Pastor Marie

Gentle Reader,

Well, I had a panic attack this morning. Been awhile. I lay in bed, heart pounding, mind racing, unable to focus my vision. I closed my eyes and waited for the sensations to pass. They always do. Feels like forever, but it’s really only minutes.

Panic Disorder, it’s weird. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is no reason behind the onset of terror. It simply is. The brain’s just like, “You know what would be fun? A lot of adrenaline. A woo hoo!” Stupid brain.

Then there’s that one percent, when I can connect the panic to something I haven’t processed in a healthy way.

Four-and-a-half days until seminary begins.

On the one hand, no shocker. I’ve known for years that this is something I’m supposed to do. On the other, very shocking, because I only applied in mid-May. For someone who likes method, order, and routine, that feels a bit whip-lashy.

I look at the tall stack of books sitting nearby and feel overwhelmed. It’s not the reading. It’s not the writing of papers. The actual academic work itself – okay, fine, no problem. School’s always come easy to me. I enjoy learning. I know it’ll take me a few weeks to get into a routine, to figure out what professors expect of me, but I’ll get there. The assignments are all plotted out on my calendar. I know what I have to do, and the time it will take to do it.

Nevertheless, anxiety.

I know. I’ve presented you with a paradox. How is it possible to logically know that I can tackle this work and yet feel afraid to begin? If you can untangle that mystery, you’re far smarter than I am. All I know for sure is that my head and my heart are consistently at odds. The war is ever-raging, humming beneath the surface of my skin, where nobody but God can see.

That’s why it’s strange when people confess to being intimidated by me. Apparently when I walk into a room I do so with an air of calm self-assurance. Let me tell you the truth: I hide the fear behind a face that gives little away, unless you’re really paying attention. I definitely don’t have it “together.” I don’t have all the answers (never will) and any stability others sense in me comes directly from the Holy Spirit’s response to my desperate cries for help.

Also gotta give credit to the little green pill I take every night. Zoloft for the win. Don’t make enough serotonin on your own? Manufactured is fine.

Some of the books are thick and heavy. Commentaries on Genesis. Some are slim volumes, thoughts on Sabbath-keeping and community living. I’m drawn to the commentaries, because in them, I can lose myself. I want to know as much as I can about the Bible, and then learn some more. The books that repel me, the ones on knowing yourself better, especially within the context of ministry where strengths and weaknesses are readily apparent, are probably the ones I need to read the most. I can feel my nose crinkling as I write that.

Because I know myself. Yes, I struggle with self-condemnation, as everyone does to one degree or another, but on a good day, I have a very clear idea what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.

And therein lies the fear of failure.

You see, seminary is not simply graduate school. I was reminded of that the other day as I read something by a pastor that I should have bookmarked but didn’t. Attending seminary is an act of obedience and worship. The goal of this education is not the mere retention of information, but to be transformed in the renewing of my mind, as Paul counsels (Romans 12:1). It is to be equipped to preach and teach, that the Church might be strengthened and the Gospel spread far and wide, to the glory of God and the good of creation. It is to learn to care for others, to sit with them in sorrow, celebrate with them in joy, encourage them to keep moving toward the good even when it’s hard, and to lovingly confront error, that relationships might grow and the world might truly begin to know we are God’s by the love they see displayed among us.

What if I can’t do that? What if, at the end of the day, I am just a nerdy lady who likes to read, and pastoral care and leadership is beyond my reach?

I have wrestled with this question all summer. This is not what I imagined for my life. This is not what anyone imagined for my life. At teen camp, I stood near my cabin one night, out of sight of everyone, and looked to the sky, wondering just why I was there.

It’s that word, “pastor,” that throws me. I have a lot of ideas as to what and who a pastor should be. Didn’t even realize that until recently. And I don’t, you know, fit a lot of those ideas. What kind of pastor often needs to take a nap during the day? What kind of pastor requires significant amounts of solitude in order to re-energize after interacting with people? What kind of pastor is startled, nearly to the point of tears, by sudden loud noises? Aren’t pastors supposed to be charismatic, energetic, tough people?

