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.