on bound wrists

November 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm (Poetry) (, , , , , , )

My wrist is bound by lines and strokes of an ancient language. The form of these letters call what is not into being. The words speak to the Word. In the beginning was the word; In the beginning….God. The earth, formless and empty, darkness over the surface of the deep. The Word with God. The Word: God.

God said.

God-Word. Words-Formed. Form-Created. Spoken forth; spoken form.

These words, wrapped ever-round my wrist, are my hoped for spoken-form spoken forth. My mantra. The sounds, the words capable of “creating transformation”. Not because of any power they possess in themselves but because the Word in me can breathe them into life. In my life. They are the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart.

שלום. This  shalom around my wrist, this peace, is not merely the absence of war or discord. It is not marked by what it is not. It is defined by what is present.  This shalom is wholeness, health, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony.  It is rich and deep. This shalom is life complete and perfect. Paid in full, life to the full. Creation as it was created to be when the Word spoke and there was light. Created restored to Creation. Creation restored to the Creator. The word speaks to the Word. He himself is our Shalom, who has made the two one, destroying the dividing wall of hostility. God reconciles us to himself through this Shalom. We are given the same vocation of reconciliation. This God-Word is given as our mantle, our mantra. It becomes the meditation of our heart, the words of our mouth, capable of creating transformation as the Word, Shalom, breathes us into life to the full, into shalom. These words, this shalom around my wrist, reminds me to seek life-to-the-full – the redemption and reconciliation – of, for and in the places I find myself, because in its shalom I find Shalom.

צדק. This tzedek around my wrist, this justice, is not merely the absence of corruption or oppression. It is not marked by what is not. It is defined by what is present. This tzedek is right standing,  righteousness, generosity, equity, concern, mercy,  reparation, restoration and redemption. It is rich and deep. This tzedek is a life of right relationships. Righteous, relationship to the full. Creation as it was created to be when the Word spoke. Created restored to Creation. Creation restored to the Creator. The word speaks to the Word. He himself is our Tzedek, our justice, our Righteousness rolling down like rivers, like an ever-flowing stream. God maintains our cause, acting justly and mercifully toward us. We are are given the same vocation of justice. This God-Word is given as our mantle, our mantra. It becomes the meditation of our heart, the words of our mouth, capable of creating transformation as the Word, Tzedek, breathes us into right relationships, into tzedek. These words, this tzedek around my wrist, reminds me to seek relationships enacted in fairness, generosity and equity. To pursue justice and love mercy. To pursue reparation and restoration of, for and in the relationships I find myself a part of.

My wrist is bound by lines and strokes of an ancient language. The form of these letters call what is not into being. The words speak to the Word. These words, wrapped ever-round my wrist, are my hoped for spoken-form spoken forth. My mantra. The sounds, the words capable of creating transformation. Not because of any power they possess in themselves but because the Word in me can breathe them into life. In my life. They are the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart.These words bound as symbols on my hand remind me not just to be peaceful and to be just but to do shalom and do tzedek. To seek to enact the wholeness, harmony, and fullness of life given through Christ and to pursue right standing, fairness, generosity and equity in all my relationships and spheres of life. 

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on passivism, pacifism and peace

June 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , , , , )

I buckle my helmet, check both ways, and pull out slowly into the intersection. As I do a car comes out of nowhere, breaks hard and I swerve. We miss each other and I pull around so I’m on the right side of the road. And then I am assailed by the swearing, the shouting, the angry words pouring out of the car towards me. I am called names and the driver threatens to kill me, moving to force me off the road as she does so. I pull onto the sidewalk and she gets out of her car. I keep cycling. She catches up with me at the next intersection where I wait for a red light. As I make to cross she whips her car in front of me, cutting me off. I avoid eye contact but the barrage of hate directed toward the “f-ing white bitch on the bike” crashes into me. I wait silently and as she pulls off she swerves in again to hit my front wheel. She speeds off and I cautiously cross. I’m shaking and a tear runs down my cheek. Once again I am caught up in the dramatic and chaotic fallout of an emotionally volatile and unstable community. Still, nothing prepares me for it. Nothing prepares me for the fight that breaks out in the street, or the sounds of domestic violence coming through the walls, or the mother telling her child she wished he was dead, the erratic discipline, the man who corners me and threatens me on the street, the gunshots, the threats, the hate, the degrading names and the aggression that permeates the fabric of these relationships.

