Showing posts with label hope. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hope. Show all posts

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Suffering and Joy

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The revised common lectionary text for Year a, Proper 6 (Second Sunday after Pentecost) was Psalm 100 and Romans 5: 1-8. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website

Often in the American church in the twenty-first century, we focus on the call to praise, like the one we heard in Psalm 100 this morning. Many churches, many evangelists, many congregations spread the message that life in Christ is a happy life. That if you just believe with faith the size of a mustard seed, your life will be good. Have you seen this message? I have. And it annoys the crap out of me.
            Although we are called to praise, God does not promise us a good life. In fact, in the revised common lectionary Gospel lesson, which I did not ask our liturgist to read this moring, God promises the disciples hardship as they go out into the world. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves [....] Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Not a happy clappy life in Christ. It’s an odd thing that the lectionary does here, putting the praise of Psalm 100 side by side with this warning about hardship to come in the ministry.
In the church, we don’t talk enough about the fact that suffering is part of life. It is the shadow side of our knowledge and our free will. In fact, the presence of suffering in human life is one of the few things that most world religions agree on. (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism). I admire that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism put this idea first: “All life is suffering, pain.”
Our reality is that we live in a broken world, and this brokenness is visible at all levels. In our personal lives we experience the grief and loss, illness, and poverty. In our communities, we experience systemic racism and bigotry toward minority groups on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, ability, and ethnicity. American politics have never been more divided, and this week, in our community, political disagreement became physical violence. If we look further afield, we can see large-scale, ongoing armed conlfict that destroys communities just like ours and turns people just like us into refugees. Indeed, the very planet under our feet is broken. Global climate change is disrupting the natural systems that life on this planet depends on. All of this brokenness fills our newscasts, and it we share it on social media. We see five people shot in Alexandria, and hundreds affected by the fire in London, and thousands in Syria or in Iraq wondering when the next air strikes will come. We see all this brokenness, and we are overwhelemed. 
We are not very good at dealing with suffering. And I think we get it wrong in two ways: Either we turn away entirely, refusing to acknowledge the suffering that is there in our own lives or in the lives of our communities; OR, we try to rush through the brokenness.
Let’s start with the way that we refuse to acknowledge suffering and brokenness. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” What is the correct answer? “Good,” or “Fine.” This is a ritual that we each participate in dozens of times a day with coworkers, with bosses, with neighbors, with friends, with customer service personnel. Although the question in the ritual asks how we are, we’re actually not allowed to say anything other than “good” or “fine.” Don’t believe me? Break the rules this week. Tell someone you’re wonderful, or tired, or that you have a headache, or that you are overwhelmed by the brokennes of the environment. I will lay odds that the reaction you get is discomfort. Giving any answer other than the expected one in this ritual communication is just not done.
            Now sometimes, the people close to us actually do want to know how we’re doing. When the question goes beyond participation in the ritual to express actual concern, it sounds different, “how are you?” “how are you, really?” In this case, the person asking the question will make eye contact and lean toward you.
This “how are you ritual” might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that its ubiquity in American life, and the rigidity of the requirement that we respond to the question with a positive answer are evidence of the way we focus relentlessly on the positive. We publicly affirm that we are good and fine even when we are not, and when we get home, we distract ourselves with the many media available to us on our variety of devices, , with food and medication, with alcohol and drugs.
            The other way that we get it wrong is by rushing through suffering.  Romans 5:3-4 tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Passages like this one, lead us to platitudes like “every cloud has a silver lining” and “God has a reason” and “God does not give you more than you can bear.”
