Church, Your Pastors Are Tired

Image by Andrea Piacquadio from pexels.com

We didn’t plan for this. We’ve all been suddenly forced to adapt almost everything about our lives to respond to the pandemic. Some people revel in some of the changes, like working from home. For others, the changes chafe more than comfort.

I think it’s safe to assume that all of us, to some degree, have experienced negative consequences from pandemic living: stress, anxiety, job loss or insecurity, financial strain, or tension at home in constant close-quarters. All this seems to shake out through our systems and drag us into fatigue. My friend Karen calls it “Pandemic malaise.”

We are tired. We are desperate to stop adapting, stop isolating, stop worrying. We are all ready for this period of our lives to be finished. To become history. We want better days and we want them to begin tomorrow. We want to regain our energy and our lives as we knew them before the pandemic.

And if that wasn’t enough…

If you are an American like me, you’ve had the added weight of seeing the modern lynchings of black citizens unfold on your TV screens and social media feed. You see the action and inaction of our civic leaders. You see the protests and how our law enforcement responds — some movements are peaceful and peace-seeking, and some are chaotic and violent. You see the looting and destruction of big business and family businesses. And you likely have strong feelings about some or all of these things. (That is, if you have any emotional energy left.)

We are exhausted. We are undone. We’ve unraveled. The worst of who we are is exposed.

What we are seeing and experiencing is, at the very least, unpleasant. I imagine that many of us see or experience this ever-evolving situation in America as abhorrent. Unconscionable. A tragedy. We are all desperate for something better.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors have been doing the hard work of shifting the life of the church — an organism whose very nature is to gather publicly and then be sent out into the world — to alternative platforms like Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live. Some pastors in our churches do not have a degree in Bible or theology. Very few of them have a degree or training in information technology. A fraction of them have an understanding of what it takes to broadcast a virtual worship service. That is, until a few months ago when the pandemic halted our in-person gatherings.

Most pastors have learned on-the-fly, and are now quite competent at streaming your worship services. But the hour of worship you participated in on-line this week took much more than an hour to produce. Your pastors have zoomed for hours and hours behind the scenes.

They’ve zoomed with other staff, with leaders and volunteers, working hard to plan your worship service. Plus, they’ve creatively re-purposed ministries to function virtually. They’ve asked, what can children’s ministry look like now? How do we keep our senior congregants connected and engaged if they don’t have, or are uncomfortable with, technology? They’ve brainstormed new best-practices, done some trail-and-error, and worried about what they may have missed.

Your pastors have done the hard work of scrutinizing the budget and cutting back spending so your church can stay afloat during lean times. They know their congregants have or will experience financial strain, so they are being careful and proactive with resources. (Your pastors may also be worried about their own livelihood — since the church budget is also the source of their income.)

Your pastors are trying to care for you and stay in touch with you, but it’s harder when they can’t meet with you or at least see you in person each week. How long would it take to call through your church directory and check in on every congregant or family? How do they set up a manageable system for this? They wonder, would congregants be satisfied with a short, personal email?

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors are expected to be strong leaders. To be examples. To help you navigate challenging times with wisdom gleaned from scripture. Right now, you might even hope they can be like the prophets of the Bible, boldly speaking God’s truth in the midst of unprecedented calamity.

And so here we are in a global pandemic. What truth, or hope, or prophetic encouragement do you expect from your pastor this Sunday?

And here we are in an America whose deep-seated racism has been re-exposed and the emotional outrage has erupted onto our streets. Some pastors were alive to see, experience, and learn from the civil rights movement. Some weren’t. Some pastors are awake to the systemic racial injustices in our nation. Others aren’t. Some white pastors can name their privilege and are doing the difficult work to learn and live as allies with their neighbors of color. Some can’t, some won’t, and some don’t know how to get started. And yet, despite where your pastors are as individuals, they are still expected to have a prophetic voice.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Pastors of color face these expectations exponentially, while simultaneously bearing the weight of their own pain and exhaustion.

ALL of that to say, church, your pastors are TIRED. They might be running on fumes. They might be struggling personally, but are keeping that quiet so they can keep on ministering to you. They are just about done adjusting and adapting. They are straining under the complex needs, and often conflicting desires of their congregants. And they are navigating all of this in an ever-evolving pandemic in a world that is literally and figuratively on fire.

Maybe they need you to minister to them.

Capacity

There is a global pandemic going on and I’m seeing a lot of comparison and judgment on social media. Friends are judging themselves for a lack of productivity. They are criticizing family members for not getting enough done. Or they are bemoaning the unrealistic expectations of schools and employers.

Can we pause for a moment and dig into this problem calmly and compassionately?

We have all been subjected to a mega-shift in our lives. Most of us have had to adjust all that we do — be it work, parenting, eating, and schooling — to be done 100% at home. That is a fundamental shift in our habits and routines. That is a lot of togetherness if you live with family or roommates, and a lot of alone time if you live alone. And unless you are well-suited for monastic life, you’re also grieving lost connections to a lot of the activities and the being-out-in-the-world things that nourish you.

I imagine that if this shift to our lives were measured like an earthquake, it would be a pretty solid 7 on the Richter scale. Social distancing and isolation isn’t killing us, but it is shaking up our lives in a jarring way. With the tectonic plates of our daily lives shifted so greatly, you can bet there are cracks showing on each of us.

One friend told me that she thought she was doing pretty well with all of this isolation. She and her husband and son had been “living it up” at home enjoying their favorite home-bound hobbies like video games, gardening, and movie nights. But my friend suddenly broke out in hives for no apparent reason. She now suspects that the isolation has affected her more than she noticed or was willing to accept.

On social media, friends are lamenting their lack of energy. They are mentioning all the projects they think they or their spouse should be able to tackle since they are at home all the time. But these same people don’t seem to realize that fatigue is such a potent side-effect of stay-at-home orders.

I’d like to ask that you take a few minutes to think about capacity. Before my knee surgery last fall, I was exercising 5-6 days a week and averaging 12,000 steps a day. Then I had surgery and I couldn’t bear weight on my leg for a month. Dependent on crutches, I had to change everything about my daily routine. Every task that I was used to doing without thinking about it, suddenly required me to think first. How must I do X differently in order to accomplish X and be safe?

