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!

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!

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.

Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

Dear friends, can you believe it? Today marks six full months of ministry for me. While I am tempted to make a humorous list of the more bizarre things that have happened to me or bigger mistakes I’ve made, I thought instead six months deserved a bit more.  So I went back to the drawing board, or the writing journal, as it were, and I hope you will indulge me a reflective post.  I’ll offer you something humorous later in the week, I promise!

***

There are a great number of things about ministry for which I was very well-prepared: preaching, liturgy, hospital visitations, nursing homes, funerals, Bible studies, Sunday school, and charge conferences.  Seminary, as well as field and personal experiences, taught me just about everything I’ve needed to know so far about the typical weekly and occasional events of the Church and her life.  I know what Point A and Point B are, and I know how to get from one to the other and back.

What I was not prepared for was everything in between.

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

I was not prepared, for example, for the hum and drum of working life.

I was not prepared for the particular, abiding fear that comes with a job like ministry where you are constantly discerning and articulating your ever-changing “call,” and trying to either build a job description around that or muscle it into fitting the job description your ministry setting provides and/or needs.

I was not prepared for the constant self-evaluation and doubting that comes with a job in which personal relationships are 98% of what you do.  Though I am not the type to have social anxiety, I find myself panicking over every small interaction:

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

“Did I say ‘no’ with too much negative emphasis when they offered me wine at that Sunday School Christmas party?”

“Was I insensitive when that mother was telling me about her daughter’s disease and related bowel issues?”

“Did I laugh out loud when that man in Trader Joe’s looked at my clerical collar and said, ‘So you’re a nun, then?'”

I was not prepared for the elderly woman who told me in a matter-of-fact, almost chipper voice that she was ready to die and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.

I was not prepared for the battering loneliness– the daily barrage of never quite being a part of anything, because I consented, by pursuing ordination, to be set apart.

I find myself envious, many times, of those worker bees whose jobs are quantifiable, tangible, visible.  I envy my friend Claire who creates the bulletins for all our worship services– every week she knows what her tasks are and ever week there is something that she created that she can hold in her hands and be proud of. I was not prepared to feel so positively unmoored by not receiving constant feedback, syllabi, tasks, and results.

I was not prepared to enjoy the spotlight as much as I do. I have struggled mightily to recover any semblance of humility I may have once had– no one told me how hard that would be.

I was not prepared for the disappointment I felt when a baby was too sick to be baptized to be more disappointment that was not getting to do a baptism than disappointment that the baby was ill.  In short, here, I wasn’t prepared to have to fight so strongly against being a total, self-absorbed, emotional, envious, discontented jerk.

I was prepared for what I would be doing, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional,  psychological, relational, and physical effects of the HOW of doing it.

***

I wonder if my unmoored, bewildered, emotional feeling is kin at all to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  His prayers were so earnest, so devastatingly honest and terrible. He said to those whom He called friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He went back and forth, up and down– not this, Father. Your will, Father. Please no, Father.  Yes, Father.

He Qi, "Praying at Gethsemane."Source: http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/jesus_gethsemane-qi.jpg (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings... quite beautiful!)

He Qi, “Praying at Gethsemane”
Source: The Jesus Question (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings… quite beautiful!)

Answering the call, as I’ve said before, is the easy part.  Then you actually have to go and wander in the desert, or be nailed to a cross, or sit in an office and wonder if you’re doing this “adult” thing, or this “ministry” thing, or this “life” thing right at all.

***

So here’s what’s working for me to survive, even (hopefully) to flourish in all this.  If you’re feeling at all like I am, new clergy out there, or if you seminarians are feeling terrified by my honest account, follow these simple rules and you’ll be alright:

1. Read. Not just Scripture, although read a lot of that. Read memoirs, read blogs, read biographies and books of ancient letters.  These types of texts will allow you to inhabit the mind and soul of another person, which gives you perspective, and companionship, and camaraderie, and empathy.
My suggestions: Follow the hours or the daily office to get your fill of Scripture. Books: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Still, all three of Anne Lamott’s books of musings on life and faith, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (not her best work at all, but an honest and perspective-giving account of the pitfalls that haunt clergy) and above all else Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

2. Listen to music. New music. Old music. Listen to it in the office even if you have to put headphones on. Listen to the stuff you listened to in high school. Listen to the stuff the current high schoolers are listening to. Listen to Mumford and Sons, Bob Dylan, Esperanza Spalding, and Sinatra. Music lights the soul in a way nothing else can.

3. Limit your consumption of garbage.

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Source: United Methodist Memes

By this I mean junk: junk food, junk television, junk internet content, junk movies, junk phone calls with junk, gossipy friends.  Toss it out as much as you can.  I think it’s pretty true that you are what you eat, or watch, or say. So try to eat, watch, and say true and good things. (This, I’m still not good at. I just love pizza. And twitter. And the dang Sister Wives.)

***

So, at the end of 6 months, I’m coming around to the realization that being totally and completely uprooted, unmoored, and bewildered is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s not even the end of the world.  It’s an invitation to engage with a deeper kind of reality, the kind where Merton is more soul-soothing than a good Duck Dynasty marathon.

It’s an invitation to live.

***

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

On We Go: In Which I Compare Myself to a Hobbit and Ministry to a Dangerous Adventure

Well friends, here I am on the other side of yet another ministry milestone.  I’ve conducted my first solo funeral.  

I felt inadequate, and totally covered in the Spirit, and utterly ungraceful, and totally covered by grace, and desperately unprepared, and totally covered by the years of training and the springs and springs of Christian love that God somehow digs up out of my dusty, barren patch of a soul.

Source: imdb.com

Source: imdb.com

If you’re a facebook friend of mine, you may have seen that I recently noted that I’ve begun reading (for the first time) the Lord of the Rings series, starting, as per friends’ advice (demands?), with The Hobbit.  I guess I should clarify that I’m not reading them exactly; I’m listening to them on audiobook.  But it’s unabridged and it’s so I can work on my knitted Christmas presents while “reading.”  So I tell myself it counts.

I noted also on facebook that this book, though I’m only just about halfway through the first one, is already chock full of sermon illustrations.  I keep having to pause the audio (read by an old Englishman who is so English that he rrrrolls his R’s when he’s rrrreally into a good scene) to write down quotes.  Here’s just about the best one I’ve gotten so far:

Our little hobbit friend is fretting about having forgotten his hat and his pocket-handkerchief– whatever that is– when setting off on the epic adventure chronicled in the book.  In response, a dwarf (I think? Correct me if I’m wrong) says to him,

You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.

This is how I feel, very often, about starting out this journey in ministry.  Totally inadequate, as though I’ve forgotten something very essential, like wearing pants or brushing my teeth, before coming to this part of my life.

Obviously I was chosen for a reason, just as Gandalf chose Bilbo– although also like Bilbo I feel like much more trouble than I’m worth.  All this morning I keep popping into other clergy’s offices to ask, “Should I have the bagpiper play before or after I give the benediction?” and “When should I put my hand on the casket? Do I have to say the ashes to ashes part?”

I sometimes imagine that God is embarrassed of me when I just totally fumble around like a fool… like She’s up there groaning and moaning, “Get it together, girlfriend!”  I don’t think that’s accurate, though.  I think more likely She’s amused; “You goofball,” She says, clucking her tongue appreciatively.

Like Bilbo I keep stumbling around and getting lost and needing much help… and very occasionally thinking of something helpful to say or do but then getting self-conscious or flubbing it or just generally saying and doing the wrong thing.

But like Bilbo I carry on.  Because, like Bilbo, I often have this conversation with myself:

‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!

It’s the only thing to do.  And the further I go, the more I learn, and the more I’ve experienced and practiced, and the more I will have to offer God’s people.

But here’s hoping I don’t find a ring-like object anywhere along the way that so OBVIOUSLY brings with it mischief and possibly doom (….I really have very little idea what these books are about, but based on the snippets of the films I’ve seen it looks pretty mischievous and doom-y, and since every time Elijah Wood looks at the ring with his little hobbit eyes, he looks terrified, I imagine it’s mostly the ring’s fault).

 

 

… That being said, though, here’s a note for all you current seminarians out there:

Keep your notes from your worship/preaching classes about funerals in a well-labeled and accessible document.  Nothing like scrambling around and being ultimately unable to find them 24 hours before the service begins.

 

Hopes of a Hopeful Young Clergy Looking Out Toward the Rest of Her Ministry

I want to be a truth-teller.
I want to have honest lips
(for true love is truth-telling).

I want to be a God-revealer.
I want to have loving eyes
(like God’s).

I want to be a Christ-bearer.
I want to have open arms
(like Jesus’).

I want to be a hymn-singer.
I want to have a dancing tongue
(that I might praise my God).

I want to be a promise-keeper.
I want to have a strong spine
(so as not to let my sinful nature get the best of me).

I want to be a joy-bringer.
I want to have a broad and constant smile
(for the Gospel lives in broad smiles).

I want to be a heart-warmer.
I want to have warm palms
(to hold hearts in).

I want to be a peace-maker.
I want to have gentle knees and elbows
(that do not jerk or jab).

I want to be a Gospel-sharer.
I want to have calloused feet
(to persevere).

I want to be a LORD-lover
I want to have wide, wet eyelids
(wide in wonder, wet with love).

I want to be a sister-pastor.
I want to have soft forearms
(for woman and children to lean upon).

I want to be a prophet-weeper.
I want to have a leaking heart
(spilling love).

I want to be a burden-easer.
I want to have strong, broad shoulders
(to carry the load).

I want to be a silence-possesser.
I want to have large pores
(for the silence to seep in through).

I want to be a soul-healer.
I want to have deep lungs
(for bright, bellowing laughter)

I want to be a Spirit-vessel.
I want to have a wandering mind
(for the Spirit to stumble out of).

I want to be a hope-haver.
I want to have a crooked neck
(from permanently looking upward).

Perfectionism and Jesus: Idol versus God

“I think I’m a perfectionist.”

“No, you’re definitely not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Yes, I am.”

“Erin, you just got finished telling me how you made Hamburger Helper with vanilla-flavored almond milk because you didn’t have any regular-flavored milk in the house. A perfectionist would never have done that.”

Pause. “That’s stupid.  Also, I’m never coming back and I hate you.”

“That’s fair. Just let me say this before you righteously storm out: You’re not a perfectionist, but you hold yourself to a perfect standard.  And then when you don’t do things perfectly, you beat yourself up.”

Silence.  Then, “Fine. That doesn’t sound totally wrong.”

This conversation with a therapist when I was in grad school resonates, I imagine, with many of you, dear readers.  Of course, you’re probably much better people than I am, so you would never tell her you hated her, but that’s why you’re going to get a better seat in Heaven than I am– closer to the kettle corn, I’m sure.

I would like very much, I think, to be a perfectionist.  For everything to be just so, to get everywhere right on time and never accidentally miss a meeting or double-book myself or leave a wet load of laundry in the washer for two days and let it get all mildewy and awful.  I’m just not actively concerned about things being perfect.  I have this go-with-the-flow, Jesus-will-fix-it-if-I-screw-it-up way of thinking.

Which is good, I think.  Trusting, and all that.  People get themselves all worked up over things that they won’t remember a week from now, even a couple of days from now, much less eternally.  The number of panic-inducing daily things that have real eternal consequence is very, very small.

The problem with going with the flow is that the flow is often not going in a good direction.  If I go with the flow of, say, being too busy or tired or chill to worry about doing laundry, three entire weeks can go by before I realize I’m out of clean socks.  This is not great.  And then, as my therapist put it so gently, I beat myself up over it as I scramble to do 20 days’ worth of laundry in one night.
“Why can’t you just be a normal human and do a load when the laundry basket is full?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me, you forgot to buy more dryer sheets?! Aren’t you supposed to be graduate-school educated?!”
And the perennial classic:
“WHOA, how long have these clothes been sitting in the dryer? You’ve been looking for these pants for THREE WEEKS, you IDIOT!”

All this is probably just a part of growing accustomed to the normalcy of Life As an Adult (rather than Life As a Student, where you had to get your laundry out of the dryer or people would dump it out on the floor and hang your underwear up in the common room).

But here’s what I want to know:

What would it look like if we could stop being perfectionists about our faith?
…if we could stop beating ourselves up over not praying enough, not being Scripturally-literate enough, not doing enough service work?

(Because what does “enough” even look like?)

What if we could stop beating ourselves up over that which we have done and that which we have left undone?
…Doesn’t confession assure us of pardon?  “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Move on. Try again. You are now freed for joyful obedience, and all hints of past disobedience are forgotten.

What if we could live in the now and not in the three-minutes-ago?
…if we could stop dwelling on how we could have prayed better over the hospitalized woman, could have said something more theologically sound to the friend who asks why God allows babies to get cancer, could have been kinder to the man who kept talking and talking in Trader Joe’s about his spirituality because he saw me in my collar…?

Here’s the end of that conversation with my therapist:

“So how do I fix this problem, O Wise One?”

“Practice remembering this: You are not a malicious, bad, or stupid person.  Everything you did or didn’t do came out of a heart that is trying its best.  You did the best you could with what you had at that given time.

I do not know if this is what Jesus would say about a past mistake.
But, luckily, we know what He said to several people who had made grave mistakes:

“Go, and sin no more.”
“Your sins are forgiven.”
And my personal favorite,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Christ does not condemn you.  Therefore do not waste time condemning yourself, whether by perfectionism or by beating yourself up when you’re not perfect.  Neither do I condemn you, says the LORD.  Now, get up and walk!

Don’t Call Me Names: A Rant about Feminism, God, and the Southernism “Sweetie”

Listen, you guys. I know there’s big stuff going on.  The frankenstorm ate New Jersey, the election is so close that I think Wolf Blitzer’s head is going to pop off (or at least his beard will), and Advent is practically upon us so everyone in the Church world is under about as much pressure as Wolf’s neck veins.

But I am up in arms, and it has nothing to do with any of those things.

Here’s what happened.

On the way into a building for a clergy meeting the other day, I followed a middle-aged female pastor through the parking lot, since I didn’t know where I was going and she seemed to.  I had seen her before at some other clergy meetings and intended to speak to her as she kindly held a door for me.  But that’s when it happened.  She looked me up and down, frowned a tiny, slightly confused frown, and said, “Here you go, sweetie.”  Then she continued into the building and spoke to me no more.

Now.

I’ve been called sweetie most of my life, having grown up in the South.  It’s been used in lovely ways, like when my incredible, probably-more-awesome-than-yours dad texts me and says, “Hey sweetie, how’s your day going?”  And it’s been used in derogatory, pedantic ways, like when an older guy a few years ago at a church event clapped me on the back, looked down at me and said, “You’re a little Southern girl from a red state; you’re going to vote for McCain, right, sweetie?”

I expected that sort of thing, to some degree, from that man.  To him, it might or might not be fair to conclude, I was a child playing dress-up when I stepped into the pulpit.  To him, I probably went home and braided my hair into pigtails and painted my cat’s nails.  To him, I was not authoritative, or worthy of respect as clergy, because of my age and my gender.  And there will always be men like him. And I love him, because God loves him, and because he means no harm.

But I have never expected it from fellow female pastors.  Much less relatively young ones.  Women who have faced their fair share of funny looks as they stepped into the pulpit or a room full of male clergy in a dress.  Women who don’t have to imagine walking a day in my heels because they wear the same ones every day.

But here was this lady, telling me with her body language, her skeptical frown, and her use of the pedantic “Sweetie,” that I was not only not what she expected, but I was- perhaps- unacceptable, even unwelcome.
At the very least it told me that I was an oddity, the bearded lady at the circus—“Come see her for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, the elusive Young Adult! Never before seen in meetings like this one, come marvel at her blue jeans and funky scarf, her short hair and weird sandals, maybe even catch a glimpse of her playing Words with Friends in the back row!”

Now listen, I recognize that I cannot foist all of my grievances upon this woman’s one utterance and posture toward me—nor do I want to.  I do not believe in my heart of hearts that she intended any harm.   I recognize that maybe I reminded her of her daughter, and that therefore she meant “sweetie” in a familial, motherly way.  I recognize that it’s possible that she was just coming from a funeral of someone my age, and felt emotional seeing me, and “sweetie” tumbled out of her mouth without her ever realizing it.

I have no ill will for this woman.  I love her, because God loves her.
But the whole 3-second event brings up something in me, something feminist and young and indignant and loud.

I’m mad at the society that has given me every reason jump to the conclusion that this “sweetie” was an ugly one. I’m mad at the society that nods its head in agreement that I am the Bearded Lady and this is a circus.  I’m mad at the society that says that I am wasting my youth, that I would be better off spending my days at a high-powered high-rise job, zipping to the gym before and after work to get thinner so that I can meet and marry a hot guy and have babies and spend the rest of my life trying to have it all, a la Liz Lemon.

This society says that I shouldn’t wear my collar because it makes me less attractive.
It says I should put “I’ll tell you later” on my Match.com profile when it asks for my profession because no one wants to be a pastor’s husband, or worse, boyfriend.
It says that if I’m determined to stay in this job, I’d better get used to being an associate pastor because no church wants a female senior pastor and no man would consent to being a female’s associate.

To that, I say screw it.

In my delightful little 5-member, all-girl, tearjerker Disciple class this week, we read about the law God gave to Moses on the mountain to pass on to the people.  We read about how one of the goals of the law was to set the people apart.  We read about how God asked certain people to do certain things, like how the Levites were asked to consecrate themselves one way, and the Nazirites another way.

We read that the Israelites were called out, called up, to live a different kind of life than the Egyptians and all the other cultures around them, because they were chosen.  We read that God’s people should behave differently than the world tells them to.  God’s chosen people should have different values than the world tells us to have.  God’s beloved people, whom God calls with God’s own voice, are beholden to God, not to society.

So call me sweetie, I dare you.  Tell me I’m undesirable because of my profession and my attire and my haircut.  Tell me that I, because I am young and because I am female, am not cut out to be your pastor in a world where most leaders, CEOs, and senior pastors are male and older.
The fact remains true: I am a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is my beloved, and He finds me desirable even if you don’t.  If I am wasting my youth, then it is being wasted upon the altar, to God’s glory.  And if I never “have it all” like Murphy Brown tells me to, guess what?  I already have it all.  I know, this is all cheese right now, but hey, I’m just a woman so what did you expect? (#sarcasm)

I try more and more every day to pray as St Francis would pray, over and over all night:

“My God and my All.  My God and my All.  My God and my All.”

Amen.

Top 10 Things I’ve Learned in Month Two of Ministry

10. If you wear a clerical collar to McDonald’s, your service will suddenly get much better.

9. If you wear a clerical collar while driving a touch too fast by a police officer, he will likely not pull you over.

8. If you wear a clerical collar to Chick-Fil-A, it becomes a huge statement, and you must run away as soon as you remember that whole thing that’s going on with Chick-Fil-A. Go quickly, before a news story gets written about you!  (Exaggerated, but you get the point.)

7. Going to a RIOM (first year ministry) retreat will make you miss seminary so bad it gives you indigestion for days.

6. If your supervisor offers to help you practice before you celebrate communion for the first time, take him/her up on the offer, even though it will be awkward and embarrassing. It is invaluable to be able to ask all your stupid questions before you get up in front of the congregation and REALLY look stupid.

5. Anne Lamott was put on this earth by Jesus to be a balm to soothe pastors’ souls.  Go on Amazon now and buy every single one of her books and actually read them when you’re tired, or glad, or stressed, or bummed, or anything at all.  I am not joking.  This is potentially the very best thing you can ever do for yourself.

4. Answer your damn emails. Even if they’re scary. Like the ones about health insurance and Board of Ordained Ministry requirements. Just drink a Red Bull, put on some pump-it-up music, and do it.

3. No matter how poor you are, buy new music every week.  Count it in your mind as a Sanity Expense.  New music creates new people.

2. Your first experience celebrating the Eucharist will be the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to you.  It is likely that, like me, you will black out for most of it and panic that you skipped the entire middle of the Great Thanksgiving.  
You may also, like me, have such bad dry mouth by the end that, when you eat your little hunk of bread, it will get caught in your throat and you will hack “The–sdxckjvv– body of Ch–riasjfdojsgf–rist, brok–coughcough–en for you” to the first three people in line.  
And you may also, like me, feel for the first time like a Real Pastor as you carefully clean up the altar and tenderly care for the remaining elements.  It is AMAZING.

1. Complain not lest ye be complained about.  Seriously.  Get off your bitter horse.  This is the most amazing job in the world.  Maybe you don’t have the biggest church, or the nicest office, or the most gracious parishioners, or the most beautiful choir, or the most together altar guild, or the friendliest secretary, but you are a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And that is the coolest thing in the world.  Smile all day long.  I’m serious, smile all day long.  You can do it, I believe in you; if anxious old me can do it then so can you.  Praise God for this odd and wondrous calling.  And if/when you can’t praise God for it, your little smile will praise God for you.