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.

When Twitter Inspires a Story that You Haven’t Told in a Long While

It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.

I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.

It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.

It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that

Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.

Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.

My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.

What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.

She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.

What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.

This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.

Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”

That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.

There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.

If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.

There’s No Place Like Home

Since I moved to Kansas, I find myself clicking my heels more and more.  I have no ruby red slippers but the mantra is the same, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.”

The problem is that I have no idea where home is.

This was made clear to me again when I flew back east for a dear friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since the first grade and so i found myself surrounded by people who have met me or at least heard about me. Some of these good people even knew that I’d already moved several times in my adult life, but most of them had lost track of me after I moved cross the country from Maine to Washington. They hadn’t heard that I’d moved again and seemed to find it a bit shocking. Every time the topic came up, with each new person, it seemed incomprehensible that I’d moved twice since the last time they last knew my whereabouts. Thus, the same confused exclamation came I shared our new location. Every single time, their pitch raised, “Kansas?!? What brings you to Kansas?”

My response was equally repetitive. “My husband is in the military and it is in Kansas that he is required to be right now.”

I am embarrassingly ignorant of military things. This isn’t a new problem, but one that continues to fester in our relationship. So much so that if my husband has heard this response, which he did several time last night, or another like it, he grimaces and elaborates that he is in the midst of his schooling in the Command and General Staff College. After he finishes that, he continues to explain, we will move again. That is when I grimace.

Before I met my husband, I had looked forward to multiple moves across the country. I liked the idea of learning about how people do church in different parts of the globe. I really liked that idea and subscribed to the concept of a shorter pastorate. I couldn’t imagine being a pastor of a congregation for fifteen, twenty or thirty years. It made sense to me if there were kids in the equation, but at that point I wasn’t considering motherhood. I had no interest in being a single parent and was far more interested in what I might do for God. I didn’t want to be bored for God, but wanted to create beautiful things in amazing places with people just as hope-filled.

That hope had already taken me to two places. I’d gone to Maine where I’d stayed longer than I ever thought I would and we did some good things together, but I got bored. I got really bored and so I looked for what was next and found the good people in Washington. When I moved there, I told the search committee I was looking for two things: love and a place to call home. I found one, but not the other.

On our wedding day, my friend Melanie talked about the five mile stretch of road that leads to the farm that was once and is now her home. Just before she led us in saying our vows, she talked about this stretch of road that makes it heart beat faster and always brings a smile to her face before she advised us to

“be home for one another. Be that place, of unconditional acceptance and love for each other.  Be that place that makes your heart beats quicken.  Be that place where you always see something new and beautiful. No matter what season.  Be that place that in the midst of difficulties you can be at rest. Home.  Be each other’s homes.”

I don’t know if other people think as much about the homily offered on their wedding day as I do, but I think about these words all of the time. I think about them every time I step into the crappy housing the military gave us. I click my heels and remind myself that this shelter is not my home, but the place I find in my husband’s arms is home.

We are each other’s homes, I guess. I like that idea. I like it a lot but I have a few questions for I cannot imagine this without a picture in my head. I am a visual learner, after all. So I need to see it but the only image that I can craft is like bad clip art from a church newsletter in the early 90s. I can see the open arms but I do not want to run toward them. I want to run away for the image is so repulsive. Repulsive is a strong word. I apparently have strong feelings about clip art, and so it must be something else.

Is this the same problem that the wandering Israelites felt in all of those many years of exile? They were told their was a new home for them. It was to be a Promised Land, but they could not imagine it. They did not know what to expect or who to expect. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend. Is that what home is supposed to be? Is the sheer idea of it meant to overwhelm and confound?

In her recent book Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy wonders “if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed.” She admits that we wander. It’s what  humans do but she doesn’t find much confusion in that fact. Simply put, to her, “home is the ground we measure with our own two feet. And home is the place that measures us. Home is the place that names us and the place we, in turn, name. It feeds us, body and soul, and if we are living well, we feed it too. Home is the place we cultivate with our love.”

Christie seems like someone who can confidently say, along with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.” Both Christie and my friend Melanie have ended up on farms. They’ve both awoken from the nightmare of aimless wandering from place to place only to find that their place was always supposed to be on this patch of land they get to cultivate with love. I, on other hand, am still clicking my heels and wondering about home. One thing I know for sure: there is no place like it.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year. You just read it. I had some internet issues so it’s late but I did finish it before the second week began. I really am trying to set by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. These essays are supposed to dig deep and so you might not find my weekly essays here but you will find them on Medium. It’s a double experiment for me.

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

Recipe for Learning to Pray

Last week, I finally finished Carol Howard Merritt’s Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. It really shouldn’t have taken me that long and it is certainly no reflection on the book. It’s me. I had three chapters back in April and then felt this overwhelming need to never read a book about church again. Of course, that didn’t last that long and I returned to these pages again. What I love about this book is that it’s really about the kind of community we can be in the church. It’s about technology, yes, but more about how we are creating community right now which inevitably involves social media for that so-called “new generation” (of which, I guess, I am a part). It’s about the kind of community we are looking for which Carol explains in this way:

When we are surrounded by a supportive community who is helping us discern and who feels free to agree and disagree with what we are hearing from God, then our listening for God can become a humbling experience rather than an exercise that puts a divine rubber stamp on our own decisions.

It is an act of prayer. It’s something we like to believe we’ll just find ourselves in. All of the sudden just surrounded by a group of supportive people who can help with such discernment.

We need someone that will walk with us and help us see what we can not see for ourselves.  We need a partner, a friend, someone who gets it. Someone who can listen and isn’t afraid to ask questions. Someone who won’t just say it’ll all work out in the end but someone who will dare to ask the hard questions. Do you know someone like that?

This is what prayer is all about. It is a practice in staying in the conversation. It is an intention to listen. It is the hope that I might be open enough to hear what God might be saying. It’s a practice that quite honestly I have to remind myself to which I need to pay better attention — and it seems to me that it’s really better to do together.

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Learn more about Prayer Partners here

There are tons of ways to pay attention to the ways of God on your own. Some of my favorite practices include Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Daily Examen but I want to offer you a little something from my kitchen because I really do believe that practicing with another person makes all of the difference in the world. It’s something I wish for my own prayer life and something I hope will bless yours.

It’s an invitation to partner in prayer. I recommend it for congregations and friends. It’s something that I hope can be used in more ways that I can even imagine because, really, no one of us can know the will of God. It’s only something we can pray to understand together. You can order your very own guide here.

Like so many recipes for ministry, the directions sound incredibly simple but it takes a little flair to make these ingredients come together. It takes the right people and extra dab of trust and a big heaping of love that the recipe might not call for. For that reason, the recipe is incredibly hard to write but here goes nothing.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY