No Failing Today

neighborhood flowers, like stars in the dark sky

neighborhood flowers, like stars in the dark sky

I ran up the library stairs, arms full of the papers that I hadn't quite finished reading, and made it to the meeting only a few minutes late, and just in time to remember that I had completely missed an earlier meeting with the guy I see as I enter the room. *Sigh.

This has been my life. Recently I've been tumbling down a list of 100 obligations that I'm late for and stressing about, staying up late and getting up early and still falling behind. You know that feeling?

But once a week, as the sun sets on Friday, I retreat from the press of obligations and the clatter of commerce. In obedience to the command, in imitation of Christ, in sweet relief I stop work for one day.

No chores.
No errands.
No meetings.
No multi-tasking.
No sense of letting people down.
No failing today. 

I'm not what I produce. I'm made, redeemed, re-made, and beloved. This I know for the Sabbath tells me so. 

I'm A Blessed Little Unicorn!

I'm a rarely seen species: a woman in theology who has no sad stories to tell you about being harassed, roadblocked, or discriminated against by others who thought she was stepping beyond her place. I've spent ten years in formal study of theology, but no one has ever made a snide remark about my gender. I've spent three years in professional ministry and never had anyone oppose my work, my preaching, or my spiritual life because I was a woman-pastor or woman-chaplain or woman-evangelist.

I hear the stories of my female colleagues and I wince. They've been teased, told outright to change their majors, marginalized in meetings, scoffed at, refused entrance into educational programs, even ignored in their own parishes. I admire their perseverance in service in the face of such painful and discouraging opposition. But I can't relate. 

This could be in part because I just haven't observed the discrimination. Perhaps decisions were made about me or sneers were sneered at me that I never knew about, and I went on theologizing and ministering in blissful ignorance.

I also need to acknowledge that my own optimism about people expects them to be friendly and reasonable and helpful, and this probably blinds me to some people's cautiousness or perhaps even hostility to me as a woman in ministry. (Actually, I know this has happened. Months after I left the Ministerial Department of Oregon Conference I realized that this one active lay leader kept asking me to make copies because he thought I was an administrative assistant. I thought he was too old to know how to work the copier!)

Honestly, I'm happy to be ignorant in these ways, not seeing when others have some unfounded gripe against me. 

But some of the other reasons that I think I've received such an unusually warm reception in theology and ministry don't sit as well with me. I have a complicated relationship with them. 

I wonder if I've been embraced by the people in my circles because I'm a safe person who doesn't challenge their paradigm. Perhaps I benefit from the system because I don't threaten its parameters.

In my physical appearance I have the advantage of being just "feminine" enough. I'm petite and sprightly, just about the opposite of someone you might picture trying to usurp authority. I've got some hips on me, but my chest is small and people might call me "cute," but never "sexy." (Sexiness is a terrible attribute to have as a Christian woman. Christians have an awful time with women's sexuality.) Also, I'm white. I'm like Tinker Bell, but more modestly dressed. Not at all threatening. 

In my disposition, I have the advantage of being just "masculine" enough. I err on the side of the logical. I'm confident, not cowering. I'm a problem-solver, not a natural empathizer. I, like many women (even a disproportionate number of women) who make it into academic theology, feel more naturally at home with my many guy friends than my few girl friends. Sometimes it can feel that I'm accepted in my guild as an "exceptional" woman, not like those typical, lesser women. 

So I think about myself and wonder how I feel about these advantages, the tiny ribcage and the emotionally quiet mind and all the others. It seems I wouldn't be where I am today without them. Have they blessed me or betrayed my kind? Should I thank them for giving me an advantage or resent them for supporting the system that gives others disadvantages? 

Maybe there's no finding out the "should." Maybe I need just to accept that they did some dirty work for me.



Box My Ears Until My Head Rings

I have a mind that lights up like a deep blue summer field blinking with lightning bugs. A dark but active background with points of light flashing on and off, on and off and on. A constellation, not a comet. 

I don't brood. I'm close to incapable of it. 

I spend my days and nights in academia and I wonder what it would be like if I could just sit and think on one thing for a while, reading the same book for a long time, and free from the currents running upwards in me that tell me to move move move and find something else to do. 

