Saturday, June 29, 2013

Rebecca

My oldest "child" turned 36 yesterday. Rebecca Suzanne was born on June 28, 1977. She is now married and has three children of her own, one of whom is almost a teenager. I am stunned by the passage of time.

Suzy and I had been married just two months when we got pregnant with Rebecca. We were both 22 years old. I was working as a salesman for Greenville Office Supply Co., traveling around the upstate of South Carolina in my one new suit selling pencils, paper, file folders, and other office necessities to businesses and industries. And I wasn't very successful. Six months later I asked my boss for a transfer to another part of the company - the print shop. He only too gladly complied. I was costing the company too much money and making very little. When Rebecca was born I was running the company's printing presses, setting type, and laying out artwork. That was my line of work for the next five years before I went off to seminary.

I had been getting more and more excited as Suzy's delivery date approached. These were the days before routine ultrasounds, so we didn't know whether we were having a boy or a girl. I secretly prayed for a daughter. I grew up with just one brother, and hoped for the experience of having a girl in my family.  I am glad God answered my prayer.

When we got to Greenville General Hospital, we were met by the nurse who, it just so happened, had been our Lamaze instructor. That was comforting for this young, naive couple who had no real idea what was about to happen. I donned my scrubs, mentally reviewed everything I knew I was supposed to do, and repeated to myself, "I will not faint, I will not faint...." Suzy's labor was short. She delivered naturally, without medication (what a trooper). When Rebecca came out, she was beautiful. Of course, the whole birth experience is just too profound to describe. It shattered all my categories. Emotions were all over the place. Suzy and I cried. "It's a girl!" someone said. I was very, very happy.

But soon we discovered that Rebecca was not a happy baby. When the infants were rolled out of the nursery at feeding time, there was always one baby crying her lungs out. Yep, that was Rebecca. It was an ear-piercing cry. And it seemed she rarely stopped crying for the next several months. We soon found out that Rebecca had colic.

Colic is a strange syndrome whose cause is unknown. Fewer than 5% of infants with colic have an underlying physical problem. Wikipedia says, "An infant with colic may negatively affect family stability and result in short term anxiety or depression in the mother. It may also contribute to exhaustion and stress in the parents." I can identify with all those statements. Suzy and I didn't know what to do. Were we doing something wrong? Why couldn't Rebecca fall asleep? Why did she always seem to be in such pain? How long will this last? Those questions swirled around us those first few months of Rebecca's life and made them difficult.

But in time, the crying stopped and we started to enjoy being new parents of this delightful little girl. Rebecca grew locks of curly, golden hair, inherited we think from my dad's side of the family. She also had a small spot of white hair, a trait that would show up in our next child, David. As a little girl she would sing all around the house, and I loved playing games with her, tossing her up in the air in all kinds of dangerous ways, telling her stories, and doing all the things dads do with their daughters. I cherish the growing-up years of my firstborn.

Rebecca has always been a leader. Decisive. Strong. Brave. Confident. Yet she can cry watching family films. A great organizer. Someone who adjusts to new situations and circumstances with optimism and determination. A rebounder. An overcomer. An encourager. Superb in cooking, singing, reading, and planning events. An excellent parent and a faithful friend to people she's met through the years. A lover of Jesus and His church. A maker of fun and hope. These are a few of Rebecca's qualities and talents.

Happy birthday, Rebecca Suzanne. I love you.   

Monday, June 03, 2013

A shepherd's humble request of the sheep

Every pastor has gotten at least several letters or emails that go something like this:
"Dear Pastor, I'm letting you know that I've found another church. You apparently are not aware (or do not care) that I have missed six Sundays in a row. No one called to check on me. No one visited me after my operation. I thought you valued your members, but it's clear that your church is just too big and too busy to follow up on individuals in need. Please send a letter of transfer to my new church...."
It really hurts when people leave their church with these kinds of feelings. There is no question that pastors, staff, elders, and other church leaders share some of the blame when sheep feel neglected by their shepherds. Ezekiel's warning should keep pastors awake at night: "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts" (Ezekiel 34:4-5). I can think of a number of people in the churches I've served that I should have pursued more faithfully.

But I don't think it's out of line to make a humble plea to you sheep out there: Please let us know.

Let us know you're hurting or unhappy. Let us know you're in the hospital. Let us know you want to serve. Because more often than you may guess, we don't know.

Take my church, for example. Roughly once a month at a staff meeting, we review a list of people we suspect are "MIA" (missing in action). We try to connect with these folks and discover if indeed there is a problem. In most cases, all is well. You see, it's very difficult to determine who is and is not truly MIA. Our average Sunday morning attendance is over 500. We ask people to fill out an attendance slip, but just a fraction of our folks do so. Also, we have two services, which makes it hard for our members and staff to know when someone is truly absent ("Where's Margaret been? Oh, she probably goes to the early service"). We've told people that our primary means of shepherding the flock is our small groups ministry. If someone is sick, hospitalized, or unhappy, it's in a small group of trusted friends that one's needs can be immediately addressed. But if one doesn't take advantage of a small group, he or she must let the leadership know what's going on.

Besides, people take vows when they join the church. In a Presbyterian church like mine, one of the vows is to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability. Another is to promote the purity and peace of the church. Bound up in these vows is the promise to take responsibility for the health and unity of the church. If you are unhappy about something, it is your responsibility to speak to someone in leadership. If you've been offended, says Jesus, "go and tell [your brother] his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15).

I trust you hear the spirit behind this plea. We who are shepherds are duty-bound to look for and seek after neglected, offended sheep. But we shepherds are but sheep ourselves. We are not omniscient. If we are going to care for you - and we want to, we really do! - we need your help.

If we work together, in a spirit of patience and mutual trust, we can (in most cases) close the back door of the church and show the reality of the gospel by our love for one another.