Sunday, February 27, 2011


In her memoir, At Seventy, poet and novelist May Sarton wrote:

"Writing for me is a way of understanding what is happening to me, of thinking hard things out. I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself."

Writer Anne Lamott echoed these words in her book Bird by Bird:

"Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not share this longing, which is one reason why they write so very little. But we do."

I have kept a journal in some form or another since I was 10-years-old.
Early on, my "dear diary' entries focused on rock star obsessions, social anxieties and unrequited crushes. In my twenties my focus shifted to job frustrations and real-world relationship angst, and in my thirties my journaling became focused on all things spiritual. God. Religion. The Universe. What did it all mean....and what part was I meant to play in it.
In reality, every journal entry I've written since I was 10-years-old has been about one thing.


A longing to fill an empty space inside of me, a longing to figure out where I belong, a longing to know the will of God.

This is why I write.
Journal entries. Essays. Poems. Sermons. Blog posts.
Chicken scratch handwriting on the back of envelopes, on pages torn out of notebooks, on whatever scrap of paper I find stuffed in the door pocket of my car.
An idea, an observation, a wondering, a frustration, a struggle.
The primary way I know how to work it out of my system is to write.

If I feel it's a universal observation, wondering or struggle, and I think someone may find some use in what I have to say, it finds a home here, or in a sermon.
If it's too private, too embarrassing, or too hard to talk about outside of my own head, then it stays confined within the pages of my journal.

I've been doing a lot of journaling of late.

Every now and then I'll pull out one of my old journals and snicker at what I once thought was too private to share. I'll look back at my 15-year-old self, my 25-year-old self, my 35-year-old self and laugh with a tinge of embarrassment, at what once caused me untold anxiety and fear. All along saying to myself, "Oh how ignorant, and insecure, and foolish I was."
The job that I wanted so much because I was convinced it was perfect for me. What a disaster that would have been if I had gotten it.
The person/relationship that I had convinced myself I could not live with out. Is now but a memory filed under the heading, "What was I thinking?"
The understanding of God, religion, and/or the workings of the universe that I once held as core to my belief system. Now seem silly, trite, or unbelievably naive.

It's perfectly normal to look back at one's life and laugh at who we once were.
Those of us who have kept journals for years have a slight advantage in that regard. 
It's kind of neat to have a record of exactly what I was thinking on a Tuesday afternoon in July of 1984.
It's also strangely surreal to be able to step back in time and see oneself through ones own eyes in that moment in time. This is me (now), looking at me (then), looking at me then (who am I and how did I get here?).

I'm hoping that my 55-year-old self will one day pick up the journal written by my 45-year-old self and say:
"My, how foolish you were. Why were you so worried about that? Everything worked out for the best in the end."

But I can't laugh at the past, in the future, if I don't write about it in the present.
So write I must.
The words pour out of me onto the page because to not let them loose is to lose them to time.
 And keep them inside is to keep them unexpressed, unexplored, and unresolved.
To not ask the questions, to not examine the longings, is to keep them chained in the dark, allowing them to pull incessantly against their restraints as they tear me up from the inside out.

Some day, even the darkest entries in my journal, the words I was once too ashamed to share, may find their way into a blog post, or a sermon.
And while some frown upon this practice of public sharing as being too narcissistic and self-focused - and point to it as further evidence of our crumbling me-centered society.....I share these words of mine for one reason alone.
Because every time I do, someone reads these words, or hears these words, and makes it a point to say to me, "I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Thank you for helping me to realize that I am not alone."

This is one of the primary reasons why I feel drawn to ministry.
Because I discovered that unchaining the longings of my heart, my mind, and my soul, and letting them flow out of me in words, loosens the chains of others.

Toni Morrison wrote:

"The function of freedom is to free someone else, and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else."

Thank you, Toni. For writing.
And for freeing me to do the same.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Still waters run deep...

 In my Grounded in God class last semester we learned how to practice discernment processes in a group setting. It's one thing to be able to talk to God and to listen to God on one's own, it's another animal all together to do it in the company of others.
The truth is that we cannot and should not function in a vacuum. God speaks to us using the voices of others, and often when we feel as if we've reached a stalemate talking to and listening to God on our own, we will receive new and clarifying insights from the people around us. When a thought or direction has become muddled in our own mind, God may use the mind of another to untangle that knot for us. Sometimes it takes a change of perspective to realize that we had the answer all along.

In our Grounded in God class we participated in "Clearness Committees." The class was divided into groups of 4-6 members, and within each group one person was designated to be the "focus person" each week. The focus person is given 3-5 minutes to share a concern or situation that is in need of discernment, the other group members are given 1 minute to ask clarifying questions, and then the focus person remains silent for 8-10 minutes while the other members of the group offer up comments or possible questions for the focus person to consider. It is all done in a very contemplative, prayerful manner. After each session my classmates often expressed amazement at what had come to light within their groups. The focus person came away with a new found clarity and those who acted as listeners and commentators felt as if that their responses were coming from not just from within them, but from somewhere outside of them. It was often said that the Holy Spirit was present in the room.

