Monday, October 1, 2018

Using the Side Door

A while ago, my mentor challenged me to think about what might happen after I die. More specifically, what might heaven look like. At middle age, I realized I never felt invited to ponder this mystery before. When I was young, I saw myself as indestructible, protected by the solid shell of my own energy and the strength of naivete. Now I have lived long enough that I have real experience with death, the sadness of loss, the grief of being the one left behind. In the funerals I have attended the message is always the same; the person who has died has gone on to a better place. The implication, for me, has been that death itself is simply a transformation, a doorway to pass through on the way to becoming something new. 

Recently my best friend Beth observed the one-year anniversary of her stepfather Gary’s death. In watching my dear friend and her family walk the treacherous path of grief, I was reminded of my own uneasy relationship with death. Then, on Gary’s birthday Beth’s stepbrother called their mom with the news that he and his wife were pregnant with their first child. One year ago, Gary walked through a doorway from this world into another. In a few short months, another life will walk through that same doorway from that other mysterious world into this one. For a moment, or for eternity, Gary and that baby will hold the same holy space. They will both live on the same side of the threshold and both have crossed the same doorway. I pray the thought will bring Beth and her family comfort. 

I have been to Gary and Carol’s house only a couple of times. Each time I entered like family. Rather than standing at the front door, arranging myself and knocking, I walked in through the side door. Walking into Gary and Carol’s house, not head on like a person selling fancy vacuums or newspaper subscriptions, but from the side door, through the messy, dusty, less image-conscious living areas made me think of approaching the topic of death and dying the same way. For me, it has been too intimidating, too formal, too big to use the front door. It has been more comfortable to come in through the side. 

Western culture is not well versed in dealing with the cycle of life in its entirety. Few places in our culture, inside or outside of the church, welcome or initiate a conversation about death, loss, or the transition from life. As a result, death is fearsome, this force with dark destructive power. Like most topics where there is a lack of information, where there is mystery, there is fear. While death is often only given a cursory glance or ignored all together, culture has done a serviceable job describing life through the lenses of birth and growth. We love a good growth metaphor, like spring time planting and the growing of gardens. But even in these beautiful images, there is a death. The seed dies so the plant can grow upward and outward, stretching its arms toward heaven’s light. 

Seeds are an often-used biblical theme. It is striking how an analogy relevant to agricultural society two thousand years ago is still, remarkably, relevant today. The mustard seed, the tiniest seed, grows into a large tree. Scattered seeds are mixed into the ground in a variety of ways and left to grow. In all the teachings, there is something profound about the seed; all the stories explore a potential for growth. The seed does not avoid growth. It submits to the loss of itself as doorway to greater potential, the fullness of itself. Jesus even used the seed metaphor to predict his own transformation through the process of death when, in John 12, he said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.”

We are no longer an agricultural society ruled by the movement of sun across the sky and rain across our fields; however, our lives are not so different from a seed’s. We can stay a seed with all our potential stored inside ourselves, dormant and forever waiting, or we can submit to the cracking and breaking of our hard-outer shells. We can let the water and light reach into the deep, dark spaces and change us. We can stretch our own arms towards heaven’s light and let the potential that lives there be transformed and made new. 

As with the seed, something old must yield its space to make room for something new. Moving through my own seasons of growth, I have experienced this profoundly in two ways: pregnancy and marriage. 

Any woman who has ever carried a child has shared this experience: One day she is alone. Then, miraculously, there is another person there sharing space in her body. That symbiotic relationship grows and grows until there is no longer room for both. Mother and child are ready to transition to the next phase.The simple truth is that in order for someone to live, a kind of death must be endured. For a baby to be born, a pregnancy must end. In this transition full of so much gain, there is also a loss. 

Another place I experience this strange dichotomy of gain and loss is in marriage. For spouses to enjoy the rich blessing of a long-term marriage, the new love and all its feelings must fall away in favor of time. That butterfly in the stomach feeling, that anxiety to see if she will text or he will call must slowly be replaced with the surety that the other person is committed to growing through the cyclical seasons of life. Falling in love dies, yielding its space to building a life-long love. Death is a reality we cannot escape. But again, what seems like loss is really a doorway to the greater, richer, fuller life. 

