Wednesday Prayers: Classmates

I am hugely, enormously relationship-based. I love solitude, but even my time alone is often spent in relationship-- with God, or with beloved writers. So it's no surprise that, as I look forward to the beginning of my first semester of seminary, I'm thinking about relationships.

I'm praying, starting now, but hopefully up to and beyond graduation, that my classmates and I learn to love each other. If loving God and loving others is the foundation of our ministries (of our lives!), then look! We have each other to practice on. There will be scores of us, and of course we won't all become close. But we CAN all love each other.

I pray we learn to deal graciously and generously with one another, that we learn to hear what people are saying (rather than holding it up to what WE would say). I pray that we act both kindly and honestly. I pray that we trust each other, and that we earn that trust. I pray that we celebrate our truest selves, rather than dismissing our colleagues with superficial assumptions. The God who is Love will be with us always, among us and within us. May we truly serve that God.

Can I pray over your efforts to love and be loved? Let me know.


Bittersweet: Knees or Buns

I'm just thrilled to tell you that my friend Nancy is guest blogging today on Shauna Niequist's Bittersweet (part of a series I started here and here). She's a fabulous writer (published here in the Denver post, and on her own blog, Big Harmony). Nancy has developed that rare trick of being outspoken and thoughtful, and she's a kick-- both in print and in person. It's an honor to be able to introduce you.

Bittersweet: Knees or buns?

I enjoyed Shauna Niequist’s essays in “Bittersweet—Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way”, because they reminded me of the pain and joy of being a new wife and mother. I think this is a particularly difficult time in women’s lives if they choose this path in their twenties. Formerly an independent, care-free and out-to-change- the-world girl, a new mother easily becomes weighed down, beholden to the bully twins of guilt and worry. Suddenly, instead of taking the world by storm, the world seems to be taking her for a ride. She wonders: If I am no longer that confident young woman I used to be, who am I now?

I remember feeling exactly the same way. Looking back at this time in my life, I think the greatest horrifying surprise of young adulthood is the realization that life doesn’t owe you a thing. We have no guarantees. We control very little. It is by the grace of God that we are here in the first place and in His infinite mercy that we remain.

As Tom Petty wrote in the song, “American Girl”, we females, of the American middle- class at least, are raised on promises. Adulthood in America, particularly for young mothers, is a process of realizing that these “promises” of fairness and glorious self-fulfillment we were taught as children are, more oftentimes than not, fantasy. Easy answers don’t exist. Choices evaporate before our very eyes. In early adulthood, many of the soft landing places disappear. We have to learn the hard way.

God. It’s so painful.

I remember the pain. But, having survived that turbulent time, I have learned to trust in the one true promise: Emmanuel, God With Us, is always with us. Even in the chaos— the miscarriages, the divorces, the career failures—He never leaves us. This realization has given me a confidence I never had as a younger person. The confidence of youth is akin to the proverbial bull in a china shop. In middle age, it becomes Ferdinand, the bull from the children’s classic book, simply sniffing the flowers under a cork tree while the rest of the bulls wear themselves out competing and showing off. At this point, I am finally sure that my life, with all its imperfections, is unfolding the way it is meant to.

However, I still am not always confident in me. Her chapter, “Knees or Buns”, was a wake-up call. Shauna speaks of her young son and how, as the child rearing experts have recommended, she and her husband give him a choice of how to sit at the table. He may not stand. He must either be on his knees or buns. She likens this faux “choice” to her writing process. She may write at her desk or on her bed but she must be writing. She may not surf the web. Or pick up toys. Or plan that night’s dinner.

I love to write, too, but oftentimes spend more time on Facebook leaving comments than doing substantive work. I love having a relationship with God but can’t seem to pray regularly. Like a spiritual toddler, I want to stand at the proverbial table of life and just…do what I want to do, when I want to do it.

