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All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

A Prayer for the End of Nursing

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

O Lord, you have searched me
and known me.

You knew the moment when that sweet baby skin
first touched my chest
when that sweet little mouth
gaped like a fish
when that shocking moment of connection was made:
Mother. Child. One.
You knew.

You knew the struggles, and the pain.
The mostly sleepless nights
The one- (two-) (three-) (three-thirty-) a.m. wake-up calls.
The disconcerting, disorientating, barely-functioning
delirium/delusion/hallucination/exasperation/rage…
And still
the sweet baby skin and the gaping little mouth
the instant peace and the murmuring suckling.
You knew.

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Permission to Hear the Call

7986847327_c4d79a6ec5_kWhen I was applying to Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the questions on the application asked the name of the church that was supporting me. I remember writing down the name of my Roman Catholic Church and adding, in small letters, “This is the church where I attend. They do not support me for ordination.” I was applying to Princeton because that was where my favorite college professor attended. He was the person who kindled my passion for Biblical studies. I decided that if this school would produce someone like him, it must be a pretty good place. He wrote me a recommendation, as did another college religion professor, my political science advisor, and the Lutheran campus minister. They were all men, and all but one of them were pastors. I had never known a female pastor and would not get to know one until my first year at seminary.

All of these male pastors, two of whom were my professors, were inspirations to me. I was mesmerized by their intelligence and moved by their compassion. They carefully encouraged me without ever recommending that I leave the Roman Catholic Church. I do not recall them ever mentioning seminary to me, and if they had, I certainly would not have taken them seriously. I was Roman Catholic. Not only that, I was a proud Roman Catholic. This is not to say that I approved of all the things that the Roman Catholic Church stood for, but I still believed that was where I belonged.

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Generation to Generation

MomsPicI’ve always been a birth geek. I loved the experience of being pregnant with my son. His birth (at home, without drugs; with the baby’s father, two midwives, and my mother present) was the most intense and painful experience of my life; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even before becoming a mother myself, I sought out birth stories: fictional and nonfictional, in books, magazines, online and in person. I gravitated toward raw, no-holds-barred narratives of women experiencing this unique and profound transformation into mothers. (I am, of course, aware that there are other ways to become a mother besides giving birth!) “Natural” or medicated, vaginal or surgical, long or short, fulfilling or traumatic – I read and absorbed them all, marveling at the variety of women’s experiences and emotions.

A few years ago, I began to feel that perhaps I was called to do something about this preoccupation. Amid some personal and vocational turmoil elsewhere in my life, I began to feel the push to seek out training as a birth doula – a professional pregnancy, labor and birth support person. (Amusingly, “doula,” the Greek word for “female slave” or “female servant” is found a number of times in the New Testament.)

I hesitantly mentioned the idea to a few female clergy colleagues in my diocese, and the women with whom I shared this inchoate desire unanimously encouraged me to go for it. Looking back, I see the work of the Holy Spirit in those conversations, along with a powerful example of sisterhood and female spirituality, even though several of the colleagues had not themselves borne children.

I suspect that even as becoming a mother through childbirth first sparked my interest in doing birth work myself, my experience of attending to the movement of the Spirit in vocational discernment enabled me to hear and follow the Spirit’s call to this other path when it came.

I have now gone through training as a doula with DONA International and I have attended one birth. I was profoundly humbled by the laboring mother’s strength, by the love between her and her partner and their child, and by the sheer incredible process of birth. In that labor and delivery room, I felt as powerful a sense of calling, of being in the right place doing the right work at the right time, as I felt the first time I celebrated the Eucharist as a priest. Building a doula practice takes time. It is certainly not as drawn-out and stressful as the pastoral search process, but it does involve a lot of work. I have become part of an emerging statewide doula network, and I am hoping soon to have attended enough births to be formally certified.

