Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What I've Left Undone (Advent Lament)

The snow has a crunchy top layer from the temperatures dipping down today. I’m nestled in a bay window, and watch the still, quiet street of my new neighborhood. In middle class America. Insulated from the suffering. Here, I am seemingly a world away from the hurting.

I open to the back of the resource I’m using for Advent. There I find written prayers recorded for the reader’s benefit. I start with “The Prayer of Confession” and my going-through-the-motions rhythm is interrupted by this sentence:

“I confess that I have sinned against you…by what I have left undone…”

The tendrils of that sentiment curl around my conscience and don’t let go. I come back to that phrase again: “…what I have left undone…” It’s an unexpected word of repentance for this Protestant. We who usually reserve confession for sins committed, not omitted. But there is truth that resonates in me from these words.

…what I have left undone…

My rebellion against the ways of God’s kingdom comes often in the form of what I have failed to do. The violence in my heart has often been most clearly exposed in what is left undone in me, through me, because of me. Maybe my confessions need to be filled with sorrow for what might have been, not what was.

It nags at me. Those five words printed on a page at the back of a book. Five words that disturb my otherwise peaceful, silent night.

Just tonight, I’ve been exposed (again) to unimaginable pain. Across my computer screen, the stories show up in my newsfeed and my inbox. I read of the ongoing suffering in the city where I resided for two decades. I scroll through debate after debate that litters the political landscape. The headlines that never let up, reminding me this world is far from perfect. 

It’s Advent, and as the headlines mingle with the warm glow of christmas lights, a longing merges. A deep yearning to feel; to be moved; to be awakened. Admittedly, my own suffering has anesthetized my heart. My weary soul has been in need of a pass on the messy of life. I’ve wanted permission to be dismissed from having to engage. But tonight, there’s no escaping. Something has been 

…what I have left undone…

What if I am most in need of confessing the things I have not done? Have not completed? Have not attempted?

Jesus is a dependent baby in the manger, but soon He will be an envelope-pushing, pot-stirring threat to the established order. And scripture says Jesus was without sin. So, Jesus’ challenge of the status quo, His fight for the marginalized, His undaunted courage to rebuke corrupt politics that masqueraded as righteousness - none of that disqualified Him from that description of perfection. What if Jesus’ greatest temptations were in what He could have left undone; what He could have skirted, skimmed, or avoided so as not to rock the boat or make things worse?

…what I have left undone…

Jesus never had to pray a prayer of confession, but I wonder if those five words were the biggest temptation of His ministry. The temptation to stay silent, to remain a bystander in the crowd, to overlook the need. Jesus, however, never left anything undone that needing doing. He never left anything unsaid that needing saying.

But me? I have come up short far too often. Perhaps my deepest confessions lie in the space where I have not acted; have not spoken; have not moved.

Here’s a start to this confession. God, I have sinned against you by leaving these actions undone:
  • following through on my promise to edit my daughter’s essay
  • acknowledging publicly and boldly that I support the #metoo movement
  • regularly speaking words of encouragement to my husband
  • seeking solace through the ancient words of scripture
  • calling my senators to express my lament over the tax reform bill
  • saying thank you for the blessings of this day 
  • remembering the plight of refugees worldwide
  • declaring the destructive marriage between Christianity and conservative politics
  • making it known on a regular basis that “Black Lives Matter”
  • freely offering kindness to my children when I’ve been frustrated with them
  • saying for a 100th time that the government (national, state, and municipal) has not done right by the city of Flint

…what I have left undone…

The wounds of this world are deep. Sometimes gaping. I have no desire to add to the injury by leaving undone something that is needed by a follower of Jesus. It's Advent and Jesus is coming. He's not coming to coddle my comfort, but to expose the wrong. Not to build a name for Himself, but to usher in a bit of Heaven on earth. And maybe Jesus shows up in my life most clearly when I choose to do that which I have formerly left undone.

