The Myth of Finding Yourself

I was scrolling through Instagram last night when I stumbled upon the following quote by writer and artist Emily McDowell. She writes,

“’Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a lost ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”

This quote really resonated with me. My college really stressed study abroad. From the moment I arrived on campus, I constantly heard about how studying abroad would change my life. I was sold.

I lived and studied in Valencia, Spain for a little over a month the summer before my final year of college. Although I kept a blog while I was in Spain, I never wrote a final post reflecting on my experience. Maybe this is that post, almost two years later. I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent in Spain; the lessons I learned, the sights I saw, and the people I met were formative in challenging and exciting ways. However, out of all of the souvenirs I crammed into my suitcase, what I didn’t find was myself. Living in a foreign country did not give me strength but harnessed the strength that I had all along. I didn’t find myself because it took living in a foreign country for a month to realize that I was never lost. It turns out that an ocean can’t separate you from your own heart. You can flee to the farthest corners of this earth, but your heart will come with you. My dreams, my fears, the things that keep me up at night, those came with me to Spain. In a post contemplating the power Valentine’s Day seems to hold over us, Jamie Tworkowski writes that the singer Bono said that his songs come from a “God-shaped hole inside of him.” I first read this piece years ago but I keep coming back to it. For it was in Spain that I realized that the bluest of waters and the sweetest of sangria could never fill the God-shaped hole inside of me. Those things will certainly try. I saw striking manifestations of the glories of God’s handiwork in mountains and oceans and cathedrals that once held worshippers in them many years ago. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Maybe I’ve been too embarrassed to say how horribly homesick I was while I lived in Spain, but it’s true. All of the excitement of life in a new country couldn’t mask a heart that missed home, community, and a sense of being fully known. I realized that there was a God-sized hole in my heart because only God’s very Self could fill that hole.

              I am so grateful for my time abroad. I am grateful for my madre valenciana who I’m still in touch with, and for all of the friends I made along the way. My heart aches to go back to Valencia and explore other parts of Spain, but for different reasons. Reasons that don’t involve finding someone who was never lost. I want to go back because this world is vast and beautiful and I want to seize every chance I have to explore it.

              I’ve talked about this briefly before, but boarding that plane one summer night two years ago was the craziest thing I had done up until this year. It’s a whole other crazy to pack up your life after twelve years in the same place and start afresh in a new city. As I’m approaching the end of my first year of seminary, I have been thinking a lot about rootedness, the places where we come from and the people who are home to us. It’s the running line in my family that it bothers them when I say that Richmond is home. But living in different places has taught me that my heart is big enough to hold onto several places that are home. Wilmington, where I was born and lived for ten years, Raleigh, through and through, the city that takes up the most space in my heart, Charlotte for a summer, Valencia for a month, Richmond, since last September, and many more places in the future that only God knows. I have roots in all of these places, and they have become a part of me. I am “found” in the people who are home to me and the places that have shaped me. The God-sized hole taught me that I am found most in God, fully known and fiercely loved. I have been “found” in God before the moment I was born. I have been named and claimed by the waters of baptism, raised in the Church, and marked as God’s very own.

Take the road trip, book the flight, explore all that this world has to offer, for we only have “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver). But I hope you do so knowing that you’re not lost. You have roots in the people who love you, the places that have shaped you, and the One who has claimed you as God’s very own.

 Seize every day in the glory of its mundanity! Taste and see that the Lord is good, and live your life accordingly.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

The Power and Privilege of the Pulpit

Here’s an alliteration for you. The power and privilege of the pulpit. I just returned from a four day preaching festival of young preachers from all over the country. Over those four days, I had the privilege to hear sermons from many diverse voices, and the humble honor to preach my own sermon. I heard the Word preached from young clergy, seminarians, and everyone in between. Most of the preaching I experienced was very outside of my tradition— preachers moving around the pulpit, arms waving, voices raised in the passion of the moment. I was admittedly jealous of the preachers that had the confidence to forgo a manuscript. However, the diversity of preaching voices that I witnessed helped me to appreciate my own journey to finding my preaching voice. As I was experiencing day of nerves in anticipation of preaching my sermon, I realized that I did not need to try to emulate the other sermons I heard. My prayer was that my authentic voice would come through, and that the Spirit would move through me to deliver a Good Word.

Besides being a naturally shy person, I must explain another source of my nerves. I felt the weight of the pulpit. I felt the weight of every woman who has ached for a place at the pulpit, but has been told no on the basis of her gender. I felt the weight of the knowledge that many people today still believe that women do not belong behind the pulpit or in seminary. I felt the weight of every question I have received regarding my call: looks of surprise that I am seeking ordination, or that my undergraduate degree in religious studies led me to a Masters of Divinity program and not the mission field.

