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Lost men. Lost dogs. Lost everything. (facing our grief, even in its monotony)

Over a decade ago, I briefly shared an office with a coworker who was retired from the United States Air Force. He was very much in the midst of figuring out what “Act 2” of his life would look like. I was sort of in the same boat, having recently “retired” myself from 15 years of congregational youth ministry. We enjoyed sharing space and worked well together. 

Some of you who’ve heard me speak might know this story – but one morning, he came in, silent, moving with less energy, and his usual cheery “Good morning!” replaced with a terse, “Hey,” as he sat down at his desk. 

“You good?” I asked, unable to just let the obvious change in demeanor go.

“Fine.” 

“Um, ok. You sure?” I pressed. 

“My dog died.”

“Oh,” I responded, “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I know that pain and it sucks.”

He grunted a response and I let it go. Until about ten minutes later, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a grown man sobbing. 

“Hey,” I said, turning towards him, “It’s okay. Just cry.”

He whirled around, looked me square in the eyes and barked, “No. It’s not. You tell me, Julie – you tell me how I can stand over the bodies of six dead airmen and not shed a tear, keep it together, and my damn dog dies and I lose it!”

I did not say a word. I simply held his gaze until he’d regained some composure and then, quietly, told him again how sorry I was, and then listened while he told me about his dog. 

He never mentioned the six dead airmen again. And I’m no grief expert, but I know enough about how it works to be pretty confident that while, sure, his dog’s death was sad, the grief it caused to explode in him had a lot more to do with those lost men than it did the dog.

***

We are terrible at grief in the United States. I mean, terrible. And our inability to name the things we’ve lost and truly mourn that loss is costing us everything – our very humanity, in fact. 

Hundreds of school children have now fallen at the hands of killers with assault rifles, thousands of lives and entire communities changed as a result. 

Covid-19 has ripped at the already fraying seams of our life together – loved ones have died, significant occasions have been missed, vicious arguments explode over the efficacy of vaccines, our workplaces and work habits are forever changed.  

Inflation is blowing up household budgets left and right, and the level of stress this causes the average family gets played out in all sorts of unhealthy ways.

Political toxicity, false information, and zero room for civil discourse pervade every aspect of our lives and our “communication” has been reduced to snarky memes, cable news hottakes and whatever hashtag makes clear our allegiances. 

And against the backdrop of all of it are the normal losses of this life–disease and divorce and layoffs and shattered dreams. 

We are, y’all, awash in grief. Nothing is as it once was, and we have chosen to drown our complicated sorrows in fear and anxiety and constant attack, as opposed to naming the common enemies, and doing the very, very hard work of sacrifice, of relationship, on behalf of each other and our children.

Our grief, unnamed and undealt with, is exploding. We cannot contain it, and it frightens us in ways we cannot begin to explain. 

***

If you have not seen Maverick, the 35-years later follow-up to Top Gun, I highly recommend it (and if you somehow never saw the first one it is widely available on various streaming services right now, so catch up!). 

In making plans to see it, I expected to be entertained, and was curious about what they’d do with the story. 

I did not expect to be blown away by a box office smash that explored the effects of trauma, how grief changes us in profound ways, and how sometimes, healing happens when we don’t even realize we still need it. The loss of “Goose” in the first movie drove the entire storyline of the second movie. 

And isn’t that as it should be? Shouldn’t such a tremendous, unexpected, tragic loss drive, in ways good, bad and ugly, how we live out what we’ve got left?

***

There is a monotony to grief – it’s a long, arduous, path. Sometimes there are moments of relief – quick glimpses of grace that serve as enough hope available to carry us forward. But often it is just one uphill slog after another, even circling back on itself in unexpected moments that exhaust us and leave us wondering if we’ll ever see the light again. 

But y’all. I promise you. There is no way through it but, well…through it. It has to be named. Claimed, sat with, absorbed at face value. We have to let it overwhelm us long enough to want real healing – otherwise we simply toss it off to someone else, and, in doing so, multiply its harm.

I once heard a nonprofit leader say, “Hurt people hurt people.”

Read that again.

Hurt people hurt people. 

We are all hurting. Constantly and more deeply than we’ve got a healthy grasp on. Because damn this world is just so vicious right now. In so many ways. 

But we have to stop hurting each other – with our spoken words, with our social media presence, with how we engage in relationships, with how we behave (both actively and passively).

We have to stop hurting each other. 

***

Name what you’ve lost today. 

Sit with it. 

Lay on the kitchen floor and sob if you have to. 

Text or call a friend or a family member and share it. 

Find a good therapist if you need to (hint: we all do).

Let the reality of the loss overwhelm you long enough to make a desire, a space, for healing. 

There is no more avoiding what we’ve lost if we’ve any hope for a better way.

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(untitled)

It’s been a minute — over three months, actually, since I’ve come to this space to pour my heart out, to try and make some sense in my tangled spirit of what’s happening in the world. Written words seem futile in the midst of sound bytes and TikTok reels, truth actively constructed by pundits and tribalism to the point that anything passing for civil discourse is, most days, lost in the wasteland of cable news and social media.

And, my thoughts on the things ripping us apart these days — gun violence, abortion, inflation, immigration, even Covid-19–don’t fit into a nice box with a pretty bow, and so I generally dwell in murky grays, because I find life to be inexplicably complicated and horribly messy. And I think mostly the complexity and messiness terrify us, and so we cling to black and white.

I majored in journalism in college, minored in English. Written words, stories, are what I know, how I make meaning. Insta’s content creators care nothing for such words. And yes, I use both Facebook and Instagram, but I suspect to my detriment and heightened anxiety, especially as of late.

