One-Armed Lessons

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Dragging myself to the pool again. I knew I needed it, but the effort, the cold often difficult to surmount. The urgency to be under the water triumphed, the calling to clear my head overtook the pull to remain warm at home. I shared the lane with a friend of mine, her forearms wrapped in tape. We discussed the tendinitis, the painful inflammation, the difficulty to slow and allow others to accomplish the tasks with which she has measured her productivity, her value. We commiserated over learning lessons we would never choose to learn, and about how God teaches us and it is not at all fun.

Our separate workouts commenced. I completed most of my warm up but balked at the kick portion. After managing half of the prescribed distance, puttering without power, I whined to her of my hatred of kicking. I was done.

The man in the adjacent lane minded his business, in fact there was nothing about him revealing anything unusual, aside from a wheelchair perched at pool’s edge. My friend and I chatted at the wall with female fervor, oblivious to his presence, soon resuming our backs and forths.

On a brief rest between sets I glanced over at our septuagenarian neighbor with utter incredulity.  As the man hoisted himself onto the pool platform, I took inventory of his limbs. One arm. That’s it. One arm. One arm to get out of the chair and into the water. One arm to propel his torso multiple lengths. One arm to achieve the amazing feat of pulling himself back up and out and into his chair.

After the swim, in the locker room, you can imagine our exchange, my friend and I. Recalling our conversation from the pool, we chuckled with amazement and uttered words about perspective and reality and fortune and blessing. We had been called out.

Perspective is always welcome and needs to be heeded, but we are not off the hook, devoid of responsibility when we become privy to another’s desperate suffering that exceeds our own. The luxury to cease traveling our road is not afforded us, just because someone else’s road is more treacherous or tragic. Our work is imperative. We all have different narratives and different worlds to impact with our hard-earned wisdom and understanding.

I used to (and still do, although less frequent) own a powerful struggle against my body, employing multiple diets, and excessive exercise to combat a poor and defunct body image. My days defined more by failure than success, the grip of self-hatred clutching me in a relentless grasp. Beat up, bruised and depressed, I was miserable.  My life, my being, preoccupied by the scale’s diagnosis that morning, by the fit of my jeans or the dimpling of my skin. Peace now holds the majority vote, but not without great intention and surrender and boatloads of grace and tender mercy with hefty doses of self-love.

Time after time I underestimated the trial, saying things that were not helpful to me, things that minimized and condemned and harmed the imperceptible, incremental progress. Until I found the ability to contend with the fundamentals of my worth, my entitlement to love and grace, forward movement was in number alone, in my body but not in the foundations of my being. Until I did this work, accepting the whole of who I am, I had nothing to offer another beyond calorie counts and fat grams and meal plans.

Doing the work, surrendering to grace taught me – about God, about others, about myself. Doing the work opened my eyes to wholeness and emotional health, to maturity. This I can impart, this allows me to listen and understand, humbled and hopeful for another.

I am convinced we all have our shit. This statement is not to render discouragement,  this just is, we all have something. Mine had everything to do with worth and expectations and proving. I am also convinced we are all offered a path to freedom.

Grateful for the hard-earned wisdom, I consider my struggle an opportunity to engage in the essential work of gaining empathy and compassion. My issue or suffering was not on par with this gentleman. I will not claim this, but I do believe all of our suffering is redeemed and used. It is our work to do the work that lies before us, to honor the challenge by choosing the challenge, to seek the help and the helpers to be our guides.

The one-armed man’s face was all smiles, emerging from the water, crawling into his chair, chatting it up with his lifeguard buddy. His life, his form not a tragedy. His body a testament to true wholeness. He is not my perspective, not on that day, nor any, but I will remember his kind face, his determination and commitment to health.

AND, I have come to terms with kicking. While I still despise the activity, I will never, never, never complain while kicking in the pool again.

 

 

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Upside Down

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The seasonal decorations are put away, the first order of business at the New Year’s turn. The sweeping longing I have for order and empty surfaces eclipses the nostalgia of ornaments and holiday mugs. The return to normalcy, to less-cluttered, a deep need for my oft-complex soul.

One item, however, has withstood the deep clean, a red pillow with PEACE appliquéd across the front. I have decided to leave it as a reminder, wishful thinking perhaps. Visible to anyone who visits our home, in the main room, available for all to see.

Last night, the five of us watched the movie “Selma” together, on the day devoted to commemorating the toil and spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Eric and I want our children to be aware, to understand, the sacrifice and conviction displayed in his quest for civil rights and equal opportunity for all. Somehow the heft of the message failed to reach the two of us. It was not until Ferguson where our eyes opened, where our hearts began to break with the inherent and systemic lack of human dignity toward black and brown bodies. Our white privilege something we never considered, something that I hope has begun to inform our daily lives, how we parent, how we relate to others. The acute awareness of our protection as members of the presumed superior race of this nation.

While this recognition could lead to shame, I honor the process, the awakening. I need to see the chinks, the parts of me that function out of my white-ness, out of my privilege. I choose truth. I want truth to open my eyes, to reveal the patterns of thought and action that may contribute to another’s subjugation. Patterns that, if allowed to persist will render me immune to the asking of questions, the challenge of assumptions.

Why do I not have to have “the talk” with my teenage son? Why do I feel entitled to certain protections when others are not? Why did I have the opportunities I had, was my white-ness  an asset? Why do I have certain resources that others don’t?

This morning, beginning the new day, heading out the door to drive my eldest to school, the pillow was upside down. Upside Down Peace. I resisted the knee jerk urge to right the position. The drive toward order overturned, for the lesson held within the symbolic.

Upside Down Peace is anything but calm. This peace demands. Ragged, dogged, worn. This peace fights, yearns for better, bearing the mantle of love, mercy, good – time and time and time again, marching onward. This peace divides and cuts, pressing for right and just. Upside Down Peace is the peace of Martin Luther King, the peace of Jesus.

Upside Down Peace rests not, awake until all people are bestowed with human dignity and equality.  Striving for the day that every woman, man, child secures the deserved love and respect from their fellow humans.

I have done nothing to be a white American. I was born, to two white parents of European descent. I am a Christian by choice and heritage. I am welcome to vote, my rights are secure and unchallenged, my safety a priority.

My sixteen year old son, on the cusp of earning his driver’s license, I breathe easier, for he is not black. I breathe easier and I ask for forgiveness. I confess and recoil over my relief and gratitude for our whiteness.

I am a racist. I confess my ignorance, my assumptions, my ease.

It is my white privilege to have a choice. To choose to engage the battle, or to not. I don’t have to, my skin does not bear the burden. My loved ones are not marked. I have a choice. White, heterosexual Christians have a choice. Do we choose the Upside Down Peace marked by Jesus and King, or do we choose our comfort?

I would like to think I know the answer for you, for me, but the fact remains, I am not black. I am not gay. I am not Muslim. I am not Transgender. I do not have to choose the empathic route. I do not have to choose the discomfort, the challenging questions, the incrimination of my privilege.

But I hope I do, for I want to be counted. I want to be counted on the right side of history, on the right side of love when I am asked about these days – refugees, Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, immigrants. I want to join hands and forces in the demonstration of hope, the demonstration of just.

For now, the pillow stays. The radical love and call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr will be discussed in our home. We will train our children by his words and by his heart. We will choose to remind ourselves and others of the responsibility given, the responsibility not imbued by the color of our skin, but by how we love.

Right side up or upside down, I am grateful for the grace, the mercy, the hope I hold because of the work done by this great man, in the name of Jesus Christ. May we all stay woke, may we each question and challenge the privileges we embody.

 

A Tale of Two Chickens

 

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This winter, different than others, the storms come and the snow stays. The normal pattern, with Colorado’s close proximity to the sun is to see warm-ish temperatures following each snowfall. The warmth clears the crusty ice from shadowed roads, sidewalks, and driveways so we don’t have to fear the hidden ice lying underneath the fresh snow blanket.

Our chickens have had to adjust in these cold, snowy weeks. Their two coops (one in use, one the former) lie about twenty feet apart. Eight of our twelve girls prefer to lay their daily egg in the little coop, lining up single file, each new morning, awaiting their turn.

One recent day we awoke to hefty overnight snowfall. In these modern days with up-to-the-minute reporting and Doppler Radar, the storm surprised us all. Bright and early we rose to beeping phones, notifying all of canceled school. During my mid-morning chicken check, all but two of the girls were huddled under the heat lamp’s warmth in the main coop.

Glancing to the hen yard, I found Big White Chicken steady and sure, her breast the prow of an ocean liner, parting the snow with each miniature stride. Determination alighting her eyes, the little coop her goal. Nothing could prevent her from reaching her relief, the relinquishment of her daily egg, the acquisition of mecca – the capital of nests.

Sideways Sue, the other renegade hen, won the race, her traverse managed with no evident tracks. Employing her wings, she skimmed the surface of the great divide, a few flaps carrying her across. Sue’s superiority was foiled, however, when she came upon the door, wedged shut by the heavy snow. My kind efforts of assistance were resisted by the slamming of her tiny, off-kilter self against the coop, attempting to force admittance. The acute need for relief eclipsing her sensibilities.

As a chicken care-giver I have now a greater awareness of my hens’ preferences and needs. I had no idea, prior to the storm, their keen hunger to nest in the little coop. After each snow, I now shovel a path, providing safe passage. I choose to give them this gift, to pave their way, to thank them for their generosity, to protect them.

Last week I ran in the fresh snow, out on the farmland dirt roads. A few cars and trucks went before me, leaving packed tracks to run within. The difference between running in packed versus untrod snow is marked. I was able to clear my head, obtain a decent workout, exercise the dog because of this privilege. Anyone who has snowshoed or nordic skied knows the relief of having the trail packed down. The effort required to navigate and break trail can be harrowing and discouraging.

Who has paved the way for us? Who are the trailblazers that go first in ways we may not notice or we take for granted? Who has stood firm in the face of adversity to challenge laws and assumptions that discriminate and harm? Who are the people who make my life easier and more secure?

I think of the women who have gone before, women who have stood their ground in male dominated worlds to give me the right to vote, the right to have equal pay, the right to pursue my desires and calling, the right to stand on a stage and speak.

I think of the teachers and administrators in my children’s schools who have asked hard questions and demanded answers, who plan lessons and work more hours than they are paid, who sacrifice the needs of their own children for mine.

I think of the faithful who have championed civil rights, who put their bodies and reputations on the line daily so all people can know greater abundance, justice and freedom. I thank them for educating me, for their dedication to what is right and true.

I think of the church people who helped raise me. I think of those who came alongside our family, who loved us well. I think of the meals, the laughter, the homes we spent our Sunday afternoons in.

I think of the friends who challenge and know me, who see my potential yet wait for me to see it myself. I think of my husband who has carved out a beautiful life for our family, who honors me each and every day with kind words and generous offerings of service.

I think of the spiritual leaders and pastors who care for their flocks, who lead and love, provide and nourish the hearts and minds of their congregants.

I think of this nation, that has offered hope and relief to the poor, destitute, broken. I think of our nation that has opened the doors over the years to all manner of race. The fruit we offer, an opportunity for many.

I think of my parents who instructed and led myself and my siblings, who loved and cared and fed us all, who fostered respect and kindness.

I think of those who live quiet and honest lives, who do their work without fanfare or notice or entitlement. Those who make our lives easier, doing what they do, being who they are, living simple.

I hope I am grateful. I hope I notice and see and appreciate the big, the small, the insignificant to recognize the gifts of those who go before, who pack down my path and lighten my load.

I hope I recognize where I get to push forth, forge the trail, and lean into my work, my calling, for those who come after, who walk in my footsteps.

 

 

 

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What I Said in Church About Church

On Sunday, my friend Paula Williams and I were invited to share our story from 2015. It was a special time to reflect on our friendship, but mostly to consider the beautiful and thorough ways in which God worked through doubt, questions, pain and waiting. Here’s the text of what I said, you can also watch the video and hear from the five others. If you need some church, this video may satisfy your longing. If you don’t have time, our segment begins at 22:00.

My name is Jen Jepsen. My husband Eric and I plus our three children Brooks, Claire and Andrew have been attending Highlands Church for 8 months. I live in Boulder County.

I was raised a pastor’s kid in a small evangelical denomination. Church is in my blood, it is the family business. I love the church. I believe in the church. I see the beauty of the church as God’s expression of goodness, love and healing.

Somewhere along the way, I realized many churches stopped meeting people where they were, in their suffering and pain, their questions and confusion. The good news of the gospel muted by the shoulds and musts, the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s.

In the Fall of 2014 Eric and I left the church, choosing to remove ourselves for a time. No longer would we pledge loyalty to an organization that could not actively support entire populations. The lack of inclusion of LGBT peoples, the failure to discuss white privilege and racism, the inability for women to lead, amongst other things – fueled our choice to remove ourselves from a regular church body. The disparity between the all-encompassing love of God and the church’s lack of expression of this supposed love required us to step back, to reevaluate how we felt called to living out our life of faith. We could not reconcile our growing hearts of compassion and empathy with the silence and fear.

Unable to find a congregation nearby, the idea to start our own church began to simmer. Something, anything. We needed a place where all were welcome, fear checked at the door, condemnation nonexistent. A place where faith exploration and questions were safe, worship and love unconditional. Many conversations with friends and family, revealed we had company. Others longing for and needing the same thing.

One week after finally admitting this desire out loud, I learned of Paul’s transition to Paula. Paul was a regular preacher at our church, yet we had not seen him for some time. I knew I needed to reach out, Eric saying the words, “You know you have to do this, right?” My stomach in my throat I wrote her an email, to which she responded immediately. I could only imagine her pain, for I knew none of this was ideal. I questioned her, if she had found a church, for this was the one I would attend, too.

Paula, Eric and I met for coffee. She shared the pain of her experiences, her rejection from Christians and the church. Her defenses up. Her heart broken. Ours broken, also. Her faith in tiny pieces. We discussed with her the idea of starting our own congregation in Boulder County. She said, and I quote: “Do not start a church. It will suck your soul!”

I heeded her advice, and put the starting-a-church idea on a high shelf. She and I formed a good and true friendship. A friendship of mutual support and encouragement. She aiding me in my calling, my presence assisting her with hers, how to live this life as Paula.

The dream of church, the idea that church could be free from fear and judgment, a place where people practiced the art of loving well, where things were worked out in grace, while simultaneously recognizing the inherent messiness of humanity.  My dream of church was not pie in the sky thinking, my notion was not foolish. I wanted to choose church and Paula did, too.

Paula learned of Highlands through a local pastor friend. One Sunday in Spring, my family came for the first time. The beauty of this place settled deep within, my insides calm for the first time in church since as long as I can remember.

We attended when we could. I texted Paula, “You need to come. You will love it. I cannot even believe this place!”