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.

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Side Effects of a Seminary Semester

img_3414I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.

So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:

1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).

2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope: 

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine

3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.

4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”

5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.

6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.

7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.

“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict   

8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.

“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

Discipleship According to Sara Bareilles

altar-torch-7-8-top“I used to be scared of fire,” I said calmly, as a thin flame danced before my face.

I was serving as an acolyte maybe a month into my time at divinity school, recruited at the last minute to help with a chapel service. The kind of recruitment that starts with a simple favor (carry a candle) and spirals into several additional tasks like “Oh, by the way, can you also do the Scripture reading? … Oh and be a chalice bearer? … And arrive an hour early so we can go over things?” (Welcome to ministry life, I suppose.)

“Uhh, are you gonna be OK?” the other acolyte asked nervously, eyeing my fire-lit face.

With a smile and shrug, I replied in the way in which we affirm our baptismal vows: “I will, with God’s help.”

I will, with God’s help.

This has become a mantra for the new tasks I’m invited to attempt these days — tasks which can appear humanly impossible but are, in fact, divinely possible.

Or, in the words of Sara Bareilles’ hit song “I Choose You,” which “coincidentally” came on the car radio the day of that chapel service both as I drove to school and as I left, running through my head like a helpful earworm throughout the day:

“I am under-prepared, but I am willing.”

I am under-prepared to figure out vesting in vestments and processing down aisles, assisting at the altar and knowing the terminology (good Lord, the terminology) for anything that goes on and around the altar. I am under-prepared to lead morning prayer — much less the chanted morning prayer that I managed to lead a couple weeks ago. I am under-prepared to write most of the papers I am writing, because there is simply not time to develop expertise or even understanding of a topic in the one week or even one day allotted to that topic in class.

But, somehow, I am willing.

I’m quite certain Sara Bareilles was not thinking of Christian discipleship when she composed “I Choose You” (in fact, I’ve heard she was writing about marriage, which is also a lovely way to interpret the song). But, when I hear this song on the radio, I can’t help but think of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples, recorded for instance in Matthew 4:18-22:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb′edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb′edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

A call from God. And a “yes” from humankind.

God who doesn’t mind in the least — in fact, perhaps intends — that we be under-prepared for the work to which we’re invited. And humankind who needs only to be willing.

On Orientation

orientation
noun ori – en – ta – tion \ ȯr-ē-ən-ˈtā-shən
: a person’s feelings, interests, and beliefs
: a main interest, quality, or goal
: the process of giving people training and information about a new job, situation, etc.

I have a very intelligent friend who has done research in medical anthropology, with a focus on the values communicated to aspiring doctors during their medical school orientation.

compass-008As I write this, I have just completed 3 days of seminary orientation at Duke Divinity School. And I wonder: What would my researcher-friend be observing if she had been in my shoes (or perhaps I should say “in my pews”)? What is the orientation or “main interest, quality, or goal,” to quote Merriam-Webster, of these aspiring ministers around me?

The orientation is toward creativity. I heard a sermon that had such lyricism and imagery it may as well have been preached at a poetry slam. I heard a visionary lecture on “theological education for the future of the Church.” I see abstract art and sculptures and posters about all manner of creative and collaborative initiatives.

The orientation is toward integrity. One professor spoke on the school’s Conduct Covenant, calling community members to a high standard of academic and behavioral integrity — not just to avoid consequences but to honor God, self, and others with our actions. Two presenters spoke in detail about sexual harassment policies and prevention. All of us sang this morning that “we will guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The orientation is toward diversity. On Wednesday, we sang gospel songs led by a small ensemble of singers — mostly black students, a couple white. On Thursday, we sang hymns, hymnals in our hands and pipe organ in our ears. On Friday, we sang songs by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong, led by a small band of guitar, drums, and vocals. Every day, I met folks of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual, political, and denominational identities. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic. Gay, straight, trans, cis. Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Reformed, nondenominational. We are undeniably different from one another and undeniably called to respect one another.

The orientation is toward community. The Director of Admissions & Recruitment opened orientation by saying, “Listen to what I’m about to say: Welcome. Home.” Every faculty, staff, and student has been quick to say, “If you need help with anything, I’m here for you.” It’s as though that’s our last name around here, as in “Hi, I’m Sarah I’m-here-for-you!”

