Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Friday, May 25, 2012

Six Months In: or, how Internship both prepared me well and prepared me poorly for my first call

I'll start with the "bad news" so as not to end this post on a whiny, downer note. So here is some reflecting that I've been doing on ways I have felt prepared and unprepared for being a pastor in New Jersey. As a reminder for non-clergy folks, the internship year happens (most of the time) in the third of four years at seminary. A student becomes a "student-pastor" or vicar or intern at a church for a year under the supervision of a seasoned pastor. Most of the time this means moving to another location. Beau and I did our internship year in Owatonna, MN, a hour south of the Twin Cities. I'm not saying in any way was our internship bad. It was a great year and I learned a lot. But perhaps not enough for where I am now. 

I am sharing this list because I think that the realities that we have been facing here head-on on the East Coast are creeping to the rest of the country. This is also not a judgement, just a statement of reality as I am finding it.

Internship did NOT prepare me for:
1. Baptisms. Never did one. Going to do my first on June 10.

2. Weddings and pre-marital sessions. I know how they work in theory, but council a couple and officiate at a wedding is not an experience I've had yet. 

3. Shepherding a scattered flock. In Owatonna, everyone lives there, works there (some work in the cities) go to school there, have fun there. Go to the store, a movie, the park, a HS sporting event, and you will run into "your people." That's pretty common for Small Town America (but perhaps becoming less so as time goes on). Not so here. People drive from miles around, in all directions on Sunday morning. Not many of the people who are a part of St. Paul actually LIVE in the community that it is physically located - there is one person's house I could possibly walk to, but that's it. So while I am at the church during the week, I don't see "my" people most of the time unless the come TO ME (as in, attend meetings and gatherings at the church). We are yet another place that people commute to (see #4) - what does that mean? And what does it mean to be a presence in East Windsor/Hightstown NJ? 

4. Ministering to a tired people. Yes, life was busy, especially for families, all over. But out here, we are in OVERDRIVE. Afterschool activities seem off the charts here, and kids regularly miss confirmation and youth group to have a moment to breath and actually have time to do their homework. These kids are really busy. On the flip side, most people around here work in The City (NYC if you missed my last post), which means either a) a stressful 1 hour or more drive or b) at least an hour train commute. "My" people are leaving their homes early and getting home late. This particular reality hit home for me when I began to notice that nearly all of our meetings and gatherings during the week started at 7:30 PM. In my Mid-Western-Small-Town mindset, that was very late to be starting a council meeting. I even asked once why things started so "late." The answer was simple - it was so that people could actually have a moment to eat at home before coming. This makes for some late nights. But what amazes me, is that after a council meeting that goes until 9:30 or 10 PM, most of our council then has to get up and go to work the next morning. And yet, they still come. Major wow. To be completely honest, I don't know if I would be willing to do this as a lay person if I had a "normal" job I had to report to early in the morning. I am left wondering: how can we minister to people's needs and at the same time NOT add just one more thing/event/program to their already booked calender? 

5. How to be a "half-time" pastor. But I think I will save this for another post. 

Well, those were the biggies. Now on to the more positive side of things. 

Internship DID prepare me for:
1. Funerals. I did a few on internship, mostly for people in the community that didn't have a church home (this area belonged to the interns of Owatonna, it seemed). I haven't done one at St. Paul yet, and in this area I wouldn't want to rush things. 

2. Preaching. It was so nice to practice preaching in an actual CONTEXT and not to a room full of peers but geared to a pretend congregation. As I am learning more about St. Paul, preparing sermons has gotten a bit easier. 

3. Hospital visits. Thanks to internship and CPE, most of the stress is taken out of this one. However, I still have to learn my way around enough to be able to FIND the hospital... :) 

4. Working with other staff. Oh my, that was a biggie. Even though my internship church was really large, it taught me how to interact and work effectively with other people on staff - secretaries, custodians (sextans out here), or even other pastors. This helped me right off the bat when I was able to know from our first meeting that I would work well with my now-colleague at St. Paul. And so far, my gut has been right. 

5. Coming out of my "shell." Apparently, the sheer size of my internship church freaked me out at first, because my intern committee was always telling me to be more approachable (but seriously, who wouldn't be a little shy in a 4200 member congregation?). I think that my start here at St. Paul has been a strong one - my colleague is still not convinced that I truly am an introvert, no matter how many times I tell him. :) 

6. Experiencing an entire "Church Year." This may seem obvious, but at least for Princeton Seminary the "contextual ed" students (which counts the same as an internship "year" in some denominations) start in the fall and end with the academic year in the spring. I've heard that a few years when Easter is early the con ed student is "done" before Easter! They for sure miss most of the Easter season, Pentecost, and Ordinary time in the summer. 

There is probably more that could be said here, but I think that is enough for now. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A few random cultural reflections

In no particular order.


