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Newness of Life: How I Gave Up the Waders and Learned to Love the Water

Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.

I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.

I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.

So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.

Not so for me.

The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt.  My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels.

(The waders are only one of the tools of the trade through which I feel the weight of years of male pastors bearing down on me. Another big one is my lapel mike: I finally started wearing my robe at our informal service because there was nowhere to clip the battery pack when I wore a dress, and I refused to rig it up with duct tape, reality-TV style.)

So the waders don’t work for me. The water is too deep, or the drawstring isn’t tight enough, or they just plain don’t fit. When I lean over with the young woman being baptized, my arm braced on her back to help her back up, the water rushes right over those suspenders and down into the toes of those too-big boots, soaking my top, my skirt, and well, everything else.

And now I need to be back in the sanctuary in a matter of minutes to sing the closing hymn and offer the benediction. I strip off my damp pantyhose and put my robe back on, over my wet clothes. When I sit down, I can feel the dampness of my skirt soaking through the lining and into the outer fabric my robe. I think a few words that are not particularly appropriate for a clergy person on Easter morning.

“Can you tell I’m all wet?” I whisper to our worship team leader, who has been helping mop up drips on the floor. She stands behind me and tilts her head. I walk a few steps and turn, as if I’m modeling a new dress. “No, I think it’s okay,” she says, and I’m pretty sure she’s lying. “Can you just hold your hymnal behind you?”

I can’t quite see how that will be less conspicuous than a damp spot on the back of my robe, but I nod, because it’s time to go. I make it through the last hymn and muster up some enthusiasm for a few last alleluias, praying that the choir, standing behind me, is thinking more about the resurrection than my derriere.

As I process out in front of one of our (male) elders, and then stand strategically with my back to the wall and greet the Easter crowd, I decide, for good, that I’m done with the waders.

Baptism is ineffable, mysterious. A sacrament, a means of grace, a holy moment, an entry into the body of Christ, the family of God. It’s hard to describe what happens there, so it’s no surprise that when I talk to kids about baptism, they are mostly interested in the water. It’s symbolic, I tell them, it represents dying and rising with Christ. Yes, they say, but will the water be cold? They want to know how the water gets in there (a faithful deacon), and how deep it will be (just deep enough) and whether they’ll have time to blow dry their hair afterwards (no).

We need water to live, to drink, cook, clean. The waters of baptism remind us of the first breath of creation, when the wind from God swept over the face of the deep. The water reminds us of John standing in the Jordan, of Jesus rising from the waters with the dove descending overhead.

Of course, the over-sized bathtub at the front of our sanctuary is a far cry from the waters of the Jordan River. Some traditions make a point of going outside, to a lake, a river, the ocean, to do their dunking. I happen to like standing in the water in the middle of the congregation, in that space where the community gathers for worship and is sent out to work in the world, with the church family looking on and offering up their love and prayers.

Most people only step into those waters once in a lifetime. It occurs to me, in my wet clothes on Easter morning, that it is a gift, an honor, to accompany people in that moment. In a way, the waders set up a barrier between me and the water, implying that I can slip in and out, unaffected by this holy moment, unmoved by the Spirit that hovers over those waters, untouched by the challenge of the congregation to the newly baptized: Walk in the newness of life. When they come up out of the water, a little bit awed and just slightly out of breath, maybe I ought to be breathless, too. Maybe I ought to be wet.

A few weeks after Easter, I step into the baptistery again, barefoot this time, with a change of clothes waiting for me in the hall. I reach out to take the hand of a fourth-grader who has decided that she’s ready to enter, fully and completely, the body of Christ. She steps down, and the water embraces both of us. It is pure grace.

 

 

 

Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. Read more

Finding Words

ministry lab nov 2016I have finally found my voice. I found my voice after seven years of often squelching, silencing parish ministry. For some reason beyond me, this new sense of purpose and meaning has come in the form of what used to intimidate me: writing liturgy. After my last call came to an abrupt close, I felt the overwhelming push to start writing liturgy — something I had always been much too scared to do before. Truth be told, I was actually still scared to do it but somehow knew that I had to. I started by writing Holy Week liturgies and have progressed through the year from there.

I start with the four scriptures appointed for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary. Since they change each week, every liturgy brings new challenges. I always try to include at least three, if not all four, of the readings. The more liturgies I write, the more I find the scripture speaking for itself. I find myself just picking out the central or pertinent parts of scripture and quoting those with added context. I have been surprised just how many times scripture has simply handed me the prayer of confession, and often it’s been way harsher than I would have attempted writing. I also have found that scripture speaks effectively to our current historical moment, sometimes in ways that feel pointed. Scriptural themes of the consolidation of land and wealth resonate strongly, and I often find myself drawing connections between scripture and the U.S. election. Justice (the non-punitive kind) is still needed, and righteousness (which I define as “right-relationship”) is a struggle both in scripture and in our contemporary context. It has been fascinating seeing these arcs and connections. I write the Opening Prayer last, typically using the themes that I would base a sermon on if I were preaching that day. My liturgies are definitely mini-sermons to me.

The stark reality of my ministry is that right now, writing liturgy for others to use is my ministry. Read more

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

handprints in paint on a white wall

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Running Down the Aisles Edition

handprints in paint on a white wallDear Askie,

Recently, our church has seen an increase in young children attending worship. Now, I love children very much, and I know that young families are a wonderful addition to our congregation. However, the noise and commotion can be very disruptive, and really detracts from my (and others’) worship experience. Our congregation offers childcare, but I guess some parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Another problem is that as these children get older, they feel right at home in the church building, and can often be seen running around with little or no supervision. This can be dangerous for the children and for the unlucky folks in their path. How can our church address these problems without chasing the families away?

Sincerely,
Concerned about Children

Read more

One Body

lego tower draftA deafening rumble filled the sanctuary. Bricks cascaded against one another and ricocheted off the walls. Towers smashed to the ground and rose from the rubble as playful fingers reveled in order and chaos. It was marvelous mayhem, but very slowly and very loudly, a glorious dwelling began to emerge.

Our text for worship was the story of Solomon building the temple, so I encouraged the children to work together to build a house for God out of Legos. It was a great idea! Who knew that tiny plastic bricks could be so LOUD?

I raised my voice until I was practically yelling into the microphone, my gut twisting as I watched the faces of my congregation. Most strained to hear and stay focused. A few gave up listening to the sermon, but seemed perfectly happy watching the kids build. And of course, some sat arms crossed, eyes rolling, lips pursed, huffing with annoyance at each new crash. (Why is the perfect piece always at the bottom of the bin?)

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12: 27

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: PK’s in the Pews Edition

children in churchDear Askie,

My husband and I are both clergy, and parents of three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6. Although we’re a clergy couple, we never actually both had Sunday morning churches until recently. (I stayed home with the kids when the first two were babies, and then I pastored a church and he worked as a chaplain; now, we’re each pastoring a congregation.) When only one of us was working as a pastor, the other one would get the kids ready and bring them to church. Now that we’re both working Sunday mornings, we’re struggling. From deciding who gets them ready and which church they’re going to, to supervising them during the long stretch of pre- and post-worship activities not to mention dealing with congregants’ expectations that our children be perfect angels all the time, and handling actual misbehavior we are totally overwhelmed. We know that other clergy couples do this, though. How do they do it, Askie? How?

-Frazzled Pastor Mom

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holy Week Pro Tips Edition

Cross with Birds

Cross with Birds

Dear Askie,

It’s Holy Week in my first call! I’m a solo pastor at a small UCC church, and I’m trying to gear up, but I’m not really sure what to expect or what I need to do. The liturgies are prepared, the sermons are written (well, mostly written), the bulletins are proofread, and I have plenty of bread and juice for communion. What else do I need to do? I’m sure there’s something I’m not thinking of. Besides that, I’ve heard a lot of advice to “practice good self­care” during Holy Week, but I’m not really sure how specifically to do that. Any tips? Please save me from potential disasters!

Thanks,
Holy Week Rookie

Dear Rookie,

Blessings and prayers for your first Holy Week in this new role! Holy Week is an odd experience, a strange mixture of hectic and contemplative, a walk through a familiar story that still feels new almost every time. It’s different at every church and in every denomination, too. You’re UCC, so I’m guessing that you might not have as many worship services as our high­church sisters, but it can be grueling nonetheless. It’s already Thursday, so you’re about to head into the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here are a few “pro tips” for your first Holy Week from Askie and her team of advisors:

  • Rethink your pre­clergy Holy Week practices: Before you were an ordained clergywoman, you were probably a very devoted lay person — most of us clergy were. Perhaps you used to fast on Good Friday, or take Saturday as a silent retreat day, or read the whole Gospel of Mark from beginning to end. Whatever time­intensive spiritual practice you used to do, I would recommend that you not do that anymore. Especially not the fasting ­ no one wants a cranky, light­headed pastor passing out in the pulpit. Re­evaluate your practices and think about what would be meaningful for you in your life as a pastor.
  • Set aside time for sleep and exercise over the next few days: Put them in your calendar. At this point, there is no logistical or liturgical task so important that you should do it instead of sleeping. Your people need a pastor who is centered and present much more than they need an exquisitely edited sermon. In the words of the New Zealand Prayer Book, “What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.”
  • Prepare meals in advance: You think you’re going to come home after Maundy Thursday and whip up a stir fry? Oh,
    sweet heart, I’ve been there and it didn’t happen — I ordered another pizza. This afternoon, figure out what you’re going to eat for dinner the next few days that’s easy and nutritious. Turkey burgers and baby carrots? Quick chili you can put in the slow cooker before running out the door? Maybe scrambled eggs? Figure out what you can pack for lunches and snacks, too. Buy the groceries. Chop the vegetables. Actually, it being Thursday,, see if you can buy them pre­chopped.
  • Allow yourself time to respond to the story: We became clergy because the story of Jesus speaks to us. We became clergy because we wanted to follow him by serving his church. We’re going to be telling the story of his betrayal, suffering, death, and burial, and eventually his resurrection. No matter how many times you’ve heard and told the story, Good Friday can really punch you in the gut. Maybe that’s a good thing, but be gentle with yourself. The Passion brings up strong emotions: grief, guilt, anger, and more. Don’t be surprised; give yourself some time to process the story once again.
  • Schedule your time off now: You need an extra day off next week. Maybe two. Block them off now, if you haven’t already.
  • Find out “how we always do things”: It’s your first Holy Week at this church, so get on the phone with a few of your church’s matriarchs and patriarchs. Ask them to tell you about how they do Holy Week services. Almost every church has some idiosyncratic traditions around these days. At Askie’s church, we have special silver that is only used for Easter Communion, and we turn to face the rear during the last hymn (there’s a beautiful stained glass window there). No one might think to tell you this church’s Holy Week quirks until you’ve failed to observe them… but make your phone calls now, and at least you can say you tried!
  • Think all the way through your liturgies: Are you washing feet and then serving Communion? Do you have hand sanitizer near the Communion table? Are the congregants leaving the sanctuary in darkness? How will they be able to see to walk out? Go through every order of worship piece by piece, looking for the things that are liable to go wrong, and think about how to help them go smoothly.
  • Figure out your shoes: You’re going to be standing a lot, so figure out which ones will be professional enough without killing your feet. Make sure they’re polished, too.
  • On the other side: Take Easter Monday off. Once you’re back, though, think about what went well and what didn’t. Think about whether you want to add anything (only add one thing at a time), and whether you want to let go of anything. Think about what you’re going to do differently, and what you’re going to do the same.

    Best of luck, and so many prayers for you and your congregation, Rookie. You’ll be fine, and Christ will rise no matter what.

    Blessings,
    Askie