Imma!: A Review of _Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God_ by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke

Full disclosure: I know Pr. Lee Ann Pomrenke. We first met in college way back when we were young and full of dreams, and we’ve reconnected over the years through our shared vocation in the Lutheran Church and our shared love of writing. So, when I found out she was going to be publishing her first book, I was eager to not only read it but offer some thoughts on it.

_Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God_ (New York/Church Publishing Incorporated, 2020) is one of those works that weaves together the practical and the theoretical delving deeply into how our conception of the Divine is not only parental, but explicitly motherly. And she doesn’t have to do much convincing, by the way. Through anecdote and story, Pr. Pomrenke just lays out the territory of how we not only conceive of God, but also interact in the church, and the result will be startling to many readers: God, in practice, is most motherly.

The brief work begins with powerful reflections on her life as an adoptive parent where she touches all the untouchable issues the church seems to shy away from, especially infertility. As we head into the Advent season, this first chapter is supremely prescient. I’ve heard from more than one family that Advent, that “season of waiting” where we celebrate miraculous conceptions and births can be a struggle for families whose waiting has lasted way past their 40 days and 40 nights.

The author addresses both the joyful beauty of parenting, and the well of grief in longing for it but feeling it is unrequited by the Divine hand. She dispels the notion that God withholds fertility outright, bring us back into righteousness (right-relationship) with the Biblical witness on the matter. “I am convinced,” she writes, “that fertility is not actually the point in many of these stories, nor are they preaching some kind of fertility gospel of pleasing God to get pregnant.” Instead, Pr. Pomrenke describes God as friend and fellow-journeyer on the road of waiting and heartache, not instigator.

The theme of “re-birth” and “new-life” run rampant through our scriptures, so why do we shy away from the idea of God as mother and, as Pr. Pomrenke points out, the Holy Spirit as doula and mid-wife to the new creations all around us? The examples are there, we just don’t see them for what they are because we’ve wired our brains toward the masculine.

Jesus, too, is more mothering than not, as the author points out. His use of touch as a way to comfort and heal brought me back to the healing touch of my own mother, cradling and rocking, and to the images of a God cradling the earth in more icons than I can remember. In this way the female pastor is indeed the embodiment of the God they point to, as the lead the gathered community to care and heal one another as a mother tending to her babies. The vulnerability of the Christ, the honesty of the Christ (as Pr. Pomrenke points out, mothers tell the truth…and so should we, in the church), and the centrality of the Christ all point toward a motherly orientation for Jesus toward his disciples and the world.

Beyond noting the glaring Biblical examples of a mothering Divine throughout our faith-narrative, I especially appreciate that the author deftly inter-mingles that deep theology with our practical congregational polity. By that I mean that she always brings the highly theoretical down to the ground of experience (embodiment at its core), and notes how the local congregation relates to the themes of family (for good and ill), adoption, and being mothered. In doing so, Pr. Pomrenke has written a book that is both useful for clergy (as they will absolutely identify with her vocational examples) as well as people in the pew, who get more than their share of tidbits to reflect on as they think about how they interact with their pastor and fellow parishioners.

Of all the chapters, I found Chapter 7, “Emotional Labor,” especially resonant with me. Parenting in general, and mothering specifically, is emotionally laborious, as is pastoring and leading a faithful life. Within the church there is much anxiety about our shared future, a taxing reality that weighs on most everything within the local parish nowadays, like a family knowing there is an impending crisis in its midst. How do we mother one another through it and stay sane? How do we retain empathy with one another while also tell each other difficult truths? This chapter is both intensely personal and universal in scope, and, along with the first chapter “Waiting” stands out as my favorite parts of the book.

_Embodied_ is half theological primer and half memoir, blending the two together in a way that engages and moves the reader. It is in no way a treatise on using feminine pronouns for God (but I think we should, hence why I titled this piece Imma), nor is it an apologetics piece for female clergy or feminist theology. It does something much more powerful, I think: it just lays out the facts.

Clergy, even those who identify as male, are motherly. God is motherly. The church, when it’s at its best, is guided by the thundering velvet hand of a mother. And the fact that we have historically had issues with this is not an indication of outright denial (though there is that), but one of consciously or unconsciously overlooking the obvious.

Pr. Pomrenke reorients us here, and does so with skill and thoughtfulness.

Which begs the very real question: why are there so few female Senior Pastors in church leadership today? Why does it take longer for female clergy to be placed in congregations, and why do they get paid less than many of their male counterparts?

While the book doesn’t explicitly ask any of these questions, I bet you will after reading it. In fact, if there’s a minor critique I would make of the piece, it’s that it doesn’t ask these questions outright.

But perhaps that’s her point. Like a good parent, a good mother, Pr. Pomrenke entrusts the decision making to us, walking with us along the way.

So, who should read this book?

I would offer it to most anyone. Clergy will find a work that names many of the joys and struggles of the vocation, especially clergy who are parents themselves and struggle with the Sunday morning wrestling of our children in the pew. Parishioners will find thoughtful examples that expand our notions of God beyond the conventional, and will be given wonderful food for thought regarding how parishes organize themselves and operate. Book groups and study groups (as well as individual readers) are offered questions at the end of each chapter that spur further conversation and reflection.

I’ve not yet read a work that so deftly intermingles mothering, parenting, and theological reflection as this work does. I commend it to you with confidence and great joy, and think it’s an especially wonderful book to pick up as we head into the Advent season.

You Are a Family

painting by Sheli Paez: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/family-sheli-paez.html

“Well, if we decide to start a family, then we’ll talk about it…”

I hear this sometimes from couples preparing to get married.  I understand what they’re saying.  Our culture doesn’t really have a good grasp on how to adequately use words to describe life situations.

Usually when they say that, I gently stop them and say, “I want to be very clear with you about what I think is going on here.  The minute that you two say ‘I do,’ you’ve created a family.”

In fact, in just deciding to be together, despite the fact that the State doesn’t recognize it legally, I’d argue that by that decision alone, they’ve created a “family.”

You don’t have to have children to have a family.

You don’t have to have dogs or cats or rabbits to have a family (I am not a fan of “fur-baby”).

You two: you are a family.

When you decide where you go on vacation, you make a family decision.

When you decide how to spend your money, where to eat out, and how you’ll schedule your bedtime routine (yes…adults have bedtime routines), you’re talking about family decisions.

When we talk about “family planning,” we’re not talking about starting a family, we’re talking about adding to a family.

This notion, many times rooted in a long-forgotten-but-always-present past of needing kids to “work the farm” or “carry on the family name” needs to go the way of the dodo in these days.

It’s time.

It’s time to get rid of this stereotypical idea that family = “have kids.”

I saw Kevin Nealon at a comedy club in Denver a few years ago.  He was hilarious.  He spoke about being an “older father,” as his son is 6 and he’s, well, much much older than 20.

But he backtracked and talked about his divorce with his first wife.  When he was going through it people would say, “Oh man, that’s terrible.  You don’t have any kids, do you?  No?  Good.  That’d make it worse…”

To which he quipped, “That’s kind of like asking someone who got their legs blown off, ‘Were you wearing nice shoes?  Oh, good…that’d make it worse…'”

We somehow have cheapened “families” to mean “people with kids.”

You don’t need kids to be a family.

In fact, I’d say you can be a family of one, even.  Our family has had more than one member join by decision or circumstance.  “Uncles” and “aunts” and “grandparents” of all kinds.  And not in some sort of honorific way, but in a real, tangible way.

And listen, there is certainly no religious reason, at least not any Christian reason, to have kids.  Let’s just say that we’ve already fulfilled, as a species, the idea of “be fruitful and multiply.”  

In fact, we may have over done it a bit.  

Louder for the folks in the back: don’t let religion pressure you into having children.

There are legal reasons that the State doesn’t recognize just any-old-relationship as “family.”  That’s not what I’m talking about here…although, it appears from the headlines that some of that notion, even, may soon be back under attack.

There are many good reasons to decide not to have children.

There are many heartbreaking reasons some people can’t have children.

There are many good reasons to decide not to partner with someone, legally or otherwise.

And there are many reasons people aren’t partner at all (or anymore)!

All of the above does not negate the reality that “family” doesn’t mean “with kids.”

Families come in all sorts of constructions. They always have (despite what historical convention tells you), and they always will. And we need a society that not only catches up to this reality, but rhetoric that acknowledges it, too.

You are a family, Beloved.

 

 

 

Life on Mute

“I never want to Zoom again,” a colleague said to me the other day.

Zoom. Teams. Go To Meeting.

Pick any medium you like. The general consensus after six months of a pandemic is that online meetings are about as annoying these days as in person meetings were before the plague. Except, for a number of physiological and psychological reasons, virtual meetings somehow feel more taxing…as if we ever thought that could be possible.

And, as a parent, Zoom School is…well…a practice in education and patience across all sides of the screen.

Virtual meetings are here to stay, I think.

Like healthcare, once people are given something (like the opportunity to work from home), gathering them back into the office on the regular will be more difficult.

I suspect the same will be true for the religious practices of the world, too, for better and for worse.

I heard a pastor say the other day that they had a small regathering of the faithful, and that the people who showed (around 20 or so) were “simply giddy” to be back in person. And I’m sure they were!

But what about the folks who didn’t show?

My hunch is that many people will go to their congregations through St. Youtube of the Screens with more regularity.

I don’t say that with any sort of judgment or even sadness. I’m just saying it…it’s how things have been forced to move, and it’ll be hard to go back. New metrics and ways of measuring ministry will have to be formed to account for this kind of virtual participation, especially as it appears that in-person gatherings on a large scale will not be possible for some time. And even when it becomes possible, church is not very embodied when we can’t touch one another, touch the sacraments, and sing.

It’s just not.

One of the peculiar things that the pandemic has forced everyone to experience, in one way or another, is the pesky problem of the “mute button.”

Oh, the dreaded mute!

Nothing is more annoying than a person beginning a long speech or a response, only to realize they were on mute. The frustrated participants waiting for their words say with alternating humor and exhaustion, “You’re on mute…you’re on mute…”

The mute button is instructive for us, though, and I think we should take this opportunity to think about it a bit. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste!

What voices in our world regularly operate on mute?

BIPOC? LGBTQIA+? Native American? Women, especially women trying to climb a corporate ladder?

What about children? Those for whom English is a second language? Religious minorities? People who don’t practice any religion? The very elderly?

The difference is that these voices have been “muted by the host” throughout history because it has been thought that their commentary wasn’t germane to the conversation. Or, more to the point, whether it was germane or not, it wasn’t wanted.

In fact, many of these populations have also had their cameras disabled, made largely invisible in large conversations. Or we shove them into breakout-rooms of their own so that we can largely ignore their input.

And now there are fears that other sections of humanity, who have often been the hosts of these large-scale life meetings throughout the world are being put on mute: white men, the cis-gendered, and in the United States, Christians. These fears largely stem from the realization that, well, other people would like to host meetings once in a while and have been prevented from doing just that and even barred from doing just that and, like any good host, dominating voices sometimes do need to be put on mute so others can be heard!

Our political and cultural schisms at the moment are all about the mute button, Beloved.

The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes, all of history, all of life, has been one big Zoom meeting, even though we haven’t had language for it until just recently.

Virtual meetings are designed to mirror the way culture has designed our common life: some are muted, some are hosts. You get engaged in them and you soon realize how undemocratic they are…and, by extension, how undemocratic most of life is.

Oh, sure…we talk a good democratic game, but the functions embedded in virtual meetings are too familiar to not see the similarities.

Some are on camera, some are kept from being seen.

If you have a question, use the “chat function,” and we’ll see if we get to it…

Maybe this is why Zoom is so exhausting: it’s just our normal operating procedure without any pretense, mirrors, or charades.

But in this moment, we actually have an opportunity.

We have an opportunity to un-mute some of the voices history has long muted.

It’s happening on the streets, but now it can happen in our virtual meetings, too.

Now it can happen in our virtual church services, too.

Now the audience is captive, Beloved, and elevating those voices so that they have a chance to speak is one of the ways this crisis can steer us toward progress rather than stall us all.

Who is on mute in our world?

In your virtual gatherings, who is perpetually on mute and who forgets to put themselves on mute? How can we use this opportunity to shift the power dynamics in such a way that we come out of this plague having heard new things, seen new faces, and gained new understanding, even from the (dis)comfort of our own homes?

When we speak out about the muted voices of the world, some will get uncomfortable. Some will not like the suggestion that they mute themselves so others can be heard over the noise of history they’re adding, consciously or unconsciously, to the conversation.

But seize the opportunity nonetheless.

Because for too long some voices have been on mute in this world, and now is a time they can be heard, by God.

5 Ways Churches and Clergy Can Use the Covid Crisis Constructively as We Head into Month 7

As the shadow of World War II loomed heavily over his country, and his career, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I’ve repeated this phrase over and over in my life, both to myself and to others struggling to make heads or tails of a specific season of existence. I’ve especially quoted it to new pastors who find the bumps of the parish to be more mountains than mole hills.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

I no longer serve a parish regularly, though I’m still very involved in coaching pastors, especially those new to their calls. I’m hearing a consistent consternation about the future of the looming Fall.

Will churches meet in person before the New Year?

Will outdoor worship be able to continue in cooler months?

How often can we “open” and then “suspend” meeting in a building before everyone tires of the seesaw?

The recent article by baptistnews.com on pastors and suicidal ideation in these pandemic days was a gut punch to many. Unfortunately, though those feelings and thoughts may be heightened right now, those thoughts are not exactly new to this service profession, despite how little pastors might talk about it, at least out in the open.

I was chatting yesterday with a pastor who has taken a position in the non-profit field, and nearing retirement he was considering going back into the parish to ensure his pension would be in place (he was not Lutheran, and apparently his denomination had odd requirements around this sort of thing).

“I might do it,” he said, “but you know what I haven’t missed these last 14 years of being out of a church?”

I nodded…because I knew first-hand.

“The fear of looking in your email box. The nasty anonymous letters. The complaints at the end of a Sunday service because the organ was too loud for her and too soft for him, and ‘Why are you so political, anyway?’ and ‘We’re leaving this church because, well, you.'”

His reply?

“Bingo.”

As the article points out, those emails and notes are even more legion these days because, well, it’s the only way many people are regularly communicating.

That’s all a bit tangential, but it’s all to say: this is not new, even if it is intensified, and we can’t imagine that somehow, once this pandemic is over, the clergy mental health crisis will magically disappear, as some claim this virus will.

But let’s take stock really quickly and, as Churchill notes, not let this crisis go to waste. What are some ways that churches and clergy can take advantage of this time? Here are 5 thoughts on it…

Thought 1, for Clergy: Practice ignoring the inbox.

I know, I know, it’s your only connection to some parishioners these days. I’m not saying don’t send messages; far from it! I know you are communicating even more in these days than you usually did pre-Covid.

What I’m saying is, when you don’t have control over a situation, forego the long, rational, thought-out response to that long, run-on, emotional email that so-and-so sent you being mad about in-person worship being suspended.

They threaten to leave? Ok. Let them threaten. Maybe, even, let them leave.

Because your call is not to keep them happy, but to keep them safe. Your call is not to play their favorite hymn, but the appropriate hymn. Your call is not to preach what they want to hear, but what you think God is calling your community to hear.

That’s your call in all times, but is especially prescient in dangerous times like this.

Do you respond? Maybe. I’ve sometimes not responded at all.

But if you do respond, maybe it is just,

“Dear ____________, Please know that I love and care for you, and I am sorry all of this is happening right now. I feel as powerless as you do at the moment. I understand if you feel a different community is better for you, and though I would be sad to see you leave the church here, I know that God’s church isn’t limited to our little piece of it, and we’ll remain together in Christ. Happy to talk on the phone about this, but not right now. I can tell it feels too raw. Let’s both wait, discern, and pray a bit.”

Thought 2, for Churches: Go A Little Crazy with Sunday

I see so many faith communities right now trying to replicate the Sunday morning gathering in the virtual space, and honestly it’s just not always working. The flow of the liturgy is not easily translated online.

Now, I’m not saying you abandon the liturgy; by no means!

What I am saying is that you can be super creative right now and try things you’d be wary of trying in normal times.

Go with a sermon series you’ve never considered doing before. Maybe you do a string on the Hebrew texts for a given Sunday, or as we enter Autumn, do a series on the ecology and the Earth. Lutherans Restoring Creation has a bunch of resources to help.

If we are spending any time out of our houses these days, it’s normally in wide open spaces, right? And if you are gathering, so many are doing it outside. Why not capitalize on the theme and make it a thing?

And as we head into Advent, consider doing an extended Advent this year. Imagine 6 weeks of glorious deep blue expectation that actually mirrors Lent instead of just the truncated 4 weeks normally allotted. I’ve enjoyed doing this in the parish occasionally, and the resources are ample and easily adaptable.

Plus, no one is going to walk out of the service if you try some of this stuff in these days…and if they do, no one will notice!

Be experimental. Don’t try to virtually replicate something that can only be experienced in person. Try something new and don’t just regurgitate the norm.

Thought 3, for Clergy: Invest in Yourself

Instead of overworking your inbox and wracking your brain trying to figure out how to do everything you did when you could actually physically be with people (it’s not possible, Beloved…hug that cactus and it’ll stop hurting), take this opportunity to engage some professional passions and skills you’ve neglected.

What if, right now, your call was to take an online class on video creation and editing? Instead of trying to wing it or fret about how little skill you have in this, use the professional development dollars you have allotted to you (and if you don’t have any, lobby your Council to give you an allowance) and lean in.

Or maybe that’ll never be your thing. So instead of doing that, you go all-in on non-profit fundraising. Books, Udemy, free webinars…don’t make this learning an “add on” to your current list of work, but rather embrace it as “the work” right now.

I’ve heard pastor after pastor tell me that they feel they need to “earn their salary” in these times, proving they’re still working hard.

But let’s imagine that your people know you’re working hard. Take that for granted for a minute. If you knew that, and trusted it, what would you do instead of trying to earn their favor?

Go and do that for a bit.

