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Waking up to Death

One of the hardest aspects of the Lenten season is to the constant reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As a preacher, I welcome the times in the church calendar like now where scripture lends itself to the promise and hope of resurrection and will come again.

For some, the Lenten season is not one that matches the church calendar but begins instead with the darkness of a diagnosis or the sudden decline of a loved one. These reminders in the middle of the church calendar catch us off guard. Because although we all know that we are dust and to dust, we shall return, we often push this realization to our subconscious.

We are life and death in one. Always moving towards death, but also living and breathing. It the paradox of our humanity.

When we have these moments when we are reminded of just how fragile life is and how much we can’t control how much time we have, we wake up to death moving this reality from our subconscious to our conscious thoughts. When this move happens, we tend to find time for what’s most important. We tend to treasure moments that would have been commonplace. We tend to worry less about clothes, money, and possessions because in matters of life and death those become unimportant.

For those of us who have lost someone, we love deeply and have found sleep, waking up to the realization that their physical presence is gone is so very difficult. And we have to wake up to the death of that loved one, again and again, day after day.

Waking up to death actually wakes up to life…and gratitude…and hope.

 

On Being a Revangelical

When I voiced a call to ministry, I found myself an outcast of my spiritual home of twenty-six years. As a woman who was raised Southern Baptist, my voicing a call to preach and pastor was beyond the fundamentalist theological views of my home church. From the vast number of women and men and nonbinary individuals who have shared their stories so openly, I know that I am not alone in finding myself wandering in a spiritual desert by coming out to who I was called to be. There is a whole community of people who are joining together to try to find sanctuary, ask questions, and share their stories in order to find wholeness and healing. This #exvangelical community has created books, podcasts, conferences, and all sorts of spaces for people who found themselves homeless.

Throughout my journey of being called to pastor and preach, I have followed this community appreciating the courage and vulnerability with which so many people have shared their stories, their lives, their pain, their abuse, and their trauma. Indeed there is something powerful about knowing that you are not alone and you are not the only one who has been disowned by a community of faith.

But I never identified myself as #exvangelical.

I could never put my finger on why exactly until recently. In the second Democratic debate when Major Pete made this statement:

“And for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is ok, to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents,” he said, “that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

Something deep within me resonated with this statement because this is exactly where I have been stuck. I have never not considered myself evangelical. I believe in the gospel. I believe the gospel offers freedom and hope and healing and wholeness to all of those who have been oppressed, abused, silenced, ostracized and downtrodden. And I believe in spreading this message of hope.

I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the political connotations associated with the term “evangelical.” I haven’t identified myself as an evangelical because of the way it has become synonymous with the religious right and the fundamentalist oppressive, abusive theology that has caused so much hurt and pain and disembodiment.

Between this statement and my partner’s parsing of the Greek meaning of the term evangelical around the dinner table, I am finally ready to say that I am evangelical or perhaps a revangelical, returning to an identity I used to wear proudly as I tried to convert my middle school friends and offer them eternal salvation.

I am no longer interested in converting people, but I am interested in continuing to accept the invitation of partnering in the wonderful, mystical, and transformative work that the Holy Spirit is doing here on earth within and among us.

Too Sick To Pray

The news of babies been shot as they are in their cars with their families…

I’ve been too sick to pray, Lord
That’s why we ain’t talked in a while
It’s been some of them days, Lord

The news of a Category 5 Hurricane creeping closer…

Never needed You more
I woulda called You before
But I’ve been to sick to pray

The news of two transgender women murdered in SC…

Remember the family, Lord?
I know they will remember You
And all of their prayers, Lord

So much work to still be done…

Well, I reckon that’s all, Lord
That’s all I can think of to say
And thank You, my friend
We’ll be talkin’ again
If I’m not too sick to pray

Bread Enough for All

Yesterday, I was working at the church sorting generous donations we have received from church members. I was elbow-deep in little girls’ clothes when I heard the news of the father and 23-month-old daughter who drowned attempting to find sanctuary. As I sorted and folded and sorted and folded, I tried to understand the desperation of this family as they sought something better. What must they have been leaving and running from in order to risk everything?

As I continued the work of sorting donations to go to our partners who work with the homeless and our neighbors in need, I heard that the facility in Clint, Texas refused donations of diapers, soap, and clothes after the report that some children being detained has not changed clothes in three weeks. I was surrounded by clothes that were donated to our church in order to go to someone in need and yet those who most desperately are in need in our country can’t receive donations of any kind.

It is easy for us to make political claims about what is right and wrong. It easy for us to process these reports and these stories by claiming that we know what we would should we find ourselves in such desperation. Our privilege is clouding our view. Our political party affiliations are clouding our sight.

After feeding the 4,000 in the gospel of Mark 8, Jesus says to his disciples:

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Jesus fed all. Jesus gave bread to all.

There is enough here in America and in our churches for all to have food, clean clothes, and a safe place to live. There is enough for us all.

May our eyes be opened and our ears hear the cries of the children.

A Women’s Place in SC

This week 100 years ago, women earned the right to vote in the United States, but not every state was in favor of giving women this right. Matthew Isbell points out that there were noticeable patterns across the country. As I looked at the stark, glaring red of South Carolina, I wondered how much had changed over the past 100 years. Women have been elected to serve on the state and national level, but is there an undercurrent, a subtext that pervades our state and our culture here in South Carolina that continues to try to limit a women’s influence?

As a female clergy in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, there have been more times than not that I have been asked again what I do after I answer I am a pastor. This hasn’t changed in the five years since I have been pastoring in South Carolina. The number of women whose stories I read and hear who have been taught that their role is to raise children and to be a homemaker hasn’t decreased over the past five years and has actually increased.

Although South Carolina is no longer the deadliest state for women to live in due to domestic violence, we are still ranked number six in the nation and just this week faced the horrible realization that domestic violence doesn’t just impact women, but children too. There are still many, many women who live in fear of their lives and their children’s lives in our state but don’t have the financial means to create a life independent of an abusive partner, especially a life in which they can also support their children.

Living in the capital city of the first state to secede from the Union before the Civil War reminds us that history matters and that the voices that wanted to secede a protect slavery still exist in the descendants and power and money that came on the backs of other people. Living in the capital city where many people come to receive medical services from the Veteran’s hospital is a daily reminder that there is not enough affordable housing for people living on fixed incomes and that there are not lasting protections for those who fought to protect our country.  Even though South Carolina made a name for itself because of its ability to grow so many different cash crops, we are living in the reality of food deserts where there aren’t fresh fruits and produce available for miles and miles.

Our history matters and the voices that spoke out to support slavery and racism and to limit voices of women, African Americans and anyone considered other still impact the way our city and our state operate. We cannot move forward until we take a long look at our history as a state. We’ve already seen multiple presidential candidates visit South Carolina because we are a powerful player on the national political stage. I just hope we can move towards a future where we make a name for ourselves for something besides oppressing, silencing and enslaving other people.

Pastor Mom

Our church photographer captured this photo after service and I can’t imagine a better picture of what it looks like to be a Pastor Mom. I have so much help in an amazing partner and an amazing community who are so generous. With their help, I feel like I can truly step into both of these roles: inviting God’s people to dream and grow and inviting this little one who joined us four months ago to dream and grow.

At times, I catch my breath because as a young girl I never saw a woman pastor. I never saw a woman preach. I never dreamed that this picture could be possible.  At those moments, I am caught up in the holy mystery that calls to our deepest selves. The holy mystery that whispers possibilities of wholeness and newness in ways we never imagined. That holy mystery beckons to each of us inviting us to see parts of ourselves long hidden or oft silenced. That holy mystery comes powerfully into our lives, transforming and changing us into new creations.

No matter where we are on this journey, the holy mystery offers us communion with something so much greater than ourselves and I believe that the holy mystery cradles us and offers us milk, safety, and rest for the journey we are on.

Perhaps the holy mystery is whispering during this Eastertide season to lay back and drink deeply resting in the truth that death has been overcome and transformation and resurrection are all around us.

From Behind the Table

From behind the table, I see hands being washed.

From behind the table, I see the veil lifted –

the body and the blood revealed.

 

From behind the table, I see the bread broken –

crumbs falling down.

From behind the table, I see the cup lifted –

the smell of fruit wafting in the air.

 

From behind the table, I see

the mystery,

the wonder,

of sacrifice

all over

again.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. This year, I read 47. I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books this year. It’s good to recognize challenges often take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of books I read.

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realities differently. These five surely did.

  1. The Hate U Give by Angela Johnson: Part of my commitment this year was to read from a variety of different perspectives, concentrating especially on female voices and underrepresented voices in the publishing industry. The Hate U Give is by far one of the best books to offer a new perspective through a first-person lens.
  2. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd: I remember when I first encountered The Mermaid Chair and I thought to myself, “How did I not know this author existed?” I had this same experience when I discovered that she had theological writing I had never encountered. This book is especially significant and important for anyone who was raised with certain expectations of what it means to be female because it is her journey of finding the Divine Feminine. As she wrestles with who she has been and wrestles for who she will be, I found myself and my story again and again in her words.
  3. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh: This year I started a certification program in Spiritual Direction. As part of that program, I read one book each month. With these requirements, I have encountered new authors and new ideas that have deepened my understanding and my connection to the Divine. This book in particular opened by eyes to just how noisy our lives are and how important silence is to balance out all the noise. Hanh points out how much we resist silence because of how noisy our world is and how we are missing something deep within because of all the noise.
  4. Blessed by Kate Bowler: Although most people know Kate Bowler for her book Everything Happens for a ReasonBlessed is her dissertation work. In this book, she recounts the history of the prosperity gospel and its influence in popular culture as well as religious institutions. As she makes her way through the story of this movement, so much about how our modern congregations view the world, giving, and involvement in the community becomes clear. If you think that this movement doesn’t impact you or your church, you’ll discover how much it actually does as you read this book.
  5. Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene: As our youngest has gained more and more independence throughout toddlerhood, it is important to us that we are fostering not only his physical and mental development but also his emotional development. This book is excellent if you are looking for ways to stretch those little daily decisions, interactions, and communications to a bigger philosophy of parenting.

