When Christmas Isn’t Joyful: The Story of The Bird

I met my husband 15 years ago this Christmas, with all the trappings of a holiday romance movie: the snow was gently falling, he was in his new Army dress uniform, we talked for hours from the evening of Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Day. I, young and feeling in love, went out and bought a Christmas ornament to commemorate such a lovely meet-cute. Ever since, we’ve had a tradition of buying an annual ornament; our collection is full of reminders of the churches we’ve served, the states we’ve lived in, and milestones we’ve reached as a family.

But there was one year, several years ago, when things were… not good. Our family was strong, but we were in the midst of both professional and personal chaos. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t in any mood to purchase a special ornament to commemorate it.

So I didn’t.

It came up in conversation a few times that season; my husband and I were very aware there was no new ornament, and we were okay with that.

But then, a few days after Christmas, we were at Target and saw a big clearance bin of ornaments, clearly the remnants of decorations that no one wanted during the season. I mean, ZERO PEOPLE wanted them. They were all damaged and hideous.

Then I saw it: The Bird.

It was oversized and brightly colored — very different from the delicate gold-trimmed ornaments we usually chose. It was crushed from having been pushed repeatedly to the bottom of the bin and was missing a sewn-on eye, a bare thread in its place. The tail was coming unglued and there was inexplicably some sort of plastic fish hook attached to its head.

And it was also 90% off. That thing cost thirty-nine cents.

I held it up to my husband: THIS IS IT. THIS IS OUR ORNAMENT FOR THIS YEAR. THIS BIRD THAT IS THIRTY-NINE CENTS AND MISSING AN EYE.

So we took it home and added it to the tree, talking about how difficult that year had been and what our hopes were for the coming year.

Every year since, as we decorate the Christmas tree, we retell the story of each ornament to our kids. And every year, we recount those struggles, smiling at the symbolism of this ugly bird on our tree that serves as a reminder of the year that didn’t destroy us.

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Collars, Leashes, and Lead Ropes

One of the very first things my spouse said to me on the day that we met was, “Your sense of call is going to make your life tough.” It has. It continues to do so.

In February of 2018 I took my collar off. I resigned from my call without a new call in place. It was not really my choice. I was in my second call, loving every minute of it. The rural community felt great. The congregation and I were challenging each other and learning and growing together. But then something happened, I am not sure I will ever know exactly what, and my ability to be their pastor came to an end. For the sake of the community and the congregation, I needed to remove myself from the situation.

So there I was without call, without any prospects before me, hurting so badly I was not sure I wanted another call even if there was an option. In fact, I was not sure I ever wanted to be part of a congregation again if it was going to be this ugly and hurt this badly. Pile on the guilt and shame and feelings of failure: and yes, life was tough.

Rev. Alyssa Augustson competing with a client horse “LuLu”(owned by Rosey Paulson) at Lincoln Creek in 2018.

When I began searching for something to do—anything really—so that we could continue to pay our rent, I found myself back in the world of training and competing dressage and jumping horses. I found myself doing things I love: riding, training, competing, cleaning stalls, and all the other work that goes along with the care of horses.

Growing up with horses, I spent the first twenty or so years of my life working toward a career as a riding instructor and trainer. Cleaning stalls, scrubbing buckets, and measuring feed with meticulous attention became one of my strongest spiritual practices. I was centered. I was in the moment. I was grounded. And there I was, once again, living in this spiritual practice with some added adrenaline on competition weekends as the horses I had in training would gallop around cross-country courses full of intimidating jumps.

Shortly after bumping my horse hobby back into professional mode, I also contracted with a dog walking company in Portland. Soon enough I was easily getting my 10,000+ steps in every day, making many new canine friends, and appreciating the company’s focus on being open and welcoming to all in a way that, dare I say, I have not experienced in the church. Read more

Blessing of the Backpacks

Amelia, age 4, after her first day of preschool in 2018

I have always loved back to school season. As a child I looked forward to picking out my new folder and composition book, eagerly watching as my mother painstakingly wrote our names on every item that would accompany us on our first day of school. When I finally graduated for the last time, I would find myself in the back-to-school section of Target, looking wistfully at the bins of 24 count crayons and Bic highlighters. Sometimes I grabbed a box or two—$0.25 is a great price for crayons, after all.

