Practicing the Kingdom

I’ll never forget the article I read that announced the beginning of the pandemic for our nation. Our country watched in great fear as the Italian hospital system became overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients over the Atlantic. As the American infectious disease establishment connected with our friends in Europe the only news they could write to us with any clear authority was the directive from our Italian friends: “shut it all down.” Close the doors. Stop congregating. The hospitals are about to be overwhelmed. And overwhelmed they were. Medical establishments will spend the next decade or more recovering from the shock that Covid-19 was to the system. As the people who had to shut our lives down, so will we also, spend a decade or more recovering from the global pandemic.

In addition to “shut it down,” one physician began to list additional problems headed to our horizons. People would die. Economies would shudder. Wealth would be lost. That last one struck me sideways when I read it. Wealth lost. While the writer of the article I was reading surely meant economic wealth, the only thing that came to mind to me in that particular moment was “Kingdom of God” types of treasure. Things like trusting relationships between people and the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control. I know how sustained pressure of any kind, brought about by any number of difficulties, can cause our integrity to “leak” and cause the kinds of social devastation that’s so often beyond repair.

The past 2 years have proven the physician’s words. Wealth HAS been lost. And while again, we could point to monetary losses, I still can’t help but dwell on the alternative forms of capital we had two years ago that no longer exist for us. Our relationships and the institutions that supported those relationships began to so positively leak all over each other and all over themselves. I include myself in this community. I have had more than my share of personality leak over the last two years. How do we begin to pick up the pieces and start over? What should new beginnings look like?

This spring I began my first real adult garden. We have a little side yard that gets some amazing summer sun and after years of trying and failing to cultivate tomato plants in the places we’ve rented I’ve finally learned that all I really need to do to succeed in gardening is to plant seeds in good soil and water them if and when they look a little thirsty. That’s it. It rains enough in Georgia that I’ve probably only watered the garden twice since I planted it in March.

I’ve experimented with a few other things this year that I haven’t done in the past. I’ve started composting. This is a process whereby I take the cast off remnants of the fruits and vegetables we use, mix them in with paper and tree waste (dead leaves etc) to produce the nutrients our garden needs to grow healthy and strong. My first “go” at composting has now given me over a dozen unexpected butternut squash plants that are currently spilling out into the grass with their huge yellow flowers as they twist their way between the sunflowers I planted from seed a few months ago. Our household “trash” from some time last fall is actually quite alive and well, thank you very much. What an image to hold onto.

A second gardening tactic I tried was to cut back our rose bushes in the hopes that they might look a little perkier this year. Last summer we’d not had the time and the roses looked so dull. This year, those rose bushes were fuller than I ever expected, courtesy of some time spent with pruning shears in early spring. I smile knowingly each time I read Jesus’ words in John 15: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

In these practices of composting and pruning I find myself mostly unconcerned about the loss of wealth, be it financial or relational wealth. Our great God has me in the palm of his hand. He is not surprised by anything that the last two years have brought. Its you and me who have found ourselves caught off guard and thus not at the ready to adjust our sails to the times.

But adjust and change we must or we cannot bloom beautifully as we’re surely intended to. Change is difficult. Especially in seasons when what we’re actually becoming next is unclear.

Here’s the only thing I know for sure. The last few years have been incredibly challenging for all of us. We are going to leak all over each other while the Lord rebuilds and refashions us into the people he would have us be for the future. A good healthy dose of patience and kindness wherever possible will be worth its weight in gold moving forward.

Growth and adaptation will require risk and creativity. The systems we’ve used in the past don’t work anymore. I believe this is true on every level from the economy to our families. Our healthcare system to the church.

Oddly, I am not afraid. I’m grateful God is pruning us. What we’ve done in the recent past to steward our families and our society is not sustainable on any level. And so, as I learn new practices that will sustain our family in the future, I stand fascinated that life grows in the weirdest conditions. Like in a compost bin. I wonder what creative thing I can do each day while we wait for the Lord to make all things new? I wonder what we can do that’s peaceful and kind…what new practice might usher forward the kingdom of God in a way we’ve not yet witnessed?