Unless hypnotized by conversation or good writing or a video, I rarely think about the same thing for longer than a minute. Rare is the activity that can mesmerize my firefly field and hypnotize them into a synchronized glow that lasts entire minutes. My mind is normally a deep blue summer field.

Photo by Fernando Gregory Milan/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Fernando Gregory Milan/iStock / Getty Images


An emotion has to really punch me in the gut to distract me from my myriad distractions. A little hurt feelings won't do. I need a big wallop, or a series of serious wallops, to do the job. Someone's gotta box my ears until my head rings or else I'll keep changing the radio station.

This happens occasionally––the big smash to the head, the kidney abuse. Right now I'm in the ring, 7th round. ––A series of blows. An unforeseen interpersonal rift that hurt in a big way and now hurts every day in a little way. A long negotiation to resolve a church issue (getting worse before it gets better). And the first of four big, "comprehensive" exams in my PhD program. 

This first exam is on Thursday and I'm not ready for it. People ask me how the studying is going and I tell them it's a disaster. I'm accused of overstudying (they think that's something I would do), and no assurance from me seems to convince them that I'm in real danger of not passing. It's a little hard to get sympathy when people think you're an overreacting genius.

I'll have to write three essays in three hours on three topics that will be chosen for me out of a list of eighteen; I feel great about maybe 5 of those topics. I've worked for two months researching and writing and now I've got three days left to memorize it all. I'm supposed to prove to a couple of the smartest theologians I know that I know what I'm doing. But I don't know what I'm doing, so it's a hard sell, see? "Without any notes, write an essay real quick on theories of meaning and interpretation and how that intersects with the grammatical-historical method, for evaluation by Kevin Vanhoozer." (Google him and you'll understand why I don't want to do this. He's a great guy and I'm fortunate to have him advising me, but sheesh. Ease up on the genius, Doc. Similar problems of expertise arise with my second reader, Lisa Sung.)

As the deadline nears I've found myself thinking about nothing. The flashing in the field ceases. The meadow is dark. I'm sitting up in bed, looking at nothing and thinking of nothing, and Joshua says, "Kitty, I've never seen you like this before." I tell him: "I've never taken an exam like this before and there's never been so much to lose."

Paddle, Flounder, Swim

I'm two years into this PhD thing and I feel dumber than when I started. 


A few weeks ago I had a spate of book reviews to turn in. I've written dozens of these things in the past, so why was I frozen in front of my computer screen? I was so intimidated by the assignments that I couldn't get started. I crossed out the first 6 attempts to write a single paragraph on a fascinating book that I thoroughly enjoyed. 

White page. Blinking cursor. Hands paralyzed at the keyboard.

I felt too ignorant, too incompetent to write these book reviews. And not just the book reviews: every assignment that's come my way I have received with greater trepidation and reluctance. The longer I spend in this PhD program, the dumber I feel. At the same time that I am gaining expertise I am feeling less expert.

How could that be? —I have learned so much and have been stretched in ways I can't describe even to myself.

Part of the reason is that I'm being exposed to so much good thinking that I realize how shallow, how facile my opinions have been up to this point. This academic experience has shown me how little I know of the world and its operations.

Additionally, since every single thing is controverted by some scholar somewhere, the long hours I've spent in the icy waters of uncertainty have worked to immobilize my ability to be sure of myself.

And, of course, everyone I'm interacting with here seems to be an expert on something. We sit in class or around the cafe and talk deeply about specialized subjects and I see that it has become harder than ever to be conversant and so I find it harder than ever to converse. 

Remember that post from a few years ago when I talked about my insecurities about starting a PhD? Yeah, well, I was totally on point. I'm not diligent enough or smart enough or spiritual enough for this undertaking. (Yet, by the grace of God, here go I.) The lesson still stands: The difficulty of this PhD is a Fatherly invitation to allow Him to pry my fearful fingers out of the grip I have on my own self-sufficiency. –Yes, pry my fingers, Holy Spirit Crowbar-style. 
But one more lesson has been surfacing: 

- The learning is in the struggle. I'm sure 418 really deep and inspiriational books have been written on this; I would read them, but I have too many other books to read. The point is that it is when we are in the margins of our competency that we grow in expertise. You've got to paddle and sink a little bit. Taste the lake. Search for the bottom with your feet and miss it. And then you'll stretch out your arms and swim.  

Paddle, flounder, swim.