on faith: the gray that saves.

“I’m joining the synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth by answering this prompt: ‘What saved your faith?’”

Flickr Creative Commons: Maria Gemma June.
Flickr Creative Commons: Maria Gemma June.

Embracing the gray saved my faith.

Maybe it all stemmed from the little Baptist church I grew up in, for there existed a certain amount of certitude that came from the simple act of believing. Doubting was not a part of our vocabulary, nor was questioning the directives of Pastor Jack or Mama or Dada – but instead, we stuck our arms out in front of us, like miniature mummies, playing a valiant game of Follow the Leader. Because how could the leader ever lead us astray?

Perhaps it came from Oldest Child Syndrome, from clinging mercilessly to Black and White, to Right and Wrong, to Good and Bad. You either believed or you didn’t believe. You were either a good student or a bad student. There was no middle line of demarcation, but each one of us stood on one side or the other, sometimes jumping back and forth but never straddling the precarious unknown.

So I clung to this certitude, humming the tune we’d sung over and over again at church camp:

     Oh, you can’t get to heaven (oh, you can’t get to heaven)
     In a Kleenex box (in a Kleenex box).
     Oh, you can’t get to heaven (oh, you can’t get to heaven)
     In a Kleenex bo-o-o-o-ox!
     Oh, you can’t get to heaven in a Kleenex box, ‘cause God don’t like them little snots.
     All my sins are washed away, I’ve been redeemed …by the blood of the Lamb!

And so the verses continued, because let’s face it: I wanted my ticket to heaven, for I believed this the end goal of the Christian faith. I read my picture bible and I sat obediently in Sunday School; I listened, without question, to instruction from my elders, but mostly, I just believed. Because like the song proved, adhering to the Christian faith granted either an “in” or “out” status – and as for me, I wanted in, no questions asked.  

The fog-filled gray began to roll in sometime in my early twenties.

In college, disillusionment surrounding church culture met my own unmet needs when I realized the place and the people I’d called home for the previous three years weren’t the right fit anymore. When I left, they called me Jezebel, labeling me with the only villainously biblical female name they could think of; this when I didn’t show up to their place of worship on Saturday night, when I instead spent my evenings waywardly meandering campus smoking cloves.

But in a way, their name-calling provided me room to think and to question, and to mourn the loss of Always-Knowing and Ever-Understanding.

A year or two later, with college behind me, I wore the hat of Teacher by day and Friend by night. Sitting with one of my best friends in a cramped and tiny booth in a vegan restaurant on the west side of town, we finally pushed passed cordialities to the heart of the matter.

“Cara,” he said, his mouth full of Soy Chick’n Nuggets, “I’m gay.” He stared at me, eyes never dropping my perplexed, caught-off-guard gaze.

“No you’re not,” I replied him assuredly, “you can’t be gay.” I may have even laughed at his admission, I’m not sure.

“Um, I am.”

And so our argument went back and forth for the next minute or two: me doubting his sexual orientation while he held firm to the belief, that yes, indeed, he actually was attracted to males. But this doesn’t make sense! I wanted to scream. You love Jesus more than anyone I’ve ever met. How can you be Christian and gay at the same time?

His words blindsided me that evening. Because everything I’d known and believed and professed up until that point didn’t now fit together. In a sense, as the gray fog of faith rolled in just a little bit more that evening, I yearned for certainty and I craved the assuredness I’d unwaveringly trusted in in my youth. But I also began to grab hold of the God who resides in the gray.

Were we to sit down to tea today, bags steeping in metal spoons beside oversized ceramic mugs, I’d probably tell you that most of the time my life feels like there’s more gray than black and white.

But this isn’t, I’d say, a bad thing, not at all. I’d remember with fondness a conversation with my friend Lori, as we walked down Sloat Avenue toward the ocean, slate skies of San Francisco mirroring her words.

“Oh, but gray is good!” she’d exclaim, clutching her latte tighter, smiling her infectious, believe-you-me grin. Because when The Gray emerges, when it overwhelms and frightens and clouds our stories, it also sometimes forces us to huddle under cozy blankets and stare out cloudy windows and just be. We become lost in a tangle of unknowing and we question God, hurling insults at him and raising questions towards him, one after another after another, like the ball pitching machine in the batting cages. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Our hands lob and they sling and they fire fastballs towards the Great One, wondering if this’ll be the last time he’ll lend ear to our third-degree queries.

For somehow, in this insult-throwing, not-knowing, time-of-questioning period of gray, I’ve felt the most certitude.

Because I’ve been able to just been me, even if I don’t have all the answers, even if I don’t seem to understand. And it’s then – in the most eventual of ways – that I come around, because I realize that it’s not actually about me. It’s not even about my faith, and how much I believe or disbelieve, or about how certain I am that I’ll make it past those pearly gates. But it’s simply about him. It’s solely about the God who sees, and right then, right there, he sees me.

And I remember that gray is good.

