I have a dear friend that when describing her marriage says, “we’ve been married 25 years, most of which we are proud of.” As someone who has now clocked well over a decade of marriage I chuckle at her description because it’s true. There are moments we have done it better than others, seasons where we’ve thrived and seasons where we’ve floundered.
When I look back on the years I have struggled not just in my intimate relationships but in my life and vocation, those have been the years that unanticipated hardship came knocking at my door. The year we moved to a new city, welcomed a colicy newborn, and were laid off in a corporate restructure. The year following my oldest child’s open heart surgery and emergency pacemaker implantation. The year two years later when she nearly died from a deadly combination of the flu and a pacemaker wire fracture, but instead spent days in the ICU. The year I realized it was time to leave a church community I had hoped to serve for decades.
The unexpected hardships, the ones that knock us off balance make for the hardest years. Each layer of heartache in those years invited me into conversation about who I was and what I wanted to get out of this “one wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver says. It was an invitation to contemplate God’s steadfast presence in my life, shed commitments to theologies that no longer fit and listen deeply to the Spirit.
Lately that phrase “most of which we can say we are proud of” has been turning in my head because it doesn’t just apply to intimate relationships. I want to live in such a way I can be proud of how I have loved not just my immediate circle but the wider world. I want to be proud of the tangible work I did for the liberation of all God’s people from the evils of white supremacy. I want to be proud of how I model resilience as well as vulnerability in my ministry and parenthood. I want to be proud not just of the years that floated by with ease and uncomplicated passing, I want to be proud of the years that served up a giant, steaming poo sandwich, too.
Thanks to Covid-19, this year has served up a series of difficult choices, asking pastors to personally and professionally make decisions along a spectrum of terrible options. It’s not ideal for any of us, particularly those of us parenting young children. My ministry, a freelance ministry of guest speaking and preaching, interim work, congregational consulting and staff coaching, provides some flexibility to bend my work around the contours of our families needs. My young, school aged children are doing virtual schooling, the best way we’ve discerned to spend our privilege and love our neighbor.
But I would be a liar if I didn’t share that this bending makes me a little brittle with resentment. My ministry is a calling–a fundamental part of who I am and who God created me to be. I’ve worked hard to build what I’ve created, steadily working away, listening to God’s nudges, prayerfully discerning each step. Now I work early morning, evenings, Saturdays locked away in our home office. I slip ten minutes in here and there, prioritizing what’s absolutely necessary, over what is life giving. I use my time first on billable client hours, leaving my creative projects pushed to the edges. None of it ideal, all of it necessary.
I see my colleagues in congregational settings struggling with the same impossible place–communities they had cultivated for years, sometimes decades, now in a precarious place. Callings they once driven by the intimacy and connection cultivated on Sunday mornings, in the hallway after a week night meeting, over coffee mid-week feeling strained. Our steep climb to become technology experts and televangelists has left our muscles sore, our souls fatigued. Despite our collective love affair with technology, we know that nothing replaces the incarnational aspects of human connections. In other words we are IRL people, living in a virtual world. Like the Israelites desiring a settled space as they wandered the desert, we crave what Covid has made impossible. This bending makes brittle the necessary contact we need as pastors to navigate the continued polarization of our congregations that mirrors the culture of US politics right now. The bending to accommodate ministry, parenthood and personhood has made us tender, vulnerable to burnout and all its symptoms.
We moved my two reading chairs, the ones I had saved up for a year to buy, out of the room they were in to convert it to work space. Two small desks aflutter with papers and markers and Zoom IDs on post-it notes now take up the space where I used to curl up to read. I set up sermon recordings not just taking into account my background and lighting but “will some small human barrel in and ruin the recording?” This year of Covid-19 has pressed around the edge of not just my work identity or parenthood but physical space.
Everything has had to change, down to the furniture configuration and while some of the change has been fun, much of it has left me drained. A thousand small decisions that were once woven into the tapestry of daily routine have been left unspooled and it’s been exhausting to pick each one appart and discern the new design of our lives.
From experiencing the crisis of my oldest daughter’s emergency heart surgeries, the present shock and ensuing grief, the way our community had no tools to help us navigate the choppy waters of our confrontation with our mortality, I have made liminal grief my work. Or as Shelly Rambo frames it “the middle–the figurative site in which death and life are no longer bound. Instead the middle speaks to the perplexing space of survival.” We want narratives that cycle from life to death to resurrection with seamlessness. We want to be delivered from the bonds of Egypt into the Promise Land without the wandering. We don’t want the middle, but this year is all middle, all change and grief and messy transition. And I am choosing to embrace that middle, between life and death, so that I can create a middle that while not ideal, still reveals grace.
I have learned there is always an easy way out–a quick and efficient way to bypass hard decisions and conversations, a million and one invitations to sublimate our feelings. Those choices only delay the inevitable, eventually the work shows up and demands to be done. If I have learned anything, it has been to do the work- instead of delay the work. This year I not only want to tackle the obstacles that are set before me, I want to be proud of the way we turned a year none of us would have chosen, into a year we can be proud of. I want to be a witness to God’s mercy and grace in a world that seems shaped to selfishness and destruction.
It can still be a year where we do our best, make good memories and are proud of the way we struggled through the challenges of holding our communities and sanity together. It can be a year where we figure out solutions to problems we could have never guessed would be ours. Where we choose in the midst of hardship to honor one another with grace, mercy and compassion. It can be a year where we lament, cry, and complain and then reach out, ask for help and support one another. It can be a year where we finally name the broken things and allow God’s healing to take shape- making all things new in time. It is a year of which we can be proud because we were able to love one another and this world well when it all felt like it was falling apart.
It can be a year, a season, a moment of which we can be proud.
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