Keep Calm and Carry on with Hope


A little over a month ago a man named Thomas Eric Duncan was getting ready to leave Liberia for Dallas, Texas. Prior to departing he helped a neighbor get a sick pregnant woman into a car to go to the hospital for medical care. Or so is the story the media twisted, and spun out of control. (Since Duncan’s death, the Dallas News published a letter from Duncan’s nephew disputing that story.)

Whatever the truth, I resonate with that story: I’m in the last months of pregnancy, waiting to deliver my daughter at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital where Duncan was quarantined, treated for Ebola, and eventually died.

West African countries have been battling Ebola for months, treating thousands of cases. Americans didn’t tune in to the magnitude of that story until one case popped up in one city in one western country. The media descended, and anxiety rose and infected the Dallas community and the country more quickly than Ebola could.

It became clear to clergy including myself that fear and anxiety were what we had to reframe and fight. We had to keep calm and carry on with hope.

At my church, my colleague and I preached, prayed, and tried to live out calm in the midst of crisis.

Living out calm meant I went about ministry as usual visiting parishioners who were hospitalized at Dallas Presbyterian, and going to my own obstetrician check-ups there. I didn’t think twice about continuing with my doctor and pushing forward with our plans to deliver our firstborn at Presbyterian Hospital.

I also continued to go about the parts of my ministry that took me to Vickery Meadows, the neighborhood where Duncan has lived with his fiancée, Louise Troh.

I attended a parent meeting at McShan Elementary School in the heart of Vickery Meadow to share information about the community garden our church started, and an upcoming event. The discussion came round to Ebola. As panic alarm bells were sounding and paranoia was setting in the principal said this, “We are all neighbors, and this is a multicultural community. You have nothing to fear. We encourage you to keep on supporting each other, and we will not tolerate bullying or isolation of others.”

She preached to me, and I’ve held her words in my head over the last month: “You have nothing to fear.”

Other ministers closer to the situation, like Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist church spoke eloquently on national television putting out an alternative to the frenzied media story…one of love, care for our neighbor, and compassion as his congregation ministered to Louise Troh, a member of their congregation.

A few weeks ago another colleague, Rev. Brent Barry invited an ecumenical group of clergy to lead a prayer vigil for hope. The mayor came to speak, but also to find solace.

As the third case emerged and anxiety and fear became more widespread, the mayor held a conference call for faith leaders. He encouraged us to share a message of love and hope. He preached to me, reminding me that Jesus ministered to the lepers, and that the early church stood in the gaps when others were abandoned. Now, more than ever we were needed.

When I get a concerned call from a loved one or church member about plans to deliver my firstborn at Dallas Presbyterian, I’m not worried. I fight the fear with facts: I’ve not touched the fecal matter or bodily fluids of the 3 Ebola patients, and neither has my doctor. I’m fine, and the baby is fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

When I encounter a neighbor or friend who is concerned about us welcoming “those people” from Vickery Meadow into our neighborhood or houses of worship I ask them these questions: Why are you afraid? Have you come into contact with the fecal matter, bodily fluids, or urine of those 3 people? No? Then you’re just fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

Now, more than ever our neighbors in Vickery Meadow or West Africa need us to love them, to welcome them, and to embrace them. They need hope, and I pray that we can continue to remember those lessons once this Ebola story ends. Shunning, and living in fear is not our story as Christians nor is it the Gospel call to hope.

I can’t wait to tell that story of hope to my baby girl when she is born one of these days at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe I’ll even get one of the coveted birthing tubs since so many other pregnant women have changed their hospital out of fear.


Episodes of Holiness: Clergy on TV


It really is a shock that there aren’t more TV shows about clergy. Doctors, lawyers, police, firefighters, college students…honestly, they have nothing on the wonderful strangeness of our careers. In what other profession can one day encompass breakfast with a group of teenagers, an office crisis situation around the location of a set of church keys, a bittersweet visit with a dying 97 year old, a session of coloring with the 2 preschoolers whose parents are late to pick them up, adjudicating an argument between two people over carpet color in the fellowship hall, and maybe, if you’re really blessed, 15 minutes of prayer?  And that’s just the day at work…add in family or a social life, and you’ve got several seasons of wonderful material!

Clergy people are always on the lookout for portrayals of our profession, partly to be reminded the world knows we exist, partly to see ourselves, and, usually, for the fun of critiquing the accuracy of the portrayal. Sometimes, we cringe and hope our church people don’t watch these shows and get the wrong idea. Sometimes we wish we could force them to watch so they would understand what we really do. And sometimes, we aspire to be like the clergy we see on TV, even if we know it’s impossible to hope for.

Here, from a recent online conversation about TV shows between young clergy women, are some broad categories of TV shows that attempt (or, don’t even attempt!) to portray clergy. Happy watching!

Shows Where Clergy Are Conspicuously Absent

Several hospital shows seem completely oblivious to the existence of chaplains. ER didn’t have a chaplain character until the bitter end. And several of us note that Grey’s Anatomy often leaves us wondering why someone doesn’t call the chaplain.

Six Feet Under, though, is particularly at fault. Clergy spend a lot of time in funeral homes. They barely play a role in that show (except for a brief appearance by a young, female Rabbi).

Shows That Don’t Quite Get It (Or Maybe Get It a Little Too Much)

The classic TV show about clergy that completely misses most realities of church life is Seventh Heaven.  Among other errors, I can confirm, as a the daughter of a pastor myself, that working as your Dad’s associate pastor is about the unlikeliest thing (unless we’re talking about a mega church).

The Book of Daniel didn’t make it through one season, and was controversial for all risky moral issues and twisty relationships it portrayed. Maybe it was exactly what people don’t want to believe about clergy. And sometimes, satire is so funny that it’s true.

Many of us knew a guy in seminary who was just a little bit too much like the Rev. Casey Peerson, Mindy’s love interest on The Mindy Project.

And on those days when you just need to laugh? Father Ted  is pure humor. Inappropriate, and nearly always the complete opposite of any clergyperson you’d hope to encounter, but exactly what’s needed when you need something ridiculous after a long Sunday.

True to Life Pastoring

Two recent series from the UK do an incredible job of portraying ministry. Both are so real that I know of people who have stopped watching because it cuts too close to real life. Rev. was two brilliant seasons portraying the life of the priest at a struggling urban church, the Rev. Adam Smallbone. It is honest, funny, sad, and human. If you’ve been a pastoring for awhile, you know that even the scenes that might seem bizarre could probably happen. And Adam is by no means perfect, but he’s a good guy.

Call the Midwife was tender in its portrayal of a clergyman as he courted one of the young midwives. But the real honesty about ministry in the show comes from the wisdom of the older nuns and the hands-on ministry that the nuns and the young midwives do with mothers and families in their neighborhood. I wonder, as well, if it resonates with clergy because it portrays a group of people residing together and then going out to do ministry: when we are off on our own, scattered about in parishes, we often miss the camaraderie of seminary.

Clergy We Aspire to Be

It’s only one episode of The West Wing, but when President Jed Bartlett brings in his former priest to help him reason through the ethics of a decision, it provides a glimpse into some of the hardest and yet most rewarding moments of ministry: helping people work through God’s call on their lives. And this priest does an incredible job of it.

Firefly gives a futuristic possibility for clergy (giving us hope that we will continue to have calls in the future, perhaps to steam-punk-esque space ships!). The character Shepherd Book is a good person, but with a hint of mystery to make it interesting.

But, for most clergy women, there is no TV clergyperson we would rather be than the Rev. Geraldine Grainger on The Vicar of Dibley. She is funny, and smart, and pastoral. And she is confident in her role as pastor, through success and failure.

There’s Hope for Romance

This category is especially dear to many young clergywomen, and not just single ones. Shows that portray clergypeople as desirable partners are a reminder that we are very real, looking for companions just like everyone else. The sweet romance between a priest and a midwife in Call the Midwife isn’t that contemporary, but it’s adorable. The Mindy Project portrays a much more contemporary Rev. Love-Interest, imperfect a pastor as he may be.

