I want to See you Be Brave: An Honest Discussion of Courage, Bravery, and an Honest Fear of the Unknown

When Sarah Bareilles’ song, “Brave” came out this past summer, it was my jam. The strains of “Everybody’s been there/Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy/Fallen for the fear/And done some disappearing/Bow down to the mighty/Don’t run, just stop holding your tongue…” could be heard all the way down 295 each and every morning and evening as I drove to and from my CPE internship in Philadelphia. At that point in the summer, a few months into my first CPE unit, and a few weeks from the end, Bareilles’ lyrics spoke to my own fear, timidity, and perhaps, my courage in disguise. 

Courage and bravery are attributes that are ordinarily reserved for a special breed. For me, children fighting cancer, the troops fighting valiantly for anything overseas, people who are willing to stand for what they truly believe in – what they feel deep down in their bones. These are the brave, the courageous. It definitely isn’t me. Because I just am by the grace of God, not because I have done anything particularly special. Certainly not because I have done anything extraordinary. 

This week, a professor, someone I have never had a class with, but who frequently sits behind me, and who always gives me her daily [INSERT PROFESSOR NAME HERE] chapel hug during the “peace of Christ” moment, called me brave and courageous. Mid-hug. And not just any hug, mind you, a tight-grasped, bear hug. What was most stunning was not the hug. Obviously, the hug was expected. It happens every day, same time, same place. As predictable and comforting as…say…lunch, except perhaps more heart-warming than, stomach-warming. But what she said to me in the middle of this predictable embrace was certainly NOT expected. In CPE, I experienced firsthand the importance of simply being present for people more often than the importance of my words as a chaplain and pastoral caregiver. More often than not, my words didn’t matter, and frequently, as a student chaplain, I felt that they were awkward and that they displaced the grief and suffering of the patient I was visiting. (In reality, this is likely not true, but perceptions are often warped, I know, and especially this is true as a student.) I found that patients often appreciated a hand held in compassionate prayer over a word offered in advice, or even a moment shared in grieving silence. In the silence, burdens could be transferred from patient to chaplain in a sign of true Christian community, compassion and grace, tears shed, love shown. Sacred moments exchanged. 

This week, my professor did exactly this for me, in such a public place, and yet it was just as sacred in some ways, as she gave me a gift. The gift of grace, the gift of courage, and most importantly in that moment, the gift of being seen. She acknowledged that my seminary journey has been filled with what might amount to an emotional and physical Ultramarathon, and at times, I get extremely discouraged by the whole thing. But what she saw was courage and strength – the way I seemed to be handling it was with grace (anger, sadness, frustration, joy, sorrow, and all – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would be so proud). 

When I embarked on this seminary journey, I never envisioned that I would have three invasive heart procedures and eventually, be pacemaker dependent (as of 2/20), but as it all turns out, when God pursued me, the path He and I began to walk together no longer became mine to choose. I am truly Reformed (and therefore a Calvinist…) in that I believe that bad stuff happens to truly wonderful people, and that none of what has happened in the last three years is God’s doing, but in the end, it has given me more courage, has made me stronger in my faith, and as it turns out, has brought me in a strangely roundabout way, to a better understanding of myself, my call, and who I see God to be. 

My professor did something amazing for me this week, especially given what is coming up in 4 days, 22 hours, 52 minutes, 32 seconds…31…You get the idea. During CPE, I felt strong. I felt courageous. My last procedure behind me, I felt invincible, and with the words of Sarah Bareilles in my lungs, anything felt possible. But in the last few months, the unknown has seemed to devour my courage, and while this is understandable, I want the courageous me back! The unknown is definitely a scary place, but faith allows for that place to be a heck of a lot less frightening, as the Calvinist in me says that God has something incredible planned for that unknown place, and I just don’t know what’s out there yet. I’m not supposed to know what God has planned for the future, including what’s planned for my health, but God’s got some good stuff in store, and I have courage and faith in that fact. 

And I think, thanks to my professor, I’ve got my courage back! So thanks, Dr [INSERT PROFESSOR NAME HERE…] for seeing the strength inside of me, and encouraging me to move beyond the fear. Sometimes, it takes a push and a shove to climb over that wall.

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I Believe WHAT Again? (Writing My Credo After Three Years in Seminary)

As a candidate for ordination in the Reformed Church in America, I am required to write a Credo, or a very detailed and in depth faith statement. Credo, meaning “creed,” refers the various creedal statements of faith of a church or church body. For the catholic church (note the lower case c, not upper case, and trust me, it makes a HUGE difference-), these are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which should be said weekly during corporate Christian worship as a commitment to united faith in the Triune manifestation of God. In the case of the RCA, the Credo seems to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment (and the last part), usually coming at the end of the ordination process for candidates for ordination just prior to licensing for a call. Therefore, with mixed feelings, I am ready to announce that…IT IS MY TURN to write my Credo. And boy, do I wish that it wasn’t.

