“Targeting Gun Violence with Gun Buybacks”

I’m a bit of an outlier among my young female clergy colleagues. I’m a gun owner and a hunter— I use my guns exclusively for hunting wild game. As a kid, hunting with my dad was a way for me to get into nature. It allowed me to observe how I fit “into the family of things,” as Mary Oliver once wrote in her poem “Wild Geese.” To this day, hunting helps me unwind from the stressors of ministry. I can clear my thoughts and catch my perspective. It’s sometimes harder to pray in my church office than it is to pray in a deer stand— even if I’m waiting on an 8-point buck to cross my path. Owning guns helps me fit into my ministry context. I currently pastor two small churches nestled between timber woods and cow pastures in rural South Carolina. Most of my parishioners are farmers and they use guns for hunting and protecting livestock. I’ve really come to enjoy learning about the guns they shoot. Some parishioners even have legacy guns: priceless relics they’ve inherited from ancestors long dead. It is humbling to be trusted with these family histories. But while there are many proud gun-carrying members, there are also many for whom guns are a painful reminder of the epidemic of violence in our society.

Many churches in my area still feel unsafe in the wake of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting five years ago. But most of our gun violence in South Carolina does not come from domestic terrorism: it comes from suicide. Over 90% of suicides in my state involve a gun, and we are 50th in the nation when it comes to availability of mental health first aid. South Carolina is also the only state in the southeast of the U.S. with an increasing suicide rate. During my high school years, I experienced profound depression, brought on by a family crisis. At one point, during the height of my depression, I imagined a handgun to my head and felt a sense of relief rather than dread. This image propelled me to tell a friend, who encouraged me to see a counselor. Thankfully, my family had the financial resources to pay for a counselor. Therapy likely saved my life, but many people don’t have the financial resources for counseling services. These memories, statistics, and ministry experiences propelled me to start a new model for ministry in my community: a gun buyback program.

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Ripples of Love

Sometimes our ministry drives us to create that which we most need to hear for ourselves.

Sitting at my studio table, I am renewed. As the light dapples through the open windows, I am surrounded by art and story. While I appear in solitude, I am never alone. The voices of those in my tribe echo, energy resides, the Spirit moves, and I am home. My heart is full.

I’ve been an ordained minister for 11 years. It began when I started volunteering and teaching classes in church as a teenager, and soon after I began working in the church. That was nearly 20 years ago. There’s no gauge. It’s a breath. It’s a heartbeat. Well, okay, maybe a few.

Even so, I find it hard to talk about how I interact with my art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art. I breathe who I am, aiming to show up and share myself with the world. Unlike many traditional vocations, artistic projects can take years to develop. Others are birthed quickly. On a few I have missed the mark and must to re-do the work. All of that is part of the process.

But I know this:
I am not perfect.
I am perceived as more confident than I often am.
I strive to be near-perfect, to be confident and to get it right the first time. 

But perfect is next to impossible. For most of last year, my life was marked by chronic illness, anxiety, and depression. I was so deep in it that I couldn’t see what was what. I had been sick for months and was grieving a friend’s death. I felt as though I was drowning. It wasn’t until I found myself on the other side of an anxious call to a beloved client that I hung up the call and made an appointment with a therapist to find care for myself. I share this because not everything is as we’d hope; sometimes it’s just what it is.

My art is a reflection of the care I place on myself and the care I put into things. If I haven’t rested well, my hands hurt and it’s hard to hold the paintbrush for long. In the same way, when I don’t practice yoga regularly, my body aches. It sounds simple because it is – you have to care for yourself. In my experience, it takes persistence and practice to develop a regular practice of self-care and soul-care.

But it is worth it, because you know what they say, right? Self-care is sexy! My loved ones notice how different I am when I’m caring for myself; it shows when I name what I need or take the long bike ride. I feel good, and that impacts everyone around me. It is a reminder to me that we know what we need and how to have what we need. We just need to be willing to ask.

