Bless This Mess

In the days before my second child was born, I watched my toddler play while I flipped through the pages of Bless this Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World. I read every word offered by my United Church of Christ colleague Molly Baskette and her former church member Ellen O’Donnell. I cherished each word that these two wise women had to offer me but I’ll admit that it felt a tad strange.

Here is my toddler who doesn’t fit into the age brackets for which this book wisely counsels. She has no idea what is about to befall her though I did everything in my power to talk endlessly about the baby in Mommy’s belly. We tried to tackle every transition and mitigate every disaster even as my husband was mere days away from deployment. How in the world can I spend any time worrying about what struggles my daughters will face as teenagers when I have no idea what the next nine months will hold?

Bless this mess, indeed. Bless it all. Bless every last bit of it.

That was the affirmation I found in these pages. Here is a friendship born in the struggle of parenting young children. It’s a friendship that I’m not sure I would have allowed myself if I had been the pastor. Molly had a young son while she was still pastor of First Church Somerville UCC. (It’s also the church that she references in her book Read Good Church.) There she met Ellen when Ellen came looking for how to raise a young Christian. She didn’t identify with her Catholic roots anymore but she wasn’t sure what else there was. Molly became her pastor and they carpooled to their kids’ school together. I have shied away from close relationships with those in the congregations I’ve served. I’ve chosen firmer boundaries before I had kids. It’s something I couldn’t help but ponder as these two women shared their hopes and fears in parenting.

The military has required me to be a stay-at-home mom. Opportunity has not emerged for ministry in this season, but if it did and I was serving a church, would my boundaries be different? Would I suddenly relate to my age cohort in this whole new way just because I’m now a parent? It seems messy and perhaps it should be.

Both ministry and parenting are messy. This world is messy. It is so messy that there are ethical, wise people that are choosing not to have children, but that wasn’t my choice. I wanted to have children. I knew that I wanted to have children the minute I met my husband. I don’t think I realized it until I cracked the spine of this book but I needed blessing.

I needed to hear words of blessing in making this choice. I needed to be reminded that even in all that I fear about what challenges the world will offer my girls, there is grace. There is wonder. There is even delight. It is what these two women offer in the final chapter of this treasured book. They remind parents like me that there is lots to fear. We might even be raising small animals in an age of fear but this wonderful tome reframes that fear theologically. Picking up on the ancient wisdom in Proverbs, it is suggested that the “right way” to raise our children is to pay greater attention to who God created them. It is this that is our stewardship as parents. It is this that is our spiritual practice. Our daily contemplative prayer is to notice who our children are becoming. Fear need not win, but our minute-by-minute attention to love. This little nugget has already reframed how I approach all the worries and struggles of parenting. It’s reminded me to breathe. To slow down. To encourage my tiny toddler to share her feelings even when she doesn’t yet have words for everything on her little heart.

It’s the kind of book I want to give to friends. It’s the book I wish I had had ten years ago when I was the pastor that was supposed to know how to faithfully parent small children. It’s what I like most about this book: it’s not focused on how to raise progressive Christian children but how to best parent as a progressive Christian. I want my children to know my values. I want them to understand my faith even if they don’t choose to profess my faith when they’re old enough to do so. I need to know focus on my own actions so that I’m practicing forgiveness, sabbath, service, honoring my body and my stuff (including my finances) in such a way that my kids can see my faith.

I want this because I’m a Christian. Heck, I’m a pastor. I’m also married to an atheist. I co-parent with someone who does not share my faith and that’s the struggle I find in these pages. It is assumed by both Molly and Ellen that you have a partner who shares your progressive Christian values. I don’t have that. Honestly, I wonder how many parents that pick up this book have that. I think about all of the women that have brought their children to church while their partners did other things. I totally get Molly’s insistence that readers seek out a church and regularly worship as much as I love the practices she shares for rituals at home but these are not things that will work with my family. We’ll have to find a different way and there’s still no book written for that hope of progressive parenting. As many questions and hopes that this book offers, there is still some mess that needs blessing.

I am honored to have been part of the Bless This Mess Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from Convergence Press for my honest review. It is my greatest joy to recommend this book to other parents. 

Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

It’s around this time of year that Christmas carols start playing in my house. It may be too early for some, but bah humbug to them.

There is enough crap to bemoan in the world right now. There is more than enough that we can beat ourselves up over so let’s just not do that anymore. Not this year, especially not this year. There are too many ways in which I feel like I’ve failed: prayers left unsaid, expectations not met and so many ways that I’m fairly certain I’ve already failed at parenting. I don’t want anyone to tell me that it’s OK, nor am I interested in hearing about ways that I might improve. Or even that it will get better.

This is the time of year where everyone seems to have this rosy idea about the way things should be. There’ll be no arguments about politics around the Thanksgiving table. No swell of sorrow for who is missing this year. No lamentation for the way things haven’t worked out this year in so many ways. It’s why I think Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is exactly what we should be reading as Christmas comes. It makes me feel a little bit better that I procrastinated so dang long on writing this post to celebrate this wonderful book.

Aside from the silly cover that I can’t imagine was either of the authors’ first choice, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is the work of good preaching. It’s written by two wise women I’m glad to know. Both of whom are pastors and preachers and this fact flows through each and every essay. They are words of reflection and so very personal. I was awestruck by how intimately and honestly these two women shared in this small collection of essays.

It is, in fact, something I remember asking Martha years ago when we were both pastoring in Maine. Martha has a talent for weaving the everyday ordinariness of her life into her preaching, but I was taught never to talk about myself. I was told to point to God. Martha laughed quietly, in her way, when I said that. She reminded me that every bit of that ordinary stuff points to God.

I kept thinking about that conversation in her living room while the snow was falling outside all those years ago as I read these pages. Many of the essays speak of things that were happening then. I remember. I remember how it took trusted friends to hear these truths. These were not sermon topics, but the tender broken things you hold out to those that love you most to help you make sense of what does not make any sense at all.

I admit that I cried reading more than half of this book because I remember how tender those days were. And yet, these were words that would not have been said then. No, the words in these pages are the work of grace. I wish there were more sermons preached with the grace of these two women. I wish faith was presented less as something complete and perfect and more like it is proclaimed in this small tome: confusing, challenging and sometimes just messy. It’s what we need to remember most at this time of year. Life is not perfect. We are not perfect. We fail but there is grace. Somehow, there is grace however much we might deny it.

I’m grateful these two women got together and created this thing. It’s a gift and one that I think would be worth putting under the tree for your loved one who needs to remember that there is grace out there.

I am honored to have been part of the Denial is My Spiritual Practice Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review. 

Transforming Outside the Lines

It is more than ten years ago now.

It doesn’t seem like it could be that long ago but it was over ten years ago that I found myself searching for my first call. Fresh out of seminary, I was ready to serve the church. So very ready. These were in the days before marriage equality when my colleagues and friends still got their mail from the UCC Coalition and other gay materials in plain, unmarked envelopes. It was safer that way. Maybe it still is.

Queer was the word that I was taught to use. In the halls of my seminary, where our discussions hinged on the wisdom we found in Robert Goss’ Queering Christ and Gary Comstock’s Gay Theology without Apology, we sought to understand queer theology where someone was always quick to point out that there weren’t enough women in the conversation among these foundational texts. There were other voices missing too, but in all of our discussions, it was queer we used. Not because LGBTQQAI was awkward or cumbersome, but because queer was affirming. It was powerful.

If theology was to be anything, it was to give power to those that didn’t have it. It was how we read the Bible. And so, it was how we adapted our speech. Now, I’m as straight as straight as straight but some of my very best friends are gay. (This is no better than saying that I have Black friends, by the way.) So, I knew nothing. This is definitely still true more than ten years later, but I try to listen. I try to listen as I work for justice and seek the love that God has already proclaimed for all people.

And so, ten years ago, I sat there in one of these interviews with a Midwest congregation that was already Open and Affirming which is United Church of Christ speak for gay friendly. They had gay members on the search committee. They wanted to do this work as much as I did, but when I dared to name my hope of for this ministry, I used the word queer. I could see it on their faces in that instant. They thought this was a bad word and it was the reason I didn’t get that call. Because of that bad word.

