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Harnessing Courage: A Review

harnessing-courage nov 2016Over the years, I have often wished that “regular” people better understood life with a significant disability. As an Episcopal priest who is completely deaf, I’ve struggled with the writing of authors who were able-bodied and exploring disability as a theological construct or something which needed to be overcome. As a hospital chaplain and a parish priest focused on pastoral care, I need something written from the inside, which described both the highlights and the lowlights of life with a significant disability, and which asked the reader to engage the author as an intellectual equal.

Laura Bratton’s book, Harnessing Courage: Overcoming Adversity with Grit and Gratitude, is an excellent entry into this category. The story of one young pastor’s journey into blindness and the world of disability resonated strongly with me, and it has the potential to fill that niche of dialogue with those who have no disability and who seek to understand. It will also be a useful tool to those who are beginning to work through a new diagnosis which may result in disability. Read more

En pointe ballet shoes

Raising the Barre: Faith Lessons from the Ballet Studio

En pointe ballet shoes“Alright everyone, let’s face the mirror and stand in first position, arms en bas. Give me a demi port de bras, then pause with the arms in second position.”

The adults – mostly women in their 20s and 30s – organize themselves into some semblance of a line as they follow my directions and arrange their body positions accordingly. If you have never taken a ballet class before, watching dancers respond to ballet lingo like this might seem pretty impressive. How do they know what that all means and what to do? you may wonder. I’ve heard from many of my students that signing up for a ballet class took courage because of how intimidating they thought it would be.

And indeed, ballet isn’t easy. Beyond the “lingo” that one must learn (and it quite literally is like learning another language, since all the ballet terminology is in French), the physical movement is a challenge. The turnout, posture, strength, and grace that ballet requires are all very foreign to the range of normal human movement. In teaching how to do an arabesque, for example, I find myself giving several simultaneous and sometimes contradictory instructions: Shoulders down. Shoulders back. Extend the arm. Don’t reach with the arm. Lift the chest. Straighten the leg. Point the foot. Lift the chin. Don’t stick the chin out. Indeed, ballet might be beautiful, but it isn’t easy. Read more

Channeling Your Inner Leper

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” ~Luke 17:11-18

4101881178_fefea807b5_zI think a lot about the lepers these days. In my current ministry setting of waiting tables at a restaurant, I am asked for a lot of things every shift. A. Lot. More napkins? Sure. Another Coke? Absolutely. A seventh basket of chips and salsa (yes, seven!)? I’ll be right back. It’s my job to meet these needs the best way I can while doing what is right for the customer. So I grab a clean fork when you drop yours on the floor and remember the lemons and deposit them on the table with a smile. The words I only hear sometimes are “thank you.” I get ignored, I get looked at, people are rude, or stare at their phones not even noticing that someone has just set a plate hot enough to boil water on their table. I would venture to say that about 50% of the time, the people who sit at restaurant tables do not say “thank you” during their entire visit. Which is why it is so noticeable to me when they do.

So I think about the lepers. Especially that last one – the one who took the effort to go back to Jesus after he had received what he desired to say “thank you.” As the text makes clear, the leper is an outsider and one who is very different from Jesus. Which, to me, makes the act even more noticeable. I wonder how Jesus reacted, internally. Did he smile inside? Did he feel a sense of accomplishment? Did he feel valued and noticed? Those emotions are ones that many of us feel when someone says “thank you.” Read more

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

The Pregnant Pastor

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

It was my third time in the fetal nursery. That’s what I had taken to calling the evaluation room directly across the hallway from Labor and Delivery. Fetal heartbeats echoed loudly throughout the room like a person incessantly testing a hot microphone. These heartbeats were hampered only by the screeching of doctors’ and nurses’ pivoting sneakers and crocs, attentive to every sound and move of the babies within expectant and anxious mothers.

