About Abby Norman

I live and work and love in the city of Atlanta. Former teacher, future preacher, current wife and mother and writer. Always looking for more Jesus.

Going On An Advent

Yesterday marked that start of Advent, a time where we intentionally journey toward Christmas, where we take the time to long for the Christ child, where we remember that we are not the first people to long for a better world, to look the skies and cry out, “Seriously God? Fix this!”

Today someone Twitter asked what was the best advice we have ever received regarding anxiety and I gave me stand by answer, the bear hunt answer.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it.

To be honest, this is totally solid advice for just about anything in life. Sometimes, the shit hits the fan. Sometimes people break your heart, or disappoint you, or die. It is horrible, it sometimes feels extra horrible in December. There is no way around the pain of this sometimes brutal world. The only way through it is through it. You have to go through it.

These days the avoidance of sad feelings often gets blamed on the perpetual high light reel of social media and the ability to watch entire seasons of your favorite shows on Netflix in one sitting. But advent has been around since the beginnings of the church. The church has always set aside the time before the feast of the Christ child to feel our feelings. Apparently, the world has always attempted to avoid them, apparently we have always wanted everything to be fine. And things are just so often not fine.

The early church knew that we needed time for longing, time to ponder hope and how hard it is sometimes. We needed a time to say out loud that we wish things were different, that they didn’t have to be this way. If we pretend that everything is perfect why do we even need a savior anyway?

My friend Tina asked her congregation, “What does your heart long for?” It may take some of us a few days to even give ourselves permission to ask ourselves the question. What is it your heart is longing for? What is not right in this world? These might not seem like very merry questions but I think they are the exact questions we need. These sad feelings we never have time for, Advent is the time.

Can’t go around them, can’t go under them, can’t go over them, gotta go through them.

We are going on an Advent, to see what we need to see.

 

 

 

Why Go Home When The Harvest is Plenty?

I crossed a thing off my bucket list this last week. I got to preach a women’s retreat. It was as much fun as I thought it would be. I got to stand in front of a room of women and tell them all the things that were true, about them, about God, about the way God made them. I have known for a long time that this was something I wanted to do, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to finally do it.

Ironically, or perhaps not, while I was preaching my face off at this women’s retreat, while I was telling these amazing women that God made each of them on purpose, that God would go searching for them in the wilderness, would always welcome them back home, some man who I will not be linking to told the world women should go home. He scoffed at the idea of listening to what marginalized groups have to say about the Bible. He rolled his eyes at the idea of LGBTQ people made in the image of God. And the internet has not been able to stop talking about it. I got sucked into the vortex too.

But that was not the important thing that happened this past weekend. At least it wasn’t in my world. No, the important thing was that I got to see all the amazing work these women I spent the weekend with are doing. I got to hear about the impossible work of trauma recovery, the good hard work of advocating for the elderly. I got to hear about work being done in elementary schools, and non-profits working with foster kids. I got to hear about the ways that this work has brought people’s hearts close to the systems that are desperately broken.

These twenty or so women I got to preach to were already doing the work of the gospel. They trusted me with their frustrations and anger at the injustice of it all.  They pushed back on the things I had to say and they let me know the parts of the Bible they don’t like very much right now. They told me about the things they hoped to one day do, the non-profit they want to open, the hats they make for people who are cold. They promised to send me a church cookbook. I am going to hold them to that.

I was struck, yet again this weekend, by the millions of ways God has equipped each of us to bring the good news. I was struck by just how much good work there is to be done. I was amazed and astounded by the work that was already being done by these twenty women.

There is so much work to be done. There is so much good work to be done. The harvest is so plentiful. The workers are so few. There is so much justice to be fought for and so many people to feed. There are so many casseroles to be made and so many kiddos to hug. There are so many hats to be knit. There is so much justice to fight for. There is so much grief to be grieved. There is so much to laugh at. There is so much joy to be found.

I think it is trash that some man in a room full of other white men would take the opportunity to remind everyone of the lie that only they are qualified to preach the gospel, that anyone who is not straight, white, male, and able bodied doesn’t have a place at the table. I am so so so grateful that they don’t get to decide.

It isn’t their table. It isn’t their gospel. It isn’t up to them. The good news is for everyone and includes everyone, and if it doesn’t do that then it isn’t good news.

At the end of the weekend my friend who had invited me read pieces of Sarah Bessey’s commissioning from Jesus Feminist. She encouraged each of these women to go and do the work that God has uniquely called them to do. She encouraged us to find the things that we are home in, and do them with great abandon. For me, that is preaching. I am at home in the pulpit. It is a home God has made for me. You too have the home that God built for you. I pray you find it. I pray you go and do just exactly what God has called you to do with wild abandon. And I pray you are too busy doing that work to fool with the fools who think they get to decide.

