Back to Writing

When my beloved and I decided that we were going to do this thing, we were going to move across country and make a life together, I knew that I wouldn’t be in full time ministry anymore.

I would leave the church I was serving to an unknown future. I hoped that there would be opportunities for ministry and there has. I’ve been so very lucky. Thus far, we’ve moved twice and ministry opportunities have appeared. I was blessed to serve as an interim pastor in a lovely little church in Pennsylvania and then when we moved to Kansas I got lucky again. I was thrilled to continue my work as an interim with a twist. I got to partner with a wonderful church on the brink of a huge transition as their consultant. I loved every single moment of both of these opportunities so much so that I kinda sorta stopped writing.

When my beloved and I started this adventure two years ago, he encouraged me to think of this time as a sabbatical. I didn’t need to work, he said. I could write the book that I’ve dreamed of writing for years and years.

I loved him for saying it and put my butt in the chair each and every day to write. Or at least, I would attempt to write. I would also get frustrated and confused and wonder if I had anything worthwhile to say. I’d distract myself with building a platform and then by taking another gander at the proposal I might send to a publisher that maybe might publish this labor of love. I’d write an essay here and there. I even published a few of them. I published more than a few actually. And then, I somehow stopped working on the book.

I got excited about other things. I just plain old stopped writing. I made a whole bunch of excuses to myself and never breathed a word about it to anyone else. I didn’t dare. I was too embarrassed.

Well, that’s all over. I declare my shame. I confess my vulnerability and share the news that I started writing again. It was just one day last week that I sat down to write but I wrote nearly two thousand words and I want to keep going. So, today, I’m in an airport trying to write even more words and pausing for only a moment to ask for your help.

Here’s the thing about writing that anyone who attempts to pen sermons, liturgies, poems, essays or books will say: it’s hard work. What’s more: it’s really lonely. It’s easy to get stuck in your head and think that none of it matters but the thing about using words is that there is always something important to say. That’s why writers feel called to write. It’s why I want to write. I feel like I have something worth saying and I’ll admit that I’m a bit shy about sharing that whole idea right now but even so, I could really use a cheerleader or two.

This is where I need your help. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even if you simply add a comment here on my blog, I would love to hear words of encouragement. I’d love your support as I try to put these words on a page and step back into writing in the hope that I might get to publish this labor of love.

It would mean the world to me.

Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.

 

10 Observations for Right Now

It seems to me that there are so many great teachers out there. It’s why TED is so popular. There are just so many people that are pulsing with wisdom and creativity. It isn’t a select few that have these great ideas but something that is shared across disciplines among all different kinds of people.

For years, I’ve been safely tucking ideas from great teachers into my files on Evernote. I save them for some future date when I might be able to use them in my ministry. Maybe they’ll become a sermon illustration or maybe they’ll work their way into some of my consulting work or maybe I’ll use them for some small group resource I’m writing. Among those things saved in my files on Evernote are actual assignments that teachers assign their students that have caught my interest including Paul Thek’s “Teaching Notes.”

On my walk today, with Krista Tippett in my ears, I heard from another wise teacher and while I’m tempted to file the idea away on Evernote, it grabs my attention enough to know that it’s something that I should probably attempt to practice right now. In OnBeing’s “The Power of Words to Save Us,” the poet Maria Howe offers this assignment that I’m feeling nudged to practice. She explains:

I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them… They really find it hard…

Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason…

We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. And to be with a glass of water or to be with anything — and then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s whole thing. It’s the point… And then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No, no, no. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens, Krista. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it so thrilling. I mean, it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.

There’s an added dimension to this assignment. Not only are these students called to pay attention to the thing in front of them or even the world around them, they are not supposed to use any metaphors.

Jesus loves a good metaphor. He invites people past and present to imagine the kingdom of God in all of these fantastic illustrations. It’s like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like a merchant in search of beautiful pearls. It’s like a king who wants to settle all of his accounts or perhaps like landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to tend to his vineyard.

