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Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Cemetery with flowers

Circling Around Grief, Celebrity and Otherwise, in 2016

Cemetery with flowers

Cemetery with flowers

2017 will be a year without Carrie Fisher. I am not sure what to make of that. Whatever changes and transitions have come and gone in my life, Carrie Fisher is one of those public figures who has always been around. Like most children of the 80s, I grew up on Star Wars. Princess Leia was my princess (even if my hair was, alas, far too thin to pull off any of her iconic looks).

Beyond Star Wars, though, Carrie Fisher was … Carrie Fisher! My college roommate and I went through a phase when nearly watched When Harry Met Sally on an infinite loop. Who else could make a line like “I promise you, I will never want that wagon wheel coffee table” into a touching expression of true love? And there was Fisher’s defiance of the patriarchy just by her public existence as a self-possessed, opinionated, middle-aged woman who was open about her mental health struggles. The audacity! Our world will be less without Fisher’s voice and presence in it (even if we do have one posthumous performance to anticipate in Star Wars: Episode VIII).

Fisher’s death late in December (followed by the almost immediate death of her mother Debbie Reynolds) marked the end of litany of celebrity death that felt endless. Beginning with David Bowie on January 10, there was speculation that an abnormal number of prominent public figures passed away in 2016. No doubt the false intimacy of online communities feeds into the collective cries of grief when we hear news of yet another celebrity passing. For good or ill the internet allows us to feel a connection with other human beings who would not ordinarily be part of our lives, giving us a connection to prominent public figures that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In our collective expressions of grief or loss, however, social media also holds up what would otherwise be private feelings for public scrutiny. Read more

Adult hand holding a child's hand

Grieving Infertility at the Wailing Wall

Adult hand holding a child's hand

holding hands

In the midst of our darkest days of navigating our way through miscarriage, failed IVF treatments, and trying to decide how we felt about adoption, an opportunity arose for my husband and me to travel to Israel on an interfaith delegation of peace with three other Northern Virginian clergy. One of the first stops on our trip was the Western Wall. We’d visit one of the most sacred sites in Jewish history. The following, an excerpt from my upcoming book from Chalice Press entitled Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility, is the tear-stained prayer I placed in a crumbled piece of paper in the Wall and an account of what transpired afterwards. I wrote:

I am a Mother. Read more

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

Pastoral Care for the Pastor

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

The author, teaching her grandma about selfies

A few weeks ago, one of my church members, Dee, approached me after worship. Dee is one of our adults with special needs, and she is kind-hearted but often quite blunt. “Pastor Sarah, someone said your grandpa died,” she said. “But that’s not right. It was your grandma, right?”

I sighed. “Well, actually it was both,” I told her. This summer, my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather passed away just two months apart.

“Whoa.” She paused, looking stricken. “That’s really bad.”

It was indeed.

All spring, my congregation had been stressing out about hosting the May presbytery meeting. They’d touched up the paint, picked out centerpieces, prepared an elaborate menu, and arranged worship for the regional pastors and elder commissioners who would be coming to our building for a meeting. It was one of those long-awaited, much-discussed, all-hands-on-deck kind of church events.

So I was a bit caught up in all the nervous preparation and had just gone home for lunch when my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had not woken up that morning. She had died sometime during the night, unexpectedly. Read more

Dear Celebrity

writing-1209121_640Dear Celebrity,

The first time I met you was a very memorable occasion. I’d met celebrities of your stature before, but they’d all been a meet-and-greet sort of thing or strictly business—the kind of official interactions where it didn’t matter at all who I was. Honestly, I haven’t liked many of them. So when I saw you, at the end of a long day that had started twelve hours before, I wasn’t exactly giddy. You were there, at church, with your kids, having just moved into the neighborhood a few months before. You were looking for an Episcopal church with kids’ programs, because apparently not everyone in Hollywood is either atheist or crazy, right-wing, born-again Christian. I found that hopeful. You were also there on the most somber of holy days: Ash Wednesday, that day when we smear ashes on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I thought, “Good Lord, what an introduction. Welcome to our church. Remember, you’re all going to die.”

