Redefining Possible: CrossFit, Transformation, and 5 AM Trips to the Box

Kettlebells

It is a little before 5:00 on a Wednesday morning, and I am driving through the dark streets of West Hartford, Connecticut. There are very few cars on the road–few of us crazy enough to be ought and about. Where would one be going at such an ungodly hour? Well, it is time to come clean. I have caught the bug: I do CrossFit.

If you had told me a few years ago that I would be getting up in the pitch black to go and lift weights and do push ups, I would have given you quite a quizzical stare. I like my sleep (a lot), and given my medical history, I didn’t think I would ever be lifting anything heavier than my toddler.

When I was thirteen, I was diagnosed with bone cancer. The year of chemotherapy and the numerous surgeries that followed taught me a lot about my body and left it permanently changed. The tumor was in my left collarbone, so after the chemo shrunk the tumor, my left collarbone was removed. Because of the mobile nature of this bone, there is not yet (nor may there be in my lifetime) the technology to replace this bone. They cannot put in a rod or a donor bone the way they would if it were a vertical leg or arm bone. This means all the muscles in my left shoulder are now attached to each other rather than my collarbone, which means I don’t have the same skeletal stability in my shoulder that most people do. For instance, I cannot just align my skeleton and “rest” in plank position. On top of that, one of my chemo drugs can have long-term effects on my heart. My doctors have been cautious about how much anaerobic exercise I do. Can you see why I might be skeptical of doing something that involved lifting 50 pounds above my head?

Over the years, I have sought out fitness options that help to strengthen my shoulders and to just keep me in good shape. I have done yoga and rowing. Both of those were great in many ways, but somehow they weren’t exactly the right fit. Then, I started working for a bishop who is passionate about CrossFit. His stories about it intrigued me. One day, I saw a Groupon for a Box (what you call a CrossFit gym) in my town… and so I tried it. I haven’t looked back. Read more

Birds of Paradise

The author and her binoculars

My husband John and I were on our honeymoon when I was first introduced to what has become my most beloved pastime. Relaxing in a mountain cabin at the end of the winter, we enjoyed our first week of our marriage by feeding and identifying birds. “There is something Eden-like about it,” my husband had remarked sometime after we had identified a flock of juncos (and before I dropped his binoculars into the creek, ruining them). The following Christmas, I bought him a pair of water-proof binoculars to replace the old ones. He had also unknowingly suggested that his parents buy me a pair. I found this out just in time to jot a note on my gift to him: “So that you and I might share a day in Eden.”

More than a decade into marriage, and longer than that in ministry, I doubt either of us would now assert that Eden is well-represented by vacation. Perhaps closer to the story of Eden would be the act of identification: identifying a bird and calling it by name, which was, after all, one of Adam’s first works in Eden.

The best hobbies and interests allow us to follow our curiosities endlessly, however, and over the years I’ve found even more enjoyment from studying bird behavior than from identification. You can know what a bird looks like, maybe what calls it makes, but there is so much more: how it behaves at the feeder or with its young, how it builds its nest, when and for what reasons it migrates, weird things it does (waxwings watching the sunset, for example), whether it forages alone, with a mate, or in a flock (or like juncos, who could do any of those), whether it flocks with a different type of bird (as white-breasted nuthatches and purple finches sometimes do). Where I live, I have also learned to predict snow with reasonable accuracy by the presence and behavior of white-crowned sparrows under my feeder. And always, there is more to learn. Were I to live several lifetimes, there would be more to learn about birds, their behavior, and their habitat, and it is the kind of knowledge that does the soul good. Read more

The Pastor’s Advent

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As I write this, I’m sitting on my living room couch. I showered this morning, but I’m wearing what my husband’s aunt calls “soft clothes” – a sweatshirt, and lounge pants, and slippers.

I haven’t worn mascara in more than a week.

“What are you going to do today?” my husband asked me, this morning, while he packed lunches and I spread cream cheese on bagels for our daughters, who are 7 and 3.

“I have some writing to do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return those Christmas lights that are too short, and buy some candles for the Advent wreath.” That was the entirety of my to-do list, at least as of 6:30am. I tried not to feel like it was inadequate.

On my way back from dropping our youngest at daycare, I decided to make a lasagna. And then I decided that I would sit my butt down and actually read the two long-form articles that have been open in my browser for days, one of them maybe even for weeks.

