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. 

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New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Failure of Imagination

On the same day when my article appeared on New Sacred about how a progressive faith isn’t defined by issues, Susan Jacoby was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.

It was in fact just yesterday. Just yesterday, on my way home from the gym, I caught the end of Terry Gross’s interview with Jacoby. She’s the author of the new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion which I’d only heard of because I read an article she’d recently written for the New York Times but it wasn’t the article or even her book publicity that grabbed my attention. It was when she said this on the radio:

I can’t imagine falling in love with a devoutly religious person. Now, that I will fully acknowledge, many could call that a failure of imagination on my part. But, it is important to me. To me, it would be like falling in love with someone who thinks a woman’s place is in the home. <She laughs.> And I know that women have fallen in love with men like that but it’s something fundamental to me. Human rights. That people are equal under law simply because they are human beings.

Jacoby had been asked if she could ever possibly fall in love with someone who just so happened to be a person of faith. This was her response. She couldn’t imagine it.

It’s something that Jacoby had repeated earlier in the conversation. She could never imagine raising children or sharing a life together with someone who didn’t agree with her on the issues. It seems that human rights is at the heart of those issues that concern Jacoby most and that obviously a person of faith wouldn’t share this perspective.

I have feared the same thing. I have wondered if it could or would ever be possible to share a life with a man who didn’t share my progressive Christian faith, but then I fell in love.

I fell in love with an atheist.

I’m a progressive Christian and I fell in love with an atheist.

It was a failure of my own imagination, to borrow Jacoby’s words, to believe that we had to agree on every single issue. We agree on human rights. We agree that my place isn’t in the kitchen but we don’t agree on everything. I would love to meet the couple that does. I don’t believe it’s possible. And it is makes it more interesting.

How boring to love someone who agrees with everything you believe to be important! Where’s the challenge? Where’s the learning? Where’s the opportunity to grow and change within that loving relationship?

No thank you.

I would prefer the struggle. I’ll complain about it. I’ll bemoan that it’s hard especially when it comes to raising children together but love is more powerful than when or how that child gets baptized. It’s bigger than how we choose to tell our children that Mommy and Daddy believe different things, but you’re still going to church. (That was a deal breaker for me.) He doesn’t have to agree. He certainly doesn’t have to convert but he does have to be supportive of me and what’s important to me just as much as I have to listen to what’s important to him.

We both need to support each other. That’s what’s important, not the tenets of faith. Not the issues which we bring to the ballot box. It is the support that we give each other that changes things. It changes everything. That’s what I could never really imagine. I never really believed it was possible.

I was too strong willed, too hotheaded, too opinionated. I wasn’t going to balk and I sure as hell wasn’t going to change, but I met my match.

It was my own failure of imagination to assume that wasn’t possible.

 

More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

A DIY Faith

It was only a month ago that I dared to imagine what might be possible with the good folks gathered from #NCLI15. Together, we dared to imagine to get past the headlines preaching decline and destruction of the church and we did so by entertaining these popular trendlines from crowdsourcing to the sharing economy to the local movement to DIY.

Each trendline was its own breakout group where we got to talk about what this thing is and how it functions. Then, we tried to grasp what it might mean for the church. Is there good news in these trendlines that counter the narrative of decline? It was assumed by the organizers that the answer is obviously yes. These trendlines tell another story. That’s what we were supposed to feel in each breakout group.

I remained unconvinced.

I remain unconvinced. As much as I wanted to believe that there is another story, it felt like a gimmick. It felt so forced that each breakout session seemed to conclude with some aphorism of faith that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Maybe we need to hear those things again. Maybe they are still true.

Maybe that’s the whole point but it’s hard to sit with that old, old story when there are big promises of something new and exciting.

It introduces a different kind of despair because the other thing the headlines continue to tell us is that those people out there don’t want that old, old story. They’ve heard it before. They are not interested.

I wonder if that’s the destructive story that we’ve claimed as gospel. People don’t want religion. We’ve come to believe this so much that we’re contorting ourselves to be new and exciting when what we really want — what we really need — is the old, old story. Because there is no news like good news.

While religious leaders and organizations have slumped into despair because no one wants our old, old story, the good news continues. It’s still out there. It’s still happening.

