It has taken me 8 months, but I finally got part one of my Israel/Palestine travelogue finished! Enjoy the Jerusalem episode of my family’s travel channel, “What’s Your Next Adventure?”!
Every year now for the past 4 years, I have passed out something called "Epiphany stars" on Epiphany Sunday . This is a tradition that has gathered steam over the past few years and each of the congregations I've served in that four years has enjoyed the practice.
Epiphany is the day after Christmas ends. There are 12 days of Christmas, so for most traditions, that puts Epiphany on January 6th. It's the observance of the magi coming from far away to visit baby Jesus (probably more like toddler Jesus, but let's not get too hung up on the historical aspect just now). They found him by reading the stars and following the one that indicated the birth of a new kind of king.
Epiphany symbolizes the idea that God came to earth for ALL people of EVERY race, EVERY heritage, etc. It's the day when we recognize that God is revealed to all people and we all have a star to follow.
Epiphany star words are simply words printed on paper or cardboard stars. Each person is given one randomly as a star to follow for the year. It's a meditation and reflection word to live with for that year.
If you didn't get one at church this year, check out the random star word generator I put together last year.
I've discovered on major problem with these star words, however. Everyone (myself included) gets really excited about them in January and talks about them for a few weeks, but by March or April, they have gone the way of New Year's Resolutions. We've either forgotten about them or we've run out of ways to interact with them and/or think we've got it nailed. So this year, I've put together some study tools to help with keeping up on the star words. You're welcome to download and print these for your own use, but if you'd like to copy and distribute them at something like a bible study or Sunday school class, please touch base with me first for permission.
There are three ways you can use these. They all contain the same content, but it's organized a little bit differently. The outline just gives some guidance as to themes and trajectory for the year. There are a few questions to reflect on each month/theme, but that's about it.
There are also journal pages that you can print and insert into your journal of choice. They are half-page sized so they should fit in most journals. These include a title page for each month with some journal prompts and questions.
The most "ready to use" version is the workbook. This is literally a workbook that you can print out and work through during the year. At church, I spiral bound these for everyone, but you could also just use a small three ring binder.
I'm just as guilty as everyone else about losing track of my word each year, so this year I have entered my word study into my calendar as a regular task. I plan on blogging monthly to chat about how the star word is going this year.
In 2016, I pulled "motivation" and that's the year I realized I was being called to a new congregation. In 2017, I pulled "endurance" and ran my last full marathon (I realized at about mile 15 that it was my last full marathon and enduring for the sake of endurance is not wise). Last year, my word was "reliability" and I spent time learning how to rely more on other people and take less of it upon myself.
For 2019. . . (drumroll please). . . God has given me:
Start to live with the word day to day
Yesterday, Pittsburgh was rocked by a terrible and violent terrorist act. At around 10 am, a man entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and opened fire on the worshiping community on their sabbath day. Even as he was apprehended by police and the FBI, he was uttering anti-semitic hate speech.
11 worshipers died.
6 people, including four responding officers, were seriously injured.
In a place of worship.
In their sanctuary.
The word sanctuary means “A place of refuge or safety.” That’s where the word for the space in which a community worships got its name. It’s our place of refuge and safety. For one local congregation yesterday, that sanctuary was horrifically violated.
Those of us who gather in our sanctuaries today to pray must remember that we gather as a people of peace in a place that is meant for peace. When fear knocks on the door, we cannot allow it to seep in. When hate barges in, we must shower it with messages and actions of love. Because as Martin Luther King Jr said: Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love...
To all those who are afraid, all those who feel beaten down, pushed to the edges, dropped through the cracks, and just plain hurt, let me be among those who sincerely say:
I am sorry. This is not God’s intention for the world. And those of us who have watched this sort of behavior happen without speaking out boldly in truth and love and working together to change the script are part of the problem. I am sorry.
Jewish, Muslim, Presbyterian, Catholic, atheist, black, white, young, old, gay, straight, whoever you are, you are welcome here. You are welcome to seek peace and rest with us in this sanctuary. Come here for refuge and safety in a troubled time.
