Swallows of Joy

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When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
― Fred Rogers

Today is hot. I’m practicing the art of stillness to hold back the floodgates of sweat. It’s a useless endeavor, but if I can remain shower fresh for more than a moment, I win. Summertime is here. The lawn is no longer its lush, squishy green from rain. We now have hot days and warm nights, rain a rarity. My running pace lengthens as my sleep lessens. While I appreciate the longer days, I start to miss the chill.

Over the past seven years we have left the heat of the Colorado Front Range, spending weeks at our cabin in the mountains. But this year is different. With three teenagers invested in friends, jobs, and planning for college, along with my new church and career, leaving is not an option. The spontaneous days of packing up and taking off are over. The long days of restless youth requiring distraction are over. The strings of lazy summer days watching basement movies in the dark are over. Summers now looks strangely familiar to the rest of the year, except for longer days, sleepless nights, fewer clothes, and no school, of course.

I don’t think I am grieving this shift. I love the ages of my children as they become and gain independence. I love my work at Left Hand Church and the people I get to grow with into community. I love being home and tending to an infant garden and a pair of flower boxes and a host of plucky chickens. All brings respite to my soul in these tumultuous and confusing times.

I think the simplicity and purpose of my present life brings me joy, in the seeming small but most essential of ways.

And in these days fighting for joy is essential – as if our lives depend on it. We don’t get to fall victim to the bafflement and gaslighting of this administration. We have to do everything in our power to grasp joy through gratitude, self-care, friends and family, good food, flowers, decluttering, exercise.  Our greatest act of resistance – to participate in this subversive mining.

Joy is nonsensical. Joy throws people off their game. And joy, my friends, goes far beyond happiness. Happiness settles small with good hair and lost weight and fashionable clothes and new shoes and well-behaved children. We’ve got to get underneath the surface, to the foundations of our existence. And even though we wrestle hard with pain and despair and the tendrils of fear – joy is our savior. Joy is our hope. Joy is our resistance.

These days, seeking to be a well-informed citizen is so hard. As we balance on this precipice of being wide awake, the temptation is to creep back, to stay safe. I get it for there is a time for this. But, for those of us with privilege, we have a great responsibility to our democracy and to one other. If we have privilege, we have a duty to remain informed, to feel, to be curious, to seek. And if we have privilege, we also get to take a break, see a movie, drink a beer, and laugh with friends. We get to escape to the cool of the mountain air, and we get to find hope in gardens and chickens and flowers.

This past week I took a walk on my usual route. I hopped on the bike path that winds me toward the peaks. I let my gaze bounce back and forth across the path, upwards towards the fluttering leaves and the silky clouds. I chose to listen to a podcast, but othertimes I need the sounds of nature to process the rattles in my brain. These walks heal as I wrestle with the fears and temptations that threaten to render me impotent.

I came to the underpass, about a mile in. Every year swallows return and rehabilitate and rebuild their nests along the creek corridor in the still darkness of the tunnel. Last year the nests were all destroyed, dumped into the shallow water below. I grieved and I lamented the callous stupidity, while also holding room for the possibility of a bored youngster with nothing better to do.

But this past week, the birds were back, each pair engaged in the diligent work of rehabilitation and rebuilding. Darting, diving, swooping, collecting tiny beakfuls of mud, the pairs operating in tandem to recreate their little lives under the bridge. I stood awed, grateful. Hope restored. Joy. The smallest thing, a thing of instinct, of subversive survival and resistance.

It all matters, friends.

We know what to do. It’s time to stop second guessing and wondering if we’re too much or if our feels are inconvenient for the stoic amongst us. Our instinct is to love, protect, return, rehabilitate, and build. May we find joy in the seeming small for this might be where our greatest hope lies.

Carry on friends. We’ve got good work to do.

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The Myth of Bravery

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“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I come to this, my regular blog post with healthy trepidation. I am unsure how to make sense of the separation of parents and children on our border. And I’m hesitant to say, “This is not who we are.” Because it absolutely is who we are. Our sordid past of separating Indigenous, black, and brown children from their parents is written into our genetic code as a nation. We are this. We have always been this.

The hopelessness of it all can feel debilitating. We hear the cries and read the stories and feel the feels. We parents remembering the constant hand on the cart in Target, imagining everyone a threat to our precious baby. The toddler darting out and getting lost for a brief second causing us to stop, catch our breath, hold our chest to somehow gather our body’s bits back together. The teenager unresponsive to texts and calls in the middle of the night, our imaginations taking us down treacherous paths.

Brown parents at the borders feel the same as white parents. The fear is the same. The parental bond is the same. We don’t have to use our imaginations to know the terror – different circumstances, same emotions.

So, what do we do? What can we do?

Today while in conversation with a friend I deeply respect and admire, she lamented she didn’t know where to begin, saying, “I’m not an activist, or a revolutionary. I’m not brave.”

I was surprised and taken aback by her statement. This woman wades into all kinds of deep waters on social media. She’s informed. She feels. She knows. She is caring and loves her family and friends well. She is all kinds of brave.

