A Pair of Opportunists

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It’s not a competition, it’s a doorway.
Mary Oliver

My sister and I were opportunists. We knew what we wanted. We knew how to justify, to determine if our particular choices were going to get us into trouble. We were good girls with a penchant for seizing the perfect moment, that moment to make the ask, to take the risk. And with twenty-one months between us, we shared most things – clothes, rooms, friends. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it didn’t. We knew about each other’s misdeeds and promptly tattled and told, a way to even the playing field and not let one get ahead of the other. Justice was our commodity. Equality our language. There was nothing unequal about our existence. All things meted out to the fraction.

Julie and Jenny were not troublemakers for the sake of being troublemakers, we were opportunists. At the grocery store, while our mom was preoccupied with the little brothers and checking out weekly foodstuffs for a large family on a budget, we would pilfer through the bags of peanuts piled underneath the bulk chocolate candies. Stuffing our mouths full of the renegade pieces offered our sweet toothed cravings a respite.

Another notable moment, while waiting outside for a parent who ran into Kmart “real quick”, Julie and Jenny waited for an unsuspecting mother to add her change to the carousel’s coin bank. As the most-fortunate-child-for-whom-carousel-rides-were-purchased  chose the best of three little ponies, Julie and I claimed the other two and rode on the shocked mother’s dime. We were not rebellious but we were opportunistic.  If our parent’s weren’t going to purchase chocolate candies in bulk or carousel rides at Kmart, we were going to figure it out for ourselves.

I often wonder if we were stealing. Were we wrong? No-one said anything, except our parents upon discovery, but that didn’t seem to stop us the next time when we exercised our opportunities with the other parent.

I’m not sure how I would feel if my children were pilfering loose candy or snagging free rides, but the other horses were not occupied, the candy was headed to the trashcan.  Why not?

We’ve been a supposed even-steven society, probably since our inception, a nation presumed best built upon each person pulling their weight and not sucking the system. The problem with this definition of collective equality is the fact that many do not start from the same starting line, and depending upon skin color, gender, sexuality, ability, the starting line looks very different.

The work of grace is nonsensical and unfair. Grace says it’s all good. The first is last and last is first. Grace is about boys who squander wealth and opportunity and in a last-ditch-effort, return home with tail tucked between legs to a father that runs to greet and a fattened calf to boot. Grace, the language of God, is nonsensical to our rational and opportunity-driven selves.

The disparities are legion in this nation – from healthcare to education, immigration to wealth.  We who are in the power position oftentimes believe people with less are lazy or selfish, opportunistic, when in fact, we are each a touch away from being accused of the same thing. My mental health is intact (for now) because of my physiology and financial resources. My physical health is intact (for now) because of insurance and access to nutritious foods and medication and a gym membership and genetics. My relational health is intact because of counseling and the opportunity to have time to work things out. I have so much privilege and so many resources, but this is not true for all.

The candy was gonna get thrown out. The horses were gonna go around with or without Julie and Jenny on them. We do not have to live in the notion of scarcity. If we all can give a little and hold a lot less tight to our stuff and our comfort I bet we would discover something to pass around.

I know it’s hard right now. We are nervous with a kid wanting to go to college, and then another, and another. A third set of braces, house payments, a small business to run and employees to cover. Health insurance payments are high and income doesn’t always cut it, but we are warm and well-fed. We are clothed and housed. We have cars and furniture, a full pantry and pets. There are many without the same amenities and many who need a just a boost.

With the recent spate of hurricanes, fires, floods, I wonder what small sacrifice I can make with my money, my time, or another untapped resource I might have. I wonder if there’s someone that comes to mind, someone in my immediate vicinity that needs me to take a risk – small or large, it doesn’t matter. If we give what is in our hearts to give, the amount that settles into our bones, the thought that presses late at night and early in the morning. Give that, give what the gut says, what the heart reveals. There’s no guilt here, just opportunity. We aren’t in the earning game, we’re in the giving game.

