Rumor Me This, Rumor Me That

The town was all a-twitter.  The gossip network was running full force.  The new pastor, they said, had a man staying in the parsonage.

He had been there over a week, visited the church, and met many of my parishioners before the rumors got back to me, of course.  I had only been ministering there a couple of months, and no one wanted to actually ask me about my "mysterious" guest.  I probably should’ve expected that there would be talk, but it just didn’t occur to me that my life was considered so scandal-worthy!  I’m a member of the coed dorm generation.  I also forgot that certain key factors wouldn’t be as obvious to everyone as they were to me.  “I don’t know if this will make it any better,” I sighed, when I finally caught wind of the gossip, “but he’s gay.”

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What Did She Just Say?

As the below true-life examples illustrate, I’ve been known
to let faux curse words slip in my sermons on more than one occasion:

“The disciples had been fishing all day, and they hadn’t caught anything whatsoever. They probably felt like crap.”

“You’re going to break your wedding vows. It might not be in a big, dramatic Grey’s Anatomy
kind of way, but you will break them. I mean, I love my husband Jeff,
but when I’m pissed at him for eating the leftovers I wanted for my own
dinner, I’m pretty sure I’m not cherishing him.”

“So if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, ‘Well, great, I’m screwed,’ don’t worry; you’re not alone.”

These
words started making appearances on the smaller, more informal Wednesday night
service, when I was preaching without notes. I soon found myself saying these
kinds of things in my Sunday morning sermons to hundreds of people. I started
to ask myself why recently.

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Good Can Come

Another Wednesday night meant another class to teach. Diving into the texts with the enthusiasm of a young child going for the baby in a King’s cake was how I wanted to spend my Wednesday nights. When I arrived in Corinth, I wanted more than anything to share my find with others. I wanted to see what treasures they had found. I loved the rich conversations emerging from shared moments of clarity. And now, it was Wednesday again and last week’s “ah-ha” moments were not as comforting.

Last week had been filled with blank stares. The last few weeks had not been the stuff of comfort. We had been studying the Pastoral Epistles with a companion study guide chosen before my arrival to Corinth. Wednesday night came to mean studying some of my least favorite parts of the Bible with study material that had never heard of different learning styles or this new fangled thing called “inclusive language.” My all-around lack of excitement had been contagious even to the most dedicated churchgoers (in other words, our older and more stalwart folks).

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Reflections on Advent: A Way of Peace

As we move toward the already-and-not-yet of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s birth so long ago even as we know that Christ must be born in us again and again. Countless artists over the centuries have portrayed Advent themes and scenes; these block prints by Mary Allison Cates weave together the personal and the political with scenes of destruction and turmoil, juxtaposed with the image of a pregnant woman looking on as her child grows within her.

The quote from James Agee ties the images together: “In every child who is born, the potentiality of the human race is born again, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward life, and the utmost idea of God.”

According to the artist, “New life happens, even in the face of global warming, war, poverty, and interpersonal conflict. May our saving Lord Jesus Christ be born in us again this Advent season, so that we may respond to our broken world by creating a way of peace.”

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Taking Your Baby to Work

I am a pastor and am also a mother of two delightful girls.  Most days I can make those two professions work together pretty well, some days – not so much.  My main coping mechanisms are coffee and humor.  My main ally in this endeavor is my husband of 10 years.  We are fairly relaxed parents. You know the type: We are the ones whose toddler eats right off the floor, while not wearing any socks.  We are the ones whose six-year-old is wearing a pink paisley shirt, with a turquoise butterfly pattern skirt, pink polka dot socks and fancy fake high heels (‘high’ shoes is what we call them around here), despite the Wisconsin winter temperatures dipping into the low double digits.

