Grace, New Year

The Reset Button

Our youngest got a big surprise this Christmas, a new game system he didn’t even put on his wish list. It’s hooked up in the living room, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week watching him learn unknown terrain. When he gets into trouble, he simply returns to the beginning of the level. In essence, he presses the Reset button and gets a fresh start exploring now-familiar territory, restored in strength and power but aware of what he needs to do differently.

We could all use that reset, something that goes beyond our typical New Year’s resolutions related to diet and exercise. Maybe there’s never a year that the world doesn’t need it just as much as any individual. Maybe it’s my own eyes opened wider than before, watching our boy play, and pondering why he’s safe to go to the park after school when Tamir was not, why we do not worry when his older brothers do something as ordinary as walking to the store. 

We all know why. 

The Reset button holds one of the characteristics of grace; it allows a new beginning. God’s grace asks more from us: the new beginning does not erase the death and loss that came before. We receive forgiveness, mercy, yes; amnesia, no. It’s the only hope we have to stop repeating the past. 

Gracious God, with your help, may the next level we play be changed with us. Amen.

*****

This reflection originally appeared in the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. Subscribe here to get a weekly reflection and links to great writing by clergywomen.

Grace, Love, Ministry, Orientation, Preaching, The Minister's Wife

The phone call from Nairobi

Plants vs. Zombies, in case you thought I made it up.
Plants vs. Zombies, in case you thought I made it up.

We woke up in the dark on Sunday morning, because young children and old lady cats don’t abide by “fall back.” I wanted to assure the preacher next to me of more sleep, so I leapt out of bed to intervene at 5:15 a.m. with the yowling cat and the fully-dressed third grader also in full voice, singing. When the iPod Touch of the latter could not be surfaced, I retreated to the pitch black bedroom to get my phone, offering him a session of Plants vs. Zombies (Now! on your stepmother’s iPhone! How awesome is she?!?!!).

When I picked it up I saw two missed calls, which arrived somewhere between bedtime and 5:15 a.m. This is worrisome, naturally, so I put my glasses on and looked at the number more closely. It had too many digits, far too many. I handed the phone off to keep the peace, but promised myself to go back later and Google the number. Turns out it belongs to a “Christian pastor in Nairobi” who leaves comments on the blogs of Christian pastors in other places, encouraging them to call. I’m pretty sure he’s as reliable as a Nigerian prince with a legacy that needs getting out of the country, but I did follow a link or two to see who else he might be approaching.

The trail led to the blog of a retired Southern Baptist pastor, Joe McKeever, with whom I disagree on many points, although I admit he sounds moderate compared to some until you get to the more high-pitched social issues. In the post where our mutual friend from Nairobi left a comment, Joe made a reference to pastor’s wives, and since that is one of my callings now, I took an interest, and I searched his blog for more.

Joe is in his 70s. He entered ministry in a time when his wife did not work outside the home, the era of “two for the price of one.” He is transparent about his own failings as a young pastor when it came to putting the family first and has really nice things to say about his wife and the way she has been a partner in ministry. No jokes here — from him or from me. Although we are theologically different, I liked a lot of what he had to say, despite his old-fashioned ways of saying it. For instance, in reference to the church he attends now, he writes of the pastors’s wife, “what Terri does for her pastor/husband is what every pastor’s wife should do for her man.” Ack. Hairball. Cue Tammy Wynette. Close tab.

And yet…

I seldom vacuum, but I am often found wearing pearls.
I seldom vacuum, but I am often found wearing pearls.

After church on Sunday, knowing kathrynzj was tired and still getting over a cold, I watched for a break in her conversations during the reception for Consecration Sunday. I made sure she got a drink, and then another, and something to eat, too. When I took her cup away to refill, she told the guys she was talking to how good it was to have a wife.

“(S)he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from The Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22)

No, she didn’t quote Proverbs, even sideways. I’m doing that. I admit it sounds a little Ward and June Cleaver, and I know I am in the role of June on Sunday mornings. It’s okay. I like it. Keep reading.

Because the truth is, we are both pastor’s wives. Our ministries shape differently, but we are both pastors and proclaimers of the Good News. And we both have a wife.

So hold on. I’m going to open up a post he wrote and tell you how it works for me. Here are Joe McKeever’s five points about the pastor’s wife in his post “What my pastor’s wife does for him better than anyone else.”

1. The pastor’s wife is solidly Christian herself.

Our idea of fun.
Our idea of fun.

McKeever is pretty patriarchal in his interpretation of how the will of God needs to be filtered down through the husband, but I want to say how right he is about the importance of two strong faith lives when there are ministers in the family. One of the gifts of this marriage is our mutual interest in reading the Bible, studying texts for the purpose of teaching and/or preaching them, and generally trying to stretch our understanding of God’s work in the world and the place we have in it. I’ve pushed on some of kzj’s ideas, and she has influenced me so heavily that I used the word sovereign twice in my last sermon (and meant it in a good way). But neither one of us is dependent on the other for *having* a faith life. These pastors’ wives are solidly Christian themselves.

2. The pastor’s wife has her own ministry in the church.

Now, I know you’re reacting the way I did. Doesn’t he know that pastor’s spouses have other work to do, careers outside the church?

Somewhat hilariously, however, because it’s very 1950s, I am teaching a women’s Bible Study on the Narrative Lectionary at kzj’s church. Is there anything more “pastor’s wife” than a weekday morning women’s group? I am Mrs. Pastor.

But guess what? She has a ministry in my “congregation,” too, writing for the Narrative Lectionary feature at RevGalBlogPals. We are doing things that grow out of our gifts and interests and supporting each other’s ministries while pursuing our own. McKeever writes, “God has given her a ministry.” God certainly has.

I think this one's sweet.
I think this one’s sweet.

3. One of the best things a pastor’s wife does is sit down front and support the preacher by her presence, her prayers, and her full participation.

Some of the sweetest Sundays of my life have been the handful when kzj sat in the pews, right up front, smiling while I preached. We made a point of scheduling her vacation Sundays this summer to coincide with preaching days for me, and it was a genuine loss when a situation at her church prevented that from happening on Labor Day weekend.

The best of those days ever, at a time when we were just starting to parse where our relationship might be going, came when I preached in the morning, and she preached at my Installation that afternoon. This guy is right. It’s super-special to have a loving partner beaming that love at you when you preach. I think he probably means it in a way that has to do not only with the personal support but also with the public perception, but if you really love someone, and you really love God, seeing that person proclaim God’s grace and mercy, hearing her exhort the faithful, is a gloriously joyful thing.

McKeever concludes, “God uses her support to bless her man.” I know God uses our mutual support to bless these women, even when we don’t get to hear the sermon in person. There is no opinion short of God’s that matters to me more than hers. I sit in the pew and hear her preach (sometimes twice!) a sermon I’ve already heard the night before, and it is fresh and exciting the third time around. I know everyone can see it on my face. (I do try *not* to say the words with her when I’ve gotten to know them well enough.)

4. The pastor’s wife protects his personal time.

Omigosh, this matters. We work with each other on this.

I have a call to a ministry that is 24/7 on the Internets (and at this point, still unpaid), and she reminds me it’s okay to answer that email on Tuesday instead of Monday.

I remind her that she hasn’t had a day off since…*

About Time - yes, I get it.
About Time – yes, I get it.

She nudges me about whether I’ve spent time writing, which I think of as my other ministry, and listens to me talk about how to juggle writing and RevGals. We both turn the focus to the assorted children when they need us, whether that’s reading with Mr. Dimples or Skyping with LP or #2 Son. (And if the very grown-up #1 Son ever needs us for anything, you know, we’re open.)

We both love what we do. That’s a good thing, and a hard thing, because we want to finish one more thing, respond to one more person, check on one more detail. How can we work smarter, not harder? We don’t do this perfectly, but we have each other to keep mutually honest about it.

And here’s a public pledge: we *are* going to the movies this Friday night, just the two of us.