Several weeks back I wrote on things I have confused over the last few years. Hidden in the middle of that list was this one: “I have confused Not hitting people with Non-violence”, a confusion which came to a head one day as I sat in my room listening to a neighbor’s misogynistic rap. At that time, my interaction with violence – or the ever-threat of it – changed. Non-violence, pacifism, and peacemaking become less theoretical and more personal; no longer abstract, because my relation to them had become embodied. So I asked, how do i do non-violence, how do i practice pacifism, how do i be a peace-maker when violence – the threat, the call, the power of it – is tied inextricably to my being woman. Or my being white. Or my being young. Or my being out of place, a stranger, a foreigner. Or my living, walking and breathing in a violent neighborhood. Or my being hypocritical, abounding in wrath and lacking in mercy.

Here is the complexity of my interaction with violence and non-violence. I trick myself into believing that not raising my voice or my fists is a non-violent response to frustration and anger. I ignore the rage, wrath and fury that simmer within me. I don’t scream at my neighbor but I hate her nevertheless for the torrent of aggression she directs towards her kids from sun up to sun down. I think of the things I would do if I had the “courage” – I secretly hope she leaves so I don’t have to deal with the contradictions her violent stagnation causes in me. I come to believe that passivism (not doing anything in a violent situation directed toward me and not doing anything with the violence within me) is an adequate replacement for pacifism (that fundamental opposition to violence that reveals itself in demonstrative non-participation in violence and counter-commitments to establishing and maintaining peace.) I am caught in this hard space, somehow believing that not seeking retribution is the same as seeking mercy. Saying you are non-violent and lowering your weapons is dramatically and fundamentally different from disarming yourself, your attitudes, your heart, and your spirit. Not participating in violence is radically distinct from participating in peace.

How then do I practice peace and engage in pacifism? How do I make non-violence less a way of thinking and more a way of being? How do I ensure these things begin in me, but don’t end there?

How do I seek the peace (the shalom, the wholeness,the reconciliation) of the city (the place, the neighborhood, the community, the relationships) I am placed in, recognizing that my shalom is inextricably tied to its shalom, my peace found in its peace (Jeremiah 29:7 paraphrased).

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on getting it wrong

May 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , , , )

Ask me in ten years time what I was doing in 2011 and I’ll stream-of-consciousness you out of your socks! You’ll hear of the things I loved about that year: morning prayer and rhythms of life, poker at O’Neals Pub, sitting on the steps in summer, chick-fil-a, house meals and cooking together, riding the El train into Philly city center, games nights with housemates, walking to and from work, late summer nights on the block, playing dominoes in the street, a barbecue on the roof of our house, kids playing in the fire hydrant into the early evening, pretzels and ping-pong at Frankford hall, and potluck meals…You’ll hear stories: a homeless woman bathing in our kitchen sink, hiding a turkey in the oven while someone went through my trash, a 26 hour roadtrip to Minneapolis, sheltering under a kiddie pool in the pouring rain during school supplies, a Minnie and Mickey Mouse dance-off in the street, Christmas dinners, sitting in the emergency room at 2am with a neighbor, knife fights and water fights, celebrations and candlelit vigils for the unknown woman and the young father who were shot…You’ll hear the things that were sparked in husband-man and I during that year and hopefully you’ll see how some of those have come to fruition in our lives. You’ll hear the things we learnt. And hopefully, you’ll also hear the ways we got it horribly wrong and the things we regretted and the things we would have, could have and should have done better. But in case you don’t ask, here they are…

* Talking less and listening more – Looking back, we went in guns blazing, quickly identifying and speaking into the areas we felt could use improvement, the values we thought should be prioritized, and the mistakes we felt had been made. Some of those things may have needed speaking into, and certainly we were honored by the trust (and the grace) that was extended to us to change and adapt and put new systems in place and impact the direction life and work took. But in all honesty, we could have done a lot better if we had taken the time to live in and into the community before speaking into it.

