The Plunge

Last Friday I skipped from Scales Chapel into Shelley Kuhlmeyer’s office elated and talking a mile a minute that I just might be able to take “The Plunge” and preach on Sunday morning without sermon notes.  I spent most of the day with my iPhone in Scales Chapel recording my attempts to weave together a sermon from the brief outline I had gathering in my mind over the past few weeks.

“You have to talk it out to yourself,” Michael said as he gave me advice on my sermon.  The metaphor he gives for preaching without a manuscript is a cloths line blowing in the wind — You have a pair of pants, a shirt, underwear, a few socks, another skirt and you have a sermon!  “What happens when one of them blows away?!” I questioned.  “That happens,” he replied, “sometimes you loose a sock or get them out of order.”

This Sunday — the plunge — was a huge moment for me vocationally.  I finally feel like I released my voice and some kind of freedom that I can’t explain.  I don’t think I lacked the Holy Spirit prior to Sunday in my preaching — but I felt a greater use, reliance, and energy from her in a very profound way.  Most preachers spend a good deal of time prior to preaching praying that the Holy Spirit will work though them.  Both of my homeletics classes at Vanderbilt taught us to pray with fear and trembling and this week those prayers were even more real.  It was the perfect sermon to preach for the first time without a manuscript because it was an outward sign for me that I would not let shame — not being good enough — rule my life.  I would trust in the grace of God.

I also knew I could trust in the grace of West End staff and members.  I am so thankful for the many brilliant individuals that gave me so much grace and encouragement before and after the sermon and not just my preaching but allowing me to be fully myself in all my work at West End — I feel so grateful.

I am excited to go on this journey of continuing to become who God created me to be.  I can not say Thank You enough to all those who are part of that process encouraging, guiding, and loving.  I am honored and awed to be a pastor.

If you want to watch the sermon, you can watch it here on YouTube.

Modern Day Flappers

A few weeks ago I shared late night nachos at Sunset Grill in Hillsboro Village with two of my dearest friends, Ben and Elizabeth.  We had just watched the movie Boyhood across the street at the Belcourt.  Boyhood is the kind of movie that would show at the Belcourt –a non-profit movie theatre specializing in documentaries, artstic, and innovative films.  The director, Richard Linklater, filmed the same cast over twelve years and, like the title suggests, it’s about childhood and growing up.  Literally the boy actor grows into a man before your eyes.  So, we were discussing the movie over nachos and Ben says, “I can’t help but think about what the movie would have been like if it were about girlhood.”

I laughingly said, “You would say that!”  (Ben might be more of a feminist than I am because of his deep appreciation for Marylynne Robinson’s poetry, fiction, and prose…) and replied, “What would the movie womanhood look like?”  I rambled on, “What if I filmed my best friends over the next ten years and see what happens?”

“I think I’d watch that,” Ben responded, “What would you call it?”

And without really thinking I replied, “Modern Day Flappers.”

We kept eating nachos and discussing various parts of the movie that we liked — but the idea didn’t leave my mind and the next day I typed in the domain name:  It was available.  Then I Googled “Modern Day Flappers” and found two interesting articles: Five Signs Your a Modern Day Flapper in the Huff Post and Modern-Day Flappers: Lena Dunham and Girls from Biographile.  Both reference the same book published in January of this year Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell.  I immediately searched for the book at Nashville public library and sent it to the branch near my house.

I love the parallel between Lena Dunham and Girls and flappers.  I have seen every episode of Girls and I am intoxicated by the woman’s locker room conversation put on national television from a realistic perspective in an authentic and unapologetic tone.  Yet, there is more than one conversation going on in a women’s locker room!  Many of my friends have talked about how we resonate with Dunham’s characters, yet they do not allow for their spiritual domains to influence their life choices and their context of NYC is very different than Nashville!

A few days later, I picked up the book from our branch and read in the introduction, “The young women of this era weren’t the first generation in history to seek a life beyond marriage and motherhood; they were, however, the first significant group to claim it as a right (pg. 5).”  “Yes. This.” The voice in my gut said when I read those words…

A few pages later Mackrell’s words resonated again with this statement about the six women whom she presents to represent flappers, “Often they feel closest to us when they were struggling and uncertain.  None of them had role models to follow as they grappled with the implications of their independence.  Their mothers and grandmothers could not advise them how to combine sexual freedom with love, or how to combine their public image with personal happiness (pg. 10).”

I feel a lot of uncertainty when I try to articulate how to be a woman, in the south, in public and private settings, seeking my right to an identity outside of wife or mother, navigating singleness, love, sex, and independence, while also discovering and being found by God, and desperately trying to “be human in the most inhumane of ages (Thomas Merton).”  All of this coupled with the fact that I am clergy and “should” know these things!

I, for sure, do not have all the answers — but I do have a ton of questions.  Therefore, over the next year of my life — “30, flirty, and thriving” — I am going to ask as many questions as possible and ask them of those who are on the journey with me — my modern day flappers — my late 20something and 30something friends who are also seeking their identities, wholeness, and love.  I hope to discover parts of myself in the stories I unearth in them.

I will record my interviews in a podcast called — you guessed it — Modern Day Flappers!

Modern Day Flappers


Online Dating

A few months ago I decided to join my friends in the online dating world.  No, I didn’t sign up for Tinder–even though many of my smart, talented, beautiful, friends were on it… I just couldn’t stomach denying and more likely, being denied.

I signed up for OKCupid.  Yes, I know they are involved in a scandal where they set up people with bad compatibility as an experiment.  But it’s free — I am a gal who will park miles from her destination because, well, it’s free.

I think there are a few ways to go about the online dating — I’m really less interested in having long conversations over message and more interested in discovering if you are: a.) remotely compatible with me and b.) decently attractive based on your photos.  You would be surprised how many people do not check out with these two criteria.

When these two criteria do not happen, I usually do not respond.  This fact alone makes me want to run from the evils of online dating — because it forces me to treat real human beings like they are not valuable.  Every human is valuable and for the most part deserves a response.  They sent me a message, so I should at least respond or knowledge their humanity — and in my own way this would be subversive in a completely digital mediated reality.  However, I don’t have time to respond to every “hello” or “Your hot!” — (to which I want to respond with a grammar lesson and a I’m hot and smart, but I digress).

I basically want to meet you in person as soon as possible — I have to experience the energy of a man before I know if I am attracted to him.  I went on a series of dates that were “nice.”  There was no one who scared or disrespected me in any way.  I actually wanted to say to them — I know you are somebody’s person, you are just not my person and I usually did in one way or another.  (Actually — and this is hilarious to me — I was lamenting online dating with a married friend of mine and we were talking about this guy who really loved his debate team and discovered that she went on a date with the same guy three years before!)

When was the last time you went on a date and got back into your car and were smiling?  That happened to me a week ago.  He started off the date with this completely ridiculous story about a care package and a costume that had me laughing and showed me he would never make apologies for who he is.  He had a wonderful imagination, quick wit, and sense of adventure.

So we went on another date and another — I left both of those smiling too.  Since that date I’ve texted twice and called once — no response.  Maybe 3 dates in a week was too much, maybe I said or did something that he hated, maybe I don’t fit whatever criteria he needs to respond.

But it leaves me sad and feeling less than human.

A package in the mail

A few weeks ago I got a package in the mail. My mom mentioned sending me a few books from my Nanny’s house that she thought I would like to have. Nanny, my mom’s mom and my namesake, died in September of 2007 the same year I graduated college and moved to Nashville — gosh, that was 7 years ago. I took the package home and tore into it. The packages my mom sends are always wrapped really well — anything I pack is always precariously stuffed or protruding from the box seams. I’m momentarily distracted by the yard of bubble wrap but the smell of old books brings me back to the task at hand.

