October 28, 2014

Celebrating Disquiet Time (and Ellen Painter Dollar)

It's my turn to host the blog tour for the fantastic new book, Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. I'm so pleased and proud to have a chapter in the book. The diverse cast of voices delves into a broad range of thorny biblical passages - often the sort of passages people prefer to avoid. While the contributors are clearly smart people who know their way around a biblical concordance, I love that the anthology isn't academic in nature. Rather, the essays grapple with the profound impact the Bible can have on individual lives - for good and for ill. The book reveals how biblical interpretation - and misinterpretation, as the case may be - is formative in a world in which more than 100 million bibles are sold or otherwise distributed each year. The biblical text isn't dishonored with this book, but is rather given the honor of being taken seriously enough to be spoken of with unsparing honesty. One of the things that is most striking to me is that it lives up to its grand promise of truly divergent perspectives. It's not merely the skeptical and the faithful sharing the same binding; Christians of both conservative and liberal hermeneutics are present and accounted for. You just don't see that happen very often.

Last night, I gathered with seven other contributors - including Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant, our fearless editors - in a packed room at Prairie Path Books in Wheaton to celebrate the book's release. It was a delightful evening - funny, poignant, irreverent, meaningful. When it was my turn to talk I said a few things about my chapter - which, in a nutshell, is about how "apocalyptic gospel" is not an oxymoron - and then made the people sing the refrain to REM's "End of the World as we Know It." Such fun.

So, all of that is to say that you should totally read this book. Good luck getting it at Amazon, because Jericho Books is an imprint of Hachette. But Barnes and Noble, Hearts and Minds, and your local book shop are all great options.

But the other thing I'd like to do with this blog post is draw your attention to the author and blogger Ellen Painter Dollar. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that I wouldn't have been invited to contribute to Disquiet Time if Ellen hadn't introduced me to Jennifer Grant and the other gifted members of the Ink Collective. Ellen approaches social networking with a spirit of generosity, mutual respect, and collaboration. I try to follow her lead.

The second reason I'm singing the praises of Ellen Painter Dollar is that I just read her chapter in Disquiet Time, "Broken and Bent." It's a three-tissue essay, full of wisdom, beauty, and pain - like much of Ellen's work. When you're done with Disquiet Time, check out Ellen's first book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.

October 18, 2014

On Ebola

It seems like most people are either panicked about Ebola, or irritated by the people who are panicked about Ebola.

I am concerned, and I am sad. 

I am something else, too - something I'm not sure I have the word to describe. Shaken, I guess. Shaken that I have not one but two personal connections to the US cases. 

Three Kent State University employees are in quarantine, since they are family members who were in contact with the nurse who had contracted it while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan in Texas. Since I'm a KSU alum, I've been getting the updates from the university regarding the situation. It sounds like they are handling it well.

And then Rev. George Mason, the pastor of the grieving and quarantined fiancé of the late Mr. Duncan, was an early ministry mentor for me. We were connected through the Fund for Theological Education.

It startles me that I have two personal connections to this crisis, which had seemed so remote. The degrees of separation fall away.

But those two personal connections are mere coincidence. The connection that is cutting a bit deeper is less personal than universal. As with any tragedy, I can't help but process the Ebola epidemic through the eyes of a mother.

And that's why I found myself suddenly overcome this morning while I sat with my family in the coffee shop at Mariano's, listening to live polka music that was part of the Octoberfest we discovered in full swing when we stopped by for some post-soccer hot chocolate. 

I was thinking about this article I read, about how eleven of twelve nurses died of Ebola after they cared for a baby who had it (despite having tested negative for the virus). 

"They couldn't just watch a baby sitting alone in a box."

And I was thinking about how not long ago I wrote that a "deep maternal instinct kicks in for me when my children are sick. I love them even more than I did before they started yakking, and my empathy is so fierce it's almost as if I'm ill, too." 

And I was thinking how you would have to lock me in a closet and throw away the key to stop me from taking care of my children, no matter the consequences.

And then I wasn't thinking anymore, but weeping for the mothers who weren't just thinking theoretically about Ebola while their children waited for the face-painting to begin.

October 9, 2014

What's "Saving" My Life Right Now

Barbara Brown Taylor has written and talked about that question, "What's saving your life right now?" and I've honestly always been a bit cranky about it. Because, JESUS. While I do confess that it is Jesus who is propping me up and propelling me along, it's clear that the Blessed Savior is working in partnership. These are some of the things that have been extremely important to me lately.

