Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Where You Go, I Go

Sunday, September 7, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Reading: Ruth 1:1-18 (and Matthew 10 was on my mind too)

The audio for those of you who prefer it. I confess that I still talk too fast, and it exhausted me to listen to it.

I have been struggling in these weeks since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO to find something coherent to say about racism, violence, divided communities, and the gospel. Those of you who follow my social media will laugh at the idea that I struggle with words—after all my facebook and twitter have been awash with articles, blogs, opinions, rants, news stories, etc.  I have not been silent—I have lifted up the voices of many, many individuals, amplifying the anger and despair and frustration that has tumbled through my social media connections. I have added my own thoughts to the chorus, and over the last month several people have messaged me, asking if I am ok. The conversation goes something like this: “All you have posted for the last few weeks is about Mike Brown and Ferguson. You haven’t posted a cat picture in weeks. Are you ok?”

I don’t know how to answer that except to say that in these last few weeks it has seemed unthinkable to post cat pictures in the midst of the real grief and anger expressed by people I care deeply for. And since I have been working with black and brown youth in Trenton and Ewing and Lawrenceville these last few years, I have grown fiercely protective of these students, whose lives are more prone to violence from all sources. When I saw the initial reports of Mike Brown’s death on twitter, I knew immediately that this could have been one of our children, one of our students, here in our church. So no, I’m not ok.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Even in Drought

Nojoqui Falls, California. A 3 year drought
and the hills are dry as a bone.
But in this canyon, there still is a trickle of water.
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ Luke 9:1-6

The sky is falling! The middle class is dying! And clergy are getting shafted! I've been seeing this in my newsfeed a lot lately.  I'm troubled by the idea that the church owes us pastor types a middle class living. If it was ever true that congregations could promise that, it was only true for some pastors--mostly white, mostly male, mostly married. But even then, my great-grandfather was a pastor, and his wife made the children's clothes out of empty flour sacks. I bet he got paid in chickens sometimes. I think we're basing our fury on an illusion, a delusion of white, middle-class privilege that conveniently distracts us from the hard work of ministry.

Lately there's been quite the conversation around the dreaded Bi-Vocational Ministry that many of us pastors are either already engaged in or expect to be in the next few years. (And let’s be clear that communities of color and less privileged/wealthy communities have been engaging bi-vocational ministers for quite some time. Centuries, even.) A sampling of recent essays on this subject:

Pastors in Poverty by Carol Howard Merritt

Also recently: How To Snap Pastors Like Breadsticks by Charles Redfern. He writes bleakly: 
It's a verified fact: Anyone signing up for the professional ministry is nuts. Don't waste time on those psychological tests. If they want the job, they're cracked. 
That would be me. I've been throwing myself into the kind of work that lands us on the operating table for 25 years. It's American Anxiety Employment on steroids. I'm loopy. 
And it's all sliding downhill from there.
That's just a sampling from the last week or so. Last year about this time, David Fitch wrote out his suggestions: Create a New 'Order' of Clergy: A Recommendation to Denominations, in which he suggested we need "missional" pastors. We love the term "missional", eh? His proposal is basically groups of bi-vocational pastors living in community. My colleague, Wayne Meisel, has suggested we need a protestant order of Jesuits to get out there in the world (and by the way, if you are interested in seminary, talk to him--he's got ideas).

The television series Rev. probably sums up our pastoral despair best in a little exchange in episode 6 of the first season. The Rev. Adam Smallbone is an episcopal priest in an urban church with a tiny, remnant congregation that barely makes ends meet. On a particularly bad day, Adam meets up with a congregant named Colin--a scruffy, alcoholic, sometimes homeless man with a lengthy police record:

Colin:  Got a face on you today, vicar.
Adam: Yes, I'm experiencing a large amount of ontological despair.
Colin:  Yeah? Are yeh?
Adam: Sometimes, I stand outside church here on a Sunday, saying good bye to 10 or 12 people, and do you know what I feel like?
Colin:  No...
Adam: A remnant.
Colin:  A remnant of what?
Adam: Of an illusion that people used to believe in.

Is this what we are called to? To be the remnant of an illusion that people used to believe in?

My first call was to a Tiny Church in south Jersey. They were very good to me, but they were also oh so tiny. They were one of the churches who could only afford a Bi-Vocational pastor--someone who could support themselves some other way, because they could only afford a 1/3 time pastor. And for a while I managed that. And then I left the tiny church, because I knew the finances. And I knew they couldn't sustain my salary. And I couldn't sustain my family on that salary anyway. And I wasn't going to be the pastor that drained them dry of cash and closed the doors.

I found myself out of work and out of options in January 2012. Ordained 2 years and 3 months. 15 years of youth ministry experience of one kind or another. 2 kids to feed. 3 cats. A leaky roof and a failed PhD experiment. No money to pay the rent. And no pulpits. Geographically Bound. I hadn't been an installed pastor--I was just a temporary supply pastor with temporary part-time contracts--no installation service where anyone promised to take care of me and my family. And anyway, Tiny Church couldn't have made that promise.

That January I wrote this post "Called To This Leaky Apartment" in which I talked about failure and running out of options and finding a call in the middle of all that, even though nobody thought there was a call to be had.

2 years later I've pieced together several small pieces of youth and young adult programs to make a collaborative ministry, supported by and supporting several churches. It's an unsettled business, constantly shifting, with multiple pastors and congregations pulling toward multiple visions. I share 5 offices, not counting my house or my car.

Thank you, Jesus, for ObamaCare. 