What is it about old books?  Specifically these old books held in the hands of my grandmother.  Her eyes on every page — the same eyes that looked at me with love and understanding.  Could they tell me more about her?  Would they spill her stories?

The largest and heaviest — “Aeschylus to Hebbel” written on the front with an image of the dramatic faces and “A Treasury of the Theatre” on the binding. Aeschylus to HebbelLikely from a college humanities class, I opened the front cover and find her hand written maiden name, “Nancy Davis” and “217 Virginia.”  I know she went to Mary Washington College, which was University of Virginia’s Women’s college.  I’m not sure what 217 means.  Stuffed in the pages are the summaries of every play in my Nanny’s handwriting.  The squashed, thin cursive looks familiar because Nanny wrote me letters weekly when I was in college.  I smile thinking that I am vicariously visiting her through these notes in her college days.

I start to read them, but the characters have names I cannot pronounce and it’s a summary of a complicated story I have never heard of or read.

Nanny's NotesI smile again thinking about my own notes — fraught with incomplete or incoherent thoughts.  Although most of my undergrad notes were written on paper, I have thrown most of it out.  Will my granddaughter find my digital files of my most recent graduate courses?  This is a thought that brings me great joy and yet the pain of wondering if this blog will even be available.  Then the sadness of questioning if children let alone grandchildren will be a reality…

I flip through the book and let the smell rise from the pages that haven’t been awakened for decades.  I find doodles in the margins:

Nanny's MarginsI feel as if I’ve won the lottery — “I love that man — I wan to see him again Boo Hoo!” and “I love this class — only 8 more minutes” and down the binding, “I wonder if anyone is listening to her”  — it’s obviously a conversation between friends in the margins.  There is something so human about daydreaming in class and about the fact that in the 1940s my Nanny was privileged to get an education on ancient plays — yet she’s still thinking about boys, using sarcasm, and living through those never-ending 8 minutes of class.

I can’t help but feel like she’s with me and somehow by knowing her better, I know myself.

A poem to read on a vocational journey

This week in Current (West End UMC’s Wednesday night programing) we are talking about Vocation. I am interviewing two people I respect highly about their own vocational journey.

Last week I posted about my own musings on vocation. This week my mentor, Michael Williams, sent me this poem and in the email he wrote, “It came as a gift to me and I pass it along as a gift to you.” It is a gift to me a beautiful interpretation of the story of Jonah and the many ways I both miss and live into my calling.

by Carl Dennis

You’ll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people’s outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.

The sea storm that harried Jonah won’t harry you.
No big fish will be waiting to swallow you whole
And keep you down in the dark till your mood
Shifts from fear to thankfulness and you want to serve.
No. You’ll land safe at Tarshish and learn the language
And get a job in a countinghouse by the harbor
And marry and raise a family you can be proud of
In a neighborhood not too rowdy for comfort.

If you’re going to be a prophet, you must listen the first time.
Setting off at sunrise, you can’t be disheartened
If you arrive at Nineveh long past midnight,
On foot, your donkey having run off with your baggage.
You’ll have to settle for a room in the cheapest hotel
And toss all night on the lice-ridden mattress

That Jonah is spared. In the space of three sentences
He jumps from his donkey, speaks out, and is heeded, while you,
Preaching next day in the rain on a noisy corner,
Are likely to be ignored, outshouted by old-clothes dealers
And fishwives, mocked by schoolboys for your accent.
And then it’s a week in jail for disturbing the peace.
There you’ll have time, as you sit in a dungeon
Darker than a whale’s belly, to ask if the trip
Is a big mistake, the heavenly voice mere mood,

The mission a fancy. Jonah’s biggest complaint
Is that God, when the people repent and ask forgiveness,
Is glad to forgive them and cancels the doomsday
Specified in the prophecy, leaving his prophet
To look like a fool. So God takes time to explain
How it’s wrong to want a city like this one to burn,
How a prophet’s supposed to redeem the future,
Not predict it. But you’ll be left with the question
Why your city’s been spared when nobody’s different,

Nobody in the soup kitchen you open,
Though one or two of the hungriest
May be grateful enough for the soup to listen
When you talk about turning their lives around.
It will be hard to believe these are the saving remnant
Kin to the ten just men that would have sufficed
To save Gomorrah if Abraham could have found them.
You’ll have to tell them frankly you can’t explain
Why Nineveh is still standing though you hope to learn
At the feet of a prophet who for all you know
May be turning his donkey toward Nineveh even now.

