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Monday, June 29, 2015

Unique (I Think) Challenges for Female Theologians

I'm not a feminist, and I never want to jump on the soapbox that shouts, "Being a female theologian stinks, because everybody hates us!"  This is simply not true.  However, there are some unique challenges.  


Even if you break through the glass ceiling, there are people who want to repair it.  The Church of the Nazarene has a history of being inclusive of women, but even in the most women friendly denominations, some pastors still don't get it.  I will never forget the day Nina Gunter was elected as a General Superintendent.  I'd like to say that it is such an unforgettable moment, because she was deserving (which she was) or because it was a step in the right direction (which it was) or for any number of other reasons.  However, the most prominent reason I will never forget it is that I happened to be in the office at my local church, making copies of music for the youth worship band that I led, and the Senior Pastor was having an absolute fit over the voting.  

With each new vote, he would run into the office very upset about the upward trend for Dr. Gunter.  I can't remember everything he said, but he was furious that the voters at General Assembly could be so stupid as to elect a woman to such a position of power.  It was difficult, to say the least, to be standing there completely unable to form an appropriate response.

By the time the final vote was tallied, this man was actually changing colors, and I was a little concerned that he might have a heart attack.  I finished making my copies and walked home wondering how this could possibly be happening in the 21st century.


So many of your friends are naturally going to be men.  Pastoral Ministry is still a male dominated field, and that's OK.  People should enter into ministry because they feel called to do so, and if that means that an overwhelming number of pastors are men, because they are the ones who feel called, then I'm not going to argue with that.  Sometimes, you might come across a rare situation in which you are surrounded by other female theologians.  Actually, I have experienced this in my education, where many of my colleagues have been women.  But this is unusual.

I am tempted to say, "Guard yourself," but that doesn't begin to cover what I mean, and it is inadequate for the dilemma, because you actually can't guard yourself all the time.  If you did that, you would never form friendships with your colleagues.  These are difficult waters.  You can't build a wall around yourself, but there is also some wisdom in the old adage, "Don't play with fire," because, well, you know what's bound to happen.

It can be somewhat difficult to sufficiently play the role of "one of the guys".  That's OK.  You really shouldn't have to do this.  That said, I do have a lot of communication going on with male colleagues.  There are stretches of time when this is a daily occurrence.  It can be tricky.  I do not possess amazing social filters, and sometimes I know I say things, in the regular course of conversation, that might cross an invisible line in the sand.  I call these, "Oh, crap moments".  They are the times when I say something, or maybe worse yet, write something (who needs an incriminating paper trail, and let's face it, the Internet is forever), and then look back on it and think, "That did not come out right".  Then, of course, it's almost worse to try to fix it.

I have all kinds of guidelines for myself.  Don't say anything I wouldn't say to my best friend's husband.  Don't write anything that would come across weird if I left my computer open to Facebook (which I always do) and Phil read my last fifteen message threads.  Don't say anything I wouldn't say if my male colleague's wife was standing next to him.  Don't post anything that would make me furious if some woman posted it to Phil.  The problem with all of this, though, is that I am just as likely to be inappropriate in any of these situations!

Overall, though, just be smart.  There are going to be some limitations on your friendships.  It's OK.  Sometimes you're going to say something you wish you could get back.  It's OK.  You could drive yourself crazy over analyzing every interaction.  Don't do it.  It's not worth it.  Chances are excellent that you are way more worried about this than anybody else.


Your friends who are women might fall into a distinctly different theological leaning category.  Frankly, most of my closest friends are reformed.  This makes it basically impossible for me to talk with them about my calling, my education, or my vocation.  We are pretty much limited to discussing raising children and planning vacations, and I'm OK with that, because these are also things about which I care very much.  Sometimes, however, I wish for deeper conversation.  The problem is, if I bring theology or ministry into the equation, I am going to hear all about how I should identify myself as "Mrs. Michaels" rather than "Pastor Lisa," I am going to be labeled a heretic, and their husbands are not going to let them have play dates with me anymore.  It sounds melodramatic, but I have lost more than one friend because my definition of submission doesn't add up to her husband's definition.  Ironically, these same friends think my husband is awesome!  There must be something to that.