So I’m annoyed, because I know that this first semester is going to be emotionally stretching, as God breaks down my ideas and replaces them with His own, as He reveals the path to me, step by step. And I really don’t like dealing with my emotions. Other people can cry and rage and whatever else around me, and I’m happy to listen and provide support. But me, letting myself feel what I feel, in the moment I feel it? Ugh.

I easily fall into the trap of believing my value lies in accomplishments. (Silly, because the sense of defeat inevitably follows when discovering that another has accomplished more and greater). So of course my mind jumps years into the future, to graduation day, and the idea of graduating with honors. Imagine my shock, then, to realize that such an end could actually be sinful. Prioritizing the wrong thing. Stick with me. Yes, I believe that everyone should do their best at everything we set out to do. I have no intention of slacking off. But I’ve learned something this summer, in the hustle and bustle (that’s left little time for writing): What God places in front of me, here and now, is the thing that matters.

In short, I will fail seminary if I come out the other side with an excellent knowledge of exegesis and Greek, but without having grown in love for God and people.

Achievement at seminary might mean accepting less than an A+, because that might mean that I’m out there putting what I’m learning into practice, instead of spending every waking hour stressing over getting an assignment just right. However many years I spend in school can’t be just about the schooling itself. This journey has to be about God, from beginning to end and beyond.

Maybe this is all very obvious to you, but it’s a major shift in thinking for me. The academic world is one I’m comfortable in, one I know how to navigate. The pastoral world, not so much. And there’s another shift: Maybe I’m a pastor right now. Maybe that’s who God made me to be. The process and the ordination and all that, it’s good and right and I can go along with no fuss. But maybe that endpoint is just a confirmation of what is already true.

A pastor who takes naps and needs quiet and is quiet and hates loud noises. A pastor who uses slang and wears ripped jeans and is too lazy to dye her white hairs to match the rest of her strands. A pastor who is not and will not be your superhero, but will gladly point you to the Savior you need. A pastor who longs for all to know the grace, love, and truth of God.

Maybe that’s enough.

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Not Easy, but He is Good

Gentle Reader,

…a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance…

– Ecclesiastes 3:4 (CSB)

Time is linear. Ever-moving forward. Marching toward a specific end.

It’s also wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff. (Thank you, Doctor Who).

In each of our timelines, there is good and bad. Weeping mixed with laughing. Mourning combined with dancing. It’s not easy to separate our experiences, and the emotions that arise from those experiences, into discreet parts. Perhaps that’s why someone coined the word “bittersweet” ages ago. That, I think, is an apt description for life.

And so, the truth is (and I remind myself here that truth is what I’m meant to be focusing on this year), we have to learn to accept whatever comes our way. There is very little that we can control. Really, most often the only control we have is in how we respond to events. Will we choose bitterness and fear? Or will we choose to exercise the gritty kind of faith that takes shape in the cauldron of adversity?

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not telling you to be a doormat. I’m not telling you to say, “Yay! I have cancer!” I’m not telling you to paste a placid expression on your face when your heart is breaking.

What am I telling you?

To ask Jesus to give you eyes to see Him, even on the worst days. To seek God at all times, in all things. We can accept whatever comes our way when we learn to embrace the Lord who loves us first and foremost. When we are wrapped in His arms, we can breathe deeply, despite the torrents of tears, and resolve to put one foot in front of the other, knowing that He will never let us go.

It would be nice if life was simple. It will be, one day, when the feet of the Savior touch the earth again and all is renewed and restored. That, we look forward to. But for now, it’s complicated. It’s messy. The destructive tentacles of sin, that of the first people which fundamentally tainted and twisted our souls, reach out and with a sickening thud glomp onto everything. Every person. Every relationship. Even down to the bits and pieces that make up the atoms. The entire world blew up at the first bite of forbidden fruit.

We blew up.

And we keep blowing up.

