Tag: Hope

5Dec

Chains Shall He Break

No hymn has ever gotten to me the way O Holy Night does. In fact, I tend to get itchy around hymns in general, but something about this one strums a resonant chord straight into my solar plexus and out the other side. If I were a good evangelical, I’d call it powerful. (And if I were a sufficiently ironic hipster, I’d call it trippy.) Admittedly, gaping-chest-wound is not the feel one usually looks for in Christmas songs, but there are some years when it’s a deep comfort, when getting busted open by lyrics about social justice and hope helps to make sense of all the other things busting our world apart.

This is one of those years.

You know what I’m talking about, I expect. Michael Brown’s and Tamir Rice’s and Eric Garner’s faces have been on the news here in Italy too, and I glance at the TV over my treadmill and feel another crack splintering across the surface of my heart. This ache has no borders.

I’ve been reading some of the stories and avoiding some, and each has its price. When I wade into the details of tragedy, I feel as though they’ll suffocate me. When I choose not to read though, to give myself a break from all the heartache, I’m distancing myself from a reality that dear friends of mine don’t have the option of escaping. My inability to breathe is only figurative. Not a real possibility. Not the script of realest loss.

I’m doing my best to listen to those who have the most to teach me right now, and what they’re saying is that racism and systematic oppression are not confined to the past. That Christianity is still very much a platform for prejudice. That people whose skin color makes them look threatening actually have far more reason to feel threatened by mine. That whatever pain I might feel over the injustice I see in the world, it can’t compare with the pain of those actually experiencing it. That my voice right now matters more than I realized.

O Holy Night is cycling through my headphones again, and the words press up against the raw of this week:

“Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease”

My mind can’t fathom what it would be like for all oppression to cease, but my soul has an inkling, and it feels like no coincidence that the first candle of Advent stands for hope—that “thing with feathers” which fills the dark with music and helps us believe against all reason and experience that one day we will recognize each other as kin.

None of us, I imagine, was hoping to spend these holiday weeks busted open and aching. This is about as far from tinsel as a soul can get. That doesn’t mean we’ve derailed from the season though. I especially appreciate Christena Cleveland’s recent thoughts on Advent:

“It was into this ‘worst world’ that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.”

Or, as Sarah Bessey puts it, “Advent is for the ones who know longing.”

This December, the weariness of our world is real to me as it never has been before. Not to say that violence or oppression are new arrivals, but I’m listening more closely this year. I’m willing my eyes to follow the threads of inequality woven deep, deep into the fabric of society and throughout my own thinking as well. I’m absorbing the stories of people (including friends) who have been harassed for being #alivewhileblack. I’m doing my best to engage with the discomfort instead of ignoring or rationalizing it away. I’m grieving, not with the same weight of experience but nonetheless with those who are grieving right now.

And it’s this year more than any other that Emmanuel, God-with-us, feels like a lifeline to this whole spinning, busted-open planet. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. A thrill of hope that one day, the first light of morning will spill over a humanity-sized heap of broken chains.

The weary world rejoices.


(If you can get past the organ music and the videography, this performance might just punch a hole through your solar plexus too.)

image source

19Dec

Above the Cloud-Line

The sun rose this morning. It rose, and I blinked and then ran for the camera because I hadn’t seen that kind of light in days. Certainly not since Friday.

After the initial gut-pounding shock and the waves of salty-wet grief and the anger carved onto journal pages and the carefully chosen conversations, I find myself in the next stage of my own post-Newtown journey: the doldrums. My soul wants nothing so much as a long nap, an utterly unconscious respite from the knowledge of evil, and my heart is trying to offset this weariness by emotionally disconnecting from it all.

I’ve stayed away from the news and social media these last two days out of fierce necessity, and now the facts of the shooting keep melting down the sides of my mind like timepieces in a Dalí painting. I can’t grasp anything. I can no longer feel the twenty-seven concurrent stabs of horror, the chest-wracking sadness, or the wild urge to do something, anything to change the way our world works. Feeling has been replaced with fog.

