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Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. Read more

Looking Over My Shoulder

DrMartens

When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

The Bricks and Mortar of Family

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA) in Oconomowoc, WI

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA), Oconomowoc, WI

I have seen various versions of this meme going around Facebook, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I generally just glanced past the posts without much thought. That is, until a friend posted this one. This one hit me differently.

When I look at this image, I am instantly transported into that building. Many of my earliest memories are of that place – hearing the story of how I took my first steps in that kitchen with its yellow flecked linoleum floor and countertops, anxiously awaiting the Sunday School year when I would finally be in the coveted room that had the huge rainbow mural on one wall, crawling around on the shuffleboard-covered floor to pick up the yarn scraps left by the quilting ladies, sitting four pews from the front on the pulpit side and looking at the sky blue dome behind the altar, practicing the phone number (which I knew before my home phone number) for the rare times I was home alone so that I had a way to contact my mom–a key volunteer before she became a staff member. This building was just as much my home as the house I lived in. Read more

cross in front of a sunburst

Enough.

As U.S. Navy Chaplains, we have the privilege of serving Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsman, and their families in every clime, place, and context. It is a humbling honor to stand with and for those who defend the Constitution of the United States. Our “ministry of presence” occurs aboard ships, cutters, and submarines; with expeditionary, construction, and amphibious battalions; ranging over air, sea, and shore commands worldwide. We live among our people, we deploy with them, and we preach and pray in some of the most interesting of circumstances.

cross in front of a sunburst

In the Shadow of the Cross

This chaplaincy is unique in the uniforms we wear and the places we go; however, there are a myriad of similarities with any parish or institutional ministry. We provide rituals and rites of our faith group according to our denominational guidelines, we counsel and facilitate religious practice for every service and family member of all faiths, we advise the chain of command, and we are subject matter experts on human care. The following reflection is based on an amalgamation of days and circumstances and reflects a typical spiritual and emotional experience for me as I continue to discover that My Job is really not at all about me. Read more

The author and her husband

Spiritual Safety

The author and her husband

The author and her husband

Wardrobe choices. That’s what my husband and I were fighting about that evening. It was like an episode of “What Not To Wear” was playing in front of our closet.

Read more

Permission to Hear the Call

7986847327_c4d79a6ec5_kWhen I was applying to Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the questions on the application asked the name of the church that was supporting me. I remember writing down the name of my Roman Catholic Church and adding, in small letters, “This is the church where I attend. They do not support me for ordination.” I was applying to Princeton because that was where my favorite college professor attended. He was the person who kindled my passion for Biblical studies. I decided that if this school would produce someone like him, it must be a pretty good place. He wrote me a recommendation, as did another college religion professor, my political science advisor, and the Lutheran campus minister. They were all men, and all but one of them were pastors. I had never known a female pastor and would not get to know one until my first year at seminary.

All of these male pastors, two of whom were my professors, were inspirations to me. I was mesmerized by their intelligence and moved by their compassion. They carefully encouraged me without ever recommending that I leave the Roman Catholic Church. I do not recall them ever mentioning seminary to me, and if they had, I certainly would not have taken them seriously. I was Roman Catholic. Not only that, I was a proud Roman Catholic. This is not to say that I approved of all the things that the Roman Catholic Church stood for, but I still believed that was where I belonged.

Read more

The Jesus Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Young Clergy Woman

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. –Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Opening Credits

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

At first glance, the life of a the Slayer is pretty different from the life of a young clergy woman. The Slayer is in high school, for one thing, while we have graduate degrees. She fights vampires and demons, we lead Bible studies, write sermons, visit shut-ins and attend committee meetings. And while the cross is central to Buffy’s life and to ours, the cross she wears on a silver chain around her neck serves purely as a talisman; it has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with its function as a weapon against vampires and their ilk.

There’s something about Buffy and her –verse, though, that rings true to this calling as a young clergy woman. There’s some reason (beyond simple escapism) that I keep coming back to this story and these characters. When I feel helpless and ineffectual, overwhelmed and heartbroken by the needs I can’t meet and the problems I can’t solve, I find strength and comfort in Buffy. When I am frustrated and enervated by lengthy meetings that have accomplished nothing in particular, when I am filled with despair that the institution through which I intend to serve God is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch, I find inspiration in Buffy. When I feel the loneliness of holding in confidence the heavy burdens others have shared with me, when I can speak to no one of the holy moments that have left me teary and trembling, I find companionship in Buffy.

Buffy taught me about what it means to have a calling. In the opening episodes of the series, we see Buffy resisting her call. The television series begins with Buffy relocating to a new town and starting a new school, hoping to turn over a new leaf and escape the supernatural happenings that plagued her previous life. As soon as she enters the school library, she is greeted with a dusty volume of demon lore and a new Watcher (mentor) eager to hone her evil-fighting skills. Like the reluctant prophet Jonah, Buffy longs to escape an inescapable call. Her Slayer identity can’t be escaped; she cannot remove it, flee from it, or ignore it. Like many young clergy women, she wishes she could choose an easier and more normal life. Like many of us, she finds that her calling has chosen her, but that she can choose how best to live into that calling.

As Buffy embraces her identity as the Slayer, we see that a calling by itself is powerful, but not always sufficient. As the Slayer, Buffy has natural gifts and abilities, but she becomes more capable as she hones her skills through study, training, practice, and mentorship. So it is with a calling to ministry: we hear the call, we find in ourselves the natural gifts that will help us to serve the church, but that isn’t the end. We have to steward those gifts carefully, building them up through ongoing education and collegial relationships, nurturing them through prayer and self-reflection.

As Buffy grows into her calling, it changes her in ways we young clergy women might recognize. We see how saving the world every week builds her confidence. We see how constantly confronting evil, death, and pain burdens her with more than her share of sorrow. We see her growing hubris as she discovers the power and the responsibility of her calling as “one girl in all the world” who can do what she can do.

But she can’t do it alone, despite what she might sometimes think. For all its rhetoric about “only one Slayer,” it is telling that Buffy is an ensemble show. Buffy’s calling is unique, certainly, but she needs all kinds of support in her work as the Slayer. She turns to her friends and mentors for research and logistical support, for encouragement and advice, for comfort and for laughter, and to check her ego. Her calling is unique, but that doesn’t mean she’s called to be a “lone wolf.” She—like of all of us—needs a community in order to do her work well and faithfully.

I first encountered Buffy as I was discerning my call to ministry and preparing to apply to seminary. I count it as God’s grace that this story found me at that moment, offering images of another young woman finding her way on an unusual path. As Buffy resisted and accepted her call, grew into her role, learned to be both Slayer and daughter, sister, friend, she modeled for me how I might start to live into the call I felt in my own life. She, too, walked a path that the world thought was not appropriate for a young woman, and she walked it for some of the reasons that I did, and with some of the same wonder and trepidation. We have our differences, of course: Buffy’s job is to save the world; I believe that the world has been saved, and not by me. But ever since those early days of discernment, Buffy has been one of my companions on this sometimes-lonely road. This story has continued to nourish me, to teach me about vocation, about sin and evil, about repentance and reconciliation, about grief, and so much more.

The first time I watched the series ending, I was less than impressed. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] In that final episode, Buffy finds a way to share her power, to stop being “one girl in all the world,” and to instead become one Slayer among a great multitude of Slayers. I was initially disappointed at Buffy’s loss of uniqueness. Her calling seemed somehow diminished because it was no longer hers alone. But as I’ve grown into my vocation, refining my own understanding of what it means to be an ordained minister, my perspective has shifted. Now, when I watch that last episode, I see echoes of the verse that has become my own mission statement as a pastor:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” -Ephesians 4:12-13

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison