Unexpected Gifts

From its conception, I have loved the idea of a “Holy Ghost Grab Bag”. There is something incredibly appealing to me about the idea that we have a place to highlight God’s unexpected presence in our lives. However, as I pondered the concept I always imagined that the story of the unexpected presence would be something shared by another individual. As the editor of the column it would be my job to read and be surprised. Thankfully, God is far wiser than I am.

This past June I had the pleasure of attending the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly meeting. It was a fantastic experience. From the moment I arrived in San Jose I felt
a sense of deep connection to the people around me. These unknown individuals and I not only share a common faith, we share something more a connection based on the way in which we experience and express that faith. It was wonderful.

On that first Sunday I sat in a sports arena at San Jose State University and looked around at the diverse collection of Presbyterians gathered for worship. The songs we sung were familiar and comforting. The liturgy spoke to my soul. And I was thrilled to be in this enormous gathering of Presbyterians, to experience church. I left the service feeling incredibly blessed to have been present for something so special.

Shortly after we left a few friends began discussing the problems they had with the
service. As seminarians they had fascinating critiques, most of which I thought were right on target. While the worship was good, maybe it hadn’t been great. It was quite possible that the music was a bit excessive, and well, the liturgy had some low points. So why had it spoken so clearly to me, to my place?

And then it hit me. I have been feeling completely disconnected for months, maybe years. While I am clear about my call to serve the church as a college chaplain in a relatively rural community, my call has disconnected me from the church I know and love. When I attend worship services in the local area I am constantly distracted by gendered language, music I don’t recognize, and publications that reflect values that are very different from my own. This experience of living outside of my comfort zone has challenged me and encouraged me to grow as a pastor and person of faith. But spending so much time away from the things that feed my spirit has also left me feeling profoundly disconnected. In my attempts to focus on all of the good in this place I had set aside my own deep struggles and needs.

That same Sunday in the afternoon I attended a worship service hosted by More Light, an organization that supports LGBT groups, specifically around the question of ordination. That worship service really was fantastic. The music was prepared by Patrick Evans, whose work I knew from my time as a student at  Yale Divinity School , and the liturgy was warm and familiar. As I walked out of worship, chatting with a few new friends, I realized that this was exactly what I needed. God was present, feeding my spirit, and offering me connections that would continue to nurture me on my journey.

As clergy I know that it is easy to become “burnt out”. In divinity schools and seminaries, we are constantly warned by older and wiser colleagues that it is important to take care of ourselves. Clergy support groups, spiritual direction, taking up a hobby, spending time away from the community, and the occasional counseling session all serve as important tools to nurture us in our walk. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes the places in which we experience that exhaustion and separation are the very places we do not expect to wander away from wholeness. Today I am thankful that God notices us in those moments and in unexpected ways provides us with what we need.

I do not expect my call to change any time soon, nor do I expect the place where I live to undergo a radical transformation. But I have received the gift of the sustaining presence of community. The knowledge that I am not alone, that this community that I love goes before me and follows
behind, is enough to keep me going. I suspect that I will continue to attend General Assembly each year as an ongoing reminder that I too am a member of the church and the church has enough room
for all of us.

3 replies
  1. Jodi
    Jodi says:

    Thank you for sharing this. My experience was similar at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last year. There’s something about seeing a bigger community of church in action and being part of it–what a gift!

  2. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I went to my first General Assembly (Disciples of Christ) at age ten, and I try never to miss them. They are part of my self-care. While I would never want to be part of a mega-church on a regular basis, there is something wonderful about experiencing it every couple of years. And, honestly, I think it’s cooler because that “mega-church” is full of people from all over the world.

  3. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    In June was ordained at my home church, which is in the town where you are serving. It is hard to go home and experience worship that no longer resonates with my theology. I still love the people, though, and it pains me that I cannot envision going back.
    Thanks for this piece and the reminder that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.


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