But then there are the shows that have clergywomen as the object of someone’s affections. Lucinda, in The Goodwin Games; the chaplain Julia, in ER (who is pursued by John Stamos!); and, of course, The Vicar of Dibley, who marries Harry (in spite of her parish’s predictable accidental attempts to derail the wedding).


Board Books: What We’re Reading

BeachReadPastors, by nature of their calling, are word-lovers. We are story-tellers, readers, and writers. We spend time with our noses buried books, but it’s a great mistake to think that we only read the Bible or books about church and religion.

Fidelia’s Sisters asked the current members of the Young Clergy Woman Project’s board what they’ve been reading this summer. There’s got to be something in this list that will fit your needs for the last few weeks of August, whether you need to study up on church leadership before the fall program year kicks in, or are blessed with the need for one more beach read.

Caroline East Berardi: I’ve been re-reading the Ender Wiggin series, which holds a special place in my heart. I’ve also  just finished the book Crazy, by Pete Earley, his family’s experience of the criminalizing of the mentally ill.

Diana Carroll: I’m reading the first book from our Chalice Press imprint: Bless Her Heart, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith. It’s been out since 2011, but I hadn’t picked up a copy until this year’s conference. I highly recommend it for any young clergy woman (and anyone trying to understand us and our lives better). The stories and reflections are a powerful reminder that we are not alone. It would make a great ordination gift, too!

Christine Davies:  I’m reading The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. The author served as a medical actor and wrote about those experiences and how they crossed with her own medical issues. It’s a take on how we demonstrate and experience empathy, which, as a CPE nut, I’m always interested in learning about.

Kelsey Grissom: I’m reading Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier, about an ancient languages professor uprooting his settled life to track down a long-dead author. The jury’s still out on this one.

Jessica Harren: I’m in the middle of When Not to Build: An Architect’s Unconventional Wisdom for the Growing Church, by Ray Bowman, Eddy Hall, and Charles Arn.  This book has been very helpful in preventing my church from taking out too much debt, but using our space well.

Molly Field James:  I just finished Crazy Christians, a collection of sermons by Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry. He is a dynamic preacher (more Baptist than Episcopalian in style) whose style comes through even in the written text. It is inspiring to read the sermons of someone whose style is so different than mine and who is excited about the future of the church.

Meg Jenista: I just finished Slow Church, by Christopher Smith and John Pattison, which riffs off the Slow Food movement to present an alternative to the Church Industrial Complex. Slow Churches are aware of their location, organically cultivated, hospitable, patient and spend *a lot* of time gathered at table, sharing life and food together.

Julie Jensen: I loved my college literature class called Americans in Paris in the 1920s. It was all about Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and the artists who were in France with them. I am currently reading The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the experiences of Hadley Hemingway, and I’m really enjoying it.

Brenda Lovick: I’m (still) reading One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp, which is really good. I’m pretty sure it’s a Zondervan book, and is a similar genre to Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey.

Amy Loving: I just finished reading Iscariot, by Tosca Lee. It is a fascinating novel that presents Judas as a complex, passionate character, forcing the reader to re-evaluate the assumptions that so many of us make about this disciple. It would make a great book for any book club or study group.

Sarah Moore: I’m reading Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and The Search For Identity, by Andrew Solomon. He explores how children and parents process the experience of a child being very different from their parents in such a way that it impacts on children and parents having a different horizontal identity to their parents, e.g. children who are Deaf, have Downs Syndrome or Autism. The author is a gay man who puts homosexual identity into this mix, too. The book examines how wider society has a tendency to medicalize these experiences and see them as something to be cured rather than being integral who someone is.

Lesley Ratcliff: I’m reading God’s Long Summer, by Charles Marsh. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1964, which was the peak of turmoil in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. We have a book group reading it at church.