* Avoiding spirals of negativity and gossip – That stuff is like yeast; it insidiously creeps in and grows and expands and thrusts itself into relationships and friendships and spaces of your life its not even related to. And all it takes is three simple conditions to thrive: 1. not addressing things quickly and conclusively with the person you have issue with, 2. spreading the issue to other folks by venting, telling stories, or “asking for advice” and 3. the receiving person saying “Yes….and….” Ah, if we could just stop things at that “YES…” cos it is Toxic. What it does is affirms the person’s experience and associated anger/frustration/disappointment/hurt and says “You are entitled” to feel like that. And then it adds fuel by sharing its own experience, fanning the flame of broken relationship. That “Yes” does not seek to reconcile – it seeks to justify, affirm negativity, identify with it, and widen the rift that exists. Looking back, I would have sought to address things quickly and directly, not shared it with other folks (outside of my safe person – husband-man), and when I heard negativity and gossip I would seek to say “Yes…and….” less.

* Connecting more diversely – Ah, this is the big one! Only toward the end of our time did we start to make connection with some of the absolutely incredible, inspiring, insightful, wise and honest leaders that had lived in the neighborhood and invested themselves fully into it for years! I believe that in any neighborhood there are phenomenal leaders already embedded whom we should seek out and learn from. For us, in a diverse neighborhood like Kensington, we should have been seeking out and sitting at the feet of, listening and drawing alongside the strong Hispanic and African-American voices and leadership all around us. This would have saved us MANY mistakes, misunderstandings, miscommunications, hurt, pain, frustration and puffed-up mentalities we, and others, experience when we don’t intentionally Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

We do not hang our heads in shame over these things, but we do recognize where we fell short. We do not get tripped up by regret, but we do repent. And we put in place strategies that help us do better next time.

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on remembrance

May 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , , , , )

I do not end seasons of my life well. I either miss them, like I did for both my graduations. Or I pass so quickly onto the next that I fail to close and integrate the last well. I don’t take the time to sit and breathe, to remember, to gather stones and build an altar, to write obituaries or sing songs of celebration. And so I hold in my hands a life of disconnected memories, of events that exist in isolation to each other, of learnings and pain and growth that has never been well-integrated and assimilated into my very sense of self. My life lacks closure. My life story doesn’t follow a logical timeline – in the telling of it I draw together strands and feelings and impressions that never quite coalesce. There are years of missing data. Gaps in my memory and consciousness. I found myself with losses that I’ve never mourned, pain that I’ve never integrated, questions that were never resolved that I don’t have the ability to accommodate well. My history is adrift.

These past two years I have been learning how to pause and MARVEL and how to stop and MOURN. I have learnt the value of a drinking a glass of red with friends and remembering what our lives held in the vintage year. I have learnt the value of gift-giving to mark an end and how words of affirmation and appreciation can release someone to the next journey. I have learnt the value of showing photographs and telling stories to mark births and deaths and weddings and graduations and celebrations. I have learnt the value of return and how powerful the little act of remembering can be in releasing us to live fully present. I have learnt the value of attaching physicality – a picture, a gift, a retelling, a token, words written, a stone picked up from the road – to remembrance. I always thought of memories as anchors – “don’t dwell on the past”, I remind myself. But indeed there is great value in returning to the past periodically; not to be consumed by it, but so that it doesn’t drown us. I am learning how to end seasons well and how to return to them rhythmically.

