Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How It Ends

In the fall of 2007, I participated in a mission trip to New Orleans. It was open to the entire Association who wanted to go, and garnered a fair amount of response from a variety of area churches.

On the way down, we stopped at McDonald's for lunch. This gave people a chance to bond over terrible food, which I mainly did with a clergy couple from the southernmost part of the Association. The wife at one point made an observation about her yogurt parfait being at the expiration date, which we didn't give much thought to at the time but would end up being a difference-maker. Pleasant conversation ended and fatty gross concoctions consumed, we continued our trip.

This is where the detail about the yogurt parfait becomes important, because the woman who ate it against her better judgment urgently requested that we stop somewhere, preferably at a place with a restroom. There was no questioning of this, and we ended up at a winery in Kentucky called Springhill Vineyards.

While our patient hurried off to purge herself of the evil within, the rest of us browsed the store. Several of us made purchases; in particular, I and others were taken by a wine labeled "Trappist Red," no doubt after the Gethsemani monastery perhaps best-known for being Thomas Merton's homebase. When we eventually arrived at our destination in New Orleans, we'd use some of this wine for communion during our first vespers service. I left mine in my bag all week.

When I got back home, I set the bottle in our wine rack, probably thinking I'd get to it before too long. But I couldn't bring myself to open it. I don't know why I didn't, but there was something about this bottle of red wine named in honor of a spiritual writer I deeply admire found by chance in the middle of Kentucky during a church mission trip that I wanted to preserve, or at least wait a little longer to open.

I kept letting it sit, not really knowing what to do with it. Eventually I decided that I wanted to save it in a more intentional way, making the conscious choice to wait until some big event related to my ministry, at which point I'd finally open it to help mark the occasion.

Five years at my church came and went. Five years of ordination came and went. The beginning and then the end of my sabbatical came and went. None of these felt right to me, so that bottle remained untouched and mostly out of my conscious thought.

Then I began the search and call process, and as I neared the finalization of a call to a new church, I remembered the Trappist Red. It finally made sense, I thought, to open it the evening of my last day at Emanuel. I had acquired it during my time there, and it seemed to be the right opportunity to enjoy it as a toast to over eight years of ministry completed.

On the morning of February 17th, I woke up a few minutes before my alarm was set to go off at 6:00. I went ahead and turned it off so that it would not needlessly wake anyone else and, knowing that I wouldn't get back to sleep, rolled out of bed to await the coffeemaker finishing its brew cycle.

All of this is what I always do. And since it was Sunday, once the coffee was finished brewing, I launched into a few "what I always do" things that that particular morning brings. I took my coffee and my sermon notes down to the basement to practice in front of Coffeeson's toys. They don't give much feedback, but they also don't judge me, so I feel safe among them doing this.

This all felt very routine until I began to speak some specific line in my notes, and then the full meaning of the day opened to me, moving from the intellectual to the sensual: this is my last day at Emanuel. This is the last Sunday morning where my routine will be geared toward the needs, practices, and people of that congregation. I'd been working on this last sermon for so long and practiced it so many times, but the difference was that that day had finally come. And that changed the feel of everything.

In 2003, one of my favorite bands Five Iron Frenzy announced that they were breaking up. They've reformed in the past year, but of course nobody--including the band, probably--knew they would do that back then. Leading up to their final show at that time, they released one last studio album, full mostly of songs referencing the end of the band's existence. This included a song called "See the Flames Begin to Crawl," described by frontman Reese Roper as "a song about lighting things on fire and quitting:"
I've got notebooks full of misshapen words,
I'll never speak them anymore.
Ten years from now, you won't know my name.
Throw the microphone down on the floor.  
In my worse ministry moments, I've taken to playing this song at an unreasonable volume.

There's another part that I think was quite pertinent to this ending:
The crowds recoil, demand our survival,
fists in the air, mouths caked with saliva.
But you are the one, the spark that was spawned,
who picks up the pieces, and passes it on.
The thing is, I hope they're true. I hope that I've made a difference, and have left something to be carried on, maybe even despite myself.

There were people whom I could have checked in with more often; whose needs I could have met with more care or patience or, in certain cases, more firmness. Sometimes pastoral care requires more off-the-cuff thinking than that, though, and imperfect decisions get made. Human dynamics are what they are.

