July 22, 2014

Living Toward…Part One

Yesterday, an important anniversary nearly passed by unnoticed by me.  It was July 21, 2014, seven years to the day from the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book.

Now, it may seem silly that a grown woman wistfully remember dressing up in robes with a lion hat perched on her head, real-live radishes hooked on her earrings, and a cork necklace around her neck, waiting impatiently for a brick of a book to be released, and I will not blame you if you laugh at that idea.  But, for that young woman, that day - July 21, 2007 - was one she had dreamed of and lived toward for many, many years.

It is that idea of living toward that intrigues me today.  When I think back to that young woman, waiting with her friends in her costume for a book to be released, I realize how happy she was to be living toward the moment that book would be placed in her hands.  So much excitement had led up to this moment: hours spent discussing and debating what had happened in prior books, and what could possibly happen in this one; even more hours reading and rereading each page of each book, reliving the stories as if for the first time.  All of those hours, days, years, had been spent living toward the release of this seventh and final book, when all would be revealed and the story would be concluded.


When she received that book, was the excitement over?  No…but she began living toward something new…the next chapter, and the next, then the end of the book, then the conversations that would come.  Some new thing to live toward appeared, and she followed along the path toward those new things.  And other things, not related to Harry Potter, certainly followed.  College graduation, acceptance into graduate school, attending graduate school, marriage…the list goes on.

In our lives, we are accustomed to living toward things.  Our next birthday, the conclusion of a school project, prom, graduation, marriage.  One thing follows when another is concluded, and we are rarely left with nothing to look forward to.  

It is the living toward that is exciting, isn't it?  When I looking forward to the final Harry Potter book, those moments of living toward were (dare I say it?) more exciting than the actual living of it.  It was more thrilling to imagine what might be in the book, than to read what was in the book.  But the danger of it is that we might become too enthralled in the imagining that when that thing we have been living toward arrives and passes…we do not know what to do next.  

My senior year of high school, I spent weeks on a major project for my literature class.  It was a project and presentation I had looked forward to doing since my sophomore year.  My every thought was about this project - what work needed to be completed, what work had been completed and if it needed to be edited, how I would present it, what I would wear when I presented it.  My whole existence became centered around living toward this project.  When the presentation concluded, suddenly I had nothing.  I had forgotten about prom, forgotten about graduation and college…I had forgotten that I needed to live toward something else next.  

So what happens when that thing we have been living toward disappears?  If the seventh Harry Potter book had been canceled, never to be released, what would I (and so many others) have done with all the anticipation that had been building?  If the project I had prepared for suddenly had been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances, what would I have done with all of that preparation?  

I've recently been struggling with this problem.  Following marriage and graduation from divinity school, I have been living toward having a family.  It has become my all-focused goal.  After all, it is what we are supposed to do, right?  Graduate, find a job, get married, start a family.  But when miscarriage followed miscarriage, and the expected ease of having a child proved unrealistic, I found myself with nothing to live toward.  

Saying "nothing" is perhaps an overstatement.  I have everyday goals and happinesses.  I certainly live toward each evening when my husband came home, toward ordination into Christian ministry, toward many other things….but that central thing that I was living toward had seemingly vanished.  How do you move forward when the rug has been completely swept from underneath you?  How do you keep standing, keep living?  How do you seek out that next truly meaningful thing to live toward?  

It has been, and continues to be, a complete life adjustment.  There are only so many days one can set aside to crying in bed and waiting for life to cooperate with your expectations.  And so, lately I have been seeking out new things to live toward.  They've been small, but have managed to fill that space in my life.  Cataloguing our entire 500+ book library.  Learning how to fix and sew on a 1920s-era treadle sewing machine.  Rediscovering the utter joy of reading for pleasure.  Finding a job.

I'm not entirely sure what I am living toward these days.  Perhaps it is finding those simple life pleasures that make you smile.  Or perhaps it is seeking out something new to live toward.  Living toward something to live toward.  

May 8, 2014

The little writer

I've always loved writing stories.

When I was in middle school, I could not resist the call to write.  I would write when I was supposed to be listening to my teachers, when I was supposed to be practicing my violin, when I was supposed to be sleeping.  Stories of princesses who rescued princes, of girls who struggled with emotions they couldn't understand, of magical forests and the fantastic creatures who lived there.  The stories bubbled from my mind, flowing out of me onto the paper.

It became clear to me by high school that I was going to be a writer.  I'd graduated from short stories to novellas, and finally to novels.  The characters came to life in my mind and demanded their story be written.  It wasn't that I wanted to be a writer so much as I needed to be one.  I could not imagine going a day without writing.

Practicality often gets in the way of dreams.  In high school, I took a writing class offered at the library, and learned the average salary of a freelance writer.  I was determined to make it work, though.  I was sixteen when I submitted my first query letters to publishers I'd found in a book at the library. When the rejection letters started coming in, I treasured them because it meant I had tried.  One form letter I will always remember - handwritten at the bottom of the page were the words "I'm sorry."

I was determined to be a writer, no matter how little I made, no matter how many rejection letters I received.  But after four years of studying creative writing in college, I was burnt out.  I had written short stories and papers and poems and creative nonfiction essays.  My brain had melted.  The creative juices had run dry.  I picked up my pen and found no characters waiting to be written.

When I went to divinity school, I accepted that I would not become a writer.  I'd acknowledged my call to ministry, and was okay with the fact that I wouldn't spend my days writing stories.  I gave up on one dream to pursue a new one.  I stopped feeling the urge to write.  I stopped hearing characters begging for their stories to be told.  Though I missed them, I felt good about the new path I was on.

But now a strange thing has happened.  It has been four years to the day since I graduated from college, and I've started to feel that urge again.  Though I'm not a freelance writer, like my twelve-year-old self dreamed, I am still a writer.  The genre of my writing has changed - it now includes blog posts, sermons, and "theological reflection papers" - but the joy that comes with writing has not disappeared.

I wish I could go to my twelve-year-old self and tell her not to give up.  Even when it seems like the dream you've had since childhood is dead, don't give up.  Keep seeking the dream, keep listening for signs.  I would tell her that she would someday be a writer, just as she'd always dreamed.

April 24, 2014

The hardest prayer to pray

"Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." -Luke 22:42

 When the plus sign showed on the take-home pregnancy test, so faint, but so clearly there, I began praying. Please, God. This time. Please, God. Let it be this time. Each night, I curled my hands around my stomach and prayed with all my heart and soul. Please, God, protect this child. Please God, be with this child. Help me to protect this child. Help me to keep this child safe for the next nine months. 

When the doctor's office called to say that the pregnancy was, again, not viable, I felt betrayed. I had already suffered through one loss. How could I be expected to suffer through yet another? I had prayed for this with all my heart, all my being, but my prayer had not been answered. Silence, it seemed, was God's response.

Not my will, but yours. 

I was reminded, then, of Jesus's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion. How, in that moment of desperation, when any sensible person would have prayed to God to be saved, Jesus prayed that God's will be done. "I don't want this," he prayed, "yet not my will, but yours be done."

 I am awed by his trust. At times, I struggle to trust God's decisions in my own life. Sometimes, I can't help but believe that I'm the only one who knows what's best for me. We're self-centered in that way. We struggle to see and understand the bigger picture. It's difficult for us to trust that God sees and understands the big picture. It's difficult for us to tell ourselves that the world is not centered around our lives, that our lives, added together with the lives of those who came before and who will come after, make up the bigger picture that is God's Kingdom.

 Do I believe that my miscarriages are a part of that bigger picture? I don't know. Do I believe that it was God's will that I lose two babies after only knowing about them for a week? I struggle to say yes, because I don't like the idea of God ordaining suffering. But just yesterday, I told a handful of kindergarten and first graders the story of God's plagues on the Egyptians. And there are certainly other times that God allowed (even aided in) the suffering of God's people.

