Our dear friend Erin Smallwood Wathen is back for another gorgeous essay about life, faith, and family. As I prep for the holidays, realizing that I sure would like a new Dutch oven in which to cook Thanksgiving dinner and that I don't quite know where I'll put all of my Christmas trees, Erin's wise words certainly hit home. As always, you can follow along with Erin's blog Irreverin or on her Facebook page. -- HCW

The calendar says it’s Thanksgiving week, and the stores say it’s Christmas already…but what I’m thinking of at the moment is Halloween. Halloween 2 years ago, to be exact.

I followed a sparkly red lady bug and a plush green dragon down the street.

Nevermind it was October 31. It was about 100 degrees outside, and the plush, fuzzy, cozy costume—which would have been just swell in some chilly autumn Midwestern burrow—was utterly ridiculous in the desert. But dang, he was adorable.

We’d just moved from one desert suburb to another… just a few miles apart, but worlds away. The place we’d been the previous year—with a two-year-old witch and a newborn, who went dressed as a newborn—had proved a little disappointing on Halloween. We only knocked on about 8 doors, and of those, only two actually opened and produced candy.

We were in a new neighborhood, expecting more of the same non-Hallow-happenings. But nossir, on our new block, trick-or-treat was an EVENT. We had a potluck on the cul-de-sac, took group pics of the kids, and then went trick-or-treating en masse. Our group had about 8 kids and twice as many parents. And every street we went down, we encountered another mob of kids and their chaperones. Nearly every house was decorated, every porch light on, every resident proffering a giant bowl of tiny treats.

About 12 houses in, my furry monster was burning up, and both of their buckets were full. The little lady bug could no longer carry her load, and I was picking up the trail of M&M packets accumulating behind her. I announced that, since the buckets were full, we were calling it a night.

That’s when one of the other moms said, “oh, this always happens, so we come prepared.” And she pulled out a handful of empty plastic grocery bags and started handing them around.

So…we did another block of houses.

Don’t get me wrong. It was great fun. And I like digging through the buckets, post-bedtime, and hijacking all the Snickers as much as the next mom. But, come on…at some point, you’ve got to acknowledge that the daggone bucket is FULL, and go home already.

This fear of ‘not enough’ whispers anxiety in our ear at every turn. It is the real goblin that haunts us, all the year around; maybe, even especially, into the holiday season. It snatches our happiest moments from us and fills us with dread. Sometimes, it even tries to take hold of our children.

Maybe I should explain a bit about why our old neighborhood was such a –pardon me—ghost town, the year before. It was 2010. And in Phoenix—one of the hardest hit housing markets in the country– that meant that every third house on the block was in foreclosure, pre-foreclosure, short sale process, or just plain empty. That’s why we, along with half the city, found ourselves in a different house the following year.

I couldn’t help but feel that, had the big banks just gone home when their daggone bucket was full, there would not have been quite such an exodus situation. But…the mythic voice of scarcity just keeps pulling at people. And really, the more you have, the more vulnerable you are to the voice that keeps whispering “you need more.”  In very real ways, investors gambled with real people’s livelihood and equity. Eventually, the handle on that bucket broke, and every last gumball rolled out into the street. That was 2008, of course.

Some of us are just coming back, while the big kids who broke the buckets went home with extra treat bags.

Ok, that metaphor has played out. Sorry.

Still, when I think about what it means to practice gratitude, I think of trick-or-treating with young kids, and teaching them to say ‘enough,’ even as the world says, ‘here’s an extra bag so you can carry more stuff.’ That was an important transitional time in our lives, and I learned a lot about simply breathing it all in, and being grateful for what is.  Now that I’m in transition again—from one church call to another; from the desert to the prairie; from parenting babies to parenting big(ish) kids— it all seems like a timely liturgy of thanksgiving.

On that Halloween night, 2 years ago, I hauled a loaded bucket, a full-to-breaking plastic bag, and an exhausted toddler home. I was grateful for my new neighborhood; for doors that actually opened in welcome, for a roof over my family’s head, for healthy kids who could eat candy…and for these fleeting years of glitter and wings and magic.

Out of the overflow, I handed my kid two pieces of candy and I said,

Repeat after me: this is enough. This is all we need.

