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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.