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.

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.

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.

A Confession and a Penitent Resolution Regarding Preaching the Epistles

I confessed to my supervisor today that I can’t stand preaching on the Epistles.  I’ve probably mentioned that here before, but it’s worth mentioning again because I hate it so much that it makes me feel bad.

Paul writing his epistles. Source: wikipedia

Paul Writing His Epistles. Source: wikipedia

My assigned texts for this Sunday includes Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship………….”

…YAWN.

So much of the New Testament has been so over-quoted as to be hackneyed at this point. I wish that, for every time someone quoted John 3:16, 1 Cor 13, or Romans 8, there was a requirement that they also throw in a good one from the Old Testament.

“Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” -Joshua 3.5
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14.14
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” -Malachi 3.6

But I think the real thing that bothers me about the Epistles is the style in which they’re written.  It’s the same reason I never can get into Proverbs, or Leviticus.  It’s so didactic.  “Listen while I talk to you.” “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s a lecture, instead of a Socratic-method seminar.  It’s a textbook instead of a novel.

***

Someone I confessed this to recently exclaimed sarcastically, “Ugh, you’re such a woman! You want poetry, don’t you?”

Yes, I do. Sorry about my vagina. (This same person also accused me of having a “vaginal theology.” My response: “I’m trying to be offended… but I’m sort of not.”)

***

Give me a Psalm, or a story.  Don’t command me to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, tell me a story about someone who did that and then let me imitate her.

The thing about poetry and storytelling is that it gives legs and feet to this amorphous blob of an abstract idea: Be transformed.
I could hear an hour-long speech on being transformed and leave going, “What’s for lunch?” But you put me in front of Les Miserables for two and half hours, and now I SEE transformation.
Jean Valjean is the ultimate example of someone being transformed.  Sinner to saint. Darkness to light.  Condemnation to salvation.  Hate to love.  Now I get it.  Now this idea has legs and feet and arms and hands and even a few snot bubbles and bad teeth but it’s beautiful because I can see it and touch it and sing the songs with Jean Valjean as he [SPOILER ALERT] commits his soul to God.

When I was in seminary, my preaching professor had us write a final paper on our theology of preaching. I had no idea what that meant, so I ended up writing a long metaphorical essay comparing preaching to poetry.

Preaching, like poetry, I said, is that place where you take truth and you weave it in with beauty and discomfort and mystery and misery. And the music of it is heard better than a lecture, digests easier than a textbook, and breaks down walls more effectively than a bulldozer.

Preaching, like poetry, is that medium wherein commands will not fly.  A poet who is so obvious as to write something like “The moral of the story is, don’t sell your soul to the machine” will never get published.  Way too obvious. Where’s the mystery, the beauty, the twists and turns and ups and downs?

Similarly, every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit and given me an ultimatum has lost my trust.  You tell me “Don’t sin or you’re going to hell!” and I will probably walk out.  But you tell me a story of someone whose sins drove them into the bowels of hell– the streets of New York City, the bottom of a bottle, the suicide chatrooms online– and how God came through for them? That’s a commanding story.  That’s a story that will change my heart and transform my mind.

I think this is part of the meaning of the incarnation.  God could have handed down some more stone tablets.  Heck, God could have just wiped us out and started all over– clearly we weren’t listening.  But what God chose to do instead was to insert Jesus into human history, to make Him part of the story, to give Him a start, an end, with ups and downs and mystery and beauty and twists and turns.  The story of Jesus is a story indeed: Humble beginnings, persecution, prophetic voices, assassination plots, climactic murder, and triumphal resurrection.

God knew that a story would speak to us.  A story would give calloused hands and blistered feet and nail-impaled wrists and ankles to this vague idea that God loves us.

So, my fellow preachers, if you’re like me, when you encounter a text that is not enough story for you, put the hands and feet of Christ on it.  The story is there, bleeding… and shining with hope.

And if you’re not like me, and you encounter a text that is TOO MUCH story for you, see in the hungry Israelites, the murderous enemies, and the wayward disciples the hands and feet and face of Christ.  They’re there. Dig into the mystery, and the beauty will always find you.

You Know You’re a Pastor When…

Welcome to the first installment of “You Know You’re a Pastor When…”

Please comment and leave me your hilarious additions and maybe you’ll see yours included in the next installment!

You know you’re a pastor when… you’ve eaten your body weight in leftover Hawaiian bread.

…your phone’s autocorrect knows words like “salvific” and “Hauerwas.”

…you treat Saturday as a “school night.”