There is nothing particularly sustainable about the work I am doing, and I believe pretty strongly there is nothing particularly sustainable about my colleagues' full time calls either. None of our jobs are going to look the same in 10 years--there are a lot of churches who aren't going to make it that long. We've been in decline for a long time.

Many of the articles I linked suggest that we need to hold the church accountable to provide better for our pastors--to provide a "middle-class" lifestyle, whatever that means. And there is a strong sense among clergy that this is what churches used to do for their pastors and what many of us were promised/enticed/convinced with when we went to seminary. Go to seminary, jump through all the hoops, and on the other side (after you've gone into debt to do it), there'll be a Perfect Church who will promise to take care of you. You might have to move to another part of the country. But don't worry (pat on the back), it's smooth sailing once you pass the psych eval.

And it's no joke paying for seminary. There's financial aid in different ways, so it's hard to work out exactly what it costs for a three-year M.Div. (required by my denomination), between tuition, housing, food, transportation, exams, books, internship costs (yes, they cost), psychiatric eval (and going to therapy because nobody gets through the psych eval unscathed), childcare, marital counseling, spiritual direction, and the coffee required to get through the program. My ordination process took 5 years. You can fast track it in 3. It's not cheap in terms of money or time, and it is HARD on families. Several of the articles I linked discuss student loan debt extensively. Many new pastors are leaving seminary heavy in debt.

So yeah. It'd sure be nice to have dental on the other side.

I hear a lot of conversation about how we need to be supported as pastors to a standard of living that comes close to our parishioners. But I think what most of us mean by that is a standard of living that comes close to our wealthier parishioners. (And yes, I know. we don't have parishes. You may contact the grammar police here.)

As I've been working with these disparate congregations and balancing my salary with whatever  I can do to make ends meet, including food stamps, free lunch, medicaid, thrift stores, and the church food pantry (these days a lot less of that), I'm coming to a few conclusions about being in community and in solidarity with folks who have less.

1. Never say no to free food. Like, don't do it. If someone offers to get the check, you say "thank you." If the church lady sends home jello salad with celery, sauerkraut, and pinto beans, you say "thank you." Just say yes to generosity and hospitality in whatever form it comes.

2. There are times when the church provides financially for us as pastors--and sometimes quite generously. Some people will be fortunate enough to find the Perfect Church with dental. But a whole lot of us will be called to pieces of jobs that barely make the rent. We will be called to minister with people who THEMSELVES cannot make the rent. Do they deserve a pastor less? Are we less called? And aren't there a lot more church folk who are barely making it than church folk who have it made? Especially these days when wealth disparity has reach new proportions of absurdity?

3. Our temptation will be to advocate for ourselves as a clergy class. Our presbyteries function as unions, ensuring minimum salaries and benefits for certain kinds of pastoral positions. We saw this two years ago when the Board of Pensions announced changes to the benefit plans that would require pastors to pay a portion of the insurance costs for their families. Presbyterian pastors were UP. IN. ARMS. over this. At the same time, all around us, were parishioners who had no insurance. None whatsoever. Entire communities using broken down emergency rooms as primary care, and our first instinct was to protect our private plan rather than push hard for a single payer, universal health care system that would serve us all. Resist that temptation. Let us pour our energy for advocacy into structural changes that benefit our entire communities.

4. We behave as if our clergy profession is the only one experiencing such a profound crisis. But Ryan Anderson posted this the other day: Academia and the People Without Jobs, which he begins with "The 1960s are over. When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition?" Sound familiar? There are very few professions left that aren't in decline. Even the engineers pine for the good old days.

5. Seminaries function as professional training schools for pastors, but that is not the only reason to go. And so for those of us who have asked the question, "Why did I spend so much money to get a degree that doesn't get me a job?" well, keep asking the question. I hope you find it was more than getting your ticket punched. I hope you find profound satisfaction in the three years of work to struggle with our texts, our faith, our people, our hopes, our racism/sexism/heterosexism and our traditions. That time to study and reflect, however stressful and life-altering it is, is also a profound privilege. And one we paid (are still paying) dearly for. Value it, even if it never opens a well-paid door for you again.

6. This isn't just a job. It's a call. It's risky. It's unsustainable. It's outside of most people's comfort zones. We have the professional ethics of a therapist, and yet we are hip deep in the muck of people's lives. We're supposed to set boundaries, but at 2am you might find yourself saying a prayer over somebody who died. This is wild, unbelievable, challenging work. It is lonely as hell too. I think maybe there will be seasons I set it aside. But as long as you are in it, the call is to fall madly in love with the people, to know them deeply, to be in community with them, and to allow them to care for you, however imperfectly, however unsustainably.

7. The financial crisis of our profession (and let's be honest that it's about finances), is a wake up call, a warning signal, a red flag, that our people are in crisis. We've been preaching those stewardship sermons until we're blue in the face. If our people had the money, they'd have coughed it up by now. But the people who need us don't got it. And the people who got it, don't need us. And that's the way of it.

8. And finally, I've listened to a lot of (mostly white) pastors with the Perfect Church job and dental who are afraid to speak their minds or take risks, for fear of losing that job. If you find yourself in bi-vocational ministry, temporary supply, or any other form of less-stable call, enjoy the privilege you have to take more risks, to preach the gospel as it comes to you in the night, to not be afraid of losing that job. It will make you a better pastor.

