empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more

giving tuesday logo with the text #GIVING over TUESDAY with a cross-hatched heart instead of a 'V' in 'Giving'

Why We’re Thankful

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States, making today #GivingTuesday. We asked our Young Clergy Women International Board members why they are thankful for this organization and why they give to YCWI.

giving tuesday logo with the text #GIVING over TUESDAY with a cross-hatched heart instead of a 'V' in 'Giving'Here are some of their responses:

“I’m thankful that YCWI enables me to experience the depth and width of the body of Christ. I have learned so much from my sisters in other denominations and I would not have found that in any other place.” –Sarah Hooker

“I’m thankful for YCWI because my ecumenical experience has been vastly expanded by learning how to navigate many ways of being church. I’m especially thankful that we get to do most this in an online community that works hard to be healthy. Plus, I’ve made friends along the way who get what it’s like in my weird little corner of ministry!” –Bre Roberts

“I am thankful for YCWI because the online community has been a supportive place to ask my newbie pastor questions. The online community was especially helpful for me when I was in rural ministry and in-person community was harder to come by. Now that I am in an urban area, I’ve been thankful for the local friends and colleagues I’ve connected with through YCWI.” –Kari Olson

“I’m thankful for an international sisterhood that gives me breath when it’s hard to breathe, smiles when I want to cry, and strength to press on and press in when I want to give up. I’m thankful for learning new ways to worship and for having access to endless resources when I need them.” –Dwalunda Alexander

“Early on in my participation in the FB group, I asked a question about abortion. That question produced a thread that I have never forgotten, because of how gentle, kind, and GOOD it turned out to be. I learned, was challenged, and was given space to explore my own perspective without condemnation. I have never been in another group that I would feel safe to post that question in. I’m thankful that YCWI truly does provide a place of meaningful engagement wholly different than most areas of the internet.” –Elizabeth Grasham

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Though not all members of YCWI celebrate Thanksgiving in their respective nations, we encourage everyone to celebrate the gift that is YCWI! If this organization has helped, encouraged, empowered, or strengthened your ministry (or the ministry of a young clergwoman in your life), please consider a gift this #GivingTuesday and become a monthly donor to help sustain this organization all year round.

 

Donate Now

 

Pressing on to the Kindom of God

Group of people marching down the street with signs.

The author joins a caravan seeking shalom in her city, marching in solidarity for justice with immigrant neighbors.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for this publication on the significance of the United States having elected our first female President. I wrote it before the election, obviously, but hedged things in such a way that it could still be tweaked and published in the very unlikely event of Hillary Clinton losing the election, which, of course, is exactly what happened. After the defeat, even the “also ran” article hit nerves too raw, and in the end, it was all scrapped.

The past two years have unleashed and unmasked so much in our society. White supremacy, nationalism, and all kinds of fear and hate have been emboldened and empowered. The hate has been deadly. At the same time, there has been a greater public resistance than any I have seen in my lifetime. I joined the throngs in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. “The Future is Female” shirts started popping up everywhere. The #metoo movement has seen progress in holding powerful men to account for sexual assault, though we still have a long way to go.

A fire has been lit for many women who are mad as hell and not going to take it, to borrow from the movie Network. The 2018 midterms saw the greatest number of female candidates in any election, the greatest number elected, and resulted in a number of firsts: the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, one of whom is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to congress, one of whom is lesbian and a former mixed martial arts fighter; the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; a Latina who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

There is much to celebrate in all of this, as our elected representatives start to become just a little more representative of the diverse population of the United States. It’s a start. And yet. Lest we get too comfortable, or too self-congratulatory, I have a message for my white sisters: we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Read more

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-title

Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, A Review

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-titleA well-hosted dinner party is a work of diligence and artistry. Even leaving culinary gifts aside, strategy and insight go into cultivating the guest list, arranging seating, introducing new topics of conversation, drawing guests in and lifting up the commonalities and unique expertise around the table. By the end of the evening, all the guests feel well-fed, not just by the content of the meal but by the characters around the table.

In Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, authors Emily Swan and Ken Wilson invite the reader to a sumptuous 3-course feast around a table filled with friends both familiar and yet-to-be-made. First, let me introduce you to our hosts. Emily Swan and Ken Wilson co-pastor Blue Ocean congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their story of leaving the Vineyard (charismatic, evangelical denomination) congregation where they previously served (a church that Wilson himself planted) folds into the content of the book.

Swan’s approach is shaped, in part, by her experiences as a missionary in China, by her wide range of reading interests, particularly theological voices from the margins and by her own story of falling in love and coming out as a queer woman. Wilson’s contribution to the text is shaped by his interest in mystics and patristics, his own experience of bereavement in the loss of his wife and by his evolving conviction regarding the full-inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within his native evangelical Christianity.