Husband-man and I were privileged to have time while back home to sit and pause and remember and reflect and debrief our time at The Simple Way. As we cast our eyes back over our time, we hold in tension how incredibly rich and beneficial it was with how hard and challenging it was. It was one of the steepest learning curves of our lives and there is much we have grown from and in, learnt, and new things that have been sparked in us (or old things that have been fanned into flame). We carved out space and sat in beautiful places and drank coffee and jotted thoughts and names and stories down. We asked what did we learn, what could we have done better, what do we miss, what’s sparked in us, who are the people that shaped us.

Debrief

The next few blogs will be on some of our reflections. As we have launched into this new season, these are the things that we hold to, some of the many things that have been (re)sparked in us:

We long to continue to do life through regular community connection with like-hearted people – Christ-followers and disciple-makers.

We long to be in a place where we can continue to engage well with our surrounding neighbourhood.

We long to have a space where we can practice hospitality.

We long for opportunities for Brett to operate in his primary gifting – speaking, writing, and online ministry.

We long for stability and healthy balance in our life-rhythms.

We long to say “Yes, lets!” more to opportunities and experiences.

We long to have married couples and culturally diverse individuals speaking into our lives and journeying close to us.

We long to learn how to be more open-handed with our time, our energy and our resources – and to encourage others to be likewise.

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On wishing-wells (and the irony of pessimistic idealism)

January 6, 2012 at 6:09 am (People I have known, Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , , , , , )

Recently, a wise friend of mine spoke to me openly about her own marriage. She has been married longer than Brett and I. It was SO refreshing to hear her voice her own struggles, to hear her speak about some of the things most of us married folk never even voice out loud cos “how could we even be thinking that!”, and to have some of it comfortingly resonate with what I have felt and struggled with. So thank you to honest, open, say-it-like-it-is, older and wiser, married folk who debunk the myths of marriage without degrading its worth!

One thing she spoke about which really struck me is how sometimes we look at our spouse and are so easily able to spot the flaws and the weaknesses and even wish a little that they were “more this” or “less that”.  She has learned over the years that some of the things she wishes her spouse was “more of” do not exist precisely because of some of the other things she loves and cherishes and values in him.

I like this cartoon about Elly the Elephant because, as much as the last two frames of it kind of kick marriage, I think it drives home a hugely valuable lesson that “looking for a partner”, “trying to decide whether to commit to a partner”, and “learning to love a partner better” people can (and SHOULD) all learn as quickly as possible. Sometimes the very things we love in our partners preclude some other things. That is, exactly because they are one way, they are not necessarily going to be some of those other things we may also want/like.  I love that Brett doesn’t care about what people think about him. But I struggle to do the same. And so sometimes I get embarrassed when he goes to the staff party dressed in purple tights, with purple gypsy pants, a Madiba shirt, a Marvin the Martian tie, and dreadlocks under a standy-up beanie (for example, d; ). And I secretly wish he’d just dressed “normal”. But all those crazy clothes are part of the package of him not caring about what people think, and being fun and spontaneous, and making me laugh every-day-every-day, and always finding the good in people, and hoping, and bringing life into a room, and vibing with strangers and just generally not taking things too seriously (in a good way). And so maybe if he dressed more “normal” he would be a little-less all those things. And I would hate that.

So Elly the Elephant wants someone who is sensitive, but doesn’t want him to be “needy”…and one of the two has to go. She wants him to be dependable….but he might not be if he also ticks the wish-list box as “adventurous”. We want our spouse/partner/boyfriend/girlfriend to be all things to us. See, it’s not a case of “simply learning to be happy with the few avocados we have” or “being happy with the crappy partner we have” (Stephan Pastis).  It’s about realizing that maybe we have some ideals that are just idealistic. That do not recognize that we are flawed and that any partner we end up with will be just as flawed. And that some characteristics which we highly value exist to the exclusion of others that we just slightly value. And that when we turn our attention to griping about the small-value things, we lose sight of the big-value things and devalue our partner. Or we sit alone.

