Month: April 2015

#WomanInThePulpit Blog Tour Q&A Featuring Rev. Martha Spong

RevGals cover
Today I’m excited to share an interview by Martha Spong, editor of the new book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor. The book features stories and anecdotes from dozens of women clergy across denominations.  Martha and I talk about the book, of course, but also a little about women and ministry, in general, and some generational differences. I loved this interview and am so excited to share it with you. Enjoy:
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TS: Martha, though their are many contributors, you are the editor and principal “dreamer” of this book, so it’s an honor to have you talk about it. For those who may have not heard anything about the book, can you tell us a little about what it’s about and who the intended audience is? 
 
MS: Thank you for writing about the book! It’s an anthology of stories and prayers about ministry written by more than 50 women pastors from five different countries, representing fifteen denominations. They are all members (past or active) of the RevGalBlogPals web ring, which we formed in 2005. We think it’s a good read not just for pastors, but for people considering ordained ministry and others who are interested in what a pastor’s life might be like. 
 
TS: What inspired you to write this book and publish it? 
 
There are a lot of wonderful writers in our web ring with distinctive voices and wide-ranging experiences of ministry, some because of their geographic or ecclesiastical context, and others because of personal factors. Their stories are hilarious and heart-wrenching and often humbling. I wanted to bring their testimony about faith and ministry to a larger audience, and so did the publisher, SkyLight Paths.
 

TS: I’m curious about your own call to ministry. Did you always want to be a minister? How did you know this was God’s call for your life?

Rev. Martha Spong

Rev. Martha Spong

 
I grew up in Virginia and had an ecumenical upbringing: a Southern Baptist mother and grandmother on one side, a United Methodist father and grandmother on the other, then six years of living where we attended a Presbyterian Church while I went to Episcopal school. In none of those places did I ever encounter a woman in ordained ministry, although some of those denominations had begun to ordain women. It never occurred to me it was something a woman could do until I was in college and was encouraged by my cousin, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. My dream growing up was to marry the minister’s son, with a child’s confidence that he would grow up to be a minister! That is not quite the way things turned out. I grew to understand that I had a call all along to a life in the church. And funnily, I am now both a pastor and a pastor’s wife. (And so is she.)
 
It seems like this book would be a great gift for a clergy woman who was just starting out in ministry What words of encouragement would you have for a new seminary graduate just beginning her ministry? 
 
Don’t assume you’ve finished learning the things you need to know. Field Ed or Mentored Practice gives only a taste of what practical ministry will demand. We’ve all been taught by the people to whom we are called as pastors and teachers. Keep or cultivate a sense of humor. And be sure to read the section in the book called ”They Don’t Teach That in Seminary!” 
 
TS: I will definitely look for the “they don’t teach that in seminary” section. I’m guessing there will be some familiar content there! I know there are a lot of contributors to this work and so picking a “favorite” might be impossible but is there any section or essay that you would highlight as being particularly meaningful to you? 
 
I am particularly fond of the stories I asked people to write; they came from members of our web ring who identify as bloggers, but not so much as “writers,” although every one of them writes a lot for her work as a pastor and preacher. These were stories I knew had happened and wanted to include in the book. Among those, I love Stephanie Anthony’s about visiting her daughter’s religious school in a tradition that does not ordain women, “For Some Reason.” One that summons up tears every time is Jennifer Burns Lewis’s essay about her mother and baptism, “By Water and the Word.” And as a fellow knitter, I have a great appreciation for Stacey Simpson Duke’s “I Rise Before the Sun.” Really, though, I love them all. 
 
TS: Ok, so changing topics a bit, I read a tweet the other day where a woman was talking about her daughter’s experience flipping through a book of presidents. The daughter looked up and said “mom, do you have to be a boy to be president?” I feel like the same is not true for female clergy, though. My seminary class was about 1/2 female, and many of my colleagues in town are gifted women leaders. On the other hand, I experience blatant and subtle sexism often in my work. What do you think about all of this? Do you think women have “arrived” or do we still have a long ways to go? 
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MS: I think we’re somewhere in the middle. There is still a lot of institutional sexism where salary is concerned. Women still face the assumption that a spouse will cover their insurance or that being married means they don’t need to be paid as much. This isn’t unique to ministry, but one would hope the church would do a better job becoming aware and making changes. One of the reasons RevGals took off as a community ten years ago was the cyber-bonding between women who did not have colleague groups. It’s fine if you’re in an area where there are lots of women clergy or even sympathetic or accepting male colleagues, but over and over I heard stories  about being the only woman within fifty miles, or the only mainline pastor in a small town where the ministerium asked the lone woman to be the secretary at their meetings. Women seemed to be appointed to or accepting calls in smaller churches and towns. In my own life, I started as solo pastor in a church with 90 members, while my seminary classmates who were male went to churches with 200 or 300. Part of that was my choice. I had three children at home and was looking for a way to balance ministry and motherhood. But part of that is assumptions within the systems, too.
 
