Lent Reflections

I went into Lent with two disciplines in mind: I committed to both giving something up (phone games) and adding something into my life (writing daily). 

From the beginning, I felt a bit weird about both goals. Was I just using Lent as an excuse to build good habits? I felt strongly about both of them–they occurred to me one morning a few days before Lent and immediately felt right–but I really didn’t want to use Lent as a goal-making scheme, as just a way to jump-start those habits I’d been pining for. But I trusted that feeling enough to choose them as my Lenten disciplines.

Giving up phone games went so well–why hadn’t I done this before, it was so easy!!–that I started giving up other things too: Netflix, sugar… There was a method to the madness: I had been reflecting on and struggling with my tendency to avoid God and feelings and important things in general by playing games on my phone, or watching Netflix, or eating sugar, or… There’s a longer list, of course, and I had every intention of working my way down that list until the entire enterprise imploded. My motivation disappeared, and it didn’t feel important anymore, and I went right back to all of my unhealthy not-coping strategies with barely a nudge of guilt. (And, of course, the guilt I did feel was subsumed by games, videos, and deliciously unhealthy sugary foods…)

Writing went much the same way. A few days into Lent, I realized that writing daily wasn’t about creating a good habit–it was about respecting this gift that I’ve been given. It was about trusting God and this desire that God has given me. It was about using this gift to write things worth writing. But it didn’t take long for writing every day to become a nice idea that never happened.

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And now Lent has ended.

I’ve started working towards both goals again. I’ve written four out of the past five days; I just deleted several phone games, and have cut down my playing time to almost nothing. And yet in so many ways, the habits I started with aren’t the point of Lent. They aren’t even the point of my goals.

The point was God, and all of the ways that I run away from God.

Lent is a time of reflection and sorrow. It’s a time in the wilderness, confronting head-on our own sinfulness and demons and need for God. It’s a time of repentance. And in all sorts of unexpected ways, that’s what I found this season. I’ve seen some of my own sin and started to confront it; I’ve been reminded again that God is by my side while I do that. I’ve been learning about doing hard, important things.

It wasn’t the Lent I imagined. It certainly wasn’t the Lent I was hoping for. But it was messy and difficult and very true to the wilderness-wandering spirit of Lent.

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Vulnerable

I linked to my blog on my resume. 

It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time–look, all of my writings and sermon clips, all in one place!–but the first time I sat down to write a post after that, I blanched. Somehow the idea of sending out words into the anonymous internet is WAY different than sending out words into the internet that is now full of people who are considering you for a job. A job as a pastor, no less. What should I post now? What if they didn’t like it? What if I revealed something about myself, and they decided I was too imperfect for their church? What if they saw the flaws I struggle with and talk about here, and decided to take themselves far away from that?

So I posted something, so no one would think I wasn’t regular about posting (although anyone who scrolled to the next blog post would notice that there was a gap of a month and a half), but it wasn’t too revealing. Big news, but nothing too personal. And after that, every time I sat down to write a post, I would freeze up. What could I write that wouldn’t show churches that I’m a human being with flaws and problems??

Then I had the brilliant idea to ask Off the Page if I could write a hugely personal piece for them, and they said yes. Whoops

Yeah.

So, I’m being personal and vulnerable. To the Internet. Including all those people who might end up here because they’re considering hiring me as their pastor. Here it is: my problems, my human-ness, my sinfulness and struggles. And I know I just spent a while saying I don’t like being vulnerable, but please go check it out. Being vulnerable is important. I wrote something true and something that I love–and even if it’s also the scariest piece I’ve ever written for the Internet, I’d love if you went and checked it out. Please join me in my vulnerability.

Sick of Scared

I’m sick of being too scared to go after my dreams.

I’ve been scared since I started my internship–of the time commitment, of my cohort, of being honest, of the emotions being stirred up, of the emotions I face every day. 

