*Initially prepared as a sermon for Advent, the material is particularly relevant in January as we anticipate and await for the fulfillment of hopes and dreams for the new year. The sermon is entitled Advent and can be found at http://www.westsidechurch.com/media-library by searching chronological order going back to December 7, 2014.
Following are the slides that correspond to the audio material.
There’s been a lot of body talk going on in our household this past week. No…not the resolutions kind of body talk. I would guess that we talk about bodies, on average, more than most families anyway, but the subject has been even more present in our recent conversations. Bodies, bodies, bodies. Bodies growing and changing. As of New Year’s Eve we officially have two teenagers in the house. Lord have mercy. Bodies, bodies, bodies. Bodies hurting and healing. Bailey, our second oldest who just turned 13, has been suffering from Post Concussion Syndrome since last August and just recently began experiencing relief from near-constant headaches. Faith, sprained her ankle in soccer (yet again!) this past week and Krisalyn even tweaked her foot when we visited the giant trampoline during winter break to combat the cabin fever that started to settle in. Bodies, bodies, bodies.
“Mommy? Why does there have to be pain?” Krisalyn asks me every time she gets hurt. That poor girl was made with the lowest pain tolerance in this family of accident prone, perpetual toe-stubbers. But her questioning eyes long for an answer that will help sustain her as she copes with the pain.
“I don’t know baby girl.” I respond. “But I do know that pain reminds us of our limitations. It reminds us of our humanness. It brings our attention to our bodies.” These reflections are never enough for her 10 year old mind. I don’t think they’re enough even for my 35 year old mind.
We celebrated Briella’s 2nd birthday on January 3rd. I wonder if there will ever come a day where her birthday can stand alone as the beginning of her story or if it will always feel interconnected to the second act of my own. Will I forever associate her 10:47am exit of the womb with the nearly-fatal pouring out of my lifeblood? Her entrance meant my near, yet spared departure. It was also the beginning of a five month struggle with pain, vulnerability, brokenness and dependence like I had never known prior.
Bodies, bodies, bodies. January 3rd. We were celebrating Briella’s birthday with family, all the while praying for comfort and peace as a friend was in his final hours of life on this earth after a year-long vicious fight with cancer. Images constructed by the descriptions of his body, beaten and abused by the disease continued to invade my mind.
Why must there be pain? I went to bed that night with a heart of desperation. Sleep was well beyond reach, so I drifted as I often do on nights like these, to wherever the thoughts desired to travel. Bodies, bodies, bodies. Images of pain collided with images of pleasure. Memories of days where I would take three different baths because it was the only place I could find relief from the pain would be overtaken by memories of tender moments like when my sister spent a night in the hospital massaging my swollen legs and feet. The imagined picture of our friend lying in a hospital bed fading away while his wife held him and offered words of comfort were broken up with the recollection of the photos I received earlier in the day of him affectionately pinching her behind as they hiked trails in the breathtaking beauty of Beaver Creek. Unwanted memories of abuse were replaced with reflections of the most intimate experiences of love and connection.
Bodies. Bodies. Bodies. These awe-inspiring soul-capsules, being-carriers, life-vehicles allow each of us these full-spectrum EMBODIED experiences. Would it even be possible to experience one side of the spectrum without the possiblity or experience of the other? I don’t know. That’s a question for a far more skilled philosopher than my wanna-be self. The power and beauty of pleasure may not cancel out the horror of pain. But maybe it redeems it. Or maybe it can sustain us. Bodies. Bodies. Bodies.
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.~Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow
I think about death a lot. That is probably not the way you expected an after-Thanksgiving post to begin. But it’s the truth. Though it’s difficult to recall my mindframe pre-near-death-exeperience, I’m pretty certain I did not think about death as much back then. Perhaps these more frequent thoughts are related to some residual post-traumatic stress. But maybe not. Perhaps it’s because every which way I look there is something reminding me of our mortality as human beings. From recent public conversations about the young woman who opted to end her own life rather than allow her inoperable brain tumor to run its own course of cruelty, to an episode on Grey’s Anatomy, there are reminders of death every single day. Maybe the increase in thoughts is simply a reflection of aging. After all, the older we grow the more loss we are likely to encounter.
