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Jonah, Justin Bieber, and Me

by Meghan Johnston Aelabouni

It was one of those mornings. My husband, who is also my co-pastor, was off early to the men’s breakfast, leaving me with the task of getting both kids (and myself ) fed, cleaned up, properly dressed, and out the door in an hour. Eyes on the clock, I hoisted my 9-month-old daughter, Natalie, in my arms and herded my energetic 4-year-old son, Ethan, up the stairs toward the bathroom, eyeing the layer of pureed peaches and crumbled Cheerios covering our dining room floor. Maybe I’ll vacuum before we leave, I thought, fully aware that I was kidding myself.

An hour or so later, after one filthy diaper, one unplanned bath, and one full-fledged tantrum arising from the fact that I hadn’t laundered my son’s favorite shirt, we were only 10 minutes late. Not bad, I thought. Buckling the baby into her carrier, I suddenly heard splashing sounds coming from the bathroom. Inside, the sink was full to overflowing, and my beloved son was piloting a toy boat on the stormy seas, soaked up to his elbows, radiating joy.

“Ethan! We are LATE!” I bellowed, as I pulled him into his room to change.

 “But, Mama…” he began. In no mood to listen, I yanked off the wet shirt and started looking for a clean one. “Mama, mama, MAMA,” he repeated insistently. “I want to TE LL you something!”

“I don’t have time right now,” I said through my teeth. “You soaked your clean clothes, and we’re late for preschool.”

“But, Mama,” he said, eyes big and lip quivering. “I was just being Jonah.” I sighed, torn between frustration and laughter. Well, at least he’s paying attention in Sunday school! “Mama?” Ethan ventured in a small voice, spotting the cracks in the stern expression I adopt for purposes of discipline. “I love you.” Thus Jonah survived the wrath of Mom to sail another day.  (back to top)

Upper and lower case

Last week, I was reading a blog called “Momastery,” authored by Glennon Melton, a mother of three who writes with penetrating honesty and wit about the “brutiful” (brutal and beautiful) nature of parenting and daily life. Melton described the difference between “lower-case l life,” the life that is unique to each person, and “upper-case L life,” life itself. She wrote: “Sometimes I wonder if we live our lower-case l lives just to practice what we believe about upper-case L life.”

Christian tradition has a theological word for the same concept: vocation. From the Latin vocare, “to call,” our vocation is our calling from God. Through our baptisms, God gives us a purpose, calling us into daily work. Our vocations differ: pastors, potato farmers, potters, pianists, parents. The ways in which we serve God and express our faith often seem small and ordinary. But each vocation is an expression of Vocation. Every act done in love of God and neighbor is holy.

As in Paul’s metaphor about the body and its many members, the people of God value every vocation equally—in theory. In practice, this isn’t always the case. We sometimes stratify vocations, honoring some more than others: elevating ordained ministry above the ministry of laypeople; elevating vocations with large paychecks above those paying minimum wage (or nothing); elevating letters like M.D. or Ph.D. above letters like SAH P (stay at home parent). All lower-case lives are expressions of upper-case Life; but we act as though some lives are more upper-case than others.

I suspect that many of us, in the “mission field” of our lives, may ask ourselves: Is what I do important? Does my life matter, in the scheme of Life? These questions can be powerful and faithful, if we ask them in the context of discerning the vocations to which God has called us. The problem comes when we attempt to define and evaluate our lives and vocations by contrasting them with others’ lives and vocations. Compared to Paul, or Barnabas, or {insert name here}, how could God possibly be working through me?  (back to top)

Confessions of a grumpy pastor-parent-person of faith

In my vocation as a minister of word and sacrament, I’m fortunate. Much of my daily living is recognized as a holy calling. When I preach, lead Bible study, or bring communion into a hospital room, my work is easily identifiable as God’s work. And yet, I still succumb to the temptation to compare my ministry with that of others who seem more vital to the church: those who are starting new congregations, serving in other countries, or living on the “cutting edge” of ministry. All is well when I feel I’m making a difference in someone’s life. But when the sink in the men’s restroom is leaking, or the van rental bill for the youth trip comes in at twice the quote, or a miscommunication leaves someone upset, I ask myself: Is this ministry?

In my vocation as a parent, I firmly believe my mom-hood is a holy calling. My husband and I try hard not to allow our calling as pastors to trump our calling as parents, and the congregation we serve is wonderfully supportive of our family. But there are days when both kids are shrieking and I’m shouting to be heard, or when I tell my son the babysitter will put him to bed because Mama and Baba have a meeting at church, and he cries and asks, “Why?”