And I’ve been scared of my dreams–of writing, of becoming a pastor. They both seem too huge and impossible and overwhelming that I don’t even know where to start. There are so many places I could submit my work. Where do I choose? How do I choose? What kind of writer am I? How do I gather up the courage to keep submitting and keep writing and keep submitting and keep writing when I get rejection notices, when I am exhausted after work, when there’s too much to write about and not enough  time? How do I gather the courage to write my final sermon and write my pastor resume and write my statement of faith when, the longer I’m away from seminary, the more I wonder if I could ever actually be a pastor? How do I convince people that I’d be a good pastor when I’m not sure?

I don’t know. But I’m sick of giving in to my fear. I’m sick of avoiding my love of writing and my love of pastoring because I’m afraid. I’m sick of avoiding, period. I’m sick of being too scared to go after my dreams.

Here I go again, then. Chasing my dreams, one step at a time. One step isn’t overwhelming: one blog post, one poem, researching one magazine, writing one pitch. One step isn’t overwhelming: looking up one Hebrew word, answering one question, writing one sentence of my statement of faith.

I refuse to give up on my dreams.

Writing with Honesty

I was disturbed recently to read a very conservative opinion of Harry Potter [Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick, by Richard Abanes], which condemned the series not only for the magic, but also because there is no logic of good and evil: good deeds do not always lead to good, and wrong decisions don’t always lead to evil.

The example given was that Harry’s sparing of Peter Pettigrew’s life eventually led to Voldemort’s rise. And I’m still finding it difficult to put my visceral reaction into words. Harry’s mercy towards Pettigrew was a beautiful moment in the series. Who cares if anything good happened from that good? That mercy almost becomes deeper and truer when you consider that it didn’t immediately change Pettigrew. What is mercy without risk? 

To be fair, Abanes, was writing before Deathly Hallows had been published, and didn’t know that that mercy was in fact returned. In a way, Rowling followed the moral equation of good to good and bad to bad. As satisfying as that moment was… would Harry’s mercy have been somehow invalidated, or a bad example, or untrue, if it had never been reciprocated? 

Abanes has a picture of fiction as a place to struggle with the world as it is, but far more as a place to paint a picture of the world as it will be, a world where everything works out perfectly and there is always a clear relationship between our actions and the results. It’s an untrue picture of the world now. I’m not convinced it’s a true picture of the world as it will be. Jesus rejects the idea that our actions will be suitably rewarded or punished in this life (Luke 13:1-5). Eventually rewarded or punished? Absolutely. Jesus calls for repentance in the Luke passage; He knows that our way of life has consequences. In this life, though, this consequences aren’t always there.

And I find I’ve written myself into a corner, because I totally hate books where everyone is left in misery and nothing good has happened or been resolved. I’d like resolution as much as the next person. I think what I’m trying to say, though, is that I don’t enjoy books where the resolution is perfect, like a math equation with everything summed up perfectly and everyone getting exactly what they deserve down to a decimal point. 

I believe in a God who works with the imperfections of the world, who doesn’t tie everything up with a neat bow and a suitable reward of a 9-5 job every time. The world isn’t that neat. God works with what’s there. Sometimes that’s abuse, or a good deed that goes far, far awry and is never put to rights, or the mercy to not be given what we deserve. Sometimes that’s sitting in darkness and trying to live with awful things you’ve done or been subjected to. Sometimes that’s good people dying for no good reason, or mistakes and sin that are never addressed. That’s life, and that’s where I’ve found God.

And that life is what I love to see reflected in the stories I read. That life is the kind of life I want to reflect in my own writing, whether that’s a nonfiction piece or a fiction piece. I want to reflect the complexity and darkness and struggles of real life, not some glorified, white-washed version of reality that may teach us what’s right but certainly doesn’t teach us much about life or God. I want to write honestly. I want to be honest about life and God both. I want to write things that feel real, because that’s what inspires me and connects with me as a reader.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll write stories that are full of despair and evil. But there may be a lot of them. I seriously doubt there will be much moral arithmetic. But those places of evil and despite and injustice are where God is. It’s where we are. How could I write honestly about life, about God, and ignore them?

