Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand…

…make this world a better place, if you can!

The New Year 2018 began and decided for some reason not to bring Larry Robinson along– at least not on “this side” of the journey.  Larry passed away on January 1 from a sudden heart attack.

Larry had been a member of Pilgrim for many years, and there are plenty of folks who knew him better and loved him longer than I…

But know him and love him I did.  Oh, how I loved Larry.

He called me Pastor.  He always hugged me when he walked by.  He knew my favorite song, and would sing it just for me.  He had a voice that all of us treasured, but he never made a fuss about it or acted difficult about singing.  He was the definition of grace.

One Sunday he sang a song that took me over the moon and back again.  “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand…”  He walked the aisles and touched hands as he sang.  It was glorious.  I asked him to sing that song again a few weeks later when I was officially installed at Pilgrim UCC.

He sang it, and smiled at me and made me feel like he was singing “just for me because I was special.”  And the amazing thing about Larry is that I think he made everyone else feel that way too– at the same time!  THAT was his gift!

Thoughts on Pride from a Straight, White, Cis-Gender Clergy Woman

June is Pride Month! My pride tee shirt is on its way! Two of them, actually! I couldn’t pick just one. No worries, I’ll be sure to post some pics once they arrive!

What to share about Pride Month? What on earth do I have to add–if anything– to the conversation? Here are the few cents I humbly add:

As a woman in a male-dominated profession, I understand what it means to have power and privilege. It’s not a “problem” to have power or privilege, the real challenge, though, is how we use what we are given to effect change in the world. I choose to use what power and privilege I have as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual woman clergy to say:

  • I affirm all people, all genders and sexualities, in their God-created wonderfulness.
  • I respect all humans in their rights to live with integrity and honesty.
  • I honor the great diversity of humanity in gender and sexuality, and believe the glorious rainbow of humans is PROOF of the power of our Creator-Artist-Poet God.

While all humans have the capacity to understand and offer hospitality, I believe that because of their unique experiences, LGBTQ+ people can be especially gifted in this deeply spiritual and biblical practice. Following the example of Jesus himself, they join other folks on the margins, standing with their arms open-wide, to offer grace and welcome to those pushed aside by mainstream society.

Lastly, in a world where such a beautiful thing as family can be so broken and dysfunctional, the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed the word and redefined the concept in a powerful way that has seeped back into all aspects of our larger culture. Of course I know folks have been making “families of choice” rather than “blood” since the beginning of time, but to ignore the contribution of the LBGTQ+ community here would be to deny their unique offering to the concept, and the freedom and healing it has offered to so many broken and rejected people. Sharing my own family with gay and lesbian friends, and being welcomed into others’ families as surrogate mom or sister is not only a privilege, but is so healing and empowering to me, my husband and my kids.

When my own journey took me down the path of interracial love and marriage, and I faced rejection and judgment from my family, the people who picked me up, held my hand when I cried, and listened to my story were my gay and lesbian friends. “We’ve been there,” they told me. When my family used phrases like “you chose this” and “how could you shame us this way,” my gay and lesbian friends not only cared about me, but they UNDERSTOOD me because they had shared the same pain, even more so than I in most cases.

At times when I didn’t have blood family to rely on, LGBTQ+ friends claimed me and Allen as their own. They welcomed us and affirmed us, they cared for us and shared in our heartache and laughter.

I only hope that in my efforts to be an ally now, I can repay a portion of their kindness and love. This month, and all the months, I stand humbly and proudly alongside you and offer my support, gratitude and love.

Twenty Years of Preparation, Part 2

29496747_10213784597221913_6685827013879529472_nThis part of the story should be subtitled, “My Mom Life.”  Because for 12 years, in another of those neat little boxes in my mind, I put all of my experiences in raising my son Aaron, diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and a developmental disability.  For most of my career, while I am happy to share stories about the joy Aaron brings to our lives, I’ve kept the tough parts about our journey to myself.

