Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jesus' List

I spend my days surrounded by literal and virtual stacks of regulations, rules designed to protect and ensure public funding goes to those defined as the least of these in our communities.  There are both clear and opaque moments in making those funding determinations, overseeing projects and progress attempting to correct economic and social disparities embedded in the very fabric of the historic building I work in, packed into the earth under the dilapidated buildings that housed and fed and were the center of the African-American community until the forward movement of the City cut them off from the white establishment’s move back to further segregation - couched in language of urban renewal.  Sins for which we will continue to bear the consequences for generations to come.

In some ways, it’s work that attempts to decide who’s been left out the most – who has paid the most for an economic system that has rewarded some and penalized others for generations.  Work that seeks out partners who can fix it, or can at least try to, and do so with some measurable result.  As in, good ideas are awesome but if they do not result in someone or some part of the community gaining a foothold that has been inaccessible then it is just a good idea and doesn’t mean much of anything.  All kinds of folks come to the funding table, from those who have led pioneering efforts for 30 years to those so desperate for practical evidence of hope in their neighborhoods they are willing to take on the ridiculous burden of public funding compliance for a handful of dollars to get a fledging idea off the ground.

But then I go to church.  And one of my pastors talks about Jesus’ guest list.  And that guest list is not limited to the people that I want to limit my people to.  That guest list – the one Jesus says matters most – includes more than the least of these and those who want to give their lives to lessen the gap between the least and the most.  Jesus’ guest list has everyone on it.  So Jesus pisses everyone off.  The entitled have to make room for the poor, and the poor have to make room for the rich.  And those in the middle have to stretch both ways.

Not unlike the birthday party we had for the just-turned-6-year-old in our household this past weekend.  She bears the burden of her parents casting a wide net of inviting everyone so no one feels left out, so it was an amalgamation of school classmates and family folks and church friends.  One kid attempted, every time, to open all the presents.  Another took all the bows and pitched a fit when our kid grabbed one back.  Several were simply happy to be there.  The 6.5-year-old who also shares our household made sure I remembered she was still older every minute she could while also delighting in the celebration of her half-sister, and the foster baby charmed everyone in sight.  The uncle and grandmother on hand support our whole family, and celebrate with us on all occasions.  The aunts present did their best to enter our diverse world - while squirming in their seats - but also providing food to show what their words struggle to say.

And so I sit surrounded by well-meaning (mostly) regulations and Jesus’ guest list and find myself exactly where I am supposed to be. Walking in the tension of the well-meaning, giving it all I can to attempt to change course on long-standing wrongs, and constantly reminded of the Table that is, truly, open to us all.  Messy.  Beautiful.  Hard.  Ridiculously time-consuming.  Potentially inching toward the Place where all are one.   All I can say is thank you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Disguise of Our Lives: A Letter to My Parents

Dear Mom and Dad,

What a day Sunday was.  I got to sit in the church sanctuary that has been a second home for you for more than 20 years today and be completely surrounded by the love that has embraced y’all all those years.  It was a packed room that celebrated Mom’s steadfast and remarkable gift of music to so many.  There were a lot of tears.  Mine included.  A whole lot of joy.  Including mine, my wife’s, our kids as they ran around making sure they could keep Nana and Papa in their sights and be as close as possible to you at all times – even when the bell choir was playing and we had to keep them in their seats so Mom could direct without little hands and arms reaching up for some Nana love and attention.
Mom and Dad with Abby nearly 6 (!) years ago)

These last several weeks the girls ask us, nearly daily now, when you are going to be here so that you can see them more and not have to drive “all the way from the other house.”  To say that we are looking forward to you living nearby all the time is an understatement at best.  And I have also known, at least on a common-sense level, that leaving a home of 22 years must be a very big deal. (If I ever manage to live in one place for 22 years, I will understand better.  Since you didn’t land there until you are older than I am now, I have faith I might land somewhere, someday, too.  Perhaps I already have, here in these mountains our family returned to year after year.)  Sunday, we also felt the grief of those who have loved you in the place you are leaving.  You did, truly, land there.  Put down roots in all the real ways – in the good and the bad and the everything-in-between seasons.

