Word of the Week

There's a post I've needed to write all week. It starts like this,"Goodbye, dear Fran."

Fran died on Tuesday morning breaking my heart.

I first met Fran in 2007. I was her pastor. I started visiting her at the senior pastor's request as part of my associate pastor job. But before I knew it, I was at her house more than was asked of me. I was in a season of life that didn't really fit me. But with Fran I always seemed to fit in just fine.

She was a 83-year-old shut-in. Well, sort of. While it was true, Fran lived in her home alone, but she never wanted you to say she was "shut in." Fran got out!

She drove her own car with pride (though honestly I held my breath when I rode with her). She came to church every week, Sunday School and worship alike. She got her hair done at JCPenney's. And, she bought her own groceries. She was always up for a meal out if it involved a person she liked and Chinese, Ledo's pizza or Italian.

I kept going back to see her during that two-year tenure in her town because there was something about my conversations with Fran that always left me better.

This was the magic: Fran saw me. 

When we first met, Fran saw my gifts for preaching (and especially loved that she could hear me when I spoke without having to turn up her hearing aids).

Fran saw that I was lonely living out on my own for the first time in Gaithersburg, MD when all my friends and husband-to-be lived in DC.

Fran saw that I worried about being true to myself and living out my calling. There were many days when it all felt too confusing. "You'll get there, Elizabeth. You will."

And when Fran came to my church office the day I told her that I was leaving (another congregation called me to be their solo pastor across town), we both wept. We wept and wept and wept. But she knew I needed to go. "You are meant to be in the pulpit every week," she reminded me over and over again. "But don't forget me."

I promised her I wouldn't as she and several other members of the church treated me to a goodbye lunch.

And I didn't. Over the next several months, we crossed the bridge together of becoming friends.

And this was the magic: I saw Fran. 

I saw that Fran was a member of a church that didn't always get her either. (Never lacking of opinions, Fran wasn't afraid to say a project or budget item was foolish. Got to love a truth-telling woman!).

I saw that Fran was a person that enjoyed a rich conversation, even though she lived alone. People don't have these very often in our fast paced everything, she often told me. 

I saw Fran as a person with much to offer the world-- if even just in talking to me for the afternoon-- at age 84, 86 and 88. As I left her house, she watched me pull out of the driveway as she waved mouthing: "I love you."

I loved her too.

The cherry on top was the fact that she and my husband shared a birthday. So even as life took me to places like Oklahoma (which she wasn't happy about), Kenya, Honduras and beyond, we always kept up on the phone and through visits when I was back in the area.

Kevin and Fran and I even shared a birthday lunch together over pizza. It was her 90th.

There's a book I finished only minutes before I heard she was reaching the final end of her life called Adopted: the sacrament of belonging in a fractured world by Kelley Nikondeha.

In the final chapter, Nikondeha writes this, "God's family stretches beyond our smaller notions of biological or ethnic connection.  . . . It's the continual work of the prophets and the Spirit to open our eyes to this simple yet astounding truth: Anyone can be our family if we let them."

Fran was my family. I'm glad God made it so.

She celebrated with me the purchase of my home wanting to see pictures of every room.

She cheered on the publication of my book Birthed and read every word telling me: "You've got wise things to say to people, Elizabeth, even us old people. We need to learn from you."

And with much joy she welcomed my daughter into her loving embrace as well. Giving my girl the short, but powerful gift of having a "great-grandmother" something I couldn't have offered her without Fran. For Christmas last year she wrote my daughter a $15 check with a card.

One day, I'll tell my daughter about these memories of Fran.

I'll tell her that when she meets people who truly see her, like Fran did me, she'll need to stay close. I'll tell my daughter the most beautiful parts of life emerge when we plant both feet of ours in the space of love.

Sure, it will hurt like hell when they leave us. But, our hearts will have been forever molded into something so real. Our souls will be filled with such belonging because of love's pure joy.

Fran wasn't afraid of death in the end. When I visited her a month before she died, "Now, don't be afraid to pray for me to die. I'm ready." (I would pray no such prayer though!)

This I know for sure: Fran's story will forever be a part of mine. Her life, her living room, her telephone opened up space for me to be me.

Goodbye, dear Fran. You will be missed more than you know. And I hope I don't cry too much when I lead your funeral. You deserve the best because you were the best.

It's so easy in some corners of the world to believe that women in ministry is old news.