This difference in opinion has also been problematic for my oldest daughter, at times.  One particular evening, she had a friend at our house for a sleepover.  While we were eating dinner, her friend said, "Ms. Lisa, I'm learning at church how I was created to make a man happy and have babies!  If you want Grace to be like me, you should let her come to my group!"  They were eleven years old!  This sweet little friend was so excited about this, and I know I was standing there with my jaw on the kitchen floor.  The only thing I could think was, "I don't want Grace to be like you!"  Of course, I couldn't say this, because I am relatively opposed to usurping other people's family values at pre-teen slumber parties, so it took me a long moment to respond carefully.  We declined the invitation.  I hope no one who attends that church ever wants to date my daughter.


If your husband is also a theologian, it is really hard to shake the stigma of being "the pastor's wife".  You almost have to set yourself apart in some way, but you don't want it to become a competition.  The truth is, sometimes I feel as if it's a lose-lose situation, which is extraordinarily sad, because neither of us wants it to be that way.

As an example of how this is sometimes bizarre, I recently volunteered to participate in the editing process for a denominational document.  It was sent to all of the volunteers with the greeting, "Guys and Lisa Michaels - ".  Awkward.  It was also sent to my husband's email address as opposed to mine.  I'm not sure if they thought he needed to preview my email or what.  He forwarded it to me, I made significant edits, sent it back from my own email account, and then they thanked him.  It was weird.  On a good day, this is almost laugh out loud funny.  On a typical day, I wonder why I am invisible to some people. 


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Confessions of a Protestant Girl at a Catholic Funeral

This is not what I was going to write about this week, but sometimes life happens... and sometimes death happens... and sometimes plans change... and sometimes we change...

One of my extended family members passed away earlier this week after a long battle with cancer.  I do not often have the opportunity to gather with relatives.  Although the occasion was somber and the drive was long, Phil and I decided to attend the funeral. 

I have now been to exactly two Catholic funerals in my life.  The first one was a little over 18 years ago, when my Nana died.  Because I did not understand anything about Catholic traditions or sacraments, it was terrifying.  And when I write that, please do not take it lightly.  It was not a simple matter of feeling weird, because everything was unfamiliar.  I was really scared.  Mostly, I have impressions about this day as opposed to solid memories, but there are things I do remember which include desperately wanting to kneel and pray by the casket but feeling ashamed to do so, since I had been taught it was evil to pray for the dead and having a near panic attack at the end of the funeral, because I had no idea what incense was or what the priest was doing with it.

My experience, this time around, was very different.  This was the most beautiful funeral I have ever attended.  When we were leaving, I told Phil, "If I die before you, that's the kind of funeral I want," and I meant it.

We arrived early, which afforded me the opportunity to greet my precious great aunt Tina in a very quiet and near empty sanctuary.  She was mourning the loss of her daughter, with a few silent tears on her face.  I had not seen her in many years.  I love her, and I have to be honest, hugging her is a little bit like having a piece of Nana back.

Since we came into the sanctuary at the wrong entrance (you know it's not really my story if there aren't some anomalies, and just wait... there are some...), we exited through the other doors in order to sign the guest book and connect to other family members, including my parents. 

Upon re-entering the sanctuary, I noticed a bowl of water and the person ahead of me dipped her fingers in it before making the sign of the cross.  There were too many people coming in behind me for me to take the necessary time to consider what I should do, so I just went in and sat down, but as I did so, I turned to Phil and said, "I think we just missed our opportunity to touch the holy water."  I know, I know, this confusion and compulsion probably sounds crazy to anyone who's spent his or her whole life with things like holy water available to them every time they enter a church, but it's very new to me.  The sense of loss was so profound that I briefly considered exiting and entering for a third time, but I do have some semblance of normalcy left, so I just stayed put.