God, forgive me when I fail to act, respond, or speak in ways that build Your Kingdom. Forbid it, Lord, that my comfort and security obscure my faithfulness. Forgive me for allowing fear and complacency to meter my actions and thus allow the darkness to reign. Only then, God, when I have left nothing undone that needs to be done, will I find peace amidst the pain. Give me wisdom. Make me brave. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Grace Wore a Beard and a Lions Jersey

You'd think after all these years I’d be accustomed to grace; familiar with the unearned favor of another. You'd think I'd have become acquainted with mercy that comes undeserved.

Holding a ministry degree doesn’t guarantee aptitude in the things of mercy. Neither does an ordination certificate secure my comfort with the loving acceptance of others. 

Inevitably, however, it’s in the unexpected moments I come face to face with grace that I find the God who knows me best and loves me most.

And this past Sunday grace found me again, when I least expected it and didn’t deserve it.

Our family was sitting in the balcony of a local Methodist church. A place we’d claimed as space for healing and respite this last year as we’d stepped away from ministry. This congregation doesn’t really know us. We haven’t really given them the chance. We’ve held back. We’ve stayed in the background. We’ve slipped in for worship, shaken hands during the greeting, and left without fanfare after the conclusion of the organ postlude.

Why? Because we were tired. We were roughed up. Weary. And trying to figure what life should look like now that we weren’t doing the only job we’d ever known.

We had nothing to give to this congregation. We had nothing to offer except our presence on sporadic Sundays and join our voices with others in the Gloria Patri and Lord’s Prayer. We have never placed a cent in the offering plate. We have never offered a single hour of time to this congregation’s efforts to serve the community. We would just show up irregularly on Sunday mornings, keep our heads down, fill a pew, and hoped we wouldn’t get anyone’s hopes up. 

For the last 11 months, our family has done all the taking in this relationship with this UMC congregation. There was no reciprocal benefit between us. Only we received. We’ve only drawn from the well of compassionate souls we encountered there. We’ve been the sole recipients, soaking in the life-affirming words of the two pastors whose leadership is inspiring and whose use of language leaves this logophile feeling challenged and nurtured.

Perhaps it was our emptiness that helped set the stage for grace to be on display this last Sunday. Our lack of contribution should seem to say we hadn’t earned a thing from this congregation. Our unreliability, our unavailability, our own lack should suggest that we expect nothing from these people from whom we have only received. We don’t deserve another thing from this place. We haven’t qualified for any blessing from them or their leaders.

But this last Sunday, grace found me again, when I least expected it and definitely didn’t deserve it.

The congregation was directed to stand and open the hymnal for the closing song. I found the correct hymn and that’s when I saw him climbing the stairs. Pastor Jeremy was making his way up to the balcony. I hadn’t remembered him ever doing that before, but I surmised this unusual ascent had something to do with his current sermon series that was using the world of sports as sermon illustrations. That was, after all, the reason he had traded his traditional robe for a powder blue Detroit Lions jersey. As he approached the top of the steps, he looked at us and smiled, obviously happy to see us. 

“That’s nice of him,” I thought. He certainly didn’t have to seem interested in us, but he had always proven to be a gentle and aware sort of spirit. Over the summer, Paul and I had become Facebook friends with Jeremy Peters. A step which granted mutual permission to enter into one another’s lives, at least virtually. Paul had even met Jeremy for coffee and shared some of our story. This man, with bearded chin and kind eyes, had slowly become a teacher and friend to us, whether he knew it or not.

Pastor Jeremy reached the top of the stairs, walked along in front of us and then turned to walk up the aisle steps to where our family stood. He held out his hand to Paul in greeting. I stood unsure of what was transpiring. Uncertain as to why the pastor had left his place on the platform to come meet us where we had positioned ourselves for worship that day. As Paul and Jeremy shook hands, he asked if, after the hymn, we would come down so the church could pray for us. While the congregation sang to the organ accompaniment, Jeremy told Paul and I that he knew we’d given 18 years to ministry to the city. He knew we are preparing to uproot our lives for a move to South Dakota. And he desired for this congregation to surround us in prayer as we moved ahead.

