Struggle, balance, vocation, etc.

Can we chat for just a sec about the mama/minister struggle? (If you aren’t up for a struggle ramble this morning, move along and peace be with you: I’ll post a sermon tomorrow!)

I was scheduled to preach at my sponsoring parish yesterday, something that is always equal parts joy and challenge. I love preaching, and I love going home, and I love that St. Luke’s welcomes me to the pulpit a few times a year, but getting to Cleveland is hard sometimes — either to take S solo, or for the organizer hubs to make space in his hectic work to solo parent at home or come along with us.

Then, on Saturday, S woke up from his afternoon nap sick. Like, grouchy, feverish, and not his normal self. I called the pediatrician, but they couldn’t get us in until Sunday morning. Thank God for a weekend appointment at all! I took the appointment, Austin came home early from a community event, and I loaded up and got on the road to my parents’ house to stay over before getting up bright and early to make to the 8:00 Rite I.

Y’all. Sunday was so great.

It was a sermon that was a “good enough” sermon, a sermon written with intention and prayer, but also a lot of time constraints and without the benefit of the Saturday afternoon polish.

But! But! The service was one of those when you get to a peaceful Spirit place right before the processional; when your body actually lets go of the shaky tight nervousness; when the presiding priest just casually reminds everyone that we’re here and Jesus is here and so it’s all good, really, and you believe it; when God is speaking in you and through your work but also in spite of you. I even had a meaningful conversation about theology and discipleship during coffee hour — basically the bigfoot sighting of parish ministry.

Afterward, I got in the car and checked my phone, called my partner to see how things were going.

Y’all. Sunday was so bad. Double-ear-infection-hundred-degree-fever-crying-all-night bad. I broke the speed limit so, so hard all the way back up I-24. My poor boys, one so sick and helpless, and the other handling the hardest kind of solo parenting and not calling to tell me, so that I could have that good ministry morning.

Sometimes it feels like you can’t win — and I know this is all working mamas, not just the pastor ones. Usually the ache of time away isn’t so obvious: so guilt ridden, so geographically separated, so feverish.

I was finishing up my MDiv at Vanderbilt when I was pregnant, and met weekly for a seminar group to debrief our field placements. Bless those folks, they got a much bigger dose of pregnancy angst than ministerial reflection from me. I remember saying something about knowing that I would have to protect my child from my vocation–saying no to a work that will sometimes take everything you offer and more–and protect my vocation from my child–in a culture that still has many voices denouncing my call as a woman and is more comfortable with a mama than a lady priest (much less a combo of the two).

I had no idea. No idea. 

I didn’t realize how distressing and complicated that would be, what it would mean to do that dual protecting.

Thankfully, I also didn’t realize what an ally I have in my partner, and how quickly I’d learn grace for myself when I can’t nail it.

So, readers — especially my priests, pastors, preachers, parents — when has this happened to you? What mantra and faith got you through? How do you have grace for yourself when you get the balance wrong? Who are your allies who get you through intact?

 

P.S. Baby is on the mend. Our pediatrician is great. Coffee is great. So is Elmo’s World in a time of trial.

P.P.S. In case this needs saying, I use essential oils on my kid to support his health. Sometimes I also use antibiotics and ibuprofen. Plants are good. Science is good. You do you, mamas.

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Keep Watch with Me: Advent 1

This is the third offering from “Keep Watch With Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers” written by the #seminarymama. Sign up for this free daily resource here.

Psalm 80:1-7
Shepherd of Israel, listen!
You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
Wake up your power!
Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
Lord God of heavenly forces,
how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Aside from writing and ministry, I’m actively engaged in the non-professional peacemaking of raising a toddler with my partner. Our child has unbounded curiosity and unbounded feelings. Massive dramas of disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief play out each day, and I must practice presence and compassion. Sitting with those big toddler feelings has been shown to better develop resilience, empathy, peace and calm in children over the long haul.

