An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

Swords Into Plowshares

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

I would like to begin by sharing a bit of how I came to realize that gun violence is my problem, and not only can I be a part of the solution, but as a Christian, as a human being, as a mother, I have to be.

I grew up in rural Maine. Many of my family and friends are gun owners. Hunting is a way of life in Maine – and a source of food for many Maine families. Guns were a part of my environment growing up, but they were a tool for protecting livestock from predators and for getting food. Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country, but one of the lowest gun crime rates, so I simply didn’t encounter the issue of gun violence. I went to college in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where there certainly is more gun violence than in Maine. However, it didn’t come close to me, so sadly it was easy to ignore.

The reality of the issue of gun violence began to be real for me when I spent my first year of ministry working as a hospital chaplain in New Haven, Connecticut – a city that sees numerous shootings every year. I remember how my colleagues who had been there a long time would lament when the weather began to get warm in the spring because it meant the guns would come out, and there would be an increase in shooting victims arriving in our Emergency Room. No longer was gun violence something that happened “out there;” it was close and real.

But then I left hospital ministry and worked in a small town parish and on a PhD in theology, and gun violence stayed at a distance. However, it was through my parish work that I began to learn that gun violence did not need to be a permanent reality. I learned about stories of hope and transformation. The parish in which I was working, and our diocese of Connecticut, have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Lebombo in Mozambique. Through that relationship I learned the remarkable story of what had happened to the guns at the end of their civil war.

Their bishop started a program that quite literally turned swords into plowshares. People were invited to trade in their guns for farming equipment and tools of industry. And the people did. Over 800,000 guns were turned in. Those guns were turned into artwork, such as the cross above, which is made from the pistons of an AK-47. The good work of the people of Mozambique give me hope that transformation is possible.

Since 2011, I have worked on diocesan staff, and I was in my office on the 14th of December 2012 when I began to see news alerts that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Since I have chaplaincy training, I offered to go with my bishops that afternoon. We spent the afternoon at Trinity, Newtown, planning a prayer service for that evening. We ministered to anyone who came in the door and heard heartbreaking stories – particularly when it became known that a six-year-old whose family was very active at Trinity was among the victims. Hundreds of people poured into Trinity that evening. The shock and terrible pain was evident on every face I saw that night. Read more

Naming the Desert

Figurines in the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church’s Godly Play set.

There are moments in ministry when I feel marvelously competent: when a child interrupts my Sunday School lesson to make a connection to something we learned weeks or months ago, when I preach a sermon that I know said what needed saying, when the kids I work with lead such a great Ash Wednesday worship experience that my not-so-liturgical church gladly embraces it.

And then there are moments when I know I have no idea what the heck I’m doing.

This year has been full of the latter kind of moments.

Two years ago, when I was asked to serve as moderator of my state denominational organization, I was flattered. I would be added to the list of great people who’ve come before me in that position. It would look awesome on my resume. And I was assured it wasn’t too big a thing. Over the course of the three years of service, I’d plan our annual meeting once (a lot of work, but doable work), lead coordinating council and business meetings (a bit out of my comfort zone as a minister to children and families who seldom uses those skills in the local church, but still doable), and eventually recruit a dozen or so people to rotate onto the council (children’s minister = volunteer recruiting champion). So I said yes.

Little did I know.

During my moderator-elect year, the organization dealt with a difficult situation that landed me in hours and hours of tense and frustrating meetings and didn’t end in a way that made anyone particularly happy; a fairly contentious council meeting just before I took over as moderator made the general discontent abundantly clear. Then, just as my moderator year began last April, the organization found itself without a staff at all, barring an administrative assistant who’d begun work the same day the last of our former staff departed.

The good news was that there were transition guidelines already in place. I just had to follow the directions for appointing committees, hiring an interim, and operating in the meantime, plus do a fair amount of guessing and hunting down answers about how things were normally done in the office. It was a time-management challenge, but it was mostly okay. Follow the rules as they’re laid out. Ask questions. Figure out who has what pieces of the institutional memory.

The bad news was that I also had to lead a fall council meeting for a group of people who were frustrated with one another and with the position we were in as an organization. There was nothing in the transition plan about how to deal with that. I’m a nine on the enneagram. I hate conflict. I want everyone to be happy. Gulp. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her daughter’s birth

Mary, Full of Grace

“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
~ Luke 2:19

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her  daughter’s birth

Mama’s Hope: the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her
daughter’s birth

From the age of three I knew that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up. I would play house with my sister and my friends for hours upon hours, gently cradling baby dolls in my arms, singing sweet lullabies to them as I pulled out my briefcase, planner, and cellphone and pretended to be a successful business woman like Melanie Griffith in the film Working Girl. In my world, women grew up to be everything and anything they wanted to be – mother, wife, business woman, president, and captain of the soccer team.

