Blogging as Spiritual Practice

I have always loved writing. I was called to ministry when I was thirteen, but I felt called as a writer when I was eight years old. I won a school-wide poetry contest in the fourth grade. And when I went to college, I knew I was going on to seminary, so I decided to major in Creative Writing instead of religion, with a focus in creative nonfiction.

In my first call, I was an Associate Minister of Christian Education. I preached only a few times a year, but I participated in the worship service and wrote out many of my prayers, and sometimes other parts of the liturgy such as the Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession. I received positive feedback from the congregation, and continue that practice of writing my own liturgy through today.

In my personal faith life, I have long found that writing is a spiritual practice for me. I began keeping a diary when I was thirteen but over the years it grew into a prayer journal. Sometimes it was just stream of consciousness writing. Sometimes it was vivid descriptions of events and places I had been to. It didn’t always mention God and didn’t always say Amen at the end, but I consider my writing a form of prayer, a spiritual practice that works for me.

When I moved to my second call, blogs were becoming more mainstream. I was the senior minister in that call, and so I preached a lot more often. I also continued to write liturgy for worship every Sunday. However, I wanted a way to connect more personally my faith and ministry through writing. I began a blog as a way to write about life and ministry and to share thoughts beyond my Sunday morning sermons and a monthly newsletter column. The church web designer added a link to my blog from the website and I referenced it in the newsletter so that people from my congregation would read it. At first, I tried to write once a week but sometimes it would fade to once a month. I wrote about whatever seemed to be on my mind—the early debates around the Affordable Care Act, motherhood and ministry, spirituality in my daily life, and so on. I always added a disclaimer that these were my thoughts, and not necessarily the views of my congregation. People in the congregation would comment—both electronically on the blog and verbally to me in person—and I valued the interaction and the conversations that came from my blogging.

In 2010, my husband accepted a call in Southern Oklahoma and I left full-time ministry. I became a volunteer chaplain a few months after we moved. I was out of routine, no longer preaching most Sundays, and no longer writing liturgy for the first time in eight years. My blog also lapsed. Then I had the idea of blogging on the Revised Common Lectionary—a way for me to keep up my exegetical skills, and to write liturgy to share with my friends in ministry. It also kept me to a weekly practice.

I have been back in pastoral ministry the last two years, but have continued my weekly blog. The practice of blogging on the lectionary in advance has helped me to prepare much earlier for Sunday worship than I would normally have (such as the day before). I have also shared special prayers on my blog during times of crisis in our country and in the world, and those prayers have been meaningful for people in my own congregation.

A few years ago I was invited to contribute on another blog where I have an almost-weekly column (I usually take one week off a month). There, I often write about the challenges of ministry today: shrinking churches, changing pastoral roles, dealing with conflict, balancing parenthood and ministry, having a child with a disability—all of these articles have not only been helpful for colleagues and for my own congregation who read them on occasion—but it is a helpful practice for me, to weekly stop and think about what is important to me, what challenges I am facing as a pastor, and to think it out in a public space that also invites comments and questions to challenge me.

Blogging has become a spiritual discipline for me as a pastor. It helps me not only prepare for worship, but carving out that time every Thursday when I blog on the lectionary is a spiritual practice for me. I’ll be honest: I fail at devotional reading most of the time. I’ve read the Bible through in a year a few times, but I’ve given up halfway through at least a dozen times. I will start a morning or evening prayer practice and let it slip away after a few weeks. But with blogging, I have a deadline—I have committed to it, and I have readers that are waiting for it (I currently have a mailing list that goes out every Friday with links to my blog, and my blog is also linked on The Text This Week and other sites). It is a practice, a discipline that keeps me focused and helps me to prepare for worship. And the other articles I write help me to remember to think critically about my ministry and the world around me. This, too, is also a spiritual practice: to engage the world and church through critical reflection.

Blogging can be a spiritual discipline that is personal like journaling, but becomes public the minute you press “Publish.” It is revealing to the world your thoughts and reflections and your willingness to engage the world. Blogging can also open up new conversations with church members in a way that our traditional Sunday morning worship format does not allow, and allows for sharing via social media. My blog has become a sacred space, creating a place where I can publicly engage the world around me, and invite and encourage others to respond beyond Bible Study and Sunday morning worship. Blogging is my testimony of my spiritual practice as a pastor, and the art of blogging has become the practice itself.

Etched in Stone

13934149385_697e2ac089_bIn the first year of serving my first church, I decided to wander through the village cemetery for the first time. I was on a mission to find a famous person’s headstone. After I had found Jane Addams’ burial place (she founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house, in 1889), I wandered around the rest of the cemetery. I don’t remember whether or not I had officiated a funeral yet, but I recall walking down a new row and being jarred to a complete stop. There, in front of me, was a stone that had a couple’s names etched on it. The wife had died already; the husband was a man I visited in the nursing home. I stood there, stunned, for minutes, knowing that I would be the pastor who laid the husband to rest behind that stone.

