a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Holy Hearing & Holy Forgetting

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Lenten confession

When it comes to confession, Anglicans have historically leaned hard on the “none must” part of the traditional phrase, “all may, some should, none must.” Confession is a scary thing to contemplate. It’s too Catholic. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too …. vulnerable. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans I’ve met aren’t even aware that private confession is available to them. It’s a rare thing to see drop-in times listed on the sign outside an Episcopal church, the way there often are on Catholic ones.

While it’s true that we don’t believe sacramental, private confession is a requirement for every Christian, over my years as a priest, there has scarcely been a greater privilege than to hear the confessions of penitent sinners, and proclaim to them that their sins are forgiven. The first parish I served was pretty high up the candle, so I had heard ten confessions before I did my first baptism. Some people made appointments to come and see me before a big gnarly medical procedure that frightened them. Other people came during drop-in times, because it was routine for them. A habit. Whatever their reason, they all left with their shoulders a little lighter for the sharing of something that had burdened them.

As a semi-regular penitent myself, I’ve felt the lightening of the load that comes from receiving the good news that my sins are forgiven. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how big a mistake I’ve made, God forgives me. No matter how mad someone else might be at me, no matter how much I still might need to make amends to them, God forgives me. I’ve recently gotten into the mindfulness trend of building stillness into my day, and sitting quietly with a meditation app when I get stressed, but there is no app like hearing another human being who has heard the very worst things I have ever done respond by telling me God still loves me.

No matter your denomination, no matter your relationship with the tradition of private, sacramental confession, there is value to the ritual of making regular, intentional confession. While it’s something you could begin to practice on your own – lighting a candle, perhaps, and kneeling in the privacy of your own room – I strongly believe that having a human listener is what makes private confession so powerful. For many people, one of the benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person your worst thoughts, the worst things that ever happened to you, and to have that person tell you that so many others have experienced that same feeling. That you’re “normal.” We so often feel very alone, and it’s comforting to hear that other people are in the same boat.

So if you can, find a confessor. Some evangelical traditions have relationships called “accountability partners.” What if you found someone, not to judge you and keep you to account, but to tell you, regularly tell you, how much God loves you in the face of the worst things you’ve ever done? Someone you could trust to keep that secret? While Anglican sacramental theology would encourage that to be an ordained person, entrusted with the authority to administer God’s sacraments, there’s no reason that for Christians with different theological views it couldn’t be a trusted friend of any order of ministry. Read more

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Confession: Holy Peace

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Waiting For the Word

Anyone who knows me well has heard my story about confession. Actually, you don’t even have to know me well to have heard my story because I’ve preached on it, I lead with it in my book on confession, and I often use it to describe what it feels like to hear a confession.

As an Episcopal priest, I have the honor of occasionally hearing people’s private confessions. These are sacred moments when people get to lay down the burdens that they have been carrying – burdens of guilt, shame, and the pain that comes from knowing you have done something that has put you out of relationship with those you love. In this role, I continually run up against the need to let the weight of my own sin go as well as helping others do the same. It is an awesome responsibility. And because of my story, I know the importance and magnitude of what can happen when that option and gift is denied to someone.

My story goes something like this: When I was young I decided I would like to try private confession. As an Episcopalian, I’d only experienced corporate confession on Sundays. Since my church did not openly advertise the rite of reconciliation, I decided to go to a local Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday (by skipping class with my friend – which was the first sin I was planning on confessing). They were offering private confession to those who wanted to begin Lent free from the burden of their sin.

As I took my place in the surprisingly long line up, I began to catalog my sins. My trespasses and brokenness began to weigh heavily on my soul. I thought of more and more ways that I had “wronged” God. By the time I finally took my turn in the confessional, I was not only on the verge of tears, I was incredibly elated by the idea of being able to “get rid” of the sins that had tarnished my soul.

