Friday, December 16, 2016

no hard feelings

...hard feelings
Lord knows they haven’t done
much good for anyone
kept me afraid and cold
with so much to have and hold
Under the curving sky
I’m finally learning why
it matters for me and you
to say it mean it too
for life and its loveliness
and all of its ugliness
good as it’s been to me
I have no enemies

Lately I’ve been sharing this with everyone who will listen—posting it on social media, mentioning it in conversation, texting and emailing it to friends, playing it for passengers in my car. And now I'm posting it here. Something about it seems so essential to me, so important for everyone to hear, that I can’t help but talk about it. The way I’m writing, it occurs to me now that this song is like a new gospel to me, is a new gospel for me. Or perhaps it’s just gospel, but bent for my ears to hear.

This song has so affected me that it’s inspired me to pick up my book project, which I started last November, or maybe the November before that. (And by “started” I mean wrote a page and a half and then abandoned it completely.) The only trouble with that is, every time I listen to the song, I dissolve into a puddle of emotion and tears and inarticulateness. It’s not even that I’m sad; it’s all just too much.

Of course, it’s not all the song. 2016 has been…well, too much. Of course there are the big things: the election, the paralyzing ruin of Syria, the death of beloved figures, two horrifying trials happening in Charleston, and more, and more. And my little life, like everyone’s really, filled with so many slight miracles and tragedies. The slightness of them, their particularity, doesn’t make them any less miraculous or tragic.

“Life in its loveliness/and all of its ugliness”—does anything more need to be said?

Perhaps just a few more words. Because this lyric, the whole song, brings up a question for me: so what? I ask myself this a lot, both because I have a tendency to pile on emotion for no particular reason, and because I believe all of this beauty and all of this ugliness is connected. So what? How does it connect? What does it point to?

Of course there’s no one answer for this, or at least I haven’t found one that ties it together for me in any way I can accept.

And yet…

I do think—no, I believe—that stories, and songs, and the relationships that create them, and all of their big and slight miracles and tragedies—these are as close as we can get to the kind of tying-it-all-together truth I so badly want to discover. All of these stories and songs and relationships are disparate, but so is life. And aren’t they all disparate in a maybe-connected way? Oh, please let it be so.

This brings me to Advent, not so obviously. The other line that has been reverberating through my brain (there are a lot of words in my brain, as you may have picked up on) comes from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (1:5 NRSV) I wrote about this verse last Advent, and I have a feeling I’ll write about it again, because once you’ve read these words, how could they not stay with you forever?

I don’t want to get too Gnostic on anyone, but this verse reads a lot like a battle between light and darkness. John likes to do that. The light is shining; the darkness tries to overcome it. It hasn’t, yet.

Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.*

People talk about Advent as a time of waiting: waiting for the birth of Jesus, waiting for deliverance, waiting for the world to be set right by a savior. Or waiting for someone who will at least accompany us through the beauty and the ugliness, and accompany us forever. Waiting for someone who won’t disappoint us, won’t stop loving us, won’t let go of us. Not someone who will remove the darkness, but someone who won’t leave us in it.

That song, the one I opened with—it is gospel to me not because it makes me feel better about the world. Let’s be honest: it’s about death, and uncertainty. But it’s also about life, and about how much more we should love because of its uncertainty. Don’t wait, the song says. Now is the time to give up all that old anger and resentment and hatred and distaste (I have a particularly tough time with that one). Now is the time to live, freely and fully, to take all of the beauty and ugliness in and allow it to affect you, to take others in and let them take you in, to allow ourselves to affect each other.

This does not contradict the lesson of Advent. Advent is not just about waiting; it’s also about preparing. It’s about readying our hearts and ourselves for a love beyond comprehension, a love that does not turn away at the sight of blinding beauty or violent ugliness. It's about preparing so fully that we become that love to each other. It’s about life. It’s all about life.

*These words are from an op-ed called "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Meby Kate Bowler.

Monday, July 25, 2016

us vs. them

(Below is the text of a message I gave at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 24, 2016. It references the following biblical passage:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14)

I remember exactly how I felt. You know when something makes you so angry that tears immediately spring up in the back of your eyes? That's the feeling I’m talking about.

But as I looked around the room, I quickly realized that no one else was as angry as I was. They didn't even seem annoyed. It looked like they were totally unaware that what this woman had just said could offend anyone who was there that night.

A little back story: I was at a Bible study, and we were having a conversation about mission, and what it means to share our faith with other people. This topic alone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’m not really the kind of Christian who tells people about Jesus. I’m more likely to evangelize for a new restaurant I really like than to invite someone to come to church with me. So when the conversation drifted towards how we talk about the gospel to quote “nonbelievers”, I was all set to tune out.

Then someone asked the priest leading the study if people of other religions evangelize the way Christians are known to do. He confessed that he really didn’t know, because he hadn’t spent much time studying other religions. Naturally, I felt the urge to chime in, as I had long ago designated myself the voice of the liberals in this conservative group.

“Well,” I said, “my understanding is that Christians definitely do more evangelizing than any other major world religions. You don’t see a whole lot of Jewish groups trying to gain converts, for example. Depending on how you classify Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’re really known for their mission work—knocking on doors, going on mission trips, that sort of thing. If you lump those two under Christianity, the next most mission-oriented religion would probably be Islam, although they’re a distant second.”

When I said this, a woman across the circle from me made a joke: “If they come knocking," she said, "I wouldn’t be answering that door!”

Almost everybody laughed. “Oh my God,” I said under my breath. 

Yeah, that’s really what I said. 

I know she saw the exasperation on my face, and probably heard me, because she apologized to the group a couple minutes later for speaking without thinking. After class, she came up to me individually and told me about how she’s trying to be more accepting of different people. Told me a story about her son marrying a woman of a different race and background. She was mortified by the whole situation. So was I.

This interaction happened a few months ago during a Bible study at a church much more conservative than Circular...although to be fair, that’s not a hard distinction to gain!

I had decided to join this 9-month-long study, called Disciple, because I’m friends with the priest and his wife, and because I wanted to force myself to discuss theology with people different from me. 

It was a struggle to make myself go every week. I could tell dozens of other stories like this one, stories about how uncomfortable I felt, stories of how I disagreed with everyone there, stories of how I often wanted to cry or scream or make a sarcastic comment. (Okay, I succumbed to that last urge more often than I’d like to admit).

I have a lot of stories of situations that, frankly, made me feel intellectually and often morally superior to everyone else in the room. Whether I meant to or not, I often saw myself as the educated, enlightened, accepting liberal riding in on my white horse to save these misguided, backwards people from their ignorance. 

There’s this great podcast, an interview series, that I like to listen to. It's called The Liturgists. I highly recommend it if you’re something of a seeker and like thinking about theology. In one episode, they talk about how to tell the difference between being prophetic and being a self-righteous jerk. I like to think I walk that line pretty consistently, but honestly I know I err on the jerk side a lot of the time.

One of the hosts of the show calls himself Science Mike, which alludes to his profession as well as his tendency to analyze everything and break it down into systems. In this episode, Science Mike ends by talking about his system for deciding when he should, and when he shouldn’t, share something he thinks is a “prophetic truth” with other people. Here are the questions he asks himself:

Number 1: Am I communicating honestly and without hostility? 
Number 2: Am I speaking for someone or against something? At whom or what is this really directed?
Number 3: What will I get out of saying this? Does this bolster me in some way? 
And lastly, number 4: Is this driven by social identity? In other words, am I saying this because a group I’m part of would agree with it, or because I really believe it?

These questions all get a bit technical, but the basic point is this: it’s a good idea to ask ourselves if we’re saying or doing something we think is just or good or righteous, out of a desire to love and to help and to change things for the better, or because we want to feel good about ourselves.