The orientation is toward Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He’s the main interest, he’s the quality, he’s the goal.

Remind me to read this blog again in a couple months, when I’m in the middle of midterms and feeling less inspired. When the mind, heart, and soul are spinning in ten different directions like a broken compass in need of orientation.

Until then? I’m as oriented as I’ll ever be.

Why Seminary?

“A woman asked me at lunch today — not in a confrontational way, but just in the I’m-confused way in which it often comes — ‘And why are you going to seminary?'” – Dr. Greg Garrett, Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that (and asked myself that) I’d be a wealthy woman.

First, there’s the answer that, well, I think God told me to. Insert mic drop here.

Then there’s the professional, practical answer about pursuing education and experience to be equipped for work in my field of interest.

There’s the intellectual answer that, as Frederick Buechner writes in Now And Then: A Memoir of Vocation, I want “to learn about Christ — about the Old Testament, which had been his Bible, and the New Testament, which was the Bible about him; about the history of the church … about the theological systems that the passion of his original followers, and of Saint Paul in particular, had been distilled into. No intellectual pursuit had ever aroused in me such intense curiosity, and much more than my intellect was involved, much more than my curiosity aroused.

And then, there’s the stories. Oh the stories.

How I perked up in 9th grade world history, in which I was honestly apt to doze off, when I heard mention of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a title that roughly translates into English as “the highest of theological knowledge” or “the sum total of theological knowledge.” I would later learn that this difficult work comes in multiple volumes totaling over 3,000 pages, and I will likely ever tackle only a tiny percent of it. But, I will never forget feeling so unnaturally fascinated nonetheless.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow, when I was 16 years old, I stumbled into a youth program at Duke Divinity School which involved spending 2 weeks at the seminary praying, singing, serving, hearing theology lectures that were way over my head, and then attempting to discuss and apply them. At the end of the 2 weeks, I learned that it was possible to perhaps one day do that kind of thing for 2-3 years  — as an intensive training to perhaps do that kind of thing vocationally for all my years. My jaw dropped at the realization. And my spirit clenched onto the conviction that that’s precisely what I was going to do.

How the conviction has lived in the back of my mind for years while I play a life-size Game of Life, taking one step forward and two steps back, through college and first jobs and countless conversations and applications.

How, when I was 23 years old, my mom asked me to officiate a short graveside memorial on what would have been her father’s (my grandfather’s) 100th birthday. I pestered a priest for some advice and somehow patched together a quilt of Bible verses and BCP prayers for my part-Baptist, part-Episcopalian family. When I invited the tiny congregation to share their remembrances, all my grandma wanted to say was this: “You drank too much, old man.” My mom sighed and said something sweet and I said amen. It was undoubtedly awkward. And God was undoubtedly there.

How many times friends have asked me where God was when they were diagnosed with depression, date raped, or dealing with anorexia. Asked me what God thought about their Muslim friends or LGBTQ family. Asked me what the Church thought about such-and-such social issue or why we practice such-and-such sacrament. Over and over, my answer has been “I don’t know. But I’d like to sit with you and consider your questions just as much as we can.”

How very much, in those maybe-ministerial moments, I longed to engage those comrades’ concerns in a more robust, informed manner — something I believe seminary will help with.

I tell these stories to know who I am. We all have to, I think. Have to gather up our stories to know who we are. Whether aspiring to be a pastor or poet, professor or pediatrician, so many of us have stories of those moments when we just knew we had to do something. The career day, the field trip, the toy stethoscope or telescope or microscope we played with as children — longing all the while for the eventual real deal.

To return to Dr. Garrett, who opened this blog:

“Do I think that in [a couple] years when I complete seminary, I’ll be ordained as an Episcopal priest? I don’t know. And you know, it almost doesn’t matter. What I do know is that as long as I have life and breath, I’m going to try to be a Christian. I’m going to write and teach and preach and live in a fashion that shows how thankful I am. … I’m going to try to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world. That’s all I know. And really, that matters more than anything else, any title you could put in front of my name, any collar you could put around my neck.”
As I start seminary next week (strange to say), life is going to look very different in some beautiful ways and busy ways, some sweet and some stressful. I don’t expect to blog as often, although hopefully still at least once per month. But I do expect to collect stories. Stories of trying, as Dr. Garrett said, “to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world.”