Self-Care: Self-Service Self-Salvation (21st Century Pelagianism, Come to Roost)

I have something to say, and you’re not going to like it. I don’t like it either.

All the self-care talk ruling the church conferences and retreats and seminars– just as it is in the corporate world, according to my corporate friends– amounts to something dangerously close to a false gospel. Let me explain.

I’ve come into the ministry at a time when… to put it quite bluntly… many (if not most) clergy in many (if not most) denominations are burnt out (if not thinking of quitting), overweight (if not obese), drinking too much (if not alcoholics), spiritually depleted (if still spiritual at all), and either completely overworked or hardly showing up at all.

“These are bad things!” churches everywhere said, when they noticed. “We must teach our clergy better skills, give them coaches and help them become fit, healthy, centered people so they can get back to work!”

So, here came the SELF-CARE SELF-SERVICE SELF-SAVIOR.

Would you like to be a healthier, more effective pastor? Thou shalt eat better!
Would you like to have a more satisfying spiritual life? Thou shalt work out!
Would you like to work more efficiently? Thou shalt take your Sabbath (however long, whenever, and whatever you want to do)!
Would you like to be more centered emotionally? Thou shalt… well… drink less, problem solved!

The problem here, which we all know but seem to have forgotten (I know I have), is that if you want to be a better person, a better pastor, you can’t do it yourself. You have to, as our Anonymous friends would say, turn your will over to the care of your Higher Power. You can’t muscle your way into health, growth, and happiness. You can’t army-crawl your way into Thy-Kingdom-coming.

You can’t do this. Only God can.

How many times have I tried to lose weight? I might succeed for a time, but then put it all back on again the next time there’s a crisis. If I rely only on my own mettle to make it happen, where is my faith? No wonder I fail.

How many times have I tried to get emotional/psychological help? I make progress, but if I’m relying only on myself and this other human being to talk my way into health, and not also on God, how can I expect true growth?

How many times have I tried Sabbath-taking as a means of solving my problems? Doesn’t it just feel like an extra lazy Saturday, to sleep and watch TV? Or perhaps for you it’s an extra busy give-the-spouse-a-hand-with-the-kids day, so that you end up working more than you would’ve if you were at the Church…

Here’s the thing… we have committed our lives to serve God. Not ourselves. We’ve committed our lives to standing up and saying, “I believe,” “I trust,” “I hope” …. in God, not in Dr Oz or a health initiative or my Planet Fitness membership.

Talk of eating and exercising as salvific (for our ministries if not our own bodies/lives) says, “I trust in myself, my muscles, my willpower,” and not in a God who has a great deal invested in our little created bodies.
Talk of Sabbath as our personal time to solve our problems and make us centered and catch up and rest negates the command for which the Sabbath was given: “Keep it holy.”
Talk of getting emotionally healthy without a strong component of prayer, of partnering with God (not just some random human with a masters degree) to help you break the patterns of the past, ultimately says, “I give my ‘life’ [read: career] to God, but not my heart, my mind, or my soul.”

It is right to eat well and exercise, but not for the purpose of saving our failing hearts or increasing our curb appeal when our pictures go up on church websites. It is right because God says your body was wonderfully made, and that your body is an instrument of prayer, of healing one another, of serving the Church.

It is right to take Sabbath, but not in order to get more sleep or do more yard work or watch more television. It is right because God says to do it, God commands that we revere God, God asks us to take 24 hours on a Saturday or a Friday or a Sunday to stop creating, stop rummaging, stop hoarding, and just breathe in God.

It is right to get emotionally healthy, but not for your own sake, or on your own. It is right because God has gifted and called you– you, with all your unique “baggage” and language and hopes and fears. You get healthy through prayer and meditation, hand in hand with a God whose dreams for you are bigger than even your own, much less your therapist’s.

Friends, let us not fall into the trap Pelagius set for us. We cannot create our own salvation, for our bodies, ourselves, or God’s Holy Church. She will not consent to our feeble attempts at salvation, for She has Christ resurrected at her heart. So too we should not consent to them either. We must have Christ resurrected at our hearts. Only then, with His power, His boldness, His will, His big dreams, His scary passion, His deep and abiding love for God’s creation, which includes you and me…. with those things and not our own, we will be truly cared for.

The Church needs pastors who truly believe in the power of Jesus Christ. The Church needs pastors who truly believe that there is something beyond this life of eating and working and drinking and gnashing of teeth. The Church needs pastors who hope, and pray, and rely on something– someOne– other than themselves.

* * *

Have you come across resources that are good for integrating the self-care stuff with Jesus?

My church is currently doing a series called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality that I think integrates it well.

Share resources, friends!

So You’re Headed to Your First Annual Conference?

So you’re at your first Annual Conference? Let’s talk it through.

First, though:
For those of you who aren’t Methodist: Annual Conference is… well… a conference that happens annually. Everyone in a certain area (typically a state or half a state- in my case, Western North Carolina) gathers in one city (in my case, beautiful Lake Junaluska [pronounced roughly like saying “Juno, Alaska” really quickly]) and talks. We talk about God, we talk about ministry, we listen to our bishop talk, we talk about what the bishop said, we talk about what’s happened in the last year, and we talk about our hopes for the upcoming year and beyond.

So, anyway, your first AC. Problems, and solutions, based on my experience:

Problem: Poor kitten, you don’t know anyone. You know those couple of people who worked at camp with you, a handful of folks you went to seminary with, a couple professors who don’t seem to recognize you, and those people from the Board of Ordained Ministry in front of whom you nearly wet yourself a couple months earlier. That’s it.

My solution: Your mom is probably coming to watch you get commissioned, right? Lay in the hotel bed eating pizza and watching Steel Magnolias with her!

Reasonable adult solution: Get out and meet people, girl/bro! Glad-hand, kiss babies, rub elbows with bishops! Get your name and face out there… You never know which of these people could help you in the future….

Theological solution: As our speaker Elaine Heath said today, you don’t need to promote yourself. If God wants to use you, He will send a John the Baptist to declare a way for you. BOOM. Theology’ed.

Problem: You don’t know where, what, or how important anything is, not to mention where to park.

My solution: Go to everything and get there 45 minutes early, thereby stealing all the good parking from the elderly ministers who actually NEED good parking because of their bones and such. Go to things you’re not even supposed to be at. Spend a lot of time nodding and smiling and not knowing what the heck is going on.

Reasonable adult solution: Ask for help.

Theological solution: Ask for help.

Problem: You didn’t know what the dress code is, so you dressed up, like your mother always taught you. Dresses and high-heeled sandals every day if you’re a lady, suits and ties for the gents. Little did you know, this was held in a practically outdoor pavilion, involved much walking, and had little to no air conditioning anywhere– and yes, it’s June. In the South. Develop what a friend impolitely (but hilariously) calls “chub rub” between your legs– aka chafing. Experience a level of foot pain previously only previously known to CIA agents being tortured by the Russians in the 70s.

My solution: Limp, cry (literally, I cried), and go to the drugstore to buy Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts.

Reasonable adult solution: Go to Old Navy and buy new shoes and pants, idiot. You’re still in the United States, not Russia, despite how it feels; there are stores around.

Theological solution: My mentor would say that the first step toward accepting a call to follow Christ is accepting that that means being crucified with Him. Accept that perhaps your thighs and feet are the first to go?

Problem: You’re not technically on any church’s payroll yet (for another week), so you don’t have anyone to reimburse you for your travel expenses.

My solution: Find the cheapest possible hotel, even if it’s in another town, and even if it looks a little Bates-y. Eat exclusively from fast food $1 menus (until mom arrives, that is! Cha-Ching!). Choose to walk to those fast food restaurants from your hotel, to save gas. (Note: only when safe.) Decline all invitations to go out to expensive meals… You can try this schmoozing thing next year when it’s not coming out of your pocket!

Reasonable adult solution: Contact the conference and ask about this. It’s possible you just assumed that you’re not getting reimbursed.

Theological solution: See above theological solution re: getting crucified.

So there you have it, ladies and gents. For those of you who have not yet attend your first annual conference, I hope this will be helpful.
For the record, my second one is going quite well. I brought comfy shoes, blue jeans, the corporate credit card, and more friends than I had last year. Still not doing the schmoozing thing, on account of I’m terrible at it and also I really like that thing about John the Baptist. Holy conferencing is not about you, it’s about the holy God we invite to be a part of it. The biggest part of it. The only part of it that matters, and can make any of what we dream up possible.

Happy conferencing!

So You Want to Date A Pastor?

By far my most popular post is my Top 10 Dating Tips for Pastors. And just look at the search engine terms that brought people to my blog in the past 7 days:

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7 out of 12 googlers are interested in their pastor.                                                   Just to creep you out: Are YOU the pastor they’re interested in?

Over half of the people who found me were looking for pastor-dating advice.

And what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t pander to what the people want?

Answer: The kind of blogger that gets no hits. And I am prideful and terrible, so here I am, PANDERING!

Thus, I present to you: So You Want to Date a Pastor?

Early Days

Look at you, you’ve spotted a single pastor and you’re enamored. He or she is so cute with her or his reading glasses, nevermind that you can’t even pronounce the name of the author she’s reading (for your information, here’s a helpful guide from my friends over at Profligate Grace:)

Some helpful suggestions for these early days:

Don’t show up at Church unannounced. This may seem romantic in your brain, but if you show up out of the blue, a number of things could happen:

  1. S/he notices you while s/he’s preaching and it totally throws him/her off. Now s/he hates you and is embarrassed. Relationship over.
  2. In the case of a small congregation, you have now prematurely announced your presence and the rumors will never end. NEVER END, I tell you.
  3. In the case of nearly any congregation, you (especially if you are young and fresh-faced) will be bombarded with questions about who you are… and you don’t want to have to look a bunch of little old ladies in the eye and say, “I’m trying to impress and woo your pastor.”

Don’t swing by the parsonage or leave flowers or love notes at the door. That house belongs to the church, wo/man. The chances of your pastor-crush finding those things or being home when you stop by are probably a lot lower than a member of the Property Committee being there.  You don’t want that, trust me.

Do plan for all G-rated dates. Oh, now I’m sure you’re a very upstanding gentleman/lady, but just don’t plan on heading down to the local bar and grinding the night away. If your pastor friend is interested in this, be alarmed. S/he may not be a pastor for much longer. A pastor lives pretty centrally in the plot from Footloose. Go to the next town over, or better yet, just have a picnic and ice cream and call it a night (she said unrealistically).

Source: reactiongifs

Once You’re “Official”

Hey gal/fella, you’re officially in a relationship with a pastor! Congrats.

Welcome to the Fishbowl. Everything that you do now is closely monitored by your beloved’s congregation. Getting a lot of Facebook friend requests from people older than you? That’s the Church for you. Getting a lot of winks and awkward conversations in the grocery store? You guessed it: Church folk.

Ah, Church folk. They love you! They wish you didn’t have that photo of yourself holding a Bud Light on your Facebook… and they surely think your plans for full tattoo sleeves that you tweeted about aren’t great…. but if their pastor likes you, you must be okay!

