The Work We Leave For Others

One of my favorite podcasts is ‘Judge John Hodgman,’ in which comedian John Hodgman pontificates over somewhat trivial disputes between friends and family members. It’s a funny, well-produced, and often thought-provoking romp through pop-ethics in all the best ways. If you haven’t listened before, it’s well worth your time (and may I recommend the episode wherein Hodgman judges how often a pastor’s beloved must attend church with her?).

Over the span of hundreds of episodes, some aspects of Hodgman’s ethic have become “settled law.” For example, “people like what they like,” meaning: you can’t force someone to like (or not) like something just because you do (or don’t) like it, we all have our own preferences, it’s part of being human. My favorite bit of settled law is this: be mindful of the work you leave for others. I think on this advice often, when I’m tempted to put back a grocery item in the wrong aisle (because it’s just so convenient for me…) or when I grumble about putting my children’s books back on the book shelf for the umpteenth time in a given day. It is sage advice: be mindful of the work you leave for others. It’s not revolutionary or unique or even all that new, but it is wisdom which bears reminding.

And so we come to the question of women in ministry…you knew I’d get here eventually. There are several dozen things I wish people knew about what it means to be a woman serving in a profession where you can be legally discriminated against based on gender, but for today, let’s look at the settled law: be mindful of the work you leave for others. Read more

rubber ducky toys

When Doing More Isn’t Enough

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
~Psalm 127:1-2

rubber ducky toysThe highlighted calendar said it all:

May 1: Book Day! Bring your favorite book.
May 2: Hat Day! Wear a fun hat to school.
May 3: Cowpoke Day! Wear your boots and bandanas!
May 4: Costume Day! Wear a Halloween costume or dress-up outfit to school.
May 5: Fun in the Sun Day! Bring a towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a bathing suit for outdoor fun.

I serve as an associate pastor, mostly tending to the faith education of children and their families. The aforementioned instructions cover only the first week of a month-long calendar that was recently sent home with a kindergartener in my congregation. The child’s mother is a professional singer, a soloist in the church choir. She’s usually a picture of elegance—like a tree planted beside a stream of water—exuding calm and control, beauty, strength, grace. But in her Facebook post, complete with a photo of the class calendar in all its highlighted glory, this confident, professional musician was about to lose it. Her exasperation was palpable as she wondered aloud to an audience of Facebook friends, “Wait. Now I’m supposed to send in random yet very specific items for an entire month of school or else my kid is left out?”

As a mother of three children ages 13, 11, and 4, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the kindergarten-last-month-of-school calendar is just the beginning. And while the complete ridiculousness of my kids’ schools expecting anything more than that my children will be fed and dressed and relatively clean at this time in the school year is hilariously summed up by Jen Hatmaker, the truth remains: most of us have bought into the idea that doing more (and more and more and more) will someday—finally—be enough.

Those of us who work in churches are far from immune to this line of thinking. Read more

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Come to the Table

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Join the feast!

Many years ago, my friend had a young daughter with serious medical issues who had to be hospitalized for several weeks. Understandably, my friend was under enormous stress and she did not have the time, energy, or desire to cook. Her priority was being with her daughter in the hospital. So, for these weeks, she subsisted on rice cakes (this being the early 1990’s, rice cakes were ubiquitous in the low-fat, high carbohydrate craze). It was a quick way to eat, and it felt the appropriate food considering her circumstances. She was sad and fearful, and food had no taste: might as well eat something that tastes as wretched as she feels. It wasn’t just that the rice cakes were dry and flat; her spirit was dry and flat.

Thanks to God’s mercy, the daughter recovered and was released from the children’s hospital. But my friend continued to eat race cakes. Though her child was now well, she had developed a habit of eating them, and a habit is hard to break.

A couple of years passed, and the season of Lent was coming up, a season in which traditionally people give up something of value to them. My friend was surprised when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit nudged her with an invitation: “maybe you should give up rice cakes for Lent.” When my friend told family members, they teased her. After all, people normally fast from something desirable, like chocolate or coffee. Who gives up rice cakes for Lent? But my friend did, and, within days of giving it up, she lost her craving for them. At the conclusion of Lent, she didn’t resume her rice cake eating ways. It was God’s way of signaling to her that her previously dry and flat season was over.

I resonate with my friend’s experience. Too easily I have slipped into the habitual thought. “This is my lot in life: I just have to make do with eating crumbs and feeling crummy.” When I look around at the state of the world and the state of this county, I grow discouraged and overwhelmed: how long will the wicked prosper? In the face of these challenges, I need to be paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Seasons change, and there will come a time when this painful season is over. Sometimes I act as if subsisting on rice cakes is the only way forward. But as Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There is a season for fasting, and there is a season for feasting. There is a time for us to give up something of value, and there is a time for us to reexamine what has become too valuable to us and why. There is a time to eat rice crackers beside a hospital bed, but there is also a time to come to the Lord’s banqueting table, and experience afresh the banner of love unfurled over our heads.

My hope is that we pay attention and heed God’s gracious invitations to us. When appropriate, God will invite us to mourn and to wear sackcloth, and, also God will eventually invite us to cast off those sackcloth and grave clothes that cling to us long after a season has ended. When the Lord nudges us, let us trade the dry and the tasteless for God’s extravagant banquet.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Betrayal in Holy Week

In the Netherlands, the plant Judaspenning (coins of Judas) is so named as an allusion to the story of Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver he was paid to betray Jesus.

Spy Wednesday

This is “Spy Wednesday,” the day Judas betrayed Jesus. Orthodox Christians reserve Holy Wednesday for anointing and healing. I reserve it as a day for clergy self-care. What better way to anticipate bodily resurrection than with a Holy Week massage?

Today’s anointing, however, is actually a betrayal. The masseuse touches me inappropriately. As his hands move down my body, I freeze. Shouldn’t he know the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch?”

I struggle to say, “That’s too close for comfort.” Later, I berate myself for not being more forceful. But I’m in shock, with thirty years of “niceness” socialized into me.

He moves his hands. As soon as he leaves, my phone verifies that his actions are indeed illegal.

I feel more confident with clothes on, so before I leave I tell him that he crossed a line.

I’m not angry yet. I’m confused. I call my husband and best friend. I leave a message for the state board of investigations. I post in The Young Clergy Women Project facebook group: “…I feel an obligation to report, but I can’t help but feel awful about it. I worry that I’m going to cause this person to lose his livelihood.”

The clergywomen express their sorrow, their prayers, their anger, and their solidarity. They absolve me of guilt at reporting:

“It needs to be reported… A person who touches people in an illegal way should not be making his living as a massage therapist.”
“This is patriarchy and rape culture. He crossed the line.”
“He is the one who made this choice, he is the one doing the violating (not you in reporting it)…. I’m willing to guess you aren’t the first/last, as this could easily escalate. I hope you can let go of any guilt in reporting it. Prayers for you in this horrible, violating situation.”

Although I could have said these things to another woman, I can’t say them to myself. I need to hear them from my colleagues. Their clear articulation of appropriate boundaries helps me to sort through my own feelings. I am stunned at how my “niceness” translates into feeling sorry for the masseuse prior to being able to be truly angry with him. I imagine how awful it must be for folks who don’t have supportive communities with extensive sexual ethics and boundary trainings.

Maundy Thursday

I wake up early and can’t get back to sleep. “Stay with me. Pray with me,” Jesus says to the sleeping disciples. I suspect the perpetrator thought I was asleep when he touched me. But even assuming that he thought I was asleep, why would he do such a thing? I begin to find my anger. Read more

Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

A Poem on the Eve of Lent

Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

Palm ashes for God’s beloved dust

God’s beloved dust,
fabric of the universe—
of planets newly discovered
and ruins ancient, broken
and us.

God’s beloved dust,
we’ll walk into wilderness
on a Wednesday—
a wilderness of words
and want
and wonder,
a wilderness for the wise
and the weary.

God’s beloved dust,
ushered from pew to pastor,
they will pause.
Eyes averted
or closed
or resolute in meeting mine,
an awkward encounter
breaking the boundary of space—
to touch another’s face
and to mark it
mortal.

God’s beloved dust,
thumb to forehead,
brokenhearted,
breaking with tradition,
I will say

to God’s beloved dust—
to the squirming infant
barely a month from the womb,
to the mother, headscarfed,
halfway through chemotherapy,
to the wrinkled widow
well acquainted with ashes:

Remember you are God’s beloved dust
and to God’s beloved dust you shall return.

And we will watch and wait
to witness
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.

a red chasuble with dove detail

If the Chasuble Fits: Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church of Canada

a red chasuble with dove detail

Red chasuble with dove detail

I spent the last two months leading up to maternity leave serving at All Saints’ Cathedral. It was a short interim, just enough to bridge their staffing gap, that allowed me to work a little longer after my previous parish was filled. Two other women in a row – both under the age of thirty – had held the same position. Down the hall, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada had her office. If my gender was an issue for anyone, I never heard it. I have benefited from much progress since the first ordinations of women forty years ago. Most of the controversy that raged through the church in 1976 has died down.

