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Archive for September, 2012

A few days ago I attended a service event with my contextual education congregation, St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette, IL.  We are part of a confirmation cluster, and once a month pastors, confirmation students, and seminarians from four local congregations get together to complete some sort of service project in the community.  Our September event was held at an organization called Feed My Starving Children.  This organization packs a rice/soy/veggie food combination and sends it to places in the world where children are dying of starvation.

This summer, while working as a chaplain intern during my clinical pastoral education (CPE), I had my first face-to-face encounter with a child who was starving to death.  At the hospital, we gave his condition a fancy, emotionally detached label – “failure to thrive.”  Despite the detached label, it was hard to detach from recognizing this child failed to thrive for only one reason – he was starving to death.  It was a horrifying reality to realize that hunger and poverty can be reality that a US native could starve to death in a town in New Hampshire.  I had never seen anything like that before in real life, and when we were at Feed My Starving Children, I felt a need to help fight hunger with a passion I never felt before.  I realized fighting hunger had many more layers than I had originally thought.

Fighting hunger is vital – According to Feed My Starving Children, 18,000 children throughout the world die each day of starvation.  I know that in a recent Chicago poll, over 60% of all Chicago residents are “food insecure,” which means that they do not know where there next meal is coming from.  Hunger is experienced both at home and abroad.

Fighting hunger can be fun – St. John’s is now my fourth congregation who has a focus on hunger justice, including my home congregation.  Each place is different in how they serve, but the spirit of love that surrounds such efforts puts a smile on my heart.  At Feed My Starving Children, youth were broken down to into teams, and were told to cheer for each box of food they packed.  Each packing station was named after the country to which the food was going.  The five girls on my station cheered, “Cows go moo in Peru!” each time they packed a box, which always resulted in a stream of giggles.  Feed My Starving Children also played a blend of great, up-beat music.  Before that night, I had never done the Cha-Cha-Slide while packing food.

Fighting hunger leads us to quest for better answers about food justice – That night, we packed enough food to feed 600 children for 6 months, and the food all fit on skid the size of an ice cream truck.  That was because each bag of food only consisted of a cup of rice, a cup of soy, a quarter cup of vegetables, and a tablespoon of a condensed protein supplement.  That one bag of 2 1/4 of food is intended to provide six meals when mixed with water.  While it’s great this food will save lives, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a food source would be enough, or if the communities to which the food was going even had access to clean water.  Nutrition options for people in poverty are not easy, and what can keep someone from starving may not necessarily be a balanced diet.

Fighting hunger requires prayer – That night, we prayed for the food to safely reach its intended tummies.  We prayed for the donors who funded the food.  We prayed for the hands that packed it, and for the people who will receive it.  Since that night, I have prayed for the confirmation students to remember that they can make a difference.  I have prayed that we will one day be able to feed children with a healthier diet than 2 1/4 cups of food over six meals.  I have prayed in thanksgiving that my niece and nephew do not “fail to thrive” and are not food insecure.

Most importantly, I have prayed with a heart of peace knowing that where our human efforts fall short, God’s love does not.

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Interviewing From a Grace Story

One month ago today was my last day as a chaplain intern for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where I graduated from my first unit of CPE (clinical pastoral education).  A lot has changed since then.  I have moved over 1,800 miles back to my seminary apartment in Chicago.  I saw my beautiful niece and nephew for the first time in three months.  I am back to working my two jobs on-site instead of remotely.  I began working at my contextual ed congregation and have begun the fall coursework that includes yet another foreign language.  I had surgery on my chest wall and continue to recover.  And probably most sacred to my heart, I rescued a 7 year old cat named Cozmo.

It seems like an eternity since my days in New Hampshire, and as I look ahead even over the next few days, I realize that my life is still in the midst of a major shift.  On Thursday I will be attending my Endorsement interview.  The most important interview on the road to ordination thus far, this interview will determine whether or not the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feels I am ready to participate in a year-long internship experience next year.

More importantly than that, at this interview I will officially declare my intention to be ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament, which in my tradition is the role of a congregational pastor who presides over the sacraments.  This is an important moment.  While I have always felt that this is the road God has set me on, it is here that the Church will endorse that vocation or direct me on another path.  This is the moment where the internal call must meet the external needs of the church.  I have had over a year of seminary to faithfully discern my calling to Word and Sacrament, a discernment process to which the panel that will be interviewing me on Thursday has also been engaging in.  It is here that we discover together if the Holy Spirit is speaking to us all in the same way, directing the next steps for both the future of my vocation as well as how my vocation will work within the context of the Church at large.

It is interesting to be at this precipice, about to move forward or change direction.  While I trust the process and believe the truth of it’s method is for the benefit of all, there is a part of me that is fearful of what these next steps will bring.  CPE and seminary have affirmed that I will always be learning, always have a growing edge and a part of my pastoral identity that will need to develop.  Even this evening as I read about the economy of the Trinity for my Systematics class, I realized that while my faith is strong, my knowledge has far to grow.  I didn’t even know about the economy of the Trinity until tonight, and three months ago I had no idea how to pray with a family over the body of a man who had taken his own life.  The learning curve is steep.  As a Chicago pastor told me recently, to be a pastor is to be an expert in nothing but have a base knowledge in everything.

I know I am far from an expert in anything, and even more certain my base knowledge at times can be pretty shaky.  How can I trust that I am worthy of the privilege to minister to God’s people when the frailties of my humanity stand so clearly in front of me?

In preaching class today, my professor told us to always remember a personal story of grace before we begin writing a sermon.  He said that our grace story should be the home from which we begin all of our work, so that we don’t forget the message we are trying to share.

I have had many grace stories this past month.  I have been reunited with amazing friends, been able to worship with my entire family for the first time since Christmas, have survived a Hebrew test, and God has forgiven me for my sins over and over and over again.

I know that without God’s grace I am not worthy of this call, of this path in life.  I know that I am an expert in nothing and have to work really hard to get a base knowledge that is strong enough to weather the storms that congregations face.  Yet, somehow despite my learning edges, God has chosen me to attend that Endorsement interview on Thursday.  The fact that I am at even at this point in the process is a testimony that my life is a grace story, and it is with that recognition held dear that I trust the Holy Spirit will guide me to where my next steps should be.

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The following was an article written for the September 2012 Divinity Digest for Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH. 

When I started the entrance process for ordination and began filling out my seminary paperwork, Pastor Doug gave me some very sound advice – you can never have enough practice.  At the time, he was referring to preaching.  I was surprised to learn that Pastor Doug practices his sermon each week prior to Sunday.  I myself have really appreciated the model he set, a model which has only served to evolve my own preaching style.

Every time I write a sermon, I have an idea on how it will sound, what emotions will be evoked, how the Spirit will speak to our community through the words I wrote.  I sit at my computer at my kitchen table, reading the final draft aloud.  There have been a few times I’ve called my parents from my apartment in Chicago, “Hey, Dad, how does this sound?”  When I get up to the pulpit to practice, though, it usually sounds a lot different.  Hearing my voice in a large room, hearing the difference between emphasizing in a normal speaking voice verses a public speaking voice, I realize that my expectations change through practice.

This summer, I “practiced” ministry of a different sort.  I spent the summer working as a chaplain intern, a role that fulfilled my clinical pastoral education (CPE) unit.  In seminary last fall, I took a class on pastoral care where we role-played pastoral encounters with each other.  For example, one time I played the role of an unemployed single mom who just found out my child had cancer, and my friend and fellow seminarian played the role of pastor and offered support.  The role-playing was helpful, pointing out natural strengths and weaknesses that accompany such situations.  Role playing gave us a safe space to take a risk and see if we could emotionally handle what is needed to love someone in the midst of great pain and uncertainty.

From our practice, I thought I would have a flavor for how similar situations would play out in real life with real people.  But this summer, as I sat with an unemployed single mom who found out that her 18 month old daughter needed to be withdrawn from life support, the classroom practice paled to the experience before me.

Becoming a pastor requires a lot more than learning Hebrew (something I’m doing in class this fall) or understanding the perspective of one Gospel author over another.  Becoming a pastor requires a lot of practice, a lot of time living and working in emotionally and spiritually challenging situations and then returning to a classroom, peer advisory group, or supervisor to stop and reflect on the work that has been done.  Even in the moments when you feel that you have provided the best care you could at the time, it is important to recognize where you could have been more present, more attentive, more compassionate, less focused on your own reactions.  It is important to realize the limitations of humanity.  You have to learn to let go your expectations that prevents you from being the most honest vessel of the Spirit that you can possibly be.

This is no easy feat, and takes a lot of practice.  This summer I spent 300 hours working as a hospital chaplain, providing direct pastoral support to patients, their families, and the staff who care for them.  I spent 200 additional hours reflecting in a classroom on how effective my care actually was.  This is in addition to the countless hours reading and studying about pastoral care.  A lot of practice in 11 weeks.

This is still not enough practice.  In the upcoming school year, I am assigned to yet another type of practice, working in a congregation.  Different from the administrative role I continue to hold for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, my contextual education at St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette, IL, will help me continue developing my pastoral care identity.  This time will further practice my ability to lead Bible studies, confirmation classes, and worship leading abilities.  Different from my paid role at St. Luke’s that I can set aside at the end of the work day, my time at St John’s will be coupled with classroom time to reflect on my ministry and learn what was helpful and where I can continue to grow.
Pastor Doug was right – you can’t have enough practice.  I now realize this practicing ministry needs to be balanced with intentional reflection.  Becoming a pastor means becoming honest about what worked and what didn’t, what parts of your ministry were centered on your own needs rather than the greater good of the community, and learning how to get out of your own way in order to be the most honest vessel of the Spirit that you can possibly be.

Wishing you God’s Peace & Blessings,
Tina Heise, Seminarian

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