So when I “grew up” and became an adult, I was certain that I could and would fulfill all of those vocational calls God had imprinted upon my heart at a young age, especially those calls I felt most strongly: to be a wife, mother, and pastor.

With determination, risk, luck, and grace I entered seminary and fell in love with a man who was perfect for me. Together we decided to wait to have children until I was ordained and employed in a congregational call. After a whirlwind trip to Europe for our delayed honeymoon, we excitedly took the big leap of tossing out my birth control pills and opening ourselves to the anticipation of pregnancy and the birth of a child.

As months went by and my periods came like clockwork, we kept reminding ourselves of the statistic that seems so hopeful and promising: over 80% of couples conceive within a year. Probability was on our side. And then a year went by, and then a year and a half.

I had been pregnant once before and had a miscarriage, during my congregational internship, when I was on birth control. So why was it so hard to get pregnant now?

We saw a fertility specialist. We went through myriad tests. Just as we were set to begin fertility treatments, I discovered I was pregnant. It was such joyful news! We were ecstatic and began to dream of our child. Several weeks later, I laid in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy that had caused my body to go into shock. I was in deep grief at this loss and in a haze at the thought that my life had been in severe jeopardy from what was supposed to be the most joyous of news. The hospital chaplain visited and tried to console me, but instead triggered my anger as she declared that my baby was in heaven with God. I told her to go hell, and that I wanted my baby with me.

Life went on as I recovered. My husband and I committed to trying again on our own since I had conceived without any assistance. Another year went by. It seemed like everyone had a baby. I grew bitter, desperate, and I missed the joyfulness which had been a natural spring dwelling within me. Who was I to be if I couldn’t be a mother? Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

When Love Blurs

Helms and her husband, Greg, lead weekly “devos” from their home for neighborhood youth at QC Family Tree.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.

I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.

After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.

You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep. Read more

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

For Anneliese and Luke

 

I am a pray-er and writer

a speaker and singer

I am a word weaver and warrior

but you

have taken my words away.

 

From the breath and keen of labor

to the fog and ache of nursing

from the midnight

three

and five a.m.

giving myself

to the smile and sigh

and wet and messy

I have lost my words,

lost their place and purpose

their rhyme and rhythm.

I have barely enough presence

to play and read with you,

clean and dress you,

feed and comfort you,

rock and carry you

in my arms

in my heart

in my mind

every waking

and dreaming

and worrying

moment.

 

So these are my prayers, now,

these are my poems:

the kiss on your cheek

the light in my eyes

the fullness in my breasts

the cushion in my belly

the tightness in my back

the warmth in my skin

the love that swells my heart

to bursting.

 

These are the Words made Flesh

that I write, speak, preach, pray, sing

for you, my children,

fruit of my body,

beloved of my soul.

 

I am wordless

with wonder

erased

and re-written

by love.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

The Twilight of Easter

One of the most complicated aspects of losing Lily has been proclaiming Good News in the midst of resounding darkness. In my anxiety over preaching on Easter, a Young Clergy Woman International colleague reached out and shared a sermon she had written in a dark time in her life. I leaned heavily on her words in finding my way to the truth of Easter. Thank you, Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, for your kindness and witness to the love of Jesus. Below, you’ll find the words I preached on Easter Sunday this year.

Mark 16:1-8

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we gather in this church to hear the Good News of your resurrection, that death has been swallowed up by your victory. Help our eyes adjust to the light of new life as we sit in this twilight. Give us courage to mirror your own vulnerability as we seek resurrection in our own lives. Amen.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

Twilight

I’ve lived in a twilight world for just over two months now.

Since Lily’s birth and death, I have existed somewhere between sleep and awake. As the tulips and daffodils push up through mounds of mulch and my crocuses bloom with abandon, I am just barely beginning to pull out of the haze and into the warmth of spring. Finally, splashes of color are returning to the world of gray tones in which I have dwelled now for nine weeks.

The future that I’ve imagined, the reality I awaited is now gone. At first, days and nights flittered by. I remembered to eat because food showed up. I slept because the exhaustion of grief landed heavily on my eyelids. These days, I’m functioning much better, but one thing that hasn’t yet changed is my awareness of twilight. I am awake earlier these days, sitting in the not-yet morning light, surrounded by a blanket of hazy darkness.

This twilight is precisely where we meet Mary Magdalene. It was early on the first day of the week, scripture tells us it was still dark. Jesus’ death still hung heavily in the air; the trauma still so fresh it replayed itself any time she closed her eyes. She longed to be near him, her beloved teacher, to see once more that it wasn’t a bad dream, but that Jesus was, indeed, dead.

So she found herself on the path to his tomb in the twilight of that morning.

Because sometimes, new life doesn’t wait for the dawn.

Because sometimes, God acts powerfully in the darkness of our lives.

So often, we associate the Easter story with morning sun and cheer, with lilies and tulips, but when we take a closer look at John’s account of the resurrection story, we find that Easter— Easter begins in the dark of night. Read more

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more