Of Course I Will Help With Your Book Launch

No, I do not really have the time. But yes, I will absolutely help with your book launch!

I will show up to your launch events because I know how much it means for people to show up. Especially in a care-giving profession where the “ministry of presence” is part of both my roles as pastor and mother, being there for people at significant moments is something I do, but others rarely do for me. I know you are in the same boat, so let me be one who flips the script for you.

I will absolutely find the time to write you a blurb for a book proposal, be part of your FB group hashing out the idea, introduce you to my contacts and send out photos of me holding the book, recommending it to my friends on social media. If members of your launch team get free advance copies, I’ll buy extras to give away to friends, especially in other denominations or spheres of influence.

I will write you book reviews: on Goodreads and Amazon and anywhere else you want me to. You say human effort has to massage the algorithms for your book to become a “recommendation” to those who could really use it? And timing is crucial – it needs to happen in a rush on Day 1? Let me at those algorithms. Which of the online platforms I have written for could use a thoughtful book review? I am on it. Would you like me to introduce you to anyone I write for, to publish an excerpt? Consider it done.

Yes, to the cynics, there is a little bit of quid pro quo in supporting other writers. I do hope that when it is finally my turn to launch a book into the world, they’ll remember and be willing to help me out in their networks. Yet for the writers I know personally who do this, that it is about so much more than trading favors.

Going out of my way to join a launch team without being personally asked is also about the collective good, in my mind. Women’s voices and progressive voices of faith especially need to be amplified. I want people to know we are here, instigating conversations that everybody really needs to have. In spreading the news about your book, I am starting conversations I want to shape the public discourse, for churches I serve to discuss, for faithful-but-not-particularly-church-going friends to know exist. I want there to be smart, loving, insightful takes on adoption that influence how people think about our adoptive family. I want to interact with colleagues and congregants who can appreciate the beauty of pithy prayers that read like poetry for adults or children. I want my relatives who live in “red” states to have a source I trust, to read about faith and politics instead of disengaging. I want MORE influences showing the power of girls leading and busy people claiming sabbath and talking about the end of life in healthy ways. So I will promote Rosalind, Meta, Tracy, Angela, Ellie and Dana’s books like it is my job, to help however I can to launch them into the world.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

“The Law” for a snow day (Sunday)

Sometimes during MN winters, cancelling worship is the right thing to do. Here’s the sermon I would have preached, if it hadn’t have been for the snowstorm.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

The Law gets a bad reputation, but perhaps unfairly so. The Law can include the Ten Commandments, more minor ordinances, or just be shorthand in our minds for “God’s authority to tell us what to do.” It can feel oppressive or judgmental to we who are already burdened enough by the judgment of this world and ourselves. But if Jesus is, as he says, a fulfillment of the Law, then God giving us Law is an act of love. The Law of God is meant to give us order, the safe parameters in which all people can thrive. We cannot thrive if we are constantly caught in the back-and -forth of being victims or oppressors in dangerous power dynamics. The Law shows us not only how to live with one another, but how to live in relationship with God. When we are confronted with the commandments, for example, we know that we are not capable of keeping them. We realize that God is worthy of awe and gratitude for creating, redeeming and loving us, when we clearly are not able to do any of those things for ourselves.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

So what might it mean to us, that Jesus became one of us in order to fulfill the commands of the Law and the warnings and promises of the prophets? I don’t think it is that awful paying-the-price-to-an-angry-God-in-place-of-us “atonement” theory; because that is not the kind of God Jesus embodies in any thing he does on this earth. That doesn’t seem to be how Israelites saw sacrifices either. In Leviticus, for example, Aaron was commanded to give a sin offering and a burnt offering of atonement for himself and the people. But listen, the command is given with these words: “so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Sacrifices were not a way to appease or manipulate the God of Abraham into forgiveness or a better mood – as if human beings have that kind of influence. They were to orient us towards God so we could see God’s glory. The Law does not demand a sacrifice in order for God to love you. God is already there. The Law is another expression of that love.

