Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lay Off My Shoes

I have never claimed to be a typical woman. I do not always play by the gender rules, and I don't usually buy into the stereotypes. In fact, I sometimes consciously buck the expectations just because I can. But the shoe thing... the shoe thing is a gender norm that I truly do not understand.

Women are supposed to be fascinated with shoes. We're supposed to love shopping for shoes, wearing shoes, admiring shoes... they're a part of fashion that's supposed to be our weakness. And I just don't get it. I know, I know, PB is going to be appalled, but it's true. I simply do not understand what all the fuss is about.

Clothes I get. Clothes can really affect the way you look; colors can bring out your eyes or skin tone. Different styles and tailoring can flatter your figure or make you look taller or thinner. Those things I understand. I can understand the necessity of taking fashion into account when choosing clothes. But shoes? I just do not understand. Aside from the fact that heels make your legs look better if you're wearing a skirt, and the fact that your shoes need to match the rest of your outfit or you look sloppy and careless, I don't understand the need for stylish/uncomfortable shoes.

My priorities in shoes are comfort and practicality. As long as they don't clash with what I'm wearing, as long as they're the proper level of casual, professional, or formal, the rest doesn't matter much. I can recognize that certain shoes are cuter than others, but if cute shoes are uncomfortable, I don't see how they're worth wearing.

For example: I hate when my feet are cold and wet. So, while I recognize that my snow boots are not cute, I still wear them because they keep my feet warm, dry, and cozy. And while pointy-toed stilettos may be cute, I can't walk in them, and they're not comfortable, so I definitely won't be buying or wearing them.

To me this seems self-explanatory. My feet are more important to me than style, and falling down looks much worse than wearing flats. But this is not clear to other people. It's not that I'm on some holier-than-thou rant here. I'm not saying that fashion is completely unimportant or that being serious about my work somehow renders appearance beneath my notice. It's just that I hate being uncomfortable, and I can't afford to be falling down all the time or taking nine years to walk from my office to the copy room. There are certain sacrifices that I'm simply not willing to make for the sake of appearance.

One of my friends and fellow staff members is constantly ribbing me for a pair of black shoes that I own. I get that they're not stylish. They're square-toed sort of loafers. But they're incredibly comfortable. And, perhaps the most important thing about them, especially for leading worship on Sundays, is that they don't make any noise. They have some sort of rubber composite soles (again, I know, not attractive) but they don't make distracting clacking sounds when I walk around the wood-floored chancel. I have enough to be thinking about when I'm leading worship. I don't need to be worrying about how to walk just-so to keep from making too much noise when I'm walking from the pews to the lectern. So, until I find some cute, comfortable, silent shoes to replace the "hideous" shoes I have, I'm going to keep wearing them.

Or maybe I'll just train my congregation that the chancel area is "sacred ground", so I shouldn't wear any shoes there at all. Think it'll work?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Misunderstanding Mystics

I admire mystics, but I do not understand them. I am an empiricist, almost painfully practical in the way I view the world. Yet I am mesmerized by the words of the mystics, who speak about experiences of God that are tangible in a way I cannot imagine. I read the words of Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Bonaventure, and I am transfixed. They write as though they can see with their emotions, hear with their hearts, and smell with their intellect. They describe things that seem to me to be veiled beyond recognition. And they live with confidence in those perceptions; I imagine them as plants growing upside down, their roots planted firmly in midair. They somehow grow strong and blossom out of a foundation that is utterly invisible to me. I cannot understand how they exist that way, and I find their ability to defy my logic frustrating.

A few years ago, at a library sale at my seminary, I picked up a used copy of The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. According to the inscription, the book once belonged to Roberta Bondi, a scholar who has written extensively about monastic spirituality. In light of the monastic connections and deep spirituality of both Norris and Bondi, I feel as though the book somehow fell out of its proper orbit. It should have been picked up by a deeply spiritual student, someone who would be inspired by both the work and its previous owner and go on to write works on mysticism or monastic communities, or at the very least a poignant spiritual memoir. Somehow, though, this book has fallen into my possession.

I view it as a challenge. Norris' words not only challenge me to deeper contemplation, they push me to engage, if only slightly, what Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley referred to as the "spiritual senses". I feel called to quiet my mind as much as possible and try to listen in the depths of my soul. After all, while I am ever skeptical of things I cannot back up with reason and empirical data, my faith is ultimately grounded in mystery, in things that are intangible. As I seek to grow in my faith, I have to face a reality that is beyond my ability to describe, quantify, or prove. So I continue to read the words of mystics, to try to understand Norris' descriptions of encounters with God, and to seek a reality beyond my physical experience.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Learning Vacation

When I was a student, I was under the impression that vacation was a natural habit. You took a break, went somewhere, and didn't work for a bit (a weekend, a few days, a week... however long your "vacation" was). But as a pastor, I'm discovering that vacationing is much more complicated than I originally thought.

When I was in school, there were defined breaks. It was simple, for instance, to relax and let things go during the summer and over Christmas, when I was between semesters and there were no assignments hanging over my head. It was even relatively simple to let go over Thanksgiving and Spring Break because, let's face it, no one expected you to be working during those times. All of my friends would be traveling, my professors understood that it was a time for relaxation and travel, so even though there might be lingering assignments, I didn't feel any compulsion to work on them.

But as a pastor, the work never stops. Ever. So, though I was officially on vacation and even out of town, the work chased me. Apparently, the IRS doesn't accept "vacation" as a reason to turn in my quarterly taxes late, so I spent several hours of my vacation trying to figure out their forms. And my e-mail "out of office" system decided not to work, so people continued to e-mail me and expect quick responses, while I couldn't even access my e-mail properly. So I ended up spending several more hours on the phone with people at the church and hammering out replies to e-mails at the beginning of my vacation.

By Wednesday of my "vacation" it was driving me crazy. I couldn't believe that, despite notifying my committee chairpersons and the other people on staff that I was leaving, and despite traveling several states away, I still felt all the stress and obligation of work sitting squarely on my shoulders. That was when I cut myself off. I sent one more round of e-mails, then refused to do any more work. I didn't check e-mail, I didn't call the church, and I tried as hard as I could not to think about the projects still hanging over my head. On Wednesday evening I finally took a deep breath. I began to work on vacation as a discipline, a way of clearing my head and easing my tense muscles. On Thursday, I didn't think about work at all, I got together with about ten different friends, and I had a heart-to-heart with a friend about how I could work to "get a life" while still getting my work done. Friday was a day of brunch, coffee, Rock Band, and my favorite Thai food. Saturday brought visits with family, and adventures in the kitchen with my aunt. Each day the temptation was there to check my e-mail or call in to the church, to worry about the big projects coming up in the next few months. It required focus to let those thoughts pass through my consciousness without dwelling on them.

I still don't have the discipline completely figured out yet. I didn't manage to let the work go completely, and as I was falling asleep each night I could feel a bit of the worry stealing over me. But some of the tension eased, and I'll be going back to work this week with a lighter heart and more energy. I just need to find more opportunities to practice the discipline of vacationing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Remembering My Baptism

This morning in worship we observed the Baptism of Christ. That meant that we called people to remember their baptism as we used spruce branches to sprinkle water on the gathered assembly. It was a beautiful moment, but I learned some unexpected practical lessons. First, I learned that it is difficult to walk with a bowl of water without the water in the bowl splashing all over you. Second, I learned that when I splash water on myself while wearing a white robe, I start drawing troubling mental connections to wet T-shirt contests. Third, while it might be less symbolic, it would be simpler and less time-consuming to sprinkle the people in the balcony with a super soaker instead of climbing all the way up and then back down the stairs.

Still, all this talk of remembering our baptisms got me thinking about my own baptism. While I was raised in the United Methodist Church, my mother, who was raised in the Church of the Brethren, insisted that I not be baptized as an infant. She really wanted me to choose to be baptized, and to be able to remember the event.

I was not aware of that, though. Throughout my childhood, I assumed that I, like all the other kids at church, had already been baptized. When I discovered that I had not yet been baptized, I was really upset. That church had always felt like my home, and suddenly I felt like I didn't I wasn't part of the family.

So we called the church and scheduled my baptism. I prepared with great anticipation, and when the morning I arrived, I was excited. I listened carefully to the Scripture, which was John 15:1-11. As the minister talked, I had a clear picture of the vine and the branches, of humans growing and bearing fruit, with their source in God. In that image, I found connection. And as my pastor poured water on my head, baptizing me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I felt connected to God and to the people around me like never before. As cheesy as it sounds, I could really see how we were shoots from the same vine, all nourished by God in the waters of baptism.

Today I remembered my baptism and felt both connection with the people around me, and a longing for connection with the strong people of faith who are far away from me now: those at my home church, from my campus ministry in college, from my seminary friends and the people from the church I attended during seminary.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sick Days

I hate being sick. I truly, truly hate it. And I've been sick more recently than probably any other time in the rest of my life. I usually have a very good immune system. I usually only get sick every few years. It was rare for me to get sick two years in a row, much less more than once in a single cold/flu season.

But this year has been different. I got a cold in October that lasted for almost 2 weeks, and now I have the flu, with a fever and a nasty stomach component. It makes me wonder if this has to do with the new job. In years past, I've been in school, surrounded by essentially the same people for months at a time, and those people also existed within limited social circles and locations. Now I see more than 400 people per week, and shake hands with most of them. And all of those people exist in various social networks and have different patterns of movement, including more than a dozen schools and hundreds of different workplaces around the city. It has made me wonder whether, between stress and the constant bombardment of germs from all those different people and places has increased my chances of getting sick.

To my pastor friends out there: did you notice an increase in how often you got sick in your first years of ministry? And if you've been in ministry for longer than that, did your frequency of illness decrease once your immune system got used to the new circumstances?

I know this sounds ridiculous, and I fully believe that being in ministry is worth a slightly increased risk of illness. But these are the thoughts of my fever-fuzzed mind after too many episodes of Numb3rs. I'd welcome your thoughts.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

I mean, really?!

I was a bit frazzled this morning. My senior pastor was out of town visiting family, and I was left in charge of Sunday morning worship. I had returned to town the previous afternoon after a few days away, and it wasn't until I awoke with a start at 3 a.m. that I remembered that I was presiding over communion this morning by myself for the first time. Our director of music was also on vacation, so I was trying to balance working with our music associate, preaching, remembering all the announcements, and presiding over communion with a musical setting I'd never done before. With all that in mind, I had put on my robe and I was hustling down the stairs toward the sanctuary ten minutes before the service when my eyes fell upon a visitor I recognized. There, in the area by the sanctuary, was my district superintendent. I almost fell down the rest of the stairs in my surprise. Of all the days he could have chosen for a surprise visit, he unknowingly chose the day I was running the show on my own, doing things I'd never done before, and preaching a sermon that I didn't particularly like, but had run out of time to fix.

I stood there for a second, almost waiting for colored bars to appear before my eyes and a voice to announce, "This is only a test. Had this been an actual visit of the district superintendent, you would have been warned ahead of time so you would not be flying by the seat of your pants." Since that did not occur, I regained my composure and addressed the D.S. with shocked bluntness, "What are you doing here?" That's right. I didn't say hello, or ask how his holidays had been, or greet him with poise, I asked a rather accusing question. (Dear self, if you get reappointed to a three-point-charge near Podunkville, you'll know it's your own fault!) From there on, things improved. His wife assured me, with her usual bubbly cheer, that I would be fine and that this wasn't an evaluation. I took a deep breath and tried to believe her, then went to lead the service.

In the end, the worship went relatively well. But I would simply like to ask that, in future, people not shock me into heart palpitations before 9 a.m.