The world will still be turning on Wednesday

Four years ago, on a Friday evening in late summer, my Welcome Week group and I gathered around a table in the campus center basement. A couple years ago those tables were replaced with new offices and fancy leather chairs, but in 2008 it was the perfect place to escape the constant, searing Texas heat.

And as we chewed on cafeteria hamburgers, our conversation turned, inevitably, to the impending presidential election.

“So, what do you think? Who are you voting for?” I posed the question to our peer leader, a senior bible major and Optimus Prime enthusiast, who had recently shared the story of his Central Park engagement. I’ll admit it: I thought he was pretty cool.

And he just kind of laughed, a knowing “do I really want to get into this discussion with a group of self-assured freshman 30 minutes before the mentor group olympics” kind of laugh.

At least that’s how it sounds in my memory.

“Well” he finally offered, “I haven’t decided for sure, but I don’t really think I’m going to vote.”

In all of my political discussions, the idea of not voting had never occurred to me.

Growing up, my general belief system was something along the lines of:

Good Christian = good student = good American = voting Republican.

It had taken me 18 years to pull the last word off of that equation. In all my wisdom, I now believed it was possible to be a good Christian and a democrat. I know, how about a standing ovation for enlightened thinking.

But not voting? This is America. Elections matter. Democracy is the conduit by which all good and bright and true things are brought into the world. How will you fight injustice and the disintegration of morality if you don’t vote?

And then came election night, and I made the mistake of getting on facebook.

People seemed to literally believe that the world was ending. Or that Jesus himself had returned to instate the United States of America as the New Jerusalem.

And suddenly, the whole thing felt incredibly farcical. Half my friends had never experienced such joy. And the other half had already called a Canadian* real estate agent.

*Because I’m a contrarian, I felt the need to point out to them that if they were hoping to escape the tyranny of socialism, Canada was not a stellar choice.

The next day, I just kept thinking, “who cares?” What if Obama is the anti-Christ? What if, in four years, despite congressional oversight and a working judicial system, he somehow manages to destroy the very fabric of society of plunge us into a pit of economic collapse so deep that we can never escape? What if?

*Let it be said, that I don’t think that is or was remotely possible.

God will still expect the very same things from me that he expects right now. I mean, yeah, that would be awful, but my primary allegiances and obligations would not be any different.

Which brings me to 2012, in which I’m not planning to vote.

And it’s not because I’m uninformed. And it’s not even because I’m cynical, though I can rail against vitriolic and ineffectual politicians with the best of them. And it’s not because there aren’t issues I care about.

*Truth be told, I nearly changed my mind when Romney came out against PBS. Because I think NPR and PBS are the only unambiguously good things that the federal government does with my money. And I will pay for any number of ineffectual programs if I still have Ira Glass and All Things Considered. But,

It’s just my private protest.

Against all the years that I pledged allegiance to a flag.

Because I love my home, but it’s not my God.

And I don’t believe a politician will save the world.

On the first Wednesday in November, we’ll all wake up, and the world will still be turning, Lord willing.

One side will be celebrating.
The other will be in utter despair.
Compromise will still be a dirty word.
John Stewart will still be funny.

The poor will still need food.
Marriage equality will still be right, and it will still be happening.
My stomach will still ache at the thought of the billions we spend on the military.
I will still be paying into a social security system that will never benefit me.

I will still wake up and go to work.
I will still be a Christian, for all the broken mess that word encompasses.
I will still be wrong about a lot of things, I’m sure.
I will still be trying to figure out how to love well and care for hurting people.

In the end, I just don’t think this election has the eternal consequence it claims, and I won’t be participating.

*please note that this is only what I decided I should do. I don’t think that nobody should vote. I don’t think you’re a bad Christian or whatever if you want to vote. This is just how I made my own decision.

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This God thing, it’s good?

It’s something like love
Something like light
Something like gold
Something like fight

Something like free
Something like cost
Something like sunshine
Something like frost

Something like mountains
Something like air
Something like cathedrals
Something like prayer

Something like broken
Something like grace
Something like falling
Something like embrace

Something like obedience
Something like tearing
Something like questions
Something like repairing

Something like knowing
Something like tears
Something like hiding
Something like fears

Something like leaving
Something like burning
Something like the father running
Something like the son returning

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David and I had our first evening of pre-marital counseling last night. And before we met with our counselor guy, there were the ubiquitous forms to be filled out.

Under the religious beliefs and upbringing section, there was the request: Describe your relationship to God. In two 12 pt. lines. To which I responded: It’s good?

Because I’m articulate like that.

Really though, what are you supposed to say in that space? I’ve been asked that so many times, as though there should be an ready-made answer: microwavable beliefs. I’ve been working on it my whole life, and I haven’t come up with an answer more concise than a seven stanza poem.