This relaxed attitude about parenting has made my balancing act of life a little easier.  I think this attitude started when my first born began attending school with me.  I was a full-time student three and a half years into a four year M.Div. program when Meg was born (just in time to be baby Jesus in the Festival of Lessons and Carols). I took two weeks off completely and then finished the semester taking my exams and writing papers.  Since I couldn’t imagine taking the whole next semester off, when February rolled around and classes started, I popped Meg into a sling and off we went.  She slept and nursed and got passed around a lot.  I often left her in one person’s arms and returned later to find she was ten sets of arms down the row. 

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Six Degrees: A Homily and Prayer Litany for World AIDS Day

Six degrees of separation. Some of you may be familiar with this phrase from a movie with that title. Some of you may have played the “Six degrees of separation” game. The game challenges you to figure out if you are 6 degrees or less away from Kevin Bacon! This means you and Kevin are linked through friends . . . and friends of friends. So if you and Kevin were to compare lists of friends and acquaintances, before long you’d be connected: just a few people between you and Mr. Bacon himself. Kinda spooky.

We live in a world in which we are just six handshakes away from anyone else. Chances are that you don’t personally know any Australian police officers, the Chancellor of Germany, or a member of the English Parliament. But! Maybe you know someone whose cousin studied abroad in
Australia and had a run-in with the police. Or maybe you know a German professor here who knows someone who’s related to someone whose friend works for the German government. You get the idea. Basically, many believe that every person on the planet is separated from everyone else by a chain of about six people.

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It’s Not Too Late to Designate

Flip to a scene of Thanksgiving or Christmas festivities with family and friends gathered around, laughing and joking, preparing to finally chow down on turkey and stuffing and pie, until one lone person raises the question: “So, who’s going to say grace?” And the entire room falls silent in an attempt to de-volunteer.  Another holiday role emerges, less public but just as valuable: the designated pray-er.

The designated pray-er (DP), like the designated driver (DD), has become a crucial role for many families. The DD takes on sobriety in order to ensure the safety of all. The DP assumes a mantle of leadership and ritual that allows festivity to be carried out in the name of God. And both positions have the distinction of being cherished most by those who do not occupy them.

It’s easiest to find a DP if you can find someone in your family who actually enjoys praying out loud. Another alternative is to establish a DP based on someone’s position within a family. You might choose the matriarch or patriarch of your clan, or let the honor rest with the person hosting the meal. Others might cast lots for the privilege, or draw numbers from a hat, or come up with another equitable way to share the responsibility. If all else fails, there’s always the time-honored solution of waiting until the silence becomes unbearable for someone, who bursts out with, “Okay, I’ll do it!”

My family has been lucky enough to have a DP for as long as I can remember: my uncle. Sometimes self-elected, sometimes asked by the host or hostess, he is often the de facto choice. He is, after all, a responsible oldest-child type and the crown patriarch after his father passed away twenty-nine years ago. Not only that, he actually enjoys the responsibility. He owns it. He takes it very seriously. He IS
the Prayer Master. He frequently becomes emotional while engaging in prayer. One Thanksgiving, my cousin actually said, “My dad has disappeared into my room with the Bible and a dictionary…I’m not
quite sure what we’re going to get.”

So perhaps you can imagine what happened when I announced I was going to seminary to study to become a pastor. Perhaps you can imagine the way my emerging identity sent the established role of designated pray-er into a bit of a tailspin. Perhaps you can imagine the new confusion over who was going to be saying grace before family meals. After all, pastors become pastors because they love to pray in public, right? (Hint: Not always.) Read more

The Gift of Gentleness

My Christmas Eves are a little different these days. I generally spend the day in front of my computer, finishing the sermon I’ll preach for the biggest crowd of the year. No pressure, of course. As my family digs into dinner, I pass candles around a church 1,500 miles away. After leading the last worship service, I meander back to my dog and a darkened house – because I usually haven’t had time to hang up lights or other Christmas decorations during the rush of Advent; it’s a very good year if I manage a tree. I heat up some leftovers, pour a glass of wine, pop in a movie, and collapse on the couch. Then I wake up on Christmas Day and…go back to sleep as long as possible.

