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Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. 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

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

Keep Calm and Carry on with Hope

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A little over a month ago a man named Thomas Eric Duncan was getting ready to leave Liberia for Dallas, Texas. Prior to departing he helped a neighbor get a sick pregnant woman into a car to go to the hospital for medical care. Or so is the story the media twisted, and spun out of control. (Since Duncan’s death, the Dallas News published a letter from Duncan’s nephew disputing that story.)

Whatever the truth, I resonate with that story: I’m in the last months of pregnancy, waiting to deliver my daughter at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital where Duncan was quarantined, treated for Ebola, and eventually died.

West African countries have been battling Ebola for months, treating thousands of cases. Americans didn’t tune in to the magnitude of that story until one case popped up in one city in one western country. The media descended, and anxiety rose and infected the Dallas community and the country more quickly than Ebola could.

It became clear to clergy including myself that fear and anxiety were what we had to reframe and fight. We had to keep calm and carry on with hope.

At my church, my colleague and I preached, prayed, and tried to live out calm in the midst of crisis.

Living out calm meant I went about ministry as usual visiting parishioners who were hospitalized at Dallas Presbyterian, and going to my own obstetrician check-ups there. I didn’t think twice about continuing with my doctor and pushing forward with our plans to deliver our firstborn at Presbyterian Hospital.

I also continued to go about the parts of my ministry that took me to Vickery Meadows, the neighborhood where Duncan has lived with his fiancée, Louise Troh.

I attended a parent meeting at McShan Elementary School in the heart of Vickery Meadow to share information about the community garden our church started, and an upcoming event. The discussion came round to Ebola. As panic alarm bells were sounding and paranoia was setting in the principal said this, “We are all neighbors, and this is a multicultural community. You have nothing to fear. We encourage you to keep on supporting each other, and we will not tolerate bullying or isolation of others.”

She preached to me, and I’ve held her words in my head over the last month: “You have nothing to fear.”

Other ministers closer to the situation, like Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist church spoke eloquently on national television putting out an alternative to the frenzied media story…one of love, care for our neighbor, and compassion as his congregation ministered to Louise Troh, a member of their congregation.

A few weeks ago another colleague, Rev. Brent Barry invited an ecumenical group of clergy to lead a prayer vigil for hope. The mayor came to speak, but also to find solace.

As the third case emerged and anxiety and fear became more widespread, the mayor held a conference call for faith leaders. He encouraged us to share a message of love and hope. He preached to me, reminding me that Jesus ministered to the lepers, and that the early church stood in the gaps when others were abandoned. Now, more than ever we were needed.

When I get a concerned call from a loved one or church member about plans to deliver my firstborn at Dallas Presbyterian, I’m not worried. I fight the fear with facts: I’ve not touched the fecal matter or bodily fluids of the 3 Ebola patients, and neither has my doctor. I’m fine, and the baby is fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

When I encounter a neighbor or friend who is concerned about us welcoming “those people” from Vickery Meadow into our neighborhood or houses of worship I ask them these questions: Why are you afraid? Have you come into contact with the fecal matter, bodily fluids, or urine of those 3 people? No? Then you’re just fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

Now, more than ever our neighbors in Vickery Meadow or West Africa need us to love them, to welcome them, and to embrace them. They need hope, and I pray that we can continue to remember those lessons once this Ebola story ends. Shunning, and living in fear is not our story as Christians nor is it the Gospel call to hope.

I can’t wait to tell that story of hope to my baby girl when she is born one of these days at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe I’ll even get one of the coveted birthing tubs since so many other pregnant women have changed their hospital out of fear.

 

Epiphany

Three months into my ministry I was still fighting this weekly battle. Saturday nights were torture. Sunday mornings were anxious. Sunday afternoons were naptime. Perhaps it was no coincidence that everything changed on Epiphany.

After lunch on January 6, 2003, I drove my husband, Shon, to the emergency room. It was nothing urgent, but we both knew something was not “right.” Between Christmas and Epiphany, Shon had experienced five episodes of sudden, momentary paralysis on the right side of his body. None of them lasted for more than ten or fifteen seconds. In fact, they were so quick; we wrote them off as a pinched nerve or something from his old high school football injuries. But then he lost control of his right side while driving home from work one day. Thus, on Epiphany, I insisted we find the source of the problem.

We knew it wasn’t a good sign when they took Shon ahead of the kid with the broken arm. After a round of tests and several hours of waiting, an exhausted doctor pulled back the curtain. He did not look up from the chart, but we could tell he was at the end of a very long shift and this was a visit he was not going to enjoy. “There’s something on the left side of your brain,” he said abruptly. Shon and I looked at one another to make sure we heard him correctly. It was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

More detailed diagnostics revealed “the thing” was a lemon-sized tumor sitting on Shon’s left motor cortex. In two days’ time, he underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. Just six days after we had entered the ER, Shon walked out with his faculties intact, albeit a little lighter in the head. The diagnosis was oligoastrocytoma, a primary brain tumor, grade 2. What followed was a flurry of doctors’ appointments, non-stop tests and frequent seizures.

As we understood it, this was a slow-growing tumor that would likely come back, but not for some years to come. In the two years that followed, we were able to get the seizures under control and our lives settled into a somewhat normal routine. Shon would never be able to go back to work because of the seizures, but found enough to keep him busy at home and at church. He recovered so well that I only had to take a couple of Sundays off immediately after the surgery. Otherwise, I was back to work as usual, kind of.

It felt as if my foundation had been violently shaken but the building was still standing. I was trying to carry on in my ministry as if nothing had changed, and yet everything was different. The change really became apparent when my mom died unexpectedly of breast cancer just a few short months after Shon’s surgery. Suddenly, life took on a whole new sense of urgency. I dreaded Saturday nights, not just because of the sermon writing, but because dwelling so deeply in the Word kicked up so many painful memories and emotions, especially when the lectionary kept giving me barren women. Read more

Counseling and the Single Girl

Silent and Still

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

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

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

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

Read more