Stewardship in Coronatide

I shared a few days ago some worship brainstorming for the season ahead and it got me thinking about the other big thing that often happens in the fall season in our churches: the pledge drive.

Most churches still tend to run this program in the harvest season while crops are being gathered from the earth. There is a strong link to the celebration of Thanksgiving in the hymns that we sing and the way that we celebrate these gifts for ministry even if these dates on the calendar are not so close together. For clergy, like you, this may be an especially stressful season. I’ve heard more than a few stories of churches that have downsized or even let go of their pastor in the midst of this pandemic even though most churches worked hard to get a federal loan to ease the hardship. Months later, attendance in online worship might not be as robust. People are tired. You are tired and we all want to know when this will be over. The Faith Lake Institute illustrates this tension well. This is not an easy reality to inject an enthusiasm for giving especially when unemployment across the country continues to climb and our government continues to debate how much insurance these workers deserve.

I want to offer a few resources that might help get you thinking about how to encourage generous giving in yourself and your congregation, including some of my favorite prayers and books. We might first need to start with what makes this time so different. Maybe. Here is one Zoom call from the good people in the Episcopal Church you can speed through to the important parts that speak to you.

Pandemic Campaign Materials

Most denominations provide some materials to gather the beloved community in considering how and why to give. More often than not, it links to denomination-specific ministries and includes stories from real-life members of that denomination, but as the institutional church struggles to change with this moment, those resources might not speak exactly to our pandemic reality. Here are a few that might. 

Together in Joy

Together in Joy Stewardship Campaign Suite by the SALT Project pulls together today’s best stewardship campaign practices, a compelling theological theme and a clean, beautiful design aesthetic in a plug-and-play style. It offers a customizable kit of resources including letters, pledge cards and worship materials all by digital download.

The campaign is built around Psalm 98: “Sing to God a new song, for God has done marvelous things. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy.”  As we’ve all learned over these difficult months of physical distancing, staying connected – being “together for joy” – has only become more important.  And though the financial challenges are real, so are the opportunities to sing to God a new song, for God has done – and will do – marvelous things. The link is for congregations of 100 to 500 members for $45.00. There are two other sizes available.

Our Money Story

Our Money Story from Sanctified Art provides resources to invite us to discover and tell our money stories in light of God’s money story of liberation and love. This series encourages us to transform our stewardship practices into more full expressions of who we are and what we believe including a sermon series planner, journals for home use, visual art and poetry for worship and even children’s stories. For the same congregation size 101-300 members, it is $150.00 for the bundle. There are also a la carte options. If you’re uncertain, you can download the free infographic here and learn more about the scriptures informing this campaign.

Devoted to Generosity

In this new reality, you might be thinking about changing your congregational approach to stewardship from a short giving campaign to a year-round event. It sounds exhausting but it’s not meant to be especially with a resource like Devoted to Generosity for just $59.99. Though it was created before online worship became the norm, it offers 12 full worship experience with music that I bet is covered by your CCLI license. (Or it better be if we are good stewards.) There are 12 youth studies, 12 adult studies and 12 children studies around the particular scripture passages that carry through the year. It has the usual pledge cards, bulletin covers and logos that will all come to you by digital download and also something that touts “detailed guidelines for 5 different stewardship emphases.” I confess I haven’t seen this material myself but trust the organizations that recommend it. If you order this, I want to know what this is. Please share.

Faithful, Loving, Hoping

Another option for year-round stewardship is Faithful, Loving, Hoping also from the Ecumenical Stewardship Center for $59.99. It sounds very similar to Devoted to Generosity except that it has an update for this pandemic reality in something they call the Faithful, Loving, Hoping Essentials. This updated resource provides editable, reproducible materials applicable for print and digital communications for emphasis preparation, invitation, and follow-up, including devotionals, ways to give, commitment forms, thank you letters, and more.

Books and More Webinars

I know you are tired of webinars but it looks like there are some good ones coming up.

Ask, Thank, Tell

The Southern New England Conference of the UCC is leading a book discussion of Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation by Charles R. Lane. The title might not fascinate but it seems that this particular book is centered on shifting away from the idea that stewardship pays the bills. Even if you don’t attend the four session conversation, it might be worth checking out this recommended resource.

Creating Congregations of Generous People

This book by Michael Durall published by the Alban Institute way back in 1999 is still my favorite for all things stewardship. If you are interested in moving toward a year-round stewardship model, this is a great place to start. You can find it from the publisher here.

