(Okay, first off, I have to name that I cringe every time I heard a church say the words “spiritual homelessness.” A few times even I’ve heard churches or faith leaders say, “Yeah, poverty is bad, but what America’s real problem is spiritual homelessness.” It’s important to name up front that there are some metaphors and turns of phrase that are helpful and some that are very toxic. My goal in writing this post is to describe an experience I have while also not build upon what I consider to be an unhelpful comparison.)
Y’all, I’m struggling. Not that this is anything new, or even a bad thing. There is much to be said that the crux of theology and practice is discovered within the struggle. A few months ago, I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church, and am sad to report that joining a new faith tradition does not equal finding spiritual peace or even closure on the ways other faith traditions have hurt you. I wish it were so.
Once upon a time, I wrote an article that went viral about my struggle with the United Methodist Church as a queer person. At the time, I was leaving the ordination process but was still very committed to remaining a United Methodist, because I felt that “If I left this church totally, I would just be a Methodist sitting in another denomination.” I did not anticipate leaving the UMC, and when I officially did six months ago, I did feel a sense of peace at the time. I no longer identified as a Methodist and felt comfortable in the UUA. However, lately I have grown a sense of discomfort in the UU church where I belong, and not for any fault on their part. Rather, I feel a sense of disconnection because it feels as if my heart is somewhere else. It feels as if my people are somewhere else. It feels as if the language I speak is being spoken somewhere else. My language and traditions is honored at the UU Church, and I understand their language. But the things I still claim as my own are often treated as something to be studied and appreciated. Sometimes it is implied that nobody in the room could possibly still claim that tradition. As such, sometimes I feel alien to the church I now belong to. I feel appreciated, but I don’t feel I belong.
So, where did my sense of belonging go? Is that sense of belonging still in the UMC? Not necessarily. I’m not sure where it is or where it went, or why it’s giving me the run around. While I’m not sure what I believe about Jesus anymore and while I seem to be doing fine spiritually without super regular sacraments, I still crave the rhythms and shared practices of liturgical Christian traditions. It’s almost Advent and I can feel my heart yearning for the shared languages and texts and reflections of anticipation and the Here-But-Not-Yet. I don’t necessarily crave going TO church, mass, or the eucharist on Sundays–that’s never been a thing I’ve been good at–but I desperately need communion with other skeptical Christians without a home, too.
It sounds like a joke, but I really do remember that line from Brokeback Mountain–“I wish I knew how to quit you.” I wish I weren’t so tied to and called to a tradition that doesn’t love me back the way I need to be loved back. I wish the mysteries of Christianity weren’t so embedded in the way my body and brain was knit together. I also wish that I were more attuned to the way Christianity is ‘supposed to be practiced’ on Sunday mornings. I wish I could just join a tradition that already affirms me and just fit there.
But, perhaps that has never been the way I work. Perhaps it has never been my calling to fit into something seamlessly. I remembered recently about some words I wrote this time last year when I was contemplating my ordination- that I have always been called to the margins, both of society but also to the margins of the church. Perhaps I was always meant to be an ecclesial and theological rebel.
I have no idea. I always feel the need to summarize any essay I write with some awesome deep conclusion where I figure out the tension. I don’t know what any of that is or looks like right now. For now, I’m just sitting in the struggle with God.
“You can’t sing!”
“You sound terrible.”
“Ugh, please stop.”
I heard this a lot when I was a kid. Ever since I could speak, I was trying to sing. Of course, not a lot of kids are good at singing; but early on, I was told that I could not and I should not. This was somewhat crushing, so I learned to keep my voice to myself and to be ashamed of it. I chose to only sing in my room or when nobody was around. I did try out for a few choirs where I could blend in, but my crippling stage fright kept me from pursuing it much.
I remember in high school I started to try and take ownership over my voice. Occasionally I would sing with some bravery with a friend of mine in youth group who played guitar. Once, we tried to sing in a talent showcase at our church camp; my attempts at singing soprano (the ever elusive goal) were quietly and lovingly shut down by the youth leaders. I wanted deeply to sing in my high school’s choir, but refused to brave the audition process.
A few years later, I found myself in a college worship service. A classmate in the row in front of me turned around and said, “I don’t mean this to sound weird, but I noticed you have a lovely voice! Have you thought about auditioning for the choir?” I probably looked at her like she had three heads. I was in the middle of refusing when she said, “You could get a scholarship if you get in.” So, I immediately signed up to audition. What the hell?
