Lasts

Last week was, for me, a week of lasts.

Last goodbyes with several friends before we move.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you're more or less family.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you’re more or less family.

Last mission trip with my ASU students. Along with that, the last Tour de Faith bike ride I will take as A-State Wesley’s pastor.

Last time leading worship with this group of students.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. An inherent part of campus ministry is saying goodbye. You welcome students to campus, get to know them, invest in them, but know all the while that, if all goes according to plan, you will have to let them go in four or five years. When they leave, you cry in your office. It’s just part of the rhythms of the job.

On top of that, I am a United Methodist pastor, working in a system marked by frequent pastoral moves. I knew when I chose this profession that it would be difficult to set down roots, and that I would not always be in control of my own appointment.

But none of that has prepared me for this particular move. After seven years in Jonesboro—about double the average stay for a UM pastor, according to the latest Barna report I could find—I have come to love this place and these people. And falling in love makes you vulnerable to the pain of loss.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I wonder if my denomination really wants us to learn to love our people, since love means attachments, and attachment makes us more difficult to move. I wonder if it would not be easier to treat ministry like it was any other job, to serve my people in a caring but aloof fashion. I wonder why I don’t become just another service provider, a religious cashier of sorts, someone paid to define and facilitate spiritual transactions.

But that’s the “lasts” talking. In my clearer moments, I know there’s a bigger reality.

When I search the bible for direction and comfort during this transition, I keep going back to the story of Joseph. He didn’t just lose a job. He was sold out by the people who should have cared about him most. I can only imagine the sense of loss and desperation and disorientation he must have felt on his way to Egypt and then again in prison.

Joseph had two choices: die bitter, or fine a way to live better. He chose the latter, and his people were saved because of it.

The stories of those of us moving this year—mine included—are not nearly so dramatic. But the premises hold true. We can focus on what we lose in the change and be bitter about it, which will destroy us and leave our new parishioners underserved.

Or we can embrace the pain of the “lasts” as a necessary part of moving forward in God’s grace. We can look ahead knowing that, for every loss in pastoral transition, there is a corresponding gain.

The lasts don’t last forever, and they carry with them the hint of a promise. Soon the lasts shall be firsts, in a new place and with new people. As much as I grieve what I am losing, I can’t wait to fall in love again.

 

Some Kitty to Love

When our pet of 13 years died last fall, we mourned for weeks before adopting a new one. When Buster, the replacement cat, was lost to a freak accident during a thunderstorm, we mourned again. But the boys bounced back quickly this time, and over the weekend we adopted a rescue kitten from a friend.

Our newest Van Meter, maybe the most awkward yet.

Our newest Van Meter, maybe the most awkward yet.

What we did not expect was the arrival of the mama cat along with the kitten. But when the carrier door opened, out stepped a full grown female, who immediately parked under the couch and decided she was home. Within five minutes, they boys had named the grown cat Lucy and promised to take good car of her and the kitten, now dubbed Emmett. The car drove away before I could finish mentally adding up vet bills.

It took several minutes before I finally got a good look at Lucy the Mama Cat. When I did, I saw perhaps the most awkward animal I have ever encountered. Her body is snow white, except for two patches of gray fur on her forehead. Her tail is completely gray and skinny as a pencil. She looks like a barn cat wearing a badly tattered arctic fox suit.

And she was now mine. I had to feed her and care for her. I would have to take her to the vet and clean out her litter box. No matter how awkward she looked–and she looks very, very awkward–she was now family.

But that’s the way it works, I suppose. You don’t get to choose family, and often you wouldn’t if you had the chance. The same can be said for classmates and coworkers and people you ride the bus with. Oftentimes, it’s the most awkward among these who attach themselves to you, who crawl under your couch and refuse to leave you in peace.

If God asked me, I would give him a list of those, human and feline, who I would just as soon not share the planet with. I have my own problems to deal with, thank you very much, and it’s hard enough to love those I have a natural affection for. I doubt very much that God would care in the least. He’d send me on my way and I’d have to figure out how to make the best of it.

Lucy has claimed her space

No, not dead. Just rolling around for fun–and why not?

So we have Lucy the Cat, who now is family. And I have to learn to love her. Experience tells me that I probably will, but also that it may take some work.

The Monday after Easter brings with it a healthy dose of reality along such lines. The pageantry and lofty worship services are over. Christ is risen. Now what?

Now we get back to the work of loving our neighbors, regardless of what they look like or how they come to us. We get busy caring for those who claim part of our space as their own. Like it or not, that’s the work we’ve been given. Whatever walks out of that carrier, we’ve got to find a way to love it.

And if we’re smart, we do so by remembering that we are the awkward ones too, and that somebody along the way has done the same for us.

We Will Stand

Friends of Jason Molitor from twenty-five years of Arkansas Tech Wesley sing together at his send-off.

Friends of Jason Molitor from twenty-five years of Arkansas Tech Wesley sing together at his send-off.

It’s 10:30, and I’m alone for the first time all day, and it feels right.

That’s not to say I have not enjoyed the community that gathered today at Jason’s funeral. Our presence bore witness to the number of families he belonged to: the Molitors, the Tysons, United Methodist clergy, the ’90s era Tech Wesley, Russellville FUMC,  modern day Tech Wesley, Age to Age–and many others I’m forgetting. The list goes on and on. We leaned in on each other, much like the stones of an archway. Alone we would collapse. Together, we pressed against one another and helped hold the weight.

Almost.

When the various generations of Circuit Riders (Tech Wesley’s musical group) stood to sing together, it seemed a near perfect tribute to Jason. Then, as we sang “We Will Stand,” several people in the congregation stood up also, and I couldn’t stop the tears–not only because I like many others feel Jason’s loss acutely, but also because that was for me the most intensely I’ve felt his continued presence so far.

In college, we were idealists. Jason never outgrew that. That God’s children could come together in a love bigger than any individual was not a theoretical statement for him. He believed it could and should and sometimes even did happen in fact. When we all stood together in that moment, I had the same unexpected and overwhelming feeling I had during my earliest days of adoption into the Wesley community all those years ago: this is a window to heaven, and by grace I am part of it.

Now, as I think of these things alone in my bedroom, they don’t seem silly or trite. In fact, they seem like too much to really take in. I need time to knead through these things, since the work of grief demands both shared and solitary effort. But I will sleep better tonight because of what I experienced today. Because of the reminders of what heaven looks like from Earth’s vantage. And, to paraphrase Rob’s song, it’s beautiful.

Christ’s peace and good rest to all tonight. As long as there is love, we will stand.

On Jason, and What’s Next

How do you carry a grief like this?
Jason Molitor, a husband and father and friend, died Monday morning of a heart attack at age 41. He was many things to many, many people, and I love many of those same people too much to risk speaking for them. For me, he was at the very least a brother, and no other words I might spill can convey what he meant to me. What he means still.
This is not my grief, though–at least not mine alone. Jason was woven through hundreds of lives, each with their own stories of his love and generosity. He is even now cherished by Emory and their daughters and innumerable others. His absence creates a real and present void.
How do you carry a grief like this, weighty as it is? It is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward. You can’t move it. Neither can I.
But I believe we can together, if we take it slow.
These past two days I have hugged and laughed and cried with old friends I rarely see. But these friendships were forged in Christ’s love decades ago, when we were with Jason as students at Tech Wesley, and they have held. It’s only one of the circles in which Jason mattered deeply, but it is the one I most belong to. We are all within speaking distance right now, pulling together, carrying the weight of grief with as much grace, humor, and love as we can.
The only way to do the work of grieving is to do it together. And so tonight, broken hearted, I am nonetheless thankful that I am not alone.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for life comes from God.” –1 John 4:7
Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.

Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.