Writing is hard

Writing is hard. That’s it; that’s the main secret I have learned in my 20 years as a writing teacher and writing researcher.

Wait, you knew that already? Of course you did. Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

Writing is filled with hard moments. Even the most skilled writers find it difficult. But the best and most prolific writers have something that many others don’t: the hard moments don’t stop them. They know that if they can face the hard moments, the moments will pass—and the bad feelings of those moments, the shame and fear and worry— will pass too. They also have a repertoire of strategies for getting through those hard moments productively: routines for settling down and getting to work, strategies for drafting and revising, and skills for eliciting helpful feedback from others and for processing the feedback they receive.

In school, however, we often pretend writing is easy, or that it should be. “OK, write for ten minutes,” we say, and we expect people simply to begin. Or we hand out prompts, and days or weeks later, we collect pieces of writing. These practices hide the difficulty of writing in ways that writers take personally. When writers struggle, they end up feeling they are doing so alone. They look around, see other students seemingly doing fine, and then they take their own difficulty as a sign that they’re doing it wrong, or worse, that they simply aren’t good writers.

Better to open up the difficulty of writing, to name its hard moments and explicitly teach how to get through those moments.

For example, when asking students to quickwrite, I do so too. As I begin, I speak aloud my feelings and what I am doing about those feelings. “Starting can be hard; I always worry my ideas will be stupid. But usually if I can just begin with something, even something stupid, I’ll get through it and it comes out OK,” I explain. And then I write with the class, in my own notebook or on the overhead screen, thinking aloud as I do it: “I’m not sure where to start,” I’ll say, “so first I’m just listing a couple of

words that come to mind… oh, ok, I like this one. Now I’m just going to write down what comes to my mind.”

Or when sending students off to write at home, I preview some of the hard moments that might come. “Here’s what I do when I find I’m procrastinating.” “Here’s what I do when I’m stuck on the first sentence.” “Here’s what I do when I find I keep switching over to Facebook when I should be writing.” “Here’s what I do when my sentences seem aimless.”

(And the main thing I do, in all of those hard moments: Take a deep breath. Write a little anyway. Cut myself some slack.)

Once we acknowledge that writing is hard, we can do something about it. We can tell ourselves helpful things, encourage ourselves to go on trying. If writing is hard for you at moments, you’re doing it right, not wrong.

“Yes, are you finding this difficult?” I ask. “ Oh good! You’re doing it right. It’s not hard because you’re stupid, or not a good writer, or in the wrong class—it’s hard because it’s hard.” Just this reassurance is often enough to get writers going. Bodies relax, shoulders descend, and jaws unclench. A few quick smiles silently say Yes, that is what I was thinking.

Our society tends to deny negative emotions, and I’m no different. As I circulate through my classroom during writing time, I sometimes catch myself turning away from a student who is struggling, as if to give him/her some privacy. I don’t want to embarrass a writer by calling attention to the problem, and so I walk by, thinking I’ll return in a moment after he’s had a chance to get started or after I see she at least has a few words down.

But on a good day, I can do better. Different hard moments call for different responses, but I am convinced that encountering another human being in a hard moment demands at least some response, even if it’s simply to stand beside the one who is struggling.

Sometimes I offer a strategy: like when the words simply do not come, and I feel stuck at a blank page, I roll my chair away form the desk, face another direction, and tell it to the wall. Literally. I talk to the wall. Or when the critical voices in my head get too loud, and I can’t write without hearing them judging every line, I sometimes start a new document and begin as if it’s a letter. Dear (name), I begin, writing to someone who will love anything I do, warts and all. Later I can change it back to the real audience. These strategies may not be groundbreaking, but to students they often feel as if they are: the teacher is recognizing and responding to the feelings of writing. Simply acknowledging that there are feelings, and that they are normal, is often enough.

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On making time to pray like I make time to write (when there isn’t any)

It’s in the courses I teach, in the workshops I lead, in my advising of grad students, in the writing groups I facilitate or those in which I just get to participate: set aside time for writing.

“But I can’t get started.” Well, have you started? As in, opened a document and typed some words– any words into it?

“But my ideas aren’t ready.” Writing helps ready them.

“But I worry how readers will react to my writing.” Well, they’ll never react at all until you write something at all.

“But I don’t have enough time.” It’s true. You don’t.

We don’t have enough time to do every single thing we want to do, should do, mean to do. We don’t. Usually in life I try to focus on abundance. Most things we think are scarce really aren’t– there’s enough success to go around. There’s enough love to go around. There’s even usually enough money to go around, if we can work on what we mean by “enough.” But truly, there’s not enough time. Not for everything.

