Self-Care: Self-Service Self-Salvation (21st Century Pelagianism, Come to Roost)

I have something to say, and you’re not going to like it. I don’t like it either.

All the self-care talk ruling the church conferences and retreats and seminars– just as it is in the corporate world, according to my corporate friends– amounts to something dangerously close to a false gospel. Let me explain.

I’ve come into the ministry at a time when… to put it quite bluntly… many (if not most) clergy in many (if not most) denominations are burnt out (if not thinking of quitting), overweight (if not obese), drinking too much (if not alcoholics), spiritually depleted (if still spiritual at all), and either completely overworked or hardly showing up at all.

“These are bad things!” churches everywhere said, when they noticed. “We must teach our clergy better skills, give them coaches and help them become fit, healthy, centered people so they can get back to work!”

So, here came the SELF-CARE SELF-SERVICE SELF-SAVIOR.

Would you like to be a healthier, more effective pastor? Thou shalt eat better!
Would you like to have a more satisfying spiritual life? Thou shalt work out!
Would you like to work more efficiently? Thou shalt take your Sabbath (however long, whenever, and whatever you want to do)!
Would you like to be more centered emotionally? Thou shalt… well… drink less, problem solved!

The problem here, which we all know but seem to have forgotten (I know I have), is that if you want to be a better person, a better pastor, you can’t do it yourself. You have to, as our Anonymous friends would say, turn your will over to the care of your Higher Power. You can’t muscle your way into health, growth, and happiness. You can’t army-crawl your way into Thy-Kingdom-coming.

You can’t do this. Only God can.

How many times have I tried to lose weight? I might succeed for a time, but then put it all back on again the next time there’s a crisis. If I rely only on my own mettle to make it happen, where is my faith? No wonder I fail.

How many times have I tried to get emotional/psychological help? I make progress, but if I’m relying only on myself and this other human being to talk my way into health, and not also on God, how can I expect true growth?

How many times have I tried Sabbath-taking as a means of solving my problems? Doesn’t it just feel like an extra lazy Saturday, to sleep and watch TV? Or perhaps for you it’s an extra busy give-the-spouse-a-hand-with-the-kids day, so that you end up working more than you would’ve if you were at the Church…

Here’s the thing… we have committed our lives to serve God. Not ourselves. We’ve committed our lives to standing up and saying, “I believe,” “I trust,” “I hope” …. in God, not in Dr Oz or a health initiative or my Planet Fitness membership.

Talk of eating and exercising as salvific (for our ministries if not our own bodies/lives) says, “I trust in myself, my muscles, my willpower,” and not in a God who has a great deal invested in our little created bodies.
Talk of Sabbath as our personal time to solve our problems and make us centered and catch up and rest negates the command for which the Sabbath was given: “Keep it holy.”
Talk of getting emotionally healthy without a strong component of prayer, of partnering with God (not just some random human with a masters degree) to help you break the patterns of the past, ultimately says, “I give my ‘life’ [read: career] to God, but not my heart, my mind, or my soul.”

It is right to eat well and exercise, but not for the purpose of saving our failing hearts or increasing our curb appeal when our pictures go up on church websites. It is right because God says your body was wonderfully made, and that your body is an instrument of prayer, of healing one another, of serving the Church.

It is right to take Sabbath, but not in order to get more sleep or do more yard work or watch more television. It is right because God says to do it, God commands that we revere God, God asks us to take 24 hours on a Saturday or a Friday or a Sunday to stop creating, stop rummaging, stop hoarding, and just breathe in God.

It is right to get emotionally healthy, but not for your own sake, or on your own. It is right because God has gifted and called you– you, with all your unique “baggage” and language and hopes and fears. You get healthy through prayer and meditation, hand in hand with a God whose dreams for you are bigger than even your own, much less your therapist’s.

Friends, let us not fall into the trap Pelagius set for us. We cannot create our own salvation, for our bodies, ourselves, or God’s Holy Church. She will not consent to our feeble attempts at salvation, for She has Christ resurrected at her heart. So too we should not consent to them either. We must have Christ resurrected at our hearts. Only then, with His power, His boldness, His will, His big dreams, His scary passion, His deep and abiding love for God’s creation, which includes you and me…. with those things and not our own, we will be truly cared for.

The Church needs pastors who truly believe in the power of Jesus Christ. The Church needs pastors who truly believe that there is something beyond this life of eating and working and drinking and gnashing of teeth. The Church needs pastors who hope, and pray, and rely on something– someOne– other than themselves.

* * *

Have you come across resources that are good for integrating the self-care stuff with Jesus?

My church is currently doing a series called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality that I think integrates it well.

Share resources, friends!

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.

On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

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.

Despair to Delight: The Natural Evolution of a Spiritual Retreat

The last of my journal entries I’ll share about my time at the monastery. I hope you enjoy!

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 2013, 7:00am

Could you imagine living the monastic life? Silence from 7:45pm to 8am.  Sleeping from 8pm to 3am. Four worship services, including a Eucharist Mass, before 9am. And we (absolutely and without exception including myself) can’t even manage to get to the 11am service on time!

The monks have a dress code, though I’ve yet to totally figure it out. One robe for Mass; another for the other services, sometimes with a white cloak, other times without it. Those who are still in the novitiate don’t get a black umm, …apron(?) to put over their robe. Father Victor, who as far as I can tell is not a monk but a bishop who has retired to the monastery, does not wear the robes but wears simple gray or khaki tunics and pants.

Footwear appears unregulated. The Abbot wears spiderwebby sneaker-sandals over socks, many wear sneakers, some clogs, others brown leather or suede sandals over black or white socks.  Rings on the right hand can be spotted, which surprised me. Most heads shine with a bald skull or at least a patch. Father Christian wears a flat black hat, maybe about 8 inches in diameter, that sits on the crown of his skull. It’s very endearing.

Most of the monks walk around at a very solemn, slow pace– as a monk ought, it seems. Father Christian, though, at 98, speeds around on his walker like a racehorse. I have only seen him walk slowly when trying to keep his walker’s wheels from making too much noise when he sneaks (“sneaks”) into prayer five minutes late.

During Eucharist Mass this morning he sat in his seat after it ended and said, over and over, “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.”

This is the same Catholic priest of a man who, last time I was here, prayed for female clergy, and this time for female soldiers and for immigrants.  He has two PhDs and a flat, sort of angry-looking face, but when he smiles you can hear angels.

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 11:45am

I’ll tell you this for free– you’ve not seen much of anything until you’ve seen a white-bearded monk in a red-blue flannel, jeans, sneakers, and a blue ball cap riding a bicycle down a gravel lane. It’s like looking a God on Her day off.

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 4:04 am

Picture this: There I trudged, puddling through the rushing rain, laden with Bible, journal, and Barbara Brown Taylor, a flashlight in one hand, umbrella stem planted in the other, instantly rubbing blisters on naked feet within my sneakers because the socks I’d washed and put outside to dry had only gotten wetter through the rainy night, lamenting and frankly worrying about the fact that I’d forgotten to brush my hair…. and all this was going on at 3:12 am.

And then, because ours is a God who loves to put things like unkempt hair in perspective and who also loves to laugh, just as I drew near to the steps of the church, out of the bushes ambled a large, ugly possum. Mercifully, and by some miracle, I was somehow kept from swearing aloud– this being a monastery, after all, and also still well within the hours of the Great Silence.

But I suspect there rose a great laughter Up There at the spectacle I was. And I had to laugh, too. Because what else is there to do, really?

*****

Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 8:20 pm

On the first day of our retreat we (the retreatants) all, independently of one another, gave ourselves over heartily to despair. We gazed upon our sin and greed, so frankly juxtaposed by the holiness and modesty of the monks, and we were duly ashamed. So we wallowed. There was frowning and deep penitential prayer, and of course weeping– although I suspect the weeping was more from the shame of not feeling more penitent than from the penitence itself. Isn’t that just always the way?

Some of us withdrew to secret places in the gardens, hidden by bricked-up hollow trees or separated by creaking footbridges. Others laid flat on the banks of alligator-laden rivers and ponds, as though welcoming a toothy attack as part of their penance.

When we all showed up the next morning at 3am bitten only by the cold night air, a sense of giddiness filled us all.  The night of weeping was over, and here fast approaching was the morn of song! We were reborn, resurrected, no longer slaves to our self-imposed punishments. We were free.

