Everything is New

Last week, I had an interview with a church seeking an interim pastor. I knew what would happen even before that meeting. I knew it because it’s what always happens. As I sat there talking to these faith-filled, hopeful people, I came to love them. It wasn’t even a slow progression. It basically walloped me from the moment I said “hello” on the church’s steps.

Love is where ministry starts. It has to start with love because there is no way that we can say and do hard things without love. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m grateful for the people who have shown me this love both as a pastor and a fellow disciple. So it happened again. They told me their story and I loved them even more. My smile broadened. My cheeks hurt as I got in my car to drive home. But, it was then that I was able to admit something to myself that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe yet.

I couldn’t believe it because I could only hear that question that I didn’t know how to answer: So, what are you doing with yourself now? It’s a question that has been asked all summer by friends and family. Ever since people found out that my husband and I were moving to Kansas, they’ve wanted to know what church I’ll be serving and where. And then, when I told them that it wasn’t likely that I would get to serve a church in the very short time that we’d be here, they’ve furrowed their brows and asked: So what are you going to do then?

I haven’t felt like I had an answer to this question. I have really, really wanted an answer to this question but I haven’t had one. I wasn’t sure.

And then, I met with this church to talk about their past and present. I dared to imagine how I could be their interim pastor and realize that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. They are lovely people and I really wanted to help them. I knew I could help them but sitting in my car on the drive home was the first time I asked myself what I wanted from these four months. What was it that I wanted? What was it that I needed?

The first thought was honestly that this summer sucked. It was a good time with my dear friend Corey and I’m so glad to have strengthen our bond these many years after college, but it was also the first three months of my married life. And I was in Pennsylvania while he was in Kansas. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It sucked. We’ve done long distance and the military will probably require us to do it again but we chose it this time. I chose it because I wanted to have something on my resume for a year. That sounds callous, but it’s true. Just as callous and true as it felt to withdraw my name from this lovely congregation’s search for an interim pastor, but that is what I did yesterday. And it is right. It is good.

Over a year ago, I blogged about starting over again. I’ve started and restarted and tried to understand what God is calling me to now when everything is so new. I’ve been at this a year and still everything feels so new.

The apostle imagines this is a blessing to the church in Corinth, saying unto them, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, CEB). I am a bit uncertain about the blessing bit but new things have arrived. That much is true. New things continue to surprise me. I am not choosing a pulpit but I am choosing my marriage.

I don’t know if I’ll get this time again but if we can swing it, I want to be around on weekends. I don’t want to be away from him in his downtime. I want to be here. I’m choosing  that, but I’m choosing much more than that as anyone that has ever asked me “So what are you doing now?” knows well. I am trying to be a new creation in this new season of life. I  am choosing my marriage but not just my marriage.

img_1648I’m choosing writing. I’m trying to carve out time for the writing process even daring to wade into the National Novel Writing Month tomorrow. I won’t be writing a novel. I’ll be continuing to write this memoir of my own grief and loss that keeps changing every time I sit down to write it. There are other things I’m writing too and much more that I would like to write.

I’m choosing a new path in spiritual direction. I am honored to have been accepted just last month to the San Francisco Theological Seminary to delve into their certificate program in spiritual direction. I start in January. The check is in the mail.  I’m nervous and excited but that is how it is with new things. And right now, everything feels new.

I’m choosing new things — wonderful things — but everything is so very new.

 

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.

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.

What is the Meaning of Life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Blinking Cursor

“Keep your butt in the chair. You do it at the same time every day. You never wait for inspiration — it’s ridiculous, it will never come. No one in your family is going to hope for you to be a writer… it’s not convenient for anybody for you to write, and you have to do it badly.”

So says Anne Lamott in her beloved book Bird by Bird.

I must admit that I didn’t like her book. I didn’t find much encouragement from this beloved writer in these pages. I preferred the words of Stephen King that I read last year when I couldn’t write. Even when I couldn’t write and believed I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, King convinced me of his love for the craft. It’s something I missed in the pages of Bird by Bird. There were genuine pearls of which I remind myself every time I put my butt in the chair. I need to write some shitty first drafts and eat my broccoli.

But, most of the time, I just stare at my blinking cursor.

Yesterday I actually managed to do it. I put my butt in the chair and I wrote. I didn’t heed another of Lamott’s bits of wisdom. I didn’t write something completely new. I rewrote something I’d written way back when when I began this project. As you might already know, I’m writing a book. I’ve talked about it a whole lot but now I’m actually doing it. I’m writing about the thing I know best. I’m trying as hard as I can to tell the truth. But really, more often than not, I’m just trying to put my butt in the chair.

I don’t succeed most days. Earlier this week, for two consecutive days, I convinced myself that it was more important to write other things. I wrote something for New Sacred only to get an email from my editor after submitting it. It was incoherent, she told me. I attempted to edit it but I just stared at the blinking cursor.

Then, I gave up and clicked over to the other tab containing my sermon for Sunday which I was convinced was also incoherent and let’s be honest. Most of what I’ve written for this book is incoherent. It is gobbledygook. It is not intelligible and I shudder at the mere idea of sharing it with anyone acquainted with the English language, but I’m writing. I’m making slow and steady progress toward realizing this dream because I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ve always wished I had the discipline. I always wished I had something brilliant and true to say. I’m still not sure that I have any of those things but I’m writing.

Or, at least, I am staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen.

Each and every day, I think about the blinking cursor even when I’m not sitting at my laptop. I think about it at the gym and in the grocery store or while I’m reading something brilliant that someone else wrote. And lemme just say: there are lots of people who have written amazing things and sometimes I read their words and think I should never, ever put my butt in the chair. What could I possibly add? But, then, I remember that I love writing. I love writing for reasons I can’t even express so I sit down again just as I did today. I put my butt in the chair and try to make that stupid blinking cursor dance.

Starting Over Again

hands-way-guide-tourist

My sermon ended yesterday with the bold proclamation that God is just beginning to do a new thing. The words have been ratting around in my head since I first typed them. Pushing and prodding and nudging toward this amazing possibility that no one really understands.

I have to be honest. The whole idea makes me a bit tired. Not just because the church is changing and the future is unknown within the institution but because it’s the reality of my life. God has been doing a new thing this year. God gave me this amazing gift of love. God encouraged me to follow that love and move across country which meant leaving the church I was serving. It meant leaving the life I was trying to create and start over again.

Let me be clear: starting over sucks. It’s exhausting to try to reimagine what life could be when you have gotten so comfortable with the way life is. I’ve heard these complaints from church members so many times and it’s not that I didn’t understand. I did. I do. And I’ve tried so hard to take my own advice — and that of every book on change I’ve ever read — and try lots of things. I’ve tried to throw caution to the wind and imagine crazy things. In doing so, I have had a bunch of failures. Last year, I started a ministry that started to gain some traction and then it tanked. Maybe I tanked. I’m still not sure but all of the sudden it was so clear that this wasn’t for me. I still don’t think it was a bad idea. I just wasn’t the one to make it happen.

Now, as this new year dawns, I’m getting ready to start over again. God is really, truly just beginning to do a new thing. This year, I will get married. (Holy moly. I am getting married.)  It is going to be an epic multi-day event with so much love and so much wine and so many beautiful people. And then, we move again. I get to start over again.

I’m trying to summon all the enthusiasm I can muster. I’m trying to live on the edge of hope and wonder even though — if I’m honest — the prospect makes me tired. Even so, I haven’t stopped googling. I haven’t stopped daydreaming about what will come next in the new year as I try so very hard to chart points on a map into the unknown.

Map Point #1: It all begins with a wedding. I am over-planning the crap out of this event because it’s what I do best. When I say it’s going to be epic, I am not kidding.

Map Point #2: Shortly thereafter, I will return to the place we call home now. I will finish my charge as an interim pastor at this sweet little church. I will bless them in their future.

Map Point #3: And then, I will join my beloved in this new place with lots of BBQ. That’s when the adventure really begins and anything could happen. But, rather than get scared and overwhelmed, the first part is to settle into this new place.

Map Point #4: At the same time I will be settling into this new place, I’ll be sending off applications to continue my education. Gosh. It’s scary to type this and name this thing I’ve been thinking about aloud. Now you’ll know if I don’t get in. Ack! But, here’s the honest truth: I’m seeking to begin a holy adventure into spiritual direction. It’s a call that’s been getting louder and louder so that I feel I can no longer say no. Fingers crossed, I’ll begin this educational wonder in January 2017 — but that means I gotta complete an application or two.

Map Point #5: Of course, I can’t just imagine one education opportunity in the new year so I’m trying to figure out when I might take Part Two of interim ministry training. I am loving the challenging work I get to do right now. I want to be better at it. I want to know all the things which means more education.

