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Teach Me to Forgive

The author and her son

The author and her son

As many mothers do when their young ones run toward them, I scooped up my four-year-old son. Together we enact this move on a nearly daily basis, but this time, my lifting him into my arms was out of the ordinary. This time my son had wiggled out of his seat in order to make a beeline toward me as I was leading the confession and absolution of sins. My son is still learning what it means to have a mom as a pastor; I am still learning how to handle the stress of these unpredictable experiences in which my roles as mom and minister collide. We are learning together.

In the moment that my son wiggled his way down to the floor and stood beside me, I felt afraid that his actions might be interpreted as a commotion. He held my hand and mirrored my actions as I turned to face the altar and the congregation. That seemed innocent enough. But then he began offering nonsensical words as I read the official words of absolution from our hymnal. I felt as though I was dedicating an enormous amount of energy to being both a loving mother and responsible pastor, all the while hoping that none of my parishioners would sense my anxiety or grumble about having been distracted during worship.

But then I had the blessing of seeing what everyone else saw during those moments. One of our church members shared with me the photo she had taken as my son and I led worship in tandem. When I saw what had happened from my church member’s perspective, all the stress I’d felt melted away. It was replaced by joy that my son felt comfortable enough to participate in worship with me and gratitude that my congregation had welcomed a little child to lead them.

As I have taken more time to reflect on this photo, I am reminded of all the ways my son forgives me, even though he may not realize it. He has forgiven me time and time again for my mistakes: for the times I have yelled, for the times I have been too tired to follow his routine, for the times I have hidden myself in the pantry or bathroom just long enough to take a breath and a break, even if that meant leaving him outside the door crying. He offers his forgiveness every time he wraps his arms around me, every time he gives me a hug, every time he grabs my hand or brings me a book to read. Every time he hears “I love you” and responds with “I love you, too.” Every time.

My son’s words of absolution might have been gibberish, but that doesn’t mean they were any less real. My son teaches me how to forgive, and now this treasured photo reminds me to forgive myself. They both help me to remember why we say words of absolution in the first place: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Choosing Between Two Holy Places

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

It’s Saturday morning. I dig through a clump of pink and green plastic princess necklaces as I search for my dove pendant, an image of the Holy Spirit I ritualistically grab to go with the dress I wear to officiate a funeral. I smile because the plastic necklaces are sure signs that someone else has been here today: my feisty two-and-a-half year old. I hear her defiant protest as I finally clasp the dove. “Mama! Come play with me!”

“I can’t sweetheart. Mama’s gotta go to work.”

Today the work I am called away to is a funeral, not altogether surprising work for a pastor. My daughter’s small, protesting voice keeps ringing in my ears and in my heart as her dad tries to distract her with an alluring tea party while I sneak out the door and quickly head to the car.

It is holy work, having the privilege of “marrying and burying,” carrying God’s blessing through the various stages of human existence. Weddings and funerals are a joy of my calling as pastor. But they also tend to fall on Saturdays – days that are typically reserved for my family.

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My Colleague, My Mom

The author and her mother at the author’s graduation from seminary.

The author and her mother at the author’s graduation from seminary.

“You’re going to seminary? Are you sure?” This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting from my mother when I called to tell her I’d applied for admission to seminary. After all, I was finishing up my year serving in Northern Ireland as a Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA), so seminary shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I thought my mom would be excited to hear the news–and she was–but her questions betrayed her excitement. She seemed worried. At the time, I was perplexed (and even spent a few therapy sessions processing her concern). But now, four years into professional ministry as a solo pastor, I realize that her protective instinct was valid.

You see, my mother is also a pastor. She knows the underbelly of the church world intimately. Just as I was beginning to envision my move to New Jersey and my studies in pastoral care, theology, and the Bible, my mother was imagining disgruntled parishioners giving me not-so-constructive feedback, the headaches of financial crises that plague mainline congregations, and the relentless onslaught of committee meetings and church functions–all things she somewhat jokingly refers to as “Working for Jesus.” Read more

Becoming a Grandparent

2 Timothy 1:5  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

About a month ago, this amazing thing happened: I became a grandmother. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; after all, people become grandparents every day. But these two facts make it amazing:

  • I only became a mother 4 years ago.
  • I am only 33.

Our family is a bit unconventional, in the loveliest way.  Read more

A Prayer for the End of Nursing

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

O Lord, you have searched me
and known me.

You knew the moment when that sweet baby skin
first touched my chest
when that sweet little mouth
gaped like a fish
when that shocking moment of connection was made:
Mother. Child. One.
You knew.

You knew the struggles, and the pain.
The mostly sleepless nights
The one- (two-) (three-) (three-thirty-) a.m. wake-up calls.
The disconcerting, disorientating, barely-functioning
delirium/delusion/hallucination/exasperation/rage…
And still
the sweet baby skin and the gaping little mouth
the instant peace and the murmuring suckling.
You knew.

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As A Mother

The sweetest part of my day is the sound of little voices calling “Mother, mother.” I have never given birth, nor have I adopted children. But most mornings, as I open the door to my church, I am greeted by the tiny denizens of my church’s preschool, and their chipper little hellos. They call me Mother; that’s the title I prefer as a parish priest. They say it with such confidence that it makes me want to be a better pastor, one worthy of the title “Mother.”

As a woman who has not had children, I have limited (mostly second-hand) knowledge of the work of mothering children. I have worked at a nursery school, assisted with younger siblings, and have done a great deal of babysitting. But I have never walked the floor with a colicky baby. I have never had to play the tooth fairy for a child too excited to sleep. I have never had a teenager sit at my kitchen table, her head hung in shame as I question her about blatantly violating her curfew.

I have, however, listened to the weekly frustrations of a parishioner with big dreams for the church. I have helped plan big surprises for parishioners in need of real cheering. I have spoken with community members about respecting our church and its values. I have even had to let someone know he was not welcome to participate in non-worship activities as long as his disruptive behavior continued.

In Christ, I am becoming a spiritual mother. That has more to do with the way I am called to love my parishioners than the ways in which they are called to treat me. That is the fundamental truth of parenting—it is a one-way street. You love for the sake of loving, not because of the love you hope to get at the end. And in doing so, however imperfectly, you hope to draw people more fully into relationship with the God who loves them endlessly and perfectly.

Our primary work as pastors is love. Everything we do: teaching, preaching, administrating, caring–all of it is the work of love. We shepherd people toward a deeper relationship with God, to preach and teach in a way that instructs, strengthens, and transforms. We help people grow (and grow up) into the fullness of Christ. We stand with people when they are heartbroken, we cheer them on when they feel discouraged. We love folks whether or not they are loving or loveable. We are called to love them whether they are A+ Jesus followers or D- community disrupters, and (mostly) we are called to love people who are both. We are called to remember that love isn’t always hugs, affirmations, and encouragements. Sometimes loving someone means asking a person to step back from leadership, or to stop behaving in a disrespectful or hurtful manner. Sometimes love means saying “no” or “not now.”

During Holy Week when the computer breaks, I have a frustrated parishioner on the phone, and my sermon feels like a wash, I still can’t think of anything I want to do more (except sleep). Doesn’t that sound like motherhood? Pastoring is day after day of nurture and patience, in a life that is by turns hope-filled and exasperating. Priesthood is the everyday ordinariness of serving others. And yes, it is also joy. Yeah. I’ll admit it. I love the people of God. Even when things are completely off kilter, I get up most mornings and can hardly believe God called me to this wacky, amazing, and wondrous work. Loving the people I serve is giving me (I hope) a mother’s heart.

 

A Vision

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a vision.origin_7916585148

There were no trances or hallucinations, no fevered frenzy or mystic insights for the ages. There was nothing dramatic that would call attention to myself or invite curious questions about my sanity. There was nothing like that.

It was just an image that came quietly, a picture that appeared in my mind one day. Though I’m no Joan of Arc or Hildegard von Bingen, this image began to represent a larger vision that was unfolding in my life. It was an imagination conversation partner, if you will.

On a rather mundane day, an image appeared unannounced during my daydreaming as images are often prone to do. I suddenly saw myself standing beneath an empty cross, and I was staring upward toward it. This was no ancient cross of another age; it was the large outline of a cross at the front of a particular sanctuary I know well.

And my image didn’t leave me standing there alone. I was surrounded by loved ones from the various chapters that span my life.  These concentric circles of beloved people with faces and names stretched into the pews and beyond those pews as far as I could see. Interestingly, though I was standing toward the front of this large group of people, I was “seeing” all of us from behind. I was an observer. I witnessed us all standing there, facing the cross.

Imagination is a curious gift. At times, it comes before words or logical connections can emerge. Initially, I assigned no meaning to this image. It was simply a picture that appeared in my imagination before I knew to ask for it.

