Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

People of the Books: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“How on earth, Christiana, does this book belong on a blog about Christian spirituality?  It’s only an old nursery tale about a rabbit.  There’s no mention of God anywhere.”

True.  I think we both know that God doesn’t so much wait around to be mentioned, though.  Here’s the thing about The Velveteen Rabbit; I don’t actually understand this book.

I mean, I get the story line well enough—before Toy Story (but after Pooh and Pinocchio), there was the Velveteen Rabbit being a toy with its own worries and fears and desires to be loved and useful and fun.  But there’s this central concept in this story about being Real, and I struggle so hard with what that actually means.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a book loaned me by Interpreter, who has had me read it twice and I’ve read it a third time trying to understand what on earth is so important about it.  My first response is yay, that’s adorable, what a delightful snippet of childhood.  I remember having that one toy as a child that was not a toy but my best friend. It knew my secrets, it shared my adventures, it understood the days that I needed to not talk at all but simply be there together. Giving that toy a voice, a heart, a love for its owner and a desire to be Real—what a fantastic concept!

But I still didn’t really get what “Real” actually meant, which kind of drove me nuts because this book seems to mean a lot to people and I didn’t know why.  So I read it, and re-read it, and mulled it over, and thought about it when that one important page popped up on Facebook pages:

And I still didn’t get it.

Anyone who’s ever taught anything knows that you understand something so much better when you have to explain it to someone else.  I was out to lunch with Discretion the other day and somehow she and I got onto appearance.  I’m not beautiful by American societal standards, and in some ways neither is she.  This is a hard thing because we are taught to want to be beautiful—but that’s another conversation.  In this conversation, I was talking about how it’s okay that I’m not beautiful because my friends like her don’t actually look at me, not my physical self; they see the me who is their friend, the conglomerate of all the memories that we have together.

And I actually stopped mid-sentence because that is what it is to be Real.

I have the feeling there’s more to it than the physical appearance thing—I don’t pretend to have totally figured this book out.  But I am Real to God:  no matter whether my ears have lost their pinkness or my nose has fallen off or my fur has been rubbed to dullness, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I don’t have real hind legs and can’t actually hop, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I have totally fucked up the life I was given and the body I was given and am not at all like the human I was supposed to be, I am Real to God because God sees past all of that.  God loves me enough that I am Real.

Because I am Real to God, and because God teaches us to see other creations as Real, I am also Real to some other people.  I am Real to Discretion, and probably to Watchful, Hopeful, Magister, and Interpreter.  They don’t see the unkempt body or the mismatched sins; they see me, their friend whom they love.  And they are Real to me because I see them as the people I love with whom I have shared many adventures and long conversations and moments of holding tightly when I was afraid.

This is tough stuff.  The Skin Horse (who has been Real for a very long time and is quite wise) says, “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”  Either I am not Real all the time or the Skin Horse got that one wrong, because I very much mind being hurt.  This is perhaps why I get super stuck at the Rabbit’s conclusion when he’s been thrown away with all the other scarlet-fever-infested toys:

Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?  (33)

I’m still there, to be honest, because I am still velveteen and I want very much to stay in what I know.  My family loves me and I have to leave them, and that sucks, Reader.  That sucks a lot and I am in a lot of conversation with God about what that’s going to look like because what use was all that relationship-building if it’s to end like this?

The hope, perhaps, that it does not end like this.  The Rabbit meets a fairy and the story goes on; some day, some far off day, I will meet a Savior and the story will go on.  In the meantime will change, and there will be many other meetings in between now and then, and I may be altered by the next pieces of my life such that one of my current friends may see me and not quite recognize me but think, “That woman looks just like a friend I used to have…”

But I will never stop being Real because one you become Real, you can’t become unreal again.  God made me Real long before I had any idea what that meant because God really loved me—loves me still.  So to God, and to some of my friends, I cannot be ugly—in spirit or physicality—because they understand.

At least, I think that’s what it means.  The things we write for children are often hardest for us adults to grasp.

 

 

Rating:  4/5 stars  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print

Becoming a Born Storyteller

Oh, my dear Reader, guess what?

I preached for the very first time this past Sunday.

