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.

Finding Hope amidst Honking Horns and Dirty Feet

Editor’s Note:  This Advent, join us for a series of articles that reflect on journeys and travel in our lives. Advent reminds us that we’re not quite there yet, that getting from point A to point B is a form of waiting. We hope this series of articles will help you find a few moments for quiet respite in the middle of the busy-ness of church life in December.  This post is most definitely about journeys.  It was originally published on September 10, 2013 from www.kirstenincairo.com.  Please follow Kirsten’s blog and join me in praying for her ministry in Egypt.

On most days, by the end of the day, I have sweat running down both my forehead and my back.  My feet are black from the dust and dirt.  I am so tired I want to go to bed at about 7:30.  On most days, I’ve learned a few Arabic words, only to forget them by the time I get home.  I hear that something will take ten minutes, but that really means at least thirty.  The sink in the kitchen breaks, leaving the meal program scrambling to provide lunch for the 100+ children who eat there everyday.  I hail what feels like a bajillion cabs before getting one that will actually take me where I need to go. I get the feeling that I’m just supposed to know this, that, and the other thing, but I don’t and I’m not entirely sure who I should ask in order to find out.  When I think I’ve got all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, I find out that the baas and taas (two letters of the Arabic alphabet) also need to be dotted.  I wait in line only to find out I didn’t have to.  This city is loud and dirty, and seemingly inefficient.  Traffic is horrible.  Getting a straight answer may or may not happen.  And Arabic is really, really hard.

And yet, I love it here.

I love to sit and watch as hundreds of people go by–walking, or riding in mini-buses or taxis, or zooming around traffic on motor scooters.  I love watching men balance on their heads huge boards stacked high with fresh baked bread, while they ride bicycles.  I love to observe the fashion–the gorgeous scarves wrapped and tied in all kinds of ways to cover heads; the totally impractical, but fabulous shoes the same women wear.  I love to listen to Arabic and try to decipher words or patterns.  I love it when I see totally random things on the street, like a flock of sheep in the middle of downtown.  I love it when the young men guarding the embassies in our neighborhood are caught laughing with one another.  I love walking around the neighborhood, people watching, cat watching, finding shade in the afternoon sun.  I haven’t managed to get myself terribly lost in the neighborhood yet, and that’s something.

And it seems like just about the time I find myself frustrated by cultural differences and language barriers, someone walks in my office just to check in.  The guards invite me for an afternoon Pepsi.  One of the teacher’s kids skips by my office, sees I’m there, and stops to give me a hug, dragging her little friend along.  The kid walking down the sidewalk stops to pose for a picture, presumably with the graffiti behind him advertising his favorite soccer team.  (By the way, the word for ball and/or soccer/football is one of the few Arabic words that have stuck in my brain.  Important when you work with kids!)

Part of my job is to work with the pastors of our sister congregations, refugee congregations that worship in the space throughout the week.  The pastors will often stop in to chat, and I ask them how their people find things these days.  Things are a little better now that the curfew doesn’t start until 11, but it is hard.  It’s hard to find work when your status is uncertain and the economy is informal.  It’s hard to live in an area where violence breaks out in unpredictable patterns.  It’s hard to live in a time that is uncertain and even harder when your refugee status card is the wrong color.  (There’s a whole system of colored cards that grant different statuses to refugees.  I don’t entirely understand it yet, but blue card v. yellow card comes up in conversation fairly often.)  I hear these stories of struggle and uncertainty, and it would seem like it could just suck the wind right out of you.

But that’s not all they tell me.  They speak of hope.  They speak of being grounded in Christ. They speak of faith and of community.  And that’s what keeps us all going–the refugees and those of us who work with them.  They speak of a faith that is deeply, deeply rooted in Christ’s promise of life.  They speak of the community giving hope to people who could not find it elsewhere.  They speak of caring for one another and for the children, the weak, the vulnerable.  These people are amazing.  Their faith inspires me.  Really, it breathes life into my tired soul.  Their faith kindles in me new sparks that ignite my own faith.  Their priorities help me reexamine my own, and remind me what’s really important.  They give me the strength to keep going, in spite of frustrations and inefficiencies and language barriers and misunderstandings.

