599px-James_Jasper,_motor_brakeman,_and_his_family_eat_dinner_in_their_kitchen_in_home_in_company_housing_project._Koppers..._-_NARA_-_540913

Home Envy

599px-James_Jasper,_motor_brakeman,_and_his_family_eat_dinner_in_their_kitchen_in_home_in_company_housing_project._Koppers..._-_NARA_-_540913        It’s time to write my sermon, so of course I’m procrastinating online, scrolling past the posts and pictures of other people’s lives.  A wide spectrum of life is here: weddings, family vacations, and cute little babies.  I like this connection to my friends, and I smile at the photos.  I scroll on, but then I see it:  a picture of a newly purchased house.  The green-eyed monster rears its ugly head now.  A house.  Weddings and babies barely register, but when someone posts pictures of a house, I come undone.

Even knowing the burden of a mortgage, of constant upkeep, doesn’t quell my initial surge of jealousy.  Even knowing that an internet profile is a carefully curated perfection of a much more complex life doesn’t help.  Pictures of playrooms, updated decks, and recently rearranged furniture end with me breaking the tenth commandment. This irrational jealousy would be explainable if my living situation were sub-par, if I were crammed into a miniscule apartment or trying to survive in some dilapidated dwelling, but my intense envy doesn’t make sense because I do have a house.

Well, it’s not really mine.  I live in a manse.

I’m a proponent of the manse system, noting how it benefits smaller churches that otherwise couldn’t offer a housing allowance, how it benefits young clergy saddled with debt and poor credit who otherwise couldn’t buy a house, how it helps churches in less-attractive areas call pastors because there’s no need to buy a house there.  I remain a proponent, when practical, of manses.

I am grateful for the manse I live in, since I serve a small church in a dying town where houses go up for sale almost every day and then stay that way for years.  I am young, and in debt, unwilling to buy property which I could never sell, and committed to serving the small church.  The manse benefits me.

But this manse, in particular, is a relic of a different time, of a time when my church and this town were bustling with life, when employment was available, and, most important, when the minister was married with children.  None of this is the case now, especially that last item.  I am single, childless, and living in a manse created for family.  My house has ten rooms, some of which are basically barren.  It’s not that I’m much of a minimalist, it’s that this house is far bigger than the life I have.

To be clear, I am aware what a blessing it is to have space. I know what other people would give for this luxury.  I take full advantage of having work space and living space and sleeping space.  But to be honest, it’s also overwhelming.  There are so many empty places, so many half-finished spaces, and just one little me.  This house doesn’t fit me.  This house is made for a person with a different life, for a person with things I don’t have.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the house is half-filled and unfurnished, it feels like my life is half-filled and unfurnished.  Sometimes it feels like all this space is taunting me for the things I’ve failed to do, all the things I seem to lack.  You still haven’t filled these rooms! You don’t have anyone to share this space!  You don’t have any reason for a back yard and a huge kitchen!  Look at the big, empty areas of your life!  This mild paranoia makes me grateful that walls can’t actually talk.

But fear of what the walls would say also shows that the root of my house envy is something deeper than longing for wraparound porches and the Craftsman style.  What I want is what I see in those Facebook pictures—but what I see is a home.  Not the place, not the furnishings, but the people who will fill those places and live in those rooms.  My friends, posting their new digs, look like they feel at home, like they are home.  Offline, I can’t even remember what the houses look like, because the house isn’t really what matters; it’s that sense of home, of comfortable settledness, of shared life that I remember.  And no matter what I put in it, this house doesn’t feel like a home to me.  It feels too big, and too empty, and I feel lonely and unsettled in it.

In one of my bible study sessions, we looked at the passage where Jesus sends out the disciples. Folks in the group latched on to various parts of the text, but I was taken by these words: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”

For me, the consolation of these extracted verses is that the disciples stayed in houses which were not their own while they did the work of the kingdom.  And I bet those houses didn’t always feel right.  I bet at times they longed for their own beds and familiar faces.  I bet that even when the peace of God fell on them, that not every house felt like home.

And though there’s little I share with those brave disciples, all the same, I am in a house that isn’t mine, and doesn’t feel like home.  I remind myself that not only did the disciples live this way, but the Lord who sent them did, too.  There’s an unsettledness to the Gospel story that comforts me as I wrestle with longing for the feeling of home.  If I feel unsettled, at least I am in good company.