Tim Keller and his wife, Kathy, have written a book which B and I are reading through and “studying” together. Here’s a little something about our expectations in potential (and actual) partners:

“Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searcher and the searched for…it would be wrong to pin the culture’s change in attitude toward marriage fully on the male quest for physical beauty. Women have been just as affected by our consumer culture. Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage partner who will “fulfill their emotional, sexual and spiritual desires”. And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are “not good enough.”… To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is – there is almost no one like that out there to marry!…In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation.” (The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller, pp. 33-35)

I guess to paraphrase John Tierney, so often in our dating and marriages we are “determined to get more than we deserve – and to reject anyone remotely like ourselves”. The problem with all of this – the pessimistic idealism in terms of what we are looking for in a partner; and the wishing for something slightly different which just doesn’t fit with what we have – is that it makes it extremely hard to find a partner, to keep a partner, or to be partner.

As for me? I am seeking, trying (and many times failing), day-by-day, to embrace all the facets (even the hard ones and the wishing-well ones) that are integrally tied up with some of the wonderful and marvelous and highly valuable things which are intrinsically who Brett is. I’m learning that “the basket can’t hold all the avocados” and I’m pretty sure I’m not “all the avocados” myself!

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On dating and daring: Part 2

March 23, 2011 at 10:55 am (People I have known, Things I'm thinking about) (, , , )

So there I was: 23 and single. Which isn’t too bad. I know stacks of girls much much older who are single. 23 is just starting out. But it felt like the world to me. I was stuck in a place waiting for the guys I wanted to ask me out, and ignoring the ones I didn’t (but not even realising I was doing it at the time). I went to see my pastor (not about that, but it came up). He asked me what was on my list and I honestly told him I didn’t have one. He said something along the lines of “That’s not true. Of course you have a list. If you didn’t you would be dating someone right now. You have a list and it says what kind of guy you are looking for and makes you say no to those who don’t tick the boxes.” WOW! I had a list. I had a freaking LONG list! And many amazing guys just weren’t ticking the boxes. Gosh girls, maybe it’s time we threw those imaginary check-lists out hey. Cos NO guy is going to measure up to them and by holding it over their heads to see if they do measure up we are setting hoops and asking them to jump through before we deign them with our presence on a date. Arrogance and pride much? Just as an aside.

So I told John my pastor about my list – the things I was really looking for and hoping for in a guy. And they were all good, non-shallow stuff. I wasn’t looking for a guy who looked a certain way, just one who acted a certain way. My wise pastor told me to get rid of my list. He said, “Val, you need someone who loves God and is strong enough to lead you. Stop looking for those other things and if you know the guy has that first one waxed then say yes when he asks you out and find out if he is the second one. Start going on dates.” Ah, best advice ever! That’s when I started going on dates. They were awkward, and fun, and wierd, and some guys I would have been happy to date again and some I wasn’t. But that was okay. Because I had started risking, putting myself out there, putting myself in positions where I was able to get to know guys and they were given the freedom to show who they were. It was scary, it sometimes hurt, it was often awkward, and sometimes confusing. But gosh, the freedom of going on dates was incredible!

I’m not saying be the serial dater. I’m saying give guys a chance. Even guys you wouldn’t normally go for. Hey, Brett wasn’t the guy I would “normally” go for. Flip, he was about 5 years too old according to my normal and my checklist. But I gave him a chance. I risked. I put myself out there as did he. And look, it didn’t end so badly. Does my success story mean I got it hundred percent right and am the expert on dating and relationships? Not at all! There were huge measures of  learning and mistakes and grace and forgivenes involved all along the journey. If I had to be in that dating/single place again I hope I would get it a bit better, but I don’ think I would totally wax it. But there is truth in my journey. And maybe that can speak truth into other’s journeys.

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On dating and daring: Part 1

March 23, 2011 at 10:54 am (People I have known, Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

I have been following Brett’s relationship blogs – and especially the comments on them – with interest and have been reminded of some of my pre-Brett dating vibes. Here are a couple of thoughts – disconnected, but hopefully useful.

