the fearful and wonderful month

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The world looks different when you’re on the other side of the beeping heart monitor. That’s what I have to say for a month of silence.

I didn’t mean to go. I sort of slid away. It happens like that, sometimes. It starts small. It starts with a flutter in your chest, so small it’s like butterfly wings. And in the weeks to come it spirals and grows until you start to wonder if you will make it. Until you cry in the ER have angry welts from the electrodes of your heart monitor. Until the panic attacks come in waves. Until you see them and know them.

“Test me…know my anxious thoughts…lead me…give me something everlasting…” I ask that you forgive my paraphrase. It says there, in that song, that I am made all full of fear and wonder. For the first time, I begin to understand. It isn’t just the twenty something wearing a heart monitor and having panic attacks.It isn’t just me. It’s a mother’s eyes, wondering if this baby will walk or talk. Wondering why they thought this could be okay. Wondering how this happens again.It’s the guy trying to figure out how he ended up here, and how he is going to get his life under control again. It’s the old woman who talks to her husband years after his death. It’s all these people. It’s myself and all of us.

Being alive is all this fear and wonder. The peeling away of the shakable, the mortal, is this mix of pain and fear and the thrill of being rid of it. The moment where Lewis talks of peeling the scab. Likewise, the immortal part…the wonder of the things that will go on. The beauty. At the same time the fear of the infinite. The fear of a void. (We are afraid, and yet it calls to us.) And in the tension, we are anxious. We are waiting.

I wonder, sometimes, if we can learn to praise all at once for the fear and the wonder. This fear has opened me to myself. I feel every pulse, every moment of this body. All of it working all day, and I am just aware of it. Just barely. I am overcome with the wonder of it. Overcome with the bigness of a God who could hold it. And yet I am afraid. Of these parts. Of a stray pulse, a quiver of muscle. And yet I am afraid of God.

I almost wanted to talk about abortion. About the way the lives of these ones, these who almost weren’t, are full of more wonder than I can fathom. About Abby’s eyes when she sings. I was going to tell you that I can praise Him for the way the fear of next moments or not having them, the way that fear opens up this wonder that today they are still here, with us. Through all the fear, they are full of such wonder that they almost don’t belong to us. And I couldn’t figure out how to say it.

But maybe we praise Him because He is not one who gives fear without wonder. He is not one who strikes down to the point of destruction. He is the one who puts this precious light, the one He spoke into the universe, into this fragile jar. Such wonder in a fragile, fearful shell. He is not one who brings us darkness without stars.

With Ebola and war and all of it surrounding us, the fear comes quickly. I am trying to see it like these kids do. I am trying to lay back, in the middle of all of it, and see the wonder. Trying to let it come through the beating pulse in my wrist. Trying to praise Him. Trying to let Him know the anxious thoughts, and to let him lead me into the thoughts that don’t end in tears. The ones that don’t end at all.

The ones all full of fear and wonder.

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for the girl who wanted to save the world

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I can’t have been the only one sitting there in the dark room, crying and promising God to go anywhere and do anything. I can’t have been the only one in frenzied conversations in the parking lot at night, the ones where we talked about taking our schools for Christ. I stood in his office, and he told me I was exactly the student every youth leader prays to have. Told me I was doing everything right. I was the archetype of all of us, the teenagers promising everything to God. The millennials somewhere back before smartphones and cynicism…when we were generation Jesus. There was something in us, and maybe it was just pride, but there was something in us that wanted to save the world.

I can’t have been the only one who faltered. Who lost sight of something, who got so tired. I can’t have been the only one who finally did something wrong, and didn’t know where to run. I can’t have been the only one who noticed how the praise quieted and the support vanished when we were no longer the poster kids. When we went to college and struggled, and fought, and we heard the whispers of how our generation was turning away from Christ. I can’t have been the only one who felt everything I’d ever built sweep out from under me.

And here we are, friends. Here we are as an example for a new generation of youth groups. The ones who walked away, who became disenchanted with the church. The ones who got ‘lost’ somewhere in the shuffle and the noise. Here we are, the generation who was supposed to save the world.

We cannot even save ourselves.