Giving myself to the practice of imagining heaven, what it might be like to no longer be separated from God, from love, by the thin veil of this world, I must confess that I still do not know what heaven might look like. I have some thoughts that are like seeds themselves; undeveloped, small, but rich with potential. Endings always precede beginnings, especially when you have hope in a lives-forever-outside-of-time God. If this is the case, what is death if not a doorway to new life? The more I give myself to holy imagining, to seeing the possibilities of what life after death may bring, the potential of life beyondthis one, the less I am afraid of walking through that door. I can hold my life in the white-knuckle grip of my own fear. Or I can let that fear die and hold my life with open hands and a sense of adventure in all life’s mysterious forms and phases. 

This piece is published in its entirety on the wonderful Redbud Post, a monthly publication of the Redbud Writers Guild. Please follow the jump to see what other writing my fellow Redbuds are sharing...

Friday, August 17, 2018

Am I Alone?

I see myself in this impossibly small boat, pushed far away from shore. Behind me, land is a thin strip, disappeared in haze, a memory. Before me is wide open water, blue and deep and full of mystery.

There are no waves in this part of the ocean. My boat rises and falls on swells of water that started low low low and carry me up, down. Out here, there are no crashing waves. The crashing has already happened. I watched from land for a long time as the waves, violent and strong, broke over the shore.

The waves are homophobia, Black Lives Matter, systemic sexism, racism, white supremacy, rape culture, power structures, patriarchy.

The island was my faith and the waves were these big, hard to ignore inconsistencies crashing hard and persistent against delicate sands, eroding away a shore line, bringing back no deposits from the sea. Because the island was not an island. It was a sandbar. 

The months leading up to the presidential election in 2016 were for me what a drunk calls a "moment of clarity." I hadn't considered myself evangelical or fundamentalist. In my southern tradition, or at least this neck of the woods, I have always been a little bit fringe. I thought I had made my peace with that. I love Jesus. With him there is no bone to pick. I could bear with the body through these waves. Then I watched 78% of the evangelical vote go for the most un-Christlike man and herald him as the savior of "christian ideals."

It was unnerving to watch. And heartbreaking.

I asked God to help me have eyes to see and ears to hear. Eyes to see the world as God does. Ears to hear what God would speak to me. In my experience, this is a dangerous proposition. Proceed with caution.

I began by referencing the Bible, maybe I had missed something. I reread what the Bible said about foreigners, the poor, the downcast of society. It didn't line up with what I saw the Church, supposedly the body of Christ, doing. I broke out of my reading circles and read more broadly. I broke away from all my circles. I listened to podcasts about racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia. 

I began to see Jesus differently, an advocate for equality. But not just creating equal power structures. More like doing away with the power structure. Subverting the Greco-Roman and tribalistic patriarchy that we are still squirming under.

Now I see it, the insidious power structures that keep certain people, specifically white men, in the highest positions of power. White women may be allowed too, as long as they realize their position of power as a favor from the white men. Our entire culture is built on such power structures. The architecture of our culture, the bones of our society are literally made from this patriarchal hierarchy. The Church has leaned on the clever use of pronouns and a tribalistic or Greco-Roman translation of language to weaponize scripture in order to suppress entire groups of fellow humans. It's gross.

Like anything formed on a bed of brittle materials, the foundation is starting to crumble. This is happening culturally, politically, in the Church and in my faith. And the builders of the city are scrambling trying to shore up the failing foundation. 

This is incredibly painful to see. It calls into question everything I have ever believed.  I am out in a boat in the deep deep waters of faith watching the weather roll in. Hearing I told you so right now would not be helpful. What would be helpful would be to know if there are others like me here in my community. Or am I alone?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Long Days

Nothing reminds you that you are not out slaying dragons more than cleaning toilets.

Or vacuuming. Or folding laundry. Or spending an hour and forty minutes on the phone with Sprint to figure out how to upgrade your cell phone (though they were very nice).

