Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On deep waters and letting go

Photo by Danielle Moir, via Flickr

I have always been afraid of deep water. Afraid to the very core of my being, the kind of fear that made me close my eyes and hold my breath when crossing long bridges (at least until I began driving on my own). Childhood swimming lessons didn't help. It was the week of summer that I dreaded the most, because water and I had an agreement...I would stay out of it and it would not try to drown me. And so I sat on the side of the pool each day like a barnacle refusing to be dislodged. Generally after day one the instructors just let me be with only a few token attempts to coax me from my square foot of safety, and so I passed my childhood never learning how to swim.

Motherhood can change your perspective. It can make you brave in ways you never thought you could be brave, and you will do things for the sake of your children that you were never able to do for yourself. That is why in my mid-30's I signed up for private swimming lessons. I learned that I liked swimming...except for the whole deep water part which still inspired panic and kept me lurking in the lane closest to the side of the pool. But a cross-country move and the unfamiliarity of a new place put a halt to my swimming progress for the next ten years, until this summer when I decided to deal with my fear once and for all by getting back into the water.

One round of adult beginner swim classes at the public pool later and I was ready to hit the pool at the gym. And by ready I mean that I may have posted a specific "I am going to attempt to not drown on this date at this time" status on Facebook because if you tell everyone you're going to do something then the rules of saving face dictate that you must carry through with it and that was the only way I was ever going to get myself into that pool.

Lap swimming in a real pool with a deep end is a lot different than practicing your stroke back and forth across the shallow end of a pool. It's one thing to tread water in pairs of two with the instructor a mere arms length away, it is a different thing entirely to consider heading into the deep end on your own while the person responsible for monitoring the pool sits on the other side of the room. So that first lap session? I grabbed a kickboard and didn't let go the entire time. I still did all of the movements and the breathing and the putting my face in the water, just...as long as my fingertips were touching that kickboard I knew I was ok. I considered the possibility of never getting rid of the kickboard. I was in the water, getting exercise, sort of swimming...it was all good, right?

Except, I was never really going to develop as a swimmer as long as I held on to the prop. I could get most of the movements functionally correct, but toss me in the deep end without my kickboard and fear and panic would still get the best of me. And it was limiting. There are only so many strokes that work while you are still holding on to something, others that just don't work at all.

...........

I love our current pastor. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I have learned more and grown more spiritually under his leadership than I have under any other pastor in the past. That's not to say I haven't had good pastors, most have been gifted to lead in one way or another. Maybe it's because we came to this church at a time when we were desperate for community, having spent several years in the wilderness trying to find our place. Maybe its because it was here that I was finally free to question. I don't know.

What I do know is that I've known for quite some time that this particular season wouldn't last forever. I THOUGHT it would look like our church growing to the point where we planted a second church, and so I pre-emptively wrestled with the thought of being true to where God would call our family to go, even if it meant heading out (or staying put) with a different pastor. As it turns out, that becomes less of an issue when your pastor gets called to Canada.

.........

Sometimes a pastor is a little like a kickboard. We just get used to having that prop to guide us through our spiritual journey. The deep water isn't scary if we can hang on to him (or her) to carry us through all of our doubts and all of our growing, if we can count on him to wrestle with the questions and give us the answers. But if that's where our faith is, we aren't really swimming, are we? Life changes. The average tenure of a pastor at a given church is about four years so chances are good that at more than one point in your life you will experience a pastoral transition in your church. And oh, it can look scary to let go of that kickboard. You've heard tales of people who drowned in such deep waters. Maybe you've been there yourself, seen the struggling and the flailing of a church unable to swim on its own. It's easier to hop out of the pool and go grab another kickboard than it is to swallow a little water but trust in the properties of water and everything you've learned to keep on swimming.

.......

The church is not the pastor. I can't think of any place in the New Testament where church meant anything other than the gathered assembly of believers. It seems that the only time leaders are mentioned it's in the context of divisions being caused by people following one leader or another instead of living out the gospel message of Christ as a community. (Yes, it talks about elders, but always in the role of oversight, not sole responsibility.) So doesn't it stand to reason that we were never meant to hold on to a pastor as if he were our kickboard, our only means of surviving deep waters? Out of all of the grand and beautiful and messy community of believers, the pastor is ONE person, a fellow sojourner who happens to have been given the gift of teaching.