It is interesting to sit down and truly ponder the meaning of my faith in the way a Credo demands. After three years of a formal and rather orthodox (and yet at times, progressive) theological education, I still feel at times like I have so much left to learn – like there are still so many stones left unturned, pages left to read, books left in the library I haven’t checked out. Based on this evidence, how on earth am I prepared to sit down, reach into the deep recesses of my heart, soul and mind, and answer some of the most challenging theological questions that I have been struggling with (and have not found answers to thus far, mind you!) for the past three years?

Thus begins the credo.

At this point, we are working on our Introductions, which is perhaps the most painstaking part, as it feels roughly like Sisyphus’ pushing a boulder up a hill. It is creating ex nihilo. I am responsible for describing how I know God and why, where my revelation comes from, and what my whole faith boils down to (and IT CANNOT BE SCRIPTURE…Dr. Al said under no circumstances could it be scripture, because scripture always grows into something else, which grows into something else, which grows into something else…well, you get the picture. Its like one of those Chinese Finger Puzzles, and nothing good ever comes from those except sore fingers perpetually stuck inside straw finger puzzles. And a Credo cannot be perpetually stuck inside straw finger puzzles. PEACE OF CHRIST.).

Describing my faith seems so difficult, perhaps more difficult to me than everything I’ve ever been through, because my faith is effervescent, ever moving, grounded somewhat in tradition and theology (Definitely in Calvin, absolutely in Bonhoeffer, some Barth, definitely in some Newbigin and those guys), but ultimately, my faith seems most grounded in the love given and received in kind and selfless Christian community that is the Church corporate. My faith is informed by experience, by touch, by prayer, by the reading of scripture, by words exchanged in good times and bad. Faith is best lived out over the course of a person’s life, rather than solely in the pages of a book.

My faith is informed by the living Word of God as diligently documented over the course of centuries by fierce men (and then later by women) in the Holy Scriptures. It is through the Bible that I come to know the selfless and undeserving of God toward His people, even to this day. It lives, breathes and speaks into my life – for me, and for those whom I will serve at UCSF Medical Center beginning in September. It isn’t just a book that existed for one time, place and people, but continues to grow and change – ever dynamic in such a tremendous way that I simply cannot explain, no matter how hard I try. (Drs. Lapsley and Sakenfeld would be so proud…)

This past Sunday I worked with the confirmands at my field education placement on the first step of writing their own faith statements. For the whole week before, I furiously wracked my brain on how I would possibly teach these gifted, brilliant and intellectually curious growing Presbyterian 13 and 14 year olds how to begin to think in their own words about their faith. At the end of the week, I figured out that the best way to reach them would be to think in terms of what might work for me at that age. After all, Confirmation was one of the reasons that I (in hindsight, of course) began to walk closer toward my faith as an independent Christian adult, and away from the faith of my parents. How would I want to learn how to embark upon this potentially daunting process? BY FILLING OUT A FUN WORKSHEET OF COURSE!! Seeing the youth think out the very beginning of their lived out faith and allow it to come alive in the youth basement warmed my heart (I know, very Methodist, but don’t worry Classis, it won’t appear in my very Reformed Credo!), as it brought me back to my 9th grade confirmation class when I was attempting to do the very same: see God working in my life, see the face of Christ in my bullies and difficult teachers, and work further on my prayer and devotional lives. While it was just the very beginning, I have great hope for these youth, and hopefully, they also have hope for themselves, rather than just feeling extremely overwhelmed, although I’m sure they felt plenty of that too (because boy, did I feel overwhelmed – both for myself and for them!).

So why can’t my Credo begin with a worksheet? Why can it? Why hasn’t someone before me created a worksheet for the RCA Credo that I can copy and start at the very beginning (Cue Julie Andrews singing on the hillside of Austria with a bunch of very blonde-haired British Children…)? Maybe someone has, but then it would be their credo, not mine, and for once, I need to begin using my study guide, not someone else’s. This needs to be the story of my theological journey. Where God and I have walked together, our footprints in the sand – cut deep, bled, and healed together, through wars, journeys, tears and laughter.

Can I write a 50+ page faith statement on this? Who the heck knows? I guess I’ll find out over the course of the next 90 days, as this is due at the end of April. I have begun to wonder how exactly a Credo, written in a matter of pages, chapters, and word counts, can even begin to sum up experiences, interactions, hands held, tears shed, theological leanings and beliefs, lightbulb moments, battles won and lost and rocks finally pushed over the pinnacle of a steep mountain, but I suppose it is precisely this that makes a Credo worth writing in the first place – to witness to and share of the journey I am on; to testify to where I am theologically and scripturally, and where I hope to go with the undeserving aid of God through the Holy Spirit. Because by the grace of God, this will not be the final draft, but will be one of many drafts, shaped and molded by the continual progress of ministry, time and the working of God and others in my life.

