The Substitute Pastor

On this most recent Sunday, I attended a United Methodist Church west of Staunton, Virginia.  Let me take a moment to mention that it this isn’t my typical Sunday routine.  Normally, one can find me in the exact same seat every week in the congregation of RISE in downtown Harrisonburg.

However, many months ago I inquired I how could help give back to my church and, as such, I was asked if I would go to other Methodist churches in the area from time to time.  I guess you could say that I would serve as an ambassador for RISE, telling other congregations about our church and asking them for financial support.  As RISE has a large college age population, they certainly can use help from outside the church.  I suppose that I must have been fairly successful at my mission (or perhaps no one else cared to do it) for I have been called into service many times.  I’ve visited churches in Page, Rockingham, Augusta, and Highland Counties.

Although I have to confess I was very nervous the first time I spoke to a congregation where I knew no one, I soon came to enjoy this duty and looked forward to my assignments.  Not surprisingly, no two churches have been alike and, as such, I’ve tried to offer a slightly different message at each so that if someone happened to hear my speech more than once, they might be able to learn something new about both RISE and my spiritual journey.  However, despite the fact that I’ve visited about dozen or so churches thus far, I have to admit that this Sunday was a totally new experience.

When I arrived at the small wooden structure, two members of the church stood outside greeting folks as they entered.  As typical, I wore my RISE t-shirt so that I could be easily identified as a guest from the RISE community.  When I stepped inside, I said hello to the parishioners gathered within.  After doing so, one took me aside and asked what scripture reading I would be including with my sermon.  “What?”  I asked.  Even though I had spoken to many churches before, my talk was only a small part of the service, never intended to be the bulk of the service itself.  In addition, I was told that I was expected to lead every aspect of worship, from the opening prayer, to the offering, to the closing benediction.  I looked around to find any member of the clergy, wondering if I was part of some late April Fools joke, but the woman was perfectly serious.  Therefore, I spent the final five minutes before the service began hastily scouring the Bible I brought with me searching for a suitable passage.  Once I picked one out, it was time to begin.

I wish I could say that every aspect of the service went well, but considering I have had no experience or training in either leading a worship service or giving a sermon, I tried to do my best.  I felt my message wasn’t particularly well-suited for the main sermon, but as it was the only message I had prepared, I didn’t have any other option.  As a side note, during the time when the congregation offered personal prayer concerns, I asked them to pray for my pastor as she has been temporarily suspended from the church as a result of following her conscience.

Once the service was over, following the example of other pastors I’ve observed, I did my best to speak to many of the members of the congregation.  The last fellow who approached me mentioned that he thought he had seen me on TV at some point and I said it was likely as a result of my run for Harrisonburg City Council in 2014.  I added, however, that the election didn’t work out so well.  He responded by observing that it was possible that the result was a better outcome for me.  And, as I thought about it for moment, I realized that it was quite likely that he was right.

On the drive home to Harrisonburg, I thought about this adventure, wondering how the idea of my visiting this church somehow morphed into me temporarily leading it.  I suppose that some people would have been upset by this miscommunication and being asked to serve as an impromptu substitute pastor.  Yes, I have to admit that I was troubled at first; but I’ve taken some time to consider it over the last thirty hours and I have to admit that I appreciated the opportunity…though I wish I had been informed what was going to happen so that I could have prepared and given a far better sermon.  And, as I continued down the road, I thought of a half a dozen different sermons I’d like to give…assuming God ever gives me the chance to preach again.

What an unusual Sunday it was!

Homeless in Harrisonburg

IMG_2912While going to work on Friday morning, I found a woman sitting on the concrete steps outside of the downtown library.  Nearby were several plastic bags, one containing various packaged foods, the other looked to be a blanket.  As we waited to be let into the building, the two of us struck up a conversation.  She was hoping to be able to use the publicly available computers inside.  Somewhat surprisingly, she identified herself as homeless almost immediately, mentioning that she often slept outside in a location several blocks north of where we were sitting.

