2014: A Rebuilding Year

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I’m not much of a sports guy, but many of my best friends are, so I spent a lot of 2014 watching Minnesota sports- the Timberwolves, the Twins, the Vikings, and the Wild. At bars, I sat there, mumbling into the ears of whoever was nearest, so, remind me… What is a balk? When watching hockey, I sometimes repeated an old question that I still don’t feel I’ve once received a satisfying answer to: is there any strategy here? It’s a fair question, I think.

In all my years of watching and not understanding professional sports, my absolute favorite question to ask during a game is: Are we any good? When I ask this, it’s because we are playing so obviously bad. Players are hiding their heads beneath towels and the scoreboard is awkwardly lopsided. But, like all sports nuts, my friends are resolute in their loyalty.

“It’s a rebuilding year.” They say.

C’mon now.

What they really mean when they say “rebuilding year” is that this year, we’re duds. It’s not pretty. And it’s not going to get any better. This year can only be considered practice for the next year, or perhaps two from now, when the team will be back on top, each player having reached their peak in development by then. But not this year. This year is for the dull work of development. Of losing and losing and learning through the loss.

2014 been a rebuilding year.

At the tail end of 2013, I was driving home from Washington, DC where I spent three confusing months aiming at “finding my purpose” and ending up empty handed, flooring it through Ohio in tears. This was merely the latest of my adventures. Exactly one year before I was flying over Europe, coming home after spending a very interesting yet also confusing three months in the tiny country of Kosovo.

I started this year with a job as a special-ed para and was eventually cut in April due to budgetary thing that I had not been made aware of- I was given two days notice. Then, I picked up a job as a barista and a personal care attendant for a young man my age with autism. Shortly after that, I was hired as a special ed para for the fall school year at my old high school, a position where I am constantly bumping into old teachers who faintly remember me. And yet again, I am confused. What am I doing here? Where am I headedWhat is next? Mind goes blank.

I decided to venture into the dating world this year by going on a short string of dates with one guy. Funny and kind as this boy was, he was also the first boy I ever dated, and that tectonic shift- from friendship with men to flings with them- threw me so far off balance that one day, I cut off communication in an abrupt and unforgivable way. A few months later, he let me back as a friend and was gracious with my fears- he had once had them too, and he admitted his own doubts about our compatibility. With him and another friend, I went to a couple gay bars. As they danced, drinks shaking in their hands, I stood in a far corner looking like Bambi in headlights. The slightest graze of an elbow made me jump out of my skin. I rarely went out with them again.

For the first time in two years I wasn’t in Washington D.C. or Pristina, Kosovo and I thrived within the Minnesota Fall. Until it fell away completely and the winter swept in, caging me in my house by the heavy darkness at four pm and the subzero temperatures all day long. For some odd reason, I thought this would be the perfect time to switch off my antidepressants and move towards something more exclusively antianxiety and I paid for this decision with all the withdrawal symptoms making me ache with utter intensity. Pinches felt like punches. A coworker’s throw-away comment felt like an assault The darkness drained me of life. And I was disappearing.

Or rebuilding.

The difficult decision to transition off of antidepressants painted Christmas in all new colors this year. With my feelings fully felt, I was able to really empathize with the pain in my relatives’ lives. I felt my heart rip open in the best way as my nephew Wyatt tore the wrapping off his new baby drum set. I wrote a post last month that really touched my grandpa and he placed his hands on my shoulders and told me so with a smile. When he asked my old pastor (the pastor of my childhood) if he would read it, the pastor surprised my grandpa by telling him he had been reading me all along! My antidepressants typically turned the volume on these moments way down. Now I hear them ringing loud, lingering inside my soul.

After a few rough experiences at the gay “bars” (okay let’s just call them “bars”) I went with my straight friend Micah and after explaining my own fear of dancing, anywhere, ever, at all- he hopped to his feet and told me to follow him out to the floor where I danced, and it was awkward. I was all elbows and clapping hands and one-two-steps. But I did it. And it was fun. And if you knew me, you’d remember this night as historic. 

 

The beginning of the end of my church cynicism came about this year when I was asked, perhaps by accident, to serve the elements. I spoke these words to hundreds of people: “The blood of Christ shed for you” and in that exchange something happened. As I lifted up and out the cup, my faith became embodied. My broken hands were giving people life. People that were broken were coming to me. And we were blessed by the moment of it. Consecrated as one body, as one people: the Blood of Christ shed for each and every one of us thirsty for it.

There’s no denying that my year has had its’ stretches of blandness, but even in them, I was learning vital lessons. I was learning to snap out of apathy and take better care of myself. I was learning to listen to the needs of others. I was learning to live loved and lived contentedly, to dance whenever the floor presented itself.

I was learning to rebuild, and it might be the greatest lesson of all.

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Another 2014 Round Up

I know. 2014 is dead and gone and good riddance, too. Stay there.

