Spirit of Embodiment

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Last week I talked a little bit about how I am trying to be more healthy and strong and one of the ways I am doing that is by going to the gym.
I’m there four-five days a week and each time, while the majority of the exercises we all share together, there are a few movements where you can choose which equipment you use based on your level of experience and comfort.
This past week at the gym I moved from the beginner to the more advanced movements in our exercises. And, whew, I can feel it.
My back is still a bit stiff, my shoulders ache… My dad keeps telling me that I shouldn’t get old because this kind of soreness will just keep coming, but unfortunately that’s just a natural process I’m pretty sure I don’t have the power to stop.

Many of you have joined in prayers for my dad in the past couple of weeks. He is someone who works incredibly hard… always has… but who hasn’t always taken the time to stop and take care of his body. He gets so focused on the work that is before him and us Ziskovskys also have been known to have a bit of stubbornness when it comes to our diets.
He developed a sore on his big toe, which became a deeper infection, which eventually led to an amputation of that digit. He is recovering very well – body, mind, and spirit.

You know, sometimes we think of our bodies as just the physical container that holds the real “us.” We imagine that our lives will continue without the burden of flesh someday – either through technology or computers or floating around in heavenly places.

But the scripture constantly reminds us that our bodies are incredibly important.
They are an integral part of who God created us to be.
Our flesh and blood are not earthly things that we have to shed before we get to heaven… according to scripture – these bodies go with us – in one form or another.

Some of our sloppy thinking around bodies comes from a misunderstanding of the writings of Paul. In Romans 8:5-6, we read:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Our modern ears known what flesh is… our skin and bones… those things that ache and touch and feel and move around.
We know what our spirit is… our souls, minds, that of God which dwells within us.
So, bodies must be bad and spirit must be good.

Except, the word that gets translated “flesh”… sarx… has more than one meaning. It can mean our skin and bones – but it is also used to describe the lesser parts of ourselves – the animal nature, the cravings, the wretched parts of ourselves that keep holding on to sin no matter how hard we try to do what is right.
That is what Paul is talking about… not these good, old, sometimes worn-out bodies of ours.
In fact, this passage from Romans is a reminder that God’s abundant life, that God’s very Spirit dwells within these bodies. Far from being an argument against our earthly life – this is a challenge to live up to the potential of what we can in fact DO with God’s spirit living within us.

So this morning, we go all the way back to the beginning, to that time when God made the heavens and the earth.
As Mel shared with us, Genesis tells us that God formed humanity from the dust of the earth. We were made out of the same stuff as all of the rest of creation.
But then God did something amazing.
God breathed into us.
The breath of life filled us.
The Spirit of the Lord entered our lives and these bodies became God’s body. You and I became the hands and the feet of God in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we have responded perfectly. After all, one of the first things that Adam and Eve did with the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them was to focus more on their own desires than what God wanted them to do. They lived according to the flesh, the sarx, and allowed temptation to distract them.
They sought their own comfort and pleasure before the well-being of the world or God’s creation. Their sin had consequences for not only themselves, but all of creation.

But, our scriptures tell us, God found another way to empower our bodies with the divine spirit…
God came and took on our flesh.
In that tiny child in Bethlehem, in the incarnation of Jesus, the very Word of God took on our human life.
Every aspect of our bodily existence was experienced by God.
Love and loss.
Stubbed toes and broken promises.
Laughter and tears.
Fear and grief.
Jesus experienced the fullness of our lives – and the ultimate depths of suffering and death.
And then, Jesus gave the Spirit to all who would be his disciples.

All summer long, we have been talking about the blessings of that gift and what it looks like when the Spirit dwells within us. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of love and joy, peace and kindness, goodness and gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, community, surrender, and patience.
But none of it happens without our bodies.
The Spirit cannot move without these hands and feet, eyes and ears.
When we let the Spirit of God become incarnate in OUR lives, and to fill up OUR bodies, then we are empowered to live very differently in this world.
We are set free from sin and death.
We are set free to love God more than we love ourselves.
We are set free to participate in God’s saving work in this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about what difference it has made that we spent this whole summer talking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve been wondering what it might look like to really add flesh and blood to these words that we have been saying all year long.
And I realized as I have watched not only the devastation of Harvey, but also the outpouring of human kindness just how important and precious our bodies really are.
Perhaps you were as heartbroken as I when you saw the nursing home residents under water…
and then wept for relief when I knew they had been rescued.
All across the region, people pushed
and carried
and turned to one another for support.
and now countless folks whose homes have been destroyed turn to one another and to us.
What does it mean to be the church in the wake of something like Harvey? Or the landslides earlier this year in Sierra Leone? Or the flooding in India?
PUT ON UMCOR HAT –
It means that we roll up our sleeves and we get to work.
We send flood buckets to help clean up.
We turn our sanctuaries into shelters
We build up trained helpers who have the knowledge and skills to truly make a difference.
and through a simple thing like toothbrushes and soap, we help take care of people’s bodies.

Today – you’ll have the opportunity to give a little bit extra towards disaster response by writing in the memo of your check or putting in one of the envelopes in the pew, or giving online towards disaster relief.

But, I also want you to hear two specific invitations… ways you can use YOUR bodies to make a difference.
First… if you feel called to go and help and put to use your hands and feet there is an opportunity to join one of the Early Response Teams. There are a few fliers on the back table about a training that is happening THIS coming Saturday right here in Des Moines.
Second… as a church, I want to challenge us to help take care of some of those bodies by putting together health kits. Beginning NEXT Sunday, we will have a bulletin board right outside of the sanctuary where you can indicate which specific items you will commit to bringing as we first gather and then assemble these kits.
Then, for our Fifth Sunday Service Project in October we’ll put all of these kits together and send them out with the Thanksgiving Ingathering.

Whenever we let the Spirit of God live within us, the transformation of the world begins.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Momentum for Life: Eating & Exercise

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About ten years ago, I was living in Nashville and was in the middle of my seminary journey. I was overwhelmed by studying and coursework and I was working full time at a local church as a part of an internship. I was burning the candle at both ends and learning a lot… but I was worn out a lot, too.

One afternoon, I stepped on the scale at my parent’s house… I didn’t have a scale myself… and I was blown away by the number listed right by my toes. It was the most I had ever weighed in my life.

I had been so busy doing all of this work that I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself. I was using food to get me through the day. I wasn’t taking time to exercise. And part of the reason I felt so worn out wasn’t all the work… it was that I wasn’t giving my body the right kind of energy to sustain the work.

I started preparing healthier meals in smarter ways – cooking up a whole crockpot on the weekend to last me through the rest of the week.

The next week, I started going to the gym with a friend of mine.

And suddenly, I discovered I wasn’t nearly so tired. I could focus more and tasks didn’t take as long. My mind was more nimble. And my soul felt more whole than it had in a long time.

 

We have been exploring Michael Slaughter’s acronym “DRIVE” over these past few weeks. He is inviting us to think about all of the things that give us momentum to keep following Jesus Christ.

D – for Devotion… for that personal one-on-one time with God in scripture and prayer

R – for a Readiness to Learn… for the ways in which we allow ourselves to be taught by God and one another.

I – for an Investment in Relationships with other people who are on this journey with us – through mentoring and being mentored and honoring our families.

V – for Vision… and understanding that we have a clear sense of where we are going… together!

And lastly E.

E is for Eating and Exercise… but when I look at this topic, it is really about how we honor and care for our bodies so that they have the energy and the focus they need to keep making this journey of discipleship.

 

Ten years ago, when I decided to focus on being healthier, I found a community of support online. There was a website that I visited every single day and I logged what I ate and how long I worked out and I found that there were kindred spirits who could encourage me or help me resist temptation or who needed MY help in their own journey.

I’m not sure I could have done it without them.

That sense of community is important when it comes to our bodies. Because we as Christians do not believe that we exist as individuals completely set apart from other people. This walk of discipleship is one that we take with others.

And Paul agrees. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he talks a lot about our bodies and what we do with them.

Before today’s reading, Paul writes about how the community should hold itself accountable for faithful living.

He doesn’t want us to live apart from the world – completely separate from those who engage in unhealthy activities. We can’t! It’s impossible to totally shut ourselves off from every sinful behavior we see.

But as we live in the midst of our communities, those of us who claim to follow Christ can hold one another accountable for what we eat and drink, who we sleep with, what we say.

Why should we do these things? What does it matter?