This brings me to the parable in Luke 18. The Pharisee in this passage fails Science Mike’s test with flying colors.

I could have a field day with this one. I’m sure we all could. It’s so easy to see and point out everything this guy is doing wrong…because there’s so much he’s doing wrong! He’s like the poster child for Jesus’ collection of bad examples! In other words…well, he's acting a lot like I do sometimes. 

That’s what I love and hate about parables...they always surprise me. As soon as we identify with someone, pick a good guy and a bad guy, we miss the point. As soon as I vilify the Pharisee, I become like him...intent on pointing out how much better I would behave in his situation. Just like he did to the tax collector, I make him into an outsider…the one who, unlike me, is doing it wrong. One of them.

Every Sunday at Circular, we say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I believe we mean it. But sometimes welcoming everyone is really, really uncomfortable. This is true no matter what community we’re talking about and no matter how hard we try. This may be especially true in our current political context. There are a lot of directions to point fingers in. The “us vs. them” mentality is difficult to escape.

At the church where I did that Bible study, “they” might be Muslim people, or LGBT people, or people who don’t wear the right clothes or have the right jobs. At Circular, “they” might be people who say "All Lives Matter", or oppose gay marriage, or watch Fox News every night. 

We certainly wouldn't make them leave or anything that obvious, but I'm not sure they would feel welcome here either.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have principles. Circular’s principles, guided by the life of Jesus, require us to work together to create a more just world. This means paying attention to privilege and trying to level the playing field, or to put it in more religious language, bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.

But we have to be careful about how we communicate our principles, and what we imply the consequences are if someone doesn’t agree with them. 

Do we have a conversation? 
Do we acknowledge our shared humanity? 
Do we respond in love?
Or do we, like the Pharisee in the parable, thank God that we are not like them
Do we, like I did with that woman from the Bible study, roll our eyes and mutter under our breath? 

In the wake of the Dallas shootings a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing a quotation pop up all over the internet: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” 

You know who said that? George W. Bush. Yeah, that George W. Bush.

Reading this quote, and remembering who said it, gets at the heart of the issue for me. We need to have bigger imaginations than we often do. We need to see possibility in each other, to see the image of God, the face of Christ, in everyone...even, or perhaps especially, in people we disagree with. 

The good news we profess in this community is that everyone is welcome here, and that everyone deserves love and justice. We proclaim this every Sunday. Each day following, we work to make this proclamation a reality in the wider world.

The question is, are we going to carry out our mission of love and justice in a spirit of self-righteousness, or in a spirit of love and compassion for everyone? Really, truly everyone?

I don’t know about you, but I know that I’ll need a little help and a lot of grace to do that. I trust we’ll receive it, if we ask. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

what I've learned, or not

Lately I've been waking up in the middle of the night, around 3 or 4 usually, and just...lying there. Insomnia's not that unusual, I know, but it's unusual for me. Right now, in fact, I'm having a little bit of it--11:58pm and my eyelids haven't even started to droop. It seemed like a good idea to write.

I've been 30 years old for a whole three weeks now, plus a little extra. My friend Sydney and I wrapped up more than a month of celebration last night with her perfect gift to me: dinner at the Wild Olive, a restaurant that's been on my to go list for years and years. It was at least as good as I expected it to be, better. Then today we walked on the beach, made breakfast, lunch, and dinner, drank wine and watched a rom com (somehow the abbreviated version of that term makes it even more apt). A perfect couple of white women days, really. Sunned, sanded, and wiped out, I would expect to go right to sleep. Here I am, though, thinking, writing, lying here again.

Perhaps what has been giving me pause is the strangely anticlimactic feeling accompanying what everyone has assured me is a pivotal birthday. 30. Three decades, each one vastly different from the last, each inhabited by a different person, really.

My sister asked me a couple of weeks ago what I had learned during my twenties. I balked, then responded with an answer I probably shouldn't post publicly. She told me that by the time she turned 30, she had learned not to have more than three drinks in a night. Nope, haven't learned that lesson yet.

Since then the question has lingered in the back of my mind. What have I learned? Anything? Something, surely. Right?

Doubt is so much more a part of my life than ever before. College taught me to doubt, and divinity school imprinted that quality into my identity. Take nothing at face value. Always look again, and again, and again. When I think about what I've learned, doubt is the first thing that comes to mind.

Doubt doesn't seem like the best starting point for a list of lessons, but maybe what I've learned doesn't fit in a list. Lists are too permanent, or they try to make things so. Recently I was telling my mom that big decisions scare me because I've never been certain about anything, at least not for long. Depending on the day, my ambivalence has sometimes led me to embrace change but more often to flee from it. I may not be certain about what I'm already doing, but at least it's comfortable; at least it's already happening. I have inertia going for me, which is nice.

But on a good day, that doubt can take me in the opposite direction. It can remind me that nothing--not my resolve, not my circumstances, not my understanding--is final. Look again, it says. Try again. Reconsider. Change. Grow.

This brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes, and particularly its oft-repeated claim about life: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

That's an uplifting life lesson, right?

It's important to note that the word used for vanity in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew hebel, which is often translated as "breath" or "vapor," indicating impermanence, futility, and delusion. But what else does breath point towards? Life.

That's it, really: what I've learned. It's all breath, or breaths, all uncertainty and change, failure followed by triumph followed by despair followed by joy. Mostly all of it wrapped up together, but in some kind of uncontrollable whirlwind rather than a neat package.

Maybe in another ten years I'll have a list. For now, this is about all I've got.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

next time

I’ve thought a lot of grace
on this windy, wintry day (wintry in the Carolina sense
60, maybe, and gray).

Is this resurrection
a dimness we cannot fathom, a mirror reflecting darkly
an overcast spring day?

Perhaps this dimness is
all we can take for now, lit up about as bright as we can stand
grace given with more grace.

I want to believe this:
the world has a life of its own we cannot kill, not completely
despite our best efforts.

It will come back, for good
and next time we’ll want it, greet it with open hearts and brimming eyes
I can see it, almost.

For now, let it all go
all of it; empty yourself, turn back towards that far off spring, and
look, always look again.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Love, and wanting more

How do we love? How should we?

I remember having a conversation with, oh, someone…maybe a Sunday school teacher, or a friend, or a stranger or all of these. All I remember is that I was young.

“If God loves everyone and we’re supposed to love everyone, does that mean I can’t love my mom and dad more than someone I don’t know? Do I have to love everyone the same, no matter who they are or what they do?”

So many possible answers to this kind of question, and none of them satisfactory. Yes, we should love everyone equally; everyone is our neighbor, and aren’t we supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? Or, it’s okay to love a few people in a particular, close, favorite kind of way; our families are where we learn to love, and it’s normal to love them more. Or, God pours out love especially on the people who need it, not necessarily the ones who deserve it, so shouldn’t we do the same?

I may not have known the term, but I was asking about agape here. That seems to be the love of choice in most churches, the love we say God shows, impartial love, love for everyone, love without expectation of return, of good behavior, of exclusivity, of any result.

We talked about this some in divinity school; of course we did. Love was always floating in the background of all of our conversations, the guiding principle behind all the theorizing and theologizing and wondering. I never got a good answer though to what the right kind of love is, though. I never heard anything final about anything, including love.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I was with my sister and brother-in-law and niece and nephew, and a friend in the morning. Lots of love, many kinds blended together. And yet, I still felt a sense of being left out, of missing something. I guess you could say I felt desire, a yearning for something more.

