Wholly Living the Half-and-Half Life of a Pastor

Let’s be honest, being a pastor is probably the most contradictory career there is.

We are to be set apart, yet we’re thrust right in the center of Church activity,

We are to be different (modeling holiness, I suppose), yet relatable,

We are to be a calming, peaceful presence, yet the energetic hub and genesis of great new ideas and activities,

We are to be humble, yet stand in front of everyone and be charismatic and engaging for an hour every week (By the way, a seminary friend of mine, Austin, wrote a fabulous blog on pastors’ words, and the part about sermons is hugely salient– and convicting),

We are to be Christlike, yet human, and

We are to be human, yet superhuman (able to be in multiple places at once, capable of delivering off-the-cuff brilliance in prayers and advice, wise beyond ours years, etc).

Sometimes the contradictions can feel endless.

This is the part where I get uncomfortably real. If you’d like, please enjoy this picture of a kitten and skip this section.

It’s been such a challenge for me to get used to life in the world. I mean life outside of school, where I spent nearly two decades, certainly all of my sentient life until July 2012. Answering emails, planning projects, coordinating calendars.

Life as a student was so blissfully uniform: begin semester, go to class, write papers, study, take exams, end semester.  Repeat until graduation. It was also blissfully stringless— I didn’t have any eyes on me once I got into college. I was my own woman, beholden to no one but the registrar, green-lighted to succeed or fail at my own risk.

Out here, there are strings attached everywhere. I’m having such trouble, my dear readers, remembering when to pluck all those strings, remembering to send my tin-can messages down them, and to whom, and how often. If I want to change the Scripture text the week before I preach, I have to contact the musicians, the lay reader, the bulletin guru, the worship planners… Nothing happens in a vacuum.  There are so many people working together in this world, and not for an individual grade, but for a communal purpose… a Kingdom-sized and -shaped purpose.

I very often feel that I am failing quite massively. I wake up in cold sweats and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, so deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice. I feel half a person at almost all times: half a pastor when sitting in my office, wondering if what I’m planning on preaching is decent, and half a person when out having a beer with friends, wondering if this makes me a bad pastor on account of I’m not at home reading the Book of Common Prayer or something.

I have lived all my life feeling like a fairly whole person: A whole Christian (with slip-ups every now and then, but on the whole, whole), a whole student, a whole daughter, a whole girlfriend, a whole writer, a whole friend. Now, though, I am called to this contradictory life. This half-and-half life, where you’re supposed to be human and superhuman, quasi-divine and totally fallen, set apart and yet set right in the middle of everything… naked with all these eyes and ears on me and my stupid, childish words that, in my anxious mind, never get delivered right and never live up to what I had hoped to offer to God and God’s people.

I’m never sure that I’m doing what I’m “supposed to” be doing, that I’m saying what I’m “supposed to” be saying, that I’m going around town or enjoying time at home in the way that I’m “supposed to” be going around town or enjoying time at home.

Eugene Peterson says of the pastoral life,

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

“[G]iven the loss of cultural and ecclesiastical consensus on how to live this [pastors’] life, none of us is sure of what we are doing much of the time, only maybe.”*

He then goes on to quote Faulkner, who described writing a book this way:

“It’s like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.”*

I don’t know quite what I expected

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Such a little lady

when I got into this racket; when I said to God, “OKAY FINE,” in the same way I said, “OKAY FINE” to my pup Olive when she nosed her brown eyes into mine at the rescue. I never wanted a puppy- I wanted a grown-up dog with all the training done and no potty-training issues. I never wanted this growing process when coming into the ministry; I wanted to come in with wispy gray hair that holds a thousand pieces of wisdom, and a knowledge of just exactly what to do.

I guess I knew that my life would no longer be that of a layperson, that I would have some level of eyes-on-me and new responsibility, in the same way that I knew my shoes would no longer necessarily be safe from chewing with a puppy in the house.

I guess what I was unprepared for was the drama, tears, and growing pains that come with the training process.

Both my training the dog and God’s training me.

When I dreamed of pastoral life, I dreamed of being a vessel, of speaking God’s truth even when it was hard, of sitting with dying people and helping them army-crawl under that picket fence to Heaven.

I didn’t dream of myself getting so damn in the way. I didn’t dream of having such a strong reaction to what people think of me. I didn’t dream of my self in this thing very much at all; I think I dreamed simply of God: that God would provide… and God is providing, but, and here’s the really honest part, I’m struggling to trust it.

So deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice, that I’m losing sight of how to do being alive well. How to do personal faith, trust, and obedience well. How to do self-care well. How to do friendships and kindness toward self and hot-tea-evenings on the porch with the dog well.

So, What to Do?

One thing that Eugene Peterson speaks of very early on in his book The Pastor is developing a strong sacred imagination. It is this, he intimates, that will keep you alive, keep you grounded, as the high winds rage and you’re surrounded by flying chicken wire and nails and boards and all manner of such deadly building blocks.

I wrote in a recent post that Jesus is one big contradiction… human and Divine, ever young and ever thirty-three, ever being born and ever dying, Judge and Lover, distant and near, unseeable and so clearly seen in so many ways…

So I guess it makes sense that the pastor, called to be as Christ to her congregation, would also be a contradiction. That this life would be one of halves: A life of “take this cup from me” and “I will go.” A life of  the quiet “Yes, Lord,” and also the gregarious “Good morning, folks!” A life of the mind and a life in the spotlight. Things that don’t go together, things that cancel each other out. A sacred imagination that can hold together the things that appear to be polar opposites, the things that can feel like they’re falling apart.

 

A Tiny Epilogue

Olive graduated to the  Advanced level of obedience class last weekend. This weekend she takes her first test toward becoming a therapy dog. She is also steering clear of shoes after being chastised severely for ruining my favorite Tevas.

I have begun getting my heart straight by seeing someone at the Methodist Counseling Center… something I suggest you all do, whether you think you’re nuts or you’re in denial about it ;)

I am also interviewing spiritual directors, after years of being counseled to get one. Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Maybe you should try…” Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Let’s think about this Christologically.” Someone to hear these thoughts, pray with me, and help me to “Go in peace.”

*Quotes from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to The Pastor.

A Day in the Life of a Pastor

Source: memebase

Source: memebase

Wake up at 4am, vaguely worried about something I can’t remember. Attribute it to the fact that the Board of Ordained Ministry is coming up…….. in two and a half years BUT STILL.

Call my father, ask him to talk me off my anxiety ledge.  He jokes with me about how all my problems will be solved when they elect me the new pope. We laugh. I feel better, am able to get out of bed, even take a shower! Plus 10 points!

Head to work! Pull out in front of another car and duck my head hoping my extra chins will hide my clerical collar, while holding up a hand in apology.

Stop in Panera, where a man waits respectfully for me to fully vacate the coffee bar area before he approaches it, as though I am one of those nuns who are so cloistered that if a man touches them, they get defrocked, or melt, or something.

Hear a snippet of a story on NPR about “home funerals” in which the speaker bemoans funeral homes as being clinical, sterile, and unwelcoming; thus, she says, the best option is to have a funeral at home.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Think for a while about the fact that church is no longer an option for many people, or even a category in their brains.
Consider crying.
Consider quitting ministry before the Church doesn’t even exist anymore.
Laugh at my silliness and lack of trust.
Get out of the car.

Joke with coworkers and realize I work with the best people in the world.

Read a long comment on a progressive blog which begins with a quote from a Casting Crowns song. Laugh, then nearly cry.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Begin a response to a friend on facebook RE: the “messianic secret” motif in Mark. Delete everything. Begin it again. Delete everything again. Give up. (Sorry, Brad!)

Source: reactiongifs

Have lunch with parishioners; struggle against revealing too much.  I just want to be best friends with everyone, but it turns out people don’t exactly want to know that their pastors break and bleed and suffer and sometimes lie on the sofa in sweatpants and wail. Or, conversely but still in the TMI realm, that we sometimes sing silly songs to our puppies about how they are a little bear dressed up in a puppy costume. Come on, that’s adorable.

Put on an additional cardigan because the world is freezing. Come and get me, boys; I look so irresistible in this clerical collar and multiple cardigans.  Ow ow, am I right?

Source: reactiongifs

Accidentally click a link to a terrible, terrible blog while googling translations of Ezekiel 16. (Seriously, don’t try this at home, kids. And especially not at work, like I was). Flush with embarrassment, and consider curling up and dying. Have to email our IT guy to apologize and explain. NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN INSIDE MY OWN HEAD.

Run into parishioners in the hallways and realize I love them more than I ever thought possible.

Source: reactiongifs

Call a friend. Spend a long time talking about the theological merit of a Christological view that really only takes into consideration the Passion.  Do we have to suffer to be like Christ? we ask. We (as liberal feminists who dislike pain) want to say no, but deep down we both think “maybe-probably-I dunno.”

Do my Disciple work. Realize I’ve forgotten everything I learned in seminary about the synoptic Gospels. Briefly consider just throwing the idea of “Q” at my Disciple ladies (that’s right, I have an all-girl group. YOU JEALOUS? You should be.) so they’ll spend all our time talking about that and think I’m smart. Realize this is the opposite of good Disciple-teaching.  And good person-being.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Walk the dog and call my mother. She says, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” We nearly cry together. I tell her she is one of the great lights of my life. We do cry together. So, you know, the usual.

Go to Disciple. Feel pastoral, pastorly, pastorish, and LIKE A PASTOR. Laugh to the point of crying.  Don’t even worry about being off topic, because if Jesus was present anywhere in my day, it’s here. Pray.

Watch some trashy reality television on the couch with the dog and cat. Consider reading my Bible. Fall asleep.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Lather, rinse, repeat.
Thank God.

The Abbey: In Which a Bishop & an Abbot Struggle to Put Up with Me

The following are 3 (the first 3 of at least a few more, I expect) excerpts from my journal over my long weekend at Mepkin Abbey, which I have written about previously here.

*****

Friday, February 8th, 7:00 pm

My stay at the Abbey this time is very different from last time. For one thing, they’ve instituted semi-mandatory orientation tours so that you don’t go around confused and anxious the whole time… like I did last time. Father Stan, the Abbot, lead us around paths and roads he knew so well that he walked backwards the entire time, looking at us kindly, and never once had to glance behind him to see where he was going.

He told us that the monastery was designed and built around these enormous live oaks, that in the process of building, they only had to take down one tree. “God took down a few others,” he added in an offhand sort of way.

I suppose I half-expected that I had romanticized the whole monastery experience in my head and that it really wouldn’t be that great in reality, or the second time around.  Well, I certainly romanticized it and it is slightly different, but that does not lessen its greatness.  Brother Paul has put on a few pounds (but then so have I!) and Brother Theophilus has exited the novitiate and is now a full monk with a very full beard, but Father Christian could still outrun and outthink me, at age 98.  The monk with the perfect pitch who serves most often as cantor smiles at me broad as ever. The African American gentleman always raises a playful(?) eyebrow at me, and Brother Robert helps me with the pages of my Psalmbook and hymnbooks, which are indecipherable without aid.

*****

8:12 pm

My accommodations are different this time.  I essentially have a whole house to myself, complete with 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two tiny but full baths, where last time I had roughly 20 square feet total.  It’s nice, but I am terribly far away from the rest of the monastery.  You don’t have to make any turns to get from the house to church, just follow the main road.  But it’s a long way off, about a five minute’s walk from the last cottage on the road, and so too from the last lights.

Of course there must be no lights along this remote part of the road, lest the stars be obscured.  I appreciate this in abstract theory, but in the distilled reality of stepping out into the void alone in the night, I find my appreciation dissolving rather rapidly.

The monks are kind enough to provide flashlights in each guest room, though mine was all but dead.  On the dark asphalt, it gave a glow so feeble, it looked like a shallow puddle of melted butter in a deep black pot. Not going to cut into the heavy veil of this darkness. As I am occupying this whole house alone, I went from room to room in search of brighter light (this, I imagine, is something like a metaphor for church, but I will leave that to you to parse out, dear reader).  My first and second tries were as pitiful as my given flashlight had been, but the third glowed bright as a handheld lighthouse.

So, off we trekked, my new flashlight and me, finding the night to be darker than I have ever known it to be. This little halo bobbed along on the cracked asphalt in front of me; I followed nervously, tossing my head back and forth like horses do when they get uneasy.

It occurred to me that I might be less uneasy if I could see a bit more of what was around me.  So, I swung the beam of the flashlight to my right and followed up and out along the trunk and limbs of a Mother Willow-style oak.  What was revealed was rather less heartening than I had hoped: mere feet above my head, even inches in some places, long fingery branches dripping with spidery Spanish moss hung eerily, reaching toward me.  Take it from me, if you ever have cause to wander around coastal South Carolina after dark, don’t shine a light up from the underside of one of these mossy oaks. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t recreate the terror I had in that moment.

I tripped and galloped my way toward the nearest cottage, where two more puddles of light were just flickering on, signaling that fellow travelers were entering the road.  I was flooded with relief and tried not to feel silly, a child afraid of the dark.

Jesus 101: Church is that place where one frightened person can be comforted by nestling up close with other frightened people– even strangers– and all their little flickering lights join together to show the way.

So here’s the interesting part: At Compline, the 7th and final worship service of the day, the thing which I was braving darkness and coyotes (or, as it turned out, owls that sound like coyotes) to get to, the monks prayed Psalm 91, which proclaims that she who trusts in the LORD “will not fear the terror of the night.”

And do you know, I didn’t, after that? On my way back to my little house, though alone and cold, I found that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight for most of the journey. What before had been black as coal now had a blue tint, lit somehow by those cloud-veiled stars.

My eyes had adjusted in the dim church, and what before had been suffocating blackness was now navigable, even beautiful.  What’s more, my heart had adjusted in that prayer-soaked pace: what before held terror and isolation now invited wonder and deep, mystical communion with God.

