I must confess, dear friends, that today I feel some pressure. This is my last sermon to share with you as one of your pastors. I also noticed about a month ago that the Gospel reading for today is from this section from John that we refer to as, “Jesus' farewell discourse/sermon”. And then yesterday I had a wonderful time with the elders. It wasn't exactly, “Jesus with his disciples at the last supper”, but it was “Pastor Barbara with her elders for her last breakfast.” The pressure gradually increased as I opened yesterday's DNR and noticed in this insert section (Parade) that said today, May 6, is World Laughter Day....a good reason to look at the lighter side of life, When I mentioned this to John, he said I probably should have some jokes included in my sermon!! The brief article said that, “after all, smiling or laughing is good for your health and soul...and there's nothing like a good chuckle to bring the world together!” So now on top of everything, my last sermon should somehow have enough humor to 'bring the world together'. I wish I had known earlier! At least I could have ordered from Amazon a book for Pastor Phil, suggested, that is a coloring book for adults called, “I Run on Coffee, Sarcasm, and Lipstick”. I know that one of those is correct and true!. So then I went to my favorite cartoon strip, “Pickles.” Some of you follow this one. It is about the daily life of an elderly couple, Earl and Opal.
Opal is standing in front of a full length mirror, looking a bit frumpy, with her bathrobe on and she says, “Yesterday someone told me that I'm aging gracefully. I hate that!” Earl replies to her, “Why? It's a nice compliment.” Opal answers him, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!. It's just a nice way of saying you're slowly looking worse and worse!”
Some days, I know that feeling!
Jesus' farewell speech to his disciples is given to them to reassure that when he leaves them, they will not be alone. He is not abandoning them! Jesus knows he is on a threshold, something awaits him in the future. The disciples do not yet understand. For 3 chapters we read of his instructions to them, to us. It becomes clear in these chapters that Jesus is the ONE who loves. He will send the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and empower them. This Spirit will continue to dwell within them even after his departure.
Most important, he emphasizes over and over, especially in the verses for today, LOVE EACH OTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.” These words I also say to you, my brothers and sisters, “Love each other as Jesus loves you , and as I have loved you.”
Today I want to share with you some glimpses of my journey, when I have found myself, “standing on a threshold”. You, too, as a congregation are 'standing on a threshold.' I hope to conclude with looking at ourselves, where we are now, as we stand on the threshold of something new!
What do we mean by threshold? The word originally referred to the doorway leading to the place where the grain was sorted and sifted, that is the threshing floor. One would stand in between, going from one room to another. Sometimes we feel 'betwixt and between', in a liminal space. The Latin root “limen” literally means threshold. It is a time of transition from one thing to another, from one room to another, from one realm to another. Some of us women are part of a small group that sings at bedsides to give comfort at life's threshholds.
Richard Rohr calls 'liminal space' a space where human beings hate to be, but where the Biblical God is always leading them. Standing on a threshold may require of us patience to wait, and we don't always do that very well. It isn't part of our DNA, nor are we taught that in our Western culture. Thresholds can be huge, transformative. They can be simple and small. Sometimes they become joyous occasions and in them, God surprises!. Some bring to us discomfort and uneasiness. It is often a time then of moving into unknown territory.
The biblical narrative gives us many examples of persons being in liminal space or standing on a threshold: Joseph in the pit, Israelites wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, Jonah in the belly of the big fish, Mary weeping at Jesus' tomb, disciples huddled in the upper room, disciples on the road to Emmaus, and on and on.
I have experienced several times being in liminal space, ...the threshold!
When I was 16-17 years old, probably in grade 11, my dad came to me and asked this question, “Are you sure you want to go to college?” “Yes”, I replied. “I want to go to college. I don't know what I want to do. I am more clear about what I don't want to do. I don't want to be a secretary, a nurse or a teacher.” ( in my era, these seemed to be the three options for young women to enter. Nothing against any of those careers or people that chose them. It just wasn't me).
My dad continued, “well, you probably will go to college, meet your husband, settle down and have a family.” (The thought not articulated by him, but implied was, if that happens, you won't need a degree!)
