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?

 

Advertisements

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.

Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

Holy Week as Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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.

383719_404742159605315_1462630472_n

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

Musings (Or: I Have Nothing Coherent to Say, So Here Are Some Things!)

I’ve not had much to say for this little blog lately, which at first I lamented.  I laid around my house in various unflattering positions and moaned ridiculous things to my cat about Writer’s Block and losing my touch and being so uninteresting as to deserve flogging.  But, in a brighter moment, I’ve decided that having little to say on my little blog is a good thing.

You see, it seems to me that having a lot to say about your job/life/existence means that you’ve got a lot of free time to sit around and muse over it.  To have little to say means that things are heating up; I’m spending more time actually doing the job/living my life/existing than musing on it all.  Yay!

So here are some things I can think of to tell you off the cuff. This should not be allowed to be published.  But such is the blogosphere, that ain’t nobody editing this, for better or for worse.

When you go to seminary, you expect that you will be at least prepared for most things in ministry.  This is untrue.  You are prepared for about 30% of ministry in seminary.  This 30% includes writing sermons, answering theological questions game-show-style in 15 seconds at the door as people are leaving worship, and planning Bible study/Sunday School curriculum.  The rest of ministry requires other forms of training.  I suggest the following:

+ Business/Accounting School (for budgets, corporate credit card reconciliation, and knowing how to do your personal taxes and budgeting)

+ Conflict Resolution Training (‘nough said.)

+ Early Childhood Development Degree (for children’s moments, interacting with children in hallways, and planning anything you want young families to come to)

+ Time Management/Organization Self-Help Classes (to keep you from missing meetings, to help you answer emails in a timely manner, and to keep you from being exhausted all the time)

+ Improv classes (for When Things Go Wrong in Worship, which needs its own segment on America’s Funniest Home Vidoes)

+ And finally… Nutrition and Exercise Classes (seriously. How have I been living in Charlotte for nearly 3 months, surrounded by at LEAST 3 YMCA’s and a YWCA, and I still haven’t joined one? But I can tell you which of the pizza delivery places is fastest/yummiest/cheapest.  I’m the worst.)

Here’s something: When you don’t live in a dorm, there’s no one cleaning your bathtub for you.  You are expected to do that yourself. This has been a rude awakening. Maybe I’ve blogged about this before… in any case, I’m still not over it.

Here’s something else: If you would like to be, or are, an individual who is into politics, you must be very careful.  I personally am an individual who could be very into politics (although my father may well disown me if I don’t shut up about my views soon!), but I’m realizing that you have to be very delicate with this subject.  As a comedically-inclined individual, I tend to want to make fun of both the party I support and the parties I don’t support.  (Let’s face it, politics are hilarious.)
However, I am beginning to recognize that this can be a form of discrimination and maybe even bullying or at least it can be very rude, and not only is it not funny at all to a great deal of people, it can be alienating, polarizing, and off-putting.  And anything that takes people’s focus off of the Gospel is no good wasting time on.  No good at all.

You know how you who are in seminary are squirreling books away, saying that you’ll read them after you graduate, when you have more time?  Here’s the truth: You will have more time.  Way more time.  But it will feel like you have less time.
In a 9-5 “Real Person” type of job, you get home and you suddenly become a sloth.  Unless you have an evening meeting or some type of rare social outing planned, you change into your pajamas at about 5:20 PM and you watch the Kardashians or surf the internet until you’re falling asleep on the couch.

Now I’m sure some of you, dear readers, are saying, “Oh, I would never do that; when I graduate, I shall not own a television and I shall do only wonderful, healthy, life-enriching things and never be stupid like you, Erin.”  That’s cool.  Dream big, kid.  But for the rest of you, behold your future.  It involves an inordinate number of toaster pastries and DVR’d episodes of The Real Housewives of Everywhere (but not Miami; you have standards).
What I’m trying to say, before I was so rudely interrupted by you Wunderkinds just now, is that you have to be very strict with yourself on these things, if you actually want to do healthy things like read those books and clean your bathroom.

I find the best way to do this is to give yourself clear goals and clear incentives.  It’s like you’re dealing with a seven-year-old, except it’s you. But NOTE: you’d never be mean to a seven-year-old.  You’d never berate them or make outrageous demands of them.  So think about that when you’re trying to get yourself to change your behavior.
For example, I’ll sometimes say to myself, “Darling, I think you should turn off the E! network and read some poetry.  If you do that, you’ll probably want to drink some hot tea instead of eating another PopTart, won’t that be lovely?”
Or I say, “Sugarblossom, you really ought to clean your bathtub.  If you could get up and just clean that one little 5-square-foot tub really quickly, you may have some ice cream.”
Or I say, “Little bear, instead of falling asleep to the dulcet tones of Liz Lemon tonight, perhaps you could listen to some nice, healthy music instead.  No?  Okay, I understand.  Maybe tomorrow night.  I love you anyway.”

Oh!  Want some preaching advice?  When you stand up to preach, take a long pause and scan the crowd. People will assume that you are, like, praying over them or gathering yourself or settling your breath or some nonsense, but in reality, you’re searching for Your Person.
Your Person is the smiler in the congregation.  Whoever is out there who is SO PROUD OF YOU, sitting there positively BEAMING at you, maybe even nodding encouragingly, that’s Your Person.  They are your lifeline while preaching.  Look at them whenever your confidence falters.  Look at them when you’ve noticed that the man on the front row has fallen asleep.  Look at them when you panic that you just misspoke and said “Paul” where you meant to say “Jesus.”  Look at them when you finish preaching, and leave the pulpit knowing that at least one person was happy you were up there.  And if you can’t find your person, find a stained glass disciple who looks friendly and pretend your preaching to him.  Or just dig your eyes into that sleeper on the front row and pretend that he’s praying, not sleeping.

And this works for if you’re not the preacher: If you’re sitting in a congregation next Sunday, choose to be your pastor’s Person.  Grin at your pastor.  Maybe even give her a thumbs up.  Nod and smile and shake your head as if in disbelief that she’s doing such a good job preaching.  It gives confidence, and confidence reduces anxiety, and when anxiety shrinks, there is more room for the Spirit to swell up and spill out.

Okay, one final thing: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Smile all the time.  Be as happy as you can imagine yourself being.  Don’t take critiques too seriously, don’t let people’s grumbling steal your joy.  By the same token: Don’t be a criticizer, and don’t be a grumbler.  Practice having the joy you want to have.  Practice having the joy you want your church to have.  Practice it, like when you were little and you had to practice doing cartwheels or tying your shoes.  It was so hard in the beginning, but now you can do it without even thinking about it.  That’s how joy works.  You’ll only be as happy as you can dream of being.  So dream– and practice– being as joyful as you can be, as joyful as the angels are, as joyful as God is.  then you can be someone’s Person all the time.  Think on it, and give it a shot.

Alright, back to whatever you were doing.

All God’s blessings, doves.

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.