About six weeks into my recovery from Briella’s birth, I drove to work for the first time. I was initially surprised by how natural it felt to be heading back to work, driving the vehicle I’ve spent much of my life maneuvering around. Just as I was about to turn onto the off-ramp from the highway, I was assaulted by an imaginary image of the car in front of me being flung into my windshield. My brain registerred the possiblity of another car being struck and sky-rocketing into my direction and apparently thought it was something I needed to be prepared to handle. The imagined and envisioned scenario jolted my heartrate and left me breathless, but it was not the first indication of my post-traumatic stress. Up until that point, I had also been experiencing dreams almost every night where I was unexplainably draining fluid out of every pore of my body. The dreams felt so real that I would wake up and ask Brian to check to see if there was anything dripping down my back. Considering the amount of blood I lost in both surgeries, the retention of nearly 50 pounds of fluid that my body shed over the course of the two weeks following, and the tubes I had coming out of my body to drain urine while both my bladder and my ureters continued to heal, it wasn’t that difficult to discern what my brain was trying to process in the late hours of those restless nights. But this new fear of cars flying through my windshield was not as easy to explain away.
Thoughts of flying cars have morphed into far more horrific scenarios of which my children or husband are the primary victims. It’s as if living through trauma, an experience where I came face to face with my potential finality in this bodily form, caused a breach in the protective armor many of us live encased within throughout much of life. I think the armor is constructed by equal parts of denial and hope. Denial keeps the inevitable reality of our end and the end of those we love the most at a safe enough distance to function relatively unfazed. Sure, we all know that we will dies someday, but knowing by way of an idea is a very different thing from knowing by way of experience. Hope sustains our life as it compels us to travel further and further down a road we trust will lead us to joy even in the midst of potential tragedy and sorrow. Denial and hope, the two are very different things…or so I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In my case, denial took the greatest blow in the aftermath of my trauma experience. I’m not sure I will ever be able to live in bliss with that psychological defense mechanism again. I now have an intimate knowledge of how quickly and unexpectedly my own life or anyone’s can come to an end. So how do I function in the midst of this new knowing? My capacity to function now directly correlates to my capacity to live in gratitude. It was gratitude for my life that sustained me during the months of painful recovery. It is gratitude that comes upon me like a wave knocking me off my feet when I’m sitting in the theater watching the production of Once next to the love of my life. It is gratitude that welcomes the tears shed after hard conversations with my oldest daughters about life and love and sex and beauty and shame and struggle. This gratitude thing isn’t about just feeling lucky. It’s about feeling like EVERYTHING is a gift. EVERYTHING. Every day. Every moment. Everything. I am not always able to live out of this place of gratitude – hence the days I don’t function as well. But learning how to practice saying thank you to the source of life daily has been my saving grace. Thanksgiving has moved its way up towards the top of my favorite holiday list over the past couple of years because it’s a day that simply invites us into the practice of gratitude. Let’s hope the spirit of Thanksgiving carries us all through the rest of this holiday season.
Check out our pinterest page for gratitude practices.
I have a confession to make. I haven’t picked up my bible in four years. And the three years before that, most of my engagement with the text was connected to my graduate studies. No, I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered from the burn out so many former ministry workers describe feeling when they’ve been overworked and underpaid and feel like the well of inspiration and passion dried up years before they finally found the courage to seek rest and recovery. Then why the resistance to engaging this sacred text? I am convinced that the answer is far more complex than a lack of discipline or a season of “falling-away” from the faith. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite professors as he taught me how to hear children and adolescents (and really all humans) at a much deeper level, “What is the behavior trying to communicate?” Bear with me, as I allow that question to guide this post.
I can recall my first Bible. It had a blue hardcover and was a Student NIV bible that was gifted to me by my youth leaders a few days after I responded for the first time to an alter call. Yes, that was my initiation into the faith and I have all sorts of complicated and ambivalent thoughts around that subject matter as well, but regardless I still believe something supernatural happened that night and have only had a handful of equally as powerful spiritual experiences in the 18 years following. So perhaps I will revisit the alter call ambivalence at a later time. Or perhaps not. But that bible was a central component to the shift my relationship with the God of the universe was about to take in my late adolescent years. Prior to my so-called conversion experience, I would say I always entertained the notion that there was some sort of energy or divine force in the world, but the abundance of heartache and trauma that filled the pages of my early childhood narrative left me no real choice but to assume that force was poised in opposition to my very survival. My early journals were filled with poems about the divine hand I felt gripping my neck and holding me underwater. After being forced by my desperate-for-help mother to attend a youth program for several weeks, I wound up at a Christian concert where one of the band members had the audacity to suggest that this very God, whom I had presumed was opposed to my existence, actually loved me – not just a love that encompasses the whole of humanity, but a love that holds in it’s very being my particularity and unique beauty. And so I found the courage to suspend the belief structure I had held to be true long enough to entertain the idea of a complete paradigm shift. Days later, the team of youth leaders who were just as shocked as I was that something had shifted inside of me, handed me the book that was supposed to affirm and build upon the possiblity that I was the target of Divine Love as opposed to a divine wrath.