So maybe now I’ll just give them this.

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PS. I promise I haven’t lost my deep love of prose. I just found this beautiful blog a week or so ago, and it’s so full of lovely poetry. It just seemed like so much fun.

The Year that I cried.

I feel the need to begin with a disclaimer. Sometimes, I feel the need to write things out, the sentences keep carrying on in my head, and I can’t seem to quiet them until I get them outside my head in some way. It’s not that I necessarily believe them to be important or poignant. They’re just there, making noise and distracting me.

And sometimes those things are personal. And more often than not, they are buried inside a journal or draft that no one will ever see. But sometimes, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I don’t feel satisfied to leave them there. And I agonize then, a bit. But I have, occasionally, found comfort in the vulnerability of other people’s words. And I don’t know why we’re scared to share the hard things, especially the hard things that end up making room for really beautiful things.

So I’m sharing this with you. And here’s the disclaimer: it is not a perfect accounting. It isn’t particularly factual or carefully edited. It is by no means a complete retelling, and it’s definitely not a “look how hard my life is” thing. Because there are few things more boring and universal than a break-up. But they don’t feel boring or universal; they feel raw and deeply personal, in my experience.

After David and I got engaged, a friend of ours came up to me at church, and said, “I’m so happy you two got back together, what a sweet testimony.” And I’ve thought about that quite a bit, and I’m not sure I’ve worked out what that is, exactly.

But here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s emotional and biased, but it’s honest.

—————

It started, really started on April 28th, 2011.

I know because I woke up the next morning at 5 a.m., and I drove to the tiny, silent room where I worked as a desk manager. And I watched a prince marry a princess, for $7.25 an hour.

That morning was a cold, stale numbness, as mornings often were. It was also the start of a long year, full of stories and reasons and questions and love and confusion and grace. And always, alongside, there were tears, hot and stinging and unbidden.

The night before, I’d given him his sweatshirt, the big white one I used to steal whenever I got the chance. And he sat on my bed. And I put my arms around his neck, and he wrapped his around my waist. I sobbed into the top of his head and he cried into my neck. And “I didn’t think it would end like this” and “Neither did I”. And both of our voices were breaking.

It was couple weeks later, on a warmish night in early May that we all went to the drive-in: our church, that boy, and me. And it got midnight dark as we gathered out in that field, in the backs of SUV’s and on folding chairs, watching a super hero movie that I might have liked another night. But he was there, and I was so aware of him. And I felt invisible. I lay in the bed of that truck and I prayed, prayed, prayed. And I willed myself to sleep to escape the fist that was tightening, hard, inside my chest. And I woke up to explosions and alien planets and nonsense. And the fist was closing my windpipe. And the great big sky wasn’t enough room. And I was holding my breath to stop the tears. And I had to get out, but I didn’t have a car. So I called one of my dear friends, who also happened to be that boy’s roommate. And I heard him pick up the keys before I’d even finished asking. And I wandered around, away, anywhere but back toward that boy I loved with everything, sitting in a folding chair, watching a movie, next to friends who were not me. He arrived, and I collapsed into his car, sobbing into my knees. And he drove me home like that. And he sat with me outside my house and held me with those guy arms that I needed like an anchor. And he told me “I love you, kid”.

And later, my boy was on his way to my house. He missed me and he loved me, and God knows I missed him. I knelt on my floor and cried to God, praying through my tears, asking for peace, for wisdom, for answers, for something solid that I could hold onto.

A month after that, I was visiting family in Austin. We’d been talking again, skyping late into the morning. And he texted me while Aunt Holly and I strolled around a summer farmer’s markets. He was sorry, he was sure this time, sure sure. And Holly and I sat in her warm garage and cried grateful tears while she shared stories about my parents and marriage and relationships and grace.

And six months later, a lifetime later, we were [almost] broken up again, and I sat on the bank of a canyon river, in the pitch black night. I gasped with tears that would not stop, pouring from a black emptiness I had never known, felt ill-equipped to fight. And I knew I was making things worse, but I was drowning, the currents holding me under, while the rain kept falling. And I screamed for help, choking my lungs. And the only one I wanted was nowhere. And I prayed. But the words were gone. There was nothing I could ask. God wouldn’t make that boy love me, and he wouldn’t give me an easy way out. But still I cried to him, under the stars, on the banks of that river. “God, please, God, help, God, it hurts so much, God, I don’t want to be here anymore, God, please, God, God, Abba”, my cries screaming to be heard over the deafening roar of the flood.

