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.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts on turning thirty

Photo by Robin Robokow

Today is my thirtieth birthday.

Can I tell you how excited I am? I've been waiting several years now for this, so that when people inevitably ask me if I'm in high school, or say I'm too young to be a pastor or drink or be married or have five years' job experience--I can retort with I'm thirty, which is a lot more of a zinger than I'm twenty-nine.

At three I tried to hop on a Paris subway car by myself; at sixteen I begged to be able to drive myself to my own appointments. Ever since, I've always been pushing for more independence and responsibility. I've dealt with obstacles and maybe embarrassment when I feel people question me about whether I'm competent to handle certain tasks. I've never found a way to graciously respond when people take me for an amateur in a place where I'm in charge. And now I'm thirty. Surely that's worth some respect.

There's more to it, of course.

I like the thought of getting older, maybe wiser. I look forward to the days when, God-willing, I'm forty or fifty or sixty or seventy. It might be nice to feel settled somewhere, or to hold a job for more than three years, or to be relieved of the pressure of representing to everyone the future generation. It might be nice to sit on a porch of a home I've lived in for ten years. It might be nice to stop worrying about who I'm going to be, and relax into who I am already.

In a society that prizes the novelty of youth, I'm not concerned about becoming boring or irrelevant. If ever someone inspires me to think "I want to be like her," it's usually a woman whose hair has begun to gray. She is usually thoughtful about her own experiences, the painful and the beautiful. She has a sense of connectedness to all the people she has known, and they have each made her who she is. She carries an inner silence that can only come from years of practice.

*

Many of my friends are sad to be hitting this milestone. Thirty, to someone still trying to find a career or just a stable job, may seem daunting, like a deadline she never knew until it had passed. Thirty to a single woman may bring fear of loneliness, of being forgotten by friends, of never finding the "right" person. That's real fear and real pain, and I can't pretend to speak to that.

But I have regrets, too, leaving my twenties.

I can go back to Tanzania one day, and maybe even move or work in East Africa again, which will be its own adventure. But I can't go back to the free and weightless person I was there. I can visit friends and see the homes they own and their pets and children, which is a new kind of joy. But I can't be a roommate again in the group house with a garden and potluck dinners and parties full of laughter. I can't be a young college grad who could take a job in any city, move to be near friends on a whim. There may be new choirs or a book clubs or yoga classes. But I have less leisure to play piano or join an intramural soccer team. And it's hard to imagine now that I'll ever spend a season working on an organic farm learning to grow vegetables, or get a degree in creative writing or counseling or music.

The world is no longer quite all ahead of me. Trajectories are set in motion, and mostly that is joy. But, too, moving forward always means leaving something behind.

*

This season brings constant reminders of mortality. The fragility of babies in the womb, the sudden death of a healthy adult at 35 or 60. As much as I may speak with bravado and whitewashed idealism about the wisdom of the old, I am standing right here in the middle of the messiness of it all, mourning those I have lost, mourning those others have lost. My own body joins the crowd of evidence. Two of my teeth are literally falling out. My joints are getting weak. My body is less resilient after red-eye flights than it once was.

Two weeks ago a cross was made on my forehead, the words spoken over me, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." And this is always true, and perhaps every year it becomes more true. My mortality is not something I fear, exactly. Except that in the moments in which I believe I am about to die--moments on highways, or moments of walking alone in the dark, or moments suspended in the air as I fly off the front of my bike--I am struck with a panic that I have not loved as I might, I have not made peace with all, I have left too many messes on my floor and broken pieces in my journey.

So getting older is as treacherous as it is beguiling, bringing the fear of things that have not yet been and may never be.

But mortality is also invitational. Why not stop pretending, learn to be transparent to each other and to God? Why not speak what we really feel? The liminal moments, the fearful moments, the vulnerable moments are the ones that make me put aside the homework and shake off anxiety about trivial matters and embrace all that is beautiful and holy and gift.

*

In the end the truth, I think, is that whether you're hankering to be older, like me, or longing for the days gone by when the world was spread before you and your life plan had not yet been derailed...it's not about age at all, really.

What I mean is that I think perhaps the challenge given to us all is how to love the very ground we are resting our feet on at this moment. Contentment does come from being seventy and having achieved it all, but from learning the art of gratitude. Respect does not come to me from a snarky I'm thirty I throw our to the world, but from being grounded and centered no matter how people see me. Inner silence won't suddenly appear at seventy if I don't cultivate it now.

So today I am going to hug a friend, and eat fresh food, and call my mom, and say a prayer. Today I am going to volunteer at a food pantry and study for a midterm. I am going to love this day that has been given, add my best to it, and try not to put my hope in the number that has been assigned to it.

But just in case you were wondering...that number is thirty.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Don't worry: Letters to myself

Most of the advice I'd give my younger self in hindsight begins with, Don't worry. 


Photo by bekasinne

A note for a self-confident third-grader:

Don't worry. Yes, a mom down the street said fourth grade was hard. So I understand why you asked your mom if she would home school you next year if it's all too much for you.

But you are more than capable of the challenge, dear one. And you won't be alone--you'll be taking on long division with the help of all your friends. And with the help of your parents, who believe in you. You know that, don't you? They believe in you, and they will believe in you if you get a B, and they will believe in you if you decide, one day, to quit piano or soccer or even church, and that believing in you will cover over a multitude of hurt.

So you see, there's nothing to fear.

*
A note for a ninth grader learning to fail:

Don't worry. Oh dear Katie, what a year it's been--your first bitter tastes of failure, your first experiences of un-belonging. I know how badly you wanted to be in the musical. The exhilaration of being on stage in middle school--you loved it perhaps even more than anything you'd ever done. But you will get the chance to be on stage again, and you will love other things even more than this.

And it doesn't end there--I know what disappointment you feel at not making the chamber choir. The first time you heard them sing, you knew you'd been waiting all your life to get into that group. But wait another year, it's okay. The trade-off will be deep, life-long friendships and the chance to lead your own singing group and the kinds of experiences that will stay with you for life.

And yes, dear awkward soul, you are fifteen and you have braces and frizzy hair and your sense of humor hasn't blossomed, and yet you still long for their approval. It feels utterly humiliating to stand at your locker by yourself in the morning before class, pretending to be occupied, as all the groups of laughing blondes wander by. But oh, if only you knew the depth of the empathy and compassion growing up in you right now. For the rest of your life you will always notice the girl standing on the wall, you will always feel the pain of the lonely. And though you couldn't possibly imagine it now, you will always stay in touch with the close friends you will make in these halls.

*
A note for a college sophomore, amidst the collapse of all her certainties:

Don't worry. Don't worry about going to a "third-world" country or about your first relationship or about not having a five-year plan. I know, dear Katie, that these things are not really what you're scared of. The truth is you're scared that something within you is changing. You're scared that you're losing all that has been your foundation--your God, your habits, your identity.

Listen: you are not losing anything that won't be replaced one hundred fold. 

You will lose some convictions, some people, some of yourself. It will hurt. It is okay to mourn. But here's the thing: God is not going to leave you. In fact, in all of this you will find God in a different and more beautiful way than ever before, a way that opens up possibilities you never dreamed of.

*
A note for a twenty-something planner without a plan:

Don't worry. You simply don't have to have it all figured out now. Oh, how funny it is to think of you and your dear roommate staying up late trading worries. Yours is career--shouldn't a twenty-four year old have a plan by now?!--and hers is relationship--shouldn't a twenty-four year old have met the right man by now?!

The answer, of course, is no. In six years you still won't have it figured out, but you will have realized that the journey has taught you more than a plan could ever have done. When you get to graduate school, eventually, you will be so glad you didn't know yet what you wanted and studied English in college. You will be so glad you didn't know yet what you wanted and joined Americorps and encountered the gritty beautiful slow-paced DC and learned the hard way how to work on a team. You will be so glad you had those late nights trading worries with people who will be forever friends.

*
A note for today.

Don't worry. First of all, you're doing great. In fact, can you stop doing great for a moment and enjoy life a little? You may not know exactly what's coming with balancing two careers and a marriage and the hope of children and community and so much more--let tomorrow worry about itself. Aren't you having fun? You love studying languages and writing sermons and giving hugs in the handshake line at church to the women whose pain has been told you over coffee.

Sure, you are in this place of leaving behind the freedoms of young adulthood. Sure, you are re-figuring your friendships and practices and hobbies. Sure, you are grieving what it means to settle somewhere, which is also not to settle somewhere else. Sure, you are realizing that to embrace church and prison work is also not to embrace farming and piano-teaching and other dreams you once had. And you are always, always afraid of failing at the things you for which you are responsible.

