Lent and Messy Hope

Lent and Messy Hope

I walked home from Ash Wednesday service tonight in a gentle, soft snow. It belied the many ways my life has felt battered by the not-so-gentle over the past several weeks.

I went to a service at a church I’ve never been to, one just two blocks from my home, and I almost didn’t go. I wasn’t so sure I needed to and I was tired. And no one would know me if I went or miss me if I didn’t.

But sometime maybe that’s what we need.

The moment I stepped through the door I started to cry. Through the incense and the processions and the prayers and the bells and the readings I cried. My body knew something I didn’t yet, and it knew I needed that space to…grieve? to hurt? to be confused?

Maybe just to cry.

And I received the cross of ashes on my forehead – that sign of all the deaths we bear and carry with us.

And I stayed and I ate the bread and drank the wine – bread and wine that are signs of a living body that transcends death.

I can’t understand that, but I know I needed it.

Lent is a season of hope.

Lent doesn’t simply tell us that human life is full of evil and death and failure and betrayal and messing up and hurting each other.

Lent recognizing the broken things, the things that make us heartsick and heartbroken, and then goes on to tell us there is also healing and life and goodness and giving and love.

They aren’t often easy to get to and we get hurt and hurt each other along the way. Elbows and knees and words and struggles are sharp and awkward and we don’t always know what to do with them.

But this Lent, I think I need to leave space for crying and hoping. In all their messiness together. I’m not sure there’s any real substance to hope without some crying, too.

Waiting for Nemo

Waiting for Nemo

Years ago, when I lived at my folk’s place in a small development past the outer edges of the suburbs in the country, there was a cat.

He was black, and at first we just caught a glimpse of him every now and then, but it was enough for Mama to get some cat food to put out. (While not a believer in indoor animals, she liked to encourage strays to hang around the house and cut down on mice and snakes.)

I’ve always had a fondness for black cats, and I started thinking of him as “Hamlet.”

The next time we saw the cat, I put a bowl of food out on the back deck. He ran as soon as I opened the door, but later that evening we saw him eating. I did the same thing the next time we saw him, and the time after that. And eventually he would come back for the food sooner and sooner after I’d gone back inside.

One evening, I decided to stay out on the deck when I put the food out. I curled up in a chair as far from the food as I could. It took a while, but eventually he sidled up to his bowl and ate anyway.

After that, I stayed on the deck every time I put out his food, gradually moving the bowl closer and closer to the chairs, until eventually it was just just an arm’s length away.

The whole time, if I moved to get up, or even just lifted my arm, he was gone. But I could talk to him. I’d talk to him and meow, and he’d meow back. We’d have whole tentative conversations out there on the deck.

But always at arm’s length.

He was so close, but so skittish.

I started moving more naturally –talking with my hands – as I sat and we talked. And he stopped startling unless I moved toward him, so I never did.

But gradually he started moving closer to me, until one day he walked around me and rubbed lightly against my side. If I moved to pet him, he was gone.

He was still afraid, but part of him wanted to trust me.

One day, as he rubbed against my side, I lifted my arm at the elbow and he walked under it, arching his back under my hand.

It was the breakthrough. Soon I was petting him naturally and his attention was as much on me as his food.

Our conversations lengthened, a series of meows I was mirroring from him. “Who knows what you’re talking about?” Mama remarked.

But talk we did, and soon, if I saw a black dot far off in the neighboring farm fields, I would walk out on the deck, say, “Good morning!” in a normal voice, and watch a small black head pop up and then streak across the fields to me.

One evening when I returned from work, I was standing beside my car outside the garage when I heard a distinctive “Meow!” I looked around the corner of the house, and there, 18 feet above me on the deck, was Hamlet. We talked back and forth for a bit, and then I watched him gather himself and jump down to me.

Mama said, “Cats don’t jump like that. I wonder what you told him?”

After I moved away from home, if I was visiting my folks and we were talking outside, Hamlet would always show up to see me.

