This life as a newly ordained pastor is bringing me so many firsts. This week I took my first study leave, two weeks a year I get to leave my pastoral duties and go away and learn, study, refresh. I started the week in the Black Hills of South Dakota at a camp on a pastor's retreat. It was beautifully set up so that we had real, practical learning and plenty of rest. The moments that stand out for me are around our evening campfires, as I got to be real on a level I haven't been able to be in a long time. I try to be my authentic self all the time but as a pastor in a well connected town, I rarely have anonymity. Yet in being known by many it means that there is a world of expectation and watching like I have never known before. So late at night I found myself feeling right at home with my colleagues able to speak in ways that I haven't for a long time. I needed that, because the world of ministry is lonely. Hopefully I can maintain some of the relationships that are budding so we can support one another in the life that is ministry. Something else worth noting, at the beginning of this event we were asked to talk about a childhood challenge, being new I didn't dive into the whole everyone was sick and many died narrative that is what I see as the greatest challenge of my childhood. Instead I muttered something about being the 3rd child and never really knowing where I fit and feeling like an outsider. I had some great self reflection which might be shareable later, what you need to know about that is my owning my struggle with perfectionism.
I left feeling refreshed and smelling like the woods and campfire. I spent about 18 hours at home before heading out again to Minneapolis for "Why Christian?" A conference set up to explore why women still choose Christianity in a world that is so broken and hurting. In a world that often rejects us and our gifts and thrives on pushing people out rather than welcoming them in. When I first looked at this conference I was excited, I knew the two authors (Rachel Held Evans & Nadia Bolz-Weber) who were pulling it together were in line with my thinking and theology. I was call searching, desperate, and down on all of it. Then the call came and our lives turned upside down one more time and I excitedly registered for the conference. Then it got closer and I was in a different place and I didn't want to go anymore, but I came. I spent Thursday traveling. Friday morning was stressful with a banking situation, rush hour traffic and locating the parking garage but after all that was settled I walked up to the venue trying to be hopeful. People were already all around me gushing and gushing and if you know me you know that nothing will make me not want to like something more than gushing. Then there was this long ass line we had to stand in to register and my inner cynic and skeptic came out in huge force, like the incredible freaking hulk strong. So I stand there surrounded by gushing women, trying really hard not to roll my eyes, and I start texting, first a picture of the line to my husband, then to my mentor, "Ever ask yourself, 'why am I here?', at a conference?" Full on what the heck mode was happening, it was getting harder to not roll my eyes. I texted a bit with my mentor and settled on let the spirit move me as it sees fit. After finally showing my photo id with my ticket and walking past a bunch of hired security (apparently there were protesters), I squeeze my larger than small back side into an empty chair in the balcony, it was crowded, I was tired, and I could only hear like every other word. Did I mention I had to wear this red wrist band to identify me as an attendee? My level of irritated and not wanting to be there hit the roof. Did I mention all the pregnant women, look I love a pregnant lady as much as the next girl, but I am six years in to trying to have a second child, and had a big disappointment this week. The pad in my underwear stung as I was reminded of all the ways my body has betrayed me. I was focusing on all the negative. I made it through lunch and a break out session before bailing for the night. The speakers were good but I felt like I was hearing the same stuff again. I picked up a PhD packet from a school and headed out.
Let me tell you how much of my own "stuff" I brought to the table, I have been for years as a woman in ministry been trying to find my place, my people. While all these women were lovely and had powerful stories, I still didn't fit. So the Women of Faith/ Beth Moore crowd are not my place and now I have found myself amid the cool kids, Good Lord that isn't my place either. Over the summer I have been working "finding my preaching voice" which really means style because I feel fairly confident in the gospel of love I am called to preach. I have moved all over the sanctuary, I have taken risks, tried different styles, I am getting there. There is also my own reality that the type of ministry I do is not long for this world, it is very likely in the future that I will need to be a "tent maker" (someone who has a part time job and does ministry part time). I haven't been doing nearly enough non-sermon writing, but the goal is to eventually maybe perhaps join the voices that get paid peanuts to write.
Let's just be honest for a minute here, I cannot pull off blue hair, or pink hair, or rainbow hair. While my hair is gray, I spend time and money covering it up with a nice chestnut brown, it isn't spiked or half shaved, or in some sort of amazing just got out of bed looking coif. I have owned one pair of glasses that could have classified as trendy or a statement piece (if I find a pair of cat eyed glasses watch out world). Bold lipstick, dresses, heals, not my thing. Dread locks not my thing. I am a jeans and t shirt girl, or hoodie if it is chilly. In the world of finding your voice this matters because it affects your audience. Let me say that there is not a thing wrong with blue hair, dread locks, piercings, or any of the other things I mentioned, they just aren't me but sometimes I wish they were.
Day two I was determined to have a better experience, I arrived early so I could find a more comfortable seat, I sat down, took out my prayer journal and I prayed and prayed. Open me up God, let the spirit move. I don't know if praying in a cathedral makes your prayers more powerful (I doubt this) but my prayer was answered almost instantly. From the moment we started singing I felt more open, more willing, to discover why I was at "Why Christian?".
Then in the row in front of me I watched two older women openly show their affection and love for one another in church. This is not something I have a problem with at all, inclusivity is a nonnegotiable. It dawned on me in that moment that I have a whole other kind of privilege. You see, I have known for a long time that I have privilege because of my white skin, I have found that even though I have been through some tough times and had to work my tail off for an education, I have socioeconomic privilege. In that moment I realized I also have what I will call religious privilege. No one has ever told me I couldn't be who I was in church, no one ever told me Jesus is for everyone but you. That is when I started to realize the power of this event for people who are on the fringes of the church, who have been wounded by the church, oppressed by the church, in the name of Jesus. Yes I am a woman in ministry but no one I ever gave a dam about ever told me I couldn't be. Well except for me and the hyper critical bitch that lives inside my head. So many women were telling the stories of the "no"s they heard and mostly I have heard only "yes"s. OK God you are doing your thing in me, here we go, I am broken open, and some transformation is about to go down in my somewhat jaded heart. I have had this radical religious privilege of being always affirmed by the church, now what?
Of course I was asking a million questions inside my head. They were shifting from "who are my people?" "what is my place?" to bigger questions like "how does my story encounter these stories and move forward?" It's funny earlier in the week I said my struggle was to find my place, I can't believe it came up again at this second conference. Maybe it is the struggle I live in denial of but there is truth, I have always felt like an outsider, just about everywhere. I noticed that all these women in ministry who were sharing stories of pain, grief, healing, and hard questions, had a common thread every single one of them had experienced some type of hurt. Perhaps it is true of all people in ministry, that we have known some type of hurt and found healing, and then couldn't shut up about it. While I have had much privilege my own story is not with out hurt or questions. In these sacred moments I realized my story mattered even if it was different than the ones I was hearing, even if it was less interesting. Even if I never made a theological leap from conservative to progressive. My story matters and it counts. That was the beauty of this event, all stories welcome, all stories matter. My story is a valid and real story of encountering both the divine and hurt. AND... my story, our story, it isn't finished yet. The longing I feel in me is real and valid as I struggle to accept my present and live into the future, which could look like a PhD, writing, preaching, mothering more children.
That was the easy part. There was a lot of talk about bodies over the weekend. I was listening to the last group of women speak when the connections started coming in my head. Why was I fixated on hair and trendy glasses and lipstick? Why was I struggling to find my place, desperate to have one? Why was I struggling with voice? It occurred to me that I have spent my entire life trying to hide this "more to love" sized body. I have tried hard not to call attention to it, to not say look at me. Mostly because of culture valuing only one kind of body, I have the tall, but the thin I have not. But there is also that blasted bitch inside my head who likes to point out every single moment and way I fall short of perfection. Body is a key area for that. If she could have her way, I would just curl up in a ball and die in a puddle of self pity. She tells me sure you have a bunch of degrees, sure you made it through the ordination process, sure you can write, sure you are creative, sure you can occasionally rock being a mom. When you stand up there on Sunday cover up that fat less than perfect mess in those vestments because clearly you haven't tried hard enough. I told you she is a bitch, I wasn't kidding. The good news is it's my head and I think I am ready to send her packing. That voice is not me, my body I have been trying to hide and not call attention to is actually created and love by God. The body I struggle to take care of, the one that has left me feeling barren and broken, the one that challenges me with hormones that don't do what they should, it was and is a creation of God! Now I know that in the grand scheme of things this should have been obvious and maybe more so because my most "successful" ministry was one telling young girls this very thing, with never believing it myself.
It wasn't just the body though in that moment. A connection happened, how can I find my place, discover my preaching voice, with out accepting my less than perfect body? I cannot separate myself from my body, the body that while it has held many disappointments, has also held human life. Maybe I haven't found my voice because I was trying to do it with out all of me. Voice and body as one. Imagine that. Of course all I want to do is write but there is no place for me to do it. I go to break in anticipation of what I know I will love, sharing the Eucharist with all these wonderful and diverse people. I was ready, I knew I might cry.
Then the text is, I am the word made flesh, and Nadia Bolz-Weber starts preaching about the role of the body. Fine God be that way! She starts stringing together the bodies that God loves and here comes voluptuous, followed by the tears just streaming down my face. Yep there it was my answered prayer from the morning, I knew why I was there. Then came the Eucharist, in an Episcopal cathedral where the liturgy is sung. It isn't often in this day and age you get to hear a cathedral filled to capacity with sung corporate liturgy. This is what the building was designed for and I can see why. So I wept and I wept as the spirit blew through me. Then it was time to receive the bread and wine (how I love communion with wine). There stood one of our speakers, a woman who happens to be transgender, looking into my eyes, "The body of Christ broken for you." and she places it in my hands. In that moment those words, the entire table, took on so much new meaning. I gave up on trying to hide my tears.
I will close with a brief post I made on facebook yesterday...
I have been at Why Christian? The past few days. It's been an
interesting experience, all female speakers/preachers, of such diverse
and beautiful backgrounds. Straight, gay, tattoos, cardigans, black,
white, Korean, Latina, transgendered, mainline, catholic, evangelical...
(I should also add Indian.)
I am just grateful. I found my people... it is all of them.