Posting again

3 11 2011

I have not posted to this blog in a year. But after a writing workshop last week, I am reconsidering. I need to be doing more writing and it will be more fun to write if I have a space to share.

So watch for more soon…


New column!

17 01 2011

If you have found yourself here… please note that I am not actively blogging these days but am posting a weekly column at called, “Notes from a First Year Preacher.” I invite you to read it, make comments and share with your friends!

My summer of CPE

1 09 2010

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was begun in 1925 as a form of theological education that takes place not exclusively in academic classrooms, but also in clinical settings where ministry is being practiced. CPE is offered in many kinds of settings: in hospitals and health care including university, children’s, and veterans’ facilities; in hospices; in psychiatric and community care facilities; in workplace settings; in geriatric and rehabilitation centers; and in congregational and parish-based settings. The textbooks for CPE include in-depth study of “the living human documents.” By “living human documents,” we mean both the people who receive care as well as a study of ourselves, the givers of care. Through the practice of ministry and the reflection thereon with supervisor and peers, the experiential learning that is CPE takes place.

This was the ordination requirement that I dreaded the most. Like a little kid with a tantrum struggling to squirm of the arms of its parent, I did my very best to get out of this one. And for lots of good reasons. To name a few: Pastoral care is one of my natural strengths, not all presbyteries require their candidates to go through it so technically it’s not required to be an ordained Presbyterian pastor, and it required me to work inflexible full-time hours during my kids’ summer vacation.

But the presbytery was compassionately unrelenting, and by what seemed to be divine intervention lending them a hand, I was offered a full-time paid CPE residency 10 minutes from my house for the summer.

Yesterday was my last day and I gratefully sit in a coffee shop at 9:00 am on a Wednesday morning with no pager attached to me, unshowered, no makeup, and in jeans after dropping my kids off to school. Tomorrow we begin the long-awaited family vacation – just 3 days backpacking, but I am desperate for the rest and uninterrupted family time.

But, before it wears off, I want to share a bit about the experience because it was truly life-changing.

My job every day was to go to 3 different units of the hospital and see as many patients as I could. I would take referrals from nurses to make sure to see the patients who really needed to see a chaplain and then after seeing those, I would walk into other patients’ rooms and introduce myself and see if they needed anyone to talk to or pray with.

As you can imagine, I saw all sorts of people and in the end, I think that is the beauty of CPE. You don’t get to choose who you work with or minister to – you have to deal with whatever waits for you in that hospital room. I witnessed some of the most beautiful and tragic situations in life. It was like some form of boot camp for pastors – relentless training out of your comfort zone. You emerge with a new toughness that allows you to walk into pretty scary situations with a clear head and a confidence that you can only offer what you have and trust that the Spirit will do her work through and despite you.

I gained a new respect for all health care professionals, particularly nurses. Really, they are incredible. I watched nurses who were going through heartbreaking personal pain reach out and care for the most difficult patients. It seemed the lines that connect us all were sometimes visible in the floors of that hospital. I understand for the first time what it is to have a job in which you witness daily trauma and then go back to your “normal” life. It’s not easy and so many people do it all the time with hardly a thought.

I worked with an incredible group of residents who had been doing this since September and with a fantastic supervisor. They all mentored me, welcomed me into the hospital with open arms and became cherished friends. We met most afternoons to learn or process together. This community nurtured me and made the summer much smoother than I had anticipated.

Did I need CPE? Not necessarily.
Was it as hard as I imagined? Harder.
Am I glad I did it? Most definitely.

Ann Lamott

26 04 2010

My friend Mary took me to see Ann Lamott speak in San Francisco last week at City Arts and Lectures. I’ve seen Ann speak another time and both times, she won me and the rest of the crowd over with her complete and brutal candor about her life. I think this is part of her brilliance. She is so transparent and is able to express the agony and beauty of being human in a way that makes you laugh and cry all at the same time.

I made a few notes about what stuck with me for those of you who wanted a report… here is my memory. I’m afraid I’m cheapening her brilliance with my reporting. Sorry Ann.

First, she is an incredibly disciplined writer. She writes 4 hours a day, she always carries a pen with her and writes ideas on paper or on her hands whenever they come to her. She says this is why God gives her good stuff – she’s always ready with a pen.

She spoke about grace and places where she has found it this past year. She speaks of grace as the breeze of fresh air that comes and gives you just enough to keep going. One place where she has found that this year is the birth of her grandson, Jax. A surprise to many of us that Sam (at 20) could already be a father and a surprise to her as well. She was hilarious in describing how she is desperately trying to allow Sam and his new family to have their own space to learn and grow.

She spoke about her trip to India this year. She is a highly organized person and India was a place that would not be organized. She spoke of her morning trips on the river to see the sacred sites. But the fog was so thick, all she could see was what was closest around her and that this view provided its own sacred sight… of people bathing, praying, outlines of buildings and the early morning light. How much of life and faith is this way… we want to see the grand sights, the concrete structures, but we are left with the mist and the small unexpected beauties it reveals.

What struck me as a preacher and a pastor were two primary things. First, her entire talk was manuscripted but no one minded because her words were so beautifully and eloquently shared. This has been my preaching conundrum – to manuscript or not. It is a personal decision but I am always struck by how well it can be done (even as I also know how badly it can be done). Second, the space was sacred. And it struck me how probably 85-95% of the people there would never darken the door of a church, yet here they were listening to talk about God and how grace interacts with human life and they were hanging on every word. Why oh why can church not be like that – a place where we come to feel more fully human and connected to each other and to grace?

Ann’s new book (which I bought and had signed) is about the secret lives of modern teenagers – all the pressures they are under. She is very concerned about this and spoke passionately about it.

Two last small things:

Mary and I had a favorite quote that Ann quoted from a bumper sticker: “Relax. Only 1/6.5 billionth of this is about you.”

And lastly, I remind you all that Ann is a Presbyterian and a Christian which reminds me that there are many different ways to be both Presbyterian and Christian. More people should really consider it. 🙂

a poet’s work

9 04 2010

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.” Salman Rushdie

I copied this quote into my journal recently. I love it. It is brash, forthright and declares a bold position towards the world. In essence, Rushdie says, the job of the poet is to always be seeking truth – not a truth that allows us to sit back and rest, but a truth that wakes us up and makes us engage with our world. But note that despite the confrontational nature of the tasks Rushdie describes, it is the poet who does it. And a poet’s tool is beauty.

As my graduation from seminary approaches, I have been asking myself the past few months why I began seminary in the first place. There aren’t many jobs available and even fewer that I would really love to do. But this quote puts it in perspective. I began seminary because I wanted to live the life of a poet in the way that Rushdie describes. And even more so, I believed and still believe that the church can do this as well.

Because really, this is what Jesus did. He named the unnameable, pointed at frauds, took sides with the poor and oppressed, started arguments, shaped the world inalterably, and refused to let those around him go to sleep. And he did it with beauty and love.

In this season of Easter, we are reminded that the love of Christ is stronger than the violence and evil around us. This truth-telling love goes beyond death, beyond the lies of our world, pulses in our world and in our very veins with unrelenting force.

This can all seem very big and beyond our reach, but all of us, in our families, in our workplace, in our communities, in our churches, have places where we can do the work of a poet. Easter gives us freedom to live boldly, to paint truth in strokes of beauty, to love without restraint.

He is risen. Let us also rise and do the work of a poet in our world.

learning and knowing faith

5 04 2010

Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about the work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing. There is no question that should not be asked or that is outlawed. The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; the day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all.
Vincent J. Donovan, missionary to Africa

In the local paper a few weeks ago, I read a well-written article by a senior in high school who attends the Christian high school that I attended. She made a case that Christians should not be stereotyped as closed-minded and bigoted. She argued for the validity of her education within the Christian school system as teaching her to think critically.

Reading her article was like going back 20 years for me. Her arguments are familiar and I recognized in her writing a girl very much like myself at that age. I knew I had grown up in a bubble, but I also knew I had asked honest and hard questions. I deeply cared for the world outside of my small circles.

Like her, I believed that it was enough to ask the hard questions and to intellectually and spiritually wrestle with the big questions of life and the world. Twenty years later, I would agree that those hard questions were important. For me, the questions didn’t end after high school. They continued into college and they continued into my work in Europe, and they continued into marriage, parenthood and eventually into seminary.

But it is not only my questions and my intellectual journey that is shaped by words like “worldview” and “doctrine” that have informed me. It has been relationships, experiences and dialogue with people and places that are so radically different than me. I have learned and changed much because I have carefully listened to others and deeply loved some people who were very different than myself.

I once believed it was enough to hold a carefully questioned and analyzed system of beliefs. Saying that I had questioned it and wrestled with it and studied Scripture was enough to validate it. But there are other ways that we must learn. We must learn through relationship with others, particularly those who are different than we are. Our love for them pushes us to ask new questions and see things with new eyes.

Twenty years ago, I would have called this relativism. Twenty years later, I say this is the full spectrum of learning and growing. It has left me with more questions than answers, but it also allows me to live freely. It has taught me to follow the example of Jesus who loved so deeply, prayed so passionately and questioned so intensely. Following him has shown me what it means to hold faith while being open to genuine mutual encounters with others, no matter who they are. And in these encounters, I have been changed. Not in the shape-shifting way I once imagined where I conformed to the “world’s” patterns, but in a faith that has moved away from lists, rules and statements of faith into deeper relationship – with God, with others, with the world.

the one who waits

16 03 2010

Here is the sermon I preached in the seminary’s chapel this past Friday.

SFTS chapel, 3.12.10 • “The One Who Waits,” Luke 15:11-32

The story of the Prodigal son is so proverbial in our faith and even in our culture that most people assume this text is about the son. Even the word prodigal has become synonymous with this story in common vernacular though actually, it means “spendthrift” or “reckless,” rather than “lost.”

But any person with a careful eye for textual context can tell you that this story is not primarily about the son. The story is given by Jesus in response to the accusation that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In Jesus’ context, this was seriously problematic behavior. There were all sorts of rules for who you ate with, and what and how you ate. As we learn from Peter in Acts, table fellowship was not just a remote religious rule, it was a visceral determination of your personal holiness. When you ate with someone, you were identified with them and had obligations to them.

Jesus was breaking the rules, publicly shaming himself by eating with people known to be sinners, in a class of people outside the accepted religious standards. And he responds to this accusation by telling three stories. In the first two, items of great value are lost and the owner searches high and low until it is found. In both of these stories, God is revealed both as a God who tirelessly searches for those who are lost and as a God who is always ready to throw a huge party to celebrate when what is lost is found.

There is a different side of God’s relationship to what is lost in this story of the Prodigal. Here, God is the God who waits. The father did not go after the son, and in fact he had sent him off with money and freedom to do as he liked. The father did not know if his son will ever return, but still he saw his son “while he was still far off.” He was waiting with a ready-made feast for the son’s return.

The father was waiting.

The older son wasn’t waiting. He was at home, working hard and obsessed with his own performance, reassuring himself with self-righteousness.

The younger son wasn’t waiting. He was totally into his own pleasure, his self-absorbed discovery of what the world had to offer and then just trying to survive his own misfortune.

The father was waiting. Is it possible that we could define spiritual maturity as one who waits?

Waiting is an underrated spiritual posture in our results-driven, cause and effect culture. Waiting is seen as wasteful and needy. But that is not the picture here. The father does not wait in a codependent way. If he did, he never would have let the son go out on his own in the first place, but tried to accommodate him and coddle him at home. And the father is not at all in an independent, who-needs-you posture towards his son. He is not too busy or absorbed to see his son from a long way off. Waiting, as the father waits, is active – the father is always looking down the road, noticing any changes. This kind of waiting is differentiated – it is willing to let the son do what he wants to do even when it is painful and shameful to the father. At the same time, the father’s waiting demonstrates compassion and presence. The Father’s waiting indicates faithfulness – the penultimate characteristic desired in both God and God’s people the Hebrew Scriptures. Waiting, with a feast always ready, was as much as the father could do to foster reciprocity and mutuality in his relationship with his son.

The father’s waiting indicates that he was living in the reality of relationality. Relationality is my favorite seminary word. Relationality is a quick way of saying that God in the doctrine of the Trinity is revealed as a God who is defined primarily by being in relationship before we ever talk about power, sovereignty, sin or salvation. And in a world that finds its sustenance and origins in God, our basic unit of understanding becomes relationship. God is always calling us into the life of the Trinity that is marked by giving and receiving… and waiting.

Waiting may seem an odd way to define relationality and granted, it is just a part of it, but it seems to be an important indicator of how deeply we are identified with the relationality of God. Waiting could be thought of as giving attention to another, anticipating the arrival of God’s grace in another’s life. We wait for what we love, giving it our full attention. Waiting pulls us into relationality – heart and soul.

In this story and in his own choice of dinner partners, Jesus calls us into this posture of waiting that always keeps an eye out for others, is always ready to celebrate another’s return home.

Waiting is more challenging than it sounds. It is easy to look around to those who have rougher edges and think they are the ones who need to work on this. Those of us who tend to be more naturally pastoral or welcoming in nature can assume we have this down. But relationality is not really about external kindness or niceness, though it can manifest itself that way. It is about an interior posture that truly loves, that is com-passionate, suffering with, even when there is nothing to gain. We all struggle with this and in this sense, we are all the prodigal, starting over and over again to journey towards our true home where we can rest in love and be free to give it others.

I believe we could likely be a successful academician or a brilliant preacher or a justice-loving activist or even a caring pastor without this heart of waiting, but we are not growing more deeply into union with God, nor mirroring the life of Christ without it. Active waiting for others reveals everything about how much the heart of God has permeated my inner self.

An authentic Christian spirituality is utterly subversive to any system that would treat a man or woman as anything less than a child of God. It has nothing to do with ideology or politics. Every praying Christian, every person who has an encounter with God, must have a passionate concern for his or her brother and sister, his or her neighbor. To treat anyone of these as if he were less than the child of God is to deny the validity of one’s spiritual experience. – Desmond Tutu

What Archbishop Tutu knows is that the most subversive thing in this world is not our political or theological stance, but a truly engaged spirituality that grasps ahold of relationality and follows the one who waits.

The goal of our inner lives should always be to be increasingly turning from hostility to hospitality, as Nouwen says. And as Tutu reminded us, this turn has potential to change the systems of our world. This should be the goal of our communities. This should be the track of our seminary. This should be the thing we constantly seek, work for and pray for in our world. It is not rocket science. It takes the slow process of transformation to work this in us.
When the Corinthian church came to the table, there was a problem. We aren’t quite sure of the specifics but we know the general issue was some rushed ahead to eat before the others. Paul exposes this behavior as completely antithetical to what this table is about. He says, “when you come together, wait for one another.” (1 Cor. 11:33) Embody relationality, the very life of God, here at this table by waiting.

We are related and so we wait. We welcome. We set a table, always ready to feast in celebration of each other and share embodied relationality between us. We set a table in hopeful waiting for the world to find its rest and hope in the interrelated God who is always welcoming us.