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I’m broke

Dear friends: I am broke. I’m not talking the cutesy afraid to check your bank account balance because it is too low broke, I’m talking full on, paycheck to paycheck, cashing in coins broke. How did a college educated, relatively accomplished woman find herself in this situation? Simply put? I followed my heart and listened to the still small voice within that told me to make a change- to do something new. Yes, I fully weighed my options and the repercussions of these choices beforehand and still, against my better judgement went for broke. Why? Because I needed to.

I felt God calling me to draw out of my usual patterns- to let go of the death grip I have over [the allusion] of security in my life. So why did I need to drop an income bracket to do this? The easy answer- I’m hard headed. I have a calculating mind that we have already established can talk me out of anything. So when I asked God to tell me where to serve and I heard ‘Iraq’, I naturally talked myself out of it. Who could blame me? I’m a Christian woman, going to a place that doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for those who identify with either group. And while I’m not seeking a ribbon of honor for mission work, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the thought of doing God’s work in Iraq scared me more than a little. So I rationalized that taking a new assignment closer to home that allowed me to do God’s work would be an acceptable substitute for my cowardice. So what, if it meant taking a $16,000 pay cut? I had lived on less and am smarter now, so I could make it work.

Cue the car accident and added stress and the move that added up to more dollar signs. I started to panic- to question myself. The self-talk that ran through my brain questioned ‘how could you agree to these things without having a safety net big enough to catch your irresponsible downfall?’ I had effectively out calculated myself into a corner. My life couldn’t be rewound to undo any of the choices, to bring back the relatively comfortable status I had grown accustomed to. I recognized how my overcompensating for being disobedient had tuned into a situation that wasn’t what I had anticipated, but I still wasn’t knocking down walls to get to Iraq. I felt in my spirit that it was time for a challenge, but was reluctant to heed God’s call. So I did things my own way and found a set of challenges that I wasn’t altogether asking for.

A few months ago, I was in a Bible study group, openly grappling with a bit of scripture in 2 Corinthians. In chapter 12, verses 7-10 talk about prudence, grace, glory and weakness. I couldn’t see the logical correlation. I didn’t see how if God’s almighty grace is enough for us, how then can our failings perfect this power? I didn’t need to stew in this conundrum for too long because my real life crash course in Paul’s letter was on the way.

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Now friends, please do not mistake this as a message on spiritual smack down. I know that the challenges I encountered were my doing, not God’s, but that doesn’t mean that God didn’t use them to teach me something about myself and how God sees me. You see, I know that I can be stubborn and that I let pride get in my way. These are obstacles to my growth, crippling me from reaching my fullest potential. Stopping me short from grasping what will help me step into what is next. I like how The Message translation of this scripture speaks to me on this.

Because of the extravagance of those revelations and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size-abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Folks, that’s exactly how it happened. When worries about my new budget would arise, I lost myself in meditation on God’s provision. I started to search for peace in communion with the Holy Spirit- turned my mind towards the blessings and strength that I do have, rather than operating from a mindset of lack. Do I still have worries about my future and how I’m going to make everything work? Of course. I am not operating out of some blissful, naiveté that God will sustain my missteps forever so that I can go on ignoring what my spirit yearns for. I am choosing to trust in the ultimate truth- one that supersedes my understanding and reason. I am choosing to believe God for all that I need.

Lately, my commuting worship jam sessions (aka- car praise-it’s a thing) have been fueled by a song that immediately lights my soul on fire with recognition that my trust compass is pointing in the right direction. The lyrics are simple:

It may look like I’m surrounded, but I’m surrounded by you. This is how I fight my battles. Nothing is as strong as your blood – Surrounded by UPPERROOM

It goes on in an empowering loop that keeps me sane when I want to hide in a cave of blankets and tune out the world. This is the message that I choose to help me push through each day- this simple affirmation of faith is my spiritual reset button.

Sacrifice is generally regarded as a noble virtue. While, I would rather be closer to the Jesus side of self-sacrifice, I know that I will never measure up to that because I am selfish and totally human. The desire to do and be more can be so strong until it smacks up against a reality that you aren’t prepared for. What I have come to realize recently is that the expectation is never to measure up to an impossible standard. The goal of our relationship with God is to live and grow in love.  Love for ourselves, each other and most of all love for God.

We all walk our own path when it comes to spiritual growth and whether your next step is starting a new Bible study or building a ministry, there is one simple truth that I hope you will be led by. God is greater than every worry, any objection ,any pitfall that you can imagine. God’s love for us is so big that even when we misstep, we are still guided and sustained by an unsinkable Creator.

 

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Finding God in the Holy Land

Hello, dear readers, from your recently returned pilgrim! That’s right, your traveling teacher got to take another trip off of her bucket list. When I first starting teaching almost 10 years ago now, I never realized how the summers off would open up my world so literally. Each summer (since I learned how teachers should use their summers) has been spent at a new international location: Greece, Morocco, and Australia (just to name a few).

But, you say, it isn’t summer, and you’d be correct. When I saw a trip to the Holy Land advertised in my church bulletin last year, but saw that it was scheduled for February, I was determined to make it work no matter what. Because teachers get so many breaks and weeks off in the summer, we don’t get vacation. We get three personal days and that is it for the year other than sick time. I tried to pitch to my principal that since I am a Scripture teacher and I work at a Catholic School, this should be professional development time, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Regardless, I did get the time off to go (even though it was unpaid leave) and I did get to book my trip of a lifetime.

A trip to the Holy Land bears so much weight for so many reasons. Everyone says “it’s the trip of a lifetime.” Add onto that that you are a Scripture teacher. That you used to live in a convent. And that you told your parents about it and they want to go with you. This, my dear readers, only adds to the pressure of this trip really needing to meet that expectation of “trip of a lifetime.”

I really tried not to put any expectations on the trip since there was so much weight to this trip already. Regardless of how things went with our group or our flights, I was going to see the places that I teach my students about. I was going to walk close to places that Jesus at one time walked.

