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Winter Reading Suggestions from Young Clergywomen

Do you love curling up under blankets with a pile of books in the winter? Have you found more time to read – or needed to make time for your survival – in this pandemic? Young clergywomen (YCW) shared in our online groups some of what we hope to read this winter. Many of the books inspire our work as pastors (some accidentally), and many help us stop and breathe in the midst of such strange times. If you are looking for more recommendations for the year, check out some of these reads.

 

Books to read if you are looking for healing…

Loves…Regardless: Forty Devotions Inspired by Womanist Creative Thought and Theology by Donna Owusu-Ansah

This devotional is written for black women, celebrating #blackgirlmagic. The YCW who recommended the book is white. She wrote, “As a white woman reading this life-giving womanist text, my own soul soars as I remember my own belovedness and cultivate practices that lead toward wholeness.”

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2020 Thanksgiving Prayer

“Thanksgiving Drive” by katmeresin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

God of all of us,

Life as we knew it has changed.

Thanksgiving as we knew it is different this year.

We have lost people we love.

We have lost gathering in the ways we used to gather.

Some of us have lost jobs or trust or optimism.

So we grieve today, even as we give thanks.

We lament today, even as we hold onto moments of joy.

You are a God who hears and knows our lament.

We also lament the state of our nation and the division among us.

We don’t want to move too quickly to unity

without addressing the pain that lies under that division.

We give you our hurt. We give you our anger.

May your hearing of our prayers and our pain

open the way for healing and new hope and restored community.

Read more

When Christmas Isn’t Joyful: The Story of The Bird

I met my husband 15 years ago this Christmas, with all the trappings of a holiday romance movie: the snow was gently falling, he was in his new Army dress uniform, we talked for hours from the evening of Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Day. I, young and feeling in love, went out and bought a Christmas ornament to commemorate such a lovely meet-cute. Ever since, we’ve had a tradition of buying an annual ornament; our collection is full of reminders of the churches we’ve served, the states we’ve lived in, and milestones we’ve reached as a family.

But there was one year, several years ago, when things were… not good. Our family was strong, but we were in the midst of both professional and personal chaos. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t in any mood to purchase a special ornament to commemorate it.

So I didn’t.

It came up in conversation a few times that season; my husband and I were very aware there was no new ornament, and we were okay with that.

But then, a few days after Christmas, we were at Target and saw a big clearance bin of ornaments, clearly the remnants of decorations that no one wanted during the season. I mean, ZERO PEOPLE wanted them. They were all damaged and hideous.

Then I saw it: The Bird.

It was oversized and brightly colored — very different from the delicate gold-trimmed ornaments we usually chose. It was crushed from having been pushed repeatedly to the bottom of the bin and was missing a sewn-on eye, a bare thread in its place. The tail was coming unglued and there was inexplicably some sort of plastic fish hook attached to its head.

And it was also 90% off. That thing cost thirty-nine cents.

I held it up to my husband: THIS IS IT. THIS IS OUR ORNAMENT FOR THIS YEAR. THIS BIRD THAT IS THIRTY-NINE CENTS AND MISSING AN EYE.

So we took it home and added it to the tree, talking about how difficult that year had been and what our hopes were for the coming year.

Every year since, as we decorate the Christmas tree, we retell the story of each ornament to our kids. And every year, we recount those struggles, smiling at the symbolism of this ugly bird on our tree that serves as a reminder of the year that didn’t destroy us.

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One Can’t Rush The Process of Forgiveness: A Personal Story of Sexual Trauma

A picture of the author in front of a large rock

The author

Sexual trauma. Two uncomfortable words to see in print and to write about, particularly in the church. Sex is still a taboo subject in the church in the year 2018, although church folks are having quite a bit of it – whether it is wrong or right, single or married, ethical or unethical, or even scandalous. The point I am making is this: not talking about sex in the church does not mean the church is avoiding the trauma that is continuously happening with its members, congregants, guests, visitors, and so on.

Unfortunately, sexual trauma happens too often to too many girls and boys every day in various homes, church spaces, schools, parks, and more. It doesn’t care what race, gender, ethnicity, religion, denomination, time of the day or week nor time of the month. All it cares about is what it needs at the time when it is ready to feast on the innocent and unconsenting bodies.

The needs of sexual trauma are to control, manipulate, and distort the minds of both the perpetrator and victims. Many do not survive its wrath.

