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Waving flashlights in the dark.

My Netflix binging over the last couple months has included Criminal Minds — I somehow missed it all these years. I love-with-a-capital-L a good law enforcement/crime show with a serious human interest bend. And my go-to’s, SVU, and the whole Chicago franchise, are delayed until November (thanks, COVID), so here I am, obsessed with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI as portrayed in this show. And I mean OB. SESSED.

Look, I don’t even care about the crimes they follow–I mean, they’re awful, and sometimes over-the-top, and often I have to look away, but they aren’t what grabs me. What intrigues me is how well the characters are developed, how deeply the writers dig into the truth that we all have a dark side, how transparent the failings and weaknesses of these heroes are, even as they contend with the absolute worst of humanity.

I got caught up in a three-episode arc last night involving one of the agents and her somewhat sketchy past with the CIA and Interpol. Long story short, a terrorist loosely affiliated with the IRA, whose inner circle she once infiltrated during her spy days, is released from an international prison, and makes his way to the United States to exact revenge. Agent Prentiss’ first concern is keeping her BAU family safe, and so she attempts to keep her past secreted, and goes after the bad guy herself.

This doesn’t work. At all.

(Does it ever really work when we attempt to do difficult or scary things on our own, leaving out, even if with good intention, those who love and know us best?)

And so Prentiss finds herself alone. Her life in imminent danger. Nowhere to turn.

And she hears this message, left on her old spy Blackberry by the BAU’s genius-hacker-IT-gal:

(They) asked me to try all your numbers, and I have this as an old listing, and you probably don’t even use it any more, but if it is you and you’re out there, come home, please. God, Emily, what did you think, that we would just let you walk out of our lives? I am so furious at you right now! Then I think about how scared you must be, how you’re in some dark place all alone, but you’re not alone, okay? You are not alone. We are in that dark place with you. We are waving flashlights and calling your name. So if you can see us, come home. But if you can’t, then, then you stay alive, because we’re coming.

We are in that dark place with you. We are waving flashlights. And calling your name. We’re coming.

***

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a psalm every morning. I started with Psalm 1. I’m up to about 16 of the 150 of them, and y’all, there’s a theme: Of a people afraid, scared, and feeling alone. Of a people lost, looking for the way home. Of a people seeking protection from their enemies. Of a people assailed at every turn by chaos and hate.

And I’ll tell you, these psalms? We could be writing them now.

And also I’ll tell you, these psalms? They are flashlights waving in the dark, reminding us that we are not alone in our pain and grief and confusion and fear. Reminding us that God’s people–and we are all God’s people–have been in dire straits before, and not once, not yet, has God failed to be present in the awfulness, offering a lamp to guide our feet to the other side of what threatens to undo us.

***

A favorite story in my family is about the time I went sleep-walking one summer at church camp. I was 10 years old, and my cabin counselor woke up in the dead of night to find me missing from my top bunk. I cannot imagine how fearful she was. Nor can I imagine how hard it was for her to go wake up the camp director, who happened to be my dad, and tell him she’d lost his daughter somewhere in the swampy woods of South Texas.

I don’t remember sleep-walking. What I do remember is waking up, cold and alone, in an empty cabin, and, just before fear could swallow me whole, seeing light bobbing up and down–waving, you might say–outside.

Next thing I knew, my dad, and his waving flashlight, were carrying me out of that empty cabin and back to safety.

***

Y’all, so many of us are lost and alone and angry and scared. White-hot hatred and profound grief are all around us, creating space where violence riots and any attempt at reconciliation falls flat. Isolation is weaving its dangerous web in light of COVID concerns. Anxiety and depression are rampant. Darkness is all around us, pushing against our souls in ways that are changing the landscape of our lives. The collective awfulness of 2020 is a very real thing.

And still we face the every day heartaches of our individual lives, too. It’s no wonder I hear us saying over and over, “It’s too much.”

Or, as my man Pat Conroy once said to his wife, “I never expected life to be so tragic, did you? I mean, I knew it’d be hard, but sad? I don’t know how any of us do it.”

I promise you two things. One, there is someone in the world right now who needs you to be a waving flashlight in the dark. Two, there is someone in the world right now willing to be a waving flashlight for you.

Darkness is no match for even one tiny light. And I believe with all I’ve got that if we’d all just pick up our damn flashlights, and wave them fiercely, calling out the names of those the darkness is swallowing, and promise, “We’re coming for you, you are not alone….”

Well…if we did that…we’d all find ourselves with enough light to find our way home.

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A prayer for this day, this year, these times….

“But I trusted in your steadfast love….” (Psalm 13:5)

I have no idea what to do but offer this all to you, God, because these are the honest words and struggles of my spirit. These are the things breaking my heart, at every new morning, even as I praise you, at every evening, for the places you’ve shown up and reminded me all is not lost. Even as I trust you, God, my heart aches.

My heart aches…

At the anxiety I see in the face of my own child, and other children we know and love. It mirrors our own grown-up anxiety, and while it is a right response to such uncertain times, it tears at the fabric of what makes us whole. Grant us all resilience, God, to see these days through. Grant us a desire for what these difficult days might teach us, God.

At the pain and fear I see in the faces of black and brown folks who have known hate for so long, and at the pain and fear I see in the faces of law enforcement trying so hard to do the right thing, and for the chasm of pain between. Grant us all a bridge, God, somehow, that there might be a way forward without more loss of life, without more destruction of communities, without more anger heaped upon what already rages. Grant us a desire for real justice and true peace, God.