It’s still unutterably bizarre to say that simply because those who preach are other people.  I don’t preach.  I am not a preacher.  I felt this way when I was not a teacher but I taught, when I was not a writer but I was published, when I was not a runner but I completed a 5k, when I was not a soloist but I sang by myself in front of an audience.  It’s not so much that I don’t believe I’m capable of any of these things as I simply don’t see myself in those roles—don’t people realize I’m still an unreliable 15-year-old?  Surely I can’t be doing accomplished things; other people do accomplished things, people who have their shit together.

Except that’s not true at all; anyone who tells you they have their shit together only has their ability to lie together.  We are all of us tripping over our own sets of mismatched baggage, hoping no one else notices the duct tape on that corner where the zipper always slides open just a little bit.  So for me to say that of course I don’t preach when, in fact, I have, is kind of silly.

And Reader, you know what?  ….it was pretty awesome.

I don’t say that to ignore all the parts that weren’t awesome.  I preached three different services on Sunday and shook like a leaf through every one.  I woke up at 2:15 in the morning (the first service starts at 8) because I was wound so tightly that I simply could not continue sleeping.  My anxiety was through the roof as I imagined all the ways I would screw something up, let someone down, or—absolute worst of all—simply not say what God needed me to say and substitute my own words instead.

For certain I have much yet to learn, but I’m willing to spend a lifetime learning it because at the end of the day I was flat exhausted but content, happy to have been doing something that fit like a glove you know you’ll grow into.  And part of that was, as I said in the sermon itself, that I got to tell stories.

You may have noticed, Reader, that I love telling stories.  I’ve been telling stories since I knew how to string events together.  It’s my favorite thing, really—that and listening to stories.  I love hearing the stories that others tell of their first date, their favorite dog, the character they made up in the 6th grade, the dream they had when they were 25, the moment they found the right job, the reason they’re people of faith.  Some people are born storytellers, knowing every place to pause and all the right gestures to create a scene somehow everyone can see.  Other people grow into it, feeling out their own understandings of themselves and their narrative pace.  Still others never find their groove at all, getting lost in rabbit holes and tangents and never able to finish their tales.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have stories, though; just takes a different kind of listening.

The thing about preaching is that a huge portion of it is learning to tell stories.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been telling them for twenty years; preaching is telling stories for a new purpose to a new audience and also a fair amount of getting out of the way of the God Who has a much grander story to tell.  One of the hardest things I found when writing my sermon was letting go of the things I wanted to say.  I had all these stories I wanted to tell—but they didn’t fit, and I knew they didn’t fit, even if I couldn’t have told you what I was trying to make them fit into.  In preaching, I have to learn to craft God’s stories rather than rehearsing mine.

The constricted freedom of this blog is definitely part of learning that, Reader, and I thank you for coming along with me and for helping shape how I understand this kind of communication.  This weekly challenge to pay attention to the God-moments of my life is fabulous practice for listening, and your comments on how you connected (or didn’t) with my stories help me understand that I can’t talk just to hear myself speak.  I have to keep learning how to pull apart the extraneous bits to get at what needs to be said.

Today in the Jewish calendar is Passover, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt when the Hebrew people were “passed over” by God’s Plague of Such Desperate Measures that Children Died from It.  It is an annual holiday of Jewish people remembering who they are and challenging themselves to be something different—seder ends with “next year in Jerusalem,” that next year the Jewish nation will be together again in the land God promised them.  I get to go to a seder tonight at a local temple (srsly, I’m super excited) and listen to their stories, to the way they tell it for the first time and the fiftieth.  And that will likely make it into a sermon some day, because their storytelling will teach me how to tell stories, making me better at that craft.

Even though I was totally born with it.

 

 

And He told them a parable… (Luke 21:29a, AMP)

Lent, Week Six: Confirmation

I love that this fell in for this week because I’m heading off on a retreat with my confirmands once I leave work—mixed feelings about that because I’m tired as all get out from not having slept well and having a lot on my mind and in my life and Lord, but I don’t want to deal with kids who can’t be bothered to actually, you know, care.  But I also know that these things present amazing possibilities for the kids (and us adults, to be sure!) to think about things in new ways, to see new things, to grow and change and discover.

And that’s what confirmation is.  In the Catholic Church, this is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation (along with baptism and the Eucharist); it didn’t make it into the Holy Pair for us non-Catholics because it doesn’t explicitly show up anywhere in the Bible (sola scriptura, you know) but it’s still important in a lot of the mainstream denominations who do infant (rather than adult) baptisms.  It’s sort of baptism’s sequel, The Return of the Spirit.

Confirmation is the cognizant commitment to the Christian life.  For the denominations who only do adult baptism it’s part of that rite and so doesn’t merit its own consideration, but for the paedobaptists (didn’t know you’d be getting your Greek in today, did you?) there’s no way that the baptizee can make these kinds of promises.  The parents (grandparents/godparents/foster parents/whatever) make the promises on behalf of the kid:  we promise that we believe in one God and will raise the kid to know Who God is, we reject the temptations of Satan and will teach him/her to do the same, we will remain loyal to Christ and His Church and will nuture this kid in this family of faith, etc.  Whether the parentals actually follow through on these promises is kind of their problem (well, and that of the whole church, because in most denominations there’s a line in the baptismal rite for the congregation to bind themselves to this new creation), but confirmation is when that kid gets to say these things for him/herself.

So baptism has to come first (which is really fun when a kid hasn’t been baptized before so we do that and then about five minutes later have to say as part of the confirmation liturgy “remember your baptism”), but baptism isn’t the end of the story.  Neither is confirmation, for that matter, which is hard to get both kids and their parents to understand.  Confirmation isn’t the finish line of faith—it’s the start, it’s the moment when you step into your own as an adult (in the sense that no one is living this for you now).  It’s a pretty intense thing, especially when it’s presented as a true choice.

My church goes to some lengths to ensure that the kids going through the two-year-long process (7th and 8th grade) of confirmation understand that it is totally acceptable for them to say, at the end, “No thanks, this isn’t for me” and not become a member of the church or get confirmed.  I have been part of churches that did not make that effort, continuing to push kids forward through the ceremony as though it were just another graduation that you had to do where you memorize some stuff and suddenly you’re a church member.  That cheapens this sacrament, I think, even though most wouldn’t consider it a sacrament.  But it is; it is a sacred thing for a person to say either “I want to know more about this faith and will myself claim God as my God even though I don’t completely understand that” or “I don’t see these beliefs in myself and do not wish to swear to stuff with which I don’t agree.”  Both of these are holy things because both of these are autonomous moments of choice.

One of the really big Theological Things in Christianity is this idea of Free Will (well, unless you’re a Calvinist).  This can get a bit tetchy because of the whole omniscient-and-all-powerful-God thing, but for me I really love that there is this moment built right into the Christian life that says our choice matters.  We are not only encouraged but mandated to make a choice about where we stand with God—and that’s not to say that we can’t change our minds either direction later (trust me, our understanding of God has to be mutable or it would never work), but it is to say that we have to make a public stand.  For all the noise of 21st-century America, we don’t actually like to take public stands all that often.  And trying to do so when you’re 13?  Yeah, right!  You don’t even want to take a public stand on whether or not you like your own hair at that age, let alone how you understand a faith connected to organized religion.  So surely this is a special kind of torture that we enact on poor kids.

But it’s not.  “Tweens,” as they’re now called, have no voice anywhere.  They are just old enough to realize that they have thoughts that may not match the adults around them or even their friends, but no one wants to hear them.  They have no rights anywhere and are constantly told how whiny, ungrateful, lazy, and moody they are—I know this because I have said these things to my confirmands who most certainly have been all four of those.

And yet.

The Church—that monolithic scary thing that everyone says is dying because apparently no one has ever met a caterpillar—takes this time to give kids the space to say what they believe about God, which is kind of the most important thing.  We adults have done what we can to bring them this far; now it’s their turn to own who they are as children of the Spirit or own that God won’t smite them if they walk away.

Yeah, that’s pretty sacred.

 

Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.  (1 Timothy 4:12, ISV)

Lent, Week Four: Baptism

The Protestant church accepted two sacraments from its Catholic roots:  Eucharist and baptism.  The idea that this matters comes out of Jesus’ own baptism; John the Baptist (when you’re that good at something, it becomes all of who you are) made a whole career out of prophesying that the kingdom of Heaven was coming so you should probably take a spiritual shower—that is, be baptized and confess your sins.  It became important enough that Jesus Himself came down to the Jordan River for the rite.  This, understandably, freaked John out a bit, partly since Jesus had nothing to confess and partly since that would be like telling the pope how to run mass.  He knows this way better than you do.  But when John tried to protest, Jesus said chill out, it has to be this way.  So John baptized Him and a dove come down and God said, “Yup, this One’s Mine” and this is usually seen as the beginning of the three year’s of Jesus’ ministry.

So since Jesus did it, we tend to think we should (this does not apply to the crucifixion business).  However, because we’re human, we have all sorts of ideas about how to do this.  Should a person be totally dunked in order for it to count or does putting a handful of water on his/her head count?  Should it be done when you’re older, like Jesus, or younger because it’s a recognition of God’s grace being with you for the whole of your life?  Does it have to be in a river or other natural water source or is a water tank just fine?

I myself have been baptized twice, which is a bit sacrilegious and it totally scandalizes Interpreter.  It’s not because I was trying to outdo Jesus; rather, I got stuck in the mess of humans trying to figure out the holy.  I was baptized Catholic as an infant, none of which I remember.  When I came to the faith myself and actually started believing this Jesus business, the denomination I found didn’t recognize infant baptism.  For them, it had to be a choice you consciously made and a promise of which you were aware.  So I was baptized again—and I remember that one, as the water was hella cold and I got totally dunked.  In Church rather than spiritual terms, I’m glad I have both of these to draw from because I can have this conversation in a way that few others can.  I get that it’s not such a great idea to treat this sacrament like a spiritual pick-me-up that you do every time you re-seal your commitment to God, though.  This isn’t like the Eucharist; it’s supposed to be a one-for-all deal.

Someday I’m going to write an article on the use of baptism to legitimize historical rulers (the way history re-wrote the baptism of Constantine to more closely match Jesus, for instance, is pretty fantastic.  It even has some conversion of Paul thrown in for good measure.  Man, I love medieval theology).  I won’t do that to you, though.  I will instead tell you a story about how baptism ever so quietly sauntered into my life this week.

So I work with middle schoolers, which is a beautiful and frustrating and marvelous and God-awful thing.  Middle school boys especially are God’s gentle reminder that you are not God and that humans are essentially rebellious creatures.  They’re also the reminder, though, that humans are made in the image of their creative Maker, endlessly wondrous and marvelously curious.  It’s a wide-spectrum job.

We’re getting closer to confirming some of them (confirmation is another sacrament that I’ll talk about in two weeks; stay tuned!) and the lesson this past week was about birth and re-birth and how very often Christianity uses the language of being born.  Much of that is tied into the use of water; our bodies are made mostly out of water, the amniotic fluid that surrounds us in the womb is mostly water, the planet on which we live is mostly water.  And what gets used in baptism, the very symbol of birth and rebirth?

Water, of course.

Interpreter was teaching and decided to bring along a bowl of water.  It wasn’t to baptize the kids but rather to help them (those who had already been baptized) to remember their baptism.

Now, this is not literal; since most of the kids were baptized as babies, they can’t actually remember their baptisms.  But it’s a symbolic thing:  remember the commitments made on your behalf; remember the Presence of God that never leaves you; remember the faith into which your parents (or whoever was present at the original baptism) have brought you.  Remembrance of baptism involves putting a hand of water on someone or flicking water at people (so yes, this is one of the best things pastors get to do).

Since I was standing right next to Interpreter, he handed me the bowl to hold while he poured the water and explained to the kids what they were to do.  And Reader, I almost dropped it.

I was suddenly shaking with this beautiful and history-laden bowl in my hands, shaking as the water splashed into it and the weight of this sacrament poured over me, shaking as I looked backward to the baptisms I have seen and been part of and forward to the ones I will be performing one day.  It was one of those unexpected “take off your shoes because this is holy ground” type moments, and I shook.

I did not drop the bowl, but as each confirmand came up and grabbed a handful of water I trembled in that thin place and knew it to be holy.  The sacrament was sacred, as it is meant to be.  I wonder if any of the kids felt the same.

 

 

When Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven open. The Holy Spirit came down on him like a dove.  A voice came from heaven and said: “You are my Son and I love you. I am very pleased with you.”  (Mark 1:10-11, ICB)

Perhaps Sheep Would Be Easier

Pas·tor (ˈpastər), n.  1)  A person who has charge of a flock (lit. and fig.).
From Anglo-Norman and Middle French pastour, pastor, pastur shepherd, spiritual leader (12th cent. in Old French; French pasteur) and its etymon classical Latin pāstor shepherd, person who tends flocks and herds; in post-classical Latin also person who has the spiritual care of a body of Christians (Vetus Latina, Vulgate) < pāst- , past participial stem of pāscere to feed, give pasture to.”  (Oxford English Dictionary)

I have only ever had three career desires in my life.

