Should and Should Not: Just Trust

Slats Toole, author of Queering Lent

Slats Toole, author of Queering Lent

When I began to write about God, I was 20 years old, reeling from the end of a four-and-a-half-year relationship, and still struggling to piece together my faith two years after returning to Christianity after a long period of agnosticism. There was very little that made sense to me that summer as I ached for the future I’d lost and searched for glimpses of the God I had once cut all ties with. It was out of the longing and the hurt and the confusion that I found words.

As I worked to intentionally reconnect with God, as I faced the reality of no longer being part of a pair, I strung together poems that were (I didn’t realize then) defining my lived theology. I discovered a God who was infinite and terrifying, playful and beautiful, and I worshipped this God in my words.

I kept these poems hidden. I’d compiled them into a document that I’ve only ever sent to those I felt a particularly close relationship with. I can count on my hands the number of people who have seen them in the decade or so since. There was something so intimate about the idea of letting people see this part of me, so I knew these poems had to be guarded and protected.

Eight years later, I graduated from seminary. While I am grateful for many things I learned and people I met while at seminary, there was a lot about the experience that was draining. My seminary had no real queer theological presence on campus—I’d slipped out of the closet as non-binary towards the end of my first year there, and I spent the rest of my time educating administration and pushing for gender-neutral restrooms and housing.

Another part of myself that I felt slipping away was the part of me that became curious about seminary in the first place—the poetic part of me that wanted to get to know all it could about the mysterious, glorious, confusing and incredible God I had met one summer in the mountains years before. Instead, I found myself picking up the beliefs that so often come with seminary and have nothing to do with God. The belief that my value came from exam scores. The need to have a ministry-related job that could be easily understood in a few words upon graduation. The sickening feeling that I had to compete, win, and be the best.

So, as I looked towards my Lenten discipline for the year after I graduated seminary, I knew I had to reconnect with the parts of myself that I’d neglected while in school. I needed to nurture both my queerness and the part of my faith that could not be expressed in a clean exegesis paper. The discipline I landed on was simple: write one poem, connected in some way to God, every day. The twist for me was my accountability check: I would post the poems on Facebook. Read more

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

#ReadFewerWhiteDudes

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

The author’s reading corner. Mug from Where Are You? Press, books from Powell’s books.

Two years ago, my good friend from seminary, Casey Kloehn, wrote this blog post inviting others to join in her reading challenge to #readfewerwhitedudes. It was one of those Holy Spirit moments, where her post and invitation came just as I was coming to grips with being told how white my reading list was. When the whiteness of my reading  list was first pointed out to me, I jumped to defending my choices in my head. “These are good books! I’m a smart person! I’m trying to buy books that will help me be a better pastor and this is what’s available!” But then I remembered: I live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States.  As much as I wanted to stay in my comfort of being able to order the professional and personal books that seemed to “fit what I needed” at the time…. It seemed like Spirit was urging, drawing, pulling me into this invitation to include diverse voices in the books that I was reading. (And, the excuse to order another motivational coffee mug for my office certainly didn’t hurt.)

 

After the first few months or so, I noticed some changes. First, I would get asked more often about what I was reading and was able to share recommendations more readily than before because of the intention I was holding in my reading habits. Some of this was admittedly because I unashamedly drink coffee from a mug (pictured) ordered from the independent publishing company that inspired Casey’s original hashtag. But some of it is also because people ask their pastor what they are reading.

 

This season of reading fewer white dudes has brought with it a season of talking about books from voices that were stirring something new in me. Which brings me to the second change—I noticed just how much my reading habits get into my head, heart, and bones. Before this challenge, I hadn’t realized how much my inner voice lacked diversity and imagination until I got called out on it and nudged into making this shift. If we believe in the power of written words to move us, then believing that what we read matters follows naturally. And as leaders, what we read matters.

 

There is a quiet and powerful prophetic task in not only reading with intention, but sharing our reading with others. Sharing openly about the #readfewerwhitedudes challenge started to feel like a very pastoral task, even if most of this reading was what I would consider “not for work.” For better or for worse, there are pieces of our lives as pastors that get exposed to the people we lead. While plenty of times there is space for us to discern how much or how little we share about our personal habits, I’ve decided my reading list is best kept open to the public. It keeps me accountable to those voices on the margin, and in sharing my story about why I #readfewerwhitedudes, I’m able to be open with others about naming and owning my privilege and power as a middle class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman. Some of that privilege and power needs to be checked with these marginal voices. And some of it has been able to do the work of standing up to the white hetero patriarchy by continuing to drink from my motivational mug, even when it has caused offense.

Two years after that first challenge, and I’m starting another annual booklist. Since that first list, I have resigned my first call, spent some time in Sabbath wilderness, birthed a baby and begun dabbling with a grassroots spiritual community forming in my neighborhood. Last week I got asked the question again “What are you reading?” And I stopped to share about #readfewerwhitedudes. All the while, aware that I still live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m still a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States. I’m continuing this year to #readfewerwhitedudes. I’m reading fewer white dudes and more women, Asians, Native Americans, Black, Queer, Trans, Latinx writers  because as a leader I need voices in my head and my heart that will move me forward when Spirit pushes me towards justice. I’m reading fewer white dudes because I want to be able to share openly with others a habit of mine that feels honest and authentic and intentional. I’m doing it to claim small moments of being something other than status quo in a world that seeks ease and comfort. So, dear YCW and friends, want to #readfewerwhitedudes with me?

 

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for.  Read more

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Fewer Gender Binaries, More Expansive Leadership

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Another kind of circuit rider

We are saddened and frustrated whenever male colleagues in ministry seem to be suffering amnesia about the power of women’s leadership in shaping the church. Recently, a United Methodist clergyman penned a commentary for a forum run by the United Methodist news service on the role of women and men in the church. In it, he claimed that the church requires gendered forms of leadership, a Marian form following the example of prophet and God-bearer Mary of Nazareth and a Petrine form following the example of disciple Simon Peter.

The Marian form is–you guessed it–nurturing, whereas the Petrine church is about discipline and maintaining order. He presents these two forms of leadership as both being necessary and so concludes the piece without recognizing the problem. This leaves us, as women and gender-nonconforming folks often have to do, to educate our dear colleague once again: we cannot continue to rely on the sinful “complementarian” structure that is the very same used to reject the ordination of women.

When it comes to leadership in the church, we do not have to match our roles to the assumed genitalia of disciples in the Bible. Mary of Nazareth is not the role model for all women who want to participate in the life of the church, nor is Simon Peter the role model for all men. Mary and Peter offer differences in their relationship to Christ and their ministries, as do all other disciples and apostles. Our roles are not defined by or limited to our gender performance.

Separating out leadership roles by gender limits all of us. To make our Theotokos, a Greek title for Mary that means God-bearer, a model only for women is to discount a powerful example of discipleship for all who follow Christ. Mary is a model of courageous, outspoken, inclusive leadership. She is an example not just for women’s roles in the life of the church, but for ALL who seek to be disciples and leaders in the church. She answered God’s call, proclaimed God’s justice, shared Christ with the world, and welcomed everyone, from the shepherds to the magi, to be part of the movement. She is the model of leadership that the whole church needs not just mothers or women to emulate but all people, regardless of gender.

The apostle Paul offers us wonderful image of his leadership that does not conform to gendered expectations when he writes that he is like a nursing mother (for example 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul is clearly a “discipler” by vocation and action, something the author of that article claims is Marian by Scriptural witness. A closer look at Scripture reveals more than what the author of that article sees. Read more

a black-ink tattoo of the word "enough" with curlicue decorations around it

Enough

a black-ink tattoo of the word "enough" with curlicue decorations around it

The author’s freshly drawn tattoo, by Trevor at Alley Cat Tattoo, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I’ve spent 39 years on this earth without any tattoos. I’m not anti-tattoo, but I couldn’t think of anything that I would, without any doubt, want forever engraved on my skin. For some reason, as I approached my most recent birthday, I suddenly had a desire to celebrate it with permanent ink. In small Hebrew lettering on my upper arm, close to my  heart, I got my two sons’ names, which both came from Hebrew Scripture and hold great meaning. Less than a month later, I was already planning my second tattoo.

This second tattoo was inspired by the gift of a week at CREDO, a program in some denominations for pastors that looks deeply at overall health and wellbeing in five areas: vocational, spiritual, financial, physical, and emotional. From the start, one word kept coming to the fore: Enough. I journeyed with that word for the week in the company of wonderful colleagues, and knew what my next tattoo had to be.

For those familiar with the Enneagram, I am a very solid One – often called The Perfectionist, or as I prefer, The Reformer. Ones are always striving for improvement. We want to make the world a better place. We want to improve what is in our environment. But the strongest focus of that drive for improvement is internal. I’ve always known that I hold others to high standards, but none nearly as high as the expectations that I have for myself. It’s pretty exhausting. Ones are always our own worst critics.

As a One, the word “Enough” was the word on which I needed to meditate. What would it look like for what I have done to be enough? For me to be enough? When do I know that enough is enough?

In some ways, “enough” and “grace” could be used interchangeably. To be honest, the word “grace” might have made for a more graceful tattoo. Ryan O’Neal, the artist behind “Sleeping at Last,” has created a whole body of music that is enneagram focused.[1] I sometimes just put “One” on repeat, listening to the refrain “grace requires nothing of me.” Grace is enough. But for me, “enough” conveys a little more, too. Read more

I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more

an ink drawing and watercolor picture on paper of the nativity of Jesus

All This Weary World

an ink drawing and watercolor picture on paper of the nativity of Jesus

A breath of Yuletide

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is one of those hidden-gem Christmas carols that we do not sing as often as other favorites, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Away in a Manger.” If we know it at all, we might know the first verse by heart and, even then, we might fumble the words at the end.

But the tender heart of this carol lies beyond the first verse. After you sing that first perfectly nice stanza about angels singing at midnight of peace on earth, you enter into a second and third stanza that sing of the burdens of our world and the longings of our hearts:

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heav’nly music floats o’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hov’ring wing,
and ever o’er its babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!

I am struck by the compassion that these heavenly angels have for the weary world; for its sad, exhausted, lowly places; for those whose forms are bending low beneath the crushing load of life; for those who seek rest, those who are tired.

The Christmas story, from the plodding donkey making his way to Bethlehem to shepherds on the night watch, is first and foremost a story told by tired people for the sake of tired people.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like a donkey. You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You do holy and essential work, but work that is tiring nevertheless. Your back is tired. You walk a long road shouldering other people’s expectations and dreams. You are weary from the journey. You plod through this life as a beast of burden. Even as you are loved and appreciated for your work, your body and your soul yet long for deep rest, for restoration.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like a shepherd. You sit awake at night, keeping watch over what is precious or helpless. You work nights while others sleep. You keep mental lists. The tasks of the day run through your head, even in deepest dark. You watch the clock. You watch the stars. You try to balance your own rest and well-being with the needs of those who depend on you. You crave one, good, uninterrupted night of sleep where you are free to rest, to dream, to leave the lists and the anxieties behind.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like an innkeeper. Your routine and your sleep cycle keep getting interrupted. You feel tired of crowds, of the bustle, of the stuff, of the “too much-ness” going on about you. You live your vocation. You provide for others. But your inn is full and your resources are depleted. You want a nap. You want the city to rest. You want all creation to take a deep, cleansing breath. You want everything to slow down.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like Joseph. You care for those whom you love, even when it is hard. You keep up with the demands of work and family and empire. You find yourself on difficult journeys that were not of your own choosing. You long for a safe place to rest. You seek a temporary release from the obligations put upon you, the good ones and the hard ones and the oppressive ones alike.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like Mary. You bear hope, even when it is exhausting. You say, “Here am I” as you offer your whole self to the call of love and service and sacrifice. You sing for justice and your voice is wearing out. You know what it is to be both weary and expectant. You know the pain of bringing new life into the world. You are summoned awake by crying in the middle of the night. You know the needs and hungers of the world. You want the world to hush, to cease its strife. You want a world at rest, a cosmos at peace with itself.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Then come to the manger. Follow the star. Hear the song of the angels. Cuddle up in the straw with the barn cats and the watchful sheep and the restless goats.

For here, in the manger, is a baby, new-born, opening his sleepy eyes to the world.

There is no weariness, no exhaustion of body or spirit that this baby will not experience in his lifetime; there is no weakness or despair that this baby will not ultimately redeem and refresh.

This is the point of Christmas. Read more

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attached

Untethered but Anchored

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attachedA year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.

The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.

I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.

Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”

Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago. Read more

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outside

That Awkward Moment: Making Small Talk as a YCW

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outsideWe don’t know each other well, but we’ve been chatting for awhile, maybe at a party, or at a playdate for our kids.

The subject of what we do for a living hasn’t come up yet, and we’re talking easily about other things. But then the time comes when we would normally talk about what we do for work and I don’t bring it up. You might wonder if it’s because I don’t work, whether I’m a stay at home mom or unemployed, so you think maybe you shouldn’t bring it up. But I can tell you want to tell me what you do for work and so I ask.

My hesitation is not because I don’t want to know what you do for work—I really do—but because I don’t want to answer it back. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s just that once I tell you that I’m a priest, everything about our conversation is going to change.

The first thing you’ll do is apologize for swearing.
(It’s ok! I have actually heard those words before. In fact, I’ve even said them!)

You start scanning my face to see whether I’m judging everything you do.
(I’m not.)

Then you worry you’re offending me with things you say.
(You’re not.)

You start to wonder if you can ask me all the questions you suddenly have. And sometimes you ask. And I try to answer them honestly, usually refraining from the snarky ways I’d actually like to answer:

Do women priests even exist?
(Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually a hologram?)

Are you allowed to have sex?
(No. My three children sprung from my head like the children of Zeus!)

You might feel awkward talking about what I do for living at all and so you ask quickly what my husband does for a living. You learn he’s a teacher, and suddenly we have lots of things to talk about. Everyone likes talking about teachers. The conversation flows on from there.

But then, sometimes….

You ask me about God.  Read more