This great teacher, Maria Howe, advises against it. No matter how much Jesus might love a metaphor, Howe says to avoid it. Don’t compare the thing. Don’t illustrate it. Don’t try to connect it to anything else. Just describe the glass of water as it is.

Right now, it feels like there is so much happening in the world and even in my own life. It feels like are moving fast and slightly out of control and perhaps what I need most is just to slow down and pay attention and notice what’s in front of me. Every day, just write 10 observations of the actual world.

It feels like enough for such a time as this.

Recipe for Gratitude

Many congregations, including the one that I am working with right now as a consultant, care for their members by putting in the mail cards full of love and support when someone has fallen ill or is bereaved.

Some congregations have a committee that keeps a stock of stationary for this very purpose. Once a month, they gather for fellowship and write cards together.

Other churches have created a culture where the members know that any name listed on the prayer list on Sunday can be found in the church directory and that those prayers on Sunday morning reach right on into the week with a flurry of stamped envelopes sent to that dear person who needs a boost in the midst of the chaos of life.

When I was serving as a solo pastor in Washington state, it was my own practice. I asked the administrator of the church to order me special stationary with the church logo and each week, I’d conclude my week by writing five thank you notes. I’d make notes of my gratitude over the week. I’d notice on Sunday that a new acolyte had lit the candles in worship and send that child a note to say what a great job he did. I’d attend a meeting and notice the skill that a member of the church had exhibited in leading a tough conversation. I’d notice that two people stay after Bible Study to talk about something that one of them had shared. I’d send a note to both of them to thank them for reminding me (again) how much the community of Jesus Christ makes a difference in this world. I’d send notes to staff members and musicians just to say I’m so grateful for sharing in this awesome work together.

Since I left that church, I’ve had two big events in my life that have required me to keep a spreadsheet of names, addresses and gifts. I’ve restocked my stationary supply twice now. First, it was for my wedding and I’m still pretty sure that I missed some words of thanks. And at this very moment, I am surrounded by pink stationary with words of thanks in a childish font to send to dear ones that have already showered our baby with love. (She is due in October, by the way.) I have to admit that I love writing these notes. I love getting the chance to take a moment to focus my words on gratitude for the love that has been showed to me.  It’s something I think that we need more of in the world. We need more gratitude and opportunities and praise. It is for this reason that I offer you this recipe for gratitude.

This particular recipe is not focused on churches — though it certainly could be. It is instead a prayer practice I invite you to share with me.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY (2)

Don’t worry about how many cards you might send. At first, just start with one and just wait and see how it changes how you pay attention to the world around you.

 

 

 

Prayers for Palm and Passion Sunday

Years ago, when I was still pastoring in Maine and also writing liturgy for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways, I wanted to find some way to honor both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. The church was accustomed to only doing Palm Sunday because there would be other services both for children and adults later in the week. The year before we did both and it felt so strange, even to me. I wanted to find another way to do it — some way that honored the complexity of these days.

It’s not an easy story to tell and for so much that happens there is no adequate explanation. There is no way to make sense of it. It is why I have titled this complete liturgy No Answer and why I’ve decided to repost it here — not only because it answers the call that I hear my clergy colleagues making as they plan for Holy Week but because rereading this liturgy again spoke something new and fresh to me in these days.

Unlike other Ingredients for Worship, where I offer a few prayers for worship, this is an entire liturgy for Palm and Passion Sunday. It combines silence and story from Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:1-15:47. Using passages adapted from the NRSV, this liturgy provides the opportunity for lay leaders to share the story from the Gospel of Mark. Each reading concludes with a statement “Come…” to respond to the story in silence or song. Following the story of the Last Supper, there is a brief, optional, service of Holy Communion.

Call to Worship (inspired by Isaiah 50:4-9a)

Come. Come seeking words.
Come to let your tongue give praise.
Come. Come to find your voice.
Come to hear the response.
Come. Come to open your ears.
Come to listen.
Come. Come to be healed by the silence.
Come to stand together.
Come. Come to approach what words cannot describe.
Come to find God.

