the secret reason I was burning out

I’m linking up today with Amy Peterson in celebration of her book release! Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Change the World is very much on my wish list. Spiritual memoir, social justice learnings, beautiful writing: check.

For my own part, I’m not going to claim that I won’t forever be on some misguided quest or another. Here are some thoughts for all of us along such a journey.

I had always thought Santa hats were a dumb charity item. In the week leading up to the church’s famous Christmas dinner for our homeless and poor neighbors, one of the parishioners had dropped them off. “For the kids or whatever.” I thanked the well-meaning person but grumbled in my mind; I’m frustrated by this dollar-store brand of Christmastime charity. My feet shared the under-desk space with the trash bag of hats.

There were indeed a good number of kids at the dinner, and I plopped Santa hats on the heads of a brother and sister, thinking about how the hats would be in the real trash by tomorrow. A nearby adult asked for one, and I blithely passed it over to her. Then, at least in my memory, I was suddenly surrounded by twenty grabbing hands. Someone yanked a few hats out of my bag. “They’re for the kids,” I kept repeating, trying to hand them to the closest kids or parents I could see, but all the grabbers were adults. The hats quickly disappeared and some of those who hadn’t gotten them were angry with me, kept asking, examined the bag. Maybe I would’ve just been sad and a little banged up if one of these people I’d never met hadn’t spat, “You are a racist.” The utter nonsense of that statement, given that almost everyone who’d gotten a hat was the same race as the speaker, somehow made it crystal-clear what I had just seen. It was the purest embodiment of greed I’d ever encountered, everyone reaching to take before they knew what they were taking, snarling at their rivals, this man bitter and victimized when the trinkets went to the children.

At that statement I just dropped the bag and walked away. A friend (who happened to be homeless) offered to talk, but I needed to be alone. I needed to be angry that people had come to abuse an event so lovingly crafted by my church. I needed to be sad that anyone could be as upset as my name-caller while surrounded by Christmas carols and a feast. I needed to hate, hate the systems that had trained poor people to grab whatever they could from strangers at Christmastime, because there would be nothing the rest of the year, because these one-off events kept them nameless and faceless to us, because they knew that the Santa hats had been pocket change to the person who bought them.

I have never liked Santa hats, and I never will.


People who volunteer or work for nonprofits often feel like we’re not supposed to share these things. You know that someone will ignore everything else you’ve said and use your story to confirm their stereotypes of others. And people don’t like when nonprofit workers complain about their jobs; and you are grateful, in the end, for these moments. They’re reality checks; they’re empathy builders; they’re the moments that transform.

For a long time a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my nonprofit work. I couldn’t have told my Santa hat story a few years ago, when it happened, because I was afraid of scaring off donors and afraid that my liberal friends would police my tone; but I also couldn’t have told it because I couldn’t quite fit all those terrible feelings into my picture of myself and the world. It wasn’t OK with me to just be upset; it wasn’t OK with me that others might hear the story and think I’d been naive or uncaring; it wasn’t OK with me that the problems I encountered in that moment were so much bigger than me, my actions, and my organization. I needed to only tell hopeful stories because hope and realism couldn’t coexist in my picture of who I was and how I mattered.

Instead of telling these hard stories, we just say, over and over, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Over and over we want to appear strong or nonchalant, and hope others can be convinced to join our work. It’s worth it, we say, and we do mean it, even as we’re losing energy, becoming jaded, burning out. We tell the good stories back to ourselves and stuff the bad ones away. Or worse, we tell ourselves we’re too privileged to deserve these stories, that admitting we were hurt, frightened, or surprised by something constitutes some sort of betrayal of someone else’s greater pain or fear.

That is a lie, and we need to tell each other so. And we need to tell these stories. We need our friends to know what we go through. We need our donors to know that we can’t fix people. We need our volunteer recruits to know what they’re getting into.

And we need to know: that our careers don’t have to be made up only of stories with morals. That even the upsetting realities we face are better than the pleasant fictions others dwell in. That the things we encounter have made us better, stronger. That we, as people, matter more than the roles we play in our organizations.

For some of us, the difference between excitement and burnout is as simple as the difference between the stories we’re holding, and the stories we think we’re supposed to tell about ourselves.

May we have the courage to ask someone for the stories in their hands.

the good news for seminarians

In the weeks before finals, when you are wrung out, too often the litany of bad news reigns. But it seems today is my day to have faith for all of us; so let me shout for you the good news.

Isn’t it easy to believe, here in the springtime, that the world is shot through with miracle? Count your miracles, friends, as if your life depended on it, for surely it does – depends on earth, wind, water, depends on food become effort become muscle, depends, God knows, on coffee and midnight slaphappy laughter. Count the cheap microwave life that you’ll miss in fifteen years and find yourself crying, why me? How did I earn such riches?

I hope it is easy, here in the springtime, to know the world itself is good news, this most extravagant festival of beauty. That even if God were always and only a child, fashioning bright baubles in space and dropping them behind – never to return – it would be right to give God thanks and praise.

