Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Closet Full of Shoes (an update)

Remember when I told ya'll I was waiting for more shoes to drop (in a post cleverly title The Other Shoe, read here)? After the toddler's hand got burned, and the husband lost his job, the MINI got sold, etc ?

Yeah, we got a whole closet full of shoes now.

The next week Valentine developed double ear infections, days of fever, and tantrums that shook my confidence in this whole parenting gig. Who'm I kidding? They convinced me I couldn't parent. Jason got intensely sick, and we lost opportunities to take short term work... yada, yada, yada (even I'm getting bored with calamity).

The thing is: I wouldn't take a single day of this back. Even though the daughter is sick again, and we are dealing with some significant criticism.

Because, through all these experiences, we found the depth of our community's capacity to love and support to be endless.

Our small group elected to sit in concerned silence as I told them of my heartache, then we all laughed over silly things. Members of our church text us, just to check in. Friends send encouraging emails, or stop in parking lots and on porches for extended chats. My counselor smiled gently and listened hard. My mother took the baby for a night when I was hysterical and running on four days of sleeplessness. My family planned a night away for all us grown-ups to celebrate my dad, and just be together.

I always struggled with needing people. Hated it, really. I believed if I needed things, then people couldn't, or wouldn't, love me. Such faithlessness... These last couple of weeks have converted me to humans.

I know we're still capable of terrible, horrendous, destructive evil. But, in our situation, Jason and I have been slathered in the simplest, most wholesome, selfless good. And, I found myself actively thinking of how to be transparent about our needs during this time. As we work to build real relationships with our friends, I wanted to tell them specifically how we craved their love and support. 

So, it's Ash Wednesday. As I prepared to speak the introduction to our service, I stumbled across a photo of me receiving the imposition of ashes last year. It dawned on me that my new faith experienced a sort of birth in those ashes. I felt the stirring of my need. Need for community. For love. For faith. For the Jesus I'm still learning about.

I also encountered beautiful reflections on what this holy day can mean from my brother (see below), mother, a local minister (see below), a distant priest, friends. It struck me that Ash Wednesday and Lent are inextricably connected to our humanity. Not in a shameful, or guilt-ridden way. Just an honest evaluation of what it means to be human. We are mortal. We are temporal. We are broken at times, and at times we do the breaking.  We need.

We need the receiving and giving of love.
We need the receiving and giving of forgiveness.
We need the receiving and giving of God's grace.

We spend so much time running from this humanity, covering it with impenetrable shields of religion, or defense mechanisms, knowledge, apathy. We deny our needs.

When we take on the ashes, we wear our shared humanity on our face. We wear our need on our face. We wear our imperfection on our face. We wear it together, each facing the acknowledged humanity of our God-family.

These last 2.5 weeks have been serious wind up for the brutal honesty of Ash Wednesday. I had to wear my humanity in full view. My need. My agony. My joy in being loved. My craving for hope and appropriate moans of sympathy and empathy from trusted friends. My confusion about the role of God in all these circumstances.

The grace, and forgiveness, and human depth all this taught me makes every single moment of struggle valuable. It turns out, in facing my humanity, my need, and being met with the loving, if imperfect humanity, of others, a whole lot of God showed up.  I'm still working out how that happens, and will probably write through the discovery process.

Also, I really like shoes anyway, and we have a pretty serious collection started...


Reflections on Ash Wednesday

My brother George:

"In the hubbub where the pitiful congregate" - Jeff Tweedy
One of my favorite songwriters (probably unintentionally) doing ecclesial theology. Ash Wednesday may be one of the more readily identifiable times that we have set aside to acknowledge that when we congregate, we do so as pitiful creatures. Strivings for wholeness and impenetrability burn away, leaving ashes and dust. O, the beautiful hubbub that ensues when we admit this together.

From Mike DeMoss, a Methodist pastor in my town:

Ever since I knelt before 10 year old Emily several years ago, she tracing a cross on my forehead with her ashen tinged finger and tender mercy, words like repentance, discipline, and renewal, now speak to me, in a deeply personal way, of a grace peculiar to Ash Wednesday. It is the grace of the possibility of a different direction, a new path, or perhaps, an old path recognized with new clarity. It is perhaps for this reason - the beckoning of that new way - the Ash Wednesday service is not among the most well attended. And yet...could it be possible that, as these ashes, still warm from this morning's burning of last year's palms, burn a mark on our hearts that will last long after the dust has settled?

My (abbreviated) intro to services tonight:
...And at the end of this solemn season of self-reflection and honesty we are faced with the ultimate hope: Our God is a God of life. Our God makes all things new and creates new paths. Resurrection is coming.

By participating in this season of Lent the sweetness, the joy found in the work of Jesus is all the more powerful.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Service: Loving with the Gloves Off

Our church is doing a series of guided discussions right now on 5 commitments of membership: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, Witness. I'm delivering the homily on Service, and guiding the conversation as all of us teach each other what that means for our community. Pretty cool really -- this wild, participatory style of church. We're working hard to elevate each discussion above simplistic lectures like "give more," or "pray more."

I'm unabashedly biased in believing my nursing experience is the highest practice of service, because it demanded providing dignity and respect in the lowliest of work. (I respect your right to believe your calling is the highest form of service. In fact, I hope you feel that!)

When I think about service, this story from my practice floods my mind inescapably.

I cared almost daily for a man very ill with AIDS, as well as a handful of other chronic, fatal diseases. On top of that, he had a couple antibiotic resistant infections. Going into his room required dressing head to toe in protective gear. He was dying. He couldn't accept that. He was gay. He and his family wouldn't talk about that. His illnesses were taking him down an excruciating path, toward an excruciating death, and he was not equipped to face and plan for that.

