Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

“Ah! Here.  And…you’re here.”

-“I am. You sound surprised, yet not.”

“Well…the dry sauna at the athletic club?”

-“Don’t you read the Psalms?”

“The Psalms?…

Oh! ‘If I make my bed in hell.…’ Very funny.”

-“I thought you’d be amused.”

“But, …seriously?”

-“Seriously, it’s the quietest place I know.”

“Really? What about churches and chapels?”

-“They’re loud with expectation and desperation.”

“Oh. I can see that. And here…

well, it may be the only place that even my mind is quiet.”

-“Exactly. Everything is remarkable still in here.”

“There’s something about the heat.”

-“Yes. It brings your mind and body together to be present with each other.”

<pause>

“That’s not always a comfortable place for me.”

-“I know.”

“There’s a lot I don’t want to feel that directly.”

-“Yes.”

“I’ve lost my dreams.”

-“Lost?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know where they went, but they’re gone.”

-“Yes, sometimes people walk away with our dreams whether they intended to or not.”

“I just know I went to find them last week and there was nothing there.”

-“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you….

I’d ask why you didn’t stop them, but I’m long past thinking that you push people around like that.”

-“There’s no love under compulsion or manipulation.”

“Right.”

<pause>

“You know, I never know where these conversations are going to go when they start.”

-“Neither do I.”

“Really?”

-“Yes. They’re something we create together.”

“I like that.”

-“I’m glad.”

<pause>

“So what do I do about the dreams?”

-“What do you think?”

“Well, they didn’t die – then I could bury them or burn them. They just…left.”

-“Do you think they’re coming back?”

“I want to a lot of the time. But I think that’s clinging to something that’s gone, and even if they did come back, they wouldn’t quite be the same.”

-“That makes sense. Nothing that’s alive ever stays the same.”

“I don’t know what to do with the space they left.”

-“What do you want to do with it?”

“Not lose it.”

-“Why not?”

“Because…it’s part of the shape of who I am now, and I like who I am now.”

-“I like who you are now, too.”

“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to lose that.”

-“So you feel stuck between new dreams and losing who you are?”

“Maybe?…

There aren’t really any new dreams taking root. I have plenty of wishes flying around, but new dreams – not so much.”

-“And the wishes?”

“Most of them are connected with the dreams that are gone. Some of them still mean something on their own, and that’s good, but they aren’t the sorts of things that turn into dreams.”

-“Ah. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

-“I see you.”

“You do?”

-“I do.”

<pause>

“Maybe that’s enough for the moment. I don’t know….

Can that be enough for the moment?”

-“It’s why I’m here. If you make your bed in hell…”

“You’re here.”

-“Yes.”

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Lent and Creating Kindness

Lent and Creating Kindness

Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been wondering about kindness a lot. I started being accused of it pretty consistently (which is my way of wrestling with hearing that people see it in me). It caught me off guard at first, and then as it became a pattern, got me to wondering.

If you’d ask me to describe myself, no matter how flattering I was tempted to be, it would’ve never occurred to me to use the word “kind.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the word “unkind” either, but kindness had never stood out to me as something I was notably good at. So I wondered, what is it they’re seeing?

It seems connected to caring, and empathy. And I’ve thought that maybe kindness is one of the ways we understand love when it shows up in action. Love is abstract, and kindness is concrete.

So, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

It’s what love looks like on the ground.

And if people experience kindness from me? Or any of those other things? I’m deeply glad, because I know how very much I fall short of them every day. But I’m still puzzled, because while my background would understand these traits as a kind of automatic “fruit” of God’s presence in my life, I’ve come to doubt it’s ever that straightforward.

If there is kindness in me, how did it get there?

I’m beginning to suspect it gets into us through grief. More particularly, through grieving.

One thing about Lent that we tend not to notice so much anymore is how deeply it is tied to grieving. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting, the colors of black and gray and purple – all the stuff of grieving. And in the days when families practiced a period of mourning after a death, and widows wore their black “full mourning” and then their gray and purple “half mourning,” the practices of Lent would have readily evoked that mourning of a loss.

In a culture today that does so much to wall grief away and avoid it (rather than literally wearing it on our sleeves), Lent would pull us into grief. All of us. Together. Entering into grief with each other.

It’s not just about moving deeper into ourselves in our own personal grief, but remembering our grief and letting it move us towards each other, allowing another’s grief and loss to enter us, to connect to our own, and to connect us to each other.

That has the power to change us, and to plant kindness in us.

There’s a poem by Naomi Shihad Nye called Kindness. Part of it reads:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Whatever kindness there is in me, I can’t tell you how it grew to be there. But I’m pretty sure it was planted by loss and watered with tears. That it grows in the grieving Lent has taught me over the past fifteen years since I started exploring it.