I understood more clearly in later years why he asked the question. My dad went through 9th grade, my mother finished 8th grade, higher education in my circle of family, friends and faith community was not seen as particularly important, and certainly not necessary, especially for a young woman. Growing up on a small dairy farm, money was tight, debt was high, managing expenses was challenging. I was a very 'average' student! I received no awards or scholarships in my graduating class of 304. I don't remember being on the honor role consistently. For me to go to college would require sacrifice, saving, borrowing money and working jobs. All of that happened. My parents loved me and wanted me to be happy. They would do what they had to do.
Threshold # 1: Heading off to Bluffton College (University), 500 miles away, sensing clarity that this was the right thing to do and the right place, but not knowing what the next 4 years would be like. Some of you here today know what that liminal space is like. You may be in it.
Well, my dad was somewhat correct. I went off to college, 'found' my husband, (and a good one), or he found me, and then I did what many young women did of my generation, we 'followed' our husbands, as they found jobs, began careers or did further study. It was the era of the Vietnam War. John was registered as a CO. We also had talked of someday doing some service somewhere. I followed John to Kenya, East Africa, for 3 years, where together we served in MCC Teachers Abroad Program. It was transformative, one of the best decisions we ever made. It was also hard and sometimes lonely. It was before computers and cell phones and smart phones. We wrote and received weekly air mail letters from our parents. Every 3 months felt like Christmas when the boat mail came, 3 months worth of Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, local newspapers, church periodicals. As newlyweds, we depended on each other and our love, as together we learned to love the Kenyan culture, its people and the 480 students we helped to teach for 3 years.
When our term was over and we left Kenya, I followed John to Elkhart, IN so he could attend seminary for two years. It was there that our first son was born. I followed John to Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, so he could teach math and Bible for the next 4 years at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate. And there our second son was born. As parents we found much joy in parenting, and being part of the Canadian scene. Most days I enjoyed being an 'at-home' mom and was glad I had those years together with my sons, but the Canada winters seemed long, the snow was deep and the walls began to close in around me, when I was at home all day in a small apt. with a toddler and infant. John was gone all day and wrapped up in his world of teaching, coaching and doing all that a Mennonite high school sometimes expects/demands of its teachers.
We made the decision to move back to the states to be closer to one set of parents/grandparents. My 62 year old mother had died while we were in Canada, and soon after we moved back to the states, my dad also died. Our move took us to a small Indiana town of Union City., about an hour from John's folks. I followed John so he could teach math and physics at the high school. Both of our boys started elementary school there and for 4 years we became Methodists!
One day I realized I was bored and restless. My sons didn't 'need' me quite as much. They adjusted well to school and enjoyed it. I soon discovered that being a waitress in a family restaurant and doing occasional substitute teaching was not going to fulfill me for the rest of my life. One day John said, “Why don't you consider taking some seminary classes. I think you would enjoy it.” There was no seminary in Union City. Actually there was very little in UC, except a lot of really good people! Earlham College in Richmond, IN was about 45 miles away and on the campus was their Quaker seminary, Earlham School of Religion. We drove there one day, explored the possibilities. I registered for a class. A short time later, John (my wise, thrifty, money managing husband) said, “if you are going to commute for one class each week, you might as well make it worthwhile, take a full load of classes!” I followed his suggestion. He might have later regretted this.)
Threshold # 2: Entering seminary....what in the world was I getting into? Suddenly I went from reading Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, Judy Blume, books with my sons to reading theology, early church fathers/mothers, words, names, people I had never heard of before and didn't understand, but this small Quaker seminary was a warm, welcoming community on a beautiful campus with an eclectic group of students that made me feel comfortable! I loved it and the people there. I was the only Anabaptist/Mennonite at ESR that year. I tried to represent us well. During that year, my eyes, ears and heart were opened in new ways. Continuing down this path seemed to be the right thing to do, the obedient thing. I felt the opening of a window, the blooming of something new and beautiful within me, maybe an inner call, a spark... had occurred. Could a very average, PA farm girl, with a family that included 2 young sons make it through a seminary education and degree program? John supported me 100 % as we discerned together that we wanted to return to Elkhart, IN so I could continue with my studies in a Mennonite Seminary and so we could become connected once again with a Mennonite faith community.
