I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...

Cheers!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm half way done...

There are so many things to say as I reflect back on the first half of my seminary experience. I suppose the biggest thing that has happened for me personally has been the realization that I can't throw religion away, no matter how hard I try (and I've tried!). I have figured out that religion matters to me and that it will always be part of my life and vocation. While I don't think I will ever (although never say never) describe myself with the label Christian again, I realize that the Christian tradition is the one available to me. I would feel very odd trying to put on or co-opt a different religion. Christianity is the water I swim in and the Bible is what I know. So here I am, a religious, non-christian, christian. How do you like that label? I have no idea what it means. And you know what? I actually don't need it. For so long I have had an overwhelming need to label myself, but that need is finally loosening. I am what I am and it's probably confusing, but I don't know how to be anything different. I'm slowly getting over the "embarrassment" of wanting to become a minister and hope to spend next year exploring the UU church in order to determine if I want to pursue ordination within that denomination. We'll see!

I read the Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May this semester and recently entered into my second Spiritual Direction relationship (my first was in Spokane before leaving for Europe). These two things have opened me up and helped me understand and verbalize the realizations of the previous paragraph. I almost dropped out of seminary about 100 times last year. At this point, I'm thankful to my husband who always told me to go back and thankful for the amazing teachers that made staying worthwhile. Last year was hard in so many ways, but I'm glad I didn't give up. I have learned so much and been changed yet again. I have settled on belief in mystery and the mysteries of life, death, compassion, love.... This list could go on. Existence itself is holy and continues to draw me into contemplation of the sacred.

The next four posts have some of my work from this semester. It's a lot...happy reading!

My Gingko Tree

Here's an interactive post! This is a piece of nature writing from my final portfolio in Writing for Public Ministry.

The Gingko

The tree stood at least two stories taller than my new house and I imagined the roots digging their way to the small river a block away or at least to the roots of the maple across the street. In my head, I could see the two root systems intertwined and coiled around one another deep inside the earth. I couldn’t identify this tree. The leaves were new to me—shaped like a fan with curved edges and a soft V cut out of the top. Each leaf was covered in thin, raised lines that started at the stem and fanned symmetrically out to the edge. On that August morning, the day I first saw the tree, the leaves were a dark green and they filled the branches. I stood against the thick trunk and stared towards the sky. Deep, shaded green filled my vision. I called my landlord and discovered that this tree was a ginkgo.

In eastern Asia, the ginkgo tree is sacred. I had moved to Indiana to attend seminary, to explore the holy mystery of life and I had been gifted with a holy tree. In China, Japan and Korea, ginkgos are planted on the grounds of temples and palaces. And here I was, in Indiana with a sacred tree. My house took on a new aura. Walking up my front steps and under the canopy of leaves, I was greeted with holy breath. I looked up and saw the leaves reaching down for me. The base of the thick trunk is about four feet from my walkway, but strong branches grow horizontally over it about ten feet up. From these horizontal branches hang thin branches, full of leaves. I can grab them, examine them—brush my face along them as I enter my home.

I sit and watch the tree regularly. The image of it has become a part of me. But I want more from it than its beauty—even more than its shade. I want the tree to speak to me. I want it to tell me stories. I want to hear about the people who have lived in this house, about everything that has happened on this street. I want to know how old the tree is. I sit at its edges, lean against its base and look out at the world it sees—simple wood homes filled with families, shouting, wiggling teenagers walking home from school and cars hurriedly trying to get somewhere. Some of my neighbors have lived on this street for almost fifty years. I wonder if the old, old man next door remembers when this tree was young, when it was more vulnerable than it seems now, but I discover there’s no way he could have. The ginkgo is sometimes called the grandfather-grandchild tree because it takes three human generations to mature. It’s a name that causes me to wonder about who planted the tree in my yard, at least three generations ago, and what it meant to them when they did. Did they know that it was a holy tree?

Of course, I will never get the stories I want from my tree. Even though many people use ginkgo leaves to help improve their memory, my tree doesn’t have a human memory. It doesn’t record and remember information the way I do. It doesn’t know the stories I want it to tell me. But that doesn’t mean the ginkgo is without stories. I admit they are not stories that matter to the tree, at least not in the way stories matter to me. But the ginkgo has stories. I’ve read about four ginkgo trees in Hiroshima. They were about a mile away from the point of impact when the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945. Yet they survived. Everything around them was destroyed, yet they stood. And the following spring, they blossomed. They still stand, strong and alive. Because of these four trees, the ginkgo is known in Japan as the bearer of hope. Near these bearers of hope are plaques containing prayers for peace. After learning of these Japanese ginkgos, I walked under my tree and told it the story of the hope bearers. I embraced its trunk and prayed for peace.

Sitting on my porch where the walls are waist high, I can’t see the bottom of the trunk. The ceiling cuts the view off just as the first strong branches start to pull away. And the columns on either side form horizontal edges, giving my view a photographic shape. The tree stands four or five stories tall and my first floor view keeps me separated from the thickest, leafiest sections. I don’t know most of my tree. Even when I’m walking toward my house, able to see the entirety of the tree, I rarely look up. It’s the bottom that continues to get my focus—the trunk and the low, canopy-creating branches I know best. I live under the tree and walk atop the buried root system almost unaware of the heights the dark green leaves are reaching for.

I watched as the leaves gave way in the fall. They changed fast. It didn’t seem possible to keep up with their ever shifting shades of color. At first, the deep green fell out of the leaves, almost as if it was dripping down into the grass. But the leaves refused to lose it all, they simply held the color in a more electric light. They became lime. But electric lime has to move, it has to go somewhere. It dissolved, no longer dripped, but simply disappeared or was swallowed. Goldenrod formed along the edges of each leaf and squeezed out the last stubborn bits of green. All that was left was an ochre color that couldn’t quite be called orange. But then the leaves brightened, somehow turning the exact shade of marigolds. And then they gave up.

One November morning, I awoke to the sound of rain. Except it wasn’t quite the sound of rain. It was soft and padded in some way. It was a sound I’d never heard. It was like what you would expect snow to sound like if snow made noise when it hit the ground. My ears loved it. I sat up, peeked through the blinds, and was startled by what was there. I jumped out of bed. I walked out my front door, clothed in pajamas and looked up in amazement as every leaf fell from my tree. It was raining yellow gingko leaves. My walkway was covered in gold. There were thousands of lines and shapes forming and changing as the leaves fell on top of one another. I sat down on the steps and lay back, feeling the comfort hundreds of leaves can provide. I stared up into the branches—my canopy was slowly becoming bare. I could see patches of sky and light. The leaves rained continuously for hours. It took all morning for the branches to shed their cover and expose themselves.


The ginkgo tree is often called a living fossil, which means it’s a living organism that’s found in fossils, but has no other close living relatives. Scientists think that the ginkgo biloba tree, my tree, is the only species left in a family of trees that dates back almost 300 million years. My tree is older than the dinosaurs! As I watched the golden leaves fall, I couldn’t help but imagine a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex watching the same golden rainfall millions of years ago. With this thought came an overwhelming reminder of my smallness. I am but a tiny speck in the history of the world. My life takes up no more than an itty-bitty portion of the planet. Sitting on a pile of leaves, looking up at empty branches, I wondered what it all meant. I picked up a leaf, yellow and veiny, still supple and full of life. How long until it dried and would crumble between my fingers? I held it, one out of thousands—then dropped it and scooped up handfuls. Golden leaves covered everything, my field of vision blurred. The sidewalk around my house was gone; the grass had disappeared. Half of the street was a golden mosaic.

Most of the leaves fell that morning, but there were a few stubborn ones that refused to let go. They lasted less than a month and soon my leafy canopy was gone. My tree had been stoic, lush and dark green for months. It had stood, deeply rooted and constant as I transitioned through the beginning of seminary. In less than a month all the green had fallen away and in one day almost every leaf had given up. I walked towards my house and looked up at the empty branches. I saw vast linear patterns etched against the grey sky. But as the days grew colder, I forgot to pay attention to the sacredness of those patterns and simply ran towards my door. I became mired in my studies and dependent on the warmth of my house. My world shrank and I neglected my tree.

I had come from the evergreen state, the land of pine and spruce. The land of moss filled trunks supporting branches of needles and cones. I had come from trees that avoid the drastic changes of the gingko. Trees that are sacrificed every winter and decorated with tinsel and light in warm living rooms. My ancient gingko escapes this fatal glory and continues its stoic, isolated stance through the bitter cold of Indiana winter. A winter that refuses to give up until it has chilled every last human bone and people have resigned themselves to the fact that springtime no longer belongs to them. Bundled and miserable, I trudged under my leafless canopy for months. It was incapable of giving me warmth and I was therefore unable to slow my pace, to remember the golden rainfall. Some days the branches were dry, dully holding themselves up as placeholders for the next generation of leaves. Other days they sturdily supported inches of snow and reminded me that they lived for more than leaves.

