To the Parents

Last week I met with a group of campus ministers at local joint for coffee and conversation. As I sat with these colleagues, I couldn’t help but notice the stark differences between us- I was a good 10-15 years their junior and I was the only female. At least one has children who are my age. Yet, they welcomed me into conversation and community over a good southern-style breakfast.

One of the things that we discussed was the way in which our ministries reach out to incoming freshmen. We talked about the amount of time that we get to visit with students at orientation events and during welcome week festivities. We spoke of reaching out to youth directors and pastors, but often seniors in high school are checked out of youth groups even before they graduate. That’s when one campus minister spoke from his heart.

He said he couldn’t see why parents did not take a larger role in connecting their child with a campus ministry. He said he’d sent his kid off to camp and let them know the relative or acquaintance who was closest to the camp, just in case. I remember my parents telling me the names of individuals I could call if need be when I moved off to Colorado at 22 years old. Why, then, do parents not try to connect their child with a campus minister?

Admittedly, many do. I’ve met students whose parents dragged them to my table and made them fill out an information card knowing full well that I would NEVER see that student once classes began. I’ve also met parents who signed their child’s name on a card hoping that I could get them involved. The reality is, both of these situations rarely bear fruit. I wonder what would happen if instead a parent came to my table and took my card telling their son or daughter to put it in their wallet and if they needed anything to call me. To call when their car won’t start or their tire is flat, when they need to move a fridge up 7 flights of stairs, when they are homesick, but won’t go home for another week. I wonder what might happen if they brought them into the Wesley Foundation and told them this is where you come when you don’t want to talk to me, your parent, but you need advice or to vent. Because at some point they’ll need it. They’ll need advice about roommate issues, to tearfully share about the person who broke their heart, or to ask for prayers when they’ve made a bad decision and have to live with the consequences.

I think I’ve reached a turning point. I identify with my students- their hardships, challenges, joys and delights. However, I am beginning to identify with their parents, too. With their fears, concerns, challenges, and joys.

To parents who will send your children off to college this year: my prayers are with you. I know it will be tough. There will be nights that you worry about their safety and times when you worry about their sanity. There will be moments of joy and triumph as well as isolation and pain. There will be days when you wish you could drop everything and run to your child to make the world better for them even if its only for a little bit. When you wish those things, I hope that you know I am wishing them, too. Mostly, I pray that in their transition into adulthood your child can be supported wherever they find themselves with people who love them as much as you do.

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Twelve Angry Men and a Woman in Georgia

Last night I went to the Arkansas State University Theatre Department’s Twelve Angry Men. One of the Wesley Foundation students had been preparing for months for her role as juror number 6. Despite this being a classic of American drama, I had never seen or read the play, or seen the movie based upon it. At the beginning of the play the director announced that the rather large audience (especially for a Monday night) included members of the Arkansas Bar Association, the Pre-Law club, and various Political Science and Government classes from the university. I was taken aback at the impact of Reginald Rose’s masterpiece could have on a community in northeast Arkansas far away from New York City where the play is set. I was shocked by its timelessness and by how the themes of the 1954 drama speak to a world in turmoil today.

Twelve Angry Men touches on issues around race, class, immigration status, and education. It shines light on an overlooked area of our society- the American justice system. It shows how easily we can judge another person without looking into their past, into their story, without believing that they are truly innocent until proven guilty.

I went to this production knowing that across the country pastors, churches, and numerous other individuals were holding vigils and standing by candlelight to protest the execution of a female on Georgia’s death row, Kelly Gissendaner. Kelly was sentenced to death for plotting her husband’s murder in 1997. Since then according to numerous sources in the prison, she has become transformed through faith behind bars even gaining a certificate in theological education. Supporters are urging that her sentence be commuted to life in prison.

I have signed the petition. I support the change in sentencing for Kelly. I also support the abolition of the death penalty. I can line out the arguments against the death penalty being unfairly distributed against minorities, the poor, and individuals with mental disabilities. I can tell you that for every ten people executed, one person is exonerated from death row. I can put forth evidence that capital punishment does not deter murder or other capital offenses.

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The most powerful reason to oppose the death penalty for me is the one stated in the UM Book of Discipline. “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” As people of faith, it is important to support the sanctity of human life- whether that life is an unborn child or yes, a murderer. No one wants to be solely judged based upon the worst thing they’ve ever done. Thankfully, we serve a God who does not keep a running list of our short falls, indiscretions, or breaches in covenant. Yet, do we live in a way that we truly believe that?

