Being Supportive

When I was a chef, and a cafe owner,  there were some breakfasts, lunches and dinners when we had few customers.  As owner of that business I lost sleep at night, at times,  wondering how we were going to keep going.  Fortunately,  God gave me a better idea.  I received nudge after nudge encouraging me to go to seminary, to become a worship designer instead of a cake designer; to become a pastoral caregiver rather than a mentor to those wanting to know how to run a kitchen, a restaurant,  a staff.  Three years after I left, the cafe closed. I was sad when I heard about it, but once I’d left for seminary, I never looked back.

The funniest thing about being the former owner of a cafe and catering business is that every so often, even thirteen years later, someone will say something like, “I really miss Foxgrape.” Or “What a loss it is for Oberlin that Foxgrape is gone.” I like hearing these comments. They make me feel happy for having had the cafe for those 8 years.  I most often hear these comments from people who were devoted regular customers, the ones who pretty much kept the business afloat.  But I also hear these comments from people who seldom if ever came to the restaurant. And in those cases, I can’t help but think to myself, “Well, having your financial support might have made a difference.”   Worry about money is simply draining, isn’t it?

When I left the cafe for ministry I gleefully thought to myself, “Things will be different now. This is what I’m being called to do. It’s going to be easier.”  Does it surprise you to know that many people come to our churches and provide no financial support to them?  Ask them why not and the response is, “I can’t afford it.”  Sometimes, these are even the folks who make the most demands. These are often the folks who wonder why the church struggles to pay the bills. These are often the folks most opposed to searching out innovative ways to revitalize the church or want nothing to do with starting new ministries that involve helping the community outside of the church building.   Why should this be so confounding to me?

When I first returned to church in the 1980s  after years away, I didn’t give a penny to the church on Sundays. I also didn’t realize that this was one of my responsibilities as a Christian,  to support the ministries of the church.  In retrospect I realize I was  foisting my responsibility onto all the people sitting around me in the pews.

If you had asked me I would have said, “I can’t afford it.”  I didn’t understand that we all have a responsibility to do, not just a little bit, but the best we can do for the church, for God.

In our lives our first and most important obligation is to support the ministries of our churches.  An Interim Minister was the one who talked about giving, enough to finally get through to me.  She was very convincing.  I filled out my first pledge card the year she was at the church. I finally made a promise to do my part to support the church and the ministries of the church.

I’ve learned to talk about money in the churches I serve.  I can’t say that the people in my congregations love those talks.  I never thought I would use the expression, “You know pennies don’t fall from heaven” as often as I do.  I say that a lot. And some people have heard me and try to give more to support the church’s ministries. Many people have commented that  their giving makes them feel very happy.  But some people just roll their eyes. Others threaten to leave the church.  Sometimes these are the people who have been raised in our churches. Their parents and grandparents were founders. But, unfortunately, their parents and grandparents were not so good at teaching how to properly care for the church.  We in the church  call this care “stewardship” of the church.

I have to laugh at myself now. When I left Foxgrape to go into ministry I naively thought my days of  managing funds, making careful financial changes, and losing sleep over money had ended. Boy, was I wrong! Perhaps this is the main reason I’ve been called to the churches I serve. I know what you’re saying to yourself. You’re saying,  “Maybe you need to just turn this over to God.” And that is what I do, continually. But what I hear from God again and again is, “Pennies don’t fall from heaven, you know.”

Waiting for my Friend to Die

            About a year ago, the woman who had been office administrator at the church I serve was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after surgery, brain cancer. She was given up to a year and a half to live. I was with her when she started to forget little details. I was with her when she was in the emergency room and learned of a large mass in her frontal lobe. I’ve sat with her in the office and at home talking about the past and what the future might be like.

            As a minister I spend quite a bit of time with families  dealing with death. I have loved getting to know families after a loved one has died as we sit down together to share stories in preparation for a service of remembrance.  It’s a time that helps me get to know the one who has died better but I also get to know their families so much better too. It is sacred time. It’s harder though,  journeying through that death with an entire family.

