Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tarheels, Spiders and Culture Shock

The last time in my life that I really experienced culture shock was when I studied abroad.  I distinctly remember ordering a pizza and having the person on the other side of the counter ask me, "And would you like sweet corn or tuna on that?" Huh?! I learned quickly in the midst of that to avoid most British food establishments, to answer the question "Are you alright?" with the words fine or good because the actual American translation of said question was actually "What's up?" and that it was apparently perfectly normal for me to have to walk through a pub to get to the student gym.

However, culture shock is once again in full swing for me. I spent 13 years of my life as a Spider, first as a student, then as a volunteer and staff with InterVarsity.  Richmond is a cozy little University settled on a fairly relaxed-feeling campus with relatively abundant parking, a chaplain's office that actually supports campus ministries and the ability to see a lot of the same faces as you walk across campus each day.  In InterVarsity-land, our group was about 100 students, give or take a few over the years, with a leadership team that hovered between 20 and 30 students and one staff, me, to make decisions.

Last Thursday I kicked off my life as a Tarheel. My new leadership team? 100 people. The university? Not a cozy little place where you see the same people all the time.  We've met more people at Carolina in our new student events than actually show up as freshmen on Richmond's campus. Happy and informative little organization fair? No, picture the most crowded concert you've ever been to, add lots of free food, about a billion organization tables advertising their wares, multiple inappropriate tshirts that could probably get you kicked off Richmond's campus and then set the whole thing in a sauna.  They call this Fall Fest. Oh, excuse me, "we" call this Fall Fest.

You see, I'm having trouble changing my prepositions. For 13 years I've been a Spider. Any other mascot has always been "they."  And at Richmond, while we were loyal, we weren't exactly a bastion of school spirit. In fact, the most school spirit I saw each year there was usually displayed at the volleyball tournament at our annual InterVarsity camp when competing for the spirit award. 

Yet three nights ago I found myself with my sweaty arms around several people I didn't know, swaying to the Carolina Alma Mater in a Krispy Kreme parking lot. I wondered to myself if the freshmen who were there were as shell-shocked as I was, but began to realize that maybe they chose Carolina because they already knew about this culture, the, well, "hugeness" of everything I've been encountering. 

So, classes started yesterday. My husband is hard at work on year two of his Ph.D. Large group, the weekly meeting of our whole InterVarsity community, is tomorrow night and I am working hard on wiping my brain of all prior large group experiences and expectations. We have 20 people on our welcome team alone. We're using a room that can hold more than 500 students in the full hope that we'll fill it. My staff team, (yes, being a part of an actual team is a part of this), has been hard at work trying to make sure we've thought of everything that needs thinking about as we maneuver this all-important first week back while figuring out how the heck to care for each other in the midst of physical fatigue and campus transitions.

I will always be a Spider. No question. I graduated from there, saw my own faith grow exponentially because of the community there and will, likely, continue to be badgered semi-annually to give to the University's next big building project. But right now I'm trying to figure out how to identify with being a Tarheel, how to think the words "me", "mine"and "we" when I hear the alma mater and fight song. How to fully own and enjoy this huge group of students who have been entrusted to this team I'm on and to trust the Lord in the middle of a culture-shocked transition.

I may be Spider-born and Spider-bred but for right now I am Tarheel-immersed.  Someone better teach me the right cheer to follow that up with! (Particularly one that doesn't involve damning all of Duke to hell, please.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Soulmates, Seven Years and Wedding Season

The life of a campus minister tends to include a lot of weddings. I consider this a perk because (a) I love to dance and (b) it's great for my own marriage.  This summer I've gotten to be involved in a few of those weddings, reading scripture and singing.  One of those weddings was of two of my former students to each other. I watched them start dating, saw them wade through the chaos of senior year decisions, stand tall through tough family adversity, celebrate their engagement and, through it all, learn how to trust that God was guiding them together towards Him. They aren't getting married because of fireworks or passion, because of feelings or circumstances. They've taken a slow meander through the last few years of life together and learned how to do it together with God's lead.

Being a campus minister means that for a lot of the day I end up talking about relationships. Listening as people talk through crushes, dating, breakups, engagements...and all the while hearing a lot of theology inadvertently woven into their expectations. I've heard a lot of people throw around the word "soulmates" or the phrase "the one." A few times I've actually been asked what I think about those, probably because of the look on my face when a student slowed down long enough to notice. I'm not sure my answer is particularly popular among Christians who seem to, more than others, hold a kind of storybook, Hollywood view of courtship and dating.

The bottom line is that I don't believe in soulmates or "the one." Some may call me unromantic but what's so romantic about finding someone who is supposedly perfect for you who through a series of cosmic orchestrations has been thrust into your path? There's no work in that, there's no doubt in that, there's no real risk-taking and commitment, no trust in God. What I find romantic is the idea that God has given us the opportunity to walk alongside Him as we choose someone to love. To wake up each morning, as the pastor who married my husband and I said, and "decide to put that person ahead of our own needs" each and every day. To know going into it that life was made for trouble and marriage won't be easy. That the point of the commitment is to make it, stick to it and choose to out-bless that other person each day in a way that honors God above all, even when and perhaps especially when our feelings don't match our choice. This view takes out a lot of the what-if's I've heard. "What if I've already met "the one" and I didn't know it?" "What if I never find my soulmate?" Is God some capricious God who withholds good from us unless we know the specific 5-step way to place ourselves in the exact right situation to meet someone? I say "no".

