In the words of Beyoncé

My 2019 Easter Outfit

In 2001 I was in a car accident that briefly landed me in a wheelchair. That event physically changed my body forever. Rolling myself around but also being relatively immobile, I noticed my upper arms got larger and stronger. For lots of different socially imbedded reasons, I did not like this new look in my arms. Over the next 18 years, my body lost and gained weight in different ways – I even grew an inch taller in my 30’s – but for whatever reason, my arms have always stayed about the same size. They are what have been called by trainers, boyfriends, and myself alike a “problem area.”

Then, a couple years ago, I found something that was both freeing, covering, and good for work; a cape. My cape made me feel strong and feminine. I wore it the first time I preached to help me get over my stage fright. It became known as my “preaching cape.” I have always liked fashion, and I have also always shopped for a good deal, this cape fit the bill for both.

As I do every year, this year I spent weeks pulling together my Easter outfit. I was so excited I even found a new cape in white-perfect for Easter Sunday. So, when I got dressed for our Easter worship service this year, I looked in the mirror and, in the words of Beyoncé, I was “feeling myself.”

I took a picture outside of church and after a wonderful worship service, I posted it to one of my social media pages. I live in New York and my family lives in California, so I wanted to share my Easter outfit with them. I was proud of the way I looked because unlike Beyoncé I did not “wake up like this.” I also saw a post on the Young Clergy Women International Facebook page asking for pics of the amazing preachers in the group and their Easter outfits.

Everyone looked amazing and the group was incredibly supportive and affirming of each other’s outfits. This unfortunately gave me false hope, and I shared the picture on my wider media networks which were less supportive. Which reminded me of a very important fact; God called me to this work: a woman who loves fashion, a good bargain, and using the two to share the good news of Christ Jesus.

In the wider network I was met with the view that my outfit was an exploitation of riches from an elite New Yorker. Little did they know my bag, glasses, and shoes are from TJ-Maxx and Who What Wear made my cape and jumper. That’s right, my elite New York look was from Target. And they were on sale! However, the highest price I paid that day was that of my confidence. The same thing that helped me bring the word of the risen Christ to a church full of joyful Easter congregants, ended up being the price as well. Once the criticism snuck into my head, I had a hard time not believing it myself. Read more

rainbow flag blowing in the wind

Speaking For Me

rainbow flag blowing in the wind“The issue.” That’s how we are often talked about by conservatives and progressives alike. To those who would like to purge The United Methodist Church of all of us queer folks, we are discussed not as real people in the church but as “the issue of homosexuality.” Then there are allies who are quick to point out that human sexuality is just the “presenting issue” as our denomination grapples with how we understand scripture, where the locus of power should rest, and the complex realities of a global church. While there is truth in that argument, that truth fails to dull the sting of dehumanization. Either way we are talked about as if we weren’t right here.

The United Methodist Church has been fighting about LGBTQIA+ inclusion/exclusion since 1972 when language was inserted into our book of polity that declared homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and then in 1984 that barred “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being clergy. This antiquated language enacts not just exclusion but also erasure as those of us who identify as BTQIA+ but not as homosexual are left unclear whether we are even being talked about to begin with. I have heard allies defend themselves for only speaking out for gay and lesbian rights because our book of discipline only discriminates against homosexuality. And yet, United Methodist polity has reduced identity to action—sexual orientation to sex acts. Being bisexual will not protect me from charges filed if I decide to marry a woman nor will it protect me from the much more complete purge the so-called traditionalists would like to enact.

And now, as our denomination gathers for a special called General Conference (Feb 23-26) in St. Louis to vote on a way forward for our denomination, the “issue” will be fought over as though it were just the future of our denomination and not real lives that are at stake. Our lives. My life. In the fall of 2018, I made the complicated decision as a young United Methodist clergywoman to come out as bisexual. I began claiming my own queer voice just as my beloved denomination has disintegrated into a shouting match—speaking sometimes against, sometimes for, but always over me. Rarely with me.

When I was deciding how, when and if I would come out to my congregation, a queer friend and mentor asked me to consider if I wanted to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights “as an ally” or if I wanted to fight for our rights as a queer woman. I looked at her funny. I know who I am. I can’t do anything as anyone other than who I already am. “That’s your answer,” she told me matter-of-factly.  Read more

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

Surviving Resolution Season as a Fat Pastor

picture of author with a poinsettia

Amber Slate, Embracing the Joy of Embodiment!

This January I am sending out reverse trigger warnings. I have slowly been embracing a new compassion for my body and a new neutrality about the word “fat.” But it’s fresh and tender, and I know this will be easier said than lived, especially during New Year’s resolution season.

Looking back, the idea started in a garden where a group of women had gathered on the warm grass to sit and talk about our seminary assignment for the day. It was a class designed to ask students to pay more attention to their theology of creation and embodied experience by doing the embodied work of gardening and eating together and then reflecting on the connections to our readings.

I was thrilled to be considering the goodness of embodied life which is proclaimed in creation and affirmed in the incarnation. I grew in my conviction that God cares about our different embodied experiences of race, sexuality, ability, gender, class, and body type and how we address the different kinds of privilege that come with each one. It made me wonder if I had been taught to overemphasize the holiness of sacrifice, control, and disembodied spirituality only to neglect the holiness of planting, eating, loving, resting, moving, and creating.

But on this particular day, the writer, who had done an excellent job of praising the grace manifested in creation, happened to casually mention pursuing health by losing weight as a response to that grace. I felt a little fire ignite in my belly – angered by the oversimplification and the lack of consideration for the variety of narratives that exist around that topic. Spurred on by my strong reaction, I swept past any shame that might have silenced me previously and plucked up the courage to ask the rest of the group what they thought about it.

Since I had risked some vulnerability, the others also began to respond. One woman talked about how when she developed an eating disorder, everyone around her praised her for how thin and healthy she looked and no one noticed that she was sick. Another woman talked about how much judgment she had internalized about her body and how she looked back with regret for not enjoying her body and youth. Another woman talked about how that narrative can erase the experience of people of color like herself.

We talked about what access to health looks like on the spectrum of class and the differences in expectations according to gender. I shared about how my introduction to dieting had begun cycles of extremes that left me totally disconnected from my body. It left me always trying the same ineffective and harshly depriving approaches with increasing intensity which might be successful for a moment but then left me disappointed once again with a narrative of self-loathing and personal failure. I shared about how I longed for the ability to find more connection to my body and to find a way not to measure my value or my happiness based on my smallness.

Then I encountered Health At Every Size (HAES) and knew I had found an approach to thinking about bodies (and my body in particular) that aligned with my theological convictions in such a deep way that I was not going to be able to ignore it. For those who are unfamiliar, HAES is a theory and social justice movement made up of many elements including celebrating body diversity, believing individuals’ lived experience, challenging cultural assumptions about dieting, approaching science and medicine without a weight bias, acknowledging the impact of thin privilege, considering joyful movement to be the birthright of every person, trusting our bodies to hold the wisdom about what they need, and encouraging compassionate forms of self-care. Read more

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

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

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

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

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

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

The Myths and Mystery of Fertility

“So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”– Genesis 1:27-28

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

Both myth-debunking research and deep spiritual truths from powerful authors created space for the author’s journey; and shared space in her basement meditation corner.

From the very first time the concept of sex entered my understanding, I was made to believe that having sex = getting pregnant. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that myth came from. Maybe it was my own culturally-informed reading of the Genesis passage (Sex was for procreation and maybe for pleasure if I was married), but don’t think I’m alone in having held this myth close to my heart for so long.

Even as I became an adult, went to seminary, and reconciled my understanding and respect for good science with my deeply held beliefs and faith-life: this poorly researched and inadequately thought-through myth persisted. When my husband and I met, and were planning our wedding, I was incredibly concerned with accidental pregnancy; I thought missing a single birth control pill was going to lead to pregnancy and I was going to screw up my whole candidacy and potential ordination process.

Given the enormity of this myth built up in my insides, I was understandably surprised when I went off birth control on purpose during our second year of marriage and… nothing happened. Then, something happened, but it wasn’t what my fertility-myth-laden heart expected. Just before my first early-OB appointment the first time I finally got pregnant, I miscarried. I felt totally alone, like something was wrong with me, as though somehow my body wasn’t doing its God-given job. This potential reality pissed off my little perfectionist over-achiever brain, and made me feel totally ashamed that something in me was broken and not normal.

That’s when my OB/GYN recommended a healthy dose of Brené Brown (seriously, my OB is that awesome) and pointed me toward the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, for some good, contextually-researched science on my situation. I was 32 years old. I had considered myself a feminist for much of my young adult life. And yet this was the first time in my life that I was reading information about the science of my biology that matched the lived patterns of my flesh and bones. It turns out, my 26-30-day fluctuating cycle with an overly heavy 7-day period was not something “wrong” with me at all.

“The belief that cycles are 28 days and ovulation occurs on Day 14 is so entrenched in the medical profession that when a woman’s cycles vary from that standard, the variation is often presumed to be a potential concern. “Irregular” cycles are seen as problematic….”  – from Taking Charge of your Fertility

These words felt like Gospel to me. After all, when have I EVER believed that God created with normativity as the goal? As I let these words that felt like God’s YES sink into my bones, my broken heart began to heal around trusting what I already knew to be true but was now unexpectedly embodying in my fertility journey: that God is a God of mystery, a God of change, and a God of detail beyond my human understanding. Read more