I know that the internal process of grief is not a matter of right way versus wrong way, yet I’m convinced I’m making a mess of it. I’m sure either that I feel too intensely, presuming a deeper connection to the victims than I have a right to, or that I feel too little, dishonoring the tragedy through numbness. I’m afraid that my timetable won’t fit into appropriate standards, that I’ll start forgetting about Sandy Hook before a mere slip of a week has passed or that I’ll be hanging onto it long after the rest of the world has laid it to rest. I don’t know when it will be okay to write about other things again, to absorb myself in this life that’s moving onward even as the lives of twenty-seven Connecticut families have shattered to a stop. At the same time, I don’t know if I should already have left them in peace.

In this swirl of unknowing, with sorrow simultaneously fresh and faraway and time playing tricks on my eyes, the sunrise is pure gift. It’s the most visual display of hope I could imagine—a light bigger than this world and beyond our ability to destroy, its effects constant even below the cloud-line, its rise after days of gray a reminder that darkness doesn’t have the final say. Ever.

4Dec

Flurried

The words don’t come easily this afternoon. I’m used to first sentences landing feather-light on my shoulder and tickling my ear with inspiration, or else hiding away as mute and unmovable as a hibernating bear. This is neither. This is more like a blizzard, the air so full of feathers and fur that it succumbs to a wild gravity of its own, a soundless frenzied dance. It makes me feel hopeful and lost at the same time.

Actually, I think that last sentence could sum up just about every aspect of my life right now. Finances, relationships, future prospects, identity… each one ruffles up hope and bewilderment together into a flurry of… well, whatever this is. Bewilderhope? Lostpiration? An epic sneeze waiting to happen?