My job was to help deal with the symptoms I could ease, and facilitate conversations to help him plan. I had a clear agenda. I wanted to help him face his reality, and in that process, alleviate some of the coming suffering.

Shortly before the end, I went in for yet another visit. Garbed in a garish yellow gown and blue rubber gloves, and all the defenses necessary for my other patients, but that felt like brick walls between him and me, I sat beside his bed.

It's strange to me now that I don't remember what we talked about. I tried to discuss death with him. He shut that down emphatically. Perhaps we talked about his loneliness. I remember him becoming more and more emotional. And it became clear to me that he needed touch. Not safe, clinical touch. Human touch.

I removed my gloves and grabbed his left hand in both of mine. Skin to skin. And, he cried. He said, "I don't remember the last time someone touched my skin."


We sat in that moment for a long time. My agenda abandoned, and perhaps a bit of my clinical distance and superiority, too, I knew to leave this experience just where it was for both of us.

It was messy for me. Not just because of the diseases, or the tubes, or the particular thick and pungent humanity that coats long-term hospital patients. Because I wanted to take this guy from denial to life- and death-changing courage, and I knew our limited time frame. Service, in this instance meant shelving my agenda, and sitting very still. And coming back, despite fruitless attempts, and despite my brain twitching to steer the conversation down a "useful" path, over and over again. I had to let him teach me how to be his caregiver.

Service is ongoing. Messy. Demands presence. Demands you be aware of your humanity, and the humanity of the person you serve. Service requires humility. True service removes the barriers that keep us feeling safe and clean and separate from the humans we serve with, and for.

Post Script: After the rich, rich discussion with my church today, I want to add some of what they shared on Service. Two insights struck me most. The first associated courage with service. It takes deep courage to abandon agendas. Lost agendas mean lost control. Lost control means the neat lines making me server and you servee fade. It takes courage to subvert your human propensity to judge, and replace it with acceptance and forgiveness.

The second insight bluntly raised the spectre of suffering -- calling out our tendency to serve until the Other's suffering gets too close, too real, too implacable. At that point we pull away. The man above was dying, in pain and alone. Nothing could change that. And, as often happens, these circumstances perpetuated themselves. Because, most of us don't know how to sit in another's suffering, so we shy away, or become cheerful and soulless. We put on bright protective gear and pretend things are really better.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus removes his clothes, wraps himself in a towel and washes the well-traveled feet of the disciples. He took off the layers, and the one layer he added became the tool of his Service. He told them he meant this for a clear example of how to live. I can't even imagine how the world would change if we lived this bravely. But I know the moments that have changed me most started with removing the outer robes of pretense, or knowledge, or self-sufficiency. These actions deepened my experiences of serving AND being served.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Other Shoe

This week:
  • My daughter sustained a second degree burn on the back of her tiny hand
  • My husband was nearly laid off on Monday
  • My husband was clearly laid off on Wednesday
  • We sold the car I custom ordered after receiving my nursing license 10 years ago -- a bright blue, zippy MINI cooper -- in favor of a good work car for husband
  • I'm still pregnant
  • I'm kinda just waiting to see if there are any more of the proverbial "other shoe" left to drop
I started seeing a counselor again in December. I guess depression is something that will wave over me from time to time for the rest of my life. I couldn't stop crying, even with my wonderful daughter and husband, and hope for my future daughter (for what it's worth -- and I think honesty about these kinds of things is worth a LOT -- I also started taking medication for my depression again).

Today, I scheduled a special session with my counselor, just 15 minutes after my MINI drove away for the last time. It saves time if your eyes are already wet and swollen, and your nose red and raw by the time you even get to therapy...

She said something that struck me. She said, "as a person of faith, I imagine this time is particularly hard to understand."

And I had two revelations. One, I can no longer deny I'm a person of faith. This describes me. I'm a person of doubt still, too, but the two sides of me are often found cuddling on the couch, getting fresh and cozy.

Two, my new faith isn't in peril because of my circumstances. I found myself trying to explain that while I am a person of faith, I don't depend on my faith every day. I try to live my faith every day. I'm still working out the finer distinctions between these two, so bear with me (or don't -- they're your eyeballs and you can look away if you want), as I keep working through what I mean.

I told her that I want very much to live like Jesus every day. Every day in connection with divinity. Every day in connection with humanity. Every day in empathy, and passion, and compassion, and service, and mercy, and peace, and justice, and humility. You know, in love.

I don't depend on my faith to give me signs, or pave roads, or open doors, or make good things happen. So, I'm not angry with God, or less interested in my faith because I can't connect it to my circumstances in the same way I used to. The flip side of that is that I also don't have any belief that my faith obligates God to get us back to a comfortable/stable feeling life.

I'm really grateful for this bit of education on myself. I'm still a pregnant woman trying to build a home out of the house in the new town that we've only lived in for 2 months, and a pregnant woman trying to figure out how to make our harried lives work, and a pregnant woman who isn't sure where the resources are going to come from for that instinct to nest and make a fortified den, complete with warmth and food, for my cubs. All of which means, I might be angry with our circumstances, and definitely with players outside our den who brought this moment around. And, I'm ridiculously, embarrassingly sad to say goodbye to that damn car. And, I'm insecure, and desperately craving stability.

But, these insecurities are no longer tied to my concept of God. I'm still carrying my doubts. Clinging fast to my faith in God as discovered through Jesus.

A friend, struggling to define if and what he believes, recently said, "I know I have faith in community." Beautiful, beautiful.

I have faith in us, to do the work needed to provide for our family.

I have faith in our communities (of faith, of family), to carry us, if we can't do the carrying.

I have faith in Jesus, to keep showing me how to live everyday.  
Last pic of MINI and me: FWIW, the smile is fake.