Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lenten Reflections, part 3.

In Part 1, number 5, I wrote:

"I’ve learned I don’t feel the anxiety when I feel the presence of G-d or when I’m leading worship.  They’re just not compatible."

I felt this even when leading Easter Vigil worship on Saturday, when I was two pages into a four-page a cappella Gregorian-style Easter Proclamation.  I completely lost the tune and then stumbled over the words.

I felt a flutter of panic in my chest, took a breath, and started the line again.  I had no trouble from there on.  I should have panicked, but I just stepped right back into it and kept going.

What is it about worship that makes me feel safe?

Is it the long stretch of experience - since my first time preaching at fourteen, to music team leader at Teens Encounter Christ, to state championships in extemporaneous reading, to distributing communion bread at Homecoming worship my first year at Olaf, to co-leading the Progressive Christian Fellowship in the footsteps of wise and amazing women, to preaching a holy and uncommon welcome on the first day of my senior year, to leading devos in front of the Saint Olaf Choir, to now spending Sunday after Sunday trying to explain the stories of our faith to squirming children?

Is it the presence of loving faces around the sanctuary - parents who watch me work with and love up their kids every week, adults who've watched my leadership style change and grow, kids and youth who like me in spite of my dislike for destructive fun and my insistence on Bible study during Sunday School, friends who burst with pride and excitement to see me leading?

No question, both of these are key elements to raising my comfort level.

But I've been shopping for years - I'm no pro at it, but I've certainly got as many years experience trying on clothes as I have in public speaking and music leadership.  Yet clothes shopping is one of my primary panic attack triggers.

And as much as my worship spaces are filled with people whose love for me is evident - there are also faces of disdain or disinterest.  In most other social situations, those faces are the ones I focus on.

I can actually perceive the panic beginning - I've noticed my brain start to think "She looks bored," "He looks annoyed," "I did that wrong," and before I can even start my disable mechanisms, the circuit of repetitive thoughts shuts off.

So what makes worship different?  Why, no matter how many triggers are flipped, can I keep going with whatever I'm doing - and enjoy it - when in all other cases I'd be two seconds from a meltdown?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lenten Reflections, part 2.

After forty-seven days spent worrying about how much I worry (this is slightly ironic and slightly true) I'm honestly feeling better.

The obsessive thoughts have been cut back.  I don't think I'm in a cycle as often as I used to be; I think I spend less time over-analyzing past events and over-preparing for future ones.
I still get very shaken by and obsessive over confrontation, so that's something I'll still be working on for the coming months.

I had an anxious moment shopping at Cub this week.  Kristi and I were trying to find a particular spice and not finding it, and some other shopper decided she should help us.  I did not want help.  I was kind of rude, to be honest.  Then I felt my skin flush and my temperature rise, and recognized the onset of a panic attack.  And I said:  "No.  I have shopping to do.  I will do the shopping."  And it took a few moments but I calmed down and didn't have a meltdown in the store, which seems like a silly thing to be proud of but I know it was a step forward and I'm proud of myself for that.

One thing I'd like to add to my work is morning yoga & strength training.  I think if I was better in tune with my body, I'd be more aware of it as a house for my soul and less as a burden to bear.  I've done morning yoga off and on, and I'd really like to be always "on."

I do recognize, though, that even in my best shape (high school, sophomore year, 140 lbs, able to run a 7-minute mile) I wasn't happy with how I looked.  Getting more in shape isn't going to fix my body image issues.  The issues persist, although they're to a lesser degree than they were before the Lenten project.  The key thing is not for me to become more beautiful, but to recognize the beauty already present in me and celebrate it as is.

One really helpful thing is how supportive everyone's been.  Kristi, of course, has been amazing.  Second to her, my school friends (particularly the "babe seminarians") have been the closest witnesses to this process, and they have been likewise amazing.  It's anxiety-inducing to talk about anxiety, but I haven't had a single experience this Lent where anyone was less than supportive, loving, and encouraging.  Everyone has been (and is) a huge blessing to me and I'm just deeply grateful for where I am right now and who I'm surrounded by.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reflections at the end of Lent, part 1.