My favorite lines: “How a prophet’s supposed to redeem the future, Not predict it. But you’ll be left with the question Why your city’s been spared when nobody’s different,” How I love that this poem challenges my indifference as much as it does the indifference of my city!! I look forward to the conversation tonight and hope we will unearth some of the challenges of the journey as much as joys.

Guatemala and Camu

When I think of that smell of wood and plastic trash going up in flames, my heart fills with love and that love wells up as water in the corners of my eyes. These are tears of truth, not of sadness or joy.

As I write this, it takes everything not to pick up my backpack and breath in the smell of burning that still lingers on the cloth. Yet, last night when I got home from Guatemala I washed and showered and washed again and lathered to get the smell off my skin. This morning I put lots of mouse in my hair to cover up the smell that lingered.

My backpack had almost the same exact smell when I came home from Uganda.

For me, it is a smell of truth and one that connects me deeply to the entire world. Yet, last night on my plane flight home from Atlanta to Nashville I wanted to apologize to the person next to me for the way I smelled. “I promise I don’t always smell like this,” I wanted to say — while deep inside I wished it would never go away.

Smell has a way of bringing you back to a time and place, I know there is a lot of academic research about it — but I’m not as interested in quantitative studies about smell and memory, as I am about the stories. I was talking about smell with a friend recently and he spoke of walking past a woman and the simple fumes of her perfume brought him to the time when he was first falling in love. The smell of Irish Spring soap has a similar effect on me.

Do I quickly wash off the smell of open wood fires because I am afraid to go back to the times and places where I saw women suffering from poverty and patriarchy?

Today in a class — I am auditing a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Albert Camu from Prof. Victor Judge — we discussed “The Fall.” Spoiler alert — The story is about a man who is on a bridge and watches a woman about to jump to her death — he says nothing. She jumps — he does nothing. As she screams for help, he neither says or does anything. There is a lot more to the monologue — but the man forever avoids bridges.

I’ve seen the plight of women in poverty and heard about the effects of patriarchy. I know enough to say something. I know enough to do something. I know enough to use my words and actions to say something before, during, or after she jumps off the bridge.

Today in class Prof. Judge said, “Every moment is important and has consequence. Every waking moment has a promise of change.” With my recent experience in the foothills of the volcanoes in Guatemala in the forefront of my mind — my heart erupted and tears streamed down my face. During the intermission I explained to Prof. Judge they were tears of truth. He lovingly replied, “I hoped they were not tears of unhappiness.”

I wrote in my notes:
So what am I to do? There is so much… I am willing. I can continue to organize Sunday morning class spaces (ha ha not fair — I am currently working with imagination and creativity) But (or maybe I should say AND) I am called to be on the ground, smelling of fire, eyes not only welling with the waters of truth, but also the dust from the roads blown by trucks filled with travelers and produce, the sun bringing color to my face instead of using concealer, brushing my teeth with purified water — sometimes afraid, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes at peace, but always present.

Directly after I wrote that, Prof. Judge said, “Those who remain vigilant to combat the plague are the least likely to contract it.”

If I combat poverty and patriarchy, then I am less likely to participate with it.

Hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

The Blessed Mother Mary photographed while hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

Freedom Towards Myself

I have a new job. I am the interim director for Wesley/Canterbury Fellowship (W/CF) at Vanderbilt University. This is the Methodist/Episcopal campus ministry. This past Thursday night was our first worship service and I left feeling so much joy for students and ministry. But these past few weeks have been extremely overwhelming!