Map Point #6: Last year, as I started over, I get better and better about answering the call to write. I even got published. There’s a book I started writing last year — and one that I hope to finish this year. It’s a book about what I know best. It’s a book about grief encompassing those things that I’ve learned from the wonderful people in the churches I’ve served and the lessons I’ve struggled to realize over so many years of mourning my mother. I haven’t a clue if it will be published but it’s a point on the map this year.

God is just beginning to do a new thing. It’s just starting in the dawning of the new year. No matter how I might plan, there are things that I can’t pinpoint on any map. God will do what God does and surprise me with wonders. Or so I pray not only for myself but for you too.

What new things is God just beginning in your life right now?

A Few Good Things

NEW_2519Just two weeks ago, I ventured to Cape Cod to officiate the wedding of one of my college friends. And you know what? Weddings are fun. I say this as someone who is super busy planning her own wedding and has a bit of grief about it. So, it’s a little bit of a reminder. Weddings are fun. No, really Elsa, weddings are fun. But, I wasn’t the bride this time.

I was the officiant. I was the one who got to say all of the things which I used to hate. In the beginning of my ministry, I would have much preferred a funeral. I still love funerals. Funerals are at the heart of my call story. They allow me to exorcise all of my demons. They allow a space for tremendous healing in the midst of the heavy load of grief. But, I’m really starting to love weddings. A few months ago, I got to officiate my little cousin’s wedding. (The picture you see here is actually from that wedding.) And then there was this one of my dear friend. And it’s just so good. I love it. So, I guess you could say that I’m available for weddings. Go ahead and contact me.

But, really, I don’t want weddings to be my main gig. So maybe don’t contact me. Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of my time to writing. On September 1, the United Church of Christ launched a new blog called New Sacred. It’s only been a couple of weeks — but whew! The writing is awesome and I am one of the writers. My first post just appeared today in honor of the Pope’s visit. Oh, have you heard that the Pope in in town? I wrote about what went down in my neighboring city of Philadelphia. You can find it here. While you’re there, be sure to check out all of the other amazing posts. Hats off to Marchae Grair on this awesome project. 

As much as I am writing, I am reading. I’m reading too many books at once actually. It’s a small problem as I can’t seem to finish a single one of these books. Nevertheless, there are some really important books I’m reading right now with a group of people in something dubbed White Young Clergy Reading Racism. It started as a blog series that flopped and became a Facebook group. If you’re interested in joining our discussion, join the Facebook group here. The conversation will be better with you — and it’s the perfect time as we are just now wrapping up our conversation on But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race. It’s time to choose another book — and we’d love your ideas.

Alternabook studytively, if you are really, really, really sad that you missed the first conversation of But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race, head on over to my Ideas + Resources page where you can download your very own copy of this book study. Even if you’re not that sad. Maybe just because you want to confront your own racism. That’s an even better reason.

So, that’s it. That’s a few good things from me. How about you?

Hope Within Me

hopeFrom far too many pulpits, there isn’t a word said about how long and how hard grief can be. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it’s a hallmark of our society or the stubbornness of a particular kind of Christianity that denies the depth of agony that begins on cross and continues in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps it’s neither of these things. Perhaps it’s both. I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the tears that glisten on the faces of those special and rare people. What does matter is that they heard the good news that didn’t insist on the challenges of Easter Sunday. They heard it from their own story. They heard that their pain, their grief and their inexpressible groaning isn’t something to just get over already — but a way for them to see the promise of resurrection.

There is resurrection in those “sighs too deep for words.” Resurrection comes in the story of our faith after betrayal and doubt. It comes after piercing and suffocating death before it waits in the tomb. Resurrection, as someone famous once said, doesn’t come without Good Friday. It is not resurrection unless there has been some pretty horrible inexpressible groaning first. Because that always comes first. There wouldn’t be a story without the death. There wouldn’t be anything remarkable or heroic. It wouldn’t have caused anyone to wonder if Jesus hadn’t been dead and buried. Sounds like a downer, I guess. Maybe it is for those who have never felt that sting. But, my mom died when I was seven years old. This still stings. I am not over it. I may never be over it even though it seems that there is always someone who believes I should be.

Grief is what I know best so that when I sat down to write my morning pages this morning and read 1 Peter 3:8-18a, this verse leaped off of the page of my Bible:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Because I believe I do have such an account. There is hope that is in me. There is hope in each of these rare and special people — even if doesn’t sound like triumphant joy. There is hope. I won’t get over my grief. It won’t vanish with the resurrections I might experience. It will always be part of the story. It will always be what happened first. It will always be the hope that is in me. It will always be what allows me to believe that there is resurrection. I’ll defend this hope. It is the hope that is within me.