I felt like I had failed. Straight-A student. Multiple award winner at every major life stage and age group. Consistently affirmed throughout my burgeoning professional days. And here I lay on my left side, belly exposed with two straps monitoring contractions and my son’s heart rate. I had elevated blood pressure and was nervous. I was told to relax, but the curtain in front of me billowed, taunting my depth perception, as a nurse hustled back and forth caring for an expectant mother. Relax. Meanwhile, the light on the ceiling in my periphery blinked in accordance with an alarm that consistently sang a descending perfect 5th interval. Relax. I heard the woman behind me confessing that she was having regular contractions with a dilated cervix at only 30 weeks. Relax. The blood pressure cuff tightened as the nurse asked me if I had any bloody or significant water discharge. It kept tightening. “No,” I managed to croak. Relax. I took a deep breath, but all that seemed to come out was one slowly developing tear descending from my left eye to the pillow below.

Read more

The Young Clergy Women Project Logo

Thank God for TYCWP

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:3-7)

HolyGhostOctoberI’m not in prison, but all the rest of it is true. When I think of The Young Clergy Women Project, I thank my God every time. What a gift it is to be part of a diverse community of women who share in God’s grace with me. We come from different backgrounds, denominations, and traditions, which gives us an incredible wealth of experience and wisdom to draw from and share with one another. I am a better pastor and leader because of the wisdom the group has shared. From brainstorming solutions for sticky personnel issues to encouraging one another in new projects or transitions from one call to another, the group helps me to see possibilities where I thought there were none and life where it seems there could only be death.

I have been challenged, affirmed, and held accountable by my sisters in ministry through the conversations we share. I have made new friends during regional meet-ups and at the annual conference. I have shared in laughter, tears, frustration, and joy. I have been reminded that I am not alone, and I have had the opportunity to remind others they are not alone. I have found a place where I could be myself, all parts of me: the pastor, the wife, the mother, and the person God created me to be.
For all of these reasons and so many more, it was easy to say “yes” when I saw a request for donations last year. It was a simple request: Read more

A Legacy of Gratitude

UTO Blue BoxI currently sit on the board of a very old organization within The Episcopal Church, aptly named the United Thank Offering. The United Thank Offering exists to fund and promote mission work in the church. It does this through the Blue Box, where folks are invited to prayerfully place their coins as they offer up their thanksgivings to God. It is an actual box with a little slot at the top, just like a mite box. Mine sits on our dining room table. What I try to do each evening as we sit down to dinner is bring out change from the day’s transactions and give it to my husband and my young daughter. With our coins in hand we take turns talking about what we are thankful for, and as we do so, we place the coins in the box. (FYI, this is a hit with toddlers.) Eventually, we count up those coins and send them along to the United Thank Offering with everyone else’s during our church’s ingathering. Millions of dollars get raised this way: through simple coins and lots of gratitude.

When it was created in the late 19th century, the United Thank Offering’s purpose was to enable a young and growing Episcopal Church to spread the Gospel to the furthest boundaries of a similarly young and growing nation—and beyond. At nearly 125 years old, its focus has not changed. When my thirty-one year-old self became involved with this ministry, I had no idea that I would also be getting a crash course in women’s history within the Episcopal Church. For the first time, I heard a narrative emerge that I’d never really encountered in its fullness. It detailed both the disenfranchisement and the indefatigable efforts of women in service of the Gospel. My teachers are the women I’ve been blessed to work with, who themselves embody their own role and history within this greater narrative of women in the church and who have seen great change take place. I have become aware of the fact I am also a receiver of the stories and gifts of women no longer with us, but whose work remains present today. This mission work of the church through the United Thank Offering, and indeed the United Thank Offering itself, is the offering of countless women who served in a boundless mission field yet were so often bound by the cultural expectation and insistence that they could only accomplish “women’s work” in the church.

One woman in particular stands out: Julia Chester Emery. She was Secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions (the women’s work) for forty years. Under her leadership, the Women’s Auxiliary became the driving force behind the mission work of the entire church and grew into a network that emphasized education, addressed social issues, and eventually created the United Thank Offering. Julia traveled all over the world and the church as part of her work. After she retired as Secretary, she wrote a history of The Episcopal Church called A Century of Endeavor, 1821-1921: A Record of the First Hundred Years of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In short, she was unstoppable.

