Moving Forward Five Years Later

Almost five years ago, I began this blog with the post, Why I Left the Church to Start a Church. It’s a good time to give an update on that church. First I am struck by how much that post still reflects where I am. If I didn’t have my community of faith, The Other Church, I’m not sure what I would do to replace it. I have outgrown the organized church. Or maybe a more accurate way to say it is that my faith has outgrown the organized church. I need a space that allows doubt, questions, anger, and disappointment along with hope, joy and peace. And I need the room to go where I need to go, not where the church tells me to go.

Lots of people inhabit this space, “spiritual but not religious” you might say. Many have deep questions of meaning and purpose. As I have sought to provide a safe space for exploring these questions, I have learned several things about that space. I thought I’d share some today.

  • Being vulnerable is hard. In our social media culture, we are more comfortable with our filtered photos than our messy lives. Vulnerability is an invitation to be honest with self and others. For people who carry deep pain, that invitation can be particularly frightening. Unless they are willing to face their pain, vulnerability will feel like too big of a risk.
  • It is easier to be told what to do or believe than to decide for oneself. Believing what someone else tells you to believe removes accountability. It lessens the need for reflection. The parameters have been set and one simply has to move within those parameters. To pick those parameters for oneself can feel scary. My observation is that for most of us, we only do so when those set parameters no longer make sense.
  • If one can avoid hard work, most of us will. Numbing is a quicker fix than feeling the pain. Fighting or blaming is easier than listening. We are a culture of immediate gratification, and we are dying because of it. We refuse the work before us, or we pour ourselves into work that brings little or no change. Maybe that feels safer. Maybe that’s just who we’ve become.

Shortly after my initial post almost five years ago, a church-of-sorts was officially launched along with a website and social media platforms. The tools were developed to find others who were interested in going on this journey with me. In this carved out space for exploration of faith and meaning, I found a group of people. We are learning to be more vulnerable. We are exploring what we believe individually and collectively, and what we will do with those beliefs. We are learning to do the hard work, encouraging and helping each other along the way. We don’t do any of these things perfectly and we fail regularly. But we keep trying as we also do our best to love and care for one another.

As The Other Church community moves forward, know that there is always room for one more. And in our next steps of moving forward, I have decided to shut down the church’s website and social media platforms for now. At this stage, I do not see these tools helping us with the work we do. We are not meant to be a community that is watched, but rather one that is engaged. We all need a community of people who know us, love us, challenge us and accept us. If you have followed The Other Church, I want to thank you. If you have supported The Other Church, a double thank you to you. Now go find a place for you that will embrace all of you. And if you want to be part of mine, you are always welcome.

Godspeed.

Tough Love

I have been the recipient of tough love on several occasions. I am referring to the experience of being told something I didn’t want to hear because it was hard to hear. But as the pain ebbed, I could see that I needed to hear what was being said. It is that moment of truth you initially push aside because it hits a little too close to home; a truth that challenges the narrative you have chosen to believe; a truth that feels like a mirror being held up too close to reveal a flaw you would rather not see.

Rarely does a tough love moment work the first time its message is conveyed. Its effectiveness usually requires multiple supporting messages and a recipient willing to listen or at least unable to ignore. One of my tough love moments was about money. And in hindsight I realized how that moment had been years in the making. I didn’t enjoy my tough love moment. But I was changed by it, for the better.

Initially I didn’t believe any logical and loving person could vote for Trump. When he was elected, I was shocked. When I realized some of my friends and family voted for Trump, I couldn’t really talk about it. I was so incredibly uncomfortable with the thought that one could believe Trump deserved the office of President. The only argument I heard that made any sense was the struggling coal miner who believed that Trump might revitalize the coal industry. I didn’t believe Trump would actually do that. But I could wrap my head around it.

I still can’t comprehend how a logical and loving person supports Trump. I’m not saying that a Trump supporter can’t be logical and loving. I am saying that a Trump supporter has a malfunction going on in both logic and love. That is my tough love message. Trump is a malignancy and in order to support him, you must deny the damage and ignore the hurt he is causing.

It doesn’t matter how he advances your convictions, who he puts into power for you, or what you gain. Nothing is worth the damage this president is causing at the expense of others. Without love, we are nothing and we gain nothing. And so we need to cut out the fucking cancer. If you are a Trump supporter, put forth a decent candidate for 2020 who represents you without decimating decency. Put forth a candidate who is able to argue his or her ideas rather than relying on cruelty towards another. Put forth a candidate who serves more than his or her own ego. Put forth a candidate with integrity. I believe with all my heart that Trump supporters need this tough love moment.

I am aware of a paradox here. While I articulate my belief that Trump supporters need to do better, I am convicted of the reality that I too need to do better. I must move past my disbelief and discomfort and have the conversation with my family and friends who support this president. I need to speak and listen, which will not be easy. I propose, if you are also willing, that we try to give each other room. Thank you for reading this far. Now tell me what it is you are fighting for. Tell me what the tough love message is for me. It might be difficult to do, for both of us. But isn’t it time we choose something other than division or superficiality?

I have one final thought to share. It is not only our convictions that reveal who we are, but it is the substance of our lives: the quality of our relationships, the sense of peace versus fear we carry, and the love or lack thereof that we give. I hope my life is about love, whether I am standing up for the marginalized, or listening to someone I completely disagree with because love never fails.

 

A Web of Thoughts

I assumed for years that everyone lives in their heads like I live in mine. I don’t think linearly; I think in weblike thoughts. One thought goes in three directions. And each of those takes three more turns. Sometimes my consciousness stays with one or two while my subconscious continues to build the web. Sometimes I sit still, watching the twists and turns my thoughts take. I marvel at and love the infinite possibilities of thought and idea.

I suppose this is one reason why one of my favorite things to do is just sit and listen to my thoughts. This is also why I have about 20 journals at any given time, in my home, purse, car and office. When a thought comes to me that I want to remember, I write it down wherever space on a page exists.

I was in high school when I started to realize not everyone was like this. I began to understand that my stream of consciousness felt like random, sometimes confusing thoughts to others. I could see how my mind went from thought to thought, with a few (or several) unspoken thoughts in between. It might not have made sense to others but it made perfect sense to me. As an introvert, I often wasn’t eager to put my thought process out there. And so I got used to being labeled as weird.

In my 20’s I became increasingly deliberate about what to share. It was easier to keep my thoughts mostly in my head. I didn’t have to explain. And it felt somehow less painful to assume someone wouldn’t understand than to know that for sure. But in doing so, I spent less time hearing my thoughts. I thought I was listening, but I wasn’t listening very well.

In my 30’s I was ready to find my words. I was increasingly okay with not being understood. I wanted to be my authentic self whether I was likable or not, whether I was acceptable or not. It took time though because years of neglect had dulled my abilities. I had to learn what was truly my voice versus the voices of others playing on auto-repeat in my head.

In my 40’s I perfected my ability to listen and worked on crafting my thoughts into coherent sentences. This was sometimes for the sake of sharing with another. But more importantly it was my process of understanding what I was thinking and feeling. For a linear thinker, this is probably a little more straightforward. But for me, each strand of the web has a purpose of providing stability to the overall structure. Some strands are more important than others, but serves a purpose nonetheless.

A byproduct of hearing my own voice was learning to hear others better. I learned how to distinguish between what someone was communicating and what I wanted to hear or how I was trying to interpret those words. This isn’t always easy, particularly when hurt is involved. But I have developed the tools that improve my ability to do so.

At 50 years old and looking ahead, I wonder what the next decade will bring. I have often thoughtfully assembled the components of my life – responsibilities, relationships, hobbies, etc – to accurately reflect my values and priorities. I have a full life, personally and professionally. But fullness can sometimes become a bit too full. I suspect it is time to prune a bit here and there. I am feeling the need to bring a bit more spaciousness to my life. I want both fullness and depth. The space will create the time to do the work I find most meaningful.