So, how does he do it? Jesus fulfills the Law and prophets, by interpreting them, showing that they are not dead words to be followed by habit, but living words to engage with as we relate to other people. He interpreted them in his teachings, in his public acts of protest and healing, and even in how he faced own death. Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of what was clean or unclean, allowed on the sabbath, or with whom you should eat. He often taught in parables, tricky stories that could be seen from multiple angles, and in fact need to be wrestled with to get meaning out of them. He made his hearers engage with God’s messages, instead of just memorize by rote. He was living testimony that a dead, flat interpretation of Scripture is not what God desires. Jesus modeled a flexible engagement with the Words of God that we must interpret for our own time and situations. This is how he fulfills the Law, by taking it into his life in all its meaning, and history and reverence for God, with the real life people surrounding him as a major factor in how he interprets the Law and Prophets.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah today, the Lord God is irate over people doing thoughtless fasting, presumably because that is what the written Law prescribes for how to act righteous. “As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” God doesn’t want those fasts. God wants us to fast from injustice, to cut out of our lives the exploitation of others, until the void it leaves aches like a hunger. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” What does that look like today? What would we be fasting from, if we were going to painfully cut out exploiting others? Interpret the Law in your own context, and live it out to the extreme, exhorts the prophet!

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” Isaiah promises. And Jesus repeats, but changes the verb tense: “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” Not in the past tense: “Back in the day, people were faithful, had integrity, cared for each other. They were the salt of the earth, light of the world.” Nope. Neither does Jesus say it in the conditional tense: “Do this, and then you could be the light of the world” Nope. He is declaring the truth in the present to those listening: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You, interpreters of God’s Word in your own lives, responding to injustice and sharing what you have, you are here to enliven the whole earth. To change the flavor of the conversation, to show people there is way more to see than ominous shadows when looking towards God. You change the equation, with your saltiness and your shining a light from different angles and into neglected corners. It is our Christ-like job to re-interpret how God’s love stretches to the margins, in fact, it is a fulfillment of the Law. Interpret away; it’s what Jesus would do.

 

A Prayer for the Annual Meeting in an Interim

God of love and promise, we bring our full selves and many emotions to this moment in the life of this congregation.

As we gather for the annual meeting, we pray for honesty and hope in equal measure, that we might acknowledge to one another how our hearts are responding to a long-time pastor’s leaving, and the anxiety we hold before the future comes into view. Nudge us to tell our stories, so we might work through our responses together. Reveal seeds of hope and give us the confidence to try new ways of growing together in faith.

As we elect new Council leaders, give us confidence in your ability, O God, to multiply the gifts we bring. Open our imaginations about whom we might become, as we equip all the saints for ministry in daily life.

Holy Spirit, sharpen our focus during this time together. Although the concerns of our families, communities and world are always with us, quiet their demands so that we might think and listen and speak with this faith community in the forefront of our attention during this time. In your name we pray.

Amen.

Grand Gestures and Everyday Care

I walked into a room covered in rose petals, with bouquets of roses in containers placed all around the room. My love – whom I had been dating for about 2 months but already knew I would marry – had invited me to the Medicine Ball, a fancy affair for students at his medical school in Richmond, Virginia. Yet I hadn’t thought his dorm room, our short stop on the way to the big event, would be so…decorated. I learned then what has been reinforced regularly over our 13 years together so far: he shows love through grand gestures and over-the-top generosity. The tree house he built our daughters last summer is epic. When we met with our pastor about the congregation’s capital campaign, we left having pledged more than twice what I anticipated. For my 40th birthday, he planned nearly 3 weeks vacation in Hawai’i for our family, including my birthday and Christmas with my dear friend who lives there. When we discussed buying a hybrid car, we ended up with an all-electric Tesla. My husband sees opportunities aligning as fraught with meaning, recognizes a chance to make a significant difference, and makes grand gestures. It is one of the things that I love most about him.

I am more of a detail person. The ordinary maintenance of keeping us alive and connected must be done too, and sometimes I think I am the only one who sees the needs. Someone must notice what we need from the store, obtain the next size of clothes and shoes for the children, put the ethnic holiday celebrations on the calendar, remember relatives’ birthdays, and write the check for the offering plate. Afterward, I sort through the (literally) thousands of pictures my husband has taken, and organize our memories into blog posts, a calendar and photo books from our many adventures. This is my specialty. I sometimes find myself at an impasse in the face of major purchases or donations, having learned from childhood to be frugal and cautious, but I know exactly what must be done to get everyone out the door in the morning with lunches packed, and how to curate our memories of the significant days later.

For abundant life, this family needs both of us. Both of our tendencies have positives and negatives, and believe me when I tell you they can cause friction. Yet this Advent season, I find myself wondering about our different gifts and related hazards and how God manages to do and be both or all of those things for us. And I marvel, at how our life-giving abundant faith depends upon it.

We are waiting to celebrate the grand gesture of God bringing into the world a human incarnation of the divine. Yet that big event, and the staggeringly generous action of God becoming human, produces a human Christ child who needs holding and nursing and raising into adulthood. Jesus enters into our daily scramble for survival and search for love. Since God the Creator is not present in the same way as human parents, God made sure that Jesus would have Mary and Joseph for his human family. Almighty God would be in Jesus’ life for clarity about his identity. At the end, God would bring Jesus alive again after death, the grandest gesture of all. But for the daily life, God counts on people like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and later the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ followers. Without the Incarnation and the Resurrection, what would Jesus’ life mean? It is not enough for Christ to simply be a good teacher who preached peace and love. But a human embodiment of God, who makes solidarity and new life real is who I need. Yet at the same time, the repeated compassionate actions, shocking teachings and passionate outbursts of God-in-the-flesh made the grand gestures trustworthy. The God who became flesh and blood like us is invested in healing our bodies, or protecting them from those who try to self-righteously stone us. The God who can raise Jesus from the dead brings healing and hope in this life when we are agonizing over the death of a relationship or our autonomy under an oppressive power. We need God’s everyday care to trust in the grand gestures, and vice versa. So God did both for us.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Editing

For the last month, I have been editing my book. I’ve added about one and a half chapters of new material to what I had, but the majority of the work to get my manuscript ready for its deadline has been re-working what I wrote last spring. This work has revealed much about my initial way of putting words on paper/computer, and how writing a book doesn’t necessarily resemble the shorter writing I have done in the past.

So Many Words

First, a book is long. I needed a minimum of 50,000 words because that was the book size I had promised, that all departments of the publisher are preparing to design and produce. The chapters I had that were more or less “finalized” already were between 5,000 and 6,000 words each, so multiplied by 9 chapters, I should have been right there. But some of the chapters were significantly less polished than I had remembered leaving them before my summer of full-time parenting and frequent travel. I managed to write some short pieces for publication during those summer months, but there were no periods of time for focusing on the overall arc of my manuscript. Plus, not having heard anything from a publisher in months, I was feeling a little deflated about the project, and gearing up to send it elsewhere when I heard from Church Publishing in mid-July. So the editing did involve one entirely new chapter, and significant work on one that was more of an outline than a readable chapter.

I regularly write short pieces between 500-2000 words, so 5,000 words that all hold together somehow are a challenge. I broke each chapter into about 3 sub-sections to make it manageable. I prize being concise and pithy, but trying to reach that word count for each chapter means that I sometimes indulged tangents or left in less insightful explorations. The dynamic of going into enough detail to be meaningful, while applying broad enough strokes to paint big ideas is one I am still trying to navigate. In the editing, I had a bigger problem: the big ideas of each chapter are related – as they ought to be in a book – and kind of bled into each other after awhile. Since writing a chapter at a time over multiple months last spring, alongside shorter pieces for publication on the subject (to build my “platform”), and even teaching an adult Sunday School class on the topic, I reached a point this month when I could not sort through in my brain whether a particular story or biblical reference sounded familiar because it was already in the book, or because I had used it elsewhere outside the book. My husband Stefan was a great help there. Reading the full manuscript with completely fresh eyes, he could point out several instances of overlap (once within the same chapter!).

Writing Is Not Preaching

Besides the online pieces I write, I am a preacher, and while that can transfer to writing skills, it is also a very different form. I’ve been preaching weekly now since mid-September while serving as a “bridge” interim pastor. I have been surprised by how many of the new sentences (in those 1.5 new chapters, but also new paragraphs here and there) I have written would work better for preaching than perhaps for reading. When I’m preaching, I can pause for emphasis between multiple clauses in a run- on sentence, and get my point across just fine. I can begin multiple sentences with “But” or “Because” and it is emphatic, not poor form. I can use the passive voice without losing the hearer’s interest because of my delivery, whereas on the page I have had to re-route all the passive voice to active instead. When I preach, the italics or underlining or exclamation points are made by my voice! The style guidelines from my publisher actually specify: no italics, underlining or ALL CAPS and “no more than 2 exclamation points in the entire book.” I have had to work out alternative methods of exclaiming and emphasizing strong statements.

A Writer Needs Readers

Other readers have been a very helpful part of the editing process. First Stefan read the book in its entirety, offering encouragement and constructive criticism. I sent out half of the chapters (the ones I was most concerned about) after editing for grammar, to friends who are themselves clergy mothers. They offered suggestions too, from details like: “Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to in this part?” all the way to big picture responses like, “It doesn’t smell like super-sessionism to me.” Feel free to Google that one. It was very helpful to have additional readers who could let me know if something is clear, even if one is not inside my head. The book is designed to be read by clergy women with their congregations – with discussion questions for each chapter – so readers’ own anecdotes will add to the content.

It has been a challenging, thoughtful month. Somehow, working very part-time at the bridge interim congregation (preaching, officiating at funerals, visiting people and encouraging the leadership) has dove-tailed well with this editing process. It gave me the break I need to come back to the manuscript fresh, and the permission to not say “yes” to too many other things during this month. I also suspect that turning in my manuscript is not the end of the edits. In the informational packet from the publisher, the time-line includes 8 weeks of editing, following the deadline. But my contract stated I would turn in a complete, polished manuscript, so I have. Stay tuned for more adventures in publishing!

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

My Book Has a Publisher!

On October 1st (our youngest daughter’s birthday) I received a book contract for my first book! Here are some details:

Working Title

Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God

Book Summary

Someone always needs you, and their faith – in God, themselves and the family of God – seems built on your dependability. Unnoticed labor is your expertise, yet your body and your family are always in the public eye. You navigate the family systems, using your words and your physical body to equip and coax them into more abundant life at home and in the community. But whose words and embrace will save you from burnout? Clergy Mother, I know you think you are failing or short-changing someone all the time. All sides pull you, need you, and no one believes that boundaries are for their own good. Yet I tell you, your ministry is made more effective by your mothering, not compromised by it. You are living theology for a mothering God.

Embodied addresses the reality of women leading in ministry while raising children as a set of deep gifts intertwined with challenges, and pointing ultimately to God’s own mothering behaviors. The book is aimed at clergy who are also mothers, with a powerful push to share the teeth-gritting beauty of this tension with those who can support us. Every chapter ends with reflection questions for clergy mothers and the support people we need to engage with us in working through this tension. Empowering mothers in ministry and all who relate to us to see our mothering skills as holy assets, the exhortations are grounded in solid theological reflection. Stories worthy of tears, chuckles or groans from the lives of clergy mothers will echo your own, as we stare down the assumptions people make about mothers who lead and reveal the mothering actions of God we have too often overlooked.

+++

The timeline is short, because I had a full draft manuscript by the time the publisher first responded to my proposal in mid-July. I am now deep into editing, and adding an extra chapter (based on one of my previous book proposals – ha!) before I am due to turn in the manuscript November 15th.

This title will be included in the Fall 2020 catalog of Church Publishing Incorporated, the publishing house of the Episcopal Church, which also reaches a wider ecumenical audience. Stay tuned as the process continues, and be ready for book launch news next fall!

A Turning Point

(A sermon on Luke 16:1-13)

Finally, he did the right thing.

For the wrong reason, but Jesus doesn’t seem to care about that. In this parable, the master or “lord” commends his dishonest manager because he acts shrewdly. And we scratch our heads, because… ummmm… I thought honesty was a virtue? Well, what if the adverb “shrewdly” is beside the point? Yeah, yeah, the children of this world are more shrewd than the children of the light, but God can work with anything to show people we are loved. Maybe what’s worth commending is simply that the manager acted, instead of squandering what belonged to his master by doing nothing. This guy – finally, since the end was near – reached out to others. And shockingly, with his selfish actions, relieved them of some of their burdens too!

I am reminded of Joseph, Pharaoh’s right hand man, telling his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, “What you intended for evil, God used for good.” The exact wording of Genesis 45:5 reads, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Those are really generous words for people who exploited you. Apparently God can use even our worst actions. But how’s God going to work with nothing?

What does it take to get you to act? What is the turning point?

Let’s start where it is easiest: our own interests. Most often, like the guy in our parable, we are looking out for #1. When I was a junior in high school, already SO beyond ready to graduate and move on, the school launched a new “mentorship” program. A high school senior could get out of school at noon if she had a workplace in the community where she could volunteer and learn about a career path. They had me at “get out of school at noon.” When I had to choose a workplace for the mentorship, I said, “Fine, how about my church?” After a year of this mentorship, my pastor said, “I realize you’re not looking for a confirmation of a ‘call’ here, but if you were, I’m giving it to you. You have the gifts for ministry.”

There might, just might, be teenagers across the world who participated in the climate strikes in our capital and so many others yesterday, not just because they love the earth, but ALSO because it was fun to get out of school. Doesn’t matter. There is precedent for God using what little effort we have brought or our mixed intentions, to show love to the world. The shrewd manager wants to be welcomed into the homes of the people he has had power over, so he uses his very last opportunity to curry their favor. And it changes their lives.

What might be the turning point that gets us to finally act?  

Someone Else’s Perspective: For some of us, a turning point is being struck by a perspective we could not see on our own. Maybe, the shrewd manager summoned his master’s debtors, then because he had recently had his own ego checked, he saw these other folks in a new way. Maybe his mind registered them as human beings like himself, slightly more than bodies to be exploited, now that his own superiority was uncertain. Once you see someone else as another full human like yourself – look out – you could start to act differently.

Seminary professor Barbara Rossing wrote in a commentary on this text that…

“Rich landlords and rulers in 1st century Roman-occupied Galilee were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord,” along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants. We sometimes forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts.” But when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% — namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges — our first instincts are to judge him.”

From his new position of vulnerability, a shrewd manager could start to admit that the entire system is corrupt. So, either he reduces the debts by what would have been his own “commission,” taking money out of his own pockets to purchase future hospitality. Or, he cheats his master, because he won’t miss it. Whereas these people being weighed down by generations of exploitation certainly need debt relief. Our instincts may be to jump to the conclusion that “being faithful with what is another’s” means being faithful to what belonged to the rich landlord, including the interest he was charging. But what if Jesus might be talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land?

Recognizing what is actually going on is a really good first step towards action. We have got to stop thinking that living a faithful life is just about making decisions in our personal lives that are morally upright. It may well be that the systems in which we have been “playing by the rules” are not just, and the most faithful action would be to use our power to dismantle the system instead of obediently playing our part.

If you are comfortable where you are, you can certainly find friends or news channels or “experts” of any kind who will tell you that the systems and institutions we are a part of are just fine the way they are. But if you listen to someone with a different perspective, you might just have to do something, instead of going along like nothing needs to change. Now, I don’t know any of you yet. But I can guess, hopefully, that you are motivated by relationships with your loved ones. Somebody loves you, and that makes you want to see, not just out of your own eyes/your own history, but also to glimpse what the word looks like to them. If you cannot think of anyone you have that kind of relationship with right now, that you want to see life through their experience, a faith community is where we should be about building such relationships.   

Here’s a perspective that shook me up, from a sibling, a fellow Lutheran pastor, that I hope will be a turning point for many congregations in the ELCA. This Thursday I was at the St Paul book party for this new book: Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. Now, if that makes you uncomfortable, it should. It makes me uncomfortable. Because I love the Lutheran Church, yet look around. And step outside and look around the neighborhood. Instead of being concerned with how will we make sure we’re paying the custodian and secretary a fair wage (which, you know, is important) we cannot stop there and think the church is doing justice. There are layers and layers of actions that have been taken OR NOT TAKEN, words that have been said, policies that have been put in place – so long ago they are just part of the background we all forget to think about – and you know, today, that have embedded racism in some of the ways we do church. And although I may also be cringe-ing, I have to thank Pastor Lenny Duncan for telling the truth about this story we are living together. I am also afraid that the congregations that most need to read and discuss and struggle with a book like this will not touch it with a 10-foot pole. But the grace he offered in person was moving to me (I’m paraphrasing): “If you have never thought about race and the church or never considered ways our church has excluded people while keeping others in power, you get to start where you start. Nobody gets to look down on you because you haven’t had this conversation before or haven’t identified with others as your siblings in Christ deserving of dignity. You are here now. And you get to start where you are starting.” Voices like that of Pastor Lenny Duncan, can call us to account.

Sometimes in congregations that are shrewd managers, it takes a sense that “the end could be near if we don’t do something differently,” to get us to do something. And so, it is a bit self-serving that we try to reach out and bring in new members because the writing is on the wall. We are confronted with an ultimatum, so then we act. But we most certainly have to start by listening. Listening to other people’s stories and giving up what we could have extracted from them, in order to be in some kind of relationship.

God can use that to do something new. To bury and raise up. To turn death into resurrection. Thanks be to God.