I had never faced that surety before. It was one of those moments when I knew I was a pastor. The man was frail in body, but passionate in mind. He loved to chat about what was happening in his church and retelling the history of the village. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned that my congregation would lose a huge knowledge base when he left this world. (He had been in town when Jane Addams’ body was returned for burial, he had heard Helen Keller speak, and he had touched Abraham Lincoln’s nose – the one on Mount Rushmore!). In this moment, I grieved that his body would give out long before his mind did. Two years after my moment in the cemetery, I did bury this man. I was honored and privileged to be able to be a part of his life.

Now, I am eleven years into my ministry. My mind flashes back to this today when I am in a different cemetery, looking for the plot where I will bury another faithful saint tomorrow. It’s my first year in this current church, and as I drive around the cemetery I see three headstones with familiar names of living people I have already come to love. I get out of my car and stand at the stone for each name, observing the final resting places of the people my parishioners and I love. Read more

Touched Twice Health Clinic

6193690785_3d5e961e91_bI stood in the Sanctuary and saw the swarm of people wearing bright yellow and green “volunteer” t-shirts, sitting and chatting with one another, surprisingly chipper for 8:30am on a Saturday. They were some of the two hundred people that will help our second annual “Touched Twice Health Clinic” to go smoothly. We had been planning, organizing, training, and recruiting for a year and now the community we aimed to serve was about to pour through our church doors.

Each spring, St. Paul UMC is transformed into a free one-day health clinic that addresses not only the physical, but also the emotional and spiritual needs of the community. When our guests arrive, they are paired with a “friend,” a volunteer who will walk with them throughout the day, taking them to the services they would like, but also listening to and getting to know each guest.

As they fill out the registration form, the guest may choose from the numerous services we are providing: medical and dental assessments; mammograms and pap smears offered by one of the local hospitals; hearing, skin cancer, and vision screenings (along with free reading glasses); legal advice; physical and occupational therapy; a warm meal. While these opportunities take care of the physical well-being of our guests, we also want to help them have a positive attitude about themselves, so we offer services to meet their spiritual and emotional needs: haircuts, makeovers, manicures, family photos, and prayer. After our guests have visited their chosen stations, they may drop by the clothes closet and the food pantry, and then move on to fill out a guest exit survey and receive a bag with a Bible, along with some other goodies.

How did we get to the day where we were able to (smoothly!) serve three hundred seventy-two guests from our community? Having one year “under our belt” helped, of course, but even at our first clinic we jokingly said we could have five guests or five hundred! (We ended up with two hundred that year.)

We followed the basic schedule suggested by Touched Twice United, an organization started by a group of people in Louisville, Kentucky with a vision of serving people in their community. The name, Touched Twice, comes from Mark 8:22-25 when Jesus touched the blind man twice. At the clinics, guests are “Touched Twice” as they receive physical assistance in addition to being shown Christian hospitality and love. Touched Twice United provides a guide with examples of services to be offered, a schedule to follow, and suggestions for the day of the clinic. Our church used this guide, modifying it to suit our church building, goals, volunteers, and the needs of our community.

We started the Touched Twice Clinic when a lay member, the chair of our Health and Wellness Team, approached me with the suggestion. Little did I know how big of a project we would take on, or how meaningful and wonderful it would be for our church and community.

The volunteers for each of the service areas were mostly members of our church: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, Mary Kay consultants. To fill in where we needed more professionals, members of the church asked their hairdressers, dentists, and manicurists if they would like to volunteer. The doctors were given $4 Kroger cards (the amount of many generic prescriptions) and a referral list of resources around town where guests could go if they needed more extensive treatment than we were able to provide. The “friends” were trained, not only about where each of the services would be offered, but about confidentiality and to take time with their guest and be a friend, not just a worker.

We advertised on our website and with flyers distributed to people who come in our doors looking for assistance, at schools, at other local churches and agencies, in the newspaper – everywhere we could think!

1 Peter 4:10-11a tells us, “10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.”

Using the strengths and passions of our congregation and the guidance from Touched Twice United, we were able to meet some of the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of numerous people in our community. And now… we look forward to next year!

Six Weddings, and a Funeral for My Arrogant Discipleship

1364501842_da74bcb65e_z“One midnight hospital vigil, one funeral, one dead mouse under the kitchen sink smelling up the whole church, one brave parishioner kind enough to deal with said mouse, one interview with the paper, one never-ending church directory project concluded, two sermons written…and six weddings. A week in the insane and fabulous life of being a priest.”

That’s what I posted on Facebook to describe the adventure of the last week of June. I could never have imagined at the beginning of the week that I would have some of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my ministry thus far, and learn that I was completely wrong about my own role in them.

It all started on Wednesday afternoon when my parishioner Pam called to tell me the ruling had come striking down the ban on same-sex marriages in Indiana. She and Rachel, her partner of thirty-two years, were headed over to the county courthouse right away to get a marriage license because the ruling would likely be almost immediately appealed, making gay marriage once again illegal. Could I, as their priest, Pam asked, join them at the courthouse and marry them in this narrow window of time in which it would be possible?

