when your body says no

This has been a long day in a long week in a long month in a long year, it turns out. I have about 8 half-written essays I could finish to send out into the world tonight. But I’m weary. Given that “mind over matter” might as well be the mantra of the first half of my life, my weariness should be irrelevant to the task I have decided to complete. This is unchartered territory for me.

Here’s the problem: my left eye is twitching uncontrollably. So much so that writing feels impossible in my current state. I have never been one to be thwarted by, or even to recognize, obstacles. My father gave me that. Believe in your work ethic and desire more than you believe anyone who tells you no. If you give up, you fail. In the words of Dory (but with the drive and inflection of a cheerful drill sergeant), “Just keep swimming.” Combined with my mom’s relentless belief in the power of what she calls, “Positive Self Talk,” I am hardwired to not stop. Hell or high water, I’m finishing the thing I said I would do, and it will be pretty fabulous.

But my eye is twitching.

How do we determine our limits? How do we know when we need to stop? For some, stopping is easy, it is the getting started that provides the difficulty. For others, finding a pace that is stable and possible to maintain over the long haul is instinctive. For a person with my drive and determination, however, saying no presents the challenge. It is easy to overlook the toll such an approach to life has on relationships, on rest, on balance. This twitching eye, though, is impossible to overlook.

When the body says no, we are left with a few options:

1) We can surrender, crawl in bed, and cease all activity until restoration comes. If this is the path taken, this pattern is likely to repeat itself. Not wise.

2) We can ignore the body’s signs, and charge on, mind-over-matter-mantra in tact. We can refuse to slow, to rest, to quit. In the words of Bono, we can “ready for the crash.” Not wise.

3) We can observe our body’s flares, and then widen our gaze. Observe the pace, the multitasking, the energy spent, the energy regained. Look for the rhythm, explore the moments of rest. interrogate the drive, perceive the fallout.

Twitching eye and all, I believe the wise course before me is to hit pause while I observe the living that brought me to this life. For tonight, I am leaving a thing undone. It feels like good practice. (The parents who raised me to always lean in now speak to me of self-care, of avoiding burnout…perhaps there is wisdom in the eye that twitches in order to slow us down).

I offer this essay half-written as an artifact of my pausing and observing. I send it out with a prayer that you will know more easily than me when it is time to close the laptop and let the deadline go.

a prayer for the people

A few months ago I was asked to do the Prayers of the People at my church, and I’m publishing them here, with a few tweaks. I am not often explicit about my faith in these essays, although my understanding of God’s movement toward us with sacrifice, redemption and hope informs all aspects of my engagement with the world. If you are not a fan of Christians, I pray these words will remind you that God is poorly reflected in the people who claim God (maybe don’t blame God because we are the worst?). If you are a person determined to follow Christ, I pray you will remember the way of Christ asks us to sacrifice our privilege, not to hoard it. In any case, these prayers remind me that my love for others is greatly enhanced by prayer. If you find yourself frequently rolling your eyes at humanity, consider beginning a practice of prayer (Perhaps this one can get you started).

Lord, you are the Creator of Life, the Sustainer of our communities, the One through whom we move and live and have our being. You are powerful and strong, and you are gentle and good. You are the God who shows us that strength takes us into vulnerability, for you did not grasp your power, but divested yourself of it by becoming a person. You are the God who shows us that independence serves the community, for you did not establish your kingdom alone, but you allowed a handful of friends to walk with you, imitating you and bearing witness to the salvation and restoration you brought them. I praise you for being a God who puts power aside, who invites us to approach you, who asks us to live lives that bear witness to your name. You are such a good God, and we praise you.

 Lord, our world has learned to accept a status quo of war and fear. I pray that your kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. I pray that you would change the hearts of leaders who sow hatred instead of love, and fear instead of peace. We pray for the people of Syria, for those who live in the Korean peninsula and along the Israeli/Palestinian border, for those who fear kidnappings and violence. We pray for people who live in poverty across the world, who are oppressed by the greed of others. We pray that you would draw close to those with nothing, that you would teach those of us with global power to use our power to value the lives of others.

Lord, I pray for our nation as we struggle with gun violence and fear. I pray that you would whisper into our hearts your common refrain, “Do not fear,” that you would teach us to replace fear with trust, so that all communities know they are valuable to their elected officials and their police forces. I pray for the brave men and women who faithfully work to keep all of us safe. I pray that you would give those who serve in the Congress, Senate, White House, and Supreme Court a deep conviction that they have been given authority in order to serve all the people, including those with little. That our leaders would be like you, resisting power in order to become a servant. I pray for those on the Eastern seaboard who are fleeing the wind and rain of Hurricane Florence. Protect them and plant their feet and families on solid ground.

