The Sparrow and the Recycling Bin

img_0474I had been studying in the library two hours too long when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

One of my friends from freshman year was standing behind me and she said, “There’s a bird in here.” She pointed to the computers on my right. Sure enough, there was a little sparrow trotting along the computer cables by the reference stacks.

It’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about sparrows lately.

I dumped the nearest recycling bin and took off my jacket and gave it to my friend. We proceeded in our endeavor to catch the sparrow and set it free outside.

My friend ran behind the sparrow and I would try to direct it into the recycling bin. We would follow the sparrow and wait for it to land on low ground where we could put recycling bin over it quietly. It evaded us every time.

After about twenty minutes, we had a small audience of library workers gathered around us with their phones. We had chased to sparrow to the opposite side of the library. My friend and I had switched roles, and the bird evaded us yet.

Finally after about an hour, we had the sparrow cornered in one of the tiny offices. However, this didn’t improve our situation much. We would come seconds from catching the terrified creature and he would swoop away from our reach; usually running into the ceiling or one of the lights.

I remember sitting down in that tiny office so defeated. So I tried to reason with the sparrow.

“PLEASE STOP MOVING. Stop flying around so frantically and just be still. We will get you out of here.”

We probably tried for another twenty minutes when finally the defeated sparrow found its perch on the edge of the manager’s calendar. One of the workers silently walked up behind the tiny creature and put the bin over her. We covered the opening with a yellow page notebook and my sweater and took the sparrow outside.

It was close to evening and the sun was just about to set. When we walked out of the library the light was making the leaves of the trees shimmer in the swaying breeze.

In one sweeping moment, the library worker whipped the sweater off of the recycling bin and the sparrow flew into the sun.

As I watched her fly away, I felt something stir in me. She had just given up and embraced the defeat of what I’m sure she thought was death. All she saw in that library were monsters trying to trap her. She had no notion of how her story was going unfold that day.

In that moment, I realized that I knew that kind of fear, and I wish there was some way that I could have told her from the beginning that we weren’t going to harm her.

When I look at my world, I become so frantic.  I bet some of you feel the same way. There are crooked men and women in powerful political positions. There are weapons of mass destruction. There are starving children in our own communities. There are insurmountable fears when we realize that we don’t have as much control as we would like to think.

I wish that there was some way I could’ve told the sparrow from the beginning that we weren’t going to harm her. It would’ve saved her a lot of pain.

As I watched the sparrow fly away, I realized that God probably wants me to understand the same thing.

When I look at my world, there are days that all I see are the monsters chasing me. There are days that the circumstances of my world seem so bleak. There are days when it feels like there is a God who is trying to trap me instead of free me.

But perhaps the monsters are not as big as they seem. Perhaps the circumstances are not as bleak as I think they are. And perhaps there is a God saying something along the lines of, “Please stop squirming. I mean you no harm.”

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.

Don’t worry, dear friend. There’s hope for us.

A Theology of Doubt

(This post is part of a multimodal argumentation unit for ENGL 3160: Professional Writing and Editing, and ENGL 3190: Composing Arguments)

(A Shadow of a Doubt: Joe Soloman)

theology of doubt(n):

1. the study of the nature of doubt

2. a system in which to care for a person struggling with doubts about their faith

I wish we had a theology of doubt.

I wish we had a theology of doubt, because I’ve been in that place one too many times. I want to believe in what I have always believed, but in those moments it is so hard. What makes things worse is the fear to ask for help, because those times came long after I had left the safety of my structured youth group. It is the fear of the the harsh tones and furrowed eyebrows that come when one asks an uncomfortable question that pushes my questions back into my mind.

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Many churches, and maybe even the Church as a whole, does not have a solid system for how to deal with doubt.

And maybe it’s time that we did.

I started going to a small country church in the northeast corner of Shelby County with my parents when I was 10. It was about thirty minutes from my house, but my parents never had a problem with it. It was worth it to them, especially when I felt like I had found a place in the youth group to call home. I never had any doubts about my faith, but I knew that if I did, there would be someone to come alongside me and help me with my questions.

But I soon realized that I was one of the only ones that felt that way.

It is true that I personally never had any problems with asking questions when I was in youth group. I had a great youth pastor and a great community who cared about me. But this has not been the case for many people.

 

In his book entitled, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says this: “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is “missing in action” from most congregations.” (Kinnaman, 22) This is echoed n a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center entitled, “Religion Among the Millennials.” PRC states, “In total, nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 (18%) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.”

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I have seen this pattern reflected in my home church. Right after my class left the youth group, a huge struggle began. Attendance dropped drastically and my youth pastor with all of her good efforts could not get a lot of people to show up. The answer seemed to be obvious. My church was and still is a congregation with less than 25% of the people under 60, but I felt that there was another issue at hand.

My youth pastor has a son that lives out in San Francisco. He’s been out on his own for a long time and stopped going to the church as soon as he had the option of doing so. I asked her if she had spoken to him about his faith and what he had said.

She responded like this: “It is true that my son left the church and never came back, and from some brief conversations with him about it, I get the sense that he just doesn’t believe it. He looks a lot at scientific facts concerning creation and on the other hand, I think he feels that the Christian belief system was always forced on him.”

I remember her telling us about him when we were still under her care in high school, but I never understood how someone could walk away and not come back. However, when I went to college I completely understood the struggle. I don’t think I would ever walk away, but I do get it. And I also felt like I couldn’t voice my doubts. And the stories similar to the story of my youth pastor’s son are becoming more and more frequent. In fact, there are so many people that fit into this category that they have been given their own name: the nones, or the religiously unaffiliated.  Additionally, in another survey conducted by the PRC entitled, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” reveals that 88% percent of the “nones” (particularly Americans) have no intention of returning to their former religion or finding another. (PRC)

I have also seen this phenomena occur in my inner circle. In a recent conversation with one of my close friends, she shared some of the struggles she is having with her faith.

“I really just don’t feel called to go [to church] anymore, and I’m not really sure about the whole thing anyway.”

I asked her why she felt this way, and she couldn’t really articulate an answer other than the fact that the tradition and some of her original reasoning behind attending church just didn’t seem real anymore.

These doubts to which she was alluding seemed so real to me. I myself have experienced them. So many people my age are currently wrestling with these things and trying to decide what to do about them. My first response and my best solution was to go and talk to someone within the church. After all, ministers speak frequently about addressing doubt.

When I asked both women about doubt and how its addressed in the church, I got two totally different answers. Katrina, my youth pastor, felt that  my home church does a great job of dealing with doubt. “We love on [doubters] and encourage them. We let them know that they are not alone.” And I felt this to be true about my experiences as well.

But my friend had something different to say. “I feel like the church does say that it’s ok to doubt, but I’ve heard of anyone actually getting help from leadership. The church’s response to doubt is usually something along the lines of, ‘Oh, you’re doubting. Just get into the word some more’- when I feel like the response should be, ‘Oh, you’re doubting your faith, let’s talk about this.”

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A subject in Kinnaman’s book, Kevin,  said he was surprised with how the Church handled his doubt.”Or didn’t handle it.” But he then added, I kept my doubts to myself, because I didn’t think my leaders would want to know that I really didn’t believe. Maybe they could’ve helped me more, but I never believed they would be able to.” (Kinnaman, 192)

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Kinnaman goes on to say that twenty-three percent (almost 1/4) of 18-29 year-old Christians who have had a background in the church “have significant intellectual doubts” about their faith. This isn’t a very large portion, but it is still important. This age group is the future of the church, and even twenty-three percent is a significant number.

If it is inconsistency that is reflected in the data and in these stories, then the solution may not be very difficult. Perhaps it is a mere change in perspective.

In an blog on Huffington Post, Christopher Lane, a professor at Northwestern University  [The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty] , “…those of us committed to religious inquiry must welcome the doubts that young Americans are expressing, in whatever form they occur. For too long, doubt has acquired the hallmark of paralysis and stagnation when, so much of the literature underscores, it is actually a catalyst for change and renewal.”

Perhaps the first step in composing a theology of doubt is changing the way the doubt is perceived. Doubt is only synonymous with paralysis when we try to pretend it’s not there. Perhaps, if we started seeing doubt as a step toward renewal, we would not be so guarded against it.

The story out of the John 20:24-29 comes to mind when I consider a new system.

After at least two people have returned from Jesus’ empty tomb (Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter), one of the disciples is still not convinced of Jesus resurrection. Thomas, the skeptic then says his famous words, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of his nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

A theology of doubt can simply mean that we create an open space with vulnerability and honesty. Then we look for people within the Scriptures who have struggled with the same things that we have. It is this minister’s opinion that if we welcome the skeptics and our own doubts, we could definitely shrink some of the figures in the previous paragraphs.

