Sometimes a Wild God (Tells Us to Run)

“I don’t have enough faith for this.”

This is the thought running through my head as I throw another load of clean laundry on our sofa. I have 10 minutes before I load my youngest in our SUV and truck him off to school and so I sit down in our den and grab the poem, typed and bound, sitting on Andy’s desk. Sometimes a Wild God by Tom Hirons. It reads:

Comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not
Know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and
mustard and silver
His voice makes vinegar
From wine.

I read the rest of the poem and sigh. I don’t have enough faith to write like this. Like the ones who sit and receive the words that the world, or at least my own heart, really needs to hear.

Arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have
Or the secret you do not
Wish to be shared.

Perhaps my problem, as I consider it, is that I never feared God when we sat at a table together. I wasn’t afraid. Even when there was silence. We always had something interesting to work on together, like a puzzle or a craft with scissors and glue. I always found Him kind. His eyes thoughtful and curious as though he wanted to know something over time while we sat and worked out that puzzle or cut crafts.

“Do you like the picture I’m making?” His eyes communicated.
“What do you want to do today? Can I be Frank? I want you to know that you’re beautiful.”

But something happened somewhere along the line and I’m not really sure how we lost the table, God and me.

The doorbell;
Instead he scrapes with his
Leaving blood on the paintwork
Though primroses grow
In circles round his feet.

Blood on the paintwork.

God, that’s so true.

It appears a moment (or moments?) happened between childhood and maturity when the table God and I were sitting at started to shift and jolt in front of us. There were earthquakes, everything changed and God and I stood up to collect ourselves and wonder if the roof would stand strong above our head. Would the four walls hold? Would the table ever stop shaking the scissors and craft paper and glue?

In your kitchen.
Ivy is taking over your sideboard;
Mistletoe has moved into
the lampshades
And wrens have begun to sing
An old song in the mouth
Of your kettle.

…He sits at the table, bleeding.
He coughs up foxes.
There are otters in his eyes.

Foxes and Otters. I sense I’ve always seen those otters in his eyes. The playful ones that encouraged me to dance and sing and play when I felt like it. But as the dust filled the air and we began to choke I’m sure I felt that fox in my throat now too. So much so that we rushed out the back door for lack of air. The table still shaking, the walls still wobbling.

Its a new year and its cold outside but the sun out here is SO bright. We’re taking deep, wide breaths together – God, myself and the others.

I’m sitting here wondering as I catch my breath, look up and around:

Do otters still play and foxes still hide when the sun beams down bright as can be?

*Italicized words from “Sometimes a Wild God,” by Tom Hirons.

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.”