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.

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!

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!

Devotion: In Which I (Embarrassingly) Use Bieber Fever as a Metaphor for Disicpleship

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6.24)

Well, that stinks.

I mean, we all get it that there are certain unhealthy things in this world to which we should not devote ourselves, things like wealth, fame, alcohol, and Republicanism (threw that one in as a joke… everybody calm down).

But there’s a lot of really wonderful stuff in this life– and in this job– that I would like to serve as a master, stuff that would benefit me, that would benefit the church, that could benefit the world, maybe even benefit God and God’s Kingdom.

I could serve work as a master, spending all day back-bent over my computer or zipping between hospitals, throwing myself in sum into this odd and wondrous calling, to the exclusion of all worldly callings, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve homemaking as a master, spending all my free time cleaning and cooking and making my life neat and orderly and lovely. I know that a clean home means a clean headspace for me, so I would have more freedom for meditation and prayer and study at home, and thereby would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve relationships as a master, spending all my cell phone minutes on calling my family and my old friends, doing the familiar give and take and relishing our shared memories, and in that shared time between beloved friends, would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve righteous indignation as a master, campaigning for the rights of animals, and women, and the poor, and the homeless, and the uninsured, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

And I could serve even prayer and meditation as a master, rising with the sun to fulfill my duty, to check “Pray” and “Read Scripture” off my ever-lengthening To-Do list, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

There are good things we want to serve as masters.  But serving the things of God is not the same as serving God.

If a wife loves only the sexual fulfillment she gets from her marriage, that’s not the same thing as loving her husband.  That’s just loving sex.

And just because I loved a certain professor’s teaching style in undergrad and took at least one class with him every semester, that didn’t mean I loved him.  I just loved his work.

I think it’s funny that we Christians have co-opted the word “Devotion” to mean reading the Bible/praying.  We do “devotions.” We call them our “morning devotions” or our “evening devotions” or our “daily devotions.”
They are numberable, they fit on 1-3 pages in a pocket-sized book (whose cover is undoubtedly a water-color sunrise or a still photo of a babbling brook), and they last no longer than 10-15 minutes.

What a bastardization of that word.  It’s almost sinful.

Devotion is that thing you feel when your chest feels like it’s going to pop open as if your sternum was a button held on with one last thread.  Devotion is that things that makes your head light and your eyes teary for no reason, and you can’t think of anything else, and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep and you can’t tear your mind’s eye from the object of your devotion.

Devotion is that thing 14-year-olds feel when they gaze upon their posters of One Direction and Justin Bieber.

Have you felt about God the way your youth feel about Justin Bieber lately? (Put that on a bracelet… It’s the new wwjd: HYFAGTWYYFAJBL?) They adore him.  They spend all their free time thinking about him.  They ponder his eyes, his hair.  They have memorized ever word he’s ever written.  They consider his humble beginnings and wonder at his future.  They gather together to discuss his daily activities and the places he’s been spotted that week. Sound familiar?  Sound like anything you do– or would like to do– RE: God?

Serving the things of God is not serving God.  This is a sermon for myself today.  Though my work is ministry, just doing work is not the same as serving God as my master.  “Doing” a “devotion” is not the same thing as being devoted. 

In a moment of boldness, let me quote and amend John Wesley:

“Do all the good you can [out of love for God]
by all the means you have [which you have been given by God and for which you are thankful to God]
in all the ways you can [which God will show you]
in all the places you can [where God will send you]
at all the times you can [even if it doesn’t fit into the 10-15 minutes you blocked out at 6 AM for your “Devotions”]
to all the people you can [whom God loves and calls just as much as He does you]
as long as ever you can [out of abiding devotion to God].”