December 2nd, 2013
While in seminary a few years ago I found myself in one of the administrator’s offices talking about life and ministry. Those were important topics to me, but there was nothing earth shattering or urgent in our conversation—just a friendly conversation over chocolate between classes. A few minutes into our conversation her phone rang, and I stopped talking so she could answer it. She smiled and told me to keep talking as she had a “people first” policy in her office—meaning the person standing in front of her came before phone calls, texts, or emails. I recall this conversation, remembering how her words made me feel like she truly cared about what I was saying.
This brief conversation a few years ago continues to shape how I practice ministry today. I certainly don’t always get it right, but I try to apply this “people first” policy to my own ministry. Often, the most important and sacred conversations I have with people don’t happen in scheduled meeting or appointments. They happen in conversations that follow when someone pops their head in my office just to say “hello,”or when I pass them in the hallway on a Sunday morning and say, “Good morning.” I never know what, if anything, will follow those greetings, but I’m humbled and grateful when people are willing to share parts of their lives with me in those in-between moments of life.
Today was one of those days when I had to keep consciously reminding myself of my “people first” policy. Today is a Monday. My to-do list is long. The phone seems to be ringing off the hook. Not a thing on my list has been accomplished today. As someone who occasionally writes tasks on my list that are already finished simply to have the satisfaction of crossing that task off, the prospect of completing NOTHING on my to-do list disturbs me quite a bit.
Today is different, though. Most of the tasks on my to-do list are administrative in nature and need to get done by the end of the week; they are not urgent. The conversation about the sick family member was urgent, though. The funny story about the grandchild was important, as was the conversation about a theological struggle someone was having. None of these conversations were on my to-do list today, but I’m thankful for the sacred moments shared in these conversations. I’m thankful for the occasional reminder that the world will not end when my to-do list is not finished. Being present in the interruptions of life is a part of my ministry—a part of my ministry that I’m still learning to embrace as I am reminded that it is in these interruptions of life that I find myself most able to see God and to see God in other people.
Brittany Riddle is minister to adults at Vinton Baptist Church in Vinton, Virginia.
November 25th, 2013
Ministers live with questions.
- What do I say to that?
- Have I preached this before?
- What would make this right?
- What am I expected to do? What should I do? (And what do I do when these answers differ?)
Some questions can be answered in a day: Does she need a visit? Who has gifts to teach that class? Am I able to lead another lock-in? We gather information, weigh our options, and decide what we think. We check another item off of our resolve-this list and move on.
Other questions arrive with plans to stay indefinitely: What does God want me to do with my life? What part of me needs transforming? Who do I exclude? Questions like these come with full baggage, ready to take up lifelong residency if necessary. While they might annoy us at times, and alter our plans, they also bring gifts. They remind us of what matters most. They help us learn and grow. These questions take us to new places and deepen our faith.
In his book Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke pleads with a young artist “. . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” *
Rilke’s advice to not seek answers may be counterproductive for the first installment of an advice blog. But perhaps his words are a wise reminder as we kick-off what we hope will be conversation that matters. Some of our biggest questions need to be shared because these questions can lead us to life—and they might lead others there as well. From his time as a twelve-year-old who was questioning leaders in the Temple to “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, Jesus’ questions fill the gospels. He used questions to teach his followers and those questions continue to enrich faith communities. Asking leads to discoveries we might otherwise miss. When we ask together, we find community with each other.
So what are the questions you are living with these days? What has taken up residence, made you wonder, and promises a long stay? Would you send a few of these to: email@example.com so that our conversation can begin? May this Dear Addie blog become a place of conversation and community for us as we share questions and discoveries. (And if your pressing question right now is whether or not you can lead another lock-in, send it in. We’ll talk about it, too.)
*Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1962), 35.
November 20th, 2013
Audrey and Eve love stories about their younger selves. Often, a particular story will be requested. Last night Audrey turned to me and said, “Tell that story about me and Eve at the playground and how Eve said, ‘Little friend.’” And the story is: When Eve was four years old and Audrey was about fifteen months, we often went to a local playground in the afternoons. Audrey was still unsteady on her feet and toddled along. When she crossed the bridge on the play set, Eve would hold her arms in a wide circle around Audrey and call out, “Watch out, little friend coming. Be careful now. She’s a little friend.” The two would caravan back and forth across the bridge with Audrey wobbling along and Eve protecting her from unaware children who might brush against her sister.
Audrey loves this story and asks for me to tell it over and over. She beams when I share how Eve was a protective sister who devised a way to make sure little sister was safe while on the bridge at the playground.
Recently I read an article that quoted the New York Times family columnist, Bruce Feiler. In “The Family Stories that Bind Us,” Feiler explained how children who have a connection with extended family through stories are more resilient and better able to overcome obstacles. Feiler encourages families to tell their stories because stories empower children to persevere. The concept of telling stories as reminders of whom and whose we are ties directly to our faith stories.
As believers, we read stories of our faith ancestors such as Abraham and Sarai or Ruth and Boaz. Their stories shed light on our stories. We learn that we are not the only ones to struggle with family members who make poor choices or the only ones to face a tragedy that necessitates a new path in life. The faith stories in our Bible are our stories. By hearing and telling them, we find courage and strength to persevere. As believers, we can share our faith stories as well as our family stories.
