Facing Forty: Yes, I Need You To Tell Me to Suck It Up

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In just a couple of days, I will turn the big 4-0.  As I approach this milestone, many people have asked me how I feel about it.  “Well,” I answer, “To be honest, I am pretty much freaking out.”  

Listen, I want to be able to say that I am feeling grateful and eager and confident as I start a new decade. I want to be able to write about how fortunate and blessed and happy I am (which is true) as I look back to what these last forty years have brought me.  I want to be able to celebrate and anticipate the good things still to come, because I trust that God is always doing a new thing (which is also true).  But it is also true that every time I hear about my upcoming birthday and the number that goes with it I cringe and want to put my fingers in my ears.      

I’m not okay with feeling this way. It flies in the face of everything that I value.  I believe that being an adult and gaining experience is wonderful. I find it frustrating that we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and feel that our obsession with being younger is both harmful and unnecessary. I think forty is a great age and that I should be grateful to reach it, because (as my dear sister used to say), what’s the only alternative to turning forty?…NOT turning forty.

So I need to suck it up.

And you all have my complete permission to tell me to suck it up, knock it off, and pull my crap together. I don’t need validation, sympathy or encouragement.  I need to stop believing the lies that getting older is a bad thing. I need to stop weighing myself and my accomplishments against others and some idea of what I “should have” achieved by now.  I need to see forty years as a blessing instead of a benchmark. I need to stop obsessing about the deepening wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.  

I need what I think a whole lot of us need: truth tellers.  I need people who will tell me this truth again and again – that I am as loved and valuable and whole at forty as I was at 20, 25, and 30.

That I will continue to be loved and valuable and whole with every decade I am given to live, no matter what I accomplish, create, achieve or complete.  That I don’t need Botox for my forehead wrinkle because, seriously? Get over it.   

Tell me the truth – that God has only and will ever only call me to follow Him one day, one year, one decade at a time.  That he doesn’t have a rubric for measuring how I’m doing.  That He doesn’t keep “top 40 under 40 lists,” and that He isn’t looking at the ones we make either.

Keep telling me the truth friends, and, if I whine a bit and say: “But forty!”  “But old!”  “But when did this happen?”  you also have my permission to smack me (lightly) on the side of the head.       

I’m guessing I’m not the only one that needs to remember this. I am finding myself thinking of two experiences of birthdays for me as a teenager.  The first was a game we played at sleepovers (our birthday party of choice as soon as we all turned thirteen) called the “best and worst traits” game. We would go around the room and say everyone’s best and worst trait.  (And, yes, this went about as terribly as you can imagine it would in a room full of teenage girls). Either way, we kept playing and I always got the same answers.  “Your best trait is your honesty and your worst trait is your honesty.”  What they meant by this was that I had a slight tendency to say things that did not need to be said, but that I felt obliged to say simply because they were true.  It did not always go well.  (Thank you God for giving me forgiving friends).

The second was that I always had the first birthday of the year.  I was the first of my friends to turn 13.  The first to get my license.  The first to officially reach adulthood on my 18th birthday. Now I’m the first to turn 40.  And on this occasion, I’m going to be the same Leanne I’ve been since age 13 and offer some unsolicited truth, whether you’ve asked for it or not, simply because I’m the first one to get here.

I know a whole lot of you are freaking out just as much as me.  I know we don’t know how we got here or when we suddenly became the age our parents were when they seemed so ancient. I know that on the inside we still feel like those teenagers walking down the road to the arcade on a Friday night.  I know our forehead wrinkles and grey hairs still surprise us when we look in the mirror. I know we look at our kids or our aging parents and we wish we could make time stop.  

And I know we need to suck it up.  

Our lives may not be exactly as we pictured or hoped that they would be. But we have 40 years for which to be thankful and, hopefully, many more years to come.  To all the 1978 babies out there, let us, in our 40th years be people who speak and hear THIS truth: we are loved and whole and valuable at this age, and every age to come.  Instead of lamenting 40, let’s celebrate it.  

(And if anyone tries to tell you any differently,  don’t invite them to the sleepover).