It was a year marked in sobbing cries and whispered tears. Sometimes I hated myself for those tears, for the lack of will that couldn’t shove them back. But I learned to welcome them, to be thankful for them. Because I couldn’t figure out happiness exactly. So those tears, that mourning, became my defense against the hardness, the bitterness. And I could feel it, an ugly knot settling itself on the right side of my chest, a counter-weight to my aching heart. It sat there, tightening in on itself, feeding on self-righteous anger. So I chose grief; I chose tears that soaked through the knot, loosened it just a little, just enough.

And all throughout that year, I cried in church and in chapel and in fields and on mountains and beside canyon rivers. And any time that there were songs that connected me to God, to that ancient, true, and constant something.

Because I sang those words, the ones I know deeper than by heart, and everything was there – upfront, gaping and laid-out and known. I felt the deep pain of reconciling yourself to the knowledge that you’ve hurt someone you love, and to the pain of being hurt and to the feeling that again you hadn’t been enough. And I knew that God loved me, regardless, and that God loved him, regardless. And I cried because I didn’t know how to love like that.

And Jonathan preached forgiveness, and it rang so true. He painted a picture of heaven, and I was overcome with the knowledge that everyone I was angry with would be there, was already, now, a part of this kingdom that I desperately wanted. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I had a part in bringing there here. That to do so meant to forgive, to really let it go, to welcome grace. And I cried because I didn’t even know where to start. And those tears brought healing; embracing the heart-breaking reality that I didn’t know how to begin, opened my heart a bit more.

And somehow, by some grace that I can’t understand or thank or deserve, on April 27th, 2012, that boy got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. And wouldn’t you know, I cried then, too. Because we were changed, blessed, redeemed – Hallelujah, grace like rain.

Maybe it’s enough.

I did this at work today.

Because the chaotic, spilling, hodgepodge of sweeteners had been bothering me since I started this job.

I pulled out the top tray and dumped it out over the table, sending aspartame packets skidding across white plastic. I gathered them up again, methodically aligning each one, letting my hands do easy, careful work.

.

Last Thursday I got an email from an acquaintance of mine. The email contained a reflection written by a woman living in a “war-torn region”. And she told about what it means to be a refugee, to be a woman carrying your children across the desert, running from death and starvation.

She described the woman she met, the one who realized half-way between war and an over-crowded camp that she couldn’t save all her children. So this woman had to leave one of her babies beneath a tree, on the side of the road, so that they wouldn’t all starve.

And the email said:

She walked away and somehow, my world did not so much as shudder. I didn’t know to stop chopping or sleeping or washing, to fall on my face on the floor and weep for her. For all of us.

And as I sat in my car, at a red light, in the pouring rain, I couldn’t hold back my own tears. I just kept thinking of the babies I’ve held, the weight of them, their helplessness. And I don’t understand this world. I want do something. I want to do more than weep over a choice I can hardly fathom.

.

But I parse out the blue packets, placing them one, two at a time into their tray. Then I start on the white. And little by little crinkling paper and sifting granules come to rest in a neat line.

.

And across the world, the dam is breaking, anger and resentment rush out, rolling over cities and countries, leaving nothing but destruction. And I try to open my heart enough to take in these, too. But it all feels so senseless – the violence and the rioting. I’m left with this desire to grasp the world by the shoulders and scream sense into her, “Killing an innocent man isn’t helping!” 

But the world doesn’t need any more screaming voices.

And my heart breaks for the distance, because there’s so much more than geography between us.

.

So I replace that tray and grab another, fingers separating, gathering, replacing. A cathartic, repetitive movement, drawing order out of chaos.

.

And on television our politicians are railing, condemning apologies and humility. ‘Because we are better than them and we shouldn’t have to apologize’. It’s the lie we’ve been told our whole lives: we are the greatest, the wisest, the most just.

And in our fear we listen to them. Believing that if we can just elect the “right” official, blame the appropriate person, draft the perfect safety manual, we can stop the hemorrhaging, staunch the blood pouring from a wound as old as humanity and as deep as our souls.

But it is vanity, a chasing after the wind. 

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My organizing has left an extra tray, just enough room for the pizza topping packets. So I line them up, front to back, right way up, filling the empty space.

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And on Sunday we listened to a sermon that David paraphrased as “an ‘inspirational’ presentation on the benefits of friendship”. I sit there, and I feel like the only one spectator at the parade who can see that the emperor is naked.

The world is breaking and what good are we if the best we can offer is affirmation of ourselves and our football loving friends? Is that not the definition of salt that should be thrown in the garbage?

.

And I step back to admire my handiwork, try to find a purpose.

Because I haven’t quite figured out how to be part of this world, how to be honest but not cynical, how to be convicted but not proud. I haven’t really figured out what to do with the mess.

But I know we are asked to enter into it, to let our hearts break when a mother is forced to leave her baby alone to die. We are told to offer grace to those who might hurt us, to see the humanity in a desperation that leads to fire and murder. We are told to love.

We are commanded to surrender power at every turn, not to legislate the world into submission. We are supposed to be the very flavor of humanity, not just nice people with nice friends.

We are commanded to be light and peace.

And sometimes that doesn’t seem like very much. But maybe it’s enough. Maybe slow and patient, tiny acts can draw the new order of the kingdom out of the aching turmoil.

Maybe.

Mountain Air

This morning there was a Colorado chill in the air. The kind that awakens the soul, but still hints at the warmth of the day to follow.

It reminds me of all my summer mornings in the Rockies. It fills me with a desperation to pull on crinkly hiking shorts and an old t-shirt, then to grab my Northface pullover as I’m walking out the cabin door, an extra layer that will come off almost as soon as I start moving, but that feels so right when I step out into that brisk moment of evaporating dawn.

Almost every summer of my childhood, my family took a trip to Estes Park when the YMCA of the Rockies hosted a Continuing Education course for Family Practitioners. The morning of our trips my mother would canvas the house, cleaning dishes and making beds, while my father stuffed the entirety of REI’s camping section into the car-top carrier. Five hours after our intended departure, we would pull out of the driveway and head west toward the mountains, our hearts lightening each mile, returning home.

Occasionally, my dad would let me sit in on a lecture with him. But usually, my sister and I spent our days at camp: hiking, rock climbing, and horse back riding with other kids whose familial ties to medicine and the mountains had brought them to this place. Then each afternoon, we’d sit with our new friends on the wide deck of the lodge, drinking hot chocolate and watching the rain that came to cleanse the earth.

But my favorite day, every year, was the day my dad would skip his classes and take us on our “big hike”. He’d help Anna and me pack our backpacks the night before, reminding us to fill our water bottles and dress with layers. We’d rise, bleary-eyed, before sunrise, and drive up into the park, never talking, just listening to John Denver, and the silence. I’d stare out the window as the sunrise broke over the jagged peaks and dissipated the mists swirling through the evergreens.

We trekked all day, across switchbacks and beyond the tree-line, sustained by breathtaking views and handfuls of my dad’s sunflower seeds. Sometimes we’d make the summit, other times an on-coming storm or a late start or our too-tired legs forced us back. Mostly I didn’t care. I loved following my dad up those mountains, listening to the stories he would tell us, sharing his childhood or reforming his favorite books into narratives his daughters could understand.

Some mornings especially I long for that place.

Church has been unusually difficult for me recently. I imagine this is partly due to the fact that I don’t know anyone yet. I’m dealing with all the frustrations of church without any of the community. And that will take time, I know. But it seems there’s something more than that.

Yesterday in class, in a lesson about Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the teacher said something about how God asks us to choose a side, or something like that. And a man in the class said, “No, God demands that we choose.”

And when it comes to the thing we will serve, to the God or concepts or political parties that get our allegiance, I suppose he’s right. But something about his harshness, his certainty jarred me.

What about when I don’t know what to choose? Where’s the ambiguity? The humility? The room to question, and wrestle with all the so many things that aren’t so black and white?

We sit around a room and share what feel like empty platitudes. We recycle and reiterate the same hollow phrases I’ve heard my whole life, but they don’t offer any comfort anymore. And I feel so alone in my unease, in my frustration.

Someone goes on a rant about “East Coast Tolerance“, that dirty word. And everyone nods along. But I don’t want to; I want to leave. Because it festers with superiority, it inflames an us-versus-them mentality. Maybe they don’t have it right either, but don’t you see what they’re reacting against? Don’t you hear the pride, the condescension, the closed door? No, I don’t believe everyone can design their own truth, I don’t believe every idea is equally valid.

But that doesn’t mean we are the sole arbiters of truth. That doesn’t mean we can’t be wrong.

I sat through service, listening some and mostly trying to translate Hebrews, because I wanted to connect myself again to something ancient and holy.

So after church, after a sermon with almost as many references to politics and A&M football as Jesus, and not one mention of the people living outside these walls, I just want to tighten up my hiking boots and walk away, up into the mountains. I want to feel the dirt packing beneath my soles and the burning in my legs as I move higher and higher into the clouds, beyond the trees. I want to connect myself to the earth, and walk with people who love the land and respect the need for silence.

I want to climb so high that there’s nothing, but rocks and sky and me and God. I want to sit and I don’t want to hear a single human voice. I just want to listen to God. I want to observe the heart-breaking beauty of this world and I want him to tell me his stories, the ones that will fight off this encroaching cynicism.

Though I wouldn’t mind some company. And anyone who wants to come and climb and listen with me is welcome.