Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pastor to My People

I am driving back from dropping my husband off at work, my toddler son in the back seat, and the entire sky is a grey fog. In the distance, the naked charcoal trees atop the ridge reach high and brush the grayness with their fingertips, asking for something. We pull into the driveway as the tiniest of snowflakes begin to dance in the air, swirling up and down and liquefying before they land.

I turn off the car and sit there for a moment, thinking. It all feels so true to life, this grayness, not for its depressive quality but for its ambiguity, for it's way of being neither this nor that, black nor white. And that is how my life feels right now: indecisive, in between. It is as if nature has pulled this weather out from my own heart, to show me something. But what does it mean? What does it mean?

I have been dwelling on grey a lot lately. Last weekend we painted the guest room in our new house a sort of warm, almost lavender, grey. When we were done, we thought, "Okay, we don't love it, but we don't hate it." And isn't that just like grey, to be neither beautiful nor terrible?

Now that the room is done, I find myself escaping into it a lot. I retreat there to find a quiet place for writing words that don't seem to come out right. Sometimes I plant myself at the desk there to art journal, painting grey gradient circles that fade from black to white. All the while I am looking at the walls and thinking, "What does it mean? What does it mean?"

And isn't that just like me, to try to pull meaning from a paint color?


Earlier this week, I read a scene in Nadia Bolz Weber's Pastrix where she is asked to give a eulogy at a friends memorial service, because she is "the religious one." She says the service is filled with "cynics and alcoholics and queers," her people. As she gives the eulogy, she is suddenly struck by how she sees God there, in her "own community of underside dwellers." She ends the chapter with the realization, "I was called to be a pastor to my people."

The words rise up at me from the white page in black accusation, contrasting the grayness of my life with something unmistakable. They have lingered in my mind all week, echoing deep into my heart. Pastor to my people. Pastor to my people. Pastor. My people.

I read those words and knew at once who my people were: the cynics, the church-quiters, the doubters. They are beginning to descend around the edges of my life like flies, but instead of swatting them away, I have invited them in, if only because I don't know how not to. I can hear more of them in the distance even now, around the corner, fast-approaching.

Don't get me wrong: pastor I am not. But I am someone. I am someone who feels compelled to create a safe place for the doubting. I am someone who is learning to pull back the blinds of shame that cover our hearts and say to the Church, "Look! We exist!" I am someone who is opening up her home and saying, "Come! Come in here and be free. Come and ask your questions, the darkest of them all, and I will not answer them. I will not even flinch. I will only say 'yes, I know, me too' and invite you back."

There is something akin to pastoring in that, isn't there?

There is something unavoidable in it too, something clear and distinct and frightening, because I don't yet know whether the strange certainty I sense in it is a blackness or whiteness.


Squirming in his car seat, my son shakes me from my thoughts. We emerge from the car and into the house, peeling off jackets and shoes and hats. We head to the grey room to fill a half hour, where I do yoga as he pulls books from the bookshelf there, circling them around him in great piles.

Finished, we round the corner to the living room and open the blinds to find our warm middle Tennessee valley suddenly blanketed in white, white, white. The snow is falling down in distinct flurries now and my son is reaching out for it, signing more, more, more. So we bundle up, despite the cold, and head outside.

Walking into the whiteness, our shoes stamp clear imprints in the snow that covers the back steps and in that moment I understand clearly that I must trust. I must believe that the next steps I feel compelled to make are somehow the right ones, and move in them. I must walk forward in the uncertainty, trusting that all will be made clear, though the nature of my doubt is such that I can't say for certain who or what I'm even trusting.

Uncertain as I am about nearly everything, I am clear about this: I will always fight to take the next right step, no matter how frightening.

I will create the space.

I will open the door.

I will gather my people together.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Women on Writing : Mandy Steward

Today I am delighted to announce the first installment in a year-long series I'll be doing here on the blog: Women on Writing. Each month, I'll have the pleasure of interviewing some of my very favorite female authors on the practice of writing and then sharing their words with you. If even the tiniest sliver of your heart identifies with the title of writer, I hope you'll follow along. Each of these women has so much wisdom to offer on the practice of writing.

Photo by Jennifer Upton

My very first guest is the beautiful and brave Mandy Steward, blogger, artist, and author of Thrashing About With God: Finding Faith on the Other Side of Everything. As a fellow doubter who has found life on the other side, her journey has been incredibly illuminating for me. Her writing is raw, vulnerable, and inviting, and I hope you find her responses here as inspiring and truth-filled as I did. 


When did you know you wanted to write Thrashing About with God? What led you to write about your thrashing experience?

It was while reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance that I had a hunch that writing my own manifesto would allow me to hear my own thoughts clearly. I wanted to know where I stood on the living of a life. My life. What I found out is that to even begin feeling as if I was allowed to write my own thoughts I had to get out from under the religious conviction that I was not allowed to make my own decisions or feel my own feelings or think my own distinct thoughts or use my own voice. So what was to be, at outset, a messy manifesto very quickly became Thrashing About with God.

What would be your ideal writing environment? How do you make time and space in your life for the practice of writing?

Ideal writing environments are a hoax. I don’t believe they exist. Or perhaps I can’t believe they exist because then I would always be pining for one instead of just writing. Writing happens because I say it’s going to happen. For my book it was a set time everyday on dark winter mornings before my family was awake. It has to become a priority. I have to take it and myself seriously if I’m going to fight for the time to give to it. (And it does feel like a fight sometimes.)

David Whyte says, “If you tend to the things that are most important to you first, you don’t actually need to spend much time. You can spend even just twenty minutes or half an hour, an hour as you get further into it, perhaps a couple of hours. The rest of the day, and all the other chores, including getting the curtains cleaned and cleaning out the refrigerator and getting the car to the garage to be worked on--all of those things actually can take on a kind of delight instead of something that is standing in the way of your real life.”

What authors or works most inspire your writing?

Whatever book I’m reading at the time, it inspires me. No one author has single-handedly changed me. They have all changed me. I am a lifetime reader, a collector of that which makes my heart beat faster, my cheeks blush redder, my fevers grow hotter, my breath become heavier. Writers, poets, artists, mystics - it’s a deep well and I drink from it regularly. I’m not elitist when it comes to my intake, but I am terribly picky. The secret message has to be timed with precision and synchronicity for me to engage, but if it is, I will become gloriously obsessed until the next rabbit trail beckons me to wander. 

Photo by Jennifer Upton

How has the writing process changed you? How has your faith changed or evolved since your book was written?

Writing has always been about the business of re-introducing me to myself. I can’t get away from that. Maybe the times I wasn’t writing was because I needed a break before I could meet more of myself. It is a hard, hard thing to let the words come out that want to, to let all of yourself expose itself.

My words in my book came at a cost, but not necessarily because people read my book. It came at a cost because in writing the book I realized more of who I was (and who I have always been down deep) and this transformed the outer way I lived my life. The more vulnerable my writing, the more it asked me to start owning who I was. My manifesto may always start with words, but then it demands to become flesh. This has proved interesting.

I went through a Dark Night of the Soul to write Thrashing About with God and I went through a second Dark Night of the Soul soon after publishing it just this past October. That second Dark Night continues and it is stripping me of all unnecessary identity. It is harrowing. But it is as if it plucked me out of someone else’s preferred story for me, and plopped me down into my own. So I feel at home now, even if for the rest of my life I’ll be figuring out what that means to me and what to do with all this difficult waking up.

I would say my faith has grown by leaps and bounds. I would say that I am always evolving. Always.

In addition to being a blogger and author, you are also a talented artist and art journaler. How have these practices influenced your writing? 

Being able to call myself an artist became possible for me in my mid-20’s I wrote about that in this little eBook called Messy Canvas. Calling myself an artist first was necessary for me to then be able to call myself a writer. The permission to creatively express myself gently led me into authoring a book.

The sort of “no rules” art journaling I have fallen in love with was introduced to me by a fascinating woman, StarGardener, and is explored by many women now in a beautiful community called The Art Journaler. It has become a spiritual practice for me in that it helps me see my mundane life as sacred and holy and wild and throbbing. It gives me a place to blurt and collect the dots of my living. It is another way to see me and live with myself. The art and the writing go hand-in-hand. Each feeding into the other.

If you could give one piece of advice to budding writers, what would it be? 

Know that every single piece you write is necessary. The words, many of them, will be hard to love, but learn to invite them in. All of them. It is the only way to make space for your own living. Writing vulnerably and truthfully now, at your own edge, for yourself will impact your reality in astounding ways. I do believe through writing we create a way (for ourselves) where there seems to be no way. Do the writing for you. Always, always, always write what you most need to find. 


Mandy Steward is an artist and author of the book Thrashing About With God—Finding Faith on the Other Side of Everything. She blogs her messes regularly at MandySteward.com and with a band of incognito rebel sisters at Secret Rebel Club. She also creates custom painted and inked Secret Messages for individuals and self-publishes a subscription based ‘Zine of gypsy journalism. She co-creates a way for others to thrash through their own spirituality via The Wild Mystics. She finally has a Self and finds that breathtaking. Find her on Facebook here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Anoint : Another Word

The week before Christmas, my mom came to help us move. The next day, she filled a small jar of oil, with which she planned to anoint our new home. I rolled my eyes internally. We had never been a very charismatic family, but it was somehow just like my mother, to attack moments like these with all available resources. She had done it once before, in the dark days, pouring oil over the surfaces of my sister’s room. I would let her do it again here, though more out of love than of hope.

