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!

Wholly Living the Half-and-Half Life of a Pastor

Let’s be honest, being a pastor is probably the most contradictory career there is.

We are to be set apart, yet we’re thrust right in the center of Church activity,

We are to be different (modeling holiness, I suppose), yet relatable,

We are to be a calming, peaceful presence, yet the energetic hub and genesis of great new ideas and activities,

We are to be humble, yet stand in front of everyone and be charismatic and engaging for an hour every week (By the way, a seminary friend of mine, Austin, wrote a fabulous blog on pastors’ words, and the part about sermons is hugely salient– and convicting),

We are to be Christlike, yet human, and

We are to be human, yet superhuman (able to be in multiple places at once, capable of delivering off-the-cuff brilliance in prayers and advice, wise beyond ours years, etc).

Sometimes the contradictions can feel endless.

This is the part where I get uncomfortably real. If you’d like, please enjoy this picture of a kitten and skip this section.

It’s been such a challenge for me to get used to life in the world. I mean life outside of school, where I spent nearly two decades, certainly all of my sentient life until July 2012. Answering emails, planning projects, coordinating calendars.

Life as a student was so blissfully uniform: begin semester, go to class, write papers, study, take exams, end semester.  Repeat until graduation. It was also blissfully stringless— I didn’t have any eyes on me once I got into college. I was my own woman, beholden to no one but the registrar, green-lighted to succeed or fail at my own risk.

Out here, there are strings attached everywhere. I’m having such trouble, my dear readers, remembering when to pluck all those strings, remembering to send my tin-can messages down them, and to whom, and how often. If I want to change the Scripture text the week before I preach, I have to contact the musicians, the lay reader, the bulletin guru, the worship planners… Nothing happens in a vacuum.  There are so many people working together in this world, and not for an individual grade, but for a communal purpose… a Kingdom-sized and -shaped purpose.

I very often feel that I am failing quite massively. I wake up in cold sweats and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, so deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice. I feel half a person at almost all times: half a pastor when sitting in my office, wondering if what I’m planning on preaching is decent, and half a person when out having a beer with friends, wondering if this makes me a bad pastor on account of I’m not at home reading the Book of Common Prayer or something.

I have lived all my life feeling like a fairly whole person: A whole Christian (with slip-ups every now and then, but on the whole, whole), a whole student, a whole daughter, a whole girlfriend, a whole writer, a whole friend. Now, though, I am called to this contradictory life. This half-and-half life, where you’re supposed to be human and superhuman, quasi-divine and totally fallen, set apart and yet set right in the middle of everything… naked with all these eyes and ears on me and my stupid, childish words that, in my anxious mind, never get delivered right and never live up to what I had hoped to offer to God and God’s people.

I’m never sure that I’m doing what I’m “supposed to” be doing, that I’m saying what I’m “supposed to” be saying, that I’m going around town or enjoying time at home in the way that I’m “supposed to” be going around town or enjoying time at home.

Eugene Peterson says of the pastoral life,

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

“[G]iven the loss of cultural and ecclesiastical consensus on how to live this [pastors’] life, none of us is sure of what we are doing much of the time, only maybe.”*

He then goes on to quote Faulkner, who described writing a book this way:

“It’s like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.”*

I don’t know quite what I expected

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Such a little lady

when I got into this racket; when I said to God, “OKAY FINE,” in the same way I said, “OKAY FINE” to my pup Olive when she nosed her brown eyes into mine at the rescue. I never wanted a puppy- I wanted a grown-up dog with all the training done and no potty-training issues. I never wanted this growing process when coming into the ministry; I wanted to come in with wispy gray hair that holds a thousand pieces of wisdom, and a knowledge of just exactly what to do.

I guess I knew that my life would no longer be that of a layperson, that I would have some level of eyes-on-me and new responsibility, in the same way that I knew my shoes would no longer necessarily be safe from chewing with a puppy in the house.

I guess what I was unprepared for was the drama, tears, and growing pains that come with the training process.

Both my training the dog and God’s training me.

When I dreamed of pastoral life, I dreamed of being a vessel, of speaking God’s truth even when it was hard, of sitting with dying people and helping them army-crawl under that picket fence to Heaven.

I didn’t dream of myself getting so damn in the way. I didn’t dream of having such a strong reaction to what people think of me. I didn’t dream of my self in this thing very much at all; I think I dreamed simply of God: that God would provide… and God is providing, but, and here’s the really honest part, I’m struggling to trust it.

So deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice, that I’m losing sight of how to do being alive well. How to do personal faith, trust, and obedience well. How to do self-care well. How to do friendships and kindness toward self and hot-tea-evenings on the porch with the dog well.

So, What to Do?

One thing that Eugene Peterson speaks of very early on in his book The Pastor is developing a strong sacred imagination. It is this, he intimates, that will keep you alive, keep you grounded, as the high winds rage and you’re surrounded by flying chicken wire and nails and boards and all manner of such deadly building blocks.

I wrote in a recent post that Jesus is one big contradiction… human and Divine, ever young and ever thirty-three, ever being born and ever dying, Judge and Lover, distant and near, unseeable and so clearly seen in so many ways…

So I guess it makes sense that the pastor, called to be as Christ to her congregation, would also be a contradiction. That this life would be one of halves: A life of “take this cup from me” and “I will go.” A life of  the quiet “Yes, Lord,” and also the gregarious “Good morning, folks!” A life of the mind and a life in the spotlight. Things that don’t go together, things that cancel each other out. A sacred imagination that can hold together the things that appear to be polar opposites, the things that can feel like they’re falling apart.

 

A Tiny Epilogue

Olive graduated to the  Advanced level of obedience class last weekend. This weekend she takes her first test toward becoming a therapy dog. She is also steering clear of shoes after being chastised severely for ruining my favorite Tevas.

I have begun getting my heart straight by seeing someone at the Methodist Counseling Center… something I suggest you all do, whether you think you’re nuts or you’re in denial about it ;)

I am also interviewing spiritual directors, after years of being counseled to get one. Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Maybe you should try…” Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Let’s think about this Christologically.” Someone to hear these thoughts, pray with me, and help me to “Go in peace.”

*Quotes from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to The Pastor.

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

On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

Holy Week as Gift

“it’s my first Holy Week as a pastor,” I find myself saying several times a day. My first Holy Week as a pastor, and I feel great.

When I was a kid, I don’t remember Holy Week meaning that much to me, except that we went to church a couple extra times and we had to go shopping for fancy, uncomfortable Easter dresses as Belk or Macy’s.
In seminary, though, it took on a different meaning. There are no classes on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Exams and papers and Hebrew worksheets and parsing all took a backseat as the community, together, gazed backward in time.

That’s what Holy Week is, right? The whole world of the faithful craning their necks around, allowing their chins to drop and their lips and fingers and frantic minds to stop moving for a little while– a little while as we witness, once again, something that could never happen, something fundamentally, physically, intrinsically impossible: the death of God.

We walk behind Him on the cloaks and palm branches, hoping our worship is as good as the children’s, and knowing it’s not. We press our ears to the door and listen as Jesus offers the disciples His body and blood at the Passover meal. We stand with Peter, wide-eyed and ducked-headed, watching the judgments roll down and hearing our denial roll out of our own mouths. We sit with Mother Mary, as she hears the news; we follow her anguished footsteps as she ascends Golgotha. We kneel with John, trying to support her weight as she collapses before her dying son, the dying Son.

Holy Week is the worst week of the year. It is a remembrance of the worst event in human history. It drains you, it causes you to weep, it nearly kills you, if you’re doing it right. And it is beautiful, and wonderful, and a time of great praise to the God who accomplished the impossible- not for His own satisfaction, but for ours.

Sometimes when I tell other pastors of my love for Holy Week, they give me a look like a fourth year PhD student gives a first-year… The look that says, “Oh innocent one, you are so naive. This thing will eat your life and you will come to hate it.”

Sometimes they even say it: “Enjoy it while you can; soon you’ll dread it.”

This, I think, has two possible effects on the impressionable young pastor who hears it:
1) They may becme discouraged. This is the legacy of many seasoned pastors, and I rebuke you for it. Do not discourage those whom God has encouraged. It is sin, it is evil, it is anathema.

2) It has the effect of making me feel very small, very embarrassed, very childish. Remember when you were a kid and you made those stilts out of old tin cans and string? You were only about 5 inches off the ground but you felt like a real stilt-walker, especially when you fell off and the fall was so far!

When you tell me, with your tone or your words, that my youthful idealism, my childlike naïveté, is silly, you make me feel like a kid on tin cans. You make me feel like a greek pledge who is being hazed. You make me feel, essentially, as though my calling was not to be me– for who I am is energetic and joyful and awestruck– but to be something else altogether, something that is killing the church– something jaded and gray and stuck on a hampster wheel.

For a church so often associated with ecstatic experiences and emotional witnesses, we Protestants sure have gotten stoic and dry, bland like white rice and toast. When did we become afraid to lift our palm branches high, to weep in the dark for hours after the Good Friday service has ended? How can we reclaim our roots– reclaim the emotion around Holy Week, the pain and the anguish that comes with watching God, the God whom we supposedly love, die? And, with that, reclaim the overwhelming thankfulness and joy that this God who, to the world, is supposedly still dead, is quite alive and quite in love with me and you?

Friends, go to Jerusalem with Him. Stand with Peter and sit with Mary; they are far better company, even in his betrayal and their grief, than the passionless onlookers today who would have you be as cold as they are. This Holy Week, choose not to be an onlooker but a participant, taking the time to prepare the tomb for Christ, for the Resurrection is fast approaching!

Thanks be to God!

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

A Day in the Life of a Pastor

Source: memebase

Source: memebase

Wake up at 4am, vaguely worried about something I can’t remember. Attribute it to the fact that the Board of Ordained Ministry is coming up…….. in two and a half years BUT STILL.

Call my father, ask him to talk me off my anxiety ledge.  He jokes with me about how all my problems will be solved when they elect me the new pope. We laugh. I feel better, am able to get out of bed, even take a shower! Plus 10 points!

Head to work! Pull out in front of another car and duck my head hoping my extra chins will hide my clerical collar, while holding up a hand in apology.

Stop in Panera, where a man waits respectfully for me to fully vacate the coffee bar area before he approaches it, as though I am one of those nuns who are so cloistered that if a man touches them, they get defrocked, or melt, or something.

Hear a snippet of a story on NPR about “home funerals” in which the speaker bemoans funeral homes as being clinical, sterile, and unwelcoming; thus, she says, the best option is to have a funeral at home.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Think for a while about the fact that church is no longer an option for many people, or even a category in their brains.
Consider crying.
Consider quitting ministry before the Church doesn’t even exist anymore.
Laugh at my silliness and lack of trust.
Get out of the car.

Joke with coworkers and realize I work with the best people in the world.

Read a long comment on a progressive blog which begins with a quote from a Casting Crowns song. Laugh, then nearly cry.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Begin a response to a friend on facebook RE: the “messianic secret” motif in Mark. Delete everything. Begin it again. Delete everything again. Give up. (Sorry, Brad!)

Source: reactiongifs

Have lunch with parishioners; struggle against revealing too much.  I just want to be best friends with everyone, but it turns out people don’t exactly want to know that their pastors break and bleed and suffer and sometimes lie on the sofa in sweatpants and wail. Or, conversely but still in the TMI realm, that we sometimes sing silly songs to our puppies about how they are a little bear dressed up in a puppy costume. Come on, that’s adorable.

Put on an additional cardigan because the world is freezing. Come and get me, boys; I look so irresistible in this clerical collar and multiple cardigans.  Ow ow, am I right?

Source: reactiongifs

Accidentally click a link to a terrible, terrible blog while googling translations of Ezekiel 16. (Seriously, don’t try this at home, kids. And especially not at work, like I was). Flush with embarrassment, and consider curling up and dying. Have to email our IT guy to apologize and explain. NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN INSIDE MY OWN HEAD.

Run into parishioners in the hallways and realize I love them more than I ever thought possible.

Source: reactiongifs

Call a friend. Spend a long time talking about the theological merit of a Christological view that really only takes into consideration the Passion.  Do we have to suffer to be like Christ? we ask. We (as liberal feminists who dislike pain) want to say no, but deep down we both think “maybe-probably-I dunno.”

Do my Disciple work. Realize I’ve forgotten everything I learned in seminary about the synoptic Gospels. Briefly consider just throwing the idea of “Q” at my Disciple ladies (that’s right, I have an all-girl group. YOU JEALOUS? You should be.) so they’ll spend all our time talking about that and think I’m smart. Realize this is the opposite of good Disciple-teaching.  And good person-being.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Walk the dog and call my mother. She says, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” We nearly cry together. I tell her she is one of the great lights of my life. We do cry together. So, you know, the usual.

Go to Disciple. Feel pastoral, pastorly, pastorish, and LIKE A PASTOR. Laugh to the point of crying.  Don’t even worry about being off topic, because if Jesus was present anywhere in my day, it’s here. Pray.

Watch some trashy reality television on the couch with the dog and cat. Consider reading my Bible. Fall asleep.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Lather, rinse, repeat.
Thank God.

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.