Grace and love and mercy are poured upon us freely – what can we freely give?

I’m Not so Sure

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My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons mixed into my poetry, and it still always tastes funny in my mouth.
Sarah Kay

In what feels like a lifetime ago I completed an Ironman. The accomplishment was great and I relished the day, supported by family and friends, surrounded by well wishers and fellow competitors. I did well by personal standards, ate, drank, managed heart rate, and expectations. All in all I was pleased and grateful.

Afterwards I had many conversations with fellow athletes also in the planning or training phases. It felt good to share my hard earned wisdom that traversed the expanse from parenting young children and staying married while exhausted from training, to nutrition, and equipment, and race day awareness. It felt good to be a bit of an expert on something.

The funny conversations, though, were the ones with men. I never minded them, in fact I found them to be rather enjoyable. One, in particular, stood out. He’s someone from my triathlon world. We would see each another on occasion, at the pool or a race. He was everything Ironman. And he talked everything Ironman. Our note-comparing chats were an affirming way to validate our mutual accomplishments. But I noticed something. He inflated his experience and I deflated mine. Hearing him wax on about his races, I thought for certain he was far speedier than I. Upon stalking checking results, I discovered I had an hour on the guy.

This is deeply concerning. I recognize this tendency to downplay my accomplishments, particularly as I step into the world of pastors, a world occupied in large majority by men. I assume my experiences or gifts or desires are less than, incomplete.

The Atlantic magazine, tackling this concern, ran an article in the May 2014 issue, entitled “The Confidence Gap”, co-authored by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. Women tend to underestimate our ability on a consistent basis, including, on average, requesting and receiving less pay than men. Women can tend to believe accomplishments, such as awards and promotions, are attributed to luck. I consider this with somber gravity, for imagine the wisdom and knowledge the world hasn’t received from women that it desperately needs to know.

I am saddened by this and I am saddened by my inability to accept and speak what I know due to a perceived lack of confidence. But there are a few things I believe to be absolutely true, that I can proclaim with sincere certainty.

As a Christian I am sure about few things beyond my job to love others as I love myself, and doing justice and loving kindness and walking in humility with God.

As a parent, I am sure about few things beyond my job to work myself out of a job. Providing the kids with opportunities while also encouraging their own choices to make things happen because it’s who they are, what they want, not what I want. It’s not all about me.

As a friend, I am sure about few things beyond my job to listen, to be present and decent  and mutual. I trust them and they me. I seek to learn and listen and regard our relationship and I believe they will do the same as they are able.

As a partner, committed to a life and marriage, I am sure about few things beyond my job to claim ownership of my issues and poor responses. We mutually consider the other with gratitude and strive to keep disagreements short and contained – sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. I am no expert. I know what I know from mistakes, failures, and wild successes.

As a local and national citizen I am sure about few things beyond respecting climate and human dignity through challenging unjust systems and hate. I do not consider it my responsibility to tell another who to worship, what to protest, or how to express oneself.

As a pastor, as a leader in the faith community, I am sure about few things beyond providing a place that offers respite and relief, demonstrating the love of Jesus to our greater community, and partnering with others in the good work of love, grace, mercy, compassion, justice. I long to work together to bring goodness and life and light into the darkness of injustice, fear, dehumanization, loneliness, and systemic violence.

And as a human, I am sure about few things beyond gratitude, U2, and IPA’s.

I suspect I will never have the unabashed confidence of my triathlon friend. It would be nice, but I don’t think it would work for me. There’s something to be said for humility, not a false humility, but one that recognizes I don’t have all the answers and I’m not willing to pretend. If I don’t know something with absolute and assured confidence, I will admit it.  If I do know something, I hope I trust my instincts, speak up, and offer my unapologetic knowledge. I think I will. I hope you do too.

For we need our voices to rise up, now more than ever.