In looking at her life and reading some of her history of the church, I have a sense of Julia as someone who, being grounded in a boundless Gospel, was boundless herself. She could not be contained by the limits placed on her because of her gender or even by the limited means of communication and travel in her era. Instead of being still and confined, she was expansive. She worked as a woman who had looked out onto the vast mission field and was overcome by the sole desire to fill it with the Gospel.

Julia did all of this knowing that there were barriers. She was acutely aware of the limitations placed on faithful Christian women during her ministry. The Women’s Auxiliary existed because while women were denied a place in leadership in the church, their ability to fund and support mission made them a force that the church had to recognize. But Julia knew that it could do more. When the church considered restructuring, the possibility of women having a voice in the church became more real. It must have been a terrible disappointment to her that the church did not change to include women in its structure as anything more than auxiliary. Julia’s last report to the Board of Missions included her understanding that the Women’s Auxiliary “…was unsatisfied with its past and eager for its future…. the Women’s Auxiliary has been given tasks entirely incommensurate with its strength.” The Women’s Auxiliary had already been a considerable force in carrying out mission, and even then, Julia believed that more could be accomplished.

My response to this is to be grateful for her, and for the women and men who have carried her work forward. I am grateful for her witness and devotion, grateful for the church, and grateful to be a part of it. It is gratitude, I think, that ties all of this history and ourselves and Julia together.

Gratitude is an attitude of abundance, of awe, and of boundlessness. It doesn’t seek to be fulfilled; rather, it prompts us to pour out our gifts into the world. Gratitude is being mindful of the blessings in our lives, and because we are mindful, we are able to see just what it is we can give. It places us in a position of empowerment despite our limitations, real or perceived. We can be grateful in all circumstances for things big or small. And the tiniest of thanksgivings, much like the mustard seed, can grow into something surprisingly large and wonderful, which then blesses those around us.

The Gospel is shared because people are grateful for having received it. God’s mission is carried out because with grateful hearts we participate in that work. Julia Chester Emery understood this. Because of her, the United Thank Offering still seeks to fulfill God’s mission in the world by reminding us all to be thankful and to live out our gratitude one coin and prayer at a time.

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Attitude of Gratitude Edition

Dear Askie,

I know that gratitude is a good thing and that there are so many blessings in my life… I have enough to eat, work I feel called to, people who love me and whom I love, and so much more. But honestly, it sometimes feels stilted this time of year. With Advent planning, the stewardship campaign, the budget committee, and the community interfaith Thanksgiving service (which means I can’t leave town until late the night before Thanksgiving), and family dynamics around the holidays (did I mention that my mother asked again whether I could come home for Christmas Eve?), gratitude sometimes feels like one more unrealistic expectation. Do you have any tips for finding my sense of gratitude in the midst of stress, anxiety, and frenzy?

Too Busy to Be GratefulThank You Notes

Dear TBTBG,

I hear you, sister! As clergy, this is a time of year when our jobs include a lot of trying to help other people practice gratitude… often while persevering through some of the toughest parts of the annual cycle of church life. It isn’t easy, and the professional and familial expectations that we make a show of our gratitude at this time of year sometimes make it even harder to experience gratitude authentically.