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 4:14 am

I continue to fail miserably at keeping up with the monks.  What page they’re on, what book they’re in… I grin sheepishly down until a brother (most embarrassingly, it’s usually the Abbot, Father Stan, or the retired bishop, Father Victor) steps over to flip pages, points, and return to his stall.

Yesterday I discovered that there are very faint vertical lines to the left of stanzas that call for evil, cursing, or judgment upon enemies (of which there are a distressing number in the Psalms), indicating that they not be sung. I appreciate this, from a theological perspective.  I do not, however, appreciate how fine and faint the lines are, such that I generally don’t see them in the dim church light, and carry on alone asking God to hate someone until a brother (again, usually the Abbot or the Bishop!) rushes over and stops me, as kindly as he can.

All told, it rather gives me reason to want to pray those hateful prayers over the editors of the books….. This, I assume, is not great Christian love.

 

More to come…….. and if you’re interested, I’ll be putting some of the poetry I wrote during my visit on my “Arts” page.

Hyperbole: A Post with the Phrase “Rage Burrito” in It

My mother sometimes gets mad (in a loving sort of way) at me for speaking in hyperbole, which I often do when it comes to my feelings on things.
“THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE,” I shout down the phone line when recounting how I got a free cookie from the cute sandwich artist at Subway.
Or, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and I feel like death wrapped in a rage burrito,” I’ll say when talking about plans falling through or having a stomach bug.

“Erin,” my mother once said gently, “if you say EVERY day is the best day or EVERY thing is the worst thing then when it actually IS the best day or the worst thing, it won’t mean as much!”

I get that. I do. But, dear mother, we shall have to agree to disagree.

 

Why so serious? My cousin and I playing serious at Christmas.

Why so serious? My dear cousin and me playing serious at Christmas.

When I was younger, though not much, I suffered from a great deal of anxiety and a fair bit of depression.  Oh, it’s okay, I feel much better now; don’t panic. But I awoke every day with a pretty paralyzing sense of dread and fear.  Everything seemed insurmountably difficult. Every activity, from things as simple as finding parking spaces downtown to filling out my FAFSA forms, seemed like an Olympic marathon for which I had not trained.  Everything that went the tiniest bit wrong was a catastrophe, the end of the world, and I was going to die, or worse, from it. (Note: I didn’t even know what “worse” could be, but there was a category for it in my mind, so my funny little mind made its come in that category!)

When you come from a head-space like that into a new, brighter one, it teaches you the meaning of being born again.

I have never experienced anything quite like the slow yet surprisingly easy transition from darkness to light.  It was very like emerging from a cave and blinking at the bright sun, trying to remember what color is and how to see.  I tripped along on feet that had long been shackled, but I was free– and it felt like new life.

 

So it would be easy and very cliche to say that I now enjoy every day, live life to the fullest, and see the positive at every moment. But that’s idealistic, and stupid, and impossible.

You can’t enjoy every day. No one can.  I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t. I don’t think when He was on the cross He was thinking, “Now how shall I find the enjoyment of this moment?”  I still have flashes of panic, days where the dark reaches its scritchy little hands out to beckon me back into the cave.  There are days that jut suck in all of our lives.

My new life tells me this: Acknowledge the suck.  Acknowledge your feelings– even the bad ones. Hell, especially the bad ones.

If something feels awful, say that it’s awful. Lie on the floor and moan. You’ll feel better, or at least you’ll have gotten it out into the atmosphere and no longer just in your head (your head is typically your worst enemy).
If something feels like the best thing you’ve ever felt, say it. Do a dance alone in your living room. Who cares?
Let your body speak what your mind and heart are spitting out.
Be hyperbolic, be inexact, be over-the-top.

I really envy three-year-olds for this sort of thing.
A three year old falls down: THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF HIS LIFE.
He eats a really delicious chicken nugget: BEST DINNER EVER, BEST MOM EVER, BEST DAY EVER.
And they don’t just think this, or make a mental note to write it in their journal or blog that night.  No, they shout it. They run around. They scream and cry. Everyone should know! Everyone should be in on this! Get a load of how much I’m bleeding! Look at these chicken nuggets!!

There’s an old Avett Brothers song that says, “I’m broken-hearted, and I think the world should all be broken-hearted, too.”

 

Christ said He came to give us life, and life abundant.  Life abundant is not a life trapped inside your head.  Life abundant is not a life where we accept the mediocre, and it most CERTAINLY is not a life where we see and experience AMAZING things like sunrises and getting a new pair of shoes and listening to a child pray… and call those things “pretty cool,” “okay,” or “fine.”  It is not a life where we see and experience terrible, heart-wrenching, gut-churning, life-ruining, or even just bum-out-ing things from school shootings to cutting your fingernails down to the quick and then trying to type a long blog post… and call those things “pretty rough,” “doing okay,” or “fine.”

