Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Just Jenny from the block

Ahh, summer...the sound of the waves lapping the sand, the smell of sunscreen, and the relief of a cool beverage in my hand.  Peace and quiet.  At least that's the way I picture it in my mind.  Instead, more often, there's yelling to be heard over the stomping of kid feet and the slamming of doors as the kids march inside and outside and back in again.  The waves are replaced by ill-timed splashes from the kiddie pool on the deck.

Although the practice of summers off for those in education is mostly a myth, I do enjoy more of a flexible schedule to spend some time with my family in between planning for the upcoming academic year.  I remind myself that this is a privilege when the days seem long and full of meltdowns and cries of boredom.

With the change in pace and responsibilities, I've been thinking about how I measure my job satisfaction.  It's different when there are no activities to evaluate how I'm spending my time.  It isn't in how many tasks I complete or how many people I encounter.  The planning is a mostly solitary endeavor (or hopefully a joint work with God), and the timing is based on inspiration (or procrastination).  Lately I've realized that the most fulfilling days center around being present with others and sharing in their stories.  It is the premarital counseling sessions before a wedding, the random conversation with a student, and the lunch with a friend that bring energy even to my introverted self.  There is something holy about hearing someone else's story, and a sacredness in finding connections between their story and yours.  We are made to be in community, however much we may resist it as we strive to be individuals.  It's the commonalities of our stories, the places where we find that others share in our passions and experiences, that help us to realize that we are not alone.  In a world that is often isolating, it is freeing to break down the barriers and understand that we are on the same side.
 I've heard it said that the most helpful thing someone can say is "me too".  

image from: http://abeautifulmess.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/11/modern-wall-art-with-paint-swatches.html

In ministry and life, I've come to understand that we share much more in common than the differences that separate us.  We highlight our differences as it is so much easier to keep people at a distance (and decrease our risk of being hurt) by thinking of them as the "other".  But we have the same blood giving us life, and the same wants, needs, and fears driving us.

There's another side of this that I'm just starting to learn.  We all share stories, and our stories may overlap, leading us to find community and commonality.  But that isn't to say that our stories are the same.

My stories aren't your stories, and your stories aren't mine.

Just because I've been through loss doesn't mean that I know your loss (although I hope it does give me more empathy to what you may be feeling).  My experience as a mother is similar and yet different than the other mothers I know.  Although I feel the most connected and affirmed when we can share our "me too" stories, I shouldn't presume to understand the trials and beauties of your life (although I hope I will be more open to hearing your experiences).  As a result, I shouldn't think my way of parenting is any higher or better than yours (and I will freely tell you about my many failures as a parent).  I hope you'll extend me the same grace.

Likewise, we each have different gifts that serve us in our individual and communal stories.  I have wasted much time wishing for stories, gifts, and experiences that are not mine to live.  As much as I would like to be Jen Hatmaker, I'm not.  We are both women in ministry (with all its joys and struggles) and we are both mothers (with diverging joys and struggles).  I love reading her blog and books because I can relate (you're the worst end of school mom ever?  Me too!).  But we have unique stories to share out of the distinctive gifts we were given.

I have been created to live out my specific story (with its conflicts and hopeful resolutions).  At times my  story will intersect with yours as our commonalities join us in the community of "me too".  I hope, too, that we can learn from our diverging stories, seeing our inconsistencies as gifts to be shared so that we can learn and grow together.  I pray that in the times we feel alone that there will be someone to draw us back into the circle that grows ever wider until no one who seeks to be included is left out.  May we feel part of the oneness of the greater story while also recognizing our singular gifts.

As we think about and share our stories, may we celebrate who we were uniquely and wonderfully created to be, shaped by our Creator, and supported by the many other characters in our lives whose stories have inspired us.

When it comes down to it, I'm just Jenny from the block (and not Jenny as in JLo, although I'll let her speak for both of us given our similar stories...ha!)  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Levavi Oculos

I struggle to find my place these days, as a minister in a time where churches are dying and Christianity is following suit or either re-emerging, depending on which books you read.  It's hard to deny the reality of change as I survey the emptying pews and the difficulty of getting students to engage in religious programs (even if I substitute the word "spiritual" for "religious").  I speak with other ministers and we share ideas, but the tips and "tricks" we've used in the past don't seem to be relevant these days.  Perhaps they never really were.

But I'm starting to see that change as hopeful.  While there may be fewer gathering in the buildings, I see more and more people uniting in service, and gathering for conversations of faith.  Yes, it looks different as Christianity changes and pluralism grows, but I'm encouraged by the young people to whom I minister, in their honest search for answers that aren't limited by the old boundaries, in their desire to serve and connect with those who are different and yet whom they recognize as fellow neighbors.  Change brings new opportunities, a way of renewing what has become rote and meaningless in the routine of "this is always how we've done things."  It brings a challenge to reconsider our values and our calling, and seek out what new needs are not being met.

I have the privilege of serving as an interfaith chaplain for a small liberal arts school that was founded by a minister and yet has never had a religious affiliation.  But matters of the spirit have always had an important place at Hollins.  As the former chaplain, Jan Fuller, has written, "The chapel stands beside the library as a reminder of the spiritual nature of academic values, and to emphasize the connection of head and heart."  
The university motto, "Levavi Oculos", is Latin for "I lift my eyes" from Psalm 121:

Psalm 121
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
   from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth. 

3 He will not let your foot be moved;
   he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep. 

5 The Lord is your keeper;
   the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
   nor the moon by night. 

7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
   he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
   your going out and your coming in
   from this time on and for evermore.

It is fitting, as we are nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains.  Every day, as I enter the chapel, I'm greeted by the motto and seal.  When I lift my eyes, I see the cross on the bell tower, a reminder of the sacrificial love that calls us to salvation.  I see the beauty of God's creation all around.  I see renewal and resurrection, and new hope of life that springs forth from what is dying.  

Lift up your eyes...what do you see?

Monday, June 17, 2013


Sometimes I feel like I should be a theater director with all the drama that surrounds me.  It's pretty ironic given I'm about as plain Jane as it gets.  My idea of fun is hiding away by myself with a book all day.  When talking to a friend the other day, she was expressing her desire to find excitement in all areas of her life.  After listening and affirming, I responded, "I can see that's great for you.  For me, it would be exhausting."  Give me boring any old day.

And yet, as a chaplain and mother, life is usually far from boring.  I'm right in the drama of life, from birth to death, and all the crises in between.  The past few weekends, I've had the privilege of presiding at weddings, one of the greatest joys of my ministry.  On the flip side, a second great honor in ministry is being involved in memorial services.  It would be strange to say that I enjoy them, but I do appreciate the inherent sacredness. Between these ups and downs, and the many traumatic stories I've been witness to in over 14 years of ministry, it would be overwhelming if it were not for God's presence, the support of those who love me, professional counselors, and times for self-care, rest, and Sabbath.

There are some people, however, who seem to thrive on drama.  They look for ways to draw others in to their sensational stories, seeking attention with acting out or attacking others.  We all know "those people" in ministry settings that seem to be the instigators, stirring up conflict over seemingly minor issues, and we study family systems as a way to understand and manage our own tension.  However, I've found the greatest sources of drama in my life are not from ministry conflicts or counseling case studies, but instead are the tiny actors in my own home.  I assume most children use drama to draw attention, however, I can't help but think that my little prodigies are exceptionally gifted in this area.  Why simply be dissatisfied when you can shriek and wail as if the world is ending?  Why be angry when you can curse your family members with the dreaded "I don't love you" or the equally painful "Why don't you LOOOOOVVVVEE meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?"  There are sobbing fits that go on so long that I'm not sure which will crumble first--the wall of our house, or my resolve.  Then there are the breathy hiccups that threaten to build up into round twenty if you don't play your cards right.

I get it...it's hard to be 5 or 7 and not get your way.  It's hard to be 36 and still feel like your bargaining with two little dictators who missed the memo that they're supposed to honor and obey their parents instead of treating everything like it's their right, choice, and privilege.  I know that I'm supposed to be an adult and not take it personally or sink down to their level of arguing, yelling, or threatening.  I'm not sure why it still bothers me after fight #1009 over who gets the blasted blue blanket when they're having a sleepover.  If the stupid thing weren't filled with down, I'd have a King Solomon moment and tear the darn thing in two with my bare hands.


As I feel my blood boiling, I do what I can to calm myself, and then I gather her tear-stained face in gentle hands for a kiss.  I whisper that tomorrow will be better for both of us, a new chance to be patient, to start over.  I tell her that I love her no matter what, as I silently remind myself that she loves me, too, even though she's too mad and hurt to say so.  And I feel humbled that she is learning how to handle her disappointments from me, an example that I've shown poorly this time.  I offer my apologizes, although it's harder to forgive myself and move on as I know better.  It's so much easier to handle the drama and conflict in my job than in my home.  But God-willing, I, too, will have a do-over tomorrow, a chance to model the calm, even, undramatic reactions that I desire.

And then I'll count down the days until we send them both off to theater camp next week!  (A little positive outlet for their drama will do us all good, right?)

I just can't seem to figure out where she gets her mood swings and attitude...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Father's Day tribute

I know that Father's Day (like Mother's Day) can be a hard day for many.  Not everyone grew up in an ideal family situation, and as a chaplain, I've heard many stories of neglect, abandonment, and abuse.  I was lucky to have a loving and involved father, and yet still grieve his death over 30 years ago when I was a small child.  I'm left with a handful of photos and sweet memories...and also the holes that marked his absence from graduations, my wedding, and the birth of my children.  As I was growing up, Father's Day was spent at the cemetery with my mom and nana, "visiting" the graves of my dad and papa (my mom's dad), who died when I was in high school.