I left a corporate job in December of last year to pursue playing with kids, running super long distances, and writing a trilogy. I was not slaying dragons there either, but like many of my unpaid friends, it is still tempting to introduce myself this way: “Hi, I’m Lauren. I used to work as Project Manager in the Design department at …”

It is as though what I am doing now is not sufficient in and of itself. The truth is what I am doing now is much more satisfying, though doesn’t sound as glamorous.

The year leading up to my “career change” was fraught, filled with so many cultural shocks both inside and outside of the church alongside my own internal battles of calling and faith. It was a year of sharpening clarity where I delved deep into my purpose, my spirituality, and my roles as a woman and a mother.  Just about the time I was ready to burn it all down, I read LongDays of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline by Catherine McNiel.

In her book, Catherine invites me into a space that is uniquely sacred. And uniquely feminine. In the midst of a cultural backlash against systems of oppression for women, I soak in the gentle, but strong reminder that the feminine is created by God and in God’s image and is therefore God ordained. Catherine unpacks the divine nature of mothering, the spiritual celebration of our flesh. She reminds me that life has never been and will never be sterile or even particularly clean. Not literally or metaphorically. She celebrates the feminine images of God and invites me to connect with them. It is like drinking from an ice cold hose in the middle of a hot, humid summer day. So refreshing.

It is interesting that Catherine crafted her book around spiritual disciplines, a topic I have only ever heard taught by those not actively raising children. She then invites me to see my experience as the expression of all of them. Of the discussions on spiritual disciplines, two hit me most strongly. The first is her discussion on Service.

Ironically, now that I am home, there is this assumption that because I am a mom who works in the home, I can somehow, magically volunteer in a million different ways. Presumably this is because just working as mother (or as a mother with a full-time paying job) is somehow not service. It’s exhausting and guilt tripping and a huge turn off. The truth is my hands are full of service, and my most important constituents are the ones that leave their hand prints all over my walls. If I fail to serve them, then I have failed in service all together. There are plenty of voices in the world telling me I am not enough… I need to do more. Catherine reminds me that God’s voice is not among them. Her book invites me to re-frame my focus on service and rest in the satisfaction of a job well done.

Perseverance is my other favorite discipline. I’m a distance runner, so of course this speaks to me. My thirties have been a decade of seeking emotional health for myself and, in turn, my family. Even so, I am still in process. The process, though beautiful, is often a long slog with a slowly changing landscape. Catherine reminds me that “it is not ease but challenge that shapes our character into strength and beauty” (Long Days, 140). But in life, like in running, slow progress is still progress. Through the practice of perseverance, I have been working on my mind, my soul, and my body. After fifteen years of working in a corporate job, I have finally found my passion and the courage to pursue it. The beautiful gift is that I have begun a new journey. I have a new goal to strive toward.

Now my days are filled with many small, inconsequential things with a long run and a side of writing. The days are sometimes long, but every woman I know has long days of sometimes very small, inconsequential things. Sometimes, when we are lucky, the long days are about much bigger, grander, life shaping things. In those days, the hard work and tedium finally pay off. Until then, Catherine’s Long Days ofSmall Things encourages me to soak in the sacredness of my daily experience. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tired From This Endurance Run

I don’t usually post political commentary, and I have always committed to maintaining a positive presence online. I have been sitting on this post for a week asking myself why I would share my thoughts or what I would want to see come from posting them. I do not want my silence to contribute to propping up oppressive systems or inadvertently supporting ideals that prop up oppressive systems. This post discusses misogyny and the church’s silence in the wake of this oppressive behavior. I would ask that if you choose to read this post and it makes you defensive that you share the post with someone who might see things differently from you, then have a respectful conversation about it.

I’m in training for another marathon and am constantly amazed at what a perfect analogy distance running is for life. Last week during my long run, I took a break from music to listen to a couple of news podcasts. What a week for women:

Rob Porter, White House Staff Secretary, is accused of physically abusing two women. The FBI knew about it. Apparently, a bunch of other people knew about it too. No big deal though. He was up for a promotion.

John Kelly, White House Chief of staff, defended Porter. In the past, White also defended a Marine Colonel in a court martialing for sexual abuse allegations. The Colonel went on to be convicted of sexually molesting three children.

President Trump also defended Porter, thanked him for his service, and wished him a long and prosperous career.