I guess I’ve always seen those tough parts as what Allen and I share as Aaron’s parents, and somehow in my mind I’ve separated it from my life as a minister.  Schlepping Aaron around from doctor to doctor, to see therapists and specialists, to be evaluated and poked and prodded… Carting him each week to music therapy, each month for med checks… those are things I do gratefully as Aaron’s mom.

Before I go any further, I must stop and do a total “mom thing.”  I mentioned before Aaron is an awesome kid, but did I mention that he is also amazing, hilarious and super-cute? He loves to sing, he’s in love with a girl named Esther, he’s acquiring a great little sense of humor, and he loves riding his bike.  No doubt, he is a gift from God to the life of our family, and even Mark thinks he’s a pretty awesome big brother.

Here’s an Aaron-joke:  What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish?  You can’t TUNA fish!

OK, ’nuff bragging… back to the story:

I have always played our struggles with Aaron fairly close to the vest.  I suppose it’s my “issue,” but I have never wanted it to seem as if Aaron is a burden, because he isn’t.  Or that he’s more difficult than any other child, because he isn’t.  Truly, raising Aaron is about as easy and as challenging as raising our other son.  I have felt very protective not to over-share about Aaron in order to get sympathy or attention, and have often erred on the side of under-sharing.

And I’ve never really integrated my life as a minister with my mom life, until recently.  When I came to my new call at Pilgrim UCC, I discovered Allen and I weren’t the only family raising a child on the autism spectrum, nor were we the only family that included someone with a disability.  In fact, as we share our journey with this congregation, that particular bond is not only a strong one, but an incredibly common one.

We share the privilege of raising a child on the spectrum with several families at our church.  And since coming to Pilgrim, I have found a colleague who shares a similar journey.  More and more, I  have “coming out” as a parent raising a child on the spectrum, and a parent of a child with a disability, and instead of finding pity (which I feared), I have found strength, friendship, encouragement, wisdom, and love!  

My chaplain friends’ ears might perk up at the word “pity.”  And that would certainly be a wise thing to do.  Whose pity might I be fearful of?  Other people’s or my own?  Since I’m doing these posts for the purpose of examining my own call journey, I’ll address that question separately to give it the honesty it deserves.

Needless to say, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually integrating parts of my life that I had foolishly and intentionally kept separate has opened a whole new playing field for God to work in my life, my church and my ministry. 

Twenty Years of Preparation, Part 1

My first job out of seminary was the first place that hired me so I could pay the bills and live on my own in New York City.  I ended up working as an admin at Barnard College in the Office of Disability Services.  I worked with a passionate disability advocate named Susan Quinby, and learned an incredible amount not only from her, but also the students I interacted with each day.

Working at Barnard gave me the experience to move to my next job, an Assistant Editor at the John Milton Society for the Blind.  It was an organization started by Helen Keller to provide religious resources for the blind and visually impaired.  While there, I edited a digest magazine for children that was published in Braille, and put together a fairly exhaustive large print publication that was a resource of religious materials– everything from Bibles in large print and cassette (it was a long time ago!) to audio versions of Sunday School lessons for various denominations.

By the time I got to the JMS, I was already deep into defining my calling to ministry and completing my requirements for ordination in the United Church of Christ.  When I left the JMS to go back to seminary to take a few classes, I packed away all my experience working with people who have disabilities and disability advocacy into a box labeled “Not Relevant for Ministry,” and shoved it into the back of my mind.

While I always had opinions about accessibility in church council meetings, I really and truly let that box of experience collect dust in the back of my mind for many years.  Not even as my own child was diagnosed with autism did I connect those past experiences.

What about my son?  Aaron brought an entirely new dimension not only to my life (he’s a pretty awesome kid!), but also a whole new level to my denial of what God has been putting right in front of me for twenty years!  

Story to be continued…

Words for Lent

I decided to be more intentional about Lent this year.  In a sense, to “practice what I preach.”  Each year I tell my congregation this is a time to work on one’s spiritual life or consider one’s relationship with God.

So, that is exactly what I am attempting to do this season.  I am reading a book that’s been on my shelf forever, one I always “intended” to look at.  It’s called Holy Adventure by Bruce Epperly.  I’m taking time out– or trying to– each day to think about my relationship with God and ask questions prayerfully about where I’m headed and what I’m called to do.