Thought 4, for Churches: Online Everything

I mean, you can decide to do what you want about communion, Beloved. We don’t have online baptisms because you can’t physically be there, so I’m not sure why we feel we *have* to enable online communion (just speaking as a theologian), but that’s a conversation for you and your people.

What you definitely should be doing online, though, are two things integral to the life of the church: education and offering.

Get those offerings online. Set it up. You’re probably about to enter “stewardship season” as it is, so get it going.

There are so many platforms now, I’m not even going to link to any because, well, that’s a conversation for you and your council (make sure to read the fine print regarding cost and functionality!). But you have to get it online, and there is no better time than right now to enlist over 60% of your community in online giving.

Every bank can do it. Unless your folks are stashing their gifts in a mattress or a beer barrel, it’s simple, safe, and easy.

And as for education? Google meets, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, there are so many ways to keep education going, and this is the perfect time to do it, because: we’re all at home! Folks on vacation, folks who have moved away, folks who are perpetually home bound…had I known how effective this tool was in doing education, I would have been doing it from the start.

Seriously, want to get that face-time with the folks who think you might be slacking? Weekly education opportunities are the key. Plus: it’s a great way to keep community going right now.

After this pandemic, these two things (in my opinion) should absolutely continue.

Thought 5, for Clergy and Churches: Take Stock

This pandemic is allowing everyone to take stock of their lives, both individually and communally.

Take stock and ask the tough questions together.

“What would be missing from the world if our community didn’t exist at all? Not just what individuals inside the church, but for the greater community? For the world? What would be missing?

“How nimble is our mission? Are we filling it, even now? If not, does it need to change?”

“What *needs* to resume when we come back to gathering in person? What can we let go of, that wasn’t really working, anyway?”

Take the time to ask the hard questions, Beloved. Take the time to look deeply.

This is a crisis. Moment to moment we’re fragile or have fortitude, and it all feels so tenuous. But this crisis should not go to waste, by God.

Use it. Listen to the wisdom it offers. Dismiss the fears it peddles. Then go and implement what you learn from it.

Christmas in July and Virgin Births and Truth

Christmas in JulyIt’s Christmas in July, Beloved.

I kind of love that.  Christmas is so fun that Americans feel the need to have a preview, a teaser, a taste of the gingerbread feast that is to come.

I’m taking a writing course right now, and we’re studying archetypes in the course.  One of the archetypes we discussed today was the idea of a “virginal birth.”

This is not a religious group of writers, mind you.  I’m not even sure what their stance on religion is.  But we used the many virginal births throughout the history of religions to discuss why that might be important for humanity, and what this recurring theme says about us.

Now, you might do a double-take right there…I’ll allow it.  Go ahead, read it again. Because I did say “the many virginal births throughout the history of religions.”

And I said it because it’s true.  Many of you may have only heard of Jesus, but in the history of supposed virginal birth accounts, Jesus has to get in line.  The Egyptian gods Ra and Horus were supposedly born of virgins, some 2000 years before Jesus.

Oh, and Alexander the Great.  He was conceived by his mother and a lightening bolt, which sounds like a painful story…

And some histories have Krishna being born of a virgin, as well.

And there are others. You probably know of some.

So what, then, do we do with the Jesus account, specifically in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don’t really think it’s important)?

So here’s my stance on the virgin birth: I don’t care.  And I’d encourage you not to, either.

I don’t care if Mary was a virgin.  Really, only Mary knows…and she isn’t going on record about it, and a lot of the focus on this probably has to do with Christianity’s problematic (obviously platonic) relationship with sex, but that’s a whole other post.

Why do I not think it matters?

I mean, take into account the fact that the writer of Matthew misquotes Isaiah when he says that the prophet said, “A “virgin” shall conceive and bear a son…”

Actually, Isaiah wrote, “A young woman shall conceive…”

In the Greek it’s “virgin.”  But in the Hebrew it’s “young woman.”  What are we to make of this?

Ancient stories of other virgin births (Alexander the Great, for instance) were intended to bestow upon the baby certain prestige and power.  It could be that the writers were meaning for you to see that such prestige is meant for Jesus…

Take all this into account and what do you have?  You at least have some basis to question where it all came from and why it’s in there.

Questions, like sex, are good, Beloved.

What I don’t think we can question is that this sort of image is, for good or ill, powerful for humans.  It’s good, I think, when it conveys some sort of holy surprise.  It’s bad, of course, when it’s all about sex…

I know, though: we’re not supposed to talk about such things because it might disrupt someone’s faith.

I have more faith in you, dear reader, than to believe that.  Plus, a little disruption is healthy.

I mean, look, if this question, or even this type of question, is the foundation that the whole testimony of scripture is built upon for an individual, they must be prepared to be disappointed.

In fact, I would say that about any verse or event in Scripture.  If the veracity of the scriptural account stands upon a Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment understanding of what it means to have 6 days for creation, what it means to rise from the dead, what it means to have a virgin birth, what it means to have the sun stand still, what it means to have the blind receive sight, you will be disappointed.

All of those events pop up in other religious narrations, by the way, some long before Jesus. Pastors don’t talk about it often, but it’s true.  There’s no denying it.

Look, when it comes to scripture, the question isn’t “did it happen?” the question is “is it true?”

And judging by the number of supposed virgin births throughout religions, this is certainly a strong archetype that humanity has clung on to for some reason…for ill or for good.

This is a hard concept to wrap the head around; it truly is.  The thought is, “Well, if you question one thing, you bring everything into question!”

Is something wrong with that?  Like I said: questions are good.

When we insist that the readings and accounts contained in the canon that we call the Bible have to be “true” by Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment litmus tests for truth to be considered reliable, we are trying to get the texts to be something they were never designed to be.

They are texts of faith, not fact.

We are essentially taking something and trying to fit it into our worldview, instead of allowing something to speak on its own, from its own location.

And when we do that, we usurp its power.

It becomes no more powerful than a dictionary or an encyclopedia whose truth relies solely on its content, rather than a deeper truth whose veracity relies upon its impact, its richness, and its ability to shape humanity.

In fact, I’d contend that quite a bit of what calls itself Christian these days does just that: relegates the scriptures to an encyclopedia or IKEA instruction manual for life.

See, the story of Jonah is powerful.  But it’s not true in the post-Enlightenment, 21st Century, Western understanding of “true.”

To even utter that will be, for some, to call the whole Bible a big fat lie.

But they are the ones missing out, if that’s the case.

Because you will fail to learn something from a story if you can’t take it on its own terms.  Instead of learning the lesson from Jonah, we spend all our time pretending that we don’t know anything about biology or literature, and we try to find ways to allow a human to survive in the belly of a fish without being eaten by stomach acid…

But we cannot pretend that different types of literature apart from histories are not present in the Biblical canon. Myth, legend, short story, comedy, poems, letters…along with histories are all present.

And even the histories that are present aren’t like National Geographic or The History Channel types of histories!  They’re more like Fox News or MSNBC  or CNN types of histories: biased accounts. They have agendas.

And agenda isn’t always a bad thing, mind you.  It’s like the agenda Matthew and Luke have for the reader when presenting Jesus’ birth as virginal: you are supposed to take note that this is special!

Or like John’s agenda when he has Jesus dying on a Thursday.  You are supposed to see him as the lamb of God, sacrificed the night before the Passover.

It’s meant to convey something to you; convey a truth about humanity and the Divine that history can’t hold by itself, so it uses the most powerful thing we have to hit it home: story.

With all these “Christmas in July” posts going on now (which are a welcome break from pandemic updates), it seems timely to remind us all of the power of story.

The virgin birth reminds me of the possibility, the hope, that sometimes miraculous things happen when you least expect it.  That sometimes things can be birthed and you’re just not sure where it came from because you didn’t see it coming.

And in a pandemic, that’s probably worth holding on to for a while.

It is true.

And that truth has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual history.

Studying Theology Exposed Me to What God, Is

idolsMysticism put me in touch with God, that golden thread running roughshod through the energy of the cosmos.

Theology didn’t do that.

Theology isn’t the study of God, but rather the unveiling of gods.

And what are our gods?  You know them.  We bow to them daily.

A popular god is money.  Mammon, if you want to use an older term.  It invites you to cherish it, promising you fulfillment, but then continually moves the goalpost.  This god is insatiable, delightful, and cruel.

Another popular god is conformity.  Most churches are built around this god.  Oh, sure, the cross may be front and center, but if you look past the cross to the people in the pew you’ll see their clean shoes and spotless teeth, a thin lacquer covering rotting insides intending to keep up with the Jones’s. You know quickly if you don’t fit in here because you’ll sit in the wrong pew, suggest the wrong hymn at the hymn-sing, clap to that one song, or bring your boyfriend to church and suffer the stares when he doesn’t fit in (and, now, neither do you).

Nationalism is a popular god.  American-Christians (in that order) are found in every congregation.  They complain when you don’t play a patriotic hymn on the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, or when you don’t adequately honor 9/11 somehow.  They’re not interested in singing a song in Spanish, but will insist on having Veterans stand up on Veterans Day.

Community is a god.  A benevolent god, usually, but a god nonetheless.  Community is a god who takes care of the flock, but doesn’t really like any feathers to ruffle in the nest.  Community will encourage people to bow, especially when they have a controversial idea.  Community will send you a casserole if you’re sick, but sometimes will question in hushed voices what you did to deserve the illness.  Community tries to love the followers, but often can’t meet all the needs, and so people will worship for a while, and then stop, if this is their god.

Right Answers is such a popular god that everyone has their own depiction of it!  People usually worship this god in quiet, assuming that everyone else is worshiping this god, too.  Until you show that your depiction isn’t the same as theirs, and then they take their god and leave. People who pride themsleves as “free thinkers” usually are strong adherents to this god, and you’ll know it because, well, they’ll tell you about it…

Some people think Science is a popular god, but Science is not a very good god because Science changes its mind as it gets more details.  This frustrates humans, because they like their gods to be largely immutable (and also largely mute).  When people say their god is Science, what they’re usually referring to is Right Answers (see above).  Interestingly enough, people who trust Science usually don’t equate it as being a god at all because, well, as I said, science doesn’t really work like that.

The Bible is a very popular god, especially among Christians.  But it is a god of mixed-messages, and so is not very reliable when it comes to rule-making and order.  Plus, no one can really agree on what the Bible is or says, so really anyone who bows to this God bows to a tailored version of their own preferences, and that quickly becomes the god of Right Answers (see above).

I know we talk about God as a who, but really we need to talk honestly about gods with the word “what.”

Theology is not the study of God, but of gods, and how we worship them.  Theology exposed me to what god, is.

And, oddly, those who trust their faith is the purest are usually the most pantheistic.

Feel free to add a god that you know…there are thousands.

“Girls Can’t Be Pastors” and Other Lies I Believed from Church

female-pastorI’m, in fits and spurts, working on a larger piece of work that explores and exposes some of the falsehoods I was led to believe as a child, either implicitly or explicitly, through Christian faith formation.  Here’s a short piece for a chapter tentatively titled “Women are ‘Different'” Note: this is not a finished product, nor even a finished portion, just initial thoughts.

Today, on the day when we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the ELCA (and predecessor bodies), I think it’s an appropriate offering.

She sat on a stool up by the blackboard, chalk in hand, religious text-book precariously balanced on her knees.

Every day started with announcements and the invitation from the disembodied principal over the intercom to stand and face the Stars and Stripes and recite the pledge of allegiance, hand over our hearts.  Then, directly after those words, hands remaining on our hearts, we’d pivot just slightly to face the “Christian flag,” with blood-red cross over blue and white background, and recite a pledge there, too:

I pledge allegiance, to the cross
Of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And to the faith,
for which it stands.
One Savior,
King Eternal,
With mercy and grace for all.

We were Americans.  We were Christians. We were American-Christians.

We’d take our seats and, without fail, would start the day with Religion, the foundation of our schooling in that parochial school.

She sat up at the board and we all dutifully turned to the lesson of the day: ministry.

“There are different kinds of ministers,” I remember her saying.  “Some work in schools, like this one, where they teach.  Some work in churches as pastors.  Some are Sunday School teachers and administrators.  There are different kinds of ministers.”

I remember being onboard for this part.