So, what did this spark in you?  If you’re a person of faith, what’s saved you?  And if you’re interested in reading or submitting your own story to the discussion, check out my friend Ed’s blog here.  Also, you can download a copy of his new book, A Christian Survival Guide, for free TODAY, and on extreme discount this whole week.  Check it out!  

found, part II (micha, micha!)

Buy it.  Read it.  Savor the change.
Buy it. Read it. Savor the change Micha’s words bring.

Sometimes a book changes you, in all the best possible ways.  Bread and Wine did this for me last year, and Micha’s book does it for me now.  The undisclosed truth is this: I’m totally and completely 100% biased towards this author.  I mean, she’s my real-life friend whom I beg to hang out with on a regular basis.  But – but, but, but – she’s also the real deal.  She’s this displaced, mid-19th century Romantic poet of sorts, who thinks and chews and feels each and every beauty-filled word that lands on the page.  Micha is authentic and she’s raw and she’s not afraid to step into the unknown foggy gray of the journey.  Friends, I’d say she’s worth celebrating.  So, how then did this book change me?

It’s prompted me to…

1.  Let me be okay with my sometimes-believer status: “I am a sometimes-believer, in love with Jesus.  I am a mystic who can’t grip tight enough to the mystical … Mostly, I long to know a quietness in my soul, true contentment, despite my spiritual unimpressiveness.  I need to believe that my simple life really is a gift and really can be holy.”  

2.  See a spiritual director again.   

3.  Make the HBH (Hot Black Husband) call me “Darling.”  Yes, please!

4.  Seek after alliteration, like this: “…the thick holiness of hope.”

5.  Notice God in the smallest and most ordinary of everyday ways.

6.  Hit up a monastery (again).

7.  Admit doubt.  Sit in the gray.  Not have or know or pretend to possess all the answers.

8.  Get to know the saints who have gone before me: “…Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century French Jesuit, wrote that Christ comes to us in a fresh way every moment, every day.  We don’t have to separate the secular from the sacred.  Christ is alive right now, in all of it.”

9.  Ask questions.

10.  Pull a Micha, and, well, actually write that book I tinker with here and there.

11.  Acknowledge weakness and extend mercy.

12.  Lean in to the concept of mystery.

13.  Put on my Big Girl Panties: “I’ve been wondering what gives us courage, what makes a desire grow fat enough with hope that it miraculously weighs heavier, larger than our fears.”  

14.  Remember that less is more.  Pray those one-word prayers, like this: Okay.  

15.  Read a bit of poetry.  [The English Teacher Formerly Known As Myself typically shuns it …and why?]

16.  Be okay with this: “I have spent my life performing for people, for God, for myself.  I have begged for a grander story than the small, beautiful life I’ve been given.”

17.  Go and visit Austin.  And Philadelphia.  And Syracuse …because Micha makes them sound so dreamy!

18.  See the holy.  Cultivate grace.

(All bolded passages are Micha’s – page numbers not included, as words are quoted from an ARC).

What book has changed you recently?  To win a copy of Micha’s new book, Found, simply leave a comment on yesterday’s post.  Winner will be announced Sunday evening.  

the little things: fresh eyes (sarah kerner).

Can I just say that I love Tuesdays?  I love how five little words – “nothing, in fact, is small…” – morphs itself into thousands of other stories.  And I, for one, am honored that I get to host a few of these words!  Sarah is a woman I’m glad to call friend, even though we still haven’t technically met (yet!).  You’ll find yourself catching your breath in anticipation while reading the story – enjoy!  

Metra

I had just arrived in Chicago with one of my best friends, and we were running a half-marathon the next morning.  This was a big deal for us; it was her first half-marathon, and my first since having a baby.  We’d been training for months for this race.  We’d slowly built up our mileage, practiced different fueling strategies, debated carrying water versus water stops, and carefully pondered the placement of the porta-potties along the route.  We’d booked airplane tickets and hotel rooms.  Later that day, we would go to a crowded convention hall on Navy Pier to pick up our race numbers and timing chips.  From my pocket, I unfolded and re-read the pre-race email that detailed our transportation options for getting to the starting line, several miles south of our hotel.

As out-of-towners with no rental car, we knew we would be riding the subway to the start of the race.  The directions seemed easy enough — catch a Metra train and head south.  We already knew the train tracks ran alongside the road across the street from our hotel, so we confirmed with the front desk clerk that the station we needed was just one and half blocks away: “it’s right on Michigan Avenue, you can’t miss it.”  Perfect.  We set several alarms to go off between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m. so we would have plenty of time to get to the starting line for the 7:00 a.m. race.

