The Receiving Line

My heart finally slowed down as the organist began the postlude. I had made it through another Sunday of trying to offer Good News in the midst of so much terrible news. As I processed out down the long aisle, I switched gears in my mind. This was the part of Sunday morning worship that was either always the most meaningful or most difficult: the receiving line. 

 

In some traditions, the pastor processes out of the sanctuary during the postlude and opens the front doors as the church bells ring and the choir sings. The opening of the doors after worship has symbolic meaning: it reminds the people of God that what we have heard together and what we have learned together, we now take out into the world in hopes of bringing love and light into the hurting world. 

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When Personal Grief and Public Ministry Collide

I was sitting at one end of my church’s Fellowship Hall, surrounded by a pile of opened gifts and resting a plate laden with cake on my swollen, pregnant belly. I looked out upon the faces of fifty or so women and girls who had come to celebrate the impending arrival of my daughter. I started to thank them for their generosity and support. As I did, tears slid down my face. My voice cracked with emotion. They smiled at me kindly, taking my tears simply as those of a woman on the brink of motherhood, overcome with happiness, gratitude, and love (and hormones!). 

 

But I was crying for another reason. I was crying because my husband had just declared his intent to move out. I was crying because I’d be going home to an empty house, left to put away the diapers and the gifts by myself. I was crying because my marriage was over. 

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I Didn’t Mean To Be Here

 

I didn’t mean to be here. 

 

Nothing in my Southern Baptist upbringing allowed me to picture standing next to a hospital bed wearing a badge with CLERGY written across the bottom. 

 

I can remember when I received this badge. It took a letter from my church explaining that I was a minister and that I would be making hospital visits. My leadership encouraged me to go through the process and I did, even though I didn’t think I would use it all that much. I wore this badge for the first time when I was trying to visit a parishioner in the cardiac unit of the hospital. I wandered along hallway after hallway for half an hour only to discover that I wasn’t even in the right wing of the hospital. I learned quickly to not only ask for the room number of the patient I was visiting, but also which elevator I needed to use to see them. 

 

This badge has allowed me access to families in their most vulnerable and heartbreaking moments. This badge has granted me access behind some doors on floors family members aren’t even allowed to visit. This badge has taken me to pre-op rooms and post-op rooms behind doors with a big, red sign reading, “STAFF ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT.” This badge lives in the glove box of my car because you never know when you are going to be called to come.

 

Here I am, again. 

 

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Enough When

It is cold as my feet touch the bare wooden floor, and a shiver creeps up my spine. The protective cocoon of the bed where my love still lies, peaceful, calls. But no. I’ve started a new program, a new regimen, a practice that will help me find centering, peace, intentionality, and God in my life if only I wake in the wee hours of the morning when the house is still quiet. Before the onslaught of the day begins, before a little voice calls like a rooster welcoming the day, smiling from the bars of her crib and demanding the typical fruity breakfast of “Nanna!”, I sleepily find my journal, a cup of coffee, and my chair.  I’m just so damn tired. I cannot help but wonder if all this is really worth it. It has to be, right? Why else would I have left the peace that I held nestled in only moments before other than for some epic search for greater peace.

 

The self-help industry and the social media equivalencies are all trying to sell us this belief that you can be -fill in the blank with your desired outcome – healthier (i.e. thinner), wiser, happier if only you follow their ten step program. Like a siren’s call, we respond by drawing closer to their rocky shores, buying fitness bikes, waking up early, going to bed late, doing hot yoga, taking dips in frigidly cold oceans, drinking gallons of water (and therefore using the bathroom more than any person should in a pandemic back when toilet paper was scarce). We are told that life would be better if only we appreciated the little things more, lived in the moment more, had clearer boundaries, and set better intentions. 

 

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Splashing in the Water

The author and her family celebrating baptism

As preacher’s kids, my sisters and I were forever baptizing our pets. We come from a tradition that baptizes infants as a celebration of God’s grace; we don’t choose to be baptized, because it is a recognition of how God chooses us. It is also not an action we ever have to repeat; there are no re-baptisms in the United Methodist tradition, because God doesn’t mess up choosing us. But I don’t think we believed that we had to baptize our poor cat Amanda for the 403rd time (seriously, why didn’t she run away?) because God messed up; we just liked splashing in the water, and we liked remembering we were a part of a bigger story, something cosmic and ancient, even in our play.

I have not baptized my pets as an adult, though my dog has had her fair share of communion bread (some of which was not on purpose- sorry to all the shut-ins I was supposed to take communion to that one time!), but I still have dreamed of my own child being a part of that cosmic and ancient story. My spouse comes from a different tradition of baptism, but as our wait for a baby extended from months to years, and as that wait for a baby was clouded by pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, even he wanted a ritual celebration of love for a living child.

Once we did finally have a living child, the pandemic limited our ability to celebrate in person, so we decided to wait. We waited until we found out we would be moving. If we continued to wait, the congregation who walked alongside us for the fertility treatment, pregnancy, and birth would not get to celebrate with us. So my spouse and I finally just wrangled our families together and picked a date.

This ceremony was not a grab-the-child-and-stick-him-in-the-bathtub-like-we-did-with-the-cat kind of event. It wasn’t just important to me but also to my own clergymom, seminary friends, and colleagues, all of whom were celebrants willing to take part in ritual creation and leading worship. It represented a kind of gratitude to the church where I stood crying, trying to tell them I was finally pregnant and they stood and clapped and clapped. It was me making a vest for my child out of leftover fabric from my wedding dress to add another layer of love and creativity and sparkle. It was a Big To Do, though my less liturgical Baptist spouse put a limit to the pageantry, as did the continued pandemic.

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Cracking the Closet Door

I recently preached a sermon about Nicodemus. As a refresher, he came to see Jesus under the cover of night to talk with him about God. In the Gospel of John, right before Nicodemus’ nighttime visit, is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. I wondered aloud if perhaps Nicodemus was a witness to this event, therefore impacting their encounter. Perhaps he heard the words and witnessed Jesus’ actions, and that was what drove him to visit Jesus. I wondered if perhaps what he witnessed was keeping him awake at night, if it made him wonder more about what he heard and experienced, and if it finally drove him to speak with Jesus.

Before he encountered Jesus, I wonder if Nicodemus had avoided these thoughts being exposed. Up until the moment he had gone to see Jesus, he remained invested in certain narratives that validated his past; for too long he had glossed over the parts of him he was too afraid to expose. This was perhaps the part in his journey when he was questioning everything he knew to be true up until that point.

As I sat writing the sermon, I froze. The story felt too real. The conclusions I drew felt too familiar. I knew this story, because I lived it when I discovered I am a lesbian.

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Video Chat Life

Shannon and her child try to connect with loved ones through video chatting

I let my breath out slowly through my teeth as my baby kept screaming. I took out my phone and sent a friend a video chat of me, bags under my eyes, hair a mess, holding a tearful, grumpy baby at my desk. I didn’t speak, just gave her a meaningful look. She sent a video chat right back of her own tired eyes, messy hair, and fussy baby.

This moment was not one in which I lamented motherhood — I wanted a baby my whole life and had many losses and failed treatments to get this child, screams and all. Instead, this moment was one that illustrated my overwhelm as the only adult in my home for days on end, whose amount of work kept piling up even as I got less and less sleep. Many of us, especially those of us in communities with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, find ourselves in this unique kind of isolation the pandemic has created. So when I am at the end of my rope, I try reaching out, if only to send my friend a video of my kid crying.

Perhaps video chats of grouchy babies are not the best use of amazing technology, but knowing I had someone to whom to confess all of the Instagram v. Reality of my life grounded me. This fussiness will pass, my video chat reminded me. Fleeting, like this chat. And hers reminded me that I was not alone, even in pandemic isolation.

She is one of my clergy mom friends, and her baby is only three months younger than mine. A few other friends sometimes join us on these chats, some with babies a little older or younger than ours, one who doesn’t have babies anymore but who has some great stories about when hers were little.

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A World Communion Story and Liturgy for Strange Times

A Story before the Meal

Communion at Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, MD.

I was not excited about my first in-person communion service during the pandemic. I felt like the virus was just taking away one more thing. It had taken from my life in big ways, like the deaths of people that I loved, and in smaller ways, like canceling first-year milestone celebrations for our long-awaited child. At that first in-person service, we were finally together, but the feast of abundance I usually loved to celebrate was not possible in these strange times.

As we partake of the one loaf, we who are many are one body, I recited. But we weren’t partaking of the one loaf. Instead, we were holding individually wrapped wafer-and-juice combo packs. And we were separated by masks and chalk marks six feet apart, seemingly so far from ever being one body. How could this be communion?

