Monday, February 29, 2016

Written in Ink

As a writer and an artist, I appreciate all things creative.  Tattoos are a form of art I've always been interested in, and I've even designed a couple for my best friend, Cohen (a "tree of life" tattoo she got on her foot and an ichthus tattoo with a bible verse she got on her wrist).  I think tattoos are a great channel for artistic expression, but I think tattoos should represent something meaningful and important since they are permanently fixed on the body.  I have a some ink that I am proud of and that I put a lot of thought into, so I wanted to write a little bit about my tattoos and the meaning behind them.

I got my first tattoo during spring break of my senior year of college.  My best friend, Cohen, and I were traveling to New Bern, North Carolina, to visit some friends of ours.  We planned to get our tattoos together during the trip and had been planning ahead for awhile.

I got this one at Bombs Away Tattoo in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
When I was a freshman in college, I had the opportunity to go with my college bible study on a mission trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, during spring break.  We went with a group from Ball State University, and they had a pastor with them named Chris.  I was with Chris's group for most of the week (along with some other students from my group), and I was continually challenged by his faith.  A former atheist, Chris was able to connect with and minister to people in Panama City in a way I couldn't - he understood disbelief and doubt and could truly speak into the lives of others experiencing similar feelings.  I was still developing in my faith, and listening to Chris's stories and hearing him speak life into others impacted me greatly.  One night during worship, there were large sheets of paper taped to the walls with paints sitting on the floor underneath the paper.  We were asked to show an expression of our faith with the paints, and many students were dipping their hands into the various colors and were creating wonderful images of joy, beauty, and faith.  I watched as Chris painted something in green on one of the sheets of paper.  I took a closer look to find that his image was very simple, but it was one that would impact me for the rest of my life.  Above a hand print with a mark where a nail would be, he had written "it is finished."

Unfamiliar with the verse, I looked it up to find that it was from John 19:30.  "It is finished" were the last words Jesus spoke before he died on the cross.  After reading this, I felt like I understood the sacrifice Jesus made for me for the first time.  I wrote the verse on the inside of my bible and meditated on it for the rest of the week in Panama City and beyond.  Three years later, I sat in a tattoo shop in Jacksonville, North Carolina, with three of my friends and got the verse tattooed on my foot as a permanent reminder of how that mission trip changed my life and helped me read and understand scripture in a way I never had before.

I got my second tattoo during my second year of graduate school.  Justin and I had just gotten married and we were on our honeymoon in Chicago.  We had both talked about commemorating our marriage in some way and creating a tangible representation of our commitment to one another, but we had a hard time deciding on a design.  We knew we wanted the date we started dating, the date we got engaged, and the date we got married, but we each wanted to customize ours with a saying or image unique to our relationship and couldn't decide on what to get.  When we got back from our honeymoon, I had a "light bulb" moment and knew exactly what I wanted.

Justin and I got these tattoos at Marvel Tattoo in South Bend, Indiana.
A friend had gotten Justin and I a painting as a wedding gift with some words in Spanish across the top.  It said "hasta que la muerte nos separe," which translates to "until death do us part."  I decided to get that under the dates and Justin decided to get some of the lyrics to one of our favorite songs under the dates along with some Celtic designs.  Both of us have our "wedding" tattoos on our shoulder/back area, and I love having it as a reminder of the commitment Justin and I made together in marriage as husband and wife.

The next tattoo I got was last summer, and it was completely spontaneous (even though I had had the idea for awhile).  Fall 2014 was a chaotic time for Justin and I.  I had applied to a PhD program in Bowling Green, Ohio, and Justin was applying to jobs in that area.  When he was in the middle of the interview process for a position, I was often anxious about the future and a potential move.  I had a playlist on my iPod that I would listen to when I was feeling anxious, and it included songs like "I Need You" by Matt Maher and "Thrive" by Casting Crowns.  I loved the line "we know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives, it's time for us to more than just survive, we were made to thrive" from the Casting Crowns song.  I would listen to this over and over and remind myself that God had a plan for us to thrive and that he wasn't going to leave us empty-handed.

I also got this one at Marvel Tattoo in South Bend, Indiana.  The same artist who did my "marriage" tattoo did this one!
Justin got the job, we moved to Ohio, and I got accepted into the PhD program.  I was worried and anxious for nothing - God had provided and had reminded me to have faith in his plan.  I always wanted to get the word "thrive" tattooed as a reminder of God's provision, but I kept putting it off.  During Memorial Day weekend 2015, Justin and I decided to take a trip back to South Bend to see some friends and go to some of our old favorite places.  One day, we decided to go to Three Oaks and New Buffalo, Michigan.  We used to love going to Lake Michigan, so it was a great feeling to be standing in the sand overlooking the lake in New Buffalo.  We saw some people climbing out to a watchtower over a long stretch of rocks and we decided to check it out.  Leaving our shoes and belongings behind, we made the trek over the rocks to the tower.  It was difficult and a bit scary at times, but we made it.  (For more on this trip, see my post titled Road Trip).