Doulas are not medical professionals; we do not diagnose, treat, prescribe, or administer any kind of medical care. Our job is to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother, her partner, and anyone else present for her in the birth process. In any given birth, a doula might be found rubbing the laboring woman’s shoulders, fetching her water, vocalizing with her, repeating phrases to center and encourage her, discussing the possible implication of decisions about her care, reminding her partner to eat a sandwich, keeping her mother out of the labor room, or taking pictures on her phone. It might turn out, though, that the best way the doula can support the laboring couple is to sit silently in the corner of the room, simply bearing witness and holding the space.

Doula work is most profoundly a ministry of presence, and it has taught me much about the nature of both ministry and presence. It is well documented that simply having the continuous presence of a trained support person at a birth, even if she doesn’t “do” anything in particular, improves outcomes measurably, and increases women’s satisfaction with their birth experiences.

Couples choose doulas for all kinds of reasons, and though the relationship is shorter and more focused than that of pastor and parishioner, a good fit is just as important. I hope that one thing my prospective clients understand from our conversations is that I am simply in awe of birth and honored to be part of their experience of that sacred moment, however they understand it.

Talking to expectant moms before they give birth, attending and supporting them in the physical and emotional crucible of labor, and reflecting together on the experience afterward, is deeply satisfying work for me. It calls on many of the same skills as crisis pastoral care, but allows me to walk more closely with expectant couples through the huge transition into parenthood than most pastors are generally able to do. Since I was already used to many elements of the work – being in hospitals, being part of pivotal moments in people’s lives, and being on call 24/7, not to mention the absolute necessity of boundaries and self-care – those aspects of doula work have not come as the shock they do to some new doulas.

Doula work as a formal profession is only about a generation old, and in many ways it is finally coming of age. One way in which the doula ethos is being extended into other areas of life is in the new concept of “death doulas.” (It was recently covered in the New York Times, so it must be true…) Death doulas work in hospitals or through hospices, being present at the end of life, as birth doulas are present at the beginning. Having attended births as a doula and deaths as a pastor, I can bear witness that the same energy – and it is an astonishingly powerful one – is present in both a room where someone is dying and a room where someone is being born.

Each one of us must pass these two thresholds, birth and death. As mothers, we usher the newborn into the world; as pastors, we are privileged to be present and bear witness as souls and bodies are born into larger life. For me, as a doula, to bring these three vocations together and have the honor of being present for birth and for death, is a great and unexpected gift.

The Jesus Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Young Clergy Woman

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. –Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Opening Credits

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

At first glance, the life of a the Slayer is pretty different from the life of a young clergy woman. The Slayer is in high school, for one thing, while we have graduate degrees. She fights vampires and demons, we lead Bible studies, write sermons, visit shut-ins and attend committee meetings. And while the cross is central to Buffy’s life and to ours, the cross she wears on a silver chain around her neck serves purely as a talisman; it has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with its function as a weapon against vampires and their ilk.

There’s something about Buffy and her –verse, though, that rings true to this calling as a young clergy woman. There’s some reason (beyond simple escapism) that I keep coming back to this story and these characters. When I feel helpless and ineffectual, overwhelmed and heartbroken by the needs I can’t meet and the problems I can’t solve, I find strength and comfort in Buffy. When I am frustrated and enervated by lengthy meetings that have accomplished nothing in particular, when I am filled with despair that the institution through which I intend to serve God is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch, I find inspiration in Buffy. When I feel the loneliness of holding in confidence the heavy burdens others have shared with me, when I can speak to no one of the holy moments that have left me teary and trembling, I find companionship in Buffy.

Buffy taught me about what it means to have a calling. In the opening episodes of the series, we see Buffy resisting her call. The television series begins with Buffy relocating to a new town and starting a new school, hoping to turn over a new leaf and escape the supernatural happenings that plagued her previous life. As soon as she enters the school library, she is greeted with a dusty volume of demon lore and a new Watcher (mentor) eager to hone her evil-fighting skills. Like the reluctant prophet Jonah, Buffy longs to escape an inescapable call. Her Slayer identity can’t be escaped; she cannot remove it, flee from it, or ignore it. Like many young clergy women, she wishes she could choose an easier and more normal life. Like many of us, she finds that her calling has chosen her, but that she can choose how best to live into that calling.