When I turned 35, I cried and cried. Not because I felt particularly old– at 35 I was happier than I’d ever been before, and it’s gotten better from there– but because I really was too old, objectively, for certain things. I heard that 35 was the max age to enter astronaut training. This made me sob (though I’ve since read here that it isn’t true). That door was closed! Also, I was not going to become Olympic material in any sport. Yes, I know, there are (and were) Olympians over 35, or over my age now of 43, but let’s face it: nobody starts a sport at 35 or 43 and gets Olympic good at it. And I haven’t even been getting to the gym! Time passes, and it’s one resource that does run out. So, the notion of “making time” for writing or anything else only gets you so far. We’re in these bodies, and limited in space in time.

Which is why I tell writers: make an appointment. Write down when you’ll be writing. Write it in your calendar like an appointment, and label it “writing appointment.” And then take the appointment as seriously as you take one with the dentist– you show up! They’ll charge you if you don’t!

“But I have to…[prep my courses, do grading, clean my house, catch up on email]” Ok. Do those sometime that isn’t on top of this appointment. Take yourself and your own time and goals as seriously as you take your dentist’s.pexels-photo-273166

I love how Melissa Febos puts the question in this essay: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses? Do the things that are important to you, including answering email if that is. But keep appointments with yourself for what’s also important to you but less urgent.

All of this is to say that I ought to know how to make time for things that I deem important. I have been making time– ok, more accurately, dedicating some of the limited time I have– for writing for these eleven years, having babies and doing laundry and all the rest while writing. I’m good at this!

Which is why I struggle so much with prayer time.

I’m forever setting new plans as to when I will pray, how much, or in what manner. Sometimes it’s about better quality or different quality, but it’s always also about simply putting in the time. I do put it in, with some regularity, but things creep in to block it. And of course I pray other times, when the mood hits or over meals or in moments through the day. But I won’t lie to myself: consistent, intentional time in some quantity really does matter. As my own pastor has reminded me many times, if I want to know a person better, or love them more, I spend more time with them. The knowing and loving grows from that shared time. So, if I want to know God better, or love God better, why would I expect that to happen without spending time with God?

I’ve used some tools along the way that have increased my prayer time, making it more like an appointment. One I love is the Common Prayer app. For a while I thought I would follow the Muslim prayer times, which would combine set-time prayer with the variability of following the season/sun as they do (I never got around to that one- yet). My Muslim students use apps for this. This Examen app is good too.

But it’s not about an app, is it? It’s about me doing it.

This Lent my intentional practice has been adding prayer time. My scheme was to pray upon arrival in my office, the only quiet place I go with a door that shuts. (Seriously. I have two kids. There is NO OTHER PLACE.) I set down my bags, lay my computer on my desk, but before I open it, I set my phone alarm for 20 minutes. I close my eyes and spend that time in quiet prayer.  (Yes, sometimes I peek at the phone to see how much time is left. I am a work in progress.)

Then I eat two pieces of chocolate. I do this because I read in The Power of Habit  that rewards– immediate, sensory rewards– work well to initiate new habits even when the reason for setting the habit (knowing God, better health, etc.) is intrinsic and well known. Basically, I’m trying to train myself like a dog.

(At least that’s why I eat one piece of chocolate. Also, I like the idea of me and Jesus, hanging out in my office, eating chocolate at 9 in the morning. And, since he’s not hungry, at least in the bodily sense, I eat his piece too.)

It’s working, sort of. But sometimes not. Sometimes I run into someone in the hall on the way in, then walk in my office already working in my head on whatever we spoke about. Sometimes I run late with my kids in the morning, arrive at the office later in the day, and the next meeting is starting.

Sometimes I just don’t do it. I skip the appointment. So here I am saying, can I take God’s time (and my own one life God gave me) as seriously as I take a dentist’s appointment?

Melissa Febos asks, “Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?” I’m asking myself, “Do I want to be known (to God) for my love and my time– or for all the crap I got done in the office?”

On showing up: Advice to preacher-writers

News flash: preaching involves writing.

I study writing, and I have studied the writing that preachers do, and I am here to tell you: writing is a huge part of preaching. And writing is really, really difficult.

The most difficult thing about writing isn’t always anything in the writing, it’s actually just doing the writing at all. Forcing yourself to do it.  If you don’t believe me, go visit any dissertating doctoral student’s apartment and witness the piles of clean laundry, the baking, and the art projects.  Anything other than writing. Or, for a certain group of pastors, visit on Friday morning and see a house that’s been cleaned, an office that’s been organized, a well-weeded garden— and an open laptop somewhere with Facebook open instead of a sermon.

Most books about preaching focus more on the content of sermons than on how they’re made. Three-point, law-and-gospel, topical– ok, but how to get from the empty page to one of those? What writing processes? What practices— not just reading practices, but writing practices– lead you there?

Which is why someone might pick up a book like 8 Hours or Less: Writing Better Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley (Moody, coming out in May 2017). It’s a prescription about workflow: do this on Monday, do this on Tuesday. If you like direction, you’ll understand why this book could be attractive.

Here’s what Huguley misses, though: the reason why writing is so hard is that it requires honesty and attention in the moment of invention. And that is a moment requiring so much bravery that many of us would rather do anything (even weed a garden!) rather than face it.