Erica Schemper: I had so much fun watching the World Cup and cheering for the Netherlands that I’m reading a book called Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, by David Winner. I’m not a huge sports fan, and I know next to nothing about soccer, but this book is fascinating. Winner picks apart the Dutch style of play called “Total Football” and explains it in the context of Dutch post-war history, culture, and art. I love peeking into a culture and topic that I know almost nothing about…it’s a like a vacation for my mind!

Kelly Shriver: For fun, I’ve really enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s mystery novels, Cuckoo’s Calling and  The Silkworm, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.  They’ve reminded me how much I enjoy a thoughtful, flawed detective, and a twisty story. With that reminder, I’ve  just reread my all-time favorite, The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, another excellent mystery. It’s a bit campy, totally doesn’t hold up in a world of modern technology, and wonderful.

Revelation in Davidson

homeless jesusA response to the following news story.

It was late, when she turned onto Caldwell, wondering
if the kids were in bed yet, if her husband had remembered
to take out the recycling. She was ticking through e-mails
still unanswered, when she spotted the dark form, lying
knees to chest on a bench in front of St. Albans.
Just what we need, a vagrant in the neighborhood.
Thank God for the police, she thought
and reached for her phone.

This is where I want to freeze the frame
and help her out of the car.
There is enough room on the bench
for her to sit and rest a minute.
When her mind has cleared
and her breathing slowed,
I want to take her hand and place it gently
on the bronze folds of his blanket.
I want to guide it to the rigid feet, cold and exposed.
I want to take her thumb and place it in the hole.

ABOUT THE POEM: My own conversion to Christianity – and the beginning of my call to ministry – included Christ’s words in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least of these who are members of my family, you do unto me.” I have since experienced the presence of Christ in many people whom society might consider “marginal” or “expendable.” One experience that was formative in opening my heart to those who are homeless was spending a weekend on the streets myself, once in Montreal and once in Atlanta, as part of a Buddhist-led “street retreat.” Another was the year I spent in weekly Bible studies with the homeless at Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL. So when I read about the “Homeless Jesus” statue in Davidson, NC, and then heard the Christian woman’s angry reaction to it, I felt a deep need to respond. My challenge as a Christian was to try to do so with compassion. 

The Intensive Company of Women: Five Reasons Orange is the New Black is Useful for Clergy Women

prisonMy three-year-old loves me: he aptly timed a few sick days of moping around the house with the Netflix release of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black. While he was settled in to nap or watch cartoons, I moved through the house with my iPad and binged my way through the whole season.

Orange is the New Black follows the prison time of one Piper Chapman (It’s based on the book of the same title by Piper Kerman). At the beginning of the series, she’s living the super-WASPy, affluent dream: educated at the best schools the East Coast has to offer, engaged to a writer, living in a lovely home in New York, planning a business making homemade soaps and lotions with her BFF. And then, she gets busted in the takedown of the drug ring her ex-girlfriend was involved in ten years earlier, and winds up with a 15 month prison sentence.

It’s one of those shows I’m not always sure I can discuss with my parishoners, but I’m convinced its edifying for my ministry, and that its a must-watch for female clergy. Here are five reasons why: Read more

Call the Midwife

baby footI didn’t subscribe to Netflix until the beginning of this year.  When I finally did, I knew what I would be choosing for my first TV-show binge-watch:  the BBC series Call the Midwife.

I had read the first of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, on which the series is based, at my sister’s house in London in 2011, and as a longtime birth geek (who delivered my own son at home) I was looking forward to seeing the subject of birth tackled with more directness and accuracy than is typical on television.

What I didn’t anticipate was how powerful I would find the show as an expression of faith.  Of course, I knew that the midwifery practice was based out of a convent, and that everything the nun-midwives do is inspired by their vocation of love and service.  But I’m so used to TV and movies depicting religious commitment as, at best trite and sentimental, and at worst as misguided and damaging, that it was hugely refreshing to see the realistic, respectful way in which the sisters’ Anglican faith is portrayed. It is a source of resilience, courage, and deep sympathy with the people they serve, and it is an integral part of the formation of the young nurse-midwives who work with them, and on whom the series focuses.

Without (much) sentimentalizing or preaching, Call the Midwife shows a community of women whose work is the primary focus of their lives, and who understand that work to be a God-given vocation.  It is hard for us today to understand how radical that would have been in the 1950s, and it is a highly unusual thing to see on TV even now.  Near the end of season 1, Jenny matter-of-factly tells Jimmy that her work is most important thing for her right now, which is one of the several reasons she cannot contemplate getting involved with him romantically.  And one of the most moving storylines in the first two seasons is the ongoing evolution of Chummy, from a terminally shy, clumsy, failed debutante to a self-confident and first-class midwife.

The nuns set a powerful example as professional women, whose confidence in their skills and authority comes from an unshakeable conviction that they are doing God’s work.  And the young nurses, regardless of the details of their own faith lives, follow that example and grow in authority and commitment to the people of Poplar.

The Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus (based on the real-life nuns of the Community of St. John the Divine) are exposed to every aspect of human life on a daily basis – the heroism of slum women, the suffering of those brought up in workhouses, the back-breaking labor of the dock workers; destitution, filth, vermin, disease, disability, teen pregnancy, racism, abortion, incest, prostitution, madness; as well as the affection of families, the joy and laughter of children, and the thousand and one everyday acts of love and self-sacrifice that constitute life in the slums.  This has given them a broad perspective and sympathy that means that they are the opposite of puritanical or judgmental.  In fact, Sister Julienne often shocks Jenny by her matter-of-fact acceptance of realities that Jenny’s middle-class upbringing has left her totally unprepared for.  The sisters emulate Christ in their acceptance and tolerance of every kind of human foible, preaching the gospel by example, rather than browbeating their patients into accepting their version of morality.

The centrality of faith in the series is symbolized by the fact that in almost every episode, the nuns are shown at prayer in the chapel, their ethereal singing led by the soprano voice of actress Laura Main, who plays Sister Bernadette.  The unalterable routine of the Daily Office provides a reliable glimpse of the sacred in the midst of the backbreaking, draining work of midwifery and nursing, and the young midwives are often shown sitting quietly in the chapel chairs, meditating or weeping over the latest crisis in their lives or those of their patients, and finding solace in the peaceful beauty of Anglican liturgy.

Of course, the series isn’t perfect.  I do find myself wishing sometimes for a bit more energetic and articulate wrestling with the intersection of faith and life, rather than the generally brief and trite sound bites of a TV script.  In season 2, episode 4, when the Roberts baby is born with spina bifida and the mother wonders aloud whether God is judging her for something, there is a huge missed opportunity for Jenny to say something about how God doesn’t punish babies for their parents’ sins.  And throughout the plotlines about Chummy’s and Peter’s departure for Sierra Leone and Sister Bernadette’s eventual departure from the Order, I was hungry for some more in-depth discussion of the nature of discernment (especially in Sister Bernadette’s case; she and Sister Julienne, having gone together through the years of Sister Bernadette’s novitiate and postulancy, would certainly have discussed her ongoing journey in much less simplistic terms than they are shown as doing).

Overall, though, I found that my predominating thought as I watched the first two seasons was, “Why on earth doesn’t my denomination (the Episcopal Church) find a way to be the “presenting sponsor” (or some such) when this series airs in the US??!  This is the best publicity we’ve gotten in two generations!!”

In the first episode, Sister Julienne asks the newly arrived Jenny “Do you have a faith, Nurse Lee?” and Jenny replies, “Not really.  I’m Church of England.”  It’s a laugh line, but it accurately represents the real Jennifer’s state of mind upon arriving at Nonnatus House (which she had not even realized was a convent; she thought it was a small private hospital).  By the end of the books, Jenny, having lived with the nuns’ example for years and obeyed Sister Monica Joan’s imperious command to “read the Gospels!”, has come to a real and living faith, which sustains her through the rest of her life as a nurse, wife, mother, musician, and human being.  My most profound prayer for the millions of people who watch the show, in the US, UK and beyond, is that some of them may be inspired by it to go in search of the God who is always calling them by name.

