The Book of Ruth: A Reflection on the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A note of thanks to the late Justice Ginsburg, written on the sidewalk near the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC on Saturday, September 19.

It’s midnight. At some point my sleepless child drifted off. I did for a while, but it didn’t last. I felt drawn to read the Bible. Of course, I turned to the book of Ruth. Where else, on this night, when we have lost RBG?

Ruth is an odd story in many ways. The whole plot centers around weird antiquated marriage customs. There are some scandalous sexy bits that don’t translate well into English.

It’s an odd story in the Bible, because it centers on the love and steadfast commitment that two women have for each other. There are only two books named for women. Very few Biblical narratives pass the Bechdel test.[1]

And it opens with the phrase, “In the time of the Judges…” which may mean very little to you. Judges is not a book taught much in Sunday school or preached much from the pulpit. It’s a depressing book about a terrible time in Israel’s history. There was a void in leadership, and the people “did as they pleased.” The nation was in shambles, constantly getting invaded and ransacked. The book of Judges reflects an extremely violent, gory, and chaotic era.

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A Trauma Informed Pandemic Ministry

Drawing close in the distance

When I modified the passing of the peace for worship on March 8, others in our county-seat town in Northwest Ohio didn’t seem concerned about the virus yet. I received some funny looks but mostly laughs, and the congregation went along with it. On the way out the door one of our oldest members came up to me and thanked me for changing the way we passed the peace. She explained that she too had been worrying about the virus since she was in the vulnerable population. I shared with her that I understood where she was coming from. I am immunocompromised and take immunosuppressant medications, so I too, am in the vulnerable population. This virus was on my radar, and I was prepared to do whatever I could to keep my people and myself safe. When our administrative council met later that same week in March and made the decision to worship via videos, a switch flipped inside me, and I became not only a pastor, wife, and follower of Jesus, but also a crisis manager.

In the early days of the pandemic I was running on pure adrenaline, waking up every day at 4:30am because I couldn’t sleep. I was filled with ideas about how to reach out and offer Christ to my people through the ingenuity of the internet. The Holy Spirit was working on overdrive in my life and I was pouring out peace, love, and mercy to my people in the name of Jesus. I was constantly texting to check on someone or calling to make sure one of our shut-ins was doing ok. I wanted to share God’s grace and love to try to help people get through this with their mental health intact. All my leftover energy was spent making sure our online Easter worship service was “special and meaningful.” The online service was beautiful and turned out so well. Then on Easter Monday, something in me clicked again. I was exhausted. I think for the first two months of the pandemic I had been so focused on making sure that others were ok that I had forgotten to care for myself.

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Praying while Frayed

“even when we are at the end of our rope…” -Rev. Elizabeth Grasham

Let’s pray together:

We try to have a good attitude about it, God,
but sometimes we just run out of juice for that.

We’ve got no more energy to pivot,
to try things a new way,
to have patience.
It all boils out.

Sometimes we stop talking, and sometimes we talk too much.
Sometimes we yell, and sometimes we cry.

Sometimes we dread the future,
and sometimes we find ourselves nostalgic about the past.

But we give thanks, God,
that we can show up to you on Sunday mornings
even when we are at the end of our rope

It turns out that when we show up, you give us more.
It turns out you’re the one we hold onto.

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I’m not praying for you.

I’m not praying for you.

“I am not praying for you,” poem copied in walnut ink.

I’m not praying for you.

I’m not praying for you.
As if your tears don’t carry the weight of your hurt,
and God is somewhere else
waiting to be paged by the righteous.
As if the mother alone in her room-
partner gone and babies asleep-
crashed into the mattress and eyes closed before she offers her thanks
is ungrateful.
As if the someone in the mass grave is any less loved
than the one with the power who put them there.

I am not praying for you.
As if my words are more connected, holier, or more well-received.
As if the right sentence- a seance of spirits or those who have “the gift”-
will unlock salvation.
Like those who have spent time in the book, in the books- wrote them.
Or the posture matters.
You will not find that heavier words
Sink in faster.

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Finding Voice: A Review of The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

“Yeah, I guess I’ve never gotten into Sue Monk Kidd’s books because nobody gets murdered in them,” my friend explained when I was talking with her about The Book of Longings. “Well,” I responded, “spoiler alert: someone does get murdered in this one. Jesus.”

Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel alongside non-canonical scripture

The Book of Longings is Kidd’s long-awaited new novel. I heard about it on NPR and listened to other clergy talk about it excitedly. I was not interested, but between the extra reading I was doing to survive the pandemic and my desire to always be on the lookout for church-related summer reading book club books, I picked it up. Though I’m not a big murder mystery reader, my friend’s desire for something fast paced and exciting was exactly why I was not interested in the book. Frankly, Jesus fiction is boring. As a pastor and creative writer, I have tried to weave together my work subject matter and my love for fiction and it never works. Jesus in my work and others I’ve read is always too nice. A serene, ethereal bore with a great smile. I even thought Christopher Moore’s Jesus in Lamb is a little bland, and Moore did not care about offending Christians!

