Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Walking Wounded

When you decide to do something that doesn’t even cross most people’s radars of possibility the number one question you tend to get is, “why?”

As I started getting serious about attempting a long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail I got asked, “why?” a lot. Even during my time on the trail a typical ice breaking kind of question between hikers is, “so… what brings you out here?” I even met a young man, still in college, who was himself hiking but also collecting people’s stories for his senior thesis on why people strike out on these time consuming adventures. I was counted among the long distance folks because I was planning on being on trail for more than 100 miles in one stretch. Initially my plan was 1,200 miles, a little more than half of the AT, in the end I managed to scrape my way over about 400 miles. If I’m being completely honest the trail kicked my ass. Some days it was physical, most days it was mental and emotional. There was no way to prepare for some of the conditions and hardships you face when all you can rely on is 35lbs of gear on your back, the strength in your legs, and your will to move forward. Needless to say, I was in over my head, big time. I’m proud of what I accomplished and for the most part, I quit on my own terms. But I am also insanely pissed and disappointed in myself for not hitting my goal. It’s a fun tension to live in (insert sarcasm here). Lucky for me the trail is always waiting, the ancient mountains have stood the test of time and they will always be there waiting to be explored and climbed. Unlike the usual challenges I choose to face, the marathons, the tough workouts, hell even the masters degrees I keep going back for… the trail is immortal. It may take me until I’m barely able to hike more than a couple miles in a day but I will hike every mile the AT has to offer. Because, why the hell not?

But, lets circle back to the “why” from this time around and the lessons learned. Originally I wanted to hike on the AT cause it seemed cool. A fun physical challenge that had a sense of mysticism to it. You gained a certain badass reputation when you were a long-range hiker; you were branded with not just the label of physical toughness but mental toughness. I wanted that. I’ve proved already that I can muscle through a challenge. That I can drag my fat and out of shape ass across the finish line of a marathon without training. But this mountain of a goal (pun intended) was something way different. This wasn’t just a 6-hour gauntlet of pain and then a hot shower, clean sheets, and a trip to chipotle. This was a years of preparation, research, survival, dirt under your finger nails for days, ramen for every meal, tripping down mountains, dodging snakes, standing up bears, destroying your body day after day kind of a deal. May not sound great, but when people asked me why was I doing this, that’s the answer I wanted to give them. That that was the experience I was looking for, that I desperately needed. I need to be challenged in a new way, I needed to reconnect, I needed to get away from people, I needed to remember what it was like to feel things on a visceral level, I needed to figure out if there was something I should be figuring out. Turns out what happened was that I started seeing my internal demons in a whole new way.

I was told that I most likely suffered from depression when I was 19 years old. I got pissed at the therapist, I thought only people who were weak got depressed, thought only people who had tough lives, or tough things happen to them were knocked down to those kinds of lows. Worst thing that happened to me in my life? Being born with a shitty metabolism. I’ve been fat since I was six, this has led to a lot of self-confidence issues, being bullied and judged, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t complain. So why in the hell was I sad all the time? As years passed I became more comfortable with this “diagnoses” or label on my mind, honestly many times I forgot about it, if people talked about depression I didn’t relate, I didn’t count myself among them, but I didn’t cringe either, I didn’t judge. My mid 20s was when things hit a new level, anxiety got added to the mix and my body felt so horrible, my chest was constantly tight, and my head was in a vice grip so tight that I thought I was dying. I sat in my doctor’s office crying from stress and told her I was convinced I had cancer, that’s the only thing that I thought could cause such physical strain on my body… I felt like I was being torn apart from the inside out. She said, “You have a therapist right?” I answered that yes I did, to which she replied, “Has she diagnosed you with anything?” the answer to that, was no. My doctor recommended I talk to my therapist about medication. She said, “Let’s get your stress under control. If you still feel this bad after that, we will look into what might possibly be going on with you.” I was both comforted and pissed. No way was something as (what I thought to be) benign as depression and anxiety causing the physical and emotional pain I was going through. I was up some nights unable to breathe, my hair was thinning, my skin was covered nearly head to toe with painful, itching eczema. It was nearly impossible for me to believe that depression could do that. But, I took my doctors advice, talked to my therapist about the pros and cons of medications and within a couple weeks I was on antianxiety/ depression meds. Things didn’t improve drastically or quickly. I still hated my job, ruined a relationship with a good guy, felt alone and unfulfilled, had little confidence in myself, and my skin still crawled with eczema. But, slowly but surely the tightness in my chest released, the rash started to disappear, I don’t think I was happy, but I wasn’t miserable either. This was a wake up call for me. A realization that you don’t screw around with chemical imbalances that cause you to see only darkness. That as “embarrassing” as it may be some times there is no explanation for feeling so low, it just is what it is.

Once at seminary I felt that I could vocalize and identify my depression. It was the first time in a group of people that I announced that I was one of many people who suffered from anxiety/ depression. It felt less like a label and more like diagnosis; like someone who is diabetic. This helps to take away the stigma and the self-judgment when you face it for what it is, a physical imbalance with serious mental and emotional side effects. This helped only a small amount when it came to facing the internal rollercoaster that was my emotions and mental status. One thing about me is that I am a highly functioning depressed person. I don’t miss assignments, deadlines, meetings, or fall through; even in my darkest times. Some times I wish I would, and then I wouldn’t have to explain what is going on or convince someone of my pain, it would just show. When you can function through your illness no one thinks you’re sick, especially if that illness is mental or emotional. So then you slowly start to feel like a fake, like maybe you’re making it up, maybe you’re overreacting.

What does this all have to do with my hike? Wasn’t that what was promised at the start? Well, friends, this is all a part of the why. This is all a part of the how. The hike became my medication, something that I could hold on to, something that I could look forward to, the light at the end of a seemingly endless and very dark tunnel. Remember the state I described earlier that lead me to medication and I thought I couldn’t get any worse? Well, I did. My second year of seminary was filled with some of the lowest moments I have ever encountered. The reasons don’t matter, they are in the past, but it was hands down the greatest internal struggle I have ever faced. If it weren’t for the promise of the hike, the anticipation of feeling something besides dread every day, the excitement over encounters with true beauty… well, I honestly don’t know if I’d still be around.

That’s the why that I didn’t bluntly share until now. I would usually say to people, “Well why not? It’s an adventure! I’ve always wanted to do it! It’s a great break from school…..” But the real answer, “Because I need to come back to life.”

What I didn’t expect the trail to bring me was a deeper understanding of my depression and how I live with and around it. I kept thinking that I should have some huge revelation while walking, or that I would change somehow, like I would crest a tough climb, see a mountain vista and break down in tears with some new understanding of my life, vocation, and God. This did not happen. Some views did bring tears to my eyes but it was because of their striking beauty and majesty, not a revelation about myself. I remember voicing this frustration in a couple conversations, this frustration over not having a life changing epiphany. The response I got was, “well… like the saying goes, not all who wander are lost.” I may not be lost, but I’m certainly not found either. I had to remind myself that most of the questions we ask ourselves in life just don’t have answers, not ones that are easy to find anyway. This is something I’ve had to come to terms with many times.

One of those questions was, “Why am I so depressed. Why do I feel victimized when I’ve never been a victim?” The simple answer, chemical imbalance. But, sometimes that feels like a cop out answer. What I realized during my hike and during all the time I had with myself was that I was a victim, just not in the way that we think. When we think about victim and abuser we think of two separate people. But, when I look in the mirror I am looking into the eyes of my worst abuser, I am a victim of myself. I am also the only one who can save myself. For me this has been the clearest way that I can visualize my depression, it isn’t some unseen force, some unanswered question – the answer looks right back at me in every reflective surface. This brings both clarity and guilt, an ownership of my life but also a sense of isolation, that while other people could aid me in the solution it is really up to me to fix, and while things that happen in my life could make things harder, I would always be my toughest critic. This may not seem like a helpful realization, it may seem self-deprecating and harsh… well, it is all those things. It’s also something I needed to figure out, that I needed to face; because it was the same way on the trail. Some things and some people made life easier or more enjoyable, some things made your journey miserable but at the end of the day the only person that would put my feet one in front of the other was me.

The other, slightly related realization I had was that I had to stop thinking I was on the same path as everyone else. I’ve always been awful about comparing myself to other people and internally competing with others (even my closest friends); this stems from insecurities mostly and feeds directly into my anxiety and if I feel I’m falling short it exacerbates my depression. One of my favorite phrases, which was universally honored and respected on the trail was, “hike your own hike.” Basically there is no right or wrong way to get from point A to point B if that way is right for you. We’re all on the same trail but moving along it in our own way. This led me to come to terms with the fact that I am not where I want to be in life. I’m 30 years old, single, only halfway done with seminary, consistently broke, and living in student housing! Haha not at all where I thought I would be at this point in my life. Some people are learning new things about themselves, making big leaps, falling in love, having kids, having the time of their lives and that is amazing! But me? I’m just not. I have amazing friends who I am sharing life with, I love learning, I’m excited about diving deeper into ministry, and I have so much good going for me… I say that because I want to make it clear that I am not constantly sad or disappointed in my life, quite the opposite actually. This may not be the pinnacle of my life, but that’s why life is so long and the trail continues. Even in times when things aren’t great there are still great things about those times.

I’m not sure if people will read this and feel hopeful for me, but even though the realizations were heavy and the trail wasn’t exactly what I expected, I loved it. I feel like I am carrying on with a greater understanding of myself, my depression, and what I want out of life. That for me, even now in this uncertain time, is hopeful. So while I may be the walking wounded, I at least know where I’m going.

Monday, October 3, 2016


Sitting in the refectory of LSTC eating a glorious omelet from Pedro and enjoying the early fall weather here in Chicago and reflecting on the last 30 years.

