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.

It’s time to change the song

stringed instrument
Photo from Nathan Siemers on Flickr.

The same song echoes in a new room. The acoustics are different, the walls are a brighter blue, and though there are familiar faces in the lopsided pictures hanging between windows and corners, the faces belonging to those who are tangibly here  are new additions.

I can breathe easier here. The windows aren’t stuck and I don’t feel claustrophobic. With all these changes, it’s easy to think that the music filling my ears is different too. And in some ways, it is. A couple new stringed instruments are in the group, adding a richness that wasn’t there before, and the new vocalist is bringing something to my words that wasn’t there before.

There’s more experimentation, more stamina, more fullness, but the longer I listen, the more the novelty fades and I understand what a new environment can and cannot do.

It can expel the stale air, it can brighten the eyes, it can quicken the hands.

But it cannot sustain forever that freshness, that brightness, that quickness.

There is a long-awaited quality to conversations, a relief in going there with kindred spirits, and I’m physically shaking, sometimes, when I talk of the shapes I’m uncovering − those things I’ve felt around for in the dark and am finally starting to lay my hands on, finally allowing myself to speak of. Right now, there is movement in the talking. I know that eventually, though, if I stop feeling around, if I content myself with that low light on the other side of the room, I will start sounding like a broken record … even if only to myself.

The same old defense mechanisms and habits easily resurface when normalcy returns, like the emergence of ants when spring comes in earnest.

There is risk in the movement, and awkwardness, and uncertainty. For all its faults, for all the ways it hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain, that one song and I have developed an understanding over the years. The thought of changing it − of adding a bridge, maybe, or a bold trumpet − let alone replacing it, scares the hell out of me sometimes. Other times, it doesn’t even seem possible.

But it is possible, not just for the venue to change, but for the music also to be reborn.

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.

When the Darkness Wins

Today, I’m mourning the loss of a man I never knew.

I read line after line about the impact he had on people, about their love for him, about his love for them. There was so much more to him than the brokenness in him and around him. There was kindness and faith, there was a love of Mumford & Sons and Raisin Bran, there was a whole person-sized ray of light.

Then, he returned to his hometown, where he was murdered.

It breaks my heart that he died, and in such a horrible way. That the darkness won.

I light a tiny candle for him, to pray by. Behind the flame is his picture on my computer screen. I pray for everyone who’s grieving, everyone he left behind, everyone who loved him. But that doesn’t seem like enough, so I pray into the mystery to a God who’s supposed to be outside of time. I pray that the assurance that he matters, that he is seen, that he is loved, would reach Trinity Smith before he dies. I’ve never heard of anyone praying outside of time like this before, but all I know is that I can’t just pray for his survivors; I must pray for him too.

For him, and for all the others like them, those men and women who are so often not seen.

Help me see them, now, before it’s too late.

I blow out the candle, and a small amount of wax runs down the side, and it looks just like a tear running down the side of a face.

In memory of Trinity Smith
{image from the Dry Bones Denver Facebook page}

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”    

Matthew 25:35-36

When You Say Goodbye

You hold out your autograph book, the one with the multicolored pages and the dinosaur cover, the one you got when you were a child. You hold it out with pride, not embarrassment, for the decade and a half of memories it carries — of names and notes, of crossed-out words and hard-to-read cursive. You’ve taken this book overseas twice, and you safeguard it in ever-increasing ways after each pen or pencil addition.

*****

More than twenty people come to your goodbye party. You and your family aren’t used to hosting parties, so you call it an informal open house. But you’re still nervous and rushing around as the first few guests trickle in. Not everything’s ready, but you quickly relax and realize that that’s okay. Even though Christmas was two days ago and you live half an hour outside of town, people still come.

Larry and Dona bring Ozzie, the border collie/Australian shepherd mix that leaped and licked and chased his way into your heart last year. You rush outside and crouch next to him in your dress. He remembers you.

You are not an extrovert, but you feel like one today. You spend the afternoon playing Taboo with teenagers and twentysomethings, parents and grandparents, jumping up occasionally to hug someone hello or goodbye, or to mingle with those who are still here.

You’re tired later, but in the best possible way.

*****

You don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas, so you wait until the 26th to start saying goodbye to your radio listeners. Or at least that’s when those comments go out over the airwaves. Because of the gap between the recording and the airing, you don’t hear from listeners until after your last day of work.