But I did want to share some of the incredible things I read, listened to and watched this year and I already said I was going to post it, so, yes, late or not, here they are:

 

Top Two Favorite Books:

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Cover of Gilead

This book. This book, this book, this book...

 

I downloaded this book early last year and announced I had done so on twitter. A friend who saw my tweet quickly texted me, saying: Stick with it. Forget that it has no chapters and the slow pacing… Just Stick with it.

 

I now know what he means.

 

Shortly after finishing it, I fell into what Slate has called “a missionary fervor”, telling everyone I knew, siblings, friends, my parents, that they simply must read this book. It is that good.

 

Not only is Marilynne Robinson one of the best writers today, she penned a story that caught me off guard and gave me a newfound reverence for not only life, but the faith. The everyday moments of wholeness. The story of the very old John Ames, written in letters to his very young son, will give you life, will make you question your theology, and it will bring the old Biblical narratives into flesh and blood through real life choices and their consequences. And the way she makes water holy…. Good Lawd.

 

I could go on about this book (planning on re-reading it this coming year) but I have some favorite quotes to share.

 

“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its’ object is never really what matters.”

 

“I don’t exactly know what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”

 

“I’m not saying never to doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

 

My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

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This book was sent to me by a dear friend on twitter who said I simply had to read this book. It was during a time when I was having my annual freak-out over death, a fear I still have yet to figure out, and the author in question, Christian Wiman, is no stranger to death. He has faced death in the calm face of one relative to the petrified mute look of another. During the writing of this book, his own cells have turned bad, turned cancerous, and he now faces his own demise.

 

Christian is also a Christian, and a poet, and just straight up brilliant. His thoughts on faith will be a balm to all of us growing up in the Modern World, trying to reconcile our faith with what we know, trying to see how it can and should evolve and advance into the present. His work stilled me when I was frantic with anxiety. It comes in close with Gilead, at least for me.

 

Other books that stood out to me this year (it was an eclectic year of reading):

 

  • The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
  • Speak, by Nish Weiseth (read my review here)
  • Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
  • The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
  • THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion (this book, this book, this book)
  • Sober Mercies, Heather Kopp
  • A Better Atonement, by Tony Jones
    • This deserves a little follow up. This book both challenged my faith and gave me great comfort. Tony is a brilliant theologian who tackles the question of the atonement, a question that has always haunted me, and sheds light on different interpretations of what exactly happened on the cross. It’s a slim, snap read, but will definitely give hope to those searching for another interpretation of the cross, other than an angry God torturing his “one and only” son. More needs to be said about the previous sentence, but I’ll leave it to you to read the book.
  • Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (I still can’t believe I never read this in high school)
  • Benefit of the Doubt, by Greg Boyd
  • Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes (there will be tears.)
  • Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

 

Currently reading!

 

And yes, I tend to read that many books at once, which is a terrible habit, but I can’t help myself. I’m impulsive by nature and Amazon’s new “one click” button…

 

Online Writing.

 

You simply cannot say enough about Sarah Bessey and her work. But this year, her work truly gave me life. During the World Vision debacle, which I mentioned yesterday, she wrote a letter to me, to all of us, to anyone who was deciding that it was time to leave evangelicalism. That week, I read the post over and over and over. It helped me so much.

 

“Sometimes we have to cut away the old for the new to grow. We are a resurrection people, darling. God can take our death and ugliness and bitterness, our hurt and our wounds, and make something beautiful and redemptive. For you. In you. With you.

 

Let something new be born in you. There is never a new life, a new birth, without labour and struggle and patience, but then comes the release.”

 

Sarah Moon put a voice to my feelings when NT Wright, someone I look up to, gave a brutal interview about LGBTQ people to First Things Mag (a conservative magazine I will restrain from commenting on the content of except to say… nothing- RESTRAINT!) This post, “NT Wrong, Amirite?: How N.T. Wright’s Bigotry Causes Him to Contradict His Own Theology”:

“Was not the entire point of Surprised By Hope that heaven and earth are not actually a dichotomy? Can you point out the exact place where the heavens begin? Was Christ, as incarnated in Jesus, human or divine? Do not the Psalms that Wright so fervently praises in his recent book, A Case for the Psalms, bring us to a place where the heavens and the earth are indistinguishable? Does not Wright himself argue in this book that God’s concept of space is not dichotomized like ours?”

 

For a year, everyone watched nervously Brittany Maynard after she publicly decided to end her life through Oregon’s death with dignity law. Maynard was suffering from inoperable, incurable cancer that almost always lead to a dark and excruciating ending. Maynard decided to opt out of unnecessary pain and instead end in her bedroom beside her parents, her new husband. I, for one, support this on the simple grounds of compassion. Someone else, though, with better insight than I ever could have, wrote about it in a compelling piece that stayed with me long after I read it. Jessica Kelley’s piece: “Can Christians Support Brittany Maynard’s Decision?” should leave a mark on anyone wanting in on the conversation about End of Life Care.