My husband and I just celebrated our seventh anniversary. Neither one of us, when we met the other person, ever thought we'd hit this point. He wasn't my type, I wasn't his. Our first meeting was atrociously awkward(and could potentially take up a whole blog post of its own). No fireworks. No weird niggling feeling in the back of my mind that this could be "the one." He took a chance and asked me to coffee and my roommates made me say yes. I tripped up the stairs on our first date and he barely spoke. It did not end with a romantic and unawkward perfect meeting of our lips on my doorstep. Just like Hollywood, right?

If I were looking at signs or what I expected when meeting the man who eventually was to be my husband, I would never have said yes to Date Number 2. Or even Dates 3 and 4. But at some point in that early courtship, God made it clear to me that this kind of thing takes a risk. Mostly it's risking that God might think I need someone very different from who I think I want. And knowing that that's a risk worth taking. Even looking back on over nine years of knowing my husband and seeing how very different we are and knowing that each excruciating moment of discovering just how wide that gulf sometimes is is ultimately worth it because, more often than not, those differences and the working through of them bring us closer to God and one another.

Going to all these weddings reminds me of this. That marriage is a gift from God, one not to be entered into lightly. That the commitment is unkeepable on my own and that I need God's strength and perspective to wake up each day and fulfill those vows.  Sitting in the pews when these former students have said their vows over these last few months has been an amazing reminder of what we said to each other more than seven years ago.  I'll take a good wedding over a chick flick any day.  Hollywood's got nothing on the real thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Biggest Gainer

I'm finally there. 8 months, roughly a billion glasses of whole chocolate milk, 10 pounds and two points on the BMI scale later and I have achieved my goal.  The interesting thing about this journey has been how difficult it has been to ignore what society shouts at me. I've always known that body image is one of the most marketed issues out there but until now, I mostly was in line with what it was preaching. I was trying to be thin, trying to be athletic and look good and avoid high fat foods.  I passed billboards encouraging the consumption of skim milk and would think, "Of course, who would drink anything else?" 

So, when I was told by a doctor to pack on some pounds for a reason I really wanted to believe in, I went for it.  I weighed myself regularly in the hopes that I'd see the pounds increase. I did the calculations to figure out that BMI and was glad when it went up one and then two points into my target range. I ate second and third helpings at most meals. I enjoyed the psychology of watching men and women react differently to my doctor's orders. Some women would either sort of stay quiet and look like they were trying to be sympathetic and others might joke that they've never had that problem. Some reacted by giving me wonderful recipes to fatten me up.  Most men would state longingly that they would like to make an appointment with my doctor and then humorously point me towards some ridiculous food that would surely do the trick but that would also, likely, give me an instant heart attack.  Needless to say, it's not the kind of doctor-ordered regimen that most people have experienced and can empathize with.

Last Sunday, I woke up to an unusual 70 degree temp in steamy Durham. Wanting to take advantage of the first opportunity to wear pants since April, I excitedly pulled out my favorite dress pants. No go. Well, maybe my 2nd favorite pair. Nope. May as well try some jeans on while I'm at it.  I settled for a pair of pants I used to wear a lot the spring after Josh was born. Part of me was really excited - knowing that I'd really hit that target I'd, ahem, "worked" for.  But the part of me that was conditioned for 31 years to freak out if my clothes were getting too tight was not pleased. It ended up being a tough Sunday. These two sides battled with each other- the healthy side that knows what I'm doing is to help reach that goal of having another child and that I'm actually at quite a healthy weight and the side that still finds some self worth in how I look, the skinnier the better.

You see, there's no show out there called "The Biggest Gainer". Everything around me, from facebook ads to reality tv to billboards is screaming at me to want to be as skinny as I can possibly manage. The crazy thing is that I had to work to even notice how prevalent it was until these last 8 months when every decision I was making was going against the so-called standard of beauty. 

Well, I'm tired of what's preached. At some point, I hope, I will be in a position when I'm not trying to put on weight. There may even come a time, God willing, that I've had another baby and do need to lose some weight to be healthy. Will those ads still seem so sinister? Will I be able to resist falling back into those lies and be happy with being a healthy weight, even if it's not the standard of beauty, the skinniest of skinnies?   I truly hope so.  It helps that I have a husband who has pretty routinely told me through this whole gaining escapade that I look healthy and full of life.  He's great at reminding me of my inner beauty, that I am beautiful because of who I've been created to be.  (And I will freely admit that I don't mind that he does occasionally throw the word "hot" into the equation - after all, it feels good to be attractive to your spouse!) 

So, the next time I put on some clothes that fit a year ago and won't quite zip up, I'm hoping that the side that trusts my husband and my God will win out over the side of me that is still tempted to listen to what society preaches.   As each year of my life passes, I realize more and more that there's pretty much nothing worth listening to in those sermons anyway.