Jesus welcomed Doubting Thomas to come and touch his side. Let us be ones who do the same. Let us say, “Come. Put your hand at the Master’s side.”

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27)

 

Works Cited

Kinnaman, David, and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church– and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. Print.

Lane, Christopher. “Losing Our Religion: Doubt By Numbers.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.

Liu, Joseph. “Religion Among the Millennials.” Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Liu, Joseph. ““Nones” on the Rise.” Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 09 Oct. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

(Interviews: Allison Lemons, Katrina Donahue)

 

 

Fossil Fuel

 

“Yeah. I’m honestly just really burnt out, and I don’t know how to fix that.”

As I reflect back on the last couple of months, this is a phrase that has entered into nearly every conversation. And last night, or really this morning at 2 o’clock, I was laying on the floor spread-eagled, in a panic about the amount of things I still hadn’t done and the hour the I was going to have to wake up.

Motivation is rare nowadays, and I really thought things were going to be different when I started this semester. I know the things that I want to do, and I truly believe that I am on the path to get where I want to go. However, this morning wasn’t the only one with me lying spread-eagled on the floor.

I have been around the entire spectrum of emotions a few times, but I have come to discover that one of the worst things to experience is apathy. The apathy that comes from the absence of feelings in either direction-a complete absence of passion. And for some reason, the days that I can’t light the flame become more and more frequent.

Right now, I am taking a class entitled Humans and the Environment to fulfill the science requirement for the liberal arts portion of my degree, and as you can imagine, a hot topic is fossil fuels and the growing issue of global warming.

Now, if you are part of the group that believes that global warming is a part of a huge conspiracy theory, humor me for just a moment.

Most of the conversation regarding global warming is around the effects of burning fossil fuels-mostly coal and oil to fuel cars, airplanes, and other mechanical industries. Coal and oil are the remains of ancient trees buried deep underground filled the carbon molecules from their living respiration processes. Burning these “fossils” causes all of that CO2 to go into the air and break down the outer atmospheric layer. This in turn, lets more heat from the sun into our atmosphere, and throws off the natural balance.

I think there is a certain irony in the fact that the world is fueling itself with dead things. I think that there is a certain irony that the things we are using to keep us going are destroying us.

And it is this idea that makes me feel as though I too have been trying fuel my life with fossils.

Let me explain.

I am of a faith that tells me that I will not find total and utter satisfaction in anything else besides worshipping the God of the universe. It tells me that I if I try to find my identity and value in any result of my own work (both successes and failures) that I will be destroyed. It tells me that if I pursue elusive gains of fame, or success, or popularity, I will lose myself.

And I know that these things are true.

For so long, I believed that if my words were not heard by many, than all of the pain and rejection and loss that I’ve experienced meant nothing. I believed that if I could not be a beacon of hope for all, that my life is just a sad story.

But this, dear friend, is not true for me. And it is not true for you.

If I’m being honest, I don’t have a solid answer for any of this. But I do know that every moment of struggle is making me new every day, and maybe that’s the only motivation that I need. Maybe my primary goal needs to be reassessed.

Don’t give up, dear friend. There is a reason to go on. And most importantly, there’s hope for us.

 

Stiff

My legs were stiff before I even started my run, so I decided that I wasn’t going to worry about speed or making good time. After all, I didn’t have anywhere to be for a while. I just needed to finish.

Today,my sluggishness and fatigue could be from a number of things. It could be the measly 3 1/2 hours of sleep that I got last night. Or the half batch of double chocolate cookies that I made and consumed within 24 hours. After all, woman cannot survive off of cookies alone. And she definitely shouldn’t be functioning on anything less than 8 hours of sleep.

However, none of these mattered on this cloudy and chilly terrain. I couldn’t change them, and I had to finish. I had been in this place before–maybe not the new route that I had decided to take, but it the sluggishness and fatigue. I had been in the frustrating place where I simply didn’t feel like going on.

I am beginning to learn that speed doesn’t matter in these places either. I just have to finish.

But it took me a long time to learn that invaluable lesson. The one and only time I ran cross country, I was the slowest girl on the team. I stuck out the season and had a great experience, but I never went back again. I believe that this was mostly because I couldn’t keep up–a pattern that continued in my life for a long time.

I came to college for my first semester as a music student and realized that I was behind in music theory and ear training, which are absolutely essential to excel at a college level. Music was my first love, but I couldn’t keep up. I walked away and set my sights elsewhere.

For two years, something wasn’t quite right. I loved what I was doing, but there always seemed to be something missing. I was never satisfied despite how much I was enjoying what I was doing.