Enjoying the Season

Here in Kentucky, we're getting ready for the bumper crop of tomatoes that summer inevitably brings. Over in Arizona, Erin is reflecting on tomatoes, parenting, and spiritual growth. You can read more of Erin's unique blend of sassiness and faith on her blog, Facebook page, and Twitter.

It’s fixin' to be June in Phoenix. Lord help us…

Some of you know that I’m kind of a snob about tomatoes. I mean, I LOVE tomatoes…But by "tomato," I do not mean those things that come out of a California hot house in January. That is NOT a tomato. A tomato comes from Mamaw’s garden. You go get it right before dinner, you rinse off the dirt, and you slice it up to top the burgers.

I can rhapsodize about a real tomato all day long—and the perfect BLT that I make when, on the rarest of occasions, I can lay hands on an actual tomato in the desert. My 4-year-old daughter loves tomatoes, too. In fact, she frequently asks for them at the grocery store. I usually say, "no, it’s not time for tomatoes." Which, 9/10ths of the time, is the dang truth.

So when she spied some on the kitchen counter recently, she said excitedly, "Is it TIME for tomatoes??!" And when I said yes, she proceeded to eat one whole, on the spot. “I want to eat tomatoes with things for like, a WEEK," she said. (As everyone knows, a WEEK, in 4-year-old time, is an eternity…)

Was it a real, Kentucky-grown, July garden tomato? Nah. But it was not too shabby for Arizona. It made a decent BLT.

Thing is, for all my vigilance in the seasonal produce department, I often forget that other things have seasons --and off-seasons-- too. Every year, in this May-to-June window, I say, “This is it. This is going to be the year when our summer worship attendance doesn’t fall off, and we will maintain all this momentum, and we will build programs, and nothing will slow down at all…And come August, it will be time to start TWO SERVICES!”

And yeah, every year, I make a liar of myself.

Thing is—it’s not such a bad thing to have times of year when things move a little more slowly. I think the key is to focus intention in these off-seasons. For instance--if we are planning a slower pace, an easier schedule, and a simpler rhythm during the summer months…what will we do with that time? What is our goal in slowing down? Are we doing less, so that the Spirit can do more in us? Or are we just getting lazy? Might seem like a fine line, but there is a difference.

The cluster of stories in the 10th chapter of Luke’s gospel—I call it the "Hear-do-be" trifecta—illustrates the seasonal truth of spiritual growth. The connected narratives of the Parable of the Sower, the Good Samaritan, and the Mary/Martha Moment, remind us that there is a right time for everything: there’s a time to hear God’s word and grow in it; there’s a time for DOING, and living out our faith in tangible ways; and, there’s a time to simply be…enjoying life in the presence of God and community.

It’s summer in Phoenix. It is a THOUSAND degrees in the shade. You can’t go outside. Lots of folks (smart folks) skip town, so regular church-as-we-know-it has to stop until September. Meanwhile, I am getting ready to move my family across the country…in September. Which is to say that NOTHING about my life feels seems to be in the normal rhythm right now.  Mentally, I am everywhere (Kentucky, Arizona, Kansas, and, somehow, the beach) while also being exactly nowhere.

So my goal, in this season of soul-crushing heat, and soul-challenging transition, is to enjoy that which is in season. To be fully present the life that is, right now. Because this season—even with its climate-related misery and life-related ambiguity—is a gift. The slower pace and the sacred space remind us that the Spirit’s timing is present, and right, in everything..

Even tomatoes.

Erin's Summer Reading List

Our friend Erin --who's moving to Jayhawk Country this fall -- is back with a list of great summer reads for y'all. Most of these are new to me, but I can tell you she's spot-on with her review of the Kingsolver novel, which I read a while back.  As always, you can keep up with Erin's sassy mix of religion, politics, parenting, and other things you shouldn't discuss at the dinner table on her blog, Irreverin, and on her Facebook page. -- HCW

I just read a book called The Orchardist that Amazon reader reviews assured me was wonderful!

It wasn’t. Actually…it was really wonderful until the last and then the ending just…wasn’t. To me, a story needs a good, round ending to make it worth the journey. When it doesn’t end right, I want those two weeks of my life back. Not to mention the $9.99 I paid for the download. (I’m looking at you, Gone Girl! Worst. Episode. Ever).

That said, here’s some other stuff that I’ve read lately and/or am reading this summer. With high hopes for better endings, here goes:

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. Sure, it gets a little preachy about climate change. And ok, there’s this section about 3 quarters of the way through that REALLY drags. But I still found it worth the read. If nothing else, cause it was like a trip home to Appalachia. And much cheaper than a plane ticket.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich. Full disclosure, I didn’t love the ending of this one either. But, the rest of it was SO dang good, it was still worth the trip. Just be prepared to wish there were a few more pages. And, if you like it, go back and read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called.) It’s about the same reservation community, about two generations earlier. Not much direct cross-over, but some of the same names and places are mentioned. Also, it’s just a fabulous story. Woman disguises herself as a dead priest and proceeds to perform mass on the res for 50 years, without anyone knowing she’s not a dude? Awesome.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess!) Fair warning: do not read this with other people in the room. You will embarrass yourself by laughing out loud. I literally—literally—hurt myself one night, because my family was all sleeping and I didn’t want to wake them with my hysterics. I like, tore something in my throat. It hurt so good…

For something TOTALLY different: The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Petersen. In the midst of sharing sad news with one church and celebrating with another—all while planning a cross-country move with two young children—it’s a blessed reminder that I’m on a spiritual journey here. And, that the world’s definitions of ‘pastor’ are not the boss of me. Good stuff.

My husband downloaded Ready Player One (Ernest Cline) and then stole my kindle for a week. Since it’s basically the first book he’s read since the last Harry Potter, I figure it must be pretty great. Sounds like the Hunger Games, but for dudes and techies. I’m neither, but imma read it anyway.

My friend Stephanie said I had to drop whatever else I might be reading and start The Fault in Our Stars (John Green). I read the first few pages last night, and am already in love with the heroine, Hazel. I’m pretty sure she’s going to die, but hey—I’m into books with crummy endings, right?

And besides—death does not always make a bad end. Sometimes, dying is much better than just wandering away…

Happy page-turning, folks. Let me know if there’s something I’m not reading, but should be!

Seven Things Your Wedding Minister Thinks (but Doesn't Say)

June, as we all know, is the traditional "wedding month." Our sweet friend Erin, whom you may recall as the Kentucky gal who preaches in the desert, and who learned it all from her days as a sorority rush chair, was kind enough to share a few words of advice for all our readers who may be walking down the aisle this month. As always, Erin's essay had me laughing and crying and just being so proud to claim her as my sorority sister and my friend. Y'all can find more of Erin's beautiful writing on her blog, Irreverin.-- HCW

Some Stuff the Minister is Thinking as you Plan your “Perfect Wedding”
Erin loved getting to marry her brother Chris...
1. We roll inward eyes a little when you say you want 1 Corinthians 13 read in the ceremony. Yes, love is patient, love is kind. We get it. But we have to actually SAY things in the service other than ‘do you take this man/woman, etc,’ and well…that little gem of scripture has done been said. It’s been said a lot. Give us something to work with, other than the magic of your love.

2. We die a little inside when we say, ‘the church will provide a wedding coordinator for the rehearsal,’ and you say, ‘oh, no, my mother’s going to do it!’ Trust us. That will not end well for anybody.

3. You are not going to shock us with your family drama. No matter how many crazy siblings, inappropriate uncles, or unconventional marriages you bring into the church, we have seen it all. Oh, and also? 9 out of 10 of us could care less if you are living together. And even if we did, we know you are lying when you talk about ‘my apartment.’

...and her other brother Chris!
4. No, you cannot take down the purple Advent décor in the sanctuary and replace it with red and green stuff that ‘matches the dresses.’ Baby Jesus doesn’t care ‘what it looks like in the pictures.’ You want a church wedding? This is a church.
5. If your cousin ‘who’s a preacher’ insists on reading something from Genesis, we get to approve which translation he’s packing.

6. We triple dog dare you to question our fee. If you do, we will ask you how much you are paying the caterer, the band, the wedding planner, the hairdresser, the bartender; and then we will gently remind you that while our services are the cheapest of any of these, we went to more school, and spent way more time planning for your perfect day.  Grace is free, but our time isn’t. Also—eye rolling and inward groaning aside—from this day forward, til death do you part, we are invested in your marriage. We want it to succeed, and that’s why we’re blessing it. I don’t think the bass player feels the same way about the sanctity of this whole business.