“Men and women can be teachers and administrators, though the Bible is clear that women shouldn’t be over men when it comes to authority,” she said looking out at us.  “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are just…different.”

My eight year-old brain can’t recall all the particularities of the lesson, but I remember being stuck and struck by that phrase: “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are different.”

Don’t you love that little word, “but?”  It’s the word that people use when they want to sound generous but stick to their problematic opinion, right?

Like, “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not sexist, but…” or the ever-popular, “I’m not a racist, but…”

Don’t cough or you might miss the remark that nullifies their qualifier.

I raised my hand.

Now, I think it’s generally true that most students assume their teacher doesn’t like them, especially in these early grades.  But I didn’t have to assume; I knew she didn’t like me.  I knew this because she rolled her eyes every time I raised my hand.

Especially during Religion.

“But Mrs. L,” I said, “I know women pastors.”

She closed her book, sighed, and looked at me.

“I’m sure you know women who call themselves ‘pastor,'” she said, “but God’s word is clear on this: they are not pastors.”

“But…” I began, and she held up her hand.

“You come from a different faith,” she said slowly, as if I had trouble understanding the English language, “and in this class this is what we teach. Women are different.  Girls cannot be pastors.  They can do lots of great things!  They can be teachers, and administrators, and music directors, and can serve God in all sorts of ways!  But only men can be pastors.”

“…we have a women pastor…” I continued.  We did.  She was an intern at our church at that very moment.

“Tim,” she said, “why don’t you go out into the hall?”

That year the hall and I became good friends, and not for no reason.  I was a talker, there was no question about that.  And I was known to get off topic and draw and couldn’t keep my desk clean to save my life, all reasons for which the hall was an apparent remedy.

But sometimes I was sent into the hall, especially during religion class, because I couldn’t believe the things they were telling me.  Or, more rightly, wouldn’t believe them.

At least I didn’t think I did…

Fast-forward to middle school, a different place and time, where I met another woman pastor, an excellent preacher, a gifted theologian.  I found myself not only admiring her, but encouraged by her.

But (see? There it is…), I also found myself saying things like, “Well, I think the pastoral role is generally best suited for a man, but you’re awesome!”

Patriarchy, beloved, is like a thief in the night, stealing those perspectives that make it impotent and replacing them with dead-end thinking and misogynistic memes.

____________________________________________

He stared up at me, grinning from ear to ear.  That’s not the first thing I noticed, though.

No.  The first thing I noticed was how his wife sat by his side, her face downcast, not even looking at me.

“We’re so glad you’re here, pastor,” he said, shaking my hand with vigor. “It’s been years since we’ve been here.  When that woman got here we decided we couldn’t come anymore.”

I took back my hand.

“Because,” he continued, grin never failing, “we believe what the Bible says about women.”

What does the Bible say about women?

The aged prophet Elizabeth has some thoughts, as she speaks into Mary’s heart, “Blessed are you…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

The warrior Deborah is the only one in the book of Judges with enough guts to go up against Jabin’s army.  And Queen Esther is identified as being made, “for such a time as this.”

We grin so much when we feel like God aligns with our prejudices.

And his wife.  I tried to engage her in the moment, but when she looked up at me all I could see was a vast nothingness in her gaze.  As her husband made her culpable to his disdain for women as religious leaders, I couldn’t catch a feel for her thoughts at all.

He withstood exactly two Sundays of my preaching before leaving in a tersely worded emailed huff.

_____________________________

It’s amazing for me to look back at my youth and realize that, although my particular church never taught me that women can’t or shouldn’t be pastors, Christian culture imparted it upon me, anyway.  My teacher even went so far as to say, “Girls can’t be pastors,” which is either an indication of the age of the students in front of her, or indicative of her thoughts on gender and roles and the diminutive nature of females.

Is this peculiar to American-Christian culture, or Christian culture in general?  I’ve not made heads or tails on it, but the issues feels as connected as those two pledges were to the start of my every-adolescent-day.

And it’s amazing for me to see how many still sit in the pews of congregations belonging to denominations who have ordained women for decades, and still think it’s an aberration of the call, and not the rule.

Just look at a contemporary list of so-called “outstanding preachers,” across denominations.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find one with more than one or two female preachers on there.  And how many women do you know who serve large congregations?  It’s abysmally small, and this is not a result of ratios, my friend.

It’s a result of structure.  I mean, look at that Christian pledge I was forced to recite.  “King eternal,” does not leave much room for the feminine imagination, right?

The statistics are a result of thinking “women are ‘different,'” in all the ways that phrase is unhelpful.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if “Jesus of Nazareth” had been “Jean of Nashville.”  What if the Savior had been Jean, or Julie, and identified as female?  Would Jean ever be able to be, as the so-called “Christian pledge” says, “One Savior, Queen eternal?”

Or is the word “King” above less a description of Jesus (I mean, honestly, only Pontius Pilate calls him that, and not in a flattering way), and more a description of us and our propensity to equate male with all things powerful and godly?

Hell, what if God came embodied as a woman, and we all just missed it because we were expecting a man?!

Don’t say such things too loudly in the presence of the faithful, though.  They have a tendency to invite such ideas into the hall…

Down from Their Thrones

statuesGod has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. -Luke 1:52

It was quite the grilling.  Unexpectedly tense.

I was interviewing to be the pastor, and the interviewers were clearly conflicted, not the least bit over me.  In the weeks prior I had taken my Confirmation students to see the movie Selma as part of our curriculum.  There were questions and concern from some of them, though not all of them.

Would I be doing that with their Confirmation students?

“It’s quite possible,” I said, honestly.  “It would depend on what is needful in the moment.”

And then one of them had some pictures printed out, of me at a march in the streets of Chicago over police violence.  Would I be doing that, there?

“It’s possible,” I answered, trying to be honest.

“And Confederate Monuments,” one asked, “would you advocate for vandalizing them?”

I was stunned.  To me this was an odd line of questioning, but was illustrative of the times I guess. Would I, as a pastor, advocate for the destruction of public monuments?

The newspaper headlines today mirror the headlines back in those days, except ten-fold.  I eventually took that call, and about two years into my service there a student at a local university, one who had grown up at the church, contacted me.  She had been involved in the toppling of a Confederate monument on campus, “Silent Sam” as he was known.