On the other hand, being female and nine months pregnant in that early parish was more of a stretch. Trying to arrange the chasuble when I sat down so it wouldn’t get wet in case my water broke was only a young clergywoman problem! I will never forget the Sunday a young parishioner brought her Roman Catholic boyfriend to church. Imagine how it threw him to see someone preside at the Eucharist who was dressed as an ordinary priest and praying using familiar words – but sporting a very large baby bump. We had a good laugh about it afterward. I never saw him again because I welcomed a healthy baby girl four days later. For much of the global church, I’m an oddity. But most of the time, in a diocese that has been led by female bishops for coming up on twenty years, I hardly notice.

No, my femininity isn’t the main challenge I see to the traditional view of priesthood. I stand on the shoulders of women who fought those battles in their own generations and so paved the way for me to serve God and the church in this way in mine. In this culture, people are put off more by a church that does not have women in leadership. At least in my part of the world, at least on the surface, we have progressed. Most congregations in my denomination accept me as a priest without question. Even my youthfulness, perhaps worn down by a decade of motherhood, no longer attracts the kind of dismissive comments it did when I was twenty-three and trying to fill my first clergy collar. I have grown into it. I have learned better to speak the language that people expect of leaders. I know more of how to attend to the liturgies, committees, and community rhythms that keep the institution of the church humming along. I can preach the life of Jesus in a way that is inspiring with just the right amount of challenge, and listen with the right blend of pastoral concern. In short, I fit.

But though a woman wears the vestments, how much difference has that really made?

The dignified, authoritative country parson still inhabits our institutional memory. I have seen him live on in a church whose drive to spiritual maturity and collective imagination was crushed by a particularly harsh version of Reverend-knows-best. Stodgy women’s groups fill our caricatures and, whether or not they are real, they limit women in the church to bake sales and gossip. We second- and third-generation ordained women find ourselves – still – with the task of gently and intentionally laying down what has held us back from fully following the call of God. As we do, we find that the only church most of us has ever known is still deeply burdened, still stumbling through an incomplete story, still fallen so far short of reflecting the life of Christ. I and my daughters have the privilege of being educated and of choosing to pursue any vocation, but deeper sin-bound patterns still affect us.

I sat in a gathering of our national church in 2001, as Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada to those who had been devastated by the Indian Residential Schools and their terrible aftermath. He had first spoken those words eight years earlier to an indigenous council, and now it was time to renew them before the whole church. As I heard the Rt. Rev. Gordon Beardy, our first Indigenous diocesan bishop, receive the apology and embrace him as a brother, I did not understand that we were watching an empire crumble. I didn’t realize that this was the mighty falling and the wealthy being brought low. I couldn’t know how much this marked the church beginning to turn aright.

The legal settlements that followed required millions of dollars. The church sold buildings and drastically cut programs. Several dioceses were decimated. It did not make up for such a great evil, or begin to pay for our healing, but it forced us to sit and listen to those whose voices we had too long ignored. It forced us to be honest: we can no longer claim to be righteous, or even right. Though we have been given the hands of Christ, we have used them for violence. We may not now believe the lie that our empire is the hope of the world, or that divine favour will guarantee us material success, or that our sin does not matter. If we are honest, we cannot deny our need for grace and forgiveness, for Jesus.

When I stand at the altar with baby spit-up on my shoulder and wearing robes not made for my body, I hope that I will remember that I am not there to fill a mold that looms large with authoritative confidence, but to point to a life that leaves no wounds forgotten and untended. Jesus has always led away from our comfort and security. When I get comfortable with the church of the empire, I risk losing sight of him. Not with our power, but from the humble, forgotten edges, he will make all things new. I hope the church will remember this, too.

A friend took on holy orders this spring. Before the service started, as we always do, the mass of clergy, presenters, acolytes, and ordinands gathered outside the cathedral doors to pray. But this time, there was sweetgrass burning alongside the incense. Before the organ swelled, the surrogate grandmother to several clergy families’ children rose and offered blessings in an ancient language that most of us do not yet understand.

I can only bear witness to what has already begun. Read more

Called from the Shadows

This past summer, I explored Rome for an afternoon during a layover, and I prioritized visiting the San Luigi dei Francesi church where three paintings by Caravaggio hang. I became fascinated by one of Caravaggio’s paintings there in particular: “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” It depicts Matthew 9:9, which says, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

For the last decade, I’ve frequently drawn upon the tradition of Lectio Divina but less so upon Visuo Divina, the practice of prayerfully considering an image or visual representation in order to experience the divine. I am therefore grateful that God shook me out of the haziness of my playing tourist on a humid August day. In the midst of my fatigue and my feelings of being overwhelmed (so little time in Rome; so much to see!), the Holy Spirit invited me to stop and consider the truth of this painting by Caravaggio.