Michel Cohen, President Trump’s longtime lawyer, admits to paying off a porn star so she would not come forward regarding an affair she had with Donald Trump. Affair. Because his wife was at home with their newborn baby.

Recently I read a novel about World War II (one must ask oneself why this time period has become so popular in the last two years) and had to stop at a certain scene. Jewish women and children, young mothers and their babies, were being marched out to the woods and shot in the heads by the men of their village. These were older, middle age men, too old to serve in the Nazi army anymore, but capable of taking out their communal daughters and grandchildren, their neighbor’s daughters and grandchildren, and killing them in cold blood for an ideal centered on nationalism.  It was chilling, and I found myself asking, “how did it get to that?” Fascist dictatorships begin with those in power bending the rules to suit their own purposes. Is that not what we are seeing from the highest positions of power in our nation right this moment?

It made me think of the older men in my life who have voted a man into power who devalues women so much that he would openly disparage them, protect those who harm them, and hide an affair with a woman in a sex trade industry.  The sad, disappointing, heart wrenching part of all this is that these men, my men, don’t acknowledge the wrong done. They do not speak out against it or discredit those who perpetrate crimes against women.

As far as I can tell, neither does the church.

I am no longer surprised by this. The common thread in all of these news headlines, in literature, and in personal experience is that in this administration, in this country, in our churches, there is no more shame. Misogyny is not questioned. Racism is not questioned. Oppression is not questioned. There is no more shock.

This run is long, and it is wearing me out.

I am not alone. People on the margins - women, non-white Americans, the poor, the disabled - are dealing with so much pain and oppression right now. This is not new. What is new is how open and out there and in your face the perpetrators are. The current administration’s MO is to continually denigrate those populations with downgraded, dismissive and openly hostile language. Or, in the case of the Staff Secretary, they simply ignore the sin. Which leads me to ask the same question over and over; where is the church in all this? Where is the righteous indignation of the evangelicals who helped vote this person into office? *

You know who is marching? Women, people of color, the disabled.
You know who is not marching? The white evangelical church.

And why not? Is this an admission of guilt? At the very least it would seem an admission that the white evangelical church has, unwittingly or not, propped up a system that derives power from holding others down under their collective boot. The “others” being those who live on the margins and in the fringes, those who are vulnerable physically, emotionally, or because there are unjust laws in place that keep them vulnerable.

For years, conservatives and evangelicals have been yelling about morality. Leading up to the election I can’t tell you how many times I heard the pseudo aphorism that Trump was going to restore America. He would be God’s deliverance for this country.  Yet now, after so much evidence to the contrary, there is silence.

Is having an extra marital affair with a person indentured to the sex industry moral?
Is defending a man who beat not one, but two or his wives’ moral?
Is building a wall to keep out others from “sh**hole” countries moral?
Is using language like “sh**hole” (or pus*y) moral?
Are these Christ like morals?

Jesus taught us to honor our spouses. He instituted a system of mutual submission and partnership. He elevated the status of the poor and of foreigners. He defended the oppressed, and he challenged the systems of oppression. He taught the church to share their wealth and live within their means. He espoused telling the truth.

These are not fringy, left leaning morality issues. These are basics of faith. These are the basics of many faith backgrounds, and evangelical Christians are not differentiated for espousing them.

In the book of Esther, the Jewish people are about to be annihilated by a political machination. Queen Esther’s uncle calls on her to flex her position of influence on behalf of her people. Esther balks. What if she fails? What if she loses and it costs her something? Her uncle’s response is to tell her if she does not rise up, she will not escape the fate of her people. But another will rise up to deliver the Jewish people. Who knows but that she has been brought to this position for such a time as this.

Dear white evangelical church folks, living in the Trump era is a painful endurance sport. For the last eight years you have wanted a voice and to be seen. Now there is a voice, and what we see is terrifying. Are you willing to give what you have asked for to the rest of the country? Are you willing to see things from the lens of the other?  Are you willing to rise up on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized?

If the church cannot do this, we are lost indeed.

*Noteworthy sources on the white evangelical vote:

“Myths Debunked: Why did white evangelical Christians vote for Trump?” Myriam Renaud, The University of Chicago Divinity School, 1.19.2017