I talked to your kids about Sunday School, about how long the class is and what they’d learn. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, that you had entered my world. I’ve entered into your world—worlds you’ve created—many times. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen you in. You’re really one of my favorites. And there I was, talking to you in real life, like you’re regular folk. I mean, of course you are a person like anyone else, but let’s be honest, in many ways you’re not. You and I live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world. Yet there you were, in this church, on my turf, interested in things that are my responsibility. All I could think was, “I really hope I don’t make an idiot of myself.” I’m pretty sure I did, even though I was trying very hard to act normally and not geek out. Most importantly, I was trying to make it about the kids, because that’s why you were there. You were not there as a famous actress. You were there as a mom, and I wanted so much to make sure that’s how I treated you. I’m sorry I let it slip that I was a huge fan of your hit show while your son was talking about being friends with your co-star. It was a natural segue, but I hope it wasn’t unprofessional.

None of that is why your first visit was memorable, though. Read more

Taste and See

“Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” –Psalm 34:8

Image courtesy of the author

Image courtesy of the author

I didn’t know what else to do, so I baked a cake.

Thunder rolled in as I hung up the phone. The results of my father’s bone scan had come back: Cancer. Multiple spots. Source unknown. Tests to come. Treatment plans to be devised.

The storm pounded at the windows and I was scared, so I pulled Sam from his crib. We sat on the couch and snuggled with all the lights turned off, save the light of the television. I clung to Sam and to the weatherman.

I am still a child, frightened of storms. I am still a child, needing my parents’ assurances that the storm will pass over, that I am safe. Tonight, though, my parents can guarantee neither safety nor sunshine. They are just as scared as I am.

Someday thunder will scare Sam, even if tonight he remains oblivious to the storm outside. Someday Sam will grow wide-eyed with each lightning flash and will look to me to keep him safe. I want to be a good mother, able to shield my children from the rain. I want to be a good daughter, able to keep my parents invincible. I want to pretend that I don’t need to be mothered, or fathered, or sheltered. I want to be less frightened by the storm.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I baked a cake.

Read more

Healing Sanctuary

Dec 2014 Blue CandleIn the church parking lot, I was breathing deeply.  I knew that going inside was something I needed to do, but I also knew that it would be hard. I had no idea just how comforting attending my first Blue Christmas service would be.

I was nervous about going.  I mean, who really wants to have to deal with grief in front of them like that?  So much of our culture tells us to stop crying, to be happy, that we should be over it by now,  and not to show too much emotion.  What if I broke down?  What if I sobbed in front of others?  What if my grief was so deep it was unnameable?

My father passed away in 2004, the day after Thanksgiving.  Two weeks later my grandmother passed away, and a month later I married my husband and moved to the Middle East.  It was a time of great turmoil in my life.  I was afraid that the holidays would be hard forever because of the deaths.

But the year that I went to the Blue Christmas service, in December of 2006, I found peace and hope in the holidays once again.

After enough deep breaths, I went inside and entered a sanctuary that was beautifully decorated.  The lights had all been covered with blue tissue paper, and silver stars hung from the rafters.  This gave the whole place an otherworldly glow that pulled me in and made me feel protected.  The ethereal decorations made me feel connected to God and made the room feel safe from the rest of the world. I was calm and allowed myself to stop forcing deep breaths. This would be a safe place to miss my Dad and to acknowledge that sometimes life is hard.

We do not grieve well as a society.  We tell people to be happy, to stop crying.  We tell people to stuff their feelings and not to let them show. People thought I should be happy because my Dad was living with God.  I always wanted to scream back, “But I want him here with me!” Luckily, because of my training as a counselor and a seminary student in CPE, I knew that I needed to let myself grieve.

And this service, this magical, beautiful Blue Christmas Service…it allowed me to do that in a way I had not been able to do before.  I was with others who were also grieving.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was sad that I had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without my Dad once again.

I do not clearly remember all the details of the service.  But here is what I do remember:  There was a time when I got to share a story about my Dad.  There was a time during the service when I felt connected to my Dad.  My Dad is the one who taught me about church, and we worshiped together nearly every Sunday when I was at home.  There was a time during the service for being still and quiet, for crying, for acknowledging the hurt and anger.  And it was safe to feel all those things — even around others — because we were wrapped in the blue light.

This light helped me feel secure, wrapped in a cocoon of God’s love. Inside this safe space, I could feel what I needed to feel without being judged.  I could set aside the hard memories of my grief: crying in the supermarket in front of the Christmas cards from daughters to dads, being told that letting my grief show was unprofessional, and being told that because of heaven, I should just be happy.

And that made all the difference.  It made the difference that inside this cocoon of blue light, I could feel how I needed to feel.  I could receive the message from the church that my grief was ok.  Even if my Dad is living with God, the church said it was still ok to miss him living on earth with me.  Hearing this message, I felt God was with me in my pain and cradled me as I experienced it.  .

I left that service feeling tired, but also relaxed.  I was exhausted, but had a deeper sense of peace.  It was like emerging from the sanctuary to a new world where I knew that God was with me in my pain, not to shut it up or out, but to hold me in it until things got better.  This was an important part of my grief and healing process.

This other world of the Blue Christmas service helped me connect all my feelings about the holidays, God, my grandmother, and my Dad in a whole and comforting way.  Even all these years later, the memories of this this service still help me make those connections.

As I think about that service now, I feel calm.  I feel the love of my Dad as if he is with me and as though he’ll be with me this Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I somehow am reminded by the memory that God is part of all of this, too.  There is a place I go to in my memory, when I think about that service, where I find acknowledgement.  And that gives me what I need to let go of the pain (at least most of it) and to keep the joy, hope, and comfort.

Whatever your losses in life, whatever feelings the holidays bring up in you, I would encourage you to seek out a Blue Christmas service, at least once.  Maybe it will help you, too, remember that God promises to eventually return us to new life . . . and that in the meantime, in the present pain and grief, God is with us.  Even if you are not able to find a service, I encourage you to make your own space to securely acknowledge your grief during this time.  And as you seek out your own healing this season, I offer you this Christmas blessing:

May God be big enough for all your losses,

May Jesus hold your hand when you need to cry, and

May the Holy Spirit lead you to places of deep hope and joy from on high.  Amen.

 

When Worlds Collide

Angel of GriefIt felt like falling down a well.

That’s the best way I can describe standing by the side of the cart in the back room of the funeral home, looking down at my sister in the body bag.

The call had come after a long day in the church office of meetings, planning sessions, and all of the mundane paperwork that has somehow accrued to the Good News these two thousand years after we first heard it.  The early evening light slanting across the living room of my apartment took on a surreal tinge as my father’s voice on the phone told me my sister Maggie had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a drug interaction.

My sister had just turned thirty-three the prior week.  I was twenty-seven, still learning the ropes after two years of ordained ministry.  I was starting to get familiar with some of the changing patterns of post-ordination relationships—high school friends asking me to officiate their weddings, always being turned to for the prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner.  And I was learning the rhythms of tending to parishioners in sudden and unexpected grief—going to the hospital, helping plan the funeral, gently shepherding dazed mourners through the steps of saying goodbye.

But suddenly my two worlds were colliding.  No matter how many self-care and boundaries lectures we heard at seminary about not being pastors to our families, our loved ones didn’t sit through those classes.  My family was even pretty good about not expecting me to have any greater knowledge of or connection to God than anyone else; but in the deafening spiritual chaos that descends in the death of an immediate family member far too young and without warning, I knew they would be looking to me for answers.

The death of a loved one has the immediate effect of revealing what your real theology is.  In that sudden first burst of emotion, the long hours of evaluating elegant theological constructs around the problem of evil and life after death abruptly evaporate.  My first prayer was visceral in its need: Please, God, I don’t care what she did or if she never had a chance to say sorry for it, just let her be safe.  Perhaps it showed how deeply I’ve been conditioned by the societal belief in a punishing hell.  But if nothing else, on later reflection it gave me a new appreciation for how our deepest desire for our encounter with God is a loving, sheltering, and above all safe Holy Presence.

Because my sister was not an easy person to love.  In fact I and my whole family had been estranged from her for the previous two years.  Her struggles with mental health and addiction manifested themselves in cruelty and abuse, and some boundaries had to be drawn for the safety of vulnerable people.  I do not regret those boundaries even now.  But I guess I always had hoped that healing would occur and those boundaries could soften over time.  Now she was dead with all the unhealed pain forever suspended in unanswered questions.

In the car on the way to the funeral home, the emotional intensity was so high I had to keep tuning in and out of it like turning a radio dial from station to static and back.  Jesus, her death is going to kill Mom and Dad; they say some people never recover from the death of a child, I would think, and then *click* went the mental dial: Wow, that’s a lot of people at a KFC this early in the morning and *click* back to I swear to God I hated her as much as I loved her, *click* Why didn’t I bring my comfortable black shoes, these are the ones that always give me blisters *click* Why are you doing this, God?

