Posts

Exceptional

“Oh, but you’re one of the good ones.”  

I heard this from adults for most of high school. Usually pronounced with bittersweet bewilderment, it would be followed by a conversation about the surprise at my presence. As a teenager I was highly involved in the Church. (My call and ordination maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me.) Church was both refuge and fun for me. As a young overachiever who was a bookworm and enjoyed learning, I first heard these words with hope. I wasn’t, as I sometimes feared, unpopular because I was unlikeable. If I was exceptional, perhaps I was misunderstood—and what teen doesn’t like the idea of being misunderstood.

Too quickly I realized that exceptionalism did not make me less lonely. Whether it was for not being popular or not being ordinary, I was still isolated.  

As my peers and I began to mature, and I found more friends my own age, I gained new appreciation for the slight that had been offered to my equally accomplished and committed peers. It was, I increasingly discovered, easy to surround myself with peers who share my values if not my faith. My knowledge of which did not stop the comments. I kept hearing about my “exceptionalism” for the decade I spent being the youngest. The youngest person at a meeting, the youngest priest in the room and the diocese.

I am no longer the youngest priest in the diocese—though I’m often still the youngest person in the room. But I still hear how “exceptional” I am. Now that it is not rooted in my age, it catches me off guard more often. It sneaks up in conversations as they turn to refugees and immigration. It doesn’t start with the bewildered sadness in these conversations. Far more often its confused anger. “Those people” who come here and are a drain on our system, by stealing jobs or tying up resources. I am an immigrant. Read more

Handmade soap

Beautiful and Useful

Handmade soap

Handmade soap

“It’s part chemistry, part magic, part artistry,” I tell my four year old loftily. He nods like he cares, as we plunge the stick blender into the bowl of water, lye, and oils. Carefully, we readjust our safety goggles as the mixture emulsifies, beginning to turn into soap. This is the second batch we’ve made today, the fifth this week. It’s much more than we need (though I do sell about two-thirds of what I make), and I can tell I’ve hit my threshold for stress when I deep dive into crafting. One summer in high school I made fifteen pairs of shorts in two weeks when my boyfriend was out of town. Moody teenager in my household always translated into new craft projects.

My professional work these days is as a pastoral counselor. I absolutely love working full-time in a group non-profit counseling center. I have a diverse client base, and I specialize in counseling children and helping people who have survived trauma. It’s interesting, and each day has something new in store for me to learn, experience, or help someone process.

But being the holding vessel for people’s hardships also takes its toll. I have a long history of eating my feelings, and have to be careful not to eat my clients’ feelings, too. Crafting helps with that, which is why I sew, knit, and make soap from scratch. Sometimes when I guest preach, I even manage to work a few crafting references or stories into the sermon.

Crafting shows up in many Bible stories, though for most of those folks, it was less a hobby and more a survival skill. Yet even so, there’s still a beauty to crafting for survival: people have always wanted to create things that are beautiful and useful. Beautiful and useful is what I’m aiming for with the soap.

If you’re going to be successful at making soap from scratch, there are a few important terms you must remember. They all relate to the fragrance or essential oils that are part of the soaping process. The terms are: performs normally, accelerates trace, and will discolor. Read more

What Language Shall I Borrow?

I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.

Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.

The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.

The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education. Read more

Of Veils and Virgins: My Life with the Bees

Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy; mercy as shown chiefly towards the poor, that thou mayest treat them as sharers in common with thee in the produce of nature, which brings forth the fruits of the earth for use to all.

-Saint Ambrose, Patron Saint of Beekeepers

One of the earliest moments of me ever captured on film is a photograph of me and my father tending to his bee hives. In the photo, my father (who must have been about the age I am currently) is decked out in his full bee-keeping suit—long leather gloves, netting that covered his whole body, and the all-important beekeeper’s veil— that kept the agitated bees who assume, rightfully, that he was there to take their honey, from stinging him. I, on the other hand, am about three years old, in a light t-shirt, and the only protection I seem to have had is the hand-held smoke pot that kept the bees calm by simulating a forest-fire.

Dad had, no doubt, employed me to work the small bellows on the pot so he could have his hands free to inspect the hive. For my part, I am smiling, apparently oblivious to the danger that my lack of veil put me in. These bees were my friends and I knew no fear. Even the honey they made was called “Hilly-Honey” as a tribute to my fearlessness with them. And though my father could be accused of being reckless with my body’s well-being, he was anything but with my soul’s—teaching me that we kept bees because we are the stewards of this earth and are to care for the least of God’s creatures. Thus began my life as a beekeeper.

To keep bees is to be invited to help build a kingdom.