Dad and me, 1977


Papa and me, 1979
However, I was blessed by the love and guidance of many nurturing figures, both male and female, in my life.  My mom worked hard as a single mother to fill both parental roles, and as exhausting as I now understand that must have been for her, she did a wonderful job of making me feel loved and supported.  In my church, there were many faithful men who tried to offer fatherly guidance and love, and I am grateful for their presence.

 Joe Porter, me, and Pastor Phillip Woods at my high school graduation

I often tell those I counsel that while we aren't always given the family we long for, we are given the opportunity to create our own as we seek out supportive friends and a mate.  I feel beyond lucky to have married in to such a warm, loving, encouraging family.  My father-in-law, Dan Call, has embraced me from the beginning and has been an example of strength, wisdom, and kindness.  He is a great dad to John, his sister, Amy, and me, as well as being a wonderful Popaw to Brady and Maryn.  

My father-in-law, Dan Call, 2008
 I am most grateful, though, for his example and hand in raising the best father I have known.  I tell John daily that I couldn't make it without him, and yet I feel like that regular reminder isn't nearly enough.  I took for granted his involvement with our children from the very beginning, and scoffed when someone mentioned how wonderful it was that he was babysitting (it's not "babysitting" when it's your own child!).  But he has become the kids' primary caretaker, allowing me to work out my calling as a chaplain.  He manages our house, entertains and educates the kids, and brings in an additional salary through his coin business.  He does it all with little complaint and with an ease and skill that blows me away.  He is an example to me in how he engages Brady and Maryn in fun and silly ways, is involved and concerned without going over the edge like me, and how he embraces their dependence and his role as father.  While I will never become the esteemed "Proverbs 31 woman", I owe him much praise as he's the closest I know to a male equivalent!

John and our "angels", 2013
Happy Father's Day to all who provide that role in our lives, whether biological or not.

Friday, June 14, 2013

I believe

In preparation for a worship series this fall inspired by the NPR series This I Believe, I've been thinking a lot about my faith and how it has evolved over the past 9 years since my ordination.  Here's where I am now:

I believe that God created the world in all its mystery and beauty, and in the culmination of creation, made us in God's own image.  As such, we are co-creators, tasked with the responsibility of the ongoing re-creation, renewal, and nurturing of our world.

I believe that God is bigger and yet closer than we will ever understand.  Our attempts to get a grasp on who God is sometimes results in us making God in our image and limits the vastness of God, or neglects the intimacy God shares with us.

I believe God is Love, and is, by nature, welcoming to all.  I believe God loves us all as God's dearly beloved creation, and seeks relationships with us, calling us to become children of God.

I believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, the greatest example of that Love and the steps that God takes to be present with us.  Jesus was divine and human.  As he lived on earth, he was an example to us on how to live in relationship with God and with others through his radical hospitality and compassion, as he also fiercely challenged the religious systems and leaders of his day, a challenge that still echos today.  In his sacrificial death, he showed us the extent of God's love, the forgiveness of our sins, and the hope of eternal life.  His invitation was simply, "Follow me", and he pointed to the greatest commandments: "Love God.  Love one another".

I believe the Gospel is the good news that God continues to reach out and embrace us, broken and sinful though we are.  Through the many sources of God's revelation and presence (God's Word, the prophets, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and our personal and communal experiences and relationship), God calls us to be reconciled and connected to the Love that is always present for all those who seek it.

I believe that we each have unique gifts to share as the body of Christ and as God's creations, and our diversity is a strength.  We serve in different ways but towards the same purpose.  When we listen to one another, we understand how we are united in our common mission, and how our similarities far outweigh our differences.  When we serve one another out of respect, we learn more about the greatness of God.

I believe that we are given the freedom to seek God (or not), and that we are all created with a desire to seek meaning and purpose that comes from our innate connection to the Divine.  Our own creativity and gifts are part of that Divine spark, and our passions and gifts point us to our calling.  We discover our vocation as we find what makes us feel more alive, and how we can use our skills to serve others.

I believe that we each have the freedom and the understand and interpret God's revelation to us through our reading of scripture, prayer, and the experiences we've been given.  I believe that faith is deeply personal, but is also meant to be lived out in community so that we can find support and boundaries as we live out the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  I believe that we are all neighbors, and have the God-given responsibility to love and care for one another, in spite of our differences.

I believe that I don't have all the answers and my beliefs may not all be "correct", but growing in faith is a journey that continues throughout our lives as God is continually revealed to us in new ways.  I will never have it all figured out, and I pray that I will never believe that I do.  I believe that God is revealed to others in different ways and that doesn't necessarily make them wrong or right, but gives us another framework in which to think about God.

I believe that people are lead to faith not through arguments or condemnation, but through relationships of mutual sharing, understanding, and love.  I believe that faith is a relationship with God, but also concerns how we live in relationship with others.  I believe that it is a commitment that requires community.

I believe that God is in all things if we have the eyes to see.

I believe because God's love has been my comfort, my hope, and my salvation, and the only thing that has gotten me through the most difficult points in my life, as well as the source of my greatest blessings.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Birth pangs in an empty womb

The sonogram was blank, as I expected it to be.  Any other result would have defeated the purpose of my OB-GYN visit to implant a new birth control device.  And yet, it was a little jarring as it triggered memories of other ultrasound visits, both joyous and anxious as we viewed snapshots of the life within, and growth was measured in the tiniest of increments.  I thought of friends who have recently experienced the devastating grief of miscarriage, those who long to have children and don't, and many other friends who are currently pregnant.  I grieve and celebrate with them, knowing both loss and blessing.  As for me now, I feel somewhat stuck in the middle.  I have chosen this spot and am grateful to have a choice in the size of my family, as I realize that many hope and dream and plan in vain.  After struggling through infertility for a couple of years and then experiencing the miracle of pregnancy (and the trauma of delivery) twice, I don't take it for granted.

The doctor warns there will be a little pinch, and some cramping (which is doctor-speak for intense and enduring pain), but it seems somewhat appropriate that I spend the day feeling like I did the day of Brady's birth, not knowing then that my cramps were actually the beginning contractions of labor.
We experience birth pangs in the strangest of places:  in those transitions of life between beginnings and endings, those times of uncertain change, and in the relentless march through the stages of life.  We feel the pain in the death of dreams that we didn't realize we had.  We mourn the loss of things not turning out like the picture in our mind.  We feel the bittersweet tug of dreams that have come true, and realize that they, too, are fleeting.  There is a time for everything, even surrender, and the great truth of parenthood is that it's more about letting go than holding on.

While John and I initially dreamed of a larger family, the realities of parenting two amazing yet demanding children often exceeds the resources (patience, time, space, finances) that we feel we have to offer.  That, along with the memory of our fear of losing both of them and me during their emergency deliveries was enough to bring us to a consensus in the hospital room after Maryn's birth that she would, God-willing, be our last baby.  I thought I would grieve that loss as she has grown, but I've celebrated the milestones of her growing independence and have been content to rid our home of the baby equipment as each stage has passed.  And yet, sometimes I'm hit with the reality that a phase of my life is over.  My increasing doctors' appointments these days are about illness and prevention, not new life.  Although thirty-six doesn't feel that old, in the closing of this door, it seems like I'm now on the downward part of my journey.

Although we never know with certainty what is ahead, in the earlier phases of my life, I knew what steps I was working towards...education, marriage, career, family.  My identity has been tied up in these roles and will continue to be.  But the blank screen of the ultrasound machine foreshadows the blank page ahead.  While it is not as intimidating as it would have been to me earlier in my life, the unknown does bring pangs of fear.  What will be birthed in me in the coming years, and what do I have to deliver to the world?  Can I hold on to the dream that there is new life still within me, that I have gifts to offer beyond nurturing my own children as their needs change and their dependence on me lessens?  Even when it hurts, will I have the grace to let go and let them become who God, not I, created them to be?

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:18-30)

Saturday, June 1, 2013


He's been a part of my life for 13 years now, 11 of them as my husband, and I can't remember who I was before him.  The number seems small in relation to the impact he's had on my life.  He has been such an affirming, supportive presence that has encouraged me to grow into who I am now, and who we are together.  We can joke around with the line, "You complete me," but there's a truth in it that's different from the sappy idea that we were not whole before.  Instead, I've learned that our completeness as a couple comes from challenging each other to be our best selves, and ultimately accepting the reality of who we are.  I am most at home in myself with him, as he sees me, faults and all, and embraces me.  With him, I can put away the masks, let down my defenses, and be completely broken, healed, vulnerable, strong, beloved.

I give him most of the credit for the seamless flow of our lives.  It is his sense of humor, his strength that carries us through the day to day monotony into the moments of joy.  He is my partner, my rock, and my best friend, and I find my greatest sense of pride in that he sees me in the same ways.

We've been through richer and poorer, and sickness and health, and have learned that our bond is not based on our circumstances, but instead, that our love can transform them.

Today, we'll likely spend our anniversary referring the same fights between the kids, eating out at a family-friendly establishment, working (as at least one of us has done for nearly every anniversary), and sighing over how every day is the same.  But we'll say it with a smile, because we wouldn't want it any other way.