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.

squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

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