I found myself looking at the piece of paper in the audition asking me what my range was. I had no idea what to put down; my range was technically in the alto range, but I had only ever tried to sing soprano. I had no idea how to pick up a harmony, so therefore I resided in screeching cat territory. I auditioned and they placed me as a first alto. I remember almost walking out of my first practice, completely overwhelmed by the sheet music and how half of the 40+ people in the room already knew all the songs.
However, I had just finished a summer of learning to play roller derby for the first time. Derby had taught me to work hard to get better at something, and not give up if you weren’t a natural. So, I decided to stick with choir out of sheer stubbornness.
Choir became one of the most important and indispensable parts of my college experience. I stayed in choir through all four years and traveled all over the state to sing at local churches–we even traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland one year. My life became rehearsing at all hours of the day as we would sing in between classes walking around campus; making spotify playlists of our music; learning which other university’s choirs I could be jealous of. I consider choir to be my first team sport; there were lots of moments of choir drama, necessary communication, and the necessary teamwork of learning to sing together, not just by yourself. Choir was also an extremely important avenue for me to gain self-confidence in finding my musical voice as well as my personal voice.
Choir became my refuge- there are certain hymns we would sing that would become hallmarks of some of the most difficult moments of my life–breakups, deaths, the stress of applying to grad school, of reconciling my sexuality with my faith. Choir became the bolster for my faith and was my greatest religious educator. Choir became my stress relief; studies show that the forced rhythmic breathing several times a week that comes with choir has the same effect on the brain as yoga and meditation.
I also had no idea that choir had become this important to my psychological and spiritual wellbeing until I didn’t have it anymore. Graduating from college was exhilarating, however I have no doubt that one of the reasons grad school became so difficult and stressful for me because I did not have the creative outlet I had before in choir. I did join a local choir at a gorgeous Methodist church for a while, and it got me through my first semester. However, my mounting complicated feelings toward the Methodist church and my rekindled affair with roller derby drew me away from the choral world.
Recently, however, I have been craving choir again. Even more, I know I need to be in church but I am absolutely the worst at going to church on Sundays (the irony of ironies.) So, I went to my first choir practice at First UU of Nashville last night. While it had been two years since I had been in a choir practice, it felt like no time had passed. While picking up harmonies are a weak muscle that needs strengthening, it was beautiful to feel my body re-tune itself to the nature choir. Having the correct posture, the way I used to hold my music, my diction and enunciation, how to moderate and control the breath, how to listen to your section and tune out whatever needs to be tuned out, how to read music and watch a conductor at the same time. It felt like coming home.
There is still so much about the command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and neighbor that my fatigue heart feels currently overwhelmed by, but there has always been something different about music. It is a space of active rest; the theology that is taught in music comes different than that of a sermon or article; the way justice is championed through song is different than that of a protest or an organizing meeting. Music is the space where the soul comes home to rest in the hope that God loves us, that there is such a thing as justice, and that people of faith can come together and witness the sacred. And while it is a space of rest, it is also still a functional form of calling the gathered community to action and faith. I am looking forward to growing in my UU faith, learning about the UU traditions, and recovering from compassion fatigue through song.
“Take my hand / I’ll lead you to salvation / Take my love / For love is everlasting / And remember / The truth that once was spoken / To love another person / Is to see the face of God.”
-Les Miserables (2012), “Epilogue”
When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
I’ve been thinking about writing this since April. In April, my year-long homeless outreach internship with Open Table was ending, and I was about to transition to my current job doing data entry for the homeless outreach team at Park Center, a mental health nonprofit. I loved my team and my organization, but I was feeling utterly drained, heartbroken, and empty. For five years, I had been interning, volunteering, and training myself up to be a homeless outreach worker. It was my passion and my calling. And now, as I was ready to begin finding a job in the field, I was already burnt out. Done.
Most outreach workers only have a work lifespan of two years before burnout, it is often said. I’ve been burnt out on a lot in my life for the past few years, and was beginning to get more energy at the beginning of my internship. However, in the span of the year, I saw the face of God. And it killed me.
I think about Uzzah and the countless other Israelites who, whether filled with presumption, curiosity, or hunger to see the face of God, touched the Ark of the Covenant or opened it to look inside. Seeing God killed them. I think about Moses talking with his old friend YHWH, saying, “But I’ve been in your presence all this time. Why can I not now see you?” And YHWH replies, “You cannot see my face and live.”