 

“As a Christian, I am concerned with the assertion that God wants to micro-control our death experience.  Doesn’t this assume that whatever happens naturally is God’s best intention for us?  Yet if Christians truly believed this, then shouldn’t we abandon all forms of birth control, vaccines, vitamins, antibiotics, antivirals, chemotherapy, surgeries, life support, and even pain medications?  Are we so certain where to draw the line?  We seem to intuit that God leaves room for our own discretion in other areas of the living and dying process.”

 

Other favorites:

 

What I Miss About Being A Born Again Christian, by Jessica Misener at Buzzfeed

 

“This was something the evangelical students in my program at Yale talked about often: the behemoth of doubt that sets in as your airtight hermeneutic of scripture is drained from the bottom. Christians from other traditions didn’t have it so bad. Catholics, for example, could fall in the same academic dunk tank and emerge with the same doubts about scripture, but they could still lean on other things their denomination held sacred and used to interpret the text, like the Catechism, papal infallibility, and the sacraments. We evangelicals, with our infallible view of scripture ripped from our hands, were left gasping for air. If you crumple and toss out a literal reading of the Bible, then what does it mean to talk about Jesus literally dying for your sins?”

 

The False Gospel of Gender Binaries, by Rachel Held Evans

But what sort of gospel is only good news for the majority? What sort of gospel leaves people behind just because they are different? 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver. This glorification of gender binaries has become a dangerous idol in the Christian community, for it conflates cultural norms with Christian morality and elevates an ideal over actual people.

 

Heart of Whiteness, by Tobias Wolff

 

“I took a public bus to and from school. I was on my way home one afternoon, sitting on one of the inward-facing benches by the door, when a pregnant black woman got on. She had two big bags of groceries, and the bus was so crowded that she couldn’t make her way past the white people standing in the aisles; she was stuck in the front with everyone staring at her, fighting for balance whenever the bus lurched to a stop or made a turn. Mama-raised little gentleman that I was, I gestured to her and was rising to offer my seat when the woman beside me seized my arm and slammed me back down. She fixed me with a hot, furious stare, then turned it on the black woman, who affected not to have noticed any of this. But I burned with embarrassment and felt I’d done something wrong. I was never tempted to repeat the offense.”

 

I Don’t Have My Shit Together, by Micah J. Murray

 

“I don’t want to be a Christian writer, if it means writing from the heart and then hitting backspace until it feels safe again.

 

I don’t want to be a Christian writer, if it means pretending that faith is something other than what it is – brutal, clumsy, fragile, ugly.

 

I don’t want to be a Christian writer if it means that we need to act like we have all our shit together.

 

Because the truth is, we don’t.”

 

When This Is Why I Tell My Stories, by Preston Yancey

 

“I need the stories of the faith because Jesus told stories. I need the stories because the rabbis took the point that God may give law but God gives a lot of history around and through and in it, that that history is one big textile pattern of being that we have to slow down long enough to learn to read or we’ll miss the crazy abundance of possibility: that what faithfulness to God can really look like is diverse and unified in the love of Christ, not the mirroring of specific practices.”

 

Favorite Album

1989, Taylor Swift

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Here’s what I love about Taylor Swift: She’s a memoirist. At the core of her work are her own stories, which are written by the might of her own pen. Recently in an interview with Babs Walters, she said: “If I didn’t write, then I wouldn’t sing.” Beyond the singing and the musical brilliance of this last album, her writing is stronger than it has ever been. There’s the poignant line from Clean: “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” And the straightforward writing style from This Love: “This love is good, this love is bad, this love is alive, back from the dead.” She’s matured greatly in her work in an industry where even best (apart from Beyonce) are coasting. It doesn’t hurt that each song is an invasive earworm that require a power-drill to extricate it out your head. In the weird year that was 2014, 1989 wins everything.

 

Favorite Show

 

Parenthood.

Always, Parenthood.

 

Favorite Movie

 

Gone Girl

 

Maybe it’s because I never read the book, but I was enraptured by this movie. The twists and turns and straight up insanity had me clawing the fabric right out of my armrest.

 

Honorable mention: Snowpiercer

 

Best podcast:

 

Serial.

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Serial had me hooked from the moment I heard Sarah Koenig’s easy voice articulate a horrible crime that happened fifteen years ago, and the man that’s been sitting in a Maximum Security prison, a man who may not have even done it. One thing that I loved about this podcast (or just podcasts in general) is that I could listen to it as I cleaned the house, or ran out on errands, or on the ride to work. I didn’t need to set time aside for it, as it basically filled the background of my day to day in the three days that I binged on it.

 

My round up- as promised.

 

I hope everyone had a fantastic, incredible, safe NYE. I’m currently sitting beside a big mug of coffee, writing in my journal about all the resolutions for this upcoming year (I’m a sucker for this stuff) and it just now occurred to me that no matter how this all turns out, for you, for me, in this upcoming year- we are still accepted, still enough. There is no tipping the scales one way or another in the great story we are living inside.

 

So, a meditation for 2015:

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?… It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

– Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations