Exceptional

“Oh, but you’re one of the good ones.”  

I heard this from adults for most of high school. Usually pronounced with bittersweet bewilderment, it would be followed by a conversation about the surprise at my presence. As a teenager I was highly involved in the Church. (My call and ordination maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me.) Church was both refuge and fun for me. As a young overachiever who was a bookworm and enjoyed learning, I first heard these words with hope. I wasn’t, as I sometimes feared, unpopular because I was unlikeable. If I was exceptional, perhaps I was misunderstood—and what teen doesn’t like the idea of being misunderstood.

Too quickly I realized that exceptionalism did not make me less lonely. Whether it was for not being popular or not being ordinary, I was still isolated.  

As my peers and I began to mature, and I found more friends my own age, I gained new appreciation for the slight that had been offered to my equally accomplished and committed peers. It was, I increasingly discovered, easy to surround myself with peers who share my values if not my faith. My knowledge of which did not stop the comments. I kept hearing about my “exceptionalism” for the decade I spent being the youngest. The youngest person at a meeting, the youngest priest in the room and the diocese.

I am no longer the youngest priest in the diocese—though I’m often still the youngest person in the room. But I still hear how “exceptional” I am. Now that it is not rooted in my age, it catches me off guard more often. It sneaks up in conversations as they turn to refugees and immigration. It doesn’t start with the bewildered sadness in these conversations. Far more often its confused anger. “Those people” who come here and are a drain on our system, by stealing jobs or tying up resources. I am an immigrant. Read more

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

What’s a clergy group to do?

In a clergy group, I’m looking for the unafraid—the folks in ministry who see the turbulent journey ahead as one full of opportunity and excitement for the church, even amid real challenges.

I have a friend, also a pastor. She wants to start a clergywomen group, wants to know what I’d like to get out of a thing like that. We both belong to other groups—with and without men—and we discuss that we’re not sure what we’re meant to get out of those groups, either. We like them—but we can’t tell if they’re for conversation and prayer, hivemind troubleshooting, networking, collaborating, or some hybrid of all of the above.

Of course, all of this prompts the question: What am I looking for in a clergy group? Am I looking for camaraderie—for colleagues in what can otherwise be a solitary calling? Am I looking for wisdom, for the experience and insights only a more seasoned pastor could offer? Or maybe the freedom to be female, and a few cautionary tales from other female pastors who’ve gone before me?

When I try to conjure an ideal, for some reason, my thoughts keep circling back to famous bands of writers or artists who produced in unison and shared an artistic legacy. I think of the Beatniks, Lost Generation, Algonquin Round Table. I also think of Silicon Valley incubators. I think of groups better than the sum of their parts, groups that foster innovation and usher in real breakthroughs.

Ministry in the twenty-first century isn’t for the faint-of-heart, we know. Here on the West Coast, where I live, we can’t take anything for granted. Old models of ministry seem to be failing fastest out here. I am constantly confronted by the very real limits of what I was taught in seminary. Most recently, in conceptualizing the shift happening, I’ve been guided by the thoughts of Alan Roxburgh, author, pastor-theologian, and fellow Pacific Northwesterner, particularly his suggestion that it’s inaccurate and complacent to cling to a narrative about it being the church’s season to grieve. The time for grief is over for most of us, Roxburgh declares, and the way forward looks like faithful, communal discernment.

In his book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, that discernment happens in congregations. But it will also happen outside of them. I’m hoping it will happen in clergy groups. Read more

“Out of the Bathroom, Into the World”

The author (bottom left) and her youngest daughter (top right) pose with Board Members of Young Clergy Women International, 2017.

“You need develop a pastoral identity. It comes with time. Don’t worry, it will come.”

One of my dearest seminary professors told us this over and over, and I believed him. It would come: I would be able to see myself as a pastor, the more time I spent learning, watching other pastors, performing pastoral tasks myself.

The problem was this: there were precious few pastors who looked like me. I went to the seminary of a denomination that was early in its process (lo, these many years ago, way back in 1999) of ordaining women to ecclesiastical office, a denomination that had resolved its differences for the time by allowing a provisional, regionally based version of women’s ordination. There were 55 students in my MDiv class. Only 5 were women. There was one woman on the faculty of my seminary, and she wasn’t ordained herself. By the time I finished seminary and was ordained, there were fewer than two dozen ordained women in my denomination, and precious few who had, like me, gone straight through college and seminary into ministry as their first career.

