Running into Grace

shoes
Photo by Fe Ilya in Flickr’s creative commons.

I am standing at a street corner in the predawn blue. A gas station to my right outshines the few remaining stars, and behind me the green-yellow-red rhythm regains its usefulness. We are all waking up.

Ahead, the sidewalk curves into a trail along a river, where I will see deer and rabbits and ducks, and I will keep looking to the right, past the highway to the eastern horizon, and I will be grinning.

Most runs aren’t like this.

Mostly it looks like waking up at 5:30 and sticking band-aids on my blistered toes and putting in the time so I can cross off another box on my marathon training plan. It feels like sweat dripping into my eyes and wanting to stop.

I can feel the way my body has changed, I can close my eyes and taste glory, I can pat myself on the back for my dogged determination. But I can’t make it all feel worth it in the moment.

“I’m so over running,” I was telling people and telling myself. “I can’t wait to have my life back again.”

But then, once in a while, something happens as I go through the familiar motions of strapping on the waistband and the armband and curling my fingers around the water bottle. And then this something, this brightness and hope, carries me into the thick of it and whispers, “Remember.”

Remember that your body knows how to do this. Remember how strong you are. Remember that you have been preparing for this and you are ready for this.

On that 20-mile run, I remembered.

Two hundred and seventeen minutes after the gas station and the traffic lights, I saw the bridge that doubled as my finish line that day. As I passed into the shadow underneath and slowed to a walk, it was with the deepest sense of awe and completion. I felt not only the usual relief of being done, but the power of every step that had brought me to that bridge, of the birdsong and iPod-song that had kept me company, of the amazing thing this body of mine had done.

Maybe October 18 will mark my last race. Maybe distance running is my today, but not my tomorrow. Maybe these shoes, figuratively speaking, don’t fit me as well as others I have worn and will wear. But there will always be shoes that are even harder to squeeze into, seasons and circumstances that will burst upon me, that will blindside me, that will stretch me thin and turn me inside out.

And yet, even in the middle of the pain and the barely-hanging-on, the blisters and the ragged breathing, may I catch glimpses of grace and remember.

Of Souls and Long-Term Memory (a Mumford & Sons reflection)

Mumford and Sons in concert
Mumford & Sons in concert at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Salida, Colorado, on August 22, 2015.

I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.

The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.

Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.

Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.

But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.

I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.

The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.

Finally, it did.

The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.

Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.

As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.

The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.

When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.

These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.

We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.

Of Magic and Memory

Trains

Six months ago, she hugged her family goodbye, and the page turned as they went upstairs and she stayed downstairs.

The night before, the first night, she lay on the blue-and-white rug looking up at the ceiling, knees pulled to her chest. She won’t remember most of her thoughts from those early days, but she’ll remember these:

There are so many memories waiting to happen in this little house, in this big city. I know there will be days when I’m lying on the floor looking at the ceiling and I won’t be able to stop laughing. Other days, that view will be blurry with tears. Now, though, everything’s a blank slate. Anything could happen!

That slate is full of colors now, some sparkling and some dull, and when she has eyes to see, they blink back at her from every surface she passes.

In some of these new memories, there is déjà vu: Riding the bus again, but this time without Mandarin coming out of the PA system. Running again, but in parks and on trails and along city streets, not around and around a sleepy Midwestern school.

She counts the cyclists who fly past, she pulls yet another book out of her backpack, she walks in the rain and in the night. And on some of those nights, she sprawls into the welcoming grass outside the house, hair sweaty and soul at peace and stars twinkling.

Oh the joy of solitude. Oh the pain of solitude.

She’s seen whole weeks swallowed up in loneliness, in which the darkest rooms have been the most crowded ones. She’s longed to link arms with people, but has often recoiled in fear, scratching out spaces just big enough for one and crawling into them.

That sort of darkness, though, is fading into dawn. Her box of treasures is filling, filling, filling with the gems found in moments and evenings, found in people: That time she stopped to pick up tickets and stayed for four hours; that night walking almost aimlessly through downtown Denver after the game; the many times of sitting around dining room tables and coffee shop tables and restaurant tables. In short, those moments of truly seeing and being seen, of freedom and flung-open doors and hands that reach back.

But how do you know when you’ve woven your story too deeply into someone else’s? When you don’t know what your purpose is apart from them?

Nine hours in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Three days of structure and spontaneity, static and movement, but all with an undercurrent of restlessness.

In the quest to uncover the truest, oldest imprints in the clay of herself, she keeps coming back to three words. Sometimes they seem to drip with magic; sometimes they seem like just words:

Write. Speak. Teach.

And behind those, behind everything, beats the most mysterious, frustrating, and confusing word of all … but the word that just might hold the deepest magic:

Jesus.

To Be a Part of the Mystery

Communion
“Communion.” Artwork by Ruth Catherine Meharg, inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday.”

In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.

I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.

One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.

I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in AlcoCover of "Searching for Sunday"holics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.

There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.

Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.

House Church

darkness into light
Photo by Jasleen Kaur.

Please be my people.

Almost every time, I leave their house feeling lighter than when I got there, even in my work clothes and work grime and work weariness. What was dormant in me is now stirring; what was dull is now reflecting bits of light as I walk back to my car on another Wednesday night. It’s been two and a half months.

One week into my new city life, I was pressing send on an email to an unknown person. I was feeling around in the dark for an open table, for other hands that would reach back, for faces that weren’t hiding behind plastic or paint or cliches. It was a hopeful search for the truest kind of community.

I think I’ve found it, but I’m not sure it’s found me … or that I’ve let myself be found by it.

There is laughter, connection, and contentment. And then there is tension. I don’t mean a tension of opposing worldviews, of my grayness meeting a black-and-white environment and pursing its lips, but a tension in my body, in my very bones.

I feel it when we’re sitting in quiet meditation and all I can think is don’t breathe too loudly. I feel it when I’m saying something about prayer or solitude and my voice doesn’t sound like my voice and there’s an undercurrent of anxiety and maybe a flash of red on my face. I feel it when I don’t know where to put my hands or where to stand, when I can’t seem to join the conversation, when I don’t know how to answer a question, when I’m coming in in the middle and I don’t understand.

I’m no stranger to this sort of tension. When I was a teenager, I was like a light bulb. At home, my wattage was too high and I would start fires with my words and actions, but I was on. In the time it took to open the car door, say goodbye to my dad, and turn toward another day of high school, the light had turned itself off.

I’ve seen growth in the last 10 years, a smudging of that dark dividing line, a dance toward natural light.

But insecurities still pop up even in the safest of places, darkness still attaches itself to the light, and I’m still afraid of rejection and indifference and hands that won’t reach back.

Please be my people is the unspoken desire, and my body tries to do and be and say everything it thinks it’s supposed to do and be and say to make this a reality.

But maybe they already are.

A First Homecoming

Leaves of Friendship
Photo by David Goehring on Flickr

“There isn’t a cloud in sight,” they say, though sometimes there might be a few wispy white things on the edge of the horizon, hovering above housetops and distant mountains. And while I can’t see those distant mountains from here, I looked around, squinting, and there truly is not a cloud in sight.

I’m home.

I’ve lived here for two months now, but this weekend was the first time I left town, stayed away for a few days, and then returned, groggy, with a bag of dirty clothes and several dozen pictures on my phone.

If the 17 pages in my journal sporting new writing are any indication, this trip was steeped in thoughts and feelings as well as faces and experiences. Someday, I’ll write more about these revelations, but for now I’m simply soaking up home.

When I shuffled through my front door after one flight and three bus rides, there was no ache in my chest for a certain forested neighborhood, a queen-sized bed with a blue-and-white comforter, or those three faces that look the most like mine.

Small-town California hasn’t seen the last of me, make no mistake about that. I’m still squeezing two states into my answer when people ask me where I’m from. But I’m attaching the word home to my little brick duplex and finding that it fits.

I left for the weekend anxious to reconnect with some of “my people” and to set aside the loneliness that brushes up against me. When I returned, though, it was with a greater appreciation for the friends I do have here.

I close my eyes and I dream of familiarity and ease, of knowing people well enough to invite them over “just to hang out,” of companionable silence and tossed-aside masks.

For now, though, I will lean into ultimate Frisbee afternoons and house church evenings, trying not to cringe when my disk goes wildly off course yet again or when the words coming out of my mouth don’t quite sound normal. I will practice hosting and being hosted. And I will hold the laughter and the good conversations close to my heart like the gems they are and see what comes of them.

Reflections on 9/11

9/11 tribute
Photo by Kim Carpenter

Thirteen years ago, I was sitting in front of our thick computer playing a spelling game. I still remember the bright yellow on the screen.

I was 12 years old, in my last full year as a homeschooler, and it’s my only homeschooling memory I can pin down to a specific day.

My mom interrupted my game to tell me about two planes crashing into two towers in New York City.

That’s where I was when I found out about the 9/11 terrorist attacks: The first event to imbed itself in the minds of an entire generation. My generation.

At that age, I was in the habit of acquiring journals, writing a few pages in them, and then abandoning them. That night, I opened my current diary  one of those pretty ones with a lock and key  and wrote these words:

Something very awful happened today. Terrorists hijacked four passenger planes  gigantic ones. Two of them flew right into and destroyed the two buildings of the World Trade Center. … I’m scared that this might be the beginning of World War III!

All of us who were old enough to remember, old enough to understand, were affected by that day, weren’t we?

Thirteen years later, I have friends I laugh with and watch movies with who were no more than four years old when those planes did their damage. I marvel at how much can fit into the ten years between us, how events that I can never forget are events that they can never remember.

9/11 pulled me of my own little world and gave me a glimpse of a bigger one, of hurts beyond my own that became my own. This shouldn’t be a few-and-far-between occurrence. When pictures of brokenness creep into the corners of my vision, I want to open the curtains and look into the hurting faces until I can’t ignore them, until I have to do something about the pain because I’m hurting too.