The fundamental adjustments to my life were both physically and emotionally exhausting. I simply didn’t have the same capacity that I had before my surgery. To be well during recovery, I had to learn to let myself:

  • accomplish less (and subsequently…)
  • attempt less (and therefore…)
  • set aside unnecessary tasks
  • pause longer between tasks
  • laugh about stupid mistakes
  • not sweat the small stuff (and subsequently…)
  • put more things in the “small stuff” category
  • go to bed at times suited for a small child

Before my surgery, I was a strong, active, capable woman. After my surgery, I was still a strong, active, capable woman, but one who had to make adjustments. I had less capacity to be active the way I was used to. Instead of relying on my legs to carry me through the day, I had to schlep through my days using crutches and my upper body strength — and that’s some workout!

Some days, accepting the change in my capacity was very frustrating, even maddening. I’d have fits of temper when I dropped things (and I dropped so many things!) and it seemed nearly impossible to retrieve them with an immobilized leg. I was annoyed that I was ready for bed by 7pm. At 39-years-old, I felt silly needing a shower chair in order to take a 10 minute shower. But everything in that season came down to capacity. Was I willing to accept and work with the capacity that I had on any given day?

And that’s the question I offer you during this pandemic and period of social isolation. Almost everything about your daily routine has likely changed. The shift is affecting you, whether or not you see or accept its impact. So, what is your capacity today? What is your capacity physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually? What is your capacity at 10am? At 3pm? Or at 7pm?

To be well in times of change, we have to realize and accept that our capacity can fluctuate greatly day-to-day and hour-by-hour. To be well we also have to adjust our expectations of ourselves (and our loved ones). What looks or feels like laziness when we don’t tackle those special projects around the house could in fact be mild depression, numbness, or emotional fatigue — all situational and very understandable.

One of the opportunities of this weird isolation season is to become more emotionally flexible. And generous. Out of an abundance of love and kindness, we can offer ourselves (and others) heaping amounts of grace when we feel like we are failing or when we don’t measure up. Instead of seeing ourselves as slackers, we might consider that we are doing the best we can with the resources that we have at any given moment. Please hear that again…

You are doing the best that you can with the resources you have at any given moment.

I once interviewed a college student who was reapplying for a second year in the same job. He liked the job and was good at it, but he had concerns. The following year he would be a senior preparing to graduate and looking to launch his career. He wasn’t sure he should do the job again or even how to evaluate his readiness to return to the job in light of his different circumstances.

Randomly, I asked him if he was familiar with scuba diving. He said he was. So I asked him to imagine another year on the job like a scuba dive. And then I asked him to evaluate how much air he had left in his tanks. (Because who would go on an extended dive without full or nearly full tanks?) The student later told me that after pondering that question over the next few days, he was able to confidently turn down our job offer. He decided that saying no was the healthiest choice for him and those he would have served through the job.

This is the simple question I offer you in an uncommon time — what is your capacity right now? (Or, what is your loved one’s capacity right now given their unique circumstances?) No matter the answer, you will never regret responding to that question with an overly-generous dose of kindness.

woman-in-white-dress-shirt-1677275

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

 

 

Wave Upon Wave

Anyone else feeling fragile these days? I’m with you. If you’d like, why don’t you come into my living room and settle onto the other end of my couch. No need to change out of your comfy clothes — I’m in sweats. The soft, stretchy cotton seems like the perfect hammock for a fragile soul.

So, as you know, I’m a pastor and a spiritual leader in my community. I imagine people expect me to offer words of assurance and encouragement in a season of hardship like a pandemic. It’s not that I don’t have any of those words these days, but I also don’t want to pretend to be more than I am.

I believe it’s very important for leaders to remember they are human and to be honest in every circumstance. Being genuine and open about who we are and how we are at any given moment can be the most assuring and encouraging thing. So today I offer you my weary, droopy self.

How should we be during a global pandemic? Is there a “should” for this kind of thing? No one gave me playbook for this in seminary. I suppose there are some parallels I could draw from scripture for us, but today I’d rather offer the story of my own life, my body, and my heart. Maybe you will find solidarity and comfort there.

I’ve never experienced a compounded season of stress like this in my life. I imagine you haven’t either. Sure, I’ve been through difficult things in my life and I consider myself a fairly resilient person. I’ve matured through the grind of hardship and squalls of grief. But these days, instead of feeling mature and capable of navigating this new challenge, I feel weak and unstable.

Maybe this is what a car accident victim feels like walking for the first time after days in bed. Something as ordinary as walking — something you’ve been doing everyday without thinking about it since you were three-years-old — now feels strange and Herculean. In a bruised and weakened body, even the idea of standing and moving your legs forward and of carrying your own weight, is overwhelming and exhausting.

Everyone will have their own unique pandemic story. Someday we will tell these stories to the younger generations and they will listen, captivated and half-believing, as though the way we lived in these days was more fantasy than reality. And yet we live these strange days — with face masks and gloves, social distancing and stay-at-home orders — as our reality.

My pandemic story starts with a hospital and a wedding. On February 20th in America, news of the coronavirus was still playing in the category of world news. There was a mysterious virus wreaking havoc in a region of China I’d never heard of. I didn’t give it too much thought because my mind was focused on getting married.

Dennis and I had planned an elopement for Saturday, February 22nd. On the night of the 20th, he herniated a disc in his back while standing up from the kitchen table. He spent the next 24 hours in the hospital as the doctors tried to get his pain under control. It took six hours and lots of IV morphine, but they finally got his pain and blood pressure stabilized. (His BP was 199/100 when we arrived at the ER!) Reluctantly, the doctor discharged him Friday night so we could get married the next day. Dennis was adamant that we would have our wedding as planned. I would have married him in his hospital room and drab hospital gown.

Other than Dennis being injured, our wedding was everything we’d hoped it would be. With it being simple and tiny compared to the average wedding, there was no stress. We spent the weekend resting at a beautiful bed and breakfast at the beach. By Tuesday we were both back to work as usual.

