Reflectionary, Year of the Body

Slumps

“Let’s do your slumps,” said the physical therapist, as if I had any idea what she meant. I had been in the pool for an hour, activating my core with every fiber of my, well, core. What are these “slumps” of which she speaks? The word summons up images of unremitting failure, as when a baseball player cannot hit the ball or the housing market drops off and does not rebound. 

It turns out it’s meant to alleviate sciatic nerve pain, which I didn’t even realize was one of the things I was trying to fix. I literally slump over, then stretch out one leg at a time and bend my foot to loosen what is so tight it hurts. This exercise, which sounded so counter-intuitive, requires me to do something I am trying not to do at all, by replicating a reflexive posture that I want to avoid in the many hours I spend sitting at my desk while writing, coaching, and engaging in the online work I do for RevGals. 

It was a new exercise for me, so of course I needed an explanation of how to do it and why, but I have to think there is a spiritual lesson here that goes beyond the obvious need for better communication. When I have one idea fixed in my head, what possibilities am I missing? What system, belief, or self-definition do I hold with every fiber of my core that could use a slump and a stretch and a little pulling back?

Today, I hope you will give yourself permission to slump a little from some upright stance and see what you notice. 


This post was originally published in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Reflectionary

The Year of the Body

I am still waiting for my Star Word, and I rarely make resolutions, but for 2019, this is my declaration. 

2019 will be The Year of the Body. 

Well, maybe I should say, The Year of My Body. 

There are things I want to do this year, and next year, and the year after that, and they would be more readily accomplished if my body works well, or as well as it can work. This requires sorting through the mess in the back of my mind that my foremothers handed down to me: your body should look right and work right without any obvious effort, because after all, it’s primary function is as God’s temple, so please don’t be too embodied, just enough to house the holy.

I’m in Week 4 of my second round of physical therapy for my hip and lower back, trying to regain some functionality lost to arthritis, both rheumatoid and osteo. PT has a rhythm. First the routine seems too easy, and then it feels impossible to maintain – my current situation – and then I get the hang of it and feel strong and even powerful! 

And then it will be over because the insurance-approved sessions will run out, and I will  leave with recommended destinations for arthritis-appropriate exercise. Last time, I resisted. I’ll walk, I said. I don’t want to join the Y, it’s too expensive. Who has time for those water-based exercise classes? They all meet during the work day, anyway. 

The alternative, though, is circling back to where I was when I started four weeks ago. 

I want to think this wasn’t exactly what God had in mind, image-wise, in the beginning. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be gradually adding minutes on an underwater treadmill or doing sit-to-stands to try and regain flexibility. In this imperfect world, though, in the Year of My Body, I have to hope that God knows what it’s like to favor what is sore and to stretch what has grown stiff. I have to believe that even in my brokenness, I can still be a reflection of God. 

Help me, Holy One, to live in the body I have, to care for it as best I can, not just to house the holy but to see in it a reflection of you. Amen. 


This post was originally published in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Reflectionary

Book Review: We Pray With Her

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a group of United Methodist clergywomen offered support to candidate Hillary Clinton, a fellow Methodist, by writing devotions and prayers to encourage her. We Pray With Her: Encouragement For All Women Who Lead (Abingdon, 2018) draws on the writing of seventy women. I am delighted that their work has been gathered into this book. 

The section sections focus on Call, Struggle, Courage, Resistance, and Persistence. The devotions interrogate our assumptions about scripture (Is it possible, as Rev. Elizabeth Quick writes, that Mary wasn’t at home on the day Martha complained about needing her help in the kitchen?) and bring the voices of famous women into the conversation, from Sor Juana to Audre Lorde to Jen Hatmaker. 

And their own voices are a gift, as they write frankly about challenges they have faced as leaders and women. 

What no one tells you about leadership is that things will change and with some change comes struggle. I was utterly unprepared when my professional and personal lives began to orbit on different planes.

Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames

The writers are defined as young, by which the publisher means under the age of 40, and the topics skew toward that age range. The prayers speak to particular situations in the lives of women, such as leaving a baby at daycare for the first time, or in a time of relationship difficulty, or when a parent is ill. Some prayers, though, speak to all ages of women in leadership. 

A Prayer at the Time of Burnout

God of mercy, I confess I feel like I am bereft of sinew, a bag of dry bones, and my spirit in ashes. I have tried to take it all on myself. I have failed to seek sustenance. Give me courage to seek help. Help me find a moment of Sabbath today, breathe into me and revive these bones. Help me trust that you will walk with me through this land. Amen. 

Rev. Sarah Karber

This book would make a wonderful Christmas gift, for women who lead in their work, and those who aspire to lead, whether they work in ministry or some other field. My only complaint is I would have loved a full list of the writers to be included. 

I received two copies of the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. I am delighted to have a copy to give away. Please leave a comment to be entered into a random drawing. 

Reflectionary

Book Review: Loving and Leaving a Church

Her story begins as did many of ours.

They couldn’t really afford a full-time pastor, but they were determined to have one anyway.

In Maine in 2002, in Maryland a few years later, in Missouri and Mississippi right now, our stories begin in church council rooms and on neutral pulpit weekends, in conversations with judicatory staff and congregational meetings. The Rev. Barbara Melosh relates her version in Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018). A second-career pastor, Melosh experienced a midlife conversion and became ordained in the denomination of her childhood, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Pastor readers will recognize the idealism we bring with us from seminary, the sense that we have something unique to offer that will surely change the church that so clearly needs us. In this case, a declining congregation in a shifting neighborhood responds to attempts at outreach in ways that will resonate in many quarters. While Melosh is aware that she is unequipped – it’s the title of the first chapter – she must grapple with the facts.

They didn’t care about my degrees or my theological insights, my years of experience as a professor, my story of midlife conversion or my passion for language. At most, they were prepared to put up with it all, it that was what it took to get a pastor in place. (p. 32)

As Melosh grew into her call, she faced a familiar array of challenges: an inadequate budget, a neglected physical plant, competition between pillar families, a failure of hospitality to newcomers, and a church basement full of junk. The reader feels her cringe of disappointment when a visitor turns around and leaves with her child as soon as she sees the Sunday School room, and also shares her embarrassment when an urgent request is forgotten in the wake of an unrelated church crisis.

In all accounts of her ministry, Melosh is unflinching in her honesty about her own passions and failures as she recounts the events of her ministry with the congregation she calls the Saints. Through common trials and local peculiarities, the first wedding and the hardest funeral, she risks writing what many of us would rather not have to admit even though our stories contain similar chapters. Her equal frustration with and love for the people she served emanate from the page. The book reflects her academic background in her research about the community, and in her care to be truthful even though some names and locations are cloaked with pseudonyms.

I highly recommend this book for readers willing to reflect theologically and practically on the life of the church, the essentials of ministry, and the reality that all pastors and priests enter into it as Barbara Melosh did,

Unequipped. I had prepared for years, and learned more in my years with the Saints. But I was not equipped for what mattered most. Not equipped to deal with the deep questions. Not equipped to stand with people at the edge of life and death as they raged or grieved. Not equipped for the suffering or betrayals or violence that came without warning to shatter an ordinary life. No one is, and part of the work was learning to do it anyway, to come with empty hands and open heart, and let that be enough. (p. 154)

Amen to that.


In the interest of full disclosure, I used to be in a writing group with Barbara Melosh, and I read some of the chapters in earlier forms. I purchased a copy of the book for myself. This review is cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Church Life, Psalms, Reflectionary

If two preachers…

Like many churches, the Presbyterian congregation my wife serves has seen what we used to think of as the fall return to a regular schedule pushed back from September to October and into November by travel team soccer and fall baseball, 5Ks and half-marathons at popular regional locations, Penn State football games (in our area), even cheerleading for elementary school girls. This year the staff decided to offer a worship opportunity late on Sunday afternoon, from mid-September through October, lined up with the time parents typically drop teens off for youth group. Kathryn planned a simple service using an Iona liturgy. After she joked several times that she would be reading it alone, I offered to come over to church at the appointed time. 

It was just the two of us the first week. And the second week. The third week Kathryn was out of town, and a few people joined the Christian Ed director, so we were hopeful that week 4 might bring more.

It was just the two of us again. 

We prayed and sang and engaged in lectio divina, just the two of us, for the third time in four weeks. This past Sunday’s psalm was 26, and we listened for the phrases that stood out for us, and talked about what was different for each of us and how we heard the verses for ourselves and for the other. It’s ironic, in this time of #ChurchToo, and knowing how important it is to be outside the walls of the church to be in ministry, and perhaps most of all because no one else had come to worship, that this verse popped for me.

If two preachers pray in the sanctuary, but no one else sees them, do they make any sound at all?

By all the metrics that matter in denominational surveys and material assessments, the 5:30 Sunday service could be called a failure. Yet as we left to walk back across the street to the manse, I thought, I would love to keep doing this, whether anyone else ever comes or not.

A version of this post appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader

Reflectionary

My cup runneth over

Here in South Central Pennsylvania, my Jersey Girl wife and I have been happy to patronize a new-to-us sandwich chain, Jersey Mike’s. In the category of small pleasures, she likes the subs that remind her of childhood adventures with her dad, and I appreciate fountain Pepsi. When we met a friend for lunch there last week, I was stupidly excited to get that Pepsi.

It was busy at Jersey Mike’s, and the corner where the drink machine stands on a counter is awkward, so I stood back several paces and watched the tall, slightly disheveled man in work boots ahead of me. When his soda overflowed onto his hand and the floor, I was surprised and a little smug. What was the matter with him? Was he thinking about something else? First time using a drink machine?

I avoided the splash of soda on the floor and approached the machine, carefully getting lots of ice but not too much, then pushing my cup against the lever for the magic elixir …

and when I pulled the cup away, there was a carbonated shudder, and my cup overflowed, too.

The sound, the image, the sticky soda suited this past week. We think we have our actions under control, know how the system should work, make careful steps, do it all decently and in good order, yet things spill over anyway. We try to manage ourselves, our days, our feelings, and then the system we have in place burps, and it’s all on the floor.

The image of anointing in the 23rd Psalm is meant to reassure us of God’s care, but honestly, that had to be a mess, a scene, an over the top – literally – display not just for us but for those who threaten us. Remember, that table was set in front of the psalmist’s enemies.

Whatever feelings are running over the top of your cup, know I am praying for you, for all of us who doing our utmost to be faithful to God’s call on our lives, even when it makes a mess of us.

Originally written for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Church Life, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Shake it off? No, sit with it.

Long before Taylor Swift turned it into an ear worm (you’re welcome), my dad used to tell me “Shake it off.” It was a multi-purpose instruction, aimed at minor injuries both physical and social. While that’s good advice for a stubbed toe or even a bruised ego, some experiences jar us in ways that shaking will only amplify, because we are already shook. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a drive-by dagger in the handshake line, or a late night email intended to wound, or a theological snubbing, you’ll know what I mean. 

For me, step 1 is to sit with it. Today I’m doing that sitting in a Starbucks, pampering myself with a piece of coffee cake and a mocha topped off with the whipped cream I usually eschew. I’m thinking about something that happened yesterday, trying to figure out what to do with it, and what the ramifications of sharing the story publicly might be, for me and for the work I do. I’m asking myself, could it be helpful to share, or would I just be relieving my own tension?

Often, step 2 is to tell the story to a trusted friend or colleague, or perhaps a therapist, spiritual director, or coach. If you don’t have one of the above, I hope you will find one before the need is urgent. In my two pastor household, we have the trusted colleague available 24/7, and for that I am grateful, this day and every day. Still, for those times I need to tell the story 83 times before I feel finished, it’s good to have more places to put it. 

Step 3 for me is always to write about it. Sometimes that writing is an email I will never send, or a fragment saved in the Notes app on my iPhone that will find its way into a more polished form months or years in the future, when I have more perspective. And sometimes it’s like this, an exploration of how it feels to be injured, without saying anything about what actually happened. It’s an effort to make sense of things, to determine whether I was responsible for something I haven’t acknowledged, and whether I was actually wronged.

In this case, I’m pretty sure I was, but before I take it anywhere else, step 4 needs to happen in conversation with scripture, and in prayer. I’ll confess that since I stopped preaching regularly, I find this part harder, because for years this step took place for me in regular engagement with the lectionary. Having lost track of where we are in year B, I had to look it up. There I found the Syrophoenecian woman, like a trusted friend, ready to hear my story and feel it with me, right here in the Starbucks.

I don’t think this is a situation to shake off, but thanks to her, I’ve remembered where healing comes from ultimately. Now I’m ready to brush the coffee cake crumbs off my lap and go on with my day. Wherever you find your friends, may it be the same for you.


This post originally appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.