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Craft Store in September

Christmas in September

Here it is, September 24. The heat has tapered off, the colors are starting to turn, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. Yet, if you walk in your local craft store, that fact might elude you. I was recently in search of a sketchbook for my son, and as soon as I walked in the door, the sights and sounds of Christmas — with red and green, glitter and bells — overcame me. The aisles were lined with these craft supplies and decorations, and I walked by shopping carts full of greenery and ribbon. I’ve barely breathed since Labor Day, and yet it seems as though Halloween has been completely subsumed by Christmas.

Craft Store in September

Craft Store in September

In fact, if my own social media feeds are any indication, the corporate rush into holidays is one of Americans’ favorite things to collectively complain about. The chorus of “IT ISN’T THANKSGIVING YET! PUT YOUR CHRISTMAS STUFF AWAY!” rings almost as loudly as the passive-aggressive posts counting down the days until Christmas, chiding people to refrain from any songs containing the words “holly” or “jolly” for that number of days.

And it isn’t just Christmas, is it? Easter decor is out by Valentine’s Day, Independence Day by Easter, fall by Independence Day, Christmas by Labor Day… and the cycle continues.

It feels rushed and capitalistic. Like the only thing the stores care about is getting us to buy more, earlier. And… that is true. When you’re out in September and see a Christmas decoration you absolutely love, there’s no way to know if it will still be there in December, so you should buy it NOW, right? Then buy more when the season does roll around! Stores know this, and they are happy to feed that need for more, for better, for newer.

I don’t deny for one minute that that is true; corporations sell what makes money.

But there’s an also true here, another reality that offers a different lens. Without denying capitalistic goals, the also true is that stores are not the only places that blur the lines between seasons and holidays.

This is also true in clergy offices.

Clergy are always one season ahead. At least one season.

Sometimes, that feels a little bizarre.

It’s an odd mark of ministry; cultivating worship experiences and programming to fit the theme of each season requires a lot of advance preparation, so we are never really full present in the season we’re in. We live our lives in this “already but not yet”… one foot planted firmly in the present, leading in worship and programming that meets the needs of our congregations and communities, at that very space and time. And the other foot is always — always — a step ahead.All over the country, on this very day in September, pastors are working on their Advent sermon series, planning seasonal events, and filling newsletters with “Save the Dates” for December. Advent planning has been a regular conversation in my clergy social media groups for weeks, and I‘ve even seen some references to Lent and Easter 2020 popping up. By the time our congregations are actually observing Advent, clergy will be knee-deep planning Lent: preaching on Sunday morning about awaiting the birth of embodied Hope… all the while spending Thursday afternoons planning Lenten Bible Studies that focus on the fallibility of our humanity.

And occupying that space, the ever-present reality of the already but not yet, is holy. It’s like a little sneak peak into what’s ahead, prayerfully seeking where God is leading us and our congregations next. Getting to lead what is with grateful anticipation of what might be.

Embracing that has been helpful for me, laying down my sword in the fight against one-season-at-a-time and living into the messiness of the reality of blurred seasons. So, one recent morning, I breathed deeply, lit an evergreen candle, added peppermint to my coffee, and streamed a Christmas movie in the background while I got to work.

And then, when I walked into this craft store that had exploded in red and green, I let out a sigh of solidarity. It wasn’t just me. I know that we have all of autumn, not to mention four full weeks of Advent, before we get to Christmas. But some days, focusing on that grateful anticipation of what might be is what my soul — and my planner — need.

So the next time you see Christmas decorations out long before Thanksgiving, remember that, as people of faith, Hope is already here. 

 

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

10 Things I Wish All Clergy Understood About Pregnancy Loss

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

Doctors estimate that one in four of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.

And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.

Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.

Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:

Not all pregnancy losses are alike.

My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.

This may not be a one-time event.

Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.

Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything. Read more

Here I Sit

I have spent my final year on the Board editing the column, “Here I Stand.” It has been a joy and a privilege to share the stories of my sister clergy women, their convictions and the remarkable experiences of their particular and diverse contexts. As I come to the end of my time as a part of the leadership of this amazing organization, I find myself finding some new inspiration from our puppy.

In January we brought home a new black lab puppy. His name is Espen (a combination of the Norwegian names for God and bear). Just like our last black lab, he is already teaching me profound lessons about who God is and who I am called to be. Our next door neighbors have a dog too. It is the highlight of Espen’s day to be able to play with Benny. If we let him, Espen would spend the entire day just as he is pictured above. Sitting at our back door patiently waiting, ever hopeful that Benny will come out the door to play.

I have been struck by his patience and his ability to incarnate hope. It does not matter what time of day it is or how long it has been since Benny has come out. Espen lives out a conviction that new possibilities can happen at anytime. Past experience does not always have to be an indicator of the future. New realities are possible. To borrow from CS Lewis, at anytime, we can be “surprised by joy.”

Patience is a virtue on which I am perennially working. I often feel in a hurry. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her daughter’s birth

Mary, Full of Grace

“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
~ Luke 2:19

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her  daughter’s birth

Mama’s Hope: the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her
daughter’s birth

From the age of three I knew that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up. I would play house with my sister and my friends for hours upon hours, gently cradling baby dolls in my arms, singing sweet lullabies to them as I pulled out my briefcase, planner, and cellphone and pretended to be a successful business woman like Melanie Griffith in the film Working Girl. In my world, women grew up to be everything and anything they wanted to be – mother, wife, business woman, president, and captain of the soccer team.

So when I “grew up” and became an adult, I was certain that I could and would fulfill all of those vocational calls God had imprinted upon my heart at a young age, especially those calls I felt most strongly: to be a wife, mother, and pastor.

With determination, risk, luck, and grace I entered seminary and fell in love with a man who was perfect for me. Together we decided to wait to have children until I was ordained and employed in a congregational call. After a whirlwind trip to Europe for our delayed honeymoon, we excitedly took the big leap of tossing out my birth control pills and opening ourselves to the anticipation of pregnancy and the birth of a child.

As months went by and my periods came like clockwork, we kept reminding ourselves of the statistic that seems so hopeful and promising: over 80% of couples conceive within a year. Probability was on our side. And then a year went by, and then a year and a half.

I had been pregnant once before and had a miscarriage, during my congregational internship, when I was on birth control. So why was it so hard to get pregnant now?

We saw a fertility specialist. We went through myriad tests. Just as we were set to begin fertility treatments, I discovered I was pregnant. It was such joyful news! We were ecstatic and began to dream of our child. Several weeks later, I laid in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy that had caused my body to go into shock. I was in deep grief at this loss and in a haze at the thought that my life had been in severe jeopardy from what was supposed to be the most joyous of news. The hospital chaplain visited and tried to console me, but instead triggered my anger as she declared that my baby was in heaven with God. I told her to go hell, and that I wanted my baby with me.

Life went on as I recovered. My husband and I committed to trying again on our own since I had conceived without any assistance. Another year went by. It seemed like everyone had a baby. I grew bitter, desperate, and I missed the joyfulness which had been a natural spring dwelling within me. Who was I to be if I couldn’t be a mother? Read more

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

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

A Hammock and a Window

more-than-enoughI have a very un-humble confession to make: I adore the cover of my new book. When my publisher first sent me the image earlier this year, I’m pretty sure I squealed like a teenager who has just found the perfect dress to wear to the prom.

The drawing on the cover is inspired by the hammock in our backyard. I bought it a couple of years ago, on a trip to visit some friends in Nicaragua. In real life, it’s red and white, though after a few seasons in the sun and the rain, the colors aren’t quite as bright anymore. It hangs between two trees, and dips low to the ground; my daughter likes to read out there, her brother likes to make it swing. I watch them through the back window, and the sight of the two of them out there playing is so beautiful to me that it takes my breath away.

Our life is very good. We live in a safe place. We have healthy kids, good jobs that we like; we’re able to pay the bills and put food on the table. Sometimes, I look around at this very good life and I can hardly believe that this is the same world in which people go hungry every night. The same world in which refugees walk for months and years with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The same world in which the gap between rich and poor is growing wider all the time.

How are we supposed to live, given this reality? When every choice we make – from where we live, to what schools our kids go to, to where we buy our groceries and our clothes – has implications far beyond our own family, how do we live?

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile now, but as I went looking for some answers, most of the responses I found were inadequate or confusing.

We could live more simply, but simple living turns out to be kind of complicated. We could commit to only buying stuff that’s sustainably produced and locally sourced, but that’s not always easy to find. We could buy only organic, locally grown food…or should we buy cheaper food and have more money to give to the hungry? We could use our cars less and give the earth a break, but then how do we get to work? We could go off the grid entirely and grow all our food and make our own clothes, but what if we don’t know how to do that, or want to do that? And aren’t we, as Christians, called to live in the world?

I didn’t exactly find answers to all these questions, but I do think there are some things we can do and do better. I think there are some faithful ways to live. We can make better choices with our stuff, all those material goods that make up our lives. We can pay attention to where it comes from and who makes it, use less of it, and be grateful for it. We can give generously from what we have. We can get to know our neighbors better. We can advocate for changing systems and laws that further exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

The Christian tradition also offers some resources that can be helpful: Confession and lament. Sabbath-keeping. Delight, and hope. These are practices that ground us in our tradition as we try to make sense of the world we live in.

Anyway: back to the hammock. Earlier this year, one of the trees that held up the hammock had to be taken out. It was diseased up at the top, and the tree guy who understands such things said that it was too dangerous to leave standing. I was sad to lose the tree but I was even sadder to lose the hammock.

It had become a touchstone for me. Just having it out there reminds me of things I need to be reminded of: It reminds me that there are people who live different sorts of lives in different parts of the world. It reminds me of the need for sabbath and play and delight, even in the middle of regular, busy life. It reminds me that we are not without responsibility for our actions and our choices, but that there are faithful ways to live in the tension between appreciating the goodness of the world and grieving for the ways the world is broken.

I missed the hammock when it was gone.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, my dad and my father-in-law happened to be in town at the same time. My father-in-law is an architect who knows how to figure things out, and my dad is a putterer who likes to have a little project to work on. Together they rigged up the hammock in a different part of the yard, between two different trees in a spot I hadn’t considered.

There’s a different view from the back window, now, but I can still see it out there, standing as a reminder for all I hold dear. I am grateful.

Read more about Lee’s hammock (and plenty of other reflections on living faithfully in an unjust world) in her new book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of ExcessAn accompanying discussion guide and worship planning guide is available for free download here.

1908 Chicago Cubs

Hope After the World Series

1908 Chicago Cubs

1908 Chicago Cubs

The world was turned upside down for Cubs fans this week. Since their last appearance in a World Series in 1945, one of the truisms of Cubs fanship has been hope for the impossible: that this will be the year. With their World Series victory, does life as Cubs fans know it cease to exist?

The question of life as we know it ceasing to exist may sound cliché and existential, but consider the changes in the world since 1908, when the Cubs last won the Series, or, for that matter in 1948 when Cleveland last won the Series: cars are everywhere; humans have landed on the moon; and we’ve learned to send messages on tiny screens using just our thumbs. The world as we knew it, a century, or even decades ago, has ceased to exist.

Fans of long-suffering baseball teams have established a personal practice of hope. This has been true both of Cubs fans and Cleveland fans. To hope means to look forward. Looking back at what could have been only ends in disappointment. Read more

Healing Sanctuary

Dec 2014 Blue CandleIn the church parking lot, I was breathing deeply.  I knew that going inside was something I needed to do, but I also knew that it would be hard. I had no idea just how comforting attending my first Blue Christmas service would be.

I was nervous about going.  I mean, who really wants to have to deal with grief in front of them like that?  So much of our culture tells us to stop crying, to be happy, that we should be over it by now,  and not to show too much emotion.  What if I broke down?  What if I sobbed in front of others?  What if my grief was so deep it was unnameable?

My father passed away in 2004, the day after Thanksgiving.  Two weeks later my grandmother passed away, and a month later I married my husband and moved to the Middle East.  It was a time of great turmoil in my life.  I was afraid that the holidays would be hard forever because of the deaths.

But the year that I went to the Blue Christmas service, in December of 2006, I found peace and hope in the holidays once again.

After enough deep breaths, I went inside and entered a sanctuary that was beautifully decorated.  The lights had all been covered with blue tissue paper, and silver stars hung from the rafters.  This gave the whole place an otherworldly glow that pulled me in and made me feel protected.  The ethereal decorations made me feel connected to God and made the room feel safe from the rest of the world. I was calm and allowed myself to stop forcing deep breaths. This would be a safe place to miss my Dad and to acknowledge that sometimes life is hard.

We do not grieve well as a society.  We tell people to be happy, to stop crying.  We tell people to stuff their feelings and not to let them show. People thought I should be happy because my Dad was living with God.  I always wanted to scream back, “But I want him here with me!” Luckily, because of my training as a counselor and a seminary student in CPE, I knew that I needed to let myself grieve.

And this service, this magical, beautiful Blue Christmas Service…it allowed me to do that in a way I had not been able to do before.  I was with others who were also grieving.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was sad that I had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without my Dad once again.

I do not clearly remember all the details of the service.  But here is what I do remember:  There was a time when I got to share a story about my Dad.  There was a time during the service when I felt connected to my Dad.  My Dad is the one who taught me about church, and we worshiped together nearly every Sunday when I was at home.  There was a time during the service for being still and quiet, for crying, for acknowledging the hurt and anger.  And it was safe to feel all those things — even around others — because we were wrapped in the blue light.

This light helped me feel secure, wrapped in a cocoon of God’s love. Inside this safe space, I could feel what I needed to feel without being judged.  I could set aside the hard memories of my grief: crying in the supermarket in front of the Christmas cards from daughters to dads, being told that letting my grief show was unprofessional, and being told that because of heaven, I should just be happy.

And that made all the difference.  It made the difference that inside this cocoon of blue light, I could feel how I needed to feel.  I could receive the message from the church that my grief was ok.  Even if my Dad is living with God, the church said it was still ok to miss him living on earth with me.  Hearing this message, I felt God was with me in my pain and cradled me as I experienced it.  .

I left that service feeling tired, but also relaxed.  I was exhausted, but had a deeper sense of peace.  It was like emerging from the sanctuary to a new world where I knew that God was with me in my pain, not to shut it up or out, but to hold me in it until things got better.  This was an important part of my grief and healing process.

This other world of the Blue Christmas service helped me connect all my feelings about the holidays, God, my grandmother, and my Dad in a whole and comforting way.  Even all these years later, the memories of this this service still help me make those connections.

As I think about that service now, I feel calm.  I feel the love of my Dad as if he is with me and as though he’ll be with me this Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I somehow am reminded by the memory that God is part of all of this, too.  There is a place I go to in my memory, when I think about that service, where I find acknowledgement.  And that gives me what I need to let go of the pain (at least most of it) and to keep the joy, hope, and comfort.

Whatever your losses in life, whatever feelings the holidays bring up in you, I would encourage you to seek out a Blue Christmas service, at least once.  Maybe it will help you, too, remember that God promises to eventually return us to new life . . . and that in the meantime, in the present pain and grief, God is with us.  Even if you are not able to find a service, I encourage you to make your own space to securely acknowledge your grief during this time.  And as you seek out your own healing this season, I offer you this Christmas blessing:

May God be big enough for all your losses,

May Jesus hold your hand when you need to cry, and

May the Holy Spirit lead you to places of deep hope and joy from on high.  Amen.