Some years, Lent gives me the space to explore and express griefs I was already struggling with. Other years, it redirects my attention, away from whatever has my life buzzing along, towards grief and loss. I don’t usually like that – I’ve never come easily to sorrow. But over time I’ve learned that until I‘m willing to sit with it, grief will eat away at my life and turn into something that has very little of love or empathy or kindness in it.

There are particular moments when someone showed kindness to me that I remember as far back as my childhood. They are not the sorts of things that those who offered them would ever remember – a few words, a gesture of with-ness in an awkward moment. And those people had no idea of the griefs I was living with at the time. But their kindness was a gift of healing to me, and I remember.

I don’t think I will ever accept grief gracefully, but I hope I can let it grow a space of kindness in me.

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

I don’t like grief. I don’t. I really don’t.

A month after my third birthday, my father died after an extended illness (he had ALS). He died at home, in his sleep beside my mother. I remember that morning. The neighbor who was a nurse. The paramedics taking his body. My Sunday School teacher from church who came and read to me, holding me on her lap in the rocking chair in my room while my mother took care of things. I wasn’t interested in what she was reading, or in sitting on her lap for that matter, but I felt the grief rolling off of her and her need to be doing these things, so I let her.

Two weeks later, my step-grandfather worried his way into a heart attack at my grandmother’s kitchen table and died. The house filled with the family, stunned to see a mother and daughter each widowed within two weeks. And then, maybe a month later, my great-grandfather died as well.

As I learned the news and the house began to fill with mourning family once again, I ask my mother to let me go stay with my Sunday School teacher, where I knew I could avoid the fog of grief in the air with her family. She called my teacher, and off I went.

At three, I’d already learned I needed to take care of myself in these times, and others as well, as their grief on my behalf flooded over me.

I learned that life is loss, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And much as I hate grieving, I eventually learned that there’s no room for joy or love without it.

Grief is not an enemy to joy. Grief gives place to the reality of pain and loss and disappointment and heartbreak so that there can be room for joy again.

I try to remember that when grief comes, because I still hate it. As much as I know that sidestepping it won’t actually somehow take me around it, I still have to fight myself to go there.

I find myself bracing for grief, because I want to recognize it without actually feeling it.

But that won’t work either. And on my better days I know it. On my better days I can cry. I can find my way into feeling all the pain of letting go of what’s gone. On my better days I know that it won’t feel like this forever, and the possibility of joy is on the other side.

But on other days, there’s too much of who I am in the loss. Too much of myself I don’t want to lose with it. And I don’t know how to just grieve without losing myself in it.

I don’t care what other people think of my grieving any more, whether it’s in sync with their expectations or not. We are terrible at grief in our society. We don’t know what to do with it and it makes us uncomfortable. So we tend to ignore it and just hope people keep it to themselves.

But grief calls out to be acknowledged. When everything has changed for us, it’s a callous world that just goes on about its business and expects the same of us.

Lent helped teach me the needfulness of public grief. In my first year of seminary, a remarkable woman named Marva Dawn came to preach to us for several days. It was during the weeks before Easter, during Lent, and at one point she mentioned that she wore Lenten colors – purples, grays, black – during the forty days of Lent to remind herself of what season she was in.

The idea intrigued me, and I decided to try it. It didn’t take many personal losses for me to begin to recognize how powerful public mourning must have been, the tradition that those grieving would wear black then gray and purple for a season.

It was such a relief to quite literally wear my heart on my sleeve. Even if no one recognized it, my grief was present in the world with me. It could be part of everything I did quite naturally.

I still don’t like grief. I still fight my bracing something fierce. But Lent began to teach me how to make room for it. I’ve begun to learn how to respect it, and sometimes even to embrace it.

And I try to hope there’s joy somewhere on the other side.

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

When I first met *Schuylar, they were between pronouns. Not quite “she” and not quite “he,” Schuylar was a young person trying to figure a lot out. I wanted to be kind and understanding – I wanted to really understand – but I’d never known someone live and in person for whom gender was such a struggle. I was confused. Their experience baffled me. It didn’t fit the way I understood the Bible, myself, or anyone else. I didn’t know what “right” or “healthy” or “good” meant in this context, and I didn’t have a clue what their experience meant for the community we shared, though I realized it was no small thing.

A friend of mine, a respected Christian leader, recently noted that he sees “transgender issues” as the next big cultural hot button. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate man, so though he tends to have a more traditional perspective on sexuality, I know he is genuine in his desire to listen well, understand more, and respond with love.

I know a lot of folks much like him – much like me where I was several years ago. People who at their best are baffled and confused about the idea of someone being transgender, and who at their worst feel only fear or anger.

The fear and anger hurt everybody. I’m grateful for those who helped me find a way past it.