While I think that these platitudes point to an important truth—that living through tragedy changes us in profound ways—our eagerness to emphasize the reasons and the silver linings lead us to rush through the suffering in unhealthy ways. We need to slow down. We need to recognize that we are in the moment of suffering and let it be okay that we are not good. We need to take the time to actually feel our feelings.
In my experience, there will be a lot of feelings. Not only the sadness and pain of the event that caused our suffering, but also uncertainty, and fear about that uncertainty, and doubt and confusion. It is not easy to let ourselves feel these feeling. But you’ll notice that Romans doesn’t jump straight from suffering to hope. The intermediaries are endurance and character.  Sitting with our feelings long enough to recognize them and name them is an important step.
I have a couple of disclaimers. What I have said here is not a call to tolerate abuse or ongoing trauma. If you are in a relationship that is causing you ongoing harm, get help and get out safely. Reach out to the staff of Mt. Olivet, reach out to someone you trust. Reach. Out. This is also not a call to inflict pain upon ourselves in the ways that some in the history of Christianity have done. No self-flaggelation, no hair shirts, no beds of nails for us. We encounter sufficient suffering in our daily lives without seeking it out or inventing it.
Suffering is not a contest. We should not cry matyr to show that our own suffering is the worst, but neither should we minimize our own experience because someone else has greater suffering.
Each of us reacts to the suffering in our lives and in our world differently. And the process of moving from suffereing to endurance to character to hope is not a linear one. There are setbacks and delays and repetitions. It can take months or even years. In the mean time, though, life goes on. Even as we are learning to live with suffering, there will also be moments in our lives worthy of celebration.
And this, I think, is the greatest challenge: holding in tension the awareness that our broken world is full of suffering and the conviction that this same world is also beautiful and worthy of celebration. I’ve noticed this coming to a head lately in activist spaces on social media. One member of the community will say to another, “How can you care about new bike lanes when children are dying in the streets?” This question presumes that suffering and celebration are a zero-sum game, that we can only be engaged in one at a time. By this logic, if we are in a state of grief or trauma or brokenness, life can only be sad and dark and unhappy.
When I was widowed four years ago, I chose to wear black. That fast from color was a reminder to myself to slow down and make space for the pain and doubt and confusion. It was important to me at that time that my outward appearance reflect the dark wilderness that I felt like I was navigating, and I kept choosing black for about six months. In the early days especially,  I remember seeing shock, and sometimes judgement, on other people’s faces when they saw me laughing and smiling. As with the “how are you” ritual that expects only a positive answer, there was an expectiation that I as a widow wearing black would be perpetually sad and weepy.
Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration. We can welcome it to the table as a ligitimate element of our experience of this earthly life.
I’m asking you today to pay more attention to the suffering in your own life, in the life of your community, and in the world, but I don’t want you to wallow in it or be incapacitated by its magnitude. Recognize that in our broken world, suffering exists alongside joy. And recognize that God is present with us equally in suffering and in joy.
When we are able to do this, when we recognize that suffering is a part of life that we should experience rather than one to escape, when we are able to be aware of both suffering and joy at the same time, it changes the way we relate to suffering in our own life  and in the lives of others. Often when we encounter suffering in the life of someone we are close to, we jump into fixing mode. We offer solutions, we reach for the platitudes and start naming the potential silver linings of the dark clouds. While I am a strong proponent of the idea that good things can come from bad things, I also know that this mental leap is one that the suffering person needs to make in their own time. As people giving moral support we need to be able to say, “This is awful. I am sorry you are going through this. I am here to listen.” And we need to stop there, before we start solutioneering.
It also changes the way we pray. Rather than praying, “Lord, make it stop,” we can pray, “God, be with us. God, help us see. God, give us strength.” Amen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

