I used to think _________, and now I think ________.

looking into the distance

I used to think in black and white.

There was nothing in the dark to be redeemed, nothing to be recognized, not even a smattering of stars to show me my own spindly hand in front of my face.

And in the white and bright and hot, I was always squinting and burning without realizing it. There was too much gauze and glare to illuminate anything of substance.

I sat in brown chairs on Sunday mornings, wearing dresses and facing a man in a suit. I memorized Bible verses word-perfect and dared to speak them aloud if it might earn me a ribbon. I wore a white gown and was dunked underwater, my ticket to start sipping grape juice from those little cups. I wrote down all the right answers in my terrible handwriting and spouted them to friends.

I had my private miseries, my looming darkness, but God was a wall of bricks, each one unmoving and painted just so and hardly attended to.

I don’t remember when the bricks started to come loose and lose their color. It happened so gradually at first, and for a while I was too sidetracked by the words I could never say and the boys who never liked me back. Then, I was too lost in a depression I could not name and fears I could not overcome.

I am 26 years old, and now I think in gray.

I read the Bible and I am confused. I wonder if we’ve been pushing the text to fit an all-encompassing Divine mold it was never meant to occupy. I wonder what Paul would think of his letters being considered Holy Scripture. And yet I still find many of these ancient words to be truth and life.

I listen to stories and I am awoken. Stories from real live people, stories told and written and photographed and adapted. Stories that break my heart and open my eyes. Stories that aren’t cleaned up or brushed off or tied up with a nice, neat bow. No longer can one narrative fit every face standing here, no longer is it “us and them,” no longer is there an implicit threat in his sexuality, in her culture. I do not know what it is like to be gay, to be poor, to be a person of color, to flee for my life. But give me ears to hear and eyes to see and a heart to understand.

I pray and I am uncertain. What – if anything – is changing because I whispered “please” and “help” into the wind? Are the words carried back to me on the breeze from God or from my subconscious? What is rumbling in the depths beyond the synapses that fire and the blood that travels through my body? I know there must be Something.

I go to a bar and see glimmers of beauty and redemption in ordinary conversations.

I hear the phrase “relationship with God” and I’m not afraid to ask, “How?”

I sit in church and sometimes I feel nothing. I stand in church to participate in the bread and wine – the Eucharist – and I usually feel something.

They speak of Jesus, and I doubt and hope and can never quite leave.

Mostly, I am in the middle and on the margins and engulfed in never-ending mystery, my old assumptions of what is dead and what is alive turned on their heads.

But in this gray, I am searching and being found in ways I never was when I lived my life in black and white. I am more alive here.

I am a boat in the middle of the ocean; I am standing in the rain without an umbrella; I am trying to make out the contours of home through the fog. But every so often, I see a rainbow start to form in the darkest cloud, and it beckons me to follow.

*****

This blog post is a part of author Sarah Bessey‘s synchroblog based around the prompt “I used to think ______, and now I think ______”. Click here to read others’ responses. In the same vein, be sure to check out Sarah’s wonderful new book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith (you can read my review – and possibly win a copy of the book – here).

The Spiritual Practice of Reading Sarah Bessey {a book review & giveaway}

faith isn't certaintyI read the last half of Sarah Bessey’s newest book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, while lounging in my messy bed in my messy room. It seemed fitting.

You see, she starts her book with the analogy of a rummage sale — of laying out everything we’ve believed and inherited and carried with us, and deciding what should stay and what should go. So is what needs to happen when we reach that “out of sorts” place. And it doesn’t just happen once.

Through her writing, Sarah has been a constant companion of mine for more than two years. I’ve fallen in love with what she writes and how she writes it. And most importantly, I trust her.

Whether it’s a book or a service or a meme, it doesn’t take much for something Christian to put me on my guard. I am overly critical and overly sensitive and overly scarred, so it’s no surprise that I fold my arms across my chest more often than not, the words catching on something or bouncing off or just scratching the surface.

Not so with Sarah’s words.

Out of Sorts is, in part, her own story. It’s a tale of “happy-clappy churches” and “getting religion,” of unanswered questions and ill-fitting places, of Jesus and burnout and sorrow and hope. But woven into and over and around it are deep, thought-provoking explorations of the issues themselves that most often unravel us: the Bible, the Church, signs and wonders, and suffering, to name a few.

Sarah’s book isn’t the first I’ve read to honestly (and excellently) explore the hard questions. Some spiritual memoirs throb with the very real pain of loneliness, lies, and wounds from those who meant well … and those who didn’t. Others dig deep into my skin, putting a finger on the very nerve of my own spiritual angst. Out of Sorts does both of these things, while also — one might say first and foremost — being a book of relentless hope.

