Monday, June 13, 2016

This Unity of Ancient Belonging

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the 
   secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and 
   renewal to those who work with you and to those who see
   and receive your work.

- from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue

On a day when so many of us wept in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, I found myself spending hours with two men who have become kindred spirits. On a day when consolation was needed, my soul friends supplied real comfort.

I met Mark five years ago when he became a pastor at the church I serve. I liked him immediately. His humility and humor were refreshing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in need of healing when he entered my life. I was getting over years of church-inflicted trauma. Of powerful voices dismissing the calling and capabilities of women. Of disappointment and disillusionment amplified by religious-based bigotry.

Mark and Denise
Mark ably weaves grace and love as easily in one-on-one chats as he does in his sermons. Between hearty laughs and meaningful moments of silence, he practices holy listening and authentic presence. Over the years, my friends and I have challenged ourselves to embody such goodness.

Yesterday, amid prayers for those who grieve this latest act of evil, our church bid farewell to our beloved pastor and his dear wife Denise. Mark was recently reassigned, and so they will begin a new chapter apart from us. As the choir sang one last song, Mark and Denise held one another at the altar. My roommate Abigail, a bearer of light and love, came up beside me and rested her delicate hand on my shoulder. We stood in the balcony together, mirroring our friends, and shed tears. We cried over the loss of Mark and Denise. We cried over our slaughtered brothers and sisters. We cried for the hatred that seems all too prevalent.

Later, standing in the empty parking lot, Mark and Denise and I hugged. As we said tearful goodbyes, he reminded me that we were soul friends: one last gift of healing. 

The late Irish poet, John O'Donohue, dedicated an entire book to the concept of soul friends (anam cara in Gaelic). In Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the philosopher offers:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship... This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

When dozens of vibrant lives are cut short, when power-thirsty charlatans heap hate and ignorance on top of the initial violence, when our collective hope is once again dashed, our souls need their cherished friends.

Yesterday evening, as the oppressive heat gave way to a light breeze, I enjoyed the presence of my other soul friend, Thomas. My soul must have something of a split personality. Mark is devout; Thomas doubts. Mark is as wholesome as John Denver or Mister Rogers. Thomas is more of a rock star. Both men epitomize the truth behind O'Donohue's words:

"The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit." 
Thomas in his studio - the scene of many of our conversations.
I've never enjoyed looking in the mirror. I'm quick to scrutinize and inflate any perceived flaw. But somehow, in the presence of my soul friends, the mirror doesn't seem quite as harsh. The reflection, whole and still full of imperfections, is softened by overwhelming, genuine love.

With an abundance of grace, Mark points out the inconsistencies in my life. His gentle questions bring me to a place of self candor. I am a better person because of Mark.

And I'm a better person because of Thomas. Though staring down the ugly and hard is difficult, I'd often rather do that than explore the good and beautiful parts of me. Thomas is the one who casts light on what is almost too hard to see. As an artist always ready for the next critique, it's uncomfortable to sit in the brightness.

I was a student when I met Thomas a dozen years ago. I was in the adjacent pottery class, and I would work almost exclusively at the hand building table so I could overhear his art appreciation lectures. The next semester, I registered for his drawing class. My love of visual art, somehow abandoned in my late teens, returned with a new energy. 

Over time, Thomas became a trusted confidant. His search for and appreciation of grace, along with his passionate approach to living, imbue our late night conversations with meaning. We see the best in one another, and we make a point of reminding each other that we both have something worthwhile to give.

It's been less than two days since the news of the Orlando massacre broke. Already, the loudest and most obnoxious voices are heard above those calling for love. In times like these, what are we to do?

I am reminded that there are alternatives to hiding away or despairing of life. Mark is a pastor; Thomas is an artist. Through their vocations, they offer healing and beauty to a world desperate for both. I feel called to minister through acts of compassion and justice. And I feel called to create and teach art. Because of the influence of my soul friends, I am empowered to work for a better world, using the gifts I have. O'Donohue bids in Anam Cara

"may the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work."

Tonight, my friends and family stood shoulder to shoulder with members of our community. Words of mourning and resilience were shared. Candles were lit. A song was sung, and a bell was struck once for each victim of the Orlando shooting. It was a humble affair, quickly arranged on a downtown square. But in that assembly, the first embers of healing, light, and renewal were sparked.

We have work to do. I hope we find soul friends who remind us of our connection to all of humanity, who urge us to truly see ourselves, who bring out the real contour of our spirits, who share the burden and gift of life together. Perhaps then we'll be reminded of our shared work of pursuing peace and seeking justice and choosing love. 

"If you realize how vital to your whole spirit - and being and character and mind and health - friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us… we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential."

May we take time to nourish real, soul-deep friendship. May we seek and be soul friends. May we meditate on what we learn. May we urge one another on in love.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Til I Reach You

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state...

-from "Rivers and Roads" on The Head and the Heart's self-titled album

In this morning's wee hours, my friend Daniel lost his grandmother. I found out right before the bidding prayer during a service that celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. Calling out Daniel's name, I recalled similar prayers of comfort lifted for my own family last January 10.

A year ago today, my dad's family grieved the death of Pop, my 88-year-old grandfather. My parents had been keeping vigil for a long time. On my Aunt April's birthday, Pop breathed his last.

This afternoon, in the midst of chaotic funeral arranging, Daniel and his wife Monica took a little time to attend their young son's first art show. Daniel, proud Papa that he is, texted me an image of a whimsical collage, pointing out that the brightest component - a colorful bird - was created by his son.

I grieve with my friends. Daniel, Monica, and their clan will miss their Granny something fierce. But, as affirmed by an unexpected, happy paper bird, life goes on. Those left facing a new day without their loved one can find that fact almost unbearable at first. Even after a year, I know what it is to occasionally wake with a surprising sense of loss.

Pop and I were always great buddies. I had the good fortune of living close to my grandparents as a baby. And after he was sure I was too sturdy to break when he held me, Pop and I shared a bond that lasted the rest of his life. If I'm being honest, I still believe there's a tie that binds.

Pop and Lindsay on the deck of Pop and Sparky's home.

Pop was a complicated man, born and raised in a hard time. One of my cousins once described him as a "happy-on-the-inside kind of guy." And I suppose that sentiment was fairly accurate. I don't think he ever quite got over the death of his beloved brother in the Korean War. That heartache left him wounded and a bit hard around the edges. Even so, Pop sure was lovable.

In his own little ways, he made us all feel special. There's about a decade gap between the cousins in our family. Amanda, my brother Allyn, and I came first. Pop would make us giggle by randomly popping out his fake teeth. He spent hours regaling us with stories of his and Uncle George's shenanigans in Depression-era West Virginia. When Olivia and Cameron came along, Pop developed a game just for them. Every time he said goodbye to his youngest grandchildren, he would let out a huge sneeze. Dozens of quarters and dimes would magically land on the floor. Their delighted squeals always made his eyes soft.

Not the most demonstrative man outside of those childlike moments, he could seem gruff. But we all knew the truth: Mike Barrick loved his family and friends. He even knew our pals and regularly asked after them. If he met someone once, he remembered them. 

As my brother became a teenager, Pop would 'sell' him something - like an old TV or some forgotten toy - for a dollar bill now and then. When Allyn's best friend AJ would come along to visit, Pop extended the same deal to him. And when AJ died before his 23rd birthday, Pop grieved right alongside us. He knew the pain of a broken heart better than most, and when my dad and I both lost our best friends, Pop's heart broke again with ours.

I'm a keeper of letters and a firm believer in the beauty of handwritten notes. Pop prided himself on having perfect penmanship and a keen ability to choose just the right card for any occasion. I saved the ones he sent over the years: lovely words of sympathy, funny postcards sent from Florida vacations, cheerful cards filled with birthday wishes. In these treasured pieces of paper, I am reminded of his big heart.

My family and friends remember Pop and his love for us in different ways. We think of him when an old Dean Martin song is played. Or when we recreate his famous chocolate chip cookies. Others recall rooting for the Mountaineers with a young, debonair Pop, when dressing up was the fashion on game day. For me, he is inextricably linked to West Virginia and my abiding passion for my home state.

My grandparents' home was always the gathering place for holidays and summer vacations. The happiest moments of my life were spent in north central West Virginia, playing with my cousins and whispering late into the night with my grandmother Sparky or one of my aunts or uncles. We're all scattered from Texas and Indiana to North Carolina and Virginia. And Pop and Sparky's house is now someone else's home. This past Christmas was the first time none of us made the long drive out of state. We didn't exchange gifts around the tree or attend midnight mass or eat gobs of the best Italian food this side of Calabria.

Nothing is as it has been. And I miss the faces of my sweet cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss the faces of our West Virginia neighbors, priests, and old friends. I certainly miss looking my grandparents in the eyes and kissing their cheeks. But, in the newness of life without Pop and Sparky, our hearts are softened. We can share the gift of empathy. We appreciate rambling stories and the gnarled hands of the aged. We don't take for granted opportunities to gather with loved ones.

