have a conversation with my mentor pastor, Alicia. I asked her what she did about tithing and what I should do, because I was nervous about tithing when I could use that money for school. I remember her nodding her head, taking in the question, and thinking for a moment before saying, “Tithing is a personal thing between you and God—you are going to have to figure that out on your own. But, what I will tell you is what I do when it comes to tithing. I always give my 10%. I’ve been at larger churches where I ask them to withhold it from my check so I never even see it. I believe that is not my money, but God’s. And there have been times when tithing has been hard because I’ve had to help my family, but I’ve always, somehow, someway, even in those difficult times in life been able to come up with the money to tithe—whether it be because of extra weddings or funerals or a generous gift. I believe if you earnestly want to tithe, God will help you find a way to tithe.”
What she told me did not cause any less anxiety in me. If anything, it made it worse. She didn’t want to tell me I had to tithe…but she had this theme of trusting in God. And, when it comes to money, it’s hard for me to trust anyone…so this was a big deal. Was I willing to trust God, write my tithe check out at the end of the summer, and hope I wouldn’t miss that money? Or would I just say, “No, this is my money and it’s a way for me to go to school where I can work hard, graduate, go to seminary and then serve in the church?” Let me just say, I spent a bunch of time in prayer and in agony over it. But by the end of the summer, I ultimately decided to take a deep breath and a leap of faith and write out the tithe check to the church.
From that moment, I made the decision that I would always tithe. Even when it hurt. And let me tell you…there were times in my pastoral internship my last year of seminary when it hurt a lot to give a tithe out of the small amount of money we made. I remember that during the second half of that internship, I seriously considered asking for the tithe to stop coming out—I could really use that extra hundred bucks or so each month! But I didn’t. I pressed on and I kept giving.
I know that tithing may not always be easy for me—I know that one day I may get married, have children, have family I need to help take care of, I may get sick and be unable to work, and any extra money may go to a number of other causes. I know that life happens. And when it does, I will find other ways to serve and give back, just like my parents taught me when we were growing up! But for now, I’m committing to tithing 10% of my income after taxes. It’s at the very top of my budget and the first thing I pay at the beginning of each month. It’s a commitment I choose to make.
Please don’t hear me say I want you to go from giving nothing to 10% out of the blue—again, life happens and I know that’s not possible for many of you. But what I do want to ask of you is to take a look at your budget and consider how much money you may be able to contribute on a regular basis to the church. How many times a week do you and your family eat out? What if you eat out one less meal per week or per month and take that money and give it as your tithe to the church. It may be just 40 or 50 dollars a month, but when you put that across a whole year, that’s you giving 480-600 dollars a year! That’s about a quarter of our budget for Vacation Bible School! It’s amazing how much those small choices and small decisions can add up and work together for something so much bigger than ourselves! If you can't help out financially, take a look at your time--how much time can you give up each week or each month to help serve God?
There are many ways to give and the ways in which we give evolve and change over time. But no matter where we are in our lives, we should always find a way to give back a portion to God in some way, shape, or form, whether it be by giving financially or by giving time. We all have so much to be grateful for and God's only asking for a small portion of it back. It's not to punish us, but to remind us where the gifts in our lives come from and so that our gifts can go and help others. The ability to give is a gift and I hope you join with me in sharing that gift with others!
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Last Monday morning, my alarm went off at 6:15AM. Soon after, Cocoa was licking my face, telling me it was time to get up. I took her out, put her back in, then I got changed into my running clothes. I put on my brand-new pair of running shoes, carefully tying the laces. I grabbed my new Aftershokz headphones, a welcome relief after running with big, clunky headphones for two years! I grabbed my keys and drove over to the school. It was completely dark and there were just a few cars around. The wind was blowing as I stepped out of my car, locked it, and headed toward the gate that would get me onto the black, seven-lane track. My stomach was fluttering. My heart was beating fast. I was a bit scared, nervous, and anxious. After all, this would be my first time in about three months that I was going to be running again. Would I still enjoy running? Would I be slower than I was before? Do my legs remember what to do? Could my mind and body both handle the short intervals of running that I was about to attempt?