Mother’s are Magic

Happy Mother’s Day week to all the mamas out there. Someone told me this weekend that “mothers are magic” and I loved it, because its true. Good mamas have a way of making the world manageable and, in their very best moments, magical…a true gift.

I’ve been reading Andy’s words about my own mother quite a bit lately. He shared these at her funeral and reading it again has helped me to finally stop and take stock. Its funny…I keep my wits about me every time until I read that final sentence: “our magnificent hostess and friend” and then I just lose it. Mom could be a real mess, but when push came to shove she’d sit with you in the mess you found yourself in and show you that you were not alone. It was her special gift.

It turns out it IS good to go to the house of mourning…especially in times like these. Recovery and repair feel a lifetime away and yet we have a good foundation. Some of us, like myself, are lucky enough to have a magical one. Maybe as we review what’s been lost we’ll find hints of what can be restored and determine, this time, how we may want to show up for our second acts. With a little magic woven in :-).

Please enjoy the words of Andy’s eulogy below. Its meant the world to me that others saw Mom’s gifts too – especially my own husband.

Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for coming. If we have not met, my name is Andy, I’m the youngest of Deb’s two sons-in-law. I married youngest daughter Courtney 11 years ago, and I’ve been around the family for about 15. When the family asked me to say a few words, I was honored and a little nervous, honestly. Aside from the family, many of you have been friends with Deb for literal decades. So, I’m going to try to speak with the humility of someone who’s arrived later in the picture than many who are gathered here today.

I met Deborah on December 31st, 2004. I remember this because Courtney and I had only really been dating for a few months, and she was home from college for Christmas and invited me down to Herndon to celebrate the New Year in DC. “You’ll get to meet my mom,” she said, which is somehow a statement that strikes fear into the heart of even the most courageous boyfriend. Court had prepared me to meet her mom, in the way that girlfriends do (if they like you, anyway). I came to know that I was about the meet a woman for whom the most recent years were turbulent, both medically and relationally. Even knowing all of the things that were going on at the time, I was so impressed by her graciousness, and her deft ability to put me at ease. I wanted to impress her (as nervous boyfriends do), but once seated at her kitchen table, I was somehow magically persuaded to forget all about my self-consciousness.

After more years around the family, I became certain that these abilities of Deb’s were more than the sum of their parts, and were more of a spiritual force. In fact, St. Paul writes about a list of “spiritual gifts” that people have, which we take to mean the special graces that certain people have to build up the Church and the community; you can think of the spiritual gifts like a first-century Myers-Briggs test. One of the gifts on this list is that of hospitality, and Paul, being an itinerant minister, certainly knew the value of being hosted. I can say that, without exception, I’ve not met a person in this world with a stronger hospitality grace than Deborah. She had an almost supernatural ability to invite a person into her relational fabric, to promote feelings of well-being, of welcome, of her great care. Being on the receiving end of her hospitality was really something; it had a restorative quality almost in defiance of words. I can tell by the expressions that I’m far from the only person to have experienced this.

When I consider her handling of the relational fabric, the word that comes to mind is “stewardship.” Her intuition for hospitality reflected a conviction that relationships need to be nurtured, need to be encouraged, watered, and grown. This sense of stewardship also extended to her professional life. Deb told me once, and I quote, “A well-done tax filing is a thing of beauty.” Sometimes you could tell by the little excited tone in her voice that her work almost had an aesthetic quality to her, and that she had an intuition for, and felt when the work was done to completion. But in our society, your taxes are kind of a stand-in for your honesty and forthrightness in your personal affairs. Accounting standards aside, she knew this; I’ve heard numerous conversations (without specifics) about her counsel given to clients both complex and not-so-complex. All of these conversations seemed to have a common thread of Deb’s tendency to encourage honesty, forthrightness, and a general sense of ethics in an area where there is a lot of room to lose one’s moral compass.