Now, I am not disillusioned that these places are ACTUALLY the places where tradition asserts that these moments in Christ’s life happen. I know that a lot of these Churches were built on guesstimates. But it was still going to be good enough for me to go to the places that for 1700 years- since the 4th century when Constantine and Helena made Christianity a world wide thing- people have come to worship and honor and remember Jesus.

Our trip was a 10 day tour and about 3 of those days were spent with travel. We flew to Frankfurt (7 hour flight) and then to Tel Aviv (4 hour flight). Israel is 7 hours ahead, so by the time we got to Tel Aviv, it was just time to go to bed. We got to see the coastal city a little before bed and before we boarded our bus for our true adventure: the cities in Northern Israel around the Sea of Galilee and then making our way down to Jerusalem.

I will spare you the play by play of each day, but rather, this post is going to be about where I “felt” God during this trip. I feel like one does a pilgrimage like this for the main reason of “feeling” God’s presence in these places. And, again, that is a lot of pressure to put on a trip. There are so many factors that come into play. For example:

a.the people you are traveling with. For us, that was a doozey. Lots of old, American travelers who I wasn’t quite sure had ever left the country before. That was a lot to take in and of itself. Oof.

b. timing. Turns out February is a great time to travel to Israel. It is like their Springtime. A little bit of rain, 50 and 60 degree weather, lots of vegetation in bloom. Our tour guide made sure to get us to as many places as possible each day (despite the aforementioned American travelers who are used to being on their own time schedules that I can only assume means moving at the slowest pace possible with no regard for anyone else) but moving at such a pace meant not getting to spend as much time as I would’ve liked taking in all of these seriously momentous locations.

c. the political backdrop. We all know that the Middle East has been in conflict since biblical times and it definitely played a role while we were there. I felt safe always while in Israel, but crossing the Palestinian border meant having us switch guides to have someone from the State of Palestine show us around Bethlehem and seeing big signs and barbed wire around borders warning Israeli citizens about their entrance into Palestine. On my free day, I really wanted to return to the border to see some street art by the artist Banksy that is there, but my guide warned against it. He said no cab driver would take me there for less than $150 and even then it was a toss up as to what the climate would be like.

All of these factors I tried to not let taint my bucket list experience of seeing and experiencing the places that we have read about in Scripture for centuries. But we are human.

I said I wasn’t going to give you all a play by play of each day, but rather, perhaps describe some of my “God moments” while on the trip. On our first day, I believe we were all looking for that “God moment” right away. Some of us did get it when we arrived in Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. This is apparently a newly excavated city. It was “discovered” I think as recently as 2011. The skeptic in me had lots of questions. I couldn’t believe that for centuries people had walked this land around the Sea of Galilee and built churches on so many sites where Jesus was said to have walked, but we are just now discovering this land we have heard of in Scripture? I tried to put the questions out of my mind and just take in that FINALLY after 2000 years, a Church was going to be dedicated to the women in Scripture.

I will say, the priest that we heard describing this new Church that is built for “the dignity of women” was still condescending. I wish I could say that was a surprise, but we know better, don’t we ladies? The Church they have built in Magdala is very modern and has a room where there are pillars for each of the women mentioned in the Resurrection narratives which I thought was nice. There is an “empty” pillar with no name on it for the women who are pillars in our faith. Also a nice touch. It was still hard to listen, though, to a man speak about how this room and this Church was meant to “teach women about their dignity”…as if it was our fault that our dignity had been taken from us for centuries.

I was clearly too much inside of my head this first day. I was questioning the legitimacy of this place, this excavation, the intent behind all of it, judging those in my group…and then…

Bam! I fall to my knees on the 1st century rocks beneath my feet.

 

Our guides had been telling our 60+ aged travelers for hours to be careful on the 1st century stones and who is the one who takes the dive? One of the youngest ones.

I was humiliated, of course, to be in a group of 60 somethings and to be the one who took the dive that everyone saw and continued to ask me about for the rest of the week. I was also legitimately concerned about my ankle that immediately began to swell and hurt to put pressure on. But as I got onto my feet, we were taken into a chapel that is dedicated to the woman who touched Jesus’ garment in Mark chapter 5. This has been one of my favorite Scripture passages since I learned about how Mark wrote his Gospel while studying in the convent.

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Image of chapel at Magdala with mural of woman in Mark 5 touching Christ’s garment. Also note unstable 1st century floors…

 

After I had my fall and this humbling moment and the visiting of this chapel, I got my head into gear. I asked God to change my attitude, to make me physically and spiritually well, just like the woman in the story.

We ended our first day with Mass in another chapel in this Church at Magdala with an altar shaped like a boat. There were windows behind it that overlooked the Sea of Galilee. The modern altar I thought was, of course, significant and really helped us get our minds around that we are here, in Galilee, where so many of these miracles happened.

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Altar at chapel in Magdala overlooking Sea of Galilee.

The readings for Mass that day were also part of my God moment on this first day. The first reading was Hebrews 12:1-3, a passage that my personal blog is literally named after (http://hebrews121-3.blogspot.com. No joke) and the Gospel reading for that day was the woman with the hemorrhage. Our priest assured us that those were the actual readings for the day, not chosen just because we had seen the chapel inspired by that reading.

Later in our journeys, we would be having Mass and reading the passages from Scripture associated with those places we were in, but on this first day, I believe that my fall, those readings, were my first “God moments” of the trip. God was helping me to get my head in the right place and assure me that this trip would be anointed if I would get out of my own way.

Other places where I unexpectedly felt God’s presence:

– Mary’s home in Nazareth. I have always struggled with my relationship with Mary and again, my skepticism tells me that the house dedicated as “her house” in Nazareth couldn’t possibly be THE actual house, but for some reason, I felt very at peace there and didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and pray and offer up all of my prayer intentions there.

– Pater Noster in Jerusalem. This is a church built in dedication to where Jesus gave us the Our Father. The Scripture scholar in me once again was dubious because the Mount of the Beatitudes is dedicated up by the Sea of Galilee and in Matthew’s Gospel, the Our Father is given in the same Sermon as the Beatitudes, yet here we were miles and miles away from that Mountain. But as our guide took us into a 1st century burial place on this mountain- the Mount of Olives where Jesus also Ascended from- and we said the Our Father together, I felt a connection to the place and to Our Father.

– the Holy Sepulcher. No surprise that I felt the Lord’s presence here as it is the Church where it is said the tomb of Christ and the rock of Calvary are located. I felt Christ’s presence as we said Mass next to the place where people can touch the rock said to be where Jesus died. I felt His presence specifically when we said the Creed together during Mass. It reminded me of how Christians have said this Creed of faith for centuries and to be at the place where much of our Creed takes place-“suffered, died, and was buried”- was a moment.

– Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It may not be surprising that I felt God’s presence here, being it is the place where God gave to us a Savior, but I am much more of an adult Jesus kind of girl instead of a baby Jesus girl if that makes any sense. I was also having some very human moments as we waited for hours to see the place of the manger. I was frustrated with humanity as we waited and people around us pushed and I was also frustrated with a woman in our group, but once we finally got into the cave of the Nativity, I felt God’s presence at the place of the manger. I don’t even remember taking pictures there and was surprised later to find some on my phone because I think I had some kind of out of body experience while there.

– Church of the Visitation. Surprisingly, another Mary place! Mary was really coming through on this trip for me. I felt her peace and presence at this place where it is said her cousin Elizabeth and husband Zechariah lived. It was also the birthplace of John the Baptist. We did this on the same day as Bethlehem and it was cool to have visited the birthplace of Jesus as well as the birthplace of his precursor, John, on the same day.

There is so much more that I could say about my trip, but I am still processing much myself. One of the biggest takeaways that I will leave you with is this one:

As we were in Nazareth in the home of the Holy Family where Jesus was supposedly raised, I was letting my humanness get the best of me again. People were pushing, there wasn’t much space, people in our group were frustrating me and so then I was frustrated with myself that I wasn’t “feeling” anything there.

In that moment, I thought: “here I am in the Holy Land and I have had more intense ‘God moments’ back home.” But maybe that’s just it. And that is the beauty of our faith: you don’t have to be in the Holy Land to “feel God.” He truly is present everywhere. And for me as a Catholic, I believe He is present in the Eucharist which happens every time at Mass. That idea that God is truly present everywhere gives me much hope and I hope that it does for you, too, dear reader.

I am grateful to have had the experience of a lifetime with this trip. I can now picture and imagine geographically where much of the New Testament and some of the Old Testament took place. But our God is not limited by time and space. He is everywhere. And apparently I had to go to the Holy Land to really learn to appreciate that.

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Bless this mess

If you’ve known me more than 5 minutes, you know that I am incredibly strong willed. On most days, I consider this a strength. It is very useful when I have a goal or am advocating for something important. Some of my closer associates count this willfulness as a character flaw when it pans out as stubbornness or extremism. Recently, this hallmark Tonia trait has played to my detriment as my unswerving determination has come up against my wellness.

Another fun skill that I have is the ability to talk myself out of anything. Shoes, boyfriends, vacation plans-yep, I am a world class manipulator of my own mind, which is another bonus/flaw (up for further discussion on another day). So, what’s the problem you ask? You have a strong desire to be well and can put your incredible mind to the task of self-care, right? What you haven’t accounted for, dear reader is my destructive little habit of people pleasing.

For as long as I can remember, expectation and the need to over deliver have been major forces in my life. More often than not, checking all my boxes and not wanting to disappoint others have been some of my most powerful motivators. I will go to great lengths to get a job done or make people happy, even if it means a headache for me. This over extension comes at a great price-my compromised well-being. Once again, you may be thinking, “Silly, Tonia-sit down somewhere. You’re only human.” While I am painfully aware of this truth, I cannot escape the barrage of mental baggage that ensues when I think about going against the grain of my people pleasing MO. I know that no one will truly hate me if I cancel plans or think me completely irresponsible if I leave a few things undone until the next day, but that disconnect between reality and my guilt is a trouble spot that I have been grappling with recently.

At the beginning of last month, I sustained a concussion and in typical Tonia fashion, kept pushing because I didn’t believe anything was really wrong-until 48 hours in when I failed a relatively simple cognitive test. The specialist I saw gently reassured me, but said I needed to get some mental rest. I promptly left his office and went straight to my office to finish some tasks, because what else would I do? I felt a fresh wave of guilt as I called my supervisor to tell him I was taking the rest of the day to rest but would try to come in the next day, if I felt better. I spent the rest of that day asleep (much to my surprise) and blissfully guilt free. I hopped right back into most of my usual commitments the next day, despite pain and weakness. Pain is temporary and weakness can be overcome was my constant mantra-until I wrecked my car just a few days later. Surely, this was cause for an all stop- NOPE. I went back to work the next day because there is too much to be done and so many counting on me to do it. If you’re questioning my masochistic tendencies, don’t. I don’t enjoy pain. My issue stems from balancing priority and expectation as they relate to my abilities.

Before you call the asylum to take me away, let me say that I fully understand my role in all of this. I realize that I am a (mostly) reasonable adult who is capable of saying no and advocating for herself. The problem is that I have mostly seen the two as mutually exclusive. I can’t turn my back on people/things AND fully take care of myself. Before you start whispering “God complex”, consider the following.

As modern women, we are praised and considered at the top of our game for having and doing it all. I was raised on the idea that women could do ANYTHING and somewhere along the way, I lost the concept of personal limitations. So how do we resolve our limitations in light of our Christian belief? I for one struggle with 2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  because it seems at odds with 2 Timothy 1:7 For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. As I strive to live a life rooted in scripture, I run up against walls that conflict with my everyday experiences. When do I leave scripture behind and take up prayer? When should I fall back and when do I step up?

What has become increasingly clear to me throughout this trial is my need for greater trust. Trust in the fundamentals of my faith that tell me that God means everything to work together for my good. Trust that even when it feels like everything is falling apart, I am never falling alone and God is there to restore me when I stumble. Most of all that being strong in the Lord and rejoicing in his strength are the keys to finding balance between expectation and experience. We can do many things, but not everything. Trusting that God will do his part is a critical acknowledgement on our spiritual walk.

So what does that mean for you? I would hope that my cautionary tale and reflection inspire you to look at your motivations and where they come from. Are they rooted in some societal vision that is totally out of step with your values? Perhaps a person, with unrealistic expectations of you? Whatever is fueling you should be something you’re proud to proclaim daily. Whether the answer is faith or something externally created, we can still work to align these forces to be true to our modern Christian lives. Lay your shortcomings at the Creator’s feet. Trust in God to walk the path of peace with you and allow yourself the grace to be who you need to be on any given day.

 

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#GetYourWingsOn

In my last post, I talked about one of the ways that I take my anxieties and lean on God for help in getting through them; the past couple weeks have reminded me of another one.

Not because I was having a difficult time- far from it! Right after Thanksgiving this year, I got to start my month-long participation in my new favorite holiday tradition: MBMBaM Angels.

If you’re never heard of the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me (MBMBaM to its fans) I highly recommend it. (Just keep in mind that it’s rated “explicit” for a reason!) The podcast is the work of Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, three brothers from West Virginia who started this show years ago, and have since become professional podcasters, which I think is the modren equivalent of getting a job in radio.

A few years ago, the brothers were sitting around in December (they explained later on their facebook page) and reading the Empty Stockings list that their hometown newspaper puts out every year. The Empty Stockings are a list of 100 needs people in the community have, as relayed to the paper by the organizations that help them- everyone from Headstart, to the Ronald McDonald house, to churches in the area.

Justin McElroy posted to tell us this and to ask- no pressure- but if anyone was looking for a good deed to do that Christmas, would we perhaps consider filling a stocking?

At the time, I was sitting in the lighthouse where I worked. It was a quiet day and I was online a lot, so I got to watch and participate as the fans of this podcast put together a spreadsheet of all the needs the paper had printed and started calling the organizations to let them know that we were going to help.

I got to call a woman at one of the organizations who, when I asked for the address, described their location as “right down by the river”. I started to explain that I was calling from Baltimore, that I had heard about what they were doing and I wanted to help.

We both started to cry. And when I looked up, snow had begun to fall outside.

It was so picturesque, I almost thought I was in a cheesy Hallmark movie.

Over the next four years, the effort grew. Now, we have a website, a network of volunteers to make phone calls, and we take donations so that we can buy the big things people need, like beds and appliances.

Last year, the list was bigger than ever. There were still 100 needs, but we knew the organizations well enough for them to be honest with us. They needed 23 beds- plus mattresses, bedding, and pillows. I’m sure if we had offered, they would have found room for twice that. There were families that needed appliances. There was a boy who needed a lifejacket so that he could do swim therapy with his mom, even though he was getting too big for her to hold him safely in the water.

For a few years, we had given the organizations everything they asked for. But this year was so much bigger- I read the list, and counted the donations, and worried. I couldn’t imagine having to call the organizations to tell them that we couldn’t help, but I had no idea where we were going to get the means.

In a sermon a couple weeks ago, our priest suggested that the opposite of anxiety is not calm, but prayer. I was glad to hear this- I’ve never been able to “hand my problems to God” and stop feeling the weight of them. What I can do, and have known to do for a long time now, is to pray and at least feel the burden shared. Last December, I prayed hard about those beds, and appliances, and the life jacket, and all the other things people needed.

Then one day, while I was in the car, a song came on: it was “Shut Up and Dance” and as I sang along, belting it out to my steering wheel, I started to really hear the words.

“Don’t you dare look back
Just keep your eyes on me
I said you’re holding back
She said “shut up and dance with me!”

It was the conversation God and I were having- had been having, in fact, for a week or more. God was saying, “Don’t sit around wondering where it’s all going to come from. You do the work and focus ahead on the work I am doing through you, and you through Me.”

Even though I was worrying about whether God was working fast enough, the message was clear. All I had to do was shut up and dance, and God would work through me. My worrying was getting in the way of doing the work that needed to be done in order to fulfill God’s will which, in this case, I perceive to be that we help people. Not everyone in the world. Not everyone all at once. But I believe that God’s will, in this instance, was that we do all we could to help whoever we could. And that was very possible.

 

So I shut up. I danced- my fingers across the keyboard and my body down the aisles of department stores. And God, through so many kindhearted strangers around the world, provided. Most of the donations we received were very small, and a lot of them included notes that said something like, “It’s not much, but I hope it helps.” I spent a lot of time thinking about the story of the widow who gave everything she had for those poorer than herself.

 

At the end, I felt the way the disciples must have felt, holding baskets of loaves and fishes, wondering how so much came from so little, and wanting to know how they had managed to have so much left over.

 

We bought the beds, the mattresses, the pillows, and went shopping for bedding according to the tastes of each child or family on our list. We called Mark, for a few years our connection for home appliances, and put in our orders. We sent boxes and made the last phone calls, and finally we all took naps.

 

And when it was all over, and everything was sent, I wrote one final check to cover the cost of new hearing aids for three more people, the last of my loaves and fishes.

 

This year, I keep reminding myself that all I have to do is shut up and dance. If I do my part, God will do Hers. Once again, we will find ourselves in January with a basket of loaves and fishes, looking around for more hungry people to feed.

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What are you waiting for?

