Walter’s Cigarettes

When I was a teenager, I promised myself that I would never buy cigarettes. A few of my friends smoked, and occasionally someone would offer me a cigarette and I would accept. Fearful of addiction, I came up with what I thought was a fool-proof strategy: if I never bought cigarettes, I could only ever smoke when I was bumming cigarettes, and since I couldn’t return the favor, politeness would prevent me from smoking too often. Ten years later, I walked into a corner store sporting a clerical collar and a small baby bump and, for the very first time, bought a pack of Newports.

My beloved congregant Walter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. An African-American man who worked as a diversity trainer (among other things), he connected easily with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and constantly, lovingly encouraged the congregation to be a model of a community overcoming racism, classism, ageism, and more. He laughed and cried unreservedly. He spoke at length about “Ubuntu” theology, the African theology that emphasizes interconnectedness. As the president of our church’s board, he led the committee that interviewed me and called me as the associate pastor; when I told him with some trepidation, only a few months later, that I was expecting a baby and would need to take maternity leave, he rejoiced. Shortly after my baby Abel was born, we got word that what Walter had thought was a dental issue was in fact a bone tumor forming in his jaw. His diagnosis took us all by surprise – a vibrant man in his early 60s whose father still lived independently, we had all assumed we would have him with us for decades to come, even if we did nag him to quit smoking. They gave him six months to live.

Months passed, and Walter responded positively to treatment, but the doctors were clear that there was no cure for this kind of cancer, only temporary reprieve. When we baptized Abel, I asked Walter to be his godfather, knowing that Abel would probably never remember Walter. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Prison Visitation Edition

Dear Askie,

I recently got a request from a congregant that I don’t quite know how to han6771698125_9e979f1d04_bdle, and I wonder if you have any advice? My congregant’s nephew is incarcerated, and my congregant is asking if I would be willing to visit him in prison. He doesn’t have a church, but has been interested in having a pastor visit. I’m happy to do it – after all, I’m pretty sure Jesus said to! But I don’t really know what to expect or how to do this kind of visit. I’m wondering about everything from what to wear and how to prepare, to what to talk about. Any suggestions?
Prison Visitor

Read more

Veni, Vidi, Venti?

A few years ago I was particularly grateful for my sister’s various talents. She sang for our church service, she glued animal addresses together, she helped lead the kids in our children’s Christmas Eve service, and of course she came with me to the hospital to sing.

When we go visit at a nursing home or a smaller facility, Beth will come with me to the room of whomever we are visiting and offer a few carols there. We’ve tried that at the hospital but for some reason her overpowering soprano is not as welcome in the halls as it is in an assisted living center. We’ve had nurses shut the door on her beautiful notes of “O Holy Night” more than once. Read more

Throwing Stones

My computer sang that familiar tune. I am compulsive about checking email. It doesn’t seem to matter what I am doing when that song begins. I instantly minimize the open document on my screen and jump into the inbox of my email account. It is almost always a church member – unless the beloved denominational Mother Ship is zooming out new resources that never seem to translate into our small congregation in Corinth. I prefer the emails from church members who type to share a lingering thought from worship. I love when they send a typed gratitude to thank me for calling when they missed worship.

When my computer sang then, I clicked the message open to inhale its contents. It was an email from Nina. She wasn’t in church on Sunday. She hasn’t been in church for several weeks.

Read more

Never Not the Minister

It can be difficult to receive care when you are called to be a care-giver.

It was scary and stressful, and I’m still not over the shock of realizing he and I might not be invincible after all. It was also the first time that I have been on the receiving end of my congregation’s big-hearted approach to pastoral care. I’m still reeling over how strange and wonderful that felt.

See, I’m the minister–right. I’m the giver of pastoral care, not the receiver. I am the font of comfort and the number one resource in my congregation for compassionate nods-of-the-head and hugs-only-when-appropriate. I am the pastor, and since I never remember my local priest comforting my family very much when I was a kid, I’ve seldom (if ever) really known what it was to be pastored to in a time of trauma, which is why I was confused this week, if honored and grateful at the same time.

When hubby was in surgery, I was sitting on the floor of the only place in the hospital with reception grasping a cell phone in each hand while talking to our parents and family members, giving them updates and generally just trying to hold it together. As I sat on the floor juggling these cell phones and wondering if I even had it in me to cry, one of my more wonderful congregants walked up to me.

Here’s where the story gets surprising. When I saw her, my first thought was not “Oh, how lovely that she’s come to see me,” but rather, “oh crap there’s one of my congregants and I haven’t showered in a couple of days and am not really able to talk to her like a minister right now and I’m sitting on the floor in the pajama shirt I was wearing when we fled the house at three am and she’s probably got some relative in surgery and I didn’t even know about it and I hope she’s ok and, deep breath I need to get off of these two phones and talk to my congregant.” Read more