And I began to soak in the imagery...

Did you know that you can tell the entire story of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection on walls and in stained glass windows?  Why did we move away from this?  Why have we moved away from the telling of stories, altogether?  This funeral told a story.  It told the story of a life well lived, but it also told the larger continuing story of God.  But then the priest used some words that were very powerful in light of death.  "She is lost to all of us."  This caused me to consider the role that each life plays in this story.  Everyone is important, particularly if we believe in humanity working in partnership with God.  Because of this, death is a profound loss.  And yet... 

There was something really amazing about the way in which corporate prayer brought things... and people... together in these moments.  To pray for the dead is, in many ways, to commit them into Jesus' hands.  In contrast to my limited Catholic funeral experiences, I have been to a lot of Protestant ones.  There I have experienced weeping, wailing, falling on your face kind of grief.  I am not, in any way, going to tell people how they should or should not grieve... how they need to grieve... what is appropriate...  But these people, this week.  They embodied I Thessalonians 4:13.  They grieved as people who have hope.

I have to admit that although I tried to participate as fully as possible in this experience, there were some quirks.  For example, the truth is I just didn't know all of the right words to say.  There might have been some ad-libbing and delayed repeating going on, but I did my best.  I took as many cues as I could from my Aunt Mary, and it might have been slightly encouraging when she literally flashed a peace sign at the passing of the peace.  I don't know if she recognized how hard I was trying to get it all "right", but that took some of the pressure off.

Of significant importance to me was the Eucharist.  The last time I was at a Catholic service (a wedding), it was announced that Protestants could not participate in the Eucharist, so I was sort of expecting that again, but nothing was ever said.  My mom (as Protestant as it gets) was getting more and more nervous by the second as the Eucharist was approaching, and this reminded me of another childhood memory...

I must have been about eight years old the year Nana managed to get the entire family to mass on Christmas Eve.  I remember it was fun, which is sort of ironic.  Anyway, when the time for the Eucharist was approaching, I wanted to fall in line with the rest of my Catholic family to participate.  I stood up, but my dad turned to me and told me no, and my mom quickly pulled me back to where she was... where we sat watching as everyone else partook of the sacrament.  I remember feeling very alone, left out, unworthy of sharing in this very important moment.  Having just seen the latest Pixar release, Inside Out, I think you might even call this particular instance a "core memory"...

So, when the priest gave no indication that Protestants were to be excluded from this celebration of the Eucharist, I leaned over my mom, to my dad, and asked, "Can we take communion here even though we're not Catholic?"  And my stomach was in knots as I waited for him to say no again, except he didn't.  Instead, he said, "I don't see why not," and as I literally hurdled my parents, he added in a whisper, "Just don't drink too much wine."  Mercifully, I managed to only smile, because it could have been a laugh out loud moment.  (As a side note, no wine was offered, only bread).

As we neared the end, the priest actually used the words, "the last paragraph," which, of course, brings us back to the narrative.  These words cause me to consider the paragraphs of my own life.  I'd like more of them to be about grace.  We only get so many, you know. 

And then it was time for the incense.  Did you know that incense is used to signify purification and sanctification?  Not frightening this time around, friends...

While you're still listening, I have one confession.  After a meal with my family, as Phil and I were getting ready to leave, it occurred to me that we were the only ones near the sanctuary, and we had timed it just right so there was another opportunity at the holy water.  Every Catholic friend and family member I have must be laughing at me, right now, but I just had to touch it.  Please don't misunderstand, though.  It's more than curiosity.  I'm learning. 


Thursday, June 25, 2015


Before I even get started on this, I have to admit that I want to combine atonement (article 6) with justification, regeneration and adoption (article 9), but I'm going to resist.  Because of that, this post will feel at least somewhat unfinished to me, and it might feel that way to you, as well.  I am trying to think of it in the same way I think of the time and care we should put into the Lenten season, and particularly Holy Week.  If atonement draws us in to the story of Good Friday, then justification, regeneration, and adoption point us to Easter.  So often, we want to rush ahead.  But it is worthwhile to sit with the consequences of atonement and to take some time for quiet reflection rather than moving ahead too quickly.  In the Church of the Nazarene, Article 6 reads as follows:    

VI. Atonement

6. We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin, and that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, and that it is sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of those incapable of moral responsibility and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe.

