#Yoked: On Being Yoked

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This is part of a series on clergy couples and their stories. Andy and I wrote a book about being a clergy couple and all the insanity that goes along with it called Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry. It was originally posted at Christian Century.

Brian and I are at the Farmer’s Market. I walk up to the vendors, and the wife says, “Oh! You must be Pastor Brian’s wife.”

I shake her hand and say, “Yes, I am Brian’s wife. My name is Carol Howard Merritt.” As she introduces me to her husband, I wonder if I should have added the “Reverend” to my name. I don’t usually use the prefix, but should I have notified them that I’m a pastor too?

The husband begins to tell me how hard it is being a pastor. He knows, because his son serves a church.

I am patient for a while, but then his proxy complaints begin rubbing me the wrong way. Of course, I know the job is difficult, but I have just left an interim position and there is no other pastoral position in sight.

We moved here because my husband had an opportunity to start a church. Since he was the trailing spouse during our last three moves, I owed him. Plus, I have also been writing and speaking for eight years, and a good deal of my income is not bound to any particular geography. It made sense for me to relocate. I am very busy, but concentrating on those things means scheduling my calendar months in advance, which makes me a less likely pastoral candidate.

I really should be thankful for my place in this world. I am thankful. But I also love being a pastor and I can’t help but indulge in a certain longing for my previous positions. I visit lectionary sites during the week, reading the passages, imagining what I would preach, if I could. Then I catch myself and quickly close the Internet, feeling like a stalking ex-lover.

Finally, I break into the conversation. “I’m a pastor too. There are a lot of good things about the job.”

“Oh, it looks good. From the outside, maybe. But believe me, it’s tough.” He starts in again, enumerating all the complaints we gripe about at clergy gatherings.

“I know. I’m a pastor too,” I repeat. “I have served churches for 15 years. I had a lot of good moments during that time.”

“But, you really don’t understand…” and he’s off to the races, letting me know that being a pastor’s wife is different than being a pastor. He knows, because of his son.

My face is hot with anger now. I wish I could shrug him off. Who cares what he thinks? I REALLY wish I didn’t care. But, I do. So for the third time, I tell him that I am a pastor. When he still doesn’t get it, it would be comical, if I weren’t upset. Then his wife interrupts him, puts her hand on his forearm until he looks at her face, and says slowly and patiently, “She is a pastor too.”

He looks at me, blankly. “But you’re just an associate, right?”

I practically run from the market. My cheeks feel like a pair of tomato pincushions, being pricked by a hundred needles. In my head, I list my accomplishments and achievements. I was a good student in seminary. I have written books. I speak at conferences. Important people have said nice things me.

On one hand, people should listen to me, in spite of my resume. On the other hand, I feel like he just erased twenty-two years of preparation and service. Then, I begin to add up all the other slights. I know it’s just my over-inflated ego. I know I should just be happy serving Jesus, but I want them to quit ignoring me. I want them to stop deferring all of their questions to my husband. I want them to know that my opinion matters too.

But most of all, I REALLY wish I didn’t care. 

Carol Howard Merritt is author of Tribal Church and cohost of God Complex Radio. Her blog is hosted by the Century. 

Writing to Live: My Three (?!) Books

puzzle Written in October.

I keep thinking about Brittany Maynard. The 29-year old woman who has terminal stage 4 brain cancer and is choosing to end her life on her own terms. I keep thinking about that frail line between life and death, and how easy it is to look at our lives and realize we’re all dying in a way, as each day goes by, but then faith tells me that each day is the first day of eternity. I keep thinking about what it means to die with dignity. And what it means to live with dignity. What it means that each person has a right to that choice, and that choice is there each day.

“The livable life” – something I read in Judith Butler’s book Undoing Gender – chases after me these days. Or is it the other way around? That I keep chasing after it? What makes life livable? My hope is that through my writing, my investigation, my analysis, my reflection and discovery, all of this endeavor is connected to as Judith says of her own work – “tasks of persistence and survival.” To articulate life in particular and ideally, life universal. To speak truth to life.

Like most things, it’s a process. My first book, Making Paper Cranes was never meant to be a grand manifesto but it was important. It came out of a time I struggled to verbalize my sense of self as a Korean American woman of faith. What did it mean to embrace my cultural heritage? What did it mean to speak about racialization? What did it mean to be a woman of color in a predominantly white institution of faith? And what and how could I articulate something about God from the abyss of my own life? The book was deeply personal and became a theologically constructive work as I “conversed” with authors, theologians, liberation theologians, pastors, feminists and poets within the writing. While it only glanced the surface of so many questions about gender, race and identity, faith and vocation, even then I could feel there was so much more that was beyond my reach at the time. Still, it was a beginning. It gave me life.