And I realized something. In these times, as we gulp information from the firehose of news, it is normal to feel subpar, to feel like we lack bravery. We ingest data and information at far greater rates than we were made for. We remain informed. We love our children. We care for our neighbors. We engage the conversations in person and online. We are present and ready and deeply impacted by the events in our nation. We use our imaginations and engage our empathy. We weep and mourn and pray and seek solutions and reputable charities. We give. We read. We feel. We are brave.

This is our work, to remain an informed republic, to question assumptions that seem inaccurate, to post links and comments and opinions and questions. This is our duty. We may not be able to march or litigate or reunite, but we can feel and learn and contribute.

I will hand it to the activists. They are on the front lines pushing and pressing, navigating policy and government and institutions. They are heroes. But some of us aren’t able. We will accomplish bits and pieces, but we won’t lead the charge. This does not make us less brave, for we all have our things and we all have our place in the milieu of human goodness and forward progress and collective consciousness.

As a new pastor I am discovering the great importance of discernment. Sometimes I can go and sometimes I must stay. Sometimes I can fight and sometimes I must rest. Sometimes I can yell and sometimes I must remain silent. And when things press hard like they are this week, as I replay the cries of babies and toddlers over and over in my mind, imagining and reimagining the terror of losing my child, I have to remember we each have a job. We each have a role to play in this grand narrative that is rehearsing right before our eyes. We each have questions to ask of the people in our communities and we each have calls to make to our government representatives. We have jobs, defined and clear jobs.

Now is not the time to believe the lies that inform our ability or effectiveness or bravery. No! We are each able and effective in the ways before us. Never underestimate the power of a phone call or a letter or a conversation or a hug. Never underestimate the power of a firm stance taken online or in person. Never underestimate a blog post. Never underestimate a “like” or a “retweet”. All contributes to the greater good.

I was perusing my Facebook feed last night before bed and an old friend mentioned how much she appreciates the “Snooze ____ for 30 days” feature in Facebook when certain issues reach a fever pitch. I couldn’t help but assume she was alluding to the current immigration situation.

I now know how crucial an informed public is. And I’m sure we all have our echo chambers. But you know what? My echo chamber is not a comfortable place. My echo chamber is full of people challenging me and pushing me to learn and grow and become in my knowledge of how to be a better human in this world. My echo chamber is not safe. It’s scary in there – all the activists and faith leaders and people of color and brilliant learners. I do not find rest in my echo chamber.

And I don’t want to find rest in there. I want to find discomfort. I want to be pushed and prodded to vulnerability and humility, for this is what bravery looks like.

 

 

Two Years Later

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We should indeed keep calm in the face of difference, and live our lives in a state of inclusion and wonder at the diversity of humanity.

-George Takei

This week was the second anniversary of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida. I remember discovering the news early during my morning social media perusal just before our drive to church in Denver. As I listened to Mark Tidd, one of the co-pastors at Highlands Church, mention the horror, while confessing he had learned of the tragedy just minutes before, I felt relief. While he didn’t have time to revamp his sermon, he did have the ability to address and offer comfort to a congregation of vulnerable people belonging to the LGBTQ community.

I religiously tracked the news and social media all day on that summer Sunday, garnering information and details, while gleaning from the community conversation. It was all a rudimentary attempt at naming the evil, while trying to offer comfort and condolences to family and friends. It was a painful time that is not over.

Aaron, my fellow pastor, brought up the subject in our staff meeting this week, mentioning he cried in the grocery store earlier that morning, recalling the tragedy’s heartbreak and horror. As a gay man, he is vulnerable and pained. These are his people.

And as our conversation continued, I realized this was the first tragic event that occurred in this country where half of my social media feed didn’t show up. No comment, no “like”, no post. Half of the people I have as “friends” didn’t say a thing. This was the first time I realized our national tragedies may not be considered tragedies by some. Since that recognition, I’ve had many more such instances. We have climbed into our corners, claimed our sides. We have reduced people to issues. How can a person claim forty-nine lives and it not be acknowledged? How can a person perpetrate such terror and bloodshed and we can’t discuss around our dining room tables or in our curated social media lands?

The intersections are too problematic. The fact that the Pulse shooting had such components as Latinx, LGBTQ, night club, Muslim, and guns rendered the topic too loaded for many to be able to own and discuss. A person’s humanity, no longer enough of a requirement for acknowledgement or grief. Of course we see this everywhere now – immigrants, Black Lives Matter, the transgender community, children at borders and in schools. Humanity doesn’t seem to qualify as a valid requirement for respect.

We are watching dehumanization at work.

In Brene Brown’s recent book, “Braving the Wilderness” she discusses the detrimental ramifications of dehumanization:

Here’s what I believe: 1. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters called bitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May. 2. If you felt belittled when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables” then you should have felt equally concerned when Eric Trump said “Democrats aren’t even human.” 3. When the president of the United States calls women dogs or talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman. 4. When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?” 5. If you’re offended by a meme of Trump Photoshopped to look like Hitler, then you shouldn’t have Obama Photoshopped to look like the Joker on your Facebook feed. There is a line. It’s etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the right and left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every single day. We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.