As Buffy embraces her identity as the Slayer, we see that a calling by itself is powerful, but not always sufficient. As the Slayer, Buffy has natural gifts and abilities, but she becomes more capable as she hones her skills through study, training, practice, and mentorship. So it is with a calling to ministry: we hear the call, we find in ourselves the natural gifts that will help us to serve the church, but that isn’t the end. We have to steward those gifts carefully, building them up through ongoing education and collegial relationships, nurturing them through prayer and self-reflection.

As Buffy grows into her calling, it changes her in ways we young clergy women might recognize. We see how saving the world every week builds her confidence. We see how constantly confronting evil, death, and pain burdens her with more than her share of sorrow. We see her growing hubris as she discovers the power and the responsibility of her calling as “one girl in all the world” who can do what she can do.

But she can’t do it alone, despite what she might sometimes think. For all its rhetoric about “only one Slayer,” it is telling that Buffy is an ensemble show. Buffy’s calling is unique, certainly, but she needs all kinds of support in her work as the Slayer. She turns to her friends and mentors for research and logistical support, for encouragement and advice, for comfort and for laughter, and to check her ego. Her calling is unique, but that doesn’t mean she’s called to be a “lone wolf.” She—like of all of us—needs a community in order to do her work well and faithfully.

I first encountered Buffy as I was discerning my call to ministry and preparing to apply to seminary. I count it as God’s grace that this story found me at that moment, offering images of another young woman finding her way on an unusual path. As Buffy resisted and accepted her call, grew into her role, learned to be both Slayer and daughter, sister, friend, she modeled for me how I might start to live into the call I felt in my own life. She, too, walked a path that the world thought was not appropriate for a young woman, and she walked it for some of the reasons that I did, and with some of the same wonder and trepidation. We have our differences, of course: Buffy’s job is to save the world; I believe that the world has been saved, and not by me. But ever since those early days of discernment, Buffy has been one of my companions on this sometimes-lonely road. This story has continued to nourish me, to teach me about vocation, about sin and evil, about repentance and reconciliation, about grief, and so much more.

The first time I watched the series ending, I was less than impressed. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] In that final episode, Buffy finds a way to share her power, to stop being “one girl in all the world,” and to instead become one Slayer among a great multitude of Slayers. I was initially disappointed at Buffy’s loss of uniqueness. Her calling seemed somehow diminished because it was no longer hers alone. But as I’ve grown into my vocation, refining my own understanding of what it means to be an ordained minister, my perspective has shifted. Now, when I watch that last episode, I see echoes of the verse that has become my own mission statement as a pastor:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” -Ephesians 4:12-13

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holiday Drama Edition

Dear Askie,

9698410745_3d45d2389f_zMy daughter is a Pastor and I am so upset that she won’t come home for Christmas. We had wonderful family Christmases but now she’s always missing. She takes off at other times so why can’t she take off for one Christmas! She cares more about her congregation than her family! She knows we can’t afford to fly there so why can’t she come home? I’m so upset that we have to spend another Christmas without her. Daughter, I need you to come home! How can we convince her that we love her and we want to spend Christmas Day with her home?

Sad unhappy Christmas mother

 

Dear Sad Mom,

Oh, I get it. I really do. You didn’t sign up for this strange and wonderful life your daughter has chosen. You have not made any vows to the church. We young clergy women know that it isn’t always fair how our pastoral vocations impact our loved ones, from missing holidays with our extended families to spending too many evenings away from our kids to seldom being able to go away for the weekend with our spouses. Sharing your daughter with her congregation is really hard… and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like sharing. It feels like her congregation gets first dibs on her time and attention, and you get the meager leftovers. Big hugs for you.

If it’s any consolation, you are not the only sad mom out there… and your daughter is probably kind of bummed, as well. Clergy of all ages, genders, and religions sometimes lament the ways our callings change our holiday rituals. It is an indescribable blessing to lead a congregation through a Christmas Eve service, to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, to break bread and light candles, to proclaim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet many of us feel some loss, too. We regret that we can’t make it home to far-away family, that our children are hanging up stockings without us, that helping others celebrate this holy night often means rushing around attending to logistics when we’d rather be drinking in the stories and songs we love most.

Getting down to brass tacks, though, sad mom, the answer is: no, your daughter can’t come home for Christmas. It’s just the nature of our work… Broadway stars have to work Friday and Saturday nights, tax preparers have to work long hours in March and April, pyrotechnicians have to work on Independence Day, and pastors have to work on Christmas and Easter. If you’re a church-goer yourself, try thinking about it from that perspective – what would it be like for you if your pastor was away for some of the most important services of the year? There are some pastors who might be able to get home for Christmas (maybe by leaving right after their last service and traveling through the night… not exactly a recipe for a holly-jolly day!), but it sounds like your daughter isn’t so fortunate as to be able to make it work.

So what’s a sad Christmas mom to do?

I’ve got good news for you, Christmas mom: you get to create some new traditions. Talk with your daughter (and maybe other family members) and come up with a plan that will help you all celebrate the holidays together in a way that makes sense for your particular lives. Maybe you can choose another day to be your family’s holiday celebration… Christmastide has twelve days, you know! Maybe your daughter could visit for New Year’s, or maybe you’d like to hold an annual family “Christmas in July.” Maybe you could start a tradition of Skyping together on Christmas morning. Maybe you could – at least once – visit your daughter for Christmas. Attending her church for Christmas services might be moving for all of you. (Please don’t expect her to prepare an elaborate meal on top of everything else, though. Order in, or follow Askie’s lead and make some Christmas fajitas! The red and green peppers are very festive.)

It’s sad to say goodbye to our old Christmas traditions, but this is a great opportunity for you to re-think your routines. How do you want to spend Christmas? Visiting with other family members or friends? Seeing a movie? Volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? There are lots of options, so find a way of celebrating that works well for your family.

Will your daughter ever be home for Christmas again? She might be! Not this year, but there might be a Christmas when she is on sabbatical or maternity leave. There might be a Christmas when she is between calls. She might transition to a different kind of ministry that isn’t so demanding around the holidays. She might be called to a church that’s closer to home. Or maybe not.

My hope for you, Christmas mom, is that you will find a tradition that brings you closer to your family and to God. My hope is that you find a way to celebrate both the birth of Christ and your daughter’s calling to Christ’s church, with all the joy and difficulty that entails. And most of all, Christmas mom, I hope you have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

Holiday blessings,

Askie

How Dorothy L. Sayers Made Me an Anglican

Dorothy L. Sayers“So long as the Church continues to teach the [humanity] of God and to celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and of marriage, no living man should dare to say that matter and the body are not sacred to her. She must insist strongly that the whole material universe is an expression and incarnation of the creative energy of God.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”

Although I am an American, this month, I passed my 10-year mark living in Canada. Certainly, much has happened in my life in a decade. (Producing a tiny human being for one!) But the biggest shock in that time was stepping off the path toward an academic career and discovering a vocation in the church. As I ponder that transition, I realize it would not be a stretch to say that I might not be a priest today—or even an Anglican—if I had never encountered the work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Ok, that’s probably not fair. I am quite confident the Holy Spirit would have found some other way to get through my thick skull. Yet Sayers’ reflections on the creative mind of God and the drama inherent to the Christian story salvaged my faith at a particularly vulnerable time in my life.

These days, if anyone is familiar with the work of Dorothy Sayers at all, they know her through the adventures of her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. I have never been much of a murder mystery fan, but I am enough of an academic nerd to appreciate a series in which the protagonist finally convinces the love of his life to marry him by proposing to her in Latin, thereby signaling their intellectual equality. Not bad for the 1940s! But Sayers was far more than a mystery writer. She was among the first women to graduate from Oxford (in 1915), as well as a close associate of the famous Inklings literary group. Being barred from academic pursuits, Sayers earned her keep writing copy for an advertisement firm for several years—a forerunner of Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen. This afforded her a keener eye for cultural commentary than her male colleagues, like C.S. Lewis.

