The Gifts of Waiting

When I can help it, I do things early.

I learned to ride a bike at five, moved away from home at sixteen, and graduated college after three brisk years. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry.

And yet, I couldn’t hurry a call.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. I’ll spare you the gory details—but, suffice it to say, I spent a year unemployed and several more years broadening my understanding of ministry. I worked for a Catholic nonprofit and then Renewal Ministries Northwest, a dynamic prayer ministry in the Seattle area. In 2016, I was ordained to an unconventional, part-time ministry shepherding the remnant of a congregation that had departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) for A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In late 2018, I wrote and published a devotional for teen girls (Simple Truths). I felt like I was making lemonade, growing gills. I could feel the Spirit pushing me toward surrendering my idol of ordained ministry.

And then, abruptly, She called me back to it.

I received the call itself through a series of unexpected events. I had finally found a rhythm with my work at Renewal Ministries, and Simple Truths had just been published. Then, the phone rang. On the other end: someone from the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) from my hometown back in Tennessee, wondering if I’d throw my hat in the ring. They weren’t even offering me a position, just a chance at one—and it unraveled my world. I spent a week in tormented talks with my husband. Could we move? Did I really want this (anymore)? Is this what a call feels like? Read more

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

little boy running

A GIF From God

little boy runningI pushed back from the table, breathless at what I had just seen. It was July 2011, and I was sitting in a room at Duke University with dozens of other female ministers. We were gathered for the last morning of The Young Clergy Women Project conference, and keynoter Winnie Varghese had invited us all to close our eyes and picture our lives in five years.

This kind of personal visioning was a luxury I hadn’t afforded myself in some time. After all, I’m married to a United Methodist pastor. For the eight years before that moment, I had struggled with the reality that itineracy dictated not just where we lived and Matt served, but also what opportunities were available to me. When someone asked me where I wanted to be in five, ten, or twenty years, I usually gave a partly true, partly cop-out answer: “Oh, that’s for the Holy Spirit to decide.”

Winnie’s invitation, however, shook something loose. I had closed my eyes for the exercise, because I’m a rule-follower, an obedient eldest child. But it wasn’t long before I saw an image like an animated GIF projected on the inside of my eyelids. I was holding a toddler, who was struggling to be put down so that he could wobble excitedly over to Matt. The detail was striking: the blooms on the trees, the look of adoration on the boy’s face as he looked at the man who was obviously his father. What made my breath catch in my throat, though, was the convergence of my deep ambivalence toward becoming a parent up to that point with my advancing age and my sudden certainty about wanting to be a mom. Read more

Stumbling Towards Bethlehem

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”               Luke 2:6-7

MomsImageAugustI discovered I was pregnant one early autumn morning. We had longed for this child, prayed for this child, and my husband and I glowed together with the knowledge that we would welcome a new member of our family some time in the spring.

Like most parish pastors, I have long known how important my own spiritual practice is to a whole and healthy life, while simultaneously feeling as though I never have quite enough time for the spiritual life that I want. Read more

Daily Graces: A Review of Everyday Sacrament by Laura Kelly Fanucci

My spouse and I rarely touch when we sleep. Before we drift off, we lie close together, holding hands, or with our limbs entwined. He wraps his arms around me while we talk, or I hold him. When it is time to go to sleep, however, we inch away, still close enough to feel one another’s warmth, but occupying our own real estate on the bed.

As someone who has always required a bit of space in order to be comfortable, I was surprised by how quickly this fact about myself changed when I became a mother. Suddenly, I was completely joyful with my baby asleep in a carrier, snuggled up close to my body. My husband would spend hours napping with a baby on his chest. Now that my children are toddlers, they come to me frequently to be held or comforted. When I am home with them, it is difficult to go even a few minutes without one of them pressing against my body or tugging on my arm. When I am away from them for overnights, I long to have their small bodies nestled close.