I did all my best to practice the boundaries I was trained to have. But I was not trained on how to have internal, emotional boundaries. I am an emotional sponge by nature and I was not trained in how to moderate my compassion. I was not trained in how to leave the brokenness of the world on the streets and not take it home with me. I was not trained in how to leave the stories I heard and witnessed at the door to my house. I was told I should, but was never given the instructions to the switch that would turn off my bleeding heart. I did what the ministry taught me–to love fiercely, to accompany people into the depths with them like Jesus did, to suffer like Jesus did. I saw the face of God in the Other, the Outcast, the Misfit, the Prisoner, the Patient, the Unhoused Person. I saw the face of God, and I loved her. And it killed me.
I remember in high school throwing around statements like, “I feel so close to God right now,” or, “I feel so far from God.” Or, “I really saw God today!” Sometimes I feel tempted to use this vocabulary because it’s the only words that seem to fit, even though I know they wouldn’t mean the same thing they meant then. Because I’m now putting emotional distance between me and the margins, I am therefore emotionally distant from where God is, in my mind. How can you feel “close” to the God who reveals Theirself in the poor and marginalized when you can’t spend time around vulnerable people without feeling overextended and empty? This is all my faith has been. Every sermon I’ve ever preached has been on how we see God in our homeless neighbor, in the person we’d rather cast out to a prison cell, in the dying patient. It’s not that I don’t believe this anymore. It’s that I believed it so much that it has decimated me; instead, I realize that the call to the margins is as dangerous as I was told it was. I was called, but I was not equipped as the Church told me I would be. (Cue the youth pastor: “God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called!”)
So, I’ve sought refuge in this new job I’ve taken. I work in a team of amazing, beautiful homeless outreach workers. I work behind the scenes, enter and manage the data we are required to collect by our grants, do menial tasks like the weekly outreach laundry and cleaning our donation room, and clean out the files and databases to ensure quality and HIPAA compliance. I work at a computer in an office where I avoid people most of the time; it’s a job a lot of people woudl hate, but I actually really love it. However, even here I experience a degree of what I have now come to understand is not burnout, but rather compassion fatigue and secondary trauma.
For example, the outreach workers have to record notes in an internal database of all their encounters with clients–much like I had to do as a chaplain in a hospital last year. Part of my job is taking these notes and re-entering them in several databases weekly for grant compliance. Most of the time the notes are short, like when folks are brought in to take a shower, do laundry, or fill out paperwork. Some times however, they are long narratives of emergencies, disputes, explosive episodes, traumas, or crimes. While I don’t know these clients personally or know these exact scenarios personally, they are incredibly familiar because I’ve been there before in a different time, a different place, with different people (or even the same people, on occasion. Nashville’s homeless outreach world is small.)
I had to stop reading the notes because I would feel myself begin to gently dissociate from my work desk and return to those moments of walking frozen streets at midnight looking for bodies, warm or cold. Those moments of fleeing drunken arguments in parking lots. Those moments of having my compassion thrown back in my face because I tried to set a boundary. Those moments of feeling very unsafe. Those moments of hearing other people’s stories of trauma so vividly that they stayed with me late into the night. This is secondary trauma– “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Of course, I also had to stop reading notes because HIPAA!)
I’ve come to a point where I resist making friendships with folks on the streets, resist engaging with new clients, resist looking people in the eyes on the streets. It’s like I can’t see the actual person in front of me because I can only remember the dozens of folks on the streets who died, who abused help, who broke trust, who abused themselves, who were murdered, who hurt me. And this seems to tragically erase the millions of beautiful moments I have experienced on the streets of people looking out for each other, surrounding each other with support in dire circumstances, of genuine community. It’s like a reflex- instead of a beautiful child of God with a unique experience, all I see is a million outstretched hands and broken bodies and experiences I’ve heard and seen before on repeat. This is compassion fatigue– “It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses.”
So, I stop reading the files. I stop engaging with folks for the most part. I hear that time heals, so I watch the days fly off the calendar waiting for it to get better. I’m finally graduated from Vanderbilt. On one hand, it was a relief to be done with what was a mostly disappointing experience. On the other hand, I realize that I don’t have divinity school to distract me from the unsettling feeling that I don’t have an identifiable calling anymore if I’ve decided I can’t do homeless outreach anymore. I’ve mourned that and I’m okay with it after all. But what do I do now? I find a routine to stick to as I wait for the healing to come- eat, gym, shower, work, eat, practice, eat, sleep. For the first time in twenty years, I’m not a student! Hurray! But seriously- for the first time in twenty years, there’s nothing scheduled for me to build towards. I knew I was setting myself up for a quarter life crisis by not taking time off between degrees, but I was not prepared for this.
