Category Archives: Ministry

A Prayer for Our Country

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A Prayer for Our Country

Last week I was sitting in church when we began singing these lyrics . . .

“We call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive!
We call out to dead hearts, come alive!”

At the time I had no idea what our sermon would be about.  However, here is what came to my mind.  At this time in our country’s history, what would happen if we as a church began to cry out to our political leaders and institutions the invitation to come alive and if we called out to God to revive the dead hearts found in the halls of our country’s government institutions?  How would our country change?  This isn’t about a political party or affiliation.  I hope that we are not naive enough to believe that any human party has a corner on the market of Christ-likeness.  This is about realizing the need for us as a church to be about the business of the Kingdom.

One of my religion professors in college once said this, “The Kingdom of Heaven is not a pipe dream.”  In other words, when Jesus entered this world he ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven and while it may not reach completion until we arrive in heaven, that in no way negates the fact that he calls his followers to be about the business of bringing that kingdom here and now.  We are positioned at exactly the time and place that needs the Church.  Needs us to reject the idea that one ideology or political party has all the answers.  Needs us to reject the notion that we have to question each other’s faith if we question their vote.  Needs us to reject the easy path of only listening to those who agree with us.  We need to engage, to listen, to love, and to fight for the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is not a pipe dream and we have a responsibility to work towards its realization on earth.

So, as I sat in my seat and listened to the song I began to pen this prayer.  And as the sermon began I was surprised to find the message was connected to this same topic.  Maybe God was trying to tell me something.  Maybe he’s trying to tell us all.  Will you join with me in praying this over our country?  And will you join me in the fighting to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth?

Be with our leaders—in each branch of our government
Be with our leaders—in community organizations, churches, and non-profits
Be with our leaders—in town councils, schools, and emergency services
And be with us—the citizens who stand in this divided time

Where there are dry bones and dead hearts, we call out “come alive!”
Where there are hardened hearts, we pray that you would open them with your grace
Where we have closed ourselves off, we pray that you would break our hearts for what breaks your
          heart
Where there is fear that has left us paralyzed or hiding behind closed doors, remind us of your
frequent call to “fear not” and strengthen us in your power
Where there is mistrust and resentment, enable us to risk understanding where others are coming
from

Where there is hurt and past scars, give us the grace to forgive and move forward
Where there is selfishness and greed, reorient us to your kingdom values
Where there is hatred and anger, overpower us with your love and allow us to see our enemies as
your children whom you love with an overwhelming fierceness
Where there is division, fill us with unity, help us to be peacemakers

Help our leaders
Help our churches
Help us
          to be the standard bearers of your image
          to honor you with our words and actions
          to stand for all your children
          to remember who our neighbors are
          to work to bring your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven
Help us, Oh Lord

Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore!

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Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore!

Have you ever woken up and no longer recognized the life you were living?  I mentioned in my last post that there were lots of changes in my life.  Some changes have been amazing and exciting, others are incredibly frightening and have left me feeling lost and unsure.  As a result, my entire life has been turned upside down and though I’ve wanted to blog about it, I’ve been a bit unsure about how much to reveal.  I’m still not sure about that.  So this is a beginning of a conversation I hope to continue one day.  I hope you will have patience with me as a struggle through this.

My trip down the rabbit hole began last December.  Life was pretty good.  I was working at a church I loved, with people I respected.  Little Man and I were progressing well, moving toward adoption, and enjoying our first Christmas season together.  I was expecting Baby Amaia to arrive in a few short months, and had been stocking up on the most adorable baby clothes and tiny little diapers.

Then the tornado hit.  Three weeks before Christmas I lost my job.  The job that I loved and was so passionate about.  And although I was beginning to struggle with the 60-80 hour work weeks I was putting in as a single mom, the news caught me completely off-guard.  There is a lot about that situation that I would like to share.  There’s a lot that I feel needs to be heard and understood.  But when you work in the church, things are complicated.  A whole-other-universe kind of complicated.  I was heartbroken, and angry, and insanely stressed.  Because apart from every other thing I was feeling, I was a single mom without a job, and when you work in pastoral ministry you can’t just find another job in town.  Continuing to work in my field would mean moving, probably out of state.  And moving would mean giving up my son and soon-to-be-born daughter, who were still in the foster care system.  And that was not an option.  So I went into full-on panic mode.

I applied for close to a thousand jobs.  I only got three interviews and no job offers.  Then on January 29 I got a call that taught me fear.  Baby Amaia’s bio mother was going into labor almost three weeks early and they had discovered multiple problems with the baby.  They didn’t expect her to survive the delivery.  As the foster parent I had no legal rights, and no way of knowing what was going on.  I waited and prayed all night.  Sometime the next day I learned she had survived the birth.  For two weeks I waited each day for news, hoping for miracles.  I was able to go see her in the NICU and was blown away by how tiny she was.  She was hooked up to dozens of monitors and IV tubes.  Then on February 12 I received the phone call that changed our lives.  Baby Amaia would only live a few more hours.  They had decided to take her off life support and she would not survive.  I rushed to the hospital and held my sweet girl for the first and last time, as I watched the life ebb from her body.  There are no words for the pain I felt that day, the pain that still haunts me.  I miss her every day.

After months of looking for jobs I decided to become a substitute teacher until I could find full-time work.  Subbing in an inner city school district was an eye-opening experience.  I have worked professionally with kids for 13 years but I had never experienced anything like that.  The challenges were incredible.  After a few weeks I was hired to stay at one elementary school where I rotated between all types of classrooms, from pre-k through 6th, from standard, to special needs, to emotionally disturbed.  The students pushed me to new levels of frustration and I came home with more than one injury.  But they also broke my heart and made me fall in love with them.

In March an unexpected blessing came.  Little Man’s biological mother suddenly and unexpectedly signed over her parental rights, naming me as the adoptive parent.  This cleared the path for us to begin moving forward with his adoption.  It’s a humbling experience sitting in the courtroom as a parent signs away their parental rights to make way for you to become the mother of their child.  To sit and listen as the judge asks “Are you sure?” in a hundred different ways.  At the end of the day I was free to adopt my Little Man and his case was officially transferred to the adoption department.

Then began months of waiting, bureaucracy, and frustration.  It seemed like everything was moving at a snail’s pace.  In the meantime I began to explore the possibility of moving back to Illinois to be near my family.  Being a single mom is hard without any family around.  With no family in New York I was at a bit of a disadvantage.  I’d always had a great network of friends and church members who served as my support system, but when I lost my job I lost about 95% of those people.  I had not only lost my job, I had lost my church and most of my friends.  Since I’d been exploring the possibility of going back to school and getting a second masters in teaching, school counseling, or speech therapy, having family around would be really nice.  Now that I was looking at adoption, moving to be closer to family was a possibility.

Finally, just a few short weeks ago, we finalized our adoption!  After 588 days in foster care, Little Man became part of his Forever Family!  I can now officially introduce you to Austin!

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After a year and a half, I can finally show you my adorable Little Man’s face!  Officially becoming a family is definitely the highlight of my year, and the best thing that has ever happened to me.  It makes all the struggles and pain of the past year worthwhile.  I am so blessed to call him mine, and so thankful God brought him into my life.

Austin’s adoption day was August 26.  I had decided it was best to move to Illinois, and we had been making plans prior to the adoption.  So a mere two days after the adoption we loaded up a truck full of stuff and the next day we pulled out of town.  We’ve been in Illinois for a few weeks now and everything has been a huge adjustment.  I’ve been living in large cities since I left home at 17.  Now I’ve moved to a small town where everyone knows everything about each other.  I’m coming to terms with the fact that there are no stand-alone Starbucks (although, thank God, there is one in a grocery store), big shopping areas, or fun attractions.  I’m also starting my job search all over again, this time in a small town with far less opportunities.  I’m renting a house for the first time and purchasing appliances, dealing with spiders and cockroaches, and discovering the [insert sarcasm] joys of living in a home that’s over a 100 years old.  I’m struggling with a school district that has been very frustrating to get registered with and just decreased Austin’s services significantly–from 10 times a week in a 5 hour program to 4 times a week in a 2 1/2 hour program.  And on top of all that I’m trying to unpack, make new friends, cook without a stove (going on 2 weeks now), acclimate Austin, and try not to freak out about how I’m going to survive until I find a job.

This is my life now, and I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.  So much of the past year has been overwhelmingly heartbreaking.  It has challenged my faith and left me in an emotional blackhole.  And yet, there are glimpses of beauty and hope.  Becoming a forever family is the best thing in my life.  Even painful things, like losing my job, have taught me to trust God and allowed me to see the beauty in spending time as a family–which was something we seriously lacked when I worked in the church.  I don’t know where this yellow brick road will lead me.  I have no idea what my life will be like five years from now–what I will be doing as my next career, where we’ll be living (because houses with cockroaches and zero storage space are not my cup of tea), or how far Austin will have progressed on his journey.  But I have hope.  The wonders of Oz await!

I feel pretty . . .

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The next topic on my blog challenge was to write about the best compliment I ever received and why it meant so much. Contrary to the title of this post, my favorite compliments have nothing to do with being pretty.

For those of you that don’t know, my first love was theatre.  In fact, my undergrad degree is in theatre, with a minor in vocal performance.  Back in college I walked off stage after performing a monologue in “The Good Doctor” and a fellow cast member told me “You inspire me.”  I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty dang good.  Partly because that cast member was a professional actor who’d been being paid to act for years.  But if we’re being real, it probably had a lot more to do with the fact that I had a massive crush on him.  So maybe that’s not really the best compliment I ever received.

Then there was this time about six years ago I asked a parent I knew to write a reference for me.  I was applying to work as a nanny and I needed to have several written references.  Within her letter she wrote, “I believe Amanda would sacrifice her life and take a bullet for my kids.”  Awe.  It was awesome . . . and it really is true.  I fall in love with every kid I am blessed to work with and I’m so thankful that not only the kids, but also the parents, feel that love.

But probably my favorite complement came one day in college when someone came up to me.  I’m not really sure how she knew me.  Honestly, I can’t even remember who it was.  But she looked at me with a slightly curious look on her face.  Then she said, “I see Jesus in you.”  And that was amazing.  That’s my life goal right there.  For people to look at me and not see my occupation or IQ, not my dress size or faults, but to see the love of Jesus through me.

What about you?  What kind of compliment has made your day?

Catching Up

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It has been a crazy season of my life.  Then again . . . when isn’t it crazy in my life?  I like to spin the Merry-Go-Round out of control fast and just keep riding.  For those of you following my fostering journey, I’ve completed all the home visits for my home study.  They were nothing at all like what I expected.  I imagined a hundred different scenarios, tried to practice answers as if I was prepping for an interview.  None of my predictions were anywhere close to what actually happened.  My home study  consisted of two visits, each one about two hours long.  We sat at my kitchen table, had coffee, and the home finder asked me a list of questions.  A list which just so happened to coincide almost identically with the questions I answered in writing on the biography section of my application.  I went through my job history again, where I’ve lived, my family relationships, etc.  Then he wrote down my answers.  I wanted to go print off a copy of the biography section I’d typed up to save him (and me) from all that extra time, but I thought it might come off as rude.  One of my friends who works in the system said it’s to make sure I’m telling the truth.  At the end of my first visit he spent no more than 90 seconds walking through my home.  He wasn’t checking to see if anything was or wasn’t there.  No looking for CO2 detectors, food in the pantry, or medicines laying out.  He just made a diagram of the layout of my house for his files.  Most of that diagram was drawn at my kitchen table.  The second visit was much the same as the first, only no walk through.  If only I’d known how this was going to work I could have saved myself hours of time scrubbing windowsills and base boards.  At the end of the second visit he did ask a few questions that hadn’t been covered elsewhere and got a more specific list of what challenging behaviors and/or special needs I’d be wiling to take.  Then he told me we were done.  The next step was for him to type up his notes, send out my references (inside I was groaning realizing he still hadn’t done it), wait for them to come back, and have his supervisor sign off on approval.  Then he will come back and I will sign off on the home study report.  He told me I could expect to be approved by mid-January.  That was December 16.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I do know several of my references didn’t receive a reference letter in the mail until last week.  Hopefully I’ll be approved soon.  This process is such a long one!

In other news, I thought I’d try to catch up on the blog challenge I started months and months ago.  It was supposed to take 31 days.  It may take me a year.  Anywho, the next challenge was to write about my dream job.  This is a hard one for me, because in many ways I feel like I have my dream job.  I love what I do, I love the people I work with.  It’s great.  But I guess if I were going to describe my dream job, I might have to take into account that there are a lot of things I love doing, that I don’t get to do very often.  So perhaps I need a job-rotation.  Like preschool centers where you get to go from one area to another and then back again.  No one has ever described me as ADD before, but writing this makes me wonder.  Anyway, if I could go back and forth between all my favorite types of jobs, here’s what they would be:

My current job as a children’s pastor.  I love getting to impact kids lives and help grow stronger families.  I also love that in my current job I get to be more than just “the kids person.”  I get to preach, teach, lead outreaches, and be a part of the team.  Did I mention how great my job is?

Working with the church in the Middle East.  I did this for a year and absolutely loved it.  I fell in love with the people, the culture, and the awesome food.  When I did this I taught a college course, worked with child sponsorship programs, taught English, led kids programs, and trained people to work with kids.  All of it was amazing.