Anne Lamott describes forgiveness as “giving up all hope of having had a better past.” Everyone needs forgiveness and the opportunity for transformation. It is up to us, as a community, to stand up for the powerful work of transformation in the lives of individuals. It is up to us to speak out against the injustices of the justice system. We have to admit that there is a problem and begin looking toward solutions. Until then, I have got #kellyonmymind and a prayer in my heart that one day the world will fully reflect the love and hope of our Redeemer.

Worse for Wear

I am approximately 1 month into my “new” gig. Can I just say that I’m exhausted? I know people (especially young adults) aren’t supposed to say that, but it’s true. Pastors aren’t to exude anything less than a super-human ability to be everywhere and do everything without trouble. “Yes, I’ll get that order of worship to you by today.” “I’d love to come to the game with you, thanks for the offer.” “I can definitely meet you for lunch to talk about that.” While most of the time, I do want to show up and be there for my students and my family, I have to say sometimes I am just exhausted. I’ll be brave enough to admit it.IMG_5297

The weekend before last I was in a good spot, truly I was. I had gone on retreat with my wonderful students and we discussed the idea that enough is enough. I have enough, I do enough, I am enough, and ultimately God is enough. I swear I was good with the whole deal. I truly felt that I was enough… but then Monday came along. I immediately found myself back in the hustle of “real life” thinking that I had left too much undone and had too little to give.

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Margaret Louise Carter Pieri 1923-2014

Even as I write this I can hear friends, mentors, and professors telling me to take better care of myself. Establish boundaries and stick to them. Good self-care makes for good pastors. Intellectually I know that, however, it has been a rough week. After a weekend away and the first road trip with students of the semester, I took Thursday off with the intentions of taking care of me. Yet, that time was interrupted by a call saying that my grandmother was in the hospital. She passed away the next day and this weekend was full making arrangements, visiting with family, and reminiscing on the life of my 90 year old Aunt Louise.

I come from a long line of introverts. Aunt Louise was perhaps the most notorious of them all. She loved animals, but people she could only deal with for so long. On holidays she would be the last to arrive even though she only lived a few minutes away- so she wouldn’t have to deal with idle chitchat I’m sure. She’d be the first one to go, too. Asking relatives to help her “escape” something that my sister heard numerous times beginning on her 16th birthday.

Louise and Julius Pieri with their children

Louise and Julius Pieri with their children

Aunt Louise had to be tricked into coming to her own birthday party last year because we were all fairly sure she would refuse if she knew how many people we were expecting. At the visitation and funeral, a few of us joked about how Aunt Louise would be having none of this small talk stuff or the crowds. She’d have been the first one to say goodbye, get back in the car, and head home (probably asking to do so 15 minutes before the funeral was actually over).

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Louise and Julius c. 1943

So, as I sit at my desk today thinking hard on how I am going to take care of myself this week, I recognize that I am feeling rather the worse for wear. And I know that’s okay. Today I’ll skip the small talk in memory of Aunt Louise.

Holy Spirit Moments

Have you ever found yourself caught up in one of those moments? You know the moments I’m talking about. Those moments where you recognize that you are in the right place at exactly the right time. You are in your element. You are no longer yourself, but instead are the person you dream you could be. If you haven’t experienced this, I don’t know how to describe it. If you have, you know exactly what I mean.

This week over 300 students have come into the Wesley Foundation at A-State. 300+… Did I mention that official move in day is Saturday and school starts Monday? Like, what in the world? In the past week I have just found myself in this space of disbelief. It all began last week with a meeting with a group of ladies from local congregations wanting to help me implement an idea. Earlier in the summer I had the idea of providing lunch to some of the young women going through sorority recruitment on campus. I was just planning on inviting those I knew and hoping they would spread the word. Little did I know…

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Some of the faces of Greek Life at A-State at lunch at Wesley.

These magnificent church ladies pushed me to talk to the Greek Life office about advertising for the lunch. Well, unbeknownst to me the cafeteria at ASU was closed this week even though many students had returned to campus. Young women going through recruitment were having to buy their own meals or make ramen in their dorms. I sat down with church lady lunch crew and we planned an event for 50 girls. If we have 50 girls that would be a success. The Greek Life office not only advertised, but advised students to eat lunch on campus at Wesley. Our plans of 50 were thrown out the window when I received a call asking if we would be able to accommodate 275 young women. Not knowing what else to do I said, YES.

Was I scared? Yes. Was I sure we could pull it off? No. Was I certain that if we tried, God would show up in new and fantastic ways? Absolutely.

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The line for lunch wound through the building and down the steps.

On Tuesday there were over 275 young women in our building. They came in groups of ten. They wound their way through the tables and made plates at our nacho bar. They were loud and cramped in, but they were so sweet and grateful. The church ladies made two separate runs to the local Mexican restaurant for taco beef and chicken. Yet, they shooed me out of the kitchen to mingle and talk with as many girls as I could. So, I wandered about asking ASU trivia and handing out sunglasses for correct answers.

There was a brief lull as one group of 135 was leaving to make room for another 135 to come. I remember thinking, “How did this happen?” Honestly, the answer is, “I don’t know.” The only thing I can imagine is that we somehow tapped into the Holy Spirit moving on campus. Now that I’ve gotten a taste of that, I am beyond excited for what is to come this semester.

One of the less popular teachings of John Wesley was the idea of Christian perfection. That we were able in this life to achieve perfection through Christ. This separated Wesley from many of his contemporaries and cause quite a bit of backlash due to lack of understanding. Wesley encouraged perfection as a perfection in love. During seminary, I spent a semester in an independent study talking about Wesleyan Theology- specifically perfection. My professor likened it to this. That moment when it is no longer you speaking, but you are a vessel for what God is trying to say. I am pleased to say I felt one smudge closer to perfection this week. I hope that as the semester continues I can keep “moving on to perfection.”

Officially Official… I think

I have to-do lists a mile long both personally and professionally, but I felt the need to share. Today is July 1. My official start date as the “Interim Director at The Wesley Foundation at A-State.” I won’t say that I am naive enough to believe that I would somehow wake up feeling differently about my ministry or my ability to lead. Yet there was this inkling that somehow the official-ness of today would initiate some kind of shift. There is still time, I guess.

On Sunday, I sat in church listening to Brother John preach and heard a confirmation of my calling. He said that you do not want a pastor who believes they are entitled to their position or their pulpit. You want a pastor who doesn’t feel worthy of the position they hold, but tries their best and greets each day with humility. I feel like being at A-State is in some ways a coincidence. There are times when I think, if my DS and Bishop figured out I was running this joint, they’d definitely appoint someone else. Honestly, it is kind of overwhelming to think that I am responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of two buildings, the spiritual welfare of numerous college students, and the connectional ministry of a campus ministry to other churches in our district. I have more responsibility through my job than I do in my personal life- I’m a renter, currently single, and a hardcore introvert. How did this happen?

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The truth is I don’t know. What I do know is that I am blessed beyond measure to be able to serve my denomination in this way. I am privileged to serve in a setting where I am able to fulfill my passion for reaching out to young adults in the church. I am certainly not entitled to be here. Yet, I am going to give this year my all. I can’t wait to see what it brings!

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do. – Dr. Benjamin Spock (applicable to both child rearing and first year of ministry 🙂 )

Asking the “Right” Questions

This week, I am reading a book from the authors of Freakonomics called Think Like a Freak. In it, the authors argue two points. First, very few of us are willing to admit that we don’t know something. Even kids when given a question that they cannot possibly know the answer to will try to answer rather than admit that they don’t know. Second, admitting we don’t know the answer is hard, but admitting we don’t even know the right question is harder. A lot of us are asking the wrong questions or not asking questions at all and arriving at good, but not great solutions. 

With these thoughts in mind, I want you to know that I don’t know a lot more than I actually do know. I recognize that I am kind of in the business that can’t truly proclaim it knows everything (mainly because when pastors do, it becomes a headache). Still, I am pretty comfortable right now, at this point in my career AKA the beginning, saying that I don’t know. However, I like to have people around me who are willing to admit that they aren’t sure either. I’ve gotten into a habit of asking people to explain things to me as if I didn’t know anything about what I’m asking about whether it’s bike maintenance or financial procedures. Part of this I realize is a lot easier because I’m new to this aspect of my position. You only get so long to pull the new card, so I’m milking it for all it’s worth. 

Now, asking the right questions seems to be a lot harder for me. This week, I am trying to plan for fall and I find myself developing all sorts of questions. What have we done to reach out to campus in the past? How well has it worked? What groups have we partnered with? What groups always schedule things that overshadow our events? How have we engaged residence life, greek life, the band, and freshmen in general in our events we offer during welcome week? I still feel like these aren’t the right questions. I feel like questions like, Is it necessary to host events at Wesley during welcome week? Would it be more beneficial to participate in events already offered on campus? Do events help people connect or do people help people connect with a ministry? Even then, the questions aren’t quite what I’m getting at. 

Fortunately, I still have a month or so develop my questions and figure out what I don’t know. Until then, I continue to poke and prod at the planning process. Praying each moment for God to move on campus and for each student to find a place to belong.  

One Bite at a Time

It’s been a year since I graduated from Iliff. And what a year it has been. I moved from Colorado back to Arkansas, was commissioned as a provisional deacon, worked as an aide in a preschool classroom, and took a job and moved to Jonesboro. That’s just June to August. The amount of “stuff” I’ve learned (for lack of a better term) this year is unbelievable. My education definitely did not end when I left an academic institution. I admittedly would love to be back where I could have weekly meetings with individuals reading and learning about the same things I am, but I get the best of both worlds right now. I get to learn about things I am interested in and try to put them into practice in my ministry setting.

The “stuff” I’ve learned this year would not have been possible without my senior pastor/boss/friend. 10403989_10203805337199714_559624812232680486_oHe’s taught me practical things like floor installation and changing a bike flat. I’ve learned from him about the dynamics of churches and their relationships to one another as well as the Annual Conference. I’ve learned about campus activities and the yearly cycle of campus ministry. We’ve discussed ideas for the direction of the ministry at ASU, the possible solutions for the various UM crises, and even providing fair wages to Wal-Mart workers. It seems like I am constantly learning new things about ministry, life, and work from him.

At the end of the month (more accurately by the end of today) I am expected to follow in the footsteps of this friend who is leaving to take a new appointment. Boy, am I worried. I’ve gotten to sit back and learn from someone who has made an impact on countless students lives and experiences at Arkansas State. Now, it’s my turn. On good days, I am nervous about knowing where the key is to that closet we keep that stuff we only use once a year in. On bad days, I convince myself that the building itself will collapse due to my sheer lack of experience.

Last weekend, a family member reminded me of an old saying. “Do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I am so blessed to have had a year to learn under this capable and willing director. As I look toward all that I hope to accomplish in the year to come, I just have to remember to take it one bite at a time. I must continue to learn and to apply the lessons that I have learned. I know that I will make mistakes and that I will inevitably screw something up, but I also know that I had a great teacher who helped me to learn from my mistakes and move into this role with as much grace as I could. For that, I am very, very grateful!

The Problem with Complaining

A few years ago I jumped on this movement called a Complaint Free World. Oprah and some other celebrities were plugging it, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. They would send you one of those rubbery bracelets ala LiveStrong. Each time you complained about something you were to change the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal was to go like a month without complaining. Let me tell you, trying not to complain for a month is darn near impossible. Trying not to complain for a week was about all I could even attempt. After realizing how much I really complained about silly insignificant things, I saw how utterly impossible it was to give up complaining all together.

Here’s the deal with complaining it’s innately negative. Complaining offers a way to vent our concerns, but does not offer a solution to the problem. If I complain about the leaky roof, but do nothing to fix it, it is still going to leak. If I complain about the person who is keeping me from completing my mission, but I don’t seek a compromise or resolution, I haven’t done anything to address the problem. Complaining, all by its lonesome, fails to accomplish anything. In fact, it tends to cause arguments, disagreements, and foster bitterness.

Even then, I don’t advocate for people to give up complaining. Complaining serves an important role in society. When enough people complain, things start to change. Complaining points to issues with the current system. In the Bible the Israelites complained to God about wandering in the dessert with Aaron and Moses and God gave them manna from heaven to sustain them. When people are unhappy, it seems that others try to work to address the changes needed.

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The design of the paperclip hasn’t changed since 1899

Imagine what life was like before a necessary, but seemingly unimportant little tool like the paper clip. All fasteners before it damaged papers by poking through them. Even the early clips had sharp edges that tended to scratch the paper. The modern paperclip was the results of people complaining about the current state of paper fasteners in this country! So many innovations and inventions have similar stories where some person decided on a way to make life easier for all of us in this case by manipulating a thin piece of steel wire into a double-oval shape. No one has come up with a better system in over 100 years!

The problem with complaining is that for most of us we stop with the complaint. We grumble over some inconvenience, but don’t do anything to address it. We have to be able to address not only our own complaints, but the complaints of others. Complaining can serve a positive purpose when we don’t let it stop at grumbling. When we act and begin to change our actions, that’s when complaining can bring about the biggest difference. So complain away! But don’t stop there, work for change and strive for innovation. You never know what kind of change some grumbling can ignite.

