Discernment, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sabbatical, The Inner Landscape, The New Normal

The Open Space

The remote office.
The remote office.

When I agreed to my wife’s suggestion that I take a time of sabbatical after our wedding and my move to live with her, I did it reluctantly. I’ve been pushing hard for ten years in local church ministry, pushing to show I could support my family and pushing to show I could be useful on behalf of Jesus Christ. Laying down both those responsibilities felt strange. While it’s nice for my wife the Presbyterian pastor that I hold a high view of the call to ordained ministry and the duties appertaining thereunto, it took another kind of hard push to detach myself from them, even temporarily. Who would I be without the weekly sermon and all the preparation that contributed to its preparation — the studying and discussing and pondering and praying? the writing itself?

Who would I be without the deadline?

Furthermore, Kathryn and I built a friendship on supporting each other in the sermon-writing process, a foundation we have been inhabiting and expanding upon for almost seven years. Who would we be without that work to share?

Would the one without a sermon to write even matter?

Please be assured, that was my question, not hers.

Now, I know sabbatical derives from Sabbath. In theory, all a sabbatical ought to require is rest and worship, or, at the very least, prayer.

But I’m not wired that way.

Six Word Memoirs — go ahead, click on it.

Remember the Six Word Memoir meme from a few years ago?

Mine was as follows:

Proving I was not a mistake.

That’s a big job. How do you do it and not push?

Taking a break seemed scary.

So I:

  1. thought up a writing project
  2. made the bed every day
  3. did laundry as often as I could find enough dirty clothes to justify turning on the machine
  4. folded things and put them away in drawers and closets
  5. read a lot of books
  6. said yes to everything anyone asked me to do (social invitations, opportunities at Kathryn’s church)
  7. worked on the writing project
  8. learned my way around from the Panera to the many locations of GIANT to the Starbucks and home again
  9. cooked things from scratch, including but not limited to chicken parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, shamrock cupcakes and carrots glazed at least three different ways (maple–yum; honey-mustard–also yum; whiskey–unfreakingbelievable)

honey-im-a-lesbianBasically I aspired to be the lesbian version of a Stepford Wife.

Again, be assured, this all came out of my head.

Providentially, and referring back to the actual purpose of a sabbatical, I also prayed. This helped in numerous ways, because the past three months also included adjusting to a new family configuration, living far from my daughter, and stressing over where two of my three children will be going to school (college and grad) in the fall.

A little over two months in, I accepted an invitation to supply preach one Sunday at a church in transition. I leaned on what one of our friends calls a Sustainable Sermon, and Kathryn wasn’t preaching, so we missed the chance to prep together. We got up on Sunday morning and went our separate ways. I came home exhausted. I think I cried later. I’ve cried almost every Sunday. I miss LP the most on Sundays. And I miss my identity as pastor and preacher, but not while I’m at church, worshiping. I never miss it then. While I’m at church, I enjoy my new identity as the minister’s wife, as “Kathryn’s Martha,” which again is my way of saying it — such a retro ‘5o’s girl I am, turning my tomboy wife into the patriarch. I cry later because I wonder what’s going to become of me vocationally. What does God want from me?

On that day, however, I cried because I faced a realization growing throughout my sabbatical time: a rest from working six days a week meant I didn’t need to rest — literally — as much. I have a chronic, auto-immune disease, and I grow fatigued more easily than the average bird. Let’s just say that when I worked full time, I wasn’t glazing carrots with whiskey or anything else.

“I’m really not up to doing the job, physically,” I confided to Kathryn. I watched the expression on her face, then spoke before she did. “You already knew, didn’t you?” She nodded, slowly, carefully, lovingly.

(LP knew, too, but that’s her story to tell.)

Whatever God wants from me next, it doesn’t seem to be going back into local church ministry.

Accepting this — and there are other reasons to believe it’s true that are not part of this particular blog post — meant rolling over in my head the question of whether I had ever belonged in parish ministry. No need to reassure me. I got over it. But it was an honest phase of my existential angst. I always seem to need to go there, to prove something to myself.

I’ve grappled for five years now with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a noteworthily invisible illness. I kept insisting to myself that I was doing well, that my case wasn’t that bad, proving I could still be useful, pushing back on my fear that I would become the 21st Century equivalent of a bedridden Victorian hymn-writer.

Giving in feels like declaring defeat.

But here’s a story I’ve been saving, from my longtime blogging friend, Milton Brasher-Cunningham (buy his book, it is beautiful and has communion and baseball and poems and recipes, too), who I finally met in person last fall. Over a fantastic lunch at the Great Lost Bear in Portland, he told me about visiting a family member with a young child who played soccer. His relative remarked that the child’s team did unusually well, because of something the coach told them. All the other teams of kindergartners clustered around the ball, moving around the field in a mass of little bodies. This coach told them to look for the open space. He taught them that the open space is where you find opportunity. 

The home office.
The home office.

What does God want from me now? It’s pretty clear what the closed space is, and if I can come out of a three month sabbatical knowing that, I guess it’s something.

In the short term, I’ll test the big decision by covering a friend and colleague’s sabbatical this summer. I’ll be back in the pulpit most Sundays from May 12 to September 1, as well as handling emergencies, all very part time. I’ll be working on sermons across the desk from my wife, and if that’s not a dream come true for two girls who read their sermons to each other over Skype, I don’t know what is.

But mostly, I’m looking for the open space. And when I find it, I’m going to run.


The New Normal


care full heartIt started via email, a modern epistolary romance. It wasn’t intended to be that kind of relationship, but when friendship blossomed into more, the written word formed our foundation. Words matter to us. In the email files, there are quotidian conversations but there are also momentous declarations. When a greater distance than usual separated us, I wrote daily notes for Kathryn to take on the journey. We take time to consider the words we write in cards. A Valentine feels particularly tender and tenuous: how to say something we say all the time but say it with more care?

In Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address, just as in his Inaugural Address, the President showed us how. We say it matter-of-factly, as if we’ve been saying it all along.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

Suddenly the same phrase that got me into trouble last spring in a sermon is totally mainstream.

It was a sermon about love, riffing on one of the never-ending readings from John in the season of Easter.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

“And Jesus loved,” I preached. “My goodness, did he love. He loved us all, broken and difficult as we might be, without regard to where we live or what we eat or how we pray or who we love…or can’t manage to love. He simply loved us.”

I didn’t think it was a particularly shocking allusion. I thought it could be read any number of ways. But because I had just come out to my church, it felt obvious and unsettling. The context mattered. The timing mattered. I suppose it seemed careless.

All through last year, Kathryn and I continued to grapple with words, the ones we wanted to use and the ones we feared others would find distressing. Our political heroine of the fall was newly-elected Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first out gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. This quote circulated from her days in the House of Representatives:

NEVER DOUBT that America will one day realize that her gay, bisexual, and transgendered sons and daughters want nothing more — and nothing less — than the rights accorded every other citizen.
BUT WE MUST MAKE IT SO — by daring to dream of a world in which we are free. So, if you dream of a world in which you can put your partner’s picture on your desk, then put his picture on your desk… and you will live in such a world.
And if you dream of a world in which you can walk down the street holding your partner’s hand, then hold her hand… and you will live in such a world.
If you dream of a world in which there are more openly gay elected officials, then run for office… and you will live in such a world.
And if you dream of a world in which you can take your partner to the office party, even if your office is the U.S. House of Representatives, then take her to the party. I do, and now I live in such a world.

Fine, we thought, but that’s politics. That’s civic life. How about the neighborhood? What about the church community? Could Kathryn really put our picture on her desk? Our Facebook profiles say “Married to,” and there has been at least one inquiry made in an attempt to cause denominational trouble for her. Do we lead with our words or proceed cautiously, the way we walk the dogs when it’s snowing just before their bedtime?

It’s not my congregation, so I take care. I am very careful in choosing my words, trying to guess what works for people. Some are clearly supportive, like the older lady who stopped me after a congregational meeting. “Congratulations,” she said, and I murmured something about the outcome of the meeting. She stopped me, “No. Congratulations on your marriage.”

jeannie bottleOthers remain a question mark. When I introduce myself and can see people might be searching for who I am, I’ve said with a smile, “I belong to Kathryn.” But I fear that sort of twee phrase makes me sound like I live in a bottle.

What kind of world do we want to make with our words? The words we say about each other, both quotidian and momentous, are personal, but they are also political and, perhaps even more potently, theological. We speak them as not particularly hip lesbians in a not very progressive community in South Central Pennsylvania. How shall we speak them?

On Valentine’s Eve, we went to my (choose-your-word-carefully)’s church for the Ash Wednesday service. She sat in front and I, still searching for the place where the pastor’s (choose-your-word-carefully) should sit, ended up right behind her in the second pew. At the end of the service, she leaned over and told me that members of her last church were in attendance, and she was excited to introduce me.

I must admit to feeling nervous about it. Our current town and church are magnificently progressive by comparison. So I stood a bit apart while she exchanged greetings with her former parishioners, leaving her space to make a different choice.

my wifeThen she gestured to me to come closer, saying, “I want you to meet my wife, Martha.”

I couldn’t have asked for a more carefully wrought Valentine.



(Cross-posted at There is Power in the Blog.)

1 Cor, Epiphany 3C, Orientation, Sabbatical, The New Normal


“I’m having a wardrobe crisis!”

“It’s just a retreat,” answered my sensible wife. “Saturday morning casual. How would you usually dress for a retreat?”

“Usually I would be the pastor,” I replied.

This was different. Today I was both the new girl and the pastor’s wife. What to wear? Who to be?

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Cor 12:14, NRSV)

It seems this body consists of many members, and keeping track of which one goes on retreat is only one of the complex calculations of my new life. The room is full of women, mostly from the church but some from the surrounding area, many of whom I’ve met but many not, even a few who have invited us to their homes for delicious dinners, or “friended” me on Facebook. One even helped unpack my great-grandmother’s china.

But many have no idea who I am. And some might rather not know, and I can’t be sure who they are. So I do what I do, what I learned to do when I was a little girl. I introduce myself to people and hope that’s enough. I put out my little hand, and I look them in the eye and say, “I’m Martha Spong.”

It’s a new, weird thing. I suspect if I had married a male pastor, I would be telling people readily, “I’m Pastor KJ’s wife.” But there’s no need to throw out Molotov Cocktails with people who may be uneasy. That’s what I tell myself.

I felt this way until I met someone who was even more new than I am, maybe not by the dates on the calendar (she has lived her a few months longer) but by her association with the church. After all, I’ve helped lead worship (August, 2011) and attended a church picnic and taken two study leave weeks in the office! I know where the super-secret bathrooms are. At the other end of the table is a woman who doesn’t know anyone yet, and as we talk on the retreat about how friendship means taking risks and doing things that might feel uncomfortable for the sake of the other person, I get my bearings. I introduce myself. Her story spills out, and there are commonalities, so I respond with a fragment of mine, and then I take the risk. I say, “Do you know the Senior Pastor?” There is a slight nod. “I’m her partner, and I just moved here, too.”

friendsI have her cell phone number. I’m going to call her soon so we can have coffee and talk about being new in town.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. (1 Cor 12:27-31)

I may not be the pastor, and I may be the new girl, and I may not feel 100% comfortable saying I’m kathrynzj’s wife in that space, but I am Martha, a follower of Jesus, and part of my calling as a faithful person is connecting.