Each week for a few weeks now, we have sung the same song at the beginning of every worship service.
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary,
pure and holy,
tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
To those who are in a position of privilege and safety, those who are not on the margins but have lots of space on the page, I challenge you to go to your sanctuaries this morning. Seek that peace for your own troubled soul, but when you go out, go forth as a living sanctuary. BE the place of refuge and safety for those around you.
Be the sanctuary our world needs right now.
Pittsburgh: I know you. You are so full of love. Now is the time to make that more real and apparent than it’s ever been.
Be the sanctuary.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God be kind and gracious to you.
May God look upon you with favor and give you peace. Amen.
Dr. Representative Marsico,
I am writing today as a clergy member, a wife, a mother, and especially as a survivor of an abusive marriage.
It's a shame that in 2018, there are still so many women who fall victim to abusive partners and spouses. While it is true that men also sometimes suffer abuse at the hands of a loved one, it is overwhelmingly women who are at high risk for this sort of crime. I can quote statistics on domestic abuse if necessary, but I believe that the stories of survivors like myself are more powerful than numbers. Faces and friendships mean more than charts and graphs.
Please, for the sake of all those who are suffering abuse and are at high risk for death by gun violence because of this abuse, vote SB501 out of committee today so that we can protect these dear ones. This does not take guns out of the hands of good guys, it keeps guns out of the hands of those who are doing harm or have done harm to others. Let's make progress on this before the summer recess.
You are more than welcome to call me and to hear my whole story personally today or in the near future. I would love to talk to you sometime in person about how lawmakers and community leaders can protect the vulnerable and reduce the rates of domestic violence and the associated gun deaths.
May you be blessed as you go about your important work today, friend.
Reverend Charissa Clark Howe
If you live in PA and you care about the safety of women and children suffering at the hands of abusive spouses and parents, please contact Rep. Marsico and ask that he vote sb501 out of committee TODAY so that we can make progress in protecting those we love.
Hours: M-F 9:00 - 4:30
I had looked forward to each of the experiences I planned on having in the Holy Land. I knew that many would be different in reality than they were in my mind, but the sea would be a holy place. I felt as though it had to be a holy place or my faith would fall apart right there into the water and float away. There, I hoped to escape the gilded sanctuaries and gawking crowds the church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden of Gethsemane offered. The sea promised a real, tangible connection to the place the one I long to follow lived.
We visited several churches on the way to the lakeshore. Like the other churches, each had its own claim to fame - some tenuous connection to where something in scripture might or might not have happened. Each had ornate doorways, overwhelming architecture, and weeping masses of sensory-overloaded tourists.
By the time we arrived at the last church of the day - the one which we’d been promised offered access to the water - I couldn’t bear to spend any more time in a man-made temple. I wanted to touch God. While my traveling companions lined up to filter into the church, I rushed straight to the water’s edge.
I paused before entering the lake. I prayed in the loudest spirit voice I could muster, “God! I need to see, hear, and touch you. Don’t hide from me.”
The crystal water was chilly on my feet, gently lapping onto my ankles as I perched on a rock jutting out of the very lake it all went down in. This place where storms were calmed, where the faithful doubted, wrestled, questioned, faltered, and walked was still the home of miracles.
The miracles offered by the sea this day were less dramatic - less historic, perhaps - but they provided much needed connection. They connected me to God, to creation, and even to those miracles of so many centuries ago.
The very rock on which I sat was a miracle that had resided on these same gentle shores for untold centuries. Who else had rested on that rock throughout the years? It had seen war, love, joy, sorrow, faith, doubt, anxiety, and countless changes of seasons. Long before the church I’d passed by was built or even conceived in the mind of an architect, that miraculous rock marked this holy place.
An altar of reeds stood out in the distance: a monument reaching to the sky. Not contained by wooden beams or marble floors, this un-gilded ebenezer dwelt in the holiest of temples with the water below it and the unending heavens above. It stretched out toward a spotlight of sun and gave testimony to the wonder of creation. “Here,” it said, “is where God meets those who seek.”
