“Juanita, you know I was so wiped out, I left my purse hanging on the back of the chair in that restaurant and did not even realize it for hours.” As we were leaving the fifth church service and the fifth “Love. Period.” book-signing that weekend, I saw Juanita’s head cock with more of a reaction than I had anticipated from the comment.
“Remind me to tell you what that’s about,” she said.
When we got to our cars, I did remind her and she did tell me. Losing my purse, leaving something so personal, meant that I was having trouble with my identity in this place, and needed to spend time with God listening and seeking what my identity ought to be in this phase of my ministry.
Damn. That woman has an uncanny ability to read my spirit that I am still getting accustomed to experiencing. When I first met her, I felt certain that she could read every thought in my head – which must be a difficult gift to have when you think about it.
I was, in fact, having difficulty figuring out how to inhabit my identity in this new phase of my life.
The first factor was that I had spent the better part of the last eight months alone with God cultivating an attitude of listening and a raw openness. The most peaceful part had been my time of quietude working in the garden and writing on the island of Eleuthera; and probably the most intense part had been the five weeks at the end that I traveled alone in Guatemala – trying to learn the language, living without a hot shower or mirror, and only ever understanding part of the noise that surrounded me. When I had returned to the States, I felt like one of those characters in a movie where a cacophony of voices rushes in and they can hear everybody’s thoughts; the fact that I could understand everything being said around me was overwhelming. And that extreme openness and raw vulnerability that I had practiced in order to hear best from God became a huge liability as I landed at a national church event in Florida – where I was a speaker – and immediately was surrounded by voices trying to tell me who I was. In those few days, I received some of the most uplifting and some of the most condemnatory words of my life – and all without my usual walls, tough skin, or filters. It all rushed in past my barriers, and I had to sort through it.
Thankfully, that is when the second factor came into play. All that focused listening and soul searching had strengthened a gift that I had been unaware of before: the ability to recognize when someone’s reactions to you are reflections of you, and when they are merely reflections of themselves – their own assumptions, prejudices, and baggage. No one is ever free from their own filters, but I realized that there is certainly a spectrum within which those biases affect the way that we respond to one another. The fact that the woman I was staying with in Guatemala – without knowing much about me and with very little shared vocabulary – was able to identify within two weeks that I was, as she put it, “something like a priest”, had filled me with awe. Consequently, returning to the States, and knowing myself more fully after several months with God; and realizing that this gave me a heightened ability to identify whether the reactions and interactions of friends or strangers were reflections of myself or merely reflections of their own issues; I began to put excessive confidence in the process of increasing the impact of the prior and decreasing the impact of the latter. In other words, I tried to be discerning about who I allowed to have an impact on my identity – shielding myself from those who tried to tell me I was someone I was not, because they could not see past any number of the barriers that blind us to the internal beauty of one another.
Complicating my ability to engage my identity in a new space, I found myself stripped of all the things that I had leaned on in the past to help me communicate my role, calling and identity to others. I do not wear “the uniform” – neither the button up shirts and slacks, nor the clergy collar; leaving the majority of people who have not been introduced to me properly to assume I am an intern – which on the upside knocks about a decade off my age; and on the downside also knocks off my years in college, seminary and the pulpit. No one knows I am a Reverend, and wouldn’t care if they did. My stoles are in a box, my robe is in a garment bag behind my winter jackets. I serve a church, but I don’t exactly have a flock yet, and I don’t exactly have a pulpit that I preach from each week, as I did for years. I have ceased my geographic journey, but will never quite finish my internal journey. I’m trying to reimagine church, and in the process having to reimagine the role of a pastor without being able to rely on any of the usual cues to communicate that – neither the ones I have personally relied on – nor that one that church culture often relies on to identify pastors… namely being a man.
So when Juanita told me that I was in a space of needing to be still and listen to God to discern how to live out my identity in this phase of my life – she could not have struck the bull’s eye any more dead center.
And somehow in doing so, she answered the question I had been struggling with for months; revealed why I had written so many blogs that rung incomplete and remained un-posted; relieved the pressure in my mind and the pang in my heart.
Life is not about figuring out which people are reliable mirrors and which people are not able to see you past their issues (although that can help you be more healthy). Because life is not about figuring out who you are in the eyes of others, life is about figuring out who you are in the eyes of God.
Identity does not come from outside of a person; it comes from within; it comes from a conversation between the Creator and the Created about exactly who and what they were created to be. And as helpful as the input, feedback, reactions, guidance, accountability and teaching of others can be, it should never – I repeat NEVER – be permitted to interrupt, contradict or distract from that conversation between the Creator and the Created.
As I reflected on Juanita’s words, her encouragement to talk to God about how to express my identity in this phase of my life, I thought back over all the phases that had come and gone. I thought of the “damn yankee” that arrived in South Carolina for college in 2001 to discover that Southern culture was an awful lot more than hush puppies and Steel Magnolias. I thought of the bubbly and optimistic young woman who arrived in North Carolina for seminary in 2005, only to discover that it was not the oasis from racism and politics that she had imagined it to be.
But of all the me’s that I have been and of all the places that I have lived, the one who bangs loudest on the door of my consciousness and demands to be heard is the 26 year old pastor who was sent down to the isolated marshes of Maryland for her first pulpit assignment. Her presence is insistent. Her courage is bewildering. Her optimism is contagious. And her determination demands a response.
She stands over my life and declares – we have not come this far for nothing, we have not learned this much to squander it, we have not survived this much to ever doubt what we can do.
We owe it to Donnie and Buster and Jack and Jim and Bipp and all the men who called me Rev. Bonner; and all the men who tipped their hat; and all the men who caught me oysters fresh from the bay; and believed that I could do anything I set my mind to do. And we owe it to Libby and Debbie and Betsy and Mary Lou and Judy and all the women taught me to be a pastor; and all the women who brought laughter to my life; and all the women who tried to love me hard enough to keep me from ever leaving.
None of us knew at the time that in the years and churches that lay ahead, there would be men who would refuse to call me Pastor, or leave the church altogether because – as I woman – I was THE Pastor. We did not fully understand the pressure that was falling on young clergy, in the world outside our little Chesapeake village; the pressure to “save” the church – the pressure that would soon fall on me – and that I would accept and place on myself. We could never have imagined the toll it would take on me, and the time I would need with God to rejuvenate.
Yet still, of all the me’s that I have been, the one that cries out loudest to me is exactly she – that newly minted pastor who drove alone, at 26 years old, into that isolated community; and stepped alone into the pulpits of St. Peter’s and Somerset; and who despite her diminutive size filled those pulpits with the power of her voice, the strength of her convictions, the consistency of her integrity, and the gentleness of her love. That young woman who rode her bike through the marshes to visit elderly parishioners, all the while throwing her face up at the sun and her arms up in the air, and worshipping in the rushing wind of her solitude the God who had never and would never leave her… alone.
She bangs at the door of my consciousness and demands an answer. And so I open the door. Because she is someone I admire; she is someone who I want to be… and so I am her… and I am also so much more.