I was proud.  She wanted to write up a reflection about it for the congregation to see.

And that’s when my pride turned to hesitancy. I remembered that interview, the conflicting viewpoints in the room, the tepid response to my honest answers from a few of them.  Would this be too much?

That student had, after all, been raised in that community, taught in those classrooms, and had come to learn such acts of holy resistance through the scriptures.  But would it be too much?

We never ran the article.  It’s one of my big regrets.

Because, had I listened to the scriptures, had I heard the voice of another young woman, Mary, in the early chapters of Luke, I would have seen the inevitability of the current situation.  “God will cast the mighty down from their thrones,” she sings out.  And these monuments, mighty in size, looming over the public lands entrusted to the people, and looming over the psyche of those on the margins in silent intimidation, they are not just mighty in size, they’re mighty in force.  And while they may appear to be innocuous reminders of a long-gone past, we don’t have to search too hard to find evidence that oppression is not a thing of the past, but a very present reality, and these monuments were erected to ensure that present stays ever-present, in stone and marble and iron.

When I was asked by that member of the interviewers if I would advocate for the toppling of such statues, I hedged my bets and, after a moment of thought necessary to collect myself after such a blind-sided question, I said, “No…those are public property.  But I can see why someone would topple them.”

Because, well, where should we erect a statue of the person who lawfully murdered your grandmother?

I was nervous about saying yes, being too radical.

It is a hard thing to discern when revolution is holy.  It is not easy, and it can be messy.

But we have voices along the way to guide us, like young Mary, and Amos and Micah before her.  Like Jesus himself, who toppled the statues of Mammon in the temple of his day, and continues to knock over the idols I erect for myself of money, work, and prestige.

I know that there are questions about when enough is enough to this toppling.  Must all of our statues who led checkered lives in regards to slavery and oppression be demolished?  Washington and Jefferson, too?  Woodrow Wilson was a known racist.  His portrait as well?

I have come to the conclusion that I’m not the one to answer that question or set those boundaries, as I’m part of the offending party, ally though I try to be.  Instead we need to sit at the feet not of these statues, but of those who cry out in pain and anger at their very presence, to listen and really learn for once.

Literally, for once.

Because we’ve been here before, Beloved.  And I’m hoping that this time will not be like those other times, when it all died down and we once again turned our back on the cries of our sisters and brothers when they told the world how hard it is for them to breathe.

I’ve changed my mind, by the way.

If I were to be asked today if I’d advocate for Confederate monuments to be torn down, I think I’d reply, “It’s a good first step. As soon as possible.”

The Looming Philanthropic Storm

hurricane_florencejpgThere’s a hurricane out there.  It’s name is Michael.

Michael, as it turns out, is the most popular name of a Millennial, at over 1.1 million children graced with that name in the 20-year span that encompasses the Millennial Generation.

But, should Michael not suit your fancy, the hurricane could have also been named Jessica, the most popular feminine name at over 750,000 persons having that namesake born between 1982-2004.

Regardless, it’s looming out there…and all of us in the philanthropic world, from church leaders to non-profit workers, know it, but we rarely speak about it.

What am I talking about?

The ability to amass wealth.  Or, more correctly, the inability to amass wealthy by Millennials.

And it’s not their fault.

Philanthropies survive off of the expendable wealth of donors.  I know you know this, but it’s important to repeat because if you’re not in the world of non-profit budgets, like pastors and non-profit workers are, you don’t often think about it, especially that one, necessary, all-important word: expendable.

Think about this: in 1972, roughly when many of our parents graduated from college, the average price for a home was $27,000.  When I graduated from college the average price of a home was $195,500.

“Yes,” you say, “but Tim, you didn’t count for inflation and adjusted value and…”

OK.  In 1972 that $27,000 was roughly equal to about $118,000 in today’s spending power.  The math is not that hard, and I’m not great at math.

How would I make up that extra $70,000 to purchase a house out of school, like many of my parent’s generation did?

Well, it certainly didn’t come from work.  At least, not for your average Jane or Joe.

The greatest increase in wealth, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the top 1%, and for the last four decades this has remained steadily the case.  What hasn’t remained steady is the rate.  In the last four decades income for the top 1% has grown by over 200%, compared to a growth rate of just 46% for the bottom 90%.

And that middle section between the 1% and the 90%?

That’s the so-called “Middle Class,” slowly shrinking as the top blows through the roof, and the economy continues to drop more into that lower (and overwhelmingly larger) bracket.

Also consider that most families need two cars because they have double incomes now.  But those double incomes?  They don’t have near as much buying power as a double income family of the Boomer Generation.  From 1960-present day, our purchasing power has, as this Pew Research article notes, “barely budged,” even as our checks have gotten larger.

What’s this mean?

It means that our (including myself here because I’m technically on the lower-end of the Millennial landscape) ability to amass meaningful wealth is dismal compared to the previous three generations.  And despite the chance that we might become heirs to some of that, there is another problem to contend with: we’re living longer.

And that long life-span means savings must be used for sustaining the living, not gifting toward charities.  And that makes sense, right?  Can’t fault people for that, right?

Certainly not.  But it’s all a recipe for a calamitous future for non-profits and organizations who live off of the generosity of others.  Because while indicators point to Millennials being much more generous than previous generations, we frankly have less we’re able to give.

And I have to imagine that some of that generosity comes from the stark realization that, well, we’re just not going to be able to amass the wealth our grandparents and parents had/have, and so we might as well give more away.

Now, it is true that we’re more choosy about where our gifts go; we want to see a tangible difference in the lives of whatever we give toward, whether it be humans, animals, or the planet.  But that’s also part of this whole dilemma, because Millennials are not willing to prop up institutions that have, heretofore, not been able to make good on their promises of better life quality, security, and wholeness…which means that the little wealth we do have, we spread deep and narrow, excluding many historic non-profits from contention (for better and worse).

The non-profit sector has exploded, rising by about 10% in the last 10 years alone. When you compare that to the modest 2-3% growth in the for-profit sector, you’ll see the issue. Rising competition in a sea of shrinking assets means, well, a hurricane of chaos in the not-so-distant future.

So, what can we do?