It’s just more of a DIY kind of faith. It’s what the non-profit Kevah is doing to bring people together in studying the Torah. Reading the Torah isn’t new and exciting. It’s something that is expected of any Jew or any Christian or any Muslim. As people of the book, we’re actually supposed to read those sacred words. We’re supposed to meditate on them and try to figure out what in the world they mean. Kevah is inviting people to study that old, old story in groups of their own creation. Be it geographic or demographic or particular topic of interest. They form their own groups — and then Kevah offers them a trained teacher. There’s a fee that comes with that finder’s fee. But, once that match is made, the group gets to create its own adventure in Torah study.

open-343297_1280It’s not a gimmick. It’s not forced. It’s responding to a genuine need that what people really want is relationship. We want something genuine and real. We want people that we can trust surrounding us in a sacred circle so that we can ask the hardest questions and know that we won’t be shunned or mocked.

There is no reason to despair because this DIY approach is creating something that religious institutions and religious leaders have completely failed in doing. It’s not something I really understand but it’s something I hear about from people that stumble into the bible studies I’ve led. They haven’t felt loved. They haven’t felt supported. That’s what they are looking for as much as that sacred study. So, when they come to bible study, they are very quiet. They think they have to be an expert in Greek or Hebrew more than their own lives. So, they don’t speak.

It makes me sad every single time. Because, for whatever reason, we have focused so much on the text that we have forgotten to listen to each other’s hearts. We aren’t focused on the people before us but on the words on the page. Those words matter but they matter so much more when they are connected to the person holding the text beside me. Sometimes that means we go off topic. Sometimes it means that there are more questions than answers. Of this I am convinced, as much as the trendline wants us to believe we can do it on our own, the truth is: we can’t.

A DIY faith is one where we realize that we are each called to be disciples and apostles and teachers. There are some that are set apart to shepherd us. I am one of those ordained people that gets to do that cheerleading but I know that I can’t do it on my own. I can’t change the headlines all by myself. I need others that will help me. This is something that I’ve tried to instill in the churches I’ve served. The pastor doesn’t need to be at everything. She doesn’t need to teach every class. She doesn’t need to lead every prayer. She doesn’t need to have any idea for every new program because the better ideas are out there in the congregation. I created my own DIY approach in this step-by-step guide about how to start a small group ministry which you’ll find in my Ideas and Resources page. Download it. Use it. Because I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone. We must do it together.

That’s the old, old story that never gets tired. It’s the gospel we need to remember when the headlines tell another story. We need each other. We need every disciple, every apostle, every teacher and every person with a crazy idea that will help us re-member that good news within ourselves.

In the Middle of the Story

The question always comes up in Bible Study when we find ourselves talking about Jesus. Somewhere in the middle of the Gospel, no matter which Gospel we’re reading, we find ourselves studying a particular passage after he’s born and before the real trial has begun. There’s just been a healing or some other sign. And someone will imagine how Jesus feels at that very moment.

I ask them to stay within the story. I ask them not to jump ahead. Or read outside of the selected verses because it’s so very hard to stay in that moment. We know the whole story. We know how the story will end. We know what will happen to Jesus. We know what we’ve been taught about him so that it’s so very hard to stay in the moment. It’s hard not to hear the hymns we’ve sung for years and the creeds we thought we’d long forgotten reverberate against the words in that particular passage. Because it’s all there. No matter how hard we try to push it away and just be in that moment in Christ’s life. It’s all there.

But, that’s not how it is in our lives. We are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it’s going to end up. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. There are things that we desperately wish would happen. There are things that we are trying with every ounce of our being to make happen. We’ll fight like hell for those things, but in the middle of the story, what we notice most is the resistance. Not God’s wonderful works. Not what God has done. Or even what God might do.

We notice what we can’t make happen. And yet, the psalm invites us to sing.

Sing of God’s praises. Sing of God’s wonderful works. And remember.

Remember the wonderful works God has done,
    the miracles, and the judgments God has uttered,
O offspring of God’s servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, the chosen ones.
Psalm 105:5-6, NRSV

Remember how it was for Abraham and maybe — just maybe — you’ll see that same wonder working in your own life. Seek God’s presence and strength. Because you and I are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it will end. We don’t know what will happen next. We know what we want but perhaps instead of seeking that next thing, it’d be worth spending some of that energy on seeking God’s presence and strength. Because we’re in the middle of the story and we don’t know what will happen next. But, no matter what, we will need that presence and a whole lot of strength.