And in those 22 years, we – me, and the two of you – have had our share of tears.  More angst than any of us would have preferred, more misunderstanding than any of us deserved.  I know that, now.  That it was angst, or more likely sorrow, at the chasms that opened between us as I tried to find my way, as I desperately sought a place to feel at home and safe and known.  You wanted to understand.  To help.  I know that, now.

Dad's birthday August 2014, with all 3 granddaughters: Abby, Zoe and Marley
It is your steadfastness, your relentless commitment to your faith, your unwavering “yes” to church on Sunday and music rehearsals on Monday and leadership meetings and Sunday School lessons and grace before every meal, your literal sharing of time, talent and treasure…your love for your children, even when we wandered in ways beyond what you understood: your witness to the compassion and grace of God that makes every community you land in better because you were there and made it home.

My kids know it.  Feel it.  Delight in it, running to you with dancing eyes and wide-open arms for the Nana and Papa they cannot wait to have here, near them and not “just visiting.”  My wife knows it.  Soaks it in, reaches for it with a gratitude born from too many years of more than enough judgment for anyone’s lifetime. 

Fr. Richard Rohr says something like this, “God, in the end, comes disguised as our lives.”  Witnessing the love of your 22-year-community made me realize how many thank-you’s I have not said, how many moments I have been aware that I know what I know because you are my mom and dad -- and neglected to tell you how much of a difference that has made in all that I do.   God does, in the end, and in every beginning and in-between come to me, to us, in all the mess and all the beauty we’ve managed to create together.  And I know, now, that in all the places I have found a home that I always have – and always will – be at home wherever you are.

I love you, Mom and Dad.  More than words could ever say.  Thanks for loving me back.

                                                                        Your grateful oldest,

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Vision held open in the dark

We planted a garden in May, not long before we trekked across the country with our beautiful and precocious 5-year-olds to get married, to laugh and play in the gratitude and wonderment of discovering a life together.   It was lots of hard work in our back yard, literally spending hours pulling up deep-rooted weeds that would choke out any new growth.   We mapped out our hopes for that garden, went to the local nursery to buy seeds and good soil, till-ed up that ground and helped it become something new.  

 And then we left for the Pacific Coast.   The rocky cliffs and crashing waves embraced us all as we promised to face the future together, as we enjoyed the beauty of its beaches, ancient trees, sea animals frolicking around us we kayaked along its shores.  It was a week packed full of joy, tears (joy and the occasional 5-year-old angst) and laughter.  We came home to a sweet celebration put on by friends that shared in our joy, a garden that needed weeding, and a depth of contentment neither of us have known before.

Very soon after, the summer turned into a season that put every one of those promises to the test.  It became a time of deep and wrenching loss that re-ordered the hopes that went into the soil with those tiny seeds in May.  Nothing went as we had thought or wanted or dreamed it would.

        Whatever is foreseen in joy
            Must be lived out from day to day.
            Vision held open in the dark
            By our ten thousand days of work.
            Harvest will fill the barn; for that
            The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

            And yet no leaf or grain is filled
            By work of ours; the field is tilled
            And left to grace. That we may reap,
            Great work is done while we’re asleep.

            When we work well, a Sabbath mood
            Rests on our day, and finds it good.    –Wendell Berry

In these very beginning days of August, we are exhausted.  Worn out from the ten thousand hours of vigil and grief.  It is the certainty of the promises we made on that rocky cliff that have held us up, accompanied by the unending prayers of those who love us.  And today, walking out to the garden, making my way through the overgrowth of the garden to see what might have preserved, we find this bounty of harvest.  It’s a good morning.  We are held by all that has been left to Grace.   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Caged Birds and Clouds of Witnesses

I do not know why the caged bird sings.  Not in any way to the extent that Maya Angelou did, to have been caged in by extreme brokenness and abuse and trauma and political will beyond my control – and then to live as witness to a relentless hope birthed by scars formed out of too many unyielding flames.  I am a white, privileged woman born to highly educated parents who has been afforded every opportunity and more to be anything and everything I want to be.  Yes, it is true that I face discrimination in my family configuration.  And my experiences are a fleck of dust in the context of slavery, the Jim Crow laws of the South that still inform perception and reality in my home state and the ludicrous over-representation of people of color in prison, below-cost-of-living jobs, limited access to education and substandard housing.

