The Uncomfortable Surrender of Discipleship

At the end of October, I will preach my very first sermon. I’ll preach first to a small group from my homiletics class and then in January I will preach at The Falls Church Episcopal where I am doing an internship. The text, Mark 1:14-20, is not a particularly difficult one in terms of “the preaching task.” It is a short, straightforward narrative and there are some clear implications for us as 21st century Christians. And yet. The implications of this passage are distinctly uncomfortable.

Just imagine the scene from this Gospel reading: a stranger sees two sets of brothers hard at work. He urgently calls them to leave their family business and follow him. And astonishingly, they do so. They leave fish still in the nets, their boats, their families, and their homes. They do not conduct a job search to fill the positions they are vacating, they do not fundraise for their new ministry, they do not pack a bag for the road. Immediately they leave everything and follow Jesus.

Even as someone who left a job and community to pursue a calling to theological education, this story makes me uncomfortable. Simon, Andrew, James, and John give up everything. They keep only their relationship with one brother. The rest of their life is utterly transformed. And Mark tells us nothing about this process. I am left with so many questions: Did they love their jobs as fishermen or hate them? Did they have spouses and children? Did they leave their families in economic distress? And most of all, do I have to leave everything, immediately, to follow Jesus?

I think we can discern one answer to this question by examining the first sentence of the passage. Mark 1:14-15 is significant for a number of reasons. First, these two verses situate the passage within the larger context of Mark. Jesus has just been baptized and been tempted in the desert for forty days. This story, the calling of the first disciples, marks the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, before he has healed anyone or preformed a miracle, is gathering community. Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee are not called into solitude, in fact they are called into community.

Second, these verses tell us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was not a wealthy area. It was not a booming economic center. Galilee was filled with hardworking, oppressed, left out, and exploited people. Jesus did not begin ministry by calling the religious elite of the day, the chief priests, Pharisees, and scribes. The first disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ were just regular people.

Third, these first two verses define for us the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed throughout his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe.” Much could be said about this one sentence. But what I find significant for us as 21st century disciples I glean from a single word: repent. This word, repent, connotes so much more than the definition on dictionary.com. Throughout the New Testament, to repent means to turn around. Repentance is the ongoing reorientation of ones life towards God. The continual surrender of self-centeredness in light of the Good News proclaimed through the life of Jesus.

So as Jesus traversed the sea shore in Galilee calling fishermen to follow him, his directive was repentance. His call was, “Surrender your self-centeredness. Surrender your grasp on worldly possessions. Surrender your life to God.”

After looking closely at this passage, I am no more comfortable than when I began. Discipleship is difficult. Discipleship comes at a cost. To surrender ones life to God may not look like literally, leaving everything, immediately, to follow Jesus. But our call is no less radical than that of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Surrender, reorientation, transformation, change – are hard.

God calls all of us, regular people, to repent. To surrender everything we hold onto so tightly: our income, our relationships, our jobs, the success and material happiness we grapple for on a daily basis. In the midst of a culture that pressures us to produce more, buy more, spend more, and have more, Christians are called to surrender.

To surrender may not look like selling all you own, but it does mean holding what you have lightly. To surrender is to realize again and again that all we have belongs to God. To live generously. To give our whole-selves.

The good news in the midst of this uncomfortable passage is that we are not called alone. Like the first disciples we are called to this work as part of a Christian community. The call is urgent. The call is serious. The call is difficult. And we have the rest of our lives to practice. Amen.

Photo: An artistic representation of Mark 1:14-20 created for my Homiletics class. Photo Credit: Richard Allred

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Everyday Sounds

Tuesday morning a week ago, Richard completed his final session of radiation. And that evening we found ourselves on the front stoop of our apartment building with a group of neighbors, a potluck taco bar, and cocktails made in our new (refurbished) Vitamix.

As we delighted together over the blending power of the Vitamix, our downstairs neighbor Elizabeth asked, “Have you been making a smoothie every morning?” “Yes, we have.” I answered, “You can’t hear it, can you??” “We can.” She said laughing, “I actually hear a whole parade in the morning.”