Except nothing has been “as usual” since February 20th. Dennis continued to struggle with debilitating back pain as he waited for his surgery scheduled for April. That virus in Wuhan, China spread quickly across the globe. The retirement community where I work quickly phased into a full lock-down in early March. Wearing masks and armed with thermometers, we now daily screen every staff member, essential vendors, and resident for Covid symptoms. All of our in-person programming has been canceled and we’ve had to adapt everything for our in-house broadcast system. My job, which was once vibrantly full of human contact and pastoral care, is now reduced to ministering through live broadcasts of daily morning prayer and Sunday morning chapel.

As the virus covered the globe and grew into a pandemic, Dennis and I had to cancel our full honeymoon that was scheduled for late March. Soon after, we also canceled both our Florida and California wedding receptions planned for May and June. We have no idea if and when we will be able to reschedule those. Though that seems like such a small loss in the midst of such world-wide suffering and grief, it is still a loss for us. It feels like we haven’t had the chance to celebrate our marriage.

Around the time my workplace had a few cases of Covid-19, I started feeling unwell. Knowing my cycle and the symptoms, I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. I took three tests over the course of that week, but my husband wouldn’t believe it was true until it was confirmed by a doctor. I hadn’t found a GP since moving to Florida and no one was taking new patients with the pandemic going on. A local OB agreed to see me when I explained the situation. She confirmed the pregnancy with an ultrasound.

We were so happy to be pregnant. We’d hoped and prayed we would be able to get pregnant one day, but were cautiously optimistic because of our advanced ages. And so there we were, newlyweds, pregnant right away in the middle of a global pandemic, both essential workers (and thankful to be employed), but both exposed to the public everyday, and with Dennis still enduring vicious chronic pain. That is a unique set of stressors in an extraordinarily stressful time.

Dennis has asthma so is in “at risk” category if he were to get the coronavirus. Since it’s a novel virus, almost nothing is known about the risks to pregnant women and their babies. Though healthy and strong, I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. I love my job and the people I serve, but I didn’t want to go into work and potentially expose myself to the virus and put my husband or baby at risk. It’s been over a decade since I’ve struggled with anxiety, but it was suddenly back again on a totally new level. All I wanted to do was burrow into our safe home and spend time caring for my family.

Dennis assured me everything would be okay. A realist, I knew he couldn’t possible know what the future held, but “everything will be okay” was exactly what I needed to hear every day, several times a day. He held me close every time I felt scared and reminded me of what I already knew — God loves us, God is good, and God is in control of everything, big and small.

So, like the rest of the world, we continued living each day as best we could. We’ve battled the strange fatigue that comes with living the reduced life forced upon us by a pandemic. Thankfully, Dennis was able to transfer to working from home, which brought him some relief from back pain. His surgery was scheduled for April 13th, the day after Easter.

Easter is meant to be the high point of the year for Christians. On Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the fact that his resurrection signals our freedom from slavery to sin and freedom to live eternally in intimate relationship with God. Easter is usually full of extra light and color, flowers and song. But the pandemic made it’s mark on our celebrations too. Our chapel service was still broadcast-only. There was no choir, no lilies, no joyful hugs, and no congregation shouting, “He is risen, indeed!” Though the message of the service and sermon were as hopeful and joyful as ever, it still felt odd. Even Easter was reduced from it’s fullest, brightest expression.

Personally, Easter was full of worry and blood. I got home from our Easter chapel and discovered that I was spotting. That afternoon, as we ate a special Easter dinner, prepared Dennis’ hospital bag for his surgery the next day, and played some games, I continued bleeding. Some spotting is normal in early pregnancy, but mine increased as the day went on, going from a dull brown to a bright red. I knew that at 7 weeks, I was likely miscarrying. Dennis held me as I cried. He slept fitfully that night, as it was hard for him to find a comfortable sleeping position. I didn’t sleep at all. I was in too much pain to sleep, so I spent the night on the couch holding a heating pad to my abdomen.

On Easter Monday we got dressed and headed for the hospital. I was still bleeding. I dropped my husband off at the hospital entrance. Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t go in with him or visit him after surgery. I drove home and called to make an appointment with my OB. Just before the doctor examined me, as I lay on the table in the ultrasound room, I got the call from the hospital that Dennis was out of surgery and doing well. Moments later, the ultrasound confirmed what I already knew — I was having a miscarriage.

I went home to an empty house where I wept and cried out for my husband. Though there are many people I could have called to come be with me, Dennis was the only person I wanted. I wept with relief that he was okay, and I wept with grief knowing that when we spoke on the phone that afternoon, I would have to tell him that we’d lost our baby.

We were separated for about 32 hours. I picked Dennis up from the hospital and drove us toward the pharmacy where we would get his prescriptions. He took off his gloves and used sanitizer so he could hold my hand. I drove and wept and managed to stay on the road only because my husband was finally holding my hand and telling me how much he loved me. We got home and just held each other and cried.

The past two weeks have been difficult. Dennis’ physical recovery is slow and painful. I’m doing the best I can to care for him even as I am recovering myself. I’ve had many friends who have told me about their own miscarriages, but no one told me how physically painful and depleting a miscarriage could be. I took a few days off of work to care for Dennis and to let my own body heal. I’ve since returned to work, but have yet to regain my energy or even the desire to do the job I love.

The past two months have brought stress upon stress upon stress. And the pandemic has brought wave upon wave of loss — big and small. I never thought much about what our newlywed story would be, but never in any daydream did it contain a herniated disc, 2 hospitalizations, a major surgery, a pregnancy and a miscarriage — all in the middle of a global pandemic. So, understandably, I’m feeling fragile.

My experiences have woken me up to the reality that though we are all enduring the large-scale losses and grief of the pandemic, we are all still living our individual lives and potentially enduring personal losses and grief, big and small. We’ve lost happy plans, jobs, time with friends and family, graduations, businesses, financial security… It seems like that list could go on forever and cover such a broad range of losses, and that’s heartbreaking.

I’m sure many of you have suffered losses that have been eclipsed by the constantly grating news of the pandemic. You might be keeping your losses private and I understand your need or desire to do that. I considered keeping our miscarriage private, but ultimately, I thought I would share about it so others who are suffering right now might not feel so alone.