Prayer of Invocation

Come. Come O Holy One.
Come through the streets.
Come into the house.
Come to find a space beside us at the table.
Come to challenge our answers about
Why tragedy comes
Why poverty increases
Why we are afraid.
Come O Holy One.
Speak to us in the silence
With wisdom greater than ours
With love deeper than ours
With change wider than ours.

Shared Silence

Come O Holy One.
Fill in these stories
with your wisdom
with your love
with your change
so that we might rely on your answers.
Here and now. Amen.

Hymn My Song is Love Unknown

Prayer of Confession (inspired by Psalm 31:9-16)

O Holy One, we are too distressed to notice that you join us in the parade.
We are too deeply grieved to be aware that you sit beside us at the table.
We are too busy sighing. We are too busy talking.
We have insisted upon our own answers.
We proclaimed our own knowledge about why bad things happen,
about why the rich get richer, about why the world feels so broken.
We have assured ourselves that this is the way that things must be,
but this life is in your hands.
Our lives are in your hands.

O Holy One, speak to us.
Fill our silences.
Comfort us with your love
so that we may find your understanding.
Trust us to find your answers
when we finally tire from our own.
Save us, O Holy One, with your steadfast love. Amen.

Words of Assurance

God opens your ears.
God speaks when you are silent.
God approaches you
in the parade and at table
in your denial and your praise
to be your help.
Now and always. Amen.

Hymn All Glory, Laud and Honor

The Palm Parade (Mark 11:1-11)

They were looking for answers. So, they went to Jerusalem. They gathered in the streets to make a way for peace. On the other side of the city, there was another procession. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, rode into Jerusalem with an army of horses, armored soldiers and waving banners.

On the other side of the city, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus had sent two of his disciples to go into the village and find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. He instructed them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They replied with the answer Jesus had given. “The Lord needs it,” they said.

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and Jesus sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who needed answers, those who had come looking for peace, began shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Come. Join in the parade, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn Mantos y Ramos 

The Anointing (Mark 14:1-9)

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

They were looking for their own answers. They thought they knew how the world worked. While they worried, Jesus sat at the table in the house of Simon the leper. A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. She did not reply. She continued with her task. She did what she could; she anointed his body beforehand for its burial. Jesus spoke, where she did not. “Truly I tell you,” he said. “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Come. Kneel beside her. Do not speak but remember what your hands have done to proclaim the good news.

Silence

The Last Supper (Mark 14:10-25)

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

They didn’t understand his way. They didn’t understand all that he taught but when it came time to share in the Passover feast, they turned to Jesus. On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples asked, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” The disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, those looking for answers, those who came looking for peace, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Come. Find your place at this table, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn of Preparation It Was a Sad and Solemn Night (optional)

Service of Holy Communion (optional)

Invitation to Christ’s Table

Come. Come and find your place at this table.
Come without answers.
Come without knowing peace.
Come without preparation.
Come. Come to find a place here.
This is the table Christ prepares for us.
This is the feast God imagines –
where peace can be found in a simple meal.

Communion Prayer

God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks for the peace of God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

In the streets,
In our homes,
Here beside this table,
We give you thanks,
O Holy One.

We give you thanks for giving us a story.
Even when we do not understand its meaning,
Even when we doubt it happened this way,
Even when we want to rush ahead to the end,
We know that you have given us this story
in which to live and move and have our being.

We remember that your story did not begin with this parade,
but began when you came to move over the waters of creation.
We remember the tragedies that came to your people.
And we know that you were not silent.
You gave your people a story.
You gave your people a rainbow.
You gave your people a song.
You gave your people peace.

Gather here with us now, O Holy One,
Speak to us through this bread and this cup.
Remind us of all the stories we’ve ever heard about you.
Imbue these symbols with your peace
So that we might find your peace within ourselves.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Prayer of our Savior

O Holy One, there are no words to describe the mystery of this bread and cup. There are no sighs to deep to reveal what we feel in sharing in this feast. Thank you for gathering us together to remember that you are always present among us. We lift our hearts in prayer, toward your spirit and pray the Prayer that Jesus taught us…

The Story Continues

The Garden (Mark 14:32-40)

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, Jesus threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. They had no answers.