Ready or not, it was time to run again. I started my Garmin watch and took off like I used to do, just one leg in front of the other, looking to what is ahead. That first little bit of a running interval was daunting, but when I was finished, I remembered why I love to run. I remembered how I could clear my mind, enjoy the music, and run away from any problems that I knew I'd have to face that day. I remembered the feeling I get after a run, the feeling of a goal completed. I even remembered the feeling of soreness after a good run--I forgot some of those muscles existed!
Today marks seven months since March 13, 2020, when the country started shutting down for Coronavirus. There is still so much we don't know about it. There are still people with long-lasting effects after contracting the virus. Some say it's political and that it will all be over after the election. Others are afraid to go outside because it's now flu season and the virus is still going around. There's frustrations around masks, doctor office protocols, and even sporting event limits. No matter where you stand on the entire Coronavirus situation, one thing is true--your life is not the same as it was seven months ago. The very way of living not just in this country but around the globe has changed drastically. It's hard to believe that over seven months ago, we weren't wearing masks, Zoom meetings were held by big companies that are spread out across the country and world, and you could go to the hospital to visit anyone you wanted without being put on an approved visitor list.
As much as we all want life to go back to "normal," I sometimes wonder if we will really be ready for it. We say we will be, but the way we have lived our lives over the last seven months has made an impact on us. Just like I was nervous getting back to running after just a three month break, I have a feeling that many of us will feel anxiety or fear going back to "normal" once coronavirus ends--whenever that may be! We may feel nervous about going shopping without a mask. We might feel anxious about hugging others or shaking hands again. Some may even feel nervous about going back out at all because we have been safe in our homes, in our bubbles. But one day, we will be back to normal and we will have to face it head on.
In those moments of fear, where we face an old known and a new unknown that we call "normal," we are not alone. We may feel anxious, nervous, or scared--and that's okay. But we can also feel strong, courageous, and filled with God's loving grace as we take a deep breath and take each day of "normal." I have hope that the day will be sooner, rather than later, and I hope that when the day comes when everything is "normal" again, we can be secure in our faith and trust Jesus in those scary moments.
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It's hard to believe that is was just a week ago that I was excited for the first presidential debate. I really do enjoy politics and debates are where you can see certain strategies being used for each candidate. I popped some popcorn, got a nice big glass of water, got wrapped up in my blanket, and sat on my couch as I began to watch the debate. After the first question was asked, it was clear that this would not be a debate. Instead, this debate would be a name-calling battle between three toddlers having a temper-tantrum. Twenty minutes in, I couldn't stand it anymore and had to turn it off.
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Since I have a 5-month-old puppy at the house, I have placed a baby gate in front of the hallway leading to the bedrooms in the parsonage. It is the only way I can ensure that my puppy doesn't sneak away from me and run back into the nicely-carpeted bedrooms without my supervision! Cocoa is not a fan of this gate, as I will often go back to a back bedroom to do something and leave her alone in the living room.
While on vacation this week, Cocoa was a bit spoiled by all the time we got to spend together. So when I went back behind the baby gate without her, she was not happy. She cried, she barked, and, as usual, tried her best to get past the gate. At nearly 30 pounds, she's now strong enough to knock down the gate--and that is what she did. I suddenly heard a loud, clanging noise as the gate fell from the carpeted doorway onto the tile floor in front of it. Then, I heard complete and total silence. No crying, no barking, no paws prancing on the floor. I became worried and called out to her. No response. She didn't even try to get over the gate to get to where I was. I quickly finished what I was doing and went to go check on her. She was sitting on the floor, by the couch, with a fearful look in her eye.
I went to the couch and began to pet her, telling her it was okay and she was not in trouble. She jumped up on the couch, got half her body on my lap, and leaned against me. I could feel her panting. She was scared.