The very idea of sitting down, uninterrupted, to read an entire long-form article – without feeling the whole time like I was supposed to be doing something else – was almost unfathomable. The possibility that I could just sit and read the entire thing, from beginning to end, rather than to read it piecemeal – a few minutes here while my kids are playing in the tub, and a few minutes there while I scarf down my lunch – made me happier than I’d like to admit.

I took the week off, you see. Read more

Chips and Salsa

May I Take Your Order?

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

Sometimes we do not choose when our collars come off; the choice is made for us. That’s how it happened for me. I was in a call I had loved for 6 years when I was told the position was no longer mine. I was given a 6-month severance package and a party, and then had to say goodbye to a congregation I had not yet planned on leaving, who had not yet planned on me leaving them.

I spent the first month resting, healing, having lunch with friends, and processing. I rejoiced in my ability to go home to be with family for Thanksgiving and to be home on Christmas Eve for the first time since I was ordained. I updated my Personal Information Form (PIF) and began the search for the next call.

The holiday season came and went, and January turned into February, and the wheels were still moving slowly. Things got…desperate. So I began the search for a job that would pay the bills in the meantime. It turns out, however, that if your Master’s Degree is in the field of Divinity, and you are an ordained minister, people really don’t want to hire you. I was on ten job websites, registered with four temp agencies, chasing every lead I could, and kept getting rejected. As the clock ticked towards when I would receive my last severance check, I took myself out to lunch one Sunday to one of my favorite restaurants. I sat at the bar, eating my food and listening to one of the hostesses tell a customer that they were hiring. I picked up an application on my way out.

The running joke in my house used to be that it’s always good to have a skill to fall back on. I had been a server and a hostess in high school and college, and the skills stayed with me. I had experience, I was good with people, I promised not to try to convert them to Jesus, and then I had a job: waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I wasn’t sure if my collar had come off for good. I kept my head down and served – literally. Read more

The Spiritual Art of Writing Icons

Jonah and the Fish

When I was diagnosed with cancer while in seminary, I started to question my faith and to question whether I was really following God’s call for my life. I knew I needed to find different spiritual practices to keep me grounded. So I started with the practices I knew: I would read the Bible and pray. Still, I felt like something was missing.

The Visitation

During one of my treatments, I noticed that a woman next to me would look at a card and then close her eyes. She and I began to have a conversation, so I asked about the card in her hand. She was holding a picture of an icon of the Virgin Mary and praying for Mary to intercede on her behalf. The icon itself was beautiful! She brought me a picture of The Visitation icon the next time we met, and I kept it inside my Bible. I enjoyed looking at it and being reminded of Mary and Elizabeth, but I used the icon in a different way.

Later, my husband heard of a local woman who taught iconography. He contacted her, found out there was an opening in one of her weeklong classes during the summer, and asked if I would be interested. Read more

Handmade soap

Beautiful and Useful

Handmade soap

Handmade soap

“It’s part chemistry, part magic, part artistry,” I tell my four year old loftily. He nods like he cares, as we plunge the stick blender into the bowl of water, lye, and oils. Carefully, we readjust our safety goggles as the mixture emulsifies, beginning to turn into soap. This is the second batch we’ve made today, the fifth this week. It’s much more than we need (though I do sell about two-thirds of what I make), and I can tell I’ve hit my threshold for stress when I deep dive into crafting. One summer in high school I made fifteen pairs of shorts in two weeks when my boyfriend was out of town. Moody teenager in my household always translated into new craft projects.

My professional work these days is as a pastoral counselor. I absolutely love working full-time in a group non-profit counseling center. I have a diverse client base, and I specialize in counseling children and helping people who have survived trauma. It’s interesting, and each day has something new in store for me to learn, experience, or help someone process.

But being the holding vessel for people’s hardships also takes its toll. I have a long history of eating my feelings, and have to be careful not to eat my clients’ feelings, too. Crafting helps with that, which is why I sew, knit, and make soap from scratch. Sometimes when I guest preach, I even manage to work a few crafting references or stories into the sermon.

Crafting shows up in many Bible stories, though for most of those folks, it was less a hobby and more a survival skill. Yet even so, there’s still a beauty to crafting for survival: people have always wanted to create things that are beautiful and useful. Beautiful and useful is what I’m aiming for with the soap.

If you’re going to be successful at making soap from scratch, there are a few important terms you must remember. They all relate to the fragrance or essential oils that are part of the soaping process. The terms are: performs normally, accelerates trace, and will discolor. Read more

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