We should all know or seek to learn what we are good at, passionate about, and uniquely gifted in. I believe my way of thinking is part of that. My thought process brings an infrastructure to a space without defining or confining the space. My thought process enables exploration versus explanation. And I absolutely love that about me. I want to use what I have learned, what I love, what is uniquely me.

I may never get paid as a writer. I may never develop an audience. But my writing is about neither of those things. It is the process by which I make sense of my thoughts. I guess what I am now seeing as I step back from this web of thoughts, is that the spaciousness I seek is intended to make room for my writing. I want my writing not to be another thing in my life, but rather the stream which runs through all parts of my life. If just for my benefit, that is okay. My voice is no more important than another. But my voice, my thoughts, my words are uniquely mine.

 

Family

NikLukeLivSix years ago the photo on the left was taken. The two boys are the sons of my best friend, Catherine. The girl is my daughter. Catherine and her boys along with my family and me had increasingly merged. We spent many holidays and birthdays together. She was a surrogate mother to my daughter. Weekly the boys came over for dinner to give her a night to herself and us time alone with the boys. For so long it had been just the three of them most of the time. Together we were building another family. Then Catherine died tragically and unexpectedly.

Her death brought changes and uncertainty. Our kids have their own stories to tell about what that journey has been like. I also have a story to tell. This weekend felt like a much overdue family reunion, bringing back together these three under my roof. They were no longer little chicks. But I wanted to gather them under my wings nonetheless and hold them tight. I chose to do so figuratively rather than literally. I hugged them each when I could without getting too annoying, I hope. And oh, how my heart ached to have Catherine there too.

They indulged my sentimentality by recreating the photograph. When I look at the picture, tears often come. At one point I found myself whispering, “I hope I’ve done alright, Catherine.” I pictured her nodding back with tears in her eyes too. I know for certain that she would be incredibly proud of our kids. I miss my friend, more than words can say.

An interesting paradox exists in my loss of her. There is a deep ache that I guess will always be due to her absence. And there is a joy of having had the time with her I did. Somehow the recreated photograph captures the paradox. I feel healing and pain, joy and sorrow. I sometimes wonder what our lives would be like now. I don’t sugarcoat it. Catherine and I saw things very differently at times. But we had a chemistry I rarely experience in relationships. When things went well, and they often did, it was effortless.

It hasn’t been an easy five years since her death. And I imagine the next five years will have difficulties as well. That seems to be life. But no matter what happens, if it is up to me, the roads taken by the boys will continue to join up, overlap, and travel alongside mine and ours from time to time. What I know from this weekend is that we are connected. We are family.

There was something very right about being together again. As Catherine used to say, “Family isn’t who’s got your blood… it’s who’s got your back.” I’ve got their backs, Catherine. Today and forever.

C&me

Stories

You have a story to tell. You are your story. Do you know your story? Do you share it? Only you can. I hope that you not only own your story, but that you recognize how important your story is.

Sometimes the world sends a message that some stories are more important than others. That is a lie. Sometimes the world says that one can do irreparable damage to his or her story. That too is a lie. As long as we breathe, our stories continue. Each breath is a reminder that our stories are still being written, still being lived out.

Another truth to ponder – your story is sacred because you are sacred. Every day I have the opportunity to hear people’s stories. And more than anything else in my work, I remind people of this truth. You are sacred. Your story is sacred. Sometimes we avoid our story because we feel shame about it. Or we miss the beauty of our story because we compare it to another person’s story.

And in case you didn’t know, there are countless stories in this world to hear and learn from, to be challenged and encouraged by. Listen deeply. Listen empathically. Be curious. Be kind. We need these stories, all of them. Yours and mine. My story isn’t your story and that is a good thing.

Several years ago, my then teenaged son plopped himself in a chair nearby complaining of my decision to not let him go hang out with his friends that evening. He was genuinely annoyed with me. In his story in that moment, he was the protagonist and I was the antagonist. How could I, this big, bad, mean mom ruin his life? I let him go on for awhile. When the complaining showed no signs of slowing, I walked over to interrupt his story with another. I knelt down to be eye level. I gently touched his arm. “Isaac, going hungry is a tragedy. Losing a parent at an early age is a tragedy. Living in a war-torn land is a tragedy. This? My making you stay home tonight? Not a tragedy.”