On the right side of the painting, Jesus gestures towards Matthew. Bathed in light, Matthew points to himself, expressing surprise. I, too, was surprised. Read more

A Hammock and a Window

more-than-enoughI have a very un-humble confession to make: I adore the cover of my new book. When my publisher first sent me the image earlier this year, I’m pretty sure I squealed like a teenager who has just found the perfect dress to wear to the prom.

The drawing on the cover is inspired by the hammock in our backyard. I bought it a couple of years ago, on a trip to visit some friends in Nicaragua. In real life, it’s red and white, though after a few seasons in the sun and the rain, the colors aren’t quite as bright anymore. It hangs between two trees, and dips low to the ground; my daughter likes to read out there, her brother likes to make it swing. I watch them through the back window, and the sight of the two of them out there playing is so beautiful to me that it takes my breath away.

Our life is very good. We live in a safe place. We have healthy kids, good jobs that we like; we’re able to pay the bills and put food on the table. Sometimes, I look around at this very good life and I can hardly believe that this is the same world in which people go hungry every night. The same world in which refugees walk for months and years with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The same world in which the gap between rich and poor is growing wider all the time.

How are we supposed to live, given this reality? When every choice we make – from where we live, to what schools our kids go to, to where we buy our groceries and our clothes – has implications far beyond our own family, how do we live?

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile now, but as I went looking for some answers, most of the responses I found were inadequate or confusing.

We could live more simply, but simple living turns out to be kind of complicated. We could commit to only buying stuff that’s sustainably produced and locally sourced, but that’s not always easy to find. We could buy only organic, locally grown food…or should we buy cheaper food and have more money to give to the hungry? We could use our cars less and give the earth a break, but then how do we get to work? We could go off the grid entirely and grow all our food and make our own clothes, but what if we don’t know how to do that, or want to do that? And aren’t we, as Christians, called to live in the world?

I didn’t exactly find answers to all these questions, but I do think there are some things we can do and do better. I think there are some faithful ways to live. We can make better choices with our stuff, all those material goods that make up our lives. We can pay attention to where it comes from and who makes it, use less of it, and be grateful for it. We can give generously from what we have. We can get to know our neighbors better. We can advocate for changing systems and laws that further exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

The Christian tradition also offers some resources that can be helpful: Confession and lament. Sabbath-keeping. Delight, and hope. These are practices that ground us in our tradition as we try to make sense of the world we live in.

Anyway: back to the hammock. Earlier this year, one of the trees that held up the hammock had to be taken out. It was diseased up at the top, and the tree guy who understands such things said that it was too dangerous to leave standing. I was sad to lose the tree but I was even sadder to lose the hammock.

It had become a touchstone for me. Just having it out there reminds me of things I need to be reminded of: It reminds me that there are people who live different sorts of lives in different parts of the world. It reminds me of the need for sabbath and play and delight, even in the middle of regular, busy life. It reminds me that we are not without responsibility for our actions and our choices, but that there are faithful ways to live in the tension between appreciating the goodness of the world and grieving for the ways the world is broken.

I missed the hammock when it was gone.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, my dad and my father-in-law happened to be in town at the same time. My father-in-law is an architect who knows how to figure things out, and my dad is a putterer who likes to have a little project to work on. Together they rigged up the hammock in a different part of the yard, between two different trees in a spot I hadn’t considered.

There’s a different view from the back window, now, but I can still see it out there, standing as a reminder for all I hold dear. I am grateful.

Read more about Lee’s hammock (and plenty of other reflections on living faithfully in an unjust world) in her new book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of ExcessAn accompanying discussion guide and worship planning guide is available for free download here.

Adult hand holding a child's hand

Grieving Infertility at the Wailing Wall

Adult hand holding a child's hand

holding hands

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

I am a Mother. Read more

Drawing the Circle Wide

3662909395_5f74d0a8a3_zIn the early 1990’s, Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta, GA, like most downtown Atlanta churches, was struggling. Members had moved out of the city center and into the suburbs, and were no longer willing to drive back to their home churches. So the suburban churches thrived as the in-town area crumbled. Real estate prices plummeted. The streets were vacated. The 1980s were not good to Atlanta’s heart.

The only folks who seemed to be moving into the midtown and downtown areas were folks who didn’t feel welcome anywhere else. The 1980s saw a surge of single, gay men buying up property and settling into the area. Things started changing. Read more