This time, last week, Jim and I had made our way to Kansas City, Kansas, where I had been invited to preach at Village Presbyterian Church.
It was our second trip to Kansas this year. The first was for the Friday marriage of Emily Ruth, whom we now call, Scout, who went to college and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
We used to call Scout, “the baby in the bubble.” Her family, Erica, Ken, Amy, Kenny, & John Owen, were our neighbors, and friends when we lived in Mobile, Alabama. We raised our older children together, sat up late on our front porches, and discussed politics and issues of faith. They were mostly Baptist, and now have become Episcopalians.
Before she could walk, Scout was a crazy fast crawler. If we, as mothers had some project going on, we’d place Scout in the playpen inside the house and behind the big picture glass window on the front porch. It’s where we kept her active-crawling-self safe while the four older children engaged in some crazy art project, or cookie decorating messiness.
On that first trip to Kansas, I ran along the Kansas River, the “Kaw” as the young adults at the wedding weekend called it. As I ran, I stopped several times.
The first time I stopped at a break in the path where I could go down to the water’s edge. I am drawn to that place, wherever I am. I said some thank you prayers for the unexpected and unpredictable ways God brings people together. The second time I stopped was when this rustle of leaves stirred and lifted, like danced right in front of me. Observing these free floating dry leaves, I discovered what I’d missed the first time I passed. A gate nestled into a fence line – might have been bamboo – not sure, but the gate, the leaves, the piercing cold of that April day in Kansas, well, the starkness of the gate and the susurrus of the leaves was simply beautiful. In the gospel of John, as one of the “I am” statements, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” A gate is a threshold place – more on that later. The path ran behind a neighborhood. I could smell woodsmoke from fireplaces and some folks had sculpture in their backyards, others had non-welcoming signs. The third time I stopped, I picked up a small piece of plywood I’d run over on my way out and to gather some scraps of blue crushed something that were underfoot. I knew I would put together into some found object art for a wedding gift. That gift is the cover photo spelling LOVE.
This second trip to Kansas was to preach at the invitation of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. Sabbatical Announcement Following a church trip to Thwake, Kenya, where the church enjoys a partnership with the people, the head of staff, Reverend Tom Are, is taking sabbatical.
The church invited four guest preachers to assist with the summer worship services in his absence. It was both a gift and a privilege to preach from the gospel of Mark the stories when Jesus heals on the Sabbath. I shared a story about how I know God’s peace and God’s presence and the gift of resting in God – an honoring of the third commandment. The gift of this sabbatical time is new every day. Two weeks in, I am grateful for space to read, think, reflect and rest in God. I’m exceedingly grateful for dedicated time with Abigail and Jim. Though Jim consistently reminds me, “This isn’t my sabbatical.”
On this second trip to Kansas, we saw a completely different set of sights than our first which took us to Lawrence. We stayed where the church put us, in town at the Raphael Hotel which was originally built as apartments for the adjacent Country Club Plaza, an area known as the Plaza.
The Plaza History
Outside our hotel was an Italian sculpture. From different perspectives, it evoked my imagination. It is actually a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
On Saturday night after we arrived, we had dinner with Rodger Nishioka, who serves as a Senior Associate and Director of Adult Educational Ministries, and Hallie Hottle, who serves as an Associate for Young Adults, and her husband, Nick Dorn.
At dinner we shared all sorts of stories as we grew to know one another. Jim shared his creativity in how we came to find the hotel that day by driving through an industrial park he had toured years before while traveling on business. It took us through an area of town where we encountered quite a rumble, as in motorcycles – culture and clubs. No, we didn’t stop, and yes, it was uniquely not the Plaza.
A mostly unknown fact about Kansas City, is that same area on the margins of town has a salt mine, deep under the Kansas prairie, in which treasures from insurance companies to banks are kept safe because of the consistent temperature and humidity. Go figure! Basements matter in Kansas City. Hallie and Nick moved to Kansas City from Miami, Florida, so facts about basements represented new trivia details! And sitting atop a salt mine makes me hear that line from the song, Light of the World, from Godspell, “But if that salt has lost it’s flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor. You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth!”
Sunday morning we began with a run in Loose Park. The public spaces in Kansas City are remarkable – picked up a ginkgo leaf and a rock. Sunday at church began with a prayer with the Summer choir before the first service. Instantly, as Rodger defined it for the congregation, I alienated myself from the choir by saying something like, “I come from the home of “Real” barbecue.” That sideways remark made for some great conversation starters after worship, and a hearty lunch at Kansas City’s own, Gates Bar-B-Que. Gates BBQ
There were three services to be preached – two in the morning, for which I was robed, and one in the late afternoon at The Gathering, which was more casual. Of the two morning services, 9:30 and 11:00, the 9:30 service was more like Idlewild’s 11:00 o’clock service in attendance and form. The choir sings at the 9:30 service. It was the first week for the summer choir. I was grateful to have my “ordinary” green stole made by the Idlewild Wednesday night women – connecting me back to home, with the Cuba hankie over my heart, reminding me of how I am connected to people and places all over the world. The Village summer choir rocked the house. The summer choir, like ours, rehearses before worship, though, unlike ours, they sit with their families in the pew, and come forward to sing the offertory. I appreciated working ahead with Matthew Shepard preparing for the Sunday music – praying and listening through the scripture lesson. Village does sermon series, they are not a “lectionary” preaching church. I discovered that the Sunday before, Tom had preached the exact same text that I was preaching. Ah well, another place to be grateful for the work of the Holy Spirit and to remember that it is not not all about me. Both morning services had a comfort level of “feeling like home” in liturgy and song.
