Choosing Edification

My dear college roommate lost her grandmother this week. Kimberly’s sweet Monya was 100 years old, and I know both from meeting her several times, and from knowing very well her granddaughter, what a good and lovely life Monya lived. They’ll all gather down south in Georgia today to say goodbye to Monya, and I know it’ll be a time of sharing good memories and knowing how much they are all loved by one another.

A congregation in Pennsylvania lost their pastor this week–unexpectedly and tragically. Brian was most certainly not 100 years old–he was far too young to now be gone and the fact that he and his wife were expecting their first child at his death makes the awfulness of it even more so. Brian and I went to the same seminary and served the same Church. We were peers in ministry and life, and, near as I can tell, had some of the passions and convictions when it came to how it is we love God and follow Jesus. I imagine the gathering to say goodbye to him, to celebrate his life, will be marked with shock and trauma and deep, deep grief.

I did not know either Monya or Brian well at all. The real grief over their passing is not mine–though I am certainly holding in my thoughts this morning those who knew and loved them best. I write about them at all because they are, this morning, on my mind and in my heart: because their lives stood in direct and compassionate opposition to what often dominates social media, the news, our hallway conversations and our public discourse (such as it is).

We have in this life two choices. We can choose to destroy, or we can choose to edify. We can choose to tear down, or we can choose to build up. (Walter Wangerin, Jr. once wrote a gorgeous story about this very thing, and I owe him my thought process/language here).

The world we live is, it often seems, hell-bent on the destruction, the tearing down. Far too often I have been guilty of this. Maybe you have, too. And it seems to me that it is long past time for us to focus on the edifying, the building up of this world and its people. If the friends and families of Brian and Monya are to be believed, they were edifiers, builder-uppers, in a world sorely in need of just those things.

I’m stepping on my own toes, here, knowing that my first tendency when I’m feeling insecure or stressed is to strike out at something or someone else–a situation, an issue, or, at my very worst, a person. And in the end this only results in more brokenness, more heartache. All the way around.

We’re quick to judge and condemn. Slow to listen and understand. Quick to identify as “Not them.” Slow to realize, “We are.” 

And in the margins, along the edges, rent deep through the center of our collective hearts sometimes, is, as a result, a universal and abiding ache indicative of our having forgotten what it means to have life together.

We were meant for more than this.

So I’m left wondering where I can be about the task of building up, what redemption might lie in an attempt at edification. For my own life. And for the world.

Meanwhile I’m giving thanks for those–including, I suspect, Monya and Brian–who work every day at building bridges, making peace, and working towards wholeness. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To red-sequined skirts!

She has this skirt–it’s bright red, with a taffeta lining, and it’s sequined. Like, all over. It was purchased off the Target holiday rack in late October for the “Vocabulary Parade,” at her school. Her word to evoke in costume for said parade was “sparkly.” Hence the skirt…which has been stashed in her closet ever since, unworn.

This morning, as I was hastily applying mascara (and running through my own wardrobe possibilities for a rainy and dreary and cold Monday as I did), I heard her voice from behind me, asking, “Mommy, can I wear this skirt today? Please?

I turned to see what she meant and there, in her hands, was the sequined red skirt. Some greater power than me choked back the “Um…no, I don’t think so,” that immediately tried to break free from my mouth. The skirt isn’t practical…at all. It isn’t even particularly tasteful…at all. I mean, it was purchased for a costume! It isn’t really school day wear…at all.

But there she stood. Asking so sweetly. Clearly with a plan in place for what she’d wear with it. As I said, there was a greater power than me at work because it was against my own will that I said…”Yes. Yes you can.” And that face, that face that I love more than anything on this whole Earth, lit up and off she ran to her room, hollering out “Thank you Mommy!”

As I watched her walk in to school almost an hour later, the skirt having been cheekily paired with a turquoise top, black leggings, and pink leopard-print rain boots, I smiled, all the way to my own boot-clad feet, and I thought, “You go, sweet girl, rocking that skirt like nobody’s business and making your mama’s heart sing while you do.”

Because here’s the thing…I can hear the world groaning this Monday morning. Crying out in fear and chaos and pain. 2015 is off to one helluva start, no? Missing planes and terrorist attacks and more people dying at the hands of guns in the United States (not that this even seems to be news anymore). Meanwhile Boko Haram keeps doing what they do and also somehow we’re supposed to figure out how Cliff Huxtable became synonymous with sexual assault. Not a whole lot makes sense on the public stage, never mind our own personal struggles.

Goodness abounds…I know this, and I trust this…but at the same time that goodness seems to be locked in daily battle with so much that threatens to undo us all.

Meanwhile, little girls beg to wear red-sequined skirts, and today, I say, “Why the hell not?!?” Life is too short, too unpredictable, too “brutiful” (thank you, Glennon!) not to. All over the world, in places so dark and scary I cannot even imagine their realities, little girls my daughter’s age have to claw out their daily existence from whatever small miracles come their way, all of it in the face of poverty and disease and rape and civil war. I’d send them all a red-sequined skirt if I could, as a sign of my care and a testament to their precious worth.

Somehow, the skirt my daughter is wearing today has become sacred garb, its flashes of light sacrament of all things beautiful…things she reminds me of on a daily basis, even when we’re facing off like two hens about to go at it…things like hope and ingenuity and grace (such grace!) and compassion. Things that matter the most in this life…most especially in the face of all that would say otherwise.

So here’s to red-sequined skirts and the sweet mercy of children who know how to dream…how to be alive…how to love…and my most fervent prayers this morning for the ones who don’t know…the children who have been lost in our madness…the children for whom this world must seem like such hell.

Even if she doesn’t know it, today, she’s wearing that skirt for all those children, too.

The Toil of Love

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

(Emily Dickinson)

****

 “Mommy, Michael said something that really bothered me.”

Michael’s a kid in her 2nd grade class, and I hear her mention him from time-to-time. Rarely is it positive.

She went on, “He said God is stupid. And some other mean things about God, too.”

Whoa. Really? In 2nd grade? Sheesh.

She told me she just ignored it, and wanted to know if that was the right response. I told her it probably was, and then reminded her of something we’ve talked about before when the hallways and playgrounds of elementary school get a little tough–most of the time, the meanest people are the unhappiest people.

I suspect that 1) Michael doesn’t have a whole lot of cause for happy in his life and 2) Michael’s parents and/or guardians have some God issues.

Children have to be taught such things, you know. They don’t, just on their own, go around blowing up offices or shooting their classmates or slaughtering people who don’t agree with them. They don’t, just on their own, mistrust other races or religions or ways of being. They have to be taught discrimination and bullying and violence. They have to be taught to hate. 

We’ve taught them far too well, if seven year-olds are vocalizing their opinions about God in such negative ways.

And it seems to me we’re running out of time to teach them another way. Mostly because we can’t seem to find another way ourselves. It takes so much energy to hate, so much energy to be angry, so much energy to spew vitriol about this, that and the other. There are days when the world seems so damn loud with rage that I am inclined to pop in my earbuds on a permanent basis and put Puff the Magic Dragon repeat.

There is a time and a place to draw a line in the sand–do not hear me saying there isn’t. There are causes worth dying for and beliefs worth giving our lives to. And our collective history as human beings is dotted, thank God, with examples of men and women and children who have said, “On this rock I stand and I shall not be moved.” (Some of whom I’d stand with; some I’d stand as far from as possible.) Charlie Hebdo‘s Stéphane Charbonnier is perhaps the most recent public example of not stepping down from your principles and what that can cost a person.

But it is one thing to stand up for what you believe, and another thing entirely to attack, derogate, attempt to destroy or engage in shouting matches with those who believe differently than you. And yet this seems to have become our (in the “royal” sense) MO.

Let’s not trick ourselves into thinking it’s just those “damned extremists” either–to be sure, there are those who seem to be especially full of an especially destructive hate (in just about EVERY faith expression, political leaning and/or philosophical bent), but that doesn’t let the rest of us of off the hook. Not by a long shot.

This global mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, in all its manifestations, whether that’s terrorism or civil war or constant political posturing or systemic racism, it is on all of us to make right. 

In everyday actions, in gestures both big and small; in our work and in our play and in our grocery shopping; in our expression of the things we hold dear…in all these things, we have an opportunity, at every moment, to set right so much of that which has gone wrong all across this blessed Creation.

I know it isn’t an easy to thing to think about, much less do, and I certainly don’t claim possession of any road map that will get us to a more loving, less hateful place. But I also know there’s very little worth doing in this life that doesn’t require hard work now and again. Both love and hate take tremendous energy, and I think Emily Dickinson was probably right in which one she chose to spend her energy on. It might be in our best interest to follow suit.

In fact, Michael and my daughter are depending on us to do so.

 

 

 

What if it actually has NOT been a great year?!?

I’ve just returned to Facebook after an approximate six-week sabbatical/break/escape.

Friends have asked, “Did you miss it?” and the truth is that I did. Mostly because I’ve got family and friends scattered like dandelions across the continental United States and I missed hearing about babies and weddings and other such celebrations. I even missed knowing about their sadnesses–I’d have reached out, if I’d known here and there, about the hard times of some folks I care about. I missed what I love most about social media–the sense of global community.

About two hours into my return, I noticed, repeatedly, proclamations of “It’s Been a Great Year!” on the statuses of those I was friending, accompanied by “Year in Review” photo collages. The first one happened to be on the profile page of a dearly loved family member, and I lapped up like my morning coffee the pictures of faces I love and memories I share with those faces.

But I noticed something else–two “somethings else” actually. 1–I did not see such “Year in Review” celebrations on the statuses of a few significant folks in my life who I know have NOT had a great year. Decidedly and definitively NOT a great year. 2– This (an apology from Facebook regarding the whole “It’s Been A Great Year!” feature, largely stemming from a particular instance in which it went horribly, awfully wrong).

And…you know…what if it hasn’t been a great year? Not at all?

What if the year has been one marked by heartache and loss? What if what you’ll remember about 2014 is unspeakable grief? What if you are approaching New Year’s Eve barely clinging to the slim hope offered in 365 brand-new days? What if your year has held so much transition that all you’re longing for in 2015 is firm footing, a little stability to see you through to what’s next? What if…??

And setting aside our personal lives for a moment, can we really claim a “great year!” in these United States, in the world? In the face of Ferguson, of even more school shootings, of a government that argues against itself more than it serves its people, of stolen girls and a heroin epidemic and food deserts (in some our richest cities!) and…and…and.

Look, I don’t mean to be this day’s Grinch…and I would run out of room if I tried to list all the good things in my life here in this space, but…

…I am also painfully aware of the darkness hiding at the edges of all our holiday lights. And this darkness needs tending to. Caring for. All over our lives, all over this world, are such broken places, such broken hearts, in such great need of light. 

A friend asked me this week about New Year’s Resolutions. I have never been one to make such resolutions, and I pushed back at my friend, refusing to acknowledge any efficacy in such a practice. But then I remembered the words of two writers I admire a great deal: singer/songwriter Jewel and the beloved son of my beloved Kentucky, Wendell Berry.

In her late-nineties song Hands, Jewel sings, “In the end, only kindness matters.” And Mr. Berry once wrote, “I believe the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.”

Y’all, if I’m going to commit to something in this new year, it’s going to be centered around these words of Jewel and Wendell. I don’t know what that will look like, and maybe it won’t even be measurable, but in a world that I swear to you I can often hear groaning in its pain and anguish, such kindness, such love, are the only things I am after, the only things I’m looking to embody as I chart a course forward. I can promise you I won’t be entirely successful–but I’ll try (mostly, I suspect, in an effort redeem the times I have failed/will fail miserably at both).

And I have to tell you, if I don’t–if we don’t–then this entire season we’re celebrating, this run of Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then NYE…it will have all been for naught. It will have all been simply for our own pleasure.

Which wasn’t ever the point at all.

Making Christmas

There’s no way to make Christmas feel like Christmas.

No way to force the magic and wholeness that is felt some years and not so much others. I know this truth, for real, for the first time in my life this year. And in some ways I suppose that makes me very lucky–here I am, the dawn of my 40th year approaching, and it’s the first time that Christmas is…less than, I suppose…for me.

This is the first year in several, too, that I haven’t practiced a daily writing habit across the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I can feel my soul hurting for it. Next year, right?

Right.

What makes Christmas, anyway? Is it presents? Is it music? Is it being with the very people you love most? Is it Grandma’s cranberry salad or your aunt’s to-die-for fudge? Is it grandchildren frisking through the house or your family dog sitting just so at your feet? Is it a solo version of “O Holy Night” that soars nigh unto the heavens so much that your heart swells and tears dim your vision?

Is it all these things? And yet, somehow, more…that we cannot name?

I don’t know. What I do know is that as I sit with family on this night, having lived through a tremendous year of change, I think perhaps I’m learning what Christmas is really all about. Whether I even realize it yet or not.

Because here’s the thing–at the core of this night is a story that I’ve staked my life on. Tied my very hopes to and given a great deal of my life to living out as best I can (though I can assure you I fall short on a regular and painful basis).

And that story has nothing to do with presents or fudge or music or even life being just as we hoped it would. It has everything to do, though, with promise–promise that no matter what grief or pain or uncertainty we’re living with this Christmas, we do not live with it alone.

People often ask me why I love winter, why December is my favorite time of year–it’s cold and dark and grey. Miserable, some days. Bleak.

But y’all, it is only in such bleakness that real hope is possible. And so says my very favorite of all Christmas songs:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

(In the Bleak Midwinter)

Because whether we’re ready…or feel the spirit…or have made it just as we’ve always had it…or are where we want to be…or are with who we want to be with–despite all these things the story happens anyway. Unexpected. Not as we’d plan it or produce it. Unlike anything else entirely.

Still…and always…God comes among us in least likely of ways, making known a sort of Love that is capable of shaping us into all we’re meant to be. Capable of taking all that has gotten us to this point and molding it into a “what will be” that most days we can’t even imagine.

Hope is a choice. And this night, because my faith has always told me to do so, I’m choosing it. And I’m doing so with joy and love and wonder at all that is good in my life, all that is possible in this world God’s given us. And I’m trusting that such hope matters.

I’m trusting it matters for a friend missing a grandson tonite. For another friend missing a father. For my own weary heart. For Pakistani children, for murdered cops and gunned down kids, for the stolen daughters of Nigeria, for rage simmering beneath the realities of poverty and disease and heartbreak, for all that is so terribly broken in this beautiful world…I’m trusting it matters.

For all of us. 

 

 

 

This I believe about Mary….

November 22, 2004
Mary

Taught to obey, follow God,
Able to recite psalms since her feet could fill sandals
well-acquainted with the dusty road to synagogue.
A good girl.
Only a girl.

Today we’d say “adolescent,”
Talk at her about family planning, wonder why she didn’t “know better,”
Lift her up as what not to do, how not to be.
We’d glance furtively, whisper accusingly
Pull our own little ones away from staring.

We’d profess God’s love Sunday,
Judge her outside of it Monday.
Wouldn’t we?
She didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it.

Who would?
Who longs for humiliation,
Asks for ridicule,
Searches out disgrace?
She just said yes.

Said yes to risk and fear and doubt.
To pain and heartache and loss.
Yes to agony and defeat.
Yes to love.
Would we?

At Gabriel’s bidding
This girl bore God.
Cradled grace.
Grew love.
Let go mercy.
Delivered hope.

Gave us life.

****

I cannot imagine how absolutely terrified she must have been. We celebrate her as if she was perfection personified, the most lovely of young women absolutely willing to do whatever those around her said she must. Have a baby for God (Gabriel). Go to Bethlehem (Joseph). Be happy about it (The angels, even if indirectly). Because, you know, there’s a plan here, God says so, and YOU are part of it and so just smile and go with it.

I feel like this is how we tell the story sometimes. And I don’t buy this version for a minute. No way was she that complicit, that meek and mild (no matter what the songs say), that content to just bask in the glow of it all, a Mona Lisa smile etched across her face.

No young, unwed, poor, very pregnant woman would be. Because being pregnant, having a child–it’s terrifying. Suddenly you’re walking around, your very heart actually moving and having being outside your body, and you’re supposed to somehow return to some supposed level of normalcy when nothing feels like it will ever be okay again.

Because life has come from you. Life has lived in you. And then you’ve handed that life over to the world when all you want to do is wrap that life up close in your arms forever, so that life will always be safe and warm and know how loved she is. He is. They are. 

Every school day morning, when I roll through the carpool line and drop-off my seven year-old, my insides twist. Some mornings a lump rises in my throat. The school is so big and she is so little (even if she believes otherwise) and my entire life…it’s right there, in her, and some days I still cannot believe this miracle.

And so I cannot believe that Mary was peacefully down with the whole Nativity scene, no matter what just about any commercial version of that Nativity might suggest. I cannot believe that she didn’t want to scream, “No!” to the insanity of it all and refuse to risk her heart by offering her precious child to God’s world such that he’d never really be hers–just hers–again.

The thing is, it is in this refusal to believe the story as we so often tell it that I find real hope. Real trust that something good was/is at work, even if unknown and unseen. Real faith that even though life rarely turns out as we’ve imagined it might, it is, still, life. And where there is life, there is always the potential for goodness and mercy to come raining down.

I think she was actually “sore afraid.” I think she was probably angry at times. I think her hormones probably raged and she wondered how the hell she’d gotten into this mess. I think she cried, sometimes, even if muffled against the mane of that damn blessed donkey she rode into Bethlehem. And I think she might even, somewhere long the way, have wanted out, have wanted to call Gabriel back down from the heavens and say, “No. I quit. This is not what I bargained for.”