One evening, in the dead of winter, Mama and I were talking in a basement room when I thought I heard something. “Meow…meow!” Hamlet was outside the small, high basement window where he’d heard me, and I went out for a visit on the porch.

That was one of the last times I saw him. One of the dogs that roamed the neighborhood got him.

This past spring when I went to meet Nemo to consider adoption, he didn’t want anything to do with me (or much of anyone, to be fair). He hated the shelter, and especially the kittens being raised in a big cage in the center of the room we met in. He stalked around the room muttering, “Damn kittens! Seriously?” like a grumpy old man.

I liked him. He was black (with a white shirt front and collar), he was intelligent, and he spoke his mind.

I was looking for my first pet, and as we waited to see if he’d warm up to me, I told the shelter manager and the cat-person friend with me about Hamlet.

Nemo didn’t warm up that day, but they gave him to me anyway. “I really had my doubts,” my friend said, “but when you talked about that cat, I knew you wouldn’t rush Nemo. You’d give him the space to get to know you.”

And he did. At home, I let him explore and soon he was rubbing against my legs and offering his head to be petted. All these months later, we’ve bonded, but he’s still the same cat.

He’s always happy to see me in the morning and when I get home from work – talkative and ready for attention. When he’s caught up on things, though, he’ll settle down somewhere. Maybe keep an eye on things.

When I go to him, it rarely works for long. He’ll tolerate a moment of affection before moving away. But often, if I let him go and just wait a while, he’ll come back and leap up to settle in my lap.

Patience has never been my strong point, but I’m learning to wait. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s part of the relationship with this cat of mine. And when I wait and respect his terms and timing, he eventually comes.

Patience is hard.

It’s always been worth the wait.

The Risk of Forgetting

The Risk of Forgetting

All who love will lose.

CS Lewis, who I think missed much about love, got this right:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” (The Four Loves)

Friends will fail you – not to mention themselves. Lovers will leave. The life you love will through you a curve ball. (And then another.)

Even God will disappoint – silent when shouting is called for, holding back when intervention is needed, just letting us royally mess things up.

And yet…

There is still love. It is never really love that betrays us.

Friends will still be there, even if they are new ones. Lovers show us more of ourselves and the possibilities of life. The life you love is recreated again and again.

Resurrection will always come.

And in the silence of God there are still such gifts. The sun, still obeying the word that first made it shine. Rain, still watering everything. Beauty, stubbornly decorating the world. Breath, still filling lungs when we have forgotten how. Love, still rising in the most unexpected places and ways.

The true risk of love is not in losing, but in forgetting.

Forgetting the warmth of the sun in the frigid dark of winter. Forgetting what once made us smile. Forgetting the joy, the exhilarating beauty of actually living. Forgetting what delighted us in the sheer otherness of another. Forgetting the gifts we have received.

Even when they are gone, they are no less gifts. And when they are gone, there are more to receive.

Because love is always giving. It is not a limited resource. We cannot give it all away, and there will always be more to find. In every ending, there is a beginning. One of the saints said that.

In Advent, as the Christian year is both ended and begun, Jesus is proclaimed Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. I think perhaps I always took that too linearly. Perhaps it means that they come together, beginning and ending. That in every beginning there is an ending, and in every ending, a beginning.

God is love – both beginning and ending and ending and beginning. But never leaving.

The world and us – we are full of such possibility, beyond what we can conceive. Love won’t forget.

Looking for Advent

Looking for Advent

There’s nothing like getting the flu for Thanksgiving to get Advent off to a slow start. Until this weekend, I felt like the beginning of the holiday season had pretty much missed me.

But I’m getting caught up.

I spent Saturday evening at a holiday potluck party with old friends and their families at a church I used to attend, and it felt like a Thanksgiving do-over. There’s a big, red wreath on my door, and travel plans to see family at Christmas have been solidified.

And today it snowed all day, in pretty, big, wet flakes that covered every branch and limb. It’s beautiful – our first snow of the year.

Advent is about waiting, preparing. In the middle of the holiday bustle, it asks for quiet.

The quiet of falling snow. Of a cat curled up for a nap. Of a warm cup of tea. Of noticing. Of wondering.

How can joy come to fill us to overflowing if we haven’t first cleared space for it?

The flu didn’t leave me much choice about clearing space this year. Being sick will do that to me. Body and mind won’t let me do much more than rest. The normal stuff of life goes on pause and fades into the background as the simple rhythms of sleep and wake, food and water, come to the forefront.

Nothing makes me present like being sick. After forty-plus years, I’m still trying to absorb the lessons in that. How being mindful of my breathing becomes natural, when the rest of the time it’s nearly impossible. How anticipation no longer rules my thoughts, and frustration with all I may be missing out on doesn’t arise.

In the midst of those gifts, it’s also hard. As an extrovert, the isolation of illness can be depressing, especially when I’m feeling well enough not to be sleeping most of the time. And as a single, it can be scary to wonder who can help take care of you. I’m so grateful for the friends who checked on me and brought medicine and groceries. But there were times I would’ve given a lot to have someone to bring me a glass of water instead of having to find the wobbly energy to get it myself. And in the night, when my temperature was spiking, I couldn’t help but wonder when anyone would know if I lost consciousness. If a dangerous fever came while I was asleep, who would know? (I’m grateful for phone alarms and for apps like kitestring that will send a text to a contact if you don’t check in within a prearranged time.)

There’s something in Advent that’s about aloneness to me. The aloneness of John in the desert. The aloneness of the pregnant Mary with an unbelievable story. Aloneness did not last forever for either of them, but it was there for a time.

And so I’ve entered into Advent, forced to be quiet and alone and present, and looking for the lessons.

Beach Glass Blessings 

Beach Glass Blessings 

I wrote recently about how finding beach glass reminds me of dating.

I think it reminds me even more of blessings. Those good things in life that lift our spirits, that call out for gratitude.

It takes training my eyes to see them – wanting to see them. And to see them in a range of colors and shapes and sizes.

It means taking the time to stop and bend down to pick them up. Most days, my collection reflects the time I’ve spent stopping and looking.

But then there are those tiny, rare pieces of blue beach glass. When they come to me, they feel like a promise.

It’s been a summer full of transitions (on top of a year full of transitions, on top of a few years full of transitions). Some have been painful and some hopeful and some both at the same time. None have been easy.

The first piece of blue beach glass I found felt like the blessing of a promise – “there is more goodness, love, and beauty ahead than you imagine.”

I’m not superstitious. I don’t think blue sea glass is a sign from God. But it has become an icon of hope for me.

Each weekend since that first piece, as I’ve walked the beach and prayed (or tried), a piece of blue sea glass has come to me, each one feeling like a small miracle.

Maybe not all miracles need to be supernatural. Maybe some of them can be bits of brokenness, tossed among the rocks and sand again and again until the edges wear down and something that is smooth and whole all on its own remains.

Maybe some miracles can be found in the rare gift that comes from nature and the world and all we put into it. When things come together to deposit a small, brilliant piece of blue beach glass at your feet.

And maybe some miracles can be found in the gift of eyes and time to see and receive them.

His Life Matters

His Life Matters

I met a charming young man on my way home on the Red Line last night. He had a bunch of those silver helium balloons – two spider man and one happy birthday, and when I asked, he happily replied that yes, today is his birthday.

He’s three. Dark curls, huge brown eyes, and beautiful latte skin. He asked my name and proudly announced he was going to church. He was a complete delight.

As I said goodbye and got off the train, my smile faded as my heart clenched. Tears began to squeeze into my eyes as I saw the realities he doesn’t know he faces.

In ten years, or even five, too many won’t see him as charming and confident and funny and beautiful.

They – we – will see him as suspicious , dangerous, scary.

Because he’s driving in the “wrong” part of town, or walking down the “wrong” street. He’ll be holding something we think is a weapon. He’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’ll be frustrated or confused or disrespectful. He’ll be doing something that somehow fits the wrong narrative as far as we are concerned.