As I stepped in the confessional, I decided that I should not add to this list of sins by lying to the priest and told him right away that I was not a Roman Catholic. I told him that if he would listen to my confession, I would feel lighter and understood if he could not offer me absolution as an Episcopalian. He replied, “No. Please leave now.” Read more

baby asleep being held by adult

Real Family Values

baby asleep being held by adultI am sitting in my office at the Seminary where I teach on the second day of a new semester. Last year at this time, I was home on maternity leave, finishing out the summer with my three kids, including my two-month-old infant. One year later, I’m better able to process the importance of the maternity leave I received from my then-new employer.

I remember my mother, who is a pediatrician, telling me how she took as little maternity leave as possible. When she started having babies she was a resident, and would have to make up any hours she missed at the hospital, adding them to an already grueling and sleep-deprived schedule. I was shocked by this, until I faced the same reality thirty years later in a Christian organization.

When I was pregnant with my last baby, I found out that if I missed teaching courses, I’d have to make those hours up in subsequent terms. This would have meant teaching an overloaded schedule for two terms while pumping every three hours, not sleeping well, and adjusting to life with a new baby. I would have done it, because it was my job and my vocation. I would have done it because I have a partner at home who could help and because we had childcare for which we would have to pay. I would have done it. It would have been awful. I would have suffered. My children and husband would have suffered.

This was not the reason I left that institution, yet I am so very grateful that my current institution did not ask me to make up those hours I missed while I was getting to know my new baby, nursing round the clock, and trying to figure out how our family of five was going to function in a new location with both parents starting new jobs. I was able to take my maternity leave and come back to work ready to teach. I jumped into a team-taught class mid-semester and taught a regular load the following semester. No, my baby was not yet sleeping through the night, but I was able to think and function fully in my job. My body had healed. And I knew I had the support of my institution in my calling not just as a professor, but as a mother.

I know that in the United States, I am in a small minority of women who have had such a good experience with maternity leave. According to Pew Research, the United States trails the world in paid parental leave even though we have increasingly more two-working-parent households, and many where the mother is sole or primary breadwinner.[1]

For comparison, my brother lives in Norway. Here’s the parental leave policy there: “After every birth, the parents[2] both benefit from a two-week leave and then divide up the 46-week parental leave paid at 100%, or alternatively, 56 weeks paid at 80%. In this way, Norwegian babies spend their first year with both their parents. To encourage men to take care of their children, a special 10-week quota is reserved for them. If they are reluctant to take pappapermisjon [paternity leave], they lose the 10 weeks, since the time can’t be transferred to the mother and the whole family loses out. The results have been spectacular. In Norway, 90% of fathers take at least 12 weeks’ paternity leave.”[3] Read more

Puerto Rican flags hanging downward - red and white stripes with a white star in a blue triangle

Holy Spirit Movement: Puerto Rico Se Levanta

Puerto Rican flags hanging downward - red and white stripes with a white star in a blue triangle

There is a phrase that has become a rallying cry for Puerto Ricans, whether on the island, mainland, or those of us in authentic solidarity with la gente Boricua: that phrase is Puerto Rico Se Levanta, or Puerto Rico Will Rise. Our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters have been in mourning over the loss of the lives of their neighbors and families. Their hearts are broken by the incompetent and insufficient response of the U.S. Government to offer aid and recovery.

Though I am not Latina, I speak Spanish as a second language and serve a bilingual (English/Spanish) and multi-cultural church in Chicago. Our church began praying the moment we learned how devastating both Hurricanes Irma and Maria were to God’s people in Puerto Rico. We are a majority Latinx church; some of us have family still in Puerto Rico, and many were waiting anxiously for weeks, and even months, to hear that good news that God had delivered their lives from the devastation. My own suegro (father-in-law) migrated to Chicago from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico over sixty years ago. But the Holy Spirit moved our church to do more.

