Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts on turning thirty

Photo by Robin Robokow

Today is my thirtieth birthday.

Can I tell you how excited I am? I've been waiting several years now for this, so that when people inevitably ask me if I'm in high school, or say I'm too young to be a pastor or drink or be married or have five years' job experience--I can retort with I'm thirty, which is a lot more of a zinger than I'm twenty-nine.

At three I tried to hop on a Paris subway car by myself; at sixteen I begged to be able to drive myself to my own appointments. Ever since, I've always been pushing for more independence and responsibility. I've dealt with obstacles and maybe embarrassment when I feel people question me about whether I'm competent to handle certain tasks. I've never found a way to graciously respond when people take me for an amateur in a place where I'm in charge. And now I'm thirty. Surely that's worth some respect.

There's more to it, of course.

I like the thought of getting older, maybe wiser. I look forward to the days when, God-willing, I'm forty or fifty or sixty or seventy. It might be nice to feel settled somewhere, or to hold a job for more than three years, or to be relieved of the pressure of representing to everyone the future generation. It might be nice to sit on a porch of a home I've lived in for ten years. It might be nice to stop worrying about who I'm going to be, and relax into who I am already.

In a society that prizes the novelty of youth, I'm not concerned about becoming boring or irrelevant. If ever someone inspires me to think "I want to be like her," it's usually a woman whose hair has begun to gray. She is usually thoughtful about her own experiences, the painful and the beautiful. She has a sense of connectedness to all the people she has known, and they have each made her who she is. She carries an inner silence that can only come from years of practice.

*

Many of my friends are sad to be hitting this milestone. Thirty, to someone still trying to find a career or just a stable job, may seem daunting, like a deadline she never knew until it had passed. Thirty to a single woman may bring fear of loneliness, of being forgotten by friends, of never finding the "right" person. That's real fear and real pain, and I can't pretend to speak to that.

But I have regrets, too, leaving my twenties.

I can go back to Tanzania one day, and maybe even move or work in East Africa again, which will be its own adventure. But I can't go back to the free and weightless person I was there. I can visit friends and see the homes they own and their pets and children, which is a new kind of joy. But I can't be a roommate again in the group house with a garden and potluck dinners and parties full of laughter. I can't be a young college grad who could take a job in any city, move to be near friends on a whim. There may be new choirs or a book clubs or yoga classes. But I have less leisure to play piano or join an intramural soccer team. And it's hard to imagine now that I'll ever spend a season working on an organic farm learning to grow vegetables, or get a degree in creative writing or counseling or music.

The world is no longer quite all ahead of me. Trajectories are set in motion, and mostly that is joy. But, too, moving forward always means leaving something behind.

*

This season brings constant reminders of mortality. The fragility of babies in the womb, the sudden death of a healthy adult at 35 or 60. As much as I may speak with bravado and whitewashed idealism about the wisdom of the old, I am standing right here in the middle of the messiness of it all, mourning those I have lost, mourning those others have lost. My own body joins the crowd of evidence. Two of my teeth are literally falling out. My joints are getting weak. My body is less resilient after red-eye flights than it once was.

Two weeks ago a cross was made on my forehead, the words spoken over me, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." And this is always true, and perhaps every year it becomes more true. My mortality is not something I fear, exactly. Except that in the moments in which I believe I am about to die--moments on highways, or moments of walking alone in the dark, or moments suspended in the air as I fly off the front of my bike--I am struck with a panic that I have not loved as I might, I have not made peace with all, I have left too many messes on my floor and broken pieces in my journey.

So getting older is as treacherous as it is beguiling, bringing the fear of things that have not yet been and may never be.

But mortality is also invitational. Why not stop pretending, learn to be transparent to each other and to God? Why not speak what we really feel? The liminal moments, the fearful moments, the vulnerable moments are the ones that make me put aside the homework and shake off anxiety about trivial matters and embrace all that is beautiful and holy and gift.

*

In the end the truth, I think, is that whether you're hankering to be older, like me, or longing for the days gone by when the world was spread before you and your life plan had not yet been derailed...it's not about age at all, really.

What I mean is that I think perhaps the challenge given to us all is how to love the very ground we are resting our feet on at this moment. Contentment does come from being seventy and having achieved it all, but from learning the art of gratitude. Respect does not come to me from a snarky I'm thirty I throw our to the world, but from being grounded and centered no matter how people see me. Inner silence won't suddenly appear at seventy if I don't cultivate it now.

So today I am going to hug a friend, and eat fresh food, and call my mom, and say a prayer. Today I am going to volunteer at a food pantry and study for a midterm. I am going to love this day that has been given, add my best to it, and try not to put my hope in the number that has been assigned to it.

But just in case you were wondering...that number is thirty.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Don't worry: Letters to myself

Most of the advice I'd give my younger self in hindsight begins with, Don't worry. 


Photo by bekasinne

A note for a self-confident third-grader:

Don't worry. Yes, a mom down the street said fourth grade was hard. So I understand why you asked your mom if she would home school you next year if it's all too much for you.

But you are more than capable of the challenge, dear one. And you won't be alone--you'll be taking on long division with the help of all your friends. And with the help of your parents, who believe in you. You know that, don't you? They believe in you, and they will believe in you if you get a B, and they will believe in you if you decide, one day, to quit piano or soccer or even church, and that believing in you will cover over a multitude of hurt.

So you see, there's nothing to fear.

*
A note for a ninth grader learning to fail:

Don't worry. Oh dear Katie, what a year it's been--your first bitter tastes of failure, your first experiences of un-belonging. I know how badly you wanted to be in the musical. The exhilaration of being on stage in middle school--you loved it perhaps even more than anything you'd ever done. But you will get the chance to be on stage again, and you will love other things even more than this.

And it doesn't end there--I know what disappointment you feel at not making the chamber choir. The first time you heard them sing, you knew you'd been waiting all your life to get into that group. But wait another year, it's okay. The trade-off will be deep, life-long friendships and the chance to lead your own singing group and the kinds of experiences that will stay with you for life.

And yes, dear awkward soul, you are fifteen and you have braces and frizzy hair and your sense of humor hasn't blossomed, and yet you still long for their approval. It feels utterly humiliating to stand at your locker by yourself in the morning before class, pretending to be occupied, as all the groups of laughing blondes wander by. But oh, if only you knew the depth of the empathy and compassion growing up in you right now. For the rest of your life you will always notice the girl standing on the wall, you will always feel the pain of the lonely. And though you couldn't possibly imagine it now, you will always stay in touch with the close friends you will make in these halls.

*
A note for a college sophomore, amidst the collapse of all her certainties:

Don't worry. Don't worry about going to a "third-world" country or about your first relationship or about not having a five-year plan. I know, dear Katie, that these things are not really what you're scared of. The truth is you're scared that something within you is changing. You're scared that you're losing all that has been your foundation--your God, your habits, your identity.

Listen: you are not losing anything that won't be replaced one hundred fold. 

You will lose some convictions, some people, some of yourself. It will hurt. It is okay to mourn. But here's the thing: God is not going to leave you. In fact, in all of this you will find God in a different and more beautiful way than ever before, a way that opens up possibilities you never dreamed of.

*
A note for a twenty-something planner without a plan:

Don't worry. You simply don't have to have it all figured out now. Oh, how funny it is to think of you and your dear roommate staying up late trading worries. Yours is career--shouldn't a twenty-four year old have a plan by now?!--and hers is relationship--shouldn't a twenty-four year old have met the right man by now?!

The answer, of course, is no. In six years you still won't have it figured out, but you will have realized that the journey has taught you more than a plan could ever have done. When you get to graduate school, eventually, you will be so glad you didn't know yet what you wanted and studied English in college. You will be so glad you didn't know yet what you wanted and joined Americorps and encountered the gritty beautiful slow-paced DC and learned the hard way how to work on a team. You will be so glad you had those late nights trading worries with people who will be forever friends.