Perhaps 2019 will finally be the year that I will reach that elusive 50 book goal, but regardless of whether I do or not, my commitment to read and to read as much as I can won’t change. Because it’s in reading other people’s words and seeing the world through other people’s eyes that our own view of the world expands to include other perspectives.

On Being Ordained for Five Years

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my ordination, a mile marker I remember every year as there are so many women who have sought and fought for ordination for themselves and for generations of young baptist women that would follow them. Even more, I think it’s important to remember the women who are in traditions, even baptists traditions, where ordination is STILL not a possibility and who cannot in their context live into their calls.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am in awe that there are now three congregations who have called me as their pastor. Three congregations who have recognized the call I felt so strongly in a closet in Greenville, SC eight years ago. A call I was so scared and terrified to express because I knew once the words left my lips, there would be no turning back. A call that was an invitation to participate in God’s work here on earth through preaching and teaching and developing partnerships and singing in a homeless shelter in Columbia, SC and making crafts in summer enrichment programs and soliciting national companies to donate food to those who are food insecure and tiling floors and developing curriculum and remembering and reflecting and loving and praying and hoping and so much more.

Five years ago, there is no way I could understand what this journey would entail. I couldn’t understand what it would mean to walk beside God’s people bearing their joys and their griefs; their hopes and their dreams. I couldn’t understand the immense privilege of being invited to the sacred spaces of people’s families and stories. I couldn’t understand the bittersweet feeling of being called to another congregation when you have walked so closely with people for years.

There’s so much I couldn’t understand, but what I did understand in that small room on highway 378 when I sat with my ordination council was that most pastors, especially female pastors, don’t make it to the five-year anniversary of ministry. In fact, Fuller Theological Seminary estimates the attrition rate of ministers to be between 30-40% five years after being ordained. Although these numbers vary from denomination to denomination and depend on whether the minister holds the senior pastor position or an associate minister position, we know the rates of clergy burnout across the board are climbing.  The duties and responsibilities of clergy continue to increase as budgets continue to dwindle and criticism permeates through the pews. Clergy, even young clergy, suffer at higher and higher rates from obesity, hypertension, and depression. Research continues to reveal the nature of pastoral work creates an island of isolation. Pastors are constantly confided in but don’t often have an outlet to process the weight and burden of what they bear on behalf of their congregants. This creates a dangerous environment leading to burnout, depression, and even at times suicide at higher rates than other professions. The struggle against burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts is even more difficult as preachers are upheld as lighthouses or hope; people who aren’t supposed to struggle with these things.

Even knowing all this about the current climate for pastors, I sat in that room looking at the people gathered for my ordination council and answered the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” by saying, “In parish ministry.”

I knew my call was to journey with God’s people. I knew my call was to preach in hope that people’s eyes would be opened to the Divine fingerprints that reveal God is with us, inviting to witness the mysterious transformations that surround us if we will but open our eyes.

My partner, Sam, delivered my ordination address five years ago and he said, “I told you not to do this” and we all laughed, but he was right. There is nothing about being called that has been easy. God has constantly asked me to step into the unknown, to challenge my own notions of the Divine, to introduce new possibilities to congregations and to follow after that still, small voice. Thanks be to God for the support and encouragement of a partner and a family who is with me every step of this crazy, called life.

I won’t pretend to know what the next five years hold, but I pray that I will have the strength and courage to continue to live a called life. A life that doesn’t always make sense, but always holds revelations of the Divine at work among us.

A Season of Hope

As Advent quickly approaches, I am excited to share that on January 2, 2019, I will officially begin as the Pastor of Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia. We are excited about this new adventure that God is calling our family to embark upon. We are incredibly grateful for the journey we have shared with New Hope Christian Fellowship over the last two and half years and anticipate with great hope walking this season of Advent with them as they dream about what’s next.

I have learned in my five years of ministry that there is no way to predict or anticipate what’s ahead when you live a called life. For me, a former teacher, who prided herself on the detailed account of short and long-range planning this is one of the most difficult aspects of being called. And yet, again and again, I am overwhelmed that God has called me to this wondrous and mysterious work called pastoring.  Having being raised Southern Baptist, being a pastor was never a possibility or a consideration. It just wasn’t something women did. And yet, again and again, God calls me to lead and guide God’s people.

As Advent quickly approaches, perhaps the Divine is asking us to stop planning and predicting what will happen and instead stand in awe and wonder of the Divine in human form.