Who I Really Am

Praying at the Bridgeport Youth Retreat, 2004
Praying at the Bridgeport Youth Retreat, 2004

One of my friends from high school, Rev. Dan, stopped me in my tracks today. Literally knocked me on my ass because what he said hit me like a ton of bricks and I still haven’t recovered from it. I was recommending a band to him that one of my neighbors from Portland helped found, and he said, heck yeah!!! thanks, Rev!!! This goes into the pensieve because Dan is the first person to ever call me that. Ever. He just knows that I’ve set my mind on it, and I will do it, whether it comes from working toward ordination through my denomination or graduating from Howard. It doesn’t matter which. What matters is that someone who is already a UCC pastor sees it in me. Knows my truth. We also have the same birthday, but I doubt that has much to do with it. I don’t think. I am not an astrology babe, but I will take anything I can get.

Anything I can get is turning out to be A LOT. It is as I told Argo in one of my letters, you have to see the blackest black before you can see the whitest white. Divorce from Dana and separation from Argo was rock bottom for me. I couldn’t have gotten any further down if I’d tried. I incinerated my life in a big way, and it gave me the motivation to find out who I really was. As it turns out, I didn’t need to move forward. I needed to move back.

In a way, that doesn’t make sense unless you know that before I met Argo, before I met Dana, before I met Diane even, I had a calling to ministry. It didn’t feel like “going into the family business.” It felt like there was something great in me, that I knew I was meant to do something lasting, to create a legacy. I am not talking about being famous. I am talking about being well-respected in my field. That I would do something that no one else has done, or write something that no one else has put to paper. I ran from that calling like the plague because my father was so talented that I did not want anyone to believe that I was just riding on his coattails.

When I moved to Portland, though, my dad had left the ministry several years before, and I was 1800 miles away from him. It allowed me to find my own identity within the church, and I did. I remember the first time I did a bulletin for church. I didn’t crib anything. I wrote the entire service, front to back. I wish I still had a copy, but it is lost to history. However, you cannot imagine what it was like to hear the call and response of my own words. I was preaching that Sunday, and so I was standing at the front of the church, saying the pastor’s part and having my congregation read the words that I wrote back at me. It was then I got an inkling I was in the wrong business entirely. Computers would feed my bank account, but there was no feeling on earth like the one I got in front of a congregation.

Wearing it Like I "Stole" It
Wearing it Like I “Stole” It

My church was not one of those where you had to dress up on Sundays. Brenda thought I should have something that marked me as a leader (this was a different Sunday, because I preached at Bridgeport for several years). Brenda put a stole on me, and my heart literally skipped a beat. It was a MOMENT. A huge one. THE one. I just had to put it in the back of my mind because I didn’t have any money for school and I was having trouble finding a job all at the same time. I felt like I could see the vision, and had no idea how to get there. I still don’t, but if I get this job as a youth pastor, that will be the first step on a large and winding staircase. I am hoping that the search committee sees what I do… that this is my destiny, and something I was born to do… need to do… because I was made for it.

In terms of the way I’ve incinerated my life over the last two years, you have to know that pastors are not any less human than you are, sometimes even more so because we’ve got that ego thing going on that needs attention (and by attention, I mean beat down with a 2×4). A pastor is nothing but an ordinary human with an extraordinary calling. There is nothing I can do to erase my past except atone for my sins and keep running away from them, not in terms of hiding them, but it terms of not doing things to create such chaos in other people’s lives. Learning and being able to move on. Going to therapy to learn how to manage my own boundaries and my own healthy choices. Making sure that my medication is working and not doing anything to affect how well it works. It’s important to run away from the things that make you feel guilty and shameful, and run toward those things that make you feel whole.

In fact, let’s not call it “running away” at all. Let’s just stick with the “running forward” idea. Running away suggests that there are skeletons in your closet. Running towards sounds more like you’ve owned those skeletons and released them to make room for so much more than you ever thought you could. Goodness and mercy WILL follow you all the days of your life, if only you’ll let it.

In case you missed it, that was an invitation. That invitation is for you to put goodness and mercy into the world, because that’s how it comes back around. If you give goodness and mercy with your hands, it will come back around and touch your butt.

You’re welcome.

I put fire into the world, and I got it back threefold. It was a Holy Spirit violent wind moment where I realized that the common denominator in the entire mess was me, and I ran away from it and towards myself. I had to spend my time in the desert preparing, and I am still wandering. I don’t think theologians ever stop. There is no end to understanding the Bible and all of the commentary that goes with it. Every denomination and every thinker has their own take. I have attended so many churches since I was a kid that I used to call myself a “MethoLuthoPalian.” In 2005, I started following the Eightfold Path, and I called myself a Buddhapalian (which goes nicely together, if you’re wondering).