May we weep with those who weep.

The Art of Turkeys

Wild TurkeysI see art in the turkeys who come to our yard daily. I see beauty and wonder as they drink from the old, metal bucket we keep filled with water, tilting their heads back once they’ve filled their mouths with a swallow so that the liquid can go down and quench and fill. I am delighted to watch them peck and scratch at the dirt, and, sometimes, sit in it.

They haven’t brought their babies here to drink for more than two years now. I wish they would, but I’m content just to see them live and move and have their being right outside our kitchen window.

Turkeys aren’t known for their beauty. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them. Cats and dogs, dolphins and horses have many admirers. But turkeys, with their tiny pink heads, their thin legs, and their sleek, dark bodies, aren’t the recipients of as much love. But still they go about their lives, unconcerned with the world that only notices them for their meat.

I notice them, these wild friends of mine, and I never tire of watching them walk, run, sit, drink, explore, and fly into the tall pines at twilight to sleep in safety.

Sometimes I feebly gobble to them from above or across, and sometimes they reply. But more often I just watch them, like I’m doing right now, not wanting to alarm them and thus hasten their departure.

I watch this corner of the turkeys’ world, knowing that when I’m no longer living here, my heart will still thrill at the sound of their gobbling, one of my favorite sounds in the world.

In which I am light and bright and sparkling

More of my writing happens when I’m a mess than when I’m radiant.

But I was radiant today.

bright filters of tree
photo from liquidnight at flickr’s creative commons

I looked in the mirror and saw nothing I didn’t like. My own words pleased me. I saw nothing to complain of, nothing to disprove of, nothing to cast a shadow.

My arms were overflowing with containers and books and pieces at the end of the day when I stepped into the home warmth, and that’s when my personality really began to overflow. I find Jane Austen’s description of her best-known work, Pride and Prejudice, a fitting description for this phenomenon of self-satisfied being: “light, and bright, and sparkling.”

I love these days, but I wonder if they are entirely good for me. I wonder if I’m as ill equipped at emotionally processing the good days as I am at processing the bad ones.

Two words come to mind: “frenzy” and “narcissistic.”

And yet in this sparkling there is so much of true self that I can reach out and grab onto. My laughter can fill many barrels, and everything seems open and possible. Life is here as a gleam and a glare.

But even if I were to curb the self-absorbed aspects, I wouldn’t want to be radiant like this all the time. It takes another corner of my true self to weep with the weeping, and to feel something for those who see life as closed and impossible … to ask hard questions and sit in silence … to see the world beyond my blankets.

These blankets of mine — some colorful, others dour — bring comfort in their time, but there is more.

The Lizzie Manifesto

Pandora is filling my borrowed room with lovely sounds akin to Pachelbel’s Canon, and I am restarting my blog with hope that it will continue even when the feelings aren’t there. Because writing is one of the things that, in the past, has helped me recover who I am, and I have confidence that it can do it again.

embraced by words
by Robbert van der Steeg, from flickr’s creative commons.

My church began its annual missions focus this week, with a sermon on the Great Commission from a woman only two years older than me. I walked in numb and flat, as I have for a while now, but I left with a few flickers of inspiration that stayed with me into my car and into the quiet. Not to knock on my neighbor’s door or deliver hope to strangers, as you might expect, but to knock on the doors of my own heart and find out what’s inside … to deliver hope to my own cracked and broken pieces.

I want to listen to myself and accept the reality of where I’m at right now. This roller coaster is nothing to feel afraid of, ashamed of, or less-than because of. It’s here, and I’m on it, and it’s okay. Normal, even. I will settle in and appreciate this view and that exhilaration, and when my stomach drops and the g-forces throw my tears back at me and I can barely see through the squinting, it won’t be a nasty surprise but an accepted — if not welcome — part of the ride. We’re all on different roller coasters at different times, and even the most extreme and, conversely, the most slow-moving ones don’t last forever. This too shall pass, but in the meantime …

… Who am I? What makes me come alive? What do I need?

I asked myself these and other questions from the wicker chair in the sweltering shade, while the dogs looked on.

This is what I want:

  • A safe community that brings life
  • Energy and motivation to write, explore, breathe, and enjoy the simple things of life
  • To find purpose, passion, hope, and truth and carry them with me in my being and doing
  • A strong foundation spiritually, emotionally, relationally
  • New opportunities and experiences for the stretching, invigorating, experimenting, and the living of life to the fullest
  • To truly see the people and the world in which I live — to laugh and cry and feel and taste — rather than going through the motions
  • To always be honest and true to myself
  • To find life and refreshment in discipline
  • To be good, but not safe
  • To have the courage to move when the place I’m in no longer brings life, but also to recognize that my cocktail of purpose, passion, hope, and truth can be found anywhere.
  • To love well
  • To value quality over quantity
  • To press on with or without the feelings
  • To be released from feeling like I have to be there for everyone all the time
  • To be okay with journey and process without outcome or destination
  • To have a heart and mind always open to learning