I lived to tell my story of how I wrestled this evil spirit of sexual trauma, although I wish it could have been for only one night like Jacob. I have spent years purging the damage and residue of its grips from the depths of my mind, spirit, and soul.

Even now, it is difficult to write about my experience; toiling over this piece thinking of a way how I can tell my story. Where do I start? How much should I tell? Do I even want to remember those events of my life? This is a part of my narrative. Sexual trauma had its tentacles in shaping the woman I am today, unfortunately. But, no glory will be given to sexual trauma for no good thing it has done in my life, but all good things come from God.

Due to the invasion of sexual trauma I had no choice but to desperately search for wells in dry places in my adulthood, particularly when I was pressed to forgive and love my perpetrator by church folks. I know that Scriptures teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Throughout my young adulthood, other believers urged me to forgive and love my perpetrator. This request seemed to be in support of the perpetrator rather than in my best interest of getting healed.

It seemed unimaginably unfair to me. It was so disheartening that my body was violated. My trust had been broken. My mind had suffered from flashbacks and the entrapments of withdrawals as I navigated my altered life. Too many burdens for anyone to bear alone.

Why do have to be the responsible one to love him and forgive him in order to receive my healing? Why are people quoting these Scriptures to me in the midst of my trauma without even asking me how am I doing? I believe people sometimes rush the process of forgiveness and place unwarranted pressure on victims of trauma to forgive their perpetrators. Read more

Blessing our Caregivers

Third Sundays in our congregation are healing Sundays. During communion, two healing ministers position themselves behind the altar rail, anointing oil in hand, to offer healing prayers and blessings to anyone who approaches them.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for themselves – prayers for upcoming surgeries and for broken relationships and for grieving spirits.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for loved ones – prayers for family members in medical crisis or friends in economic distress.

Some people come forward asking for nothing in particular. They just want to hear again the good news that God binds up the broken-hearted and promises healing for us and for all creation.

Healing ministers lay hands on their shoulders, pray, trace the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads, and remind them, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God, and you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” There is nothing in death or in life that can separate these beloved children from the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

It is a privilege to pray for healing. But as a church we recognize the great privilege it is for so many of our members to be called into the work of healing as their vocation, both inside the church and out in the community.

We have many caregivers in our congregation: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, hospice workers, guidance counselors, and the list goes on. At least once a year, we take the opportunity as a congregation to craft a Sunday morning worship service around themes of healing and caregiving, and to offer a special blessing for all the caregivers in our midst.

We believe that Jesus walks with all who are in need. We believe that Jesus carries us through our times of trouble. In the same way, Jesus empowers those who care for the needs of others and Jesus strengthens us to carry one another through times of trouble. Our experience of healing most often comes through the blessing of human hands and hearts that have been set apart for the work of tending to body and spirit. Caregivers of all kinds do this holy work. Their vocations take them to places of immense joy and profound grief. Their work is vital.

When we bless our caregivers in worship, we recognize and honor their gifts and their work. We involve the entire assembly into the blessing process, whether by using a spoken dialogue, inviting members to raise up a hand in blessing, or inviting the assembly to participate in a laying on of hands. We ask God to bless our caregivers and to give them strength and peace in their vocations. Should you want to include a blessing for caregivers as a part of your community’s worship life, here is a template to help you get started: Read more

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.

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

Dwell with Me in Darkness

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I just want to know, God.
When you spoke about binding up the broken-hearted,
right there between good news for the poor
and release for the captives,
who did you have in mind?

 

Is there space for those who,
long past the point that it’s socially acceptable
to drown one’s sorrows in ice cream,
still find cheeks wet with tears?

 

Amidst all the brokenness of this world–
boundary lines breached as nation rises up against nation,
tears in the fabric of society as the rich distance themselves from the poor,
fractures in the inner being, splits in the psyche,
relationships ruptured by a hastily spoken word,
cracks in the climate of a planet gone hot–
amidst all this,
can you be attentive also to a broken heart?

Bring out the best binding cloths, God.
The ones that can bear the strain of a spirit torn in two directions.
Stitch together the divided halves of my heart.
See all that is raw,
Behold the places where life-blood pulses behind the woundedness,
Touch tenderly.

 

For all your humanity, the scriptures give us no indication
that you ever wept when waking up to emptiness on the other side of the bed,
or had to summon words to tell mutual friends that two had become one,
but not in the way you’d hoped.

