Saturday, February 17, 2018

We aren't meant to do this alone

Photo by Rebecca Siegel


January 2018, on a trip back to Maryland:
I’m sitting in friends’ living rooms, and we’re talking about Big Ideas: community and faithful living and hospitality and parenting.

Only, we aren’t just talking about ideas, because their fridge is full of homemade hazelnut milk and granola, their backyard has chickens and a garden, their guest room is occupied by an Ethiopian asylee, they are on the ground entering their kids’ world through some delicate balance of play and instruction, structure and freedom. These friends are imperfect yet living embodiments of the ideas; they are an invitation into an alternative way of being.

And as I drive back to my parents’ house that evening I’m thinking how something in me—some part of me that longs for this deep, hard work of faithful living—is awake.

It is, of course, not the first time that they have invited me in. These are the same people who were once roommates. Who taught me to bike to work by literally showing me the way, who taught me to garden by handing me a shovel and a fresh tomato, who taught me hospitality by letting in the Jehovah’s witnesses for a glass of water, who brought rhythms of community prayer and laughter to my life at a time I needed it.

I have been shaped by them and others like them.

*

It’s a point that sticks with me, especially this month, this year. Here we are: February now, the time when just about everyone has given up on those New Year’s diets and gym habits. And is it honestly any surprise? Trying to muscle change through on the strength of our individual will is, except in the rarest of cases, a futile effort.

A pointed example—we recently marked the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. And I think of all the chatter, the determination a year ago:

The morning after the election when my husband told me, “we might have to hide people in our home,” meaning immigrants in danger of deportation.

The pro-refugee rally we attended with a friend, and spent the whole drive back brainstorming an alert program that could notify people of an ICE raid, so that allies could flock to a home or business and put their bodies in the way, to block violence and dissolution of families.

The millions of desperate calls and letters I wrote—my senators on speed dial, calling once a week at first—determined to do something even though this didn’t feel quite like the something that could make any difference to anyone.

Now, it’s a year later and there is no one hiding in our home. There have been no recent rallies, and far fewer calls to legislators. Maybe I need to muscle up and push through. But if I’m honest, it’s not a different law I’m longing for, not a different governement that will bring the changes I seek, because it’s about spirit and community. It’s about something that has to be lived.

And by the sheer force of my own efforts, I just haven’t been able to keep up the energy.

*

When I talk about the need for community, this is not just a hippie commune idea. It’s the same reason monks live in monasteries, because who could pray the psalms all day long on their own strength? It’s the same reason we have AA or study groups or meetings for prayer or parenting. Because we are better in community.

Growing doesn’t come naturally. Most of the best changes in my life have been painful, like pruning. Which is why we need each other to become the people we want to be. God knows I do.

A Tanzanian host family taught me to give up my private “me-time” in exchange for the treasure of belonging over kerosene-lit dinners of ugali and greens—and my sense of family expanded. That first group house in Maryland inculcated in me the hard work and discipline it takes to bring about a garden and a daily practice of prayer—and I grew more open-hearted. My chaplaincy group this year has given me a devastatingly honest glimpse of myself and in the process taught me how to love better.

I’m grateful for all that. And now I’m longing for a new level of engagement. I felt something real and important last month as I saw the effect of one afternoon in Maryland, soaking in shared wisdom. I’m not sure exactly what this new engagement will look like, or who it will help me be. I don’t know if it means deepened engagement in a current community, or embarking on something new. And I don’t know if it will make climate change stop or save a single person still under threat of deportation or make me better at prayer or teach me to speak more gently when I’m tired.

One thing I do know is that there are a few characteristics all of these great communities in my life have in common:
-Some version--often explicit but sometimes implicit--of a covenant, a commitment to one another. For my group house, or the folks at a summer camp, it was written out. In chaplaincy, we negotiated our norms and expectations with one another.
-A shared vision or purpose. Neighborly life together. Deepened spiritual practices. Reducing our impact on the environment.
-Grace. For ourselves, and for each other, because it’s messy and we couldn’t get far without grace.

Commitment—vision—grace. All of this sounds an awful lot like church. What church could be, should be. Deeper than showing up on Sundays and abstract reflections on Bible passages. The vision that beckoned me to be a pastor.

I’m currently seeking a position as a pastor in a church. So it all comes together, somehow, and the hope and prayer is this: that I may be so lucky as to find myself in such a place of authenticity and growth. That I may have the discernment and courage to commit when the time and place is right. That I may play some part in helping to shape and be shaped by deep community.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Best of 2017


A slightly belated look back at (the good parts of) 2017.

THE BEST BOOKS
#5. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
An intriguing, lovely, sad tale of twins and their family saga across three continents.

