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.

Faith, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Constant

IMG_1533This morning in South Central Pennsylvania, the sun is shining. The Japanese maple tree outside my window is in full leaf. The steeple of the Presbyterian church rises behind it. Although the tree changes with the seasons, this has been my outside view for several years now as I sit at my desk, consistent and reliable. My star word for this year is Constant, and it reminds me how few things are. In a season of political and ethical turmoil, not much seems reliable.

But this view, and the things I see when I walk out my door or drive down my street remain – essentially – the same, despite potholes or snowfall. A hydrangea grows beside the church’s youth center, which sits next door to the Manse, with shades of blue like crayons, they are so intense. I see the church, these houses, the fence around the Associate Pastor’s backyard. (Yes, we live on what amounts to a compound.)

There’s something reassuring, constant, about the sameness of these things, this place. Similarly the landscape of Portland, Maine, offered a framework for my life for so many years, the curve of Baxter Boulevard around Back Cove, the uneven brick sidewalks where I walked my dogs, the esplanade of trees shading Sheffield Street. I did some of my hardest personal work talking on the phone while standing beneath those trees, considering what would come next while driving that route, trying to be ruthlessly honest with myself while wrangling a big dog.

Do you remember the concept of having a Constant that was part of the TV Show Lost? In that case the idea was that a person could be your constant; there was a romantic implication there about Desmond and Penny, although there was a time-travely bit, too. (#fantasy) In mathematics it means an unvarying value and in other disciplines the idea is the same, is constant. It’s something that doesn’t change.

I suppose that means a person or a place or a thing cannot be a constant, cannot be constant.

IMG_1536I’ve been pasting a little star with the word handwritten on it in my bullet journal every week, trying to keep the word in front of me instead of forgetting it as I have some years. I’ve studied lists of words in the thesaurus that suggest the nuances of the word: fixed, ceaseless, trustworthy.

What or who has unvarying value?

In this season of turmoil, I’m asking questions while walking a different dog under different trees. I’ve fallen out of the habit of my spiritual practice, which for many months was reading the Psalms and writing prayer in their margins. Instead I wake each morning to see what new terrible thing has happened in this inconstant world. The other day, my friend Mary Beth posted on the question, “How can you pray at a time like this?” She pointed me back to the Psalms, and I thought of a phrase from Psalm 146. It’s helping me today.  I’m not saying it’s enough to pray, but maybe if I can pray again, I can do the work that needs to be done, with God as my constant.

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Advent, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Winter Wonderland

The monthly specials at my favorite office away from home, Cornerstone Coffeehouse.

I write this from the draftiest location in my favorite local coffee shop, overcrowded as everything seems to be in the onrush of Christmas. I spent the morning reading blogs written by clergywomen, mostly, and thinking about all the pastors I know while drinking a holiday-themed beverage called “Winter Wonderland.” My morning included a trip to the Post Office to send off one overdue package, one present I hope will come as a surprise to the recipient, and a padded envelope full of stocking stuffers for my daughter in Japan (the cost of the postage affixed thereunto being something I will have to explain when I get home).

My responsibilities are different from the past few years, as I am not serving a church, and I’ll admit that feels strange. I wonder if it isn’t true that having to craft and curate experiences for other people gave me a sense of purpose that made the mixed-up world feel closer to manageable. After all, if I accomplished Advent wreath liturgies and multiple bulletins for special services with all their moving parts, I had control over my little sliver of the universe.

Beautiful artwork by Hannah Garrity of A Sanctified Art, amateur coloring job by yours truly.

This Advent I am busy with other things and missing the familiar ones dearly. I am trying to look at my faith life as a regular person’s faith life. I’ve been coloring in the devotional booklet put together by the wonderful women artists of A Sanctified Art. This morning’s reading was from Psalm 80; those words and I have a long history of meditations, sermons, devotions I have written. They have lived inside my head.

Our meeting today was different. I don’t need to unpack them for anyone else, or embroider them for any liturgical or homiletical need to be met. I was able to let the words and the colored pencils work their way with me. In the loss of a familiar role, there is the luxury of being no one in particular this Advent.

Of course, I am sharing *that* thought with you. As the other preacher at my house said on Facebook just this morning, everything is sermon material.

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The Inner Landscape

No one but God knows

Last year not long after the election, we bought a faux birch tree with lights on it.

We brought it home and put it on the wide window ledge in our kitchen/dining room and plugged it in and admired it.

We never turned it off again.

Day and night, winter and spring and summer and fall, we have been waking up to the lights on that tree and coming home to the lights on that tree and eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the lights on that tree. It has been in the background of innumerable photographs; right now our ginger cat is sitting under it with his paw in the water dish.

Yet it has never become something we don’t notice.

As night impinges on day in these dwindling weeks before the Solstice, the little tree reminds us that even in a sad and terrible world, in a devastating political and cultural season, glimmers of goodness exist and there are means to defy the despair evil wants us to feel. By the lights on the little tree, we will call our representatives, and make donations to religious and civic organizations doing good work, and wrap packages and write cards for people we love, and play games and read books and hold hands and pray with them, too.

We will kiss, and we will cry, and we will rage and prepare to burn the whole thing down, and we will refill the cat’s water dish.

Jesus told the disciples that no one but God knows when the hour and the day will come.

In the meantime, I’m not sure what else any of us can do but stay awake and be ready for the moment when something we do or say can make a difference.

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Ministry, The Inner Landscape

I bought this t-shirt

I bought this t-shirt at UCC General Synod in Baltimore and wore it home yesterday. I’ve admired it on friends’ social media and went to the Exhibit Hall looking for it on Monday. The back of the shirt lists all kinds of Black Lives that Matter, including women and trans* people. I especially feel convicted by the line on the front in smaller print, “White Silence is Violence.”
When I stopped in Shrewsbury, PA, to get an iced coffee, I got out of my car in the Starbucks parking lot and wondered if anyone would react. I don’t wear politics on my clothes much. In the town where I live, I’m running an action as an LGBTQ+ person every time I grocery shop, go to the doctor’s office, or attend a school or sports event with my wife. When I was in a pulpit, I preached Black Lives Matter, but I’m not in a pulpit now and don’t know how likely it is that I ever will be again, at least around here.
At Starbucks, the family parked next to me included a White dad, a Black mom, and their two teenaged daughters. I stood in line with the dad while the rest of the family used the restroom. I wondered what they thought of the shirt. I know in my town we’ve heard People of Color say they don’t want attention drawn for fear of getting racists more riled up than they already are. I don’t want to make things worse for any particular person in order to make a larger point, do I?
While I stood waiting for my drink, the mom passed me on her way to the door. As our eyes met, she said, “I like your shirt.” Then we both said, at the same time, “Thank you,” and she touched my arm, and we both had tears in our eyes.
I am not looking for cookies here. That moment in the Starbucks felt unearned, although I appreciated the moment of connection. I’m pondering the difference between sharing articles online, which is easy for me to do, not only because I do a lot of my work online, but because it feels safe, and actually showing up, which I don’t often do because … why? I have a list of reasons (a few) and excuses (quite a few).
Mostly, being transgressive feels scary, which I conclude is the point. We can’t make change by staying in our safe zones.
The back of the shirt. Buy it here.
Lent, LGBT, LGBTQ, Orientation, The Inner Landscape

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.

Living in This World, Politics, Privilege, The Inner Landscape

Ferocious Humility

I note that the Left is, as we have come to expect, engaged in self-destructive internal wrangling, complete with name-calling and finger-pointing. We are not “on message” because that is not part of our DNA. We disparage the people who offer support to each other on the Right; their lockstep smacks of collusion.

Some voices say that we cannot afford to be so hard on each other in a time when there are forces we must resist, but I would amend that.

We cannot afford to forget each other in a time when there are forces we must resist. We must remember that there are life experiences and points of view different from our own, open conversation instead of assuming it will arise, invite relationship instead of taking it for granted.

The responsibility to act – to remember, to open, to invite – always lies with those of us who benefit from privilege, whether it derives from our race, our level of education, our economic advantage, our orientation, our gender identity, our ability, or our religious identification.

ferocious-humilityWhere can you open a conversation? It’s harder when, admittedly, we’re not all the same. We need to take the time to listen more closely, to ask and answer questions that may seem obvious but (maybe) are not, to be humble rather than defensive when we get things wrong, to commit to inviting new relationships, to be ferocious in our commitment to the greater good.

We all need to cultivate ferocious humility.