We hear stories of women breaking the glass ceiling in big pulpits like this.

We hear stories of women's appointments to positions like this.

Or we hear of ordained clergy like this having their books top the New York Times Bestseller list.

What progress!

In light of this, all must be well for women in ministry. The women's movement has reached the church. Equality for all is here!

But, the truth be told it's not.

While record number of women enter seminary ever year, the number of senior staff positions open to them in congregation is staggeringly low.

While women emerge from theological training competent and ready to offer pastoral care, Biblical exegesis and church finance consultation-- often they're asked first: "What are you going to do about childcare?" or "Could you wear a longer skirt?"

While women pastors are the ones the first responders call when there is a crisis in the community, they're often not the ones asked to headline their denominational conferences or conventions.

For these reasons and many more, I'm so glad that There's a Woman in the Pulpit recently hit the shelves.

It's a collection of essays that tells you what women are doing no matter if they have full support or endorsement by institutional gatekeepers. It's a fact that women are IN the pulpit and among the people in the pews doing fabulous things!

My friend, Martha Spong, the Director of RevGalBlogPals, an online community for clergy women which I've gladly been a part of since I began blogging in 2006, edited this volume.

There's a Woman in the Pulpit is embodied theology. For it tells real stories about what it's like to be both a woman and a pastor and a mother and pastor, a hurting human being and a pastor, and a joy seeking friend and a pastor.

It tells stories of what it's like to leave a church well. It tells stories of what it is like to be told you're not acting like a man would in your same role. It tells stories of  what it's like to buck the traditions of your childhood to listen to the audacity of God's call. 

I was glad to contribute an essay to the volume called, "Moses Basket." It tells a story of my relationship with Herndon, VA 1555347_10153240988234168_698489179906788193_nfuneral home when I was a local pastor. Over the course of several years, when families did not have a minister, the funeral director called me as a fill in. I found myself getting assigned the "hard deaths" like teen suicides. Sigh. And, then one day the call came about a baby-- a three-week old baby who passed away suddenly. It just so happened that at the time, I was going through my own miscarriage.

Being a woman in the pulpit can be a complicated thing. But it's also a joyous ride through the un-charted territory of God's goodness. (What a gift it was for two grieving mothers to be together that day at the funeral!)


If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a woman in the pulpit or hiring a woman for your pulpit or if you want to encourage a woman in the pulpit, go to Amazon right now and get your copy.

I promise you that you'll cry and laugh out loud and thank God for the diversity of faces that God leads to ministry. The Church is all the better for it!

Thank you, Martha for making this experience of conversation with so many possible!

(Also check out my friend Dana's great piece over here about the stats of women in ministry if you are interested in reading more).

Yesterday, Washington Plaza Baptist hosted a memorial service for the brother and brother in-law of two of our devoted church leaders, Mark. The congregation was almost full of those who came to pay their respects. It wasn't full because everyone in the room had a relationship with the deceased or even had met Mark, but many people came out of love for the family. Mark suffered much from his battle with Huntington's disease, a genetic condition and died at age 42.

Through weekly updates during Sunday prayers, our church community watched Mark's family members care for their brother with love, faithfulness and steadfastness, even in the face of ongoing frustrations with the health care system in our state that often wanted to make him someone else's problem as his functions declined. The journey had been a long one and we had been by their side all the way.

As I led the service and gazed out on the congregation, I could help but think that this is what happens when the church gets it right. We love in community. We live in community. We die in community.  And when one of us is hurting, all of us hurt too. Together we sit with side by side as we encounter some of life's most difficult life junctures.

When we came to the portion of the service when it was time to share personal tributes, my two church members got up to read this litany about their beloved brother. I can't tell you how proud I was-- not only was it a beautiful, theologically rich responsive prayer, but I know it came from the hearts of two folks I know and love much. As their pastor I've seen their spiritual journeys unfold over the past two years at a rapid pace (having recently baptized them both) and I knew this moment of being surrounded by their church family was a tangible sign of what I"ve been teaching all this time. The church is so important in our lives because when life hands us the worst we can imagine, we get to be reminded that we are NEVER alone. God meets us in the hands and feet of others.

Those who endure the greatest suffering can become our greatest teachers. This was certainly a lesson, I believe, we all gained out of the memorial service yesterday. Every life is of value. Every life has gifts to share. Every life deserves to be celebrated.  The church gets it right when we teach, and love and nurture the faith into others. I was just glad to witness it yesterday!

Our brother: A sufferer and a teacher

Mark had a challenging life filled with many struggles and much pain

He taught us how to find humor and laughter in everything


Mark suffered from a genetic disease called Huntington's

He showed us how to endure and survive and never give up


Mark fought to numb life’s constant pain with alcohol

He showed us strength renewal by joining Alcoholics Anonymous


Mark never cared about material possessions or money

He taught us how to be humble and enjoy the simple things in life


Mark was hit by a car as a child and had life altering surgery

He taught us once again how to have strength and survive


Mark never had any money, but freely gave of it

He taught us the true meaning of generosity and compassion


Mark was easy to please and loved doing puzzles and playing cards

He taught us to enjoy the simple things in life


Mark had a debilitating motorcycle accident as an adult

He taught us once again to fight for life and never give up


People took advantage of Mark at times

Mark taught us forgiveness and to trust like a child


Mark had innocent eyes and a childlike stare

He taught us how to see truth and honesty and love


Mark had a very strong work ethic

Mark taught us the meaning of honor and character


Mark gave his last pack of cigarettes to a homeless person

He taught us how to always put other’s needs first


Mark had parents that hurt and disappointed him

Mark taught us to always respond with love and forgiveness no matter what


Mark lost everything when he went to jail

Mark taught us that if we trust God, HE will always provide… and God provided Effrain


Through Mark’s challenging life of struggle and suffering, Mark finally grew weary and tired.  THE LORD SAID “Mark shall suffer no more,”  SO GOD BROUGHT MARK HOME.  And still MARK REMAINS IN OUR HEART

Mark taught us the meaning of LOVE:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth.  Love patiently accepts all things.  It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.   Love never ends.

Mark showed us how to talk like a child - think like a child - reason like a child – love like a child.   We can see Mark’s reflection, like looking onto the perfect mirror.   I pray that we can always see clearly. We must remember that of all things that continue forever:  faith, hope, and love, THE GREATEST of these is love.    Mark knew this better than anyone !

Today, Whitney Houston took me to church.

This afternoon from 12 noon- 4 pm I watched the entire Whitney Houston funeral via the life stream. By the end, as her body left the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey while Whitney's version of "I Will Always Loved You" played, I was in tears. I couldn't believe how moved I became or how not restless I was through the entire service.

Initially, I sat down to watch the service out of pure vocational obligation-- when religion holds a promote place in the public square (i.e. a church service is featured prominently on national tv) I feel it is my pastoral responsiblity to watch. But, I kept watching because of the poignant, faith-filled words and that the most unlikely of preachers and speakers brought to the gathering.

Though I am a child of the 80s and grew up dancing around the house with a hairbrush singing, "I Want to Dance with Somebody," I wouldn't have not considered myself a die-hard Whitney fan. In fact, have been among the folks who have stood back during the media spectacle of the past week saying under my breath, "What is all this fuss about? It's not like we knew her personally." But, maybe all of us just thought we did.

The bright light of fame begins to convince us, with any well-known celebrity, that we are their friend too. It is easy to believe that we too grew up on their same street as a child, shared a coffee meeting with them last week or in some cases, or that we've read journals of their deepest thoughts. With such a bright light, it's true, I like millions of others, I believed too, that I knew Whitney (even though such is of course false).  Even with all the illusions of a celebrity's passing, death is death. And, death evokes sadness. When death comes too soon, when mothers bury daughters, when teenage daughters face life without their mothers, and when the future seems spoiled in the questions of "what could have been?" we cry.  What a daughter, what a mother, and what a voice that we'll never hear in this life again!

In this grief, all of us went to church.

As the sermon began, Rev. Marvin Winans, a family friend, commented how much he respected Cissy Houston (Whitney's mom's) leadership in bringing the funeral to her childhood church. While pressure in the planning process intensified to include a large public concert or memorial service, Mama Houston (as they called her) stuck to her gut. Knowing that her baby was brought into the world in church, she'd need to go from the world from it too.  And, Marvin Winans, went on to say to Cissy directly, "You were responsible for bringing the world to church today."

And for the entire four hours of non-interrupted television on CNN, we, as onlookers, sat with grief of a music icon gone with God's hope of resurrection given at the center. 