But we've made it out to be something it isn't, haven't we? We've elevated pastors to celebrity status when they are successful, blamed them for the failing churches when they aren't, expected them to be our mentor, our teacher, our compassionate ear, our intercessor, our Bible dictionary and our all-in-one reference book. And while we were elevating them we were neglecting the real church. We were neglecting the people in the seats next to us. The intercessors, the helpers, the teachers, the mentors, the explorers, the questioners, the co-learners. We were neglecting the community that helps us to navigate the deep waters, the ones who swim beside us in the depths, who cheer us on, who extend a hand when we get weary.

Watching a pastor leave can raise intense emotions. It can taste like fear and feel like drowning. Keep swimming. The water is deep, but there's freedom and there's growth to be found in the letting go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Feast

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr

When I was little my mom used to make the most delicious rhubarb custard. Sometimes she made it just as a custard, sometimes she baked it into a pie. At least, that's the way that I remember things. All I really remember is that there came a time after leaving home that I began longing for the taste of rhubarb custard.

One day in town I noticed that a small bakery had a sign advertising 'Rhubarb Pies'. I think I managed to ignore it for a week before I finally broke down, pulled in one day after work and bought myself a rhubarb pie. (And when I say 'myself' I really do mean myself, because I was single at the time so there was no family to steal share my pie. Although given my children's food selectiveness, I am fairly certain I still don't have to worry.)

I returned home, carried my prize inside, got out a plate and opened the box. Only to find that it was NOT the rhubarb custard pie of my dreams, but some sort of rhubarb travesty of the gelatinous goo variety. Now, I do enjoy a good rhubarb crisp or crumble. But at that point in my life, rhubarb belonged in two forms...a crisp, or a CUSTARD pie. It just never occurred to me that someone would create a rhubarb pie that was not a custard. (But then, I'm also of the opinion that most fruit pies should just give up and be crisps instead, as God intended them to be. It's all about the crumbly topping.)

I probably ate it anyway, sharing the taste and my disappointment with my roommate. Later she gave me her mother's recipe for a rhubarb custard pie, and there were two of them cooling on my counter as I wrote this, over twenty years after that day.

Life hands us disappointments like that sometimes. We think we're getting one thing but we open the box to find out that it's not exactly what we anticipated. The base ingredient is the same, but the sweet taste of custard gives way to something with more tartness, less sugared. Maybe its a family life that isn't quite as you pictured it to be. The children are more rambunctious, more opinionated than you ever expected. The spouse leaves dirty socks laying on the floor and wears t-shirts with holes in them. (Any resemblance to specific spouses and children is purely coincidental and not to be construed as a portrait of an actual person.) The pretty new house has plumbing problems or noisy neighbors or an odd way of settling with creaks and groans at night. You take a job as administrative assistant at your church and then the pastor moves (true story). Friends who you thought would be around for years move a world away (also true story). (OK, Canada, they move to Canada. It feels like a world away.)

We get something other than what we wanted. But there, waiting on the sidelines are the friends who sit down with us and share in the feast anyway. And they listen to us talk about what we wish had been and they help us to find what we need to make something new.

I can't promise that disappointment will always lead to something sweet. You may need to eat a lot of gelatinous goo. Maybe you'll learn to like gelatinous goo, or at least appreciate it for what it is without expecting it to be custard. Sit down anyway. Sit down with your friends and your neighbors with your disappointments and their disappointments and dig in. Share in the tart and the sweet and the bitter. Eat with them the taste of tears and longings unfulfilled. And then go to the kitchen together. Pull out the flour and the sugar, the spices and the eggs. Set yourselves to baking something new, something that may turn out and maybe not. But bake anyway. Mix your hopes and your dreams, your longings and your prayers.

And feast together again and again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Little white lies

I'm hesitant to jump on the whole 'let's blog about depression and suicide' bandwagon that's happening this week in the wake of the loss of a major celebrity. But I think there is a pull for many of us to tell our stories, to put a human face to depression and other mental illnesses when we see the words that hurt instead of healing, when we see people speaking opinions and declaring them Truth. Truth is, depression is complicated, depression is different for everyone, and (as The Bloggess says) depression lies. It lies to us and through us. It muddles our thoughts, our actions and our relationships. I originally wrote this post in 2009, it seemed somehow appropriate to edit and repost it for today.

Photo by David via Flickr
Yesterday I had both boys with me when I stopped in at the endocrinologist's office for a quick blood draw. I should have gone on the previous day when I could have gone alone, but I can't be the only one who spends the day thinking that there was Something you were supposed to do but you can't remember what. And then it's 5:00 and you finally remember, only it's too late. It was one of those days. It should have been simple, a brave face for a few seconds and then we'd be out of there.

I was doing great, smiling calmly at the boys (ok, Kyle was oblivious, Jordan was hovering with curiosity and a little trepidation); and then, the nurse couldn't find the vein. Couldn't...find...the...vein. There I sat, with a manic smile pasted on my face as I silently screamed, "OK, this hurts, this hurts, this hurts!" And Jordan asked the question that all children want to know when confronted with a needle, "Does it hurt?" "Well, a little bit," I responded. (Oh, please, please, PLEASE find that vein quickly and get this over with!) He hovered, I smiled, teeth gritted behind the upward curve of my lips, until the nurse finally found the vein. As we left Jordan said "I don't think I ever want someone to take my blood." He'd seen right through the lie of my smile and knew perfectly well that despite my attempt to mask it this was something that hurt more than just a little bit.

I do that a lot, you know. Most of us do. Little white lies to hide the pain we're in. "How are you doing?" "Fine, how about you?" Only we aren't, but we don't mention the fact that we've thrown out our back, or that the baby has been up all night teething and we just want some SLEEP, is that too much to ask? Or that our world seems to be falling down around us or we've got a child who has brought us to our breaking point in any of a thousand ways. We don't talk about loss or grief or the sadness of dreams that take too long in coming. We don't talk about how the joy we've prayed for hasn't shown up in the anticipated ways. We don't talk about how sometimes joy and tears can exist together or how hard it is to hold on to the joy through the tears. We don't talk about how "try harder" can kill our souls.

It's no big deal, it's not like it's a lie that HURTS anyone. So we paste our smiles on our face and we pretend we aren't in pain and 'fine' becomes that word that we always, always say even when all the needles are jabbing and we just want a moment of comfort and relief.

Let me tell you a secret...telling everyone we are fine when inside we are screaming "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!" doesn't help us. Sometimes there's a time and a place, and not every person is a good person to tell. But...and THIS is what I want you to hear today...that little lie of "I'm fine" does something. It robs those around us of the chance to express the heart of Christ to us. It robs them of the chance to bring comfort to the hurting, robs them of the chance to bind up wounds, walk beside, speak life and hope and peace and yes, joy, into our lives when we can't find the words ourselves. Left long enough, it will turn a church into a shell of a building filled with the shells of people all walking around with smiles on our faces saying "I'm fine." And a world full of people who are NOT fine will never enter our doors if all that we have to offer them is the message that the 'joy of the Lord' is an everlasting upper, instead of sometimes the only rock we are clinging to with bloodied hands as the waves of pain wash over us.

And to be sure, there is a balance to be had between complaining about our every ache and being honest about when we are hurting. And there is a time for knowing who to share your hurts with and who may not have the maturity to handle it. But in a world that is broken it's time for the church to come alive to its mission, ministering the love of Jesus to the physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally broken people both inside and outside of its walls. No more little white lies.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'd like to thank my English teachers

Photo by Pimthida via Flickr
Words have always held a certain allure for me. Reading them, writing them, noticing them. Every year as soon as I got the chance I'd grab my older brother's English textbook and read through all of the stories. It was ever so much more interesting than wading through "See Jane run. Run Jane, run." When I first started school Dick and Jane were still running and Spot was chasing balls. Exciting stuff, right there. Thank goodness for older brothers and libraries and being able to read before I entered kindergarten because I'm fairly certain if Dick, Jane, Spot and all of their friends had been my first exposure to reading I would not have been nearly as enamored with the whole idea.

I can't say that I had the same affinity for studying grammar. Diagramming sentences seemed like a deathly dull task when there were stories to be read, and I'm fairly certain that I slept through most of my Grammars of English class in college. (I checked out some time after the section on the history of the English language and couldn't tell you much more about it than that the English language is a beautiful and complicated thing precisely because we drew from so many origins.) I am completely aware that sometimes in my writing I fail to use less than stellar grammar, and it took me until my second year in college to understand what comma splices were. I'm probably still very guilty of using them.