This led me to remember a class I took on suffering. (That’s not a punch line, at least not a purposeful one.) We talked a lot about suffering and love, love and suffering, the definite correlation and possible causation between the two. And we talked about desire, or at least I did in my last paper. I quoted Dorothee Soelle, a writer we read, a lot in that paper: “…unconditional love for reality does not in the least defuse passionate desires to change reality...unconditional love can allow itself the more absurd desires—it can pray for them and it can work for them, precisely because it does not make the existence of God depend on the fulfillment of these desires.” We might restate that as: love does not make the existence of love depend on the fulfillment of desire. We can declare our love for the world, for God, for our family and neighbors and lovers, and really, really mean it—and in the next breath proclaim our desire, our deep need, for change, for more and better love.

We don’t often think of God as experiencing desire, of wanting. Look at Jesus, though, and for that matter look at most of the history of Israel. God, Jesus, both cry out to their people, followers, priests, disciples, to strangers even, asking for more and better love. God loves us, and precisely because of that love, God wants us to live in a way that shows love to others; this is the only way forward, the only way we can understand what love is and what it can be.

My desires don’t always align with divine desires. In fact I’d say it’s a good day when a few of them sort of do. But isn’t that why desire is there in the first place—because things are off kilter, unfair, not quite the way they should be?

How do we love? How should we? Maybe I'm supposed to love everyone equally, without expectation, but, well, I'm not sure if that's going to happen anytime soon. All I can say is there is no one way, no right answer, no clear signpost, for love. There’s only us, trying to be for each other, trying to want and do good things for our world, trying to want what we think God, love, might want, and working to make those desires manifest. Let it be so.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Signs of spoilage

Monday, 5/21
She told me it would be dirty work. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t remember that, as though I believed I would just bake brownies every day. In my interview we talked about how much gleaning I would do and what exactly “gleaning” entailed: sorting through boxes of past-their-prime fruits and vegetables to see what we could use in our meals. I knew what I was getting myself into.

Somehow, though, this recognition does not make the smell of 300 pounds of half-rotten vegetables any easier to tolerate. My car smells like tomato wine, or it would if tomato wine existed. I roll my windows down, but it doesn’t help much; the 90-degree heat holds everything about the rot in my nose, my senses, my consciousness.

What am I doing? I ask myself on the drive back to the office. I know what led me here, at least; I wanted this job because I love food, and I hoped I could translate that love into meaningful work. I am quickly realizing that I actually just love fresh food, the kind I buy from Whole Foods or a farmer’s market, or at this point, any place where the food doesn’t have visible mold on it. I am also realizing that while I love making food for my friends—hosting elaborate dinner parties for a dozen people or so—planning and executing four meals a week for 75-100 people does not hold quite the same charm.

I pull up to the back door of our building. Reflection time is over. My coworkers come out to help me carry everything in from my car, and I sort, weigh, and record my haul. 32 pounds of peaches, 56 of corn, 47 of tomatoes, endless squash and zucchini. About half of everything I picked up is unusable, so into the compost bin it goes.

Ah, the compost bin. From far away it looks almost beautiful, a rainbow of refuse. The closer I get, though, the more I see the signs of spoilage:  mold, flies, the occasional small animal casing the joint. I go out there two, three times every day, but I try my best to make those visits as quick as possible. Sometimes I hold my breath for the 15 seconds it takes to dump a boxful into the muck.

Of course, Mondays are the hardest. As soon as I’ve sorted and weighed what I’ve gleaned, recorded it, and composted the bad stuff, volunteers show up to help me process it all. The same group comes every Monday, 10 or 15 young adults with developmental disabilities. Working with them is not my strong point, to say the least. I’m terrible at it. I’m impatient, nervous, unsure of what they can and cannot do and how I should talk to them. I know they know I’m uncomfortable, but I can’t quite figure out how to hide it, or better yet, get over it.

Jack, a thin blonde guy with a crooked nose, has a habit of asking, “Why?” no matter what I tell him to do.

“Jack, take these tomatoes out of this bin and put them on this pallet.” “Why?” “Because they need to go on a pallet.”

“Jack, take the husks off of the corn, then put the husks in here and the corn in here.” “Why?” “Because people can eat the corn but they can’t eat the husks.”

“Jack, sort through these squash and put the hard ones here and the squishy ones there.” “Why?” “Because that’s what I need you to do right now!

“So sorry,” Jack says, in a swift, instinctive way, a way that makes it clear he’s been apologizing his whole life.

What am I doing?

Almost as soon as Jack and his friends get here, though, they are gone. I walk into our kitchen and take my lunch out of the refrigerator, my lunch. It’s healthy (enough), fresh, and expensive: a beet and arugula salad with sheep’s milk feta, roasted pecans, and a white wine vinaigrette I made myself. Fresh crusty bread, toasted and slathered with butter. As much watermelon as I can fit into an old yogurt container. I eat like this every damn day. And I love it. Do I want everyone to be able to eat like this, to choose what they want, buy it, cook it, and eat it? Yes. Would I compromise my comfort to make that happen? It would appear not.

But I try not to think about this right now. I try to put everything out of my mind except my lunch; I lean against the counter and relax into my meal. This, I think—this is what I love about food.

Anne, my supervisor, comes in just as I swallow my last bite. We go over all of the salvageable produce I gleaned, divide it among industrial-sized blue bins, and store it wherever we can find fridge space. We talk about what we’ll do with all this stuff, all these quickly-decomposing-but-still-usable fruits and vegetables. We talk about potential recipes for the week, we fold aprons and hand towels, and we pull out meat from the freezer. I tell her about the kale salad I made for dinner last night, and she tells me about the lime, basil, and gin cocktail she mixed up on Saturday. When I talk to her, I love this job. In fact, when I talk to anyone I work with I love it. I’m not here for the rotten squash; I’m here hoping I can soak up some of their goodness. But I feel like a fraud.

Friday, 8/10
I love working on Fridays. Normally I don’t come in; Anne usually works alone to plan next week’s meals. But this week—my last week—she’s on vacation, so I’m filling in for her. I chat with the Friday morning cooks, check out the contents of the freezer and the pantry, and piece together menus based on what we have in stock. It’s like a word problem:  you have 33 pounds of chicken, 27 pounds of ground beef, 15 pounds of rice, and 3 bins of vegetables. How many people can you feed?

I figure it out, come up with recipes, and email Anne:

Hello! I've outlined some possible menus for next week. I'm not sure what days we have dessert donated, but since we have so many peaches and bananas in the freezer I thought it would make sense to use them. As far as meat goes, we have a lot of chicken and smaller amounts of ground meat, beef, and bacon. I took out the chicken and ground meat so that should be ready to go. We also still have a lot of produce in the fridge, mostly peppers and squash/zucchini (some of which is already chopped), plus tomatoes and potatoes. Here’s what I came up with:

Parmesan breaded chicken tenders
Roasted squash
Mashed potatoes

Chili mac with cheddar, tomatoes, and hot peppers
Roasted zucchini

Black beans and rice with peppers (hot/sweet) and onions (and bacon?)
Squash and zucchini with cumin and chili powder
Sliced tomatoes

Beef stew with lots of summer veggies, over rice
Cucumber salad

Possible desserts:
Peach cobbler
Banana cake with chocolate/cinnamon chips

See you soon (very soon, I hope)!

xoxo Sarah

I hit send. Why does this list of simple meals feel so important to me? It’s not exactly a stroke of culinary genius to suggest that we use beef to make beef stew. My pride in this work makes me feel silly for a moment, like I’m six years old again and proud of myself for tying my shoes. Everyone else learned that two years ago? Oh.

Anyway, I don’t dwell on it because it’s time for me to go. Or almost anyway—one more trip to the compost bin. A local farmer dropped an unexpected donation at our doorstep last night, and some of the vegetables will not last until Tuesday. The recent heat wave hasn’t made the task of composting any more appealing, but perhaps because it’s my last week, my last day, I almost feel a premature nostalgia for this act. I even start to think that maybe gleaning wasn’t so bad. I know I’m idealizing, but I want to hold onto everything about this summer as long as I can.

