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A Prayer for Veterans Day

In the United States, we are approaching Veterans Day – a day set aside to remember and honor those who have served in the military. But more than simply saying “thank you,” it also offers the opportunity to turn our attention to the stories and lives of our veterans. Hold them in prayer and listen to their stories, truly seeing the child of God in your midst. They are your neighbors and are sitting in your pews. Maybe ask them to share their story with you, for it is in sharing the story that community exists, God is present, and healing may be possible.

 

 

The author (center), in her capacity as Chaplain.

God of all that was and is and is to come,

 

You, who bear witness to our creation and usher us home at our final moments,

we ask that you turn our ears to the cries of those we often do not hear,

to open our eyes to the stories in our midst,

to hear the stories of those called,

to hear the stories of those who answer the call.

 

Open our ears to the story of the seventeen-year-old

who yearns to serve in a world with honor,

who seeks an escape from the drug-riddled streets he calls home…

only to be sent to a place where the streets are riddled

with a different kind of violence, replacing one form of hate with another.

 

Give us the eyes to see the single mother,

yearning for a better life for her son,

who is called into harm’s way,

her son sent away to his grandparents yet once again,

in hopes that she is able to provide a better life for him,

who has more of a relationship with her son over phone video

than she does in real life,

only to hear cries of judgment for being a “bad mother.”

 

Give us the hearts to receive the young officer,

who, a few months after graduating from college, barely old enough to drink,

       found himself at war, commanding troops,

                  ordering young people into harm’s way.

Give us the heart to grieve with this leader

who now is writing a letter home to the parents of one of his Soldiers,

bearing the burden for the flag-draped box

that is the resting place for their son’s long trip home.

 

Lord, open our hands to the countless veterans

wearing their respective hats —

or simply wearing the cloak of service on their faces.

Open our hands to the Vietnam war veterans who never received that open hand,

and still live in the torment of war,

even though they have been told they have been “home” for decades.

They never really came home.

 

Lord, help us to hear their stories;

give us the wisdom to close our mouths and truly listen to the struggle,

for though they may be called into war-torn places,

they come home with war-torn hearts, lost and unsure.

 

Help us to be a safe haven, offering more than the mere words:

“Thank you for your service.”

Let us sit in the uncomfortable spaces of their lives for even a minute,

to dwell in the war-torn realities they never left.

 

We remember each year our veterans;

we remember the sacrifices they make…

but, Lord, call to our attention these warriors in our midst

as we seek to live and love in community each and every day.

May we see the scars in our midst,

may we listen to their stories,

and may we love and continue to welcome them home,

until our swords are turned to plowshares

and your reign of peace begins.

 

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked cloth

A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked clothHere in rural Illinois where I live, the leaves on the trees are starting to change—red, orange, and yellow gracing our streets and college campus green spaces. Alongside the color, you’ll find bare expanses of dusty dirt fields, where thousands of farmers seem, en masse, to have harvested all of their corn and soybeans at once, leaving the majority of the state of Illinois brown and flat until cover crops come poking through to add a little color before snow comes.

I live in two worlds all year long, and one of those worlds points me always toward summer. I’m the Associate Chaplain at Monmouth College, but also the director of a grand experiment on our campus called the Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth. The Lux Institute brings high school students to our campus for two weeks each summer to study a prominent global issue alongside theological reflection.

In Summer 2019, we’ll be focused on the theme “A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty” from June 16-30. I’m already busy searching for curious students to join us for this free program, and already thinking about the nuances of each class, activity, reading assignment, community building exercise, and meal. I’m adding “remember to pick up laundry quarters from the business office” to my growing list of summer responsibilities for the Institute (because even student laundry costs are covered!).

As those preparations continue, I’m turned back to focus on the intersections between my work with high school students from around the country and the college students here on campus. The Lux Institute was started two summers ago, and its first program theme focused on food security. In the academic year that followed, I discovered that many of my college students struggle with food security of their own. I had spent two weeks with high school students exploring the ways that hunger and food insecurity impacts their local communities around the country, and I was prompted to explore my own immediate context. Read more

a shorter woman with glasses, smiling, standing in a circle with several male colleagues, all dressed in various church vestments

Tainted Love

a shorter woman with glasses, smiling, standing in a circle with several male colleagues, all dressed in various church vestments

Jenn at work

I was already a little anxious before the service began. I was the only female priest in a sea of men and a few were audibly unhappy that I was in the sacristy. We were gathered for the institution and installation of a new priest in the parish and, as chaplain of the college which was this parish’s patron, it was my role to present the new priest to the bishop. This was a parish that had passed what in the Church of England are called “resolutions” concerning the ministry of female priests, and this parish had passed all of them.

