1,680 Miles

I think the hardest thing about being 1,680 miles away from my parents is knowing when … when is it right to drop everything and go to them? My mother had a UTI, I was told. She’s had quite a few of them lately, so my parents weren’t too concerned when they stopped in the emergency room in Charlotte, NC, on the drive home from New Jersey. They’ll just pick up some antibiotics for her and all will be fine.

Following up with her urologist, though, revealed a more complicated problem. There was a reason she kept getting infections of her bladder … And it was going to require surgery. A few more tests and a visit with the surgeon revealed a little more … The infection was not only in the bladder but lodged in her abdominal cavity. She was hospitalized immediately.

As I told my co-workers … I know what a good daughter does if mom lives around the corner or a town over, but what does a good daughter do who is 1680 miles, and a 4 hour flight away? I prayed that God would help me know when I needed to go …

Friends … I should know better … How many times have I told myself and others, “be careful what you pray for!” The next morning my mom called from the hospital … Dad had had a heart attack. Evidently, after he dropped off mom at the hospital and got her settled into her room, he went home to relax. As he made himself some supper, he felt the familiar angina pains. Thinking, though, that it was just due to the anxiety of mom being in the hospital he decided to drive himself to Urgent Care to see if a doctor could give him something to relieve his nerves. Urgent Care recognized the symptoms and rushed him to the hospital where he met his cardiologist and had three stents put in his arteries to open up the blockage. That’s when mom called me … to tell me he was okay … and not to worry.

I think there’s a point in our lives, though, when it’s our JOB to worry. We tend to think of “worrying” as dysfunctional … but there is an appropriateness of concern that is normal, natural, and a consequence of love. It’s not a “bother” to worry about my parents … It’s right.

Well, it was clear now … No more subtleties … I dropped everything and planned a flight as soon as I could to Austin. My brother and I decided to fly together. That was almost two weeks ago. It’s been a full two weeks. Dad had another episode after his angioplasty causing his doctor to install a pacemaker in him that afternoon. He was released from the hospital the next day. Mom has had her surgery, but is still in terrible pain. It will be a long recovery.

Now I’m flying back to Long Island to pick up my car at Michael and Terrie’s. I left mom feeling as good as can be expected, but it will be a long haul. She’ll probably move to a extended care nursing facility by the weekend … When she’s able, they’ll move her to rehab for physical therapy …

So what can a daughter do to help from 1,680 miles away? Pray, of course … Arrange for housekeeping, sure … Knit a gratitude/prayer shawl to keep me busy and feeling like I’m doing something …

I think I’ll start a prayer group on Facebook for her … That will be something … We can share prayers, memories, hopes, etc. And I’ll call every day ..

Dwayne and I have another trip to Texas scheduled for Holy Week … I’m officiating at the wedding of Maegan and Jonathan on March 31 …. A couple days with friends in Houston and Baytown, then a drive to Denton to see Kate and Ben, and finally Good Friday and Easter with Mom and Dad. Hopefully, by then, we’ll be celebrating our ow resurrection of sorts as well.

Statement of Faith

The second “statement” I’m sharing with the Presbytery of New Brunswick:

The grace of God made known in Christ Jesus is central to my being.  Grace is what makes Christianity unique and sets us apart from all other religions, and I am convinced that this is precisely what makes Christianity so difficult for the world to embrace.  The grace of God contradicts human reason, which puts the self first, and challenges us to live generously and selflessly, even dangerously and vulnerably.

Yet this is how God is with us:  outrageously generous.  That’s how I describe the one who gives us the gift of life itself; who gives us the earth and all its beauties; who gives us friends, family, and neighbors with whom to share the essence of life; who gives us minds which are inquisitive and imaginative; who gives us hearts which are compassionate, being in the image of God.

In Jesus Christ we see the face of God.  A face that is unquestionably approachable and compassionate, yet a face that is scandalous to the human eyes of political gain, personal power, and self-survival.   It’s the scandal in Christ that drove us to attempt to silence him in death and persecution; yet it’s the love of Christ that rose victorious over all the pain and sin and evil in the world.  Christ was willing and able to bear the pain of betrayal, mockery, and death, all for our sake, so that we would see clearly the face of grace – a grace beyond all human understanding, a grace that gives us the confidence to put aside human reason and live vulnerably in the love and community of Christ.

The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are visible signs of God’s grace – signs which are not visible apart from the community of believers.  The power of communion is precisely that – remembering, believing, affirming, and celebrating together the reality of Christ.  In the same way, Baptism gains its power and purpose in the nurture and support of the community of faith.

The gifts of life and grace are not meant to be private affairs.  In fact, grace cannot exist but in relationship and community.  From the beginning of time, God, who is the essence of relationship and community (three in one), created us to be living in relationship with God and with each other.  The power of the Holy Spirit is always made manifest in our togetherness.

The depth of that holy togetherness transcends the here and now; we unite with the communion of saints both past and those yet to be.   We come to know the Word of God (the nature, will and action of God) revealed to us in the Holy Scripture “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

In community we are responsible to and for each other.  We are the arms and legs of Christ offering compassion and care when needed, encouraging each other and challenging each other to be all that God intends.  The Church is the community of Christ in its fullest form. The work of the church is to proclaim the Holy Reality of the Kingdom of God, working, hoping and praying that the Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

Statement of Christian Experience

Because Dwayne has decided to join the Allentown Presbyterian congregation, which is in Monmouth Presbytery, I have decided to request my *official* membership be transferred to the New Brunswick Presbytery (my position as Regional Presbyter is to both presbyteries).  I will be asking the Monmouth Presbytery to consider creating a membership category of “affiliate member”, but that’s another post.  Along with my request for transfer, I had to supply three one page documents: a statement of my Christian experience, a statement of faith, and my answer to a number of questions regarding Presbyterian government.  I’ll share two of the three here.  First, the Statement of Christian Experience:

My earliest memories of Jesus come with the paint-by-number picture painted by my dad and hanging in my bedroom as a child, the baby Jesus in the manger in our nativity set that I cradled every advent telling him the great stories of how he’d save the world.  I was Christian from birth, baptized into the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) when I was two and a half weeks old.  I attended church regularly either snuggled next to my grandmother who passed me butter rum lifesavers or singing the hymns boldly next to my Dad who was a loud, passionate tenor.  I attended Emmanuel Lutheran school where I learned Bible stories, memorized psalms, creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, and where I became a fan of Martin Luther.  Being both of German and Lutheran heritages, I was highly influenced by both the passionate and critical nature of Luther.  I was born, my mother says, asking “how come?”  That questioning, though, didn’t sit well with my traditional church, or fundamentalist pastor.   Like Luther, I believe, my love of the church was only surpassed by my love for Jesus, and I persisted in asking questions, both of theology and ecclesiology.

Because of my deep love and solid knowledge of Christ in my life, I sensed a call to ministry at a very young age.  As a child, though, I was told, “God doesn’t call girls.” After marrying a Methodist at age 18, we looked for a new church together and stumbled upon the First Presbyterian Church of Jamestown, NY, where the pastor clearly announced to the congregation, “this is a place to ask your questions.” I was home.  After learning that Presbyterians were willing to ordain women to ministry, I sought to be a candidate under care of the presbytery while a junior at SUNY Fredonia, majoring in psychology.  In 1983, I began my studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.   While I was there, my faith was challenged and strengthened by not only the academics of biblical and theological study, but by the life experiences of personally battling infertility, my uncle dying of alcoholism, and my brother coming out.  Where was God, Where was Christ in all that?

In my first call, as Associate Pastor in Allen Park, MI, I learned the mechanics of ministry in a large (1800 member) church and, at the same time, how a congregational system can be deeply wounded and disoriented by the mental illness of a senior pastor.  My second call, to St. Paul PC in Livonia, MI, was where I was first introduced to  “missional church.”  The senior pastor there served as mentor as we explored ways of being church (as opposed to doing church) in a changing culture.

My call as solo pastor of Westminster PC took us to Baytown, Texas.  Living as a Presbyterian in the “Bible Belt” was always a challenge to my faith, bringing me face to face with some of the fundamentalist theologies I left behind as a child.  I accepted a call to be Associate General Presbyter for Congregational Development and grew in my knowledge of church planting and congregational transformation.  My ministry took me beyond the PCUSA to participate and find a “church home” in a Southern Baptist Emergent Church Plant in Baytown.  Reconciling with the gifts of my Missouri Synod upbringing, I learned how to be evangelical and reformed and liberal.


Remembering Jesus

My earliest memories include the pictures of Jesus my dad  painted-by-number and hung in my bedroom and the baby Jesus from the nativity set my parents set up every Christmas on top of our black and white Magnavox TV.  The advent “wreath” and stable for the holy family was made by my father by taking an old wood tunnel from his Lionel electric trains.  He had inserted a back wall with two nightlight bulbs to light the manger, covered the whole thing with aluminum foil, hammered five large nails into the top of the tunnel to hold three purple, one pink and one white pillar candle, around which my mother draped plastic garland for the “wreath.”  Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and a few of the smaller animals from the nativity set would fit inside the tunnel cave; the shepherds and wisemen would be set outside the cave on top of the TV that was usually covered with “angel hair.”  It was unquestionably the most beautiful sight of Advent to this preschooler.

During most advent evenings we’d gather around the nativity scene, switch on the lamps inside the stable, light the appropriate number of candles, sing a carol or two, and remember.  The candles would stay lit until well after I’d be put to bed.  In the morning, I’d tiptoe out of my bedroom to the living room.  The smell of the snuffed candles was still lingering in the air.  I would peer into the stable to see if Baby Jesus was still there, and I’d lift him from the manger and cradle him in my hand.  I’d walk him around the living room like a mother comforts a colicky infant, and I’d tell him about his life … how he’d grow up to save the world.

As I left home and had a daughter of my own, my parents gifted me with that old baby Jesus in the manger.  I still bring him out every year, and cradle the infant in my hands and remember.  The rituals and traditions our parents first share with us shape our faith for years to come, if not our whole life.  What kinds of advent traditions did you grow up with?  What do you do with your children and grandchildren?  What traditions do you share in your congregation?  How do you tell your children the stories of Jesus?

Christmas Letter 2011

December 11, 2011

We are sitting in our new “great room” in front of our Christmas tree on this Sunday afternoon, reminiscing on the great blessings of this year and reflecting on the many changes.  A year ago we had no clue that we’d be spending this Christmas in our new house in New Jersey.  In September Wendy began a new call as “Regional Presbyter” to the two presbyteries in central New Jersey, Monmouth and New Brunswick.  In this position she works with all 86 Presbyterian congregations across the middle of the state from the Delaware River to the Jersey shore.  An installation is scheduled for January 26 at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Wendy is excited that Mike Cole and Stan Ott will be traveling up for the occasion.

The move has been remarkably smooth.  We found a house we love in Hamilton township.  On 1.4 acres, next to a corn field and with a horse farm behind, we feel like we’re in the country.  And yet, we’re only a few miles from shopping in Hamilton and the small towns of Allentown, Yardville and Bordentown.  Our closing on the house was on September 28, and the moving truck showed up two days later on September 30.  We welcomed our first overnight guests (Michael and Terrie, who helped greatly with the moving in process, and then my parents) two weeks later and were completely “moved in” in time to host Thanksgiving dinner in November.  Blessed to have Wendy’s distant cousin, Ben, and his friend, Carolin, visiting from Germany, it was a perfect “American Thanksgiving”.

Yesterday we accepted an offer on our home in Texas which (if it all continues to go smoothly) will complete the move.  We are, of course, missing our friends in Baytown and Houston (and good Tex Mex).  After 13 years in Baytown, we gave up great friendships at the Baytown Little Theater and Faith Presbyterian Church.

It’s been especially hard to leave the BLT as they are moving ahead in the building of the new theater.  Wendy was elected vice-president of the board in April, and then worked at finding people who would be able to take responsibility for the many “off-stage” tasks we both have been doing for years.

Dwayne is trying to connect to some local theater groups using the Kelsey Theater at Mercer County Community College, but it takes time to get reestablished in community theater.  He spent the past few months visiting churches near our home, and decided he’ll be joining the Allentown Presbyterian Church in Allentown, NJ.

