Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remain Suspicious

I took this picture from underneath my neighbor's tree, which extends to my driveway. I like to think we share it since my actual property has no trees. The leaves were absolutely glowing in the sunlight, but I was more interested in how they looked against the sky. But you really can't see much of it in the photo; the leaves are blocking the view.


I've been feeling pretty meh this week. It's been a long few days and I'm feeling restless. Sometimes this time of year makes me feel a bit caged--the days are getting shorter but they seem impossibly longer, especially the hours after dinner but before bedtime. Can I get an amen, mamas?

I'm also feeling like I'm on the verge of something. I'm not sure what. But my dreams have been strange and my sleep interrupted and my mood is funky. I discovered my notebook from MomCon as I was angry-cleaning the office for the second time this week, so I took just a moment to flip through my notes. And of course I landed on exactly the page I needed to see.

I had the pleasure of hearing Margaret Feinberg speak on the first morning of MomCon. I'd heard of her most recent book Fight Back with Joy but was unfamiliar with her story. She was about to turn in her manuscript for Fight Back with Joy, capping a year of research about the concept of joy, when she found a lump in her breast. She vowed to use what she'd learned to carry her through her treatment, which she is still continuing today.

Margaret Feinberg had many brilliant things to say that September morning, but here's the one thing that keeps speaking to me: "Remain suspicious that God is up to something good." Even as she travels through the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis, Feinberg trusts in the goodness of God and God's fierce love for her.

I think my definition of joy is too narrow because I wouldn't describe myself as joyful very often, especially in the mundane moments of raising little people and keeping a home. I feel appreciative and tired and satisfied and curious and frustrated and content, but joyful just seems out of reach. I am good at being suspicious, though I'm usually worried that I'm one step away from disaster rather than looking forward to something lovely. And when I worry like that I'm not trusting in God's goodness or love for me. I'm choosing to see the leaves instead of the sky.

What are you suspicious of lately? Are you seeing the sky or the leaves?


Thursday, October 15, 2015

I used to think

If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

Church has been a constant presence in my life. I was raised Catholic and attended mass every Sunday with my family. I also went to church during the week as part of my Catholic school education. After I'd graduated college and taught in Catholic schools, I took my students to mass and sometimes was responsible for planning the service. If any of these churches ceased to exist, my life and livelihood would have been affected, and I would most definitely have noticed.

But for a long time I saw church as just a place to go. I used to think Church was a noun, not a verb. I was part of the Church as one is part of a social group--it was just a place I went because I always had, or because my parents had taken me. When it was up to me to find a church when I went away to college, I didn't. I replaced my need for socialization with campus organizations and my sorority. Because Church really wasn't about my relationship with God, I didn't feel like I was missing anything. I simply filled my time with other things.

And then I met a boy. That boy took me to his United Methodist church, and I met Jesus there. Church changed for me not because I needed it to but because I was ready to see it with new eyes. I began to see the Church as a social change agent. I didn't feel oppressed by rules or doctrine. I saw strong women and men who led worship and children's ministries. I saw broken people showing up every Sunday to hear scripture and sing hymns and drink coffee. These people fed the hungry and housed the homeless. They stretched my thinking about what loving my neighbor actually meant. I was challenged each week to live out a faith I'd held since childhood but had only just started questioning.

I used to think Church was just for good people. Now I think I'm not so sure.

I know so many good people who have been hurt by Church, and each person can retell a particular moment that changed Church for them. Each story is evidence of how imperfect people of faith get it wrong sometimes, often in the name of God. Hurt feelings and exclusion and ruined reputations should not have a place among faithful people, and yet I hear stories every day of the same scenario being played out--our narrow understanding of God's love causes us to close off that which should remain open.

If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

There wasn't an emotionally charged fight or embarrassing moment that drove me from the Catholic Church, but I, too, was hurt. While I was teaching at a Catholic school in Michigan, Todd was discerning his call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. I knew it would be difficult to straddle two worlds as a Catholic school teacher and the wife of a United Methodist seminary student, but I didn't realize it would eventually sever my ties with the Church. I was told during a training session by a church employee that taking communion in a non-Catholic church was "a deliberate turning away from Jesus", and that I was not welcome to be a Eucharistic Minister during school masses. This did not fit in with my idea that the Lord's table was open to all. I began to worry that my job might be in jeopardy if it was discovered that I wasn't attending a Catholic church on Sundays. So although my paperwork was in order--I'd been baptized, confirmed, married and trained as a certified catechist in the Catholic Church--I didn't feel safe. It seemed that it would have been better for me not to attend church at all than to attend a non-Catholic church.  I don't loathe the time I spent there, and I'm not running from it. I'm still awed by the beauty of tradition and liturgy I find there. The Pope is pretty cool, too. But it's just not where I feel comfortable today.

I used to think I was a perfect church girl, until someone decided I wasn't. And I didn't like how it felt to be outside of the rules. 

We are a ministry family now. Church is our life. Church means more to me now than it did when I was a child. Church is a place, but more than that, it is people. I want the churches we minister to to be safe places for everyone. Places where you can ask questions and wrestle with the answers. Places where you can find physical and spiritual food if you are hungry. I want the people there to be open and welcoming and loving and funny and compassionate and messy and a little bit different.

I used to think that I needed the Church, but now I think that Church needs me. 

But even though I'm pretty intimately tied to my church, I'm not sure I can always answer these question affirmatively: If my church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care? I know some people have a painful history with my church, and might not feel that bad to see it fail. But many are fed, literally and figuratively, by our programs and presence in the community. How do we balance the pain and comfort church can bring? How can these coexist? 

Because life is full of paradox. Beauty and pain, sorrow and joy, life and death circle around one another, intertwined, every day. And they always will. Church helps me see and embrace the mystery of these things in my daily life.

Have you been hurt by Church structures or by her people? I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. I've been reading and advanced copy and there is so much inside it's pages for church lovers and church avoiders alike. It's a love letter to those trying to sort out their feelings about faith and the faithful. You can find my full review here

I'd love to start a conversation with you, dear reader, about what you think about Church and how your feelings have evolved over time. I welcome your comments here on the blog, and I want you to know this is a safe place. But even more I hope you have conversations about Church around your dinner tables and Sunday school classes with friends and family. Let's begin!

Saturday, October 10, 2015


This is probably going to shock anyone who knew me as a child or adolescent, but I'm purposely wearing a dress for 31 straight days--the entire month of December. And I'm doing it for a cause, but it's bigger than just wearing a dress.

The movement is called Dressember and it began in 2009 as a quirky style challenge. It turned into much more and in 2013 it aligned with International Justice Mission (IJM)  to raise funds to rescue victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression. Since 2013 well over a half-million dollars have been raised, and 100% of the funds go directly to IJM. 

"Dressember uses fashion to advocate for women who've been exploited for their femininity. As women take on the creative challenge of wearing a dress for the 31 days of December, they are advocating for the inherent dignity of all women."

So, I'm going through my closet, thrift stores, and Thred Up to find enough dresses and skirts to last between laundry days. It gets coooold here on the prairie in December, so I'm stockpiling tights and leggings, too. 

If you feel so inclined, you can donate to my page here.  Want to join in? Sign up here.

Got any good winter-dress-wearing tips? Send 'em my way. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Eyes to see

My Dad taught me at a young age to give a firm handshake and look people in the eyes when speaking to them. It's perhaps the most important thing he ever taught me. People want connection. They want to be seen and known. Giving someone your attention by looking them full in the face, whether a good friend or someone you've just met, shows them that you care for them. But it's hard to care for someone if you never actually see them. 

Back in college I did a short internship in a correctional facility in Jackson, MI. I was taking an abnormal psychology course my senior year at Albion College and the professor worked at the prison. He was looking for brave souls to help tutor inmates. He offered extra credit. Ever the overachiever (but not really in need of the extra points) I raised my hand eagerly to participate, then looked around the room. The room was full of men (like, big football player dudes) with a small scattering of women. One other female had her hand up, too. I recognized her from the education program. I was in the elementary cohort and she was in the secondary group, so we didn't have many classes together, but I'd seen her around. None of the men volunteered. After class was over we got the details from the professor and prepared for our first experience in prison. We were instructed to wear professional but non-revealing clothing, no ponytails, and no jewelry.