Thank God that He’s not like us. Me, if I were Him I’d have called it quits a long time ago. Heck with all of it. Heck with this chaos. But He’s not me. He’s Other, Unique, Mystery, Holy, Just, and Good. He is Love. He keeps working, patiently. He knocks down walls, breaks through doors, shakes the mountains, stops the rivers. There is no depth to which we can descend that His arm does not reach further still.

The author of Hebrews calls this saving “to the uttermost” (7:25).

Maybe we won’t see that uttermost in this part of the timeline. Maybe that will wait until Eternity. Maybe we won’t understand all that He is doing right now.

What is definite and assured is that we will continue to have wave after wave of tribulation wash over us. Some, we cause ourselves. Some, we’d never ask for or anticipate in a million years. What is also definite and assured: All storms can be navigated by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. His light continues to guide us to the safe shore.

Perhaps you cry today. Perhaps the news never seems to be good.

But then you see the first faint buds of spring. Just the barest wash of green upon the trees. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds. And you remember: Blessed assurance. Jesus is mine.

And you raise your hands to Heaven as the tears drop to the ground.

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Paranoia

Gentle Reader,

He must grow greater and greater and I less and less.

– John 3:30 (Phillip’s)

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening.

Carl, the FBI agent who lives inside our Echo Dot, told me that this morning.

That’s the joke in our uber-connected and wired society: Someone is always listening. Or watching. Or selling your information to Cambridge Analytica. Nothing on the internet is private, no matter what we like to tell ourselves. We’ve structured our lives, from work to relationships, around this convenience that zips through the ether, so complete disconnection isn’t really an option, unless you go ahead and plop the tin-foil on your head, purchase a compound in the woods and go full Mountain Person.

Me, I get the paranoia. It’s a not-so-lovely companion to the fear that’s constantly buzzing in my veins. Is this person truly kind, or is it an act? Am I safe right now? Who can I trust? Where can I go?

You’ve read this here before but I’ll write it again: I came so, so close to deleting this blog. As in, my finger was hovering over the button as recently as three-and-a-half weeks ago. It seemed a natural, logical choice to make. After all, I had already deleted all of my social media posts, including photos and memories that I will never be able to access again. Why not do the same here? Anything to make the anguish of past months cease.

Make myself small. Keep quiet. Don’t rock the proverbial boat.

This is a far, far cry from what my favorite camel-suit sporting Baptist meant. John didn’t quit doing what God had designed him to do when Jesus came on the scene. He wasn’t saying, “Well, they like him better. Guess I’ll go back to the desert and eat some locusts.” Did his work culminate in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry? Yes. We do see him gradually fade, eventually dying at the hands of a weak king.

But John didn’t quit.

He didn’t stop being John.

His job was to point the way to the Messiah. In so doing, he made a lot of people angry. You can’t call people a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7) and not make some enemies. There was probably a lot of gossip about John. A lot of vicious rumors. A lot of people trying to block what he was doing.

He just kept going. Not as a superhuman, devoid of emotion or struggle. As John sat in prison, surely knowing that his execution was immanent, he sent some friends to ask Jesus if He really was the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus didn’t seem to mind the question. He sent John’s friends back to him with comforting assurances. Scripture doesn’t tell us how John responded to this, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to imagine a relieved smile stretching across his tanned face as peace washed over his soul.

Smallness before God is completely different than smallness before people. One is the position of a servant, devoted to carrying out the mission of the Master. Sometimes carrying out that mission involves wrestling with our weaknesses, the things that God is kind and gentle enough to have compassion for. The other is the position of fear and sorrow, allowing someone other than the Master to rule. And that, we call idolatry.

The right response to the feeling of paranoia is to bow before God. We don’t need make ourselves huge so we can squash others before they squash us. We need to sprint to the Throne of Grace, prostrating ourselves at His feet, asking Him to remind us of the proper order of things. Truly, what can anyone do to you if you are wrapped in the arms of the King? In the grand scheme, very little.

You’ll hurt. You’ll cry. You’ll want to rage at people and make them feel as bad as you do. You’ll be tempted to check out and give up. That’s all normal. That’s all part of being a human. Thankfully, blessedly, we have Someone ever-ready to encourage and uplift us.