Come. Rest in the garden, you who are weary, you who don’t have any answers.

Hymn I Must Tell Jesus 

The Betrayal (Mark 14:43-50)

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. He was confident in his own answer. He thought he knew how this must end. So, he had told the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” When he came, he went up to Jesus at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. They had come looking for answers. They had come looking for peace. This wasn’t the way. They didn’t understand. And so, they deserted him and fled.

Come. Run into your fears, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Silence

The Arrest (Mark 14:53-65)

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. There did not have one answer. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

The chief priests, the elders and the scribes knew their answer. They thought they knew the ways of God. They thought they knew all that God could do. There was nothing that could convince them otherwise. They spit on him and blindfolded him. They beat him for the words he said.

Come. Listen to what God might be saying. Listen to what God might be doing that doesn’t fit with everything that you have been taught about this world. Listen for God to speak.

Silence

The Denial (Mark 14:66-72)

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by.When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” He answered, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.”

Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it.

Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Come. Join those who wander through courtyards, court rooms, streets and gardens.
Join the crowds who have come looking for answers, looking for peace.

Hymn I Want Jesus to Go with Me 

Invitation to the Offering

When you have no words,
When you cannot find your voice,
God approaches.
Let us reach out to our God.
Let us give our gifts.

Dedication of the Offering

O Holy One,
Bless these gifts
So that the world may know your love
Even when we are silent. Amen.

Hymn Journey to Gethsemane 

Benediction

Go into the world to find your voice
Listening to what God will do.
Go into the world to find each other
Reaching out when we need support.
Go into the world be amazed
Knowing that God is always with us.

If you use this liturgy in your worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook and mention that it was originally written for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways. I would love to hear how you use this service — especially if you choose alternate hymns or make other tweaks for your congregation.

The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

Self-Care is Not Just for Clergy

yoga-post-300x200In the wake of the presidential inauguration, with the tsunami of executive orders that immediately followed, I have watched as my friends on social media have retreated. One by one, they’ve announced they are taking a break. They need to rest. Their souls must retreat. 

Of course, as these posts appeared on Facebook, that pesky comment box beckons for a response. Some comments are blessings for renewal. Some offer courage and solidarity. Others admit that they’re feeling the same pull and then… then there’s that person who insists upon engagement. Full of finger wagging shame, this person curses the rest that even God requires.

Read more on New Sacred.

Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

Recipe for Discernment

I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Liebert last month in San Anselmo where I began my studies in spiritual direction. I had read her book The Way of Discernment way back when I was discerning whether or to leave my first call. I was testing the spirits and her words were amazingly helpful as she reminded me, in her own words, that

discernment … is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.

Convinced both then and now that faithfulness great or small is going to be lost on me, I also read this article from the Christian Century. The author simply says God has no secret plan but only asks any of us into the greater faithfulness of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Still, this feels lofty and overwhelming and I know it will for Central Congregational Church in Topeka tonight when I lead them through this exercise in discernment. Tonight, we’ll look at all of the data that we can find about the mission field in Topeka. There will be holes. We won’t have everything we want or need, but with what we’ve found and what I have gathered as their consultant, we’ll try to discern the greater faithfulness of this congregation.

To do so, we’ll borrow questions from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment. In other chapters, she encourages listening to the heart’s desire and paying attention to your body. She invites dreaming and prayer but in  the third chapter, it’s all about the data. We’ll repeat the questions she offers twice throughout the night but as I review my notes again I hope that these become familiar questions that recur in the months ahead when this church will need to make still more decisions. I don’t expect that we will come to a clear answer tonight, but I do hope that these questions will guide us in the ongoing process and it’s why I want to offer these questions to you.

Whether it is your church or your own self that is in the midst of discernment, here is a recipe that might helping you get cooking toward knowing what that greater faithfulness might be.

recipe-for-ministry

It didn’t fit on my cute little design but there is one final step which is to give thanks. There may not be clear answers to where God is leading, but God is still leading. God is present in every questions and soon enough we will know what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Until we’re clear, both you and I will return to this practice and ask these questions over and over again until we have a clear sense of where that greater faithfulness is.

