Role Reversal

I am the older sister. I grew up taking blame for naughty things my brother did, and taking the spankings, too. At least, that’s how I remember it.

“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

I’m reading Mary Karr’s book, and I’m noting how one-sided all our stories are, and impressed by how generous she tries to be when recalling stories about other people. So I will confess I know there were times the spankings were related to my behavior. I know I was far from perfect; in fact, I spent quite a bit of time in the office of the head of the  lower school at St. Agnes in my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade years. A core unrest whipped me around and around; I climbed out a window, and I kicked my teacher, and I pulled a fire alarm, or so they tell me. I think I am innocent of that last one. But who knows?

By adolescence, I had learned how to control myself a little better – or to pretend to, to pretend to be that professional good girl an older sister and first-born ought to be. As my brother got involved in typical teen-age shenanigans, I became pious and careful. I might disappoint my parents (I did), but it wouldn’t be on account of sex or drugs.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in… (Luke 15:25-28, CEB)

I think in the church we’re very likely to identify ourselves with the older son, to convince ourselves that we’ve always been well-behaved, loyal, hard-working, all the ideals of this American culture. The truth about me is that I have been all those things, but I’ve still managed to leave home, worry my parents, shock everyone who knew me by (1) going to seminary, (2) getting divorced, (3) getting married again, (4) getting divorced, (5) coming out, and (6) getting married again. To my family back home in Virginia, who thought of my brother as the imp and me as the nice girl, I have engaged in a complete role reversal. My brother is the steady one, long-married, established. I am the rogue, the prodigal, the sinner.

When I read this chapter now (Luke 15), I read it differently than at other times in my life. I can only read it as myself. We are all corrupt this way.

I read it as a person whose whole life is viewed differently, as a woman whose choices are well outside the realm of youthful sins, errors or peccadilloes. I read it as a woman whose marriage is considered suspect not because it’s #3 but because my spouse is a wife. I read it as the niece who was not welcome at a funeral, as the sister whose brother would not come to the wedding. I read it as a pastor’s wife subject to never-ending micro-aggressions not only from the people who question our “lifestyle,” but from the people who claim to support us. I read it as a pastor whose employability in a progressive denomination plummeted just for being queer.
When I read these stories now, I am grateful for these stories and Jesus’ assurance that God loves us, and seeks us, and returns us to the fold.

It’s only in some human eyes that I ever left it.

Holy God, sometimes we get lost in the wilderness of judgment, in the dark corners of oppression, in the foreign land of inhospitality. You nose us out, search for us, welcome us home, and in every case, rejoice when we are together again. Thank you for that. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

It’s been said

The President was up on Twitter again last night, fumbling to reconnect with his crowd of supporters, the people who believe him even when he says things that are mendacious. I suspect he hopes not only to solidify their loyalty but to recapture some fraction of the feeling he had standing in front of large crowds and getting them to cheer his outrageous promises. I don’t see how all this won’t get him into more trouble, but I have been surprised all along at his ability to win in the end, so I may be wrong.

It’s been said that Luke is a gospel that gets preachers into trouble, but I say unto you they all have that powerful possibility. Still, reading this chapter (Luke 14), I get the point. It’s serious business to be one of the people who follows Jesus. He’s a different kind of provocateur of the established power structure, and we’re going to find ourselves in that position, too, if we pay attention to him. In Chapter 14 alone, he stresses that Sabbath laws are less important than taking care of people; reverses our understanding of the precedence we think we deserve in his description of the seating at a wedding banquet; he reinforces the principle with a story about people who are too busy to accept an invitation, because they are too preoccupied with worldly matters. Who gets invited in? The people who are too poor or sickly to have those preoccupations. Finally, he makes it clear that we have to calculate whether we are ready to give it all up to follow him, even our families.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27, CEB)

This isn’t super-secret wisdom only for the disciples. It’s for a large crowd.

The difference of course is that Jesus has a word for the crowd that will not make him popular – unless we are the ones who are seldom invited, would be seated at the lower end of the table, are the ones who can count up what we have and what we would lose and say yes to picking up our particular crosses and following him.

He ends the chapter with a rumination on salt. Salt that loses its flavor is no good for the soil. It’s not even good for the manure pile. Listen up, he says. Listen up.

File Mar 28, 2 28 58 PMThese are the things he is always saying, to the large crowds on the road, to the disciples he trusts most, even to the establishment enemies across a dinner table.

Perhaps it seems easy for me to say this because I’m not in a pulpit right now, but we people of faith have got to find it in us to risk ourselves for the truth of the gospel. It’s been said that will get us into trouble.

I’m counting up what it will cost. I want to be at least good enough for the manure pile.

