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.

Prayer, Prayers for Pastors, Preaching

For Preachers, Awake in the Night

For all the preachers who are walking the floor tonight
With sick children or
Upset stomachs or
Sick, four-legged children
with upset stomachs

For all the preachers who cannot rest
Whose sermons are uncooked
Unmeshed
Unfinished
Unpreachable

For all the preachers whose sleep is disturbed
By dreams of Isaac
Bound on a mountaintop
Or wandering sheep
Or unfindable coins

For all the preachers who ponder troubles
With trustees and elders
With vestries and consistories
With new calls
And long ministries
Or no place to speak

For all the fortunate who rest well
Whose sermons gelled
Whose households sleep sweetly
Whose cats do not howl

And for all lying somewhere in between

We pray for your Sunday blessings, loving God.
Free us from the binding of human expectations.
Seek us when we are hidden under the rug of exhaustion.
Return us to the fold when we have lost the way.

Empower us by your Holy Spirit
To bring the Good News
To the weary
To the wandering
To the woebegone

To ourselves, too.

You are Love.
You are Mercy.
You are Grace.

We thank you for all these things,
Holding out hope for the holy nap to come,
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Luke, Preaching, Revised Common Lectionary

Honor, Not Fear

To prepare for this summer’s preaching schedule, I started reading the gospel of Luke again, from the beginning. (In manageable snippets, which is to say, less than a chapter at a time!) In the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ll be following Jesus on his journey through Galilee and the environs, until he sets his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and then we’ll continue on the road with him as the tension mounts. Each of the gospels has its particular flavor, and I wanted to remind myself about Luke’s.
The Visitation - Mary and Elizabeth meet - Luke 1:39-45
Jesus Mafa – Mary and Elizabeth

It’s the only gospel that begins with a sort of prequel, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple who amazingly become the parents of John the Baptist. We’ve begun to read an epic when we open the gospel of Luke. The one who comes before also has a surprising birth story, and the people who will bring him into the world are courageous and faithful in the face of other people’s disbelief, just like Mary and Joseph. Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and hearing the affirmation of someone who knows and loves her, she sings an amazing song in praise of God, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). Her song declares God will turn the world upside down in the person of the baby she is carrying, bringing down the powerful and feeding the hungry, scattering “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51, New Revised Standard Version)

In Luke 1:50, she makes this claim:
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (NRSV)
Not yours truly.
Not yours truly.
I’m afraid I’m not particularly God-fearing. I don’t walk around wondering if God will strike me dead. I do, however, honor God. I do hold God in an awe so huge it spills off the page and writing about it seems too small.
Here’s another way of translating that sentence:
“He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.” (Common English Bible)
Honor sounds more like it to me. But fear is the word we know from so many translations — those who fear the Lord, we read — and many people cling to a fear-based faith. They like the fear-worthy Divine Father, the terrifying King on the Throne, because the King on the Throne will surely, surely smite someone, somewhere.
There may be days, occasionally, when I wish I believed in that God, believed my Lord and Savior would strike down the homophobes and the racists, the pedophiles and the kidnappers, the parents who buy rifles for their kindergartners, the depravedly indifferent legislators who sell their souls to the gun lobby, and the gun lobbyists, too.
Do not be afraid. Seriously.
Do not be afraid. Seriously.

But just as I don’t believe their God will smite me for loving another woman, I don’t believe my God will smite them. I believe our God, whose angels repeatedly tell us to NOT fear, reigns over all of us with a love so deep and wide and high that no one falls outside of it.

So the hard part, then, is for us to honor God’s love for the people we find unlovable or disagreeable. No one said it would be easy, especially not Jesus, which will become clear as we walk farther down the road with him.
Discernment, Ministry, Preacher Group, Preaching, Sabbatical

Recharging

20130220-225722.jpg

When I started at my last church, kathrynzj gave me a Starbucks gift card she had personalized. It says “a card to fuel the fierce and fabulous,” a favorite reference of those who wish to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus. It’s a charming card, and a gift that meant a lot to me, so I have recharged it many, many times.

Last week I found myself in a Starbucks with her, in my new homeland, and there we ran into a UCC colleague who used to be in Maine and now serves in the town where we live, which is, you know, a little odd, especially considering we really knew each other and I did the interim in his last church after he left for Pennsylvania. #smallworld

So there we all are on a Thursday afternoon, and I am in line paying with my Starbucks card while they talk, and the card is spent down to nothing, so I pay the balance with cash and reclaim the card, fending off the barista so ready to dispose of it for me.

I join them, and the three of us stand talking, and I realize not only are my worlds colliding in a bizarre way — yes, the colleague I used to sit next to every Tuesday morning at preacher group just sat next to my wife this Tuesday morning at ministerium — but also they are doing the work, and I am not.

A few days later I got out the door early enough to be UCC at 8:15 and worship with the Presbyterians at 11. I saw and heard them both preach, my old friend and my new wife. They did it differently, in style and text and context. I wondered, as I took notes and reflected on each message, if people used to listen to me as intently as I did to them?

Despite their encouraging and good words, I felt like the gift card, run down to zero. Will God charge me up and use me again? Will I be handed over to be recycled? Or will I end up in a drawer, a fond reminder of gestures long past?

kathrynzj told me that she set up the actual card on automatic re-charge. Maybe that’s what this sabbatical is meant for, a chance to recharge on God’s account. Maybe when it’s over, way will open to ministry in a familiar form.

Or maybe not.

Church Life, Preaching

And we slid right past healing

For all our talking about views of Jesus, high and low, and the cultural slurs used by first century people, and the place of women and whether they should have walked through doors into houses to talk to strangers, we’ve slid right past healing.