The courtyard was filled the past few days with people waiting to register for English classes.  By 10:30 today, there was a sign on the door that they are full for the term.  I’m not exactly sure how many slots there are, but I know the Adult Education Program director has been very busy the past few days, registering people for classes, organizing space for registration and placement tests.  People are eager to learn and it is beautiful to sit and watch and see all of the faces come and go.  I haven’t had a chance yet to sit and listen to stories, but I will soon.  And those stories will surely be filled with sorrow and grief, and love and hope.

And then there are the kids.  I showed a friend some pictures the other night and her first comment was, “The kids are so happy.  That must be a good school.”  I hear from their pastors some of the challenges their families face, yet when they come to school, they’re kids.  They play soccer and jump rope.  Teenage girls giggle in tight circles as teenage boys lean cooly against the wall, both groups no doubt trying to impress the other.  When I bring out the camera, they gather around and pose.  They tap on my shoulder and pull me to a place where they have the background they want.  They make bunny ears on one another.  I find myself stopping just to watch.  I can’t help but smile.  You can see a smattering of pictures on my Shutterfly site.

So at the end of the day, when my feet are dirty and I find myself ridiculously envious of those who post on Facebook of their 70 degree weather, I think back on my day and say a little prayer of thanks for the taxi driver who, despite my broken Arabic and his broken English, got me home safely.  For the Arabic speaker who doesn’t laugh too much as I mess up words and quickly forget them.  For the kids whose smiles light up their faces.  For the people who fill the courtyard and patiently wait their turn.  To the God who created us all and loves us all very much.  And then, at least for a minute, it’s hard to be frustrated and I don’t feel so tired.  And I remember why it is I love this place.

Kirsten Fryer is an ELCA pastor serving through ELCA Global Mission at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo and Pastoral Associate to StARS (St. Andrew’s Refugee Service) in Cairo, Egypt.

Image by: Canadian Veggie. Used with permission.

Bringing the Strands Together

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I used to think that life was linear, made up of one continuous strand. As I’ve grown older I’ve found that my life is less linear than I expected. It is full of many different strands God is somehow weaving into a tapestry. I trust that in the end, the patterns in this tapestry will make sense. In the early stages, the strands just seem disconnected. What the design or pattern will be isn’t clear.

From the time I was in high school, I felt called to be some kind of Christian work overseas.  I grew up in a church that didn’t ordain women, but who would understand and support being a teacher overseas. I felt God calling me to this life—and I imagined this was the strand of my life. I followed that calling by majoring in English and then teaching English in Asia for three years.  And I loved it.  I have always loved reading, words, and teaching. It was natural that I loved teaching and sharing my love for language with students.  I loved hearing students’ stories and caring for them.  I loved living overseas and discovering a new culture. But that wasn’t the only strand in my tapestry.

When I heard the Holy Spirit persistently whispering that I needed to attend seminary, I didn’t want to go. Leaving my overseas home for the uncertainty of seminary was one of the most difficult things I have done.  Throughout the first year of seminary, I had mixed emotions.  I was learning a lot, but I also felt out of place.  There were many people who had undergraduate degrees in theology or read theology for fun.  I read Bon Appetit for fun. They had theological conversations I didn’t fully understand. I wanted to talk about how faith mattered in everyday life. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there.

I grew to appreciate seminary and a call to the pastorate.  It was different.  It was exciting.  It used my gifts in different ways.  But when I graduated I felt like I had multiple strands of myself.  There was the cross-cultural-English-teaching-me and there was the theologically-educated- pastor-me.  I couldn’t see how these strands wove together.

In what seemed like a disconnect, God was gracious.  God led me to a place that helped me see how they could weave together. My first call was as a Resident Pastor of Outreach at a church in an increasingly diverse neighborhood.  I got to work with the ESL (English as a Second Language) classes that the church offered four times a week.  I worked with the Refugee Task Force that diligently helped new refugees navigate settling in the United States.  And I became the primary pastor for the congregation’s Basic English Service, a service geared towards people new to English and often to Christianity. The people who attended this service came from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Korea, and other places around the globe.

