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Call to Action: A Review of Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution by Katey Zeh

I first met Rev. Katey Zeh before either of us were ordained, at a training around sexual health and reproductive freedom on college campuses. We continued to run into each other through our organizing work. I reached out to her when trying to figure out if there was a way my annual conference of The United Methodist Church could support the organization she was on the board of at the time (and now serves as the interim executive of), Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in the wake of a misinformation campaign in the denomination against RCRC.

Because of the connections we had made previously, the conversation turned to my personal life when she offered me support in the wake of my second miscarriage. She was one of the first people who was able to articulate to me the deep grief not just of the loss of a loved one but the grief of an incomplete family, or a family that looks nothing like the one for which you had hoped. From this woman whose activism and pastoral care has touched my life comes a book called Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution, in which her activism continues to inspire me and her writing offers me care I didn’t realize I needed.

Women Rise Up is an exploration of ten different stories of Biblical women in conversation with current realities of women’s experiences and struggles, from human trafficking to purity culture, from immigration to entrepreneurialism. Zeh explains: “I yearn for stories of resilience, of women overcoming systems of oppression who found ways to survive and even thrive despite the constant threats to their bodies, their humanity, and their livelihood.” She did not hear many of those stories preached when she was growing up in church, but she has seen them in her organizing work and in her own life.

Unlike some celebrations of Biblical women, Zeh is clear that even when she celebrates their bravery, these women are complicated. Sarah is celebrated as a mother of faith in many churches traditionally, but she perpetuates the abuse she received from her husband on her slave Hagar. Rachel also abuses her handmaid, and Zeh reminds us that Rachel does not name her son Benjamin but rather Ben-Oni, “Son of My Sorrows.” Moses’ mother, she reminds us, is a clever hero, but one who still underwent a devastating reproductive loss even if it was to save her child. Rev. Zeh strives to read the stories of these women in new ways, ones faithful to scripture itself and to our own complicated lives. Read more

They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for.  Read more

God Grew Bigger: A Review of This Is My Body

cover of This is My BodyHannah Shanks’ This is My Body came out the same week that I learned I was pregnant. I had already been planning to buy and read the book – the author is a friend – but that pee-saturated stick gave special urgency to my reading. On the first page the author finds out that she is pregnant and immediately “freaks out at life changes.“ This is familiar!

But don’t assume that this book is only for pregnant people or people who have given birth. My college self, for example, could have used the steady insistence that this is my body, holy and good, revealer of God’s image. Anyone who struggles with body image will find this book life-giving. And it would be an extraordinary mistake — a mistake born out of patriarchal assumptions — for men to skip this book. The final chapter encapsulates why: “When we are made one [in Christ], our stories are no longer relegated to a genre or niche of ‘women’s issues’… Though our experiences have been resigned to a market segment… Jesus’ story is our story — a birth story” (126-127).

This Is My Body weaves one particular human story into God’s unfolding story. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. 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

Geeks in the Pews: A Review of The Ultimate Quest

One of the fun parts of my ordination process was a summer parish internship. I served at a little church, where I stayed in their apartment and could walk down to the farmers market on Sundays after services. Now that I’ve been ordained for a while and preached more, I’ve become increasingly thankful for that church. They kindly listened to some sermons I would preach very differently now. Along with their homiletical patience, and an inside peek at day-to-day church life and power differentials, they also taught me something very important about who sits in our pews: Geeks.

I had preached a sermon that mentioned my deep love of speculative fiction (SF—often called science fiction and fantasy). While I don’t remember the details of the sermon, I do remember that for the rest of the morning people would approach me, always when it would be just the two of us, and confess their love for Star Trek. We were all, I learned that morning, Star Trek geeks.

This memory surfaces when I’m afraid I’m about to get too geeky for people. It’s a balm against the cultural norm that asks us geeks to stay in the basement with our dice, books, and scale models. It helps me remember that, even when the rest of the world seems a little too normal, I have a place in the pews with all the other geeks.

Jordan Haynie Ware’s book The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church, tackles the topic of the Church and geeks, establishing her as a wise and witty writer. Jordan and I are friends and colleagues – we have known each other for a long time via Twitter, were once in the same room at General Convention 2012, and we will soon be in the same diocese.

Far more effectively than The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ware guides readers through the basics of Christian faith, with special attention to Episcopal pomp and circumstance. Read more

tall pulpit with lighted, round sound board above it

Living, Breathing Woman Minister: A Review of Karoline Lewis’s She

tall pulpit with lighted, round sound board above it

Empty Pulpit

Five minutes into the ice cream social at my first ministry call, an older woman walked up to me, smiled, and introduced herself. Shaking my hand, she said: “You seem like a really nice woman, and I loved your sermon. I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be coming back, because I don’t believe in woman ministers.”

It happened so fast I almost didn’t register what was going on. My first instinct (thankfully, an instinct I swallowed) was a snarky reply: “Who knew that woman ministers belonged in the same category as ghosts, Santa Claus, and the monster hiding under my daughter’s bed?” Was I somehow optional, such that people could choose to believe in me or not, even though I was standing right there in front of her, smiling and holding her hand and saying, “It’s nice to meet you, too!”