#4. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris
Tackles the learning and re-learning of Christianity and its Big Words with the grace and dexterity of a poet. I love this exploration of why the ancient, oft-misunderstood words of faith remain relevant, and how one might rebuild a vocabulary of faith and spirit when so many of the words have been used to hurt.

#3. The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson
This book is part racial history of Durham—and reminds me how good it is to know the story of the place where you live (how many of us truly do?). And it is part story of the transformational relationship between a former KKK member and a black community organizer who came together on school integration and became the best of friends. A timely read.

#2. The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief by Jan Richardson
While I'm sure my interest and love of these poems is tied to chaplaincy, I don't think it's limited to that sphere. There are a lot of reasons for personal and public grief these days, and this poet's simple but profound words bring life and hope into the honest mess of grief. You can find many of her poems on her website, The Painted Prayerbook.

1. Long Division by Kiese Laymon
Best novel I've read in a long while. It's a coming-of-age story about race, language, time travel, and love. Per its own character's commentary, it's a book written lovingly for and about black youth, so that I often felt like I was overhearing someone else's story. It's a fascinating, lovely overhearing that breeds rich reflection and contains powerful themes for all of us.

THE BEST TV/VIDEO  (forgive my very unoriginal contributions here)
Honorable mentions:
Movies- Imitation Game, The Post
TV- Stranger Things

#2. This is Us
This is just good TV, people. Family systems in action.

#1. Moonlight
As usual I'm a year late on movies, but-- WOW. One of the most emotionally powerful and beautifully filmed movies I think I've ever seen.

BEST MOMENTS
#5. Living in Durham as a non-student
Durham is a sweet little city, and it's been such a wonderful fall to walk, run, eat, drink, explore, and enjoy life without papers and exams. I'm especially grateful for the amazing friends I've made here and who have stuck around, and for the ensuing camping trips, ballet excursions, book clubs and more.

#4. The events of September 8-17
Because in one single week plus a couple weekends, I hiked the glorious hills of Yosemite with my dear friend and then got to experience the equally wondrous treasures of Ocean City Bike Week with my high school ladies.

# 3. Graduating from school FOREVER
That's right everybody. I finished divinity school in May, and although people keep telling me never to say never, I'm being bold: I never plan to enroll in any degree-seeking program ever again. I have a love-hate relationship with school; although I love reading and writing and learning, my mental health doesn't do too well with the combination of grades/scrutiny plus a feeling of abstraction or disconnect from the "real world." I'm very grateful for the time I spent at Duke Divinity and all I learned, but I was so ready to be done and put this degree to work.

# 2. Duke Hospital Chaplaincy
I've written already about how grateful I am for the chaplaincy program in which I currently work. I'm grateful for the process, grateful for the co-workers, grateful for the learning, and most of all grateful for the beautiful patients and families who are willing to let a complete stranger into the intimate moments of their lives. I see God everyday in this work.

#1. Return to East Africa
I started off the year with perhaps the most beautiful moments of it—which is not to say there weren’t many more as the year progressed! For the first time since living in Tanzania in 2009, John and I returned to see old friends last Christmas. It was so good to catch up in the flesh, meet all the children who have come into the world since we were last there, and be amazed at the relationships that persist across time, distance, and difference. I then proceeded to Uganda to live life for a week with a dear friend in Kampala. Finally, I got to attend Duke’s Great Lakes Initiative conference and be absolutely blown away and inspired by the courage of reconciliation workers from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and others. Some people truly live out their faith even in the face of death, following the call to costly discipleship.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Therapy, part 2: seeds of growth

This is part 2 of 2. You can read the first half of this journey here.


Photo by Kate Ter Haar


On my first visit, I walked into my therapist's office sheepishly holding a filled-in PHQ-9, a commonly used depression screening. There had been a really bad week or two, but the last few days, things seemed more okay, so when I'd filled out the screening, I answered most of the questions from my okay state. Which meant: Did I really belong here? Would she give me a funny why are you here look?

I was lucky. She was kind and warm and immediately saw what I needed, saw what a long time coming this appointment had been. And she saw what seems obvious now, but what I couldn't see for a long time--that to want help is to need it. That regardless of PHQ-9 or diagnoses or medical coding, there was something deeper than I could control that was disrupting my life and relationships, preventing me from peace. And that was worth attending to.

From that day forward, she met me where I was, and that was enough.

She actually never told me how she diagnosed me. The diagnosis is not the point. Most of the time, I don’t think I meet the DSM criteria for depression or dysthymia. Or maybe I’m right on the line. If you read part 1, you might have noticed that the fog that has hit me so many times is not quite strong enough to get me flat on my back, or keep me there. You might notice that in seventh grade during the hurricane, apathy gave way to writing. You might notice that friends have at times been able to draw me out, that changing circumstances gave me hope at desperate times. 

Whatever semblance of depression or mood disorder I do have is still hard for me to claim, not because I'm ashamed but because I feel selfish to claim it. As I write all of this, part of me is apprehensive of overdramatization, knowing that my own mental health is mild compared with the struggles of many, and has certainly never been life-threatening.

But this is not about comparison. Each person's path to healing is her own. For me, the truth is that being functional, that having relatively mild and episodic symptoms, that being "less depressed" than others, that having no trauma to speak of—all these things have become excuses I make to myself for trudging on alone, for pretending I'm okay. In the end, no matter how well I can do the work and cook the dinner, no matter how many people fare better or worse than me, there is more wholeness and abundant life waiting if I am brave enough to get help.

*

Therapy, for me, has primarily been a journey in learning how to embrace and accept my feelings, rather than adding layer on layer of rationalization, apology, over-analysis, guilt, or control. It is important to say that to embrace or accept the feelings is not the same as embracing the injustices or sins that cause them. It is simply to be aware that to be alive can be sad and painful at times, and it is only human to let myself feel those things.

So I've been learning to lean in and explore the sadness, the pain, the loneliness.

There are times in my life that have been really, genuinely sad: My grandma died after a hard and beautiful year in and out of hospital and rehab. I’d poured my heart into being with her that year. As the weeks and months after her death passed by, I let myself cry. I did not put a timetable on my grief. I said no to social engagements when it seemed like they’d take too much energy. I was gentle and kind to myself in my grief. I somehow knew that there was nothing more I could have done for her. I knew that the grief was legitimate, real, something that had to be walked through.

More often, though, this is not how I respond to personal distress. If I feel lonely, I wonder about the ways it might be my fault. If I feel nostalgic about a distancing relationship, I think of how I might have tried more. If I feel anxious or angry, I push through and try to ignore it, until it builds up. That is, I’m usually not the best at being gentle and kind to myself.

The times I'm most upset look very similar. Sadness or failure rolls into self-shaming, and picks up speed as it heads down the hill. And then something or someone strikes that tender chord in me and suddenly I am shaking, crying the tears that are enough to make your chest quiver as you strive to catch your breath. I am thinking, I am not good enough. What if I am never good enough?

*

The first week of therapy, my therapist intuited much of this, I think. So she gave me a Self-Compassion Test. I failed. Okay, there’s no failure in therapy. I scored low.


Self-compassion, my therapist explained as I began to balk at any kind of self-care, self-love language (isn’t it against my religion to be selfish? am I good enough to deserve self-love?), is not about making excuses for yourself or trying to lower your standards. Self-compassion means that when you feel sad, you treat that sadness the way you would a friend’s sadness. You sit with it and listen to it and give it a pat on the shoulder; you don’t berate it. And after giving it plenty of time, you move on.

In other words, it is much more like the patience gave myself during that time of grief.

One week, as an exercise, my therapist gave me a sheet of paper called Loneliness. She asked me to act out my typical responses to loneliness. I can punch my loneliness square in the center, I can cower from it, I can crumple it in a ball and eat it, I can put it behind my back and pretend it’s not there, I can hang it in front of my face to further distance me from the world.

These are all the things I tend to do to complicate and increase my loneliness.

On the other hand, my therapist suggested, I can say to the lonely part of me, “You are doing the best you can.” I can pat it gently and let it stay at the table. I can fold it carefully and put it in my pocket, a persistent teacher in empathy and life in the world.

*

As I've slowly and fitfully learned to be more gentle with myself, I think it is even more slowly cascading out to the way I think about and treat others.

For example, as I look back on all the years and all the times I didn't get help, I see that I often and almost sub-consciously blamed my friends for my sadness. I have at times resented others for contributing to my isolation, or felt that if only I had more close friends, I would have been all right. The truth, of course, is that I have damn good friends in all the places I've lived, friends who have made me tea and picked me raspberries and called on my birthday and invited me to brunch or to live with them. The truth is that I have lived for the last five years with my best friend.

When I am sad and lonely, there is more going on beneath the surface, and it has not much at all to do with what deeper level of communion I desire or with adjusting to a new life phase or with moving from south to north or urban to rural or Africa to America. And it has everything to do with that kernel of thought I first remember thinking on a hotel bed in Colorado at thirteen, that I often don't like the me I inhabit, and that I have never known how to ask for help.

I see now that most of my life, help has only been a few moments away. And perhaps the more I grow, the more I will be able to extend compassion not only to my own feelings but to the many wonderful people in my life who are, just like me, not quite perfect but still ever so full of love and sincere effort.

All of this is progress, but all of it is slow. And it is really hard. There are so many times in therapy I've felt more like moving back instead of moving forward. I've had to entertain new ways of thinking that feel silly or sacrilegious . I've had to work harder than it seems one should have to work, often wondering if there is really hope for me after all since I will inevitably grow tired of the work, wondering if my previous sad but functional equilibrium is preferable to digging through so many layers of strange and awkward and painful. Even now I wonder with regularity, What if I never change? 

Perhaps I won't, or only a little. I've seen enough of humanity to know most of us move the needle only the tiniest bit throughout our lives. I will likely always wrestle with accepting grace, granting myself grace, believing deep down that God is grace.

But I know I'm gaining wisdom and perspective that will give me fuel for the wrestling.


*

This is what it has looked like for me, so far. I’m not fixed, and I still don’t think I’ll ever be good enough. I’m thankful now more than ever that God does not see me the way I see myself. And I’m thankful that the last few years have taught me to ask for help. Because as hard as it has been to stare down my weakness, it’s so much better than sitting alone in the dark.

Dear friends, I don’t think everyone needs therapy, but I do think we all need help sometimes. Whatever that looks like for you, I hope you will step into it when you need it, and keep reminding me to do the same.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Therapy, part 1: the times I didn't ask for help

Photo by Kristaps Bergfelds


I first recall the heaviness beginning to descend upon me fiercely the summer before eighth grade, on vacation in the Rockies with my parents and brother. The family reunion had been over for a couple days, and now the four of us were spending some time in the national parks. It was afternoon. We had come back from our hike, and dinner was not for another hour, and it all felt so underwhelming, so disappointing, so empty. I didn’t like the vacation or the food or the expectations or the loneliness or the ennui of summer, and most of all I didn’t like the me I inhabited.

A month later, a few weeks into school, the excitement of new classes and new friends and new activities beginning to wear off again, a hurricane rolled through Maryland that left us home from school for two days. Soccer was cancelled. Piano lessons were cancelled. And I lay in my bed for hours, writing in my journal and crying and feeling myself left alone with my thoughts far too long. The melodramatic short story I wrote in that hurricane, about a woman lost in a rainstorm, determined to carry on, is surely one of the great masterpieces of adolescent angst.

*

As long as I had been aware of my parents as real humans, I had begun to know the story of my dad’s depression, begun in childhood and most severe in his early thirties. I had come to know it as a story of the past, for it seemed, both in the way he spoke of it and in my own experience of my father’s humor, joy, and energy, that it was completely healed.

What happened next—years later, it seems—was that one day as I was talking to my father, he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that because of his own and his mother’s history of depression, he had been concerned that my brother or I might inherit this propensity. He had watched us closely since we were small and had discerned, to his delight, that we had not inherited this curse. Though certainly I did not suffer in the severe way he had as a child, his statement clanged a dissonance inside me. It didn’t feel true to my experience. 

Funny—that is how I remember it happening. But going through emails, I discovered recently that this is what really happened:

It was midway through college, I was at a break in a relationship and in the midst of a total re-evaluation of all I thought I knew. My faith in God, that solid rock that had brought me through every previous challenge, was now a one-handed grip on a fraying rope. I told my dad, and he sent me an email in which he asked, “Might you be depressed? Though I watched you closely as a kid and you never seemed to have inherited my cyclical major depression, I know mental health can affect one’s life and faith. It’s okay if you’re depressed, and it’s okay to get help.”

Funny how we hear the things we want to hear. Then, I wanted a quick fix for loneliness and doubts, not a lifelong journey with mental health. Now, I wanted to remember this story as a long history of voices telling me I was fine, I didn’t need help. Turns out it was my own voice all along. I have always been the one telling me I didn’t need help.

*

Later on in college, when that relationship ended for the final time, after friendships had become even more fraught and anger had replaced disbelief as the mode of my faith, I noted the quantity of my tears and the changes in my usually robust appetite, and I wondered if I should see a counselor. The google search “am I depressed” turned up myriad online quizzes and evaluations, and some said I might be mildly to moderately depressed, and some said I was fine. Some days I thought I was depressed, and some days I thought I was fine.

At the end of most every quiz, after all the questions about appetite and sleep and hopelessness and self-harm, there was a question worded something like this: “Have any of the above symptoms affected your ability to carry out the activities of your life?” And I would look at my grades and my work and my unchanged outward appearance, and I would check “No.”

I think part of me wanted to get help, find someone to talk to, explore the idea of therapy. But the other part told me that it was self-indulgent to go to a counselor when (according to the internet) I wasn’t even depressed.

Besides, I was still pulling up my pants every morning. And I had learned that to be functional is to be okay. I didn’t yet understand that in mental health, there is more than functional. There is healing and growing and maybe even some version of whole.

But functional has a power over me, and for several more years after that it wielded its scepter: I lived in Tanzania for a year, the year of gulping teary fits, thoughtless peanut-butter gobbling, the feeling of being utterly alone. But of course that was just what it was like to live abroad, right? And it went away when I sang with the girls in the evenings. I moved back to Maryland and there were months of desperate phone calls to college friends. But of course that was just reverse culture shock and learning to be an adult, right? And it went away when I found the new friends and the garden and the laughter.

*

Finally, I met my match. In 2012 in the course of one week I went from single to married, city to country, community to isolation, employed to unemployed. It was too much all at once, I suppose. My mother-in-law had bought us an expansive, welcoming brown couch as a wedding gift, and it opened each afternoon to swallow me. I would binge on Netflix and chocolate chips and watch the afternoon fade, too apathetic to get up and turn on the lights. And all of the things from before—the desperate phone calls to friends, the feeling of being utterly alone, the teary fits, the weariness of being me—they all came back at once and threatened to undo me.

They certainly undid some of me. But even as I found a functionality in Cherokee—a job, a way of writing and running to get by—I felt in my own self that this was different. This thing was deeper than just adjusting to marriage and a rural place that was hesitant to accept me. I waited, as weeks turned to months and beyond, hoping for a ritual or a garden or a new friend to rescue me out of it. When they did not come I blamed my own failure, a failure to be outgoing enough to make people love me or spiritual enough to conquer the dark.

We moved to Durham, and I started anew, and I hoped those feelings would depart with new routines and new friends and new purpose. And although slowly built a network of people I desperately love and trust, yet still I would leave the library each day angry at myself for not trying harder. Still I would end up at home feeling sad and lonely, unable to focus or even get off the couch. I would panic as I looked ahead to a weekend without social plans.

My second summer in Durham, I interned as a chaplain, an experience full of  meaning and friendship. And then one day in a group meeting, pressed to explain my emotions, everything all seemed to collapse around me and I found myself crying under a table, begging to be left alone, my mind repeating over and over "I just want to not be me. I just want to not be me."

And I finally admitted to myself that it was time to ask for help.

---
Want to know what happened next? You can read part 2 here.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thanksgiving

I’m filled with gratitude today. Lest I create the impression of an instagram-filtered life: let me say that it's almost weekly that I cry or think “I can’t do this anymore,” and not just the work, the enormous task of living with hope in this world. And of course, the aches and pains of my life as a chaplain and human pale in comparison to the anguish, grief, and heartbreak of my patients and their families. I hope that the meaning and beauty I find in this work does not imply insensitivity to their experiences.

In any case, today I wanted to share a little of how I got into this job that is changing me, bringing me life and depth: through luck, and listening to my gut, and quite a lot of grace.

Photo by Guy Mayer

i.
I’m grateful for the gut feeling.

My gut had been wrong about these things before. As a 20-year-old, after spending a month in Bangladesh, I boarded a plane for home, feeling deep down, "I'll be back." I haven’t been back.

So I was justifiably skeptical of my inner churnings on my last day of internship as a chaplain in the summer of 2016. And yet, the phrase kept playing in my head, "Chaplaincy isn't done with me yet."

Still, I put down that voice. I was on an emotional high, saying goodbye to colleagues and a summer of learning. Sure, I had loved and learned all summer long: I had been honored by the stories shared, been awed by the sacredness of grief, been surprised by the gratitude and hopefulness found in the hospital rooms of the sick and dying. But, I had not loved the group processing we had to do every week, rehashing our experiences and feelings ad nauseum with supervisors and peers. I had hated that moment I broke down in tears in front of the group—hated it so much I crawled under the table. I told myself it was too overanalytical, too touchy-feely. Better simply to do the work you're called to do.

ii.
I’m grateful that I drove by the hospital around 11pm, 36 hours before the application was due for Duke’s chaplain residency.

I thought about the patients sleeping, and the family members pacing in waiting rooms, and the chaplain walking down a quiet hallway, breathing slowly to mentally prepare herself for the teary family waiting for her. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There was something more for me here.
Maybe. I threw together an application, "just to keep the door open." Probably I wouldn't be accepted, wouldn't accept anyway.

iii.
I’m grateful they nearly made me cry during my interview.

As I sat with a table of three interviewers I already knew, I shared about a patient I’d cared for the summer before, a patient who’d received life-changing news but seemed to want to put a positive spin on it all. I told them I’d tried to meet him where he was, while also letting him know it was okay with me if he needed to cry and scream. I tried to show—as one does in an interview—what a phenomenal and qualified candidate I was for this chaplain job.

Then they asked about my background. My personality. My ability to receive feedback. Questions grew sharper, and I felt anger rumbling in me. No, I wasn’t arrogant about my family. Was I?

One of the panelists stopped me. “Let me go back to your patient. You said he wanted to put a positive spin on it all. How is that like what you’re doing right here, right now, in this interview?”

I felt my face grow hot and tears rise. Seriously? Of course I am--I want you to hire me!

And then suddenly as it clicked, a desperately beautiful freedom. Unlike every other pretense-filled interview for every other pretense-filled job, this panel didn’t want me to act like I had it all together. They didn’t want a perfect employee. They wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to be real, to openly and bravely explore the unknown not only with patients, but with herself.

Being real intstead of perfect—being brave instead of put-together—these were the things that I wanted, too.

iv.
I’m grateful they let me in.

v.
I’m grateful for that Tuesday evening.

I was sipping wine with John. I had been wrestling all week whether to accept the job. I had never wanted another 1-year transitional gig. It seemed that to do it I would have to put off big things—Getting a Real Job and Trying to Start a Family and Having a Plan.

But that evening I felt a clarity, so I took John out for a glass of wine and told it all. I told him I wanted to do this, because it felt real, because it felt like exactly what my perfectionist self needed, because it felt like a mysterious calling. I’d just had 3 grad school years focused on Achieving and Succeeding, and I live in a culture that measures worth by the Outcomes and Products and that identifies people by what they Do.

In the midst of all that, I wanted to focus on becoming. On who I am rather than what I do. On deepening instead of producing.

I am grateful that John caught the vision.

vi.
I am grateful to be here.

It’s all about Being and Becoming. I sit with people who are suffering and I have no fix to give. The only Skills I’m developing are silence and tears and an occasional willingness to look into my own darkness. I spend two hours a week pulling shards of my broken self out to put on display to my colleagues.

And it is one of the best things I have ever done.

I know it sounds crazy. So many people ask me a variety of the question, "How do you manage to spend so much time around dying people without sinking into despair?" Others, who know the intricacies of this type of program, wonder why I enjoy spending every Thursday morning in a room with six people I met only a few months ago, a processing time designed (I assume based on the evidence) to make at least one person cry every week.

But here’s the thing. These six other residents have been willing to bare their secrets and their fears to me. They have seen me at my best and my worst, taught me to see myself more clearly so that I can see—and love—others more clearly. And the patients and their families have shown me what it is to live and die, with grace, hope, and ferocity.

So no, I don’t manage it. I can’t always “enjoy” it.

But the whole thing is that I’ve learned I don’t have to. That I can be as I am, because my whole self, unmanaged and broken and even despairing at times, is constantly met and re-fashioned with grace. That the breaking and re-molding enlarges the space within me for empathy and even joy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A time to be silent and a time to speak

Hello, dear friends, after this long hiatus. Grad school is finally past, and I'm six months into a year-long chaplaincy gig, and today I wanted to share a little about my long silence here, about seasons for listening and seasons for sharing.

Photo by Garry Knight

It was 2016, I'd just spent a summer interning as a chaplain, and I was sitting around my parents' dining room table, eating eggplant caprese and catching up with old friends. They asked me what I had learned as a chaplain.

I answered the first thing that came to mind: less talking, more listening.

As chaplains, we're trained to support people's own journeys rather than to guide; we're trained not to answer people's questions but to help them explore for themselves. So when a tearful mother at the bedside of her dying child says-- "Can people who believe in God but don't go to church can still go to heaven?" or simply "What do I do now? Where do I go from here?"--90% of the time I do not answer. I ask the mother to explore her own beliefs and feelings and hopes. I listen to her wriggle around the abstract into the concrete. I watch the tears rolling down her face as she shares her great fear. I feel the strength rise in her voice as she realizes her opinion matters to someone else. I let her puzzle her own way to an answer, and her own journey to that point means more than anything I could say.

That summer, I had to listen. It was my job not to answer. And it taught me that most of the time it's more blessed to listen, even when you can speak.

These days, now halfway into a year-long chaplain residency, I still lean into the silence more than ever. I once stood silent by a bedside and stared at a dying patient for 45 minutes, while holding a box of tissues and occasionally patting family members on the back. I felt extremely intrusive, awkward, and incompetent not to be able to say anything to assuage their tears. At the end of it all the family said simply, "Thank you so much, for being with us at the really crucial moments."

