Prayers of the People: A 2016 Rendition

2016Last summer, the Internet started asking questions like “Is 2016 the Worst Year In History?” and compiling collections like “Tweets That Perfectly Sum Up 2016 So Far.”

I’m not usually one to catastrophize like that. But, after this past week, I toss up my hands and say yes, 2016 has lost its mind. Then, alongside the raw frustration, maybe because I’m Episcopalian and in seminary and doing a semester-long project on the spiritual discipline of lament, I toss up my hands to the Lord and say something like this (modeled after Prayers of the People, Form I):

With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying “Lord, have mercy.”

For the 336+ Haitian souls deceased as a result of Hurricane Matthew; for the 4+ missing, 211+ injured, and 60,000+ displaced; for the mourning mother, fearful father, hungry child, and tired aid worker, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the woman who was sexually assaulted at the hands of Donald Trump and for the woman or man who hears audio bragging of the assault and recalls all too viscerally their own unwanted encounters, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the faithful LGBT-affirming InterVarsity staff worker losing or quitting his job and for the student feeling confused, alumnus feeling betrayed, and administrator feeling pressured to impossibly appease all parties, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the transgender woman fighting for dignity in her state, school, and restrooms, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the black man who fears that wherever he goes he cannot truly go in peace or safety, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the anxious student who sleeps little, worries lots, and insists that he would rather die of shame than accept any grade lower than an A, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For deliverance from all danger, violence, oppression, and degradation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

Maybe We Belong Here

“How is this real life?”

I asked myself this question every day last week, while attending the Glen Workshop, which is self-described as “equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat.” My question emerged from a mixture of feeling awestruck and unworthy.

Capture

photo by Image Journal

It’s a feeling any of us might get if we happen to rub shoulders with our role models in real life, finding ourselves, say, at any kind of conference, class, or meeting with people we admire but can’t come to consider ourselves “on par” with. It’s a feeling clinical psychologists have called “impostor syndrome,” an experience “marked by an inability to internalize … accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.'”

When I’ve arrived at gatherings like the Glen, I’ve sometimes gone to bed on Day One thinking and praying and asking Google about impostor syndrome. And I’ve never found a solution. Until now.

Last week, at the Glen, I started learning to humanize my heroes. (Maybe I started learning to humanize all people — but that’s a story for another day.)

In my Spiritual Writing workshop, for instance, I sat next to some published authors I had previously only seen — or “seen” — on Facebook and Twitter. To be clear, the class included writers of varying experience levels. But certainly a few had published books and at first I struggled to bring these people down from the invisible pedestal on which I had placed them.

In this setting, thanks be to God (and to the Glen), it seemed we were all essentially equals. They other writers offered feedback on my writing and I offered feedback on theirs. They didn’t draw attention to the fact that they had book deals and definitely didn’t draw attention to the fact that I didn’t. On the contrary, they looked into my eyes and my words, and they saw vision and voice that they somehow blessedly believed in — sometimes more than me. They laughed and cried and drank countless cups of coffee and crafted countless drafts until reaching their point of publication. Our teacher, Kaya Oakes, a writing instructor at UC-Berkeley and author of at least 4 books, told us very frankly about her stage fright one day, knowing that she would be giving a reading and Q&A that evening to a large audience. We all nodded in understanding, being the writers and mostly-introverts that we were.

Outside of class too, in the cafeteria and poetry readings and evening worship services, I sat among “artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes,” as the Glen Workshop website puts it, all of whom sought similar kinds of sweet dreams and spoke of similar kinds of struggles and breathed the same Santa Fe air. One afternoon, an author and aspiring minister (like myself) prayed for me — like laid a hand on my shoulder and invited the Lord into our lives and our work kind of praying for me. Later, I prayed for her and have continued to. On the last day, poets Malcolm Guite and Luci Shaw anointed our hands to go and build beauty in the world. Because we can’t do it on our own; we need the seeking and the speaking, the praying and the anointing.

Fear and faith, doubt and do-it-anyway — these are paradoxes that apparently we are all familiar with.

When I spoke with another young lady at the Glen about impostor syndrome, she immediately said: “You too? I thought that was just me!” We talked and shared our sense that “I don’t deserve to be here” and eventually she said this:

“If we’re here, maybe we belong here.”

I think sometimes that’s true. If we get to thinking “I don’t deserve to be here,” wherever that “here” may be, maybe we should take a deep breath, sink our feet into the ground on which we stand, see the good-and-bad humanness of the people (even the initially intimidating people) around us, see some good-and-bad humanness in our own selves, and say this: “I’m here. An admissions committee decided I could be here or an employer hired me or God called me or whatever the case may be. But I’m here. So, maybe I belong here.”

I am not just an impostor with a syndrome. I’m a seeker with a spirit that is at once so scared and so strong. And so are you, friend. So are you. Maybe we belong.

Jesus Heals a (Sort Of) Paralytic

Paralysis by analysis: the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.

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I used to be paralyzed. In the paralysis by analysis sense, I mean.

While wrapping up my undergraduate degree and for several months thereafter, I had a variety of options — too many options. I cringe at this confession, but within one year’s time I considered pursuing vocational paths toward writing, academia, ministry, counseling, and higher education student affairs. Whew. Just recalling all that makes my blood pressure rise with anxiety.

Unable to choose, I thought a lot and acted a little. Very little. Paralysis little.

I worked part-time at a small restaurant for some months, job-searched in my free time, wondered about the purpose of life, waited for answers, and worried myself to sleep. So, actually, there was a lot happening internally (the wondering, the waiting, the worrying), and that took so much mental and emotional energy that it hindered much from happening externally.

I remember humming often the song “Jesus I Am Resting, Resting” and hearing a sermon on Isaiah 30 (“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength”) and wishing it were true — wishing that rest was real and that it could somehow save me.  

But here’s the thing I realize now: Rest is real. And, somehow, it saved me. Resting in Jesus’ goodness and guidance saved me.

There’s a passage in Mark 2 that often gets the heading “Jesus Heals a Paralytic.” And I’d like to say Jesus healed my paralytic-like self too.

Mark 2 goes like this:

Then some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” … “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

A couple things I notice about how this happened for the paralytic:

  1. It took friendship. The paralytic’s friends brought him to Jesus. When he couldn’t move, others could move him. In the case of paralysis by analysis, this can look like friends reminding us who we are, what we love, where we’ve been, where we’re headed. For instance, when paralyzed, I’ve tentatively suggested a possibility to a mentor and they’ve been able to affirm “Yes, that’s you! You’ve wanted that for years!”
  2. It took faith. The paralytic and his friends had faith that Jesus had healing power or else they wouldn’t have broken through a roof to get to him. Indeed, we’re told “when Jesus saw their faith” he responded. When paralyzed, I’ve been unable to see any single action as the best action to choose. Faith says to act anyway.
  3. It took forgiveness. Jesus addressed the internal (sin and forgiveness) before and while addressing the external (paralysis and movement). Paralysis by analysis can come with the guilt and shame of feeling lazy if we don’t act, crazy if we act indecisively, or wrong if we act incorrectly. Jesus addresses that internal experience by saying “your sins are forgiven,” thus addressing our external experience by drawing us out from stuck to standing.


I only realize this in hindsight. But, somehow, after a year or so of paralysis, I began to rest from figuring things out on my own and to let good friendships guide me. Began to rest from worrying so much about the future and let faith guide me. Began to rest from guilt over my paralysis and let forgiveness grace me.

It’s counter-intuitive. But the more I rested my mind, the more I took action in my life.  

I still have choices to make. We all do. Every day. And, this time, I’m making the choices. Because, accompanied by friendship, I can take a faithful action and trust that even if it’s not perfect it’s forgiven. Thanks be to God. 

We Need To Talk

“We need to talk.”

What do you think of when you hear those words?

I’ve been realizing over the last several months that, when I hear something like that, I immediately assume the worst. I worry, sometimes for days, that either a) I’m in trouble or b) someone close to me is in trouble. But usually that I’m in trouble.