To be an effective pastor in this situation, I needed every ounce of experience from my time in Asia. During those years overseas, I learned to speak in simple sentences without modifying clauses. I learned to use words like “change” instead of “transition.” I lived in a culture that values family and relationships over independence and communicating indirectly over directly. Once I became a pastor, I applied those skills. In my preaching I would say, “Jesus is all God and all human,” instead saying, “Jesus has human essence and divine essence.” My previous experience of living in a different culture helped me understand some of my parishioners’ thoughts and how to communicate with them (to at least minimize awkward cultural gaffes).

The two years working in this unique situation were a gift. They helped weave the tapestry that God was creating in me and my ministry. As I reflected on them with my spiritual director, she gave me a phrase, the title of a Flannery O’Conner short story, “everything that rises must converge.” This phrase describes my experience. All of the passions and experiences that had risen up in my life converged in this call. Instead of having two distinct strands, they converged together in me so I am a theologically-educated-cross-cultural-English-teacher-pastor-ME.

When I was a girl, I didn’t envision these strands in my life, and I don’t know what other strands might get woven into my life. But I am thankful for God’s grace, love, and creativity to weave such a colorful tapestry of my life.

Rev. Ruth Lemmen is a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary and is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She completed a pastoral residency at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI and is excited to see where God will call her next. She blogs at http://ruthsreflections.blogspot.com.

Image by: lovefibre
Used with permission.

The Zumba Pastor

I take the stage and feel the music pumping and I’m ready to move! Let’s get this party started! Most people don’t expect their pastor to be dancing salsa, merengue, reggaeton and Bollywood on stage in front of a class. They haven’t met “The Zumba Pastor.”

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Three years ago I went to my first Zumba class in the gym next to my very first, grown-up apartment in the town of my first call. I flopped around in the back row feeling like an idiot. Then I was sore for about three days. But I came back for more and more and more. Until I was a Zumbaholic!

Zumba started out as just a fun exercise to do. But then it turned into more. One of my parishioners had a friend who was teaching Zumba in her basement and was looking for a bigger space to teach in. I instantly said yes to using our fellowship hall! Before we knew it, there were fifty people in class every Thursday night! It was amazing! People were having fun, getting healthy and losing weight – and so was I!

Months went by. Soon Theresa and Amie, our instructors, and I were chatting after class as we normally did. They said to me, “Krista have you ever thought about getting certified to be a Zumba instructor yourself?” Had I thought about it?! YES! In fact I found myself getting sidetracked from sermon prep to watch Zumba videos on youtube! It was like so many ministry call stories I had heard before, just replace pastor with Zumba Instructor. It felt like a calling.

In December of 2012, I got certified. My friends let me lead songs in their classes. Theresa always introduced me at the beginning of each class as the pastor of the church and as a Zumba instructor. It really opened a lot of doors. People started coming up to me after class and saying, “YOU are the pastor? That’s so cool!” Or they would ask for advice or a prayer. Several of my parishioners also started coming to the class. It was another great opportunity to connect with them. There’s nothing like sweating it out with the same people you sat in the stressful council meeting with the night before!

Our classes got so big that we actually needed to move out of the church! We got an offer to come to a local community-based gym that was looking to offer Zumba classes. Now we’re teaching in an old furniture store turned gym. It’s privately owned and run by a Christian man who also wants to see change on our side of the city – the “bad” side. It’s the same side of the city my church is on. We are making positive connections between the church, the gym and the community. I think God has really blessed me with this opportunity to be part of the change, to help individuals be whole in mind, body and spirit in a depressed part of the city.

Zumba has done so much for me. It started as simply my self-care. Now, not only has it turned into a part of my ministry, it’s also introduced me to friends outside the church which is huge and hard for us pastor types to do! I now am asked to do Zumba in the local Lutheran school gym classes, women’s retreats and synod functions. Thank God for Zumba!

Full Fields, Empty Cabinets.

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I am thrilled to introduce this new column to you. “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.” This famous quote from Martin Luther inspires us to be who God created us to be in whatever context we find ourselves. As children of God, called to wholeness, who we are shapes how we serve.

We invite submissions for this column at stand(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com. Subjects might include (but are not limited to): reflections on your place in ministry, contemplations on how your life situation influences your ministry, stories of how your passions integrate into your work, or times when you suddenly realized that God helped you find and use your gifts for ministry despite your quirks and foibles. These may be moments when your convictions may challenge others around you to see God in new, unconventional ways.

Today, this is where I stand.

As a farmer’s daughter, I am blessed to be serving a congregation that is in a rural setting. In many ways my people and I understand each other in ways that someone could not who lacked the same experience. Farmers are deeply faithful people. As a child, I was privileged to watch my grandfathers and father prepare the land, and plant the crops. Then, they would faithfully wait. They would watch for rain or sun, and when harvest came they reaped what they had sown. They would watch the cycles of the moons and the patterns of the birds’ flying in the sky. They knew that they were working for a great purpose – to feed the world. They relied heavily on God’s faithfulness and goodness through the process of growing crops and caring for God’s creation.

I see people in my congregation dedicated to the same purpose. It is beautiful to pastor people who want to make an impact to our local and global communities with their vocation. Thanks to farmers, we have an overabundance of food. Nonetheless, the United States has 50 million people who go to bed hungry. Even surrounded by crops, our community is not immune to this statistic.

I recently watched the documentary A Place at the Table and was shocked to learn that hunger was less of an issue in the 1970’s because there were programs in place to make sure that people could get their basic needs met. Today, millions of people are hungry in the United States because these programs are no longer available. The government now relies on charitable organizations to make up the difference. Still, the food that charity can give is limited, tightly controlled, and non-perishable. The result is that the food that the hungry receive does not adequately fulfill their needs. Most food that’s available is highly processed “junk” food leaving people less hungry but nutritionally deprived. Although they may not look like it, their bodies are starving.

I knew hunger was an issue in my community, but I had no idea how bad it was. I prayed that God would show me how I could help our community and especially our children. Soon after these prayers began, God answered. A group of women came to me asking if we could do a weekend lunch bag program for school-aged children similar to one modeled by a neighboring community. We called a community meeting to see who was interested and talked to the school superintendent about the possibilities. Soon, we were packing a few bags to help young children.  Now, we pack bags that help youth ages PreK – 12th grade. We are blessed to be a blessing to our children and schools, but it makes me so disheartened that we have many people who are hungry.

There are people in our community, and in our country as a whole, who believe the hungry are fully served by food pantries and food stamps. In fact, many believe users of these services are not in need and are abusing the good will of the community. There are those who will not support our ministry because it is not in line with what they believe politically. My experience is that the face of hunger is often hidden. Families who are hungry look exactly like families who are not. As a pastor, I see what others sometimes do not. Hungry families face a stigma of failure and often will not willingly share their distress openly but, as a pastor, I hear and share in their pain and struggle to feed their children.

Jesus’ response to this is very clear: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” (Matthew 25:35) Denying people food is denying Christ, who is the leader of “the least of these.” (v. 40) Saying that children can take care of themselves or that their parents need to step up is ignoring the issue. Some children don’t have food for whatever reason. When they are hungry, they can’t think straight; and when they can’t think straight, they can’t learn. Feeding children helps our children learn and through learning breaks the cycle of hunger.

I knew that something needed to be done in this community about hunger. I thank God for all of the grace has brought this ministry together. I thank God that I was brought here to pray. I thank God for the women who came forward to do the work. The Holy Spirit calls us to do God’s ministry. As farmers who make a living by growing food, it only makes sense that we can show people our vocational passion by helping people receive the food they need. The reality is that even though farmers provide food, hungry people are still in our midst. We cannot assume otherwise. By God’s grace, may God’s people have enough food to serve all to promote a healthier world. Please consider a children’s hunger ministry in your church or your community. Share with your people the need so that they will become passionate about it. If we all work together, 50 million people can rest better as they go to bed because they know from where tomorrow’s meals come.

Rev. Brenda Lovick is the pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in the rural village of Manlius in northern Illinois.  She is the chair of the committee that organizes Bureau Valley Buddy Bags for the community’s local school district.  She graduated from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with an MDiv and an MAMFT in 2006 and completed coursework at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2009.  She leads a hobby-less life as she loves church people by day and chases small children by night.

Photo by Chris Beckett, http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjohnbeckett/3734993993/, September 12, 2013.  Used by Creative Commons License.