Saturday, August 23, 2008

Engaging Everyone

"No wonder I'm single," she says to the mirror. "Even I don't want to get into bed with these thighs."
I say that getting married isn't like winning the Miss America Pageant; it doesn't all come down to the bathing suit competition.
"I hate weddings," she says. "They make me feel so unmarried. Actually, even brushing my teeth makes me feel unmarried."
- Melissa Bank, "The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing"

My sister got engaged last weekend. She's older than I am and has been seriously dating this guy for a while, so it wasn't a surprise. I like her fiance, and I'm very happy for both of them. That said, the sudden epidemic of engagements among the people who are closest to me is making me a little crazy. This is the third engagement among my friends this summer, and I have reason to believe that at least one more will occur before the end of the year. That means one wedding in November, another two in January, and probably two more in the spring/summer. It's a little overwhelming.

As a single woman, it's a little difficult to watch all of this go on. Even though I'm a very independent person and I know that don't need a man by my side in order to be happy or validated, it's tough when it feels like everyone around you is pairing off. I watch my friends' giddy smiles, happy for them, but nervous and a little sad because I know that my relationships with them will change. They will be relying on their husbands more than their friends, and may get so busy with children and family life that they no longer have time to go out for coffee or a meal with me.

I'm stuck, too, trying to figure out a theology/ideology of romantic relationships. I've never really believed that there was only one right person, or "soulmate" out there for each individual, despite all the Disney movies and romantic-comedies that seem to imply that. But, at the same time, I don't really think romance is random, either. I think it's a mix of timing and chemistry, attraction and compatibility, God-guidance, location, and free will, and I don't know how those all work together. I'm not waiting around for Mr. Right to sweep me off my feet, but I'm not manhunting, either. I don't even know if I'm supposed to get married or stay single forever. The thing is, these never seemed like urgent questions before. But the sudden flurry of white dresses is giving them undue gravity and imminence.

I'm not going to get the answers to those questions today. I'll let you know if/when somebody fills me in on this. In the meantime, I'll be checking registries, wearing bridesmaid dresses, and wondering what's going on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Fever

Love Affair

I love the Olympic Games. I love that, for a few weeks every two years, people around the world can all be focused on something positive and uniting. So often when something takes the world spotlight, it's a crisis: natural disaster, war, famine, climate change, or scandal. But the Olympics offer something different. For a few weeks, we all look to swimming pools and tracks, ski slopes and skating rinks, balance beams and judo mats, and we cheer people on to celebrate what humanity can do. We test the limits of human endurance, celebrate the emotions that accompany victory and defeat, and unite around our shared humanity. I know that there are places where young athletes do not have the resources to train, and there are countries that cannot field teams. But when I see swimmers from Japan, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia, China, France, and the Netherlands in the pool together, it gives me hope that someday all the nations really will be represented. I love the colors of flags and faces, the sound of voices in all different languages shouting exuberantly for the accomplishments of people they've never met.

When I was growing up, I, like so many little girls around the globe, was fascinated with figure skating and gymnastics. My sister and I would watch the figure skaters: Kristy Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Scott Hamilton, gliding gracefully over the ice and flying through the air. Then we'd go out and rollerskate around our driveway, creating routines and imagining that we, too, were skating stars. Both of us had taken gymnastics as kids and, while neither of us stayed with it for very long, we still watched in awe and delight as Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes competed in the Olympics. I wished I could do parallel bar routines and tumbling runs during floor exercises, too. It's strange to me now to realize that most of the athletes are younger than I am. Katie Hoff, for instance, swam in her first Olympics at age 15 and is now in Beijing at 19. It's amazing to me that these young people can balance the expectations of an entire nation on their shoulders as they push their bodies to the limit.

Fourth Place
I always feel bad for the athletes who win fourth place at the Olympics. They've trained countless hours and years, practiced, competed, and pushed themselves, and they've done very well. To even make it to the Olympics is an incredible honor, and to do so well as to be fourth is incredible. Yet these fourth-place contenders do not get a place on the medal stand. Their photographs don't make the newsstands, and their names fade to obscurity, if they were ever brought up at all. And yet, it's the fourth-place contenders who really represent us. Most of us aren't Michael Phelpses. We work and our efforts are neither recognized nor remembered. We don't get medals or get our pictures in the paper. But we don't work for the recognition. We work because the endeavor is worth it. We struggle because there is joy in trying, in being in motion. So I salute the fourth-place contenders, and their fifth- and sixth-place competitors. Thank you for keeping up the effort, for working toward a goal. Thank you for playing because you love the sport, because you want to be better, and because you hope for more. And thank you for accepting fourth-place gracefully, knowing that your efforts still have merit.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Congregational Change

I checked my mail today to find the monthly newsletter from my home church in my box. I love getting the newsletter and catching up on the news of that community, even though I moved away and only attend there sporadically. As I flipped to page four, I noticed a box marked "Congregational Change". There it was: a paragraph announcing my change of membership to another church, and a brief explanation that it's because I'm seeking ordination in a different conference. I've known it was coming for a while. The change is a result of a decision I made and the effort I put forth to see it through. But for a minute I sat staring at the page and feeling like I was going to cry.

It's as though I've moved out all over again, I've left home once more. I love that church. For the life of me, I can't remember a time when that church wasn't home to me. I grew up there, holding the wrinkled hands of the elderly members who were like grandparents to me. I remember whining about putting on tights and dresses to sit on the hard wooded pews of that sanctuary. I remember filling in all the O's and zeros in the bulletin while words I didn't really understand washed over me. I recall standing on the pew to see the hymnal in my mother's hands, and hearing all the rich voices raised in song around me.

I was baptized in that church when I was ten. Every time I see the baptismal font at the front of that sanctuary, I remember the feeling of love and responsibility as the pastor dripped wet hands on my scalp, telling me that I belonged to God and to that community.

I know the building like I know my own reflection. I used to explore it while my mom counted the collection and play Sardines there during Girl Scout overnights and MYF lock-ins. I practiced organ in the sanctuary while a rogue bat flew around the ceiling. I know the secret rooms and the stairway to the bell tower, and I can walk around in the dark without fear. It's as safe and comfortable to me as the house where I lived for 17 years.

I can still remember Sunday School lessons and learning the Lord's Prayer, running down the red carpet to children's time and sitting in the balcony with my friends feeling quite grown up. I recall confirmation classes and conversations that made the stories from the Bible real.

But most of all, I remember the people. I remember being able to walk up to anyone in the sanctuary and trust them. I can see the faces and feel the hugs, I can hear the voices lifting hymns to the top of the stained glass windows, and I can even imagine precisely where everyone sits in the sanctuary and whether I could find them working in the kitchen or chatting in the fellowship hall after the service. It's their support that has allowed me to go this far. It is the lessons they taught me that nurtured my faith and prepared me for a life of service. Every day, I thank God for them and pray that they continue to do the same for everyone who passes through their doors.

I haven't attended that church regularly in six years, and now my membership is even registered somewhere else. But no matter where I serve or worship, that building, those people, that community is still my home church.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Wisdom of Those Who've Gone Before

I've been worrying lately. Those of you who know me well won't be surprised to hear that, but I felt the need to put it into words. The strange thing is, I'm not really worried about failing. In fact, I'm more worried about the consequences of succeeding.

Right now I'm working on a huge application for the career that I hope I will pursue for the rest of my life. In my area of life, that application process is called "commissioning". And, while I'm a bit concerned about not passing the "commissioning process", I'm actually more afraid of passing and facing the life that is beyond it. All my life I've been in school, taking classes and getting degrees in preparation for some abstract future called a "career" or, in more spiritual circles, a "vocation". Until recently, I looked at that future vocation with hope and excitement, but now that excitement is tinged with fear.

It reminds me of the first time I went to Chicago. I was extremely excited about seeing the skyscrapers and the diversity of the city, of being around people and noise and hustle, and of the contrast from my tiny hometown. But as our family minivan started through the suburbs and the freeway widened to ten lanes, my eyes grew wide in fear. What if the buildings fell down, or I got lost in all those people? I was still excited about Chicago, but up close it was much bigger and more intimidating than I realized.

That's what I'm beginning to realize about my upcoming ministry. It's not that I really think anything will go wrong. It will be a challenge and a learning experience, and I honestly believe that I can do all the necessary tasks of ministry, and even do them relatively well. But it's a lot scarier now that it's looming on the horizon. The responsibilities seem much larger from the downhill slope of seminary.

So today, as I was worrying about my future and rehearsing those quarter-life crisis phrases that many people my age know by heart, I decided to go scanning the blogospere for those who share this experience in common with me. I looked to the internet writings of the people I have admired in my seminary career, to people who are like me, but a couple steps farther down the road. I added their URLs to my links in the hope that, over the coming months, when I'm freaking out about the way my vocation is growing in the windshield, I'll be able to look to their wisdom and see that they are surviving, and even thriving, in the world of ordained ministry that seems so frightening from where I stand.

Deep down, I take courage in the belief that I can follow the path to which I've been called. But it helps to be able to read the travelogues of those who've gone before, look a few chapters ahead, and see that it turned out all right.