On this feast day, at my Aunt Mickey's parish, mass was offered for Mike "Pop" Barrick. I give thanks for the life of the man that did so much to shape mine and honor the ways he demonstrated his love for us.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Around the Bend: A Meditation on Death and Life

We had gathered all together / We had come to say goodbye
To the heart of an old soul / Who was far too young to die
And in the still you could hear the angels cry

Davey runs through the roses / And Davey danced through my life
I can see him up there with Moses / Right next to Jesus Christ
While I'm standin' at the crossroads / Wonderin’ what's around the bend
He's miles from here / Beyond the atmosphere / Just ashes in the wind

- from "Ashes in the Wind" on Kathy Mattea's album Roses

I was serving as a worship leader. Right before the band walked on stage, someone pulled me from the wing and pointed to a group of teenage girls, huddled together in the front row.

"We need someone to offer a prayer. You've been through this. Will you please say something?"

Nine years ago this week, my brother's best friend lost his little sister in a car wreck. Karson was sixteen. She was full of life and laughter. She was smart, athletic, pretty. Everyone knew she had a bright future. In a moment, she was gone.

I took a breath and dared to look at the young girls gathered in the darkened sanctuary, and my heart broke for them. Karson's teammates and friends cried as they held one another up in a tangle of hugs.

I knew that kind of pain. Six years earlier, I had lost my best friend. Amanda had just graduated from high school. She was the most outspoken, loving, silly, wise person. A few days after she donned her cap and gown, my closest confidant died in her sleep. 

As the praise team assembled, I took the microphone and addressed the teenagers. I told them how sorry we all were. How it didn't make sense. That it was okay to be sad. And angry. And then I said something that, at the time, I thought was helpful.

"Someday, the pain won't be as bad as it is now."

As soon as those words escaped my mouth, I locked eyes with Casey. She shook her head and didn't look back up for the rest of the service. Casey was Karson's friend. She was also Amanda's sister. Casey and her grieving friends didn't need anyone telling them that time would heal their pain. Nobody in the throes of such trauma needs anything but the space and permission to grieve alongside sincere friends who will cry with them.

I'm not a worship leader anymore. I serve as a director of programs for a congregation I love. On Sunday mornings, I stay behind the scenes as part of the tech team. A couple weeks ago, the church recognized our graduates. It happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Amanda's death. 

Our young people sat up front, sporting their graduation robes. A couple of them shared words of thanks and their plans for the future. Our graduating violinist played a gorgeous farewell. Blinking back tears, I played a slideshow of our graduates' baby pictures and school photos. I couldn't help but think of my friends who find it hard to celebrate on such occasions.

Just two years after Karson died, her big brother AJ passed away a couple days shy of turning 23. My brother Allyn, who had been AJ's rock through the loss of Karson, suddenly experienced that sort of torturous pain first-hand. 

I have witnessed powerful moments of grace in my life. None more meaningful than when my brother embraced AJ's mama Margo and sister Taylor as his own family. Through the years, Margo and Taylor and Allyn have loved one another with more urgency and understanding than any blood ties could compel. Allyn's daughter carries AJ's initials - a living testimony to an eternal bond of brotherhood.

Allyn, a gifted athlete, coaches basketball for underprivileged children. I lead drama for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Crossflame Youth Choir. It's a healing and humbling thing - pouring yourself into others. Somehow, working with young people, we feel a connection to our old friends, lost too early. Taylor and Casey - and Amanda's other siblings Sara and Jason - have all entered vocations where they get to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. I often think it is their early experiences with pain that help enable them to extend such great compassion.

My Crossflame kiddos light up my life. When I hear giggles echoing from the rehearsal space, I'm often transported to Amanda's house and hear her rolling laugh again. And when a brave teen attempts a solo for the first time, my mind drifts back to our high school choir room, and I relive the beauty that was AJ's singing voice.

This week, a few of our youth choir kids became unwitting members of that painful fellowship of young survivors of loss. A local boy - a rising senior - was killed in a car crash. As I read the remarks by some of my young friends on Facebook, I prayed for their tender hearts. I pray still.

I want to tell them that it gets better. And it does I suppose. The pain never really lessens, but the physical manifestations change and become bearable. Eventually, breathing returns to its unnoticeable, natural state. The actual heart ache becomes more of a memory than an every-moment sensation. The pain begins to lie dormant. Sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, it comes roaring back to the surface for a few hours, a couple days, some weeks. 

But what's to be done? We press on. We're left here to wonder what's around the next bend. We start planning and dreaming again. We take some risks. We make mistakes. New relationships are forged. And before too long, we realize we're living again.

There's nothing to replace the ones we've loved and lost. Margo and Taylor won't ever feel the same joy about the month of June as everyone else who welcomes the fun of summertime. Amanda's family will always feel her absence. Weddings, birthdays, and holiday gatherings will always feel incomplete. But they all continue to live and love and even laugh and celebrate.

I miss Amanda. I've never been so empowered to think critically as I was when we would sit around her kitchen table and debate everything from unfair school policies to patriarchy and feminism. And I miss AJ. I've never been hugged like I was by that big teddybear of a man. I've never quite experienced the feeling of home I had when we would all gather around the table as a family with AJ and Allyn racing to see who could put away the most corn pudding. 

Sparky, Allyn, Jeddy, Daddy, Pop, and AJ goofing around in West Virginia in 2002.
Other than my brother and daddy, all these dear people have passed.

I will always miss them. Allyn will always miss his brother. And my Crossflame students will always miss their friend. 

But I'm thankful. In the midst of tragedy, beauty can still be found. I know what it is to love and be loved. And so I'm more intentional about sharing love and grace and joy in my own life. I know what it is to miss the presence of someone special. And so I strive to see the remarkable in everyone and revel in simply spending time with them.

In a few days, Crossflame will begin our summer tour. We'll play with orphans, refurbish old buildings, hold hands with lonely octogenarians, sing songs of hope and justice. We'll laugh and cry and work together. And the first of a lifetime of healing moments will begin to ease the ache in my young friends' hearts. And I will remember Amanda. And AJ. And the other saints in my life who helped teach me how to love, how to grieve, and how to hope again.

We'll return home. I'll hug my niece tight. My brother and I will trade jokes. My parents and I will talk late into the night. I'll make music with my talented roommate. I'll see glimpses of dearly departed friends in the smiles of new ones. And, when the inevitable waves of grief crash over one of us, I'll know the tide will turn. And I'll give thanks.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Love With Urgency - An Advent Meditation

*Author's note: Lindsay's grandfather Mike Barrick passed away on January 10, 2015.

"And I will love with urgency but not with haste."

- from "Not With Haste" on Mumford & Sons' Babel

After days of gray skies, the sun is finally shining in north central West Virginia. Feeling that warmth - strong even as the temperature remains in the low thirties - is enough to remind me of the promise of summer. The winter solstice brings the hope of warmer days ahead while offering us the gift of the longest night.

Tonight, churches the world over - including mine - will hold special services for those trying to reconcile their sadness with the joy of Advent and Christmastime. Hurting, broken people will be met with grace and understanding as they acknowledge their pain during this longest night.

I can't think of another service that better embodies the gospel. After all, Emmanuel - God With Us - enters into a world of pain and meets us all where we are. 

And really, who among us isn't experiencing some sort of ache? Who doesn't long for acceptance and love?

A week ago, my grandfather fell. Pop sustained serious injuries and has been confined to a hospital bed ever since. My family and I continue to wait. We're preparing. For what, we're not quite sure. As we keep vigil, we honor the spirit of Advent.

Last night, my dad and I went to Mass at my grandfather's parish. We offered a prayer and were met with warm embraces. Beautiful old Italian women hugged me out of love for my parents and grandparents. Don, a faithful friend of Pop's, served as cantor for the communion song. We joined in the refrain: "For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you."

Don is in his eighties, but his voice is as pure and sturdy as a man's half his age. Before he sang, as the parishioners shared the peace of Christ, I saw him walk over to his wife. Alzheimer's has done its best to keep her away from most services. With the tenderest smile, he stroked her hair and gave her the sweetest kiss I've ever witnessed.  

After Mass, Father Larry met us in Pop's hospital room. Father Larry became the church's priest in 1980 and retired sixteen years later. I've known him my entire life. Always eager to laugh and trade stories, he's told me time after time that loving people is the most important thing.

His love for people is so authentic and catching. In the dim glow of hospital lights, he recounted his first Christmas as an ordained priest. He was asked to hold Mass on an Army base on the Czech border in 1953. He had grand plans of saving the entire world with his sermon. But when only a dozen people showed up, he was sensitive enough to adapt. He realized these worn out men and women missed their families so he spoke about the loneliness of the manger. In the short time he spent on the snow-covered, isolated base, he made friends with the Baptist chaplain and an African-American couple. 

"That's when it started. That's when I realized it's all about people. They're the best. And that's what Christmas is all about - people."

In an act that echoed his words, he led us in anointing Pop. As equals, we prayed. Father Larry made the sign of the cross on Pop's forehead and hands. He read the gospel account of Jesus forgiving and healing the paralytic. 

"I love this story. You see, Jesus is more concerned about healing our hearts. Offering us peace. He eases the burden inside of us."

Father Larry and I share a laugh after a sweet blessing

Pop's body is certainly in need of healing. But more than that, his heart needed the comfort that forgiveness brings. Through the gentle ministrations of a kind old man devoted to God, Pop received a blessing. My dad and I, weary from worry, experienced holy consolation.

As he left to minister to another friend, Father Larry gave us one more smile. With his eyes twinkling with delight, he whispered as if sharing a favorite secret, "You know, I've come to find that God's love is as unnoticeable as breathing. It's just here. Always."

Christmas really is all about people. When we celebrate the Incarnation, we remember that God chose to become one of us. And when we choose to love people, we honor the Incarnation of Christ within all of us. God is present in each simple act of love: a tender kiss between old lovers; a humble prayer offered for a friend; a gentle hug shared in a hospital room; an uneasy vigil kept day after day. 

May we learn to love with urgency but not with haste. May we rejoice in the promise of warmer days to come even as we experience these present long nights.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

If We Have No Peace

The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It's okay to feel afraid
But don't let it stand in your way
'Cause everyone knows that love is the only road

from "Secret O' Life" on James Taylor's album JT 

Tonight, someone I hardly know accused me of trying to make Michael Brown into a hero. According to this on-line acquaintance, I was attempting to garner popularity and entrance into the in-crowd by sharing a couple blog posts that asked hard questions in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. In this person's view, the recently slain teenager was a 'thug.'

The two posts I shared - one from Rachel Held Evans and another by Sarah Bessey - were written with humility. Both young bloggers admitted that as white women, they felt hesitant to comment. They wondered whether their sincere questions and sadness would be met with derision.

I share their unease. As a white woman who feels unqualified to speak to such horror. As someone whose only interactions with police have been respectful and pleasant. As a friend to half a dozen great law enforcement agents. 

All I can say to my accuser - and to anyone who would care about my inconsequential opinion - is that I believe we are meant to weep with those who mourn. And we are supposed to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Michael Brown, by all accounts, was surrendering when he was shot dead. His family's lawyer has admitted that Michael stole a pack of cigars prior to the confrontation. I have to ask myself - would any 18-year-old white boy I know meet his death for such a crime?  The obvious answer is as crushing as it is unfair.

I am no race-relations expert. Heck, I don't claim to be an expert on much of anything. But I know it is a tragedy and travesty when any young person dies - especially in such a violent manner. 

I don't have any interest in trying to promote anyone as a hero. Or a villain. But I do have a sincere passion for gaining understanding in the aftermath of such a sad, disturbing event.

It's been a challenging few weeks, friends. Likely for all of us. Our nation is reeling from Michael Brown's death, from the refugee children held in limbo at our southern border, from the escalating violence in the Middle East, from the unexpected suicide of the effervescent Robin Williams, from the day-to-day busyness our culture demands. The Avett Brothers' "Winter in My Heart" has been in constant rotation in my head. 

What makes us so eager to choose to think the worst of one another? Why must we suspect ego? Why pull a gun when hands are raised in surrender? Why preemptively strike and perpetuate war? Why assume cowardice in a life-ending act? 

In "Secret O' Life," James Taylor croons, "everyone knows that love is the only road." When given a choice to love or hate - and we are always given a choice - why do we do our best to create our own rocky path that leads to mistrust, meanness, and violence?

I am tired. My soul is worn out, friends. 

So what now? As a curfew and state of emergency are implemented in Ferguson? As pundits and their devotees argue politics while both Israelis and Palestinians die? As refugee children still wait as they're forgotten in the crush of a fresh news cycle? As bombs continue to maim and kill the innocent in so many parts of our hurting world? As insensitive insults are hurled at those dealing with mental illness? What now?

I'm out of answers. Except this: We can't give up, and we can't give in. 

We can't give up on working towards peace. We can't give up on the fight for justice. We can't give up on extending grace and love. We can't give up on ourselves. And we can't give in to the lazy temptation of treating someone as our enemy. We can't give in to the louder voices that advocate violence. 

How? I think sometimes the 'not giving up' and the 'not giving in' are done through the difficult, remarkable act of choosing to live. Really live. 

On August 7, about 140 of my friends - an astonishing number - came out for an hour or so to offer their support at my first solo show. And others who couldn't attend sent sweet notes, flowers, and reminders of their love. I can't remember when I felt so overwhelmed. 

I was excited to show my newest body of work, but I soon discovered that whether or not it was received the way I hoped, I was accepted beyond any expectation. It was an intensely powerful moment for this woman who often feels like an outsider and ragamuffin. My parents, brother, niece, roommate, friends near and faraway - those I cherish most in this world - ministered to my soul with their presence. 
Tie That Binds 4x2.5" intaglio monoprint from my show Fractured Sanctuary

A few days later, I attended a house concert. Quiles and Cloud filled my friends' basement with their groovy, California-based folk music. Then I went to a poetry reading. My friend Bud Caywood shared new poems on the beauty of nature. 

After the workweek, I laughed and laughed with kindred spirits in a friend's back yard. We spent hours talking about justice and our responsibility to work for positive change in the world.

And last night, I enjoyed a perfect, leisurely dinner with inspiring artists. As we lingered over roasted Brussels sprouts and friend green tomatoes, we shared our hopes and frustrations. We parted in a downpour, promising we would all collaborate soon as we embraced with soggy hugs. 

With everything that's going wrong with the world, such pursuits and pastimes seem trivial, even meaningless. But it's precisely those tender moments that remind us of our shared humanity and our need for one another.

My faith teaches me that Jesus came to give us life - abundant life. And that has nothing to do with houses, careers, or cars. Life is only truly rich when we acknowledge our interdependence and universal need for love. I believe Mother Teresa had it right when she said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Hangin' On (What's Gonna Come)

You've been kneeling in the dark for far too long
You've been waiting for that spark but it hasn't come
Well I'm calling to you please get off the floor
A good heart will find you again
A good heart will find you 
Just be ready then

From “Bird of Sorrow” on Glen Hansard’s album Rhythm and Repose

Life can be overwhelming. With heavy hearts, we learn of yet another mass shooting. Hundreds of Nigerian girls are still missing. Climate change continues to be denied and ignored. North Carolina lawmakers hurriedly push a devastating pro-fracking bill through the state senate. Tennessee reintroduces the electric chair. Millions of Syrians are crowded in refugee camps; others are trapped and starving in bombarded cities.

It seems the Man in Black was on to something when he proclaimed to Buttercup that “life is pain."

On this Memorial Day, we remember those who died in war. Peace-seeking people the world over pray and work for the day when mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, lovers, spouses, and friends won't have to bury another young person lost to conflict.

As I child, I couldn't wait for the beginning of summer. I knew West Virginia hills, my grandmother's spaghetti, and family get-togethers were right around the bend after Memorial Day. But summers aren't easy for me anymore. 

Fourteen years ago, at the age of 17, my life changed when my best friend unexpectedly died after graduation. A few years later, my dad's best friend died in May. Four years after that loss, my brother's best friend died days shy of his 23rd birthday in June. At the end of that summer, my grandmother (and kindred spirit) Sparky left us. Two school friends were also shot and killed as we grieved. Summers are now full of dark days.

What are we to do in a world where young people are sent to faraway lands to kill one another while old men refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue? How can we manage to get through the day when we hear that students have once again been slaughtered? When children and women suffer and starve in Syria and countless corners of the earth? When politicians think only of power and profit as them damn the environment and the 'least' among us? When we reflect on the lives of dear friends we feel we lost too soon?

We are overwhelmed and broken people. Our hearts are hurting.

When the pain of life begins to settle in, I find myself listening to a lot of Yes The Raven, Glen Hansard, and Steafan Hanvey. These Irish crooners sing of heartache like few can. 

And then I begin to remember.

I remember goodness. And beauty. 

This world is filled with darkness. And sometimes, life really is pain. But there is more. 

In recent years, Mother Teresa's memory and life's work have been lambasted. Her private journals, full of devastating doubt and crushing loss, were made public. Some have seen her honest questioning and pleading as proof that she was a fraud. Far from living a lie, I believe this modern day saint gave of herself because that's all she could do in the face of so much suffering. For me, her life is even more of an example in light of her tremendous periods of disbelief. Instead of giving up or retreating to a more comfortable lifestyle, she continued to pour out love - even when she didn't feel like it. Even when she herself could feel no love.

My friend and pastor, Mark Andrews, just finished a sermon series entitled "Formed at the Table: Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given." Each Sunday in May, he focused on one of the actions of Christ as he shared the last supper. Mark challenged his congregants to allow ourselves to be taken, blessed, and broken, so that we may ultimately give.

It is in giving ourselves that we can face the world and its many tragedies. Instead of succumbing to paralysis, we are called to action. We do well when we heed Gandhi's advice and become the change we wish to see. 

Mark doesn't just advise from a pulpit. He and his wife Denise are taking renewal leave to bike 4,000 miles across the United States. They hope to raise funds and awareness to combat human trafficking. Their 'pedaling to stop traffic' campaign begins in a few days. I'll miss my friends this summer, but their example is life-giving.
Mark and Denise try out their tiny tent that will be their home for the next three months.
There is much to celebrate in this life. It's easy to forget. But we can't let ourselves.

My niece turned five today. Named after my brother's best friend AJ, our little AJ adds joy to our lives just as her namesake always did. She is unaware of the darkest places and problems of this world. She is full of light. 
Our little AJ celebrates her 5th birthday with sopapilla.
I don't know that I'll ever become a mother. But already my life is full of children. My niece and the daughters and sons of friends make my broken heart happy. I want to give of myself to these little ones. I want them to know love and goodness and grace. When life gets overwhelming, I have to remind myself that these little people need us older folk to prove that life might be hard at times, but that there is always beauty to be found. And what's more, if we instill in them a love for nature and humanity, beauty just might be easier to spot in the future.

Children innately have the ability to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life. Squealing with delight in the cold rush of creek water, smiling at a passing butterfly, singing a made up ditty as if nobody hears... I want more of that childlike wonder in my own life.

Last week, my three-year-old pal Caden and I spent some sweet time lying on cool grass and watching clouds float by. He found some dinosaur and pirate ship clouds. He was interested in the turtle and duck clouds I saw. In that moment, my life was full. Nothing but joy was present.

We need to look for more of those opportunities.

I'm thankful for a built-in reminder of the goodness of life. Living with my housemate Abby is like coexisting with a little hippie fairy. Music and laughter just naturally exude from her. We're both sensitive, artsy types. We mourn over tragedies. We let them sit with us for a while. But we're learning to help each other remember to look for the beauty. And we encourage one another to give of ourselves. Even if we don't feel up to it.
Abby plays banjo as she and I harmonize on our back deck.
I just got to hug that sweet girl after days of being apart. I spent the weekend at a singles workshop at Lake Junaluska. As the Director of Programs for a United Methodist Church, I went to the conference with an open mind as my friend and Deacon Nancy McDow considers beginning a new singles program for our community.

On the first night, one of the facilitators mentioned a beloved saint of mine - Thomas. (Poor man. I've always thought Thomas was given a bum rap. Being labeled Doubting Thomas seems unfair when he was just putting into words what most of us would have felt if someone told us our friend had risen from the dead. After all, he was a man of courage: he spoke up and encouraged his terrified comrades when none of them wanted to return to Bethany with Jesus after Lazarus died.)

To a room full of hurting people - most of whom were struggling with divorces or deaths of spouses - the leader reminded us that when we give of ourselves and show our wounds (as Jesus did for dear Thomas), others can see light and love. In being brave and authentic, others can do the same. In the process, we all begin to heal.

While I was secluded in the mountains, Pope Francis showed his scars and the scars Christians have endured and inflicted as he visited the Holy Land. His call for reconciliation resounds because of his authentic gift of grace.

One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen, believed that "our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others." Faced with this world and its challenges, I tend to agree. The world needs us. What will be our response?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Make You Feel This Way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy 
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you a day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you 
I'd sing a song to make you feel this way

- from "Sunshine on My Shoulders" on John Denver's album Poems, Prayers, and Promises

Forty years ago today, John Denver earned his first #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Sunshine on My Shoulders." I can relate to Denver's recollection of the dreary, late winter day that inspired the song. "The snow was melting and it was too cold to go outside and have fun, but God, you're ready for spring. You want to get outdoors again, and you're waiting for that sun to shine, and you remember how sometimes just the sun itself can make you feel good. And in that very melancholy frame of mind, I wrote 'Sunshine on my Shoulders.'"

I found myself humming this old favorite today as the morning sunshine flooded my little car. Feeling the warm sun on my skin once again, my heart seemed lighter. After a particularly long winter, spring had finally come.

Sunshine is sweetest at the onset of spring. When the bitterness of winter is fresh in our minds, we can best celebrate the first sensation of sun on our skin. It is in experiencing the cold, cabin-fever-filled days of winter that we learn to love the freedom and newness in spring. 

John Denver was able to write a joyful song in the midst of melancholy. So strong was his yearning for spring, he was able to capture some of its warmth just by contemplating what was surely to come.

This week - just as spring began in earnest in western North Carolina - a survey was reported. For the second year running, the community I live in was listed as the fifth most miserable area in the United States.

The news spread quickly on Facebook. Sharing their initial reaction, friends either lambasted the survey's findings and methods or lamented the fact that the greater Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area was going to become known as a misery hub. Some even agreed that we do, in fact, live in a place worthy of such an unfortunate distinction.  

The survey pointed toward economics as being an important factor in the community's sense of misery. The large and ever-increasing income disparity is hard to ignore in Hickory, Lenoir, and Morganton. Our median household income continues to rank among the lowest in the nation at $37,364. The real economic hardships experienced by our citizens seem to go ignored by politicians and business leaders. 

I believe some of the most misery-inducing issues aren't listed as indicators on the survey. Our region struggles from decades-old, ingrained racism. The good ol' boy system is still very much in place. Patriarchy persists. Equality seems a distant hope for many. Bottom-line concerns rule most business decisions. Consumers visit big box stores far more often than supporting local farmers or artisans. The needs of our struggling neighbors are unknown or ignored. Natural resources are politicized and spoken about as commodities rather than beautiful gifts to be protected. 

While our area is dealing with especially harsh, prolonged economic depression, we aren't really so different than any other community in the United States. There is much that leads to misery here and throughout our land.

But maybe we can hasten spring. Perhaps, as we live in the bitter cold of unfair economic realities and the isolation that comes from believing in the false promise of the American dream, we can yearn and strive for something better. 

I've always felt a little like an outsider here. I was born in West Virginia, and in my heart, that's always been home. Though I've lived most of my years in North Carolina, I never felt truly accepted growing up. Because generations of my ancestors lived in the West Virginia hills rather than the smaller ones of North Carolina, I was seen as 'new' and 'different.' My parents experienced the worst of our neighbors' derision. Dismissed as hillbillies or hippies, they finally moved back to the Mountain State. They're now embraced as full members of their community, with meaningful gifts and insight to share.

I've been tempted more than a time or two to call it quits here myself. But each time I come close to packing up my furniture and shaking the Carolina clay from my shoes, I choose to stay.

It's gotten easier. At the same time my area has apparently become more miserable, I've become more content and happy. And I'm convinced it's no accident.

I have tried to be open to the goodness around me. Yes - I continue to be frustrated by inept and out-of-touch politicians. I mourn for the loss of our environment. I despise a system that leaves out the 'least' among us. But goodness does remain. 

It's hard for me to sense much of a connection to this patch of earth. Six hours north, and I'm in heaven. I experience a soulful bond to the mountains my people have spent years exploring. But it's becoming more and more clear that I've been placed here. As much as I struggle against the fact, I am making my home in North Carolina.

It often occurs to me - especially when I'm feeling particularly homesick for my parents or the rolling West Virginia hills - that most of the people I love are concentrated in Hickory, Lenoir, and Morganton. It's a mystery to me how so many incredible people have found their way to this little community in western North Carolina. 

Could 'home' really be where your heart is? If that's the case, then I must be where I should be. Because my heart is wrapped up in the people I love in this sometimes-frustrating region. 

Last weekend, I enjoyed a fabulous birthday party. I'm not much for crowds. Or noise. Or parties for that matter. But I always love having my friends over. It's because I feel like I have the most diverse, amazing group of friends. 
Enjoying great friends at my prohibiton-era themed birthday party

Some are pastors. A couple are drag queens. Many of them are artists, musicians, or teachers. Lots are in their twenties and thirties, but a good number of them are my parents' age or older. Democrats and Republicans are represented. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Pagans, and those professing no faith are all dear to my heart.

I never fail to hear several people exclaim how much they love my parties. I don't boast cool games, catered food, or the choicest wine. It's conversation and connection. My friends - different as they are - come to find they really enjoy one another. They become open to the goodness that surrounds them. 

The secret is, I haven't really done anything to deserve these remarkable friendships. All I've done is been open. And once we cross each other's paths, it's up to us to nourish the initial spark of recognition. Relationships blossom. Years pass, and you suddenly realize your life is full of growth and meaning because of the people in it.

When I hear people complain that it's too difficult to find friends in Hickory or Lenoir, I cringe. It's just not so. And that's coming from an awkward introvert. You can meet interesting people throughout the area. We may be in the midst of some pretty difficult problems, but we also enjoy living in one of the most culturally rich spots on the map. 

Each week, I have too many choices. And they're all free or low-cost. I have a dozen musician friends I can go see around town. Should I go to an art reception or hang out with interesting writers? Catch a play or grab a cup of coffee with a friend? Stop by the farmer's market or take a refreshing walk? Would I rather discuss a good book with a supportive group of women or worship alongside authentic young adults? Would my young niece enjoy exploring the Science Center or playing in one of the many parks close to my home? 

Our home is only as miserable as we are. We can find kindred spirits wherever we go. If we're open. Our senses, minds, and bodies can always be engaged. If we're open. We can actually work for progress for our neighbors and environment. If we're open. We can love and be loved. We can revel in great art, music, and food. We can talk and laugh and cry. We can find common ground. We can commune with one another and nature and God. We can feel the sunshine on our skin. We can do all of this in our own backyard.

Spring is sweet. Full of life and promise. The harsh winter has melted away. If I had a song that I could sing for you, I'd sing a song to make you feel this way.