The scene in the gardens all that day was of frolicking, gamboling. We basked in the warming sun, daring the alligators to touch us in our new skin. We rolled in the grass, collected flowers and set them to sail on the still waters, and skimmed our hands along the tall grasses as we wandered through wide meadows. The prayers of the monks shot through us with fresh meaning, the Psalms flashed like jewels from our lips. We smiled at one another across the church and winked at the monks as they strolled past us.

We walked in the pitch darkness without our flashlights, happy and unafraid under the shelter of the stars. We drank orange tea and felt mystical and wise. At once we were newborn babies soaking up as much love and knowledge as we could, and also old women, dispensing and receiving wisdom from the ancient throats of the trees.

Tomorrow we will head out into the wilderness again, leaving this Eden guarded from us by the flaming swords of space and time. We will do all we can to carry this place with us, to be this place for those we love and those we meet. But it will not be the same. We will not be the same.

The Abbey, however, will remain the same. It is one of the most constant things in the world. After we are gone, the monks will have their services without us. After we are gone, new guests will fill our beds and our stalls in the church. And the monks will watch, amused, as these too suffer and do penance and are freed. I hope it gives them joy, the monks, to watch the endless parade of pilgrims longing and receiving in their presence. I know if it were me, I would be irritated by it. But they are better, they are kinder, for they wink back at me and they smile.

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.

Identity: Why That Voice in Your Head Is an Idiot

I am a fidgeter.

Well, let’s use a verb, not a noun: I fidget.
(When I die, I don’t think they’ll write “Here lies Erin, a Fidgeter” on my tombstone, so let’s stick with verbs, not identifiers.)

I like to be doing something with my hands at all times. I think this is why I like knitting. It’s mindless, if you want it to be, so you can do it while talking on the phone, while watching TV. Once I actually knitted in a movie theater. Yeah, I’m that cool. Don’t be intimidated.

When I had long hair, I twirled it. Now that I have short hair, I still twirl it, and end up with little unicorn horns sticking out all over the place. It’s attractive. In the sense of not being attractive at all.

I also like to doodle. This is the most socially acceptable form of fidgeting, I suppose, although sometimes people think you’re being rude. I once had a professor who put, “No doodling during lectures,” on the syllabus right behind, “No surfing the internet” and “No gum-chewing.” This, I thought, was a bit extreme. And I doodled a lot during her lectures in protest.

 

I always tell myself, and the people who give me dirty or inquisitive looks, that I fidget during lectures and concerts and things so that my brain can concentrate better.
If I can’t fidget, my mind will wander. If I allow myself to fidget, though, all my brain’s wandering power is concentrated on the doodle, or the knitting, so the rest of it can enjoy the concert or lecture or whatever.

I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to be.  Or at least it makes a nice excuse.

 

Why am I telling you this?

Oh, right.

 

Once I brought some knitting to a hymn-sing at the church where I’m working. I pulled it out of my purse casually… and then I panicked: Oh dear. Is this appropriate? YOU’RE BEING SO INAPPROPRIATE. How can I put this away now without being awkward? Are people staring? Do I look pretentious, like, “Ohhhh look at me! I’m knitting! Everyone pay attention to me!” Oh no oh no oh no.

It was a dramatic moment inside my head.

My fellow pastor Barbara sat down next to me to enjoy the concert.  I leaned over and whispered, somewhat frantically, “Does it make me a bad pastor that I’m knitting during this?”

Barbara’s response was BEAUTIFUL.

She looked at me– in the kindest way possible– like I was an idiot and said matter-of-factly, “No, it just makes you a pastor who’s knitting during this.”

 

….RIGHT?!

 

“Does this make me a bad pastor?”

I am constantly asking myself that question.

Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worshiping when I’m leading worship?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t prepare totally for Disciple and then have to scramble on the day-of?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I’d rather go play with the kiddos on the preschool playground than answer my emails?

No.

None of this has any bearing on whether or not I’m a good pastor, or a good person. It makes me a pastor… who sometimes doesn’t feel like she’s worshiping, and who gets behind on Disciple, and who like kids better than a computer screen. JUST LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE.

This is one of the hardest lessons of life, and if I learn it by the time I die, I’ll have achieved Nirvana. Or the Christian version of Nirvana. Which is probably the ability to make the perfect sweet potato casserole. (You do know I’m joking, right? Okay, good.)