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The Grieving Woman and the Christmas Story

I remember that Christmas when what I wanted most in the whole world was to be having a baby.  We had been hoping to have children for a while, but after some tests we were waiting for an appointment with fertility specialists.  It was November when we got the news that conceiving on our own might not be possible, and I was devastated.  As Christmas got closer, the last thing I wanted to hear about was pregnancy and babies – and here we were entering a season where a story involving those exact things was all around me.  Every pregnant belly made me jealous.  Every baby in a stroller made my heart ache.  And every mention of the miracle of the baby born at Christmas made me wonder why I couldn’t have a miracle for me.  

In the end, we were one of those couples that had to cancel the appointment at the fertility clinic when we found out we were having a child.  We only knew the pain of longing for children for a short time, so I can’t pretend to understand the experience of women who have been on a longer, harder journey than me. However, that season of heartache did teach me something:   Christmas can be a painful time for women that long to hold their children and are unable to do so.  This includes women who have wanted children and not been able to conceive, those who have miscarried and those who have outlived the children they loved.  

When we read stories in the Bible, I always encourage people to look for where they see themselves in the story. But where does a woman who has had to come to terms with infertility find herself when she reads the story of Elizabeth conceiving in her old age?  Where does a woman who has miscarried see herself as she reads of a joyous birth, something she never got to experience with her baby?  Where does the grieving mother, facing the first Christmas since her child has died, find herself as she sings of “mother and child” and aches to hold her own child again?

When you feel so far from Elizabeth, from Mary, and from the joyful mothers in the Christmas story, where do you belong?  Is there a part of the story that can feel like yours? I have been reflecting on this question often this Christmas and I can’t shake the desire to share this message for those who need to hear it: broken hearted women ARE in the story. We just don’t talk about them as much.

Many of us will know the famous part of the Christmas story that says some “wise men” came to find Jesus.  Because they were looking for a king, they logically talked to the current king, Herod, about where to find the new king that had been born.  Herod’s scholars directed them to Bethlehem, where it was said the Messiah would be born, and Herod asked them to come back after they had found the child.  His intention, however, wasn’t to worship Jesus, but to kill him.  The wise men decided not to return to Herod, and when Herod realized he had been tricked, he wanted to do all he could to prevent another king from taking his place.  He ordered that all boys in Bethlehem, aged two and under, be killed.  By the time this happened, Mary and Joseph had already taken Jesus from Bethlehem, so his plan failed.  Instead, it led to the murder of completely innocent babies – babies that were loved and wanted and cherished and held and longed for by mothers who had to let them go.  The Bible describes the devastation by saying:  A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

How great the wailing must have been.

Each time I read this story, it takes my breath away. I can hardly handle the thought of opening my door to find a soldier there to kill my child.  I can’t imagine the anguish. I can’t fathom the pain in those mamas’ hearts.

I know why we don’t dwell on this story at Christmas, but sometimes I think maybe it deserves a little more airtime.  Sometimes I think there are a lot of us who need to remember that there is sadness in the Christmas story too – that there were mothers who had their dreams shattered alongside those who had their dreams come true. The hurting women are part of the Christmas story – the ones with the empty arms and  the broken hearts.

Yes, the Christmas story is ultimately one of joy. But it never demands that those in pain be forgotten. It doesn’t sugar coat, cover up, or forget heartbreak.   We always stop the readings before we get to the awful part on Christmas Eve, but it strikes me that Scripture never left it out.  God didn’t say: “This is too sad.  It’ll bring people down.  Let’s not mention it.”  It isn’t justified or explained away. It is simply acknowledged and named and allowed to be.

I know we forget this in churches, especially at Christmas time.  We don’t always want to make space for the sad stuff, and this can make those who carry sadness feel forgotten.  For that, I am sorry, and it is why I want to say it again: if you are a grieving, hurting, longing, dream-shattered women – you belong in the story, too.  Alongside Mary and Elizabeth are the mothers who mourned. There’s space for your loss there, and there is space for you. 

When you’re ready, and when you’re able, I know you’ll see the hope in the story as well. The Christmas story shows us that the impossible can become possible through the power of God.  Your impossible may be believing that there can be joy in your life again. Have hope that Christ’s coming can make even this true.  One day.

But, this Christmas, if it’s not the day, and you are more broken than joyful – you don’t have to wait to feel you belong in the story.  You’re already here. It is, after all, for your sorrows that Christ came.  

