Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dixie Music, Crazy Dreams and Actual Humans

InterVarsity, the company I've worked for for almost 8 years now, has an interesting way of training you. They send you, in general, to a school with which you are unfamiliar in a town where you know no one to find a church in a short amount of time that you may or may not connect with in the hopes that you'll build relationships that will inevitably end in 9 months or less, all while learning to do a job that takes a tremendous amount of spiritual and emotional energy, not to mention the ability to understand cultural references meant for people much younger than you on a consistent basis.

So, it is not unusual for said intern year to come along with a myriad of issues. For me, I spent my 9 months living alone on $700 a month on one side of a duplex with no central heat and dealing with insomnia which meant that I could not ignore the high decibels of dixie music emanating from the other side of the walls, courtesy of my elderly, grumpy and hearing-impaired neighbor whose favorite pasttime seemed to be to intermittently accuse me of unsavory noctural activities. All this occurred while being engaged long-distance and being continually bombarded with the notion that I was, in fact, a Yankee and was, therefore, not welcome in rural NC. Thank you, Mr. Landlord.

One of the ways that I seem to deal with transitions and stress seems to dream and that year was no different. Perhaps I work out my angst in my subconscious, since up until the point I started blogging I've never been good at actually working it out in healthy and relational ways. So, you can imagine with the perfect storm of dysfunction mentioned in the previous paragraphs that I was dreaming up a storm. My most vivid one related to marriage, as many of my dreams do. Being engaged is one thing. Being engaged long-distance when you always swore you'd never get married at all is quite another, so I was definitely anxious about the whole thing. One night I found myself in the very interesting dream reality of a new mandate from my employer. Apparently, IV National was having trouble recruiting new staff and was making all single staff (including those engaged to non-staff) find a student and marry him or her asap to bring them into the staff family. In my dream, I had to marry one of the current leaders in our chapter - I remember the awkward moment of informing this student of the mandate and proposing to him, the pre-marital counseling, the wedding ceremony and even the party. Thankfully, I woke up before the wedding night, however, this did not prevent me from experiencing waves of embarrassed horror when, the following evening, said student stood up to make an announcement at our weekly meeting and the dream came rushing back in all it's vivid truth.

I am still at a point here, post-sabbatical, where I'm not dreaming much. I seem to be falling asleep with relative ease, sleeping through the night and waking up in what appears to be actual reality, not a dream-induced panic to rediscover actual reality. I'm thankful for that, although I will admit that I think I had developed a kind of relationship with my dreams. There's a certain looking-forward-to-the-morning when you consistently have dreams that involve aliens, ocean-wide rope bridges and Arnold Schwarzeneggar that the smell of coffee cannot induce in me. Don't get me wrong- I'm happy to be working out my angst through writing and, gasp, actual human interaction, but I wonder if I will ever find ways to revisit my dream world that are healthy. Despite those panicked moments when you don't know if a dream was real, the entertainment factor and clarity of my own weirdness was oddly comforting.

Looking back, it might have been better during my intern year to actually talk to humans about how hard it was but I'm glad that I'm learning how to do it now. Learning how to actually let other people into those places where the angst threatens to spill into panicked dreams. To identify feelings and desire change in ways that are attainable. To trust other people to point me toward God and not have to be on a solo journey all the time. I'll miss my dreams but as I continue down this road of knowing and being known let's be honest: I'm sure I'll still get to encounter a heck of a lot of weirdness. Sometimes the truth of what's really going on and the craziness we encounter in our selves and friends can be a whole lot more entertaining than a dream, anyway.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Unboxing

I grew up in a church whose only traditions fell more on the side of what types of food to bring for potluck (emphatically Italian-American), where to go on church retreats (mountains or lakes, please) and the unfailing tradition of always clapping on the wrong beat. But liturgy? Hymns? Talking about the church calendar and understanding Lent or Epiphany? Not so much. In fact, my only understanding of traditional church was what I heard my Catholic friends, for the most part, complain about.

College is different, though, particularly if you join in with a bunch of people from totally varying backgrounds and attempt to worship with them each week. Add in the complexity of differing song knowledge and preferences, people who've memorized the Nicene creed and people like me who had never heard it and sprinkle that with an age group asking tons of questions and pretty open to exploring the new and you've got a crazy opportunity for growth. So, my song knowledge grew- I went from thinking hymns were a four letter word and knowing only one(The Old Rugged Cross, which we sung for communion every week) to knowing many and seeing deep doctrinal beauty in their words. I went from never having heard of the Creeds to attending a Presbyterian Church where we recited one every week. I even attempted to fast for Lent. That last one never went too well. Honestly, the biggest area I really saw growth in was my understanding of multiethnicity and its connection with the church. But my attitude in general towards the traditional? Well, it stayed skeptical. I grew up valuing energy and experience over solemnity and history and that is a hard bias to overcome.

Recently, as my husband and I faced choosing a church together, really for the first time, I've had to face this bias. I work for an organization whose members vary from the most conservative to the most charismatic on a Sunday morning and have lived on both sides of that in my church world. Undeniably, though, I'm more suspicious of the quiet, the reverent. Disdainful, sometimes, of what seems to me to be lifeless worship. But, my husband has very different preferences from mine and we've had to try to find an in-between. As I stood in church last week, singing the 4th hymn of the morning that I, yet again, didn't know I started to think about this bias I have. We've been attending this church for more than two months. We stand and kneel, we recite a creed that most people around me seem to have memorized, and sometimes people clap to the music, but usually hesitantly. However, I have felt clearly the Spirif of God in this sanctuary, more so than I've felt Him in many places that looked alive. There's a quiet joy, a simple knowing that seems not to have to be expressed in much free movement or spontaneous exhalation of words but in the corporate tradition of liturgy and quietness.

So, as I'm entering the Lenten season, I'm starting for the first time, to really explore the meaning behind it. To understand the point of the fasting, the reason for focusing on the weary road to death for my Savior, learning how to join in His sufferings as we approach that darkest of days, Good Friday. Having already been in a long period of waiting and expecting and learning how to deal with disappointment and suffering, it feels like an easy slide into this season. To have a purpose to it, a focus to it, however, feels different and, strangely, joyful. So, I will get up on Sundays, head to my "traditional" church service and continue to meet with God in new ways, even when I can't sing along or am the only person in my row reading from the bulletin during the reciting of the creed. And during the week, as I continue to learn what this season means and meet with my Lord in ways unexplored, I will hope to continue to be challenged to unbox my God. Though I feel I have met with him up to this point mostly in the loud and exuberant moments, I look forward to new encounters in the quiet and the purposeful ones, steeped in history and beauty.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Side Effects May Include

We've all seen those commercials. Half the time, I don't even know what the drugs are for but my husband and I always think,"Who would take these?" You see a bunch of people running through a field, lots of laughter, maybe people smelling things or playing some kind of sport that's clearly a breakthrough for them and then, bam. Side effects may include...and the list would be comical if it weren't so awful. Written in tiny little print..oh, by the way, if you take this, while you'll enjoy frolicing through a field and playing with your kids, you may also find yourself suffering from about 100 other unpleasant bodily issues. Tempting.

These past few weeks I've done a lot of driving, so I've had a lot of that quiet time in the car to myself that parents rarely experience. Time to think, to listen to the music I want to listen to, maybe even a good book on cd. This new role post-sabbatical has been good, it's been just what I've needed to ease back into life, to work on developing my gifts and to try some new things and enjoy implementing what I learned on my sabbatical. And I got to thinking, on my late drive back last week about what a commercial would look like for a well-balanced and unharried life.

Certainly, I pictured people frolicing through flower beds (Hurry up, springtime, so I can garden!), playing sports without worry about joint pain (Yay, volleyball!) and keeping up with the questions of crazy kids ("Why is the air clear, Mommy?) But what really got me thinking was how the fine print on the bottom of the screen would be so radically different from that of Viagra or the new greatest blood pressure medicine out there.

Name of the drug: MARGIN. Side effects may include: unexplainable and prolonged smiling, restedness resulting in increased levels of energy and vitality, heightened sense of God's presence, sporadic episodes of loud car-singing and dancing, empowered ability to say "no", enhanced feelings of trust and peace, occasional euphoria and chronic healthy perspective. Do NOT consult your doctor before using. Just take it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Risk of Truth

So, you know when you've stepped out a taken a risk and then your nerves get the best of you? That's where I am this morning.

It's been about two weeks since I felt very clearly that I needed to focus myself on praying for my dad. Two good weeks during which I've felt an incredible weight lift off my shoulders knowing that other people are holding up my other desires before the Lord so I can concentrate on this. I've realized how many times a day I think about those other things because it seems like I am constantly having to redirect desirous thoughts away from those things and towards my father in prayer. It's been pretty humbling to come face to face with how much energy I've devoted to those other desires.