Prayers and Blessings

I have been writing prayers weekly and sharing Ingredients for Worship but these are pulled from my files to help you plan your worship for this unique season. Of course, if you do order one of the campaign bundles above or use any of your denomination’s blessings, there will be prayers offered there too.

Stewardship Blessing

I love this one from Mary Luti. Her prayers are always gorgeous.

For the grace upon grace which is this community of faith – sanctuary and sermon, music and mission, practices of hospitality, of education, of discernment.

We give you thanks.

For grace we each bring to add to others’ graces – our personal hopes and skills, the time we can share, the experiences from which we offer tenderness, our willingness to take responsibility or expose vulnerability. 

We give you thanks.

For unexpected grace in trouble’s face that sustains us in hard times – diagnosis, discouragement, downturn or despair – and the way community granites that grace so that it is strong enough for any situation. 

We give you thanks.

For grace in the spaces – all those possibilities of next year – the new people who will sit in these pews, the new programs though which we will reach out, the transitions completed and the transitions begun. 

We give you thanks.

For the grace of prayer, the grace of scripture, the grace of forgiveness, the grace of the resurrection promise, the grace of a single cup of cold water for a child, a stranger or a friend.

We give you thanks. 

All these we have and do and will receive through Jesus Christ who opens our hearts and hands so that grace may flow through us to all the world.

For so many blessings we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

Responsive Stewardship Prayer

I have noted in my files that this litany reflects the wording of Ozzie Smith Jr. but nothing further to indicate where I first got this. I’ve used it repeatedly and probably have failed to credit well.

It’s God, not the economy, who reminds us of our abundance.

We have received grace, and grace we give.

It’s the Bible, not the budget, that calls our church to faithfulness.

We have received grace, and grace we give.

God, who created the bull and the bear,

teaches us stewardship beyond boasting or fearfulness.

We have received grace, and grace we give.

God who is the source of all resource, inspires creative uses

of finances, time, energy and enthusiasm.

We have received grace, and grace we give.

God is not broke – never has been, never will be.

God is not broke — God is blessed.

We have received grace, and grace we give.

Other Ideas

I firmly believe that stewardship should be fun and that there are creative ideas to ask for money and pledge our hope to the future good we will do in our communities. A UU congregation in Minneapolis hosts a Pledge Day with a catered dinner, games and a bouncy house. These are not good ideas right now but there might be ways to host a socially distanced parade to celebrate your congregation’s ministry. Could that parade go from house to house delivering pledge cards or even journals from Sanctified Art?

For congregations questioning the capitalist driving forces spurring so much of our country’s tensions right now, this old video that I used to use in youth ministry – when it was new – might be worth sharing in some format.

There are probably tons more things that could be offered but I’ll stop here because my toddler really wants me to play legos. What are you planning for your congregation’s stewardship hopes?

I continue to pray for you and look forward to your thoughts and ideas in the comments. You can also message me if you would prefer.

Easter at Home with Babies and Toddlers

When I was in my very first call and was still saying I wasn’t sure I was called to be a parent, I led a conversation for the monthly potluck shared by parents and children about faith at home. It felt like a new idea all those ten years ago.

Children were supposed to learn about matters of faith at church. They were supposed to ask their pastors and Sunday School teachers. Parents weren’t trained. They weren’t equipped. That was what we thought then when there was never a question about gathering in our places of worship. That was before this pandemic changed things forever. Or maybe just for a little while.

It has taken this new normal for me to actually do the things I taught parents to do with their children. It started really because I was gifted a daily observance for little kids to mark the days of Holy Week from my dear friend Teri. My sweet toddler would remind me every day that it was time for “Baby Jesus” and we would share in whatever the story and activity was for that day. It made me realize I need to do this more.

Just like I find activities for my children to play with bubble foam, finger paint and embark on neighborhood scavenger hunts, I need to find time to cultivate their faith. I want them to learn more about these stories that are so important to me but it also builds up my faith. It reminds me every time we take the time to do so that this is matters to me. Here are some things I’m doing with my very young children to carry us through the Easter season.

My toddler is two and a half and very verbal. My baby girl is nearly 10 months old and is ready to start walking. Or so it appears. She might not get as much out of these activities but she is in awe of her sister and will follow her anywhere. I can’t say these activities will work without an older child to lead.