Speaking of aesthetics, can we agree that Deb missed a calling as an interior designer? I can recall a number of times walking into a room and seeing a line of paint swatches on the wall for her process of lengthy consideration. There have been times that I could not tell the difference between colors she was evaluating. But Deborah could tell the difference, and that’s what matters. She just knew in her soul that beauty, harmony and proportion have the capacity to make a person feel good. I have a great story about this. When I was in graduate school in Texas, Court and I had moved from a larger to a more modest space to economize. The small house was a little bit, I don’t know underwhelming? After looking around, Court pulled the emergency handle. Deb parachuted into our midst and spent a few days with her brightening it up. By the time it was done, we hadn’t really spent that much, but the place was downright sunny and looked very gracious indeed. So far, that house was the longest we’ve stayed in one home, and I partially blame Deborah for the good fortune.

 After saying all of this, I still haven’t told you about my first memory of her. This occurred before I even walked into the house, as I parked in the driveway at Laneview Court. Many of you remember that black ’97 Accord she drove until the wheels fell off. When pulling up, I notice that bumper sticker with the famous pro-life quote by Mother Teresa that says: “It is a poverty for a child to die so you can live as you wish.” “Great,” I thought, “I’m pro-life too.” “We have similar values,” I thought before I was greeted at the door. But as I got to know her, I realized that this was not just a political statement. We speak about Deb as being a woman of great dignity, but this is a dignity that she extended to everyone, the wealthy, the poor, the young and old, the unborn, and the long-lived. She intuitively understood that all souls have inherent value, and that this value should be respected, honored and cared for. One would probably not be too far off to guess that her sense of her physical weakness probably gave her a great deal of insight and empathy into the struggles of others.

In the old testament, the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.”, and we take that to mean that this kind of sadness and loss can grab our attention and teach our souls like no other human experience. It is right to ask ourselves how to best honor the memory of Deborah. I mean, at a time like this, it’s almost second nature.

Well, for the occasion, I have a list of ideas on alphabetized, color-coded index cards (pull out cards):

  • Rearrange your furniture. Repeat four times until it’s perfect and then invite your friends to have a sit.
  • Find a small, interesting object, and build a room around it. Use a risky, bright color, like orange.
  • Stretch your hospitality muscles. Invite someone into your relational life that needs that kind of care.
  • Pour yourself a gin and tonic, only drink a third of it and forget about the rest because you’re lost in conversation.
  • Be a good steward of what you have. Turn something small into something greater.
  • Buy a used car, and spend the savings on something that won’t eventually fall apart.
  • Care for others in the tangible and intangible parts of their humanity, remembering that all of us bear the image of God.
  • Use your weaknesses and vulnerabilities as a source of insight to show compassion, mercy, and grace.

To conclude, we loved her and she loved us. Last Saturday, nine of us ministered to her at the bedside until she peacefully left this life to the next. We prayed, spoke to her, and rejoiced for her final rest and relief. I should be so lucky for my last day on earth to be like that, surrounded by the ministry of loved ones, and so would you also be lucky. If we live in such a way that something like that is possible, it would show her the deepest conceivable honor. It is without a doubt that Deborah, our magnificent hostess and friend, would want that for us all.

You Don’t Have to Change

You Don’t Have to Change
By: Courtney Beck

What made you think

You wouldn’t have to change?

What makes you think

You’re above reproach?

Is it the degree to which

You’ve pinned your hope

On my desire to follow?

Who is holier than thou

When the world starts spinning

In its newest direction

And it turns out

You’re enforcing the drumbeat

of a song no one can move to.

The song you’re selling

is only as good

As the people who will dance to it.

And everyone taps their foot to a song

With a beat that their heart can hear.

Maybe your heart needs to hear this:

What makes you think you don’t have to change?

