What’s in your backpack?

Stephanie Haskins                                                                                                                           Maquoketa UCC

Psalm 111                                                                                                                                            August 19, 2018





I haven’t gone back to school since 2007—my last year of seminary.  But I love this time of year.  I love the cooler temperatures in the morning.  I love sweet corn and tomatoes (by the way—if anyone needs tomatoes, I have some!).  And I love wandering the aisles looking at school supplies.  I don’t need glue sticks, folders, or #2 pencils, but just being around them I feel a familiar thrill.  Those things carry the whiff of a fresh start.  And you, my beloved congregation, and me as well, are about to start a new grade.


So I went to Wal-Mart on Friday afternoon to get school supplies to donate.  I found the supply list for kindergarten at Cardinal Elementary School and began to shop.  My first stop: this Wonder Woman backpack.  (I couldn’t resist).  And then I followed the list.  Glue sticks, erasers, folders, Kleenex.  This most basic group of supplies (which doesn’t include new clothes, shoes or glasses) was $41.54.  I took a moment to appreciate the money it takes for families in our community to send their kids to school.  And then I thought some more.  We prepare our kids for some of life’s transitions—including going to school.  But I thought about our church—about the transitions we’re already making—and the ones which are ahead.  Where’s our Wonder Woman backpack for the season we’re living in?


The Hebrew scholar Walter Bruggeman divides the psalms of the Bible—those 150 ancient songs of praise and lament—into three categories.  There are psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.[1]  You could also think of these as parts of a story.  A story about God and God’s people.  Like any story, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In the beginning of the story, certain truths are taken for granted.  God is trustworthy.  The world is always just and fair.  The innocent are rewarded; the guilty are punished.  And then a crisis happens.  Something catastrophic shakes the foundation of these beliefs.  The world turns upside down and disorientation takes over.  Is anything fair?  Does God really care?  Maybe God doesn’t exist at all.  That’s the middle.  If things are going well, by the end the lessons of the middle are incorporated into a new way of life or a new perspective.  Yes, we can still trust God.  But God’s ways and purposes are larger and more mysterious than we realized at the beginning.  I think the psalms are so popular—including our psalm of orientation (Psalm 111) because life itself is a cycle of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.  One after another.  If disorientation is managed well, the kindergartner who begins Cardinal on Thursday will be a different person than the kindergartner who leaves Cardinal in May.  For the better.


The psalms are a reliable guide to transition.  But I want to get more specific about our transition.  Once again, Wonder Woman comes to the rescue!


I found in my school supplies some things that might help us—our church community—ride our current wave of change.


So let me just dig in my bag…


The first things we might need are Kleenex and hand sanitizer.  Kleenex because change is difficult.  And grief is a natural part of letting go not only of my ministry with you, but of the future that could have been.  I’ve been telling people who ask me what it’s like to move on: “It’s all the feelings.”  And it is.  Though on most days it’s just two.  I’ve considered making a t-shirt that says: “Happy-sad.”  Letting go of a pastor (and a secretary) is difficult.  There’s gonna be grief.  There’s gonna be tears.  We’re gonna need Kleenex.  But we might also need hand sanitizer because change is inevitably messy.  Words might be spoken in frustration and stress; processes might not be communicated as well as they could.  We will need extra grace for each other in this time because it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when that we’ll get annoyed or frustrated or even hurt by each other.  A mentor of mine used to say: “Remember the ABC’s.  Anxiety before change.” 


In this period of disorientation, we also need our glue sticks.  We need to remember that God is holding us together.  No pastor does that.  God does that.  This congregation has survived—and thrived—in challenging circumstances before.  No church makes it to 175 years without going through some valleys as well as the mountains.  But we are in a fortunate place.  Plans are already in the works to hire a full-time interim minister not to do the work of the valley (of the shadow of death), but to continue some mountain-time momentum.  That’s a gift and a grace of the moment we’re in now.


What else is in here…?


A notebook, eraser and #2 pencils.  As soon as you received word of my resignation, the future already began to look different.  On Oct. 21st, I won’t be a part of the ongoing story of this church.  You’ll remember me.  You’ll have stories to share.  I pray you’ll forgive my faults and avoid exaggerating my strengths.  But I won’t have control over that.  I’ll be gone.  So the notebook will be in your hands.  This is your time to remember and discern what things that we have shared and done together that really matter to you.  What would you like to see continue?  What would you like to see fall away?  How is God calling you to continue expanding the gifts you’ve been given?


And finally, I’ve saved the best—and my favorite supply—for last.  Do you know what it is?  Of course.  It has to be crayons.  In times of change, when fear and worry naturally arise, what do human animals do?  They stick close to the fire.  It’s survival mode.  And survival mode is not the most imaginative place.  It tends to be a place of black-and-white thinking.  The opposite of colorful crayons.  We get to celebrate Sherri’s three years of service as our church’s administrator this morning.  We get to keep her as a member of the church.  But I have to admit I was happy-sad when she announced her departure.  I was backing right into that fire wondering how we would handle another transition, when I had a sudden moment of clarity.  Give it to God, I thought.  Practice what you preach, Steph, and give it to God.  So I did.  I said: “God, help.  This is in your hands.”  And through almost no effort—some, but not much—our next secretary, Amanda, landed in our laps.  It seems like the right move for both of us.


“God remembered to keep her ancient promise.  She proved to her people that she could do what she said.”  Use all the colors, good people, in this holy and tender time of transition.  We have everything we need to move forward.  We have everything we need, because God is still God.  God is still good.


I think we’re ready to go back to school.  Amen.

[1] Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 14.

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