As extended families gather in this season of holidays, tell those stories. Share about great- grandparents who were children during the Great Depression or about grandparents who remember the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Tell stories about how your families lived out faith. Tell about grandmothers who were president of the WMU or grandfathers who delivered firewood to widows because “That’s just what we do. We take care of people.” During this season, if you find yourself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, ask for stories: “Can you tell me a story about when you were a child?” Their stories are our stories, and we can find strength in their telling.
November 12th, 2013
Last week I spent a few days with friends celebrating our five-year reunion from college. Furman University, and the people who became a part of my life there, will always hold a special place in my heart. While at Furman, I discerned a calling to ministry. I struggled with life’s big questions. I felt supported, encouraged, and challenged by every class I took and conversation I had.
I drove to campus one morning last week to meet some friends. After I parked my car, I noticed an older woman standing next to her car, looking a little worried. The woman briefly looked my way, and I saw that there was a man sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open. As I got closer to the car, I saw the woman stick her arm out to help the man out of the car. I am not always good at minding my own business, and I had a quick debate in my head about whether or not to ask if they needed some help—not wanting to offend them if they were just taking a rest, but not wanting to leave them if they needed assistance.
I walked towards them, deciding that it is usually better to offer help. When I did, the woman told me she and her husband had driven to town for homecoming, that his legs were stiff from driving, and that she was not strong enough to help him out of the car. I told her I would be glad to give him an arm to lean on, and I made two instant friends.
In just a few minutes, he was out of the car, and I was walking with them. I told them that I was on campus celebrating my fifth reunion, and they shared that he was celebrating his sixty-fifth reunion. Wow.
As we walked, he asked about where I live and what I do, and I told him that I serve as an associate pastor in Roanoke, Virginia. I am never sure what kind of response that I am going to get when I say that, but this sweet man stopped walking, took my hand, and said, “I grew up in a time before women were ministers, but I always thought women would make good ministers. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman minister in person, and I’m glad to meet you.” We were getting close to their destination, and he gave me a quick hug and said, “God bless you. I will be praying for you and your ministry.”
Our paths crossed for only a few minutes, but in our short exchange, the couple blessed me. They reminded me that we are all in this journey of life together. We each have something different to offer each other. I offered an arm; they offered encouragement. Together, we both got where we needed to be with a new friend. When I saw this man and his wife in passing later on that day, they smiled and waved excitedly to me.
The next time I am having a long or difficult day I will remember this man and his kind, affirming words. I pray that in the midst of our busy lives and ministries that we all have those encouraging encounters that remind us that we can be both blessed and a blessing. We are all in this together.
Brittany Riddle is minister to adults at Vinton Baptist Church in Vinton, Virginia.
November 6th, 2013
I grew up on a dairy farm. In addition to cows, we had horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats. When you spend your formative years on a working farm, you should expect some animal husbandry to slip into your conversation now and again. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I said, “You can’t expect a rooster to lay an egg!”
I was on the phone with my friend who serves as a church staff minister. She had called to tell me the latest in a long, long list of what a particular church member had done. During her first week at the church, the member came by her office to spell out what her predecessor had done wrong and how she could learn from that and do better. Later my friend was in a committee meeting, and this member informed her, “We’ve never done it that way before, but if you think it will work, we can try.” And the stories go on and on. Often my friend calls to tell me this person’s latest antics, but this time her patience was thin. My friend was angry because, yet again, she was dealing with “his disruptive nonsense.” When she finished venting, I blurted, “You can’t expect a rooster to lay an egg.” There was silence, and then a giggle. She queried, “What are you talking about?”
I said, “Expecting this church member to act differently is like expecting a rooster to lay an egg. Egg laying is not the role of a rooster, and woe is the farmer who stands around waiting on a rooster to lay an egg.” I pointed out that this church member has never once led her to believe he is going to behave differently. He told her who he was at their very first meeting. He questions her decisions, suggests other methods of completing tasks, and is generally skeptical of her leadership. Why does she expect him to behave differently?
My friend countered with, “So I can’t hope for better?”
Yes, we can hope for better. We are people of faith and we always hope for God’s grace and goodness to be evident in our relationships. However, not all of our neighbors live out God’s presence in the way we hope or expect. Some relationships are contentious, but rather than expecting the other person to change roles, maybe we should remind ourselves of the role the other person has.
Because of this relationship, my friend has challenged herself to examine her motives and processes. Because he always asks, “Why should we do this in this way?” she has learned to know the reasons for her decisions before she arrives at a meeting. In many ways, the antagonistic church member has made my friend a more effective leader. He has pushed her to grow by always asking the hard questions and by pointing out the weaknesses in any plan. Oh, it would be nice for this church member to agree with me about how wonderfully gifted my friend is and to be her advocate rather than her antagonist. However, advocate is not his role. Rather than expecting his role to change, my friend and I are trying to value what he brings to the ministry and not get overly agitated when he acts like a rooster. He is just doing what he does.
Tammy Abee Blom is an ordained Baptist minister, regular contributor to BWIM’s blog, mother of two amazing daughters, teacher for children’s Sunday School, and lives in Columbia, South Carolina.