Moving across the country has been so consuming of our attention these past few months, it’s hard to remember the blessings of the first half of the year.  In February, Taylor Dobbs, moved in with us.  We were happy to open our spare bedroom to her as she recovered from a broken leg.  (Yes, she literally “broke a leg” a week after her show, The Last Five Years, opened at the BLT last winter.)  We loved having the twenty-something BLT folk over to the house to swim and eat and converse with us.  And, we loved having Taylor’s help in keeping the house clean and ready to sell as we put it on the market.

Kate and Ben, July 2011

Only a few days after we found our house in New Jersey, we traveled to Denton to help Kate and Ben move into a new apartment.  Ben and Kate have been dating for over a year now.  We are so happy to welcome him to the family.  He fits in well being as he is both a performer (magician) and geek.  The two of them adopted a Black Lab this fall named Rogue.  Rogue joins Kate’s Cairn Terrier, Pippin, in making a full and energetic home.  Kate is still working for the University of North Texas and taking Master’s courses in Linguistics.

Two of our nephews (both named Michael, incidentally) were married this year.   Kate and Ben were able to join us on Long Island in July for Mike and Amanda’s wedding; and we were lucky to be able to drive to Warren for Michael and Jenna’s wedding in October.

Like always, we want to be sure you know that you are always welcome to come for a visit.  We are now a little more than an hour from NYC by train and less than an hour from Philadelphia.

We wish you and your family a very merry Christmas and a blessed 2012!

Dwayne and Wendy


between here and there

Driving 1600 miles is a great way to put space between here and there … three days I’ll spend in the car with audio books.  I’ll spend two nights in hotels in unfamiliar places which have relatively no destination value, but serve as markers of time and space between what was and what’s to come.

I left “home” this morning.  Dwayne helped me pack up the last of the suitcases, computer, laundry basket, etc. and we kissed goodbye.  After getting my Venti Mocha at Starbucks, I pulled onto I-10 East and said goodbye to Baytown.  These next few days I’ll be driving the route from Baytown to Tuscaloosa to Raphine to Princeton.  The time alone is a good respite; today I drove over rivers and bayous and through piney woods; tomorrow I’ll be heading into the Appalachians … this is all good … time to heal, time to ready myself for what’s coming next.  This is literally a place of liminality … three days … to be a little uncomfortable, a little unfamiliar … and a lot of curiosity about what’s around the next bend, the next hill, the next mountain  …

I’ll be foursquare-ing along the way … so you can follow along … not exactly  the same as biblical wilderness …I wonder how wild it is on interstate highways with a cell phone at my side …  I wonder how alone I really am if I’m Tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, etc. … I wonder how “silent” it is as I enjoy the audiobooks I downloaded before I left (today the first half of “The Help”) … but the intentionality is there … this is a time of space and getting ready … So, God, please keep me safe, heal me, restore me, lead me, send me, use me …

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in New Covenant …

The following article was printed in the September/October issue of Connections, a publication of the Presbytery of New Covenant.

As I prepare to leave Houston and head to New Jersey for my new call as Regional Presbyter of the presbyteries of Monmouth and New Brunswick, I am reminded of the many times I have said and heard, “New Covenant is the best presbytery in the country!”  Now, I’m hoping it’s not really as true as I thought … that there are at least two other presbyteries that can rival New Covenant in our ability to function, do mission and ministry together, and have lots of fun.  The truth is, all I really need to know about being presbytery, I learned in New Covenant …

1)    Welcome the Stranger … I moved from Detroit to serve Westminster, Baytown, in 1998, and I was immediately welcomed into the presbytery.  Not by a formal committee per se, but by my colleague (and now good friend) Richard Kleiman who was the pastor of First Presbyterian in Baytown at the time.  Within a week of my arrival he had invited me to worship with their congregation and took me to lunch.   Also, within the first week or so, I got a “wrong number” from a presbytery committee member intended for the interim pastor who was there before me.  The elder took some time to chat with me and invited me to attend the meetings of the New Church Development committee.  Nearly seven years later, Richard encouraged me to apply for the AGP position.  I wonder if it hadn’t been for the welcoming of the stranger, the friendships that developed and the “wrong number” if I ever would have been where I am today.

2)    Lead with Honesty and Humility … I was the nearing the end of the second year of my tenure as AGP when Mike pulled me aside and said, “We have a problem.”  It was the financial crisis that could have led to the destruction of the presbytery.  Mike’s leadership was extraordinary – cool-headed, honest, transparent, humble, and authentic.  And the presbytery responded with a willingness to forgive and help.  A number of churches stepped forward to help cover salaries for NCD pastors.  We were able to establish new ways of financial accountability without losing our ability to trust.

3)    Respect Those Who Disagree with You … It’s no secret that we disagree on things in this presbytery.  Our votes on some of the most controversial issues are close.  But I have witnessed great respect for people, their faith in Jesus Christ, their character and their ministry even when clearly disagreeing.  I believe it was Elder Rupert Turner* who said to me in the parking lot of 1100 Lovett a few years ago, “You know, God cares less about what decision we make than how we treat each other in the process.”  I will take that with me.

4)    Keep the Mission of the Local Church as Your Priority …  one of the reasons, I believe, we can disagree with respect, is because we agree on this priority.  The Great Ends of the Church can, ultimately, only be lived out through the mission of the local congregation.  Our vision as a presbytery is “Growing Congregations …” not structures or committees or staff.  Can you remember the rest of the vision statement?  Let’s say it together …

5)    Innovate and be Willing to Try New Things … I’ve been proud of our presbytery for our priority on New Church Development, and our ability to be flexible, to take risks, to try new things, and, yes, even to fail.  A church planter colleague told me that “New Church Development is the Research and Development arm of the Church.”  I appreciate that this presbytery understands that is willing to trust its pastors in trying new things.  New Covenant was the first presbytery to participate in Acts 16:5 Initiative with Stan Ott a few years ago.  We have been “cutting edge” and have been leaders to the denomination.  I hope the presbytery never loses that.

6)    Remember, it’s always about the Relationship … My favorite “meeting” of the month is the fellowship with margaritas and quesadillas at La Mexicana after COM.  (First Tuesdays … put it on your calendar)  Connectionalism, I have come to understand, is only as effective as the relationships between churches, elders, pastors etc. is strong.  So Margaritas after COM, Village Salads at One’s a Meal after General Council, or just sitting in the rockers at Cho-Yeh (or coloring the poster or working on the jigsaw puzzle) at the clergy retreat are all instrumental in encouraging one another and supporting one another.

7)    Pray and Worship together … Every Wednesday at 11:30 AM the presbytery staff and often others in the building gather in the chapel for worship and prayer.  Usually on the last Wednesday of the month, a guest pastor is invited to lead us in worship including the Lord’s Supper.  Not only do we focus first on Christ, but we pray for and with each other, for every pastor and every church in the presbytery, for our friends and relatives and each other.  I will miss Wednesdays with New Covenant when I move to New Jersey.  I hope there will be some who will join me up there to pray and worship for and with each other.

“Best presbytery in the country” … I hope in a few months I’ll be saying that about New Brunswick and Monmouth, not because New Covenant has somehow “slipped” in its standing, but because we (New Brunswick and Monmouth) have risen to the same level of collegiality, faithfulness, boldness and joyfulness.  God bless … I love you.


Rupert Turner


*Elder Rupert Turner died this week (Monday, August 29) after a long battle with cancer and other health concerns.  He will be well remembered for his faithfulness and wisdom and dedication to the church.

SYW Day 2: iStorm

I love a good storm.  I remember being at camp one summer and actually watching a storm approach across a field like a curtain of rain until it surrounded us, and then confidently passed by.  I am the type who likes to watch a storm from the window or even beneath the roof of our patio … to feel the wind, to see the lightning display, to hear the rumble of the thunder, to smell the freshness of the air, to catch a splash of the raindrops as they pelt against the concrete … particularly when Baytown and most of Texas is experiencing such a severe drought, the longing for a good storm is palpable.

Sometimes, though, storms are so severe that they don’t just refresh, they tear up and wash away trees, homes, businesses, roads … sometimes the storms change our landscapes and our lives for good.

The tornados of the midwest, the tsunami of Japan … these have irreparably changed the lives of millions.  I told the story this morning about the tornado on prom night in Hoisington, Kansas, in 2001.  You can listen to the story here.  After the storm, the youth of Hoisington, the NPR broadcast reported, began to believe that the tornado made choices … to destroy one house and leave another standing; to rip a roof off the kitchen and leave the pitcher of lemonade untouched on the table … like the tornado had a mind and will to choose certain families to protect and other to destroy.