All we have to do is bow before Him and nobody else.

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Xanax, Please

Trust

Gentle Reader,

The United States is engulfed in a collective panic attack, leaving few, if any, members of the population untouched. Hearts racing, fists clenched, eyes darting to-and-fro, sweat pouring down our faces, the awful sense of dread and death. We consume the news (that changes every minute), wondering if we’ll ever be able to keep up with or figure out what is going on. What is this place? Who are these people?

In our anxiety, we allow our desires greater freedom. Not the desires we usually think of – food, sex, shopping, sleep – although they are certainly tempting coping mechanisms. Instead, we indulge in the desire to label. To draw lines. To cast others as the villains of the story. To rationalize, justify and defend our preferences, to the death if need be, even if those preferences are wildly out of line with the ethics and worldview laid out in Scripture.

I am not immune. For over two years I have been swept up in the political chaos. Burned in the dumpster fire. Politics has always interested me; all the movements, personalities and philosophies are part of history, the studying of which is second only to theology in my list of passions. I can still remember the “I’m Just a Bill” song from School House Rock. I once asked a teacher how Thomas Jefferson could write “all men are created equal” when he owned slaves. Theodore Roosevelt (who, yes, was problematic in some areas; I get it) became my favorite president in high school and I love him still for his trust-busting and his desire to preserve and protect nature. I have never, ever understood “strategic voting” or “straight ticket” or party loyalty in general, choosing instead to remain staunchly unaffiliated and doing my best to vote for the best person for each job, which I freely, honestly confess to you tonight has resulted at times in a sense of smugness. Why can’t everyone just be smart like me?

See? We’re all in this together.

It’s all fascinating. The debates, the processes, the great speeches. But this interest has become a sickness. I see it in myself. I see it in everyone else, even those who really do try to steer clear of the swift and churning currents. In this hyper-connected age, our suspicions and tensions are inevitably heightened, the fires of fear stoked by Executive and Congressional branches that want…power.

All of them, even the best of them, are dazzled by the allure of authority. Those who sit in seats of command may begin their careers from a place of service to the country, but few remain in that place for long. When Senator Lindsey Graham thunders, “All you want is power and I hope you never get it!,” he condemns himself along with all the rest, for the clear meaning in his words is: “We, my party, my people – me, myself, I – deserve that power.”

This isn’t new. Skim a history book. George Washington warned against the formation of political parties and believed that the president should stay above partisanship – he’s the only one. As soon as he was gone, the bitterness began. Seriously; John Adams, second president, was generally hated, especially in the Southern states, and served only one term. Andrew Jackson, seventh president, planted the seeds of modern campaigning in 1828, complete with negative advertisements and fake news. Down the timeline we roll, past inspiringly great and truly awful politicians, through great national moments and genuinely depressing ones, until we arrive here, now, in the Age of Nasty.

This is part of our DNA as both people living in the United States and people warped by sin. We fight because, well, that’s literally how the country came into being and we fight because that’s what we’ve been doing since Cain murdered Abel. We want to be on the winning side, with the ones in charge, because that’s how and where we believe we will find fulfillment, peace and safety.

Dominance, at all costs.

That is the way of the world, the hazy society that chooses to turn away form God.

For the Children of God, this should not be so.

This cannot be the way we operate. That hazy society looks at us right now and scoffs, telling us that we are no better than they are. And they aren’t wrong. They really aren’t.

What do we do?

I don’t think we can answer that question until we sit and face reality for a good, long while. We’ve all heard that the first step in conquering a problem is admitting that there is a problem in the first place. Tonight, let’s admit that. We have a problem. We have placed our trust in something and someones other than God. Pause and ponder the confession. Feel its weight.

Then meditate upon these words:

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the LORD our God.

– Psalm 20:7 (NKJV)

We’re going on a journey, you and me.

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Brothers and sisters who do not live in the United States: Please, go on this journey with us. I know that you are not in the thick of this situation, but we need you. We need your prayers and we need your outsider’s perspective. We need you to remind us that we who have been redeemed by Jesus are part of a global community, brought together by His blood and grace.

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