According to Facebook Memories, a lot of things happen (to or around me, anyway) on this day of the year. Observe:
Shortly after my appointment to start the Pilgrimage with Missions Door, someone, who I think was trying to be sympathetic, said, “I don’t know of anyone who has struggled as much as you to know God’s will for your life! It sounds as though it’s becoming clearer, though.”
I’ve done a lot of different stuff and been a lot of different things in my adult life, so I guess I can see why it would look like that. Maybe it really is like that. Or maybe trying to do God’s will doesn’t always (for every person) look like doing exactly the same thing your whole life, but more like, say, a Pilgrimage–where the goal is always the same, but the path meanders through different places and looks different accordingly. (There might also be different understandings of “God’s will.”) But–I don’t know–I guess I used to think all the things I’d ever done were unrelated except that I did them because I thought or hoped God was asking me to at the time. From this vantage point, though, I’m wondering if they’ve really just been different iterations of one thing all along.
At the beginning of my summer CPE internship, we had to write a short paper on our first impressions, and at the end of mine, I said, “I like meeting new people and hearing their stories, but I hate initiating introductions. And I have just signed myself up for an entire summer of doing basically that. What was I thinking?” Maybe this. Observe:
London, late 90’s
“Hi, my name is Jenn and this is ____________. We belong to [Local Church]. We are right around the corner from you and we wanted to let you know about some of the services we offer our community which are available to you … ”
Living History Museum, early aughts
“Good day, my name is Anna Russell. I’m the minister’s daughter … ”
Starbucks, mid aughts
“Hi there–how’s it going? What can I get for you today?” [I pretty much never had to actually introduce myself to anyone at Starbucks. Enough people are regulars that names were more or less learned by osmosis. Lots of conversations happened, though.]
Previous Church, late aughts
“Hi, my name is Jenn, and I’m the director of Christian education. Would your kids like to join our Sunday school? … Would your teens like to join our youth group? … Would you like to buy a loaf of Mission Bread? … Would your company like to donate items for our next fundraiser? … How about volunteering?”
The Hospital, 2015
“Hi, my name is Jenn, and I’m a chaplain intern. I’m visiting the patients in this unit today and was wondering if you’d like some company …”
Okay. I don’t actually know how I’m going to introduce the Pilgrimage to participants yet, exactly. Although I’ve been doing a whole lot of putting myself out there for the support-raising piece so far, I guess.
Evidently at least part of God’s will for my life has to do with getting out of my comfort zone. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s God’s will for everybody’s life. It’s how we learn to trust God better–when the Comfortable is not around. Maybe another piece of God’s will that’s consistent through all of the above is that, by getting me out of my comfort zone, opportunities are created for conversations and interactions in which God can show up. At least, I hope so. I like meeting new people and hearing their stories, but I hate initiating introductions. If God shows up, though, I’m in. He’s worth it.
The Pilgrimage is funded by your generosity. Recurring or special tax deductible donations may be sent to: Missions Door, 2530 Washington St, Denver CO 80205 or visit www.the-pilgrimage.org and click “Donate.”
The first time I brought a group of high schoolers on a mission trip, there was one young man who had such a great time that he refused to go on another such trip ever again, because he believed it couldn’t possibly be as wonderful as that first one. I think I maybe understand how he felt. My first unit of CPE, which only ended two months ago, was such a formative and healing experience with such exceptional people during a time otherwise characterized by such upheaval, that I can’t quite conceive of how this second unit could possibly measure up.
Yet here I am, intentionally not-refusing another round of CPE, regardless of this feeling. I’m hoping that my being in my 40’s instead of in my teens will at least give me the perspective to realize there is value in all kinds of experience, that “measuring up” may be a false standard (what is the standard, anyway?), and that I still have lots to learn. I suspect what I need to learn this time around, I will only be able to learn from and with this new set of differently exceptional people. I just need not to expect to feel exactly the same at the end of this current unit as I did at the end of the last one. I certainly don’t feel the same at the beginning of it.
Although, as I discovered after trying to co-lead a tour of the hospital for my new group-mates yesterday, I still don’t know where all the hospital units are, said Hospital feels much more like “home” this time around.
I don’t feel as jumpy around new people as I did when I first walked into the building as a CPE newbie. I recognize some of the staff from other departments. I felt comfortable to come in and begin visiting patients in new units even before we were technically required to, and have already had some interesting, and maybe even noteworthy, visits. I visited my favorite unit from last time and was greeted with smiles and squeals of happy recognition and welcome by the staff. I was equally delighted to see them. I already know that the Monsigneur on staff is personable and that I don’t have to stand on ceremony with him, nor do I need my Supervisor to be my immediate go-to person for each and every question or uncertainty that may blip across my consciousness.