That Sunday, half of us couldn’t open the cellophane to get to the wafer. The next time we had communion, we used juice boxes and rolls crammed into snack-size plastic baggies three days before worship and made jokes about juice boxes at the Last Supper. But even in the imperfection of the symbolism, this meal nourished us. It nourished me.

I acknowledged: It is right to give our thanks and praise. “So what are you thankful for?” I asked right in the middle of the liturgy. As we prepared to take our meal, I asked where people saw the Spirit poured out in these strange times. I was thankful to see faces distant and masked but still full of warmth. I saw the Spirit poured out as we lifted up in prayer those who work in hospitals, those who protest for justice, and those who work in education. Even in the strangeness and disappointment I felt as I approached the table, I also felt lifted out of my isolation, if for a moment. I felt directed toward the day not when we feast at the heavenly banquet but when we could feast together without barriers of masks and cellophane.

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A Trauma Informed Pandemic Ministry

Drawing close in the distance

When I modified the passing of the peace for worship on March 8, others in our county-seat town in Northwest Ohio didn’t seem concerned about the virus yet. I received some funny looks but mostly laughs, and the congregation went along with it. On the way out the door one of our oldest members came up to me and thanked me for changing the way we passed the peace. She explained that she too had been worrying about the virus since she was in the vulnerable population. I shared with her that I understood where she was coming from. I am immunocompromised and take immunosuppressant medications, so I too, am in the vulnerable population. This virus was on my radar, and I was prepared to do whatever I could to keep my people and myself safe. When our administrative council met later that same week in March and made the decision to worship via videos, a switch flipped inside me, and I became not only a pastor, wife, and follower of Jesus, but also a crisis manager.

In the early days of the pandemic I was running on pure adrenaline, waking up every day at 4:30am because I couldn’t sleep. I was filled with ideas about how to reach out and offer Christ to my people through the ingenuity of the internet. The Holy Spirit was working on overdrive in my life and I was pouring out peace, love, and mercy to my people in the name of Jesus. I was constantly texting to check on someone or calling to make sure one of our shut-ins was doing ok. I wanted to share God’s grace and love to try to help people get through this with their mental health intact. All my leftover energy was spent making sure our online Easter worship service was “special and meaningful.” The online service was beautiful and turned out so well. Then on Easter Monday, something in me clicked again. I was exhausted. I think for the first two months of the pandemic I had been so focused on making sure that others were ok that I had forgotten to care for myself.

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The Lonesome Valley of Birthing this Holy Week

New life is coming into a sick and suffering world for me this Easter, just as it did that first Easter. As I sat reclined in the dim monitoring closet of my OBGYN’s office listening to the heartbeat of the new life growing inside me, I realized I was beginning to understand Holy Week in a deeper way. I feel my feet matching the footprints of Jesus as he made his way to the Holy city for the last time. My child is due to arrive just after Easter, and so this Holy Week I walk the lonesome valley of doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and monitoring alone; even my husband is not permitted to join me. The virus has turned our world inside out and this joyous time into a time of great fear and sorrow.

Fetal heart monitoring

Last week, I felt resolved to let go of my visions for birth and instead just show up when it was time to do what I must. “We’ll just do what we have to do,” became my mantra every time a new worrying arose. But as I sat in a mostly deserted waiting room on Monday of Holy Week with my N95 mask on, I struggled to breathe and couldn’t help imagining what trying to breathe through contractions would be like with a mask on. Breathing got harder and by the time the nurse took my blood pressure things did not look good. As I reclined hooked up to the fetal heartbeat monitor, I wondered if Jesus had a similar resolve that he then lost. Palm Sunday’s mantra could have sounded like mine: “Just get to the city and do what you have to do.” But of course, just a few verses later in John 12:27, we hear Jesus is “deeply troubled.” Having defiantly removed my mask to breathe easier and hopefully lower my blood pressure, I feel some comfort at the thought that perhaps Jesus waffled a bit this week too. He showed such grace in getting in his last lectures and final blessings, and then in the garden he prays for any other way. I totally get it, Jesus. If there is any other way, I’d love to hear it too. But we both know there isn’t. The only way to new life is through death. The only way to bring this new life into the world is by entering the halls of death, risking, fearing, and hopefully, eventually trusting God will bring us out again. Knowing you’ve been through it already helps for sure, but I’m most appreciative to know you had moments of doubt and fear too.

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