*
A note for today.

Don't worry. First of all, you're doing great. In fact, can you stop doing great for a moment and enjoy life a little? You may not know exactly what's coming with balancing two careers and a marriage and the hope of children and community and so much more--let tomorrow worry about itself. Aren't you having fun? You love studying languages and writing sermons and giving hugs in the handshake line at church to the women whose pain has been told you over coffee.

Sure, you are in this place of leaving behind the freedoms of young adulthood. Sure, you are re-figuring your friendships and practices and hobbies. Sure, you are grieving what it means to settle somewhere, which is also not to settle somewhere else. Sure, you are realizing that to embrace church and prison work is also not to embrace farming and piano-teaching and other dreams you once had. And you are always, always afraid of failing at the things you for which you are responsible.

But look back on it all, dearest Katie. Have you really ever had a failure you didn't learn from? Have you ever really been alone in your questions? Have your musings and wandering uncertainties ever really led you somewhere where blessing was not to be found?

In hindsight the memory is always clear, that you have been accompanied in all your paths, whether you attuned yourself or not, by the Spirit of the living God.

So read backwards. The memory is now. Just sit and watch the snow awhile.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A few things I don't normally tell you

Photo by Nelo Hotsuma

I get irrationally anxious in the passenger seat. Maybe it's new in the last couple years, or maybe it’s that now we live in a more congested area. It’s dark and we’re in the car somewhere between Washington and Richmond when I find myself yelling every few seconds, “watch out!” begging my husband to slow down or put two hands on the wheel or change lanes to get away from the Jersey wall or a truck. My chest is too tight to relax, even though the reason my husband is driving is because I was getting sleepy. I recognize that I’m a little crazy but I can’t seem to stop wincing with every curve in the road. "You need help," my husband says. "I don't want you to have a heart attack."

I get angry for minuscule reasons, often related to wasted time, money, or energy. Late to meet my family for lunch, I am driving around the block for thirty minutes looking for a parking spot and I begin to seethe. I finally park, and as I walk the block to the restaurant, I try to reason with myself. It's not my husband or parents' fault, so I should forget about it and just enjoy the rest of the time we have. When I enter the restaurant and find out what they ordered for me, it is one more unpleasant change I can't handle. I yell and berate and make myself a complete fool, hating myself as it happens. I recognize that I’m a little crazy but it’s too late for me to back down. A couple days later, my dad calls to talk to me about my behavior. I'm 29 and my dad is concerned about my behavior; I know I need help.

As an early step in the process of becoming a Presbyterian pastor, I have to go to Charlotte for a 2-day psychological evaluation: the first day for testing, the second day for interview and results with a psychologist. The first day consists of hundreds of questions about voices in my head, how much I yell, if I ever want to break things, how's my sex life, how often I feel depressed, whether spiders make me anxious, do I obsess about details, am I mostly happy or mostly sad or mostly crazy. After it is over, I am panicking. I am sure I am going to be found out, I am going to fail, they are going to tell me I belong in therapy, not ministry. But the interview the next morning makes me feel like a normal person again, and two weeks later I get the results: Ms. Ross presented as a pleasant, engaged young person who is very interested in the evaluation process. She took notes and asked questions, appearing open to feedback and suggestions for growth. 

I think maybe we are all a little crazy, all a little wounded or anxious or neurotic or just sad (which is not to undermine clinical mental health problems that are very serious for some people, but simply to say no one is perfectly normal). I think maybe the best thing I can give to my future ministry is to stop pretending to be put together, stop pretending I can handle my anxiety and anger since I'm a well-balanced person who usually knows how to keep a lid on it, stop getting by with being a pleasant and engaged young person and learn instead how to be a whole and honest one.

So this is what I am going to try. This is my version of New Year’s resolution—or maybe just the hope of someone who has become tired of getting by. And since I’ve learned that abstract aspirations never get me too far, I’m taking three concrete steps.

