I’m Reading the Bible Again, and I’m a Little Nervous About It

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I’ve started reading the Bible again.

Only 6 years ago, I wouldn’t have taken out time to craft a blog post about this. I would have just done it, because reading the Bible regularly was what I did.

Sure, I’d go through spells in which I fell behind for a couple of days, or maybe even a week. But otherwise, I was a devout Bible-reader, a lover of devotions and daily quiet times, back when getting up before the sun was (slightly) easier than it is now.

By the light of my desk lamp or under flickering fluorescent in the dorm basement, I would read, journal, and pray for at least 30 minutes a morning, devoting the time with all the gusto I could muster in those pre-dawn hours. I looked forward to these quiet minutes with God’s Word. I used to see so much truth, hope, guidance, and love in those stories and verses, whether I proof-texted them or did amateur exegesis on them.

I felt God’s presence in a way I never have, before those times or since.

Then the faith crisis hit.

Before my eyes, the Bible transformed from a story of hope inspired by God himself into a text of manipulation, fear, and lies. My faulty foundation had been built on those words and how they’d been taught to me, and they had been found harmful and lacking.

The devotions grew more shallow. The regular quiet times ceased. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible altogether.

After all, how could I trust something that had deceived me so much?

Instead of reading Scripture, I focused on service and worship. I connected with God through hearing peoples’ stories, in regular conversations and through blogs and books. I felt God’s presence when I mentored children, gave and partook of communion, gleaned food for local pantries, and helped people get free groceries for the month.

These became my devotions and daily readings, the living Word with me, and in many ways, these practices saved my faith from certain death.

Eventually, in fits and starts, I started to read the Bible again. I would halfheartedly begin my devotional practices but drop them once life became too busy. This changed a bit during seminary (for obvious reasons), but I read Scripture in an academic context.

However, contrary to popular belief, seminary didn’t further damage my relationship with the Bible. Instead, it helped me learn to love it again by allowing me to study and deconstruct it, to see how verses turned into ideologies and how context could upturn all of them.

In short, seminary taught me to love the Bible for what it is, not how I or any culture want it to be.

Now, after all that time of study and with a Master’s of Divinity, the idea of reading the Bible for my own spiritual health still freaks me out.

What came so naturally all those years ago feels like lifting an Olympic-sized weight after I’ve regressed to 5-pound dumb bells. And instead of allowing myself to simply practice studying again, I’m asking myself a million questions.

How do I read this now?

How do I read these texts after I spent a lifetime learning they only had one interpretation?

How do I read the stories of divine healing after I have seen and experienced unhealed pain?

Will the Bible push me deeper into the beliefs I already have, or will it make me become the person I once was, who I have fought so hard not to be anymore?

Will the Bible teach me to become a quiet and submissive woman after working so hard to be bold and confident?

Will I find myself chanting “All Lives Matter” and “America is a Christian nation” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin” in spite of everything I’ve learned about racial inequality, the brutal politics of our nation, and harmful notions of sexuality?

Will I care about any of the things I care about now, or will I cast those all away like I did my past ones?

Will I find God’s voice, or my own, or my culture’s, or some messed up combination of all of them?

Who will I become as I let this text shape me again?

I’m afraid to find out, because I fear the past me, the one who got so much out of those quiet times and turned a blind eye to the people God loves most: the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

I fear becoming the person who feared learning new things would make me “too worldly.”

I fear becoming the person so affected by the warped concept of purity thrust upon me that I spent nights crying myself to sleep because I had sex before marriage.

I fear becoming the young woman afraid to take on leadership roles because I was taught my desires to usurp the authority granted for men alone violated God’s will.

I fear becoming the person who would not embrace my LGBTQ friends as they are.

I fear that Bible-loving girl, and while I want to love the Bible, I don’t want to love her. And I sure as hell don’t want to be her.

But that girl and Bible-reading are so tied up in each other, I’m not sure how to do one without becoming the other.

In short, I don’t know how to read and love the Bible as I am.

I’m trying to figure that out, though. I can’t properly explain why. I don’t know if it’s the Spirit’s prompting, or because I re-read The Unlikely Disciple and felt nostalgia for my old evangelical devotion days, or because I feel like I “ought” to.

All I know is I’m doing it. And I’m praying, in fear and trembling, for it to change me, but I’m not sure how I want to be changed.

A Place at the Table

A throwback to encourage y’all to be who you are and find tables that welcome you AND those no one else wants. It’s hard work, but it’s blessed work.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about life lately, specifically my place in it.

I’ve been to church on-and-off throughout my life, and I’ve been drawn back to it so many times that I don’t just work with one; I’m now planning to pursue a seminary degree so I can one day lead one.

It’s exciting. And nerve-wracking. And I honestly don’t know if I’ll get the money to do it.

But the thing I’m most worried about is…where is my place?

Where is my place in the Church? And in this crazy journey called life?

Where is the place for the girl who:

Watches The Simpsons and Family Guy over Veggie Tails and CTN?

Swears, thinks, worries, doubt, and talks a little too much?

Fawned over Lion King and Peter Ban instead of Belle and Cinderella?

Obsessively read Harry Potter when told it was bad?

Gets excited over the Banned Books list?

Comes from a very non-traditional family?

Pursued a degree in Philosophy and Religion over…anything practical?

Struggled with God, mercy, justice, love, equality throughout the years of being surrounded by those who seemed so certain?

Played in the marching band instead of sports?

Wants to lead boldly instead of submit quietly?

I’ve made my places at tables before. At church the spots seemed readily available, even in leadership. In band, I made my place by performing better (or worse) than others in my section.

But when it comes to Church, to ministry, to making my place in this world and giving life back after being given so much, there seems to simultaneously be too much space available and not enough.

I have so many dreams and ideas but am not sure which ones to pursue. I have so many fears and insecurities that I feel limited. I feel pressure from myself and “society” to make a decision now, and my feet are frozen in doubt.

I know a bit of what my place is not. I know I cannot work in an office, or simply be a scholar, or only be deemed worthy as someone’s wife and mother.

I also know the craziness and chaos of life in ministry. I worry that the constant pouring into others will drain me to unforgivable exhaustion, and I fear the harsh words from those who question whether or not I’m fit for my vocation, for every reason from my sex to my story.

But if I say with so many others that Jesus makes room for everyone at His Table, and if everyone truly means everyone, from the sinners and saints, the rich and poor, the gay and straight, the USA and the world, Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Jews, I’ve got to accept that I’m part of that glorious Everyone, too.

But where will I sit at such an elaborate table?

Guiding Stars

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Blogspot

My 2017 started with preaching! I delivered this sermon on 1/1/17 to the Shenandoah United Methodist Charge (Fields UMC and Christ UMC) at the 9:30 AM and 11 AM services respectively, where I also serve as secretary.

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Epiphanies are manifestations, striking appearances which appear to us quietly or crash into us in the midst of ordinary life. They are minor and necessary disturbances.

That’s why today is known as “Epiphany Sunday,” because we remember the striking appearance of the star which led the wise men to Jesus. This is the day we remember how the foreigners, not the Jews of Jesus’ time, discovered the epiphany of the word of God made flesh.

Today is also the first day of this new year, 2017. The last year has been, for many, tumultuous and exhausting, filled with loss and pain. This day, we hope to begin a new year with clean slates and hearts full of hope. No matter what the previous year was like, we hope each new year will be better than the last.

So on the same day, we celebrate both the joy of a group of outsiders finding Jesus and the beginning of a new year after one of much division and fear. We are both celebrating and searching for Epiphany.

This is very much like my own faith journey. I have encountered beautiful manifestations of Christ and sought his presence simultaneously.

I grew up in a Pentecostal church and had the love and support of my small group, youth pastor, and best friend. Together, they helped me find God in ways I didn’t expect. In many ways, they were the stars that guided me at this point in my faith journey. One of the ways they significantly directed me was in my decision to attend an event called Winterfest when I was 15.

