Thursday, December 30, 2010

Arrows 2010

I should really be working on my sermon or cleaning my apartment or doing some other productive activity. But I can feel myself sliding into the post-Christmas-and-my-family-just-left-and-January-looks-crazy-busy funk, and I just don't want to. Instead, I'm giving a valiant attempt at good cheer. I'm sitting in Starbucks surrounded by people, sipping a peppermint mocha, and trying to think about the good things that have happened this year and that are still going on. So now seems like a really good time to do my annual report. Here's a look at my 2010, the good, the bad, and the holy, in no particular order:

↔ Ministry
I can't begin to recount all of the events and moments that were significant in my ministry this year. I led the creation of a new worship service by my congregation in February, which was huge. Having a new worship service meant I basically preached every week, and about once a month I'd preach for three different services in one day, which meant writing and preaching two different sermons in a single week. I started attending finance meetings. I presided solo over funerals and weddings. I facilitated and administrated and wrote and presented. The "honeymoon period" ended. There were moments of intense joy, when people shared how a particular sermon or pastoral visit had affected them, when I was privileged to be present for difficult moments and hold people's hands when they needed comfort, when I shared laughter with this community I've come to love. There were moments of deep sadness when I visited people who were in anguish or survived heart-wrenching, cry-inducing meetings. I even had a couple of rough patches when I sat on the edge, when burnout and despair made me wonder if I could keep doing this. But I am thankful for the people who talked me down from the ledge, for the people whose love and servant hearts inspired me to keep going, for the moments when I saw God at work or caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God breaking into an ordinary day. That is what gives me the assurance to say: God is still here. I am still called. So my ministry continues.

↑ Charlie
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a dog. I wanted one as a kid, but couldn't have one because my family members were allergic. I wanted one in college, but I lived in dorms and apartments that didn't allow pets. Same story with seminary. But this year I was settled in an apartment that allowed pets, and I no longer live with anyone who has allergies, so I decided the time had come. On a snowy night in February, Amanda and I trekked a few hours to visit a breeder, and by the end of the night, I had a new puppy. For the first few weeks, it was just a blur of "Aww, that's so cute!" and "Oh, NO, don't pee there!!!" and running up and down the stairs with the scared-of-stairs furball, and hoping and praying that he wouldn't chew anything important. But as the months past, we got into a routine. I discovered how nice it is to come home and have an excited tail-wagger greet me. I learned to play and wrestle and to see theological truths enacted by a four-legged fuzzball. To be honest, even though I'd imagined all the great things about having a dog, I couldn't have imagined just how great canine companionship could be. Now I can't imagine life without Charlie.

↓ Sports
This year was deeply disappointing. The Cubs lost as usual. The Broncos were so bad they were practically a joke. And while my Mizzou Tigers had a ten-win season that I'm very proud of, they lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl. Plus there was that anxiety-producing month when it looked like the Big XII would dissolve and leave Mizzou scrambling to find a B-list conference with which to affiliate. That one still has me nervous; after all, what's going to happen when the Big XII has only ten teams, and what horrible fate will befall my Tigers if the Texas schools decide to go join the SEC? I shudder to think. But, as always, I have high hopes for next season. With a new coach and Tebow at least sharing the QB spot, the Broncos may actually pull off a winning season. Perhaps a little more experience for Gabbert and Nebraska's departure from the Big XII will enable the Tigers to finally win the Big XII and go to a BCS bowl. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that either the Big XII will endure, or Mizzou will get an invitation to join the Big Ten.

↑ Travel
This year began with a trek to the deep south and a fantastic visit to my old haunts in Atlanta. I reminisced in Brooks Commons, caught up with friends, and had a blast with my aunt. In the summer I ran just up the road to Luray, Virginia and spent some time just hanging out with my family. We played in the mountains, visited the caverns, and caught some Sabbath time on the porch. October brought the biggest trip of all: a wild west adventure. I stopped in Las Vegas to catch up with my seminary roommate. We visited the Grand Canyon, saw a show, roamed The Strip, and took a dam tour at Hoover Dam. Then I went on to Long Beach to see a few more seminary friends. I saw the Hollywood sign and Graumann's Chinese Theater, stepped out on the Walk of Fame, gazed out at the Pacific, and had some great coffee conversation with one of my best friends. I made a quick trip home in November to surprise my mom for Thanksgiving and got to see the people who have known me forever and still seem to like having me around. So, I went south, west, and north, I visited old comfort zones and trekked into the unknown. All in all, it was a fabulous year for travel.

↓ Romance
There's nothing to talk about, nothing to tell. Another year of being mostly single, another holiday season wondering if I'll ever have a partner to share Christmas with. In case you don't remember this rant, or this one (scroll down to "Dating", or even this one, suffice to say: it sucks. Maybe next year?

↑ Friends
But when you're feeling bad about guys, there's nothing better in the world than a good group of friends. So I'm extremely thankful for the men and women who make my life joyful. There are A&A, my co-workers and partners in crime, who are always there when things at work go sour or when I need someone to stand by me when facing the awkward world of meeting people. There are my clergy friends, especially the strong, capable women, who offer guidance and listen to sermons and tolerate venting and help me to smile, even when I feel like crying. When I think of how close I've grown to those women, and how much I trust and rely on them, it's hard to believe that I've only known most of them for a year or 18 months. I don't know what I'd do without them. There are my college friends, always just a phone call away, who have stories to make me laugh until my abs hurt, and who can help me escape from the world of church and ministry and southern culture. There are my seminary friends, those rare and amazing people who understand the insane and sad and hilarious stories of ministry and who appear at conferences when you least expect them. And then, (drum roll please!) there's that small-and-growing group of non-ministry, non-seminary friends who live right here in this city. They are my best connection to the world outside ministry and church, who remind me that the world is so much bigger than the things that consume my time and energy on a daily basis.

↔ Being a Grown-Up
There are all sorts of coming-of-age rites in our society: high school graduations, first full-time jobs, college graduations, weddings, first-house-purchases, first-lease-signings, first-car-purchases. But the U.S. in the 21st century, there simply isn't one single "Congratulations, you are an adult" moment. I've discovered that there are lots and lots of little ones, and they pop up unexpectedly. This year, getting Charlie and learning to be responsible for someone besides myself was a big step in that direction. So was surviving a car accident, having endless talks with insurance people, and purchasing a replacement vehicle. There were hospital visits and meetings that pushed me to levels of calm and maturity that I didn't think I was capable of reaching yet. When those things occurred, there were definitely moments when I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, and moments when I wanted nothing more than to be fourteen again and not have to be responsible and mature. But at my age, you simply can't do those things. And I guess if I have to be a grown-up, I'd like to be good at it. This year, I definitely improved, and maybe next year I'll get even better at this whole adult thing.

↑ Family
I love my family. They're the people I call when I'm having the worst days, they're the people I text when I see something silly. Next year I'll have one more person to be thankful for in my family: I have a new niece on the way. And I've really enjoyed learning to be an aunt this year. But I worry about my family, too. I have three living grandparents, and all of them have started having serious health troubles in the last year or so. I know it's an incredible blessing to have three living grandparents, especially when they're all in their eighties or nineties. I just hope I can say that next year. In the meantime, I celebrate their presence. I celebrate that this year I've gotten to spend time with so many of them.

? 2011
I never know what to say about the upcoming year. I've never been good at predictions, so I try not to speculate about what's to come. Last year I resolved to "get a life", and this year I worked on that: I joined a gym and lost some weight, I spent more time out with friends and worked harder to actually take my sabbath off. I visited family and took off on weekend trips. I got the dog I've always wanted. (And I dodged that funk I was sliding into an hour ago!) But in 2011, I want to work even more at getting a life. I want to spend more time with friends, I want to keep my job from invading my life, I want to spend more time looking for joy in the everyday. I suppose that's my new year's wish for you, too. May you get a life, live it to the full every day, see God in the world around you, and have your heart filled with joy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Long Road to Christmas

They have come, not because all the world must be registered, but because they want to spend the holiday with family. They have brought gifts, not to the Christ child, but in remembrance and celebration of God's gift of Emmanuel. They have come to my home to spend Christmas with me, and I'm so excited I can barely contain it. I love my family, and I'm really glad to have them here. The preparations, the tidying and scrubbing and shopping and wrapping and decorating, have been totally worth it. Now the people I love most are here, or will be tomorrow. And finally, FINALLY after weeks of Advent preparations, I feel ready for Christmas to arrive. It's excellent timing, really, since Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Joy abounds, my heart is singing, and the Savior is coming. This is why I love Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Sunrise

Last night was the winter solstice. For those of you who didn't pay attention in elementary science, that means it was the longest night of the year. We've now reached the darkest part of the year, the day when we see the sun the least and we are most enveloped in the black of night.

I'm pretty sure that it was only because it was the longest night of the year that I was actually awake this morning and out walking Charlie at sunrise. But for once I was glad to be up that early. This morning's sunrise was simply gorgeous. The rest of the sky was a sort of light blue-gray because of the cloud cover, but in the east, the sun cut across the horizon with bright orange, which faded into a pattern of glowing orange and pink arcs through the blue clouds. It was truly breathtaking. As I watched the sky glow, I thought two things: 1) This was worth waiting all the long night for, and 2) It was worth being awake to see it.