Fortunately for us, gratitude is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise (and atrophies with disuse). If you’re not feeling especially grateful, don’t beat yourself up about it! Instead, start by practicing gratitude, and you may find that authentic sense of gratitude starting to grow. Why don’t you try doing something concrete that might help nurture your sense of gratitude?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Participate in TYCWP’s #thanksliving14! Every day this month, young clergy women and others are posting photos and reflections around themes of thanksgiving and gratitude. Maybe hunting for the perfect photo opportunity for “abundance” or “feast” will make you more aware of the moments of grace and blessing throughout your day. If you’d like to join in or learn more, check out this article.
  • If you have children, one YCW suggests incorporating a “thank you prayer” into bedtime. Each member of the family thanks God for one thing about their day – “Thank you, God, for pumpkin day. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for pizza at lunch. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for my son. Amen.” This practice helps parents to model and teach prayers of thanksgiving, while refocusing the whole family on God’s blessing in our lives.
  • Another family practice (for families with or without kids) is a “thanks jar” – sometime in October, take an evening as a family to write down fifty-five things you’re grateful for and put them all in a big jar. Each day from November 1 to December 25, pull one paper from the jar during a family meal, and read it out loud. Big kids can participate in writing down things they’re grateful for; littler kids can help decorate the jar.
  • When your work life is tough, it’s helpful to have a file of “love notes”… mementos that remind you what you love about ministry. Your file might include hand-written notes of thanks, congratulations, or praise; mementos from events that made your heart sing; or photos of beloved congregants that make you smile. If you don’t have a file, start one this week and try to find a few things you can put in it.
  • Speaking of notes, you could write thank you notes to people who are contributing to your ministry. From the person who cleaned out the fridge last week, to the one who sang a solo in worship, to the one who can always be trusted to “pinch hit” if an usher calls in sick, I hope your ministry has plenty of people who are helping out in big and small ways. Making a habit of writing thank you notes each week is a great practice for nourishing congregational vitality – and it’s a great discipline for you, as well!
  • If you don’t have time to go buy some notecards right now, you can start with this baby step: start every email with a word of thanks. Sometimes it’ll be easy to find something to thank people for, and other times you may need to really dig deep (Wrong: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thanks a bunch for your suggestion of cutting my salary.” Right: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thank you so much for the dedication and creativity you’re putting into stewarding our church’s resources.”) I think you’ll find that the practice of searching for something for which to be grateful is a very fruitful one indeed.
  • A practice that one YCW encourages is telling the stories of moments of blessing and grace in your daily life. While it’s certainly good to notice those moments, sharing stories about the times we’ve experienced God’s grace helps to reinforce our gratitude and build one another up in faith.

Blessings and best of luck as you navigate this season, TBTBG! As the Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NRSV). I’m thankful for you, and for all my sisters in ministry.

Gratefully,

Askie

Thanks & Giving

CommunionBreadWineFall is a time of giving thanks in many cultures, particularly in the northern hemisphere, as it is our season of harvest. Fall is also the time of the annual giving campaign in many churches, also known as “stewardship season” or “pledge season.” Many people love celebrating Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival or similar holidays, but they dread coming to church to hear how they need to give more money to keep the lights on or pay the pastor.

Giving thanks and giving to others are both central to a life of faith, but we don’t always connect the dots between the two. There is an intimate relationship between thankfulness and generosity, between giving thanks and just plain giving. Genuine gratitude rarely stops at words or thoughts alone. It spills over into actions, gifts, service, cards. Gratitude transforms people and encourages them to respond to generosity with more generosity.

During the month of November, The Young Clergy Women Project would like to share with you the things that we are grateful for. We would also like to share the ways that gratitude has (sometimes) made us more generous. All of the articles on Fidelia’s Sisters in November will be related to the themes of gratitude and generosity. We invite you to share your photos and thoughts of giving thanks, giving back, and giving generously using the hashtag #ThanksLiving14 on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever platform you prefer! Each day, we’ll offer a different word to inspire your images and stories.

At Fidelia’s Sisters, our archive of articles bears witness to the reality that life as a young clergy woman is often very hard. But it is also often very joyful. Like all human beings, we young clergy women can easily find ourselves focusing only on the negative side of our experiences. We forget to acknowledge and share the good stuff: the moments of grace and glory. We need to be reminded to stop and give thanks for the gifts we have received and the ones we’ve been enabled to give.