In this book, our hosts prepare a three-course meal. First is the premise from which the book derives its title: “It’s enough to say a living Jesus is the final authority in Christianity.” (15) Rather than the doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what if the church were led — now and always — by Jesus as revealed in Scripture and experience, in other words: “solus Jesus?” To this end, the authors introduce readers to Jewish scholarship, early church and recent church history—especially some of the finest work within their own charismatic, Pentecostal tradition—to prove the validity of experience as a teacher. One wonders if Martin Luther himself might agree with the authors’ premise as he never intended Scripture to be interpreted outside the received and living tradition of the church.

The second, most filling, course offers up an opportunity to investigate more recent theological understandings of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Rather than penal substitutionary atonement, where the primary work of the cross is to satisfy the wrath of God in God’s own son, scapegoat theology teaches that to look to the cross is to see all those who have been cast aside, misunderstood and crucified by our world’s insatiable demand for defining who’s in and who’s out. In a uniquely Christian response to hate, understanding Rene Girard’s view of Christ as victim on the cross allows us to gain a new lens by which to value and to stand in solidarity with all those who are victimized in our world — and our churches — today and, in particular, those  LGBTQ+ members of the Christian family.

The third course is the richest option, in which our hosts ask us to act according to the theological convictions laid out in the previous two courses. Again, pulling from a wide range of sources, our hosts ask us to consider this question: “What if we could learn to step away from the magnetic pull of rivalry and learn to be with each other differently?” (321) In a startling last chapter, our hosts leave us to consider the implication of a “non-rivalrous Gospel” amid other world religions.

Throughout each course, our hosts draw out the other guests around the table: their own Pentecostal tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Rene Girard, Jewish midrash, Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodoxy, inviting each to interact with the hosts’ and readers’ own stories of faith. In this way, the authors of the text model their own thesis—a wide welcome in solidarity with Christ who identifies himself on the cross with all those who have been excluded from invitation in the past.

If I could be afforded one quibble it would stem from my own Calvinist-Reformed theological conviction, of which the authors write, “It’s difficult to picture solus Jesus taking root in churches tied to sola Scriptura as their institutional narratives (the Calvinist-Reformed and Lutheran sectors, in particular.)”  (362) In fact, a notable exclusion from this book’s guest list is Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest Calvinist-Reformed thinker who wrote, precisely, in favor of the centrality of the Word-made-flesh rather than the word of holy writ.

This is why, in many Reformed congregations today, you will hear the reading of Scripture prefaced not by “Listen to the word of the Lord” but, rather, “Listen for the Word of the Lord.” Surely there is some collegiality between Barth and the authors of this text. I would have delighted to hear his voice afforded a greater hearing at the table.

It is probably safe to say that this book is not for straight-ticket theological voters. Each voice around the table deserves its own consideration and, whether you are coming from the hosts’ own evangelical charismatic background or not, you will have opportunity to re-evaluate your tradition’s certainties and to wonder about the wisdom just past the borders of your own theological construct.

I’m struck by both the patience and the impatience of this book — arguing their case with urgency but rarely brushing off those who disagree — struggling to make the circle wider in a way that does not attack but that comes alongside. In this way, it reminds me of another host at another table who invites us to come, to partake, to remember and to believe as part of a community that is not made by our own choosing.

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

Reclaiming #BLESSED

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

#BLESSED

My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.

Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic.[1] In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.

To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.[2]

Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”

Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Read more

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a box

A Prayer for Election Day

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a boxEven as we speak the words
“A Prayer for Election day”
We find in our guts
the traces of humanity:
in suspicion
in wondering
what kind of prayer this might be.

For what are we asking of you,
Divine One who gave us voice
And thought
And will

What shall our petitions be
On this day we deem to set aside
For democracy
For exercising each of our own
Civically gifted political authority

And yet, still, we have need of you
Of your Wisdom and your Word.
In spite of and because of
This worldly yet holy belief in our collective voice
For it is exactly that divisiveness our suspicion breeds
That we seek to heal and make whole

So we come to You,
God of a power that is beyond our understanding.
With these prayers for our day of voice and vote.

 

For all those who vote, for their diverse voice and conviction, and for our collective discernment as national community.

We pray to You.

For the casting of ballots, may they become our voice of your creation, calling out the promise of your Love and Justice.

We pray to You.

For candidates and ballot measures and all those who work to share their message

We pray to You.

For our thoughtful considerations, debates, discussion and research

We pray to You.

For just access to ballots

We pray to You.

For volunteers and election workers and their equitable exercise of stewarding the election

We pray to You.

For what seems to us the inevitable tragedy of voter discrimination

We pray to You.

For the waiting and the watching, for our doubts and our dreams

We pray to You.

For all those who will be elected this day and for all those who currently hold public office, that their work might be enlivened by Spirit’s stirring toward our common humanity.

We pray to You.