Thus my years of devouring that student bible began. I engaged it like my life depended upon it. It was never really something I read for “devotion” – a term I heard often and assumed had to do with a conscious choice or practice of creating space in one’s life for a ritualized relationship with the text. There was never an established ritual of reading the text in my life because in those early years it was something I read out of a ravenous need for understanding, for meaning, for purpose in a world that was being born out of the soil of chaos from my early years. This impassioned pursuit likely led to my premature transition from student of the text to teacher of the text. I was never one to cloak myself in the clothes of an expert, but instead stood as a questioner, a ponderer, and wonderer of the stories, the poems, the wisdom, the accounts of this man named Jesus. I wanted to invite others to explore alongside me in the journey. My wonderings aloud began with the youth of the church and eventually migrated through the terrain of the college ministry and ultimately occasionaly landed in the pulpit. It was in that season that I first discovered how my voice, my questions and explorations of the text unnerved a good number of people. For some it was simply that my voice was female. For others it was that my voice had not yet gone through the refinement of a seminary education. For many, I believe it was that my lack of church upbringing led me to confront the text with questions that those who had been spoonfed dogma for their entire lives weren’t yet free to ask. Or perhaps I was and am heretical in my questions. Whatever the reason, my voice became a point of contention in the church that had previously been the only “safe” place I had ever known. I came to understand just how quickly this book could lose its sacredness and become a weapon. I learned how distrusting many people actually were of the text they claimed was divine – they were frightened that it could be destroyed by the questions of skeptics, by those who wondered about the cultural influences, by those who acknowledged the complexity of swallowing the thing whole without question.
I knew something had to change. I knew I was loved by many in the church that had given birth to my faith, but I also instinctually knew I needed to individuate, to separate and find a way to follow the questions that captivated my very heart and soul. I eventually followed the questions all the way to The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I felt a whole new world opening up in that space. It was a relatively safe place to ask the questions written on the pages of my story. I went there thinking I would wrestle my way through the questions and eventually find my way to solid ground. Instead, I experienced an even greater level of opening up, an expanding of the mind and heart. This funny thing happens when I follow the questions – instead of finding answers that make life feel safer or smaller, I discover life to be more beautifully mysterious than I ever could have initially imagined. This mystery is at times difficult to bear, but at other times it is the only thing that makes life worth living. It was in the season of my graduate education that I stopped using the sacred text as a means to force all of life to make sense and fit together in a way that my human mind can grasp.
So four years have gone by and I’ve been unsure of how to engage the text in this new chapter of my faith journey. My oldest daughter, who coincidentally is named Faith, came to me this past week asking for some help with a school assignment inviting her to explore the book of Genesis as literature and that’s when I felt something that I can only equate to the fluttering of my stomach. It’s that common human sensation that happens when we have first kisses, or receive an acceptance letter to graduate school, or buy a plane ticket to another country. It’s a sensation linked to desire. Unsure as I may still be as to how to engage this particular sacred text, I am aware of a new kind of beckoning. I believe it is asking me to come home. I don’t think this home is a return to what has been, it is an ever-expanding moving forward form of becoming. I am ready to opt back in to the conversation. Anyone care to join me?
*Sunday Specials are a weekly round-up of happenings on the web-o-sphere. So enjoy your coffee (or late night beverage) while checking out what’s caught our attention.
This month has been full of global heartache. I don’t know about you all, but my body, mind and soul were feeling pretty depleted this week. So I was determined to make my way back to beauty, back to the things that lend me the strength and the light needed to stay engaged in a hurting world. When we try to find a means to rejuvenate, it need not be a strategy of avoidance, but rather a means to growing our capacity to hold both the beauty and the brutal.
Here are some of the things that generate new life for this tired soul…