I found myself sitting in my professor’s office getting extra help with my accounting homework when I mentioned that I was thinking about going back into the music school. It was on that day and in that office that something she said changed the game.

“It doesn’t matter if others are better or getting places faster. There has to come a time when you put your head down and decide that you are Jess and that you are going to go in your own way whether you’re great or terrible or slow. That was the path that was made for you, and it is good either way.”

Well then.

There are plenty of stiff days and stiff runs, but that’s ok.  For now, I’ll just be patient. For now, I’ll sing or preach or write for free–whatever that means.

Speed doesn’t matter in these places. I just have to finish the race.

Soothe your stiff muscles, dear friend, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. You’ll find your way if you seek it.

Don’t worry, dear friend. There’s hope for us.

 

 

Stripped Away

There are certain things that are acceptable for one to lose sleep over; famine, war, human trafficking, prejudice, the exploitation of the poor…the list goes on and on.

However, I don’t think one of them is getting into a swimsuit.

But as I laid in bed the night before our first day on the beach, that was the thing that kept my thoughts churning. I couldn’t set aside the anxiousness that stirred in my heart. I couldn’t set aside the fear  of my pasty white skin putting itself into a swimsuit.

You see, I tagged along with the cousins on their vacation to the beach last week, and I was so stoked to be going, except for the fact that my aunt is beautiful. Now, I know that sounds ridiculous, but she’s tall, thin, and tan, and I have a very different form from hers. So that first night in the condo, the only thing keeping me awake was a really bad case of suit-o-phobia.

My prayers were mostly a pathetic sound that night. However the last words that I uttered before I finally fell asleep were, “Father, please free me from this this week.”

So we got up the next day and spent all of it at the beach, and as we were packing all of the towels and toys to go back to the condo, my uncle says, “Jess, your legs are lookin’ a little red.”

I shook my head and said, “Yeah, but I think it’s just from getting tossed on the sandbank one too many times when Caroline and I were boogie-boarding today.”

However, the shower water revealed differently, and when I stepped out of it, I found that I more resembled a creature from Star Wars than a human being. An order of Jess- extra crispy comin’ right up on the first day of vacation. Fabulous.

The humor in this situation was too great. I couldn’t even wear a swimsuit now because I would have to cover up the nasty burns left by the sun, and that’s what I did.

The next day, I donned a long-sleeve UPF 50+ swimshirt, a baseball cap, and my 11-year-old cousin’s swim trunks. I was in more clothing than I had been in for a long time, and yet I felt that a part of me had been stripped away.

————–

I was standing in the food line in our cafeteria with my friend right after we had gotten back from Christmas break when I locked eyes with him as he came walking around the corner. At first my friends and I thought it was hilarious that he seemed to be everywhere I turned, but at this point it was starting to become more painful than funny. At this point, I had already come to the humiliating and heartbreaking realization that he didn’t like me, and every time I saw him, my wounds would tear open again.

Nevertheless, I mustered up the courage to wave and be a mature, communicating adult. However, just as I was doing this, one of the gorgeous girls closer to the food counter called his name and his attention was diverted.

Now, this shouldn’t have been a big deal. But something very strange happened inside of me at that moment.

All at once, my mind rang with the laughter of my grade school, middle school, and high school tormentors.

“Look at her! Oh my God, look at her. She looks like a pig!”

“Why would he be looking at you,Pig-Face?”

Those old words resounded in my mind, and seemed to take on a whole new life with everything that I had been dealing with. In fact, they were so potent that I began to react physically. I began to shiver, and my knuckles turned white as I gripped the line-forming pole in front of me.

I wanted to run away. I wanted to hide. But there was nowhere to go. In that moment, I was a surrounded little girl again, despite what was actually going on around me. All I could do was brace myself to let the feeling pass, and with that I kept my eyes on the ground and my hands on the pole.

He might’ve waved or smiled as he walked by. I don’t know. I was too busy looking at the ground.

———-

I waded toward the horizon with my swim trunks and boogie board feeling a bit lighter. I still felt like a creature from Star Wars, but that didn’t really matter anymore.

I leaned down and ran my fingers over the top of the waves and whispered, “Wash me clean, please.”

And a couple of days later when three quarters of the skin on my body began to peel, I felt that that was exactly what had happened. It seemed that a few of my demons had been stripped away.

So much for the swimsuit.

Don’t worry, dear friend. There’s hope for us.

Meet the Parkers

I’m still running.