The Holy Spirit spoke to us of the work of deliverance through the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 61. Our church is located in a part of Chicago that has been an enclave for Puerto Rican migrants for many years, with the neighborhood of Humboldt Park developing what is known as Paseo Boricua in the late 1960s, and Humboldt Park still being a focal point for Puerto Rican culture, food and celebrations today.

Our church building was built with twelve apartments. Over the years, our congregation has utilized the apartments to house waves of immigrants and migrants, starting with German immigrants when the church was built in 1928. For almost twenty years, the apartments were used as domestic violence transitional shelter for women and their children, while our church basement was a transitional shelter for single men. In those years, our church began a program that is now a separate non-profit called Center for Changing Lives that is about helping people escape the cycles of poverty in a way that honors each person as creative, resourceful and whole.

The women and men we were honored to house engaged in coaching, holistic financial education, and goal setting. The majority of them now own or rent their own homes. For almost five years since Center for Changing Lives and our church became separate entities, our church has utilized our apartments for low-income housing in a part of Chicago that is being rapidly gentrified, where studio apartment starts at $1500 per month. Read more

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

10 Things I Wish All Clergy Understood About Pregnancy Loss

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

Doctors estimate that one in four of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.

And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.

Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.

Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:

Not all pregnancy losses are alike.

My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.

This may not be a one-time event.

Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.

Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything. Read more

Transgender at the World Council of Churches

“Cultivate your interconnectedness.” -GETI Small Group Leader

When someone says to you, “Hey, I think you should apply to go on this trip to Africa and, by the way, we’ll pay for it,” you just apply! It was a long time before I grasped what I had actually signed up for, never having heard of the World Council of Churches (WCC) or the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) before the invitation to apply. But in the unfolding, I found more life, hope, and joy in the global church than I ever knew I would see in my lifetime.

Joining 120 young people from around the world in Arusha, Tanzania, for the GETI program, I was blessed to participate in the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. The theme of the conference was “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.” My participation in the conference was graciously covered by the PC(USA) Mission Agency as the office sent six delegates to participate in GETI. Being a part of the GETI program meant extra homework and (more exciting than the homework) the opportunity to learn alongside other young theologians in small groups and with various speakers who came to share with us.

Upon arrival at the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge, it became clear to me that the GETI students brought the youthful energy to the overall conference of about a thousand global Christians. It was about halfway through the week when the conference, I assume wanting to bring a little bit of that youthful vigor to the event, had the GETI participants lead a sokoni. “Sokoni” is a Kiswahili term that means “marketplace.” The idea behind having a marketplace at the conference was that it served as a place where conference-goers could gather to exchange ideas, stories and activities.[1] But I’m not sure the conference leaders realized exactly what they were unleashing when they asked a group of fiery, young, social justice-oriented participants to demonstrate how youth like to engage in mission.

7 people standing holding signs supporting protecting transgender youth, 1 person kneeling

“Protect Trans Youth” demonstration at World Council of Churches

Amidst the marketplace, a group of us offered up a version of a protest demonstration. Our marching and our signs were not directed towards anything at the conference but, instead, were intended to demonstrate the kinds of issues young people care about. Our signs read things like, “Water Is Life,” “Xenophobia Must Fall,” and “Black Lives Matter.” My sign read, “Protect Trans Youth.”

For much of the conference, I had felt invisible. Being gender non-binary at a global conference (particularly a global Christian conference) is not the easiest thing to do. A big part of this uneasiness came from the fact that in many languages there are just no words yet for gender identities outside of the gender binary (male or female). Some languages, like Spanish, are very binary driven and this translation barrier caused much confusion when I brought up my preferred pronouns: they/them/theirs.

But something changed for me as I was holding my sign during that sokoni. Read more

Please, Let it Be Just Me

Image text on dark background with mountains and clouds says: "How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me." Allison Unroe

Image text says: “How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me.” Allison Unroe

Years ago when I was in youth ministry I found myself deep in conversation with a group of freshman girls in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. It was dark and cold — winter in the Blue Ridge mountains — and I’d driven a 15 passenger van loaded with kids through the ice and snow that day. I wanted to be in bed, but I knew this was important.

It had started as a bit of a joke — a sort of, “I bet we can get Allison to say that there are circumstances in which someone deserves to be raped.” The hypothetical situations they threw out were outlandish at first, but quickly the giggles had subsided and the what-ifs got very real. “What if she’s wearing a tight top and short skirt?” Nope. “What if she’s sloppy drunk and making out with him before she changes her mind?” Nope, not then either. “What if she’s walking alone at night when she knows she should  have a friend with her?” Still no.

At around 3am the 14 year old leading the charge completely deflated. Her face fell. Her shoulders slumped. She gazed at the floor and mumbled, “I know you’re right. But you’d never convince my dad…”

I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, not math. I still don’t know my multiplication tables beyond the easy numbers – 1s, 2s, and 5s. But I also know my fours. I know my fours well because a man I knew and trusted raped me. Before I became a survivor, though, I was an advocate, so I knew the numbers. Back then the statistics said that one in four or five American women would be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And so I started counting.

In meetings at work and in worship at church and in workshops on retreats, at family gatherings and at dinner with my friends, I count. “One, two, three, four, five—I’m five,” I say in my head, “Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me. Let my suffering be sufficient for all of us.” Once the numbers tip past six women I start hedging my bets. “What are the chances there’s another survivor here?” I already know. They’re way too good. Read more

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

All I Really Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Daniel Tiger

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

Sofia and Nadia, daughters of the Rev. Angela Flanagan, enjoy educational programming on a long car ride.

One day in the preschool carpool, the kids asked to listen to Daniel Tiger. I found myself listening to the familiar tunes with new ears. I thought of the classic book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and wondered if perhaps we could say something like this for ministry. Perhaps those songs could apply to ministry and life in the Church too? So, dear fellow Christians, particularly those in positions of Church leadership, I invite you to consider some lessons from Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger to enrich our life together:

What Do You Do with the Mad that you Feel?

Feelings. They come. Sometimes in the Church we try to deny that they are there, but then those big feelings rear their heads in ugly ways. When that happens, we have a tendency in Church to think that we just have to tolerate it, even when big feelings are expressed in inappropriate, hurtful, and harmful ways. Being Church does not mean we have to tolerate unjust or inappropriate behavior. It means that we speak truth in love and call each other to be our best selves. We need to learn how to recognize our feelings and then express them appropriately. This is where Daniel Tiger can help. When we’re facing challenging conversations or situations – when we feel like we’re about to roar – wouldn’t it help to take a deep breath and count to four?

Friends Help Each Other

No matter our age, our ordination status, or our place in the hierarchy, we are all in this together. We all want to have happy lives. We want to thrive. We want our children’s future to be better. How do we live this out? We realize that we are all in this together. Working together in Church isn’t always easy. When conflicts arise, do we assume the best of each other? How can we be even more generous, and build each other up, rather than fighting over resources, or affirmation? As the body of Christ, we have to recognize our reliance on each member, and Daniel reminds us that friends help each other.

Look a Little Closer . . .

It is a widely held principle among Sociologists and Psychologists that the way to undo stereotypes is to get to know someone in that group. When we are afraid, it is so tempting to back away and distance ourselves. What if instead we followed Daniel’s advice and engaged? What if we looked a little closer? Just like turning the light on to discover that the “monster” under the bed is just a stuffed animal, we can learn more about those things that initially make us fearful. What if we did this as a Church? Read more

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

The Myths and Mystery of Fertility

“So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”– Genesis 1:27-28

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

Both myth-debunking research and deep spiritual truths from powerful authors created space for the author’s journey; and shared space in her basement meditation corner.

From the very first time the concept of sex entered my understanding, I was made to believe that having sex = getting pregnant. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that myth came from. Maybe it was my own culturally-informed reading of the Genesis passage (Sex was for procreation and maybe for pleasure if I was married), but don’t think I’m alone in having held this myth close to my heart for so long.

Even as I became an adult, went to seminary, and reconciled my understanding and respect for good science with my deeply held beliefs and faith-life: this poorly researched and inadequately thought-through myth persisted. When my husband and I met, and were planning our wedding, I was incredibly concerned with accidental pregnancy; I thought missing a single birth control pill was going to lead to pregnancy and I was going to screw up my whole candidacy and potential ordination process.

Given the enormity of this myth built up in my insides, I was understandably surprised when I went off birth control on purpose during our second year of marriage and… nothing happened. Then, something happened, but it wasn’t what my fertility-myth-laden heart expected. Just before my first early-OB appointment the first time I finally got pregnant, I miscarried. I felt totally alone, like something was wrong with me, as though somehow my body wasn’t doing its God-given job. This potential reality pissed off my little perfectionist over-achiever brain, and made me feel totally ashamed that something in me was broken and not normal.

That’s when my OB/GYN recommended a healthy dose of Brené Brown (seriously, my OB is that awesome) and pointed me toward the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, for some good, contextually-researched science on my situation. I was 32 years old. I had considered myself a feminist for much of my young adult life. And yet this was the first time in my life that I was reading information about the science of my biology that matched the lived patterns of my flesh and bones. It turns out, my 26-30-day fluctuating cycle with an overly heavy 7-day period was not something “wrong” with me at all.

“The belief that cycles are 28 days and ovulation occurs on Day 14 is so entrenched in the medical profession that when a woman’s cycles vary from that standard, the variation is often presumed to be a potential concern. “Irregular” cycles are seen as problematic….”  – from Taking Charge of your Fertility

These words felt like Gospel to me. After all, when have I EVER believed that God created with normativity as the goal? As I let these words that felt like God’s YES sink into my bones, my broken heart began to heal around trusting what I already knew to be true but was now unexpectedly embodying in my fertility journey: that God is a God of mystery, a God of change, and a God of detail beyond my human understanding. Read more

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and sky

The Importance of Mental Hygiene

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and skyMany years ago, one of my mentors moved from a large, prominent church to serving a mid-sized church. I suspect that she had brought with her some of the big-church cultural anxieties, with an emphasis on high performance and adopting best practices from the corporate world. She told me that a couple of months into working at the new church the senior pastor said to her, “God brought you to this church, and maybe God is not as interested in doing something through you here but more to do something in you here.”

She told me this anecdote with evident joy and appreciation. In the years since the senior pastor had made that insight, I could tell that she had given herself permission to relax and find greater freedom and grace in her ministry. I resonated with her story and filed it away in my memory as a good invitation of how to understand my own ministry.

Five months later, I ran a half-marathon. It was an okay experience, but during the race I started to realize just how negative my self-talk was. My thoughts included: “You’re so slow.” “You didn’t train hard enough.” “You don’t push yourself like you should.” I finished the race. I had wanted to complete it in under 2 hours, and I finished it in 2 hours and 20 seconds. I was disappointed with myself.

I went for a run less than a week after my half-marathon, and while I jogged that morning, I thought of how consistently some variation of the line “not good enough” played in my head as I ran. I sensed the Holy Spirit urging me to reframe running, just as that senior pastor had reframed ministry for my mentor. Maybe God gave me running not as something for God to achieve through me but God had given me running to change something in me.

Friends, I needed to be honest: I’m not going to be an elite runner, and I need to be okay with that. My shame and guilt around my slow pace was unhelpful. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” the protagonist said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. But that hadn’t been my experience: I have been much more attuned to my displeasure than God’s pleasure. My displeasure was very much connected to my performance, which I judged to be mediocre. I realized that I placed too much of a value on output and being productive, but, if God is more interested in doing something in me, maybe the outcome of my running didn’t matter that much. Read more