I don’t know what to do now. It’s tempting to throw myself completely and tirelessly into roller derby, but I realize that if I do that I will burn out on the one thing that gives me joy and energy right now. I can’t afford to lose it, and not coping with my compassion fatigue/secondary trauma/burnout/Everything Bad In My Brain by retreating is not the solution.
I’ve got some ideas- maybe vision boards, maybe a retreat, maybe more church, maybe coffee with trusted vocational advisers, maybe therapy again. What I crave most, however, is just a hint. A hint of the divine, a breath from the Spirit, a whisper in my wilderness.
“[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
-1 Kings 19:4-13
I think one of the things that drew me to the church in the first place in high school was the notion that God had a plan for me. Divinity school and process theology has kind of shot that determinism in the ass, but I really kind of need that right now. Maybe I do need a loving God who has a plan for me. Maybe I do need a Resurrection of All Things at the end of time, an incoming Shalom, a Restoration. If not for at the end of times, then at least for me right now. I need resurrection. I need a whisper in this wilderness.
Today I take another step on my zig zagging faith journey. Today I am going to sign the membership book at the First Nashville Unitarian Universalist Church. This effectively completes my exodus from the United Methodist Church, but itself has been a long time coming.
I actually knew of the UU church before I ever became a Christian. I had read of it in a young adult novel when I was eleven or so and was contemplating spirituality. The character in the book had discovered an open minded spiritual home in a local UU congregation. This prompted me to see if there were UU churches in my area- and that’s how I discovered FUUN. While I didn’t visit for many years, it was inspiring knowing there were open minded liberal religious people out there.
I first visited FUUN when I was in college, I think. I was trying to visit as many different denominations and faith traditions as I could in order to seek commonalities and appreciate differences. However, I found a sanctuary at FUUN that transcended a simple visit. I would return to FUUN several times a year when, as I laughingly put it, “I got too fed up with Christians.” I knew I felt renewed every time I went, and appreciated that they dug from a deep well of many traditions, even my own.
As I was beginning my departure from the UMC, I tried imagining if I would make a switch to another denomination. I was mostly split between the Episcopal Church and the UU Church. I felt that I knew I would become a UU before I died, but I didn’t know when. I felt that I wasn’t quite ready to “leave Jesus.” I felt that I needed the Eucharist. This was mostly what made me consider the Episcopal church- except for the glaring fact that the Tennessee Diocese individually is probably even more unwelcoming to LGBT people and women than the TNUMC conference! It wasn’t a solution. I also felt that wherever I went, I would still be a “Methodist sitting in another denomination.”
Over the past year in divinity school, however, I’ve been feeling more and more alienated from the Methodist tradition. When I was in discussions and Methodist theology was mentioned, when I was in groups of Methodists laughing and joking about their studies, even when I went to Annual conference– I began to feel like an outsider looking in. I began to feel like these weren’t my people, even when I knew everyone in the room. I realized there was much of Methodist theology that no longer resonated with me, or rang too hollow in practice. Did I mention I haven’t gone to a Methodist church in over a year?
The last thing holding me back was the Eucharist. Even when I began to realize and celebrate that I don’t need to shed my Christian identity to become a UU, I felt that I needed the Eucharist. Then, I recently realized that in the past year, I had only received the Eucharist a handful of times, and two or three of those times, I was the presider! “Maybe I don’t need to receive it in reality as much as I cerebrally do,” I began to wonder. I also knew that if I ever needed it, I could always go to an Episcopalian church or celebrate it with friends. I don’t need to abandon it.
And so, this journey brings me here today. I am ready. Deep down I have always been a UU. I just didn’t know if the UU church would accept me as one of them because I am Christian or because I am sacramental. How foolish of me! The UUs are nothing if not welcoming of all people on their journey. I am so excited to begin this new journey, begin learning their hymns, their litanies, and begin my journey of involvement in ministry here. I am ready to have a home again.