When I was small, I wanted to be an ice skater.  I suppose this was my version of the desire to be a princess, since I don’t remember ever actually wanting to be a princess.  I did, however, fall in love with ice skating thanks to the winter Olympics, and I remember sliding around the kitchen floor in my socks and thinking that maybe, one day, I would be able to skate like them.

I grew older and realized my family didn’t have the money and I sure as Sam didn’t have the dedication for ice skating, or the desire to leap off of cold ice and trust that I would land smoothly back on the knife blades strapped to my feet.  (Children have the fortunate angle of not knowing things like physics; it allows for dreams that are much bigger than ours because they don’t get bogged down in details like probability.)  So I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian.  Someone even bought me an FAO Schwarz Veterinarian Kit for Christmas, complete with stuffed dog, oversized plastic syringe, stethoscope, patient intake forms (no, really), and blood pressure cuffs.  It was one of the fanciest toys I had ever received, and I’m pretty sure I declared that every stuffed animal I owned had heartworms and severe colds and broken bones of all sorts that year.

Then I grew older and realized not only that I wasn’t that great at things like science, which is kind of a prerequisite for medicine, but also that pets come with owners—sometimes, owners who have nothing but their pets and are horrifyingly emotional about them, or owners who have pets and don’t give a damn and are horrifyingly unemotional about them.  I didn’t want to deal with that side of humanity, so I looked at what I was good at and decided I wanted to be a teacher.

This isn’t terribly surprising, as the teaching profession runs some three or so generations deep in my family.  I grew up with teachers, both the ones to whom I was related and the ones I adopted as school became ever more a safe haven for me.  My teachers were, in a sense, my friends, and the difference they made in my life was and is incalculable.  I also realized I had a knack for it.  So off I went to grad school to be a teacher—a professor, to be exact, of medieval literature.  I was living the dream.

And it was a nightmare.

If you’ve been with me for a bit, Reader, you remember my complaining even as I had the job I had wanted for some 10-15 years, realizing that I did indeed love to teach but I loathed being a teacher.  It was a job that took everything and gave very little back for me, and I started seeing that I was spending more and more and more of my time at church.

I never wanted to be a pastor.  In many ways I still don’t, but it’s become painfully obvious that that’s so much a part of what I’m doing anyway.  It’s on my mind this morning because I’m sitting in my office (yes, I’m writing this in between work projects, shame on me) and paying attention to what I’m doing.  Sure, I’m registering students and switching classrooms and designing flyers for our department’s journal and a hundred other things, but I’m also listening.  I’m listening when my subordinate who has been asked to make a really tough decision about where her career is going comes in and tells me first of anyone what her plan is and why.  I’m listening when one of the faculty members comes by to show me what he’s going to do in class because he wants it to be okay that it’s a little under par since he’s been sick all week (though he’d never phrase it like that).  I’m listening when my boss’s daughter comes by and drops in my office just to say hi, because she’s a hilarious kid and having a rough time with college.

(And she bought me a cookie the other day, which just blows my mind in its simple generosity and grace.)

I’m listening when a coworker comes in in a tizzy wound up about some tech failure because her frustration is not totally about the tech, it’s about the work environment in which no one seems to respect that she needs the tech to work so she can do her job.  I’m listening when a student tells me that he’s falling behind in class because of family matters that have totally caught him off-guard and forced him to reevaluate what he thought he knew about himself.  I’m listening when a colleague talks about a sibling who is dying on the other side of the country.

I’m listening.

I had dinner with Interpreter Monday night, and I told him some of these stories and how they are the life-giving parts of this job.  “You’re being pastoral,” he said smugly, which is anathema to me.

And yet.

I never wanted to be a pastor.  Sheep are foolish and slow, and the shepherd’s life is filled with danger and boredom in unequal measures.  But there is much afoot, Reader, in realizing just how much “never wanted” does not preclude “will not do.”

More next week…..

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need.
 He lets me rest in green pastures.
    He leads me to calm water.
 He gives me new strength.
He leads me on paths that are right
    for the good of his name.  (Psalm 23:1-3, NCV)

Good Grief

I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for Charlie Brown, especially since I played Violet (Lucy’s sidekick) in the musical Snoopy! in high school.  Peanuts is not my favorite cartoon, since it’s a little depressing rather often and I totally sympathize with Charlie, but I do love it and I freely admit to watching the holiday specials on their respective days.  I find that Charlie’s signature phrase, “good grief!”, is sadly underused.

