Beach Reads for When the Collar Comes Off

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere! For many of us, that means we can look forward to some vacation time in the next few months (in between Vacation Bible School, fall planning, and of course, attending YCWI’s annual conference.) It also means hopefully having a bit more time to read.

We asked the members of YCWI’s board what they enjoy reading in those moments when the collar comes off. Here are some of their recommendations.

Kelly Boubel Shriver: I recently finished reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, winner of the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel (best sci-fi/fantasy novel). Jemisin is the first black author, and first woman of color, to win the Hugo for Best Novel, which is both unbelievable (it’s 2017!) and an enormous victory. The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy and follows three characters (all women, another rarity for sci-fi) who can control the seismic powers of the earth as they navigate the beginnings of an apocalyptic natural disaster. It’s totally engrossing, beautifully written, and provides prescient commentary on race relations in times of crisis. Pick it up! I promise, even if you’re not normally a sci-fi/fantasy reader, it’s well worth your time.

Also, You’re Doing a Great Job: 100 Ways You’re Winning at Parenting by Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn would be a great book for the parent of busy, constantly-needing-supervision kiddos at the beach. It’s a totally encouraging, normalizing look at parenting and how we’re all doing a pretty good job at a really hard thing. Each of the 100 ways is broken down into a few paragraphs, so it’s very easy to read in 30-second segments between finding the sand shovel, refereeing the fight over the lemonade juice box, and making sure the toddler doesn’t step on a jellyfish.

Sarah Ross: I’ve been on a bit of a short story kick lately, reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and re-reading an old favorite, Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie. Alexie is one of the few authors who can make me laugh out loud and also make me cry, occasionally in the same story. Lahiri’s writing was new to me, but her tales of ordinary people also packed an emotional punch. Both Alexie (a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Native American) and Lahiri (a London-born Indian-American immigrant) have unique and complex views on the American experience, and they find beauty and power in the lives of everyday people. Read more

Becoming a Bat: A Pastor’s Journey in to Aerial Arts

The author and her trapeze

The author and her trapeze

“I’m a bat!” No, I wasn’t flying around in the middle of the night. Those were the first words I uttered when I found myself hanging upside down from a trapeze bar. A seminary friend had invited me to take an aerial arts class with him at a studio called Sky Candy, and though I had no idea what I was getting into, I agreed. The class exposed us to different aerial apparatuses: silks, lyra, the static trapeze, and the hammock. Now, I don’t consider myself an acrobat. I am a tap-dancing, yoga-doing theatre kid – activities that are done right-side-up, standing on your feet. For the first part of the class, I didn’t really enjoy anything. Then, we got to the static trapeze. The static trapeze was unlike anything I had ever done before. Hanging upside down, I loved it, and I was up for the challenge. After the first class, I knew I wanted to continue. It turns out “being a bat” was exactly what I needed at the time.

By the end of my senior year of seminary, I performed in the student showcase at my studio and had found two amazing coaches to work with. I had the opportunity to train with Elsie Smith, the founder of the New England Center for Circus Arts, and former Cirque Du Soleil performer. Post-graduation, I continued to train back at home in Kansas City while looking for my first call. While I had many typical requirements one considers when searching for a call, I might be the only pastor whose primary requirements included a city that had a studio with trapeze. My aerial arts classes came up in conversations with search committees as I interviewed. People were constantly surprised and found it an interesting hobby. When I arrived at Germantown Presbyterian Church last October, I was thrilled to find out that there was an aerial arts studio in Memphis with a trapeze.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” This quote echoed in my mind as I learned how to climb to the top of a warehouse on a silk, or when I learned how to balance on the trapeze bar on my stomach. Read more

view of sheet music and choir

How Can I Keep From Singing?

view of sheet music and choir

Singing in choir

When I was growing up, my parents thought it was so important that their children learn to sing in a choir that we went to two churches. My Dad pastored a small congregation with decent music, but limited choral opportunities for children. And so, one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00 am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to the “big city” ten miles away to sing in the Treble choir at an Episcopal Church.

I was hooked. I do not sing solos: it’s singing as a group that thrills me. I went on to sing in an excellent high school choir, and then chose a college that just happened to have one of the best choral programs in the country. Even though I was never in any way a candidate for the premiere choir at that institution, I sang all four years of college, and continued to sing in my seminary choir. But, when I became a pastor, I figured that was likely the end of my choral singing. Aside from the occasional pinch-hit, I knew that very few pastors have time to join the church choir.