As this milestone birthday has rapidly approached the question I kept getting was, “How do you feel about this one?” As if turning 30 was something to dread or feel bad about. I know, that especially for women, turning 30 is a huge benchmark… if you are single and childless the thought “time is running out” crosses many people’s minds… well. I’m 30 now and I call bullshit on that. Honestly I remember having a much harder time turning 20 then I am having turning 30 haha… turning 20 was terrifying! I wasn’t a teenager anymore, felt like I had to become something else, to become and adult somehow. I wasn’t ready. Turning 30 though, that isn’t scary… I’m ready for my 30s.

My 20s were something else… I feel like I lived about 8 lifetimes in that crazy decade. I grew (I shrank haha), I loved, I lost, I broke down, I built up, I messed up, I lucked out… you get it. The past decade of my life felt like a whirlwind of change and expectation, beauty, and pain. It is hard to even start to reflect on my 20s and what I learned, what I did, and who I’ve become. That could take me all of my 30s haha but I don't want to dwell, I just want to take the good and make it better.... This is why I am so excited about turning 30, so that I can take the things I’ve learned and the people I love into this next part of life that has so much potential! 

Whenever you stand on the edge of the next step the possibilities are both exhilarating and terrifying. I know that my 30s could bring with them many challenges and possible heartbreak, but I can’t help but feel really optimistic about what this next part of my life will hold. I think it is because I am going into them with knowledge and wisdom that I fought for and with people in my life who have loved me through it all. With all that I have going for me and all that I have to gain, how can I not be excited about this refresh button that we all get every 10 years??

I have thought about goals I’d like to have for my 30s; things I’d like to do and experience. But I have learned the hard way that quantitative goals are all well and good when it comes to life but really horrible if you only meet them halfway or don’t meet them at all. Suddenly this missed mark eclipses what is actually amazing and good in your life! But, because it wasn’t on a “to-do” list, what you do have actually doesn’t matter. I don't want to live like that. 

In the last year I have grown to really love the mentality of self-improvement while AT THE SAME TIME self-realization of what you do have and what you are good at. So, when I think about being 30 and what I would like to achieve in this next decade, this is what I’m thinking…

Take better care of myself physically…. On previous birthdays (or just any day, lets be real) I have always associated this with a number on a scale. I will never be completely free of this mentality because I will always associate my personal health with my weight. But, in the last few years I have been able to push my body across the finish line of (almost) 30 long distance races, up some killer mountains, through tough workouts, and challenging situations. So, what would I do differently? What is my goal for this next phase? Well, I want to branch out… try new types of workouts, be intense in other ways besides just distance running. Maybe try out a triathlon… or start doing what my friend Caroline does and has recommended to me and become a race guide. I also need to stop kidding myself about how well I eat. Overall I do pretty good, but if I was doing that great I wouldn’t have weight problems, would I? I mean as we speak I’m eating peanut butter M&Ms (its my birthday though!). I just know that so much of my self worth and confidence is wrapped up in how I feel about my body, and mixing it up athletically and eating cleaner is the way to keep pushing towards that feel good feeling.

Take better care of myself mentally… I do this in many ways already but the change I need to make is to drop the judgments. I feel like I’ve always been a pretty positive person but the second a situation or even a person lets me down I automatically make the judgment that it will remain negative… NOT anymore kids! I truly have seen that every situation has a silver lining, some times you don’t see it until you’re out of the situation, and that’s ok! So I will try to look on the good side of as much as I can (except Donald Trump… there is no silver lining in Donald Trump).

Be more open to relationships… I mean this in a romantic sense. I have some serious walls when it comes to opening up to men I date (sorry… all like… 3 of you haha). So while I need to protect my heart, I probably shouldn’t hoard it anymore haha

Never forget that my friends and family come first.

Be better with money… like seriously Elise… get your shit together.

Overall I just want to be happy… consistently happy. Not naively where I think everyday will be sunshine and roses but just happy. I also want to help in any way I can to make sure the people I love are happy. So with my lessons learned, excited determination, and new gray hairs  its time to charge into this new phase!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why I won't say that the church is dying

"This is a dying Church".... I hate that phrase. I do not like what it implies and I don't like that leaders within our Church are using it. I know that there will be people who say that I am naive, that I don't understand what is really going on within our Church, but let me start off by saying that I am fully aware of the struggles our Church is going through. I see it in the challenges that my parents and their colleagues face every day, I see it in the annual reports I get from now three congregations. I see it in my friends who are in seminary or freshly out. I see it on the faces of my pastors and on the faces of those on my candidacy committee. I see it, I read the articles, I have the conversations, and I am well aware of what we, as a Church, are facing... and yet with all of this staring right at me I still will never, ever say that my Church is a dying one.

Today my congregation confirmed 11 young teenagers, all in middle school or early high school, as we all are when we go through confirmation. Instead of a sermon the newly confirmed were asked to stand in front of the congregation, one by one, and tell us what faith means to them. While I sat listening to these surprisingly articulate young kids I noticed a pattern. Almost half of these kids talked about community, how the church as a living body inspired their faith and kept it strong. So I started thinking, how can we claim to be a part of a church that is dying when there is such renewing spirit and life among us?

The Christian church won't die, it has been alive for over 2000 years. But, the Church is changing... that is the difference, the word "dying" implies that it will no longer be around, that the people who believe together and pray together will disband and disappear into the wind, but to change is part of living. Now, is the church as an institution and organization struggling? Yes, it is, it's struggling a lot; attendance is down, roofs are leaking, offerings are at an all time low, and pastors are having to work day jobs just to keep the lights on, these are all grim realities. But you know what? These are realities that countless organizations are currently facing, even the federally backed education system is struggling! Teachers salaries and benefits are being cut, schools are closing, music, art, and sports programs are being sacrificed so that history, math, and science can continue... the entire world is struggling. But here's where the church is in trouble. No one makes giving to the church a priority anymore. The ruthlessly sought after millennials that everyone keeps talking about are poor! We need church but we want it for free. We also have not educated these new generations about the importance of giving to the church. I will admit that even as the daughter of two pastors I had no clue that the offering gathered every Sunday had anything to do with my parents' paycheck, or fixing the crack in the side of building... I just kind of thought it was a bonus, money that went towards the soup kitchens and bought crafts for Sunday school (which it also does, if there is any left over). The generation that was taught that 10% of your earnings goes to your church is dying, literally. And the new young families taking their place in the pews were not taught the same lessons. So, that is where we need to step up as a church. Stop saying that our church is dying because the non-denominational church down the street is packing the folding chairs, stop saying that pastors won't have jobs anymore, stop freaking out and start stepping up. We can't hide our churchs' problems anymore. We have to get real with our congregants and tell them that if they want to keep walls and a roof around their community and if they want their pastor to be able to care for them the way they'd like then we have to step up. And the best part is you don't have to be a millionaire to do it! $2 a week is plenty, whatever you can give, you should.

So, enough on the finances rant and back to this dying church thing...

It is my belief that we have lost sight of the difference between dying and changing. We, as congregations, have to change the way we reach out to new members, we have to change the way we communicate with people. There are some scary statistics out there about how church attendance is down, there are more "non-believers" than ever before (which I don't think is true I think we've just started counting), there are more Sunday morning options, etc.... But there are also other great statistics about how 67% of millennials prefer a traditional church service to a contemporary one, that my church welcomed 11... ELEVEN young people into our community today, that my mom's church is gaining new members faster than they can handle. People want community, it is an inner desire that drives all of us and church is the perfect place to find that community. Besides, that's how it all started! Jesus didn't wait for people to come to him and hope and pray that they threw him a few coins so that he could fix the organ... he went out to them, his followers were sent out to be fishers of men, and even after the ascension his followers continued and they met where and when they could. It was beautiful and pure and based on love, community and faith. That church that started 2000 years ago still exists today, it is within all of us, we are little individual churches walking around this world and hoping to find someone that we can relate to, yearning to spread the word. So, if our church can morph and change and "keep up" for 2000 years then we can keep that alive, we can change, we can shape ourselves to the desires of the people and people will also see the beauty in our tradition and sanctuaries.

So rise up church! Rise up and meet this challenge! This church is not dead, nor will it ever be, it's just different and different is not bad, it just takes time, love, and a little understanding.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Lessons learned from two years of teaching

To be honest, I never really planned on being a teacher. I had thought to myself that towards the end of my athletic training career I would find some high school, be the ATC and teach a couple classes and enjoy a more stable schedule than college athletic training could offer. Life seemed to have other plans because after 8 months of miserably working as a secretary at an ortho clinic the opportunity to teach and start a sports med program at a high school opened up and I took it. I was drawn in by the promises of good resources, great coworkers, fun and energetic kids, the chance to change lives, the chance to make a community better, and the ability to build something. Some of those things came true and some of them did not. After two years I know that I have nothing on those who are veterans of the teaching profession, but I also feel a little bit like a war torn vet. In fact I’m almost tempted to write a book made up completely of quotes I heard from students, parents, and other teachers, some of these situations were funny, some were tragic, and some were infuriating. But, despite the craziness that has been these last two years in education I am grateful for the lessons that I have learned…
1.       Saying “no” is pretty awesome.
My entire life I have been a “yes” person, some may say a doormat. No matter what the request or favor or demand I said yes. Unfortunately there were times when I missed the mark and didn’t actually do the things I said yes to, which would typically not make me look too good. But, as a teacher and head athletic trainer I learned very quickly the beauty of saying “no”. “Can you head up this committee?” – “No”. “Can you cover this extra basketball game with zero notice?” – “No”. “Can I turn homework from 3 months ago in now?” – “Nope”. No, is wonderfully clear cut. There is no black and white when you say no, it’s just no. My first year of teaching I said “yes” a lot… especially when it came to my students. I stopped that nonsense in my second year and I started to use the word “No” a lot. And you know what I noticed? My students suddenly became better behaved, more organized, and they turned work in on time! All because they knew that if they asked to get away with poor behavior they would hear a solid “no”. And the best part is by saying no to more things I was able to say yes to myself.
                We tend to be a society that loves to be busy; if you aren’t busy you’re doing something wrong. If you don’t agree to every commitment or task you are not a team player, if you can barely get through your day because you have so much to do for other people you are the best! Well, we seem to be the only country that feels that way and we are also number 1 in obesity, stress, alcohol abuse, and depression… wonder why?! Now, I’m still not great in saying “no”… in fact, I enjoy being busy; not for the pride of it but because I like to feel productive. But, over these last two years I have realized that sometimes doing nothing is the most productive you can be and you have to say no to get that time.
                So… say “no” my friends! Start saying yes to your needs and what you want to accomplish.
2.       Cell phones are the devil
As amazing as our smart phones are I’m pretty sure they are slowly killing us. Especially the high school aged kids who have literally grown up with them. Those of us in our late 20s at least remember a time when we didn’t have the internet in our pocket and that we had to carry quarters around so we could call our parents from a pay phone… or even 1-800-collect! Kids these days don’t understand the struggle…. And it is turning them into horrible people. For example: a student of mine was on her phone during a lecture and after many warnings I finally asked her to give me her phone to hold onto for the remainder of class, she started to cry… like seriously cry…. You would have thought I just told her that her parents had died in a car crash. I still kept her phone for the rest of class, despite the meltdown. And you know what? She survived! AND not a single person sent her a message in the 20 minutes I had her phone so she didn’t miss anything. This generation coming up (and even certain people in mine) have no clue how to communicate! We have text messaging for the awkward conversations, emojis for facial expressions, snapchat for visual messaging, and email for the conversations that we’d really rather not have. And then, of course, social media… I mean who could live without it?! Honestly, we all could… we would really be just fine. These lack of communication skills have led to a serious decline in respect, purely because they just don’t know how to talk to people! And the spelling! Oh lord, the spelling… without autocorrect half my students can’t spell their names. It’s really a shame.
                I try to leave my phone in other rooms or not check Facebook (which by the way is now an “old person” thing, according to my students) obsessively and it can be tough! But the difference between me at 28 and my student at 15 is I will not have a massive meltdown if you take my phone away because I am capable of human communication.

3.       Lying is for losers
I am lied to on a daily basis… The excuses that I hear from students about where their homework is, why they were late to class, or even that I am their favorite teachers… lies, LIES I TELL YOU! I will say, kids these days are exceptional liars, I mean they know how to work a lie, they have backup lies, and stories and sometimes they even get other people in on it. And they look out for each other, other kids will chime in and defend the other student, whether they like them or not, purely to show a united front against authority. Honestly, it’s almost impressive. Just because I am telling you that my students are incredible liars doesn’t mean that I don’t trust them, all I’m saying is I’ve learned to tell the difference between sincerity and straight up, bold face, lying. My future children are screwed, and they have by current students to thank for it. And as annoying as it was to constantly feel like I was being lied to I kind of appreciate the fact that my students tried to get away with so much, it made me question things more, and to hold people more accountable. So thanks kids!
     Sounds clichĂ©, but never judge a book by its cover
My two years as a teacher didn’t completely teach me this lesson but it certainly drove it home: There is no way to tell what someone is going through by the way they look, act, or talk on a daily basis. I don’t think I could even count the amount of times I learned something about a student and was completely blown away because it was not at all what I pictured for them. For example: There was a student at school that I never taught but I knew him well. He was the model student, incredibly polite, very smart, driven, organized, and well-liked by his classmates and teachers, he even won a national championship in public speaking! I had this picture in my head of what his family must be like and I found out that I was completely wrong. He had siblings that came through school before him who were the total opposite of him. And parents that were completely uninterested in his academic achievements. I couldn’t believe that this kid was able to be who he was with so few positive examples to follow. From that point on I tried my best not to make assumptions about my students’ families or their home life. Another example was when I thought that one of my students was being neglected. He wore the exact same outfit every day, he kinda smelled a little and was always asking me for part of my lunch; all things that we are told are signs of neglect and abuse. So when his parents asked for a conference with all of his teachers I was eager to see who they were and decide whether or not I needed to take action. Well, when I met the parents they were the nicest and most caring people! Myself and the other teachers hinted at the whole he wears the same thing every day thing… apparently he was just going through a phase and his mother begged him every morning to please wear something different but he didn’t want to. And as far as the asking for food thing, turned out it was a growth spurt and his parents were having to buy loads of food because he was an eating machine! (Sidenote: all of the parents’ explanations were verified by the student and he thought it was all hilarious… a good sign that he was, in fact, in a loving home and was just a dirty and growing teenage boy).
                It can be so easy to judge people. We are pretty much programmed to do so. But, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ask more questions and learn more about other people. I think we would all surprise each other if we gave each other a chance. A chance to share and explain ourselves, our lives, and our struggles. Let someone walk in your shoes and walk in theirs… if we start to do that I think we could have a much deeper understanding of our neighbors and friends and hopefully we won’t be so quick to judge.
        Never judge a teacher by the syllabus
When I finished my masters in 2011 I was convinced that I would never, ever go back to school as a student. I hated it and had convinced myself that I wasn’t good at it. After a year in South Africa and a year working for a clinic I started to get the urge to learn again, but at a deeper level than just personal curiosity. It took me a few years to figure out what exactly I wanted to do but I learned a lot about how becoming a teacher had changed me as a student. I took a couple classes a GSU in between my first and second year of teaching and the mentality I had about learning had completely changed. I paid closer attention, I respected my professors and their choices more, I observed their teaching style and could respect it. I even got pissed listening to other students criticize a test question or choice the professor made when the reasoning behind it was perfectly clear to me!
                There have been many times when I’ve been questioned by students and criticized by parents when they have no idea the 100s of choices I make every day and why I make them. So from now on I will be very very slow to criticize a teacher or professor and will certainly take the proper course when it comes to asking them for explanation.
.       It is my belief that everyone should teach in a public school for at least one year
Teaching a group of teenagers from backgrounds both similar and completely different from you is life changing. Balancing the responsibilities you have to your (100s of) students, after school activities, administration, fellow teachers, and yourself (listed last for a reason) teaches you organizational skills and stress management that few other things can. Teaching has made me a better professional, will hopefully make me a better student, and has shaped me in ways I don’t think any other job could have.

                While I am happy to be moving on from teaching I’d never say that I regret my two years of teaching. I don’t think that I would have discovered my true calling any other way. I will treasure the connections I have made with my students and fellow teachers, but I won’t miss the politics and frustration… but in the long run all of the above have taught me a lot. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not My South Africa

With all of the reports on what is going in South Africa these days I couldn’t help but mull over some things. The South Africa that is in the news is not my South Africa, it is not the country or the culture that I enjoy seeing all over the news, but it is part of the whole story.
Xenophobia is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. It has been around ever since the first Europeans landed in what become Cape Town, and probably even before then. During my time there I saw not only racial tensions, but tribal tensions, and national tensions. The town of Pietermaritzburg is home to many immigrants from other African countries, primarily Zimbabwe and Mozambique (which are the two countries that have the highest populations in South Africa due to their close proximity). Many of these people are students at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and through some of the work I did on campus I got to know many of them. One story was from a man who was in the graduate ministry program at UKZN and was trying to also earn money to bring his family into South Africa. He was from Zimbabwe and worked as a Pastor there in the rural areas. He left because of the political tensions in his area and because he was told that because of his brother’s political status that he too was being watched and was in a lot of danger. He told me that Pastors were expected to carry both a Bible and a gun and to choose a side. If he chose wrong he would be killed. So, he made sure his family was safe and he left. He expected to be safe in South Africa but it was not as welcoming as he thought. He had to hide where he was from and who he was from certain people and decided to learn the isiZulu language in order to blend in. He told me a story of how one day he was at a barber shop getting his hair cut and some men there were talking about how many “Zims” were “taking over” Pietermaritzburg and how if they could they would chase them out or just kill them. Obviously these men did not know that he was from Zimbabwe because by that time he had perfected his isiZulu (which is not at all easy) and was blending in well in the community. He left the barber shop quickly and said that he has been fearful ever since. I sat there and spoke with him about this and while he was telling me these things I was mortified, and he was speaking to me with such calmness, you’d think we were talking about the weather. This wasn’t what I had expected to hear about this place, but it also was not a rare story. As a foreigner myself I wouldn’t say that I was concerned of my safety but I learned to tread lightly. For the most part I was welcomed with open arms but also curiosity. Some of this curiosity was aggressive and some wasn’t. I would constantly face the question, “Why are you here?”. I typically was heard out and accepted though some were still not completely thrilled to have an American walking around. I was lucky though to be part of a community that was thrilled to have me walking around and enjoyed the time I was there, just as much as I enjoyed being there. So it didn’t quite make sense to me to hear such a story of misunderstanding and hate. Luckily he was not just met with xenophobic people but also the South Africans that I knew best, those who are welcoming and kind and willing to share in each other’s cultures. There is and always will be a divide; those who are closed off and hateful and those who are open and understanding. We just have to hope that those who are open stay the majority.
And South Africa is not the only country in the world that struggles with these issues, I mean, look at America! The immigration topic is always a hot one and stirs up issues from jobs to healthcare to education. The difference is where and how these arguments happen, many times it is behind closed doors, in court rooms, in deserts, in the streets of a township, or the Rio Grande. The truth of the matter is there are people fighting for opportunities and fighting for their lives every day, it just depends on where the spotlight falls. And currently it has fallen on South Africa. Whether it’s the Rainbow Nation or the Melting Pot at some point things boil over and tensions run high; whether it’s the economy being bad, local officials not doing their jobs, natural disasters, or religious debates, something will always cause people to lash out. But it is such a small population of people who do so and it is unfortunate that we base our opinions of entire countries on those few. South Africa is not an unwelcoming, violent, or cruel place. In fact it is the exact opposite, it is a country of beauty and love and hope, but also a dark and troubled past. That past can rear its ugly head from time to time and remind people of their differences more than their common ground. It is something that we as Americans can absolutely relate to, especially given the current racial charged events going on in our own country.
What bothers me most though is this overuse of the term –phobia, words like Xenophobia and Homophobia. Afraid? Really? A phobia is an uncontrollable fear, something that paralyzes us and controls us, it is quite literally a mental disorder. In my opinion the dislike or even hatred of another person because of their race, country of origin, or sexual preference is not a fear, it is not uncontrollable, it is not paralyzing, it is an ignorant and purposeful disregard for other people. Why? Why are we afraid of each other? What is so threatening about the fact that a man loves and wants to marry another man? What is so terrifying about a person coming to another country to escape a dangerous situation and start a better life? Nothing, there is nothing scary about either of those things. Now, to be fair I will not count out the fact that people have different lives and experiences, they are shaped by their interactions with others and the way they were raised. But, we all have a choice. We choose whether or not to bring down our fists or to shoot the gun, we choose who we listen to and who we shut out, we choose. I don’t mean to say that you have to get along with or love everyone, but if you decide who you want to love or hate based completely on where they came from or their lifestyle than that is where I draw the line.

The world has some serious problems and most, if not all of them, start and end with us. There is a group of people in South Africa that chose a violent and destructive path and have opened the door for others to do the same. But there is a much larger group of people in that country that will not make that choice, people that will stand up with others and say “we are all Africa”… So, my South Africa is not what you see on the news, it is not violent or destructive; my South Africa is welcoming, my South Africa is the place I called home, my South Africa is beautiful.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

Good Friday Homily (aka first attempt at preaching)

“When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.  But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.

This passage from Luke gives us the first of the last seven words of Jesus Christ. In my opinion they are his most powerful. Forgiveness is an incredibly complex thing. We see that as Jesus is being killed; the nails have been driven in, the beatings have left him bloodied and broken, the weight of his body on the cross crushing him, he uses one of his last breathes to ask for forgiveness. But, not forgiveness for himself, he asks God to forgive us: the very people who have condemned him to this violent death. And despite God having to watch as his only son crucified and the guilty run free, we are forgiven.

From the moment we are baptized we are told that we are forgiven all our sins; and we are reminded every Sunday that even though we are imperfect people we are loved and forgiven by God. But, sometimes I wonder if we have lost sight of the reason forgiveness is so stressed in our stories and liturgies. We focus on God forgiving us, so thankful that when we can’t even forgive ourselves we still know that God will forgive us and love us unconditionally. Every Sunday after the confession and forgiveness of sins I know that I breathe a sigh of relief and am grateful to know that even though I am flawed and sinful that God can offer me what no other human can – unconditional love and forgiveness.

As people we struggle to forgive. Of all the things we are asked to do in the name of God, forgiveness can sometimes be the hardest. Sometimes we even struggle to accept God’s forgiveness of us, but we are still comforted by it because it is constant. But, all of us fall desperately short in the forgiveness of others. So, the Church is constantly reminding us. In the Apostle’s Creed we say that we “Believe in the forgiveness of sins”; which I always assumed was believing in God’s ability to forgive us, but lately I have been looking at it from a different perspective, I have been trying to picture it as believing in our ability to forgive each other. Which we all promise to do in the Lord’s Prayer! “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We promise to forgive our neighbors and freinds, but how successful are we at actually doing it?

In a recent article in The Lutheran, Peter Nash says, “Being Lutheran means that I know a lot more about justification than I know about human forgiveness. We are much more concerned about getting right with God than we are with living right with our neighbors as faithfully as possible.” Nash’s statement is so dead on that it is almost scary. We are recipients of God’s unrelenting grace and forgiveness on a daily basis and yet it is still so difficult for us to forgive each other.

The worst part is that we see amazing examples of humanity’s ability to forgive every day, a blueprint, if you will, for our own acts of forgiveness. Take for instance the story of Nelson Mandela. As some of you may know I lived in South Africa for a year and served through the Young Adults in Global Mission. Even before stepping foot onto South African soil I was an admirer of Nelson Mandela. But, after spending a year with the people he liberated and talking to those who remember all too well the time before democracy in South Africa and how hard it was to fight for I admired him even more. He led by example; while many people thought he would call for vengeance, to rid the country of the white minority that had oppressed the black majority for so many generations, while they waited for civil war, he surprised everyone, and said “forgive”. While in jail on Robben Island he befriended his captors, learned their language, taught them about his culture and built a mutual respect, this allowed him to walk away from that cell in 1990 and to tell the people of South Africa, now is not a time for vengeance and war, now is a time for forgiveness. Despite the very violent years leading up to the 1994 elections South Africa’s transition to democracy will go down in history as a bloodless one, one of forgiveness and reconciliation. While Mandela’s actions can be very difficult to understand what we can also focus on is the amount of time and prayer that went into his ability to forgive and then the process that came after that was needed to heal those wounds, which is where the reconciliation comes in.

