When Half Spent Was the Night

Some weeks it amazes me that a sermon gets preached or worship gets led. Last week was one of those for me. There was the normal busyness of correspondence and meetings. There was the chaos of starting the holiday season -- decorating the house, parties to be planned. My oldest daughter went off to 5th grade camp and my youngest was sick for a day.

Along the way, I cut my finger pretty badly and was sporting a large bandage on my left index finger. Not a huge deal, but it took energy to care for. Out of town guest were coming, so the whole house had to be cleaned, not just the parts that party guests would see. Predictably, exercise was squeezed out, which always helps me cope with life.

But the week's most profound struggle came with the news that a close friend of mine unexpectedly died the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 43. The grief was overwhelming. I spent hours on the phone with mutual friends as we processed the loss of our precious friend Debbie. As it does, one grief opens another, and I was drained by a complex range of emotions. 

In the midst of this, I was scheduled for my final evaluation with my ordination committee to determine my readiness for pastoral ministry. I preached a 15-minute sermon, answered questions for over an hour, ranging from biblical interpretation to theology to my personal life. I was asked to affirm ordination vows that I will again affirm on the day of my ordination. Big, heady stuff. It sunk in when I saw on paper that the committee affirmed God's call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Who me? The person overwhelmed by life and currently feeling sunk by its bigger waves?

On Sunday night, I arrived fifteen minutes late to prepare for the weekly service that I lead for a wonderful group of retired folks. The rain was pouring outside, I had been entertaining guests all day, and my other daughter was now sick. As the prelude music played, I realized that I had left half of the hymns on the printer at home. With a sigh, I got up and led our small community in worship and prayer even as my head and heart were spinning. After the service, I greeted my dear friends, among them a 100-year-old woman who is full of energy and life, a recent widow, and a gentleman whose wife will likely pass away in the coming days. My concerns faded away as we shared joy and grief in conversation.

In the midst of the week, my friend Gail said, "Welcome to pastoral ministry." She meant this is just how it is. In the midst of personal grief, busyness, cut fingers, and sick kids, we preach, pray, and minister. It feels to me like one of the biggest ironies that I, weak as I know myself to be, am the one who is called to stand before others as pastor. 

One of my favorite lines is from the old German carol, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." Mary's birth to Jesus happened "when half spent was the night." The night is often half spent in pastoral ministry. The miracle of incarnation comes over and over again as God shows up in the grimy mess of our personal lives to birth community, healing, and reconciliation. Like Mary, our task is to remain open and responsive, trusting the mysterious work of God. When I remember Mary, and her willingness to allow God to be birthed in her, I am freed from the need to feign perfection or to give into desperation. Instead, I can live in the half spent night with authenticity, trust, and tenacity.

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12/8/2010 5:00:00 AM