When you are wandering

The last three or four weeks have been a beast preaching. I found out too late that the third lectionary year is a THING among preachers. I probably wouldn’t have skipped it anyway. I’m stubborn like that. Last week or maybe the week before I spent time on the parable about Lazarus, and Hades, which is tricky for a liberal preacher who is foggy at best about hell to a congregation that is pretty comfortable with the idea. I think it worked out okay. It usually does. At least that is what my very kind congregation tells me.

But I missed a sub point that day. I meant to talk about death, about the reminders of death and how we wouldn’t always have always and tomorrow. How we forget that, even in the midst of daily reminders. I forgot to talk about how true that phrase we had sung moments before was so stinking true “prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” I forgot to talk about how I don’t always love the things that Paul says, but dang it, that bit about wanting to do the things I do not do and doing the things I don’t resonates more days than it doesn’t. Being a human is hard. Telling the truth about it is harder.

Am I the only one struggling with this? I wonder that on the big things like God’s calling on my life, and little things like how the heck do I feed these children every single day? I see that cute sign in your instagram “Not all who wander are lost” and have to admit that some of us just might be. It is me. I am some of us. Being a human is just so hard, at least it is for me. I suspect I am not the only one.

I got some disappointing news on Thursday, I was deferred at the district level for commissioning. My paperwork was not as good as it needed to be. They want me to come back next year. They think I am called. They affirmed my gifts. This part is still hard. It makes everything less clear. I thought I knew the path toward ministry, I think this is probably a minor blip. A lot of the people I know say, yes I was deferred, they shrug, they got through next year. I am sure that will be me in a few years. Right now it stings. Right now it feels confusing and unclear.

I have left this post up for three days now. Hoping I can wrap it up neatly, put a little bow on it. I don’t have that. I just have this: If you are feeling parched, like you are alone out here wandering, wondering on the big questions, and also the daily minutia, you are not. I am here too. I believe God is out here with us. I can hold that today for both of us.

 

 

When you are changed but the same

The summer before I was to start seminary I freaked out a little bit. I had been a teacher for so long. I had heard seminary was going to change me. I wasn’t sure where or who I would be when those three years were up. I liked who I was, I wasn’t sure I wanted that to change. A very wise woman, someone who I often admire and seek council from looked at my fear with me and asked, Abby, why would you want to spend three years doing something that would leave you exactly where you started? Don’t you want seminary to change you? Isn’t that what worthwhile things do?

She was right. And I went. And I was right. Seminary has changed me.

This past summer I tried to write again in the ways I used to write, earnest and honest and thoughtful, with run on sentences and too many conjunctions. I tried to re-ignite the pieces of my brain that had been stored away in order to complete a full time three year degree while also being a brand new pastor turned accidental church revitalizer. I was a little worried seminary had broken my brain forever,

Turns out, I was just tired.

When I started blogging I was neck deep in diapers with a spouse trying to complete a PhD. I wrote as a way to remember who I was and also figure it out. I needed to not lose myself in all my rolls. And it did all of that for me. I wrote my way right into seminary. I wrote my way into calling myself called.

The blogosphere was changing when I left it to go to graduate school, and it seems I barely recognize what I have come back to. I will, I think, attempt to write articles that get published in places other than this, that pass through the hands of editors and give me a “by-line” but also I want to remember that I write because I need to, because it makes me feel whole. I write so that I can know what I think, so that I can remind myself of the good God has for me.

I write so I remember what truth sounds like, what truth sounds like for me and maybe you too. I write to order my steps and make sense of the ones that already come. I write here mostly to remind myself that I don’t need anyone else’s permission to be who I am, even if that has changed, is changing, and I am not quite sure exactly how.

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? A sermon for Rachel Held Evan

this is the sermon I preached on Sunday with some tweaks to make it more specific to the church on the internet. 

What do you do when you are waiting? What do you do when you are waiting for God to do something? What do you do when you thought God was going to do one thing, then God does something else? 

Today’s lectionary reading is in John chapter 21. This chapter in John was added much later than the other chapters. A few generations after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and he still hadn’t come back. This was not what anyone was expecting. Not only had Jesus not returned, but the Romans were becoming increasingly violent against both Christians and Jews.

What do you do when you are waiting for the promise of the risen Lord? This chapter is situated much like the scenes everyone waits for at the end of a Marvel movie. The resurrection story is wrapped up in chapter 20. But….now what?