I’d seen my fair share of dead bodies in my Clinical Pastoral Education term.  But this was my first experience of an immediate family member’s dead body in front of me, and she was not made up and dressed nicely the way people are by the time they get to funerals.  She was still zipped into the body bag that she had been placed in at the hospital morgue.  I reached out and touched her cold face, my family standing around me crying, and for the first time in my life I didn’t want to be a priest.

I didn’t want to offer a prayer or a reason or a comforting platitude.  I didn’t want to be strong.  I didn’t want to try to find something to say about how she now rested in God’s embrace and all her troubles were over.

But as the tears of anger and confusion and grief coursed over my own cheeks, I had a sudden and bone-deep knowledge that I didn’t want anyone else doing those things either.  I didn’t want a pastor none of us knew coming in and trying to speak to a situation that he or she, through no fault of his or her own, knew nothing about.  The deep and complicated veins of emotion twisting their way through our family could not be ministered to, at least in that moment, from anywhere but inside.

Although my ordination had briefly felt like a burden in the midst of my panic and pain, it came home to me once again as a gift.  No, I shouldn’t be or have to be a pastor to my family.  But right now, the people I love most in the world are drowning in the greatest darkness we have ever experienced.  I have my hand on a lifeline—scripture and sacrament and prayer—and I’m going to use it.

Many Sunday mornings, when my mind was on the football game that afternoon or the headache that was making my sermon text blur, I felt like a less than adequate vessel of grace.  All of those times, the good words of the prayerbook bore me up; and they came through for me again in my hour of greatest need. Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Maggie.  Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

So what did I learn about being a priest and being a sister and a daughter all at the same time?  I learned that when push comes to shove, the labels and titles fade away, and that lay and clergy alike, we are all helpless before death and deeply in need of our loving and healing God.  Boundaries are good and important to preserve family life and role clarity, and 99.9% of the time we shouldn’t be pastors to our families.  But the 0.1% of the time we have to be pastors to our families—those can be among the most sacred moments of our lives.

That day I found the tools God had placed in my hands at my ordination helped me keep the wolf away from the door for my family, gave us an anchor of strength in God in the storm of pain. That one half hour in the back room of the funeral home may be the most blessed and real of my entire ministry, and will make me forever grateful God made me a priest.

Celebrating Without

For the first time this holiday season I’m celebrating without my father.

They say the first year after the loss of a loved one is the worst.  Holidays especially.  The first year after my father died is coming to an end and the holiday season is upon us.

There were, of course, many holidays and times when I was away from my family, yet, always a phone call away from the traditional greetings of my father. There were the phone calls during college where it never failed that the phone would ring at 7 a.m. just to be sure that my father caught me before the busyness of a college day.

“Dad, you can call anytime during the day, you know. I’m not that busy.”

“Well, I just want to make sure I get to talk to you. I never know where you are or who you’re running around with and what homework needs to get done.”

“Okay, dad. It’s good to hear from you.” Even at 7 a.m. it was good to talk to my dad.

There were the phone calls in Africa, too. My family and I figured out the time change and network problems of living in rural Africa for two years. Nothing stopped me from a phone call with my parents. Not the heat. Not the miles of walking. Not the lack of power. Not the in-and-out network. No. I made sure to have a phone date set each time I hung up the phone with my parents so I had another call to look forward to. And if it meant standing on the root of a baobab tree with village folks passing by wondering about the crazy American. So be it!

The phone calls during seminary and my first call occurred on Sunday afternoon. Holy, Sabbath time. I usually was in the midst of a post-Sunday morning fog and my dad would call. He wanted to know about my sermon and how service went; he was always eager to tell me about his morning and the sermon he heard. He asked me theological questions and wanted to know my thoughts. I heard about his week and who he went out to lunch with, updates on the town and family.  I received the latest movie reviews and which characters he believed best exemplified the Christ figure. He would ask about the congregation.  He wanted to know that I was taking time to myself.  He reveled in hearing about the new restaurants and places I visited.  And of course he always asked about my car.  My dad loved cars and never failed to ask about how my car was driving, whether I needed an oil change or new tires, or if I hit any animals on the road. Holy, Sabbath time.

The phone rings to this day and I still look hoping for a call from my dad.

The shortcut for “dad” is still on my cell phone.

I still hear his voice.

I still feel his love.

And when I need the reminder of his presence I remember his final words to me on the phone almost every phone call: “It was good talking to you. You be good now. And remember I love you.”

Talk About It

There are invisible parents all through our congregations. Two years ago I watched my daughter Charlotte as she stopped breathing and her little heart stopped beating.  My wife (yes, we are both women) had gone into early labor and Charlotte was born a few weeks too early to make a go of it.  I knew she really wanted to.  Her arms flailed, she fought to breathe, but there was nothing we could do.  There was nothing the doctors could do.  She was just a week too young.

My wife and are both in ministry and this pregnancy had been very public.  People knew we were pregnant and they were very excited for us.  We are very lucky to have a large group of people with whom we are in ministry that love and care for us.  The majority of the time they genuinely like us and want us to do well.  Which means at sixteen weeks along, when we announced we were pregnant, our combined networks were very excited.

The families of our church lined up to give us their old baby stuff.  They shared parenting tips (or told us exactly how we should raise the baby).  As you can imagine, some of it was helpful, but most of it was not. They all just wanted to be a part of our pregnancy.  They also really wanted to be a part of our child’s life.  They could barely contain themselves in their rush to let us know they would happily hold the baby if we had to preach or teach Sunday school.  Forgetting the fact that my wife had created a loving and welcoming church nursery, the families in our church wanted to be the ones to hold the baby if we were busy.  I get it; we are super lucky.

But then Charlotte died.  It’s more than two years later but every time I close my eyes before I go to sleep I see her.  At our parish retreat this year I could not help but spend my time thinking of what it would be like if she was here.  I think about what it would be like to watch her grow up, to hold her, to teach her things, to watch her play with her cousins, whatever. I think about her all the time and I feel her presence with me almost everywhere I go.

We found out pretty quickly that we were not alone.  Premature labor, miscarriages, infant death, etc are more common then I knew.  Women came out of the woodwork to share their stories. Women with children told us stories of one, two, seven, even nine miscarriages.  Women without children told us stories of failed pregnancies and infertility. Women with children pointed to their kids and said they had lost several children and that all of their kids are actually adopted. Our friends told their parents and found out, for the first time in their entire lives, that their parents had also lost a child.

This became the conversation that we had with women. Women in their twenties to their nineties told us about their losses.  Some of them said it was the very first time they had ever told anyone outside of their families. Losing a child is not an easy subject to talk about and we were told that no one had ever given them a space in which to talk about it.  They had been, mostly unintentionally, made to feel that they should just move on and not think about their loss.  I don’t know if it is because if you aren’t the one who is pregnant then losing the child early doesn’t feel real because the pregnancy doesn’t seem real?  It is also possible that when you lose a child in the first trimester it is possible you haven’t even told anyone yet.  So your loss is invisible and it doesn’t seem real to other people.  But losing a child at any stage is still an incredible loss; it hurts and it is painful.

Our pregnancy was known and Charlotte had become a part of our community.  Without us realizing it, this story became part of our ministry. Women felt comfortable talking to us about their loss because we had very publicly shared our loss.

While I could talk about how publicly sharing this loss was equally helpful and hard for me or how I still feel like a parent even if I don’t have the outward manifestations of what it means to be a parent, I wrote this because there are families everywhere going through the same thing that don’t feel comfortable talking about it in the one place they should –  church. Publicly sharing my grief has allowed women that have been hiding and holding onto their grief for years to finally talk about it.  As clergy we are able to let people find the space to grieve. This grief is out there and because of it, Christmas is sometimes terrible and watching other people’s children get baptized sometimes sucks.

I don’t know what it looks like to allow families the space to grieve the loss of a child in your ministry, but I am positive that it is necessary.  There are families in your pews who are struggling right now and don’t have anywhere to turn.  Yes, absolutely rejoice with the people that have children.  But please remember there are people in your pews, that don’t. If you have gone through this type of loss, I am so sorry.  I don’t think we all have to share our stories, but I do pray that we can find a way to create a space for families that are grieving.

Alexis was approved for Postulancy in the Episcopal Church in January and will be ordained a transitional Deacon later this year. After she finishes her Anglican Studies Certificate she will be ordained as an Episcopal priest.  She is currently the Executive Director of Georgia Interfaith Power & Light.  She graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2006.

Photo used with permission of PDPhotos.