Wear the Red Dress

I will wear red.
I will wear the red dress, even though
you will talk behind your hands to
wonder out loud –
what is she wearing
why is she wearing that
is that even appropriate
should a [insert literally anything here] be wearing that.
I will wear red.
I will wear the red dress
because you will notice something or other about me anyway
My haircut
My breasts
My ass
My legs
My shoes
My weird laugh
My voice that’s too high.
I will wear red
like the tree last to shed her leaves
that hussy show-off
she burns as her leaves die, her falling apart
is absolutely stunning.
She sheds her death like a skin
a beacon, a burning bush.
I will wear red like her.
I will wear red.

Shared Leadership: Lessons from YCWI

Kelly Boubel Shriver (left) and Molly Field James (right) during their terms as co-chairs

After serving three years as a co-chair of YCWI, I am beginning my third month as “just a regular board member.” I am loving that I get to spend my final year on the board with the fabulous women of the editorial group. It is a joy to have the opportunity to lift up the voices of our members and to educate the world about the experience of being a YCW. And I even get to write occasionally!

While I am happy and excited in my current role, I am also aware of what is missing. I am no longer the co-chair. Serving in that capacity, I had the privilege of working with Kelly Shriver and shepherding the organization through some tremendous growth and transformation. It was time for me to step down, and I don’t miss all the challenges and responsibilities of that work. It is nice to have a little break from it. What I do miss, though, is the collaborative nature of that role.

As often happens, when you no longer have something, you become all the more aware of how wonderful it was. I have been reflecting on the gifts of collaborative leadership lately, and my most valuable insight has been that I can carry those gifts with me in the rest of my ministry. I might even be so bold to say that the model of collaborative leadership practiced by YCWI has some lessons for the whole church. Here are my top five reasons that collaborative leadership is a gift. I hope they are helpful in your context. Read more

The author with a fellow Moms Demand Action member at the annual Virginia Interfaith Lobby Day for Gun Violence Prevention

Striving for Justice and Peace Among All People: Advocacy, Activism, and the Baptismal Covenant

During Baptisms, Easter and other special occasions in The Episcopal Church, churchgoers are asked eight questions known as The Baptismal Covenant. It begins as a statement of faith laid out in straightforward question and answer style with questions aren’t all that questionable.

Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Then the covenant transitions into questions about how we will live out our faith.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching, their fellowship, communion and prayers?
Will you resist evil and return to God when you sin?
Will you proclaim the Good News of God in Christ?

And to these three questions we respond heartily, “I will, with God’s help.”

But then there are the last two questions, which have always been far more radical to me than the six preceding them.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Again, we respond, “I will, with God’s help,” but I’ve always wondered what crosses through folks’ minds as they respond.

These fundamental promises define who we are as Episcopalians. The way in which we live and move and have our being as Christians is deeply embedded in these baptismal promises. We know that seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for peace and justice among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being are things we should be doing as followers of Jesus Christ, but, truthfully, I found living out these promises incredibly challenging while working as a parish priest. Read more

Chips and Salsa

May I Take Your Order?

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

Sometimes we do not choose when our collars come off; the choice is made for us. That’s how it happened for me. I was in a call I had loved for 6 years when I was told the position was no longer mine. I was given a 6-month severance package and a party, and then had to say goodbye to a congregation I had not yet planned on leaving, who had not yet planned on me leaving them.

I spent the first month resting, healing, having lunch with friends, and processing. I rejoiced in my ability to go home to be with family for Thanksgiving and to be home on Christmas Eve for the first time since I was ordained. I updated my Personal Information Form (PIF) and began the search for the next call.

The holiday season came and went, and January turned into February, and the wheels were still moving slowly. Things got…desperate. So I began the search for a job that would pay the bills in the meantime. It turns out, however, that if your Master’s Degree is in the field of Divinity, and you are an ordained minister, people really don’t want to hire you. I was on ten job websites, registered with four temp agencies, chasing every lead I could, and kept getting rejected. As the clock ticked towards when I would receive my last severance check, I took myself out to lunch one Sunday to one of my favorite restaurants. I sat at the bar, eating my food and listening to one of the hostesses tell a customer that they were hiring. I picked up an application on my way out.

