A few minutes later, midway up that same hill, the song would change and I'd have to walk, my thighs aching and panting, hard.
I was listening to a song by a Christian artist, the David Crowder Band, called My Beloved.
There's a sun coming up
In my soul, Lord, in my soul
There's a sun coming up
In my soul, Lord, in my soul
I see the light, I see the light
I see the light, I see the light
Oh, thank You, God, I see the light
I used to listen to that song every Sunday morning in California, driving past the canyon on my way to church, the yellow sun rising slowly over the brown mountains, dotted with green in springtime.
I'd turn it up loud and the let the music awaken my soul as I prepared to worship. Yes, the sun was rising; yes, I saw the light; yes, God was here; yes, I was going to be OK.
A week and two days ago, I drove down that same canyon road with my mom in a rental car. We'd planned this California trip months before, using airline miles and my mom's stellar hotel price negotiating skills. We didn't know then that her dad, my grandpa, would die six weeks before our trip; or that we'd spend some of the trip weighing hypotheticals for my brother's wedding four days after we got back: last-minute arrangements don't sit well with either of us.
Initially we'd planned to attend that same church where I'd led a couple of short years before, to have our hearts lifted by that same music and Spirit-filled energy.
Still, time changes things.
I found out a week before our trip that my contract at the church where I worked as teaching pastor would be ending in a few weeks. I had suspected as much; it was designed as a short-term call, and while there had been talk of long-term visions, much of that fell by the wayside when the lead pastor who hired me went on leave and later resigned weeks after I came, and the plans for the church were thrown into upheaval and uncertainty.
I spent much of my time working there alternating between euphoria and fear, in an ever tenuous position that felt loose and fragile, like un-molded Jello on a breakable plate.
I had left California knowing that perhaps I was leaving full-time pastoring behind forever, or at least for many years. I thought, as I had mistakenly for most of my life, that somehow I'd find a way to effortlessly do it all. I'd stay home most of the time with my kids, I'd build my freelance faith writing career, I'd squeeze in a part-time pastor job, knowing all the while that none of these passions and vocations were meant to be part-time.
When I started my church job in February 2018, I had just finished up leading retreats and speaking at conferences. I'd appeared on news programs and podcasts, and I was just beginning a year full of book research to travel across the country for Red State Christians. I was also writing Sunday school curriculum for a local publisher, contributing to magazines and websites, and serving as a TA of sorts for a professor at the local seminary, reviewing dozens of sermons for a preaching course.
In life, often everything comes at once and then everything falls away at once, too, or so it seems. I have always been one who clings tightly to what I can do, loading my arms fuller and fuller until I drop an errant sock on the carpeted stairs, and I bend over to pick it up, and the whole load falls out of my arms, as I bump my head on the stair, dazed and overwhelmed.
Still, I pressed onward. I managed a website and started a newsletter, keeping up with this blog week in and week out. I finished writing Red State Christians in November, pulled my youngest son out of preschool the following week, got deathly ill for about a month, preached Christmas Eve services at our contemporary campus, went up North in subzero weather for a couple of nights, and told my church I could work more hours in the year ahead.
Any empty, unfilled space - I sought to fill immediately, satisfying some imaginary taskmaster who glared at me under rimmed glasses resting on his nose: "Not enough, not enough, it's never enough."
Days later, I got a new contract - with the same number of hours - from church, but I learned there were financial issues I hadn't been aware of there. Things changed. I preached less. My evening Bible Study went on hiatus during Lent. Severe weather canceled activities. I pulled my youngest son out of his second preschool because I had been counting on extra income to make it work financially. My parents, me and my husband filled in the child care gaps. I spent hours convincing other authors, journalists, and church leaders to endorse my book, a labor of love and affirmation but also rejection and sorrow. I always remembered the unanswered emails. I let the non-responses be a repudiation of my personhood. The taskmaster gazed down again: "Not enough, not enough, it's never enough."
Knowing my pastoral job would likely end in May, I pursued other opportunities. I interviewed and met people for coffee; I sent resumes and letters and updated paperwork; I sent pitches and ideas. Most of it went nowhere. Gmail kept nudging me that no one was replying to my emails. Bills mounted.
Every Wednesday morning, when the temperature was above 30 below and the snowy winds weren't blowing, I met a group of formidable ladies for Bible Study. In our hour together, we walked through life and death; through pain and triumph; through shared woes and success. We laughed and cried and ate baked goods and drank coffee. I know now that it is in these spaces where the Gospel lives, unheralded and powerful, like the women who prayed together and ran from the tomb to tell the world that Jesus lived.
