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

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

Emergency! …But Whose?

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

There are some emergency-like situations that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

“Doesn’t it suck,” my colleague commented to me, “when people call us in a panic because they didn’t read their email from weeks ago and now they want us to fix their problem?”

Yes, it does suck. One of my growing edges as a pastor is learning how to prevent other people’s anxiety from engulfing my day. One of the unspoken and unrealistic expectations placed on a pastor is that a parishioner’s predicament should automatically become the pastor’s. Of course, we have many real and pressing crises in pastoral ministry, such as someone moving to hospice, getting into a car accident, receiving a grim diagnosis, etc. But I’m discovering there are also situations facing folks that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

In this identified growth area, I draw inspiration from my sister. This spring, my niece, who is 9 years old, wanted greater independence. She was tired of her mom telling her what to do. My sister and niece agreed to a week-long trial in which my sister would refrain from giving directives, which ranged from feeding the cat to taking a bath. Before the experiment began, my sister said, “Just so we’re clear: with this arrangement, your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency.” For example, if my niece forgot to pack her lunch the night before school, she might be in a panic in the morning and go to her mom, expecting her to be similarly panicked and hence find correct change so that she could purchase a school lunch. But no, my sister said:  the consequence would be that my niece wouldn’t eat lunch that day. Happily, my niece never neglected to pack her lunch; it seems that she had sufficient internal motivation. My sister is not ready to endorse this parenting method to anyone else: there were pros and cons to letting a 9-year-old completely determine her priorities in homework, chores, and personal hygiene. Nevertheless, my niece’s attitude improved substantially, and my sister was pleased by how much their mother-daughter relationship improved.   Read more

Bible being held by two hands up in air, in the midst of a crowd

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Working With Potential Partners With Theological Differences

Bible being held by two hands up in air, in the midst of a crowd

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dear Askie,

As a Young Clergy Woman who serves a mostly-progressive Christian congregation, I find myself constantly frustrated by requests for collaboration or rental of our building space from more conservative Christian organizations whose theology radically differs from our own. How might I compassionately but firmly explain our church’s unwillingness to partner with these organizations based on their oftentimes exclusive stances on women’s rights, LBGTQIA+ rights, difference of ability, etc.?

-Frustrated

 

Dear Frustrated,

Askie generally exercises caution in using the labels “progressive” and “conservative” as catch-all terms. For example, it is possible to be both socially progressive and fiscally conservative. At the same time, Askie understands your dilemma and hopes the following template provided by Fidelia Writer in Residence Andrea Roske-Metcalfe will be helpful to you in responding to unsolicited requests.

All best wishes,
Askie

Read more

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

Fight, Flight, or…What?

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

“Different Actions”

My latte is mostly gone. I’ve done as much work as I can do at the coffee shop. I look at my day planner as I prepare to head to the church. And there, scrawled neatly in my own handwriting, in blue ink, is a reminder of my 2:00 p.m. meeting.

I see it, and I want to crawl under the table.

It is just a meeting, of course. Just a conversation with a congregation member who wants to share some thoughts and concerns. Just a chance for me to listen and to love.

But there it is again, welling up in me: my pastoral fight-or-flight response.

Some panicked part of my brain is trying to manipulate my heart into bailing on the conversation or getting preemptively defensive.

I know this fight-or-flight feeling well. I get this feeling during contentious conversations at church council. And when I’m about to preach a difficult sermon. And when I need to visit a member at her deathbed, surrounded by family members I’ve never met. And before every vague 2:00 p.m. meeting request that comes my way.

The fight-or-flight response, according to biological psychology, is a gift of evolution. It is the brain’s way of sensing danger and reacting to threats for the sake of survival. If I were to encounter a puma along my walk up the hill from home to church, I would undoubtedly be grateful for my amygdala, for the way it would trigger my adrenal system into overdrive. I’d be glad for the racing heart, the quickened breath, the trembling extremities, the tunnel-vision, the inability to hear or see anything other than the threat of the moment. I would be enormously grateful for the deep, primal, urge to get the heck out of there (provided I didn’t feel up to the task of wrestling the beast with my bare hands).

But my life these days is actually stunningly bereft of puma stand-offs. So why does my brain still feel the need to get me all jumpy and anxious for far lesser threats? Why does a 2:00 p.m. conversation trigger in me the same gut response as would an encounter with a wild animal?

In part, this response is trigged because we are all wired to remember past moments of pain and fear (in order to fine-tune our future response to similar stimuli).

I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of needle pricks over the last decade, and yet I still get nervous before blood draws because of one painful fainting spell more than ten years in my past.

I have been on the receiving end of hurtful words at other points in my ministry, therefore I brace for impact going forward.

We all have stories like this in our ministries. We remember the mistrust and mistruths stirred up by congregation members, past or present. We remember the topics that have put us in conflict before. We remember the sermons that have provoked angry emails. We remember the hurt of being taken advantage of. Some of us carry with us deep wounds of harassment and abuse, emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what, then, do we do? How do we move forward in the callings God has set before us without feeling like we are always managing our pain and our fear? Is there a way to cultivate a third response, something in between the fight and flight polarities? Read more

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace. Read more