This Lenten discipline of trying to address my social anxiety has been hard.  I’ve had “unsuccessful” disciplines before, and I know that forgiveness, absolution, reconciliation with G-d and humanity is not dependent upon me perfectly performing my Lenten practices (if it is … we’re all screwed).  I acknowledged going into this that I might not beat it - that I might wake Easter morning with all the obsessive thoughts still churning through my brain.  And, at this point, I haven’t beat it.  But I have learned a lot - and grown a little, I believe - and that’s a huge start.
1.  I’ve learned just how much my social anxiety takes from me.
  • It takes my ability to finish homework ahead of time.  If I have time to review my work before turning it in, I become sure that I’ve done it wrong and I will fail.  So I put off work till the last minute and stress out majorly over a period of a few hours instead of days.
  • It took my ability to judge what I look like.  You know what I just realized this week?  A 36C bra is a normal size.  I am not disgustingly huge.  I might be overweight according to BMI standards for my height, but I’m not huge.  Yet the anxiety tells me that I’m shameful, disgusting, etc.  I’ve been living that message for more than a decade.  Even when I was in kick-ass shape, able to run a 7 min mile and fifteen pounds lighter than I am now, I thought I was disgusting and huge. 
  • It puts up walls in my friendships.  Because I’m constantly worried about what people are thinking about me, I can’t be myself.  And because I’m constantly worried about being judged, I’m constantly judging others according to the extremely weird and totally irrational rules the anxious part of my brain has pretty much made up about dress and behavior.  
  • It hurts my relationship with Kristi.  No one wants to have to constantly reassure her partner that she’s beautiful.  Kristi has to do that every day, and I know she’s tired of it, and I know I’m tired of needing to hear it.

2.  I’ve learned how much time goes into my social anxiety.  One of the hardest things when I was first learning to break the repetitive-obsessive thoughts was figuring out what to think about instead.  I would get up and get in the shower and before I was finished brushing my teeth I’d be fussing about something that had happened the day before.  There was just a lot of time going into this crap!

3.  I’ve learned that the sick girl is not my past - she’s my present too.  Going deeply into my experiences of anxiety meant dealing with the fact that I am, presently, anxious.  Until recently I’ve wanted to believe that the “sick girl” is in my past - that I’ve overcome my mental illness and it’s gone, forever.  There’s no doubt that I’m much, much healthier now than I was in high school, and I’m proud to own that, but it doesn’t mean that everything is perfectly fine.  I still have a lot of brain re-wiring to do, and that’s OK.  I have to be OK with not being OK.

4.  I’ve learned to reward myself for “ordinary” things.  I came home tonight and proudly told Kristi that I’d gone to the grocery store and used the regular checkout.  This is a big deal.  I don’t remember the last time I used the regular checkout.  I use self check-out because then I don’t have to talk to anyone.  If I use regular checkout, the cashier will judge me!  my purchases!  my jacket!  my credit card design!  So I was really proud of myself for doing somethingridiculously normal - and that’s OK.  I have to counter all the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment of my panic attacks with the small accomplishments of everyday social exchanges with cashiers and sales associates and the UPS guy and whoever else.

5.  I’ve learned I don’t feel the anxiety when I feel the presence of G-d or when I’m leading worship.  They’re just not compatible.  So that’s nice.

Later I’ll reflect on some places that I feel I’ve grown, some ways my brain has started to function more on the normal wavelengths than on the anxious ones.  But for now, bed, because one of the important things in all this is getting a good amount of sleep!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Today’s mantra.

(I used the full word for G-d, which I don’t do often because I am wary of ascribing things to G-d that are not G-d. But I am a child of God, and if I can say nothing else for certain, I can say that.

Monday, April 11, 2011


“I am thinking of starting a campaign to bring back Palm Sunday, without the additional observance of Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday was always one of my favorites growing up as a preacher’s kid, and it was all about the palms—and a lot of them. It was celebratory, festive, when as child I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like.
I understand the practical reasons for the more recent liturgical emphasis on the day’s dual themes: most people won’t be coming back during the week, so they need to hear the crucifixion story now. The church needs to make sure that the story of Jesus’ death is given its due before acknowledging any reports of resurrection appearances.
But are such practical concerns rationale enough for downplaying the Palm Sunday experience of faith?”
- Karoline Lewis, The Christian Century
I am, admittedly, quite old-school in my lectionary and liturgical practices, and my personal inclination is to keep Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Cross separate.
It seems to me that the only reason for combining the two is practicality - that no one’s coming to church on Good Friday so we’d better shoehorn in the Passion story on the Sunday before so that they get the death before the resurrection on Easter.
I guess this gets at the question that the postmodern mainline churches have to answer:  how convenient can we make an inconvenient faith?
I like feeling that the rhythm of my life, for these few days, is following an ancient rhythm, that the heaviness of my heart on Friday hangs in solidarity with the women who hurried to cook through their tears so that everything would be prepared before the sabbath started at sundown.  
Recognizing Palm Sunday the week before Easter is meant to follow the pattern of the story itself - that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a Sunday, got into trouble with the authorities, washed his disciples’ feet on Thursday, and died on a Friday.  And - like a good Jewish boy - he waited until the sabbath was over, and rose on a Sunday morning.
My present church observes an Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday, which is a time for recounting the great stories of creation, redemption, and salvation of the Christian faith.  I like the service itself but dislike the early onset of joy.  Perhaps I’m just a little more morbid than the average, but I like the waiting - living in the stillness and pain, for forty-some hours, until the moment when Mary comes upon the empty tomb.  Our lives are like this - there are hours and days and weeks and years of pain, of waiting, of grieving, until the resurrection finally breaks in.
So I say - wait.  Wait for it.  Wait for Good Friday, wait for Easter.  Exalt in the triumphal procession, and wait for the scandal of the cross.  Grieve at the injustice and horror of Love crucified, and wait for the whisper of the resurrection dawn.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mom always said: "As the seedling is bent, the tree is inclined"