This might not make a lot of sense given how much my personality resembles that of an aging turtle, but impending change thrills me more than just about anything else. I fear ruts and stagnation and listlessness more than I fear upheaval, so that first electric crackle of change in the air is enough to zap my spine straight. That’s how it is right now—a white-hot disruption in the atmosphere, a spicy hint of goodness, a swirling mass of anything can happen that I take as a promise.

~~~

Do you ever feel on the cusp of a different version of yourself? Do you love change or dread it (or float somewhere in between)?

14Sep

Deus ex Machina

The girls started school two days ago, and all week has felt like a series of false starts and double takes, even if we have managed to get them to bed on time every night. (Us parents, not so much.) We’re stumble-adjusting to a new schedule and forgetting some things and vastly overthinking others, and when the water and electricity both went out on Wednesday, I took it as the universe personally heckling us. It’s been a hard summer, and I often just want to hit a pause button on all forward motion and let the days pile up around me until I finally feel there are enough to go around. I’m worn out. You already know this.

But here’s what you probably don’t know—

This week last year, my husband went to his last day of work for an employer who then announced he would not be paying Dan for the previous few months of work and vowed to thwart his freelance venture.

That same day, we received notice from our rental house in the States that our tenant was being evicted for failure to pay.

During the eviction process, a drug lab was discovered out of our basement there. The police got involved, and our resulting legal and house-repair bills were staggering.

The investors for Dan’s new project backed out without explanation and stopped answering their phones.

A very large, very needed check bounced.

And then this happened.

We had no money left, our freelance prospects were uncertain at best, and as I sat in a deserted train station off a deserted country road on the last day of September while our car was being towed away for a month-long rehabilitation, I honestly didn’t see how we were going to make it. I couldn’t tell if God was listening or not, but I sent him an earful of uncensored panic anyway. It was all very Children Of Israel circa Moses, convinced as I was that God had led us to the freelance-desert only to abandon us here.

Looking back at that moment from a whole year ahead produces something in between panic by proxy and mute gratefulness. It’s not that we’ve had the easiest run since then, but the miracles! I once heard someone say that the American ideal of self-sufficiency doesn’t leave much room for experiencing divine provision; we tend to hide our struggles from each other and subdue problems with a credit card, and this immediate stamping-out of neediness can also stamp out miracles in the making. It was a hard concept to get my head around as I tend to see self-sufficiency as next to godliness, but in the year since our sky fell down around us, we’ve seen the truth of it so many times.

Just as the investors were backing out last September, a company Dan had bumped shoulders with over the summer called to offer him contract work in his field. His first business trip after our car broke down paid the exact amount we needed to get it repaired.

Then on Christmas week, the very day we were going to be deported from Italy, we received the last piece of paperwork we needed to renew our visas. This was a bureaucratic impossibility, yet it happened.

On an impulse, we decided to fly out of Munich where, at the check-in desk, we discovered Natalie’s passport had expired; however, because we had never been residents of Germany, they were obligated to let us return to our country of citizenship. Had we tried flying out of Italy, we would have been stranded. (You can read the whole story here: Of Stupidity and Love.)

Two weeks before our January return flight to Italy, a series of unforeseeable “coincidences” allowed Dan to get the special kind of work visa he needed.

Two days before our return flight, our prayers for Disney World were answered.

And ONE DAY before our return flight, my visa was also granted.

We made it back to Italy together, and that in itself would have been marvel enough for the year… but fast forward two months when, the very same day that we were going to lose our house in the States, new tenants singed a year-long lease. The very. same. day.

I couldn’t make this stuff up, and even my diligently skeptical brain can’t construe this last year as a string of coincidences. We are still here, in our beautiful Italian home, with our car and our health and our work and our possibility-filled future, and to write that down is to look a miracle full in the face and say “I see you.”

Lest you think this saintly stoicism is a way of life for me now, you should know that I’ve spent plenty of days this summer panicking in God’s direction. I’ve got the Children of Israel routine down pat—You delivered us from deportation and foreclosure and living under a bridge only to abandon us in the freelance-desert again! Also, this pasta from the sky thing is getting old. This is why it’s so good to have anniversaries, to look back and see former crises as water under the bridge we were never doomed to call home.

Had we not reached such extremes of neediness, we might not have recognized God’s touch for what it was. To be really, uncomfortably honest, I probably wouldn’t have acknowledged any of those miracles above had the situations not been so desperate and the timing so precise. I default to doubt when there’s any wiggle room for interpretation. We ran out of wiggle room last September though, and the resulting provision we experienced was an undiminished gift. Safely ensconced now in a new September, even with its false starts and double takes, I am keenly grateful for the reminder that we’re still in this crazy, wonderful, epic story of ours… and that our writer has a particular affinity for Deux ex Machina.

13Mar

Religulove