I tell people I never dated anyone before Brett. Which is partially true. I never “went steady” (ha ha ha ha ha I just said that!) with a guy, dated for a prolonged period of time (i.e. more than two dates), “courted”, or kissed a guy. But I did go on dates with guys. Some of them were incredibly awkward – the sit at X coffee shop and play with the sugar packet until it please-God-ends kind of awkward. Some of them hurt so much that I wished I’d never gone or even met the guy – the “Hey, let’s go on a “date”  kind where “date” was his fun word for let’s hang out alone together, “I’ll pick you up at 7”, and talk about another girl the whole night – the please-God-let-the-floor-open-up kind of hurt. After some of them I couldn’t wait for the next one, the call, the sms – which never came. Nothing. One of them – an intimate movie and dinner where I felt the most special and wanted that I had ever felt up till that point – sent me into a 4 month crisis of faith and one of the darkest times of my spiritual life. I left church, pushed friends away, ranted and screamed at God for hours, cried, and rebelled. Because he wasn’t Christian. How could this most amazing guy – the first one to ever treat me like I was desirable, and special – be off-limits? The way I described it to friends at the time was that it was like I had seen this beautiful garden and been allowed to walk a few steps into it, and then beauty and happiness that awaited in it was suddenly ripped away and I had to turn on this hard, dark, path and trust a God I didn’t even really believe in any more that He had something better, something that exceeded this good thing I had tasted, down the road. He did. But wow that path was pretty hard at times.

I get it. I get the “being ignored by Christian guys” thing while non-Christian guys were taking the risk and treating me amazingly. I get the million guy friends, the sms’s that built emotional attachment but never amounted to anything, I get the mixed signals. I get the touching and flirting and hints and signals that are oh so exciting. And I’ve been there where the guy has turned around and said, “Oh that? No I was just kidding and playing with you. Oh, you thought I was into you? Nah, not so into you.” And I’ve seen it happen to girls I love – and it is NOT cool. Church-guys, listen up yo, I’m not saying the girls are innocent cos I’ve seen them play this one too, but it is NOT okay. Just as an aside. I also get the pain of seeing the “serial dater girl” – the really pretty one who is always in a relationship. I’ve seen her work her way through groups of my guy friends and I’ve struggled to understand why they would want her and be attracted to her and get into a relationship for 2 months only to have her going out with their best friend a few months later.

My “good” Christian guy friends told me I was cold and hard and my heart was frozen. I took those words and grabbed onto them and let them twist and turn within me and they made me cold and hard, they made me build up more walls, they froze my heart so that words like that couldn’t hurt me again.

Here’s the thing though. Not all the Christian guys in my sphere were ignoring me, playing the field, and playing with my heart. Just the ones I had my eyes set on. There were guys who asked me out, were genuinely interested, sent sms’s and tried to initiate friendship-relationship. But they weren’t the cool ones, the hot ones, the fun-loving dynamic personality ones. And I treated them like junk. I rejected them, I played hard to get, I gave mixed signals, I spoke about how wonderful other guys were around them, I ignored them, I trash-talked them, I built up “wonder-men heroes” in place of them, set the bar and told them inadvertently that they would never measure up to the spiritual guy (you know the one, cos there is one in your church – the upfront, leader, got it all together dude). When they asked me out I said no without giving them a chance. I effectively said, “I know enough about you to know that I will never like you enough to marry you”. Invariably I hadn’t even had a single conversation with them by the time I had weighed them, measured them, and found them severely lacking. Ah, this is all to my shame now! How dare I do to them the hundred things I was complaining, ranting at God about, that other guys were doing to me. I am sorry. To each and every one of those guys. Because I never gave you a chance to show me who you were. In doing so I not only ended up feeling lonely and unwanted, but I missed out on getting to know and become friends with some super quality guys just because they didn’t fit my mold.

Part 2 to follow:

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