It reminded me of Matthew 25:13, "Therefore, stay awake...!" which was, conveniently, one of the texts for the first week of Advent this year. I think, if the coming of God's kingdom is as beautiful and colorful as the sunrise this morning, it's worth keeping alert so we don't miss it. I believe it will be infinitely more beautiful, and so definitely worth the wait. I just hope I can hang onto that hope when the night is longest and darkest.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Christmas Concert on Sunday included the song "Hope for Resolution." It's a beautiful piece that combines a Zulu song with "Of the Father's Love Begotten", which was written to celebrate the end of apartheid in South Africa.

As I sat in the Sanctuary watching our choirs sing this piece, the faces of our choir members blurred with my memories of Robben Island and the informal settlements around Cape Town. I remembered the Zulu and Xhosa songs that the members of the Methodist Church I attended in South Africa sang so passionately and joyfully. I loved hearing our adult and youth choirs in Virginia singing a song of hope in Zulu with huge smiles on their faces, while our children's choir sang the credal words of "Of the Father's Love Begotten". And for the first few moments, I thought of the huge steps forward that have been made in South Africa, and the hope for further advancement there.

But as the song went on, I began to think about the places where conflict, violence, and inequality still oppress people. I thought of the slums and the hungry children I saw in South Africa, Peru, and Brazil. I thought of the growing threat of violence in Cote D'Ivoire and in Korea. It hurts my heart to think that we still kill each other, still think one race or gender is better than another, still sit idly by while people barely survive lives of hunger, need, and poverty.

I suppose that's why the arranger mixed the Zulu song with "Of the Father's Love Begotten." The hymn emphasizes the great love in the gift of God-with-us. It's not just God that is among us, it's God's love come to life in our world. That's the greatest source of hope imaginable. What other force, what other gift could transform the world? Now, the world has not yet been transformed completely. We only see glimmers of that hope come to life. But those hints of light, like the end of apartheid, remind us of God's love at work in the world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yelling at God

Lately I've been doing a lot of visits with people who are in enormous physical pain. I've sat by bedsides and been asked over and over, "Where is God? Why is God letting me suffer like this?" It is, I think, one of the hardest questions in anyone's walk of faith. It's not just a whiney "Why me?" in the face of irritations, this is the genuine lament, the cry of deep pain and anguish. It's always hard to hear, always hard to reconcile with a loving God. But this time of year, when so much of our popular culture is focused on joy, and when our churches are celebrating the incredible love of the God who chooses to be God-With-Us, it's particularly jarring.

How can the God who became human in Christ, who has felt physical pain and experienced the loneliness and hopelessness of human mortality, allow that pain to continue. The Emmanuel is supposed to be "God-With-Us", so where are the comfort and healing that are supposed to be part of that?

I do not know. So the best I can offer the people who ask me such questions is to tell them that God is there, even if it doesn't feel like it, and to invite them to yell. I figure that you can be as mad as you want at God, and you may have very good reason. And as long as you're still communicating with God, even if it's angry yelling, you can sustain that relationship. It's only when we get so angry with God, so hurt by the circumstances around us, that we STOP talking to God that we're really in trouble.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Light and Warmth

In the midst of cold and dark, Christmas reminds us of the warmth and light. I was reminded of that particularly this evening. The church had our annual Christmas Concert, and it was awesome. The program celebrated the coming of Christ, the light of the world. The first few pieces talked about our yearning for Christ's coming, our seeking the hope that the light of Christ brings. Then the later pieces described and celebrated the coming of the Christ, bringing light to the dark world and redeeming all creation. The pieces selected were excellent, but the best part was watching our choirs and musicians perform them. The beautiful music poured over us while we watched the joy and hope and peace expressed on the faces of our friends as they sang.

Then, after the concert, I was invited to spend the evening eating dinner and playing games with a family from church. It was a relaxed evening, we shared take-out pizza and played dominoes, but there was a warmth that I don't always experience. For this one evening, I felt like I was surrounded by family, embraced with laughter and conversation and comfort. I miss sharing those moments with my own family, many of whom live far away, so it was a great joy to be a part of a family for the evening.

Usually after such a fun evening, I feel a bit sad coming back to my empty apartment. Tonight was a little different, though. Tonight I curled up on the love seat, turned on the lights on the tree, and just enjoyed a few minutes of quiet. Charlie hopped up on my lap and, for a moment, I got to soak in the light of the tree, absorb the warmth of a cuddly pup, and relax. This time it wasn't lonely, it was simply peaceful.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What I'm Going to Say

Tomorrow I'm preaching. I love preaching. It also makes me nervous. Even when I'm confident that I'm bringing a powerful word from God, even when I think the sermon has illustrations that will connect with people where they are, I get nervous. But I'm never more nervous than the night before I bring a difficult word.

I think sermons are like food. There are cake and ice cream sermons: sermons that are encouraging and heart-warming. There are steak sermons: words that are difficult to dig into, usually with deep theological points that you have to chew on for awhile. There are vegetable sermons, words that are important for people to hear, that speak to their hearts and circumstances, but which are a little easier to chew on than steak. I mostly preach vegetable sermons, and I like it that way. But the sermons that make me most nervous are the brussels sprouts sermons. These are difficult words. Things we need, healthy things to hear, they're easy to chew, but they're not pleasant to digest. We need to hear them, though.

When I was little, my parents required me to eat a little bit of all the foods I didn't like. They called these small portions, "No, thank you helpings." The sermon I'm reaching tomorrow is, I fear, a No-Thank-You helping of brussels sprouts. It's a Word that I need to hear, and that the congregation needs to hear. It's the Word God has laid on my heart this week as I've wrestled with the lectionary passages. But it's not an easy Word, or a pleasant message to hear.

Tomorrow I'm going to stand in the pulpit and hand out brussels sprouts. I know its healthiest for all of us, but I feel a little like my parents must've felt at the kitchen table as I whined and complained and made faces until the awful green vegetables on my plate had gotten cold and rubbery. I believe that this is the right thing to do, but I'm not looking forward to the response.

I just hope no one brings their rotten tomatoes to worship.

Friday, December 17, 2010

R.I.P. Emma

On December 1, I was rear-ended. And while the damage to my car seemed minimal in the dark that night, closer inspection in the sunlight the next day revealed significant problems. A week later, my baby, Emma, was declared a "Total Loss".

Emma was my transition car. My previous car, an ancient Buick Century named Jack, died while I was in the middle of moving. So getting Emma marked a significant shift. She was my first grown-up car. I loved having a red car.

I had inherited Jack, so Emma was my first purchased car. She carried me to my first day of full-time work. She transported me to the first wedding and graveside I ever performed. She took me to meet my niece for the first time.

And her final gift to me was safety. Thanks to her safety features and crumple zones, I walked away from the accident with just a little back pain. She hobbled away to the junkyard.

Now I have a replacement. I haven't given it a name yet. I'm not even sure yet if it's a boy or a girl. I'm excited for the adventures we're going to have. But it's bittersweet because I'm still getting over Emma.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yellow Snow

"And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!"

Everything was cancelled today. Work, school, all the things that usually require me to leave my apartment were cancelled. But the snow didn't begin until mid-morning, so a friend came over this morning before the roads got bad, and we spent the day relaxing and watching movies. We both worked a bit, but most of the day was just a bit of Sabbath. I walked Charlie and watched him play in the snow. I cuddled up on the couch and watched movies with a friend. I did some work from the comfort of my home. It was an ordinary day. But it wasn't an ordinary Thursday, and it wasn't what I had planned for the day.

Which made it AWESOME. In the midst of this crazy season, this unexpected day of rest felt like a great gift. On what was scheduled to be a day of hard work and strict deadlines, the snow seemed to soften everything, including those expectations. It's not that there's less to do, the list is just as long with the snow as it is without, but the snow gave me a chance to breathe a bit. It shifted the pace and tone of the work just slightly. And I'm thankful.

Awaiting the Call

The forecast for tomorrow is nasty: lots of snow with accumulation, mixed with freezing rain and ice. It's going to be ugly weather, and the road conditions are supposed to be terrible. So, since this is the south, people started freaking out and canceling things. I don't really object. I could use a day to get caught up on things while wearing my pajamas.

So this evening I sat, waiting for the call. I sat checking websites and watching the news for word about cancellations. Our church policy is to cancel all church activities if the county schools are closed, so I watched carefully to see if our county would cancel. Waiting for news about school cancellations gave me a remarkable sense of deja vu. I remember spending hours next to the radio, waiting for the DJ to go through the list one more time, hoping and praying that the next recitation would bring good news. I'd wait impatiently, and sometimes a friend would call with a rumor that things had been delayed, but you could never count on news unless it had been confirmed.

I imagine this may have been how John the Baptist felt as he awaited news of the Messiah. He desperately wanted the Messiah to come. He'd heard rumors and prepared the way. But he couldn't trust to hope, he couldn't count on the news, until he heard a report back from Jesus himself, by way of his disciples. I can just imagine him sitting in a prison cell praying under his breath, "Please, let this be it. Please, God, let it be what we've hoped for. This just has to be it!" While I don't know the depth of the feeling, I know John must have yearned for news of the Messiah. He probably felt this exhilarating anxiety, but a hundred times more. So he must have been ecstatic when his disciples reported back that Jesus was fulfilling the prophets' promises by making the blind see, making the deaf hear, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. Maybe he even jumped up and down whooping the way I used to when I heard that school had been cancelled. Or perhaps he simply sat still while his heart filled with joy and peace at the knowledge that the Emmanuel had come.