At the political turmoil ripping our nation apart, leaving severed relationships in its wake, escalating with every instance of weaponized snark and rumor, driving wedges into our lives together with such deadly force, and leading us to demonize one another, and assume worst intent. Grant us new eyes and new hearts and new ears, God. The ones we’ve got we aren’t using to any avail. Grant us a desire to see you in the faces of those around us, God.

At the blatant cruelty we are capable of, especially when it comes to social media…this particular landscape is evil’s favorite playground it seems, God, and we do nothing to stop its rioting. Grant us the ability to see each other as human beings again, God, to know that on the other end of our iPhones are men, women and children who bleed red, too, God, and who want, just like us, nothing more than to belong and to be loved. Grant us a desire for kindness, God.

At the realities of a virus that has altered our lives in irrevocable ways, bringing out what is both awful and beautiful in us. Grant us compassion, God. Your compassion. And hear our prayers for those for whom this virus has brought devastated health and lost loved ones. For those who’ve lost jobs, for those who’ve lost family businesses, for those deemed “essential,” and so, at risk to themselves, have made life work for the rest of us. Grant a desire to protect each other, God.

At a God-breathed world that is burning, drowning, imploding, at the weight of our desire to get more, have more, be more, take more. Over and over and over. Grant us generosity of spirit, God, that we might see past our own selfish wants and into common good. Grant us a desire for selflessness, God.

My heart aches at fractured communities and hurting families and empty churches and the incessant yelling and finger-pointing and dehumanizing we have adopted as status quo in this country. My heart aches at violence, at evil let loose, at greed and power defining our life together.

It seems more than is survivable. More than is fixable. More than we can ever make right. How long, God, until we finally get it? How long, God, until we remember we were made and meant for more?

Some days, God, the mountain seems too high and the terrain too treacherous. The journey too long and the way forward too uncertain.

But there is too much at stake. And so I pray that we might have the strength to trust in your steadfast love.

Your steadfast love.

That called us into being and that you want, more than anything, for each of us. Those we disagree with. Those we hate. Those that have hurt us beyond forgiveness. Each of us.

Your steadfast love.

That we might love as you love. That we might live as Jesus lived.

I have trusted your steadfast love, God.

May that love be what we let guide us out of heartbreak and into wholeness. Out of where we are and into where we could be. Out of what makes us sick deep in our souls, and into healing.

Out of hate. And into love.

Amen.

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Time.

If you’ve ever spent a few hours or a few days or a few weeks in a hospital, either as patient or as a patient’s waiting-room-loved-one, you know that time does a funny thing inside hospital walls. It doesn’t stop, exactly, but it also doesn’t feel quite like it matches whatever our wristwatch or smart phone indicates the hour to be.

I had a medical test this last Monday that required a roughly 5-hour hospital stay. I’ve seen the inside of more hospital rooms and doctors’ offices than I’d like in 2020, and every time, if I’m there for more than a couple of hours, the experience is the same–I walk out not exactly sure what time it is, much less the day. I walked out of there Monday just sure it was close to evening…it was barely time for elevensies.

Today, I put my finger on it…well, perhaps at least in “its” general vicinity.

When you are undergoing a medical test, or receiving a treatment (like chemotherapy), or having surgery, or are sick enough to warrant a hospital stay, generally the most important thing you’ve got going is that very thing. It’s what’s right in front you, having to be done, gotten through, that dominates your being and thinking. We are finally able to set aside the million things that distract us from most every moment of our lives because the here and now becomes what matters most. The very present situation we find ourselves in.

How fully have we bought into the rat race narrative the United States seems to hold so dear, that we can’t even escape it until we absolutely must–because our blood sugar or blood pressure is dangerously high, or we have a stroke, or a gall bladder emergency, or, perhaps, a diagnosis of a life-changing disease.

Our bodies have a way of telling us, “Hold up, Julie. All is not well with you.”

And in that instant, ironically, mindfulness, the act of being fully present in any given moment, becomes a lifeline instead of something we read about “how to achieve,” on the cover of a grocery store mag.

Mindfulness does not match a day defined by your Google calendar or your productivity chart.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to renegotiate our understanding of time. For many of us (not all of us–h/t medical frontliners and Amazon delivery folks), a sense of schedule, marked by time, has been thrown out the window since about mid-March. Work-from-home days and online school days, despite our best efforts, do not feel the same as at-the-office or in-class days, not to mention that many of the things filling our digital calendars have been cancelled in the last few months.

And while, of course, there are blessings to be found in what has happened, it’s also messed with our heads in ways that eventually affect our hearts. Anxiety and depression are very real things, perhaps for the first time for people, during these coronavirus days, and I am convinced that at least some of it has to do with what a quick pivot we had to do with life–quite literally overnight in some cases, we had to reorient ourselves to a completely different way of being.

A way of being for which we had no map. Because no one knows how to do this, y’all. No one. And because we don’t know, we stress. We try to control. We stuff back grief and fear like our lives depend on it because we have no idea how to navigate the feelings that come with your entire life having been upended.

We have no idea how to simply be in the midst of what’s happening.

Author Madeleine L’ Engle often wrote about two different kinds of time: chronos v. kairos. Chronos is what she described as “ordinary wristwatch time.” Kairos is altogether different. It is not fully measurable. It might not even fully be of this world. But it is space in which we are invited to just be.

I know, I know–just be.

Riigghht.

Chemotherapy (and all the accompanying drugs used to mitigate its effects) has really jacked with my internal senses. And one of the ways it’s done this is that I wake up ridiculously early for no apparent reason. This is annoying, on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent on my back deck since March–sometimes with coffee, sometimes with a Diet Dr Pepper. Sometimes texting with my best friend from high school, who has long been an early riser. Sometimes crying so hard I could barely breathe. And other times letting every breath be a prayer. Sometimes reading. Sometimes watching the cardinal couple flit from branch to branch. Sometimes just being quiet and still.

