I pray…

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My son and youngest daughter tromp down the wooden stairway perched on a steep, wooded incline in front of their grandparents’ cabin. Buckets and nets in tow, their squeals echo as rambunctiously as their feet racing to the floating dock. They are fishing today, the non-fishing way. No hooks or worms. Just bread crumbs, nets, and long lines of patience.

Depending on the time of day, they may or may not see what they’re trying to catch. My son and daughter lay across the dock’s splintered slats, faces pressed as close to the lake’s mirrored surface as their lifejackets’ bulk will allow. Sometimes they only catch a glimpse of what’s below when a sunfish breaks the surface tension of chocolate gray water.

If, however, the sideways gaze of the rising sun drew my kids down to the dock, they stare into the water’s sepia-infused glow. Scaled bodies, drunk on the morning sun, swim with the music of lakegrass and lilies. Mesmerized by the disco-ball-dazzle of a quartz boulder glittering in the shallows nearby, my kids watch and wait, enchanted.

It’s this kind of enchantment many churches try to create at Christmas. Dazzle! Impress! And maybe, just maybe, some of the people who came because it’s the one time of year they go to church, or because they miss carols and candlelight, or because awhile back the church was their family, or maybe because they’ve never gone and just want to see what this Jesus stuff is all about…maybe, just maybe, some of these people will come back.

This Christmas Eve, I entered the stone archways of a cathedral clad in all its Christmas finery. Candlelight, choirs, brass. Carols and communion. The head priest walked the center aisle, reaching out towards the people in filled pews. He met others’ gazes through round professorial glasses. His gray hair distinguished him more so than his vestments. This was Christmas in all its nostalgic, traditional glory.

And then he preached.

“The woman was so ugly!”

Laughter in the pews from the front and side by the pulpit.

My spine straightened. My skin bristled.

Did he really just say that?

Yes. And not just “ugly woman.”

The “ugliest woman.”

And on it went, spun in ways that confused outer beauty with inner worth. His words twisted one’s God-given goodness from gospel truth into knots beholden to the human standards of male authorities.  This ugly woman was exalted as a necessity for shameful men (like him, he admitted) to learn (and now to teach, apparently) that it’s all okay because God needs broken, ugly women (people, if I’m generous) because that’s how God’s light gets in.

I was drowning, thinking of God’s people who had been diminished by ugly name-calling and labeled less-than by people deemed more powerful than them. Many of whom were likely in the pews around me, bracing themselves against the assault from the pulpit and laughter around them. I longed for the sense of wonder found on the dock with my children.

Those moments on the pier weren’t always perfect, or beautiful, or crystal clear.  But we knew the fish were there. The light was already there. We waited. We watched. Whether we saw into the depths, or how we perceived what swam underneath, was a matter of timing, opportunity, and the perspective revealed by the angle of light. Not really all that different from Bethlehem so long ago, when a baby came to shift our perspective. To shed light in ways that did not break us more, but illuminate new ways to love and better paths to peace.

My heart breaks for the other priests who had to follow the head priest’s path down the aisle. Priests who because of labels are marked as different, or even ugly. Female priests. Priests of color. Priests betrayed by a head priest’s Christmas Eve message to the masses. I pray that more of these children of God stand proudly in the pulpit. I pray they cast light in the ways only they can. I pray our perspectives shift in healing and life-giving ways. I pray that ensnaring people from pulpits with nets of blame and shame becomes a thing of the past.  I pray for a time when all old, white, distinguished, smug men in the pulpit will humble themselves and speak boldly of the beauty found in all God’s creatures.

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Muse on a Monday (or Tuesday)

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“it was when I stopped searching for home within others
and lifted the foundations of home within myself
i found there were no roots more intimate
than those between a mind and a body
that have decided to be whole”
by rupi kaur in the sun and her flowers[1]

MUSE PROFILE

Who is Rupi Kaur:
Another bestselling author, photographer, artist I discovered by accident. #anewpoetfoundmeinTarget

Why This Person:
Her writing harnesses deep, tough emotions. She tackles universal themes with simplicity and grace, and in the age of #metoo and DACA, her writing on abuse and immigration is timely.

Why this quote:
I used to think wholeness was a given, or something that just happened.
I used to think if you wanted to be whole badly enough,
wholeness would be guaranteed.
Wholeness is not something to handle so carelessly.
You will break before you even realize you aren’t whole anymore.
By then it’s almost too late.
Almost.

[1] Rupi Kaur, the sun and her flowers (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017), 215.

Muse on a Monday

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The Hidden Clocks (Mon.11-9-15) by Iain Thomas in I Wrote This for You 2007-2017

“Don’t stop searching.

There is no comfort in giving up.

There are large parts of you that don’t exist yet.

The greatest you you could be, is still waiting to be found.

Get up and look.”[1]

Muse Profile

Who is Iain Thomas: Someone I discovered by accident. Poet, media artist, author.

Why This Person: Sometimes the books you need to read find you. Sometimes these books aren’t the ones you go looking for. #anewpoetfoundmeinTarget

Why this quote: Age 40 and breathing life into crucial parts of me that had almost melted away.

[1] Iain Thomas, I Wrote This for You: 2007-2017 (New York: Central Avenue Publishing, 2017).

Muse on a Monday

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Today is the day a tiny baby arrived and offered hope to a broken world.

“What in God’s holy name do you do when it feels like you’re broken and cut up, and love has failed, and you’ve failed, and you feel like Somebody’s love has failed you?”[1]

“My dad had told me this once. For a seed to come fully into its own, it must become wholly undone. The shell must break open, its insides must come out, and everything must change. If you didn’t understand what life looks like, you might mistake it for complete destruction.”[2]

Muse Profile

Who is Ann Voskamp: Bestselling author, blogger, wife, mom.

Why This Person: Voskamp’s writing is lyrical and vulnerable.

Why these quotes:

As Christmas dawns, I find myself broken, raw edges exposed.
And yet, somewhere in my tender wounds, the promise of hope aches.

Not one thing in your life is more important than
figuring out how to live in the face of unspoken pain.”[3]

[1] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life (Zondervan, 2016), 12.

[2] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, 26.

[3] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, 12.

Muse on a Monday

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“Again and again, decisions must be made as to small and large matters;

each one involves him in devious ways.

No one is free from the peculiar pressures of his own life.”

–Howard Thurman in Meditations of the Heart

Muse Profile

Who

Howard Thurman: Minister, Civil Rights Leader, Theologian

Why This Person

I was inspired by Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, so I was excited when I saw this book of devotions compiled from Thurman’s life.

Why This Quote

This has been a semester of critical decision-making about
who I am, where I’m going, and with whom I journey.

Advent Reflection for First Year Seminarians

This fall I had the privilege of reading Scripture every week with a group of first year seminary students. They shared their firsts, and I watched them grow into confident proclaimers and oral interpreters of scripture. To be part of this birthing process is an honor. I am so proud of these students for making it through their first semester. I found a piece I’d written a year ago when I finished my first semester of seminary. I offer an adaptation here, in honor of first year seminary students everywhere. –AE  

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December 2016:  These days I find myself saying to others, “It’s been a harrowing semester.” It does not escape me that the only other time I described something as “harrowing” was following the unmedicated birth of my first child. Since it is Advent, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on my first semester of seminary in light of Mary’s journey to motherhood .

A brush of angel’s wings accompanied notification of my acceptance to seminary in February. I pinched myself in disbelief. After striving to be in seminary, on-campus, in-person, financials and family accounted for, for so long, I started to think it could never happen. I sat with my news awhile, unsure when to tell the masses. I shared gradually. Talking about it made it more real, even though, save for the acceptance letter, I had nothing yet to show; no parking permit, no ID badge, no Hebrew textbooks to lug around. And yet anticipation bore preparation. I savored last moments in order to pave the way for firsts. Time with children became more poignant. I took stock of my beliefs. I rested. I played. I prayed.

By September, parking permit affixed, ID in hand, weighted down with textbooks, I stopped pinching myself and believed my dream really was coming true. A few weeks into the semester, the pressure built.  Contractions of scholarly muscles intensified, no longer in fits, but in ongoing swells of labor. Betrayed, I cried out, pleading for the pain to subside. Forceful waves, already in motion, pulled me under against my will. No matter who held my hand, no matter how similar the cries from classmates, I felt alone. I had to figure out a way through. Finally, I succumbed, letting the leading edge of faith carve my body anew.

I focused my breath for the final pushes. When, just as suddenly as I was awash in the news of my seminary acceptance, the first semester was over.

I stare in disbelief at my dream for the future cradled in my arms. I gaze at it like a babe in swaddling clothes, my call all wrapped up in it, the agony of its birth gradually becoming a distant memory. I wonder who she’ll be. I hope her heart will reflect more God than the world, and pray for her journey ahead. I sit. I rock. I wait, humbled by the mystery of birth and becoming, and the mysterious transformation in between.

Gimme an M! F! A!

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Almost a year ago I attended a writer’s conference that made clear I’m meant to be both writer and pastor. Two months earlier when I started at Columbia Seminary, I thought it was one or the other. God’s call is rarely so simple, so I’ve spent the year since the conference trying to figure out how to live fully into both.

Recently, like a book being opened to the exact right passage, I found the field in ministry that speaks my language, Pastoral Theology. After much doubt my first year of seminary about my pastoral identity, I cry tears of joyous relief.

But what to do about that crazy idea that still cheers at the sidelines, its pompoms shaking as it shouts, “M! F! A!” ? Last year, I wanted to join its team. I was tempted to quit and pursue an M.F.A. degree. Certainly the loudest cheerleader must be God herself! But let’s be real—just because I’m in seminary doesn’t necessarily mean everything is a “God thing”!

What to do with these phantom cheerleaders? Better at least pay attention. When I see an MFA, I see uninterrupted time and an established structure to write. What does that tell me? That I’m not getting enough writing in my current situation. Not because I’m in seminary, but because I’m choosing to use seminary pressures as an excuse not to do even 20 minutes of writing each day—the kind of honest, hard-won writing that does not come in the form of papers or academic reflections, or rushed journal entries.

This realization shifts how I perceive God. Maybe God is speaking through phantom cheerleaders shouting “M! F! A!” But perhaps her message is not necessarily one that tells me what to do (quit and get an MFA), but is an enthusiastic attempt to spell out how I am or am not meeting my present needs.

Reluctantly, I get off the bench and leave behind by program of easy answers. On the field I stretch my muscles, preparing to do the practice and run the complicated plays that will help move me to the end goal of touching down in the future as both writer and pastor. In less than two days, I, too, will cheer—celebrating the complexity, challenge, and wonder of this call at the writer’s conference that pointed me in this mysterious direction a year ago.