And yet we have found God with us, with all of us, murdering brothers and exiled slave women, idolaters, grumbling nomad-people and mourners of a defeated nation. Always God remains one more day, weaving the threads of ruined lives into something that looks like hope. Even if these were only marvelous stories from a far-away people in a time of magic, do they not speak beauty and mystery enough to keep us secretly searching for signs of this God? Are they not just strange and startling enough – transcending their own culture in all the oddest places – to convince us non-believers? Somewhere in our ancient child-hearts, we still know wonder.

But you will say I have meandered into glibness. What if, you will say, the great God dies? What if your country, your people, the land from which you were formed, become occupied by God’s own enemies? What if 400 years pass without a prophet?

I don’t know. For the suddenly light-drenched, here in the springtime, it is too easy to tell the still winter-laden to wait. I suppose I would say to get up again tomorrow, make your little breakfast, and say the prayers anyhow. Tell the old stories over and try, only try, to wait, for I AM will be with you. God will be with you. God loves you too much to stay out of it. God is too big not to care for all the little things; and at Christmas, God joined the project for once and for all.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus wept? If he knew he had come to fix this Lazarus-dying business, why stop and cry? Yet he arrived at Bethany, he collided with the grief of Mary and Martha, and suddenly the ice-cold truth washed over him: Lazarus is dead.

What if Jesus found himself doubting, there at Bethany? What if everything he said to Mary and Martha about faith, he was really saying to himself? I wonder if he did not discover finitude in that moment, in the really true death of the one he loved – shut up behind a rock together with his spirit, his laugh, the way he whistled in the mornings and spoke his sentences slow, brow furrowed, when he was thinking. All gone, just stolen by disease, no sense to it; I wonder if Jesus, encountering the magnitude of this thing, was not stricken with a sick fear: I am a lunatic after all.

He was perturbed. “Take me to him,” he said; and he wanted to stride confidently ahead of his disciples, but he found himself stumbling through his tears, desperate to make his way to his best friend. “Take away the stone,” he said, only because he had thought this was why he’d come so late.
“But Jesus…” Martha spoke gently, in her sensible way –
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, driven on by Spirit’s mission and the mad fire, fighting helplessness, in his eyes. He prayed as they struggled against the rock: “Father, I know that you hear me. I know that you hear me. Hear me.”

They finished with the stone. Did the stench she had spoken of roll out over them all? Did Jesus look into that black cave, trembling, staring down the darkness that had swallowed Lazarus with such indifference? Fists clenched, desperately, Father, hear me, then, “Lazarus! Come out!” – his lurching, strangled cry of grief silenced the murmuring crowd.

And Jesus waited. He had done what Spirit had brought him to do, and now the command was out of him. He stood before the blackness; he began to feel foolish and another rising sickness battled the fast-waning hope inside him.

Until, by the grace of God, Lazarus came out.

Before the crowd could be confused, could be frightened or appalled at this prank, Jesus’ dying hope heard the footsteps first. “Unbind him!” Jesus shouted. “He is free”, Jesus wept.

I think Lazarus was freed by Jesus’ compassion. We are all freed by Jesus’ tears; there is no pain God has not felt. Creation is God’s wound – she weeps for the abused, for the sick, the hopeless, the tired. She weeps for mountains leveled by greed for coal, for people hollowed out by lust for money, for those who have lost their best friends. And dare I say that God has felt the pain of the small – that God can weep, too, for lost teddy bears, college rejection letters, homes we loved – all the things we think we should be bigger than? I think this is grace, that God has been small with us.

Seminarians, you are not so big. And that is OK. The voices that tell you you are not big enough, not good enough, not politically correct enough, not suspicious enough, not worried enough, not smart enough, not busy enough – they are not humble. They are not grace. Grace does not shame. Grace gives gifts.

It is true that God wants holiness. It is also true that God gives holiness. Holiness is grace; it is freedom – freedom from the patterns of this world. Yes, it takes courage, effort, discernment, and time. But God has lots of these, and you have only a little. Will you keep trying to muster them, or will you simply ask for them? Will you let yourself be small? Will you let others carry these burdens with you? If you cannot let yourself be small, you will never excuse others their smallness.

We hear much bad news in seminary. And it is sometimes important to know. But only God can absorb all the world’s bad news. And only God can transform it into good. For creation is God’s million wounds, and yet it is, ten times over, her delight. She holds it; she sings over it; she sings over you with joy in all that you are, for you are hers, and she is with you. Even before we finally see life rising out of the darkness and death, God is with our shrinking doubting band of faith-in-resurrection people.

The good news – the reason you are here, I hope – is that I AM made the universe, and God loves it, and God loves you. I AM is with us, healing us, and God will make all the small things new.

Advent is no easy thing

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Hope extends just as far as it is needed, into tomorrow or into eternity, holding up our heads when we are bent low by all that we carry. We hold out for a rescue we’ve no cause to expect. And what if it is foolishness, to stand tall amidst destruction, to wage this daily war against despair?

We hope for what we have not seen. We hope for what we have not imagined. We hope in a God who works miracles, not in ourselves. There is a time to cease puzzling over projects and investing in prideful anxiety that we are not enough. Of course we are not enough! We are sufficient for our own tiny, holy, ordained role – but only God is enough for the world. So in Advent, we wait; we slow and prepare so that on Christmas we may cease working and building and fixing,

and sing.

 

 

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

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