At the time when I first encountered her work, I was entering the second year of my PhD program, and honestly, I was feeling a bit burned out. I was also ripe for spiritual renewal, after moving away from the Baptist  faith tradition of my childhood, which had never been the right place for me. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Sayers’ essays compiled under the title Letters to a Diminished Church.

Sayers spoke to me in a way no Christian writer had before. Yes, she is unapologetic in her defense of Christian doctrine, but not out of reactionary “defensiveness.” As she often says, “the dogma is the drama”—the “terrifying drama of which God is both victim and hero.” Her essays introduced me to the passion and the joy of the Christian story. Through her words, I met a God who is first and foremost a creator, and specifically, the creator that came and inhabited his own creation. I encountered a valuing of God’s material world that made me finally able to embrace the activity of God in the church’s sacramental life. Not to mention, the woman is just able to have fun with her faith. How can you not love someone who titles a collection of essays The Whimsical Christian?

It was particularly in Sayers’ reflections on the sacraments that I found what I can only describe as the missing link in my spiritual journey up to that point. I had never resonated with an expression of Christianity that seem so resistant to any physical elements of faith. When I read her words about the sacraments (quoted at the top), it was as if a light went on in my head. Of course God can work through material elements like bread, wine, and water! Of course our bodies are as redeemable as our souls! Our belief in the Incarnation must have ramifications for how we value all of creation. Not long after, I found myself sitting in the rector’s office discussing not just confirmation, but also ordination.

In the near decade that has passed since then, Sayers has been a faithful guide on my spiritual journey. I return to her when I need to be reminded of the joy I take in my faith. The more I learn of Sayers’ life, the more I find her an inspiring Christian witness. I appreciate her struggle to be taken seriously as a scholar. She had a son out of wedlock in her youth, whom she kept hidden from even her closest family, until she adopted him later in life. Sayers remains an example of humility and strength that encapsulates the Christian life at its best.

We might be a bit behind the ideal season for summer reading. But if you find a moment, pick up a copy of Gaudy Night (the finest of the Peter Wimsey mysteries), Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or her exploration of the creative activity of the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker. Dorothy L. Sayers may be an obscure spiritual foremother, but she is one well worth getting to know.

Pilgrimage with My Mother

In May 2014, my mother and I walked the last 110km of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. There have been many wonderful books, blogs and websites published about the pilgrim journey to Santiago, as well as many films, such as The Way with Martin Sheen. I commend all of these resources to you. I could fill pages with stories about the pilgrim route itself, about the wonderful experience of meeting God’s people in all their infinite variety, about what it is like to go on a literal and spiritual journey…but what I really want to reflect on is what it was like making the journey with my mother. Making the journey with my mother is what truly made the pilgrimage a God-filled experience for me.

Spending ten days, walking close to seventy miles, with ones mother may sound like a nightmare to some people. It was wonderful for us! My mother and I have always had a close and loving relationship. We get along; more than that, we actually enjoy and value each other’s company, insight, and conversation. I have especially enjoyed, now that I am officially in my early thirties, getting to know my mother as a fellow adult. She was a wonderful and amazing parent—she is also a wonderful and amazing woman. I feel very blessed to have such a supportive and caring relationship with my mother, knowing especially, that not everyone has such a gift available to them.

My mother and I had an interest in making the pilgrim journey to Santiago for a long time. One day, in the course of a phone conversation, we just decided to do it. We had the time, health, resources, and motivation, so why not make it happen? Until the day we boarded the plane to Spain, we literally could not quite believe what it was that we were about to do.

Previous to making the journey, my mother and I talked some about what we hoped to get out of the pilgrimage to Santiago. I was hoping for time and space for personal, spiritual and professional discernment, especially in my role as a parish priest in the congregation. My mother, who recently retired from a longtime career in clinical social work, was hoping to gain some spiritual insight into her goals and purpose post-retirement. We were both at different places in our personal and professional lives.