Winterfest was the ultimate Pentecostal revival and unofficial initiation for the high school members of my youth group. I remember seeing videos from the previous Winterfests, showcasing fun days spent at Pigeon Forge adventure park and passionate nights being “slain in the Spirit.” Despite my initial discomfort with such public displays of spiritual affection, my curiosity got the better of me, and I signed up my freshman year.

The weekend culminated in an intense sermon given by a fiery pastor, his powerful message amplified by four JumboTron screens. I knew the man had set the stage for a true Pentecostal conversion and felt the passionate emotions rising within me. 

But the Pentecostal switch didn’t flip in me. Despite the passion and conviction I felt, the “real” experience wasn’t happening. I was on the outside looking in at this ecstatic group as the Spirit rained down on them, thinking God had abandoned me.

I was lonely in this crowded arena, so I sulked away to an emptier part of the stadium and made my own solo efforts of prayer, petition, and grumbling to God. I begged for the love and presence of God that supposedly never failed, left, or gave up on me.

Eventually I did find myself on my knees and crying, but instead of tears of spiritual ecstasy, mine were tears of abandonment and loneliness.

In my desperation, my high school small group gathered around me. I felt their hands upon me, heard their whispered prayers of encouragement and love, just as I had during our weekly meetings. I found myself surrounded by the ones who knew my own insecurities and crushing anxieties. When I opened my eyes and saw them around me, I heard the words that began to heal my wounds: You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.

These were the words of God, who I so desperately wanted to meet but feared. And he quietly met me where I was in my stadium section, surrounded by a group of people who loved me.

This experience of epiphany first brought me to God. This epiphany manifested in a quiet moment made so powerful by God’s love, and my small group friends helped make it happen.

I experienced another, but more drawn out and, on the surface, less joyful epiphany during my senior year at Bridgewater College.

I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester, and our topic was Clashes of Culture. To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to rip the rug of my faith from under my feet, turning everything which I held dear as the bedrock of my life into out-dated rags fit for no one.

I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project, and I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.

The mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, my faith would die.

Then I found a counselor at school named Randy. He wasn’t threatened by my questions, and he prayed with me at the end of each session. I remember talking to him about my doubts, and we started talking about Thomas, the disciple. I had always thought Thomas was a bad example for “good Christian people,” and I worried because I found myself relating a lot to him, but Randy challenged that notion. To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained true and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expressed the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.

In acknowledging my doubts, I fond life. I refused to let my faith die. It became alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.

So as I started wrestling with my questions, I realized I was finding God in service to others. I found God in the children who came to the mentoring program I coordinated, the ones deemed “at-risk,” who came from families where English wasn’t the first language or from single-parent or low income families. I met refugees and homeless people and shared stories with them. I went to seminary and befriended professors and students alike who had steadfast faith and still asked a lot of honest questions. I found out God loved all of these people, and God gave me a calling to be their pastor.

At Winterfest, God told me, “You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.” During my crisis and the troubled times within it, God told me “They are not alone. I am with them. I will always be with them.”

Both of my Epiphany moments taught me about Emmanuel, God with us, and both have been significant to my faith journey. In one, God reminded me of God’s presence with and love for me, and in the other, God reminded me of God’s presence with and love for others, especially the ones I feared and disliked. In one, God began my salvation journey, and in another, God began calling me to ministry, both of which continue to unfold. The two are not exclusive. 

So as we begin a new year, and as we remember the Epiphany, of the wise men finally finding Jesus and giving him their gifts to commemorate his status as once and future king of Creation, how will we take on new chances to serve and worship God?

This year, let us ask ourselves, as we should each year: What gifts will I bring to God? How will I do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God each day? In what areas is God calling me to grow in awareness of God’s presence? How will I become more aware of epiphanies every day and keep my heart open to God’s daily revelations?\

As is the case with my story, all epiphanies are powerful, but not all of them are pleasant. They can be gentle, and they can be tough. They can lift us up, and they can humble us. They can comfort us, and they can challenge the things we hold most dear and certain.

But they are always there, and God is always revealing them to us. How will we become more aware of them this year, by God’s grace?

An Open Letter to a Nosy Customer at Jimmy John’s

A post from 3 years ago, in which I had a less than pleasant conversation with a customer at Jimmy John’s, where I worked for a year after college graduation.