When we enrolled Natalie in first grade last September, we opted out of religion class. Even though we share some fundamental beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, we weren’t comfortable with her learning doctrine as an academic subject. Frankly, I find it incredibly dangerous when any religion is painted in the same black and white lines as grammar or algebra—right versus wrong, subject to a grade—and I’d like to think that we would have opted out of the class even if it had taught our exact beliefs. (Sunday School is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it’s easier to discuss what the girls learn there without having to discredit the entire academic system.)

I was at peace with our decision until we picked Natalie up after her first Friday at school. She was as cheerful as ever, happily recounting how she had gotten to go out in the hallway during religion hour and watch the other teachers have their coffee. I was… less cheerful. Bit by bit, Dan and I uncovered that Natalie was the only child in the entire elementary school in the entire course of its history to opt out of religion class, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with her other than send her out of the room. My heart thudded straight down onto our granite tiles.

I know all too well what it is to be the odd child out… the only kid at the grocery mid-morning, the only girl in our homeschool group wearing a jumper, the only teen not pledging for True Love Waits. I remember the icy sense of exposure and the sharp loneliness, and I’ve never, ever, evereverever wanted to subject my daughters to them. However, that’s exactly what I found myself doing that Friday, wielding religious principles that banished my six-year-old to the hallway.

I hurt all over for her, but Natalie was clearly not bothered by skipping class, so Dan and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, we talked to the teachers and arranged for her to join the other first-grade class while hers was doing religion. Some of the other parents overheard us, and the next Friday, Natalie was joined by a little boy. For all the countercultural drama we were putting her through, at least she was no longer alone.

The subject of religion class hasn’t really come up in the months since, but this morning, the little boy’s mother caught up with me after school drop-off. “Guess what I found!” she chirped, taking my arm as if this were the seventy millionth instead of the very first time we’d talked. (I immediately wanted to kick myself for not introducing myself sooner. Or, you know, at all.) “Looking through my son’s workbook, I found a little note he had written during religion hour: ‘Dear Natalie, you are beautiful!’” We laughed together, and I felt a little like crying and a little like skipping all at once. She asked about our church (evangelical), and I asked about theirs (Muslim), and it didn’t matter a single bit that some members of both our religions dedicate energy to hating each other. Our faiths didn’t affect our ability to be friends.

And yes, I know I’m realizing things all the time on this blog that are probably common sense to most people and it’s got to be irritating by now, but I realized in those three minutes of conversation that this is the lesson we’re teaching Natalie with our lives here. She and her classmates might not attend the same church, but our families’ homes are open to each other. We share meals and swap recipes and give each other’s children rides, and if I hadn’t been bracing myself so hard against alienation, I might have noticed sooner that there was no need. Our differences don’t prevent us from loving each other well. Our separate journeys with God don’t make us enemies. That this is even possible makes my soul giddy with hope, and I find myself grateful in a way I couldn’t have imagined last September that my daughter gets a front-row seat.

24Feb

A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.

20Feb

Light Bulb

A difficult-to-replace light bulb in our dining room burned out this morning just as I was sitting down to teach an English lesson, and the day never really recovered its glow. Between heavy-handed clouds and a tricky relational situation, the hours slumped by with my mind sticking increasingly to the soles of my feet. Some days are just downers.

But you know, every time I catch myself brushing off a bad day as no more than a 24-hour inconvenience, gratefulness swoops the air from my lungs.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote the following journal entry:

I found a pocket of calm today, but it doesn’t suit me. It’s the kind of calm that comes from heartsickness rather than peace, and I can tell I’m not fooling anyone. I’m in a low place right now. Really staggeringly low. Last night in bed, I told Dan, “I can’t find my heart anymore,” then my eyes clamped shut. He whispered, “I miss you,” before falling asleep, and I lay awake most of the night feeling heavier than I thought was possible.

I see strange shadows inside my eyelids these days, as if everything familiar has become frightening. Writing requires me to rip words out of dental cavities, one at a time, and I don’t have the pain tolerance to finish what I manage to start. Smiling takes even more effort. I feel horribly alone, but I still crave loneliness. The freedom to hide. Not having to fake sanity for my family’s sake or to force insanity so someone will help me. I want a respite from the world’s problems, starting with my own brain. 

At least I put on makeup today in honor of Natalie’s birthday. That’s something.

Alzheimer’s runs in the female line of my family, and I’m bracing myself for the day when memories begin to trickle through my fingers, but no matter how many years I live or how many senses I lose over the course of them, I will never forget what it felt like to wake up suffocating, morning after pitch black morning. I will never forget the way depression tortured my mind into believing it wasn’t depression at all, only some mental inadequacy. I will never forget how bad days back then teetered on the serrations of a knife.

Today wasn’t one of those days, and for that, every inch of my muscle memory breathes gratitude. Today, a light bulb burned out, and the weather glowered, and I had a few frustrating conversations… but I had some great conversations too. I sat on my husband’s lap at the dinner table and grinned kisses to the delight of our children (and eternal embarrassment of our teenage house guest). I read stories with the girls and chased them shrieking around the house for tickle wars, and I tucked them well-loved into bed. I accomplished things that I’m proud of—you better believe that cleaning the kitchen is up there—and laughed often.

 Not a bad day

Bad day? I think not.

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