Monday, December 31, 2012

A gray day

It's a gray day, and it's like the fog has seeped into my soul.  New Year's Eve seems appropriately melancholy, but much is weighing on me today.  I'm mourning for another minister who has lost her 11-year-old daughter to a lengthy and difficult battle with cancer.  While I ponder what 2013 will bring, I can only imagine that family's struggle just to make it through this day.

It has been a year full of bearing witness to the struggle and grief of others.  While it is a sacred and holy privilege as a minister to be with people on their journeys, both through pain and through joy, it seems like a hard burden to bear sometimes.  There are students who stay on my mind as I worry about them and their battles with depression.  There are faculty who have lost a colleague this year, and staff who have buried family members.  It always seems a little lonelier at the holidays when you consider that someone you know is looking at an empty place at the table.

I'm longing for sanctuary, for a place of rest and renewal.  I'm searching for that light of hope that shines through the darkness.  I'm hanging on for myself, and desperately trying to hold on to others who are limping along in their journey.

I'm struggling with my children who are fighting for their independence while John and I fight to teach them appropriate manners and boundaries and keep them safe.  There has been way too much yelling today, and I alternate between wanting to hold onto to them fiercely and wanting to shake them because they just can't understand (thank God) how tenuous it all is.  While my son screams that we don't love him as we don't give him everything he wants, I want to tell him (but not really) about how lucky he is just to be alive.  I want him to be grateful for the many gifts with which he's been blessed, but how can I impart that without scaring him, without pulling back the cover and showing the ugly realities of a world that's often filled with pain?

I don't know where I'd be without the hope of Christ, without the reminder that God's mercies are new every day (great is his faithfulness).  I am strengthened by the reminders of God's love in all the loving people who surround me, even in the tear-stained face of a little boy that can't wait to grow up and be an adult, so that he can finally get everything he wants and do whatever he wants (and I mutter, "Good luck with that" under my breath).  Oh buddy, may God bring you many good dreams to fill your long and full (please God) life, and may these be even richer than the things you want now. May you know you are held always in love, even in the times of frustration, disappointment, and punishment. May I find sanctuary from the anger that sometimes overwhelms and offer a safe place for my children and all of God's children...may I reflect God's peace, even in my own fumbling confusion and doubt.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The things we surrender

I'm a big fan of de-cluttering.  People who enter our house are often surprised by how sparse it is.  There are no knick-knacks, few items on display, and just a few photographs hang alongside my husband's artwork.  Toys are mostly neatly hidden away in bins or closets, and we regularly purge stuff so that it doesn't overwhelm our small house.  One of my favorite times is the lead up to Christmas when I ask the kids to select which toys they are ready to get rid of to prepare for the new ones they will receive.  Sometimes we share them with other children we know or donate them to Goodwill or to charities.  Sometimes we sell them and use the money towards their new gifts.  We also practice giving to others by filling shoeboxes for children in need, understanding that we have much to be grateful for and much to share with others.

But there are times when the giving is more difficult.  Sometimes fear leads me to hang on to what I have, afraid that I won't have enough.  I know this isn't the truth, but just a lie of scarcity that lingers from an insecure financial past and a consumeristic culture.  There have been rare times when my personal (emotional) attachment to objects have almost prevented me from sharing with others.  The pictures above show two examples.  Two years ago, I was excited to purchase for Maryn an interactive stuffed animal, Abigail, from Hallmark that responds when you read her story.  I had bought another character for Brady as he was just learning to read and I figured it would be a good incentive for him.  I was even more excited for Maryn's reaction, though, as she loves all things pink and girly, and I thought this talking ballerina bunny with fit perfectly.  I was wrong.  She showed little interest in Abigail,  and handed her back to me a couple days later, telling me I could return her.  Nothing I said could persuade her, and I was crushed with surprise that I didn't know my girl as well as I had thought.  I could finally relate to the intense investment my mother had in each Christmas, carefully gauging my reactions and looking for the excitement she had felt at picking out the "perfect" gift.

The second gift, the gray koala, was donated this year to Toys for Tots.  It was actually a present from Brady to Maryn for her birthday.  He was so excited to select a present for her on his own for the first time and wanted to go to Build-a-Bear.  He carefully picked out each part with love, actually considering what she might like.  I was impressed by his maturity as I knew that he wanted one of his own, but he stayed on task and said that maybe he could make one for himself another time.  I was floored when he insisted on paying for it with his own money, which he had received and saved from his birthday the previous month.  He could hardly wait to give it to her and his excitement was infectious.  I don't even think he waited until her birthday, but had to show it to her right away.  And she was underwhelmed.  Again.  My heart broke for Brady, but he took it in stride.  I thought he would be happy as she told him he could have it and it lived on his bed temporarily.  But I guess he learned the gift of giving and realized that it was not truly his.  He was quick to surrender it in the pre-Christmas purge this year, and it gave my heart a twinge to put it in the donation bin.

There is a price that comes with giving sometimes, more than the value of the item.  Sometimes we give a bit of our heart as we surrender a dream.  Sometimes it's the realization that the kids are growing up and outgrowing the marks of childhood (the strollers and cute onesies), and sometimes it's understanding that we can't control who they are and what they like (for good and for bad).  Often, it's all the hopes that went into each gift, wishing that it will show our love and bestow happiness on those close to us, and seeing that that, too, is unpredictable.  And there's the thought that while we are casting off our "rejects" from our (over)abundance, they will be given to those who have so little.  It seems so unfair.  But time keeps turning and we hope that our gifts will touch hearts, not just with the material value, but with the love with which the gift is offered.

May I surrender in love, and through that gift, may others find hope.  May we all keep dreaming new dreams...

Monday, December 17, 2012

A light shines in the darkness

I've been a little removed since news of the Newtown, CT tragedy spread.  I've been avoiding reports as much as I can because I cannot handle the intensity of the tragedy.  I've been trying to numb myself before the actual shock settles in.  I am the parent of a 1st grader, and so I'm afraid to allow my thoughts to go where they inevitably will.  I know it's horrible for me to say, especially as a minister.  I feel so much for those hurting much that it feels like it would be a terribly selfish thing to wallow in the misery that is not mine to bear in reality, but just to carry in prayer. 

Ironically (or not), the watchword for this week in Advent is "joy", and we light the special pink candle to remember the joy that Christ brings.  In the present we feel so far away from that.  But perhaps it's the perfect light to hold onto.  We cannot fully live joyfully now as we grieve and worry.  We cannot carry the light when we feel engulfed by the darkness.  So much of life is out of our control.  And yet, the candle still burns as a reminder that there is still joy, and one day it will be fully realized.  We look at the light (though it is far off in the distance) and remember that a "light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."  

Advent reminds us to wait for hope, peace, joy, and love.  Although they are not realities now, they are promised in the Kingdom of God.  As we wait, we watch and pray, we mourn, we dream, and we work to share the vision of this kingdom with others. 

As hard as it's been, I recognize the importance of holding on to hope instead of letting the darkness win.  There's something defiant and strong about hanging on to the light and remembering that love wins, even in the midst of evil and doubt.  It's a struggle, though, to be present (and not hide), and yet not be consumed.  In reading Kimberlee Conway Ireton's blog today I found an image I could hold onto.  She talks about Mary, and particularly her prominence and importance in the Catholic faith.  She is not simply the poor mother of Jesus, but literally the God-bearer (theotokos).  By saying "yes" to the angel's message, Mary invited Jesus into her body so that the work of redemption and restoration might begin in her.  Mary's journey was not one of ease or apparent joy.  She had to bear the pains of childbirth that continued throughout her son's life, from the beginning of his ministry as he cut family ties until she finally bore witness to his humiliation and suffering unto death on the cross.  And yet she bore that pain, through grief and tears, never surrendering her hope that the Word spoken to her would be the light to heal the world.

And so we wait, carrying what we have of God within us, straining for our lights to be seen in the darkness, trusting through our pain that the Messiah will be born again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A day in the (ministry) life

I enjoyed reading the Baptist Women in Ministry's blog series recently, "A Day in the Life" of different women in ministry.  Vocational ministry provides many blessings, most often found in its variety.  I love using gifts of creativity, organization, and empathy.  Although I'm a planner, I've learned that you never know what you will get in a day, as ministry is about responding to those in your care and to God.  With this in mind, I was inspired to document my own day yesterday.

I woke up grouchy, in contrast to my perky boys (big and little) and my silly girl.  Staying cocooned under the covers until it was time to send my little guy off to the bus helped me to ease into the day a bit.  Driving my girl to school and seeing her funny faces in the mirror along with her giggle was a great mood adjuster.  I tried to sneak into my office in order to have prayer time before jumping into the chaos of the day, but made the mistake of turning on my computer first.  Attempting to ignore the dings of reminders, incoming email, and Facebook messages from students, my phone rang, the intercom buzzed, and the computer continued to demand my attention.  I was asked to say the blessing for a holiday meal (much better than the day-of notice I received last year), our media services person dropped by to answer my questions about an event set-up for the weekend, and the chapel housekeeper knocked on my door with a question about his tasks.  As I sat down again, my husband called, and we agreed to meet shortly to refuel our cars (yay, 60-cent per gallon Kroger gas savings times two!).  Seeing my sweetie was a nice pick-me-up, and we agreed to squeeze in a quick lunch.  There are perks to my erratic yet self-dictated and somewhat flexible schedule. 