Some of the details in this article were supplied by Heidi Thomas’ book The Life and Times of “Call the Midwife” (Harper, 2012).

A Review of Traci Smith’s Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life

seamlessfaithbanner-2“May God bless you and keep you while you sleep, May you rest in God’s mercies, and wake to God’s grace, May you dream of God’s blessings, and know that you are loved.”

Each night, my spouse whispers these words to my daughter as he tucks her into bed.  It is one of the most meaningful moments of his day.  Every day.

“Are we doing enough?   Will her faith life be integrated with the rest of her life?  How can we help her to recognize God’s presence in her life? Is her spiritual being developing as well as her mental and physical being?”

Each night, I wonder.  I sit in the chair where I have just snuggled with my not-quite-2-year-old listening to my husband’s blessing and I ask myself those questions.  As a mother and a children’s pastor, it is one of the most disquieting moments of my day.  Every day.

For that reason and others, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Traci Smith’s Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life.  Traci has written a practical guide for helping family’s integrate faith into both the ordinary and celebratory moments of the family’s life.  Built on the premise that “faith is learned when it is woven seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life,” the book is divided into three sections:

  • The tradition section provides ideas that draw the family to encounter God in rituals for daily life and holidays.
  • The celebrations section invites families to remember God’s presence in the major transitions of life including everything from the birth of a new baby to moving out for college.
  • The spiritual practices section offers ways to implement prayer, almsgiving, hospitality and numerous other practices into family life.

Each outline of the fifty practices in the text offers a two-to-three page description with an introduction, a how-to, notes and variations.

The creativity of these practices is wondrous but each is presented in an accessible format.  Traci has thought of all the little details.  In “Traumatic Current Event: Sheltered under God’s Wings” there is a pattern for the bird used as part of the exercise, and also a thoughtful guide for talking with children of varying ages about the traumatic event.

The mother in me is thankful for this thoughtful, practical resource.   But the pastor in me is even more grateful for a resource that I can place in the hands of families in my congregation to help them adapt spiritual formation at home.  More than giving lip service to the idea that faith must be practiced in the home in order for faith to be fully integrated into the child’s life, this text gives busy, uncertain parents the tools to help their child recognize God in the ordinary and the stressful, the celebratory and the mundane.  Though the instructions are detailed, there is enough flexibility to adapt this text to a variety of faith traditions.  I want to give a copy of this text to every family in my congregation, and I will be giving a copy of the book to acknowledge births and adoptions.  The bottom line is that Seamless Faith is an invaluable resource in creating opportunities for children to encounter God and the mystery of faith.

This week, following the instructions in the outline titled “Anxiety: Wash Away Worries,” I am writing my concerns about my daughter’s spiritual formation on the driveway in sidewalk chalk.  My daughter and I will have a wonderful time playing in the water hose, and I’ll watch those aforementioned worries wash away, knowing they have been released to the Holy Spirit.  I’ll probably pick them back up later but I have a creative, thoughtful, practical text to help me not worry so much.

Seamless Faith is available for purchase through Chalice Press.  Receive monthly articles, tips and resources on faith and family by signing up for the Seamless Faith Monthly Newsletter.

The Gravity of Prayer

praying handsI know I’m a little late to the game, but two weeks ago my husband and I went to see the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I thought it was a decent movie, but not worth all of the awards it has won. That being said, there was one part that struck me particularly hard, and that I believe has implications for Christians.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is a scientist turned astronaut on her first mission. Things go horribly wrong, and she ends up as the sole survivor after a series of disasters. At one point, she is in a Russian space capsule, trying to get to a Chinese station, to get back to earth. The only problem is that she is out of fuel and can’t reach Mission Control in Houston. She hears a man speaking in presumably Chinese, and tries to communicate without much success.

At this point, Dr. Stone starts a monologue, convinced that she is dying, and concludes with: “I’m really scared. Nobody will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late? I mean, I’d say one for myself, but I’ve never prayed in my life, so. Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.”