I said this not to shame him but to broaden his perspective. That is what another story can do. I was challenging his story with another story in hopes that he would see things a little differently. Isaac looked at me, a bit startled at first. He then chuckled and said, “yup.” He jumped up and found something else to do.

Maybe it is because I said what I did without judgment or annoyance. Maybe it is because it was love that fueled my actions. Or maybe I was just lucky. But in that moment I could see recognition on his face of a perspective that changed the story he had been telling himself.

A few years later I was sitting in a room with my fellow seminary classmates. One student shared that he had recently taught his teenaged son to drive. Part of that education included how to be pulled over safely by the police. This man, a black man, one of the kindest, gentlest men I knew, went on to share about his dozen or so experiences of being pulled over by police only to be let go after being cleared for no wrong doing. He talked about the unwritten rules he had been taught to follow that he had to pass on to his son. “Don’t make eye contact.” “Be polite.” “Don’t question.” “Don’t show your agitation, frustration, or anger.” Just to name a few. These rules weren’t for the sake of common courtesy. They were rules for survival.

I pride myself on identifying outcomes. I come up with contingency outcomes and contingency-upon-contingency outcomes. Never once, in all of my worst case scenarios I tried to imagine did I consider that my son, who I had recently taught to drive, might be in harm’s way when in the presence of the police. Not once did I worry for his safety. Maybe if my classmate had simply talked about his experiences, I might have dismissed his story. But there was something undeniably disturbing in the contrast between his son’s “driver’s ed” and my son’s. I heard him. And I was undone.

His story exposed a world I had refused to see up to that point. His story challenged my story in a way that humbled me and tore me open. It was painful and hard to allow his story to coexist with my story. But I knew I had to keep listening. I needed to hear his story and many more stories of people who live in and experience the world differently from me.

I am still listening. I am listening to my story and your story. I look for the ways they beautifully overlap and the ways they uncomfortably bump into each other. I am living and learning through my story and your story.

So, what is your story? Have you told it recently? Do so, and tell it often. Remember to tell the ups and the downs. Share the good and the not-so-good. Celebrate the joys. Mourn the losses. Share your story. Again and again and again. The world needs to hear your story.

Does the Waiting of Advent End on Christmas?

The church historically has celebrated a season called Advent. For most of my life, I thought Advent was simply a month leading up to Christmas with a wreath of candles to light each week. But it turns out that Advent is more than that. It is a month of expectantly waiting, sort of like the woman who is 8 months pregnant and doing that final month countdown.

A lot of emotions and activities make up the four final weeks leading up to the baby’s birth, especially when it is the first child. The month is exciting but it is also nerve-wracking. I remember wondering if I was ready. What kind of mother would I be? Were we financially stable enough? How would our lives change? There was a lot of discomfort in my waiting, in addition to the excitement.

This Christmas I managed to get my shopping done early. I’m not sure how I did it. Thanksgiving weekend arrived, and I decided one quiet evening to organize my list. Next thing I knew I had made a substantial dent in my list. That inspired me to plan a little more, stick with my plan, and voila! Two weeks later my shopping was done and most of my wrapping complete!

I then unexpectedly found my mind stilled somewhat, no longer being bogged down by the usual preparations. While enjoying the space I was inhabiting, my nephew reached out. He was feeling down about the lack of peace in the midst of the season that proclaims “Peace On Earth!” I couldn’t argue with him. He was right. For a couple thousand years we have celebrated the arrival of the Christ child, the event meant to mark the arrival of God With Us. I couldn’t help but wonder… Is God with us?

I went to my bookshelf and found Richard Rohr’s Preparing For Christmas. On the “First Sunday of Advent” Rohr writes that we “live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness” because “perfect fulfillment is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now.” That immediately caught my attention because the general tenor of the christian faith feels like an ultimatum. Each side has the truth and demands obedience to it. Rohr says that the Christian faith, and Advent specifically, is about waiting.

Waiting can be about delaying action. But waiting can also be about readiness for a future purpose, like the 8-month-pregnant woman. The posture of readiness and preparation is what I think Rohr references. Rohr goes on to say that only God can bring perfect fulfillment, Peace On Earth. For those of us who long for that reality, we are to wait by preparing for what we hope will come. And we recognize our limitations in doing so.

Problems emerge when someone determines for others what those preparations are. Imagine if my Christmas preparations were to include telling my family how they could make Christmas perfect. My list would be my view and interpretation of perfection, and admittedly a bit self-serving in that I would gloss over meaningful things that are not necessarily as meaningful for me personally. I suspect we would all end up miserable.

Instead I need to focus on what I can bring to our family’s time together that is meaningful. And I need to give my family space to bring what they feel is meaningful. If one chooses not to prepare? Then so be it. Each of us has a choice when it comes to what we want and if or how we will prepare. And even if we all fully prepare, will it be perfect anyway? No. Because life is not perfect. No family is perfect. No holiday is perfect.

And so a paradox emerges: Christmas can be both wonderful as its meaning is experienced, and imperfect as the full reality has not yet come. Rohr says we are called to full consciousness, and forewarned about the high price of consciousness. In other words, the more good or God or peace we experience, the more aware we will become of the absence of good and peace, and our limitations of experiencing God.

When Christians assume the waiting is over because Christmas has already come, we miss something significant. Actually we might miss the whole kit and caboodle. Consciousness may have begun, but the cost of that consciousness becomes too high. And so we insulate ourselves from what is difficult or those who are suffering. We try to convince ourselves that the waiting has ended, though perhaps secretly, deep within, we know it is still not right.

As my nephew so rightly proclaimed, Peace On Earth has not yet come. And so we wait.

Chatter

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
Frederick Buechner’s words resonate deeply. The chatter is exhausting. Maddening. Deadening. We are a culture of chatter; chatter that chirps day and night, chatter that chips away at humanity – yours and mine. 
I do not even realize the toll it takes until I am so tense every muscle aches, or so utterly depleted that I want to sleep for days.
“Unclench the fists of your spirit,” Buechner says.
I do not think this means to abandon one’s convictions. On the contrary, this is what might enable one to live out deep convictions without losing one’s mind. Or all of one’s friends. What a novel idea.
Once in a great while, I meet a person who embodies what Buechner names. I know it almost immediately – faith, integrity, grit, a calmness that resembles the eye of a storm, and love. He or she embodies convictions without shaming another. He or she inspires change, not demands it. He or she has a full life with relationships that have been tended to and meaningfulness that goes beyond work.
The chatter pulls us further away from what so many of us seek: peace, salvation, purpose. We long for an affirmation that we are on the right path but spend most of our time criticizing the “wrong” path. We fear wasting our lives, yet we waste so much time. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. But we put much of our energy into breaking things apart.
I think it is scary to ease the chatter. What will the silence bring? What do I not want to hear? What if I hear nothing at all? And so we chirp away. We speak even when we have doubts. We speak regardless of who is listening. We speak until we cannot stand the sound of our voices anymore. And we speak some more. Until eventually our souls wither or something shatters, forcing us into silence. Then, if we have an ounce of consciousness left, maybe we just might hear the collective sigh of heaven.

Friday Favorite: A Good Life

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – – that is a good life.

Annie Dillard, A Writing Life

I first came across this quote a few months ago, and it still lingers in my mind. In particular, two points have stuck with me. First, that a life of the spirit requires less and less. I have thought a lot about what this looks like. Is it less stuff? Less recognition? Is it feeling increasingly content and satisfied? All of the above, I think.