In a more inspirational piece, this is where I would explain how I’ve overcome my feelings of jealousy and longing with that knowledge.  But I haven’t yet. I know I can make a good life, just as I am, where I am, but I am still in the middle, hoping for a reason for all this space.

I also know, even when I sense empty places in my life, that I carry gifts that a house, even a big, empty house, can never contain.  I’m overwhelmed with space, but also overwhelmed with grace and love.  I bear truths that walls can’t hold and am sheltered not just by a roof, but by Almighty wings.  And more important, I know my Lord didn’t call me to live a tailor-made life; he’s called me to proclaim the peace of God and the nearness of the kingdom. And, perhaps, he has called me to live “settled” in a way that looks different from many others.  As I work through envy and covetousness, I pray that peace will not only fall on the homes and people I encounter, but that peace would also fall on my own heart and my own house, and make it a home.

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Consecrated?

5077278307_a8ea39b266_zYou aren’t single. We’re

together, for the long haul.

Right?

His head tilts, brow furrows.

 

Yes, but

I start

Yes but according to the

Church…

 

Would another person be a better partner

He wonders

Just because of some rings and words at the front of a church?

 

Ah, but my whole life is words at the front of a church…

But it isn’t.

And I sure didn’t ask for this

this blessed unrest

this life of presence

with families who are not my own

And I can’t let it go

it feels like me

like how I was created to be

consecrated by God

from before I could know

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Grace for the Moment

4385234366_570d227770_z“We’re praying for you.”

I was robed and walking towards the narthex when one of my church members stopped to whisper these words. I offered a broken “thank you.” I felt the tears grow and burn in my eyes. Halfway down the hallway, I turned around and ran back to my office. By the time I got there, I was sobbing. The clock read 10:24 AM, six minutes before worship began. I was grateful that I gave up make-up, especially mascara, years ago.

I need to get it together, I thought. What if we have first-time visitors? I should go meet them. Are there any announcements I need to make? Why do we buy such cheap, generic tissues in churches?

I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror. If I could just get the tears out of my eyes, surely no one would see the dark circles underneath. I fluffed my hair–not because it dried my eyes but because it made me feel a little better.

I put my hand on the doorknob, only to feel the tears rise again. Darn. I took another deep breath, eyes closed. I could hear those words again…

“We’re praying for you.”

I leaned into the dark doorway –and into those prayers. If there were visitors, the church members would greet them. If there were announcements, a church member could voice them. All I needed to do was show up. I was weak, but God was strong. The church’s spiritual leader was weak, but the Church was strong.

I finally emerged and headed back down the hallway at 10:28 AM. The choir was lining up, and I was able to slip into my spot quietly. The prelude began. We processed in. Everything went as usual. I stepped forward to lead the Prayers of the People.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

I smiled, genuinely smiled, as my brothers and sisters wished me the truth: God was with me. God was with us all. We prayed together. We sang a hymn together. I returned to my seat.

Tricia, the soloist, stepped forward. When I heard the first notes of her guitar, the tears started again.

The song was called, “Grace For the Moment.”

I scanned the congregation and saw tears on many cheeks. Whether saint or sinner, pastor or parishioner, we share this in common: we all need grace for each moment. Though I had been physically alone in that office only thirty minutes earlier, I was far from lonely in the sanctuary of believers.  When the final strums of the guitar faded, the moment when I most needed grace arrived. I stepped into the pulpit and quietly thanked her.

I took a deep breath, raised my open palms, and said, “Let us hear God’s Word.”

Nine months have passed since I walked into church with a heart broken by a break-up. When I reflect on that Sunday, I do not see myself as the “pastor” even though I held the title and preached the sermon. Instead, the people of St. Luke United Methodist Church were my pastor. Their love contributed to the healing I celebrate today. My eyes were red and raw from cheap tissue. But God’s presence, experienced with God’s people, was the balm that makes us all whole again.

