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silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the background

Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. Read more

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

The Language of Trees

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

I learned a few weeks ago that trees talk to one another. They develop this network—nutrients sent and received in an underground web. When a tree is dying, it starts to send its signals out to the rest so that they both know what danger is lurking near – and so that they have the extra fortification to fight it off.

Watch and listen, the poet[1] says- your ancestors are behind you – You are the result of the love of thousands.

Am I the result of nutrients sent – an underground rush of fortification, sent by the sisterhood of those who came before?

Did those nutrients, that came through the words and embraces and knowing glances of sister-trees—did those nutrients try to warn me about the brotherhood of mediocrity that is male privilege? Did those vitamins in the roots try to infuse me with a deep and abiding sense that my instincts are something I can’t afford to neglect? Because that’s what it feels like… the wisdom I get through the sister-roots is not wisdom that comes from a lot of triumphs—but rather wisdom that comes from a lot of savvy maneuvering, a lifetime of learning how to say no while in high heels and a full face of makeup. A lifetime of learning how to nurture the inner voice and then present it in such a way so that everyone can receive it.

Is that what it means to be the result of the love of thousands… or is that what it means to be the result of feminism amidst patriarchy?

But even as that bitter seed takes its place, the sister-roots are sending their signals again. Sister, they say, the love of thousands are the root signs that told you that the construct was wrong and that your heart was right. The love of thousands are the root signs that whispered to you under the moss that you are worthy and enough. You come from the roots, Sister, you come from the deep, you come from the wet earth that is soaked with our insight, that is bound up with our braids. Don’t you see, sister, they say, you are the tree? Don’t you see, sister, that the root signals have thrust you up, pushed you from this earth, prodded you up so that you are reaching, reaching, reaching- stretching towards this inevitable peak where your branch arms reach out and touch the heavens so that there too, you can be reminded, youare worthy and youare enough. You are the tree, sister. You are the result.

Do not worry that your roots aren’t strong enough, or that your trunk is not sturdy, or that your branches can’t sustain the wind. Your sister roots will remind you, your sister roots will send you the signal. And as you stand there, proud and worthy, swaying in your strength—look around—you’re in the forest- with the other sister-trees. They too the result of the love of thousands.

Remember to send your signal, sisters. There are thousands more to come.

[1]Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklers

In Praise of the Ambush Wedding

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklersIn my experience, one ambush wedding begets another, as well it should. Once engaged couples see evidence of a “third way,” between eloping and a full-blown wedding and reception, the appeal is contagious!

What is an ambush wedding, exactly? First, the two people getting married must both be in on the surprise. I do not condone ambushing any member of the wedding party! But everyone else, including parents of the happy couple, are fair game for an ambush or surprise wedding.  Read more

We Really, Really Love You

The author, surrounded by love at her Valentine’s Day Installation service, 2016.

After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.

The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.

Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.

I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

The Twilight of Easter

One of the most complicated aspects of losing Lily has been proclaiming Good News in the midst of resounding darkness. In my anxiety over preaching on Easter, a Young Clergy Woman International colleague reached out and shared a sermon she had written in a dark time in her life. I leaned heavily on her words in finding my way to the truth of Easter. Thank you, Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, for your kindness and witness to the love of Jesus. Below, you’ll find the words I preached on Easter Sunday this year.

Mark 16:1-8

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we gather in this church to hear the Good News of your resurrection, that death has been swallowed up by your victory. Help our eyes adjust to the light of new life as we sit in this twilight. Give us courage to mirror your own vulnerability as we seek resurrection in our own lives. Amen.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

Twilight

I’ve lived in a twilight world for just over two months now.

Since Lily’s birth and death, I have existed somewhere between sleep and awake. As the tulips and daffodils push up through mounds of mulch and my crocuses bloom with abandon, I am just barely beginning to pull out of the haze and into the warmth of spring. Finally, splashes of color are returning to the world of gray tones in which I have dwelled now for nine weeks.

The future that I’ve imagined, the reality I awaited is now gone. At first, days and nights flittered by. I remembered to eat because food showed up. I slept because the exhaustion of grief landed heavily on my eyelids. These days, I’m functioning much better, but one thing that hasn’t yet changed is my awareness of twilight. I am awake earlier these days, sitting in the not-yet morning light, surrounded by a blanket of hazy darkness.

This twilight is precisely where we meet Mary Magdalene. It was early on the first day of the week, scripture tells us it was still dark. Jesus’ death still hung heavily in the air; the trauma still so fresh it replayed itself any time she closed her eyes. She longed to be near him, her beloved teacher, to see once more that it wasn’t a bad dream, but that Jesus was, indeed, dead.

So she found herself on the path to his tomb in the twilight of that morning.

Because sometimes, new life doesn’t wait for the dawn.

Because sometimes, God acts powerfully in the darkness of our lives.

So often, we associate the Easter story with morning sun and cheer, with lilies and tulips, but when we take a closer look at John’s account of the resurrection story, we find that Easter— Easter begins in the dark of night. Read more

Young Clergy Women Tell All: The Real Reasons We Became Pastors

“As the good book says… ‘let justice roll down like beeswax’”

There are lots of reasons to go into ministry: a feeling or experience of divine call, for instance. Or a deep desire to preach the gospel, equip the saints for the work of ministry, feed Jesus’ lambs and tend his sheep. An affinity for planning worship. A love of pastoral care.

But you know what? You’ve got our number. You figured us out. Here are the real reasons we became pastors, confessed by young clergy women, of many denominations and regions, speaking on condition of anonymity:

  • I became a pastor to head off controversies about whether or not corn tortillas are appropriate for communion.
  • I became a pastor so someone reliable could drive the church van.
  • I became a pastor so I could have tea with old ladies who like to endlessly ask me about my reproductive plans.
  • I became a pastor in order to run out and buy stamps and paper when we don’t have any in the office. I also became a pastor to fix toilets and shovel snow. And, I definitely became a pastor to recruit children (or if there aren’t any around, to create them out of nothingness) in order to fulfill 70-something-year-olds’ ideas of what Sunday School should be like.
  • I became a pastor so I could help my parishioners return things to Walmart without their receipt.
  • I became a pastor to ruin people’s church by singing “new” songs, including ones written in 1902.
  • I became a pastor so I could proofread everyone else’s work because apparently no one else cares about details or grammar.
  • I became a pastor so that I could coordinate vacatio- I mean, mission trips for the youth that absolutely MUST include a trip to an amusement park.
  • I became a pastor to annoy and distract people with my voice, bangs, clothes, lipstick, and children.
  • Three words: Boiler. Repair. Discussions.
  • One word: Casseroles.
  • I became a pastor so I could debate which one God loves more: beeswax or stearine candles. The debate is over which sort of solid candle to get: 51% stearine vs. 100% beeswax. Apparently God hates anything that isn’t pure beeswax. As the good book says, ”I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies when you burn stearine on the altar… let justice roll down like beeswax.”
  • I became a pastor so people would tell me how nice my hair looks.
  • I became a pastor because I needed the constant confusing affirmation that my bangs look much better THIS week.
  • I became a pastor because I cannot be trusted to make decisions about my hair, makeup, clothing or family all by myself. I obviously need six hundred opinions on all these topics. All the time.
  • I became a pastor so I could google things for people who “don’t do” the internet.
  • I became a pastor so old clergymen could steal my good hangers from the vesting room every time there is an ecclesiastical event.
  • I became a pastor so I could write a newsletter article every month that almost nobody will actually read, even though everyone reads the newsletter.
  • Speaking of which, I became a pastor so I could spend lots of time preaching sermons to people who won’t apply what I’m trying to impart. Futility is my jam.
  • I became a pastor because I secretly harbored a desire to do half of our office administrator’s job each week.
  • I became a pastor because I wanted to always have the final say in heated arguments about Christmas wreaths and tablecloth colors. Also, so I could teach people deep spiritual truths every day. And by deep spiritual truths, I mean how to use the copier.
  • I became a pastor so I could disappoint people by the fact that I am not Jesus.
  • I became a pastor to try creative things in worship, inspire people to Christ, and to preach theologically-sound sermons that I’ve exegeted thoroughly. Just kidding! I became a pastor so someone would live in the manse next door and provide access to a plunger when the church needed one.
  • I became a pastor to cancel events when nobody signs up.
  • I became a pastor because I was worried I’d become too confident in my own competence.
  • I became a pastor in order to micromanage the placement and removal of renters’ furniture.
  • I became a pastor to make sure nobody uses our tables and chairs, coffee pots and roasters. Because what kind of Christians would we be if we shared or resources with our community?

Okay, let’s get real. Here’s the real reason I became a pastor: so I could have awkward conversations on airplanes for the rest of my life.

Monday in Beverly Hills

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

I had just arrived a block west of Rodeo Drive to the church I would serve in Beverly Hills. The rector told me not to bring my lunch, that it would be the church’s treat on my first day. I decided that morning that the lunch venue would offer me some clues about how to navigate my future ministry and the people I would serve. Where would we be eating lunch?

When I was a seminarian, part of the thrill of preparing for serving a church community for me was the thought of integrating into the community I served. My bishop told our ordination class, “Be prepared to go anywhere and serve anyone.”

Being a young woman from Central Indiana, ministering to people in just about any place other than the Crossroads of America felt like a great frontier. I read the experience of author Kathleen Norris, a Washington, D.C., native, who discovered a vocation to serve God and God’s people in the quiet monotony of the Great Plains. As she writes in her spiritual autobiography Dakota, “The fact that one people’s frontier is usually another’s homeland has been mostly overlooked.”

I had arrived at my very different frontier: amid selfie-taking tourists, harried traffic, and busy storefronts.

On my first office day at All Saints’, I met the people who called this place their spiritual homeland. And as the noon hour drew closer, it was time for lunch. Read more

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