Nojoqui Falls, California
At the bottom of the falls, water drips, drips, drips.
Faithfully, even in the driest years.
May it be so for us.
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Luke 9:1-6

Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Cursing and Blessing

Sunday, July 27, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at Spray Beach Chapel, NJ

Scripture Reading: Jonah 2:1-10

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me...
As my life was ebbing away, 
     I remembered the Lord;
     and my prayer came to you,
     into your holy temple...
I with the voice of thanksgiving
     will sacrifice to you;
     what I have vowed I will pay.
     Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jonah and the belly of that fish lately. It’s been a bit of a rough year for me…I’m sure I’m not the only one in this chapel that feels that way today. Amen to that? Well, maybe this year has been just peachy keen for you, but I bet there have been other years when it felt like you were buried in the belly of a fish.

You know the kind of week or month or year I’m talking about. Here's a hypothetical sample week: You wake up one Monday to a slew of emails from work. “URGENT” the message line reads, and sure enough, you check in with the boss, and some deadline got missed or someone’s out sick. Two co-workers are feuding over who stole their lunch from the break room fridge. Turns out it wasn’t a matter of theft, just one person can’t stand it when the leftover food piles up and just threw everything away. Nobody’s talking to anybody. For some reason, they called you.

On Tuesday the car started just fine, but the check engine light went on three blocks from home. Unfortunately, work is 7,396 blocks from home, and you don’t get paid until Friday. I’ll let you think through the options for how you got to work that day and whether or not you got the car fixed Tuesday morning or delayed til payday. Maybe you got friends who owe you one. Maybe they answered their phones. Maybe you paid the auto club bill last November when it was due and this is your free tow. Still and all it’s just Tuesday.

Wednesday the cat died. Just a routine visit maybe, for a check up. But no, there’s something serious. The vet looks at you like you’re the worst pet owner on the planet, because the cat is 2 years overdue for that routine check up. The cat’s illness has nothing to do with anything routine, and probably wouldn’t have been caught last year, but she is two years late on the rabies vaccine, and what kind of pet owner are you? There’s nothing to be done except say goodbye—this mysterious illness came out of the blue, and by 5 she is gone. And that was Wednesday. The car didn’t matter anymore, and the company fridge NEVER mattered to you in the first place. But Wednesday wrecked you.

Thursday you took the day off to recover. Kids stayed home from school. Everyone’s sad about the cat. But not sad enough to be kind—sometime after dinner the arguments form again over who’s going to do the dishes, bedtime, homework, showers, whether or not you are the worst parent ever. You don’t even know how it got to this point, other than everyone is griefstricken, and you are too worn out from the week to be the adult, so along about 9:30 you start living into your new found reputation as the worst parent ever, confirming your child’s opinion.

By Friday you are stumbling in to the home stretch, and 5:00 can’t come soon enough. The day off yesterday to mourn the cat results in 43 unread emails, ALL marked “URGENT”. You get through 16 of them, but it wasn’t pretty.

You’ve been in the belly of a fish all week. It stinks in here. Thrown overboard by your companions and left to drown, you’ve been sitting in the dark dank belly of a giant fish, wondering what you ever did in your life to get you to this place. The job is awful (you pick the reason), the car keeps breaking down, but it’s cheaper to fix than replace, the vet bill was astounding considering you were paying for death, the kids have been on your last nerve since Christmas. You’re looking at the weekend ahead and it’s soccer practice this, and 17 loads of laundry, and how do 3 people use so many dishes anyway? You haven’t done your household finances in weeks and that’s staring you in the face—payday means bills anyway, don’t it? There’s a volunteer thing that sounded simple at the time, but now it’s 7 weeks later and you still didn’t get it done. You’ve been ducking Susie Smith’s calls for days now, because you don’t want to explain why you haven’t got it done. You’ll see her in church tomorrow, though, and there’s no ducking her there.

You’re looking at the weekend, and it’s looking grim. No rest for the weary. Maybe you’ve got a second job. Maybe there’s extra kids on the weekends. Maybe the dryer is broke, and all those clothes are gonna need to be either hung up outside or drug to the laundromat. 

Maybe your week was worse than that. Maybe your week was more tragic, more lethal than that. Your week, your month, your year, this season of life. Can you call to mind the curse words that come out of the depths of your soul in these moments? I know I can.

The Spirit’s been whispering in your ear lately…something about Sabbath or rest, getting to church, a new direction, calling your mother, sending that letter to a friend, walking the beach. God’s been calling you to new work, new play, a new vision, a new way of life. But after the week you just had, where’s the energy for that? Better to lie right down here in this fish belly, don’t you think? Settle in for a nap and a sulk? It’s been a long week/month/year, and at least a thing you know is that the fish belly is constant. It stinks in here. There is little light. You’re not happy, but who would expect you to be happy—you’re stuck in a fish belly. Everybody gets it.

But that isn’t any kind of life, is it? When Jesus called us to abundant life, he didn’t mean the belly of a fish, did he? I guess the question I have today is: how do we get out of the fish belly? Most of the time we don’t control the fish—what are we to do to get spit out on dry land?

I think Jonah was having that kind of week. A message from the Lord to go to Ninevah. He preferred Tarshish. There was good work he could do in that place, maybe he’d been meaning to get there for a while. Ninevah, by way of Tarshish, what could go wrong? He’d get to Ninevah eventually, he wasn’t exactly disobeying…

So then on Monday Jonah got on a boat, and a big storm came up all around them and threatened the boat. On Tuesday the crew shook him awake and yelled at him to call on his God for protection. On Wednesday they cast lots and discovered that it was Jonah’s fault that there was a storm. On Thursday they threw him overboard. On Friday, he got swallowed by a giant fish. So…that was an awful week. From the moment he stepped out his front door, everything went wrong, and now here he was, stuck in the belly of a fish, nowhere to go, nothing to do, except lie down and die.

Have you had that kind of week lately? Oh, I have, my friends. Our scripture tells us this morning that the way out of that belly is to call upon the Lord, to praise God pre-emptively for our deliverance, to say “thy will be done” and mean it. Sometimes I really hate scripture.

Back in the month of May, I procrastinated working all day one Friday. Maybe you’ve done that? Along about 10pm, I decided to do some of the work before sleeping. I went out to my car to get the stuff I needed for work—stuff I was supposed to bring in earlier that day, but I was too lazy to grab it from my car when I got home. I’d even looked at the box of papers and said, “Forget it. I’ll get it later.”

So it was 10 o’clock at night, and I skipped out my front steps to get the box—I had a second wind coming on. Looking carefully, I stepped down onto the last step—only it wasn’t a step, it was just the shadow of a step. I lost my balance, fell over, and landed on my hand. My little finger snapped back as I fell. The ER doc told me later that night that I’d broken the finger. He referred me to the orthopedic doc on Monday, and sent me home with a splint and some pain killers.

Long story short, it’s been a couple of months now. I had surgery in June because the finger wasn’t healing right, and the darn thing just won’t bend right now. 15-20 hours a week I’m spending, dutifully doing my hand exercises and showing up for physical therapy. My finger is not cooperating, and I don’t have much patience for it. Perhaps some of you have experienced this? Your body is supposed to function “normally” but it just won’t? You have an illness, an injury, a weakness? Arthritis maybe? Maybe something more lethal? Maybe just a small thing like a pinky that just won’t bend?

It’s hard to praise anything when you’re frustrated and in pain. I think back to that night in May and curse myself for not working earlier in the day. Or I curse myself for being lazy and leaving the box in the car. Or I curse myself for trying to work at 10 o’clock at night—like I’m still some college student able to pull an all nighter on a paper. 10 o’clock at night and I oughta be in bed. Fish bellies. Oh, I’ve spent my share of time in fish bellies. I’m good at wallowing—how about you?

These hand exercises I do take a lot of time and effort, my friends, and they produce very little in the way of results (at least from day to day). I sit there and do those exercises wherever I happen to be—at lunch, over coffee, sitting in my living room, at work, while cooking. I’m doing my best to incorporate them into my daily routine. It makes me tired. It hurts. It’s frustrating. I find myself cursing my hand. Sometimes I just glare at the finger, which doesn’t look right or feel right or seem right, and I curse it’s stubbornness. The finger just ignores me.

The other day I was at lunch bending my fingers into a half-fist (which is as good as it gets these days). While I was moving my fingers I was checking email, and up popped a monthly newsletter from an organization called WATER. WATER stands for Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. Their monthly email included a blessing—a blessing for our hands.

So there I was, clenching and unclenching my fist, cursing my hand and my own stupidity for ending up in this situation, and up pops this blessing. For our hands. Let me read it to you, for irony’s sake. And as I read it to you, take hold of your own hands and bless them—whatever condition they are in. Perhaps your hands are perfect. Perhaps they are injured. Perhaps they ache everyday deep in the bones. Maybe you are missing one or a finger. Maybe your hands are chapped and dry, the nails crooked and cracked. Maybe you got a manicure last week. Maybe your hands don’t move. Maybe I’m the only one here in a fish belly over their hands. But take your hands anyway and bless them with me:
Summer hands have a freedom of their own. Look at your hands. Clasp them together. Through the centuries, the creative and healing power of the Divine has been represented through gestures of the human hand... (read the rest of the blessing ritual here)
Oh my friends…how many times do we curse ourselves, our lives, our circumstances, when we need to be blessing them? What good does it do to curse this hand? What do I accomplish by cursing the night I stepped out to my car? Not a whit, although it’s satisfying. But our deliverance, says Jonah, comes from the blessing. We call out to the Lord and we are spit out on dry land. It doesn’t always look like what we expected—sometimes we are spit out onto an unexpected shore. But we are delivered when we call out in praise—we are rescued when we bless what is.

The psalmist tells us the same thing, over and again in psalm and psalm after psalm. Songs of struggle and joy, pain and delight—when we call upon the Lord, we are delivered to dry land. Here’s one:

In Psalm 18, David cries out to God on a day when he was afraid Saul was going to kill him:

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised;
so I shall be saved from my enemies...
The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. 
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears... 
He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters...He brought me out into a broad place;
he delivered me, because he delighted in me. 
The Lord delivers us because he delights in us. The Lord spat Jonah out upon dry land because he delighted even in that recalcitrant, difficult, stubborn, disobedient soul. The Lord delivers me from the trouble with my hand when I bless that hand for what it is. Will it be healed? Will it bend again? Oh, I don’t know. But I am delivered from the fear and worry and cursing (none of which make a lick of difference) when I call out to that hand, “Oh hand, how lovely you are, just as you are. I am glad you are mine.”

How often do we curse when we need to be blessing?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mosquito Love

"Mentholatum" Miami University LIbraries
An unpleasant little poem
about an unpleasant little bug
dedicated to the Holy Spirit
who is on my last nerve.