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Sucker for a Good Story

1281399898_352838e0a0_zI was married in my second year of seminary, so when I got divorced a couple years ago and re-entered the dating pool, I experienced for the first time the challenge of dating as a lady pastor. I had heard enough stories from my colleagues over the years to expect weird conversations and creepy fascinations. What I didn’t expect was that some of the very qualities that make me a good pastor also make me terrible at dating. I have been raised on the story of God, with Bible stories permeating my life so thoroughly that I barely distinguish them from my actual experiences. I love these stories, to tell them and hear them, and find new ways of interpreting them. My parishioners would tell you they can see and hear that love in my preaching and teaching, and at every congregation I have served, this love has been a strength of my ministry. Here’s the thing, though. Each of these stories, every single one of them, is about how God uses imperfect people to accomplish her perfect will. All of these stories are about how the power of God can change people into something more beautiful, more influential than they were before. And my own experience, in my personal and professional lives alike, reinforces these themes: God can transform people. Which is great, right? I mean, isn’t that part of the pull of the gospel: that it’s transformational? But the conviction that people can change, and that God often works through her faithful people to bring about that change, is a major problem when sitting across the table from a wonderful man, who maybe just has one thing about him that doesn’t fit my needs. If God can change Saul from a murderous persecutor of Christians into the best evangelist ever, God can certainly change my date’s tendency to drink too much, avoid his feelings, or make that same obnoxious and kind of racist joke over and over again. And, here comes the real kicker, God maybe wants to use me to do it! Maybe that’s why this date is happening, as a means of revealing God’s grace and power? In my ministry, and in my friendships, I’ve seen it happen. Words that flow from my mouth, by the leading of the Spirit, make people think and feel differently about themselves and the world. Unconditional love shown to people at vulnerable times enables them to confess long-held secrets and be healed. Being in deep, Christ-centered relationships with people is absolutely life-changing. So, why not in my dating life too? Plus, wouldn’t it be an awesome story to tell from the pulpit, about how the power of God transformed a lackluster date into a life-giving, faith-filled long-term relationship? I’m only half-joking. Of course I know it’s not emotionally healthy to date someone just because you think the power of your faith (and personality) might be good for them. Not to mention, that’s pretty egotistical. So, I’m trying to remember that God may very well work through me to change lives in my ministry, but my personal life is a different story. Especially my dating life. And besides, there’s only one story in the Bible where God calls someone into an intimate relationship to show forth her grace. Remember Hosea and his harlot wife Gomer? Definitely not what I’m looking for. Even if it would make a really good story.

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Love the One You’re With?

3481606161_a866dbfb00_z (3)I can remember being told by some folks while I was in seminary that my best (and perhaps my only) chances of finding someone to love and marry would be before I was ordained. “Good luck finding a man who will be okay with the idea of being hooked up with a pastor,” they said. “If you ever find someone who doesn’t run at the mention of your profession, hold on to him,” they advised. “You’ll need to be ready to compromise and take what you can get,” they stated.

I’m sure that they meant well, but their “advice” was stifling. God had called me to be a pastor, but my profession (I was told) was a natural man-repellant. I imagined that I would either have to leave the ministry to find the man of my dreams or I would just have to settle for whomever came along and didn’t flinch too much when I told them what I did for a living.

For eight years, the ghost of “you’ll never find someone” haunted me. For eight years, the specter of “you’ll just have to settle” loomed over me. If my dating life had a theme song for those eight years, it would have been some haunting version of “Love the One You’re With,” sung in a sorrowful minor key. I was desperate to find real love, but it always seemed just out of my reach. So, like the song directs, I tried to love the one I was with. I tried. But, it didn’t work. I was miserable. Still, I put on a smile and told myself and others that everything was okay.

For eight years, I had forgotten who I was. I had forgotten about the talkative young woman who loved to laugh; instead, I had become the quiet gal who would cry herself to sleep at night. I had forgotten about the young woman who was proud to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner party; instead, I had become the girl who would ashamedly look the other way when her date would pick at his food with his fingers. I had forgotten about the professional young clergywoman who was happy to be a pastor; instead, I had become an apologetic young woman who resented her call.

That was then.

It is hard to describe my experience of resurrection, but “resurrection” is how I would describe my experience. When the person I had been seeing finally admitted that he was merely following the words of that song written by Stephen Stills, too, something inside me finally broke. I could not simply love the one I was with – and neither could he. The soundtrack to my dating life that had started playing while I was in seminary had been a lie. I was done with settling. I was done with thinking that I deserved less than others because of my profession. I was done with being someone I wasn’t.

I was reborn.