And I’ve been keeping a list of words that challenge me, words that seem to speak to what’s happening in my heart and soul and brain right now.  Words.  I love words.  These are all verbs, or intended to be understood in their active sense.  I offer them to you all as a challenge for prayer or contemplation or journaling.  There are 40 of them, one for each of the days of this season.

  1. Welcome
  2. Trust
  3. Transform
  4. Stretch
  5. Serve
  6. Repent
  7. Weave
  8. Release
  9. Praise
  10. Choose
  11. Emerge
  12. Rejoice
  13. Experience
  14. Refrain
  15. Pray
  16. Pause
  17. Partner
  18. Engage
  19. Encourage
  20. Reflect
  21. Embrace
  22. Create
  23. Connect
  24. Celebrate
  25. Begin
  26. Affirm
  27. Claim
  28. Act
  29. Offer
  30. Notice
  31. Invite
  32. Inspire
  33. Lavish
  34. Imagine
  35. Hope
  36. Forgive
  37. Feast
  38. Fast
  39. Expand
  40. Examine

Ashes for Lent

Palms to AshesThis year, I decided to introduce my youth to Lent.  We gathered last Friday night, and ate pizza and talked about Mardi Gras.  I had some beads and masks and coins to pass around.  Then we moved into talking about Lent.  I like to talk about how it is the journey of looking seriously at our spiritual lives as we move toward Easter.

We’ve talked before before about the cycle of God’s time.  God’s time isn’t like ours which moves forward in a line.  God’s time moves in a cycle– with Jesus’ life at the center.  So the palms we waved last Holy Week become dry and brittle and we burn them the next year at Ash Wednesday.  We mix them with oil of healing and water of baptism, and mark our foreheads with a cross.  It means we understand that God made us, and to God we will return one day.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It means we are frail and human, but our souls and spirits are God-breathed.  We exist because God love us.

On Sunday, the children’s storyteller spoke to the little ones about Lent, using the images of “feasting and fasting.”  I mentioned that I had a bowl of ashes and could show them after service.  There were several curious folks after church, young and not-so-young.  Sadie and Tess got crosses on their foreheads.  For Aaron, I made the sign on his hand.

With my congregation, slowly we move toward this ancient ritual.  Many of them are unaccustomed, yet at every opportunity, I try to imbue it with meaning.  And the journey for me has been wonderful.

Looking forward to Lent 2018

lentJanuary was a rough month for me and my family.  My first day back after the holidays, I received news that a beloved congregation member passed away.  Another member was called home just a few weeks later.  I was called to do another funeral for a family in need, and a good friend’s dad passed away.  In between all those events, my husband got the flu, and my two sons and I struggled with a stomach bug that didn’t seem to want to end.

I was happy to greet February, even if it has been cold and wet.  The underdogs won the SuperBowl, but football has been exposed as so dangerous, many former fans now watch with guilt, or don’t watch at all anymore.  More winter is coming.  And then… Lent will begin on Valentine’s Day.

Yay? Truthfully, I’m not sure.  Many of my pastor friends have made a great deal of Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day and Easter happening on April 1st.  Themes and wordplay on “being fools for love” have abounded on my Facebook feed.

I’m just not sure it matters to me that my holy season falls in between secular “holidays”– although April Fools’ Day is not a holiday in my mind, and Valentine’s Day is… iffy.**

Now, Lent.  How about it?  I grew up in a non-liturgical denomination, and for almost half of my life, the only people I knew who had ashes on their foreheads were Catholic.

Thankfully, one year in seminary, my friend Felipe dragged me to an Ash Wednesday worship service in the chapel.  Rev. Annie Ruth Powell was there, and when it came time to smudge our foreheads, Felipe pushed me along.  Annie Ruth took my hands, and told me that I was a child of God who came from the earth.  From dust.  She smudged my forehead and told me it should remind me of my humanity and my connection to the Earth AND to God, my Creator.  It was an incredible profound moment.  I felt so human and so divine in that moment.  To put it bluntly, I was sold on the holy day, the ashes, Lent– all of it.

