Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.
The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:
By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.
I lie at the side of my road, hollowed by shareholder robbers, identity thieves.
Where is the voice, the calling in the wilderness, I had heard drawing me forward?
I was so distracted by your voice, O God, I forgot to watch the intersections
And you allowed me to be bowled over, and I tumbled and rolled and skidded
Out of my clothing, out of my very skin, which is left on the pavement after flaying
And I lie on my back, open to the slate sky, blank. Who am I without my job?
No one will answer; my compatriots, fellows on the journey, stream by, and you allow
Their abandonment, you let them continue without me. They become my enemies
Unwittingly. I am on the same road, still, but unmoving, and suddenly with perspective
Anew, from below, from the side, from the sidewalk. I strain for your voice, for you
To tell me who I am, how to re-clothe myself, where the pieces of my skin can be grafted
And where I must scar as a reminder of who I was (or still am?) Only you can tell me
What happened, because I was listening to your voice and didn’t see what happened.
And now I cannot hear you.
I cannot hear you.
I know you were there.
Because of you, I am here.
But I cannot hear you now.
Until I stand up. And lose my shame, and decide on my identity, and choose a path.
Then will I hear your voice again. Will I hear your voice again?
Every week, this show has me thinking and imagining in between church services. This week was no exception. All about faith.
Talking about this today with my Christian pastor friends. The funniest line in the story: “We’re not a cult, but if we were, that’s the first thing we’d say.”
What should Christians do with this “church” that, at least in the eyes of this reporter, seems more real and relevant than many of our churches?
“When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.” ~Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
In Sunday school at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church last week, we discussed body image and obscenity in relation to this campaign of YouTube videos and a related Texas billboard. Our discussion focused on the appropriateness of tattoos in society, mainly talking about growing popularity of tattoos (around a third of adults 18 to 34, including me, have one) and taboos, modern and ancient, on them. Is a tattooed Jesus appealing to us, or is this image grotesque and inappropriate?
However, I think the larger point of this ad campaign has nothing to do with tattoos per se. While I think there are problems with the campaign, particularly with video messages by Christians who claim they were miraculously cured of HIV/AIDS and depression solely with prayer, it speaks to our intimate and complicated relationship with our bodies. Our spiritual lives are not at all disembodied, despite millennia of post-Platonic theologies, and it is important to acknowledge this when trying to explain ourselves to non-Christians or trying to attract congregants to our churches.
We live through our bodies, and we experience not only sin but also salvation through our bodies, and through Christ’s body, ritualized in the Eucharist and Baptism. The video campaign’s promise that Jesus takes a away the marks on our bodies and souls and takes them on himself is at first glance heartening. However I am not sure that I am willing to apologize for the many marks that my life has left on my body and soul.
Also last week I read this blog post, Why Instagram Censored My Body | Petra Collins, about a woman who posted a picture of her bikini-clad non-airbrushed lower quarters. It made me think about the censorship that my church asks me to place on my body. In church I am afraid to speak about sex, homosexuality, tattoos, addiction, menstruation, femininity as an attribute of God, and numerous other topics because they are “worldly” or “of the flesh” or “obscene,” even if they are creations of God.
As a young woman who grew up in the mass market media world, my relationship with my body is one of the most influential aspects of my life. It is very easy to look in the mirror at my overweight face, weird body hair, acne, clinical depression, and spiral into self-loathing and equate this with loathing by God. If God made me depressed, does that mean God doesn’t love me as much as the next person? No. Absolutely not. Even the scars, mental and physical, show that I am human, created and loved by God. Christ, God embodied, suffers with me and gives me hope of future resurrection. For me to long for a mark-less life would be to wish for a relationship with God that is incomplete, a relationship that lacks humility.
Luke 18:9-14 describes a self-righteous Pharisee and a humble tax collector, a parable meant in some sense to illustrate that a mark-less life is not what you might think it is. The Pharisee, who suffered little and was not shunned by society, is taught a lesson about humility and drawing closer to God in times of trial and suffering. It is so easy to point to a suffering, isolated person and thank God that we are not like them, to see our privilege as God’s reward. But this parable tells us that God is near when we are actively seeking in humility and powerlessness. God lifts up the lowly because they are lowly.