My initial thought was, “Wow! This is awesome!” Then the small and selfish part of me asked, “What does this mean for me? Will I face repercussions within the church? In the community?” But then I realized, “My parishioners need me. If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. God is giving me this opportunity and I’m not wasting it. Where are my keys?”

And oh, how beautiful it was to see the joy on Rachel’s and Pam’s faces. We stood there in the county courthouse basement, two other parishioners standing there in support as their witnesses, and how could anything have been more right, more true, more full of the Holy Spirit, more an expression of God’s will, than this marriage? I felt so keenly the honor it was to share this moment with these women whom I love so dearly, and to be the vessel through which God’s grace flows to place the sacramental seal on their love.

That moment in and of itself would have made it a day to remember, but then the couple who had gotten their license right before Rachel and Pam introduced themselves as Teresa and Judy and said, “Can you marry us too?” It didn’t even cross my mind to say no. And Rachel and Pam served as their witnesses. Then two more, Melanie and Sandy, came in and said, “Can you help us too?”

The tide of grace just kept building and building, Valerie and Janet, Trent and Jeremy, Betty and Ramona, each serving as witnesses in support of the next couple. And I simply couldn’t believe that God was allowing me to participate in this outpouring of exuberant love and commitment.

No one was wearing a tux or a gown. People had arrived from a day at the office, mowing the lawn, taking the kids swimming. But all of them knew that this was the moment for which they had waited for years and years, and they seized it with joy.

As I stood out on the courthouse lawn, watching these couples fight back tears as they made their vows, I realized I had gotten the lectionary gospel for the upcoming Sunday, Matthew 10:40-42, all wrong. Jesus talks in this passage about welcoming, and we like to think of ourselves as a welcoming church. And so we’re used to using the metaphor of hospitality.

But the metaphor of hospitality is actually problematic. Why? Because it places the church in a position of power. When we use language of hospitality and welcoming people in, we’re implying that we’ve got it all figured out, that we’re on the inside and they’re on the outside. We’re saying that they’re in a place that is lacking and they need to come into our domain, where we’ll show them how they really should be living.

I finally understood that Jesus figured out the problem with the power imbalance in the hospitality metaphor long before I did. I have been reading that Matthew passage for years as, “Listen, guys, make sure you welcome people. Welcome prophets and marginalized folks and kids and give them cups of cold water.” I was placing myself in the position of power, rich with resources and grace that I would generously give away and thereby earn the right to pat myself on the back. That’s not what it says at all.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples and he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” We, the disciples, are the ones being welcomed, not doing the welcoming ourselves. That puts a whole different slant on the concept of being church. We’re not allowed to sit in our beautiful buildings and our well-established ministries and our comfortable mindsets and wait for people to come to us. Even reaching out to people from our safe and controlled environment is not enough. We don’t get to do the welcoming, because we no longer get to hold on to our power. We have to be welcomed by others.

What a scary thought. That means we have to go outside, outside the church, outside our familiar community, outside ourselves. It turns out that discipleship is a profoundly vulnerable state of mind and way of life. We have to abandon our place of safety and power, thus abandoning our ability to welcome anyone to anything, and we have to trust that strangers will welcome us.

This is exactly what happened to me at the county courthouse that afternoon. I thought I was welcoming people into the church by performing these marriages for these couples, but I was completely wrong. These couples were inviting and welcoming me.

In welcoming me, a total stranger, into one of the most important moments of their lives, they showed courage and trust and vulnerability that I could only hope to emulate in my walk as a disciple. They reached out and invited me into the most intimate space of their relationship, of their hearts, of their shared history, of their family—me, who represented the church, an institution that has done far, far more to harm and persecute and isolate them and their love than it has ever done to support them. It brought tears to my eyes.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” Jesus says. I wasn’t the prophet in this situation, these couples were the prophets. They had been proclaiming the truth of their love for years and years, striking out for the future while the rest of society and the church lagged behind. And they have received a prophet’s reward–persecution in their own time, and in the future, recognition of the truth they have proclaimed all along.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward,” Jesus says. I wasn’t the one out on that courthouse lawn giving anyone a cup of water. These couples were giving me a cup of cold water, a rich, refreshing drink of grace and discovery. And I was a little one, so small in my understanding of what my role was as a priest and a disciple.

And so I did six weddings that week, and I actually did two funerals, one for a parishioner, and one for my own arrogance and bad theology. I know my pride and arrogance will be resurrected again and again, and I can only give thanks for the grace of God who makes their death holy, God who places me in these situations where I get a glimpse of the light. The salvation I need the most is salvation from my own ego, and God’s light and truth, shining through people like the couples I married that day, cuts through my hollow superiority like a knife. Never have I understood more how necessary death is to resurrection, and never have I been more grateful.

These couples had built lives of love together that weathered everything from the mundane chores of family living to crises of illness and death, when no one else recognized their commitment. Then they welcomed me and they welcomed the church into that sacred space and asked for a blessing of it. I was invited by them onto holy ground, brought to a place of having to confront my own self-congratulatory posturing about what I was doing, and remade in my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Who exactly blessed whom out on that county courthouse lawn?

Perhaps we blessed each other.

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant all along.

 

A New Way to Pray

unnamed1On those days when you thought you’ve heard it all – that nothing else could faze you – you hear something else.

“Pastor, my wife is cheating on me. I can’t believe this is happening after thirty years…”

“Pastor, it can’t be stage 4 cancer…”

“Pastor, all of my friends are dead. I want God to take me too…”

“Pastor, my electricity and my water is going to be shut off by the end of the week. There’s no way I can pay it and feed my growing family…”

“Pastor, there’s been an accident…”

“Pastor, my medical procedure isn’t letting me perform in the bedroom as well as I’d like…”

“Pastor, you didn’t notice? Of course I was drunk off my ass in worship this morning…”

My prayer life as a pastor used to always feel like an obligation. I had to pray for so-and-so’s Uncle Ingvald; there’s our congregation’s prayer list; the leaders of my church were heading for burnout; there are always starving people all across the globe. What about my family? My call to ministry? I felt like I had to pray for things like these, and on top of an already over-burdened schedule, I oftentimes had trouble thinking, let alone praying.

I am sure that when Jesus said, “For my yoke is heavy, and my burden is light,” he hadn’t gotten inside my head. I couldn’t lie down at night without the burdens that I had heard throughout the week weighing heavily on my mind. Yes, ministry is a big responsibility (the yoke is heavy part), but how on earth can those scenes, rehashing over and over again in my head, be lightened?

I was overwhelmed to the point of anxiety and depression. Ministry in the church was more than I could handle, and it was taking all of my energy so that my young family had none. It didn’t take long before I stood up on Sunday morning to begin worship, and my ability to think seemed especially impaired. The words going through my head could not physically come out of my mouth. I stuttered my way through many a service and found myself on the verge of tears many times.

This is when I found a therapist. Not just any therapist; the best therapist I’ve ever had. (Frankly, that’s comparing a lot of therapists.)

She introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about myself, others, and the voices inside of me that help me understand my fears and anxieties. These voices are not necessarily bad, but rather they guide me to understand more about who I am and how I deal with the world around me. This theory is called Internal Family Systems (IFS). I would recommend this form of therapy to anyone who would like more personal understanding in their lives; I would recommend IFS training to anyone who would like to help one’s self or others. (I hope I can start the training soon!)

My therapist also opened me to a whole new world of prayer: Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is, in one word, meditation. Social science fields are compiling empirical evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation results in reduced stress, improved memory, better focus, and many other benefits.

Meditation, in its purest form, is a Buddhist practice, but it is easily adapted to other faith traditions, especially the Abrahamic traditions. I find that, as a Christian, meditation is helpful for me to empty myself and my mind so that I can focus on God. Maybe I focus on God’s call for me; maybe I focus on what someone else needs. Whatever it is, all the burdens that I carry in my mind seem much lighter when I’ve spent time emptying myself to make room for God to enter in.

This may be no news to you. But it has completely rocked my world.

My partner recently gave me a gift that he made with his own hands: a meditation stool. I hadn’t shared with anyone other than my therapist that I had begun meditation. My elated response was, “How did you know?” He just smiled with easy satisfaction.

He could tell that I had begun practicing meditation.

Meditation helped me realize a method for my prayer life that was something I wanted to do, instead of something I felt obligated to do. When I want to do something, I’m much more likely to do it. When I have to do something and I really don’t want to, I try to find the most efficient (and probably most superficial) way of doing it.

I no longer lie in bed awake at night with the day’s overwhelming, sometimes devastating, events echoing through my head. I no longer fear the stories that my parishioners might tell me about the intricacies of their lives. I no longer struggle to keep up with the vast prayer requests coming from every direction. I know I am a better pastor for it.

All because I learned a new way to pray.

Unexpected Falls

8589255575_27743a92f8_zThe soft snow swooshed up around my feet, giving way to a crunch of crusty ice just beneath the surface. To my right, the lake was a frozen city of jagged mini-skyscrapers, with shifting plate-tectonics of ice hinting at the waves trapped underneath. The sun was out, the air crisp and the gray horizon was a sharp line. How great to get out! Just a few days before, during the drunken meanderings of one so-called polar vortex, arctic air landed with a vengeance on the Midwest. The air became downright dangerous, and we all retreated, buying eggs and skipping work and catching up on our favorite Netflix series.

Watching the coverage of the vortex warm and safe on my couch, I saw it. The lake. I leaned forward. I didn’t recognize my usual running partner. It looked like a sauna or hot springs at some spa. The air was so cold, Mr. Weatherman reported, the lake was steaming.