(Isaiah 53:5-6, 11; Mark 10:45; Luke 24:46-48; John 1:29; 3:14-17; Acts 4:10-12; Romans 3:21-26; 4:17-25; 5:6-21; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Galatians 1:3-4; 3:13-14; Colossians 1:19-23; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:9; 9:11-14; 13:12; 1 Peter 1:18- 21; 2:19-25; 1 John 2:1-2)

At its heart, atonement is about what Jesus did to reconcile God and humanity.  There are numerous atonement theories that focus on different possible explanations for Jesus' crucifixion.  Was it a payment?  An act of vindication on behalf of God's honor or justice?  A show of victory?  An example of ultimate obedience?  A substitution? 

Arminians lean toward an atonement theory that suggests Christ did not pay the penalty for our sin but, instead, suffered for us as a substitution for our suffering.  The implication here is that to pay the penalty would have atoned for all sin, making redemption unnecessary.  By acting as a substitution, instead, the understanding is that we may choose this reconciliation but that we should then turn from sin, because we recognize the gravity of it.

Interestingly, this has me thinking about the different ways in which we exhibit the cross in various faith traditions.  Of particular relevance might be the tension between a crucifix and an empty cross.  The importance of an empty tomb, I can understand.  It's a deal breaker.  But I'm fairly certain the cross is never empty.  We don't have any evidence, in Scripture, of what happened to the cross after Jesus' crucifixion, but in all likelihood it was not left at Golgotha as a symbol of Jesus' death.  In fact, it may have been used for other crucifixions, before and after that of Jesus.  What makes the cross what it is to us, in the Christian tradition, is that Jesus hung on it.  And yet, we so often worship before an empty cross.  Perhaps there is something to the crucifix, where Jesus' blood never stops spilling to cover our sins.

But I have digressed just a little bit.

Article 6 is significant, because the way we define atonement says a lot about the way we understand grace... and God.

Regardless of why or how, we recognize that Jesus did make atonement for sin, reconciling us to God.  I'm not sure why we feel the need to emphasize that this atonement is for human sin, sufficient for Adam's race.  While I would agree that it certainly is, I am left feeling a little bit dissatisfied, because I think atonement covers more than just people.  In I John 2:2, we read, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (NIV).  Have we limited the atonement?  Since I believe that God will redeem everyone and everything that can be redeemed, I would venture to say that we have.  I don't think I want to do that, and I also don't think this was necessarily an intentional limitation.  We must, however, be careful with our words.

It's the second sentence that really gets me, though.  There are two issues that jump out immediately.  First, we recognize atonement as efficacious (effective, successful) for three groups of people; those incapable of moral responsibility, children in innocency, and those who repent and believe.  I am in complete agreement that atonement is efficacious for all of those groups.  What I struggle with is the earlier article in which we defined people as continually bent toward sin from birth, but now we seem to make exceptions.  I think we need to make our language read in such a way that this does not become confusing to people.  Also, perhaps ironically, we do not define this age of responsibility.  I presume this is because we can't.  As long as we recognize that it is not up to us to determine who can't and who won't accept the atonement, I think this part of our statement is acceptable.  Do we recognize that?  I don't know.

The second issue I have here is that we describe the atonement as graciously efficacious for those who are incapable of moral responsibility and for children in innocency, but we only describe it as efficacious for those who repent and believe.  Perhaps this is merely an oversight, but it lends itself to a way of thinking that indicates that those who accept and believe might be more worthy of atonement.  I would hate to think that we believe that Jesus owes it to us to bring reconciliation between God and humanity if we accept it.  Speaking for myself, I am definitely a part of the group who has reached the age of responsibility, and I would like to admit that atonement is graciously efficacious for me, as well.  I do not deserve it.


