Thursday, August 31, 2017

Waterline

When I moved to Galveston in 2013, there were strange gaps in the skyline and empty lots next to bustling shopping centers. But many cities have empty lots and jagged skylines.  I learned later that those gaps and barren places all had the same origin - Hurricane Ike. After awhile, I realized that islanders I met had a tendency to divide time into two ages, "Before Ike" and "After Ike." And of course, when I went down into the strand, folks were sure to point out a small plaque to me, a plaque that marked how high the water had gotten during the deluge.

I understood academically what had happened to Galveston and her people. But it wasn't until this weekend in Houston when I finally viscerally knew why that plaque was on that building in Galveston.

Because the scars that water leaves on you are invisible.

My husband are enroute to our wedding anniversary vacation, and it has been an emotional experience so far. I keep seeing 18 wheelers filled with supplies headed south; I keep watching military convoys and fleets of ambulances racing towards the pain. 

But what I don't see is any water.

From Saturday on, the world was made of water. The rain was relentless and the floods kept growing and the bayous spilled into houses and cars were drowned in the murky depths of Harvey's wrath. In the solitude of my house, I grew to understand the primitive association between a storm and an angry god. At a certain point, after a second sleepless night listening to shrieking winds and rain, I wondered if Harvey was angry, if Harvey was alive and bent on our obliteration. The world was made of water, water that hungrily swallowed up my city, water that could not be contained.

Then the storm moved away from us, toward more helpless cities. The sky emerged, the clouds turned white, the roads dried, and  and we moved out of our houses blinking painfully in the light we had lacked for an eternity that lasted 4 days. The waters receded for many of us (not all of us).  Out here on the road north you would never know that the fourth largest city in the country was held thrashing beneath the depths.  

In time newcomers will arrive to Houston. They will see empty lots where businesses once were and houses being renovated, and they will not know WHY. They will remember the news stories of Harvey, but they will not understand why so many of us flinch when a flash flood warning goes off. Water leaves invisible scars on the people who managed to survive it. 

Now I am one of those individuals for whom a storm has fractured time into distinct pieces.  Now my city will be the place where empty lots are haunted places, but only for the ones who know what used to be. Now I am part of a people that be bound tightly together by the memory of a shared tragedy. 

I have no doubt that sooner rather than later, plaques will be placed around the sprawling and beautiful mess that is Houston, defiance writ in metal and stone that the waters tried to swallow us and we endured.


Because a waterline is not just a memory. A waterline is an invisible scar made manifest.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Story Within Us

These days are good ones for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction.  I'm un-ironically looking forward to GEOSTORM, a Gerard Butler vehicle which seems to be about space explosions, fire tornadoes, and badly written political intrigue.  I'll enjoy it with the same glee I had for 2012, a similar "let's fit in as many disasters as possible" gem in which you only survive if John Cusack likes you.  (See also, The Day After Tomorrow and the ability to run away from temperature.)  Truth be told, I've lived 1000 vicarious lives in apocalyptic landscapes: outside the ruins of cities scoured by nuclear bombs, in the aftermath of biological weapons that turn people into vampires, in hyper-controlled future worlds where people are drugged into bleary submission.   But for all of my familiarity with what a possible future can look like when it all falls apart, these last few years have been a lesson in scale. I'd had my eye on the macro, the struggle of city-states and nations.

Turns out, most apocalypses are invisibly tucked away inside our own bodies.

Last week at General Assembly, I came late to an after-session which focused on story-telling.  A dear friend turned to me and said "I'm glad you got here late.  There was a really hard story earlier."  In my experience, that can usually means one thing: "So it was about sex crimes?"  My friend knows the story of my own apocalypse: when the well-constructed universe within me began to warp after finding another secret email account meant to hide determined infidelity.  When the fault-lines of my personal bedrock began to slip and grate after having another of my belongings smashed in rage. When a shock wave of grief scrubbed me clean while I took my mother's phone-call and heard the recounting of my ex-husband's confession to sex-crimes.

But my friend only knew my story, because like the woman whose story I missed, it was an apocalypse made visible to the eyes of others.  I couldn't bear to be Pompeii buried in ash but never found; I refused to be Atlantis sunken to the bottom of the sea but never discovered.   I couldn't contain within my thin skin this rupture of spirit and body.  For some months, I went to work and raised my son and paid my bills and ran vacation bible schools, but to keep my cataclysm private was to die.

So I wrote.  I opened up a window so that my pain wouldn't have to be privately held, and learned the obvious but impossible truth that I walk by hundreds of apocalypses a day.  Since the moment I began to write, when I laid bare my own suffering, strangers and friends alike began to reach out and do the same.  Divorces, betrayals, rapes, addictions, and losses too complex to nail down with simple words or gestures, shared over and over and over.  Once, I would have told you that apocalypse looks like Nuclear Winter or Rising Tides; but now I know that shattered buildings and mass casualties are usually only the final visible cataclysm, the late appearing lesion of terrible pain and loss that was already present beneath a well-curated skin.

I've learned to look closer at the people around me, to see the tiny signs of inward upheaval which reveal a private dystopia:
...the wince at the pregnancy announcement...
...the lack of eye contact when an engagement is shared...
...a man holding a service dog close during a firework show...
...the declination to ever watch a prison-themed TV show...
...the haunted gaze around cancer patients...
...the couple who grimly hold hands as they escape a room of small children...

Not everyone chooses to write like I did/do.  But almost everyone attempts, once in awhile, to crack open the thick skin of their private pain to show you what is unbearably true every moment of every day.  That the placid story on the surface, the one the world demands they perform without fail, is only tenuously based on a true story.  Walt Whitman said that humans contain multitudes, but rarely do we realize that almost always one of those multitudes is the sole survivor of a loss so profound that their soul limps.

I don't limp like I used to.  Time can bring healing, though it can rarely erase scars.  The stories I have to share are different than they would have been 5 years ago when I began.  But the stories we share together matter, whether they be apocalypses or lullabies.  Whether they are history or utopian projection, we have to tell our stories to each other so at least we can learn to see more clearly.  To see real sorrow and loss; to see on micro-levels rather than to obsess over macro-events.  To begin to have compassion for our neighbors, whether they have authored their pain or not.  We have to share our stories, if for no other reason than giving a stranger the chance to say, "I'm glad it's not just me."