Still, the basic structure behind crafting a literate sentence stuck with me, and although I had to resort to Google to remind myself of what a participle is and why it shouldn't dangle, I know how to use them correctly because my English teachers drilled it into us over and over again with all of those irritating sentence diagrams. (Participle - irritating. Subject - sentence diagrams.)

It was a bit of a shock when I went back to school for my accounting degree and discovered that the new crop of students didn't really understand how to write a decent research paper. I spent the next two and a half years telling group members, "No, really, let me take this and I'll just edit (completely rewrite) it a bit." In all fairness, probably most of them were business students precisely because they didn't get excited at the thought of writing a twenty page research paper. But I assumed that somewhere journalism classes still flourished, and teachers still taught eager would-be writers how to write for comprehension.

I'm going to choose to believe that the incidences which spurred this blog post are not the fault of any English teachers. I'm going to assume that they are still out there, diagramming away, correcting faulty use of language and doing their best to encourage clarity of thought in their students' writing. I'm going to assume that some students just aren't listening. Because I don't know how else to explain a headline like this, "Illegal Shotgun Owner Used in Killing Sentenced." (Was the shotgun owner used in the killing? Was the shotgun sentenced?) Or a news article that says this, "The people of Wessington Springs are getting some of their first glimpses of the devastation left by a tornado in full sunlight Thursday morning." (I'm sorry, Wessington Springs, my heart really does go out to all who lost homes and property in the tornado that happened on WEDNESDAY night in what we can presume was not full sunlight. I am glad that there appear to have been no serious injuries beyond the slaughtering of basic sentence structure. If you want to help, you can donate through the Red Cross website, simply designate your donation for Wessington Springs.)

I'd like to assume that the web content was written by some high school intern and was swiftly corrected by the journalism majors who run the show. But in the first case the headline is still there in all of its ungrammatical glory so clearly someone either doesn't care or is sleeping on the job. Maybe it's just the difference between print and television journalism. Maybe in the quest to get news out at an ever increasing pace the idea of proofreading for clarity has become old-fashioned.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to thank my English teachers.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me how to write sentences that make sense, even when it meant sentence diagrams that filled the entire chalkboard.

I'd like to thank them for teaching us that quality matters more than quantity. And for exposing us to authors who threw all of the established rules out the window and made it work.

I'd like to thank them for drilling into us the idea that we must proofread everything. (I'd also like to thank the world for not inventing computers that check spelling and grammar until after I'd learned to proofread my own work.) If I could offer one teeny-tiny suggestion it would be that they could have improved upon it by making us proofread papers while having classmates intermittently walk up to us saying "Mom! Mom! Hey mom, watch this! Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, guess what? Mom, look at how I can squeeze the top off of my string cheese! Mom, watch me juggle my clothes!" (In short, I'm blaming any proofreading misses on my children.)

I'd like to thank them for all of the hours they put into reading and correcting term papers. I'd especially like to thank my senior English teacher for not saying "Really? Twenty pages on the history of the conflict in Ireland? Do I look like I have time to read that?"

I'd like to thank them for all of the assigned reading that I loved, and even for the books that I hated. I'll admit that I read a lot of fluff these days, but thanks to them I can pretty well tell the difference between fluff and writing that will stand the test of time.

I'd like to thank them for making us do poetry journals, both the finding of poems that we liked and the writing of original work. Those were some of my favorite things ever except for the part where we had to illustrate them. I thank them for not marking down for the use of stick figures.

I'd like to thank my high school English teacher for agreeing when I summarized Of Human Bondage as basically being a book about a guy who lives. He taught me that great literature still contains an element of personal taste. And that perhaps some books are best understood after a little more life experience, although I haven't tested that theory by going back and re-reading it because once was quite enough for me.

I'd like to thank all of the elementary teachers who taught me English as part of their daily schedule. I'd like to thank them for all of the kite tails and caterpillars that we got to add to with every book we finished, because I was a competitive little person and that was pretty much the only thing I was going to excel at.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me to use both a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most of all I'd just like to thank them for teaching me that language is vibrant and beautiful and ever changing. For teaching me to cherish words and to choose them wisely. For teaching me that the written and spoken word is both a powerful tool and a breath-taking story.

Thank you, English teachers. Some of us listened.