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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Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…


“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14

***

Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

***

If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.

***

Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?

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.”

Ready Or Not, Here We Go

As a kid, I was terrified of getting shots. (Who isn’t, right?) But, one year, when I was 10 or so, the phobia started to fade. I gripped Mom’s hand, scared as ever, and the nurse told me to pick something happy and focus on it. I started to run through a mental rolodex of happiness: puppy, ice cream, Disney World

“Ready?” the nurse said.

A little prick pinched my upper arm. I don’t think I noticed.

Christmas, cartoons, cookies…

“All done!” the nurse said, smoothing down a happy Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

“I didn’t say I was ready!” I replied, laughing. I hadn’t even selected my happy thing to focus on.

I didn’t think I was ready. But, thanks to the initiative and gentleness of the nurse, it turned out I was already doing the very thing for which I thought myself so unprepared.

In life, I’ve realized, I never think I’m ready. Maybe you do this too.

I don’t have enough training or experience for that job, we think. I don’t have enough money for that opportunity. Not old enough. Not confident enough. Someday maybe. But not yet. I’m not ready.   

This year, I’m doing an internship program (the Beecherl-Corrigan Fellows Program) that I introduced here. Fellows Programs like mine focus a great deal on preparing young adults to be ready for the “real world” so to speak, specifically stating online: “A Fellows Program is an intensely practical nine-month experience designed to prepare recent college grads to live seamless lives of faith.”

Before this program, I didn’t feel ready to start actually acting on the goals that I’ve sensed God calling me to; I didn’t feel ready for seminary, for ministry, for the possibility of a big move to an unfamiliar city.

Two months in to this Fellows Program, do I feel ready? No. Absolutely not. And yet…yes.

Like when I got the flu shot as a kid, I don’t feel ready. But, thanks to the initiative and gentleness of God, it’s turning out that I’m already doing some of the very things for which I thought myself so unprepared! Fellows are taking a seminary class, working, navigating unfamiliar places, meeting new people — and it doesn’t even require a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

The fact is we’re not prepared for everything. But we can’t let that make us paralyzed from doing anything. 

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul describes how to effectively live this balancing act of being unprepared on the one hand and pressing forward on the other hand:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

It’s like God says to us: You’re right; you’re not ready. But I am. And I’m with you. Ready or not, here we go. 

Emerging Adulthood According to James Fowler: A Reflection on Calling

Becoming Adult Becoming ChristianLast week: a blog inspired by pop music. This week: inspired by personality psychology. Yet, they both manage to address central concerns of emerging adulthood — community and calling.

When I recently read Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian by psychologist James W. Fowler, I think I was hoping for a how-to guide. But it’s not. At all. Instead of prescribing how to become adult and how to become Christian, Fowler describes dynamic processes by which emerging adults can find our lives fitting meaningfully into the Christian narrative.

From Identities to Identity

We all have identities. The standard Twitter bio, for instance, contains a list of probably at least 4 unique identities (e.g. writer, minister, husband, dad, dog lover). I’ve read that millennials will hold, on average, something like 7 different jobs in 3 different career fields over the course of our adult lives.

But, having identities can be a problem.

I distinctly remember a brave psychologist attempting to figure out my personality when I was about 14 years old and pointing out that I seemed fundamentally happy in some settings and sad in others, shy in some settings and self-assured in others. She would ask convicting questions like “Who are you?” And I would give confusing answers like “It depends.”

A key task of young adulthood, according to Fowler, is forming an answer to the question “Who are you?” — specifically, an answer that does not depend on what setting we’re in.

To make this task somewhat more manageable, we might fill in the blank: “No matter what I’m doing, I am ______________.” (Personal example: No matter what I’m doing, I am a Christian and creative.) We can fill in the blank with any identifier/s that are non-negotiable to who we are.

From Identity to Vocation

Throughout college, the question became increasingly common: “What do you want to do for a living?” (Answer: shrug.) And it didn’t stop at graduation. No, the query just adjusted to “What do you do for a living?” (Answer: sigh.)

Questions about what I do make me feel like life is handing me a giant to-do list.

Questions about who I am, on the other hand, make me feel like life is handing me a giant invitation. And, once I’ve accepted the invitation, the to-do list can follow.

In short: what we do (vocation) should emerge from who we are (identity).

So, the second key task of young adulthood is applying identity to meaningful work. To use my personal example from above, I’m trying to apply my “Christian and creative” identity to the works of writing and young adult ministry. Sometimes I’m paid for these things; sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m in charge of my schedule; usually I’m not. But, always I feel comfortable that I’m called to these tasks. Because they emerge from who I am. They’re my vocation.

It’s been deeply challenging to look less at my to-do list and more at my invitation. But, it’s also been deeply rewarding. So, give it a shot and ask yourself: “Who are you? What are you being invited to?”