I used to talk about grace in the past tense. Do you remember that? I would say that I had been given grace, or that Christ had forgiven me. I would say that He had been my peace that He had seen past my sin. I talked from the other side, like someone who knew she was past the point of needing the grace. Who knew that if she could just follow the rules, feel the fire, abandon the things…she could change the world. The one who just knew that she could do it.

We fell, so many of us. I can’t be the only one who woke up one day and realized that my faith was a thin veneer that couldn’t hide the warped edges of my heart. Who saw, suddenly, that I was putting all my love, effort, and faith into an appearance. Into a show of a good Christian. That I was no more repentant, no more indebted, no more ‘saved’ than an actress playing a saint in an old movie. It was a game. It was an act. And when I broke character I found myself alone and wondering how it all went wrong.

Today my verbiage is different. I talk about how God gives me grace. About how He will do so again. I ask Him to be my peace. Today, tomorrow, all of it. I know, now. I know that I am prone to wander. That I am not the archetype of the good Christian twenty something. I see my bare ring finger, see my chaotic apartment, notice that my job is not in a Kenyan slum. I have produced no babies. While I was supposed to be falling in love with Christ and a Christian boy, I was fending off depression. And suddenly I’m not the shiny face waiting to welcome you to the church I have faithfully attended since birth.

And grace was in the present tense. Grace was in that moment, and was a promise for every moment to follow. It opened my eyes, and it showed me how flimsy the act was. How the failure had been inevitable. How impossible it was for me to do it all on my own. How I could not save the world without first saving myself.

How I could not save myself.

These are the days of grace. These are the days of admitting when I have sinned, the days of confession. These are the days of asking for help, asking for support. These are the days of broadcasting my failures to anyone who will listen, of proclaiming my weaknesses. These are the days of assuring the broken people I meet that if I can be redeemed, hope is never lost. These are the days when the foolish, weak ones like me shame the wisdom and arrogance we once held in awe of our own achievements. These are the days when the incredible work of Christ has left those memories of feeble efforts looking forced and awkward. These are the days in which He is saving me, and in which I am speaking of grace for tomorrow.

I look back on her, and I am almost ashamed. Red faced over the swear word that sneaked out yesterday and the way I cannot love a difficult person. Embarrassed by the way I will never look that way in church. I will never look like the one who will change the world again. I will, seemingly forever, be the one crying because His mercy to me is crushing and overwhelming and unfathomable. I will be the one with mascara on my face. For a moment I am ashamed that I cannot be the symbol I once was, the person that pastor once believed me to be.

We are the lost generation, you and I. I can’t be the only one who has ridden this ride. I can’t be the only one who has been written off. And yet…

…who can tell stories of grace like we can? Who can say, in honest humility, but for the grace of God go I and mean it more than us? Who else will remember our story, will tell it again and again? Who else will see the hypocrite and love them, because that was us not so long ago? How else are we going to save anything?

It is only this, this present and future tense of grace, that can ever redeem anything. I wonder if, maybe, the poster child for the church doesn’t need to have a little warping at the edges, or maybe a few scars. I wonder if we can, remembering how it felt when we were frowned at and sighed over, make it be an infirmary again, instead of a country club.

When I was sixteen I told God I would be a missionary. That I would give up everything and follow Him to the darkest places. And I didn’t know that He would ask for me to leave behind my image, my status, my good girl persona. I didn’t know that it would take openness, and admitting my imperfections to draw close to God, or to anyone else. I didn’t know that He would ask me to break, so that He could finally fill me, finally win me. So that He could finally show me that I needed Him…I didn’t know it would look like this.

But despite it all I love that girl, standing in the dark wanting to save the world. I’d like to fulfill the promise she made. Here, on the other side of it all, I’d like to be filled with that fiery love, this time in thanks for the grace I’ve been given…I’d like to hang on to the way the words sounded, but this time I’d like to mean them. I’d like to walk them out with Him at my side, helping me, hiding me. I love the dreams I had, the things I wanted.

Something in me still wants to save the world. The difference is that today it isn’t me…and I realize it never could have been. It’s Christ, and He is able in my weakness.