Skipping Over the Small Talk: An Open Letter of Gratitude

“What’s the focus of that conference you’re going to tomorrow, Pastor Andrea?”  The question came from a parishioner following worship, where I had announced that I would be out of the office for the week.Aug 2014 YCW Twin Cities

“Um…I can’t remember, actually.  I know there’s a theme…but it’s a conference entirely for young clergy women!”

I’m hesitant to even put these words on the page.  At best, they make me sound disorganized and forgetful.  At worst, like I’m completely disregarding all the hard work that the conference organizers and Ruth Harvey put into creating a cohesive theme for our time together, which they pulled off with both grace and substance.

But the truth is, I didn’t give a rat’s backside about the theme.  I came for the people.

I came for all of you.  I was hungry for you.  I was coming off of 5 years in Mexico in my first call, where the handful of legitimate colleagues I had in that work were scattered around the globe.  I was the pastor, the administrative assistant, the treasurer, the janitor, the sacristan.  That’s not to say that I didn’t have amazing people around me, doing similar work, who were part of my support system, but when push came to shove, the buck stopped with me.  In the end, the cheese stands alone, and the cheese can get pretty lonely.

Just under a year ago , I started my second call, as the associate pastor of a Lutheran congregation in the suburbs of St. Paul.  I arrived to the conference in that fuzzy headspace that is the result of piling transitions on top of transitions: my family and I are still living in temporary missionary housing and trying to purchase a home; my husband’s employment contract ends in August and nothing else is yet in place; our family of three became a family of four six months ago; and I’m still trying to put names with faces in this new call.

I wondered if I would even be grounded enough to connect with anyone, especially as I arrived late and left early each day in order to shuttle my kids to and from daycare.  I actually wondered if I would be needy enough to connect with anyone, given how much support this project provides for those of us in unhealthy or toxic situations.  I’m lucky to pastor a relatively healthy congregation, and my pastoral colleague – who is, by definition, the opposite of a young clergywoman in every way except for the clergy bit – is a remarkably good match for me in this work.

But in the end, I had no reason to be worried.  In the end, the beauty of this kind of focused peer group coming together is that the piece that often trips us up in meeting new people (“What do you do?”  Oh, gawd…) is the very reason we’re all there to begin with.  The truth, however, is that this piece alone is often not enough.  Present pastoral colleague aside, I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve been to where the men seem to have come for no purpose other than to one-up each other, and it’s all I can do not to stand up and say, “Do you think we could all just lay them on the table, measure them, and go home??”

In the end, there was no measuring needed.  In the end, it didn’t matter how late I could stay or whether I had the right kinds of problems.  What mattered was being in a room with people who were like me, at least in enough ways to allow us to bridge the other differences with little effort.  What mattered was that we were similar enough to start with that we could skip over the small talk, and move right to the big talk.  What mattered was the ease with which we shared ideas and suggestions, support and encouragement, questions and prayers and contact information.

“What was the focus of that conference you went to last week, Pastor Andrea?”

“Um…I can’t remember, actually.  I know there was a theme…but it was a conference entirely for young clergy women!”

Honest-to-God, that was the first question a parishioner asked me that following Sunday, and honest-to-God, I still couldn’t remember.  I’ve since gone through my notes, from the plenary sessions and workshops and worship services and even a few lunch conversations and one pop-up parking lot meeting.  There is some good stuff there, let me tell you; the kind of stuff that will serve me well in this work for years to come, in more ways than I can even imagine right now.

But the stuff that will get me through this year, until we meet again in Austin in 2015?  The stuff that will get me through the general highs and lows that are inevitable in ministry, and the particular ones that come with our gender and age? That was the people. That was you.

And I am grateful.

Words and Water

water bottleI was first introduced to the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto when I watched a fascinating movie/documentary called What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?.  Dr. Emoto studied the effects that various words and prayers had on water.  He discovered that when thoughts and words were directed at ordinary water, the crystals that would form when the water was frozen changed — positive words resulted in beautifully shaped (healthy-looking) crystals, while negative words resulted in misshapen (sickly looking) crystals.  Considering what he found through his experiments with water, and considering that the average person is made of around 70% water,  Dr. Emoto has suggested that our words and thoughts and intentions and prayers affect us in the same way as those water crystals: our health and our peace is greatly impacted by the words and thoughts that surround us.