We conquered the rocks!
Once we got to the watchtower, I was a little disappointed.  Since I was 17, I have had four orthopedic surgeries on my hand to fix an injury I sustained during a softball game in high school.  The various surgeries have left me with a titanium plate, rod, and several screws in my hand (and a nasty scar).  I am not able to play softball anymore and some of my regular activities have changed because one of the joints in my hand is completely fused.  (For more on this, see my post titled What I Learned from Orthopedic Surgery).  As I looked up at the watchtower with its narrow ladder of very short pegs, I thought my journey out over the rocks was for nothing and that I wouldn't be able to get to the top.
The hardware that was placed during my latest surgery in July 2013.
This sums up the saga of my hand injury.
The infamous ladder.
I gave it a try anyway (I didn't want that long, treacherous hike to be for nothing) and surprised myself.  Not only did I make it up to the watchtower, but I also made it back down without slipping or hurting myself.  I had had to give up things in the years following my surgeries, but I made it up and down that ladder with ease.  I was so happy and proud of my body - I felt invincible.  Without even thinking, I told Justin we needed to get tattoos.  I wanted my "thrive" tattoo - God had brought me/us through a lot, and I/we had come out on the other side victorious.  The culmination of the last half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 brought me to the tattoo shop (the same one where Justin and I had gotten our marriage tattoos) and I finally got it done (and Justin got a tattoo, as well).  I added the arrow to the design to show that we always need to be looking forward and not to the past and that God will bring us through the trials we face.

Justin and I at the top of the watchtower overlooking Lake Michigan!
I got my final (and most recent) tattoo this past weekend.  This is by far the biggest tattoo I've gotten and the one I put the most planning and thought into.  For the past couple years, I've wanted to get a typewriter tattoo as a representation of my love of literature and writing (and antiques).  More recently, the typewriter would represent my work during my doctoral studies, my eventual PhD in English, and my goal to teach creative writing to college students.  After almost two years of thinking and looking through typewriter designs online, I finally had an image in mind.

I got this one at Broadwing Tattoo in Bowling Green, Ohio.
I set up an appointment, showed my artist my design during our consultation, she drew it up, and I sat for three-and-a-half hours as she tattooed my typewriter.  The typewriter in the tattoo is actually the same design as the first typewriter I ever got, a gift from my husband after I got out of grad school.  I chose to do the typewriter in blue because I recently visited the typewriter of one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, while in Indianapolis, Indiana.  His Smith-Corona typewriter was blue and it was what produced so many of his brilliant works, so I wanted the typewriter to be "Vonnegut blue."  I loved the design of the flowers, but I also see them as representing creativity and growth as a writer and an artist.  I absolutely love how this tattoo came out, but it was by far the most painful tattoo I've ever gotten (followed by my foot tattoo, then the one on the inside of my arm, and then the one on my shoulder/back)!

I love having these tattoos as reminders of where I came from and where I am now.  My tattoos remind me of faith, of commitment, and of God's great plan, provision, and grace.  Will I get any more tattoos?  We will just have to wait and see. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Moving On

In July of 2014, I began applying to a PhD program at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.  My husband and I were living in Indiana at the time, so he began looking for jobs in the Toledo area in anticipation of my acceptance.  He ended up getting his dream job as the youth director of a church near Toledo (for more on this story, check out my blog post called How We Ended Up in Ohio).  We moved in November 2014 and I found out I was accepted to the PhD program in April 2015.  God had truly blessed our journey to Ohio.

We later learned that the church had been under financial stress since (and probably before) Justin and I arrived (although we didn't know the extent of the financial difficulties until recently).  The issues have continued to get worse and, as a result, the church made the decision to eliminate their children's director and youth director positions.  After about 15 months at the church, Justin was without a job.  (However, God has blessed us immensely and allowed Justin to begin a position in the youth program at a different church the day after his last day at the previous church!)

Justin and I are sad that we had to leave the students at the church who have become like family to us.  We've shared meals with these kids, listened to their stories, gotten to know them, shared mission trip experiences with them.  We truly care about them, and it has been hard to leave when we feel like we had just gotten integrated.

But now that Justin is no longer employed by the church, I can honestly say that I am not sad we are gone.  The job we thought would be Justin's "dream job" turned out to be very different than we had hoped.  I have no doubt in my mind that God purposefully brought us to that church, but I would be lying if I didn't say that I am glad we have moved on.

Our experience at that church started out as an uphill battle.  As one of very few young couples in the congregation, my husband and I were constantly judged and complained about.  These judgements came in the form of complaints to the staff.  I once volunteered to serve communion at the Christmas Eve service when someone didn't show up for their post.  Someone later complained that "I didn't do it right."  My husband once wore a shirt to church that read "I Love My Wife."  Someone complained that the shirt was "inappropriate."  Justin once had his hands in his pockets during the church service.  Someone complained to the leadership that "he shouldn't worship with his hands in his pockets."  I always thought worshiping God was a personal experience - something unique to each person.  Apparently this isn't a universal belief.

My husband also served on the worship team as the only drummer in the congregation, very rarely having a week off from serving.  This was completely voluntary and he gave up time with family every Thursday night to practice and got up early every Sunday morning to play with the band.  Justin's volunteering was met with numerous complaints about how his "drumming was too loud" and a staff member even said "if he's going to drum that loud, I'm not going to stay at this church."  He often drummed with his shoes off so he could get a feel for the drum pedals, and this was also met with rude comments and complaints.  People were quick to judge without getting to know us.

The senior leadership at the church proved to be extremely difficult.  While my husband was the youth director, he was constantly micromanaged to the point where he had no control over what happened in the youth program.  The senior pastor would often sit in the back of the room during the middle school youth group meetings and interrupt him while he was teaching and undermine his authority.  The senior pastor once even said "get to the point" while Justin was on stage speaking during a Sunday morning service.

His middle school leaders proved to be less than helpful and wouldn't interact with the students.  This left Justin feeling overwhelmed in the middle school ministry.  A family (father, mother, and adult daughter) served as "volunteers" with the middle school program, and I witnessed on several occasions where they would sit in the back of the room (despite Justin asking them to sit with the kids), talking and playing on their cell phones, being disruptive, and not helping Justin with the rowdy group of kids.  Did I mention the father of this family was part of the senior leadership at the church?  No one in that family ever spoke a word to me, ignoring me completely and often leaving right after the middle school youth group without acknowledging Justin, saying goodbye, or asking how they could help with cleanup.  The wife of one of our senior leadership members volunteered with the high school ministry, but would be on her cell phone during the entire youth group meeting, not interacting with or talking to any of the students or leaders. 

Anytime a situation arose where Justin needed the support of the senior leadership, they would be quick to "throw him under the bus" without discussing the issue with him first.  There was no loyalty or unity among the staff members, so Justin was often on his own.  After making some changes to the confirmation program at the church, an upset parent (who was also on the council at the church and from the same family as the middle school youth "volunteers") called Justin on his office phone.  I walked into his office to pick him up for lunch and witnessed the parent screaming at my husband through the phone.  This kind of behavior was not uncommon at the church; instead of talking things out, members of the congregation were quick to judge, complain, and condemn.   This behavior was brought to the attention of the senior leadership just to have them take the side of the angry parent.

I never felt welcomed at that church.  I dreaded Sunday mornings when I would walk into the church and awkwardly stand around until the service started.  The only people who ever spoke to me were a few of the kids from the youth program, the three adult leaders who served in the youth program, and some parents of the kids.  No one really tried to get to know us.  After Justin and I had been at the church for 6 months, it was brought up to the senior pastor that there should have been a "get-to-know-you" event so the church could get to know us.  The pastor then scheduled an event where very few people showed up.

This event was scheduled on the same day as my little brother's senior night for baseball, an event that was important to me and that I promised him we would be at.  As this required us driving back to Indiana, I asked Justin if he could talk to the pastor about rescheduling for the following Sunday.  I listened to the conversation on speakerphone as the pastor told Justin that "it would be too much of a pain to change it" and that "my priorities weren't in order if I was choosing my family over my church family."  I was appalled.  Justin and I have two vehicles, an older one and a newer one.  As I have to commute to school each day, I often drive the newer, more reliable vehicle.  The senior pastor was once bold enough to tell Justin that I shouldn't get used to driving the newer vehicle, implying that the "man of the family" should be entitled to the newer, nicer vehicle.  A close friend of mine at the church also witnessed the senior pastor yelling at his wife in public.  These instances, among others, made me question whether the senior pastor had any respect for women.  My husband also witnessed the senior pastor making racist comments on several occasions.

Last November, my cousin Rachel passed away at the age of 25.  In the midst of my family's grief, the church knew about the situation and didn't reach out.  Justin was in Indiana for graduate school when this took place, so I was alone and no one from the church tried to contact me.  The pastor even gave Justin a hard time about taking time off for the funeral.  When Justin returned to work on Tuesday, the pastor said he would have given Justin an extra day off if he would have "communicated better about the situation."  Instead, we went to Indiana for one day to turn around and hurry back so Justin could be back for work.  This didn't just affect my husband, if affected me and my family in a very fragile time.

Last summer, Justin was so sick that he had been vomiting for days.  On a Saturday, there was a youth event and Justin called the senior pastor to let him know he couldn't make it.  The pastor responded by telling him he needed to be there, no matter what.  Justin ended up in the hospital due to this illness, and all the pastor could say was get to the church as soon as possible.  No one in senior leadership offered to visit Justin at the hospital.  There was no compassion or love in that place.

When the church began experiencing extreme financial difficulties, Justin approached the senior pastor about having the staff fast and pray together about the issues.  The senior pastor ignored the idea, then presented it as his own idea the following week at the staff meeting.  Since the senior pastor acted like he didn't want to do the fast the week before, Justin began fasting/praying with a mentor in the church.  They did the Daniel Fast (which is essentially vegan with no sugar) together for 10 days.  The senior pastor started fasting/praying as well and announced to the church that he was doing it (even though fasting is supposed to be a private matter), but he continued to eat what he wanted, even encouraging other members of the staff to break their fast and go get fast food with him.  A few days after the fast started for the senior pastor, I saw him eating meat and desserts when I stopped in to pick Justin up from the church.  There was no honesty, transparency, or commitment with the senior leadership.

One of the aspects of this senior leadership that bothered me the most was their attitude toward Justin's education.  When Justin interviewed for the job, he was very clear and up-front that he was still in graduate school in Indiana and would have to periodically travel back to Indiana for classes (the structure of the program only required him to be present at the college in-person 2-3 times per semester).  Every time he needed to go back to Indiana for class, his request was met with disdain and complaints.  The senior leadership put no value on Justin's education, even though it was a masters in ministry degree that was helping him be better at his job.  The church made him take vacation days when he would need to travel for school, so at the end of the year, he had no remaining vacation days.  When Justin would put in a request for a class, the senior pastor would respond with comments like "you have to go again?" and "when will this be over?"  The senior pastor even mentioned to Justin once that "he better not be using office time for homework."  Last semester, Justin was getting ready to go back to Indiana for his final class of the year.  The senior pastor was so mad that he had to cover the middle school ministry while Justin was gone that he sent Justin and email requesting a laundry list of unnecessary tasks and items before he left, including a list of names with a biography of every student in the middle school group (even though the senior pastor had been serving in the middle school ministry for awhile and was a small group leader).  When Justin asked why he needed all that information even though he had never requested it before, the senior pastor responded with "just do what I say."  I always thought the senior leadership would value Justin's higher education and appreciate that he was furthering himself and trying to become better at his job, but I was very much mistaken.

There is so much more I could say, but I don't have the time or the energy to record it all here.  I have kept quiet for the entirety of Justin's employment at the church because I didn't want to jeopardize his job.  However, I felt like these things needed to be said.  And, as I always say, writing is therapeutic for me.

So, Justin and I are no longer a part of that church, and it really has been a positive transition for us.  I have no respect for a church that would allow senior leadership to treat people the way my husband and I were treated.  In my opinion, the church is going through extreme financial hardship because so many people have left the congregation due to the senior leadership in the church being offensive, hurtful, unkind, and not "practicing what they preach."  I have never seen such terrible leadership in my entire life.  It's astounding the awful things that people do, and have done, in the name of God.

When Justin and I moved to Ohio, we were a young, newly-married couple just getting the hang of "adult life."  We uprooted our family to move to a new state for the job.  We were apprehensive about this big step and new experience, and our fears came true - we were met with judgement and unkindness at the new church.  AT A CHURCH!  A church is where God's people are supposed to come together, to help each other, to be united.  But we were ignored and judged.  How would the senior leadership want their young adult children to be treated at a church, at God's house?  I can't imagine they would want them to be treated like we were.

The only thing I can do is pray that God heals the church.  I pray only the best for the church, and I truly hope that God intervenes and saves it from the financial crisis it is going through.  I will pray for healing for Justin and I as we integrate into this new church congregation.  This transition has not been easy, but just as coming to Ohio was a blessing, I truly feel that our transition out of the church has also a blessing.

We still feel God calling us to ministry, and we will stay in Ohio until I've completed my program at Bowling Green.  I'm excited to see what God has in store for us in the coming years.

God is good all the time.
All the time God is good.