Since letting all of those false expectations and assumptions about dating and relationships be laid to rest, I have discovered a greater sense of peace. I know what I want in a relationship, and I have no desire to merely “settle.” I am better than that. God created me to be worth more than that. I deserve to be wanted. I deserve to be respected. I deserve to be genuinely loved. And that will mean that my future partner will have to want me and respect me and love me for who I am – including the fact (not in spite of the fact) that God called me to be a pastor. It may not happen overnight, but I have faith that someday I will not simply love the one I’m with – I will be with the one I truly love; and he will love me the same way.

Empty Beds

Sleeping to One Side

Empty BedsI sleep alone in my Queen-sized bed and I’ve slept alone in this bed for almost two years.  You’d think that after two years, I’d sleep sprawled in the middle of this mattress, limbs stretching as far as they could reach.   But two years after I last had company on this mattress, I still sleep on one side of it.  I can put my iPad and iPhone, four pillows and even a tower of books on the other side of the bed and when I wake up they will all be there, unmoved.  It is hard to break the habits you learn when you share a bed night after night.

I sleep alone in my Queen-sized bed and you’d think that would mean I’ve been single for two years.  But I haven’t…or I have.  It’s complicated.  Everything is complicated when you’re married to a man who is in jail.   I’ve been raising a son alone despite the fact that he has a living father.  I’ve been filing my taxes as “married” despite the fact that I’m the sole bread winner and only adult in the house.  I’ve been going to bed alone despite the fact that I have a husband.   Complicated.

I thought that this would be my forever future – a wife in name only, alone in a marriage bed.  I was committed to it…until I wasn’t.  Well, until I healed enough to be able to hear God’s whispering voice offering me grace and new life.  I heard the voice of God threaded in the waves pounding on the beach of my new city (in my new call), and after two years I made a wrenching choice.  A liberating choice.  I decided it was finally time to get a divorce.

I started ordained ministry as a married woman.  My current call hired me as a married woman.  I was never a single minister, and now I find myself occupying this strange space.  And what’s funny?  Sunday we lit the Advent candle of Peace and today my lawyer files my divorce petition, and I find that incredibly well-timed.  Because I feel incredible peace about choosing to divorce, peace about becoming a single reverend instead of a married one, peace that as the Holy Family makes its way towards Bethlehem for the beginning of Something New I am making my own journey towards Newness as well.

Advent finally makes sense for me as I enter this tumultuous season of my own life.  I know what it is to long for hope, to search for peace, to crave joy, to ask for the love I need.  I know what it is to wait for light after languishing in darkness.  And pardon me while I beat a metaphor into the ground, but I feel pregnant with possibility as I amble into the future.  (Does that make my lawyer the donkey?  Maybe the shepherds?  I’m not sure.  Some metaphors you can only stretch so far I guess.)

Advent means the arrival of something significant, and the advent of my official “singleness” is on the horizon.  But with that singleness comes new possibilities, new relationships, new ways of growing in faith and as a minister to my new congregation.  It’s not here yet, but it’s coming.  What’s the constant refrain of this season?  Wait, wait, wait, wait.  So I’m waiting for the Christ child and I’m waiting for the unknown that hovers over the horizon.  And in the meantime, maybe I’ll finally learn to enjoy the entirety of my Queen-sized bed.

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Love at First Sight

5536556304_0bf9959e67I remember the day in 2010 that I first saw his picture online.  That night, my friend Sarah and I were having dinner at Los Arcos, and over our fajitas I passed her my smartphone so she could share in my delight.  “Oh, he’s so cute!” she gushed.  “I love his eyes.”

“I know,” I said with a smile.  “I really think he might be the one.”  Even though I hadn’t actually met him yet, I just had a feeling after reading his profile that we would be a perfect fit.  The next day, I made a phone call and set up a time for our first encounter.  I was nervous as I pulled in to the parking lot.  What if he didn’t like me?  What if we didn’t click?  I said a silent prayer that all would go well, and walked through the doors of the local Petco.  The moment I laid eyes on him, it was love at first sight.