Second, that by talking of one’s life, I believe it will need to be worked on throughout my life. It takes time, intentionality, mistakes, lessons learned, vulnerability, patience and grace. Life is measured as a whole. I can look at its parts and evaluate how I am doing. But to look at my life, I must step back and examine the whole of my life – self, relationships, work, interests, thoughts, contributions, and so forth.

I would like to some day look back on my life and think of it as good. For there is no shortage of good days. But a good life is hard to come by.

Saturday Mornings

Cooler mornings are beginning to return.

So many mornings are regimented. There are things that must get done.

But today will be different.

With my cup of coffee I head to the porch.

The rocking chair allows me to see both the hummingbirds who will visit the feeder and the squirrels who will play along the base of the trees.

I bring a book. Annie Dillard is my choice today. I drink her words along with my coffee.

My cat joins me, perched on the dry sink to have the same view as mine – hummingbirds and squirrels.

I read as much as I watch.

I drink my coffee.

I sit still and am content.

This is how mornings should be.

This is how to begin the day.

I love Saturday mornings.

 

Empty Nesting

Well, friends, it has been quite a few weeks. We dropped our baby off at college and are settling into a new normal of empty nesting. I remember when we lost our beloved dog of nearly 15 years, I would find myself going to feed her, only to be jolted into the reality that she was no longer with us. I would then tear up and sometimes just weep from the loss. Eerily similar, I get home from work and am about to call up the stairs to tell my daughter I’m home, only to remember she’s not in her room. She’s not in the house. And she won’t be coming home for awhile. But I don’t find myself tearing up, most of the time that is. I find myself feeling grateful for who she is and where she is.

Raising a child these days is no easy task. What they face, what they know, what they see, what they deal with is a lot. Helping a child navigate childhood into adulthood can be overwhelming and hard. Neither do I take for granted the young woman I left at her new college dorm nor all the people it took to help us get her there. I didn’t raise perfect children and I didn’t raise them perfectly. In fact I made lots of mistakes. But I feel proud of the job I did. And I feel proud of the adults my children have become.

In reflecting upon how we got to this place, I have been thinking about what I think I did well, and not so well in my parenting. The efforts I put into being a better parent has made me a better person. There are many things I could share, but I thought I’d focus on just a few.

First, what I think most often got in the way of my being a good parent was my impatience. It was easier just to do something myself. It was easier to pretend I didn’t hear the 15th question. It was easier to redirect for the sake of getting to the point rather than allow them to meander through their thoughts and ideas. I cringe at some of the moments I can recall. Sometimes I would catch my impatience, stop, apologize, and do better. Sometimes I would realize after the fact, go back and apologize. And far too many times I’m sure, I moved on without realizing what I had done and how my impatience must have felt sharp and judgmental. Both of my children are very gracious when I share my regrets and offer an apology. I have definitely improved my patience, but have a looooooooonnng way to go.

What seemed to come naturally for me was to love my kids unconditionally. It has been the most natural relationship I have experienced. And loving them has helped me to love others better. So I can take no credit for this in my parenting. I have heard of others struggling to love their kids unconditionally, often because they have never experienced that kind of love themselves. I am thankful that I could love them unconditionally, meaning it was never their job to love me or care for me. Correction was given for the sake of their learning to be better people, not because they owed me anything or needed to do anything to keep my love. I believe we all need to be loved unconditionally, and the sooner that can be felt, the better.

I think what I did well was decide from very early on that I would know my kids. I don’t just mean superficially. Or know what I want to know or think I know. It has taken time and effort. It requires hearing sometimes what I don’t want to hear or know. It is both humbling and at times frustrating. But this is what allowed me to see them as individuals from the very beginning. Not an extension of me or my husband. Not someone to do what I wish I had done. Not someone who would live into my expectation. Rather to see them as their own entities with their own ideas, dreams, flaws, and needs. This has enabled me to allow them to follow their own paths, and to make their own mistakes.

And it is what has made our empty nesting feel so right. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my kids. When my son came home for my daughter’s graduation, my heart felt like it might burst from joy. I miss my daughter, and I have teared up several times. But my children were never mine to keep. They were mine to raise and then share with the world.

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