We were also at different places in our spiritual lives. I am an Episcopal priest. My mother attends an ELCA Lutheran church, which she joined after an extended period of spiritual seeking. While I serve God as a clergy woman in the church, in the capacity of inviting people into the life of faith, my mother has struggled for a while with the institutional practice of faith. She is a deeply religious and faithful person, but, like many people, has a difficult and sometimes painful past with the organized church, both as a child and adult. What’s more, the question of what to believe and why, is a very present matter for my mother, as it is also sometimes for me. Essentially, we were both seeking some of the same things, but for different reasons, and coming from drastically different personal, professional and spiritual contexts.

To be honest, I was hoping that God would speak to me somehow, and let me know clearly and compellingly, what God wanted me to do with the rest of my life. My mother was essentially hoping for the same thing. That’s not quite what happened.

Here’s what did happen. We had a very long and beautiful walk together, as mother and daughter. We were up at 9am and walked steadily until 6pm, for 6 days straight. Sometimes other people would be beside us on the path, sometimes, for long stretches of time—even, for about eight hours—there would be no one but us. We walked together, at the same pace, the whole time. Sometimes we laughed and talked together. Sometimes we walked in silence, lost in our own thoughts. What was especially wonderful about our walk together is that, when you walk for such a long time and over such distances, everything else falls away. The to-do lists, the professional and personal pressures, even the big spiritual questions—all of it fades away into the background. All we needed to do was put one foot in front of the other. All we needed to do was to be together. All we needed to do was just to be. At no other time in my life, has it been quite as possible or quite as easy to fall into simply being–being so present in the current moment and present also, to the woman beside me.

Not surprisingly, neither of us received a clear and compelling vision from God for our individual futures. There were no straightforward answers. I have a friend and fellow priest who has walked the pilgrim journey in the past, and she believes that answers and insights come over time, after the journey is over. I think she is right. I am sure that I will gain even more from the journey, now that the actual walking has ended. From a practical standpoint, once the trip was over and we went back to our separate homes and lives, I found that I really missed my mother. I had just spent every day with her for ten days straight. I felt the need to call her, to email her, to hear her voice even after the trip had ended—so I did, and have continued doing all those things regularly. But what God did give my mother and me, while on the journey itself, is the ability to be freed for a while, even of the questions and the need to ask them. The questions didn’t matter, and certainly not the answers either, at least not while we were walking together. We were able to simply be together, and I believe that God was with us in that space also.

I wish I could offer you wise words or a great insight at the close of this reflection. I really can’t. All I can say is that being present to someone you love, taking the time and the space to do it, is absolutely worth doing. I believe God is present with us in any loving relationship–in the conversations, the laughter, the weighty matters, the long walks, and the tired feet. Yet God is present in the silences too, when no one is talking, or laughing, or asking questions, but just connected by loving presence beyond words. When we talk about being surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses, I believe those witnesses are the god-filled relationships in our life—like my relationship with my mother, and all the people who I care about. I truly am blessed; I truly am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people to love and who love me, and to know that God is in the midst of the relationships we share. That is so good to know again in my heart and my body and to remember into my future – whatever the journey holds.

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison

Job Hunting for the Two Career Couple: When the Right Call Is Not the Church

fargoneI sat on the bed, listening to the shower. At my feet there was a massive pile of laundry, mostly my husband’s clothes. He was packing a large suitcase and moving to the East coast for a job. For the second time in 12 months, we were going to be separated.

When we first met, we were graduate students. In our blind optimism, we assumed that we would work hard, get good grades, and find work anywhere. We had no idea that the Great Recession was months away from crashing down upon us, and we had no inkling that a prestigious, demanding school which is well-recognized in the East would carry zero weight in the West. He graduated with distinction in Connecticut. Two years later, his job hunt has been fruitless in Oregon. In desperation, he accepted a position in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, and we separated for the first time a little over a year ago.

A two career couple has been a very difficult thing in ministry. I find it has been a constant dance of discernment, opportunity, and choice. On one hand, I love that he has different, non-church work. He keeps me real. Sometimes I wish that he was a nurse or a dentist or some other highly transportable profession, but the reality is that he is gifted with artifacts. But one of us (me) believes that God is in charge of my career path. And it was dawning on me that Oregon, the beautiful breezy place where I thought we had found our dream, left him with a choice between living  here and taking a job cleaning out dog kennels, or living apart and having a professional job. I couldn’t ask my spouse to make that sacrifice. But I also couldn’t believe that God would bring two people together, only to split them up. How could God ask that, even of a priest?

There have been ways to cope. We prioritized face-to-face communication. We Skype every night and have “happy hour dates”. (We each make a drink and call each other.) We text constantly – his early morning messages arrive while I sleep.  But we spent Thanksgiving apart, he eating oysters with his brother in Maryland, me sharing stuffing with a coworker in Eugene. Every night, we sleep alone. I snuggle his pillow and negotiate space with his cats, who spent last week sulking in his closet, buried under the clothes he left behind. We used an app called Couple to share secrets.

Unbidden, negative emotions have roiled. I became jealous that he could spend Sundays watching football on his best friend’s couch, knowing I would come home to a dirty cat box and a cold kitchen after a grueling day. I panicked when I couldn’t reach him, so we decided to install “Find My Friends” app which we call “iPhone Stalker” so we can tell if the non-answering person is on the road. He gets frustrated when I email a dozen articles overnight during my frequent insomnia bouts. Trash talking via text message leads to fast misunderstandings when he threatens to pick up Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback against my strident objections. Sometimes, it feels like we spend most of our time apologizing to each other.

Good friends saved my bacon. Time after time, friends talked me off my ledge when I had convinced myself it was the end.  They shared so many stories of breakups, separations, reconciliations. They told me of the bruises in their own loves, and reminded me to see the best in my spouse. Friends convinced me to see a counselor at my lowest point.

Deciding whether love or career won out was agony. As a priest, my life is so public. Parishioners worried, knowing he was gone. Why had such a happy couple split up? One person suggested that, since we had no children, a divorce would be easy. What kind of couple would choose to live apart? I can point to Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, or to military couples, but the reality is that those couples have resources and innate support systems than I did.  We honestly questioned: was this really the end? Did God call me here to show me that my calling as a priest was more important than any relationship out there – spouse, family, friends? For one horrible week, we talked about divorce.

I loved my job, my people, my town. I thought this was my dream. Yet the dream hadn’t accounted for distance from family and friends. I missed major East Coast milestones. My dream was killing my spouse’s spirit. I couldn’t bear to disappoint or hurt anyone – I imagined waves of anger and disappointment flooding towards me no matter what.

The reality is that church work is tight. The reality is that it’s difficult for women. Changing jobs can be a political dance. Was it the right time to leave? Would it be a bad career move?  Would a future church look down on my moving? Could I take the time to seek a job I truly felt called to, or should I just choose the first option that would bring me back? Logically, I knew we weren’t alone. During this year, at least five other couples in my circle of friends moved away from our small town. Who was being the selfish one in our little twosome – him for taking fellowship offers, or me for sitting on our deck looking out over the rolling hills and not wanting to move? Was I just paralyzed by fear of disappointing people?

Finally, the financial stress was unbelievable. We have always been a fairly frugal couple. But after years of grad school, then a major car repair, then a year of unemployment, followed by another car crisis, my once-healthy emergency fund was screaming for relief. We needed more money, money that wasn’t going to be found in my paralysis.

Making the choice to leave the parish has been the hardest one I have ever made. How could I get so involved in people’s lives, only to leave when my own got tough? People were in love; I wanted to watch them get married. People were pregnant with babies or waiting for adoption matches; I wanted to be there when the babies were baptized. We were getting ready to remodel our kitchen and parish hall; I wanted to walk the new labyrinth and sit in the center.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t actually taken vows to the parish, yet I was treating it as though it had more claim on my love and care than the actual husband. We had always said that the place that was right for one of us was the place that was right for both of us. My heart broke as I finally admitted my parish wasn’t it.

After I dropped him off at the airport and returned home, I opened up the Transition Ministry Newsletters and began emailing my information to open churches. For the sake of love, it was time to leave.