Lee Hull Moses

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Ministry

Things that made me happy today

Sunshine. Sweet, sweet sunshine. I walked outside for a block on my way to lunch downtown, and felt better than I have for weeks.

The realization that Rob and I will get to see all four of our parents in the next two weeks, for a variety of reasons. We have very good parents.

Hosting some people from church for dinner at our house. The first time we looked at this house, I knew it would be perfect for entertaining, and since our social life basically revolves around church meetings and meals, this is what we do. I like knowing that every once in a while, all this abundance – more space than we need, more dishes than we can use – serves a greater purpose.

A sermon that practically wrote itself.

Jonathan’s grin. Also, the way he has morphed the sign for “more” into a sign for “please.” He manages to ask very politely for things he wants, without using any words.

Learning that the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has a Quidditch team, and being invited to come watch their tournament.

Watching Harper play by herself in her room, building a bed for her toys and creating some kind of color-coded book. Her creativity has exploded lately, and it’s delightful to watch. For years, I have wished that she would play on her own, and it makes me glad to watch her discover that there’s fun to be had with her own imagination. It’s a life-skill, I think, being able to entertain oneself.

The knowledge that there’s nothing else that really has to get done before I can go to bed.



On Palms and Ashes

On Tuesday morning, I burned last year’s palms to make ashes for the Ash Wednesday service. Or rather, I should say, I recruited a church member to burn them while I stood by with a fire extinguisher, completely unsure of how this would go.

Even though I’ve been presiding at Ash Wednesday services for the better part of a decade, this was the first time I’d ever actually burned the Palm Sunday palms to make the ashes. The last church I served just didn’t do it; we always ordered the packaged ashes from Cokesbury, and I don’t know what happened to the palms. This church had always burned the palms, or had at least in recent memory. (“You can buy packaged ashes?” someone asked, incredulously, when I mentioned it.) But the first year I was here, Ash Wednesday came in my sixth week on the job, and nobody could find the palms. Everyone thought they had been saved, but a thorough search of the church and a call to the former interim minister convinced us that they must have been tossed out in the office renovation they did before I arrived. So I ordered the package of ashes, and nobody seemed to notice.

The next year, I saved the palms. I gathered them up after the service on Palm Sunday, tied them up neatly with a ribbon, set them up on a high shelf in my office, and watched them shrivel and dry up as the months went by. The next February, I knew in the back of my mind that I needed to figure out how to burn them. It was on my list of things to do all the way up to the morning of Ash Wednesday, when I woke up with a horrible cold, a back ache, and a set of missing keys. I remember noticing that I felt appropriately mortal. I let myself off the hook and pulled out the package of ashes left over from the year before. Nobody seemed to notice, and I quietly tossed the dried out palms in the garbage can the next day.

This year, though, was different. Perhaps it was the fact that at the beginning of my third year here I am feeling less pressure to prove that I know how to do it all, or perhaps it was just a well-timed worship team meeting, but I finally asked for help. As the worship team discussed schedules for special services and decided who would put up the Lenten cross, I said, “You know, there’s one more thing…” I told them the whole story, confessed my ignorance at how to burn anything other than a candle, and pleaded for help.

So there I stood Tuesday morning with my designated palm burner, who was perfect for the job. He had brought a roaster (I neglected to ask where he had gotten it, or what one usually roasts in such a thing), and we set it on the sidewalk outside the back door of the church, crumpled up the palms and dropped them in. I’m sure there was a more sacred or holy or reverent way to do it – we gave no spoken blessing, offered no spoken prayer – but it felt right to me, the two of us, standing outside the church, trying to figure out how to do this thing. One minute they were palms, crinkly and dried up, but still recognizable as the palms we’d waved as we shouted hosanna last year, the next minute they were hot, smoky, gray shards of something that could have been anything. The fragility of life, to be sure.

I smelled vaguely of smoke for the rest of the afternoon. Nobody seemed to notice, but on Wednesday night when the congregation gathered in the darkened sanctuary, I was able to tell them that these ashes had been the very palms they’d waved last April, that life indeed does circle back on itself, that these dead and lifeless ashes held the memory of new life waiting to bloom again.

Here’s my meditation from last night, if you’re interested.

That top shelf in my office where the palms sat all year felt awfully empty today.



A New Song

A sermon for January 16, 2011

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ — John 1:35-36

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
— Psalm 40:1-3

It’s not polite to point, I know, but John the Baptist has never been one to conform to cultural expectations, living as he did in the wilderness and eating locusts and wild honey. It’s not polite to point, I know, but John as been pointing for quite some time now: You there, he shouts, the Messiah is coming, prepare the way. You there: time to get your life in order. You there: come on in, the water’s fine.

It’s not polite to point, I know, but John does it anyway, twice in this passage when he sees Jesus coming: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…. Look! Here is the Lamb of God!”

It’s not polite to point, I know, but I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.

Let me come back to that in a minute.

This week, in the wake of the shooting in Tuscon, there has been a whole lot of conversation about words, about rhetoric, about how we talk to each other and especially about how we disagree with each other.

And I have no doubt that the words we say matter. Words can be hateful and hurtful and in a country where we so dearly value our right to speak freely, we have all the more responsibility to speak carefully and respectfully. We’ll probably never know what words inspired Jared Lee Laughner to do what he did, and we’ll never know if there were words that could have been said to prevent it.

But I do know, that just as words can incite hatefulness, words can also inspire greatness. I have been moved and inspired this week by a number of voices that have used this moment in our story not to rile us up further but to encourage us to be better than we are, to behave better than we have been behaving. Tragedy does that sometimes – gives us new words, a new song.
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Friday Five: Getting Out of Bed

When I went in to get Harper up this morning, she rolled over and muttered, “I’m just going to sleep all day.”

Have I mentioned that I’m dreading her teenage years?

The game over at revgals today is to share five things that made getting out of bed worthwhile. Here goes:

1. Anticipation of a visit from our new niece and her parents who are coming into town tonight.

2. Motivation to get my sermon done today so I can enjoy their visit tomorrow.

3. Gratitude for a week full of moving words that will (one dearly hopes) inspire us to be a better people.

4. Excitement from last night’s parents’ group, which had been dwindling but has now been revived by a new commitment to study a book together in the coming months.

5. Appreciation for the bright sunshine that is ever so slowly melting off this pesky ice.

And now, back to that sermon…



Potluck Parenting

For the most part, I think, I’ve gotten fairly adept at the juggling act that is parenting and pastoring. I’m pretty good about boundaries, I take most of my Fridays off, and we eat dinner together nearly every night. I’ve learned that it’s okay to wear my “mom” hat at church sometimes and simply watch Harper collect Easter eggs or help her play games at the carnival.

I’m well aware that my ability to keep up this juggling is the result of two very important factors: a generous and gracious husband and a kid-loving congregation that has embraced a young mother pastor after decades of older male ministers with remarkable grace. Rob handles the Sunday morning circus and manages to get Harper to the nursery and himself to choir; most Sundays I never even see Harper until I’ve greeted almost everybody after the second service (which carries its own sadness, but allows me to be fully present at church). And I couldn’t ask for a better congregation in which to be a mom. Harper has a whole church full of adopted older sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who dote on her and look out for her and keep her from running out into the parking lot by herself.

But then there’s the potluck dinner. It’s one circus ring I’ve yet to master. I always leave potluck dinners exhausted, usually with food spilled on my shirt, bloated from eating too much too fast, and feeling like I haven’t been a very good parent or a very good pastor. I just cannot talk to everyone I need to talk to (and who wants to talk to me) at the same time that I am keeping Harper’s grabby hands away from the dessert table. I cannot make her stand politely with me in line and also make sure someone is talking to the new folks who are hovering shyly in the corner. I cannot give my full attention to the woman whose mother just entered Hospice while Harper is playing with the microphone on the stage.

Tonight, she gave up on waiting for me and cut to the front of the line, where one of her favorite grandmother-types helped her get some food. I glanced up from my conversation with our board chair and saw that she was being taken care of, but when I got to the table I discovered that her plate held only a hot dog and a chicken wing – not food that I would pick for her or even, really, food she likes. She barely ate any of it, wouldn’t sit at the table through most of dinner, ran around the fellowship hall (at one point nearly knocking over our 93-year-old matriarch) and then demanded dessert. The program was blessedly short, but then I still had to check in with our music director about the special music Sunday and lock up my office before we could leave. It turned out that I physically couldn’t carry everything to the car: Harper’s jacket and some toys she’d picked up along the way, my own things, which included a bag full of books so I can work from home tomorrow morning, and the dish of baked beans I’d taken as our own meager contribution to the feast. She was squirrely – up past her bedtime, keyed up from playing with the older kids and eating too much sugar – so I sent her to the car with Rob, who was already late to choir practice, with the promise that I would be right out as soon as I swung by the office. But on the way, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while, and someone else who is arranging people to light the Advent wreath next month, and someone else who I’d asked to read at the Hanging of the Greens service.

I know my church folks love watching her run around the fellowship hall and don’t care if all she ate was a cookie. I know it’s okay if I slip out of the church without checking in with everybody. I know they don’t expect me to be perfect. Harper will eat better tomorrow, and I’ll see all these folks again on Sunday. It’s just that sometimes, I wish I only had one ball in the air at a time.



Reframing Hope: Book Review

I’d been carrying around Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation, for several weeks before finally settling down with it on the clergywomen retreat I went on last last month. It rained most of the time we were there, so I spent my afternoons tucked into a corner of the porch, absorbing Merritt’s wisdom and her, well, hope.

What I appreciated most was her (unbridled? cautious? no: faith-filled) optimism as she thinks about what church means in an age of Twitter and Facebook and globalization and post-denominationalism. Even her telling of history is optimistic: it is not, in her view, that the church is dying and needs a miracle – but that the decline of the past generation has opened up new possibilities that are only now coming to light.

In our evening discussions at that retreat, I repeatedly found myself quoting Merritt, particularly when the discussion took a woe-is-the-church turn, as conversations among clergy are wont to do. Are we really all going to have to have praise bands? we grumble. But Merritt suggests that there are authentic ways to embrace the great practices of our traditions while still appealing to a generation that is accustomed to having things fast and now.

I particularly like her term “loyal radicals” to define those of us who are committed to the structures and traditions of our denominational churches but long to see them transform into something more relevant. Just knowing that there others who feel that way gives me hope that we can hang on to the traditions of the church (and a reassurance that they are worth hanging on to) and still speak to a new generation.

I also appreciated not just her optimism that that church can be relevant, but also her evidence that it’s already happening: she gives examples of churches that are taking seriously their responsibility to care for creation, who are worshiping in new ways and in new spaces. She describes podcasts that connect a scattered congregation and technology that is harnessed not just for entertainment but as a means of working for justice.

She talks eloquently (as she often has) about the uses of technology – social media, smart phones, email, blogs – as tools for doing ministry, citing examples of pastoral care done over Twitter and community building through web forums. She also notes the “dangers and downsides,” and the digital divide between old and young and rich and poor. But as a sometimes-reluctant user of social media technology, I found myself wishing she had more fully addressed the drawbacks. The iphone may be handy for quickly looking up information relevant to an in-person conversation (as Merritt does with her daughter), but what about the married couple who can’t make it through a meal together without checking their email or texting friends? What about the pastor who spends all her time replying to comments on her blog and never goes to cheer on a youth group kid at his baseball game?

Merritt rightly points out that “as our interactions increasingly move from face-to-face to interface, we should keep in mind that we may be losing something vital in this shift.” In ministering to a new generation, perhaps it is part of our role not just to reach them where they are, but to also help them (us), to be reflective about how we live our lives. And maybe it is the pastor who can finally say: put down your phone and talk to me.



Words

There was an article in the most recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine in which Rachel Kadish gives what she calls a “pep-talk” to writers who write in trying times like these, when the publishing world is changing so rapidly and nothing is certain. It is lunacy, she says, to keep writing – but that’s exactly what writers do.

I couldn’t help but think that she could have just as easily been talking about preaching. It is crazy for preachers to keep preaching the good news when it is clear that the world is full of bad news. It’s nuts for churches to keep on existing when numbers are declining and there are way more efficient ways to run an organization.

Kadish pointed out, though, that for writers, there’s no magic that gets them through lean times. The writers who are still writing ten years later, she says, are simply the ones who kept on writing. Isn’t that true of the church? The churches that are still here proclaiming the good news are the churches that just kept on proclaiming the good news.

I’ve been reading Journey to the Common Good, a relatively new book by Walter Bruggemann, in which he points out that God’s generosity is what helps the Hebrew people envision an alternative reality to their enslavement in Egypt. They move, he says, from a place of anxiety and scarcity, through abundance and generosity, to a new understanding of neighborliness and the common good. Bruggemann’s focus here (and the reason I was reading it as sermon prep recently), is that notion of neighborliness, but I was glad to be reminded of his call to envision an alternative reality. In his book about preaching, Finally Comes the Poet, he challenges preachers to use poetic language to help people imagine that new reality in their own lives.

It reminded me of what Kadish was saying about writing. Writers write because they write, because they have something to say, because they know of a world they want to invite their readers into. Last month, through the words of a writer who imagined a world, I lived in the ruins of a British castle with a poverty-stricken teenager who was falling in love. Right now, I’m heading into the Amazon rain forest in search of an explorer who disappeared 85 years ago. I’ve been to the top of Mount Everest and in a barbershop in a tiny southern river town in the 1930’s. Words do that, somehow: the create new worlds for us.

Genesis 1 was the text for worship recently, and I realized that this is why I love words: God speaks the world into being. God says, “Let there be light,” and somehow, those words form themselves into light. God says, “Let there be…” and there is.



Recall the Events of the Day…

I am back online after 48 hours of no wireless connection. Rob sent along his wireless adapter, so I could have been connected all along, but it was nice not to have the distractions of the endless spiral of blogs and news. (I’ll admit, however, that my phone was always connected and I did my share of Facebook browsing.) I finally plugged in the little gadget tonight, maybe as a way of warming up to the real world before heading home tomorrow.

I am only two weeks and 200 miles from the beach where we vacationed not so long ago, but it feels like a different country and a different season. That trip was all about sunscreen and swimsuits and sand toys. This week has been gray skies and wind-rocked waves and reading on the porch in the rain. Every morning there has been an incredible thunderstorm that has blown in from the ocean to wake me up. It has thwarted my plans for a run before breakfast, but it has been lovely to lie in bed and watch the lightning and hear the rain pound the roof.

The rain has actually been a blessing – we desperately needed it, for one thing, but it also gave me permission to spend our free time hunkered down with a book. If it had been sunny and 80 degrees, I would have been torn between reading and playing on the beach. Instead, I finished two books I’ve been reading: Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, and Carol Howard Merritt’s Reframing Hope. I’m using McLaren’s as the springboard for my sermon Sunday, and I’ll write more about Reframing Hope in another post; I really appreciated it and found myself indeed feeling hopeful as I finished it.

It’s been a very good retreat: a wonderful group of women with a good mix of age, experience, and denominational flavor. There has been much laughter, several long walks, lots of story-telling, and more bags of potato chips than we might care to admit. There has been a healthy amount of venting about life in the ministry, but we’ve also celebrated the incredible joys of this life, and recognized our gratitude for having jobs that let us do what we love. We’ve made plans to get together again, and I look forward to it seeing these – dare I say it? – friends again.

Our evening prayer tonight began this way: “Recall the events of the day, and pray for the life of the world.” And so:

The events of the day:
Thunderstorm, breakfast, conversation, walk to the chapel where a herring was standing guard, lunch, reading on the porch, solitary walk on the beach as my sermon worked itself out in my head, lectionary study that drifted everywhere from Glee to World Communion, dinner, long walk on the beach that ended in a dark hike through the woods, snacks and laughter and good conversation, evening prayers.

For the life of the world:
For churches and church people; for ministers who do not have a call; for ministers who are not healthy in mind, body, and spirit; for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan; for the husbands and wives of soldiers deployed; for people out of work; for our president and our country; for the people of Pakistan and the Middle East; for all who cannot see their way toward hope. Hear our prayers, O Lord.



On Retreat

I’m leaving this afternoon for a retreat center at the beach, where I’m meeting up with several other clergy women from Greensboro for three days of, well, retreating. It’s not the best timing – I’ve just been to the beach, and had a whole week of retreat earlier this summer – but I’m looking forward to the chance to get to know these other women. I have several good books and my camera packed, a bottle of wine and a batch of gorp to share, and my rain jacket, since the weather promises to be stormy all week.

As I was getting ready to go, Harper came out of her room (where she is supposed to be napping), and said: “I love you very much, and I always, always, always want to go to the swimming pool and the museum, and I always, always, always want my family.”

Me too.




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