Then a few years ago, I followed my husband’s job across the country, and found myself in a new city with no church job. A few months after the move, I met up with a college friend who was living in the same city. He had recently founded a choir, devoted to singing a broad range of musical genres, from various traditions and cultures. It was, he said, the nicest group of people he’d ever sung with, and unusually diverse for a choral group. “You should sing with us,” he said. Read more

The author

My Not-So-Dirty Secret

The author

The author

I first began writing romance novels when my twins were five months old; I was hooked up to the good old Medela breast pump and hunched over the laptop. I’d recently fallen back in love with reading the genre, with its unabashed celebration of female sexuality and romantic love. I was adjusting to my new, stretched-out, machine-milked mom body and what it was like to have two new humans and their dirty diapers in the middle of my marriage. Romance novels helped me hold on to my sense of self, my sexual desire, and to remember my husband was my real-life romance hero even when we were sleep-deprived, cranky, automatons.

At the exact moment when I had the least margin to begin a creative enterprise, I decided to try writing a novel. It wasn’t a Christian, inspirational romance, nor was it ‘sensual’ and full of euphemisms. It was explicit, because I found it liberating to write about people having awkward and imperfect, yet glorious and redemptive sex.

Initially, my books were a dirty secret. I’m the chaplain at an Episcopal day school, after all. The last thing in the world I needed was the thirteen-year-olds I teach reading one of my ‘climactic’ scenes. As I built an online author presence, I dangled my priest-who-writes-romance identity as a titillating hook, but I remained sheepish with colleagues and secretive about my day job when I mingled with writers.

Still, slowly, I began to think of myself as a real writer. I talked with friends about my dual vocations and wrote a lot about the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. I dreamed up my tagline, “Desire is Divine,” and signed my first publishing contract. Read more

The Pilgrim Pastor of Bethlehem

Heather with pilgrims at the River Jordan

Heather with pilgrims at the River Jordan

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

I stepped into Bethlehem for the first time in January 2005. It was the week of the first Palestinian elections since Yasser Arafat, but I had not anticipated that when I bought the tickets months earlier. My boyfriend wanted to come along, I think mostly to protect me. I enjoyed his company, so I obliged, even though I had no interest in being protected. We walked from our quarters at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, through an Israeli checkpoint, and into the “little town,” mostly unaware that it also happened to be the week of Orthodox Christmas.

Everywhere there were parades and celebrations. Colorful bunting hung from apartment windows. Palestinian youth dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes made my Presbyterian self feel right at home. “Happy Christmas!” they shouted to us as we passed by their celebrations – never mind that many of the shouters were Muslim. The colored political placards added to the sense of wonder, but the armored cars carrying UN officials seemed eerily out of place.

The most memorable part of that trip came when my boyfriend and I gave in to a persistent shopkeeper who beckoned us from the doorway of his lonely store. We had passed many persistent shopkeepers, but this one drew us in. We were surprised when he offered us tea but did not give us the hard sell on any authentic olive wood handicrafts. We were even more surprised when he invited us to come to his home for dinner on Sunday – the day of the Palestinian elections. With hardly a glance at my boyfriend, who had made me promise that we would avoid the West Bank on election day, I accepted the invitation.

The shopkeeper’s wife cooked makloubeh and he, with his vote-blackened thumb, told stories of war and peace. It was one of the most delicious and significant meals of my life. I set out as a tourist without any particular spiritual goals; but set free to wander in a strange land, to wonder at ancient relics and modern faith, and to encounter humanity in another, I was transformed into a pilgrim.

Sitting in my church office in South Carolina eight years later, my colleague and I chatted about our respective trips to the Holy Land. Did you go here? What did you think of that? He began recounting to me a story about a shopkeeper in Bethlehem. He and a couple of friends had broken off from the group and found themselves sharing tea with the cheery owner of a cramped store. Before long, he had invited them to come to his home for dinner. “Are you talking about Majdi?!” I interrupted. It turns out Majdi’s hospitality was not only effusive but legendary.

Together, we agreed that our congregation needed a chance to experience this extraordinary land and people. Fifteen months later, twenty-nine of us sat in a circle in Majdi’s living room while his wife and children offered us tea and cookies. We laughed together when he shared his stress at planning his son’s wedding – some things are the same everywhere! Much to my surprise, this second trip, which began as a sort of vacation, would become a vocation.

As I prepared to move from South Carolina to a small, urban congregation in Massachusetts, the possibility of a pilgrim vocation began to unfold. Read more

Of Veils and Virgins: My Life with the Bees

Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy; mercy as shown chiefly towards the poor, that thou mayest treat them as sharers in common with thee in the produce of nature, which brings forth the fruits of the earth for use to all.