If you are interested to learn more about my consulting practice or how I might help your church, I hope you’ll contact me. I would love to hear from you.

 

What I’m Up to Now

Holy threads are hard to see. They are as invisible and hidden as God. Even when we can see threads stitched through the fabric of our existence, they are often jumbled and knotted. We try to pick up those threads but we cannot untangle them from all of the rest.

The poet William Stafford observes, there is a thread. There is a thread that you follow that can be hard to see and harder still to explain. And yet, even when it feels like it might all unravel, it feels important. It feels like there is something happening and so you can’t help but wonder. I’ve felt like this for a very long time.

If you’ve been following along with my adventures in the kitchen, you know already that I’ve tried many things. I got married and ministry changed. I would no longer be a local church pastor. I’m still holding onto this hope. It hasn’t yet gone away. It is still where I hope God will lead me when we finally stop moving every three years, but until then ministry will look different. And it already has.

I had this idea about somehow ministering to the military community. I began to get some training and tried to imagine doing this thing I had no idea. I went for some more training where I was asked to assert this purpose of the thing I was doing. I couldn’t do it. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t an entrepreneur. Or at least, I didn’t see myself defined by the enterpreneurial model of my training. I felt more called to the local church then ever. And so, I let that idea go. From there, I found myself as an interim pastor and then as a consultant. I’ve found myself to be a writer and even been published by some small miracle. You might also know that I’m working on a book. That project is ever in the background as I try to understand my ministry in this time.

Years ago, when I was interviewing for what would become my first call, the search committee googled me. In that internet search, they found two postings to my college alumni notes. The first bubbled with enthusiasm upon finding my first job at a place that felt every bit as exciting as the art studio where I spent most of my college years. The second was more sullen and downtrodden. I was disenchanted, only one year later, with that same job and was instead applying to seminary. They wanted to know if my feelings toward their church would be as dramatic. They’d already had a rotating door of associates and they wanted every assurance of security they could get. It was, however, the wrong question. What they should have and could have asked me was how I was discerning my call at that time.

Frederick Buchner writes that the “place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I was still looking for that place and the truth of the matter is that it is never one place that God calls us.

God continues to work through our lives so that that call changes as we learn of new hungers and discover things that we never, ever thought that could make us glad. There is a holy thread of gladness that I’ve struggled to name but one that I’ve felt the power of in coffee shops and living rooms. I’ve been blessed — as a pastor —  to listen to all of those little stories that are being carried around that seem so insignificant. But, I listen. I listen and I share my gratitude for these gifts. I assure those that have entrusted these stories with me that they matter. Because they do. That holy thread has woven through the words I’ve tried to write and the interim ministry I’ve tried to do and it’s led me to this place where I am embracing the many years of spiritual direction I’ve received and stepping into the role of director.

img_1648You may have seen on Facebook that I sent a letter off in the mail to San Francisco Theological Seminary. In January, I spent the whole month in rainy California where I officially began a program in spiritual direction and began to pull all of these threads together.

I do not dare to suggest that this is the last place that God is calling me but it is where God is calling me now. There are holy threads that I hope to hold. There are stories I want to cherish. There is something about the art of listening that compels me and draws me near. It is with this hope and this faith that I share HOLY THREADS.

I stumble over the words when I am asked what I’m doing right now. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to say that I’m doing the hustle {cue music} as MaryAnn McKibben Dana suggests. (I don’t think she really says that, anyway.) But, the truth is: I am learning a new form of ministry. I am embracing this art form of spiritual direction as one of the many ways that I try to be true to my calling. It is, of course, because it is my calling that the words get jumbled. It’s hard to talk about this new thing. It’s hard to feel confident or even capable while still being a student even though I am certain that this is what I should be doing right now. If you’re curious about this new practice or might know of someone that might be looking for a directee, I hope you’ll check out my new site.