Archive for 2016

The Danger in Nostalgia

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     There is nostalgia in egg salad for me. As a girl, my small church would have linger-longers on occasion, where we would, well, linger longer after the Sunday night church services over finger foods and lemonade. It was here that I developed a love for egg salad.
     I get the same sense of nostalgia for the church of my childhood, when I eat lemon sandwich cookies. My preschool Sunday school teacher would bring them each week as a snack, and even just the scent of them brings me back to those small plastic chairs.
      There are many things that trigger nostalgia for me (apparently many pertaining to food), frozen cokes from the Meijer gas station, the cool crisp air combined with high school football stadium lights, the smell of apple cider, reading "the Chronicles of Narnia", hearing Amy Grant or Michael W Smith on the radio, the smell of freshly milled grain, the feel of Lake Michigan sand under my feet, and the way it sounds after a heavy snowfall. These moments take me back to my childhood, to fond memories, and happy events.
     I have fond memories of God too. Memories of praying at altars in my church, of church camps with PR bands from the denominational college, and of revival speakers with passion. I remember testimony time on Sunday nights in my little church, and the stories that the old women would tell, and think how someday I wanted to be able to share those same type of stories.
         At times I would love to transport myself back there, to curl up in the safety and security that those times seemed to bring me. The smells of childhood Christmas and having all of my family together again, is a memory I would like to transport myself into. If I could wake up just one more time on a Saturday morning in my Little Foot pajamas and smell my moms biscuits and gravy, and have all my siblings at home, I would probably do it in a heartbeat,
           In recent days there has been a cultural push to "go back", and I understand why, but there is a danger in living in nostalgia. Nostalgia often remembers the warm feelings of our youth at the expense of the bigger picture, and it leads us to a discontentment for where we are now.
      My mom told me a story about how when she was a child there were nights where they had popcorn for dinner. This is a fond memory for her, a nostalgic memory, because having popcorn for dinner was a great treat. Looking back now she realizes that at the time, that was all her parents could afford to feed them. What is a nostalgic memory for her, would be (if my grandparents were still alive) a very stressful and heart wrenching memory for them. No one wants to only feed their children popcorn. Trying to go back to that nostalgic moment, while seemingly warm and cozy, misses the bigger picture of what is going on. A child can not live on popcorn alone, and parents that can only provide that feel desperate and scared.
        This weekend the movie "Loving" will be released. It is about when, just a short time ago, interracial marriage was legalized. A nostalgia for a past prior to this misses the reality that my marriage wouldn't be legal. A nostalgia for a past where prayer was a legal part of the school day, misses out on the children not allowed to be in school with children who looked different or believed different than them. A nostalgia for a past where we had a job, misses the bigger picture that while things might have been great for us, they weren't for everyone. A nostalgia for a past where we were raised by a stay at home mom, might miss the bigger picture that she had other dreams she wanted to fulfill, but wasn't empowered to do so.
       There is always a bigger picture in the midst of our nostalgic dreams, and if we aren't careful, we can get so caught up in those memories that our entire lives are consumed by them. In the midst of being consumed by our longing for a past that only existed for us, we are completely missing out on the present. If we are constantly trying to go back to how things used to be, we do a disservice to ourselves and the people around us in the present.
       We are missing out on creating new memories, on creating new movements of justice, on trying new foods, and visiting new places.
       If my nostalgia trapped me in the world of egg salad and lemon cookies, I never would have discovered how much I love to bake pies, or scones. I never would have learned how much I love lobster rolls and sushi. I would be missing out on the beauty of the now, the beauty of my every day moments. The smells, the sounds, the tastes, the sights, that are all around me.
       But our nostalgia is not limited to childhood food and memories, this desire for a nostalgic past is present in our spirituality as well.  In our churches, in our faith communities and denominations we can get so caught up in the nostalgic ways that the Holy Spirit has moved in the past, that we forget to see where the Holy Spirit is moving now. We become a bit like Lots wife, longing so much to look backwards, that if we aren't careful we will become a pillar of salt.
      My childhood is filled with tremendous memories of how God moved in my past, that's why I have such nostalgia when I think of my childhood church, and the people who were there. However, to try to go back to that, would rob my congregation of those same type of memories. It would rob them of movements of God that are happening now. Celebrating and recognizing the ways that God is at work now, as different as that may look from my childhood, does not diminish what God did in the past. However, being so consumed by the past that I can't see where God is working now, robs me and others of the kingdom of God in our midst.
        It is right and good to remember the ways God was faithful, what God has done, and the ways God has moved, but God is not in the past. God is the I AM, and is present now. If we are too busy looking backwards, we will miss the I AM in the now. We will miss the ways that God is speaking, that God is moving, that God is raising up and calling people. This might look very different than the cozy safe memories of childhood, but at some point we must grow up out of childhood in order to pass on the faith to those who come after us.
      Where is the I AM now? I sense that presence of God every time I receive the Eucharist, a moment of remembrance that doesn't push me into nostalgia, but a grace that is present with me in that moment, and then sends me out into the world in peace. I see the I AM when a 3 year old embraces my mother in law at church on a Sunday morning and calls her grandma, despite no blood relationship. The Holy Spirit is moving in the hard questions of my friends, who are finding a renewed sense of hope in faith. The I AM is at work when justice is done in the name of love.
       It is important to remember, but we must not allow our remembrances to become an idol to move to a nostalgic past, disregarding the larger picture. We must also remember that it is the present in which we live, and that we serve a God that is ever present with us. The past has it's place, but it's the present that is here. We must embrace it. We must celebrate it. We must be present, because this is the only time we have, and the I AM is here too, in our midst, bringing the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Are we present enough to see it?

Showing Up: The Power of Presence

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     As pastors we are often told that part of our role is embodying the presence of Jesus for others. Incarnational imagery is often invoked to inspire us to be Jesus to those we meet; just as God left the glory of heaven to put on humanity and dwell among us, we are to dwell among people as well, mourning with those who mourn, and being present with people during the greatest joys and greatest tragedies of their lives.
     Our very presence is supposed to illustrate the presence of God to people. Our presence is important. Just showing up and being there, is important. Whether that be in a hospital room or a coffee shop, our presence matters.
      As a woman in ministry, I've discovered there is another layer to the importance of showing up. When a clergywoman shows up something is said about God. The presence of God looks female with the challenges and joys that come along with that.
    While waiting in the dinner line at the reception for a wedding I had just officiated, a woman approached me. She was probably in her mid 60's and had the sweetest smile. Her hand rested gently on my arm as she said "My heart was full when I saw you officiating the wedding. When I was young, women could only do two things, be a teacher (which I was) or be a nurse. As those two little flower girls walked down the aisle towards you, all I could think was 'they will know they can do anything, because they are seeing a woman pastor. You did such a beautiful job, and I want to encourage you to keep doing what you are doing."
     My eyes welled up a bit as she spoke. It might be the sweetest compliment I have ever received after a wedding, but it also illustrated to me the importance of presence, something I often forget.
     I forget that when I get behind a pulpit on a Sunday morning, that just my presence communicates something to the little girls in the front row, with their children's bulletins on their laps.

It tells them that they are created in the image of God, and that they can share that image with others. It tells them that God calls and uses everyone for the kingdom. They will never have to be told that despite what they have seen, women can be pastors, preachers, teachers, and leaders, they will just know, because they've seen it week after week. 
     I forget that when I show up to a wedding, filled with people from various backgrounds and views, that my presence says something to them. That it tells them that God loves women too. That marriage isn't about some sort of patriarchal submission but that it's a beautiful partnership where two can lead together.  

    I forget that when I tell students in my classrooms that I am a pastor, that they hear something powerful. That within that small phrase, and that small act, they imagine something different than what many of them have seen. That they start to imagine a world for themselves that they've never thought of before. 
    I forget that when I stand behind the altar and break the bread and pour the wine, that many will see it in a new light because of my presence there. That they will see the broken and spilled out Jesus in a new way. That when I hold babies over the baptismal font, that the image becomes one of a mother bathing her child, and the image of sacrifice becomes something powerful when words of death and life are spoken within that context. 
    I forget that when I show up at theology conferences, or district assembly, that there are young women, older women, and children who are watching. That by standing up front, that by singing in the elder's choir, that by being there, people are learning something about God, and that they are learning something about women, and how God views women. 
    So when an older woman approaches me with tears in her eyes and tells me to "keep being faithful to God's call in your life" and she calls to mind all the little girls and women who saw something different because it was me who officiated the wedding, I listen, and I tear up myself, and I promise myself that I will remember.
    I will remember that what I do matters. Showing up matters. My presence matters. Every Sunday, every coffee meeting, every wedding, every hospital visit, every district meeting, every opportunity to serve the Eucharist, every time I preach, every time I sit with those who grieve, every time I baptize a baby or a new saint, every single time I show up... it matters. I hope I never forget. 

Not a Job: Redefining Life as a Spouse

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     Several days ago I was teaching in a high school classroom. A female student was bemoaning the fact that when she returned home in the afternoon, she would have to clean the house. I told her, "if it makes you feel better, I also have to clean the house."
     A boy chimed in "well, yeah, of course, that's because you are the mom." To which I said "I'm not a mom."
    His response, "well, wife, whatever, it's still your job to clean the house."
    I took a deep breath for a second with a follow up statement, "I need to rephrase what I said earlier. When I said that I had to clean the whole house I meant, my husband and I have to clean the house. We are equals. It's neither my job or his job to clean the house, it's both of our responsibility because we both live there. We both cook, we both clean, we both are responsible, because we both live there. We are partners."
    The boy shook his head and rolled his eyes a bit, but the girl, her eyes got big and a smile broke out as she said "that sounds like an amazing relationship."
     It seems a bit odd to me that in 2016 I am having this conversation with high school students. This idea that women and men are equals, that our roles are not defined by some sort of biological mandate. That my husband and I can co-lead in our home, and co-care for our home is noteworthy seems strange, because to us that is life, and it just makes sense.
    This idea of co-responsibility was pronounced after hearing a pastor's spouse reference that being a pastor's wife is "the best job in the world".
    I asked my husband in the car later, "Is being my husband a job for you? Do you see being a pastor's husband as a job?" He laughed with a hearty no, to my great relief.
     Because the language of job sounds like a chore (this is also why I often refer to the work I do at church as a vocation, because it is something other than a job for me in many ways), like something one must do out of obligation, versus out of love, care, and respect. I don't want to be someone's job, least of all my husbands, I want to be his wife.
     While I am not a fan of doing dishes or laundry, and neither is my husband, I don't want those to be seen as jobs either, as much as I want them to be seen as things we do to make our lives better, to support one another, and to love one another. To be good stewards of our belongings, we take care of them. I am not always great at this and often bemoan the fact that I have to restart the washing machine, again, because I forgot the clothes while attending to the 50 other tasks on my to do list. It is a goal I strive for.
      There are issues with the language of a spouse as a job outside of these initial issues as well.
      First, there is still this prevailing issue in the church that when you hire a pastor, you get the spouse free! The old joke about asking at pastoral interviews "does your wife play piano?" still rings true in many places. This places an extreme burden on a pastor's spouse, to do just as much as his spouse does, but to get little to no recognition for it. There have been multiple articles and blog posts written (mostly by pastor's wives, I have yet to find a pastor's husband one, though I am sure they exist) about the alienation and frustrations they feel by this phenomenon. My own husband has referenced his own frustrations at times, at feeling like he in a sense has to punch a time clock, when he has been expected to show up at every single church event, and even more so, when things he says on social media are judged as being a reflection on me, without considering that he and I probably discussed the topic before it even made it to social media!
      The language of job also lends itself into complementarianism. I have heard women time and time again talk about the job of being a wife and a mother, but I haven't heard the same rhetoric used by men (the exception being that I hear men speak about "babysitting" their own children, and I don't hear moms say that.) "The most important job I have is being a mom." Is a common phrase I've heard from women of all ages. I 100% get what they are saying, raising children is an incredibly important task, but sometimes I fear the language of job supersedes the language of relationship. Where the relationship between men and women are concerned, it lends itself to saying that it is the woman's job to take care of the children, to be a good wife, to take care of the home, while the husband has a job outside of the home, to provide for the family. This really diminishes both women and men. While seeking to elevate being a wife and mother, it makes it seem the same as punching a clock each day. It does the exact opposite of what it is trying to achieve, while also placing men and women in distinct gender roles.
      I prefer to say it this way, being a wife is the most important relationship (after God) I have right now, and if I have children, they will be the second most important relationship. A relationship goes 2 ways, it must be fostered, cared for, and nurtured. There is no time clock to punch, there is no day off, because relationships are different than jobs.
     When we have relationships with friends, our expectations are that there is give and take, that we are equals, that we are there for one another, that we care for one another, etc. We would never think to call being a friend a "job", despite friendship being a less important relationship in our life than what we have with our spouse. Our expectations with our spouse should be the same, that there is give and take, that we are equals, that we are there for one another, that we care for one another, even MORE so than we do with our friends.
     It might seem minuscule or unimportant, but I realized that day in a high school classroom how closely those who come behind us are watching us. They are watching and defining their value, they are defining what relationships will look like for them, and I hope that in this small way, we will learn to think less of our family as a job, and more as... well... a family.

Back to School Block Party

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(This is long past overdue, but I wanted to be sure to have tons of pictures of this event. I've also been incredibly busy. Such is the life of a bi-vocational pastor! Thank you all for reading! For your patience, for your prayers, for your love. I promise to be back to blogging more regularly from now on!) 
       I lost count of how many 12 hour days I put in the 2 weeks preceding our block party event. It was the biggest event I have ever attempted in my entire professional career. I'm not a big event person, and so I tend to opt for intimate settings where deep discussion has room to cultivate, but I made an exception, because I so deeply care for the kids in my neighborhood (and city), and I know the difficulties of paying for school supplies, plus I do like a good party.
        The idea of a back to school block party was formed, in order to just really celebrate with our neighbors, to get school supplies into the hands of students, and say thank you to any teachers who might attend.
        Our goal was to see 150 people walk through the door, just to know they are loved and that we are here in the neighborhood. Filling 150 grab bags was no small feat, and I am so grateful I had tons of help to do it. We wanted to ensure that every kid that walked through the door had at the minimum, basic school supplies to start school.
     We were overwhelmed by the generosity of others as we were able to fill all 150 bags with a pencil case (including pencils, erasers, pens, etc.), a folder, and a notebook, as well as some candy and other treats. 

       Another goal of ours was to bless any teacher that came through the door with a thank you gift. Whatever we got that could go in a bin for teachers, we would put together. The outpouring of love from others enabled us to fill 30 bins with kleenex, dry erase markers, hand sanitizer, post it notes, pens, pencils, rulers, motivational stickers, a stocked pencil case to give to a student in need, AND a gift card to get coffee. These were beautifully put together by a high school volunteer.
   

  During the night we had 3 Chinese teachers (they teach Chinese language and culture in our school system) wander in. They told me they were just walking by and had only been in the country for 2 weeks. Two of them had never been to the United States before. I gave them their gifts, and they kept saying "oh no! We can't accept this! What did we do to deserve this?" We just smiled and told them that we wanted to say thank you, and help them in their new classrooms this year. They were overjoyed and I was so blessed to meet them. 

      But this story is more than just a story about a successful event (how do we define success anyway), it's really a story about the faithfulness of God and what can happen when God's people come together. You see that guy overseeing the cooler filling? He pastors at another church on our district, and he and another pastor from their church, brought a bunch of volunteers to help us with this event. It wasn't a competition, it was just God's people helping each other out to do great things. Not only that, their church, Duneland Community Church, did a beverage drive for us which enabled us to have so many awesome drinks at our event. The kingdom of God looks like churches coming together to love others. 


     We also had live rap music by amazing artist Da Mac, who drove here from Missouri to bless us with his talent and gifts. The audience was overjoyed, the oldest to the youngest were dancing, and we saw a glimpse of the kingdom of God through rap music in a 70 year old sanctuary. It was beautiful. 
 
    We made new friends and partners in Faith, who has a non-profit called Purple Diamonds Inc, and Moe, who owns and operates her own barber shop. They prayed over our event, and partnered with us, passing out flyers, donating supplies and time, and giving free hair cuts to nearly every student that came through the doors. Sometimes the kingdom of God looks like haircuts near the platform in a sanctuary, and strangers becoming friends.

     Our church hosts Al-Anon a couple nights a week, and our ladies were at the door to greet all of our attendees. They were our greatest cheerleaders of the night, telling everyone about our church, and talking about hope and healing with our neighbors. Sometimes the kingdom of God looks like neighbors helping neighbors. 
     We put a big bounce house in the back of our sanctuary and it was a hit! Kids would walk in with faces lit up, and the laughter and shouts resounded through the building. Sometimes the kingdom of God shows up in the noise of children. 









     That night the kingdom of God looked like chaos and laughter, like yard games and hot dogs, like hair cuts and bounce houses. It sounded like rap music and laughter, squeals and conversation. It sounded like a beautiful cacophony of neighbors coming together, of the Church coming together to be the Church, in perfectly imperfect and messy ways. God showed up, and the biggest way God showed up was through the people of God. 
      Through people who gave money, who gave time, who sent box upon box of school supplies, who prayed, who volunteered. God showed up through all of you, and our lives, and the lives of our neighborhood will forever be touched because God showed up through people like you! 
      The kingdom of God is alive in Hammond, we are just grateful we got to see a glimpse of it on a hot summer night this August. We are excited to see where the kingdom of God will be glimpsed next. 






Trouble with Toilets

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  If you read nothing else in this blog, read the bold paragraph at the end on how sanitation is an issue globally, and how YOU can keep the generosity going, by helping those in need!

 There are certain things you can't learn about ministry from a textbook, things that must be experienced to understand. For example, the unspoken ministry law that things will not break on a normal Monday, on a week where nothing is scheduled and you have hours of uninterrupted time to call a plumber/electrician/roofer/contractor/etc. to solve the problem. Things WILL break when you have a church full of people, kids arriving for vacation bible school in just a few hours, and a big event on the schedule in just over a week. These are things they do not teach you when preparing for the ministry.
     It was a Tuesday afternoon when the missions team that was staying with us from Tulsa informed me the toilets weren't flushing in the women's restroom. I went to investigate the problem and discovered that none of the toilets were flushing. I then asked the men if the toilet in the men's room was flushing, it was not. The time was 4:30. with VBS scheduled to start at 6pm.
     The plumber showed up a half hour before 6, which meant we were paying overtime for what we hoped would be a small problem (like I said, in ministry problems don't conveniently arise, you must pay overtime). I was asked a bunch of questions I had no idea how to answer. The main part of our building is 77 years old, I have no idea where the pipes go, or what a clean out valve even is (I learned). Thus, instead of any easy fix, we scheduled for a camera to be run through all the pipes the next day.
     I got to see into the literal bowels of the church. Which was a bit intriguing (and at times a bit gross). I learned there used to be another toilet in the church under our back stairwell. I learned AGAIN that doing things the cheapest way might pay off for a short time, but costs a lot more money in the long run.
      The problem was bigger than we thought. The wrong type of pipe, installed incorrectly, and then where the clean out valve was, was covered in cement (which defeats the whole purpose of a clean out valve). It was going to take some time and money to fix it.... money and time we didn't have.
     The missions team didn't complain once about the hundredth time they had to run over to our house to use the restroom, the VBS kids ran home if they needed to go, so the week went amazingly better than it could have, but we had our huge block party on the schedule and needed our toilets.
      This is where the story gets good, so if you skimmed over the actual toilet issues, stop skimming and read this part. We asked people to pray for our toilets. It's a bit silly, because with all the issues in the world, this seems so silly, but our toilets enable us to do ministry here in ways you don't think of, until you don't have them. We asked that God would provide in profound ways, and that the pipe could be fixed before our block party.
      The total cost was $2,943. That is a lot for anyone, but especially for our little church plant.
       I said to the plumber at one point "I hate that we are spending money on this, when we could be spending money on helping people." He looked at me and said "You can't help people if you don't have toilets. The money you are spending on this IS helping people."
      I was convicted as I thought of the times people have rushed in just to use our toilets. When homeless people have come in for a cup of coffee and to use the restroom. The countless kids and adults on Sunday mornings who use the facilities. The Al-Anon ladies on Tuesday nights and Friday mornings who drive from neighboring towns. Not to mention, I use those restrooms regularly, and I am able to have office hours and hold meetings with people because I have restrooms. The plumber was right, this was important.
      On the recommendation of a friend, we put together a GoFundMe page. To raise $2500. We could handle any expenses over that, it might put our account at zero.... again... but at least the problem would be solved. In just over week, we exceeded the $2500!!! We raised $2943!!!
      God's people were mobilized, some gave a little, some gave a lot. Some were Nazarenes, many were not. They gave to help us continue our work here. God is good! God's people are good! We are grateful!
      Not only were we able to raise the funds, but the work took less time than anticipated, and we did not need to rent port-a-potties for our event.
      We have learned a lot from this experience. The first being, make sure to do things right the first time, because it benefits people for a long time to do so. More importantly, we learned again that God is faithful, and that God uses God's people to do great things. We learned that when churches aren't in competition with each other, when God's people aren't bickering and arguing, but work together on something, great things happen. It was this working together, that enable us to keep doing our ministry. That enable us to have toilets for the homeless at times, that enable me to have office hours, that enable us to host huge back to school events.
       We are humbled and stunned by the faithfulness of God, and we are challenged to never take seemingly small things for granted again. Things like the ministry of toilets, or the giving of a $10 gift. These small acts, even these small things done in great love, have potential to change the world for good.
  •    Having access to sanitation is a huge issue worldwide. Yesterday was world portable sanitation day, to raise awareness for access to portable sanitation. This is especially important for our homeless brothers and sisters, but for others world wide. Learn more here! http://psai.org/world-portable-sanitation-day/  
  • Also 2.5 billion people worldwide don't have access to proper sanitation. There are MANY articles and organizations that talk about this here's the stats from WHO http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/hygiene/en/ 
  •  If you are looking for a way to help, or you wanted to help with our toilet issue but were unable, I encourage you to look into World Vision's program WASH, as they seek to provide sustainable clean water and sanitation to those in need around the world! For more info or to give check out http://www.wvi.org/cleanwater
As my plumber said "having toilets enables ministry to happen." I'll take it further, sometimes toilets are a ministry in themselves. You don't notice it until you don't have it. I've seen God mobilize God's people in our church, let's keep that going, and change the world!!

Tulsa First UMC

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    The last 2 weeks are still being processed in my mind. The pure chaos of everything over the last few days, mixed with the complete joy of seeing the kingdom of God at work, is resonating in my heart as I try to find the words to describe it all. The amazement at how God has moved, has made it difficult to write about, because I am still in complete shock at times.
     We hosted our first missions team 2 summers ago. We had only been here for 5 weeks, and the church was so full of stuff and mice, that they had to squeeze into our home and sleep on the floors. The bulk of their work was just cleaning out things so that we could even begin to think about ministry.
    Last week we hosted our only missions team of the summer, and what a difference 2 years makes. They got to worship in church service with us on Sunday. A service that was only a dream 2 years ago, was now a reality, and they got to take part. They interacted with people from the community almost every day of the trip, through vacation bible school, and through the random visits I am now getting on a much more regular basis.
     The presence of God was so present in their laughter, in their music, in their love for others, it re-energized me in a way that only being in the presence of teenagers can (a large piece of my heart still belongs to youth ministry).
      They did a lot of seemingly small things, that enables us to do ministry. Because we are still a small congregation, it is difficult to stay on top of tasks outside of the most important maintenance. Deep cleaning, weeding, organizing, etc. don't happen very often, because we just don't have time or the man power to do it all. This group did so much of that, which enables us to do ministry.
     They organized , a LOT!

  
      They weeded out in the hot sun.

      They painted.

      They sorted tons of bras for Free the Girls, to help sex trafficking survivors around the world.


        My favorite thing they did this whole week, was pour their lives into the lives of the kids in our church and community with their tremendous joy and willingness to look silly for the kingdom of God through our simple Vacation Bible School. 
        






     God showed up in amazing ways this week. In the silly and in the small, God was there.
     I told the group, they will never know the impact all of these seemingly small things have done for the kingdom, but that's how the kingdom of God is. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, it's small, but it grows.
      These small acts of kindness, of service, of compassion, of humility, are already growing. They have already enabled and equipped me to spend more time doing the relationship side of ministry, versus the maintenance side of ministry. They energized our congregation. They made the kids in our church feel so loved and valued. We will forever be impacted by the great work and the deep prayers of the people of Tulsa First United Methodist Church. Their gifts will grow and multiply into great things here in Hammond and beyond, and are so blessed to add them to the list of our extended God family we've had the great pleasure of meeting this side of glory. 


How Questions Lead to Holiness

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      I remember being about 3 or 4 years old, riding in the backseat of my brother's car on the way home from church. I was sitting pondering the world, and looking out the window, when I asked my college aged brother, "What is God?" He looked back a bit perplexed, and so I expanded my question. "I mean, He's not a ghost, and He's not a person, not with skin and a body like us. So what is God? Like, what is God made out of?" I don't remember the answer my brother gave me, but I don't remember him scoffing, or shutting down the conversation either. Whatever his answer was, it satisfied my young mind, but this memory of asking questions, of asking perplexing theological questions, is one of the earliest memories I have.
      As I grew, the questions didn't end. After Sunday morning worship service, I would often walk up to my mom while she was preparing dinner and ask all of the perplexing questions I had from the sermon that morning. "If the devil is a real person with free will, than does the devil have free will to repent and re-enter heaven? Or is it too late? Is there a point where it's too late to repent? What does that tell us about God?" She never shied away from my questions or told me to stop asking them, despite not always having an answer. Sometimes her answer being "won't it be great that someday we can ask Jesus all of our questions!"
       After bombarding her with thousands of questions she finally told me to write them down as I had them, and to ask my pastor prior to the evening church service. I did just that.
      I would walk into church on Sunday nights, and search all over for my pastor, with my list in hand. He took the time to go through each and every question I had, to the best of his ability, at times even reaching for his systematic theology notebook from seminary. Sometimes asking if we could resume the conversation after the service, which of course only lead to more questions.
      He gave me books about world religions, and helped me to delve even more deeply into the scriptures. He never turned away from my questions, but continued to challenge me in my thinking. Those questions often led to other questions, questions I'm still continuing to ask.
     Now I am a pastor myself, and I think at times that people perceive us as the people with the answers. That we sat through classes on Biblical Hermeneutics and Theology 101 to have better answers for our congregation, but I have learned that being a pastor is so very little about having the right answers, and so much more about asking the right questions.
     -Who is God?
     - What should our response to God be?
    -What is Love?
    -Is love even a what, or is love a who?
    - How do we live love in light of what/who love is?
    - What is the church?
    - Is the church a what, or is it a who?
    -What does it mean to be the church?
    - What does it mean to be free from sin?
      This is such a small sampling of questions that I ask, and that we ask as Christians. Our congregation wrestles with these questions on a regular basis, in recent weeks we've wrestled with "What does it mean to love my enemies?", "What does freedom in Christ look like?", and "What should our response to the terrorist attacks in Florida be?".
       However, I have seen people fear questions. As someone who has always asked questions, it is perplexing to me as to why? Which only leads me to more questions. Why are some people afraid of questions? Why are some people afraid of those who ask lots of questions?
       It perplexes me, because I believe that ultimately it is questions that lead us to holiness. A professor of mine used to say "you are never more holy than when you are confessing." It seems that that our questions are what ultimately leads us to confession.
      Someone asks "Who is my neighbor?" Which leads to a story about a man getting robbed and beaten on the side of the road. The religious leaders pass by out of fear of touching a dead body, or blood, making them unclean. Hoping to uphold the law. Then a man, who is by every definition of the word an outcast, an enemy to the man hurting and bleeding, and he is the one who picks him up. Who bandages his wounds and pays for his care. Who goes above and beyond to meet his needs.
     We learn from our questions that it was this man who was truly being a neighbor, which leads us to pray "Oh LORD have mercy on me a sinner! For I walked by on the other side instead of meeting my neighbor's needs. Forgive me, and help me to see those around me as my neighbor!" It is in that moment, that great moment of confession that we are made holy, as God is faithful to hear our cries and forgive us.
     It is this movement, this progression from question to confession to holiness that moves the liturgy of many of our churches. This is part of why we go from the sermon (questions and story), to a prayer of confession, to the Eucharist. It is a progression that reminds us of who we are and whose we are, that ultimately we might better serve the world. That we might ultimately look more like Jesus.
     Shutting down questions does not just shut down conversations that are uncomfortable for us to have, but inevitably it shuts down room for confession which ultimately creates roadblocks on the path of holiness.
     If we truly want to be a holy people, we must first and foremost be a people who ask questions. Who don't shut down conversations, but wrestle in the hard work of moving towards confession together. We must respond like Jesus did to the questions around him, the questions of "who is my neighbor?", "how can I be born again?", and "where can i find this well, so I might drink and never be thirsty?" not with criticism, not with an arrogance that we know all of the answers,  but with the embrace my brother, my mom, and my childhood pastor gave me. We must respond with stories and more questions, that we might confess together "Lord, I need to be a better neighbor", "Lord help me to be born again", and "Lord, I am dry, fill me again with your living water." That we might ultimately be made holy through the grace of the Holy Spirit who is faithful to forgive.
     May we ask more questions. May we listen and embrace those who are asking questions. May these questions ultimately lead us to confession that we do not have all the answers, and that we are so very dependent on the grace of a great God that we are far too small to comprehend. May that confession lead us to be the holy nation of God, a people set apart for God's great work in the world.
     

Things my Dad Never Said

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     I've written a lot about my mom. She is a wealth of stories of grace, mercy, and love. She is also, a lot like me. We are both extroverts who love to talk, we both love people, we both love to be around our family, and we both get deeply wounded when people don't notice or appreciate us. We drive each other absolutely crazy, and no one shows me how short I fall than her; moving away was probably the single best thing for our relationship. We are very much alike.
     I do not write much about my dad. It is not because there aren't stories of grace, mercy, and love where he is concerned, but rather because he is nothing like me.
     My mom once administered a personality test to my dad and I side by side. With each question we were to answer on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being that the statements sounded most like us, 1 being that the statement didn't sound like us at all. Whenever I would shout out an enthusiastic 10, my dad would say something like "Is there an option lower than a 1." We are opposites.
      Where I am loud and outgoing, he is quiet and reserved. Where I prefer to be the center of attention, he prefers to sink as much into the background as possible. When we would have parties I would seek out the action, and my dad could often be found outside, unless of course the party was outside, then he would be found inside. He is a man of few words, while I am a woman of too many.
      In reflecting on my dad, I often gravitate towards his quiet nature. He isn't one to make bold declarations of love, but I learned in college that his "I got your oil changed and put gas in your car" was just as much a statement of love as a hallmark card.
      Most people reflect a lot on the great things their dads have said to them that have molded them and shaped them, but I really think that I am equally shaped by the many things my dad never said to me. Those silences, whether intentional or not, helped to form and shape me as much as the words did.
       Here are a few of the things my dad never said:
       My dad never told me to go change my clothes. I don't know if he ever wanted to or not, but his silence on this matter gave me a lot of confidence. It taught me that I was a human being, and not just a sexual object to cover. I have a lot less baggage to work through than many of my friends, about body image, because I was never told to "cover up" or change.
      My dad never told me to change my hair. When I walked into the house at 18 with my blonde hair dyed black, my dad didn't say a single thing about it. I had no need to rebel, to push boundaries or limits, because my dad didn't make a big deal out of things like hair and makeup. He let me be my own person with very little commentary, which made me a person who is far less judgmental of the people around me, and a person who didn't need to push the envelope to feel complete.
      My dad never told me who I could and couldn't date. He trusted me enough as a young adult and adult to make good decisions. If I had asked, I'm sure he would have given his opinion, but he never came out guns blazing about needing to protect me, or the type of guy I should be with. I never had to bring a bad boy home just to frustrate my father, I never had to try and impress him, I just had space to learn who I liked without the fear of approval or disapproval from a parent.
      My dad never said "you can't do that, you are a girl". I would talk a lot about my dreams and aspirations in life. I'd talk about crazy things I wanted to do, and to this day I have never once heard my dad say "you can't do that" for any reason at all. My gender, my financial status, my personality, none of that ever came into play. I always believed, and continue to believe I can do things, partly because I was never told I can't.
      My dad never said "ewww" when I asked him to pick up more feminine products from the store. He never made my being female seem like a chore or a burden, or gross, he just did it. (Which is another one of those silent ways he let us know he loves us). One time when I was home sick with horrible menstrual cramps, I vomited all over in my bed (I know, really gross), and when I got up and told my dad, he didn't say anything, he just came in and helped me change the sheets.
      My dad never said "stop talking". I am 100% sure he wanted to a thousand and a half times, maybe he did once or twice, but I don't remember. What I remember are car rides home where I would literally talk his ear off for 20 minutes straight about all the goings on of the day, that I'm sure he cared very little about, and he would just smile and nod, probably partly happy that he didn't have to talk. That helped me find my voice, and to feel like I had something worthwhile to say. That expressing my opinion and thoughts was important enough to take the time to listen to, and if my dad is nothing else, he is a phenomenal listener.
     My dad never said "I wish our lawn was greener/ I wish our house was bigger/ I wish we could go on vacation to _________". Whenever we ask my dad what he wants for his birthday, father's day, or Christmas we usually get a variation of the same answer "nothing." One of my sister's once said "I think Dad is genuinely the most content person on the planet. When he says he doesn't want anything, he really doesn't want anything." We never had a lot, but we always had enough. He is quietly generous with what he has, and he is perfectly content spending hours reading books, playing solitaire, and drinking tea. With my outgoing and constantly trying to do more way, it is helpful to watch someone who is perfectly content to just be.
      He is not perfect by any means, and there are probably times he should speak when he doesn't, but I think as I grow older I am learning to appreciate his quiet ways more and more, especially as the world seems to get increasingly louder and louder. So I am grateful for the things my father taught me when he wasn't talking, because I know I have been shaped by so many things he never said.

Beautiful and Bold

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  Over the past few years, I've gotten deeply impassioned when talking to young women about relationships. I did this a few weeks ago at a university talking to girls studying to be pastors, launching into a great monologue of seeking a partner and not just seeing a spouse as a weird goal.
    It's partly because I'm starting to move into that older woman stage of life, where I shake my head and roll my eyes at the youth and their crazy ways. It's really because, like all women, or men, who get some life experience under their belt, you look back with hindsight and a twinge of pain, and hope that your small words of warning will be heeded by someone like you, so they are spared some of the heartache.
     I didn't date until I was in college. Because I went to college in the early 2000's it was on the heels of the great evangelical purity movement that had taken all of our youth groups by storm. Not only did I carry the baggage from that movement, and the countless books I had read pertaining to the topic, but going to a Christian college magnified the movement ten fold.
     There were no Sarah Besseys or Rachel Held Evans, because they were still wrestling with the same issues at the same time. There were no calls for a Christian Feminist movement, at least not in the circles I ran in. There was focus on the family, purity rings, and complimentarianism in all of its glory.
     The first guy I "talked to" about dating was timid and shy, and I read him the riot act about not taking the headship in our relationship. Why wasn't he pursuing me more? Why wasn't he taking the initiative? It was his job, his role to take the initiative. My friends quickly rallied to my side, taking up my cause, quickly cherry picking scriptures and telling him he needed to lead if he wanted to actually be in a relationship with a good Christian girl like me.
     We never went from "talking" to "dating".
     When I finally went from "talking" to "dating" a guy, I was elated. I got those butterflies in your stomach, the tingles up and down your arm like tiny firecrackers. We both cared for the poor, we both were passionate about youth ministry, and about Jesus. It felt like a dream. It felt like all of those books I had read were correct, and I often told people "when you just wait for God to piece your love story together, He sends you the right person." Because I thought he was the right person.
      Then one very late night, he called me as he often did, and we were talking about a conversation he had had with someone at work about something in the bible. I said "Oh yes! It's in Romans 8." He stopped talking.
     "I wish you wouldn't do that." He said.
      "Do what?" I responded, completely clueless at what I had done wrong.
     "I wish you wouldn't just know things like that. I wish you wouldn't just tell me the answers. It's intimidating."
     It was my turn to be quiet. I never told him, but I sobbed into my pillow that night. I had been "intimidating" to boys for much of my life. I was outspoken, I was well read, I loved to learn, and I was, and am, incredibly opinionated. More than once boys and men had made comments about how "intimidating" I was, or how I wasn't "really a girl" I was more "like one of the guys." It was heart-wrenching. I wanted to be seen as a girl. I wanted to be viewed as pretty and sweet, as gentle and kind. I wanted to be someone guys wanted to date, but I also wanted to read and speak my mind, and talk about how much I loved the Bible. I cried big wet tears, because I felt in that moment that I couldn't be both. I couldn't be loved and pretty, and be outspoken and bold.
      So, I stopped talking as much about the Bible, about the books I was reading at school, and history of Christianity, and I got really really depressed. As I talked less, our physical relationship got more and more intimate, because at that point I felt I needed to do whatever it took to stay together, to keep him interested, to not be intimidating. Which only deepened my depression and the deep chasm in my heart.
      If I could tell my younger self anything, it would have been to break things off in that moment. To not compromise yourself and your voice to keep going in a relationship that wants you to be submissive and sweet, because that's just not who you are. But the older me wasn't there to tell my younger me anything, and so I kept going.
    One day while having a conversation about my dreams for youth ministry, and how I was going to balance my calling with being a mother, he stopped me and said "Wait! You don't think you are still going to be a pastor when we have children, do you!?" I froze again.
     I thought that was the straw of irreconcilable differences for us. Of course I'd still be a pastor while I was a mother! I was called to be a pastor when I was young; why would God just take that calling away from me because I had children?
     This broke me. I talked to so many friends about how I thought that was it. How we couldn't be together. In all the wisdom 20 year olds can muster, they told me to stick it out, that things can change, that this didn't need to be a deal breaker.
      It did need to be a deal breaker. It wasn't, but it needed to be. If I had allowed those red flags, those signs, those feelings of unrest to speak truth to my heart, instead of listening to the stupid books I had read, and the guilt I would feel if things didn't work out, I would have been spared a lot of wasted time, and a lot of heartache.
      If I knew then, what I know now, about what relationships can look like, about what they should look like, I would have gone into everything so differently.
     My husband is about as opposite of that first relationship as one can get. He quit a job he liked, without knowing if he'd have another one, to support my call to plant a church. We talk about each other as teammates, and he pushes me to speak my mind. I have never heard the words "you are intimidating" come out of his mouth once, but rather I've heard "you need to speak more, you have something to say". He has washed dishes and cooked me meals , he does laundry better than I do, and we have talked about managing a family and a ministry together as partners. He doesn't see my boldness as a counter to my femininity, in fact he values it, and cherishes it. He doesn't feel emasculated when I am in charge at church, instead he tells me he is proud of me and cheers me on. We work together in all things. We serve each other. We care for each other. We submit to each other. It's beautiful and life giving.
     I wish someone had told me when I was 20 not to lesson my voice to make a man more comfortable. I wish there was someone who really sat down with me and told me that submission isn't relegated to women, but to both men and women as we work as a team. I wish that my friends had said "men don't have to take the initiative all the time, we work together as equals." And those voices might have been there, but they were hidden under stacks of "I kissed dating goodbye" and purity ring ceremonies lying to me that God had created one perfect person for me, and would conveniently send him my way when he was ready.
     There isn't a one. There isn't some golden formula, and God doesn't bless us ten-fold for waiting to kiss a guy until we are engaged (These are all things I believed at one point). There are real broken people, who have to navigate real feelings, and who have to learn to live life the way God wants us to, as partners, as equals. It's hard, but it's beautiful.
     So, I get impassioned when I talk to young women, because I don't want them to walk through months or years being told that they are intimidating for being bold, or that they are "one of the guys" when they don't fit a mold. I want them to know they can be pretty, desired, sexy, and wanted AND be bold, fierce, strong, and smart. That not all men are intimidated by intelligence, the best guys definitely aren't, and that they want to be with someone who loves them for who they are, not for a role they play. I want young women to walk boldly into whatever it is that God is calling them to be it motherhood, pastoring, teaching, healing, or speaking.
       You are not less of a woman for speaking mightily. You are not less pretty or sexy because you are smart. Don't allow those lies to penetrate your heart. Don't give up who you are to play a role. Don't silence your voice. Don't sell yourself short for anyone. Not because there's a guarantee the right guy will come along and love you for who you are, but because being who God created and called you to be is so much better than being miserable for someone who doesn't value that. You can be both beautiful and bold, never think otherwise.

Childless Female Pastor

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     There are a lot of wonderful pieces written by a great many women leaders about motherhood and church life. How having children has increased their understanding and empathy for others. How giving birth connected them in ways to God they didn't see possible. Even articles about balancing life as a mom and a pastor.
     Much less often are words penned about what it means to be a childless woman pastor. However, that's what I am.
     We got married at 28, which in normal society is deemed average, in church society is deemed as ancient, so when I began ministry as a single 22 year old just out of college, I was already a bit of an oddity. When my husband and I got engaged, people assumed we were 5-8 years younger than we really were. Faces were shocked when I told them the year I had graduated from college, thinking I was obviously a recent college grad, who just didn't quite make the ring by spring deadline. Often we would be disregarded when giving our thoughts on things, in favor of people much younger than us, because they had kids, the assumption was that they were older than us. It was and continues to be incredibly frustrating.
      I have a masters degree, 7 years of full time youth ministry and 2 years of senior pastor ministry experience, I'm an ordained elder, have traveled to many countries and states, and I have 31 years of life experience, and much (if not all) of that gets disregarded at times, because I don't have children.
      Not only does the vast amount of experience I have get disregarded, but my own feelings and perspective is deemed less than. I have been told such things as "well you can't possibly know love, you don't have children." Or "you don't really know anything, because you aren't a parent." Two phrases that aren't just completely wrong, they are incredibly hurtful and dehumanizing.
      While I will be the first to admit that there are many things having children probably teaches someone about God and life (I've read all your blogs, books, and stories), there are many things that being childless has taught me as well.
      It has taught me that people are the beloved of God regardless of whether or not they have children. We often favor people with children in the church. We throw elaborate baby showers, we have baby days, we spend lots of money on ministering to families with children, even hiring pastors for that specific task. There are many women (and men) whether through choice or circumstance who do not have children, and while we should not stop celebrating children in our midst, we should take the time to celebrate the great and beautiful people in our churches who don't have children.
     Invisible is how many childless people feel within the church. They don't get the parties, or the celebrations. They watch the cute little families pushing strollers into church each and every week, and are often overlooked in the bustle. Everyone loves cute babies and pregnant bellies, single and/or childless people are sort of just there. They are expected to put themselves out there and serve others because it is assumed they have unending amounts of time and energy (other phrases often told to people who are childless) because they don't have children.
     I've gone home and cried many a night after attending baby showers, and big church baby day celebrations. I love throwing parties, I love celebrating new life in our churches, I love babies, but it creates this deepening wound that says "you might never have this" or "you aren't really anything, until you have children." Despite good intentions, it's easy for those types of displays to make those of us without children to feel less important to the community of faith, and in turn, less valuable to God.
    So having no children has taught me to be aware of that. To look for the gifts and talents of the people in our faith community without children. To see them, and recognize they are just as much gifted by God, and are called to work for the Kingdom of God in great ways. They are created in the image of God, and deserve to be celebrated for all the ways God is moving in their lives, in the big and the small.
     Being a childless pastor has also taught me that you have no idea of what inner battles others are fighting, and it's cruel and unfair to make assumptions about anyone. I've heard well intentioned church people tell childless couples that they are "selfish" for not having children, without knowing those people at all. I know childless couples who struggle with infertility, who have gone through failed adoption after failed adoption, others who are self aware enough to know they would not make great parents, and still others who choose not to have children in order to have schedules more conducive to the long hours of certain ministries. These are not "selfish" people, they are just people, who through circumstance or choice have been thrust into a different position than others.
      Other assumptions that have been made of childless people, including myself, "you aren't trying enough", "you're trying too much", "do you even want children?", "can you even have children?", "have you ever thought of adopting?", "you'd make great parents. You'll change your mind." I get uncomfortable every single time someone asks me about our having children. Every. Single. Time. There are about 4 people I've talked to in depth about having children, my husband, my doctor, and a couple close female friends. That's it. I don't think it's the world's business, and it is incredibly frustrating for people to shove themselves in like it is their business. The chances are, you have no idea what someone else is going through, unless they have told you, and even then, you probably only get a glimpse.
       That being said, I've also learned to extend grace over and over and over again. Really hurtful things have been said to me, incredibly hurtful things, and I have to turn around and love people just the same. I have to love them after they ask "is that a baby belly I see!", when it's not, it's just fat, which will probably get bigger from that incredibly hurtful statement and the stress eating that will ensue. Grace has to become my life force, but I also must extend grace to the people I know nothing about. I must never assume the worst, but always cover my words and my thoughts with grace.
       Women say all the time that having children have made them a better pastor and Christian, I don't doubt that at all, but not having children at 31 has certainly made me a better pastor. I see through a lens many women don't, to see how child-centric church can be. How painful days like Mother's Day can be, and have had to preach and pray despite tears choking in my own throat. How families without children need pastors too. They need bible studies, Sunday school classes, celebrations, and friends. They need places to serve, and often need to be asked to serve in places like the nursery and the children's department, places people often automatically exclude them from regardless of their gifts and talents. They need less assumptions and to be listened to more. To have people who actually hear about their experiences and don't disregard them for lack of having children. They need people to acknowledge that while the love they have for their friends, their spouse, their family, and God aren't the same as the love one has for children, it is no less real, important, and life giving. They need places where it's safe to grieve, with people who won't offer unwanted advice, but who just grieve with them. They need places to rejoice over their accomplishments, their advanced degree, their new job, the ways God is moving. They need places that look at them as the beloved of God and not just a stepping stone to some sort of better life that only those with children know about. They need the church to elevate following Jesus more than the act of becoming parents, something that all of us childless or not, need to be reminded of daily. They need to hear over and over and over again "you are good enough as you are. You are the beloved of God just as you are."
      Because, childless church people, you are. You are the beloved of God, you aren't your miscarriage, your stillbirth, your abortion, your PCOS, your endometriosis, your unexplained infertility, your single-hood, your choice to not have children... You are more than all of those things, and the Church should be the one place that communicates that to you, even if the world doesn't. You have a place in the amazing Kingdom of God, to do great things, and if you feel invisible in church on Sunday morning amidst the hustle and bustle of cute little families with their cute little kids, know that I see you. I see you, and you are loved, just as you are, where you are, and God sees you too. God sees the desires of your heart, whatever they might be, and if no one else is celebrating the great things happening in your life, God does. You are important, not because of what you might or might not be someday, but for who you are right now, where you are right now.

The Burden of Exceptionality

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   There is a phrase that continues to be repeated by male leadership when asked how to encourage local churches to be more open to having a female pastor. The phrase is "If we have exceptional female pastors to point to, that will enable other churches to consider hiring a female pastor."
    At first observation, this phrase seems supportive and maybe even a little bit like common sense. If you see an exceptional pastor, why wouldn't you want that for yourself and your church?
     Only, what happens when a female pastor is not exceptional? Should a woman's merits, talent, gifts, or even her chemistry with a specific congregation be used as a plumb line by which all other women in ministry are measured? Are the only women capable of being great pastors those who are viewed by leadership as "exceptional"?
     The answer should be a resounding no.
     Maybe the biggest problem with this thinking, is that it lays an unnecessary burden on an already burdened vocation. Added to reading, writing, preaching, balancing budgets, fixing clogged toilets, counseling church members, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, is a glaring "oh, and do all of that exceptionally for the sake of women in ministry everywhere!"
     It is an impossible standard. No one is good at everything, let alone exceptional.
     While one pastor might be an exceptional preacher, she might not be an exceptional caregiver. Where one pastor might be a great administrator, she might not be a great counselor. We are all gifted differently, and to expect one person to be exceptional in all areas, is not only unfair, it is counter to the illustrations of the Church we see in scripture.
    Scripture is clear, we are all gifted differently, and we should not be envious of the gifts of others, but use the gifts we have for the kingdom of God. If we expect one woman to be exceptional at all things, we are robbing the church of one of it's greatest messages, that it takes all of us, working together, to truly illustrate the kingdom of God to the world around us. It takes everyone working together, and promising a church a pastor of exception, sets them up to not only miss out on a wonderful pastor, but to miss out on their own gifts and talents for the kingdom.
      Not only can one woman not be good at everything, everyone has bad days. You are sick, your kids are sick, your dog is sick. The sound system fizzles out. A congregant said "I need to talk to you Pastor" when you first walk into the building, and it's the day leadership is there to check in on you.
     Just because one woman has a bad day does not mean every day is bad, or that every other woman is not great at pastoring. It doesn't even mean she's bad at pastoring, it just means a bad day. One woman's bad day (or bad year, or bad decade for that matter) in ministry, should not define every other woman's.
     Holding exceptionality as the standard by which every woman is judged, leaves a very small window for women to climb through, leaving many others behind, who don't know how to climb the same ladder. Not only is this a high standard that many, if not all, feel incapable of reaching, this is a standard completely subjective to the people who are placing it as a standard. Exceptionality means different things to many people, and the problem with defining exceptional in the context of church, is that in recent years, it has tended to mean the pastors with the biggest ministries,  the best preaching, or even a charismatic personality. In a faith tradition where few women are leading the biggest ministries, this is an impossible standard. It becomes difficult to point to the exceptional preaching skills of a woman, if she is not placed in places to even hear in the first place, and personalities are as varied as their are people. Having this high of a standard leaves many, if not most or all, women feeling inadequate, or ill equipped, and leaves so many burdened on Sunday morning, as they try on the twentieth outfit in the mirror ensuring perfection, thinking "maybe this isn't really what I'm called to." Or trying to balance too many things, and when things fall apart, being used as an example for "why we won't hire a woman again."
      In my first full time ministry position I was told "we really wanted a man, but now that we know you, you are definitely an exception." The thought was meant to be a compliment, but it did not feel like one. Why was I an exception? There were (and are) plenty of women in ministry as gifted as I am, if not more so, who would have been tremendous in any of the positions I have held throughout the years. Holding me up as the exception did not elevate me, it lowered others. That's what exceptionality does more often than not. Everyone loses when we use "exceptional" as the plumb line for measurement.
     It isn't that their aren't exceptional women pastors out there, I know many, it's that our definition of exceptional is so far above what most of us human beings can be. Pastors aren't exceptional because they lead the biggest churches, preach the best, or have charismatic personalities, if that is the measure, we all lose on a bad day. If that is the standard, women will never be placed in bigger churches because in order to pastor a big church and be heard preaching, requires jumping so many hurdles to even get there, and most are getting lapped seven-fold by the men getting those opportunities before them.
      The plumb line for measurement shouldn't be this rigid view of "exceptional" but should rather be "look at these called, gifted, and faithful women." The stories we share, shouldn't always be ones of exception, the few who were able to jump over hurdles and climb through windows, to somehow make it to the top beyond all odds.
      The answer has to change, the narrative has to change if women are going to be placed in churches to be the pastors they are called to be. The stories should sound different than exception, they should sound gracefully and beautifully ordinary.
       We should be sharing  stories of women who stand up in the midst of hardship and adversity, to still preach on Sunday morning with love in their hearts. We need to seek out and elevate women who have been in ministry for years, who have never preached in front of thousands, or even hundreds, but who week after week preach to their faithful few. We should start sharing the stories of God's faithfulness in the midst of trial, of hope in the midst of defeat. The stories of women bailing out flooded basements until the early hours of Sunday morning. The stories of women who weep at bedsides of beloved congregants as they pass from this world. The stories of women answering phone calls at 2 in the morning, of visiting jail cells and sterile hospital rooms. The stories of women who are in so many ways inadequate and unexceptional, but that still reflect the greatness and grace of God to those around them.
     Maybe holding up faithful instead of exceptional, will take some of the burden off. If nothing else it illustrates a much better picture of our calling. It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where we were never called to be exceptional, just faithful. It shows churches the type of pastor they need, and the type of church they can be, a faithful one.
     At the end of life when we stand before Jesus it is not exceptionality that he applauds us for, but faithfulness as he says "well done, good and faithful servant." It's not the best sermons, the best dressed, or the one who juggled the most programming, that gets looked at with esteem in the kingdom of God.  They are those who serve without looking for any esteem at all. Those who are last. Those who are faithful.
     So maybe instead of pointing to "exceptional women", we point to an exceptional God and the incredibly faithful women who get to serve God as pastor. I for one feel like that would take some of the burden off. I may never be exceptional, but I hope and pray that I am, and will continue to be, faithful.
   

To The _____________ Woman

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To the _______________ woman,
     You are not your label. You are more than that.
      You are not "just" a stay at home mom, driving your mini-van with the cheerios crushed into the upholstery.
     You are not "just" a single girl netflix binging for another Friday night, looking at another meme about loving pizza.
     You are not "just" a divorced woman, struggling with an unexpected grief and loss as you navigate the waters of whether or not you even want to find love again and fighting back tears as you see the old couple holding hands at the mall.
    You are not "just" a childless woman, with the judgmental stares and glances from others about whether or not you even want to have kids, and the comments from your mom about when she'll get grand kids.
    You are not "just" an old woman, wondering if you even have a voice anymore in the midst of the loud voices around you.
    You are not "just" a young woman, filled with wide eye wonder, naive to the ways of the world.
     You are not your label. You are more than that.
     You are not "just" a working mom, trying to keep up with carpool while spilling coffee on your new suit as you push on the gas a little faster to make it to work on time, only to notice that at least the coffee stain covers the spit up stain from earlier this morning.
      You are not "just" retired, navigating a new found free time and a shockingly difficult adjustment to a fixed income, and the discovery that "retired" is not the correct word for how busy life has become after a paid job.
     You are not "just" a grandmother, filling your grand-babies with sugar and love and sending them home, or raising them when your children could not.
      You are not "just" beautiful, with the stares and the compliments and the questions of whether people like you, or just how you look.
     You are not "just" smart, with your quick responses and insight to the world around you, with your love for science and math, something they told you "girls aren't usually into."
     You are not your label, you are more than that.
     You are not "just" a survivor, an introvert, an extrovert, a feminist, an aunt, a daughter, a friend.
     You are not "just" a boss, an employee, a foster-mom, a blogger, a teacher, a diagnosis.
    You are not "just" anything.
     You are the beloved of God.
     You are the beloved of God whether your label says broken, or sad, or lonely, or single, or married, or stay at home mom.
      You are the beloved of God whether your label was given to you by someone else, or you have given it to  yourself.
      You are the beloved of God no matter your age, your status, or your income.
     You are the beloved of God.
      You are the beloved of God, whether you identified with my stereotypes of you or not.
      You are the beloved of God now in this moment, whether you feel like you deserve it or not, whether you feel like you are succeeding or struggling, whether you feel worthy or not. You are the beloved of God.
      You are never "just" anything, because you are the beloved of God.