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.

Grace, Prayer, The Inner Landscape

In a twist and out again

From my deck, before.

I have some highly advanced gifts in the area of getting myself into a twist. It even happens in prayer. I make things complicated.

Last week during Study Leave, I made a point of turning over an Angel Card each day. They are sitting on kathrynzj’s desk because I gave them to her. Meanwhile, back home, I turned my partial deck, besmudged and casually lifted by passers-by, into an art project during this past Lent. So it felt good to be handling her pretty, newer ones. And you love to turn over a card like Freedom or Grace or Love. But when you get Efficiency, you think, surely there is some better Angel?

One of the cards I turned over last week was Simplicity. It made me chuckle. That’s a lovely spiritual discipline, I thought, simplifying in this complex world. Now let me get back to my iPhone and check my Twitter @ responses and see how many people “liked” my Facebook status.

Ahem.

The past year has involved a lot of life review for me, a lot of looking at things I did and choices I made and even stuff that just happened and was really beyond my control, and I’ve been making it as complicated for myself as possible by trying to find ways to take the blame. That’s almost easier sometimes than assigning responsibility where it belongs. And it’s feels more powerful than sometimes admitting powerlessness. And if you assign blame to your own self in a global enough fashion, others are sure to come to your rescue and absolve you of everything, which is a slight comfort, even when you’re secretly dwelling on the one thing you really could have controlled and maybe didn’t, or something like that.

I have some trouble forgiving myself for those things, and that blocks me from feeling forgiven by God, who I would assure each of you takes a much larger view of things than we ever can, and who I would also assure you loves each and every one of you in spite of those mistakes and errors and is particularly forgiving of those who desire to repent, to turn towards God’s love and forgiveness.

I just have trouble turning, sometimes.

And as I wrestled with this in prayer, I proved once again that there is no situation for which the Spirit will not send a song lyric or a hymn verse into my mind.


‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
(Elder Joseph–1848)

As I used to say to my Confirmation class at Y1P, “Oh, crumbs.”

There it is. Simplicity.

So, I keep turning, and today I feel less twisted, more resilient and, not coincidentally, graced and forgivable.

A reasonable approximation of the Valley of Love and Delight

Grace, Love, Poetry

Get it right

A kitchen cleaned just so,
All doors closed quietly,
No sign of having thoughts at all,
She would love me if I got it right.

(Get it right. Get it right.)

He would love me if I got it right,
Made dinner to his special tastes,
Never asked where he’d been,
No inconvenient feelings shared.

(Get it right. Get it right.)

My visits timed to suit,
And sermons not too long,
Using perfect words for God,
They would love me if I got it right.

Get it right.

Get.it.right.

It beats in my head,
Pressures my heart,
A rhythm of sharp blows
They all get right.

And I could go on, always
Getting it wrong
(there was no chance
Of getting it right).

Get it right. Get it right.

Worn down, I wonder,
If I know God loves them,
Broken as they are, why
Do I have to get things right?

Am I the only one outside
The bounds of grace,
Unforgivably worse
Than everyone else?

That can’t be right.
What if it’s not word choice,
Or dinner’s presentation,
Or the way I close the door?

(Get it right. Get it right.)

What if love gets it right?
Love God, love each other,
love yourself—
that last’s the hardest.

Maybe it was never me.
Maybe the fault lies
In their measuring,
In hearts’ limitations.

(Get it right, honey.)

You show me how, hand
Protective on my back,
Every gesture speaking love.
You get it right so easily.

I’ll get it wrong sometimes.
But I want to try, to open
My heart to hopeful trust,
To love again and get it right.

~Martha Spong, October 8, 2011

Grace, Marriage Equality

Amazing Grace: a beautiful video

The wonderful and gifted Nhojj, whose work this is, performed at the launch party for RAW, the book of poems (including three of mine) linked in the sidebar. I’m bowled over by the beauty of the images and his music as well. Love is love. We all have God’s Grace, abundantly, but thanks be to God there is more grace being shown by people to people in the fullness of who they are.

Thanks to Ron who sent me the link!

Children, Grace

Off Road

Snowman left yesterday for a summer job at Land O'Lakes Arts Center. Two friends picked him up at an airport along their route, and the three continued on together. When a deer ran into their path, the young driver swerved, and the car went off the road. 

The convertible.

With the top down.

The car flipped, and despite a seatbelt clinging hard enough to bruise him, the force of the accident threw him from the car. 

Many things flew out of the car, suitcases and wallets and eyeglasses and cell phones and clarinets. Even a cello, in its impressively fashioned protective case, flew out of the car.

And with those things went my boy.

Snowman hurtled out of the car.

Oh my God! He *hurtled* out of the car.

In shock, cared for by a nurse who happened upon the scene and bundled him in blankets, he made the journey via ambulance to an emergency room, where medical staff checked him for every kind of thing you can imagine: broken this and lacerated that, internal injuries and external disasters.

How can it be possible that he is only bruised? Yes, the bruises are "serious," and he must rest and elevate his legs, but how can it be possible? How is he not lost to us?

A friend asked, "Did he see the angel that caught him?"

I have trouble with theology that says God purposely protected this person or that one, because it suggests a divinely cavalier attitude toward so many other people not encased in metaphysical bubble wrap.

But for today–and probably for some time to come–I am grateful, thankful, relieved.

Today, I believe in miracles.

(The driver climbed out and walked away; the other passenger required stitches in one of his two cut knees.)