Whatever thoughts and feelings are plaguing you, my friend, you aren’t alone. Your suffering is real. It doesn’t matter how your loss compares to the pandemic or to someone else’s loss. Comparison is fruitless in the midst of grief. Big or small, your loss is real and it hurts you and that matters. Please, please know that what you are feeling is okay to feel, and please take care of yourself.

I hope you have someone who will hold you like my Dennis holds me. Even when I feel like I could shatter in moments of acute grief, his arms and words remind me that I will be okay.

We will be okay. That doesn’t mean that we won’t experience hardship or illness, loss or grief. It just means that we will not lose everything. We have not lost everything even when a single loss is so overwhelming that it makes us feel like we’ve lost everything.

I need to remember that there is still so much life to my life. I may not feel very good physically or emotionally. Each day feels tethered to a new, unpredictable tide. But I am still living. I am still deeply loved. I know that the frayed pieces of my life will mend, my body will heal, the pandemic will end, and I will be okay.

We will be okay.

I get up and meet each day as it is. Some days, like today, have been filled with tears and exhaustion, despite getting a full night of sleep. Other days seem normal — so normal that I forget there is a global pandemic and that I lost a baby — because the sun is shining so beautifully and my husband can always make me laugh. I’m doing my best to give myself heaping doses of grace when I feel overwhelmed emotionally, and when I feel guilty because I feel good. (That’s going to make sense to some of you.)

So if you are feeling fragile these days, you are in good company. It’s not just me sitting with you on The Couch of Pandemic Loss and Weariness. There’s probably a million sisters and brothers in this club. We are all just one story away from finding each other and from getting through one more day.

Please, if you need to, reach out to someone who loves you and share your story. I pray you will be met with wave upon wave of understanding, love, and grace.

You are not alone. You are loved.

Love,
Corrie

 

 

 

It Is Finished

John 19:30 — When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”

I’d never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Night had fallen, and I sat weeping at a campfire deep in the woods of Central Pennsylvania. This was at the end of a 10-hour day of steep hiking into and out of a valley. 

At the campfire, I was surrounded by 11 of my colleagues from the college where we worked. Our boss had decided that a 5-day, off-the-grid, backpacking trip would be a great team-bonding exercise to get us ready for the new academic year. I never would have chosen this kind of “adventure” for myself. I’m a self-proclaimed “indoorsy” person. Though I enjoy exercising outside every day, hiking and camping are among the last things I would choose to do for fun or for bonding. 

I wept at that campfire, not because I was afraid of the dark, or of spiders, or of having to go to the bathroom in the woods, but because I had been hiking all day with a 60 pound pack on my back. I’d had low-back pain for a few months, but by the time of our trip, I hadn’t yet seen a specialist for diagnosis. What I didn’t know is that I was hiking with a herniated disc. What I did know was the constant, fiery pain in my low back and my hips that often shot down my right leg like a lightning strike. 

As we hiked down, down into a deep valley that first day, all I could think about was that hours going down eventually means hours going up. And I was right. After a short break for lunch, we began a grueling 4-hour ascent out of the valley. When you ascend, you naturally shift your center of gravity forward. Unfortunately for me, that shift put even more pressure on the injured disc, and my pain intensified. 

That 4-hour ascent was the most painful experience of my life to-date. I couldn’t catch hold of any positive perspective because the pain was so intense. Tears slipped down my cheeks and soaked my shirt as I put one foot in front of the other. 

Looking up at the horizon brought no comfort because I couldn’t ignore the never-ending hill that I still had to climb. I knew I would survive the hike, of course, but that thought evaporated like a mirage when compared to the pain I knew I must endure first. So when we finally made it out of that valley, made camp, and gathered in front of the campfire, I collapsed — physically and emotionally. 

It was finished. I never had to enter, endure, and overcome that valley of pain again! I was so deeply relieved that I cried for a good hour. (It’s a wonder I had any tears left!) As I cried, I processed so many thoughts and emotions.

I was grateful for, and surprised by, the grit and physical fortitude I used to hike out. At the same time, I was keenly aware of the fragility and weariness of my body. I confess, I was resentful of my boss for forcing this adventure on us. And I was disappointed in myself for not saying “no” to this backpacking trip in the first place — when would I finally learn to speak up for legitimate personal needs, instead of sacrificing my own wellness because I don’t want to ruin things for others? 

Even as all these things filtered through my exhausted brain, the pain continued to throb and disturb my relief. The worst of the hike was finished, but residual pain would continue. I still had a few more days of walking to get out of those woods. Relief, pain, and resolve were always churning within me. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped me hang on until we were out of the woods entirely.


No human experience can ever truly compare to the excruciating weight that Jesus bore on the cross. I know hiking with a herniated disc is almost nothing compared to the physical pain of crucifixion, or the emotional strain of the task set before Jesus. My task and my pain were but a slight hint of Jesus’ task and his intense physical and emotional suffering. But even a hint can be a beginning.

To grasp the meaning in Jesus’ words, “It is finished” we must do the mental work of going back and answering the question, “What?” What was finished as Jesus hung on the cross? And, what might he have been feeling and thinking that led him to say, “It is finished”? We can only begin to understand those things when we remind ourselves of the task he was given.

We remember that the first time Jesus stood up to preach in his hometown synagogue, he read these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

All along, Jesus made his mission very clear. How many times did he say the phrase “I have come” in his public ministry?! We hear him proclaim his mission throughout the gospels using this phrase repeatedly. Here are a few examples:

  • I have come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt 5:17)
  • I have come to call sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32)
  • I have come to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
  • I have come down from heaven, in the Father’s name, to do the Father’s will (Jn 5:43, 6:38)
  • I have come to bring judgement so that the blind will see (Jn 9:39)
  • I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (Jn 12:46)

Jesus taught about a kingdom of heaven that was coming, and had come. This kingdom is a way of living that is based not on societal hierarchies and power struggles, but on a foundation of love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and generous service to others. 

And as we read the stories of the gospels — as we see Jesus heal sick and broken bodies, as he casts out demons, as he shows love and compassion for the outcasts, the untouchables, and for the undervalued — we see him be true to his mission and exemplify the nature of his Father’s kingdom. 

Jesus came to earth on a holy, heavenly mission. He inaugurated his Father’s kingdom on earth through his teaching, his actions, and ultimately, by sacrificing his life on the cross. Only then, could Jesus say, “It is finished.”  

Jesus once said to his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34) As Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, he acknowledges that he has “brought [the Father] glory on earth by finishing” the work he was given to do. 

“It is finished.” In these words, in these moments, the awesome fortitude of Jesus is unveiled to us. 

Jesus endured the emotional pain of Judas’ betrayal; the swift abandonment by his other disciples when he was arrested; and the harsh rejection of the Jewish people he came to call back to his Father. 

He endured the pain of unjust accusations; of public ridicule from a crowd of the self-righteous calling for his death; and the humiliation of being stripped of his clothes and forced to walk the streets of the city on carrying the very tool that would kill him. 

Jesus endured the varied physical abuses done by the Roman soldiers and then the pain of gradual suffocation that comes with crucifixion. 

Jesus suffered all this pain because he was dedicated to, and focused on, the end — the ultimate goal. He knew that only his death would fully show the world how much he, and his Father, loved. Dying for the sake of others is the ultimate show of love. If the people didn’t believe after seeing Jesus bravely move toward the cross and endure it’s pain, then they never would believe.

Maybe it was a mix of relief, pain, and resolve churning in Jesus as he hung on the cross. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped him endure such unthinkable suffering. All this, so that we too might know the freedom and joy of a life lived with him in the Kingdom of God.

“…Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

I’ve never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Thank you, Lord, for what you finished for us. Amen.

 

My Beautiful, Wonderful, Upside-down Wedding

On February 22 of 2019, I met a man named Dennis at the birthday dinner of a mutual friend. We got to know each other over the summer and our first official date was September 22. We got engaged exactly two months later on November 22, and married on February 22, 2020, the one year anniversary of the day we met. Apparently 22 is our number.

IMG_5133

We said our vows on 02-22-20.

I’m sure that sounds fast to a lot of people. Sometimes it feels fast to us too. But every time my husband and I reflect on our relationship, the timeline is not nearly as important as the feelings of safety, contentment, and rightness that we have together.

When we started thinking about getting married, about the actual wedding I mean, I had a lot of well-formulated opinions to share with Dennis. After all, I’ve been a part of many weddings of friends and family in the past 20 years and I’m also a pastor who officiates weddings. Even though I didn’t think I would get married, I had built a pretty firm list of do’s and don’ts over the years.

For my own wedding, I didn’t want the stress, possible drama, expense, or delay of planning something traditional. I’ve watched even the most level-headed friends go haywire over wedding details like color schemes, party favors, invitations, and seating arrangements. Those things have no lasting meaning; they are just the trappings of an event. In our society it seems that the event of a wedding has eclipsed the purpose of the wedding — to begin and celebrate a marriage.

One of the reasons why I love Dennis is that he highly values friendship. I do too. To both of us, friends are family. So when we talked about having any sort of traditional wedding the numbers overwhelmed me. We could have easily invited 600 people to our wedding. Dennis’ people are all here in South Florida, but mine are all over North America.

Weddings with modest guests lists can come with a hefty price tag, even when you don’t serve a full meal at the reception. So it seemed that our options would be to:

  1. Blow a budget on a wedding with all our friends and family and set the date 8+ months out so my guests would have time and money to make travel plans, OR
  2. Do an inexpensive, private elopement, and later find creative ways to celebrate with all our loved ones

After doing some quick online research, I learned that the average cost for a wedding in America in 2019 was $33,900. American brides spend on average $1600 on their dress, plus an additional $250 on accessories. I’m a pretty practical woman. Those numbers are NAUSEATING to me. And as a follower of Jesus, I often question if the cost of modern weddings is morally defensible, even if you have that kind of money to spend.

Rather than spending months saving and spending money on a traditional wedding, I’d rather save money for a house, pay off school debt, travel with Dennis, and simply start our lives together sooner. So I pitched the idea of eloping to Dennis and he liked it. In fact, all of December he kept saying to me, “let’s just get married now.”

When I thought about what I wanted our wedding to be, a few things were very important to me. Overall, I wanted the ceremony to be spiritually-focused. I also wanted it to be a reflection of who we are and what we value. Authenticity is very important to both Dennis and I. So that meant not getting entangled by tradition or swayed by other people’s expectations of what we should do or what a wedding should be.

And that’s why you see me in a purple dress. Purple is one of my favorite colors, and bright colors have always felt more joyful and celebratory to me than white. I knew I wouldn’t feel like myself in any kind of white gown, so I never looked at one.

I wanted the ceremony to be thoughtful and meaningful, but not stiff or too formal since Dennis and I are very casual, fun-loving people. After working with couples who treated vows like an afterthought (with one couple even asking me to pick their vows for them!), we decided to write vows that are meaningful to us.

We read a bunch of vows. Over the course of a few weeks, we talked about the style of language we prefer, the meaning we wanted to convey, what we hope for our relationship, what we need from each other in order to thrive, etc. We wove together vows by borrowing phrases or lines from other sources, but also writing lines that are completely original. Here are our completed vows:

I, take you Dennis/Corrie, to be my husband/wife, and these things I promise you:
I will always be a safe haven for you.
I will consistently show you patience and tenderness.
I will be honest with you.
I will forgive you as we have been forgiven by God.
I will not only be a wife/husband, but a helper, friend, and guide
so that you will be able to meet life’s joys and challenges
knowing that I stand by your side for the rest of your life.

We are so pleased with how our wedding turned out. It was simple. Beautiful. Meaningful. Intimate. Relaxed. There was so little “event” stress that we were able to focus on each other, the words that were said, and the vows we made before God. While we couldn’t share those moments with everyone we love, we have video and pictures that we can share.

I’m also glad that the wedding was not a financial burden or stressor. Our wedding expenses were a fraction of the average American wedding, and our total included both of our outfits, all our accessories, our wedding dinner, and airfare for one of our witnesses. My dress was on clearance for $37. It was vibrant and made me feel beautiful.

We approached our wedding by reworking everything we’d heard and observed about weddings. We tossed out the typical wedding playbook. We refused to be steered by the demands of the wedding industry. And while we heard the opinions and navigated the expectations of others (and believe me, there were MANY opinions), we didn’t let them control us. We knew we could never please or appease everybody in our lives, so we didn’t enter the game. Instead, we turned everything upside-down and focused on pleasing God and ourselves.

By doing those things, we created a wedding experience that freed us to focus on what is meaningful and lasting. To us, this was right and good. Ultimately, our wedding ceremony was a great foundation for our marriage. It was a foreshadowing, I hope, of the unity and peace that we will share for the rest of our lives. And I think, when it comes to weddings, that’s what really matters.

IMG_5196

Mr. & Mrs. Montoya

 

Why Is Everyone So Afraid of Flowers? Some Unmorbid Thoughts on Death.

A strange thing happened today. As I was moving three floral arrangements around the campus of the retirement community where I work, several people told me not to leave them where I intended. The flowers were cheerful, aromatic, and gorgeously arranged so it was strange to me that no one wanted them. When I asked what the rejection was about, the message was clear every time. “They are funeral flowers!”

Well, yes. They are. They were delivered to our campus for the memorial of a beloved resident who died. Her daughters asked if I would take them from our chapel — which isn’t used much during the week — to locations in the main lobby, skilled nursing, and assisted living units. They wanted the residents to enjoy the beautiful arrangements made in honor of their beautiful mother. What a lovely idea and kind gesture. Or so I thought.

funeral flowers

I was busy catching up on emails and admin tasks when my colleague Brad arrived for the day. He said, “What is your plan for the flowers in the rotunda?” To which I replied that the rotunda was my plan, as it gets a lot of traffic and more people would see the flowers there. He then told me the sales director wanted them moved ASAP because funeral flowers don’t send the right message when someone walks in our doors for a tour.

As a side note: our company’s new motto is Live with Promise. We recently rebranded and took away the word “retirement” from our community, replacing it with the word “living.” Apparently the word retirement carries the stigma of being put away, and a retirement community is a place you go to die. So now we only live.

I got a handcart for the other two arrangements and pushed them across the campus toward our skilled nursing and assisted living units. As I got off the elevator for assisted living, one of the staff asked hostilely, “Where are you going with those?” I told her I was going to place them in the lobby to be enjoyed by the residents and guests. She told me I wasn’t going to do that because the residents don’t like them. Though I’m not sure if she was really speaking for the residents or for herself, she said they don’t like to be reminded about death. I tried to engage her in conversation about this, but she deflected, so we compromised about the flowers. She would take the arrangement to her office, dismantle it, and make new, smaller arrangements that wouldn’t scream funeral!

Later, I ate lunch on the screened patio by the pool. (It’s one of the few public places where employees can eat their lunch.) As I took my seat, I noticed that the large arrangement from the rotunda had been moved to the porch. Now it was in a place where maybe 20 people would see it in a day, and with the Florida humidity, the flowers will wilt by tomorrow. A coworker came out to join me for lunch and hesitated as she approached my table. Looking at the blooms behind me, she said, “I don’t know if I can eat here. I don’t like seeing those flowers.” This staff person has worked at our retirement community for over a decade.

I have to remind myself that not everyone has had as much exposure to dying and death as I have as a pastor and chaplain. And I need to remember that even those who work regularly with the dying, like medical professionals, are often uncomfortable and superstitious around death. And I know that talking about death and even thinking about death makes many people uncomfortable. So I’ll try to moderate myself a bit as I write on…

Today’s experiences with the flowers reminded me just how guarded our culture is about death. Maybe shrouded is a better word than guarded. It’s like we are trying to put curtains up between us and the reality of death. As though a flimsy sheet could erase the reality altogether. This guarding happens even in places like retirement communities and hospitals where death is frequent.

Frankly, if my career has taught me anything, it’s that death is much easier to face when faced directly. When it’s called death instead of “passing away” or “expiring.” And I believe it’s much easier to face our own mortality when we talk about death like it is normal and common. Because it is normal and common.

Try this small exercise. Pause from reading this post and say, “I am going to die.” Let that sentence hover in the silence around you. Give it a good minute. Then maybe say it again. Say it out loud and slowly.

How did that feel? What are you feeling? And more importantly, why do you think saying that simple, direct, and true sentence makes you feel the way you do?

I remember the moment I consciously stumbled upon and accepted my own mortality. I was a chaplain intern at a large hospital. The chief pathologist invited any chaplain who was interested to view an autopsy. Call me crazy, but I rushed to put my name at the top of the list. I’d always been curious about and fascinated by the body. I wondered how all of the organs that I read about in my science books could fit inside a body. And, did they swish around in some kind of goo? Or, were they floating in air, doing some kind of delicate dance, not touching one another?

So I got to see a full autopsy — one where they not only emptied the chest cavity, they even extracted the brain. The process was clinical and methodical but not at all cold. The doctors showed great respect for the body out of respect for the person who had lived in it. As they removed organ after organ and took samples from each, I remember this moment when I said inside my head, “I’m going to die.”

In that moment I got the chills. That sentence zinged out of my head, shot down into my heart, and then reverberated throughout my own torso, plunging down into my toes. I may have shook a bit on my stool because the doctor turned and asked if I was okay.

“Yes,” I replied, “I’m okay.” And I was. Facing the reality of my death was, literally, breath-taking. Startling. A little bit scary. Very humbling. And more settling than I can explain.

Staring at the empty chest cavity of a human body — a body that once housed a living, breathing, vibrant woman, and then realizing that my body would one day be empty of my personality, my breath, my being — I was rattled but then settled. I faced the fact that I would die. It would be real. People would have to deal with the loss of me. I might experience pain while dying, but it also might be over before I even know what’s happening. I will die. I can’t control that because it is simply a truth. Death is natural. It is normal. It is common. It will be part of my story just as it is part of every human’s story that ever was.

I understand the fear. The resistance to and avoidance of the topic. The attempts to distance ourselves from the reality of death, foolish and unhelpful though they may be. I understand it, but I wish this wasn’t our way. I wish more of us used the words death, dying, dead, and died rather than vague and prettied euphemisms. Because death is. And denial and euphemisms don’t help us manage-well all the living, dying, and grieving that we do on a daily basis.

If you are still with me, there is good news here too. Dying and death can be the most beautiful days, hours, and moments you could ever know.

As a chaplain, I’ve supported hundreds of people in the long and short times preceding death. Many of them are afraid, but not about the impending reality of their death, or even the finality of death. They fear the not knowing of those paper-thin moments between life and death. At the very end, what will they be aware of? What will they feel? Will there be pain?

Beyond this fear, there is usually calm, peace, and a lot of rest and sleep. And here is where the beauty arrives. When people stop denying, fighting, or cushioning themselves from death — when they face death, speak it aloud, and accept it — then they are able to relax deeply into the moments that remain.

Dying people who accept their dying cherish more. Their senses are heightened because they know they have precious little time left to smell the roses, to feel the smoothness of your hand in theirs, to float pleasantly along the chords of their favorite music. They want to spend time with their loved ones. They want to tell their stories. They want you to feel comfortable around them and treat them with the same love, respect, and dignity that you showed them before you knew they were dying. They are still the same person, it’s just that their body is dying.

Spending time with people who are dying and their loved ones has been one of the greatest honors of my life. It’s pure time, like when you hold a sleeping newborn and feel their rhythmic breathing and perfect skin. Or when you sit at the park on a comfortably sunny day and simply take in the breeze and the sounds of children playing. Or when you are flying in an airplane and it’s all weightlessness and white noise and the view out the window is cotton ball clouds over soft blue skies. These pure times are meant to be taken in. To be held. To be breathed. They are a holy pause that we store and remember later when the grief comes.

When you spend time with people who are dying, all the stupidity of life falls away. No one cares about celebrity gossip or small town gossip, what kind of car you drive or who has gained a few too many pounds. They focus on what is true, what is important, and what is enduring. It’s time full of phrases like, I love you. Do you remember the time… Thank you for… I want you to know… I’m sorry for…

There is time and space for laughter, tears, warm hugs, hand-holding, singing, reminiscing, and for peacefully spinning dreams that may never happen.

Yes, there are instances near death when modern medicine cannot overpower the pain of disease and that is difficult to witness. But the vast majority of deaths I’ve attended have been quiet and calm with minimal pain. And most of these deaths have been peaceful times saturated with the sacredness of life and wreathed with the beauty of love.

I wish we would not fear death — the reality or the word.

I wish today’s flowers were colorful, happy reminders of a kind and contented woman who we shared life with, rather than funeral flowers that pricked us into depression or made us recoil.

I wish more people had the courage to be uncomfortable and use straight talk about death. I think it would be kinder and more helpful for our own acceptance and well-being.

Death won’t come faster just because we speak of it. But if we are able to think and speak of death with a calm, no-nonsense manner, we will be better able to live our lives to the fullest, to live with promise, and to breathe deeply of the roses.

 

 

Letting Go Of A Dream

Letting Go Of A Dream

Have you ever found yourself facing the unfulfilled end of a long-held, soul-rooted dream? That’s what I’ve been doing for the past year. Specifically, I’ve been wrestling with my unfulfilled dream to be a mom. It seems divinely appointed that I come to let this dream go during the season of Lent. I’m comforted in the fact that I am not the first one to make a difficult sacrifice.

There’s a lot of quiet in my life, especially in the evenings. I’m a homebody who doesn’t often fill my free hours with the noise and distraction of TV. The more quiet you allow in your life, it seems the less you are able to avoid what’s happening in your heart.

In my evenings this past year, I’ve faced the aching reality of the loss of my foster daughter, the disintegration of my hope to adopt, and with them, the collapse of my dream to be a mom. God, it’s been painful! And so important.

All the wrestling has allowed me to get to a place of resolution. I know I need to leave this dream behind, and I’m ready to, but it won’t be easy because wanting to be a mom is such a big, beautiful dream.

When I was a young girl thinking of my future, I always pictured myself as a mom. In fact, I never imagined a future in which mothering wasn’t a main feature of my story. If you asked me at ages 8, 11, and 14 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you quite sincerely that I wanted to be a mom. That’s it. Just a mom.

with baby Katie Crossman

That’s me as a tween with my baby cousin Katie

Everything about me being a mom makes sense. Children delight me. How other people get embarrassingly enthusiastic about sports, gush over classic cars, or blather about their favorite video game — that’s how I get about spending time with kids.

Anytime I get to snuggle a baby, I call it therapy; it fills me to the brim with joy. One of my favorite activities is to read aloud to kids, especially if I can jazz up the stories with fun accents. When I was a pastor at a large church, parents would often pass me their kids while they dashed off to use the restroom, grab coffee, or have adult conversation. Sure, it’s a sign that I’m trustworthy, but these parents also knew I would enjoy hanging out with their kids and would never find it an inconvenience.

I’ve been caring for other people’s kids since I was a kid. I was the youngest nursery worker at our church, drafted when I was just 11. In my early teen years, I spent more time minding the neighbor kids on weekends than their parents did.

auntie loves me

Looking back at my life, I realize that I’ve been mothering all along. I care deeply for my nieces and nephews and for my friends’ kids. They all call me Aunt Coco.

It matters to me the kind of influence I have on the children in my life. The kind of love and affirmation I give them. The fact that I can teach them to laugh loudly, to be caring and empathetic, to be courageous and adventurous, and most of all, to be kind to themselves.

Yes, I was a foster mom — and that is being a mother in the fullest sense of the word — but it was temporary. I had hoped fostering would lead to adoption. For years, I made choices and sacrifices to make that dream a reality. Fostering exposed my depths and limitations, and taught me exactly what it takes to be a single parent of a child who has experienced trauma. I discovered that I don’t have the emotional reserves to do ministry professionally only to come home and do even more intense ministry at home. So, after a lot of prayer, reflection, and conversation with trusted friends, I’ve concluded that it’s best to turn away from this option.