I also know this:
I love myself as I am.

I hear so many stories when I show up with my art. I notice how folks interact and respond to my art as if we’re sharing space in the same room. The Spirit carries the intention of hope, healing, and delight into the world. It’s as though art becomes my church, where I find myself softened and strengthened hearing the stories of others as they interact with my creations. Over time, I’ve realized we are in that same congregation. We’re a wider community that builds upon spirituality, connection, service, and practice. We gather, share, create, and serve one another and alongside one another.

Over time, I have discerned that my call is to gather folks round the table. I feel called to minister especially to clergywomen, those who are grieving, and those who want to explore spirituality and soul care. In this work, I am also ministering to myself. And, thankfully, because I am not alone, that ministry expands to the world around me. Because I am showing up and sharing what I do as I minister to myself, I end up reaching the most people without even intending to.

Nicki Peasley interviewed me recently and spoke of my artwork and studio retreats in an article:

For Suzanne, gathering people around the table is art in its truest form, a creative banquet and dynamic process of exploring, healing, and appreciating–together. Suzanne holds a welcoming, sacred space for gatherers to lay down their burdens and fears and begin to engage in authentic self care. A sensitive and gracious facilitator, Suzanne utilizes guided meditation, visualization, mindful creative practice, poetry, body movement, and storytelling as primary tools to engage both the intellect and the human spirit.Suzanne helps to gently open the heart to empower, encourage, and feed the individual and collective soul.

“When we gather at the table, it’s a safe space with a focus on the state of our hearts, bodies, minds,” Suzanne says, “As witnesses to each other, we name what needs to be named, release what needs to be released, and we encounter new life and the possibilities within.”

“My desire is to spread love, hope, courage, and delight in small, generous artful acts, moments, and services. I am showing up with hands ready to move, an open heart, and trust that this whole enterprise makes ripples in this wide world.”

Nicki reminds me of the ripples that are unseen yet felt. So much of my ministry resides in the space of mystery. What I do is through contemplation and creation. Just as I write and create art, I hold space for those with whom I minister in my daily living.

While I miss ministering in a single church from time-to-time, art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art fills my cup. I know that I’m equally called to motherhood and to making good food for our family table. I also know my art reaches many more than I have the time or energy to meet and greet. I welcome those interactions and generous meetings. I welcome the partnership each time I am commissioned to create something, or each time someone shares my art with another. These are seeds of loving kindness and care. Some folks don’t know what to say or do in difficult moments, and, yet, they find a way through the art: a card attached to a jar of soup, art for the family displaced by a fire, words of wisdom before cancer treatments, art for the physicians who have journeyed alongside a patient.

I know this:
As Chaplain of the Arts, I am healed as I heal.

Swallowing a Bitter Pill: A Lenten Journey

Bitter Pills of Lent

Bitter Pills of Lent

“I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

It is a common joke around this time of year when worship leaders start planning for the Lenten season. I know I’ve said it before — even meant it. Lent can be a big, busy, bitter pill to swallow.

Ash Wednesday is one half of the encapsulation of Lent. It begins the 40 days when we wander through our own wilderness before we turn our focus onto the actions of Jesus in Holy Week. We start with the confession: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The message is easy: you have an expiration date. You are inhabiting a body of dust and ash that will, one day, fail you. These words are meant to stir our hearts and allow us to deepen our spiritual life during the Lenten journey. Two people I love, one a long-standing friend named Martin and the other, a mentor for many of us through his writing, helped me confront my own mortality on Ash Wednesday about 10 years ago.

At that time, I had been reading the words of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, writing words to himself that he needed to hear, said, “You so much want to heal yourself, fight your temptations, and stay in control.  But you cannot do it yourself. …acknowledge your powerlessness.” Not only did Nouwen need to hear this, but I did as well. I wasn’t just pessimistic and melancholy. I found myself unable to concentrate and in a miserable mood all the time. I realized things had to change when I misplaced a paycheck and wore two different color shoes to work. (And, it wasn’t a navy and black shoe — it was a black and a red shoe!) Like Nouwen, I wanted to believe that I was in control and the answer to my problems. But I found myself unable to find motivation to do anything. I didn’t want to admit my powerlessness.

In this state of mind, I found myself crying to my friend Martin over the phone. He knew my struggle and encouraged me to call the doctor. Through my tears, Martin pointed out: “Jen, this is a grace moment.” That year my Ash Wednesday confession was to see the truth in my mortality, to recognize the spiral downward that was far from normal, and to seek help for depression.

I went to my doctor, and on Ash Wednesday my prescription for antidepressants was filled. It is amazing how one pill can force you to look at yourself and life differently. Sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. I didn’t want to go to the doctor; I didn’t want to admit that my life was being affected by being depressed. All of this was a desire to avoid admitting that I was mortal. I had certainly avoided admitting my need for help. But, with a sip of water and a small green pill, I stared down the fact that I was human, broken, and in need of help. It was thanks to those two voices in my life: Nouwen showed me courage to love myself enough to tell the truth, and my friend Martin gave me the final push to face reality because of God’s grace.

Just as Lent begins with our confession, the Lenten journey is encapsulated on the other side by Maundy Thursday and the powerful words of absolution. “By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

By no means is depression sinful! No illness ever is. But for me, depression was part of the brokenness of the world within me. I desperately needed to hear that God overcomes brokenness. My sinfulness was my pride in trying to say I was in control; it wasn’t the disease. There is nothing more powerful than the voice of someone saying “you are forgiven” to make you ready to face Easter’s joy and to give you hope after your confession. Those first 40 days weren’t the end of my struggle with depression. They were, though, the beginning of a longer journey of healing, a journey that I found the courage to take 10 years ago with a confession, a pill, a sip of water, and the promise that God is greater than myself.

So, no, I won’t be giving up Lent for Lent. Each year it is another pill to swallow that allows me to deepen my mortal human experience of life. It prepares my heart for Easter, God’s greatest gift of grace.

You Shall Love… Yourself

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39b

I remember the first time someone pointed out that Matthew 22:39 assumes that you love yourself. It’s a simple nuance to the second most important commandment, but it impacted me profoundly.

“You shall love… yourself.”Fog City You Shall Love Yourself June 2013

It is in our nature as clergy to desire to reflect God’s love into the life of others. We provide pastoral care, support the disenfranchised, and walk beside people in their grief. Generally those who feel called to ministry get to that place because on some level they like people. My pastoral care classes in seminary provided vocabulary, resources, and framework for this work, but the desire to help others and inclination to listen were already there.

Self-care is another matter entirely. If you’ve been to seminary you’ve likely heard professor after professor advocating for proper boundary setting and self-care. You’ll hear adages such as “you must fill your own cup before you can fill others,” and “you must be the people of God, in order to do the work of the people of God.” But taking that time and space is counter-intuitive to most pastor types. We feel selfish spending time on ourselves and scripture reading can easily become just another work related task. Even when we seek out Sabbath time it can be nearly impossible to set aside the concerns of the parish. We don’t get to walk away from work at the end of the day. We are always on call. Even when we make special effort to be on vacation we will still be contacted in the case of a congregational death or tragedy. We never stop being a pastor, which at sometimes is great, and at others can be suffocating.

As a pastor in my first call I thought I was doing okay self-care wise. I was eating relatively healthfully, got a massage about once a month, met with a spiritual director once a month, went on regular walks with my dog, spent great effort and was able to find non-church friends in my area, and had even recently become engaged! On Facebook I looked like not only did I have it all together, but I was genuinely happy and living a joy-filled life. Behind those pictures of me with my handsome fiancé, sweet dog, and smiling friends, however,  was a much darker shadow. As the television show Portlandia all too accurately said, I was “cropping out the sadness.”

In ministry we learn to be adept at small talk, to reveal just enough about our personal lives to make a connection, but not too much as to be inappropriately vulnerable or make our congregation feel like they need to take care of us. When we’re used to doing this work of protecting our vulnerabilities, presenting our personal life in a professional way on Facebook is second nature. The trouble with this, however, is that we take so much time crafting the mask, we ourselves can forget what is underneath it.

Depression filtered into my life like a slowly rolling fog. If I squinted my eyes just right I didn’t even notice it was around me. And once I realized it was there it was nearly too late. I was crying at committee meetings and crying myself to sleep. When I tried to support the church council’s ideas for establishing financial accountability, members would angrily oppose the simple filling out of vouchers. While I knew these actions were motivated by their own fear of new things and their desire for control (in a part of their life that would lend that to them) — it eventually became impossible not to take things personally.

I never felt like I was doing anything right, and so many church members would confirm my perceived inadequacies and add their own criticisms to the list. When consulting with the church leadership on a technological update that the secretary had requested, a member e-mailed back saying that more technology in the church would just be an excuse for me to spend more time with technology and less time with people. While this particular technology wasn’t anything I was going to be interacting with, the idea that technology was more comfortable to me than some of the personal interactions cut me deeply. As a constant outsider in the community it was frequently difficult to connect with the members of the church in the ways they connected to one another. It was easier for me to work on the technological aspects of ministry because it was where I did have confidence in my gifts.

Finally my regional denominational leader approached me after he had received a call from a parishioner of mine complaining that I was not pulling my weight. He asked what was going on and all of my attempts at professionalism failed. I told him that I couldn’t even articulate the helplessness that I was feeling. While I pleaded for some sort of a break, he said, not very gently, that a medical leave for depression would have serious repercussions for me professionally. He wouldn’t give me an easy way out, but he did point me in the direction of the hard working way forward. He insisted that I go and see a doctor and find a way out of the fog.

If someone with my story came to me, I know what I would say. I would read them John 10:10 and tell them of Christ’s promise to provide abundant life. Perhaps I’d read Jeremiah 29:11-13 and remind them of God’s plan for them. I would pray for healing, peace, and comfort. But when it came to my own life, I was not so assured.

Three medication changes, 12 therapy appointments, and 20 gained pounds later, I’ve begun the climb out of the mire. I discerned that it was very necessary to move on from this place that has been so toxic to me. I have now accepted a position with a new congregation; one that will be on a multi-pastor staff rather than the solo pastorate I am leaving.

Part of me wishes I could’ve stuck it out here, but the other part of me is just so grateful to have a chance at a new beginning. As I begin saying painful goodbyes and packing boxes, I feel like a survivor. On the surface level, I’ve survived the congregation’s cruelty and anger. On a deeper level, I continue to survive depression’s fog. I pray that I may listen to the advice I would give to another, and that the stories of God’s love and care and redemption will once again permeate my heart. Most of all, I pray that I relearn to love myself as God has called each of us to do. May it be so.

The author has survived ministry for several years with the help and support of her dog, fiancé, and friends. She is looking forward to new life in her new congregation.

Photo Credit:  “Fog City” by David Yu. Accessed June 18, 2014.  Used under Creative Commons License.

Faith, Interrupted.

Last year my life exploded. A mental illness I didn’t know I had shifted into full bloom, landing me in the hospital. One day I solo pastored a church in transition, loving my call and work. The next day I was in the hospital because of severe depression, one pole of my newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. In the year that followed I was on 15 different medications to find the right combination for treatment, had 4 hospitalizations for a total of 10 weeks, spent another 9 weeks in intensive outpatient treatment, and experienced 7 controversial ECT treatments (electro convulsive therapy, not at all like what you’ve seen in movies!). It’s been a harrowing year.

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