To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came. -Howard Thurman
I don’t remember when I first read this quote, but I remember reading it during my first semester of Divinity School and it has stuck with me ever since. When I first came to Vanderbilt Divinity School, I was way too damn excited and my expectations were way too high. I had just graduated college and fought my way to get into VDS and to find a way to fund it. Within a week of graduating, I moved out of my parent’s house and into the intentional community I had wanted to for years. I was thrown into the world of adulthood and began living a dream I had fought for and dreamed of for years. By the time August rolled around, I was on cloud nine–and it wasn’t long until that bubble popped and I was left with the reality of div school. It is extremely academic, to the point that it crushes my soul more often than not. Gone were the days of knowing all my professors and administrators on a first name basis. Gone were the days of manageable reading loads. Within a month, I began to realize that I was really and truly burnt out. On school, on activism, on organizing, on involvement, on my city, on my friend group, on church, on everything in my life. There is no way any of it could live up to my high expectations and dreams that I had built up in my four years of college of what it would be like to be back in Nashville, an adult, at a prestigious divinity school.
I began to realize a lot of the dreams I had made for myself I was not at all fit for. For about three years I want to every workshop I could on community organizing. I went to every meeting, rally, protest, coalition, training I could. I had a huge case of FOMO- fear of missing out. Never mind that I do not have the temperament for a community organizer. Never mind that knocking on doors fills me with massive anxiety. Never mind that.
I had, and still have, an amazing community of people that have taught me so much about intentional living, practice, involvement, spirituality, peace, and justice. But somewhere along the way, as young people are oft to do, I thought because I loved them I had to be just like them in every way. I thought I had to change parts of myself to fit into the group, though none of them ever asked me to do this. I did not know how to be accepted. I wouldn’t allow my real self to be accepted. So, I thought I had to overload myself like they did, I thought I need to have all the skills they had, I thought I had to go to all the same things they did. Somewhere along the way, I lost who I was.
Then, I read this Thurman quote. Travel your road again. Do your first works over. Reexamine everything. Go back to where you started.
I ended up doing this very thing without meaning to, necessarily. As my depression returned, I found myself drawn again to an evangelical style of worship that marked my high school years. I found myself drawn again to roller derby, a passion of mine before college. I found myself painting again. I stopped going to things I didn’t have the energy to go to. I reread old books, old movies, even re-listened to old music that used to fill my soul. I went back into the prison and onto the streets as a novice. I revisited some old internship sites. I went to my college as an alumni visitor, not a student. I drove around my hometown. As I felt lost, I felt I had to return to my roots.
Somewhere in my wandering, I did find healing. I found parts of myself that I had unnecessarily left behind. I recovered old gifts that I realized were just as valuable–pastoral care, writing. I recognized that I’m allowed to be who I am and nobody loves me less because of it.
As I write this, I am listening to old punk and emo music I loved in my adolescence. I am working on some writing projects. I am dreaming about my first full season as a Nashville Rollergirl. I feel pretty similar to who I was when I was 18- full of wonder, real damn immature, wildly passionate. I am no longer 18, but I am learning to recover all the different parts of myself, my journey, and how to incorporate it all into who I am now. I am on the other side of burnout. I am on the top of a crest in my wave-like depression. I am living dreams I had set for myself years ago in a much more healthy way. I’m truly grateful for this journey.
365 days ago, I was incredibly lonely. I was not in control of my body. I was not particularly proud of myself. I felt very lost. I had sacrificed a lot to pursue my dreams and was left wondering if I made the right choices. I was trying, trying, trying to control the uncontrollable.
I tend to have this outlook on life that if you just work on your inner self hard enough, reach the right conclusions, have the right plan in place, find the healthiest mindset, then everything will fall into place.
We are almost never in control.
A year later, I would say I’m not perfect. I’m not exactly where I want to be. But I’m exactly where I need to be. I am so much healthier physically, mentally, emotionally, and interpersonally than I have ever been. I am genuinely living my dream. I am a Vanderbilt Divinity grad student a year out from graduation–something I fought for years to be, even if it’s not what I thought it would be. I am an ordained minister and deacon, even if it’s not by the church I thought it would be. I am a part time homeless outreach worker with the organization I fought to stay with, even if most days my heart is more broken and scared than I’d like it to be. I am still living in Nashville, a city I fought to stay in, even if it rapidly becomes unfamiliar to the city I grew up in. I am a Nashville Rollergirl, even if I am realizing this dream a few years later than when I first started. I have not found whatever true love exists out there with another person, though I am beginning to understand how to find it within myself.
The other day, I was skating outside in surprisingly balmy weather for a Tennessee winter. There’s a local abandoned airstrip where I can feel like I’m back in rural Tennessee for a moment. I can let the wind wash over me and feel like I’m flying on eight wheels. I began to gaze into the sky and think about this past year and what the next one will be like. On the pavement, someone sprayed in graffiti “good job,” and I felt like it was very appropriate as a theme for this past year.
I have worked so hard inside my self, struggled so much with my hopes and dreams and how I have failed and reluctantly succeeded. I have externalized all this into a contact roller sport where my tears have transformed into sweat. I have not found the answers. I have not reached solutions. But in the process I have found a journey where I am my own damn companion, and to that I say “good job.”
I have recognized that there is so little in my control. I have recognized I cannot kid myself into thinking I can sort it all out in my head and that my reward will be God dropping a partner into my life because I am now “enough.” I am already enough whether I am single or partnered or broken or whole, and to that I say “good job.”
I am living my dream even if it is incredibly harder and more disappointing than I thought it would be. It is also more tragically beautiful and challenging and life giving than I could ever have dreamed of. The fact that I still wake up and go do it is worthy of a “good job.”
I don’t know what 2016 will be like. I am now not so naive to think that this will be the year I get it right. There are some goals I am done setting in favor of other goals that I can actually manage and work towards. I want to do right by myself this year. And the only way I can do this is to let go. So that’s what I’m gonna resolve to do this year. To let go of all that crushes my spirit in favor of that which helps me lean into the mysterious. To let go of all the ways I hold myself back by thinking I am not enough, that what I have is not enough, that my life is not enough. To let go of all that makes me think I’m not living my dream or fulfilling my purpose.
To letting go.
May God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
May God give me the courage to change the things I can.
May God give me the wisdom to know the difference just for today.
How do you pack a house?
How do you take things off walls?
How do you throw away trash
When each piece is a memory?
What is trash?
How do you pack a box?
One by one?
How do you move
When there is no where to go to?
How to pick up a box
With no where to set it down?
How do you leave
With no where to take you?
How do you move out
When there is no room in the inn?
How do you teach a heart to break?
I’m generally an anti-bandwagon kind of person by nature. But there’s something about people throwing around the word “witchy” that has been bothering me on a deeper level than I could describe until this writing. Let me explain–I’ve seen this word used on tinder profiles, in descriptions of one’s fashion sense, one’s interests, one’s decorations around their house, etc. Based off of context clues, it appears people are currently using this word to describe a sense of earthiness, a sense of weirdness, but in a trendy way–and not really at all in connection to witchcraft, let me be clear. It seems to be more of an intended celebration of the kinds of women who have been persecuted in various cultural histories–wild women, mystics, those who didn’t conform to cultural norms, those who were declared suspicious and therefore “witches,” purveyors of dark magic. Agents of Satan, what have you. Many of these women were persecuted, killed, abused, cast out.
I totally support memorializing these mothers of ours. This intention is fabulous, but I don’t think it’s really succeeding. The ways I’m seeing the word “witchy” used to describe things or activities is bothering me. Like, utilizing this animal skull is so witchy! Making these salves out of weeds is so witchy! Learning herbal things is so witchy. It’s become a trend, which does touch a couple nerves of mine. But here’s what bothers me I suppose–things like herbalism, utilizing natural objects–those aren’t ancient uncovered reclaimed practices. Those are things my great grandmothers did and they were not declared trendy. Those are concrete ways to live off the land, especially if you are poor. My great grandmother Bessie ate dandelion roots and it wasn’t because she was cool or organic. It’s because that what you do if your joints hurt. She wasn’t a witch and she wasn’t trendy. My grandfathers raised me that if you hunt an animal, you use all of its skin and bones in addition to the meat so that nothing goes to waste and the animal’s soul is respected. That’s just what you do. As such, my relatives’ homes in the country were filled with utilitarian bones and skins. They were not called witchy. And nobody seems to be celebrating the folks of the Tennessee countryside.
I am a 22nd generation Tennessean. I get severely bothered when certain things of my ancestors’ culture is co-opted by modern hipsters. These staples of living off of the land have become so fashionable, yet so many urbanites still look down on those who live in rural areas. It’s not cool to BE from the country, but it’s cool if you take those practices or homesteading ways and plop them in the middle of the city. Then, it’s countercultural and subversive…and witchy, I guess.
(Not to mention, I actually have some friends who practice witchcraft. I would imagine they might have some feelings on the subject.)
Of course, these are just my feelings of what comes to mind when I hear others using the word “witchy.” Most likely, very most likely, people who use the word do not mean of these things when they say it. They may feel different things and mean different things. Probably it has deep significance for them. Not denying that. These are my unsolicited thoughts that are better here than on a really long Facebook post. 😉
The past few months, I have been interning again with Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach and advocacy non-profit that I have been involved with for the past four years. I was first an intern with them when I was a nineteen year old college student one summer, and I have volunteered with them ever since when I was home for weekends and breaks. I knew from the very beginning of me working with them that I had found my calling and my people. Over the course of college, I geared my other internships and studies towards the goal of being the best homeless outreach worker and street chaplain I could be. My goal was always to work with Open Table again, and I fought to make my path align with staying in Nashville so I could do this work. I sacrificed some great offers at other seminaries and divinity schools, because I knew this was the community I was to do my work with and live my life with.
Well, even at some point, one gets cold feet and doubt. As I was about to begin working with OTN again, I wondered to myself–have I been building up in my mind an unrealistic image for what this work is? Four years is an okay amount of time to forget the stressful moments and substitute them with the most beautiful memories. I really shouldn’t kid myself– this work is incredibly difficult at times. It is very hard to maintain good interpersonal boundaries, to not overextend yourself, to not give in to panic attacks, to say no, to do self-care, to not sink in the endless waves of need.
It is now nearly November, and of course I have had fair shares of difficult relationships, difficult conversations, difficult moments. Sure. But there is a subtle hum beneath all these encounters where one steps back and sees the glow of the Divine at work. Christ is present in our friends. One doesn’t even need to look past the dirt or tear stains to see God on the streets–She is fully here. She is whispering, “Hello. Can you help me?”
Over time, I find myself wanting to run away from the hurt and brokenness less and less. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Othertimes, I find myself falling in love. Recently I have found myself around a lot of mothers–friends, pastors, coworkers, classmates. Lots of mommas. One friend of mine recently welcomed her second son, and she said,
I was afraid of having to juggle my time, and divide my love between two perfect boys. I was worried how I would care for them equally and divide my love. But instead, I find that this idea of dividing love is ridiculous. Instead, my heart grew. My heart doubled in size.
I remember reading this as well:
In the sutras there was a time when the Buddha taught like this: “Imagine there is someone who is holding a fistful of salt. They place it in a small bowl of water and stir it around with their finger. Monks, do you think people could drink that water?” And the monks said, “Such water would be far too salty to drink. How could you drink it? You’d have to throw it away.” The Buddha said, “That is correct.” Then the Buddha said, “But if, for example, you were to throw that fistful of salt in the river, then would the people who lived in the villages alongside of the river continue to drink the water of the river?” And the monks said, “Yes.” “Why?” “Because the river is vast and the fistful of salt cannot possibly make the water of the river salty.” Make your heart a river.
I include these quotes and excerpts to summarize my point: Friends, my heart is becoming a river that is widening and flowing more freely than it has in years. Often, my heart is broken. There’s been days that I spent in ICUs with friends broken by speeding cars. Days I spent on the curb in front of detox facilities coaxing and encouraging someone to go in. Days I spent on the sidewalks of the city talking someone down from an alcoholic ledge. Days I spent wandering my way around the underbelly of the city, finding camps and people who have been hidden and forgotten for decades. “How did you find me?,” one woman asked. “Because we looked,” we said. Our work is that of waiting, waiting for the healing, accompanying each other to the resurrection that is possible.
There’s a golden moon that shines up through the mist
And I know that your name can be on that list
There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth
He was down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
He was down there where the train
If you’ve lost all your hope, if you’ve lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe
And all the shameful and all of the whores
And even the soldier who pierced the heart of the lord
Was down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train
-Tom Waits, “Down There By the Train”
When my heart is broken, that is where it grows wider. There is a form of Japanese art, kintsugi or kintsurokoi, where the broken parts of pottery are pieced back together and the cracks are cemented with gold. The pottery widens a little, and the finished piece is more beautiful than it was before. My heart is such a piece; each time it breaks, it is filled with gold and it grows.
I am still not often present in church, but by God, am I trembling in the presence of God. There is so much love. And love wins.
“When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” -Luke 4:16-30
I have read this passage from Luke several times in my life; however, one reading in particular will always stick out to me. It was this time two years ago, and I was essentially deciding to leave my ordination process through the United Methodist Church. I went back to this passage and Luke and examined the journey that Jesus takes. This passage is understood to be when Jesus is called to ministry and makes it public, similar to that of an ordination. The writer of Luke structures his telling of the story strategically, and places events in a particular order to communicate a point. Just before this passage is when Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. In the text there is then a naming of Jesus’s ancestors and those who prepared him for ministry, linking him to God. The next event is when the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted with easy ways out—turning stones into bread, glory, authority. Jesus keeps faith in God’s providence and guidance. Then, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, where our passage picks up. He reads of how the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach good news to the poor. His faith community doesn’t accept or believe him because he doesn’t live up to their standards—isn’t that Mary’s boy? Isn’t that the carpenter’s son? He’s not much of a prophet—we helped raise him. Jesus essentially replies that God dwells in those you would least recognize, God chooses to dwell among those you would rather cast out. Of course, this radical language incites a riot, and Jesus slips out of the crowd that is trying to THROW HIM OFF A CLIFF and goes on his merry, trouble-making way. He doesn’t dwell on their disapproval—he knows the Spirit is upon him and there is no time to waste. The following events of Luke have Jesus casting out demons, preaching, making disciples, healing, and teaching.
Many of you already know my story. We are here today, in part, because the denomination I have been a member of for seven years, the United Methodist Church, refuses to recognize or legitimize the calling on my life. The church offered me my own share of temptations—full-ride scholarships to Methodist seminaries, ecclesial authority, earthly respect—if only I would hide who I am. I wrestled with these temptations, trying to figure out how I could best fulfill my call to be in ministry with all people, and in particular, people who live lives on the streets. When I read this passage from Luke two years ago, I saw myself in the text. Jesus didn’t wait for his home synagogue to accept him or his call to ministry. Instead, he shook the dust from his feet and went on his way to serve and love others.
I am very grateful that God has put in my path my friends from Amos House. They have supported and cultivated my call from the very beginning. They were the first ones I told that I wanted to be ordained. They celebrated with me as I began my ordination process, and cried with me as I decided to leave it. They supported me when I felt that I could no longer wait for the UMC to change, and that I could no longer subject myself to its abuse. They said “Yes” to me when I asked if they would recognize my ordination.
As a result, I don’t want today to be about what one church wouldn’t do, and instead let it be a celebration about what this church IS doing. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. To proclaim that liberation and resurrection is a present thing.
I wanted to have my ordination here on Legislative Plaza, because of all the places in this city, I continually see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here. I started to spend a lot of time on this Plaza when I participated in Occupy Nashville, at the same time that I was realizing I was called to ordination. It was here that I was baptized into this calling; it was here that I slept on the marble to bring attention to the criminalization of our friends experiencing homelessness; it was here that I was first arrested for justice; it was here that I received Ashes on Ash Wednesday, where I walked the Stations of the Cross with Amos House, where we celebrated the Eucharist. It was here where we washed feet. It was here where we had press releases for the Homeless Bill of Rights. It was here where we read scriptures. It was here where we held vigils. It was here.
It was here when I started to awaken to what it meant to be a deacon. To be a bridge between the church and the world. When I found myself on the front lines of activist movements and in community organizing meetings, I was surprised at the lack of people of faith present. When I found myself in church, I grew disgruntled at the common silence around justice matters, issues of race, gender, sexuality, housing, mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings. I learned of the Order of the Deacon, a type of minister that expressly ordained to do service in the world, to connect the church to the world. My college chaplain, Laura, a Methodist deacon, had this quote taped to her office door that I have held in my heart:
“How will we know when we have enough deacons? ….
When all the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable are met.
When to gather the gifts of the church and take them to the world, and to gather the needs of the world and bring them to the church, has become a habit.
When… “deacons, going back and forth, have worn down the boundary lines that we use to keep church and world separated.”
When deacons, leading the baptized in and out, have beaten a path between the altar and the gutter so that everyone will see the link between the blood in our chalices and the blood in our streets.
When all people respond to the challenge to LIVE, not in the love of power, but in the power of love.” -Rev. Irma Wyman
And so, it is my joy that you are all gathered here today to extend your love in support as you confirm this calling in me. It has been a long journey, it feels, one marked with anxiety, pain, rejection, courage, resistance, relief, and love. It only makes sense to me that this journey returns to where it began, on this plaza, with Amos House. Thank you for loving me and for joining me on this journey.