One of the things that I appreciate most about Laura Kelly Fanucci’s new book, Everyday Sacrament, is that it approaches parenting and the life of faith in a completely embodied way. She ties the matter of the sacraments, those holy things which we can taste and touch and see, to the matter of life—mealtime, bath time, time spent tending wounds and holding children close. She speaks vividly about the changes that happen to one’s body when one becomes a mother, and helps readers to see God at work in something as simple as tousling a child’s hair or bandaging a cut.

Becoming a parent changed the way I thought about God, and it also changed the way I thought about church. As a parish priest, too, I have often seen parents returning to church when they want to have their children baptized. In many ways, there is no better time than recent parenthood to reconnect with one’s faith traditions, to consider what it means to raise a child in that tradition, to ask oneself what these rites and rituals mean. Here is where a book like Everyday Sacrament can help. Fanucci asks parents to consider the question of “what I ask of God’s church for my child, and what I believe about what I am undertaking.”

Fanucci writes as a Roman Catholic, addressing the seven sacraments of baptism, communion, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. As a priest of the Episcopal Church, I found myself asking questions about how my own faith tradition views each of the sacramental rites that she addresses. I found much truth and wisdom in her reflections, and I suspect that other types of Protestants will also find common ground, as well as encouragement for the daily work of faithful parenting.

The book begins with baptism, about which Fanucci says, “We are welcomed into a community that has great hopes for us. We are called by God who dreams of all that we might become. But this first sacrament also celebrates the simple fact of being beloved. Of knowing that we do not need to achieve to be worthy or succeed to be faithful.”   What a refreshing thing to hear in a book about being a parent. What a wonderful thing for parents to teach their children—before you are anything, dear child, you are held and named and loved by God.

So many books about parenting focus on methods—sleep training, discipline, feeding. Those kinds of books often make me feel as though I’m not completely adequate as a parent. They may contain good advice, but I often lack the will to overhaul family life in order to accommodate new patterns that don’t work in every situation. Fanucci’s book is not a parenting manual. It is designed to help new parents see God at work in the world, at work in this new thing that has begun. She speaks of both the sacraments and about parenting as acts of becoming. As I read Everyday Sacrament, I thought of all the parents, young and old, whom I have encountered over the course of my ministry. If I have learned anything from serving among these parents, it is that the work of parenting is never finished. It is a love and a life and a struggle that unfolds moment after moment, year after year.   Fanucci treats parenting as a vocation into which we continue to grow, honoring this truth.

I began reading the chapters on marriage and ordination with a bit of trepidation, as these are the areas in which the Roman Catholic Church seems most different from my own. I needn’t have worried, though, as the author graciously addresses both of these sacraments within the broader context of calling.   She talks about how the commitments that we enter into transform us, how our relationships present ongoing invitations to listen to God’s call.

I found myself especially moved by Fanucci’s writing about ordination. I became a priest long before I became a parent, but growing into each of these vocations has taught me something about the other. I wasn’t absolutely certain that I was called to sacramental ministry until the first time that I actually stepped behind an altar. I know that our ordination processes are supposed to help people discern this before ordination, but how can anyone be sure of such a thing?  While I was standing there, letting God do God’s thing through me, I had an overwhelming sense that for that moment, I was standing exactly in the place where I was supposed to be.

Similarly, I wasn’t one hundred percent certain about a call to parenthood until I became one. Again, it would seem wiser to discern this before becoming a parent, but I remember one night when I was bone tired, and up most of the night with a feverish toddler. It was an awful night, involving the clean-up of several different kinds of bodily fluids, but I knew with my whole heart that there in that bed next to my sick child, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. In reflecting on ordination, Fanucci finds grace in dirty work and responsibility, she looks for the holy amidst daily messes and frustration, and beautifully articulates what it means to serve others with a whole heart. She speaks of parenthood as vocation, as work that makes relationships possible.

This is a lovely book, filled with honest reflections on being a faithful person within the chaos of life with small children. As a parent, I spend a lot of energy figuring out how I’m going to raise my children to know Christ’s love. I have realized that this is all well and good, but that I also need to make sure to seek sustenance for my own soul, as well. Everyday Sacrament provides just such nourishment.