But look back on it all, dearest Katie. Have you really ever had a failure you didn't learn from? Have you ever really been alone in your questions? Have your musings and wandering uncertainties ever really led you somewhere where blessing was not to be found?

In hindsight the memory is always clear, that you have been accompanied in all your paths, whether you attuned yourself or not, by the Spirit of the living God.

So read backwards. The memory is now. Just sit and watch the snow awhile.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A few things I don't normally tell you

Photo by Nelo Hotsuma

I get irrationally anxious in the passenger seat. Maybe it's new in the last couple years, or maybe it’s that now we live in a more congested area. It’s dark and we’re in the car somewhere between Washington and Richmond when I find myself yelling every few seconds, “watch out!” begging my husband to slow down or put two hands on the wheel or change lanes to get away from the Jersey wall or a truck. My chest is too tight to relax, even though the reason my husband is driving is because I was getting sleepy. I recognize that I’m a little crazy but I can’t seem to stop wincing with every curve in the road. "You need help," my husband says. "I don't want you to have a heart attack."

I get angry for minuscule reasons, often related to wasted time, money, or energy. Late to meet my family for lunch, I am driving around the block for thirty minutes looking for a parking spot and I begin to seethe. I finally park, and as I walk the block to the restaurant, I try to reason with myself. It's not my husband or parents' fault, so I should forget about it and just enjoy the rest of the time we have. When I enter the restaurant and find out what they ordered for me, it is one more unpleasant change I can't handle. I yell and berate and make myself a complete fool, hating myself as it happens. I recognize that I’m a little crazy but it’s too late for me to back down. A couple days later, my dad calls to talk to me about my behavior. I'm 29 and my dad is concerned about my behavior; I know I need help.

As an early step in the process of becoming a Presbyterian pastor, I have to go to Charlotte for a 2-day psychological evaluation: the first day for testing, the second day for interview and results with a psychologist. The first day consists of hundreds of questions about voices in my head, how much I yell, if I ever want to break things, how's my sex life, how often I feel depressed, whether spiders make me anxious, do I obsess about details, am I mostly happy or mostly sad or mostly crazy. After it is over, I am panicking. I am sure I am going to be found out, I am going to fail, they are going to tell me I belong in therapy, not ministry. But the interview the next morning makes me feel like a normal person again, and two weeks later I get the results: Ms. Ross presented as a pleasant, engaged young person who is very interested in the evaluation process. She took notes and asked questions, appearing open to feedback and suggestions for growth. 

I think maybe we are all a little crazy, all a little wounded or anxious or neurotic or just sad (which is not to undermine clinical mental health problems that are very serious for some people, but simply to say no one is perfectly normal). I think maybe the best thing I can give to my future ministry is to stop pretending to be put together, stop pretending I can handle my anxiety and anger since I'm a well-balanced person who usually knows how to keep a lid on it, stop getting by with being a pleasant and engaged young person and learn instead how to be a whole and honest one.

So this is what I am going to try. This is my version of New Year’s resolution—or maybe just the hope of someone who has become tired of getting by. And since I’ve learned that abstract aspirations never get me too far, I’m taking three concrete steps.

1)  This semester, I'm joining a small group of women who meet weekly to share their spiritual lives, and unlike the first time I tried to join this group, I'm going to prioritize it over school and work. Because these women just might become the kind of friends who can help me be real and whole.

2) I've signed up for a writing group at school which will help me to write down the truth, to face the feelings I need to process, at least once a week. Because I need help and accountability in confronting the truest things about myself.

3)  I am lucky to have access to counseling through school, included in my tuition, so I am going to try meeting with a counselor this spring. Because you don’t have to be in acute crisis to benefit from therapy, because I never want to be too proud to seek help, because it just might help me learn to be more centered and whole.

I tell you all this, I suppose, because I have a penchant for oversharing my flaws (though some of you, surely, are not surprised at these anecdotes). Or I tell you all this because I suspect most people think they're awful, at some point, and it might do some folks good to hear they're not the only ones. Or perhaps I tell you all this because if I write it on the internet, I have to follow through. 

And also: maybe you too have been getting by and maybe you want to take a concrete step towards being whole and maybe we can walk that journey together.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best of 2015

Well, 2015 whizzed by. I'm now halfway done with seminary, pushing thirty, and getting settled in Durham NC. It’s the time to celebrate some of my favorite things of the year.