This time John followed me!
We moved to Elkhart, where I completed my M.Div, a full time load of classes for two more years. It was hard work. It put some stress and strain on our family life and marriage relationship, but we got through it. We persisted through some trials and tribulations.
Threshold # 3 Completing an M. Div and also another year of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) in South Bend, IN, I was ready! For what? And where? Positions for a seminary trained woman pastor in the Mennonite Church in the mid-80's were FEW and FAR BETWEEN! I was discouraged. How long would I have to wait? Was I not being obedient to the call I had sensed and felt all along? An inner call? Was there an 'outer call' from some place for me that would come? John and I began to explore the possibility of working together, as a team. We met with wise persons and tested and discerned this option. We both had seminary, had complimentary gifts, interests and personalities? Maybe that was the direction. We found more opportunities, explored the options and eventually accepted the call to be co-pastors of the Orrville Mennonite Church in OH. It was stepping into new territory for the congregation and for us.
Did I get into pastoral ministry on the 'coattails' of my husband? Yes. Was I happy about that? Not particularly, but sometimes God surprises, and sometimes you do what you have to do. The congregation had to work through some issues along the way. What would it be like to have a husband and wife team? Women in leadership? And a woman who wanted to preach. All new issues. We had issues to work through, questions about how would it affect our marriage and family life. We made the move and found a warm, welcoming congregation, who loved us and our sons, allowed us to grow into pastors. We had lots of life experiences, but we were first time pastors. They gave us an opportunity to develop and mature as leaders and we stayed for 14 years. This congregation and the larger community held and carried us through the most painful experience of our lives, losing our 22 year old son, Andy, in a tragic accident. It was hard to get through our own grief and find meaning again after this tragedy. It was also hard to be in leadership while trying to help our congregation deal with his death and their own grief. We leaned heavily on others, OH conference pastors, other pastoral colleagues in town and a whole host of friends, neighbors and loved ones. After 14 years we decided we needed a break from working together. We resigned as co-pastors after 14 years.
Soon after, I pursued the position here at PV that had just been posted. I applied, went through the process, was called and , 'the rest is history'!
Threshold # 4 Anticipating retirement...a new chapter, yet to be written. After 31+ years in pastoral ministry, 17 of those years here, how does one enter a new phase, step across the threshold, 'let go' of a role, responsibilities, position, and do so graciously? I am learning, step by step.
But what about you? My brothers and sisters at Park View. You, too, are standing on the threshold, in the door way, anticipating change, worrying, wondering...what will this summer be like for us, for you, as we move out of this space for 3 months? As you call someone else to join the leadership team? Change creates anxiety, disruption to our routine and regular rhythm is disturbing. Some people can 'go with the flow' easier than others. Others might see it as a 'great adventure', with new possibilities! There will be times when you will feel vaguely disoriented or maybe greatly disoriented! But these months can be a significant turning point in the life of the congregation.
From my own experience, I know that being in this liminal space requires acceptance of mystery and a heart full of trust. It means having faith that something good can come out of this and believing that it will happen. The challenge is to give ourselves fully to the process of change while being unsure and unclear of how the future will unfold and how we will be affected.
We may need to remain in this 'holding pattern', this liminal space longer than we like...maybe long enough to gain the lessons we need to learn, the clarity to know when it is time to move forward, and the stamina to take that first step. If we rush ahead too soon, we may find that God will find a way to put in a speed bump to slow us down.
My hope and prayer is that in the next few months you will be able to participate in creative Sabbath experiences, to find new ways to build community, to learn to love God more fully, and each other more deeply. In the fall, return to this place, come home and celebrate the renewed, refreshed, revived space that we hope it becomes. Share the insights of what your threshold experience was like over the summer. What did community life look like? How did you continue to love and care for one another?
May God continue to lead you, the Spirit continue to nudge you in following Jesus more faithfully into the future.
May we be able to move forward with endless songs above earth's lamentations, and even through our trials and challenges.
Please join in singing together, HWB 580 “My life flows on”.
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