During these first three weeks of doing my best to build relationships and get the word out about our open and loving community… nothing could be more true than this is the quote from The Spirit of Life, Jorgen Moltmann pg 201-202:

But the people who throw themselves into practical life because they cannot come to terms with themselves simply become a burden for other people. Social praxis and political involvement are not a remedy for the weakness of our own personalities. Men and women who want to act on behalf of other people without having deepened their own understanding of themselves, without having built up their own capacity for sensitive loving, and without having found freedom towards themselves, will find nothing in themselves that they can give to anyone else. Even presupposing good will and the lack of evil intentions, all they will be able to pass on is the infection of their own egoism, the aggression generated by their own anxieties, and the prejudices of their own ideology. Anyone who wants to fill up her own hollowness by helping other people will simply spread the same hollowness. Why? Because people are far less influenced by what another person says and does than the activist would like to believe. They are much more influenced by what the other is, and his way of speaking and behaving. Only the person who has found his own self can give himself. What else can he give? It is only the person who knows that he is accepted who can accept others without dominating them. The person who has become free in herself can liberate others and share their suffering.

I hope I can grow to know myself so fully that I can open space for others to be fully themselves. This is why most of the books I am reading right now are not for school but to help me hold in faith my questions and my doubts. To care for myself and then care for others. Nothing could be harder in a time where there are so many demands on my time and my life!! But I must first free myself so I can free others.

Dignity in Women’s Development

One of the most important things I learned at CSW is the empowerment of rural women is not just about putting food on the table, it’s also about dignity; listening to her voice, her decisions, and her leadership. When organizations create women’s development projects, yet control the way money is spent, the projects, even the teaching, it does not actually empower rural women.  Talking with a friend, we decided the best analogy is that of a street dance.  We gather in a circle, one person steps to the middle to dance, that person joins the circle and another person steps to the center to dance. Rural women must have the opportunity to lead the dance! The power does not lie within the US or other first world countries to “save” or “develop” a group of people. The answers for rural women were not in NYC, but in the rural areas where women are working, living, laughing, crying, and loving everyday.

People doing development work usually have good intentions, but we must evaluate how our actions are hurting a group of people. A perfect example is the Kony 2012 Campaign, which went viral recently on Facebook and Twitter.  Invisible Children’s intentions were good, but they did not see the damage they are doing by “sensationalizing” of a conflict in a whole group of people and denying dignity.

This is the voice of Rosebell Kagumire, a woman working in Uganda for peace, talking about the KONY 2012 campaign: “How do you tell the stories of Africans? You shouldn’t be telling my story if you also don’t believe I have the power to change what is going on!  This 6.5 minute video says it best:
Rosebell Kagumire YouTube

Little Plastic Baggie

Yesterday afternoon before our last delegation meeting I was in the UMW (United Methodist Women) office on the 11th floor of the Church Center talking to Christina. Tomoko San walks in and asked Christina if she will call the Salvation Army location at 14th street to see if they have a lost and found. What did you loose? I lost a small plastic bag with pearl earrings and a necklace.  As Christina looked up the number I got out my phone for Tomoko San to call.  Tomoko san English is impeccable, but she preferred that I call. So I left a message on three different numbers about the missing items and my phone number hoping someone might check and call me back.

On the way to the last event I said something like this to Tomoko san, I am so sorry to tell you this, but I think it will be a miracle if they have your jewelry! New York is a busy (translation dishonest) place and it is not likely that if someone found it they would turn it in. She understood and we agreed that her odds would be greater in a place like Japan.

In the morning I emailed one of the women whom I called the previous day.  Around 6:30pm I checked my email on my phone and the woman at the Salvation Army emailed me back, Check the lost and found on the 8th floor of the Church Center. I think I saw what you are looking for there. I was in the back of a crowded room on the 2nd floor of the Church Center listening to a panel but I couldn’t sit in my seat knowing that her items might have been in building all along!  I HAD TO run up to the 8th floor to check!!

The 8th floor was crowded with other folks listening to another panel and talking in the hallways, but I navigated through to the back room where the media registers during office hours. I looked around for something that looks like a lost and found. After searching a few cardboard boxes I found a box with a camera case, a folder or two, a hairbrush, and LOW AND BEHOLD, a small plastic baggy with pearl earrings and a necklace!!  I almost screamed. Then I thought, WOW. There is hope for the world after all.

First of all, Tomoko san was not even sure where she lost her valuables.  Second, there are thousands of women at this conference from all over the world and they are in and out of many buildings!  What are the odds that a.) someone would find it b.) they would turn it in c.) the person they turned it into would put it in lost and found d.) it would not go missing from lost and found and e.) we would be able to find the lost and found!

After the panel I said to Tomoko san, “Do you know the highlight of my day?” “No, what?” Look what I found. Gasp, THANK YOU!… big hug! and we were both laughing. I told her about email and my discovery.  We agreed, Never underestimate a group of women! and that It really was a miracle!!

Where is God in CSW56?

My days at CSW are filled with events hosted by NGOs, UN, and Ecumenical organizations.  NGO/CSW arranges a schedule of events happening daily.  The “official” CSW56 events at the UN offered 2 passes to the United Methodist Women and I will be able to attend one of those meetings on Wednesday from 1-3pm.  So, myself and the other delegates choose where to go each day based on the title and sponsor of the side-event.

Most of the events are housed in the Church Center for the United Nations.  In the 1960s a large group of United Methodist Women purchased and built a 12 story building across from the UN.  These women (and male counterparts) organized with the hopes of eradicating war and assisting UN peace keeping operations.  They did not name the building United Methodist Women United Nations Building, but “The Church Center” and it houses ecumenical organizations working on global social justice such as Women’s Mission Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Church Women United, Lutheran World Federation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian International Office and the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.

At the events I attended I heard stories about and from rural women.  Each panel is a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  It is common to hear first hand stories articulating: “sexual violence is worse in the rural areas,” “women are still regarded as weak and unable to learn,” “girls are not educated,” “girls are not allowed to celebrate their birthday,” “women are scared of their husbands and isolated from relationship,” “women are beaten and sexually harassed in the fields,” “women can not own land,” “women are excluded from formal and informal legal systems”

Yet I also hear about “increased agricultural production through organic farming,” “girls who are allowed to go to school instead of being married at a young age,” “women who are pregnant at a young age are allowed to go back to school,” “public disobedience in women’s groups advocating to own land,” “integrated community based adult education,” “women groups rear goats or keep bees to help them in farming and economic stability.”

My passion for women’s work grows with each story and panel.  Yet, I am frequently overwhelmed.  I start to wonder, “Where is God?”

In the panels, I do not hear God or religion frequently mentioned, even through the building and organizations have religious connections.  I wish we could name and discuss different interpretations of God which have oppressed women.  Seems like we don’t invite God to the conversation, just in case the patriarchal, hierarchical, and distant God shows up to put us in submission.  I wish I could shout from the empire state building, “THAT GOD DOESN’T EXIST!” I wish we could speak about God’s embrace of all that we are as demonstrated through the incarnation using the language of vulnerability to address the horrific assaults of sexual violence, discrimination, abuse, and oppression.

On the night when God was the most vulnerable, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his friends.  “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ (Matthew 26:26).”  By offering the bread, Jesus invites a violent and broken world to be included in his body.  Women who suffer from violence need to be in a community that incarnates God’s acceptance and vulnerability.  I believe through the incarnation, God is with those who suffer and invites all to be part of the healing body of Christ.

So the answer to my question, “Where is God?” God is in the suffering and the solution.  There are no limits to God’s love and vulnerability.  Yet, this interpretation of God is not shared by shouting from a tall building, it is communicated by listening to stories, giving hugs, releasing tears, bursting into laughter, and sharing lives.