But then, but then they remembered this story, this story of the in between time, the time when Jesus was sort of popping up whenever, when the Holy Spirit hadn’t gotten there yet. It was a confusing time. Yes, Jesus was resurrected but what did it mean? God, where are you? Isn’t it time yet?

Which bring us to our text.

John 21:1-19

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

Here is the question the disciples are wrestling with and I admit I  too am wrestling with. The Unite Methodist Church is in a bit of a public pickle, and I will be writing my paperwork for ordination this summer. The timing isn’t great. And this weekend a colleague of mine, a friend, a mentor, and a giant in the Christian writing world unexpectedly died at 37 years old, right smack in the middle of Easter.

What now? When is God going to do something?

It is a few weeks after Jesus’ last appearance and the disciples don’t know what to do with themselves. They can’t imagine going on without their friend to lead them, even though they have seen he is not dead….he still isn’t with them. They miss Jesus. They are grieving. 

So they go back to what they know, how they lived before Jesus interrupted their lives. They go fishing. In the middle of the night, I imagine because they are too sad and disrupted to sleep. In fact Peter is such a mess he cannot even bother to get dressed. Him being naked was a detail they omitted on the Sunday school felt board, but as a grown up I am grateful for it here. Peter was such a disaster, completely stricken with no idea how to proceed. And if all of that isn’t enough the old way isn’t working. They have fished all night and come up empty handed.

But then Jesus appeared. They were not doing the things they had been told. They were not going forward with the work. They were not grieving gracefully. Peter especially was showing all the disaster we are so often taught to tuck away before we come to God. And Jesus comes anyway.

He comes and invites them to fish on the other side. And so many fish are caught they can’t even pull in the nets. 153 according to John, and so many of them are big! Fish that really should be reserved for the rich, fish sold off instead of eaten because there were only so many and this is how the poor survived.

But when they get to the shore Jesus invites them into the feast. He already has a fire waiting for them, even more fish on that fire, and he breaks bread with them just like he did before. They are not in the right mental state for a feast, this is not a reward for being faithful. This is a feast anyway, a feast about who God is, about what resurrection means, not about who deserves what or only those who are ready (I know I keep talking about how Peter wasn’t even dressed, but seriously….he wasn’t ready and got invited anyway).

And at this feast Jesus shows the one who is the least ready the way forward, the one who completely denied him just a few weeks earlier. Peter, Jesus says, feed my sheep. Tend my Sheep. If you love me, you have to love my sheep.

Jesus doesn’t shame a single person for their grief, or confusion. There is no rebuking of their anger and lost feelings. There is simply an invitation into a new way. You can be sad, you can grieve but there is a way out of the wallowing and into the work. This is how you love Jesus, even when Jesus is not physically there to love, you feed his sheep.

This past week, as Rachel Held Evans sat quietly in a comma, I wrote a paper about her. When I picked my topic a few months ago, it was simply because why people leave the evangelical church was too large, and I needed a moment– an artifact to pinpoint a particular turn, and when I tweeted about that moment Rachel said, oh yeah! I wrote one of those. So unbeknownst to her I spent the last weeks of my seminary career reflecting on her voice as a way to write about the faith journey of so many of us. It was a fitting way to end my MDiv, I don’t know that I would have ever become a pastor without her work. It felt very strange, writing a paper about a woman I admired so much as she was not well. But I thought of how the example she set was to do the work, even when it was hard, even when it was emotional, to do the hard thing because it was the next thing to do.

Rachel died Saturday, and there are so very many of us grieving. We don’t know what to do or where to go. We don’t know how to go on. We are sad and can’t sleep and some of us are having trouble even getting ourselves dressed in the morning. I confess, that though we were more colleagues than friends, I am one of those people. But Jesus has always invited us out of the wallowing and into the work, and Rachel was so good at showing us how to do that.

The work is feasting. The work is a larger table with more people invited and massive amounts of fish, the good stuff for everyone not just the people who can afford it, who have the proper degrees and the right words, but for everyone.

The work is loving God and loving Jesus and you do that by feeding His sheep, by attending to those on the margins, by paying attention to the hurt of others, by taking what you have and offering it to others and throwing up the doors just as wide as you can get them and letting everyone else in.

And I believe that the work Jesus calls us to, the work Rachel did so well, is going to be different for all of us, and that my friends is such good news. Because inviting others to come along, remembering those on the margins and making more space, that work isn’t easy, but it is not complicated either, it is doable, and it is are turn to do that work.

Amen.

When it is a sad Holy Saturday

It is 8:45 on Sunday night and while it is mostly done, I wouldn’t call my Easter sermon quite finished yet. The beautiful spring weather seems to have receded and one of my daughters and I changed into our fleece Christmas onesies from a few years ago to sleep in. I might even put the hood on.

I don’t know what my problem is. I found the Easter baskets about twenty minutes ago and am postponing the big Easter dinner until I have completed all my papers. There is no strawberry pie in the refrigerator. I am having trouble believing that Sunday is coming.

This is the thing that was once novel, but now you are instructed not to say on Good Friday. It is Friday today, but Sunday is coming! People point to this as a great example of the ways that the church in America is not good at grief, at suffering, at not glossing over people’s pain. And I suppose that maybe Sunday is coming, but today it is Saturday, and it just all feels so sad.

Someone I deeply respect is in a coma

Someone who I have been walking with still doesn’t have her happy ending

I still have papers due.

Our fellowship hall is still flooding.

It isn’t Sunday yet. We live in a Saturday world. Sometimes the weather changes and you end up in your Christmas pajamas the day before you slip on your new Easter flats. Things aren’t done or over. Things didn’t turn out the way we thought. We are still waiting.

Maybe thats okay. Maybe I will wake up tomorrow ready to celebrate our risen Lord. Maybe I will feel it in every inch of my being.

Or maybe I will wake up still sad, still waiting. Maybe it will take all 50 days of Easter for the reality of the resurrection to take hold. Maybe we live in a Saturday world. Maybe it is okay to believe in the resurrection and still feel sad, to write Easter sermons in Christmas onesies because it is cold outside. Maybe God redeems all this anyway.

Back Into The Wilderness

Last week was spring break. I, per the usual had a huge list of things I was hoping to get done. Mostly, all I did was nap. I slept for hours every day, getting very little done and being too exhausted to care. I wondered to my therapist and my friends if it was depression. I don’t think it is depression. I think it is grief. And not just grief but a familiar one.

My friend asks me how spring break was and I tell her I did little more than sleep. She tells me she is glad. She tells me that sleep is how the brain processes trauma. I am reminded how hard the last few weeks have been, and how I am working through a thing I have worked through before. In some ways this is good. I have done this thing, this kind of grieving so I know I can do it again. In some ways this is awful. I did not think this was a thing I would ever have to face again.

My husband was given a book once “They like Jesus but not the church.” I don’t know if we still have it. I do know we haven’t spoken to the book giver in years. Sometimes I wish I could be like the person in the title. I love Jesus, and I love the church. I think I always have, but sometimes I don’t much like the latter. Even when it is hard and painful and messy, even when we are busy disappointing each other, I still love the church. I don’t know how to do life without the church.

If you go back through my archives (please don’t, practice may not make perfect but it does make me a better writer) you can watch as I slowly back away, and then finally turn and run from an evangelical church that it was time to go from. I remember telling God I did not have the energy for church shopping, and God had BETTER give me a sign. That week Eastside Church put out their sign, Creative, Historic, Inclusive. That was all I needed. We were welcomed with open arms, I was affirmed in my gifts repeatedly, invited to preach, and then called from that church into the one I pastor now.

I know that most people in my generation do it, but I can’t imagine my life without a church. Even if I am all too familiar with the church breaking your heart. I left evangelicalism because as I grew and changed there wasn’t space for me anymore. Wasn’t space for a woman called to preach or a person convinced her LGBTQ friends weren’t sinning just for being whole. I was broken hearted by a church excited by my gifts but asking me to tuck parts of myself away as to not be so divisive And then, it happened again. The UMC voted (however closely) to exclude LGBTQ clergy and punish those of us who are affirming. The logical part of me knows that those who are telling me to wait for the judicial council, for the 2020 General Conference are the cooler heads that should prevail. But I am just. so. sad.

I showed up into the big tent called Methodism because it seemed like there was so much room. Room for my more conservative family who I still deeply respect in religious matters, my own growing liberal leanings, and my LGBTQ friends. I discovered that there was not enough room. I was faced with the reality that I yet again built a home in a place that my not want to welcome all of me, that there are those looking to make this tent much smaller.

I don’t know what is going to happen with the UMC. I am still faithfully pursuing ordination because I believe it is what I am called to do. But I am back in the wilderness again, the space where I am seeking and crying out. The space where I am depending on God for water, and manna, and my next right step. I only can go a little bit at a time and it all looks unfamiliar, and familiar simultaneously. It is the wilderness, yes. But I have been here before.

Last week I preached on the temptation of Jesus. I noticed, for the first time, that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. I think sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us into the wilderness too. Not because we are bad, or wrong or need corrected, not because we have strayed from God, but simply because it is time. It is time for us to go into the wilderness once again.

After all, in the wilderness we re-discover God.