Now, I was not brave/stupid enough to venture outside to confirm this unusual phenomenon. Pictures sufficed (God bless technology). At first, the steam rising serene off the silver water was a soothing image. Then, with no further explanation, the news went to commercial. I sat up on the couch, indignant. I couldn’t grasp what was happening. Yes, it was “steaming” said the know-it-all-newscaster–but there’s no heat! (Is not even the boiling point of H2O sacred anymore?) My moment of existential confusion passed, I reached over to my laptop, smirking. The results list to my query of cold-induced steam would surely illumine the matter. Eventually, a long and overly bland Wikipedia entry explained what vapor/steam was (duh) but left it to me and my brain to put the details together. I gave up.

A few days later, the weather warmed as did my attitude towards it, and I eventually got it to click. Though it be painfully obvious to everyone else what was going on, here it is in a way that made sense to my brain: cold causes things to contract, condensing the air and creating less pressure. The pressure above the water decreased so much, the water molecules essentially were able to break apart from each other as water and go into the atmosphere as vapor. Heat applied to water usually does this in the form of boiling or evaporation. It’s the same effect as when you breath out moist air from your lungs and can see it. Which gets you a “steam devil.” (So apparently, hell can freeze over and it is still hell.)

Okay, perhaps my confusion and indignation were dramatic. Watching the Chicago River steam was downright freaky. But it was also cool. Even the newscasters seem to talk about it with a certain hush, a pause in the chaos of canceled flights and power outages. It was entrancing—yet it was also warped. The vortex created a caricature of the always-familiar lake. I kept thinking how those H2O molecules were in a hot—or in this case frigid—mess. Gas, liquid, frozen? Hot or cold? What?! Just be something recognizable, please!

Well, I can relate.

Running along the lakefront, thoughts of post-graduation plans from Divinity School chased me. I get all worked up about my status as an activist, student, scholar, minister, Christian. The nice thing about collars and church seasons and denominational labels is that our role is, practically speaking, clear. Now, of course that is changing, and without good reasons. We’re told to embrace bi-vocationality, our multiple selves and roles, and live boundaried and balanced (yet holistic!) lives.

As my running buddy Lake Michigan has recently reminded me, sometimes transition, no matter how predictable or explainable or Google-able, it is just plain freaky. After all, I only have one wild and precious life. People want to know: what will you do with it? I have to start becoming what I’ve been trained to become, to live in and out of my vocation as a minister. Going from student to clergy will be a jump—or a fall. How will the world see me? Will the world look at me kindly, and see a beautiful, intriguing woman capable of many forms, both soft and sharp? Will it even understand me? Or will it gaze upon me with confused fascination? Can they understand, or at least accept, the kind of woman pastor I seek to embody, even if I don’t know what that is?

My fear of changing states from masters student to minister is not so much the deep plunge into the “real world.” It is more the unexpected shifts of context, of climate. Will certain situations force me to be, do or say that which I’d rather not? Almost certainly. Will the pressure and powers-that-be conform me into something that is recognizable to them? Or worse, will my unorthodox ways illicit enough backlash that I voluntarily retreat into a monolithic version of myself? Then I will be far more normal, understandable, and safe. And I will be a less effective, less honest minister.

My pace and breath slackened as I veered right , my stride following my gaze to the now normal-looking lake. Whoosh!! My chest and chin landed in a pillow of dry snow. Surprised, I laughed at just how pleasant the fall was, and just how unpleasant a fall on the lake would be. Perfectly understandable and yet amazing, these two substances were at their core, the same.

School supported me to be scholar and a pastor, intellectual and artistic, angry and courageous. I want to be an integrated person, yet capable of many distinct ways of being. It is that reversal of environment, of self-in-environment, that makes my future of ministry worth the unexpected falls.

I stood up and brushed off, then kept running through the cold, thoughts of Spring on my mind.

Full Stop: A Sermon on John 11

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The telegrams all read the same: “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you that your son was killed in action.” Stop. “Further details will be forwarded to you as they become available.” Stop. There was absolutely no way to argue. No questions you could ask. No more information you could glean. Your son is dead. Full Stop. In an instant, the stone rolls in front of your tomb.

There’s a spot on the x-ray. We need to do more tests. Come back in immediately. Full stop. There doesn’t seem to be a heartbeat. It’s nothing you did. You can always try again for another baby. Stop. Yes, there is someone else. But we’ve been broken for a really long time. I’ll never stop loving you. I’m just not in love with you anymore. Stop. The stone rolls in front of your tomb.

In an instant, that massive boulder blocks your only way out, and all that air and light and breath and spirit is sucked away and you are left alone – bound to the darkness, and your only path of escape has turned into a wall in front of you. For awhile, you might cling to that shred of hope – that maybe the test was wrong, maybe they’ll change their minds, maybe some miracle will happen. So you fight; you scream for help; you dig at the walls; try and claw your way to the outside. When you fall into a heap on the floor, sobbing with exhaustion and weary with sorrow, you finally give in. For when the end has come; when the lights have dimmed, when the air is heavy and your breath has slowed, there is absolutely nothing you can do. Full Stop.