Maybe I'll find time to ponder that tomorrow as I'm enjoying my snow day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Car Shopping

I don't want to buy a car. There are no cars on the market that I really like, no cars that I look at and say, "Oooh, I want to drive THAT!" And I haven't been looking and considering cars much because, let's face it, I wasn't planning to need one. I really liked Emma and was planning to spend the next ten years with her. But, thanks to circumstances beyond my control, Emma is no longer in my life. And I found myself today forced to look for a car.

The problem is that I didn't really know what I wanted. I was frustrated with the idea of car shopping, especially when I didn't have any idea where to begin. What I really wanted was to have Emma back. That was when I realized: the next best thing to having Emma back is getting a car that's very similar to Emma.

It was a bit strange, but after a day of car shopping, I recognize in myself the same sort of behavior that drives most pastors crazy in our churches: I'm resistant to change. I would have liked the change, I think, if I had been planning on it and preparing for it. If it had been my idea and I had chosen to go car shopping, I probably would have eagerly tried new things. But I was very comfortable with the car I had, and when I suddenly found myself forced into a change, all I wanted was a return to my concept of normal.

Now that I've been in that position, I have a better understanding of congregations' reluctance to change. People need to feel ownership and control over a change before they're going to eagerly participate in it. If what you know is comfortable, if you didn't want a change and didn't choose that change, you'll probably resist it, and you'll seek out the option that is most like what you knew before.

Sometimes circumstances necessitate a change, though. You can't keep driving a car when it has been totaled. You can't keep living the same ministry model when it is no longer effective. You have to be willing to make changes, even when they're uncomfortable, even if you really liked the way things were. Otherwise you'll never get anywhere.

God's Patience

"Are you kidding? Any second now he's gonna look at me and go, 'Ha. Yeah, right, you're so not worth this.'" - Toula Portokalos, "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding"

Sometimes I wonder what God is thinking. After centuries, millennia even, God still reaches out to stubborn, oblivious humans. God called to us through great leaders like Abraham and Jacob and Moses. God called to us through the prophets. God became human to live among us in order to reach out to us. God nudges us each day through the proddings of the Holy Spirit. And our response to almost every one of those attempts has been rejection or apathy or feeble, short-lived action. We've killed God's prophets, murdered God incarnate, and consistently ignored the work of the Spirit. And yet, God keeps reaching out.

God must have infinite patience. If it were me, I'd given up on humanity long ago and simply wiped out all of creation. Even in our best attempts, we often muck things up. Families, which God has given us to provide the support and love and relationship we so desperately need, frequently become centers of conflict and pain rather than nurture and care. Even churches, we who have answered the call and accepted the responsibility for carrying out God's will for the world by sharing our faith and working for God's kingdom, often become apathetic and ineffective.

Yet God keeps trying. God keeps calling and redeeming and trying to shape us into what we have been created to be. God keeps trying to mold our hearts, shape our families, and inspire our churches. I hope that we will someday have the wisdom and strength to listen and obey, because we certainly aren't there yet.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Have Patience...

I am utterly exhausted. Today I led and helped lead four worship services. I went to lunch with congregation members and a social event with others. And I didn't get my nap.

All day long I've had a song in my head from my childhood. It's a song from a cassette tape we used to have entitled "The Music Machine". While the rest of the songs from this collection designed to teach Christian values have disappeared from my memory, one song lives on in family lore. It goes like this:

"Have patience.
Have patience.
Don't be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient
You only start to worry.
Remember, remember,
that God is patient, too.
And think of all the times
When others have to wait for you."

I have had patience all day. And now the time has finally come: I get to sleep!

Saturday, December 11, 2010


You may have noticed that today is Saturday, and the post before this is from Wednesday. Yes, my friends, I have failed at my goal of posting every day in Advent. I was so distracted having Sabbath and fun on Thursday and Friday that I didn't get anything written here. I apologize, and I hope you won't think I'm terribly disappointing for having not posted as regularly as I'd hoped.

Thursday was a full workday, and then I traveled a few hours away to visit a dear friend. We spent the evening relaxing and playing, sharing in conversations both holy and goofy. It was exactly the sort of unwinding and fun that I needed in the midst of this crazy season. Then on Friday I returned to town just in time to go out with some friends. We saw White Christmas on the big screen, then enjoyed a much-needed girls night out. Again, it was just what I was looking for. But both nights I was busy and out late, so I didn't get to my keyboard to write.

Today has been a much quieter sort of day. I finally hit the deadline for my sermon, so I spent several hours wrestling with ideas and trying desperately to make the words come out clearly. I wasn't the only one struggling this week, though. A few of my friends were also down to the wire on sermon-writing this week, and all of us seemed to be struggling with the same problem: redundancy. The season of Advent and several of the weeks leading up to it are all focused on the same major themes in the lectionary: preparing for Christ's return and the eschaton, which involves repentance and hope. The texts almost seem to repeat themselves. The gospels and Isaiah tell us over and over again to prepare the way, to repent for coming judgment, to look with hope for God's promised future. And after several weeks of these same things, my friends and I found ourselves wondering how many times, how many different ways you can say, "Jesus is coming, look busy!"

A few days ago, a church member asked me how long it takes to prepare a sermon. I explained that it varies. There are weeks when the passage speaks directly to your heart and your context, when God seems to put a word directly into your mind and it flows almost effortlessly onto the page. And then there are weeks like this, when you read and exegete and pore over commentary after commentary, and then sit staring at a computer screen for hours, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, muttering under your breath, and giving your dog and any other bystanders the distinct impression that you've lost your mind. I have struggled and wrestled and I have a manuscript draft. Tomorrow when I preach it we'll see whether the Spirit spoke in the struggle.

This evening I popped "The Preacher's Wife", one of my favorite Christmas movies, into the DVD player. I've seen it probably thirty times, but today I saw things I'd never seen before. For the first time, I recognized the clergy burnout in Henry, one of the main characters. Most of the movie takes place during Advent. You see Henry struggling with the feeling that his ministry is failing, worrying that he's not making any difference. You see him struggling to manage all of the church obligations with his family responsibilities, concerned that the church won't have enough money to get through the year or really serve their community. He doesn't even recognize the angel in his midst or believe that God sent help.

Every time I watched this movie before, I saw Henry as a bit bumbling. I'd watch him working instead of spending time with his family, I'd listen to his negativity and his hopelessness, and I'd think, "What a fool! How could anyone get like this?" But that was before I was a pastor. Now his actions make some sense. I get what Henry means when he says he has to make hospital visits in the evening or go to meetings. And I understand how he could wonder if his work is making a difference, or if there will be enough money or energy or resources to accomplish all that we've been called to accomplish. I don't fully understand the family pressures, but I know how he could lose faith like that. It's a temptation every time a meeting goes badly, every time a hospital visit is heartbreaking, every time you preach a sermon to blank faces. But I hope that whenever that temptation becomes overwhelming I'll see a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of God at work. So I'll keep looking for it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Jingle Jumble

Tonight there are no words. I've been sitting at my computer for more than an hour now trying to form my nebulous thoughts into the coherent paragraphs that will hopefully become my sermon manuscript for the week, but nothing is quite coming out right. My learning style, generally, is that ideas will bounce around my brain like rubber balls, jumbling and banging into each other chaotically until, suddenly, a pattern forms. Once I have a pattern, a basic outline, the words will just start flowing onto the page and, after an hour or two usually, the first draft will be complete. Unfortunately, I have come to rely on the pressure of deadlines to help the ideas gel. Tonight, four days from the evening I'll preach this sermon, the pattern simply isn't emerging yet. Things have not yet fallen into place.

I find this frustrating. I love watching things come together. I love putting together jigsaw puzzles and seeing how the pieces fit perfectly, connecting one to another until a complete picture emerges. I love fitting words together to make beautiful, coherent statements and images. I even love crafting the flow of ideas and thoughts in a piece of writing. I enjoy the way words can take us from one idea through a transition to another idea almost seamlessly. So when things are choppy and disconnected, when the transitions don't work or the ideas don't fit or the words won't come, I get irritated.

Right now, working on this sermon is like trying to untangle Christmas lights. Somewhere in this jumble I know there's a single strand connecting all of the little bulbs that will allow the energy and power to flow through it. But just now I can't make it out in the midst of the tangle. And I have found through my history of Christmas decorating that sometimes it's just best to put down the knots of lights and go do something else. Tonight I'll sleep, tomorrow I'll look at this jumble anew.

Be Still...

People often quote, "Be still and know that I am God." I'm pretty decent at the "know that I am God" part, but I'm not so good at the "be still" part. I'm a fidgety person. I wiggle, I move my hands, I doodle, I play games on my phone or computer, but it's really hard for me to just be still. So this evening, for a few minutes, I worked to just be still. I sat, without doodling or playing a game. For a few minutes, I just sat, petting the dog. It was both difficult and a relief.

This is part of why actually observing Advent is such a challenge. We're trained, practiced, in busying ourselves. We are, I think, better at multi-tasking than we are at sitting still. Advent calls us to be still, to turn inward and work on our hearts and our lives. Unfortunately, it's the same time of year that society tells us to be frantic, to be in perpetual motion on outward works. I feel the tension in the church, too. As much as this season calls us to quiet meditation and repentance, the church calendar of events requires us to be out and about, doing service and sharing in fellowship. And, while we offer extra worship opportunities to help people re-focus, for church staff it has the opposite effect.