In my heart, I know that having too many choices leads to inaction and worse yet…a self-centered life. Although I know that Emmanuel is with me, that I trust Him, I still ignore Him. He is gently admonishing me every day, “Knees or buns, Nancy!”….but, I do not want to make eye contact. I look the other way and pretend He’s not there. I get all the way to the edge of doing something important in my life and I stop short.

Why? Perhaps, I fear failure. Or success. Worse yet, I probably just lack discipline. In middle age, I do not have the constant presence of two loving parents nudging me into compliance. I no longer have two small children distracting me from the truth. I have to nudge myself to listen to that still, small voice. And then, act.

Perhaps the trials of young adulthood prepare us to surrender our false expectations of ourselves and the world. As difficult as it is to let go of something we love, to sink to our knees in defeat before reality…I am finding that, in middle age, it can be just as arduous to get off my buns and become the person I have learned, the hard way, that I am meant to be.
-Nancy B.


Bittersweet: Stories

There are two myths we tend to believe about our stories: the first is that they're about us, and the second is that because they're about us, they don't matter. But they're not only about us, and they matter more than ever right now. When we, any of us who have been transformed by Christ, tell our own stories, we're telling the story of who God is.
-Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet
I suspect that most bloggers have encountered the discreet eye-roll from time to time (I know I have, and I choose to believe it's not completely personal). Blogs are self-indulgent, pointless, and filled with oversharing. I used to feel really self-conscious about it. Sometimes I'd post, but feel too embarrassed to link to Facebook (i.e., risk larger exposure). Honesty is also vulnerability, and I've never been particularly convinced that people would like me more if they knew me better.

Any encounter with human beings (including time spent alone) can be self-indulgent and tedious. But I come back because any encounter where we're being as open as we know how to be has within it the potential to heal, to be redemptive, comforting, and life-giving. Sometimes stories are in-person, and other times they're in print, but either way they're vital.

Spiritual direction is like that, too. ABSOLUTELY it can be tedious. But what I've loved about spiritual direction is the discovery that, just by telling someone else my story, I'm able to see God in it more clearly. I sit down with V, often not knowing where to begin, and by the end of the hour I've recognized God in a place I didn't notice before. I settle into her cozy office, stuffed with books, pillows, and as many kinds of soft fabrics as can possibly belong in one room, and first we notice God in the room, and then we notice God in my life. This past month reminded me of God's humor, something I'm often too self-absorbed to notice within the bustling corridors of my own mind.

When I sit with someone, the same things happen. Sometimes I learn a new attribute of God through a directee's experience, and sometimes the feelings that arise in me call me to investigate (at a later time, mind) something in my relationship with the divine.

Above all, I'm reminded through my stories and those I'm blessed to hear, that God accompanies us through everything, though we don't always feel it. Heartache, rage, fear, joy, all of it. Hearing other people's stories makes it clearer that God isn't a stained-glass, sanitized, prudish local official, but a big, messy, protective, tender mystery. We hear so many cliches filled with really dishonest, sanctimonious theology, and it's cleansing to hear about all the dirty, broken places where God has been with us. When I was suspended during my undergrad years, my mother passed one story after story of successful people she'd met who had done the same damn thing-- it was the kindest gift she could have given me. Their stories were my hope. My story might be your hope, or at least your companionship.

Our stories matter.

Hope and Mental Health

Mental health services in this country are a hot mess (and in rural areas they're worse than that even). The New York Times published this great article on Dr. Marsha Linehan, who has been both a patient and a provider. She's been there, and she's come out the other side. Thank God for her honesty, and her hard work. The more people talk about what works, how healing happens, that healing CAN happen, the more likely people are to get well. And that has long been one of my most fervent prayers.

Maybe Leo can explain better than I can why Dr. Linehan's work and story matter:

Fresh Shoes

I love new running shoes. LOVE THEM. Like I love new notebooks and pencils, like some people love new cars.

Though I am still healing, I am getting stronger, and I have many miles ahead of me.

I love all the scenery I haven't passed on them yet; all the trees, birds, squirrels, herons, creeks, berries, and dogs I'll pass.

I love the meditative rhythm ahead, the steady pace these shoes will carry me through.

I love the fast strides still unsprinted, the half mile at the end where we'll let loose together.

I love the esprit de corps they'll facilitate, the sweaty companionship that's different from sedentary friendship.

I love the way they'll strengthen my marriage. Running together reminds us of our individual strengths, and of the efforts it sometimes takes to stay together.

Running shoes: Composition of Hope in Rubber.



I've mentioned before how much I love squirrels-- remember? An interesting squirrel fact: if a squirrel believes someone has watched him bury a nut, he'll dig it up and re-bury it elsewhere. He assumes everyone wants to take his nut, and he's secretive and peculiar in response. He'll freeze, paw-deep in his soil safe-deposit box, cheeks bulging to triple their size, and try to look nonchalant. What nut?

I get squirrelly with God sometimes. While I was applying for the LTS/LGH Chaplaincy program, I was doing it with open paws. Whether I was accepted or not, I was in God's hands, and I didn't need to grasp at any particular outcome.

Since I've been accepted, I've gotten nervous that God might notice I've found such a delightful treat and take it away. (I bet I don't have to tell you how much this attitude interferes with gratitude.) Isn't it ridiculous? I'm just as goofy and absurd as those little bushy-tailed creatures. I don't really think that God wants to take good things away from me, any more than I want to steal someone's acorn.

I could give myself a stern lecture, but giggling and rolling my eyes is enough to make me less grasping, more open. Even if something happens to my plans, God will be with me, and there is good ahead. The mental picture of myself, cheeks full and eyes wide with faux-innocence, is enough to restore perspective. Surely, I make God laugh.


Wednesday Prayers: Taking Chances

I've got good news: I've gotten into Lancaster Theological Seminary's new Chaplaincy track MDiv. I'm really excited. I'm excited for SO many reasons:

  • The interview/application process was wonderful. I felt at ease, I was able to be myself, and I met people I really enjoyed.
  • I've had a small relationship with the seminary for years, and I love that I'll be able to do something new with people I already trust and respect.
  • I've been murmuring about chaplaincy for years-- ever since I began the Episcopal ordination process. It got shoved in the corner for a while, and started popping back up when I resigned. This God-nudge is not a new thing.
  • It's a brand-new program, and it's so fun for me to be there from the very beginning.
There's more than that-- honestly, there's so much more than that, and even though I've been accepted, somehow I'm afraid that by articulating how great this is, I'll jinx it.

And that's where my prayers are this week. They're half praise, and half petition. Praise for the exciting opportunity, for three years to study what I love and practice it. Petition for my fear and hesitation. I've long said that dating after divorce seems to be one of the most courageous things people can do. In the ongoing relationship analogy of vocation and discernment, I'm about to go steady.

Pray for me, y'all.


Bittersweet Introduction: Girlfriends

About a year ago (give or take), I picked up a copy of Shauna Niequist's book, Bittersweet. I don't know how to tell you about it, except to say that the whole book (even-- especially?-- the parts where I didn't see eye to eye with her) was like spending time with a girlfriend.

Now, I want to be clear: not all women friends are girlfriends. That's not to say those other relationships are unimportant. I'm grateful for mentors and colleagues, fellow hobbyists and buddies, but girlfriends are something distinct. There's a spiritual element to a girlfriend relationship for me. There's laughter, honesty, bickering, encouragement, but most of all, there's a willingness to know and love each other's souls.

Shauna's book (I know I ought to be using her last name, as she's the author, but doesn't that fly in the face of what I'm saying here?) isn't about girlfriends. It's about a holy awareness that life is bittersweet, which her introduction describes like this:
Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.
As Shauna talks about the light and dark in her own life, intimate spiritual friendships are central to her stories. Even when her relationships aren't part of a particular chapter, the feelings and experiences she offers are exactly what we share with those special women who show us enough grace that we can grow in front of them (which generally involves being in pain in front of them).

