Are you Dead Yet?

This past Sunday I learned of a phenomenal little poem by Langston Hughes. Its called “Tired” and it goes like this:

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two –
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.

As we approach Holy week, I am thinking a bit about where I’m at with this whole practice of death and resurrection that we celebrate throughout the year. Its been a difficult few years and its hard to know where I’m at some days. Often, I wonder if I should just chart my own path as it seems the ones I can see in front of me are sorely lacking.

Hearing LH’s poem this weekend reminded me of a day in the thick of the pandemic when I was attending a staff meeting for the church I was working for at the time. One of my co-workers was lamenting all the pain the world was in and wondering in his musings with God, “Did it have to be this bad? Was all this pain necessary?”

A legitimate question to be sure. One with no easy answers.

But I also remember my very first instinct in that moment of lament. It was purely visceral:

“Of course it had to be this bad! Don’t you see how screwed up we all are?!”

Let me explain. I’ve spent some time in recent months reconciling the faith of my childhood (Roman Catholicism) and the faith of my adulthood (American Protestantism). The longer I live the more grateful I am to have these two traditions informing my sense of things. Roman Catholicism is so old its like having a 90 year old grandparent in your heart 24/7. She’s crochety and doesn’t change quickly but frankly, she doesn’t sweat the small stuff either. She knows who she is and what she stands for. She knows everything irons out in the end so can we all just sit down and admire the stained class windows in this gorgeous cathedral we’re all sitting in as opposed to wringing our hands in the pews about the child who’s not getting into the Ivy leagues next year.

American Protestantism is the faith of my adult years and she’s like the young and inexperienced parent in the room. She’s got responsibilities to young people that feel really overwhelming and she feels like she has to know what the right answer is rather than just taking a blessed seat for a minute to realize she just doesn’t know the answer right now and that is really quite alright. Breathe mama. You’re not actually in charge of the faith trajectory of the entire globe. Serve your people and set some hard limits on yourself before you have a heart attack at 45.

As I endured the pandemic crazy I feel like my Roman Catholic heart was winning the day. I was looking around at everyone losing their ever loving mind and wondering why no one realized that all of this made perfect sense. God and Langston Hughes were on the same page. When you’re no longer beautiful and kind to one another, a loving God has no qualms about cutting us right open to get to the bottom of what’s making us this way. I thank God for that, truly. To the day I die I will thank God for not thinking so little of us that he’s not willing to slice us right open so he can get down to what’s truly screwed up inside of us.

Which by the way, is something I’ve learned best in my adult journey of faith. We’re beautifully and wonderfully made and at the same time there are fatal flaws in all of us that block the good things from growing back strong if we don’t deal with them head on. And so, we’re cut in two in order to do just that. The cut could happen in our 30s or in our 70s if we avoid it long enough but it will happen sure as rain. God goes all the way down to where the mud puddles and the worms slither because it just so happens to be the very same place where a seed has to sit for days or weeks before it can come to life as its own beautiful, never before seen in this particular way, creation.

A friend of mine came by the house a few weeks ago. We were watching our kids play and catching up on things in between snacks and skinned knees. Somehow our chat turned a bit serious and she shared a little kernel of her life with me.

“Honestly, I think this is where we’re at.” She said. “The stress of the last few years has just killed our marriage. I think we might be dead.”

And after 20 years of faith I could say with a smile as big as the state of Georgia on my face that “My dear, in my world that’s incredibly good news. I believe in the resurrection.”

It was a Holy Spirit moment for sure as even after 39 years of faith immersion there are days I wonder if this is all one giant joke. That moment was one of many answers I’ve gotten over the past few months which have amounted mostly to this:

“Its not a joke dear one. I’ve not abandoned you I’ve simply put you in the ground because its time for you to change.”

Which now makes me want to ask everyone that I meet:

Are you dead yet?

If so, I say to you dear reader. you’re in a most holy tender space. Don’t abandon ship now. After all, its only when you know you’re dead that you can you begin to know the power of the resurrection.

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

Transformation Song

“The wild God reaches into a bag

made of moles and nightingale skin

He pulls out a two-reeded pipe,

raises an eyebrow

And all the birds begin to sing…”

It turns out the answer to my question is an obvious yes. The otters and foxes of Tom Hiron’s poem play best in the wild of course. Our God is a wild God after all.

Suzanne Stabile says in her book The Journey Toward Wholeness that “There is a big difference between change and transformation. Change is when we take on something new. Transformation occurs when something old falls away, usually beyond our control…Everyday, sometimes many times, I have to ask myself , ‘Suzanne, what are you willing to give up for transformation?‘ so that I can answer the hallmark question for my life…”

Suzanne Stabile has a hallmark question for her life and I have one for mine. Every day I hear God ask me this:

What do you really want? What’s the story you want to tell?

I will always gravitate towards an image of a wild God picking up a pipe to play because if I’ve been certain of anything my whole life its been this: There’s nothing random happening here. Even the chaos of a given moment has purpose. There’s an overarching song at play if I can pause long enough to hear it come through.

And while I don’t want to give this to her, Suzanne Stabile is right. Transformation happens only by giving something up. For me, the giving up has usually meant giving up on whatever control I thought I had over the narrative. A willingness and frankly a meekness to say: “I don’t know where this is going but I’m trusting this process and I’m taking the next right step in faith.”

If I think back to the moments of transformation – where something changed fundamentally inside my life – it almost always came after a moment of giving up.

So, after a global pandemic and all the attendant difficulty that came with it, I suppose the question for us all is this:

Whats the hallmark question of your life?

and the next obvious question from there is this:

What do you need to let go of to move forward towards its answer?

This life is not one giant transaction. Do you understand that? I’m convinced this is the reason God allows pandemics, cancer, marital strife, communal difficulty…He will not allow us to go unchanged. And thank God for that. There’s a song God’s playing…the birds and flower buds in Atlanta are already climbing out of their winter shelters to hear it for another round. What would happen if we all got quiet enough to hear it with them?

 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. “ John 12:24-26

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.