An Ash Wednesday Prayer 2017

In the dark of a night
when no sleep comes
We look up

No stars on nights like this
crowded in by clouds

We still look up

In the cold,
we are shivering.
As the wind shakes the world
around us,
we shudder.

We brace ourselves,
our eyes searching for you.

We trudge on
Holy One
Our own mortality
our own regrets
our own misspent words
our own lives
packed tightly
and carried on
on our backs

We search for you
remnants of the fire
that burned deep within
us
now lightless embers.

We look for you,
Holy One,
knowing our eyes
have grown heavy
veiling our vision

Though
In the dark,

we can barely see ourselves

You see
that we are but dust

You see
those embers to which we will return

You see
that
Our hearts, broken and penitent,

are with you.

Overdue Books: Still A Mother

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Still A Mother: Journeys Through Perinatal Bereavement

Edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson

I have a small stack of three books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week. Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough and Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds

In the always growing sub genre of pastoral literature concerning pastoral ministry, there is no shortage of writing about the multiple identities that ministers must live into–can one be a good, competent minister as well as a good spouse, parent, friend, citizen?  While not the only concern driving the essays features in Still a Mother, in form and function, this type of question is never far from the minds of the writers in this collection of essays by clergy on their very personal experiences of perinatal bereavement.

The essays, chosen by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson, two ministers who include their own stories of unexpected grief and hard choices, represent a significant spectrum of theological and vocational perspectives.  Mennonites and Episcopals, Chaplains and Senior Ministers–all share very personal perspectives on how such loss impacted their lives, relationships and sense of call to ministry.

The essays are unflinchingly honest and detailed, not only often sharing experiences in hospital settings that range from mechanistic to warm, but also clearly mapping out theological dilemmas that emerge for women who live and work as religious leaders while grieving their own losses.  These pastors and priests often find themselves strangers in their own bodies, asking questions about what it means for all of creation to be good when one’s body seems to defy such a notion; and at times, strangers in their own faith traditions, asking what it means to proclaim a God who is loving and just while they grieve children they longed to parent but whose first cries were never heard.

The wide range of experience included in an anthology like Still a Mother does give the pastoral care giver a good sampling of experiences of perinatal bereavement to consider as they consider their own responses.   Kelly Hough Rogers’ essay–which includes struggles with fibroid tumors, infertility, and the loss of a child, tenderly describes her choice to baptize her stillborn son, an act that brings her significant solace in the midst of her grief.  While I would not consider any of the essays in this book cliched, hers in particular resists the tendency of “inspirational” writing to look too quickly for a silver lining, finding healing in an unexpected resolution.

The editors themselves offer incredibly vulnerable narratives: Johnson shares how her grief following miscarriages and her own struggle with cancer interplayed, and Freeman tells a story of choosing to end a pregnancy that was ultimately unviable–a decision that was undoubtedly the right medical decision, but as Freeman indicates, carried some social risk for her and her husband.  Other essays challenged my own understanding of the scope of grief, and others gave me great insight into the role of liturgy and story in healing from this particular type of loss.

On the other hand, the intersection of storytelling and pastoral insight can create blurry moments: do stories of unproven herbal treatments and hypnosis serve readers who may have shaky understandings of science and medicine?  While it’s important to share one’s own journey, does a story told without caveat or qualification turn into an endorsement?  Does pastoral authority undermine the needs of a critical healthcare consumer?

Outside of that, as a book  geared for learning or deepening one’s understanding of pastoral caregiving, Still A Mother hits the right notes. The book is structured nicely–the essays are short enough to be easily digested by a busy student, pastor, or chaplain, and each is accompanied by questions that help inform the reader’s own pastoral practice. It also includes a section with rituals and liturgies, as well as a section of “Do”s and “Don’t”s for spiritual and emotional care.  Caregivers will find new tools here, and those who have experienced perinatal grief will find a virtual community here, perhaps inspiring words for a grief that too often goes unspoken.

Overdue Books: Healing Spiritual Wounds

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Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Carol Howard Merritt

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews.  I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts.  These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week.  Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough  and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

Ten years ago or so, I picked up a copy of Carol Howard Merritt’s Tribal Church. For many of my colleagues in ministry, it was a touchstone book: with clear-eyed analysis and a knack for narrative, Merritt told a story that resonated with a new generation of ministers who brought hopes for more innovative, just, and creative ways of doing church but ran into structures that were often counter-intuitively bureaucratic, oppressively hierarchical, and downright stodgy. As I watch my denominational and ecumenical contemporaries come into their own (we Gen Xers are all at least 40something these days–even Millennials have a hard time calling themselves “Young Adults” anymore!), Tribal Church  is one of a short list of books with lessons that still resonate.  Merritt is a gifted memoirist, but her books always goes beyond her own story.  Such is the case with Healing Spiritual Wounds.

Wounds could not have been an easy book to write.  Merritt tells her own story of a journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a spirituality where “God got bigger.”  She dares to dig into memories that range from uneasy to painful, and she frames her time growing up in a family, church, and Bible college that drew delineations between parent and child, church and member, school and student so sharp that the resulting scars are hardly surprising. Merritt paints the days of her life in fundamentalist Christianity in bold colors:  dress codes and rapture pranks at Moody Bible College pop off the page with wicked attention to humor, and the more hurtful, often violent underbelly of a faith that makes demands without giving nurture comes through with dark clarity.

There is, however, a gorgeous lightness when she tells of her “a-ha” moments that pushed her to a more generous, open, and life-affirming Christian vision.  Serendipitous relationships and hard-won epiphanies–even painful ones–lead Merritt to discover faith-filled alternatives to misogyny, homophobia, supersessionism, and an abusive theological anthropology.