No one taught this woman how to pray. And I began to wonder how many people in our churches have never been taught to pray? Or perhaps are not comfortable praying? Praying is simply being in conversation with God. It may happen verbally, through music, art, cooking, gardening, sewing, silence, walking, and so much more.

It’s easy for me as a pastor to say, “praying is simple conversation,” yet, every week at Bible Study or at a meeting when it comes time to pray, people sit and stare at one another. No one will look at me. It’s like being back in school when none of the students did the homework and are hoping against hope the teacher will call on someone else. And I wonder, where have I as a pastor failed?

Growing up, my pastors, Sunday School teachers, other church members, and my parents modeled prayer for me. I learned by watching and participating. I learned by experience. Prayer became a part of me and my life. I thought others who grew up in the church learned the same way. Little did I know that this isn’t true.

Somewhere along the line, we as pastors have stopped expecting much from our laity. Perhaps it was after families started needing a two-income household to make ends meet. Perhaps it was gradually over time as ministry became more and more of a professional field where we pay a pastor to do the ministry on our behalf. Or maybe it was as a result of trying too hard to make church accessible and lower the bar of expectations in an attempt to seem “hip” and “cool” with a society that was rapidly leaving church in the dust as the religious “nones” grow faster than any other religious group. Regardless of how we got here, the fact is that somewhere along the line we stopped teaching discipleship.

However, I think that all hope is not lost. Sandra Bullock’s character is the quintessential American who has a passing knowledge of faith, but doesn’t truly understand anything about it. Her character is facing what seems to be imminent death, and all of a sudden she is concerned with the afterlife and the state of her soul. Faith becomes real in the midst of tragedy.

And therein lies the beauty of this situation. Dr. Stone is opening herself up to the possibility of something more, something greater than herself. She is curious and desires more. As a Christian, whether pastor or lay member, it is our job to help her and people like her. It is all of our jobs to pass on our faith to others. We don’t have to have the “right” words to say or a special knowledge of the Bible or prayer. All we need is the ability to share our own story; the story of what God has done and continues to do in our own life that has transformed us from what we used to be. If we can’t share our faith with others then we will be seeing many more people like Dr. Stone, people that we have forgotten or neglected, wondering who will say a prayer for them, since “I’ve never prayed in my life…Nobody ever taught me how.”

Reviewing Her

When a friend encouraged me to see the movie Her a few weeks ago, my obligatory “What’s it about?” was met with “Huh?” when I learned it was about a romance between a human being and an operating systemLove. “You will love it,” was the confident response. I did.

The film is stunning on many levels with beautiful cinematography and art direction and a thought-provoking screenplay. Most of all, though, Her is remarkable in its restraint. Whereas so many movies portray the future as a place of frenzy and hyperactivity with all sorts of moving parts and beeping gadgets, Her is brilliantly understated. There is nothing in this film to distract the audience from the fact that it is, fundamentally, a love story. In the end, when Theodore (the human) says  to Samantha (the operating system) “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” it’s completely believable.

Those who evaluate Her on its success as a critique of technology’s role in our lives (as Richard Brody did in the New Yorker) completely miss the point. Her is a movie about love, more specifically what happens to love when people change. When Samantha is “born” at the beginning of the film, Theodore is understandably skeptical. “How do you work?” he asks. She tells him that she’s intuitive and has a lot of data, but more importantly, she is constantly evolving and changing. As the movie continues we realize that, just like in any relationship, Samantha and Theodore have to decide how they will cope with the fact that the other is changing.

There is a lot of material in this movie for preachers and theologians: What is real? What is connection? What is true love? Most compelling for Christians (in my view) is the question What does it mean to be alive, yet not have a physical body? These questions and others provide rich questions for discussion.

