stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

We are Three

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français?

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

-from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

 

This year, 2019, National Siblings Day occurred the week before Holy Week. National Siblings Day is, many suspect, a holiday completely made up by social media companies in order for people to get on whatever profile they use and post more photos of users who happen to be related. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of a “Hallmark Holiday” – made for the purpose of a company proliferating itself; some people find it meaningful or fun, others let it pass by unnoticed.

To be honest, I don’t take much notice of it. I see other people posting about it throughout the day, and I realize what’s being celebrated.

I live 1500 miles from my immediate family, in my first church call, which I share with my spouse. In this digital age, I have not been at my parents’ house long enough in the last few years to scan the thousands of pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were young: big glasses whose glare hides eyes from the camera, graphic T-shirts that are entirely too big, hair that is untidily coifed in strange hairdos from a bygone era.

For many the connection between Siblings Day and Holy Week are coincidental.
For me, they are building toward a painful, hopeful climax.
You see, we buried my brother on Good Friday.

As a theologically-minded person from a young age, I marked my springtime by Holy Week and Easter usually involving a huge church play each Holy Weekend. At college, there were different traditions, and I was looking forward to entering them.

When I was 20 years old, the Monday of Holy Week my brother was killed in a car accident. I wonder if Jesus felt like I did, going toward Good Friday: that it was simultaneously the longest and shortest week of my life. Everything was askew, my feelings dulled and heightened. I missed both Holy Week rituals: the Easter play at my childhood church, AND the Tenebrae that was taking place at my college. The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français? Read more

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

Notes to Myself: Commitments for Talking Politics with Care

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…” ~Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

Monastic rules of life have drawn Christians through the ages to the spiritual disciplines. New monastics often look to one of the most well-known – the Rule of Benedict – and then write their own rule of life to order their lives in community. I have never been terribly successful at thinking of the Christian path in terms of discipline. In fact, at the mention of living the spiritual life “by the rules,” my inner self goes running for cover.

However, the fraught reality of public discourse in our time demands more discipline and less venting, more intentional, measured speech and less passion. In fact, it requires every bit of spiritual discipline the Christian can muster (and then it pleads for more from the Holy Spirit). Amidst the ever-widening crisis of public discourse, I have found it necessary to set down a rule for myself about speaking to and around my children. We all have steam to let off these days, but heaven knows we all need to speak with a little more care.

I have found three motivations for this care-filled speech at work in me, nudging me to speak with intention. First, I understand the pastoral office to be a listening office. This is ironic, I know, since few other professions boast 15 to 30 minutes of public speaking to a more-or-less willing audience every week. Even as I must preach the audaciously good news of Jesus without apology, I must also use language that does not blindly parrot phrases from political parties, denominational in-fighting, or other popular influences. And yet, to pastor is to move people along the path toward God and the Kin-dom of Heaven (the place where, in Christ, we are all kin to one another). The pastor is always inviting and always listening, so she must choose her words with care.

Second, I confess that I deeply want to avoid alienating people. This internal motivation is possibly the least important of the three, but nonetheless the most pressing to me. It is a desire for everyone to continue belonging to one another, especially when and where I am in charge. As a natural-born mediator (conflict avoider), I have little capacity for conflict when it might lead to alienation. I am not the first minister who likes to be liked, but this is a character trait which must be examined daily to be transformed from approval-seeking to the truer virtues of kindness and gentleness.

The third motivation involves my children, and to some degree, older generations of my extended family: I want to maintain open dialogue with my children and my family’s elders. One day my children will disagree with me on some of life’s most important issues. At that point, it might be too late to begin trying to mind my manners in discourse. I hope to have spoken in such a way while they were young that dialogue will still be possible when I am old.

Given these motivations, I would like to share with you my commitments for participating in public discourse, particularly related to political speech: Read more

scrabble tiles spelling "fail"

Fascinating Failure

scrabble tiles spelling "fail"I doubt anyone really enjoys failing, but some of us seem to be especially hard-wired to avoid it at all costs. Failure doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t make us look good. When interviewing for a new job, one doesn’t often lead with a list of greatest failures, but some are suggesting that, perhaps, we should.[1] They tout the benefit of “failure resumes,” which are likely to be far longer and more extensive than the real resumes or CVs we present to the world.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), our call process invites candidates to answer four narrative questions: 1. Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success and fulfillment. (Forget failure – let’s talk success!) 2. Describe the ministry setting to which you believe God is calling you. (A successful one?) 4. Describe a time when you have led change. (If we’re honest, this invites talking about failure, because leading real change inevitably involves some failure along the way).

It’s the third question that has always baffled me. 3. What areas of growth have you identified in yourself? Is an “area of growth” a place where we have grown and shown more success? Or is it a place where we identify more room for growth – and thus places where, perhaps, we have failed? In conversation with colleagues, the resounding answer was the former, following the general rule that nothing negative should be written on the form.

We’ve all been coached to answer questions about weaknesses by highlighting our strengths, right? I’m reminded of an episode of The Office, one of my favorite shows, where Michael Scott is in an interview and asked about his greatest strengths. Instead, he responds: “Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”[2] Whatever the field, we want to put our best foot forward. Competition can be fierce. Why hobble ourselves by exposing failure, no matter how big or small? Read more

Enough with “Enough”: A Review of Seculosity by David Zahl

“Do you remember the days when the Sunday school was full and everyone went to church on Sunday?”

“It’s such a shame that stores are open and there’s soccer practice on Sunday mornings…”

You don’t have to be around a 21st-century church very long before you start to hear questions and comments like these. They reflect an ongoing narrative that recalls mid-20th century glory days of the church in which Christians enjoyed power and esteem ( glorious as long as you were straight and white and male, and as long as you did everything the right way…).

The specter of this bygone era of the church has the ability to consume modern faith communities, to push them into a mentality of scarcity over all-we-once-had-and-why-can’t-we-just-have-those-things-again.

Anxieties rise. New programs launch to make the church exciting and relevant once more. Maybe this time we’ll turn the tide.

Why don’t people seem to want religion anymore?

In a new book out this month, David Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries takes this question head-on, with a perspective that offers the possibility of a way forward.  The book is called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.  In it, Zahl explores the possibility that our culture is not becoming less religious at all, but rather we are becoming religious about more and more things.

He uses the neologism ‘seculosity’ to describe the many activities and identities to which modern Americans devote a zeal that can be described as nothing so accurately as religious. From leisure activities (SoulCyle or CrossFit?) to parenting style (attachment or Babywise?) to political identity and work, from Zahl’s perspective, these are more than activities, they become part of people’s identities. These seculosities offer not just community, but a justifying story of their lives, a frame through which to see the world, a mechanism by which they can establish a sense of “enoughness.” They offer identity, community, meaning, purpose in ways that religion once did in wider society.

The problem arises, he argues, when we realize that no matter how much we devote ourselves to these pursuits, there is always more we could be doing or accomplishing or achieving. We could find our soulmate and get started on happily ever after. Our kids could win more awards. We could work harder, advance faster, earn more. But the focus on all of this makes the fact that the achievement of the goals we create for ourselves is an ever-vanishing horizon. Read more

You Are Found: A Review of One Coin Found, a Memoir by Emmy Kegler

Cover of One Coin Found

Cover of One Coin Found

When the Reverend Emmy Kegler gave a toast at my wedding, she said something that my relatives still remember with a chuckle. She said to my new wife and me, “I love you two so much. And if you ever break up, I’ll kill you both.” If you don’t know Emmy, this quote might seem jarring, but to me it shows exactly who she is: both incredibly loving in all she does and one of the fiercest people I’ve ever met.

In her new book, One Coin Found, this deep love and fierceness of hers is turned onto a new friend and foe: the Bible. In this beautifully written memoir, a personal journey of faith unfolds; one where love of God and church is present from an early age. Philosophical as a three year old, we hear her mother insist, “we need to get this kid in a church!” As the memoir progresses, we see the move from an enamored tween fascinated with the drama of Holy Week to a teen eager to join in her friend’s youth worship. We are with her at the difficult point when she is told by a young male preacher-in-training that it is a sin to be who she is: gay.

When told in church that being gay is wrong, Kegler must utilize her fierceness as she engages in a long fight between herself and what she is told is “sinful.” This memoir gives you a peek into her life, following not only her developing identity as a queer woman, but also her struggles with depression, codependency, and living with her father’s illness and decline. Woven around her own life story is her journey to befriend the Bible, but it isn’t one without pitfalls.

She battles with the church’s description of sinfulness and feeling like there was “no chance of redemption…’sin’ weighed down like an unbearable yoke.” Yet, as this idea is internally fought, there is also a deep calling that continues to lead her back to church, God, and the Bible: “Every Sunday in church I felt something catching at my heart, as light as fishing line and as thick as a construction-crane lifting hook, pulling me compassionately but resolutely toward the pulpit and altar.” As a fellow clergy woman, this story of her path to rostered ministry made me smile and remember my own journey, my own struggle, my own fishing line. Read more

author's baby

Provision

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus….Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her…“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

(Luke 1:28-40, selections)

author's baby

Luke does not record
what the neighbors say
but the comments are there,

crouching behind the text.
When the messenger says, “Favored One!”
we can almost hear the echoing

“You?”

Luke does not
mention it,
but, guaranteed: Mary knows

it’s there. She knows
when it’s known
that she’s been known,

the greetings will change.
The power of God will not stop
the side-eye. Yet, perhaps

when this babe
opens a tiny mouth
with a vast hunger

and she is able to fill it,
for the time being, a grace
so consuming, a provision

so merciful will bear her
through pain and recoil, this gift
that she agrees to give Read more

picture of author

When the Professional is Personal

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

When the pastor’s phone rings, you never know who or what is on the other end of the line. It could be good news—the birth of a baby, an invitation to collaborate on a community initiative, or a good medical report. Often, though, answering the phone as a pastor can be a bit more fraught. We are called when accidents happen, when assistance is needed, and when problems arise. I often find that I brace myself when the phone rings, without even realizing it.

A few months ago, I answered to hear an unfamiliar voice. It was my hair salon. “Your stylist has moved away. Could we schedule you with someone else?” I was silent on the other end of the phone, taking in the information. My mind reeled: “How could this be? I knew nothing about this! She never even told me she was thinking of moving. How could she just up and leave?”

I was entirely surprised by my reaction – why was I being so overdramatic? Yet, in a very real way, her move felt like a real loss. A friend gone. A relationship just plucked out of my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of scheduling with someone else, so I canceled the appointment.

I had been with my hair stylist over 7 years – the same amount of time I’ve served in my second call as a solo pastor. Although my call has been the same, my personal life has drastically changed. I’ve gone from a 30-year-old, single, young clergy woman to a late-30s, married with child, not-so-young clergy woman. My hair stylist had been with me through all the changes.

She knew me before I established a community here, and offered an open heart and listening ear. She helped me find the right professional yet hip looking hairdo. She helped me refine my look as I met, dated, and got engaged to my now husband. She made me look simply beautiful on my wedding day. When I became a mom, but couldn’t find a sitter, she and her colleagues entertained my newborn so I could have the much needed self-care of a good haircut.

Every time I went in, she hugged me tight, intimately washed and massaged my head, and skillfully cut my thick frizzy hair into something beautiful. Every time I went in, her first question was: “Is everyone behaving at church?” My stylist was one of the people in my life who always accepted me just as I am. She was one of those rare people who not only respected my vocation, but reveled in it.

I only realized how much she meant to me as the months went by and my usually well-groomed hair grew into a long unmanageable mop atop my head. Not only did I miss the way I looked, but I missed her. I felt sad that I’d never hear more about her family or her travels or hear her contagious laugh. So I decided to seek her out and send a goodbye message via Facebook Messenger. Then, as I typed her first name into the search, I realized something: I didn’t even know her last name. She knew me intimately, but how well did I really know her? Of course she didn’t tell me she was moving. We weren’t friends. She was my stylist. Read more

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

"For Everyone Born" in text set in front of a rainbow-colored silhouette of the St. Louis skyline

Supporting Your Methodist Friends

"For Everyone Born" in text set in front of a rainbow-colored silhouette of the St. Louis skylineDear Non-Methodist Friend (who probably cares about and knows at least one United Methodist pastor or lay person),

Today I write to you as a United Methodist Church (UMC) pastor who is fighting for justice and full inclusion for all people at all levels in the lives of our churches and denomination. As you probably heard, last week the UMC held a big meeting, called a General Conference, to discern the role of LGBTQIA+ persons and allies in our body. This was a special, called meeting, held between regular quadrennial meetings, and the sole topic of this meeting was LGBTQIA+ persons (even though they weren’t mentioned by name for most of the day of prayer) which we have been debating at General Conference since 1972 – 4 years after we were established.

As you may know, the UMC is the 3rd largest denomination in the United States (behind only Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists); and we are a global denomination with 12.6 million members worldwide. Approximately 60% of our membership is in the United States. In some countries where we are in mission and ministry, it is illegal to be in a same sex relationship and is punishable by death. In other places, like the Northeast and Western US, fully welcoming LGBTQIA+ persons is a necessity to reach our communities. There is a great divide.

This divide was very evident at our Special General Conference when it was voted 53% yes, 47% no, to uphold the “Traditional” plan which would redefine same sex relationships in church law, increase penalties on clergy who break church law—including the revocation of credentials, and more. Much of this plan was deemed “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council, which functions like the United States Supreme Court in our denomination. There are many questions about what the result of passing this piece of legislation will be. Suffice it to say, we won’t know for a while. In the meantime, all “sides” are weighing their options for staying or leaving the denomination while knowing that the conservatives will have a larger percentage of delegates at our next regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020.

This has been an exhausting week for all United Methodists who are following our General Conference. We are worn out. In the UMC, we have 3 General Rules that guide us and were given to us by our founder, John Wesley. 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Stay in love with God. Harm has been done to our LGBTQIA+ siblings, and this is not acceptable. In the words of our baptismal vows, we must “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves.” We have failed. We allowed evil to rear its ugly head in the way we talked to the “other” this week. Insults were thrown from all sides. This is not a good witness to our faith.

Many well-meaning people of faith have asked me what they can do to help. So I crafted this list to guide you, well-meaning person of faith in engaging with United Methodists, especially those who are grieving the actions of General Conference: Read more