Then Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color was a chance to give myself over to a deeply held belief about community – how we can’t survive without it. I needed to hear the stories of my people, my tribe, my sisters those who already knew and understood my questions about gender and race, and could speak truth to power in their own ways. I continue to read over those stories again and again being moved to tears by the bravery and honesty of the writers. There is so much at stake in these words, and these words continue to feed me.

And then, there were three. I’m not just talking Oz, who slept in my lap as we finished writing this book after his arrival. Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry came out of a compulsion to write out what it meant that our world was crashing down around us. To bring order to the chaos. Anyone who has had a traumatic experience can speak to how much life changes after that trauma. And anyone with children knows how having children falls into that category. Anyone with children knows how traumatic it is to become a parent for the first time. Also, anyone who has done anything like this with their spouse knows how traumatic it is to pick out wallpaper much less write anything together.

Andy, my husband, had the initial dream about this book when we first moved to Bloomington shortly after the twins were born. So much had changed in the span of two months – exciting with the new job, new family, new town, but grief, too, in the goodbyes to a career, community, and any familiar, comforting plans about the future. Yes, there are stories about ministry, specifically ordained ministry within the Presbyterian church. But, there are stories about what we carry into the pulpits and pews, like struggling with infertility, later the threat of foreclosure on our house, flailing under the burden of depression, and all the normal power and identity struggles within a marriage. It is a much more extensive self-reflection of our lives as we try to put pieces together to make sense of our life together.

All this leads me back to livability. The thread throughout all the writing is living and surviving. The constructive and narrative, theological and sociological, reflective and creative –  all are about the ways I’ve learned to embrace this way of living – stumbling and struggling, surrendering and trusting. And marriage – life together – has been the most relentless teacher. Everything Andy and I have gone through – all the good, bad, and ugly – we share it in the book as an attempt at saying what we believe about God. That God is certainly present in the struggle – the valleys and darkness – but it’s in the moments of surrender and trust that we actually see and feel God. We could certainly say that the book is about marriage – the push and pull of an imperfectly lived out commitment in the midst of covenant with God, or about parenthood and family – the ways having children fundamentally changes a person for good, or about ministry – how a vocation that is about giving oneself over to others is thankless but bizarrely satisfying at the end of the day.

But, it’s more than that and oddly – less than that. It’s just…our story. And we’re definitely not done making sense of it. I imagine if we were to write another book like this in twenty years our conclusions would be vastly different. We will probably look back on this book and laugh at it in much the same way I laugh through my old journals from middle school. Still, maybe someone else will find themselves in a part of these words.

Even if on face-value there might not be any point of overlap for the single person or the childless couple or the college student who thinks, “what does that have to do with me?” that’s where the Holy Spirit, the wild-child of the Trinity, my favorite, comes to play. I take Kwok Pui Lan’s words to heart in her book Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, where she says when the Spirit is present, “one catches glimpses of oneself in a fleeting moment or in a fragment in someone else’s story.” The most important revelation I had when writing started to be a mode of living, I mean literally, breathing and feeling – each day – was that we’re not alone. None of us are alone. If the words found in any of these books, blogs, articles, essays, and ramblings offers that glimpse of shared life to someone else then I can’t imagine anything more satisfying, more dignifying about these stories. It would make life worth living.

Streams Run Uphill: Highlighting Other Voices

Streams Run Uphill: Highlighting Other Voices

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This week Jim Kast-Keat of Thirty Seconds or Less will be hosting the writers’ voices of Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color .

“Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.” -Ethiopian proverb

After Making Paper Cranes I found myself desperate to uncover the meaningful and pertinent experiences of the rare but growing number of other clergywomen. I needed to know that I wasn’t totally alone in this journey. I needed to hear from the ones that looked like me. Those that are other in that they are non-Anglo. Those seen as exotic, foreign, and mysterious.

Some have accents. Some look and sound “American.” Some look incredibly young. Some are bilingual. Some are quiet. Some are vociferous. Some are incredible preachers. Some have a healing pastoral presence. Some are mothers. Some are single. Some are gay. Some are recent immigrants. Some are second or third generation. They serve in Asian American, African American, and Spanish-speaking congregations, or, like me, they serve congregations that look nothing like them. I hungered for the life-giving words that came from our unique calling and the acknowledgment of the distinct challenges we faced from the moment we decided to say, “Lord, here I am. Send me.”

Because there are times I question whether or not my call is as real as others around me – those who seem to have the unwavering support of their congregations and communities, those who seem to have little struggle beyond the “usual” in ministry, those who look so comfortable in their robes and in the pulpit.