-Saint Ambrose, Patron Saint of Beekeepers

One of the earliest moments of me ever captured on film is a photograph of me and my father tending to his bee hives. In the photo, my father (who must have been about the age I am currently) is decked out in his full bee-keeping suit—long leather gloves, netting that covered his whole body, and the all-important beekeeper’s veil— that kept the agitated bees who assume, rightfully, that he was there to take their honey, from stinging him. I, on the other hand, am about three years old, in a light t-shirt, and the only protection I seem to have had is the hand-held smoke pot that kept the bees calm by simulating a forest-fire.

Dad had, no doubt, employed me to work the small bellows on the pot so he could have his hands free to inspect the hive. For my part, I am smiling, apparently oblivious to the danger that my lack of veil put me in. These bees were my friends and I knew no fear. Even the honey they made was called “Hilly-Honey” as a tribute to my fearlessness with them. And though my father could be accused of being reckless with my body’s well-being, he was anything but with my soul’s—teaching me that we kept bees because we are the stewards of this earth and are to care for the least of God’s creatures. Thus began my life as a beekeeper.

To keep bees is to be invited to help build a kingdom.

The keeper and the bees labor side by side tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, building homes, and pollinating the world – an awful lot like being a part of a church. In fact, the link between bees and the church is almost as old as Christendom itself, including everything from theology to candles. At the height of the season there can be upwards of 35,000 bees in a healthy hive and they are all family—mostly all female, in fact. They share the same mother—their monarch, the queen—and their common life together has long been lauded as a model for Christian community. Read more

From Shaking to Leaping

wtcco-dec-2016When I was preparing for my ordination, I was scared spitless to be in the pulpit and to preach in front of a congregation. My legs would start to shake at the beginning of the service, and I could barely stand. I did not come from a church that celebrated women pastors, so pastoral authority was hard for me to embrace. I realized that in order to survive a career in ministry without my legs shaking every time I preached, I needed something that would help me grow in confidence and establish my voice.

As unconventional as it might sound, l decided to try Scottish Highland Dance. Having studied the Scottish roots of the Presbyterian denomination, I thought Scottish Highland dance might be a perfect fit for me. Although most Scottish Highland dancers start when they are seven years old (or younger!), I found a teacher who believed that no one is ever too old to start dancing. At thirty-two, I joined a bunch of elementary school children who were learning the basics of the “Highland Fling.” Read more

En pointe ballet shoes

Raising the Barre: Faith Lessons from the Ballet Studio

En pointe ballet shoes“Alright everyone, let’s face the mirror and stand in first position, arms en bas. Give me a demi port de bras, then pause with the arms in second position.”

The adults – mostly women in their 20s and 30s – organize themselves into some semblance of a line as they follow my directions and arrange their body positions accordingly. If you have never taken a ballet class before, watching dancers respond to ballet lingo like this might seem pretty impressive. How do they know what that all means and what to do? you may wonder. I’ve heard from many of my students that signing up for a ballet class took courage because of how intimidating they thought it would be.

And indeed, ballet isn’t easy. Beyond the “lingo” that one must learn (and it quite literally is like learning another language, since all the ballet terminology is in French), the physical movement is a challenge. The turnout, posture, strength, and grace that ballet requires are all very foreign to the range of normal human movement. In teaching how to do an arabesque, for example, I find myself giving several simultaneous and sometimes contradictory instructions: Shoulders down. Shoulders back. Extend the arm. Don’t reach with the arm. Lift the chest. Straighten the leg. Point the foot. Lift the chin. Don’t stick the chin out. Indeed, ballet might be beautiful, but it isn’t easy. Read more

The author competing in a triathlon.

When the Collar Comes Off

The author competing in a triathlon.

The author competing in a triathlon.

On Saturday, I stood on the second step of a podium, hands thrust high in the air for winning second place in my age group in a local triathlon. On Sunday, I stood behind a pulpit preaching the gospel and then behind the altar to celebrate the Eucharist, my calves sore and the remnants of my race number peeling off my upper arm. I am an Episcopal priest who competes in triathlons. I am a triathlete who is also an Episcopal priest.

On Saturday, while I was standing on the pool deck in skin-tight spandex clothing, waiting for the race to start, I was talking to a friend and some other competitors. The woman near me remarked, “You look familiar. I think I know you. Where do you go to church?” I didn’t recognize her at all, so I asked, “Well, are you Episcopalian?” She gasped and said, “You’re that priest! My father-in-law is your organist.” She has attended Christmas services at my church, seen me sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, and now we are competing against one another. The look in her eyes was something between confusion and awe. Instantly, I felt awkward and exposed, my true identity revealed, like someone telling Superman, “I know you; you’re Clark Kent!” In that moment, wearing a swim cap and goggles, pre-race adrenaline pumping through my veins, my age scrawled in Sharpie on my left calf, I didn’t feel like a priest; I felt like a triathlete, like a competitor. I noticed that the woman was in my age group, and I decided that I wanted to beat her. Read more