 

As we heard in our reading today:

It may be true that the body is only a temporary thing, but that’s no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex. Since the Master honors you with a body, honor God with YOUR body! …

Or didn’t you realize that your body is a [temple, a] sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? (1 Cor 6:13-20)

 

As we think about the role of eating and exercise in our journey of discipleship, there are two basic ideas at play here.

 

First: life itself is a precious gift. These bodies are a precious gift from God.

On Wednesday of this week, we will gather once again for Ash Wednesday and the putting on of ashes reminds us that from the dust of the earth we were formed. We were made by our Creator who breathed into us the breath of life. Every life, every body has value.

And when God took on our human flesh and was born as one of us, Immanuel, he came so that we might have life and life abundant ( John 10:10).

The very concept of momentum reinforces the fact that we need energy to go the distance. We need a healthy system of food and relationships, active lifestyles and spiritual care in order to sustain long and abundant life.

A team of researchers discovered in 2004 that there were small communities around the world where people lived measureably longer. In what they termed “Blue Zones” folks reached the age 100 at a rate 10 times greater than the United States.

What was the difference? What made their communities healthier?

Nine characteristics were discovered… characteristics that I think echo what we have heard from Slaughter during this series:

  1. They exercise as a part of daily living
  2. They understand their purpose – they have a vision of what we are here to do
  3. They down shift – they find ways to relieve stress and take Sabbath
  4. They abide by the 80% rule – they stop eating when they are 80% full.
  5. They eat more plants – they sometimes eating meat only once or twice a week
  6. They have a drink with friends –moderation and community are key!
  7. They belong to a faith community – attending a church service four times a month adds 14 years to life expectancy (REPEAT!)
  8. They put their loved ones first – they care for their elders and invest in their children.
  9. They choose a healthy tribe – they surround themselves with people who support healthy behaviors

Do any of those sound familiar to our D.R.I.V.E. acronym?

By being part of a faith community that supports a healthy lifestyle, we can help one another, in the words of the psalmist, “experience Jerusalem’s goodness your whole life long…. And see your grandchildren.”

 

But we also have to remember a second very important point. Our bodies are a gift… but they don’t belong to us. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

“Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? They physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20)

As Slaughter writes, “You cannot be a healthy influencer and agent of kingdom change if you are not demonstrating the reality of the kingdom of God within yourself.”

We have to live what we are teaching and preaching. Our lives, our bodies, witness to the faith we follow.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, after all. And if you are not taking care of yourself, you will not have the energy you need to serve where God calls you.

But this also means that advocating for health and the care of other’s bodies needs to be a part of our ministry.

One of my leadership commitments in the community is that I am on the board of the Des Moines Area Religious Council. Every month, we as a church contribute food and resources to DMARC for use in their 12 food pantries across the greater Des Moines area.

A few years ago, DMARC made a conscious decision to change the food it was providing to clients. Researchers from ISU had helped the organization to discover that rates of diabetes and obesity were much higher in the clients we served than the general population. So a very intentional shift was made to provide more whole grains, to focus on fruits in their natural juices and not in heavy syrup, or vegetables with no salt added. The shift means that the food we provide is a bit more expensive, but contributes to a healthier overall lifestyle.

 

I’m going to close with a confession.

I have personally not been living out these principles lately. I stepped on the scale this winter and found myself back up to where I was about 10 years ago. Actually, a couple of pounds higher.

We are entering the season of Lent… a time of fasting and transformation. A time to recommit ourselves to the journey of discipleship. A time of accountability.

People all around this world give up indulgences for this six-week season, but I, personally, have felt convicted by the reality that I cannot serve God if I do not have the internal resources and energy to do so. So my commitment this Lent is to a healthier lifestyle… and I hope you will help hold me accountable to that… to eating better and exercising more.

And I hope that you will think about the momentum of our faith journeys we have discussed over the past month. Do you need to spend more time in devotion? Do you need to practice humility and an openness to learning? Do you need to invest deeper in relationships with your family or community? Do you need to spend time discovering the vision of God’s future for your life? Do you need to re-evaluate your eating and exercise habits?

This is the perfect moment to shift gears. This is a perfect time to create a new habit. This Lent is God’s gift to you and to this church as together we follow Jesus in the walk of discipleship.

Sitting REALLY close #NaBloPoMo

Yesterday morning in worship, I had the opportunity to sit in the pews at the first church I served. While I had a part to play, I also got to sit back and worship with the people.

