Character: Essays by readers

Some time ago, the Christian Century invited readers to submit first-person narratives (under 1,000 words) reflecting on the word character.

They are requesting essays from readers on other words in the future, but it was to this one that I wanted to respond. It was for this word that I knew which story I would tell and so I wrote my short essay and hit submit.

The issue arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I keep looking at it in shock that my name is there. My name is there — and it says that I live in Texas. All of these things are bit too much for me. I’m thrilled to be included among these essays and even more excited as I hint toward the writing project I’ve been working on for so many months.

I do hope you’ll click over to read all of the essays featured in this issue.

 

Spirituality for the Resistance

I have not felt like an activist in years.

In truth, I’m not sure that I ever really felt like an activist even though ministry called for it. I couldn’t faithfully preach the gospel on Sunday without taking to the streets on Wednesday to advocate for that hope that had been in my words. While war continued to wage in the Middle East, as it does now, there was a season when I would spend an hour of every Wednesday afternoon in the public square witnessing to my hope for peace. I got to be an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality.

That was years ago. Since then, I’ve convinced myself that there wasn’t enough time or that my time could be better spent doing other things. I’ve even told myself that what I was doing wasn’t making any difference at all.

I’ve did such a good job convincing myself of this that I didn’t do much of anything. I argued that it was someone else’s fight. I couldn’t lead the change which is what ministry had taught me to do. I still am not sure how to be an ally. It’s lame and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but since I’ve struggled to rise up.

Others who would have never imagined themselves to be activists have arisen. They have organized in ways they’ve never imagined. They’ve started to run for office. As the LA Times reports, they’ve fueled the resistance. Maybe you’ve found that same courage. Maybe you’ve risen from the last election with new hope and new determination. Maybe you’ve started to engage in your local ways that you never did before and maybe you’re wondering how not to get overwhelmed with the onslaught of action that days like these requires.

Or maybe you’re bit more like me and you’re wading back into an old practice. Maybe it feels different now but there is still something tugging at your heart to rise up.

Rise Up!

Maybe like me you’re in between church communities or maybe you’ve never had a church community and are wondering what in the world people of faith have to say about activism. If any of these possibilities rings just a tiny bit true for you, then I can’t recommend this new devotional to you. I was thrilled to add this devotional collaboration to my kitchen to remember what it means for me to engage in the struggle for hope, love, justice and peace.

It is what we need right now. We need to remember that we are called to such a time as this. We are called to Rise Up. We are called to shape this spirituality for resistance together. Luckily, the work has already begun.

A very talented group of people — led by my editor at New Sacred — imagined this 52-week devotional for those of us that hope to rise up from the election, rise up from racism, rise up from the division and hate and do the real work that creates change. In their creative scheming, I got to remember why activism matters to me and why it has always been a part of my ministry and my faith. I contributed three devotions including Hope is a Verb, Come By Here and because my justice seeking has a teeny tiny bit of rage What Am I to Do with my Anger?

I have yet to get my copy of this amazing devotional and the t-shirt but as I’m still without an address for a few more weeks, I have to wait. You shouldn’t wait though. You should go ahead and order your own personal copy for $11.95 or better yet get a pack of five devotionals for $35.00.

I wrote thinking that these words would be used in one’s personal devotion before venturing out to a protest for Black Lives Matter or for any other act of resistance. I imagined myself needing to read such words after leaving a meeting that made me question why I bother since the meeting did more to frustrate than inspire, but the more that I think about it I think it would be better to read this with other people.

Rise Up recognizes that this is exhausting work and it is work that cannot be done alone. It requires something that will ignite us and spur us on and maybe that is best heard in each others voices. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Share one devotion each week at the beginning of that weekly conference call of justice seekers that you’re already participating in
  • Open and close your monthly mission committee meeting at church with these devotions (which would cover your prayers for the next two years)
  • Feature Rise Up in your church newsletter and offer to stock the church office or church library with copies so that groups of advocates can gather and share these words
  • Gather a group of friends that want to be part of the resistance but are not sure where to start for food, your favorite beverage, study of a devotion and conversation on a weekly action to share

The possibilities are endless. Whatever you do to ignite your hope and faith to keep the resistance alive, I hope and pray that these words bless your good work for much more than one year.

Rise up, dear ones. Rise up.

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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.

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.

My Sexual Assault is More Than Locker Room Banter

sexualassault-300x200Trigger Warning: The content of this post may be triggering for people who have experienced sexual assault.

I was in college. I was drunker than I should have been—much drunker—and I was flirting with a boy. We kissed sloppily. One thing led to another and I left the bar with him. We went back to his place where he pinned me down to the bed and I said, “No.”

Read the whole post on New Sacred.

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

The Imperfect Pastor

There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like I’m a good pastor. I have never felt perfect. I can’t imagine ever feeling that confident in this holy and sacred work. Most of the time I feel like I’m not quite living up to this calling.

I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t want to talk about the ways that clergy are held to a high standard of morality and faith which makes it hard to be a person. I don’t want to talk about any of that because what is really on my mind is one particular pastor by the name of Jack Miller.

DSC_2625_D3Full-LJack was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco twenty something years ago. He
was, in fact, the pastor of that congregation up until 2002. And he’s the subject of the chapter I’m working on right now. For, you see, Jack was my mom’s pastor.

When she learned she was dying, when she was trying to come to grips with what that would mean, someone told her to talk to Jack. Someone advised that he might be a good listening ear. And he was. She would sit there in the balcony of that church next to Jack and talk to him about everything she hoped and feared. She dragged us to church on Sunday. She taught me that the church was a place where we could ask hard questions. And that was because of Jack. When she needed it most, Jack made a space for her. He listened. He prayed. He sat at her bedside. As she was dying, he was always at our house.

This was weird to me. My grandparents had been church goers, but my parents were not. They didn’t care much for that kind of thing until my mom was dying. When she knew she was dying, everything changed and Jack seemed to be always there. (He wasn’t, of course, but it seemed that way to seven year old me.) Jack made a big impact on me. He was a huge help to my mom but Jack was not perfect.

Many years later, the news broke that Jack was being charged with sexual misconduct. It was in The New York Times. I ended up Googling him yesterday. I realized that there were still questions I wanted to ask him. I wondered if maybe I could find him. But, all I found was news story after news story about this scandal. It is revealed how he struggled with his sexuality which may or may not have led to his drinking. The members of that church knew that he wasn’t perfect. They knew that he had some demons. I don’t know if they made the same space for those struggles as Jack made for my mom, but eventually, he was removed. He was forced to resign. He was removed of his ministerial standing. He is, now, what we would call a bad guy.

What I’m writing right now in the book I’m writing has nothing to do with this later history. It pains me that Jack’s ministry ended this way. Though, I am not totally sure that’s true. I seem to recall that he continued to pastor a home church made up of former members of that church he was forced to leave. I wish he hadn’t made that move but he is human, just as I am human. He was called into this work and he loved it. That was obvious to me even as a little girl. So, I want to write about that man that presided over my mother’s funeral and sat at her bedside.

I want to write about the man who jumped at the chance to take a ten-year old girl out to pizza to talk about the mom she missed. He ate a lot of pizza together. We drank too many sodas and Jack was who he had always been to me. He was someone who would listen. He was a pastor. He guided me back toward the light. He helped me to claim resurrection even if he couldn’t find that same hope for himself. The fact is: I never knew his struggles. Just as the people I pastor don’t know what’s going on in my inner life, I have no idea what was going on inside Jack. It pains me to read these news stories and I don’t want to write about it.

I don’t want to tell that part of the story, but I don’t want to edit out his name. But, that’s what I’m doing. I’m struggling to write this part. I’m trying to describe him without naming him because I don’t want him to be reduced to a scandal. Aren’t we all better than our worst moments? Isn’t there goodness to be found in everything? Is there no hope of redemption? Isn’t there? He is not a character. Jack is a real person who might one day read these words about him. He is as flawed and human as I am. He was not perfect. I doubt that he is now but I want to write his story without having to explain this scandal because it’s not part of my story. It’s not the Jack I knew. Still, the blinking cursor wins

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.

 

Woman, Behold Thy Son

Tonight, I will share in worship with my home church at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the remembrance of Good Friday. It is the tradition in many places to share in hearing and reflecting upon the seven last words of Christ. I have never actually been in a place that has done this so when my pastor asked for volunteers, I said: PICK ME! PICK ME!   Thus proving, yet again, I’m a big ol’ church nerd. What follows is the reflection I’ll share tonight on the third of those seven sayings. You can find the whole passage in the Gospel of John in my preferred translation because I loathe the King James Version here.

 

Woman, behold thy son. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved most standing beside her, this is what he says to his mother. Behold, this is your child.

Here is your beloved, the immigrant, the refugee, the man who happens to be homeless, the woman who depends on that welfare check to provide for her children. Here is the woman who is not paid enough for the work that she does. Here is the person you are supposed to love, your family, your very heart.

It’s something that Jesus had heard before any of this transpired. Before his ministry began, before he hung on a cross, God said these words to him. From the waters of baptism, he emerged to behold the wonder that he was God’s child.

Here am I your beloved, the woman, the broken, the hurting, the uncertain and doubting. Here is the person who just needs to pee but can’t because he’s transgender and in North Carolina. Here is the young black boy walking through your neighborhood in a hoodie eating Skittles. Behold, Christ says, this is your child.

Woman, behold thy son. You will be a new family. You will create something new. You will imagine another way and nothing, nothing — not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, or even the fact that she is a Trump supporter — will separate you.

The world will build walls. The powers that be will erect barriers and divisions. They will tell you who to love and how to love them. They will try to tell you what love can do. But, don’t believe them.

Woman, behold thy son. Behold the glory of God for it is here in this relationship. It is here in this person. It is here in the love that we dare to find in each other. He wants her to see that. He wants her to understand what he once beheld in the waters of baptism. Behold, he says to this woman who gave birth from the waters of her womb, this is your child.

He does not only speak to his mother, but also to the disciple he loves most which interpreters have wondered if it wasn’t a placeholder. This one whom he loves most is never named. It could be John. Or Mary Magdalene or even Peter. Or it could be a placeholder for you and me. We are the beloved disciple. We are the ones whom Jesus loves most so that he turns to us from the cross, having just told his mother, Woman, behold thy son. He says to us, Here is your mother.

There is no one but you to love. There is no one better at it than you. Behold. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.” The wise one Martin Buber wrote that. “But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of [God’s] eternity, you? How would [we] exist if God did not need [us], and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”

Woman, behold your son. 

I am your child. 

You are my child.

Behold.