Before that, though, before the questions and best wishes and Bible verses from people you don’t know, you have to come to terms with leaving. It was your own choice, and you know it’s right, but that doesn’t make it easy. You were invited in, once, and now friendliness has turned into love, and the force of it staggers you and sweetens everything in that old building.

When the time comes to record your final voice tracks, you feel it, and anyone listening will probably be able to hear it. That’s okay. You don’t feign emotion for radio, but when it’s there, you don’t try to stifle it. You are as real as you can be. You’ve read whole books of the Bible over the last year and a half, and now instinct causes you to reach one last time for the passages you hold most dear. As the last song in the last hour comes to an end, you say goodbye, you read Philippians 2:1-11, and even though you are in a room by yourself, you feel the pain of parting.

You are so glad you’re still in town for the 45th anniversary open house. Some people know by now; others find out partway through their tour of the station. You meet people, you hug them, you explain as best you can (though it sounds feeble to your own ears) why you’re leaving. You eat cake and drink sparkling cider, and then, before year 46 can begin, you’ve gone.

*****

You know you will always treasure the memory of this Sunday morning, the day of the youth group Christmas party but separate from it. They are sitting down in a circle, and there you are, on the inside of the circle holding your journal and a bundle of cards. You are uncharacteristically nervous as you stand in front of these teens and preteens and adults you love so much. You’re tempted to take the easy route and simply hand out the cards with a smile, but you know, you know, that you will always regret it if you miss this chance to speak truth and beauty from your vantage point of two years … to speak publicly these words you believe, these words of hope. So you slowly move around the circle, looking into their eyes and delivering love the best way you know how.

And then everyone takes a gel pen and it becomes an exchange of encouragements. Here are the picture frames all holding fancy paper, one for every person, and look at the beautiful calligraphy printed at the top of each one! Yours says Lizzie. The room is quiet now, frames dancing from table to laps until their contents are covered in words and color.

Your idea was just for words and simple paper; Luba brought the elegance, the lettering, the frames with the glass. You are so grateful for her. You have so many wonderful words hidden away in boxes and folders and books, but to have words you can prop up on a table, a shelf, a dresser — oh the joy! That’s what you do with your frame, later, after holding it your heart and weeping.

Two weeks after the Day of Encouragements, it’s time for final goodbyes. You show pictures of your new house in Colorado and write your contact information on the white board. You have a few words to say, not as a leader, but as a friend. And so you read them clumsily, these words you wrote with tears but are saying without them. You repeat certain words, words like belong and friend and thank you. The tears will come again later, but there’s too much laughter in the room for that now.

As you hug them, you remember gift exchanges and Capture the Flag, Guardians of the Galaxy and the Star Wars marathon, the Super Bowl parties and Winter Camp 2014. You remember the conversations over ice creams and lunches, over drives from here to there and while sitting and standing all around the church. You remember sleepovers, desperate prayers, oh-so-much laughter, and sitting in front of the sanctuary baring your soul.

You’ve woven together your life with theirs over the last two years, and you’re so glad you did. Your life is richer because of them. You love them.

*****

This autograph book with the dinosaurs on it, it’s gone with you everywhere lately: to work, to church, to your own parties, carried in your purse just in case you see that one person or two who hasn’t written in it yet. Fourteen years ago, it was just a fun birthday present. Today, it’s a reminder of the people you love, many of whom you just left behind in the mountains and forests of northern California.

These last two weeks have been so rich and full, but most importantly, they’ve been reminder after reminder that all of the words and little moments and ordinary choices and all those daily battles have mattered, have built these edifices thick with meaning and friendship, have made it possible for such goodbyes as these.

Here’s To Being Honest

It’s been three years since a major bend in the road of my life coincided with the start of a calendar year.

Then, I was excited. Then, I pinned all my hopes on a time of transformation overseas. And it was a time of transformation, growth, friendships. I’m grateful.

My attitude now, however, is a bit different. Still hopeful, but cautious and apprehensive and not-all-of-my-eggs-in-one-basket-anymore as I prepare to move from California to Colorado in less than a week. Too much has happened since then for me to believe that transformation will happen so easily. I’m tired.

It’s become a bit of a mantra with me that “I either feel a lot, or not at all,” and this business of saying goodbyes is of the feel-a-lot variety. So I’ve been reaching for my journal more often over the last couple weeks, finding solace and sense in pouring out and pressing through with one of my beautiful Japanese gel pens.

2014 was the year of reading more. I want 2015 to be the year of writing more. Blogging more, maybe, hopefully, but even journaling alone would fill the need … would perhaps fill it better, being without the baggage of self-promotion and insecurity that can happen in places like these when the soul isn’t quite healthy.

2012 was the best year of my life. 2014 is certainly a candidate for worst, though my perspective is certainly skewed given my closer proximity to this year than to all the other hard ones. A year of depression, loss, questioning everything, stagnation. A year where international travel was no longer an adventure, but a heavy weight. A year, metaphorically, of being in at least two constricting boxes.

Physical relocation provides ample opportunities for change, but my hopes for a better 2015 don’t — can’t — depend on that. Rather, it’s in the finding and seeking out of spaces to be honest with myself and honest with others. Over the last two years, I’ve found myself in self-imposed and externally imposed situations where I’ve felt the pressure to bite back the true, the raw, and the real in exchange for the acceptable, the sanitized, the pretty.

May this be a year of daring greatly.

The Rainbow

a rainbow fading
Not my rainbow, but the lighting conditions are similar. John Garghan took this picture.

The light is weird: bright, bright sun and a collage of clouds at near dusk, and in the eerie I see the start of a rainbow, oh so vivid.

And I cry.

Twice I pull over on the side of the road to gaze and to hold up my little phone with its weak little camera and to marvel and to feel. The second time, it all rises up in me even more as I see that this, this is a full rainbow. A picture of perfect wild cloud light bow.

I cry more.

The rainbow disappears a few minutes later, but the emotions stay with me, full and welcome. Soon I am home, walking inside to where the others are. This is when the feelings vanish — completely from my face, and mostly from my soul. No. Too much. Too emotional. Too personal. Too intense. It’s conscious and unconscious, a pulling back and a sudden lurch as something pulls itself out from under me.

Then, I am with the people. Easily, I hold out the stories I’ve collected of the day, I speak fast as I do, I remember excitements and energies and frustrations, all of them true in fact and feeling.

And yet…

There are moments, moments like these, when something more real comes out. Something more real than cynical admissions and little life stories, and I remember what it’s like to be awake. And then I’m afraid of what it’s like to be awake.

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.

Are These My Glasses?

glasses
photo by Iain Browne at flickr’s creative commons.

They gave me that look and those words, critiquing my lodging arrangements on our trip. She stood in the middle of the street and started singing beautifully, and I realized she would always be better than me at everything. She came up to me and touched the mole on my face, the one that sprouts black hairs.

Two nights ago, I dreamed all those scenarios, one right after another, and what an insecurity bath it was!

Sometimes my confidence is off-the-charts, and I love being me, and “weird” is a badge of honor. Then my world opens up a bit more, or I’m plunged back into an earlier time with earlier people, and it all comes back.

I’m not invincible; I’m fragile.

Two autumns ago, I knew the steps and I walked in them. Literally. I knew that writing helped me understand myself. I knew that walking brought clarity to thoughts and prayers. So I did both often, and the steps were simple, and life was sweet.

But it was easier to carve out the space for these life-giving habits then. I had just returned home from seven months abroad. I was reunited with my cats and the majority of my wardrobe, and everything looked a little newer and fresher than it had before I left. I was afraid of this return, afraid of falling back into depression and old, hated patterns, but I was healthy, the world was new, and I had time aplenty on my hands. And so I slid smoothly into the new rhythm.

But once you slide out of it, as I did after a few months — gradually and imperceptibly — it’s hard to regain that footing.

It’s been almost a year and a half now since those (perceived) idyllic days.

It terrifies me how fragile this is, how fragile I am, how easily I can and have lost my way on the slippery slopes of self-loathing and comparison and laziness and many others.

Writing again has been like exchanging someone else’s glasses for a pair that’s actually my prescription. I’m grateful to be able to see again, but I’m also fearful. What if I lose them or break them or forget them somewhere? What if I forget to clean them and they get all smudged and blurry and I’m so used to the new normal that I don’t realize it’s time for a reset?

And how do I even know these glasses are the “magic formula” for seeing? What if there’s a better, sharper pair somewhere else, and I’m unknowingly settling for ones that may work for a while, but will give me headaches in the end?