A few months ago, I bought 5 more copies. I mailed them off to women I really like: a girlfriend from middle school, one from high school, one from college, and two women whom I've suspected for a while have girlfriend potential. Shauna's book felt like such an invitation to friendship that I wanted to use it to foster my own. Three of those five women are regular writers, and so I asked if they'd be willing to use Shauna's stories as springboards for their own. We're all having crazy summers, unexpectedly off-kilter, so I'm not sure exactly how this series will go, but it'll be an adventure.

I'm often not a good girlfriend. I'm slow to reply to email, liable to write a letter instead, making the recipient wait a good deal longer than she hoped. I get impatient, jealous, short-tempered, petty, and insecure. But I feel called to be a girlfriend. Truly, genuinely, called by God to honor those precious women that I laugh, cry and learn with.

I almost sent Bittersweet to a few of you bloggy friends, too. (There's a strong Texas contingent that nearly got a handful). If you feel so moved, pick up a copy, and join my other guest bloggers in our series. I suspect it'll go on for a while (if only because of lackadaisical planning on my part).


Wednesday Prayers: The Big C

I just finished reading what might be the finest piece of nonfiction I've ever read, Siddhartha Mukherjee's Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee calls it a biography of cancer, it might be more descriptive to call it a history of cancer research and treatment. Fascinating and human, it was a remarkably well-told story.

You can't swing a cat without hitting someone affected by cancer, be they survivors or loved ones. This week, I'm praying for those with new diagnoses, trying to learn their new normal. I'm offering gratitude with survivors. I'm praying for those who have lost loved ones-- like my aunt, whose best friend died of breast cancer about 10 years ago. I'm praying for patients, caretakers, doctors, researchers. I'm especially praying that, as I go about my routine, I extend as much grace as possible, because those around me may have secret struggles, cancer being just one of them.

Will you pray with me?


A New Practice: See It, Do It

A couple of months ago, I was in a waiting room and stumbled across a great magazine article. (Several Google searches later, I still can't find the piece or the writer's name, so if this rings a bell, please help me give correct attribution!)

The author was talking about people who drive you crazy-- and how, as a general rule, if we notice something aggravating, it's because we do it, too. She suggested, when someone is driving you clean out of your gourd, that you write them a letter clearly outlining the obnoxious things that they do, and why you don't like the behavior.

Don't mail it.

Scratch out their name.

Substitute your own.

I tried it recently. I felt pretty anxious when I started (no kidding, right?), but set the timer for 15 minutes (because I can do scary things if it's only for a finite period of time). I tried to be as honest as possible (despite knowing that honesty was likely to bite me in the butt in a matter of minutes).

Here's what I noticed: I definitely do some of the things that annoy me in others. BUT, reading about it wasn't the terrible flogging I anticipated. Don't get me wrong, even as I was scrawling across the page, I thought to myself, "Well, crap." But the bigger feeling was gratitude, because I can't change something until I can see it.

I don't want to live a life where I fool myself into smugness and self-satisfaction. Discomfort is hope, because it's an indication of an unseen possibility, an opportunity to become more than I am right now. Jesus's command to take the log out of my eye first is not just a reprimand, but an invitation and encouragement. It's exciting to me when someone things I can be more than I am, and God always thinks that. This exercise is a great way to stay conscious of God's ongoing invitation to be more.


Wednesday Prayers: Tuscaloosa

I got a text from my mom on Monday-- she's headed to Tuscaloosa with a church group to do some tornado relief. They'll be down there for about a month. Mom is phenomenally good in any sort of crisis (and the week I got married she was damn near a superhero). She's had all sorts of relevant training, and she's an incredibly creative problem-solver.

All this month, I'll be praying for that trip. That her church is able to serve the people in Alabama well. That my mom stays safe, and also that this is a time of peace and fulfillment for her. That both the serving and the served are blessed.

If you wouldn't mind, I'd appreciate your keeping the trip in your prayers, too. Do you have anything you'd like me to add to mine?