TS: Ok, it’s never polite to ask a person’s age, but I think that you might have some great insight about generational differences for women in ministry. How has ministry for women changed over the years that you’ve been in ministry? What advantages do younger women ministers have that our older peers do not? 
 
MSI am very open about my age! I’m 53, and I was ordained at 41 after spending 8 years in seminary, in part due to a choice to be as available as possible to my kids. The biggest change I see is that women are now being seriously considered for what we think of, rightly or wrongly, as the “big” or “tall steeple” jobs in ministry. We believe God calls us to ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ, without setting limits on the size and situation of the churches, but the churches themselves have been slower to get there. One of the women called to a tall steeple this past year, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler at Riverside Church in New York, was part of our web ring very early on while serving a small and struggling church. The Rev. Shannon Kershner, a dear friend, is now the lead pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. It hasn’t been that long since clergywomen were voicing frustration that women were given only token consideration for these jobs; now we see relatively young women living into them and becoming recognizable in the wider world. I think that’s tremendously hopeful. 
 
TS: What’s something you’d like to tell us about the book that I didn’t get around to asking? 
 
MS: Although it’s not a book specifically about RevGalBlogPals, if you read all the stories, you’ll get some insight into our history as a community, including how we started and why we take those group pictures of our feet. 🙂
 
TS: Where can readers get a copy of this fantastic book? 
 
MS: It’s available from SkyLight Paths Publishing (you’ll find links here to e-books, too), as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and UCC Resources. I’ve heard it’s in some seminary bookstores already, too. Ask your local bookstore to stock it! 
 
TS: How can readers connect with you and the other contributors?
 
MS: RevGalBlogPals has a blog with daily content aimed at resourcing pastors. Twenty-three of the writers for the book are also on our blog team. And the book page on our blog has links to all their personal blogs.
 
You can also find us on Facebook, where we have a huge discussion group (2600+ members) as well as a page sharing resources from our blog and members, and you can follow us on Twitter
Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, writer, blogger, and Director of RevGalBlogPals – a job that is equal parts Social Media Minister, Webmaster, Volunteer Coordinator, Event Planner and Dreamer. She lives in South Central Pennsylvania with her wife Kathryn Johnston, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor. They have four children.

The Stench of Resurrection

smellyeastermorning

This week I caught up with a colleague over a cup of coffee. It was there she told the story of an Easter morning debacle unlike any I had ever heard: A rat had crawled into the oven and died sometime during lent. When the oven was turned on to heat up breakfast casseroles, the dead (and now burning) rat began to perfume the entire building with its awful stench. “I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled anything like that, but I can’t even describe it,” she said. She went on to tell about how she and parishioners frantically opened windows, trying to rid the building of the gag-inducing smell. “Nothing says ‘Christ is Risen’ like the smell of burning rat flesh,” we laughed. Hilarious. Awful. Gross. As I reflected on it later, though, it occurred to me how poignant and maybe even appropriate the whole story was — the smell of death lingering in the air on Easter morning.

Just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha says to Jesus “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” (John 11:39, NRSV)

There is a stench in the air on the day of resurrection. I don’t think we talk about that enough, but we probably should.

On Easter, the alleluias come back and the lilies come out. The trumpets sound, and the bells are rung. But the poor are still hungry. The prisoners are still captive. The terminally ill are still dying. Writer Barbara Johnson said it this way: We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world*. We who proclaim the resurrection know that it is very good news. “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” we proclaim, and we mean it. But this victory is not easily won and the death is not easily forgotten. We don’t like to talk about it, but there’s a stench, a smell, we can open the windows and bring in flowers, but it’s still there.

After Lazarus is raised from the dead, John 11 tells us another interesting detail in verse   forty four. He writes, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” I remember a fairly disturbing coloring sheet from my childhood depicting this event. Lazarus, the walking mummy. The biblical narrative is matter-of-fact and doesn’t linger in details. Jesus simply tells Mary and Martha “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What does it mean to unbind a newly resurrected body and let him go?  What was it like for Mary and Martha to remove those strips of cloth from Lazarus’s  flesh? What did it smell like?

As we Easter people go about the work of cleaning up after the resurrection, we have a job to do: unbind him and let him go.  We participate in the work of resurrection, and it is hard work. It isn’t as clean as we have been led to believe, perhaps. There’s a smell in our nostrils we can’t quite get out.

Though the stench might seem to put a damper on the celebration, I have to wonder if it doesn’t do us a favor. It reminds us that even after the resurrection, death is lingering in the air.

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Original quote from “God’s Tear Bottle,” The Best Devotions of Barbara Johnson

Family Paschal Candle: Celebrating Easter as a Season, Not Just One Day #seamlessfaith

paschalcandle

This morning 3 year old Clayton said, “Today is Easter Day again! It’s Jesus Day Again!” If I were to guess, he was referring to the joy of yesterday and wanting to repeat it. Butterflies. Candy. Egg hunt. Friends.

I can’t help but reflect on how profound that statement is, theologically. Easter is not just one day, it is a season. Resurrection, in the Christian year is celebrated from Easter day all the way to the day of Pentecost (this year on May 17.) Next year, I think I’ll make a resurrection calendar with activities for each day, but here’s a very simple idea: a Family Paschal Candle.

Family Paschal Candle Tradition:

Designed for All Ages

Time Investment: 15 minutes to make the candle + 1 minute each evening from Easter to Pentecost

Materials:

How To

  1. Place the candle in a jar or bowl and explain to the family that the candle is a special Easter (or Paschal) candle and that it will represent Jesus’ resurrection from Easter day all the way until Pentecost (the day that the Holy Spirit comes to us.)
  2. Every night at dinner, place the Paschal candle in the center of the table and light it saying these words “We light the Easter candle today because we remember that Easter is not just a day, it’s a whole season. Happy Easter!
  3. Continue the practice until the Day of Pentecost, May 24 (don’t worry, there are plenty of Pentecost practices for that day — stay tuned!)

Notes

  • Read more about the history of the paschal candle here, if you are interested.
  • I was inspired to adapt the Paschal candle activity to families from this article. 

Variations 

  • Light the candle in the morning, at breakfast or at bedtime (any time that there is consistent connection with your family)
  • Use a battery operated candle for toddler/baby houses
  • Write your own words to say

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Like this activity? There are 50 more traditions, ceremonies and spiritual practices in my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Life. You can also connect  on Facebook and Pinterest where I link to other resources for family faith and spirituality.

Easter 2015 | Sunday: Mystery

FOP2015_400Easter • APR 5

Mystery

Read 1 Corinthians 15:51–54.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! (v. 51a)

When I talk to parents struggling to communicate the basics of faith to their children, I encourage them to learn to embrace a single word—mystery. So much about our faith is completely unknowable to human beings. How did God create the world out of nothing? Mystery. How can Jesus be fully God and fully divine at the same time? Mystery. How was Jesus raised from the dead? Mystery. Perhaps the most personal and profound mystery of all is this: What happens to us after we die? Paul explains it by saying we will not all die, but we will all be changed. This is the mystery.

On Easter morning all around the country, sermons are preached about new life, resurrection, and life after death. These sermons are inspiring and uplifting; they bring light to our darkness and hope to our despair, but for many, they are unsatisfying. I know this fact well even though I faithfully preach such a sermon every Easter. The reason these inspirational sermons are unsatisfying is that nobody—not me, not your pastor, not the Pope—nobody knows what happensafter we die.

Instead of trying to explain it, let’s embrace the mystery of it and give thanks to God Lent is a journey, and so is this life. May we never forget that among the many gifts God has given us, we have been given one more—the gift of not knowing. There is freedom in the mystery.

Enjoy the journey.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all. Amen.

These Holy Week Posts were published in the Fellowship of Prayer 2015 published annually by Chalice Press. Check out some of Chalice’s recent (and amazing) offerings such as: Sandya Rani Jha’s Pre-Post Racial America,Brian Christopher Coulter’s Be Holy,  and Stephen Ingram’s Organic Student Ministry. Of course, my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life is also published by Chalice Press in 2014.

Holy Week 2015 | Saturday: One Hundred Pounds

FOP2015_400HOLY SATURDAY • APR 4

One Hundred Pounds

Read John 19:38–42.

They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (v. 40)

Saturday is the day that Jesus is laid in the tomb. The Gospel of John tells us that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea wrap Jesus’ body with spices and aloe in strips of linen. When I read the story recently, there was a detail that stood out to me. Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to Jesus’ grave to prepare him for burial. I don’t know why, but I have always imagined Jesus’ burial preparation as sort of ethereal and quiet. However, when I think about one hundred pounds of spices plus the linens, I realize that these two were carrying a lot of weight to the grave. The preparation surely must have been very physical with a lot of sweating, as they carried the spices and Jesus’ body to the tomb.

We don’t have many details about what might have been going through the men’s minds as they performed this difficult and heartbreaking chore. I wonder if Nicodemus flashed back to the time when he asked Jesus what it took to inherit eternal life. Did he remember Jesus’ words that he must be born again? Did the words take on new meaning as he wrapped Jesus’ body in cloths and covered his skin in spices and ointment? My instinct tells me that whatever epiphany Nicodemus experienced about his spiritual journey with Jesus in the flesh was confirmed and made even more profound as he worked so intimately with Jesus in his death.

Facing death is a heavy burden. Confronting it is hard work. Still, we can learn lessons from it, right there in the tomb.

God of life and of death, thank you for being present through it all. Help me to experience your presence, even at the tomb. Amen.

These Holy Week Posts were published in the Fellowship of Prayer 2015 published annually by Chalice Press. Check out some of Chalice’s recent (and amazing) offerings such as: Sandya Rani Jha’s Pre-Post Racial America,Brian Christopher Coulter’s Be Holy,  and Stephen Ingram’s Organic Student Ministry. Of course, my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life is also published by Chalice Press in 2014.

Holy Week 2015 | Friday: The Worst Day in the Christian Year

FOP2015_400GOOD FRIDAY • APR 3

The Worst Day in the Christian Year?

Read Luke 23:32–34.

Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (v. 34)

Though it is called Good Friday, today is, in many ways, the worst day in the Christian year. This is the day we remember everything about Jesus’ awful arrest, torture, crucifixion, and death. Today is the day we remember that he was betrayed by every single one of his closest friends. Today is the day we remember that Jesus was stripped of all of his clothes, mocked, spit upon, made to carry his own cross, and beaten until he could barely walk. We remember today that Jesus was nailed to a cross, that his side was pierced with a spear. We remember that he suffered in great, unimaginable ways. There is nothing good about this day—or is there?

When we read this passage, we cannot avoid noticing the very first thing Jesus says as he embarks upon his terror-filled journey: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34).

When we read the gruesome and bloody details of what happened on that day, we are struck, time and again, with details of how violent the passage is. We must be very clear about one thing: this story is violent because people are violent. Contrast the actions of the soldiers and the crowd with the words of Jesus, which are words of forgiveness and grace: “They do not know what they are doing.” Truer words were never spoken. The reason today is called Good Friday is that the forgiveness extended to us as human beings, undeserving as we are, is very good news.

God of forgiveness, thank you for the humbling example of grace and mercy that Jesus shows to his worst enemies. Help us to learn to be forgiving as well. Amen.

These Holy Week Posts were published in the Fellowship of Prayer 2015 published annually by Chalice Press. Check out some of Chalice’s recent (and amazing) offerings such as: Sandya Rani Jha’s Pre-Post Racial America,Brian Christopher Coulter’s Be Holy,  and Stephen Ingram’s Organic Student Ministry. Of course, my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life is also published by Chalice Press in 2014.

Holy Week 2015 | Thursday: Sacred Fellowship

FOP2015_400THU • APR 2

Sacred Fellowship

Read Luke 22:7–23.

“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (v.15)

This day, Thursday, is the last time the disciples are all together before Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the day that Jesus breaks bread, lifts up the cup, and says the familiar words remembered by Christians every time they also gather together with bread and wine: “Do this in remembrance of me.” I imagine it was a warm and intimate time for the disciples as they gathered there. I imagine that it might have been like some of the best dinner parties I’ve attended with close friends. A meal shared with friends bonded by a common experience is a treasure. With close friends you can dive deep and cry together, or share belly laughs and inside jokes. I wonder if the disciples joked and laughed at the Last Supper. Surely it wasn’t a serious affair the whole time, from start to finish, was it?

In the hindsight of what happened the very next day—Jesus’ arrest, torture, and crucifixion—that meal becomes even more meaningful and significant. Let us take this lesson to heart the next time we are gathered around a holy table with our closest friends. Let us take a moment to remember that these moments of sharing and eating and enjoying one another are not always permanent. Let us remember to savor the good, close times with our loved ones, to treat them with respect and not tarnish them with our petty disagreements and worries.

God of sacred fellowship, thank you for the holy meals you have given to me. Help me to honor them and keep them holy. Amen.

These Holy Week Posts were published in the Fellowship of Prayer 2015 published annually by Chalice Press. Check out some of Chalice’s recent (and amazing) offerings such as: Sandya Rani Jha’s Pre-Post Racial America,Brian Christopher Coulter’s Be Holy,  and Stephen Ingram’s Organic Student Ministry. Of course, my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life is also published by Chalice Press in 2014.