I'm not good at being still, and the more things I have on my plate, the more difficult it becomes. Which is why, at 1a.m., I'm still not in bed. Yet, being in the quiet of the night, when the phone isn't ringing, when the sounds of passing cars have died away, when there is nothing to tempt me to watch TV, I can be still. I can sit and read, or write, or pray. I can, for a few minutes at least, be still.

I wish for you, whether it's morning or evening or the middle of the day, to find a moment of stillness this season.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A Prayer for Dark Days

Gracious God,
As the days draw short and the weather grows cold,
we wonder where you have gone.
In the light of the summer it was easy to see your face.
In the blooming flowers of spring we are assured of your new life,
and in the blazing leaves of autumn we see the color of your creative power.
But in the winter, when the cold winds threaten to blow us away,
when the dark consumes and lingers, you seem so far from us.
When the bad news comes, when the pain overwhelms,
when the loneliness surrounds, when the despair envelopes,
where is your light?

We are searching the skies.
We are scouring the earth.
We are waiting--where are you?

The hymns promise radiant beams from heaven afar,
but we would settle for a single candle bringing light to this hospital bed.
The hymns promise heavenly hosts singing alleluia,
but we just want to hear our loved one's voice again.
The hymns promise joy to the world,
but we long simply for comfort in our hearts.

Come bring light to overcome our darkness.
Come bring love to end our loneliness.
Come bring healing to relieve our pain.
Come to us, for we long for your presence.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Long Pedal on the Right

It's Sunday evening and, to be perfectly honest, I'm wiped out. Today I led two morning worship services, taught confirmation class, helped with the Advent Festival, and led the evening worship service. All of those activities, added to the lingering stress of not knowing what's going on with my car and the ongoing pain in my back, leaves me with very little to say this evening, and almost nothing deep or even clever.

As I look at my calendar for the next three weeks, it seems as though someone has stepped on the accelerator. Events and responsibilities are flying at me faster and faster, and it feels like something, I'm not sure what, is going to slip through my grasp. I have this nagging fear that I've somehow forgotten to write something down and will therefore forget it, leaving someone in the lurch and making myself look silly. Plus, the acceleration will continue until we hurtle madly into Christmas Eve.

That's probably how we lose track of Advent. With all of the stuff that has to be done in December, particularly in the church, the time flies. It's no wonder, with this pace, that Advent tends to get overlooked. A little part of us, if we're willing to admit it, just wants all of this stress and preparation to be finished so we can get to the Christmas (or, in the case of the church, post-Christmas) relaxation.

Today, Advent looks like the chaos that used to descend on my household pre-vacation. Everyone would be running around the house, bumping into each other in the hallway with suitcases and laundry baskets, trying to check items off the to-do-before-we-leave list. Everyone was tense, stressed, irritated about that missing sock, or concerned that there's not enough trunk space. For people working in the church, Advent can take on that same tinge: everyone has three too many things on the to-do list, everyone's a little on-edge with the concern that they might not get it finished in time.

I am blessed that the staff I work with by and large handles Advent pretty well. Instead of letting that stress bubble over, most of the time, we let it out in laughter and offer one another support. And many of our laity help, too. So, for the people who made me laugh today, who offered a helping hand, who stepped in to lift things I couldn't manage, who provided Tylenol when my back was screaming, who were flexible with extraneous noise and changing schedules, who gave hugs, who stepped in to make things work, I am thankful.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Christmas Tree

This afternoon I finally got around to decorating for Christmas. I pulled my Christmas tree out of its place in storage, along with the boxes of ornaments and nativity sets, and set about putting them up.

I love decorating the Christmas tree. There are people who organize their tree decorations according to color scheme, but I am not one of those people. My tree is a mishmash of ornaments of different ages, colors, styles, sizes, and materials. There are little wood figurines next to ceramic spheres, tinfoil symbols next to plastic churches, paper snowflakes next to sparkly pipecleaner shapes. But each one has a story. The tree, with all of the ornaments on it, is like a collection of short stories, since each ornament comes with its own narrative, a snippet of my life and history. And almost all of the ornaments remind me of people.

I was the only person decorating my tree this evening, but I was not alone. As I put up the miniature wooden sled and the puzzle-style Santa face, I thought of Harold, now-deceased neighbor who taught me to do jigsaw puzzles and who carved those ornaments. As I put up the Hallmark ornaments from the 90s, I remembered my parents giving me each of them to commemorate another Christmas celebration. As I put up the tinfoil and pipecleaner ornaments, I thought of my seminary friends, and the evening we spent together making decorations for my bare, Charlie Brown-like Christmas tree in Atlanta. There are ornaments on the tree from my sister, from my high school friends, from my elementary school teachers, from vacations I've taken. There are ornaments donated to me by the friends and kind church folks who heard that I didn't have enough ornaments for the 7.5-foot tall tree I purchased last year.

Here, decorating my tree this evening, I was surrounded by the communion of saints, or at least some of them. These are people from all over the country, and even the world, who are helping others to live and grow in faith. They have sung praises to God with their hands and their gifts, and you can see it in these symbols, these ornaments on the tree. You can argue that buying Christmas trees and ornaments is a sign of the commercialization of Christmas if you want. But on my tree I see songs of praise and signs of love, most of them inexpensive and handmade, but more beautiful, in my sight, than any matching ornaments could be.


I visited Colonial Williamsburg today. The interpreter who led us through the Randolph House spoke about the importance of conversation during the colonial era. There were few other amusements, so it was important at the table and following dinner to be able to discuss the events of the day in an informed and articulate manner.

It was an interesting contrast to the dinner with friends I enjoyed this evening. Not that my friends are ignorant or inarticulate, but in our era it's considered impolite to discuss politics at the table. We usually talk about sports or celebrities or people we know. We don't discuss politics or current events because those things are too divisive. But it makes me wonder if, by not engaging in political dialogue, we've lost the ability to talk civilly about politics when we disagree. Or did we stop talking politics because we lost the ability to disagree politely?

I long for the day that we'll be able to find concensus without hurting each other, but I don't think we can get there on our own. I mean, even the colonists, who seem to have been better at it than we are, ended up going to war over their disagreements. So I pray that God will intervene. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Ultimate Gift

Tonight I went to the UNOS Tree of Life ceremony. For those of you who aren't familiar, UNOS is the United Network for Organ Sharing. The Tree of Life ceremony honors organ donors and their families, organ recipients, and those who are still waiting on the transplant list. We were privileged to hear the stories and thoughts of a transplant recipient, a man who is waiting for a liver transplant, and a woman whose husband had been an organ donor who saved the lives of four people. But perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony was the naming of people who gave "the ultimate gift", that is, upon their deaths, they donated vital organs to save the lives of others. A UNOS representative read the names of all those who had given "the ultimate gift" in Virginia in the last year, and members of donor families were invited to put Christmas ornaments on the tree in honor of their loved one.

It was a beautiful event. And when the representative read the name of a beloved church member, my breath caught. I had forgotten that this dear woman had donated her organs, but it shouldn't have surprised me. She had been such a passionate, loving, strong woman, a survivor of her own medical crises, so it seemed fitting to me that her final gift had been helping others to survive and live full lives.

On the way home, I got to thinking about the phrase "the ultimate gift". It, of course, has Christological connotations, and it parallels the language often used to talk about military personnel who are killed in battle. But it's also Biblical. Christ said that the greatest gift is to give one's life for one's friends. This is the same idea, but instead of friends, soldiers and organ donors give their lives and lifeblood for not just their friends but for strangers. These are incredible acts of love, and it seems so fitting for us to celebrate them in the same season that we're celebrating God's great gift of love through the incarnation.

For all of these gifts of life, I say: Glory to God! Amen.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

And then "BAM!"

Today was an average, ordinary day. I went to the office, did my usual work, and was looking forward to a quiet evening at home when, four blocks from the church, WHAM! As I was stopped, waiting at the end of a line of cars turning left, I was rear-ended. The man in the car behind me was distracted, looking at his GPS, and he didn't see my brake lights ahead of him. So, instead of getting home before six, throwing together some dinner, and rearranging the furniture so I could put up the Christmas tree, I spent an hour by the side of the road filling out forms, talking to police officers, and answering questions in the back of an ambulance.

It was a totally new experience for me. I mean, sure, I've been in car accidents before, but this time: a) it was on a major road, b) there were more than two cars involved, and c) the police and EMS were called. So it was thoroughly surreal to stand in the cold on the side of the road, surrounded by flashing red-and-blues and rubberneckers. On one hand, it was a little scary and painful, and it's frustrating and inconvenient. On the other hand, I don't seem to be injured besides some whiplash and my car is drivable and (thanks to insurance) will get fixed.

But the whole thing seemed ironic since I'd just written on my blog yesterday about how so much of what shapes us is so gradual and imperceptible that we don't even recognize its effects until much later. This was definitely not one of those things. While I'm sure its ripples will be less obvious and I may not recognize them for a long time, the accident was an obviously big event, with immediate consequences. (Hello, aching back!)

Now, I could talk about the distractions in our lives, or how we miss important things approaching until they hit us, or the way God sometimes appears in big momentous ways. But instead, this evening, I'm thinking about Charlie. Sort of, anyway.

I arrived home this evening an hour later than I expected, hungry and shaken and sore, and there was Charlie. After a day in his crate, Charlie was hyper. He wanted to run around and play with me. I was in pain and didn't want to move or throw a ball, or have a dog jump on me, but there's really no way of explaining that to a puppy, especially when you don't look any different.