I had spent time in a number of “resolution parishes” before this service. The College where I served had deep roots in the Oxford Movement and thus, of the almost 70 parishes of which it was patron, more than half were opposed to the ordination of women (note that essentially every parish has a patron whose main role these days is to assist with the appointment of a new priest). During my time as Chaplain, I represented the College at the appointment and installation of clergy in 33 different parishes. It was a wonderful though hidden part of the job since most of it took place outside the College.

Until this particular service of installation, I had never felt unwelcome in a parish with resolutions. My encounters time and again as patron’s representative and even preacher, had been filled with graciousness and collegiality. But this time felt different. And it was. As I processed into the church next to the new priest called to serve in that place, something hit my shoulder. Instinctively I knew what it was without looking. I knew I had just been spat upon by someone in the church.

Read more

Finding Our Compasses

“I thought you were going to, like, be someone in the Church.”
–One of My Bishops

My ten years of priesthood have been spent more outside the Church than within it. As an ACPE Certified Educator (formerly known as CPE Supervisor) I’ve spent my time and energy embedded in institutions disconnected from my denomination. Since leaving the hospital setting and starting up a new CPE Center in a seminary, I’ve spent some of every day pondering what it means to move back into the belly of the beast.

I almost never attended clergy conferences or diocesan conventions and councils, or other training held on weekdays more convenient to parish clergy, because I was working in hospitals that saw those commitments as paid-time-off decisions. When I began my new position last year, I started by attending every single denominational event I could find, in order to promote my work with the seminary.

To really hit home that I’d made this major transition, a few months after starting my new position, I added an additional quarter-time position in my home congregation when they went from three clergy to one. Full-time seminary, quarter-time parish, and all my additional responsibilities with ACPE national, which continue to grow.

I felt like I was starting over in so many ways. Many of us who have been ordained for ten years are leading our own congregations, or trying. I’m over here trying to remember how to train acolytes and figure out how to attend a faculty meeting. I invited a friend to come to town and do liturgical boot camp with me. I called a seminary colleague for some mentoring on navigating this kind of institution.

I felt some identity whiplash. I felt like a fraud. Or a newly ordained person who Rip-Van-Winkled the last ten years away.

In contrast to the hospital slowly grinding me down, my new work is truly life-giving (and other new-age-sounding things). I get to bring CPE to places and people where it was formerly impossible, and offer this powerful educational format with technology and pedagogy that make it more viable to the world as we know it now. I got through the first round of the accreditation process very quickly, was able to start several pastoral care courses for locally-trained clergy and lay persons around the country. I even got to kick off initiatives I’ve never been able to try before – like a spiritual care course for youth ministers and Christian educators, who are often doing pastoral care with children and families with very little training, and an airport chaplaincy training program, and so many others. In my years with hospitals, building on-call schedules, revising curriculum slowly and dreaming of so many other things we could be doing, I’ve been empowered to make those day-dreams realities. So far, things are really working.

So, what’s with the inadequacy? Read more

Saul’s Armor

It took me a long time to get comfortable being myself in ministry.

When David prepares to face Goliath, Saul recommends some armor. The king, doubtful that the scrawny young shepherd is up for the task, lends David his own protective gear: a bronze helmet for his head, a heavy sword, a coat of mail. David compliantly tries it on. But, finding that he can’t walk in all that stiff, ill-fitting metal, he sets Saul’s armor aside. He heads out into the field with nothing but his tunic, staff, and slingshot, vulnerable but trusting that God will bless and keep him.

Of course, David and Goliath may not be the best metaphor for the pastoral life:  ministry, after all, isn’t about contest — it’s about connection.

But I’ve received, over the years, plenty of offers of armor nonetheless. Never a bronze helmet, or a coat of mail, but the occasional suggestion, from a church member or a colleague in ministry, that I pierce my ears, or grow my hair out, or wear a skirt on Sunday mornings — do something that will help me fit the mold of female pastor, something that will make it easier for me to navigate the complex world of gender dynamics in the church. To be clear, I’m not saying that these marks of femininity — earrings, skirts, long hair — are armor for others, just that they would be for me.