That said, this is probably not a movie for a church discussion group to watch together, for variety of reasons. First, Her is distractingly full of the “f-bomb.” Not since Good Will Hunting has the “granddaddy of all words” been tossed around so frequently in a film. (At least a film I’ve seen.) Second, there’s a couple of significant sex scenes in this movie. By that I do not mean clothing flung everywhere and naked bodies prancing by, yet it’s still steamy. Not for kids. Incidentally, the fact that the clothes are not flung and the bodies are not prancing leads to an even more intense and poignant moment, which is yet another topic for discussion.

Her is a beautifully written, directed and shot film with so much great material for discussion. I highly recommend it and if anyone asks me “What’s it about?” I think I’ll just say “Go see it for yourself.”

What Jesus has to do with My Grocery Bill

GroceriesIn the last few years, I’ve gotten really interested in food. I’ve always loved eating it, but since getting married and cooking for another human being, I’ve begun to love selecting and preparing it as well. What’s more, my eyes have been opened in a small way to the incredibly extensive impact that food has on my own quality of life, on the dynamics of human culture at large, and on the earth in which we all live. In other words, food is a pretty big deal! A friend of mine once pointed out that the average American spends 9 years of his or her life eating. 9 years! As a Christian, which means a person whose whole life is given over to the lordship of Jesus Christ, I’ve begun to realize that Jesus probably has something to say about what I do with that incredibly important time.

That being said, I don’t want to focus on an argument for or against a certain “school” of thought concerning diet, purchasing choices, etc. Rather, I want to confess that in the last few years, the Lord has been convicting me to submit even this part of my life to Him as an act of worship, obedience, and love. What I have found is that this call challenges idolatry on both “sides” of my heart as it pertains to purchasing and eating food:

First, it challenges my idol of pleasure and convenience. Like I mentioned earlier, I have always loved eating. In fact, I love the taste of food so much that I can be in a bad mood all day if I don’t get exactly what I want for lunch. Yea. In other words, eating what I want is pretty dang important to me. What if Jesus calls me to abstain from certain foods because of the way those foods are produced? Thanks but no thanks, Jesus. I’ll just pray for people in other countries while I chow down on this chocolate that is a product of their enslavement. I’ll just wax poetic about God’s care for animals as His own creation while I enjoy this mutilated and mistreated chicken that was overgrown for the sole purpose of me getting more meat per bite. Or, maybe I’ll be convicted enough to make an effort to be “choosy” when purchasing food, so long as it’s within a price range I deem reasonable. Spend more than $2 for a dozen eggs? Don’t think so. I’d rather go on claiming that I “can’t afford” to do things like that, so that I can keep spending $3 a day on a latte.

Second, it challenges my idol of control and pride. As I’ve slowly, over time, found some of the above to be a little easier to follow through and do, I’ve been quick to award myself the badge of “Awesome Human Being.” On more than one occasion, I’ve noticed myself cruising the aisle of Whole Foods (or some equally granola-laden store) feeling oh-so impressed. Wow, look at all of us and our ethical choices! We are truly global citizens, and such good stewards of our own bodies. It’s a shame the rest of our fellow Americans haven’t fully embraced the truth yet. In other words, I easily begin to believe the lie that I have total control over my own future (“if I eat like this, I won’t get cancer”) or that my own obedience somehow gives me the right to look down on others (“if you really cared about people in Africa, you’d stop eating that.”)

But the reality is that submitting to Christ’s lordship over what goes in my grocery cart and what goes in my mouth calls me to repent of both of these idols. I am to obey Him, not my belly or my beloved checkbook. And I am to worship Him, not my (meager!) attempts at following His lead in my life. I am to relinquish autonomy over my eating habits, and the delusion that I am the savior of the world. Christ’s lordship takes priority over “the desires of my flesh” to overeat or indulge despite my convictions, and it takes priority over “the desires of my flesh” to control my own health. He is Lord, which means He’s in charge– of my choices, my checkbook, and the cancer cells that may or may not develop in my body. It is His lordly care– for chickens, coffee farmers in Africa, and me that makes relinquishing “control” to Him a life-giving and freeing activity.

What about you? Have you given much thought to what Jesus has to say about food? Which idols do you tend toward? What are your fears, values, struggles, or concerns when it comes to food?