One day, I came home under the cover of a blue, wintery sky and was amazed to see my tree covered in diamonds. Every branch shimmered. Wherever there was a small, raised shoot on the branches—the part where the leaves would eventually grow again—water had collected and frozen. The tree glowed and glistened in the sunlight. I felt as if it were calling for my attention, as if it were demanding that I finally stop and feel the holy breath underneath its barren canopy. I did. I walked around it and then sat on the ledge of my porch, the place I had first examined it on an August day not long ago. I tried to remember the unknowing I felt then, the warmth, the mystery that surrounded this new tree. I looked at it now with familiar love. Yet, I knew I didn’t have all its secrets. It held the mystery of rebirth, the hope of spring. But it was still winter and the beauty of those diamonds could not fight off the cold. I started to shiver and thanked the gleaming branches for their greeting. Then I went inside and began to wait.

Poetry

Here they are, my first attempt at poetry! I was really nervous at first, but I actually enjoyed writing them. This was part of my final portfolio for Writing for Public Ministry.



LOSING LEAVES

First the deep green fell out
Disappeared or was swallowed
Mottled and faded
Shades of color shift

Lime, electric
Goldenrod wrapped at the edges
Hoping in vein for orange.

Almost as if dripping
Down into the grass

They gave up.



MARKET VIEW

Often my first stop
when I go home.

Past the dried bouquets, produce
slow walkers and flying fish.

To three-girls-bakery
then my spot.

Water is everywhere
shiny grey air hangs heavy.

Salt fills my nostrils
ferries move like sea slugs.

I take a stool at the bar by the window
open my brown bag and take my first bite.

The sandwich is good
but not why I’m here

which is to look.
To see what I long for.



PILGRIMAGE TO KNOTTED ROPE {EVA HESSE: UNTITLED ROPE PIECE}


In the corner
Latex dipped knots of wire, string—and rope
Old cracked shades of ochre
Tangled, odd, lovely
Tied and twisted stuck

Lovely because of the gesture
Delicate disorder
Held together in reminiscence
Sharing space with shadows
Bearing everything



A PAUSE BEFORE

My father and I
wait for the music to call us.
Breathe, breathe

and wonder.
Standing still in soundless noise.
My bridesmaids have already

disappeared behind the door.
Two left I start to feel
to feel—

nerves dancing with
stephanotis and lilies.
The weight of my dress.

Spiritual Direction: Integration, Self-Reflection and Future Goals

This was my final paper for Individual Spiritual Direction, my first training steps toward becoming a Spiritual Director (that title freaks me out!). There are five sections and they are each answering specific questions. I think the paper will make sense on its own, but if you would like to know the questions, please let me know.

Section 1:

I came to this class with assumptions, hopes and wonderings. I knew I was interested in the ministry of spiritual direction, but my exposure to it had been minimal. Before beginning this class I had met with one director for five months. I have now met with and discussed direction with two other directors, entered into a relationship with a new director, offered direction to someone and participated in several direction practicum experiences. Because of these encounters, my imagination for the ministry of spiritual direction has been greatly enlarged. I have a renewed vision for the possibilities and gifts of this ministry as well as my place within it.

I live in a world filled with people trying to cope with the mysterious realities of existence and death. While I don’t believe that spirituality can answer these questions or automatically take away pain, I do believe it can respond through the work of grappling with questions and paying attention to pain (and all other emotions). I believe that it is the wrestling with mystery that matters. We may never find answers, but our lives will be fuller for the search. I believe the task of spiritual direction is to offer space and an invitation.

I continue to be enamored by Margaret Guenther’s concept of the Spiritual Director as amateur. This definition gives so much clarity to a sometimes hard to define vocation. The Spiritual Director is not a doctor or a psychotherapist. They are not professionally trained to diagnose or treat sickness in the body or mind. What the Spiritual Director offers is presence. They offer safe space and support to the people who come to them in search of something. Sometimes people come searching for a particular thing, a decision that needs to be made or pain that needs to be healed. Other times they come for no other reason than they couldn’t not come. They don’t know what they’re searching for, but they know that something is missing and they want help. The amateur is available to sit alongside, to listen, to help discern the shape and sound of inarticulate longings. The amateur is not answer-giver, pain remover or boss. The amateur provides an openness and helps give the vision of possibility and hope. It is crucial, however, for the amateur to remember their role. The work done in spiritual direction can open up wounds that may be beyond the scope of an amateur. As I think of the possibility of entering into this kind of work, I continue to grow in awareness of the need to foster relationships with a network of professionals. People I can call on for support and advice when I need it and that I can refer directee’s to when they are in need of different types of care.

After participating in spiritual direction work in the role of the director, I now have a greater appreciation for Guenther’s metaphor of the Spiritual Director as midwife. The section What the Midwife Does (87) provides a practical, earthy description of helping someone bring new life into the world. Of course, new life can be understood broadly. And as Guenther points out, the stages of new life are remarkably similar, no matter what “life” is newly coming into the world. The amateur midwife is available to participate in the entire birthing process right alongside the person who is pregnant. While each stage is important, they are all different. The first—that of waiting—can sometimes be the most difficult for certain personality types. It is important that the Spiritual Director model patient waiting and provide space for the directee to be comfortable in what might seem like a process of doing nothing. Time must be given to figuring out what is being birthed, what it means, where it’s coming from, what the process of bringing it to life might look like. This process of waiting and discerning is critically important and should always be given proper attention. Helping to fight the desire to rush ahead towards something that feels more “productive” is a gift that the director can offer to the directee. Of course, once it (whatever it is) is discovered, the director doesn’t walk away from the process. The focus changes toward dealing with transition, which can be scary and painful. It can bring up past, unresolved issues, it can cause tension in personal and work relationships. It can mean a time of grieving. It can also be a happy time of shedding painful memories that no longer need to be grasped so tightly. It is important for the amateur midwife to create a safe space in which the directee can raise and face any of the multiple issues that arise during this stage without shame or guilt. It is also important that the Spiritual Director slow her words down and avoid rushing in with ideas as the directee begins to brainstorm her next steps. She might point out observations of patterns or previously expressed feelings, but it is not her job to provide a solution. However, as the next steps are decided and acted upon, and new life is born, it is entirely appropriate for the director to celebrate right along with the directee.

Spiritual direction relationships can provide a respite from the expectations of everyday life. They can provide a quiet place to ponder together issues of mystery and heart, to pay attention to pain, but also beauty, to dream and to heal. Spiritual direction is an intentional gift shared between seekers.


Section 2:

My vision for the spiritual life remains a mystery. I am coming through a dark night experience in which I tried to renounce religion and am finally at the point of building rather than deconstructing. In order to do the work of building, I have entered into my second spiritual direction relationship. While I know this work will help me to find practices and contentedness in my spiritual life, I know that I will not find answers. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual matters are by their very nature mysterious and must remain that way. While human beings have to come up with concrete words, images and practices in order to better communicate and understand their spiritual journeys, I believe it is vitally important that concrete answers be avoided. I understand that each person will find comfort in different levels of understanding and I’m therefore not suggesting a dogmatic belief that no one is allowed to find an answer that I can’t find. I am simply stating my belief that we must respect the ever-mysterious quality of divinity and need to err on the side of love and openness as we reach conclusions in our belief systems. I believe one of the fruits of spiritual direction can be working towards a balance in the tension between the human need for answers and the mysterious quality of divinity. A director can challenge their directee to loosen the grip on some of their most tightly held beliefs (if they are proving to be unhealthy), and they can also help people swirling around in confusion ground themselves in something verbal and tangible.

As I consciously begin moving toward the ministry of spiritual direction I am finding that many of the difficult experiences I’ve had in my life—or more specifically, the work I have done to process and begin healing from these experiences—will be important assets in my role as a spiritual director. I understand what it is to be optimistic in spite of seemingly hopeless situations. I know the feeling of loving a family member even though they hurt you. I know how to set healthy boundaries in unhealthy relationships. But I have also been blessed with many incredible experiences and wondrously healthy and communicative relationships. Beyond my experience with individual people are my experiences with larger faith communities. While I often joke about my roller coaster ride with religion, I wouldn’t trade any of the steps in my journey (maybe some of the behaviors associated with them!). I understand what it is to be without religion, to be fundamentalist, liberal, confused and agnostic. All of these words represent more to me than clich├ęd labels. They are times of my life, they are people I still call friends, they are points of the spectrum in which many of my directee’s will find themselves. I am thankful for the many experiences in my life that will help me better understand the perspectives my directee’s will be speaking from.