That said, I find that I am still quite nervous about the psychological health unit, where I asked to be assigned and consequently have been. I attended with my Supervisor a group he runs there, and sat there feeling deeply interested in everything the patients said, but also entirely at a loss at how to engage in the group—so I didn’t, sitting mute and no doubt wide-eyed. I was too nervous to go up there by myself before that meeting, so I have no idea if my discomfort was simply a form of self-consciousness because I felt that my Supervisor would be evaluating anything I might ask or offer in the group, or if it was a genuine reaction to the demographic. Or the stories. Probably some of all of that. I want to be there, because I’ve had my own struggles with depression, and mental illness and addiction are rampant in Our Fair City, and I think it’s important for me to learn how to “be” in this context. But it’s quite clear that learning it is essential, because I don’t already know how to be there, at all.
Already this unit of CPE is shaping up very differently from the last, but as a consequence, I feel excited and interested in seeing how this new chapter unfolds. I am relishing an increase of confidence from the last time, and only hope I don’t stride into this experience with such briskness that I miss noticing what’s happening in and around me in the moment.
It is a weird thing for this chick to be church shopping.
Look, I was practically born in church, okay? My parents “planted” churches when I was little, and then they settled in one for 25 years, and I moved around some on my own, but half the time I was assigned to a church (or churches) to work there. Really, the only two other times I’ve had to get serious about finding a church on my own was when I moved to college (it took a year–I thought I’d found one but then switched sophomore year and stayed with that one for the rest of undergrad) and the first time I went to seminary.
I’ve attended and participated in churches across all kinds of denominations, and with all types of worship “styles” and liturgy and theological distinctives, and the reason I can do this is because I believe the Church is the Bride of Christ, and so if a church is shining the light of Jesus at all–even a little bit–and I feel called to be a part of that community, I will pretty much just dig in and be a part of that community. I think the most important part of what Church is and should be is a community that’s centered around Jesus, and so the type of music that’s played, or the public speaking prowess of the pastor, or the social status of the parishioners, or the dress code, or the relative absence or presence of financial resources are a lot less important than whether or not Jesus is there by His Holy Spirit, and whether that Spirit is creating community there.
I also think worshiping and fellowshipping in a place that’s relatively local to where I live is important. I believe that God can work through giant churches that draw from outside their local communities (and I’ve even been part of a few, though only for a very short time each) but–dare I be so bold? and who am I to say?–I’m not really sure that’s what Church is, or is supposed to be. I think Church (community in Jesus through the Spirit) can happen in those places–I’ve experienced it. But I guess I just don’t think Church is about numbers or rock music or perfectly scripted
concerts services (what some euphemise, I hear, as “excellence”) or “what I can get out of it” but more about where I’m called and where I can contribute and be in community with others who are journeying with and toward Christ. So when I have cause to become a part of a new church, it’s usually either because I’ve moved or I’ve been hired (or both), and I work on settling in and trying to worship and commune with the people who have been called to that community, too. That’s not to say I do that perfectly at first or ever, but it’s my attempted approach to such things.
This summer, my Paul and I have been visiting a variety of churches within our basic local radius (last week’s was a stretch, geographically, so if we go again it will likely only ever be as visitors, but we did “get a lot out of it,” truly), trying to discern where God wants us to go next, and it’s just weird to me, because I haven’t ever had to wonder about it this much. It’s also different because this is the first time I’ve been trying to make these decisions with someone. I’m grateful that for the most part my Paul and I have had similar responses to the churches we’ve visited. Incidentally, I think all of our responses have been largely positive.
It seems like, while we’re open to larger Evangelical churches which are more similar to what I grew up with and where Paul’s been worshiping the last few years, at the moment we both prefer smaller mainline churches with fairly traditional services, but where the orthodox Christian gospel (God, the Three-in-One, made humans in His image. Humans messed up the relationship. Jesus, who is God, became human to show us what a human-in-relationship-to-God is supposed to look like, then died to take the penalty for our really really serious mess-up, and then broke the power of death by coming back to life a few days later, so that we can live in His life by His Spirit) is communicated in word and service. (Note to Evangelical skeptics: We have found at least three such congregations this summer, although one was on our Back-of-Beyond vacation a few weeks ago and we won’t be commuting up there.)
It’s kind of interesting, visiting all these places, finding out what our current church preferences are (and that they’re similar) and letting the experience continue to inform my ideas about Church, since I’ve been thinking about it so much this summer.
