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Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

small girl covering her eyes

Coming out of the Clergy Closet

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?” Read more

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more

The Moms’ Group

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Let’s talk about babies. For the last five years of my life, something has been happening in the background.

I’ve already shared on my blog about my journey through seminary and internship, and my first years of being a pastor. I’ve shared about my family and some of my vacations, my love for baseball and knitting, my thoughts on dialogue and division, and my crazy idealism for the world we live in. Recently, because I’ve been busy, I’ve shared more sermon transcripts than life reflections.

But behind all of this, for the last five years, Matt and I have been on a long journey to try to start a family.

It has been quite a journey. A journey that has included frustration and tears, losses and medical interventions, countless needle-stabs and blood draws, surgeries (major and minor), and through it all, enough peace in our hearts to keep stepping forward, one day at a time, without counting up our fears or losses or heartbreaks. Which is not to say that there weren’t bad days (there were plenty), or that we had the strength or gumption to keep pressing ahead indefinitely (there comes a point when you have to start thinking about stopping, for the sake of your sanity).

I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone. And yet, as I have come to learn, this journey is so very common, and nobody really knows it.

There have been lots of blessings to come out of this journey that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I have made new friends and built new relationships with others who have struggled, just like we have. Friends of mine have come out of the woodwork to share with me their own stories of infertility and pregnancy loss. I have been forced to think – deeply! – about what I hope my life will look like, and what pieces of my body and soul I am willing to make vulnerable in order to pursue those hopes and dreams. I would venture a guess that Matt and I are closer and better because of all of this, and that our relationship is in a deeper place than we could ever have expected it to be after 8.5 years of marriage. I’ve been forced to be emotionally vulnerable (in a good way), and to learn to ask for/accept help (which I’m terrible at). Spiritually, I’ve run the gamut from praying fervently with hope to shouting at God in absolute anger. I’ve connected to Bible stories in far different ways, especially stories of barren women, but also stories of finding peace in trial, and finding kindred spirits in all those in the Bible who felt they had no other option but to cry out to God and put themselves out there, because they had no other choice.

But don’t be mistaken. These beautiful and unforeseen blessings do not, in any way, make this path easier. They don’t make this journey “better.” They don’t redeem the pain and frustration of spending so much time, money, and energy trying to accomplish something that should be simple; something that biology has been making happen since the start of the human race. Infertility and pregnancy loss are HARD.

As we crossed over into 2013, there were lots of transitions on the horizon. I had just accepted a new call, which meant leaving a church I loved in order to follow God’s call to a new church that I was excited to love. Goodbyes and hellos are hard. Even (especially!) the good ones. Also, this new church was in a new town in a new state…putting me five hours from most of my family and from the Chicagoland that is a HUGE part of who I am. Moving is my least favorite thing ever, because it involves packing, and so there was plenty of stress on the horizon as I packed both our apartment and my office, and as we went house-hunting in Decorah, and as we tried to make the most of our last weeks in Chicago before moving.

During this time of crazy transitions, we also decided to take one more (last?) shot at a round of IVF. We’d done a few cycles before, and still had a couple embryos frozen, and we decided (with the encouragement and blessing of my doctor), to try one last round before we moved away (and out of his care).

My official start date here at First Lutheran was March 1. I preached my first sermon here on Sunday, March 3. I spent Monday and Tuesday of that week trying to get my office unpacked and set up. And then on Wednesday, we drove back to Chicago, because that Thursday was my embryo transfer (the culmination of a month-plus cycle of medications and monitoring). The timing of the cycle and the transfer was certainly not ideal. It was just another thing to add to all the madness of moving and starting a new job and closing on a house.

But for some crazy reason, the absolute wrong time turned out to be the absolute right time. And so two weeks after starting my new job, we found out that one of those little embryos had stuck around, and we were pregnant. Thrilling news, and terrifying. Because once you’ve experienced a loss, it takes a long time for you to actually believe that the pregnancy is going to last. Between then and now, there have been plenty of anxious days. Plenty of worry and wonder. Plenty of huge sighs of relief every time blood draws showed my hormone levels going up, and every time my doctor has been able to easily find a heartbeat at our monthly appointments.

It took us until week 13 to start telling close family and friends. It took us until week 16 to share the news with the congregation. And it took us until week 17 to go public. For as much as your head knows that, statistically, chances of loss after 13, 16, 17 weeks are incredibly low, your heart still worries that you will (continue to) be the exception to the rule, the person who keeps defying the odds in the wrong way.

But it’s getting harder and harder to worry, and easier and easier to believe that THIS IS HAPPENING. FOR REAL. We crossed the 20-week mark over the weekend (halfway there!), and had our big mid-pregnancy ultrasound yesterday. And yes. There’s a baby in there. A baby with arms and legs that move and kick, a baby with a little heart beating away in its chest, a baby with teensy toes and little lips, who is just starting to get big enough for me to feel it when it tumbles and flips and kicks.

This article originally posted at Melissa’s blog on July 10, 2013 and is reprinted here in revised form with her permission. Currently, her little hedgehog is a bouncing happy baby named Sam.