What you do affects you. But it doesn’t define you. Just because I accidentally stepped on my dog’s foot at the park yesterday doesn’t make me an abusive dog owner. It makes me someone who makes mistakes. Just because I deliver one stinker of a sermon doesn’t make me a bad preacher, it makes me someone who had an off day.
They will not write on my tombstone: “Here Lies Erin, a Dog-Foot-Stepper-Onner,” or, “Here Lies Erin, the Worst Preacher in North Carolina.”
It’s a hate crime against yourself when you let your mistakes become your identity. It’s an act of violence. It’s identity theft (you knew I had to make that joke, there, it’s over with).

 

Friends, hear the Good News of the Gospel:
That mistake you made yesterday, it doesn’t define you.

 

Just because you sin, it doesn’t make you damned, or evil, or forever “a sinner.” It just makes you someone who made a mistake. It doesn’t negate your identity as Christ’s beloved.

 

Never let someone’s words– not your friends’, not your boss’s, not your parents’, and especially not the ones coming from your own mind– convince you that you are anything other than the beloved of God. A beautiful being. One who was created for such a time as this. One who makes God laugh and smile and weep and die to save you from yourself.

You are nothing else. Thanks be to God!

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!

Some things that are going on.

Note: This is not a post about ministry. This is a post about life as an adult. Or a so-called adult.  A quasi-adult.  Someone who still calls her mother roughly once a day.  (What am I supposed to do, figure out how to freeze meat without her wisdom?)

 

Things in my life that are not working properly:

— I have not yet turned on the gas (heat) in my home.  I could see my breath when I woke up this morning. I could not feel my toes.

— My computer’s mouse touchpad, shift key, and general good spirit have gone on strike. Also, every time I press the spacebar, little backslashes begin running away with my cursor.  Incidentally, the backslash key refuses to work in its own right. \\\\\\\ (<- example. What the heck?)

— The cat is furious about having been boarded while I was in Europe and refuses to be on the same floor of the house with me.  Currently she’s upstairs, probably plotting to leave mean messages about my poor parenting on my mirror in mouse blood.

 

Things in my life that are working properly:

— I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, and renewed after the pilgrimage to Assisi.  What an unbelievable gift.  I’m not saying that God lives there more presently, or tangibly, or densely than She does here in Charlotte, but I do somehow believe that the people there live more presently, and tangibly, and densely than we do.  (Note to self: cultivate spiritual density, as opposed to carb-based tummy density.)

— Jet lag has given me a new perspective on morningtime.  Did you know that if you get up at 4 am you have time for four cups of coffee, a personal MSNBC mini-marathon, and a load of laundry before it’s even time to get ready for work? Oh, also, some devotional time.  How great!

— Someone is here installing something on my water heater… or air filters… or something. So maybe … something is going to start working? Start working better?  I dunno, my landlord sent him over. Whatever. There is a vague smell of something burning.  I’m choosing to be very Zen about it.

 

Things in my life that are what they are:

— I’m still not great at personal life-management.  In fact, it’s possible that I’m worse.  My house is a wreck, I’m so out-of-shape (I’m looking at you, Italian pasta that ruined my life while also making it wonderful), and I’m out of Anne Lamott books to read (her new book on prayer, Help Thanks Wow comes out soon soon, though!).

— I’m finding that I really only want to be friends with those kinds of people to whom you can say– without fear of shaming, reproach, or anything but a good “Oh honey”– things like, “I don’t really feel like doing anything but eating a whole pizza tonight,” “Can you come do my laundry for me?” and/or “I’m pretty constipated.” It’s the people who frown and judge and say, “Erin, you’re an adult now. Adults don’t say things like that out loud,” that really bum me out.  I don’t think Jesus would ever say that.  I think Jesus, in fact, says, “Oh honey” to me a lot.  And then He goes back to His knitting with a little secret smile about my silliness.

— \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ (that was from the spacebar. It sends its regards, apparently.)

 

I’m not going to publicize this post on Facebook and Twitter. It’s just for me and you, my most faithful readers.  Feel special– you’re clearly in a different class of holiness than everyone else, most of all me because I hardly ever read other blogs unless they’re REALLY good.

And please don’t stop following me because I ‘fessed up to being boring, a mess, and potentially fatally constipated from all that Italian pasta.  You would be too, and you know it.

All my love!