I dearly love people across the theological and political spectrum in our country — people on both sides of that damn aisle who love me, support me, enrich my life and who are daily conversation partners, people who have shown up for me with some kind of light in my darkest days. I sometimes vehemently disagree with these folks on either side. I sometimes am disappointed in these folks on either side. I sometimes wonder if they are disappointed in me. Most often, I lay awake at night insisting with the most stubborn and maybe even blind sort of hope that we will, somehow, find a way forward in this country I love, in this community I love, in these relationships that give me life. It is, most days, exhausting.

My daughter recently spent eight days in Costa Rica on a mission trip with our church. They had fun in that beautiful country, to be sure, but most of their time was spent working in acutely impoverished communities — building a wall where one was badly needed, installing a ceiling in a house without one, taking food boxes to families who depend on such deliveries. If you ask her how the trip was, she will say, “It was life-changing.”

Monday morning, on her fourth day back in the United States, as I drove her to her summer internship, she burst into tears. We’d been talking about all the things tearing this country apart, the news having exploded while she was away, and she said, “Mom. It was so peaceful in Costa. Nobody was angry with anyone else. Everyone smiled.” Through her tears, she went on to marvel at the joy of the people she served, and how mixed up she has come to believe our priorities are here.

We value the wrong things in these United States. And in doing so, we forget what’s best about us, what’s good and true about this beautiful nation and her people. We focus on wealth and power, first and foremost, serving our worst demons, instead of our better angels. And as a result, we’ve created systems of control and riches that care nothing for actual human beings.

Systems overwhelm us. They seem too much and it’s hard to really take a look at one and see how it developed, how it grew, how it corrupted, even, and how it might be fixed; or, if necessary, destroyed, to make space for something new. And because we don’t know what to do with these systems, we attack each other. We assume that any one person who identifies as pro-choice must not mind murdering babies, and we assume any one person who identifies as pro-life must not care about women’s rights. Neither of these media and politically propagated extremes are true. They just aren’t. But again, we do not to explore the gray, the complexity. We find comfort in absolutes, even if those absolutes are making us less than who God created us to be.

I could go down the list…because over and over again we scream, “If you are not this, you are that.”

I have spent more hours than I could even begin to count the last several months searching for the right words, the right story, to help bring about healing, understanding, real relationship — the kind that could redeem us all. Perhaps it’s misguided, arrogant, even, to think such right words or right story are even possible. Still–our narratives are all wrong and the only way to correct destructive narratives is to reshape them into narratives that build up, that offer hope.

What I long for is a world where we focus on the person. And if we do not agree with that person, we ask, “Why? Tell me about your life,” instead of turning away; a world where we value a person’s life story over a person’s current opinion; a world where we leave room for “I might be wrong,” or “I’d like to try to understand;” a world where we don’t try to make decisions about how another person ought to live his or her life, because we have not walked in his or her shoes.

Most of all, what I long for is the very blessed day when we catch a glimpse, even if only for a moment, of how God sees each of us: wholly and completely beloved.

Beloved.

Each of us.

You.

Your enemy.

That person you hate.

Beloved.

Each of us.

No matter what.

What would happen if we made naming that belovedness – in ourselves, and in one another — our aim?

How would it change tomorrow?

What would you do differently?

Who would you, just maybe, see in another light?

Beloved.

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On climbing mountains and moving forward.

Camelback Mountain – so named because from a distance it does, indeed, look like a camel, laying down, with its hump rising up high out of the desert – sits on the edge of Phoenix, AZ.

My work takes me to Scottsdale, AZ every January, and the retreat center where we stay is just across from the land at Camelback’s base. It’s a startling, bare sort of beauty, the way the mountain emerges from darkness at dawn and returns to darkness at dusk, the dominant thing from any viewpoint, and sometimes, well into evening, stars and moon lend their light just right and you can make out an inky outline of Camelback’s peak.

Camelback rises to about 2700 feet in elevation – it does so with no graciousness, no easing in – it is straight up, no mercy, and with, along the Echo Canyon Trail at least, multiple, “This is a good time to turn back if you are already struggling,” signs. There are no gently winding paths. No shaded hills. No spots to rest, really, even. You just go. Over giant rocks and around massive boulders and outcroppings, and if heights are not your thing there’s more than one place where looking down is not advisable. There are no fences between you and the sheer, rocky side of Camelback.

This past January, looking at Camelback the first night at the retreat center, I thought, “I need to climb that mountain.” I’d done it once before – ten years and another lifetime ago. But this time felt different. I needed to know that trauma and cancer and pandemic and work challenges and anything else could not keep me from this very difficult – both physically and mentally – thing.

It’s pure stupid to attempt such a thing on your own, so thankfully, when I suggested to my coworker that we have a sort of staff retreat and climb a mountain together he did not flinch. “If we can do this, we can surely raise that extra quarter of a million we need this year, right?”

Right.

We got water. Sunscreen. Snacks. We fully charged our phones and texted our departure time to two colleagues, promising to check in along the way.

Less than 20 minutes in I remembered why Echo Canyon Trail is described as “an intense and difficult anaerobic hike.” In just 1.2 miles it ascends 1280 feet. Sure, it’s no Kilimanjaro, but if your jam is usually a tame few miles of jogging through your neighborhood on a nice morning, well, it’s a bit of shock. 

And y’all, there’s one stretch of boulder climbing where if there is any way out, you are tempted to take it. Hand over hand, legs stretched as far as they’ll go, every muscle poised to boost you from boulder to the next, and as far as you can see, just more of the same. The only way out is up. And the only way up is to just do it – focused, careful, determined, and pushing away every single bit of fatigue. 

It feels as if it will never end. As if the summit, which is less than a quarter mile away at that point, will never actually appear and you’re going to be climbing that damn mountain until the day you die. 

I may have teared up at one point. And I definitely wondered what in the holy hell I’d been thinking. 

But then–I swear to you–I thought, “If you can do chemotherapy, you can do this. If you can be an only parent, you can do this. And if you can do this, you can certainly get that massive grant report done next month, you can certainly figure out managing your kid’s schedule and finances and home projects and Every. Thing. Else.”

Every. Thing. Else.

***

Y’all.

We’ve all got everything else. It’s just really difficult to find a way forward right now. For everyone I know. And whatever else we’ve got going on in our lives, we’re also all carrying this background communal anxiety– inflation and Covid and Ukraine and worrying about our kids in the midst of all these things and…good lord. I could go on and on. So could you. 

“Everything hurts,” a friend of mine said recently in a text message, and I knew what she meant. There’s just so much so horribly wrong. 

The day I started chemotherapy, my oncologist said to me, “You’re anxious today, Julie.” I laughed, super nervously, and said, “Shouldn’t I be?” He smiled and nodded his head, but then said, “It will be okay.” As the daughter of a cancer survivor, I’ve spent just about my entire adulthood fearing its presence in my life, and here I was, a chest port newly installed and IV drugs already making their way into my system when I’d barely had time to process the diagnosis. 

“You’re anxious today,” felt like the understatement of a lifetime. But there was no way out. There was only forward. Straight through the difficulty, trusting that somewhere, ahead, was something worth getting to. 

***

When the last bit of rocky hell that is the Echo Canyon Camelback climb gives way to a relatively easy few steps that get you to the summit, there’s something that gives inside you – it’s like the last hour or so’s difficulty realizes it was kind of a jerk and eases up long enough for you to regroup, catch your breath, and then … y’all…then…there are no words for the view spread before and around you. Miles and miles stretching in every direction, the air so sharp and the vista so clear that you just sort of collapse into the raw beauty of it, able, for a moment, to rest in the truth that you just did a really hard thing and you’ve every right to bask in the moment. 

We’re capable of so much more than we ever give ourselves credit for, y’all – I’m convinced with all that I am that God breathed into us what we’d need to live the life that same God calls us to. 

Hear that again: I believe God has given us what we need. Even when we cannot see it. Even when it seems so damn hopeless. Even when our hearts are broken beyond what can be spoken. Even when nothing seems like it could ever possibly be okay again. 

God has given us what we need. And has done so with a Love that cannot be matched, moved, changed or lost. 

***

You’re exhausted, I know.

You’re terrified, I know.

You’re overwhelmed with grief, and you’ve lost whatever scrap of hope you might have been clinging to. 

Your heart has been broken, again, and you can’t see how it will ever piece itself back together. 

I know. 

The weight of the world seems impossible.

I know. 

The summit seems unreachable. 

You can do this. I promise. 

And if you can do this, there isn’t anything else, ever, that you cannot do. 

God has given you what you need. 

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A word about our kids (and compassion) from a former youth pastor…

I spent fifteen years pastoring to middle and high school youth in a congregational setting.

Those fifteen years held tremendous joy. All across this country are amazing grown adults that I was once privileged to work with–they are doctors and lawyers and nurses and businessmen and women. They are actors and writers and teachers. They are pastors and homemakers and artists. They are raising families and doing good and making the world better.

Those fifteen years also held tremendous heartache. That one kid who ran away from home and got caught up in the porn industry; the one whose family fell apart late in his high school years and I’ve no idea what happened to them all; the one who I once saw using drugs in a park, and I can still remember the look on his face as he turned away from me; the one who is a single mom to a special needs kid; the one who struggled mightily to maintain her mental health, and who I imagine still does; the one who honestly and truly felt something was not right inside her and so fought to figure who she was physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually; the one whose dad died during such crucial teenage years; the one whose girlfriend was raped after they’d been out one evening; the one whose dad was an alcoholic; the one whose dad skipped town before she could walk; the one whose whose own drug and alcohol use led to more awful situations than any young person should have to hold in their memories.

It’s the heartache I’m remembering this morning. Because all over the world, and right here in our own neighborhoods, our children are hurting, in ways seen and unseen, and we are, daily, failing to tend to their pain.

Lift the politics, the social norms, the tribalism, the opinions and whatever your someone’s someone says “This.” about on social media — it doesn’t matter. Our children are dying–if not physically, certainly emotionally and spiritually–and we keep yelling at each other about whose right and whose wrong, and who is to blame and who is not.

Look, it doesn’t matter what you think of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–children are dying today as a result. And they sure as hell had nothing to do with the hundreds upon thousands of years of unrest and conflict in that region of the world.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand or agree with or are afraid of or feel sorry for children who are struggling with their gender or sexuality–hands down and regardless, anyone, and certainly a child, who is carrying such difficult and potentially painful things deserves first and only our compassion.

It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a mental health issue or a gun control issue, or a combination of both or neither–our kids learn “intruder drills” at their schools and that this is even necessary should bring us to a our knees in fervent prayer and willing redemption regardless of what we believe the root cause(s) to be.

It doesn’t matter what your own social media habits are, our children are being raised in an environment where “content creation” is more important than actual experience and real relationship–they are far too often losing any sense of who they are beyond their Instagram. Everything is meta, and they are so completely lost in it. We all are.

I could go on. But I’m going to assume you see my point. We’re sacrificing our children at the altar of our own political and sociological and theological wars, and it is costing them their lives.