Kidd does better than most in writing Jesus, perhaps because of her desire to focus on Jesus’ humanity. Kidd’s Jesus is sensual, thoughtful, frustrated, empathetic. Though she doesn’t depict sex scenes, Jesus makes love to his wife. We see scenes where he gets angry, where he questions, where he works long hard days. However, Kidd still writes him as a little too much of a good guy like in other Jesus fiction: he looms charismatically for his wife in parts of the story where it would seem more real for there to be a rift, like when he leaves her to follow John the Immerser. Toward the end of the book, his wife’s devotion to him seems to make less sense to me, as though Kidd was unconsciously relying on us to just think of Jesus as always wonderful instead of showing us what of him was so lodged in his wife’s heart even when they were separated.

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A Review of Speaking Truth: Women Raising Their Voices in Prayer

In early March, a copy of Speaking Truth arrived at my house, and I was excited to read it. I was busy pastoring during Lent and making plans for Easter, excited for this celebratory season in the life of the church, so this collection of prayers and reflections seemed perfect.

Speaking Truth: Women Raising their Voices in Prayer was published by Abingdon Press in February 2020.

And then, a few days later, everything changed. COVID-19 quickly rewrote all our daily patterns and our expectations.

As I write this, we’ve been living in this pandemic for over three months; though stores and restaurants have reopened, cases in my community are spiking, so worship remains virtual and my family remains at home.

Three months is a long time… and yet, I can’t really remember what life was like before; this season has been an entire lifetime and a breath, both at once.

If you’re like me, you started quarantine back in March with a big stack of books and, in the midst of dread and fear and anxiety, harbored a small sliver of joy that you would finally have time to get to them.

ALL THE TIME! I thought. THERE WILL BE SO MUCH FREE TIME!!!

Then, if you’re like me, it was much harder to take advantage of that time than I anticipated. After several weeks of quarantine, the stack of books still sat on my side table, staring at me. I opened a couple early on and had a hard time focusing, reading a few sentences until I found my mind wandering to how to upload the next worship video or making a mental checklist of the parishioners I needed to call.

That was my experience with every book I tried to read… until I got to Speaking Truth.

What a breath of fresh air.

This book, published by Abingdon Press, is a follow-up to We Pray With Her, a collection of prayers written by women who sent daily prayers to Secretary Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign in 2016. Speaking Truth took that premise and expanded it, including more voices — particularly of women of color and queer clergy.

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The Mask

Did you know that for what seems like forever, I have had to wear a mask whenever I want to go out of the house? It’s a mask meant to protect me from an invisible disease. Did you know that people in positions of power knew about this disease but chose to deny it, and still do, for reasons unbeknownst to me? I don’t have the disease, but I am 100% certain that this disease is real. And I’m scared. I’m scared all the time. I am constantly checking to make sure that not only do I have my mask on, but I triple check to make sure that my spouse and child have theirs on too. I am obsessing over where they go, what they do, and how long they are gone. I don’t care what anyone says, this disease is real. This thing could kill us if we aren’t careful. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. No one leaves this house without a mask.

I have to say though, the irony of this is that the masks keep us as safe as any mask could in this situation; yet, I hate the things. I actually resent having to wear mine. It restricts my breathing in a way that makes me feel claustrophobic despite being in wide open spaces. It’s almost like I’m losing breath and have to work harder to breathe once I put it on. I long for the day when I can go out and expose my face to the elements and breathe naturally. Without the mask.

Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, the mask is saving our lives. My life. At least, that’s what the officials tell me. I went out recently and I actually got away with only using half of my mask. No one really said anything, and I felt I had a lucky escape. However, when I looked around there were people with no masks on at all! I couldn’t believe that. In the middle of all of this, that someone would be bold enough to still go around with no mask on to protect themselves is incomprehensible! Most people of a certain age should know better! I mean, I knew I was taking a risk to only utilize half of my mask, but I never would’ve gone out with no mask at all. Now, I will admit that there are times that I forget to put on my mask and it’s not until I get too far from home to turn back that I remember that I am not covered. I normally recite a long list of expletives in my head beating myself up for not remembering to put it on before I left the house. Still, I am pretty crafty and can normally whip up something in a pinch that will do until I get back home. That’s happened to me a few times. It’ll be once I am about to enter an essential place that I get a glimpse of my reflection in the glass and I race back to the car, or somewhere private, and figure out how to cover my bare face so that I can gain access and get what I need. But, not these people. Their faces were exposed for all to see and who knows what diseases they could’ve been carrying?! At some point while I was out, I resigned myself to just wear the mask like I’m supposed to and stop trying to be more comfortable. There were more important things going on around me and soon enough I would be back in my car headed home where I could be free from the mask for at least the remainder of the day.