 

But surely you know something about broken-heartedness, don’t you, God?
You who were one-time sorry you made humankind;
You who cried over Jerusalem
and wept real tears when they told you Lazarus was dead;
You who know the betrayal of friend,
the anger of crowds,
the abandonment of the cross;
you know how the heart can break
and ache
and bleed.

 

Three days of darkness, and you broke through those graveclothes meant to bind.
Let it be the same with me, O God.
Bind me up, dwell with me in darkness,
and then let there be life.

On Healing and Time

Shorigin_2448288816e had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed. (Mark 5:27, 28 NLT)

This unnamed woman in Mark 5:25-34 is my soul sister.  As a lonely teenager, isolated and invisible, I took comfort in Jesus’ awareness of her: he picked her out in the mob pressing against him and honored her courageous act of faith and trust, an act as simple as touching the hem of Jesus’ robe.

Recently this woman’s story has grown in significance, as I not only relate to her loneliness but to her pain.  The story has become more meaningful…and more challenging.

Illness – stomach pain and unrelenting heartburn – attacked over two years ago.  Doctors disagreed on the diagnosis and argued over the best way to treat the illness.  Despite my best efforts to change my diet and sort through opposing medical opinions, my health deteriorated.  I lost too much weight, my skin took on a grayish quality, I couldn’t eat without feeling sick, and my body stopped making estrogen, a source of grief for me and my husband as we had been trying to conceive.  The stress of it all debilitated my spirit and my sense of self.

Mark shares few details about this woman; he does not even give her a name.  We know she hemorrhaged for twelve years before encountering Jesus; we know she suffered at the hands of many doctors, who drained her savings.  We may extrapolate that her unrelenting bleeding isolated her from community members who cared about ceremonial cleanness.  Likely she was told by religious leaders that her suffering was God’s judgment of her sin.  We also gather she was desperate enough to try something crazy, pushing through a large crowd in order to touch the garment of a well known healer, believing that touching Jesus would heal her.

This season of illness has allowed my imagination to wander through the gaps in this woman’s story.   I expect that her suffering at the hands of doctors was not only physical but emotional.  Countless times, I read about or was told by a doctor of a “silver bullet” treatment plan.  If I paid for an expensive blood test to identify food intolerances, I would see progress; if I would try the Paleo diet, my gut would heal; if I went for acupuncture weekly, I would experience relief; if I would simply take an acid reducer, or conversely, not take the acid reducer but instead supplements, I would be well.  Once I acknowledged that I had stomach issues, I encountered fellow sufferers, and I learned about surprising strategies that worked for others – aloe vera, acidophilus, yoga, even electro-shock therapy!  I never went as far as trying electro shock therapy, but I did try everything else, with no great improvement.  Whenever a new solution did not work as quickly as I hoped, my discouragement deepened.  After awhile, my hopes faded.

For this reason, I am astounded by the woman’s willingness, after twelve years of failed solutions, to garner enough hope to touch Jesus.  What made her confident that this audacious act would work?  It impresses me that she was willing to risk drawing negative attention to herself if touching Jesus did not work.  If she remained unhealed, she could have been blamed for making this popular rabbi unclean.

My heart rejoices that this crazy display of faith worked for the woman; after twelve long- suffering years, she finally experienced healing.  My heart also aches, because this has not been my story.  Many people have prayed for me over the past two years.  Some have laid hands on me and anointed me with oil.  Several months ago, I admitted to my spiritual director, “I feel like God is ignoring me.”  I have wanted a miraculous healing, defined by immediate, long lasting relief from pain.  I did not care at first whether God or diet or medication caused the healing.  I just wanted to be well.

Instead, healing comes slowly, at a tortoise pace.  I took a seven-month medical leave of absence and only recently returned to my work as an associate pastor in a large Presbyterian church.  I take six medications and several supplements every day and carry around pill-boxes like my older congregants.  I diligently guard my diet, my exercise, and times of rest.  If I fudge in my self-care, my body reacts immediately.  My resilience grows day by day, and I am encouraged by improvement.  My skin is no longer gray, I am slowly regaining weight, and I am less stressed and know myself better.  But, I am not well yet.

Rather than rooting myself in the outcome of this woman’s story – in her miraculous healing – I return to where I started as a teenager, with the conviction that Jesus notices my suffering and does not ignore me or leave me to face my pain and frustration alone.  God’s presence travels with me, in moments of clarity, in glimpses of healing, as well as in discouragement and doubt.  Through it all, I continue to come back to this soul sister, grateful for her trust and her courage.