I stood in an empty hotel ballroom with shaky hands and sweaty palms the night before my sermon. I practiced my sermon several times in my hotel room, but I wanted to practice behind the pulpit. My heart started thumping in the empty room: I have big shoes to fill. I have heard countless sermons in my life, but as a little girl, I did not see women in the pulpit. Not because my tradition barred it, but simply due to time and place. I moved to Raleigh when I was ten and although my church had women clergy, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to who was preaching back then. I certainly had female role models and mentors in the church, but none of them were behind the pulpit. I didn’t even meet any other female friends my age pursuing ordination until I started seminary. That night standing in the empty ballroom, I realized that I wanted to be for another woman what my younger self did not have.

The next day I preached my sermon, and the Spirit of God turned my spirit of timidity into one of boldness. In that moment, I realized that God had placed me exactly where I needed to be. I was on holy ground. Moses’ bare feet on earthy ground; my stocking feet in black heels on generic hotel carpet. The God of the covenant, the One who called Moses to preach a Word of liberation, was calling me too. The weight of the pulpit was still there, and I think it always will be. I never want to take for granted the deep gift and responsibility that lies within this “odd and wondrous calling.”

It is my prayer that I will never forget what a deep privilege and honor it is to share the words that God has placed on my heart. Yet the preacher must always approach the pulpit with a spirit of humility, for there is great power in the pulpit. Consider this: the preacher has a captive audience who is trusting that the preacher will deliver a message rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what happens when the preacher’s Good News isn’t Good News for everyone?

I recently experienced a sermon such as this, which was characterized by emotional manipulation and theologically problematic imaginings of God. Preachers, the words we use in our sermons matter. Does your language for God welcome rich imaginings of the Creator of the Universe? Or is God depicted as a castigating Father quick to punish His children? Will you use your words to set the captives free or to support the systems that oppress them? To borrow from liberation theology, if the Good News isn’t good for all of God’s people, than it is not Good News.

It is a great task we have before us, to preach a Good Word that is true to the character of God as revealed in Scripture. Now more than ever, it feels like we are in need of Good News. In a world bereft of Good News, may our pulpits be a place where the loving-kindness of God is proclaimed and grace is abundant.

Preach it, preachers! May you go forth to proclaim the Good News with the Spirit of God guiding your steps and the power and privilege of the pulpit always at the forefront of your mind.

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Leaning into the brutiful

My fingers hover over the keyboard as I attempt to summon the thoughts and feelings that have been circulating through my mind over the past month. You see, 43 days ago I moved to Richmond, Virginia to start my seminary journey. Classes have been in session for a little over a month and I feel like I’m finally piecing together a routine. I am trying to make a new city home, which I have not been tasked with since I was ten years old. Sure, there have been places in between that have captured my heart, places that have been “home,” even if it was temporary. A summer of ministry, joy, intentional community living, and an abundance of Cookout milkshakes in Charlotte, North Carolina. A month in Valencia, Spain. The farthest I’ve been from home, where the days blended together and the city never slept. At the time, living in a foreign country and spending a month with a group of strangers was the craziest thing I’d ever done. But maybe this is even crazier. Leaving what is comfortable and safe to start anew. Following God’s call and the movement of the Spirit to a place completely unknown to me.

When I first moved here, it felt like I was being dropped off at summer camp. Armed with cautious optimism in one hand, but also with the same wide eyes and vulnerability as a college freshman finding her dorm. The utter newness of everything around me was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. As with college, I have found friends who walk alongside me in the newness, who remind me that none of us yet has it quite figured out. (Will we ever?) We come from New York to South Carolina and every which way in between. We are here afresh from different seasons and places; college, ministry, work; hometowns and college towns; big cities and small cities. Yet we are all here for the same purpose: to learn and grow and try to be faithful to where God is calling us.

Graduate school and moving to a new city are not for the faint of heart. It is hard. It is a balancing act: the sheer volume of work, carving out time to make this city feel more like home, balancing work and play. Sometimes it feels brutal, like when a rotted tree limb shattered my windshield and my debit card information was stolen all in the same week (yup, true story). But, more often than not, this season feels beautiful. The joy of meeting new friends who make me feel known and loved, who I know are also walking this brutal/beautiful path. The feeling of stopping in my tracks to gaze at a sky so blue it hurts my eyes. The realization one day sitting in class that everything I am studying will mold me into the pastor, preacher, and teacher whom God is shaping me to be.