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A Protest Chaplain’s Story

It was muggy and warm and not really comfortable in Atlanta that day. A minister friend and I put on our clergy collars, parked at the local church, and walked to the George Floyd protest. The national guard had blocked pedestrian walkways, forcing us to walk an additional mile just to join the others that had gathered. Armed soldiers were everywhere. Police were in full riot gear. It seemed as if the city “too busy to hate” was a warzone.

Protesters in Atlanta, GA gather in support of the Movement for Black Lives.

I did not fully know what I was getting into, but I was somewhat prepared. My friend and I had discussed what we were bringing, what we felt comfortable doing, and how we were going to do it. We stayed in contact with each other throughout and made sure we each knew what the other would and would not do.

But I had never been at a potentially violent protest before. I had participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., sure. I had been threatened with dismissal as a student (a couple of times, actually). I had even worked to get a local Confederate monument removed. I have never been one to shy away from challenging authority. But this was new.

My friend and I had been in a group of hot sweaty people who were yelling at police for only a few minutes when someone shouted “Allies to the front!” My fellow protest chaplain and I looked at each other, shrugged, and moved to the front of the line. A primary role for a protest chaplain is de-escalation. When allies are called to the front, the goal is to shield our siblings of color with our bodies. And a small white clergywoman in a collared shirt standing in front of a police line in full riot gear is a visceral image. We stood there at the front while our Black brothers and sisters chanted and talked and stood vigilant. Organizers handed out cold water and hand sanitizer and checked-in with people.

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We Are Not All Having the Same Experience: Clergywomen with Children and Covid-19

Several days ago John Dobbs wrote an article entitled “The Coming Pastoral Crash.” Clearly this piece speaks to some deep truths that many are experiencing because it has already been shared by a number of clergypeople with whom I am friends with on Facebook.

You can read the full piece for yourself here.

I don’t know John Dobbs but I suspect that my theological tradition is very different from his tradition. That being said, I think he makes a number of excellent points but also leaves out some crucial parts of what some of us are experiencing.

Dobbs points to the fact that many are doing ministry in entirely new ways, ways that we are not trained or fully equipped to do. He highlights the fact that not gathering together in person does not mean that we are not working just as much (or more) then we did back in March.  We not only lack the training for this new way of ministry but we also may lack the electronic equipment to do it well and with ease. Again and again, I hear stories of my clergy colleagues making do with smartphones or tablets, make-shift tripods and unreliable internet connections. When Zoom went down a week ago on Sunday a huge number of my clergy colleagues had to desperately search for fixes, or start recording worship to post later, or switch to an entirely new platform. It was a stressful day for them and required an extreme amount of work. This has been the story of the pandemic, especially for smaller or less wealthy congregations. Clergy are trying to Macgyver engaging digital worship experiences and religious education opportunities armed only with a spork, an elderly laptop and grit. I see the emotional strain of this in many of my colleagues.

Dobbs also points out that many previous work boundaries have not been maintained during this time of crisis. Many clergy are finding it impossible now to take days off, vacations, Sundays off and are working at all times of night and day. Although I entirely agree with Dobbs on this point, I think he misses something significant: clergymen are not having the same experience during this pandemic as clergywomen with children.

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The Lonesome Valley of Birthing this Holy Week

New life is coming into a sick and suffering world for me this Easter, just as it did that first Easter. As I sat reclined in the dim monitoring closet of my OBGYN’s office listening to the heartbeat of the new life growing inside me, I realized I was beginning to understand Holy Week in a deeper way. I feel my feet matching the footprints of Jesus as he made his way to the Holy city for the last time. My child is due to arrive just after Easter, and so this Holy Week I walk the lonesome valley of doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and monitoring alone; even my husband is not permitted to join me. The virus has turned our world inside out and this joyous time into a time of great fear and sorrow.

Fetal heart monitoring

Last week, I felt resolved to let go of my visions for birth and instead just show up when it was time to do what I must. “We’ll just do what we have to do,” became my mantra every time a new worrying arose. But as I sat in a mostly deserted waiting room on Monday of Holy Week with my N95 mask on, I struggled to breathe and couldn’t help imagining what trying to breathe through contractions would be like with a mask on. Breathing got harder and by the time the nurse took my blood pressure things did not look good. As I reclined hooked up to the fetal heartbeat monitor, I wondered if Jesus had a similar resolve that he then lost. Palm Sunday’s mantra could have sounded like mine: “Just get to the city and do what you have to do.” But of course, just a few verses later in John 12:27, we hear Jesus is “deeply troubled.” Having defiantly removed my mask to breathe easier and hopefully lower my blood pressure, I feel some comfort at the thought that perhaps Jesus waffled a bit this week too. He showed such grace in getting in his last lectures and final blessings, and then in the garden he prays for any other way. I totally get it, Jesus. If there is any other way, I’d love to hear it too. But we both know there isn’t. The only way to new life is through death. The only way to bring this new life into the world is by entering the halls of death, risking, fearing, and hopefully, eventually trusting God will bring us out again. Knowing you’ve been through it already helps for sure, but I’m most appreciative to know you had moments of doubt and fear too.

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