Well, I think we can be innovative.  Cottage industries attached to non-profits are not a bad idea.  These industries take some of the burden off of pure fundraising, and provide some stability…if the industry is done well and moderately successful.

We can also imagine a situation where large institutions, like the church, take a hard look at sustainability and make the decisions necessary to tackle the problem rather than just wait until the hurricane hits.  Darwinism looks like cannibalism when it hits the church…and I think it’s largely true across non-profits that serve a similar population.

And on the political front, we can vote for meaningful change.  Increased wages for common workers.  We can lobby to make industry changes, getting rid of the notion that everyone must have a Master’s degree to be qualified for work that, in years past, barely needed an Associate’s Degree.  Wonderful teachers and nurses were sent into their fields with Associate’s in year’s past, staving off crippling debt and providing real good to those they served.

And what is with everyone having to have an MBA these days?

Want to talk about an unsustainable rise in cost?  Look at college and higher education.  Yet another reason why my generation has no wealth: we’re paying it back to institutions we needed to attend to be ensured jobs that paid us enough to make good money which we now cannot save!

This Sisyphean cycle is not only unsustainable for the individual, but it will eventually cripple institutions set up for doing good.

You know, it’s funny, I was having a conversation one time with a doctor, an M.D.  Not a friend, just an acquaintance.  They paid over half a million in student loans by the end of their training, and at 50 years old, had just paid it off, mostly because of their generous salary.

But we were talking and they noted that the CEO of the Red Cross made six figures, and “how terrible for the head of a non-profit to make so much.”

I said, “That non-profit is not only huge, but does a huge amount of good in the world.  It takes a skilled leader to head up that kind of organization.  Look at the CEO of Amazon and the billions (at the time) he makes.  You think he’s more deserving than the CEO of an international aid organization that does so much good?”

“Yes,” the doctor said, taking a sip, “because he earned it and that’s not a non-profit.”

I downed my drink and walked away.  I can’t understand that kind of logic, a kind that buys into the false narrative of meritocracy.

But unfortunately, despite the generosity we see from this generation, a meritocracy may be all we’re left with as non-profits fall victim to a poorer and poorer population…which will require more non-profits to fill in the gaps, but funded by who and how?

Organizations that are making a difference, doing real good now, are facing down a hurricane just off-shore.  It’s slow moving…but picking up speed.

But there’s no evacuation route, and nowhere to hide.

So, what will we do about it?

 

 

Hugs and Hand Grenades

download“Do you need a hug?” my five year old asked as I sat on the couch staring at the TV.

He must have seen it on my face.  The President had just finished his Rose Garden address and, as if watching a split screen of dual realities, before the final words of his horrifying speech the pops of smoke grenades and screams of tear gas victims rang out.

Holding shields and charging the peaceful protest, the public park was cleared to make way for the President.

He was going for a stroll.

Having been sequestered in a bunker last night (welcome to our world, Mr. President), he now wanted to show strength…he feared being seen as weak.

And flanked by the Attorney General and his security advisors, he walked.

To where?

An empty church left vacant by both the pandemic that still plagues our land and the fire that raged last night in its basement, mirroring the rage in so many hearts at the reality that the plague of racism still has no vaccine.

I mean, that’s the truth, right?  We’ll get a vaccine for Covid-19.  But to extinguish racism and white supremacy we need a collective heart transplant, and unfortunately elective surgery is still not happening in many places…

Well, and most aren’t electing to have such a transplant, anyway.

On a friend’s social media feed she posted that we need to teach our white babies not to shoot or harm black and brown babies.  Immediately the feed was pounced on by well-meaning but fragile folks who reminded her that “no one should shoot or harm anyone” and “that’s what we need to teach.”

Ok. But we need to start with our white babies…because, well, read the headlines.

Read history.

And so he walked from the Rose Garden after a speech that could be generously described as taken from the papers of an aspiring dictator, and strolled to stand in front of a vacant church.

And there he held aloft a Bible which was, I kid you not, upside-down. At least, upside-down for him, making it not only unreadable for him, but also no more than a prop of some sort.  It was backward for everyone…but both backward and upside down for him.

And just stood there.

Backward and, for him, upside-down.

I mean, I’m not one to think that symbolism is everything; it was obviously a mistake.  Who holds up a book backward?  What reader reads a book upside-down?

But, who knows? Maybe the book just refused to cooperate.

The scriptures have been known to do that.  Too often they don’t cooperate with what I want them to do and say, either, in the end.

It’s like the book was an unwilling participant.

Wait, no. As someone well-versed in the stories of that bound volume, let me be clearer: it was an unwilling participant.

Because the scriptures are always unwilling to participate in oppression.

When the military is used against civilians, it should be in order to protect their Constitutional rights.  Historically, that’s what it has been used for.

Eisenhower did this in Arkansas over school integration.

Kennedy did the same in Alabama.

And sure, in times of riot the Guard has been mobilized in an effort to control the situation.  Notably this happened after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the 60’s, and the military came to Chicago, Washington, and Baltimore as outrage spilled out of the homes and onto the streets…understandably so.

But even in those cases the military at least gave the appearance of using force to quell a situation that was bubbling over (and again I say that the bubbling over was UNDERSTANDABLE).

But today the military was used against peacefully protesting civilians so that the President could take a walk to a vacant church and get his picture holding up a backwards Bible.

So, yes Alistair, I need a hug for multiple reasons.

Because today the rights of those people were hijacked.

Because today the military was forced to do something that, arguably, is unconstitutional.

Because today the scriptures that I have dedicated my life to studying were used in a publicity stunt.

Because today a church building, a sanctuary, was used to provide the backdrop for someone who has made it part of their political platform to deny sanctuary to immigrants.

Today Christianity was once again used as a prop in the ongoing narrative of white supremacy and oppression in the United States.  It, along with our current pandemic, is a plague upon the land. What is it with this penchant for prop-holding that politicians do with our scriptures and creeds, turning them upside-down for their own political agendas?

So yeah, I could use a hug.

In the battle between hugs and hand grenades, I still contend that hugs will overcome.

But today was not that day…so bring on the hugs, because we’ve had enough of the political, and literal, hand grenades for June 2020.

Already.