Paul and I agreed to come forward, but as Jeremy walked away, I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Mostly shock. And inadequacy. I felt like a fraud. Who are we to be called out for prayer? We, who had stayed reserved and aloof, as we sought respite through corporate worship. We, who had given nothing to this people. We, who had only taken the breathing room offered in this place.

The hymn ended and Jeremy invited us to the front. We stood shoulder to shoulder with a man who had consistently met us where we were over the last year. A man who probably didn’t know how much he had ministered to our aching souls, because well, we hadn’t told him. Shoulder to shoulder with a faith brother who accepted where we were, broken and empty, and he still poured out more for us. 

Shoulder to shoulder, we faced the congregation and Jeremy spoke words of affirmation for us. Words that celebrated our ministry. A ministry, that honestly, we had sometimes questioned in the throes of doubt. He invited the people to surround us as he prayed for us and our next steps in ministry.

We were surrounded by a congregation of people from whom we had only received. A church that had gotten nothing from us. We certainly hadn’t earned a place at the front of the altar. We hadn’t merited a special time of prayer. As faces moved toward us, everything within me wanted to rebuff. To rebuke the blessing being offered because I didn’t deserve it. I hadn’t worked for the love being poured out. “Stop it,” my heart cried. “Stop it. I’m not worthy. I have done nothing to warrant your attention. I’m lacking, insufficient, and undeserving of this moment.”

And then I heard it. The still, small, and undeniable voice of God. “This is grace. This is not about what you have earned. It’s about who I am and what I want to give you.” 

Face to face with grace. I was showing up empty-handed to a feast.I was standing at buffet spread of undeserved and unconditional love. Surrounded by people who were giving to me and my family just because they could, not because of what I had done.

When I had least expected, and definitely not earned it, grace caught me by surprise again. Ushered into the presence of mercy by no merit of my own. No catch. No strings attached. Just grace.

You'd think after all these years I’d be accustomed to grace. But I’m not. Grace always seems to catch me by surprise.  And grace always leaves me feeling found, accepted, and seen by the God who knows me best and loves me most. 

This last week, grace donned a Lions jersey and was found among a circle of strangers who gave (again) with no expectations. 

The last Sunday grace found me yet again. 

I am humbled and grateful.

Friday, July 28, 2017

On Levi's 10th Birthday

Dear Levi, 

One day you will read this letter and have a sense of what was in my heart on this day that you turn 10. 

You've been a part of this family for a full decade. You need all of your fingers on both hands to show your age. It seems like yesterday that we became a family of four. A decade since Daddy held you and we discussed whether Benjamin or Carlisle would be your middle name. Time flies.

Did you know on the same day you entered the world, I had a friend who took the first steps toward facing a destructive addiction? It's been 10 years since he walked toward sobriety and found hope again. 

It's funny how life is found in different corners of this world on the exact same day. In a hospital room and at an AA meeting. New life beginning in two very different places, under two different circumstances. One physical, one metaphysical. Both required a painful birth, yet life emerged in both places. 

It may seem strange to you, but I count it a blessing that you share your birthday with my friend's own milestone day toward recovery. It reminds me that throughout our lives we are in a process of birth, death, and rebirth.

That's the way of God. Life, and then life again, when it seems death has won. New life from a heart that's been shattered. Rebirth from painful tragedy. Birthdays that celebrate our physical age and our spiritual journey.

Sometimes I wish I could give you a kinder world. A more lovely world that is complete with soft edges and smiling faces at every turn. Cities teeming with life and culture that welcome the refugee and stranger. Streets that are safe to walk down in the broad daylight. Heck, honey, I'd like to give you safe water flowing through the pipes into our home.

There is a lot of pain in this life, Levi. Jesus never promised it any other way. Yet, out of pain life can emerge. Pangs that deliver hope and light and peace, just like labor delivered you into my arms.

I hope, as you continue to grow, you will not fear pain. I hope you will accept struggle as part of the journey, yet I also hope you will not be content to allow the suffering to exist with no fruit. I hope you will embrace the hardships, while looking for ways to bring life to the world around you. I hope you will be a resurrection person wherever you find yourself.

I understand my limitations. I know I can't change the whole world, but I can influence my small corner of the world. I can contribute my part with the hope that life might be brought forth, that life might be better, for those in my path. 

You've already made my world better just by being you. I am better because you exist. I'm a better mother; a better listener; a better friend; a better human. 

While I long for a kinder world to give you, I realize I can start by being kind, and teaching you to be kind. I can soften this world by being a safe place for you to land no matter what, and I hope you can be that for others. I can give you a more welcoming world by modeling hospitality and nurturing that gift in you too. I can't promise a perfectly safe world, but I work to protect you and other children by standing up to injustice, defending the powerless. Maybe you will work toward that too.

And as I do my part, and as you do yours, we might just be able to usher in a kinder, softer, more welcoming, more secure world. One act of life after another. One moment of resurrection after another. Even when the delivery is painful, because we know life awaits on the other side.

Be brave, my son. Always be brave. And be kind. I think that's Jesus in a nutshell. Brave and kind. I think when we do those things we birth a bit of heaven here on earth. I think we look the most like God.

I know it's customary for the one having the birthday to receive the gifts, and you've already opened your Star Wars themed ones. But today, I recognize I have received a gift too. The gift of helping you (and me) learn to show up, be present, and bring life to this crazy, messed up, beautiful, fantastic world. 

I love you, Levi!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

This Should Not Be (My Flint Lament)

Sometimes you grow so accustomed to something you forget it isn't normal, or at least, shouldn't be normal. Sometimes unhealth and dysfunction become so ingrained in the narrative that you forget certain things should not be.

Welcome to life in Flint. 

Where violent crime has us in the headlines as one of the most dangerous cities. Where sitting in my living room allows us a near nightly game of "gunshots or fireworks?" Where my children regularly ask if they are safe. Where there've been more efforts for mayorial recalls than I can count (here and here and here and here). Where, likewise, the relationship between the mayor (no matter who it is) and city council is one of the most dysfunctional, ineffective I've ever seen. Where residents elect unqualified, law-breaking men as councilman and then they are kept in office. Where the state won't trust us to run ourselves responsibly, and as infuriating as that is, we haven't proven to be capable of competent governance when we've had the chance. 

Yep, welcome to Flint. Just another day in our neighborhood.

And all the while, we are STILL living with water we can't drink but for which we pay exorbitant prices.
This morning was one of those mornings where the ridiculousness of it all hit me. I was pouring bottled water into my crock pot and I felt anger. It's probably a good sign, as feeling anger reminds me that what I live with everyday should not be. 