 

 

 

 

Red Threads and Invisible Women

One of the common things that I hear when people talk to me about women being preachers,  particularly among those new to the idea, is the statement:  “I’ve never seen it.” Sometimes this is a statement meant to express a simple lack of experience, often said with regret. Other times it is meant to make a point – that if women were meant to have such a role, then surely, the argument goes, there would be more examples from history at the ready.

As if not hearing the stories of women means that the stories don’t exist.

As if forgotten voices somehow never spoke at all.

As if we can work with the assumption that history is kind when it comes to remembering women.

As a graduate student studying to prepare for ministry, I wrote a paper about the history of women pastors in my denomination.  For years, I took pride in being able to say that the FIRST woman ordained within our particular baptist family was a woman named Muriel Carder, ordained in 1947.  I knew a lot about this “first” ordained woman.  I had read the minutes of her ordination council!  I knew most of the debate at her ordination council was not about biblical teaching, but about whether she’d be physically able to baptize large men (as well as a heated discussion regarding a comment she’d made about dancing).  I knew that the strength she showed to have her own call validated paved the way for women like me to follow our call.  I knew about our history, or so I thought.

Then last week my husband, who works for our denomination, asked me: “Do you know who the first ordained woman was in our denomination?”

I was offended. “Ah, yeah,” I answered.  “Muriel Carder.”

“I thought so, too,” he said, “but you know what we recently learned? There was a woman named Jennie Johnson who was ordained in 1909 in the United States, and moved to Canada and worked in one of our associations!” Yes, Reverend Carder was the first woman our denomination ordained, but there had been an ordained woman serving decades before her.   

I was thrilled to hear this story, but I was also sad. Where had her story gone?  How had I never found it?  How had it not been shared by now?

And what other stories have we lost?

The sad truth is that women have always been disappearing from history, and that these disappearances happen as much in the Church as anywhere else.  It’s what allows too many to say: “I’ve never seen it,” and to assume that means it never happened. It’s also why we need to tell the stories when we know them – and advent is a wonderful time to do that.  

Advent is the time in the Christian Calendar which leads up to Christmas. It is the time when Christians remember the waiting and the longing of those that yearned for the birth of a Messiah.  As we remember, we often look back at all the pieces of the story that culminated in the birth of Jesus.  And to remember that well, we have to remember the women in the story.   

One of these women was named Rahab.  We meet Rahab when God’s people, who had been wandering in the desert for 40 years, were getting ready to come back to the promised land.  The tricky thing was that there were now other people living in this land.  When they came upon one city, called Jericho, two Israelite spies went inside the town, surrounded by a wall, to assess the situation.  While they were there, they went to the home of, to use the Bible’s terms, a “harlot named Rahab.”  Having heard there were spies in her house, the king sent soldiers to get the spies at Rahab’s home.  But she protected them.  She hid the spies and told the soldiers they had already left.  Why did she do it? She explained to the spies that she believed they followed the true God.  She asked that, in exchange for her protecting them, that they protect her and her family.  They agreed, asking her to hang a scarlet thread in her window so they would know what house to protect when they came back to the city.  When Jericho was later destroyed, Rahab and her family were saved.

There are so many things I like about Rahab I hardly know where to start.  Rahab was clearly a woman who got stuff done.  She hid the men under flax she was drying on her roof, flax that she must have been preparing to sell or use in her home.  She had scarlet thread at hand – likely, many think, she worked making dye as well (most people didn’t have ready access to red thread). This, of course, was besides her work as an innkeeper, and in her, um, other profession.  She was a woman doing what she had to do to care for her loved ones.  Even when asking for protection, she insisted her FAMILY be saved as well. What a woman! 

Rahab had an important role in the story, protecting the spies and God’s people.  And what I really love is that she was never forgotten.  In fact, generations later we read her name again, in the beginning of the story of Jesus which starts with his family line – and says: Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

Jesus, famously was “of the line of David.” That’s right – Rahab was Jesus’ great-great-great, etc. grandma!

I love that in this genealogy Rahab is not skipped, explained away, or hidden behind her husband. I love that in a genealogy in the Bible we see a story: That women matter, that their voices belong, that they count.  That, in the story of God, they are NOT INVISIBLE.  

I preached about Rahab this week, and when we were done, I gave everyone in our church some red thread.  I asked them to write the names of women who were part of their story on a piece of paper attached to those threads and to hang the threads on a branch – because women are in the family tree of Jesus, and they are in the branches of all our stories.  