I have wondered for a while
why God made mosquitos
They serve no purpose, save
on every level
the incessant whine of a skeeter
whirling about
one's body
the blood sucking
(and disease passing
sometimes mosquitos mean death)
the welts
the itch that lasts
for days
the way a perfectly good porch sitting
can be ruined at dusk
intent on sucking the life out
of a perfectly good day
and even if you kill the damn thing
you're spilling your own blood
seeing as how it just gorged
on your flesh
why on earth, God?

and then it came to me in prayer
this week
the mosquito
is the image of God
biting after us
in our complacency
we are led beside still waters
and at dusk
when it seems we might settle
for a while, anyway
out come the mosquitos
to bite
and whine
and nettle
and unsettle

nothing like a mosquito
to get me out of my porch chair

I met an older pastor last week
didn't even get his name
nor did he ask mine
but we talked of something or other
and I said
"yeah, God is a jerk"
he said, "I like your style."

you want proof I'm right?
the mosquito
that's what.
the Holy Spirit lately
been whining
knocking me off my porch.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dry and Thirsty Work

I went to church this morning, as I most times do. I work for three churches, you know, so I'm usually at one or two of them on any given Sunday. I serve in those spaces with delight and joy--I surely do. Today was a communion Sunday, and I poured out the grape juice for our people like Jesus himself was with us. The blood of Christ shed for you. And for you. And yes, even for YOU.

But then I had a little extra time today, as I almost never do, and the timing worked out that I could go to a church to simply BE and worship a while. Beloved Community in Trenton takes me in every now and then. (Beloved worships on Sundays at 11:30am at 471 Parkway Avenue, Trenton, NJ with the Rev. Toby Sanders) They welcome me and my sorrows and joys like I'd been there last week, praying, singing, preaching, praying. And there a Word pierces my heart and God only knows what that Word will do over the next few months until I sit with them again. Oh, I wept in church today...

One of my greatest fears and regrets about ordination is the loss of my church membership. In my tradition, when a pastor is ordained as a teaching elder, they are no longer a member of the local church that has cared and nurtured them through the process. No, they are now accepted as a member of the Presbytery, a regional body constituted of teaching elders and ruling elders from the various nearby churches. We worship together a few times a year, that Presbytery body, but it is a constantly shifting membership, with ruling elders coming and going as often as they are commissioned by their local churches. Presbytery membership, however it might have been conceived, is no substitute for the loss of one's local church membership. And serving as pastor is not the same as being a member, not by any stretch of the imagination.

This pastoring gig, a lot of times, is dry and thirsty work in a dry and dusty land, and if I am not careful, I can give away my last cup of water without knowing where I will get more.

Oh I have my spiritual directors-one Christian, one Muslim. I have an Executive Presbyter, who cares for me in spectacular ways--she prays for me often, I know that. I've got a therapist--and God bless HIS patient soul, that's for sure. I've got supervising pastors and colleagues coming out of my ears with this collaborative work I'm doing.

Not naming names, but this could be them.
I have colleagues in the West Jersey Presbytery whom I adore with all my heart. I won't name names, because it won't help their cause, but they know who they are. We break bread together, and laugh, and laugh, and talk, and pray, and laugh. They fill me with joy in the Lord.

One night a few years ago, I was running late for a Presbytery meeting. My friends saved me a seat near them in the back--we are like little children with the twitter and the facebook and the jokes. Most of us are newcomers to this Presbytery, if not to ministry. Picture your teenagers in the balcony and it's something like that. We take Presbytery seriously, don't get me wrong, we just take ourselves with a grain of salt. 

Well, they saved me a seat, but it was in the middle of the pew. I knew I'd have to crawl over people or empty out half the pew to get to it, and that seemed disruptive. I sized up the situation and saw that there was an open window in the narthex right above my saved seat. So I tossed my backpack over the ledge and climbed over myself. Plopping down next to a startled colleague, I held out my hand and said, "I'm Katie Mulligan, nice to meet you."

He looked me up and down, took my hand doubtfully, and said, "I know who you are. I'm _________." We'll I had just plopped down next to one of our most proper and conservative pastors. And that's saying something, because we Presbyterians are a dour lot. My friends snickered at the whole situation, and to this day, they tell me they'll leave a window open for me. I love me some Presbytery.

Oh I love these people I see every few months, and I know that window is always open. But it's the day to day that gets me. My cup runneth over and then it runs dry.

Once, a dear friend came to visit me on a weekend. Sunday morning she decided to come to church with me, where I was working. Bright and early she rose to make the coffee and an egg sandwich, and she made one for me too. Throwing open the curtains she sang out, "This is the day that the Lord has made!!!" And I mumbled from my pillow, "Yeah, yeah, let us rejoice and all that." 

My friend, undaunted, handed me my coffee and said, "Isn't it a beautiful day! How lovely it will be to worship together again!" And I said sourly, "Friend, this is not worship for me, this is work."

"Kathryn Mulligan!" she yelled. "You take that back!" And she took my coffee cup and slammed it on the counter. Only this friend could mother me like that, and I got out of bed obediently, drank my coffee, and went to worship-work with her. She is both a morning person AND not a pastor and so worship wasn't to me what it was to her. This is the way of things.

Here, I give you "Raven, the acid bath princess of darkness" lip synching to Evanescence's "Going Under". I am a morning person like this.

It is dry and thirsty work, this pastoring business. My cup runneth over and then it runs dry.

So I go, sometimes, to this Beloved Community, and I WORSHIP there, and I leave full.