I think often in life the people we see, even the people we know well and love, are walking around in pain. Whether it's because of a loss or difficulty, because they're lonely, hurt, or sad, they're not quite whole. They don't feel up to playing, and small things set them off because there's already so much wearing on their hearts and minds. And there I am, like Charlie, trying to get them to engage or play or act according to my wishes. It's a selfishness bred of obliviousness, but it's where I usually live. The playfulness is fun, but it can come at a cost to myself and others.

I hope that the puppy-ish playfulness comes with the other of Charlie's great strengths: loving. Once he calmed down, Charlie settled in next to me on the couch with his head flopped across my lap. He didn't ask for or expect anything, he just cuddled in beside me as a warm, quite presence. I hope that, once I get past my obliviousness, I can also be that loving. I hope that, once I recognize someone's pain or need, I can sit with them in it. I pray that I can offer them what several of my friends and family members offered me today after the accident: reassurances, offers of care, and willingness to listen. In short, love in practice. It's a gift for which I'm profoundly thankful, and a gift which I hope to share with others.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Prepare Ye...

It occurred to me today, as I looked over my blog post from last night, that the Advent connection in my words might not have made sense to anyone but me. For those of you who didn't catch the link, which I admit was a bit fuzzy, I'll explain.

Advent is a season all about preparation. And most of the time, we think that preparation is about what we're doing, how we're preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, how we're preparing for Christ's return. But I think it also gives us a chance to think about how God is preparing us.

John Wesley taught about the concept of prevenient grace, that is, the grace that God offers us before we even recognize God's existence. We usually talk about it in terms of salvation: prevenient grace is God reaching out to us in love, drawing us toward Godself continually until we recognize and respond to that action. But I believe that God's prevenient grace is always at work in our lives, shaping, preparing, and calling us in different ways. Most of the time, we don't recognize how God's prevenient grace has been at work until later. It's much easier to recognize what God has been up to in hindsight than it is to identify God's fingerprints in the moment.

I've been trolling my catalogue of experiences lately as part of my discernment, looking for the ways God may have been preparing me for the call I think I'm discerning. Now, don't panic, I'm not talking about a change of appointment soon. But I think everyone whose vocation is pastoral ministry (and probably all Christians, actually) should be trying to figure out how God is leading them. So, I'm working on that sort of discernment. And I believe that my feminism may be part of the way God has been preparing me to serve, not only where I am now, but in future ministry settings.

So this season, I'm not just trying to prepare myself, I'm also trying to pay attention to how God is and has been preparing me. That's what some of my pondering of faith and feminism has been about, and it will explain in advance if I start rambling about things that don't seem to relate to Advent. (Oh, and it also gives me free reign to blog about whatever I'm thinking, without worrying too much about connecting to this season. SCORE!)

Monday, November 29, 2010

This Book Is Not Pink

This evening I was headed to hang out with a friend, so I grabbed the first T-shirt my hand landed on in my closet and threw on a hoodie over it. It wasn't until I was getting ready for bed and tugged the hoodie off that I realized I was wearing my feminism T-shirt.

I got the shirt in college, when I first started taking gender studies courses, when I was all fired up about shattering the glass ceiling and getting rid of the stigma around issues of sexual assault. I got the shirt when I first started experiencing the conflict between my gender studies classmates and the religion I so adored. I was just beginning to discern my call to ministry at that point, and I was nervous about how people would treat me.

When I told my classmates about my call and my aspirations to become an ordained pastor, they asked how I could be part of such a misogynistic institution. Why, they asked, would I want to work for people who had historically devalued women, and many of whom still pray to an angry father god saying "thank God I am not a woman"? I explained to them over and over again that the church had, at times, adopted harmful social trends, but that it was precisely my faith and the Bible that had taught me that God made all humans in God's image: male and female. I explained that I wasn't willing to surrender faith and Christianity to a history of misogyny, that I would stand up as a woman of faith and fight to make the church better. And, while they often did not share my faith or understand my decision, they respected me for it and affirmed me in pursuing it.

At the same time, I found myself debating gender issues with some of my more conservative friends. I brought up issues of rights and dignity and equality. And the discussions were civil and enlightening when they were purely academic. But when I told them I was called to ministry, most of them abruptly ended their contact with me, telling me I must be mistaken. Only one continued to talk to me, and he told me that he thought God might be calling women to ministry now because many men refuse to go. I was shocked to discover that he saw women as God's backup plan.

At that time in my life, when I was engaged in those debates, I was so impassioned. I'd wear my feminism shirt to church events just to push the envelope. It felt like rebelling, in a way, even though my church had no problem with women's ordination and, on the whole, was pretty good with gender issues.

I'm still a feminist, still passionate about gender issues, but it takes a different form now. I haven't worn my feminism T-shirt outside my apartment since I took this appointment. But I avoid masculine language for God and I try to bring different images for God into the life of the congregation. I've learned to tolerate being called cute as long as people still respect the authority my call gives me in the pulpit and around the meeting table. And I hope that women outside the church, feminists who see the church as patriarchal, misogynistic, and irrelevant, will see me, a young feminist woman in sanctioned leadership in the church, and will take a second look at faith. Maybe they'll see in me a counterbalance to the pink, gender-stereotyping books that dominate the religion sections in bookstores.

As I seek to live as both faithful and feminist in the local church, I read a lot of spiritual memoirs by women. I love them all, from the mystical words of Julian of Norwich and Theresa de Avila to Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner. I admire both the strength and the deep faith they display in their writings, and I draw inspiration from them to stay strong. I also love that they are different: they don't follow the stereotype paths the pink faith-for-women books prescribe. They are authentic in their depictions of the struggles and messiness of life and faith.

Perhaps one day I'll write my own spiritual memoir, inspiring women of the next generation to be faithful anf feminists. If I do, I think I'll entitle it "This Book Is Not Pink", just to remind those who see it that there is room in the church for feminists. I can prove it, too, because I know there is room in the church for me.
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Again?

Ready or not, here it comes! Advent is upon us (again) and I just don't feel prepared. Which, I suppose, is ironic. But here I am, unprepared for the season of preparation.

Last year, I tried to keep focused on the joy of Advent by taking pictures of something each day that brought me joy. This year, since the season snuck up on me, I didn't think to take a picture today. And, while I could grab my camera and snap a shot of Charlie chewing on a toy, I want to try something different this year.
This year, I'm going to write instead. Since I feel unprepared for Advent and Christmas, I'm going to process my thoughts in writing, here on my blog. Every day.

Today, since Advent is a season of penance, we started worship with a prayer of confession. I love participating in the confession and pardon in a congregation. I love it because we, as a congregation, need it so badly.

As a congregation, we're a big family. And as anyone who spent Thanksgiving with family will tell you, families always have conflict, we're always a little dysfunctional. With many people and many personalities, we'll always end up disagreeing at times, and those disagreements will sometimes hurt us. So, in our congregations we always need to be forgiving each other and receiving forgiveness. We need to be practicing saying, "You are forgiven," and we need to hear week in and week out that WE are forgiven. As people who believe in a merciful God, and who are called to likewise forgive, we need to be practicing grace.

And I think this is perhaps most important for clergy. We work closely with the people in our churches, and in our leadership we sometimes ruffle feathers. We disappoint them sometimes, and other times they disappoint us. So, there is a certain beauty to saying, as a pastor, "In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven," and looking into the eyes of your members as they assure you, "In the name of Jesus Christ, YOU are forgiven."

In this season of Advent, as we prepare to welcome our Savior, we need to be practicing mercy. And as we prepare for visits with our families, we need to be practicing grace. Tonight, I'm praying to be better at both.
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Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the Road

It amazes me that I can be going 70 miles per hour down the highway, watching the snow stream past, and still blogging. But, I suppose, that is the wonder of technology.

I'm on my way back...home? To the place where I now live and work, certainly. But it's too weird to say I'm going home when I'm driving away from the place I called home for more than twenty years. The place I live now should be home, since I've lived there for more than a year, and it's where all of my stuff is, and where my dog is. But when I my family all lives far away, and the holidays are so focused on "family", it's hard to think of my solitary apartment as homey.

I'm going to need to work on home-ifying my apartment before Christmas.
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mind the Gap

Once upon a time I was a regular blogger. Then I became a semi-regular blogger. Then, in the last two months, life got really, really messy. But, I do intend to get back to blogging regularly. I'm even hoping to do something special for Advent again, either through pictures or through a discipline of regular writing.

Now, for an explanation of why I haven't been blogging:
1) I work for a church and, as such, there are a lot of things from my work that I simply cannot talk about. And, lately, almost all of my time and energy has been consumed by work, leaving me with very little that I could, or was willing, to write about here.
2) I've been writing, but by and large it has been stuff that I wouldn't want my bishop to read. And, since this is a public blog, I try not to post things on here that I'd be unwilling to say in front of the bishop. I love you all, but there's no way I'm risking my job just to share my thoughts with you.

The two months since my last post have featured some exciting events, though. I had a birthday, saw some family members, and, probably best of all, went on a fabulous vacation. The trip started in Las Vegas, with a visit to my seminary roommate. I could say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but the truth is, I was remarkably well-behaved during my stay. I didn't pick up any men, I didn't gamble, and I didn't even drink. I did, however, get to see rainbows over the Grand Canyon, explore the Strip at night, see Cirque du Soleil, and take the dam tour at Hoover Dam. The best thing about being in Vegas, though, was getting to catch up with my old roommate, as she is one of the coolest people I know. I then traveled to Long Beach to visit two more friends. We relaxed, had adventures in L.A. and along the Pacific beaches, and spent lots of time laughing and catching up. It was a blessedly relaxing week, and I'm very, VERY glad to have gotten away and had some sabbath time.

Unfortunately, vacation ended and I had to hit the ground running, because Advent is approaching with unexpected speed. So, until I dig up a Delorian with a flux capacitor, it's going to be a rough few weeks. That's all the update I have energy for at the moment, but don't despair! I fully intend to blog more in the next few days.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Laughed

One of the things I treasure most in life is humor. I love sharing laughter with people. I'm pretty sure that laughter can be part of God's grace, healing us, bringing joy to our souls. I recognize that it can also be dark and harmful, but I'm going to say that dark, harmful humor is a perversion of this good gift (like all evil is, to borrow a definition from a great theologian). And so, on this late evening, I'll share with you some things that have made me laugh over the last few weeks.

My mother always carries large bags. It's probably part of being a mom; she carries a huge bag so that she always has everything anyone might need. I'm convinced that the contents of her purse could keep someone alive for a week if they were stranded on a desert island. But I digress. My mother came to visit me a few weeks ago, and on the night of her arrival I took her to dinner. She offered to pay, then picked up her backpack (an easier carry-on than a purse) and tried to find her billfold. She took out six or eight different items, covering half of our table, before she finally found the billfold. (I was reminded of the scene in Oscar where the title character is taking all of the weapons off one of his henchmen and, after taking a huge pile of things including a mace, a billy club, a small pistol, and brass knuckles from the man, says, "It's like disarming Germany!") Then, once she had located it, she remembered that the card she was going to use to pay for dinner was already in an outside pocket of the bag from when she'd checked in for her flight earlier that day. We laughed for five minutes straight at the huge pile of stuff on the table.

I went to see a movie the other night and overheard the following conversation:
Boy, 11 years old: "There should be a law that action movies aren't allowed to have any kissing. Yuck!"
Girl, 13 years old: "An action movie without kissing would be like trying to eat lunch without a mouth."

I took Charlie to the dog park today. He likes the dog park and enjoys chasing the other dogs around and wrestling with them, and it's great exercise for him. However, my 60-something pound dog is, apparently, very attractive to much smaller dogs. Nearly every time I take him to the dog park, some small dog makes unwelcome advances toward Charlie, and Charlie ends up with a much-smaller dog humping his leg. He doesn't seem to know what to make of this, so instead of fighting the smaller dog off, he usually tries to run away. So, my large dog is frequently chased all around the dog park by strangely-gyrating mini-dogs. This evening, Charlie responded to this behavior by finding a muddy spot near my feet and flopping down in it. So I was forced to give my dirty, stinky dog a bath. Charlie is usually well-behaved about baths, but he still has a bad habit of waiting until he's out of the bathroom to shake all the excess water out of his fur. So, while Charlie smells a bit better after a bath, my entire apartment ends up smelling much, much worse: like wet dog. I'm sure there's a better way of doing this, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it is. So I laugh at the water droplets everywhere and take joy in the goofy face Charlie makes when he's all wet.

I got new furniture for my balcony as an early birthday present. It was a pain to put together, but it looks very nice. And as excited as I am to have lovely, cozy new furniture so I can sit on my balcony to enjoy this gorgeous fall weather, I think I'm more excited about the giant cardboard box the furniture came in. I'm planning to make it into a spaceship before it goes to the dumpster. After all, doesn't every twenty-something professional need to make a pretend spaceship now and then?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wrapped in Community

I spent a good part of this afternoon sorting out prayer shawls to send to the youth from the church I serve who will be starting college this fall. I wrote liturgy and double-checked names because this is an important ministry. Women from the church have spent months making prayer shawls with these particular students in mind. Smooth hands and gnarled hands and able hands and arthritic hands have passed over the yarn and knotted it into patterns, into rectangles that will wrap around the shoulders of our students. We hope that, as they wrap the shawls around them, they'll remember the people from our church who are praying for them, and remember that God is with them even when those people, and all the dear, familiar things they're used to, are not.

Congregation members occasionally inform me that I need a prayer shawl from this church. They say this, not because I appear to be in need of consolation, but because I'm usually wrapped in a blanket when I'm at work. I tend to be cold most of the time and my air conditioned office feels like an icebox to me, so I often throw a blanket around my shoulders while I'm sitting at my computer or going to meetings. But I'm particular about the blanket I use. A prayer shawl from this church would be fine, too, but it doesn't have the same meaning.

The blanket that I keep in my office, that I wear when I'm cold, is one that bears the name of my hometown and the names and pictures of many of its churches. I choose to keep it in my office to remind me that, on the tough days when I'm tired and frustrated and feeling alone, not only is God with me but there are people far away who are wrapping me and my ministry in prayer. The blanket has pictures of the many churches where I attended Vacation Bible School, where I learned memory verses and did crafts and saw the dedication of lay people in helping form the faith of children. It has the names of the churches with whom I went on mission trips, whose volunteers climbed under houses and into ditches alongside me to be examples of servant leadership.

Most of all, the blanket has the name and picture of my home church, the place where I was most formed in the faith. It's the place where I learned hymns and creeds, prayers and theology. It's the place where I discovered the joy of being in mission and experienced what the love in the body of Christ should be like. It wasn't, and isn't, a perfect church. But the people of that congregation did a great job of teaching and shaping me as a person of faith. And though the blanket didn't come from their hands, it reminds me of all the gifts they've given me. That simple blanket provides not only physical warmth, but spiritual reassurance.

I got a Facebook friend request yesterday from one of my childhood Sunday School teachers. I hadn't heard from her in probably a decade, but I was jubilant about the contact. This gives me the opportunity to tell her that all of those Sunday mornings putting up with my know-it-all talking and encouraging me to put characters on the felt board and telling Bible stories really made a difference to me. It's my chance to tell her that she's one of the examples I draw upon when I work with children in my ministry. I doubt that she knew, when she listened to that seven year old girl with dimples talking, that her work would inspire and shape ministry almost twenty years later. But it has.

I wish I could find a way to impress that message upon the people in the church I now serve. But how can I tell them that the way they greet and teach and love the congregation's children today could affect Christ's mission in the world several decades later? How do I help people to see that their work doesn't just enable ministry today and this year, but has an impact for years to come? If that message came through clearly, I think churches might not have quite the problems with recruiting volunteers and leaders that we often face.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mawaige is What Bwings Us Twogevah Twoday

"Are you happy? Do you have what you want, have you achieved all the goals you had for yourself at 25?"
Bear, one of my male friends from college asked me this question the other day. I paused for a few moments, then said, "For the most part, yes. I have a job that I love. I'm in a place that I like. I have a dog to keep me company. I've got great friends, though I wish some of them lived much closer to me. I've been to lots of interesting places, I've been privileged to go to some great schools. Yes, I'm where I hoped I'd be at this point. There are really only two more things I would like before I turn 30. I want to go to Australia and I want to get married." Then he asked what is perhaps a more interesting question: "Is getting married a goal for you?"

I couldn't really articulate an answer to that question immediately on the phone, and our conversation soon moved to other topics, but it left me pondering. I don't thin of marriage as a goal, exactly, since a goal is often an achievement toward which one works. Marriage isn't an achievement, really, and it's also not something you can really work toward. It's a relationship, carefully built between two people, a covenant and a lifelong commitment, not just a title to attain.

The idea of marriage as a goal is fascinating to me because popular culture often frames marriage as some sort of achievement for women. It's not framed that way for men, really. For men it's a desirable state when you get tired of dating, or perhaps for sex or companionship, but it isn't presented, I don't think, as a social achievement. But for women it's a different game. People speak about "getting your Mrs. degree" as though it's an achievement one acquires through dedication, work, strategy, and a little luck. There are books and magazine articles about how to catch a man, how to "get him to propose", as though if you have the right moves and work hard enough, you can force a relationship, and as though attaining a couple of rings and the privilege of checking "married" boxes on forms is a prize to be won. (Take, for example, the lassoing scenes in The Bachelor... YIKES!)

"But what if I never get married?!"

I can't tell you how many times I've said this or heard friends say it. Ask any single woman over the age of 22 their fears, and this will be among them. It comes up after every friend's wedding, every breakup, every bad date, and every birthday. This flip side of the marriage pressure: the "terror" of singleness. Because, while even pop culture will let you be the happy single girl for a few years, there's a point after which, if you're not married, people assume that there's something wrong with you. Take, for example, Sex and the City. Even in this progressive, VERY sexually liberated plotline, three of the four main characters were married before age 41. Women who remain unmarried are cast as closeted lesbians, crazy cat ladies, or poor, pathetic, awkward spinster aunts. At a certain age (and this age varies based on geographical location), you go from Sex and the City to Nanny McPhee. Quick, try for sixty seconds to name every strong, well-adjusted, never-married female character in your favorite movies and TV shows. Did you come up with any?

I want to be married. Not really because society tells me so, and not really (though slightly, I'll admit) because if I don't get married I'm cast as the freak who escaped from the circus, but because I'm looking for companionship. I want a partner to share my life with, to catch up with at the end of the day, to share the joys and the worries with. It would be nice to come home at the end of a long day and have someone to talk to that doesn't drool on my forearm.