Why? Probably because I have a somewhat neurotic personality and have experience, unfortunately, with unhealthy workplaces led by unpredictable supervisors. Sometimes, the supervisor would call me in to his office to praise my job performance, other times to threaten my job security. The praise and the threats may have happened 50/50; I’m not sure. But, as I learned in a psychology class once, there’s this thing called the negativity bias that makes negative experiences impact us more than neutral or positive experiences. For example, if my supervisor criticized me 5 times a week (true story), he might need to affirm me, say, 10 times a week in order for me to come away with an unbiased perception of our interactions. And I don’t think that’s asking too much; it’s what we call “constructive criticism” or maybe “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But my supervisor didn’t seem to go that route.

So, I became scared of his office. Scared of the desk phone that so often summoned me into his office. Scared, sometimes, of just waking up in the morning and driving into work. Long after shaking off that situation (with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing as I drove away; no joke), it seems I’m scared of someone saying “we need to talk.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes we just need to talk.

A few days ago, someone in a supervisory position over me suggested that we go to lunch. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Lunch time came around, we ordered salads, and after several minutes of small talk and sipping sweet teas, I asked her, “So, did you want to discuss something in particular?”

“No,” she said with the simplest smile. “I just thought we hadn’t touched base in a while, just the two of us.”

I sat down my fork and breathed in deep (note to self: do this more often).

Hours of anxiety released like a deflating balloon.

Suddenly, the small talk seemed sufficient rather than suspenseful, as if maybe we’re meant to just be together rather than just be together until some ticking time bomb goes off. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared. I was just there — fully, freely there. I cared more genuinely about her toddler’s antics and approaching anniversary, and I could accept that she cared quite genuinely about my roommates and writing.

We need to talk. We really do. And I’m resolved to redeem that phrase.  

Imagination and Fear of the Future

11-2014 Regent visit (11)

Handout at a recent grad school visit. Theme of the day: “Imagine.”

A black hole of nothingness.

That’s how one of my college roommates once described life after college. She couldn’t see what came after graduation, so all she could picture was…nothing. And, secretly, for quite a while, I agreed.

Despondent, I would stare into a blank journal or a career aptitude test or the face of a mentor and say “I just…don’t know. Sorry.”

But, after walking into the nothingness (note: not sitting in it but walking right into it) for six months to a year, the black hole started to clear.

The answer to the fear: use your imagination.

Our inability to see what comes next doesn’t have to blind us to see nothing. On the contrary, with imagination, it can liberate us to see anything.

Here’s how it works.

In creative writing classes that I’ve taken and taught, students would be instructed to create characters — complete with their appearances, families, hometowns, occupations, and contents of their purses. After, say, 15 minutes, the instruction was given: “take your character in a new direction. New occupation, new home, new relationships.” Without fail, protest ensued. After just 15 minutes of character development, students felt deeply protective of their characters. But, without fail, the exercise brought stronger, deeper personalities to the characters.

Likewise, in life, you’re creating the character called you. After, say, 4 years (or however long it takes to pass through a particular season of life), the instruction is given: “Take yourself in a new direction.” You may want to protest. Because, after the character development you’ve worked on in your latest season of life, you may feel deeply protective of your character. (What if I can’t do any other occupation? What if I lose touch with friends or family? I have to protect that from happening!) But, with imagination, the exercise can bring stronger, deeply personality to your character.

What does this look like in everyday life?

It looks like trying new activities, whether as a one-time venture, hobby, volunteer role, or occupation. It looks like visiting new places, whether an office you’re interviewing at (even if it’s a long-shot), a school you may went to attend, a church you may be even slightly interested in joining. It looks like becoming the change you wish to see in yourself (to paraphrase Gandhi).

Imagine a picture of something you could do, somewhere you could go, someone you could meet.

Imagine it so clearly that the picture fills up your black hole of nothingness and crowds out fear.

Imagine it, over time, right into existence.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” – Ephesians 3:20-21 (emphasis mine)