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.

---
To be continued. In part 2, coming Friday, I'll share more about how going to therapy has been so vital for me.

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The political is personal

I cried at least once a day for the first ten days after November 8.

There are a lot of reasons, and there is no single reason I can explain. But it’s been a month now, and its time for me to start writing stories again. Because stories are how I process the world, and goodness knows we need to process, and because stories will be so important in these months as we try to remember how to love one another.

This story is imperfect and selfish and true and has nothing to do with policy, really. And it’s not at all the most pressing reason to mourn, but it’s one that has somehow cut me deep in these weeks.

Photo by Walter A. Aue

On November 8, 2016, no matter how you spin it, this country chose as its next president an (alleged) sexual predator over a qualified (if polarizing) woman.

I could not have predicted the blow that that feels like to me as a woman.

During the campaign, I was more anti-Trump than pro-Hillary. And my chief concerns with Trump were about the effect his presidency could have on undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, international relations, the environment, free speech…I could go on…

The point is, I didn’t feel a personal threat or affront as a white woman. And I didn’t feel a particular attachment to Hillary. It took me several days of sobbing to realize that my grief after the election was not only for all the anger and fear and pain for people I care about (and probably also some kind of illusion/idolatry I’ll explore later), but was also deeply personal.

In one of the more poignant moments of the debates, Hillary said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self worth, and I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like.

I felt that. I know that. But I didn’t know, until 3 am on November 9, what it feels like to see that a person who treats women in this way, in word and deed, is judged fit to be our president.

I didn’t know what it feels like to hear in a concession speech a reminder to girls that they are valuable and powerful—and to sense that it was a word that needed to be said, a word that could no longer be assumed. “To all the little girls watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful,” she said, and I sobbed.

When I was eleven years old I became the president of my elementary school’s student council. I was really into it—whether as a power trip or because I really cared about which Lisa Frank items we sold at the school store, I can’t say. My grandma bought me a gavel for Christmas with the words, “President Katie” engraved on it. I told everyone I was going to be the first woman president of the United States. “Hopefully,” my mom said, “that will happen before you’re old enough to be president.”

In mid-October, with Hillary’s double-digit lead in the polls, I recalled this moment and smiled. My mom was right! We would have a woman president before I turn thirty-five. But I’ll be thirty-five in 2021, and (barring the problematic and improbable #Michelle2020) now my mom looks so na├»ve. Now, it looks like we were not at all ready for a woman president, so not ready we chose him. (And oh, I know it’s more complicated than woman vs. man, but I do think sexism played more of a role than we realize in Hillary’s unpopularity).

When I think of the convention center Hillary chose on election night for its glass ceiling, I understand why she couldn’t bear to speak that night in that space. I would’ve wanted to smash it.

//

But it goes beyond this, too. It turns out that I developed a fondness for Hillary, a personal sympathy far beyond my initial skepticism of her candidacy. Because when I think of a qualified woman being rebuffed for a job, when I think of how hard it is to be a woman in her career field, I think also of my own journey.

My church taught me that women cannot be pastors, and I think I believed it, or at least I let it seep into me, enough that I was 24 before I realized I might have a calling in the church.

I still love the church that raised me. They are loving and radically welcoming of immigrants and dedicated to the arts and marvelously anti-Trumpian and all the things you might not expect of a church that taught me women can’t preach. (Things are never what we expect, are they?)

In July, I happened to visit on the day that a peer of mine had been invited back to preach. He was being ordained that afternoon in our very church. And as he began to speak, at the same moment I felt excited that he was stepping into the path of his calling—I was overcome by a dull sadness.

Because I will never be invited to preach in that church.

Perhaps some of those church members will one day come to a church where I preach, and perhaps they will pray for my ministry, and surely there will always be hugs and love and encouragement for me in that place. But the church that first gave me a space to use my gifts in God’s service—a sanctuary in which to sing my first solo, a microphone to share my testimony of faith, a pulpit to write my first sermon, which was okay because it was a skit for youth Sunday—will not invite me back into that space.

The truth is, the hurt I feel from all of this isn’t strong or permanent; it comes in waves. It happened to be magnified on that day. But I left the church at 23, before I wanted to be a pastor. I never butted my head up against their (rather opaque) glass ceiling. I never tried to change their minds. It would hurt more if I had.

//

When I visit this church, I’ve never quite been sure how to talk with people about my career. I mention the places where I have been interning or the classes I’m taking, and most people are deeply supportive and interested. But still every word I speak feels to me too political, confrontational. By being who I have been called to be, I am an affront their system. So sometimes I talk about the community service program I started, and don’t emphasize the controversial parts like preaching. And when asked if I’m hoping to work with youth or be a chaplain I try to shake my head gently and explain that no, I want to be a pastor.

That Sunday my friend was preaching, the district president (our version of a bishop) was in attendance, and someone introduced me to him. He seemed apologetic about the place of women in our church. “Our denomination has lost a lot of very talented women to other churches,” he said sympathetically. In usual form, I smiled and shifted the topic to keep things non-controversial.

In this post-election, time, though, I want to engage more honestly, vulnerably, and fully in places like this. I wish I’d said, directly and gently to him, “Yes, you have lost us.” I wish I’d said, “It’s painful to me to hear my friend preach here this morning and know I’ll never be able to do that.” It probably would have been good for him to hear.

There will be many times when it is important to speak in the days ahead. And I know myself enough to know I’ll need a lot of fierce prayer to stay patient and keep telling stories. But after Hillary, after the tenacity of that glass ceiling, after the startling toleration in this season for violence and words against women, I’m no longer going to be sheepish--anywhere--about the political overtones of my calling or my identity or my beliefs or my story or the Jesus I believe in. 

It’s more dangerous to be quiet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A reunion



This semester, I’ve gotten the incredible opportunity to take the African Biblical Interpretations class, where I am learning how we might read the bible in community across continents, where I am asking tough questions about the bible's connection with colonization and oppression, where I am thinking more deeply what it means to read and teach and proclaim the Christian scriptures. It is also a class that culminates in a funded trip to Uganda, where we will meet with East African church and nonprofit leaders who are working in the area of reconciliation.

This means, among other things, that there will soon be a reunion—between me and Tanzania—me and my Tanzanian friends—me and the me I was eight years ago when I lived in East Africa. I am terrifically terrified.

I loved my time in East Africa in some ways more than I’ve ever loved another time of life. In Tanzania, I fell in love with John, I fell in love with the beauty of the life I’d been given, I fell in love with a million girls singing at night, and with a family who shared with me everything.

And I loved who I became: unconcerned with achievement or measuring up, secure in being valued simply for my presence, full of laughter and music. Tanzania healed me of doubt, made me generous and spontaneous, showed me a new kind of person I could become, dwelling in possibilities.

What frightens me is that I no longer feel like that person. Over the past few years, I feel like I have become a more critical version of me, more concerned with achievement, more needful of control and planning, and laden down by the burden of owning couches and dressers and a 401K (by marriage). It seems worlds away when I was able to live out of a small duffel bag for a year, to live without electricity or internet, to hop on the minibus and crack a joke in Swahili to unsuspecting ears.

In the same time, the memory of Tanzania has become more complex for me. Intellectually, I've learned to interrogate any missionary project. Emotionally, I think as often of the annoyance I felt at cat calls and constant standing out as the utter joy and belonging I was gifted without ever deserving it. And when I talk to my host sister Esther on the phone, she complains I’ve forgotten Swahili. So I don't call much anymore, unless it's about the money she needs. She named her first daughter Katie, which somehow has the effect of making my feel guilty rather than honored, because I have not called often enough, and I have not always said yes to her pleas for help. Many days, I remember the hassle of the phone calls more than I remember the mosquito-net-covered bed we shared for months, the whispered confidences and the side-aching laughter. 