rejection


Yesterday, Facebook reminded me that eight years ago, the University of Oregon declined my proposal.
Which reminded me that eight years ago I was in the throes of a mild existential crisis. Before the four programs I applied to that year declined, I had never experienced that much rejection. It was quite a reversal from the experience of my senior year in high school when all five of the schools to which I applied accepted me and offered me money. 

The following year, my successful application to the program from which I earned my PhD in 2015, was a humbling lesson in How Things Work. Never before had I really understood the maxim that who you know is more important than what you know. It was absolutely my network connections that   pushed my submission to the top of the stack of applications from other eminently qualified people. 

In the last couple of years the realities of the academic job market have brought this experience of rejection back to my life. It's not unusual for job seekers in the humanities to submit upwards of 70 dossiers, each customized to the recipient institution, for 1-2 interviews and maybe 0-1 job offers each year.

I am, however, responding to rejection differently.

In her blog post "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year" Kim Liao talks about flipping the way we regard the rejection slip. It is not evidence of unworthiness, but rather evidence of bravery. Evidence of the audacity to take a chance.

It's also evidence of productivity. In order to put oneself out there, a writer or an academic has to be producing the work to put in the envelope (read: e-mail attachment) in the first place. Aiming for one acceptance would mean slaving over a single document long beyond the point at which real improvement ceases to happen. Accepting the inevitability of, and *gasp* even celebrating, rejection means sending things out as soon as they are polished enough. And sometimes rejection comes with the advice needed to improve to the next level.

I'm not the same sort of writer that Liao is, and 100 rejections a year is beyond the scope of what I need to be aiming for as a writer of scholarly journal articles. But if I add up all the ways I want to be putting myself out there in the next year, I should be able to garner a healthy number of rejections from academic journals and presses, job postings, fellowships and grants, and potential friends and partners. I think I'll aim for 40.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

women's march

I marched because I am a woman.

I marched because I have a mother and daughters and sisters and aunts and grandmothers. 

I marched because I have held space for the fears of my immigrant students and friends. 
Photo Credit: Veronica

I marched because democracy looks like voting AND it looks like this. 

Today I stood with half a million feminists as we peacefully occupied the streets of Washington, DC. 
Photo Credit: Veronica

Today I sang protest songs on the overcrowded metro to the rally. 
Photo Credit: Anna

Today I walked back across the river because the metro was too full. 

Today I put my body where my mouth is. 

Today I stood up. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

done not done

Recently, a friend mentioned that he was dissatisfied with his work, that his job no longer made him happy, that he was done with it. I was floored. This friend is excellent at his job, and I love my job so much that I can't imagine ever being done with it.

I've heard other friends express the same sentiment: that they wanted to move up, they wanted more, their company had no place for them to go. This craving has always baffled me. There's only so far up one can go before moving from doing a job to management or administration, and those roles require vastly different skills. For days I've been wondering if I'm just weird. I've been teaching for ten years now, and I really just want to keep teaching forever. Maybe I'm just wired wrong.

It occurred to me yesterday, though, as I was mulling over the game plan for getting through another Michigan winter in the country, that I can relate to being done. I am done living forty-five minutes from almost everything. I am done constantly dealing with mice. I am done with drafty windows and insufficiently insulated walls. I am done thinking about gutters and leaves and appliances. I'm so ready to move on that it's easy to resent the things keeping me here. It's so easy to descend into a spiral of complaints and shake my fist at the responsibilities I no longer want.

Just as I was warming up for a solid session of fist-shaking, however, the words 'weed where you're planted' popped into my head. Because Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse have not sold, they remain my responsibility, like it or not, and these responsibilities tie me to this place. If I want to live well as long as I live here, I have to think about mice and windows and walls and gutters and leaves and appliances. In truth if I have any hope of walking away from closings in the black, I need to think about more than just those things. Even while planning for future change, it's critical to be a good steward of the things within reach and to do so with more joy than resentment.

It's a difficult position to be in, done yet not done.


Monday, July 14, 2014

conflict

The news these days is dominated by stories of conflict. In Syria. In Gaza. In Iraq. In Ukraine. In the US Congress. On the steps of the Supreme Court. In Indiana.

In so many cases, conflict is perpetuated by misuse of religion. It is  beautiful when faith is the guiding  principle of discipleship and reverence for the creation. It is horrific when faith is twisted into a tool for violence and destruction.

It is unfortunate that in the midst of conflict, when we most need our principles to guide us, human beings are most likely to surrender to our emotions. We let anger and fear take control of our actions. We demand retribution instead of offering forgiveness. We forget that the Other is also a Self.