In no particular order:

1. Yoga. I have gone to thirty-six yoga classes since the beginning of June. I'm hooked. I'm hooked on a physical and emotional level, but I'm also hooked on a spiritual level. I'm an unrepentant syncretist; I can't help but weave my own personal spiritual practices into my experience of yoga. As often as not, the intention I set at the beginning of class is to practice worshipfully, to pray, to experience joy in the Lord. Amazing. The pose that gets to me the most is Humble Warrior. It is the metaphorical posture with which I am called to engage the world.

2. Spiritual direction. I have an incredible Spiritual Director at the Well, which is a spirituality ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It has been a life-changing process. I started going in March and I am beginning to feel like these months of praying and seeking wisdom with more intention are beginning take root.

3. Todoist. This is new. Like, two days old. But I was feeling awfully freaked out about my overabundance of work, family, and writing commitments this fall. I set myself up to be far too stressed out. I've been using an adaptation of Tsh Oxenreider's Daily Docket for years now, and it's served me well. But I have to say, the format and syncability (is that a word? no? oh well.) of Todoist is making me feel a whole lot better about my time and task management.

4. Orthotics, sort of. I started having terrible foot pain earlier this year, a sort of "welcome to your mid-thirties" birthday gift. I have a charming and enthusiastic podiatrist (if one must have a podiatrist, it's best to have one with charm and enthusiasm) who fitted me for orthotics. I can't quite say that they are saving my life yet as I still have some pain, and I've struggled mightily to find (cute) shoes that work with them. I passed my beloved Frye boots on to my sister because there is no way I can wear them with the orthotics. I am deeply hopeful that the pair of cowboy boots that are currently in the mail will work. It would do wonders for my mental health to have a pair of proper cowboy boots. Once the boot situation has been worked out, I'll cross out the "sort of".

5. Marriage & family. I am a person who needs to be married, who wants to be married, who deeply values commitment and fidelity and sticktoitiveness and delight in the covenant of marriage. Neither Ben nor I are the easiest people on earth to be married to, but we are - if this makes sense - extremely married. And I am extremely grateful for this. And to be partners in parenting our girls - oh, those girls. They are growing up beautifully. (Appendix: not dealing with diapers anymore is also saving my life.)

6. Friends. It sounds braggy, and I don't mean it that way, but I have a ton of friends. And it's not a matter of quality over quantity; I have a ton of great friends whom I absolutely cherish. I love my evangelical friends, and my pastor friends, and my neighbor friends, and my church friends, and my mentor friends, and my dance mom friends.

7. Vocation. I've been thinking a lot lately about how I had a crisis of vocation several years ago; I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a pastor anymore. In 2009 there was a sort of holy conspiracy to renew my sense of calling, and I'm so glad for it.

September 22, 2014

Moms in Faith (a "how-to" of sorts)

A couple of Fridays ago, our Moms in Faith group at First Congregational Church of Western Springs had our fifth fall kickoff. This ministry, which had been talked about and hoped for but not implemented until shortly after I arrived in 2010, has been remarkable. It is a real source of strength and joy for a lot of mothers -and, by extension, a lot of families.

I'm asked quite frequently about advice and resources for starting a mom's group, so I thought I'd share a few things that have worked in our context.

1. Offer excellent childcare
Seriously. You can have pretty invitations and an awesome speaker and a lovely breakfast spread, but if you are expecting moms to line up their own babysitters in order to come, you're going to get nowhere fast. From the start, the church has underwritten childcare costs for the program - anywhere from two-six fairly paid childcare workers (depending on registration numbers). Obviously this can get pricey fast; it may be that you need to charge a fee to cover the costs, and that's fine. I also think it's important to run background checks and offer any relevant trainings to the workers, and to make sure that the nursery space is clean and safe. Several of our childcare workers have been working for us for years, and are known and loved by the kids. On related note, offering childcare at the church also allows the kids to know and love one another, and to have their own fun while the moms are meeting.

2. Establish a culture of hospitality and trust
It's one thing to say that everyone is welcome; it's another thing to actively practice hospitality toward  one another. We've always taken turns bringing treats. When we say that we'll pray for one another, we mean it. We hold confidences in confidence. We organize meal trains when families have new babies or experience crises. We try to be intentional about following up with people if we haven't seen them for awhile. Once a year or so I say that we are so thrilled to see you if this is your one chance all week to wear dangly earrings and cute shoes, and we are so thrilled to see you if the only way you could make it here was unshowered in yoga pants. We welcome church members and non-church members warmly, and don't have any hidden agenda. It's true that several non-members have gone on to join the church, but it's also true that we have always had many moms who are part of other churches or are happily unaffiliated, and they are every bit as much a part of Moms in Faith.