Then it was back to running errands (picking up candles and lighters for a service, and searching, to no avail, for suitable corsages for the leaders of the service).  Upon returning, I briefly spoke with a student who had had a disappointment about internship plans, checked in with a student I’m mentoring, and then I spent an inordinate amount of time on my credit card statement paperwork, which was an impressive half-inch thick due to Thanksgiving and Advent/Christmas purchases for my department and the three clubs I advise.  I missed an appointment due to the paperwork, but it was necessary so that I could get it signed and submitted after my afternoon staff meeting.  I corresponded via email about a potential Lottie Moon memorial event (she was a Hollins alumna), a May wedding I’ve been asked to officiate, and received and updated a handbook and policy statement on what to do in case of a student, faculty/staff, or donor death (please, God, of the first situations I dealt with in my early days of my chaplaincy here was an unexpected faculty death).  I eagerly received a shipment of books that I could only give a brief and longing glance to, then stacked them away to read over Christmas break in preparation for January and spring term planning.  Trying to unclutter my chaotic mind, I blogged, and reminded myself to breathe to abate the spontaneous bursts of panic that kept arising over my impending Advent service on Sunday, my biggest event of the year.  Following this, I read and returned emails from the participants in the service (many saying they can’t attend Saturday’s rehearsal…cue more deep breaths).

On to the weekly staff meeting…spent time talking about all the great (and many) projects everyone is working on.  Got “rewarded” with two new ones.  Returned to the office to find a student waiting for me to talk about an emergency loan request, and then another with whom I was following up with pastoral care from a conversation the previous week.  Kept ignoring calendar reminders to work on Sunday’s homily.  Planned to leave work early as I had to return for a 6:30pm meeting, but looked at the clock to realize it was already 4pm with a full email inbox and a stack of work on my desk.

Discovered through final emails that I am committed to an event for 2014 (more like was committed to an event over my protests).  I attempted to turn it down when it was first suggested, and when I replied that I knew little about the subject, instead of dropping it, they just gave me an extra year to become an expert.  Fabulous.  What can you tell me about Lottie Moon?

I rushed home for dinner with my family, only to have to turn around and return to work for a meeting an hour later.  I'm blessed with a husband that is supportive and carries more than his weight at home, cooking, maintaining the house, and getting the kids to bed, among many other tasks.  I'm grateful to be able to give my time to my family as well, leaving work for lunch at the kids' schools and to attend their performances.  I love when John brings them to visit me at work and to be in a setting that encourages family involvement.  I'm also awed with a calling that is so perfect that I enjoy coming back at all hours and connecting with the students and staff that are so close to my heart.

Ministry:  it’s never what I’ll think it will be.  To-do lists are useless, and measuring impact by turnout is unreliable.  My seminary textbooks sit mostly unused on the shelves as I mentally annotate my list of "things they didn't teach me in seminary."  Some things, though, are only learned through experience and relationship.  Although there is more paperwork, more meetings, and less planning time than I hoped for, the unexpected connections and conversations are sacred and holy ground that make up for the time-consuming negatives.  After 14 years in the trenches, there's nowhere else I'd rather be (except maybe, some days, on a week-long retreat by a body of water with lots and lots of time for reading, walks, and naps).  But knowing me, I'd instead be dreaming up new ideas to share and try when I returned to work.

I'm already anticipating what I'll be surprised with tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blah humbug

It was one of those grouchy mornings.  I have a hard time getting up on a normal day, but when it's especially dark and I've spent the previous night working instead of relaxing, it's nearly impossible to find the motivation to get up.   When I do emerge from my warm cocoon, I'd prefer silence until, oh, say 11:00.  But instead, I have a loquacious morning boy who chatters nonstop while having to be reminded over and over again to focus on getting ready for school.  I tried really really hard to snap out of it, but was just having a hard time finding the sunny side.  Some days are just like that, kind of like

In my head, I can rationalize how it could be so much worse.  I have my health, my family, and a job I love (although it wears me to the bone).  It's the most wonderful time of the year (as I keep getting reminded by the Christmas carols and ads constantly pounding in my ears).  And I do love it all.  And yet, there are just days where it all seems like too much.

In all caring professions, "compassion fatigue" is a term is often tossed around.  It's easy to get worn down as you care for others, especially if you don't make the time for self-care.  In our world, though, everyone is now subject to "emotional labor", the work of responding to many different emotionally difficult situations at once.  We are exposed to this as we watch the news (or our Facebook feeds) and see all the disasters and also confront loss and difficulty in our own lives.  MaryAnn McKibben Dana elaborates on it here.  In our busy and disjointed culture, when we're expected to bounce from one thing to the next, we often neglect the time and space to process and be gentle with caring for ourselves, leading to days where the funk settles in.  When we refuse to care for ourselves, sometimes our minds, bodies, and spirits remind us

But in taking a few seconds (literally) to reflect today, I think these times are necessary.  How can we embrace the light if we haven't walked through the darkness?  As I recently heard James Forbes preach (on DVD), although we put our focus on Easter, you can't have resurrection until you've experienced the death.  In the same way, I think you can only find the light and hope of Christmas after you've wandered a while in the darkness and despair.  The birth of Christ is good news because it reminds us that hope is born anew in us each time we return to wait in faith.  It is not an easy journey by any means, but the great thing about light is its power to overcome the darkness.

May you find your faith strengthened as you wait, and may your journey through Advent bring you closer always to the light of Christ.  May your spirit be reborn as you celebrate the birth of the Messiah.