And for the courage in the days to come to continue to seek and speak our values that are rooted in Your Love and Promise,

We pray to You, O God of Love
Who gives us voice
Who convicts our thoughts
And who calls us to lives of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked cloth

A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked clothHere in rural Illinois where I live, the leaves on the trees are starting to change—red, orange, and yellow gracing our streets and college campus green spaces. Alongside the color, you’ll find bare expanses of dusty dirt fields, where thousands of farmers seem, en masse, to have harvested all of their corn and soybeans at once, leaving the majority of the state of Illinois brown and flat until cover crops come poking through to add a little color before snow comes.

I live in two worlds all year long, and one of those worlds points me always toward summer. I’m the Associate Chaplain at Monmouth College, but also the director of a grand experiment on our campus called the Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth. The Lux Institute brings high school students to our campus for two weeks each summer to study a prominent global issue alongside theological reflection.

In Summer 2019, we’ll be focused on the theme “A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty” from June 16-30. I’m already busy searching for curious students to join us for this free program, and already thinking about the nuances of each class, activity, reading assignment, community building exercise, and meal. I’m adding “remember to pick up laundry quarters from the business office” to my growing list of summer responsibilities for the Institute (because even student laundry costs are covered!).

As those preparations continue, I’m turned back to focus on the intersections between my work with high school students from around the country and the college students here on campus. The Lux Institute was started two summers ago, and its first program theme focused on food security. In the academic year that followed, I discovered that many of my college students struggle with food security of their own. I had spent two weeks with high school students exploring the ways that hunger and food insecurity impacts their local communities around the country, and I was prompted to explore my own immediate context. Read more

One Can’t Rush The Process of Forgiveness: A Personal Story of Sexual Trauma

A picture of the author in front of a large rock

The author

Sexual trauma. Two uncomfortable words to see in print and to write about, particularly in the church. Sex is still a taboo subject in the church in the year 2018, although church folks are having quite a bit of it – whether it is wrong or right, single or married, ethical or unethical, or even scandalous. The point I am making is this: not talking about sex in the church does not mean the church is avoiding the trauma that is continuously happening with its members, congregants, guests, visitors, and so on.

Unfortunately, sexual trauma happens too often to too many girls and boys every day in various homes, church spaces, schools, parks, and more. It doesn’t care what race, gender, ethnicity, religion, denomination, time of the day or week nor time of the month. All it cares about is what it needs at the time when it is ready to feast on the innocent and unconsenting bodies.

The needs of sexual trauma are to control, manipulate, and distort the minds of both the perpetrator and victims. Many do not survive its wrath.

I lived to tell my story of how I wrestled this evil spirit of sexual trauma, although I wish it could have been for only one night like Jacob. I have spent years purging the damage and residue of its grips from the depths of my mind, spirit, and soul.

Even now, it is difficult to write about my experience; toiling over this piece thinking of a way how I can tell my story. Where do I start? How much should I tell? Do I even want to remember those events of my life? This is a part of my narrative. Sexual trauma had its tentacles in shaping the woman I am today, unfortunately. But, no glory will be given to sexual trauma for no good thing it has done in my life, but all good things come from God.

Due to the invasion of sexual trauma I had no choice but to desperately search for wells in dry places in my adulthood, particularly when I was pressed to forgive and love my perpetrator by church folks. I know that Scriptures teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Throughout my young adulthood, other believers urged me to forgive and love my perpetrator. This request seemed to be in support of the perpetrator rather than in my best interest of getting healed.

It seemed unimaginably unfair to me. It was so disheartening that my body was violated. My trust had been broken. My mind had suffered from flashbacks and the entrapments of withdrawals as I navigated my altered life. Too many burdens for anyone to bear alone.

Why do have to be the responsible one to love him and forgive him in order to receive my healing? Why are people quoting these Scriptures to me in the midst of my trauma without even asking me how am I doing? I believe people sometimes rush the process of forgiveness and place unwarranted pressure on victims of trauma to forgive their perpetrators. Read more

A lined paper notebook sitting open to blank pages on top of some soil.

The Words

The Words
Fall 2017

A lined paper notebook sitting open to blank pages on top of some soil.

The blank page.

 

That they do not come is

a trouble to me,

And that trouble—at times stacked

carelessly among other troubles—

accuses me, like other aspects

of a self-doubting mind,

Of negligence to my vocation, of

insufficient time spent

on any given task.

 

And yet, I might not hear the

Call, proper, in time at all, but

only in retrospect,

As a song sung back from the end of all things,

to their beginning,

my ears picking up only

a faint melody

in any given moment,

which is, itself, troubling.

 

When I was laboring to birth a

child, I was permitted

To trust myself, to sink down into

myself long enough

and deeply enough

to get something born.

 

But, day to day, cries from the

surface dissolve the thoughts

before they are born

onto the page, their

intentions never

ripening, clarifying, or even

declaring themselves fully,

even to me.

 

“No one knows the hour, not

even the Son of Man.”

Indeed.

 

The surface, the moment, calls,

and thus is not given

what it needs,

A woman delivered of the words.