Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taste and See

I can still remember it; The day I walked into Charity Mission International Church, a predominantly black inner-city church in Richmond and was promptly called out, as one of three white people in the room, and asked to come up onstage and help sing. Not only was this my first time as a minority in a church setting, but it was also my first time being called out in the middle of a church service. It was also the first day in my journey of understanding multiethnicity and it's part in worship, the church and the gospel itself.

That was 10 years ago. I ended up going up on that stage, mostly out of sheer fear and paralysis and when the invitation was extended to me at the end of the service to come to worship practice on Thursday, I found myself accepting. For two years after that, I was a part of that church. I learned to sing gospel music, to keyboard, to project from my gut and how to react appropriately to someone who might shout out the words "you better sang, girl" in the middle of a solo. (FYI, it means you're doing a great job and you better not stop! I learned that one the hard way.) Beyond all that, I learned to actually examine myself, to learn what I bring to the table in the great ethnic debate, to understand that I have beauty in my culture and that the more we keep segregated in the church, the greater damage we are doing to our own understanding of God and to the picture of God that people receive outside of the church through their observation of us.

The journey continued after coming on staff with IV both in my personal understanding and my professional growth. I know my students at UR got sick of me bringing it up. Questions about being more welcoming, tailoring our music to be more inclusive to people who didn't just grow up singing Chris Tomlin songs, getting involved with issues on campus that show we care about issues of justice. After years of attending a predominantly white upper-middle class church, I was privileged and excited to be a part of a church plant in the inner-city neighborhood we lived in and, specifically, to help be a part of the worship. Only one short year after it really came together, we found ourselves on the way to NC, away from that community and back into church-hunting mode.

Now, I feel like I'm at a hard point. I feel like I have tasted and seen how good it can be. How beautiful it is to worship with people from different backgrounds, who look and sound different from one another and who focus on different aspects of God's character. I have been enriched by those differences, challenged by them and now I feel like I can never go back. Something just feels...well, missing, when I am not in diverse church settings.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to a group of students at an HBCU in Raleigh. For those who don't know, an HBCU is an Historically Black College or University. This particular group asked me to come and speak about Multiethnic worship. So, at the point I'm at, where I'm missing my worshiping community in Richmond and anxiously anticipating the multiethnic experience of Rockbridge, it was like a breath of fresh air. Being able to share my journey, to hear the stories of these students, and to understand what it was like for them to enter the predominantly white world of IV was such a gift. And it got me thinking about next year. About what my role will potentially be with IV. In talking to my supervisors, it seems like there's not one clear place where I am needed, you know, really needed. Sure, there is a school, UNC, that I can work at and I'm sure they'd be glad to have me, but do my gifts really serve them well, do my passions really match up with what they need? Is there some other, creative way that I can continue to grow in my multiethnic journey, some way to be a part of God's work at HBCU's in the area? Or am I meant to head to UNC next fall and continue the journey by pushing students to think about it there?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I am thankful for the refreshment and reminder of this past Tuesday. I am thankful for the St. Aug's students and their vulnerability to share their journeys with a random white girl they'd never met. And I'm anxious to hear from God about where he wants me next to move in this journey. It's never an easy one, but after you have tasted and seen something so good, it's impossible to settle for less.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sideout

Some of my best memories from high school are from the volleyball court. My first year playing I warmed the bench, screamed my voice raw and was proud to receive that sad little trophy for "Best Improved" which we all know is code for "Worst Player But Really Tried Hard and Had a Lot of Team Spirit."

In the years after that, I moved from bench to starter to captain and absolutely fell in love with the sport. I still love it, that feeling I get when I walk out on that court with a team and eagerly anticipate a spectacularly exhausting volley that could potentially end with a perfect, downward oriented hit that makes that sweet leather on wood sound that only a volleyball can make when slamming against a gym floor.

So, when I found myself with a little evening free time after returning to work, I decided to fill a little bit of it by joining a competitive volleyball league. One night a week, 8 to a team, co-ed and competitive. Man, I looked forward to Wednesdays! Our games started at 9:30 pm which sounded totally absurd to my 31-year-old bones, but the adrenaline proved to be an age-defier. I ran, I dove, I set, I hit and I returned home generally injured in some capacity but grinning from ear-to-ear. I love this game.