During one of those moments of redirection, I was reminded of an encounter I had with my dad more than ten years ago. I had just returned from studying abroad, a time when I had been shown how much unforgiveness I held in my heart towards him. With hands shaking and fear threatening to silence me, I picked up the phone in my dorm room and called him. He immediately assumed I was calling for my mom and was about to get her when I told him that no, I was calling for him. Silence. Long silence. Finally I delved in and just told him that I loved him. It was probably the first time I had said it since I was a little girl and I wasn't expecting him to return the words. I just knew I had to say them. That was it. Somehow, that leap of faith changed our relationship. No, he didn't say those risky words back, but there have been other little things that began to happen that have showed me that he feels the same way and is currently incapable of expressing himself the way I might long for.

As I pondered this memory I felt really strongly that it was time again for an encounter. In the intervening years, I've learned even more clearly that my dad does not enjoy verbal communication that tends towards the sappy. He just can't open his mouth and participate. So, I wrote him a letter. A long and honest letter about how much I love him and how much I desire for Him to find contentment and joy in his life through God. He should be opening that letter this morning. And as the days have ticked by since I sent it, fear has crept in. It has whispered things to me like "You shouldn't have sent it" and "Why did you risk making your dad angry?" and "What if it was the wrong thing to do?"

But this morning I choose truth, not fear. It is never wrong to tell someone the truth- that I love him and that God loves him and wants more for him than he's experienced up until now. And that's all I did. It doesn't matter if he doesn't want to hear it or if he gets angry with me. I will not let my family operate in passive-agression so we will have it out and be stronger for it.

Now, if I can just get my nerves to catch up with my mind, I'll be able to let go and wait patiently on his response. Truth is risky, only in that I don't know how it'll be received. But it's not risky, in that I trust that God is more powerful than I can imagine and can do something in my father that may astound me as a result of this risk, even if his initial reaction is anger or even rejection. As God continues to cultivate in me an expectation for the miraculous, I will continue to hold onto a larger perspective on life that keeps me in a place of hope.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Communicating the Glass Ceilings

In Mrs. Zawrotny's 9th grade english class, emotions could run high. For one, many people didn't particularly enjoy Mrs. Zawrotny, feeling like she might be past her teaching prime. For another, I think it's just generally difficult to get 14 year old boys to settle down and enjoy reading Romeo and Juliet, especially when the teacher plays down the feisty parts. I do have one lasting memory from this class, however. Right around the new year we were asked to prepare an oral report on something that interested us. It didn't even have to relate to literature- I think Mrs. Z was just hopeful that something, anything might bring a spark of interest to her charges.

Surprisingly, I chose to do my report on women in the workplace. (Hear sarcasm along with much laughter from husband regarding the word "surprisingly".) I spent weeks researching the types of jobs women do and what they got paid for it, particularly compared to men. Understandably, I was pretty fired up at what I found and when it came time for the oral report, I was probably the least nervous I've ever been about giving one. After all, I cared about this topic, I knew it well and I wanted everyone else to be just as enraged over the injustice of the glass ceiling as was I. Looking back on it, I think most of my classmates were more amused than impassioned, particularly when I banged my fist in anger on the table during my speech, but it was the one and only time Mrs. Z and I connected. She was just as fired up as I was. I got an "A" on the report.

As I've been getting used to this whole idea of working again, I've been really excited to have the space to learn. I've been gobbling up books on how to be a better communicator and enjoying time to really sit in the scriptures I'm going to communicate in my talks. And of what I've read, it seems increasingly obvious that I may have unknowingly learned my most important communication lesson back in English class. The more I can own the topic, the more I'm excited about it, believe in it's truth and want others to be changed by it, the more likely I am to come across as authentic and for the information itself to be memorable. So, as I'm asked to speak at different schools, some of whom are giving me great license in what I get to speak on, I'm asking myself what those hot topics are. What's my "glass ceiling" topic at this point in my life, that thing that I can't learn enough about and want desperately for others to understand and embrace?

I'm not sure yet that I can answer this question, nor that it would be narrowed down to one topic. Certainly, a lot of what has set me free during my sabbatical is in the forefront of my mind. Margin, living in the now, fearlessness and hope, waiting on the miraculous and believing it exists...all these things have been powerful, life-changing concepts for me. The thing I want to avoid is making that terrible assumption that all people need to experience exactly what I've experienced. We've all done it, come home from some unbelievable adventure or challenging retreat and made everyone around us feel like he or she has missed out on the biggest event in history and will never possibly catch up to where we are as a human now. I don't want to approach it that way. I'm humbled by the gift of my sabbatical and any lessons learned were learned for a reason.

I'm hoping that as I have more time to steep in these new books, more time to actually pray through these talks I'm writing, that God will make clear in the moments which "glass ceiling" topics are for now and which ones are to be savored alone for awhile longer. I guess if I feel like I can't figure out what to talk about, I could always pull out that old oral report. After all, who wouldn't at least get fired up about that?