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As I looked at all those red threads, I felt deeply the need to declare again what I believe to be the work of God: to make visible those who have been made invisible.  To let them stand out like bright red yarn on a brown branch. 

This advent, let’s do it.  Let us be tellers of their stories.

Let us hang the scarlet threads and remember the women woven into our lives.  Let us remember that no woman should be silenced.  Let us acknowledge that women have been speaking even when we haven’t always heard.  Let us allow them to speak.  Let us never say that never having heard a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Let us keep looking and digging and searching for stories that are lost, and celebrating the stories still being written.

Let us, this advent, remember women in the story, and all the marginalized, forgotten and nameless whose stories we never heard.  And let us, at Christmas, celebrate the miracle of a child born in obscurity – incubated, birthed, and nursed by a woman.

Not forgotten.  Not silenced.  Not invisible. 

Remembered.  Heard. Seen. 

THIS is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God.  

 

Me and My Thigh Gap

I have always hated my legs.  Well, at least I have hated them for as long as I knew that your legs were a thing you could hate about yourself. I have memories of shopping for shorts in grade seven and complaining about them then, so I am working on  27  years of leg hatred.  

The reason I have hated my legs is because I have always believed them to be too skinny.  Now, before you roll your eyes too hard at me, let me elaborate.  It’s not so much that my legs are “too skinny” as that my legs (and, to be fair, my arms) are skinnier than the rest of my body.  For me, it is a PROPORTION issue, one that, I assure you, has been pointed out to me my whole life.

Examples:  

  • “Wow!  I never noticed how skinny your arms are!” (this is usually followed by the person putting their fingers around my wrist and illustrating to me how skinny my wrists are).
  • “Wow! I never noticed how skinny your legs are!” (this has sometimes – though less frequently – been followed by the person putting their fingers around my ankles to illustrate how skinny my ankles are. And yes, many people can put their fingers all the way around my ankles. MANY PEOPLE).

I’m not saying this was always said as a criticism, but it was often followed by tips on how I could build muscle mass in order to make said arms or legs BIGGER.   And I don’t ever remember it being followed  by anything along the lines of: “And hey – they’re so NICE!”

As a leg hater, I have spent most of my life avoiding wearing shorts and shorter skirts.  Capris are my friend.  When I buy skirts or dresses I look for ones that fall below the knee (thus covering my “too skinny” knees). I also don’t wear leggings.  Besides the fact that I believe leggings are mostly a torture device designed to make my legs feel like they CANNOT BREATHE, they also draw too much attention to my “spindly” legs.

Anyway, after years of leg-hating and leg-covering and looking for ways to minimize my “problem legs,”imagine my surprise to discover a number of months ago some truly shocking news:

My legs are now totally in style.

It all boils down to this thing that I didn’t know was a thing, that is actually a real thing and apparently an important thing and a thing that many women go to great lengths in order to achieve.  Friends, I have a THIGH GAP.

In case you don’t know what a thigh gap is, it is when you stand up and there is a visible space between your two standing thighs.    And it is ALL THE RAGE.  I just did a quick google search about thigh gaps and I seem to have achieved what, in the words of one article, is now “the holy grail of women’s bodies.”  

And here I’ve been trying to hide my holy grail all this time!

I admit, this is a lot to take in.  It’s quite a change to suddenly shift my leg-worldview after nearly 30 years. I really wasn’t prepared for cultural leg expectations to veer in my favour. I mean, here I am, with a closet full of capris, and I can finally wear shorts! NOW my legs are the right legs.  Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to 13 year old Leanne trying on shorts and hating her legs and tell her to hang tight, because in just a couple of decades her legs would be exactly right?  

Well, I’d like to go back to 13 year old Leanne.   And I’d like to talk to her about her legs. But I tell you this:  I wouldn’t talk to her at all about some stupid, idiotic thigh gap to make her feel better.  And I wouldn’t tell her that her teeth were going to look fine when the braces came off. And I wouldn’t tell her that the frizz in her hair would tame itself eventually, or that there would be people, one day, who would think she was pretty.

I would tell her “Buy the shorts.”  And wear the shorts.  Not because your legs are the “right” legs – but because it’s hot out, and shorts are comfortable.  I would tell her to stand proud with the exact body she has been given, no matter what it grows into. I would tell her she has been made wonderful, and I would hope that she would spend the next 27 years certain of that, and that it would have nothing to do with whether her legs were muscular enough for the 1990s or had a big enough thigh gap for the 2010s.

I can’t say it to 13 year old Leanne, so instead I’m going to say it to anyone out there who may be reading this:  Buy the shorts.  Or the dress.  Or the jeans.  Buy them and say: “Well look at this lucky piece of clothing that gets to be worn on my perfect-for-me body.”  Wear them and know: “I am wonderfully made”  That’s what God says about us, actually.  And, funny enough, no mention of skinny legs, or a thigh gap.

Honestly, when I started googling about thigh gaps today, it didn’t make me happy that I had the “right look” in this regard.  It made me sad for all the girls and women looking in the mirror and saying: “I’m not good enough.”  Because of a thigh gap. Can we call this what it is?  Complete and total CRAP.  

I still have a long way to go.  There’s lots I don’t like about my body, and I rarely think it’s fully wonderful.  I’ve been lying to myself for so long that the truth becomes harder to believe. But the truth is NOT that my legs are now good enough.  The truth is that they always were.     

So I’m wearing the shorts.  

 

 

 

Why the Bible is Hard, Confusing and Frustrating (and other thoughts from my “Post-It Note Bible”…)

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This week, my sermon was from a part of the Bible that talks about how awesome the Bible is. The author of this particular text raves about how God’s word is their source of light and their foundation.  When I saw the passage (Psalm 119: 129-134, for those of you wondering), I groaned.  Why? Because I knew that when you preach from Psalm 119, which I’ve done before, there’s really no way around getting to the part where you say: “So, all of you, read your Bible more.  It’s great!  You’ll love it!”  

And to be frank, after 12 years of preaching and having said some version of that countless times, I’ve grown a little skeptical of the value of saying that anymore. It’s not because I don’t think people should read the Bible, especially followers of God. It’s that even those who love God very dearly don’t always find that an easy thing to do.

Let’s be blunt:  The Bible can be hard to read.  It is a dense book, with lots of unusual and ancient concepts.  It is not always chronological.  It doesn’t give a lot of explanation of some of the things that it is addressing.  There are some weird, bizarre and even gruesome stories, that make people ask: “Was God okay with THAT?”  Frankly, if I had a quarter for every time someone said to me: “I tried to read the Bible and I got as far as Leviticus before I gave up,” well…I would probably have $10.  People ask: Why read what I don’t understand? (Even if I wished I did!).

The Bible can feel big and intimidating.  The one sitting closest to me as I write this is 900 pages of VERY small print, in two columns.  My guess is that it would be more like reading 3000 pages if the same words were printed like a regular novel is today.  “Where should I even start?”  someone might ask.  In fact, to pick up the Bible and just start reading where you open the page can be completely jarring.  

I think of the scene from the television show “30 Rock” where the character Liz Lemon tries to distract a crowd at church by Bible reading and opens to the verse:  “But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.”  Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Bible, that is completely hilarious to me (plus, “30 Rock” – I mean, it’s genius!). I can explain the exact context of that story, what it means, and why it even teaches us about God.  But really – what would that sound like to the average person reading it for the first time? Well, it sounds pretty disgusting and disturbing.  I would love it if people who first opened the Bible turned to the lines that said: “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” “I will never leave you or forsake you,” or “I praise you that I am wonderfully made and all your works are wonderful.”  I have not found this happens so often…

And on top of all that, there’s the fact that the Bible doesn’t have the best reputation anymore.  For some people, the most exposure they have to the Bible are the signs quoting Bible verses held by extremists at Pride Marches or messages typed with hate on a Facebook message board. For others, even those who grew up as people of faith, the Bible was often quoted to explain why they were bad people, going to hell, or not allowed to do things that they thought would be fun.

Sadly, instead of experiencing the Bible as a message of love, many people have experienced the Bible like a shotgun that someone used to shoot them in their places of deepest pain.  

Who can blame anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to read it who has experienced that?

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So what do I do when I’m slated to preach from Psalm 119, that sings the joy of God’s Word?  What to do when I KNOW I need to share the message that we should read this book, because of all the things it actual is – light and life and hope and direction – when the mere mention of reading the Bible makes so many noticeably start to squirm??