 Lord, I pray for Nashville as we elect leaders and vote on our priorities. I pray that we could rally to care for each other the way we rallied to cheer on the Preds. We are blessed Lord by wealth and belonging, and it is so easy to forget those who live below the poverty line or who are marginalized by their race, nationality or gender. Lord, I pray that our local leaders in city hall, churches, neighborhoods and schools would begin to embody your command that we love others like ourselves. Teach us what it means to advocate for others, so that we would speak out for kids who are hungry, for families who are displaced by gentrification, for people who are treated as drains on society.  Help us be imitators of you as we learn to build bigger tables with more seats around them. Help us learn to be inclusive in our schools and neighborhoods, so that every person is welcomed with your dignifying, eternal claim: that we all belong to you.

 Lord I pray for churches all across Nashville who are teaching their people what it means to love others in the name of Jesus. For Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church, who is bringing resources and jobs to young people in North Nashville. For Tabernacle of Glory, who is teaching people in the 12th South area how to talk about our history and present tensions with race as we honor the image of God in every person.  I pray for Strong Tower Bible Church, who is partnering with Salama Urban Ministries to bring resources to poor families in South Nashville. These partnerships imitate your partnership with our church, as you have called us to be people who honor the name of Christ by remembering and caring about all the communities of Nashville. I pray that you would continue to teach us how to serve our neighbors, that our name would remind people that you are a God who binds up the broken hearted and comforts those who hurt.

 As we enter a time of corporate confession, Lord I confess that I am often selfish. We have built lives and communities of privilege, so that we don’t have to see brokenhearted people who struggle to make ends meet. Forgive us for forgetting about them. Forgive us for not believing a problem exists because it is not our problem. Forgive us for protecting a status quo that treats us well while oppressing people around us. Forgive us for believing the lie that there is an us and a them. Forgive us for getting defensive when we see the pain and marginalization of people different than us, and teach us to find compassion instead. Forgive us for being peacekeepers, who like things as they are, instead of peacemakers, who are willing to sacrifice our resources so that others can experience the dignity of jobs, affordable housing, engaging schools, and dependable healthcare. Forgive us for loving our surplus, for loving ourselves more than our neighbors.

 You created all that there is, God, and you show your love for us by asking us to create beauty along with you. You are eternal, constantly renewing, and you show us your love by reminding us that we are also eternal beings, called to find sustainable ways to live, to keep talking and sharing, and to keep finding ways to live well with those around us. As your good friend and disciple John said, if we love you we ought to live and walk the way you did. Expose us, invite us, break us, transform us. Amen.

laboring for joy: the work of grief

This weekend my family got together to create and seek and accept joy in the midst of terrible pain. It was, as I now often say, excruciatingly beautiful. When the injustice and intimacy of pain makes the ground shake, it tends to become THE story. It is the lens through which everything else is seen, shading it all in an indistinguishable gray. Pain sometimes deadens the senses, so that you cannot notice, let alone experience, joy and all the relief it brings. This weekend though, with great effort, we made room in the pain for joy. 

It was hard. When grief tries to swallow you up, it takes all the effort you have to keep from drowning. The lift is enormous. After doing the heavy lifting, with others, to create the space and environment that could invite joy to enter, I learned a few things:

1) It was hard. It drew from the bone marrow, and took all we had. It was hard to plan, hard to show up, hard to smile. Grief makes everything hard. It is a type of labor, and it is worth saying out loud that this is true. 

2) It was also easy, though. When the space was created, the plan set in motion, and the people started gathering, the joy that comes out of community took us all in. Joy is a slippery term, but I'm using it to capture those moments when gratitude wells up, when a shared resonance with another human surprises you, when the connection between the right now and the eternity we were made for seems less ridiculous. Joy is the experience that reminds you that hope outlasts despair. To quote Bono, you have found joy when your soul believes, for a fleeting moment, that "love is bigger than anything in its way." Joy is able to make room in the midst of pain for comfort and gratitude. This weekend, joy came in and reminded us we aren't alone, that our community is witnessing this awful thing communally, and together we bear each other up as we bear the weight of sadness. The fun and laughter came easily, and we all got swept up in the incredible gift of this one moment. Pain, yes. But joy as well. Weepy smiles. The pain was still there, but it was a guest, rather than the host. Grief is not more manageable when managed. Being with others who know a bit about your hurt, even when you have no desire to be with anyone, somehow makes joy possible. 

This Labor Day, I see a new side of labor. I am an advocate of working with our hands, of creating beauty and order with our bodies. Of the privilege and dignity of labor in a world that only values capital. This Labor Day though, I wanted to pause and say that creating joy in the midst of pain is very hard work. It is labor. And yet, joy and grief can coexist when we walk through life with others (The scriptures say it is not good for us to be alone, and maybe this is why). Joy is a stubborn ass, and she will show up every single time, even if it takes a great deal of labor to create space for her. Just because it is hard does not mean it is is not possible. Do the work to help hurting people in your life survive their pain. Do the work to belong to a community that pays attention to the people in it. Labor is hard! Spend yourself thoroughly in creating space for joy, and then rest, knowing your sacrifice, your presence, might provide a merciful gift to a person in pain.