Books: (Only three; I didn’t read enough non-school books this year)
3. Wearing God by Lauren Winner: Fantastic exploration of different images for God in the Bible. You know, Christians like to call God creator and king, but God is also described as clothing, fire, pregnant woman, friend, bread, wine, aroma. These chapters expanded my spiritual imagination and invited me to celebrate a God who is beyond my limited conception.

2. Lila by Marilynne Robinson: This deals with the same characters, and some of the same events, as her two earlier novels Gilead and Home, but from a much different (fascinating) perspective. Robinson doesn’t write page-turners, and her books don’t follow a typical plot, but the writing and characters are impeccable, and the themes are rich with human questions. What is it that defines our souls, our capacity for good or ill, our relationships and our loneliness? Lila asks questions especially about the feral and gentle within us, about how early experiences shape us, about how spirituality is relevant to those for whom the main question is survival.

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: I’ve been recommending this one to everybody. Stevenson’s book reads as part memoir, part documentary, part true crime. You’ll be flipping pages to find out what happens to Walter, a man on death row who swears he’s innocent, and meanwhile you’ll be confronting our justice system, the depths of brokenness within all of us, and the persistence of hope and redemption.

Media and Arts:
3. Most of my TV and movies you've all already seen. Probably my two favorite movies were Boyhood and The Theory of Everything (and yes, I also enjoyed Star Wars.

2. Much better than staring at a screen is experiencing art in reality. I saw Swan Lake by the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh last spring and it was lovely.

1. While visiting the Getty Museum in LA last March, I was drawn to a painting in a way I’ve never before been drawn to art: “Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre” by Girolomo Savoldo. I see myself in it, I suppose. And I see the most perfect, realistic-but-hopeful balance of darkness and light. It's not the same on a screen, but:

            

Best things:
4. Preaching: Sometimes a class becomes a community; sometimes an education becomes real life. My preaching class this fall was perfect. We were creative together, we helped each other grow, we laughed, we learned what it is to occupy this space of being called to share the gospel of God. I’m thankful for reminders that this path I’m walking into is one that fits.

3. Trips:  California (lovely former roomie plus meeting the life goal of peeing in all 3 oceans that aren’t at Arctic Temperatures plus riding a bus with some silly college choir kids plus biking across the Golden Gate); Minnesota (spirit home plus two of my dear college friends marrying each other!); Western Massachusetts (friends’ wedding plus camping and napping under trees).



2. Presbyterians: I’m working at a Presbyterian Church right now, loving especially the honor of listening to people’s stories and grateful to be mentored by a wonderful pastor. And since September, I’ve been officially on the list as an “inquirer” to become a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. This basically means I’ve passed the first of three steps in discerning and becoming certified as a pastor. It’s getting real, y’all.

1. Reunion: If you read any of my pieces this summer, you know that I had a beautiful and possibly life-changing experience with Church of the Saviour this summer, especially the time I spent learning from the people at Reunion, seeing both the heartbreaking reality of the prison pipeline and the redemptive possibilities of community. I’m so grateful for the servant leaders of that community, for the men and women coming home from prison, for the encouragement to be authentic across lines of race and class, for a place which nurtured my spirit so.

What’s ahead:
3. Durham, NC: In one of the harder decisions we’ve had to make since our marriage, John and I decided to turn down a job offer he had received in DC, since it would have started this summer and necessitated us spending a year apart (it also wasn’t his dream job). I love DC so it was sad to say, “not now.” But John graduates in May and we’re looking forward to staying here in NC like for a few more years. I won’t say I don’t have second thoughts when I visit home and reunite with all the wonderful people there, but it’s nice to be putting down roots and slowly building community here in Durham.

2. Being able to walk! After lots of biking and running this summer, I started noticing minor foot pain. It took four months of no running or biking, five weeks on crutches, two X-rays and one MRI to finally figure out what it was—irritation and inflammation of the sesamoid bones, which are on the bottom of the foot near the big toe. I’m now mostly recovered and in physical therapy, looking forward to being active again, not depending on people for rides, hiking the Grand Canyon in May and maybe running a half marathon later this year.

1. Writing again: It’s been a draining semester, and I didn’t write a blog post from July until now. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I do know I’ve signed up for a non-credit journaling group this semester. I’m hoping that will get the creative juices, the truth-telling juices, flowing again.