Sometimes I forget that for as much spunk and independence as my dog loves, she is still a baby. She loves to push boundaries. She always wants to be near me. She enjoys exploring the house. She enjoys ripping up my laptop bag as a way of saying she hates when I go to work. She likes to run in the yard. But for all the things she loves to do, she still sometimes pushes too far--like she did with the baby gate--and will get scared and need her mom.
As I pet my puppy, trying to calm her down and tell her it was okay, I began to realize this is often what God does with us. God gives us the freedom and free will to make decisions. We can go where we want, do what we want, and say what we want, whenever we want. We get to press the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable to God. We get to come and go as we please in our relationship with God. But at the end of the day, we are still (and always will be) God's children in need of our loving parent to care for us. In those moments where we are afraid, alone, have made a big mistake, feel worthless, feel abandoned, or feel unwanted, we just want to crawl up into God the Father's lap, give Him a hug, and feel assured, wanted, and loved once again! God never gives up on us, never stops loving us, and is always ready to welcome us with open arms so he can assure us that we are loved and worthy to Him.
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It began as a day like any other. Mom and dad dragging us out of bed. A breakfast of waffles for the three of us. Dad loading us up in the car and then going to pick up our cousin. All of us stuck in the car listening to The Beach Boys, The Cars, or The Beatles (thanks, Dad!). My brothers, my cousin, and I were probably arguing about something silly (sorry, Dad!). We pulled up to the front doors of our elementary school. Always time-conscious, even at a young age, I looked at the clock--it was 7:46.
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Last week, a member of our church family passed away. I only had the opportunity to meet Lynda once, and that one time I met her she was unable to speak to me. All we could do was pray with one another. When I was asked to have the honor of presiding over her funeral, I knew I wanted to make sure her life was honored well. After speaking with her husband, I also asked for names and phone numbers of some of her closest friends and family. Right before I left, her husband said, "Oh, there's one more person you need to know about! Her name is Taniya. She also had the same cancer as Lynda and Lynda helped her out and was close with her." He gave me her number and said to call her for the whole story.
When I spoke with Taniya on the phone, I had no clue what I was in for! She explained to me how the two met on Facebook in a bladder cancer survivor group. They both had the same, rare and intense form of bladder cancer and Taniya's had returned. Taniya was looking to reach out to someone and she found Lynda. She had seen Lynda's posts in the group and noticed they were always uplifting and encouraging and that she was in remission. She sent her a message on Facebook. Lynda's reply to her was, "I'm not much of a writer, I'm more of a talker." They exchanged phone numbers and Lynda gave her a call. As they talked, Lynda told her she needed a second opinion about her cancer returning. So Taniya made an appointment at MD Anderson in Houston, bought plane tickets to fly from her home state of Georgia to Texas, and planned to get her second opinion based solely on conversations with Lynda, a complete stranger. Upon arriving at MD Anderson, Lynda met up with them and showed them around the hospital. Taniya said that Lynda must have spent seven hours with her that day! After that visit, they remained in touch and continued to encourage one another until Lynda passed away.
As she told this story to me, Taniya reflected, "I’ve never met someone who has had such an impact on me in a short amount of time. Kindness like that, genuineness like that, you don’t see that anymore. More than kindness, she gave me hope. If I can beat this cancer, I will reach out to others like Lynda did to me. If I can encourage someone half as much as Lynda encouraged me, I will have done something good. If she was this kind to me, a complete stranger, someone she didn’t even know…I can’t imagine how good she was to all those who were not strangers to her."
Listening to Taniya's and Lynda's story, I had chills and held back tears. This was beyond just kindness and showing God's love...this was the true definition of the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is a word that is hard to define in English, but it is often translated as loving kindness. It is a deep love, mercy, and grace that God has for God's people. Even when the Jewish people messed up, or were sent in exile, or complained to God, God continually showed hesed to them. It's an unfailing, unending love. And it was a love that was found in this woman who I only met once, who strongly held my hand as we prayed together just a week before she died.
Her story inspired me and made me begin to reflect on how I treat others. Do I show that save loving kindness that God gives to me with other people as freely as Lynda did? Would I ever have the courage to step out in faith and not just speak to someone I have never met, but invite them to my state and commit to spending seven hours with them in their time of need? What kind of a relationship do I need to build with God to have that type of hesed that is so rarely seen in this world?
Learning about Lynda's life last week helped me realize that life is more than being a good person, a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, etc. Life is really and truly about showing the same loving kindness that God has given freely to me with everyone that I meet. It's more than just waving and saying hello. It's genuinely seeking to help others, to forgive them in a rude first-time encounter, and pray with those who are reaching out and asking for prayers. We only have a short period of time on this earth, but we are all called to live like Christ while we are here. Let's make the most of it and help everyone learn, discover, and truly experience the indescribable hesed of our God.
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When I was in the seventh grade, my family returned to church after about a year-long hiatus. When we returned, there were a lot of new faces--faces of lots of people my age and a little older that weren't there before. At that time in my home church's life, there was an active youth program that pulled about 20 kids every Sunday. That was a really big deal for my hometown!
That summer after seventh grade, a "teen club" opened at the mall in College Station. Only teens between certain ages were allowed to go, you had to show a school ID to get in, and there were limited hours. By the time we returned to school in the fall, the teen club was the place to be on the weekends! The popular kids at school talked about how much fun they had and even some of the cool girls of the youth group couldn't stop talking about it. At an after-church lunch at the local Pizza Hut after church, I remember some of the girls in youth wanted to go, since it opened at 2 on Sundays and closed at 6. They invited me to join them. I remember taking the walk from our booth over to my mom's booth and she didn't just say no--she literally laughed in my face! "No way are you going to that club!" she exclaimed. "But mom," I complained, "All the other girls are going! They are in youth group--they go all the time. It's safe--they'll even let me ride with them to and from the mall! PLEASE?!?" My mom was adamant: "No--you are not going to a place where they teach you how to party at 13 years old!" "It's not fair!" I whined. Mom responded, "Well, that's life. Get over it."
I remember going back to my table and telling the other girls how lame my mom was for not letting me go with them. When it was time for us all to go, I was as slow as could be going to my mom's car--I wanted her to feel guilty for saying no. I pouted the whole 3 minute drive home. When we got home, I went in and my dad asked how lunch went. I explained to him: "It was so fun until mom said I couldn't go with the other youth girls to the mall!" Of course, mom had to pipe in, "Yeah--the teen club at the mall!" Dad wasn't quite as harsh as my mom, but he agreed wholeheartedly--"NO WAY are you going there. Ever. You can just get that idea out of your head!" I'm pretty sure at that point, I stomped in my room, slammed the door, and my parents chose to let me have a teenage temper tantrum on my own.
It's funny looking back on this argument with my parents. My parents saw a bigger picture that I just couldn't see. Coming from their line of work in probation, they knew of things happening to children and teens that the general public had barely been aware of at the time. It's amazing how times have changed--a teen club could never exist today--it would be too easy for sex traffickers to take a kid away forever! As frustrating as it was at the time to not be able to go to the "hot place" that EVERYONE was going to on the weekends--I see now that it was done to protect me.
We just finished our sermon series on Jonah. Jonah's tale in the Bible is FULL of "it's not fair!" moments: "Why do I have to go to Nineveh? Can't you get someone else to go? Why can't I just flee to Tarshish in peace? It's not fair that I have to sit in the belly of this fish for three days and three nights! Fine God--I'll go, but you better be true to your word if I proclaim it to the Ninevites! Wait...what did you just say God? That you're not going to destroy them?!? God, I just wanna die--I can't stand the fact that they get to live and that you forgave them, of all people! Kill them all--that's the fair thing to do! Fine--you're not going to destroy the city? I'm gonna sit outside of it and watch them and wait for them to screw up again--BECAUSE THEY WILL!!!"
It's easy to look at those unfair moments in Jonah's story and say how ridiculous he looked...just like it is easy to look back on my teen club story and laugh at how ridiculous I was when I was told "no way!" As adults, though, if we really look at ourselves, we are just as bad. Funny enough, where I have seen the ridiculous moments the most have been in regard to politics.
In a couple months, we will have our presidential election. As a pastor, I will not tell you who I vote for, nor will I talk about the election in a sermon--my job is to love all of you, no matter who you voted for or what you believe politically. What I will remind you, though, is that, like in any election, someone will lose. Someone will wake up the day after and be disappointed, angry, or sad that the person they voted for lost. Life is not fair--and it's a truth for elections as much as it is for anything else in life. The ones you think should win or will do best, don't always get the trophy or the job. The ones who work the hardest behind the scenes rarely get the credit or compensation they deserve. Sometimes, you can practice and practice and practice some more, but someone out plays you in football. There are times when people who hurt us get away with what they have done with zero consequences. There are victims of crimes who do not see their abuser face jail time for their crimes.
So what should we do about it? Should we pout like Jonah did under a bush waiting for the city to fall? Should we stomp our feet and pout in our room on a Sunday afternoon like I did when I was told I couldn't go to the teen club with my friends? Should we share memes about the "other" political party we do not like to try to show people why we are right or why they are wrong? Should we refuse to talk to someone because they don't agree with us? Or do we, as adults, take a step back and ask God for peace and understanding in those difficult situations? Do we try to look at the bigger picture, maybe one we do not see, and ask God to reveal how he will take this difficult moment and turn it in to something good? Do we take those moments of disappointment and know that, at the end of the day, God is still God and we are not?
So many things in life are not fair. As Christians, we experience the same type of fairness level as others....but unlike others we know the Gospel, the good news that Christ died for our sins and defeated death. Darkness, disappointments, hurts, failures, and a lack of justice are NEVER the end of our story! Because we know this truth, we should strive to walk away from even the toughest of unfair situations with faith that one day, this too shall pass and that one day, God will make something beautiful out of something that looks utterly and completely destroyed.
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On Sunday, my brother Joey and his girlfriend's son Jay stopped by my house for a brief visit. After we all talked, competed against one another in Mario Kart, and played with Cocoa, I went in the kitchen to check on my crockpot meal. I was adding something to the dish and all of a sudden I hear Jay ask, "Whatcha doin'?" And I explained to him what I was doing and then, like any good kid, he started looking around my kitchen. He began looking at the pictures on my refrigerator. The pictures on my refrigerator aren't just any pictures--they are some of the most important and special memories and people to me. If you've made "the fridge," you've made it as someone who I consider close in my life! He saw a picture of me and my mom in a car and saw a woman in the background and asked me, "Who's that?" I looked at the picture and Jay was pointing at my Aunt Carol's face. This particular picture (which won't be posted--I do not want my mom and aunt to disown me) was one from the last day of our trip to New Jersey/Pennsylvania this past October. We all wanted Jimmy's Hot Dogs (a delicious hot dog shop in Pennsylvania--by the way, it was my mom and I's third time eating there that week!) and we just happened to end up at the same place at the same time before we were supposed to meet at the movie theater to watch The Joker together! It had been pouring down rain but it was all worth it for one last classic lunch on the trip.
I've thought about this trip a lot over the past couple months. This trip to New Jersey was a very big deal. For about 95% of my life, I have focused on the goals I have for myself. I've worked hard in school. The jobs I held in ministry (whether it be an internship or a long-term position) have all been varied so I could get the most amount of experience I possibly could get so I could be a good pastor. Once I was commissioned and began my residency (the last two years before ordination), I was focused on doing all of my residency work on top of being a first-time pastor! Before my ordination interviews, I decided that I wanted to take a trip and see my mom's side of the family, most of whom I had not seen in 16 years! I worked with my Aunt Barbara on a good time for us to visit and then we told my Aunt Carol so she could fly in. Aunt Diana lives near my Aunt Barbara and all mom had to do was take the time off (just a month before her retirement). This trip was planned and I was excited to go to the East Coast and reconnect with my family.
In early May that year, just a few weeks before I was ordained, another vocational opportunity popped up for me. Our conference has an amazing program called Advancing Pastoral Leadership (APL). It is a program that all young clergy are encouraged to apply for, as it helps train you on how to be an even better pastor. I've known about APL since I was a pastoral intern in 2011, so I knew I wanted to apply and join the program! When I looked at the dates of the program, though, my heart sank. The very first week of this program was the exact week I had already been scheduled (for months at this point) to go and visit my family. I remember feeling very conflicted in this moment--what do I do? Do I call my aunts and see if we can move the dates around? Can I change my flights without penalty? I've already signed up for a half-marathon for the trip--I guess I could try to find another one that would work with new dates? It was after all these questions and more that I realized I had to make a choice. Was I going to choose to put my family first or was I going to choose to put my career first (I say career because my vocation does not require this program--this is an amazing opportunity for career-building, though)?
As difficult as it was, I ultimately decided to put my family first. I was young enough to where APL would always be an option to join--and I really do hope I get the opportunity to be in that program one day--but I wouldn't always have this opportunity to spend a whole week with my mom and her sisters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The second I made that decision, I felt a huge weight lifted from my chest. I knew I had made the right decision and, more than that, it would give me the opportunity to actually slow down and just be a pastor, a daughter, a niece, a sister, and a friend for a while. I didn't have to be chasing after the next goal for once in my life--I could just truly enjoy the moment I was in and appreciate it for all it had to offer.
When COVID struck in March, I was even more grateful for the decision I made just the year before. If I had chosen to wait a year to go visit family, I may not have had the opportunity to have had as much fun as I did, if I even had the option to travel at all! I wouldn't have had the chance to hug my aunts and my uncle for the first time in 16 years. I wouldn't have completed my second half-marathon among the beautiful (yet very hilly) backroads and small towns in New Jersey. I wouldn't have had the chance to get lost on a backroad in my mom's old hometown. I wouldn't have been able to visit my grandparents at the mausoleum (or my great grandparents in the cemetery). I wouldn't have had the chance to watch a Packers game with my family--trust me, it's an event! I wouldn't have had the chance to enjoy a delicious, home cooked meal from my Aunt Barbara. I wouldn't have had the chance to deal with terrible traffic to and from Philadelphia, where I spent the day with my mom in a beautiful, historic city. I wouldn't have had the chance to find a new vegan bakery where I bought a couple cakes for my Aunt Barbara, Uncle Kirk, my mom, and myself to enjoy on our final night. And I definitely wouldn't have had that amazing selfie of my mom, my Aunt Carol, and myself on a rainy day, sitting in the car and enjoying one last meal at Jimmy's Hot Dogs!
As I explained the story to Jay about what we were doing in that photo, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "okay." We then went back into the living room to play another round of games. As I played games with them and we all laughed at Cocoa, I was even more grateful for this time with family. The trip to New Jersey in October was so much fun, but it really taught me an important lesson. When the opportunity presents itself to spend time with family, you take it--ALWAYS! Not only is tomorrow not promised, but you never know how much can change in a year! I'm grateful for my family and I am working on being intentional about spending more time with mine. I hope this inspires you to spend more time with your loved ones--even if it just means a phone call an extra night a week. Family, and the time we spend with them, is a gift--don't waste it!
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When I was in sixth grade, my class was bad. Not just your run-of-the-mill typical kids being bad and disrespecting teachers and each other. So bad, that teachers were behind on teaching us because we wouldn't pay attention and focus. Students were constantly talking, goofing off, and refusing to listen to the teachers. We were behind and our teachers were fed up.
One day, we came to school, went to the classroom, got settled in, and our teachers said, "Grab all your things. We are going to be in the cafeteria all day." We were very confused--this was nothing any of us had experienced before. When we made it to the cafeteria, the first person we saw was our principal/superintendent. We were in serious trouble.
"Boys and girls," she began, "your behavior so far this year has been unacceptable. You have been disrespectful to your teachers, to the staff of the school, and to each other. Your behavior has made it impossible to learn. So since you all don't want to learn new things and you're behind, you're going to spend the week in basically group ISS. You will all sit spaced out, you will not talk, you will go to the restroom in a line in complete silence and go to use the restroom one at a time. You will have a packet of work. Once you finish that work, you will sit quietly and read a book or put your head down and nap. There will be no recess and at lunch you will stay in these spots and not speak to anyone. If things improve by the end of this week, then you will get to go back to class."
You could hear a pin drop by the time she finished her speech. She did clarify that not everyone has been bad, but that the class as a whole has left them no choice but to treat us this way. That whole week of sitting in the uncomfortable, round, backless, hard plastic cafeteria seats, not speaking, and not being able to get up and move around was uncomfortable and frustrating. I remember I would go home and tell my parents and they were far from sympathetic. "We know you were being good, but life's not fair sometimes. And sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do." Needless to say, we were all excited to go back to the classroom the following week, and we were much better from there on out. This was just a week of my life and, as an extroverted introvert, it was very difficult to deal with. I had many emotions and frustrations that week, and it had such an impact on me that I can remember this even now as an adult!
I have thought about this event a lot over the past week as I have been speaking with teachers about what it is going to look like to go back to school on Wednesday. They will likely feel very similar to how my classmates and I felt that week of sixth grade--only they will feel it every single day for most of the school year, even though they are not in trouble (and they will get to talk and have recess)! Every student will have a number and sit at their assigned seats in class and the cafeteria. Teachers will rotate classrooms, not students. The idea, of course, being that if a student gets sick, just the three or four who were near them day in and day out would have to quarantine instead of the whole class. These are excellent protocols that are keeping our students and teachers safe while giving them a school experience in the middle of a pandemic! I'm grateful for administrations, teachers, and others who helped come up with this new way of life so that children can be in school. As great as these protocols are, though, they are not without consequence. This year, children will lose a small sense of independence as they are told where to sit and who they sit with. This will be the first time the students will be back in school since Spring Break. They never got to say "goodbye" to their old teacher and now they will enter a new classroom entirely. They will likely be grieving in their own ways on this first day of school. They will be afraid and anxious about this new normal. They will have many emotions they cannot put into words and will struggle as they start school again.
Perhaps you are thinking, "Why is this such a big deal, Pastor Patricia? They're kids--they will adjust! They'll be just fine!" You're right. Just like my classmates and I adjusted to just a week of group ISS, these kids will adjust and they will be okay with their new way of doing school. But they are still kids--just as human as any adult. For the last five months, they have been just as scared, lonely, and lost as the rest of us. They know something bad is going on--something so bad that they couldn't even go back to school after spring break. Something so bad that all of their summer activities were either cancelled or vastly different than they have been before. Something so bad that their parents are wondering how they will pay the bills and put food on the table. Something so bad that they are told by their parents that they can't leave the house without a mask on. Something bad enough to cancel their proms and graduations. Something bad that made them not be able to show their animal at the county fair. Something bad enough to end their favorite sport seasons.
As much as we try to hide and shelter kids from all of the things that cause us worry, they can sense it and feel it. They observe much more than we know and they know that the world is changing. These things that they have lost in this time may not seem like the end of the world to us adults--but to them, it is their world and their life. These are things they have worked hard on or looked forward to and did not get to experience. It is unfair. It is scary. It is hurtful. It is confusing. They are hurting and grieving, too.
Just like all of us adults out there, our children and youth need a LOT of grace this week as they start school. They know things are bad. They know something is going on that is drastically changing their lives. They will likely wonder each day when they leave school if they will get to return the next day. They are wondering if they will get to show their animal, have a school dance, get to go to a regular football game, and have the chance to make any new friends while reconnecting with their old ones. They want to have a "normal" life again...and we just can't guarantee that happening for a while.
To the staff, teachers, and administrators of our schools--thank you for already knowing this all to be true and giving our students grace. Thank you for working hard to ensure their safety and doing the best you can in this difficult time. You are the ones helping our children and youth process what is going on and adjust to their new school life. We are praying for you. We know it is tough on you and you worry about your safety (and your family's!) as you return to school.