All of us – the writers – felt it behooved us to share a little glimpse of the struggle – that perhaps this would be an encouragement for women of color pursuing the call to ministry, but also women of color in any leadership type position in whatever context, and even the congregations who are led by women of color. I grow increasingly convinced that women of color voices need to be centered in the kingdom of God, and that the way to a deeper faithfulness by the church is to position themselves towards these lives and perspectives.

Thank you again to Jim Kast-Keat who provided the space and inspiration for these voices this week:

Larissa Kwong Abazia
Yana Pagan
Laura Cheifetz
LeQuita Hopgood Porter
Cheni Khonje

Streams Run Uphill Blog Tour: Week 1

Streams Run Uphill Blog Tour: Week 1

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So thankful for the words and support, and honest engagement for those who’ve posted so far about #streamsrunuphill. It’s so hugely important to me that these writers and stories are heard widely in the church. Please spread the word so that the resource becomes available and known especially to those young women of color!

Caryn Riswold

Dan Wilkinson

And for Unfundentalist Christians for reposting at their place.

Publishers Weekly
Ministry Matters by Bromleigh McClenaghan

More to come including:

Sarah Bessey
Krista Dalton
Kathy Escobar
Young Lee Hertig
Adam Hollowell
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Kathy Khang
Carol Howard Merrit
Micah Murray at Redemption Pictures

Eyes Wide Open: Prayer and Contemplation

I have no idea how or why we were taught to close our eyes for prayer. Does anyone know the history of it? I tried Google-ing it but only a few things with substance came up besides 1) to block out distractions, and 2) to follow suit with the people around you. I did come across this blog’s description:

Quoting I Kings 8: “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

Those who practice Centering Prayer know that teachers like Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington make it a point to recommend that we sit comfortably “with eyes closed” when introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

To close one’s eyes is one way we allow God’s darkening glory to come upon us. Jesus himself recommended such environmental darkness for prayer when giving us guidelines, he recommended that we into our closet, shut the door, and pray to our Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6). As I have said elsewhere, inasmuch as first-century Jewish homes had no closets as we know them, it likely that Jesus is suggesting that go off somewhere alone, pull a prayer shawl over our heads or at least pull down our eyelids so that we enter a personal darkness to be with God–or better said, that God may be with us.

Unfortunately though this is compelling, and I think, very true and necessary – the imperative to embrace the darkness and quiet because of its being conducive to God’s presence…it’s just not feasible anymore. One of four things happen when I close my eyes, particuarly for prayer:

1) I start snoring.
2) I start daydreaming.
3) I start writing lists.
4) The babies run away and/or fall off a pew (namely, in church on Sundays).

So I stopped closing my eyes. Actually, I stopped a while ago. Mostly because of #2 and #3. But, I also thought opening my eyes would help me feel more connected to the people around me, as well as to God. Because I found that sometimes in the midst of prayer when my eyes were closed it felt like the people praying with me were far away – the sounds of voices seemed small and distant. Opening my eyes and looking around began to anchor me to the shared moment once I could let go of feeling sneaky or like I was breaking rules. Still, Andy doesn’t totally like it especially whenever he catches me staring at him after he’s finished praying for a meal.

Now, in worship though when I’m juggling the babies, it’s an absolute necessity to keep my eyes. Wide. Open. While they toddle around the sanctuary. While they flap their hands and wave bulletin inserts loudly like pom poms in the air. While they laugh and shriek and call out for daddy in his flowing black robe in the front. While they lean on the backs of the pews to poke the people in their faces. Yes, certainly it’s distracting. Not just to me, either, and one might wonder how in the world I could possibly be present?

But, I think that this season of faith, including the experience of prayer and worship – it’s meant to be a different feeling. Worshiping as a parent…It requires a different energy and a more deliberate posture in worship. It’s definitely much more exhausting in a way, and yet, at the same time, I find it’s more tangible. To be present in that moment, in that community, as my children occupy the space, it feels like a faithfulness – the kind that’s really associated with worship. And when I look around and see the community around me – and surrounding all the children – I can’t help but feel grateful. Joyful. Hopeful. Worshipful. And mindful of my desperately needful ways. Desperately needing to work towards the good of God’s kingdom. I really believe this urgency comes from the connection experienced in prayer. And I’m discovering it in new ways, and discovering the ways it’s changing me.

Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. ― Kathleen Norris

I’ve heard this said in so many ways, but I do like Kathleen’s words here. It’s a reminder that ultimately I’m always asking to be changed in ways that are beyond the horizons of my vision. The babies remind me of this…the ways they are constantly changing before my eyes.

And yes, I actually do close my eyes every once in a while.