My expression of gender has never been particularly feminine — one time, a stranger at the airport, having mistaken me for Rachel Maddow, asked for my autograph. In my ministry, I dress to fit somewhere in that narrow intersection of the Venn diagram between clothes I feel comfortable in and clothes that are professionally acceptable. And, so far, this has mostly worked.

But I was no David, strutting out onto the battlefield — no, it took me much longer to get comfortable being myself in ministry. At first, I worried that it would be a hindrance, this whole business of resembling a left-leaning masculine-of-center MSNBC news anchor, especially since I’ve spent most of my career in ministry in more conservative parts of the country. I wondered whether, because I didn’t look the part, I’d lack the authority or the access needed to do the work of ministry.

When I did a CPE residency at a hospital, this was often on the forefront of my mind. I knocked on patients’ doors and introduced myself as the chaplain. Would the title on my name-tag be enough? Sometimes it wasn’t — there were times when I was too far outside the norm to be seen in the role of the minister. But often it was my own self-consciousness that got in the way. 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

lonely Christmas stocking

Celebrating Solo

lonely Christmas stockingLike most folks in ministry, I don’t get a lot of holidays off. I’m a hospital chaplain, and the hospital never closes. Someone has to be there to minister to those in crisis even when the crisis happens on Christmas Day. And since my family of origin is several states away, I can’t just pop in for a few hours on Christmas Eve then come back for work. As a single clergywoman, I have had to learn how to do Christmas on my own.

When I first realized that big, “traditional” family holiday celebrations were no longer an option for me, I grieved that loss. But instead of dreading Christmas as a sad, lonely time, I chose to develop my own traditions to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Some of them were carryovers from my childhood. My parents are now retired, and they no longer buy a real tree every year like they did when my brother and I were little. The smell of a Fraser fir is one of the signals for me that Christmas is approaching, so I decided to invest in one every year as part of my holiday celebration. I couldn’t get a tree from the lot to my living room without help, so several of my friends have comical memories of helping me wrestle the tree onto my car and into my home to decorate. I love that we share those stories.

I thought it was a shame that I would be the only one to see my tree in all its final tinseled and lighted glory, so I began the tradition of my annual Christmas party. 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.

 

One Year To the Day

Photo Credit to Catherine Roy

The gray walls whisper goodbye to me as I walk through them for a last time, making my way down the long hallways to surgery. Or perhaps I am the one extending silent goodbyes to this space as I wrap up my final day of Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital on Chicago’s south side. A final visit: I sanitize my hands before entering the patient waiting area for the surgical unit. I have never actually been back behind these glass doors; my work is done with patients still awake, conscious, afraid of what will happen behind those doors, putting their faith in God and in doctors that all will be well.

Ms. King lies on a stretcher, her gown low on her shoulders. “Ms. King,” I say softly, sidling up to her. “It’s good to see you.  I stopped by your room and was told that you were up here for a procedure.” Ms. King meets my eyes and a smile plays at her lips.  This is my third visit to Ms. King. The other two times, we have spoken little – I have sat with her, read to her from my Bible and a copy of this month’s Daily Bread, prayed with her. On my first visit, I tried to make conversation but had great difficulty understanding her responses. Feeling us both grow frustrated with my inability to understand, we’ve kept my visits simple ever since.

“I’d like to read to you again today, would that be alright?” Ms. King nods and mouths what might be a yes. I take her hand, clenched in a fist as it was the first time I visited with her, and hold it. I read the scripture, and when I finish, I simply stand quietly beside Ms. King, my hand around hers. “May I pray with you?”

“Yes. Please.”

A nurse approaches us ready to take Ms. King’s blood pressure. “Will you give us a moment?” I ask him. “I’d like to pray with Ms. King.”

“Oh, sure.”  He steps away, allowing us some semblance of privacy in this wide-open waiting area. And so I pray with Ms. King, giving thanks for the time we’ve shared together, giving thanks for God’s presence with us, praying that the procedure she is about to undergo is smooth and without complication. I close with the Lord’s Prayer and Ms. King echoes my amen. Opening my eyes, I meet her gaze, and I smile.  “God bless you, Ms. King. It has been such a gift to spend time with you.”