At Velveteen Rabbi today, Rachel Barenblat wrote:
I have been watching the news (and reading blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates) out of Israel and the Palestinian territories with a sense of unbearable heartbreak. It brings me to the brink of something like a panic attack: my chest tightening, my throat choked with tears, the embodied feeling that the grief will wash me away altogether. And I am aware that those who live there are experiencing something far more powerful.
The only thing which brings any comfort is poetry and prayer. Bethlehem Blogger posted A prayer in times of violence, which though it is explicitly Christian speaks to me nonetheless. Wendell Berry's poem The peace of wild things speaks right to my heart. I daven the oseh shalom blessing -- "may the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace also for us" -- with particular fervor.
To prayer and poetry, I would add music.




I have faith that one day will come. 

Today the news of conflict I've been reading has been accompanied by updates from a friend traveling through a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo that was ravaged by war in recent years but is now home to community and hope.

UMC Kyubo, DR Congo. Photo credit: Bob Walters, Friendly Planet Missiology




Thursday, January 9, 2014

real

Social media comes under a lot of criticism for making us more isolated, for decimating the glory of English, for changing the way people interact with one another. This post is not about that. This post is about the power of social media to build and maintain community across time and space.

The first year of my married life was bathed in the rose-colored glow of being newly wed, but the second year I was really lonely. I desperately wanted to be back in Washington, DC, with my college friends, which was silly for two reasons. First, by then most of my college friends were leaving the District. And second because I had plenty of great friends in Michigan. My La Leche League friend, my grad school friend, and my friend I stole from Adam are all wonderful women, but something was missing.

After dwelling with the discontent for a while, I finally realized that what I really missed was interacting with a group of people who not only knew me but also all knew each other. Identifying the problem helped me to accept it, but satisfying the craving was more difficult. Gradually, the sort of interconnected tribe I longed for coalesced around us as Adam started inviting a more-or-less stable group of people to three parties a year: sledding for Anna in January, a cookout for Sofia in May, and his apple butter stir in the fall.  My world started to look rosy again.

Facebook's expansion beyond college campuses, though, gave me back my college tribe. Although we were in Michigan and Texas and Washington and New York and Togo and Indiana and the DR Congo, we could still interact with one another easily. The asynchronicity of posts and comments on social media ameliorate the difficulties posed by work schedules and time differences and eliminate the costs of international phone calls. Most recently, Skype gave us back the ability to see each other as we talked.

I don't mean to say that social media completely replaces face to face interactions. The best analogy I've come up with is to say that social media simulates working in the same building as someone else. You might not have a conversation over lunch with Sam every day, but since you pass him in the hallway and you have brief interactions at the copier or vending machines, you have a general sense that Sam is alive and well, and when you do make time for a tête à tête, you can skim over the preliminary stuff and get to the deeper conversation more quickly.

Facebook has allowed me to have a general sense of what's going on in the lives of a few close high school friends, my close-knit group from college, the extended families of both my parents, and my graduate school colleagues. For a long time, this was the only social media platform I used.

Then, having learned to knit in 2009 because Anna wanted to, I kept knitting because I liked it, and quickly exhausted my reference book. Looking for resources online, I found Ravelry, a social media network geared toward fiber artists, and within Ravelry, I found the Ivory Tower Fiber Freaks, "The Centre for Textiles and Conflict Studies: For academics of all stripes who knit, crochet, spin or weave." I have only met a couple of the members of this tribe in person, but the group as a whole has a significant role in my professional development as well as my adventures with string.

When Adam died, ITFF mourned with me. Not a single one of them had ever met him, so they were not grieving for him, but because they love me, they mourn with me, and that is a critical distinction. So much strength flows into my hands from around the world with the cards they send to make me smile.  They have lifted my spirits with flowers on the 26th of every month from that to this.
August's flowers
I have long since felt immensely blessed that I get to be a part of this amazing virtual-yet-oh-so-real community of scholars and friends, but today they have outdone themselves. Today they wrapped the girls and me in wooly warm hugs. 


Each square an individual contribution:



Each blanket a symphony of color
  
Anna's blanket

and texture:
Kate's blanket
The note said, 
We were all so sorry when Adam died, and if we could, we would have wrapped you all up in virtual hugs to help you as you learned to cope with his loss. We couldn't do that, however, so we decided to make these blankets so you would have something tangible to hold you whenever you need a hug, or some love, or just something to keep you warm!….This was a truly international gift, and is from all of us at ITFF.
Some of the squares had their own notes:

I appreciate every gift I have received from all of my community, every bit of chocolate, every cup of tea, every penny you have sent, every task you have helped me with tells me that you love me.  This gift of blankets from the ITFF community, however, amazes me in the scope of its organization and coordination. 

This, right here. This is the power of social media. 

My cup runneth over.


My wooly hug is also beautiful on the inside. Come join me ;-)







Thursday, August 1, 2013

how are you

One of my favorite lessons to teach English language learners is one that I never plan. Inevitably, my advanced students, who have sufficient mastery of the what and how of using English to start wondering about the when and why, one day come into class and ask me, "Why do Americans always want to know how I am?" or "Americans always ask me how I am. Why don't they listen when I tell them?" The students are always shocked when I say that even though Americans ask the question "How are you?" all the time, most of the time they really don't care how you are. They don't want to hear about your headache or your challenging day at work or the problems in your love life.

A lot of what happens in an advanced language class is learning to move beyond the simplified interactions that are taught at the beginning levels, so my students have been surprised when I say that in this case, you really just need to stick with the conversation pattern:
-Hi, how are you?
-Fine. And you?
-I'm good.
The space for creativity and individual expression here is in the choice of adjective. Any synonyms for the word 'good' are acceptable: fine, great, good. Positive words like wonderful, excellent, and splendid are probably safe, but okay and so-so are as negative as you can go without making the other person uncomfortable by pushing him to ask you what is wrong. This interaction is really more ritual than conversation. Really, this ritual is so ingrained, that sometimes a distracted person will answer "Fine. And you?" even if you didn't ask the question. Or people passing in the hallway will say this exchange as they are moving away from each other.

There are times, however, when Americans do want a genuine, non-ritual answer to the question, "How are you?" Like when old friends meet after a long time or when the person asking knows that you are probably not okay/great/fine/wonderful. Although the words are the same, the body language  and intonation are quite different. When "how are you" is part of a genuine conversation, the questioner makes eye contact with the interlocutor, possibly while stepping closer or leaning in; he pronounces the individual words distinctly and puts extra emphasis on the verb 'are.' How are you?

I've had more genuine 'how are you' conversations than usual in these last few weeks. In fact, after the first week, when I started to re-enter the normal world of grocery shopping and running errands, I had gotten so used to the genuine question that the ritual took me by surprise. It was a bit of an effort to say, "Fine. And you?" those first days back in the world. Lately watching for the genuine question has become a bit of a macabre amusement. I can almost see it coming. Something in the person's face changes, but I can't find the words to describe it to you here.

So, how am I?

I'm complicated and capricious.

Sometimes I really want to be alone, and sometimes I really crave company. And the sometime may only last ten minutes before I want the other.

At times I feel like I'm walking through uncharted territory in the dark, and I'm frightened. Then, I remember that though I have never been here before, other people have. I know quite a few people who have lost spouses too young, but it's easy to forget because they have passed through this darkness into beautiful lives, and that gives me hope.

I feel like I've joined the worst club ever, but the other people here are pretty cool.

The loss of my spouse is a grief more intense than any other in my experience, but a couple of significant losses in recent years have prepared me for this in the sense that I have thought about the cyclical dynamics of grief and am aware of how I grieve.

I am looking ahead. Though I will not be returning to campus as a full-time student and teaching assistant in the coming academic year, I will be finishing my dissertation in absentia at Rambling Farmhouse. And then, I will be looking for a job in academia. Not having to strike a balance between my career and Adam's career makes this job search less complicated than it would have been, though the children and our extended family make it less than simple.

I am coming out of the fog, and this is a mixed blessing. I like having a brain again, but the fog was sort of a protective blanket. Having a brain means noticing the little things that I now have to do for myself because Adam is not here to do them. Over the course of our fifteen years of partnership, we had developed automatic patterns of working together. Each time I notice that I'm doing his part of the pattern, I'm reminded that this loss reaches into every aspect of my life.

So, that's how I am. Thanks for asking.

P. S. We're okay financially, too. The generous gifts we've received from friends and family, the wise choices about investments and life insurance Adam and I had made, Social Security, and the auto insurance settlements (still to come) will take care of the girls and me until I find a job worth having and then be a safety net for the next phase of our lives. Don't worry about this.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

mantras for the writing life

I have read a lot of composition theory. When I think intellectually and reflectively about how writing works and what my process is, I come to a pleasant melange of the ideas of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray. For the most part, I build my writing life carefully and try to encourage my students to learn good writing habits.

But that which I experience in the midst of a project and what I know in the abstract to be true often look very different. Thus it is that I find myself repeating like a breath prayer not the wisdom of composition theory, but the wisdom of popular literature through the ages.

Here are my mantras:

1. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. -The Shewings of Julian of Norwich

2. -It wil all work out in the end.
    -How will it?
    -I don't know. It's a mystery.
-Shakespeare in Love

3. Have you eaten your rice? Then wash your bowl. -Zen anecdote

4. Make. Great. Art. -Neil Gaiman

How do you get through a tough project?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

bones and water

I'm just sitting down to some lunch on this second day after the third day after, but tonight's supper is already bubbling away on the stove. The scrap and bones and gristly bits of our Easter ham* found their way to the stock pot Sunday evening, and while we walked and watched a movie and enjoyed dessert, the gently bubbling water extracted all the best things left in these unwanted bits.

Just now, while waiting for lunch to warm up, I skimmed the fat and scooped what bits were left into the kitchen compost. The stock is beautiful: slightly viscous when still cold from the fridge, richly brown, and wonderfully aromatic as it warms. Now it's gently bubbling again, but instead of detritus, I've added nutritus. Those little tiny bubbles, so small yet so powerful, will break down the split peas, cubed potato, and grated carrots into delicious soup that even Anna, the Queen of Hating Food Mom Likes, will eat with gusto.

There's a metaphor in there somewhere. I can almost taste it.

-----------------------------
* We cooked a fresh ham for Easter for the first time this year, and the ratio of edible to less than edible was not what I expected. I'm not sure if this is the nature of real, uncured ham and the usual stuff in the grocery store is processed into just the right amount of bone in mostly meat or if this is a cruel joke the processors play. "Ha, you want it natural, uncured, and without additives. Here you go. Have your natural. Bwah-ha-ha."
-----------------------------

Kate and Anna's laissez-faire split-pea soup

1.5 - 2 quarts ham stock (if you've leftovers from a bone-in ham, simmer the bits in 2 quarts of water uncovered for three hours or so, chill overnight, skim the fat from the top, scoop out the bone and bits)
1 pint split peas
2 potatoes, chopped into 1 inch cubes
2 carrots, grated
pepper to taste
bay leaf 

Combine ingredients in stock pot. Bring to simmer. Simmer uncovered 3 hours or more, stirring occasionally. You can eat the soup as soon as the peas are tender to the tooth (maybe 45 minutes), but it will be more delicious and wonderful if you let the bubbles do their thing until it all just turns to mush.

Nice served with a dollop of sour cream in the middle of the bowl, freshly ground pepper on the top, and biscuits or soda bread on the side.

Monday, November 29, 2010

juxtapositions and hope

Happy Advent, Everyone!

I'm noticing the increasingly early darkness this year more than usual. I think I may have to start lighting candles in my apartment in the evenings so their warm glowiness can carve out a space for light.

Last night, I heard a great sermon in the Rethink series at Purdue's Wesley Foundation. The topic this week is Rethinking Family, and the speaker quoted the African proverb I am because we are; since we are, therefore I am.” 

Then, this morning I read the sermon from last night's American University United Methodist service, which centered on the text from Isaiah 2:4 "...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Wouldn't it be easier to beat our swords into plowshares and respond to the people around us with love rather than violence if we recognized the collective nature of our existence? A tall order indeed, but this is the week of hope.