The morning of the race, we quickly donned our running clothes, and headed out the front door of the hotel.  It was so early that it was still dark outside.  We crossed the street and walked in the direction of the station.  We soon arrived.  Well, sort of.  We could see it very clearly — the platform, the tracks, the trains… but how were we supposed to get down there?  From the sidewalk where we were standing, we were about 15 feet above the platform.  I spotted a gate that appeared to be slightly overgrown with vines, but it was worth a try, right?  Locked.  I began to approach a man folding up some blankets on the other side of the wide sidewalk, oblivious to the fact that I was essentially walking into his bedroom — my friend wisely steered me away.  I began to panic.  There were only a few trains running that early in the morning, and I started to worry that we wouldn’t make it to the start of the race that we’d been working towards for so long.  I ran back and forth across the sidewalk, feeling like a frenzied contestant in The Amazing Race.  I looked over the railing again, and decided the only way left to get there was to scale the wall down to the platform.  I started to climb onto the fence at the edge of the wall.  “This is crazy,” my friend reasoned, “there has to be a way to get in there.  It can’t be that hard!  What are we missing?”

I took a deep breath, whispered to myself, “Help me out here, God,” and scanned the wide sidewalks with fresh eyes.  There it was, plain as day.  The entrance to the train station.  On the other side of the street.  With all the planning, preparation and coordination that led us to this day, we had nearly missed the race by crossing the street too soon.

I don’t often find myself on the deserted streets of a big city before 6am, searching in vain for something that should be easy to find.  But more often than I’d like to admit, I find myself feeling that same adrenaline-fueled powerlessness, because despite my careful planning, life is not going according to plan.  The scenarios vary — my kids are driving me crazy, a misunderstanding with my husband, feeling clueless at work — but the common element in all of them is feeling like I’m hopelessly mired in a bad situation.

My natural response is to ramp up my own efforts to solve the problem, but I am slowly learning that there is a simpler path to becoming the more patient, loving, and light-hearted person that I want to be — the person that I think God wants me to be.  All I can do is the same small thing that I did on that dark morning in Chicago:  Breathe.  Ask for help from God.  Listen to a trusted friend.   And keep an open mind — my path through life may look a lot different than what I’m expecting.

(And you’ll be glad to know that we did make it to the starting line on time!)

BSD+photoSarah is an unintentional pastor’s wife, mama, friend, sister, runner, newbie weightlifter, knitter, reader, United Methodist, terrible but enthusiastic dancer, and healthy/hippie cook and baker who blogs about her daily adventures (and love of the movie Grease) at Beauty School Dropout.  What can you say to encourage Sarah today? Thank you for sharing, friend!

orange juice, expectations & going steady, eddie.

Bye bye.
Bye bye.

All I wanted was a hefty glass of Odwalla orange juice.

So orange juice I began to consume, seemingly by the gallons, morning, noon and night – and it didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time.  After all, pregnant women are known for their cravings, for sending their partners to Five Guys right before the “Closed” sign graces the door, and for eating ice cream right out of the carton, because they can.  Because they’re “with child,” and what better an excuse is there?

So I drank orange juice, freely and gladly and without regard for its effects on my body because, well, it’s just juice.  It’s nature’s drink, after all.

But my blood sugar didn’t exactly agree with my decision.

Early on, this alarmed the doctors because with such high numbers, I became at risk for developing gestational diabetes.  So I was referred to the Sweet Success clinic, for not just diet and exercise, but to begin monitoring my blood sugar four times a day.  Like, stick a needle in the side of my finger and watch my red insides fill up the line on the little reading machine.  And y’all, it’s not like this is the end of the world – this is common.  One out of 20 women develop this same condition in pregnancy.  Additionally, millions of Americans live with the reality of diabetes every day, and shouldn’t I (…shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t, I’d tell myself…) simply be grateful for an otherwise healthy pregnancy and the ability to carry a child at all?

But I wasn’t.

Instead, my heart ached because my expectations didn’t line up with the reality of what stood before me.  I loathed recording every food morsel that crossed my palate, and pricking my third and fourth fingers wasn’t exactly my idea of a smashing good time.  I felt like another number in their program, unheard and misunderstood, ignored yet without proof.

But instead of praying for a good attitude, I just counted down the days until I could finally graduate from the program.  And then I did.  Just as soon as I’d begun, they realized the fluke of nature herself – that my blood sugar usually is quite low, and that by simply cutting out the ol’ orange juice craving, my numbers were back to normal.

Suddenly it was like all was well with the world: rose-colored sunglasses adorned the top of my head again, as I asked the dietician to repeat her words, just in case I didn’t understand.  You don’t need to record your blood sugar anymore, she said, smiling – just lay off the orange juice, will you?  

I walked out of the clinic with a skip in my step, but then it hit me: am I only happy when my expectations go the way I desire?  Is my joy merely dependent on the good things of my life?    

Because that’s not what I want.  That’s not how I want to live, and that’s not who I want to be – my inward joy need not be an up or down battle simply because I’m getting my way.  I cry and I scream, I wriggle my feet and I pound my fists until things go my way, and if it doesn’t then what?  I’m forever doomed to sadness?

This isn’t how I want to live, for no matter what’s going on externally around me, I want my little internal soul meter to remain its steady course.  

But I am still going to lay off the orange juice.

What about you?  How do you remain steady, even when life is really, really good, or really, really hard?  And PS: drink some OJ for me, will you?  And PPS: I know I promised I wouldn’t write about pregnancy more than once a week, but sometimes it happens.  Wink.