This year is different, though. This year I have two excited five-year-olds who don’t quite understand the concept of a supply list. They want new lunch boxes even though their preschool ones are fine; they want the folders with kittens and unicorns instead of the plain red and yellow requested by the teacher. They want the MEGA pack of crayons. In another week or so I will sit on my bed with their supplies scattered around, just as my mother did, and carefully write their names on everything, including each pencil.

In a few weeks I will send my little ones on the bus for the very first time, and my heart will do little flips. Now more than ever I need a blessing on these children and the grownups I am entrusting with their care.

A Blessing of the Backpacks is a wonderful way to begin the school year, surrounding the students, teachers, and educational support staff of your congregation with prayer and blessings. I’ve developed the following liturgy over the last few years, and usually use it during the children’s sermon. It could easily be adapted into a litany so that many voices are represented and heard. The school supplies are in bold as a visual cue to hold up the item and let the children call out its name if you wish:

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Parlor and Kitchen Stories

Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths.

This spring, I took a job in a new church context. There is something so unique and exhausting about the first couple of months of a new job, trying to memorize names, make connections, and meet expectations which may or may not be spelled out. One major aspect of any new job is listening: getting people to open up, and hearing the stories that parishioners choose to tell.

As I listened to all these stories, I was reminded of something I heard at a conference a couple of years ago. The speaker talked about church in terms of parlor stories and kitchen stories. The parlor is the room in a house with immaculate carpet and formal furniture–parlor stories are those stories that cast the church in the most positive light. Parlor stories are the “official” history of the church and feature the content that would belong on a brochure. They are like a grandmother’s pristine furniture covered in plastic. They are the stories that I heard from people serving on the search committee when I was going through the interview process.

A parlor exists as a valid room of a house, and parlor stories are valid, but they are not the only truth about a church. In contrast to the parlor, different narratives emerge when people are busy scrapping food off plates and wiping down counters. Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths. Read more

the author and her chicken in a bathtub

A Chicken in My Bathtub

the author and her chicken in a bathtub

The author reading to Caroline Radesky, the chicken, soon after the accident.

At four in the morning on a Sunday, I woke up to infernal screeching. I threw on the lights, ran outside, scared the assailant away, and saw my favorite chicken, a golden fluffball named Caroline Radesky (after one of my roommates in college), shell shocked and bleeding standing over the tunnel that was dug into her home. We have three chickens in a coop behind our house. My spouse built the coop, complete with a roost up off the ground and chicken wire surrounding it. Only, a fox dug underneath that night and got to Caroline.

She was not dead, but I was sure she would be soon. My spouse is a pilot, and he was away on rotation for the week, so I was alone, unsure of what to do and not knowing who to call to help. So I just breathed deeply and moved Caroline into the roost, shutting the door so nothing could get in. Then I went back to bed. (Or tried to.) In the morning, Caroline was still alive, so I separated her from her sisters so they wouldn’t peck at her wounds and she could have some peace, and I went to church. I thought she would be dead when I got home. It was All Saints Sunday and I considered whispering her name under my breath when we lit candles for the departed saints. Laughing about a chicken with a halo helped me keep the panic at bay long enough to get through the service.

I grew up with cats and dogs. We got chickens at the urging of my spouse who grew up with chickens and ducks and horses. These chickens were three years old, and not the best egg layers, but Caroline was super friendly and sweet. I would let her and her sisters out after a long day at church and they would follow me and the dog around the yard, running away when I tried to get them back in the coop for the night unless they heard the sweet music of a Dorito bag opening, luring them back home. I love the sound of chickens cooing and the way they sometimes squat down to let you pick them up. These were simple pleasures of God’s creation; pleasures I was grateful for after the difficulty of years of three miscarriages and numerous failed fertility treatments that have frayed my relationship with God. And now my favorite chicken was dying and I had to lead worship as though nothing was wrong. Read more

Opening Worship

The last words of Rev. Rebecca Immich Sullivan’s sermon from opening worship at the Young Clergy Women’s Annual Conference on Monday, July 29.