Silence is more powerful than we know.

*

It is May 2017, I've just graduated, and my seminary is in national news for a situation involving a racial diversity training and a professor's resignation. I am discussing it all with a couple friends. We are all white. We recognize that we cannot really understand.

"I guess that's why I feel my place is to listen," I say, fumbling for some way to come to grips with years of inequity, to bear witness to the brilliance and testimony and complex experiences of my peers who are people of color.

But one of my friends challenges me. She wonders if sometimes listening becomes yet another wall we hide behind when we don't know what to say. If you have a voice and a platform, there are times when you need the courage to speak out loud. Even when what you say will be imperfect and might cause misunderstanding. Even when it you could be wrong. Even when you are still wrestling. Even when your speech may reveal your true colors as one who does not, cannot understand.

If you have been listening closely and you have a voice, maybe you have to take a risk. Maybe people are listening to you, and you could speak a sliver of truth and justice and meaning and connection.

*

A time to be silent:

There are so many compelling reasons to listen, to be silent:

When you are grieving, and people you love are grieving, and words are paltry.
When you are still listening and learning from the voices you've only just discovered.
When God can be encountered in the sound of a quiet whisper.
When the social media war is raging with words flung carelessly into an impersonal void, or (worse?) into an echo chamber that lets status updates pose as repentance and activism.
When you are gathering your thoughts and feelings into the sacred silence of your heart for awhile.
When you are a chaplain resident brimming with tears for the pain you are carrying, and to corral the deluge of your feelings into a single static word--"sad" or "angry" or "longing"--is to be dishonest to the complexity that is in you.

A time to speak:

And there is a time when the silence is no longer enough. Someone is hurting, perhaps, and it is time to sing, or wail, or say "Me too," or say "I see you," or say, "That is not your fault." It is time to say, "These are the small words I will offer along with my silence in hopes that grace will give them meaning for you, too."

Or you are in a close friendship, a community, a marriage, and the things you don’t say have piled up, have become a barrier preventing true communion. You have to say even the half-baked or bumbling or inconvenient thoughts that are within you, because it is in offering yourself, both the good and the ugly parts, that you will forge a path to more conversation.

Dear friends, for so long, I've scarcely written a thing here in this space. I've been nearly silent for three years during grad school, and then still for this first stage of chaplaincy. I've been tired, needing the fallow time to let the fields recover the life that is in them. And I've been scared of having nothing to say, scared of having too much to say, scared my words may be frivolous against the enormity of the world.

This post is an imperfect way back. I hope it is the first of many, one way into further conversation.

It has become time for me to speak again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Post-election sermon

Today, I wanted to share (my best representation of) a sermon I had to give on November 10 at the women’s prison as part of a preaching class.

Half our students are women who live at the prison, half women enrolled at the divinity school. It has been an amazing experience to see how God's call to preach is at work in each of our lives...but that is a story for another day.

On November 9, I was alternating hour by hour between numbness and tears, and the prospect of speaking a word of God the next day, in this context, seemed almost impossible to me. At the eleventh hour, this word came to me by the Spirit and the love of my friends. I share it with you out of a sense that it’s still a relevant, though incomplete, word for our communal work and reflection in the coming days.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Today, I’m going to name that I’m standing here before you in grief and in heartbreak. There was an election this week and many are grieving. I don’t think I’ve seen an election in my lifetime where so many people were openly weeping. I have heard friends speak of fear for their own safety and the safety of their families, particularly immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people. I have heard friends speak of feelings of exclusion.

I also know this is not everyone reality this week, and may not be the reality of everyone sitting here. Some people in our nation today are feeling relieved, even joyful. Some feel that whatever the political realities may be, nothing much changes anyway for the sake of the oppressed. For example, it is true that our nation has been incarcerating beloved children of God and companies have been profiting from this captivity, and that really hasn’t changed over the past couple decades, no matter which party or person has been in power.

I name all this not to divide but because it’s the place in which the Word of God is encountering me today; it's the place from which I bring a testimony of God’s grace today. I hope that this will be a word for all of us, regardless of what is on each of our hearts.

//

John 13:1-5, 12-15, 34-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

What I find especially remarkable here about Jesus is that, though he knew catastrophe was upon him, though he knew that he was going to die very soon, thought he knew his own friend was going to betray him, he still acted as he did. He drew his own people close to him and loved them to the end.

