“But do you believe in you?”
The question landed like a punch in my mid-section, my throat constricting around the rising emotion. “I am trying,” I croaked in response as I attempted to force down tears.
The question was posed by one member of the commission charged with interviewing prospective Priests like myself, those who believed God was calling them into the holy vows of ordained ministry.
I told him how I ended up in that very interview carried on the belief of others, because I chose to listen to what they said they saw in me. I never would have entered the discernment process last year if other people had not spurred me on, saying they saw gifts in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself.
It was the year in which the word “explore” was embodied in every area of my life and I was discovering new lands at every turn. The Priesthood was not a destination I ever imagined for myself, but I committed to following the arrows God placed before me, like the compass that pointed ever true North.
Now at the threshold between years, I look back on the year of exploration, content. I didn’t reach a destination, but I found something more precious: myself.
I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to fit myself into the mold others made for me. I floated between roles in the church and non-profits, and between countries and cultures seamlessly. The adaptability that has been a gift in my ministry across denominations and on three continents has been a curse, too. My chameleon skin, able to take on the color of my surroundings, has changed so many times I didn’t remember the hue of my own flesh anymore.
As I peeled away the layers of others’ expectations, my own fears, a lack of boundaries, and the need for control—I found someone I had forgotten.
She loves God fiercely. She is a gifted communicator. She lights up when she’s among people who have a similar disdain for small talk and want to go deep in spiritual conversation. She loves to help and serve, but she is also a leader. She is a learner at heart but enjoys sharing what she’s learned with others. That makes her a teacher. She’s a bridge builder, able to reach across divides. Her smile is contagious. She has the gift of faith, and can see God working in places others overlook.
It is work every day to believe in myself, to trust that this is who God made me to be, and admit the good things God is working out in me. But after two decades of shrinking back and making myself smaller, I am planting a stake in the ground right here.
Parker Palmer said before we can tell our lives what we want to do with them, we must listen to our lives telling us who we are. “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity,” he said, “not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
My word for 2023 came quickly and firmly into my mind in late December. It feels like a risky word and I admit it scares me more than a little.
Trying to Fit Into Someone Else’s Clothes
You know that feeling, the burning desire to make it fit even though you know it won’t? You wiggle; you inhale, and you try just one more time.
Here I sit, a bundle of fur warming my side, basking in the warm glow of the Christmas tree—and it all looks picture-perfect. Yet, I’ve always felt like I inhabit the fringes of life.
Even as I round middle age, I feel like I fit awkwardly into this life I’ve worn for decades like a pair of hand-me-down jeans a little too long for my short legs and too tight around my wide hips.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time exploring who I really am, peeling away the layers of false selves I have worn over the years. We all put them on, that baggy coat to hide our flaws. That glamorous dress to divert their eyes from our insecurities.
Maybe it’s the don’t-care attitude I’ve heard we take on in our later years. Perhaps it’s the liminal space of being back in graduate school and wrestling with a twenty-year-old calling to ministry that has seen its share of detours, diversions, and dead-ends.
Either way, I’ve been throwing off the distortions and trying to find the right fit. And for the first time, I’ve realized I’m not the only fringe-dweller in the spaces I long to find a home.
Getting Naked In Front of Strangers
When I’m nervous and out of place, I ramble. I feel compelled to fill the awkward silence with a lumbering monologue instead. As anxious as I was, I spent a lot of time listening this year instead.
Forced to slow down and seek the wisdom of others as I entered the discernment process with my church, I found myself with others in the same uncomfortable limbo as myself. I was one of a dozen people who felt compelled to pursue a possible journey into ordained ministry. Thrown together in this vulnerable process, we stripped down to our barest selves in front of strangers.
We sat in Zoom rooms and conference rooms, the offices of our church leaders, and in intimidating interviews with Commission on Ministry members. We told our raw and unfiltered stories, with trembling and a few tears.
Trying Jesus on For Size
For me, it was a year of uncovering layers of my complicated history with the Body of Christ. I was a child who didn’t know who the Jesus figure that came out in manger scenes was. I knew there was something important about him and longed to know more. The youth group of my teens nurtured me and then discarded me like an ill-fitting pair of pants.
I was introduced to versions of Jesus who wanted me to do all the right things and ones who loved me like a best friend. There were ones who kept records of my sins in heavenly file cabinets, waiting to judge my failings—and ones who held no record of wrongs. I did my best to decipher who Jesus was when I wasn’t even sure who I was.
I thought I had it all figured out by the time I was on staff at the mega-church I’d spend a large portion of my life in. On the outside, I looked like a perfectly-polished Christian. Husband and two kids, the van, the Christian preschool, and obligatory Insta-worthy birthday parties. I looked just like everyone else so that meant I belonged, right?
Never mind the uneasiness that rattled around my soul, the lack of connection with the Jesus I longed to know intimately, and the theological issues I thought would go away if I ignored them.
It was a beautiful place; it was just not the place I belonged. And I knew it and pretended not to. It was easier that way—until it wasn’t. Until my desperate, dry, lonely soul cried out to move from the fringes to the place where the Spirit could live and move in me...
They were the kind of sobs that you feel like rock your whole body in such a way that something must certainly shake loose from your heart. They were the kind of tears that feel like they reach back years in time, pulling up issues you didn’t know you were concealing. Those tears snuck up on me as I listened to “Six” from Sleeping at Last, the song Ryan O’Neal wrote from the perspective of an Enneagram six in his series of songs written to explore each type.
When I listened to that song I felt known and seen, like someone had crawled into my brain and saw what it was like to see the world through my eyes. But more than that, I felt like I was seen and loved anyway — like someone saw all my fears and said, “it’s okay. I know you’re broken you’re not alone.”
I had been late to the Enneagram trend on purpose. I avoided it exactly because it had become trendy in Christian circles. I didn’t want another fad; I longed for depth. I had been gravitating toward more contemplative and ancient practices of early Christianity for years and the Enneagram personality typing didn’t seem to fit (until I learned that the Enneagram is possibly 6000 years old).
It was my love for the works of Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr (as I slowly worked through Immortal Diamond and then Falling Upward, both of which mention the Enneagram often) that finally made me say, “Okay, okay.” He talked about the Enneagram not as a personality test but as an indicator of why you think and act the way you do and a way to uncover your path to God
It was one of those moments when you say, “It’s so crazy how everything seemed to be pointing me in the same direction; it must have been God.” Everything I read or heard seemed to be leading me into discovering my True Self, about an invitation into a deeper knowledge of who God was and the discovery of who God had created me to be...
Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...