The running joke in my house used to be that it’s always good to have a skill to fall back on. I had been a server and a hostess in high school and college, and the skills stayed with me. I had experience, I was good with people, I promised not to try to convert them to Jesus, and then I had a job: waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I wasn’t sure if my collar had come off for good. I kept my head down and served – literally. Read more

Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey

Ask a YCW: Disaster Edition

Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey

Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey

Dear Askie, I am so devastated by the news of so many recent disasters—Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and so many others. Watching it on the news just breaks my heart. What can my church and I do to help?

-A Concerned Church Member

 

Dear Concerned,

This is such a great question. For help with this one, Askie turned to the Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, a young clergywoman who serves as a Disciples of Christ pastor at Heights Christian Church in Houston, and who experienced Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath first-hand. Elizabeth writes, Read more

Ask a YCW- Halloween Edition

Halloween_Pumpkins_by_bartoszfDear Ask a YCW,

I found this great sexy pope costume online. Is it ok for me to wear it to the Halloween Party at my church tonight?

Party Pastrix

Dear Party-

No.

Ok, maybe not an outright no. But there are a few questions you should ask yourself about appropriateness before wearing this costume, and the chances of you ending with a yes are very slim. From Askie’s perspective way off in the internet, the idea of you dressing up as a sexy pope is HILARIOUS, precisely because it is about six different kinds of wrong, but the reality could leave you with a pretty big mess when the Feast of All Saints rolls around. So let’s do some discernment. Read more

Newness of Life: How I Gave Up the Waders and Learned to Love the Water

Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.

I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.

I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.

So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.

Not so for me.

The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt.  My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels.

(The waders are only one of the tools of the trade through which I feel the weight of years of male pastors bearing down on me. Another big one is my lapel mike: I finally started wearing my robe at our informal service because there was nowhere to clip the battery pack when I wore a dress, and I refused to rig it up with duct tape, reality-TV style.)

So the waders don’t work for me. The water is too deep, or the drawstring isn’t tight enough, or they just plain don’t fit. When I lean over with the young woman being baptized, my arm braced on her back to help her back up, the water rushes right over those suspenders and down into the toes of those too-big boots, soaking my top, my skirt, and well, everything else.

And now I need to be back in the sanctuary in a matter of minutes to sing the closing hymn and offer the benediction. I strip off my damp pantyhose and put my robe back on, over my wet clothes. When I sit down, I can feel the dampness of my skirt soaking through the lining and into the outer fabric my robe. I think a few words that are not particularly appropriate for a clergy person on Easter morning.

“Can you tell I’m all wet?” I whisper to our worship team leader, who has been helping mop up drips on the floor. She stands behind me and tilts her head. I walk a few steps and turn, as if I’m modeling a new dress. “No, I think it’s okay,” she says, and I’m pretty sure she’s lying. “Can you just hold your hymnal behind you?”

I can’t quite see how that will be less conspicuous than a damp spot on the back of my robe, but I nod, because it’s time to go. I make it through the last hymn and muster up some enthusiasm for a few last alleluias, praying that the choir, standing behind me, is thinking more about the resurrection than my derriere.

As I process out in front of one of our (male) elders, and then stand strategically with my back to the wall and greet the Easter crowd, I decide, for good, that I’m done with the waders.

Baptism is ineffable, mysterious. A sacrament, a means of grace, a holy moment, an entry into the body of Christ, the family of God. It’s hard to describe what happens there, so it’s no surprise that when I talk to kids about baptism, they are mostly interested in the water. It’s symbolic, I tell them, it represents dying and rising with Christ. Yes, they say, but will the water be cold? They want to know how the water gets in there (a faithful deacon), and how deep it will be (just deep enough) and whether they’ll have time to blow dry their hair afterwards (no).

We need water to live, to drink, cook, clean. The waters of baptism remind us of the first breath of creation, when the wind from God swept over the face of the deep. The water reminds us of John standing in the Jordan, of Jesus rising from the waters with the dove descending overhead.

