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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

I am Mary and Martha

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I worry about stuff. I wonder if I’m forgetting something. I get tiny palpitations when the phone rings (“Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?”). I sometimes get stressed as early as 3 sips into my morning coffee about whether or not I’ll be able to “get everything done” in a given day.

This morning, about 3 sips into my morning coffee, I read in Luke 10 about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha. It’s a great and short story, and I recommend reading it really quickly.  I have read this little story a number of times but this morning, for some reason, it was real to me. Jesus comes to their house, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha is stuck with all the work, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary get back in the kitchen and help, and Jesus in a nutshell says no.

It was real to me this morning because I felt like I was in the story. First, when Jesus responds to Martha. True to form, Jesus answers the question beneath the question. He speaks to her anxious heart, hiding behind concerns about Mary helping with housework. In other words, she comes to Him about Mary and he responds to her about Martha. And instead of chiding her for tattling and not minding her own business, He comforts her. He says her name twice, which my husband just told me was an especially affectionate and tender way of addressing someone in their culture. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better share, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus comforts her, calls out her sin, and instructs her all in one sentence. This morning, I felt like Martha in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from your expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me take care of the details. That is all that’s really necessary.”

Jesus doesn’t dialogue with Mary in this story, which might be why there haven’t been as many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” reflections on her. But this morning, I felt like Mary in the story, as well. See, I’ve written a lot on my blog about my anxiety concerning budgets, grocery lists, and to-do lists, but I haven’t written a lot about my anxiety as a seminary student. A female seminary student.

I didn’t start school expecting to feel this way, but in the last few years I’ve begun to notice that in many ways, I am in a man’s world. Often I am the only woman in the room or seated at the table. Being fairly loud and obnoxious, most of the time I can be brave about it. But every now and then, I find myself thinking, “Jesus, am I just elbowing my way to Your table, inviting myself to sit in and listen in on something that’s not really “for” me? Do you just tolerate my presence like I’m the kid sister in the corner, listening in?” Every now and then, I feel like the third (or twenty-third) wheel in the world of Christian ministry and theology.

But then I read this story and realize Mary probably had it even worse. I read recently that the most shocking part of this whole scenario is not Martha being left to work alone, but Mary having the audacity to enter the “man’s domain” of her culture and sit at the Rabbi’s (teacher’s) feet with the men. Imagine the eyes burning a hole in her back. Imagine the courage she must have had to sit there anyway, and the desperation she must have had to hear more of Jesus’ words, no matter the cost. That is how I feel about being in seminary. It may be awkward at times, and I may feel uncomfortable or even feel eyes burning a hole in my back at times, but I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I must. Even if it means being the twenty-third wheel, it’s worth it to me if it means I can get closer to Jesus.

But then I see how Jesus handled Mary’s situation, “It will not be taken away from her.”  I see that Jesus – Jesus — defended Mary’s spot at his feet next to all his male disciples, and I realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The Rabbi says I have a right to be here. I realize that He has called me to Himself, He invites me to sit at His feet, and He declares it won’t be taken away from me. I realize, “He doesn’t see me as a third-wheel. I’m not an outsider to Him.”

This morning, I felt like Mary in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from others’ expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me defend your right to do so. That is all that’s really necessary.”

 

On Spring Cleaning

“The Red Barn” was three stories of junk and treasure that stood for decades on the campus of Gould Farm, a long-lived residential rehab center in Massachusetts where I volunteered for two years in my early twenties. It had a dirt floor, reeked of mildew and dust, and was crammed with history and potential. If you needed something for your room or cabin, or for an adventure or creative project, you went looking in the Red Barn. And when something was no longer needed, or in the way, or no one knew what to do with it, a work team would come and “put it in the Red Barn.”

I can still see retro tennis rackets, a desk with a drop-lid, a plush but shredded loveseat, yards of old books, bicycles of all ages and sizes, mismatched cross-country skis, piles of clothes, antique egg beaters… piled on the floor, suspended from the ceiling, and hung on the walls.

The Red Barn was torn down a few years ago to make room for a new residential building. (It was probably also a terrible fire hazard.) I wonder where they put stuff, now? I imagine, like most of us, Gould Farmers now throw things away, donate to Goodwill, and buy the stuff they need.

My husband teases me when I take boxes of stuff to Goodwill or clean out a closet because a few weeks later, I tend to discover I need something I’ve gotten rid of. I have to go buy a third loaf pan, another copy of that book, or something-that-looks-like-a- fishing-net for Sunday School since I got rid of that garden netting that sat in our shed for three years.

But the reason we can simplify, declutter, donate, and throw so much away is that we can afford to. We can get rid of extras or things that seem like junk because stuff is pretty cheap and accessible nowadays. Gould Farm was founded in 1913, and like any farm – especially one that survived the Depression – nothing was wasted and very little was thrown away. Houses were simple because people didn’t have much and barns, sheds, and attics were full of stuff that could “come in handy some day.” Now, our lives are overwhelmed with stuff. Stores are full of cheap things made abroad that almost everyone can afford to acquire and accumulate to their heart’s desire.

I don’t mean to condemn decluttering – I’m much happier in a house that’s not overflowing. But it’s a luxury. We pat ourselves on the back if we purge our closets, kitchen drawers, and basements do we think about where all this stuff comes from? Where it goes after we toss or donate it? The reason we have so much of it in the first place?

When I trot old clothes, tchotchkes, and kitchenware over to Goodwill, I feel exhilarated. But I’m not sure I’m living more simply. I may just be exercising a certain degree of wastefulness. When I clean out my home by throwing things away or donating to the Salvation Army, those things are just going to pile and clutter up somewhere else. Places like landfills, waterways, incinerators, and Third World countries. And fussing over household clutter can be a way to distract myself from the more serious junk that’s probably piling up in the corners and drawers of my soul.

What if I spent some time examining how I accumulate so much stuff to begin with? Or planned some strategies to resist the temptation to buy cheap and buy often? What if I sat down and tried to figure out what I was really worrying about, since it’s probably not just the clutter around my house.

Jesus never called us to “live simply,” but he did preach that we shouldn’t worry:

Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? (Matthew 6:25, CEB).

Worrying about clutter can distract us from the real source of our worries – lack of trust that “there is enough,” lack of trust that God’s love undergirds every day of our lives, lack of trust that the kingdom of God is in our midst. Lack of trust that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:38-39, CEB)

Not clutter nor untidy closets, not clean or dirty houses, not present or future chaos, or any other mess in our lives, can separate us from love and security in Christ Jesus. True simplicity starts in the heart, downsizing to some household basics of love, trust in God, and humility. And living simply should be done for the sake of the whole world – for the stewardship of all Creation, not just our own homes.

It’s good to declutter your house. It’s better to declutter our world. And whether you declutter or not, don’t let clutter distract you from the kingdom of God.

Heidi Haverkamp is an Episcopal parish priest in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and blogs at vicarofbolingbrook.net, about home, the suburbs, and church life. She graduated with her M.Div. from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago and earned a certificate in theology from Seabury Western Theological Seminary. The amperage needed for the electronic equipment her husband requires for work precludes their ever living in a 500 square foot home.

 © Photo copyright Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.