Most days I feel nothing and think nothing of it. As if contaminated tap water is what we should all expect. As if it's normal to have a filter on your bathroom faucet to brush your teeth. As if it's completely acceptable for your children to be suspicious of every water fountain outside the city limits.
This should not be so. It's now been 38 months since our water source was first changed that started this whole mess. It's been almost three years since those, who should have known better, used their degrees to finally come clean and say the water wasn't. Three years. And I'm still opening water bottles to clean strawberries, prep pot roast, and boil spaghetti. Three years living every single day with this reality, while those in charge shift blame, point fingers, cry foul, and then dare to claim "Flint Fatigue." We've been waiting three years for those with the power and influence to change our reality. You want to talk fatigue? Then talk to a Flint resident who still can't drink the water thats overpriced while the very officials who should be protecting citizens drag their feet debating whether Flint is worth the time or the money to fix the water problem (at least in a humane amount of time).
This should not be so. My city is 57% black and 42% of our citizens live in poverty. Apparently, elected government can't be bothered to leverage their position to get something done here. It's been shown that systemic racism has been a factor. That is completely and utterly unacceptable; and I'm angry that we still have to live as we do. Not to mention the thousands who are suffering more acutely in this city than I am. Many can't pay their water bills, and are now in danger of losing their homes because of it. Many don't have a means of transportation to get bottled water, filters, and the like. Many are suffering from skin rashes and irritations that my family has never had to endure through this crisis.
And to think this might not have been this way for this long if more Flintstones had lighter skin and made more money!?! This should not be so. I'm sick and tired of it all. And because I am white and hold privilege because of the color of my skin, I can not know how my African-American brothers and sisters are really feeling in all this. I am reminded of something I heard Tavis Smiley say last fall (following the election of President Trump) about how blacks are used to set backs; used to the struggle, and the shaft. That blacks are used to the cold shoulder, closed doors, and fighting for every square inch they gain. That's stuck with me as I sit here in Flint, three years after it was known that our water was undrinkable, getting just a smidgen of a glimpse into what Smiley meant. And I'm still white, so I can't ever understand fully. (I digress. This can be another post.) Three years. 
Over one thousand days without clean, useable water. 

This should not be so. Our family sponsors a young man in Kenya through Compassion International. His name is Francis, and we pray for him every night. Over the last 9 years, one of our prayers for him is that he would have access to clean water. Because after all, he lives in Africa; in a poor, underdeveloped, third world village. And now our family prays the same exact prayer for ourselves and our city. This should not be so. This issue isn't even a question of first-world problems versus third-world problems. Although, if that was the only argument, it would still be enough to expect some movement from those who can change this reality. No, this isn't just a first or third world problem. It's a human rights problem. It's a social justice problem. Clean water is a natural right every person should have. 

And, if that ruffles your feathers and you want to play the first-world/third-world game, then who would have imagined that a city in a first world country, considered a world power, would be living my reality in 2017? A reality that says our state and local government agencies made decisions that endangered the health and lives of its citizen; then chose to cover-up the evidence in hopes of not having to publicly disclose the findings. A reality that says those same agencies wasted time bickering and posturing, all while the water entering our homes was poisoned. A reality that has these same agencies burying any possible legislation on this human rights issue under a mountain of bureaucracy while making judgements about whether my city was really worth it anyway. You know, because we're mostly black and poor anyway? This should not be so. Today, I opened bottled water and filled my crock pot and I'm angry. Today is a day I remember that just because I've grown accustomed to something doesn't mean it's the way it should be. Normal doesn't necessarily mean helpful, beneficial, satisfactory, or right. 

Today, in Flint, our reality is normal, but it should not be.

This should not be so.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Kintsugi and Being Voted Most Likely to Succeed

I donned white jeans and a red turtleneck in that photograph. Standing next to Jeff Ponatoski, at the main entrance of a high rise building in downtown Louisville, we smiled for a picture we knew would be in the yearbook with the title "Most Likely to Succeed." 

Twenty-three years later, as I am clawing and clamoring my way out of the toughest 12 months I've ever lived, I am amused at my 18-year old self. What in the world did I know of success?

When one graduates from high school, all plucky and energetic, one may believe they know a lot. But they don't. Even though they think they do.

I thought I knew what it meant to be successful.

I was a straight-A student, president of the National Honor Society, a Governor's scholar, and headed to a private college on academic scholarships. I was a rule follower, a conscientious learner, and I never skipped college chapel to sleep in. I graduated from university with honors, despite the best effort of that semester of Macro Economics that tried to bring me down. I did the right things, said the right things, behaved the right ways. 

The world will take notice when you do all the right things the expected way. Enough notice to lull you into the belief that you are on your way to success.