No dear one.  I know how it feels.  But it has never been just you.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

It's not that simiple

I lay across my bed thinking.  One of my cat walks up and over me, insistently purring as she lays down on my feet.  My dug rustles in her kennel, and sighs dramatically.  “Same here, Rika”, I softly respond.  She trots out of her kennel, thinking I’ve said her name to some greater purpose; soon she realizes I’m not taking her on a walk and dramatically plops on the cold tile in the en-suite bathroom.  Here we all are, a languid tableau of inaction.

My phone lays unlocked beside me, the screen open to my Facebook app; I can’t bear to look at it because the scale of vitriol and grief has reached a nauseating pitch.  Twitter isn’t better, as I’m afraid a new hashtag will be circulating that turns out to be the name of another dead African American man.  Or the location of another terrorist attack.  Or the newest scandal in an election cycle seemingly designed by The Elder Gods.  I’m a talker, a writer, but I’m paralyzed at the moment.  What in the world could I say that wouldn’t just be more noise in the crackling atmosphere?  See earlier: languid tableau. 

I used to think simple solutions were possible.  But my experience of adulthood has mostly been learning to see the intricately, impossibly, complicated webs of cause and effect that make up the world I live in.  Human beings make individual choices every day, sure; but the truth is we’re all affected by the invisible forces of our culture when we make those choices.  I’m not such a determinist to say there’s no such thing as free will.  But I will admit that all these systems I live in mean there’s less free-ness to my will than I would have believed as a child.   All these webs I live in are making me feel tied down, making me reconsider my own effectiveness.  Like I said: More often than not, I’m laying prone on my bed; there are no battles being won while in yoga pants. 

Sometimes I see people throwing their perspective, their advice into the fray: “If we would just TURN BACK TO GOD…”; “If we would just LISTEN TO EACH OTHER…”; If we would just LOVE MORE…”; “If we would just VOTE DEMOCRAT/REPUBLICAN…”  I understand the impulse to reduce down the troubles of the world into actionable statements.  No one wants to become abandon all hope of changing the tide; Nietzsche was probably a real downer at parties.  But I’ve grown tired of “If we would just….” statements, as they seem to be blithely ignoring the density of those implications.

For example: “If we would just turn back to God…”

Hey, look:  I’m a Christian minister, and I’m totally onboard with all y’all getting to know Jesus.  He’s a rad dude.  But do you know what “turning toward God” in my world would mean?  It’s a TOTAL reorientation of your entire way of life.  Turning toward Jesus is a lifelong commitment to repentance, serving others, choosing powerlessness, and humility.  (It’s also worth noting, that when you say “turn to God” and don’t specify WHICH “God,” you could be talking about Molech.  And man, I’m gonna have to object to that idea.)   I’ve got people in my church who are totally turned towards God.  They’re great.  But I’ve had people visit my church and not come back because OUR version of “turning toward God” didn’t include Yong Earth Creationism.    Maybe “If we would just turn back to God” sounds exceedingly clear to you, but it actually isn’t.  Now you need to tell me which God, and tell me what you mean by turn, and what exactly you think we need to turn away from and towards! 

But then, you’ve got less of a pithy statement that you can tweet and more of a conversation that requires patience, and nuance, and….Who has time for nuance?  Not a lot of us, it seems.  I could be wrong; maybe there are lots of us, laying on our respective beds, paralyzed by the knowledge of how complicated life has turned out to be and we are all waiting to have real dialogue with each other.   Maybe the nuance we crave is only a FaceTime conversation away. 

What?  I’ve got a cat on my feet; I obviously can’t go anywhere right now.   

All I know is that I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, a lot of advantages I had no hand in earning, a sermon to preach on Sunday, and the inkling suspicion that it’s going to be just one more iteration of: “God actually wants you to do the things he tells youSeriously.”  All I know is that the world is incredibly f*cked up, on a scale I never imagined, and no number of Band-Aids will actually help heal all the wounds we share.  All I know is that I have to do something, say something, because all too often, Silence = Death.  But instead, I’m here laying on my bed and staring at a ceiling fan feeling deeply unqualified.  You ever notice how the faster a fan spins, the more suspicious you are that it’s going to fall on you?  There’s a metaphor for life, right on my ceiling. 

I read somewhere once (thanks internet!) that action-less despair is a sign of privilege; the very disenfranchised already know that the powers-that-be aren’t on their side, so they hustle for the change they need.   I can accept that as true; perhaps this grieving lethargy is a sign that I’ve still not let go of the illusion that soon grown-ups will show up to fix this big mess I’m having to live in.  Maybe all the times I’ve seen that quote, “Be the Change you want to see in the world”, passed around was a passive way of God correcting my tendency to wait for someone else to act first.  Maybe.  Sometimes I’m sure there are signs all around me, communicating deep truths to me.  And then I remember that my life isn’t a Neil Gaiman story; birds on a wing could just be looking for dinner.

My dog snores, my cat rolls up nearby, and the world continues burning.  Perhaps all I can do today is admit that life is too complicated for quick fixes to ever work or for platitudes to take the place of truth.  Perhaps all I can do today (while I wait to be the first ever fan-related mortality reported on the news) is get up and make dinner for the hungry people in my house.  Who knows?  Maybe tomorrow, resolve will overcome the tar-pit of self-pity I too easily step into.  Tomorrow I can probably tease out at least one thing I can do in this intricate, painful web of life, to slowly turn the rudder of our common life back towards the Kingdom of God. 

As long as the cat doesn’t sit in my lap.  

You understand.




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Ones Who Know

About 8 months ago, I buried a congregation member who had been a Marine during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  He survived that battle, received a purple heart, and came home.  Once home, his Purple Heart, his medals, his pictures, his uniforms, all went into a box in the back of a closet.  When I asked him why, he told me, "it didn't matter to anyone."  But it turns out that wasn't precisely true.  When I conducted Earl's funeral, his pallbearers were not family or even church members; his pallbearers were several Houston Police officers in their 20's.  By chance and the tangling of fate, Earl met Jimmy and they discovered they were both Marines.  Jimmy told his other cop-marine buddies about Earl and they all became fast friends.  Earl told me about their friendship while I visited him, and he said, "we fought in different wars, but in some ways we fought the same war.  They knew what I went through."  At the end of his life, Earl found himself able to share about his struggles, his triumphs, and his loss; it just took finding the right people.  He needed to find ones who knew.

One of the cliche phrases of popular Christianity is that people are created "for community."  Putting aside all the religious jargon, what this means is that we instinctively crave tribes with whom we can share ourselves.  The internet makes it easier to connect with folks in your particular niche ("You like dressing up as a giant fox? ME TOO!"), but that doesn't mean every particular life scenario is fully represented with a corresponding affinity group.  I know that because "I'm in vocational ministry and my husband has committed a sex crime and been incarcerated leaving me alone to raise our child, help" doesn't produce much when you type it into google.  There are forums (PrisonTalk being one I used) through which families of offenders can communicate, but my experience with them was that they were more advice/trouble shooting places.  I needed someone to grieve with, someone who knew.

But there was no one.  So I started to write this blog instead.

Perhaps there is no small portion of narcissism involved in laying bare your grief for the feckless attention of the internet.  I won't argue that point with anyone.  But beyond a desire to be seen, I also wanted something to exist for the women (or men) who came after me.  I hoped that no one would ever have to walk through the valley of shadows that became my home, but I'm too much of a realist about human nature to actually believe that.   Vulnerability is a necessary part of faith of my faith, an outgrowth of following a God who cried, suffered, and died in a very public way.  So, I publicly named my grief, my struggle, my hurts, my hopes; I published them to be read by ones, tens and very rarely, 100s.  Somewhere along the way....

I have become "the one who knows."

Every few months I get a Facebook message, a text message, an email, a phone call, that starts with a version of the statement: "I have friend that you may be able to help..."  There are lots of particular life experiences in which I am qualified to "hold court", but I have learned that these conversations are never related to my time in theatre or my days running a Chaotic Good Cleric.  100% of the time, someone's friend is reeling from the life-shattering disaster of sexual misconduct or worse.  Just yesterday,  I reached out to a friend going through a flat-out horrifying version of my own story.  It didn't occur to me to wait for her to message me; I instinctively knew that she needed to hear from someone who knew.  I'm almost 6 years out from my ex-husband's arrest, almost 5 years out from his incarceration; my wounds are more scars than bleeding edges.  Sometimes I wonder if my story or my experiences need sharing anymore...then I get another message.

Every so often I read an article or think-piece about how narcissistic memoirs are, how my generation overshares experiences and the lack of privacy is contemptible.  All I can respond with: "I guess it's nice to always be surrounded by people who totally get you and your struggles."  Cultures and generations that have valued privacy over vulnerability have created the false impression that a suffering person is alone in their experience, that no one could possibly understand their grief.  But ITS NOT TRUE.  So many people go through divorce; so many people suffer through abuse; so many people struggle with fertility; so many people struggle with chronic illnesses and pain.  Talking openly about these hardships won't necessarily cure them, but it will help to forge lines of support and commiseration that in and of themselves can be healing.  I'm a Board member for the Young ClergyWomen Project, the motto of which is "You Are Not Alone."

Do you hear me?


YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Perhaps what I am saying is this: Don't be afraid to share your struggles.  To name what hurts.  To explicitly lay out how life is difficult and not what you expected.  I promise you, there is someone out there that needs to hear your words because they are their words too.   Whether you are in the fire or finally walking away from the ashes of a dumpster-fire of a life, someone out there needs to know that they are not alone.  Here's my challenge: dare to be vulnerable, to show your scars; believe it or not, even a scar can be good news to the walking wounded.  It means wounds can be survived.

They can be.

I promise.

Image Credit: Ansonlobo


Friday, March 18, 2016

Look Closer

My son’s eyes are red, and he needs hydrocortisone cream all over his body after he plays outside. That means it is Springtime in Texas, for at least another week.  I am not the most consistent house keeper, and even less likely to care for the landscaping.  But for some reason, I got on a yardwork-tear this week; the weather makes it pleasant enough to stay outside for hours on end.  While Gene worked on turning a corner by our patio into more usable space, I took clippers and began the long process of cutting vines off of our wire fencing.  I snipped and ripped and heaved curling tendrils, pulling them off of trees.  As I made larger and larger piles of vines, I realized that the trees I thought were healthy had actually died long ago.  I clipped their limbs and there was no sign of moisture; one tree I actually pulled down by myself and snapped at its root merely by standing on it.  I continued the work yesterday while G practiced his sight words.  Even more dramatically than before, I saw the damage the vines were doing to the trees in our yard.  One tree had several heavy branches with a multitude of green leaves.  But when I pulled the mat of vines off of its other branches, I realized they were dried and cracked, long dead and barren.  I gripped a branch thicker than my arm, and broke it off with only a little bit of pressure.  I muttered under my breath (to whom I’m not sure), “the green was a lie.”  

[I’m a preacher, which means every innocuous occurrence in my life gets connected rapidly to a deeper truth. The plants in my back yard couldn’t expect to escape the same treatment.]

I spend a majority of my time thinking about the Bible, about spirituality, about “growing the church.”  For so long, the church was ascendant in our culture; even if the mainline was shrinking, the evangelicals were growing.  The statistics seemed to tell a certain story: the church was growing fast.  Yay for Us!  Except, of course, that’s not really the story.  Across all denominations, our numbers are falling.  The most recent Pew Research study revealed more folk who identify as religious “nones” and “dones” than any previous generation.  It turns out, as America writhes in cultural change, that green was a lie too.  

The real demands of being a Christian are pretty intense.  Love of God is supposed to transcend loyalty to country.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies, even if they’re terrorists.  Jesus tells Peter to lay down his sword in the face of those who would kill him, and around these parts a mass shooting makes people buy more guns.   Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has, and some faith-hucksters try to sell you a line that God’s love can be most clearly seen in the quality of the car you drive.  The discernible fruits of faith are supposed to be love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  But self-identifying “Christians” and “evangelicals”  cast their votes for a man who advocates for violence, who practices mockery, who refuses to ask for forgiveness, who specializes in threats and xenophobia.  

The church has been portraying itself as a healthy tree to everyone it meets, but folks have started walking away because it is apparent that the roots are dead and any growth has less to do with God and more to do with a strange amalgam of political and nationalistic folk-religion.  The green is a lie.

The vine that grew on my trees sure made it look like the tree was healthy; it was green, covered in leaves.  But it was a vine that produced no fruit; it was a vine that smothered the tree and stole the light and left it’s host rotting.  Sure, our churches used to be more full, the illusion of health.  But the folks we preached to produced no fruit, or bad fruit.  The faith became captive to politics (both sides, if I’m honest about it), and the teachings of Jesus became secondary to claiming the cultural cache of his name.  A co-opted faith smothers the tree of God’s church, stealing its life and causing it to rot.  I’m not always sure we should mourn the closing of another church.  There’s a high possibility that church had been smothered to death years before.  

I cut down lots of those vines yesterday, and today I’ll continue to do so. Sometimes the vines are as thick as my wrists, a twisted bunch of growth.  Many of those vines are dead, the new growths wrapping around the dry husks of last season’s menace.  Some of the trees that I’m trying to uncover are too far gone, already dead.  But the tree that I set free yesterday?  It has a chance now.  

There is much greenery in our church that is lie.  But if we are willing to put our gloves on, and start tearing down that which is killing us?  We can live.  The tree in my yard will testify to that.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Deep Magic

In continuation of a family legacy, I read to my son every night.  He's finally old enough for chapter books, so we've entered into the Chronicles of Narnia with joyous fervor.  I find myself doing the same thing my parents did - adapting words on the fly because Lewis' vocabulary was more elevated than my Kindergartner's.  Admittedly, my voices for all the characters aren't as differentiated as my dad was able to do, but G doesn't know that.  I also can answer a question for you: the reason "The Horse and His Boy" hasn't been made into a movie yet is because it's super boring.  Sorry.  (Not Sorry).

Last night, G fell asleep while I read, so I put down the book, picked him up and carried him to his room.  There's a full length mirror on the wall next to G's bedroom door, so I saw myself and realized how big he was.  Having a child is a bit like living with a seed that you're waiting to see spring out of it's loam.  You stop watching because the wait is so long and then suddenly, they unfurl themselves.  He's almost 6, missing his front teeth, learning to read, his body seemingly as long as mine.  All of that rushed through my brain as a I glanced in the mirror, but stronger than all of those thoughts was one that stood out like scarlet on snow:

I'm his only parent.

That thought had nothing to do with grief and everything to do with anger.

I've been there for every late night fever; I was the one to teach him how to dress himself; I am the one who helps him learn sight words; I am the one who packs his lunches; I am the one who teaches him about God.  Now Gene is alongside me, teaching responsibility, respect, and how to use a hammer.  G has started to express his frustration with having a two parent household, with the idea that two grownups guide his growing up.  I understand his frustration.  For all his memory, I've been his only parent.

Every month he spends a weekend with his grandparents during which he visits his Dad.  Every week his father calls and I pass G the Iphone to talk to him.  Cliff tells him that he loves him, and I believe that he does as much as he can.  But robust anger always simmers beneath the placid lake of my inner life, because this love G's father has for him has is not centered in presence. My son doesn't even know what his father's hands feel like because it has been almost 5 years since his dad has been allowed to touch him.   Cliff is my son's father, but he isn't G's parent.  I'm sure he mourns that absence; I imagine more than anything else, Cliff's inability to be a father is the greatest punishment he has to accept.  But the truth remains that whenever my son has a need, a problem, a joy, a loss, a crisis, only I can truly be present for him.

Of the two who chose to create him, only I can carry my son to his bed.

Do I want my son to realize how different his life is from other children his same age?  He still lives a a remarkably privileged life; his father's sins failed to destroy us like they could have if my support systems had not been as strong.  I am currently winning the battle within myself that occurs every time I hear G's dad tell him that he loves him.  I do not comment, I do not criticize, I do not seek to define what that word could possibly mean in G's life.  But it is still a battle I fight every day; do I want G to grow up thinking that Fathers can love without being an active part of their children's waking and sleeping?  Do I want him to equate love with absence?  No.  Of course not.  But do I want to teach him that love can flourish even in the midst of failure, sin, and consequence?  Yes.  Of course.  

That's what Aslan teaches Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Edmund's betrayal carries incredible consequence, but the deep magic that is love can even overcome the wholly corrupted.   Maybe there is deep magic in the love spoken between phone receivers hundreds of miles apart; maybe there is deep magic in the love shared across thick glass in a prison visitation center.  I certainly feel the deep magic of love wend itself around me as I gaze upon the open mouthed snoring of my son in the moment before I get him up for school every morning.  Maybe by holding my silence when words of love are shared between my son and his incarcerated father, I am allowing God to do the deep magic that will be the only thing that heals Cliff's soul.

It's hard to know.  But while I wait for the knowledge to come (or not), I'll keep carrying my son to his bed.  Until, of course, he gets too big to be carried.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Legacy of Light and Darkness

STAR WARS SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve finally seen the new Star Wars movie.  Have you seen it?  If not, you should stop now and read this when you’ve seen it.  I’m warning you. 

It’s safe to say that I loved it.  I hope to see it again soon, but parenting duties keep interfering with that.  I cried, I laughed out loud, I clapped, I felt joy and relief, and I know I wasn’t the only one.  In a FB conversation, a friend and I excitedly shared our impressions of the film.  But my friend surprised me when he said,"I though of you...[the movie was about, in part] wrestling with what "family legacy" means, on top of just the daily miracle of raising a kid at all (let alone 'right')." 

To be honest, I had to pause and puzzle what he was talking about.  THat's how much emotional space I've managed to give myself from "all the evil."  But then it clicked; he was talking about my son and the legacy of his father's evil choices.

Oh.

You see, a large portion of these movies struggle with legacy.  Anakin/Vader chooses unfathomable evil, an evil that ends up costing him the woman he loved and the children he would never know until they were grown (and his enemies).  Luke and Leia are horrified to learn their father was the father of so much of their pain.  In the new movie, the "villain" Kylo Ren is revealed to be the son of Leia and HAn, his true name Ben (a choice that made me tear up).  The legacy of his grandfather and his own struggles with the force lead him down the path of darkness, despite the best efforts of his parents and his Uncle Luke.

Look, I'm not saying I'm a Jedi (though I do own robes); my son's father also didn't order the death of the billions of people on Alderaan.   But we do stand in parallel places; I'm trying to lead my son to make just, good, kind, selfless choices and I have no idea how the legacy of his father's evil will muddy the water.  I want G to choose light.  But so did my ex-husband's parents; they raised him in the church and loved him devotedly and taught him right from wrong and he still walked down into darkness.  Now we all live in the wake of that, his decisions reverberating through all of our lives and into the future of our son.

It doesn't help me that there are statistics which bear out a correlation between an incarcerated father and their child's potential for future imprisonment.  Correlation isn't causation of course, but it is damned concerning.  I walk this tenuous lines with my son.  I cannot, in good conscience, try to keep my son from loving his father.  But I MUST be truthful with  him, try to make sure that his love is based on who his father truly is rather than on who he wishes he was.  His father did more than just break rules; he broke lives and only regretted it once he was caught.  I cannot afford to pretend that darkness won't threaten my son's life, that he will not be tempted.  Fear, anger, hatred and their ilk are seductive sirens which have captured many lives.

There are no guarantees in parenting.  I could love my son well and teach him rightly and he could grow to be a good man who loves well and lives rightly.   Or not.  Likewise, parents who mistreat and abuse can end up raising good children who repudiate evil.  Or not.  Part of what is beautiful and true in the Star Wars movies is an echo of what we see in Scripture.  In the books of the Kings of Israel and Judah, we see over and over again that the life and faithfulness of one good man/king does not guarantee that the his successor will be good.  In fact, it comes in ebbs and flows, a good king followed by an evil one followed by a good one.  Fathers and sons, parents and children like two different sides of the same coin.  Anakin's mother was good, but he chose a life of evil.  Vader was consumed by evil but Luke and Leia chose goodness.  Leia and Han fought on the side of light, but their son Ben/Kylo succumbed to the life of darkness.

We are all affected by the legacy of those who came before us.  We are also responsible for how we choose to live in the ripples of those legacies.  We must navigate this complicated construct of choice and heritage; this is the task of all life.  This is what it means to create life and then let our children live lives separate from our own.  Often, it's as simple as Glennon says, "just do the next right thing."   We have to keep choosing light.  We have to keep repudiating darkness.  We have to keep loving and rejecting hate.  We have to keep choosing mercy.  We have to keep choosing to chase after justice.  It will never stop; it is often difficult.  But it is possible to choose light.

I hope my son, despite his father's legacy, chooses to always live in the light.
I hope that I will live in the light of my parent's legacy. 
I hope that you will choose light today, tomorrow, and every day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Blue Christmas, Part III


Every year, the church I serve provides a "Blue Christmas" service.  "Blue Christmas" (or sometimes called "Longest Night") is a time of reflection and shared grieving during a season that is very often hostile to anything less than holly-jolly. 

My sermon was based off of Matthew 11:28-30:
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

------

I stared at my computer screen and my stomach churned.  Once again, I moved money from my savings over into my checking account.  I had to pay my mortgage, I had to pay rent, I had to pay my student loan, I had to pay for Gareth’s daycare, I had to pay for groceries….my expenses were exceeding my income and my savings account was slowly disappearing.  Then I realized that next month I’d have to dip into my son’s savings account and I felt like a failure.  I was a full time pastor with a good salary, but it was all too much; I was also a single mom paying a divorce lawyer with money I didn’t have and no hope of ever getting child support.  Every night I went to bed and I found it impossible to sleep; I couldn’t rest because the burdens I was shouldering by myself could never be put down.  I ran every morning but my anxieties chased after me with unwavering stamina.  I was so tired but rest was nowhere in sight.

Are you tired, my friends?  For all the purported joy of π season, many of us are wearing thin veneers of smiles over tightly pursed lips.  We zip from crisis to tragedy to responsibility to expectation and we wear our Christmas themed clothing like plate armor.  The jolliness is only skin deep, because inside we are churning, exhausted, unsure.

We are tired because our marriages are failing, have failed, are dead.
We are tired because our jobs are thin threads of accomplishment choked by bureaucracy and politicking.
We are tired because the ones we love are sick, are lost, are buried.
We are tired because liberty and justice doesn’t truly seem to be for all of us; just the ones with power.
We are tired because people in Paris die at concerts, in Syria while they sleep in their beds, in San Bernardino while they celebrate the holidays with their coworkers. 
We lie in our beds and our souls twist within us and we whisper pleadings into the dark of our bedrooms, “I just want to rest.”

To churn with worry is a heritage of our common humanity.  Our great-grandchildren will one day have cause to toss in their sleep as did our great-grandparents.  Even in Jesus’ day, the people were tired with worry and fear, burdened by an uncertain future.  His disciples had left behind the businesses they would inherit from their fathers; they uprooted their wives and children for a life of vagabond homelessness; they gambled that following Jesus would gain them power only to end up chased out of cities as insurgents.  Their faith systems piled rules and regulations upon each other, the Sabbath a day of fraught negotiation of the 600+ rules of how they should rightly live.  The people of Israel felt themselves pulled between the demands of the Roman empire and the demands of their temple and watched their lives fray in the tension.  They lay in their beds and their souls twisted within them and they whispered pleadings into the dark of their homes, “We just want to rest.”  

And then Jesus speaks.

To his exhausted, excited, confused, fearful disciples he spoke: “come to me, you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, I will give you rest.” Now to we here and all those in the world churning from life’s cruelties, he speaks: “I am gentle…[in me] you will find rest for your souls.”  Do we believe him?  It is for folks like us that Jesus was born in the first place.  The Prince of Peace for a world wracked by war.  The Hope of the Nations for people who had forgotten what hope felt like.  Living Joy amongst a people bowed under sorrow.  God’s love made manifest in the middle of those for whom hate had become the common language.   

But do we believe him?

Mary believed; though burdened in body by an unexpected pregnancy and the possibility of being stoned for adultery, she believed.  Jesus would give his people rest.  Joseph believed; though bewildered by fate that would make his firstborn child not of his own blood and the possibility of being murdered by Herod in the night, he believed.  In Jesus, people would find rest for their souls.   

But again I ask, do we believe him?

I can only speak for myself, friends.  And I can tell you that through every gut wrenching turn in my life, when everything failed, when I was left standing alone in the fragmented pieces of my former world, there really was rest in Jesus.  I could rest because I knew that God’s long plan for justice and inclusion couldn’t be screwed up by my prideful mistakes or fearful neglect.  I could rest because I knew that God’s love for me wasn’t conditioned upon my sexual availability or my willingness to hide my opinions.   I could rest because no matter how many parts of my identity turned out to be temporary, God could find me in my grief and remind me that everything I am rested in who God always will be.  I could rest because when the world grew dim with injustice and cruelty, love and goodness would flash brightly into view, a reminder that Love Will WIN.

Wherever you are rushing to in this season:
from job to job
from party to party
from hospital to hospital
from grief to grief

Jesus waits for you in the dark blue nights of your life and answers your whispered pleadings with crooning of his own: “Come here child.  You are weary, and your burdens are so heavy.  Come here child, I will give you rest.  Come here child, with me, you will find rest even for your soul.”  I know that you are tired, dear ones.  I know that the burdens of your life are real.  But with God, there is comfort; comfort of knowing you are enough; comfort in knowing the arc of the world is towards justice; comfort in knowing that God is with you whether you find yourself in valleys or on mountaintops.

Jesus waits for you in the azure of the night, waits to bring you comfort.

----
For any interested parties, here are the sermons from the last two years:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Where does it hurt?

My son has been complaining of persistent headaches.  The headaches don't affect his ability to eat, do homework, play, laugh, watch TV.  I thought when he got glasses, the headaches would fade, but they haven't.   The headaches don't respond to tylenol, ibuprofen or children's zytrec.  I wonder if the headaches are psychosomatic - he has gone through some big life changes this year and likely doesn't have the language to express all his emotions.  I wonder if the headaches are a brain tumor - it's THAT week in November, so I'm more prone to suspect the worst.  Mostly, I hurt because he is hurting, angry at the ache that he feels constantly.  I want to fix it, and it seems unfixable.

In the midst of all the anger and confusion in the world, this small poem came across my newsfeed: 



I am shaken by these simple words, the image of a hand hovering over the world and the world trembling with pain.  A world, like my son, that constantly hurts.  

We hurt here, in America.  We send our young to war and then mistreat them when they are home.  Judges sell our children into prisons.  We fight tooth and nail against justice.  Our states dry up, our forests burn, we gnash our teeth at the state of politics.  
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

But this simple poem keeps me from believing that our pain is the only pain.  It dares me to look out into the world and see the wounds out there as well: war and rumours of war, natural disasters, broken families, terror, loss, the hurt a pulsing ache in every city of the world. 
The world hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

I am convicted by this pain, because of the most popular Bible verse in the world: "For God So Loved the world...."  The world is hurting, the world that God loves.  People are hurting, the people that God loves.  Most look nothing like me.  Many are of different faiths.  Most speak a different language.  Many expect the worst of me because my country has a terrible history of demonizing the other.  But the world is hurting and God loves it fiercely, and haven't I claimed to be loyal to God's kingdom?  This whole bleeding earth and all that is in it belongs to God, an earth I must be a better steward of.

Many of us are spending these days yelling; we are afraid, we are angry, we are confused, we are hopeless, we are desperate, we are ashamed, we are haunted by guilt.  But what would it look like, if instead of yelling at one another, if we turned to our world and whispered: "where does it hurt?"

To Syrian refugees, fleeing from the destruction of everything they knew, "Where does it hurt?"
To Parisian victims, reeling from terror, "Where does it hurt?"
To the Lebanese bombing survivors, mourning their loss, "Where does it hurt?"
To the Russian families, left behind after their loved ones were killed, "Where does it hurt?"
To African American students on college campuses, angry in the face of institutional racism, ""Where does it hurt?"

What if we asked "Where does it hurt?", and then dedicated all of our resources to healing?  You know, like Jesus taught us to.

Do you hear the world, my friends?  It's in pain.  And we have much work to do. To repent of our sin that caused the pain.  To set aside our resources to assuage it.  To humble ourselves to see it in the first place.  Join me.  It's time we listened.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Letter to My Son

Sweet Boy,

Tragedy didn't used to make me feel so fragile.  Before you were born, my universe was tightly knit up within my own body.  But you exist, a vibrant chaotic life outside of the confines of my arms, and tragedy always makes me zero in on you.  When Russian planes crash, I am breathless at the thought of parents and children separated from each other forever.  When bombs explode, I think of the funerals marked with tiny coffins.  When Twitter (it was a thing when you were little) explodes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, my overactive imagination creates nightmare scenarios flavored by current events.  What if, while we were getting ice cream, while we were at an arena, while we were walking as a family, the worst happened?

And then, I feel the guilt of a voyeur because my panic and imagined grief are pale shadows to the real loss that thousands and thousands of families are actually living through.  You are alive, sleeping safely in your bed, dutifully doing your homework.  Too often grownups use the tragedies of other people to soothe ourselves, so we can say "I'm so thankful we AREN'T....".  I'm sorry for that.

I think this is the most difficult part of being your mom: I am audaciously aware of how tenuous our lives truly are.  I have a duty to raise you into the reality of this world, but the temptation is so great to shield you from the evil of humankind.  I could so easily turn your attention away from the struggles of nations, the moral bankruptcy of politicians, the blind xenophobia that creates categories of "us" and "them".  I could distract you with the sugary, sparkly, and easy parts of our world, try to convince you that they are all that truly is.  But then, I'd be failing you.  I must help you confront the terrors of this life with integrity and seriousness.  Sometimes, the people we trust never deserved it.  Sometimes the future we wanted cannot be ours.  Sometimes, evil seems to win.  This is real.  This is our world.

I would also be failing you by only telling you stories of failure, pain and bloodshed.  It would be a sin for me to constantly turn your eyes towards abuses of power, of exclusion, of loss and pettiness.  For every story of evil, there are stories of sacrifice, of love that blots out hate, of justice where only injustice was before.  The world we live in is full of people so good that they change the fate of nations.  You can be one of them.  I believe it.

So, I hope that you'll forgive me if in-between practicing your sight words, I slip in quick lessons about how we should love one another.  I hope you'll give me grace when, on rides to school, I speak with you seriously about how sometimes, not even policemen do the right thing.  I hope you'll be patient with me when I cry about the deaths of people I do not know and try to teach you why the lives of people we've never met matter so much.    I hope that one day, when you're confronted by socially acceptable diet-racism, you'll remember that time when I taught you it was Christian to say #BlackLivesMatter.

Soon I will pick you up from school, and you will regale me with stories of recess and lunchtime and your friend Miranda who alternately is very awesome and very naughty in class.  For now, you know very little of the brokenness of all things.  But I promise, my funny boy, that I'm going to do my best by you.  You deserve it.  And so does the world that you can help heal.

Love,
Mommy


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Many Faces of Farewell

One of the many privileges of my position is that I get to teach people about the Bible.  It's fun to introduce folks to stories they've never heard, but it is infinitely more rewarding to illuminate an old story in a new way.  At my first call, I did a long running Bible Study series called "The Women of the Bible", wherein I took the least known (and eventually the best known) women of Scripture and presented with fresh eyes.  To this day, Hagar is my favorite woman to bring to a group.  She gets so little attention, and her story is so deeply, painfully tragic.

Hagar had the unfortunate luck to be Sarah's handmaiden when Sarah and Abraham took their fertility struggles in their own hands.  Sarah offered up Hagar as a womb for the filling and Abraham took her up on the offer.  Hagar eventually got pregnant but then ended up running away, preferring to die in the desert rather than be abused by Sarah anymore.  In time she goes back to Abraham's camp and raises her son Ishmael with him, but then she and Ishmael are turned out when her son was only 13.  Sarah had Isaac by then and would brook no competition, even if it was a competition that SHE HAD CREATED.  So Hagar and her son are forced away from the camp, out in the desert to die.  They don't, but only because God intervenes.  

Like I said, it's tough.  Hagar is truly a victim,  Ishmael is abandoned, Abraham is mindlessly guided by his genitals and Sarah appears to be an abusive, manipulative wretch.

One of the ways I like to examine stories like these is with art; paintings, sculpture, song, movies, etc., are all at their essence acts of interpretation.  By examining artistic representations of scriptural stories, we can gain a window into how these stories have impacted their listeners, how generations of people have parsed out the heroes, villains and themes of a story.  This is no less true with the story of Hagar.

The sculpture below is a giant piece called "Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael" by George Segal.  All those figures are human sized, and the sculpture changes as you move around it.  From one perspective, Sarah is a hidden hooded figure out of sight.  In another, she is merely in the background, coldly looking upon the banishment of her handmaiden and her husband's older son.  Hagar, though, from any perspective is vulnerably alone.  She cannot look at her child and his father saying goodbye, she does not face her abuser, she merely clutches herself tightly and gazes away towards what she can only assume is her death.

The sculpture is breathtaking.


"Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael" is a study in how we say goodbye, how we take leave of former lives.  Some of us clutch tightly to those we leave behind, unready for separation.  Some of us merely observe the breaking of our families, emotionally removed from the pain of others.  Still more of us stand alone in the crowds, just trying to hold ourselves in one piece while we grapple with our fear and loss.

Perhaps I am so moved by this sculpture because I see the goodbyes of my life within it's boundaries. My life, a sculpture to study, my path observable from whatever perspective you choose.

  • I was desperate, clinging to Cliff before the truth of his betrayal was made clear.  Ishmael & Abraham.
  • I was raw and afraid, clutching myself tightly as I faced a cruel and unexpected future alone with my son.  Hagar.
  • I am removed, remote from every goodbye my son must make to his father.  Sarah.


But maybe I am deeply impacted by Segal's masterpiece because it reminds me that to truly understand someone's story takes a commitment to see the whole tableau of their life.  That to truly be understood is to stand vulnerable before another and let yourself be wholly seen.  I am out of sight now, but a step to the left will show you my face.  It happens so rarely that we meet someone with whom we can lay ourselves bare.

This is the dangerous and beautiful and tragic task of Christian living: allowing ourselves to be seen and choosing to see the fullness of others.  Every angle, every ugliness, every transcendent kindness.  We are known and we know and we are loved no matter the perspective by which we are perceived.  That is my definition of grace. This is also the desperate hope and mystery implicit when we take the risk to love another: Do you see me now? Oh no, you see me now!  Please, see me always.

I pray for you, my friends, that one day you will stand revealed before another.  You will be as beautiful as a Segal, I promise.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

West Texas Skies

Last weekend I drove 900 miles: Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Abilene, Abilene to Dallas, Dallas to Houston.  None of that drive is particularly inspiring, mostly just quiet lane passing as semis and other drivers make their way somewhere else.  I listened to podcasts while I drove, I listened to music while I drove, I drove in silence as my son (and dog) slept.  Mostly, I just wished that I was wherever I needed to be.  Does anyone like driving?  It just makes my butt hurt.  Even the most beautiful of landscapes grow boring once you've looked at them for 3 hours.

But the sky?  Well, I'd forgotten about West Texas sky.

Houston has no mountains, so the sky in West Texas and the sky down here on the coast should be the same.  But they aren't.  West Texas sky seems bigger than sky anywhere else; it stretches on in endless periphery, so high you feel like it will soon tip over and fall upon you.  It's the kind of sky that you lay on blankets and watch clouds under; it's sky worth stopping for.  In some way, it seems fitting that this will always be the sky over my grandmother's grave.

Whenever I officiate funerals, I always acknowledge absence; usually I say "it is difficult to know how to live in a world where your loved one does not."  It has always been true when I said it; I was never glib or dismissive.  But it has also been 8 years since I attended the funeral of a family member, so I had forgotten the visceral ache of that absence.  This vast world of billions of people is missing someone;  I could search the great West Texas sky and never find her again.

How could that be?

When Cliff first went to jail, the pain of his absence was tied to his complicity for his relocation.  He SHOULD have been with me, but was elsewhere.  Grandma's death is different; her death was "natural", her absence final.  My faith informs me that "in the great by and by" we will be reunited in a common resurrection.  But the Kingdom to Come is still the Kingdom Not Here, and death does sting.  It cuts you wide open so your soul is like the endless horizon of the sky near Abilene.

I was not the only one mourning on Saturday; other families in other places met, mourned and made last goodbyes to their beloved ones.  Death was also not the only story on Saturday; other families in other places greeted newborn babies, welcomed in adopted children.  Under endless skies all over the world, we made space for new people and marked the absence of others.  I know this, the push and pull of existence that spins you from one high to a low without a pause for breath.

I know this.

But as I drove home to kiss my husband and hold my son tightly to me, as I made plans to meet my friend's newborn baby, I drove under the West Texas skies.  And at that moment, it seemed barely big enough for my grief.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Her Hands

Today was my grandmother's funeral, so I read this during the time for memories.
----

I remember her hands as she deftly sliced peaches for our vanilla ice cream.

I remember her hands cracking the pecans that our small tribe of grandchildren had collected from beneath her giant pecan tree.  

I remember her hands as she expertly guided fabric on the ends of crochet needles that summer she taught me how to crochet.  

I remember her hands when they held me close right before we left her for the long journey home.  

I remember her hands when she lifted the ever-present carton of rainbow sherbet out of her freezer to portion out to suddenly ravenous children.  

I remember her hands: 

    at bath-time wrapping me in a towel, 

    in the summer lifting us from the kiddie pool,

    during prayer while we sang before dinner

    when she signed my ordination certificate.  


I remember her hands.

 

She was more than just hands, of course.  She was wholly herself, hands and feet and beauty and brains and laughter and tears, my grandma, your mother, your wife, your friend.  She was more than the sum of her parts, either visible or invisible. She was more.  But today, I remember her hands, the hands that loved and guided and chastised and provided and encouraged and prayed and typed and quilted.  We are gathered together in this place to remember her, to rejoice in her resurrection, to grieve her loss.  But mostly, today, I remember her hands: wishing I had held them one more time, thankful I was able to hold them at all, humbled by all the good they did for God.  


Deuteronomy says “The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands.”  Today, I am quite sure he was speaking of my grandma because all I can remember is the work of her hands.

 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lessons from Sand Worms

Chances are pretty good that I'm the only minister in Texas who has used (multiple times) the "Litany Against Fear" from Dune during a sermon.  If you're not familiar with it, the main character recites this Litany during a time when his life is at risk: "I will not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain."

Don't Mess With Shai-Hulud

Fear as the mind-killer has resonated with me since the first time I encountered the phrase.  When I was young it was merely powerful prose, but as I've gotten older it has become enshrined in my heart as universal truth.  Fear, at its most powerful, obliterates your mind.

But when you ask a nerd about fear, they are much more likely to quote Star Wars before Paul Atreides.  You probably know this one, a meditation on fear by Jedi Master Yoda: "Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering."  Again, it was merely pithy when I was younger.  Today?  Well, I live in America and suffer through an endless election cycle.  Yoda is a prophet, man.

The Kwisatz Haderach and Master Yoda were both right: fear destroys your ability to think, it feeds anger, it is the root of suffering.  Fear guides our political rhetoric, fear seeps into religious life, fear haunts even benign holidays like Halloween when FB posts warn you to watch out for razors in your child's candy.  Fear is the root and anger is the bitter fruit that we all seem to be feasting upon lately.  At the end of last year, Slate published an "Outrage Calendar" that listed every topic we yelled about on Social Media by the day.  It was a telling reveal, that our public discourse has become dominated by what is wrong, broken, unfit, paltry, contemptible.  I have to search news with a fine toothed comb to find a semblance of "good" news.  We are all so angry; we are all so afraid.

Part of me wonders if our fear is healthy; life is actually quite fragile and often the worst amongst us have the most power.  But part of me also acknowledges that fear (and its child, anger) grow out from a shattering of expectation.  Maybe Americans are so angry lately because we're finally having to let go of the myth of our national exceptionalism.  Maybe Progressives are angry because the long arc of justice is TOO long and all this work is exhausting.  Maybe conservatives are angry because they feel the tide of the culture war turning against them and they don't know their next move.  Maybe.  Whatever the anger is about, though, I turn my eyes back to the Jedi and the Fremen and remember that our anger is ultimately rooted in our fear about the future.  And that fear?  It's killing us.  It's sapping our ability to think critically.  It's driving us apart from each other.  For God's sake, fear caused the people of Houston to vote AGAINST an Equal Rights ordinance that would have protected religious folk, veterans and the disabled.

Fear leads to suffering.  Fear is also not an appropriate response for Christians.  Over and over again, Jesus told his disciples, "Do Not be Afraid."  Or like the writer of 2 Timothy said: "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."  We are called to something more: trust beyond fear, hope beyond anger, love beyond hate.  It's harder this way, but its vastly better than the mind obliteration that is our only other option.

Join me my friends.  Clear your thoughts and let your fear pass over you.  Let outrage leach out from your soul, like the poison it often becomes.  Let's discover together what life can be like when we aren't angry all the time.