Stories in the Dark

Addie Zierman is hosting a synchroblog today about our own stories of darkness to celebrate the release of her new book, Night Driving. So, here goes…

  
Writing has always been complicated. 

It’s hard to pick a darkest time in that set of months; everything was so dark and tangled, full of guilt and longing, both of the kind that fill your stomach and sit heavy in your bones and feel like they’re about to tear you apart. Underlying everything was this tension between what I dreamt of and what I was terrified would happen.

My first forays into fiction writing were born out of my own desire to see the kinds of stories I loved, but full of girls and women. I hated that there was just that one token girl who, yes, tended to be kick-ass, but why couldn’t she be the main character? And so I crafted my own storylines, full of superheroes and dragons and unicorns and lots of kicking ass. Sometimes there was even a boy character! 

I dreamt of being a writer. I wanted it the way you want your first dream: I wanted it with all of my being, imagined the books I would write and my books being made into movies and being famous. I wanted it so badly that I gripped my dream dream with a death-grip, not allowing anyone to even know of it, yet determined to make it happen. Crafting the plots of my stories took on all that frenzied passion that I wouldn’t allow myself an outlet for–for, being a perfectionist, I wouldn’t let myself write anything unless I had it all planned out, unless I was sure it was going to be perfect. Besides, writing was hard work, work that I poured my soul into and didn’t want anyone to know I was doing because then they would ask to see it and I’d have to say yes but I couldn’t face the idea of anyone reading it and so I only wrote where no one would see me–but plotting, plotting could be done anywhere. I could plan out the next scene, outline the ending, craft that conversation word-for-word, and as long as it was in all in my head, no one would be the wiser.

These imaging ins took up more and more of my time. I would slip away from people to get a few more minutes of time with my stories. I would lay awake at night thinking of them. I would plan scenes in exquisite detail, going over my favorites again and again. They consumed me, pushing aside everything else into various levels of ‘Less Important.’ God was pushed aside, honesty, sleep, school, relationships… They all paled in comparison with these fictional worlds that so vividly filled my head.

Those years weren’t the darkest time–just the background, the behavior that I slowly learned and that became ingrained in every part of my being, every part of how I thought and processed emotions and behaved and lived. No, the darkest time came later, after God wooed me back. God was lurking at the edges of my own story, waiting for me. I knew it, but the knowledge filled me with frantic terror, until one day the terror collapsed at the knowledge of my own weakness like a wet tent–or maybe God just reached through it and pulled me out. And my life was full of joy again, and I wasn’t alone anymore. 

Except.

Except my life was still woven in with my stories, these living things writhing about inside me, demanding my attention, wanting my life, wanting perhaps to be written down but certainly to be thought about, to shove their way into every moment, whether that was studying or sitting and laughing with friends or watching the school orchestra or walking down the sidewalk on my way to class. I was still faced with this beast, the one that wanted to think about reality for maybe two minutes of any given day and. wanted to get lost in fictional places and characters for the rest of the time. 

Trying to give that up was physically painful, sometimes. The desire to get lost somewhere else was so strong that it filled my gut, infused my limbs, until just sitting there thinking about not stories was all I could do, took all of my energy and prayer and effort, and all I really wanted to do was fall to the floor because that extra effort of staying sitting and normal-looking seemed like too much. Tasks like walking to class and taking a shower and going to bed became tasks that I looked to with dread, because those were the times when stories started prowling and growling and demanding to be let in and looked over and put back in the pride of place. Every slip up filled me with deep guilt and terror, a sick tension in my stomach, because this was the thing that led me away from God and I was overjoyed to be back. I didn’t want to be dragged away, bit by bit, so slowly that when the moment of choice came it was so easy to shove God away one last time that I then repeated over and over again. I didn’t want these fantasies to be so important to me, to be woven into the fabric of every day, to be always lurking at the edges of my vision and thoughts, calling out to me like sirens while sitting in lecture or pippetting for my experiment or watching a movie with my dorm mates. I hated that they twisted everything, were twisted into everything in my life, twisted and enmeshed and clawing their way into everything.