I also recall how as soon as service was over, Felipe yanked my arm, spun me around, and wiped off my ashes as I protested.  I didn’t want the feeling I’d had in that chapel to end, but Felipe said, “No way, Jennifer.  We’re going to lunch.”

As unwilling as I was to have my reverie ended, there was wisdom in his actions as well.  What do the common readings of Ash Wednesday remind us?  They remind us that during this season where many Christians get “extra observant” or “extra spiritual” we are actually NOT supposed to make a big deal of our practices.  We aren’t to be showy or flashy about fasting or praying, but rather keep it in private between God and ourselves.

Instead of looking at Lent as a time to give up chocolate or meat or cursing, or even as a time to “take something on” like more service or generosity, I have come to value it as a time to work on my spiritual life.

Does my spiritual life need work?  Oh yes.  Of course.  Always.

I currently serve a church that isn’t all that “big” on Lent.  No Ash Wednesday service– yet.  No Pancake Supper on Shrove Tuesday– yet.  A fairly paired-down Holy Week.  No weekly Soup Suppers with scripture and discussion– yet.

Why do I say yet?  Well, from my experiences as both a non-observer and an observer, I can honestly attest to the merit of this time set apart in my spiritual life.  I’m not so disciplined on my own, which is why I have always appreciated the practice of Lent in community.

But… as a way of helping my community become more familiar with Lent, I am going to observe and reflect and share.  I hope you will, too.

Here is a wonderful article in a similar vein, making a case for observing Lent.  I think it is a helpful place to begin.

I’ll see you all on the Journey.


**Not that I don’t love Love.  I usually find a day to “squeeze” it in as a sermon topic sometime in February.  Love is important.  But romance and flowers?  They limit our understanding of love and really, in my life, have very little to do with all the things and people I love.  Most years, I make a family dinner– which I call a Love Feast– for my boys (of all ages.)




Fresh Year, Fresh Ideas

Christmas Break for our family meant everybody was off their “focus meds.” (We *all* have some level of ADHD).  I discovered that also means being around children who talk and move endlessly, and while it does grate on my nerves at times, it also unleashes my own creativity and energy!  And that’s always a good thing!

For me, creativity means looking at my life and my calling and reflecting about how I can enter my THIRD YEAR (can you believe it’s been that long!) at my current call with renewed spirit and energy.  I began my journey at Pilgrim UCC on Epiphany 2015, and it has been a wonderful journey indeed.

Many ideas and thoughts have come through my mind, and I realize that I have to “get them down” before they fade in my aging brain!  So it’s time to write again.  It’s time to “blog” again.  It’s time for some Grits* and God-talk.  I’ll see you all on the journey!

*the grits are in the mail!

Eulogy for My Father

Pappaw's Garden by Mark Glover
Pappaw’s Garden by Mark Glover

Joe King Sowell: A Life Well-Lived

My dad was born in Robertson County Tennessee in 1938.  He was the 2nd of 12 children of Rex Sowell, a Greyhound bus mechanic, and his wife Grace Elizabeth.  As a child, we are told Dad loved hunting and fishing.  We know he went to kindergarten twice—when his older brother Earl went to school, Dad couldn’t bear to be parted from him—and threw such a fit, the school let them both come.

Dad joined the Navy when he was 17 years old that’s where he met Bob Sexton—on the USS Warsaw.  They started visiting Bob’s family in West Virginia together when Bob’s father when he was in the hospital with TB.  It didn’t take long for Bob’s family for become Joe’s own—by the time he was 22 Joe was asking permission to marry Bob’s younger sister Sue.  In 1960, they were married.

Two years later, William Mark came along.  Dad was in the military until 1966 and he and Mom settled in Norfolk, VA.  He worked for a company called General Finance—and over the next few years, they transferred him from Norfolk to Louisville, KY to Richmond, VA and then finally to Newport News.  Mom and Dad bought the house they live in today.  When I was born in 1974, Dad came home and asked Mom if she needed any vacuuming or cleaning done—he’d quit his job.

It only took a few weeks for him to enroll in Painter’s School—and he began a career working at Shaw Paint and Wallpaper Company in Hampton.  Dad worked there for more than 30 years—faithful and rarely ever taking a day off or vacation.

That’s what I remember most about my dad—what a hard worker he was.  Coming home every night spotted in paint from head to toe or covered in some kind of dust from sandblasting.  The kind of work where you had to shower and change before you could sit at the supper table.  That was my dad.

Dad showed his love by taking care of you—he took care of Mom’s Mom and Dad, Granny and Pappaw Sexton as if they were his own family.  He fixed things, he painted, he quietly took care of stuff.  Mom’s family always loved him like there was no such thing as “in-law.”  He was just son and brother.

I think Dad truly enjoyed being a grandfather—my kids call him Pappaw, but the oldest ones, Zachary and Nicholas call him Papa.  I kind of always wanted to see a little Josephine in the family, but Mark and I both had boys.  Papa Joe just loved watching Mark’s boys grow up, and I know Mom has said how much he enjoyed both of you (Zachary and Nicholas) as you have grown into young men.

When my first son was born Mom came to stay with us, but when the second was born—Dad and Mom both came to Florida.  It looked almost odd watching Dad hold baby Mark, feeding him his bottle, changing his diaper and letting him fall asleep in his arms each night.  Mom said he never did that for us when we were babies.  But grandkids are different.

My boys are younger, so our memories are of Dad reading in his recliner with Aaron, taking the boys out to his garden and showing them the rabbits in the backyard.  Just this last Thanksgiving, when we were putting up our tree, I looked outside and Dad had my 9 year old Aaron using a saw by himself to cut the base.  Dad was always patient with the kids, he taught them how to do things—usually things I thought were too dangerous to teach them, like using saws or hammers or lawnmowers.

When I started writing this, I realize how hard this is to do:  how do you sum up someone’s life in a couple of pages?  You just can’t.  Words look flat and dry compared to a person like my dad.  He was dry and funny.  Every time our family would stand over a new baby, as nieces and nephews and grandchildren were born- and you have that moment when the family stands over them saying, “Oh, he’s got his mom’s this and his dad’s that…” My dad would always say, “She’s got my hair.”  Bald just like him.

Dad was a story teller—he always had an answer when you were wondering about stuff—and he kind of always left us wondering how he knew what he knew—or if he just made it up.  So many times—before you could just look something up on the internet—he’d tell me some story at the dinner table and I would be convinced it wasn’t true, “You’re making that up!” I’d say.  And Dad would just laugh at me, and we’d never know.

As I watched my dad show my sons how to do things, I found myself wishing I had listened more closely when I was a girl—my head was so far into books that I wasn’t always interested in the things Dad tried to show me—I was typically short-sighted, and of course the older I get that wiser my Dad and Mom have gotten.

As he got sick I think we all just tried to make him happy.  To do little things that gave him pleasure and comfort.  Buy his favorite coffee creamer.  Draw Pappaw a picture.  Watch the Gaithers with him.  Anything to make him smile.

My dad was a good man.  Honest, hardworking.  Not a man of many words.  I think he never understood why he got cancer, I think he felt it was unfair.  And it was.  He did everything he was supposed to do, just like he always did.  And with cancer, that didn’t matter.

Knowing he felt that way made this last week pretty tough.  But finally we could see he’d made peace with it, made peace with God.  It made all the difference.

Our family thanks all of you who have come to pay your respects to my dad—we’ve met co-workers we’d heard about for years, neighbors, family, friends… thank you all for being here, it really has touched us, especially my mom, to see everyone come out here.

Finally, I will share that I think of my dad as someone who took care of others, as someone who made things and built things.  I have thought all week of Jesus’ words from John—that there are many mansions or rooms in our Father’s house.  I think in the coming days all of those rooms are going to get a fresh coat of paint.

–Shared on March 8, 2016, Menchville Baptist Church, Newport News, VA