It's funny to think about your roots.

During Feminist Theologies this week, we talked about how gay / lesbian theology has its roots in liberation theology.  Naturally, I did it backwards - my gay / lesbian theology led me to becoming a liberation theologian.  It got me wondering about my roots, about how who I am and how I was raised made what I believe today.

I think that the bulk of my theological commitments can be traced back to the odd dialectic of growing up a Christian and a lesbian.

Growing up lesbian meant that my childhood was marked by a sense of being alienatingly "different", and my teenage years filled with deep senses of despair, dread, and exclusion.  It was not an enjoyable process to come to an understanding of myself in the midst of national and global debates about whether "homosexuals" were legitimate human beings with rights and privileges and whatnot.  At sixteen, I came out of the closet and into a minefield.

Growing up Christian meant that the timeline of my childhood was marked by the liturgical calendar and my imagination was filled with Bible stories.  I enjoyed being part of the church and was invited to share my gifts in accordance with the needs and desires of my home congregation.  Being Christian, for me, is a two-part experience - first, that I was brought to church by an intentional and hopeful mother and taught by good and loving Christians, and second, that I had a personal understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ's life and death and a personal experience of G-d's merciful love for me and of the movement of the Spirit.

That personal experience of G-d is what kept me a Christian when other things (including my life as a lesbian) made me want to walk away.  There have been many, many thin moments in my life, when the presence of G-d has shown clearly through, when the Spirit has blown in my ear and my heart.  Some of those moments were beautifully nurtured by faith communities - Teens Encounter Christ comes to mind - and some of those moments were entirely random and spontaneous.  All of these moments added up to a sum total of an understanding of the realness and nearness of G-d.  So growing up Christian and having these experiences made my core a Christian - meant that no matter how much other Christians spat on me (metaphorically), no matter how much the church had ruined the world, I could not stop being a Christian.

And growing up Christian and lesbian meant that I required a good biblical hermeneutic.  When I walked out of an anti-gay sermon when I was seventeen, it wasn't because the lesbian in me was turning her back on the word of G-d, but because Jesus had sat down inside me, right next to my heart, and said, "Girlfriend, this shit is bananas."  I required a model of interpretation that allowed for that.  This was one of the first things that attracted me to Martin Luther - that he had laid out broadly-applicable principles for the reading and interpretation of Scripture.  I had been searching for an explicit definition of the meaning and purpose of the Bible, and found it in Lutheran theology - in law and gospel, and in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Word of G-d and the Bible as testimony to and cradle for that revelation.

Growing up Christian and lesbian also meant that I was acutely aware of being an outsider - which awakened my attention to other "outsiders".  I don't like to talk about being "marginalized," because I was raised white, well-off, well-parented and well-educated in the suburbs of the Midwest - that's a pretty privileged knapsack - but I have to be honest that I was also born female and lesbian and therefore there are certain decks that are stacked against me, especially in the church.

So a liberating G-d, a LORD who saves the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a messiah who walks among us and shattered social mores and religious rules to bring the message of the kingdom, a Spirit who descends without distinction on Jews and Gentiles alike... those stories are saving for me.  They liberate my heart from all the pain and burdens laid upon me by my brothers and sisters in Christ who have failed to comprehend and demonstrate the meaning of G-d's love.  Hearing these stories as salvific not only for my mortal soul but for my life here, on earth, now.  So when I learned about liberation theology, about G-d's "preferential option for the poor" ... it fit perfectly with my life as a Christian and a lesbian.

So now I'm the total embodiment of a bleeding-heart liberal Christian, whose heart aches and stomach churns with every manifest injustice and pain in the world (and boy, are there many), because as a hurt little girl who felt alone in the world, I learned that there was a G-d who had a deep and abiding interest in the growth of beauty and love on the earth.  I bought into that wholeheartedly, and I still do.  These two things - being a lesbian, and being a Christian - are my core.  Everything gets read through this.  I will walk out on bad sermons, but I don't know that I could ever walk out on the church.