Shifts in the Story: An Update on New Things Happening

Shift-buttonBig things are happening in my life, friends!

In June, I started a new job as part-time Blog Manager for EA Resources, a faith-based nonprofit organization dedicated to equipping churches and parents to meet the needs of emerging adults. In this position, I get to create and/or curate content for the organization’s blog, as well as possibly work on building the blog by recruiting guest contributors and developing social media strategy. It’s a new role, very part-time, and entirely remote work that has me working at a coffee shop one day and in my kitchen the next, so I’m learning a lot about content coordination and WordPress functionalities, as well as time management and self-discipline.

dukeChapelIn August, I will be moving to Durham, North Carolina to start a Master’s in Divinity (M.Div) at Duke Divinity School, with likely concentrations in Christian Spirituality and Anglican Studies. If you know me, you know that I’ve struggled with change and have said right here on this site that “this is not a travel blog.” But, you know what? “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). That includes time for travel blogs and time for staying-put blogs, time for putting down roots and time for putting out shoots. And always time for rooting ourselves in Christ and his Church. There’s plenty more that I could — and probably will — say about this process of starting seminary, but for now: I’m so excited for what this will do for my writing and my sense of calling toward vocational ministry.

Finally, because I’m not defined by just work or school (no one is), here’s what else I’ve been up to:

  • Writing. Several blogs. And several initial chapters of what I’ve long hoped will eventually be a book-length collection of personal essays about prayer. I’ll be workshopping a piece of this project next week (!) at the Glen Workshop, which is a combination arts conference and spiritual retreat in Santa Fe, so that’s provided a much-needed deadline on my recent writing journey!
  • Reading for fun just as much as I can before getting hit with an oncoming onslaught of academic reading.
  • Praying. Sometimes at morning prayer. Sometimes at evening prayer. Oftentimes whenever-I’m-panicking prayer.
  • Spending time with people. Celebrating birthdays, soaking up the simple sweetness of sitting around with friends, meeting with mentors as though their wisdom is on tap and about to run out.
  • Being a bit of a tourist in my own town to make sure the bucket list gets taken care of before moving day.
  • Going to counseling. I believe in counseling, y’all.
  • Eating chocolate. I also believe in chocolate.

Thanks to my friends, family, and YOU — whoever you may be — for sharing in my story. To keep being part of these new adventures, please take a second to follow my blog and/or pray for me (God knows I need it)!


An Idea That Won’t Leave Me Alone

Some months ago, I enjoyed a roundtable discussion with Dr. Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor University, along with a handful of writer friends. I remember asking him: “How do you know when you have an idea that could merit a book?” Not just a blog or blog series, as I and many in the 21st century have become accustomed to, but a book.

The answer: “When the idea won’t leave you alone. When it’s an idea that you haven’t seen written before in quite the way you envision. And you have reason to believe some people out there need to see it written in the way you envision.”

Well, I have an idea that won’t leave me alone.

There’s a document on my computer that’s titled “Brainstorming” and dated December 27, 2014. For 9 months, it’s been mulling in my mind like a baby in the womb. And for many more months, the life experiences necessary to have the idea have been accumulating.

I’ve finally begun to share the idea with my roommates and writer’s group, and announcing the conception of a book felt slightly like announcing a pregnancy. The writers around the table oohed and awed and asked “What’s it called?” And I laughed and shrugged and said “I don’t know its title yet. I don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl!” I was even holding my stomach through this discussion, either out of some maternal instinct or (more likely) because we were eating our weight in tacos at the time.

So, here’s the idea — the most basic embryo of an idea at this point: a collection of memoir-style essays about my journey with diverse prayer practices.

Prayer won’t leave me alone. Writing won’t leave me alone. So, I’m putting two and two together and writing about prayer. Not a how-to, a self-help, a devotional. A story.

Moving forward, that means I’ll be trying to do a lot of the following:

  1. Research. I’m trying to read a lot of a) spiritual memoirs, to immerse myself in the genre I’m using b) materials on prayer, to immerse myself in the subject matter I’m addressing. This research is something I’ve already started, expect to increase, and dream of pursuing during a grad school program as well.
  2. Storytelling. During and after the research process, I’ll be practicing writing about prayer practices. Some of this will likely appear here on the blog.
  3. Prayer. Because how can I write about prayer without, well, engaging in prayer? As with any dream, there will be plenty of distractions and discouragements, no doubt. So I’d appreciate your prayers too!

Soon forthcoming: my reading list of spiritual memoirs and materials on prayer. Recommendations welcome.

(W)ordinary Time: Learning To Cherish the “Ordinary”

Everyone knows about Easter and Christmas.

But what about Ordinary Time? It’s by far the longest season in the church calendar, observed by Christian liturgical traditions basically from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday (early January to early March, varying a bit based on the timing of Easter) and from Pentecost to Advent (early June to late November). We’re talking a total of about 8 months. SO MUCH TIME.

I used to think “Ordinary Time” sounded a bit like this:

But now I’m learning it’s more like this:

Tangled gif

Ordinary Time is a time “when faith goes flat” and we learn to rejoice.

A time when we “descend the great mountain peaks of Easter and Christmas in order to ‘pasture’ in the vast verdant meadows of tempus per annum, or Ordinary Time.”

A time when we move from the mountains of Virginia to the plains of Texas, as I literally did last year. It can be tempting to think that, in a sort of cosmic rock-paper-scissors game, mountains are better than plains. But, the truth is, if we open our eyes, both are beautiful in their own ways.

Writers from all kinds of religious (and non-religious) perspectives, love to open our eyes to those things that are beautiful in their own ways. Take these writers, for instance:

  • Kathleen Norris in The Quotidian Mysteries: “It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning’ or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed everyday'” (1998).
  • Mary Oliver in her poem “Messenger“: “My work is loving the world / … which is mostly standing still and learning to be / astonished” (2006).
  • Shauna Niequist in her recent bestseller Cold Tangerines: “I believe that if we cultivate a true attention, a deep ability to see what has been there all along, we will find worlds within us and between us, dreams and stories and memories spilling over” (2010).

How do we “cultivate a true attention” like these writers describe?

We practice.

There are specific ways that writers can practice identifying fodder for our writing and specific ways that Christians can practice identifying God in our lives — and I daresay a lot of overlap between the two.

Join with me as I journey on this blog through the rest of Ordinary Time, aiming about twice a month to post a specific way that writing and religion have taught me to cherish the ordinary.


Rethinking Church & Creativity

Myth #3: Structure inhibits creativity.

I used to think that structure in church, especially scripted prayers, left no room for creativity. If everyone’s following a script, I assumed, they aren’t really thinking about what they’re saying and might not even mean what they’re saying. Even if they do mean it, after following the same script multiple times, it must get old and lose meaning after a while.

All of that is very possible.

But I’m learning it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather, structure can enable creativity.  

Using Words Well quote

As a writer, I’ve taken creative writing classes that taught free verse poetry…but only for a few days after a few weeks or months of reading and practicing structured forms like sonnets, villanelles, and pantoums! Why? Because structured forms taught us to love and respect words, to be careful with each one of them, to cultivate relationships with them as we worked with them for hours on end. Quite the opposite of losing meaning, we made sure that our words were rife with meaning.

Perhaps, in the same way, structured forms of prayer can teach us to love and respect prayer, to be careful with it (not “careful” in a nervous sense but in a full-of-care sense), to cultivate relationships with the prayers we pray and, moreover, with the God to whom we pray.

With structured forms in mind, we can pray within them and also without them in “stronger, brighter, deeper” ways — to use the words of writer Ursula Le Guin, above. Structured prayers can be a starting point for “free verse prayers” (that’s probably not a real term) in a number of ways.

As I heard at church this morning in a class on the Lord’s prayer, “What if we were to use each line of the Lord’s prayer as a headline for our own articles of prayer?”

We see, in the news, headlines about current events, opinions, sports, and entertainment — all filled in with the stories of the day. I’d love to think we can see, in the Lord’s prayer, headlines about God’s holiness, kingdom, provision, forgiveness, and guidance — all filled in with the stories of our days.

Through a combination of structure and story, we use created forms in creative ways. This is both obedient to Christ who taught us and authentic with Christ who knows us. 

Therapeutic Writing

As I said in “Back in the Blogosphere,” I need to write. The process and result of writing are helpful — therapeutic even.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon throughout life while studying creative and expository writing, as well helping teach it to adolescents for a couple summers. I’ve experienced it recently while blogging. And, recently I got to study it by giving a presentation to my Psychology of Shame seminar about the potentially therapeutic nature of writing and writing classes. (It was a fun presentation. Yep, I’m a nerd.)

My presentation was based on a chapter called “Unmasking Shame” from English professor Jeffrey Berman’s Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom. So, for today’s Psychology Saturday, I’m just going to post an outline of “Unmasking Shame,” which I found to be a useful tool for teachers and students of writing.  

  • Berman gives the example of a student named “Nick” (a pseudonym), who wrote a piece about being sexually abused by his uncle when he was younger, including in the piece a long letter detailing what he would say to that uncle if he were to write to him. The chapter goes on to unfold how Nick felt about writing the piece and sharing it with his professor and class. Berman assesses: “Nick’s writings dramatize the unmasking of shame — expressing the inexpressible. The process of writing leads to nothing less than the reclaiming of the self.”
  • What effect did writing about his past have on Nick?
    • It helped him figure out his own thoughts.
    • It helped him feel understood by others.
    • It helped him build self-confidence
      • Perhaps distinct from talk therapy and akin to art therapy, writing builds self-confidence because it allows the writer to not only share his story but also share his story in a way that creates something new and might benefit others — like making something good out of something bad, making beauty out of ashes.
  • How did the professor manage a class on personal writing? (He’s not a trained therapist, after all; he’s a trained English professor.)
    • Assign topics in an increasingly personal manner. (Example: Start with requiring a story about travel or nature, and work up to ones about death or sexuality.)
    • Assign topics with options. (Example: When writing about death, students can write about the death of a loved one…or a pet, a plant, or a celebrity.)
    • Be careful about making comments on papers.
      • Include comments about grammar, structure, etc. (That might feel like sticking commas in someone’s diary, but it is an assigned paper after all, and correcting commas gives dignity to the assigned paper and its writer.)
      • Include comments about content. 
        • FIRST encouraging comments (Example: “This was brave. Thank you for sharing.”) 
        • THEN questions/concern if necessary (Example: “Is this currently occurring in your life? If so, you might consider [fill-in-the-resource]…”) 
    • Be careful about making comments in class.
      • Have the class read a piece (perhaps anonymously if the author wants)
      • Instruct the class to “take a minute to think about it” (to avoid visceral reactions)
      • Engage the class in a “critique sandwich” (constructive praise, then constructive criticism, then one last summarizing praise)