…you’ve refrained from cutting someone off in traffic because you know your hospital clergy tag is in your back window.

…you caught yourself singing “The Summons” when you woke up this morning.

…you get excited to the point of making weird high-pitched noises when you find a volume of Barth’s Dogmatics you don’t already have in a used bookstore.

…you have felt genuine remorse for throwing away a tissue with consecrated grape juice on it.

…you open your Hymnal to page 881 when reciting the Apostles’ Creed before the congregation JUST IN CASE.

…(similarly) you write out the whole Lord’s prayer in your prayers of the people JUST IN CASE.

…you know what I’m talking about when I say this: BWGRKL.

…light, fun reading means cracking open Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

…you have to close your blinds to watch any movie over a PG rating for fear a church member will see.

…you put on sunglasses and a hat to buy beer.

…you write “Non-profit” when your online dating site of choice asks where you work.

…you have surreptitiously put a ring on your left ring finger when entering a room full of young, cute conservatives/fundamentalists/evangelicals. JUST IN CASE.

What about YOU? When do YOU know YOU’RE a pastor?

Reply and let me know!

The Post-Sunday-Preaching Exhaustion-Driven Post

I don’t have anything to say today, which is turning out to be a major flaw of mine, especially when it comes to blogging.

I think I depleted all my brainpower by preaching yesterday, and now it’ll be a while before the neurons start doing their plucky little jobs again with any level of gusto.

So here’s some stuff.

 

Guys.  GUYS.  A mom told me that, upon hearing I was preaching yesterday, her confirmation-age son said, “I’m going to take notes. She’s my hero.”  YOU GUYS!

………Okay, alright, it was braggy and unhumble and all the other made-up words you want to add to put that on my blog.  But I think it says more about that little boy than me.  What kind of seventh grade boy says a female preacher is his hero? He’s like a teeny-tiny feminist!  Or a teeny-tiny freedom fighter!  Or a teeny-tiny future pastor!  You go, Glen Coco! (*Name has been changed to reflect hilarious Mean Girls references and to protect the identity of that AWESOME kid.)

 

I’ve just made a list of everything I need to buy to make my family’s and friends’ Christmas presents. I’m SO excited.  I might be at the age where I get more out of giving gifts than getting them. That, or… all I asked Santa for this Christmas were a laundry basket, yarn, a George Foreman grill, and Tickle’s books of the hours.  Hmm… maybe I should ask for more exciting things. Nah, it’s great feeling superior to 7-year-old me who could only focus on how psyched she was about getting a Tamagachi.

 

Whenever I celebrate communion, I can’t stop smiling.  My mentor says communion is serious, and I should project my voice and speak deeply and be serious.  I think some mix of our two approaches seems Godly.

 

When I preached yesterday, I called the congregation “Church,” just like an old pastor of mine used to, in the first United Methodist Church my family ever joined.  I felt his presence there with me and became at peace because of it.  (Note: he’s still very much alive.  It wasn’t that kind of presence.  …Just thought I should clarify.)

 

After I preached yesterday, I went to sleep from 12:30 pm to 5:30 pm.  And then I ate dinner and went back to sleep.  Because I’m young and energetic, but only to a point.

 

On a serious note, I want to thank all of you for your prayers for me yesterday.  I felt them covering me as I made last-minute alterations to the sermon Sunday morning and between the services.  I am slowly gaining confidence and perhaps even a little wisdom, though I sometimes don’t feel like I am.

 

Speaking of wisdom, have you seen that show Duck Dynasty?  There was a marathon all day the day after Thanksgiving and I watched ALL THE EPISODES (exaggeration, but only slightly).
I think I would like to spend a lot of time with Uncle Si.  Like, take a cross-country road trip with him.  I believe with almost all of my heart that the meaning of life is hidden somewhere in his beard.  And it starts with the words, “Listen here, hey.”

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.

This is Not a Post about Feminism. This is a Post about Saintliness.

I’ve always had trouble with self-confidence, and that, my friends, is something to be proud of.

No, I’m not being snarky. Think about it: American culture values self-doubt, even self-loathing. (They call it humility, but it’s not real humility.)  Women spend hours on our makeup trying to look “natural.” In movies and books, we are presented constantly with (especially female) protagonists who are utterly oblivious to themselves—clumsiness is cute, not knowing how to wear high heels is endearing, and not understanding “why he would want me!” is the absolute height of virtue– but in the meantime they pull off flawless physical beauty and grace, despite their adorable ignorance.

We are not supposed to be in touch with our bodies. We are not supposed to be aware of our beauty. We are not allowed to know that we are wonderful.

The newest teen sensation is the boy band One Direction. I heard their breakout hit yesterday and this all fell into place. The main line of the hook goes like this: “You don’t know you’re beautiful… that’s what makes you beautiful.”

What is this nonsense?

When you are in that dreadful, dreadful place called adolescence, with your skin cracking open and your scalp practically pooling oil and your sweat glands far too overactive, you are told again and again—by your mother, your pastor, all adults who know that there is more to life than middle school—to have self-confidence. “You are beautiful!” they lie through their teeth. And you stare past them miserably and ooze self-hatred.

Then you grow up, though, and the story changes. Your mother and your pastor may still tell you that you are beautiful, and to have self-confidence, because in my opinion that is the essence of saintliness– telling people they are beautiful, inside and out. But you are not allowed to believe it. If you do, you are labeled: haughty, snobby, full of herself, princess, bitch.

You must rise with the dawn to scrub, polish, cover, curl, straighten, exercise, and adorn yourself so that you will be presentable. And you walk into the presence of your peers, coworkers, judges, friends, and duck your head with the required amount of hangdog embarrassment

“Oh, this old thing?” “No, I am having such a bad hair day!” “Don’t look too closely, I have dark circles under my eyes.”

But I am not writing about fashion, makeup, or even feminism.

I am writing about the lie that we are told, especially we who are women, we who are young, we who are children of God, that we are only wonderful if we do not know that we are wonderful. That, ultimately, we are not allowed to be confident in ourselves.

We are even given Biblical precedent for this, at times. When God calls the prophets and leaders of Scripture, they always protest—“Surely not I, Lord!” “You’ve got the wrong guy…” “I’m too young” “I’m a woman” “I’m not fit.”  Yes, this is true; there are typically one or two verses of protesting. But then the protesting ends. They stand up and follow God. They stand up, and they believe in God’s promises to them.

I don’t get the sense that God had to keep pep-talking Mary into being Jesus’ mom once she’d agreed, after her initial bafflement and spluttering protests. In fact, Luke says in The Voice translation that after the angel left Mary, she “immediately got up and hurried” to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, where Elizabeth gave her (actually, the Voice says Elizabeth shouted) a bunch of swell compliments– “You are blessed, Mary!” “How fortunate you are, Mary!” (Luke 1.42-45)

And Mary’s response is telling. She does not duck her head demurely and say, “Oh, no Elizabeth, I’m not blessed, stop it, you’re making me blush! I don’t know why God picked me, maybe it was all a big mistake, or a dream, maybe I had too much wine with dinner last night…” Instead, she responds with the confidence of a woman of God:

“Now and forever, I will be considered blessed by all generations. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1.48-49)

What would it look like if we stopped this cheap, fake humility and lived with thankful, joyful hearts before the Lord because of all that God has done for us? What if, instead of being shy about our gifts and graces, we shouted them from the rooftops– and what if we were able to do this, not for our own glory, but for God’s?

“For though I am God’s humble servant, God has noticed me,” Mary said (Luke 1.48).

I don’t think God has called us to not know that we’re wonderful, beautiful. Genesis says that God looked upon us after we’d been created and called us good. Are we not allowed to say this, too? Are we not allowed to hold the opinion of God– that we are good, and beautiful, made in God’s image?

What makes you wonderful is NOT the belief that you are not wonderful. What makes you wonderful is the fact that “the Mighty One has done great things for” you, as Mary said (Luke 1.49).
What makes you beautiful is NOT the belief that you are not beautiful. What makes you beautiful is the fact that you are cast in the image of God.

And here’s the sermon to myself today, and to all the other first-time pastors out there who have ever heard that the called will always be questioning their call, always be struggling, always be wrestling, always be suffering under the burden of that yoke named “calling”:

What makes you called is NOT the fact that you question your calling, that you sometimes fear or despise your calling, that you feel wholly inadequate to your calling. These are merely common symptoms of calling, not reasons for the calling. What makes you called is that God calls you. What makes you called is that the Living God wants you on God’s side.

Claim it! Shout it! If you are too self-conscious, use the words of Scripture and let them speak the truth that you don’t know how to yet:

My soul lifts up the Lord!
My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
For though I’m God’s humble servant, God has noticed me….
For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Luke 1.46-49

Do not let your desire to be polite, or “humble” by this world’s standards cause you to stumble into the sin of demeaning God’s good work in you.

Dear friends, do not forget that you are dust, but always remember that you are also being refined into gold.