My classmate and I drove up to the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility on a beautiful fall day. We were told to wait in the family waiting room and that the professor would come to get us. I remember scanning the room and feeling eyes on us. Everyone kept to themselves, no small talk or chit-chat, just silence and shifting on squeaky plastic chairs. There were young women, mothers with small children, and grandmotherly-types sitting against the cinder block walls. My classmate and I heard the click-clack of the professor's wing tips on the tile and moved with purpose to meet him.

We were ushered through the metal detectors and patted down. We were outfitted with personal protection devices (PPDs)--they're like a pager with a pull-cord. If you're in danger, you pull the cord and a guard comes to get you. Why the device? Because we would be in a large classroom with many inmates at once, and the guards stay outside. It's a law in Michigan that inmates must earn their GED before being eligible for parole, and because many inmates do not have appropriate education to find jobs once released, my classmate and I would be assisting them in preparing for their GED test. These men were highly motivated to complete their work so they could take another step towards release, so they weren't considered dangerous. 

I remember entering the empty classroom after taking a rather humiliating walk through the yard where my classmate and I were relentlessly catcalled. Our professor shrugged and told us to just keep walking. We met the instructor--a woman--and were given a run down of what we needed to do that day. The inmates filed in a few minutes later.

I remember trying to make eye contact, but I was largely unsuccessful. The men kept their heads down. The room was a mix of guys in their late teens through what I guessed was mid-forties. What was most notable to me was the number of vision and hearing impaired men in the room. They got their materials and took their seats. They raised their hands if they needed help. Most preferred to work alone. Some could barely sit still. Many could not read their materials. 

I remember helping a man who was probably near my father's age. He attempted to make small talk and wanted to know about my family. Having been instructed to not say anything about my personal life, I redirected the conversation to the inmate's life outside of prison. He had two teenage kids whom he adored and couldn't wait to get back home to. I soon realized that the small talk was an attempt to divert him from his work for the day: a workbook page on Roman numerals. He couldn't do it. It took every elementary teaching trick in my repertoire to help him through it, and I'm not sure he fully understood it once the page was complete. Roman numerals. Not advanced chemistry or Shakespeare--decoding and adding numbers. 

Age has faded many of the memories of my short time at the Cotton Facility, though I do remember that I got a 4.0 in the class. But I've never forgotten the lessons I learned there: the stakes are high for missing a child's learning difficulties, there are many reasons people end up in jail, and everyone deserves to be seen. 

All of this is to say that before my brief experience volunteering in the prison system I would have written these men off. I would not have looked in their general direction, let alone into their eyes. They were not real people to me. And I'm fairly certain most people would feel the same way. 

This week the question of whether or not states should be allowed to execute criminals came front and center. Kelly Gissendaner, a woman who did not pull the trigger in the case she was sentenced to death for, was executed in Georgia. Alfredo Prieto, a man who's IQ was 66, was executed in Virginia despite open appeals filed by his lawyers. Richard Glossip was granted a last-minute stay in Oklahoma due to a mix-up with the drugs used in the lethal injection. He is scheduled to die in November.

The crimes these three were convicted of were heinous, even evil. And there is no doubt that there should be consequences for the perpetrators of these crimes. That's what our legal system is for. But how can you look someone in the eyes and tell them their life is not worth anything? That an eye for an eye is the only way to right a wrong? Most victims' families will tell you that the execution of the perpetrator does not help them heal. And there is still no proof that the death penalty deter criminals. 

Can Christians who proclaim to be pro-life still be pro-death penalty? And in the wake of yet another school shooting this week can we be pro-guns, too? The culture of violence in this country takes my breath away.

Jesus himself stopped an execution (John 8: 1-11). And I imagine Jesus bent over, drawing in the dirt, as the Pharisees tried to justify her stoning and catch Jesus in a theological trap at the same time. Jesus recognized the woman's sin and did not soften that her actions had consequences. But he would not allow the religious establishment to take her life. And then I imagine that Jesus straightened up, wiped his hands on his robes, looked her in the eyes, and released her to sin no more.

I have intellect and experience. I am capable of grace and compassion. I don't have all the answers. But I do have scripture, ears to listen, and eyes to see. It's time to have some serious conversations in this country. We need to start seeing each other. And maybe we should start by looking inside ourselves.