Prayer Book

I confess that I have been tired at bedtime and so the long list of people we usually pray for has been truncated. I feel badly badly about it and so when I downloaded Traci Smith’s wonderful at home resource for Faithful Families, I felt nudged by one of her ideas to create a book of people we pray for. I’m adapting a tiny photo book to use in our prayer time every night and every other time my toddler pulls it off the shelf and clasps her hands together.

Jesus Song Time

The churches I’ve served have all had Sunday School during worship. In every church I’ve served, the kids start in the sanctuary until the children’s sermon and then are excused to their classes. This means they usually only hear one or two hymns and one of those hymns may have been difficult to sing. I know this. Zoom Worship has provided the extra blessing for our family that my kids hear the whole service and my baby girl sways and dances every time music begins. music

I want to cultivate that love of music and want them to learn the songs of faith. So we have started to have Jesus Song Time. I created a Spotify station by the same name that we turn on the Roku and jam out in our living room. I sing loudly and out of tune and encourage my kids to play with bean bags and their music instruments including the egg shakers that were in their Easter baskets.

Psalms and Shepherds

In the spirit of familiarity, I am attempting to teach Psalm 23 to my children this week. It’s going really great in that they are not getting it at all. We are going to make sheep from egg cartons this afternoon and tomorrow we will play with those tubes using this prompt from Carolyn Brown on Worshiping with Children:

Using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep.  Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night.  Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture.  After showing this, reread John 10:2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.

I will also build a pen from the surplus cardboard in our lives. A shepherd will be found from among other toys. I’m not sure which yet. I also really like the idea from Worshiping with Children to spend some time with this first picture of Jesus from the Roman catacombs. The questions would be over the head of my toddler but it might be a fun way to continue to explore Psalm 23.

Jesus Story Time

One of the things that I learned during Holy Week with Teri’s wonderful resource was that I didn’t like any of our children’s bibles. I have a lot of them and I’m still not quite satisfied. With her encouragement, I ordered the Spark Story Bible. We take our special picnic blanket outside of the backyard for what my toddler calls Baby Jesus Story Time. I’m really trying to teach her that Jesus grows up. I’m choosing some of my favorite stories about Jesus’ life and reading them.

Though I’m not sure we will get there by Ascension Sunday, I’m keeping this idea from Worshiping with Children in the back of my mind.

Display pictures of Jesus’ birth, healing, teaching, Palm Sunday, Crucifixion, Empty Tomb, and Ascension.  With the children review Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Then tell the story of the Ascension in your own words.  Stress that during his life on earth, his disciples knew Jesus as a very special person, after Easter Jesus was different.  He appeared and disappeared sometimes in locked but still ate fish and bread.  Thomas could touch him.  Since the Ascension, people have seen Jesus only in visions and dreams.  Jesus is still alive and is not just with God, but part of God.

My toddler is just at the age where she can tell a story from a picture if we read it often enough. So this might be something we try.

I’m already starting to think about what I’ll do for Pentecost because I haven’t used my Pentecost kites in the longest time. I’m also pretty sure I’ll go searching for other ideas between now and then because I get bored but this is where we are now. If you are doing something similar with your littles, please share your amazing ideas in the comments.

Embracing Wonder with Children

There are specific things with instructions that parenting requires. Potty training, I am learning, is one of them. There are steps that your child must understand for success. First, she’s got to pull down her pants and then sit on the potty before she pees. There is an order to this process.

It’s important not to skip steps or accidents will happen. Such has been my past two weeks. There have been lots of accidents even as my toddler learns. She’s making progress but she’s still learning the steps.

41QTbYRZWeL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_Mystery does not have steps. There is no process. No order but instead it is something to behold and even embrace. It was the first thing that caught my eye about Amelia Richardson Dress’ new book and it was right there in the title. This is the Mystery of Easter is an adaptation of a pastor’s careful reflection on how to share the power of death and resurrection with the children. It reads like a children’s sermon with clear reference to scripture and a tenderness toward the hardest part of the story.

The crucifixion isn’t skipped or ignored. Nor is it glorified and lauded. It’s instead shared carefully just as a parent might share the difficult news of a pet’s death or the news of the coronavirus. It’s something hard that has happened. It is something sad that causes the people to be sad. It breaks their hearts.

There are several pages devoted to this mystery with beautiful illustrations that hint toward the feelings that children might be feeling in hearing such news. Death isn’t explained. There are no steps outlined as to how Jesus got onto that cross but that it happened and it was sad because it was the opposite of love.

