Lent, Week One: Hot and Cold

Happy first Friday of Lent, Reader, if such a thing can be deemed “happy.”  Lent, though traditionally a pretty rough space for me, is actually a good time to go internal and take stock of one’s faith journey.  It also happens to start smack in the middle of midterms this year, which I think is God foregoing actually saying anything and just chucking me out in the wilderness.

It’s been a really, really long week.

Part of it, though, was officiating for the very first time at an Ash Wednesday service.  There’s one other student pastor at the church where I serve now and she and I were put in charge of the entire service:  plan it, prep it, preach it.  So we did; we met twice to plan what hymns we wanted and write the liturgy.  We each wrote half of the sermon and then preached it as alternating voices.  We got to the church early to move furniture and set the scene, making sure everything was in place just as it needed to be.

And, human endeavor that it was, things went wrong.  My lapel mic came off my robe just as I stood to begin the sermon—I seriously should get all of the theatre points for how calmly I grabbed it and reattached it.  Then there was a bat that decided to join us for a couple of laps around the sanctuary in the middle of the sermon.  Yes, a bat.  I’m not kidding.  And I nearly ran out of oil as I was working my way through the ashes.  This is what the pastoral life is, Reader; it’s super human.  Sorry if that’s breaking any cherished notions for you.

6c3ae1418d0d0367d1ae643ae283d3e6But it’s also incredibly holy.  This is the second time in my life I’ve ever put ashes on someone else, and the only other time was on Interpreter and that had all sorts of emotional complications going on.  But this; this was feeling the oil and cold ash against my thumb, feeling the warmth of people’s skin as I placed my fingertips at their temples and drew the sign of the cross.  This was standing by the Christ candle and watching its flame flicker against the semi-darkness of our shadowed sanctuary.  This was hearing What Wondrous Love Is This roll down out of the choir loft behind me and remembering the times I have hummed that to myself on the chancel steps back home when I felt so completely separated from God and so terribly cold in my very soul.  This was raising my hands in benediction to this congregation with whom God has entrusted me and feeling the fiery warmth of praying that I will be worthy of that trust, of praying that they will be open to God’s Spirit.  The pastoral life is a terrifying and electrifying gift.

As we move throughout these forty days, I want to take a page out of the sermon my friend and I preached this past Wednesday in terms of imagining and fleshing out the story of the wilderness to which we’re called in this season.  What does our wilderness look like?  How does the temperature vary, with the extremes of heat and cold that such landscapes have?  Where are the rocks upon which we trip?  What plants struggle towards the rain that rarely comes?  Let us imagine ourselves into this space, Reader.  Let us name our wilderness, that we may hear our names from the One Who walks it with us.

 

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness.  (Exodus 14:19-20, ESV)

Egypt and Other False Hopes

Why yes, I am writing this instead of the sermon and two papers I need to be writing.  Welcome to divinity school.

Just so you know, it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks.  Even in Australia.  Part of it being so bad is that all the spheres of my life are currently out of whack.  My friends and I have been in some weird spaces, school is frustrating and exhausting at best, my three jobs are financially unhelpful and not terribly life-giving, my faith is a wild mess, the political scene is terrifying and sorrow-inducing, and my car now has a crunched bumper and a tail-light magnificently patched together by Interpreter and jank as all get-out.

Nearly everything is not good.

Perhaps that laundry list resonates with you, Reader—I sure hope not, but if it does know that I hate everything right now, too.  I’m weary; not just tired, but worn to strange edges that constitute no recognizable shape.  I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately why I moved here to the Wicket Gate, why I left the Land of Pilgrims, why I’m in divinity school.

In short, why I left Egypt.

I don’t pull in the metaphor to say that the Land of Pilgrims was at all comparable to slavery (far from it; part of it was home in a way I’d never experienced before, but part of it was completely unhealthy), and I know I’m not the first to connect the complaining Israelites to modern angst with God’s leadership.  But I’ve never felt so clearly that connection.  I am soul-sore, spiritually thirsty, and starving for hope.  Of course I’m going to say to Moses that we should never have left, that at least in Egypt we were fed, that selling my soul wasn’t so bad—at least it was safe.  And it was; I was by no means rich in the Land of Pilgrims, but I was stable.  I didn’t have the fanciest place to live, but it was mine and it was home.  I hated my job, but my church sustained me.  I had community.  I had a life.

And here, in this in-between place, I don’t have that.  I have a banged-up car and more student loans and disappointing professors and damn it, God, why did You make me leave Egypt?

Because God had other plans—plans to which I agreed as I sang my little self across the dry Red Sea, as a I said okay, God, I trust You so much I’ll even get a tattoo to commemorate it.  I left my Egypt because it was killing me to stay and every one of my beautiful, caring friends saw it.  I left because the wilderness was terrifying but wide open in possibility.  And I left because God said come on, we’re moving, and I said, okay.

I now have three jobs in which I regularly practice pastoral relationship even as I am learning what that even means.  I helped a friend move this morning and then we sat on his stoop in the chilly sunshine and just were with each other, which is one of the best ways I re-energize in a relationship.  I got to simply be with Interpreter last weekend while he patched up my car and patiently answered my questions about how it’s put together because I know zilch about cars.  I get to go back to Egypt this summer for an internship that will probably kill me but will definitely change me.

13This wilderness is not accidental.  Do I need to change some things to make it healthier?  Yes.  Moses had to pull water from rocks and the Israelites ate raining bread; the wilderness isn’t mean to be experienced without change.  And it isn’t meant to be itself a destination; the Israelites were looking for the Promised Land.  I am looking to be ordained (which sometimes feels as far from a Promised Land as possible, but hey).  And sometimes, the wilderness lasts longer than intended—it took the Israelites forty years to go a distance that should have taken a month at most.  But even on the worst days when you are freaking sick of bread and your feet hurt and your throat is parched and you have run out of travelling jokes completely, going back to Egypt is not a helpful choice.  I could indeed go back to the Land of Pilgrims and, I’m sure, settle into a lovely and comfortable life.  But it would be turning my back on all that God is asking of and offering to me, all of the ways that I am growing and changing and learning, all of the impact I’m having on others even as they are impacting me.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off Lent.  In the Lenten season Christians remember the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus spent, itself an echo of the forty years of the Israelites.  We hold all of who we are to the Light in preparation for the incredible celebration of Easter, the central point of our faith in which we proclaim a risen Christ Whose love overturns even Death.  Easter is a party—but the wilderness is my current reality, even as it itself is shot through with Easters.

Walk the wilderness with me, Reader.  If you feel comfortable, let me know some of what your desert looks like.  Slough off the idea that going back to Egypt is going to help.  And please; remind me to do the same.

 

 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?   Is this not what we told thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.  (Exodus 14:11-12, JUB)

Christianity in the New Reality

Oh, Reader, I could use a whole lot of Jesus right now.

It’s been a hell of a week for Americans—for the world at large, really, since America has had nearly 100 years to wrap its long fingers around the limbs of every other country.  I have been disappointed by my country quite a few times, but this is perhaps the first time I’ve been frightened by and for it.  The reckless foolishness, the open childishness, and the marginalizing endangerment of the new administration—in only one week!—are exhausting.  My spirit hurts, my heart hurts, my body aches from marching around Washington, D.C. to remind the world and myself that I matter because I am a woman, not in spite of it.

And I won’t lie, being in seminary is not making it easier.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I attend a pretty liberal divinity school—far more liberal than I am, in some areas.  The anger and the pain of the students here feed mine such that we all starve from them, our very souls gnawing at empty insides because we see only that which is cruel, that which is unmerciful.

I do not know how to recharge from that.

dscn2067Because I do not believe that I, as a Christian or as a faith leader, can walk away from this.  A family member called me out earlier this week in accusation that I wasn’t preaching love, kindness, and forgiveness because I went to the D.C. march and am unapologetic about my reasoning.  But what is love that does not pull the loved one away from evil?  How kind is it to avoid confrontation such that others are harmed because of my unwillingness to speak?  At the end of days, how do I ask God to forgive me if He has to say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me“?

I’ve no intention of turning this blog into an activist space in terms of recruiting you to do anything, Reader; I have other spaces for that, and I hope you do as well.  Nor do I particularly want this to become a conversational space about which politician we dislike this week, not least because I am tired of having those conversations without the benefit of looking people in the eye and saying their real names.  For me, this blog needs to remain a place in which I catalog and describe the God-shaped space in my life and how that shifts and shines.  Heaven knows I need to be more aware than ever before of God’s constant Presence.

But I challenge you and I challenge myself to bring faith into all of our conversations in this new era.  Who is starving, physically and spiritually?  Are we contributing to their inability to be filled?  Are we ourselves, we God-made vessels of the imago Dei, trying to survive on not enough?  Who is parched, and how can we offer both water and Living Water that does not drown and does not cause further thirst?  Who is strange to us, and how do we welcome them?  How do we welcome the parts of ourselves that we cannot yet face because we have bifurcated our own souls, our families, our friends who are too “other”?  Who has been stripped naked, who stands in the harsh light of this day without rights, without safety, without hope, without love, without kindness?  Who is sick, who is trapped in prisons of their own making or of ours?  Have we gone to them and called them by name as children of God?

In the least of these is God.  In the greatest of these is God.  In the average of these is God.  In us is God, for in Him we live and move and have our being.  How shall we act as though this is true?  How shall we move forward as those who have claimed and been claimed by Jesus the Christ?

From wells of worship that never run dry, though we may feel as though there is only dusty earth at the bottom.  May God stand with you in the days ahead, Reader.  May we both recognize Him as He does so.

Help me understand your orders. Then I will think about your miracles.  I am sad and tired. Make me strong again as you have promised.  Don’t let me be dishonest; have mercy on me by helping me obey your teachings.  (Psalm 119:27-29, NCV)

Jumping Off Cliffs

The West Wing is one of my favorite TV shows ever; I love the writing, love the pacing, love the casting, love the challenge, love the applicability of it.  In the sixth season (it ran for seven), the president has to appoint a new chief of staff.  When he asks his chosen person, he says, “I need you to do something for me…jump off a cliff.”

Big news in the Land of Pilgrims, Reader—I have made my decision on where to go to seminary.

It’s funny; a lot of folks have been asking me if I’m super excited now or so relieved or really geeked about going, but I have to admit that after I sent in my acceptance I felt…nothing.  Not a bad, soulless kind of nothing, but just the utterly exhausted can-I-please-go-home-and-watch-Disney-films-now kind of nothing, the nothing that comes from having emptied myself.  Do you know what this feels like?  This decision was a bare-knuckle fight to the very end because it was so incredibly important to me and because I so very much don’t want to repeat the mistake of my first master’s program, namely attending a school for all the wrong reasons.  I needed to get this one right.

And I have no idea if I did.  It was a fabulous exercise in watching my words, Reader, to have so many people tell me how to pick a school.  They cared about me and this decision, I know they did, and I honor their concern for me.  But it was so hard to hear again and again “flip a coin and if you’re disappointed, you know;” “throw darts at the choices;” “really sit down with which one has a more solid program;” “go where your gut tells you;” and, of course, “go where God is leading you.”

It felt like God had checked Himself out for this part as effectively as Rizzo and Gonzo right before the Ghost of Christmas Future.

It wasn’t that I felt like God had abandoned me to make this decision, but it most certainly felt like He was letting me get there.  There was no billboard announcing the merits of a certain school, no magically tingly feeling when I read through the materials of one or another.  I had narrowed my starting list of more than 60 schools to five, then three, then two.  Still no open portal to where God wanted me to be.

So I talked to everyone else—or, at least, it felt like everyone else.  I talked to admissions counselors, to alumni, to current students, to friends who had known that school once, to my poor friends who had no stake at all, to friends I haven’t really talked to in years but who are doing some kind of ministry discernment of their own, to God, to myself, to my plants.  I wanted to be sure, you see; I wanted to be right.  God wasn’t telling me which school to choose, so I wanted to make the best possible choice I could on my own knowledge.

But time doesn’t care about whether or not you’ve gathered enough facts; I had to make a choice at last if only to free up the other school’s resources for some other student.  And I will say this about the process of applying to seminary as opposed to “regular” graduate school:  they care that this is hard.  I had several folks from several of the schools check in with me to reassure me that I could take my time, that they were there if I had questions, that they prayed for my discernment no matter the outcome.  (Legit, these folks were praying for my process; trust me on this one, after eleven years in higher education that kind of concern for an applying student is not something you expect.)  But I had to choose—I had to jump off the cliff.

One of the blogs I follow had a really apt illustration of that sense of heading off to grad school and how totally out of your depth you suddenly are.  I am heading off to yet more school, to incur yet more debt with definite uncertainty of work to support that both now and in the future of my denomination (as people love to remind me, the Church is changing), to a state where I’ve never lived with a populace different from what I know.  And the hell of it is that I knew all of this when choosing.  I turned down a school that offered me a full ride and another that would put me right in my comfort zone of people and places I knew, and I had to do that because I need to jump off a cliff.

It’s not about being suicidal, Reader, or even different for different’s sake as a friend accused me of recently.  It’s about knowing that this has to be completely different from anything I’ve done before or it won’t work.  Going to seminary is an incredible investment in a ministerial career, but going somewhere that you absolutely must trust God to help in the transition and accomplishment is a commitment.

Now I’m not advocating that everyone up stakes and replant themselves in order to prove their trust in God.  But I am saying that I have made this huge, life-changing choice, and I’m not going to be super geeked about that.  I am highly aware of what I turned down for this and there are parts of it that I will regret forever because I can’t do everything.  And somewhere I have to be okay with that; somewhere I have to say that this cliff is tall and the water is deep, but God is faithful and that is enough.

 

 

Have I not given you your orders? Take heart and be strong; have no fear and do not be troubled; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go[.]  (Joshua 1:9, BBE)