And parents, grandparents, guardians, other concerned adults? I know how scared you are. I know how afraid you are of this world we’ve handed our children and how difficult it is to figure out a way forward that is less fearful, more whole, more of what we’ve always wanted for them. Every morning, when I drop my precious girl at school, I say, aloud, to her “Have a good day baby, I love you.” And as she walks away I whisper quietly, to myself, “And please God keep her safe until I am back here to get her.”

I know the dangers. I’ve seen them. Up close and far too personal. It is a terrifying landscape. And it is easy to lose hope.

And also…

I believe with all my heart that real kindness and true compassion and actual selflessness, combined, are capable of pretty much anything. And so, I am wondering, lately, what it would look like if we all made a consciousness decision to first, try compassion.

Set aside your disagreement. Your fear. Your need to fix. Your desire to change a mind or even a heart.

Try, first, compassion.

Look past the facade. The Insta-perfect image. Dig down past the political label, the address, the life choices, the depression, the anxiety and see the person.

And then try, first, compassion.

Maddy and I have radio station we typically listen to in the car. We adore the morning show on this station. We are often annoyed by the afternoon DJ. But yesterday, that DJ that generally drives us crazy stopped for just a second and went, I can only assume, off script to talk about Russia and Ukraine, and, truthfully, the world in general. He said there are folks in Russia and Ukraine who love their children, too, who only want the best for their communities, too, who want, just like us, to have a safe home and a decent meal and maybe a few good friends.

Maddy and I both listened, gape mouthed and wide eyed until a commercial break, and she said, “Well dang. Afternoon annoying guy is suddenly all brilliant and caring!” I laughed, long and loud.

But she was right. And so was annoying afternoon guy. We’re just not that different from each other. We never have been. And it is our insistence otherwise that is tearing us apart.

Y’all. Our kids are dying. Inside and out. And it’s all on us. And we have got to find a way of shoving past our own fears and insecurities and anger so that we can meet them where they are, offer a hand and say, “Where does it hurt and how can I help?”

Because at the end of the day, all of our kids, yours and mine and everyone else’s want the same thing: and that is to be loved and held safe, without question or merit or condition.

Forget everything else.

Try, first, compassion.

Nothing else is working.

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The Right Thing To Do

Make me a channel of your peace:

Where there is hatred

Let me bring your love

Where there is injury

Your pardon, Lord

And where there’s doubt

True faith in you

(Prayer,” Come From Away)

Live theater is pretty much our favorite thing to do in our house – and it’s not a cheap hobby, so generally theater tickets are “special occasion” type things. And, this year, Maddy’s big Christmas present came in the form of tickets to opening night of the national tour of Come From Away here in Louisville. I’d been wanting to see it for quite some time, and Maddy’s interest was piqued when her theater teacher at school had her freshman theater cohort study the show last fall. 

Real quick: CFA is a musical adaptation of the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where many planes were diverted out of American airspace on 9/11. In short, this little island town of 9,000 people was, without warning, flooded with planes and people. People from all over the world. Many of whom did not speak English and had no idea what was happening. People who were terrified. People who could not get a hold of loved ones in the United States. People who were hungry and needed medicine and water and phones to call home. People who were suddenly stranded on a Canadian island for five days. 

A Canadian island that turned itself inside out and upside down to care for the hundreds, thousands, even, of people who had suddenly landed in their community – “the day the world came to town,” they called it. Hundreds of local volunteers mobilizing to house and feed and otherwise care for completely traumatized strangers. 

One Newfoundland man was shepherding a couple from an African country from their plane to shelter – the couple was terrified, and the man was searching for some way to assure them all was well. The couple had with them their copy of the Bible, and the man realized that even if their bible was in a different language it would still be numbered the same. He pointed to their bible, and then flipped through it until he found Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything….” He placed his finger on these words, and showed the couple–the only way he could tell them, “It’s ok. Don’t worry. You’re safe.” Philippians 4:6 is Philippians 4:6 in any country, and in any native tongue. “In that moment,” he said, “we began to speak the same language.”

Gander’s library was converted to quiet space for prayer – Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus all making space for the Holy in the face of their fear and pain.

A local SPCA volunteer searched the planes for animals, finding dogs and cats and even exotics stowed away. So she set about caring for them as best she could.

A rabbi who happened to be on one of the diverted flights coordinated kosher meals. 

People pooled their backyard grills for a massive cookout. People bought up diapers and formula and tampons and water bottles and whatever else was needed from local merchants and took them to the “come from aways,” the strangers in their land, and said, “Here. Whatever you need.”

Y’all. There almost aren’t words for it. These people in this little town quite literally welcomed the world – and they did so with a level of hospitality and care that my faith would call nothing short of Christ-like. They sat with people in their grief and shock. They held babies and they held hands. They gave of themselves in the most sacrificial and beautiful ways. They made it possible for hundreds of stories to be told about that horrible day, stories that bear witness to the ways that 9/11 continues to shape our world as we now know it–for better and for worse. 

Maddy understands 9/11 only as a historical event – but seeing this show together made space for her to ask me about my experiences that day. I told her where I was and what I did when I heard the news, and who I talked to that day, and what I remember about that time. We talked about the best of people on display everywhere–and we talked about the worst of people, too – how anyone remotely resembling Middle Eastern was suspect, and how when people are afraid they sometimes do and say things they normally wouldn’t. 

CFA’s cast is small – only about 20 folks, and they all play multiple roles. And the music is all performed by a 6-8 person on-stage band – mandolins and guitars and an “ugly stick” – this delightful Canadian percussion instrument made from recycled household items like mop handles and tin cans and the like. As the last scene closes, the band takes center stage, breaking into the most glorious Irish-Canadian-bluegrass type music that I’m not sure anyone could listen to without jumping up and dancing. The Kentucky Performing Arts Center’s Whitney Hall can hold over 2300 patrons. It was pretty full opening night of CFA, and as that band took the stage, every person in the hall took to their feet, and within seconds all of us were clapping, right on beat with that ugly stick, joy just exploding throughout. Maddy said, “Mama! Everyone is clapping! Everyone is doing it!” “I know, baby,” I said, tears streaming down my face, “I know.”

In that moment, everyone in Whitney Hall in downtown Louisville was speaking the same language.

And I breathed a silent prayer of thanks that my daughter was witnessing a glimpse of grace–a snapshot of the very best of humanity. Such glimpses are, I believe, what makes hope possible.

Here’s the thing y’all–those people in Gander, they did a miraculous sort of thing. Loaves and fishes feeding the 5000 sort of stuff. But I can’t shake the simple truth of their miracle: they just did what needed to be done. And they did it because it was the right thing to do

It was the right thing to do. 

In the face of global terror, communal grief and trauma, and thousands of individual heartaches, the right thing to do was to offer food and drink and shelter and, even if but for a moment, the promise that “Right now, right here, you are safe. And you do not need to worry.” 

The right thing to do– and they did it no matter language or skin color or political affiliation or socioeconomic label or gender or age or anything. They saw a need and they met the need. And, in doing so, offered up a master class in what it means to live up to what our God created us to be. 

Y’all. We are, right now, in the United States, not worthy of Gander’s legacy. We are tribal and cruel and selfish. We are quick to blame, bereft of real kindness, anything but hospitable, and more focused on our next Insta-worthy moment than real relationship. We’re feeding what’s worst in us; meanwhile, our better angels, if we’ve even any left, are starving. 

What I want for Maddy–and for your children and grandchildren, too–is Gander, Newfoundland.

I want the right thing to do. 

No matter who you are. Or where you’ve been. Or what color your skin is. Or who you love. Or how much money you have. Or any other BS narrative we’ve created about who is worthy and who isn’t. 

I want Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001. Where all who had “come from away,” were called friend, and assured that they belonged. 

Simply because it was– and is – the right thing to do. 

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Mary’s choice.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….” (Luke 1: 46-47) 

****

“The Magnificat,” it is often called; or, “Mary’s Song” – either way verses 46-55 of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke are among my favorites in all the Bible. They are beautiful. Earnest. Full of thanksgiving for the moment at hand, even as unbelievable as it all must have seemed. 

A likely terrified, certainly poor and bewildered and pregnant, teenage girl prayed them to the God she trusted would not forsake her in the midst of it all. 

It’s humbling, I think, to imagine all that she must have been feeling, and yet, still, she was able to sing with joy at the life emerging within her, to stand firm in her belief that God was in it all and would see her through.

And this morning I pray for a spirit like hers. 

  • Because tornados have decimated cities and taken life and destroyed dreams and the devastation is almost more than I can wrap my head around
  • Because families are messy and relationships are hard and we’re all carrying more grief and angst than we’ve found a way to name and it is tearing us apart
  • Because life hands us all hard things, but some folks seem to be bearing more hard things than others and it isn’t fair and I can’t fix it
  • Because children are missing
  • Because Covid- 19 has taken some 800,000 American lives and we still fight about it
  • Because social media is bringing out the utter worst of us and I cannot understand why we choose its false narratives over the truth of how much better and more truthful our lives and conversations are lived face-to-face
  • Because…
  • Because…
  • Because…

How did she do it? How, in the midst of chaos and fear, could she sing of her spirit rejoicing?

****

A dear friend of mine was traveling yesterday, and her journey included a stop at the Atlanta airport–a behemoth of frenzy and impatience if there ever was. My friend and I were both raised mostly in the Deep South, and we value our southern roots fiercely (even as we understand the many complications and contradictions present in its history). 

She texted me early afternoon, “The attendant in the ladies’ room is saying (on repeat), ‘Come on baby, when you are leaving, be sure you have your cell phone and everything else and go out there and make baby Jesus proud. Merry Christmas!” #onlyinthesouth

“Omigod,” I texted back, “This is everything!”

“It sure feels like it,” came her quick response. 

Go out there and make baby Jesus proud.

On the one hand, I feel we’ve failed in this entirely.

On the other hand, I feel like if Mary could, in the midst of all that was happening to her,  summon her words of thanksgiving and adoration, then maybe, even now, thousands of years later, all is not lost, and we’ve still got time to honor him with more than frankincense and myrrh. 

Because, this year perhaps most of all, honoring the baby Jesus has less to do with whatever holiday deal Best Buy is offering and more to do with how we care for those who have lost everything; how we shepherd those who are lost; how we listen to what’s behind that social media post; how we pay attention to those who are hungry and lonely; how we live our own lives in ways that take less and give more. 

How we gather up the things we need, and then go out, and make the baby Jesus proud. 

****

The truth is, I know how she did it. I know how she praised her God even as nothing around her made sense. 

She chose to.

She chose to see the good that could come of anything God had a hand in. She chose to name that God was with her and would not let her go. She chose to let the joy stand tall over the fear. She chose to remember all that God had done, and so trust all that God would do. 

She chose to let her soul magnify her Lord. 

And, in doing so, made space for a Love unlike any that had ever been, to be born. 

Oh y’all…I know….

I know the heartache and anger and grief and all of it is so much. It’s all the time and everywhere. And how we do actually choose to have some sort of joy or hope or belief in another side to it all is really a very tall and difficult order.

All I know is that Mary lived in a time when nothing was easy. And her life had little value to those in power. And there was a great deal of turmoil and evil swirling about. And it must have all seemed very hopeless.

And still. She chose to sing her song.

I believe with everything I am that our lives might well depend on making the same kind of choice.

****

46

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 

    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

50 

His mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation.

51 

He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

53 

he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.

54 

He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,

55 

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 (Luke 1: 46-55, NRSV)

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Lions and lambs.

In the fall of 1997, mid-semester of my first year of seminary, my theology professor assigned us a book to read. It’s called The Angels Have Left Us, and it was written by Hugh McCullum following hundreds of interviews with those directly affected by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 — survivors, NATO officers, church leaders, government officials, etc.

I was 22 years old. And I had not yet heard of what happened over those 100 days in Rwanda, when over 1 million Tutsi people were murdered by their fellow Hutu countrymen. It’s been 25 years, but my memory’s eye can see my professor holding that book in his hands and asking us to voice our immediate response to it clear as day.

I was gutted. 

But I’ll tell you, that professor made his point — if you’re going to talk about God’s love, if you’re going to voice anything about what God can do or who God is, you sure better not say anything that you could not say to someone who survived those 100 days in Rwanda.

****

Last night, I watched the first episode of a series currently on Amazon Prime. This is Football has six episodes in its first season, and it takes an in-depth, emotional, sociological look at the ways football (soccer, y’all NFL people!) has had significant, transformative impact on various countries and communities. 

The first episode is called “Redemption,” and it centers on a tight-knit group of Liverpool Football Club fans…wait for it…”The Rwandan Reds.” 

In the middle of Rwanda, they gather on game days, and watch “The Reds,” do their thing. They even have their own local team, and they step on the pitch in Liverpool red jerseys, their favorite players’ names gracing the backs of those jerseys, and the fans chanting the same songs you’d hear live at a game, or any “Liverpool bar” in any city or country (that’d be Molly Malone’s, here in Louisville).

Three men are at the center of the episode: all three of them are survivors of the 1994 genocide; all three of them lost the majority of their family members; all three of them cannot talk about those 100 days without stopping to gather their thoughts, without gazing off in the distance, without naming their memories through clogged throats. All three are deeply traumatized.

And all three gather with their fellow Rwandan Reds, at the bar or on the pitch, whenever it is possible to do so. Because they are all avid Liverpool fans.

All this alone would have made an incredible story–three men who have survived the absolute worst of humanity and gone on to have families and careers, gone on to smile again, gone on to play again. 

But that’s not even close to all of it.

****

In 2004, the Rwandan national football team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time ever. This was a very a big deal — only a decade past the genocide, it was rightfully celebrated that this tiny country had overcome such tremendous tragedy to land on the championship pitch. President Paul Kagame was there for the qualifying match, and the footage of his joy is enough to make even the Grinch turn soft, y’all, I swear. 

But, listen up, because this is the important part:

Y’all? On that team were both Hutus and Tutsis.

On that team were both perpetrators and survivors. 

On that team were players who had macheted their way through entire villages where family and friends of other players lived. 

On that team were men who just ten years before were sworn, mortal enemies.

On. The. Same. Team.

And the same is true when the Rwandan Reds gather in a bar to watch Jurgen Klopp’s boys take on Man City or Chelsea or whoever. And it’s also true when they gather on the pitch to take on another local team. 

Hutus and Tsutis both. Murderers and victims both. 

I sobbed the entire last 15 minutes of the episode, unable to grasp how these men have found their way through such all-consuming, terrifying, decimating evil, to a place on the other side where they are able to say, “We are not Hutu or Tutsi here. We are Liverpool.”

These men in this episode — they spoke of pain, of grief, of hate, of evil. They spoke of hiding and running and seeing their family members murdered. They spoke of how none of it made sense and it was all so confusing and awful. 

And…

They spoke of forgiveness. Of a grace that cannot be explained. Of the way their common love for football has transcended literally all else and left them nothing short of family to one another. 

The makers of This is Football saw to it that these three men made it to Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. And they joined the thousands of others in Liverpool’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Theater friends: Can you imagine what Rodgers and Hammerstein think of their Broadway song being sung by football fans the world over?!?).

Their joy was palpable. Their redemption real. Their hope for each other and their beloved nation a thing that defies any sort of logic or description.

It’s miracle. All of it. Simply miracle. 

****

My faith tells me such things as what the prophet Isaiah said are possible:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

    and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

    their young shall lie down together;

    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

    on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

And Hutus and Tutsis shall play football together, and be redeemed.

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No going back.

A scar is forming across the upper right corner of my chest, just beneath my clavicle.

Six days ago, a surgeon sliced an opening there just large enough to pull out a vascular port — a little gem of modern medicine that I had surgically implanted in March of 2020. For some 20 months it’s been living inside me, piping chemotherapy drugs into my bloodstream as safely and as efficiently as possible. But it’s been well over a year since my last round of chemo, and the risk of this foreign object causing an infection had begun to outweigh any potential need.

It’s not a scar that will last forever. Surgical glue and excellent stitching and all that. But I promise you that I’ll always be able to slide my left hand across that particular spot on the right, and know, for certain, that something was once there. 

There was a news story recently about a young woman who’d finished treatment for Hodgkins’ Lymphoma and had her port removed. School picture day came around and the scar was still clearly visible. This was not bothersome for her at all, but, and perhaps with the best of intentions, a photo editor “touched up” her photo to make the scar invisible. This did not set well with Allison. For her, the scar was testament to survival. She had no desire to cover it up, to hide it — she wore it proudly. 

Scars bear witness to where we have been. What we have known or experienced or lived through. They are sacred. And they matter. Because they say, “This happened. And I will never be exactly the same because of it.”

This happened. And I will never be exactly the same because of it. 

****

Y’all. Things have happened. And we are never going to be the same because of it. 

Especially these last two years. 

Businesses have closed and schools have shifted and churches are not quite as full. We’ve lost loved ones to virus and violence both. Modern-day tribal warfare, born of political posturing and manipulation, has torn jagged wounds across our communities, our families, our relationships. Financial instability is, in many places, the rule rather than any random exception. And we have missed out on more rituals, more traditions, more things-that-make-us-who-we-are than I could even begin to name. 

It’s grief upon grief upon grief. 

And y’all, grief changes you. It pours into your soul, winds its way through your very being and changes you. And because of this, it has to be named. Faced. Sometimes wrestled with like Jacob and God and sometimes just sat with like Mary Magdalene in the garden, wondering how the sun could possibly be rising when her heart hurt so badly. 

Grief is not linear. It rises and falls and switches back and snarls into deadlock and makes hard turns into darkness. It molds us, for better or for worse, into a different version of ourselves. 

If we’re very, very lucky–or in the care of a very fine grief counselor at least–it has the capacity to soften our edges, widen our hearts, make us more loving and kind. It also has the capacity to consume us. And, one thing is for sure, it cannot, no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise, be controlled. It can rear its head in the most unlikely moments, leaving us feeling broken all over again. Raw. Vulnerable. Afraid. 

My great fear for all of us these days is that in our rush to “get back to normal,” (after pandemic, after political chaos, after constant violence–none of which is actually going away) we’ve failed to name the enormous collective grief that is, I believe, threatening to destroy us. 

There is no going back. There is no editing out the scars etched across our lives, our communities, our country. There is no forgetting what has been so that we can just move on. There is no controlling all that we find unpleasant so that we can build some sort of fantasy life of safety and perfection. 

There is no going back.

Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon it’s not his fault? And Damon is all, “Yea I know.” And Williams is like, “No. Hear me again. It’s not your fault,” and Damon’s all “I know!” and Williams says it again, “It’s not your fault,” …and again…and again…until finally Damon hears him and collapses under the weight of this heartbreaking and freeing truth.

Y’all?

There is no going back. There is no going back. There is no going back. 

Everything has changed. 

And we should probably just collapse under the weight of this heartbreaking and freeing truth. Because it is only going to be in falling to our knees that we will find the strength to rise again. 

****

Last night, in a blast of worry about someone I love very much, I let anxiety get the better of me — and, for me, that meant trying to control, trying to contain, trying to script something that was so much bigger than me and the moment. 

Spoiler alert: This does not work. Zero stars. Do not recommend. 

What I should have done is simply said, “This is grief. And it is awful. And there is nothing to do but name it. Let it be. Until we can see the other side of it.”

Y’all we cannot contain what has happed to us. We can only name it. Sit with it. Let it be. Until we see the other side. 

And the thing is? And I swear to you I stake my life on this: There will be the other side. 

There is no going back. But there will be the other side. The space between is terrifying and sad. But there will be the other side. 

There will be the other side.

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Reclaiming humanity.

There are many, many things that the Covid-19 pandemic has stolen from us. Whatever you believe about its origins, its prevention and treatment, or its capacity to kill, there are myriad “side effects,” of this virus : children have missed out on crucial in-person schooling; workplaces have shifted how they operate; communities have been torn apart by disagreement on its management; politicians (of all ilk) have leveraged it for their own gain. All of this has left great, gaping wounds on our lives and ways of being–both personal and communal.

And all of it has contributed mightily to what I believe to be the greatest loss of all to Covid-19: our humanity.

I have never in my lifetime seen such blatant cruelty, such apathy, such dogged determination to tear down those who do not agree with us, look like us, or believe as we do. And while these divisions among God’s people (and we are all, to a person, no matter what, God’s people, each of us loved fiercely–no more or no less than anyone else–by that same God) have always been present, it’s the way we express these divisions, the way we live them out these days, that just boggles my mind and breaks my heart.

Y’all know I have a love/hate relationship with social media–and right here with this is where the “hate” part comes in–because man-oh-man, our keyboards have been working overtime while we’ve all been stuck at home, the anonymity of an online persona, the barrier of a screen, making it all too easy to say things that very few of us would be willing to say to the face of God or Grandma.

And honestly, I get it. The rage and pain and grief we’re all carrying is real. Only we’re not facing that rage and pain and grief–we’re just taking it out on everyone else, Facebook and Twitter convenient methods for our endless game of emotional hot potato. It’s tempting to hover our fingers over those keys until just the right insult, hot take, snark or blame comes out, thereby passing on our hurt to someone else.

But y’all. To what end?

When we say that the unvaxxed shouldn’t get treament? (Do you really want a healthcare system that judges who is and who isn’t worthy of treatment? Good lord, healthcare in this country is messed up enough!)

When we use the very real tragedy of dementia to make fun of Joe Biden? (How do you think this makes those in your life who have watched someone they love die with dementia feel?)

When we say we wish Trump’s case of Covid had been harder on him, or, worse yet, taken his life? (How do you think this makes those in your life who have lost someone to Covid feel?)

When we openly mock, insult and target the children of politicians we can’t stand? (Do you really want to live in a world where children are the casualties of our grown up games?)

When we openly judge someone’s character because he or she is a cop? Or a person of color? Or gay? Or Democrat? Or Republican? Or (fill in the blank…we’ve got more labels than we know what to do with)…?

Are these the examples we really want to set for our children? Are these ways of being the tenets we really want to live by? Are we all really more concerned about claiming our tribal allegiance than real relationship with family? Friends? Neighbors?

I have a neighbor — a few doors down–he’s in his twenties, black, a young, newly married dad, and small business owner. He’s building a fence at his place. A lovely, wooden slat fence that just fits so well on our street. Building a fence is hard work, in case you did not know. It takes patience. Skill. And usually more than one person.

Early one evening last week, I took Dolly for a walk, and as we passed this neighbor’s house, I saw two other neighbors helping him with a particularly challenging part of the fence-building. Older men, both white, both deeply engaged in assisting with the task at hand.

And y’all, I cried at the beauty of it. I stood there, just letting it sink in. Neighbor helping neighbor. Such a simple thing, and yet, in these days when everything feels so awful and divided and gross…it was everything.

It was hope.

I’m so glad I saw it–and I am also so grieved that something so simple, something that should be understood, part and parcel of who we are as communities, seemed like such a big deal. Neighbor helping neighbor — even if those neighbors are different in many ways–shouldn’t be a big deal. It should just be.

We have got to reclaim our humanity, y’all.

We’ve got to walk away from the forces that threaten our common good and work towards some kind of healing. I’ve lost any hope that an elected leader is going to do it for us. And I never have believed that policies change the world, no matter how well-crafted they might be. And so when I say “we,” I mean the rest of us–you and me. Our salvation is to be found in the day-to-day work of relationship, of listening to those around us, of paying attention to who needs casserole, of seeing who might need some help around the yard this weekend, of asking, “How are you?” and then really listening for the answer, of recognizing that what’s at stake is the wellbeing of all of us…and our children’s children.

I know many of you who read this blog aren’t church folks–in fact, many of you have had such an awful experience with church, or any sort of religion in general, that it has sent you packing from any such thing. I get that.

And also…

My own faith, my own way of being, is built on the story of a baby sent to love the world in a way that we’d never seen before. Fully and completely. Always and no matter what. That baby grew into a man who loved fiercely–men, women and children from all walks of life, from all parts of town, from all sorts of jobs, from all sorts of backstory. He did not come for just one of us. He did not come for those of us who fit a certain bill or dress in the latest fashion or vote a certain way.

He lived and loved past all that would push apart, and asked us to do the same.

I stake my life on this story. And in it rests my earnest belief that something more is possible for each of us and for all of us, that there truly is a way up and out of the cluster we currently find ourselves in, that it really is possible for lions and lambs to dwell together.

I told a beloved recently that maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe this hope I have is futile. Maybe we really are doomed. I was tired. And broken. And couldn’t summon the strength to insist on another way anymore.

Maybe it’s too much to say that my neighbor and his fence pulled me out of that moment of despair and set me on firm footing again. But then…maybe not. After all, I’d be the first one to say that we have to claim whatever hope is available, at any given moment, to see us through.

What hope is available to you? On this day? In this moment?

Claim it.

Our shared humanity depends on it.

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lament and prayer.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

(Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.)

****

Fires rage across the west, people’s lives and livelihoods going up in flames. 

Waters rush across New Orleans, again, and people’s lives and livelihoods are drowned. 

The earth literally splits underneath the land that is Haiti and once again her people are plunged into despair. 

Miserere nobis

Talking heads blame this person and that person and insult those they disagree with in ways I’d not allow my daughter to speak to someone and we cheer for our tribe and carry on with our arrogance, all of it born of out of our own fears, our own anxieties, our need to make some sort of meaning out of this cluster we find ourselves in. 

There’s shooting to kill every night in my city’s streets, life now an expendable commodity, exactly what happens when we’ve disregarded one another’s well-being for so long and found the solace for our pain in drugs, in hate, in violence. 

The virus runs through us with deadly aim, some of us escaping its worst and some of us dying, losing those we love, while healthcare workers beg for relief and children are sent home from school and the landscape of our lives changes forever. And still there are those who scoff. Who fail to see its havoc. I ache for them, because such selfishness stems from hurt locked so deep inside it cannot be seen or understood for what it is. 

We feel isolated. Cut off from what we once knew. Like so much has changed and no one was there to bear witness, our heads buried in the sands of our own lives in the midst of all that has threatened to undo us. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan burns. Soldiers die and families mourn. Women and children especially vulnerable to the evil present there. Rage is white hot and deeper and deeper runs the rifts that are already tearing our communities apart. Lives are at stake, pundits and polls do not matter. And our best bet would be to fall to our knees in fervent prayer for the terror reigning there. 

Miserere nobis

Take away our sins, God. Our own and the world’s, and grant us your mercy. How far we have fallen from what you’ve dreamed us to be and how heartbreaking are the consequences. You alone are the truth of our existence, your Love the very essence of who we are, and yet we push it aside and away in favor of what TikTok sells and worship affluence with more fervor than we ever thought about channeling into following Jesus. 

Humble us with your grace, force us to our knees in submission to your will. Hold us so tightly in your love that it forms us, as fire forms clay, into something new and only for you. 

Make way through the waters

Walk (us) through the fire

Shut the mouths of lions

Bring dry bones to life*

Do what the stories of your faith first told us that you can, God, because we have entirely forgotten how to share your love, carry your light, tell of your pure and abundant and exceeding grace. And remind us of the times you’ve shown up to see us through nightmare, grief and despair. You’ve never left us. Even as we have you, over and over and over.

Miserere nobis

Our hearts cry out to you, God. Take away our sins. Show us your mercy. Grant us peace. And lead us out of this chaos we’ve created out of our own hurt and anger and fear and selfish longings and into real and right relationship with one another and with You. 

Tonite, when the whole world is on edge, and we’ve lost all sense of what it means to love as you do…this is my prayer. My plea. 

For all of us. 

Because we are, each of us, first and only and ever yours. 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

*lyrics from Famous For (I Believe), from the album Citizen of Heaven, featuring Tauren Wells and Jenn Johnson