7. And finally, as you plan that perfect day, remember that:

“Perfect” is a dangerous word. For life in general, and for marriage in particular. Chances are, if you have unrealistic expectations of this day, you likely have some unrealistic expectations about marriage, as well.  Expect that there will be a big family meltdown, a major hair malfunction, and/or something in the neighborhood of a bird flying into the sanctuary and dropping an unwanted gift on your grandma’s corsage. Likewise, accept that you will gain a few pounds over the next 50 years, and so will your spouse; you will fight, you will lose money, you will face disappointment—possibly in each other. Life will get messy, and even the most perfect-est, magazine-worthy, color-coordinated and professionally choreographed wedding in the world will not keep that from happening.

So put down that Southern Living wedding edition, step the ^!%* AWAY from Pinterest, and get ready to actually BE married. For better, or for worse. If you go into your special, perfect day in full awareness of all the ways that the wheels can come off, then you will actually have FUN at your own wedding. You will see every little hitch and hiccup as a welcome and introduction to the full, joyful, and unpredictable life you are about to enter, with the person who is your soul’s delight.  Their shoes will not always match you hair accessories… in fact, unless you are getting married in high school (please, don’t) and you still have prom to look forward to (just, please, no) then your attire will probably never match again. And yet… a life shared in love—in all its sacred messiness—is so much better than even the most ‘perfect’ day you can imagine.

Because ultimately—even if we can’t read it without rolling our eyes a little—love gives you life. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.

Love endures all things. Even the perfect blush and bashful wedding.

Love never ends. 

Everything I Really Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned as a Sorority Rush Chair.

HerKentucky is thrilled to welcome Erin Smallwood Wathen for another brilliant post! I first met Erin when we were sorority sisters at Transylvania; I love this beautiful essay on how our Phi Mu days prepared her for her work in the ministry! -- HCW

I used to want to be a dancer. Preferably on Broadway. I wanted to be an English teacher. I wanted to be the boss of a newspaper or magazine. I wanted to write children’s books. I dabbled in the idea of sociology, and had a brief affair—you know, college experimentation—with what life might be like in the non-profit world.

But never in 800 years would it have occurred to my pre-adulthood self that, “Hey, I’m going to be a preacher!”

Yeah, God’s got a sense of humor like that. This calling sneaked up on me like an April snow in Kentucky—you know it can happen, but you never quite let yourself read the signs, you know? Anyway…I spent my youth, and even my college career, utterly oblivious to the signs that I was headed for a life in ministry.  And yet, I was being shaped for this calling at every moment along the way.

I look around at my life every now and then and say, you know, I really caught a glimpse of this pastor gig when I was teaching dance. Or waiting tables. Or when I found my first real soul friend in 7th grade. Or sitting on the porch with my Mamaw. Or reading the first few books that really blew the top off the world.
Growing up Kentucky, I learned the sacred nature of hospitality, especially where food is involved; I developed a sense of place, and a love of the vernacular; I valued music, art and literature that is engaging, authentic, and unfussy; and really, I just took in the truth that air, soil, and even the moisture in the air smacks of something holy. Every breath of the place—making me ready for this time in my life, whether I knew it or not.

And while it may not sound as spiritual as, say, tobacco hanging in a barn or good bluegrass music or real fried chicken: everything I really needed to know about ministry, I learned as a sorority rush chair.

1. If it fits on a t-shirt, it’s probably not that important. But
2. matching tshirts are still important, in a philosophical sort of way.
3. Fake it til you make it. The appearance of a growing organization will actually evolve into a growing organization.
4. Sleep deprivation is a bonding experience. (Rush week=mission trip, church camp, leadership retreat, Holy week, etc)
5. A beautiful, welcoming space is not an extravagance; it is hospitality.
6. Singing loudly is more important than singing well.
7. Manners, manners, manners.
8. Put the pretty people in front.
9. We’re all pretty people.
10. As long as there’s food, people are happy.
11. The more important a ritual is supposed to be, the more likely you are to laugh at inappropriate times.
11.5. Laughter=also a sacred ritual.
12. Voting people out will always come back to haunt you.

There are no big moments, small moments, or waiting spaces. There is no downtime, and there is no endgame. It is all the perfect, winding way of grace, and it will always take us somewhere good, eventually…Someplace where the grass is blue, the people are real, and ‘fried’ is not a 4-letter word.