            And this time it’s different. It’s harder. Denise was not just our office administrator. She is my friend. And I’ve walked this walk pretty closely with her. It’s been difficult. I can’t deny that, but it has also been an incredible gift, to journey toward death with someone who means so much to me. This experience, of course, has brought me closer to her husband, her daughter and her son. I’ve been given permission to step into their lives as they each deal with what is probably one of life’s most difficult situations~ caring for someone who slowly disappears as a devastating cancer takes over the brain.

            About three months ago or maybe it was six~ the time has gotten away from me, we sat down together, Denise and I,  and we started to plan her funeral, just the two of us. She wanted it simple, and not expensive. She insisted that there was no bigger waste of money than going all out for a funeral. I asked her if she wanted me to write her eulogy soon, so that I could read it to her before she died. She said yes, so I did that. She and Tom were both in the downstairs of their condo on the afternoon I arrived ready to read it to her. Tom looked a little stunned at first when I explained what I was doing, but once I started to read he seemed happy for being there. After I finished Denise looked at Tom and asked, “Are you crying, Tom?” Tom said that he was. I think that perhaps this experience helped the two of them. It may have opened a door that allowed them to communicate a little more openly about what was happening.

            The hardest part is to begin the conversation about death and about dying. It can become the elephant in the room, and the people who most love the one who is dying can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that this person that they love so much is dying. I know this because when my mom was dying thirty years ago now, we never even mentioned the subject with her. I think that experience may be what has pushed me to become pretty good at being with people who are dying. It takes practice, I’m afraid.

           Later, Tom told me that Denise had wondered to him what it would be like to die. He told her he thought it was probably just like falling asleep. You never know when it will happen. When you wake up you never remember what it was like to fall asleep~ you just go away for a little while. Death is like that, he told her, except that you don’t wake up again. But you don’t know that. He said he thought it made her feel better.

THE Magyar United Church of Christ

THE Magyar United Church of Christ

Magyar means Hungarian. The church was founded in 1916 by a group of immigrants who lived in the neighborhood right around the church. Yes, it was an ethnic congregation. Hungarians only, please. But these days we’re proudly looking very diverse. I have the proud distinction of being the first to invite a rainbow assortment of people into Sunday worship. And yes, it HAS been interesting. And at times it has been challenging. But mostly, people are very welcoming of those who are not just like them. It is difficult to find Hungarians these days. I’d say it’s been a very good thing for everyone that God seems to be moving us in new ways.

A visitor in worship just today said, “I really like the diversity of this congregation.” SCORE! And thank you God, for ever challenging us.

The Accidental Minister: Who Knew?

A few weeks ago I was talking with my Spiritual Director, Carol during one of our monthly appointments. I was telling her about how I was really surprised by the response among members of the church I serve, Magyar United Church of Christ, to the opportunity to visit and support our homebound members. Six people came to our first “Called to Care” meeting to get some training in best practices when visiting. THEY loved the idea of being able to provide a ministry of visitation. I had no idea that the response would be so positive, and yet if I had offered the possibility a few years ago it would not have happened. (Oh, wait…. I did make the offer maybe four years ago. And the congregation stared at me blankly unable to understand why I was trying to pass one of “the pastor’s jobs” off to them.)

But now that I’ve been at the church for some time, things are decidedly different. For six years now I’ve been encouraging those potential ministers to discover their gifts and their interests and to use them in serving others. And, do you know what? I think the message has been getting through. Because recently after some of the  CTC ministers came to me to report on their first visit without me there, they were so excited. And each reported feeling such gratitude for being able to provide the gift of presence to the folks visited.

I am so often surprised by the way things work out as I minister at Magyar United Church of Christ in ELyria, Ohio. And what I realize is that it isn’t so much that things are happening ‘accidentally’ as the title of this blog suggests; but that sometimes I have one expectation in mind, when the Spirit has quite another. And when I see the Spirit moving in us and around us at the church, as I give more and more permissions to those wanting to try their hand at doing some sort of ministry, it takes my breath away. I often think to myself, “Oh yeah. Of course, that’s how it worked.” And almost every time it is very, very good.

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