1)  This semester, I'm joining a small group of women who meet weekly to share their spiritual lives, and unlike the first time I tried to join this group, I'm going to prioritize it over school and work. Because these women just might become the kind of friends who can help me be real and whole.

2) I've signed up for a writing group at school which will help me to write down the truth, to face the feelings I need to process, at least once a week. Because I need help and accountability in confronting the truest things about myself.

3)  I am lucky to have access to counseling through school, included in my tuition, so I am going to try meeting with a counselor this spring. Because you don’t have to be in acute crisis to benefit from therapy, because I never want to be too proud to seek help, because it just might help me learn to be more centered and whole.

I tell you all this, I suppose, because I have a penchant for oversharing my flaws (though some of you, surely, are not surprised at these anecdotes). Or I tell you all this because I suspect most people think they're awful, at some point, and it might do some folks good to hear they're not the only ones. Or perhaps I tell you all this because if I write it on the internet, I have to follow through. 

And also: maybe you too have been getting by and maybe you want to take a concrete step towards being whole and maybe we can walk that journey together.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best of 2015

Well, 2015 whizzed by. I'm now halfway done with seminary, pushing thirty, and getting settled in Durham NC. It’s the time to celebrate some of my favorite things of the year.

Books: (Only three; I didn’t read enough non-school books this year)
3. Wearing God by Lauren Winner: Fantastic exploration of different images for God in the Bible. You know, Christians like to call God creator and king, but God is also described as clothing, fire, pregnant woman, friend, bread, wine, aroma. These chapters expanded my spiritual imagination and invited me to celebrate a God who is beyond my limited conception.

2. Lila by Marilynne Robinson: This deals with the same characters, and some of the same events, as her two earlier novels Gilead and Home, but from a much different (fascinating) perspective. Robinson doesn’t write page-turners, and her books don’t follow a typical plot, but the writing and characters are impeccable, and the themes are rich with human questions. What is it that defines our souls, our capacity for good or ill, our relationships and our loneliness? Lila asks questions especially about the feral and gentle within us, about how early experiences shape us, about how spirituality is relevant to those for whom the main question is survival.

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: I’ve been recommending this one to everybody. Stevenson’s book reads as part memoir, part documentary, part true crime. You’ll be flipping pages to find out what happens to Walter, a man on death row who swears he’s innocent, and meanwhile you’ll be confronting our justice system, the depths of brokenness within all of us, and the persistence of hope and redemption.

Media and Arts:
3. Most of my TV and movies you've all already seen. Probably my two favorite movies were Boyhood and The Theory of Everything (and yes, I also enjoyed Star Wars.

2. Much better than staring at a screen is experiencing art in reality. I saw Swan Lake by the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh last spring and it was lovely.

1. While visiting the Getty Museum in LA last March, I was drawn to a painting in a way I’ve never before been drawn to art: “Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre” by Girolomo Savoldo. I see myself in it, I suppose. And I see the most perfect, realistic-but-hopeful balance of darkness and light. It's not the same on a screen, but:

            

Best things:
4. Preaching: Sometimes a class becomes a community; sometimes an education becomes real life. My preaching class this fall was perfect. We were creative together, we helped each other grow, we laughed, we learned what it is to occupy this space of being called to share the gospel of God. I’m thankful for reminders that this path I’m walking into is one that fits.

3. Trips:  California (lovely former roomie plus meeting the life goal of peeing in all 3 oceans that aren’t at Arctic Temperatures plus riding a bus with some silly college choir kids plus biking across the Golden Gate); Minnesota (spirit home plus two of my dear college friends marrying each other!); Western Massachusetts (friends’ wedding plus camping and napping under trees).



2. Presbyterians: I’m working at a Presbyterian Church right now, loving especially the honor of listening to people’s stories and grateful to be mentored by a wonderful pastor. And since September, I’ve been officially on the list as an “inquirer” to become a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. This basically means I’ve passed the first of three steps in discerning and becoming certified as a pastor. It’s getting real, y’all.

1. Reunion: If you read any of my pieces this summer, you know that I had a beautiful and possibly life-changing experience with Church of the Saviour this summer, especially the time I spent learning from the people at Reunion, seeing both the heartbreaking reality of the prison pipeline and the redemptive possibilities of community. I’m so grateful for the servant leaders of that community, for the men and women coming home from prison, for the encouragement to be authentic across lines of race and class, for a place which nurtured my spirit so.

What’s ahead:
3. Durham, NC: In one of the harder decisions we’ve had to make since our marriage, John and I decided to turn down a job offer he had received in DC, since it would have started this summer and necessitated us spending a year apart (it also wasn’t his dream job). I love DC so it was sad to say, “not now.” But John graduates in May and we’re looking forward to staying here in NC like for a few more years. I won’t say I don’t have second thoughts when I visit home and reunite with all the wonderful people there, but it’s nice to be putting down roots and slowly building community here in Durham.

2. Being able to walk! After lots of biking and running this summer, I started noticing minor foot pain. It took four months of no running or biking, five weeks on crutches, two X-rays and one MRI to finally figure out what it was—irritation and inflammation of the sesamoid bones, which are on the bottom of the foot near the big toe. I’m now mostly recovered and in physical therapy, looking forward to being active again, not depending on people for rides, hiking the Grand Canyon in May and maybe running a half marathon later this year.

1. Writing again: It’s been a draining semester, and I didn’t write a blog post from July until now. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I do know I’ve signed up for a non-credit journaling group this semester. I’m hoping that will get the creative juices, the truth-telling juices, flowing again.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kiddos, aching souls, and the school-to-prison pipeline

Photo by Mike Mozart

I don’t make the connection until eight weeks into the summer.

“I really love what I’m doing with Reunion and Church of Christ, Right Now,” I keep telling friends, family, anyone on the street who will listen to me gush about my new love.

I feel moved when I go to jail. I feel deep meaning in the conversations and relationships and support groups with the ones coming home from jail, the ones long ago in jail and now leaders in the movement, the ones who’ve never been to jail and desperately don’t want their grandkids to go there. Jesus is in jail. The Spirit is in the vulnerability and open heartedness. The leaders of this movement are prophets and saints and I want to sit at their feet and soak up all their wisdom and commitment and love.

“On the other hand,” I shrug, “the after-school program stuff is fine—I just plan field trips and help out with a summer camp for kids. But I’ve been there before. I’ve taught reading before; I’ve worked in a summer daycare; I’ve written curriculum. I’m ready for something new. I’m ready to put my theology to use.”

Taking kindergarteners to the American Indian museum to build an igloo, after all, is not really theology. Right?

*

It is time to go on a trip with the middle school kids.

I squish into the van with them as we drive the twenty minutes to get downtown.

The three boys sitting on the seat next to me are bragging about how bad they are. “I’ve been expelled from three schools,” one says. “I’ve been expelled from one, but I have a feeling I’ll get kicked out of my new one,” another responds, trying to keep up. “My cousin got suspended,” says the goody-goody, bless his heart.

I want to roll my eyes. I am sure these kids are exaggerating. I keep listening.

“My dad has been in jail most of my life,” is where the conversation migrates. “Almost all my relatives have been in jail,” says another kid. “My brother had to go to juvy for stealing an iPhone from the store,” says another. “My teacher keeps telling me I’m gonna end up in juvy,” says the kid with the dad in jail. “You only get three strikes before you get locked up for good,” someone warns. “My cousin has four strikes though,” one protests.

And like that, the synapses meet, and my heart is weeping and praying for each of them by name.

These kids I work with in the mornings will become the incarcerated folks I work with in the afternoons.

It was only last night that our support group had a heart-wrenching conversation about belonging and love. So many aching souls in that room, confessing that they'd longed for more love from their mothers and fathers. They'd run away from home because of it. They'd ended up in juvy because of it. They'd sought love in all the wrong places, formed all the wrong kinds of relationships. Only to find now, at 28 or 37 or 59, that they are tired of the search. They are tired and they want to rest here in this community, in this place, where if they are brave enough to be themselves, there is love to be found.

And now, when these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds give their macho stories about their dads absent in jail, I know I am hearing the same story in a different tone of voice. In just a few short years, these boys are so likely to become the men in jail, wanting another way but not knowing how to repair relationships, how to break out of poverty without a little quick money on the side to get them started. They are so likely to become those tired men sitting around the table at support group. Because if it’s all they’ve ever seen from every man in their family, who can tell them there’s another way? I grew up without ever questioning if I’d go to college. Everyone in my family went to college. It was a given. What is the given for these kids?

For some of them—the troublemakers, the ones with a rebellious streak—the connection is not hard to visualize. But the little guy in the front row with the sideways baseball cap? The beautiful girl with a scowl who brightens as she comes up with the most thoughtful answer to every question? Surely not them, too?

And then my heart skips a beat, as I think of the sweet little kindergarteners I took to the museum yesterday. The tiny little girls and boys who hold hands and walk through the exhibits with their matching visors and garner the admiration of every stranger. The adorable little voices who chorus, “Thank you, Miss Katie,” and giggle so freely. The open hearts who stare in wide-eyed wonder at the whale hanging from the ceiling and exclaim, “Whoa!” every time I open the box to show them a new type of rock.

It is one thing for the moody, exasperating middle-schoolers to grow up to be incarcerated. But who will these kindergarterners grow up to be?

Lord, have mercy. May it not be so.

*

For the last two weeks, I want to soak up all the love and open-heartedness I can from the re-entry program, from the beautiful spirits of the men and women coming home from prison.

And then I want to take and fling it with all my strength into the hearts of the kids in the summer program, whether by presence or by conversation or, simply and desperately, by prayer.

Because my work is not divided this summer into two unrelated ministries. It is one. The love we share in the support group is the same love needed by the kids. If they can receive love now, perhaps they won’t smoke and drink to escape it all. If they can be wrapped in the grace and protection of the spirit now, perhaps they will find a different way than their fathers.

And for me--if this daily breaking of my heart can be captured and bathed in the Spirit, perhaps something beautiful becomes of me, too.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When we need everyone at the table

Imagine you are part of a movement to dismantle mass incarceration, in part through changing the prison-industrial system by which profits are made when more people are in jail. Imagine that representatives of this very prison-industrial system seek to join your cause. Will you let them stay?

Imagine you are part a community which wants to build supportive relationships across divisions of race and class. You want everybody to have a place in your community, a place to share their experiences and feelings. Imagine someone comes into your space spouting divisions of race and class. Will you let them stay?

*

About 10 folks in my organization, as a creative protest measure, bought one share each in the largest for-profit prison company in the US. Being shareholders, they attend the shareholder meeting every year to advocate for better ways, different profit incentives, various reforms. There may not be any visible results yet, but they are witnessing to a different way.

Meanwhile, some of the board members of the prison company have taken an interest in the efforts of my organization, the way they seek to support folks coming home from prison. They have taken an interest in our support groups, and our house for guys who've been recently incarcerated, and the jobs and education programs to which we are connected. They have given donations. They have come to visit. One may speak at our fundraiser.

The director of our organization acknowledged the dissonance. "Yes, it's goofy," she said. "It's an uncomfortable reality. When they first started giving us money, we weren't sure what to do. But then we thought if we didn't want to accept dirty money, whose money could we accept?

"Besides," she added, "we believe we need everyone at the table."

Yes. We can only break down systems of injustice if everyone is on board. Everyone. And that means that we have to be willing to engage with folks who disagree with us, who threaten our cause, with whom our relationship is complicated or goofy.

Because it's relationships and transformed hearts that we're after--not just new laws that leave old walls and divisions in place.

*

Photo by Jim Champion

In my internship, we have meetings called "Freedom Circles," which are dangerous things. Like an AA meeting or a summer camp sharing circle, the meetings start off with this week's leader reading or reflecting on a particular topic, and then there are 45 minutes before us in which anyone may speak. Which is the beauty, and the danger.

Because everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone has a voice.

Last week "everyone" included someone who was frustrated, someone who was angry, someone who was lonely, someone who felt wronged by the group. There we were, all of us broken together in the room, and the time was open before us, free for the seizing.

Several people shared, some speaking with candor and honesty, some with anger and walls, some with repetitive phrases that made me wonder whether this meeting had a point. There are days where the sharing is deep and succinct and profound, where someone gives us a window into her past, where someone acknowledges the pain he has caused others, where someone makes a new connection about her feelings of abandonment that have led to addiction, where someone admits he doesn't know how to fix his relationship.

This was not that day. A few folks shared. They mostly talked too long. They mostly exuded frustration and anger. After each person, we chorused "Thanks for sharing," even though saying it felt a bit disingenuous. After one angry outburst, I noticed sidelong glances and folks uncomfortably shifting in their seats.

The leader took it all in stride. Later, he would tell me, "that meeting went exactly how it was supposed to go." He proceeded with the meeting, explaining that we were all about to share the ritual of communion. He broke half of a hamburger bun and held up a punch cup half full of grape juice, then began passing them around the room, even as some of the other members of the circle continued looking around, unsettled, uncertain. I noticed a certain tension in my chest.

After a hesitating start, a woman offered the cup to her neighbor, saying, "This cup was given so that you may know that even though you are broken, you are not beyond God's love." Just as the reality of those words began to flood into all of us, the leader had begun singing. "Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken...bind us together in love." A few of us joined in, and as we sang and shared and ate, something happened.

My breathing slowed and I turned just in time to see a man who had earlier been shaking his head at his neighbor in disgust and frustration, offering to him the bread and the cup. This was, for both of them, their first time sharing communion in our group. "The body of Christ and the blood of Christ, given for you," the man said as his neighbor took a piece. The neighbor then turned to me. I knew he was angry at me for an earlier miscommunication. But he pushed the cup to me and said simply, "The body and blood of Christ."

"Amen."

I thought how neither of us deserved this moment. None of us deserved to be at this table.

The leader closed in prayer, and people began filing out. I stood to talk to my neighbor, apologizing for hurting him. He accepted my apology. By this time the rest of the folks had left, and I wondered if some of them had been put off by the halting meeting.

I hope not.

Because to dismantle mass incarceration, we need everyone at the table. To build true community, we need to welcome everyone to the table, broken people included. And as Jesus reminded me that night, communion is holy because it reminds us that we are all sitting at a table only by mercy--you, and me, and the one with the angry outburst, and the one with only frustration in her heart, and whoever else walks in the door tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When you dare to be happy

Photo by David McSpadden

At Dayspring last Friday night, we entered the Great Silence after dinner, around 9pm. We kept it until 10am Sunday morning. In between, we could walk the lovely grounds, journal, read, pray, sit, eat, sleep, anything as we felt led. But we could not speak.

*

Me and silence, 2000 to present:

For a time, music was my silence, my retreat, my freedom. No words needed to explain myself, no people to explain myself to. Just me and eighty-eight keys in a small soundproof room, playing it out.

During a day of silence last fall, I breathed for the first time in a month. Then, I scribbled anger and disappointment at myself, all over my journal.

I am the awfulest person in the world at getting up in the morning. But just before dawn (especially in early spring) is my most favorite time to be silent, alone, alert.

Once on a technology fast, I experienced road rage such as I have never experienced before, until I pulled over to the side of the road to eat a peanut butter sandwich and make growling noises--yes I am that insane--since I couldn't turn on the radio to tune it out.

Silence is boring. Silence is edifying. Silence is restorative. Silence is terrifying. I crave silence and run to escape it all at once. In silence, I see God. I see beauty. I also see myself.

*

I came to Dayspring expecting something. Something angry, and difficult, and cathartic. Something with tears and a rehashing of old disappointments warring within me and (just maybe) a profound new insight that would change everything. I came in expecting that the silence would be, at its core, hard work.

So, anticipating the hours ahead, my first task when silence began was to read over every journal entry I've written since I started divinity school. It only took about 20 minutes. There weren't many, The entries there were consisted of wrangling and wrestling and anxiety and questions. Questions about how to approach my vocation, my marriage, my spiritual life, my relationships. How to process the painful things in my past.

God, I know I can't handle all of it this weekend, so please guide me to what it is you want me to wrestle with.

In the morning morning, after a deliciously fresh breakfast and a run through forested country roads, I was lying flat on my back, stretched out in the cool hallway when it struck me, clear as day, clear as the title of the weekend's program: "The Gift of Divine Time."

This weekend is not for you to wrestle. Having named the questions and anxieties last night is enough. Now, let go--not in avoidance or denial but in trust--and commend all into the hands of the Spirit. Now, simply enjoy. This silence is for you a gift.

*

Something shifts, and I am in the present.

It is a gift that I am here. The sun and the woman in the rocking chair next to me on the porch and the rain and the bed and the fresh food--all is gift.

It is a gift that I am asleep by ten.

It is a gift that I am here in community without needing to explain myself, to worry over my words. I confess I may enjoy people more when we can simply be together, no words.

It is a gift when the storm hits Saturday night, and I am sitting on the porch looking out at the lightning and the rain that has blurred my vision of the horizon and the wind that is making the trees sway violently. I startle when the first tree branch falls, but then I grin, glee splattered over my face as the wind blows the rain under the porch and against my skin. I stare down the storm until it passes, and retire for the evening.


It is a gift that I am running on these rolling hills just before breakfast. I don't want to turn around, I want to keep going, but I know my knees and I know my lack of fitness and further I know that there is more gift--scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, a cinnamon raisin bagel--all waiting for me back at the lodge.

It is a gift that I am for the first time walking a prayer labyrinth, like an interior pilgrimage toward God, and it is a gift that the spider on the porch is spinning her web, slowly, deliberately, in concentric circles, like a labyrinth.

I take in all the gifts, and somehow in taking in the gifts I feel all that is un-gift begin to unclench in me. It is not gone. There is work yet to do. But it is unraveling, and I think maybe it has even been instructive. I think maybe I am learning from this silence to be present in each step of the journey, to trust that I, even with all my noise and junk and wandering--am on a path with God.

It is a gift that I am sitting before the lily pond where the geese go for rest, and I am reading over and over Mary Oliver's "Morning Poem" (look it up) and she is telling me that notwithstanding my sometimes-leaden spirit there is "somewhere deep within you/ a beast shouting that the earth/ is exactly what it wanted" and she is challenging me to dare to be happy, to accept this as gift, to love the earth and the community and the place God has given me.

For this moment, at least, I wholeheartedly do.

*
(An appendix)

Labyrinth
You will have entered, perhaps, with joy.
On a sure path to the center.
You will wind and double back enough times you feel
you might have returned to the place you started,
as though moving backwards.
This only means you are in the thick of it.
Then one day, having relaxed into the rhythm of your steps,
perhaps without noticing it--
you will find yourself there.

Where? A rock, on which is laid a feather, a stone,
some broken pottery.
It is not, perhaps, what you expected to find here.
You find yourself looking outward, at all that impelled you.
From the rock, it appears beautiful.
You want to run to it.

Wait.
Close your eyes, breathe in gratitude.
For waves of green. For each bird
chronicling your journey.
Each stone leading your path.

Then, a moment after it has been too long,
you will begin the slow journey out, which is
perhaps the most important part.
And when having made your final turn,
you find in your pocket the tiny shard
of pottery, you will understand that you
must turn toward the center
again.