From Tyler Perry really getting into a message about grace leading us our life through, as it did for Whitney to Kevin Costner describing their shared Baptist upbringing and abiding friendship, to family members and other business associates highlighting Whitney's spiritual compass and love of scripture, even with all of the demons she went to battle with: it was church. The funeral was authentic, life-giving, straight talking, love filled, church. For me, it was four hours well spent of  spirit filled connection with God with other faith seekers-- nevermind how famous, affluent, poor or unknown they may be. Together in person, on cable news, or via the internet, we went to church.

In this trip to church, the spirit from which this service flowed represented for me the best of what this place can be:

Thank you Whitney for taking us to church today. The spirit of the life you lead, the legacy you left behind, and the faith that carried you (even when life seemed like too big of load to carry you sought to keep going and learning from your mistakes) uplifted our hearts. And, though we will miss you in this life, we know this after church today: your spirit soars on praise of your Creator. Can I get an Amen?

Sweet baby boy, I will think of you every Halloween when I pass out candy to the trick-or-treaters, wondering what kind of candy your favorite would be. I will think of you every Thanksgiving, setting out a place for you, wondering what type of food would have been your favorite. I will think of you every Christmas morning as your older brother comes bouncing down the stairs, with eager eyes to see what Santa brought him. I will wonder which gifts you would have gotten and what joy it would have brought to your face too . . .

Such were the words shared by a grief striken mother last night over the her deceased son who lived a grand total of 21 days. This child born normally at 38 weeks soon developed a serious heart condition in his second week of life which overtook the strong fighter in him, one week later. This mom who took her newborn to a well-baby check-up, believing all was well, witnessed her child never coming home after this. In the hospital, the doctors did the best he could, but nothing more could be done. And, in those moments of this child taking his last breath when he should have been at home, crying, eating and sleeping, a parents' worst nightmare came true.

For the mourners who gathered at the funeral home, the sadness was so thick it seemed to suffocate ever attempt of breathe in the room. On the altar, in a "Moses basket" laid a little boy with his eyes shut, so sweet looking that you could have thought he was just napping.  But this was an eternal kind of nap.

I served as the pastor at this event, even though I'd never met his parents and the three-year old brother until a couple of hours before the service began. I came into this situation as a volunteer pastor through a relationship I have with a local funeral home to provide spiritual care to those who do not have a formal church home, but want a religious service. 

Countless pastors, I know, don't enjoy or offer to do services like this, but it was a choice I made when I first began full-time ministry to at least try it. It was a great way, at first, to gain experience in one of the most important rituals of pastoral life and to meet a community need. But, the more I've done these type of services, the more I've found doing such funerals as an essential part of my job. Unexpectant deaths are when pastors are needed the most, right? I am so glad that the church which employs me full-time makes allowances in my schedule to have this kind of ministry.

As I walked in the room, I thought I was strong enough to handle what I would find, especially with the natural distance already between us, but I was wrong. The baby on the altar wrapped in a brand new blue polka dot receiving blanket surrounded by baby-blue stuffed animals and teething rings, sought to do me in too.

Even before the mother and father gave their sorrow filled tribute to their son that they'd barely had the chance to get to know, I could only think of how devastating such a loss would be for weeks, months, and years to come. Everything this family had come to know and trust about birth, life and hope was shattered. Why would a loving God allow such a thing to happen? Why must this family suffer so?

As the representative of God in the room, I really didn't want to speak, for knew I was in the midst of so many skeptics. I was in the mist of so many (including myself for that matter) who wanted to shake a fist at God and say, "Why?"  The more I thought of it, I'd almost rather pass out blankets and lead the gathered community of family and friends in a wailing session. Such only seemed appropriate.

But, in my professional calling, I found words to say, "Jesus says, 'I am the resurrection and the life. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the life, the one who wipes every tear from every eye and makes all things new."

And in the hours since the service completed, I can't seem to get out of my mind the images of that sweet baby boy in that dream crushing basket, and his energetic toddler brother, running around the funeral home, unaware really that this story as a human being had been forever altered, and this tear-stained mother's dress that she never intended to wear on such a day that she would never want to wear again.

I have to pray for this family because only a prayer would seem to do. My prayer is for the survival of hope-- hope that can out weight the darkest of days, the loneliness of nights, and the most discouraging of afternoons when these two parents feel they have nothing more to life for. I pray for this older brother who will soon be asking questions as to where the baby is. I pray for this family's close family and friends who will play a significant role in their care in the months going forward. I would ask you to pray for them too as we all say together, "Lord, have mercy."