After the worship services, there were so many connections to Memphis. “Do you know the Fogelman’s? They’re some of our best friends!” “I went to Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes, and my grandson’s playing lacrosse there now.” “We occasionally worship at Idlewild when we are in town, but we don’t sign the book.” An interesting ministry of the deacons at Village is that they stand at the doors with the pastors after worship available to the congregants and visitors to share concerns and celebrations, and to pray. Specific prayer concerns are not lifted in worship, but are available on a list on line.
The Gathering, the 5:30 service, will celebrate its second, “redo-birthday” this next week. Redo – only in the sense that the church decided, after a renovation of space, to relaunch the Gathering at another time on Sunday. Instead of it being a third Sunday morning service, where the preacher had to hop from service, to service, to service, the Gathering moved to 5:30 Sunday evenings. During the children’s time in the Gathering, as one young boy crawled up onto the riser, Pastor Hallie balanced keeping him safe, and asking the children, “What shall we have at the Gathering Party? How shall we celebrate what God is doing new here?” I think there will be, at a minimum, balloons and candy!
The Gathering is an alternative, although Reformed, eucharistic worship service. The print pieces are designed by Abigail, a young adult member, who is a graphic designer. This service has screens, a “set”, contemporary music and was attended by a remarkable scope of ages. Babes who were crawling, elementary children who served enthusiastically as ushers, teens, young adults and the rest of us middle aged and older. Many generations were represented and the service had a great sense of community, and you could feel how it was thriving with Hallie’s leadership. Likewise, I could sense her love of the people in the ways she worked with the leadership and formed her words. It was not only beautiful, and full of wonder, but hopeful.
The musicians were a group called Barnaby Bright Barnaby Bright, led by members, Becky and Nathan Bliss. They invite their musician friends to join them. Sometimes the congregation gets a bass and a guitar, other times maybe a few fiddlers. Becky and Nathan were just back from a trip abroad where they had played a wedding gig in Italy. Becky is also the Young Adult Coordinator at Village who works with Pastor Hallie, and who grew up in the church. On no sleep, these musicians, and their friends on bass, guitar and keyboard, were fantastic! Becky played the harmonium and following communion, a young girl walked up and joined in with the tambourine for the closing music.
After the Gathering we went to dinner with a group of young adults. Being at table with Hallie, Nick, Molly, Abigail, Caitlin and Brad was like table fellowship with the Idlewild Young Adults. Great fun, lots of laughter and genuine conversation. That’s when we got down to talking about hope and despair.
After some institutional storytelling, we heard about an art project where ribbons were clandestinely hung as a liturgical statement in the sanctuary. Literally in the middle of the night, with the help of an onsite lift, to celebrate a season in the church, reams of primary colored ribbon were hung as a canopy in the sanctuary. “It was shocking, but so right.” “Nobody had EVER done anything like that before.” Art crashed it’s way into the sanctuary and now it’s an epic memory the congregation embraces about God doing a new thing. Brad runs all the tech for the church – he named specifically the two fiddlers who sometimes joined Barnaby Bright, and how their music evokes a plaintive call for hope, “no matter where you are in life, music grounds you in hope.”
Another hope story that emerged was about a Young Adult trip to Agua Prieta which is a border city near Douglas, Arizona. This was yet another connection with Idlewild and the trips we have taken, and the ways we have supported with Christmas Gift Bags to Mark Adams’ ministry there with the PC(USA). Journeying in Hope
The young adults talked about a woman they met, Patti, whose life exemplified hope, against any possibility for hope, in her story to cross into the United States with her children to escape domestic violence. One definition of hope was this, … “The point at which you know there is no rope ladder, and yet you continue to find a way to climb.” Despair was also seen and named in their encounter with Patti. That deep desire to fix a broken place, and the inability to help her physically get into the country and the fears faced at border crossings. As they remembered, this listening time went from silent pauses, to belly laughter. It made me mindful of how time spent serving together in ministry, and then at table, shapes the ways we see and how we remember God’s graciousness.