Lord, whatever the crowd we face, give us courage to speak your truth. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

 

But you didn’t want that

One of the things I learned early on in ministry is that sometimes, even often, pastors will be called upon to conduct funeral or memorial services for people we did not know very well. Occasionally that’s on us (we didn’t spend enough time visiting); other times it’s a culture that allows for people tangentially related to the church to call upon the institution in time of need; and in special cases, someone you know and love in your church family asks if you will extend the circle of your care to include the uncared-for in their own circle. I’ve been the one to say a few words at a ne’er-do-well uncle’s “pauper’s burial,” a program funded by the city for indigents. I’ve stood in the mud of an early-spring cemetery with the two families of a man who remarried, watching the uneasy rapprochement between the now middle-aged stepchildren he raised and children he left. And I’ve been up to the country to bury the matriarch of a blue-collar clutch who clucked at her chicks to warn them from danger and was frustrated by their responses often.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.” (Luke 13:34, CEB)

It was the first, but not the last, service for which I used this text, but I will confess I used it sweetly. The hen with the chicks under her wings can’t really protect them from the fox, you know. She can comfort them under her wings in the moment of crisis. She can lay down her life for them.

The mother hen I buried up in the countryside of Maine had been the one to speak honestly with her children and her grandchildren about their paths in life. They made her life hard. When she died at 75, great-grandchildren were in baby seats or held on hips at the graveside. She gave warnings, shared wisdom, and offered protection — but they didn’t want that.

Jesus is honest with those who will listen. He names their hypocrisy and offers a hope for redemption, even second chances. His path is a loving one, but it is a hard one. There is no protection from death. We are all going to face it. There is no avoiding a reckoning with life or with God. Will we gather under the wings of the mother hen? Or will we insist on going it alone?

Mothering God, thank you for offering the shelter of your wings. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

According to your word (a prayer for pastors)

One: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
Many: Let it be with me according to your word.

One: Here we are, O God, your servants, seeking to understand what you want for us, and what you want from us. You wend your way into our lives, sometimes a lightning bolt, or a whispered breeze, the ray of sunshine piercing through forest cover, the full moon illuminating waves as they break on the shore. We feel you before we know you fully.

One: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
Many: Let it be with me according to your word.

One: Here we are, O God, your servants, moved to consider new possibilities for being useful to you, making ourselves useful on your behalf. You change our lives, sometimes through the aha! in lines of scripture or the evocative phrase in a poem, words leaping off a page, supernaturally bold-faced.

One: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
Many: Let it be with me according to your word.

One: Here we are, O God, your servants, aware there are many ways to serve you, and wondering if we have found the right ones. We consider possibilities for ministry: accompanying your children throughout their lives, while offering a good word, marking them as yours, breaking bread and pouring cup, providing care in times of illness and loss, organizing to take the world as it is and make it what you would have it be.

One: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
Many: Let it be with me according to your word.

One: Here we are, O God, your servants, looking for signs. How will we know when we have found the path laid out for us? Will there be angel song in the sanctuary, or the nodding head of a friend across the table in a coffee shop? Will we feel serene and purposeful, or a little sick to our stomachs? Give us the courage of Mary, who was brave enough to question an angel and faithful enough to give her life to your service. Let it be with us according to your word, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying:

Our Father, etc.


This prayer, based on Luke 1:26-38, was offered at the closing worship service of “Here Am I: Women Responding to God’s Call,” a conference co-hosted by The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and RevGalBlogPals on the weekend of The Annunciation of the Lord.

Eat, drink, be merry

There are some days when I am stressed out and in a hurry to finish things and my hurry and stress are usually obvious in my tone of voice and the speed with which I talk and my propensity to fly off the handle. I have decent self-management skills, most of the time, but I am currently piecing together several part-time gigs, which means some weeks I don’t have enough to do and other weeks I have a lot of deadlines.

On those occasions, there may be moments in which I sound a bit hysterical.

In Luke 12, Jesus sounds like me on a deadline. Maybe multiple deadlines. The chapter gathers a string of parables and conversations, then ends with a vision of families torn apart by the disruption he brings. It’s clear he is feeling the tension of trying to get his message across and worrying that no one will understand, and soon it will be too late. Deadline is a literal term when applied to his story.

And really, it is in ours, too.

Just to be sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells us the take of the guy who builds bigger and bigger barns for his enormous harvest.

“Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” (Luke 12:18-21, CEB)

 

The rest of the chapter makes clear that hanging onto earthly wealth is not what God wants for us. We need to be alert for God, not attached to our possessions, confident that God will care for us, and ready to be separated from our families because we follow Jesus.

I’ve spent the past 24 hours with a group of women considering whether they are called by God to ordained ministry. RevGalBlogPals partnered with the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to make this possible, and we are so grateful to LTSP for their great hospitality. Participants are staying on campus for free and being fed, too. I helped gather a panel of powerhouse clergywomen to talk about their call stories and answer questions from those considering seminary.

The things we talked about came down to the same essentials: keep an ear out for what God is doing; be ready to make all the changes necessary to follow a call; trust that somehow God will make sense out of no sense; and remember that not all relatives/friends will be supportive when they hear the news.

I hope we offered encouragement without sugarcoating anything.

Mostly I want to say, life is short and time goes by quickly. As the man with the barns discovered, a plan for the future can’t protect us from death, isn’t enough to overcome having a human body, prone to failing.

Knowing that, how much more important is it to use the time we have faithfully?

Holy One, I pray for all women who are considering their calls to ministry. Help them to see where you are moving in their lives, and to answer with courage and commitment to you. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

 

A fraction as righteous

I’m not great at saying things directly. I tend to sugarcoat, to look for a way to make nice, to nudge the other party in a particular direction rather than issuing a command or even a request. When I feel hurt, I have a hard time saying so; instead I show it in ways that I will grant are less than mature and generally not effective. This happens because I want people to like me, and I want them to think of me as nice. I’ll step up and be straightforward if I need to do it to protect someone, or something, other than myself, but I find it harder to do when I feel my reputation or my work is at stake.

I think of this as a sort of righteous niceness.

I know I need to work on this, that it is a flawed way of moving in the world, but I still find it very hard since it goes against not only my personality type but also my childhood training. This doesn’t mean I let go of the hurtful things people say or do; in fact it’s the opposite. I will spend a long time anticipating the next blow, to the point where I sometimes see the insult or the injury in something that was never meant that way, or I work off the feelings by telling someone else what happened instead of dealing directly with the problem.

“How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.

“How terrible for you Pharisees! You love the most prominent seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

“How terrible for you! You are like unmarked graves, and people walk on them without recognizing it.”

One of the legal experts responded, “Teacher, when you say these things, you are insulting us too.”

Jesus said, “How terrible for you legal experts too! You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them. (Luke 11:42-46, CEB)

There’s more, on both sides of this, as Jesus speaks frankly with those who see themselves and their code of behavior as righteous. I don’t write this off as being only about Jews or even first century religious leaders. We’re all prone to this, with whatever code is ours.

I have a fair number of rules about human interactions that are reasonable, and ethical standards worthy of upholding, but I also have a few at least that protect my way of moving in the world without allowing *me* the opportunity to tell the truth I find hard to speak. That truth gets stuck because I am afraid of rejection, afraid that others will team up against me, afraid that everyone else is right and I am bad at my job, or worse, my life. This may be in part because I lead with feelings – “when you do this, I feel” – and so many people in my life have put that back on me saying they can’t make me feel anything, that my feelings are my problem.

In a book about the Enneagram, I read recently that people like me (2s) can’t get past this without really examining how they operate; we need to develop “insight into our own brokenness and sinning…”* instead of looking for someone else to blame for whatever has gone wrong.

As much as I want to line up with Jesus in this passage, I can see myself on the side of the Pharisees and legal experts, with a highly developed code of behavior that doesn’t allow for much grace or mercy. It keeps me “safe” from others by dint of my righteousness but leaves me fearful, always, of losing everything.

What would it be like to say to someone, “The way you handled that hurt me,” or even, “I wonder why you chose to do that in the way you did?” Could it lead to a real conversation, instead of the interior maelstrom I allow by not being frank?

Holy One, it’s possible I am not as nice as I want to be and only a fraction as righteous. To protect myself, I close off deeper mutual understanding. What would it be like to be more straightforward? I wonder. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.

*From “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective,” by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

Knock, and it will be opened – really?

Jesus always seems to be encouraging us to persist, because persistence will get God’s attention. No parent is going to give a child a scorpion instead of an egg, and if your neighbor is already in bed and won’t give you some extra bread out of hospitality, he might do it out of annoyance to get you to go home, already. Later we’ll get a widow practically stalking an unjust judge. Don’t give up, he says.

And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened. (Luke 11:9-10, CEB – I read Luke 11:1-28 today)

Really?

I hear you, maybe we didn’t get what we asked for in the form we expected. Etc.

I would simply ask those who embrace that interpretation to consider whether or not they are speaking from some naive or even smug privilege.

In my denomination, we’ve been ordaining women practically forever, but there remain churches who see women as second-class candidates. We were the first Christian denomination to ordain gay and lesbian people, and we’re nominally open and affirming to all LGBTQ+ people now, but the situation on the ground is more complicated. Queer and trans clergy and candidates for ministry are knocking, seeking, asking, and we can get through the hoops right up to the point of receiving a call to a church. Then it’s in the hands of a small segment of a local congregation, a group of volunteers, certainly taking their responsibilities seriously and perhaps worried about getting it wrong and being blamed if the church suffers due to the choice they make.

And as we wait for emails or phone calls, as we are turned down by committees, as months become years, our knuckles bleed, our hearts hurt, our spirits flag.

I haven’t searched for a settled call since I came out, so I am speaking for others here, but it’s honest to say that I’ve considered the possibility of searching and decided I don’t want to risk myself. I’ve pieced together other work, much of it speculative. I don’t earn a full-time salary even by combining the other work, and I rely on my spouse’s employer for benefits such as health care and even life insurance. I wonder if I could ever earn those things again in the work for which I was trained.

Other doors have opened, of course. Other requests were granted. The love I sought for all my life was found. I write this not because I am disappointed in my life but because I wonder about my church, and other varieties of church, that make statements in forums that have limited bearing on actual employment for people like me and think that’s enough.

It’s not.

I hope what we need is merely time, that this will change, but the truth is that people who are genuinely called by God are languishing, wondering if they got the message wrong, when maybe they were just more open to the Spirit than the rest of church world. My heart hurts for them.

Holy One. We are still knocking. Please, open the door. 


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.