Forgiveness does not mean that everything is and always will be ok. Forgiveness is merely the first of many steps to peace. To forgive doesn’t mean that you can’t be mad or hurt, those feelings are normal when you feel you have been wronged. And when we think about it even Jesus was known to flip a table or two. But, if we are to follow the example of Christ we see that the anger does not last long, the love and forgiveness follow shortly after, and once those three magical words are spoken, once you say “I forgive you”… that is when the road to reconciliation can begin.

We should never forget the power of forgiveness, it is one of the few things that can show unconditional love. Love is natural when times are easy, when everything is going right. But when we see the sin, the hate, the mistakes, and cruelness of this world, that is when the love can leave us, but it’s also the times when we need it the most, so if we can forgive, despite the mistakes and mess then we truly will understand the strength of God’s love for us, given to us because of the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. Through his death Christ paid for our forgiveness, with his words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do” Christ saved us all. And perhaps, if we can find the room in our hearts to forgive, we may start to save each other.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Magnificat Moments

I had a great lesson in humility today, it may not sound like much of a big deal but I was asked to lead my young adults Sunday school class. Our fearless leader Karen was home sick and she asked me if I would fill in and let me know that she had planned on talking about The Magnificat. Sure! I said… The Magnificat! Awesome! I said… and then I immediately panicked because I couldn’t quite remember what the Magnificat was, I know, I’m a horrible Lutheran, and even worse pastor’s daughter. So I looked it up, The Song of Mary! Of course! Where to begin…

I went to Luke and read the story, Mary’s words, and tried to understand. While reading these words of praise and trust and amazement that Mary had for the Lord I started to think about who Mary was at the time she spoke these words, what had just been asked of her and how incredible that was. Not to mention her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, The Baptist at the time she had this conversation with Mary. These two women were asked to birth and mother two of the most important figures in Christianity, Jesus clearly being the most crucial figure. I began to think about the women, not the symbols that they were. Mary was literally a girl, no older than most of my students and she was asked to face social judgments, ridicule, and the possibility of losing her fiancĂ© in order to give birth and raise the savior of human kind, oh, and the Son of God. No biggie, right? While Mary had doubts and was obviously afraid she accepted her task and did it faithfully. And when her cousin Elizabeth asked her, “how do you feel about your new task of mothering the savior of mankind?” and instead of admitting to her fear and anxiety she praised God and all of his might, she praised his preference of the lowly and the humble. And she and Elizabeth did as God called them to do, they had these children and protected them and those children grew up to complete their tasks, and in essence these people saved the world.

So, who are we? Where do we fit? Does God speak to us? Are we called? When I was younger I used to ask my parents all the time, “why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?” I just didn’t get it. I was surrounded by all these stories about people that God had spoken to. So I couldn’t help but wonder, where were our messenger angels? Where were the beams of light? The burning bushes? When I brought this up in Sunday school today one of the others made a great point, he said, “Well, I think it all boils down to the fact that we think to highly of ourselves to hear anything”. After we discussed this a little more we all came to the conclusion that God absolutely speaks to us. But, the world we live in is so loud and so reliant on proof that we forget to listen with our hearts and only focus on what we can see and hear. In the days of Mary and Elizabeth and even Moses the faith was held at the beginning, their was no pride or outside noise to get in the way of hearing God’s call and whole heartedly answering it. These days we usually don’t see our purpose or call until the end. How many times has it happened that way? “I didn’t realize what an impact I’d had until I left”… or “I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone”. And then we call it coincidence or divine intervention and we look up to the sky and say, “way to be tricky God, I see what you did there”… I’m sure every now and then God just looks down and says, “I tried to tell you.”

I asked the group to think of a time when they were in a situation that seemed completely ordinary or when your work seemed pointless and that it wasn’t until the end that you realized what God had in store. I asked them, “What has been a Magnificat moment in your life?” One guy shared a story of how he got involved with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and how he wasn’t quite sure how to impact this young kids life just by hanging out with him and it wasn’t until the boy’s Grandfather got sick and while sitting in the hospital with the family did he realize what an impact he had had on the entire family just by being a role model for this young kid. When he asked how he and the boy were paired up it was over a simple shared interest in wrestling, that’s it! It was then that he realized God had had a hand in that decision and he had a Magnificat moment. For me, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few Magnificat moments, but the biggest and most influential was my YAGM year. It was a year of struggle and frustration and questioning and as I went to my different farewell gatherings I was finally told by the people who I thought barely noticed my presence what an impact I had on them and their community just by getting on a plane and spending a year with them, talking, walking with them, drinking tea with them, or playing with their children. It was something I wished that I had been aware of the entire time, but I realize now that I simply wasn’t listening.

So, ultimately we came full circle. We looked at these symbolic people who sparked the religion we all hold so dear today, but we didn’t see them as images in a stained glass window, or a figurine on the alter, we looked at them as ordinary people who God asked to be extraordinary. And we admired them for their faith and their trust in God, but also their ability to so fully praise their God and the call he gave them. We shared in Mary’s Magnificat and we looked for our own. As you close this window and go about your day, think about a Magnificat moment in your life, and as we go on listen a little closer to what you might be called to do.