It’s Advent. The season of anticipation where we are all looking forward to the coming of our Savior. The time where even the most impatient Christian is expectantly seeking the promises of Jesus.  Yes, Advent is the happiest season of waiting in our spiritual year. All of the traditions point us toward being in countdown mode- Advent calendars, the lighting of the Advent candles, watching shipping updates on deliveries from Amazon-the symbolism of the season sets us up to wait. In this modern era, where we are irritated to wait more than a few minutes for our coffee, what does this season really teach us that can transform our lives?
Do we find ourselves magically more patient on Christmas Day or do we rush back into the fray of modern life on December 26th? I am not of the belief  that there is anything wrong with either of these scenarios. What I propose is that we don’t wait for Advent to experience the peace and spiritual growth that all of our devotionals encourage to prepare our hearts for Jesus.
Each day that we are granted is an opportunity to rejoice in the gift of Jesus. An opportunity to embrace and share our God given gifts. To show gratitude for God’s ever present love that directs our lives towards ultimate good. What I am suggesting, dear reader, is that we don’t wait until it’s time to cash out all of that PTO before we take a moment of spiritual pause to take time to celebrate why you were created. Luke 10:40 calls attention to this tendency towards imbalance. We’ve all heard the story of Martha who “was distracted by her many tasks and she came up and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? So tell her to give me a hand. The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things,but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Christian Standard Bible)
So readers, I am urging you to channel your Mary. Meditate on your Creator who possesses an incredible, generous and loving spirit. Bask in these blessings. Allow the light of them to strengthen and beautify your life experience, beyond the final gift being unwrapped. Pray bold prayers for all that is beyond your grasp and rejoice in thanksgiving that good will come to pass. It is my prayer that these words have served as a reflection on why Jesus is the reason for every season. It is his example that extends beyond the manger into the very fabric of how we live and serve as Christians today. 
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On Shame

Hi— I want to introduce myself. I’m Kristy, and if you haven’t been around G&F long, you might not know that I serve our G&F team as the editor. My heart in this is to share with you something that has been in my heart for a long time. I’m here to listen if you ever need a shoulder to cry on or someone to hear your story. I’d be honored to have the chance to connect with you. You can find  me on facebook as Kristy Ramsey or on Instagram @kristynramsey.

You know the feeling. The pit in your stomach when your boss wants to “talk to you”. The text from the significant other that says “we need to talk.” Walking into church alone again. Going to get some take out because sitting by yourself at the restaurant is just too hard.  Avoiding the baby aisle at the grocery store because the pain of what could have been is just too much. It’s the skeleton in your closet, and it’s the thing that holds us back from what might have been or what could be.

It has a name: SHAME.

It is the dark corners of our lives that no one really knows about. Something you swore you would never tell anyone ever again. The pain wrapped up in it reminds me of a tightly wound up string: something that is supposed to hold us together is the very thing that is actually the instrument causing us pain. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to address what is underneath. It means that the wound isn’t actively bleeding because we’ve cut off the supply to the wound. And under death and dying tissue is new life that wants to come to the surface of your life.

To lose our shame means we have to let something that we have so long held in the dark come to the light.

It doesn’t always mean it is pretty. In fact, it usually isn’t. Confronting our pain is hard process, and often a lonely road. Our Christian culture has told us that pain isn’t okay. That life should be wrapped up in a pretty package with a pretty bow. The reality of our pain is if we try to hide our pain, we won’t find our healing.

MY FRIEND…

You aren’t a mistake.

You aren’t a failure.

You aren’t worthless.

You aren’t the thing that someone who hurt you told you that you would never lose.

You are worth it.

You are worth journeying through the hard parts with.

Your worth the parts of your life that are messy.

You deserve the best.

 

This time of year is hard for a lot of people. This time of year brings out some people that are not welcome in your life any time of year. It brings real pain and acknowledgment that some things aren’t easy. This time of year personally reminds me of everything that I hoped my life would be at 30 and everything it isn’t. It reminds me of the pain of unmet expectations. This time of year can be a picture of the beautifully broken parts of your life.

But this holiday season, I challenge you. I challenge you to let enough be enough. To let what isn’t not hold you back but instead set you free. I would love to hear the story from you that you walked through pain and instead came out on the other side of it. That you let yourself walk free into what 2019 might hold, and the hope of a New Year bring light to those around you.

Free Blog, Freedom, Uncategorized

Social Constructs

I recently came across an article that caught my eye online. The title was “I’m 36 And I’ve Been Single For 10 Years. Spoiler: I’m Fine”. I immediately clicked and scrolled.

You see, dear readers, I am what I call “perpetually single.” It has been a blessing and a curse, and as I will explain, much of my own doing. 10 years ago, I had just decided that the religious vocation that I had thought was maybe for me, wasn’t. I had entered a Catholic religious order, sold all of my belongings, quit my job, and moved across the country to try out “religious life” (aka the convent). I could write a whole blog post on my experience there or why I discerned this wasn’t for me, but this is not that post (I do have my own personal blog if you are interested, and always feel free to message me or comment with questions!)

I was 26 when I entered religious life which was still, somehow, considered “old” for starting one’s vocation. This blows my mind because after graduating college at 22, I just wanted to save the world. I had spent my college career learning about and advocating against so many injustices in our world. To be 22 and to think I would know who I would want to “settle down with” or wanting to start a family never crossed my mind. But not but a decade or two earlier, that was really all women were expected to want or capable of thinking of doing. Progress? (insert shrugging shoulder woman emoji here because I am about to explain how far we still have to go).

When the “I Have Been Single for 10 Years” article came across my feed, I didn’t exactly feel relief, because I had come to terms with my state in life years ago. But I was still glad to know that I wasn’t alone. After discerning that religious life wasn’t for me, like any break up, it took a while to “get back in the game.” I have dated over the years, but I have come to terms with the fact that I don’t enjoy dating. And so I finally had told myself, “if I don’t enjoy, why do it?” But let me explain.

This is not to say that I am asexual or not sexual. I identify, for better or for worse, as a hetero-normative, straight woman. I have been attracted to guys since I was in kindergarten and have had pain-staking crushes on men ever since. And though I bemoan the fact that I am attracted to straight men (and, as I have on occasion been known to find myself, the impeccably kept gay man), it is my reality. This is not to say that I am not open to relationships. I very much desire relationships and am open to anything that organically comes my way. Organic being the key word.

What I am not into or do not enjoy is wasting my time on games. I don’t enjoy small talk. I don’t enjoy scrolling left or right on a dating app. I don’t enjoy first or second dates that are forced. I don’t like feeling that I HAVE to date. So I don’t.

It was very freeing for me when I finally articulated these words with myself and to others. And so, again, it wasn’t a relief necessarily to read this article from another “perpetually single” woman, but it was a comfort of sorts. It is also why I have chosen to share my story with all of you, so that if anyone else who isn’t into the BS of what dating is today is reading this, you too can know you are not alone.

I am going to switch gears for a second, and I want to preface by saying I in NO WAY am equating dating with this next experience, just bear with me.  I recently attended a historic Slave Trail walk with a group from my parish, led by one of our deacons. Again, no great segue way there, and obviously, the two are NOT comparable by any ways or any means. However, listening to my deacon review the history of slavery and the systems and economics that were put into place because of the slave trade, I was reminded that so many of our social structures that we have been made subject to are based on antiquated, racist, sexist, unjust, greedy philosophies.

The Slave Trail walk where I live in Richmond, VA was moving and thought provoking for many reasons. Our African-American, Richmond-native deacon told us of Richmond’s terrible roots with the slave trade. We were one of the first cities to bring slaves to the U.S. and as the capitol of the Confederacy, tobacco plantation owners fought to keep slavery because they saw it as the means to make and keep their money. When we began our walk on the trail, our deacon had us keep quiet and made us put our hands on each other’s shoulders as we walked. He told us to imagine what it must have been like walking in a new land, in the dark (because slave traders had to have known what they were doing was inhumane and often brought slaves in at night. It also helped them keep control. If the slaves couldn’t see their surroundings, then they wouldn’t have knowledge of where they could try and escape). He told us of the economic industry that Richmond built around slavery. There were seamstresses that would make clothes for the slaves at auction; the thought being that the better dressed the slaves and better looking, the more money they would make. The fact that the city in which I live built industries based on racism and the killing and torturing of human beings is beyond sickening. (For more resources on slavery in the U.S. and in Richmond, my deacon recommended the book: “Richmond’s Unhealed History” by Benjamin Campbell).

But didn’t marriage start with inhumane economic dealings as well? I know that as Christians we like to look at Genesis and think that God making woman from man’s rib connects man and woman beautifully together (and “this is why a man leaves his mother and father to join his wife” and all that) BUT just a little further in Genesis we find Abraham sleeping with Hagar because Sarah couldn’t produce children for him. Or Jacob’s uncle giving away his daughters Leah and Rachel in exchange for Jacob working on his farm. Explaining these stories to my middle school students is always interesting. Their concept of marriage is based a lot more on romance (for better or for worse) or at least a lot more on choice, not the economic deal that it truly was. Later in Scripture we see Solomon marrying women from all nations so that he could make alliances with those countries. Solomon is heralded as a wise king! But what of the women who were merely part of the deal?!

Again, I am not trying to equate slavery to marriage, though I am sure there are many jokes in poor taste to be made there somewhere. However, I am trying to point out that our systems that still exist today are built on antiquated and unjust ideals. The racism that still exists in our world today was fed by an economic industry for white men to get rich off of. The poverty lines and the jail system and many more of our problems today can stem from this institution of the slave trade. Similarly, but not equally, our system of marriage was based off of an economic system. And even though the system has slightly changed, isn’t the way we promote weddings and bridal showers and bachlorette parties still based off of industries making money?

If I do ever get married, I really just want everyone whose wedding I have ever attended to write me a check. I want plane trips, hotels, dresses, gifts, etc. all factored in. I’m kidding. Kind of.

My point is, if marriage really is about love, why do we make it about all of these other things that celebrate the individual rather than the union? And why do we celebrate the end of that person’s singledom? The traditional feminine bridal shower in which women gather to shower the woman with kitchenware to celebrate that she will now need new items to cook for a man is archaic.  I know this all makes me the exact opposite of a hopeless romantic and probably explains perfectly why I am “perpetually single.” I also don’t want to isolate our married readers. I know that you all are progressive and don’t view the institution of marriage as such. But let me bring it all back to our faith:

We do have a loving God. Our God is the definition of love. And our God is all about relationships. The Christian belief of the Trinity is, in fact, relational. We believe in a Father and a Son and a Spirit that connects this relationship in and of Itself and with God and His other creations. It is a beautiful faith of relationships that relies on relationships to in itself exist and thrive.

It is this kind of relationship that I get my inspiration and model from, not the economic fueled constructs of our world. Take that, Tinder.

Free Blog, Lamenting, Uncategorized

Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel

Are you tired? I’m tired. Today at work, we had the news playing on mute in the background, so I was treated to eight hours of people- mostly men- debating a woman’s sexual assault. My facebook is variations on the same theme. Last week, I sat through a lunch where two of my male co-workers offered their hot takes on the event.

I feel like I could sleep for a week.

And I wish I had something magical to say to you to help you feel better. Some of you are survivors of rape or trauma; probably all of us can recall a time when our body was handled without our consent. I certainly can, and more times that I was harassed verbally, and any number of times that I’ve put myself in between other women and the men who were harassing them.

And if I had to guess, the fact that I hear and see and believe you doesn’t drown out the other voice you’re hearing today. You know the ones.

I’m Sister Mark and you’re reading a Christian blog, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I am trying to cope by looking for my faith. Sometimes it’s really hard to find- I won’t lie to you about that.