But it’s still weird, guys. It’s still weird.
Warning: this will be a whingy post. If you’re not into reading other people’s whinges, I won’t hold it against you if you skip this one.
I wasn’t ever supposed to look old.
In fact, I think I might have subconsciously anticipated a sort of Benjamin Button-like existence (except that I’ve never seen that movie so I don’t really know what I’m talking about). When I was in Junior High I was so tall that new students occasionally thought I was a teacher. In my 20’s in London, people frequently assumed I was in my early 30’s. But when I moved back to Our Fair City and started working with other actually 20-year-olds in my 30’s, I was constantly assumed to be somewhere in the 25-27 age range.
I know. You’re thinking, but are too polite to say, that everyone in my 30’s was also being too polite to let on that they knew I was in my 30’s. And I suppose there must have been a few of those. But genuine astonishment is sometimes discernible and it happened so often back then that I have to think that for the most part, I looked younger than I was. My hair was greying, and I’ve had a crease between my eyes at the bridge of my nose forever because I squint, but I imagined that somehow I would continue to have this otherwise youthful face, which would just make the grey hair kind of cool.
Now I am … no longer in my 30’s. Although there have been some “life hiccups” in recent times, overall I am happier than I ever was during that decade, so I feel like I should look younger than ever. But this week I started my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program and we had to get badges made for the hospital. I sat down in the chair, tried to smile at the camera, and what came out was … a picture of this typical middle aged New England woman, not quite smiling, with the beginnings of jowls. No. Not okay! I was finally starting to get rid of my double chin through my workouts and Shakeology, and the acne I’ve had since I was 13 has never fully gone away, so I feel that Jowls should have to wait a decade or two. And why the heck isn’t P90X3 helping with them??
I had actually already noticed these to my horror in a few other recent, less official photos, but now every day I have to wear this thing that looks like me, except I’m not willing to acknowledge that I look like that. I want my new colleagues, and maybe the patients I’m going to meet next week, to be mystified as to how old I am … which
probably definitely has nothing to do with being a good chaplain. Now that I think about it. Okay, I’ll shut up now. Off to have some warm milk or whatever old people do on Friday nights …
I have been traveling intermittently since I was two, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it.
I got especially good at it after my five week trip to India in college. I went with a group of nine people through an organisation that arranges trips like that one, and before we left, said organisation gave us a list of things to pack. This was in the early ’90’s, so let’s acknowledge that luggage technology was not as advanced as it is now. As far as I’m aware, the fact that my American Tourister suitcase (which had been purchased for me as a high school graduation present and sported my then-favourite-colour, “Dusty Rose”) had a pair of disproportionately tiny wheels, and a handle for dragging it on them, was a relative novelty and considered quite an asset. Unfortunately, it was hard-sided and already weighed plenty when there was nothing in it. The up side was that I guess if we ran into any ill-behaved simians in the jungles of the subcontinent, they wouldn’t be able to break into it. (We did see some monkeys in the trees, but they left our luggage alone. We didn’t see the tigers we were looking for at all.)
After I packed every item on the Recommended Items to Pack list, however (including a travel iron, because I had a travel iron and had never had a reason to travel with it before–and still didn’t, let’s be honest), the suitcase weighed so much that it crushed the wheel bearings and the wheels never rolled again. Which was a problem when trying to rush with eight other people across the length and breadth, as well as up and down the stairs, of a New Delhi train station in an attempt to get to the Indian state of Maharashtra. We ended up in Mumbai (when it was still called Bombay) at the end of the trip, and I guess, if the more recent commercial is any indication, even a soft-sided American Tourister suitcase would’ve sufficed. Bummer.
Anyway, after that I decided to up my travel game, which proved to be a good thing when I moved to London and spent the next five and a half years gallivanting around Europe. One of the things that I learned pretty early on was the importance of informing myself on the upcoming weather of whatever location I was headed for. I developed certain techniques for packing light, no matter the weather, but since cold weather clothes are usually bulkier than warm weather ones, it was important for the success of all the rest of my travel hacks that I have some idea what sort of meteorological state I was about to enter. It used to be trickier to find this out; often I had to make a phone call to a person living in my destination, particularly during the days when I couldn’t afford an internet connection that actually allowed me to search the internet, but only one that allowed me to quickly send and receive emails. But I was always able to find out the information I needed to know. Now it’s so much easier.
All this to say that I really have no excuse for the fact that I’ve been wearing the same sweatshirt and jeans, and borrowing TheBro’s socks, for the last five days. My first day as a non-employee of My Old Church, I got on a plane bright and early to spend a few days with The BroFam. The BroFam lives in a northerly state which is known for cold winters, but since last year New England’s winter lasted about three months longer than theirs and it was hot there when my Paul and I visited them around this same time, and this year New England got more snow than anyone else in the country including Alaska, I guess I just figured I’d be wearing shorts the whole time. I mean, I did figure that. It’s what I packed. It’s been downright hot in New England lately, and in spite of the fact I had a brief glimmer of a thought, as I dragged my soft-sided suitcase with functioning wheels out of its spot in the closet, that maybe I should check the weather, I … didn’t. The only reason I have a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans with me at all is that I find airplanes chilly.
As with most Jenn Stories (of which this is a quintessential one), please feel free to consider this a public service announcement, meaning: Check the weather before you travel. You’re welcome.
When Christians try to encourage other people in the practice of journal keeping (a practice I highly recommend, by the way) they often cite as one of the reasons it’s a good idea the fact that a journal gives you a record of where you’ve been and what God’s done in your life. I can affirm this, but I can also tell you that I haven’t gone back and reread a journal in years, if not decades, because I tend to be verbose (I know–you’re shocked) and it kind of feels like really time-consuming self-absorption to me.
But apparently you can get similar benefits from going to your Facebook wall and clicking on a year in the sidebar that happened more than five years ago, and scrolling through all the posts. They’re shorter, they involve other people, and if you were a regular with the status updates like I used to be, they trigger a whole lot of memories and realisations and hopefully gratitude, in a much shorter period of time.
I say this from the experience of about five minutes ago. Earlier this evening I posted the following:
Two Thousand Eight was a pretty significant year for a number of reasons, but two of the reasons were that it was the year I was diagnosed with and treated for cancer (surgically–other treatment came later) and the year I began working at Now Church–which is about to stop being Now Church and just be Church, I guess. After I posted that picture, I thought, I wonder what else is on Facebook from that year. A lot, it turns out. I have, and have always had, it seems, a very supportive network of friends and family. Life moves people around and you lose touch with some of them. There were people supporting me through my cancer diagnosis whom I rarely if ever see now, but I’m grateful for them to this day, and I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made in the meantime. My overwhelming impression right now is of God’s constant, active, personal presence in life, both in the joyful and the painful times. The other impression, if my Facebook wall from 2008–or any other year, for that matter–is any indication, is that He most frequently makes His presence known through other people.
So thanks, past, present, and future friends, for transmitting God’s presence in my life, whether you know it or not.
Or Not-Church that is Church?
That was the other thing I realised when I was looking at my Living Circle pictures yesterday: In a lot of ways, Living Circle was the prototype for the kind of thing I’ve been mulling over so much lately, regarding spiritual direction and people who love God but not church, and those sorts of things.
I don’t remember where our group’s money came from. I know we had some, but most of the stuff we did, we each just paid for out of our own pockets, and since we didn’t have our own building (and to my knowledge we didn’t have to pay rent–or if we did it was minimal) we didn’t have the expenses of a physical plant.
We had a leadership team made up of people from across a number of churches, which helped keep us accountable, although I think the two churches that started Living Circle before I ever got there, still had some sort of loose oversight. I was on the leadership team myself in my second year–although I forget what my job was, and that was the year the whole thing disbanded, so maybe we should take everything I said yesterday about my young adult latent leadership skills with a grain of salt.
We still met once a week (on Monday nights), and we sang songs to God, and prayed, and studied the Bible together. Sometimes we invited a speaker to come in and speak on a topic, but mostly we just broke up into smaller groups and studied topics and sections or characters of the Bible together. (I think, if I recall, maybe the Bible study portion was the weakest part of the whole endeavour, but it wouldn’t have to be.) We broke bread together often, if by “breaking bread” you mean we ate together a lot. We did not share the eucharist (too many denominations were represented, and both Roman Catholics and Protestants were in attendance) or baptise each other. We served our community and those further afield. We went on retreats together. We also celebrated.
Most members of Living Circle belonged to their own churches, and would attend them at the relevant times, and hopefully Living Circle helped each of us who did, to serve our churches better than we would have without that network and support. People who did not belong to another congregation were still always welcome. We did not call Living Circle “church,” but it sure had a lot of overlap. There was sometimes drama, but I wonder if the reason no one thought of it as church, freed it up mostly to act like all the best aspects of church. Kind of like my leading better when I didn’t know I was leading, maybe. There are of course limitations, but considering no human institution is perfect, and acknowledging the need for improvement in a couple of specific areas, I’m still starting to think this is a good template to start with for a ministry that provides interdenominational Christian community for people who are “barely hanging on” in church, or who just don’t want anything to do with it, anymore or in the first place.
Now to figure out how to modify that template for people of the twenty-teens instead of the 1990’s, and how to “internet-ify” it for people further afield … More thoughts, The Readership?
I’m trying systematically to scan my old photo albums and reproduce them digitally so they take up less physical space. There are a lot of photo albums, though, and I used to add extra pages to every single one of them, so getting through even one is always quite a project. I haven’t worked on one in a long time, until today.
The one I worked on today depicted my transition from college graduate to nanny in Nannyville, Connecticut, and so there were a lot of photos from my friends and busy social life in Living Circle, the Christian young adults’ group I belonged to while I was there. Today was not the first day in the past five years I’ve wished I could recreate something like that group for young adults I know now, nor the first day I was aware of how astonishingly well it worked for an interdenominational experiment. However, today I did realise two other things for the first time. We can talk about the second realisation tomorrow. But here’s the first one:
Looking at the photos, it dawned on me how I myself was turning into a leader all the way back then. I’ve long struggled with insecurity and self-doubt, and even now, although I am able to take the lead much more easily than I used to (a skill I’ve especially gained thanks to my years at Now Church), I still second-guess myself and don’t always feel comfortable saying quite what I mean or effecting quite what I intend in certain contexts because I’m unsure of my position of authority. I still have trouble delegating specifically, sometimes, and I’m still learning to think on my feet.
But in the bulk of the last photos of today’s photo album, there were pictures of me and my Living Circle friends working at Habitat for Humanity, serving dinner to a group of younger short-term mission workers, and rehabbing a summer camp in Upstate New York. All these were labeled as “Service Committee” photos, but here’s the thing–there wasn’t a Living Circle Service Committee until I got there. I don’t remember who organized the dinner-serving project (although I do remember grocery shopping for it with my friend Anne and looking for ground beef with the highest fat content because we couldn’t afford the leaner kind!), but I know that I was the one who organized the two building/painting projects. And there were even decent sized groups of people who participated in these efforts. (From the photo below, it only looks like there were five of us, but I think there were at least twelve who went on this one.)
I’m not saying this to brag–it’s more of an exclamation of astonishment, because I guess I still usually think of myself as someone who has to plead and beg to get a show of support, and then a lot of the time I imagine people are only helping out of pity. These pictures were something of a revelation to me. I was one of the youngest members of Living Circle at the time. I had forgotten how much influence people had allowed me.
After my life as a nanny, but before I moved to London, I lived in a guesthouse with some other future missionaries at the headquarters of the nonprofit that was going to send us overseas, and I was asked to be the “leader” within my house. Once again, I was one of the youngest. It was an absolutely terrifying proposition, I could never figure out why they had chosen me, and I think I did a pretty awful job. Now I’m wondering. If I hadn’t stopped to think about whether I was a leader or not, would I have been better at it in that house–and in the years since? Or is it even possible to lead if you aren’t making the conscious effort to learn leadership by trial and error? Is unwitting leadership is more or less effective than intentional leadership? What do you think?
And we all thought I was done here…
Today is Grandpa M’s birthday. When I was two, the first grandchild on both sides of the family until my brother came along, we were at the M’s that winter, I guess. It must have been shortly before we moved to Honduras or something. My parents had been telling me that Grandpa’s birthday was coming up, so according to Mom and other relatives, one evening at dinner, I got up, toddled around the table, right up to Grandpa’s chair.
“Happy birfday, Grandpa,” I said.
By all accounts, hearts melted.
I’ve been doing daily posts this month on my church’s Facebook page myself, “A Carol a Day for Advent.” As I was lining up the seven carols for this week, a tune started going through my head. It was a song that Grandpa and Grandma used to sing together at the Christmas Eve services at the church where he was a pastor for over 30 years. I thought I would quite like to make that song one of the carols for the week, but when I looked for it on YouTube, it was nowhere to be found.
Grandpa got Alzheimer’s in the mid-90’s and he lost a lot, not only of his memory, but also of his personality. But he could still sing–almost right up until the end. At some point maybe midway between his getting the disease and passing away, Grandma had the bright idea to make one last music CD with him. I knew the song I wanted was on the CD. I just didn’t know how to get it from there to YouTube. Thank God for google and a friend who used to attend their church and has some audio-visual skills. Between them all, this happened. (The image is a card I made back in 2002 or so, but the song is the main point).