There were also ministries that didn't do what I wanted them to do. I tell myself that this is human dynamics, too. The setting wasn't right, or there wasn't critical mass necessary for success, or a billion other reasons why this, that, and the other thing failed. A colleague calls these "good ideas that don't work." I've had lots of those. I'm sure I'll have many more.

But in the midst of that imperfection, I hope that some sparks have been spawned, and that they get passed on.

The service itself is uplifting. I'd been thinking about this service for so long, and pretty much everything that I envisioned happening, happened.

Years ago, I played "The Rainbow Connection" during worship as a tie-in to my sermon. One church member gave me a Kermit the Frog pin a week or two later in appreciation, saying, "Thanks for being one of my rainbows." I pin this to my alb right before the service, but during announcements it becomes clear that it's going to interfere with my lapel mic and I have to remove it. It's my latest good idea that doesn't work.

During the children's sermon I present the church with gifts. I first give them two bags of coffee for all the times I borrowed some from the church back when I lived in the parsonage. And then I give them a handmade ceramic pitcher to be used for baptisms. This was one of the moments I was looking forward to the most.

The sermon also seems to hit well. I totally ripped off Rob Bell's idea from when he left Mars Hill, phrasing it as a letter. Since I usually preach without notes I was worried that my switch to reading from behind the pulpit wouldn't connect, but people seem to stay engaged.

I walk downstairs to the church's fellowship hall and laugh out loud at what I find. The room is decorated for the farewell luncheon that will be held after worship: yellow and blue tablecloths adorn the tables, along with corresponding napkins. A maize and blue pennant with a block M hangs over the table where the food will be set.

I comment about this to one of the people whom I know is responsible for decorating, and she responds with a smile, "We figure that we gave you a hard time for eight years, we'll give you one day."

The reception itself sees a full room, which I can't recall seeing here for anything outside the church's Swiss steak dinners. The food is fantastic, the company equally so. Coffeeson collects and plays with the maize and blue beads that have been placed on the table (another decorator calls this "Michigan Mardi Gras").

During dessert, I'm presented with a beautiful painting of a guitar with the first verse to "Be Thou My Vision" helping to outline the instrument's shape. Coffeeson is also given a stuffed animal toy with a ribbon around its neck signed by all the Sunday School kids. I'm also told I get to keep the pennant.

People offer verbal tributes, which I find affirming. The thing about these, though, is that none of them are especially novel. I've been privileged to hear words like these my entire ministry among these people. It's not that I don't appreciate what is said, it's just that I've always found this place to be encouraging both professionally and personally. That's really what makes me thankful for what is said: words like these have always been a part of things.

When the words are finished, gifts are packed, hugs and handshakes are exchanged, the three of us make our way upstairs from the fellowship hall so that I can retrieve my materials from the pulpit and collect everything from my office. I remove the church key from my keychain, place it in an envelope, and leave it marked for the appropriate person. When I shut my office door, there is a sense of finality to it. Of all the events and gestures of the day, the click of the door is the one that really communicates to me that it's over.

I sling my leather bag over my shoulder, pick up my guitar, and the three of us make our way out to the parking lot. It's time to go home.

It's late December, the night before the last wedding I'll perform before leaving. It's the first and only wedding I'll perform for any of the people I've seen through confirmation, which I find to be an interesting full circle sort of happening.

Coffeewife, Coffeeson, and I take our seats in the reserved area of a restaurant for the rehearsal dinner. Coffeeson, of course, charms everybody with whom he interacts. Coffeewife and I exchange pleasantries with various members of the family while enjoying appetizers. Because I do this sort of thing, I can't help but notice the bottles of Apothic Red wine adorned with small Christmas wreaths being used as centerpieces on the tables. I make some comment about them to Coffeewife, which she acknowledges before we turn our attention to other things.

It comes time for the three of us to bid our goodbyes. We make sure to thank the groom's parents for everything, at which point the groom's mom gestures to one of the bottles and encourages us to take it home. I pick one up with a little too much enthusiasm, causing Coffeewife to roll her eyes, and we head out.

When we get home, I place the Apothic Red in our wine rack. As I close the door, the thought pops into my head that maybe I want to hold off on opening it until some special moment, perhaps one related to my ministry.

Yeah. I think I will.