Today the Rev. Toby Sanders preached on Fulfilled Dreams and Promises from Genesis 46:
So Israel took his journey with all that he had, and he came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. Then God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am."
I wish you'd heard that sermon, that Word he preached that pierced my heart and made way for the Spirit to move through dry and dusty places in my soul. Here's a little taste of that sermon, although I'll carry the whole of it around for a while...

To be human is to have dreams
and to be human is to have broken dreams
and to be human is to have fulfilled dreams
all in the same breath...

Indeed, the very way we breathe is a grasping after God the simple act of breathing
you realize the promise of God
which is abundant life, eternal life...

this is the nature of life
we are always in between
brokenness and fulfillment... 

You've got to go past the promise
to get to the purpose
Don't be afraid to go past the promised land into Egypt
because I have made provision for you there...

Sometimes we are healed by those who have been hurt by us
Sometimes we are blessed by those we have cursed...

And then he closed with the next two verses from Genesis:
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’
I can't do it justice this sermon, this Word. But his words brought me back to a night long ago in a church sanctuary. A night I poured out fear and poison that was killing my soul, and I called on God as witness to my rage, and we held court right there for someone who never got his. I conjured up that man too, and I wouldn't be surprised if he woke up that night in a cold sweat, coming face to face with what he had done.

I made my own covenant with God that night, that I would come when called. And that night God promised that out of fear and death would come joy. God has never lifted that call, and I insist on my joy. It is an uneasy alliance between two stubborn parties.

In the winter this year, I had trials and tribulations coming out my ears. I wrote about grief all 46 days of Lent--every day, because my grief was unrelenting. I held tight to that covenant. Out of this WOULD come joy--I have been promised.

Out of THIS season of grief, there will come joy.

This winter I marked that covenant with a tattoo. I started with a black widow spider. When I was a child we had nests of black widows in our house. I was convinced that one bite meant a slow, agonizing death. And there are ways in which I was already dying that death in those days.

The body of the spider is the body ALSO of the 8th note--a light and airy note of joy that has been promised as surely as death, coming straight out of the spiders I so feared. I've made my peace with these 8-legged creatures. It helps that poisonous spiders are much rarer in New Jersey than California. Perhaps I am in the promised land after all...

Oh, I wept in church today. It is dry and dusty, but my cup runneth over. Thank you, Pastor.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rest in the Unrest

A communal mural painted at the Wild Goose Festival 2014,
held in Hot Springs, NC. A sign next to the mural invited
passersby to paint on the mural; paint and brushes were
left out for our use. The rain blurred and ran the paint,
mud mixing with the colors.
So, it's been almost three years now since I left my PhD program and began to think about what I was going to do that didn't involve 5 more years of writer's block and student loans. I left my tiny church at about the the same time--my last Sundays were Advent in 2011. Both the tiny church and I were sad and frustrated at my leaving; I preached the four weeks in advent using the four chapters of the book of Jonah. It was fitting, somehow, that bitter sweetness of Jonah's fish tale.

I cast about, trying to figure out what would pay the bills and be at least moderately entertaining. I thought about several things like waiting tables and retail--at that particular moment there weren't any pulpits open nearby, and I was unwilling to relocate my children. So that left me in a bit of a bind--more and more as the bills piled up, I felt like Jonah in the belly of a whale. It was an uncomfortable place, to be sure.

And then out of the boredom and anxiety and despair, I began to get creative. By the end of January 2012, I'd started to get a picture of what my ministry might look like: it would be a God-awful, tangled mess of interlocking ministries, overlapping and intertwining like a kitten with a ball of yarn. I wrote a blog post about it, Called to This Leaky Apartment:
There is a wild freedom in tentmaking. I have had the freedom to preach how the Spirit moves me these last three years. I listen to my colleagues talk about not being able to say what needs to be said, and honestly when you're working 1/3 time with no benefits, that's not really a concern. I've had the freedom and flexibility to raise my children, fail at a PhD program, read and write extensively. I don't think people should go into tentmaking because there aren't options--I think people should consider it because it's good for the soul.
Two months later, some of the projects I'd been working on came together, and I updated with The Apartment Still Leaks:
That's all. As I look at it on paper, it all seems much busier than I was last year, but all of the pieces fit together, in and around my parenting needs, and within a few miles of my home. It feels good to be settling into this space. It's great to pay the bills. And while it is not a traditional pastoral "call" I nevertheless believe I am called to each of these pieces and to the whole. 
For the record, this does not resemble what I thought I'd be doing after seminary. Not in the slightest.
Well, it's been a little over two years since I wrote those posts. I moved to a house where the roof doesn't leak--and I thank God for that every time it rains here. I've lived in a lot of leaky houses, and one's attitude about rain changes significantly depending on whether or not your roof leaks.

These days I'm doing youth and young adult work for 3 churches still. I continue as a chaplain at Rider University. We've started a young adult ministry that is growing. I've started taking on seminary students from Princeton to help with our programming, but also as a part of our ministry--to mentor and train new pastors and educators. Believe me, our youth and young adults do the training and mentoring.

Our Love of God (L.O.G.) retreat program grew in the last two years incredibly. We graduated a large senior class this year, and we'll be rebuilding with our younger students this year. So much room for growth and change!

I'm still preaching when I can. My writing goes up and down, depending on the inspiration and whether or not I'm too dang tired to move at the end of the day. The Art Journal project ended shortly after I wrote about it--mostly because each of the daily posts took a couple of hours to complete, and it turns out when one is working full time that those hours are at a premium.

I did offer spiritual direction with a few people, but I found quickly that my work required me to spend the energy I had for that with the adults involved in my programs--as much or more than the youth, we adults are in need of spiritual direction and prayer!