What keeps you believing you’re better

than this song we can’t keep from singing.

Seek First the Kingdom

Several years ago I attended a scripture study about the Kingdom of God. This is one of my favorite topics (because who doesn’t love the idea of a kingdom) but its also one of the most elusive. Most of the times when I look up verses about the Kingdom of God, I read the words of Jesus that start with “The Kingdom of God is like…” It reminds me of Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinithians when he says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Its almost as though he can’t directly define love. All he can do is say, essentially, “I know it when I see it. Its like this and like that…”

Which is why I love reflecting on this moment several years ago when the Bible study leader asked us: “when’s a recent moment when you felt that you were participating in the kingdom of God?”

I knew my answer right away as I’d seen it in real time the weekend before. I had been working my job as a family services coordinator at Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore. We had just completed the rehabilitation of a row house not three blocks from the one my roommates and I were sharing just out of college. The homeowner I was working with was a single social worker who had adopted her twin daughters through the foster care system and was seeking a stable place in town to raise them.

As the build came to its completion and Ophelia prepared to purchase her home, the high school students that had banded together to help build the house arrived with their parents and dozens of other volunteers who had put in countless hours on this once abandoned house, making it whole and habitable again.

As Ophelia’s family and pastor gathered beside her to bless the home, I turned around and realized that this quiet city street had filled within the previous hour with cars and taxi cabs. There were a couple of BMW’s and a Mercedes as I recall (announcing the presence of the major donor’s who had been involved) alongside the pick up trucks and beater cars from our Americorp volunteers who worked for minimum wage during their service year to help transform these houses on Baltimore’s up and coming east side.

As the house dedication ceremony began, I saw volunteers and neighbors sitting up high, looking down, from the scaffolding across the street. Wealthy individuals in suits crowded the streets below alongside construction workers covered in dust. And lastly, there was Ophelia, the star of the hour, standing on her very own stoop with her two beautiful girls, smiling from ear to ear in front of a house that she had helped to build, enjoying every minute.

Gosh, if I’ve not said it here, let me say it now. Habitat for Humanity is my favorite charity. Hands down. I’ve never seen an organization so effectively bring together the wealthy, the poor, the skilled, the unskilled, democrats, republicans and everyone in between. That is to say, I’ve never seen an organization so effectively reflect the kingdom of God. I remember every aspect of that morning and it was some 15 years ago at this point.

Jesus has trouble defining the kingdom of God because it evades definition. Its mysterious, like love is mysterious. But I think we know it when we experience it, just as I did that morning when all of those people came together to help a woman raise her children in a stable place. Jesus tells us that the kingdom comes from humble beginnings like a seed, or a bit of yeast (Luke 13) that of their own merit don’t look or seem like much but that transform into a tree for the birds to sit in or a delicious loaf of sustaining bread when the work is done.

I’m thinking about this now as I consider what’s next in life. For me and for you. I’m sure, like me, you are wondering where the world is headed. Maybe, like me, your community has fallen apart. Maybe you’ve lost a job. Maybe the people you thought you could count on got caught up in the stressors of this experience and showed their true colors. Maybe you’re the one who’s changed…so much so that you need to leave a community or a friendship because its no longer healthy. If this is the case, I am so sorry. These are real losses and it can be destabilizing at best. Crushing at worst. I am with you in this as I am also in the swirl of all of this, wondering where the heck I am going to land.

Here’s the only thing that has gotten me through times like this. Christ’s words in Matthew 6:33: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

What are “these things?” Its all that we’ve either lost or fear we will lose. What we will eat, what we will drink, what we will wear, what we have stored, what we have labored for, who we can count on…These are all legitimate things to want and as Jesus points out in the verses before the 33rd one in Matthew chapter 6, “your Heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

This is such calming news to me. I trust the Father. I have more reason to trust him than I ever have and that’s after two really devastating years. Because in all of that devastation I have not failed to have what I’ve truly needed: His provision and Fatherly care.