Beyond Esther and her family, I’ve lost touch with the others. I don’t remember how to weave through the complex bus system to their homes, and I’m not even sure I’m laid-back enough anymore to ride those buses. I'm considering forking out $200 for the plane from Tanzania to Uganda rather than the long-distance bus that might give me a panic attack, speeding through the night.

//

It's clear that this reunion will not be simple. But then, what reunion is? They often fail my expectations. The conversations aren’t as deep; the time is not enough; the mutual understanding has shifted or faded. I am forever learning that my rosy spectacles of nostalgia for the past will often be disappointed.

And as much as I may lament the loss of a relationship with my host family or even the loss of some piece of myself, the truth is that I don't want to be my 22-year-old self again. Sure, I was learning to be carefree and independent and full of complicated love. But there was also a lot I was unsure about, a lot I didn't know.

I didn't know, yet, that three or four years later I would begin to explore and confirm a sense of this call to seminary and ministry--a call that has been terrifying and beautiful all at the same time, because it's so real and meaningful and yet so vulnerable to being subverted. I didn't know, yet (though I certainly hoped!) that on my next trip to Africa, I'd be four years into this marriage that is no longer a wade into the stream but a full submersion into this life together, with all its ups and downs. I didn't know yet how much I still needed to be humbled, by all the injustice in the world to which I am a part; I didn't know how much I still needed to be built up, with affirming communities and spiritual practice to unravel harmful self-talk.

I see the Spirit working in who I have become, who I am still a long way from becoming. I do not want to go back, nor can we, ever.

//

Still there are questions. When our plane lands in Tanzania, will there still be deep love and gratitude in my heart when I touch that ground? Will I feel a sense of that giddy, carefree Katie, or is it even fair to wonder? Which do I fear more, that my friends will ask for money, or that they will not, and I will have nothing else to give? How will I re-learn to receive? What will I see differently this time? How can I let Tanzania speak to me not as I was but as I am?

I do not know the answers. I do not know if there are answers.

What I pray for is grace--grace for me, grace in me for others. That I may be slow to judge and quick to listen and full of compassion. And I pray also, I think, for just a glimpse of my 22-year-old self. Perhaps she has something to offer me for today.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chaplains for the world

It’s been hard to know how to share with you all the wonderful, awful, exhausting, inspiring work that is chaplaincy—partly because it is a fearsome and impossible thing to express, partly out of concerns about privacy. This summer I served as a hospital chaplain and am still wrapping my mind and heart around how it changed me, and what it means to listen, love, and care for strangers.

Photo by Andrew Parnell

After my first overnight shift at the hospital this summer—after twenty-four hours, seventeen calls, eight deaths, $21.50 worth of cafeteria food, and four hours of sleep—I handed the clipboard to the Sunday chaplain, exhaled heavily, and hopped on my bike, speeding hastily away from the clinical halls and towards my church. I knew I needed hymns, prayer and the Communion meal. And then, most definitely, a long nap.

What I did not expect was that they were coming with me, as I pedaled up and down the hills. The one who lost her husband, and the one who’d lost her fiance before the marriage license came in. The one who wanted to tearfully tell her sister’s story, and one who just wanted to know the best donut place in town because it was one am and tomorrow would be even more exhausting than today. Young and old, religious and nonreligious, emotional and stoic, prepared and unprepared, planning to cremate and planning to bury.

They were coming with me. I imagined them now, waking up alone with dogs in an empty house, or spending an anniversary making funeral arrangements, or stopping at Monuts before making the long drive home. I prayed for them, hurt for them, longed to be with them. In moments, they are with me still.

*

The job of a chaplain is rather amorphous and vague. “Spiritual care” can mean a lot of things: compassionate listening, empathy, talking through tough decisions, validation of feelings, prayer or Scripture or rituals, a non-medical advocate, a hand to hold at end of life. When we introduced ourselves as chaplains, some people immediately asked for prayer. Some people cleaned up their language; others told us all their quibbles with God. Some clammed up completely and asked us to leave; others asked us to pull up a chair so they could start at the beginning.