In Minneapolis, rush hour was very predictable. From 7 - 9 AM and 4 - 6 PM. Avoid the heavy trafficed roads during those times and you'll be fine. Or, at least be traveling in the OPPOSITE direction as everyone else. 

In NJ, rush hour is from 6 AM to 10 AM, and 4 to 9 PM. Unless it's Friday or Saturday. Or lunchtime. OK, all hours of the day and night are rush hour around here, unless it's Sunday morning at 7:30 AM. Seriously, best time to drive. (Except NPR is really boring at that time of the week, if you can believe that).


They. Make. No. Sense. Princeton is actually the worst, in a state of already bad. Really? Traffic circles? New Jersey has made an art form out of confusing intersections. And who had the bright idea of building businesses on either side of busy, four lane highways? If you want to get to the Barnes and Noble on the other side of that highway, you have to make a u-turn, then drive up THAT side of the road. Maddening. I don't shop in certain places for just that reason. 

If you want to make a left-hand turn, good luck. Actually, 'jug-handles' are kind of nice for this. 

Most roads are not north-south or east-west oriented. Most major roads go in a north-easterly direction. Why? Because all roads lead to The City (that's NYC for you non-New Jersey peeps).  Wanna go north-west or south-east? Fa-ged-a-bout-it! 

Which brings me to...


The City = New York City
I'm going down the shore = I'm going to the ocean.
Trenton = Don't ever go there
Pizza = best thing you've ever tasted
Tasty Cakes = see above
Diner = ubiquitous place to eat
Wawa = most fantastic convenience store ever
Co-aw-fee = coffee
Cheesesteak = delicious hot sandwich 
Pork Roll = still not sure about that one
Tomato Pie = pizza with reverse toppings
St. Patrick's Day = Irish pride celebrated by drinking, even if you are not Irish.
water ice/ Ritas = yummy alternative to ice cream

This concludes our lesson for today.

Monday, May 7, 2012

First Communion Cuteness

Another first for me at St. Paul. Celebrating First Communion! For the past four months or so, our 10 second-graders have learned about the Eucharist through watching Davie and Goliath, scavenger hunting for things like chausables and patens, and baking their own bread. Last Sunday was their big day, getting all gussied up and taking communion for the first time with their proud parents. The church was full of chaos, but the good kind - "holy chaos." :) And some of those girls looks ADORABLE in their fancy white dresses!

I also busted out the ol' guitar during worship (another first), to teach two songs that we learned during the first communion classes. I say "we learned" because I learned them too, and then taught it to a church full of people. I was a little nervous, but it went really well!  Those kids were so funny - some were looking at me just agog, like they had never seen a guitar-playing-lady-pastor before! :)

I just gotta share this too - during communion a kid I didn't recognize (must have been a relative of someone receiving communion) looked at me as I poured the wine for him and asked in an incredulous whisper, "is this real wine?" It was all I could do not to laugh. I think I did nod, though. I just wanna know that kid's story. 

One of the interesting differences between church at home and church here is the age of first communicants. Back home, it's fifth grade. (I remember at one of my first communion classes, I basically recited the words of institution verbatim from memory. Yeah, I was a big church dork). To be honest, I was a bit shocked when I learned it was SECOND grade here. I couldn't help thinking - "that seems a little young. Are second graders really ready to take communion?" But then again, are fifth graders? Are seventh graders? are 25, 30, 50, or 90 year-olds? Is any one really "ready enough" to take communion? 

Because, you know, it's not about state of mind, it's about state of Grace, brought to you by the very body and blood of Christ that you are partaking. Just look at Sarah Miles - she took communion before she was "properly instructed" and look what happened: she became a pastor (and wrote a book). 

Second or fifth grade - it really just matters that their parents (or somebody) are bringing them to church and taking communion with them. We're all sinners together, after all - young, old, church dorks and athletes, rich and poor. 

"To the banquet come, it's not just for some;
Young and old, big and small, you may come." 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