I guess we always look for reason or fault when it comes to the storms of our lives, but the truth is that everyone experiences storms of some kind at some time that have such an impact their lives will never be the same again.  The storms are wet and uncomfortable and highly inconvenient; they strip away the things that are important to us; and they often demand that we recognize our dependency on others and on God.

In Rob Bell’s Nooma video, Rain, he tells the story of getting caught in a storm while taking a morning walk with his infant son.  The child was afraid and crying, but he kept saying, “it’s okay, buddy, we’re going to make it, Dad knows they way home.”

Some have a mistaken idea that if we’re good, if we believe, if we follow Christ, that God will keep the storms away … but we know, don’t we, what happens when there’s no rain?  There is a devastating drought … and God loves us through the storm.

I suggested in the small group material for Synod Youth Workshop, that the groups may end with a blessing straight from the Nooma video:

“May you, when you’re soaking wet,
lost, hurting, and confused,
may you cry out
and may the creator of the universe take you out of your pack,
may he hold you tight up against his chest,
may he wrap his eternal loving arms around you,
and may you hear him whisper …

I love you buddy/angel.
We’re going to make it.
Dad (or Abba) knows the way home.
We’re gonna make it.
I love you.”


Do You Trust Me?

The best moment of the SYW so far … when showing the video clip from Aladdin, the whole room of High Schoolers and their adult sponsors and small group leaders burst into song, singing along with “A Whole New World.”  I added the clip to the worship service just after the assurance of forgiveness in which I wrote, “In Christ it’s a whole new world … we’re whole new people … our old lives are gone, an our new lives have begun.”  As soon as they saw the image of Aladdin on the screen you could hear an audible breath … something like a sigh of delight.

I chose that clip because of the question, “do you trust me?”  and talked about how we decide who and when to trust.  We think we should trust based on intellectual reasoning, but that’s not what was going through Jasmin’s mind.  We might base our trust on past experience with someone, but mostly we trust because of the relationship we desire and the decision to enter into a whole new realm of possibilities.

When we trust in Christ we are putting our faith in the hope and promise of new life … the possibility of what can be and what God can do with us, for us and through us.

This week is one in which we place our trust in this community and expect that God will show up and heal, forgive, build up, strengthen and enlighten us.  This week is one that offers the possibility to be changed, to be loved, to be made whole, to be encouraged and to be challenged.  Let it be so.

iTrust: there’s an app for that …

Each staff member had an "angry bird" app designed for them ... love the stole!

Today is the first day of Synod Youth Workshop, Synod of the Sun, at the University of Tulsa.  Frankly, while others have been anticipating this week with great joy and nostalgia, I have been afraid of it for nearly a year.  I was asked last summer if I’d be the keynote and “theme enabler” for this event; it seemed like something I should say yes to.  Mike Cole had been at SYW for years as a small group leader and keynoter.

 I figured it was my pastoral duty … but, really, youth work again after all these years?  God, don’t you know that I’ve become and old fart?  I mean, I don’t have the stamina for a weeklong conference … and what if the kids think I’m “uncool” … what if my keynotes are not good enough?  what if I’m boring?  Besides … despite years of directing youth camps and doing youth work … I am an introvert who really doesn’t like the camp/conference experience which is typically geared for extroverts.  Not to mention the bad camp experience I had while a teenager myself … nope … I didn’t want to come … but I followed my sense of call (and duty) and said, “sure, I’d love to!”

Ironic, then, isn’t it that over the year, the youth planning team and I discerned the theme for the week as “iTrust: there’s an app for that”.  I had to practice what I was planning to preach … and trust that God would use me, and take care of me.  So, yes, to @angliberian, I, too am struggling with trust and control right now.  Aren’t most of us?

Today’s keynote, which was basically an introduction to the week’s theme went well.  I told about myself, and Dwayne’s and my decision to take up motorcycling a few years ago.  I told about my accident and how at the moment I was rolling through the air, I was as at peace as ever … knowing that God would make it all fine in the end.  I spoke about having faith like a child … knowing that our parent God, Abba, would provide and watch out for us.