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.”
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?
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a salsa dancing class. I’ll admit that at the time, this “opportunity” felt more like an obligation. It was early in our years in Galveston and Andy and I were subletting a room in our “too large for one couple” rental home to a UTMB exchange student who had recently come to the United States from Poland. Ola wanted to learn everything she could about the United States and we took her along with us to the many places that we went and taught her the basics of life in our seaside town. Her English was pretty rusty and so we spent many afternoons with Ola’s Polish/English dictionary attempting to explain various items in a grocery store or the aspects of getting around. It didn’t take long for Ola to begin making her own friends at school and before we knew it, she was inviting us to activities that she had learned about too.
For weeks, Ola wanted to know if Andy and I would join her in Houston to learn Salsa. The classes were free at a Mexican restaurant in the city on Wednesday nights and Ola was desperate to try. At over an hour away in Houston traffic, I was less than thrilled with the idea of attending this class in the middle of the work week. After weeks of requests however I started to feel an obligation to give Ola the ride she needed to the class and so, on an evening where Andy had to study for a test, she and I headed north to Houston to learn how to salsa dance.
The class was well attended with 20 or so guys and gals ready to learn some beginning dance steps. Two professional male and female dance instructors lined us up on the dance floor in pairs and showed us the first simple steps. Without fail, over the next hour of practice, the instructors would stop us and remind us: “In dance, you must remember this: The man leads, the woman follows.” We would start again only to be stopped soon thereafter. “In dance, the man leads, the woman follows.” Then we would trade partners and start again. We ladies were assured again and again that we could lead in every other facet of human life, (and we absolutely SHOULD, we were told) but on the dance floor, the man leads and the woman follows or the dance doesn’t work.
They said this over and over again for an hour straight because its likely the hardest part of the entire dance. Learning to lead and learning how to follow. This is not necessarily intuitive when you’re trying to express art with your bodies and yet here we were regardless. If you want to learn to dance gracefully you have to learn this basic dance instruction first, regardless of the type of dance class you are practicing.
Midway through salsa class we all stopped to take a break for water and conversation. At this point I was happy to be there, despite general end of the work day weariness. I chatted with Ola and her dance partner and then grabbed some water and wandered to the corner of the dance floor to wait for class to resume. As I turned around, I’ll never forget what I saw I next. The music we’d danced to during class that night remained on and the instructors were using the time to practice their craft. I was stunned. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung wide open. This man and this woman were just so beautiful. I don’t know how else to describe it. The man was strong and confident and, quite frankly, so was the woman. He used his hands to guide their steps and she twirled and swayed with such authority that you wouldn’t have known who was leading and who was following. And I don’t know if it was the lighting or the music or just God turning the experiential volume all the way up but I swear to this day it was one of the loveliest (and dare I say sexiest?!) things I’ve ever seen to date. I just kind of wish you all could have been there to see it too. You would have been blown away.
Ola and I went home that night, tired and warm, inside and out, from a great time out in the city. And to this day, years later, I can’t help but shake what I saw. Two people submitted to their craft in different roles, making art for the world to enjoy.
I don’t really know what it was about that experience that struck so close to my heart that day. Or what to make of the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it to this day, years afterward. I think it was the confidence that both dancers displayed and the fact that I, as an onlooker, didn’t actually know who was “in charge.” Sure, those things were important when these two professionals first started out. Like us baby salsa dancers that night, they too needed to hear over and over again that “the man leads and the woman follows” or their dance career couldn’t move forward. But this couple had clearly moved beyond the basics of dance instruction. They were in the arena of the artistic, and everyone watching them knew it because what we were watching was beautiful.
So what does all this even mean and why can’t I get it off my mind in a time of such sorrow as 2020. I guess I just believe that we people with brains full of smarts and hearts full of desire (which is my audience of readers as I’ve known them to date, btw) are called to make art with the resources we’ve been given. The world is so polarized right now. We’re either pro abortion or anti abortion. We’re pro capitalism or pro socialism. We’re pro healthcare for all or we’re pro private insurance for the few who can afford it. God forbid we recognize that these problems are hardly ever clear cut. God forbid we lean in and ask for a healthy dose of nuance and creativity to solve our problems. It all makes me fear that we’re really more comfortable standing on the sideline attending a lecture about salsa dance or viewing a slideshow of people dancing than we are with strapping on our shoes to give the dance a try for ourselves.
But maybe that’s really the case. Maybe we really are just afraid. If I put on those lenses, things start to make perfect sense. Life is scary and if historically we’ve taken the dance floor only to be laughed at or told we’re too fat/short/skinny/lanky/ugly (insert your own shame story here) to dance then who wouldn’t remain seated and want more information before sticking out their necks. I totally get it and I’d be lying if those things haven’t taken me off the dance floor before too. The hecklers on the sidelines are loud and sometimes its just too hard to hear the music.
I guess in the end though, if we can’t hear the music than we just have to move closer to the speakers. I don’t have the energy to compare myself to others any more. Nor do I want to make a habit of comparing you and your story to mine any more either, so help me God. I really just want to know what it feels like to dance in a way that feels beautiful. And at some point, I happen to know, I’ll get tired of dancing on my own. I like to dance not because I want to know who’s in charge or who needs to follow me but because, dammit, dancing is really just SO. MUCH. FUN. Right?! Of course I’m right. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Ha!
Its Election day in America and that reality is not insignificant. Leadership matters. The last four years have proved that to be true and I have a certain preference for how this election turns out, thank you very much. But when I wake up tomorrow (or later this week?) and find out who my president is, my plans will not really change all that much. The Lord has given me a body to take care of, a marriage to build up, a family to serve and a community to love with the gifts he’s given me to use and I’m prepared to follow His lead as we step out on the dance floor for the next four years and beyond.
He’s so supremely confident, our God is. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I just really hope my feet can keep up. And I hope you will join us out on the dance floor too. The music here is kickin’ and the people who’ve dropped their guard with me are the most enjoyable and interesting people you’d ever want to meet. We’re in the arena of the artistic and while we don’t always know the next right moves we’re committed to figuring it out with the help of each other and our instructor. I sure hope you’ll join us.
Life is too short to listen to lectures about dance. And looking at photos of other people having fun gets old after a while too. If we’ll be honest with ourselves for once we’ll realize that we all want to lead lives of significance and deep joy. And those things happen in the sweat filled, people packed, awkward but ridiculously fun-filled dance halls in cities and communities across the country. So put your shoes on. Or if you’re like me, take them off! However you show up just show up. Its just really not much of a party unless you show up.