Bored in Church

Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I travel a lot to preach in a variety of churches.  When I stand in the pulpit and look out over these congregations, I see a lot of people looking at me like this:

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My college students have this look perfected.  I can be preaching brilliance…preaching right at them….hanging over the pulpit…..practically touching them….and this is what they look like:

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It makes me want to cry.  Where’s the excitement?  Where’s the curiosity?  Where’s the sense of spiritual adventure?  Is it me?  Am I this dull?  Or is the problem bigger than me?  Where’s the life in the church today?

I can’t point fingers, though.  I get bored too.  Which is why for the past two years, I’ve started wandering off to Iowa City.  In Iowa City people gather to get drunk on poetry, buy tote bags full of books at the local, independently-run, book store, form groups in tiny coffee shops to discuss the novels and memoirs they are working on, and they congregate on porches in the evening to drink gin and tonics out of paper cups.  For the past few summers, I’ve booked a room in the Sheraton and thrown myself into a full week of the Iowa Writers Festival.

The first summer, I was scared to death. I thought writing instruction would be helpful to me as a preacher, but this “writer festival thing” was totally new.  I’ve gone to lots of church conferences in my time, but in Iowa City, there wasn’t another MDiv to be found. This is the land of the MFA’s, people who have gotten whole degrees so they can write well, create, and be steeped in literature to which I was never exposed in seminary. Reading what I had written out loud to my class made my heart race with fear. Opening myself up to the critique and feedback of others made me feel utterly vulnerable.   But even as I struggled with these new challenges, the acceptance and patience shown me by this new community of writers–who all knew what it felt like to fail–inspired me.

As the week progressed I came to know my fellow classmates in deeply personal ways. I wept with a man who wrote about the profound pain he felt over his divorce.  I marveled at another man’s stark confession in an essay that he no longer loved his wife.  My stomach churned as I listened to the graphic stories of a woman from China whose mother tried to abort her after learning she was a girl.

This kind of honesty felt like church.  Or the way church ought to be…because I was challenged, and stretched, and encouraged to take risks. I grew and learned and was nurtured into a better version of myself.  I was welcomed into a community built upon a willingness to share our selves and our stories with each other.

Iowa City has become my new Jerusalem. It is my pilgrimage.  At a writers gathering in the heart of the heartland, I get a deep dose of what I need to be faithful to myself, my God, and my calling as a pastor and a preacher.

This past Sunday I preached in a new congregation of about one hundred people, a good mix of young and old and middle-aged.  I worked hard on my sermon, incorporating what I learned in Iowa City: Use specific, concrete details.  Edit the unnecessary.  Avoid the cliché.  Be unexpected.  Don’t be afraid to tell the truth.

From the pulpit I was encouraged to see interest and curiosity on the faces of many.  The high school youth were with me off and on. But then there was a gentleman in the back, who sat with his arms crossed, his eyes staring seriously over wire-rimmed glasses, his mouth shaped into an angry frown.  He wasn’t having any of it, even as I intentionally sought to soften him with my direct gaze.

Excuse me, sir.  What’s with the face?  Is it that I used the word “ass” in my prose poem?  Was it my reference to a good gin and tonic?  Or is it simply that I am someone new? You look like my son when I wake him early from a long, deep nap.  I see I have your full attention.  I’m not boring you!  You’re welcome.  And thank you.

about Martha

Luke 10: 38-42

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

You are worried and distracted, worried and distracted, worried and distracted.  Jesus, I can’t get your words out of my head.  Dammit.  I’ve got guests to host and dinner to prepare. I’ve got young children to corral.  I’ve got friends who want to socialize.  I’ve got a husband who expects me to do everything well.  And I’ve got a Teacher who wants me to sit.  Of course I’m worried and distracted!  As you should know, Jesus, as you should know.  For you are the one who led me to all of this.  You are the one who encouraged me to this life of discipleship while also being wife and mother.  You are the one who called me to this worried and distracted life.  So how am I to understand in the midst of many things, I need only one thing?  How am I to take your approval of Mary, when I’m the one doing all the work?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Your words don’t make sense to me, Jesus.  Why have you chosen Mary over me?  Why have you told me she is better when you know how hard I try?  You’re words hurt me.  I feel like I can never give you enough.  You’re always wanting more.  Yet I don’t have more to give.  I might just lose it, Jesus.  Right here and right now.  I might just come crashing down at your feet in a big sobbing mess.  What would you say to me then, Jesus?  If I were to fall, collapse, give way right at your feet?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I’m undone, Jesus.  I opened my home to you, my heart, my whole life.  I just want to know that I am okay.  I just want to know that I am on the right track.  I know I’m not perfect.  But I’m trying so damn hard.   Please, Jesus.  I beg of you.  I kneel before you.  I lay myself at your feet.

“Martha, Martha.”

 

 

 

about the church

I love the Church.  To be clear, I love the old, mainline, rooted in tradition, liturgical, theologically complex, organ-blaring, butt-numbing pew kind of church.  I have given my life to this Church.  I am passionate in her service.  I am emboldened to lead a new generation through her doors.  And yet, sometimes I stop to wonder why?

The Church has challenged me and nurtured me in all the ways I needed to be challenged and nurtured.  She put me in a pulpit and told me to preach. Only then did I discover my voice.  She pushed me to follow Jesus behind the prison walls, within the mental health ward, to the communities of Mexico, to the rural poor of South Carolina, and into homes of impoverished families living in my own community. She taught me profound spiritual practices.  She introduced me to the most inspiring of people.  She opened the scriptures for me and she surrounded me with a community the likes of which cannot be found on Facebook.

But the Church has not always been good to me.  She passed me by for positions in favor of a less experienced, less talented man.  She passed my husband by for positions because as a working pastor myself I could not be the traditional “pastor’s wife.” She, the Church, placed me in some horribly dysfunctional congregations working with some horribly dysfunctional people. And she, the Church, has made me sit through committee meeting after committee meeting after committee meeting during which a LOT was said, but little was actually done. (This could be a form of human torture.)

Yet, in the face of her flaws (the mistakes she refuses to confess, the prejudice she still harbors, the certainties she will not let go) I still believe in the Church’s potential.  I believe in her because I believe we need her.  I believe we need a place to console us in grief and celebrate with us in new births, a place where we can cry unabashedly and name the complexities of life.  I believe we need a place where we talk about things that matter, a place that will challenge us to move outside of our selves and our little worlds, a place that will prod us towards our neighbor who thinks and believes differently. I believe we need a place where people of all ages can gather around commonly held rituals, a place where we can sing, and pray, and play the blues in the context of Good News.  I believe we need a place where we can feel hope.

I believe, at her best, and by the grace of God, the Church can be that place.  This is whom I have given my life to, because this I believe.

about my clerical collar

When I bought my first clerical collar I had questions:  Did I want the plastic band that goes all the way around the neck?  Or the shorter plastic tabs that slide beneath the made-to-order clerical shirt?  Was there a female protestant pastor version?  Would it work with blue jeans and my favorite boots?  Would it flatter my figure and accessorize well?  Was there a rite to follow when putting it on? Were there rules about when and how I should wear it?  Was this something I wanted at all?

I bought the version with the shorter plastic tabs, the other too easily mistaken for a white turtleneck.  In its newness it felt foreign next to my skin. I looked in the mirror and felt like a fake.  It wasn’t because I was a woman.  Nor that I was young.  But simply because it was me…just me….staring back in the mirror dressed up like clergy.  That’s when I realized the collar had a job.  It was was to be my visual cue that I was the real deal.

It changed the way others looked at me too. It took care of those who mistook me for the church secretary.  It cleared up all the doubts.  All the old, white, funeral directors who used to call me “precious,” “dearie” or “honey” knew now that I was in charge.

I ran into the local Catholic priest, a Filipino, while wearing it once. We were dressed the same.  Black pants, black jacket, black clerical shirt, white tab collar.  I had added a cute pair of earrings, though.  He nodded a brief greeting, startled, and walked away.

I try not to wear it shopping.  It doesn’t work well while stocking up on Corona and limes.  Once, on an emergency run for bread and juice, I tried not to notice the people noticing me.  The attention felt like the looks you get that make you check if your fly is down.

Back at the church, though, it helped make the sacred, sacred.  Baptism, eucharist, death, wedding, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, it performed its job well.  It helped me stand up a little straighter.  It coaxed holy liturgy from my mouth.  It embraced my insecurities and gave me gravitas.

I don’t want to wear it all the time. I don’t want it to get too comfortable around my neck.  This woman needs to just be a woman sometimes, not a woman cleric.  But I am thankful for its role in my life, thankful for all it has given me.  And I am amazed by the power of this one small thing, which is, ultimately, just a piece of plastic.

about the widow of Zarephath

1 Kings 17: 1-24

I am irritated with the prophet Elijah.  He assumed the widow was afraid.  Commentators assume this too.  They say Elijah needed to assure the widow that she could trust him.  I don’t read it this way.  The widow doesn’t feel afraid to me.  She feels done.  She tried to tell Elijah this.

As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (v.12)

She’d been living on the edge of death for so long—a widow, a deadly drought, ravens circling over her son’s head.  The ravens were feeding Elijah.  What did he know of death?  He’d spent the worst days of the drought kickin’ back by the Wadi Cherith, drinking and eating to his heart’s content!  So I’m irritated with Elijah’s assumption that the widow was afraid.  How dare he name her emotional state.  As if he knows.

Do not be afraid,” he says to her, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (v.13)

If the widow had not been done, I imagine she would have fought this ridiculous request—this request to make something out of nothing.  She was a fighter.  I know she was a fighter because she made it this far.  (Mothers are fighters, in case you didn’t know.)  She didn’t fight the request, though, because death was about to win and she was done.  So she goes through the motions, feigning obedience.  She takes a handful of meal, mixes it with a little oil and makes it into a cake.  She bakes it and then they eat, all of them, for many days.  And all of a sudden she wasn’t done anymore.

I wonder what that felt like?  I’ve never been as close as she was to death.  I’ve never been done.  So I can only speculate.  I imagine, though, that brushing so close to death gave her a perspective that few share.  “Now I know that you are a man of God,” she says to Elijah when it is all over. Okay, okay.  So Elijah’s done good.  Maybe he’s not so irritating.  But I’m intrigued that now she knows.  Because from her journey with death I imagine she knows more than that Elijah is a trustworthy prophet.  I think she knows that life is precious and vulnerable.  I think she knows that she is not in control.  I think she knows God as light and as darkness.  I think she knows, more than ever, that she doesn’t know, and this makes her a very wise woman, indeed.