 As I pray each night now, I find my mouth forming the words - Please, God... - but then I stop myself. As I curl my hands together above where a child will hopefully, someday find a safe home, I pray a new prayer.

Not my will, but yours.

It is the hardest prayer I have ever prayed. But it is the prayer I know I must pray. God knows what God is doing. In God I place my trust.


April 19, 2014

Waiting...

As the suns sets on the day of our Lord's death, the Sabbath begins.  We leave our Good Friday services unfulfilled and greatly agitated, much like Jesus in his hours of prayers in Gethsemane.  And our souls shall remain unfulfilled and agitated throughout the Sabbath, until the sun rises on Easter morning.

It is a time of waiting.  Our souls are filled with the hope, the anticipation, the faith that what God has promised will be fulfilled.  Believing in that promise is all we can do.  Believing that the promise will be fulfilled, that the agitation will cease.

We have few words from Scripture telling us what the disciples did that Sabbath day.  The days that came before it must have passed by so quickly - Jesus' grand entrance into Jerusalem with shouting and praise; his powerful lessons and prophesies on what was to come to the holy city, to the temple, to his beloved followers, to his own self.  Then that final supper, like so many Passover meals before it, and yet so different at the same time.  Then, as the food from that meal had just begun to settle into their stomachs, the betrayal and arrest of their beloved teacher.

How their hearts must have beat as Jesus was taken up and questioned, mocked and beaten!  How their stomachs must have churched as they watched him walk to his death, on a cross in between two criminals!

And then, the moment of his death.  As he cried out his final words - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?! - it must have seemed that the whole world stopped.  In place of the cries of the dying was the silence of the dead.

Did they part from one another then?  Go their separate ways for the Sabbath, to sit in silence with their loved ones?  Or did they remain together to pray and grieve as a family, a community brought together by the one whose life had just been brought to a sudden, violent end?

Did they mourn in silence, or did they, too, cry out to God?  Why, God, why?  Why have you forsaken your son?  Why have you forsaken your people?  

As they waited, did they hold onto the promise of his return?  Did they in their grief and agitation, grasp it with their every fiber, believing without understanding why, that the words their beloved rabbi spoke would be true?  That on the third day, he would rise?

As we wait these hours for the sun to rise on Easter morning, and for the promise to be fulfilled, we should think of the disciples as they sat in those silent hours, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they had dared to believe in.  Waiting for the agitation in their souls to calm.  Waiting for an end to their uncertainty, and the beginning of a new world they could hardly imagine.

Do we dare join them in their belief?

March 8, 2014

#1: Mental Health

When I asked friends what topics to write about for my Lenten challenge, the overwealming response was "You already have mental health/depression/anxiety, right?" It does seem like a topic that is on everyone's mind these days. And it wouldn't be fair to say we don't ever talk about mental health. It seems like every few months there's a new push to open up conversation and raise awareness about the rising mental health issues in America.

We talk about the larger issue, yet somehow it isn't okay to talk about our own issues.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 26.2 percent of adult Americans "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That's 1 in 4 adults. A look at the NIMH's information page on depression alone tells a powerful story. College students and depression. Men and depression. Women. Older adults. High school students. Depression and cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's, strokes. Every day, millions of us are overcome with the inabilility to get out of bed, to leave the house, to ask for help. Every day, millions of us recall the days when we had those same struggles, yet something stops us from sharing our stories.

It isn't okay to talk about your depression at work. If you post about it on Facebook, you're whining and annoying. If you blog about it, future employers might find it. But if 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental illness, then isn't it something we need to be talking about? And not just with our closest friends. Not just with our therapists, ministers, and counselors. But with each other?

We weren't created to exist alone in the world. We weren't created to suffer through our problems alone. When God made Adam, God said that it was not good for him to be alone. God created animals, and then God created Eve. I like to think it wasn't just for the sake of procreation. I like to think that God knew we needed one another not just for physical companionship, but also for emotional friendship.

If we are going to talk about mental health in this country, then we can't just talk about it in the abstract. We have to talk about our own personal experiences. We have to share the stories about the days we couldn't get out of bed...and also the stories of that day we did manage to get up and walk outside. We should tell those stories so we can heal, and so we can help others begin to heal.

I was diagnosed with moderate to severe depression my senior year of college, and it has been a part of my life ever since. Some days are great. Some days are not. I've accepted this as a part of my life, at least for now...so why should it be a secret when telling my story might help others?

March 6, 2014

40 Things We Should Be Talking About

  1. Mental health I.
    1. depression
    2. anxiety
  2. Mental health II
    1. in academia (Rachel Neer) - There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia
  3. Mental health III
    1. Why mental illness isn't considered the same way as other long-term illnesses, such as cancer (Hannah Daniels)
  4. Miscarriages/child loss,
  5. Money
    1. Budgeting 
    2. Tithing
    3. Saving
    4. Credit card debt
  6. Our bodies and health
    1. Why and how the human body changes after puberty (the rest of the life cycle)
  7. Modern racism
  8. self abuse
  9. Sad decline of cursive, despite enhancing fine motor skills (HD)
  10. Lack of handwritten letters (HD)
  11. Decline of empathy (HD)
  12. http://thinkprogress.org/home/2013/12/06/3030781/nelson-mandela-believed-people-wont-talk/
  13. Disabilities physical and mental
  14. End of life care
  15. When to let go (line between preservation of life and preservation of body)
  16. Non-abuse alcohol and drugs
  17. Medication
  18. Jesus as a pacafist
  19. Modern sexism
  20. All means all…no seriously.
  21. Creating our online personality/fa├žade
  22. "How are you?" "I'm fine..."

February 28, 2014

Grief, loss, and finding dry land

I've been thinking a lot about grief and loss lately.

When I was in high school, it occurred to me that I was the only one of my friends who had not experienced a major loss in my life. All my grandparents were living, my parents were happy together, and none of my family or friends had unexpectedly died.

I lived in a state of fearful anticipation. I knew my grandparents, and even my parents wouldn't live forever.  Not knowing what to expect emotionally, I feared their deaths even more. I was afraid of a Big Loss that I knew was coming - an unidentifiable certainty, because I knew I would not live in this state of blissful ignorance forever.

When those Big Losses did begin to show up - the death of my grandma, the death of my father-in-law, the miscarriage - I stopped thinking so much about what loss and grief were like. When comforting my husband, I stopped worrying about future loss and future emotions, and found myself focusing only on the right now. And when the death of our unborn, unseen baby happened, I found I could only worry about the present. There wasn't enough in me to look forward.

I do not know when I became comfortable with the process of grief. Somewhere between losses, I began to realize that grief and loss are natural parts of life. How did I know the "correct" emotion to have? The "correct" reaction to a loss? I didn't. The emotions simply rushed over me like a wave of seawater. And then they left. And then they returned. Some days, the grief was at high tide. It rushed over my mouth and eyes and whole body so I could barely breathe. And other days, it simply brushed my toes, like a  gentle reminder that it was still there.

Why does God allow bad things to happen to us? It's a question we ask ourselves in the midst of tragedy and loss, a question we all struggle to answer. A question at times we feel like screaming at God, demanding to know: WHY ME??

A friend of mine is going through her own period of loss right now, and in her grief turned to me. I found myself equipped in a way I had not been before. I was able to speak, able to explain, grateful to help, because I recognized the emotions I saw in her.

If we are God's hands in this world, then maybe bad things happen to good people so that when someone close to us experiences those same bad things - death, loss, grief - we can hold out our hands - God's hands - and let them know they will not be alone when the waters rush over them.

------

I am eternally grateful to those who held my hands over these past few months as those waves beat against me. I am thankful to have you in my life, and that you knew the right words to say and the right way to be present. It is your hands in mine that helped me to find dry land once more.