You now have a lot of future in-laws. Depending on the size of your sweetie’s congregation, you have acquired at least a few dozen new grandmothers and overprotective dads looking over your shoulder.  Also teenage children, if the church has a youth group.  Expect a lot of advice.  Expect a lot of probing questions.  Expect a lot of pressure to pop the question– I don’t care if you’ve only been dating for a month. (I should pause to note here that with the exception of someone leaving a love note and a Property Committee member finding it, all of these examples are true life things that have happened to pastor friends of mine.)

And, oh, the desserts. Hallelujah, the desserts roll in like manna! You find yourself blessing the names of Saints Ethel and Marna for their coconut cakes and fat peanut butter brownies. Ah, Church folk, indeed. You may find yourself wanting to become a pastor yourself, because life with the old ladies is the best life.  They’re even keeping you on the straight and narrow with your Bible study! I’m telling you, #bestlife.

Source: reactiongifs

As Time Goes On

You’re such a good sport. You’ve gotten used to being up at 6 am on Sundays to calm your honey’s nerves before s/he preaches. You’re even used to Saturday nights being school nights. I bet you’ve even checked out Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Disicpleship from the library and got to page 2 before closing it and googling the major points (just remember: cheap grace, bad; costly grace, good). Good for you, bro/sis!

If you just want to keep dating, that’s cool. The cake and brownies will slow down, though, most likely in an effort to lure you into getting engaged. But at least this way you can postpone that inevitable awkward conversation of,  “Is the whole congregation coming to the wedding?”

If you pop the question, the entire town will freak. out.  There may be a parade.  Finally, that poor young pastor no longer has to live in that drafty old huge parsonage alone. Glory! Glory! Wedding planning will begin instantly. All of your ideas are immediately thrown out. Just kidding. But really, it’s happening here in this church not taking no for an answer, k?

If you break up, you must move. Simple as that.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Get out of there. There’s nothing left for you here. Suddenly the kind ladies who gave you free haircuts are all booked up. The gentlemen who loved having you as a fourth for golf all have suspicious back injuries and won’t need you to play with them anymore. As for your former love, hopefully s/he won’t deny you Eucharist if you come back to church there, but it’s in our blood as Methodists to do so (search: Hopkey).

Source: reactiongifs

So there you have it, ladies and gents out there who have your eye on a special clergy. I hope this has been helpful, and that you take it for what it is: joking. Seriously, there’s nothing scary about us men and women of the cloth. We just come with a few extra guardians. Nothing great is ever easy, right? That’s how I’m choosing to look at it (she said, single-ly).

Source: reactiongifs

Top 10: Dating Tips for Pastors

What follows are REAL LIFE examples of the dating hazards that accompany being a single pastor. Please, learn from my and my friends’ mistakes, misguided ideas, and embarrassments.

Disclaimer: I am not at all ashamed of being a pastor. What follows include a lot of efforts to hide being a pastor from potential mates, but this is mostly just because, in my and my friends’ experience, guys tend to run screaming from a girl who is a pastor. I suppose this may be true for male pastors, as well. In any case, I do ultimately advocate being up-front and honest about the wonderful calling God’s placed on your single little life.

10. The Bar Crawl
Pros: It’s loud in bars! Maybe they’ll think you said, “Blaster” or “Finisher,” instead of “pastor” or “minister,” and they’ll think you’re some sort of awesome NASA asteroid destroyer who saves the planet on the regular.

Cons: Get one beer in your tummy and you’re probably going to start arguing the morality of Bonhoeffer’s writing Ethics while plotting to kill Hitler. And let me tell you, that is the exact opposite of sexy.

9. The Dog Park
Pros: You can distract them with your adorable puppy instead of focusing on that pesky question, “So what do you do?”

Cons: The most optimal time for young singles to be at the dog park is during their lunch break or on Sunday afternoon, when you’re probably still wearing your clerical collar and/or your church name tag. Kind of a giveaway.

8. The Misdirect
Pros: Telling someone “I work at a nonprofit” isn’t technically a lie.

Cons: It’s totally not the truth. And they will find out eventually. Like when you’re constantly at work on Sunday morning and Wednesday night.

7. The Coffee Shop
Pros: You’re sitting in a comfy chair reading– which technically counts as working since ministry is at least partially a life of the mind: Score 10 points!– and a cute guy/girl (whatever applies to you, dear reader) walks up: “What are you reading?” Look at you! Conversation started! Score 400 points– you get a pizza party for dinner and ice cream for dessert!

Cons: You’re totally reading Barth. Or worse, Yoder. There’s no explaining that one in an “I’m open to dating” sort of way.

6. The Bible Study
Pros: You know that the people there are Jesus junkies, just like you.
You know that they know you’re a pastor, if not because they go to your church then hopefully because you can speak with some level of articulateness on this Jesus stuff.
You know that they are down with Church life, because otherwise why would they be at church on a Sunday night?

Cons: The cons here come in two dangerous territories:
1) The Bible study is at your church. DANGER DANGER! No parishioner dating! Stop it! Go read your Bible (NOT Song of Songs), take several cold showers, and then never go back to that place again.
2) The Bible study is at some other church. Uh oh. What if he/she’s secretly a conservative? Or worse, Calvinist? Run away!

5. The Clergy Meeting
Pros: You’re sitting in a clergy meeting and, what the what?! Someone your age! And they’re cute! And they’re smiling at you!

Find yourself daydreaming about the potential perfection of it all: You’ll hold a charge together, with the wife as the senior pastor because you’re one of those progressive, pro-feminist couples. You’ll raise perfectly liturgical children who beg you to read them Rowan Williams before bed. And you’ll never fight because your pastor marriage will be the picture of Christian charity.

Cons: Shut up, you’re an idiot. Look away.

4. The Sports League
Pros: Joining the local ultimate frisbee group is a great way to get in shape and meet new folks. You get to run around, frolic in the sun, and probably see a lot of guys with their shirts off/girls in short shorts (I’m trying really hard to be male-pastor-friendly in this blog, but it’s difficult. Listen, if I knew what guys were interested in, I probably still wouldn’t be single. #truefact).

Cons: You actually have to be athletic/good at sports. The sport I’m best at is juggling…. hospital visits. Juggling hospital visits.

3. The Wedding
Pros: You’ve just officiated at a wedding and now, hey! You’re invited to the reception! Who’s at wedding receptions? Young people, generally. Get in there, girl/fella! Find yourself a cutie!

Cons: They just saw you up front officiating a wedding. You’re more likely to get asked to officiate their wedding than to go out with them. This is a true story that has happened to more than one of my friends. It’s a sad life, guys.

2. Online Dating
Pros: You can be up-front on the “Career” section, or you can do the Misdirect (see #8). In an effort to be accessible, you can mention all your non-church interests, like………….. um? Okay, just go with the generic stuff: “Movies, hangin’ with friends, traveling.” You can even filter your matches to find a nice Methodist boy/girl. Note: Don’t lead with, “So you’re definitely Arminian, right?”

Cons: Having to tell your congregation that you met your new beau online.

1. The Set-Up
Pros: This highly seductive method, wherein you let the old ladies in your church set you up with their grandchildren, HAS NO PROS. DON’T DO IT. DON’T.

Cons: Everything. You will only hurt the old lady’s feelings when the first date goes sour after you realize that the reason the grandchild is single is because he’s a comic book geek, closeted, or a fratty play-boy.

So there you have it, ladies and gents. Dating as a Pastor.  I suggest just going ahead and buying a single cemetery plot and adopting three cats now. Cheers!

On Being a Fully Functioning Adult

One of my favorite jokes these days has to do with being a fully functioning adult.

The other day I tweeted, “I just ate mint chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.” And when the nurse at the doctor’s office asked me if I had taken my temperature at home, I responded, “No, ma’am. Because I don’t own a thermometer. BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.”

People laugh, and they commiserate, because they too were once young and stupid. Which I fully admit that I am– young and stupid, that is. Do I have the resources to go out and get a dang thermometer? Absolutely. There is literally a CVS within walking distance of my house. So why don’t I walk my buns of steel down there and get one?

(All together now!) BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.

Source: gifsfln.tumblr.com

However, every now and then things happen and I think, “Oh my gosh…. are you being a fully functioning adult right now?”

I took my dog to get spayed and microchipped the other day. ADULTHOOD.
This morning, I emailed the guy who’s doing my taxes an itemized list of my utilities for the year 2012. ADULTHOOD.
Last night, my neighbor came over and asked to borrow something that I ACTUALLY HAD in my fridge! ADULTHOOD!

Source: cardigansandsweatpants.blogspot.com

Now. You may be sitting there reading this and thinking, because you are a member of my family or a particularly worry-prone friend, “Oh, Erin. This is not the sort of thing to blog about.” Or perhaps, “Get it together, oh my gosh…” Or maybe even, “I WILL PURCHASE AND MAIL YOU A THERMOMETER, GOOD GRIEF.”

You guys. Thanks. But you needn’t worry.  This is going somewhere.

When I went to college, I was sixteen years old. I was the runt, the baby, the one who couldn’t go into other dorms or hang out at Waffle House all hours of the night because I had a curfew. It was awesome, and I would’t trade those years for all the puppies and rainbows in the world, but it was also a little embarrassing.
And when I went to seminary, I was twenty. I couldn’t have a beer in the pubs with my friends. I was the baby, the child. And my friends were wonderful about it, and never treated me differently besides a young joke every now and then, but there was always an underlying understanding, I think just in my own head, that I was the pipsqueak. The tagalong. The kid sister forced upon exasperated older siblings, who wasn’t really supposed to be there.

When I walked across the stage at my Annual Conference to get commissioned as a United Methodist Elder, no one said, “We now present, at the tender age of 23, Erin Beall.”  No one said, “And now our youngest candidate for commissioning, Erin Beall!” There were no jokes about how one so young could be called an “Elder” (be sure, I had steeled myself for them).

My mother sat in the crowd and smiled at me in a collegial, friendly way, not in a “Dear toddler daughter, stand up straight and don’t twirl your hair” kind of way. My friends stood for me as the bishop put his hands on me.  I grinned from ear to ear and wasn’t even concerned that I looked like a child in a candy shop– no, I was told later by a dear sweet friend, I looked like joy.

Yesterday at church, a parishioner came up to me offering some very sound advice on a change in worship. He didn’t say, “Could you tell the guy in charge?” or “I know you’re just a baby, can you point me to whom I should talk to about this?” or “You know, when you’re a real pastor, you should think about doing it this way.”

And last week a woman three or so times my age called me “Pastor.”

And in my Disciple class the girls revealed to me (I’m very bad at guessing ages, so this was truly a shock), that while I thought they were all in their mid-20s, really they’re all about 7-20 years older than I.  But they’ve never treated me like a child. They treat me like I have wisdom, something to offer, something that matters.

And finally, in one of my most memorable moments from my ministry so far (that was a lot of m’s), when I was set to preach at the 7pm Ash Wednesday service, I thought the kids from my Wednesday night eleventh grade small group would just cancel the small group.  Instead, as I stepped up into the pulpit, I gazed up and there they were, all of them, spanning across the whole front row of the balcony.  They told me later that they waved and smiled, but I couldn’t look at them for fear I might cry.
And after the service, they all but attacked me in the hall. Big giant boys who fish and hunt leaning down to hug me around the neck, telling me what the service meant to them, asking me questions about the ashes (“OMG wait, are they dead people’s ashes?!”). Beautiful, fashionable-to-a-tee girls telling me how much it meant to have me impose the ashes on their flawless foreheads. They stopped a younger kid and asked to take a big, goofy group photo with me. I don’t know how I held my tears until I got in the car.

For the first time in eight years, I’m not the runt, the kid, the one who somehow sneaked into college early and somehow sneaked her way into Duke and has now sneaked her way into this job.

I’m actually starting to believe, thanks to these people– by seeing myself though their beautiful eyes– that I was never the runt, that I was always exactly where God always meant for me to be, and that, somehow, it’s okay if I’m not a “fully functioning adult,” because I’m functioning enough for God to be at work in me. And if it’s good enough to touch the hearts of a dozen eleventh graders, four women in my Disciple class, and that man who treated me like a real pastor, it’s good enough for me.

Source: girls-gone-geek.com

Hyperbole: A Post with the Phrase “Rage Burrito” in It

My mother sometimes gets mad (in a loving sort of way) at me for speaking in hyperbole, which I often do when it comes to my feelings on things.
“THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE,” I shout down the phone line when recounting how I got a free cookie from the cute sandwich artist at Subway.
Or, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and I feel like death wrapped in a rage burrito,” I’ll say when talking about plans falling through or having a stomach bug.

“Erin,” my mother once said gently, “if you say EVERY day is the best day or EVERY thing is the worst thing then when it actually IS the best day or the worst thing, it won’t mean as much!”

I get that. I do. But, dear mother, we shall have to agree to disagree.

 

Why so serious? My cousin and I playing serious at Christmas.

Why so serious? My dear cousin and me playing serious at Christmas.

When I was younger, though not much, I suffered from a great deal of anxiety and a fair bit of depression.  Oh, it’s okay, I feel much better now; don’t panic. But I awoke every day with a pretty paralyzing sense of dread and fear.  Everything seemed insurmountably difficult. Every activity, from things as simple as finding parking spaces downtown to filling out my FAFSA forms, seemed like an Olympic marathon for which I had not trained.  Everything that went the tiniest bit wrong was a catastrophe, the end of the world, and I was going to die, or worse, from it. (Note: I didn’t even know what “worse” could be, but there was a category for it in my mind, so my funny little mind made its come in that category!)

When you come from a head-space like that into a new, brighter one, it teaches you the meaning of being born again.

I have never experienced anything quite like the slow yet surprisingly easy transition from darkness to light.  It was very like emerging from a cave and blinking at the bright sun, trying to remember what color is and how to see.  I tripped along on feet that had long been shackled, but I was free– and it felt like new life.

 

So it would be easy and very cliche to say that I now enjoy every day, live life to the fullest, and see the positive at every moment. But that’s idealistic, and stupid, and impossible.

You can’t enjoy every day. No one can.  I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t. I don’t think when He was on the cross He was thinking, “Now how shall I find the enjoyment of this moment?”  I still have flashes of panic, days where the dark reaches its scritchy little hands out to beckon me back into the cave.  There are days that jut suck in all of our lives.

My new life tells me this: Acknowledge the suck.  Acknowledge your feelings– even the bad ones. Hell, especially the bad ones.

If something feels awful, say that it’s awful. Lie on the floor and moan. You’ll feel better, or at least you’ll have gotten it out into the atmosphere and no longer just in your head (your head is typically your worst enemy).
If something feels like the best thing you’ve ever felt, say it. Do a dance alone in your living room. Who cares?
Let your body speak what your mind and heart are spitting out.
Be hyperbolic, be inexact, be over-the-top.

I really envy three-year-olds for this sort of thing.
A three year old falls down: THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF HIS LIFE.
He eats a really delicious chicken nugget: BEST DINNER EVER, BEST MOM EVER, BEST DAY EVER.
And they don’t just think this, or make a mental note to write it in their journal or blog that night.  No, they shout it. They run around. They scream and cry. Everyone should know! Everyone should be in on this! Get a load of how much I’m bleeding! Look at these chicken nuggets!!

There’s an old Avett Brothers song that says, “I’m broken-hearted, and I think the world should all be broken-hearted, too.”

 

Christ said He came to give us life, and life abundant.  Life abundant is not a life trapped inside your head.  Life abundant is not a life where we accept the mediocre, and it most CERTAINLY is not a life where we see and experience AMAZING things like sunrises and getting a new pair of shoes and listening to a child pray… and call those things “pretty cool,” “okay,” or “fine.”  It is not a life where we see and experience terrible, heart-wrenching, gut-churning, life-ruining, or even just bum-out-ing things from school shootings to cutting your fingernails down to the quick and then trying to type a long blog post… and call those things “pretty rough,” “doing okay,” or “fine.”

You have been given this life to live abundantly. Why hold it in? God’s not going to run out of wonderful things or start withholding them from you if you acknowledge their wonderfulness too much.  And God’s not going to applaud you for holding your pain inside, forcing a smile, toughing it out. Those are American cultural values, not the values of Christ, who screamed in anguish from the cross that the God of whom He was a part had abandoned Him.

So when things suck, scream. Cry. Kick. Shout. Lie around. Moan. Don’t put on pants or makeup for days. Eat ice cream and order in Chinese. And pray. Shout to God all your sorrows.  Don’t worry about sounding like a 3-year-old. God likes little children, remember? Tell everyone at Church. Because the Church is the place where everyone carries a piece of the burden until it’s not so heavy anymore. (….And church ladies make really good banana pudding, which is good for heart-healing.)

And when things are wonderful, or even just sort of cool, grin! Sing. Dance. Whistle. Call your friends and shout about it. Because the Church is the sort of place where people share one another’s joys.

By conventional terms, no, this is probably not the quantifiable, measurable best day of your life. But yours is a life given to you to be lived abundantly.  And God is with you. So it is the best day. It really, really is.

Really.

Really. Really.

Identity: Why That Voice in Your Head Is an Idiot

I am a fidgeter.

Well, let’s use a verb, not a noun: I fidget.
(When I die, I don’t think they’ll write “Here lies Erin, a Fidgeter” on my tombstone, so let’s stick with verbs, not identifiers.)

I like to be doing something with my hands at all times. I think this is why I like knitting. It’s mindless, if you want it to be, so you can do it while talking on the phone, while watching TV. Once I actually knitted in a movie theater. Yeah, I’m that cool. Don’t be intimidated.

When I had long hair, I twirled it. Now that I have short hair, I still twirl it, and end up with little unicorn horns sticking out all over the place. It’s attractive. In the sense of not being attractive at all.

I also like to doodle. This is the most socially acceptable form of fidgeting, I suppose, although sometimes people think you’re being rude. I once had a professor who put, “No doodling during lectures,” on the syllabus right behind, “No surfing the internet” and “No gum-chewing.” This, I thought, was a bit extreme. And I doodled a lot during her lectures in protest.

 

I always tell myself, and the people who give me dirty or inquisitive looks, that I fidget during lectures and concerts and things so that my brain can concentrate better.
If I can’t fidget, my mind will wander. If I allow myself to fidget, though, all my brain’s wandering power is concentrated on the doodle, or the knitting, so the rest of it can enjoy the concert or lecture or whatever.

I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to be.  Or at least it makes a nice excuse.

 

Why am I telling you this?

Oh, right.

 

Once I brought some knitting to a hymn-sing at the church where I’m working. I pulled it out of my purse casually… and then I panicked: Oh dear. Is this appropriate? YOU’RE BEING SO INAPPROPRIATE. How can I put this away now without being awkward? Are people staring? Do I look pretentious, like, “Ohhhh look at me! I’m knitting! Everyone pay attention to me!” Oh no oh no oh no.

It was a dramatic moment inside my head.

My fellow pastor Barbara sat down next to me to enjoy the concert.  I leaned over and whispered, somewhat frantically, “Does it make me a bad pastor that I’m knitting during this?”

Barbara’s response was BEAUTIFUL.

She looked at me– in the kindest way possible– like I was an idiot and said matter-of-factly, “No, it just makes you a pastor who’s knitting during this.”

 

….RIGHT?!

 

“Does this make me a bad pastor?”

I am constantly asking myself that question.

Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worshiping when I’m leading worship?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t prepare totally for Disciple and then have to scramble on the day-of?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I’d rather go play with the kiddos on the preschool playground than answer my emails?

No.

None of this has any bearing on whether or not I’m a good pastor, or a good person. It makes me a pastor… who sometimes doesn’t feel like she’s worshiping, and who gets behind on Disciple, and who like kids better than a computer screen. JUST LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE.

This is one of the hardest lessons of life, and if I learn it by the time I die, I’ll have achieved Nirvana. Or the Christian version of Nirvana. Which is probably the ability to make the perfect sweet potato casserole. (You do know I’m joking, right? Okay, good.)

What you do affects you. But it doesn’t define you. Just because I accidentally stepped on my dog’s foot at the park yesterday doesn’t make me an abusive dog owner. It makes me someone who makes mistakes. Just because I deliver one stinker of a sermon doesn’t make me a bad preacher, it makes me someone who had an off day.
They will not write on my tombstone: “Here Lies Erin, a Dog-Foot-Stepper-Onner,” or, “Here Lies Erin, the Worst Preacher in North Carolina.”
It’s a hate crime against yourself when you let your mistakes become your identity. It’s an act of violence. It’s identity theft (you knew I had to make that joke, there, it’s over with).

 

Friends, hear the Good News of the Gospel:
That mistake you made yesterday, it doesn’t define you.

 

Just because you sin, it doesn’t make you damned, or evil, or forever “a sinner.” It just makes you someone who made a mistake. It doesn’t negate your identity as Christ’s beloved.

 

Never let someone’s words– not your friends’, not your boss’s, not your parents’, and especially not the ones coming from your own mind– convince you that you are anything other than the beloved of God. A beautiful being. One who was created for such a time as this. One who makes God laugh and smile and weep and die to save you from yourself.

You are nothing else. Thanks be to God!

Where the Abbey Meets the Sanctuary: A Call to Authentic Worship Among Clergy

It’s 3 am and my alarm is going off.  Well, it’s not my alarm; I guess it’s a monk’s alarm.  I am in the tiniest, lumpiest twin bed ever built.  Mary and baby Jesus scowl and throw what could be misconstrued as gang signs down at me from a painting above my bed.  I click the lamp on to illuminate a room no bigger than a closet, containing only a desk, a chair, a night table, a wardrobe, and this bed. I want to be charmed, but it’s too early.

Ten minutes, a teeth-brushing, and a dusting of makeup (I can’t help it; even non-judgmental, celibate monks don’t deserve to see under-eye circles that dark) later, I’m following the halo of light created by my dim flashlight down a crumbling concrete drive.  I wander across a wooden footbridge, wind through a cluster of weeping yaupons and oaks, duck under some low-hanging Spanish moss, and emerge in the dark shadow of a beautiful chapel, lit from within by only a few candles.

The entrance to the chapel contains a large book which, I will discover later, is open to a page containing a single quote from Thomas Merton:

“Let there always be quiet, dark churches
in which people can take refuge…
Houses of God, filled with His silent presence.
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least
they can be still and breathe easily.”

I curse the clacking of my hard-soled shoes and tiptoe to the stall to which Brother Paul directs me.  I am surrounded by the monks, looking half-asleep and swaying ever so slightly in their own stalls (these are seats, separated by wooden panels, which fold up and down to let you stand and sit alternately during worship).

The monks begin to pray, to sing, to chant.  Sometimes an individual reads Scripture or a quote from Chrysostom or Benedict, but largely they chant the Psalms back and forth to one another, accompanied by an acoustic guitar played most often by Brother Theophilus.

I am, I’m afraid, utterly lost.  There are a number of open prayer, Psalm, and song books open in front of me, obviously set there in anticipation of a visitor such as myself, but I search in vain to find which one we’re praying, chanting, or singing from.  Brother Paul, serene and kind with a ring of white hair around his largely bald head, hands clasped calmly behind his back, glides over to me.  He turns a page in my book and points to the correct line.  I smile gratefully at him, but he has already turned back to return to his stall.

***

I left Mepkin Abbey with the strange idea that this is how worship should be: A group of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of God praying and singing together. I am blessed that they allow visitors and that Br Paul was willing to help me (for over the course of my stay I continued to need near-constant help).

But what I got out of that experience was this: If no visitors were there, worship would still happen.

It’s sort of like a tree falling in a forest: If no one is there to see the monks pray, do the monks still pray? Yes, because they have given their lives to the worship of God.  This morning, January 22nd, at 3:20 AM, the monks scurried from their beds through the cold night air and gathered in the chapel to pray, chant, and sing.
There may have been other worshipers there and there may not have been.
The monks continue in their worship all the same.

Sometimes I lament the great importance we put on the number of people in worship.
Sometimes I lament the great disparity in our worship between the percentage of words spoken directed at human beings and the percentage of words spoken that are directed at God.
We as clergy spend so much time greeting the congregation, making announcements, pronouncing forgiveness of sins, announcing hymns, and giving stage directions on when to stand, sit, turn and greet one another, etc.
And don’t even get me started on preaching: It could be argued that, in the sermon, the greatest chunk of the service (and the one to which most churchgoers ascribe the highest value) has nothing much to do with worshiping God, but only with one human being talking to other human beings about God.  …which is good, but is it worship?  Perhaps, but… perhaps not directly.

When people talk about the old Catholic churches where the cleric speaks in Latin and faces away from the congregation, they often do so disparagingly.  “That’s so terrible and uninviting,” they say.  Perhaps.  But perhaps it is authentic.  The priest is there to worship and serve the Lord.  Why should he trifle with the people? Oh,

well, because we as clergy are not just tasked with worshiping God but also with teaching people to worship God.  We teach people how to worship, guide people in worshiping, and invite people to participate more and more fully in worship.

I think the best way to do this, though, is not through more words: It’s not giving more directions and announcements and clearer transitions and written explanations.  Those can be helpful, but those are not the most effective way of either teaching people to worship, or worshiping!

The best way to teach, guide, and invite to worship is to model worship.

When Brother Paul came over to help me find my place, that was all the invitation I needed. I was there to worship God.  I was there to experience the worship of monks and to participate in it.  I watched them and I was captivated by their devotion, their authenticity, their earnestness, and their faithfulness.  Every morning, there they were, yawning but present.

The oldest monk is in his late 90s, and he powers along on his rolling walker– he made it to all but one service in the time I was there (did I mention they have 7 service daily?).  He stood for everything that called for standing.  He helped lead Eucharist mass.  He sang every song loudly and with his voice shaking but strong.

***

What if we, as clergy, could teach by example more than by verbage? What if we could show, by our own devotion, authenticity, earnestness, and faithfulness, what worship can and ought to look like?  What if we could find a way, by modeling our own passion for worship, that we’re glad our congregation showed up– however large or small the numbers may be– but that they’re not the reason we’re there? That we’re there to worship God.  That they’re welcome to join, and we’ll help them as much as we can, but ultimately it’s not about them, or us, but about God?

What if we could find a way to tell our congregations, golly, we’re glad you’re here; but even if you weren’t, we would be doing this anyway, because we have been ordained (or commissioned, as the case may be!) to this work, to the work of worshiping God– and that means worshiping God ourselves…..?

What if?

A Confession and a Penitent Resolution Regarding Preaching the Epistles

I confessed to my supervisor today that I can’t stand preaching on the Epistles.  I’ve probably mentioned that here before, but it’s worth mentioning again because I hate it so much that it makes me feel bad.

Paul writing his epistles. Source: wikipedia

Paul Writing His Epistles. Source: wikipedia

My assigned texts for this Sunday includes Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship………….”

…YAWN.

So much of the New Testament has been so over-quoted as to be hackneyed at this point. I wish that, for every time someone quoted John 3:16, 1 Cor 13, or Romans 8, there was a requirement that they also throw in a good one from the Old Testament.

“Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” -Joshua 3.5
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14.14
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” -Malachi 3.6

But I think the real thing that bothers me about the Epistles is the style in which they’re written.  It’s the same reason I never can get into Proverbs, or Leviticus.  It’s so didactic.  “Listen while I talk to you.” “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s a lecture, instead of a Socratic-method seminar.  It’s a textbook instead of a novel.

***

Someone I confessed this to recently exclaimed sarcastically, “Ugh, you’re such a woman! You want poetry, don’t you?”

Yes, I do. Sorry about my vagina. (This same person also accused me of having a “vaginal theology.” My response: “I’m trying to be offended… but I’m sort of not.”)

***

Give me a Psalm, or a story.  Don’t command me to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, tell me a story about someone who did that and then let me imitate her.

The thing about poetry and storytelling is that it gives legs and feet to this amorphous blob of an abstract idea: Be transformed.
I could hear an hour-long speech on being transformed and leave going, “What’s for lunch?” But you put me in front of Les Miserables for two and half hours, and now I SEE transformation.
Jean Valjean is the ultimate example of someone being transformed.  Sinner to saint. Darkness to light.  Condemnation to salvation.  Hate to love.  Now I get it.  Now this idea has legs and feet and arms and hands and even a few snot bubbles and bad teeth but it’s beautiful because I can see it and touch it and sing the songs with Jean Valjean as he [SPOILER ALERT] commits his soul to God.

