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. 

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.

 

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. 

Self-Care is Not Just for Clergy

yoga-post-300x200In the wake of the presidential inauguration, with the tsunami of executive orders that immediately followed, I have watched as my friends on social media have retreated. One by one, they’ve announced they are taking a break. They need to rest. Their souls must retreat. 

Of course, as these posts appeared on Facebook, that pesky comment box beckons for a response. Some comments are blessings for renewal. Some offer courage and solidarity. Others admit that they’re feeling the same pull and then… then there’s that person who insists upon engagement. Full of finger wagging shame, this person curses the rest that even God requires.

Read more on New Sacred.

Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

The No Plan Plan

I don’t get to my home church very much. In fact, I’vbe-the-churche only been for worship twice in the past year. Once was my first official visit. The next Sunday I joined as a member. Since then, I’ve been busy on Sunday mornings preaching in another congregation.

Still, I love my home church. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe that is seeking to be the church in so many bold ways.

I want to help. I want to be connected even if I can’t get to worship on Sunday. So, when it was requested that members sign up to write for the newsletter while our pastor in on a much-needed vacation, I said yes.

Yes, I will write about how I’m learning about faith right now. Yes, I’ll say something about this crazy move in which I find myself. Yes, I’ll write about The No Plan Plan. It goes like this:

I am surrounded by boxes. Two months ago, everything I own was packed up by strangers, loaded upon a truck and transported to our next home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Just three months ago, my beloved and I celebrated our marriage. It was wonderful. It was everything you could ever hope that such a blessing could be but after that epic celebration, we have been surrounded by boxes and bags.

Read the whole reflection on Old First Reformed UCC’s website.