The In-Between

In Celtic spirituality, there is a idea known as thin places. These places are believed to be liminal spaces, or thresholds, between the spiritual and material worlds. When you enter into them, you recognize being further from everyday life, but not to the point of crossing into a new plane of being. Supposedly the Garden of Gethsemane is one of these places where the presence of God can be more easily felt. Still, these spaces are precarious. The moment you set name to them as liminal, their allure and power seem to disappear. Yet, this is the space I find myself and my students currently in. We are on the threshold.

The semester ends on Monday and students will be starting finals, graduating, moving home, and beginning internships, jobs, and summer studies. Their anxiousness seems to be filling the air. They are ready to be on to the next thing, yet utterly stuck in the between. They are waiting to enter that new space of freedom and opportunity and experiences that come through summer, but they recognize that they are not quite there.

Last Worship Service of the Semester

The same seems to be true of me. I am anxious to wrap up this first year at Wesley. I am ready to neatly tie up all of the loose-ends of the semester and move on to the next challenges and experiences of summer in campus ministry. Still, I am not quite there. I am trying simultaneously to look forward and plan what lies ahead and look back to reflect on the beauty of what has happened here in the last nine months. I am trying to figure out possible next steps for the ministry, while relishing the precious moments with students. It’s a thin space. More accurately, it may be a thin time. A brief glimpse to what lies ahead and moment of pause for what has passed.

All I know is that if liminal spaces are places where we can feel the divine more presently among us, then liminal time must be moments when we can feel closer to God. These endings and beginnings challenge me to pay attention. God is in the in-between. Filling the spaces and times where we wait at the threshold.

The Illusion of Control

If there is one thing I have learned this year, it is that I am not in control of much. What I mean is that I am responsible the outcome of very, very little. Yes, I decided what shoes I put on today. I control what foods I eat (or don’t eat). Aside from what I wear and what I eat, there really isn’t a lot else that I am in control over. Oftentimes, I strive to be in control of those other things though, which is why I made this list of things over which I have no control.

Things I do not Control

1. When I wake up (Anyone who has lived with a cat can attest that your sleep is only allowed when the cat’s stomach is completely full and food dish is not empty in the least.)

Beijo, His royal highness

Beijo, His royal highness

2. When I get to work (Traffic and the garbage truck that decided to block the drive sometimes inhibit my prompt arrival)

3. My work hours (Students text at all hours. People show up in my office when they need me, not by appointment. I am learning how to find ways to drop what I’m doing when someone steps into my office.)

4. Ideas that fail. (As a student I was under the impression that if I put a lot of effort into something, it would succeed. That’s not always the case though. Sometimes ideas or ministries fail, not because I didn’t give my all, but because the outcome is beyond my control.)

5. Other people’s decisions (This is a hard one for me. Even if said decisions impact me, I don’t get a say in the decisions other people make. However, I guess that I do get a say in how I respond to them.)

6. Other people’s perception of me. (How others see me is something I regret to say that I spend a lot of time and energy dwelling on. However, other’s perception is impacted in many ways by things beyond my control. I’ve got to understand that not everyone wants to be my friend or finds me a pleasant person to be around. It’s just the truth.)

7. Other people in general. (I like to think that I can control how other people are involved or invested in my ministry setting, but that is just not true. I like to think I can control how people will respond to me, my words, or my actions. Again, it’s a lie. When I release the illusion of control I think I have over other people, I can respond to them with grace and love.)

As a math major, I spent a lot of time learning equations and how to formulate them to take into account every possible variable. I would spend time in applied mathematics courses and physics courses trying to determine every little thing that impacted a particular observed or theoretical solution. For instance, I would try to determine the amount of force needed to create a certain acceleration based on the mass of a given object. Well, F=ma, but how do you account for friction? How about directionality? These little things add up. And yes, it is possible to figure out very accurately the exact amount. Fhsst_forces12Physics might work like that, but life doesn’t. I can’t factor in every little variable and determine how someone will react. Or gauge my decisions based upon the decisions another person might make and the amount of sleep I could get tonight. You see, it is more complicated. I need to be able to release control and to quit thinking I am in control. Control is an illusion.

So, I’m letting go of needing to be in control because I’m not. I choose instead to respond to whatever life throws at me with love, grace, and hope…. or at least try.