Friday, December 25, 2009

God's love is amazing

Christmas Day is almost over, and I can't help but shed a tear or two of joy as I reflect on the last few days.

Being minister to three rural congregations, I have to spread myself about a bit at special times in the church calendar such as Christmas and Easter, so this week saw me leading the regular Sunday worship at Myrtleford, then an early Christmas Eve service on Thurs at Yackandandah, followed by a 'midnight' candlelight Christmas Eve service at Myrtleford and Christmas morning at Beechworth.

Being my first Christmas in this ministry patch (and also my first Christmas as a minister!) I took as much advice as I could from the locals about what is usually done, who attends these services, and what they would like, (as well as gleaning ideas from various resources and colleagues with more experience).

For the Christmas Eve services, I opted for a slightly modified version of the traditional Lessons and Carols format, allowing the readings and the carols to tell the story in their own way, rather than preaching a sermon, and also allowing the opportunity for members of the congregation to light a candle of remembrance for loved ones absent this Christmas.

It has struck me that Christmas is often also a time of sadness for people who are struggling with relationship breakdowns or who have experienced the death of a loved one in the past year or so. Some congregations hold 'Blue Christmas' services, which are quiet, reflective services, providing space for the grief and less than 'bubbly' feelings to be acknowledged and expressed. After talking to a few people, I decided not to offer this as a separate service in my congregations, but to incorporate a time of reflection and remembrance in the evening services, and this seemed to work well.

Another pastoral practice I commenced, (after a suggestion from a colleague) was to send Christmas cards to the families of folks whose funerals I have conducted during the year. I printed a special message which I pasted inside the card, saying:

The first Christmas after
the death of someone you love
can be difficult.

My thoughts and prayers

are with you and your family, that God’s peace
may be with you this Christmas.

I received a few responses from these, which indicated that people appreciated the fact that I had been in touch.

Another pastoral thing I trialled (and I think I will make a regular thing) was the 'open house' I mentioned in a previous blog entry. People have commented how much they enjoyed the opportunity to drop in, and a number of folk who didn't get there on the day have said that they would have loved to come, but had other commitments. I'm thinking of making this a bi-annual event, as I really do enjoy having folks around, and think that offering hospitality is an important part of my pastoral ministry.

So now, Christmas is over, there was much joy and celebration, tempered with some sadness - I still miss Dad, and I think it will take some time before I get used to the fact that not only is he not around, but unless Mum comes to me down here, I also won't see her on Christmas Day (but I'm looking forward to seeing her tomorrow when I head to Sydney for holidays :-).

Jesus was well and truly welcomed in this corner of the world, and may it be so everywhere.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tis the season to be... hospitable

It never ceases to amaze me that when it comes to hospitality, no matter how much I give (or even seek to give), I seem to receive so much more in return.

During a recent conversation with members of my lay reflection group (members of my congregations who have met with me monthly to provide pastoral support and encouragement during my first year in this, my first placement), the comment was made that many of them felt that they weren't sure whether they were welcome to drop into the manse. This was especially the case for those from Beechworth and Yack, who do often have cause to come to Myrtleford, for shopping or other errands, and have sometimes thought of calling in to say hello or have a cuppa, but weren't sure whether that would be presumptuous, or seen to be 'invading' my privacy or personal space.

I suspect this perception may go back to the days when there was a shift from seeing the manse as the centre of parish life, to seeing the manse as the private residence of the minister.

In the 'old days', church meetings were always held at the manse, and there were always church folk dropping in for various reasons to see the minister or his/her family, and there was an expectation that offering hospitality of all kinds went with the territory of being a 'manse family'. Whereas, these days, there is a stronger emphasis on the importance of self-care for ministers, so that my generation of ministers is encouraged to take regular time out from ministry, and not make ourselves available 24/7, except for genuine emergencies, and the sense that the manse is the home of the minister, and that the parishioners should respect the minister's privacy and need for 'down time'.