It’s not as pathetic as it sounds, I promise! By the time I’m done with the Christmas insanity, I am more than ready to just crash, and my dog is just about all the company I can handle. My Christmas Eve ritual has become a sort of Sabbath; I defend it even when I receive other invitations. This much-needed time of quiet rest has become one of my favorite things about being single and living alone. Read more

Verve, Faith, Chocolate, and Really Great Shoes

For a long time, in my mind, pointe shoes were the only shoes that mattered. In high school, I tried brand after brand, make after make, looking for something that would flatter my woefully flat arches. I
finally found Freeds of London. I religiously ordered shoes from a particular cobbler, whose mark was
stamped on the bottom of my sole. That brand and make of shoes accompanied me through hours of class, rehearsals, and performances. I spent a lot of time breaking them in and keeping them in good shape.

They transformed me into Sleeping Beauty; they turned me into the Dew Drop Fairy. They were my most important material possession. Oddly, my attitude towards all other shoes was as indifferent as my attitude towards pointe shoes was obsessive. In high school and college, I wore the same old school vans day in and day out (Hey, it was the 90s; don’t judge me). The object was comfort and little else.

And then I moved from the stage to the pulpit. As part of that transition, I went to divinity school at Yale in Connecticut; inclement weather and walking everywhere meant practicality won out. I wore unremarkable tennis shoes and cheap penny loafers. I bought a pair of bejeweled aqua peep toe heels on a whim my senior year. I got them with no intention of wearing them in the pulpit; however, sometimes, what I intend is not what I actually end up doing. I wore the peep toes one summer Sunday morning soon after I was ordained to the diaconate, just for fun. I didn’t do it to get a reaction, but, boy, did I ever. It seems as if every single person in that church had something to say about my shoes that day. I wore them again. And again.

It didn’t take long before I had more new shoes – pink patent mary janes with a 3″ heel, white ballet flats, green pumas. I don’t have that many pairs of shoes, but the ones I do have are… interesting. It got to the point where my picture in the church’s monthly newsletter was of my shoes.

For me, my shoes signal that I’m human, something that I found to be incredibly important in a profession where you are sometimes in a different category than everyone else, which I refuse to be. The fact is, people often think they know you when you’re clergy, particularly in the Bible Belt, where I grew up and now live and serve. People sometimes assume they know how you vote (Republican), what you do in your spare time (you have none because you’re always tending the flock), what you will find funny (jokes that involve religion – nothing remotely risqué), not to mention what about you think about issues such as the war, abortion, and homosexuality. My shoes tip people off that maybe there’s more than a clerical collar here; they’re my visual question mark to a world that desperately wants to pigeonhole. Read more

Silent and Still

The silence of my prayer was replaced with the noise of the narthex. The hymns were sung. The people were blessed. And now, it was time to share in the joy of being together as the congregation participates in the exodus from the sanctuary to the promise of the Parish Hall.

Babies wake up from the sermon, and the silence fades. The squeals of the children just released from Sunday School nearly drown out the mutterings of “good sermon” and “thank you for worship.” Familiar faces sojourn to coffee hour while insisting I must remember their names. My laughter mixes with the hesitant laughter of visitors. Hands are held. Hugs linger too long. Shoulders are touched. The silence disappears.

Only for a moment, the silence disappears. Only for a moment, there is a clamor of giggling children and a racket of slurping adults. The clatter continues until the Parish Hall empties and I am left to lock the doors.

And then it becomes silent and still once again. My distress grows worse, and my heart becomes hot with me as the silence returns. This silence is not like the stillness of prayer. Those are moments that I crave. I need that respite from the insistence of so many demands screaming incessantly. I need that sacred time to be still and know that God is in the silence. This is precious silence. It is not the same silence that greets me with the click of the lock in the church doors.

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