Over the course of the semester the members of our group got to know each other fairly well. On the last day of class our Professor asked us to take some time and to turn to each person in our group and tell them what gifts they have to bring to ministry and what gifts we had seen them bring to our group. One member of the group wrote down each gift that was mentioned and each person received a written list of their gifts, along with the suggestion that we pull out the list and read it whenever we begin to doubt that we have what it takes to do this messy work that is ministry.

My list looked like this:

Never Flustered
Contagious Smile
Sense of Humor
Anchored & Steady
Very Loyal
Peaceful & Loving

I had a very strange reaction to receiving this list. While my classmates spoke of coveting their lists and made plans to refer to them for years to come, I wanted to hide mine away.
I hated it. It made me cringe.
All I saw was what wasn't on there:
Good listener. Insightful. Inspirational. Helpful. Kind. Compassionate.
Others in our group had been told they had these gifts, and I've been told in the past that I have them, but for some reason I wanted them to be on this list.
This list that I'm supposed to keep for prosperity.

And, moreover, I found myself cringing over what WAS on the list.
Grounded. Anchored. Stable. Steady. Loyal.
When I hear these words I think of only one thing: BORING.
Blah. Blend into the background. Forgettable.
The words on my list are often used to describe the strong silent types who are hard to read.
In fact, earlier in the class one woman took the time to thank each member of the class individually for what they had to contribute during the semester, and when she got to me she said, "Maureen, you're so quiet, I feel like I never got to know you, yet I feel this amazing power, energy, and strength coming from you."
What a wonderful thing to say.
And yet all I heard was, "You're so quiet, I feel like I don't know you."

This is the anchor around my neck.
The persona that I'm trying so hard to let go of.
I've always been the quiet one. The reliable one. The grounded and predictable one.
The one that very few people have the opportunity to truly get to know.
I am an enigma to many, and to myself.
I stand up in the pulpit or in front of the congregation and a switch gets thrown inside of me and suddenly I am a preacher.
I lob witticisms on facebook and participate in online conversations that allow me to channel the creative and silly side of me that many never see in person.
People come up to me at school and express surprise at something I've written - a sermon posted on my blog, a funny crack on facebook. "I would never have expected something like that to come out of you," they say, "You're so quiet and reserved most of the time."

This is the person I want to let go of.
Oh how I envy those who carry these words around with them: spontaneous, adventurous, dramatic, expressive, unpredictable, fun-loving!
Instead I am grounded, anchored, stable, steady, loyal.

Now I fully realize that these gifts that others see in me are an asset for one seeking to enter the ministry. I have often been told that I embody the idea of a "non-anxious presence" - that I can get mixed up in other people's stuff and let it roll off of me without reacting to it and becoming a part of the drama myself.
And I can also see how being spontaneous, dramatic and unpredictable could be a detriment for someone entering the ministry. As these traits can often lead to flightiness, disorganization and unreliability.

So what am I whining about?
Why am I so bugged out because my classmates described me as being grounded and steady?

Because I keep letting my ego get in the way.
Because ever since God started leading me into the ministry and I discovered that I had a voice I've been fighting against my proclivities to use it.
My instinct is to be fearful. To run. To clam up. To withhold. To stay in the background.
And I am so proud of myself whenever I overcome those instincts and stand up and speak.
Whenever I muster the strength to stick my hand up in a crowd and dare others to pay attention to what I have to say. 
To be labeled as quiet, steady, reliable, predictable is to take a step backwards.

It pushes my buttons.
The buttons that say, "I'm not special."

It's a funny thing to be a preacher.
To listen to others tell you how "wonderful" your message was or how "gifted" you are at writing and delivering a sermon....And all the while trying to keep forefront in your mind that it's not you.
The words don't come from me. The message doesn't come from me.
Yes, I'm in there somewhere. My experiences. My perspective. My love of metaphor and storytelling. But the message comes from somewhere outside of me. There's some Holy Spirit mojo going on that causes my jumbled mess of stories, observations, and exegesis to coagulate into a coherent and effective sermon, often at the eleventh hour.
There's some divine force that causes me to step into a pulpit, look the congregation in the eye and dare to speak what I have written when I've spent most of my life staring at my shoes and keeping my mouth shut.

I keep running from myself.
I'm running from who I was, and who I still am in many ways.
But when my classmates hold up a mirror and those words that I've rejected are reflected back at me I have to accept that there's a message from God in there somewhere.
Perhaps I'm meant to discover that being grounded and reliable does not automatically mean that one is boring and forgettable.
That being the quiet one does not mean that one does not have a voice.
That being the strong silent type is not a negative personality trait, it's just one of the many paths that God created for us to walk in this world.

I'm taking a second look at that list that I was given.
And noticing that it is written in the wide, looping handwriting of a classmate whom I respect and love.
She added "Peaceful & Loving" at the bottom of the list even though it wasn't spoken aloud.

We cannot and should not function in a vacuum.
We may tie ourselves into knots trying to discern what it is that God is trying to tell us when we sit down and have a one on one conversation.
What we --- I ----need to keep in mind is that God speaks to us through others.
Sometimes I need to set my expectations and my ego aside - and just listen.