One of the more aggravating side effects of being a two-pastor household is that our son sometimes associates church with the loss of his parents, however temporarily. Is this ministry?

As a person of Christian faith—baptized as an infant, raised in the church, off to seminary directly from college—I sometimes envy those whose stories of coming to know God are as dramatic as Paul’s “road to Damascus” experience. I admire the mystics and contemplatives, even as I know that if I tried a silent retreat, my head might explode. (I’m an off-the-charts extrovert.) On particularly cranky days, the image of a faithful Christian who exudes joy and kindness in all circumstances makes me grumble like a Pharisee. Is this ministry?  (back to top)

“I reject the devil and all his empty promises”

This questioning and grumbling can overtake me, against my will and better judgment. I know it is unhelpful, even sinful, to deny the value of my vocation and to envy others’ callings. I have been blessed to have people in my life who continually remind me that God has made me in God’s image and given me gifts and a purpose.

 I frequently preach this message in my congregation, with conviction: that no one is extra; no one is expendable; everyone matters to God and God’s church. Still, the voice inside my head whispers: “Your life is so ordinary, and you’re not even doing a good job of living it! Best give it up.”

I’ve come to identify this voice as the deceiver: the opponent of God, the speaker of empty promises who takes a vested interest in preventing all of us from fulfilling God’s vision for our lives. I also suspect I’m not the only victim of the deceiver’s mind games. In the world and in our heads, there is a voice determined to convince us that our lives don’t ultimately matter that much. What better way to stop us from living out our vocations than to tell us there’s no point?

When I imagine the early Christians at Antioch going about the routines of their daily lives and then welcoming Paul and Barnabas into their homes to hear tales of their adventures in mission, I wonder if some were jealous. I’m certain that I’m projecting my own worldview, but I can’t help thinking that at least a few of those Antioch Christians may have felt their daily lives were dull and meaningless by comparison to Paul and Barnabas. Dangerous and uncomfortable as the apostles’ work often was, at least it was interesting, and obviously important!

Looking back, it’s clear that God worked through the tenacity and commitment of these early communities of believers to ensure the survival and growth of the church over the centuries. At the time, however, these ordinary Christians couldn’t have known how their lives would plant the seeds of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Neither can we, people of faith living today, fully know the part we have to play. Rarely can we see how God is weaving our lives into the tapestry of Life; and it can seem foolish to believe we are indispensable to the body of Christ.  (back to top)

Justin Bieber to the rescue

On the morning of Jonah and the bathroom sink, I drove to my son’s preschool with the radio on and found myself listening to a Justin Bieber song, “As Long as You Love Me.” And lo, the song spake unto the people and said: “The grass ain’t always greener on the other side; it’s green where you water it.”

Clichéd as it may be, this sentiment shed some light on my vocational struggles. I was reminded that the process of finding joy and confidence in my calling from God begins when I accept as a starting point the notion that God has called me to be exactly who I am, where I am. I was reminded that God enters into our ordinary, everyday lives in all their imperfection to offer us opportunities to make a difference. I was reminded of a truth deeper than the crumbs embedded in my carpet, deeper than our insecurities: There is no such thing as an ordinary life.

If by the grace of God we can believe this, or at least live each day as an attempt to believe this, God can and will accomplish great and wonderful things through us. For me, this sometimes looks like plunging toilets with good grace and dignity. Yes, this is ministry! It sometimes looks like rocking my sick baby to sleep and realizing that I am holding, not just a life, but Life. Yes, this is ministry! It sometimes looks like celebrating how our congregation is helping to form the faith of my children while I’m doing something else. Yes, this is ministry! It is the moments in which I stop wanting someone else’s life, flooded with gratitude for the one I have.

What does it look like for you? What is your ministry? How is God working through even the most mundane and exasperating days of your life in order to show you, and those around you, what is most true about Life? Each of our stories will be different; but as we seek to discover and celebrate our own vocations, may we trust in the God of Jesus Christ, who invites us to dive into the waters of our baptismal calling—soaked to the elbows with purpose and joy.

Meghan Johnston Aelabouni serves as co-pastor with her husband, Gabi Aelabouni, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colo. Meghan has blogged for the Huffington Post and written for The Lutheran magazine.  (back to top)

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