Of course, that isn’t what she meant at all. This woman stood in a long line of individuals who, maliciously or otherwise, and often with a smile on their face, have diminished and denied women’s ministry and leadership. She was right there behind the Bible study leader who teaches that women should be silent; faith traditions that have ignored women’s contributions; pastors who steered women away from service to the Board of Trustees and towards the Christian Education committee because they are “better with children;” and parents who have taught their daughters that good little girls are quiet and sweet.

What I didn’t realize until I was a living, breathing Woman Minister, was just how much my gender would impact my ministry. Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had had the opportunity to read a book like Karoline Lewis’s She: Five Keys to Unlocking the Power of Women in Ministry back when I was still piecing together my pastoral identity. Read more

Invited into ‘Between the World and Me’

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
152 pp. Spiegel & Grau.

TNC book coverWhen my son Moses was baptized I wrote him a letter about what baptism means for me. It was very much a letter from a pastor-mom to her son, touching on both the personal and theological, each in their turn. I read the letter that morning in lieu of a sermon, inviting the congregation to “eavesdrop” on my conversation with Moses, my baptism gift to him.

As I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I was reminded of my baptism letter. Coates wrote this book as a letter to his son, and the book is an invitation to eavesdrop on that father-son conversation. That invitation is a tremendous gift to anyone who picks up this small, but powerful, memoir. Coates invites the reader into his experiences as a black man in America, and offers a perspective I was stretched in experiencing. Coates is well known in the journalistic community for taking strong and often controversial positions on issues of race. Several days later, I’m still mulling over this book, and wondering what changes it may have wrought in me.

Coates’ writing hovers somewhere in the vague, liminal space between poetry and prose, Read more

Speaking from Experience

CrossroadsI knew my marriage was deeply and catastrophically unhealthy when I would daydream about how much easier life would be if my ex-husband was killed in a car accident or had a sudden heart attack. During those morbid ruminations, the crux of the relief rested on how “acceptable” it would be for me to move on, to have a new life. That kind of unexpected, un-asked for tragedy would free me from the painful marriage I was in without me having to “end” it with a divorce.

Read more

Book Review: Blessed Are The Crazy

“Blessed are the crazy for we shall receive mercy.” – Sarah Griffith Lund

Blessed Are The CrazyIf you have ever struggled with mental illness or loved someone who has, then you know that we have a cultural problem. There are many misperceptions; high-profile, violent events have become the face of mental illness. Yet most people with mental illness are not dangerous. People don’t want to be labeled; we want to be seen as “normal.” In our world, so many people are affected by mental illness but don’t have the tools and language to talk about it. Sarah Griffith Lund has written Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family & Church, a book that will transform our perceptions and give us tools to deal with the reality of mental illness in our lives. She even proposes that mental illness is a gift.

This book is poignant, relevant, and profound. It responds to the stigma of what Sarah rightly calls “brain disease.” Sarah is a young clergy woman who is also trained in social work, and she has a very personal, beautiful testimony about mental illness. She provides genuine theological reflection about how individuals and communities can respond to mental illness in healthy ways. This spiritual journey teaches the reader true redemption and reconciliation from one who is deeply affected by mental illness.

Sarah offers several stories about mental illness that draw the reader into her personal experience. She shares about her childhood with her father who lived with bipolar disorder and how his brain disease significantly impacted the dynamic of her family. She continues her testimony with her oldest brother’s bipolar disorder and what she discovered through loving him and caring for him. Sarah then describes what it was like for her to offer spiritual guidance to her cousin who was convicted of murder, lived on death row, and was eventually executed. She reflects upon her own spiritual journey – from faith formation in her family, to atheist, to evangelical, to progressive Christian. She examines the life of Jesus as God entering a painful world and offering healing and forgiveness for all ailments. Sarah challenges the reader to think about how God is working through those who suffer from mental illness; she infers that we can learn and grow from greater understanding. The conclusion of Sarah’s testimony integrates her personal experience with practical ways that the church can bring hope to individuals, families, and communities overwhelmed with mental illness.

As I read Sarah’s book, I couldn’t put it down. Her words are comfort to me in my personal and public life. As a pastor to some who live with brain diseases, and as a woman who has struggled with her own depression and anxiety, Sarah provides a courageous testimony that frees me and others to be honest about our own “crazy in the blood.” What I love about Sarah’s book most is how bravely she writes about the complexity of her journey, and her experience of God in the midst of human brokenness. She truly has an insightful spiritual walk that can teach us all.

Blessed Are the Crazy is a valuable tool for pastors, lay people in the church, and unchurched people. I would be eager to use this book, with the study questions provided on Sarah’s website, with an adult book study group. I also plan to have extra copies of this book on my shelves for those times when people who live with mental illness walk into my office looking for comfort or hope. Sarah’s eager authenticity gives us hope that we are not alone nor do we have to feel alone. This book, Blessed Are the Crazy, can and will change the ways that we talk about mental illness.