I stand outside for a moment, sweating, staring at the compost. Beauty and color and ripeness—it is all slowly dying, decaying into dirt. And for what? To become the ground we walk on, the soil we grow in. I couldn’t do it, I think. These inanimate objects have me beat. But then I realize that like it or not, I am doing it. We’re all doing it—slipping away, day by day, piece by piece, often quite imperceptibly. But does our slow death birth any new life? Do we make our death worth it? I start to think I could learn something from this compost.

Or maybe it’s just compost.

Then again, maybe so are we.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Growing up

What does it mean to be a grown-up? I haven’t used that word in awhile; somehow it doesn’t seem very grown up to say it. Children call adults grown-ups; grown-ups don’t call themselves that.

But it’s the word I want to use here, because I feel like a kid today. It’s not that I did anything particularly thoughtless or irresponsible, or that I’m experiencing a sense of childlike wonder. No, I don’t feel childish or childlike—I just feel like a kid, a little lost, looking for guidance, in need of someone to tell me what to do. In my experience, this is something grown-ups are loathe to admit—that they (we?) are at a loss, cannot handle things themselves. So, I feel like a kid today.

When I wrote about church, my thoughts turned to why my generation has trouble with it. When I think of “grown-upness,” the same thing happens: the concept calls to mind all that’s been written about how we millennials just can’t seem to grow up in the way the world wants us to, expects us to. Depending on whom you ask, we’re floundering or exploring or procrastinating or freeing ourselves from the status quo. I’m not sure which of these, if any, we’re doing; all I know is it all feels very disorienting.

Every generation thinks they’re the exception, that they’re creating something new. In my experience, when people talk about millennial exceptionalism a mocking tone often creeps in. The term “unique and special snowflake” comes to mind. We’ve been brought up to think we deserve trophies just for showing up, they say. We think that our workplaces should accommodate our schedules rather than the other way around. We’re delaying or disavowing marriage and kids because we’re selfish. We believe the world cares enough about us that they want to see pictures of what we ate for breakfast…they say. And perhaps they’re right. Perhaps many of us do think we’re special snowflakes deserving of trophies and flex time and freedom and perfectly cooked quinoa porridge.

Setting aside that these stereotypes only take into account a very privileged, very white subset of millennials (a subset of which I am, for better or worse, a card-carrying member), they often don’t look at why we feel the need to be unique or what this is doing to us. I said at the beginning of this that I feel like a kid today. A lot of people my age(ish) I talk to feel like this every day, and it’s not because they want to. All of this nonconformity, this throwing off of expectation, betrays our lack of trust in anyone or anything. We’ve watched our parents divorce, our economic system unravel, our politics devolve into deadlock, our institutions become outdated at best and disgraced at worst.

And so we believe we have no choice but to start something new—but we, like everyone else, have no idea what that new thing will be. This uncertainty looks a lot like failure, and we feel that, deeply. Almost everyone I know has experienced depression or anxiety serious enough to feel abnormal and in some cases debilitated. Many of those people, myself included, are ashamed to admit this publicly; we know it plays into millennial stereotypes that we can’t handle ourselves, can’t grow up. And believe it or not, most of want to be grown-ups, want to feel some sense of stability. So we keep trying.

We try, with varying degrees of success. Some of us have gotten good enough at “adulting” that we have convinced everyone but ourselves that we know what we’re doing (and yes, we’ve turned the word “adult” into a verb—those who can’t do, conjugate). I even know a few people with a stable job, partner, multiple children, and a house they bought with their own money. Others are still floating, looking for a way to fit their special snowflake shape into the blizzard coming down around them. Most are in between, kids some days and grown-ups others. All of us, from what I can see, are painfully aware of the tenuous balance life in all its forms requires.

I hoped that by the end of this—and I feel that I am nearing the end of it—I would have some conclusion, something to please millennials and our elders alike. We got this! We’re not as selfish or stunted as you or we think we are! We can function in the current adult society! Sorry, no. All I can say is I am truly hopeful that we’ll make something of ourselves and the world we’re inheriting. Yes, I know a lot of people who are anxious and depressed and feel like they’ll never grow up. But here’s the thing: they’re still dreaming, still creating, still doing some really amazing, love-spreading, life-giving, community-changing things.

We might not know what we’re doing, but we’re showing up. Isn’t that all we can ask of each other?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I'm not going to church today.

It’s 9:57 on a Sunday morning, and I’m not getting ready for church.

It feels like a confession, writing that. Today is Sunday, so what else should I be doing? I went to divinity school, after all, and the church I go to just gave me some money to do a project I really, really want to do. The minister there gives thought-provoking sermons, the music is consistently good, the people kind.

But I have a lingering cold, and Schuyler’s working all day. I want to go for a walk soon, and there have been so many people around lately. I’m still coming off that holiday rush of crowds, noise, fullness. And the church I go to—well, they wouldn’t want me to come to a service just out of guilt. Right?

Right. So why this persistent, nagging anxiety the idea of church and of choosing not to go to it provokes in me? It’s not new, it’s been here for years, and yet I haven’t wrestled it to the ground yet. I should go to church, I like the idea of church, I even like actual church sometimes…but it’s always a struggle, never quite fits. Is it the millennial in me, some unrealistic expectation that everything I do should bring some kind of authentic personal fulfillment into my life? Am I just being too goddamned self-centered? (The number of times I’ve used the word “I” in this so far does not escape me, and yes, I meant to say “goddamned”.)

Perhaps. There is a tendency to navel-gaze in me, a habit of reflecting things into the ground and coming to no useful conclusions in the process. Still, there seems to be something more here, and it’s not only me who thinks so. As a society we’re forgetting how to “do” religion, in some part willfully. This is no new observation: think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” how many people you know who care about other people and ethics and God and stories, but just don’t feel at home in organized religion. Depending on who you are, maybe that doesn’t resonate with you, but in the church (whatever that means anymore) this is a big bewildering full-fledged crisis.

And I’m supposed to be one of the few young faithful (believe me, lots of churches have assured me of this), one of the ones who keeps the church alive. It feels like a responsibility, something I’ve been educated and groomed for, and willingly so. I want to be a part of the church, want to lead in some way even, but walking into a room full of strangers and making myself talk to them sounds like the worst way to spend my morning.

I can’t stress enough that this church, the particular church I’m talking about, is wonderful. The people, I mean. (That’s what church is, right?) They care about the things that I care about, those liberal church values: community, authenticity, social justice, openness. They even care about God! Well, most of them…but let’s not get into that right now.

Here’s the thing: those values are all terrifying. Practicing them requires work, discomfort, vulnerability, risk, failure. Just like talking to strangers, which, as I have already noted, is something I hate. (Unfortunately, that’s kind of all Jesus ever did: talk to strangers. How inconvenient. Again, we won’t get into that right now.)

I read an article yesterday that offered some advice that seems to fit here: to live a good life, rather than asking ourselves what we want, we have to ask ourselves what we are willing to struggle for. I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out here: am I willing to struggle for community, to work to get to know people who will care for and disappoint me, who will make me feel awkward and loved and judged and forgiven? Because that’s what the church does. That’s what people do.

Everyone doesn’t find that community in church. The church hasn’t done a particularly good job of providing it, which probably has a lot to do with that crisis I mentioned earlier. What brings me so much hope and anguish is that I know it can, and can abundantly. And I can play a part in inviting people into that community, welcoming them into the imperfection and the grace.

The only problem is, I have to make myself, let myself go in first. I guess there’s always next Sunday.