But the next few days were busy, full of nonstop packing, painting, moving. I forgot about the oil completely until the day after she left. When I walked into our new kitchen on Christmas eve morning, I found the small jar atop the counter by the oven. It stared at me blankly, half full with the word love written on the outside, plastic wrap in place of a plug.This was also just like my mother, to make do at the last minute without shame.I stared at the oil, wondering: Had she quietly spread some of it out while I had been busy, then placed it there casually? Or had she not found the time and placed it there intentionally, hoping beyond hope that I might do it myself? I had no intention of anointing our home myself, so I tried not to think about the jar, but I left it there all the same, letting it catch my gaze from time to time over the next few days.


After the holiday, I headed back to our old place, just a few blocks away, with a bucket of cleaning supplies. It was so empty when I walked in, that place where we had spent three and a half years of our lives. I set down my bucket and pulled out the broom. As I swept I thought of all the moments, large and small, to which this home had served as the backdrop.

I thought of big communal dinners around the dining room table, and long impromptu conversations in the kitchen. I thought of tears shed, mine and others’, over that shabby couch in the living room. I thought of the rotating cast of characters who had entered, sometimes knocking, through that front door painted dark blue. And I thought of the guest room that had become a nursery, and of the young couple who had become parents right there in that very house, as I swept past tiny milky spit up stains that must have gone unnoticed beneath a rug.

After the moments lost in reflection, I pulled out the jug of vinegar water to mop, just like my mother taught me, and I drenched those hardwood floors with abandon, mopping that place from corner to corner as it had never been mopped before. As I moved from room to room, pouring the liquid out across the floor in great puddles, I couldn’t deny the feeling that I was anointing that place, for all that it had given us and all it might yet give.


There is this blogging community that I follow, a community of global women whose mission is to love. In the midst of all the talk about One Words around the New Year, the leader there posted about her word, which she believed to be for the whole community: Anointing. It was at that point that I could no longer ignore the set of circumstances that had led me, a woman of substantially more doubt than faith, to consider the act of anointing.

But what does anointing, the act of consecrating something, of declaring it sacred, have do do with me, when my world seems to be turning increasingly more, for lack of a better word, secular? What does anointing have to do with me, when all words of hope I try to swallow come quickly back up my throat in sour regurgitation? What do anointing and holiness and hope have to do with me? This very week I have identified infinitely more with the beauty of these words than of any others.

And that’s when I realized, I want to anoint that. I want to anoint the rebellious, wild, holy mess of that, of vulnerability and rawness and honesty, in myself and in others. I want to drench it all in oil and scream that it is sacred no matter how confidently you may call it unclean. I want to declare that there is a strange kind of hope even in hopelessness, in finding the words for anger and doubt and a sense of betrayal, and then speaking them.

That is what I want to be committed to anointing this year, in a million different ways, both in my local community and in this strange online world I find myself in. I want to be about telling you, right now, that there is a sacredness in whatever way you find yourself engaging with divinity, be it through anger or community or silence.

Your skipping church and your lack of prayers and your curses hurled, they are holy. They are consecrated and dripping with oil. They are anointed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Blogging is weird (and a new design)

I didn't really know that I was redesigning my blog until I found myself on Etsy last night, perusing templates, and my husband said "You should get that one," and then I did. And now here it is. The same words with a different look. Imperfect, but sufficient, a lot like me. And simple like me too, leaving room for the words (because it has always been about the words, first and foremost) to speak for themselves. And underneath all that, my new blog design says, "I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. I've got some inexplicable sense of commitment to this strange thing I've created, though I don't even know what it is or why I'm doing it."

I've been at this blogging thing (in its current, more intentional form) an entire year now. And I am continually astounded by how this space has evolved over that time. I began safely, with topics and posts that were polite and easy: recipes, a book review, learning to run a 5k, and a couple baby-related DIYs in the excitement of new motherhood. Some of these early posts you can't even find here now, as divergent as they are from the present mission (as I vaguely understand it) of this space. Then, eventually, I began writing the words that were then burning to get out of me, about birth, my struggle with breastfeeding, and our family's unexpected and painful experience in the NICU, because I couldn't not write them, because I would go crazy if I didn't.

Then, then, I stumbled upon an entire community of writers who were wrestling out loud with some of the same faith issues I had been struggling with. I found Deeper Story, which led me down a complete blogosphere rabbit hole, where I came across incredibly talented writers like Sarah Bessey and Addie Zierman and D.L Mayfield and on and on and on. Eventually, I got the courage to slowly, carefully, come out of the closet about the doubt I had been struggling with for the past five years. Somewhere around this point, I fell in love with writing for its own sake. That's when I decided to sign up for Elora's Story 101 course, which introduced me to some of the most courageous, feisty, poetic women I have ever had the honor of knowing. Joining that community was like a cannonball of brave to my heart. My words have been growing braver and braver ever since, and I haven't looked back.

Though it seems like a distant memory now, I remember a year ago, when I was typing away at simple little recipes as if I cared at all about cooking, telling myself that I would do this for a year, stay committed for a year, just to keep my hand in the writing game as a new mom. If it was still nothing by then, I could give it up. Well I certainly didn't stay committed to recipes, but I don't think I could pull myself away from this space and the community I've found through it if I tried. Which is why I went ahead and made some updates, because this blog and I are in it for the long haul, for better or worse.

I do still find it fairly disconcerting though, that gigantic circular picture of myself up above, the image of me staring down at my own little words all about my own little life. Believe it or not, I've never been very comfortable calling attention to myself, introvert that I am, and it's all so terribly narcissistic, isn't it, blogging? But all I can say is that I feel called to this, to writing about my own little life in my own little space here. And for reasons I can't explain, don't understand, and though I admit it has been incredibly healing for me, it doesn't feel narcissistic at all. Each time I write a post, it feels like I am scrolling up my words, stuffing them in a bottle, and hurling them out into the sea, hoping some day the right person on the other side of the ocean will receive them. It doesn't feel like a call for help. It feels a gift. It feels like a life preserver that I am flinging from my imperfect, humble little boat, saying "Here! Come! Come and be safe, be alive, be free for awhile." And because I have known the power of others' words to do that in my own life, and because I believe in even the smallest chance of my words being that to someone else, I'm going to keep doing this, as weird as it is.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Free : One Word 2014

Free (adjective): enjoying personal freedom, not subject to the control or domination of another; not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being, choosing or capable of choosing for itself. 

The word came to me a couple months ago, as I began thinking about what 2014 might hold for me and what I want from it. I realized that I want permission to freely explore the depths of my faith and doubt, without the restraint of dogma or obligations or people pleasing. I want the space to find the place where God may be taking me, if I let him. I want one year of silencing the voices, inside and out, that tell me all the things I can't do or believe or say as a Christian. I don't want to think of the I can'ts for a while. I want to explore the world beyond them. I want to be free. 

It's a funny word, really. Free. The way the e sound falls off softly at the end, it almost makes you think it is something easy, light. But as my confidence in the word has grown stronger, the fear of it has grown deeper. Freedom may be nice, but the getting there isn't. The work of becoming free is painful, and treacherous, and terrifying. Am I really ready for it? Am I ready to proclaim, publicly and with confidence, that this year I shall be free? Because what if I'm not? What if the work of freedom is just too painful and I'm enslaved as ever to the same old things? Or what if I find myself free momentarily, only to bind myself to some new form of chains? And even if I can be free, slowly, incrementally, am I truly prepared to walk away from the shackles that have so far kept me restrained, but safe? The great big world of personal freedom is a scary, wide-open place. What if I head off in the wrong direction? Or what if the path I choose is right, but lonely? 


Recently, a dear friend who shares my struggle with faith lent me The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. The actual premise is this: a team of atheist and agnostic researchers join a few Jesuit priests on a mission to an alien planet, which is both absurd and fitting if you think about it. The whole experience turns into quite the crisis of faith for the priest who initiated the mission, to say the least. His struggle, to come to terms with a God who has more or less proven himself to be unknowable, hit home for me. In the last few pages, he is back on Earth and one of the priests assigned to care for him explains him to another priest this way:
"There's a series of sculptures... by Michelangelo that you should see. They are called The Captives. Out of a great formless mass of stone, the figures of slaves emerge: heads, shoulders, torsos, straining toward freedom but still held fast in the stone. There are souls like that, Reyes. There are souls that try to carve themselves from their own formlessness. Broken and damaged as he is, Emilio Sandoz is still trying to find meaning in what happened to him. He is still trying to find God in it all."

I want the freedom to find God wherever and however I need to. I want the freedom to explore my spirituality unbound by the heavy stone of right answers and proper theology. I want the freedom to question and to embrace mystery, to be alone and to need people. I want the freedom to exist as I am in the moment, to be confident and change my mind and be wrong. I want the freedom to create and to express and to be different, to see and feel and believe differently than those around me.

And the thing is, it is already mine, this freedom I seek. There is no power on Earth that could keep me from believing, embracing, or rejecting the things I choose. But despite the freedom, I am not yet able to be free. That is the dream I will be working towards, hoping for, this year; For the strength to reach out and seize it, to speak the terrifying truth of it into the tender dark recesses of my soul and to really believe it:  I am free.

We're sharing our one words for the new year in the Story Sessions community.  Will you join us? You can learn about the One Word 365 movement here