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Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

In preaching, it’s hearing in the Gospel story the story of some situation with some parishioner, but not feeling you can speak to that too directly. It’s feeling the week’s text resonate with some aspect of your own life, but feeling (or, in some cases, knowing) that the congregation isn’t ready for that story right now, or that you’re not ready to tell it. Or it’s being tired, so tired, and discouraged, and not feeling the joy in preparing to preach that you used to feel. And it’s feeling guilty about that. None of that is conducive to writing fluently, or well.

Huguley’s book touches none of that. It just gives orders, assigning writing tasks to its reader on a schedule. An eight-hour schedule. Scheduling is really important, but for this advice to be helpful it has to speak to why the reader hasn’t taken the advice already.

So, here are some alternative resources, resources that point to the real difficulty in writing for preaching: this powerful list of Resources on Preaching for Women from the Junia Project, which includes more attention to craft than I’m used to seeing. No easy answers there.

And there’s the set of ideas that comes from seeing yourself as a writer, and then attending to doing the things writers do.  Is there one right way? No. These astoundingly interesting portraits of writers’ processes at Brainpickings show how there is not.

But they do show one thing that all writers know and must do. And it is the one thing that all the pastors in my study of writing for preaching must do, too– at least, if they want a day off before Sunday rolls back around, as it inevitably does.

It’s showing up.

Just showing up for the writing. Like you show up for a dentist appointment even though you don’t really “feel in the mood” to have metal pokers jabbing into your teeth. Like you show up to pick up your kids even though you were in the middle of something when it was time to go. You have to show up.  We can talk all day long about what to do once you’ve started writing, but the real truth is that most of us are saying we have writing problems when our real problem is that we didn’t even show up.  Didn’t sit at the desk, didn’t open the document, didn’t start typing.

recite-1otdi31Preachers, can you show up for writing sermons the way you hope parishioners will show up to hear them? You hope they’ll show up on time. You hope they’ll show up even when they’re not really in the mood. You hope they’ll show up even if they’re tired, and even if their laundry’s not done. You hope they’ll show up with open hearts, with ears that hear and minds that consider. You hope they’ll show up like this because you know that there’s something just for them in the Gospel, no matter how bad your sermon turns out.

Can you show up for your preaching in the same way?  Come on time, be awake, ignore the laundry, forget whether you’re in the mood. Just show up and start writing. There is something in the Gospel for you.  If you show up.

Writing about yourself: When work and faith collide

For a writing scholar and teacher, for a person who more than once a week sits on the carpet writing alongside children, for a person who teaches adults to journal and grad students how to own their knowledge, for a person with a blog (!)…. I have a hard time writing about myself. A really hard time.

I’d rather write a technical manual for an appliance nobody uses. I’d rather write a note of apology for something I’m not that sorry about. I’d rather write a list of household chores. And then do the chores.

The great Anne Lamott gives this advice for writing about people in your life: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. Just change their height and hair color. No one ever once has recognized him or herself in my fiction. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” And she’s right. But what about when the person is me?

I spend most of my writing life in the academic arena, where I am a professor of education at a research university. We academics are famous for writing stuff nobody will ever read, or at least that’s how we self-loathingly joke about it. But people do read my academic writing. Smart people. People I respect. People I know, and people I don’t know (I’m not sure which of those scares me more).

My academic writing has been explicitly about me a few times– I’ve written about my own childhood school experiences, and experiences as a parent. I’ve written much more than that about my teaching. And even the stuff that never says “I” is about me in that it’s the material I spend time with, reflect on, pour energy into, and care about.

But still, a couple of years ago I started researching about writing in the context of religion. And from there, it wasn’t long until I was sitting in research interviews that sometimes included as many questions for me as they did for my participants. And from there, it wasn’t long until yesterday, when I took deep breaths and hit “send” on a manuscript for an academic journal with stories in it about my own beliefs and my own prayer life. I hit “send,” but my heart still pounds a bit when I think about it. It feels transgressive, like I’m doing the one thing an academic must never do, even though the truth is that I go to a church that is absolutely packed with academics, and we’re doing just fine.

Which is why my heart soared to see this tweet from Krista Tippet today:

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According to this, I’m not an overly insecure basket case (much); I’m just like Krista Tippet! And she’s right, it’s vulnerable-making. And she’s right, that is good for me. And collisions produce a lot of energy.

(And, when the article comes out, I’ll share it with you.)

This artist concept illustrates how a massive collision of objects, perhaps as large as the planet Pluto, smashed together to create the dust ring around the nearby star Vega. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope indicate the collision too

Know your (women) theologians

I can’t say enough good things about this list of important women theologians over on Englewood Review of Books. Some I was familiar with, and others were new to me. All are examples of women writing about God, in a diverse array of perspectives.

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What a theologian looks like, in my head

And can I just say, the word theologian hasn’t really kept a lot of currency in the secular world?  I have always taken it to mean something like “scholar of God,” and I’m not wrong. For the most part, theologians are scholars of God– members of the academic field of theology. As a scholar myself, I value that sense of the word. But, as I spend more time with this word I’m learning more of its nuances too.

Like “public theologian.” My favorite elaboration of this idea is at (my favorite podcast/ radio program) On Being, where the great Krista Tippet interviews people of faith (and just people of ideas that link somehow to faith!). My sense of the term “public theology” is something like “bringing divine matters to bear on matters of the world, for the good of the world.”  As On Being’s “Public Theology Reimagined” project articulates:

“Public theology is about the virtues that accompany the work of theology, not just the ideas. It means connecting grand religious ideas with messy human reality. It means articulating religious and spiritual points of view to challenge and deepen thinking on every side of every important question.”

In my own work as a scholar of writing, one important theme across much of my research (and not only mine) has been that we write better when we have a strong sense of “Writer identity”– that is, when think we are writers. So, how do people come to see themselves as writers?  It has three components. One component is actually writing. You can’t be a writer without writing any more than you can be a swimmer without ever getting in the pool. Another component is reflecting on what you do when writing– that is, remembering and describing writing experiences (to others and/or to yourself) so that you have intentionality and self-consciousness enough to draw deliberately on your writing experiences moving forward. (This reflection component is the focus of the next book!)

And finally, the third component is having a definition of the word “writer” that can conceivably include you. If “swimmer” is defined as people who have won Olympic swimming medals, it’s a small, elite group. If it includes all who swim on a regular basis, many more of us get to call ourselves swimmers– and seeing ourselves as swimmers increases our odds of getting to the pool a few times a week. It’s the same with writing: if you limit the definition of “writer”to only those people who have published books, then you leave out a lot of people. You leave out almost all children, for instance– yet sense of identity as a writer is known to be helpful for learning to write in childhood or adulthood. But if you can come to think of “writer” as someone who writes daily, or as someone who revises, or who shares writing with an audience, then there’s a lot more room for learners in there.

This gets us back to theologians. Who is a theologian? Scholars of God? Or those who think and write about God, with a broader public in mind?  If the latter, there’s room for me in there. And for you! I find that news encouraging. And it makes it somewhat less crazy to think that I might broaden my writing life from matters of education to matters of God.

One notebook

My days and years have been peppered with notebooks. In my work as a professor of education, I use notebooks to make notes on things I read, to plan texts I am writing, or note things to remember from meetings. As my work puts me in contact with teachers and kids, there are more notebooks: writer’s notebooks in which both teachers and students gather ideas, collect starts and scraps of someday-to-be-written stories, make messy drafts, reflect on moments and decisions inside and outside of school. For each course I have taught, I’d start a new notebook along with the class. Another notebook came with a new research project. Another I used for Bible study, or for the prayer journaling I always seemed not to get around to.  Another notebook held craft ideas, grocery lists, and meal plans.

I stand by this practice of notebook-keeping. It’s well grounded in the research on writing instruction and therapeutic writing. Yet I’m a busy professor and mom, running between local schools, my office, home, church, and the kids’ activities with a laptop in a backpack. Grabbing things as I hurried out one door or another, I never had the notebook I needed when I needed it. And some ideas seemed to belong in more than one notebook, or none of them. This would cause me either to freeze and write nothing, or to start a new notebook for the new project. All of these notebooks (and phone reminders, and Google Docs, and scraps of paper) would then pile up. These notebooks were as scattered and fragmented as my activities, often connected in my mind but never in the artifacts themselves.

Early in 2015, I decided simply to use one notebook. My then-seven-year-old daughter had decorated notebooks, for Christmas presents for her friends. They were composition books covered in fabric decoupage, each one unique and a bit messy. She kept asking me when I would use mine. Pushed by her eagerness to see her gift in use, I did so. (And don’t the givers of gifts like to see the gifts in use?) The rest of my notebooks I left in a pile in my office; this ONE notebook I began to keep in my bag everywhere. It went to church, it went to the pool, it went into classes and meetings, it went to the couch by the fire.

This one notebook changed everything. First of all, I usually have it with me, as I never could with so many. Second, probably because I have it with me, I use it. I jot in it all the time—and not just about whatever I am working on at that moment, but about all those other ideas that come and go—they are jotted in, not lost. Third, my work with teachers and students around notebooks as a tool for daily working and thinking is much more authentic. But most importantly, in my notebook I am all in one place. Christian, professor, mother, writer—I am all of these in the pages of the notebook. There’s no thinking about what project something fits into or what category an idea should match. In the one notebook, ideas from all arenas of my life are in direct contact. Things a teacher says in a professional development workshop are right there next to notes I made in a Sunday school class I teach, and there are frequent points of convergence. A friend recommends a good book over dinner, and a few days later a colleague will mention some topic of the book and I can flip back and name it. Granted, there’s also some risk in this: frequently now I’m in a professional meeting, flipping through my notebook for something from the last meeting, and there I flip right past a list of Bible verses, or some private thoughts. Yet this risk of transparency has its rewards, as when a doctoral student notices my meal plan for the coming week in the notebook, and it opens up a raw, necessary conversation about working as both a professor and a parent. This transparency to others extends to making me more transparent to myself: arranged chronologically instead of divided thematically, the themes braid themselves in ways I can easily discern. I note more readily the points of convergence between explorations in one area and another.

All of this is to say, my one notebook reminds me that I am one complicated, diverse person, and that’s how it should be. So many people live as Parker Palmer describes in A Hidden Wholeness (2009), locking aspects of oneself off from one another. The result is a kind of “divided life” in which we operate more or less competently in our various areas, but move between the areas without continuity or integrity. This leaves us feeling inauthentic much of the time. Meanwhile, Jesus is about restoring people to wholeness. God gives us multiple gifts; it seems to me that we must make God happy when we allow those various gifts to work together. My one notebook reflects the integrity across my various gifts and arenas. I think this is how God wants me to be—extending my ministry to all the places I go, as professor, mom, friend, and perhaps pastor. I’m moving forward with candidacy in that spirit of wholeness.

Cynthia Lindner’s Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Pastoral Life (2016) argues that ministry today is best served by pastors living in multiplicity. Through qualitative interviews  (the same approach I use in much of my own research), she found that diverse skills, ways of being, areas of giftedness, and passions converge in the person of the pastor in ways that defy constriction. Ultimately Linder concludes:

these multiple-minded clergy were not only creating new forms, practices and ways to be the church: they were also speaking fresh trust about God’s own multiplicity… When pastors acknowledge their own fullness, and when they bring that fullness to the work of loving and tending God’s creation, they are often more able to recognize and to name experiences of God’s abundance, God’s multiplicity, in their lives and ministries…Making a full account of our selves and the faith that is within us—recognizing our own complexity and the fullness of our Creator—has the potential to transform our theological nearsightedness, offering new ways to understand and experience the movement of God in our world. (Lindner, 2016, p. 146)

The metaphor of my “one notebook” speaks to this truth. It is not that that the notebook, or my life, distills neatly into any one role. Far from it: I still engage in different kinds of conversations, do different kinds of thinking, and carry on different kinds of relationships in the diverse areas of my life, ranging from academia to church to music to family. But my calling, I find, is not to stop doing one set of things in order to do another. Instead, my calling is to enrich and extend the ministry in which I am now engaged—doing my current work better, and opening possibilities for God to do new and different things with my gifts.  What those things may be remains to be seen.

Currently, I serve as a professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University, where I have worked since 2006. My daily activities include mentoring doctoral students in education, teaching courses for future teachers focused on writing and language arts instruction, and, most centrally, conducting qualitative research focusing on writing education. Writing is a site of struggle and opportunity, a powerful tool that is also difficult to master. My research has pursued clearer understandings of what writing can do for people, how people use writing in their lives and work, what makes writing difficult, and how to help writers work through that difficulty.

The work for which I am best known is my research on the “teacher-writer.” This has included several empirical studies, a number of articles, and a recent book on the professional writing activities in which teachers engage and the connections between that writing and their work with students. Studying teacher-writers has also led me, in turn, to a broader set of studies (and publications) focusing on teacher professional development experiences where writing plays a significant role, particularly those which teachers themselves initiate and/or invest in and which are meaningful to participants.  Writing offers an entry point to questions about authority, experience, and identity in the initial and ongoing development of teachers, and my scholarship has helped in some small way to amplify the voices of teachers and help them make better use of writing as a tool for professional and personal growth as well as advocacy. I have also spent time researching how writing works in K-12 and college classrooms, not only as a subject to be taught in itself but as a learning tool for all kinds of aims. For example, I am working now with a pair of elementary school teachers to investigate how we can better teach young children to reflect on what they do as writers and to develop strong identities as writers, something we know is associated with success in literacy through the school years. In connection with my research, I lead a writing group for local teachers, convene large groups of teacher-writers at national conferences, lead staff development workshops for groups of teachers, train teachers to be advocates for the ways of teaching that they know to be right, and visit classrooms to coach teachers at their invitation.

I now consider this work to be a ministry to teachers. It puts me in rooms with groups of teachers struggling to find voice, to enact resistance to policies that hinder their work, or to engage in sustained, meaningful problem-solving for the sake of their students. It put me across tables from adults changing careers, young adults embarking on careers, people struggling to meet the literacy demands of their situations or struggling to discern next steps in professional or personal life. Of course I bring expertise to this work, but I also bring love to it. It feels like ministry, to use my gifts in service of the needs of another, whether a teacher, a student, or a writer outside of school.

And indeed, I have also studied and taught about writing outside of school. Writing is generally thought of as important and powerful, both for economic success as in employment and in personal success as in its therapeutic, spiritual, and reflective capacities. In recent years I have undertaken two research projects with this focus that have proven especially important for my pathway to ministry.

First, on a sabbatical in 2014, I studied the writing practices of Christian pastors, for example in prayer and in preaching (articles now under review at Qualitative Inquiry and Journal of Religious Leadership). The study involved interviews both with an entire conference of ELCA pastors and with about 15 non-ELCA pastors from a wide spectrum of denominations and theological stances. The effect of spending 90 minutes in deep conversation with each of about 40 pastors was (maybe predictably) transformative. The interviews were both fascinating from an intellectual perspective and nourishing from a spiritual one.  Even with those pastors most different from myself, I had a lot in common. I found both that I wanted to know what they know and do what they do AND that I perhaps have something to offer them via my research. Pastors are writing, all the time, but they don’t always do it with the support they need or awareness of diverse writing practices that may help them through various ministry situations. Around this same time, I taught an adult Sunday school series on the uses of writing in spiritual practice, mainly Bible study and prayer. This class was as instructive to me as it was to the people who came to learn. It began to seem possible that my research on writing might be a ministry not only to the teachers and students with whom I have worked in the past, but also to pastors, or to the people of the church.

Second, to better understand the difficulty that so many people have with writing, I have been studying the emotion of shame and the related concept of shame resilience. Writing triggers shame for many people, and better understanding how shame about writing might be overcome has application for writers both inside and outside of school. Shame, as defined in the work of current researchers (Brown, 2006; Browne, 2013; Dearing & Tangney, 2011; Tangney, Boone, & Dearing, 2005; Tangney & Dearing, 2002), is a deep sense of unworthiness, that due to one’s shortcomings or wrong actions one has not only done bad but simply is bad. In the domain of writing, we see this when a writer is afraid to show anyone a draft because criticism of the work will be taken as criticism of the writer. People freeze up as writers, fearing exposure as inadequate if their writing is responded to negatively. Research shows that shame can be reduced both through compassionate responses from others and, probably most importantly, through self-compassion. In my professional activities, I make use of this knowledge by working to create a self-compassion curriculum for use in writing instruction: when we can help people move through shame to a basic sense of worthiness in spite of failures, then they become more willing to take chances with writing in the classroom and can make better use of feedback on their writing. They don’t have to defend themselves against it as a threat to their basic sense of self. I’m excited about the potential this has to transform writing instruction. But this line of research has also affected me more deeply, and I find the explanations available in the research literature fall short of my own sense of what makes a person worthy and what might become of our failures. They talk about self-compassion, but I talk about the grace of God and how that in turn changes how we see ourselves.

To me, the question of the identity and worth of a human being, and of how a human being shall go on after failure or wrongdoing, points immediately to my heart of faith in Jesus Christ, who through grace restores us to whole connection with God even while we sin. We sin. We fall short in just about every way, just about every time. We do this whether we try to avoid it or whether we just give up and stop trying. We hurt the people we love. We fail to use our gifts to their potential. We repeat bad patterns. We sin. Yet God sees us with eyes of love. God can separate the sin in us from the basic identity that we have in God as a beloved child. God can separate what we are doing from what we are created to be, viewing us with love and fullest acceptance even while viewing the sin as unacceptable. And through Jesus’ work on the cross, we are restored again and again to that potential. God’s acceptance of us even with our sin is as fundamental as God’s rejection of the sin itself. In other words, God’s compassion for us is total. It is as total as one who has experienced fully what we experience, as God has done in the incarnated person of Jesus. God sees us with graceful eyes.

Perhaps my life is especially full of achievement-oriented strivers, but on a daily basis, in scenario after scenario, it has become obvious to me that too many people around me have no basis for their identities other than the views of others. So for example, in a single week I recently heard a fellow scholar say, after a refreshing and successful time at a conference, “it reminded me of my worth.” I heard TWO untenured professors say “I don’t know if I’m good enough,” speaking in reference to their records of published work but in a way that also extended to themselves as people. The next day, I heard another colleague say “I don’t know who I am without this,” in reference to a threatened research project.  I’ve had these same feelings so many times in my own life, this sense that when I do well, I am good—and thus when I do bad, I am bad. In fact, right now, I am going up for a promotion to the rank of “full professor,” in which an intimidating panel of peers evaluate all my writing and research and reputation up to this point and make a high-stakes decision about it. It’s the kind of thing that used to provoke all the same feelings in me as the colleagues I described above are feeling.

As a Christian, however, I have an identity that has nothing to do with any of that.  Work, not work, be good at things, be awful at them— none of that determines whether I am loved or lovable. I want to do good work, of course, and I strive. And boy, do I sin. But my value as a living creature is not at stake.  God made me, so I matter to God at least. Jesus died for me as for all, and in that act Jesus quite literally restores me to wholeness, again and again and all the time. My identity as a whole is not at stake in any thing I ever do. I am a loved child of God, with or without my research, or teaching, or success, or other people, or failure, or shortcoming.

This is not how I was raised. Thus it has taken me a long time to open to this radical love of Jesus. But I have been blessed to hear the news preached: in our baptism we are claimed with an identity as a loved child of God. That identity both overrides and informs anything else we might do or be.  I have heard this more and more clearly in the past ten years as a member of my current congregation, where both of our pastors not only bear witness to it in their daily ministry, they come right out and say it, Sunday after Sunday, plainly and directly. With eye contact. They use the specific words “identity” and “claimed.”  And in those words, I finally have heard the freeing gospel of it.  Stirred by the Holy Spirit, the words “Jesus loves you” have grown in meaning in my life, from a vague platitude I liked in an abstract kind of way to a tangible core identity that I can build on.  This took “Jesus died for you” out of the afterlife and into right now.

So many times now, as I encounter these people who are in so much pain from self-evaluation, from constant comparison, from wondering who they are and constantly trying to prove themselves, I just feel grateful. That used to be me, and I’m so grateful to be free of it, at least on good days. I don’t have to keep trying to be somebody. I’m already God’s somebody.

This conviction, and its increasing direct connections to my life as a researcher and teacher—what I have been calling “my ministry to teachers and writers”—is what moves me to now to pursue candidacy. Having finally heard the gospel message in a way my broken heart could hear, I find I want to share that with others. I am not sure what God will do with me as a candidate, but it seems clear that I am to at least respond to what I have been shown.

I’m either the most likely or least likely candidate for ministry ever.  I’ve heard both external and internal calls to God’s ministry since I was a child. I was raised with no religion until I accompanied a friend to camp at the age of ten. While the friend’s family was Methodist and not terribly devout, the camp was Lutheran (Camp Lone Star in LaGrange, Texas). My experience at camp was transformative, both in the message I heard there and in the opportunities that surrounded that message. First the Gospel message: I was loved. I could and would be made new through Jesus’s love, was being made new, toward what God wanted me and made me to be. The world, too, was loved, was being and would be restored through Jesus to what God wanted it to be. This struck my heart like a gong, considering my own experiences of a family that felt rather loveless and a wider world that seemed to me a place of blistering injustice. Then the opportunities surrounding that gospel message: Opportunities to think and talk with others about what life was really about. Opportunities to take a turn collaboratively planning and leading evening worship, Bible Study, or devotions for other groups of campers. Opportunities to form friendships based not on popularity or status within the world of school, but based on more important things, like mutual respect and regard. Opportunities to belong—and belong to a community that better resembled God’s family than any other one I had ever been a part of. The people of that camp welcomed me back again and again each year until I was a senior in high school. They welcomed me warmly; each summer they seemed to know me and remember me even after a year had passed. And they welcomed me gracefully: they welcomed me when, as an older teen, I broke rules, was caught smoking, carried on with boys. It was a world in which Jesus first became visible to me in a community, and I wanted to live in a world like that forever.

After camp, I went home and asked to be taken to church. Since it was Lutheran camp, I went to the Houston phone book and found the nearest Lutheran church (Kinsmen Lutheran of Houston, TX), and that’s where I asked to go without any understanding of the differences between denominations. This made me the only teen convert that congregation’s confirmation class had seen, I think, in a church full of lifelong Lutherans with German and Norwegian last names. I jumped in where the other kids were, halfway through confirmation, and no one seemed to mind that I wasn’t baptized, or went up for communion without instruction. I mentioned I might want to be a pastor and was rewarded with encouragement without pressure. Pastors Paul Blom and Jon Andersen steered me right into all kinds of service and even leadership: cantor, lector, soloist, singer in adult choirs, helper with VBS, dishwasher, car washer, and representative at the synod youth gathering and other regional youth conferences. I thrived. My parents did agree to have my sister and me baptized, and I was confirmed when the time came, but other than that they stuck with dropping me off and picking me up from the parking lot. I, on the other hand, was hooked.

I knew the ELCA had women pastors, but I had never met one. In the world I was inhabiting in suburban Houston, in which Southern Baptists were the most visible Christians I knew and people like James Dobson and Marlin Maddoux were on the radio, it seemed impossible. Meanwhile, as my teen years progressed, every decision I made and problem I had (depression, drinking, drugs, sex) seemed to carry me further from the church and certainly from the possibility of ministry. Clearly I was no public Christian, seeing how I hated most everything I heard Christians saying in public and how much they would surely hate everything I was doing in private. I was too depressed, too divergent, too critical, or too impatient to be a pastor, I thought. By college I had let the idea go, and through my late teens and early twenties I was a rather vague believer in God and a fan of Jesus in theory, but unsure about Jesus’ divinity and even more unsure about Christians.

