Fifteen Years

September 2006

This fall I joyfully passed the fifteen year mark serving United Church of Woodhull. This has caused a lot of reflection, looking back at photographs, and reviewing many of the words I have written. I have laughed at old photographs, been amazed that I have forgotten some of the projects we did, re-read words I wrote while wondering how I managed to sound so articulate, and looked over the names of people and families I have known.

I keep a book full of the names of people I have been present for their special services. I record weddings, baptisms, confirmations, affirmations of faith, funerals, commissionings, and ordinations. I enjoy looking through this book and recalling those moments. There are so many holy moments recorded in this book. I know most clergy keep a record, especially since we tend to travel to new communities; and because I serve a small congregation, in a rural area, my numbers are much lower than some of my colleagues. I also know our joy and sorrow is of the same nature.

One of the unique points of these lists is that the number of people on our list often is more than the number of people we see in the pews on a Sunday morning. I remember being told by many I would reach this milestone, so it does not come as a surprise. I think what surprises me the most is how clearly I can recall the moments behind each one of those names and dates.

I remember the soft laughter when I was baptizing someone more than a foot taller than me. I remember the outdoor service years ago when I waited for the train to go by before I finished the installation liturgy. I remember the wedding when I lost my voice so it sounded like I was crying through the whole service. I remember seeing a work team surrounded by a whole congregation as we prayed together. I remember all those moments when I looked out at a grieving family. I also remember all the teenagers who tried to make me laugh during a solemn moment because they were confident in their ability to make me laugh loudly.

I have so many holy moments that make up the past fifteen years. I never expected that much goodness to come my way. I am deep in the preparation for Advent and the coming new year, and I suppose that causes my reflections to be a bit more serious. I arrived here a parent with young children, still in my twenties, with almost no experience about life in a worshipping community. I arrived confident I had been called to this place to learn with a community what it means to live this faith in the Triune God. I was looking for a place to call home, and a people to welcome me and my family to grow in love. That prayer has been answered over and over again.

I am thankful as I look back over the names on my list for each of those opportunities to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for each person, each family, and each chance to experience life connected to others. Fifteen years have gone by and I remain amazed I have been given this opportunity. I look forward to what God will bring next.

In case you are wondering, here are the numbers from my list: Weddings – 14. Ordinations – 18. Commissionings – no less than 32 (a couple entries were lacking complete notes). Baptisms – 34. Installations – 36. Confirmations/Affirmations of Faith – 53. Funerals – 90.

Earning Titles, Part Three

As I stated in the previous two posts I wrote those posts years ago but never clicked “publish.” I chose to publish those posts because of a conversation I had with a woman I admire; a conversation which reminded me of the women I have known over the years who have broken barriers that make my life possible.

These women include, but are not limited to, the journalist who had to fight to have her name as her byline and not be listed as Mrs. Her Husband’s Name. There is the woman who was the first married female teacher in a school district, being allowed to hold that position only after the superintendent asked her husband for permission. There are the women who told me about being unable to wear maternity clothes at their jobs (especially if they were teachers) because they were not allowed to mention their pregnancy at work. There are the women who have shared how they were looked down upon because they worked outside the home and hired help to clean the house. There are the women who had to stop working once they were married because married women were not allowed to work for that organization. There are the women who are partners in their family business but have been ignored when it comes to outside people wanting to talk about the business. There are the women who have chosen to stay at home with their children because they could and been referred to as lazy because it is assumed they wasted their education.

All but one of these stories come from women who are still alive today. Some of them are enjoying their retirement years, and some have decades more of work. I have learned these stories because I have asked. I have wanted to know how other women navigate living and working in a society that often minimizes the accomplishments of women at every age. I have learned for most of them their biggest supporters have been their spouses, their kids, their best friends, and sometimes their pastors, while some of their biggest opponents have been colleagues, supervisors, and strangers. This is the same type of experience I have had, so the only surprise is that this is still happening after all these years.

I am of a generation who had more opportunities for education and employment than earlier generations, while also still having to fight to be seen in the classrooms, to learn how to flirt because men in power are more amenable when a young woman flirts with them, to make coffee and copies while also learning how to moderate a meeting and balance an organization’s budget. I have been written up more than once by older female supervisors for not wearing enough dresses/skirts, for not wearing enough makeup, and for not trying to look more appealing. I have slipped out of the grabby hands of enough men to recognize an incoming inappropriate touch, and I have learned how to ask that certain jokes no longer be told without fear of losing my job (or at least with confidence I cannot be fired immediately). This is the reality I inherited and that I have worked hard to change. It is one that all the women who have shared their stories with me have described.

The reality of our society is that women are treated differently than men. The titles women earn are often seen as threats to the men around them, and sometimes cause resentment in the women who were unable to realize the same professional goals. Thankfully this continues to change as we become more aware of the power of our words and actions. Thankfully there are women who lead the way, like the women who have shared their stories with me, who encourage and celebrate with me; and who make small decisions that change the world so women have their own bylines, choose their own professions, wear comfortable clothes to work, run their own businesses and organizations, and support other women to do the same.

I aspire to be the kind of woman who supports all people as they achieve their dreams, so the stories I tell will be about the generations to come who have no idea what it is like to be known only by their spouse’s title.

Earning Titles, Part Two

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Here is the second of two posts I wrote some years ago. 

The most precious title I have earned is mom.  I wanted that to be clear since that is not the title I am going to write about today and my children follow this blog.

In recent months I have been in several conversations about how titles are used.  I have learned many women in my field struggle to have people remember or recognize their official titles, especially if they are a Rev. Dr.  This title means they completed a Master of Divinity degree and the ordination requirements of their denomination (Rev.) and a Doctor of Ministry or PhD (Dr.).  A number of the women have shared how their male colleagues do not have this problem, they are often called Rev. Dr. or Dr. if they have earned that title, both in written correspondence and introductions.  The ease by which our male colleagues receive recognition for their titles is often one of those things chosen to let slide because there are many other things to put energy into changing.  This seems especially true of the women who are married and are routinely referred to Mrs. or Mrs. “husband’s name.”  This lack of use of our titles feels like minimizing all the work that went into earning those titles.  To put it more personally, being referred to as Mrs. or Mrs. “my husband’s name” ties all my worth up in the person I married.

Almost fifteen years ago I earned the title Rev. when I was ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament.  Eight years ago I earned that elusive title of Dr. after finishing a Doctor of Ministry program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.  Almost no one calls me by my official title of Rev. Dr. or a shortened version of Rev. or Dr.  For the most part I do not mind because I prefer people to call me by my first name.  I serve as a pastor in a community full of multiple generations and long ago assured people they could call me by my first name or my title as they were comfortable.  I have delighted in being introduced by members of our worshipping community as “my pastor” which changed to “my pastor, the Rev. Dr.” after my graduation.  The pride in the voices of those who helped me achieve a childhood dream of earning a doctorate never ceases to make me smile and blush.

Earning a doctorate was a dream that kept me going through years when my world seemed to be limited to choosing between a cash job that would get me into legal trouble if ever the IRS found out, or a legal job that would pay minimum wage but never be enough to pay the bills, especially if I became the statistic others thought I would be by having a child before I was old enough to vote or buy alcohol.  I earned three degrees, BSW, MSW, MDiv, and the title Rev. while holding this dream and struggling against expectations of my failure.  I earned the MDiv, Rev., and DMin/Dr., with my husband by my side, proofreading all my papers, and listening to me talk through all the research and reading, all while taking care of our family so I could realize this childhood dream.

At my graduations and ordination it was my husband by my side, smiling the biggest, and proudly introducing me with my newest title.  He was such a part of my earning my doctorate that I told him I wished I could share the title with him.  He responded with some words about enjoying the fact that I had earned the title and the question, “Is there a doctor in the house?”  I smiled, laughed, and blushed at the pride in his voice.

The titles we earn are more than letters, they are symbols of what we came through to earn that title.  They are like stretch marks from pregnancy, laugh lines from years of joy, or scars from healed injuries.  They are evidence we have learned, changed, and been made into something new.  I think that is why it is so important to me, and maybe to others, that we be recognized by the titles we have earned, not the titles of our spouse.  And maybe that is why our spouses are the first to introduce us by our titles, because they know how much history those letters hold.

I defied expectations by achieving the improbable dream of earning a doctorate and though I do not long to be called Rev. Dr. or Dr. on a daily basis, I do admit to feeling a sense of immense achievement each time I hear those titles.

Earning Titles, Part One

The majority of this post was written about six years ago.  I had not published this two-part reflection but was recently encouraged to post them, so here is the first of two.   

20210825_175208I was first generation college student.  I coasted through high school with decent grades and because I was in the classes with the college bound students I heard about college opportunities and followed along with my classmates in the whole process of college.  I knew college was too expensive and not what we did, but I also believed my adults when they told me if I wanted to go to college they would make sure I got there.  Looking back on that time I realize how difficult that must have been for my adults to know I was headed down a path they did not know and would not follow with me.