“But Corrie,” you might say, “you aren’t decrepit! You are still young enough to have your own child.” And yes, while it’s technically true that I’m still of “childbearing age,” I’m also well into what they call “advanced maternal age,” which comes with its own catalog of risks. There’s no guarantee that I’ll marry, and even if I did, that my spouse would want kids, or that my reproductive system works. Sure, there are medically-assisted ways to become a mother, and paths to adoption other than the foster system, but those aren’t things I can or want to pursue.

Rejected options, dead ends, and diminishing paths brought me to a place of wrestling. I’ve asked myself, God, the world — what options remain? What more am I willing to give or to sacrifice to realize this dream? How far, and for how long, am I willing to stretch the endurance of my soul in pursuit of being a mom?

There is a cost to our souls when we pursue our dreams.

Think of athletes who, for years, train their bodies and minds toward the achievement of a big dream: complete a ultra-marathon, swim the English Channel, break a record, win a medal, summit Everest, be named among The Greats. Imagine all of the time, money, energy, and heart, not to mention the injuries and rehabilitation they likely put into reaching their goal. We understand that in order to reach these big dreams, training becomes their job, almost their whole lives.

Big life dreams can become too big, larger than life. Sometimes what they require of us becomes unsustainable and we crumble under the weight. Or, our dreams can grow too big too fast, spreading like weeds, choking the other sources of life that surround us. Dreams can deplete us. Constant striving, all this emphasis on pushing ourselves, can cause injury and damage to our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.

The danger of big dreams is that they can eclipse everything else about us. We can get lost in them.

If a dream, and your journey towards it, becomes your largest identity marker, what will you do after you’ve achieved your dream?

Or, what would happen if somehow your dream was suddenly taken away from you? Imagine there is some circumstance beyond your control and you can no longer go for your dream. What would you do then?

Reaching these craggy, shadowed places means grappling with these questions:

Who am I without this dream?
What will I suffer if I lose this dream?
How will I cope?
How will I grieve?
What will it look like to recover?
How will I rediscover who I am beyond my dream?
How will I detangle myself from its tentacles?
And once I do, will I like the me that remains?

There is a cost to our dreams.

I have a friend that got married much later in life. We lived in the same town for a few years when she was still single and I learned very quickly that her greatest dream was to be married. Wherever we went, whatever we were doing, she would talk about this dream.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get married and looking forward to married life, but I often felt a little concerned for her. When we would meet up to go out she would talk about how long it took her to choose her outfit or how presentable she was because, she would say, “you never know when and where you will meet your spouse.”

My friend lived with such laser-focused hope — she was so some-day-focused, so saturated by her dream — that she seemed to devalue herself in the present. She lived leaning forward, always in a state of wanting something else, wanting more, always waiting. She was waiting for marriage to fill out her life, to define or redefine her, but she didn’t seem to realize that she was already well-defined.

There is a cost to our dreams.

I’m grateful for my life as it is and as it has been. Frankly, it’s been downright gorgeous: a vibrantly bloomed garden of rich relationships and experiences. There is such deep value in being a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, and a pastor. I am completely fulfilled by these things. I’m in no way less than, nor lacking in dignity or maturity, because I am unmarried and childless. I faced those demons of insecurity a decade ago. I just also hoped to have a child to call my own and to love for life.

63396_10153035211031033_4690035403601447972_n

With my nephews and nieces in 2015

Being a mother, getting delightfully messy in the art of mothering, is a dream I cherished for so long. But now, for my heart health, for the good of my soul — to live as fully and freely as possible into the me that I am right here and now — I need to let go of this dream.

I’ll keep mothering as Aunt Coco. I’ll keep rocking babies, reading stories, coloring with crayons, playing in parks, and showing up to soccer games. But to my dream to be mom, I’m saying goodbye. To this dream, I say:

You are a beautiful dream, so worthy of having been dreamed.

You made me a better person because, for years, you stretched me toward a very good thing. You helped me be optimistic as I imagined and believed that I would one day care for a child.

You taught me to be brave, because bravery is exactly what I needed to follow the call to foster as a single parent — a scary, and some would say, crazy idea. You taught me patience as I waited years before the time was right to foster. You taught me to pray boldly for a two bedroom home I could afford. Through that long-shot prayer, you showed me that miracles do happen; you expanded my faith. And for six months, you gave me a precious soul to nurture.

I gave you my whole heart, and I am so thankful I did.

But now, dear dream, I’m going to let you go. I set you aside with warm and sincere gratitude, so I can focus on being exactly who I am, as I am.

Thank you. You are good and you blessed me.

dandelion lawn

I read on a gardening website that dandelions, if left undisturbed, can grow roots 15 feet deep. I guess that’s why, when you yank them and only break their stems, a new flower sprouts quickly in the same place.

My hope to be a mom was rooted as deeply as a dandelion, but I want the freedom to plant something else in its place. So, I had to dig deep and extract this dream at its root.

I haven’t made this decision lightly, or as an escape from my pain. I’ve wrestled with it. I’ve waded through the pain to get to this place. I’ve cried confused tears, angry tears, and sorrowful tears. I’ve prayed confused, lamenting, and sorrowful prayers. All this has tumbled around in me and finally settled in my soul.

The pain, angst, and grief have loosened and fallen away. Now there is relief and a welcome peace. Yes, there’s still occasional sadness. There probably will be for years. But I imagine the sadness will fade and transform into a simple, cherished memory of a sweet dream.

I’m okay to let my dream go. I’m ready. I will be healthy and happy without being a mom the way that I hoped. I already am.

Now, my prayers have turned to hope for new, unimagined, good things.

Dandelions are prolific. It’s part of their design. They easily spread themselves around until they blanket our lawns with their cheerful yellow caps. But I think they are at their most beautiful when they’ve transformed into seed heads. One yellow flower can produce up to 170 seeds. Those delicate white parachutes gracefully dance away on the breeze, off to spread their cheer in new places. They fall on new ground, shoot out new roots, and spring up into new life.

Dreams, when given away, allow for the birth of new dreams. I look forward to my post-Lenten, spring bloom.

Fly away dandelion