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.

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New Pastor Bingo

When you first become a pastor, you can’t help but keep track of all the firsts you’ve had, and the firsts you’ve yet to have. There are, of course, many things that are missing from this card, but we can jump off those bridges when we come to them. For now, I present to you, New Pastor Bingo!

(Without revealing too much about myself… suffice it to say that, on this card, I have Bingo multiple ways.)

bingo card 2What about you? Do you have bingo? What would you include on my next card?

 

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.

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.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

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.

 

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.

On Being a Loser

(Amazon.com)

A very wonderful colleague and friend named Claire here at my church in Charlotte recently lent me Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church.  It is a must-read, new clergy.  I can say without a doubt that it is absolutely brilliant, and I’m only on page 8.

It’s like reading a printout of those thoughts that pool at the base of your brain, those thoughts that you can never quite congeal in a digestible way but that you know are there…. Thoughts about your expectations for ministry, thoughts about your ability level and performance, thoughts about your capabilities, desires, and energy reserves.

Forgive me, new clergy, for outing you, but we are mostly a mix of anxiety, bewilderment, giddy excitement, and utter blankness.

This blankness is what concerns me the most.  The anxiety, bewilderment, and excitement make sense to me– we are in a foreign land.  Oh it’s a beautiful land, don’t hear me wrong; there is milk and honey aplenty.  But it’s foreign nonetheless.  I don’t believe the Israelites knew instantly how to cultivate the promised land, how to settle it in a prudent fashion, or how to establish their manner of living right off the bat.

But the blankness is something I’ve been struggling to find a Biblical basis for.

What do I mean by blankness?
I think I mean this wide-eyed, furrow-browed sense of wandering through the days that I share with some of my fellow new clergy.

We have a deep, abiding desire to be graded as we were in seminary, but this is not going to happen (and if it does, the most vocal graders will be those who are trying to fail you!).
So we are left holding empty internal report cards, unable to fit our performance into a category we can understand.

We have a deeper, abiding desire to succeed and do very, very well– not for our sake, but for the sake of God, the Church, our parishioners.  But there is always more to do, there is always something left undone– a longer visit with the widow in the hospital, a few more hours preparing that presentation to make it flow more smoothly, another phone call, email, or meeting with so very many people.
And we’re left with un-crossed-off to-do lists and the deep, resounding fear booming through our chests that there were about three dozen things we never even thought to put on the to-do list in the first place.

We have a yet even deeper, abiding desire to be in deep, meaningful communion with God, with friends, with discipleship partners.  But it is often very hard to find the time or the people to make these things happen, so we are left lulling ourselves to sleep with a quick prayer and the little voice rationalizing that “You need to sleep, God and your friends understand; maybe it’s even a form of worship, the fact that you’re taking care of God’s creation by letting your body sleep.”
And we wake up with deep chasms of guilt and great holes in our soul that leave us wondering if they can ever be repaired.

How can we fill God’s people when we’re not sure we can even fill ourselves?
How can we enrich God’s people when our own hearts and minds feel so funnily fuzzy and blank?

***

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on Matthew 10:39 in which Jesus utters that enigma that haunts both the living and the blank: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.”

Barbara writes,

In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live. (Leaving Church, xiii)

This, I think, is what the blankness is.  It’s lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart… not lying prostrate, because who has that kind of intentionality or energy?  Lying flat because you are exhausted, because your mind is blank, because you have no idea where to go next or how to get there, or even how to stand.

I and many of my new clergy friends spend much time belittling ourselves for the blankness that we feel.  We moan to one another in the most desperate of ways, “Why don’t I have the energy to read the Bible anymore?” “I just never know if I’m doing anything right,” and “I feel like a failure,” “Maybe I misheard my calling,” “Can this really be my life?”

What Barbara and Jesus seem to be saying is that this is all part of the process.  “Finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”

Jesus rejoices, in the Gospels, over those who lose their lives for His sake.  He says that this kind of loss of life is what leads to real life.

The dark night of the soul, the dirt from the basement floor shuffling up your nostrils and the inability to raise your head to see the angel of the Lord passing by… it’s not a bad thing.  It’s not wrong.  It in no way means that your calling has been revoked, or that you are not doing this thing called ministry right, or that God has turned, eyes rolling, away from you.

It means that you are right where you were meant to be.  Because Jesus is on the basement floor just as presently as He’s on the mountaintops, perhaps even more so.  Because she who loses herself for His sake will find herself in Him.  She who wanders blankly will find the holes filled– not patched, but filled- by His Spirit.  She who loses track of who she is, or who she thought she was supposed to be, Jesus says, will live.

Amen!