Overall, what we've created is a collaborative youth and young adult ministry, growing in the cracks of the sidewalk between three churches and a university. Some of our students are directly tied to the churches that support us, but many more have no idea who even hosts this thing. We've been calling it a Ministry of Many, or sometimes Holy Imagination, or sometimes just Youth Group/L.O.G. We just got funding for part of this work for another three years, and that funding shifts the center of gravity of our work to more urban churches in this part of New Jersey. It's going to be an exciting year ahead of us, and I can't wait to see how it turns out!

My work this year has included time spent with UMIO (United Mercer Interfaith Organization), including participating in prayer vigils for the people who have been murdered in Trenton this year. It's a lot of people for our little city. Some of our youth live close to where the murders have occurred. We are wrestling with how to be present and useful in this time and place.

Frankly, I am a bit daunted by the work ahead of me/us. Several times in this last year I have been tempted to flee the scene, fly the coop, do a bunk. This is messy work, full of personalities and frustration. I feel a call to justice in this work that borders on self-righteousness--and then tips all the way over the cliff. I often lack the patience and love to have these conversations around race, gender, class, money, sexuality, and culture.

Roots of a tree (or maybe a few trees)
along the French Broad River in Hot Springs, NC
I confess putting down roots does not come easy to me. Settling in to a community requires a giving over of oneself, a surrender to place, a sacrifice of one's own good for a community's good. Does that sound drastic? But I know that I have spent 8 years since I left California avoiding that commitment, never sure of what is coming next, never quite finding the solid ground to settle into, never willing to settle into unstable ground. Every time I hang my pictures I have to move again. Every time. This last move (my 6th home in 8 years), I didn't hang pictures for two years. Finally in March I pounded some nails into the wall and did the deed. I have my fingers crossed that we can stay here a bit--why don't you cross yours too, while we're at it.

In 2010, while still at Tiny Church, I preached a Pentecost sermon, Burning Bushes and Other Such Foolishness:
Let us begin with sneaky. Burning bushes, the quiet love of a friend, tiny flowers in a place they should not be, a small chapel in the woods, a small act of kindness that causes a person to pause. The way a phrase floats on the wind to hit our ear in the exact right way, and then stays with us for days and years to come. Indeed, the way one word might define an entire decade or even a lifetime. My word has been “rootless”, and is perhaps now “longing”. What is yours? What one word frames these questions for you: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” What is your burning bush? Where do you remove your shoes in reverence? How and why do the words “I am who I am” settle over you? In what place of indescribable significance do you see the presence of God? 
I was reminded of these words this last weekend at the Wild Goose Festival as I contemplated the possibility of a job description that had floated across my social media recently. It was sort of a tailor made dream job, but it would mean I would have to move. It would mean walking away from this ministry I have been working on for two years. And I'm not ready to do that.

So here I am, left with a distaste for rootlessness and an incredible longing for community. And I am left with the anxiety that if I settle down my roots and commit to this community that it will be like hanging the pictures, and I will have to move again. This is how it goes for us humans, isn't it? Fear of rejection leads us to walk away before we can be rejected--better, it seems, to stay rootless than to have deep roots cut out from under us. And yet, and yet, that incredible longing to belong here--to settle slowly and carefully into a place and a people who will nourish me when roots are cut--I am called to that too.

I've learned so well that God laughs at mortal plans. I know better than to say that this is where I will be forever--the second that comes out of my mouth is the beginning of the end. I was telling a friend yesterday that while I know I need to plant my feet and do some heavy lifting work-wise, I was a bit leery, as the ground beneath me is constantly shifting. But I was reading a bit of Kierkegaard's essay Either/Or a while back, and in the Seducer's Diary I found this passage:
I have always loved, on a moonlit night, to lie out in a boat on one of our lovely lakes. I take in the sails and the oars, remove the rudder, stretch out full-length, and gaze up into the vault of heaven. When the boat rocks on the breast of the waves, when the clouds scud before the strong wind so that the moon vanishes for a moment and then reappears, I find rest in this unrest. The motion of the waves lulls me, their lapping against the boat is a monotonous cradle-song. The swift flight of the clouds, the shifting light and shadow, intoxicate me so that I am in a waking dream. Thus no, too, I lay myself out, take in the sails and rudder; longing and impatient expectation toss me about in their arms; longing and expectation become more and more quiet, more and more blissful, they fondle me like a child; the heaven of hope arches over me; her image floats by me like the moon's, indistinct, blinding me now with its light, now with its shadow. How enjoyable thus to splash up and down on a stormy lake--how enjoyable to be stirred in oneself.
So it's been two years and the pictures are hung. I actually am growing two plants now. As long as I can, I will stay here in this place and love the people in this community. And perhaps in the possibility of finding rest in the unrest, I might trust God's inscrutable plans enough to settle my roots deep and wide, risking the pain that comes when the roots are cut.

After all, how enjoyable it is to be stirred in oneself.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Joyful Submission, Part Deux

There is an easing of tension in my soul today, because...

...This afternoon my church denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), voted to approve two measures at our General Assembly in Detroit, concerning same gender marriages.

Earlier, I posted this on Facebook:
ai yi yi. I don't have the stomach to watch another GA debate marriage. I'll check back when the youth mailing is done.

But I am a worm, and not human;  
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me; 
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 
‘Commit your cause to the Lord;
let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’ 
~psalm 22

So I finished the mailing (thank you, JoAnn), and as I was addressing envelopes and writing little notes to students, the news came back from GA that the overtures regarding same gender marriage had passed General Assembly. Hallelujah!!

1) An authoritative interpretation (AI) of our Book of Order, amending the Book of Worship to allow teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders (aka pastors) to perform same gender marriages in states where they are permitted by civil law. The text of 10-03 can be found here, although I don't swear this is the final language as I am not present in Detroit.

This is a "freedom of conscience" ruling, which allows pastors and churches to decide for themselves whether they will be involved in same gender marriages. As always we retain the freedom to officiate a marriage or not, based on our evaluation of the circumstances. 

Authoritative interpretations take effect immediately and do not need ratification by the presbyteries. Effective immediately Saturday, after the close of General Assembly, pastors in the PC (USA) may officiate same gender weddings in states where it is legal without fear of reprisal or recrimination from ecclesial courts. Hallelujah!

2) The General Assembly also passed an amendment to the Book of Order, modifying the definition of marriage. It used to say marriage should be between a man and a woman; if the amendment is ratified it will soon say "between two person" without reference to gender identity (claimed, perceived, assigned, or otherwise). (Update: language stating "traditionally between a man and a woman" would not be binding, but will be present.)

Amendments require ratification by a majority of our (173?) presbyteries. The presbyteries will cast their votes over the next year. If ratified, this amendment would take effect in two years about a year (again, I am not a policy wonk, so feel free to correct). This means that although the General Assembly has approved the change in definition, it is not currently in effect and cannot be acted on.

The Authoritative Intepretation, however, means that regardless of whether the definition is altered, pastors may perform same gender marriages in states where civil law permits.

I did not think this would happen--maybe ever. I had become very cynical from watching the last two General Assemblies. There will be much analysis done over what changes in our church allowed this to happen at this time, but I give thanks to God and to the commissioners who have opened new doors for our ministries.

It used to be like this:

"Hi. I'm thinking about God a lot lately and thought maybe I'd come to church."
"Wow, that's great. We meet Sunday at 11am. Let's get coffee this week."
"My partner is thinking of coming too."
"Great! We are an open and affirming church!"
"We've been thinking about getting married in the church, actually."
"Oh. I can't do that. I mean, we're working on it. And I have some colleagues in xyz denomination who will gladly officiate."
"I see. That's...sort of distasteful."
"It is, isn't it."
"Well, I'll think about it."

So now we can just say, "Great! Let's meet when you're ready to talk more about marriage!"

There is an easing of the tension in my soul today because the last legal barrier to tending to lgbtq folks' pastoral concerns has been dismantled. We just can be pastors through all of our people's life transitions. Nobody has to ask me to risk my livelihood for their own marriage. We can simply pastor. This doesn't mean we'll be perfect pastors to lgbtq folks (we have a LONG way to go with trans folk). But it means there's one less structural barrier/excuse.

There is an easing of the tension in my soul today because the last legal barrier to my own same gender relationships is gone. I can date freely and do not have to worry about whether I will ever have to lose my ordination because I am partnered with a woman.  For a single, cat lady like me, who knows if this will ever be relevant to me. But gone is any need to have a conversation about the loss of my ordination if I should happen to fall in love with a fabulous woman.

Two years ago, when we approved the ordination of non-celibate lgbtq persons, I wrote a blogpost titled "Joyful Submission". I think that post explains the easing of tension and the reclamation of trust better than I can say it today, so go read that. But here is a piece of it:
And then after the presbytery meeting where I was received as an inquirer, I was asked to sign a code of conduct. It was required of all pastors, candidates and inquirers under care of the presbytery. Mostly this was a formality--a piece of paperwork that had been forgotten in the process. I should have signed it before I was presented to the presbytery or at least been allowed to consider it. The last item on this fairly standard code of conduct was a clause which stated that I would not participate in or condone homosexual activity. 
This brought me up short. I was married to a man, and only had the vaguest inkling of my own queerness--it just wasn't something I thought about in relationship to myself. But my oldest, closest friend is a lesbian. And many of the youth I worked with identified as queer in some way. I very nearly refused to sign that code of conduct, but I also refused to walk away from this call. Truthfully, I did not grow up in the church, and I had no idea that unmarried, sexually active individuals could not be ordained as an elder, deacon, or minister. It sat wrong with me. I had just become an inquirer, and I suddenly realized that this church was not what I thought it was. In some very deep way my trust with this church was fractured, and the peaceful connection with God that I had discovered became fraught with tension, rebellion, dislike, and the desire to run.
and this...
The tension of being at odds with this denomination I love so very much did not ease. The discussions about sexuality have been difficult. The rage I feel when same gender love is equated to pedophilia is something I can't describe. And I have been shaped by that. My spiritual practices have been shaped around the need to rebel against what is not God in the midst of the church--this deliberately narrow heterosexual framework imposed upon every member.
and finally this...
The passing of 10A has returned the possibility of building trust with the church and her people. I felt today, as I was walking, a great deal of joy at the possibilities for the church and queer folk. But deeper within I could feel the Spirit moving again peacefully, in a way I have not felt since 2005. I no longer am living under threat of shame and discipline. I can risk again deep vulnerability with the people of this church. 
For six years I have submitted to the church and to people, and it has damaged me in ways I hope I can repair. The passing of 10A returns my submission to Christ. In a way that was previously only possible by leaving this church, this church has restored my faith. My words here fail to express this fully, but I have been liberated from a deep pain, and I thank you. 
Oh, thank you, my dear church! What a gift you have given me today!