Well, here’s what I did. I remembered that while many people may be hesitant about the Bible, that does not mean they are not eager to know and find God, and that the Bible helps people to do that.  I also remembered that as hard as the Bible is, that it is worth it. Then, remembering that, I did indeed tell people they should read it (or listen to it, or watch videos of it). And then I told them it was okay to have a “post-it note Bible.”

That’s what I call my own Bible that I read when I was nineteen and began to really read the Bible for myself.  Like many a good Christian girl, I had read my one-chapter-a-night since I was a young teenager.  When I had hard days I would turn to the list of topics and see if there was a good answer (funny, there was never a “don’t have a boyfriend” category…).  But it wasn’t really alive to me, until the summer that I worked as a laundress at a summer camp. I had a lot of time alone in the laundry room that summer, moving loads of sopping kitchen towels from washer to dryer and folding staff uniforms day after day, and I decided: I’m going to use this time to read my Bible.  And I did.

And, like so many other people, I had questions.  So many questions, even for someone who had gone to church her whole life.  I’d get to a part and say “This is crazy!!  I don’t get it!  I can’t read anymore!”  This was when I started my post-it note system.  At first, I would just underline or put question marks by the things I wondered about.  But the margins in Bibles are small and I started running out of room.  So, I would take a post-it, write out my confusion and my questions and stick it in there.  I still have this Bible 20 years later, still packed full of the questions of my 19 year old self. I love to flip through it and read the notes again.  It’s fun to see how I understand a lot of what I didn’t then. It reminds me that God has taught me so much.  But many of my questions still have no answers.  In fact,  I have lots of new questions to stick in there… like about why some people get healed and others don’t and whether Jesus knew anyone with cancer and whether my support of universal health care IS what Jesus would have done.

I don’t literally stick a post-it note in my Bible with all my questions anymore, but I still ask questions all the time. I still say: “God I don’t understand this.” Then, I keep reading (or listening, or watching…). I keep going because for all those questions, I can resonate with all the Psalm writer says in Psalm 119: God’s word, when you read it and hear it and let it shape you day after day and year after year, gives life.  

What I’m trying to say is that engaging with the Bible may not always be easy, certainly not at first, so when you begin, you may have a “post-it note Bible” – literally or figuratively.  You may have more questions than answers.  You may get confused, annoyed or even angry.  That’s normal and that’s okay.  As you keep reading (or listening, or watching) though, you will also find the message of love and hope and redemption.  (You may even find yourself late for lunch because you didn’t realize the timer on the dryer went off because you were so engrossed in the book of Exodus).  You may be listening online and hear something that will speak so deeply to your soul that you will never forget it.  You may discover that with every answered question, you are actually eager to learn more.  

So here’s the pitch: Give it a try!  Ask questions.  Start with a part that makes sense (I recommend the book of Mark).  Get a translation that you find easiest to read (a Christian book store or your friendly neighbourhood pastor or ME can help you with this!), or use another method (like listening or watching videos) if you don’t like reading.  Talk to others and join groups that will teach you more.   Also, buy some post-it notes.  They can be super helpful.

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To-Do Lists, 12 Year Anniversaries and Wondering if Ministry Matters

A couple of weeks ago I was getting ready to do a wedding and I couldn’t find the clipboard I usually use to hold my notes.  After some rummaging around, I found an old folder that would do the trick. As I was putting my papers in it, I noticed that there was something in the front pouch of the folder.  I pulled out a piece of paper that I instantly recognized.  “It’s my to do list!” I thought.  “When did I put that in there?”  Then I realized that it wasn’t a recent list; it was from at least seven years ago.  It had a reminder to call Dorothy, who died the year my daughter was born, and to connect to Freida, who is still alive at 94, but moved out west a couple of years ago. I smiled as I saw these names, remembering these dear women.  It also had a note for me about Sunday School lessons.  This also made me smile, as I am grateful that our church now has a pastor who focuses on next generation ministry, so I don’t look after Sunday School curriculum anymore.   

These things were nice to read, but I confess that my overall feeling as I read was not one of delight.  Instead, I got a heavy heart.  I couldn’t shake how very similar that old list looked to the one I had sitting on my desk at that very moment.  I start each week by pulling out a letter size piece of paper, folding it in half, and writing the things I have to do that week on one side, and the things that I need to do some time soon on the other. This piece of paper gets stuck in my day timer and I cross things off as I’m done.  It feels good at the end of the week when my list is full of crossed out reminders.  I did the things!  Yay me!  Yet, for all the things I’ve “crossed off” week after week as a pastor, I couldn’t help but notice that my current list, written at least seven years after the one I had just found, had a lot of the same things written on it.