As I looked down from the reeds, I realized that I was not alone. From my stone pew, I sat with my fellow supplicants, deep in the very prayer I’d hoped to find here.
No gape-jawed tour groups shuffled past this rock as they did through the fences and rails that pressed them past other so called holy places as though they were cattle in a slaughterhouse chute. The congregation here at this sacred rock were small, almost unnoticeable. Here, the worshipers were tiny, rock-colored fish. These small algae-eating friends of mine understood the sacredness of the place. They did not need gaudy chandeliers or velvet curtains. There was no need to ask them to remain quiet and respectful of the space. They knew that this was a sanctuary for those who seek to meet with God. Theirs was the purest form of prayer.
It was into this prayer I found myself drawn. I was welcomed into their worship at the reed altar. This was a worship unlike any other I’d known. I had prayed on rocks at floral shrines with feral friends before, but this was more than simple contemplation or act of obligatory prostration. This was not just a human gasp before the beauty of the scene.
Here, I was able to see God, hear God, and touch God by seeing, hearing, and touching this place of wonders.
Here, God taught.
Here, God walked.
Here, God fed.
Here, God loved.
Here, I listened.
Here, I followed.
Here, I was satiated.
Here, I was loved.
When I crept reluctantly out of the water, I did so a new person. This living water had refreshed and renewed. As I entered back into the fray with the name-tag wearing visitors with matching t-shirts, it was with a different spirit. These waters had cleansed my angst, making the chaos of those around me fade into the background. Here, while others looked to find a piece of God, I had learned anew how to rest in the peace of God.
The peace of God does not reside in a church. It does not require a gilded chapel or an incense-filled shrine. The peace of God is not confined to a building or a particular mountain. The peace of God is not even restricted to that very lake in which I met it again after a time of great unrest in my life: a time in which I had felt unmoored and disconnected. The peace of God is within. It waits to be released in the moments when we dare to escape the pressing crowds seeking to find the perfect place. It is when we come in a holy attitude that is paradoxically both seeking and releasing all expectations of finding that we meet with God. This is the holiest of places: the holy of holies.
““Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
John 14:27 ESV”
Ya'll might have noticed this lately, but there's a lot of angry people in this country right now. Like. . . ALOT of angry people. (If you haven't noticed that yet. . . what hole are you in and do you have room for me to join you? I could use a break.) And you know what? Most of them have every right to be in a foul mood about the state of our nation.
Now, some of those angry people aren't currently expressing anger because their angry voices have just been heard loud and clear in the election results. The other angry people are currently angry that their voices weren't heard loudly enough. But it's all about anger, fear, and losing our voices.
We all have a great deal more in common than we think.
Don't get me wrong. This is not a "God's in control" or "let's kiss and make up and move on" post. We can't blow this off. This is a big freaking deal and we have SOHOHO much work to do if this country is going to survive. This is, however, a "stop yelling at each other, guys!" post. I have loved ones on both sides of this and I feel like a kid who just walked in on her parents having the biggest fight of their marriage.
I'm going to take a brief excursion to say I am talking about everyday people here. I'm not talking about the KKK or other white supremacists. They have no legitimate excuse for their behavior. I'm not talking about people spray painting hate on walls. I'm not talking about people staging violent protests against the president-elect and burning him in effigy. That crap's not cool. I'm not touching extremist behavior in this post. I'm talking about normal people trying to figure out how to be in the world. I'm talking about where the fear comes from in general populations and how we have so much more in common than we're willing to say.
Tom Hanks on Saturday Night Live recently was brilliant. I think they did my favorite sketch ever. And it speaks directly to this.
What this horrible eruptive reaction to the election seems to demonstrate is that we have a great deal more in common than we're willing to admit, but it's right in front of us and we're completely missing it. We've been duped into thinking our stories are different and that somehow our own story is better or worse or more important than the other person's story. Shame on us for falling for it.
You know why people in the rust belt are so angry about coal and industry disappearing? Because it was their way of life. They have watched their livelihood and way of life disappear. Now, I don't think "bringing back coal" is either feasible or a reasonable answer to the problem. Coal is simply not coming "back," guys. I know. That sucks. For a great number of people. But it's true. And the primary culprit is not the other guy in another country who is willing to work cheaper. The culprit is technology and normal industrial and social change. Industries rise and fall. That's how it works.
But as life in the rust belt and other similar areas changed, as industry in places like Pittsburgh (my stomping grounds) changed, nobody did anything to help out communities like Ambridge and Beaver Falls and McKeesport and Reading. We as a country just let them rot. No wonder they are angry. They have been marginalized, shoved to the edges, and forgotten about. Their voices were lost.
And if anyone knows what that feels like, those of us who are fearful for what might be allowed to happen to us under this coming presidency surely do. We haven't had voices for years. My dear loved ones in Beaver County, the Mon Valley, Ohio, etc, please listen to this: This is how racial minorities, women, religious minorities, and the LGBT community have been made to feel for CENTURIES. And you're right! It doesn't feel good! It's awful not to have a voice. It's terrible to feel like less-than. Join the club!
You think sexism isn't a thing in 2016? I have, in a professional context as an ordained minister in a mainline denomination, been referred to as "the pretty girl at the table", passed over for jobs by less qualified men, slut-shamed for being pro-choice, told it was nice to have me fill the pulpit because I'm "nicer to look at than all those old guys", and inappropriately man-handled by a male parishioner (not at my current church, for the record, and it's someone who has since passed on, so I'm not calling out someone I interact with anymore or who will be offended by this post). When I go out in public in my collar, I get asked inappropriate questions about female ministers. When I go out in public without my collar, I get cat-called and harassed at gas stations and when out for runs. That's just me. Every one of my female colleagues has similar stories and all the women I know can tell you about times they have been ignored, passed over, patronized, assaulted, abused, or worse, simply because of their gender.
You think racism isn't a thing? A dear black friend of mine is a respectable mother of three who is frequently tailed at her local pharmacy and other stores when she goes in while white folks wander all over with nobody bothering them. Another faithful and wonderful friend of mine, recently posted this post on being called horrible racist and sexist names (all in one shot) by an angry man online. My adopted son (black) once had his car broken into outside of work and called us crying because the white police who came refused to do anything about it. These are just a couple examples right off the top of my head. You don't have to look far.
You think homophobia isn't a thing? My dad and step-dad are genuinely worried right now that their marriage is going to be nullified in the next four years because there are people really truly calling for a repeal of same-sex marriage. Beyond that, all I'm going to say is "bakeries."
Listen, we just started to make headway in the past couple decades after centuries of oppression. Women and black folks are tired of being property. Peaceful Muslims are tired of being equated to ISIS. The LGBT community is tired of having to hide who they are. And just when we did start to come out of that garbage, a man ran for president who said we were less than. We are grabbable, we live in hell, we should be shipped back to where we came from, our marriages aren't real, etc. And because those who have been pushed to the margins in decades of late finally know what it feels like to be pushed to the margins, that guy won. I'm not saying that everyone who voted for him is racist, sexism, islamaphobic, etc. I'm saying that the voters were more worried about forcing their story of anger and hopelessness over and above other stories of anger and hopelessness. In other words: in 2016, people don't necessarily all hate people who are different, but they still don't really care much about them either.
We have ALL just fallen for the biggest con in modern history.
Here's the lie: we are different.
It's the same story. It's just that one group hasn't played the underdog role in it, oh. . . ever.
So, you'll probably see me at a good number of rallies and events in the coming weeks and months standing up for the rights of women, racial minorities, non-Christians, the LGBT community, and more. Because we have to keep fighting this centuries old fight to be really considered as worthwhile. And you'll also see me talking with people about how to move forward in places that coal and other industry moved out of rather than just making empty promises about bringing back something that cannot come back. And I'm not going to apologize for any of it. Because as Christians, we are called to love first and the best way to learn how to love others is to listen to their stories and to share ours with them.
Do I agree with anything the president-elect has to say or promises to do? So far, no. Do I like him or think he upholds Christian values and ethics? Not even close. Would I want to be in a room alone with him or let my kids hang out with him? Not a chance. But. . . it's not helpful to protest his election. We have so many better things we can put our energy into. I'm not saying "don't lament." I've been lamenting constantly the past couple days. I'm not even saying that we shouldn't try to figure out how to fix a system in which a person can will the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. What I'm saying is, listen to each other's stories. Hear what got us here in the first place.
We're here in this place of division and anger and just plain meanness because we haven't taken the time to listen to one another. So, liberal friends, go hug a white guy in a trucker hat today and ask him about his childhood. Bonus points if he's wearing one that says, "Make America Great Again." And conservative friends, hug a Muslim today and ask them what they love about their religion. Bonus points if you ask if you can worship with them some time. If you don't have any Muslims where you live, hug a black woman or someone of Latino descent. Tell them how much they belong here. Because unless you're Native American, you're not from around here either.
I used to feel a little guilty for being pro-choice and supporting Planned Parenthood. I think that is because any time a woman, especially a Christian woman takes an unpopular and/or progressive stance on something, we're automatically labeled "bitch," "misinformed," "sinful" or any other slew of nasty names. And I used to actually care about the names other people called me. I used to be pretty self-conscious. That's how I wound up in abusive marriage for several years in my early 20's. But that's getting ahead of the story.
When I was 17, an ovarian cyst nearly killed me. This thing was the size of a grapefruit. There were a ton of tiny ones too. This cyst was such a badass it had minions. I had to have emergency life-saving surgery to remove it and it took months to recover. I lost one of my fallopian tubes to that stupid cyst. When I was only 17, I was told that my odds of having children were halved. Just like that.
Later that same spring - it was the year I graduated high school - I met a guy. Thanks to lousy sex education (real sex-ed, people, not this abstinence only nonsense that teenagers of all generations blatantly ignore) and lack of access to birth control, I was pregnant by the time I graduated high school. So much for only having one working ovary. . .
I was 18, headed to college, with a guy I knew was bad news, and scared that the cysts would come back. On July 9, 1997, I walked into a Planned Parenthood Clinic and had that pregnancy terminated. I was only a few weeks pregnant at the time.
The people outside the clinic had no idea why I was there. I could have been there for birth control, an ob/gyn appointment, anything. They had no idea how terrified and heartbroken I already was. They shouted obscenities at me. They said I was a murderer. They told me I was going to burn in hell. My mom tried to shield me from their obscene posters and hateful speech, but she couldn't.
It was horrific.
And they said these things in the name of Christianity. There were church names on their effing signs. Bible verses sprinkled into their hateful talk.
So I quit going to church, or at least I quit caring about it. It was more of a tapering off of going than a definitive moment. These were supposed to be loving people, Godly people. And they acted like monsters.
I was overwhelmed by guilt. My boyfriend made me feel guilty about the abortion, even though he was all for it at the time because (little known to me then) he already had another baby on the way with another girl.
In spite of his controlling ways and nasty spirit, I married that guy. I just felt so guilty, used up, and dirty that it seemed like the only reasonable option. I might as well marry the guy I became a murderer for.
I was barely 20 when I got married. I had my daughter when I was 21. He got worse and would say things like, "I'll bet you killed our boy! Now all I have is daughters!" (The other girl he'd gotten pregnant in high school had a girl he refused to have anything to do with for the first 4 years or so of her life.) No responsibility for his own actions. No concerns about the health issues I had been dealing with at the time. None of that. Just blame and hate.
Two years later, after he'd started getting physically violent as well, I got up the nerve to leave. You can get the more extended version of that story here. I just couldn't bear to watch my little baby grow up thinking that was OK behavior.
I started somewhere in there going back to church again. And it was mostly fine. The people there were nice. Until the time came around for the March for Life, where they all piled into a bus to go picket in Washington DC and call people like me murderers and sinners. I know that their intentions were good, but it hurt and I could never really trust them because of that. I would always answer I was pro-life if anyone asked, but deep down, I knew that could never be such a cut and dry answer.
Of course, I didn't and still don't want abortions to happen. They are awful. But because of Roe v Wade and the establishment of Planned Parenthood, abortion rates in this country have declined and continue to do so. (Don't believe me? Ask the CDC. Don't believe the CDC? I can't help you. You're too deep in the conspiracy woods. This blog post is not for you.) Not to mention the fact that Planned Parenthood does WAY THE EFF MORE than just abortions. (Again, if you're willing to not jump on the conspiracy bandwagon of BS, here are the services they provide.)
So. 23 years old. Divorced. 2 year old daughter. 5 years post-abortion. Wracked with guilt over being a terrible person and an awful, closet-liberal Christian. It was a dark time.
Then, I connected back up with my childhood best friend/sweetheart. And I realized that even though we hadn't seen each other in 8 or 10 years, he was still my best friend and biggest crush ever. Not to mention a really good guy who really loved my daughter. So I married him. That was a good idea.
Two years later. . . baby. Awesome baby. Still awesome to this day, as a matter of fact.
A year after that, we adopted a teenaged boy. Love that kid. Glad we did it.
A year after that. . . pregnant again. It was great. Until it wasn't. At our first ultrasound, our baby son was diagnosed with Amniotic Band Syndrome. You can read more about it here, but the nutshell is that he was in serious, really bad danger. And he had serious birth defects with possibility of more to come because of the syndrome.
We were offered an abortion. We were still under 22 weeks, the time that our state would allow abortion because of serious birth defect. Or we could just wait and see. But he would probably die anyway or have a seriously decreased quality of life.
But here's the thing. . . we're white people with means and health insurance. Which means, we had access to a second opinion. We had access to a battery of specialists after that second opinion. If you want the whole story filled in here, just ask me later when we have more time. This post is already getting really long. Anyway, we had the means to go to a special clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital where they were able to do an experimental fetal surgery to save his life and his hands. We had that surgery on July 9, 2008. . . the 11th anniversary of that abortion when I was a teenager.
It was like a message from God that I was allowed to release the guilt. That I was allowed to live in the gray and lean toward the grace. I wasn't a sinful murderer going straight to hell. Nobody who has chosen an abortion is a sinful murderer going straight to hell. Pregnancy is complicated. From the moment it starts to happen (it's a process, not a moment, folks), it's weird and dangerous and scary and personal. And nobody has any business telling anyone where the lines of too weird or dangerous or scary or personal are.
So here's the point of my wandering story today:
If you want to take my story, my life, my experiences of life and loss and joy and sorrow and pin a nasty label on my like, "Murderer" or "bitch" or "liberal idiot", go for it. Bring it on. Because I really don't care anymore.
You want to assume I'm not actually a Christian because I'm pro-choice? We're called in scripture not to judge the salvation of others and to have civil discourse with one another about things like this, but whatever.
But know that for every woman like me who has, after 20 years finally gotten the courage to tell her story and tell you to back on up a hot minute, there are many more who still feel like a pile of crap because of that sort of hateful nonsense. And there are many more who won't find their way back to the church again. And I don't blame them. I can't believe I haven't managed to give up on the church after all these years. (Ask me about my dads sometime and how much the church hurt me and my family there.)
So no. I will not apologize for being pro-choice. And no. I will not listen to nonsense about 8-9 month abortions or Planned Parenthood selling baby parts on the black market. Your conspiracy theories and lack of compassion and grace are only winding up me and all the other women who feel like this. And yes, I will be in the protesting crowds if our president-elect tries to repeal RvW. Unapologetically. Wearing my clerical collar.
Check it out! I'm hosting a giveaway of one of my new audiobooks! You have until July 27th to click the link in the top right corner of my homepage to enter. I will notify the winner by email.
Charissa Clark Howe
Pastor, author, musician, audiobook narrator