I don’t know if I’ve told these story since it happened, but it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read Mihee Kim-Kort’s Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith. Kim-Kort believes in the power of church as much as I do, even if like me, she’s doing more parenting these days than she’s pastoring. Kim-Kort doesn’t just call us to shift our language, as I did in seminary. She points out the boundaries that we’ve created in our churches and asks us to queer those lines.

It’s personal. This isn’t just an idea, but something that Kim-Kort is working out in her own faith and even her own identity. She’s realized that the lines aren’t so clear for her. Things that she once thought were firmly set in place are fluctuating and so she’s playing with these boundaries that she’s created in the certain faith that God is somewhere in the middle, between here and there.

What I love most about this book is that it is all about transformation. This is a hot button word in churches, especially those that hear it as a fancy word for change. Transformation involves risk. It’s scary and yet it’s what our faith requires. Faith isn’t supposed to be a rigid set of ideas, but encourages each of us to cross boundaries. To play and experiment with things that may have been once beyond our wildest imaginations. To practice by “listening, respecting, confronting, standing with, confessing” and even “showing up even when [we] don’t get it or understand it.” To Kim-Kort, this playing and practicing defines queerness. It is what is required.

It is required even when it feels awkward and strange. There are parts of this book that feel that way. There are sections that feel disjointed and clunky because it should. Too often we think of transformation as something that has already happened. It’s all over. It’s done but the truth both for the church and most of the people that collapse into its pews seeking hope is that transformation is ongoing. We find ourselves in between here and there, in the midst of transformation. Kim-Kort writes this heartfelt prayer full of scripture, news headlines and her own story to describe how she sees the boundary-crossing God already at work in the world, and especially in the church.

It’s the kind of book that begs to be discussed in church parlors decorated by old ladies where the word change is whispered like a swear. More than ten years have passed, but queer is still a bad word in most of our churches. Yes, even in the United Church of Christ. It’s a pastoral book in that it is tender and respectful, even as it pushes on the edges of gender, sex and even christology. I really wish I was lucky enough to read and discuss this book with church people who really want to get it but aren’t sure how to practice this kind of faith. I think Kim-Kort has something to offer that hasn’t been said before.

And yet, if I’m honest, I really wish I had had this book on my shelf for the number of young people that plopped in my office at the church because they didn’t feel like they fit. They didn’t feel like God loved them for who they were, even if their parents and even their church said and did all of the right things. They needed something else, something from someone who was willing to step outside the lines with them and offer nothing less than a blessing.

I can’t go back in time and I probably won’t get to be a part of that discussion in the church parlor, but I can recommend Mihee Kim-Kort’s Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith for your summer reading. Whether queer defines you or queer still seems like a bad word, read this book for the affirmation and the power that this word does hold. Read it to allow some of those boundaries you didn’t even realize were there to lessen. Read it to take a tiny step toward transformation for the church and for yourself.

This book releases on July 1, 2018 and you still have time to pre-order so it can be on your doorstep on that very day. I am honored to have been part of the Outside of the Lines Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from Fortress Press for my honest review. It should also be said that I served on the board of The Young Clergy Women Project (now Young Clergy Women International) with Mihee, and well, I think she’s pretty amazing. 

Raising White Kids With Curious Questions and GIVEAWAY!!

It was only a few months ago that I found myself returning again and again to sort through the children’s books at Half Price Books. (Don’t get me started on the lack of independent booksellers in Texas. It’s beyond upsetting to me and so I can only daydream about such wonders as Longfellow Books and Orca Books in the places I’ve called home. Sigh.) I had read somewhere in those days about the importance of creating a library for your child that was not full of white kids, but reflected instead the wonder and diversity of God’s creation.

I didn’t have any idea about how I was going to raise a child with a greater capacity for anti-racism than I’ve known, but I was determined to try. I knew I could do this. I could do this one small thing to surround her with images of children from different cultures and races. I could do this. What I wasn’t prepared for — an why I kept going back to Half Price Books again and again — was how hard this would be.