I was, once again, getting ready for a Baptism class.  I had a note to get a membership class happening soon.  I had people to call, visit, and email. I still carry a burden for our young adults, who head off to college and university and who are so often lost to faith in those years.  I had on my current list the same words: “young adults.”  Nothing in particular to DO about young adults – but some sense that I need to do SOMETHING.  

When I found that old list I was coming close to marking twelve years since I had begun serving as pastor of my church.  I have had a lot of mixed feelings about this anniversary. In my heart of hearts, I know the good things that have happened through this time.  I know most of them wouldn’t even rightly fit on any “to do list.”  How do you quantify how people respond after a sermon, or someone who has felt God’s presence in grief, or what a child remembers after the Sunday School lesson they were taught in 2011?     

Yet, there was this list, starting at me.  Looking so much like every other list I’ve made for 700ish weeks in a row. I couldn’t help but ask:  Did any of it matter?  Did anything ever REALLY change?  What did it mean to do these little things, day in and day out?  Had I used my time well, and, the most jarring question:  Will my lists look like this in another 5, 10, or 20 years?  What if they do?  What if I am still visiting people who will later die, still running the same classes year after year, still lamenting another young adult that has decided they don’t believe in the God they loved as a child?   What if this list is what my ministry, my life, and my calling boil down to…will it be enough?

Some days, I’m afraid that it won’t be.  

Some days, some easy measurables would be nice.  Some days, some tidy statistics about how my input has led to specific “output” would feel gratifying (Examples:  2 hours of leading Bible study = 5 people helping the poor as a result; 1 hour of hospital visit = 1 week of person feeling assured of God’s love; 1 sermon preached = 10 people remembering anything I said. That kind of thing). Some days, I’d like to feel like crossing stuff off the list had really mattered…that it had mattered so much, in fact, that I didn’t even need to write it down again.

That old list reminded me of all these desires. So I hated that list, and how it made me feel.

Still, I didn’t throw the old list in recycling, as I usually do each week. I laid it in my office where I would see it, and where I have seen it most days since.  I have let it remind me about all these questions, all my esoteric “does-my-ministry-matter-why-do-I-do-this-I-could-have-been-a-lawyer-with-how-much-schooling-I’ve-done” questions. And of course the biggest question of all:  Does it matter? 

And then, when that nagging question comes, I remind myself of the necessary response: It doesn’t matter if it matters.

Isn’t it funny the things that the enemy can use to make you doubt everything about yourself? That day, it was an old piece of paper, an old to-do list telling me that my worth had to be measured, that my job in life was to produce results, that “success” was the goal, and that such success means having something to “show for myself.” How many people at your church, Pastor? How many people baptized this year?  How many books written, blog posts read, speaking engagements on your resume? How many things “finished” on your to-do list?

Listen, I know that I could indeed make a big list of all the great things that God has done through my ministry. I know a whole bunch of you will consider commenting on my wall or sending me a message and telling me about the ways you are grateful for my ministry.  Those things are nice, and I thank you, but they aren’t the goal. If I start to gauge living out my calling by whether people tell me I’m doing well, in fact, that can lead me to as many misconceptions as focusing too much on a seven year old to-do list.  This cannot be where I find my worth.   

Instead, every Monday morning I will start again.  I will sit at my desk, pull out a piece of letter paper, fold it in half and ask:  “God what do you need me to do this week?”   Then I will make a list.  I know some things will be on that list again, and again, and again.  But God isn’t calling me to keep track – God is calling me to be faithful. That is my calling, and it is one rich beyond measure.   

 

 

Preachers and Bakers and Sick-Children-Takers

I am still basking in the glow of an event in which I recently participated: “In the Company of Women,” a conference about women and men sharing in leadership in the Church.  The idea behind this gathering must have struck a chord, because while the organizers were hoping for 50 people to attend, they ended up with 230.   I should also add that this event happened in Toronto on the Friday before the May long weekend and it was scheduled to end at 5:00. I know that some of you who have not tried to negotiate traffic out of Toronto on a Friday or who have not experienced the citywide exodus that takes place on the Friday of the most beloved long weekend of the Canadian year may not get why this is significant, but those of you who have will get my point here:  people really wanted to go to this thing.  The mere fact that people cared enough to attend this event was all I needed to encourage my sometimes-pessimistic spirit.  Honestly, I could have went, sat down, looked around and left again, and my heart would have been full. But guess what?  There were also awesome presenters, with messages that have been tumbling around in my head and my heart ever since. I would like to share about one of them. It is about birthday cakes. 

The presenter was named Linda Ambrose.  Let me say here that I am confident that if Linda and I could have spent more time together that we would now definitely be best friends.  (Isn’t that how we always feel with speakers that we love?…but, like, seriously, I think we could be.  Let’s be friends Linda!!  Come stay at my house and let’s talk about all of the things!).  Linda is a professor at the University of Sudbury and has written extensively about the history of women in Canadian churches. At the conference, she shared several stories of women leaders who helped found churches throughout Canada.  One of my favourites was about a woman named Agnes McAlister. Agnes served as a co-pastor with her husband planting churches out west throughout the first half of the last century.  Through Agnes’ diaries, Ambrose was able to piece together much of her ministry, and she made one point about her life that really spoke to me.  She talked about how Agnes was often very busy. Her husband struggled with mental illness so she regularly had to look after the church on her own as she cared for him, and her large family. Even in his healthy days, she had a busy schedule to maintain.  In her diaries, however, she spoke of how the church helped her. She gave one poignant example: women who made her children birthday cakes.  Ambrose discussed how this act of doing this for her family showed that members of the church legitimized Agnes’ call, and I could not agree more.  As I have thought about those women making Agnes’ children birthday cakes, however, I have thought as well of how true it has been for me and my husband that it has indeed taken many people using their gifts to enable us to use ours.

I am a pastor, a woman, a mother, and a pastor’s wife.  With each of those roles comes things that I need to do.  As a pastor, I work many evenings.  I sometimes have emergencies that I need to get to quickly.  I work funny hours, and always on weekends. All of these things are part of my call and my gifting.  However, as a wife and mother, I also have other callings.  I want to mother well and be married well.  Unfortunately, we live in a culture where there are a lot of things that seem to go along with mothering well these days.  These things include well manicured lunches, pinterest-worthy birthday parties, and (I’ve heard some mothers manage this) children who wear clothes that match.  Nine years into mothering I have never been able to do it all, and I have felt guilty.  Confession: I don’t even have a pinterest account!  I have simply never balanced making the perfect birthday cake with being out at a board meeting the night before the birthday party.      

But you know what?  

I have had help.  I have had so much help from the people of God.  There are too many examples to list here.  I think of a time when my husband was away and I got a call to the hospital and how in less than five minutes one of our church-adopted-grandpas was at our door to watch the children.   I think of our board who was willing to meet later in the evening and meet at our house when we were pastoring together so that we would be able to put our kids to bed. I think of how they never even blinked when we would excuse ourselves to go read a bedtime story. I think of being very ill while pregnant and the woman from our church who offered to clean our house every two weeks.  (She would clean while I would lay in my bed working on my laptop). I think of people who have stepped in to care for sick children for us, and the woman who took our children for a special day out when I was off caring for my dying sister, so my husband could finish his sermon one Saturday.   And, yes, I think of birthday cakes.  Because you know what?  People have done that for me too.  (My favourite was the fire truck on my son’s third birthday).  

Agnes reminded me, decades after her death, that in the kingdom of God, we all function best when we all use our gifts.  Yes, this means men and women leading as they are called to do so. I PROMISE you that it is always better for me to preach than bake a cake…and I am so thankful that there are those that can bake the cake that I shouldn’t.  (When they need it, I will do the hospital visit, or marriage counselling or Bible study as aligns far better with my own gifts).

To reiterate what my husband and I shared when we spoke at the conference about our years of shared ministry: the kingdom of God comes most alive when we let people serve based on their giftedness instead of on their gender.  More than working a “little better,” in fact, serving in giftedness is essential for kingdom flourishing.  This definitely means allowing women with the gift of preaching the chance to preach.  It also means remembering that to let the preacher preach, sometimes she needs someone else to bake the cake.  

So, thank you:

Makers and bakers and sick-children-takers,

Prophets and pray-ers  and worship team players,

Tellers and teachers  and conference-creators…

Thanks for the ways you use your gifts, so I can use mine.

(Also, I really like cake).

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