When it came time for prayers tonight, I sang “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel”. Yeah, the Christmas song.  This is a nice version- you could listen along while you read. I hope it helps. It’s what I need today. Not Christmas the holiday, exactly, but Christmas the event. I need Jesus so badly today, because men have been refusing to believe women since long before Jesus’ women disciples mistook the Lord for the gardener and went to tell the men the Good News. But God knew their worth and trusted them, and so He came to the women first.

And I am clinging, so tightly, to the fact that He sees me, too. And he sees my friends and my cousins and my colleagues and He knows our worth and He knows what we’ve been through. Belief? It’s not a matter of believing. He was with you then and He is with you now. Then why did it happen? I have no idea. I’m not a theologian and I know I’m not God. I don’t know why any of it happens. But I hold tighter than anything to the knowledge that He is here and He will not leave us. Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

So I sat down and sang, begging God to come. Do I want him to show up, literally, right here on Earth, tonight? To just be with me? I don’t know. But I know that the hope of Him and the promises He made to us gets me through when I don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t fix my problems. It doesn’t stop me from being sad right now. But it reminds me that in the end, God came to us. And then Christ died, and Christ is risen, and Christ will come again… and His kingdom will have no end.

This world is a letdown. God made it beautiful and full of wonders, and often it’s nothing more than a huge letdown. So I pray for Him to come and save us and I cling to the knowledge that, someday, somehow, He will.

 

Uncategorized

The Problematic Lesbian.

I’ve been struggling to write this.

Struggling for a lot of different reasons.

The thing is, you guys… the best of it all is in my hands. I’m completely and entirely and irrevocably in love. As Song of Solomon says “I have found the one whom my soul loves.”

It’s great, right? So why in the hell would I be struggling with it, you might be asking?

Well. The person I am overwhelmingly in love with is a dude. As you may recall, this is entirely antithetical to the lesbian identity I’ve claimed for four years now.

To many progressive people, it may seem like no big deal. Love is love, right? That’s the entire mantra my community builds itself upon. And yet, within the lesbian community, there are many nuances. There is a knowledge that patriarchy works against lesbian women because they exist in many parts of their lives free from the influence of any cisgender, heterosexual men in power.

And the man I am in love with IS a cisgender, heterosexual man. I know, I know. Weep with me. (He’s fully aware I’m writing this, by the way. Lest you think I’m using him for hits.)

He and I have circled each other’s metaphorical drains for seven years now, since we first met and briefly dated in 2011. We have several things that tie us together, but most of it is intangible and unexplainable.

We have come back to each other time after time (insert gratuitous Cyndi Lauper singing here). Each of us has had several successful, happy relationships that didn’t pan out in the end, each of us has been there when that happened for the other. We’ve given each other advice, laughed with each other, and watched each other grow for the better part of a decade.

For so long, we acted like total idiots. When one of us would lean in, the other would lean out. When one would want to move forward, the other would go running. We have mucked it up enough times and returned to one another to know that either this was going to end with both of us banning each other from our lives for good, or spending our lives together for good.

“Experts” would, I’m sure, say that our relationship cycle is one that’s unhealthy, but it’s happened the way that it has for a reason. When we first met, I was twenty-two and he was twenty-one. He was my first boyfriend, and we were just a couple of kids trying to make sense of things, each with passionate tempers and brooding temperaments.

Now, we are both passionate people who have matured and grown enough to know how to communicate with one another, how to fight and how to resolve our disputes with communication and respectful language. We care for each other in big and small ways, and we’ve been tested by the fires of time.

But there are other reasons this hasn’t been easy for me.

As previously mentioned, the lesbian community truly does exist on the cornerstone of a world with limited heterosexual male presence. It was something I reveled in after I first came out.

I love my community. I love the flag I still wrap around my shoulders, the stripes I am still proud to bear written across my heart. I may no longer have a label, but I know my place is under that rainbow.

God and I have wrestled with this, gone back and forth. I have asked him why the last four years since I came out have been necessary if I was simply going to intertwine my life with a man’s life, be “traditional” in a sense.

Because the truth is, there’s something broken in the modern church. I’ve discussed this ad nauseam, but the way this affects someone struggling with their sexuality is potent. There is a fear that dating -and probably marrying- a heterosexual man will not only cause many to believe that I’m straight, which I’m not, but also that I have been “rescued” from some sort of “sin”, that God has planted a man in my life to save me.

Patriarchy is an ugly thing, y’all. And it goes hand in hand with the reason why it is so crucial for the church to come to universal affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community. We could debate the doctrines and the interpretations and the beliefs all day long, and trust me, I have. At the end of the day, the church and its actions aren’t representative of a God who sees our struggle and loves us through it. The church should never be the cause of anyone’s struggle, they should be the solution.

The church needs to stop perpetuating the belief that men save women, especially queer women, from themselves. They need to seek to be the solution to a hurting population of people who have been traumatized at their own hands, and they need to take responsibility for the actions that brought them here.

The answer I got, by the way, is this: I haven’t “lost” who I am, I have found exactly who I am. I am someone who stands for love and justice. I fight for anyone’s right to love exactly who they love, no questions asked. I am a part of a community that makes space for all to sit at their table, and I am proud of that, more than I can say. Far from the last four years being pointless, they have taught me how to embrace love and not to waste it, to savor it where ever it is found.

Four years ago, I came out as gay. And I still am, no matter what people want to believe from external presences. But more than that, I am in love and I am loved in return. It is a breathtaking vision of Christ’s providence and his grace, the love that falls on each of us and sparks even in the furthest reaches of the world.

It’s this kind of love that will restore Christ’s church.

love is love

 

Free Blog

The Catholic Feminist Writes About Mary

Hi again, fam! I think I can speak for our other contributors when I say that we hope this summer has been treating you well and we are glad that you continue to journey with us in this safe, spiritual space. It is still so needed, isn’t it?