So how do we seek the kingdom? I don’t know what this looks like for you but for me it looks like seeking out the things that stir up my heart towards the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. Friendship, family, time alone, time in nature, beautiful meals, beautiful spaces. A kingdom life post-apocalypse will look much like tending to the seeds that God and I have identified for future planting in the past and wondering if now is the time to put them in the ground. And really, I’m finding by the hour that the answer to this is “Yes. It’s time” Why wouldn’t we put them in the ground now? The field we had been tending has burned down and its time to start over.

One particular seed I am planting is starting a little instagram account called “Likeamother_interiors.” Check it out! I think the spaces we live in can nurture and invite kingdom-like life when we tend to them and so I want to connect with other folks who feel the same. I picked the title “Like a mother” because God is working something out in my spirit around the concepts of motherhood and distinctly feminine leadership that I want to spend time considering. Also, truthfully, there have been some days in this pandemic where I’ve wanted to shout “like a mother F$%*@!” At the top of my lungs because I’ve been so mad I can’t stand it. Pandemics make me mad. Injustice makes me angry. People behaving selfishly makes me want to scream. I believe this little account could be a healthy channel for some of those feelings as I look around at the space I am inhabiting right now and find that God has been in it the entire time.

So here’s our homework, as far as I can see it. Think of a time when you felt most alive. Think of a time when the flow of an experience was so profound that you forgot about yourself for a hot minute and were really in the moment. Now plant a seed from that experience and put it down in the new soil you find yourself standing on. Then, share what you’re doing with a friend. This is how we will start over. Small steps towards big trees and loaves of breads that sustain and provide rest for ourselves and for others at the same time. Isn’t that magnanimous? (My favorite vocabulary word this pandemic) Of course it is. I believe we can have more streets filled with rich and poor, skilled and unskilled. It appears Jesus thinks so too: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all this will be added unto you.”

Live Your Life and Live it Joyfully

Hi, there. Courtney here.

I’m pissed off.

Shall we take a deep breath together? Yes! Yes we shall.

Despite my concerns that I am turning into that dreaded “angry woman” that the world seems all so concerned about holding at bay, I must admit…that feels really good to say.

Its been two years since I was last able to write in this space. There are many interconnected reasons for that and they can all be summed up in the word “pandemic.” So much has happened, and NOT happened, in the two years since I last wrote here. I am grateful for some of it…I’ve learned alot. But if I am honest, I have spent most of the pandemic with a low grade simmer of anger in my soul over HOW all the people have reacted to this tragic, tragic time. I feel self righteous saying that. Its not as though I have handled each of these days with honor and courage. But there’s one thing I’ve just not been able to let go of in this entire season of death and peril. I’ve never been able to let go of the inkling that we could endure a difficult time with laughter and joy and hope for the future. Something in my soul just will not let this go. I believe we can live well in tragic times and I am pissed off that everywhere I turn we’ve succumbed to a spirit of doom and despair. I do not understand why the people I am most intertwined with, people of Faith, refuse to live lives of joy in the midst of all this difficulty. What other options do we have? Walking around in circles like children who “want to go on making mud pies in a slum because [they] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea?” (C.S. Lewis, we thank you for your words)

Sometimes I wonder if I am just refusing to grieve. This is possible. I am trying to remember what it looks like to grieve well. In college it looked like a lot of time alone and a lot of decisions that didn’t make sense to others but that made a hell of a lot of sense to my inner being. I took really long drives in the best car that was ever made for a college student – my Dad’s handed down navy blue Isuzu Rodeo. I quit the rowing team. I rode a bicycle across the United States one summer, ocean to ocean. I spent a lot of time with a cute guy I’d met who was more bookish than anyone I had ever dated but somehow kept wiggling his way around the circles I spent my time with. I swear I looked at him the other day and thought: “we have two children together!” like this was the first time since that second kiddo came around that I’d actually noticed how things have changed.

Grieving won’t look like it did my junior and senior year of college, this time around. I can’t buy a $400 bicycle and take off for two and a half months like I did back then. But there can be similarities. I can follow my gut and do one small thing that feels right, and just for me, on a given day. I can carve out space with friends and that cute guy and we can walk the grieving road together. Back in college I remember attending (or not attending) parties because I felt like I was the only one in pain. This time will be different as now we’ve all experienced loss and we’re all trying to feel our way back to a stable center. We can grieve collectively. I have faith that will be really beautiful.

For now, I can’t stop thinking about a moment that happened in the late night hours of October 5, 2019, the day my mom passed away. It was about 8:00 and Andy and I had just walked in the door to my Dad and step mom’s place after a long day of saying goodbye at the hospital and gathering with family who’d driven south to support my sister and I when we asked the doctors to turn off the machines. I hugged my Dad and after sitting shell shocked for a time I asked him if I could take a bath in the giant tub in his master bathroom. The one with the jets that overlooks the lake in their backyard. “Of course” he said. “I’ll go up and get it going for you.”

I met him upstairs with my towel and shampoo with the tub half full of water. “I can’t seem to get the jets to work for some reason, Court.” He told me, apologetic. “I’ll have to figure that out later but at least you can have a warm soak. Take as much time as you need.” And with that he left the room and I hopped into the warm bubbly water, quickly drowning my body head to toe in water as it filled the tub. I’d come up for air and then soak back down again as I reviewed the shockingly final six weeks of mom’s life. Six weeks that changed so dramatically and so quickly I never could have imagined it unless it had really happened. I reviewed our collective response, my sister’s and mine, and I wondered if we did it well. Was there anything I could have done differently? Did I fly up at the right time? Should I have listened to the doctor after they put her on the ventilator and promised Mom I’d return? Did she know I was planning to come back for her? I had told her this…but did she know it? Could she hear the transitions of visitors we’d arranged who came to be with her while she slept and Kristin and I figured out how to manage our households from a distance before the next trip to the hospital?

These were the questions that I drowned up and down in that tub on the night she died until the most curious thing happened, 10 minutes in.

The bathtub jets started working. In an unexpected instant, everything around me roared to life. The bubble bath soap that dad put in before I got there met the power of the bath tub jets and within minutes I was sitting in a tub overflowing with bubbles around my face and arms and legs. Within a minute, after I got my bearings, I started laughing and couldn’t stop.

This is totally something my mother would have done to knock me out of a funk. I can still hear her telling me to leave my college dorm room and go out to the bar with my friends. She was the person who told me every summer vacation to stop reading books about injustice on death row in America and to pick up a “trashy romance novel, for God’s sake.” Mom was never one to sit around and sulk. Quite the opposite she had a literal pep in her step most days that the people who knew her were quite familiar with.

And so I feel like I had my marching orders, straight from Mom that night. “Do not sulk. Live. Live your life and live it joyfully. I’ll see you soon enough.”

If she were with me today I want to believe that she’d tell me to grieve but to grieve creatively. Go for a walk. Paint a room. Quit doing something you hate. Make a new friend. Cook something delicious with an old one. Write.

“Stop reading books about injustice on death row.”

Not because injustice on death row is not important but because it is a reality. Just like pandemics are a reality. And we should engage with these realities not to feed the little devils in our hearts that tell us to live in despair over our inability to affect change in such massive spaces but to inform how we should play our part in righting the wrongs.

Which brings me back to my initial point dear readers. I am pissed. Really, really pissed. Not because we’ve lived through a pandemic. Not because my parent passed away. I am pissed because we’ve all been content to sit around the slums that these experiences have created around us and have forgotten that we are called to a holiday at sea. I keep thinking that if I can see this on the day that a parent passes away than can’t we all can see this?

And so today, that’s my question…Can you?