Back home - sort of


In normal times when a pastor moves on from serving a congregation, the break is final and complete. The general rule is that the former pastor stays away from the congregation and from the people for a couple of years. Contact by phone is limited and a visit to the former church and even the community where it is located is usually not done in the first two years. But these are not normal times. We retired from our congregation in Rapid City during the Covid pandemic. We didn’t get to say good bye with a potluck lunch or with parting hugs. A drive-by of our members wasn’t the same thing. So we have returned, briefly. With the consent of the Interim pastor, we are visiting on a weekend and including attending worship on Sunday, something we have not done in the other congregations we served. The purpose is not to interfere with the congregation or to participate in the transition in any way. Our standing as pastors is no longer in this conference. We will continue to be a part of our new congregation in Washington. This summer’s trip, however, has brought us to Rapid City and we will do a little bit more saying good bye over the next couple of days.

It feels good to be back in the town where we lived and worked and loved our lives for 25 years. We are camped at an urban campground that works just right for us. We can walk, directly from our camper to Rapid City’s greenbelt and take some of our favorite walks. We are next to a small lake that is big enough for a morning paddle in a canoe. We know our way around town. We’ve already met with a few friends, including meeting one at our favorite ice cream parlor last evening. We checked out a new restaurant started by other friends for supper. We drove down Skyline Park and checked out the view of the church building without stopping by.

It is hot here, but we are still in the hills. It has cooled off overnight enough to sleep with the air conditioner off and the windows open. At least one of the campers in the park has not yet discovered that fact and we can hear the sound of their air conditioner running, but it isn’t loud enough to drown out the murmur of the insects in the trees. I walked down to the lakeshore last evening as the sun set and a great blue heron squawked its greeting as it fished the shore.

The skies, however, are smoky. There are a lot of fires north and west of here. I looked at the Interagency Fire System’s incident map and if you zoom out so that you can see the northwest corner of the country it looks like all of western Montana, northern Idaho and easter Washington and Oregon are on fire. There are additional fires in California, British Columbia and Alberta. In that way it is much like last year and the year before. Intense western wildfires are becoming a part of summer in this part of the world. The causes are complex, but it is part of the sudden shift in climate that makes for more intense weather events around the world.

The sunset last night was a typical smoky sunset, with a bright orange-red sun. Looking down main street toward the hills gave a strange feeling, but it is one we’ve felt before.

I suspect that there will be more than a few strange feelings over the next few days. Our time here will be too short for us to see everyone we would love to see. We have really missed the people of our church who had become our friends after so many years of sharing ministry together. Our friends have set up opportunities for us to meet with them and we have brunches, coffees, dinners and other gatherings planned.

Before we left South Carolina our son-in-law shared that he has learned something about going back home to visit friends over his nearly 20 years in the Air Force. “Let them come to you,” he said, “You’ll run yourself ragged trying to go to meet with everyone.” There is truth in what he is saying. This is not a pastoral visit. Our goal is not to get in touch with everyone in the congregation. Our goal is to connect with friends and to see people we know and love. And then, once again, we will leave to our home and our church in Washington and allow the congregation and its leaders to envision and plan their future. With due respect to our son-in-law and his wisdom and experience, our situation is a bit different than when he returns to his growing up home from his service. We want to see the people who we are missing. But we also know that we should not and cannot do so as their pastor. We are simply meeting with friends as friends and our visit will be brief. We are trying to achieve a balance. We have our own home base here in our camper in the corner of the park and we are having a few quiet and private moments reconnecting with the black hills and remembering how much we loved living in this place. The deer and the birds and the water call us as they did when we lived here. The wind in the trees sounds and smells familiar to us in a way that has not been the case in the other places we have visited on this trip. It feels like coming home, but not quite.

So far it has been really great to see our friends. We have been catching up on what has happened in their lives. New jobs, new careers, new graduations have occurred. Children have grown and changed. Elders have passed on. The world did not stop for our retirement. And the church is still the church. People care for one another. Community is being built. There is a vision emerging of a congregation where we are the former pastors and new leadership is coming forth.

I’ve spent many hours of my life, in the quiet of the night and early morning, seeking privacy and “a lonely place to pray” in this area. I know how to find what I need. A simple wooden canoe and a paddle await me in a few hours. In the meantime, i will sleep with the memories of the people of this place.

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