To the parents of students out there, we are praying for you, too. You have been struggling day in and day out with this pandemic. You have tried to continue working, raising your family, and have helped make sure their virtual school work was done. We know you are likely fearful and anxious about the virus and what sending your child to school may mean for them. We will give you grace, too, in those moments when you are struggling and need grace the most.
Finally, I hope you will join me in the prayer below for our students. I firmly believe our children and youth are not just our future; they are our present. They need prayer, grace, and love now more than ever:
We lift up to you today all of the students of our schools. Many of them are getting their backpacks ready, their school supplies packed, and picking out their first day of school outfit. As excited as they are to be going back to school, we know they are also scared and anxious about what this school year may look like. We pray they will find friends in those whom they will sit by each day. We pray they will learn in fun ways like they are used to doing. We pray they will stay safe. We pray they will quickly adjust to this new way of learning. We pray that they will still have their sports, livestock show, and fun school activities this year. We pray that as we give them grace, they have grace to give in return to the school staff, teachers, administrators, and their parents who are all working hard to give them the best possible education they can get in this time. May they always remember they are never alone--God is always with them and they are loved by many.
In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
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A few weeks ago, I began the process of fostering-to-adopt a puppy I have named Cocoa. She is a lab mix and, at just short of four months old, is already close to 20 pounds! She was the baby of her litter and, as her former foster mom told me when I picked her up, "She knows she's the baby!" I didn't know what that meant at the time, but I do now! She knows she is supposed to be the center of attention and if she's not getting attention, she will find ways to get it (even if it means peeing on the floor right in front of me)!
One of the toughest parts of raising and welcoming a new puppy into my home has been finding ways to communicate with her. Obviously, there are verbal commands I can make that she listens to (and has picked up on quickly!). However, she has had to find ways to communicate to me, because she cannot speak. She doesn't even bark too much--unless she's mad that she's in the kennel while I eat or workout! I have had to learn to listen to her non-verbal cues.
The non-verbal cues have been frustrating for me. She does not like her harness or the leash, so she chewed on her first leash to the point of breaking it. After buying her second leash, I quickly realized she wasn't chewing on the leash just because she didn't like it--she was chewing on it and heading in a certain direction in the yard, showing me where she wanted to go. She now chews a lot less on her leash, as I let her do the leading now. In the mornings, she tries to chew on my clothes. It wasn't until she grabbed one of my articles of clothing, trying to get me to sit up from the chair and lead me to her leash, that I realized that was her way of saying, "I'm ready to go outside now." She can, of course, be more direct. Sometimes she will sit in front of the door, stare at me, and if I don't move she will bark!
I used to think I was a good listener before, but in my few, short weeks with Cocoa, I have discovered I have a whole lot more to learn when it comes to listening! Listening is more than hearing words--listening is picking up non-verbal cues, noticing patterns (and pattern changes!) in others, and it is even in the slightest changes of facial expressions. Someone can say a whole lot without using any words! Reflecting on this, I began to wonder how often I thought I have been listening to God, but have missed out on some ways God has tried to communicate with me that were not through words. Maybe God is speaking to us in ways we are not expecting. Perhaps God is asking us to listen for his voice in and through things that are not words.
I think of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13, where Elijah is waiting for God to pass by. A large, strong wind came by, but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire, the NRSV translation says that there was a sound of "sheer silence." God was in this silence and Elijah went out to meet God. God was not in big, loud moments, but instead, God was asking Elijah to listen for him in the silence. No words, no movement, just a deafening, quiet noise.
Maybe we all have a little more to learn when it comes to listening. Maybe listening for God is doing something as simple as sitting on our porch, looking at the gift of nature around us. Maybe listening for God is when we are with our families, watching a movie, and have a chance to soak in all the love around us. Maybe listening for God is when we talk to the person checking out our groceries and really listen to what they have to say. God's voice is all around us. Sometimes God uses words and other times, God wants us to listen to the moment we are in and enjoy it as a gift. I hope you will join me in learning to listen to God in the most unexpected places and ways.