a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attached

Untethered but Anchored

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attachedA year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.

The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.

I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.

Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”

Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago. Read more

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outside

That Awkward Moment: Making Small Talk as a YCW

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outsideWe don’t know each other well, but we’ve been chatting for awhile, maybe at a party, or at a playdate for our kids.

The subject of what we do for a living hasn’t come up yet, and we’re talking easily about other things. But then the time comes when we would normally talk about what we do for work and I don’t bring it up. You might wonder if it’s because I don’t work, whether I’m a stay at home mom or unemployed, so you think maybe you shouldn’t bring it up. But I can tell you want to tell me what you do for work and so I ask.

My hesitation is not because I don’t want to know what you do for work—I really do—but because I don’t want to answer it back. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s just that once I tell you that I’m a priest, everything about our conversation is going to change.

The first thing you’ll do is apologize for swearing.
(It’s ok! I have actually heard those words before. In fact, I’ve even said them!)

You start scanning my face to see whether I’m judging everything you do.
(I’m not.)

Then you worry you’re offending me with things you say.
(You’re not.)

You start to wonder if you can ask me all the questions you suddenly have. And sometimes you ask. And I try to answer them honestly, usually refraining from the snarky ways I’d actually like to answer:

Do women priests even exist?
(Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually a hologram?)

Are you allowed to have sex?
(No. My three children sprung from my head like the children of Zeus!)

You might feel awkward talking about what I do for living at all and so you ask quickly what my husband does for a living. You learn he’s a teacher, and suddenly we have lots of things to talk about. Everyone likes talking about teachers. The conversation flows on from there.

But then, sometimes….

You ask me about God.  Read more

white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent

white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent.

 

Mary of Nazareth’s body was heavy

too, or so we imagine in Advent.

She is often shown so

young and beautiful, demure and obedient,

glowing

though that may be the halo more than the pregnancy.

If we have ever met a real live pregnant woman, we might more realistically imagine

the lumbered steps,

swollen ankles,

short fuses

In the spring, this is how I imagined my Advent: the glowing, the beauty,

and too

the weight,

the exhaustion.

 

but with my hand to my belly

I feel no movement, no kicking or dancing or shifting

I am empty

 

not empty like the tired tropes of Mary the empty vessel waiting to be filled by God

I am empty of life

so empty of the baby that was due this month but

was lost

early

 

still I am heavy,

and instead of a

baby,

the grief kicks at me

 

All around me parishioners and family go get Christmas trees, listen to Christmas music

            A few lone voices cry out for waiting, for settling into Advent,

            slowing down.

 

I resist

Avoid

 

except

to set up an outdoor light machine in our living room just to say we decorated.

The world prepares for a baby

the way Mary herself could not on the road to Bethlehem:

scurrying, nesting, cooking, sharing glimpses of new life, celebrating with loved ones.

 

My baby would be coming this month.

I would be singing her Christmas carols and arguing with my spouse about

if we will teach her about Santa Claus,

but instead I am empty

 

my baby is dead.

 

I should have been heavy with something besides grief;

I should have been nesting and celebrating

or maybe binge watching Netflix with my ankles propped up

but instead I am out of touch with time

instead I sit on the floor

crying

these stupid lights playing across my skin

I wonder how I can preach good news on Christmas Eve

how I can treasure words of scripture and ponder them in my heart

when my baby isn’t laying even in some makeshift crib like Jesus did

my baby is dead

and I am so empty

 

Comfort, oh comfort, my people, says your God.

Every valley shall be lifted up…

 

I may not spend this Advent or Christmas as Mary did.

I may not be able to gaze into a manger or read of wise men bringing gifts,

But there is

still

still

something in this time of waiting for me still

Hope.

 

Maybe not hope for a baby.

But hope that God interrupts our pain to speak tenderly to us,

sit on the floor with us without even turning off the outdoor light display that shouldn’t be on indoors

that when God put on flesh,  

God felt grief kicking inside, God was weighed down by the heaviness of grief

too

 

If God is in a body like mine, a failed body,

 

maybe God is in me too.