This woman told me a story of her recent adventures, of a man who was kind enough to volunteer to let her stay with him for several days.  During that time, he drove her to the grocery store to pick a few things.  However, when she returned to where he had parked his car, it was gone and several of her bags sat nearby.

She went on to tell me that she had left a few of her possessions at this fellow’s house, including a computer, but he wouldn’t answer the phone when she called.  When she tried from another number, he did pick up, but immediately hung up when he discovered that she was on the other end.

The woman explained that she had been without work for quite a while and lacked both the skills and education necessary to compete in the workforce.  When I asked about her education, she told me that she was quite smart but she never graduated high school.  In response, I asked if she could get a GED, but she said she didn’t have enough money to do so.

She spoke of her appreciation for the local soup-kitchens and I added that during high school and after college I very much enjoyed the opportunity to volunteer at two of them, but haven’t done so for several years.

As our conversation continued, she mentioned that she had a child, but I thought I shouldn’t pry too terribly much, so I didn’t discover the age of the child and whether s/he lives with her, the father, or some other arrangement.  What I did find rather strange though, especially given her rather dire circumstances, was that she mentioned she looked forward to getting another tattoo…assuming she could ever afford it.

It was at this time I got a call from my contact and so I bid her farewell and walked into the library.  Nevertheless, as I began my work, I couldn’t help wondering more about this woman’s situation. I hoped that she would be able to get back her missing computer, for it was likely the most valuable item she owned and it could serve as a valuable tool to improve her present condition. When I left the library several hours later, she was no where to be found.

Although it may be easy to not give this woman a second thought, marginalizing her by thinking that her problems must be her own fault, a symptom of some mental condition, or simply write her off as lazy, doing so doesn’t really do her story much justice.  Of course, none of us would ever relish finding ourselves in this homeless woman’s position…at the same time, I wonder how many unfortunate events would be necessary to place each of us in her shoes?

But for the grace of God…

Christmas 2014

IMG_0138Well, here we are, two days until Christmas.

I have to confess that over the last several years my Christmas spirit has been in decline and this year it is more or less nonexistent; I just don’t feel it at all.  We seem to be so wrapped up in the materialism surrounding the day that it is almost completely devoid of anything else.

What did you get me this year?  What did I get you?  How much did that cost?  The person with the most toys wins!

Christmas has become nothing more that a holiday celebrating greed and avarice.  How unfortunate.  No wonder the English Parliament banned celebrating the day for about twenty years in the 1600s.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t things that I wouldn’t mind having.  For example, I need to replace a few pairs of socks and I’d like to have a new laptop to replace mine that unfortunately caught on fire earlier this year.  But, truth be told, so much of what I really want isn’t something that one can cover in colourful paper with a bow on top and place under the Christmas tree.

If Christmas is, in fact, a day to remember Jesus and how he impacted the world, why not take the opportunity to spread a message of love and hope?  Rather than buying something for the man or woman who has everything, isn’t it better to give a gift to the poor?  Sure, it may be frustrating to wait to get the latest upgraded gadget or newest movie, but is that such a terrible thing?  Isn’t that concept a far better representation of what the Christmas spirit ought to be about?

I could make a list of the things I want this holiday season, but the Goo Goo Dolls sum it up quite nicely with their song, “Better Days”.  I encourage you to really listen to the lyrics of this music.

Merry Christmas to all.

Three for Thurman

Like many folks, I often tune in to YouTube.  Yesterday, a commercial came on and I was displeased to find that it was a staggering eighteen minutes long, much longer than the video I wanted to see.  Now, normally I’d simply reload the page, but when I discovered that it starred Uma Thurman, I decided to give it a shot.  In general, I appreciate Thurman’s films, except for the absolutely dreadful Batman & Robin.

I thought it was quite good and discovered two more short films with Ms. Thurman which you can find below.

I’m not quite sure why Jameson Irish Whiskey is crafting these projects, but I think they are entertaining and, although not political, I hope you’ll find them interesting as well.