During those four years of seminary, the safest place to think about myself as a pastor was the women’s bathroom. The seminary building, designed mid-twentieth century with exclusively male seminarians in mind, had no women’s bathrooms in the area where the classrooms were located. But over by the administrative offices, there was a large women’s restroom with an attached women’s lounge, a holdover from a time when the only women in the building were secretaries. That was the safe place for the handful of us women who were students. I laughed and cried and hoped and dreamed with my classmates in that space. We were honest there, most honestly ourselves, but we had to put up a facade when we left the bathroom lounge.

And so the bathroom was really the only place at my seminary where I could work on my pastoral identity as a female.

I learned to be a woman pastor in that bathroom. But I still had a murky picture of my own identity, because I had precious few places to look for examples. Read more

A Love Letter to My Swamp Monsters

When you are ordained, you agree to love your congregation in the name of Jesus Christ. When you like them and when you don’t, you love them because, well, that’s just the deal you’ve made with God. In seminary they told us this would be both infuriating and holy work. What I didn’t learn in the classroom was that, as a pastor, you are given a front row seat to the stories of diverse, fascinating people of Christian conviction. To be a pastor is, in the best case, an opportunity to praise God for the work of the people of God.  To give thanks while observing the intellect and compassion of God’s people as they pursue vocation as a primary, 40 hour-a-week vehicle of Christian discipleship.

I pastor a church of about 100 in Washington, DC. Our church is part of a small denomination in the lineage of Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper who wrote, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus does not cry out, ‘This is mine!’” So, from earliest days, our church members were told, in church and Christian schools, that every subject they could ever study is part of knowing and thereby coming to love God’s broken and beautiful world. Almost any vocation can be, if you know where to look, a part of Christ’s Kingdom being redeemed.

Many of our church members attended denomination-affiliated colleges and universities that taught them to pursue of all kinds of work – philosophical, scientific, political, legal – as a means to benefit the common good. After graduation, these intrepid disciples of Jesus Christ went to graduate schools, pursued careers and moved to DC – not in opposition to their Christian faith, not even as a neutral parallel track to the journey of Christian faith, but precisely because of their sense of uniquely Christian calling.

Nearly a third of our congregation works for the government in a spectacular array of acronyms: DOD, DOJ, DOS, DOT, EPA, FDA, USDA, USAID, NASA, and a handful even work on Capitol Hill. Even folks who don’t work in government directly – educators, journalists, NGOs and non-profits – are inescapably connected to government fluctuation, personnel, and finance here in Washington, DC. It’s an honor to stand in the pulpit every Sunday to remind all of us that we matter to God and that our work matters to God. To celebrate the thoughtful folks attempting what their childhood churches, their Christian schools and Reformed universities told them was good, meaningful and even holy work. Read more

Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. Read more

How to Dress for a Protest

This past Saturday, our Iowa winter weather pushed above forty degrees. The sun was warm, the air was humid, and the sidewalks were filled with puddles. It was a perfect day for our community’s Women’s March. It was a terrible day for figuring out what to wear.

I knew that I wanted to wear my clergy collar. I knew that I didn’t have any shoes that were both waterproof and comfortable for walking. I knew that I would regret looking too casual. I knew that I would regret looking too fancy.

I pulled on some black leggings and my gray jersey-knit clergy dress (with collar). I layered a half-zip fleece and a black puffy vest. I zipped up my brown boots (the flat ones) and challenged myself not to step in too many puddles. I slung my green cross-body backpack over my shoulder and filled it with meager essentials – wallet, cell phone, water bottle, a granola bar, some lip balm.

Finally. Dressed and ready.

Except for one thing. A hat.

The week prior to the march, I had purchased a skein of the bounciest, softest, squishiest pink alpaca yarn – the sort of yarn that I can only afford to buy one skein at a time. I loaded it onto my knitting needles and, a year out of fashion, knit myself a pink hat, square at the top so that subtle kitten ears would emerge when I pulled it onto my head. I’d finished the hat on Friday night and deemed it the softest, warmest, most comfortable had I’d ever knit.

I grabbed it on my way out the door. But instead of putting it on, I shoved it into my backpack, woefully indecisive about whether to wear it. Woefully indecisive about whether I should have made it in the first place. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be wearing my collar to the day’s march and rally. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be heading out the door at all, especially with my four-year-old son in tow, who had resolutely informed me that: He. Was. Going. With. Me.

He and I walked, hand in hand, along the bike trail toward Mary Christopher park, the kickoff spot for the the Decorah, Iowa edition of the Women’s March. As we walked, I tried to explain to him, in four-year-old terms, that this march was a way to say that everybody is special, and everybody deserves love and homes and food and doctors and jobs, no matter who they are. I tried to explain that we were marching because we believe that God loves everybody – everybody!

As a person of faith, I am convinced – convicted, even! – that God’s love and mercy are for everyone. I believe that God’s grace is the great equalizer. I believe that we receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and wholeness and hope in order that we can offer those gifts into the world. I believe that following Jesus means that we have an inescapable call to serve one another and to show self-giving compassion for all people and all creation.

It should have been easy for me to march. It should have been easy to wear my faith on my sleeve.

But the closer we got to the gathering crowd, the more insecure I felt. I was conflicted about bearing my faith into the public sphere. I worried about what I was wearing. I felt anxious about who would see me, what people would think. I was wearing an incredibly comfortable outfit, and still I felt so very uncomfortable. Read more

Naming Names

A colleague wrote on Facebook, wondering why women in the church have yet to join the wave of harassment and abuse allegations now crushing the establishment of entertainment and media like a tsunami. “Are we enslaved to fear, or just irrelevant?” she mused.

It was at the end of the longest day of these revelations in a while, and I know this colleague advocates for victims, and so I did not run with my first reaction–which was to break out the CAPS LOCK OF RIGHTEOUS ANGER about victim-blaming. I knew that wasn’t what she meant. I knew she was asking the question of the institution, not of me. But my reaction to her question was the same one I have of some many people asking a similar question, over and over:

“Why haven’t women been naming names until now?”

In that question, I hear the harmonies of men asking why women who are assaulted don’t come forward earlier, or don’t report assault to the police. They ask, “Why don’t you, as a victim, act in a way that relieves my discomfort in having this occur in my carefully-ordered world?”

Of course, as is repeated again and again, there’s no “perfect victim.” There’s no correct way to behave when you are traumatized. And our institutions are set up to protect the perpetrators in power, and not the victim. Sometimes that bias is subtle, and sometimes (looking at you, Congress) that bias is right smack in front of our faces.

That bias is also present in the narrative about naming names. That narrative is predicated on the assumption that previous to this moment in time, women did not talk about what happened to them, but when you think about that, it’s ludicrous. Women have been naming names for decades, and there is plentiful evidence of this once you start looking for it. Read more

Blessing our Caregivers

Third Sundays in our congregation are healing Sundays. During communion, two healing ministers position themselves behind the altar rail, anointing oil in hand, to offer healing prayers and blessings to anyone who approaches them.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for themselves – prayers for upcoming surgeries and for broken relationships and for grieving spirits.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for loved ones – prayers for family members in medical crisis or friends in economic distress.

Some people come forward asking for nothing in particular. They just want to hear again the good news that God binds up the broken-hearted and promises healing for us and for all creation.

Healing ministers lay hands on their shoulders, pray, trace the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads, and remind them, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God, and you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” There is nothing in death or in life that can separate these beloved children from the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

It is a privilege to pray for healing. But as a church we recognize the great privilege it is for so many of our members to be called into the work of healing as their vocation, both inside the church and out in the community.

We have many caregivers in our congregation: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, hospice workers, guidance counselors, and the list goes on. At least once a year, we take the opportunity as a congregation to craft a Sunday morning worship service around themes of healing and caregiving, and to offer a special blessing for all the caregivers in our midst.

We believe that Jesus walks with all who are in need. We believe that Jesus carries us through our times of trouble. In the same way, Jesus empowers those who care for the needs of others and Jesus strengthens us to carry one another through times of trouble. Our experience of healing most often comes through the blessing of human hands and hearts that have been set apart for the work of tending to body and spirit. Caregivers of all kinds do this holy work. Their vocations take them to places of immense joy and profound grief. Their work is vital.

When we bless our caregivers in worship, we recognize and honor their gifts and their work. We involve the entire assembly into the blessing process, whether by using a spoken dialogue, inviting members to raise up a hand in blessing, or inviting the assembly to participate in a laying on of hands. We ask God to bless our caregivers and to give them strength and peace in their vocations. Should you want to include a blessing for caregivers as a part of your community’s worship life, here is a template to help you get started: 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