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more

giving tuesday logo with the text #GIVING over TUESDAY with a cross-hatched heart instead of a 'V' in 'Giving'

Why We’re Thankful

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States, making today #GivingTuesday. We asked our Young Clergy Women International Board members why they are thankful for this organization and why they give to YCWI.

giving tuesday logo with the text #GIVING over TUESDAY with a cross-hatched heart instead of a 'V' in 'Giving'Here are some of their responses:

“I’m thankful that YCWI enables me to experience the depth and width of the body of Christ. I have learned so much from my sisters in other denominations and I would not have found that in any other place.” –Sarah Hooker

“I’m thankful for YCWI because my ecumenical experience has been vastly expanded by learning how to navigate many ways of being church. I’m especially thankful that we get to do most this in an online community that works hard to be healthy. Plus, I’ve made friends along the way who get what it’s like in my weird little corner of ministry!” –Bre Roberts

“I am thankful for YCWI because the online community has been a supportive place to ask my newbie pastor questions. The online community was especially helpful for me when I was in rural ministry and in-person community was harder to come by. Now that I am in an urban area, I’ve been thankful for the local friends and colleagues I’ve connected with through YCWI.” –Kari Olson

“I’m thankful for an international sisterhood that gives me breath when it’s hard to breathe, smiles when I want to cry, and strength to press on and press in when I want to give up. I’m thankful for learning new ways to worship and for having access to endless resources when I need them.” –Dwalunda Alexander

“Early on in my participation in the FB group, I asked a question about abortion. That question produced a thread that I have never forgotten, because of how gentle, kind, and GOOD it turned out to be. I learned, was challenged, and was given space to explore my own perspective without condemnation. I have never been in another group that I would feel safe to post that question in. I’m thankful that YCWI truly does provide a place of meaningful engagement wholly different than most areas of the internet.” –Elizabeth Grasham

_____________

Though not all members of YCWI celebrate Thanksgiving in their respective nations, we encourage everyone to celebrate the gift that is YCWI! If this organization has helped, encouraged, empowered, or strengthened your ministry (or the ministry of a young clergwoman in your life), please consider a gift this #GivingTuesday and become a monthly donor to help sustain this organization all year round.

 

Donate Now

 

Pressing on to the Kindom of God

Group of people marching down the street with signs.

The author joins a caravan seeking shalom in her city, marching in solidarity for justice with immigrant neighbors.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for this publication on the significance of the United States having elected our first female President. I wrote it before the election, obviously, but hedged things in such a way that it could still be tweaked and published in the very unlikely event of Hillary Clinton losing the election, which, of course, is exactly what happened. After the defeat, even the “also ran” article hit nerves too raw, and in the end, it was all scrapped.

The past two years have unleashed and unmasked so much in our society. White supremacy, nationalism, and all kinds of fear and hate have been emboldened and empowered. The hate has been deadly. At the same time, there has been a greater public resistance than any I have seen in my lifetime. I joined the throngs in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. “The Future is Female” shirts started popping up everywhere. The #metoo movement has seen progress in holding powerful men to account for sexual assault, though we still have a long way to go.

A fire has been lit for many women who are mad as hell and not going to take it, to borrow from the movie Network. The 2018 midterms saw the greatest number of female candidates in any election, the greatest number elected, and resulted in a number of firsts: the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, one of whom is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to congress, one of whom is lesbian and a former mixed martial arts fighter; the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; a Latina who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

There is much to celebrate in all of this, as our elected representatives start to become just a little more representative of the diverse population of the United States. It’s a start. And yet. Lest we get too comfortable, or too self-congratulatory, I have a message for my white sisters: we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Read more

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-title

Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, A Review

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-titleA well-hosted dinner party is a work of diligence and artistry. Even leaving culinary gifts aside, strategy and insight go into cultivating the guest list, arranging seating, introducing new topics of conversation, drawing guests in and lifting up the commonalities and unique expertise around the table. By the end of the evening, all the guests feel well-fed, not just by the content of the meal but by the characters around the table.

In Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, authors Emily Swan and Ken Wilson invite the reader to a sumptuous 3-course feast around a table filled with friends both familiar and yet-to-be-made. First, let me introduce you to our hosts. Emily Swan and Ken Wilson co-pastor Blue Ocean congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their story of leaving the Vineyard (charismatic, evangelical denomination) congregation where they previously served (a church that Wilson himself planted) folds into the content of the book.

Swan’s approach is shaped, in part, by her experiences as a missionary in China, by her wide range of reading interests, particularly theological voices from the margins and by her own story of falling in love and coming out as a queer woman. Wilson’s contribution to the text is shaped by his interest in mystics and patristics, his own experience of bereavement in the loss of his wife and by his evolving conviction regarding the full-inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within his native evangelical Christianity.

In this book, our hosts prepare a three-course meal. First is the premise from which the book derives its title: “It’s enough to say a living Jesus is the final authority in Christianity.” (15) Rather than the doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what if the church were led — now and always — by Jesus as revealed in Scripture and experience, in other words: “solus Jesus?” To this end, the authors introduce readers to Jewish scholarship, early church and recent church history—especially some of the finest work within their own charismatic, Pentecostal tradition—to prove the validity of experience as a teacher. One wonders if Martin Luther himself might agree with the authors’ premise as he never intended Scripture to be interpreted outside the received and living tradition of the church.