I was gifted with an amazing first experience of spiritual direction with a Dominican sister that gave me a respect for the importance and sacredness of this ministry. I now have a male director and am learning that gender distinctions are less important than I once thought in this type of relationship. I realize that I hold my own sessions of spiritual direction as a place I can let my guard down (not an easy thing to do for an Enneagram 8), a place that I can be completely honest about my spiritual life without fear of embarrassment or judgment. As a highly extroverted person I need to verbally process my thoughts in order to understand my thinking. Intimate spiritual thoughts aren’t always easy to share, however, and I’m grateful to have a place to process them. As I begin to offer direction to others, it is my sincerest hope that I will be able to offer the safe and open presence I have been given. Offering direction to someone has been a gifted experience. It is a sacred privilege to be let into someone’s inner life and spiritual awareness. One of the most important aspects of being offered the chance to “practice” spiritual direction has been the calming of a few of my biggest fears. I have always been concerned that the largeness of my personality could take over and that I would bring too much of myself into the conversation. I am also a pragmatic, systems person who likes to work toward resolution. I worried that I would need to jump in with solutions to every problem or at least the problems I felt to be easily fixable. I have done neither of these things in my brief experience as a director and this gives me the confidence to continue in the work. And there is much work to be done. Beyond more training and practice, I need to continue down my own spiritual path. I have come a long way in the past few years and am relieved to have reached the present moment. Many of the practices I am currently working on in my own spiritual life match the qualities I think of as important for any Spiritual Director. Most importantly among them I have to keep working out my prayer life, a goal that reminds me of Paul’s call to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Section 3:

Spiritual direction is something I’ve thought about for a long time and as I have studied it intentionally over the past few months I’ve been opened up to several new possibilities. Some of the most important for me personally have included Janet Ruffing’s discussion of the Communion of Saints and Gerald May’s book on the dark night. As I mentioned above, I have just been released from a dark night experience. It was May’s book that gave words to some of my unnamable emotions and helped me to move into the next phase of my spiritual journey. This is a book I will return to and one I will always be grateful for. Ruffing’s discussion on the Communion of Saints, along with my study of Theresa of Avila for history class and May’s discussion of Theresa and John, have provided me with a breakthrough. It’s hard to explain my excitement about it at this point. I feel something very important growing within me in relation to the Communion of Saints but I haven’t had enough time to sit, study and reflect on it yet. Even in my early contemplations of it though, it has opened an entirely new way of relating to spirituality and prayer in my life.

In addition to personal breakthroughs I have also gained insight into practical aspects of spiritual direction. Vocationally, the idea of colleagueship both for support and referral has become important. This is something that makes practical sense and is absolutely necessary, but that I hadn’t ever really thought through before. In terms of the actual direction session I have appreciated learning more about resistance, focusing, and patterns in life’s many stages. The most important aspect about learning some of these things has been the fact that they take me out of my own experience and broaden my perspective on why people come to direction and the various needs of people in direction. Getting to do my “practice” direction with a father in his forties has been incredibly rewarding for me because of the sheer differences between us.

Section 4:

I am a compassionate person with common sense. While this is a simple description, it’s one I think is valuable in any ministry of accompaniment. I think a certain level of compassion is necessary in order to open space within oneself and truly hear the stories of others. But a certain level of common sense is necessary in order not to get lost in the stories of others. It is important to be able to find the balance between truly hearing and getting lost. I have been lucky in my life to have a few great mentors that have modeled healthy behaviors that strike this balance in accompaniment work. I think I have a gift for quickly understanding the heart of what someone is trying to communicate and being able to mirror it back to them in helpful ways. This is a gift that needs more testing before I can boldly claim it, but I feel its early fruits in my life and relationships.

One aspect of spiritual direction that I am currently wrestling with is money. I have never been to a director that charges a fee. My first director asked that I make donations to her community, but never monitored whether I did or how much I gave. My current director doesn’t charge at all. I have never met anyone that makes a living doing spiritual direction and I’m struggling with how this ministry will fit into my life, especially in an occupational way. The conversation we had in our last class around this subject was helpful. I feel the most comfortable with the concept of being released and supported by a congregation or organization to provide spiritual direction. But that of course demands a willing group to support me in this work, which is something I might not always be able to depend on. I suppose this is an issue that needs to be given over to the beautiful concept of trust. The only thing I can control at this point is working to prepare myself for this ministry. I have to trust that I will be supported in the work if I’m supposed to do it.

Feedback is an important aspect of all skill building work and I appreciated the chance to have supervision sessions. While writing a verbatim for supervision is difficult, it’s an important exercise that forces me to think deeply about my direction sessions. It helped me to get beyond superficial reflections and into the deeper, multi-layered aspects of any direction session. Having a space to discuss the verbatim was helpful, especially for a verbal processor like me. Having another set of eyes and ears walk with me through a session opened up the practice of spiritual direction in new ways. Another important aspect of participating in supervision was simply the experience of it. I now have a vision for what supervision is and why it’s important. I can’t imagine having multiple directee’s without a system in place for support and feedback.

In many ways, the feedback I received this semester has been affirming. When I was the director during practicum, my biggest fears were thrown on me. I was told that I became the directee and that I made the session about myself. However, after participating in the other practicum experiences, multiple direction sessions with my directee and our supervision sessions (I count the debrief after my painful practicum as one of my supervision sessions) my fears have been calmed and I feel able to move forward confidently in this work. Confidence is important, but overconfidence is dangerous and I am well aware that continuing to hone my skills, ask for feedback and remain aware of the presence I give to directee’s will always remain a crucial aspect of offering this ministry. I am looking forward to continuing with my current directee next semester and hope to offer direction as part of my supervised ministry next year. It is my hope that through continued exposure to various directee’s I will be able to identify the specific areas of growth that I need to focus on. At this point, I feel that the most pressing issue I need to focus on is my own spirituality. As I stated above, I am finally at a place of rebuilding my own understanding and relationship with the Holy. This next year will be a time of discernment for me as I decide whether or not to remain a committed Quaker or to seek membership within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It will also be a time of growth as I commit to my own spiritual disciplines. I continue to realize how much tradition and ritual matter to me. As I explore these aspects and intentionally meditate on the liturgical year I’m hopeful that my ministry of direction will be affected in positive ways. I came to seminary knowing that spiritual direction was a ministry I wanted to explore. After investigating other areas of emphasis and working through some of my own difficulties in regards to spirituality, I am even more confident that I am heading towards a ministry of spiritual direction in some form or another. As I stated above, I am looking forward to continued exposure and “practice” over the next year in order to continue discerning what role this ministry will play in my life.

Section 5:

Five years from now will be an interesting time in my life. Jeremy will be finishing his PhD and we will therefore have lived in the same city for five years, which will be different for us. We will hopefully be moving to a teaching job for him at that point, which will entail choosing a city and settling. Something we’ve been unsure we would ever do. As I ponder my life and ministry, however, I’m realizing more and more the importance of building relationships and remaining active in a particular community. I hope that Jeremy and I will be able to participate in the community we move to next year because of the longevity we will have there. I hope to work towards ordination or recording if I continue to feel called in that direction and I hope to gain more experience with multiple directee’s. I hope to gain experience in both congregational settings and retreat centers. I also hope to work toward certification as a Pilates instructor. I would like to incorporate bodywork into my ministry as well as aspects of the creative life. I am constantly dreaming up workshop, retreat and Sunday school hour ideas. I’ve decided to finally start writing them down so that I will be able to utilize them when I have the opportunities.

I’m looking forward to my two independent studies next year—art and spirituality as well as working with married couples. Both of these classes will help me begin to explore specific aspects of my ministry goals. I have also been feeling called back into some sort of social work. I hope to find an organization to volunteer with regularly over the next five years. It is my hope to be able to offer spiritual direction and workshops with the underserved and often ignored populations in our country. Before coming to seminary I worked for an amazing organization for three years serving women trapped in mental illness, poverty and homelessness in Spokane. I can imagine several ways of bringing my ministerial goals to the women of that center and hope I can find a similar place wherever I move to next.

I was taught from a young age that dreams can come true. This belief has carried into my entire outlook on life. If my future self and present self could have coffee, I’m sure we would laugh and share stories and memories. I hope my future self would tell me to keep going and not to be scared of settling down somewhere and that my work in ministry had turned out to be more fruitful than I ever could have imagined and to keep working hard. My present self would ask my future self about some of the spiritual practices that had become meaningful to me so that I could get started on them right away!

Jacob Wrestles with God

This was my final paper for Bible Violence and Nonviolence. I loved writing it! I am sort of falling in love with the crazy, crazy book that is the Bible.

A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (Before Research)

The Basic Story:

Just after leaving his father-in-law Laban’s household and right before being reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob sent everyone away and sequestered himself in solitude. Once alone, he was confronted by a man, whom he wrestled with until daybreak. Their physical strength was well matched, for there was no clear victor in the battle. The unidentified man, upon realizing that he was unable to physically beat Jacob, resorted to cheaters tactics and struck Jacob on the hip socket. As they continued to wrestle, Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. (In remembering this story, I have often though that the man put Jacob’s hip out of place directly, but in my recent reading I have come to realize that the man only set the stage for the injury, he didn’t directly cause the injury. This is a subtle distinction, but one that is worth noting.) The man asked to be released at dawn, apparently unable to leave on his own even though Jacob was injured. Jacob, clearly in control at this point, refused to let go unless the man blessed him. This is a perplexing request. I would think Jacob would have gladly let the man go so that he could rest and care for his hip. The man responded to the request for blessing by asking Jacob’s name, which Jacob told him. This was the first time the issue of identity was raised between these two men. In an effort to take control, the man changed Jacob’s name to Israel and explained that Jacob had wrestled with God and humans, but had prevailed. At this point, I’m still unsure who the ‘man’ is. Is he God or is he human? He’s called a man, but how would he know that Jacob had wrestled with God if he wasn’t himself God? And why would a man have the power to change Jacob’s name? At this point in the story, Jacob is thinking the same thing and asks the man for his name. The man asks Jacob, in what sounds like a sarcastic tone, why Jacob would ask this question. Skipping over the second request, the man grants Jacob his first request and blesses him. Jacob then, unable to name or know the name of the man, names the place. At this point it is clear that Jacob believes the man to have been God for he says that he has seen God face-to-face and lived. The story ends with Jacob walking away into the sunrise—with a limp.

Jacob’s Personal Story:

When I read this story in it’s biblical context I see the unfolding of a family drama. Jacob refused to give Esau hospitality, but instead forced him to trade his birthright for food. Then Jacob schemed with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing. He directly and knowingly lied to his ailing father and received his blessing under false pretense. He then fled his homeland and stayed away for twenty years. Understandably, he was terrified of how Esau would react to his return. Esau, however, was capable of greater forgiveness and generosity. He came to meet Jacob in love. Jacob was unable to trust this love and did everything he could to ply Esau with gifts and send him away. In the context of the full stories of Isaac and his sons, I interpret the story of Jacob’s night of fighting in a specific way. It seems clear that Jacob was fearfully wrestling with the demons of his past behavior as he prepared to return to the land of his father.

The Universal Story:

When I read the story in isolation of it’s surrounding stories, however, I understand it in a completely different way. I see a metaphor for the spiritual life. It’s a story of two men fighting, so I initially feel left on the outside of the action. But as I focus on the issues involved in the story, I am able to move beyond the two characters and see what they represent. Which for me is humanity and the unknowable mystery of life. In the first two verses, the narrator sets up the story and gives a lot of information. We learn that Jacob is alone and suddenly wrestling with another man. The transition between these two descriptions leaves me with several questions. Where did the man come from? Who is he? Why did he attack Jacob? This odd transition filled with gaps causes me to assume that the narrator wanted me to be confused. He (I assume the narrator was male) wanted me to feel the mysterious quality of this story immediately. I believe that the mysterious facts of existence and death do come upon humans abruptly. I believe that at certain points in life, humans can become overwhelmed with confusion about the reason for and meaning of life. Just as Jacob, who in a moment of solitude was forced into a holy war of questions, everyone is blindsided with big questions at some point.

Not only is there struggle, there is injury. This is the most confusing aspect of these verses for me. The fact that injury came through deep struggle and questioning makes sense, but the cause of injury is perplexing. The man, who I view as an unknowable mystery, is losing the fight and so strikes Jacob, or humanity. This section makes me think of the Tower of Babel. As humans came too close to the heavens, the Lord scattered and confused them. It is the same here, as humanity prevails against mystery, mystery causes injury against humanity. This is difficult for me. I don’t believe humanity can understand the unknowable, so these stories of the Divine feeling threatened and needing to slow human progress make me curious. The next verse is also odd. The ‘man’ speaks and asks to be let go. Why on earth can’t he just leave as quickly and mysteriously as he arrived? What control does ‘humanity’ have over him?

At this point in the story, Jacob finally speaks. He holds the man captive and demands a blessing. Unlike the past few verses, this one makes complete sense to me. Human beings are constantly trying to hold mystery captive, to lock it down, define it and force blessings out of it. The question Jacob is asked in response to this demand is also perfect, “What is your name?” I read, “who are you? What is your essential identity? Do you know yourself?” I hear mystery asking, “if you humans want to understand life’s biggest mysteries, you should start by examining yourselves.”

Of course, as we examine ourselves in light of the world’s biggest questions, we will be unable to remain the same. We will change. Our identity and our understanding of everything will change. The man understands this and changes Jacob’s name to Israel. He makes the bold claim that Jacob has striven with God and humans and has survived. Therefore, he is no longer Jacob. His essential identity is changed. In response, Jacob (curiously not referred to as Israel until Genesis 35:21, even though God changes his name a second time to Israel in 35:10) asks for the man’s name. This verse is another that makes sense to me. All of human striving towards anything spiritual or religious is an effort to follow Jacob in this question. We want to know the unknowable name. Of course, it can’t be known and the man mocks Jacob for even asking. In the same breath, however, he seems to take pity and offers Jacob his longed for blessing.

At this point, the man disappears from the story. We are not given details as to why or how he leaves. He’s just gone. We are also not given any details about the actual blessing. The last two verses contain information from the narrator as well as a grand proclamation from Jacob. The narrator tells us that Jacob gave the place a new name, that the sun rose and that Jacob was still injured. Jacob tells us that he has seen God face to face and has survived. There is much to be gleaned from these pieces of information. Jacob imitated the man’s act of renaming, the man left before sunrise just as he said he needed to and even though Jacob received a blessing, he still walked away limping. From Jacob’s claim I assume we are to understand the man to be God. But I am still skeptical. If he had actually looked true mystery in the face, I don’t believe he could have survived. Just as the Tower of Babel was scattered and Jacob’s hip was struck, I don’t think mystery will ever allow humanity the understanding of a face to face encounter. But clearly, Jacob got close. And in the process he was injured, blessed and changed. And then the dawn broke.

A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (After Research)

In order to study Genesis 32 particularly, the character of Jacob must be studied generally. This seems unavoidable. I was drawn to one small episode in his life—his long night of wrestling—but have been pulled into his fuller story. People have been captivated by Jacob for millennia. He is a full character whose life is portrayed from birth to death in the Genesis narrative and whose name is remembered throughout almost all of scripture. A close reading of the stories of Jacob’s life reveal that he was a complex man, full of manipulation and egocentricities. Even before his birth, the Lord was making proclamations of his divisiveness. He came from the womb grasping for his brother’s heel and was given a name that means ‘he takes by the heel’, ‘he supplants’ or even ‘he’s grabby’. Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel in birth and continued to fight with him throughout adolescence. He fought with Laban for twenty years. And for one night he fought with an unidentified man.

The mysterious night angle that wrestled with Jacob is often assumed to be his own inner demons. Jacob was fighting with himself. This theory makes sense. After two decades Jacob was going home. But his brother (the one from whom he stole birthright and blessing) was coming to meet him—with four hundred men. It’s easy to believe that Jacob was terrified, racked with guilt and overcome with nightmares. Norman Cohen offers a modern day midrash on the story in which there is no mystery man. He understands the entire episode to have been a vision. This is acceptable speculation, for the Hebrew text reveals no concrete answer. In The New interpreter’s Bible, however, the speculation is removed. While Terence E. Fretheim believes that the narrator delays in identifying the assailant, he believes readers can figure it out. “Initially, he appears only as a “man” [but]…the reader gradually comes to realize that this is no ordinary assailant; it is God in human form” (NIB 565). I marvel at this sort of certainty. Throughout the various commentaries I read, it seems the people who come to this conclusion rely on two things, verses 28 and 30. The Hebrew word that is used in these verses and translated as God is ‘elohim, which “is a high concentration point of lexical ambiguity” (Alter 182). Alter claims that ‘elohim does not mean “divine messenger” but can refer to divine beings. He goes on to say that it could mean God, gods or even princes or judges (Alter 182). In this context, it seems clearly connected to divinity, but there is no way of knowing whether it is singular or plural. There is also no way of knowing whether the mysterious man is using the word to reference himself or if he’s speaking to other parts of Jacob’s life. The certainty found in The New Interpreters Bible seems a little over zealous. Fretheim claims that most ancient and modern readers would assume the man to be God from the beginning and he therefore works from that assumption throughout his commentary. I respectfully disagree and will work in my commentary from the assumption that the man remains mysterious. We will never know his identity for sure.

We do, however, know something of his actions—he injured Jacob. I am always surprised by how violent verse 25 seems considering it comes in the middle of an already violent scene—two men fighting. Exactly how the man injured Jacob is ambiguous. The man did something to Jacob’s hip, either ‘touched’ it (NIV) or ‘struck’ it (NRSV). These words have very different connotations. According to Alter “struck is unwarranted…the adversary maims Jacob with a magic touch, or, if one prefers, by skillful pressure on a pressure point” (Alter 181). According to Fretheim, however, “struck is truer to the context…though both translations are possible” (NIB 566). We are again left with uncertainty, we simply don’t know. Schneir Levin focuses on a different word dispute in his wonderings about the actual injury. The NRSV translates the beginning of verse 25 as “When the man saw that he did not prevail against him.” Levin says that the Hebrew actually reads “and when he saw that he was not able to…him” (Levin 326). He says that translators are inferring the word prevail. Levin thinks the word should be castrate. He believes that the mysterious man is none other than Esau. He writes “What else could [Jacob] dream about than Esau taking his life or the ultimate humiliation of castration?” (Levin 326). Levin quotes several doctors who all agree that Jacob’s hip could not have been put out of joint because he would not have been able to walk away from the scene:

But there is another surgical possibility, the obvious one, the common one, which in predisposed males—that is, males with a potentially open passage from the abdomen through the groin and into the scrotum—can result in a hernia in the groin, most often on the right side, and as a consequence of increased intra-abdominal pressure during the course of a worrying dream. Such a rupture, a hernia, is often sufficiently uncomfortable, when it occurs to result in a temporary limp. (Levin 327).

This is a creative and fascinating idea. Levine began this study by looking at the Hebrew word takya which is translated as “put out of joint” in the NRSV. Levin would like to see it translated as ruptured. While I admire Levin’s creativity, I would be disappointed to think of Jacob’s injury as temporary. I know that sounds harsh, but in a literary sense Jacob’s limp needs to be permanent. He was forever changed after his mysterious encounter. All of these word studies: struck/touched, put-of-joint/ruptured, prevailed/ castrated have helped me to consider this odd scene of violence in more creative, nuanced and ambiguous ways.

Verse 26 leaves the tale of the narrator and allows the two characters to use their own voices. The first utterance from each man is a demand. First the mysterious man asks to be let go because the dawn is coming. This is curious; why must he leave before daybreak? This element is a wonderful literary device that supports the mysterious quality of the story. This man must stay under the cover of darkness. In a study on the character of God in Genesis, W. Lee Humphreys asks intriguing questions about the man’s demand. He ponders four options for why he must leave before dawn. Either he can’t stand the light of day or he’s not supposed to be seen during the day. Or maybe his power is only effective during the night. Another possibility is that his power would be too overwhelming if seen in the light of day. All of these speculations are valid and lead Humphreys to the conclusion that the man must be more than a mere human (Humphreys 194). Claus Westermann, in a comprehensive reading of the man’s character in the story determines that he fits the profile of an evil spirit or demon. The man attacks suddenly and surprisingly, refuses to identify himself and must escape before he can been seen in the light (Westermann 516). The obvious parallels between the mysterious man and night spirits in fairy tales and folklore deserve to be mentioned. Several scholars raise this point. Westermann writes:

The basic narrative…bears distinct animistic traits and is not to be dissociated from the region, the ford, the river. The danger of the ford is personified in the spirit or demon who does not want to let the traveler cross the river and attacks him so as to prevent him doing so. This accords neither with the religion of Israel nor with that of the patriarchs, but with animistic belief in spirits or demons and has parallels among many people. (Westermann 515)

The story of two men wrestling in the night is more than likely an ancient folktale that has been made over and used in the Genesis account as a hinge between two sides of Jacob’s life. All of this contributes to our inability to concretely identify the man. He doesn’t want to be brought into the light. Jacob, however, doesn’t care what the man wants (and why should he, the man has attacked and injured him). Jacob’s first words in the narrative are a refusal and a demand for blessing. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that “since chapter 27, we have known [Jacob] would do anything to get a blessing [and] now he seeks a more weighty [one]” (Brueggemann 268). This is a point I hadn’t thought of, but it seems completely right. It portrays Jacob as an insecure man constantly looking for validation. It’s sadly comical to think of poor Jacob searching for blessing from a violent stranger. It seems he’ll take it wherever he can get it.

Verse 26 seems to be a transition between physical and verbal wrestling. The next three verses become solely a match of words and wit. Jacob and the man begin to struggle with issues of identity. They each ask for the other’s name. Jacob gives his quickly, but is mocked for asking the same of the man. The man, while not identifying who he is, clearly understands himself to be someone of authority. Placed in the very center of this story (and in between the two requests for names), is Jacob’s name change. I can’t imagine that the placement of this action is accidental. The name/identity change is the point of the story and there are several reasons why it’s important and unique. Abram was changed into Abraham in conjunction with his being called the ancestor of a multitude of generations and he is never again referred to as Abram. Jacob’s name was changed twice, but he continues to be called Jacob. His new name, Israel, becomes a synonym or metaphor for Jacob’s identity or role in the community. The second reference to Jacob’s new name happens in Genesis 35:10-11 and more closely resembles Abraham’s experience. The first reference, the one of concern in this essay, happens as a result of Jacob’s continued struggles. There are significant theological reasons for the change. Alter writes:

Of all the patriarchs Jacob is the one whose life is entangled in moral ambiguities. Rashi beautifully catches the resonance of the name change: ‘it will no longer be said that the blessings came to you through deviousness…but instead through lordliness…and openness.’ (Alter 182)

Jacob’s identity as the father of great nations and kings is important and was in need of transformation. It is much more attractive to be descended from someone named for godliness rather than grabbiness.

After Jacob receives his new name, the story begins to wind down. The wrestling match is coming to a close and there is no clear victor. Both men have won at various points. The man could not win physically and so injured Jacob. He couldn’t free himself before dawn, but he is never forced to reveal his identity and he has the power to change the identity of Jacob. Jacob, although taken by surprise, was able to physically dominate the man even after sustaining an injury. Jacob asks for two things throughout the battle, but is only granted one. He is not allowed to know the man’s name, but he does receive his longed for blessing; a blessing he didn’t have to lie to get.

Whoever the mystery man is—one of Jacob’s personal demons, a representation of Esau, an angel, a river spirit, God, or something else—he is able to bless Jacob. And because of this, Jacob is changed. Walter Brueggemann, working from the assumption that the man is God writes:

Something happens in this transaction that is irreversible…Power has shifted between God and humankind. Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. There is something new underway here about the weakness of God and the strength of Israel. The encounter will not permit a neat summary of roles, as though God is strong and Jacob is weak, or as though things are reversed with Jacob strong and God weak. All of that remains unsettled. But new possibilities are open to Israel that have not been available before. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel. (Brueggemann 269)

While I disagree with Brueggemann’s assumption of the man’s identity, I am still compelled by his conception of Jacob’s transformation. Jacob is returning to a home he fled two decades ago after stealing the blessing of his brother. He is scared and guilty. Through this mysterious encounter, however, he is built up. He is given his own blessing. He still had to fight for it, ask for it and suffer for it, but it belonged to him and no one could take it away or claim that he stole it. As Brueggemann claimed above, the power dynamic had changed.

This change is not lost on Jacob. He claims a new identity for himself and the place of his transformation. The ending of this story is beautiful; Jacob felt a divine presence in a way not many people get to and he celebrates it. He claims to have seen God face to face. The Hebrew term ‘elohim is used again and it’s impossible to know for sure who Jacob thought he saw, but it was clearly someone important. Someone so powerful that Jacob is amazed to have survived it. Following in the footsteps of Hagar at the well, he renamed the place Peniel, a name that builds on panim ‘el panim which literally means face to face, he wasn’t trying to hide his experience of the mysterious encounter (Alter 183). The last verse tells us that the story is complete; the sun rose and the night was over. Alter highlights the symmetry of this ending (Alter 183). As Jacob was fleeing home twenty years ago, the sun set on him, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). And now he walked towards home through the sunrise. “The encounter with the unfathomable Other [left] a lasting mark on [him]…and he [bore] his inward scars as he [lived] onward” (Alter 183). In other words, the man with a history now had a future. Jacob’s dark night had lifted and he was limping triumphantly towards home.

Conclusion (After Reflection and Research)

In all of my study, I never came across an interpretation of this story as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Robert Alter referred to the mysterious man as an “embodiment of portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul” (Alter 181). But that’s as close as I got. Before beginning this study, I believed my understanding to be common, I worried I was being too obvious. But unless I missed something, this story is always read as the hinge point in the middle of Jacob’s life. It’s understood as his conversion or transformation. The identity of the mystery man is something people have dwelled on for thousands of years. He is often thought to embody Esau, but many commentators just assume the man is God and work from there. Others, refuse to solve the mystery cleanly and allow the ambiguity to stand. As I stated in my original reflection on the text, I see the story of family drama. I see the moment of fear before returning home. It’s a grand story and I understand why it has captivated so many people for so incredibly long. But I leave this work more intrigued by what appears to be lacking in scholarship on this story and what I believe to be a fruitful reading. Human beings will always want to name the unnamable. Humanity has always and more than likely always will wrestle with conceptions of divinity. In this story I find a model for the struggle. As I fight with the unknown, I suffer. I refuse to let go and I want to be blessed. Everything about who I am is called into question and I am changed, yet I am never allowed to know who or what I fight with. At various points I am injured and at others I am blessed. I carry all of this with me and in the morning sun, I am made new.


(Let me know if you would like the bibliography.)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Enjoying Break

I love Thanksgiving. I always have. This year has been particularly lovely. Jeremy and I decided to horde the holiday to ourselves and stay home and have an actual break. We started the week with a trip to see our favorite band in Chicago which allowed us to do some of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Then we came home and began relaxing. We've been sleeping in everyday, eating good food and working on creative projects. I've been painting Jacob's Hip as an accompaniment to the paper I'm writing on Genesis 32 and working on the paintings we'll give to our siblings for Christmas through our "Sibling Storyboard Project." Jeremy has been working on his book. Life gets back to normal tomorrow and we'll have a few whirlwind weeks before the sememster ends and we fly home for Christmas. I'm thankful for this week and for my husband, my favorite person to spend time with.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Scholarship


Look what I got today!! A $1,000 scholarship from a local UU church I've been attending (infrequently...). It couldn't come at a better time. My Cooper Scholar funds, which cover tuition for 54 credits, are about to run out. I will have a tuition bill in January for my May term class and this scholarship will cover it. I'm pretty happy for the support!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Gospel of Mark

Another mini-sermon for you...

I have had several classes in this room and I am always struck by the quote on the wall by Elton Trueblood: "Jesus Christ can be accepted; He can be rejected; He cannot reasonably be ignored." Like most people, I grew up knowing of Jesus, I’d heard of him. But I was formally introduced to him over eight years ago. Since then, Jesus and I have had a tumultuous relationship. Whatever my struggles with him have been, however, I haven’t been able to ignore him. Elton Trueblood is right.

I must admit that when I realized our class readings had transitioned into the New Testament this week, I was a bit disappointed. There is something about the New Testament that keeps me at arms length. Of course, the character of Jesus is probably the biggest reason. And I suppose the fact that I was originally trained to read the New Testament by fundamentalist Christians doesn’t help. But there’s just something different about the stories, they don’t grab me and suck me in in the same way the stories in the Hebrew Bible do.

But, I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I’m trying too hard to ignore Jesus, to shove him aside, to devalue the stories that surround him. Because, as I read the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark this weekend, I was reminded of two stories. Two stories I have always loved. The story of the leper in chapter one and the story of the hemorrhaging woman in chapter five. These stories don’t allow me to ignore Jesus. In fact, they force me to look deeply at him. And more importantly, they challenge me to a better vision of and relationship with the world I inhabit.

Let me read these two stories to you:

  • A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

  • Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (5:25-34)

Both of these people had been suffering for a long time. Because of their ailments, leprosy and bleeding, they were considered unclean and were not allowed to participate in community life. For years, they had been forced into painful isolation, but the gift of touch healed them.

A few years ago, I worked among the people often considered unclean today, the people shoved into the alleys and forced out of sight. The mentally ill and homeless. For two years, I worked among women in Spokane, WA and for the only time in my life, I was on a first name basis with a lot of the people begging for money on the street corners and talking to themselves as they wandered aimlessly through downtown. The people often considered too dirty or frightening or weird to pay attention to. Inside the center where I worked, however, these women were acknowledged and known by name. They were allowed their full humanity and freed from their isolation. The simple gestures of reaching, of looking, of listening, of touching, these gestures, just as for the leprous man and the bleeding woman, worked miracles. For two years I witnessed countless miracles in the lives of these women, all brought about through relationship.

I don’t know how many times I have read the story of the leprous man in chapter one, too many to count. But the power of this story, the power of Jesus’ first response, that of reaching and touching, has never weakened for me. I struggle with Jesus, I struggle with much about Christian theology, but I do not struggle with the message of this story. This man, most likely yelling “unclean, unclean” as he approached Jesus, was touched, probably for the first time in years. I can’t imagine the isolation that would come with permanent separation from human contact. It is clear that Jesus understood it, though, because his first response to this man was touch.

The story of the bleeding woman is similar, but not identical. She tried to stay hidden, she didn’t ask for Jesus’ attention, she attempted to gain the healing touch without forcing him to notice her. But it didn’t work. The healing comes from the attention, in the act of being noticed and included as a full member of society. Jesus stopped and wouldn’t continue any further until she was given this attention. He wanted to look at her, to hear her story and to voice his offer of peace to her. He didn’t want her to remain on the outside of society any longer.

These gracious acts of attention, inclusion and touch do not require divinity. So while I continue to struggle with theologies around Jesus’ divinity, I’m not struggling with his humanity. A humanity that I share, that I see in these two stories and that I saw at the center in Spokane. These stories challenge me to fully embrace my humanity and the humanity of everyone around me. They challenge me to look deeply into my life and figure out who I have stuck in the “unclean” category. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted this task—it’s a difficult one. But as these New Testament stories tell us and as I witnessed in the lives of the women in Spokane, this work and the actions that can follow it, could prove to be miraculous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Isaiah

We had to write mini sermons from Isaiah in my Bible: Violence and Nonviolence class and read them to each other today. Here's what I came up with-


Isaiah: Chapter 24

  • Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled; for the Lord has spoken this word. (24:1-3)
This text offers an utterance of judgment and desolation. These are the first few verses in a chapter that continues to convey doom to all peoples, the earth, the sun and the moon; even the host of heaven. No one and nothing will be saved from the wrath this text speaks of.

In the middle of this chapter, however, there are a few verses of praise:
  • They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; they shout from the west over the majesty of the Lord. Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord; in the coastland of the sea glorify the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One. (14-16a)
There is unity in both desolation and praise. These verses speak of all people, both easterners and westerners from the ends of the earth. This praise, however, feels jarring and odd in the middle of a chapter of doom. But just as the judgment was interrupted with spontaneous praise, so the praise will be interrupted with an odd, secretive word of warning “But I say, I pine away, I pine away. Woe is me! For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously” (16b). This is not a chapter of joy and two and a half verses of praise cannot detract from the images of prisoners in pits and snares and an utterly broken earth.

This chapter is apocalyptic. In vivid, sometimes sublimely beautiful language, it communicates the destruction of the earth and of unending punishment. Yet, oddly enough, this isn’t what I heard when I first read it. The second verse struck me and pulled me into a sudden awareness. I stopped and re-read it:
  • And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. (24:2)
To this list I would add, as with the mentally stable, so with the mentally ill; as with the fulfilled, so with the downtrodden; as with the pious, so with the atheists; as with those with all the answers, so with those filled with questions. The list could continue for pages. What surprises me is how well the original list in Isaiah still speaks to my era. People are still doing the same things, filling the same roles.

But this isn’t what struck me, what struck me was the fact of unity in both existence and in death. Human beings seem to find distinctions between everything and everyone. I understand that we need these distinctions in some ways to make sense of the world and to understand who we are as individuals. But, too often we allow these distinctions to take over and remove all mystery from our existence.

We miss the connection that we have to everything else in our world, simply through our shared existence and inescapable death. The world is an unexplainable miracle. The fact that I can think enough to even come up with distinctions is a miracle. The fact that I can feel both love and hate, happiness and anger is miraculous. To the list in vs. 2 I should also add, as with me, so with you. We all exist and we will all die. This is the mystery and the miracle that we all share and that we are all blessed and cursed by.

It is important to remember that the twenty-fourth chapter of Isaiah not only cuts down the distinctions between you and me, but also between you and me and the dirt, you and me and the sun and the moon, even between you and me and the mysterious hosts of heaven. The mystery of creation extends ever outward from every small, visible piece of existence towards every invisible and unknowable thing. When it comes to existence and death, we are a unified creation. In horrific and terrifying terms, the twenty-fourth chapter of Isaiah reminds us of this fact.

And yet, the book of Isaiah ends in terms of separation. The thirteenth and fourteenth verses of chapter sixty-five read:
  • Therefore thus says the Lord God: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit. (65:13-14)
These verses read as an antithesis to Isaiah 24:2. I understand that directly comparing these two sections might be considered unfair to the text. I know that this book is about worshipping God correctly and speaks of God’s punishment of his people through their enemies. I know that various parts of this book speak of the desolation of God’s people and in other parts of the restoration of God’s people. And that at various times, God is punishing various people. But, I still find the direct comparison helpful. These two sections offer me a choice.

In the painful words of chapter 24, I feel a reminder of my relationship to all of creation. I feel the mystery of my connection to every other existent thing. In chapter 65, however, I read words of separation. Words that do not fill me with hope of restoration. The last two verses of Isaiah speak of this separation in even bolder terms:

  • From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (65:23-24)
I do not want to stand over the dead in celebration. I do not want victory and restoration at the cost of someone else's suffering. I also don’t want someone else’s victory and restoration at the cost of my suffering. I want the irrational possibility of unity. I want the irrational possibility that restoration will come and that it will look like vs. 2 in Isaiah 24: as with you, so with me. I don’t want this unity to come in desolation though, I want it to come with a word of hope. I want it to come with a continued and sustainable remembrance of our unity. A unity that comes through the mysterious, miraculous fact of our shared existence.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Interior Castle

What is the soul? Is it separate from the body? I am an embodied creature, I can't understand anything outside of my gut, limbs, thoughts and vision. I can look in mirrors, but I will never look myself straight in the eye. I must depend on others for that experience. I can look at the face of another and be looked at by another, but I cannot look upon the face of myself. I can cross my eyes and see my nose, but where does that leave me besides dizzy?

The seminary experience is intense. I am forced daily to look both inward and out, to decide what the big questions are and to struggle towards answering them. I have come to the conclusion that the big questions will never be answered. The big questions are by definition, (in my mind anyway) unanswerable. But the wrestling, that's where the work is done. So I don't believe in a God that speaks or watches or cares. So what. I do believe in the mystery and holiness of life. I believe in the mystery and holiness of prayer. I believe in the mystery and holiness of relationship. I believe in the mystery and holiness of nature, of roots and oceans.

Who am I praying to? I guess I'm not praying to anything. I'm simply expressing the deepest groans of my heart. I'm adding these groans to the collective groans building up in the air that surrounds me. I'm breathing in and out. I'm choosing life, even though I know death is coming.

I was utterly humiliated last week. I'm writing about my relationship with my mother and my draft was discussed in my class workshop. At the end I started sobbing. The wounds and demons of the relationship were too big, too raw to deal with in the detached mode one needs to remain in while in a critique situation. I left the room. I never wanted to go back. I am not a person who shows weakness. I am strong and I need people to know it.

In my Bible: Violence and Nonviolence class we've been reading the book of Judges. Chapter 19 is awful. Chapter 11 is awful. I've been struggling with them for a year now. How am I supposed to carry the pain of these stories within me, within my soul. I am a person who feels pain. The pain of animals taken to slaughter. The pain of the women I worked with at the Hearth in Spokane. The pain of poverty and racism I witnessed in North Lawndale in Chicago. The pain of the women in the book of Judges. My own pain over my failed relationship with my mother. Where do I put it? Where do I hold it?

I'm reading The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. I'm painting the seven dwelling places of the soul that she outlines. I'm giving a presentation about them to my History of Christianity class. I'm trying to understand them. I'm trying to follow her, even though my language of the holy is different than hers. I'm trying to understand how to find my soul. How to see it, how to feel it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

White Daisies

For the August Intensive I took a writing class. It was amazing to be talking about art again! It made me realize how much I had missed discussions of creativity during my first year of seminary. We had to write a short memoir during the class. Here's what I wrote:

White Daisies

I slowly open my eyes and realize it’s bright outside and that I feel rested, not the feeling of waking up early to an alarm clock. I roll over, check the time and then bury my face in my pillow. I’d been making this gesture a lot lately—hiding. Closing my eyes, shutting my mouth tightly, holding my breath and pulling the covers over my head. It’s my eighteenth birthday and I overslept. I had left my parents house about a month ago and was now living up on the south hill in my 22-year old aunt’s house, well technically, her rich boyfriend’s house. It was quite a distance from North Central High School, the place I should be at the moment. I knew Pete had come to pick me up. I wonder how long he sat outside the house. I wonder where he thought I was. I wonder how angry he is. I curl up tighter; I push back tears. I’m learning to swallow water through my eyes. How the hell am I going to get to school?

I finally get up and walk around the huge, quiet house. Even though it’s a wide open house with vaulted ceilings, the air is somehow oppressive. I walk quietly through it, looking for life. I find haze and signs of a late night. Of course, these signs aren’t necessarily from the night I had just woken up from. Sarah and Kevin don’t keep regular hours, and they aren’t exactly housekeepers. I sit on a stool in the kitchen and try to find a place to rest my arm. I think about Pete. Shit. I can’t believe I overslept. I can’t believe I missed my birthday. I wonder if my parents will remember. Will I talk to them today? Will this be the first birthday in my life that I don’t hear the happy birthday song from the lips of my mother and sister? I tell myself not to think about it. I’ve got to get to school. I can’t miss anymore school or they won’t pass me. I can’t fail out of high school. That’s just not something I can deal with right now. I want to go and smash my face back into my pillow, but finally I decide to call my grandmother. I whisper into the phone that I overslept and have no way to get to school. She tells me to go upstairs and wake up Sarah. She sounds as if she can’t understand why this was such an elusive plan. I timidly walk into their bedroom and try not to step on anything, but there are very few patches of bare carpet. I tap Sarah on the shoulder and quietly apologize and explain that I need a ride to school. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just rises.

---

I left my parents house for several reasons. The snapping point happened when my mother told me that I couldn’t stay out all night for prom and that if I wouldn’t follow the rules of her house then I could go and live somewhere else. Of course, that was just a tangible reason. The actual problems were much harder to name and to touch. Leaving had been scary, but so had screaming and fighting all the time. So was never knowing whether I would be coming home to my drunk mother, my sober mother, or my stoned mother. I had left because I couldn’t breath inside that house anymore, I just didn’t fit there. After my mom got remarried, I never managed to figure out the role of suburban teenager. I had been thrown into it too late, after too much.

---

I get to school between second and third period, the hall is buzzing. I just mix right in with hundreds of other students. My stomach is swirling, I’m trying to hold on. Heidi and Brianna find me. They hug me and tell me happy birthday. They want to know if I’m OK. They have balloons and presents back at their locker. They had been waiting for me to arrive in the morning, standing prepared to greet me with everything, but I missed it. I have to find Pete.

The bell rings and I leave for the auto shop classrooms. I walk outside and down the hill. I see him standing just outside the garage door listening to someone. I can’t see who because his back is turned. But then Pete notices me. His eyes leave the face of whoever he’s talking to and stare at me. His mouth slowly reshapes itself into a dry smile. He stands there stationary and watches me walk down the hill toward him. We share a mutual look of disappointment. My stomach continues to spin and my heart’s at the top of my throat. He had brought me a bouquet of white daisies this morning, but after waiting outside forever, knocking at the door, crawling into the backyard and knocking on my bedroom window, he had given up. He told me that I’d messed everything up. He had thrown them out the window as he drove back towards the high school. I wonder who found them. I wanted to go back in time. I wanted to greet my eighteenth birthday with the sound of his car and a bouquet of flowers. Those are the romantic moments that stick with you. I had missed mine. I wonder if I passed the flowers on the road. I hope my aunt didn’t run them over.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reverent Agnostic

I just finished reading the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs. It's a great book--especially for a seminarian--but hilarious for anyone. I highly recommend it! One of the last paragraphs struck me and verbalized something I've been thinking about for awhile. Here's the paragraph:

Do I believe in a traditional biblical God? Well, not in the sense that the ancient Israelites believed in Him. I could never make the full leap to accepting a God who rolls up His sleeves and fiddles with our lives like a novelist does his characters. I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance. (329)

This is a beautiful paragraph. And I find it to be full of truth, even as I struggle with the word transcendent and admit to being fairly confident that "humans created sacredness ourselves," even though I have no proof either way!

I believe that sacredness is found in the immanent realm of earthy, everyday life. I must admit, however, that I also believe in mystery and miracles. Yes, miracles. Our lives--our very existence--is miraculous. Our ability to love and dance and offer kindness is miraculous. I believe that paying attention to the sacred makes us better, kinder, more open people. I believe that paying attention to sacred days like the sabbath and sacred rituals like prayer and sacred traditions like my Easter dinner with friends gives rhythm, meaning and beauty to our lives.

Believing in mystery means I don't have to have answers to why there is life on the planet earth or what happens when living creatures cease to breath. I don't know, I can't know. I can, however, ponder and wonder and be amazed. I can be thankful that I get to play a part in this big, confusing mystery.

I can be a reverent agnostic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I am not an athlete.


I have never been an athlete. I have never considered myself strong or fast or competitive or capable of training and training. I didn't grow up playing sports or watching sports.

But, here I am, running across the finish line of a triathlon after training and training for months. I look at this picture and say, wow! I am a triathlete. It's an amazing feeling and I must admit, I am pretty dang proud of myself.

The Danskin all women's sprint distance triathlon is an amazing event. It's the biggest single multi-sport event in the world. Each year they run a series of races all over the country. I don't know how many women compete in each location, but there were over 4,000 athletes in my race (in Pleasant Prairie, WI). It was an incredible experience to be among so many women being physical. It was the guys turn to watch and cheer and take pictures, the women were running (and swimming and biking)!

Over half the entrants (like myself) had never done a triathlon before and we rallied and cheered each other on all day. There were women of all different shapes and sizes, some with huge biceps, some with huge bellies. It didn't matter. There were cancer survivors and elderly women. When I lined up for the swim, I noticed a daughter, mother and grandmother lining up together behind me. I starting crying several times throughout the expo and race day. The spirit of the entire event was amazing and overwhelming. It was powerful.

One of the entrants in my race was a 78 year old woman. She did the swim, went out on her bike, fell off her bike and cut her face open. She went to the hospital and got stitches in her face. And then, she came back and finished the run! I got to watch her come across the finish line with her daughter who was also in the race. It was unbelievable.

There are four official lengths of triathlons:
  1. Sprint 1/2 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike, 3.1 mile run (what I did)
  2. Olympic .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, 6.2 mile run
  3. Half Iron 1.5 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
  4. Ironman 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run
I would love to work my way up to the Olympic. We'll see!

Here are my official times:

Swim 18:37
First Transition 4:10
Bike 47:20
Second Transition 2:03
Run 32:08
Final Time 1:44:19
Placed 1,377 out of 3,650 finishers.

My sister is swimming as part of a relay team in the Seattle event happening August 17th. If you're near the area, go cheer her on! It's an amazing thing to see. Go sister!

Who wants to do it with me next year??

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I am who I am.

God said to Moses, "I am who I am." Exodus 3:14

What an amazing sentiment. I sit here wondering, however, if it's quite that simple. I am who I think I am, but I am also who everyone else thinks I am. So who does everyone else think I am? I am beginning to learn that I care more about this than I realized. But I'm sure I think about it more than others actually think about me. The thing is, I have discovered an internal insecurity of being perceived as flaky or inconsistent. The odd part is, I'm pretty darn sure I'm not flaky and inconsistent. So why the insecurity? I think it stems from the way I live my life. I'm a wonderer and a seeker, I move a lot and I'm constantly swimming around in new ideas and visions. So, if you only see me once a year, I can seem pretty different with each visit. And because of this, I worry people think I'm a flake!

One of my teachers told me she's going to make me a sign to wear around that reads "I'm an explorer and I don't have everything figured out just yet." Of course, I think she intends the sign mostly for my reading! She is trying to tell me to give myself the permission to live and think and grow without a clear understanding of the end result. She's trying to help me resist my urge to wrap everything up in neat little boxes with labels that I can hand out to my friends and family. She's reminding me of my goal to slow my brain down and listen to wise words like the ones Jeremy recently uttered as I was trying to over plan everything, "we're in a wait-and-see mode!"

But, of course, I am who I am and I don't like to wait and see and I worry people will misinterpret my lack of a clear end result for flakiness. But I must be somewhat on the right track . . . for I live in Indiana and I wouldn't do that just for fun.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reflections for my Clearness Committee

I've just finished one of the required courses in my program. It's called Discernment of Calls and Gifts. This class asks us to reflect on our personal and professional life experiences, our spiritual gifts and our personality (we took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram). We read several books and wrote several papers and spent a great deal of time in discussion, both with the full class and with a regular small group. It was a wonderful experience and I have several books that I think everyone should read. Top of the list is "How Then Shall We Live" by Wayne Muller. Get it and read it!

The final project of the class is to undergo the Quaker process of a Clearness Committee. A Clearness Committee is a useful tool for personal and corporate discernment. And it's actually one of the first things I learned about the Quakers. In our Clearness Committees we are being asked to consider our vocational calling and what emphasis we want to pursue during the final two years of seminary. We write a paper for the member's of our committee (mine is made up of 3 fellow seminarians and Kari Boyd who will be visiting me next week). This is what I wrote for them:


In How Then Shall We Live, Wayne Muller asks four questions: Who Am I?, What Do I Love?, How Shall I live, Knowing I will Die?, and What Is My Gift to the Family of the Earth?. I find these to be the most important questions a person can ask themselves. And as we live into our lives, our answers will invariably evolve, mature and grow, but I believe we can find deep personal truths that stay with us as we repeatedly reflect on them. As I have worked to discern the dreams of my personal and vocational life I have discovered some of my own responses to these questions and hence, some of my own truths. Some of my deepest truths contain answers to Muller’s first three questions, truth about my inner self and my relationship with love and death. And as I better understand my inner life, I am able to work towards answering the fourth question: what will the gift of my unique existence be?

One of the truths that I am finally claiming is my identity as a spiritual person. After years of riding roller coasters with religion, I am able to name the fact that I do not believe in a personal God. I am not a Christian. But I contain within me, a deep understanding that I am a spiritual being. The very fact that I and everything else that I see exists is an overwhelming mystery, a holy mystery. The very fact of existence—the existence of the universe, the planet earth, the dirt I garden in, the tree in my front yard, my sister, my cats, myself—points towards an unexplainable life force that permeates through and connects everything. As a unique living being, I am connected to every other unique living being, even when the connection is as simple as mutual existence. It is this understanding of relationship and connection that pulls me towards spirituality and a belief in a holy space between—the space between me and every individual and animal I come in contact with, as well as the space between me and grass and water and trees and clouds. It is in this space that I find the sacred, the space of regular life. My understanding is reflected in the words of Wayne Muller:

Spiritual identity is not something far off, not something we need to go to Tibet to find. It is here, in the way we walk on the earth, the way we see our life, the way we care for ourselves and others. Our true nature is not something extraordinary; in fact, it is quite ordinary, an inevitable portion of our daily life. (Muller 64)

These words sing of truth and holiness to me. They speak of the sacred. And they allow me to take a deep breath. They allow me to get off the roller coaster I’ve been riding, to stop attempting to wear the spirituality of others and claim my own religious path. My own very ordinary path of life.

As I examine my ordinary path of life in light of Muller’s forth question: What Is My Gift to the Family of the Earth?, I am struck by a few dreams that have remained with me for several years. Over the course of my life, I have dreamt of numerous vocational ideas, but only a handful have stuck and have traveled with me wherever life has gone. As I examine them all together, I am struck by the ways they both do and don’t seem to fit together. If I could put them all together and create my dream vocation, my dream life, it would be to own a spirituality center, a place where people can work to answer Muller’s questions for themselves. This center would include components of physical life, intellectual life, and emotional life—body, mind and soul. I would offer group and individual spiritual direction, art classes, Pilates classes, and I would work with couples as they prepare for and enter into marriage. I would journey with people through the ordinary steps of life. I would share the sacred space between with them as they discover their spirituality, heal from their wounds and find and fulfill their dreams.

Part of my personality is dreaming. I love to dream about the future. I love to dream about my spirituality center and the work that I could do within it. But, I also have a strong hold on reality and understand that there are many steps between me and this center. Beyond needing more money and business skills, I would need ordination in order to legally perform weddings and I would need to become certified in order to teach Pilates. There are several practical details that need deep consideration. But beyond the practical considerations, there are also considerations about my own personal calls and gifts. These considerations require a discipline of slowing down and listening, of struggling to answer Muller’s four questions from a place of authentic reflection. Who am I and what do I love? How do I live with my own mortality and what will I do with my one chance at life?

As I have spent time discerning the answers to these questions, I have been working through my own history. I have been reflecting on where I’ve been, what I’ve survived, who I’ve met, and what I’ve done. Through this process—sometimes joyful and sometimes painful—I have discovered several truths about myself. One of the most important personal achievements of this process has been granting myself permission to approach spirituality in my own authentic way. I have also come to the conclusion that pursuing my Masters of Divinity degree is the right choice. After a difficult first year, I know that I am moving in the direction I need to go. In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling’ (Palmer 25). I may not be able to fully explain why I moved to Indiana to become a seminarian, or why I want to journey with strangers through the ups and downs of their lives, but I know that I am being compelled in these directions. I know that I am listening to my life and moving towards a vocation that can be my “gift to the family of the earth.”

***

In my life I have dealt with family dysfunction that included alcohol and substance abuse as well as highly skilled manipulation. But I have also felt the love, safety and support of family. Like most people, I can’t paint one simplistic picture of my family dynamics. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I’ve dealt with overwhelming feelings of being out of control and angry. I have had to struggle through my need to gain control and to release my need for constant control. I have had to work towards forgiveness and patience in order to let go of deep-seated anger. I have had to teach myself how to allow spontaneity, joy and openness to be regular aspects of my life. I have been blessed with faithful people willing to stand next to me through the dark days of healing. I have learned the importance of mutual relationships, where two human beings open their hearts to each other and truly know one another. I also appreciate the value of one sided relationships, in which one person provides space for another person to grow and heal without the need for anything in return.

I have been blessed by two professional adventures that have allowed me to test the inner urges compelling me towards the work of journeying with strangers. I worked with women in a downtown Spokane, WA day-center who suffered from homelessness, mental illness and basic isolation from society. I filled several roles in my two years at the center. I sat with women and listened to their stories, I hung their artwork on the walls for city wide art walks, I taught them computer skills, I carved pumpkins with them on Halloween. I celebrated birthdays and cried at memorial services with them; I shared daily life with them. I trained our volunteers and created a community volunteer position so that the women who came to the center could also volunteer in the center. I also worked on the development side of this organization, and hence, worked with men from rotary clubs and women from the junior league. I learned about people from every walk of life. Just before leaving this job, I wrote a sermon called Living Service, in which I explicated my belief that human beings are not service projects.

In inner city Chicago I taught creative writing and art appreciation to people ranging in age from seventeen to sixty in an adult learning and GED center. I created assignments designed to expose my students to things they might never have seen. I brought in postcards of master artworks from the Art Institute of Chicago and had my students do master studies of them and write fictional stories of the scene being portrayed in their work. After working intimately with their chosen work for almost a month, we took a field trip to the Institute (for some of them, it was their first trip into downtown Chicago, despite having lived less than 5 miles away their entire lives) where they were able to see the original work in person. As someone who has studied art for years, it was a tremendous gift to be able to see beloved works afresh through the eyes of my students. I gained a whole new appreciation for the importance of art in our world and access to art museums for all people.

As I have reflected on these and so many other experiences, I have discovered a few things about who I am and how I operate in the world. I like to be challenged, I like to be creative. I enjoy being at least partially in charge. I realize that when I’m not in charge or not inspired, I can mentally detach from a project. I like variety. I can’t do the same thing everyday. I need human interaction, I feel suffocated by too much alone time. I am strong and independent, protective and loyal. I am a self-starter and a hard worker. I know when someone is trying to manipulate me, and I know how to manipulate. But I have worked hard to cure myself of manipulating others. I am organized and smart. I am capable of offering mercy and encouragement to people. I don’t run away from pain. I can offer an open presence to people who are suffering. I am a problem solver, but am working on not always trying to solve every problem people share with me. I enjoy intentional relationships such as small groups of people coming together for quiet and prayerful sharing. But I also enjoy loud and crazy dinner parties where four conversations are happening at once and I’m involved in all of them. I am capable of offering great love to others, of offering my full self to them. But I am also capable of putting up a wall of silence that locks people out. I’ve worked hard and continue to work hard to knock this wall down. I realize it’s a wall of protection, one I built up during some of the out of control days of growing up. But I have also learned that sometimes it’s OK to be out of control, to let go and have fun, to run and dance and laugh and travel. And I have recently felt a pull towards more quiet in my life, something that I have feared before. I am slowly moving toward a regular meditative practice. My appreciation for the natural world, both for my art practice and my basic enjoyment of living, has grown. And I have recently felt compelled to write. I find writing to be a meditative act and I have two major writing projects planned. I am basically a happy person. I’ve suffered from fear and anger, but never really depression. I am content with my life, satisfied with my past journey and hopeful for what’s coming next.

***

As I look forward to the future and my dream of a spirituality center, I am trying to avoid my usual pitfall of obsessive planning. I am trying to take it one step at a time and to test and develop my gifts. I want to give more of myself to art making and writing. I want to develop a strong meditative practice. I want to continue the new experience of hard and regular exercise, of engaging in my physicality. I want to learn to slow down and take every day and every step one at a time, while also maintaining my ability to dream and plan.

***

Questions for Discernment:

• I am sensing a leading to listen and journey with individuals, couples and groups in a way that would include aspects of body, mind and soul. Can you affirm this leading? What gifts do you see in me with regards to this leading? What challenges?

• What issues do I need to work on or other preparation do I need in order to be better prepared to move towards this leading?

• In my MDiv program, I am torn between the Spirituality and Writing emphases. What connections do you see between these two areas of focus and my gifts, experience and leading?