You have been given this life to live abundantly. Why hold it in? God’s not going to run out of wonderful things or start withholding them from you if you acknowledge their wonderfulness too much.  And God’s not going to applaud you for holding your pain inside, forcing a smile, toughing it out. Those are American cultural values, not the values of Christ, who screamed in anguish from the cross that the God of whom He was a part had abandoned Him.

So when things suck, scream. Cry. Kick. Shout. Lie around. Moan. Don’t put on pants or makeup for days. Eat ice cream and order in Chinese. And pray. Shout to God all your sorrows.  Don’t worry about sounding like a 3-year-old. God likes little children, remember? Tell everyone at Church. Because the Church is the place where everyone carries a piece of the burden until it’s not so heavy anymore. (….And church ladies make really good banana pudding, which is good for heart-healing.)

And when things are wonderful, or even just sort of cool, grin! Sing. Dance. Whistle. Call your friends and shout about it. Because the Church is the sort of place where people share one another’s joys.

By conventional terms, no, this is probably not the quantifiable, measurable best day of your life. But yours is a life given to you to be lived abundantly.  And God is with you. So it is the best day. It really, really is.

Really.

Really. Really.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

Dear friends, can you believe it? Today marks six full months of ministry for me. While I am tempted to make a humorous list of the more bizarre things that have happened to me or bigger mistakes I’ve made, I thought instead six months deserved a bit more.  So I went back to the drawing board, or the writing journal, as it were, and I hope you will indulge me a reflective post.  I’ll offer you something humorous later in the week, I promise!

***

There are a great number of things about ministry for which I was very well-prepared: preaching, liturgy, hospital visitations, nursing homes, funerals, Bible studies, Sunday school, and charge conferences.  Seminary, as well as field and personal experiences, taught me just about everything I’ve needed to know so far about the typical weekly and occasional events of the Church and her life.  I know what Point A and Point B are, and I know how to get from one to the other and back.

What I was not prepared for was everything in between.

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

I was not prepared, for example, for the hum and drum of working life.

I was not prepared for the particular, abiding fear that comes with a job like ministry where you are constantly discerning and articulating your ever-changing “call,” and trying to either build a job description around that or muscle it into fitting the job description your ministry setting provides and/or needs.

I was not prepared for the constant self-evaluation and doubting that comes with a job in which personal relationships are 98% of what you do.  Though I am not the type to have social anxiety, I find myself panicking over every small interaction:

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

“Did I say ‘no’ with too much negative emphasis when they offered me wine at that Sunday School Christmas party?”

“Was I insensitive when that mother was telling me about her daughter’s disease and related bowel issues?”

“Did I laugh out loud when that man in Trader Joe’s looked at my clerical collar and said, ‘So you’re a nun, then?'”

I was not prepared for the elderly woman who told me in a matter-of-fact, almost chipper voice that she was ready to die and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.

I was not prepared for the battering loneliness– the daily barrage of never quite being a part of anything, because I consented, by pursuing ordination, to be set apart.

I find myself envious, many times, of those worker bees whose jobs are quantifiable, tangible, visible.  I envy my friend Claire who creates the bulletins for all our worship services– every week she knows what her tasks are and ever week there is something that she created that she can hold in her hands and be proud of. I was not prepared to feel so positively unmoored by not receiving constant feedback, syllabi, tasks, and results.

I was not prepared to enjoy the spotlight as much as I do. I have struggled mightily to recover any semblance of humility I may have once had– no one told me how hard that would be.

I was not prepared for the disappointment I felt when a baby was too sick to be baptized to be more disappointment that was not getting to do a baptism than disappointment that the baby was ill.  In short, here, I wasn’t prepared to have to fight so strongly against being a total, self-absorbed, emotional, envious, discontented jerk.

I was prepared for what I would be doing, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional,  psychological, relational, and physical effects of the HOW of doing it.

***

I wonder if my unmoored, bewildered, emotional feeling is kin at all to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  His prayers were so earnest, so devastatingly honest and terrible. He said to those whom He called friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He went back and forth, up and down– not this, Father. Your will, Father. Please no, Father.  Yes, Father.

He Qi, "Praying at Gethsemane."Source: http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/jesus_gethsemane-qi.jpg (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings... quite beautiful!)

He Qi, “Praying at Gethsemane”
Source: The Jesus Question (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings… quite beautiful!)

Answering the call, as I’ve said before, is the easy part.  Then you actually have to go and wander in the desert, or be nailed to a cross, or sit in an office and wonder if you’re doing this “adult” thing, or this “ministry” thing, or this “life” thing right at all.

