Picking the Sick Puppy

And, in the year 2007, it turns out that searching for the dog of your heart’s desire is not so different from online dating. Rather than trolling the aisles of Match.com for a man who seemed intellectual, but capable of intimacy, we were trolling Petfinder.com for a dog with an open, sweet face who would not bite children or defecate on the floor. Rather than speed dating, we traveled to local shelters, walked up and down the aisles between kennels and rapidly dismissed dogs that did not appeal to us (not housebroken, barks too much, jumps too high, seems scared, seems aggressive).

When we finally narrowed down candidates, we went on dates. Read more

Advent Prayer

Fulfill in us the coming of Christ.

May we, O God,
Like Mary, treasure and guard the coming of your kingdom deep within us
Nourishing it as it grows,
Delighting in its first flutterings,
cradling its growing weight in our hands,
until it is ready to come and call out to the world. Amen.

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If your path involves motherhood, the odds are pretty good that you will be in some way waiting for motherhood to begin during an Advent season. This year, I know pastor-moms who are in a variety of states of waiting: trying, waiting to announce, announcing, waiting for paperwork, waiting for a referral, and ready to deliver.

Two Advents ago, I realized I was pregnant during a sermon on the annunciation. For a variety of reasons, the timing of this baby was horrible. As my head pastor explained all of the reasons the angel might tell Mary “Do not be afraid” I knew three things for sure: I was pregnant; I was very afraid; and I had better come up with a good explanation in case anyone in the congregation noticed that I was turning a shade of green in front of their eyes.

Our waiting in Advent is informed by many versions of waiting for the coming of Christ. Mary’s waiting for his birth might be the most distilled version. Women waiting for motherhood have incredible access to that experience.

I wrote this prayer as a way of exploring that version of waiting.

"Thou shalt not" spelled out three times

Stolen Goods*

I admit that I love the feeling I get when I consider that the results of my prayer and study might help other preachers bear gospel fruit in the pulpit. I know how grateful I am for the insights and wisdom I discover through my weekly visits to Textweek. Reading commentaries, reflections, and sermons is an invaluable part of my preparation. I find my own voice in part by listening to the voices of others. During my first year of ministry, I didn’t always trust my voice – so young and so female—so adding it to the chorus challenged me to a new level of confidence.

Then things got interesting.

The December 2006 quotations column in Christianity Today included an excerpt from one of the linked sermons – my first Christmas Eve homily. It was completely surreal to see my words on that page; all the other quotes were from theologically orthodox men, and there I was. Well, there “Katherine Perchey” was—my name was misspelled, but whatever. The typo helped me keep my humility when I saw my words alongside such luminaries as Augustine of Hippo and John Piper.

A few months later, I read Thomas Long’s article about sermon plagiarism in the Christian Century. In “Stolen Goods,” Long addresses the rampant plagiarism among contemporary clergy. The advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to “borrow” the sermons of other preachers – and it has also made it easier to discover such indiscretions. The article piqued my interest in how the quote from my Christmas Eve homily was credited by the preachers who used it in their own work. Though I had ego-googled “Perchey” when Christianity Today came out, I hadn’t googled the actual quote.

I typed in a few words from the quote. A handful of church websites and sermon blogs came up. A few preachers had used it in conjunction with variations of that honest trick, “As another preacher has said.” I’ve used that trick; sometimes it’s just unwieldy and overly academic to attach a name to a quote, and anonymous attributions are better than none at all.

And then, after clicking on one of the search results, I froze. There was the quote, surrounded not by quotation marks, but by the entire text of my sermon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was not merely heavily inspired by my manuscript; this was my manuscript. I scrolled down to find the footnote indicating that this was not the original work of the preacher whose name was proudly listed on the sidebar; the footnote wasn’t there. As I scanned the words, I noted with more than a little bitterness that the only altered sentence was the one in which I had mentioned how much I love my friend Rosamond’s sweet potato casserole. The Reverend Plagiarist at least had the decency to insert his own favorite Christmas treat. Read more

woman covering mouth with wide, excited eyes

Rumor Me This, Rumor Me That

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.”

I was telling the truth about that, and I think it assuaged some fears (although it may well have heightened others). One might wonder, however: what if he hadn’t been gay? Would that have negated my freedom to host a friend in my home? Would a female guest have been less suspect? Probably, but since no one has ever asked about my orientation, why would that be so? It’s been suggested to me many times, in a variety of ways, that I ought to get married. How on earth would I ever get to that point if I’m not supposed to have prospective partners (or those assumed to be such) in my house?

The conundrum is not lessened by the fact that most people simply have no idea how awkward and difficult the fish bowl syndrome makes life for their single clergy. I’ve heard it said that pandas rarely mate in captivity and, similarly, we’re not as fruitful (ahem) personally or professionally when we’re constantly dealing with invasion of our privacy and resulting attacks on our character.

The average person doesn’t think of it as an attack, though. Some people think of it as concern for the integrity of the pastoral office. Others think of it as genuine care for their minister. Many of them don’t really think of it at all; maybe they were just bored that day and needed something to discuss to occupy their time. Most people aren’t actually trying to be malicious or suspicious; the human thing to do, it seems, is to talk about other humans.

I know, that doesn’t make it easier if you’re the one who can’t have an unidentified car in your driveway for two hours without hearing about it for the next two weeks. If you’re anything like me, you still want to post a parsonage-sized “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS” sign in your front yard. That approach being not entirely practical, there are a few alternative possibilities that can ease some of the frustration of finding your life subject to so much scrutiny. Read more

What Did She Just Say?

“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.

 

Part of the “problem”  is that I’ve always loved words. My poor mother had to carry around this ridiculously small chatterbox of a child (I was in the first percentile, meaning 99% of the kids my age were bigger than I) who spoke in complete sentences but who couldn’t walk yet. When I did (finally) learn to walk, I used my newfound motor skills to make my way over to any available lap, book in tow, chanting, “Read the book; read the book.”

Soon I was sitting by the back door on my older sister’s “liberry” day, waiting to relieve her of her latest acquisition. A few years later, when most of my friends’ parents had rules about how long they had to read before being allowed to play or watch television, my mom had to make an entirely different set of rules: no reading until I was ready to leave; no reading after lights out; no reading at the dinner table.

Ironically, I had a speech impediment. Words that began with “r” or “l” came out sounding like they started with a “w.” My mispronunciations as a toddler were age-appropriate and thus somewhat cute. In second grade, I went to speech therapy to find my lost consonants. Talking became a chore; communicating orally was hard work and, quite literally, homework. I gradually became less and less talkative. My interest shifted even more to the written word. After years and years of reading others’ words, I began shaping words myself as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

To be honest, I sometimes wonder if my life might be just a little bit easier if I didn’t care about words so much. I still haven’t completely overcome my reluctance to speak. If someone else is willing to talk, I’ll generally let her, unless I think I have something to say worth hearing. If I weren’t so caught up in wanting to express myself well, I’d probably be less hesitant to speak. With the written word, there are built-in opportunities, even expectations, around editing that don’t exist with language in its oral form. If words didn’t matter to me, I’d change my words in my sermons to be less questionable. Read more

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).

Read more

Reflections on Advent: A Way of Peace

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.”

Click on images to see full-size versions:

Taking Your Baby to Work

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 MDiv 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.

There were things I had to let go of to make this school/parenting thing work, things like hovering over my newborn, housekeeping, New Testament (I did get around to taking it eventually), perfectly word-smithed sentences, and many hours of sleep, but I would not trade it for anything. Meg became everybody’s baby, and my husband and I loved it. We really felt like we had one huge extended family helping us raise our daughter.

Fast forward four years. Three months into my new job as the Associate Executive Presbyter of a small presbytery in Wisconsin, we found out we were expecting again. The pregnancy was not entirely unplanned, but came a little sooner than anticipated. Once you are working, in any profession, and you become pregnant, the number one question is, “What are you going to do when the baby is born?” Wise from having done this once before, I told virtually no one until I had a plan. Read more

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

Who is my neighbor? Who is NOT my neighbor?

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.

The idea of “six degrees of separation” was first proposed in 1967 by sociologist Stanley Milgram. He asked 96 randomly selected people around the country to send a piece of mail to an acquaintance, who would send the mail along to another acquaintance, and many of these letters reached Milgram’s “target” person in Boston… through an average of 6 people. Some sociologists question the validity of this study and the theory all together.

But whether or not you believe in the theory of six degrees of separation… and if you can suspend your own attempts to figure out how you connected to Kevin Bacon for a moment… there is no denying we live in a highly connected world.

What are the implications of these connections?

Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer challenges Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

If I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? Read more

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