Of course, the over-sized bathtub at the front of our sanctuary is a far cry from the waters of the Jordan River. Some traditions make a point of going outside, to a lake, a river, the ocean, to do their dunking. I happen to like standing in the water in the middle of the congregation, in that space where the community gathers for worship and is sent out to work in the world, with the church family looking on and offering up their love and prayers.

Most people only step into those waters once in a lifetime. It occurs to me, in my wet clothes on Easter morning, that it is a gift, an honor, to accompany people in that moment. In a way, the waders set up a barrier between me and the water, implying that I can slip in and out, unaffected by this holy moment, unmoved by the Spirit that hovers over those waters, untouched by the challenge of the congregation to the newly baptized: Walk in the newness of life. When they come up out of the water, a little bit awed and just slightly out of breath, maybe I ought to be breathless, too. Maybe I ought to be wet.

A few weeks after Easter, I step into the baptistery again, barefoot this time, with a change of clothes waiting for me in the hall. I reach out to take the hand of a fourth-grader who has decided that she’s ready to enter, fully and completely, the body of Christ. She steps down, and the water embraces both of us. It is pure grace.

 

 

 

Sinners in the Hands of a Nursing God

Outwardly, I’m sure it looked as if I was listening intently as the assisting minister read from Isaiah. Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Inwardly, I was counting the number of hours since my daughter had last eaten, worried that my breast pads would not hold and that I was about to step into the pulpit and demonstrate the irrefutable truth behind this metaphor.

After years of infertility, testing, treatments, loss, and nine months of vomiting, I have entered new territory in my life: I am a nursing mom. A nursing mom-pastor, to be exact. I read someplace that we only encounter those “seventh and eighth weeks of Epiphany” lessons about once every twenty years, which seemed right for me – that the congregation and I are entering this newness together, a place we have rarely trod as a church. My male colleague has a daughter also, but she’s eighteen, and I doubt he ever worried about leaking onto his alb.

It seemed a little much for me to preach on those nursing texts at the moment. Too vulnerable, private, and intense for public reflection. Several mom-pastors reminded me of Heidi Neumark’s wonderful story from Breathing Space, about the time she letdown so forcefully that the color began to run from her stole onto her alb, but this is the sort of story you can only tell after the fact. Long after the fact, if then. So, no, I didn’t preach on the image of a nursing God.

But I carry it with me, especially at 2:00 in the morning when the house is quiet, my child wakes to eat and my husband is snoring blissfully. I curse him briefly, but the truth is, there is deep holiness in that night feeding. In every feeding, actually. I am grateful for the opportunity to do this. Breastfeeding was hard for us: painful, at the beginning, so much so that I nearly gave up after four weeks of it. We finally realized that our girl was tongue-tied, and once that was treated, it got much better (slowly). I struggled with the clear fact that we needed to supplement her with formula, since she wasn’t able to gain weight correctly until the tongue issue was resolved.

All those voices in my head repeating the mantra over and over again – “breast is best, breast is best” – they haunted me at night, during the day, each time I scooped the powder into the bottle and shook it up until it frothed and foamed and she gulped it as if she had been starving for days. Was I not enough for her? Was my body, so long a failure at reproduction, now destined to be a failure at feeding as well? Can a woman forget her nursing child?

Now we are into the rhythm of breastfeeding, and it has taken on a life of its own. Every two hours or so, my body reminds me that there is a child who is probably hungry – even when she is nowhere near. I can be counseling a divorced couple, managing a staff conflict, searching frantically for the remote control that turns on the TV in the youth room, presiding at communion and, bidden or unbidden, the milk comes. My body is not my own.

Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. The breastfeeding class teacher told us it might be hard in the beginning, but I had no idea how hard it could be. The pain level was nearly intolerable – and she ate 10 times each day. I bit my lip, gritted my teeth, cried hot, salty tears while my child wept her own frustration. We had to learn together, she and I. We were not naturals at this at first. Our relationship was not easy in those early days, the way you imagine mother-and-child-at-breast to be. It turned out that breastfeeding needed a community of support: my mother, friends, sister-in-law, and the merciful and gracious lactation consultants who would show us the way. They did not forget us.