Maya Angelou was – and is – one of the Sages who began to penetrate my naïve consciousness while I grew up on college campuses in the South.  Her words were beautiful, devastating, encouraging, challenging and empowering.  The formidable and gracious space her presence created, even on a stage several rows from me, simply made me want to be more.  I wanted to be more attentive, in tune with the pulse of humanity's breadth and spurred to action and hope by the messy intersection and co-existence of brokenness and hope.

I do not know if I have achieved any of them, those budding aspirations she began all those years ago when her words and presence began their work in me.  But I am working toward it, still.  The news of her death reached me – quite literally through an NPR broadcast – as I drove through her hometown of Winston-Salem today following a day of discussion and debate about what we need to end homelessness in North Carolina.

My faith, and its ancient texts, talks about the clouds of witnesses that surround us.  Witnesses to encourage.  To empower.  To tell the truth even when that truth is crushing.  To push us to change everything.  And hold out the promise and power of relentless hope.

Deep sadness at the loss of Maya Angelou’s witness on this side of God’s great embrace. Overwhelming gratitude for the undying legacy and truth she leaves us.  "Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear, I rise, " she says.  And so she did. And is.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Never Waste an Uphill

I try to run every now and then.  Or, really, to jog.  I don’t have much interest in a flat-out run.  Even when I played competitive sports, I was the last to the line in every sprint.  When I first started attempting to put jogging into my life on a regular basis as an adult, a friend told me to never waste a downhill – to always run a downhill to get a breather.  Here in the southern Appalachians, there are a whole lot of hills.  There is one really great flat run in town by the French Broad River, and I always feel like such a better runner when I get the chance to follow that path.  But the more accessible run – the one that is just outside my front door through the streets of West Asheville – that one has hills.  Today was a day I got a couple of hours to myself, and so I went out my front door in my running shoes and began to do my meandering jog.  It felt great. As I reached my turn around point, I realized why – I had pretty much been running downhill for 25 minutes.

Like thousands of other people, today is a complicated day for me.  Full of angst and grief at not being the mom I had always wanted to be for my Abigail, feeling her absence more keenly as parades of moms and daughters walk past me at church, and stand in line for brunch at the neighborhood eateries and the long stretch of hours until Tuesday afternoon and I see her again.  She taught me, and still does, that I can be a mom despite – and maybe because of – my multiple levels of baggage and failure.  And at the same time, as I sat with tears streaming in church today, there are acres of gratitude for my Marley, an unplanned for and completely unexpected gift of a child who I get to love and parent and learn from in a hundred ways each day.  She, too, reminds me that it is not my failures that define me, but instead the expansive grace and love that forms me in my very real and messy and chaotic humanness.

I think there are probably not many downhills for very many folks that do their best to show up, in all of their humanness, for life.   Certainly there are not for me.  It’s when I am going uphill, I realized today, that I pay a whole lot more attention to what is around me – ‘cause I need every bit of it to make it to the top.  A spot of shade, a more gentle span of road, an encouraging smile from the guy mowing his grass.   A second chance, even, at love and marriage and parenthood in the climb out of the ashes of other dreams.  

And the 25 minutes uphill to get back home today?  Well, I walked the last 15.  And was grateful for every step.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Choosing Church

 I joined a church today.  And not because I was the Pastor, or married to the Pastor.  But because I chose to.  It is the first time in my life that I have done so as an adult (or as a child attached to parents who made the choice) that was not attached to a vocation calling for either me or my spouse.  And, yet, it is entirely that as well – our vocation as a family – that led us to the place we have inhabited on Sunday mornings since September.  Each week, each email, each call or conversation I have thought to myself, “this could be home.”  Simultaneously, we have as a family said, “these are our people.” 
And we are not there each Sunday.  We are the family I was often frustrated with when I was the Pastor – absent sometimes for 3 weeks in a row when Sunday School needed extra helpers and we as parents needed support and worship was sparse and we were part of the reason why.  Our life as a family, with two more than full-time working parents and children who get sick at inconvenient times, and sometimes with so much else going on that a few hours of quiet removed from the world on Sunday morning is what we need more than air to breathe…that is my life.  My reality, my joy, my angst, my waking dream – all in the same moment.

Still, though, it is Church that sustains and creates and moves and changes and molds me.  It has been so since before I was in the world, I suspect, and certainly since that long ago moment in a Southern Baptist church in South Carolina that welcomed and blessed me into God’s family to enter the journey Jesus offers us, and walks beside us every step of the way.  For Michelle and I both, taking this step today to say Yes in a very public way is a not-small thing that signifies a years-in-the-making-opening to so much that neither of us thought would ever come into being again.

I joined a church today.  We joined a church today: a non-traditional (whatever that means) family with all kinds of scars and hopes and loves and sorrows and joys for the present and future that God is creating with us all the time.  A church that reminds us, and lives, that Jesus joins us right here in the middle of the story and that Jesus allows our Alleluias to rest with him when necessary to remind us of the promise of Easter – as my two pastors spoke of so wisely today.

A blessed life it is, with Easter ever on the horizon.  And resurrection happening sometimes even when the ashes are still lingering on our foreheads.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Showing Up

Sunsets in the southern Appalachians are one of my favorite times of day.  The sun slips away quietly here, earlier than in the flatlands, sliding behind the soft edges of these old mountaintops.  Color lingers in the sky a little longer, shades of pinks and oranges.  Today in the early days of Spring, bare tree branches are outlined against the fading colors.

And so here I sit, watching the colors change, a glass of decent wine beside me.  It’s quiet, peaceful and I have music on in the background to keep me company.  So much to be grateful for, and I am thankful beyond words for all of it.  And yet I struggle mightily to keep the sadness at bay because it’s one of those weekends – the really long ones that stretch from Thursday night to Tuesday afternoon without a glimpse of the little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl that calls me Mama.  These are the hardest days of the month.  While I am certain the same is true for her other parent when my daughter is with me, I am learning to not try and tell a story that is not mine to tell. 

Letting go of what I had known with certainty would be my life – what I knew deep down in the blood and guts that make up who I am – letting go of that life is a daily practice, and I suspect will be so for a long time.  Because it doesn’t get easier to not have those running feet of my girl running around me everyday.  It doesn’t get easier to wake up thinking I’ve heard her cry out and then realizing it was just a dream because her bed is filled only with her stuffed animals and princess pillow.  It doesn’t get easier to stumble over the school bus she’s left near the door, causing me to smile at her remarkable imagination while tears run into an empty room so full of her presence.  It is harder now than ever.

I went to church early on Easter Sunday, a tradition my parents began long ago with Easter sunrise service when I was growing up.  Grieving because there was no small hand holding mine, no pulpit waiting for me -- but showing up because I knew that I needed to.  Grateful for the inner push that got me into the pew, and for my girlfriend sitting beside me who weathers all my lows and highs and everything in between.   The priest said that believing is sometimes as basic as showing up, time after time.  Maybe as simple as choosing to get out of bed when you can’t find a reason why getting up matters.  And I wondered, as I was weeping silently and holding out my hand for the Eucharist, if faith and believing and hope could be as messy and as earthy as the blessed bread and wine becoming part of my sore and bruised and wanting body.

Maybe this is why I cherish the sunset so much.  Because it shows up, one of the most primal of acts that keeps our world turning and surviving – reminding me that showing up for my life is just as primal an act.  It’s not the life I was certain I would inhabit.  Much of it is far richer than I could have ever dreamed possible; much of it more difficult than I thought I could survive.  I am learning to show up for a life that is chaotic and predictable, painful and exquisitely joyful, heart-breaking and soul-mending – often all in the same moment.

The sun has set for today on this part of the southern Appalachians that is becoming my home.  A few more tentative roots have gone into the ground from my heart and soul, watered by my modern-day tears into the soil made up of my ancestors’ toil and heartache and joy.  It’s enough for now.