This is remarkable because Jesus is like us in every respect, fully human. He couldn’t turn off his pain, or fear, or anger. And surely he felt all these. Pain, that this cross was the extent he would have to go to bring God’s love to the world. Fear, of that moment of abandonment coming on the cross. Anger, that his own friend—the one he loved so much taught so much, entrusted with his mission—could misunderstand so severely, and betray him. And yet, having loved his own in the world, he now loved them to the end.

I wonder if he cried as he let the water drip over their feet and wiped it tenderly away. I wonder if, as he scrubbed that dirt between Judas’ toes, he prayed for God to change his heart. I wonder if he was able to look any of them in the eye, knowing they’d soon leave him. Whatever he may have felt, he chose to love. He knew that is what we need, when we come to an end or to a time of testing—to keep serving, touching, loving fiercely, showing one another hospitality in hard times.

And then, he invited them to follow his example, to wash and serve and touch and love fiercely. Jesus says it’s a new commandment, but of course it’s not entirely new. From the earliest revelation of the Old Testament law, one of its cornerstones was to love your neighbor as yourself. Tonight, what’s new is that this love has been enacted before them, and not only in Jesus’ symbolic act of foot washing. Also in Jesus’ incarnation—embodying God for us, coming to be with us and to love us to the end. Also in Jesus’ impending death on the cross—living out the fullness of his love for them.

What he calls the disciples to do in this new commandment is to look to the love he has shown and simply love one another, care for one another.

Sometimes Christians forget to focus on this command, because it seems like love of a softer, easier kind. Jesus also called us to love our enemy. And some of us may be thinking about that now. Loving an enemy—loving one who voted differently, or one who said hateful things about women, perhaps—may seem impossible right now. Let’s hold this command lightly right now, though it is and will be so important in the coming days. Today, Jesus is asking us to love one another.

And then there’s the command to love our neighbor—to love the least of these among us. Some of us may be thinking of this, too. One of the things my husband and I have been particularly worried about for the future is that many of the immigrants in this country will be threatened. The first thing he said to me when we woke up yesterday morning and saw the news, was “We need to pray about what Jesus might call us to do in the next few years. If they start rounding people up, we might need to take someone in. We might need to love our neighbor in a risky way we haven’t done before.” This type of love, too, will be so important. The disciples later on would be called upon to go to jail and prison and be flogged and ridiculed for Jesus. But for today, let's give ourselves grace and time in figuring out what this kind of love will demand from us.

Of course, for some of us, these categories overlap. Loving our enemy may be loving a friend, as it was for Jesus, washing Judas’ feet. Loving the least of these in this time may overlap with loving one another, because surely there are those in our own communities right now who are scared or hurting.

But for a moment, today, let's focus particularly on Jesus command to love one another. Because loving our own community is not easy either, especially in a painful time. It would have been easy for Jesus to be angry and blame his disciples, as he approached his end. And when, two days later, Jesus’ body lay in the ground after a cataclysmic and traumatic 24 hours for the disciples, it would have been the most natural thing in the world for them to play the blame game, too. “Peter, you told those people you didn’t know him? You should’ve stood up for him!” “James, you ran away. You completely deserted him when he needed you!” “How could this even happen? Thomas, you shouldn’t have let us go back to Jerusalem! Why did you hop on board so quickly when he told us it was time to go back to Jerusalem. We could all still be together in Galilee now.”

But the nature of their community in the days following Jesus’ death suggests that they didn’t say these things. Even if they had, they would only each have been trying to cover their own guilty and fear, all the wouldas, couldas, and shouldas in their own minds. Instead, the day after Jesus died, they huddled together in the Upper Room to be with one another. I imagined they cried and told stories and prayed. They loved one another on that dark Saturday because that was what Jesus had commanded them to do. Because of Jesus, they knew the power of simple acts of kindness in dark days.

This is the love that we are called to today. I know, because I’ve been experiencing it. Yesterday, after I crawled out of bed on only a few fitful hours of sleep, tearful and exhausted into my day, I was given so many gifts of grace and hospitality and love. Someone brought donuts to class. Someone hugged me and cried. Someone dragged me to the chapel to pray when I didn’t know if I could. Some friends sat down and ate lunch and told stories. Other friends near and far reached out by phone or email or text. A teacher gave us a silence, and a chance to say simply what we were carrying with us.

The love I have been receiving from those around me has given me light and strength to share love in return, to call friends and family. And even, last night, to find great love in my heart for a person with whom I disagree deeply about this election.

I know that for all of us, no matter how we find ourselves today, there have been days and will be many days ahead where it will feel like an end, where we won’t know how to make sense of our world or step forward in faith. I hope that in these moments, we can learn from the example of Jesus who, at his own end, chose to show love and hospitality and grace to his friends.