I recognize already that this has been a gift. Of presence. Of mindfulness. Of kairos

Here’s the thing–trauma, whatever form it takes, leverages a total reckoning with your life. A whole bunch of stuff falls apart and away when what you wanted for your life gets torn to shreds. But if you are very, very lucky, still intact, at the center of all that has shattered, are the things that mattered most to begin with–which tends to be the truth of who you are, and have always been.

So much is falling apart and away right now, y’all. So much. Very little looks at all like it did on January 1, 2020. All around us globally, all around us nationally, all around us personally, things are breaking.

What would happen, I wonder, if we embraced it. If we set aside the comfort of ordinary wristwatch time and leaned into this odd and painful space we find ourselves in. What if we said, “Ok. Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost.”

When I heard my doctor’s voice, over the phone, right at the beginning of March, tell me that there were enlarged and angry lymph nodes in my system, I knew, by the tone of his voice, that everything was about to change.

I was right.

Everything is different. But this moment matters. And all is not lost. 

Everything is different, y’all.

But this moment? It matters.

And all is not lost.

 

 

 

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The pain we carry.

It was April, and I was headed to a retreat center in the Virginia mountains, where I’d be leading a women’s retreat centered around my book, Available Hope. Spring was already showing off, the weather was perfect, and it felt good to be travelling, to be out, breathing fresh air and engaging with new people.

It had been a helluva year, to say the least.

I arrived just in time for dinner, so I was able to meet a few of the women I’d be working with the next 48 hours. They were welcoming, eager to hear what I had to say and very gracious.

As I left the dining hall, two women I had not met yet stopped to introduce themselves, and we spoke for a few minutes. I noticed one of them watching me closely. Her gaze didn’t feel invasive, but it was definitely obvious, and as our conversation came to a close, she slowly held up one of her hands, and placed it on my cheek. And then, gently, without malice or judgment, and with great compassion, she held my face and looked straight into my eyes as she said, “You, my dear, have known pain. And it’s still inside you. Your face tells me.”

I do not remember my response to her very accurate and unexpected words.

What I do remember is feeling seen. So seen it was almost uncomfortable. And yet somehow also merciful relief.

We all carry pain inside us–or, at the very least, we one day will. Sometimes we call it grief. Sometimes we call it anxiety. If we’re lucky enough to have a good therapist, or at least a good friend, we can name it as trauma. Regardless, we don’t get a choice of whether we will experience pain or not–it is part and parcel of living.

Sometimes it is obvious–a broken relationship or a lost love or an evident physical injury or disease. Sometimes it is less so–a grief long unresolved; a loss never fully processed; a mental illness that makes every single moment a battle. The struggle to belong carries a pain all its own. So does having been bullied or betrayed or abused.

Whatever that pain’s source, and no matter how long ago the pain began, we carry it. And despite our constant efforts to numb, hide and disguise the pain, what we really want is for it to be seen. Acknowledged. Affirmed as real. Because this is the only way healing can begin.

And how we long for healing…so much so that we sometimes become afraid to hope for it, and so resign ourselves to never feeling okay again. And the pain inside us digs deeper, latches on more firmly to our very beings, and twists any sense of belief that wholeness is possible.

This is why I believe, and have written before, that one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

Because somewhere, I assure you, it does.

So, my friends, where does it hurt?

These days, I suspect the answer is probably, “Everywhere.”

In addition to our personal heartaches and fears, any one of which can level a person, we’re watching a world on fire, fueled by half-truths and tribalism and the bully pulpit that social media allows to any person who wants it. We’re cut off from one another by a pandemic, and so missing far too many of the every day gatherings that keep us grounded, connected, able to remember that we are not alone. We are fiercely divided along ideological and sociological and political lines and we treat this as a sport, or as intellectual exercise, none of which addresses the very real needs of very real people. And hate, especially as it makes itself known in racism, is running rampant, leaving violence and chaos in its wake.

Pain.

Upon pain.

Upon pain.

Where does it hurt, y’all?

Everywhere. 

You can try to numb it, I suppose. Push it back. Because honestly, it feels like an awful lot and like maybe it might be our undoing. But pain will sneak up on you, or perhaps come in a tidal wave, and either way, it leaves you gasping for air.

Last week, I read some words translated from the Sufi poet Hafiz, and they went like this:

It happens all the time in heaven, and someday it will begin to happen again on earth–that humans who are married, and humans who are lovers, and humans who give each other beautiful light, will often get down on their knees, and while so tenderly holding their beloved’s hand…with tears in their eyes will so sincerely speak, saying, “My dear, how can I be more loving to you? Darling, how can I be more kind?”

I’ve read these words every day since I stumbled on them, and they are still giving rise to a lump in my throat.

Y’all, what if, in addition to asking where it hurts, we also asked, “What can I do to make that hurt easier to bear?”

Not what I can do to fix it. Not how I can stop it. Not what bandage can I offer. But, “What can I do for you to make the hurt easier to bear?”

We are very, very good at “I-can-do-whatever-I-want-hearts” in this country. And it’s pretty obvious how that’s (not) working out.

What we need are servant hearts, ones that ask “How can I love you better? How can I be more kind? How can I ease your pain?”

Where does it hurt? And how can I make that hurt easier for you to bear?

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

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Restoring the deficit (and no, this isn’t an economics lesson).

I had a conversation earlier this week with a clergy colleague and friend re: our heartache over the ever-widening and angry tribalism in our communities and our nation.

(First up and real quick, let me be real clear I am not talking about things rooted in the darkness of real hate here–there are not two sides to real racism. Or genocide. Or the like. That I even have to clarify this is indication of what sport we’ve made of polarization. Ok, read on….)

And my colleague said so well something I’ve been rolling around for months–and that is, we’re operating with a trust deficit. And operating with a deficit–be it financial or otherwise, is not a formula for either a solid foundation, effective cooperation, or real relationship.

I have been fortunate enough to know some local and state politicians here in Kentucky personally. I say fortunate, because it means I see those men and women as human beings–I know them first by name, or how we first met, not by their job or political affiliation. And because of this I’ve learned at a deeper level what it means to vehemently disagree with someone, but also trust that he or she really does also have the wider community’s best interest at heart, even if the path there is not the same one I would take.

I have been fortunate enough, also, to serve congregations and organizations where I had beloved congregants, or respected coworkers, who saw differently than me about how we lived and moved and had being together. And because our life or work together was rooted in mutual trust of good intent, of best interest, of acting and speaking with love and respect first, we were able to work through disagreement with relationship intact.

Y’all know how this plays out in personal relationships–once trust among friends or lovers or family is broken (and certainly if it was never present at all), it’s profoundly difficult to repair. Not impossible, but difficult. And full communal confession here: we’re almost all guilty of contributing to broken trust–if we’re lucky, we also know the redemptive grace of the very hard work of rebuilding it.

And if this is true for us personally, it follows it would be true for us corporately (as in everyone together) as well. Mutual trust means a capacity to engage in real conversation about differing ideologies, because we’re able to truly envision and desire an outcome that finds the most common good possible, and then settles there. Mutual distrust means we just retreat further into our own tribe.

And this retreating–it is nothing short of our undoing.

Y’all also know I believe with every fiber of my being that social media, really any media, is a double-edged sword. It can encourage, truthfully inform, lift up, feel good and foster relationship. It can also discourage, lie, push down, feel awful and destroy relationship. It can be Harry Potter or it can be Voldemort. It can be Iron Man or it can be Thanos. It can be Darth Sidious or it can be Rey Skywalker. It can be the White Witch or it can be Aslan.

It can be good. Or it can be evil. And this depends entirely on how we use it.

When we do the retreating further into our own tribes, social media is, these days, the first thing we weaponize–it’s so easy to twist a fact, edit a video, exact a few words, such that everything becomes leveraged precisely to our own viewpoint or will. So easy to speak without accountability or face-to-face repercussion. And this further propagates distrust, further destroys any sense of community, further divides us against ourselves.

Still– when our better angels lead us to trust one another, social media can be immense blessing, because it means efforts and relationship are able to be much more widespread, sometimes even calling us back to what’s universally common about human beings–our deep desire to be known and to be loved.

I don’t have the answer, or even the beginnings of one, for how we restore the deficit. But I have some ideas about things we have to address if we even want to attempt it.

  1. Restoring a sense of trust requires listening. Not listening to respond. Not listening so you can better formulate your own argument. Real, active, set-yourself-aside listening. This is the only way we can begin to honor another person’s experience simply for what it is, not how we might interpret it, or how we would even respond to that experience ourselves.
  2. Restoring a sense of trust requires empathy. Shew, y’all, we struggle with this. It’s hard to make someone actually care about another person’s story, if they don’t already. Real hard. But acknowledging each other’s pain, and then maybe even adjusting our behavior so as not to add to it…man, if we could get this right, everything would shift. Every. Thing.
  3. Restoring a sense of trust requires a desire for truth. Lord have mercy, we’ve got to learn to verify, research, dig deep and discover what’s really going on around us. I fear sometimes that we’re actually just too lazy for democracy–something so much of the world would give their lives for; something so many of our ancestors did in fact give their lives for. We dishonor so many brave men and women the world over with our refusal to do the work that needs doing. And maybe this is just apathy–which I can understand to an extent. It’s hard to find honesty when it comes to democracy and the government these days. Money talks loudest and corrupt behavior is everywhere, and in every party. But to completely throw in the towel? Can we really do that and live with ourselves?
  4. Restoring a sense of trust requires humility. Not a single one of us has all the right answers. Not a single one of us sees the whole picture. Not a single one of us is without fault, or sin, even. Stepping down off our own arrogant pillars of supposed certainty would be a good first step towards the sort of humility I’m talking about here–but even more, it requires self-critique before critique of others. You know, that whole idea of cleaning up your own house first.

None of this is easy. 

None of this will heal us overnight. 

There is no silver bullet.

There is only the earnest, difficult, ongoing work of being human. Of admitting we do not, any of us, live in a vacuum. Of summoning enough compassion to see that your well-being and mine are inextricably linked. Even if we see the world entirely differently.

Even. Then.

Any business can only go so far operating in the red, and it stands to reason that we’ll only so far if we cannot move out of “the red” ourselves.

May we find the heart to do so. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lemon square prayers.

If you have been to my house for a social occasion at just about any point in my adult life, there were probably lemon squares as a dessert option. Specifically Ms. Sandra’s lemon squares–the signature pot luck offering of the most quintessential Southern church lady you can imagine.

My family moved to Winder, Georgia, in between Christmas and New Year’s of my 8th grade year of school. It took me years to forgive my parents for uprooting me at that point in life; still, as it happens, it brought a whole lot of goodness to my life. Including Ms. Sandra. She has been, whether in person or via prayer, present at almost every significant occasion in my life–quite simply one of the most giving and gracious spirits I’ve known. To be in her presence during my adolescence was to know love.

Over 20 years ago, Ms. Sandra was part of a group of women who prayed every single day of my mom’s journey through breast cancer. And when I was diagnosed with lymphoma in March, you can bet Ms. Sandra was one of the first people I heard from. And the next thing I knew, she had a group of folks in my hometown praying for me. The full circle moment of it has stayed with me every day thus far of my own journey, and has meant everything.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of the stroke patient I worked with as a 24 year-old hospital chaplaincy intern. Nathaniel was dearly loved man, and his family was almost always gathered at his bedside or in the waiting room in the days after his massive cerebral hemorrhage. They told me he’d been a song leader at his church, that he loved to sing. Nathaniel was not conscious during the times I visited him, and so for a few minutes every day of his hospitalization, in lieu of conversation, I’d sing. Every church hymn I could think of. And one day, halfway through “Amazing Grace,” Nathaniel’s neurologist came in for rounds. I immediately stopped and backed away from his bed, knowing his doctor had important work to do. But his doctor stopped me and said, “No, no. Please finish. Your work is important, too.”

In that moment, my understanding of the work between faith and science shifted completely and permanently, such that today I am confident that it is both a very gifted medical team and a very committed faith community contributing to my healing.

Neither thing guarantees anything. But both things mean I live with a great deal of hope. And when my primary GI doctor, who first found the lymph nodes that led to my diagnosis emailed me to say he was praying for me and hoping for the best, I added my thankfulness for his faith to my gratitude for his medical expertise.

But let me be clear that this isn’t just about me. This same dynamic leads me to believe that the great wounds in our country these days cannot fully be healed by tweaked laws or policy shifts. Certainly those things have a crucial place, and certainly there is a great deal about our nation that unequally favors one human life over another, and how we deal with those things in our communities matters. Lives are at stake. But at heart, we are in need of much more than any politician or SCOTUS ruling can truly heal. Certainly more than any social media post can heal–no matter how snarkily we put it, or what bright colors and ALL CAPS we might use.

At the core of our brokenness is our fear of real, authentic, transforming relationship. I have never yet seen hate reversed by anything but that, never seen gaping spiritual and emotional and community wounds healed by anything but a willingness to enter into sacred vulnerability and ask, “What has hurt or frightened or threatened you so much that you can act with such disregard towards another human being?” And, perhaps most of all, be willing to answer that question ourselves. When we have been hurt or threatened, it’s very hard not to hurt those around us in return. Because pain begets pain.

And so you bet I believe in science and policy. But I also believe those things will not save us. Because I believe something bigger is at work. I believe in the mysterious ways and timing of a God who first and only creates and acts in Love. And I believe that in a world brought into being by such goodness, there is always light–even if it seems but a glimmer some days.  (I also believe in our collective ability to ignore that Love, and so dig ourselves deeper into the muck we’re currently living.)

***

Ms. Sandra died last Saturday morning. And I swear, when I heard that news, it felt like the world got dimmer. Also I immediately ordered the makings of lemon squares with my grocery delivery for the day.

And then…Monday morning…I checked the mail. And in my mailbox, was, I kid you not, a card from Ms. Sandra. “I think of you often and my prayers continue with you. Much love, Sandra.” It was postmarked June 19, the day before she died.

And suddenly, y’all, the world got brighter again. Just like a batch of her lemon squares, fresh and warm and morning sunlight yellow, straight from the oven.

There is so much we do not know, even in our human brilliance. What I know today, is that at work all around us is the mystery and mercy of a grace that, even when we shun it, holds us close and promises to never leave us.

And somewhere between our human brilliance and that unexplainable and unearned grace, God dwells.

 

 

 

 

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The other side of hell.

“We must find a way to look after each other, as if we were one single tribe.”

— T’ Challa, Black Panther

I was privy this week to a couple of situations that left me speechless (temporarily anyway) in their blatant selfishness.

And yea, y’all, I know, selfish is human nature, and I’ve got my fair share of it to own. But these two things were different–painfully jarring in how obvious it was that not a single thought had been given to another human being’s mental or emotional or physical well-being. Not a single breath had been spared to pause and ask, “Wait, what might the repercussions of this be?” Not a single action was calculated for anything other than personal desire.

A person needs to make a selfish decision now and then (again, we’ve all got it in us, and I’ve got no issue with taking care of yourself as truly needed), but in both these situations other people got hurt. Put at risk. Sidelined as unimportant to the grand scheme of things.

I’ve been noodling it all around in my head and heart for days–and tonight, while watching Black Panther (I know, I know…Marvel again…stop rolling your eyes), finally put my finger on something that has been increasingly troubling to me since about mid-March.

A dear friend says there are no new stories–it’s just that some of us are living them for the first time. Racial tension is not new. Hate is not new. Global pandemic is not new. Political turmoil is not new. Economic despair is not new. But we are, right now, in the United States, living it all at the same time, and with the completely underestimated complication that we have–by and large–been practicing physical distance from one another (with good, sound reason) for some months now.

We’ve moved into actually living our lives digitally–at work, at school, with family and friends. I suspect that this physical separation is giving things like anger and pain and hate and greed even more room to riot–because no one has to engage in real, face-to-face, authentic conversation. It was already easy to hide behind a keyboard and issue our social and political and ideological hot takes–now we’ve actually been told to stay behind the keyboard, to connect through screens. And it just might be destroying what little regard we had left for one another; what tiny sense of grace in human interaction we might have had left; what glimmer of hope might be found in the redemptive power of relationship.

We’ve been given permission to wall ourselves off, retreat to our own tribes, bully up our own imagined certainties without having to be in-person accountable to someone about it, and the result is a disconnect from one another that is slowly but surely eating at our humanity.

Look, there’s always going to be selfish people. Narcissism is a thing and even the Ancient Greeks knew it. We deal, right? But something about this particular climate we find ourselves in is, it seems to me, making it far easier to lean towards that shadow side of our souls where fear of other and self-interest dwell.

We claim your side and my side. We draw false dichotomies and set up straw men with ridiculous precision. We fight over masks or no masks. We take a set of facts and allow it to be interpreted myriad ways, in support of whatever agenda we’re pushing. We refuse to listen to or acknowledge history, lived experience, glaring holes in the narrative we tell ourselves about freedom and justice and equality. And we demonize anyone who does not see it exactly as we do–quickly, efficiently, and most generally with a meme designed to make us feel better about ourselves.

Y’all. We have got to stop. 

We have Got. To. Stop. Because it is not, after all, about you. Or me. It’s about the absolute necessity of learning to care for each other. Because (and omigod I’m going to sound like a broken record here) this is what we were made for.

This is what we were made for. Relationship. Community. Connection. We are quite literally designed for it–and yet we act like its an option to love our neighbor or not, never mind the fact that your well-being actually depends on the well-being of everyone around you.

Our nation is so broken, y’all.  And it will not be fixed, at least not wholly, until we are able to get over ourselves and our godforsaken individual desires long enough to look one another in the eye and ask, “Where does it hurt for you?” And then listen, with hearts wide open and spirits willing to engage, as a fellow human being says, “This is where it hurts.”

Where does it hurt right now for you?

You know what? Me, too.

Full disclosure/real talk: I feel like utter shit today. I had a third round of chemotherapy this week, and if you have done chemo yourself, or know someone who has, you know that this often essential treatment can sometimes feel worse than the disease it is combating. It can wreak such havoc on a body that there’s a whole cocktail of drugs administered with it to mitigate its effects. So far, my own side effects have thankfully been pretty mild, but still, coming off that cocktail is like coming off a night out with your girlfriends except no one had a perfect Manhattan or flirted with the bartender or laughed until they cried. All the hangover. Zero the fun.

Still…

On the other side of it, is, one trusts, good things. Respite from the illness itself. Life to be treasured and memories to be made. Hope to be found.

Which is to say–there is on the other side of hell, a sort of healing to be found that cannot be fully known without the awfulness first. As Glennon Doyle says, “First the pain. Then the rising.”

Good Lord, how I am hoping for a rising of this beloved country I call home–a soaring into everything we were meant to be. How I pray for healing beyond the madness; for hope beyond the despair; for truth to be made known and love to be made real. Because right now, it, too, feels like utter shit.

“We must find a way to look after each other as if we were one single tribe….”

It’s not about you. Or me. 

On the other side of hell….

Meet me there?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When pain begets pain.

Glennon Doyle has this great piece where she writes about how sometimes we treat pain like a game of Hot Potato–wanting to get rid of it as quickly as possible, sometimes so much that we, intentionally or not, and generally through both words and behavior, toss it to someone else.

Let me make like Oprah here for a sec and tell you that there is very little in this world about which I am willing to say, “I know that for sure.” But I will tell you for very sure that there is absolutely no way to shortcut pain without it wreaking more havoc than it already has–on your own life or someone else’s.

Unmet pain will only beget more pain. And it will do so over and over until someone is brave enough to sit with the pain, no matter how much it hurts, face it, and let it do its awful and mighty work. This is the only way to the other side of it. The only way into something new.

I really, really value efficiency. This is not always something to be proud of. For example, when I was told a couple of months back that I have lymphoma, and that I was going to need multiple rounds of chemotherapy and immuno-therapy over the next few months to combat it, well…the struggle was real.

Can’t you give me just like one big dose and I’ll feel really awful for a couple of weeks and then it’ll be over? Do you really have to wait 28 days between each dose? Isn’t there a quicker way? A more…efficient…way?

Because the thought of several months of two days of treatment, and then another two days 28 days later…sweet baby Jesus and all the saints, that felt (feels) unending. But there is quite literally no other way through it. No other way to give my body the very best chance it has to tell lymphoma, “Nope. Not today. I have a life to live and I am not even close to done yet.”

And so I take it day by day, infusion by infusion, appointment by appointment, sitting (literally and figuratively) with this particular and painful leg of the journey I am on, and, because there is no other way through it, I do my damnedest to be open to what the blessings might be.

And this is how it is with pain. Whether mental or emotional or physical. Especially the sort that brings you to your knees. Leaves you crying on the kitchen floor in utter agony. Knifes into the very gut of your being so hard that you can’t catch your breath. It cannot be numbed (at least not for very long). It cannot be silenced (it will, in one way or another, makes itself heard). It cannot be ignored (it will wreck you, if you try).

And this is maybe, why, so often, sometimes in ways we simply cannot understand, people who have been hurt, especially those who have been hurt repeatedly, wind up hurting other people. 

I have come to believe that a great deal of what is broken in our lives…in our country…in our world, could find at least the beginning of a path towards healing if we only had the strength, when we encounter the pain of another, to stop, look deeply in their eyes, and ask, “Please. Tell me what has hurt you.” And then shut our damn mouths and listened.

Really, really listened.

Not–not ever–, “What’s wrong with you?” No. Simply, “What has hurt you?

Because in that moment the pain is met. The hurt is acknowledged. Even if we don’t fully get it, in that moment, the cycle is interrupted, and that tiny pause, if we’re very lucky and listen very well, makes enough room for even the smallest bit of hope to take root and begin its powerful and merciful and healing work.

It’s popular these days to tweet or post, “I feel so SEEN!” about a bit of news, or an on-point meme, or a song or a movie or some such that speaks to us in a deep or meaningful way. There’s generally an element of fun to it, but often, I suspect, it comes from a place of longing to be truly understood, of the need we all have to belong.

I’m not sure that these primal needs of ours can ever be fully met unless we are willing to first see each other’s pain–without turning away, without dismissing it, without offering some quick fix or card-worthy sentiment. Just see it.

And then, if it’s one of those days when hope seems like a real thing and grace a true thing…sit with each other in it. Fully present. No hot potato. Owning and honoring the pieces in all of us that ache for understanding and healing.

May it somehow, some day, be so.

 

 

 

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For all our sakes.

Last night, just as I was tucking her in, the teenager in my house said, “Mama, this virus thing could be so much harder for us than it is.”

I sat back for a minute, wondering where her comment had come from, especially when she and I have both had some real difficult days lately when it comes to being physically separated from our people. I looked at her, my head cocked to one side, and said, “Girl. What in the world are you talking about? You and I both have cried at least twice in the last week over all this.”

She laid there quiet for a second, and said, “But mama…some people are losing their jobs. Some people don’t have enough food.”

Some people are losing their jobs. Some people don’t have enough food.

I’ll let you imagine how completely humbled I was at her words, how I just sat there for a minute, stunned at her awareness.

It’s not like I don’t know the truth of her words. It’s not like I don’t read reports of joblessness and hunger every day, along with all the other “virus statistics.” It’s not like I thought her wrong or overly wrought or misinformed. She’s completely right. We know people for whom this virus has meant daily fear about health and financial stability.

She and I might be missing fiercely those we love best, and that might be working on us in some painful ways, but we are, for all practical purposes, okay. And so, so many are not.

Don’t get me wrong, we cannot underestimate the harm that this social distancing is doing to our psyches. A great deal is being studied and written about this, and by folks much smarter than me, but as many of you have heard me say, my own take is that it is damaging our sense of self and our sense of community in ways that will effect long after social distancing guidelines are lifted. A simple example is the panic I felt at the thought of returning to Sunday morning services at my church. I love my church. I love the people there with all my heart. I miss singing and praying with them in very visceral ways. But standing elbow to elbow, air full of shared particles, right now? Um…no, thank you. That I feel this way about a place and a people that mean the world to me breaks my heart. 

(SIDENOTE, reader: If you don’t feel as I do, That. Is. Ok. If you and I don’t agree on when and how communities and their economies reopen, That. Is. Ok. I have no agenda here– other than the one I’m about to claim. Ok…read on.)

But the thing is? I have the luxury of this heartache. I have the privilege of tears over missed hugs and missed occasions and missed vacations and missed events. Because I know that I can pay the bills next month and that my belly is more than full.

So I’m about to sing for you a song that you have heard me sing before. And that means maybe I’m singing to the choir here, but just in case, I’ll sing a wee bit louder today so I can be sure those of you in the back, or somebody brand new, can hear me.

Y’all. We have GOT to be better at taking care of each other. 

And we have got to do this regardless of how we might agree or disagree, (even if vehemently and with the best of intentions) politically, socioeconomically, or theologically.

We are living in a terrifying and anxiety-producing tension between our physical health, and the state of our communities as determined by functioning economy. And of course these two things are connected. Of course one influences the other. Of course the health of our physical beings relates to the health of our economy and vice versa.

Of course.

Because we live in an interconnected world. Because we were made for relationship. Because my life depends on the lives of others. Because none of us are islands unto ourselves. 

Our refusal to understand this, our insistence upon the myth of complete self-sufficiency, our own beliefs, our own “right” way, is tearing us apart and making us less human being and more ideological minion. To be sure, there is often a clear line between right and wrong, and for me, that line generally gets drawn around treating any life as more important than another–you know, in the spaces where we allow bigotry of any kind to riot and pronounce a person, any person, “less than.” But so much of what I see being argued about in public spaces has nothing to do with real hate and everything to do with ill-informed assumption and a flat-out refusal to listen to anyone who holds a different opinion than we do.

I have a dear clergy friend who is an alcoholic, in recovery now for over a dozen years, and committed to extending the grace of his sobriety by working tirelessly with local recovery communities. I once had a conversation with him about suffering–about what it’s like to spend a night on the kitchen floor, hopeless, tears wracking your body, wondering how you’ll ever be whole again, how you’ll ever find way your way back to life.

He and I have both known such nights, and we love others who have, too. And as we talked about how we walk with one another in those moments, he said (and I am admittedly paraphrasing his gist here), “You know, when you are that low, and someone is willing to come and sit with you in the muck, and maybe even lend a hand so you can begin your climb out of the darkness, you don’t care who they voted for. Or where, or even if, they go to church. Or what their take is on (insert hot topic issue of the day). Or where they live. Or what gender they are or what color their skin is. You’re just glad they came, even if you can’t quite understand how you are worthy of their presence with you.”

Y’all, from where I sit, this is the very heart of what it means to take care of each other. To set aside our arrogance and certainty and mistrust and bias long enough to see that we bleed the very same blood, and are made of the very same God-stuff. We have different stories, some of them too painful to speak. We have different ways of being, some of it beyond understanding to anyone else. Some of us have been bred to hate. Some of us have been gifted love so extravagant we cannot do anything but love in return. Some of us have never known safety. Some of us can face whatever comes precisely because we’ve been held safe our whole lives by someone else’s love. And someone of us have known lives so brutal and terrifying that the only way we know is to exact all that pain on someone else.

And yet, even still, we bleed the very same blood and are made of the very same God-stuff.

We have, in these COVID days, an extraordinary opportunity to set aside the BS and learn the tremendous blessing of serving one another. We have been gifted this moment to care for one another, to share one another’s pain, to offer something out of our own abundance to someone else’s need. To make a few sacrifices so that another person makes it another day. To see past “sides,” and into the common good.

An extraordinary opportunity. It’s really quite simple.

And it isn’t too late to take advantage. Because, as my sweet girl reminded me last night, this is so much harder on some of us than others. And it’s long past time we made conscious effort to take care of one another.

For all our sakes.

 

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Difficult Things.

IMG_3517My friend Fonda, who is ridiculously wise and insightful, says that everyone has a difficult thing (or things).

This is truth. Rather: Truth (note the capital T).

Somewhere along the way, life, if you live even a little bit at all, will hand you a Difficult. Thing. Of some sort. Likely more than once. Sometimes it will be Very. Difficult.

Maybe you were born with your difficult thing: a chronic disease or a miserable family of origin or something that makes you differently abled.

Maybe you grew up around a lot of violence and are unable to trust or feel safe. Maybe you’ve lost someone so dear to you that it seems the sun can’t possibly still be rising every morning. Maybe you battle anxiety or depression or just struggle with staying mentally well more than most. Maybe you deal with ADD, or have a profound learning disability, or are on the autism spectrum. Maybe you are a long-term caregiver for a dearly loved one.

Maybe the dream of what you thought your life would be has been shattered, beyond fixing it seems, and the path to some sort of wholeness and joy feels so very hopeless and long. Broken dreams are some of the most difficult things–because in their breaking we lose, even if temporarily, our sense of self, often finding ourselves navigating landscapes we don’t even recognize without so much as the most rudimentary map to guide us.

Difficult things. 

Mine no more or less than yours. Because, as my friend Meghan says, life is not a “suck competition.” Sometimes it all just sucks. For all of us. In a thousand-and-one different ways.

Difficult things.

Real, painful, life-shaping, mighty, awful, difficult things.

The havoc and grief and fear and isolation that COVID-19 has unleashed on our world and our communities is a Very. Difficult. Thing. For reasons medical and practical and logistical and otherwise. And, perhaps most of all, it is damaging our collective psyches in ways that I believe we are only just beginning to see. This drawing apart from one another, even if we must, even if it is the right thing to do, even ifeven ifeven if…is leaving an indelible and painful mark on the most inward places of our souls. And the healing will take more time than any of us will like.

Difficult things. 

On March 13th, the Friday before most of my beloved Kentucky shut down due to coronavirus precautions, I was visiting, for the first time, the office of the doctor who I now know as my oncologist. He ordered many, many tests that day, the last of which took place on Good Friday, nearly a month later–a bone marrow biopsy, which, let me just say, I do not recommend as a fun way to kick off your weekend. Maybe go for a root canal instead.

As it turns out, I have a relatively rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphona.

And y’all? This is a Very. Difficult. Thing. The Universe and I are still struggling to come to civil speaking terms about this. Because I have plans. Things to do. Experiences to share with those I love best. I have a daughter that I fully intend to see to adulthood, lymphoma be damned. I have Things. To. Do.

Cancer was not on the list.

Difficult things. 

There was a time in my life when this would have leveled me. When I was weak in every way a person can be–in body, in mind, and in spirit. When dysfunction of all sorts had me hemmed in, and I had nothing even close to the mighty village of loved ones who have rallied around and behind me these last few weeks.

This is not to say this diagnosis has not brought me to my knees. It is to say, I did not stay there. And even if I drop there again, I will not stay there, unless it is in fervent prayer to the God I believe is with us in all things, in all times, in all places, no matter what.

And so, I am grateful that if this cancer has to be, that it is now. And not then.

I am also grateful for a brilliant and experienced medical team, and a supportive employer, and excellent health insurance. (All of this is privilege, and I have promised to not take it for granted.)

I am grateful for a faith community that believes as, I do, that prayer matters. How or why or when, I do not even pretend to know, I just believe it does. I am humbled by the prayers rising on my behalf. They give me more strength than I could even begin to name.

And I am grateful for texts and phone calls and FaceTime dates and Zoom happy hours and every other way we have of staying connected during these COVID days. I am grateful for those who know that super heroes and ginkgo trees are talismans of hope and resilience for me, and so have populated my life with reminders of them in recent days.

But most of all, I am grateful for the redemptive power and unending mercy that I believe real relationships create in our lives. I crave the touch of those I love; long for the day when my backyard deck is full of my favorites once again; cannot wait to hold hands and share hugs.

This gratitude is saving grace.

Difficult things. 

A week or so ago, I came across the poem pictured up top of this blog–it is from The Cure at Troy, by Seamus Haney. And it seems just right for these days I am–we all are– living. Because we are in difficult things. All of us. And, I, for one, have had more than a few days of finding hope hard to come by on this side of the grave.

But y’all–even in our difficult things, even in these days when we’ve hurt each other and are scared and unsure–even now, we are people made to be in relationship with one another, because it is only in committing our lives to one another that we find anything resembling our best selves, and so make room for the sort of mercy that falls in great and graceful torrents into the most aching places of our souls such that hope can grow.

Difficult things. 

But also…

Farther shores to reach. And healing wells to be found. 

Justice League has been playing in the background as I write tonight, and it is no coincidence (because I don’t believe in those) that as I finish this post, the last lines of the movie can be clearly heard. They include, “Darkness, the truest darkness, is not the absence of light. It is the conviction that the light will never return. But the light always returns….

May it be so.