 

a night in the life…

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lt’s 3:45 and I am late. She will be early, because that is what she does. She comes after school, and there’s nothing else to get in the way. No sports teams, no dance class, no student council meeting. Sometimes she is sick, but usually she is early. There is a text on my phone that is bad news. There is an undone list rattling in my head. There is the echo of a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear in my ears. I am late, and I run in apologetic while she smiles.
She asks me my name a thousand times, and the names of all the characters on the screen. She almost sings to part of “let it go”, which I am pretty sure I could sing perfectly from beyond the grave at this point. She is red faced and crying, all the more frustrated because the words for it aren’t there. In the whole world of sounds she has repeated, she owns none for whatever it is this time. She screams and it barely registers on my radar. It is not a new sound.
The rhythm of the robot is steady, and I find myself changing the legs without actual thought, sometimes. It never stops being a miracle to some of them. The ones, like this one, who sit and take pictures and get teary eyed. They roll around on stools and marvel at how beautiful it all is. Meanwhile, the beeper is going off for the thirteenth time and her left toe is plantarflexed. It makes a sound as it drags.
He is the next one in, and his mom is not one of the new ones. She dashes in and out, a phone to her ear and enough finality in the way she pulls him up from the chair that I feel almost sad. He’s talking, and he’s smiling because he knows his lines and I know mine. I am dramatic over the mat, pulling faces and crying fat tears I have pulled out of a Dixie cup. I am hamming a dance to the song on his youtube playlist, and he is almost embarrassed, for a second, as the next ones walk into the room. It slides back off of his face, and he is giggling in the voice that is busy trying to change. I meet her eyes, and we have that moment where we wonder how much longer.
And the little one is there, and she has a pink bow. She doesn’t sing, doesn’t giggle, doesn’t shout at me. Her parents are eyeing the others with a mix of wishing and of feeling very sad. She is so small, and the tiny spasm barely registers in my hands. She pulls her head back and they clap and cheer like those parents in the stands at the Olympics. I can’t decide whether to be sad.
And finally the last patient of the day. She is easy and happy to see us. She shouts, and it is singing along, but could just as easily be swearing, really. She signs a few of the words, and she notices that I’m not smiling, not wailing in the voices like I usually do.
“Abby,” I tell her “I had a bad day.”
For a second I think she understands. She might, but she could never tell me. She’ll never make those words. She just looks solemn, just looks guilty. She mumbles sorry, and she drools a little bit. It splashes on my hair. But when we get her down she hugs me, just for a second.
There was a time when I thought I would be the person who figured things out. I thought I could understand, and I thought I would be able to explain away the questions. I thought I would be able to stop asking them. I thought there would be a light and a calmness and a firmness under my feet. Instead, it has been a bad day and there is drool in my hair.
The more at home I feel here, the more often I ask the questions. The more I realize that the ground is shaky, here (maybe it’s the shale fraccing?). The more I become comfortable here, and resign myself to a life lived waiting for an answer.
But I will come here again and sing the songs with a cheesy grin that will settle into a genuine smile as the night goes on. I will come here again and exclaim with the new, excited parents. I will lament with the tired, practiced ones. I will worry with the uncertain ones. I will come here again and do the simple thing. The one that uses my hands more than my head.
Because every time I do, I start to understand a little more about God.

It may be foolish to keep trying…

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By now you already know about it. You’ve read the articles about Iraq. You’ve watched the livestream of #ferguson. You’ve tweeted a Good Will Hunting quote for Robin Williams. You’ve been an eye at the peephole as lives have spun, twisted, and come undone. Maybe you’ve prayed, maybe you’ve sent help (I hope you have.), but in the end it’s crazy how this has all played out like Shakespeare, or some less important drama. Can’t you sense the scene breaks, the monologues, the punches of wrenching irony? It, all of it, has me reading existentialists and feeling like a bit character caught in a tragedy. And we all know how tragedies end.
No one gets out alive.
It came to me while I was reading that post for Robin Williams. The one with Aladdin saying “Genie you’re free.” Is that the meaning? Is that where he found himself? How easily it could become too much. As a community flies apart, as a country unravels, as everything begins to look hopeless…I mean doesn’t it seem like a lot to be fighting?
Why are we fighting, anyway? That’s the thought I had. Why should we bother trying to fight for racial harmony when one instant, one bad choice could unspin everything? Why should we bother investing in nation building and peace when war can tear through in a matter of weeks and undo years of slow, hard won progress? Why should we fight to be stable, to be okay, to be functional when one moment of grief and depression can turn off the light forever? And then, to make it all so much worse, we can’t even agree on what went wrong. We can’t come to a consensus of who caused this, who to blame, who to even fight against!
This is the part of the story where I would, traditionally, insert a touching anecdote about the hope of children and the future and innocence. It would be warm, and it would give you hope that we may have something to fight for, after all. Most unfortunately, all of the children in my life are sick. It comes, even to those who ought to be holding the future. Leaving even that uncertain.
So why are we fighting? I’m going to be honest, and tell you that I’m not sure. I’m not sure it’s worth it, sometimes. It feels foolish.
I’ve been told that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. May we be the church of the foolish. The church of those who laugh around the death bed and nourish the dying child. The church of those who celebrate the small victory as the city caves around us. May we be the first to rush in when hope is lost.I cannot explain to you that the fight is worth it. I cannot promise you that it will not unravel even as you weave it. I cannot offer you any evidence that you are not wasting your time hoping, wasting your time trying, wasting your time fighting. If I’m honest, these may be the foolish things.
Almost as foolish as believing that there was anything left to salvage in the mess I made of myself. Almost as foolish as sending a perfect, powerful being to die as a poor peasant man. Almost as foolish as building a kingdom of the uneducated and unimportant. Almost as foolish as embracing women and thieves and runaway slaves. Almost as foolish as every martyr, every saint, every person who has left family, friends, jobs, lives, and reputation behind in pursuit of this God who is as invisible and elusive as the wind caught in our fingers.
We, brothers and sisters, were called to foolishness. Called to laugh in the face of death. This is our heritage, and we are not alone.
Please do not give up yet.

it is beatiful

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We are in the fourth ward of Atlanta, which is not exactly where one generally goes on vacation. She was looking across the street at something, with her eyes squinted. It caught me in a second. The relaxation of her shoulders and the care in her eyes and the way her words came quickly, tumbling over each other…it all added up to a moment in which, suddenly, she was so beautiful. Standing there on the cracked sidewalk. And it happened again with each of them.

As she turned the gold ring around her finger and talked about this boy and making a home. The light was glazed over by the rain, and she was dancing to herself a little from the front seat, with the vent blowing her hair around her face. Her phone lights up with his name, and her face glows.

As she stood in the farmers’ market, holding a bag of produce and waving her hands in excitement. It didn’t matter that the building was under construction or that the drizzle was gray and heavy. She was light and her face was bright with love for the town. Bright with the excitement of everything that she has found here. And it was beautiful.

They were, all three of them, suspended in these perfect moments. These moments in which ‘shalom’ seemed possible, in which everything seemed to be the way it was supposed to be. Never mind that we’re all still feeling our way clumsily through these transitions. Never mind that none of us have managed to fully embody these things God has set in our hearts. It was there, in a moment. The peace of being and doing exactly what you were put together to do. And it was beautiful on their faces.

As I walked through it all, I didn’t feel it in my heart. Didn’t sense the peace, the shalom, of life settling into a holy order. Instead of the beauty, I felt very conscious of the wrinkles in my shirt from the suitcase and the tiny dreadlock forming in my salty ocean hair. Out of step, out of place…I waited for the peace to come. For some sense that I had found this place where my joy meets the hunger of the world. It did not come. I walked through three states, waiting for a sense of wonder.

And I read. I read stories of hope and healing and hurt and horror across the world. I read about just a ton of pain. Of brokenness. And I saw hands reaching. I saw pockets opening. I began to hear the stories, to see the changes, the fighting for the helpless. I listened closely, and was sure I could almost hear prayers rising in every tongue. Pleading for faces and names they may not meet this side of heaven.

It was another moment of vulnerability. Another moment not special except for this sudden glimpse of what felt like peace. The face of the church, the way she was always meant to look. Pleading. Reaching. Calling on heaven and earth to move on behalf of her brothers and sisters. And in that moment she was beautiful. Her snarls and wrinkles faded into this gentle beauty of purpose and…

…and shalom. And for a moment the church was there, was the vehicle it always might have been.

And it may be that I never feel that look, that peace, fall over my own eyes.At least not again. I felt it, maybe for a moment, that afternoon when I sat with the little girls tugging my hair into braids and smearing sticky red fingers across my forehead. It may never return. It may be that I always walk just out of step with the ache in my heart. But for a moment this strange looking, crazed creature that I am a part of was completely lovely.

I think I will remember it for years. I think I will think back to the fourth ward, and to the highway across Carolina, and to the cluttered street in Carrboro. I think I will remember the flashes of beauty, and remember a moment when the church was present. When the imperfections somehow mattered less than the presence, than the softness around the edges and the sense of purpose.

Today the church was beautiful, even if just for a moment. As the whispered prayers rose across the world, for a moment I loved it, I ached with its beauty.

That kind of feeling cannot last. It flies away the moment a pastor uses a clumsy word or a televangelist smiles crookedly. It falters in the face of the cynicism, pain, tiredness, and assumptions that we have come to associate with the church.

But for a moment, for this moment, it is lovely in the way it was meant to be. It is shalom. And if there is peace nowhere else, it is present here, in this love between those so far away from one another.

 

hitchhiking to heaven

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So I’m back in the city, but while I was in the country the folks in that little town tried very hard to undo some of my more citified traits. They played country music on the radio and used words I’d never heard before and drug me to a rodeo. At one point I was teaching a man who is part of a motorcycle gang how to do an exercise we call the ‘confused hitchhiker’ because you point your thumbs in either direction. He got that rascally look on his face like he was about to drop some down home knowledge on me and told me “when you’re really hitchhiking you don’t get to pick which way you’re goin.”
What? Apparently ‘real’ hitchhikers are just going wherever the ride takes them. The etiquette is that you ask the driver where they are going, and ride along in that direction. If you have a destination in mind, it is somehow less ‘real’. I trust the authority of an aging motorcycle rider who looks as though the seventies were hard on him. On this matter most especially.
We, my friends, are hitchhiking to heaven (segue. oh well). Try as we might, we are certainly not getting there via any vehicle we have managed to create. I picture us there, strung out and tired, asking Jesus where He is headed, and clamboring in for a ride. I picture the way the scent inside the car would be sharply unfamiliar, and I try to imagine what might be on the radio.
And, in this moment, where we are going isn’t up to us (I think Jesus said something to this effect to Peter. Something about putting a belt around an old man and telling him where to go, which is funny because I did that all month with gait belts). The world drags us one way, puttering along in vehicles made of our stuff and our dreams and our people and our accomplishments. But somehow or another we crash. They let us down. And we are stranded. Beaten up and unable to go any farther on our own feet, we hitch a ride.
And I’ve realized you don’t always get to choose. Sometimes God brings you to Woodward, or to Oklahoma, or to wherever it is. And you go, because you had to leave the wreck of your old stuff behind you. Sometimes it’s a bumpy, circuitous route that feels completely pointless, but there you are.
There you are, watching her body go limp and lifeless. Feeling almost numbly for a pulse while he does chest compressions next to you. There you are as her breath rattles back, gasping. There you are. And even if she has somehow evaded death today, it will catch up to her.
Everything dies. And there you are. There you stand stumbling around in the ruins of the wreck, almost awed by how easily the whole thing flipped, and rolled, and caught fire. It was like this, for my patient who rode motorcycles and worked as a truck driver. The truck rolled, burned, and in an instant he had no job and no way back. He caught a ride with a passing stranger, cradling broken bones and walking gingerly on a bruised body.
In an instant it has died around you. Before the odor has set in it looks lovely, for a moment. You love it just a second after it has failed you. And then it is dead and begins to rot, and you turn away, confused at how something you loved could sour so quickly. The corpse, even of a loved one, will send that particular tremor across your stomach and turn your face away.
Everything dies, and there you are trying to love it back to life. Trying to hold on to these things, when we’ve been told they are fleeting, meaningless, like trying to grasp wind. But we try. We want to save it, to collect the insurance, something.
We need to leave it behind. I do. I need to let the dreams die, but more importantly I need to let the plans and the busyness and the piles of just stuff that I don’t need to stop holding me back. I need to walk away from the wreck I made of everything and be willing to catch a ride. To leave it there, in the past, unsure that I will ever be able to return.
In this moment it almost begins to repulse me. I look at the things I have hoarded and treasured and loved even after he told me not to. The family I might have had. The salary I could have made. The really cute dress that cost as much as saving the lives of two Iraqi kids. The pile of things looks suddenly weak, and I can almost smell death on it. In this moment I could leave it, I think. Could go with Jesus wherever it is he goes from here, whether it is to a place like Woodward or a place like Waco, or somewhere else entirely.
But, physically, I am leaving. I am going away from this place where there has been so much thoughtful silence and so little distraction. This place God has spoken and taught and helped. I am leaving this strange hospital where the rooms keep flooding (and that last is not a metaphor, but a reality). And I will go home, and it will be harder.
I only pray he will continue to lead me away from the ruins of what has been and might have been, and into the mystery of what was always meant to be.