The Second Time Around

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Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
– J.K. Rowling

It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I was allowed to get my ears pierced. I was not a rebellious sort, eager to please and keep peace, so this was not something I challenged or fought against. An adult friend with a piercing gun came over one day after school and pierced my sister’s and my ears. Julie went first. She was the most devoted and probably still wears earrings to this day. I have found jewelry to be a nuisance, along with makeup, and wear little of both.

When our friend placed the gun to my first ear, I know I was scared. But the second ear was worse. I lurched. Upon close examination, one will recognize the unevenness of the holes in my empty, pierced earlobes.

I knew too much the second time around.

Childbirth was the same. Once I hit the hard stuff with my second, my daughter, I remembered. I remembered transition and pushing, recalling the desperate sensations from the first time around.

Same with all my marathons.

It’s funny how we forget pain, physical or emotional, it doesn’t matter. We forget the sharpness, the edge. Somehow it gets fuzzy and glossed over in the romantic remembrances, particularly when the pain results in a positive outcome like childbirth or upon completion of a long, trained-for endeavor.

But, I do believe this second-time-around pain is powerful, particularly when we are able to walk with another through their suffering.  Second-time-around pain is our chance to identify, to expand in kindness, to offer another a remarkable sense of presence and compassion, providing respite and relief.

Our ability to love through empathy is perhaps our greatest human calling. The products of connection, compassion, consolation through the work of our imaginative extrapolation is extraordinary. There is no need for us to recreate our own pain, our own exact experience to be able to empathize. We seek to understand, we wonder, we feel. We bear the weight through our proximity and our sought understanding.

Furthermore, I believe empathy is our greatest Christian calling.

I have wrestled to the ground the idea of Christianity. What does it mean to be a Christian beyond religion, beyond the system? What is collective Christianity when it isn’t tied to empire or Republican Party? What is Christianity beyond a practice that gathers people on Sunday mornings?

What is Christianity if we cannot translate our experience into truly loving everyone?

What is the point?

I’m not so sure how I feel about the idea of Jesus dying on the cross just for my sins. I think it’s a fine idea and I’m grateful, but I’m not so sure God needed this to love me. In fact, I hope God didn’t need this gruesome experience to love me, to love the world. I think God loves the world because God loves the world. I think God loves me because God loves me. This is God being God. It’s pretty fantastic in my book.

So, why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus resurrect? I think, it’s because Jesus had to experience that pain, so he could then return and identify with us in ours. Jesus is the ultimate vehicle for connection and compassion and consolation.

Whenever I feel the sting a second time around, it moves me. I cry. I want to make it better. I want to take away my friend’s suffering, too. I remember what my experience was and it hurts me to see them hurt.

This is empathy. This is understanding, a related feeling that I have in my viscera, a sting, a pressure, a pain.

Never can I relate in full, but I can try. Never can I immerse myself in another’s experience, but I can try. This again is our greatest human offering –  empathy through compassion, tenderness, love.

And imagine with me, this Jesus who proclaimed His love for us. God who proclaimed Her love for us. Imagine an identification, imagine not just an empathy, but a felt and whole sensation of our suffering and our unrelenting grief. Imagine this – that the God of the Universe knows all, feels all, holds all. This is made possible because the first time around was complete, terror-laden but complete.

She knows.

He knows.

Christianity, for me, needs to be simplified, bare-bones, relatable. We make it so hard to achieve, attaching rules and performance evaluations and expectations. It’s simple, friends. It’s about love – and it starts and ends with empathy, with compassion, with tenderness, with knowing.

I am a Christian, not because of how I voted, for that indicates nothing. I am a Christian because I am committed to bearing the wounds of another in my body. I am a Christian because I am committed to honoring another’s pain in my body. I am a Christian because I know how remarkably I am loved and I cannot help but love, in kind.

Second-time-around pain is our super power.

Onward.

On Desiring Nomads

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Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.

-Ann Landers

I am a nomad at heart. Growing up, I moved every one to five years. Our landscape swiveled from California, to the Midwest, back to California, to the Pacific Northwest, and again back to California. Even after moving to Colorado, Eric and I relocated houses and/or neighborhoods, moving with each pregnancy and beyond. While this need for change has surprised me, it is in me.