When I was in seminary, my preaching professor had us write a final paper on our theology of preaching. I had no idea what that meant, so I ended up writing a long metaphorical essay comparing preaching to poetry.

Preaching, like poetry, I said, is that place where you take truth and you weave it in with beauty and discomfort and mystery and misery. And the music of it is heard better than a lecture, digests easier than a textbook, and breaks down walls more effectively than a bulldozer.

Preaching, like poetry, is that medium wherein commands will not fly.  A poet who is so obvious as to write something like “The moral of the story is, don’t sell your soul to the machine” will never get published.  Way too obvious. Where’s the mystery, the beauty, the twists and turns and ups and downs?

Similarly, every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit and given me an ultimatum has lost my trust.  You tell me “Don’t sin or you’re going to hell!” and I will probably walk out.  But you tell me a story of someone whose sins drove them into the bowels of hell– the streets of New York City, the bottom of a bottle, the suicide chatrooms online– and how God came through for them? That’s a commanding story.  That’s a story that will change my heart and transform my mind.

I think this is part of the meaning of the incarnation.  God could have handed down some more stone tablets.  Heck, God could have just wiped us out and started all over– clearly we weren’t listening.  But what God chose to do instead was to insert Jesus into human history, to make Him part of the story, to give Him a start, an end, with ups and downs and mystery and beauty and twists and turns.  The story of Jesus is a story indeed: Humble beginnings, persecution, prophetic voices, assassination plots, climactic murder, and triumphal resurrection.

God knew that a story would speak to us.  A story would give calloused hands and blistered feet and nail-impaled wrists and ankles to this vague idea that God loves us.

So, my fellow preachers, if you’re like me, when you encounter a text that is not enough story for you, put the hands and feet of Christ on it.  The story is there, bleeding… and shining with hope.

And if you’re not like me, and you encounter a text that is TOO MUCH story for you, see in the hungry Israelites, the murderous enemies, and the wayward disciples the hands and feet and face of Christ.  They’re there. Dig into the mystery, and the beauty will always find you.

Another Top 10: At the 4-Month Mark

It’s that time again… a time for a funny/embarrassing/surprisingly touching (maybe?) list of things that have happened to me in the first FOUR months of ministry! (Can you believe it’s been that long? Me either.)

10. I don’t know if you know this, but (surprise!) there was a presidential election that happened yesterday.  In conjunction with this historic event, I got to plan and help lead an election night communion service! Three observations: It was the bomb, I got to write a Great Thanksgiving, and I didn’t accidentally confess my political leanings!

9. After the election night communion, I went to dinner with a friend, went home, put on my PJ’s, and finally settled in to watch the results roll in… and then I realized that I forgot the leftover bread from communion.  I tweeted this:

And then this:

(follow me on twitter! @erinjbeall)

8. Our worship minister showed me all the secrets of worship planning this week: where the skeleton key to the altar cloth closet lives, the secret kitchen filled with secret frozen Hawaiian bread and secret grape juice, and how to turn on/navigate the sound system.  She said gravely, “So if I die, all this belongs to you.” I felt a little like Simba from The Lion King.

7. I was the liturgist at our All Hallow’s Eve service, one of the most meaningful services I’ve ever been to, despite the fact that our incense-smoker-thing (that’s the official term) didn’t make much smoke.  The smell was still pretty solid!

6. I finally got my heat turned on at my little house– which by the way my friend Lindsey says look like Miss Honey’s house from Matilda (**This post is brought to you by nostalgic movies from your childhood**)–  But not before I woke up one morning to the kitty delicately placing her very cold paw-pads on my neck, presumably to warm them up.  Also possibly to threaten death if I didn’t get the house warmed up.

5. I’m speaking at an event in Florida this weekend and I’m using my comedy background to relate improv to ministry.  I’m SO excited! Want to help me out with this? Comment and let me know one (or more!) of the following things:
a. A time when you’ve tried to get the congregation/staff to do something they really didn’t want to do.
b. A time when your congregation/staff tried to get you to do something you really didn’t want to do.
c. The funniest moment you’ve had in ministry.

4. I had to use some bleach cleaner in my house the other day, and all day afterward I kept catching whiffs of the bleach smell on my skin, and I actually got emotional because it smelled just like my old days at Duke when I’d go swimming in the morning and then smell the chlorine on my skin all day.  As a result of this teary, ridiculous nostalgia, I’ve decided to join the YMCA or YWCA regardless of money, ASAP.  I just want chemically-smelling skin, you guys.  Isn’t that worth like $40/mo?

3. I think I’ve been successful at weaning myself to a lower level of caffeine intake. I’m down from 4-7 cups per day to 1-3.  Go me!  Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be so impressed. I assume.

2. I’m still happily wearing my collar to work every day.  It is legitimately one of the great joys of this job for me!  I don’t often feel like a pastor, but when I put the shirt and collar on every day, I really do.  Also, it makes me feel freer to be myself, because I don’t always have to be asserting my authority or trying to make sure that people know I’m not just an intern, but a pastor.  The collar does all that (prideful, unnecessary) work for me.  It leaves me free to be whatever God is calling me to be at that moment, but I’ve always still got this little sign on saying, “Hey, if you need Jesus right now, I know the way.”

1. That being said, one of the other great joys of this job is taking the collar off at night.  And I’m still not sure how to navigate the line between the job and the down-time, the ministry and my faith (is there even a line there? I’m open to suggestions).  But I’ll tell ya… taking that collar off and putting on a nice, free-necked t-shirt or sweater is pretty swell.