As people came into the service, they were handed a small piece of cardstock with the 23rd Psalm printed on it. Also, I have no idea why the spacing is so weird, but oh well I guess.... 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
To be honest, I don’t know anything about sheep. But I do know a thing or two about cows. When I was a kid, I would love to help my dad let the cows out. Cows are definitely creatures of habit. They know when it’s time to go outside into the cow yard, and they know when it’s time to come back inside to eat – they are always waiting in a big crowd by the door to be let in, especially on a cold or rainy day.
Believe it or not, cows also know where to go once they are inside the barn. Every cow has its own spot and usually they go right to it, no problem. Unless of course there is a new cow that doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go. The cow will often stare at the newcomer in its spot like it doesn’t know what to do. So my dad has to come and poke the new one a bit to guide it into the correct spot. And after a few weeks the new one will remember it’s place. But my dad is always there to give some “persuasion” in the form of poke here and shove here, so that everyone can find the right place and get the food that they need.
Of what little I know about sheep, I think that they act the same way. They tend to follow whoever is in leading, putting a kind of blind trust whoever is at the front. If that person is kind and cares for the flock, he or she will lead the sheep to good pasture, clean water, and shelter. If that person does not care about the sheep, he or she could lead them into danger, or worse, abandon them all together at the first sign of trouble.
We are not unfamiliar with the second kind of shepherd - we hear about them all too often on the news or in newspapers. Just open up any newspaper  or online news blog on any day of the week, and you’ll see nothing but this CEO embezzled from his company or that senator made a secret deal or the president of some foundation lied about something that was going on. And on and on.
We like to think that our leaders know what they are doing and have our best interests in mind when they make decisions that affect us. But that is our cow-nature talking.
Everybody is going to let you down at some point. Everyone you put your trust in is going to betray you. Maybe not today. And maybe not even on purpose. But it will happen, sooner or later.
I hate to say it, but even I will let you down sometimes. Four years of seminary doesn’t purge us of all our flaws. They don’t insert a “perfection chip” at our graduations. I am trying my best to love and serve this community as one of its shepherds, but I’m not going to “get it right” every time.  Church leaders can make mistakes, just like everyone else. And often those times can feel even worse than when other kinds of leaders let us down.
There is one shepherd who will never lead us astray. He is the Good Shepherd; a shepherd so good that he would give everything, even lay down his own life for those who belong to him.  
If we follow THIS shepherd, he will not steer us wrong. Even when you go through the darkest valley, you do not have to be afraid. Even when you are surrounded by enemies, you will be sheltered, and not want for anything.
But how can we sort out reality from campaign promises? What about when things go really wrong – how is God our Good Shepherd then?
The day after Easter, on April 9th, was the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor and a prophet during the time of Nazi Germany. It was easy to overlook in the festivities, but not long ago I read the most recent of his biographies. Bonhoeffer was a writer and pastor, and spent his life following Jesus and no one else. When the Nazi government began using churches to promote their own interests, Bonhoeffer opposed them in every way in his power. In his preaching and his teaching, he tirelessly worked to counter the Nazi message of racial superiority. Pretty soon, the government was putting pressure on him to stop.Just before the start of the Second World War, Bonhoeffer had an opportunity to come to the United States, to live here, until the danger to his life had passed. But, almost as soon as he arrived, he regretted his decision. Here he was in the US while his own “flock” back home was faced with ever increasing danger. How could he stay, safe and sound, while they suffered for the sake of the gospel? The answer was no, he could not. So he returned to his beloved homeland and later was hanged for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler. He was killed just weeks before the area was liberated by Allied soldiers.

Did the good shepherd let Bohoeffer down? From one angle, you could say that his devotion to Jesus lead Bonhoeffer straight to his death. You could say that the good shepherd lead a member of his flock away from safety and then abandoned him. Did the good shepherd lead him astray?
I think we might find the answer in Bonhoeffer’s own last words, which are reputed to be:  “This is the end---but for me the beginning of life.”

Long ago, a writer of the psalms once wrote: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Most of the time, we hear the 23rd Psalm read at funerals. It is a beautiful psalm, a favorite for good reason. But this psalm is intended, not as a metaphor for death, but as a snapshot of life – of what life is like under the care of our Good Shepherd. Yes, death is a dark valley through which we all must pass. Before that, however, there are plenty of other dark valleys, plenty of enemies to face during this lifetime.
When we go through the dark valleys, evil will still be there. Bad things will still happen. There are still terrible injustices happening in the world. But we shall have no fear in the face of such evil. Why? Because we are in the fold of the Good Shepherd. Our enemies will still be present, sometimes surrounding us. But we will not be anxious. Why? Because our beloved shepherd-turned-gracious-host prepares a celebration banquet in our honor, and our cup of life is never to be found empty.Our Good Shepherd DID lay down his life for his sheep on Good Friday, and he picked it right back up again on Easter Sunday.  

And when we follow such a shepherd, when we hear his voice and obey it, we may find ourselves laying down our lives for the sake of others. Not necessarily physically dying, but instead dying to our egos and our desire to follow more glamorous shepherds.
At this time, please take out the paper with the 23rd Psalm on it that your received as you walked in. As you receive it, take a look at it. It’s such a small, short looking psalm, but there is so much tucked into it. It’s not just about a dream that we have of what we think heaven might be like. It’s so much more than that. Instead, think of it as a blueprint for what life is like in God’s flock, with Jesus as our shepherd. When you get home, I encourage you to post it somewhere where you will see it and read it, at least once a day or more. And when you do see it and read it, reflect on what it means for you that Jesus has claimed you as one of his own. Ponder how your life has been shaped by your shepherd Jesus. Especially if you are currently in a dark valley or surrounded by enemies are longing for the green pastures and still waters. Or if you know a neighbor or friend who is going through one of these valleys themselves, maybe you are being shepherded to walk with them. 
Let’s read this psalm out loud together as a statement of our faith, as our testimony to the world that our shepherd is indeed a good one.

“The Lord is my shepherd; he Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”  AMEN.