Encouragement

It’s funny what power encouragement can have when we let it. At least for me, encouragement has the potential to light a spark that keeps my fire (of faith and of creativity) going for quite a while.

I don’t usually stop and meditate on the topic of encouragement, but Kate Rademacher, author of the memoir Following the Red Bird: First Steps Into a Life of Faith and a member of my church, recently graciously invited me to be the first guest blogger on her new blog, launching a sort of series on the topic of encouragement. You can read that blog post in full here.

I’ve received a lot of encouragement over the years (maybe from you, reader!), perhaps especially in recent years as I’ve grown in confidence studying at intersections of faith and mental health. For that I am grateful.

This past semester I found myself encouraged by professors, peers, and the very process of writing as I wound up eagerly crafting pastoral theology papers for each of my seminary classes, addressing the following:

  • “Belonging in the Body: A Pastoral Theology of Lay Eucharistic Visitation and the Care of Persons with Dementia”
  • “‘Enlarge Our Territory:’ The Spiritual and Social Power of Women’s Prayer Groups”
  • “Permission to Grieve: Reading Psalms Through the Lens of Foster Youth and the Experience of Disenfranchised Grief”
  • “Self-Emptying and Self-Care: Exploring a Kenotic Valuation of Self in Philippians 2:1-13”

This summer, I will be doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a structured program of pastoral care training that’s required for ordination in my denomination and many others. While CPE is all about hospital chaplaincy, I’ll be learning mental health chaplaincy in particular, based primarily at a psychiatric hospital and secondarily at a homeless shelter in order to see a spectrum of mental health needs and care structures (or perhaps lack of care structures at times).

Howard Thurman has been famously quoted as saying: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

To be clear, I’ve long taken some issue with this quotation, especially its first sentence; we should absolutely, I think, ask what the world needs. I could say more on the dynamics of Thurman’s and Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted quips on vocation, but I’m saving that for another day.

For now I’ll say: the world needs to see God’s presence in spaces of mental illness, and that, my friends, is something that makes me come alive. I’m no hero, no expert, not ordained or licensed yet. But somehow I am alive as I work, study, read, write, listen, and speak on these things.

Encouraged by the Spirit of God, the words of others, and the vitality (and necessity!) of this work, I hope to keep writing on faith and mental health both here on this blog and elsewhere. You might expect reflections on my time in mental health chaplaincy. You might expect reviews of relevant books, songs, movies, or shows (e.g. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”). Regardless, I hope you can expect some encouragement.

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Podcasts: Top 10

I never thought I’d say this, but I love podcasts. In recent months and years, there seems to have been an accelerating boom of podcasts, including numerous that align with my interests — and the purposes of this blog — centering around faith and/or mental health.

Here’s my current favorites, in alphabetical order because I can never bring myself to rank things:

  1. CXMH (short for “Christianity & Mental Health”) hosted by Robert Vore. Main topics: religion and mental health, featuring conversations mainly with mental health professionals.
  2. Exvangelical hosted by Blake Chastain. Main topics: religion and culture, featuring conversations mainly with “recovering evangelicals.”
  3. On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. Main topics: religion, culture, & creativity.
  4. Personality Hacker hosted by Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge. Main topics: personality psychology, including MBTI and Enneagram.
  5. Queerology hosted by Matthias Roberts. Main topics: religion, sexuality, & gender, featuring conversations mainly with Christian LGBTQ advocates.
  6. The Airing of Grief hosted by Derek Webb, Kevin MacDougall, and Jamie Lee Finch. Main topics: religion, culture, & lament.
  7. The Liturgists hosted by Michael Gungor, Mike “Science Mike” McHargue, Hilary McBride, and William Matthews. Main topics: religion, culture, & science.
  8. The Social Work Podcast hosted by Dr. Jonathan Singer, LCSW. Main topics: mental health and social advocacy, featuring conversations mainly with social work professionals.
  9. Typology hosted by Ian Morgan Cron. Main topics: the Enneagram.
  10. “Where Should We Begin?” hosted by Esther Perel. Main topics: mental health and relationships, featuring live recordings of couples therapy sessions.

Note: My enjoyment of these podcasts does not imply my endorsement of the entirety of their views, content, and guest speakers.

What podcasts would you want to add to this list?!

Best of ’17

The past few years, at the end of the calendar year, I’ve posted a list of my favorite books read, blogs read, and blogs written. But I’ve been less actively blogging in 2017 and more actively writing other things (because, well, grad school!), as well as pretty actively living, learning, serving, and so on.

So, this year I’ll try something a little different. I could be super cool like Barack Obama and share my favorite books and songs. But, let’s face it, his musical tastes are hipper than mine. So here’s 17 books I’m glad I read and 17 things I’m glad I experienced.

17 Books I’m Glad I Read:

  1. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
  2. The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggeman
  3. Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith by Monica A. Coleman
  4. God of the Oppressed by James Cone
  5. A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence by Stephanie M. Crumpton
  6. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight
  7. Coming Clean: A Story of Faith by Seth Haines
  8. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith L. Herman
  9. Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa Pasquale Mateus
  10. Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt
  11. Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach by Christie Cozad Neuger
  12. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen
  13. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
  14. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu
  15. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk
  16. Broken by Ryan Casey Waller
  17. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients by Irvin D. Yalom

17 Things I’m Glad I Experienced:

  1. Decorating funfetti cupcakes with friends around a backyard firepit on my birthday
  2. Giving a eulogy at my Grandma’s memorial service after she passed away this year
  3. Having friends and priests and mentors who let me cry — when it was finals week and Grandma died, when it was Holy Week and Jesus died, when it was an ordinary week and sometimes my hope and joy had just up and died
  4. Having strong faithful older women in particular who prayed for me and with me and over me
  5. Disconnecting from one church & connecting with another (the six-word memoir version of a whole spiritual saga, friends)
  6. Making a home in a place I’ve only known for 1.5 years
  7. Wading in a creek in Bryson City, NC surrounded by fireflies and distant children’s laughter and sweet summer stillness
  8. One word: therapy
  9. Canoeing on the Eno River with an old friend — even if that included dropping my phone in the river bank, fishing it out with the assistance of humorous yet helpful bystanders, and resurrecting it to full functioning
  10. Attending my 1st Summer Institute for Reconciliation, where I got to manage the social media
  11. Attending my 2nd regional conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, where I got to be on the worship service planning team
  12. Researching theology, trauma, the problem of clergy-perpetrated sexual assault, and possibilities for pastoral care & counseling in light of sexual assault
  13. Being even a tiny, tangential part of the cultural dialogue around the #MeToo movement and #ChurchToo movement
  14. Sitting down in a couple of rocking chairs at church to talk with a homeless veteran
  15. Taking Eucharist to a remarkable older woman from my church who lives in a memory care facility — and who thought she was living in 1960’s Washington DC the last time I visited (while in fact it was the 2010’s in Chapel Hill, NC).
  16. Attending my first Blue Christmas service
  17. Preaching my first sermons — even if the congregation was a classroom of 12 seminarians, I had a blast!

Nevertheless She Persisted

In January she watched as women’s marches took over downtowns around the world, complete with pink pussy hats and witty posters and various sorts of ideological disagreements.

In February she started hearing the catch phrase, based on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s experience of being silenced mid-speech: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.

She felt sad and slightly sick at the reality of it all. The reeling, repressive, recurrent reality that she — and, yes, so many shes — had also been warned, given an explanation, and pushed into a place of persistence.    

il_340x270-1139220768_r5dpIn March someone sweetly offered her a gray t-shirt with “nevertheless she persisted” emblazoned on it in some cool typography.

She felt sad and slightly silenced at the assumption of it all. The assumption that persistence could be explained with a t-shirt. That the pain of a person — an entire people group in fact — could be summarized with a slogan. Perhaps especially the assumption that it was empowering to quote a past tense catchphrase to someone engaged in present-tense struggle.     

In April her grandmother suddenly passed away a few days before final exams were to take place.

In May she spent some time focused on a funeral and family and friendships, then some more time focused on final exams and papers — while fighting through a couple sicknesses and surprises along the way.

Most mornings it was unusually hard to get out of bed. Most weeks her therapist asked if she still wanted to keep going (as opposed to quitting or taking a leave of absence) on the career path and life path she was on. After a long pause and deep breath, she said “yes” every time.

Because that’s what persistence looks like, friends. It looks like Senator Warren publicly standing her ground. But it also, probably more often, looks like you and me day after day just getting out of bed and taking deep breaths and saying “yes.”

As you may have guessed by now, this is my story I’m telling. The story of my second semester of seminary to be exact.

I don’t share it to complain that things were hard, though sometimes they were. And I don’t share it to boast that I got through it, though it seems I did.

I share my story to say that persistence takes a lot longer than 140 characters. It’s harder than a hashtag, more tenuous than a t-shirt, more complex than a catchphrase. So complex that, when I took a seminar on “nurturing leaders for resilience” last week, we defined resilience as the capacity to rebound from shocks or setbacks, calling upon and/or creating a core of physical, psychological, social, and spiritual resources.

So, psychologically speaking, persistence looks not only like a muscular marathon runner (though I’m sure they’re very persistent indeed) but like a relay race of resources.

It looks like therapists, friends, family, self-care, self-talk, a little chocolate, and a lot of choosing to say “yes.”

It looks sometimes like triumphant endings and more often like a long series of brave beginnings. As St. Benedict has been attributed with saying: Always we begin again.

bba3b09aba78d5b327e5de0239e69c60Call me a monk, but I like those ancient four words (always we begin again) much more than the modern three (nevertheless she persisted).

For months I took quiet offense at the over-simplicity of the “nevertheless she persisted” line. Now I just want to at least amend the phrase, to recognize the duration and difficulty involved in persistence. I want to say “nevertheless she is persisting” or “nevertheless she will persist” or maybe “nevertheless we will persist.”

I will. We will.

Because persistence is never over. And persistence is never a solo sport. It has to be an always. It has to be an all of us.

Always. We. Begin. Again.

In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

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The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.”