I finished college earning my first title, three letters at the back of my name, BSW.  Then I went to graduate school which seemed bizarre but fitting to my adults, and I earned three more letters, MSW.  In five years I had more education than kids from my type of life statistically earned, especially without a child in tow.  My life was so different than what I had expected or been trained to expect from the treatment of my middle school and high school teachers and classmates.  I lay no blame at anyone’s feet, I know where I come from, and I know how rare it is to break those cycles; and thanks to those six letters I have an even better understanding of how rare it is for the cycle to be broken.

I also had a recognition that a dream I had since I was a child could come true.  I was young when I learned that a person could be a “Dr.” without being a medical doctor.  I learned that there was a chance to study so much that you would be considered a person of expertise.  I was enthralled by this idea that I could study so much I would earn the letters to put in front of my name that would tell the world I took my work seriously.  It was like a dream come true I did not even know I had until I learned it was possible.

After earning my six letters after my name, I married my best friend and took his last name.  But I was adamant I would not be called Mrs. unless it was followed by my first name, never his.  Of course, I was understanding of the generational habit that means I still get called “Mrs. his first name” but I wanted to be clear if his title did not change with marriage then neither did mine need to change.  A few years later I earned a title that went before my name, Rev.  Now we were Rev. and Mr.

But outside of our worshipping community I find I am more often referred to as Mrs. or Mrs. “my husband’s first name.”  Each time this happens I remember an interview I watched of Dr. Jill Biden.  The interviewer asked her if she preferred Mrs. Second Lady or Mrs. Biden.  She replied, “Dr. Jil Biden is good.”  There was uncomfortable laughter on the part of the interviewer while Dr. Biden sat smiling graciously then she helped move the interview forward.  I attempt to imitate her graciousness.

Sabbatical, Day One Hundred Three

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A gift from a friend that speaks to me.

Last week I was sitting at a table surrounded by adults who had come with their children to move them to college.  I learned each of those people had lived in some place I had lived.  Some of them are current military personnel, some are ARMY children, one is a basketball coach, one a pastor, all of them love to travel and value the gift of education.  I sat with them enjoying the chance to talk to others who were letting their babies move away because they knew it was the best even as they wanted to hold them more tightly to keep them safe.

I enjoyed the unexpected morning conversation because I found a place to belong.  Among strangers I found people who spoke my language, who laughed easily, who were brave, and who asked direct questions.  I found that morning the continued challenge I have encountered this sabbatical – to find connections with others through sharing our stories.  I do not want to let that challenge go upon my return to the church.

This sabbatical is ending on Monday.  Come Monday I will return to the people and work I have been given.  It will be good to see familiar faces and hear the voices of those I love.  I have missed being in their presence.  I have missed their stories.

Yet, as I return I am struck by my need to continue to make connections to others.  I want to help others find a place of belonging.  I find when I think about the future of my call to ministry I dream of ways to create moments of connection between people.  I dream of people feeling they belong to a group of people who love them.  I dream of people seeing the church building and instead of fear or anger, they see openness and love.  I dream of people sitting together, singing together, praying together, and listening together as they learn about God’s love for them and how that matters.

As this sabbatical comes to an end I have been reflecting on my call to ministry, which is one of the major questions of this sabbatical.  The answer I have discovered is that I have been called to help create community wherever I am planted.  To do that I plan on spending my days combating the fear and anger forcing us to isolate ourselves.  We are made for community, we are made for each other, and in honor of that truth I plan to spend my life creating connections and helping others feel they belong and are loved.

I am looking forward to the stories I am going to learn and those moments of belonging I stumble upon at unexpected moments just as I did last week.

 

Sabbatical, Day Eighty-Five

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Last night’s sunset.

One of the biggest concerns the elders and I addressed when preparing for this sabbatical was how to assure the members of our community they or their families would be taken care of at the time of a death.  Time and again we answered the question, “Who will do the funerals?”  We answered, “The pastor we hire to work during the sabbatical.”  We also reminded everyone when I am gone on vacation/continuing education the pastors on-call have been the one to officiate funerals.  We did not want to make light of the concern of the community, but we did want to remind everyone there was a time before I was pastor and will be a time after I am pastor.  We wanted them to remember their role as a congregation, the people who stay and care for each other for generations through multiple pastorates.  Even though we wanted them to feel confident we also hoped there would not be a funeral while I was on sabbatical.

There have been two funerals since I have been gone.  One for a community member, and another for a person who was a vibrant and active member of our congregation who experienced a rapid decline in health in the last year.  The funerals were held on back-to-back Saturdays.  I have heard beautiful examples of how the congregation came together and cared for both of these families.  I am thankful for the love and grace demonstrated by people I know who are willing and able to walk beside families in their grief.

I have been away before when there have been funerals of members of our congregation and community.  I have experienced the grief and guilt that come when I am not the person who stands before the community and assures them of the promises we hold dear.  I have experienced the overwhelming gratitude for my colleagues who step in when I am gone, just as I step in when they are gone.  Caring for a community is a team effort and the sharing of that work with my colleagues continues to remind me of the goodness of being a pastor.

Yesterday I walked out to the cemetery to pay my respects for the three people who have died in the last two weeks in our community.  I passed by the graves of people I have known, I recalled the words I spoke and the words I heard my colleagues speak at each graveside.  I stared at the beautiful blue sky and reminded myself at this time and in this place I have been given the privilege to care for others, but I am not the only person.  I am one of many who will spend their years among these people.  I am thankful for the privilege of this time to learn from this community how to love and be loved.  I remain hopeful the people of this community will recognize the gift they have been given in each other and in the pastors who get to spend some time caring for them.

 

Sabbatical, Day Seventy-Three

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Lake Superior

To be clear I love all the Great Lakes.  Lake Michigan has claimed the most of my time; Lake Huron never seems that far away while I am in Michigan; glimpsing Lake Erie always brightens my day; and Lake Ontario welcomed me like a long lost friend when I finally stepped into it a couple of years ago.

However, Lake Superior is my favorite.  Since I was a child this lake has captivated me with its wildness and power.  Time spent at Lake Superior always leaves me humbled, in awe, and longing to live on its shores.  As a child I was certain I would one day move north to the sandy land of Lake Superior, never dreaming I would be planted firmly in the life-giving soil of farmland.

It had been years since I had stood on the shore of Lake Superior when I returned this summer.  I returned like an old friend, with memories of other visits playing in my head, excitement for new memories to be made, and comfort in knowing where I stood.  I am certain all of us have places like this, touchstones to ground us in our lives.  Fields of crops, mountains, homes, or towns are a few of the places others have told me ground them.

The purpose of this grounding is not to weigh you down so you cannot go exploring, rather to be a place you touch down on to remind you of where you have been as you find a new place to be.  I wonder if part of the reason the world seems so hate-filled lately is because we have forgotten to return to the places that ground us. . .

I am not talking about just the horrific acts of violence that seem to come regularly around the world, or the hate-filled racism and sexism that is allowed to be spewed at anyone the speaker chooses.  I am also talking about how impatient everyone seems to be, or how easy it seems to be to justify our rudeness, or how people can justify standing in a crowd of people shouting for harm to come to another person.  I cannot understand how we as a people have forgotten who we are, unless we are purposely choosing not to remember, unless we are purposely choosing to live selfishly and hatefully.

Maybe if we remembered the places that have shaped us and we returned to them we would find echoes of our old selves, so we could see if we have lived into the person we dreamed we would become.  And if we found ourselves lacking the grace and kindness we once had, hopefully the power of that place would inspire us to try again.

I stood on the shore of Lake Superior this summer and remembered the tiny, pony-tailed, knobby-kneed dreamer who believed if everyone was kind to each other no child would ever have bruises from angry hands, or have empty bellies, or hear racial or sexist slurs used to describe them.  That child had faith people would always choose the greater good over themselves.  That child believed if adults only knew she was suffering they would step in and make life different for her and all the kids she knew.

I stood on the shore of Lake Superior this summer lamenting the loss of that innocence and trust, while recommitting myself to being the type of adult that hopeful child needed.  I trust you will do the same because the kids of this world need us to be adults who always choose the greater good.  Always.

 

Sabbatical, Day Fifty-Seven

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Looking up on the Kaskaskia Trail.

I have passed the halfway point of this sabbatical.  I have now officially spent as much time away from the church as I typically do in a year given my vacation time and continuing education time/study leave.  All the time after this is extra time, time I would not normally have away from my daily tasks.  I remain thankful for the gift of this time.

This past week I found myself walking along a trail that was beautiful.  The temperature was the coolest it had been in over a week, the trees were a brilliant green, and the trail just wild enough to quiet my footsteps.  I was planning to spend the whole afternoon walking a loop of eight miles so I applied lots of bug spray, put on my hat, and grabbed my full water bottle.  About half a mile into the hike I was doing an invigorating rendition of the slap the bugs away dance.  The bugs were so thick and persistent I was walking faster than normal to get to the first break in the trail so I could get out of the woods.  Even protected as I was against the bugs my skin was swelling with so many bites I was rethinking ever going outdoors again.

True to form I have been thinking of all the sermon illustrations I can get from that abbreviated hiking experience.  One revelation was how the walk reminded me of my emotional state eight weeks ago.  At the beginning of this sabbatical I was deep in the woods, walking through a swarm, looking for a way out.  As protected as I thought I was against burnout I was breaking from the emotional and physical toll of the life I have been called to live.  Eight weeks ago I would not have looked up at the sky because I was barely putting one foot in front of the other to stay on the path.

Today I am finally breathing deeply and looking up.  Today I am not looking for the first break so I can get off the trail.  This feels like freedom to me.  Freedom to dream again.  Freedom to explore again.  Freedom to fail again.  Freedom to delight in the chance to serve God and God’s people.  I have missed that feeling of freedom.

I am thankful today I am getting a glimpse of that freedom again.

 

 

 

Sabbatical, Day Forty-Two

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The River Walk in downtown Spokane, Washington.

As I have traveled I have enjoyed scenery unlike the kind I see every day.  I have spent time in places were there are no people for hundreds of miles; and places where there are so many people I could not move without bumping into someone.  I have not seen a corn field or a soybean field in weeks, and very few people have waved back when I instinctively wave while driving or walking.  I have been outside of my usual habitat long enough that when I spoke to a family from the Mid West I felt my ears relax.  I had not even realized how different everyone sounded until I heard someone close to home speak.  I am still chuckling about this revelation days later. 

I love to travel.  I love what I learn about myself and others while traveling.  I love hearing other languages, watching people interact, making connections because of a t-shirt or food order or children.  I love being surrounded by strangers and finding ways to build connection.  Even if those connections are only for as long as it takes for us to take photos of each other’s traveling party.

Like water shapes rocks, those moments of connection shape me.  I want to find a way to make those connections happen for others so we can all see how connected we are to each other regardless of where we come from.  I want us to realize unless we are willing to listen when it makes our ears, mind, or heart work harder we will not experience the vast goodness of this world God has created for us.

We are responsible for what we learn and how we apply that knowledge.  My hope is that I never get to a point when I decide I am too old, too sick, too cranky, or too comfortable to learn from others.  I may get to a point when I cannot pack a suitcase and travel, but until my last moments I plan to live as a traveler looking for glimpses of home in all my wandering.

Sabbatical, Day Twenty-Nine

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Arches National Park

Yesterday I sat in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church of Albuquerque for the second time.  It is a beautiful building, full of symbols that I find at home or in other PCUSA congregations around the country.  Last time I visited I was greeted warmly by many people, and this time I was greeted even more warmly by some of the people who remembered meeting me three years ago.  I love sitting in the pew in the sanctuary, attempting to follow the cadence and language of this worshipping community.  I love feeling connected to others even as I am away from the community I call home.

Yesterday, I sat swinging my legs in the pew because I am too short for my feet to reach the floor if I sit back in the pew.  The act of swinging my legs was as delightful the second time as the first, I felt like a child enjoying the moment.  I was seated between a friend who has walked beside me all these years as I learn to be a pastor, and my second child who has only known me as a pastor. I sat between these two people I love, who love me, and I listened to another  friend lead a worship service that felt created for me to find God.  The announcements, joys, concerns, and an update of the asylum seeker and refugee ministry were all the things I needed to hear.  The prayers and hymns in Spanish and English felt as if they were cracking open my heart so the words of the sermon could be felt.

Most days, I create worship services for others.  I know the limitations of a pastor in creating a worship service; and how easily Sunday becomes a habit instead an expectation of having your heart cracked open so you can feel.  Understanding how easy it is to forget to expect I will encounter God in worship, I treasure the moments I get to follow instead of lead because it changes my perspective.

Yesterday, I was given the privilege of sitting in a pew, a privilege I do not want to waste.  I learned how another worshipping community is living their faith and call to serve God and others.  I was reminded that I too am loved by God in all my brokenness, and in fact my brokenness is often used for good.   I tell this to others daily, but to hear it spoken to me was life giving.

Yesterday I was told I was loved by the God who created the sandstone beauty I saw and touched today.  I am not sure how to explain how I needed to be reminded that words I regularly proclaim to others are also for me.  But I did.

Thank you to the pastor and the community who welcomed me and reminded me I am loved too.