But what is that?  I realize it’s just a phrase of disbelief and resignation on Charlie’s part, but what is good grief?  Isn’t grief inherently frustrating and unwanted?  How can it be good?

No, no one has died in my life, Reader, if that’s what you’re wondering.  But I was at my denomination’s regional conference last week (hence no post, sorry about not really announcing that) and the theme of grief was surprisingly prevalent.  One of the reports spoke of grieving for the Church that used to be the center of life and the need to adapt to what church is now as it continues to change and shrink in some areas even while growing in others.  And that’s true, and I’m very glad it was acknowledged.  Another part of a different worship service remembered the pastors and spouses of our conference who have died over the last year, and while I didn’t know any of them personally, that is its own kind of grief.  And, in my own little corner of the conference, I realized I have been grieving the loss of my other life.

It must seem like an ad infinitum repetition that ministry wasn’t what I wanted/planned for, that I miss academia, etc.  I tire of hearing myself continually make the comparisons and “what if”s sometimes, so I appreciate your letting me have the space to do so.  But as I’ve been bellyaching about how God totally wrecked the stream of my life, I didn’t really understand why I was so upset.  Was it because I was afraid of this new direction?  Was it because I missed the old plans?  Was it because I didn’t want to “waste” the ten years of money, time, and learning I’d put into being in academia?

Yes, it was all of that.  And as I was sitting on a rock next to the most metaphor-laden waterfall I could have found on the campus of this conference, I realized that part of why I was upset about this and dragging my feet as much as possible was that I was grieving what could have been.

Here’s the thing:  I don’t do grief well.  I don’t do many emotions well, but I really don’t do grief well because it’s a messy, vulnerable, exhausting thing.  So part of why I’ve been so balky about ministry is that I didn’t know how to truly grieve for what I was leaving behind—and I was, indeed, leaving something behind.  I would be a great professor—that’s not arrogance, that’s an understanding of feedback I’ve received from other people.  I teach very well, I write pretty well, I present pretty well.  I could do that job.

And it would kill me slowly, but that’s not the point.  I’m not leaving that because I couldn’t hack it.  I’m leaving it because God asked me to, and just as when you move away from the house you lovingly shaped into your dream home or when your best friend takes a job on the other side of the country or your favorite cousin has a child that takes all of his time now, that hurts.  It is change, and it is new, and it is not what I planned.  So there is grief, because what I planned will never be, and not because it was detrimental or unhealthy but because God saw something different and said it would be better.

If this seems like something I should have realized months ago and you’ve been waiting at that conclusion for ages, I apologize for looking a dolt.  As ever, we are far better at diagnosing others than ourselves.  But by that pond, watched by a very cool but very wary heron, I realized I had never allowed myself the acknowledgment of and permission to grieve what could have been, who I could have been.  I had, instead, just been pissed off about it.

The amazing realization that followed on its heels was that God was letting me grieve.

He understood that I needed that space—hence the job that I have that’s academia-but-not-really, the incredible space I have at church to explore but still stay in the shadows (sort of), even this blog where I can muse without actually stamping myself with a plan.  I needed to learn to let go of my other self, little by little, before I could ever be effective or content in a ministerial life.  And so He let me do that.

And then He said it’s time to move on.

Because the thing about “good” grief is that it doesn’t stay in one shape.  You grieve what is lost forever, the same way you’ll always be in love with that first someone forever, but the grief and the love don’t look like they first did.  They meld into the wider tapestry of who you are, not to fade into unimportance but to bolster the larger picture of where you have been in the wide world.  For me, to stay in the place of anger and frustration is neither productive nor healthy, because I can forever grieve but I can’t bring that other life back.  If I’m honest, I wouldn’t want to.  So God says, “You have had time to heal.  Let’s get to work.”

And I have.  And will.  It’s shocking how, even in the last month, God has thrown me into conversations and spaces that are absolutely ministry where I am, not waiting to become A Minister with a Degree but being a minister with a heart.  A heart that grieves.

But celebrates in the beautiful tapestry still being made.

 

One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  (John 5:5-6, ESV)