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

The Cost of Unity

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.

 ~Philippians 2:1-8

 

Can’t we all just get along? In the midst of all the turmoil and division in the U.S. and countries around the world, prayers for peace and unity continue. I will always pray for peace and unity. But I’m having more difficulty with the calls for unity, which don’t seem to recognize the costliness of it.

Unity is important; division can destroy. I haven’t kept up with all of the investigations of how Russia may or may not have influenced the U.S. presidential election last year, but the most recent news has captivated me. Russian operatives created and disseminated thousands of ads and fake news stories – on both sides – through social media. The goal was to heighten the divisions between Americans even further, to increase the emotional and visceral reactions, to foment such unrest and hatred internally to tear at the fabric of our democracy. The effort continues, such as with the recent #takeaknee and #standforouranthem social media divides.

Mission accomplished? These campaigns didn’t create the divisions in our nation, but they certainly have fed the beast. Read more

The author

The Messiness of Microaggressions

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

Read more

Monday in Beverly Hills

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

I had just arrived a block west of Rodeo Drive to the church I would serve in Beverly Hills. The rector told me not to bring my lunch, that it would be the church’s treat on my first day. I decided that morning that the lunch venue would offer me some clues about how to navigate my future ministry and the people I would serve. Where would we be eating lunch?

When I was a seminarian, part of the thrill of preparing for serving a church community for me was the thought of integrating into the community I served. My bishop told our ordination class, “Be prepared to go anywhere and serve anyone.”

Being a young woman from Central Indiana, ministering to people in just about any place other than the Crossroads of America felt like a great frontier. I read the experience of author Kathleen Norris, a Washington, D.C., native, who discovered a vocation to serve God and God’s people in the quiet monotony of the Great Plains. As she writes in her spiritual autobiography Dakota, “The fact that one people’s frontier is usually another’s homeland has been mostly overlooked.”

I had arrived at my very different frontier: amid selfie-taking tourists, harried traffic, and busy storefronts.

On my first office day at All Saints’, I met the people who called this place their spiritual homeland. And as the noon hour drew closer, it was time for lunch. Read more

Single at 28 (and 82)

Sometimes being a single woman in ministry is awkward. When a very hospitable mother-of-the-bride stuck by my side for the entire wedding reception because she knew I was there alone, it was a little awkward. When kind parishioners asked what I was doing after Christmas Eve services were over and I had to confess that I was going home to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas alone in my pajamas while making a dinner out of the Christmas cookies they baked for me, it was awkward. When my denomination’s Search and Call paperwork used to include a “Describe Your Present Family” section and I ended up writing a whole paragraph about my cat, it was definitely awkward. When I received an invitation to a community event for “pastors and their wives,” it was super awkward (and super sexist).

Most days I am perfectly happy with my single-rev life. Never have I thought being single made me a less-competent minister than my partnered peers. But occasionally, when I have fumbled my way through one of these moments, I’ve wondered if a spouse would make some of this ministry stuff just a little less…awkward.

One day after a church clean-up event, when all of the flowerbeds had been mulched and all of the pews polished, I was invited out to lunch. As I grabbed my purse from my office, I heard an elderly widow of the congregation ask in the next room, “Is the pastor going?” “I think so,” someone replied. “Okay,” she said, “Then I’ll go, too.”

At first I didn’t think anything of this exchange. I assumed this woman just wanted a few minutes to privately update me on a friend who was in the hospital or ask me a question about Sunday’s sermon. But when we got to the restaurant, she didn’t mention either of those things. In fact, she barely spoke directly to me at all. Read more