In a blog post titled “Life Is Freaking Brutiful,” author and activist Glennon Doyle coined the term “brutiful” to describe how life’s hardest things are often the most beautiful. She writes:

In my life- the brutal ALWAYS transforms into the beautiful.  And so after thirty eight years I have learned this about what life is offering me: IF IT’S EASY AND SHINY- BEWARE. IF IT STINGS A LITTLE – SIT TIGHT, GET CURIOUS, AND THEN LEAN IN…Breathe deeply and know that if you let it come and feel it all – it won’t kill you. It will pass away soon enough and leave you better, kinder, softer, and stronger. Let the brutal make you even more beautiful.

I am living in a new city, studying what sets my heart on fire, and living in community with friends who make this world a brighter and better place. I don’t think I have ever laughed or cried as hard as I have here. Yet as I look back on this first month, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m showing up each day and living into the tension of brutal and beautiful. Thanks be to God for this brutiful path that God has set before me.

May God grant you peace for the journey, rest when you are weary, and courage to live into the brutiful of each and every day.

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Thin places and holy spaces

thin place- a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin

On Saturday I returned home after a week in my favorite place in the world, Montreat. Montreat is a tiny town of less than 800 people nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina. It is also home to Montreat Conference Center, a Presbyterian Church (USA) conference center. Although many conferences take place at Montreat during the year, the six weeks of summer youth conferences are arguably the highlight of each year. 

I attended Montreat Youth Conference for the first time at age sixteen. My youth minister convinced me to go, even though I was nervous about the trip and wasn't so sure what was so great about this place anyway. I quickly found out. These mountains became a place where I experienced God's peace and love, which previously seemed out of reach. The growing pains of being a teenager were eased by genuinely friendly faces who made me feel safe and known. That first summer, I saw a woman minister in the pulpit, who told us that she was persuaded that nothing could separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus. I believed her. Her words would come back to me years later; during each difficult season, I was reminded and persuaded of the fierce love of God. 

At seventeen, I returned for my second youth conference. This time, I was able to help with conference leadership through a special small group called the Jeremiah Project. I didn't know what the word "vocation" really meant back then, but I knew I wanted to be a part of the group that was able to help plan and lead worship. One night, I was leading the liturgy in front of nearly one thousand people; all was dark except for the bright spotlight on me. In that moment, my typically shy self felt a wave of peace, the peace that comes from God alone. One of my youth leaders suggested that maybe I was meant for the ministry instead of teaching. I brushed off her comment at the time, but the seed was planted.

My final youth conference was a blur of emotions and nostalgia. I remember wondering when I would return to this place again, for these mountains held so many pieces of my story.

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I would return several times during college, but it was never the same as that Montreat magic that seems especially alive in the summer. I say that these mountains hold a part of me, and it is absolutely true. This place is where I learned to truly love myself, where I first felt the call to ministry, and where I started to grow into the woman of faith that I am today. 

I served as a small group leader for one week this summer, and as soon as I stepped foot onto the Montreat grounds, I was reminded of the hold this place has on me. I have swam in the bluest Spanish waters, hiked to castles that hold thousands of years of history, and stood in awe before the works of Picasso, Gaudí, and Goya. Yet this sacred corner of the North Carolina mountains is what has captured my heart the most. I entered this week excited, but nervous. I knew all of one person there, and didn't really know what to expect in terms of serving as a small group leader.

Thanks be to God, because this week was filled with grace, community, and the Spirit working in more ways than I could have imagined. I quickly found new friends in the planning team and other small group leaders. It took getting sick at Montreat to remind me of the depths of God's grace. As a classic Helper (Enneagram 2, anyone?!), it is difficult to be in the role of the one being cared for. I am the first friend to reach out and lend a listening ear, boots on the ground, ready to help. I was simply overwhelmed as I experienced my new friends pulling together to be Church for me. Soup and crackers in bed, cold meds delivered, friends checking in on me, a plate of food waiting for me after I emerged from my room...

And maybe that's the thing about grace. It's so shocking because it's always abundant and can never be earned. For me, crackers and hot tea became a sneak peek of what I would experience at the Table that Thursday; grace and nourishment for the journey, because of the One who shared that holy meal with his friends almost two thousand years ago.

And don't even get me started about the group of teenagers entrusted to me this week. It was truly one of the deepest honors of my life to hold space for their questions and stories. Adults, consider that a lot of kids aren't looking for an answer, but for someone to show up and be with them in both their joy and pain. These bright, funny, and insightful teenagers showed me grace, love, and some serious Kingdom of God action. For the Kingdom is not some far off place, but when God's people are laughing, praying, crying, and playing together. Group 23, thanks for being my faith teachers.

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Montreat is my thin place, through and through. The line between heaven and earth gets thinner each time I come back. These mountains hold my laughter, tears, joy, and sadness. They hold memories of a sixteen year old learning to love herself as God sees her, and a twenty-two year old trying to live in light of God's call. It's where laughter is abundant, new friends are always near, and the Spirit is gleefully at work.

At the core of it, Montreat always leaves me feeling a bit lighter, and a bit more free.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Dear You

Four years and one day ago, I graduated from high school. 1, 462 days. Unlike some of my purple-robed peers, I was overjoyed to leave high school behind, once and for all. With acceptance to Meredith College as a Teaching Fellow under my belt, I went forth with confidence. It makes me smile looking at that picture of me clutching my diploma, because I couldn't smile harder if I tried. Upon my graduation, I wrote a note to my freshman self, of all that I wish I had known four years earlier. My advice was solid, and I'd like to think that my eighteen year old self had a pretty strong head on her shoulders. In my first letter, I reminded myself that grades aren't everything, to take care of myself, and to pursue my passions. My overarching theme was to be true to myself, to stand firm in who I am and in what I believe. 

A little under a month ago I experienced a different graduation: my college graduation. This time around, the sentiments were different. College was where I met my best friends, studied what I loved, and learned the depths of my own strength. Similar to four years ago, I was eager to graduate, but for all different reasons. Instead of dying for an escape, I was antsy to go out into the world with all that Meredith taught me. So, in the same reflective spirit as four years prior, here is another letter, this time to my eighteen year old self. Whether you are "leaving the nest" for the first time, or you graduated college many years ago, I hope something in these words resonates with you, too.


Dear you,

Congratulations! You did it. Those four years that felt like an eternity are over and done. You can leave them in the past. You are wiser for having experienced hard things, but they don't own you. Although you can't possibly know it now, you'll look at the past with gratitude. You have developed a sense of empathy, a listening ear, and a kind presence that will serve you well in life and ministry. A few years from now, you'll run into people from high school and collectively wonder: Were we ever that young? You feel nervous leaving these halls, because you wonder if you will meet mentors in college that will know and love you as well as some of your former teachers. Those high school teachers will continue to serve as friends and mentors to you, years after you have graduated. One of the defining markers of your college experience will be the professors who know and care about you as a person first, and then a student. You will run into your professors' offices many times, sharing news both good and bad, and they will be there through it all. 

You are so excited about starting over; the same city, but a new school and a clean slate. Little do you know, you will meet friends who will turn into sisters. Friends who celebrate birthdays and scholarships and job acceptances. Friends who carry each other when the going gets tough. I wish you didn't want to grow up so fast. Because one Tuesday night the February of your senior year, you'll sit on the floor of your apartment sharing a bottle of pink champagne with your friends. And as you clutch your stomach from laughing so hard, you'll wonder how the time has passed so quickly. 

You're scared of the future now, but you have no idea what you're about to accomplish. You can't even begin to fathom the woman you are becoming. You'll present undergraduate research, study in Spain, and get accepted to your top seminary. I hope you will know how much more went into your college diploma than just grades. The growing pains of eighteen and nineteen will grow you and stretch you. You will have nights where you stare at the ceiling tiles in your dorm, wondering when you will feel like an adult. Do you know that the capital P Plans you carefully crafted for yourself will fall apart? Your heart will hurt and you will cry to God in the middle of the night and wonder if He's there. You won't believe it when one of your mentors says that no one has it figured out when they are twenty. It's so scary to throw the plan out the window. Three years later you will preach your first sermon, and it will start to make sense. That tug at your heart you first felt at seventeen? You will try to ignore it (hence, growing pains of eighteen and nineteen), but eventually you'll succumb to that God sized pull at your heart. You will graduate from college as a future minister instead of a future teacher. It turns out that God has bigger dreams for you than you could dare imagine.

 A few more thoughts before I sign off. I hope you know how loved you are. The love of God, your family, friends, and mentors will carry and sustain you. Being strong or being brave doesn't mean that you have to go it alone. Continue to ask for help, and give that same help to others. Never stop being amazed by God's grace shown through the kindness of both friends and strangers. When in doubt, open the bottle of champagne. Celebrate the abundance of life, right now. You will have seasons of both abundance and scarcity, assurance and doubt, hope and sadness. Life is a Teacher. Those seasons will teach you about yourself, others, and God, so pay attention.

You'll enter those gates as a girl and exit them as a woman, strong and confident and sure of herself. I am so damn proud of you. Go out into the world with light in your eyes and fire in your heart. I'm rooting for you.

Love,

Molly

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