Her brother wasn’t able to hear the rolling of the stone as it sealed his fate forever. But, she was, and running toward Jesus, the sound echoed in her ears. “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Stop. If only… There’s nothing more to be done now. It’s been four days Jesus; the stench, the darkness, the sobbing, his death. If only, Lord. If only… Stop. A stone rolls in front of her tomb.

It seems, however, Jesus doesn’t understand those full stops the way we do. For Jesus, full stops are merely a beginning of an ellipsis: a segue into something else, into something greater. For Jesus, a full stop is the beginning of where the glory of God is about to be made known. “Show me,” he says. “Show me this full stop you talk of.”

“Come and see what we say is true,” the sisters answer. “Come and see the one you love.”

For a moment Jesus stops too. For a moment the weeping he hears is his own. For a moment he sees that stone and feels the light and the breath and the spirit being sucked out of the room. For a moment the stone rolls in front of the tomb.

But then the wonder of God begins and Jesus speaks a Word. Jesus speaks into the death; in a moment, with a word, Jesus gives life. “Take away that stone,” he commands. “Lazarus, come out! Unbind him from the death that surrounds him; and let him come to me. For when I enter the world, when I speak a word, this stop nonsense ends and life – new life begins.” In a moment, all that light and breath and spirit fills the darkness; and the dead are raised; the blind see; the captive set free; and all that stop nonsense falls like bands of cloth to the floor.

And you know the most wonderful thing – we don’t have to literally be dead behind the stone to receive it. We don’t have to wait for some day when Jesus comes again and we live together in the resurrection. Jesus rolls the stone away; Jesus speaks a word of new life to be experienced, to be lived right now. For whatever your tomb, whatever your stone, whatever full stop you hear ringing in your ears. Jesus speaks, and the glory of God shines.

There was a commercial I saw awhile ago that told the stories of a number of the clients at a local rescue mission. Each person would hold up a cardboard sign, and on the front, their tomb: fixed on drugs reads one; run out of chances reads another; nowhere to go reads a third. Stone Rolled. Tomb Shut. Stop. You can almost hear Jesus whisper, “Roll the stone away.” And a smile of joy spreads across each face; they turn over those cardboard signs. Fixed on drugs…Fixed on Life. Run out of chances…Given one more. Has no-where to sleep…Home has found me. When Jesus speaks, new life abounds. Stones roll away, and full stops are transformed.

I wonder what it’s like to emerge from that tomb. To walk outside and feel the rush of fresh air; to be stepping on the linens that have kept you bound. Because most of the time I forget that the stone has rolled. The front of my cardboard sign would read, “Got a job, got a family, got a home. Doing just fine on my own.” I deceive myself into thinking, there are no stops in my world; there is no stone for Jesus to roll away. Until I take a moment, and look down at my feet and see myself bound by my inability to trust myself; and I look at my knees and feel the linens pulled tighter because I find my solace in food; and as I begin to lose my balance, I see the stone moving in front of me, and I realize all those little deaths I experience, the loneliness I feel in a crowded room, the children I desperately love but feel inadequate to raise, my tendency toward the critical and cranky. All those little deaths have me bound inside a tomb, I never even knew I was in; have surrounded me in full stops, that keep me blinded and in darkness.

Might Jesus have a word for me too? Might Jesus not only roll away the stones of Lazarus, and the dying, and the outwardly and obviously broken, but might he also speak to each one of us, to those of us dying in tombs we never knew we were in? Might Jesus have a word for us who wear the masks of “having it all together,” for those of us who think we can hide behind the linens that keep our hearts covered? Might Jesus have a word for you? You who are bound and broken, stuck in tombs with no light and breath and spirit. I think he might…

To each one of you Jesus speaks: “Come out. You are no longer bound by the death that surrounds you. The stone is gone and you are free. For when I enter the world, when I speak a word, this stop nonsense ends.” And new life…your new life begins.

Clergy Health and Well-being: The Physical and Spiritual

2652214520_324d55cddb_zMy journey of call has been entwined with my body. I have always been overweight. It has been part of my identity just like my name, my family, and all my quirks that make me who I am. Now, I have wrestled with it and it sometimes negatively affected me. Fortunately, my church told me differently. The message that I was a beloved child of God called to ministry won out.

As I was discerning my call following college, for the first time in my life, I began to watch what I ate and started to exercise regularly resulting in a loss of about 60 pounds. Part of my motivation was wanting to look better and part was wanting to take care of the gift of my body that God had given me so that I could serve God. I did well for a little while, motivated by self and God, but slowly the weight began to creep back on until I was once again abusing my body, gaining back most of the weight.

It was then that I experienced God’s Spirit move in me in a way that I have only felt a few other times in my life, one of which was my call to ministry. It was the first night of a spiritual retreat with other young clergy. As was our custom, we were sharing what we felt we needed from God during the retreat. I thought I knew what I needed, but as I sat there and opened myself to God’s Spirit the word that came to mind was healing – specifically healing from treating my body in damaging and harmful ways by not living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of my body.

During the following days and weeks, I wrestled with the idea but eventually it became my prayer – my prayer that God would help me have the strength to be faithful to my call with my whole self – including my body.

Once this became the prayer of my spirit, I began to take better care of my body – making better food choices, exercising more and losing 75 pounds.  And as my body began to transform so did my spirit. I began to have a better confidence in who God was calling me to be. I began to feel that I was serving God with my whole being in a way I had not experienced before.

As beloved children, we are all called to love God with our hearts, minds, strength and soul.  I love the Common English Bible translation of the Great Commandment where Jesus says, “and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

We must love God with our whole being and part of our being is our body.

When we accept a call to ministry, we are accepting the holy challenge to live into this calling to the best of our ability with our whole selves. And one’s whole self includes the body that we have received as a gift from God. We are called to love God with our bodies – to treat them well and nurture them, just as we are called to nurture our spirits, hearts and minds.

And yet, too often, we don’t see the nurture of our bodies as an integral part of our calls to ministry. In fact, we might feel that our bodies sometimes get in the way. However, the very nature of the incarnation calls us to celebrate not only who we are, but how we experience the world through our bodies.

I don’t think it is coincidence that the times when my spirit is attuned to God’s call on my life, my body must also become attuned to God in ways that reflect God’s love for my very being.

And when body and spirit are entwined, my whole being is my holy call.

Please Don’t Call Me “Sweetie”

medium_204763409I attended a meeting recently where a male authority figure in my denomination called me “sweetie” when I approached him and extended my hand for a handshake. Unfortunately, this happens quite often to many of us. This is how it feels when you call young clergy women “sweetie” or “kiddo.”

  • We feel that you don’t take us seriously.
  • We feel that you don’t respect our calling into ministry as capable, educated, and motivated women who are working hard for the church and the kingdom.
  • We feel belittled…and demeaned…and small…and a little violated…
  • We don’t feel that you see us as equal with the men in our field. Would you call them “sweetie” or “kiddo”?
  • We feel that you only see us as that: “sweetie.” Here is some news: I am not your “sweetie.” I am your colleague in ministry. I guess I could say that I am my husband’s “sweetie,” and that’s even pushing it!
  • We feel that you don’t know our name. We are just another female face to you.
  • We feel that you are still operating under the idea that women are not equal colleagues in the church or workplace, but that we are still second class citizens whose only job is to be “sweetie.”

So here is some friendly advice for men in any workplace setting:

  • Don’t call women “sweetie” or “kiddo” or anything remotely similar to these. These titles are not cute or endearing. They are demeaning.
  • We have names – USE them! In fact, refrain from any use of a nick name unless you are very close with the person and you have that kind of relationship.
  • Yes, we might be the age of your daughter or even your granddaughter, but don’t confuse us with a member of your family. We are your work colleague. We want to work with you and deserve the same respect in return that we have for you.
  • Think before you speak. Each person deserves to be treated with utmost respect, regardless of their gender. Choose words wisely.

So what can young clergy women do when confronted with a male authority figure or colleague in our church or denomination who feels it’s necessary to label us in this way?

  • Consider why he uses these phrases. Does he see it as a warm greeting? A friendly exchange? Does he see you as a daughter figure in his life? Is it out of habit?
  • Find a good time and place to confront him about it. Start a conversation with him. Be bold about this. Explain why these names bother you and why it feels condescending and insincere rather than sincere and friendly. Chances are that he has no idea that this bothers you. It might open his eyes to the way that he interacts with you and other women in the future. Bad habits are meant to be broken!
  • Accept apologies. If he apologizes, accept it. Know that you have done nothing wrong in sharing your concerns with him, and perhaps you have paved the way for women in the future to be called by their proper names and titles in your denomination. Progress is good!

I believe that this generation of young women has the unique opportunity to begin to change the culture of collegial relationships between men and women of all ages. We will be the ones to be seen as those who stood up for ourselves and will earn mutual respect for our vocations and callings as pastors. So step out, be courageous, and make your voice heard.

I, for one, am tired of being called “sweetie” and “kiddo.” I am neither of those things. I am a 31 year old woman, a wife, a pastor, a child of God, a daughter, a friend, a sister. I have a name. I have a story. I have an education. I have a calling.

Please don’t cheapen that by calling me “sweetie.”

Home Is Where…

10271398316_1f4d0523c5I didn’t truly appreciate Cleveland while I was growing up there. Teenage Me could imagine nothing more pathetic than never moving away from one’s hometown. So I got out as soon as I could: college in Cincinnati, study abroad in Oxford, graduate school in Nashville. I came back to Cleveland at age 26, PhD in hand, to go through the ordination process. And it was then that I fell in love with my hometown. The Cleveland Museum of Art, which I’d enjoyed as a teenager, presented new depths of beauty to my adult eyes. I evolved as a foodie at the lavish produce, meat, and cheese stalls in the West Side Market. I discovered funky urban living in my elegant prewar apartment and dreamed about buying a Victorian in the newly hip neighborhood of Ohio City. For the first time, I could picture myself being a lifelong Clevelander.