I felt like a fugitive as I wandered around the airport waiting to board the plane to go see one of my best friends in Atlanta. It was so freeing to finally be out of my room and my job, and I felt that the longer I stayed in the airport, the closer those things were to catching up with me.  I needed to get away,  and as soon as the wheels of the plane lifted off of the ground I felt untouchable.

Or so I thought.

When I landed in Atlanta, my friend and her Papa picked me up at the airport, and then we traveled the rest of the 45 minutes from the airport to my friend’s home in a secluded suburb.

The Parkers are a foster family, and I was anxious to see the kind of place that could be solace for all kinds of people with all kinds of journeys. Something about that idea resonated deeply with me.

After meeting a couple of the kiddos (who were about as similar to one another as apples and oranges), we were greeted by my friend’s mom, who was busy cleaning out her closet. She turned to me and said, “Hi, Jess. How are you?”

Now, mind you I had met said mom a couple of months before on the day that I moved out of my dorm. However, the second she looked at me, a lump caught in my throat. I know that said mom had no inkling of what I was going on in my head, but I suddenly had a feeling that I was talking to someone else entirely. Those eyes seemed to see right through me, and I had the strange notion that I had been found.

“Hi, Jess. How are you?”

I have the feeling that after being a foster parent for a long time, you eventually lose your toleration for “crap.” There comes a point where you can always tell if a kid is lying, you can always tell who’s going to be a trouble-maker and who’s not, and you can also smell a runaway from a mile’s distance.

It was then that I realized that if I had wanted to run away, I had come to the wrong place.

After a few days of holding children and hitting the town with my friend, I found myself sitting in the front row at her church, watching her get up on stage and do announcements. It was then that a clear thought/voice/whatever began to run through my head.

Why are you running from me?

I began to tear up as I sat there and realized my blunder.

You see, ever since my call into ministry, I have been fighting it. I was afraid of being trapped. I was afraid of watching all of my dreams turn to dust as I walked down a new path that my Father had laid out before me.

That is what I’ve been doing this whole year. I wanted to change my major, and I wanted to run from anything and anyone who might put me on a path to ministry. The best part was that I had convinced myself that this was what the Father had wanted, when it was really just my fear talking.

Why are you running from me? I don’t want to trap you.

I want to free you.

I know now more than ever that there are better things ahead than anything that I could’ve ever dreamt up for myself. All I have to do is stop running.

Oh, Father, I’m still running and I’m so sorry. I won’t run anymore.

I sat on the plane next day feeling like I was leaving holy ground, because I have a feeling that the Parkers’ home looks very similar to the house of my Father-where orphans find parents, surface-level differences are put aside,  and where runaways can come and get some food for the road.

There is no doubt in my mind that the weekend that I met the Parkers was the weekend that I met my Father.

Blessed are the runaways, for they will see the house of God.

Don’t worry, dear friend. There’s hope for us.

Blessed are the Screw-Ups

“Chrono did not have a sense of futility and disorder. Everything seemed in apple-pie order to him. And the boy himself participated fitly in that perfect order…Sooner or later, Chrono believed, the magical forces of the Universe would put everything back together again. They always did.” -Kurt Vonnegut [The Sirens of Titan]

I’ve always been a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always believed that there is a power that is greater than all of us. I still believe that.

Or at least I think I do.

However, that would require a lot of faith. And it seems in recent days that I don’t have a lot of that.

You see, dear friend, I’ve messed up a lot. And I’ve messed up badly. At this point, I don’t know if my mistakes can be mended, or if I’ve just ripped a huge hole in the cosmos.

Belief is such a funny thing. The statement, “I believe,” is so simple. The words seem to flow off of the tongue so naturally, especially for those who have grown up with a system where they are taught to say “I believe.”

However, recently I have discovered that there was a gap between my words and how I truly felt.

It is true that I believed in the promises of old. I believed that the Universe is constantly redeeming, mending, and making things right.

Except for me. I didn’t think that things would work out for me. It just seemed to good to be true, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t think that I was worth enough to the Universe that it would work to right my wrongs.

Thankfully, dear friend, I know that this isn’t true. Yes, I am big enough to change the world, but I am not big enough to destroy it. And I am not big enough to tear my own life beyond mending.

I believe in redemption. I believe in stories. And I believe that despite how you and I feel about our lives that everything is in apple-pie order.

Blessed are the screw-ups, for they shall taste the grace of God.

Don’t worry, dear friend. There’s hope for us.