***

So here’s what’s working for me to survive, even (hopefully) to flourish in all this.  If you’re feeling at all like I am, new clergy out there, or if you seminarians are feeling terrified by my honest account, follow these simple rules and you’ll be alright:

1. Read. Not just Scripture, although read a lot of that. Read memoirs, read blogs, read biographies and books of ancient letters.  These types of texts will allow you to inhabit the mind and soul of another person, which gives you perspective, and companionship, and camaraderie, and empathy.
My suggestions: Follow the hours or the daily office to get your fill of Scripture. Books: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Still, all three of Anne Lamott’s books of musings on life and faith, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (not her best work at all, but an honest and perspective-giving account of the pitfalls that haunt clergy) and above all else Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

2. Listen to music. New music. Old music. Listen to it in the office even if you have to put headphones on. Listen to the stuff you listened to in high school. Listen to the stuff the current high schoolers are listening to. Listen to Mumford and Sons, Bob Dylan, Esperanza Spalding, and Sinatra. Music lights the soul in a way nothing else can.

3. Limit your consumption of garbage.

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Source: United Methodist Memes

By this I mean junk: junk food, junk television, junk internet content, junk movies, junk phone calls with junk, gossipy friends.  Toss it out as much as you can.  I think it’s pretty true that you are what you eat, or watch, or say. So try to eat, watch, and say true and good things. (This, I’m still not good at. I just love pizza. And twitter. And the dang Sister Wives.)

***

So, at the end of 6 months, I’m coming around to the realization that being totally and completely uprooted, unmoored, and bewildered is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s not even the end of the world.  It’s an invitation to engage with a deeper kind of reality, the kind where Merton is more soul-soothing than a good Duck Dynasty marathon.

It’s an invitation to live.

***

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

Perfectionism and Jesus: Idol versus God

“I think I’m a perfectionist.”

“No, you’re definitely not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Yes, I am.”

“Erin, you just got finished telling me how you made Hamburger Helper with vanilla-flavored almond milk because you didn’t have any regular-flavored milk in the house. A perfectionist would never have done that.”

Pause. “That’s stupid.  Also, I’m never coming back and I hate you.”

“That’s fair. Just let me say this before you righteously storm out: You’re not a perfectionist, but you hold yourself to a perfect standard.  And then when you don’t do things perfectly, you beat yourself up.”

Silence.  Then, “Fine. That doesn’t sound totally wrong.”

This conversation with a therapist when I was in grad school resonates, I imagine, with many of you, dear readers.  Of course, you’re probably much better people than I am, so you would never tell her you hated her, but that’s why you’re going to get a better seat in Heaven than I am– closer to the kettle corn, I’m sure.

I would like very much, I think, to be a perfectionist.  For everything to be just so, to get everywhere right on time and never accidentally miss a meeting or double-book myself or leave a wet load of laundry in the washer for two days and let it get all mildewy and awful.  I’m just not actively concerned about things being perfect.  I have this go-with-the-flow, Jesus-will-fix-it-if-I-screw-it-up way of thinking.

Which is good, I think.  Trusting, and all that.  People get themselves all worked up over things that they won’t remember a week from now, even a couple of days from now, much less eternally.  The number of panic-inducing daily things that have real eternal consequence is very, very small.

The problem with going with the flow is that the flow is often not going in a good direction.  If I go with the flow of, say, being too busy or tired or chill to worry about doing laundry, three entire weeks can go by before I realize I’m out of clean socks.  This is not great.  And then, as my therapist put it so gently, I beat myself up over it as I scramble to do 20 days’ worth of laundry in one night.
“Why can’t you just be a normal human and do a load when the laundry basket is full?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me, you forgot to buy more dryer sheets?! Aren’t you supposed to be graduate-school educated?!”
And the perennial classic:
“WHOA, how long have these clothes been sitting in the dryer? You’ve been looking for these pants for THREE WEEKS, you IDIOT!”

All this is probably just a part of growing accustomed to the normalcy of Life As an Adult (rather than Life As a Student, where you had to get your laundry out of the dryer or people would dump it out on the floor and hang your underwear up in the common room).

But here’s what I want to know:

What would it look like if we could stop being perfectionists about our faith?
…if we could stop beating ourselves up over not praying enough, not being Scripturally-literate enough, not doing enough service work?

(Because what does “enough” even look like?)

What if we could stop beating ourselves up over that which we have done and that which we have left undone?
…Doesn’t confession assure us of pardon?  “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Move on. Try again. You are now freed for joyful obedience, and all hints of past disobedience are forgotten.

What if we could live in the now and not in the three-minutes-ago?
…if we could stop dwelling on how we could have prayed better over the hospitalized woman, could have said something more theologically sound to the friend who asks why God allows babies to get cancer, could have been kinder to the man who kept talking and talking in Trader Joe’s about his spirituality because he saw me in my collar…?

