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.

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'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.