Acting.  I miss this a lot.  There’s not too many opportunities for me to do this anymore.  I get to direct kids a lot, but I miss being on stage.  I’m dying to play Jane Eyre–anyone wanna resurrect that musical and cast me?  I look young for my age, I promise.

Wedding Planning.  I’ve always teased that if I quit my day job this is probably what I’ll end up doing.  I love the beauty and celebration of weddings, and I love planning events.

Author.  Writing is a life-long passion of mine.  I’ve actually written a lot, but just can’t seem to find the energy and do the work it takes to get published.

Teacher.  I love teaching.  I love being able to challenge people, open their minds to new ways of thinking, and help them grow.

Traveler I’m not sure what kind of job would let me travel all the time, but I am IN LOVE with traveling to other places–whether a new place in the US I haven’t been to or somewhere across the globe.

So that’s it.  What would your dream job include?

I should have been a black girl . . .

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I once had a boss tell me “We love you and we’re so glad you’re on our team.  But our ideal candidate was someone with your skills and abilities, who was also a black woman with XYZ in their background.”  Instead they got me — a girl so white my friends in high school teased that I was Casper the Friendly Ghost on a trip to Florida.  They chose me, and they were happy to have me, but the point is they were intentionally looking for diversity.

There are a lot of people that don’t like the idea of affirmative action.  To them it feels like discrimination, an unfair advantage, or bias.  In their eyes affirmative action is a rejection of the skills, gifts, and abilities of people in the majority group.  I respect these people.  I understand where they’re coming from.  But I don’t agree.

Diversity doesn’t happen by chance.

Want proof?  Go visit any large city and take a drive through the different neighborhoods and boroughs.  Go visit some schools in the inner city and then drive out to the suburbs.  Pay attention to who’s sitting at which lunch tables.  Try out a few different hair salons.  Or better yet . . . go visit any church on an average Sunday morning.

We live in a very segregated world.  A world that seems to only be capable of defining ourselves by defining who is other.  I know I am A: not B, C, D or E.  Don’t believe me?  I challenge you to go  have an honest conversation with someone who is trying to live as an “AND” in an “either/or” world.  A biracial teen.  An adult who grew up in one country and now lives in another.  An LGBT Christian.  A Liberal Christian.  The list could go on and on.  There is a tension that exists in their life.  We are a world that likes to categorize and define and put things in boxes.  And we like to keep those boxes separate.  We do it without thinking.  We divide people by race, gender, ethnicity, economic status, age, education level, religious background, political affiliation, and more.  Some areas are more natural to us than others, but we still do it.  This is what comes naturally to us.  (This, in my opinion, is one of the consequences of the fall.)

So wherever we find diversity we should celebrate it.  And we should realize it didn’t come about by chance, but by choice.  Someone — some leader or group of people — decided that diversity was valuable enough to work for it.  To take risks and make changes.  To set goals and take steps to make them a reality.  And some days they don’t make progress, but they don’t give up.  (Some days you hire the pasty white girl, but you keep looking for that amazing black woman also.)

I have spent most of my adult life working in churches.  One of the things we talk about is that when people come into a church for the first time they will look around and ask “Is there anyone here who is like me?”  This doesn’t just apply to race and gender, but  to whatever it is that we have defined ourselves as.  And one of the first places we will look to answer that question is the platform–who’s on stage or listed on the website.  We’re looking for an answer because we don’t want to be an other.  We are all born with an innate desire to belong.  If we want to be a church where everyone feels comfortable, then we must be a place where everyone can answer that question with a confident “Yes!  I’m not alone!”

This week the denomination that I am ordained in is making some very important decisions regarding the future leadership of the church.  These decisions are always tough because there are so many amazingly qualified potential leaders.  It is my prayer that as decisions are made, those voting will remember the value and beauty of diversity.   Diversity of thoughts and perspectives, ethnicities and genders, ages and backgrounds, talents and skills.

And as I pray this, I also pray . . . not my will but yours be done.

Shame, Guilt, and How I Escaped

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Today I’ve read not one, but two, of my friends blogs that wrestled with the weighty issues of shame and guilt.

Karissa, who I mentioned a couple of days ago, wrote about how growing up her faith often came with an ugly price tag called guilt.  She ended up leaving the church she grew up in search of a faith that freed her from that guilt.

And Jermaine wrote about how shame gets passed around like candy sometimes, claiming that we’re speaking the truth in love, when really all we’re doing is passing out shame and judgement.

Life in the church can be harsh sometimes.  We’re not perfect people, and sometimes in our quest to better ourselves we end up filling others with shame, guilt, and a whole bunch of other crap that “ain’t nobody got time for.”  It’s not healthy.  I don’t think we even intend to do it sometimes.  But it happens.

I grew up in the same church background as my friend Karissa.  Like her, I went to a small, conservative Nazarene church.  We went to the same college, where we were best friends and roommates.  And many of her experiences resonate with me.  I can remember growing up and praying every five minutes or so for my salvation.  I was sure I’d done something terribly evil in the past five minutes and needed redemption.  (This coming from the girl who never smoked, drank, or tried drugs, and considered it complete failure if I got less than an A in class.)  As a kid I was always striving for perfection.  Honestly, that part of me hasn’t changed much.  But I know that a large part of that is my firstborn perfectionist tendencies, not my faith.

I do want to be the best I can at whatever I’m doing.  I want to be living a life that demonstrates love, grace, and compassion.  I want to have an intimate relationship with God.  But if those thinks were once driven by a sense of guilt, it’s been a long time since that held true.  Somewhere along the way I dropped that shame and guilt like a dirty rag, and I moved on.

How did that happen?  I’m not sure I could pinpoint some moment in time or new understanding that changed my world.  I think it just gradually grew up into my faith, as I planted deep roots and learned the meaning of a tree’s flexibility.

There is a part of that growth that was planted by my mother.  There were a lot of times my mom tried to push her ideas on me.  Like when she told me I had no other choice than to attend college at her alma mater.  And being the stubborn, strong-willed child that I was/am, I then proceeded to do the exact opposite of what she told me to do.  But then there were these gems of moments when she challenged me to think for myself.  And those moments were probably her best parenting choices ever.

I was 12 when I first had the opportunity to audition for show choir (that’s a glee club for all you non-midwesterners).  I wanted desperately to be a part of it.  But I was a member of a Nazarene church and it was against the rules.  I asked my mom what to do.  And instead of telling me, she taught me to think for myself.  She told me to go read the Bible.  To pray.  To ask God, and then listen.  And I did.  And guess what?  What I heard from God was not what I heard from my church’s rule book.  Mind blowing experience for a 12 year old.  But it was probably one of the most important faith lessons of my childhood.

In the end I auditioned and so began a long relationship with all things music, theatre, and dance related.  And it didn’t break my faith in the church or the people who came up with those rules.  I simply accepted that we could disagree sometimes and it would be ok.  And I discovered a relationship that was about more than a rule book.  More than getting things right and being perfect.  I discovered a God who was so much more than a church who sometimes weighs us down with guilt and shame–but a God who still loved that church and worked through her.

And that’s exactly the kind of God I needed.  A God who is so far above me and my failings–but still loves me and works through me.

So here’s to all my friends out there who are struggling with guilt and shame that’s been piled on you by some well-meaning Christian.  May you find release from those chains.  Freedom from a pain that doesn’t come from God.  And the mystery of a love that surrounds you even in your darkest place.

A whirlwind of a week . . . or two. (Part 1)

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A whirlwind of a week . . . or two. (Part 1)

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind, to say the least. Mostly great, a tad overwhelming, and completely exhausting. Last week I joined our team at the Vineyard on our pastor’s retreat. It was full of laughs, discussions, crazy stories, and falling ceilings.

Seriously . . . falling ceilings. I haven’t really written much about Murphy’s story on here lately, but let me just say that we went away for a retreat and the cabin ceiling fell down. Ceiling tiles, metal framing, and plaster ceiling . . . all crashing to the floor in a loud cacophony.

At any rate, it was a great retreat despite the less-than-comfy couches and falling ceilings. It was great because I work with an amazing team of people. Seriously. Amazing. They are hilarious and smart and tenacious and graceful and amazing. They challenge and encourage me. They have patience with me and I am becoming a better person and a better pastor because of them. It is an incredible blessing to get to work with such a team, and I thank God for that blessing every day.

After the retreat, I moved into party-planning mode. Those of you that know me understand that if I ever give up ministry I’ll probably become an event planner or wedding coordinator. I love making celebrations beautiful and memorable for people. On Memorial Day, Jenni and Tim held their wedding reception and I was honored to be able to decorate for them.

Here are a few shots from the day . . .

The centerpieces for the table. (You can’t tell from the picture, but inside the third mason jar is a photo of the awesome couple.)

Table Centerpieces

This was the guest book for the day . . . a game of Jenga.

Guest Book

It was a busy week, but pretty awesome. Jenni and Tim know how to throw one awesome party . . . Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a nacho bar, a bounce house, an ice cream bar, sand volleyball, and ultimate frisbee. Congrats to the awesome couple!

Also . . . another thing I haven’t posted a while is any of my artwork. So, here was my present to the happy couple:

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