Elizabeth went on to describe the sounds she hears from her living room after getting up with James, her one-year-old, around 5:00AM. There are the sounds of apartment doors clunking shut and the clicking of the door to our building as it closes. Our across the hall neighbor, Buck, takes his puppy out around 5:30 and Richard leaves for the gym about 6:00. Then there is the jingle of dog tags as I come downstairs with Grace about 6:30 and Tim, who lives across the hall from Elizabeth, leaves to walk his dog. Around 7:15 the noise escalates as Buck’s wife, Elisabeth, shepherds their two boys out the door for school. About that same time, Richard and I are back home making our smoothie. By 7:45, doors are clunking and clicking one after the other as we seminarians leave for chapel.

As Elizabeth described these morning noises, we all jumped into apologize. But she waved us off with a laugh. That conversation has returned to me again and again over the past week. I began to hear things differently. The everyday sounds of my life became joyful noise. Sounds of comfort. Signals that in one small part of the world, all is well.

When I began to notice the everyday sounds, I discovered a cacophony. There is the sound of Grace sniffing my face a few minutes before my alarm. And the sound of my alarm going off. There is the sound of other dog walkers wishing me a “good morning” as I attempt to stave off conversation with my earbuds and hoodie. The musical intro of my favorite podcasts. The sounds of bells ten minutes before chapel. The voices intoning “Most merciful God, we confess…” in unison that signal morning prayer has started without me. There is the sound of coffee dripping and hot water being poured over tea bags in the Welcome Center. There is the loud chatter of the refrectory at lunch. The pleading, “excuse me,” of the Uber driver, pizza delivery person, or parent looking for Episcopal High School next door. There is the sound of children playing outside our apartment after school. And the noise of the espresso machine at the campus coffee shop as students gather to study in the evening. As night falls, crickets are audible through open windows. And right before I fall asleep, I hear Richard’s heavy breathing beside me.

These are my everyday sounds. The sounds that, when absorbed with gratitude, bring comfort. These sounds remind me to give thanks for the ordinary. These are the sounds of a thousand small miracles of health, safety, peace, and joy.

Over the past week, I’ve been holding these everyday sounds closely. They are a gift. When I awake up to a dog in my face, I know I have lived through another night. When I hear my neighbors children shouting, I know they are home safely from school.

May I never forget the gift of a normal day. May the everyday sounds of traffic and bustle, children and barking dogs give me cause for joy instead of frustration. May I draw closer to God and those I love with everyday and every sound. Amen.

Layers of Memory

I’m sitting cross legged on a love seat in Plano, Illinois listening to the sound of crickets float through an open window and watching my husband and middle brother shoot basketball in the driveway. I have finally brought Richard to the place where my mother and my grandmother grew up. The rooms in this house and trails through these woods are layered with memories. Turning into the driveway reminds me of the nights I would fall asleep in the car on the way home after a long day playing in the woods. Pulling up to the house reminds me of learning to drive my grandfather’s old John Deer. And stepping into the kitchen I remember laughing with my cousins as we washed Thanksgiving dishes by hand. This remarkable property holds the memories of four generations of my family.

I can easily bring to mind many of these memories from the comfort of my couch at home. But being physically present where these memories took place is so powerful. Standing in the living room, where I celebrated many Christmases, brings back not just images from the past but smells, sensations, tastes, and emotions. The memory of drinking pineapple juice on the couch while the adults drank pre-dinner gin and tonics was so strong that I went out and bought a few cans this morning.

The next few days, which Richard and I will be spending here at Plano with my parents, my brother Alex, my aunt Judy, my aunt Nancy, and my cousin Chris, are my last days of summer. In less than a week I will start my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary. It has been nearly four months since I sat in a classroom, ate in the dining hall, studied in the library, or worshiped in the chapel. As I wander around Plano bathing in a lifetime of memories, I cannot help but wonder what memories will wash over me as I return to class, lunch, chapel and homework. And furthermore, what memories will be created in the coming months to layer upon those of last year?

Most of the memories I’ve had this week at Plano have warmed my heart. I have excitedly blurted out, “Oh Alex! Do you remember… ,” dozens of times. But when I think about our time in Alexandria over the past thirteen months, it is quite a mixed bag. There are many memories that make me smile, but just as many I don’t wish to claim. I don’t want to claim the fear, the anxiety, the over-functioning or the hours of counseling. But then I remember Brené Brown who says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.

And so, in hopes of a brave new ending: I claim those memories. Last year was hard. I was so anxious that I was often unable to be present to those around me. I sometimes felt my school work and even myself were not good enough. I compared myself to my classmates. I cared more about grades then about learning. I often did not tend my own soul.

That is how the story began. I cannot erase those memories. But I can layer them. I can layer them with experiences of VTS as an institution striving towards the Kingdom of God. I can layer them with memories of spending time with the incredible people I have met at seminary. I can layer them with practices of healthy eating, meditation, prayer, exercise, play, and rest. I can layer them with experiences of deep learning and new realizations. And when all is said and done, it is not that first layer that counts. It is the brave new ending.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred, “Trotter Bowl and Aspinwall,” Virginia Theological Seminary

Dust Is In The Air.

April was filled with final projects, papers, and exams. I breathed deeply through that last quarter of my first year of seminary – finally giving up the fight for perfection and allowing “done” to be enough. I completed those last four classes (Old Testament, Church History, Introduction to Practical Theology, and Music, Icons, and the Contemplative Life) in triumph. Not because of the satisfactory marks I received, but the sheer realization that a full year of graduate theological studies was complete!

As the school year ended I thought I would write another blog post after commencement, “when the dust settled.” But just as my academic work began to wrap up, health issues that Richard started experiencing in February became more serious. My focus shifted to doctors appointments and then Richard’s recovery from surgery to remove a mass in his right parotid gland (details available on his Caring Bridge). As we waited for the final pathology on the mass, I thought I would write another post after his full recovery, “when the dust settled.” But then Richard was diagnosed with low grade lymphoma.

On the one hand, you cannot know what learning a loved one has cancer will be like until it happens. But on the other, it’s pretty much exactly what you would imagine. Shock. Fear. A boatload of shameless prayer. And a scramble for more information, immediate appointments, and any possible comfort. I thought to myself, “if I can just figure out how to do ‘cancer spouse’ right – this will all work out. Everything will be ok.” Then I thought, “this is going to require a lot more coffee.”

We anxiously set up oncology appointments, contacted family and friends, put all future plans on hold, read about lymphoma, and waited. Cancer requires a lot of waiting. Waiting for appointments. Waiting for test results. Rooms upon rooms dedicated to just filling out paperwork and waiting.

Despite many cups of coffee, a lot of internet research, and numerous conversations with wise friends/family – I did not figure out “how to do cancer right.” Of course, it does not exist. It is simply the fantasy of an anxious overfunctioner. And so is the idea that one day “the dust will settle,” and our lives will suddenly be neatly organized and easily manageable. There is dust in the air. That is life. When it rains hard enough to clear the dust, then you are dealing with a flood. All plans, all of life is contingent. Our reality can change as quickly as the word cancer slips from the mouth of a doctor on the other end of the phone. What we have is the present moment.

So I am writing from the dust cloud. Richard’s PET Scan showed that he is cancer free. The mass that was already removed left behind such a small amount of cancer it is undetectable on a scan. This is great news! And now we are WAITING to meet with a radiologist to see if he will need precautionary radiation or not.

In the present moment we are drinking cardamon vanilla lattes at Rare Bird Coffee Roasters. Mine is hot, his is iced. We will probably get groceries later, sit on the porch with our amazing neighbors, and walk the dog. But who knows – dust is in the air. And sipping coffee across the table from this incredible man is certainly enough for this moment in life.

The Night Heralds the Dawn

It’s a warm Saturday morning here in Alexandria. I’m sitting at a high table in a local coffee shop enjoying the warm morning light, the laughter from the tables around me, a gluten-free breakfast sandwich, and an almond milk latte.

I am soaked in gratitude, warmer than the morning light, for a day set aside for sabbath. A day free of classes, homework, appointments, dishes, laundry, scholarship applications, and email. While third quarter certainly did not warrant my level of pre-quarter panic, the work load was formidable and I am breathing easier on the other side. As I invite gratitude to soak through to the depths of my soul, it is the moments of grace over the past eight weeks that come to mind rather than the moments of anxiety, fear, panic, sickness, and failure.

I think of the first really warm day of the spring when I took a folding chair and some homework onto the front stoop to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. One of my neighbors soon joined me and before long a group of eight or more of us had gathered with a dozen children playing in the courtyard behind us. As we chatted and laughed, I remember looking around the circle and wishing the moment did not have to end.

I think of the evening spent planning a group project at our campus bar, 1823. The meeting was filled with laughter and shared confusion over the projects instructions. And when I left someone called out, “Bye Sarah,” as the door closed behind me.

I think of the day that Richard and I decided to adopt the dog we have been talking about for months. Richard took one look around and picked out Grace right away. She was so excited when we brought her home and walked her around campus for the first time. I’ve grown to love the sound of her running from the back office to the front door to greet me, tail wagging, when I come home from class.

I think of the tearful laughter during the moving homily celebrating the life of my beloved aunt, Mary Ann, plucked from earthly life too soon by pancreatic cancer. The familiar words of The Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer connected Mary Ann with all the saints who have gone before her and those of us celebrating her life with all those who mourn and commend the lives of loved ones to God.

In the throws of overwhelming panic, fear, anxiety, and grief these moments are nearly impossible to recall, nearly impossible to count on. And yet I cannot come up with a single situation in my lifetime entirely devoid of kernels of God’s grace. We live in a broken world. Pain and suffering reach to the far corners of the earth and hit close to home. It is truly a labor of love to seek out the kernels of love, grace, hope, and faith in this world.

As I continue to work on living into enough and letting go of anxiety, I took up a Lenten practice of Night Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. One prayer in particular has brought me great hope, comfort, and strength over the last few weeks:

Lord,
it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.
Amen.

From Night Prayer, the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, page 184

Photo Credit: “Stooping It” by Richard Allred

The Next Insurmountable Book

It is Friday night, three days before the beginning of my second semester of seminary. I have spent the afternoon working on one of three papers for the two classes I took during Jan term, “Camps, Conferences, and Retreats” and “Curriculum Critique and Development,” and I just lost about three hours of work when Microsoft Word crashed unexpectedly and failed to “auto-recover.” I know: I should have been manually saving every few minutes.

When I realized Richard could not recover the work, a familiar feeling of panic set in. The same panic I woke up to earlier this week, in the middle of a nightmare. The details of the dream had already vanished, but the overwhelming emotions  remained. For moments or minutes I lay in bed, the sheets wet with sweat, feeling small and worthless, incapable and ashamed, fearful, furious, and paralyzed. I kept thinking, “I can’t. I can’t do it. I am not going to make it through the next semester.” No matter how many times I pull up my grades online and see the evidence that I am capable of academic success in graduate school, I cannot shake the feeling that the next class, the next quarter, the next assignment, the next book will be insurmountable.

I have always been on the anxious side of the spectrum, but I was not diagnosed with Generalize Anxiety Disorder until I became very sick  with a stomach condition in 2010, which turned out to be unrelated (but that is another story). I had no idea that academia was a trigger for my anxiety until I arrived at VTS in August and discovered there was no  system of accommodating those with learning differences (I am Dyslexic). At first I was confused because when Richard and I visited VTS last February, I asked if VTS provided services for those with learning disabilities and the Academic Dean told me to contact the Writing Center. Over the summer, I contacted the coordinator of the Writing Center, explained my situation, expressed my needs, and arranged to meet with her once I arrived on campus in August. Shortly into our first meeting, I realized that while she is a wonderful editor but does not have experience working with learning differences. Certain that there was someone who could help me navigate course scheduling and assistive technology, I met with one person after another until arriving in the office of the Academic Dean. Our meeting took place a full twenty-nine days after I arrived at VTS, as I was completing my August term classes. Almost two weeks after that meeting, I finally received confirmation that the Dean would reimburse the purchase of Optical Character Recognition software that would allow my computer to read aloud PDFs and scanned books.

Those first six weeks I struggled with anxiety every single day. I felt stupid for not making sure that VTS had disability accommodations before applying. I felt trapped into failure having moved not only myself, but my new husband 400 miles to this program I now had no hope of succeeding in. I felt ill prepared compared to the other students. Unworthy. Alone. And furious that VTS provided no one to help me.

I had two anxiety attacks. Something would remind me of the impending academic work and my heart would beat faster, my hands would sweat, my chest would tighten, and my breathing would get faster. The trapped feeling would become overwhelming. And I would just cry, my thoughts circling downward, “I am not capable of doing this work,” “I am not going to be able to keep up,” “I am not smart enough for this,” “I am going to fail and disappoint.”

All of a sudden, in my late twenties, I was in middle school again being made fun of for mispronouncing words as I read aloud in class. I was in second grade again, comparing the paragraph the girl next to me had written to my scribbled sentence. I was in high school again, asking my friend to check what I had written on the board before I turned around and let the whole class see it. I was in shame.

I thought about dropping out, but it didn’t seem like a great option considering I had no job, we had just spent a bunch of money moving here, and we had no other place to live. So I stayed. I listened to one book at a time (thanks to the OCR software), wrote one paper at a time, and completed one exam at a time. Until the semester was done.

But here I am again, face to face with the book list for the coming semester, the reading list for next week, the classmates who have already started the work, and the software program that failed to save a nearly completed assignment. But even in this hopeless moment, I know I am not alone. The people that love me will never stop reminding me that I am enough whether I graduate from this program or fail out. That every insurmountable obstacle is tackled one step at a time. And, that we are an Easter people. Death and fear do not get the last word. I get to write the story of my summit.

A Note About Anxiety

It is hard to be with someone as they struggle with anxiety. You might not understand why they are so worried about whatever it is. The kindest thing you can do is listen. Ask them to tell you what they are feeling, affirm how difficult it must be to feel that way, and find out more about what they are experiencing from a reputable source such as Mental Health America.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred

I’ll Be Home After Christmas

A few weeks ago I wrote an exegesis paper on Exodus 16:2-16 for my Old Testament Interpretation class. In the passage, the Israelites have just escaped from slavery in Egypt and are beginning their journey in the wilderness. They are facing a season of living between promise and fulfillment. God has promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they have not yet arrived. The Israelites must figure out what it means to live in the “not yet.” This experience is not foreign to most of us. We often live in the wilderness, actively figuring out what it means to live day to day in a new reality as we wait for what is not yet.

This Christmas marks many firsts for me. It is the first Christmas Eve in five years I have not been directing a Christmas Pageant. It is my first Christmas with Richard and as a married woman. It is my first Christmas away from my mother, father, and brothers. And it is the first Christmas that I have felt like home is the place I will go back to after the holidays.

Although I have not lived with my parents full time in almost a decade, I have continued to call their house home. Since 2012 alone I have lived in five different cities. I have fond memories of each place. While living in these places I have learned, loved, and grown more than I knew was possible. But the past 4 1/2 years have been a wilderness of sorts, a time of discernment, a period of navigating the reality of day to day life and wondering about the future. Each home has been a “not quite yet.”

As Richard and I packed Polli, our Prius, and prepared to visit our families for the holidays, I realized I am living in the land flowing with milk and honey. This marriage, this home, these people, and this work no longer feel like the wilderness at all. I have arrived in a place God has been leading me. A place God has prepared me for. I am, for this season, home.

This Christmas will still be filled with love, family, food, light, and laughter. Perhaps even more than usual now that I get to celebrate with both my family and Richard’s. But this year, I will be home after Christmas. And I am grateful.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred