I Don’t Want To…

kimberly-clark-kleenex-facial-tissue-tissues-white-box-of-48-model-21606When my paternal grandfather passed away at age 82, I was 13. I remember my father in tears and my parents’ friends coming around after the funeral to tell us how sorry they were. Everyone was so kind and consoling. Gentle. Heartfelt. Wanting to be close and comforting. Even my classmates and teachers were so very kind. So kind.

And I really, really hated it.

My paternal grandfather was not your typical kindly old grandpa. He smoked and drank and swore. He hadn’t been a loving father to his sons and he wasn’t kind to my mother. He prided himself on being irascible, and not in a cute way. While he had been an integral part of my brothers’ lives, I came along much later and his interest in grandchildren had waned to zero. He could be obtuse and selfish. He was demanding and rough. His death wasn’t all that hard on me. But it was on the rest of the family.

When he died, the primary emotion I felt was rage. Rage that his loss had wounded my father and brothers, rage that we were inundated with attention and had no privacy, rage that we were now completely caught up in funeral arrangements and in dealing with his grieving widow, my step-grandmother who was equally if not more obtuse and selfish as he had been. Rage at the gentle acceptance of my mother, who handled the casseroles and the flowers and the family with equal grace. Rage at my own sense of not caring.

One of my classmates told me that she was sorry, and I replied, “Why? You didn’t do anything. Besides, it’s no big deal. Everybody dies.” I deflected every kind word, every gesture, every somber expression. I threw out sympathy cards as quickly as they came in. I was having none of it. How dare these people want to walk alongside me? Did they think they had the right to see me at my weakest? I wasn’t about to lean on anyone and I resented their expectation that I would. I didn’t need to. I didn’t want to. I stood apart, and I liked it that way. Everyone to their own private feelings, and no sharing, thank you very much.

Now I realize that my anger was a very effective way to remove myself from having to enter into the grief of my family. It protected me from feeling empathy that would have made me feel, truly feel the fear of watching my parents in pain, or having to admit that I was overwhelmed, afraid and powerless. It kept me from the confusion that comes when you don’t feel the same as everyone else. Instead of choosing to feel grief and allowing others to try and comfort me, I closed up my heart like a soldier about to go to battle, and emotion was my enemy. I was proud of my strength. I had a shield of anger that would hold back the kindest words and the deepest doubts.

I think Facebook is a great place to wield this shield of the heart now in this time of pandemic. If someone posts a video of medical personnel who are exhausted beyond measure and desperate for rest, it’s easier to refute them as being overly dramatic pawns of the lefties. No need to feel sorry – arrow deflected! If there’s a video of people protesting for reopening businesses, we can focus on the people holding “I want a haircut” signs so that we don’t have to think too much about the people out of frame who are terrified of their jobs being lost permanently. No need to feel guilt if you are still employed – pang of guilt bounced right off! I have read long strings of rebuttals, arguments, excuses, rants, finger-pointing and insults. Sometimes I participate. So many shields. Ping. Pow. Zing! So much ricochet. So few actual moments of connection. So many words for so much isolation.

What I have found in myself now is that 13 year old girl is still alive and angry. I don;t want her on my Facebook posts, but she lingers just off the screen, daring me to write her words. The mature part of me looks for ways to help, to learn, to listen; but she is not about to be silenced, and she has a lot to say about refusing to feel. By God, we are not going to let our guard down! Screw that! I know my rights! You are wrong! I think I am not alone in this…

In John 11:35, as Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, about to raise him up, Jesus does something that has always made me angry. He weeps.

As a child, it was completely incomprehensible. He knows he’s about to resurrect his friend, and that he has the power to make this whole terrible tragedy do a 180. So why the tears? As an adult, it infuriates me because I feel so convicted – he takes the time to empathize with the mourners, to fully enter into and share their grief. To feel the pain himself, without self protection or shame. To let his guard down completely and let someone else put an arm around him. To feel the wrath of Martha. To bear it with them. To be without words. To weep.

To let it be what it is – real.

He makes it look so easy. It’s not.  I can sit with a grieving friend, and give support and love. And yes, I can feel with them and sincerely enter into their pain. For an hour, a day, maybe even a whole week. I can do that. I can even sense when they are getting angry, as I have been so many times during loss. I can put myself in their shoes. But it’s exhausting. And it’s even more exhausting to be on the receiving end of care and grace.

There is a point when I feel myself like the apostles at Gethsemane, drifting off. Falling asleep. Running away. My heart gets too heavy. I get compassion fatigue. I get itchy. I start looking for solutions. Distractions. Reasons. Plans A, B, C and D on how to handle it. How to get rid of it. How to forget. Minimize. How to change the channel. How to make it stop. How to make it just go away.

There is a prayer I say sometimes when I feel brave and so very stupid: “Jesus, break my heart for what breaks yours.” I would love to be spiritually mature enough to really mean it. But for now, I know deep down I’m usually much more scared he might take me up on it.  I know that if I opened my heart just a tiiiiiiny bit more and prayed that he allow me to share that kind of suffering as a way of living for others more completely, he might actually honor the words and then I’d be stuck having to have a true heart of Christ, and there would be spiritual blood all over the place and no cleaning materials handy and who the hell really is ready for that?

Because to have that kind of heart that really breaks for others, you have to be right there with them in their powerlessness. You have to not have the answers, no nice bow to tie it up. You have to sit with the mess and not reach for a broom. You have to be willing to have empty hands. You have to sit in the dirt and know you are not getting cleaned up spiffy anytime soon. And hardest of all, you have to be willing to remember this vulnerability next time around and do it again.

And again. And again.

I don’t think I have that in me quite yet.

So right now, the best I can do is to want to want a heart that breaks for what breaks His. It’s a start. A very small one and I am not too proud of it.

Jesus wept. I didn’t.

But I want to.

Not really.

Sort of.

 

Detours

detourWhen I was working in California as a traveling music educator, I was independently contracted by school districts for two to six months at a time to teach music in their most under served elementary schools. On Monday, I’d pack my books, my percussion instruments and my portable keyboard then drive 45 miles one way on LA freeways to be standing in the classroom ready to go at 7:30 in the morning. On Tuesday I’d be traveling in the opposite direction to another school 30 miles the other way. It was rewarding work but exhausting, with a good half of the money I made going to pay for gas.

So when I was approached by the Paul Newman Foundation to be an arts and music coordinator for a two week stint in Malibu as part of a beta-test of a camp for children of addicted parents in rehab, I was thrilled. Two weeks in glorious Malibu! No commute! A cabin of my own and free reign to design and implement arts activities for these parents and their children to reconnect and rekindle their creativity!

I carefully researched and planned out fourteen different modules, each with a fine art and a performing arts component adaptable for children between the ages of 5 and 10. I bought the materials, rehearsed the music and my “patter” so that I could facilitate the classes and leave room for discussion and debrief. I brushed up on my childhood development concepts. I outlined every activity with clear steps and measurable outcomes. I drove up to the hills of Malibu the day before the kids and their parents were to arrive. I was ready.

And then they came off the bus and blew my plans to smithereens.

Most of the parents had been clean for less than six months; one had just gotten through her first ten days. The children ranged in age from 16 months to seventeen years and every one of them had developmental disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome, or heroin addiction in utero, or brain damage from being beaten by parents or siblings. The parents, all mothers, were so amazed to be out of the inner city that they would much rather smoke their cigarettes and look out over the ocean than interact with their kids, who were mostly running around screaming or throwing rocks for fun. In response to their children, the mothers screamed, too – mostly unprintable epithets. Sometimes a mother would snatch her child by the arm and swat him alongside his head. Sometimes a mother would shake her child until he fell off his feet. Then she’d laugh.

These women were terrified of the strangest things. Tumbleweed. Spiderwebs. A single honeybee on a flower. Because the hills above Malibu are desert, we also had non-poisonous tarantulas, which I didn’t fear but understood why others might be. I just didn’t realize how MUCH they’d fear them. I learned on several occasions how to talk a hysterical woman off the table because on the opposite side of the room a tarantula was quietly sitting in a corner against the wall, next to her toddler who was also screaming now without knowing why.

At the first class, the mothers pushed the kids aside and rummaged through the arts supplies, not the least bit interested in my plans. The children sometimes pushed through and grabbed a few things for themselves, then ran off. There were scuffles, bites, lots of little arms flailing out. Once, I managed to get several moms to sit beside their kids and try to color plastic visors with permanent markers. When they’d get frustrated, they’d throw the visors aside and demand another one. The children colored on their arms.

When the allotted time ended and parents and kids ran off, I was exhausted. Also depressed, confused, rattled, embarrassed, horrified, angry and sweaty. Very sweaty.

I realized none of my fourteen activities would be even remotely possible, and I had two weeks of this ahead of me. I had to come up with a Plan B.

The next day, the mothers and the children came to my little corner of the camp to find a large white cardboard sign which read:

  • PLACE OF PEACE: In this place, we…
  • Are quiet and respectful of each other.
  • Share our things.
  • Listen before we speak.
  • Breathe deep and slow.
  • Never hit, bite or scream.
  • Don’t throw things at bees or tarantulas. This is their home.
  • Are patient with each other.
  • Take our time.
  • Sit still.

It was a huge gamble. I had no idea what they were thinking as they stood there and read the sign. I put out art supplies on the tables in no particular order, and I pushed “play” on the CD player to release the gentle piano music that I used in my car on commutes to keep from having road rage. I smiled at everyone, gestured wordlessly for them to come in, and sat in the corner with a cup of coffee and a magazine which I pretended to read.

I sweated a bit. I waited for the anger, or the swearing. Possibly a swinging arm or two.

The mothers sat down. The kids sat down. I snuck a peek. There was a brief scrabble for pens and paper, but no yelling. Actually, hardly any talking at all. And for the next 45 minutes they drew pictures, rolled up discarded drawings into balls and dropped them on the ground, drew terrible scribbles on visors and water bottles, and knotted pieces of yarn into something almost resembling lanyards.

About twenty minutes into this miracle, I quietly said how proud I was of them for coming to camp, and for being people who wanted peace. I told them they were brave and beautiful and their kids were lucky to have them.

And they said nothing at all.

But every day for the remainder of the two weeks they came in, sat down, scribbled, drew and occasionally talked quietly. Every time they showed up I reminded them of this place of peace that they were creating for themselves and I told them they were strong. They’d leave after time was up, and I’d hear them across the camp, yelling again, swearing again.

But never in the Place of Peace.

Sometimes you have to take a serious detour from your careful itinerary. Sometimes you really don’t have a clue where you’re actually going in the first place. Sometimes you have to hit the dead end before you can see the right way to go.

Right now, it feels like every road I want to travel has a giant DETOUR sign on it. The ways in which I feel most useful to others are unavailable to me right now. The plans I had all went *poof.* I am not saving the world with my Christian charity. Nobody is looking to me for inspiration or counsel. I’m not leaving a wake of thankful beneficiaries of my kindness. I am not even leaving my house. I write stuff, I play fetch with the dog in the driveway, and I am coloring rocks like an eight year old, to later scatter around the neighborhood as little messages of peace. It’s not much to speak of.

A detour is a detour; it’s unfinished, unpaved, incomplete. It was never meant to be the regular route in the first place. It’s inconvenient, puzzling, temporary.  You don’t know how far it goes or how long it will be there. As you move along it, you have to look for the next detour sign to tell you where you are going next. It’s not on the map. It’s out of your control.

But sometimes it’s the only way to get where you really need to be.

 

 

 

 

Give to Caesar…

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So today I woke up, worried about the future. Not a good thing to do during a pandemic. I continued the morning ruminating over the global economy and about our finances, and my husband’s retirement savings. I spent a portion of the afternoon fretting over how much we are probably losing right now in investments, and how we’re likely to see another recession after this whole Covid 19 thing settles down. Perhaps even a depression. Maybe a Great Depression all over again.

I occasionally obsessed over my stepdaughters. Will they have enough money to ride this out, if they are not working? Could we have enough to loan them, or are we going to wind up leaning on them? I agonized over the hundreds of thousands of folks whose income has been devastated by this pandemic, and the jobs lost and the families in crisis. I worried about the huge divide between economic classes and how this will only widen as we navigate through this mess. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I started to quietly freak out a little. What will this world look like in June? In September? Next year? What will happen to our country? What will happen to my family? What if someone gets sick? What if we run out of money? What if, what if, what if?

I have learned that worrying about “what if” is a lot like rapidly sliding down a steep hill. If you lose your footing, you’ll scuttle down like a crab until you twist an ankle or knee, or maybe roll down heels over head until you land in a crumpled heap at the bottom. It’s cumulative – you pick up speed until you can’t stop and you’re just screaming as you careen out of control to the very end. And it guarantees that your journey, in whatever direction it goes, is going to be depressing and messy and probably far worse than you imagined in the first place.

I have also learned that sometimes at the top of the scary hill you can just take a breath, sit down on your heinie, get a good solid grip on the good earth and slow the descent as you wibble-wobble your way to the bottom with nothing the worse for wear except the seat of your jeans and your pride. You may look ridiculous to others but you get there, relatively in one piece and in your own time.

In the gospel of Mark, chapter 12, the Hebrew leaders try to trip up Jesus about paying taxes. They ask if it is right to pay taxes to the oppressing Roman empire, and Jesus responds.

“Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus understood what they were trying to do, and how they were trying to trap him in a political argument. He was very clear – give to the world what the world has the right to expect from you, and give to God what He deserves to expect from you.

So, I have decided to remind my worried and obsessive self today that there is a difference between the two.

The world can expect me to pay my bills, but only God has the right to my heart’s concerns and the vulnerability of my fears.

The world can expect me to invest wisely, but only God has the right to my trust for my future.

The world can expect me to behave responsibly, do my share of social distancing and take the right health care precautions, but only God has the right to have my complete reliance in five minute increments, 24/7.

The world can expect me to act within the laws of reason and civility, but only God has the right to have my acceptance of His law for my heart.

The world can expect to manage my retirement fund, but only God has the right to manage my real riches.

The world wouldn’t bat an eye if I careened down a hill of worry and fear and landed with a thud at the bottom. But God would throw all the might of heaven between me and disaster if it had even one millionth of a possibility of wounding my soul.

So here’s what I remind myself. God may not do what I want him to do, in my timeline or as I think best. I might not lose a lot. I might lose more than I can imagine. But He will not fail me. I will not lose God. So I can give to Caesar what is his – my portfolio, my bills, my social standing, my worldly stuff.

But to God I will give my worry, my family, my future, my life and my soul. It’s going to look a bit ridiculous given the global circumstances. And I may feel at times a bit stupid or unrealistic or behind the times. People may laugh. Kind of like when everyone else is already at the bottom of their hill looking up at you as you’re wearing out the seat of your jeans, oozing down like a snail. That’s the way it is for me, if I want to get to my destination without being busted up like a rodeo cowboy.

I’m sure there are others who do this more gracefully, and good for them. But I’m going to have to take it slow. With God. Awkwardly, on my butt, Bible in hand.

Slowly, so that I never forget to give to Caesar what truly is Caesar’s and give to God what truly is God’s.

 

 

 

 

 

Be Still.

IMG_20180512_211150_037“Be still, and know that I am God.”

When life is normal and I have my 2nd/3rd grade choir, JoySong, we often take a minute or two during rehearsal to practice sitting still. They hate it. I teach them that this isn’t a punishment, but a skill to master. “If you sit still,” I tell them, “Adults respect you more. They’ll want to do things with you instead of trying to manage you.”

And then I go home to watch TV while checking emails on my phone, absentmindedly tossing the ball for the dog, munching on something I don’t need. So much for sitting still. Do as I say, kids, not as I do.

This season continues to be worrying, unsettling, and just plain weird. There’s a whole new lexicon for it: social distancing, flattening curves, PUIs, transmission efficiencies. People who were fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizer are now making homemade masks. I guess that’s better; at least it’s creative. Lots of hunkering down now. At first, it was oddly quiet. But slowly, the social media platforms became busy again. People commenting on politics, race, greed, fear, the economy. People trying to figure out how to keep any sort of income, to pay bills and rent. People trading stories about having their kids at home, managing a healthy chaos and hoping it stays healthy through the duration.  LOTS of parodies, clever memes and TikToks of people dancing with their dogs.  Nurses posting how to stay safe and begging us to stay home. And there are many, many generous-hearted people helping in more ways than I can count. Thank God especially for their kind spirits and dedicated hands. It was quiet, at first, when we were shocked at what was happening. Now, it’s getting chatty again.

But there is also behind all of this, a stillness. Lately, I can feel it. Stillness not exactly like holding your breath, or letting it go; more like in that moment between the two. Stillness that simply is, and yet, strangely enough, calls.

This isn’t a stillness calling about being more optimistic or helpful or germ free. It’s beyond words or concepts like that. It uses the language of the soft coolness of dusk, of trees dappled in every shade of green, in a blue sky above and the complicated weave of moss at my feet below. In the snoring of the dog. In the moment right after I finally shut off the phone, turn out the light, adjust the pillow and sigh. It’s not a remote stillness; on the contrary, it’s intimate, personal; its uncanny gentleness unnerving me, even as it draws me in.

This stillness doesn’t require my interpretation, effort or understanding, which is good because I don’t understand it. It’s not sentimental, nor rational. There’s no catch to it, no other shoe to fall. It’s elemental, part of my flesh and bone just as it is the essence of every other element of God’s good creation. It has an eerie deja vu about it, both mysterious and familiar. My soul remembers it somehow, even as the rest of me has forgotten.

To answer this stillness is to allow myself to lean into a bigger truth that I can’t control. To breathe into it, and feel it move through me without resisting. To surrender in a way that doesn’t dissolve me into nothingness, but somehow connects me into a completeness. Not thinking, or praying. To answer by simply being.

But is that enough in these troubled times, simply being? Maybe. Maybe just for today, anyway. Five minutes at a time.

When I read Psalm 46, it seems to me the psalmist is taking dictation for a very specific, very gentle, very powerful invitation. Engraved not on paper, but on Somebody’s hands.  “Be still and know that I am God’ can only be spoken by One, and it’s not David.

They are the whispered words from Someone who asks that we just be still a minute, calm down, take a breath, and simply know. I’ll accept that. Can you? There’s a quote from Yoda in Star Wars that I really like, “ Do or do not. There is no try..” So in these next few moments, I will not “try”; I will “do not.”  I will just be. Maybe you can, too.

Close your eyes. Wait for yourself to slow down a bit. Even if you can’t feel it. Even if you can’t understand it. Do not. Just be. Still. Know.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It’s worth a try.

Get a Grip

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A few summers ago, I went tubing on a river with my family. I’d never done it before, and each of us had a large tube and a life vest as we peacefully rolled along on a wide and quiet green watery highway, beers in hand. I was having the time of my life.

And because it was summer, and hot, and because I am stupid, I loosened the straps on my life vest, but because I am only stupid and not insane I did leave it buckled.

We gently drifted for miles, soaking in the sun as we listened to the companionable murmur of others floating nearby, trading stories and catching up with one another.

Suddenly, we heard some shouts a little further down river. Apparently there was a deeper section coming up with a few areas of swift moving water and a few boulders. No white-water stuff, just a few areas where it was a bit choppy. I had no fear; I was in a large buoyant tube, wearing a vest, and chubby enough so that neither one was likely necessary.

But then before I could blink, I lost my center of gravity, tumbling off the tube and into a raging surprise of green. Green all around me, and nothing else. No sense of up or down, left or right. And most surprising of all, no vest either.

It was a surreal moment. I knew I was underwater with no flotation device and no sense of direction. If I kicked my feet I could just as easily drive my head into the bottom of the river as pop to the surface. I flailed about, beginning to panic, and then something moved across my face and I grabbed it.

An arm.

I had no idea whose it was, but I knew in an instant that I would eventually be all right as long as I just didn’t let go. It wasn’t supplying me with air, or helping me get to the surface yet, but it was there to give me something tangible, solid and not green. All the panic I had just a moment before had vanished in an instant and I became utterly calm.

It must have been no more than 30 seconds or so before I sputtered my way to the surface to the laughter and relief of my family. It had been my stepdaughter’s arm I had clung to, and I apologized for the red marks my grip had left in her skin.

I learned an important lesson that day; well, re-learned it, really. And no, it wasn’t about loose life vests, (although that’s a biggie, too.)

I learned that when you are in trouble, get a grip. Latch onto something good and solid until you find your way right side up and get your breath again.  My stepdaughter gave me her arm, and now I will give you the sturdiest grip I know:

“…I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Get a good grip on this, and hang on. You may not know yet which end is up, but you will.

 

 

 

God loves a Goober

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Proverbs 17:22

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs is not always my “go-to” book of the Bible, but on this particular day, I found comfort in this one.

There are a thousand reasons to be concerned right now, and a million more that seem to be lurking offstage, just waiting for their grand entrance. And yet, for all the dire news and fearful developments, the internet is filling up with just as many silly memes, jokes and puppy videos. Is there something more here than just denial and distraction? Is there something inherently healthy, maybe even spiritual? I think so.

Raised Catholic, I was familiar with Baker’s “Lives of the Saints,”a book with hundreds of mini biographies of Christians whose lives each uniquely pointed to the goodness of Jesus. Interspersed with those bios were some truly weird and funny quotes. Lawrence, martyred in 258 AD by being burnt alive supposedly said, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII is quoted saying to his executioner, “Assist me up. Coming down I will look after myself.” These guys take gallows humor to a whole new freaky level of mic drop.

I’m pretty sure that some of these quotes are purely apocryphal, but the message is clear; not only is there room for laughter in the most grim moments, it’s an essential tool for getting through them. Humor, not at the expense of others but at the expense of our own fears, gives courage. Humor that puts us all in the same boat reassures us that we’re not alone. Humor cuts away at the bindings of worry. It takes the long view. It flips the bord in the best possible way. You can’t obsess over your problems and make fun of them at the same time.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” I suspect a few of them thought he was a little off his game. During this I’m supposed to rejoice? C’mon, Paul..that’s just silly. And then he goes on, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Well now that’s just ridiculous. Foolish. Dumb on a stick. Unless it’s…true. Unless it’s a radical way of taking a stand against fear and insisting on joy.

It’s worth a try. Got a red rubber nose somewhere? How about some wind-up chattering teeth? Or you could do like I do and dance in public – but at a safe distance, of course. Believe me, that always gets me a laugh, and it’s good for my waistline, too. Post a meme. Tell some dad jokes. Get up with a bedhead and stay that way.

March right out there and keep your bones from drying up – nyuk nyuk nyuk!

 

 

 

Singing into midnight

prison-doors-open-10-24-16“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on this blog. Depending on whether or not you like anything I write, I can either say, “I’m sorry,” or “You’re welcome.”

So. It’s Friday and we’re in a pandemic. Ok, then. THAT’S not what I was planning to spend my spring doing, but there you are. Suddenly I am on Facebook, Instagram and email now more than I have ever been before; not because I particularly love it, but because, as this Corona virus flows further into the world, there are fewer places to go if you want to stay connected at all. So I am here at my computer, surfing and typing and blogging away.

Without wanting to get overly dramatic, it feels a little bit like being in prison.

I know that I am greatly blessed; I don’t have the fears and challenges of so many others right now. I’m middle aged but healthy, my work allows me to work from home, I am not caring for people who are ill. My parents, who would have been in their late 90s now, are beyond suffering or pain. I am blessed beyond measure, and certainly more than I deserve. I have resources to help others and am grateful to be able to use them. And yet, even the most blessed among us are being confined. And there’s a lot of fear whispering around the cells of all us prisoners.

So I look to the Good Book for advice, or counsel or example. And, as usual, it’s there.

In the book of Acts, we find Paul and Silas in prison, not for having preached the Gospel, but for having driven out a demon from a slave who through the power of the demon, was foretelling futures and making money for her owner. When the owner lost his golden goose, he turned Silas and Paul in. Yep, it was about money. He threw them in prison where people curse and wail and rage and bang their heads against the bars. And what was Paul and Silas’ reaction? They started singing.

And the prisoners were listening to them.

Because who does that? Only the very weird or the very strong.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the parallels here and now. There are voices shouting dire words louder than those of the doctors and medical personnel who know better: “It’s a Chinese virus.” “Hoard those medical supplies.” “It’s a political hoax.” Fortune tellers making money for the few, power for the wicked, and influence for those who feed on our fear. Those doomsayers are slaves to dark masters, and calling out the falsehood of those voices puts the few, the wicked and the fear mongers at risk of loss. Make no mistake, they will not like it and they will turn on you. They will do everything they can to imprison you for spoiling their attempts at using this for their own gain.

I find myself sometimes wanting to just close the door to my room, watch TV, take a nap, or generally ignore it. It starts to feel like too much. The worry starts humming in the back of my mind as the news rolls on, the number of cases rises, the politicians argue and pontificate and it all seems so completely insane.

Yet like Paul and Silas, we don’t need to fear them. When we use our voices to call out what is right and true, when we refuse to trade our caring for fear or our reason for prejudice, we do the extraordinary – we stay free ourselves even as we set those slaves free. That is the power of Jesus – no chains are strong enough to hold up to his voice or the song he gives us to sing.

The right voice is all it takes to quiet the noise down for a while. It won’t melt iron bars or turn stone to dust, or sanitize a room. It’s not wishful thinking, or magic. It’s not foolish optimism. It’s deeper and more long lasting. It gives us another song to hear other than the one of despair. A song that lights up a dark space. A song that keeps hope going strong so it’s there to rely on. A song that keeps us going when we wash our hands yet again, wipe down the counters, pray for our family, call our neighbors, email our friends, and clean the windows until we can open them wide and leave this time to history.

Each one of us has a song. Each song has a message, and we get to choose which message we will give. Like the fortune teller, we can be enslaved parroting the words of those who would separate us in spirit. We can wail and rage, point fingers or shout in righteous indignation. Or we can sing the gospel of hope and resilience, like Paul and Silas, unifying each other even through the walls.

I have to remind myself of this, because sometimes my song seems too small to matter. But it does. And so does yours.

Your song matters. We do not know how close we are to a midnight of this pandemic. But the power of your voice does not diminish, especially if you are willing to give it to prayers of faith and songs of joy. Decide what you will do with your voice, and I’ll do it too. It’s dark out there.

There are prisoners listening.

 

 

 

Christmas…again?!?!?

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This is my husband Jon, last year, after having just stuffed our 20′ U-cut Christmas tree into the back of our truck, to be schlepped home, heaved out, lugged over, stuffed into, and winched up into the middle of our living room. We promised ourselves that this year, 2018, we will most certainly purchase a smaller tree. And like every year since we have been married, we will likely break that promise. I will no doubt complain about it as I do every year. And yet….

I am profoundly grateful to him for this.

It’s not that I am exactly a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas; it’s just that with the work I do, and the limited time there is to do it in December, and the gloom of Western Washington at this time of year, when it’s often dark more hours than it is light, and the fifty-thousand versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” that seem to follow me wherever I go, and the clock ticking off the seconds until it’s all supposed to be over and done, well, I get a little….. Scroogey. And God bless Jon, he does not.

When I hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” floating over the speakers at the local QFC and the local RiteAids have dancing Santa figurines next to the 75% off plastic Halloween jack o lanterns, I start to get a teeny bit cranky. When Hallmark starts running ads for its whole new generation of cheesy movies with country western singers in their first acting roles ever, I tend to roll my eyes. When I start seeing red Starbucks cups in the trash cans, I heave a sigh.

Ok, I admit it. Christmas is NOT my favorite holiday. Humbug.

I could go into the usual rant about over commercialization of the holiday, or how we should rethink the ‘reason for the season’. I could point out all the terrible things that are happening all over the world, and how trivial it is to celebrate Christmas when the Earth and everyone in it appears to be on the brink of self destruction. I could condemn the inequalities of our capitalist system.  I could reflect upon the inaccuracies of celebrating Jesus’ birth in December when historical record would suggest it was actually in the spring. I could talk about the anthropological meaning of the Magi, and suggest that the whole story is just a metaphor for, I don’t know, puberty, or the existential crisis of the human soul. I could just pull the “things aren’t as good as they USED to be when I was young” card. But most of that would just be me flailing around for no good reason but the aerobic exercise of working up a good tantrum.

The simple fact is this: I resent Christmas’ tight-fisted hold on wonder. It’s so friggin cheap.

Let me explain.

If it’s Christmas, and you are over-decorating an evergreen, then you are in the spirit of things. If it’s March and you are doing the same thing, you are hopelessly weird. If it’s December and you are secretly leaving small presents on your coworkers desk, you are a secret Santa. If it’s June, you’ll probably hear from HR. If it’s Christmas and you are an adult catching snowflakes on your tongue, you’re being festive. If it’s January, someone is going to tell you to up your meds.

I get grumpy knowing that we seem collectively as a people to meter out our joy in such small doses and for such a short season of time. Is childlike delight only seasonal? Is a grateful heart only a winter thing? Is the spirit of generosity only supposed to overcome us once a year? Why only Christmas? Why only December? And I have to ask, what’s with the incredibly campy Hallmark movies, all of which are exactly the same plot and the same corny ending? Where are the homely people for God’s sake? Why is everyone in these movies 28 years old and gorgeous? I want to see the old ugly guy and the older ugly lady have a lovefest like you’ve never SEEN. (Ok, that’s just me being a film critic. I really do hate those movies. Sorry about that.)

Why not have a Christmas heart in October? Or June? On a Tuesday? At the dentist’s?

I’m not advocating year-round tree decimation. I’m not suggesting 12 months of overspending. I’m not recommending hot toddies on the 4th of July. It won’t be necessary to have garland on your banister on August 27th. I’m not even advocating twinkle lights 365 days a year, although if they’re LEDs then why the hell not?

I’m just wondering when we will give ourselves permission to be as ridiculously festive all our days as we are on Dec 25th?

I want reminders to be too generous of spirit all year round. I want to be encouraged to think the best of people every day of the year.  I want to be free to cavort in the rain just as much as in the snow, or make grass angels in the 80 degree summer just as much as snow angels when it’s below 30. I want to donate more money than I should even when nobody is standing outside the grocery store with a bell and a red bucket. I want to sing songs on people’s porches for no good reason. I want to decorate a tree with lights; even better if it’s the neighbor’s tree and I did it when they didn’t see me. I want to smile at strangers and not worry about them getting nervous or crossing the street.

I want all those people who only come to church once a year to know that if they came on any other day they’d still be welcome. And I really really want that to be true.

I guess it’s the conundrum of the holidays; for such a short predetermined time we all give ourselves permission to be more open, more accepting, more generous, more vulnerable, more approachable, more willing to believe. For a moment, we care more about the poor, or those in prison, or the marginalized who have so little. We open our wallets and our hearts. We look beyond our own lives. We dream. For one day. Or two if we’re really trying. We seek beauty, and we give it away. We sing for each other. We hope. For a little while we can laugh and cry and be sentimental and ridiculous. For a short time we can be children again.

I’m tired of that being limited to Dec 25th. I’m sick of it. It’s not enough. I want more. We need to break that chain. We need to say “Dammit, it’s Monday and it’s 12:42pm and I’m going to be generous NOW and you can’t stop me.” We need a revolution of the heart.

I’m ready to revolt.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independence Day

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So it’s July 4th, 2018 and the nation is celebrating its independence again, but this year, it feels to me pretty hollow. I remember as a child that I was amazed when the year 1970 rolled around. Between the duck-and-cover drills and the Vietnam war and the Watts riots I was pretty sure at the age of 9 that I’d never make it to 10. Because adults were crazy and the world was too. I remember the Iran contra crisis. Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The morning of 911. The morning after, when the flags started waving from front porches. I remember a lot.

But I don’t remember the nation being quite so overflowing with hate speech and public derision and shame as it seems to be right now. It’s so much louder now, I think. Perhaps my memory is flawed. Perhaps not.

I pray a lot these days, asking for extra guidance, more wisdom. I weigh my words very  carefully now, because I have heard “the truth in love” from people who are a lot like me, spoken in words that are anything but loving. I keep silent, because I now understand that there is so much I still don’t understand.  I don’t need to add to the empty rhetorical noise. Yet I worry that my silence is complicity, is me just wanting to be nice, safe. I worry about what’s going to happen to kids who are taken away from their parents here because their parents brought them to protect them from being taken away back where they came from. I watch the world spin until I can’t anymore and I close my eyes. I watch puppy videos and feel relieved and ashamed.

That does not feel like something to be celebrated.

There is a dangerous prayer I hear from time to time, from people who I think are a bit crazy: Lord, break our hearts for what breaks Yours. This scares me down to my toes. People of God, if we pray this, are we really ready to accept the pain of it? Broken hearts HURT. Are we ready to embrace the sheer confusion, chaos, anger and division we’ll face? I want to be, but I’m not sure I am. A prayer like this is a prayer for death. Death to self, death of our rosy dreams, death of blissful ignorance, death of privilege, death of any plans based on what we built for ourselves. And for those few who are called, death of body too. Oh man. I like being alive, and I like it on my terms. With brownies and ice cream.

And yet.

Death to self IS independence. Paul writes in Philippians 3:8: Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.

So if I dare to pray the prayer of broken hearts, along with those crazy people, I start to wade chest-deep through the garbage of this world on the way to gaining Paul’s independence. Yuck. If I pray this prayer I will probably lose my comfort in what I believe is the right culture, the right answers, the right side of the fence, the right interpretation of gospel, maaaaybe to gain the independence of someone who relies solely and completely on Jesus. If I have the cahones for it, which I presently do not. Which, if you read the passage carefully, is exactly the point. Paul hasn’t actually gained Christ completely. He has thrown it all away so that he could gain Christ, sometime soon. Paul is still seeing through a glass, darkly, and he knows it. The past is gone, the future is not here yet, and Paul is right in the middle, looking into a black glass of almost knowing, with a goofy smile on his face.

This all sounds ridiculous, overly-religious, self-important in itself. “Hi, I’m Karen, I’m working on gaining Christ, nice to meet you.” (Well, aren’t I SPECIAL.) I will most certainly fail to have complete reliance at the most critical moments, too, since my timing is problematic at best. And then I will be in the midst of spiritual garbage with nothing but a half-ass mirror.

Crap.

So, on this Independence Day, I hold this thorny passage from the annoying Paul and turn it over and over in my hands. It’s a diamond. It’s a piece of coal. It smells funny and it gleams. I think about it and I wonder. I turn it over and see a fuse. Like a bomb. Like a firework.

Fireworks are dangerous. They can scar you if you’re not careful. They’re loud, scary, not to be trifled with. They can blow up in your face. And they only reveal their astounding beauty once they’ve been literally burned to the ground.

I think about independence, what it means, not in a patriotic sense, or in a self-actualizing sense, but in a wholly different sense. In a holy, vertiginous sense. In Paul’s sense. Ir makes me dizzy.

And I stand, wobbling, on the edge of that precipitous prayer.

 

 

The Watermelon

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Every family has its stories. Tragedies, comedies, mysteries – each family has its share of stories of people on their best and worst behavior.

My family has a story about a watermelon.

My grandfather was widowed in his 50s and married a woman shortly after the death of his first wife. The woman’s name was Hazel. Hazel hadn’t had the happiest of childhoods and as a result, often felt left out, neglected or affronted by other people’s behavior. It was easy to wound her. Her default setting was self-negating, so it was difficult to truly connect.

One day, her stepson, my uncle, brought home a watermelon to share with the family. While I was not yet born, and can’t confirm the actual events of the day, the story has been told that for some reason, he did not specifically offer Hazel her own piece of watermelon. Maybe he was thoughtless. Being forgetful. Being spiteful? Maybe. Maybe he was simply assuming she’d take one for herself. Who knows? Her response was to stop speaking to him. And his response was to resent her silence, eat his fury, and write her off. For the rest of their lives, there was a tension whenever his name came up, or hers. Don’t mention that one! Completely unreasonable! Even after we had moved to the west coast and my uncle remained on the east coast, resentment’s ghost sat gloomily in the corner of the room. After all, there had been an affront, and you know what that means. Some things can’t be forgiven.

Now from the outside, this seems silly and small. One afternoon and a large piece of fruit should not steer the course of an entire life’s relationship. Yet it did.

I suppose the deepest wound really had nothing to do with the watermelon, but what it represented. Sharing food is elemental; we share with those we love and trust, we withhold from those we see as strangers. Somehow, that watermelon became a symbol of filial love, or lack of it; somehow, that watermelon got as big as the world and stretched both backwards and forwards in time, and drew a shadow over all of it. And neither my uncle nor my grandmother could ever find a way to step out from under the shadow.

I see this happen a lot, and it’s always desperately sad. I saw it a few weeks ago when a man decided to sit out in the lobby of the church and miss the entire service because he could not comes to terms with the woman sitting in the pew in front of him, holding a go-cup of coffee. She didn’t know him. He didn’t know her. He knew somehow that the woman in front of him wasn’t doing anything intentionally wrong, nor was she in any other way being distracting. She was singing the hymns, reading the prayers, responding in the same way as himself. But there it was, in her hand. He knew he had a choice – to reprimand her, or to ignore it and continue to worship. He knew that a reprimand would only bring embarrassment to both of them; to her, for being so thoughtless as to have a beverage in a cup, and to him for being the cranky old man who had to point out her obvious flaw.  He knew he didn’t want to do that. That would be awkward for both of them. Yet he found he also could not ignore the coffee, which represented to him a profound lack of awareness or grace.

And here’s where it gets interesting. At some level his discomfort grew to such a level that he left. He did not simply move to another pew, although there were many open and available. He didn’t choose to stand in the back. He left the sanctuary entirely. He exiled himself to the lobby. While his wife continued to worship inside. He left the service, the prayers, and his wife.

Why?

I think I understand. It was the shadow of the watermelon, looming overhead like a bloated zeppelin, threatening the skies.

Hazel already believed that she would never gain the love of her stepson after the death of his mother. She believed it so much that there was nothing he could do to reassure her, and everything he could do to reaffirm the chasm. Small imagined slights became fights. Small moments became epic battles of the will, retold and retold again. For the rest of their lives, she and he forgot any of the simple kindnesses that they might have done for one another. “You don’t care,” they said to one another, in every look, in every silence, in every missed opportunity. They blocked each other out, made it impossible to give or receive. And when 3000 miles finally separated them, they took that resentment and carved it hard and deep into stone.

I believe this man in the lobby might be tempted to do the same. If at some level he already believes that the woman, or others like her, will never understand or respect God the way he does, he begins to draw the line. If she can’t understand and pray to  God in the same way he does, then she probably can’t understand him, either. Maybe his wife can tolerate it, but he can’t. There are limits, after all. Day after day, in small ways, he relives the smell of  her coffee, watches the steam rise up from the cup in his mind, and begins to assign it a mythical symbolism. That coffee cup is disrespect. Next time, someone who looks like her will come by, and he will wonder if she drinks coffee in front of Jesus, too. If she even goes to church at all. He will remember that he had no choice but to leave. She made him leave. No choice but to sit outside, and stew, and resent. What else could he do? And pretty soon, regardless of what his wife says, he will stop coming to that church entirely.  Just like the last one he left. The last one was too full of unfamiliar hymns. This one, too full of coffee.

So – should the woman have left her coffee outside? Should my uncle have given Hazel a watermelon slice? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I don’t know. But was the reaction to these small grievances in balance to the perceived fault?

Should we expect the people around us to be acceptable to us at all times in order to be in relationship with them? Do we need to retreat from the risk? Or if we stay, what happens when they inevitably fail us, as we in turn fail them? Do we move then to another seat? Another pew? Another coast?

God does not exile us over watermelons and cups of coffee. God does not insist that we read each other’s minds and always respond proactively to each other’s unspoken desire. God does not even ask us to correct each other, except when there is first a framework of love and relationship, and then only sparingly. God draws no lines, expects us to live outside the lines entirely, and that makes us crazy. Crazy enough to walk away.

But God does not want us to walk away. Because when we do, we lose so much more than just a moment of prayer time, or a bite of refreshment. We lose the opportunity to know and to be known, to trust and to be trusted, to forgive and to be forgiven.

We lose more than a piece of watermelon.

We lose a piece of ourselves.