But then I started asking for it. It was strangely comforting, so I started recalling it on purpose. And for a long time, it remained a simple image with no words or obvious associations. It was a chosen image that I began to bring purposefully into my mind.

Then one evening, something clicked, and it suddenly gained greater meaning.

I was participating in a Good Friday service in that very sanctuary, and members of the congregation were reading the stories of Jesus’ seven last words on the cross. These public readings of scripture were interspersed between beautiful pieces of choral music. They accompanied the solemnness in the room with Good News hidden among the pain.

One story I heard that night is told with a tiny amount of words, especially as we consider their significance. The story is only three verses long.

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”  Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:25-27).

Behold, here is your Child.

Behold, here is your Mother.

My comforting image snapped into focus for me that evening, and I immediately knew that this tiny story was a true expression of my life in the Church.

Behold, here is your Child.

Behold, here is your Mother.

This story suddenly resonated as a lens by which to view my own biography. I suspect that it is a biography of us all. I have stood at that cross, surrounded by those to whom I have been given. Sometimes, I have been the child, and sometimes, I have been the mother. As I examine every chapter, I see these themes woven throughout the entire fabric of my life. We have all been given to one another in this way.

We do not know what happened once Mary, the mother of Jesus, entered the home of his beloved disciple. It is an unknown chapter in Christian history. But even from the cross, and perhaps especially from the cross, Jesus gives his disciples to one another. He builds all of us into a beloved community of rich belonging and theological kinship.

Behold, we are the children.

Behold, we are the mothers.

There are no truer symbols for my own biography. The Church has been the womb that has formed my life alongside the lives of others. We are all created as children of God, and that identity is our inheritance as we bear the image of God.

That very identity is expressed in particular ways as we live alongside others.  We are children toward one another, and we are mothers toward one another. The same grace of God that loves us into being weaves us into being. Our lives pass through the lives of others, and the creation of our identity is renewed again and again. The members of our communities ‘particularize’ us and form us into specific expressions of God’s grace.

Jesus gives us to one another.

Jesus builds us into a holy family of human kinship.

And Jesus does this even from a cross. He does it in the midst of brokenness and pain. In a messy and marred world, Jesus turns us to face one another so that we can live in relationship. We are invited to enter the households of others, and this shifts the economy of belonging. We are invited into the lives of each other.

Behold, we are the children.

Behold, we are the mothers.

In this vision, we can walk together toward the crosses of this world. We can leave the comfortable doors of our own sanctuaries and trust that new creation can be found even in human pain. God is always shifting the economy of belonging. We belong to God and to one another.

In this vision, we can move together toward every Calvary. We can face the crosses of injustice and brokenness in this world and trust that Jesus will turn us to face one another. God is always shifting the economy of belonging. We belong to God and to one another.

We belong to God and to one another.

We are the children.

We are the mothers.

Behold, this great vision.

 

Learning to be a Daughter, Mother, and a Pastor . . . with Hope

Mother & DaughterThe first month was the hardest.  The time spent wondering—wondering what the future would hold, the next hour, the next day, and hopefully even the next year.  The time spent waiting—waiting to hear what the next medical professional would have to say.  I was exhausted and emotional and trying to hold everything together.

And then she came home and we started a new journey, shaped by new realities—a new future that didn’t look like the one we had planned to embark upon.

It sounds very much like a birth story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like I welcomed a precious baby girl into my life.  I have, twice.  But not in this story.

This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while trying to mother my children and pastor a congregation.  This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while still being her daughter.

My life has been shaped by cancer.  My dad died of cancer when I was nine.  He died six months after his diagnosis.  I don’t remember many details from those six months, but I do know that they worked their way into my soul.  And I remember the many, many, moments of dealing with the realities of grief, loss, death—and even resurrection.  These are the moments that still take place as I continually face life without my dad’s physical presence.

So when one of the two surgeons came out to talk with me in the waiting room this past March, I was calm and self-assured as I asked questions and waited for answers.  And yet, I heard the word “cancer” and the words “much more extensive than we anticipated”.    The inner nine year old me fell apart; the thirty-five year old me held it together.  The last time I heard a parent had cancer resulted in my world collapsing.  I wasn’t ready to face that again.  As a daughter, I cried.  As a daughter, I questioned God.  As a daughter, I struggled.

As a pastor, I continued to plan midweek Lenten services.  As a pastor, I continued to shape Holy Week and Easter worship services.  As a pastor, I prepared to celebrate death and resurrection.