We all have to be careful. We all have to watch our language, our assumptions. We all have to do better – particularly as increasing tribalism drives us to our corners, solidifying the lines of our divisions. When forty-nine people are gunned down this must draw outrage from every single person who considers themselves human – Christian and non-Christian alike. These are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, cousins – all dead. And when half of the people in my own life fail to acknowledge the event, we have a problem. What happened at Pulse that night was a national tragedy. What happened in Santa Fe, Texas last month, and continues to happen in schools and public venues is a national tragedy. What is presently happening at our borders as families are separated and children traumatized is a national tragedy.

We have dehumanized. We have vilified. We have judged and declared ourselves authorities. We say in our churches All Are Welcome but are we? Can we all preach? Can we all lead? If our churches fail to have the conversations that matter in these most divisive of times we may be keeping peace, but we certainly aren’t making peace.

Making peace requires our honest seeking, our question asking, our deep diving. Making peace demands we find the places where people are being oppressed and dehumanized. Making peace invites us to dwell in the messiness of discovery and uncovering.

There have been many many tragic events since the horror in Orlando. So many. And half my Facebook feed still remains silent. Our lack of acknowledgement might just equal our lack of belief that some people just aren’t worthy of our outrage and concern.

May we examine ourselves.

Perish, a Birthday, and a Three-Legged Dog

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Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.
Maya Angelou

I celebrated my 46th birthday this week. I have a long and sordid history with birthdays that I will not resurrect in this post, but I will say, after this past May I did not have the wherewithal to rally for yet another event. After a month of anticipating and preparing for the graduation of my firstborn, revisiting the death of my mother 34 years prior, and some additional vulnerability-producing scenarios, I didn’t quite have it in me. But the voices begin and persist, don’t they? The shoulds prattle on about the celebration of life, and choosing joy, and remembering how many have no more birthdays, and being grateful. Needless to say, I was short on perspective and long on shame.

So I went for a walk. Oftentimes I’ll listen to a podcast but I felt the need to work through the whatevers of my situation. I cried and pulled out the last vestiges of grief, for now. I looked up at the sky and down at my shadow, watched the birds dip and dive, checked the mountains for signs, listened to the ducks, stood like a proud mother as my dog splashed in every chance of water. I have a good situation here. My circuitous path is contemplative enough and quiet, surrounded by a growing suburbia with protected open spaces.

And rarely, if ever, in this neighborhood stroll do I find homeless folks.

But on my 46th birthday, I did. It’s a surprising sight over here, but I don’t take issue with our homeless folks. I find their stories fascinating and I try to help here and there when I can. This particular man happened to be tinkering with his bike trailer when I showed up. I stopped on the path and asked how his morning was.

“Shitty.” He said.

I responded quickly with, “Me too. And it’s my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday.”

“What’s your name? I’m Jen.” We shook hands.

“Hi Jen, I’m Perish, because I’d much rather be dead.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Perish. Well, good to meet you. And who’s this?” As a fluffy three-legged dog of Australian Shepherd origin came ambling over to meet my Clem.

“Oh, this is Gracie.”

“And this is Clem.” I replied as I watched the dogs sniff and get acquainted.

He continued on about living in Las Vegas and moving here to pursue more work in construction but he could get paid much better in Vegas. He said he needed to get a shower and a shave. I asked if he was aware of our homeless shelter and he affirmed that he was. I mentioned my husband was very involved in the shelter’s work.

“Oh, well that answers my next question.” He said with a dejected tone.

“What do you mean? What’s your question?” I pressed.

“I wanted to see if you wanted to go out with me tonight.”
And just like that, I was better. I got asked out by a man named Perish and his three-legged dog Gracie, on my forty-sixth birthday. I had now what I needed. Some new perspective and a lilt in my step.

I returned home with minutes to spare before a busy day doing all sorts of Left Hand Church things. My heart was lightened.

I will always have a contentious relationship with my birthday, but in our house we do birthday weeks so as not to place all the expectation on one day. It works better for us all, reducing triggers and disappointments. And I feel this way too for most minor holidays. Spread out the love, minimize the pressure, take it easy.

The day before my birthday, on Monday, I bought new sheets. On Tuesday, I put them on my bed freshly washed and ready to go. I love a new set of sheets, crisp and clean. Later in the day I learned of Kate Spade’s tragic and untimely death. The fresh sheets I put on my bed that birthday morning were from Kate Spade – a brand I have never purchased in my life.

Make of it what you will. She, in her life and in her death, is providing beauty that offers timeless comfort and rest. I will continue to thank her as I lay my head on the pillow tonight and every night until the sheets are frayed and worn. Another birthday lesson, to appreciate the goodness of life’s simple pleasures and comforts.

For what it’s worth, friends, we know not what each person we meet is enduring. We cannot know from a cursory glance or a stilted conversation, but we can certainly be curious. We can receive that which is given, oftentimes not what we were expecting, but a gift nonetheless. Every encounter, big or small,  has the power to change a life. Or at least a day.

And hey, you never know, it could be someone’s forty-sixth birthday and the best thing you can say when asked, How’s your day? is to respond with, Shitty.