It turned out that first overnight shift was one of my most intense days of the summer. After that, there were a lot fewer deaths. More often, at least on the cardiology floor, there were prayers with old ladies and smiles with old men. There were conversations about new treatment regimens. There were teary confessions of loneliness. There were cheery follow-ups after surgery.

And there was lots that was surprising. That people allowed a stranger into their rooms to listen to their life stories. That people wanted to talk twice as much about their gratitude as about their worries. That today I could feel I was becoming such a great chaplain, just in time to be completely stumped by a situation tomorrow. That the ducks in Duke gardens could bring me such comfort on the days when I needed a lunchtime walk to help me breathe again.

But most of all what surprised me was how many people’s concerns were completely unrelated to their hospital stay. A sick dog. A loss from ten years ago that still stings. A separation. A history of abuse. A distant child. A regret. A complicated and unresolved religious journey.

These people were carrying with them the burdens and bruises that come from living in the world, the kind of burdens and bruises we all carry, the kind that make us human, and make us need each other. And from some I got the sense that this surprise visit from the chaplain was one of the rarer moments in their lives, one of the moments they felt cared about, able to talk about all that was weighing them down.

And maybe it was just the vulnerability of being in the hospital that got them to the place of sharing, and maybe most of the time the tears are forced back down. But they have been carrying these burdens through all their house renovations and business deals, their lonely or sleepless nights at home and their Western movie marathons.

*

The morning after that first overnight shift, as I tried to bike away from it all, I needed a chaplain. Though I was not a hospital patient, though I was not sick, I needed someone to care for my spirit, to listen, to affirm, to care. I’m lucky that I had nine other chaplains as colleagues to care for me over the summer, to care for me still when I pass them in the hallways between classes. I have been carrying the pain of so many beautiful people, and carrying so much hope for them and for me.

But then, aren’t we all? In the grocery stores and on the highways and in class or precept or at work. And though it’s easier for all of us to pretend we have it all together when we’re not lying vulnerable and stripped of agency in a hospital bed, we never really do.

I’m intrigued by this idea that has been with me since the end of my time as a chaplain--the idea that there is a deep need for chaplains in the world, chaplains on every street and in every building. I don’t know what that means. I’m not generally in the practice of putting a hand on the shoulder of the person at the next table in the coffee shop and saying, “Hey, I noticed you’re staring into space, is everything okay?” Some people can do that; I don’t think I can. But I do think I, and all of us, can pay a little more attention, speak a little more gently, and maybe even, when the spirit prods, offer a kind hello. I do think we can imagine that the grocery clerk who’s bagging slowly might have something on her mind, and give her a smile. I do think we can invite the classmate who keeps to himself to sit at our table.

Several years back, stressed and overworked, I had a co-worker whom I saw primarily as a means to sharing my workload, as a means to accomplishing the task at hand. I would become frustrated with him when the task was not accomplished, or when I felt overwhelmed. One night, I had a melodramatic and wildly untrue dream--that he had experienced the tragic death of his soul mate and true love. From that day on I never saw him the same way again. From that day on, I felt the same aching empathy for him that characterized the mood of the dream. In a strange way I suddenly learned to love him.

I am sitting in the library now, rolling my eyes at the always-exasperated woman who seems to have such a sense of entitlement about using the computers here, even though she is a guest of the university, and I am the one paying for these services with my tuition dollars. But who is she, and why does she come here so often, and what is she carrying that makes her so easily frustrated? Could you or I offer her some kindness and compassion? There is always so much more to each of us, beneath the surface.

On our first day as chaplains, we were shown this lovely video. Watch it, and then imagine the stories of all the people around you, and then be kind. You may be needed to be a chaplain in the world.