And then there’s the beauty. The gift of Sarah’s writing — in Out of Sorts as well as elsewhere — isn’t just in what she writes, but also in how she writes it. It is pictures and poetry and music wrapped up in prose. It is grace and peace. It is an invitation, and not just to those on the margins who are questioning everything. This book is for all who hunger and thirst, whether they be on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out, or somewhere in between.

If you are like me, though, you may sometimes wonder how anyone can really love Jesus. You may look into the eyes of the flesh-and-blood people standing before you, the ones who have your heart, and find that the invisible Divine is so hard to know and understand, let alone love. But if there’s one person I believe loves Jesus as much as she says she does, it’s Sarah Bessey. Her words give me hope that maybe, someday, I will too.

*****

Out of Sorts makes its way into the world on November 3 — that’s tomorrow! You can order it on Amazon here, or wherever you buy books. I received an advance copy of this book in order to review it, and I would like to give away that copy to one of you! To be entered in the giveaway, simply post a comment below (making sure to include your email address so I can contact you), and I will randomly choose one winner on Friday, November 6, to receive this book. U.S. and Canadian addresses only.

Sarah Bessey writes from Abbotsford, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and four tinies. Her first book, Jesus Feminist, is also excellent. You can find out more about Sarah Bessey on her website.

Explore, recover delight, wrestle with the story

Running into Shame and Grief

Crossroads: success or failure
Photo by stockmonkeys.com via Flickr’s creative commons.

I ran a marathon last week, and it broke my heart.

“It was hard, but at least I finished,” I tell the people I don’t know as well. With others, the words “excruciating” and “demoralizing” and “disappointing” might make their way into my answers. But I’m still smiling as I list the reasons why my race was all those things.

I’m not very good at letting people see my grief. I know this because sometimes they’ve laughed when I’ve told them about my race, and I’m sure they thought they were laughing with me.

One week ago, I was shivering in shorts and a T-shirt and marveling at the colors in the morning sky. It had been a long week and I knew it would be a hot day, but I had no misgivings, no latent fears that my body might fail me.

It was Easter Sunday when I first put my hair up and ran a few blocks down the street and back. Before the month was out, I had all but decided that this would be my year to run a marathon. I printed out a training schedule: 168 boxes with 168 assignments.

I was an outstanding pupil, waking up while everyone else slept, strapping water to my waist, filling my weekends with running and recovery. Little by little, running became my life in a way nothing else was.

I can write, but I haven’t written much this year. I have people I love, but there is almost always some sort of distance. I love to talk, but fear has kept me silent. I have dreams and desires, but I slip into nothing and everything.

Running has been my constant. I can run, and I did run. I hated always getting up early and running the same routes until I was sick of them and taking the bus to yet another street corner. But I did it. This was my success story, my purpose, maybe even my identity.

Every so often when I wondered if I would really be ready come October 18, the stars would align on the trail and I would be smiling through the sweat and my confidence would rise.

And then October 18 came.

The first half of the race went as expected. The second half did not.

I must have started too fast. I must not have eaten enough that morning. The sun did not relent. And then pain slowly took over my pelvis.

I virtually stopped running by mile 18, but by then even just walking was hard. I almost cried at one point because I was so miserable. I don’t know exactly when I realized that I would not be bouncing back, that it would not be getting better, that there would be no glory in this day, but I know that by a certain point I wasn’t just physically shattered; I was heartbroken and ashamed.

I texted my roommates, who were waiting at the finish line with homemade signs, that I would be much later than expected. How low I have sunk that I’m texting during my marathon.

I passed people holding signs and cheering. They must think I didn’t prepare for this at all.

I thought of the pin I had proudly purchased at the Expo two days before. I can’t imagine wearing that now.

I turned the last corner and saw the finish line just ahead. I started running so that I could finish with at least a modicum of dignity. It’s barely even accurate to say that I ran a marathon.

It felt like a cruel trick. I had done everything I was supposed to do since May. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I felt no sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line, when I posed for a picture with my roommates, when I answered excited questions later. Rather, I cringed and cried heartbroken tears and wished I hadn’t told so many people about the race.

And then I decided I had to redeem myself by running the Colfax Marathon in May. Never mind all my reasons to take a break from distance running; I had to fix this mess as soon as possible.

This is where I am right now: grieving, grateful that the questions are subsiding, and realizing that my identity is clipped onto my ability to run longer distances than most people I know. I’ve had moments of joy on this journey, but it’s all been too dependent on what happens on a single day in October. If I end up running the Colfax Marathon next year, I want it to be for the right reasons.

But for now, I am letting myself be still and grieve.

10K in 2009
My first race: a 10K in 2009
Marathon in 2015
My latest race: a marathon in 2015

Embers

embers
Photo by Javier Rodríguez on Flickr’s creative commons.

Work might be saving my life right now.

On one side of the weekend, the happier side, I sigh and let go and sink backwards into a soft chair. But then I don’t get up, not really. The loneliness and the depression are always waiting to welcome me back.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here

I wake up on Tuesday, the feet on my back and chest still there, the sugar comas and screens still fresh in my mind in a hazy sort of way, and it is with the usual Monday dread that I think of my office, waiting for me. I pull my sluggish self up, I try unsuccessfully to pray in the car, and then I unlock the door and turn on the lights. Amid the piles of papers and the blinking red light on the phone, what’s waiting for me — again — catches me by surprise — again: relief.

Maybe I’m just losing myself in busyness, but I’d like to think there’s something sacramental in the movement of my hands, the microcosmic rhythms of meaningful work, the ebb and flow of order and chaos. Either way, this is my balm.

Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As usual, the sun shades are pulled low over the windows, and I can only see dark shapes from my swivel chair. September did not feel like fall, but it was cold enough in my car this morning to turn the heat on intermittently, and it was cloudy enough to set aside the sunglasses. I hear the rain, sometimes, and I write October 6, 2015 on forms, and I think that “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Hours later, the coffee shop next door closes for the day, sequestering itself behind its metal wall. The chairs are empty and the staircase is empty and there is no movement behind most of the doors. Real darkness descends beyond my shrouded windows, but I am not there to see it. Instead, I am in my windowless cubby of a file room, separated even from the idea of people by two sets of doors, and I am softly singing Christmas songs.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

I marvel at what a difference twelve hours can make in reanimating ashes, turning back the clock to make live coals pregnant with promise once again. But maybe the clock isn’t going backwards but forwards; maybe this is a resurrection.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I am singing louder now, in my car, and it’s yet another reminder of what music is capable of doing, how it fills and quickens and whispers. And yet it isn’t music that is saving my life, and it isn’t work. But maybe, just maybe, there is something in the pulse of both that holds the key to resurrection.

Running into Grace

shoes
Photo by Fe Ilya in Flickr’s creative commons.

I am standing at a street corner in the predawn blue. A gas station to my right outshines the few remaining stars, and behind me the green-yellow-red rhythm regains its usefulness. We are all waking up.

Ahead, the sidewalk curves into a trail along a river, where I will see deer and rabbits and ducks, and I will keep looking to the right, past the highway to the eastern horizon, and I will be grinning.

Most runs aren’t like this.

Mostly it looks like waking up at 5:30 and sticking band-aids on my blistered toes and putting in the time so I can cross off another box on my marathon training plan. It feels like sweat dripping into my eyes and wanting to stop.

I can feel the way my body has changed, I can close my eyes and taste glory, I can pat myself on the back for my dogged determination. But I can’t make it all feel worth it in the moment.

“I’m so over running,” I was telling people and telling myself. “I can’t wait to have my life back again.”

But then, once in a while, something happens as I go through the familiar motions of strapping on the waistband and the armband and curling my fingers around the water bottle. And then this something, this brightness and hope, carries me into the thick of it and whispers, “Remember.”

Remember that your body knows how to do this. Remember how strong you are. Remember that you have been preparing for this and you are ready for this.

On that 20-mile run, I remembered.

Two hundred and seventeen minutes after the gas station and the traffic lights, I saw the bridge that doubled as my finish line that day. As I passed into the shadow underneath and slowed to a walk, it was with the deepest sense of awe and completion. I felt not only the usual relief of being done, but the power of every step that had brought me to that bridge, of the birdsong and iPod-song that had kept me company, of the amazing thing this body of mine had done.

Maybe October 18 will mark my last race. Maybe distance running is my today, but not my tomorrow. Maybe these shoes, figuratively speaking, don’t fit me as well as others I have worn and will wear. But there will always be shoes that are even harder to squeeze into, seasons and circumstances that will burst upon me, that will blindside me, that will stretch me thin and turn me inside out.

And yet, even in the middle of the pain and the barely-hanging-on, the blisters and the ragged breathing, may I catch glimpses of grace and remember.

Of Souls and Long-Term Memory (a Mumford & Sons reflection)

Mumford and Sons in concert
Mumford & Sons in concert at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Salida, Colorado, on August 22, 2015.

I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.

The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.

Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.

Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.

But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.

I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.

The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.

Finally, it did.

The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.

Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.

As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.

The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.

When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.

These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.

We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.

Of Magic and Memory

Trains

Six months ago, she hugged her family goodbye, and the page turned as they went upstairs and she stayed downstairs.

The night before, the first night, she lay on the blue-and-white rug looking up at the ceiling, knees pulled to her chest. She won’t remember most of her thoughts from those early days, but she’ll remember these:

There are so many memories waiting to happen in this little house, in this big city. I know there will be days when I’m lying on the floor looking at the ceiling and I won’t be able to stop laughing. Other days, that view will be blurry with tears. Now, though, everything’s a blank slate. Anything could happen!

That slate is full of colors now, some sparkling and some dull, and when she has eyes to see, they blink back at her from every surface she passes.

In some of these new memories, there is déjà vu: Riding the bus again, but this time without Mandarin coming out of the PA system. Running again, but in parks and on trails and along city streets, not around and around a sleepy Midwestern school.

She counts the cyclists who fly past, she pulls yet another book out of her backpack, she walks in the rain and in the night. And on some of those nights, she sprawls into the welcoming grass outside the house, hair sweaty and soul at peace and stars twinkling.

Oh the joy of solitude. Oh the pain of solitude.

She’s seen whole weeks swallowed up in loneliness, in which the darkest rooms have been the most crowded ones. She’s longed to link arms with people, but has often recoiled in fear, scratching out spaces just big enough for one and crawling into them.

That sort of darkness, though, is fading into dawn. Her box of treasures is filling, filling, filling with the gems found in moments and evenings, found in people: That time she stopped to pick up tickets and stayed for four hours; that night walking almost aimlessly through downtown Denver after the game; the many times of sitting around dining room tables and coffee shop tables and restaurant tables. In short, those moments of truly seeing and being seen, of freedom and flung-open doors and hands that reach back.

But how do you know when you’ve woven your story too deeply into someone else’s? When you don’t know what your purpose is apart from them?

Nine hours in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Three days of structure and spontaneity, static and movement, but all with an undercurrent of restlessness.

In the quest to uncover the truest, oldest imprints in the clay of herself, she keeps coming back to three words. Sometimes they seem to drip with magic; sometimes they seem like just words:

Write. Speak. Teach.

And behind those, behind everything, beats the most mysterious, frustrating, and confusing word of all … but the word that just might hold the deepest magic:

Jesus.

Streaked with Grace

hands that sow
Photo by Molly Stoddard on Flickr’s creative commons.

I don’t mean to dip my fingertips into the wine along with the bread, but in that dimly lit basement, it sometimes happens. And I’m always glad when it does.

Within seconds I’ve chewed and swallowed, but my fingers are still streaked with light purple. It feels like a measure of grace, like my skin has mingled with something holy, like that holiness is moving down my hands and up my arms and into all of me.

We are speaking and listening together, standing and sitting together, breathing in and breathing out, and I look at the hands that held the bread and still carry signs of their participation in the Presence.

A week ago, I was distracted and looking around the room, I was feeling alone and desperate to change that, I was tired. And then six words planted themselves in me: I will take care of you.

This is why I keep going back.

The rest of the week may drift into monotony and shadow, relationship moving into elusiveness once again, but in these moments I can almost see.

Forever Unraveling

bricks puzzle
Photo by Magdalena Gmur on Flickr’s creative commons.

Three years ago, I told my roommate, “I don’t know who I am.” She didn’t understand how that could be. But it is a journey I am still on, to find the threads of desire and movement, of the words that leave my mouth and those that shrink back, of fear and freedom, stillness and noise, and follow them to their points of origin.

I try to solve me like a riddle, but I am Rubik’s cube that’s stuck; I am an instruction manual with half the words missing. The threads are knotted and intertwined and frayed. So it is with all of us, I think.

I sit in the library or on a plane and write pages and pages, and then exhale from the deepest part of me and think, There. I’ve figured it out. I’ve discovered what makes me come alive and what crushes my spirit.

But the unraveling doesn’t stop. There always seems to be another layer to peel back, another false skin to dig my nails into, and even when I think I have found my true, naked self, I only have to open a door, any door, to scare her away again.

I love my conclusions, and I want more of them, and I want them to stick this time, but they keep turning into contradictions and dead ends. Or I keep turning into contradictions and dead ends.

I hate people and I love them. Fear is my everyday apparel; confidence is the garment of special occasions, worn over the fear like so. I long to be around Christians, and then I long to be away from them. I thrive in solitude; I decay in solitude. And on and on it goes.

In between work and feeding myself and figuring out the contours of this Colorado life, I am trying to find out what I love simply for its own sake, simply because I’m me and this is what shatters me, this is what saves me, this is what nourishes me, this is what delights me.

Can I step away from what they might think or expect, from my own addiction to approval, from all the distractions? If so, what will I be left with? What will I see? And perhaps more importantly, will I be able to carry what I find into a world screaming with all of that without it twisting into something false and unrecognizable again?

What I know, or seem to know, today carries itself away on the back of the sun as it sinks below the horizon. What I find in solitude disappears in the noise, and what I find in the bustle and color seems to fade when my world contracts again.

If I can pin myself down, maybe I will be able to pin everything else down. That is the hope, but is it to be hoped for?

To Be a Part of the Mystery

Communion
“Communion.” Artwork by Ruth Catherine Meharg, inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday.”

In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.

I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.

One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.

I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in AlcoCover of "Searching for Sunday"holics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.

There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.

Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.