I am writing today at the encouragement of my blogger sisters about a woman that Catholics have long been associated with for better or for worse: Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Even though I am Catholic, I have long struggled with my personal relationship to Mary and often had to contemplate for myself why I should hold her in such high regard.

My journey with Mary probably starts with images of her around the homes of family members, around Church, and around my Catholic school. Oh, wait. Scratch that. I actually played her in a pre-school play when I was 2, so it probably starts there.

mary2

Awww. I wasn’t quite as angelic as I looked, but I was a good kid.

I have statues of Mary given to me from each of my grandmothers. One of which, I actually remember being quite taken with when I would visit my maternal grandmother’s house. I think I even asked her if I could have the small statue, and my grandmother gave it to me. I still have both statues and have accumulated more along the way, not because I had a particular devotion to Mary, but because I was Catholic and that’s apparently just what we do: collect images and icons of the Blessed Mother.

And this has gotten us in trouble in the past, right? “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” seems to be the common outcry. She is kind of everywhere in our Churches. Even from a young age, I always knew that we didn’t worship her, but that we pray to her, because she gave birth to God’s Son and therefore, she was really special to God. She had a close relationship with Him.

But I, like many others, have had to turn that concept around in my head over and over for many years. What does it mean that Mary is special to God? That is she close to Him? Why? Why her?

As you probably have gotten to know by now, I am a Scripture girl. In my last post, I used Scripture to talk a little about my relationship to St. Paul (another problematic character to some. It seems that I have a thing for the troublemakers!) Mary is certainly not seen as a troublemaker in Scripture, though. Far from it. This, perhaps, was even my problem with her for so long. I wanted her to be flawed because I am flawed. We are flawed. And I was always taught that because she was “special”, she was without sin. I couldn’t wrap my head around this, so I simply decided that I could not relate to her.

Despite this, though, I would pray my rosaries and spend time in her chapels (I went to The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is on its campus. There are literally dozens of chapels in that basilica devoted to the different images of Mary). I will say, one thing that I learned in my Catholic school upbringing and that I liked about Mary, was that she did seem to translate well into other cultures. Catholics believe that she has appeared in a variety of ways and taken on the appearance of many different cultural women throughout centuries. Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, is where she takes on the form of an indigenous Mexican woman. I do like that she appears as a mother to “children” of all races and seems to take on or embody the image of that race.

Speaking of race, Mary, of course, would have been a young, Middle Eastern, Jewish girl. Growing up, however, I often only saw the blond, Renaissance painting versions of her which also made her seem un-relatable to me (even though I am blond and of European descent). She still just always seemed too perfect! But interestingly enough, it has been this administration that has been drawing me closer to Mary and making me see that she is not so meek and simple and perfect, but rather vocal and complex.

Think about all of the qualities that actually apply to Mary, not just the ones that we put upon her through the Church: she was young. Jewish. From the Middle East. Pregnant, but not yet married. Poor. Female. She was pretty much as powerless as it gets both in her culture at the time AND (sadly) our culture today.

And yet, God- our God- meant to bring about salvation through someone like this, like Mary. He chose a poor, seemingly weak, powerless, culturally diverse WOMAN to begin to enact the plan of salvation on earth. AND she had a choice!
Our loving God gave a woman a choice in a time when options were limited for women.

We all know the story. (If not, go ahead and look up Luke’s Gospel Chap 1, verse 26 or so). God sends angel (not unlike many times God has sent angels or messages to women who didn’t have children before: think Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, Elizabeth via Zechariah just to name a few) to young woman to tell her that she will have a child. The child will be special. In fact, this child is going to be the Son of God.

And here, HERE readers, is where Mary shows her boldness. She questions the angel. She asks “how can this be?” She speaks up. She won’t just take this at face value. She wants answers.

Now, earlier in Luke Chap 1, Zechariah- a man, and a man of the Temple at that- also gets bold and questions the angel sent to him (same angel, btw. Gabriel gets around) but Gabriel is not so compassionate to Zechariah. Zechariah questions the angel and Gabriel promptly mutes Zechariah so that he cannot speak until his son is born! The reason as to why I could get into in another blog post at a later time. The point of me telling this story here is that Gabriel ANSWERS Mary’s question. And then she gets to choose. She gets to think. She ponders. And then she ultimately chooses yes: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

The more I think about Mary in THIS way- as a young, powerless girl who asks questions and gets to choose her fate- the more I see her power and her strength. We don’t hear from Mary very often in the Scriptures. We hear from her a little more in Luke’s Gospel when she prays her famous prayer to Elizabeth called the “Magnificat.” It’s a beautiful prayer, but that’s not necessarily the Mary I can relate to. I can relate to the Mary who ponders in her heart when Simeon tells her later in Luke’s Gospel that her “heart will be pierced like a sword” (paraphrasing Luke) because I would certainly ponder a weird prophecy like that, too. I can relate to the Mary who makes Jesus perform his first miracle in John’s Gospel at the Wedding at Cana. Mary as the pushy Jewish mother telling her son what He should do- the woman behind the first miracle of Jesus- that is a woman I can get behind! Not necessarily the silent, Renaissance figures I had seen growing up.

Another image we get of Mary at her strongest is in John’s Gospel when she is at the foot of her Son’s Cross. Jesus says to St. John : “Behold Your Mother” and He says to her: “Woman, behold Your Son.” We as Catholics believe that Jesus in that moment is giving Mary to all of us as our Mother. I can believe that, but what I really believe in this moment is that she was a strong-ass woman who could stand there in the face of her Son’s death and not turn away when things were really, really, really seemingly bleak and hard.

I hope, dear readers, that this gives you a little insight into the big deal about Mary for some of us. (Perhaps a missed opportunity for the title of this post is “There’s Something About Mary.” Ha!) As a feminist, I get why she can seem un-relatable if we look at her as this quiet, obedient little thing. But as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate her not so quiet moments and that her “yes” meant yes throughout her life, even until the very end.