22 things i learned from hilary

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Some of y’all don’t know her, but Hilary Reeves is one of those people who inspires me. Who makes me laugh, makes me more creative, and makes me want to write. To figure things out. To be better.

Today is an important day, because I don’t know about you, but Hilary is feeling 22. Hilary is one of those people who sneaks up on you, and then suddenly one day she’s sitting on your floor watching Friends at one in the morning. Was it likely we would become friends? Of course not. We are different in a lot of ways. But somehow it works. Somehow we are there for each other, and we make each other better. And I’m happy that we are, because I’ve learned a lot from this kid. So, without further ado:

22. There is a never a time when you are too cool to sing along to the radio, CD, whatever. You like the song, and you know what? It doesn’t matter if your voice is good, or if you aren’t supposed to like this song. You don’t have time to be insecure. If you love it, love it unapologetically and enjoy it with everything you have.

21. You don’t have to fit in a mold. You can be a punk/preppy/geek if you want to be.

20. If you root for sports in Houston, prepare to have your heart stomped on. But root for them anyway.

19. Money doesn’t have to define you. If you have it share it. If you need it, ask. Seek the kind of supportive, loving friendships where what labels you wear and where you’re from don’t matter.

18. Be generous. With money, with time, with energy, with advice…Be the kind of person who gives without planning to get anything in return.

17. Figure out how you feel about things, research it, and *mean it*. If you say you think something, make sure your life reflects that. Make sure you live it. But if you really believe it don’t be ashamed of it.

16. Love your family, or the people who supported you and sacrificed for you. Love them fiercely. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, or even like them all the time, but they put a lot in to the person you became. They matter.

15. If you want to be a ginger, then just go become one. And own it.

14. No, you can’t always know someone’s culture just by looking at them. Sometimes in the battle of Irish vs. Hispanic the Irish wins.

13. Have role models. Find people doing the thing you want to do and study them. Learn from them.

12. Set goals, and tell others about them. In the moment when the goal seems out of reach or impossible, these are the folks who will keep you focused and support you.

11. Dreams take work. You have to work for it if you want it. You have to be willing to take summer school and work a job you don’t love and any number of other things. But if you really want it, you can have it.

10. A well fitting bra matters. It just does. You need to get real about body image. About fixing the things you want to (again with the work) and loving the things you can’t.

9. Sometimes it’s useful to know things like how to rope a goat. Embrace your random talents.

8. Laughter can triumph over any number of awkward situations.

7. Never let people into your apartment after eleven the night before dia. Particularly if you don’t know them.

6.Always arrange your bridesmaids by height, so that they make an arrow pointing straight to you.

5. Hiding behind a joke works up to a point, but then you have to face the things. And then you have to laugh again.

4. The Friends theme song? It only has four claps. Not five. FOUR.

3. Tshirts are a devastatingly large responsibility. But you’re a survivor. You’re not gon’ give up.

2. The people who love you when you’re being wholly yourself are worth hanging on to.

1. Loyalty. You have your people. They matter. They matter at three in the morning and when you have homework and when you are broke and when you haven’t slept. Be the kind of person who can be counted on, who loves deeply, who isn’t afraid of being hurt. Eventually people will come into your life and believe that you are worth it. Will make time for you and love you. Be the kind of friend you need. Be the kind of person you can be proud of. And then be proud of her.