Practicing this with my child takes time, slows me down, and reminds me to practice it with myself. I feel disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief: with national politics and inequitable development, the church’s anxious idolatry of institution, with my own inner struggles as the days shorten and demands of seminary, work, and parenthood feel endless, with the 24 hour news cycle of suffering.

Today’s psalm is the prayer of a suffering people, who look at their lives and see only God’s absence. “How long will you be angry? Restore us!” They are abandoned, shamed, alone, hopeless. They are carrying more than anyone can bear.

But we know that the prayer of a moment, a song of emotion, is rarely the whole picture.

Year after year, we go through the season of Advent before Christmas, a liturgical season of penitence and preparation to celebrate that God always intervenes. We sit with the already and not-yet of Jesus come and coming, and we read lamentations and prophecies of judgment with knowledge of coming peace. For Christians, silence, waiting, and death are not the end of the story, but we must sit with them nonetheless.

Our sorrows are here and now. Our worries are life and death for ourselves and for the people we love. They need holy attention. And they are not the whole picture.

This Advent, we keep watch together so that we might grow a gritty, holy hope. We encourage one another to active peace building. We are choosing to do the hard inner work of being still, grieving, hoping, noticing, and becoming a little more peaceful within, so that as the apostle writes, we would be strengthened and faithful, in fellowship with Christ’s work of peace incarnate.

Crash and Burn (or: Stop and Listen)

Well, it’s been crickets here at #seminarymama for a good long while.

Do you remember that post last summer when I talked about hitting my limit and letting go of some stuff, saying no to say yes?

That was cute.

Turns out I needed to learn that some more, and then some more again. Here’s the short story: I left my job as a children and family minister, missed a whole bunch of deadlines for school, got sick a bunch of times, and questioned just about everything in my life. I’m an achiever, and have been going turbo with graduate school, seminary, multiple jobs, internships, clinical chaplaincy, pregnancy and new motherhood, always working more than full time on emotionally intense, serious responsibility for about 8 years. No surprise, really. Turbo overachieving plate spinning works…until it doesn’t any more.

You know what I’m talking about? In recovery circles, this is what you call “unmanageable.”

I’m hoping to be done with the crash and burn for now, and am finding a lot more space for enjoying my son and partner, getting caught up on seminary work, and discerning what might be ahead next year. I got a Passion Planner for some organization, and I block out time for nothing.

And you know what’s just astonishing? There are all these things I had been missing and didn’t even know it. I have not been able to say “yes” to so many things that I love and value, and it’s like the minute I let the crash happen, I was reminded of what I hadn’t been making space for.

There’s space to make a lot more pancakes with S., even on weekdays sometimes, and read all the board books 15 times in a row without worrying about the other stuff I’m not getting done. There’s space to tell an overwhelmed mama friend to just come on over and have a tea and let the babies play while we talk. There’s space to journal and walk, to catch up with friends who live far away on the phone, to worship and pray in new ways. There’s space to rest as well as to stretch my soul and skills in ways I hadn’t considered.

To my surprise, an opportunity to say yes emerged in the fall and has sprung up in surprising ways. A series of conversations with my friend Michael led to the creation of Keep Watch with Me, the advent reader for watching and waiting and peacemaking. We decided to make the devotional that we had been waiting for on themes pertinent to the liturgical season and key in the struggles of our lives in the last while. We’ve been humbled and thrilled and freaked out to be joined in this endeavor by two dozen incredible contributing peacemakers and 5000 readers worldwide.

I’ll be posting today’s advent reflection, by yours truly, in a second post here, but in the meantime, if this piques your interest, you can sign up to receive daily reflections here, and join the “Keeping Watch Together” online community of folks reflecting and connecting here.

Weaned

Last year I had the joy of hearing Rowan Williams speak at my seminary. My partner had introduced me to his work years ago, and it was incredible to hear him in person, lecturing on Bonhoeffer’s Christology. After the first lecture, a listener posed a question to Williams about the sadism of the incarnation, God sending God’s child to pain, and how we can contend with the portrayal of divine willingness to suffer. Williams owned that this was a weak place in his theology, and moved on to address other questions. I was sitting with S slung on my chest, next to a friend and mentor who is a priest and mama. I grabbed her arm tight and whispered, “A mother can answer that question!”

What else could I do but split my mind, spirit, and body wide open and send him out into the world? What else could I do but feed him, again and again, sometimes easily and sometimes painfully? What else could I have done? And I would–and God willing, hope to–do it again in an instant.

How much more must our Mother in Heaven know that nothing else could be done but to send a piece of herself out into the world, to nourish and watch him grow, to then feed us, her people, in Christ, again and again?

The oils used at the very end of pregnancy to support healthy labor and delivery are the same ones that can be used to slow milk supply. Over the last couple of months I would lay on my side at night, soaked in peppermint and clary sage. Drifting off to sleep I would remember the discomfort of those last heavy pregnancy days and feel empty and light as the herbs slowly work to untether our last bodily lifeline.

We were lucky. Nursing was good for us. After a rough first few weeks and a tongue-tie procedure we were on track. S was a good eater and I had good supply. I nourished him and we bonded easily, deeply. I was only apart from him one or two days a week in his first year. The connection was the same and different each time. It changed from the early weeks where I did so much of the work, to the end where the toothy toddler would crawl over and sign for milk, pulling on the hem of my shirt, practically helping himself. First every two hours, then three, then four, then morning and evening, then once in the afternoon when we reunited from work and daycare.

We were lucky, too, that weaning was good for us. We were both ready. He wasn’t distressed, and I wasn’t engorged or infected. Nursing just faded away.

I’m a firm believer that some knowledge is embodied–cellular, behavioral, and elusively unspeakable. Those wild pregnancy cravings that were supplying nuanced nutrients to grow a body; the milk coming in and letting down on its own accord when it was time for S to eat; and those first days, nursing through lingering contractions as my womb worked to resume its size and place in the pelvis; my body waking up, feet hitting the floor and moving to his crib before he had finished the first cry. All unconscious, unarticulated. A growing and refining but fundamentally innate knowing.

What have I been knowing in my body about the heart of God, about incarnation, about Eucharist, that is now unknown?

Transfiguration, Perfectionism, and Practicing the Presence of God

Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday at my sponsoring parish. Please excuse the jump-in start—I began with a brief introduction of myself to new parishioners that’s not needed here. 

Things were intense for our family about this time last year, when I was just beginning at Sewanee with a five week old baby. In case you haven’t heard, new motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Your body is wrecked, you don’t get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time, and you’re doing this incredibly high stakes work with no previous experience. It’s complete bliss, complete terror, and complete exhaustion.

And there we went, heading up the mountain. While everyone at the School of Theology was incredibly kind, I was so spent and frazzled. I didn’t really know what I was doing—neither as a mom nor as a seminarian, bringing my newborn to new student orientation. I had the distinct feeling that my brain got misplaced somewhere in that last month of pregnancy. It seemed that I’d made a tremendous mistake.


So on my first day of class we’d gotten up at 5 to make it there with plenty of time for morning prayer in the Chapel of the Apostles. There are all my new classmates, other new seminarians that are distinctly more bright eyed than I am. I have my son in a sling carrier on my chest, a book of common prayer in one hand and an Anglican chant psalter in the other. Of course, halfway the scripture lessons, Sylvan starts to fuss. I’m not talking about chatting or whining. He was gearing up for the big one. And let me tell you—the only thing louder than a screaming baby in a church are the voices of shame and inadequacy shouting in a new mom’s head.

We swayed in the back row, and I desperately tried to calm and comfort him.

Oh, but then, the organist begins to play that refrain and just like that my tiny son goes calm and bright eyed. We felt the music from the organ and voices ring through our bodies, and the wind of pipes and throats was like the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing away my anxiety fear. There was enough stillness that for a moment, I noticed the way the morning light was coming through walls of windows in the Chapel, noticed the hint of incense and the feel of stone under my feet, notice that maybe my neighbors don’t mind the fuss as much as I think. Maybe we can do this! Maybe there is space for us here!  Maybe I can just show up and be present to God in this space. It was a little revelation of the presence of God, up on the mountain.

This morning we heard the good, good news of Jesus transfigured on another holy mountain, shining the divine glory and affirmed of God’s presence. We see the law and the prophets, represented in Moses and Elijah, all come together in the perfect revelation of God’s heart, Jesus Christ. With the disciples we see the fire and cloud and hear the voice of the Father proclaiming that God is with us in Jesus Christ.

And this divine revelation is seen in the midst of messy, faithful work. In the surrounding stories of Luke, we can read about Jesus’ healing of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman, taking time for everyone from the social elite to the desperate and destitute. Then he’s sending out the disciples to heal and preach, with that terrifying instruction to go without money, provisions, not even a change of clothes. And after their apprenticeship, the disciples return, the crowds congregate, and we have the feeding of 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. What exhausting work! Then Jesus is having the toughest conversations with the disciples, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” and telling them that faithfulness will mean carrying a cross.

To see the bigger picture of who God is, we have to take the story of the Transfiguration in its context. To know Jesus as fully God and fully human, we have to see the glory and the struggle, we have to see the toil and valleys on either side of this sacred mountain. If we want to journey on with Christ, we have to remember that even in the middle of the glory, Jesus talks to the prophet and the liberator about the hard road ahead. We have to remember what Peter, in his enthusiasm to put up a shrine, forgot—that the retreat to prayer and glory is only for a moment.

When the organ stops playing, the baby will fuss again.

When the cloud dissipates and the heavenly voice quiets, the disciples have to walk back down the mountain, and they walk toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be arrested and abused.

It is hard to leave the mountain and show up for the messy, faithful work.

Brene Brown, a professor and researcher of social work, has done incredible work on courage, shame, and vulnerability. In her research, she identified a category of people who seem to be resilient, present, open, honest. A good Episcopalian, Brown calls them the “whole-hearted,” pulling  this concept from our prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart,” and turning it on its head to ask what a life of whole-heartedness might look like.

Brene Brown’s research identifies one main thing as a whole-heartedness killer, a shame trigger that will keep us from fully loving God. It’s perfectionism, the desire to get things right, or appear as if we have gotten things right. Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system, and Siri. Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away, because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail. Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it to show our friends later.

Think about the last really brave thing you did. Think about the last time you prayed, “God help me!” and really put yourself out there. I hate to tell you, and you might already know, that courage and openness usually feels excruciating, exposed, anything but brave. It might feel like showing up in a strange town doing strange things, like preaching and healing, when you don’t know how you’ll be received. Wholehearted may in fact be like stopping on your way, like Jesus did, to say, “Who touched me?” “Who needs help?” when you aren’t sure what will be asked of you. What looks like glory, fire, and Spirit on the outside, might have felt very different to Jesus, who stood in a place of reckoning with the hard choices and suffering that lay ahead of him. If we want to be in a place to experience transfiguration, we have to embrace the difficult daily work and deny our impulse to control. We have to receive the good and maybe uncomfortable news that we don’t have be perfect, just present.

The transfiguration is an important moment, but only one moment in a lot of work, work that took a lot of risks and a lot of guts.

In the revelation of the Transfiguration, and in the ministries surrounding it, Jesus invites the disciples into a moment of pure presence—to God, showing up in the world in all its need and beauty, in the magnificent moments of epiphany, in the interior prayers and the serious conversations, in the hard every day work of dying to the self. To be present to God and to our lives, in both the glory and the work, takes a lot of courage. When asked to be present to our lives, we might be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, or so busy that we miss the opportunity for miracles. When asked to be present to God, we might fear that glory and intimacy, and like the disciples, try to build a shrine, a box for God.

But God knows we are only dust, God knows we struggle with this. And so Spirit offers invitations to be present, again and again, invitations  to take notice of all kinds of epiphanies taking place all around us. Every invitation is a chance for our faces to blaze with the light of God. Every invitation is a chance to let that blaze of glory light a fire underneath us to go forth into the hard and beautiful work of proclaiming love, feeding the hungry, taking up crosses, and being present to the presence of God.

 So, what is the last brave, hard thing you did? What’s the next brave, hard thing on your horizon? How can you find the glory of God’s presence in the middle of it?

Diffusing Release all day every day.

Home

Thanks to my friend Michael for inviting me to share a story at the Tenx9 event at Wild Goose Festival last weekend. This particular story has been mulling around in me, looking to be told for the last 7 years. 

I had just finished exams, may of my junior year of college, and was living in those sweet days when the work is done but no one has left for summer break. We all played, enjoying all the best things of being 19. I was going on lots of late night drives to the mountains for star-gazing and late morning coffees with my best friend, lots of dancing and movie watching and philosophizing over secret beers. And here’s the best part. As part of my major in theology and ministry, studying community and small group models, I was getting ready for a trip to England—solo!—to go stay at a Christian intentional community. I had my passport, a fat reading list, and a marked up train schedule I printed off the national rail website. This cluster of people in the English countryside had some secret to what it meant to live together in Christ, something different and deeper than a Sunday morning church service. And I was going to go over there and see it for myself.

Then I got the call.

Granny, my mother’s mother, had been fighting cancer, making it through the brutality of chemo and radiation with the help of her quirky humor, her faith, and a whole lot of vodka. But just then she suddenly collapsed, and after my grandfather, known as Buddy Bob, got her to the hospital, the doctors told her that it had spread so rapidly—just since that last set of scans!—that her organs were shutting down.

My plans changed. Instead of playing for a month before England, I chose to go with Mom down to Eutawville, South Carolina and help take care of Granny.

That’s right, Eutawville. Population 350. You just drive right up there and get of 95 at Santee and hang a right. You can’t miss it. We bump down off the Old #6 Hwy onto a dirt, no, a sand road into the veil of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Hospice had beaten us there, replacing Granny’s pretty four poster with the automatic hospital bed. That smell of home health was there, too, that mix of antiseptic and sick, and it competed with bacon grease and magnolia blossoms and the enduring stale cigarette smoke that had caked into the wallpaper before Granny finally made Buddy Bob quit lighting up at the kitchen table ten years earlier.

So we kept the busy vigil of the dying-but-not-dead, trying not to see how quickly her tiredness was taking over, trying not to wonder about the new bulges we saw on her back and sides, trying not to consider whether the nonsensical talk was from the cancer or the pain meds.

There was also sweetness to it. We gave her pedicures and looked through every photo album. We turned away nosy church ladies and welcomed the true old friends, gatekeepers for the queen. I climbed the most precarious branches of that old magnolia in the side yard to keep the blossoms fresh on her bedside table. Each day I rubbed lotion on her hands and helped her take small sips of cold water.

One day Granny got a craving for pineapple. You’d better believe I was lickety split in two minutes driving down to the Piggly Wiggly for a pineapple. You want a bloody mary for breakfast? You got it! (Although, let’s be honest, that had been a time honored tradition in Eutawville) On another afternoon Buddy Bob got in his head that a good steak might help her energy, give her some strength, so he sent me running off with $100 cash to the steak man, who worked from the back of a convenience store/butcher shop. Four of the best filets you can imagine, grilled rare and served up with tomatoes and corn from the garden and her own pound cake recipe.

But so soon she could no longer manage steak, much less sit at the table for a meal, and would doze off by dinnertime.

One day I sat next to Granny, reading while she napped, when I heard, “Booop. Boop boop boop boop!” I looked over. She was awake, smiling at me, wiggling her fingers overhead. “Hey Granny, what’s that?” She laughed. “These are my antennae.” “Oooooh, you’re antennae. Ok.” She closed her eyes again. Man, those meds… After several minutes of silence Granny said, “Listen.” Ok. I’m listening. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful things in this world. And if you don’t have your antennae up, you just might miss them.”

Granny died only a few weeks after I got the call, and we buried her in the holly hill cemetery, just like she’d wanted. Her church lady friend sang, “I Can Only Imagine,” just like she’d wanted. Back at the house we ate poundcake and strawberries, just like she’d wanted.

And a few days later I went to England. It didn’t occur to me not to. After all, I was 19 years old and I had an adventure to find, the heart of Christian community living to discover. I hopped on a plane for London, then a train for beautiful green Hampshire, to the manor house turned dormitory, down the little road from the quaint village—they say Jane Austen did some writing there. For two weeks I spent my mornings reading Henri Nouwen and drinking PG Tips. I spent my afternoons doing farm chores, cooking simple food for 50 people, and talking about God and life and art with all the other strange stragglers who’d shown up to this community for a few days or a longer sabbatical. England in June has 15 hours of sunlight each day, all the beauty and time you could hope for. I was ready with case study questions, ponderings that had come up during my college studies, and carried them around in a little notebook. With eagerness I attended every lecture in the great hall, morning prayer in the little worn chapel with hay bale pews. I was at every church service and lunch dialogue. I interviewed the full time community members, watched everything and jotted notes obsessively. I soaked in as much as I could, trying to understand, analyze, and qualify: what does it mean to be a person of faith living in community? I watched and listened. I tried to be a part of the common life, but really, I was there to study it. I never really talked to the others all that much about Granny and all that I’d just seen and lived. It didn’t occur to me to.

One evening I went to hear a talk by one of the full time community members. Prior to working in the community, he had worked in palliative care—a hospice doctor. He spoke about Jesus’ incarnation and what it might mean for Christians in community to be God incarnate all over again. He said that the world is full of wonderful, beautiful things-pay attention! They are signs of God at work around us. And doggone. You know what? That doctor said that most of all, we meet Jesus and we are Jesus any time we live into his teaching, any time we practice the beatitudes, any time we give someone so much as a sip of cold water.

The next morning I walked to the village. I went straight to the phone booth around the corner from the pub. I shoveled pence out of my pocket and into the slot, dialed international, and heard myself say, “Mama? I think I have to come back home.”

Podcasts for your heart

This month I’ve been in the car for three hours each day, driving to Sewanee for a summer intensive course in liturgical history. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this arrangement, but I would do it again in a minute just to be with my boys every night.

This is the most intensive period of solitude I’ve had since exactly a year ago, in the solitary waiting of those long last couple of weeks of pregnancy. With my solitude I’ve been praying and thinking, sipping coffee. With all that quiet, and in the tiredness of what can only be called a grind of driving and studying and squeezing in a little church work, the little questions and worries come. Almost every day it seems I am swinging in and out of doubt about this path to ordination. Luckily I have also been podcast binging, and have experienced that deep, rooting God peace in some of the wise conversations I have heard.

So here are my recommendations.

Today  I listened to this episode from The Liturgists from last fall, called “Woman”. It has one of the most beautiful expressions of the female lifespan in all its strength and fear I have ever heard in a beautiful poem from Lisa Gungor. It also tackles intersections of gender and race in a really thoughtful and compassionate way with Austin Channing Brown, and concludes with reflections from a lady pastor that just reminded me of the value of simply showing up in this embodiment and calling.
I do need to say that the episode veers into some transphobic territory, making intense comments about what bodies constitute “woman.” This is a growing edge for sure in this conversation and in the church and might not be a safe listen for all.

Last week I went down the enneagram, listening to The Road Back to You, a podcast based on the book by the same name by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Those two and the way they present this learning—what gems! This interview with Mihee Kim Kort, a Presbyterian minister and enneagram 7, moved me to tears. If you want to skip to that good cry part, start 20 minutes in, when Ian, Suzanne, and Mihee are talking about the church’s tendency to favor certain kinds of gifts and personalities in clergy, right when it most needs to be open to a diverse priesthood. Whooo, boy, was that ever the good news for me in this season of feeling disjointed and like I must be “doing this wrong.” But really, take the time for the whole set up to heard Mihee’s story and get more insight into the whole type, and check out other episodes while you’re at it.

What wisdom has been nourishing your call lately? Got any bedtime reading or car ride listening to recommend?