As Jim and I reflected on our time together in Kansas, we have confidence that it is a good idea for a pastor to get outside of her ministry context. To see how God works in other places, and to live with an openness to the trust that the Spirit grows us through these experiences. God was busy at the work of instruction. I came away from this visit inspired and grateful for having had the opportunity to learn about being church in another geographic context.
When we arrived on Monday to meet and talk about hope and despair with some of the church staff, the first thing we saw were children from the school on a “service hunt” outside moving their bodies – skipping, tip toeing, taking oversized steps. Once the children made it inside, a small group would interview a staff member, asking, “Is there a job we can do for you?” I don’t know the details of how it all came together, whether the staff member anticipated the visit, but all of a sudden, the children were at work with a specific project. These were preschoolers!
Earlier in this blog, I described an experience with the woman in the airport bathroom to whom I gave my prayer beads. This was on the return trip after our first trip to Kansas City. In the airport that day, I was sad to leave the joyful weekend we’d experienced. My heart was full with the memories of being young adults and growing in faith with good friends. Leaving them, and the memories, was a “letting go.” And the way the woman read me, “sad” was spot on. I’m grateful she didn’t “Keep Out” what she experienced, but instead engaged me.
I left Kansas city this time with a sense of curiosity and joy.
Programmatically, I wonder about how the Gathering might inform a similar worship experience at Idlewild? We used to have The Festival, once a month, and yet, this Gathering is a totally different experience – fully supported institutionally as a worship of the church. Whoever preaches the morning services, preaches the Gathering.
Village has 9 buildings on their campus, a membership of 5,000 people, a school onsite, and a satellite campus which also operates a school. Hearing how they came to have a satellite church, and how the Session worked through that decision, was intriguing.
Listening to the folks talk about church, I heard much about how the recent renovation which was about creating a welcoming place and central church entry has unexpectedly shifted some things like fellowship and traffic patterns for the flow of people on Sunday mornings. This makes me curious about our own More Idlewild building project. Observing some technical pieces of publicity, I have some curiosities about our publications, particularly as we move into stewardship season – particularly, how do we ground our theme in God’s abundance? Hope?
A sense of joy for me was sitting at table with the young adults. Molly is a geologist. I laughed and said something like, “Rocks talk to me” and shared pictures of the ritual that a friend did with me to launch this Sabbatical.
Hallie turned to Molly and said, “Tell her about the irony of “The Rock.”
Through the work of the young adults, and the Spirit, Molly had heard a call to ministry, with “The Rock.” Molly starts at Princeton Seminary in the Fall.
Hearing Molly’s story reminded me of our story. Before I ever contemplated ministry, or before I heard God’s call to ministry, we were very active, young adult church members. With Jim, we served in youth ministry. We went on the youth trips as advisors, ate a lot of pizza on Sunday nights, played games, directed plays and musicals and grew in biblical faith. It was during those days when we first met Rodger Nishioka at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama. He was visiting the Presbytery of South Alabama, and Spring Hill Presbyterian Church, from the denominational headquarters where he was working. We were all in our late 20’s then and somehow it’s over twenty years later and we find ourselves friends in Christ, picking up with one another as if we talked daily. These friendships matter.
When we were walking into the church on Sunday I asked Rodger, “What’s a good question you’ve been asked?” He related a Barbara Brown Taylor story in which she shared the questions someone had asked her when she was at a point of frustration, “Well, what are you doing? What gives you life?”
Those questions resonate with me as I contemplate hope and despair. Listening with Rodger in his study, we talked about hope and despair. Despair is hard to talk about because we are afraid where it takes us – despair is that dark night of the soul – the disruption of God’s order, the sense that in the good of God’s creation, something leaves you with a gut knowing of “This is not right.” It’s where the work of Justice begins.
We shared stories from our own lives, and of those whom we pastor. We know the truth of the words, “This is not right.” Young, supposedly healthy, people aren’t supposed to die early. Secrets aren’t to be kept or to tear families apart. We went from talking about despair to talking about hope and how we “get to hope.”
Rodger reminded me of The Hunger Games quote by the character, President Snow.
“Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”
This quote names the danger of our faith in Christ – when we dare to hope, and to remember that we are in sync with God, who has us in Love, we are transformed and continually transforming. We are a people of hope.
Hope is a real thing. It takes patience. And, in the church, we have to both model and to teach hope. And again, it takes patience and trust.
I have deep gratitude for connections in Christ – they give me hope. Through time I have seen the work of God in particular communities where we have reminded ourselves not to collude with despair, but instead to collude with love, hope, joy – the transforming work of God in Christ Jesus.
Following the whirlwind of Boston and Kansas City, this last week was about doctor’s appointments, resting, reading and reflecting. A short post with some images will follow. Looking ahead to this next week, and having read Mem Fox’s, Whoever You Are, has me thinking about General Assembly in St. Louis.
“Smiles are the same, and hearts are just the same, wherever they are, wherever you are, wherever we are, all over the world.”
Some joyful, hopeful community images.