“Yes,” she nods.  “God bless you.”  Three simple words, and yet so clear in intention.  “God bless you.”

Today, this last day at the hospital, marks exactly one full year of ministry blessings; it was this day last year that I began serving as a full-time ministry intern at a local church in North Carolina. This year, nine months as a congregational pastor and three months as a hospital chaplain, has reminded me of how profoundly blessing the work of ministry is.  Sure, it is part of my role to be a conduit of God’s love and grace, peace and comfort, and as I am learning, also of God’s prophetic word.  Part of this job, though, has been opening myself to receive the love, grace, peace, comfort, and challenge that others offer.  Even as I bless Ms. King, so does she bless me. Of course, I cannot do this work in order to receive such blessing: sometimes it comes, sometimes it does not, but so often God’s gifting goes in multiple directions.

This was true for me in the nine months I spent in a local church as well.  While I brought my enthusiasm, curiosity, love of liturgy and genuine care for the well-being of God’s people and world, the congregation welcomed me with space in which to explore who I am as a pastor, to explore my gifts and passions, to make mistakes, to live into what it means to be a part of God’s beloved community.  And no, it was not a perfect church: it has its fair share of anxiety around change, its fair share of messy history, its fair share of growing pains.  Yet its ministry to me was its openness not only to what it might give me but to what I might give it, this two-way movement of God’s blessing.  During my time there, I preached regularly, led worship and presided over communion, presided at a funeral, planned and organized an ecumenical Longest Night Service, taught Sunday School, led a Lenten Series on spirituality, provided pastoral care to congregants.  Sometimes I made mistakes, but this congregation embraced me in my humanity and invited forth my gifts.

God works in mysterious ways, blessing us as we bless others, teaching us as we open ourselves to learning, guiding us as we strive to discern God’s call.  I have long looked forward to hospital chaplaincy, thinking that it would be a good vocational fit for me: someone who has at times expressed some ambivalence toward the Christian story and tradition, someone who values plurality in tradition and belief. But God works in mysterious ways.  While I loved my work in the hospital, while CPE taught me a great deal about myself and who I am as a pastoral care-giver, I find that my passions and gifts come out most fully in the context of a local congregation. I am eager to do more Clinical Pastoral Education, but I will do so knowing that everything I learn and do in this program will better prepare me for my work as a congregational minister.  I am coming to love the church, to be passionate about the ways in which church can live into our vision of the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the ways in which church can be a mediator in the multi-directional blessing of the Divine One who binds us all together.

Thandiwe Gobledale is entering the final year of her Masters of Divinity Program at the University of Chicago.  She enjoys travel and worship and looks forward to being a part of the Disciples Divinity House community after being away in North Carolina last year.  She hopes to graduate and pursue a CPE residency for a year before entering congregational ministry.

photo credit: Catherine Roy zaziepoo via photopin cc

You Are With Me

Another picture, wispy blond hair brushes a smooth forehead, glitter bedecked lips part, she is looking up toward someone, mom perhaps, a favorite toy. The top of her princess dress frames her neck, and I know it spins around her legs in a dizzy dance. She was buried with a tiara. I’m in the next picture; a small boy and I grin at the camera. He is dressed in camouflage pajamas. His eyes are bright. A tube is taped across his cheek and goes down his nose, into his belly. It feeds him on days when he can’t bring himself to eat. He was transferred to another hospital…last I heard he was still alive.

This time, a card – a Christmas picture of two teens tacked crookedly at my desk. His face is round from the steroids used to calm his inflamed intestines. He smiles without teeth in a shy way. I haven’t seen him in months, but every time I chew bubble gum I remember the months he could not eat and the gum he chewed instead. At my desk I am surrounded by letters, pictures, and a poem sent by a friend who knows me all too well—“I felt I was a child instructing the grown-ups, / Giving advice like paper dams on a violent stream.”

I am a hospital chaplain. Prayers, games, and tears are the economy of my day. I baptize the dead—a theological no-no but in the midst of tears can anyone say “no” to a families request for their dying child? I bless the intubated. I offer reassurance, but more often, there is none to give. My smallest parishioners are weighed in grams; my largest are sometimes older than me with congenital problems best solved in a pediatric hospital. I drink lattes on my way to work, a bribe to leave my room, my warm, safe place where death is something that happens to pets and grandmothers. Read more