An unfocused week

Yeah. It’s been a rough week. Focus was very far from my mind. I didn’t get a whole lot done.

I want to say, to be able to say, that I felt God in the midst of my bad week. I can’t, really. I didn’t take time even to listen for God. Yes, I did my devotions and Bible-reading and whatnot, but only as an act of distracted habit. Anything that required real engagement, like journaling or praying, got shoved aside in the midst of worry about getting things done. It was not a week of focus.

It’s funny, actually, because it’s the first year I can remember being excited about Christmas as an adult. I’ve been willingly listening to Christmas music (normally it’s more of a torture until a week or so before Christmas). I even decorated for Christmas. I’m planning Christmas presents and a Christmas party.

But it was not a week of focus. It was a week of avoiding work, and avoiding the difficult questions, and avoiding the darkness all around that seems to just be growing. It was a week of drowning in worry but not feeling like I could do anything.

But this is the week of the peace candle, isn’t it? Prayers for peace, then, for you and for me. Blessings this Advent season, whatever that might look like!

Advent

(source)

As a pastoral intern, I’ve been swept into the whirlwind that is Advent from the inside for the past two years. It’s a season I’ve never thought much about other than the weekly lighting of the family Advent wreaths when I was growing up. Even now, I’m not entirely sure what Advent is about. I think of celebration, but also of waiting and expectation and darkness. We have to get through darkness and hope that feels more like disappointment before we can get to the celebration. It’s about real life, and how it’s not all the perfection of that Christmas card, because so much came before that moment (and let’s be real. We all know that, after a long journey, giving birth to a baby, and just the general presence of animals, that that scene was NOT that picture perfect!) But I’ve never done something for Advent, other than the family wreaths, and I think this is the year to change that.

No, our Advent wreaths are neither this neat nor this color-coordinated. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent#/media/File:Adventskranz-1.Advent.jpg
No, our wreaths are neither this neat nor this color-coordinated. (source)

A few days ago I wrote about work and inspiration for Five Minute Friday. And since then I’ve been thinking about work and God and just what I want from life–what I’ve been called to do by God. Social media addiction isn’t part of that. A tiny attention span isn’t part of that. Not taking seminary or my jobs seriously isn’t part of that. So, as a way to prepare and cleanse and live in the real life moments, I am committing to a discipline of focus this Advent: on God and on my work.

These are my goals for Advent, then, the ways that I hope to simplify in order to help me focus on what’s important:

  • Continue what I’m (mostly) doing–journaling every night, praying daily, and reading the Bible every morning–as a way to focus on God.
  • Try to see God in each day. Perhaps every week I’ll post some of the most memorable places I’ve seen God?
  • Spend at least an hour every day (except my Sabbath) writing.
  • Work on my focus. That means so many things for me: less empty social media time, not allowing myself to be distracted from one task to another, reading and writing and working well (I’ve clicked over to various other pages at least ten times since starting to write this post! Clearly this will be difficult). I don’t want to turn this into a mindless to-do task, that has to be done OR ELSE, but I also want this to actually happen. So my goal is to work on one thing at a time for long periods of time, while still taking breaks (just not excessively!).
  • Focus on others: buy justly-produced products, donate time and money, and pray for others.

Maybe these are too many goals for a month, but I’ve been feeling distracted and shattered lately. The season of Advent is a good time to practice waiting, to practice living each day well as preparation for what God is doing. I hope you’ll join me on this journey, whether you create your own Advent practice or not!