Here’s the end of that conversation with my therapist:

“So how do I fix this problem, O Wise One?”

“Practice remembering this: You are not a malicious, bad, or stupid person.  Everything you did or didn’t do came out of a heart that is trying its best.  You did the best you could with what you had at that given time.

I do not know if this is what Jesus would say about a past mistake.
But, luckily, we know what He said to several people who had made grave mistakes:

“Go, and sin no more.”
“Your sins are forgiven.”
And my personal favorite,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Christ does not condemn you.  Therefore do not waste time condemning yourself, whether by perfectionism or by beating yourself up when you’re not perfect.  Neither do I condemn you, says the LORD.  Now, get up and walk!

On Being a Loser

(Amazon.com)

A very wonderful colleague and friend named Claire here at my church in Charlotte recently lent me Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church.  It is a must-read, new clergy.  I can say without a doubt that it is absolutely brilliant, and I’m only on page 8.

It’s like reading a printout of those thoughts that pool at the base of your brain, those thoughts that you can never quite congeal in a digestible way but that you know are there…. Thoughts about your expectations for ministry, thoughts about your ability level and performance, thoughts about your capabilities, desires, and energy reserves.

Forgive me, new clergy, for outing you, but we are mostly a mix of anxiety, bewilderment, giddy excitement, and utter blankness.

This blankness is what concerns me the most.  The anxiety, bewilderment, and excitement make sense to me– we are in a foreign land.  Oh it’s a beautiful land, don’t hear me wrong; there is milk and honey aplenty.  But it’s foreign nonetheless.  I don’t believe the Israelites knew instantly how to cultivate the promised land, how to settle it in a prudent fashion, or how to establish their manner of living right off the bat.

But the blankness is something I’ve been struggling to find a Biblical basis for.

What do I mean by blankness?
I think I mean this wide-eyed, furrow-browed sense of wandering through the days that I share with some of my fellow new clergy.

We have a deep, abiding desire to be graded as we were in seminary, but this is not going to happen (and if it does, the most vocal graders will be those who are trying to fail you!).
So we are left holding empty internal report cards, unable to fit our performance into a category we can understand.

We have a deeper, abiding desire to succeed and do very, very well– not for our sake, but for the sake of God, the Church, our parishioners.  But there is always more to do, there is always something left undone– a longer visit with the widow in the hospital, a few more hours preparing that presentation to make it flow more smoothly, another phone call, email, or meeting with so very many people.
And we’re left with un-crossed-off to-do lists and the deep, resounding fear booming through our chests that there were about three dozen things we never even thought to put on the to-do list in the first place.

We have a yet even deeper, abiding desire to be in deep, meaningful communion with God, with friends, with discipleship partners.  But it is often very hard to find the time or the people to make these things happen, so we are left lulling ourselves to sleep with a quick prayer and the little voice rationalizing that “You need to sleep, God and your friends understand; maybe it’s even a form of worship, the fact that you’re taking care of God’s creation by letting your body sleep.”
And we wake up with deep chasms of guilt and great holes in our soul that leave us wondering if they can ever be repaired.

How can we fill God’s people when we’re not sure we can even fill ourselves?
How can we enrich God’s people when our own hearts and minds feel so funnily fuzzy and blank?

***

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on Matthew 10:39 in which Jesus utters that enigma that haunts both the living and the blank: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.”

Barbara writes,

In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live. (Leaving Church, xiii)

This, I think, is what the blankness is.  It’s lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart… not lying prostrate, because who has that kind of intentionality or energy?  Lying flat because you are exhausted, because your mind is blank, because you have no idea where to go next or how to get there, or even how to stand.

I and many of my new clergy friends spend much time belittling ourselves for the blankness that we feel.  We moan to one another in the most desperate of ways, “Why don’t I have the energy to read the Bible anymore?” “I just never know if I’m doing anything right,” and “I feel like a failure,” “Maybe I misheard my calling,” “Can this really be my life?”

What Barbara and Jesus seem to be saying is that this is all part of the process.  “Finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”

Jesus rejoices, in the Gospels, over those who lose their lives for His sake.  He says that this kind of loss of life is what leads to real life.

The dark night of the soul, the dirt from the basement floor shuffling up your nostrils and the inability to raise your head to see the angel of the Lord passing by… it’s not a bad thing.  It’s not wrong.  It in no way means that your calling has been revoked, or that you are not doing this thing called ministry right, or that God has turned, eyes rolling, away from you.

It means that you are right where you were meant to be.  Because Jesus is on the basement floor just as presently as He’s on the mountaintops, perhaps even more so.  Because she who loses herself for His sake will find herself in Him.  She who wanders blankly will find the holes filled– not patched, but filled- by His Spirit.  She who loses track of who she is, or who she thought she was supposed to be, Jesus says, will live.