But what happens when life comes crashing down around you? 
When you are burned out and wiped out professionally? 
When you live in a city that desensitizes you to dysfunction? 
When death comes for a visit and leaves an ache that won't stop? 
When what you thought you knew doesn't seem to be what you are sure of anymore?
When you are at a loss because of the amount of loss you've experienced? 

Either I have crashed and burned on the fast track to success or I need a new definition.

Maybe success isn't what I thought it was at all.

Maybe the definition and measure of success should be fluid and contextual. Maybe it isn't what the world decides is laudable. Maybe success is more rebel and rule breaker, not packaged neat and nice. Maybe success would actually frighten that starry-eyed, line-tower in white jeans standing next to Jeff Ponatoski.

Maybe success is a little more subjective than I thought. At least in the sense that succeeding is highly variable depending on the particular circumstance, the priorities, the pressure points, and the unique person.

By most standards, this last year I would have succeeded only in failing to live up to that superlative title, "Most Likely to Succeed."

I've earned no accolades this year. I've walked the blackness of burn-out and depression. Instead of going by the book, my husband and I have thrown it out, and broken away from what "normal" mid-life parents should be doing. We've given up certainty. We've walked away from vocational identity. We've grieved. We've seen the worst of ourselves. We've questioned what we believe and why we believe it. And we've sat among the broken apart pieces of the life we've lived so far and wondered what good could come of it all.

Broken. Completely. 

Success? Most unlikely. 

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

There's an ancient Japanese art form known as Kintsugi, which means "golden joinery or repair." Kintsugi artists repair broken pottery with lacquer that is mixed with powered gold, silver, or platinum. 

What's most fascinating about Kintsugi has less to do with the work itself, although great skill is required, and more to do with the philosophy behind the art. Kintsugi "treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise."

If life has ever broken you down, left you holding the fragments of your dreams, of your known life, of your tidy beliefs, then you can understand the pure hope that resides in the idea of Kintsugi.

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

What if success isn't about perfection, or achievement, or recognition? What if success has more to do with letting go then maintaining control? What if the whole of success is only found in embracing the breaking of our own humanness?

I have walked through some moments of sheer hell this last year. Some have been external while many have been inner devils. I have walked to the brink of hope, unsure I would see sunlight of the soul again. I have cried a million tears (this is only slightly hyperbolic). I have questioned my sanity, my salvation, my security, my sense of self. And I was certain there was no room to claim success in any of it.

I'm a far cry from that baby-faced, naive girl I used to be. A far cry from what I believed success to be.

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

If you have ever succumb to the lie that success is:
only defined by the people in power or the ones with privilege,
only comes when you tow the line and don't rock the boat, 
earned when you do what you're told, and don't ask too many questions,
adhering to the rules, meeting the expectations of everyone else,
walking through the stages of grief in predictable and manageable ways,

and yet find your soul withering, 
and find you are at the end of yourself, 
and everything feels like it's in pieces...

then, only then, can the golden repair begin.

What if success isn't a shellac that fossilizes our heart so that we never crack under pressure? What if success isn't a perfected image, or a flawless performance? What if success is best seen in every gold-filled crack and silver-lined fracture? What if success has more to do with embracing the imperfections, and allowing the brokenness to help define our beauty? What if success isn't about what we've done, but who we become?

I am beginning to understand success has more to do with what results in the midst of the struggle, the strength revealed in the vulnerable places, and the artistry of God who brings beauty from brokenness, and offers renewed hope to one who's been beaten down, burned out, and washed up.

I am also beginning to understand that choosing to define success this way is to embrace the harder, deeper, more sacred meaning of success. The one that has more to do with who Jesus is, than what I've accomplished. The one  that leans hard on the graces of this life because we recognize our inability to deliver perfection. The definition that says my once-shattered-now-golden-repaired heart is more lovely today than before it all broke apart.

Maybe, just maybe, in the golden patch lines and highlighted broken spaces, I might find success most likely to happen after all.

 "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come..."
2 Corinthians 5:17a

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show 
that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." 
2 Corinthians 4:7