In the realm of the nones

hc9utI’m excited to share my most recent essay published in The Christian Century that highlights my work as a college chaplain.  The “Nones” are defined as those who claim no religious affiliation and I meet many of them in my ministry.  Here is a link to my article entitledIn the realm of the nones: Reflections of a college chaplain.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

Everywhere I have served as a pastor I have had a group of clergywomen to whom I could turn for RevGals coversupport and encouragement—a safe space to talk with colleagues who understood. Women pastors need such spaces because, even though we are less and less unique (as of 2013 36% of Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors are women) we are oftentimes still treated as unique by the Church and her members. After my move here to rural Illinois, away from parish ministry and into college chaplaincy, finding a group of clergy women was difficult. Connecting to the RevGalBlogPals community has helped me not feel so isolated.

I’m proud to be a contributor to this collection of essays. As I have been reading through it, I keep returning to the Table of Contents. I just love seeing all those female names listed with the title of “Reverend.” Resonating with essay after essay I look these clergywomen up on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about their lives and to connect with them through social media. I am hungry for this company of women and for these stories to be told.

I really think churches should study this book so they can better understand what their female pastors are experiencing.   Those who don’t believe women should be in the pulpit should read it too. Then they might realize just how wrong they are.  When I read this book I can’t help but think, these women are good–seriously good–at what they do. It’s an honor to be included among them.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor is available for purchase through the publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. It can also be purchased at Amazon or through Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Out of My Zone: A Pastor Attends AWP

I decided to stand out today as I got dressed for my first AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). So I pulled on my gray wool dress pants, black ballet flats and a black blouse. When I registered yesterday I noticed a lot of body piercings, black framed eye-glasses, leggings and boots (Doc Marten style.) I rode the elevator with a plus-size woman in ripped (on purpose, I think) black nylons underneath a pair of black denim short-shorts. Later, I noticed a man with a necklace of large bones. A presenter at my first panel wore denim and a red baseball cap with the rim flipped up. Am I cool enough to be here? I thought to myself as I settled into a comfortable seat in the middle.

There are plenty of people here who look like me, but this isn’t a church conference. I went to Hell’s Kitchen last night for dinner. I would have done this at a church conference, but it would have been ironic and silly. Not so at AWP. There’s a giant Craft Bar in the middle of the convention center where we are attending panels. At the church conference, this would be where I would go to learn new art to make with the kids in Sunday School. Here at AWP, this is where I buy beer. I think they were open this morning.

Everyone’s been so welcoming. I spoke to Susan Ito of LiteraryMama after her panel presentation. She was so nice and encouraged me to blog more and to get on Twitter. I visited my friend, Michael Morse, at Canarium Press’ table, to buy his new book of poetry, “Void and Compensation.” They had a great deal, three books of poetry for $30.  So I asked the publishers which of their poets would be best to quote in a sermon.  It took them a minute to register my unfamiliar question before responding that it depended on my congregation. I told them I was a college chaplain, so I could be pretty edgy.  “Oh!” they exclaimed. “Well, then, here you go!” And they quickly filled my arms with new books.

Needless to say, I’m having a ball. This is just the kind of conference I have needed for encouragement and new connections. I hope to blog more about it soon. But now I’m off to begin my foray into the world of Tweet and Twitter. (It’s sounds so cute, how hard could it be?)

Writing teaches writing

After reading this article by Ben Huberman at The Daily Post I clicked over to the Paris Review to read their full interview of John McPhee in a new series called “The Art of Nonfiction.” I always appreciate reading about the process of successful writers. Typically, I find myself inspired to write after reading how their craft evolved. The interview of McPhee did not disappoint in this regard.

McPhee’s description of writing a novel for his college thesis was what stoked my writing fire. His university had, as he said, “a great fight” over whether or not he would be allowed to write a novel for his thesis. No one had before. In the face of opposition, they finally allowed McPhee to proceed. This is how he described the experience:

They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.

But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something.”

Writing teaches writing. That was the line that got me. So even though it was late (I don’t write well when it is late) I pulled out my notebook, set the timer on my Ipad for ten minutes and free wrote about a hospital visit that I recently made. The visit was a profound one—one of those pastoral visits that make you contemplate life, tragedy, and the meaning of it all. I knew I needed to write about it, but hadn’t yet made the time. McPhee inspired me to make the time.

More than anything, I want to learn and grow as a writer—not so much to publish more, or get more followers here on my little blog. But to help me make sense of this world in which we live and pay careful attention to it all.  I want to be able to articulate the experiences I have and find my way to new discoveries. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is through my writing. So, thank you, John McPhee, for tonight’s teaching.  I am better for it.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 1)

AngryDo all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.

His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.

So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.

Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.

 

The Burden of Judgment

burden_of_memoryThomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.[1]

The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words.  More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life.  During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love.  Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.

I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat.  Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.

Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.)  He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space.  It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.

Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation.  The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.”  They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples.  They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.

“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”[2] 

Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people?  Their behavior turns my mood black.  They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.

“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.  It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”

Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul.  I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion.  They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet.  But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.

“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”

I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him.  And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space.  And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves.  And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well.  I, too, desire to be relevant.  I, too, struggle with my ego.  I, too, am frail and insecure.

Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with.  I don’t want to be like these people.  I want to be better.  And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.

This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” (Doubleday, New York, NY, 1965), pg. 156.

[2] All italicized quotes are from Thomas Merton’s, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg.