Thursday, September 18, 2008

soft bodies/hard world


In the last several months many people I love have been hospitalized from various traumas or illnesses or other kinds of even darker suffering. A couple of weeks ago my little brother was playing an innocent little game of softball and ended up with a fractured skull and a broken face. Soft-ball. The irony of that didn't slip by me. The last week has been especially hard.

We are soft bodies moving through a world of jagged edges...infants in a nursery lined with broken glass. One little misstep, and you're falling off a cliff onto the rocks below. I've talked about this before. It's nothing new for me to be thinking about these things. But it's feeling heavy to me again, so I'm sharing it here. So many things around me are painful these days, and I'm tired.

It's not only the physical suffering that is getting to me. I'm in the middle of some intense interpersonal conflict, and I think that exacts a heavier toll than other kinds of crises. Sometimes I think my emotional skin has worn thin over time. It's like an old woman's transparent, paper-mache skin tearing open with every bump, fine veins clearly visible and easily exposed.

I know I've been especially absent these last many months. I hope all of you understand. I've even considered deleting this blog...vaporizing like a puff of smoke. I'm struggling to be present in ways that make sense, and I'm unclear about the role that blogging should play in my life. I know that I have benefited in surprising ways from the kindness of so many of you whom I've never even met. But I've felt unable to keep up with the interactions, and that's created a new responsibility (and guilt) that I don't know how to handle. It's also created a new level of "public-ness" that is a little disorienting to me.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I felt like it was time to say some of it out loud. I'm launching a new initiative in my ministry tonight (Monday). I wonder if I'm ready. I'm afraid of what it will require of me. I'm excited about the possibilities. I'm resisting the urge to bury myself under my covers and never come out. I'm trusting that God is real. I'm reaching out to him.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

tenacity

Well, I've had a great couple of weeks away from work and other concerns. I just returned from a week on the north shore of Lake Superior with no internet access. It's always interesting to notice what a slave I have become to electronic devices. We didn't even have cell phone reception most of the time. For the first couple of days I was pretty anxious about that, but after a while I settled into the freedom of becoming "untethered".

I spent a lot of time hiking through thick forests and down into deep gorges where rivers have carved out a path to the shores of Superior. The good news is, my camera was repaired in time to take along, so I have images to share with you. For now I just want to give you a peek into something that has always fascinated me. Whenever you bump up against nature in an intentional way, you discover this amazing tenacity. Things grow in the most unlikely of places. Lichens clinging to bare rock and tender little wild flowers springing up out of the face of a sheer cliff. These images are comforting to me somehow. They give me courage.

So here are some of my favorite images along these lines. I'll share more later...



Wednesday, July 23, 2008

my bad

i can't believe it's been so long since i've posted. sorry about that. i've been somewhat overwhelmed with some new things going on with my job (all good) and summers are normally busier anyway. plus i've been dealing with some health issues, but i'm doing better now. (am i excused yet?) thanks to all of you who have been inquiring after me. especially tammy. (and for the record tammy, aliens look just like you and me and are quite kind, contrary to their undeserved reputation.)

i'm going to be away for the next week to a place that is so beautiful it stops my heart. unfortunately, my camera took a nose-dive and is currently being repaired. i'll see what i can do to get you some images. love to all of you! i'll try to catch up on the enormously overwhelming backlog of blogs i have neglected...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

things i'm learning (haiti, part three)

providence ministries blog entry from port au prince, haiti:

October 26, 2007

When you enter the supply room of the Missionaries of Charity, it’s easy to miss the little things. There’s a table pushed against a wall with metal trays of random supplies including bandages, alcohol swabs, and half-used vials of IV meds. There are notebooks and ledgers containing each child’s name and treatments, xrays stuffed in files, and a clear glass paperweight. Hidden away behind all this chaos is a little index card box. The box is decorated with magic marker: a tiny rainbow and delicate script carefully spelling out, “Things I’m Learning.” I wanted so badly to open this box and discover the secrets written there. But in a way I have my own box, and I’m adding treasures to it each moment I’m here. Here is what is written on my heart today:

Jen and I spent about an hour and a half with a little girl this afternoon. Her name is Jennifer. Sister Rose Martha asked Jen to start an IV because she was dehydrated and listless. Jennifer is 9 months old and weighs 13 ½ pounds. Her lips are covered with weeping wounds from malnutrition and her skin hangs on her tiny frame in loose folds. Jen tried to find a suitable vein as I held her, but each time the needle pierced her skin the vein would disappear like smoke. We tried so many sites with the same frustrating results. And all this time Jennifer’s eyes burned right through me. She lay almost perfectly still.

This is Haiti.

You see a problem and the solution seems deceptively simple. You come to offer help and find that the solutions pour through your hands like water. I’m thinking of Jen and so many others in Haiti who fight so hard to make a difference. I’m playing the picture of days upon days with no discernible movement forward. I can’t describe the sensation of falling, of slowly sinking into something dark and terrible. But something pulls you on because the alternative is unthinkable. If you do nothing there is no hope at all. So you keep searching for the vein.

We never did get an IV started for Jennifer. Jen decided to insert a nasogastric tube to get her the fluids and meds she needed. Slowly, her little body animated. We handed her to the room mother, gathered our things, and left for the day. It would have to be enough. This is what I learned today. This is what is written on my heart.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

little sister haiti (haiti, part two)

my little sister is looking at me with those eyes
she is poking at me
annoying me
she is asking a million questions i can’t answer

(she is good to me that way)

my little sister is holding up her pain
like a gift
asking me to unwrap it carefully
without tearing the paper

she is leading me to places i would rather not go
tugging at my arm
gently

i try to ditch her to play with my friends
i want to shake free of her
but she always finds me
and my father asks me to take her along with me everywhere
can you believe that?

(he is good to me that way)

my little sister is teaching me
in little whispers
if i’ll listen

my little sister is not well
her fever is rising
her skin is hot and dry
her bones are showing

still, she is teaching me
in her beautiful little whispers
if i’ll listen

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

haiti, part one

Some of you know that I serve on the board of a non-profit ministry. A group of my friends helped establish a small children's home in southern Haiti, and that has become a really important part of my life. It's really just a Haitian family that agreed to take in some girls and raise them as their own. From there we also partner with other ministries and do some education work. It's completely Haitian-run on the Haiti side and we just build on those relationships and provide needed resources. It's called Providence Ministries, and if you're interested you can read more about us here.

Anyway, I thought that since I seem to be short on time and words, I would reprint some essays about my time in Haiti that I've written over the years. Today will be the first of a yet-to-be-determined number of installments. (You know how I hate to hem myself in.)

Haiti Behind My Eyes

This happens all the time. I might be answering emails or working on a lesson or even just walking from one room to the next and suddenly I'm in Haiti. I feel the rush of heat that smothers me and anchors me to the world. I hear the singing cadence of Kreyol, only comprehending a small portion of what I'm hearing, but enjoying the music anyway. I see Francianne's face, a curious map of grief and gratitude and longing and joy. It lasts for only a moment and then I return to where I am. I like it when I return, but I'm never really comfortable. I haven't really been comfortable since I first set foot in Haiti over ten years ago.

I both love and hate Haiti. I have seen some of the most awe-inspiring beauty and some of the most soul-killing ugliness there. Most of the time this beauty and ugliness are woven together like conjoined twins. It breaks your heart wide open and prompts the kinds of questions that you will wrestle with for the rest of your life. The biggest question is this: how is it that I was born in this plush little cradle in the world and Francianne and everyone else I love there were born in the fear-drenched regions of poverty and despair?

I don't think there's an answer to this question, but it binds me to Haiti in peculiar ways. I drift there in my mind periodically to wrestle with demons and to remember how lucky I am.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

meme schmeme revisited

I've been tagged for two separate memes so i'll start with the more involved one. Tess tagged me a while ago with this little beauty:

1. The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.
3. At the end of the post, the player then tags five people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read the player’s blog.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

As most of you know by now, I'm a notorious rule-breaker, so here's the deal...I'll answer the questions, but I won't necessarily follow all the tagging rules. Gol Tess, you're not the boss of me! ;)

1. What were you doing five years ago?

Um, pretty much the same thing I'm doing right now.

2. What are five snacks you enjoy?

This is a tricky question with all of the digestive issues I've had lately...but here are my answers assuming I'm able to digest these things without repercussions:
  • almonds
  • ice cream
  • anything chocolate
  • kettle chips
  • milk duds
3. What are five things on your to-do list today?

I'm posting this at night, so here's my to-do list for tomorrow:
  • get out of bed
  • prepare for an information session for next year's counseling class
  • catch up on work that has been piling up since I got sick
  • show up for several counseling sessions
  • clean my livingroom/sick-room
4. What five things would you do if you were a billionaire?

I suspect that becoming a billionaire would destroy my life, but here's my best guesses at actions that might keep me out of hell:
  • give a lot of it away to several non-profits like this one
  • develop ministry-oriented communities like the one Danny is starting
  • develop and support green initiatives
  • live as simply as possible
  • read a lot
5. What are five of your bad habits?

Only five?
  • procrastinating
  • buying more books when I have stacks that I haven't read yet
  • withdrawing when I'm overwhelmed
  • eating things that have a good chance of making me miserable
  • spending way too much time on-line
6. What are five places where you have lived?
  • I've lived in Minnesota my whole life, but I've moved about eight million times. I've lived in the worst neighborhoods and some very respectable neighborhoods, and if you want to know the truth, I prefer diverse, edgier areas. That's where I grew up, and that's where I feel most at home.
7. What are five jobs you've had?
  • nurse
  • pastor/counselor
  • business forms designer (before computers did this)
  • nanny
  • program instructor for handicapped adults
8. What five people do you want to tag?

Oh, I think you know who you are. Actually, whoever feels moved by this meme can consider themselves tagged.

I was tagged for a second meme by several people. James, Tammy and Nate asked me to list six random things about myself. Here goes...

  • I started smoking in the first grade. My babysitter taught me how. Of course, when you're in the first grade, you only smoke other people's butts or cigarettes that you manage to steal here and there, so I guess I also started to steal in the first grade.
  • My uncle was a member of the hell's outcasts motorcycle gang, so periodically during my formative years, we had several motorcycle thugs living with us. They were the gentlest people I ever knew, and were always willing to share their cigarettes.
  • I had a color-blind art teacher in high school.
  • I have two cocker spaniels who sometimes make my life a misery and other times make me deliriously happy.
  • My husband's eighty-five year old mother lives with us. She still drives and has more of a social life than I do.
  • As a part of my role on the board of a small non-profit ministry, I have been to Haiti more times than I can count. On the first of these trips, the house I was staying in burned to the ground. It changed my life.
So there you go. How's that for random? And anyone reading this who is so inclined can consider yourself tagged.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

pain math


i'm seriously no good at math, but i couldn't prove that to you by showing you my transcripts. i aced every class i ever took. in fact, i took a statistics class in college back in the days when you had to do all those problems manually and it would take two pages to solve one problem (yes, that was an "i'm old" reference), and even though i was terrified going into it i ended up helping other students. it always struck me as miraculous that i would come up with the right answer after all of those mathematic gymnastics. the problem is that if you tested me a month after the class ended i would flunk the test i previously breezed through. numbers don't seem to stay in my head. even simple things like the multiplication tables can't seem to stay put. i've memorized them about eight million times and they just don't stick.

that's what i feel like when it comes to pain. i've been in a lot of pain recently, and i guess you could say that i've experienced a lot of pain my whole life. (no worries, i'm not seriously ill.) if it's true that pain teaches you things (and i believe that's true) then i should be a pain genius, but i'm not. the lessons slip away so quickly and very soon after the pain subsides i forget what i've learned. so here's my attempt at capturing what i've learned from this latest run-in with my old teacher...my latest pain exam. i'd better write it down before it pours out of me like water.
  1. i am finite. probably all of you learned that a long time ago, but i pretty much live my life as though this was negotiable. i have limits, and i ignore them at my own peril.
  2. i need other people. it's hard for me to ask for help, but then pain comes along and demands that i live my life in the context of closely woven relationships. weird. but very, very good.
  3. the world doesn't really need me. please don't argue with me on this one...it will only sustain my poisonous illusions. the world plugged along just fine while i was sick, and it would have plugged along just fine even if i didn't recover and could never again do any of the things i'm doing now.
  4. my value doesn't have anything to do with my activity. i can't explain how pain teaches me this...maybe it's just that it stops me long enough to realize that i am valued apart from my contributions. it's easy for me to forget about that.
  5. there is something more real than pain. when i am helplessly at the end of myself, i always bump up against something larger than me. it's very similar to what happens when i go on my silent retreats, only much less comfortable. somehow, God shows up.
so there it is, the algebra of my pain. i'm sure i'll slip into my normal amnesia soon enough. but the people around me will probably keep reminding me in that annoying way they do. and if they forget too, pain is always willing to lend a hand and bring me through my multiplication tables once again.

i just realized that i never updated you on how i'm doing...i was discharged from the hospital on tuesday and i'm feeling much better. i'll return to work on monday. thanks for the prayers and kind words. love to all of you...

Monday, May 12, 2008

blech


well, i guess i'm going to be hanging out in hospital world for a little while longer. thanks everyone for the kind words. i'm getting really good care, and i'm feeling about a million times better than i have in a very long time. i still have a bit of a foggy brain, but i'll write something more coherent soon.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

where i've been

i know i've been conspicuously missing lately so i thought i should check in and let you all know what's up. i'm writing this from a hospital bed, but before you freak out, i'm much better and probably will be discharged tomorrow if things continue to go well. i'd rather not go into all the gory details, but just know that i'll be fine, and i'll post more when my brain comes back on-line a little more. i just didn't want any of you to feel like i was ignoring you. hopefully, i'll be making my way to visit your blogs soon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

confession

I am both a pastor and a counselor. If you don't know me well, you're probably sitting there thinking that I'm some uber-perfect hybrid of Billy Graham and Dr. Laura, their secret love child. You might assume you would feel a little uncomfortable around me at a party where there is alcohol, and you might try to clean up your language around me. In other words, you might think that I have it all figured out (at least in my own estimation), and that I'm harboring judgments about you because you DON'T have it all figured out. The truth is, I'm just as human and flawed as anyone, and perhaps more vulnerable. I want to talk a little bit about that vulnerability.

Last month everyone heard about the scandal surrounding Eliot Spitzer. I don't really want to get into that, but it's an old, old story: big name, big fall. Everyone loves to hate these people. It's a sick kind of fun when people who have a strictly moral public persona are caught with their pants down. My reaction is a little different these days. The more public my own life becomes, the more I understand how these things develop. Don't get me wrong, I'm not excusing anything...I'm just confessing that I think I get it in some weird way.

As my life becomes more and more public, I'm noticing the subtle pressure to appear a certain way. As a counselor, people expect that I will be extremely emotionally healthy with really wise and simple answers to all of the issues in their life. As a pastor, people expect that I will have a carefully constructed theological answer for everything and that my life will always reflect a kind of luminous spirituality. Together, the counselor-pastor combo amounts to the great double-whammy of pressured expectation. It becomes harder and harder to be real about my struggles and questions. Sometimes I bend and morph under the push and pull of it. If I'm not careful, I could leave myself behind and never really notice it.

I wonder if this is what happened with these other public figures? I wonder if little by little they forgot who they really were and what they cared about? I wonder if all that bending and morphing and hiding eroded their "me-ness" over time, and resulted in an identity that bore no resemblance to the person who first entered the public arena with all those high ideals? This thought scares me badly.

So here's my public confession, a kind of watermark to help me measure when the floods are threatening to overwhelm my "me-ness". I am a woman with a complicated personal history that I both love and hate. I have made a lot of mistakes, and some of those mistakes have hurt others. I have not been a perfect mother or wife or friend...far from it. (If I've done one thing really well, it has been to say "I'm sorry" when I was wrong...I've said that a lot in my life.) Sometimes depression and fear and doubt move into my chest like squatters and chase out all of the space required for breathing. In other words, I'm really no different than anyone else. All those titles really mean is that I am pointed in a particular direction and doing my best. I have not arrived anywhere and I don't have any room to judge anyone.

So there it is. Remind me of this if you ever run into me and I sound a little fake. Make sure there's someone home behind my eyes. Don't let me disappear into the world of expectations. Knock me over the head if you have to. Thanks.

Friday, April 25, 2008

for jeni


"Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions." I John 3:18

Today is the day.

A little while ago, I shared the story of Jeni, a single mother in Australia suffering from stage four colon cancer. Many women in our blogging community, including my friend Bella, got together to organize an auction to raise funds for her care. Today, you can participate in that auction by visiting here.

Please pass this along to anyone who might be interested. You can also visit Jeni here to leave her a little encouragement. She's currently in hospice for pain management and chemo.

Let's breathe life into our words.

Monday, April 14, 2008

silence and noise

I visit a little retreat center in a wooded area about an hour from my home at least once a year to reorient myself. It's called Pacem in Terris which is Latin for Peace on Earth. People frequently misunderstand what this means to me. They assume that it's a get-away to relax, and that's not entirely inaccurate. But the truth is, these retreats are much more than that. It's so difficult to find words to speak about an experience that is silent. Christianne posted recently about God calling her to silence, and she conveys so beautifully the reality of this discipline. These days away are not always peaceful. In fact, the noise in my mind can be louder than anything the external world can produce.

The real value of these retreats is that the silence and simplicity of the environment strips away the usual distractions that keep me away from myself and, more importantly, God. Within minutes of arriving, a million skittering voices rise up in me that sound something like this:
  • "I wonder if there are any bears or serial killers in these woods?"
  • "Is it too early to dig into the food basket?"
  • "I should have said 'to hell with the rules' and brought along my itunes."
  • "Rats! I have to pee already and I hate using that stupid outhouse."
  • "Is it too early to go to bed?"
  • "I wonder how long it would take someone to find my body if I was mauled by a bear or a serial killer?"
  • "Hey, I never noticed that the sound of rain falling on dead leaves sounds exactly like the sound of a fire crackling."
  • "Why can't these hermitages have wireless access? What's so bad about a little internet fix now and then? And while I'm at it, would it kill them to pump in a little electricity and running water? Do they have something against indoor toilets? Rats! Now I really have to pee!"
  • "Oh my goodness, I've only been here for ten minutes. I'm going to fry every neuron in my head by the time I get out of here!"
You get the idea. Really godly stuff.

The first time I went on one of these retreats these voices were deeply disturbing to me. Now I have come to expect them. That's the reason I always plan on at least two days. It takes a minimum of six hours (more like a whole day) for these voices to burn themselves out so I can begin to hear something else.

The things I find in my mind and heart are not always so flattering, I'll tell you that much. I find impatience, fear, boredom, selfishness, doubt...you name it. I find all of the clutter and chaos that has been taking up space in my life. This is what I have to offer to God. This is the entire task of my time at Pacem. I lift up these thoughts and urges and sensations and desires to Jesus and I listen. I do this over and over and over again. And then I sleep. (This is hard work!)

The voice of God is always surprising to me. He speaks in quiet little whispers like a kitten breathing in my ear. It's no wonder I have such a hard time hearing him most of the time. It's surprising to me that such a great big God would speak with such a tender voice. But he does. This is why it has become so important to me to go away periodically to clear out an internal space. And this is why it has become so important to cultivate all the little silences in my days and nights. God lives there. He whispers to me in the quiet if I'll take the time to offer up my noise so I can hear him.

With that, I'll leave you with a few more photos from my stay. Love to you all...




Tuesday, April 8, 2008

silent retreat

I've been away at a silent retreat for the last few days. I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet, but here are some pictures that might help in the mean time. Peace~









Friday, March 28, 2008

word-children

all my little word-children
are playing here with you.

they are prying with chubby fingers
into the places you have forgotten
with your grown-up
silliness.

they are pirates and princesses
in great clomping shoes
double-daring you to
dream.

they are hop-scotching
across your rules.

they are finger-painting
with your fear and pain.

they are hiding-and-seeking
with your shriveled hopes,
and calling~
come out
come out
where ever you are.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

being jeni


One of the really odd and wonderful things that blogging has brought to my life is the connection I have established with people who live hundreds or even thousands of miles from me...some of them live on the other side of the world. One of these connections has been with a woman in Australia who is suffering from stage four colon cancer. Jeni is a single mom struggling with dignity and passion though issues that are beyond my ability to imagine. A group of women, including my friend Bella, have gotten together to raise money for her care by hosting an auction on ebay. You can read more about it here. I hope you'll consider participating in some way.

Jeni asked a question that's been on my mind ever since I heard it. She asked anyone reading her blog to consider writing a piece detailing what they would do if they only had one year to live. (Jeni has been told that, in all likelihood, she has less time than this.) I've read many of the responses that were posted in the weeks that followed, and I've been holding this question close to my heart. The truth is, I don't think it's a question that anyone can really answer until it's real. I have no idea what I would do or think or feel if I knew that my time was so limited.

I do, however, know what I would hope for. I would hope that I would shed every bit of non-essential baggage in my life so that what remains is simple and good. I would hope that love would be the motivator behind every decision and movement in my days. I would hope that I would be fearlessly devoted to the things that are important to me and that I would find the courage to be exactly where I am. I would hope that I would listen with sensitivity to God and to the people who are close to me, and I would want to choose my words so that they would leave behind a wake of blessing and hope. So what prevents me from doing all of that right now, apart from a death sentence? Nothing, really.

In this moment I want to have the courage to be Jeni, holding all of my love in the palms of my open hands. I am speaking a blessing to anyone who is reading these words. Thank you for your presence here, and for listening to this little story. I hope you will be Jeni too for a moment, maybe long enough to correct the course of your life just a tiny bit in the direction of goodness and love.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

come out, come out, wherever you are

First things first: I'm sorry. I've been pretty silent the last couple of weeks, and I would never want any of you to think that I don't care. I do.

I'm not really sure what's going on with me lately, but I'm having a terrible time finding my little word-children. I think they're all playing an extended game of Hide-and-Seek with me. I'll catch a glimpse of one of them in my peripheral vision, but by the time I turn my head, it has scurried to some dark corner of my mind. But I have managed to tag a few of them.

I grabbed a hold of anxiety as she was darting between the sofa and the closet. I tagged withdrawal on the back of her heel as she was diving under the bed. I stumbled upon overwhelmed deep under the layers of my bedding. I think I even saw the toes of sadness poking out from behind the thick red drapes in my living room.

I'll let you know more about this after I've gathered a few more of them together. Maybe we can play Ring Around the Rosy instead. I'll hold the hands of my tentative word-children, and dance with them in a circle with that music throwing open all of the cupboards and closet doors. They'll come running from their hiding places when they hear those familiar notes. They can't resist those lyrics.

All fall down.

Friday, March 7, 2008

music for screaming

I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel like I'm living in crazy-world. I'm plugging along and the first thing I notice is that I'm starting to disappear. Too many losses, too much pressure, too much chaos, too many emotions that are much too strong. My knee-jerk response to this is generally to just keep going and hope it will get better. I swallow really hard, swallow everything, and squeeze my eyes shut until no light can get in. I hold my breath. (You'd think that as a counselor I would be a tad more skillful with this.) Anyway, it gets to the point sooner or later when I just snap.

I have this old song that has played an important role in my life for the last thirteen years or so. I was listening to it today on the way home, full-blast, singing the lyrics at the top of my lungs. It always helps for reasons I don't quite understand. It helps me to scream. Sometimes that's just exactly what I need. And even though I am always alone when I do this, it helps me to feel like someone has heard me. I've heard me. God has heard me. It's like this weird, screaming prayer I pray when I'm falling off the edge of the world.

So, I'll share the lyrics with you. I don't know why, but I'm wondering if anyone out there might be able to relate. And maybe you'll pop this into the stereo in your car sometime and listen to it full-blast. Maybe you'll feel a little bit better when you do. It's from Toad the Wet Sprocket's Dulcinea CD.

Listen

well i wonder
do we learn?

seems we're making

the same wrong turn.

call you sacred,

call you obscene,

call you faithless,

call you anything.

call and you listen

listen

listen

listen

i'm the liar,
so it seems.

my desire

could justify anything.

so is there nothing

that lies in between

this cold silence

and a scream?

scream


listen

listen
listen
listen


caught in headlights-
we are frozen,

cannot hide.

there's no break,

no time.

if you can, i might listen.


call and you listen

listen

listen

listen

Monday, March 3, 2008

breathing is hard

Early Friday morning, my uncle was on his way to work when a drunk driver hit him head-on. Just like that. From one moment to the next, lives skittered across the icy pavement. Not just Keith's life, but everyone who is connected to him. My aunt, her kids, me. We're tethered together in the wreckage. In the ICU, I watched the ventilator push air into his lungs, his chest rising and falling mechanically, and this felt familiar to me. Breathing is hard.

I've been telling you about all the warmth and blessing of my time in Mexico, but I haven't told you about the other side of this coin. I don't know if this is something peculiar about me, but whenever I allow myself to really notice the goodness around me, I immediately notice something else. I notice that these things are temporary. Maybe it's because I have experienced some terrible losses. I know, in a way that is not theoretical, that children die. I know, in deeply experiential ways, that death does not always announce itself so that you have time to prepare a room for it. Sometimes it knocks in the middle of the night and makes you rearrange all your furniture.

As I was drinking in all the beauty, the love of my family and friends, I felt a pain somewhere inside me, like my heart had stopped beating, like it might never beat again. I imagined death like an intruder watching my home, waiting to come in the night when I am dreaming of safety, waiting to steal away things that can never be replaced. My mind searched for a way to push this thought out to sea. I wanted to pitch it over the balcony and watch it break open like ripe fruit on the stone pavement below. But the more I tried to wrestle it over the edge, the larger it loomed above me. So I finally let go.

I opened my arms and released my husband to God. I loosened my grip on Danny and Joey and Janelle. I lifted up all my loves to the Lord and asked for forgiveness for the ways that I had possessed them. I understood that it was possible to invite death to teach me something about life. I don't own anything here...not even my own body. Everything around me is borrowed treasure. I opened my hands, and let it all go. And then I let it go again in the next moment when I noticed a temptation to take it all back. This is my life, this dance between grasping and letting go. I will always be a beginner, tripping over my own feet, learning the steps.

I'm confident that Keith is going to be OK. He's got a long road ahead of him, and I appreciate prayers for him and his family. He's struggling to find his way back to the world, and some day he'll struggle to find his way to the next world, hearing the name that is a secret between him and God. Every single soul who is precious to me will die. I will die. Sometimes it's hard to breathe in those moments of knowing. Sometimes the only thing moving the air in and out of my lungs is the assurance that there is a world where my true name will be spoken and all of my lost love will return to me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

a day in mexico


The water begins in pale blues and greens, foaming snowy white where the waves break and pound the shoreline at its edge. Gradually the deeper and fuller colors creep out to a midnight blue on the horizon where the ocean cradles the sky. The air is pushing in the wildness of the water, the danger of the sea bending the trees until they bow low as they should. The sea birds are surfing above, showing me the way, teaching me.

I am breathing deeper now, the saline heat opening my lungs and my heart. My friends and family move around me like friendly ghosts ~ familiar spirits passing through me in great gusts of blessing and comfort. I am here, fully here, turning the goodness over in my bone-clean hands. I am listening to the sounds underneath the sounds, invading all of my deaf places.

I am writing it all down so my doubting heart will remember that such things exist. I am carving it into memory ~ a gift to unwrap when darker days come. This is a poem to keep me alive in the dead of my winters, when the world is still and frozen.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

why i disappeared for a while

Last week on our way to Mexico, our layover in Dallas was dragging on and on, pinning us between two worlds. I felt irritation and restlessness rising in my chest, and I was eyeing the flight times with a growing suspicion that we would never be allowed to leave.

I was unhappy.

Then it hit me: here I was surrounded by my dearest loves, my children who are astounding and my husband with his shining heart, and I was lost in distraction and longing.

This is the magician trick: the lure of "something else", the endless waiting for what is around the corner, the grasping after what is just barely out of reach.

So I settled in and decided to be there with my whole heart.

~~~

I notice that Danny is singing the ridiculous lyrics of a song that is playing over the intercom. He is aware of the silliness and laughing as he sings, dancing a little in his vinyl chair. He is creating something new. Danny is like a clown let loose in a children's sick ward...a whimsical, floppy muppet charged with the task of saving the world. Against all odds, he will make you smile.

I notice that Janelle is jittery and fatigued from the stretching out of the day, and she has wrapped herself in a blanket she carries with her. This blanket smells like her puppies, and she pulls in the scent to bring them near. She is leaning into Joey with so much tenderness and trust, like a child with a fever. She can sleep even here in this noise and chaos with her scents and her warmth and her deep, deep love.

I notice in a way much deeper than ever before the way that Joey's heart is expansive and vulnerable-the way that it is immediately available. I have just read him a sad little story from a book I have with me, and tears are shining in his eyes, his face flushed with the kinship he feels with the boy in the story, the tiny hero. He smiles to push back his feelings, but it's too late...they are here as his gift to me. I drink in his lovely tenderness.

I notice that my husband's smile is easy and relaxed. His heart is always extending out in every direction and pulling us close to him. It is a magnetic force, this heart of his, and it gives us all permission to be exactly who we really are. He is the safest person I know.

I suddenly recognize that I am in the presence of something so dear, something so good. I recognize also that I could have missed this...I could have remained absent and allowed all of these treasures to slip through my sleeping, anxious fingers. I am determined to be here right now in this airport with all of its abundant blessings.

~~~

This is why I disappeared from this place for a little while. I was busy being somewhere else.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Plan B

Sorry friends, but my computer is malfunctioning, rebooting abruptly and with no warning. I'm taking it as a sign from God to lay this down for the week, and just be where I am. To hear what I hear and see what I see and feel what I feel. Know that I'll be thinking of you and writing when I return. I'm writing now, in a little journal I picked up on my way here. It has a picture of a mother penguin carrying her chick on top of her feet. Fitting, I think. The words are coming fast and free. I'll write them here soon.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

i clearly need help

I'm sitting in an airport terminal in Dallas waiting for our connecting flight, and what am I doing with this downtime? Am I chatting with my family? No...they're sitting about 300 feet from me. Am I reading one of the books I brought along? No...They are tucked away in my bag. Am I listening to some of the music I just downloaded? No...my ipod is tucked away as well. So what am I doing? Blogging.

Help me. I have every single characteristic of a full-blown addiction. If you think about it, paying that usurious $10 fee for internet access is something like scoring a hit. I got a little uncomfortable on the plane when they announced, "You may use your laptops if you disable the wireless feature." It sounded more like, "You may play with your toddlers if you tie them up like rodeo calves." Yes. This is serious.

As I prepare myself for the connecting flight, I am repeating the following mantra: "My friends are all safe and sound, and I probably don't need to worry about checking their blogs anytime soon." I'll be checking into rehab when I get home.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

escape from iceworld

I am trying to find the words to describe how cold it is right now. It's -7 Fahrenheit (-21 Celsius) but for you warm weather dwellers that is just not comprehensible. I went outside to let my dogs out and the first breath I inhaled was painful, like icicles were forming in my lungs. It's the kind of weather that makes you want to swear even if you do not normally do so. Somehow it seems like the only appropriate expression. (&%@*%!$#)

There's only one thing that's keeping me from going into a full-blown mid-winter depression: On Thursday morning I will be flying out to Mexico for a little over a week. This is not a missions trip (unless you count me as the missions recipient.) By the end of next week I will be enveloped by warm Caribbean air, surrounded by the people I love most in the world, with nothing in particular to do except just BE. *deep cleansing sigh*

I will be traveling with my tribe, my loves, my people. There will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 or so of us. Four families with our kids ranging in age from 4 to 26 and several *kids* we have kind of picked up along the way. (There's actually more than this, but a few couldn't make the trip for one reason or another.) This is an extraordinary group of people. We really are more like family than a group of friends. Our kids joke that they have four moms and four dads, and they all interact like siblings. I'm not sure why this works because if you look at the individuals, we are very different from one another. We frequently disagree in very vocal ways. Actually, I suspect that's part of why it does work. No one is required to conform, and if you've read some of my story you'll understand why this is so important to me. So we love and support one another and sometimes hurt one another, and then we make the repairs needed to move ahead because there really is no other option at this point...we're in this for good.

I still have a lot to do before I leave so you might be hearing less from me. I do plan to bring my laptop along and there's supposed to be wireless access where we're staying, so theoretically I may be able to blog while I'm there. But I've been joking that if I spend too much time in blogworld my homies will arrange for an intervention of some sort. It might get ugly. They might unplug me forcibly. Sometimes people who love you have to get sort of tough that way.

So when I step outside tomorrow to an environment that is not fit for any living thing, I will be dreaming of beaches and warmth and family and friends. I will be smiling a smile that defies the harsh driving winds. I am already just a little bit gone.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Meme Addendum

You might wonder why I'm still blogging at 3am...I just started a new medication and it is seriously messing with my ability to sleep. So I thought I would be productive.

I was thinking after I posted that last literary meme that one of my closest friends has published about a bazillion books, and it's kind of inconsiderate that I didn't list any of them. Greg Boyd is a brilliant theologian and his thought has impacted my faith in ways I can't even begin to measure. So why didn't I list any of his books below? It's pretty simple really. I don't immediately think of the books as what was impacting for me because by the time they were published I had been interacting with Greg for so long on those topics that the books barely registered as an influence for me. However, the ideas there are amazing and truly transforming. So, I've chosen three of my favorites, and I highly recommend that you check them out when you get a chance.

1) Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God

This book is a serious challenge to organized religion. It addresses the fact that the "church" has failed to do what it was called to do, which is to demonstrate the radical love of God to the world. We are known more for our "stands" or for what we are against than for laying down our lives for our enemies. Honestly, this book makes me so proud to be a part of our church.

2) The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church

Greg wrote this based on a series of sermons that he preached during the last presidential election season. Those sermons resulted in the loss of about 1000 people from our congregation. Myth addresses the fusion of religion with politics and how it has damaged both the world and the church. Especially since we are in the heat of another election season, this is an extremely worthwhile read.

3) Letters from a Skeptic

This book has been Greg's best seller and it really is excellent. It is based on a series of letters between Greg and his atheist father who eventually comes to faith. It addresses really common objections to the Christian faith in a very accessible style. This book was so fun for me to read when it came out because I was there when they were mailing these letters back and forth and Greg would get more and more excited as the correspondence progressed. We all went a little crazy when his dad finally melted.

So there you have it. Greg rocks and he's written so much more than this, but these are my favorites. Actually, Is God to Blame? Is pretty amazing too. It deals with the problem of evil. Solid.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Meme Schmeme

OK, that was just too fun to say. Christianne tagged me to post a couple of literary memes. I'm not sure what that is, but I'll just follow her lead and hope for the best. :)

The first one has the following rules:

Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2) Open the book to page 123.
3) Find the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences.
5) Tag five people.

This was not as easy as it sounds. The book closest to me was The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, but page 123 is the end of a chapter and does not have five sentences let alone three after it. So the next closest book was Practicing His Presence by Brother Lawrence & Frank Laubach. Dang...only 110 pages. By now I'm getting irritated. But I scored pay dirt on the next book: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She's talking about the jealousy that sets in when you are an aspiring writer and another writer that you know of is published. Here are the three sentences:

"You are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don't believe in anything. If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed. It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend--for, say, her head to blow up."

I love Anne Lamott.

The next meme (how do you pronounce that word anyway?) requires you to answer several booky questions. This will take a little more thought on my part.

1) One book that changed your life:
Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende. It might seem like an odd choice for those of you who have read the book, but I read this back in college and it was part of what inspired me to write and woke me up to the art and power of story-telling. The genre is magical realism and it's a story set in Chile, which is where the author is from. (She's actually the cousin of Salvador Allende who was president of Chile from 1970-1973 and was overthrown by the notorious Augusto Pinochet...her father was one of the country's "disappeared".) I won't say anymore about it except to say I love this woman's writing.

2) One book that you have read more than once:
Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F. Winner. Lauren Winner is a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity. She wrote this book as she reflected on what she felt the Jewish faith had to teach Christians. Really lovely writing and wise reflections.

3) One book you would want on a desert island:
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. This was definitely up for consideration for the book that changed my life. Foster outlines twelve spiritual disciplines (such as prayer, fasting, meditation, simplicity, etc.) in a way that just invites you to dive in. Honestly, the first time I picked up this book and looked at the chapters my first thought was, "ewww." He manages to take all those aversive expectations and just completely disarm them. This book is one that I will keep going back to again and again.

4) Two books that made you laugh:
Anything by Anne Lamott and anything by Donald Miller. Did I mention that I love Anne Lamott? I love Donald too. I love that they are irreverent and funny and thought-provoking and challenging and just plain human. They are both really lovely story-tellers.

5) One book that made you cry:
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This book was written by a man who suffered a stroke which resulted in "locked-in syndrome" meaning he was completely intact cognitively but totally paralyzed apart from one eyelid. He wrote the book with the help of a scribe who would go through letters of the alphabet until he blinked his eye. The book was written one letter at a time in this way. It is a haunting account of his nightmarish condition, but also an incredibly hopeful glimpse into imagination and the beauty of the human spirit. Unbelievable and utterly breathtaking.

6) One book you wish you'd written:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I wish I had written this mostly because of what it would imply about my life...that I had written enough to warrant writing a book about writing. Truth be told, I wish I was Anne Lamott, minus the history of addiction. Then again, I don't think there would have been an Anne Lamott without that part of her history. Hmmm. Maybe I'd better throw back a few. JUST KIDDING!

7) One book you wish had never been written:
The New World Order by Pat Robertson. This is the handbook for Christian paranoia. Icky. I actually never read it, but just knowing it exists gives me the heeby jeebies.

8) Two books you are currently reading:
Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Philosophy in the Flesh is an attempt to use the findings of the cognitive sciences to rework our philosophical assumptions. I'm working through this v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. I really wouldn't recommend it unless you're a psychology or philosophy nerd like myself. However, if you are such a nerd, I really am liking it so far. The Cloister Walk is a beautifully written reflection of Norris's experience of her foray into monasticism and the role of the poet. She's extraordinary. If I can't be Anne Lamott, I think I have a pretty good stab at being Kathleen Norris. In fact, I think I AM Kathleen Norris. (Where do I pick up my royalty checks?)

9) One book you've been meaning to read:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I've been hearing about this book for a long time and have only heard that it is extraordinary. The sad reality is that I have a million books I'd like to read, but most of my actual reading time is spent on stuff that is functional (therapy manuals) rather than fun. *sigh*

Now, since we all know that I love breaking rules, I'm not going to officially tag anyone. If this seemed interesting to you and you think you'd like to have a go at it, consider yourself tagged. Peace.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

little jesus zen masters: my scenic route to God~part nine

Jon Kabat Zinn writes that children are like little live-in Zen masters teaching us everything we need to know if we're paying attention. This has been true with my children. They showed me Jesus in ways that no one else could.

~~~

It was about three a.m. when the nurse sat down on my bed and whispered that Danny was getting worse. They were transferring him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of a different hospital. I pushed past my exhaustion and half stumbled through the dark maternity hallway to the nursery where my two-day-old baby lay. Danny was a speck in a tangle of IV tubing and quietly humming monitors. The attendants were bundling him against the January frost. We rode an elevator down to the waiting ambulance, and just before they closed the door to drive away they lifted one of his tiny hands out of his cocoon and waved goodbye. In the elevator going back to my empty room, I allowed myself to cry for the first time since his birth, and the nurse held me up and stroked my hair. I thought about my two-year-old, Joey, sleeping at home, and about the ease and excitement of the events surrounding his birth. When Joey was two days old I took him home with me, sleeping, content, well. No glass barriers. No doctors conferring. No ominous signs.

I remember the Christmas that I found out that I was carrying my first child, Joey. Instead of the expected morning sickness, I actually felt better than I had in years. Severe headaches that had plagued me since childhood disappeared almost immediately, and the combination of healthier eating habits and maternal vitamins contributed to a feeling of utter wellness. Peace washed over me like a gentle rain. The only negative effect that I can recall was a peculiar aversion I developed to the sight and smell of hamburger sizzling in a frying pan. I rushed out to buy a whole wardrobe of terribly ugly maternity clothes that I thought looked really adorable, and I waited out my very ordinary, uneventful pregnancy.

Joey's delivery was as fairy-tale easy as the pregnancy. For most of the labor I could only detect the contractions if I laid my hand across my abdomen and waited for its painless, rhythmic hardening. When my doctor broke the amniotic membrane my labor progressed like a lightning bolt, and twenty minutes later I was holding my perfect son. The sound of my husband's laughter broke the early morning hospital silence. Joey was near me constantly, and we spent those first lazy days introducing ourselves, and blending our lives into a comfortable mesh.

Nothing at all of my experience with Joey prepared me for Danny. I realized that I was pregnant with Danny when I became regularly and violently ill. I dropped weight rapidly, and I became so weak that it was difficult to lift a glass of water. The nausea passed at the end of the third month, and was replaced by a softening of my ligaments that made movement a unique brand of torture; my hips slid in and out of joint. Even the maternity clothes that I loved so much from my first pregnancy suddenly revealed themselves to be the ill-fitting costumes they always were. I devoted all of my energy to simply focusing on the day when I could reclaim my body from this nightmare.

A bout of the flu sent me into labor with Danny five weeks before my due date. Medication to stop the contractions served only to drag out the pain, and I was tethered to several monitors. The delivery room held a solemn crowd of specialists hovering over an oxygen-ready warming table. Danny's birth brought him into a world of cruelly bright lights and mechanical enclosure. A nurse in full surgical scrubs gave me a mask and allowed me to hold him for a few seconds. His skin was ink-blue and hung on his tiny frame in loose folds. My husband touched his hand, and stood quiet and afraid as they hurried our baby away. The following days were a dizzying downward spiral that I barely remember, but when it was over, I took my brave child home.

~~~

You might be wondering how what I've told you has anything to do with how my children showed me Jesus. It's funny how that happens. Joey and Danny are 25 and 23 today. They each have their separate offerings, and they have taught my husband and I to recognize and appreciate the different ways that we are loved by God. In the beginning, through the circumstances of their birth, we recognized something of God in them and in our ourselves. Joey offered up to us the kind of love that comes easy and free, a gift given in joy, a miracle of peace. He brought us laughter. Danny offered up the kind of love that's grounded in determination and forged in a fire, a love that tests you. He brought us strength. The lessons are still coming to us today. Every word that they speak, every touch, every difficulty brings me closer to God. The way that I love them, and the way that they love me points me to the unfathomable love of God. My children have placed in my heart a deep pool of gratitude, and a sense that I am a part of something holy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

underwater psalm

coral lungs and salty breath~
my lips are forming your name here
in the quiet of this
underwater
grave.
resurrect me out of the
algae and tangled weeds.
leviathan fingers curled around my neck~
uncoil the pressing night
to see the beauty of your
deep blue love.

~terri '06

Thursday, January 24, 2008

ghosts of friendships past: my scenic route to God~part eight

So far I've been speaking primarily in the past tense, and that's a comfortable way to speak. It implies that these things are long ago and far away. It creates a big wide expanse between the events I'm telling you about and who I am today. Even as I passed over some terrible memories, the lullaby of the past tense language kept me snug and cozy at a safe distance. Even when sadness and anger passed through me like old ghosts, I was comforted by the "once upon a time" quality of my words. But my story has caught up to me now, and something very current has emerged. This makes it much more delicate to tell.

In the two year transition between my first question and my decision to leave that church, I lost most of my friends. I'm not talking about casual friends. I'm talking about the kinds of relationships that felt as stable and solid as the earth. One of the few benefits of those holiness standards is that they created a deep sense of belonging. But the moment I challenged them, I became a stranger. I stayed there a long time in this half-life of ghost friends because I could not really come to grips with the loss. It's something you just can't take in all at once.

I am speaking in past tense.

This happened twenty years ago.

It was long ago and far away.

So why are my hands shaking? Why am I holding my breath? Why are my thoughts racing around like they're trying to distract me from something terrible?

Why am I speaking in the present tense?

I am realizing that something happened to me back then that is still happening now. The ice-water shock of those losses changed me somehow. I am noticing how I hold myself at a distance from even my closest friends. I am noticing a cold chill of fear always hovering, like I am bracing myself for the moment when everything vanishes. I am noticing a space between me and the rest of the world that I wear like armour.

This is where my story folds over from past to present. These are the old wounds that never really healed. These are the ghosts still haunting me. I wasn't aware of this until the story found its way here into this light. I am aware now as I write these words that this will require something new of me. I am speaking in the present tense. There is solid earth holding me up and trustworthy friends surrounding me. I am reaching out now in spite of my fear. I'm looking to the God who led me here to this land of blessing and abundance for the courage to speak in the present tense.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interlude

I am here. I am writing again.

Sometimes as I watch the words appear on the screen I feel as though the words are finding me, making me somehow. I feel as though God is writing me. This is something sacred. And I'm grateful to be here, writing for you and for me.

I want to thank all of you for the way you held me up when I was feeling the heaviness of the stories I was telling you. I am gathering all of your love and tenderness and tucking it away for those days ahead when I'll most surely need it. I'm embroidering your kindness into my memory with all of its fine detail and delicate beauty. I'm ready to begin again, and so I have.

I am here. I am writing again.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

a wayside rest on my scenic route

I'm realizing that I don't know how to write the rest of my story. I'm not quite sure what's up, but I feel as though the story is telling itself in my body without the benefit of words. I'm back there somehow in those first days of leaving that church when I believed I would never be able to connect to another friend again. I'm even finding myself in first grade now and then. In the last few days I'm noticing that loneliness has settled into my chest like a virus squeezing out the space required to take a deep breath. I don't even have the energy to describe it well. I think I may have covered too much time and heartache in my story to really honor those places and I'm feeling exposed and disoriented. I'm sad in a deeply physical way, I'm sick.

So I'm reaching out for time and space from all of you. I know your generous hearts will give it gladly. Peace.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Giving of Gifts

I've been wondering lately what it is about blogging that is so nourishing and so deeply satisfying. I visit the pages of people I have come to love and admire through their stories and through their writing and I feel myself saying, "yes, I understand." But even more than understanding them, I somehow feel understood myself. I recognize something of myself in their lives. Reading what they have to say helps me to learn who I am and who I am not. Today, when I stopped by Bella's blog, I found that she had given me an award, a gift. She passed on the You Make My Day award, and that's a curious thing to me since receiving it made my day.

As I think about passing this on to others, I'm pausing to reflect on what exactly it is in the writing of these people that excites me. What is it that I'm looking for when I visit? It's not necessarily pleasant feelings although that's always nice. Sometimes when I knock on the door of these pages I am greeted with massive struggles. Sometimes in the process of looking in on the lives of others I bump up against some sadness or anger or even stretches of harsh desert. If they tell it well, in a voice that belongs uniquely to them, I will probably experience some of those same things. I will search my own story for the places that fit what they are describing. It might bring to the surface things that are buried. I might not appreciate this at first. I might not immediately recognize this gift they are giving me. But soon enough this gift will pour out its treasures and I will feel the gratitude.

I want to pass on this award to Christianne and Kirsten. Their stories have done what all good stories do. They have let me know that I am not alone. They have held up a mirror so that I can see myself more clearly. They have shared honestly in a way that gave me permission to speak even when it might cost me something. And by following their line of vision, they have pointed me to God. Thank you.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Breaking Open: my scenic route to God~PART SEVEN

It may seem as though that last chapter was a bit of a detour, but the holiness standards played a huge role in my decision to leave that church, only not in the way you might imagine. It started with a Bible study that I was teaching to a young girl who had just started coming to the church. We were moving along nicely, and then one day she asked me why women have to dress the way they do. By this time I had been attending the church for eleven years, and I thought I knew the answer to that question. I pulled out all of the verses in the Bible that we used to justify the standards, but she just looked at me blankly. In that moment I heard my own voice trying to convince myself. I split in half like a big ripe watermelon dropped on the sidewalk and there was a part of me that asked the questions with her. Wet black seeds of doubt spread out all over the place.

There are many obstacles to really encountering God. For instance, God is not easily figured out...you can't describe him in five sentences or less. He's filled with seeming contradictions. For most people this is something they will need to wrestle with. We like our god's to be predictable and comfortable. This is an obstacle that is built into the very fabric of what it means to actually enter into a relationship with God (or anyone else for that matter.) I can't do anything about that. I can't remove that for you so you'll have an easier go of it. But there are other obstacles to God that are synthetic in nature...we make them up. Mostly they're about giving us shortcuts to figure out who's in and who's out. We don't like the ambiguity and hard work of having to figure out what's under a person's skin, so we come up with all of these elaborate ways to signal membership and character. It's pretty slick too. We can size one another up very quickly without running the risk of getting to know one another and listening and possibly being affected by one another. These are the kinds of obstacles that we have some say-so over. We can spend our time constructing them or we can get busy tearing them down.

So I began to deconstruct this wall. After spending about a year and a half asking questions and praying like a madwoman, I went out and bought a pair of jeans. It was my declaration. It said, "I'm not playing anymore." It was a visible challenge. This is when the busted-up watermelon got really messy and sticky and impossible to clean up. One by one I violated every one of those standards. I began to wear the faintest little bit of makeup. I bought a simple silver bracelet. I cut my hair just a little bit. You might be thinking that the process of shedding some of this unnecessary weight would be freeing and fun. It wasn't. This was a grueling spiritual discipline that was made all the more miserable because of the deep misunderstandings it created. I was doing this out of integrity and obedience to the voice of God, but most of my friends and mentors believed exactly the opposite. They assumed I was just being selfish and immature. They were afraid of me. They stopped talking to me. I became a walking wound with pain and confusion seeping out of every pore. I seriously wished I was dead.

After about six months of this I noticed something that gave me the courage to leave. A pattern began to emerge that woke me up. I would go to church and suffer through a bunch of judgment and isolation and misery. I would leave almost every service with a migraine (it really hurts to have a watermelon split open inside you) and the feeling that I was most certainly going to have a heart attack. Then I would go home, lay down in my bed with the covers over my head, and I would pray. And every single time I did this, God would pick me up and rock me like a baby and say things like, "I'm really sorry, honey. I love you so much." It was that same warm, loving presence from when I was a little girl. He also came to me in the form of my husband, who listened to all my questions and walked with me through all of this sorrow and uncertainty and put himself at risk to defend me. He even came up with a few questions of his own. After a while the pattern spoke to me in no uncertain terms that the grief I was receiving over there did not originate from God, and I knew it was time to go.

When I let everyone know that I was leaving, the pastor of the church showed up at my door. My youngest son was struggling with asthma at the time and I was in the middle of preparing a nebulizer treatment for him. The medication for the nebulizer comes in these tiny glass vials that you have to snap in half so that you can pour the contents into the machine. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn't break open the vial. I listened with one ear to all of this man's defenses and threats and with the other ear I listened to God. I finally snapped off the top of the vial and sat my little boy down and placed the mask over his face and started the treatment. I held him while the machine hissed out the cloud of medication that gradually calmed his rattled breathing. This man didn't seem to notice. Finally, I told him in a voice that was shaking almost as much as my hands that I wasn't judging him and I didn't want to fight. I just needed to leave. And that was that.

The next Sunday morning the pastor got up and told everyone that Dave and Terri and Bonnie and Jim (my mom and dad) were leaving and no one should talk to them. I was really the only one who said I was leaving, but apparently that made everyone related to me dangerous so they threw out the babies (my husband and parents) with the bathwater (me). I guess you just have to cut your losses sometimes. My husband's mother, who was the church secretary at the time and who had given her whole life to the church, was sitting in the congregation sobbing helplessly and uncontrollably. It was one of the most fear-driven things I have ever witnessed, but it ended up giving them permission to leave when they really might not have been able to do it on their own for a very long time. So I left, and Dave got kicked out. Now you know. Dog-gone.

As I look back on all those years I mostly feel really grateful. I plundered that place and walked away with loot you just can't even imagine. I found my dearest love there. I developed some of my most important friendships there and they are some of the closest people to me to this day. (Incidentally, that church has changed like crazy over the years and has become a much safer place.) I learned to really throw myself at God with abandon and listen with intensity and persistence. I thank God for all of that. It will always be a part of me. But this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lipstick and Questions: my scenic route to God~PART SIX

First of all, a few factual corrections to my last post:
  1. I actually spent thirteen years as a Pentecostal. (It only seemed like nine years because I was dissociating for about four years of it.)
  2. Dave's right: I decided to leave and then HE got kicked out, but I'll explain all that later.
You already know some of the distinctives of this particular Pentecostal church from my descriptions, but I have to give you just one more piece of the puzzle before I move on. This church had something they called "holiness standards", and for those of you who don't know what that is, it's just as repulsive as it sounds. Holiness standards were a strict set of rules that governed your appearance.

For women, it meant:

  1. you couldn't cut your hair
  2. no makeup
  3. no jewelry (except wedding rings and the occasional pin on your coat, although this was frowned on by some)
  4. no jeans or shorts (only dresses or skirts were allowed)
  5. no fun (OK, I made that up, but it's kind of implied)
For men, it meant:
  1. no shorts
  2. no facial hair
  3. no long hair
Of course when push came to shove no one really cared much about the men's rules. If a guy wanted to play tennis and wore a pair of shorts no one really paid that much attention. However, if a woman wanted to join him for a round or two and wore a pair of shorts it would result in a scandal that would follow the poor harlot around for the next ten years. She would practically have to wear a big "A" across her bosom and yell "unclean" so people would not mistake her for someone respectable. If you look really closely at these "standards" it will dawn on you that it was fairly easy to look like a normal human being if you were a guy, but if you were a woman you pretty much looked like a bag lady or Laura Ingalls Wilder no matter how hard you tried. Still, it was the price of admission and it seemed like a small hoop to jump through in order to be a saint and avoid Armageddon, so I took my medicine like a good girl. Mostly.

Anyway, these rules were not, in the long run, just a benign annoyance. They spoke to me. They whispered in my ear something about worth and dignity and control. They became a splinter in the center of my mind, gnawing at my heart almost continuously. I began to notice all the little ways they created a wall between me and the rest of the world. Even worse than this, they also separated me from God. When the honest questions about all of this started to surface in the back of my brain it was the beginning of the end of my Pentecostal days. As soon as these questions found their way from my mind to my mouth, I might as well have been screaming "unclean" at the top of my lungs. They had exactly the same kind of effect.

Questions are the most dangerous heresy of all. More dangerous than lipstick.

I promise I'll tell you all about the leaving and getting kicked out next time.