Monday, June 22, 2015

I Thought I was Going to Have Friends

Expectation #2

Ministry is often lonely.  By nature, I'm an introvert, so I actually don't require tons of interaction with people.  This, in itself, is sometimes misunderstood.  I love people.  I just need some time alone to recharge on a fairly regular basis.  This does not mean that I love being alone all, or even most, of the time.
I thrive in social situations when I have a defined role, and particularly a defined leadership role.  Because of this, I tend to gravitate toward people who need help.  I'm adamant about the connections we should be making with those whom Jesus defines as the least of these.  All of this is a part of who I am, and it's good.  But there's something else.
Over the years, I've grown quite fond of Wesley's image of discipleship and spiritual formation as a process of climbing a stairway with one hand reaching forward and one hand reaching back.  I think many ministers do the reaching back well, but my concern is that so many of us are walking up the stairs backward, altogether, attempting to drag the whole world behind us with both hands.  With this posture, the potential for falling down the stairs is enormous!
The relationship of spiritual direction is vital.  For me, this was a very difficult step to take.  When I enrolled at NNU, it was a requirement that I find a spiritual director.  The fear involved in this process was almost palpable, because I knew that entering into this kind of relationship would leave me vulnerable and transparent.  I wasn't sure this was what I wanted, but I did want to be at NNU, so I had to do it.  Interestingly enough, NNU also provided me with a cohort of people with whom to journey in my educational pursuits, and many of them became friends.  I thought I went to NNU to get a degree, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. 
It would be nice to leave the story at that, but I think there  are some real challenges for pastors once they move beyond required relationships.  Unfortunately, for many, these relationships only last so long.  This has left me wondering how I can encourage people to continue with one on one spiritual direction and regular communication with a cohort of colleagues when that kind of engagement is no longer obligatory to reach some other goal.
Part of the problem is that you have to want it.  I would not have sought a spiritual director if I had not been required to do so.  I'm not exactly sure what that says about me.  Perhaps it says that I thought I had it all together, or I thought I had arrived, or I thought it was easier to listen to God alone than with someone else.  Maybe it says that I knew I did not have it all together, and I had certainly not arrived, and it was easier to not listen to God at all than to get honest with another human being who might not be as trustworthy as I'd hoped.  Pastors get burned by people, sometimes, and so we often choose to go solo as opposed to engaging in community.  Oh, we build community for other people.  We serve as the spiritual directors and the mentors and the resident theologians.  And we should.  But we definitely have needs, too.
Another part of the problem, though, is actually finding people who are willing and able to fill the roles of spiritual director and friends in your life.  When I started praying about who I should ask to be my spiritual director, only one name came to mind.  I was on the verge of asking her, which had taken me quite some time, courage gathering and all, when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Honestly, I was blown away with grief for this family, and I didn't feel as if I could ask her to take on one more thing, namely my mess of a life, so I waited and prayed some more and was reaching near panic attack level as the start of the school year came and went, and I still did not have a name to submit as my spiritual director.
Finally, because I was out of time, and I tend to work best under pressure, at the eleventh hour, I sent an e-mail asking if she would be willing to fulfill this role as my spiritual director.  Part of her response to me read, as follows:
"I did read over the requirements and said to myself, 'This doesn’t sound like me.'  I feel like there must be many, many people who meet the criteria better than I... Perhaps you see something that I don’t; it seems like you think I could do it.  I have never done anything like this before.  And then I wondered, 'Why did God put this opportunity in front of me?'  Perhaps He wants me to do it.  So, if you think I would meet the criteria well enough, I will try my best.  And if you have doubts, I won’t be a bit upset if you ask someone else."

Well, that was enough for me.  The fact that she was willing was all I really needed, and there was absolutely no way I was going to put myself through the process of looking for someone else if I didn't absolutely have to.


This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship in which my spiritual director and I are able to commune and listen to God together.  It has been amazing, not only how she has helped me in the process of spiritual formation, but also how she has helped me in everyday, ordinary life.  She was exactly who I needed.


Perhaps not ironically, the relationship has been good for her, as well.  I think God has used my leaning toward compassion and listening to also help her through a very difficult time in life, through grief and healing connected to the loss of her husband.  It seems that God does, indeed, direct us to the people we need and the people who need us.


In regard to other friendships, it can be a complicated process.  I remember being told, before we entered into ministry, that you shouldn't really make friends within your congregation, and you absolutely should never, ever stay connected to the people from previous ministry assignments.  I found this advice, at first, to be appalling.  Then we went through some painful transitions, and the whole concept of friendship started to seem like a revolving door.  I am ashamed to admit that I started to buy into the lie that forming transparent relationships with the people to whom you minister is taboo.  It was easier to not care that much.  It was definitely easier to walk away without thinking about how life had gone on without us.  But the things that are easiest are so often not synonymous with the things that are right.


Enter social networking.  We live in a different world than we did, even a decade ago.  Now, people whose names you could hardly remember when you lived across the street might very well be privy to such private information as what you had for breakfast or when you plan to next have your tires rotated.  I think the word "friend" has taken on a life of its own.  As an example, at this very moment I have just over 800 friends on Facebook.  They live all over the country, and some of them even in other world areas.  A good number of them haven't been very nice to me in real-life situations.  A few of them, I have never met face to face. 


I really like social networking, because it has helped me to re-connect with a lot of people who would otherwise be relationship casualties of ministries in the minister and move on mode.  I like that I have been able to re-connect with childhood friends.  I like that every time I meet someone and have an even moderately meaningful conversation with them, I can add them to my list of friends and keep track of them, get glimpses into their lives, pray for them when they have needs.  It's an amazing tool.  It does, however, lack physical contact.


After a whirlwind of five states in six years, our family landed in the mid-west, which was a plus for us, since that's where Phil and I both grew up, and managed to stay put for just as long as we'd been traveling.  Gradually, we started remembering what is was like to have regular contact with the same people, week after week, month after month, year after year.  I had become very guarded, because it was simply painful to start to make friends only to have them ripped out of my life, but as we settled in to a new way of living, with new rhythms and a stable location, my guard began to drop.  I didn't go looking for friends, but they started to show up sort of unexpectedly, working their way into my life, simply because we had something in common.  Several of them became the kinds of friends that I could depend on to pray for me and to respond with grace and love, even when the things I needed to share were a jumble of raw emotion.  It was a very blessed time in my life in regard to friendship.


Unfortunately, even if you stay in one place for a really long time, it is likely that you will move again someday.  As a general rule, that's just the way vocational ministry goes.  So, when we packed up after six years of life with the same people, it was actually a much harder goodbye than some of the others.  It's not that we lost all of our friends, but we had to adjust to a different way of doing friendship with them.  They no longer eat in our living room once a week.  It might seem like a little thing, but I knew what they liked.  I mean, like clockwork, I could tell you which people were going to show up, and bring more friends, on breakfast night.  I knew who wanted crushed red peppers in their cheesy eggs and who didn't, and I always made both kinds.  I knew no one was ever coming again if I attempted pumpkin pancakes a second time.  But when we left that town, I had to start over again with people I didn't know.  The truth is, it takes a long time to make friends, and it hurts when you have to leave them.


You also have to be aware that every time you find yourself in a new situation, many of the people there are naturally going to have been friends for their entire lives.  It's OK.  You can still be friends with them, but your relationships are going to be different.  You don't have a history together.  They do. 


I've often heard it said that God places people in our lives, and places us in the lives of people,  for specific times and situations.  I don't really know how true that is, but I do know that it's best if you love the people you're with, all the time, regardless of how long you get with each one.  There are times when I honestly wish that our life had been more geographically stable, but if that were the case, I would have missed out on a lot of people.  Sometimes you have to say goodbye in order to say hello.