I, for some reason, am a bit of a glutton for punishment. Change is not easy. Change propels us into an uncertainty that requires we ask new questions, that demands we find an elasticity muscle that maybe hasn’t been stretched in awhile…or ever. Change requires nimbleness that oftentimes yields discomfort and maybe pain. Sometimes our changes are not by choice, as we are thrown into grief or joblessness or failed expectations. All of these things, whether welcome or not, demand our attention and a shift. We are set upon a path of wandering, not unlike the Israelites in the desert, wandering for 40 years. Egypt after awhile, despite the consistent abuse, starts to sound pretty good. We like predictable. We like to know what to expect. The Promised Land appears bleak, it’s probably a sham anyway.

Growing up in traditional church, we showed up every Sunday morning and every Sunday evening and every Wednesday night. I did all the things. I participated in Caravans (our denominational scouting program). I won the awards. I did the Bible Quizzing. I sang in the choir and played the piano. I led Bible Studies in high school, college and beyond. I was baptized. I went to camp every summer. I served on mission trips. I re-dedicated my life around a campfire and a strummed guitar about twelve times. I did it all. I earned it. God and I were good…

…until we weren’t.

With three active, young children at home, a host of healing I needed to accomplish, a husband who traveled, I was ushered to the end of myself. My martyr complex was off the charts, my perfect exterior was cracking, and my interior was in shambles. No longer could I appease this god I had crafted in my own image. My god wore me out, never letting me off the hook. My god was the god of the “shoulds”, never to be satisfied.

Stepping off the train of American Christianity was what saved me. It was either sacrificing myself to this unappeasable lord or reclaiming my soul. Leaving the megachurch, I found a small local congregation and I sat. I sat and said No!. I deconstructed and I trusted, one of the hardest things I have ever done. That was a long desert. The wind blew and the temperatures swung wide, rising and sinking with the sun. But the nomad in me was placated. I resisted her call for too long. She could finally rest.

As the shrieks of “should” diminished, as my soul reclaimed, there was a new sensation. A sensation somewhat akin to desire. I didn’t trust it at first. No Christian operates truly out of desire, for this is unbecoming. We suffer for Jesus. We sacrifice. What is this desire business? As an aside, I have to brag a bit. I was the best sufferer. I was a great martyr for Jesus. But it stopped being interesting to me. I wanted more. I craved more. As desire emerged, my spirit engaged, my body enlivened.

Sometimes, you have to leave. Being a nomad isn’t an easy choice, in fact, many don’t choose to go. Many stay put.

Our churches are supposed to bring relief to weary travelers, to challenge unjust systems. Our churches are supposed to bring healing and wholeness to us, where we, in turn, do God’s delightful work in the world.

When we reduce our church experiences to navel gazing alone, to personal salvation alone, to earning, we lose the richness and the hope of our purpose. We lose the richness and beauty of the world. We divorce ourselves from Creation.

I can no longer keep a faith that holds partisan views. My faith, my belief, my work in the church must go beyond my personal body and soul. My work in church has to be about relief for another. I can no longer worship a god that asks me to work myself to the bone, a perfect martyr, where it’s all about me.

Can my healing, my wholeness, equip me to do the work of compassion? Can my healing help feed the hungry? Can my healing help clothe the poor? Can my healing help to educate children and tackle injustice? Can my new wholeness work to eradicate white supremacy and honor the marginalized? Can my healing heal the wounded? Will all of this feed my deepest desires?

Through Jesus, absolutely YES!

When we change and grow and embark on the journey, not many travel with us. A life lived in desire – fueling mind, body, soul, and purpose – can be a threat to some. The path isn’t a vacation. It can be a slog through some of the harshest conditions. But I promise you, there is a Promised Land, and it won’t always be easy on this side of eternity, but you will discover the greatest joys of your life.