5. The pastor’s wife prays for him better than anyone.

McKeever’s point is that no one can pray for you better than someone who really knows you, recognizing the nuances of self-doubt, the ups and downs of the preaching life, the buttons other people push or the triggers put in place by life’s past injuries. He assumes a full adulthood spent together, all the churches, the time in seminary. We don’t have that, but we do have years of friendship that created a deep bond before anything else. McKeever calls the pastor’s wife “a God-called encourager of her man.”

That resonates with me, minus the man. I feel like a God-called encourager of my pastor-wife and her ministry. I feel I have the same in her.

In case you're worried, we do get out sometimes.  Penn State game, 11/2/13
In case you’re worried, we do get out sometimes.
Penn State game, 11/2/13

I started off writing this thinking it would be a possibly ironic report on my role as June Cleaver if she were married to a pastor, but in truth, the phone call from Nairobi pointed up how valuable it is to have a partner whose faith is strong, who supports one’s ministry by having her own, who shows up and lets people see the love, who understands the big moments and the small disappointments, who calls you to account on the way time is spent and who holds you in prayer. These gifts go beyond gender and orientation. And I’m not just giving them. I’m receiving them, too.

******

I fear this would scandalize Joe McKeever, who thinks the church needs to be firm on homosexuality, so I’m not going to link to him, but I’ve used his name because I give him credit for his apt conclusions. If he should find his way here, I hope he’ll see that gay people can be faithful servants of Jesus Christ, too.

*Since Monday, actually, so this week is going well.

Grace, Lent, Lent 2B, Romans 4:13-25

The Law is Wrath

I’ll tell you a secret. I took a whole semester on the Epistles. But when I look back and try to remember what New Testament classes I had at Andover Newton, I almost always forget that one. I went in with a bad attitude about Paul, and I came out with a slightly less bad attitude, although I quickly resumed it and have only in the past two years started to be friends with him, gingerly.

He just makes everything so complicated. He says so many things that are subject to misinterpretation, and I mean by me as well as the rest of the crowd of people who care about reading the letters he dictated so long ago.

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace… (Romans 4:13-16a) (I cut this off mid-verse because I don’t want to go on to more stuff about Abraham right this minute.)

So it’s faith that brings about our salvation, but in the dictated-by-Paul’s-letters-and-also-those-other-letters-he-didn’t-actually-write world of my girlhood religion, there were a whole other set of laws to obey, and if you weren’t obeying them you clearly didn’t have the “right” faith.

The rules for girls were not necessarily the same as the rules for boys.

And as I have surely said before, I grew up to believe living a faithful life is a response to grace, not a prerequisite for it.

I mean, I’ve preached it. I must believe it.

My new friend Paul was pretty sure of this: “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”

Really, he does not look happy, does he?

(P.S. The Law is WRATH, which makes it sound rather like Khan, which I think will be my new favorite thing. The Law is Khan. And being too attached to it won’t work out well, as anyone who saw Star Trek 2 can assure you.)

Paul always makes things harder to understand than they really need to be.

All of us come from ways of life and family systems and rules of engagement. Adhering to those ways, systems and rules may keep us organized and safe and even civilized. But none of that makes us right with God. God takes care of that all by God’s own Self, through an incredible extension of grace based not on our accomplishments, or our purity, or our self-denial or (rats, because I really thought maybe I was the exception) our addiction to perfection.

The Law is Wrath. The Law is Khan. Khan is not grace-full or love-giving. Khan is tribal and limited and cruel.

We are seeing Khan all around us, in the un-grace-ious political dialogue that suggests if only everyone would abide by one set of religious rules then we would all go back to the happy times of old when girls grew up to be mommies and men were men and gay people were in hiding and (really, we’re not far off from this one, too) races didn’t mix.

Grace calls bull$#*! on all that.

And that’s a good thing.

Now, I have no problem saying all that in the global sense, or about you and your life. My trouble is getting my arms around it where I am concerned. And while that’s not the specific task of my Lenten discipline, getting my arms around grace would certainly support it.

Or maybe I need to let grace’s arms go around me. Because I don’t want faith to be null or the promise to be void.