Sucker Punch

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At the end of third grade, we moved to Alpena, Michigan. It was four hours away from everyone and everything I knew. At eight years old, it may as well have been four states away. But fourth-graders tend to be very dramatic. No one tells parents this though. So consider this your heads up if your child is entering fourth grade.

I made friends quickly in my new town and new school in spite of being a quiet and awkward redhead. I was small for my age. I had gangly, skinny legs and my pants were always falling down. I was also stuck in that phase where children want to wear their jackets everywhere, even inside the house. (You thought it was only your child)

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Even though I made friends quickly, I was still the new kid. My classmates had been friends since kindergarten which is like forever when you’re in fourth grade. The bell would ring for recess and we all would run for the monkey bars. I loved the monkey bars. I had zero skills or chance of being a gymnast, but a girl can dream.

One day, the boys were harassing the girls. So basically another day on the playground. It continued even until we lined up before returning to class. One of the boys was bullying my friend. So I stood between them, my hands on my hips, telling him to knock it off and to leave her alone. I was the smallest in the class, but I wasn’t afraid to call out bullies.

And then, without a warning, he sucker punched me. There was no escalation. No pushing or shoving. It went from verbal to physical in a split second. At that moment, the world seemed to close in around me. I was on my knees, gasping for breath with my hair hanging in my face.

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Some things never change. I have always been a voice for the voiceless. I feel compelled to call out the bullies. I have this internal compulsion to defend the defenseless. I am the one who wants justice and the one who will fight for it should the need arise.

It’s also true that if you speak up for the voiceless, if you defend the defenseless, then you will be punched in the gut sooner or later. Usually sooner. I think this is why those in advocacy work need to take more breaks. They need a week or two off more often than others. Those of us who find ourselves speaking up for others need time to recover from the repeated punches we take in our line of work. Sometimes we even need to change directions for a while in order to take care of ourselves.

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It is not a sign of weakness to change directions. It doesn’t mean you have given up on your call or your vocation. It is a sign of wisdom, not of failure. A decision to change directions means you need to spend time healing so that you can return to advocacy work. For some, it might be a small change like blogging or taking up a hobby that has nothing to do with your work. For others, it might mean a new job in a slightly different field using your current skills.

Jeff Goins, the author of The Art of Work, discusses the idea of vocation as a portfolio rather than a job. We have a calling on our lives; a vocation.  And this vocation is lived out in a way that develops as a portfolio. Our collective work shapes the overall vocation.

The idea of a portfolio has taken root in all fields. My daughter had to create a portfolio for her senior year in high school. This concept is even more important if you find yourself in advocacy or creative work. It is not our job title or position that shapes us. Instead, it is the overall arch of our work that shapes our vocation.

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I am understanding this even more as a pastor. We have defined the call of the clergyperson so narrowly for decades. We envision a man standing in a pulpit preaching a sermon to rows and rows of people. And, yet, there are men and women answering the call to ordination who shape the Kingdom of God in a myriad of ways. We are chaplains, pastors, professors, and compassionate care ministers. We reach out to the poor, rich, young, old, blue collar worker, executive, and prostitute. Together we do our part to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.

I have a clergy friend who planted a church and sits on the city council. I have another friend who stands in the pulpit on Sundays preaching to rows of people and does something with cars during the week. I have several clergy friends who teach elementary students Monday through Friday and shepherd a congregation at the same time. But I also have clergy friends who run homeless shelters for battered women. And clergy friends who meet indiscriminately in coffee shops as they share the Good News with anyone who will listen.

Listen, your call, your vocation is going to look different from mine. And it will look different tomorrow than the first year you began. I have always had a compulsion to be a voice for the voiceless. But that may take its shape in different ways over the course of my life. The same is true for you. If you are being true to the call, then don’t worry about the title. Just keep doing the work.

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There is Strength in the Resting Place

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It’s day twenty-one of my sabbatical. Twenty-one days of Sabbath rest. Three sets of seven. On day twenty, I was wondering how I would continue doing what I do because, after twenty days, I still had no desire to preach. I had eleven more days to lean into this place of rest, but would it be enough.

Three Sundays before my sabbatical began, I woke up and the feeling of weight came upon me. The weight of carrying a message from God to the people was upon me. And it was heavy. It was difficult to physically stand up under its spiritual weight. At the end of the message, every ounce of oxygen seemed to leave my body and I was limp with exhaustion. I experienced this each Sunday for the last three weeks before I said my last Amen and gave my last benediction on July 29th. I slept for the first three days of sabbatical.

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For the last twenty-one days, I have created a new rhythm. Each day I walk and then I journal and meditate. I have no agenda except to lean into this rest. I am not asking God to speak and I am not looking for answers. Instead, I am resting in order for my soul to reveal who it’s supposed to be.

In Genesis 1, God created. He created space and time. He created matter large and small. He created all we can see and not see. He created humankind in His image. And then He rested.

Jesus said, “My father is always at work.”

Jesus said, “My father is always at work.” So which is it? Did God rest or not?

Yes. He rested. On the seventh day, God rested by taking His hands off of creation. He let go of control and allowed creation to be what it was going to be. God knew that in the resting place creation could become even more.

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It’s construction season here in Michigan. There are orange traffic cones aplenty in every direction. In some places, they have poured cement and moved on to the next project even though the road is still sectioned off. The reason? It takes twenty-eight days for the cement to reach 75% of its potential strength. It’s in the resting that cement becomes stronger and reaches its full potential.

In our own lives, we often fail at resting. And we fail at taking our hands off that which we’ve been creating for the last six days. We never allow it to reach its full potential because we keep messing with it. We have to touch it and poke it and manipulate it “just a little more”. And we wonder why it is stagnant, stale, and slowly eroding.

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In the words of Bob Newhart, “Stop it!”

Stop talking. Stop writing. Stop the business. Stop the planning. Stop the hype. Every day is not Easter Sunday. You must lean into the negative space and let it all rise up. Let the tension go. Feel the feelings. Observe the thoughts that skip across your mind without judgment. And just be. Let what you have been creating be what it is going to be.

On this sabbatical, I have done some “stuff”. I did research and worked on a few projects I’ve been wanting to begin. I’ve done some writing and reading. But most of the things I have done have been personal and private. They are no ones’ business but mine.

So why did the Church give me a sabbatical? What’s in it for them? Nothing. It’s not about them. The Church gave me a sabbatical because it’s the right thing to do. As I lean into this rest, I will become more authentic and healthy. And, eventually, it will make me a more authentic and healthier leader.

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Today is day twenty-one of my sabbatical. It was raining so I didn’t walk in the morning. Instead, I took my mom to breakfast for her birthday. Then I ran some errands, walked, and journaled. In the middle of the day, I started writing a sermon in my head and planning a communion service. Then I stopped and realized that I was writing a sermon and planning communion. In the resting, it rose to the surface without any coaxing. A  compulsion to share good news and space with a faith community rose up within me…because I rested.

Dear reader, you are cheating yourself every time you fail to keep the Sabbath rest. You are cheating your family and your creativity. Your unceasing work ethic is not admirable. It’s idolatry and you are worshipping yourself. Take a page of wisdom from the ancient mystics and learn the art of resting.

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Hybels, Weinstein, and Me, Too

When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous. Now, if that man, when he gets all he can and saves all he can, does not give all he can, I have more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man! – John Wesley

The mainstream media is reporting that the former pastor, Bill Hybels, has been accused of sexual misconduct. They report there have been numerous accounts over the course of his ministry. I am baffled, saddened, and sit in disbelief along with thousands of other Christians. According to the article, he has not been legally charged in any way. But we know we will all make some sort of judgment over the next several days.

My first thought is that I find it hard to believe Hybels is the Harvey Weinstein of the church world.  And my second thought was that I want to believe the women because (one) I am one and (two) the church has been guilty of such things in the past. Did you just let out a loud sigh? Me too!

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I recently heard a podcast by Malcomb Gladwell about the reliability of our memories. It will totally mess with your head, especially when he starts talking about the science. Sometimes our memories get jumbled together. Sometimes we misinterpret a gesture of compassion for flirtation. We all know someone who has been falsely accused of something, anything. It may not be sexually related, but you know someone. I know someone. A few someones. Even a few someones who were falsely accused of sexual misconduct. But, in the case of Weinstein and Hybels, that’s a lot of accusations. Too many to be dismissed. Too many to not ask more questions.

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We are all vulnerable. Even you. Even me. Even Hybels. Fatigue, stress, the pressure to succeed and perform and excel all make us vulnerable. I was there. If you are human, then you have been there, too. I could have and would have given in to temptation had the circumstances been right. And the same is true for you, so let’s stop lying to ourselves. It’s why we need accountability.

As a new believer in Christ, I had baggage. And I put myself in situations that left me vulnerable; emotionally, physically, mentally. It was God’s incredible grace that rushed in to provide a way out. I took the warning. A few times I didn’t take the warning quickly enough and God’s grace slapped me upside the head. He reminded me that humiliation is often the ultimate form of grace…and mercy. In my current assignment, I have board members who know they can approach me at any time and they have done so. They have asked if I really meant to say or do something because it didn’t seem appropriate; it didn’t seem in line with my values. They gave me an opportunity to explain and/or to apologize.

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I appreciate the #MeToo movement and the stance women are taking now. They are doing their best to overcome fear and intimidation. They are attempting to bring down the patriarchy. I understand. I have experienced harassment in the past as well. In my “former life” (read before becoming a pastor), I was a wedding photographer. One of our bosses used to harass all the women photographers. My (female) co-worker confronted him saying that one day he would “probably be charged with sexual harassment”. His response? He laughed.

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My fear is that this will not bring down the patriarchy. Instead, it will serve to prop it up. Women (in the church) will be sidelined once again and relegated to traditional roles. It will serve our complementarian friends well and our egalitarian friends will remain silent. We (women clergy) will be uninvited to the table. And, in the end, the curtain closes and patriarchy is left intact.

I want justice for all the women and all the men. I want justice for all the girls and all the boys. But in our attempt to bring justice are we actually feeding the beast? There must be a better way. There must be a third way. There must be a Jesus way that doesn’t leave us caught in a snare.

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I believe Jesus did give us a better way; a third way. We need more [women] at the table, not less. When there are more women at the table is levels out the testosterone in the room. The women are free to be themselves and the men are free to be themselves. And when we are free to be ourselves, then we can be about the business of the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Earth.

For some of us, this Hybels story needs to be a wake-up call. We need to implement some accountability in our lives. And by accountability, I don’t mean the “Billy Graham Rule“. Women are not vices. They are people. They are representatives of God on earth. (see Genesis 1-2). Sin is born of our selfish, unchecked, unsurrendered desires (see James; the entire book). As pastors and Christians, we need mentors and friends who will walk with us in life. Too often we cut ourselves off and keep people at arm’s length. And this only serves sin’s purpose.

Here is a great goal for the last half of 2018: find a friend, preferably two or three. Will they let you down? Probably. Definitely. Absolutely. And that is because they need your accountability just as much as you need theirs. Do it anyway! It’s the only way we will bring down the patriarchy and set up the Kingdom of God in its place.

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