And because of that, he’ll be bleeding in the street.

But not because of any of those things – not really. Because of the color of his skin.

No, not even that.

Because of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about the color of his skin. About where he belongs and who he is.

We’ll tell him those stories, too, and he may try to live up to them.

I wonder what stories his mother will tell him. Will they be stories shaped around who he really is – who he’s meant to be?

Or will they be stories shaped around us?

I pray that in ten or five years we are different. But I fear for him.

His life will likely be shaped around our fears. And I imagine when so many are afraid of you no matter what you don’t do, it may come to feel like the only way you can own your life would be to give them something to be afraid of.

So often we create our own nightmares, whether or not they are real.

We need to stop.

His life matters.

Remembering Wayne

Remembering Wayne

One of the hardest moments in my journey was the day I realized that so many of my most beloved mentors, men and women whose fingerprints are still on my life, would not be comfortable with who I am. It would cause them deep concern or even grief.

And yet it was so many of the gifts they gave me that helped bring me here. The truths they taught me, the love they showed me, the lives of faith they modeled for me.

One of those mentors died unexpectedly this week.

Wayne was my pastor after college, when I first stepped outside the walls of fundamentalism. It wasn’t a step very far in retrospect – to a conservative Southern Baptist church. But Wayne’s preaching was steeped in grace, cool water to my parched soul.

A couple of years after I’d first come to the church, through a random series of events, Wayne and I discovered that my father had been his best friend at the military boarding school they attended together for one year of high school.

Daddy died when I was three, and I had spent years trying to find the men whose names were in his high school yearbooks, longing for someone who could tell me stories and help me know him. But even after visiting the campus, I’d not managed to track any of them down.

The Sunday evening after church when Wayne realized I was my father’s daughter and learned of his death, he must have hugged me a dozen times. We both cried, and I remember him saying, “Oh, Honey! I got your Daddy into more trouble!”

That night he gave me his unlisted phone number to call if I “ever needed anything,” and a relationship began that was one of the sweetest gifts of my life.

As he travelled the country speaking in churches, Wayne would tell his friends about the discovery of “my other adopted daughter.” When they’d come to the conferences we sponsored at the church, I’d barely get myself introduced before they’d exclaim, “Oh, Jennifer! Wayne told us about you!”

Every couple of months he’d take me to lunch, and we’d talk about life and his ministry and Daddy. Wayne was the only person in my life who ever sat across a table from me and exclaimed, “That look is your daddy all over your face! He used to give me that look all the time!”

Those looks, from both Daddy and me, were in response to Wayne’s outrageous stories and antics. I’ve never met someone so irrepressible, and so fond of practical jokes. A part of Wayne never outgrew the ten year old in him, and we loved him for it.

There were stories about Wayne plotting chaos at the full-dress parades where Daddy called the orders, and about Wayne showing up for inspection, standing at attention half naked and covered in fire extinguisher foam. “I could hear that deep base chuckle your daddy couldn’t keep in down the line.”

After Wayne and I had both left Chattanooga, I’d drive down to a church in small town North Carolina for his meetings there every year. We’d sit in the pastor’s study for an hour or two before the service and catch up.

One of the last conversations I remember having with him was an affectionate tussle over the “inerrancy of Scripture.” I’d begun to question the usefulness of the term at the least, and if it really reflected what God gave us in the Bible. Wayne listened and thought with me, and held to inerrancy.

That didn’t surprise me. It also didn’t change the way I heard his message that night, continuing to persuade people that it’s God’s grace that does the work of transforming our lives.

I’ve known for years that following Jesus has taken Wayne and me down different paths – paths that sometimes look to be in conflict, even. I can’t explain that away and I won’t discount the real differences.

But Wayne taught me to trust Jesus, and he showed me a glimpse of the delight God has in us.

The delight God has in me.

I do my best to trust Jesus in both of our journeys. I still hold the gifts Wayne gave me. They’re in me every time I preach or study the Bible. I wish he could be proud of me.

Maybe today he can be.

And I cry, because I miss him.