It sounds like such a beautiful image, this “God as nursing mother.” Paired with the psalm for the day: “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast,” we read together, while I remembered the feeding session before church that morning. She was squirming, pulling, popping off the nipple to look around the room, latching back on to nurse forcefully for another 30 seconds before yanking off again to give me an irresistible smile. Not exactly the sort of “quieted soul” I believe the psalmist wanted me to envision.

They are messy, vulnerable, imperfect images. Of hard, painful, sometimes impossible realities. For there are costs to this life-giving work: interrupted sleep, pain, disrupted schedules, unpredictable needs, slow weight-gainers and poor latches and sharing such a private part of your body with another. It does not come easily. Even though you think it should, and consequently worry that something is wrong with you when it doesn’t.

Not so different from faith, perhaps. Which also interrupts, an impossible reality in the midst of your day. Bringing with it others who have unpredictable needs, difficulty learning the way, who make increasing demands upon your deepest self. Who are far from the ‘quieted souls’ we imagined pastoring in the early days.

And so we take our nourishment from a life-giving God. Who nurses us, despite the pain, the sacrifice, the disruption and interruption, the constant demands. Who responds with love, as if there were no choice – as if love simply poured from God like milk, let down because it cannot be stopped. Who will not, cannot, forget us, no matter how far we run. Who knows each time we cry, each time any child cries, for love cannot refuse to flow.

Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a child who needs to eat.

 

Prince Edward Island coast

A Pastor’s Scope for Imagination

Prince Edward Island coast

Prince Edward Island

When I was growing up, I would travel to Minnesota each year to visit my maternal grandparents. My grandmother had very strict parameters as to what content she would watch on her television.  Although she had cable and thus access to dozens of channels, she only watched Animal Planet and the Weather Channel because she deemed the others to be potentially sinful. An alternative to those television channels was the VHS version of a 1985 miniseries, “Anne of Green Gables,” and its 1987 sequel, “Anne of Avonlea.” I grew to love these videos, and I always opted to watch them over the Weather Channel. Returning to “Anne of Green Gables” year after year in my grandmother’s Minnesota living room left me brimming with the warmth of nostalgia and love.

The setting of “Anne of Green Gables” is Prince Edward Island (PEI), and scenery depicted in the miniseries made me eager to visit the Canadian island in person someday. I suggested that in 2017 the family vacation be to PEI. Happily, my family was on board and we spent two lovely weeks exploring the Atlantic Maritime provinces. PEI was gorgeous—the sand was distinctively red on some beaches; green potato plants were growing in neat rows; and the rural roads were dotted with quaint, old church buildings. In anticipation of the trip, I read the 1908 novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery that inspired the miniseries, and my appreciation for the fictional Anne grew all the more.

I love Anne’s emphasis on the pleasure and the necessity of having an imagination. Early in the novel, Anne declares, “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”  Read more

Me Too

silencing women

It started appearing on the Sunday afternoon in the week after the story about Harvey Weinstein broke. A simple Facebook post that caught me off guard and made me suddenly unable to breathe. It said:

Me, too.

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  #MeToo  

Please copy/paste.

There wasn’t just one or two or three. I stopped counting at 10. Most of these were posted by colleagues and friends who are also pastors.

I did not copy and paste. I did not add my voice to the mix. I have shared my story in the safety of Young Clergy Women International groups and with close friends and colleagues. But to make it a status…well, that would change everything.

I’m looking for a job. Will this influence employers who may see it? Will my former Head of Staff (who, for the record, was not the perpetrator, and whom I never told) figure out which member had sexually harassed me on numerous occasions? Would those who worked with me at my former church know? Would members figure it out? What would my friends think? These and a million other questions swirled through my mind as I read and reread the words “me too” and my mind flashed back to those awful moments I, like too many women, have endured. Read more