The second, most filling, course offers up an opportunity to investigate more recent theological understandings of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Rather than penal substitutionary atonement, where the primary work of the cross is to satisfy the wrath of God in God’s own son, scapegoat theology teaches that to look to the cross is to see all those who have been cast aside, misunderstood and crucified by our world’s insatiable demand for defining who’s in and who’s out. In a uniquely Christian response to hate, understanding Rene Girard’s view of Christ as victim on the cross allows us to gain a new lens by which to value and to stand in solidarity with all those who are victimized in our world — and our churches — today and, in particular, those  LGBTQ+ members of the Christian family.

The third course is the richest option, in which our hosts ask us to act according to the theological convictions laid out in the previous two courses. Again, pulling from a wide range of sources, our hosts ask us to consider this question: “What if we could learn to step away from the magnetic pull of rivalry and learn to be with each other differently?” (321) In a startling last chapter, our hosts leave us to consider the implication of a “non-rivalrous Gospel” amid other world religions.

Throughout each course, our hosts draw out the other guests around the table: their own Pentecostal tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Rene Girard, Jewish midrash, Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodoxy, inviting each to interact with the hosts’ and readers’ own stories of faith. In this way, the authors of the text model their own thesis—a wide welcome in solidarity with Christ who identifies himself on the cross with all those who have been excluded from invitation in the past.

If I could be afforded one quibble it would stem from my own Calvinist-Reformed theological conviction, of which the authors write, “It’s difficult to picture solus Jesus taking root in churches tied to sola Scriptura as their institutional narratives (the Calvinist-Reformed and Lutheran sectors, in particular.)”  (362) In fact, a notable exclusion from this book’s guest list is Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest Calvinist-Reformed thinker who wrote, precisely, in favor of the centrality of the Word-made-flesh rather than the word of holy writ.

This is why, in many Reformed congregations today, you will hear the reading of Scripture prefaced not by “Listen to the word of the Lord” but, rather, “Listen for the Word of the Lord.” Surely there is some collegiality between Barth and the authors of this text. I would have delighted to hear his voice afforded a greater hearing at the table.

It is probably safe to say that this book is not for straight-ticket theological voters. Each voice around the table deserves its own consideration and, whether you are coming from the hosts’ own evangelical charismatic background or not, you will have opportunity to re-evaluate your tradition’s certainties and to wonder about the wisdom just past the borders of your own theological construct.

I’m struck by both the patience and the impatience of this book — arguing their case with urgency but rarely brushing off those who disagree — struggling to make the circle wider in a way that does not attack but that comes alongside. In this way, it reminds me of another host at another table who invites us to come, to partake, to remember and to believe as part of a community that is not made by our own choosing.

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

Reclaiming #BLESSED

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

#BLESSED

My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.

Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic.[1] In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.

To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.[2]

Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”

Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Read more

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a box

A Prayer for Election Day

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a boxEven as we speak the words
“A Prayer for Election day”
We find in our guts
the traces of humanity:
in suspicion
in wondering
what kind of prayer this might be.

For what are we asking of you,
Divine One who gave us voice
And thought
And will

What shall our petitions be
On this day we deem to set aside
For democracy
For exercising each of our own
Civically gifted political authority

And yet, still, we have need of you
Of your Wisdom and your Word.
In spite of and because of
This worldly yet holy belief in our collective voice
For it is exactly that divisiveness our suspicion breeds
That we seek to heal and make whole

So we come to You,
God of a power that is beyond our understanding.
With these prayers for our day of voice and vote.

 

For all those who vote, for their diverse voice and conviction, and for our collective discernment as national community.

We pray to You.

For the casting of ballots, may they become our voice of your creation, calling out the promise of your Love and Justice.

We pray to You.

For candidates and ballot measures and all those who work to share their message

We pray to You.

For our thoughtful considerations, debates, discussion and research

We pray to You.

For just access to ballots

We pray to You.

For volunteers and election workers and their equitable exercise of stewarding the election

We pray to You.

For what seems to us the inevitable tragedy of voter discrimination

We pray to You.

For the waiting and the watching, for our doubts and our dreams

We pray to You.

For all those who will be elected this day and for all those who currently hold public office, that their work might be enlivened by Spirit’s stirring toward our common humanity.

We pray to You.

And for the courage in the days to come to continue to seek and speak our values that are rooted in Your Love and Promise,

We pray to You, O God of Love
Who gives us voice
Who convicts our thoughts
And who calls us to lives of justice, peace, and reconciliation.