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An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

Grace and Vanilla Wafers

An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

A view that became familiar over the course of the morning.

This morning my ravenous, growth-spurting twins decided that Mini ‘Nilla Wafers were the only acceptable food in our house. I doled out four—one for each hand for each twin, and they made their way back into the playroom to play and enjoy their snacks. Every few minutes they returned. And one at a time I placed the wafers into their tiny hands.

After a few rounds I realized that something about this felt awfully familiar. I felt like I was distributing vanilla wafer communion right there in my kitchen. No, I hadn’t blessed them, and I didn’t even necessarily glance up from my work every time the little feet thudded back for more.

But with one outstretched hand after another, I recognized in my children the same persistence with which the people of the church return each week, hands outstretched for a wafer at the communion rail.

And the simplicity of what the twins did taught me more about what happens in the Eucharist than any lecture on eucharistic theology ever has. Each time those babies came back to me, it was because they knew I loved them and would meet their needs. Again and again and again. They came back to me each time with a trust I could only hope to muster as I approach God each time I receive the Eucharist. When I stretch my hands out to God the way those little hands stretched out to me, do I truly believe God will meet my needs? Do I trust in God’s love for me?

There is only so far that this comparison goes, of course, because eventually I will stop giving them ‘Nilla Wafers. Unlike a mom concerned for her children’s sugar intake, though, God will never stop giving.

Each time we return to the communion rail, God meets us there. And while those papery communion wafers aren’t quite as delicious as vanilla wafers, they nonetheless remind us, again and again, that God’s love and provision for us will never cease. This is grace. And it is sweet indeed.

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attached

Untethered but Anchored

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attachedA year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.

The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.

I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.

Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”

Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago. Read more

God’s Grace and My Father’s Love

Sometimes the hands of God are right in front of us

My father was a force of nature. He was a big man, both physically and in spirit, and had the kind of laugh that had a way of booming itself across a room, hovering for a while before dissipating. As a little girl I was fascinated by his size, putting my hand up against his and watching in awe as his fingers closed around mine, hiding them away completely. There was such safety in seeing my smallness tucked up and protected in the hugeness of his hands.

Still, he looked impossibly small when I walked into his ICU room many years later, where he lay stricken by a sudden infection that would take his life. He was a big man made tiny and still beneath a nest of tubes, his face obscured by the ventilator that kept his chest rising and falling with mechanic precision. The years between being an awe-struck young girl and a fully grown, ordained woman had not been kind to us, and I found myself standing next to a man that I loved with the whole of my heart, but who felt so very much like a distant stranger, a person to be wary of.

My father was a man who walked between worlds of light and dark. In the light stood his faith, his joy, his playfulness bordering on prankster, his sweeping generosity. Our church loved him deeply and it was a love that was richly returned. Everyone drew close to his light, which seemed to radiate warmth. There was a sense about him that no matter what might go wrong, he would set it right, and over the course of his years in our church leadership he did so again and again. But he was a man in whom shadows made their home as well. His joyful side would fade and he’d quickly become withdrawn and disengaged, choosing to be alone in his office or his bedroom instead of spending time with his family. He was quick to temper and could be casually and laughingly cruel – though usually only to his family and closest of friends. We loved him because we could not possibly do otherwise, but each of us carried with us the wounds of that love.

My father’s illness lasted a month to the day, and he was conscious, even talkative, for most of it. The days mostly blur together, but I remember my anger with clarity. I was absolutely furious, pacing trenches in the halls of the hospital. I railed against God, a madwoman in her clerical collar, shouting at heaven from the parking lot. My Presbyterian theology taught me to expect my prayers to change me, not to change God’s mind, but I had no patience for that. I had no patience for God’s plans, and cared not at all what was going on in God’s mind. Read more

Grace-full Resolutions

366190064_8114b4e55d_bJanuary brings new beginnings. There’s calm after the flurry of holiday festivities. New calendars are crisp and white, empty dates full of promise. It’s an opportunity and often a yearning to start anew, to make changes for the better as we embark on the New Year. And so with varying degrees of earnestness, we formulate and commit to New Year’s resolutions.

I resolve to lose 20 pounds. In the coming year I will eat more vegetables. My goal is to learn a new language. I plan to call my parents more often. This is the year I’m going to get out of debt. I will pray more faithfully.

There are whole industries lined up to equip us for these self-improvement endeavors. Messages abound about becoming a better you and promise sure-fire techniques for success. However with less than half of all resolutions fulfilled, I wonder if we might approach things differently. New Year’s resolutions almost always point to the ways we are lacking. Their subtext is “… because you are not good enough, yet.”

What if our starting point was different? As children of God, our starting point is one of inherent value. Martin Luther connects this with what he calls the passive righteousness of faith which is given to us by God through Jesus. This is different than a practice of works righteousness, or trying to earn God’s love through our own actions. Luther strongly believed that life is about God working in and through us, rather than us working to be right with God. Read more

Imperfectly, but with Joy


“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” -Matthew 5:48

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I am a recovering perfectionist.

I am also a terrible speller. I noticed after a first draft of this article that perfectionism was misspelled several times. Some might call this ironic; I call it growth.

Perfectionism has been a companion of mine for years. I find perfectionism is cunning, often masking itself as a good work ethic, or the ability to fit into most any social situation. In my experience, perfectionists are great leaders, team members, and organizers. With a perfectionist in the mix, things will get done! The downside is that perfectionism can be incredibly isolating, and beneath the surface there lies fear and shame. This leads me to wonder if perfectionism is one of the few publicly accepted addictions, both in our culture and in our churches.

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Careful

When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. ~2 Samuel 6:6-7

 

pulpitSomewhere in my early years of ministry I picked up the message that in order to be the pastor to everyone, I must be very careful never to sound partisan or to take a side on an issue. I’m pretty sure it started with the discussions about political bumper stickers (don’t) and bled from there into preaching, writing, and teaching. Congregations are made up of a wide spectrum of opinions and beliefs, of course…indeed sometimes that’s the only diversity to be found in a suburban mainline sanctuary. Because I wanted the most people possible to be open to hearing the gospel message, I was careful to say things in such a way that no one would stop listening in anger. Because I didn’t want anyone to feel they didn’t have a place in the community, or that I couldn’t care for them because we disagreed on political or economic issues, I was careful to use words in a way that would appear to agree with everyone.

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The Break-Up Flowers

They got delivered on Sunday by mistake. The florist had a backlog of funeral arrangements to deliver and the bouquet to commemorate my loss got pushed back until Sunday. I told the florist to deliver them to the parsonage “first thing” but the florist version of “first thing” Sunday morning deviated by at least an hour from the pastor version.

A zealous usher saw the florist knocking at the parsonage next door and waved her over to the church. So there they were, on my desk, a half hour before game time, a beautiful reminder of what I was trying to forget.

A week earlier –

before the church retreat

and before the excessive sermon preparation that doubled as pain killers

(who doesn’t drown their sorrows in Greek conjugations?)

and before the pastoral visits I made with the shards of a broken heart

clattering around inside me

before I could marvel at my ability to soldier through

before I could despair that no one could tell any difference…

…A week earlier, my boyfriend and I broke up. And, let me tell you, this was not one of those amicable and mature unicorns of a break-up. I called my friends and cried, then I picked myself up and carried on. The heartbreak felt so personal. It was mine to carry so I did the thing I was never sure I’d be able to do in the midst of a break up. I did my job. Not well. Not completely, but enough, and the Holy Spirit filled in the gaps, as she always and so graciously does.

But now there were flowers on my desk. And a note that read “You are not alone,” which–despite the whirring copier in the office and the deacons counting a special collection next door and the tech team setting up nearby and my colleague standing in my study running through our last minute preparations – was exactly how I felt.

A well-meaning church member stopped in the doorway, complimented my flowers and politely inquired, “May I ask the occasion?”

“They’re from friends.”

“Do you think we could use them on the altar this morning?”

“No.” I said.

We blinked at each other, both a little uncomprehending. Her offer was innocent enough but it met, in me, a feisty conviction that there was already enough of me on that altar.

So much of our lives, as pastors, belongs to the church: our prayers, our contemplations of Scripture, our time, our compassion. They belong to the church. And we are blessed that, in our giving, we often land in the right place to receive.

But what I learned that Sunday morning from the accidental flowers on my desk is that, sometimes, the grace gets to be just for you.

“No,” I told her. My break up flowers don’t belong to the church. This break-up will never be a sermon illustration. It won’t make me a better chair-person. I won’t discover a secret love of nursing home visitation once the pain has worn off. This break up won’t make me a better pastor. And maybe that’s okay because it wasn’t meant to. There’s already enough of me on that altar.

If the heartbreak is mine to carry then the break-up flowers are mine too. Because I’m human and I took a risk and, at least for now, it didn’t pay off. Because I get to be vulnerable and courageous as a person, not just as your pastor. Because I have friends in my corner. And because, sometimes, the grace gets to be just for me.

 

Shards of Hope

Permission March 2014“Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know? That you’ve pulled a fast one over on God? I don’t know a lot about you, but I know this: our God, who created you, who somehow manages to be three persons and also one at the same time, sees you, knows you, loves you, and highly regards you. As you are.”  

Pastor Ray (Name Changed)

Those may have been the most grace-filled words ever spoken to me. Could it be possible that exactly as I am, broken as I feel, I am made in the image of God? Could it be possible that God doesn’t just know about my brokenness, but knows my multifaceted experience, and still loves and highly regards me?

Or should I say, us? That, after all, more accurately reflects my experience and my internal dialogue. What I call “me” is really a collection of many pieces of myself who live within me. These ‘others’ have their own memories, experiences, belief systems, and ways of making meaning. They even have their own names. Sometimes, we all get along. More often, our conflicting worldviews and belief systems collide within us, challenging us to find an integrated way of living. The official name for this is Dissociative Identity Disorder. (You can read more about that here.)

In spite of the multiplicity of voices that make up my experience, this oft feared, misunderstood mental health challenge leaves me feeling alone. I’m learning to feel comfortable talking about the peripheral issues: depression, anxiety, being an incest survivor, etc. Still, I fear talking about this one. I am afraid to tell anyone about my diagnosis. I am afraid to tell people how challenging it is to live and to minister this way. I am afraid of what people will think and say. Will my bishop decide it’s too risky for me to serve a congregation? Will my congregation react with fear or horror or morbid curiosity? Will my friends think I’m crazy? If they really know me, will they stop loving me?

Fear and silence shroud my whole life. The cloistered secrecy that pervaded my childhood made my disorder possible (and necessary). As an adult, I push back against these walls. I stretch to characterize my life with confidence, honesty, and integrity. And yet, still I am afraid. Still I have a secret. The deepest, most painful secret possible: who I really am.

Carrying this secret exhausts me, which is why I sought out Pastor Ray that day. Tired of feeling afraid for my job, tired of feeling alone in the world, tired of feeling overwhelmed and suicidal, I sought out someone I believed might bring me good news. I told my secret. I explained what I believe: God didn’t mean for my life to be this way. God didn’t create me with the intention that I would have ‘others’ inside of me. I am this way because of what happened to me. Fundamentally, I believe that I am different in my soul than God originally intended. Then, I explained what I fear: God couldn’t possibly know about these ‘others’ and love me. Their very existence must mean that we’re meant to be alone. Ultimately, I fear that because I am not who God created me to be, I should not even be alive.

I sat quietly trembling in Pastor Ray’s office, waiting for his response. He didn’t recoil, didn’t appear horrified, didn’t ask questions. He just said that. “Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know?…” Something broke loose inside of me. I began to breathe again. Streams of colored light began to play deep within my soul, as though someone had turned on the light behind a stained glass window.

This should not have been surprising. After all, I don’t believe in a God who created a world where evil ‘got in’ and can never be redeemed. I believe that our creation & garden stories bear witness to a God who does not cause sin and brokenness, or ignore it, or punish it. Rather, I believe these stories speak of a God who constantly invites us to take part in God’s redemptive work. God gently holds our brokenness with an invitation to work together to create unfathomable beauty. Just as a stained glass window transforms broken shards of glass into a single beautiful piece of art, so God works with us and our brokenness to create ever more complex, beautiful artwork. Brokenness doesn’t ruin the art, it is the art.

What really surprised me that day was that the light shone from within me. Somehow, God’s light was already present behind my broken soul. Somehow, in spite of my fear, I had never really been alone. Somehow, pulling together the painful gashes that separate pieces of my soul, God could still create beauty from my brokenness. Somehow, God could still bring me hope.

I know that many people live with mental illness. Many people live exhausted from keeping secrets in fear. Many people believe that something about them makes them fundamentally unlovable, unknowable, and disdainful to God. So often, I feel that I must be the only person (or at least, the only clergyperson) in the world who struggles in these ways. I also know that isn’t actually true, even when I feel most abandoned and alone. Every person’s life experience is unique, and anyone can feel completely alone even if they’re not. That is, even though they’re not. So I know, even when I feel most alone, I am not. I cling to the hope that even God lives as three-in-one. And God’s light shines, even when I can’t see it.

I still don’t have the courage to share my story openly. I still wonder what would happen if my bishop or my congregation learned about my diagnosis. I still think carefully about which friends might be safe to tell and how they might respond. I even still wonder, sometimes, if God’s promises hold true for me. At the same time, I ask God to nurture the brightness within me. I seek places where it can be seen. And I let it shine through my broken pieces with hope.

Feeling isolated and alone comes easy in life. Society still teaches us to keep secrets, especially about mental health challenges. Yet God’s grace shines brightest in community. God’s grace comes when we know we are seen and known and loved and highly regarded. God’s grace remains present at all times. But so often, it takes someone who sees and knows us to shine light into our deepest secrets. It takes someone else to bring grace to our most broken places. It takes someone else to open us to hope.

Hope gives me permission to live. It gives me permission to be vulnerable. It gives me permission to play. It gives me permission to be me, and it gives me permission to be ‘others’ — Janie or Daniel or little one or Sara or Ana or 12 or anyone who needs time to be. It gives me permission to shine. After all, it isn’t me the light graces — it’s us. And after all, it isn’t my light that is shining — it’s God’s. Even in me. Even in us.

The author serves as a full-time solo pastor of a congregation somewhere in the world that gives her time to see her therapist on a regular basis. You may contact the editor of this article at theoneswelove (dot) ycw (at) gmail (dot) com.

Photo provided by the author.

The Morning She Was Betrayed

It was 8:35 when my alarm clock betrayed me.

And I only knew of his defiance because the phone rang. Twice. But I rolled over insisting that this, too, was part of my dream. The rebellion continued until the answering machine interrupted.

“Lexi?” My answering machine called out. It was then that I realized that this was the morning I was betrayed. It was now 8:37. Worship had started seven minutes ago, and I was supposed to be presiding.

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