Later, as a young adult, I wandered back. By the time I finished college and became a high school teacher, I found a church anywhere I moved. In each parish, I was encouraged by the pastor to consider ministry, most strongly by Pr. Larry Spielman, then of Grace Lutheran Church of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Fr. Norm Freeman, then of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Parish in Goleta, California, from writing a Sunday school curriculum to packing at a food pantry to singing. My faith throughout those years alternated between a kind of metaphorical commitment to the idea of belief when I couldn’t seem to actually do it, to a sense that I simply felt better when I went to church, choosing to remain vague about the troubling details like a God who would flood the earth and kill its inhabitants, or a baby God planting himself in a human uterus, or a corpse rising from the dead.  Through it all, I simply chose to show up at church, and when I showed up, pastors like Father Norm and Pastor Larry found things for me to do. So I did them, and my life was better for it.

In my current church home of Grace Lutheran Church in State College, PA, I have received the same warm welcome and witness that I first found at Camp Lone Star in the sixth grade. There I have also received the same kinds of opportunities to serve as I first found at Kinsmen in middle and high school. Currently at Grace, I co-teach a discussion-based adult Sunday School class, blending Bible study and Christian daily practice. I’ve served as a lay worship leader, especially over the past year when our large parish has been down to one or two pastors from the usual three. I served on a call committee for a pastor and serve now mutual ministry. I work on college student ministry and co-led a women’s retreat. I cantor and sing. I preach the children’s sermon and have taught preschool Sunday school. These are nice examples of leadership, but to me they leave out some of the most important things I do in the parish: I come and eat dinner. I go Christmas caroling on a big, noisy bus.  I attend Bible Study. I bring my kids to choir and help my daughter reach in the closet for the shortest acolyte robe. I giggle as my husband and kids tell jokes into a crackly microphone on Shrove Tuesday. I let members of this congregation teach my daughter how to sew and my son how to get extra cookies at coffee hour. I serve this congregation where I can, but truth be told one of the hardest things I’ve done here is to let the people of this congregation love on my kids and on me. Allowing a community of believers to surround and support me in the image of Jesus’ embracing love has transformed my life and my sense of how I might live it.

My pastor, Steve Lynn, tells us at least every week or so in good Lutheran fashion, that salvation comes from Jesus Christ by grace through faith, and thus our desire for good works is simply our response to receiving such a gift of love. This is how I’m feeling about the gifts for ministry that God seems to have given to me: in gratitude for God’s grace, and in gratitude for the specific gifts and abilities that I’ve been given, I find myself responding with openness to use them. As Pastor Lynn rightly put it, I’m simply allowing my gift package to be open for God to use.  I think God wants this, just like my daughter Emily wanted to see me using the gift she had given me. Like the notebooks Emily decoupaged, I’m unique and a bit messy, but I think God also wants me fully using what I have been given. I’m first “opening the gift package” by making this application to enter candidacy and enrolling at Gettysburg (soon to be United) Seminary on a very part-time basis, beginning with a single class starting in February 2017. I’m also intentionally allowing my academic research to touch the church more and more, extending my previous study of the writing lives of pastors as well as writing about other aspects of literacy experiences in connection to the church. I will remain in my current role as professor as long as that continues to feel right, while pursuing seminary part-time. I do become eligible for a paid sabbatical from Penn State again in 2020, so that might provide a natural decision point and/or an opportunity to do an extended field experience, though it’s obviously too soon to tell. Meanwhile, I continue to be an active lay leader at Grace in State College, mindfully taking up opportunities to learn in that context. Over time, I trust that God will light the path to future steps as need be.

Thus, it is with both extreme willingness and humble uncertainty that I open the door to candidacy for ministry in the ELCA. My willingness comes from my love for God and God’s people and my desire to be of service to both in the fullest and most appropriate ways possible given my gifts and the church’s needs. My uncertainty is not doubt, not reservations, but true not-knowing what the outcome will be in practical terms. In the near term, I will go on in my current professional role as professor of education at Penn State, sometimes bringing my scholarly interests in writing and education (which I have pursued over the past 15 years) to bear on questions of Christian life and practice, such as how writing works as a tool in spiritual life. Further on, will I serve as a scholar for the church in some way, either as a researcher studying pastoral ministry (as I have begun to do in recent years) or as a scholar in education, maybe staying at Penn State but maybe also serving either the churchwide organization or filling some academic role in a seminary? Or will I ultimately serve in a parish, or in some other pastoral role yet unforeseen? My discernment process to this point has helped me to feel very good about not knowing while simultaneously confirming my sense of call to ministry of Word and Sacrament—in whatever form God chooses to direct me over time.

References

Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87, 43–52.

Browne, M. (2013). Developing Shame Resilience through Pastoral Supervision. Reflective Practice: Formation and Supervision in Ministry, 33, 62–65.

Dearing, R. L., & Tangney, J. P. (2011). Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lindner, C. G. (2016). Varieties of gifts: Multiplicity and the well-lived pastoral life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Palmer, P. J. (2009). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. John Wiley & Sons.

Tangney, J. P., Boone, A., & Dearing, R. L. (2005). Forgiving the self: Conceptual issues and empirical findings. In E. L. Worthington (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 143–158). New York: Routledge.

Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and Guilt (Vol. 1). New York: Guilford Press.