My husband and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for seminary thinking we’d go back to Ohio. We loved Northern California. It’s hard not to. It is a place of incredible natural beauty, rich and diverse immigrant cultures, and creative, youthful energy, and we had fun exploring everything it had to offer. But the Bay Area wasn’t perfect. The cost of living was astonishing; our heavily subsidized rent for a one-bedroom apartment was more than the mortgage payment on my parents’ 2800-square-foot house. And it had been a strain on us, not to mention expensive, to live so far from my family in Ohio and my in-laws in Scotland. So we tried to suck the marrow out of our time in the Bay Area, knowing we wouldn’t be there forever, and being generally okay with that. To our surprise, my first call ended up being across the bay from my seminary, in a parish that was just right for me. We moved from our student apartment into parish-owned housing. My husband didn’t even have to change jobs. California still felt temporary to me, as though we were camping out there; I knew I would stay in that call for three years or so, and we would soon move on.

When the time came to search for my second call, we discussed where we might like to live. We hoped to stay in the next parish for several years, so this decision had long-term implications. Naturally, I pushed hard to return to Ohio, and my husband agreed. I missed my hometown terribly. Sometimes my longing for Cleveland was physical, a raw ache gnawing in my chest. It seemed that some part of me would shrivel and die if I couldn’t live there again.

Of course, there were no suitable positions open in Cleveland. There were no suitable positions open within a two-hour drive of Cleveland, for that matter. I submitted my name to two parishes in other parts of Ohio, as well as to other congregations in the Midwest. None was the right fit for me. I began praying hard for the perfect parish to open up in Cleveland, preferably without a catastrophe happening to a colleague. I wasn’t quite daydreaming about poisoning the communion wine at diocesan events, but I wasn’t far from it, either.

Then the emails started arriving. Three in one week, encouraging me to submit my name for a parish just 15 miles from where I was living. I’d looked at the parish profile when it had first been posted and thought, “Wow, seems like a wonderful community. Too bad we’re not interested in staying here.” Still, I know how the Holy Spirit tends to work in my life, and multiple emails appearing spontaneously, all urging the same thing, might as well be the heavens opening to the strains of celestial song as angels hold a bright neon sign reading GOD SAYS DO THIS. So I applied. I fought it; oh, how I fought it. I spent several months arguing with God, trying to find some way out of California. Finally I stopped fighting and gave myself up to the flow of the Spirit. My arguments with God evolved into “God, I want to go home to Cleveland––yet not my will but your will be done.”

I received the call to be the rector of this parish late on a Tuesday evening in mid-May, immediately after the vestry voted to elect me. My husband and I were too high on adrenalin to sleep, so we went for a long walk, talking, talking. As my feet struck the pavement I’d trodden for three years, something began to feel permanent. This place began to be mine. It had been seeping into my heart with all the subtlety of the ocean fog that creeps towards San Francisco Bay on summer nights. I began to understand that the state where I thought I’d been camping out was home. And I rejoiced that I got to stay, even as I grieved the loss of Cleveland.

I took a month off between leaving my first parish and starting my new call, and I spent a week of that time in Cleveland. My parents were preparing to sell their house and move to Colorado to be closer to my sister’s family. I knew this might be the last time I would be there, and I was consciously saying farewell to my beloved city. It had been almost three years since I’d visited. Cleveland had moved on without me. The art museum had completed a major expansion, a fire had closed several stalls in the West Side Market, familiar faces had gone. I went for a run in the valley where my high-school cross-country team had trained years ago, and I hardly recognized it. Cleveland felt less like my special place and more like somewhere I used to live. Yet I can’t stop loving the city I once knew. I boarded the plane back home––home to the Bay Area––knowing that part of my heart will always belong to Cleveland. And part of my heart now belongs to California too.

In my new office, heated by the streaming sun of a Silicon Valley September, I unpacked books, arranged furniture, and stowed ibuprofen liqui-gels and a tub of raw almonds in the bottom desk drawer. And I got a large framed poster of the Cleveland skyline to hang over my desk. I wanted to sit at my computer and gaze at dusk falling over the Cuyahoga River, streetlights coming up on the Detroit-Superior Bridge, and the Terminal Tower silhouetted in the fading sky. Teenage Me would be delighted that I got out, yet I like to think she’d understand my divided heart. I can long for the home I loved and lost even as God finds me a new home to love.

One of many displaced Midwesterners to settle in Silicon Valley, the Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin is rector of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California. She wishes to state for the record that she does not miss having to hack ice off her car on winter mornings. When she is not running or practicing yoga, she can be found with her nose in a book.

 

Image by: Timothy Valentine

Used with permission.