I decided where I was going to college based on a dream.
The day before I’d had a tearful breakdown in my guidance counselor’s office.
She paused in response and said only, “Everything we know about how to make big decisions is wrong. Go home and do heart math. Listen to yourself.”
In the moment her advice aggravated me, but I skeptically complied.
My decision followed.
That same year, I started to discern a call to public ministry.
I ended my senior year of high school immersed as an intern in a small rural congregation.
I began and completed college imagining that I’d begin seminary and pastor a church.
I completed applications and toured schools and met with the church governing body to initiate my candidacy more than once, each time pausing because of a gut feeling.
Something was pulling me toward trauma and crisis response, and I recalled my earlier breakdown.
And so, my path drifted, and I let it.
I hold onto this convergence of moments — strong feelings, risky and sudden shifts in direction, and peace of mind, whenever I engage in personal discernment.
There are so many temptations to distrust yourself, and a consequent self-judgment that can lead you to do what feels logical instead of what feels right.
In my experience, many of those tempters come from impressionable conversations with someone significant.
I’ve been chewing on one such moment for the last few weeks.
A pastor said to me, “your work and my work have different goals”, referring to my work in violence prevention, and theirs as a pastor.
They continued, “At the end of the day my goal is to keep people safe.”
I have to remind myself in these exchanges to use silence as a resource.
I had to lean into taking time rather than taking the bait, hearing in this statement an interpretation of my perspective, and not an invitation to shed additional light.
This conversation has stayed fresh on my mind, calcifying a disappointment that pushes me away from places I’m called to engage more deeply.
Intrusive iterations that require me to get clear on what I mean quickly and consistently.
I carried this exchange into Advent and the weeks leading up to Christmas. The Sunday following the Winter Solstice overlaps with the reading of the Magnificat. It’s my favorite Scriptural passage. It represents a revelation to Mary from an angel, and her captured reaction.
She reacts to God’s desire for her to give birth to Jesus. We hear in Mary’s monologue wants situated within wants, and a mutuality that can’t be forced on her. A mutuality that won’t be forced on her, because Jesus’ coming is not a story of rape.
There is a clear delineation introduced between violence and how Jesus will be conceived, and Mary is allowed to respond. Her response is one of peace, joy and anticipation for a change in the world she believes in.
The waiting is on God’s side too, promising an invitation that we will find wholeness here, but not demanding that we do.
Consent is explicitly emphasized, to a degree that is humbling as you listen and receive its significance.
I’m struck whenever consent is positioned as a threat to the goal of safety, as I am when power and God are interpreted as force and control over people’s lives.
And I remember this passage.
I feel sensitive to how God’s power is characterized.
I believe with all my heart that what we believe about God and what we believe about violence are connected. That how we imagine use of absolute power has direct bearing on how we imagine our responses to violence and harm. That true safety can’t negate human relationship to violence, and more importantly, can’t make our violent tendencies God’s violent tendencies.
The tragedy and the power of God is God’s shown persistent consideration and reverence for people choosing and deciding and resisting depictions of power and control, juxtaposed with a human tendency to characterize mystery in our own image. The dialogue is about sharing decisions. Faithfulness is in being able to say yes or no to God. Faithfulness is recognizing discernment as a spiritual gift, and power as a chameleon. Far more changeable than we can imagine or experience now.
We end 2018 at the height of clear distrust for institutions and authority figures.
The abuses of power interlaced in our ideology, liturgy, choice in leadership, response to world events, each example makes its own case many times over.
I go back to my conversation of a few weeks ago and I marvel at how easily we reference safety as an ideal against all examples indicating that something is grossly wrong with our approach.
I go back to that conversation and I ask what wasn’t volunteered, “and what does that mean to you?”
What it means to me is equity in decisions. What is means to me is a reclaiming of narratives that have confused integrity with piety. What it means to me is retethering consent into how we espouse safety.
After my second surgery this year I came back to work from a recovery period. In a community meeting I asked the question that I didn’t ask the pastor addressing me a few weeks ago, “what does safety mean to you?” When I have to ask that question, I become aware that context hasn’t been addressed, leaving me to interpret more than I’ve received. What I feel in my gut is a tightening of my muscles and a firing of communication to my brain. What I exude is discontentment over what remains too ambiguous.
Asking for clarity is an invitation for power and control to become something else. It’s my attempt to engage rather than recoil in a situation that feels authoritarian rather than safe and consensual.
The gift of the practice of heart math I was encouraged to develop is an attunement to my instincts. It was someone in authority over me, who had the power to influence my decisions, encouraging me to reclaim that power simply by not using the space I left open for her. Hearing in me indecision prompted her to ask me to take more time. Know for yourself so you can have peace in your decision, I can hear now. Know for yourself so that you can want what I already want for you: an experience that is generative and fulfilling in the form of wholeness and joy.
We have disciplines we need to develop that will support us in unpacking our uses of power and our examples of authority, and the ideological glue that keeps both intact.
We have leadership hindering our ability to imagine power that isn’t also abusive.
We have spiritual traditions that have been diluted with context we forgot to look for and ask about.
We have structures that adapt and become counter to what we wanted in the first place.
We have wants that change and structures that can’t evolve.
We have wants that stay the same that have never been met.
We have instinctive clarity that we dismiss as fleeting emotion.
We have life experiences that make alternative realities hard to believe in.
We are having life experiences that many aren’t living through.
We work for safety in the world without describing what that means.
We work against the factors that make safety possible, first by seeing our work as a niche, and finally by positioning expertise against each other.
We think we have to give people less information instead of more.
We think we have to give people less choice instead of more.
We think we are our own worst enemies, instead of each other’s.
We think it has to be this way, that change work can only look like it’s been modeled for us.
And yet our guts pull and push us away from things that keep us in our own way.
The choice is there for us to listen to ourselves.
Listen from a belief that power is not only control.
Listen from a questioning of what’s been labeled safe.
Listen as if we don’t have to fear consent.
There has to be a starting point that is not abuse, no matter how much healing we all need.
There has to be an opportunity to gain and build and sustain trust.
We have to recognize those opportunities when they come to us before we can decide if we want to take them.