I suspect that the pendulum may have swung too far to the latter extreme, and I am keen to find a way to balance these two important values of hospitality and self-care. So I have made a deal with my parishioners, which involves the following statements:

1. There are certain times when they know I will be unlikely to answer my phone (ie before 9am on a work day, because 8:30-9 is my prayer time), and on Monday, which is my day off. I tell them that the machine will usually pick up calls at these times, and if it's urgent, I'll get back to them.

2. People are welcome to drop in for a chat and/or a cuppa, as long as they are prepared to take me, and the state of the manse, as they find it (i.e. I am not by nature a tidy person, so if I need to shift a pile of papers and books so they can sit down on the couch, they need to be able to cope with that); and I promised them that if I am busy with something that I need to get done in a hurry, or am about to go out, I will tell them that it's not a convenient time, and ask them to call back another time. This way they know that they don't need to try to second guess whether it's a good time to call in or not, because I will tell them.

Everyone I've spoken to about this seems to be quite happy with this arrangement, so we shall see how it goes in the long run. To kick things off, and to reinforce my desire to welcome people to the manse, I had an 'open house' this afternoon from 2-5pm, and invited people from across the two parishes to drop in any time during that period, for an informal cuppa.

During the course of the afternoon, I had more than 20 people drop in, and at times my loungeroom was packed, with standing room only, and other times there were just a few of us, but I think overall it was a resounding success, and people seemed delighted to have the opportunity to come and visit me in the manse (which also involved meeting and chatting with folk from other congregations that they might not have known, which was also a bonus).

I think I will make this a regular thing, maybe a couple of times a year, because, as I implied in my opening sentence, whilst it might have looked like I was the one being generous and offering hospitality, I also got a lot in return; the pleasure of chatting with people in a relaxed and informal context (and my collection of Christmas cards, hanging in the living room also seemed to expand too :-)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Amusing Christmas greeting

One of my Facebook friends, who I haven't actually seen for probably around 10 years or so (and is known for his rather dry and sometimes odd wit), sent me the following FB message today:

Merry Christmas
All the best for your employer's birthday and the new year.

Made me grin :-)

(although the concept of the Christmas services I'm currently planning being effectively my boss' birthday party did tend to increase the pressure a little :-/ )

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A marvellously meandering Monday

One of the things I really love about my current ministry lifestyle is my weekly day off. I am apparently being a little 'old fashioned' in my practice of taking Mondays as my day off (some colleagues have told me that these days they prefer to take a different day of the week off, and some of them don't take a whole day in one go, but rather blocs of time across a couple of different days).

Be that as it may, and call me old fashioned if you will, but after the emotional energy of Sunday, I really hang out for my Monday: a day when I let the machine answer the phone and don't think of work or ministry related stuff at all.

Yesterday, I had intentions of getting up (relatively) early, and heading to Wodonga for some retail therapy. There's a particular shop there that I wanted to visit, and so the idea was to set out early, hit the shops at Centro Wodonga, have some lunch there, then head home to potter around the house, do some washing, and write Christmas cards.

Well, folks, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men; well that seems to apply doubly so for clergy women. I ended up having a rather lush sleep-in (for once, NOT interrupted by parcel deliverers, or a certain parishioner who seems to have a radar for ringing my doorbell when I'm either still in bed or in the shower on a go-slow morning). I crawled out of bed around 11am, had a leisurely shower and breakfast (by which time the mail had arrived, so I read that over brekky).

A little more pottering, dropping off some letters to the postoffice, watering the plants on the back porch (and noting with glee that the chilli plants are budding!), then I brought in the line full of washing that I had put out on Saturday, and then started thinking about the rest of my day.

By this time it was approaching 2pm, and I decided that perhaps I needed to revise my plans for retail therapy- Wodonga might be a bit far, so a visit to Rivers in Wangaratta could be the go (as I wanted to get some summery, sandally shoes that are a little more presentable than my current 'beachcomber' style sandals).

As I hopped in the car, I thought about lunch. Given the lateness of the hour, maybe I should aim for Maccas or Hungry Jacks at Wang?... as I set out, I changed my mind, and decided to divert via Milawa and the Gourmet Food Trail, and visit the Milawa Cheese Factory to see if I could do lunch there... as I turned off onto the Snow Rd, I changed my mind again, as I remembered a rather interesting looking winery a bit farther past Milawa that I had passed many times and had been tempted to check out- this could be my opportunity!

So, with that in mind, I headed to Sam Miranda winery where I stopped and enjoyed a lovely lunch and a glass of their Sparkling Snow Road Pink. After a relaxing repast and read, (with a lovely view out the window, and friendly conversation with the girl managing the cellar door front of house), I continued on my way to Wang.

Fortuitously, I found a parking spot right outside the Rivers outlet (must be an omen! :-) and went inside to channel Imelda. I found a number of pairs of shoes that met my requirements, and as I was leaving the shop, I bumped (almost literally) into my Wangaratta counterpart, Ron Manley (who said he had not long ago been joking with the chair of his church council about how long it would take before he bumped into me on the streets of Wangaratta).

He invited me back to the church for a cuppa, and I enjoyed a lovely time catching up and comparing notes with Ron of our respective Carols by Candlelight experiences, Christmas services, holiday plans etc (among other things).

By this time it was nearly 6:30 and I headed towards home, feeling like I'd had a great adventure on my day off.

The day concluded with takeaway pizza for dinner, and writing Christmas cards in front of some trashy TV episodes on DVD (I seem to be going through a vampire phase at the moment, having just finished watching the first season of True Blood, and am now revisiting the first season of Moonlight. What is it about Aussie actors in American vampire TV shows? - Ryan Kwanten in True Blood, and Alex O'Loughlin in Moonlight- oh well, it makes for nice, familiar scenery anyway. Once I finish this current season, I might dig out my old Angel eps, because after all, Angel and Spike really are the vampires' vampires! :-).

All in all, it set me up well to commence my working week in a relaxed and joyous frame of mind (after all, we are in the week of JOY in Advent Season, so it's all rather fitting! :-)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Aye... aye... AIDA!

I spent my day off yesterday en route to Melbourne, to go and see the latest Opera Australia production of Aida, with Barbara, a friend from Tas. Some months ago Barb sent me an excited email, saying that a rather wonderful production of Aida was coming to Melb, and wondering if I could escape for a night to go with her to see it. So, after a bit of research into dates, times and ticket prices, we had a date.

Barbara flew to Melbourne on Saturday, and caught a bus up to my neck of the woods, to spend the best part of the weekend in Myrtleford, and then we set off for Melb on Monday. En route, we called into Seymour, and enjoyed a relaxed lunch and catch up with Linley and Barry, before making our way to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the heart of Melbourne's CBD (a bit flasher than my usual accommodation options in Melbourne, but we were able to take advantage of a special offer that Barbara and her husband had, which worked out very nicely indeed).

We were a bit like two giggly schoolgirls, enjoying the opulence around us (our room on the 6th floor had two double beds and a stunning view of the river, and the lights of the city after dark), and treated ourselves to a drink in the bar, and dinner in the hotel's Chinese restaurant (which, was a step or two up from the local Chinese takeaway in Myrtleford), before heading to the Entertainment Centre for the opera.

The set, costumes and everything was so lavish and 'shiny', it was wonderful (and I could even almost believe that the dashing tenor Radames could prefer the rather dumpy, middle-aged looking soprano 'slave-girl' Aida to the stunningly attractive -and very shiny- mezzo Amneris- which proves yet again the rule of opera that no matter how attractive she is, the alto never gets the guy!)

Barb and I had a great time, and when I got home at lunchtime today, after this experience, and the earlier bliss of the weekend, it felt like I'd been away on holiday for a week, and it took a while for me to get my head back into 'work' mode.

Given how busy I am going to be over the next couple of weeks, this is probably a good thing; a kind of recharging, and girding my loins in preparation for a busy time.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ahhh blissss...

Yesterday (Saturday) I had the most blissful day I've had in a very long time (which, given how generally happy and excited I am about being here and doing what I'm doing, is really saying something.)