You can read more from Erin on her blog, Irreverin, and her Facebook page.

Can I Get a Y'all-alujah?

 HerKentucky is thrilled to welcome our newest contributor -- my friend and sorority sister Erin Smallwood Wathen. Erin is a London, KY native and an alumna of Transylvania University and Lexington Theological Seminary. Erin and her husband live in Arizona with their two small children and their dog named Van Halen. Erin is the Senior Pastor of Foothills Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in north Phoenix. Erin's  blog, Irreverin (Facebook her here) is featured as part of  the Progressive Christian Network on Patheos; her reflections on faith, family and pop culture always keep me entertained! -- HCW

I live in the midst of an amazing desert landscape. Trails from my backyard lead into the foothills of the Sonoran Mountains. Their silhouette defines the north horizon, and depending on season and time of day, they range in color from blue to brown to green, sometimes even pink. The giant saguaro cacti lift their hands in praise each morning. Most days of the year, the sky shimmers an aching, iridescent blue that your eyes can scarcely take in. It provides a backdrop for the twice daily hot air balloon shows that we enjoy from our patio. Meanwhile, the sacred smell of the scarce rain defies description. And don’t get me started on our rainbows.  Like God got a new set of magic markers and took up the spirit of a 3-year-old for the day. 

And the moon and stars that live over my house? I’m sorry, but they’re better than yours. They really are.

All this is true.  But y’all…some days I need some green grass so badly that I almost wish I played golf. (out here in PGA land, they somehow manage to find water enough for rainforest-like turf, even in the dead-ass middle of summer). Some days, I want to see fall color so badly that my family will pile in the car and drive two hours north. Some days, I want to order a biscuit and know that it did not come from the freezer. Some days, I need to say ‘y’all’ and not have it be a thing. You know?

Of course you know. You are Kentucky women. You know what it is to love a place and have it be a part of you. You might even know what it is to leave such a place. And if you know what it is to leave, then you also know what it means to take it with you.

There is, of course, much that I miss about my old Kentucky home. Beyond the biscuits and the four distinct seasons, I also miss a world in which people know (and care about) their neighbors. And I certainly miss life where people know what’s what about a certain spirit that comes from a barrel. True story: my husband and I were in a nice restaurant and we asked our server for the top shelf bourbon selection. And—I swear to God, ladies—he tried to offer us a ‘wonderful Crown Royal blend…’ (sigh). We had to learn him something about bourbon right then and there. But at least we tip well…

ANYway…I miss the place on the map where such things need not be explained. But what I’ve found in my wilderness wandering years is this: for all that I miss and even mourn about my homescape, most of what really matters is that which I’ve brought with me. And I don’t just mean an old Southern Living cook book and my grandmother’s end tables. I don’t even mean the ‘y’all’ that occasionally comes from my pulpit—unbidden and unplanned as though brought forth by the Holy Spirit. 

While my literal Kentucky accent has certainly rolled with me for this whole journey, what I really brought with me was a certain kind of voice. It is a voice that you can hear in my preaching, in my writing, and in my everyday encounters. It bears a ‘charm and disarm’ quality that allows me to say things preachers can’t always say (like, ‘yes, Jesus loves gay people. And in fact, if the church had more of them, we would have better decorations and better music—choreography, even!). It also tells the world that I’ve got just enough redneck lurking right beneath the surface, so perhaps you don’t want to mess with me.
It’s a voice that speaks the truth even when the truth is not pretty—and while I know many prophetic preachers and powerful parents who can speak the truth in love, my brand of gospel is uniquely Kentucky. It bears the tones of Wendell Berry and Loretta Lynn, echoes of Silas House and my own grandparents. And I’m pretty sure that, like Moses, I had to leave home and head out to the wilderness in order to really hear it. 

On my frequent sojourns in the desert, I take in the stark beauty of this landscape. For all its barrenness, it is a stunning and deeply spiritual place. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I brought that wilderness voice with me. It keeps me rooted for the roaming, and calls me to speak, to preach, to write the world’s truth, as it was and is to come. It is a gospel that both moves and shapes me; it grounds me and keeps me moving, all at the same time. And you’d better believe, that good news is for not just some of us, but for y’all.