A toddler was next to me and at one point, he leaned in really close, and propped up against me. He sat there for some time, flipping through the hymnal upside down, completely unaware of the fact I was a total stranger to him. The lack of boundaries spoke to a sense of safety and comfort in the walls of the building we were celebrating.

This morning, I was on a flight and the entire time, my leg and arm and side touched the person next to me. Seats keep getting smaller and we keep getting bigger, after all. Perhaps it is the assumed loss of personal space on a flight that allows one to sit, so utterly close, and not be uncomfortable.

But I am also aware that there is something profoundly human about touch. It is real connection. You cannot ignore the other exists when you are touching.

At a meeting on Saturday, we expressed the prayers of our hearts as we remembered our baptism. Each had the opportunity to come to the font, touch the water and speak.

Yet, I also recognize now, a loss of an opportunity to touch another’s head or hand in the process.

Some of our prayers were so personal and deep that we needed to touch one another to offer comfort, strength, hope, solidarity. Unprompted, we neglected to do so.

How can we share such physical proximity with strangers and not do so with those with whom we are treading this journey of faith?

I found myself fighting an urge to get up and embrace a friend as she prayed, unsure of why I refrained. Our vulnerability in those moments begged for touch, for human connection. When I finally did so, rushing towards her, pulling her in my arms, even if for a brief moment, I felt like even though things in this world are utterly broken, all shall be well. Not in a pie-in-the sky naïve way, but in the hope and coherence that allows us to take one step forward.

Today, I gather with colleagues to talk about the role of religion in public health. Our bodies, physical touch, acknowledging the dignity of another person have to play a role.

Hold someone’s hand today. Touch their shoulder. Make eye contact. BE the BODY if CHRIST to one another.

My Book of Resolutions

Resolution 2013.1

WHEREAS, my change in job has caused some stress in my family life

WHEREAS, stability is sometimes more important than flexibility

WHEREAS, I need to remember this job is a marathon, not a sprint

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will prayerfully (and with consulatation from my husband) discern my schedule in the future – especially planned time away

LET IT FUTHER BE RESOLVED, that I will ask for help when I need it, delegate where I can, and remember that giving 100% to this work is often about empowering other people to serve as well.

 

Resolution 2013.2

WHEREAS, being on the road has meant less time for self care

WHEREAS, I need to serve God with mind, soul and BODY

WHEREAS, health requires sleep and exercise and good food.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I am giving up fast food.

LET IT BE FURTHER RESOLVED, that I will exercise 4x/week.

 

Resolution 2013.3

WHEREAS, in extension ministry I am without a church home

WHEREAS, I took opportunities this fall to travel on weekends and rest from the Sunday routine in one particular church

WHEREAS, the discipline kind of requires that I find a church

WHEREAS, it is good for my soul to worship with others on a regular basis and not just sporadically with different folks

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will find a church home by the end of January.

 

Resolution 2013.4

WHEREAS, I have lost my weekly bible study group in Marengo.

WHEREAS, I am not preaching every Sunday and therefore not doing regular textual study, either.

WHEREAS, regular time with the scriptures is good for my mind and my spiritual life.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I will have coffee every week with a good friend of mine and the Bible

competing goods and womens’ bodies…

Lately, womens’ bodies and health care and pregnancy and contraception and abortion and religious freedom and laws and the kitchen sink have been tossed around and talked about ad naseum.

My twitter feed blew up with critiques and praises of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  My newsfeed from facebook was littered with comments about rights to health care and freedom of religion. Over breakfast, having coffee, in person, on the phone, the issues these questions raise are all around me.

And I guess why this is so exasperating for me, personally, is that I can’t figure out what to say and where to stand.  I see all sorts of different sides to these issues.  There are a thousand shades of grey to understand in the conversations and multiple “goods” that unfortunately do not play well together. And so when I’m asked my opinion or what I think about it, it would probably take three hours just to lay out all of the pieces of the puzzle… and that doesn’t include any time spent trying to actually give an answer.

Most often, however, the arguments are boiled down to two positions.

On the one side – let’s just call it what it is – the left side – the argument comes from a question of whether or not people have access to resources they need to care for their bodies, make informed decisions, and lead autonomous lives. It is about rights and conscience.

On the other side – the right side – the argument begins with the beliefs/traditions/morals that institutions hold about our bodies.  It is also about rights and conscience.