But she didn’t quit. She gave into love. She bore (literally) witness to the possibility of a new way of being and she held up for all to see the good news that we are never alone…that among us, always, is God-with-us. Emmanuel.

This is I believe about Mary…that she lived her life more fully than most of us will ever dream of doing, and she did so by loving with reckless abandon the child that was born to her, trusting that somewhere, in all of it, was the grace of the God who gave them both life in the first place. 

And who has done so for you and me, too.

I want Band-Aids to serve their purpose….

I am completely hooked on NBC’s Chicago PD. Completely. Hooked.

The story line (which follows the daily grind of the Chicago PD Intelligence Unit), the characters, the on-location filming, the intense drama, the exploration of bigger societal themes…I love all of it. This past Wednesday night was the “fall finale,” meaning I’m stuck with reruns and withdrawal until early January. And in keeping with the showrunner’s desire to leave viewers wanting more, it was quite the cliffhanger. One of the show’s most beloved characters, Detective Erin Lindsay (played by the incomparable Sophia Bush) announced that she had been recruited by the FBI to lead a task force aimed at preventing the effects of international drug trafficking and organized crime on cities like Chicago, which means leaving her post and her friends at the Intelligence Unit.

Detective Lindsay is a former street kid, the child of an alcoholic mother and an absentee father. She could have easily wound up like so many of the victims she rescues or the perpetrators she arrests…but the kindness of some key folks in her life and a determination on her part to be something more led her down a different path entirely.

When she breaks the news of this new job offer to her comrades at Intelligence, she does so by saying, “I’ve been cleaning up after people my whole life. This feels like my chance to finally get in front of it all.”

Detective Lindsay is tired of Band-Aids, necessary and effective though they may be at times; what she wants is systemic healing.

Several years ago, I met a former state defense attorney turned youth minister (yes, you read that right). When I asked her, “Why?” she said this, “One night, after a particularly brutal case involving defending a murderer, I reviewed his file, and I found in that file a picture of him as a young boy–so small and innocent, and I wondered what had gone so horribly wrong in his life that he’d find killing another human being even an option.” And then she said, “In that moment, I decided, this picture, the one of him before it all went wrong, that’s what I want to work with. I’m tired of dealing with the tail end of it all…I want to be part of preventing it.”

I thought of this woman as I watched Detective Lindsay explain, “I’ve been cleaning up after people my whole life….” And (work with me here for a minute), I thought of the Christmas story, the faith-based one, the one that says a baby came and a king tried to kill him and a shepherds saw a star and angels sang and the magi came. And I thought, “This Christmas story, it’s what Erin and that attorney-turned-youth minister are after. It’s about something bigger, about our whole lives and way of being, it’s about a system so broken that only an entirely different path will set it right again.”

****

It is an easy time of year to focus on Band-Aids–on buying gifts or food for those who could stand to receive both; on taking a turn in the line at your local soup kitchen; on giving an extra 10% to your charity of choice; on caroling at homeless shelters or long-term care facilities for those who have been forgotten.

And this is all well and good. It matters. Please hear me say that.

But also hear me say this: all the holiday cheer in the world, no matter how well-intended, will not fix a system as broken as ours is.

The baby in the story did not come so that everyone could get what’s on their Christmas wish list and feel good about helping those who need it for a couple of weeks.

That baby came so that maybe…just maybe…we’d finally realize that there’s no good reason anyone in this world should ever be hungry. Or alone. Or without decent shelter. Or the victim of violence or neglect. That baby came so that we’d know there’s a better way. And we’re capable of that better, if we’d only choose it

****

A young man I know and love will spend this particular Christmas in prison, a series of bad choices having led him there. Because I’ve known this young man most of his life, I also know that he is the product of the broken system I’m talking about, a casualty of his mother’s mental disease and society’s racism and the generations of poverty he was born into. And though there were people in his life who loved him as he somehow survived childhood and adolescence–fiercely loved him, I can promise you–it wasn’t enough to combat said system, at least…not yet. I’m hopeful, still.

What I want for Christmas is a world in which his brilliant mind and caring heart had a chance at something different from the very beginning. 

What I want for Christmas is a better way. A more just and loving system.

What I want for Christmas, is for Band-Aids to serve their purpose, and not be used as slim lines of defense against something they’ve no chance of healing.