The dog of my dreams did not instantly take to me, however.  His history was unknown, since he had been found on the streets in pretty rough shape before being brought in to an animal shelter.  That much I knew from reading his online profile, which also told me that he was now perfectly healthy.  With the woman who had been fostering him for the past six weeks, he was very friendly, wagging his tail, nuzzling her hand, making excited noises, and taking treats from her.  When I came near him, he cowered, turning his head away from me, never making eye contact.  Things didn’t go much better when I took the leash from her and attempted to take the dog on a walk around the shopping center.  He stayed low to the ground, shaking a bit, and kept looking over his shoulder as if to see whether he had lost me yet.  It was discouraging, but when we returned to the store and he saw his “foster mom,” he was once again all happy tail wags and smiles.  She assured me that before too long, he would react the same way to me.  The hope of that was enough, and after buying dog food, a few toys, a new crate, and lots of treats, I brought Hurley home.

Adopting an adult dog with a possible history of abuse is not for the faint of heart, and I found myself in tears more than a few times over the next two months.  Some people even told me to send him back to the rescue group, but I took seriously the commitment I had made.  I believed (and still do) that the life of this creature mattered to God, and that he had been entrusted to me.  I thought of how often I have mistrusted God’s love, and how patient God has had to be with me.  Progress was slow, but it was there.  I learned that I had to work at Hurley’s pace, not mine, and build trust bit by bit.  The first few weeks, he would sleep hidden behind a chair in my living room, as far away from me as he could get.  Eventually he started sleeping in his crate in my bedroom, and by three months into our relationship, he was hogging more than half my bed.  I didn’t mind, even on the nights he snored.

As a way of getting Hurley over his social anxiety, I took him along with me to parks, restaurants, the beach, the farmers market, local festivals, and even enrolled him in a doga (dog yoga) class, anything to expose him to new people and places in an enjoyable way.  We also joined a terrific obedience class that allowed Hurley to be part of a group of other dogs working on commands amid real world distractions.  His canine friends helped Hurley feel secure in crowded shopping centers, busy pet stores, large parks, and other areas.  Through all of these activities, I was exposed to new places and people as well.  Being an introvert and still relatively new to the area, this was a little scary for me, but I formed strong bonds with a few of the people (and dogs) we met.  It was good for me as well as Hurley to be outside our comfort zones.

I knew that getting a dog would be a big responsibility.  What I didn’t realize was how much I needed to be responsible for someone else.  Having lived alone for so long, I was not used to putting someone else’s needs ahead of my own.  Hurley changed that.  Before Hurley, a breakup with a boyfriend or some other perceived crisis could leave me too heartbroken to get out of bed all day.  Now I have to get up no matter how I feel, to make sure Hurley gets walked and fed, and that reminds me that I need exercise and food as well.  There are no days off from this.  He also serves as something of an early warning system in the treacherous world of online dating.  The first time I let a potential boyfriend meet my dog, I have learned the hard way that if Hurley barks at him (since Hurley almost never barks at anything), that guy is bad news.  Dogs are excellent judges of character, if you ask me.

Three years after adopting him, it is hard to imagine my life without Hurley in it.  My neighbors know his name as well as they know mine, and I would probably never have met most of them if not for the daily ritual of walking the dog.  A couple of my friends were so moved by the bond they saw between Hurley and me that they decided to get dogs of their own, and it seems to have improved their lives, too.  When I come home from a long shift at the hospital, exhausted from ministering to people in crisis, it makes all the difference in the world to know that Hurley is waiting for me.  No matter what mood I am in, he will run to the door to greet me, wagging his tail, making his happy noises, and showing me his famous smile.  If I have been crying, he will give me kisses when I kneel to pet him, and sometimes will even put his head on my shoulder.  I can’t help but be cheered up by that.  We will go for a walk, and I will begin to let go of some of the stress and sadness of work.  If I have time to take him to the beach or the park later on, Hurley will let me know that this is the best day of his life, again.  I need that reminder of the joy in small things and the gift of the present moment.  Hurley is an excellent teacher.  Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank God for entrusting us to one another.

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What Not to Say to a Single Clergywoman

6247467643_2a3f5a7b52There might have been a TV show called, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” but it’s actually adults who say the darnedest things. I especially began to notice this after becoming a pastor. I don’t know statistics of married versus single clergy or male versus female, but I have certainly felt like I was in the minority. I was only twenty-five years old when I became a pastor, and at first I was humored by people’s reactions to my age and relationship status. Some of the comments have been kind, with people obviously desiring that I be happy. Others have been more puzzling, comments that made it sound as if I “needed” a guy. I’ve talked to single, female colleagues over the years and exchanged stories of the “darnedest things” said, and we’ve laughed a lot.

But we’ve also cried.

We’ve cried because sometimes words, even with the best intentions, can touch on sensitive spots. I was told in seminary to grow a tough skin. But no matter how tough skin becomes, there’s still a heart underneath. Sometimes, words can hurt and harden that heart.  

The emotional health of the pastor can have an enormous impact on the health of a congregation. If we are more aware of how laypeople and clergy can help make each other healthier, won’t our congregations also be healthier?  With this in mind, I’d like to offer a list of discouraging comments, as well as some more encouraging words to use.

Disclaimer: There is a lot of honesty here. Please know that this list is not directed at any particular person or group, and I share this in a spirit of reflection–not anger, not resentment, not frustration. Hopefully, there’s a dash of humor, too. I can only speak as an unmarried, female pastor, but I can guess that both men and women in other vocations can identify with the sentiments. Thank you for reading, laughing, and learning with me.

1. In your profession, it must be hard for you to meet guys.

Yes, it can be difficult even to form friendships, whether one lives in a small town or a large city, in any profession. What this comment implies is that my vocation could keep me from being in a relationship, which is not true. I have dated guys who thought it was “cool” to go out with a reverend. Three of my closest friends are guys I met after I became a pastor. I’ve discovered that my profession doesn’t prevent me from meeting guys. Instead, it enhances my conversations with them. What I would rather hear, and what some dear people have said to me, is: I respect your profession so much, and you deserve the best in relationships.

2. I just wish you could find somebody.

Somebody? A vague semi-person? That’s not what I desire, nor is it what I believe God wants for us. Relationships, whether platonic or romantic, are not something that we find. They are formed by us and by God. What I would rather hear is: I hope you are forming meaningful relationships. 

3. Would you like to meet my grandson/nephew/son? He’s cute….

No, not really. Haha. Every female pastor I know who was single at some point of her pastorate faced this question. Of course, a great friendship might be possible with that grandson/nephew/son. But this kind of matchmaking is just plain awkward. With such a “set up” comes an expectation that we might hit it off as a couple. My work as a pastor already comes with so many, natural expectations from the congregation. To make this suggestion adds unnecessary pressure. Instead, why not say, My relative is about your age and coming into town next weekend. If you’re in town and want to hang out with some younger people, let me know. I’ll give you his number.

4. It’s strange to have a pastor without a family. 

What people are actually saying here is an understandable observation: “In the past, we’ve had a pastor who was married with children.” I fully understand that people likely meant nothing insulting in this statement. But to use the phrase “with or without a family” is not helpful. We all have families because we are all a part of God’s family. Parents, siblings, pets, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are only some examples of family, even if we don’t live under the same roof. To describe a person as not having a “family” implies that they are disconnected, unsupported–and strange. This is the opposite of encouragement and can eat away at a person’s self-image. Instead of observing what is lacking, affirm what is present: We appreciate all that you bring to us–and it’s always so good to see your family when they come to visit.

5. You must get really lonely.

Yes, and saying so doesn’t make it any easier. It’s very difficult for many people to admit to their loneliness, whether they’re laity or clergy, male or female, young or old. Personally, instead of a verbal label of “lonely,” I would rather hear an invitation: I’m going to the coffee shop this afternoon. Want to join me?

We often hear that the Church wants young ministers, and the reality is that young people are marrying at later ages. This means that having a young pastor might mean having an unmarried pastor. I share all of this with you so that healthy relationships might be fostered, so that encouragement might abound. Yes, I’ve heard some “darned” things. But I have also been affirmed, encouraged, and supported tremendously by people’s words. Paul writes to the church in Philippi: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” May we also speak such things to one another, for the good health of ourselves and our churches.

Freshman Week Placement Tests Duke University

Failing the Bechdel Test

We were driving to my parents’ house when my sister, Lindsey, mentioned the Bechdel Test.  I had never heard of it, so I had to ask what it was.

“It’s like a baseline test for women in movies.  You ask three questions: Does the movie have at least two named, female characters; do two female characters talk to each other; and do they have a conversation about something other than a man?  It helps ascertain if women are portrayed as anything other than sex objects and background players.  Go ahead, test some movies,” she said.

We had fun naming movies and thinking about whether they could pass the Bechdel Test.  It was surprisingly difficult—even movies that were marketed to women often failed to pass.  I was still thinking of the test and mentally shaming Hollywood for its poor portrayals of women when I started to feel uneasy.  What if I Bechdel-tested my own life?  What would be the result?

I’m a not-quite-thirty-year-old divorcee, a single mom, and a pastor.  You’d think that if anyone could pass the Bechdel Test in her personal life, it would be me.  But in reviewing my adult history I realized that my uneasiness was not unfounded.

At twenty-two, I got married the weekend after my college graduation.  The marriage was miserable and quickly devolved into codependency.  After five years of trying to keep up with my husband’s demands and doing near-constant damage control for our public image, he left me and our young son.  I might have risen from the ashes like some kind of phoenix, but instead I rushed into something comfortable, dating a man who put very little into our relationship, while I poured more and more of myself into it, trying to make up the difference.  When he left, I felt empty and hollow.  Without a relationship to take up my time and energy, there seemed to be very little in my life.

Enter the Bechdel Test.  If I Bechdel-tested my own life, I failed miserably.  Of course to some extent this is an exaggeration (I have two sisters and a mom and I’m sure we talk about groceries and Dancing with the Stars from time to time), but outside of family, the test revealed how starved my life had become.  I had a few female friends left over from younger days, friends faithful enough to have stuck around despite my almost completely ignoring them during my married years.  I rarely spent time with those women, though.  When I did, it was because I didn’t have a date lined up and my parents were available to babysit for free.  On rare occasions when I was spending time with a girlfriend, I talked almost exclusively about the men in my life: my boyfriend (if I had one), the dates I’d been on, whatever scheming I was up to concerning a particular crush.

Looking back, I can’t blame myself for talking so exclusively about men.  It’s not that I was boy-crazy (I don’t think anyone would describe me that way), but even if I had wanted to talk about something other than men, I really had nothing else going on in my life (except my son, but he’s a boy, too!).  Like most women, I was programmed to view relationships as all-or-nothing projects, to view my life as a gift to give someone else rather than a gift to enjoy myself.  Years of pouring everything I had into a marriage, at the expense of all other friendships and interests, had left me bereft of conversation.  I failed the Bechdel Test in my life, and the results were telling:  I felt out of control of my own future.  I had inadvertently turned myself into a background player in my own life, subject to the whims and desires of whatever man I was currently dating.

After these sobering reflections, it was time to make a change.  To pass a real-life Bechdel Test, I needed to add more women friends to my life and talk to them about something other than men, so my approach was two-pronged:  Revive my female friendships and add activities to my schedule that had nothing to do with men.  This seems easy enough, right?  But for me, it involved a fundamental shift in my priorities.  I would no longer be putting energy into finding a boyfriend or using my babysitter’s available time for dates.  From now on, my first priority would be to make dates with friends, and my sitter would be called up not so I could go out with Johnny, but so I could spend time with Jane.

For step one, I thought a sorority would be a pretty good place to start.  Fortunately, I live in the same town where I attended college.  It was easy to contact the alumni chapter of my undergraduate sorority.  Before I knew it, I was volunteering to be an advisor to the local collegiate chapter.  “You’re going to love it,” Georgina, the general advisor, told me, “You’ll be amazed at how quickly the girls open up to you. You’re going to help shape their lives.”  That gave me even more motivation:  If I was going to be modeling life for young women, I wanted to model a healthy, strong life.

Next I started contacting my long-neglected female friends.  I made dates for the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning with Mary, a weekly afternoon walk with Alicia, and a regular phone date to catch up with Melanie.  Then step two: I needed something to talk about.  Without my usual boyfriend drama I had time and subject-matter to fill.  I started taking guitar lessons, training for a 5k, and yes, learning German in my car.  Now, when I got together with my girlfriends or spent time with the coeds, I was amazed at how I bubbled over with conversation.  There were so many things to talk about, so much I was excited to share.

It’s been several months now since that first Bechdel Test conversation, and I no longer feel like a background player in my own life.  When I get home at night I play with my son, put him to bed, and then delight in trying to decide what fun hobbies I will choose for the rest of the night.  I still go on dates, but men have to work hard to convince me that the date they’re offering will be more fun than putting the finishing touches on that Taylor Swift song I’ve been working on at home.  Even then, I only go out if the babysitting is free; my babysitter is reserved for time with friends.

Two years ago, stuck in a life-draining marriage, I would never have thought that my days could be this full or fun.  And just a year ago, struggling to figure out who I was after defining myself by the men in my life for so long, I could not have guessed that it would be the women in my life who would free me to live fully.  Some would argue that the Bechdel Test is meaningless, and for some another test might be needed (I am, after all, heterosexual), but for me, Bechdel-testing my own life opened the door to recognizing and correcting significant absences and shortages in my life.  Now I drive the plot in my story.

And, after three months of German in the car, my kid speaks Deutsche.

So go ahead, test some movies.  Test your own life.

Tent for front page

Alone in a Tent

Tent for front pageIt all started with a beat up orange tent I bought for $15 at a garage sale near my apartment.  Buying it was a whim; I saw it set up in the yard and decided to stop and look at it.  Camping wasn’t new to me.  I grew up camping with my family—two parents, three daughters, and a couple dogs.  We spent many nights in campgrounds around the country, creating many good memories.  I hadn’t gone camping in several years, though.  Family vacations are a thing of the past.  My friends don’t camp (and think the idea is a little crazy).  I didn’t have the equipment.  I bought the tent anyway on that September afternoon.  Then it languished in a closet for the rest of the fall, winter, and spring all because I lacked a companion.   Since my friends were unwilling and I didn’t have boyfriend of husband, who would go with me?  Could I go alone?

Eventually, I got annoyed.  I had a tent and a sleeping bag and I wanted to use them.  But that nagging question about going alone persisted.  Could I make fires by myself?  Could I really set up the tent by myself?  What would I do by myself for all that time?  And the big question: was it safe?  What if something bad happened to me?  A tent isn’t much protection against someone with malicious intent.  If only I had a husband to go with me….

Despite the questions running through my heart and mind, I decided to give it a test run.  I reserved just one night at a state park where we camped a lot when I was a kid.  I was familiar with the park, knew it was family friendly (which seemed safer), and it was close to home.  It seemed like a good test.

From that night, solo camping passed the test.  I won’t lie, I was nervous going to sleep that night, but I escaped unscathed and instead, filled with joy.  My campground neighbor gave me some extra newspaper when he saw me struggling with my fire.  My campfire cooked meals were more delicious than cooking at home.  And I learned that I was okay by myself in a tent.

The test-trip gave me courage to try a multi-night adventure at the same state park later in the summer.  Those days were a balm to my harried heart.  I spent hours at my campsite reading and marveling at the greens on the trees around me.  Next, I got a little braver and decided to try a campground I’d never been to before.  It was still only 30 minutes away, so if it was too rowdy on the holiday weekend I’d have an easy escape.  After that successful trip, my courage had grown and so had my thirst for adventure.  I took a weekend trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is only a few hours away yet I’d never visited.  It was a trip full of brilliant blue water, soaring sand dunes, and crisp fall air.  It was exhilarating to explore the area, taking in lake views from a number of hiking trails and then retreating to my wooded campsite for the evening (although I did learn that the $15 garage sale tent was not thick enough for fall camping).

As my camping confidence grew, so did my self-confidence.  I don’t need to wait for a boyfriend to go camping.  I am a complete person now, because I am complete in Christ.  Life in Christ isn’t lackluster, but is full of abundance.  Camping is one way I experience that abundance—waking up in a tent to songbirds chirping outside, the crisp pine-scented air when I get out of the tent in the morning, morning pancakes on the camp stove, the thrill of a beautiful hike, dinner cooked over a crackling fire, watching the sun slip into Lake Michigan in the evening, curling up in a cozy sleeping bag. If someday I have a husband to add to that list, I will be grateful.  But for now you can find me by myself in my shiny new tent enjoying the life I have now to the fullest.

Rev. Ruth Lemmen is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church of North America.  She recently finished two years as a Resident Pastor of Outreach at Church of the Servant CRC and is waiting to see where God calls her next.  She’s hoping it is somewhere with great camping options!  She blogs at Rev. Ruth’s Reflections (http://ruthsreflections.blogspot.com).

Photo by Ruth Lemmen August 11, 2013. Used with permission.