What makes Wounds so unique is that Merritt intertwines pastoral skill with her gift for memoir.  Solid exegesis and history are woven into the narrative, as is a deep care for folks who have taken similar paths. She tells the stories of so many folks she encounters–old friends, neighbors, strangers at parties–and how she has journeyed alongside them as they’ve worked on their own healing as they discover a Christianity so different from that of their fundamentalist childhoods. While Merritt grinds no axes here, she fearlessly confronts the roots of a rage she comes by honestly, and she deftly reminds us that healing is something that must be done intentionally.

Which leads me to the only part of the book that didn’t initially “work” for me.  Each section concludes with an exercise, sometimes directing a journaling discipline, sometimes a private or group liturgy, sometimes a meditation exercise.  I initially bristled at their inclusion, wondering if such exercises take away from the power of a memoir.  I found myself asking what a book like this is for –should we not let stories speak for themselves?  Do such structured exercises distract or augment?

As I reviewed my notes, however, I rethought my reluctance.  Ironically, it was a quote from Merritt’s  evangelism professor at Moody that led me there:

“I know. It’s terrible,” Dr. Fisher, the course professor, said while shaking his head. “You take an evangelism class to talk about evangelism, and here I am going to make you actually do evangelism.”

Perhaps it should have been obvious–this brave book is not simply a memoir of healing, but it’s an invitation to others who’ve found themselves weighed down by the harm that is often done in the name of God.  And Merritt, as theologian, thinker, pastor, and coach, doesn’t just talk about how to begin a new type of faith journey, she sketches a blueprint for the “doing,” too.

Overdue Books: More Than Enough

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More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess

Lee Hull Moses

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog over the next week. I’ll also post reviews of  Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

In the middle of sketching some notes on Lee Hull Moses’s More than Enough, the Greek word “Oikos” came to mind.  In addition to being the brand name of a popular type of yogurt, oikos referred to the household, a social cornerstone of the Ancient Greco-Roman World.  As with most words, however, oikos has a life and relevance beyond itself–it’s the root of “ecumenical” and “ecology,” for example. In the literary context of the New Testament, particularly its narrative books, the oikos is often an important place–sacred conversations are held, intimate meals are shared, people are healed, the word is made flesh, all who are gathered catch a glimpse of a world beyond their imagining.

 Oikos came to mind because all of the other phrases that I could come up with to describe Moses’s book–“Public Theology” or “Pastoral Memoir” seemed inadequate.  While More than Enough is both of those things, it seems to me that it is perhaps better described as a theology of the Oikos in both its widest and most intimate meanings. Like a “House Musician,” or “Poet-in-Residence,” Moses writes as a “House Theologian”–weaving insight into what she observes about the spaces she inhabits.

Whether she is writing as a guest in the unfamiliar home of old friends in Nicaragua, balancing the complicated life of parent, pastor, and partner with her own household, or making her way to the State Capitol–A “people’s house” if there ever was one–as part of the North Carolina “Moral Mondays” movement, Hull brings both pastoral self-awareness and theological insight to her own life, her own relationships, and her own call to ministry as she engages a critical question:

How Do We Live Well?

Through her storytelling, Hull invites readers into honest struggles with global inequality, our dual lives as consumers and citizens, and the contradictions of middle-class privilege.  It’s familiar territory for those of us who are constantly juggling our hope for justice with keeping up with our to-do lists. It’s honest, and quite funny– you laugh along with her daughter discovering the delight and power that comes from a protest march, and if you’re like me, you’ll roll your eyes in an all too familiar way when she tells the story of her electronic-banking family scrambling to find a check.

But Moses does she simply serve up comfort food, nor does she offer simple, contrived solutions to big questions.  Instead, she writes like the sort of preacher I learn the most from: She  weaves her own story deftly alongside the scriptures of our tradition, conversation with colleagues and role models of our shared denomination, and insight from innovative ethicists and practitioners, and admits her struggle, even as she points toward possibility. Though she promises, almost apologetically, to not make her readers feel too guilty (A challenge when you also dive deeply into stories of vast economic inequality, considerable injustice, and the sheer busy-ness of American life), her book is at its best when it challenges her readers.

For example, in a chapter on Lament, she announces what sort of book this is not–a journey to self in the pop-psychology sense.  Instead, she gently pushes her readers to embrace how relationship, community, and justice are part of answering the question of living well. She even includes her own lament at the end of the chapter. She nails the power of the form, articulating a word of hope for a world that desperately needs it. The Prophet Moses is indeed in the house.

Pointing toward a rich abundance that’s hard to quantify, but easily named in those not-quite-ordinary moments that happen more often than we might assume, More than Enough stirs the prophetic imagination, waking up our households, calling us to embrace the bigger joy and the grander hope.

 

What do we do?

It looks to be a Christmas
warm enough for hiking.

We will kick up the leaves,
decide which fellow travelers we greet

With a ‘Happy Holidays’ and which we
greet with a ‘Merry Christmas”

And because this year is different
from all other years, we will peak

inside each and every house to see
which ones light their candles

despite the lack of oil. Despite
the lack of snow, we will still

light our own candles in the deep
of a warm winter’s night, proclaiming

both a myth and reality; a belief
and a certainty.

And certainly, I will remember the
gifts of this season, a trail

open for bonus days, stockings
that keep my boots from chaffing my

feet, and a sunset that staves off
the darkness just an hour more.

Some mornings

Some mornings

Dreams are the cost

Of waking.

The kind that

Feel both tragic

And ordinary

Foreign

And real.

Last night

I dreamt I was

Back in college

The semester’s

End was near.

I had done nothing

All semester

And no one reminded me

No one could tell me what I hadn’t

Done, either

I would be leaving.

I would fail.

I awoke, trying to hazily

Remember if that actually 

Happened, nearly twenty

Years ago.