A few weeks into play, after my voice was getting used to yelling terms like "sideout" and "ace" and "block" again, I began to think about some of the ways that I seem to play volleyball in my everyday life. For those of you who don't roll in the world of volleyball, when someone yells "sideout" she is reminding her team to be ready to receive the ball, to be on the defensive, if you will. And while I'm on that court, I am always ready to yell that word. In fact, I always seem to be the most ready for defense, the most vocal cautioner to those around me.

As I began to really think about that, I realized how much of my life I live in sideout. Constantly having conversations in my head with imaginary people, just in case something doesn't go right and I have to defend myself. Trying to set myself up to be in the best position before trying anything new so as to defend myself from failure. Terrible at taking risks when pursuing friends because I fear rejection more than I crave relationship, so rather than pick up the phone and call, I internally go on the defensive and assume said person to be busy with other friends and not in need of hearing from me.

I think I can actually operate this way without becoming too lonely because I've tricked myself into enjoying my own company a little too much. While volleyball is a team sport, I played setter for most of my career and in that particular position you can sometimes feel pretty isolated on the court. If you're playing with serious players, the setter always gets the second hit, always has to be ready to make sure the ball doesn't fall and the hit is set up, is always responsible to make sure the team keeps functioning. This means setters can often begin to see themselves as more important than we are, to feel we are holding things together around us more than what is true in reality.

Now, I don't necessarily think operating in sideout some of the time is bad. It's good to be ready for things, good to anticipate ways that we can be a team player, to help those around us and to move toward a particular goal. What's unhealthy is always being on the defensive...I think it's just a fancy way of focusing on myself and living in fear, rather than in a holy readiness.

Volleyball has been finished now for two weeks. And for two weeks I've mulled over this and wondered what I can do to change my mode of play. How to untrain myself from being that super-defensive player and learn ways to embrace the offensive. How to learn ways to take more risks in how I pursue people, how to stop pointless imaginary conversations from even starting and how to let God continue to move me from a stance of "sideout" to a dynamic awareness of each moment and what response it calls for.

There's nothing I can do, only things that can be done in me to conform me more into a person who can trust God and the risks he asks me to take. So, if you see me swaying from side to side on the volleyball court, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to let God change me, staying on the move, being ready for some response to Him and those around me and fighting my hardest not to resort to a safely pre-determined move that avoids the risk of failure.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hummus and Whole Milk

A little more than a month ago my doctor told me that I needed to go on a high-fat diet. This little piece of advice was contrary to basically everything else I've ever been told by any doctor, health magazine or well-meaning health nut friends, barring the few months of my pregnancy when I needed to put on some weight fast and my doctor encouraged me to stop at Krispy Kreme as often as possible.

So, I asked the question I thought made the most sense. "What the heck am I supposed to eat?" I'm used to eating fruit and whole grains, veggies and lean proteins. And yes, I've got an exceptionally large sweet tooth so I've always concluded any day with a hearty dessert to round out the healthy. But how to eat in a way that I need to gain weight? This is contrary to every habit I have cultivated in myself as early as I had a choice about what to eat.

So, I've spent a month eating hummus and whole milk. I tried avocados for the first time and promptly decided never to buy one again. I've fried things in olive oil and used lots of cheese. And it's been a lot harder than I thought. You see, there were moments when I was younger that I struggled deeply with body image. With wanting to have that perfect figure, with being frustrated if I felt even a little bit overweight. It's been years since I've really even thought about it, but the moment my jeans started to get a little snug, I started to panic. "Why am I doing this? Isn't there a different way I can be healthy? I better eat some celery now and go run a 10K!"

It seems that maybe I was not quite as over some of these issues as I had thought.

So, I've been trying to remind myself of every single thing I've told my students for the last 8 years, every time I've tried to point them in the direction of Jesus for their identity and acceptance. I've spent 8 years telling women that they are beautiful and that it doesn't matter if they are a size 4. Now I've got to tell myself and really believe it. Again.

Sigh. It feels like every time I'm coasting in some sort of newly found satisfaction, something else cries out to be dealt with. So, I will continue to snack on hummus and go to sleep each night with a large glass of whole chocolate milk, reminding myself that what I am doing has a larger purpose, that I can survive tight jeans and that God is using this particular struggle to renew my understanding of his perfect and beautiful acceptance of who he has made me to be.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Word from Father Merton

I've developed some new friends these past months along the way of my journey and one of those is Father Thomas Merton. I can read him for pages, not totally sure whether I get him and then all of a sudden, zing!, He's spoken directly to my soul. This morning, as I sat out on my sun-drenched deck, soaking in the scriptures, journaling, praying, reading and just being I was reminded again of my tendency to be a doer, to find much of myself in what I can produce. And Father Merton articulates so well what happens when the doing overtakes me. So, I will let him speak his words...I could not put them into my own in any more eloquent a way than he already has.

"...many contemplatives never become great saints, never enter into close friendship with God, never find a deep participation in His immense joys, because they cling to the miserable little consolations that are given to beginners in the contemplative way.

How many there are who are in a worse state still: they never even get as far as contemplation because they are attached to activities and enterprises that seem to be important. Blinded by their desire for ceaseless motion, for a constant sense of achievement, famished with a crude hunger for results, for visible and tangible success, they work themselves into a state in which they cannot believe that they are pleasing God unless they are busy with a dozen jobs at the same time. Sometimes they fill the air with lamentations and complain that they no longer have any time for prayer, but they have become such experts in deceiving themselves that they do not realize how insincere their lamentations are. They not only allow themselves to be involved in more and more work, they actually go looking for new jobs. And the busier they become the more mistakes they make. Accidents and errors pile up around them. They will not be warned. They get further and further away from reality- and then perhaps God allows their mistakes to catch up with them. Then they wake up and discover that their carelessness has involved them in some gross and obvious sin against justice, for instance, or against the obligations of their state. So, having no interior strength left, they fall apart." Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contempation

I'm listening Father, I'm listening. May it not be so with me.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

An Empty House

There was a time in my life when I could be very bored in an empty house. Maybe the year I lived alone, certainly when I was a teenager and didn't know how to self-entertain as well as I do now. Since having a kid, I rarely have that problem. A few hours to myself usually fly by, filled with to-do lists and uninterrupted phone calls and rest. Now, I've not only been given a few hours but for a few days here, I've been gifted my home, a quiet, family-up-in-VA, no-one-in-the-guest-room empty house. And I have no idea what to do with myself.

Yesterday, I made a huge list. Actually, three lists, if you want to be technical; outside chores, inside chores and work stuff. And when my son and husband pushed out that door this morning and left with me with those lists and my dog, I was ready for three days of naps, productivity, jogging without a stroller, eating whatever the heck I want on the couch because a toddler isn't around to remind me that I'm not supposed to and, above all, just free time to myself. About 10 minutes after they left, I was sitting on the couch staring out the window wondering what the heck I'd gotten myself into. I felt forlorn, I felt befuddled. And 8 hours later, after lunch with a friend and a few hours of good yard work, I'm still feeling lost. Still wondering how I can long for quiet so badly, only to receive it and feel like I want to give it back.

Part of my problem is that I think I just struggle with quiet, which is a strange thing for an introvert to admit. At the beginning of my sabbatical, I panicked at that the thought that I was supposed to devote hours every day to just sitting quietly and hearing from God. I think I've trained myself how to survive busyness and noise, even how to thrive on it and in those moments when they are stripped away, I've found I can feel barren. Things that I don't want to think about, such as the list of things I wish I'd done differently in my most recent large group talk or that conversation I need to have with my dad, just come pushing to the surface and I feel tempted, once again, to find my identity in my ability to produce. In my ability to be good at things, to solve all problems, to be in perfect harmony with all humans around me and to keep the lives of my family organized and full of energy. Tempted to strive for acceptance.

This is a hard thing to shake. It's like that feeling of nausea I used to get the whole day before I'd run the 400 meters in high school. The only thing that alleviated that was running the race, and, not uncommonly, vomiting at the end of it. While I rather think that vomiting is not quite the solution to my spiritual dilemma, perhaps there's something to the race analogy. What do I fear the most? The silence, the limitless, structureless freedom. So, I should probably turn off the stereo, find a comfy spot, make a cup of tea and embrace it. I need to look that silence in the face, tell all the things clamoring to divert my focus from the one True God onto myself to shut the heck up and just sit. Put away the lists for a few hours and just be.

So, phone off. Stereo down. Quiet descend. Here I go.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In Which God Speaks More Loudly Than "The Bachelor"

A little more than a year ago, I showed up at the home of my in-laws to pick up my 2-year-old son from a day of play with the grandparents. My mother-in-law had a somewhat sheepish look on her face and after I was greeted by my son yelling "Mommy, I have a penis!", I figured some kind of interesting discussion must have taken place while I was away. Oh, the joys and trials of gender discovery! Earlier that day during a diaper change, he had commented that he had a tail and my mother-in-law, straightforward woman that she is, chose to set the record straight. Little boys do not have tails.

You can imagine that this was much the topic of conversation around our house for weeks. After all, self-discovery is a pretty important thing and apparently even more so for little boys. After much confusion over who and who did not have a certain male appendage in our home, he made his final pronouncement on gender. "Zekey has a tail, Josh has a penis and Mommy has earrings." Right.

Now while the actual biological differences are easier to explain to him, I've always been unsure what I would teach my children about gender. My husband and I have had myriad arguments over who gets to teach which sport to our kids. We finally decided that whoever is the best at it gets to teach it and for the ones we both play equally well, we'll just take turns.(I am fairly certain my husband did not foresee this particular argument when he dreamt of his future wife.) We've also argued over who would have to play dolls if we ever have a daughter who likes them. "That's easy", is my typical comment, "we just won't buy her any." Obviously, that wouldn't really be loving parenting, but I'm genuinely plagued by how to raise a child in a world that has gender so confused so much of the time and where, personally, I have not felt like I identify with much of what has been deemed "feminine" by our society or even, often, by the church. One flick through reality television (and it's a quick flick, for me) reveals to me a world of juvenile, selfish, lustful men and shameless, promiscuous, petty women who treat each other like objects to be manipulated and tossed away at will. This is not a world I understand nor want to see perpetuated as normal.

Turning to books written by people in the church on gender has rarely helped clarify things for me. In fact, there were dents we had to patch over in the walls of our home in Richmond from books that I actually flung across the room in frustration. There is the occasional rare gem that seeks to define masculinity or femininity in a Godly way that does not pronounce itself the only way, but they are few and far between as far as I'm concerned. Just weeks ago I had a heated debate about how awful I felt one book in particular was with a guest we had in our home. In all fairness, my husband warned said guest NOT to bring up the fact that he liked this book in my presence; I blame him entirely for the brouhaha.

So, we now have a little boy who is slowly but surely identifying himself with the male gender in more ways than how he looks. He says he's going to grow up big and strong "like Mommy AND Daddy", which I like, but more and more I see him copying the mannerisms of his dad or saying things that my husband has said or trying to pee standing up. Incidentally, his words to me during that last endeavor were "Mommy, you can't do that, don't try." On this particular limiting gender pronouncement, I do agree.

I'm thankful to be married to a Godly man who is deeply involved in child-rearing, unashamedly himself and totally supportive of a wife who will fiercely defend her right to teach his children volleyball. I don't think there is a quick solution or a three step plan to teaching my children gender. As with many things, I'm learning that this aspect of parenting, too, is fraught with humor and challenges but is best met one moment at a time. I can only hope that our voices and that of God's is much louder in those moments than "The Bachelor's" and that my little man will slowly grow in wisdom and stature into a man who finds his identity firmly and solely in a God who loves him and has created him to bear His image.