3. Generate peer leadership
During our second year in Moms in Faith, the co-founder (a lay member of the church) and I organized a Steering Team to help make decisions and attend to tasks related to running the program. This group has vetted books, tracked book orders, planned mission projects, coordinated hospitality, kept up with publicity, organized childcare, managed budgets, and led small group discussions. For that last part, I offered a couple of trainings for small group facilitation. We've tried to be careful about having healthy leadership turnover; generally, people serve for two to three years.

4. Have traditions, but be flexible
During our first year, we were all in one group. We started with a devotional (I often share things from [in]courage or Caryn Rivadeneira's Known and Loved, and then went around the circle answering an opening question. We talked about whatever the reading had been that week, trying to be mindful about making sure the extroverts didn't overwhelm the introverts (for this, I always use myself as an example because I am an extrovert who is entirely capable of causing introverts to collapse from interpersonal exhaustion if I'm not careful). Then, we went around the circle again and shared joys and concerns, and closed with prayer. That was great - except that by the end of the year we were a bit too big. So even though it completely intimidated me to tinker with a good thing, during our second year we started in that opening circle (devotion, opening question) - but then we split into two smaller groups, one discussing a parenting book and one discussing another book, and closed with joys and concerns in our small groups. Then we had more people, so we split into three groups, following the same pattern. For one session we had so many people registered we did four groups, but that turned out to be an overstretch.

For this fifth year, we've (almost) completely shaken things up. Many of our original members have moved on to other groups or commitments, though we've also welcomed quite a few new participants. We're back to one large discussion circle twice a month, a fellowship breakfast where we'll discuss videos from a Work of the People series about prayer in small groups around tables, and then - this is so new! and exciting! - once a month we're welcoming a guest speaker. To cover our extra costs, we've initiated a program fee to participate for the first time (though in the past, we frequently collected money to cover books). In addition to making it a little easier for busy moms to miss a week or two without getting behind on a long book discussion, we've also found a way to offer multiple formats that appeal to a broad spectrum of people, all within the same program. At least that's what we hope will happen; we haven't actually had a fellowship breakfast or speaker day yet this program year! The point, though, is that we've been actively responding to what people need and want from the group, and have taken risks even as we've kept up some of the rituals that feel central to the spirit and ethos of the ministry.

5. Know your people, and select material accordingly
One of the most challenging parts of facilitating this program has always been finding the right materials. After several years of reading and discussing books together, we're reading blog posts and a handful of studies from The Thoughtful Christian. This has made it quite a bit easier, though I don't for a minute regret that we read all those books together. (Okay, maybe I regret one or two.) It is a tricky, tricky thing to pick a parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. And then, because inevitably the moms will get worn out on talking about parenting and remember that, oh yeah, we can still talk about other things! - it is also a tricky, tricky thing to pick a non-parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. Plus, we want it to be rooted in the Christian faith, but we don't want it to be rooted in an expression of the Christian faith that is so culturally and theologically conservative that it doesn't resonate.

All that being said, these are some of the books I recommend for this kind of group. We've done most but not all of them; most we discussed week by week, either a chapter or section at a time. A few we discussed in a one-off evening summer book club. They're in no particular order.

In the Midst of Chaos
Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People

The Five Love Languages of Children
Building Resilience in Children and Teens
The Hole in our Gospel

Notes from a Blue Bike
Momumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family
Eat With Joy
Love Wins
Siblings Without Rivalry
Carry On, Warrior

You'll note that some very-well regarded Christian parenting books are not on this list. Grace-Based Parenting is a perfect example. I just could not quite picture it translating well to our progressive United Church of Christ context. It presumes an evangelical subculture that we're simply not a part of. That being said, if that's your context, I give that one two thumbs up as well, as well as Sally Clarkson's books. Know your people, and select material accordingly.

If I were consulting with a start-up mothers' group in a mainline Christian church, the two books I'd recommend starting with - and in this order - are Hopes and Fears and Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids (which is kind of a terrible title and the cover is even worse, but this is my all-time favorite practical parenting book). You can find a free discussion guide for Hopes and Fears online; Say Goodbye has questions at the end of each chapter. Sometimes it's enough to simply ask, "what stood out to you?" and let the conversation flow from there.

6. Do other stuff
This is kind of the "junk drawer" of this how-to. Invite everyone to a Moms Night Out, including the working moms if your regular meetings are during the day. Go on retreats. Get your kids together for church Valentine and Halloween parties. Engage in mission projects together, either during your regular meeting time or as special events. Do an evening summer book club. Go to Family Camp together. Nurture meaningful Christian community.

Hope this is helpful!

Disqus for any day a beautiful change