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Dear Nosy Customer,

Yesterday afternoon, you asked me an innocent enough question: “How long has this Jimmy John’s been open?”

After I answered your first innocent question, you asked me another seemingly innocent question: “Are all of the schools out?”

Being the polite worker that I am, I informed you that JMU and EMU had finished classes and exams, but Bridgewater hadn’t. I then told you I went to BC.

Then came your third could-be-innocent-but-moreso-nosy question: “What was your degree?”

And even though I could have guessed where this conversation was leading, and even though I guessed that it wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, I put my best customer service skills to work and told you: “Philosophy and Religion.”

I was just doing my job. I was being polite and courteous to you, the customer, who is apparently always right. And how did you repay me?

You then asked the rudest, most despised, obnoxious, and nosy question that anyone, from absolute stranger to dearest friend, could ever ask:

“So what are you going to do with that?”

As if that weren’t intrusive enough, you went on to offend me further by saying, “Just gonna work at Jimmy John’s your entire life?”

You see, good sir, I work with lots of annoying, obnoxious customers day in and day out. I encounter people at my other job complaining that we don’t have enough items (yes, there are things you cannot find at BED BATH AND BEYOND) or need just one more coupon to save just 5 more dollars. I deal with people who didn’t get the proper amount of oregano on their sandwich or are disgusted with the fact that we don’t have salt and pepper. And I coordinate a mentoring program for kids from the rougher sides of the streets, who don’t always have the best manners and give a whole new meaning to the world “holy chaos.”

But to be entirely honest, your comment was the most obnoxious, rude, and intrusive one I’ve received in a long time. And trust me, those kiddos I work with have some choice words during those rougher weeks.

You know why your comment was so offensive to me?

Because I ask myself that question every damn day of my life.

What am I doing with my life? Why am I working two part-time jobs and coordinating a mentoring program after spending 4 expensive years at college? Why am I barely making rent and other payments when the college kids I work with have money to spare on liquor-filled weekends? What is my life going to look like 5 years down the road? Do I even dare look that far ahead? What’s the next step? Where do I go from here?

You see, I think the reason you pissed me off so much yesterday is because I see so much of my own skepticism about my life in your comment. And I hear so much of the world’s skepticism in your words. Whether or not the world’s skepticism is real or imagined, its nagging constantly in my ears.

And it sounds an awful lot like you. But even more so, it sounds an awful lot like me. 

I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm. I’m sure you’re a nice guy and have a lot of people in your life that love you dearly. And even if you’re not nice and don’t have a lot of people surrounding you, you’re a gift.

And to be entirely honest, even though I hate that question and others like it and I try so hard to not say it to people who have just graduated, I still ask it. And more often than not, I’m a little judgey about it. And to be even more honest, as I see my friends and peers getting engaged and married, going to grad school, starting families, getting cool new jobs, etc., I’m more than the teensiest bit jealous. Because I want that, and I don’t know if it’s mine to have, or when it’s mine to have.

But please, please, PLEASE…Don’t ever repeat that comment ever again. Not to me, not to any recent graduate in any stage of life, not to any person stuck in a seemingly “menial” job (or multiple ones at that), not even to anyone who seems to have it all together.

Because I have a feeling that no matter what stage of life we’re in, we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, and we don’t always know why we do what we do. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever a stage in life when we have it “all together.” I used to think that when I got to this age, I’d have it all together, and from this letter I just posted, you can already see that I’m nowhere near that stage.

I think we’re just living moment by moment, day by day, hoping that each little decision we make pushes us more to where we need to be.

So yeah. No hard feelings. But please, think before you speak.

Much love and hoping for a better conversation should we meet again,

Lindsay

My Faith is Solid…and This Worries Me

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My senior year of college threw me into a major faith crisis. It was the year I took my most challenging classes, heard the most upsetting insights, and asked my hardest questions.

During that time, I began to question everything from my conservative Pentecostal upbringing. And in this case, “everything” is not much of an exaggeration.

I poked holes and made cracks in all aspects of my theology to see what would stay in tact and what would crumble. Unfortunately for me, most of it crumbled. I found out very fast that what I had thought was my rock solid foundation consisted of sand, and I began to sink into its mire.

I pondered predestination and free will, religion and science, the “debates” about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ equality, and the culture wars. I wondered about the legitimacy of doctrinal “facts” like the Trinity, the inerrant word of God, salvation through Christ alone, and whether or not women should pursue leadership roles (I actually wrote my thesis about this topic).

These questions of crisis kept me fearful and skeptical of the Church for many years. Engaging with my home community was too much for me. There was no room for questions, doubts, or even different opinions. Instead of trying to make some change from within, I ran away from the community which had once been my home, and I still have yet to return.

Fortunately, my journey led me to many brothers and sisters of the Christian faith who gave me space to ponder, wonder about, and tinker with my faith. They heard my questions, and when necessary, they offered new insights to consider. They told me I didn’t have to look at things through the black and white, right and wrong lens of my upbringing. They taught me new, life-giving, colorful ways to interpret the Scriptures, live as the Church, and follow Jesus. They taught me about the harsh realities of racism, sexism, and elitism I had been taught were long dead, and they taught me how prayer and protest go hand in hand. They let me create and lead. They swore, did theater, loved books and comics, and prayed. They seemed like authentic human beings, not the carbon-copy perfect Christians to whom I had been accustomed.

I met these people in school and church, in the theater and in the classroom, on the streets, in student apartments, and in cushy homes. They guided me through seminary and the faith communities I joined. They helped me find God and faith anew.

Now, I’m out of the faith crisis and living into a more solid, steady, and real faith. I still have questions, but now I feel more comfortable with some things being unresolved and have a firmer understanding in what I do and don’t believe. I continue to be irreverent while revering the sacred Presence around and within us. My prayers are more consistent, and they are full of joy, lament, and honesty. I feel closer to God and the Church than I have for the better part of 5 years.

And this worries me.

While in faith crisis mode, things were new and uncertain. Everything from whether or not I would remain in the Church to which authors I would revere was under question every day. Now that the ground beneath my feet is firmer, I’m not sure what to do. What do I do when the next step I take meets firm ground instead of sinking sand? What do I do when I’m swimming steadily instead of struggling to stay afloat?

This isn’t foreign territory. I remember when my beliefs were steady, before I knew the true essence of my former foundation. I remember what I was like when I was “right,” in every definition of the word. I distanced myself from those with whom I disagreed and felt the need to correct them when I was around them. I look back at who I was then with some disgust and horror, hoping I will never again be like this.

I don’t want to shut myself off from others, especially those who still struggle to feel welcomed by the Church. I worry that my more solid faith will be appalling to those still struggling and full of doubt. I worry that instead of listening to and hearing them, I will revert back to my old tendencies to correct and give clear-cut answers for chaotic and hurtful circumstances. I worry I will lose my sense to be understanding and be sympathetic to where my brothers and sisters are in their journeys.

I fear I will forget what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. I fear my present comfort will cause me to forget this difficult, wonderful, and necessary part of my journey, a part of my life which I treasure more than my any of my times of certainty.

So to alleviate these concerns, I will need reminders from my community.

There will be times I need to be reminded to do the hard work of listening to others, with whom I agree and disagree, who comfort me and challenge me. I will have to work hard to resist the temptation to either rest in tepidness or continue pursuing fleeing fancies. I will need regular, gentle reminders to hold my ideas with open palms instead of clenched fists.

I will need those younger and older than me to keep me in check, and the wisdom and stories of people of all ages and walks of life. I will need to be reminded I am not the be all and end all of the Church or good theology, and that steadiness in faith does not equate with unyielding certainty. I will need my blind spots pointed out and my slip-ups called out (but graciously, please!). I will need as much help as I can to keep moving forward in this journey.

So as I live into this time of steady faith, please continue to challenge and share with me. Keep telling your stories. Be honest about your beliefs and the joys and struggles of your lives. Continue to ask questions and remind me to keep asking them, too.

Let us remember that faith is never meant to be stagnant and still but ever-moving and ever-changing. Let us journey on together, wherever and as we are.