My friend and colleague, Martin, was visiting from Rochester, and we spent the day exploring my local ministry patch. We
started with a trip to Beechworth, where Martin worked hard to single-handedly prop up the rural economy with a bit of retail therapy and Christmas shopping. I teased him mercilessly about this, but he got the better of me in the end, which will become apparent soon.

We then swung by the Beechworth church, where we were both impressed by the liturgical elegance of the worship space, decked out in its
coordinated Advent purple. (I'll try to remember to take my camera next time I go to Beechworth, and post a pic here for your edification). It's really nice to have someone in the congregation who has such a great liturgical and artistic sense. I had had a conversation with this woman a few days prior about how we might use seasonal purple around the sanctuary, and no sooner had we spoken about it, than it was done! :-)

On the way out of Beechworth heading for Yackandandah, (and hello to the old bears who I am guessing will be reading this after my mention of Yack triggered your Google alert :-), we took a detour via the Beechworth scenic drive around the gorge- something I hadn't done before. It was great to see the vastness of the gorge, and enjoy the scenery.

Then on to Yack, to inspect our little stone church; followed by some well-earned morning tea at the Yack bakery (although by this time it was around noon). Then a wander down the main drag of town, and another new discovery- a fantastic little gallery called
Spiritus, housed in the old Yackandandah Motor Garage Premises at the bottom end of the main street.

The ambience and kind of items on sale there reminded me very much of the gallery shops lining Salamanca Place in Hobart, so I felt very much at home. I even discovered some jewellery by a Hobart metal sculptor, Bruce Pringle, whose work is very distinctive (I have a pendant and earrings he made, which are favourites)

But by far the most eye-catching item in the place was the very large wooden cross (about 1.5m high, I think), with a stylised metal representation of Christ on it, which was displayed in the window. Martin and I spent quite some time admiring this, and wondering about its presence so prominently in this place. I couldn't help myself, and had to ask the gallery owner about it, wondering who had made it. She told me about the artists (one local and one from Lithuania), and in the process of this discussion, I noticed a smaller version of the cross (about half the size) propped up near the larger one.

The cross, shown in front of my fireplace

At this point, I was remind
ed quite acutely of the fact that neither the Beechworth nor Yackandandah churches have a cross of any kind in them, and my mind started wandering down the path of contemplating how magnificent this (smaller) cross would look in a church. The gallery owner offered to let me borrow the smaller cross to 'test drive' it in the Yack church, to see what the congregation thought about it, but I was so struck by the artistic beauty and liturgical elegance of the piece, that I just had to buy it, and this way, it will remain my property, which can hang in one of the churches for a while, and when I leave, I can take it with me.

The fact that it's not a bare, or 'empty' cross, but has even a stylised Christ hanging on it might pose some problems for some of my parishioners (as in the Uniting Church, and most Protestant churches, it is not our tradition to use a 'crucifix', depicting the body of Christ hanging on the cross, but rather an empty cross, symbolising the fact that "he's not here, he is risen"), but I guess the best thing to do is see what happens. It is a beautifully evocative work of art, and I think introducing it at Easter time could be a good move.
More detail of the metal sculpture

After the purchase, Martin became my 'cross-bearer', carrying said item as we made our way up the street to the car. We discovered that carrying a large cross up the main street of a country town is a great conversation starter (funny that!).
The price tag on the cross was significantly more than the total Martin had spent on his purchases during the morning, so we agreed that I 'won' the prize for propping up the rural economy the most that day.

So we took our purchases home to Myrtleford, where I packed the eski with a picnic lunch (and of course, some lovely Gapsted Moscato) and we headed for Buffalo River Dam. The weather was perfect for a picnic, and we found a picnic table in the shade and enjoyed our lunch, with a luscious view of the lake and its serene surrounds. We had packed a lot into the day, and it would have been wonderful to stretch out on the grass and have a snooze in the shade for an hour or so, but Martin needed to head home, and I needed to head to Wangaratta to pick up my next house guest, Barbara, from Tassie.
The blissful scenery of Buffalo River Dam
(oh, and Martin in the foreground! :-)

So all in all, it was a fabulous day, and despite being full of activity, was very refreshing and relaxing. Have I mentioned recently how much I love living here in the north east? :-)