Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.

On this Mother’s Day Eve…

A pattern is emerging in my journey of these last several years. I am increasingly becoming uneasy, dissatisfied, and even resistant to limited thinking and exclusionary expression. I first noticed it in my journey of faith, and write about it often. Nearly all of my posts under the “faith” category name this directly or indirectly. Religion has created a small god which continually seems to underserve the big God I encounter in my life and reading and interaction with others. While I am grateful to have started with a smaller god in order to understand, dig deep, and find my footing, I am now realizing limitations of what I know or think I know. My understanding is but one grain of sand on a beach that runs eternal. And while on some days that is frustrating, more often I am grateful that my job isn’t to know and explore that beach in its entirety but rather to be the best little grain of sand I can be as I mingle, explore, learn and interact with other grains of sand.

Two years ago, Mother’s Day was expanded in my thinking as well. You can read that marvelous post here. On this eve of Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my need to experience tomorrow in a way that is meaningful for me without doing so at the exclusion of others and their experiences. In fact, I want to not just avoid exclusion but to find ways to include more than what I bring to this Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow my grown up child will be home for a day, for which I am so grateful. I love him in ways that I cannot put into words. He is my first born, my first experience of someone part of me yet separate from me. I am immensely proud of the man he is.

My nearly-grown-up child will be with me part of the day. She is my daughter while growing into one of my dearest friends. She is my joy and my delight and probably the only person I could travel with around the world and not drive crazy.

I will have part of the day with my husband who helped make these children possible. He is my partner and my friend. He makes me laugh when I am in desperate need of it.

And I will have time with my faith community who lifts me up, loves me, supports me and believes in me – things we all need from our “moms”.

I will not have time in person with my mom. I am sorry I cannot say to her face-to-face how much I love her and how much I have learned from her and how grateful I am for her. But here is a picture of her and me from a little over a year ago:

Thank you, Mom, for, well, everything.

I won’t be able to see many women who have influenced and loved me, due to distance or time or no longer being on this planet in bodily form. And there have been many men too who have been like mothers to me in their care and nurture and life-giving ways of loving me. To all of you, thank you.

And for the ways in which I cannot fully understand or will not experience tomorrow on Mother’s Day, I seek to make space for you here. I wish to find ways to honor you so that you know you are not alone. I hope others join me too in this.

To you moms who have lost a child, I have seen your pain in a hospital room, a mother unable to put into words what she is feeling as she looks upon the body of the child she has just lost. Whether you are 25 or 95, that pain is palpable and deep. May you find comfort in this day, some how… some way. May you know that your mothering continues in so many ways.

To you who are hurting, who are angry, who feel lost, who have been let down, who have had to say goodbye, who live with regret… may you be found by others in your pain, your anger, or whatever it is that you are feeling. May you know that you are loved and you are lovable.

May we all join together in our need for a mom and in the ways we have been, are, and will be “mom” whether to our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, pets, relatives, neighbors, friends, or even strangers. Happy Mother’s Day.

“Magic Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest One of All?”

I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious antineighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the others, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.

 

“Oh,” I thought, “So-and-So could really benefit from these words. If only (s)he could read them and let them really sink in…” And then began my strategic thinking of how to get these “helpful” words into the minds of those who, in my humble opinion, needed to hear them. Perhaps I could share on Facebook as “words that meant so much to me this morning.” I went from feeling inspired to convicting others within seconds, and without giving much thought to my own learning or shortcomings.

And therein lies a significant problem in the Christian faith today – the desire to use my convictions to convict others. It is not a new concept. And in fact it plagues probably all religions for as long as those religions have existed. “I know what is right/best/true/needed, and you need to follow me/my understanding on how to live that out.” Even those religions that claim not to tell others what to believe spend ample time complaining about those that do. It’s inevitable. It’s human nature. And I think it can kill a life of faith that is meaningful and transformative. Or at least seriously maim it.