“What if…”

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It’s the question I ask a hundred times a day in a hundred different scenarios.

“What if…you really stood up for something you believed in, or told someone you disagreed with them, and they hated you for it?”

“What if…you talked to that stranger, and they thought you were weird and didn’t want to be your friend?”

“What if…your boss knew about what you don’t get done and fired you?”

“What if…you spend a bit too much money this month and bounce your account and get evicted from your house and have no health insurance?”

These thoughts paralyze me. They always conclude with the worst case scenario. They’re exhausting.

And these thoughts plague me all day. They can be mild or seem cataclysmic. Sometimes, I can easily dismiss them.  Other times, I have to fight tooth and nail to convince myself these thoughts are not my reality.

My therapist taught me if something I say or think begins with “What if,” it’s to be dismissed as “just a thought.” Sometimes that works. Other times, I wonder if, just this once, it’s not just a thought but an inevitable fact. I begin to doubt myself, my therapist, my loved ones, everything and everyone I know and trust.

But sometimes, I remember the other “What ifs,” which actually pushed me forward and had postive outcomes.

“What if…I used my stories to encourage other people with anxiety?”

“What if…I use my blog as a platform for social justice, to call out those with privilege to break systems of oppression and fear, and to stand in solidarity with the marginalized?”

“What if…I try out for Twelfth Night and meet some of the most amazing people ever?”

“What if…I pursue a deeper relationship with this cute, blonde best friend of mine?”

Not all of my “What ifs” are paralyzing or pessimistic. Some of them offer hope, a chance to consider something new and wonderful. They have been the thoughts which led to some of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

“What ifs” are double-edged swords. They are full of paralysis and potential. They hinder and help. They are part of who I am and how I live.

So how do I live a life empowered by the positive ones, not enslaved by the negative ones?

How do I live a life in which my thoughts pull me forward instead of tie me down?

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An Exchange Between a Frustrated Millennial and a Fatal God

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artcorner.com My favorite symbol of death and resurrection

In a recent post, I described a severe morning panic attack I experienced over a month ago.

A week after that attack, I was in Harrisonburg returning a book to the local library for perhaps the last time, and internally, I was mourning the loss.

At this point, I had lived in Edinburg, a middle-of-nowhere country town about 40 minutes away, for almost 2 months, and I continued to mourn both my move away from the town I called home for the past 4 years and my graduation from seminary. I also continued to live into the transition of the new joys of my engagement to Bryce and a new job as a church secretary.

But the transitions, both the joyful and the heartbreaking, were still hard to navigate. Instead of feeling joy and excitement for the future ahead, I felt anxious, sad, and a bit miserable. I worried about my stress levels, my relationship with my fiance, my work competency, my adult competency, the unsettled state of the new house, our future wedding, and the upcoming Rally Day at my Episcopal congregation (which I had agreed to do when everyone else said we didn’t have to.)

Here I was in front of my beloved Harrisonburg library, realizing I would probably never check out books from it again, and I felt the deepness of this loss  weighing upon me with all of the others.

So as I walked away from the library, mourning the loss of my past home and fearing what the future held, I once again cried out to God, and once again, it contained a lot of frustration.

Excuse you, God, but why does everything feel uncertain and scary? 

I want you to tell me that everything will be OK.

Actually, no…I want more than that. I want you to guarantee that everything will be more than OK. I want everything to be perfect, because if it’s not, then it’s wrong. 

I thought if I followed you, things would go well for me, but I’m beginning to realize this was never part of the promise, and that irks me.

So where is the happiness and the guarantee for things to go well? Why won’t you promise me that much?

Believe it or not, I got an answer, but it wasn’t one I liked.

The answer was this:

There is no guarantee for things to be perfect, because I have called you to die, and you continue to see death and dying as imperfect and wrong. You continue to cling to the hopes, dreams, fears, and failures to which I call you to die every day.

I have called you to die in order to enter everlasting life, but I didn’t say this life would be easier. Those deaths will lead you to life, but not the one you expected. 

You have to learn to die in order to live, to let go of your enslavement to your own expectations in order to live into the beautiful, terrible reality that is real human life.

Here it was: the call to let go and learn to open my arms and let life be what it is. This is a call to die to my desire to be perfect, my desire to be God, and my seeming need to control my life and the lives of others.

I know it is so very necessary, and I also know it is so very difficult.

This is where church actually helps me, though.

Each week at Emmanuel Episcopal, as we prepare to receive the Eucharist, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, and when he finishes the story, the congregation is asked to proclaim the mystery of our faith. And as a group, we chant:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

It’s not a mantra I only say on Sunday. It’s what I have to tell myself every single time I want to be the one in control, when I refuse to die to myself and my ways. Every day I have to tell myself:

As Christ has died, so must I die. As Christ has risen, so will I rise. As Christ is returning to us, so will I return to this life and the life to come.

Thanks be to you, God. Now please, help me be a bit more OK with this.

Why I’m Praying Again

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http://www.gracechurchnb.org

Three and a half years ago, I shared about my almost-nonexistent prayer life.

I talked about how it’s hard for me to pray while in a perpetual state of doubt as to who, if anyone, is listening. More than that, I shared my fear of being transformed, challenged, and changed in the act of prayer. In short, I fear the intimacy it calls me to experience.

After this summer, though, my prayer life changed in dramatic ways.

It changed, because I finally decided to stop trying to save the world.

Back in June, I went to a vigil to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The participants met in front of the circuit court building as a summer storm brewed in the distance. I saw a few people I knew, but they were with their own friends and families, whereas I had come on my own. There was a group prayer and a few speakers.

But in the midst of all of this, I felt a deep loneliness.

I felt no fire in my bones, even though the circumstances under which we were gathered caused me great grief. The speakers’ words, meant for empowerment, encouragement, and action, went in one ear and out the other. An oncoming storm threatened to crash the party, so while a good number persevered through the rest of the event, I slipped out.

I got into my car, and as I drove home through the torrential storm, I wept.

I cried tears of exhaustion, with myself and the world around me. I wept, because I went to the vigil seeking empowerment to save the world, but all I found was the same message I had heard elsewhere: those people are bad, we are good, and if we could just do this, then everything would be OK. The meeting had an agenda, and my grief wasn’t part of it. I only saw a need to control the world out of deep fear and anger, and it finally sank in that this was not enough.

So in the car on the way home, I decided to give up on saving the world.

Instead, I decided I would start praying again.

At the time of this vigil, I was halfway through a couple of courses on spiritual formation, which involved group and individual prayer and spiritual direction every day. A different student or professor would lead worship each morning, and we concluded our day with examen, in which we reflected on how we noticed God’s presence in the day. I took a class on spiritual direction, which involved both giving and receiving direction with my classmates. I took a class on worship and how it must be handled with care and joy when teaching a congregation how to do it well. We went on a retreat soon after I experienced an intense weekend of anxiety, and the practices I engaged began healing my wounded and weary soul.

Initially, re-engaging with prayer was exciting and life-giving. But as I continued, I realized that in the act of praying, I do something I fear and hate: I submit.

As a female leader, men and women alike threw this word at me like a weapon, demanding that I remain subordinate and let the men do the hard work. But this isn’t the submission to which I am referring.

I realized when I pray, I submit my desire to be God.

I want the control that prayer calls me to relinquish. When I meditate, I allow myself to relax into God’s presence, which requires me to let go of my desire to control the experience. When I pray the morning prayer from my Book of Common Prayer, I ask for God’s will to be done, not my own. Every practice of prayer is an act of surrender to God.

But I don’t want God to be in charge, because I don’t always trust that God knows what’s best for me or the world. God seems too slow to bring about the change and growth that need to happen now.

This is why the story known by many as “The Fall of Humanity” is irksome to me. I am angry that God punished humans for seeking to be God-like, because most days, I think I could do a better job. If God won’t do the work that needs to be done, why shouldn’t I? Every day, I pluck the fruit from the tree of knowledge and put it on my lips, but before I take a bite, I challenge God: “If you don’t want me to be like you, then start doing your job right.”

This might be considered blasphemous, but I doubt I’m the only one who does this.

I keep trying to pray, though, and do what I can to push through all the resistance I put in my way. I do this not to earn points with God, but because I know how much I want control everything and how little control I ever have.

I can’t control people or most of my circumstances. I can’t control the students in my Sunday School class, my family, my friends, or the weather. I can’t control the election, the Church, or the decisions made in those contexts. Some days, I feel as if it’s hard to even control myself in the midst of my obnoxious, intrusive thoughts.

But when I pray, I remember that I am a creature, not the Creator. I am a creature with my own flaws and failures, strengths and beauties, and as I am, I am enough for what is before me. When I remember that I am a creature, I can stop trying to be the Creator. I can, day by day, word by word, breath by breath, begin relinquishing the control that was never mine to have.

I continue to pray, and as I do, I hand the fruit of knowledge back to God and even let God touch it.

I still hold onto it, though.

It’s a work in progress, and I’m trusting that there will be grace enough for the journey. I’m going to need it.

 

Where are you going?

Two weeks ago, I left Slippery Rock, PA after a 3-day visit to my family. My Gammy had commented throughout my visit that she had received no rain for quite some time.

The rains were kind enough to choose my departure date to unleash.

I sat in my car on the PA Turnpike with countless others as we struggled to navigate the slick roads. We were traveling a sluggish 45 mph when we should have been going 70. My Waze app kept bringing up flood warnings, and I could barely see the car in front of me despite my slashing windshield wipers. I have driven in rain before, but never like this, and never for an extended trip. I was pretty nervous.

And then I saw this sign:

Where-Are-You-Going-Heaven-or-Hell

http://gospelbillboards.org/

And as I peered out the windshield, past the furious windshield wipers, the cautious cars, and the flooding Turnpike, I cried out: “I don’t care about either of those. I just want to get home.”

In that instant, the last thing I cared about was my eternal destiny. All I cared about was living through this drive so I could see my fiance, snuggle with my cats, and sleep in my own bed. I didn’t want to worry about where my soul, or the souls of the travelers around me, would go if this trip resulted in fatality. I wanted to focus on getting home alive to be with other living loved ones.

I don’t worry about my eternal destiny as much as I once did, and for a while, I thought I was “wrong” to let that fear go. The thought comes up every now and then, but most of the time, I focus on how I’m acting in the here and now, whether or not I’m showing God’s love to those around me. Most of all, I am trying my hardest to live, to be fully alive and present to this world and life around me which I only get to live once, because sometimes, that alone is a struggle for me.

This desire to live and be alive to the world around me is a major reason I have walked away from this “heaven vs. hell” theology. It has nothing to say to real human beings in our very real lives. It only commands us to worry about our death.

This theology had nothing to offer me and the Turnpike drivers as we trekked through a dangerous downpour. It has nothing to offer my anxieties, real and imagined. It has nothing to offer anyone in difficult situations, or who are living real lives. It only provides an idea of escape, a way to not care about what’s in front of us or be attentive to the very real concerns of our neighbors around the world, because this can’t matter in light of the eternal destiny of heaven or hell.

So what’s the point of it? Why do so many of us spend so much time and energy trying to determine a fate that isn’t ours to determine? Why do so many of us lack faith in God that we worry about where God will put us forever? Why do so many of us lack faith in ourselves and God’s love for us?

Because I see both a lack of faith and a lack of love in these billboard signs.

I see a lack of faith in a God we claim loves us unconditionally when we say that being a part of this love depends entirely on a guilt-initiated, one-time choice, instead of a difficult, daily commitment to living into God’s love as embodied in Jesus.

And I see a great lack of love in allowing for this type of escapism to persist in times when those who claim to follow Jesus close their eyes to the broken world around them, which Christ died for, as they blindly gaze up at heaven.

Don’t worry about the heaven and hell, whose gates and guidelines are not yours to manage, and don’t be led astray by those who say they are. Look for the people who care enough about Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of Heaven that they do their hardest to find and make it on earth as it is in heaven, who live real, difficult, beautiful lives reflecting God’s persevering love for all Creation.

Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

sandman

http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?