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There are just so many white kids in children’s books. If it’s not a duck or a panda that features as the main character in the story, it’s a white kid. Some of these books were books I loved as a child. Some were completely new to me just as parenting is totally new to me. I confess that I feel totally clueless but I’m determined to get it right and to do that I need the wisdom of others. I need support I can’t seem to find in my new home in Texas which is why I was so overjoyed to read Jennifer Harvey’s wisdom in Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.

I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Harvey’s work since her earlier book had caught my attention when I was still serving as a full-time pastor. I knew she had something important to say to the church, but I admit that I didn’t do anything more than save Dear White Christians to my To-Read list on Goodreads. It wasn’t enough and I want to do better. I need to do better for not just for my child, but for all of our children. For our nation. For our world.

Staring at those shelves at Half Price Books, when my baby girl was still growing inside me, I thought that I had to have all of the answers. All of the other parenting books I had read thus far were emphatic on this point. I needed to have a plan. I needed to be prepared with the right gear and the right attitude. It was all up to me as the parent.

Harvey quickly challenges this assumption and invites parents to partner with their kids. She puts it simply with the claim that challenging the forces of white supremacy can be as simple as “listen[ing] carefully and follow[ing] our children’s lead.” She encourages exploration and asking questions together rather than taking on some charge to be the expert who knows everything.

Maybe that works for other parents, but it never worked for me. It’s not how I ever approached teaching whether it was with young children or mature adults in the churches I’ve served. I always engaged the topic — no matter what it was — with questions. My first church dubbed this line of questioning as Elsa Questions. They would sigh when I asked them in the same way that I imagine my daughter will one day.

Raising White Kids invites me to affirm this curiosity in both my parenting and in my justice-seeking. It is a balm to my soul and gets me even more excited about this work. It emboldens me. It makes me feel like this is possible. I can do this.

I confess that it’s my favorite part of this book. It’s emphasized in different ways and repeated in a multitude of perspectives, but it is this courage to be vulnerable with our kids that really struck home for me. I don’t have to have all of the answers. I don’t have to have it figured out. I don’t even have to have the perfect library. (Harvey has more to say about this library that I found helpful.) But I do need to be open to asking questions. I need to be committed to my own learning. I need to be brave enough to challenge other white adults as we try to build another world together.

Harvey encourages questions. She poses examples. She invites a conversation and I so can see that this would be an amazing discussion piece for a moms group, a parenting potluck or a study for Sunday School teachers. The one thing that I didn’t like about this book — and this may be because it’s written to start a conversation and not to conclude it — is that Harvey is clear that engaging children in questions appropriate to their development is important, and yet she never outlines what children understand about race at what developmental age. I know very well that children understand things at a different rate from my own work with children and grief, but I confess that I have no idea what children understand about race at what age. This is hinted at in this excellent book but I wish it were unpacked more.

What I loved most about this book is that Harvey is clear that children possess a knowledge and wisdom of their own. If we are brave enough to engage them in thoughtful questions, they will teach us. Teaching children has taught me this. Any adult that has listened in on a children’s sermon in church should know this. It’s not just cute answers, but that our kids repeatedly astound us with what they observe. It is our task to be brave enough to listen to what they have to say and to dare to be curious with them.

If you’re curious about children and believe that another world is possible, you should read this book. You should encourage your friends to read it. Give it as a baby shower gift. Read it with your book club and really discuss it. Don’t just drink wine but really have the discussion. This conversation is important and it takes practice for all of us to ask these kinds of questions of our children and ourselves. We must learn to practice this kind of curiosity.

I am beyond thrilled to partner with RevGalsBlogPals and Abingdon Press to offer my enthusiasm for this new publication. I received an advance reader copy of Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America in exchange for an honest review and the opportunity to give away a copy on my blog.

To win a free copy of Raising White Kids, please comment below and follow my writing on Facebook! I will randomly select a winner by 10 am CT on Thursday March 1, 2018. If you are the winner, you will be notified on my blog and given instructions to contact me so I can send you your free copy.