This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
I’m with seminary friends and their spouses on a sunny LA afternoon. It’s our first year, but already my study buddy group has gelled. Today no sirens sound and no announcement is made, but I quietly know my party job: “Make friends with the wives, Carrie. Just make friends with the wives.” My hope was to gain their trust since I was spending so much time with their husbands. But within minutes at this gathering, it occurred to me that since I thought my classmates were cool, their female counterparts might be even cooler. I was on the right track. The author of A Good Way Through is a prime example.
The trick was the men congregated in one huddle and the women circled up in another one. If you took this image to an aerial view, and pretended we made a human Venn diagram, I was the only one in the overlapping middle. While I did ultimately have some female classmates at seminary, this aerial image is a fair metaphor for my life since seminary. Sometimes it acts as a warm spotlight; other times it is the ugliest of mush pots. Cue the life of a single, female, millennial, childless, thirtysomething, entrepreneurial minister in Texas.
The fantastic way to see this is that my experiences provide me a distinct angle to view the world. I also relate in part to many people’s experiences. The underbelly of this means others have trouble relating to me. The more strongly drawn I am to creative, experimental, high-risk endeavors in ministry, the more both my demographic and passions disconnect me from relationships built on shared experiences. Sometimes it plays as my own personal “Upside Down,” where I often feel like Barb from the Netflix show Stranger Things. Maybe I am a strong single female, but sometimes I feel so alone and lost that I might never make it out of the darkness.
American culture does not make it easy for adults to find good friends, no matter how unique my situation may feel at times. I have had moments where I have reached out and failed to find connection in difficult seasons, only to find myself in the fetal position on my kitchen floor, crying and not knowing what else to do but to keep breathing.
Because of the particular set of cards stacked against me when it comes to meaningful connection and support, it is often tempting to leave ministry, much less Christianity. But one of the single most compelling aspects of Christianity to me is the Incarnation of Jesus. It’s pretty darn Christian-y, this beckoning idea that a mysteriously unified and interdependent Trinitarian God chose to define Love through God-With-Us. Loaves and fishes could’ve rained down from the sky. Garments did not have to be touched for people to heal. Jesus didn’t have to stand face-to-face with Legion in order to drive out the demons plaguing him. Nobody needed to be around for God to raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet Love put on human flesh and showed us by example that Love is expressed at its core via “withness.” This is the core lens through which I experience loneliness among human communities. This assures me in two ways:
- I am not built to be alone because of what I have learned from the example and even existence of Jesus as Messiah, which makes my struggles both understandable and shared with other humans around me. This is a legitimate need, and the struggle reveals its great value.
- I am not truly alone. Even in feelings of utter loneliness, I retreat to Scripture for stories of people of faith that have gone before me, outlining all the ways in which God doesn’t abandon us, continues in relationship with us, works with us AND behind our backs for our good. Christ sees me, understands me, knows who I am and calls me by name.
We need humans to be the hands and feet of Christ that demonstrate our own interdependence. We need each other. Yet when our limitations prevent this, we are not left with nothing. God is alive all around us. (See Krissy’s poem in the (DIS)CONTENT chapter!)
I am drawn to certain experiences without blueprints. That’s part of who I am. God grants me fantastic joys in it. I have come to accept the “challenge accessories” to life pursuits as vital formation on my life’s road. When I do come across connection and support, it is fully as myself, with my whole heart. Finding companionship without forsaking who and how God made me is a joy I would not trade for 1,000 forced connections. There is abundant life to be received here indeed.
This path demands I trust God, who retains control of all this mess, in order to be wholehearted in my life and service. Yes, this means I will live a life of sacrifices. We each have crosses. I accept my endeavors may often be uphill both ways; below is a practice that helps keep my heart in line for wholehearted joy along the way.
Practice: The Living Priority List
I regularly take time in imaginative prayer to assess my life-and-call’s priorities. Knowing I am committed to pursuits that involve big challenges, being intentional with a living priority list helps me best sort out the difference between worthy sacrifices and empty ones, faithful desires and cheap cultural scripts I don’t have to follow. Knowing why I am sacrificing x, y or z helps ensure that any challenges involved are more pruning than damaging, meaning they hold the possibility for growth rather than unjust damage to myself or others.
1) Sit with God in prayer - be true to yourself, your calling. Don’t initially think of the how, the limits, the scariness, etc. Only think of where your heart desires for your life to go. Listen for God.
2) Start writing down what you want to get out of your life, whether next week or before you die at age 157. You may find yourself writing about what you want for your family, your hobbies, your travels, your money. Resist the temptation to categorize the list by topic or timeline. It all goes in one single page, in order, in reasonably-sized handwriting. The list may in part sound as abstract as “live in simplicity” or as concrete as “pay off my debt by the time I’m 35.” Get it all out on one page, then transfer it to another one in order of importance.
When I start wondering about why I am working so hard for x goal, I get out the list and remind myself of why it is so worthwhile to give up y for x. Or it helps me realize it is not worthwhile anymore, and I seek God's help in discerning new changes to the list.
3) Know that God doesn’t ask us to be challenged by choosing empty, fruitless endeavors, such as treating ourselves as less than beloved. Injustice may happen to us at times, but it doesn’t mean to opt for it as if life can’t be hard enough without our help. To that end, God doesn’t ask us to devote ourselves to anything out of anxiety or fear.
Life is not about safety nets, nor is it about convenience. Fruit is on the pathway of abundant life we have been given in Christ, fruit from both pruning and from belonging encountered fully as ourselves. On your path, I pray you will feel fully alive, as your lows and highs weave together to form a secure rope of abundant life in Christ.
Rev. Carrie Graham is founding pastor of The Church Lab, a non-profit community that explores and empowers innovative paths to spiritual growth. She spends much of her time faciltiating inter-religious dialogues and pastoring folks through how this experience invites spiritual maturity. Her passion is to help equip Christians to creatively meet unmet spiritual needs in our shifting religious landscape. Carrie loves to sing, dance, travel and hang out with her dog Addy. You can find her on instagram at @thechurchlab or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org