And I did things that needed to be done.  I visited my mom nearly daily for the weeks of hospitalizations and the weeks of rehab.  I stopped by her apartment regularly for months after.  I did her laundry and dishes for four months.  I am going on six months of grocery shopping.  I am her transportation to doctor’s appointments, CT scans, and chemo.  I am the one who drops everything to take her to the ER when something is not right.  I am the one who listens along with her to what the doctor has to say about her prognosis.  I ask questions and write down answers.  I log into her medical records to make sure I understand.

Sometimes I feel like now I have to be the mother.  I was relieved when my sister who lives across the country came to visit for two weeks.  For two weeks, I didn’t have to be my mom’s mother.   Mostly, though, it’s new territory we are navigating.  As she gets stronger and looks to an end date for chemo with a very good prognosis, I have to mother her less and less.  I will still care for her, in many of the ways in which she cared for me over the years.  I know the day will come when I’ll have to mother her some more, but I’ll be ready because she taught me to be a mother.

And because I’m a pastor who journeyed a very personal Lenten journey this past Lent, God opened me up to experience a very Easter message.  When my mom dies, be it from this cancer—though that doesn’t look likely—or somewhere down the road, I will be okay.  Resurrection is real; that will get me through.

In the meantime though, I’ll keep learning—how to be…a mother, a daughter, and a pastor.

 

A daughter for 36 years, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 10 years, a mother for 5, Jodi continues to learn how to be all three (at once) thanks to the lovely people of Shepherd of the Cross Lutheran Church in Muscatine, Iowa and two precious little girls (Alexa, 5 and Mackenzie, 2).

Photo by Colin Cook, http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/9384667831/, October 14, 2013, Used by Permission of the Photographer, All Rights Reserved.  For more of Colin’s photos, check out his Flikr Page at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/.

Like Mother…

Happy Mother’s Day! Last night, while Simon and I wandered through our local mall, I wondered what I would give you as a token of my thanks this year. On and off I have debated making you a pair of the fingerless gloves you asked for at Christmas, but I just couldn’t convince myself that fingerless gloves were a good gift idea in May. (For the record, I have the yarn, a perfect non-scratchy cotton and wool blend in a beautiful blue. The gloves are on their way, just not on this occasion.)

Each year on Mother’s Day, I do my best to thank you. Usually the thanksgiving is for all of the extraordinarily ordinary things you have done for your children. Considering that we are all, as Dad puts it, “successfully launched” as young adults with careers, homes, and bank accounts that are mostly independent of you, I think that you and he both have a right to be proud. Guiding three children in their journey through adolescence into young adulthood is no small feat. This year, though, I have a different thanksgiving to share.

Here’s the thing. I work with young adults day in and day out, and I know that we exist in a generation where parents have far more contact and daily control over our lives than ever before. Sometimes this parental involvement is a great thing and sometimes it’s the helicopter-parent-who-never-lets-little-Suzie-go bane of my existence. To be honest, I think there were moments when you were both, mostly because I needed someone breathing down my neck.

I know, that doesn’t sound thankful; I’m getting there…see, somewhere in my true young adulthood, those early young adult years between 22 and 25, we came to what I thought was an amazing mutual compromise. We agreed that I was an adult, and that as such, I would behave like one and you would treat me like one. Read more

Becoming the Church Mom

You could see the furrowed brows on her puzzled face. It was an amusing moment for me and for the handful of congregants who noticed her dilemma. I believe that in our role as pastors sometimes, our humanness is overshadowed by the ministry we do, especially for those of us from liturgical traditions that wear robes. The next Mother’s Day, I was expecting our first child. The congregation had already thrown a baby shower for us and included all the children. My robes billowed out around my growing belly. Amazingly, that year, all the little ones knew with certainty that I was a woman and raced to be the
first to give me a flower.

I learned in those moments that being a mom, in the children’s eyes, defined me as much as being their pastor. These same children asked every week if I knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl, though we were never able to discover the baby’s gender. The children wanted to help with our baby during church services, even though she came to church with a very protective and capable young woman as her babysitter. Our baby was the church baby, and I became the church mom.

I noticed a change once we had our little one. To the toddlers, I became a lap on which to sit. Children I met only a few times as visitors or at Vacation Bible School came up and hugged me as we went for a walk as a family. To the teens, I became more of an advice giver. While I will always be the pastor, I am also now a mom, to far more children than my husband and I will ever have on our own. Our daughter has been graced with an extended family that calls me pastor, though to her I am her “Momma Bear.”