At the same time, I refuse to treat this as a goal. It's not something I can work toward, other than being open to the possibilities of relationships. It's a relationship I hope to share with someone one day, not an achievement to tell society that I'm kind, well-adjusted, and desirable enough to attract a mate. I don't need that validation. Because, while the media really gives me no models for how to live as a happy, normal single woman, I do actually know such women in the real world. I have friends and mentors who are strong, single, and NOT crazy stereotypes. And I thank God for them every single day.

I know that there aren't manners books on how to treat your single friends, and it's easy for folks who have been married for a while to remember what it was like to be single. It's especially hard for people who got married young to understand what it's like for people who are single and older. And the media isn't giving any helpful guidelines, either. So, I offer a few suggestions for how to make life easier for the single folks. (I'm not being sarcastic here, folks. These could actually help you.)

1) For God's sake, stop portraying single women only in stereotypes. There are all sorts of different well-rounded images of people in relationships, different kinds of relationships, etc. Get with the creativity already.

2) Please stop assuming that everything is about/for "families". This is less of an assumption in the wider world, but the church, on the whole, assumes that everyone is somehow part of a locally-centered nuclear family. For example, church meals and potlucks are often REALLY AWKWARD for people who are there by themselves, so please make an effort to be welcoming to the single folks.

3) Unless the person you're asking is a really good friend, don't ask us if we're seeing anyone. If we want to tell you about someone we're dating, we will. If we're not, or are and don't want to talk about it, we won't bring it up and you don't need to either. I've been asked this at work functions, family gatherings, and even job interviews, and it's almost always awkward. One of the worst conversations I've had in several years was on this very topic with someone I'd met the same night. It went like this:
Him: So, are you married?
Me: No.
Him: Engaged?
Me: No.
Him: Dating?
Me: No.
*Long Pause*
Him: Sad?
I wanted to simultaneously slap him on the back of the head and vanish from the spot. Please don't put your single friends in this position. You don't even need to bring it up. There are lots of topics of conversation beyond families: ask about our pets/jobs/hobbies/weekend plans/last vacation/upcoming vacation/book we're reading... You get the picture.

4) Getting married is not the threshold to adulthood. Single adults are not children. Try not to put your unmarried friends or family members at the kids' table or give them the couch because they don't have someone to share the bed with or, worst of all, send their invitations and Christmas cards and things to their parents' address. If the single person has a home of his or her own, he or she deserves an invitation/card of his or her own. We're not eight-year-olds living at home, we're adults with places of our own. It's common courtesy to acknowledge that fact.

5) There is much debate about assurance that someday we, too, will be married. This can be somewhat comforting, insofar as it is an assurance that you, our friend or loved one, don't believe that we are undesirable, unmarryable freaks. And that's important for combatting the accursed views of singleness. On the other hand, it simultaneously upholds those views of singleness as a terrible state from which you hope your friends will be rescued. And what if we don't get married? The vague promises of "someday" stop holding water at a certain point. So, while I don't think such assurances should be outlawed, it pays to think carefully before you use them.

There are, I'm sure, other guidelines and suggestions to consider. At the moment, these are the ones that come to my mind. If you have others, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Falling in Love with God

I was planning to go to bed at a decent hour this evening. I was ready for bed, doing my nightly devotion stuff when I stumbled on the following passage in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home By Another Way:

"This is not a story about us. This is a story about God, and about God's ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow--able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food."

This caught my attention, I think, because earlier this evening I was thinking about my own relationship with God. As I was driving home this evening, enjoying the cool evening air rushing through the open car windows, I decided to put in my old Jars of Clay CD. One of the songs on the album has the refrain, "I want to fall in love with you." I have never been one to "fall in love". I'm very practical and pretty skeptical, and anything as out-of-control emotional as falling in love is a stretch for me. But, as someone who loves God in my own way, I understand the desire to fall in love with God. If I'm going to fall in love with anyone, if I'm going to allow myself to be that out-of-control emotional, it would make sense to fall for the One who is worthy of that love and who can be trusted with my heart. And yet, falling in love has still never been something that I do.

But this Barbara Brown Taylor passage sounded to me like falling in love. Not being able to take our eyes off someone? Being more interested in that someone than in anything else in our lives? BBT is describing Jesus calling the disciples on the seashore, but she could just as easily be describing love at first sight. And there are people who talk about their conversion experience or their first experience of God as being like love at first sight.

I have never been one of those people, perhaps because I feel like I've known God forever. If I had to put my relationship with God into human relationship terms, it would be more like a childhood sweetheart with whom I continue to have a growing relationship. I can't remember a time that I wasn't aware of God in some way. Some of my first memories are of praying before bedtime and meals, of going to Sunday School and church, and of leading worship services for my stuffed animals. God has always been both too familiar and too distant to fall in love with in the way so many people describe. Sure, there have been transformative moments in our relationship, moments when I felt God's presence in new ways or when I made greater commitments to my faith. But I cannot pinpoint a moment of falling in love with God.

Perhaps that's why I love this quote so much. God creates each of us and makes us capable of following--in our own ways. God created me and knows that I'm practical and skeptical. God knows that I live in my head rather than in my heart most of the time. And God made me capable of following in my own way: answering the call to follow with my mind and my feet as much as with my heart. God allowed me to fall head-first and feet-first, not head-over-heels.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

I Have Learned

A few days ago, as I was sharing ice cream cake with several coworkers in our lunchroom to celebrate my one-year anniversary at this church, someone asked me to name five things I've learned this year. All at once hundreds of experiences went racing through my mind, moving so fast that I couldn't even distinguish most of them amidst the blur that whipped past my neurons. But, after giving it some thought, I picked out these few:

1) Funerals are harder than I thought, and weddings are easier.
As a bridesmaid, I have learned that weddings are complicated affairs, with tons and tons of details to take care of. But, as a pastor, weddings are relatively easy. In part, that's because weddings have coordinators: people who are in charge of all of the details so that the pastor doesn't have to worry about them. Whereas I have to help facilitate the receptions following memorial services, I have no part in planning wedding receptions. And since we require people to use wedding coordinators, I don't have to worry about the details of the procession or the recession or the flowers or anything else. I get to chill with the groom and groomsmen while someone else takes care of all of the minutiae. Not to mention that, since weddings tend to be occasions for joy and celebration, most of the people there are going to be happy no matter what I do.

Funerals, on the other hand, are tougher than I thought they'd be. Like weddings, most of the liturgy for funerals is provided by the Book of Worship. But funerals almost always involve some sort of sermon that speaks both of God's grace and of the life of the deceased. And sitting with grieving families, seeing the heartbreak in their eyes and hearing their voices crack with emotion as they speak about their loved ones... it breaks my heart even when I've never met the deceased. When the deceased is someone I know, it's even tougher. Trying to hold it together, setting my own grief aside even while watching the tears streaming down the faces of family and friends is one of the hardest things I have to do as a pastor.

2) When you least expect it, when you're at your lowest, God shows up.
I've preached what I thought were my worst sermons so far, but people have approached afterward and talked about how the sermon touched their hearts or spoke to where they are in their lives. On the mornings when I feel most frazzled, when my nerves are at their worst, God sends a bit of peace through the notes of the prelude or a smile from someone in the congregation, and I calm down. And when I'm having a really stressful day and my to-do list is longer than my arm, a text message from a friend or a kind word from a co-worker makes the day seem more manageable.

3) Dr. Frank was right.
Dr. Tom Frank always talked about how a congregation's history becomes a part of its DNA. He explained that you cannot understand a congregation until you know its past, its stories. He said to ask as many questions as you could and to pay attention to what stories they tell and what incidents in their past they refuse to talk about. In my first year in this congregation I have learned that he was absolutely right. Every congregation has tales, things they're proud of, moments that define the personality of the congregation. And every congregation has nightmare stories, its fissures, and the broken places that the congregation still mourns years later. But both the good and bad endure, shaping how the church functions decades later. And thanks to Dr. Frank's wisdom, I watched where I stepped and stayed mostly out of the doghouse.

4) Burnout is serious stuff.
I've only been doing this for a year, and there were still moments when I wasn't sure I could keep up the pace of pastoral ministry. When seminaries and conferences and boards of ordained ministry tell new pastors to take sabbath and keep in touch with clergy colleagues, they are NOT KIDDING. Probably the best advice I got going into ministry, and I heard it in all sorts of places, is to draw boundaries, to maintain them, and to actually take your sabbath. When I don't take enough time away to read, study, and be around other people, I don't have the energy to write good liturgy, the presence of mind to provide good pastoral care, or the creativity to preach good sermons. I lose my perspective and start to think that what I do is about me. But when I get away from it, I remember that it's about God, and as much as my effort helps, it was never about what I could do. I couldn't have gotten through this year without drawing some intentional boundaries, taking some time away, and having the help and good counsel of friends in ministry.

5) I was better prepared than I thought.
I knew that I had gone to one of the best theology schools in the country. I knew that, academically, I was very well prepared for ministry. But my practical experience was limited. I had preached fewer than ten sermons before I started in full-time ministry. I had only been to a few weddings and had never actually attended a funeral service. But I discovered, once I got into the church, that I was better prepared than I knew. My coursework prepared me well to teach classes, design and lead worship, and preach. My experiences through Contextual Education gave me really good preparation for leading committee meetings and overseeing administrative details. Plus, my travels and other work experiences gave me much better preparation than I realized. Who knew that being a radio DJ and doing home repair would give me skills I'd use in the church? It seems that God was working ahead of me in ways that I could not have foreseen or understood at the time. Oh, how I love prevenient grace!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Week and a Year

A year ago this week I was in Atlanta, madly throwing my belongings into boxes, getting ready to get commissioned at Annual Conference, and spending every spare second with my seminary friends. I was in the midst of transitions: finishing school, leaving my friends, moving several states away, starting a new job... Everything was in flux, and I didn't have a concrete role or identity.