You could start trying to pick a side by asking yourself -well, which is more important?  An individual’s rights? or an institution’s beliefs?

But then that leads to questions about what happens when one individuals conscience leads them to harm another? What happens when an institution’s conscience leads them to harm another institution? or an individual? or a group of individuals? Who/what is more valued? Which institution gets the say? The government? A church? Are any particular persons more “persons” than others?

(we aren’t even dealing with details, yet… just the big picture of rights)

Take the issue of birth control and the mandate (or whatever it is) that all institutions will have to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees through their health care.  It doesn’t apply to churches, but it would to educational institutions, hospitals, etc. that are religiously affiliated.  Which puts the issue of institutional vs. individual right smack dab in the center of the debate for an institution like the Roman Catholic Church that does not see contraceptives as a moral good.  It prevents life, therefore they are against it. I can completely understand and respect an institution’s beliefs and values and want them to have the freedom to stand by them.  But I would also like for the many Catholics who actually use birth control pill to have the ability to have it affordably.  I would like for the teenagers covered by their parents insurance who use birth control pills to mitigate acne to get it for a good price.  I would like the women who suffer with long and painful periods to be able to make a choice and have it covered by their employeers insurance if they need to use the birth control pill or IUD or other method to help regulate their cycles.  I recently read that over 50% of the women who use the birth control pill do so for a reason besides pregnancy prevention.  That number absolutely floored me.

As I heard on NPR this afternoon – if it is an argument about religious freedom… the bishops win.  If it is an argument about accessibility of contraceptives for individuals… then the administration wins. I want both institutions and individuals to have the freedom to make informed decisions and to stand by their convictions.  But in these particular issues, we just can’t have it both ways. So which is more important?  Religious freedom? or access to health care? Pressed to make a choice, I take the fifth.

I think I struggle also with the issue of abortion because it is not clearly a black/white issue… as much as people try to frame it that way.

The official United Methodist position regarding the issue can be found in The Book of Discipline:

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born.

Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.

We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.)

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

I appreciate the nuance that our position holds.  I believe it tries to hold up the goods of not only life, but also the good of family, responsible parenting, a woman’s body.  It also leads us into prayer about “the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion.”

One of my most memorable experiences in seminary was attending the Cal Turner Center for Moral Ethics retreat.  Graduate students from five different fields were brought together to discuss issues that we all will face in our career fields.  I was surrounded by students from the law, business, medical and nursing school – along with my colleagues from the divinity school.  The presenter that really helped me to understand the “gray” area of the abortion question was Dr. Frank Boehm, who had written a book called, “Doctors Cry, Too.”  He talked about his experiences in the emergency room treating young women who had either tried to perform abortive measures on themselves or had recieved “back-alley” abortions.  They found themselves in the E.R. with deadly infections, rips and tears, and irreparable damage. Some died.  He struggled with his convictions about life and the pragmatic reality that safe and legal ways of terminating a pregnancy were needed or these women would continue to use whatever means necessary.  His story has caused me to truly not have an answer when asked if I am pro-life or pro-choice.  I both want to uphold the sanctity of life and want those who see no other options to have safe and legal options available to them.  I also firmly seek to provide options and resources and hope to those who find themselves in those positions.

The UMC position also tries to bring some nuance to the very term “abortion.” We make a distinction between the stages at which procedures are performed. But mentioned here in this piece is no mention of the “morning-after pill.”   Some who are pro-life today would oppose use of the morning-after pill because it would prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg.  And yet, most morning-after pills are merely strong doses of the same ingredients found in other contraceptives. In reality, many contraceptives are effective in part because of this reason.  At the same time there is national conversation about mandating the coverage of contraceptives in health care, states like Mississippi have proposed legislation that take the definition of abortion to extremes that could potentially make said contraceptives illegal. That measure was NOT passed thanks to 58% of the voters of the state rejecting the measure. We have to have these conversations because even if and when we agree that protecting life is good, we don’t agree about what life is and when it begins.  Fertilization? Implantation? when an embryo becomes a fetus? According to some places in the Old Testament, life was determined by the breath.  We have talked about life ceasing with heart beats, so does it also begin with them? What about brain waves? It is a complicated and difficult conversation with no easy answers.

In all of these questions, there are goods that we are trying to achieve.  Goods like health, life, equality, choice, accessibility, convictions, morality, community, and accountability. And unfortunately, sometimes those goods compete and we have to choose between them.  And sometimes our decisions are merely choices between evils rather than goods. I see so many different sides and truly faithful and good people coming from all different perspectives.  My number one hope is that we might have these conversations with civility, respect, and a willingness to listen to the heart and experience of another person.

I just wish that these debates weren’t always about women’s bodies.  It is frustrating that we live in a world in which so many of these complicated issues have to do with what women can and cannot do with their bodies and have so little to do with the physical bodies of adult men.  I sometimes wonder if the conversations would be different.

Both/And #reverb10

Being a fan of postmodern/emergent sorts of thoughts, I dig the “both/and.”  Down with dichotomies. Yay for integration.

This year, when did you feel the most integrated with your body? Did you have a moment where there wasn’t mind and body, but simply a cohesive YOU, alive and present?

What an amazing question!

Looking back on the journey of this year, there are two moments that really stand out as moments when I moved past the artificial distinction between my spirit and body and really claimed the fullness of who God created me to be.

The first would be my ordination.  So much of that day was surreal.  It was so large and expansive and crowded and yet intimate and personal.  My biological family and my church family came together to celebrate the day with me.  And kneeling up there with my mentors pressed in close around me, with three bishops’ hands grabbing a hold of me, I felt bodily the spirit that is within me.  “Take authority!” came the voice and the spiritual calling and the physical person became one.  The feel of the linen cassocks, the brilliant reds of the stoles, the warmth of the hands, the weight, the smell of bodies and perfumes, the light, the word being proclaimed, the touch of the bible under my fingers… each of those experiences of my senses was intensely spiritual and holy.
The second moment is a bit more casual.  At a training session for the church, five folks gathered together at lunch.  We were lamenting the fact that we had rushed through the process and felt like we were fumbling.  We had come up with a theme – a launching point – a framework – for this process we were leading the congregation through and it had flopped.  It was forced.  It didn’t work.  And we let go of it.
We sat there at lunch, near the warmth of the fire blazing at Pictured Rocks Camp, and we let the Spirit take over.  As we waited and listened and ate – we realized that eating is a spiritual discipline for our congregation.  Food is holy.  It brings us together.  The physical and the spiritual are one.  And when we got our own perspectives out of the way and made room for God it was amazing.  We transformed our entire process during that half an hour.

My Calling…

While some people are born into a church and live their entire lives in that context, my faith journey didn’t begin until my sophomore year in high school. My family has never been extremely religious; although both of my parents grew up within the United Methodist Church they did not make it a priority within their relationship or for our family. Yet during the middle of high school we decided to start attending church. I was baptized and confirmed at a United Methodist Chruch as a junior and quickly found myself in leadership positions within the church, serving on committees and eventually even co-chairing the Youth Annual Conference.

My experiences within the church planted the seeds for my calling. One of the values instilled early in youth group was that Christianity comes in many shapes and sizes. We sang Native American hymns and looked for God in secular music; we learned that asking questions was as much a sign of faith as having answers; we traveled across the country and as far away as Peru and experienced how God was working in all parts of the world. In Peru, I experienced true forgiveness for the first time on a mission trip. After our covenant was broken one night, we came together as a group and prayed over what the “punishment” should be. Reflecting on our own sins, we realized the forgiveness freely offered to us through Christ was meant to be shared. Grace has since been the foundation of my theology.

I later attended Simpson College, where I majored in religion and speech and rhetoric communications. My experience with the Religious Life Council (RLC) put me into ministry, bringing out my gifts of listening, speaking, leading and planning, as well as giving me amazing mentors. My class work in the religion department, as well as communications cultivated a quest for more knowledge and a deeper understanding of my relationship with God. They also led me to see the importance of diversity and to value the story and experience of an individual or group. I was challenged in my beliefs, which only served to strengthen them. RLC helped me to explore discipleship in entirely new ways: covenant discipleship groups provided accountability; a retreat to a monastery opened my eyes to the liturgical hours; communion became a weekly ritual.

I was also involved with a group (the Progressive Action Coalition or PAC) that encouraged awareness and action on behalf of political, environmental, and social injustices. I went to protests and rallies, volunteered, researched various topics and was enabled to speak with and teach others. We even lived in cardboard boxes for a week in November during National Homelessness Awareness Week. Issues like poverty became real, had faces, and forced me to live out the Christian faith I had previously only thought about.

But there were also difficult times. I helped students from both the chapel and PAC create a memorial of crosses during the initial weeks of the war in Iraq, providing a space to express the emotions and feelings surrounding us, not intending to make an anti-war or pro-war statement. However, many students on campus were upset by the display. The first night, the crosses were torn down and the broken pieces used to spell out “God Bless the USA.” Realizing I stood on one side of the issue and that others held the exact opposite viewpoint, both for religious reasons, was difficult and I struggled with how to be a leader for the RLC and stand up for what I believed. Above all, it helped me realize that negotiating religious views on a political issue, whatever it may be, is never easy. We cannot avoid them; we must speak the truth to one another in love and through our communal process of discernment, move forward with what we feel is God’s will. In my later work in church ministry, these divides have come up again, specifically around the issues of homosexuality; I have gained more confidence in navigating these conflicts and helping the various parties listen to one another.

I have often related to the call of Samuel, because it took me a long time to hear my call to ministry as something authentically of God. While I had dismissed those who encouraged me into ministry, hearing the Samuel scripture read at an Exploration event opened my eyes. I can still hear the voice of the Latina woman who read that morning as I finally realized my calling was from God. My decision to go to divinity school and continue in this process has been my way of saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School, an institution known as the Schola Prophetarum or “School of the Prophets.” The Divinity School’s history of being a driving force in the fight against racism and segregation in the South showed me it was a place where I could learn how to speak out of my faith to the world. Yet it also has a very strong academic reputation, which was important to me.

My experience at Vanderbilt helped me tie these pieces together, particularly through field education and my United Methodist courses. Wesley’s vision of uniting “knowledge and vital piety” is fundamentally about the importance of inward and outward expressions of faith. The language of the academy helped me understand the tension I experienced at Simpson between “religious” and “activist” communities as a struggle with practice and belief and gave me the theological resources to navigate and unite the two.

It is the embodiment of our faith that demonstrates to the world that we are Christians, not simply our assent to a belief. I learned at Vanderbilt how important bodies are to theology, especially in contexts of suffering and illness, and how we need a church that is willing to address not only the spiritual, but also the mental and physical aspects of our human condition.

On a very personal level, I have experienced how taking seriously that embodiment is necessary for ministry. My grandmother died at home after spending months under hospice care. The ability for our family to be with one another and for us to experience “dying well” was a blessing and it would not have been possible without hospice. Completing Clinical Pastoral Education in a Nashville hospital helped me to understand the power of pain, but also the power of touch and presence. Shortly afterwards, my grandfather died after months in a hospital (in many ways the opposite experience of my grandma). I was far from home, but the times I was able to be there and minister to my family and my grandfather were meaningful.

Recognizing that it is not always possible, I feel called to help create community and wholeness in the midst of illness and death and know I will have the opportunity to do so in my ministry.

Vocational decisions can never be made without impacting those we love. My husband, struggles against the beliefs of his childhood and the institutions that perpetuated them. Yet, in spite of all of his reservations about the church, he is very supportive of my decision to be in ministry and understands this is my call. Our conversations have helped us understand how we start fundamentally in the same place, with a concern for the hypocrisy of a Christian culture that wears WWJD t-shirts yet fails to support the poor and needy in our midst. The difference is that he chooses to not participate in the institution and I seek to transform it.

For the past year and a half, I have served as the pastor of a small town congregation. And I LOVE it. I love baptizing babies and holding them in my arms. I absolutely love speaking God’s grace and comfort and peace to families at funerals of their loved ones. I love standing in front of the congregation and letting God’s love flow through me as I break bread or speak God’s word. My experience in the church has been one of encouragement, learning, support, and growth. My congregation is full of grace and has been an amazing place to learn how to be a pastor.

beginning again

Spring is here in full force and that makes me want to be outside… but it also reminds me that winter has been a time of sloth.

I got up this morning and worked out with wii fit. I did yoga and strength exercises and then finished with a little bit of cardio. I know it’s not much – but if I do a little everyday, that will add up to a whole lot more than I’m currently doing.

I’m also trying to get up at 7:30 every morning. I’m going to use my mornings off to garden, spend time reading on the porch, and getting chores around the house done. I’ve just realized that when I get home from church I don’t want to do ANY of those things and so they just don’t get done. If I stick with that schedule, I’ll have three mornings a week to myself.