On Coming Back to Myself

On Coming Back to Myself

“The thing that is really hard and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”   – Anna Quindlen

“You are enough. You are so enough. It’s unbelievable how enough you are.” –-Sierra Boggess

IMG_4978The demons had been sneakily making themselves at home for a long time before I finally caught onto their game last winter. I was tired. I was overwhelmed. I was anxious. I was in desperate need of sunlight and fresh produce and laughter. I felt small and stuck and scared.

There was the Demon of Imposter Syndrome. The nagging voice that kept insisting, “You don’t actually belong here.” “Your call isn’t valid.” “You’re not brave enough, outgoing enough, funny enough, smart enough, old enough, wise enough to be in this place with these people. You’re a fake, and everyone knows it.”

There was the Demon of Perfectionism. My old bestie. The demon that immobilizes out of fear of making a mistake. The demon that keeps me from showing up out of fear of judgment, fear of losing, fear of being anything less than the best, fear of not meeting my own unattainable standards, fear of confronting my own humanness. The demon that runs me to the ground as I try to package all of life into a neat little box because heaven forbid if this isn’t the best paper I’ve ever written or someone drops by for a visit and my dishes aren’t done.

There was the Demon of Smallness. The demon whose best friends are Invisibility and Silence. The demon that has me second guessing every word before I speak, the demon that tells me that my experiences are less than someone else’s so I probably don’t have anything to add anyway, the demon whose worst enemy is being seen—and who tries to convince me that that is my worst enemy too. The demon that fears my own strength and will do everything it can to convince me that I am weak and small and only capable of what I know.

There was the Demon of Scarcity. The demon that steals gratitude and contentment and joy and instead tricks me into thinking that I can never have enough money or time or energy or courage for the people and causes and experiences I love. The demon that turns my focus inward, prevents me from seeing the people right in front of me, keeps me from the countless adventures that beckon. The demon that automatically turns my attention toward the things or people or experiences I don’t have, as opposed to the overflowing abundance of family, friends, and experiences that have been and continue to be the source of so much joy.

The demons are a sneaky bunch, and before I even knew their names, they had tried to lay claim over my identity. Before I knew it, I had submitted myself to the soul-sucking fate of perfection and silence and smallness and trying to fit myself and my vocation into some elusive framework that I assumed was expected of me. And it was exhausting and disheartening and totally and completely unattainable.

But, thankfully, I did learn the demons’ names. And when I discovered their names and began to learn their tricks, they became weaker and weaker as Love grew stronger, as the Holy Spirit filled the places the demons once occupied with the breath of new life. And the demons stood no chance against the Spirit’s whispers which gently led me to the people and experiences that had the power to call me back to myself and to the only identity that actually holds any claim: Child of God.

The Spirit embraced me through the late night laughter over glasses of wine and coffee dates in hipster coffee shops and post-confirmation happy hours and shared home-cooked meals and nerdy theological conversations and 140-character inside jokes shared over Twitter and phone calls with friends far away. Each moment of connection drawing me back slowly, reminding me that I am loved and that I am enough and that sometimes all I have to do is show up.

The Spirit soothed my soul through the wisdom and encouragement of professors and mentors who saw me, even when I tried so desperately to be invisible.

The Spirit nudged me in my yoga practice, as I learned to trust my body and appreciate its strength and elegance and wisdom. (Yes. Elegance. I said it.)

The Spirit guided me into the arms of a community whose rhythms of grace and love and messy chaos invited me to breathe deeply, share of myself fully, and laugh unabashedly as we sang and danced and canoed and made friendship bracelets and tried to share the love of Christ with kids and with each other in a million imperfectly beautiful ways. (Shout-out to you, SLM 2017!)

The Spirit called me into holy discomfort as I sat in a circle with a bunch of strangers turned colleagues in Clinical Pastoral Education and we took turns revealing our most vulnerable places and stories to each other—an experience that at the time I was convinced was my own personal introvert hell but was actually the start of some pretty profound healing.

The Spirt brought me back to myself in time spent with family, in conversations around the kitchen table, in lazy summer afternoons on the farm, in summertime picnics with cousins and grandparents and friends who are family even if they’re not related by blood.

And the Spirit stirred two weeks ago as I sat in an office with three female deacons and an incredible faculty mentor for my endorsement interview and tried to hide my shaking legs and sweaty palms as I was seen and heard, and my gifts and imperfections and vulnerabilities felt painfully exposed and I was told “You have a very clear and powerful sense of call. We’re excited for you to be a Deacon in this church.”

And then I tried not to turn into a bumbling mess right then and there because suddenly I knew I was back. And quite frankly, it has been a really, really long ride, but I am beyond grateful for this crazy, beautiful journey that continues to take me by surprise.

A truly heartfelt thanks to each of you for being a part of it. ❤

 

 

 

 

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We did it! A Reflection for Closing Worship

SLM 2017 Staff Closing Worship Reflection

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To my dearest Summer 2017 Water of Life seekers:

What a ride. Although my body aches literally everywhere and I’m up to about 10 cups of coffee a day and I’m in dire need of a pedicure, I still can’t believe we’re already here. Week 9 (or week 11 if you count staff training) staff closing worship. I want to say “Alleluia. Thanks be to God!” and turn into a bumbling weeping mess all in the same moment. Maybe you can relate.

Making it to this moment is no small feat. You’ve put in a ridiculous amount of work, a crazy number of hours, and have impacted a truly amazing number of campers. You’ve shared yourselves—your gifts, your personalities, your energy, your love—with wild and over the top energetic elementary and preschoolers, with awkward and desperately searching middle school and high schoolers, with growing leaders in CITs and Agape, with ever loving and challenging adults with disabilities, with grandparents and entire families. It’s kind of incredible how much life happens in the course of 11 weeks.

When we arrived in May, some of us were already friends, some of us were even siblings, but at first as a community we were uncertain about each other and let’s be honest, most of us rocked that nervous awkwardness as we worked hard to learn each other’s names, figure out who had what job, and tried desperately to remember basic things about each others’ lives. “So, where are you from?” “Where do you go to school again?” “Remind me what your major is?” And then in the baptism by fire whirlwind we call staff training, you were bombarded with information, songs, games, schedules, curriculum, and expectations. From Mopping with Marv and Canoeing with Dana to lessons in learning styles and cabin management to trial runs of Day Camp and late night campfire jam sessions, those two weeks somehow managed to feel both like two years and two seconds and you probably knew each other better than you could have anticipated. Next thing you know, we were giving each other pep talks on Sunday afternoon as we nervously paced around in the dining hall before the first batch of campers arrived. And just like that, the race began.

On this race, your feet have carried you on countless adventures. You’ve made about three million circles around Keeley Island: from your cabin to the dining hall to back to your cabin to the chapel to the AC or Red Cloud to the playing field to low ropes, back to the dining hall, to EE, to Washishi or the beach or the Gaga ball pit to Good Earth or Pelican and back to your cabin to do it all again. You’ve probably made several laps around Boy Scout, hauling wood packs and coolers and tents and dry bags, all the while instructing and caring for your campers in your calm but “seriously you have to do this now” counselor voice you’ve all perfected. You’ve traveled across Minnesota and South Dakota on Day Camps, you’ve taken your feet to the river on Wet & Wild, you’ve wandered around Walmart in Marshall, you maybe went to Luverne for a fairly silent drive in movie and you ran all around Slayton for a goofy picture scavenger hunt. You’ve played some intense beach volleyball, you’ve attended a luau or two, and you’ve paraded around camp dressed up as your favorite sea creatures. You’ve also cleaned this place from top to bottom, put in a solid chunk of time doing dishes, and taken on a whole assortment of oddball tasks—each in itself an act of hospitality, big or small.

From the first day of staff training, we’ve been reflecting on our theme verse from Isaiah. You can probably recite it in your sleep. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Our Bible study days have become a steady rhythm: Creation, Baptism, Woman at the Well, Blind Man, Still Waters. Created, Claimed, Invited, Healed, Renewed. Repeat. Together, we have lived this liturgy, this constant song of praise and worship and wondering and laughter and tears and questions and prayer. The Spirit has truly made these stories and promises come alive this summer—turned these ancient words into the very breath of our life together: Created, Claimed, Invited, Healed, Renewed. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And I really do think that together we have indeed been quenched by the Living Water.

Not that the path to Living Water isn’t totally exhausting, but the ways in which God manages to renew my own soul in the midst of the chaos and busyness never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps you’ve experienced God the Creator’s renewal and constant presence in quiet moments on the dock, or in a sunset on outcamp, or in the crackling campfire. Maybe you’ve encountered Christ just when you needed him in kitchen dance parties or in heart to hearts in couch tub or in an affirmation from a friend.  Maybe the Spirit has sustained you through profound “I wonder” statements in Bible study, through the tear-jerking prayers earnestly lifted up by campers at campfire, through their energy and joy while singing Psalm 150 or The Rock when you roll into worship exhausted, wondering how you are going to make it through the next couple hours let alone the remaining weeks.

As the weeks have gone on, I’ve watched your fake it ‘til you make it strategy shift to real confidence. You’ve discovered that you’re stronger than you thought you were, and you’ve uncovered hidden talents: 80’s water aerobics, worship leading, praying in public, guiding Bible study conversations, caring for people with special needs (and all that entails), canoeing, fire building, conflict resolution skills, castle building (both sand castles and stone bunker castles…), and a million and one ways to get kids’ attention or fill ten extra minutes. Through it all you’ve wrestled with your own faith questions and exploration while accompanying campers on their own faith journeys. You’ve had to dig deep and have discovered that sometimes even when you feel empty, the Spirit sustains you so that you have just enough left to give.

Created. Called. Invited. Healed. Restored.

And now, my friends, even though this liturgy, these stories, and these promises do not end here, our time together has drawn to a close. It is time for each of us to be sent back out into the world. We have been changed by each other and by our experiences throughout this sacred time together. None of us are exactly the same as we were three short months ago: we leave with new perspectives, new skills, new questions, new ideas, and a million new memories. Most of your clothes now probably smell like campfire, your hair might be a fancy new shade of copper, and you probably have some stellar tan lines. It will likely take a while to relearn that it’s okay to have more than two people up from whatever dinner table you happen to be sitting at, that you might not have to wait for someone to call seconds to get more food from your own kitchen, or that it’s okay to leave your bedroom before someone rings an obnoxious bell to wake you up in the morning. It might feel weird to drive your own car instead of a camp van with, shall we say lots of character, to not dress up like a disciple every Thursday night, or to cook for just a few people instead of an entire camp. You’re bound to be the person who responds with a camp style “We will! Thanks be to God!” after the dismissal at church at least once, and you’ll probably spend your first few weeks at school constantly trying to count your friends or classmates to make sure everyone is accounted for—after all you don’t want to have to do a missing camper drill in the middle of your bio class.

I hope and pray that this summer, you’ve discovered more deeply who you are and have a new appreciation for the truly amazing gifts and talents you each have to offer the world. I hope you’ve discovered that you’re stronger than you think you are and that you’re capable of more than you could have ever imagined, but I hope you’ve also experienced what it means to lean on and be supported by others—and that it’s okay to not have all the answers, to not be able to do it all on your own, that you are deeply loved even in the midst of your own brokenness and imperfections. I hope this place and this community has challenged you, but I also hope that it has become a sanctuary and a place that you know that you can always, always return and can always call home.

Whether you are ready to be done or whether you want to hide out in the boat shed and never leave or if you’re just so tired you don’t even know how to feel, know that you each were and always will be an essential and beloved part of this community.  As we look forward to the next adventure, whatever that may be, we trust that the living God, the very same God who meets us at camp, goes with us. Christ is present not only on Keeley Island, but throughout the whole world. The windy uncontrollable wild Spirit already awaits us on our next adventures and continues to call us to be the light of the world, no matter what waters we pass through. So shine where you are, my friends. Keep your eyes and your hearts wide open—continue to seek Living Water, trusting that this Living Water has already claimed you and called you Beloved. And that is always and forever enough.

On the first day of week 1, I shared this prayer from Philippians. Let it be our prayer once again, for this time and space:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:3-6, 9-11)

Amen.

 

Beatitudes for Week 9: Blessed are Your Dirty Camp Feet

SLMBlessed are you who love your campers, even when it’s hard. Blessed are you who wait for that last camper to tie their shoe, who sit by the homesick one at mealtime, who offer to be their canoeing buddy so that they don’t feel left out or afraid. Blessed are you who work hard each week to learn each camper’s name, you who patiently say “if you can hear me clap once!” five million times so that you can start the next activity, you who after a whirlwind of adventures find yourself saying a series of bittersweet goodbyes at the end of each week.

Blessed are you when you stick with and show grace to this beautiful, messy community, even when someone forgot to do their outcamp dishes and someone else didn’t show up in time to help lead worship and someone else forgot to clean up their mess in the staff lounge and really all you want to do is find a quiet place of sheer solitude.

Blessed are you who continue to offer yourself in worship and prayer and Bible study, even as you wrestle with your own big questions and doubts and insecurities.

Blessed are you when you find yourself pushed outside of your comfort zone: when you end up leading songs even though you have never considered yourself a musician, when you are trying again and again to get your fire started to no avail, when you are suddenly left in charge with other people’s children or adults with disabilities and wonder who the heck ever thought this was a good idea.

Blessed are you who feel like you can’t make it one more step and yet you dig deep to welcome another batch of campers—each with their own gifts and quirks, joys and insecurities, expectations and surprises.

Blessed are your dirty camp feet, blessed are your muscles that are sore from playing running games or hauling canoes, blessed are your fingertips calloused from playing the guitar. Blessed are you who got acrylic paint on your favorite shirt, you with campfire scented hair, you with bags under your eyes from too little sleep. Blessed are you with rockin’ Chaco tanlines, with Gaga ball battle wounds, with a sunburn from a long afternoon lifeguarding, or with a hoarse throat from leading the Hammer Song one too many times.

Blessed are you in your mountaintop joy, in your total camp glory, in your laughter, in your newfound friendships, in all of your gifts and passions and each act of service. Blessed are you in your exhaustion, in your frustration, in your anxiety, in your questions. Blessed are you, for you are a wholly loved, claimed, and called child of God. Blessed are you, good and faithful servants.

Amen.

25 Nuggets of Mom Wisdom

I12004692_10152983122672191_6993991532165851134_n’ve reached the ripe old age of 25 now, and with each passing year I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that, well, I’m basically my mother. My siblings, cousins, and I like to joke about the random quirks we’ve picked up from our own family systems (and trust me, there are plenty!), but every time I shrug and say, “Just call me Gwen…” I have to admit, I say it with a significant amount of pride. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here are 25 lessons I’ve learned from my mom. Thanks, Ma! (#FavoriteChildStatus)

  1. Hold your head up high, and always be true to who you are.
  2. It’s okay to be weird.
  3. Color coordination is important. Like, really, really important.
  4. Hospitality is in the details.
  5. Pretty much any room can feel like home with proper wall decor.
  6. We can uncover some of life’s greatest truths by digging around in the dirt.
  7. Cook with and eat fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden whenever you can.
  8. It’s okay to make a mess and have several works in progress at the same time. (Relatedly, it is okay to be a work in progress.)
  9. Sometimes you just have to start compulsively cleaning at weird hours of the night.
  10. It’s okay to be a little bit stubborn.
  11. True service often comes without a lot of fanfare. So does true leadership.
  12. You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to practice integrity and compassion.
  13. Cheerleading is still the best sport.
  14. Art and music are gifts to cherish and practice, not tools for competition. (But also, don’t wait to practice your piano music until an hour before your lesson starts. And, let’s be honest, it’s okay to hold tiny grudges against those people who just seem to be really good without ever having to practice…)
  15. It’s okay to cry in movie theaters (even during Disney animated films).
  16. You can never own too many books.
  17. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. But even if you mess up (or heaven forbid, you miss a word on a spelling test), trust that you are loved anyway.
  18. Always show compassion, and give others the benefit of the doubt (even when it’s really, really hard.)
  19. Say yes to the things that matter. Say no to the things that aren’t life giving.
  20. Everyone should have recipes for a good cookie and a good cocktail at the ready.
  21. Also, one should always have ice cream and red wine on hand.
  22. NPR actually isn’t so bad. Turns out, it’s rather delightful.
  23. Say thank you.
  24. Feeding people and eating together are profound acts of love.
  25. For the love of all that is holy, refill the ice cube tray before sticking it back in the freezer.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!!

The Art of Taking Up Space

“Breathe deep, my friends. Take up space.”

With an exhale I sunk deeper into my Warrior 2 pose, back leg firmly rooting me to the earth, front leg boldly stepping forward toward the front of my yoga mat. With resolve, I lowered my shoulders, sending my arms out wide in either direction, gaze steady toward the distance.

“Root to rise. Use your breath to ground down through the earth; then draw your energy up through your torso.”

I inhaled again, heart space rising toward the sky as I gathered strength from my foundation, pressing firmly into all four corners of my feet.

I felt alive. Rooted. Tall. Bold. Strong. Powerful. My recent dedication (okay more like re-re-dedication) to my yoga practice has started to feel like my own personal daily act of resistance, my way of cultivating a counter-cultural way of living in a world that tells me to be weak, small, quiet, and passive.

I’ve spent the last few years waging a war against my inner critic. Against the voice in my head that won’t ever let me rest, that insists that I can check just one more thing off my to-do list, that casts judgment on myself for every less-than-thrilling Friday night or every submitted paper that falls short of solving the entirety of the world’s problems or every selfish or anxious thought that my brain creates. And I’m really, really over it.

Like many women, I have been trained by society to take up as little space as possible—physically, emotionally, academically, even spiritually. I have been trained to hand over my sense of personhood, to place my own worth firmly in the hands of others. I have been taught, often by my own religion, to live submissively while simultaneously striving for perfection, all in the name of “piety” and “self-control” and “personal sacrifice” and “selflessness.” And, if I’m honest, I’ve all too eagerly and all too often embodied each of these ideals (even when I’ve known better). I’ve tried to nurture and to provide care while never admitting to needing care myself — all too proudly embracing what I’ve come to call “superwoman syndrome.” I trained myself to ask thoughtful questions about how others are doing, while refusing to answer those same questions honestly — and then running away before my stubborn propensity for tears betrays my true inner messiness. I’ve strived to create space for others, while denying myself the same space— calling it “servant leadership.” I’ve learned (and am now desperately trying to unlearn) a hatred for my own female body, seeing it as inherently sinful or tempting or problematic for simply existing – too short or too curvy or too, well, feminine—with too much make-up or not enough makeup or hair that’s too short or too long or too straight or too dark or too blonde or eyebrows that simply refuse to be controlled.

I’ve wasted way too much time waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for permission (or even an invitation) to speak or to write or to simply show up and to take up space. I’ve struggled to simultaneously make myself invisible — calling it “selflessness”– while desperately longing to be recognized and to be declared worthy of my own personhood by achieving perfection. Just as my first-grade self tirelessly spent hours learning to write letters in the dotted handwriting lines, my (mostly) adult self has become obsessed with trying to neatly package my life (trying to organize everything from my closet to my course schedule to my 20-year life plan [lolz]) so that I can present it to the world and have someone (anyone?) finally say, “Well done, good and faithful, servant. You’ve made it.”

For a self-proclaimed theologian, I think I’ve messed things up a bit.

I’m really good at talking about grace, love, and mercy. But it turns out that grace, love, and mercy in the abstract aren’t overly helpful. And it also turns out that unless I learn to claim at least a little bit of that grace, love, and mercy for myself, my attempts to bestow it upon my neighbors are going to look a lot more like self-serving flattery and inauthentic friendship than the radical love of Christ.

So I’m going to keep showing up on my yoga mat. I’m going to keep breathing deeply and finding ways to boldly take up space. I’m going to find ways to love my neighbors without totally erasing my own personhood. And I’m going to cling desperately to the faith that tells me that I am already wholly and unconditionally loved—and maybe I’ll even find that this faith has been clinging to me the entire time.

And guess what? I’m not even going to apologize.

Peace,

Alex

NoteIt needs to be acknowledged that while I have deeply internalized the injustices of sexism in our society, I have also been shaped by my own, too often unacknowledged, privilege of whiteness. I strive for a feminism that is intersectional and sensitive to the very real realities of racism and xenophobia in all its devastating forms. Please continue to be my fellow journeyer as we, together, learn to be loving neighbors to all people.

The Year of the Cold and Broken Hallelujah

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In my nearly 25 years (that I can remember), rarely has a year felt like it’s come with so much baggage. And, quite honestly, you probably don’t need another post reflecting on the year we are soon to leave behind filling up your news feed. I for one feel like I’ve read and listened to my share of words lately. In my general state of numbness, I’ve been constantly consuming news and blogs and sermons and Tweets and Facebook posts hoping to make some sense of the world through the emotions, perspectives, and words of others. And, in the process, I’ve been absorbing the anger, the sadness, and the grief, layer upon layer until I feel like I can hardly stand under the weight of it all. I’ve sought to hold and care for my own emotions while desperately trying to create space to hold the anger and frustration and grief of my sisters and brothers, especially those who have so much more to fear than I. In my clumsy attempts to listen and to act, I feel like I’ve finally begun to understand what it means to have my own liberation bound up with the liberation of my brothers and sisters, and, to put it rather ineloquently, it hurts. We, as the Body of Christ are so deeply broken. We have been broken over and over and over again, and even my eternally optimistic self is struggling to envision the possibility of wholeness.

2016 has been devastating for many of us.

And, at the same time, 2016 was devastatingly ordinary. Sometimes, 2016 looked like laughter-filled nights complimented by my favorite milk stout at happy hour or life-giving coffee dates with the people I love. At times, it even looked like traipsing down the cobblestone streets of the old city of Jerusalem and  listening to a loon’s morning greeting as the fog rose off a Boundary Waters lake and the loving, Colorado sunshine-y embrace of a city I once called home. Sometimes the ordinariness of 2016 looked like the perfect sunset over Lake Como or that postcard-like view of the Minneapolis skyline from I-35. Sometimes it sounded like my carefree ukulele strumming or the uncontrollable giggles that have a habit of interrupting late night study sessions. Sometimes it smelled like my favorite banana bread recipe or that unmistakable crispness announcing the arrival of fall. Sometimes 2016 tasted like that much-anticipated first sip of coffee before the sun rises or a bottle of red wine shared with dear friends. Sometimes it felt like slipping into my favorite hooded sweatshirt after a long day or my well-worn Chacos that know the shape of my feet so well.

Just as often though, 2016 looked like late nights in the library frantically writing papers. It looked like my zombie-like stumble to the coffee maker early in the morning before I rushed off to my 8am class. 2016 looked like Wednesday nights at youth group after which I wondered if I was really making any sort of difference at all. It looked like boldly changing my graduate degree and then changing it back again and then just ending up so confused and exhausted that I kind of ignored the whole situation for a while. It looked like the impatient tap of my fingers against the steering wheel as I mumbled under my breath about how “traffic jams like this don’t happen in South Dakota.” It looked like painfully ordinary acts like washing dishes and organizing my closet and scraping off my car on cold winter mornings and looking for that pesky other shoe. It looked like clumsy attempts at vulnerability and stubborn tears that refused to be held back. It looked like the usual culprits of social anxiety and perfectionism that continually seem to drive me to my breaking point. It looked like flat tires and wisdom teeth and weird nightmares about my high school sports days. And 2016 looked it looked like way too many hours spent on social media comparing the ordinariness of my life to the perfected social media version of the lives of my friends.

  1. You taught me a whole lot, but I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see you go.

All too often, in the midst of the year’s seemingly never ending stream of bad news and in the increasingly impossible-to-ignore realities of racism and sexism and homophobia and islamophobia and nationalism and every other form of systemic sin that erases our own humanity as well as the humanity of our neighbors, it has felt nearly impossible to hold on to hope. The Gospel message sounds great and all, but my so many of my experiences these days tell me that hate has won. Love feels distant and elusive and far too often like it has nothing to do with our shattered reality. Even the ordinariness at times has felt oppressive.

But, as the musical prophet, the late Leonard Cohen reminds us, “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

A cold and broken Hallelujah. A defiant Hallelujah that will not be silenced, even under theIMG_2790.JPG most hopelessly oppressive or devastatingly ordinary circumstances. A Hallelujah that just might show up in the most unexpected of times and the unexpected of places, calling us back to a new reality in which the only force with any type of defining power is not hate or scarcity or fear after all, but Love. A Love that looks a lot less like our preconceived notions of power and victory and instead looks a lot more like a cold and broken, even desperate, proclamation of hope in an otherwise bleak-looking world.

After all, it is only this type of Hallelujah that can take shape as a baby’s cry in an otherwise silent night in first-century Palestine.

Emmanuel. God with us.

May my broken spirit join yours this Advent, as together we muster our own cold and
broken “Hallelujah.”

 

 

 

On Being a Vocational Mess

Alternate Title: Embarking on a Vocational Adventure with No Known Ending and Pretending You’re Not Completely and Entirely Stressed Out About It

Jerusalem PathI like to be right.

I’ve been on a mission to find the “right” answers since I was really young. My first-grade-self took great pride in acing spelling tests week after week. I thrived in the routine of taking a fresh list of words home each Monday afternoon, figuring out the patterns and rhythms of the words on the list, memorizing the tricky sight words with extra care, and knowing that by the time Friday morning rolled around, I could confidently produce a list of correctly spelled words at my teacher’s dictation. My third-grade-self rejoiced in her ability to memorize math facts like nobody’s business and found incredible joy in the certainty of forever knowing that 3×7=21 and 56÷7=8.  As friends who have been subject to my text message critiques know all too well, my 24-year-old self has a deep affinity for grammar: for the consistency, for the structure, and for the mere fact that most of the time there is a right and a wrong answer. I like rules. I like answers. I really, really like clarity.

This is maybe one of the reasons why I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the concept of vocation. First of all, no one has ever been able to truly give me a satisfying definition of vocation, which is enough to drive anyone with a love of words and definitions and clearly defined categories absolutely crazy. If we don’t really know what “vocation” is, how exactly am I supposed to know if I’m living out my vocation correctly? Isn’t there a Vocational Checklist for Overachievers for easy reference, or at the very least a Buzzfeed quiz to tell me if I’m on the right track?

But maybe therein lies the problem. Maybe vocation isn’t about finding the right answer. Maybe a right vocational answer doesn’t even exist. Maybe vocation is just broad enough, just messy enough, just beautiful enough that it cannot be reduced to a single job description or a list of specific academic degrees. And maybe for each of us, a number of expressions of vocation are not only equally valid but equally holy.

I knew I had to reevaluate the way I’d been engaging with the concept of vocation when I found myself in tears while reading about Martin Luther’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” for a summer class a few weeks ago. (In tears while reading Luther. Welcome to my life.) I came to seminary hoping to ask a lot of questions and wrestle with my own theology and do a whole lot of discerning, and while I have done all of these things, I also realized that somewhere along the line, the beauty and mystery of vocation got swept away. My freedom in Christ to serve my neighbors that is so foundational to Lutheran theology was replaced with a sense of total dread, a pit in my stomach, and the belief that I had to fit a certain seminary mold, allow myself to be shaped in the traditional seminary way (whatever that means), and eventually be sent out to serve as a parish pastor. This started to feel like the only “right” way to live into my vocation, the only way the church would recognize as valid, and the only way to show that I really was dedicated to my Lutheran faith. And don’t get me wrong: the call to parish ministry is a beautiful call. I have all the respect in the world for parish pastors, and I am so excited for my seminary classmates that sense this call themselves. But, to be honest, I don’t know that that particular call has ever really fit me. And it turns out I needed the words of Martin Luther himself to shake me to my core and to remind me that there are other, equally valid, equally holy paths so desperately needed in the Body of Christ.

So, maybe I will be a pastor. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll find my way into social work or education or writing and will live out the call to love my neighbors in those spaces. Maybe I will help lead the Church by inviting people to taste the Holy Spirit’s goodness in ministries being lived out in unexpected places and ways outside of our church buildings, or maybe I will invite people into these buildings to create a space of radical hospitality, refuge, and community. And maybe I’m not failing or giving up or “running from the call” but instead maybe I’m courageously living into a call that is broad and layered and cross-disciplinary and, like the untamable Spirit who calls us into community and equips us with her gifts, maybe this vocational call refuses to be pinned down into a single “right” answer.

And, maybe that’s okay.

Intoxicating Grace

Iphone 7-28 110Since these promise of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely untied with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.  – Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian”

It’s been quite the summer. The increasing clamor of political rhetoric based on hate and fear and name calling in the midst of an election season that seems only to divide and accuse is enough to completely overwhelm even the most politically inclined among us. Our hearts have been shattered again and again with news of more and more violence until we find ourselves desensitized and emotionally empty. We argue about how best to respond and who should respond, how to love and comfort all victims and care for each other while refusing to condone the systems of
oppression that have laid the blueprints for the emotional walls we have constructed around ourselves, brick by brick, until we are no longer able to recognize the humanity of our neighbors.

And frankly, I’m exhausted. I’ve grown cynical and angry, frustrated with our polarized political reality that seems to prevent any action from ever being carried out, devastated by the long history of racism woven into the very fabric of our nation, furious with “those people” on the other side of the political spectrum who I am sure are the ones to blame, upset with my own friends who don’t’ share my liberal views, who aren’t responding in the way I would like, or who maybe think I should be responding more strongly.

And in the midst of my fear and frustration, I’ve been doing a whole lot of wrestling. Vocational wrestling. Theological wrestling. Personal wrestling. In between youth group get-togethers with sticky bowls of ice cream on the fraying youth group couches, weeks spent turning church fellowship halls into under the sea wonderlands and backyard barnyards, sailing and canoeing adventures with middle and high school students, summer classes, friends’ weddings, and trips to visit the various places I’ve once called home, I’ve been desperately seeking peace, clarity, and wisdom.  I have gone in circles time and again desperately trying to remember what brought me to seminary in the first place, trying to peel back the layers of conversation and prayers and sleepless nights and long walks and Google searches and crazy leaps of faith that have brought me to this particular place in this moment. I’ve done everything I can think of to catch a glimpse of the mysterious call that seems to defy all definition, this call that no matter how desperately I try to clutch onto and control it to seems to prove itself to be too messy to confine in a box marked “pastor” or “youth director” or “teacher” or “psychologist.” I’ve exhausted myself trying to discover what is desired of me, what is needed of me, what specific role I am called to fill in this broken, aching world.

We all have those lies that we believe. The lies that get under our skin, driving us to whatever dark places that always seem to be lurking just around the corner, waiting to devour us the moment we are at our weakest. Those demons we wrestle with over and over and over and yet always seem to take us by surprise. My lie? “You are not enough. You will never be enough. Do more. Be more. Try harder. Then, and only then, you will be worthy of love.” In the midst of a busy schedule and emotional exhaustion, I have found myself once again facing this particular demon. This time the demon critiques every emotion and destroys every attempt at vocational peace as I attempt to find some semblance of clarity in how my gifts might best line up with the needs of the world. The demon tells me the world is my responsibility to fix, my duty to save. The Church with its declining numbers and at times paralyzing politics is resting on my shoulders. Systems of poverty and oppression and homelessness and abuse are mine to eradicate. It’s up to me to be everything to everyone all of the time—and then I can rest assured that I am loved.

I recently started a summer class on Martin Luther and the Reformation. I entered the course with my usual academic gusto which, more often than not, nurtures the perfectionist inside of me and drives me to live up to the most unattainable standards. But as I delved into Luther’s works, I kept running against this one, consistent, pesky problem: grace. All-encompassing, saturating, intoxicating, beautiful, and, at times, straight up offensive grace. An entirely one directional grace that could care less about my most desperate attempts to prove my own worthiness, a grace that declares me loved, forgiven, and freed, but not because of anything I have done or not done or could ever do. Grace that surrounds every fiber of my being simply because of the Grace Giver. Grace that destroys the demon telling me to “try harder” with a single breath. Grace that calls me to trust in the promise of God, a promise that tells me that whatever price I am so dearly trying to pay has been paid in full, that I have already been declared beloved, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can take that identity away. Grace that frees me from the lines I have drawn to isolate and protect myself, to prove myself superior and somehow more worthy of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness than my brothers and sisters on the other side of the political spectrum or with different theological perspectives or radically different life experiences and world views. A grace that refuses to choose sides. A grace that frees me to love and to serve and to be vulnerable, not because of my own need to prove to myself or to others or to God that I am good, but because I have first been wholly loved. A grace that tells me I don’t have to do it all, but more than ever opens me to hear the call of my neighbors. A grace doesn’t take me out of the messiness and brokenness of the world, but a grace that is somehow forever and always more than enough.

And this, my friends, might just be the good news that we so desperately need.

In the Spirit of Camp Withdrawals

024It’s always around this year that my heart starts to feel a very specific kind of ache. My social media feeds fill with images and video clips of staff trainings and the first weeks of programming at outdoor ministry sites around the country. My camp friends and I start to reminisce (more frequently than usual) of our own camp glory days. These days, my heart skips a beat every time I catch a whiff of campfire, and I lace up my Chacos with an extra dose of nostalgia and look for every possible excuse to break out the tie dye. Yes, it’s camp withdrawal season.

People often ask what it is about camp that is so special. Was it just a really fun job? Do I just miss my camp friends? Am I simply feeling reminiscent of the days in which I got to hide from “the real world” all summer? Yes and no.  Quite honestly, my summers at camp were some of the most beautiful and challenging months of my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. They were far from perfect, but they were real and they were holy.

Never has a community seen me laugh or cry harder (or more often). Camp helped me find the courage to speak publically, to dance with abandon, to play the guitar in front of people before I would have ever deemed myself “ready,” to lead children on canoes and build a campfire and make silly games up on the spot because we ended up with an extra fifteen minutes before lunchtime. Camp forced me to admit that I don’t know everything when campers asked me tough questions in Bible study about heaven and hell and where God is in the midst of suffering. Camp taught me to ask for help, reminded me that I don’t have to constantly prove myself worthy of being loved and that maybe, just maybe, I am enough even when all I do is simply show up. Camp helped me develop the endurance to push through just one more day when it was Thursday morning and my campers were homesick and exhausted and covered in mosquito bites, and all I wanted was to wash my feet and take a really long nap somewhere with air conditioning. Camp taught me to speak up when I had something to say, but also constantly reminded me that sometimes the ideas we could create together were far greater than anything one of us could come up with on our own. Camp helped me embrace the messiness: of faith, of life, of carefully coordinated schedules that had to be changed last minute because of the rain and of worship services that were poorly planned but in which we somehow managed to encounter the Spirit anyway.

It was at camp that I felt most intimately connected with God the Creator in the early morning sunrises, in the gentle lapping of the waves against the dock, in the dirt underneath my fingernails, in the gentle rustling of the leaves, and in the thunder that shook the cabins during middle of the night July thunderstorms.

It was at camp that I met the Word made flesh in high-fives covered in sticky marshmallow goo, in the friends who patiently sat with me as I cried on the back steps of the chapel, in the campers who screamed the last couple rounds of The Rock at the top of their lungs, in the co-workers who left me encouraging notes decorated with markers and glitter glue when I needed cheering up, and in the friends who loved me in the midst of my imperfections.

And it was at camp that I encountered the Spirit as mysterious and beautiful as the campfires around which we gathered in song and prayer: the Spirit who swept us into Her dance of relationship and community, who called and weaved together our ragtag bunch of stories, experiences, and personalities into one Body and then sent us back out into the world, forever changed, if ever so slightly, from our time together. And it is this Spirit who continued to sustain us in faith, love, and community, long after the lingering scent of campfire washed out of our sweatshirts and our Chaco tan lines began to fade.

Thanks be to the God who continues to call and nurture, create and encounter communities of campers, staff, volunteers, boards of directors, alumni, and loyal supporters. To all of you faithfully preparing for Summer 2016: Blessings on your journey!! IMG_3948

 

To The City That Taught Me Grace

FullSizeRender (3)I’m sitting in my favorite hipster coffee shop in the entire city of Denver sipping a lavender latte out of a mason jar. I just returned from a day hanging out in the Family Area at The Gathering Place, the day shelter where I served during my full-time volunteer year with Urban Servant Corps. I reconnected with old coworkers, chatted with this year’s full-time volunteers, and played some serious Legos with my new four-year-old friends. Yesterday I shared coffee, lunch, and life giving conversation with fellow former volunteers and housemates. The day before, I wandered around downtown and to my favorite parks and coffee shops, retracing the paths my Chacos know so well. A dear college friend and I ventured into the mountains that still leave me in complete awe of their beauty. I drank delicious coffee and good beer and soaked in the Colorado sunshine. As I type this, I am feeling gloriously content.

I also managed to miss four buses in a row as I attempted to navigate public transportation, accidentally stood up my former USC-ers at happy hour, and scheduled and rescheduled coffee dates and visits because I simply could not seem to get my life together. My friend and I got lost on our mountain trail and remembered just how out of shape we are as we attempted to hike back to where we were supposed to be. I remembered the stress and emotional weight of working in a shelter and felt weirdly disoriented as I stepped back into a world that seems like a distant dream. Visiting my old haunts felt simultaneously comforting and a little lonely when I thought of the community of people who shared that intense, beautiful, messy year with me and the far-away places around the country where they now reside.

My visit to Denver has been in many ways a microcosm of my year of service in this city. It was exciting and fun and uncomfortable and painful all at once. But through each moment of joy and of reunion and nostalgia and each scheduling mishap and recognition of privilege and pang of loneliness, I felt entirely held in Grace. Grace from my good natured USC family who laughed off the fact that I accidentally ditched them all and rearranged their schedules to meet with me later; grace from the kiddos who asked me to play Legos and handed me a pile of crayons within minutes of me entering the Family Area; grace from a city that welcomed me with a Colorado sunshine-y embrace in one moment and reminded me that I still have so much to learn in the next.

Here’s to you, Denver: the city that taught me how to live loved and to love well in return. A city that is filled with imperfection and hurt and a complicated mix of narratives of power and privilege and oppression. A city in which the Spirit of abundant Grace continues to breathe Life and Love and Mercy.
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