Opening Worship
7-29-19

There were arches

and a peak

made of wood

and polished,

carved with a

clover symbol

for the Holy

Trinity.

 

And feathers were laid

on the altar,

beyond the rail

where the minister presides,

which was draped

with green and white

for ordinary time.

 

And the organ pipes

spread their arms

in welcome

and pursed their lips,

poised to sing,

but yielded

to the lighter notes

of the piano’s

joyous song.

 

And infants nursed,

And toddlers gave

their voices to

the large spaces

between our prayers.

 

And the pews

creaked amicably

beneath us

adding their amens

to the gospel

according to Mary

and to “Martha, Martha,”

too,

 

and “our presence was

gift enough.”

The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship

My boys love going to church. On Sunday mornings, as I’m rushing to get out the door, they are moving quickly right with me, excited to get there. It is amazing and gratifying and humbling to witness, and I do not expect it to last forever. I will cherish it while it does. 

The truth is that Sundays in many homes where people are trying to get out the door to church are not always peaceful and pleasant. But often, as soon as they enter the doors, there is a transformation. Arguments pause, smiles return, and all is well once again. Through unspoken agreement, we participate together in the rhythms and rituals of worship. It’s holy space, but susceptible to the overcrowding of the mundane or the lull of familiar patterns.

Inspired by some musings shared by members of Young Clergy Women International, I present to you “Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship.”1

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This Pastor Loves You

Some of our young clergywomen in their Pride shirts.

Young Clergywomen International created t-shirts for Pride month to reclaim a message of radical love. Board co-chair Sarah Hooker had no idea what kind of response YCWI would receive. She said, “The fact that we’ve sold around 850 versions of the shirt and continue to sell them, and are getting requests constantly for different word choices to print up next year, speaks so much for the need of the Christian community to have clothing that expresses a loving and inclusive message to the LGBTQIA+ community, but also for our clergy siblings who identify within that community to easily express their existence and calling to religious work.” The simple message of clergy loving all people has had a big impact among clergy and at Pride events this month.

I wore mine at my community’s Pride Festival in Frederick, Maryland. An interfaith pride worship service was held before the festival started, and I found myself rushing down the still-quiet street to get there in time. A car slowed down at a light as I crossed the street. I cringed, waiting for a catcall because of my feminine gender performance or vitriol in reference to the rainbow words on my shirt. Instead, someone called, “Thank you! We love your shirt!” After the service when I was walking with some of the youth from my church down to the festival, people stopped and took pictures with me. A clergyperson who shows up in love and affirmation is still too much of a novelty. Later at the festival, I sat at the table for the local United Methodist Reconciling Community and listened to story after story of experiences of discrimination in church and hopes for the future. They thanked us for being there, for disrupting the narrative of hate that has co-opted the church and showing “a more excellent way.”

Mine is not the only story. My social media newsfeeds are filled with clergy colleagues of all ages and gender expressions wearing shirts from YCWI’s Pride Collection. Here are a few of stories from other young clergywomen when they wore their shirts: Read more

Midrash on the Beach

One of the things I love most about preaching is the opportunity to imagine between the lines of a story. I can’t resist a chance to illuminate the scene and characters from my own imagination. The Bible is often sparse in its literary detail, to put it lightly – I mean, come on, parchment is expensive! We can’t be wasting space with frivolous details, like the names of women and whatnot! But more often than not, my own imagination falls far short of the real beauty and complexity of the lives that must have been lived between the lines of those ancient pages.

That’s where a good book, movie, podcast, painting, or other creative effort comes to the rescue. 

As you head out into your summer, why not bring along a great book or download a new show to help expand your preaching imagination? Here are are few Biblical-story-retold favorites from some of our members and friends:

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