on paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.

a leaf buckled concrete: paths of hope

Every time I spot a weed growing up through concrete, I think, “Good for you.” I can’t help myself. I am biased toward underdogs, toward wildness, toward bucking the system. One of my many faults. While I would not say that I have a pro-weed orientation in life, I prefer the natural world to concrete in nearly every instance. That stubborn little weed reminds me that persistence is a superpower.

 In faith-driven, Biblically rooted justice work, the inequity I hope to expose and reform is massive. I often teach about the systems and norms that created our unjust status quo to folks whose life experiences have sheltered them from interacting with such unpleasant realities. Getting people in the room is a battle in and of itself, but after that I have come to recognize two distinct blocks. The first is visceral defensiveness. The second is perceived powerlessness.

 To learn of such atrocious injustice as an adult who has actively benefitted from and propped up systems in the name of Jesus, patriotism or justice, can be disorienting. Such a shock, in fact, that it is easy to deny this history exists, or to shake one’s head, disbelieving. At the very least, most want to claim innocence: “I’ve never oppressed anyone! I don’t even know people getting hurt by this so-called injustice!”

 Encountering such obvious disparity, people often feel shamed, guilty, or accused…all of which lead to defensiveness. Defensiveness destroys relationships and short circuits curious impulses. We are not capable of learning from others when we are busy defending our own action (or inaction). We cannot think of solutions when we refuse any responsibility or even connection to the problems being addressed. Because I have learned to anticipate such defensiveness, I now name it as the enemy of the good in the very moment in which it occurs. Feeling defensive or attacked is not a reason to walk away. When I name the creeping posture of defense, people usually look up, exposed, but also interested in any available alternative. I encourage folks to notice their defensiveness, commit to investigate it later, and then lean in to the conversation at hand. I ask them to seek to understand before they decide who is to blame (or if they even agree).

The other block many must overcome in these moments is the completely overwhelming—I-had-no-idea—shock of seeing the reality of injustice in our systems. When folks learn to avoid defensiveness, staying invested long enough to learn about the realities others face, they often feel crushing grief. Overwhelmed at the power and longevity of injustice, they instinctively see their own powerlessness to change anything. “I hear you. I’m with you. But what am I supposed to do?! How on earth can I do anything to actually help?” While this reaction can keep relationships alive, it can lead to the same sense of paralysis that results from defensiveness. In either case, injustice remains, with no resistance from well-meaning folks who enjoy the privileges of living in the majority.

I think this is why I love that little weed. Whoever designed and laid that sidewalk probably did everything right. They scorched the earth, leveled the ground, and poured one of the strongest substances known to man on top of it. And yet. Despite all odds, that little spunky weed grew. A leaf buckled concrete. It’s a Christmas miracle! Or maybe a gardening nightmare? Either way it gives me hope that a living thing made to find the light, with enough time and determination, can crack through a system made to permanently block its ability to grow. Go weeds go!

In parenting and educational circles, grit is a new buzzword. We have long recognized the difference in natural ability and growth. Some kids achieve because they are naturally gifted to do so, while others have deficits they learn to overcome through determination, delayed gratification and belief in their abilities. These kids develop growth mindsets, to borrow from Carol Dweck, and they learn to face obstacles that seem insurmountable one step at a time. Yes, failure is likely from their starting position. But taken in small steps, small victories add up until they accomplish their goals, achieving well beyond their initial trajectories.

As a parent of teens and a tween, I now realize I would rather send a kid into the world who has grit, who has learned to slowly overcome odds, than I would a kid who has easily achieved most accomplishments. This is not to say I am against easy achievements. By all means, knock it out of the park, especially if it comes easily! Adulting, though, is hard. Losing a job, working under a mean boss, caring for sick kids or parents, having a marriage fall apart, or suffering in economic distress all require a long term commitment to stay the course and learn the new skills required for the task ahead, even if it feels impossible. Grit, it turns out, wins the day.

Here in Nashville, succulents are all the rage, and frankly, I’m uninterested. Give me a rainforest over a desert any day of the week. I know they conserve water, but I live in Tennessee instead of Arizona for a reason. I like vibrant colors, gorgeous blooms, and diversity that makes the eye hungry to take it all in. People I love who know about plants love them though, so I finally got a succulent or two. Damned if I haven’t grown partial to these little miracle growers. They are stubborn sons of bitches, and just like my beloved urban weed warriors, they stay alive. They keep growing, even in shameful neglect. I think we could all do well to take a page out of the succulent handbook. Dig deep, determine to grow, and create beauty in the worst of circumstances. Come to the table, pay attention and decide to change your part of the world. Together, let’s see just see how many cracks we can make in the system until there is room for all of us to grow.