Now, 360-some days later, I've spent almost a year in ministry. This week, instead of packing things away, I put them up. After almost a year, I finally put my framed diplomas on the wall of my office. Something about having diplomas on my wall made me feel grown-up and professional. And it's ironic, really, because I've been "grown-up" and professional for a year. But somehow the diplomas grant credibility. Which was helpful, this week especially.

This week I did nearly all of my pastoral duties. Last weekend I led three worship services, presided over communion three times, and preached one of the services. This week I assisted with a funeral, and this weekend I conducted a wedding. I did hospital visits and presided over meetings, studied Scripture and talked with clergy colleagues. And, until I stopped to think about it, it seemed natural and normal.

But when I stop and compare where I was last year with where I am now, I'm amazed. How did I reach the point where it seems almost normal to be preaching, administering the sacraments, and conducting weddings and funerals? Did one year really bring all this change? Did it transform my life this much? Of course, then answer is yes. In one year, I've taken some huge steps in my pastoral identity. I've become a pastor with books on my shelves, diplomas on the wall, robes in the closet, and ministry experiences behind me.

I'm not there yet, of course, I have a long way to go, a lot of learning and growing still ahead of me. But as I near the one-year mark in my ministry, I'm amazed by the transformation so far.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Vacation of Unbearable Cuteness (Part 2)

My niece is too smart for her own good, and she's only eight months old. For example, she finds eating boring. In order to sit still and actually eat the baby food my sister skillfully shoves into her mouth, she requires an array of distractions. She needs to have at least one and preferably several things she can play with. She likes to conduct gravity experiments with these toys: she drops them off the side of her chair and watches to make sure that they hit the ground. She has created a circle in which she drops an item, the nearest adult picks it up and gives it back to her, she waves it around for a few seconds, and then she drops it again. Repeat process, repeat process, repeat process... you get the picture.

She also needs a show. At various points through the week, my father, my mother, and I have found ourselves singing and dancing to entertain her while she eats. I've pulled out all the stops, bringing back old showchoir routines, complete with choreography, to hold her attention. I've caught my father, a usually-dignified law professor, waving his arms and singing "Master of the House" from Les Miserables. Even my mother, a very self-contained southern woman, has been seen singing old church camp songs. But perhaps my favorite moment was when I came in from the porch to find my entire family gathered around the baby making up new lyrics to "The Sound of Music" while a delighted Hannah giggled and devoured her mushed peas. This is truly the sort of thing that brings a family together.

My puppy, Charlie, is ecstatic about the attention he's getting and delighted by the presence of so many people for such prolonged periods. He is constantly wandering around the room, trying to get every person to pet him. He's also trying to pick out the weak link, the person most likely to share their food with him, and begging with all the cuteness he can muster. Fortunately, no one in my family is easily moved, so he is still a no-people-food puppy. But it's not from lack of trying on his part. And it's not just people from whom Charlie seeks attention. When we went walking the other day, Charlie tried to make friends with the ducks. He didn't bark or act in any way menacing, he simply ran toward them in a sniffing posture. The ducks ran away. I told him that ducks are jerks and he wouldn't want to be friends with them anyway, but he still seemed hurt. Poor puppy.

So, each day we take turns entertaining the baby so she'll eat, playing with the puppy so he doesn't feel left out, and appreciating the incredible cuteness of it all. As soon as I get pictures uploaded, I'll share that cuteness with you, too!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Vacation of Unbearable Cuteness (Part 1)

Imagine a cabin up in the hills: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a sort of open-plan living room/kitchen/dining room. Imagine beautiful blonde wood floors, wood paneled walls, wood ceilings, and comfy furniture. Now add a family: four adults, an eight-month-old child, and a six-month old puppy. The result is, of course, chaos. Beautiful, frustrating, hilarious chaos. This is my vacation.

It's important to note the floors because I haven't had the time or funds to get Charlie groomed lately. This means that when he walks across the hardwood floors, he clicks. And when he runs and then tries to stop, he slides across the floor and smacks into walls. He can't even sit properly because his back paws slip on the floor and he ends up sliding backward or flopping on the floor. I know it has to be frustrating for him, but it's adorable to watch.

Until this trip, no one in my family had met Charlie yet. My mom is afraid of dogs, so introducing her to the puppy has been a bit of a challenge. But she has done her best to be brave, and Charlie is incredibly charming, so they've begun a tentative friendship. Dad loves dogs, and is willing to play with Charlie, so he has become Charlie's second-favorite person in the house. But the most amusing thing to watch has been the interaction between Charlie and Hannah, my eight-month-old niece. Hannah thinks Charlie is the greatest toy EVER. When he walks into the room, her face lights up and she laughs like a mad scientist. She kicks and waves her arms in excitement. The puppy is not sure what to make of Hannah, though. He likes to lick her hands, since she has usually managed to spill food on herself, but he can't understand why she's so loud all the time. When we hold Hannah down on the floor so that she can "stand", she's at eye-level with Charlie. It's an entertaining stand-off: the curious puppy vs. the loud and unafraid almost-toddler. The baby generally wins, which I take as a great sign of the puppy's maturity.

The other fascinating thing about this vacation is that Hannah sets the schedule and the tone for the day. When Hannah naps, Charlie has to go outside to play, and no one can shower or run the dishwasher or make much noise. Outings are scheduled around Hannah's nap and eating schedules, so they are limited and carefully coordinated. If Hannah is in a bad mood, her screaming tends to make everyone tense. This is why, at 12:40 in the afternoon, I have still not yet showered: I didn't get my shower in during Hannah's last awake-time, so I'm out of luck for de-stinkifying until after she wakes up from her current nap. That could be a while since, in the midst of her teething, convincing her to eat or sleep becomes an enormous challenge. IF we can get her to go to sleep, I MIGHT get to shower when she wakes up. It's a little frustrating to have your schedule entirely determined by a small and very grumpy baby. On the other hand, Hannah in some ways ensures are relaxing vacation. We can't be go-go-go all the time because she needs to nap and eat on schedule. We are assured of quiet times at least three times a day while she is napping. And there's a hammock in the woods for just such occasions.

This type of vacation is a bit of an adjustment for our family. We have always been the go-places-do-things vacationers, not the rent-a-house-and-sit-for-a-week vacationers. We would usually travel via plane or car, with excursions and activities each day. This time, though, we are stationary, with (theoretically, anyway) lots of time to talk, read, play games, and relax in one place. We'll have to see how this new vacation style works out when we evaluate at the end of the week.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Few Thoughts

In case you were worried, I'm not dead. My schedule has been a little crazy but, to tell you the truth, there's an even bigger reason that I haven't been writing. Since I started preaching every week, it's as though every single creative thought, every moment of writing inspiration, has been funneled into sermon preparation. Every time I feel like writing, I have to channel that energy into a sermon, otherwise I find myself in a panic on Saturday afternoon with nothing to say 24-hours later. So, I apologize for the long absence. I hope to achieve better balance soon. In the meantime, this is what I've been thinking about.

"Grace and Grimace"
I am a bit of a perfectionist. (Those of you who know me can now pick your jaws off the floor and climb back into your chairs now. Take a deep breath to get over the shock. OK, let's continue.) That makes preaching week in and week out, never having as much time as I'd like to prepare, a bit of a struggle. My hope to always prepare excellent sermons frequently runs up against a lack of time for exegesis, study, writing, editing, and practicing.

I preached a sermon a few weeks ago that I truly believe is my worst yet. It was a week when I had to prepare and preach two different sermons, and I just didn't have the time or focus to really polish it the way I wanted. It was still solid theology, it still made sense structurally, but it wasn't where I wanted it to be. But afterward, people gave really positive feedback. One person even said it was the best sermon he's heard me preach yet. I didn't really know how to respond. I wanted to grimace and apologize for the weakness of the sermon. But I refrained for the most part, and instead accepted the smiles and handshakes. Apparently God worked, once again, through even my weakest offering. It served as a powerful reminder for me that it really, really isn't about me or my abilities. Effective sermons are God's work, and I am just the instrument for delivery. God can speak grace even through words that make me grimace.

Gender and the City
I went to see Sex and the City 2 a few nights ago. It has gotten largely bad reviews and, I'll admit, I was not particularly impressed by the plotline either. On the other hand, while it lacked the plot development of the first movie and a lot of the juicy stuff from the TV show, it had some fascinating insights about gender. When these apparently liberated western women go to Abu Dhabi, they collide with very different gendered expectations. At first they dismiss the modest dress, head coverings, and veils of the women in Abu Dhabi. But when they find themselves in a jam, they discover that the women are finding ways to seek independence and self-expression in spite of the veils and the traditions that would seem to hold them back. The movie leaves room for all sorts of discussions of identity, cultural expectations based on gender, the power of tradition and the challenges of shifting gender roles. It's only a nod to those issues, as the movie continues the lighthearted vein of its predecessor, but I still appreciate that the representation of women who live behind the veil was not as flat as it might have been.