Children know what love does. They know how it feels when they are loved and when they are not. They know what it feels like to be loved even when their parent is having a really rough time after being stuck inside for the millionth day in a row. That’s what I love about this book. It doesn’t attempt to explain things that are hard for even adults to understand. It picks up on something we all know even if we don’t feel like we have felt it enough. It shares a mystery that is already known.

It puts that wisdom int this man called Jesus who “loved big enough to change the whole world” and encourages children how they too could “love God, love yourself [and] love everyone else.”

Maybe there is some kind of step-by-step instruction for how to do this. Maybe there is some magical parental formula that explains death and resurrection to children but I haven’t yet found it. Nor am I quite sure that it exists because we have a hard enough time explaining it to ourselves as adults. We opt for metaphors. We ponder questions like those that the author indicates were important to how she told this story:

  • Why do we have a cross hanging in our church if the cross was a bad thing?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • Who killed Jesus?
  • Did God want Jesus to die?
  • How do we act after someone dies?

We pray that the hard thing is not the last thing but it is a matter of faith. To choose the resurrection. To claim that love will change the world. To live into the mystery isn’t easy. There are no simple steps. Nor is there ever really a moment when it is fully mastered whereas I hope potty training has that end point. Dear God, please. Let it be so.

As much as my toddler lights up when she goes pee in the potty, I want her to experience that with God. I want her to be proud of what she knows and what she can do. I want her to feel like she has something she can do to help but I also want her to experience awe and wonder. I want both my girls to play within the mystery without ever feeling like they need to explain it. I want them to feel it even when they don’t have words for it.

There is no greater mystery than the one that begins and ends this children’s book. It is that good news that we are in God and God is in us. God’s love can change the world. It can change us. I’m so glad to find a children’s book that invites my children into this mystery. I hope it grows right along with them.

I am thrilled to share This is the Mystery of Easter after I learned about it from the author and was asked for an honest review. You too can download a free digital copy after subscribing to Amelia’s weekly newsletter or you can order a copy for your children’s Easter baskets.

Christmas Comes

Christmas comes in the ordinary.

It comes into a guest room where strangers are welcomed as friends. A place is made for another night of rest. Two expectant parents wonder if this will be the night.

No matter what may have been foretold, it could be any night. The baby will come when its ready. No amount of walking or spicy food from a food cart in Bethlehem will change that.

I wonder how ordinary it seemed to Mary: this long trip to the hometown of her betrothed, the lingering impact of a celestial visitor, the frustration that no part of this wonder could have been easy for her. I wondered all of this as I unloaded the dishwasher and rinsed off the breakfast dishes and piled them into the machine that makes my life easier. I pondered this as I bent down to haul clean wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. It was my second load of laundry this morning. I had promised myself yesterday that my Christmas gift to myself would be to not have to do a load of cloth diapers on Christmas. I didn’t succeed in avoiding other laundry.

Kathleen Norris finds laundry to be one of the ordinary tasks that most inspires prayer. I don’t usually feel that way, but I found myself musing over her wisdom. Wondering, again, if these ordinary chores on Christmas Eve might have value just as Norris suggests because they’re “never completed, but only set aside to the next day.”

I wondered what Mary did to clean up that borrowed space where she would give birth. After such a long journey, did she feel the need to scrub her clothes clean? Did she lament that Joseph always manages to clump so much dirt to the souls of his feet? Did she slosh a bucket of warm soapy water his way and insist that he chip in by at least cleaning his feet off, for the love of their unborn child?

These are the kinds of questions I wonder every year on Christmas. It’s a question I ponder on other days when something fantastic is supposed to happen. Miracles abound but I’m otherwise preoccupied with laundry or the dishes. I’m supposed to feel something different about this day. Something is supposed to shift but I’m too worried about the things that keep me busy every other day.

Still, I wonder. I wonder how much Mary worried about bringing a child into this world. I wonder too about those other children she had. They came later, we are told. This would be her first child. She would learn to be a parent for the very first time when her child’s life was threatened. She would become a refugee for his safety but as I sat breastfeeding my baby girl I wondered if there were other children she was protecting. Did she sit there in that borrowed room feeding her baby for the first time while she watched her toddler playing with blocks by the manger? Did she know in that instant that she would do anything for these kids? Did she berate herself for not feeling as certain in this conviction until she had children of her own?

There is nothing ordinary about these questions, but perhaps that is why this story matters again every year. We might repeat the same prayers and sing the same old carols. We might prepare the same feast without ever experiencing the magic of Christmas, but Christmas comes.

Christmas comes into the monotony. It comes into the back-breaking frustration that the work is not done, that justice hasn’t yet come. It comes into the constant struggle to do more because the world needs more. Our children need more. Our hope needs more. Christmas comes when nothing seems to be any different. Christmas comes when we have so exhausted ourselves that we can’t believe in miracles. Christmas comes anyway. It comes into ordinary flesh. It comes in the tiny cry of a small child. Christmas comes again.

 

 

 

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. 

Tell the Children

I sat there with my daughter in my lap turning the pages. Matt de la Pena’s book Love was sent to me by my cousin. She said it reminded her of me. So my heart was already in my throat reading this beautiful poem to my daughter.

And then, I turned the page and saw the family gathered around the television. Some were sitting on the couch. Others had their mouths gaping open. They couldn’t sit. They could only stare.

I sobbed. I couldn’t help it.

I couldn’t hold it back.

I remember when it was the bombing in Oklahoma City on that TV screen. I remember looking into the eyes of my parents as we watched rescue workers try to save the little children. I remember watching bombs explode in bright colors when war began in Afghanistan and I argued with another college student about the costs of war. He thought it was just. It was right. They deserved it. I wondered who was caught in the wake of such arrogance. And, of course, I remember this day.

I remember seventeen years ago when it was my boss and family friend that called me in the middle of the afternoon to tell me to turn on the TV. He couldn’t say anything more. He just told me to turn on the TV.

Alone, in his London home where I was that summer dog-sitting for these family friends, I watched the towers fall. I watched dark angels leap from buildings in the city that will always be my home.

There was no one to embrace. No one else to offer words. No small human that I had to then explain what we were seeing upon that screen. Then, I only needed to make sense of it in my own mind and even that is impossible.

It still feels impossible but I remember. I remember going back to New York City only one week later. I remember taking the train into the city and going downtown to infuse Lower Manhattan with love even if all we were doing was going to dinner. I remember the dust that still hung in the air and the heaps of flowers and candles on the sidewalk outside every single fire station. I remember the smiling faces posted on subway walls and chain link faces with the words MISSING hanging above their heads.

And I remember when those deaths were slowly confirmed. They were my friend’s parents. They were not strangers, they were friends.

It has been said enough that this day changed the world. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to be that what we say to each other about this day, but I want us to talk about it.

This morning, I was with a group of moms who are mostly much younger than I am. I had just graduated from college. They were in elementary school and so we remember this day very differently. I was newly ordained and leading one of my first Confirmation classes when I first realized that there are young people that don’t remember this day. They can’t say where they were. They can’t say much about it at all because their parents thought they were too young.

It was better to protect them.

It was better not to say anything about this thing that changed everything.

That was what I was told when September 11 fell on a Sunday. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I was to say anything else but I wasn’t to breathe a word to our children about what happened this day. It was explained to me that they might not know. Their parents might not have told them.

It was a silence that I knew. I have known. It’s one that I’ve been struggling to write about as I try to remember what was said to me after my mother died. They thought it was better not to talk about this terrible thing that had changed everything. It was better not to talk about the thing that was on all our minds, they thought, but it’s not true.

It’s not better. It’s just easier.

It’s easier not to talk about the hard things that make us hide under pianos. That’s the illustration on the following page. I knew that kid. I would have been him if I could have it under our piano. I hid in other places. I cried where grownups couldn’t see. I kept my heartbreak all to myself because Mommy would want me to smile. That’s what they said. That’s what they told me. She’d want me to be happy.

It would be easier for the publisher to cut that page because it’s too much. It’s too much for everyone but that child that is actually hiding under the piano because the grownups can’t see his pain. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they can’t, but that doesn’t make it any easier for that kid.

It’s why Matt de la Pena wrote Love and it is why I’m spending hours during nap time trying to write down my story. He says it so well in a recent essay in Time:

There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

There is a power to being seen in words and pictures. There is a power to those stories being told because they changed us. Because everything changed in that moment and it needs to be said out loud. It needs to be said loud enough for our children to hear.

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.

How to Pray Before Giving Birth

This afternoon, after church was over, I finished Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It might seem like an odd book to pick off the shelf for a woman who is expecting to deliver a healthy baby girl any day now. I should perhaps be exuding more of the joy we heard in the epistle we heard this morning. Again, along with Paul, I should rejoice.

Maybe, but I’ll leave the rejoicing for you to do. Rejoice for me that there is new life when the world feels so broken. Rejoice for me that our bodies can do amazing things because at this very moment, I have some doubts. I have lots of doubts.

In fact, this book found its way into my hands because I found a journal of my mother’s from when she was hospitalized at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A friend brought it to her, though I don’t know which one. It was these words she read when her body was failing and as I’ve been trying to commit my heart and mind to this project of writing about my own experience of grief and loss, I wondered what she found in these words. So I cracked the spine to be close to her.

It was meant to inspire my writing, but it has again touched upon my grief.

As I get closer and closer to the arrival of my baby girl, there are so many things I want to ask my mom. So many things that only she would know.

Just a few nights ago, my husband and I met with our doula for the last time before labor begins. Anticipating the pain ahead, she asked what comforts me. Would massage help? Do I prefer the lights dim? Do I light candles and ease into a warm bath? I couldn’t answer her questions.

I still don’t have real answers to her questions. It’s not that I don’t know what I usually do to relax and unwind, but that the kind of comfort I’m really wanting and needing is prayer. And I’m not sure how to pray right now.

Rabbi Kushner reminds me,

“Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

It is not a matter of praying for outcomes even if I have a lot of those petitions heavy upon my heart, but prayer is a movement toward others so that we can be “in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams and pains we do.” I’m trying to wrap my head around how many people that is.

I’m trying to let go of that very human impulse to ask God for particular comforts and assurances that made Rabbi Kushner write this book after the death of his young son, but it’s not that easy. Even if the good rabbi assures me that God doesn’t need to be all-powerful to be all-loving, it’d really be nice. I would find comfort in that, lots and lots of comfort. But, there is no such promise that God can alter the laws of nature. What prayer does, instead, is bring God’s people into closer together so that no one feels alone or abandoned.

Perhaps that is the comfort I need in my grief, but it reaches beyond me to include every parent that grieves the loss of their unborn child. Those women who have felt a fluttering in their gut and felt their body change, but then all of the signs of life disappeared as quickly as they had come. Before this pregnancy, I was one of those women. I may be again. There is no way to know how this chaos befalls us and the good rabbi knows better than to provide an answer for tragedy.

Instead, Rabbi Kushner claims that what religion can do is call it a tragedy. It’s something only the voices of the faithful can do. Without offering any justification or defense, the faithful come close. They dare to say that no one is alone.

So, then, how do I pray in these hours or days before giving birth? Do I pray for the best possible birth experience? Do I pray for the doctors and the nurses that will care for me? Do I pray for my husband and doula that they can withstand whatever curve ball I might throw at them in the middle of a contraction? Do I pray that my little girl be healthy and strong or do I reject all of those possible outcomes knowing that God cannot alter the laws of nature? Do I instead, then, put my faith and trust in the hope that I am not alone? Could it be as simple as that?

It’s what I can’t wrap my head around because there are so many people that know my grief. We are quiet about it. We don’t talk about it much but there are a lot of us. We don’t want to burden you with our pain, because we know that you don’t really understand. You haven’t felt this thing that we’ve felt whether it was a child or a parent or some other dear departed soul that we lost. We’re still trying to figure out how we will live after tragedy struck, and there are times that we aren’t sure that we will make it.

This isn’t one of those times for me. It may have been for my mom. She died within a year of reading this book and so I’m not sure what it may have meant to her to receive the invitation to consider what would she do next. It implies that there was something after the cancer and maybe there was. Maybe it made her feel less alone. Maybe it encouraged her to pray to be redeemed from the isolation of her diagnosis. Maybe.

I know she grieved that she would miss out on so much. She wouldn’t be there to see her children marry or to watch us become parents. She wouldn’t even get us walk across the stage moving that silly tassel from one side to the other to mark the occasion that we had just become high school graduates. She’d miss everything. She cried about it to my grandmother, I was told. And now, I miss her in everything. I missed her in the days leading up to my wedding and the early days of my pregnancy as much as I miss her now when I’m about to become a mother. There is nothing that stops me wanting her to be by my side telling me to breathe and reminding me what I was like when I was a little baby.

I can only pray that somehow that comfort will come. Somehow, she’ll be there when I need her most.