The keeper and the bees labor side by side tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, building homes, and pollinating the world – an awful lot like being a part of a church. In fact, the link between bees and the church is almost as old as Christendom itself, including everything from theology to candles. At the height of the season there can be upwards of 35,000 bees in a healthy hive and they are all family—mostly all female, in fact. They share the same mother—their monarch, the queen—and their common life together has long been lauded as a model for Christian community. Read more

A Potpourri of Holiday Cheer

When it comes to December, what I call Clergy Superbowl, our very lives are acts of creativity: how will we balance activity and reflection? home stuff with church stuff? the “shoulds” with the “want-tos?” tradition with innovation? It is a constant balancing act:

Some of us cook.

Some of us craft.

Some of us order takeout.

And it’s all good.


One YCW writes:
I remembered that Ian, my Presbyterian pastor husband, and I are thinking about having a holiday party for our clergy friends. It will be simple–because in this season clergy especially need simplicity!  The gimmick: it will be a religiously-themed wine party. Bring a bottle with a name you can theologize on, and then do.

–Jennifer M. Creswell ministers, cooks, and drinks in Portland, OR.
(Let us know how the party went, Jennifer!)

__________________

As expected, many of our traditions and practices revolve around food. Rebecca Lesley, pastor of Suffolk Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA, wrote, My Swiss-German grandmother always makes a stollen and we must, must, must have honeycakes! Oh, and hot buttered rum on Christmas morning.

And Grace Burson, Curate at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester, NH, shared her Christmas menu: Schnecken (German cinnamon rolls, homemade with enormous effort) for breakfast, along with fruit salad and scrambled eggs. And my family of origin does a big Christmas evening buffet, with homemade bread and cold cuts and cocktail sausages and crudites and millions of cookies.
Oh, and Turkish phyllo rolls called boereks, stuffed with cheese and dill, which were made as a fundraiser by the nursery school we all attended and have become a tradition.

Grace also continues her family’s tradition of real candles on the Christmas tree… as well as the traditional placement of the fire extinguisher in a handy place nearby. Read more

“Waters of Love” and “Birth Water”: New Poetry

Waters of Love

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The void. The deep. And the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters –
first creating one-celled,
then multiple-celled,
and eventually the endless numbers of intricately-evolved organisms
that populate the earth today.
And God called it good, beloved.

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The womb. We’ve all been there. Floating in the watery sac of amniotic fluid,
we each grew from 2 cells,
to multiple organs,
to the wondrously complicated being that sits in the pew
next to your neighbor: you.
And God called you good, beloved.

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The Jordan River. The place where Jesus stepped out of the waves and into his mission and ministry.
Growing from one Word of love,
to multiple acts of justice,
into an infinite call for each person to follow… into new life.
And God called the baptism good, and God’s child beloved.

The Deep.
The Womb.
The Jordan.
New life begins in the waters of creation.
And the new life is good.
Beloved.

_______________

Read more

Summer Time in Corinth

The God of the Wilderness calls to me during the summer. She is a beckoning God. She wants me to abandon all responsibility to praise her radiant glory. She is determined to spoil me with a golden glow and abundant warmth. Alas, she can only distract me from my office window. She is still calling – but so is the blinking light of the church phone.

A message beckons to me from my voicemail, insisting that I ignore the God of the Wilderness that it seems every church member has rushed to worship. As June approached, the members of this small congregation carefully informed me that they would look forward to seeing me in September. They would miss their church, but their [insert summer retreat] awaited them. And so, I wondered, who could have left me a voicemail? If the whole church family has disappeared to worship the Son of Righteousness, who could be calling?

Read more

Body Beautiful

 

As the chaplain to a small women’s college my misperceptions of my own body rise to the surface on a regular basis. My day-to-day actions set an example for the women around me. The amount of rest I get, my fitness level, my stress level, and my eating habits are of as much interest to the students as my theological knowledge or spiritual well being. We often imagine that the minds of small children are like little sponges, absorbing everything around them, and assume that by college age this formation is done. But college students are much the same, soaking up the adult world around them, trying on identities to determine which ones might fit. I know that just as they try on the personas of the other students, they will also try on my identity to see if it mirrors what they would like to be themselves. I would hate to find out that my body issues reinforced or supported the same self-loathing behavior in anyone else.

You see, that’s just the problem. These ideas about my body didn’t just arise out of thin air. They are part and parcel of the persona I tried on and then accepted for myself. The media, conversations with family, and interactions friends all reinforce these ideals. I watch the women and men who are made over by “What Not To Wear,” analyze the characters on “LA Ink,” and laugh at the strange perfectionism of the women who grace the screen in episodes of “Dr. 90210.”

In conversations with my family we talk about what we are eating, our size, our weight, and inevitably how we aren’t pleased with any of it. For years I have struggled to find a mental space where I would love my body no matter what size it may be. I purchase clothes that are flattering, diet, or exercise only to be briefly pleased with the results. I find that I return to the same place of self loathing in short order, regardless of what I do. Not that long ago I purchased People magazine just to read an article about Jennifer Love Hewitt’s response to appalling tabloid photos displaying her minimal cellulite so that I would have a visual reminder that we are all beautifully, perfectly, imperfect. Read more