I used political discourse and its unpleasantness as a way in to disputes about Christology. I took no sides, but even so, I know I gave some of my listeners heartburn just by alluding to the fact that we don’t all agree. And I can look around and make a pretty good guess at the candidates most of them support, just as I’m fairly sure they have little doubt how their lesbian pastor will vote in the Presidential election and on the marriage equality question.

I talked about politics and whether Jesus learned something from a nameless woman because both of those things felt far less dramatic and potentially controversial than the actions of the gospel story.

Jesus heals two people.

He heals a little girl with an evil spirit without even seeing her.

He heals a deaf man, and he goes all touchy-feely on that one, with spit and tongue-touching and fingers in ears. Bleh. Even the word he is quoted as using, “Ephphatha,” sounds swollen-tongued, too many consonants.

I hardly talked about the healings. The sermon was about Jesus being opened by an encounter with a human being, and a hope that we, too, can be opened by encountering one another and him.

Because there are too many people in our relatively small congregation who need that healing, who would gladly have Jesus stick his fingers wherever necessary, too many mothers and husbands and children who would follow Jesus anywhere to talk him into healing the person they love.

So we slid right past it.

I slid right past it.

Grief, John 11:1-45, Lent 5A, Preaching

Jesus Wept

I talked with a friend today about this week’s gospel lesson, the story of the death and raising of Lazarus. At my church we’ll see it presented as a drama. My friend mentioned that the story is about grief, which it is, but then we began to think of other things it’s about, which is funny work to be doing when I’m not preaching at all.

  • It’s about a family’s terrible loss. 
  • It’s about the fears of the disciples. 
  • It’s about the future “Doubting” Thomas offering to go anywhere with Jesus. 
  • It’s about Martha, and more to the point, someone other than Peter saying who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of God. 
  • It’s about friendship. 
  • It’s about politics, in the sense that there will be repercussions with the authorities, for Jesus *and* Lazarus. 
  • It’s about a miracle, a thing that cannot possibly true, but is.
  • And, yes, it’s about grief, God’s human grief, but it never lets us forget he’s not just human, does it? Most of us can’t change things just because we’re sad.

So, why is Jesus crying? He knows he’s going to bring Lazarus back, right? Is it because he had to put his friend through death to prove his power? Are they tears of regret? Or is it  a sadness that he can’t bring things to a head without a move so drastic and dramatic?

I love this story, for Martha’s bluntness and Mary’s emotion, and the turmoil of the disciples. I also love it for the astonishment of a dead person rising to answer the call of Jesus. I’m not a literalist about anything in the Bible, but usually by the time the Fifth Sunday of Lent rolls around in Year A, I’m willing to believe Lazarus died and Jesus called him out of the tomb to live again. Maybe it calls to things that have been entombed in me, waiting to come out like Lazarus. I can’t explain it rationally. I simply feel it, perhaps because the family feels so real to me that I could weep with them, too. Like Jesus.

Jesus Wept, by James Tissot
Jesus, Lent, Preaching

Followed by Jesus

It’s been popular in recent years to think about Lent as a journey with Jesus (so popular that it’s now considered lame to use that language), as opposed to a penitential season. Given that I grew up Southern Baptist, with no experience of Lent, and that I didn’t get it as a temporary Presbyterian, either, I can take or leave Lent. What I mostly like it for is the ramp-up to Holy Week. I like the idea of a period of particular and purposeful attention, whether it’s penitential or preparatory or perambulating. What I don’t like is getting to Easter and feeling like it just happened to Jesus and to us with no cost being paid by anyone. That bugs me. There is no Easter without Good Friday, and no Good Friday without the life and ministry and absolutely flagrant flame-throwing of Jesus that we focus on in the stories of Lent and Holy Week (if we pay attention to the stories in Holy Week, which largely, in UCC churches, we don’t).

Over the years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve varied my approaches to Lent, and this year I’m all about the dramatic encounters (great lectionary year for that), becoming more and more public as we get to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. First Jesus was alone in the wilderness. Then he had a secret meeting with Nicodemus, or in our case, took a secret hike to meet Moses and Elijah and told his buddies to keep it quiet. Then he had an unexpected conversation with a woman he should never have been talking to in the first place, and because she told people, the story begins to open out a bit. This week’s story of the Man Born Blind raises the drama because a crowd of neighbors, and then Pharisees, will gather. By the following week, Jesus is in some serious trouble with the authorities and his followers have to think twice about going with him back to see Mary, Martha and Lazarus. There are lots of people everywhere in that story.

And then the most of all as he enters Jerusalem.

So I love this arc of following Jesus from the most inward confrontation to the ones that other people witnessed, getting more and more dramatic all the way, foreshadowing both death and resurrection.

But I’m hung up on John 9:3, and I’ve been working that in conversations with friends, and also on Twitter, where my 140-character query or complaint will be met by all sorts of responses.

I just didn’t expect one from Jesus.

Well, from @JesusofNaz316, to be more precise. And it struck me in a funny place to have an email from Twitter saying I am now being followed by him.

But it occurs to me that we are all followed by Jesus, through our lives and our wrestling with old stories and how other people have interpreted them and our struggles with what it all means. That’s the whole point of the story. He came here, and he talked to people, and he argued with them, and he used wonderfully, horribly complex images to explain things that mean more in the context of that time than they do now.

And this week, when the text, or one verse out of 41, is a pebble in my shoe, I’m glad to think that every time I sit down to shake it out, he’s there, waiting to take the road with me again. We’re in this together, whatever we call it.