Lent Readings: The Kingdom of God is Like...Part I

The presence of Lent in the church calendar—40 full days of preparation for Easter—reminds us it is wise to prepare. When we ponder where we are headed and think about what is coming, we sometimes find ourselves strangely more engaged in the present as well. In the Biblical record, God uses the number 40 as a measure of time for the people (It rained on Noah for 40 days, the Israelites wondered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before publically launching His ministry). God used this time to bring God’s children closer: to increase their desperation for God, to remind them of God’s power and provision in their daily lives, to encourage and pour into them before a hard season ahead. 

     In the Catholic Church I visit every Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that Lent is experienced most fully in three ways:

1)   We sacrifice something in order to remind ourselves of thirst, of hungering after God, or to disrupt patterns that diminish our flourishing in Christ.

2)   We willfully use this experience of disruption to push us toward Christ, placing Jesus in the front of our minds, or at the top of our day.

3)   We turn our eyes from ourselves and toward others as we intentionally live more generously toward those in need during Lent.

For these 40 days, I pray you would be mindful of these 3 ideas, and maybe use them to orient yourself toward God. 

     Christ’s coming sacrifice and resurrection are our only hope for living well with ourselves and others. Allow yourself to know this during Lent. Allow yourself to recognize the abundance in your life, and to lean in to the lean placesJ. Allow yourself to think about people who live with very little, and know that they often hunger for and understand God in ways that may be hard for us to understand. Allow yourself to hear God’s words in these 40 days, to begin to understand what God cares about, and then think about how you can imitate Christ by pouring your life out for others. 

     These readings end each week with the Beatitudes.  In the last year I have come to see all the ways that I have diminished the power of God in my life because I have cared about protecting and expanding my own power and security instead of looking to God for significance and peace. In the past, I decided God’s Kingdom was made in my image, so that the hardest workers, the kindest, the most intentional people win. The Beatitudes remind us that God doesn’t value what I value. God promises to be present, generous and available to those who have no power, to those near the margins, to those who align themselves with the overlooked and against self-interest alone.  This Lenten season I am reminded that if I want to prepare myself for Christ’s coming kingdom, I would do well spend 40 days marinating in the words Jesus used to describe it.  (One other note: all of the selections are poetry.  While we love to be instructed by scripture, W. Brueggemann reminds us that the very nature of God is mysterious, wonderful, and creative.  Poetry—instead of a helpful outline—is a fabulous medium to usher us into the presence of God.) 

     When the priest at the Catholic Church places ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, he murmurs, “Turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel.” I pray that as we read these verses of God we would think about what it means to simply “Believe the Gospel” in our daily rhythm of life.                              

Find stillness, wait, and believe,

                                                                                                                             Brandi

Below are reading for the first half of Lent. More to come.

Week 1

To Ponder:

“God is that way with us, He wants to hold us still with Him in silence….They cannot all be brilliant or rich of beautiful. They cannot all even dream beautiful dreams like God gives some of us. They cannot all enjoy music. Their hearts do not all burn with love. But everybody can learn to hold God…We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time.”                                                    -Brother Lawrence

“Maybe you search for understanding, but find only one thing for sure, which is that truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals. Most traditions teach that truth is in these small holy moments.”                                                                            -Anne Lamott

 

To Read:

Mar 6 Matthew 5:1-12

Mar 7 Proverbs 2:1-15

Mar 8 Ps 94:12-22

Mar 9 Micah 6:6-8

Mar 10 Matthew 5:1-12

  Week 2

To Ponder:

“Recovery involves quelling the riot of thoughts in the mind and thinking the overpopulation of images and feelings that accumulate with an abundance of activity. Silence and solitude are the recovery room for the soul weakened by busyness…In silence and solitude we regain our perspective, or more importantly, God’s perspective. Augustine described it as learning to “perform the rhythms of one’s life without getting entangled in them. Alone with God in prayerful quiet, the rhythms of life are untangled.”        -Howard Baker 

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ.”                                                   -Blaise Pascal

To Read:

Mar 11 Ps 90:12-17; 91:1-2

Mar 12 Ps 95:1-8

Mar 13 Ps 120:1-2; 121:1-4

Mar 14 Zeph 3:14-18

Mar 15 Ps 107:1-9, 19-31

Mar 16 Daniel 6:25-28

Mar 17 Matthew 5:1-12

Week 3

To Ponder:

“To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete.  The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message.  Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”                                                                                                             -Soong Chan Rah

 “This is the best way to act: talk a great deal to the Lord….Choosing Christ brings mystery, rejecting Him brings despair…I choose to look at people through God, using God as my glasses, colored with His love for them.”           -Brother Lawrence

To Read:

Mar 18 Ecclesiastes 7:5-14

Mar 19 Ps 130

Mar 20 Job 42:1-3

Mar 21 Isaiah 40:21-31

Mar 22 Ps 142

Mar 23 Hosea 5:15-6:3

Mar 24 Matthew 5:1-12