Several trans friends have shared their lives and journeys with me, and taught me much about myself as both an individual and as a woman. But when I met Schuylar, I hadn’t begun that journey.

One thing Schuylar talked about a lot was their discomfort with gender norms. The toys and clothes they wanted, the things they wanted to do – they understood those were somehow wrong. And yet the things they were given and were supposed to like? Those were the things that felt all wrong. As Schuylar talked about it, this seemed like a big part of what made their gender confusing for them.

And I could relate to a point. Growing up, gender norms had never neatly fit me. Much as I wanted my hair to be long, I got very stubborn when one grandma wanted me to have a girlier hair style. I didn’t like dolls very much; I preferred stuffed animals of all genders. I gravitated towards playing with boys more than girls, and once school started, the girls baffled me. I crashed the boys’ game of kickball at recess when they would let me, and when they wouldn’t, largely played by myself. As I got older, the way I thought and related was a closer fit to male stereotypes, and females as a whole continued to confuse me.

But as early as I can remember, those things never made me question my gender. I was a girl, and if someone thought girls didn’t do something that I did, that was clearly nonsense, since I was a girl and I did! I liked being a girl (and as I grew, a woman). I didn’t always like how people treated me because I was a girl (or woman), but that wasn’t a problem with me and my femaleness. That was a problem with them.

It never occurred to me to question my gender, and that made Schuylar’s experience confusing for me. Was Schuylar’s struggle just a different, more extreme reaction to social gender norms that didn’t fit? Or was something more going on?

As I’ve gotten to know more trans friends, I’ve learned their stories can be significantly different. So many different things impact how they’ve understood themselves throughout their lives, and some of their stories helped me grasp just how different their experience of their bodies is from mine.

One friend says that as early as she can remember, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a boy, I just knew I wasn’t one.” A friend from seminary who has since transitioned told me how exhausting, depressing, and even traumatizing it had been for her all those decades to get up every morning and “zip on my man-suit.”

That struck me. The masculine characteristics of her body had always been foreign to her. As familiar with them as she was – she’d never known life without them after all – they nonetheless always remained other. And beyond the personal difficulty of dealing with a body that did not match who she is, that body also brought with it a host of social norms and expectations that also didn’t fit who she is.

The idea of “zipping into a suit” every morning, it’s a vivid picture. It’s a suit that covers everything, hiding a person completely. Trapping and suffocating them. Knowing her now that she is free to be the beautiful woman she is, the effects of that suit on the friend I knew in seminary is obvious.

It’s a given for most of us that – love them or hate them – how we feel about our bodies isn’t what determines our gender. For us, the idea of looking for a newborn’s genitals and proclaiming, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” only reflects the most obvious facts in the world. It’s not complicated – it’s always worked for us. Our bodies are ours, and whether we feel good about what we see in the mirror or not, we recognize them at a deep level.

But in reality, it’s far more complicated than it may seem. And it is those for whom it doesn’t work who pierce the assumptions life has allowed the rest of us to live so easily with.

The assumptions life allowed me to live so easily with before I met people who couldn’t live with them.

*not their real name

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time

“People need time to adjust.”

Time to change. Time to learn. Time to get used to new ideas, new things.

I’ve heard it over and over again, especially in the church, and especially from people who are concerned with community – with the connections we have across difference and disagreement.

I’ve heard it when we talk about trans folks having the freedom to use the bathroom that best fits their identity (instead of being harassed or attacked if they try to use the one that matches their birth certificate). I’ve heard it when we talk about gay marriage. I’ve heard it when we talk about white privilege and the systemic discrimination people of color face in churches and society.

And it’s true. Change does take time. None of us leapfrog to new things. We get there one step at a time.

The problem is that when we appeal for time for people to adjust to something new, we’re privileging those for whom the status quo is not a problem. People who didn’t (don’t) see the need for change on their own are already privileged, even if they rarely recognize that reality. Those of us with power and privilege can rarely see what they we have. It feels normal to us, and we naturally assume that what is normal to us is also normal for others. It’s just “how the world works.”

But the world may work radically different for someone else, and it is radically different for people who are different from me.

I began to realize that in my late twenties when I lived in North Carolina. It was a time of dramatic change as North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Immigrants from Mexico were flowing into the state, and some smaller communities were reeling as their Spanish-speaking population increased from near zero to 20% or more in only a few years. That’s radical change.

In the area where I lived, the impacts were focused in a few neighborhoods, one of them already the most struggling neighborhood in town. It had quickly shifted to being roughly a third Hispanic, a third black, and a third white (mostly aging folks in homes they’d owned for decades). Friends of mine from church bought a home in there and enrolled their daughter in the local school. Several of us met in their home weekly and started to get involved in the community and the schools there.

It didn’t take long at all for my illusions about equality of opportunity and access to get blown out of the water. Black and Hispanic neighbors both, for somewhat different reasons, faced discrimination and barriers beyond what I’d imagined. I knew poverty – our family had struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up. But this was beyond poverty. These folks’ lives were so very different than mine.

The change they are waiting for is us.

The world works pretty well for us already, and we don’t want that to change. So we’re content for it not too until they can convince us there’s a problem, and that it’s not a problem of their own making, to the standards of our assumptions about how things are.

Because we can afford to take the time.

Even if they can’t.

Learning takes time. Changing takes time. Journeys happen one step at a time. I took the time; I walked – and sometimes ran – each step; and I’m still learning.

But when we make our learning and our comfort the criteria for change desperately needed by those who are vulnerable? That is the epitome of perpetuating and protecting our privilege.

A friend of mine who is a pastor recently related the words of a parent whose teenager had come out to them: “I suppose I should have cared enough when it was other people’s children.”

When we take our time, it always costs someone who can’t afford it.

The Worst Resolution

The Worst Resolution

“Never change. Never, never change.”

I heard it all the time growing up from my pastor, a respected leader who preached the same message – if a different sermon – three times a week, and wore a navy blue, double-breasted suit every single day for decades.

He was resolved, and it was the worst resolution.

It seemed to suit his personality not to change, as it suited his theology and philosophy. For Dr. R., truth was an objective absolute, a straightforward proposition. Once you found it, that was that. It was settled. So find it, base your life on it, and “never change.”

If you grant the premise, it makes all the sense in the world. It would be the safest way to live well if reality worked that way.

But it never made much sense to me.

There’s no learning, no growth, no life without change. Change defines healthy life in every context. And when change stops…well, that’s death.

The turn of the year, 2017 to 2018, has me remembering his words. I had lunch on New Year’s Eve with old friends who knew him as well, and the question came up, “What happened? What went wrong in the mega church and extensive ministry he built and led?” It’s all gone now.

“Never change.”

Change isn’t always good. “Change for change’s sake” is not a good idea (except when it is). But to reject change for its own sake is a path to certain stagnation and death.

Changing one’s mind is rarely easy. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of beliefs and assumptions that have defined the world for you. The things that have given us the bearings we need to make good decisions with confidence, to live and feel secure about our lives. Those beliefs are often entwined with so much of our lives and pulling them is messy work that can leave us feeling unmoored and unsure of what our new reality will be grounded in.

But learning requires changing our minds, and learning also requires an openness to change. It nearly always involves being able to let go of something I believed, something I imagined to be true, in order to embrace newly discovered truth.

And that’s a moving target. Because if there is something, anything, that could in any way be accurately described as absolute and unchanging truth, it is so unknowably vast that our meanderings through it will feel ever changing. We can’t grasp the whole, and so we’re always unlearning and learning. Always learning to see anew. Always changing in response to what we’ve seen.

The “immutability” (unchangeableness) of God never made a lot of sense to me either. It’s an idea of perfection from Greek philosophy that was imported into and imposed upon the Jewish thinking of the biblical writers. The Bible shows us a God fully engaged, arguing with his people and changing his mind. A Jesus who learned and grew. That God engages people in real ways, relates as a person who thinks and feels and whose thoughts and feelings change. The God who “does not change” in the Bible has a consistent character that does not change but is progressively revealed and understood more clearly.

We’re still at that – understanding the character of God more clearly. It has the power to transform our lives and our hearts if we are open to it – the change that each new year, each new day holds out. Ever learning and growing and expanding our hearts.

Ever changing.

A Dream Denied

A Dream Denied

There is a particular pain in chances never given – a grief for the untried. For some of us, it can be harder than the pain of failure or the grief of loss.

“I never even got to try.”

It’s particularly galling when you deserved the the opportunity, but it was others less deserving who got the chance. Life, it turns out, rarely metes out opportunities based on the wherewithal to do something with them. It just doesn’t work that way.

And so the chance you long for is denied, and you never even get to try, to see if what you’re capable of doing can live up to all you know you can do deep in your heart.

The thing you’re made for passes by without stopping for you.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps different sorts of dreams may do all of these things. Maybe some more than one.

A chance never given, this is what’s hardest for me. It clings to me. It will not let me go.

My question is different from Langston Hughes’: what do you do with a dream deferred? With the chance never given? The one that clings like a pleading child to my legs, hungry with persistent passion for this thing that every fiber of my being recognizes. And I have no power to give it to her.

What do you do with a dream denied? The one that will not stop speaking, singing to me from behind that door which is closed and barred to me? (Such a beautiful song. Such a painful song.)

What do you do with a dream denied?

Unmake it? Unmask?
Dissect
and from component parts
piece together another creature?
Will it live again?
Breathe? Move?
What about the beating heart?
Can it be another thing?
Itself take another shape?

Or will it die
and part of me with it?