I started thinking about Snow White’s stepmother who regularly consulted a magic mirror to confirm her wonderfulness. Or her fairishness. She wanted affirmation of what she thought was fabulous about her. And when the mirror gives an answer that contradicted what she sought, she plots to destroy who is in her way of being the fairest of all. She doesn’t seek to learn why Snow White is more fair. Instead she assumes that by killing Snow White the stepmother will once again be on top. Blame. Destroy. Discredit. Remove. Discount. Distance. Pointing fingers does that, doesn’t it? It makes me feel better because at least I’m not like her. It affirms me because I’m not part of the problem like he is. 

Looking in the mirror to see how I am part of the problem? That takes time. That is painful. Yet that is exactly where change begins. Real change. Lasting change. And not just the change within me but the change around me.  So back to that initial quote. If I’m going to take it seriously and really give it its due, that means I’ll need to read it, digest it, and ask myself how I am greedy, how I can be antineighborly or exclusionary or fearful or self-indulgent. If I actually want to experience a better world, I need to live better in it. It means not  moving past those questions too quickly or passing them on to others for their edification. It means assuming that there are probably a number of areas where I can learn and grow and do better. Be better. Ugh. Not comfortable questions. And yet if I begin to figure out how to truly live simply, freely, lovingly and generously, that just might begin to change the world – the world for me and those around me.

Oh what a lenten season this will be…

(The quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s A Way other than Our Own, page 5 of the 2016 paperback edition.)

 

Being Rescued by an Ark

What to do when one doesn’t know what to do? For me, the answer often is to read, process, pray, read, pray, listen, read, respond, pray, read… You get the idea. I try to both find my footing and discover my next steps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the heavier my feet feel. Today I turned to a sermon by Frederick Buechner, who writes more like a poet than a pastor, titled A Sprig of Hope.

In it, Buechner talks about humanity’s insatiable lust for doom. “Despair and destruction and death are the ancient enemies, and yet we are always so helplessly drawn to them that it is as if we are more than half in love with our enemies.” While reading, I affirmed that this certainly seems to be true as I thought of people who embody this lust. (If you are thinking that I am pointing fingers rather than looking within, you are correct.)

Woven in his sermon is the tale of Noah’s Ark, the dark and foreboding story of the destruction of virtually all of the earth. With our penchant for doom, Buechner poses the hypothesis: Perhaps the story of Noah isn’t about how God destroyed the earth with the exception of those on the ark, but the story of our own destruction. Maybe it is not that God doomed the people, but that the people had already doomed themselves. In other words, the flood was not God destroying the wicked, but cleansing what had already been destroyed. It is a subtle but significant theological difference.

Buechner doesn’t gloss over the destruction, but neither does he pretend to understand it. He sees the ark as God’s small provision in the midst of significant despair. “God knows the ark is not much…” I stopped reading with these words and said out loud, “It is not enough, God.” I sat at my kitchen table feeling overwhelmed by the lust for doom these days, and I found God’s offering of an ark to be unacceptable. You must do more, I thought. There are women, children, refugees, immigrants, wildlife at risk… Do more, God. An ark is not enough.

Then I returned to the sermon. “But the ark was enough, is enough.” I stopped and wept. I wept for my lack of faith. I wept for my own lust for doom. I discounted the ark, whatever that ark might be. I was so busy focusing on the doom, I nearly missed the opportunity for hope.

After a good cry, I went back once again to the sermon.

“The ark is wherever human beings come together as human beings in such a way that the differences between them stop being barriers…”

“The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves and where at the end of every voyage there is a burial at sea.”

“The ark is where, just because it is such a world, we really need each other and know very well that we do.”

“The ark is wherever human beings come together because in their heart of hearts all of them dream the same dream, which is a dream of peace… and thus ultimately a dream of love. Love is not as an excuse for the mushy or innocuous, but love as a summons to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world. The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.”

Thank God I went back to the sermon.

My lust for doom wasn’t in my desire for it. My lust for doom is giving in to it through a lack of faith. The ark isn’t for someone else to choose or reject, with me to live out that choice’s consequence. The ark is my choice. Every day.

What may not feel much like good news should not be surprising news at all. Of course we choose self-preservation. Of course we choose fear. Of course we choose to close our eyes to what seems to be beyond our control because ignorance feels easier in the moment. This is the story of humanity, time and time again. But in the midst of this narrative is an ark. We have a choice: to drift in the water of doom, or to jump on that ark and choose hope, to choose life, to choose peace, to choose love. Even when we have jumped back into the water again and again and again, the ark is there.

May we who seek peace, find each other. May those of us who feel summoned “to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world” keep doing that work. May we not grow weary. And may the sea be filled with arks.

(Note: To read this sermon in its entirety, check out Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner.)

What Just Happened?

Every once in awhile, something happens that leaves me utterly speechless. It is as if someone has stolen my words before they were formed, leaving me with what feels like a vacuum in my mouth. I can open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Maybe it is the introvert in me, but at times like this, words can feel profane. As if somehow filling that vacuum with forced sentiment might actually accomplish something. But perhaps that is because I have no words. Instead I sit in the silence, which feels somehow like a scream. Silently screaming, or screamingly silent for what has occurred that is both unimaginable and utterly heartbreaking.

If you have the luxury of comfort tonight, pray for those who need to feel peace in the midst of chaos. Pray for those who need to feel love and comfort in the midst of heartache. Don’t be a self-centered, self-seeking jerk. Not tonight. Instead think of those who are desperate for something, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. And for God’s sake, if you can help, offer. Don’t ask yourself if they deserve your help. Just do it. Life is too short, my friends.

Friday Favorite, 6.19.15

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

These are the words of Nazi concentration camp survivor and Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel, and they ring true deeply in my soul today. I am praying for wisdom in how to best stand with those who need an advocate, a friend, an ally.

Finding Peace in the Past

The problem with being reflective is that you eventually encounter the long-buried, unresolved shit in your past. Just when you think you have made great progress and acquired some wisdom, you are smacked in the face with a realization so significant that it nearly brings you to your knees. It is a reality that has become so intertwined with your thoughts and actions that at first it is hard to tell where IT ends and YOU begin.

For me it was a hurt of sorts. It wasn’t a traumatic event; those are easy to recognize. This was a quieter sort of thing. Not one event but something that unfolded over time and took its toll. If I told you what it was, you might just shrug your shoulders in confusion.

I am now seeing clearly all that has been impacted over the years, like the ripples in a lake after you have thrown a stone into it. As the ripples keep rippling, knowing it is too late to take back my stone’s throw, I am left with only one choice. I have done too much work to deny its effects any longer. And so I sit by the water’s edge, figuratively speaking, and watch the ripples grow. I feel the feelings that come with those ripples and I cry as I realize the impact. I cry for the years I had tried to protect myself. I cry for how ineffective that protection really was. I cry for what would never be. I cry for what I had lost…

I suspect some can relate. Whether it is a hurt, a regret, a lost love, a do-over you would give anything to have, there is a similarity among the experiences. It is either deeply embedded within, so subtle that its presence is hardly known, or it haunts and never lets one forget. Or maybe it is a bit of both. The ripples keep coming whether we watch for them or not. And when we periodically get a glimpse of a ripple that we intuitively know is connected, we close our eyes or look away. Or we rationalize. Or we reinterpret to suit our logic.

I was aware for a long time of the hurt I held, although I would not have called it a hurt. I had a very rational, reasonable explanation for what had happened way back then. But I irrationally denied its impact. And thus I was shaped by it far more than I realized. I can now see the hurt that was caused by outside forces. But what is both freeing and horrifying simultaneously is how the lasting impact of that hurt has been largely my doing. My rationalization might have satisfied my mind, but the little kid in me still continued to seek healing. Thus I carried the hurt with me like a heavy carcass, which impacted nearly every step, nearly every turn, nearly every perception. And I did so subconsciously.

Now I sit with it as it is. And although I am watching the ripples, they seem to be smoothing themselves out. By bringing the hurt into the light, or simply by naming it for what it is, I am disarming it. I can feel it losing its grip on me. It’s like the space between the unknown and the diagnosis. You hold your breath anticipating what will come. As soon as you know, it doesn’t go away, but you now know what you are dealing with. I hold my breath for just a moment, whisper what I have been feeling all along, I make peace with myself and my past. No more excuses. No more reframing. No more denying. It happened. It is part of me. And I am going to be okay.

 

A Companion Called Grief

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The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass

 I find myself inundated with loss. A new loss occurred last Thursday with the sudden death of our cat. She had been part of the family for more than a decade. On Monday, we received a terminal diagnosis for our dog, and are now preparing ourselves for losing her. Thursday is the anniversary of a most difficult loss, the death of my beloved friend. It will have been one year since she was painfully taken from us. I was ill-prepared for a loss like that. Maybe we are never prepared. But up to this point, I had been able to visit with Grief for a little while and then move on.

I have experienced loss before. My parents’ marriage ended. I have moved. I have been left behind. My grandparents died. My son’s close friend died at 14. All of these experiences brought Grief into my life, and painfully so. But I somehow managed to avoid getting to know Grief. I kept her at arm’s length. I remained a stranger by moving on as quickly as possible. This time Grief unrelentingly took up residence. She would not be ignored. And her presence brought up not only the loss of my dear friend, but previous losses. I thought I had successfully navigated Grief in the past, but it turns out she had left quite a mark. She forced me to sift through pain that was residing deep within me.

Physical pain can be a sign that something is wrong, and it can also be a sign of healing. Emotional pain is similar in that it is not always clear what is going on. It is never an easy journey to take. And pain can be with us for years without our even realizing it. Instead we numb our pain. We eat our pain or spend our pain or sift through relationships always blaming the other for its failure. We think maybe this next accomplishment will assuage our pain. If only I am this size or have this title or drive this car. If only I have this many friends or support this many causes or collect this much stuff. But the If Only’s are just smoke and mirrors. Pain is pain, and lasting pain cannot be addressed until we welcome the presence of Grief to learn what has caused the pain. Only then are we able to adequately deal with it.

As I sat with Grief to feel the loss of my friend, I became aware of other stuff that I had buried: relationships that will never be what I wish they could be, the unsettling of my faith, feeling the consequences of failures and regrets. Even though this was terribly difficult, I chose to stay with Grief in spite of the exit ramps that regularly came. I welcomed Grief, not as my friend but as a needed companion. And rather than be offended by her presence, ignore her presence, or attempt to move her along as quickly as possible, I have learned to sit with her and learn from her. I accept her when she is here.

It is important to point out that there is a difference between acceptance and desire. To desire Grief is to take on an almost masochistic approach. I know people who are like this, who seem to relish their losses and be defined largely as victims. This is not a healthy relationship with Grief but rather a codependent one. My relationship with Grief is undergirded by the reality that she can consume me rather than help me. This is what prevents her from being my friend. I never forget that she is capable of destroying me, and that helps to keep my relationship with Grief a healthy one.

Last week in a blogpost, I advocated for hope over knowledge. I had some great conversations with people in response. For some, it resonated. For others, it was too easy. I have come to the conclusion that authentic hope is anything but easy. Hope is the ability to grab life like a face between the palms of my hands and say, “I know what you are capable of, and yet I choose you anyway.”  To give space for friendships when you know what its loss might cause takes courage. To choose love when you know it will disappoint is living. To try again when you know what failure feels like takes guts. Surprisingly it has been my time spent with Grief that has deepened my hope. Grief allows me to accept what is, and hope enables me to see what is possible. Grief and hope are teaching me how to be both alive and free.

I have been deeply moved by others who know Grief. Experiences with her can vary greatly from person to person. To be with someone who intuitively understands her complexity and respects her is comforting beyond words. For those of you who feel alone, overwhelmed, or nearly consumed by Grief, know that you are not alone. Find someone who listens well, listens deeply, and doesn’t try to fix what is wrong. Those people will be invaluable to you as you learn to walk with Grief. And hope will come. Eventually. For we are told and I have learned that troubles produce patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).

Assumptions, Hope, and “The Walking Dead”

I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, a television show that follows a group of people living in a zombie apocalypse. It is fascinating to watch. All the assumptions have been taken away from these characters, and they are left with the task of figuring out what it means to be human without any social normatives. Who do you trust? How do you survive? How do you retain your humanity when “survival of the fittest” has become the new norm? The show does a great job of examining the different ways people navigate life under constant duress. I find myself wondering how I would do in this kind of situation. What would I do in the chaos? Would I be able to maintain my humanity? If so, how?

Thankfully we do not currently live in a zombie apocalypse. Instead we live with plenty of assumptions. You know the saying – assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. And yet we all have them. Lots of them. It’s not that assumptions are inherently bad. But assumptions can prevent us from learning, growing, and moving forward. We assume that we know what is best. We assume that what we believe is true. We assume that we know people’s stories. We assume that our “normal” is everyone’s “normal”. We assume that what we want is what we should have. It is easy to spot someone else’s assumptions. But it takes a lot of work to discover your own assumptions. They are so ingrained into your thinking that they seem normal, right, and true.

My faith is full of assumptions. And I built my faith on many of these assumptions. For example, I assume that the bible teaches me about God, so I read it with the assumption that the bible is helpful and good. God has yet to confirm this with me directly, and yet I still utilize the bible as a resource for my faith. My assumptions didn’t come from out of thin air. They came about as I spent time reading the bible and learning what others had to say about it. But they were still assumptions. When I encounter someone who doesn’t view the bible in the same way, instead of seeing myself as “knowing” what that person hasn’t yet realized, I recognize that this person simply doesn’t hold the same assumptions that I do. If I focus on the assumption of what the bible is, I miss the opportunity to talk about what the bible has meant to me. And I miss the opportunity to learn what the other person thinks.

I think this is a critical point for a life of faith in the 21st century. We used to have the luxury in western civilization of believing that we were the epicenter of truth, that we had somehow uncovered the right questions to ask and reached the answers to those questions. We saw our responsibility then to share our knowledge with the rest of the world, or at least wait for everyone to catch up. But science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and even religion are exposing that we, westerners, are shaped and impacted by our power structures and social normatives just like everyone else. We cannot be entirely objective. Our perspectives, beliefs, and convictions are all filled with assumptions. When we are not aware of them, we are prone to arrogance.

We are seeing a crisis of the Christian faith in the 21st century. Churches are closing. Society is changing. Morality is increasingly fluid. And truth seems to be relative. I talk with a lot of Christians who find these times to be scary and daunting. But I disagree. This an opportunity to shift one’s faith from a foundation of assumptions to a foundation of hope. We are invited to become less focused on what we think we know, and more in tune to what we hope for through faith. We recognize that to a large extent God is beyond all of our understanding and perhaps we might be able to learn from each other regardless of the assumptions we have. And whereas knowledge is limited, hope is immeasurable.

Think about the characters of The Walking Dead. They are struggling to stay safe, to find food and water, to learn a new way of living. They know virtually nothing. They are disconnected from everyone, except those they encounter along the way. They don’t know if they’ll live another day. They don’t know who to trust outside of their own group. Assumptions are exposed with every episode. What seems to keep the group going is not any knowledge that tomorrow will be better, but a hope that it might be. It is a tough fight to keep that hope, but without it they know they will never do more than just survive. And merely surviving, particularly as loved ones are lost and life gets harder, does not inspire the group onward. But hope does.

For those of us who profess some kind of faith, shouldn’t it be similar? Shouldn’t our faith exist for the purpose of bringing hope? Not to prove that we are right or better or “in” with God, but to offer hope for a better day, hope that God cares, hope that the sun will rise again? I have had many assumptions exposed, disproven, replaced by better assumptions. And if I continued to build my faith on any of these assumptions, I’m not sure if I would have much faith left. With hope as my reason for faith, I am compelled to carry on. I still have my assumptions and always will. But they fail me from time to time. With hope, I am able to face the dark days, the tough questions, the irreconcilable issues. With hope, I can leave behind fear and anxiety. With hope, I can find a reason to smile and laugh. With hope, faith matters.