Amen!

An Open Letter to Current Seminarians

 Dear Current Seminarian,

I hate your stinking guts.

Well, that’s not exactly fair.  I guess I am just jealous of your stinking guts.  Are you having fun buying your back-to-school supplies?  Are you obsessively scoping out your fall semester schedule and comparing precepts with friends?  Yes you are, stop lying.  I do envy you.

Yesterday I walked past the school supplies aisle in the store and sincerely considered crying, but thought better of it, as I was in the middle of Target and it seemed unprofessional.  This will be the first fall since I was, what, 4? …5? (is that right, Mom?) that I haven’t gone back-to-school shopping.  The first fall, in fact, that I won’t go back to school.

Don’t get me wrong, current seminarian, I love my job.  I love it so much that sometimes it gives me a stomachache.  It stirs my heart, it demands much of my soul, it inspires my mind, it invigorates my body (except for the times it makes my body want to crawl into bed for a week, like on Sunday afternoon post-preaching).  I love my job.  But I miss school.

I think I miss school because I knew how to do school.  I knew how to navigate it, what to worry about and what not to worry about, what I could get away with and what I needed to go above-and-beyond on.  I’ve been doing school for 18? years (okay, we need to get Mom in here for the calculations, STAT).  Enjoy it while you can, current seminarian.  The routine, the system, the familiarity.

Where in school I knew what I could and couldn’t do, in this, The Real World (not the fun MTV kind), I have largely no clue.  Seminary and college prepared me for the intellectual challenges that I would face in the world but not the practical ones.  I find myself making lists of questions for my parents and trusted friends who have more adult experience than I, trying not to seem like an idiot, about budgets and taxes and dental insurance and whether or not it’s appropriate to wear Chacos to work. (Mom says it’s not, by the way.)

Seminarian, enjoy the familiar worries about who has the Exodus commentary you’re looking for and if you can get an extension on your Barth paper, because that is much easier, MUCH EASIER, than taxes and health insurance.  And I guarantee that you won’t be able to get an extension on a sermon (Sunday’s coming, amirite?) and forgive me for saying this because I know it’s hard to believe when you’re in the throes of GPA worries, but the stakes are much higher with a sermon than with a paper. 

 

Dear seminarian, as the fall semester begins, buy lots of your favorite coffee, huddle up in your favorite study spot, and enjoy yourself.  Your full-time job is to study God.  You straddle worlds—one foot in reality and one in intellectualized idealism.  It is a beautiful place to be.

And this is not a scary letter.  I’m not going to end it with an ominous tone: “Enjoy it while you can because the real world is HORRIBLE.”

Because it’s not.  It’s really not.

It’s wonderful.

I straddle different worlds now: as someone who works in the church, I have a foot in reality and a foot in the foyer of Heaven.  As the summer winds down and I look ahead toward fall, I see programs gearing up: children will be streaming to this place to learn about their Maker, teenagers with furrowed brows and hearts ready to be filled, adults yearning for something deeper, the elderly and the dying grasping at wisdom and embodying it.

I rise on Sunday morning with a cup of my favorite coffee, snuggle down between my dog and my cat, and I pray that this day would be as high-stakes as I think it is.  That my leadership in worship, my prayer, my sermon, or simply my presence among the congregation will be world-changing, somehow. 

This is not to say that your work is not world-changing, my dear seminarian.  I believe that it is.  I just never noticed when I was in your shoes.  But out here, in the wild, it’s hard not to notice.  It’s hard not to see that this work means something.  I pray that I will always be able to see that this clearly, and that you will, too.

I still long for a concrete grade on my sermon, my visitation, or my handling of a pastoral emergency.  I want that A for confirmation that I’m doing well, or at least an A- that will let me know I’m on the right track.  I want the safe, womb-like community of my friends from my first year of seminary, shuttered away in someone’s apartment recounting early church theologians with wild, red, caffeine-overloaded  eyes.  I want the rhythmic, soothing routine of classes, the scheduled structure of syllabi, and the glorious rest of weekends in which I was in charge of no part of any worship service (enjoy those!).

But even with all the ridiculous anxieties and dramas of the real world—estimated quarterly taxes (whatever those are), having to clean your own bathroom (where are the housekeepers like when I lived on campus?), and having to drive 3-5 hours to see your best friends—there is still nothing like putting on that robe on Sunday morning and welcoming God’s people to God’s house.  There is nothing like knowing that you are their pastor, ill-equipped and anxious as you may be.  And there is truly nothing like knowing that God’s got your back, so that when you deserve an F on a sermon, or a visitation, or a pastoral emergency, God’s grace will still prevail, in spite of you.

Every blessing,

Erin