Recently, a group of young clergywomen and I reflected on various negative comments that we have endured in our ministries.  The comments ranged from the ridiculous to the undeniably evil – and everything in between.  Accusations of being uncaring and unloving hurt.  There is no way around it.  Rarely does it mater that the person who is saying such things to us or about us is merely projecting their own anxieties about themselves onto us — their words still sting.  Broken promises can cling to us like lint on our favorite black dress.  Selfish demands can weigh us down like that extra bag of groceries that we have to carry up three flights of stairs.  Even the craziest of complaints can keep us up at night, stressing over how to respond to people and situations that they simply didn’t teach us about in seminary.

After sharing numerous stories of the discouraging comments that haunt us as we go about the work of answering God’s call (once again, being reminded in our sharing, that we are not alone), one of the clergywomen asked about the positive comments and experiences that we have enjoyed recently.  Those comments ranged from the simple to the profound – and everything in between.  It is amazing how much of a difference a simple “thank you” can make.  Words of blessing and gratitude can bring much-needed healing on days when all else seems to be falling apart.  Rarely do the people who share such hopeful messages realize how much their words mean — their words can soothe troubled spirits and hearts in ways that can only be understood as gifts from the Holy One.  Sincere compliments can comfort us like a handmade quilt on a cold winter day.  Expressions of genuine gratitude can lift us up like a free-flying kite on a breezy summer day.  Even the smallest of notes or mentions of thanks for what it is that we do or who we are can give us the nudge that we need to push forward, celebrating God’s goodness and taking joy in God’s calling day by day.

After presenting a synopsis of Dr. Emoto’s work in the movie, What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, one character says this to another: “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what our thoughts can do to us.”  We have all faced harsh, hurtful words from others – and, if we’re honest, many of us have faced harsh and hurtful words from ourselves, too.  It is easy to focus on the negativity that is thrown at us.  It is tempting to let the criticisms and judgments sink into our souls, contaminating our spirits.  It is no wonder that there is so much sickness and burnout in the church and world today!  But the positive words that we share with one another can cleanse and purify.  If thoughts filled with hate and spite lead us to have heartburn and panic attacks, imagine what effect positive thoughts could have on our health and well-being!

In the Sacrament of Baptism, we pray a Prayer of Thanksgiving — a blessing of love and gratitude — over the water.  What if we spoke those same prayers over one another?  What if we would actively seek to bless the around 70% of ourselves that is made of water?  Would we be transformed?  Whether or not Dr. Emoto is right in his assessment that words and thoughts can affect water, I don’t know.  Whether or not Dr. Emoto is correct in thinking that – because of our water content – we are influenced by the words and thoughts that we read and hear, I don’t know.  And yet, I can’t imagine that it is that far from the truth.  Whenever I let the negative talk play like a broken record in my brain, it is not long before I begin to see and feel the effects: insomnia, sour stomach, elevated blood pressure…  But, when I remember and embrace the positive talk – writing words of affirmation and hope on my heart and mind – I feel those effects, too: increased inner peace, joy, calm, and happiness.  Words of love and gratitude can change everything — and always for the better!

Somehow, we need to remember the words that are spoken over those baptismal waters — especially in those moments when words of hate threaten to overtake us.  We need to keep the words of blessing that we hear from God in our hearts.  We need to recite those blessings of love and gratitude to one another.  We must speak words of grace in our workplaces and homes and places of Sabbath rest.  We should bind the words of affirmation that we hear on our hands and fix them on our foreheads.  We should write words of hope and post them next to our computers and use them as the wallpaper on our cell phones.  If we surround ourselves with messages of love and gratitude, I can only imagine the positive impact that would have on our lives, our ministries, and the world around us!