In March, the weather warmed and my Grandpa Jerry died. It was he who stayed with me when I was little and my parents went out of town; he who taught me songs from the Lutheran hymnal and called out his geese: Oscar! Roberta! on a dirt-filled pond across from an algae-covered lake in northern Minnesota. His pastoral legacy I would carry, though he'd left the Lutheran church years ago and swore he'd never return. The day after his death, I unearthed the many emails he wrote to me and an ever-expanding circle of friends, family and former parishioners. Once he wrote just to me before my 25th birthday. He reminded me of all the cruel things people say and do, and he said: "You can't take it personally."
Like me, my grandpa did. We are sensitive hearts surrounded by German stalwart, capable and strong outside; melting like an ice cream cone on the inside, emotions streaming through our bloodstream and emanating out of our skin against our will. Still, he wanted to shield me from the pain he felt from telling the truth about the Gospel and the world.
He died a thousand miles away, in Cuthbert, Ga., in pain from pneumonia and congestive heart failure, and the weakening of an athletic body honed by years of hard work. He died rather than go into hospice care, on his own terms, as he lived. I never got to say goodbye, but I had told him in an email that I loved him, which I guess had to be good enough.
Our family traveled to Arizona to see my grandma, his former wife, and her new husband, a brilliant Lutheran theologian. We burned our skin and clung to one another against the stinging cacti. Holy Week and Easter came and went: I preached about Notre Dame burning and Tiger Woods winning and on Good Friday the Holy Spirit prayed through me as we walked with Jesus to the Cross.
The next week I found out my job was ending, officially, in a few weeks. Unsurprising, perhaps, but still stinging. Like many of us, I let myself be partially defined by what I did. Still months away from book launch, unsuccessful in other endeavors, what would it mean to cease to be a pastor, at least officially?
The next day I walked into Bible Study and we studied clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), the imperfect vessels that hold the treasure, the treasure inside our imperfect, tenuous little group as well. In the moment I felt unbearably sad, that this group I'd shepherded would lose its shepherd; that a church once led by a woman pastor would no longer have a woman on its pastoral staff. I felt buckled under the weight of it all, but my sisters and my family held me up. I packed a sequin rose gold bridesmaid dress the following weekend, after being in California, and we drove past my first church in Chicago, en route to Hyde Park and my brother's wedding.
First California, then Chicago: an ill-timed farewell tour would circle back to where I'd begun, Minneapolis, now 34 and officially jobless: rotating irons in the fire but none of them hot enough to spark. I kept writing, kept interviewing, kept filing stories and writing my last two church sermons.
This morning I walked into that Bible Study room again, and I saw that it was full. We prayed.
I wondered, as you often do, the reason for it all. Why should I begin this meaningful study and shepherd this group only for me to leave months after I'd begun? Why was God so powerfully present in this transient, impermanent, flawed space? Why did I try so hard, again and again and again, only to slam up against the rough sand, scratching and scraping my ribs, to be pulled out once more into the rough current of life?
In the midst of it all, the morning of my brother's wedding, I found out that Christian writer and courage-conspirer Rachel Held Evans had died. I'd been following her health journey for a couple of weeks, and I was shocked it was over. I felt so certain that she would be OK, just as I had in following the journey of a fellow young mom and pastor here in Minneapolis who died suddenly several months ago, like Rachel, leaving young children behind.
Grief is a strange thing. I didn't know Rachel; our paths in the Christian writing world often crossed but never at the same time. I'd wanted to interview her for my book, but for whatever reason, it never worked out. I did have friends who knew her well, and I watched them process their grief. I watched as thousands grappled with the loss of such a truth-teller and challenger of the Evangelical old guard. In our social media driven world, sometimes - especially for people with a public profile - even grief feels like a performance, a marketing ploy, a hashtag for clicks. It all just seemed so depressing: children losing their mom, a husband losing his wife, a community losing its voice, millions losing hope.
So Monday, home from Chicago, gearing up for my last week in the church office, my last Sunday sermon at the contemporary site ... I ran.
I ran haltingly and slowly, uneven gait, wobbly, shaking hips.
I ran over the side of the hill and I saw the sun coming up, in my soul, in my soul.
I was ready to write that I could conquer it all again, anyway. That this sun had set and another was rising, in my soul, in my soul. That I could come through it all brandishing my sword-like pen, and I would write and my words would matter.
Then came the rain and the fear and the rejection and the loss.
Wednesday morning I walked into Bible study and the women were all there, again. We prayed. I didn't know why this community had been an aborted adventure, at least for me; I was confident they would carry on.
I was reminded of these words from a martyr known by her initials, RHE: " ... faith isn't about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without having everything figured out ahead of time."
So, Rachel, and all those who speak hope into the void, and all those who continue to hope against hope, all evidence to the contrary: I do not have it figured out ahead of time. Maybe no one will want to read my book. Maybe no one will ever hire me again. Maybe I'll drift into nothingness, my email inbox filled with nudge reminders of messages I'd sent since ignored.
Or maybe I'd walk my son to the bus stop. Maybe we'd pray and commission one another in a little room of a church where I no longer pastored. Maybe I'd write, and having done it would be enough.