When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window…Somewhere…A Long Overdue Blog Post and An Update

I’ve never been one to preach a sermon based on the following cliches (especially in light of my call to hospital chaplaincy and the care of the sick and dying):

-God only gives you as much as you can handle…

-Where God closes a door, He opens a window…

-God will make you stronger because of these difficulties…

-In weakness I am made strong (ala the apostle Paul)…

Its not to say that I don’t believe these things (because I definitely DON’T believe point #1, and after all the death, dying, suffering and horror I experienced in my first unit of CPE, I certainly don’t, and refuse to, despite many incredible theological discussions on this very subject), but rather that these aren’t to be the subject of discussion in this blog post.

To say that I have been a terrible blogger during my three years of seminary would be pointless, as I have done a terrible job keeping this blog up. The walk through three years of theological training has felt at times like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up Mount Everest. And the boulder is square shaped, covered in crazy glue. But on the other hand, it has been a true blessing. I’ll spare y’all the gritty details on both fronts, since the post would turn into a novel in the process, but the last few months have been a really interesting (and also extremely intense) journey all on their own, and for several reasons.

Beginning this fall, I began the process of applying and interviewing for ACPE residencies. I initially thought it would be something like my internship process, but oh how wrong I was. It was extremely different, and far more difficult. In the process, I realized several things – ministry is NOT a job, and the minute I begin to think of it as such, I have lost touch with the heart of it all, and who is truly in charge in the first place – God. I also learned a lot about the importance of sharing of myself, but also that how I share can make the difference in how others perceive me (and this made a huge difference in the interviewing process especially). Finally, I needed to realize from the beginning that this was ultimately a spirit-driven process, and that no amount of OCD could make a residency position appear. If it was meant to happen – if God desired me to be a hospital chaplain, not if Liz desired to be a hospital chaplain – then a position would open up. And it might not be the one I wanted, where I wanted. So I better be ready and willing to move anywhere I applied. And as it turned out, I was blessed with the opportunity to learn, grow some more and serve God (a weird phrase for me still to say, even after almost three years in seminary – not a phrase I feel is common rhetoric in the Presbyterian community) back in the city that stole my heart four years ago, and this time, in a formal capacity. Beginning in September and for a full year (370 days to be exact), I will be working and learning at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

But before I can go to California, I have to face one more challenge. I have had three catheter procedures on my heart since I started my second year of seminary in the attempt to control my rhythm issues, and to date, none have succeeded in taking the stress off and slowing my heart rate down. Ordinarily, medication and a procedure work, but according to my specialist, he’s never seen anyone like me, and he’s the leading specialist in cases like mine. Not quite the news you want to hear at almost 25, but fortunately, I have one more option. On February 20th, I’ll be having my last procedure for a while. I’ll be having a dual chamber pacemaker implanted into my heart, but first, my specialist will have to completely sever the remaining conductive tissue (which he has been avoiding doing for the last 12 months), called the AV node. Without the AV node, the heart doesn’t know how to beat, and cannot generate any electricity anymore. Once he has done this, I will be pacemaker dependent for the rest of my life (aka, I’ll be a cyborg, so be jealous!). I’m not thrilled about the possibility of having to depend on something with a battery to keep my heart going for ever and all eternity, but its on the horizon, and will be done in 18 short days. I will always be a cardiac patient – that will never change. But this will hopefully make my quality of life better, and at least give me some of my life back!

So ready or not, here I come…sorry heart, we tried. It was fun, and sorry I had you burned, nuked and mapped. But now, you’re going to get some permanent help. (And yes, I just spoke to my heart in a blog…)

Its been a long few years, filled with blessings, and I don’t think I would have come to my sense of call if not for my own experiences. Realizing my own brokenness (albeit in a really, really messed up way – ok God, next time, perhaps you could do it in a nicer and less painful way? with less burning and procedures involved?) has allowed me to feel, even if only a small amount, the pain, frustration, sorrow, grief and anger of the people I have served, am currently serving and will be serving in the future.

My faith in God’s grace and providence is grounded deeply in the fact that God will give me the tools to not only deal with my own “stuff” as a dear friend calls it, but that God will also give me the tools to be present with the “stuff” of the people God will put in my path in the fall. Nothing will be easy, but God has called me to this wondrous work (to poorly paraphrase the Rev. Martin Copenhaver, a UCC Minister at Wellesley UCC, and son of the former senior minister at my home church from decades ago), and so take me as I am, and so He shall equip me for it (and for what I am to face in the coming weeks)!

Hopefully I can be better at blogging in the few months until commencement (memorial day weekend 2014…coming soon, stay tuned!), but writing a Credo for ordination + field ed (Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church) and trying to cram in life with friends will likely keep me busy! Stay tuned dear ones! Life is only going to get brighter and better as the days go along, that much I’m sure of!