I didn’t join the UCC until I was an adult, because Susan and Diane were starting Bridgeport and when I moved to Portland, I went there, too. Diane would have been livid if I’d sung in any other choir but hers. 🙂 However, as the relationship between Diane, Susan, and me deteriorated, Dana and I started going to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I started to doubt my faith because of everything I’d been through in terms of the breakdown in communication both within the church and in “our family.” Bill Lupfer, then the Dean of the cathedral and now Dean at Trinity Wall Street, saved my faith in a major way. Every time I heard him, it was like he was speaking directly to me and no one else. The other thing that saved me was the liturgy, the Community Mass by Richard Proulx. The setting I’ve linked to is much slower than I’ve heard it in the past, and in my book, there is no such thing as liturgical tambourine. Just. No.

In that time and place, I could not always believe that God existed, but what I COULD do was come faithfully to church and do the ritual. The ritual, in turn, fed my faith so that I could keep going in my journey. Christianity is not a solo endeavor. It is much more than advertised. You don’t just go to church. You are the church.

Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are remembering the man that brought you to that place in that time. What does that remembrance say to you? I cannot think it for you, but I can tell you what goes through my mind. In every church, at every communion, no matter whether it’s an Episcopal church or not, I say two things from the BCP to myself. Sometimes, there is not enough time at the communion railing to say everything. I do not like cattle call communion, but it happens. When you have 500 members and the Redskins are playing at noon, something’s gotta give.

Anyway, what goes through my head invariably are these two phrases. The first is we are not so much worthy to gather up the crumbs under Thy table, but Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to give mercy. The second is most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

I express the universality of God in my emotions. But thou art THE SAME LORD. It doesn’t matter what you call God. God just is. God is like grits at Waffle House. You don’t order grits. Grits just come. The same Lord that blesses me blesses everyone else, and if you don’t believe in God, can you at least believe that for a few moments each week, it is humbling and cleansing to get my ego out of the way? What I’ve done and what I’ve left undone in some cases are small things and some are, to put it mildly, not. There is a God, and I AM NOT IT. God, in all of God’s perfection and awe, does not take on human characteristics. You cannot anthropomorphize God. You have to take responsibility for your own actions in front of your own conscience, and honestly, that perfect part of me is God as well. I have to confess my sins to the part of me that wants to be perfect and fails miserably in the process. But that never means I stop trying to achieve enlightenment. It is what we all strive for, especially in moments of great need. Donna Schuurman, one of the world’s leading experts on childhood grief, gave me the best prayer I’ve ever prayed and I say it all the time. It’s simple.

I get down on my knees and say, “SHIT, GOD!”

It is the end of the frayed rope prayer, the one that says oh my God I have no idea what to do help me.

Writing it Down
Writing it Down

Sometimes when I go to the communion rail, I just say that. It is emotional shorthand for “how do I get out of this mess I have made and it is all my fault?” Going to the communion rail is like going to therapy. You’re not going to get better on a few moments a week. Sometimes you have to go home and say, “SHIT, GOD!” to yourself until the answers come. Some people talk to themselves. Some people ruminate with others. I write it down. I start with “SHIT, GOD!” and hopefully end with something better than that.

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Dana. Diane had broken my heart so badly that I couldn’t even breathe, so I went hiking into the gorge with Dana, and then separated from her to go and stand in the cold, cold water. I couldn’t feel my feet as I SCREAMED into the heavens. I cried, I prayed, I yelled at God and told God to go FUCK GODSELF. How had this relationship eaten up so much of me? How could I have let it go on so long, even in my head? She was going to continue to torture me the longer I let her live there. I wasn’t going to get her back, and I had to stop trying because it wasn’t hurting her. It was killing me. All of the stories she put into me. All of the lies. All of the secrets upon secrets in order to keep my parents from finding out what they were smart enough to figure out on their own.

Dana was watching me twist in the wind, just letting the thunderstorm of emotion eat me alive, and she was crying. Dana was crying simply because someone else had hurt me. That was it for me. That was when I knew. It was a MOMENT. Dana saw me praying my frayed, end of the rope prayer and wanted to help, but didn’t know how.

No one is supposed to know how to help you when you get to that point, because that point is the one that teaches you the way up. You have to rely on your own strength, your God strength, the peace that floods you when you don’t think it can get any worse and it’s going to go up from here.

Anne Lamott says that there are only three prayers.

Help.

Thanks.

Wow.

I have been praying Help. for the past two years, and Thanks. and Wow. are coming together. In fact, I once was lost, but now I’m found.

I found who I really am. And who that person is wants to be a pastor in her own right, ordained or not, with teenagers all around her to guide in their growth and development, because if that doesn’t get one extra points in heaven, I don’t know what does. When Matthew and I taught senior high Sunday School together, by the time class was over we both had the look of two people who desperately needed a drink.

But we knew we’d done our jobs. The kids had connected with us and we with them. We had those perfect moments, the ones where kids open up and tell you what’s really going on in their lives… a sweeter sound never heard. I hope to do that again. I have an interview on Thursday to be a youth pastor again. Sometimes it’s really true that going backward leads forward, because sometimes you forget which is the direction and which is the distraction. Luckily, God was there to remind me that my work wasn’t done… and as I ran further toward distraction, God’s voice got louder until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. You can see from these pictures how much I want it. Now, all that needs to happen is for God to decide that my church needs me, too.

Amen.

My first youth retreat as leader.
My first youth retreat as leader.

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