Sunday, October 17, 2010

Exciting News...As Promised

Reading through these posts, it dawns on me that this blog has turned more into an outlet for introspective overwhelm than the actual account of this journey I had intended it to be. Sometimes I am o.k. with that. Other times, I read through these posts and just think 'whaaaaaaaa'. It's a shame I rarely find inspiration to write when things are going well...it would definitely broaden the perspective on what's really happening in my life.

So what else is happening, you ask? Lots of things. Good things. Exciting things. Things that have met me at the fruition of promise and of hope.

The first of many changes I made in life (now nearly 18 months ago) was to quit my high-powered corporate job that was challenging my ethics. I had no other job lined up, I just knew I needed to quit. It actually wasn't realistic at that time for me to even look for another job. I was completely jaded by the corporate world, having witnessed first-hand the rich getting richer by exploiting the poor. So I quit, traveled to Africa for a month, and came home to face the music of a whole slew of other difficult decisions that would turn my life completely around.

Something that really blows me away about the story of quitting is that it was a year and a half ago. Let me clarify something - I have debt, not savings. I've never been in a position where I could take a few months off from work just because I felt like it. This particular situation was no exception. I had one month, and had no idea what I was going to do for money when I got back from Africa. When I got back, the breakup and moving out consumed so much of my time and energy I couldn't even think about looking for work.

But, the amazing thing is, work found me. And just in the right increments, too. With the help of friends I was able to pick up a consulting gig or two. A few hours here, a few hours there - more than enough to get me by and allowing the freedom I needed to move through the change happening in my life at the pace I needed to. When I sunk into a sullen depression last fall, I could hardly muster up the energy to get out of bed. One of the richest blessings of this time, knowing that I had to experience that darkness, is that my work (or lack thereof) allowed me the freedom to take the time and days I needed to to move through it. There is, no doubt, divinity in that. Call it God, the Universe or whatever - someone or something showed up for me in a real way during that time.

And that someone or something has continued to provide...up to and beyond the point when I realized I was ready to dive back into work again. This happened around August this year. One year after moving out of the house I had shared with my boyfriend of seven years, I had finally decided that Santa Barbara really was my home. I had realized the lifestyle and friends and activities we shared as a couple were still available to me as a single woman. Even more so, in fact - and by August I was finally relishing in the activities and friends that I realized were just mine. There is life outside of relationship...and a home. And I'm living it in Santa Barbara.

Provisions continued to pour out when I realized, at this point, all the options I had available to me. I had options...in this economy. It's unbelievable when you think about it, but I did. I had offers for more consulting work, one of the clients who had ended up hiring me on as a part-time employee really wanted me to join them at full-time status, and a friend of mine had just introduced me to an associate at a local startup in town. The decision was easy in that I knew I didn't want to continue as a consultant and I had a nice offer on the table from the current job. The only problem is that it was a job that I just liked, but I was really looking for something again that I could really love. Nothing fit quite right at the time. So I made the best decision available to me and took the offer on the table.

Within two weeks of transitioning to a full-time employee, it became clearly evident to me that this was not the right 'home' for me. But, even in that realization, there was little discouragement or concern. It affirmed my decision to keep the conversation going with the local startup. The problem was that my meetings and interviews with that company up to this point had been merely interesting - almost awkward - interactions of trying to feel each other out. Amazingly, less than a week after deciding the new full-time gig wasn't going to work long-term, my second official interview was when the opportunity really began to reveal itself, and I was starting to get excited. What's more, it was clear they were starting to get excited, too. By the end of my third interview a week or two after that, there was a definite click. It was one of those great interviews where, at the end, we were both saying things like "when I come on board" (as opposed to "if").

And I bet you can guess how this story ends (or continues, depending on how you look at it). I hardly lasted a month as a full-time employee at the other place - my last day was a little over a week ago. I'm just returning home from a 7 day cruise in the Caribbean, and two weeks from tomorrow I will be starting a new job at a new and exciting company with great people who are doing great things with a great product that really provides value to their customers. I couldn't be more excited. I'm refreshed by the return of that spark within me that is really passionate about the work I do (for a while there I was afraid I'd never get it back). Best of all, I am ready.

No, I lied...I think the best part is that this is a solid reprieve from some of the ambiguity I've despised so much as part of the process. The job thing was one of those unknowns that filled the void in which I took a leap of faith into. But, remember? I took that leap because I was promised something more. I quit my job 18 months ago because I knew there was a great company out there that was doing exciting things - where I could go home after a good day's work feeling like I've done something good in the world. I was promised that not all corporations are run by fat cats swindling to make a buck. I feel like I've been lead around a corner, the divine blindfold has been removed, and have been met with the hearty shout "surprise!"

And it feels great. I am so blessed I hardly know how to hold it. And I realize that the fruition of all that's promised is something that is available to me in a constant trickle. There's no final 'ah-ha' moment and no use in sitting around waiting for the next reprieve from ambiguity to happen. It's happening right now. For all of us.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Seedling

The seedling
Pushes out and breaks ground
At the first hint of spring
Eager to wake from the cold, dark winter

Determined
It spreads its small leaves outward
A statement of life emerging
Growth to be recognized; a will unbroken

Its resilience
However, is no match to the storm
To the heavy, wet snow that falls
When the air freezes in the evening

Frozen still
Buried under blankets white
Dormant and crushed in the quiet
Where hope exists only in waiting

Snow will melt
This is a promise of nature's design
Also ingrained in the seedling itself
Which keeps it from giving up; from dying

Flattened
The seedling enters sight at final thaw
One of its leaves brown and cracking
Stuck clinging lifelessly to the soil

But it remains
And as the sun warms its stem
Its other leaves breathe and perk to life
And the stem sheds its frost-bitten past

Growth resumes
Stretching out taller each day
Gaining strength in its momentum
Enduring this cycle throughout the season

The seedling
Its once-fragile stem now a hearty stalk
With arms that stretch out in a colorful array
Its flowers welcoming the new hope of summer

Friday, October 1, 2010

Optimistic October

"Life is learning love. The rest is killing time."
~Noelle Price Marinello
This morning I welcome a new month like a new beginning. I have dubbed it "Optimistic October", in anxious anticipation of new hope and new reprieve from grief. I am aware that actual circumstances are more or less out of my control, so rather than setting an expectation for what will happen I am setting intention for how I will react to whatever I meet this month.

I am praying that with all my heart and with all my mind and with all my soul I will remember and hold hope for promise. That I will walk the journey without fear and without doubt. I pray that in all circumstances I will remember humility, gratitude, and grace. "Optimistic October" is about returning to a belief that was undeniable in my heart early last year - that I am called for a greater and deeper purpose and to experience a greater and deeper love. In my faith experiment, I am called to authentic connection in partnership; committed, present, engaged. I pray for the courage and will to remember and believe unwavering in that promise.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In October, I seek gratitude. I seek community. Authentic community; people to enjoy life with. Not anxiously checking into Facebook or reading emails to fulfill that connection. I seek presence, strength, courage and wisdom.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Affirmations, and Grief Accepted

What have I learned in this process?

I started this 'Faith Experiment' over 18 months ago. My hypothesis was that decisions I made in a leap of faith would lead me to a more fulfilling life...to more authentic happiness. Since then I've been looking for that 'be all, end all, ah-ha' moment that would land me in that euphoria I sought. I would be whole.

Not to say my hypothesis has been proven incorrect, just that the more I face this process head-on the more I am realizing there is no end. The fulfillment is not in the destination, I'm realizing it is the process...that the process is the destination. I made the changes in my life so I could experience fullness in life, but I wanted an end and there will be no such thing as long as I continue to live. As soon as I've met the end I will have met death. And not death in the metaphorical sense in which I consistently have had to die to self in this journey, but death in the very literal sense of the end of life.

Does this sound too introspective? Well, it probably is. Of all the 'deaths' I've met in the last 18 months...or 3 years if I really look at it with a conscious heart, I'd give anything to die to my introspection. As with any personal characteristic, it is perhaps the piece of me which grants me serenity and unsettled grief all at once. My introspection is what gains me access to the core of the serenity prayer - to those things in life which I cannot control and change and those aspects for which I have access to but am still developing the wisdom and courage to change. The logical side of me is raging with frustration in my emotional inability to accept these things.

Logically, I've learned that I've been defining my value by false precepts for a very long time. I swallow hard as I admit this next statement, but my value has been largely connected to his ability to love and respect and care for me. If he can't love me than how can I love myself? If he can throw it all away so flippantly, what does that say about me? THAT'S the grief I've faced over these years, and more predominantly over the past five months. And I wanted to believe so badly that I was focusing on the worst case scenario - that it wasn't as cold or unfeeling as I had originally believed.

But affirmation of these fears has hit me once again...another in countless affirmations since I left him. I, simply, can no longer ignore that he's not the person I thought he was. I have to face that he feels exactly the way I suspected he did (or didn't) all along. Affirmations should be a good thing, right? Well it is hard to face when the affirmation is that someone you loved with all you had not only didn't love you back, but could throw the years you shared together into an abyss and never look back...never seeing value or growth or respecting the connection of that time. It meant everything to me, and I suspected it meant very little to him. That's why I left. But I wanted so badly to be wrong. My grief process over the past 6-9 months has really been focused on how badly I wanted to be wrong.

But I wasn't. Truth is, there's a strange comfort in that. I made the right decision. But I still haven't met acceptance, no matter how much I've looked it in the eye and no matter how many times I tell you I'm OK with it all. That's a tough pill to swallow. It took me three years to realize this truth enough to leave him, and eighteen months later I'm still fighting the urge to make excuses for him.

I deserve better than this. Why am I posting all of this to the world (or more accurately, to all 12 people who read this from time to time)? Because this is my announcement to the world that I deserve better and I am going to stop accepting less.

I've learned grief is like a broken bone. You can despise it all you want, be angry with it, and your friends can yell at it and demand that it heals...but none of those coercions actually have any impact on its healing process. This week a staff infection in my foot kept me from running for going on 5 days now...pure torture for someone who finds a great deal of release and stress relief in my training. But no matter how much I "put my mind to it" or do all the right things to take care of it, it's only going to heal when its good and ready. It's the same with my loss...with my grief.

And so I accept that as part of who I am, today. I accept that grief and welcome it lovingly into my day, and with even more affection during the times of my day when I am laughing, enjoying, sharing, and communing. And what I KNOW is just how far I've ascended out of it, especially in these past three months. I met new opportunities - in friendship, in my career, and in romance. Some have worked out better than I could have dreamed. Others less than I may have desired. But what I know is that wholeness is available to me now. I am whole...despite his love (or lack thereof), despite endeavors which may or may not have failed. and despite what tomorrow brings. I am whole - now...today. No more 'waiting' for the fruition of this Faith Experiment, but living out the fruits of life in this moment, because in this moment - as unsettling or lonely as it may be - I am incredibly blessed. And, did I mention that I am whole?

It won't take me this time. I will feel it...the grief. I'll make a home for it to live alongside me in each day, but it will not overpower me or overcome me. I am continuously being taught - growing up and growing out. With each lesson a little bit more of that grief dies.

And I will get there...

Friday, September 17, 2010

See Me Be Free

Presently, I enter into this day
Knowing that whatever comes my way
Has not the power for truth to sway
Or to negate the fact that I am okay

Consciously, I set an intention to heal
Myself from the lies I continue to feel
Layer by layer they shred and they peel
To focus awareness on only what's real

Focused on truth I have eyes to see
The ways it has molded and shaped a new me
And the wisdom in learning to just let it be
As promised, the truth is setting me free!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Peace

What brings me peace?

A hot bath.
A good, heart and psyche-stretching book.
A cup of tea.
Laughing at a silly sitcom.

Warm things.
I love warm things.
Like the fill of Vietnamese noodle soup.
Or the wool of the heavy, button up sweater
That currently hangs on me.

Contemplating.
Writing.
Sorting through and working out.
Moving.

Water.
Either rushing delicately off a rock face
Or lapping in between the waves.
Hanging weightless in water;
Without breath.

Peace is when I can get my mind to stop,
Or at least when it falls gracefully in sync with my heart.

I am at peace now.
Listening and watching waves crash over the rocks in front of me.
A gentle breeze,
A wool sweater,
And a glass of wine.

Yes, I am at peace.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ambiguity

If there's anything I have had the opportunity to learn from these past few fumbling weeks, it would definitely be that I suck at ambiguity.

Ambiguity terrifies me because I am completely helpless in it; I can't control or orchestrate any part of it, therefore, I must be weak and feeble.  Ambiguity throws me into an incessant anxiety, ultimately landing in a frenzied state of obsession over how I might control or fix it.  Ambiguity keeps me up at night thinking about those things.  It makes me feel like my life is spinning out of control, which then manifests itself by way of my own decisions and behaviors.  Ambiguity brings out the ugliness of my impatience and shatters the picture-perfect perception my ego has created to show the world how together I am.

Ambiguity drives my worst fears to the forefront of my mind.  It causes me to focus my expectations on those fears as a means to avoid falling too far from hope.  Ambiguity is a bitter reminder of my isolation -- that it's not only I who can't fix it, but actually there's no one who can.  Regardless of that truth, ambiguity drives me into a ranting babble of overshare with others, desperate for a response that lends itself to restoring my security.

Ambiguity drags me straight out of faith and directly into fear.  It possesses me; freezes me.  It is, perhaps, the darkest of all circumstances that reveals the ugliness of my inner-most shadows:  Insecurity, doubt, impatience, self-hatred, lack of faith, bitterness, unfeeling, uncaring, obsessive, selfish and angry.

And, yes, I am all these things. (Sorry, ego, but I am).  Sometimes so much so that I am consumed by darkness - by my shadow.

I don't have things under control and I actually don't know what I am doing half the time.  I am insecure, and so desperately want you to like me; to love me.  I feel stupid and incomplete, then I get mad at the world as if it's your fault.  All of these characteristics lie present and just as real as all the ways in which I am wonderful.

And this is me.

I have to consider that everything that has happened to me over the past few weeks -- every choice I have made and consequence I've faced -- really has just held the simple purpose of bubbling this reality to the surface of my consciousness.  It was all the ways in which my true self - so desperately wanting to be seen and known, had to slap me around to make me aware of how much power I am lending to ambiguity.  Only in consciousness and awareness can I begin to shift that power...open myself up to accepting it more freely while still maintaining trust.

I have to move on and move through this.  I can't go back and make different choices, and I can't change the consequences.  Whether or not my actions have changed the perception others may have of me is inconsequential.  As a matter of fact, chalk another point up for ambiguity because I actually can't control that.

But I can know what I know, which is that I am loved by so many people regardless of my behavior or choices, good and bad.  I have a whole network of friends and family who don't know or haven't even noticed my fumbling follies of weeks past.  I can take my own advice, often given to my brother, that I am actually not so important that people are spending their time obsessing over how stupid or out of control or annoying I am.

I hate that I can't control it, but at least I am finally (slowly) accepting that as truth.  I can't control consequences, I can't change the past, and I cannot know the future.

Damn, that is so uncomfortable.

My only charge today is presence.  Presence in the present.  That's it.  It's all I can physically do in this moment.

I don't even know how to set intent around that.  It just is.  And I am sitting (uncomfortably) with that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Questioning

My faith is an enormous hurdle in discovering my own authenticity.  Recently, I've realized I've become the very church-going hypocrite I despised as a teenager.  Probably more surprising is the realization that, perhaps, they weren't ever hypocrites at all.  Years of feeling justified for being turned off by the church are suddenly being challenged by the concept that, perhaps, its really all about a judgment I made and stubbornly stuck to.

Maybe I needed that as justification to override the guilt manifested by the fact that the message just wasn't cutting it for me.  There's too much that seems contrived; boxed-up in traditions and a series of dos and don'ts.  Thirty two years old and I am finding myself this Sunday morning reluctant to go to church -- despite the peace and hope and love its brought me at certain times throughout the year.

I don't know what I believe.  I continue, when I remember, to draw on an invisible energy -- "praying" in the moments I realize I have no control.  And I certainly have come to understand that I truly do not have control over anything, which leads me to assume (logically) that there are greater forces at work.  In the last few months I have discovered an underlying peace in the ebb and flow of life.  Not that it makes happy times happier or sad times any easier - just that there's a very consistent peace present that reminds me tomorrow is another day; that I can't predict where I'll be in the next hour or week, let alone the next year.  I know there is a divine presence in all things that embodies the fundamental ideals of Christ - peace, grace, hope and love.  I believe it to be a perfectly benevolent driving force; without judgment, constant, dynamic, and static all at the same time.

That's all I know I believe, and I'm coming to question whether the Christian tradition is the place where I can continue to practice my faith.  I'm coming to question whether my faith is something that warrants a tradition or practice at all.  When I am sitting in church finding it difficult to accept the full message as truth, I immediately begin to think about exploring different traditions.  "To find a better fit," I will say to myself.  But, in reality, the thought of moving my faith from one box to another seems far more unappealing than just leaving it in the current box.

And there's just all kinds of stuff that comes up around this.  The guilt ingrained in me by the Christian faith from the time I was a child, my mother's disappointment and exclamation that "I can't just believe whatever I want", and, of course, there's him.

In some ways, the final point of contention between us was that faith.  It was the only thing, by his own admission, that he didn't know how to meet me half way on.

What happens to these last twelve challenging months when I begin to dismantle my faith?  I think this whole journey, perhaps, is all some sort of existential panic attack.  I feel like, at every triumph, is another moment of being stripped down philosophically and challenged by my own perception of truth.  Am I manifesting all this as a form of some sort of self-serving prophecy?  What is wrong with me?

This has to be some sort of existential crisis.  I don't feel depressed, per se, just overwhelmed.  And I'm overwhelmed by this sweeping desire to live - to experience and love and laugh and cry.  I want to do something but I don't know what to do.  I lie awake at night because I don't want to be sleeping.  I am antsy and anxious and excited and overstimulated.  I don't know what I should be doing at this moment, I just have the frantic sense that I should be doing something.

I want to live.  To be filled up.  I don't know where this is coming from but it is flooding me with all sorts of fears and anxieties.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Shift...

Consciously, I enter this day
Head on
With intention
Breathing in the circumstances of now
Open to the ambiguity of the moment after
Aware of my fear
Holding it
Balancing it
At eye level, next to my awareness
Of courage
Of strength
Of self
Fleeting thoughts, full of expectations
Full of hopes
They well up inside me, begging for firm grasp
But I simply acknowledge their presence
No grabbing
No holding
Just aware of the feeling
But nimble enough to accept whatever result
(I hope)
Prepared for anxious excitement
Or melancholy disappointment
Prepared to take a step into empty ambiguity
Or to fall back into darkness
Yet intending, in any case, to recall
How this brief spur in my journey has guided me
Back into the light
Back into hope, faith and love
For that alone, I am joyfully grateful

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Burn and Regrowth Reprise

Gazing up at the, now, colorless landscape that marks the burn areas of the Santa Barbara front country, I became aware that I was experiencing the contrast of old and new much differently this morning than when I wrote about it before. Spring has departed, and the rains have ceased. The warmth of the summer sun has dried out the landscape and the new growth is dying. The foreground of the foothills that caught my attention with its vibrant green only weeks ago has reverted, more or less, back to a scar of lifeless brown.

My new experience with the landscape actually started a couple of weeks ago during a hike up Rattlesnake Canyon. I had a sense of the growth metaphor again, but found it more discouraging this time under the canopy of blackened branches.

We rested at the point on the trail when we reached the fire damage. Mangled and wretched branches of blackened oak, eucalyptus, and manzanita reached out lifelessly to the sky above. But, at our feet, lay a brilliant blanket of green amidst an array of multi-colored flowers. I tried to focus on that green, ever-so-slowly invading the gray. But those trees still dominated that landscape. In the slight breeze the branches rubbed against each other with a shrilling sound like nails on a chalkboard. The ground cover showed no sign of feeling the affects of the wind. It was almost as if the green was visible, yet still separate from the elements the dead trees faced.

As I moved forward on the trail, my eyes and ears fixed on those branches, I became overwhelmed with the sensation that I was taking a journey through my own heart. The metaphor became so real I was eerily convinced that this is what I must look like from the inside. Ravaged by fire, cleared out, with a hint of brilliant regrowth and renewal eager to outgrow the deadness that continues to stand tall and firm. Every element - every experience or emotion - hits the blackness first because it continues to tower over the regrowth. It is still preventing the newness from absorbing and experiencing the fullness of life.

As I physically wandered amongst those trees, I became almost enraged. Suddenly, I was desperate to knock them down, force the hand of nature to completely destroy any evidence of fire. How long, I wondered, until these trees finally give way? Fall to the ground? Decompose and become food to the new life below? Years, I suppose. And that thought is discouraging to my impatient self who desperately longs for all memory of destruction to just disappear.

If the sight of renewal filled me with hope, how am I to react to witnessing its death - the landscape once again dominated by evidence of the burn? I find myself resentful, feeling as though I have been robbed of the metaphor that brought me so much hope. I have a very linear relationship with growth and hope and burn and grief. Is my relationship with the ebb and flow of life supposed to be more dynamic than that? How does one learn to shake off disappointment in the ebb, and does it mean we should also not be quick to feel the joy of the flow?

"...The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away..." (Job 1:20). Pardon my french, but what the hell is that about anyway? Why give and then take? How can that even be remotely connected to a kind, just and loving God? Is there a message here to heed, and am I completely missing the boat?

Or is it actually o.k. that I am disappointed? Is it possible that my hope was a gift for a time and a season and my disappointment is the gift for this time and this season to be taken in and pondered?

What I do know is that the regrowth is engaging in a dance with the dead. Slowly, yet intentionally, the new roots will strengthen. As they grow stronger, they will begin to suffocate the roots of old. Regardless of the time it will take, the fate of those dead trees is inevitably clear. They will all come tumbling down. One by one. As long as there is a will to regrow, they must fall down to make room for that renewal.

And, I suspect my disappointment is just something new to sit with and examine...an equal opportunity to the hope, grief, joy, and ambivalence I have experienced in this growth-journey. I cannot help but judge circumstances in my humanity, because emotions are a key component of being human. But I can accept the emotions themselves are all cumulative pieces to the wholeness I seek. And, in that realization, hope remains.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Grief...Get Over It

It's been several months now since I intentionally decided to give up fighting my grief and just roll with it. I wanted so desperately for it to be over, to the point where I was obsessing over it - waking up every morning wondering "am I over it yet?"

Let's recap my last year, shall we? I lost (well, quit) my job, lost my relationship, my home, my 18-year old cat, my lifestyle, my things (that's an interesting one), my best friend, my comfort, and my security. Let's see...ummm, nope. Still not over it.

"Getting through this."

What does that even mean, anyway? Getting through what? The grief? The longing? The sadness? But there's lots of times (more and more frequently, thank God), when I feel joy, acceptance and happiness. Doesn't that imply that, in some ways - or at least at some moments - I've gotten through it? It is today, and yesterday is no more...so can't I say I successfully "got through" yesterday as well?

I am also beginning to think there's an inherent lie I'm believing in the concept of "getting through this". It implies that life is a drudge -- something that warrants "getting through". But, the truth I want to believe - or the perception I am hoping is truth - is that life is a gift. It is something to breathe in, savor and experience. And, that it's all a gift, regardless of how it feels or how we biologically react to it.

While there are many aspects of my life that I seek clarity in - or areas in which I seek closure, or elements where I desire contentment - I'm feeling more and more that the pure, simple gift of life supersedes all of these things. This world does not exist to provide me with clarity, closure and contentment. And I don't need these things in order to interact with the world. I can live in it, participate, perpetuate, activate and advocate - regardless of my personal circumstances. Not to devalue my personal and intimate growth, as its necessary for learning how to interact with the world. Just that there is a careful balance, and I miss the beauty of the bigger picture when I obsess over the details.

It's not about "getting" through it, it's about "moving" through it. What's interesting about holding awareness of my joy alongside the awareness of my grief is that I'm beginning to realize I am believing a lie that I have to be perfect before I can say I've "gotten through it". Today, I can step out into this world - loved and lonely, confident and insecure, laughing and grieving, amazing and broken - all at the same time. Moving, not manifesting. Living, not setting expectations. Accepting, not seeking. Without motive or judgment or expectations...just to live.

I am not drudging, I am moving. Liquid, Fluid, free.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Post: "Our God Isn't An Awesome God"

Ironically, in my ponderings over humanity's need to place life into neat little boxes, I ran across the following post from a friend. So good (and relevant), I had to repost.

Our God Isn't An Awesome God
Mike Todd | miketodd.typepad.com

In fact, I don’t think our God is a god at all

Well, you’re still reading, which is a good sign… although it might just be me and you and my mother at this point (and even she’s a little nervous with where I might be going with this). But, either way, thanks for giving me the chance to explain myself.

We are a people who generally love boxes. Want to know my politics? Here’s the box. My faith? I’ve got a box for that too. And I’ve got you placed firmly in a box too, thank you very much. There are several problems with life in a box though. Boxes don’t allow much room for flexibility, for individuality. Often what’s not in the box becomes more important than what is. In other words, the box itself, as a border, as a barrier, as a divider between what I like and don’t like, who I am and who I am not, becomes more important than the contents of the box. Ever witness one of those YouTube moments where the kid on Christmas morning falls in love with the box and ignores the gift that came in it? We’re a lot like that I think.

OK, I know what you’re asking. “What does any of this have to do with the potentially heretical (but not blasphemous, in my opinion) statement above?”

I’ve been very slowly reading and rereading my way through our friend Brian McLaren’s latest A New Kind of Christianity. On p. 104 he asked a question that jarred me, as it resonated with something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

“What if people who live in the second-grade world of polytheism [The Old Testament world where everyone had a god] need to learn about one God as superior to others before they can handle the idea of God as uniquely real?”

Let me unpack that thought a little and show you where it takes me.

It seems to me that by labeling God as, well… God, we’ve placed him (this God is almost always male) in a box of our own creation. Not that I don’t appreciate how it all started. Brian hints at it above. God chose to reveal Godself in a world overpopulated with gods. It made sense at the time. People understood the concept of gods, they just didn’t know the one true God. But I wonder if we’ve locked God into that mold—picture the old man with the long flowing beard; I’m thinking of Flannel Graph God, or God on The Simpsons —and have been incapable of truly letting God be more of who God is.

As we’ve said though, it made sense at the time. Check out this famous “name” passage from scripture:

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"
God said to Moses, "I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)

“I am who I am.”

I love that response. I’m tempted to translate it like this: “Moses, you wouldn’t understand it if I told you, so lets not go there.” Yes, the label “the God of your fathers” was used, but I see that as more of a continuity thing, tying in to the already established Jewish story that Moses would have been intimately familiar with.

In a polytheistic world the shelf space for deities was crowded, and gods needed names to distinguish themselves from the competition, so our god, the one true God, became the LORD, or Yahweh, so the people could be clear about who the object of their worship was. Made sense.

Still, it’s a box.

Our friend Tim King likes to use the term the Unnameable, among others, and that works well for what I’m trying to say here.

When we place the Unnameable in the god-box, we’ve signed him up (remember the box comes with a gender preference) for a theistic cage match.

“My God is better than your god.”

“Your god is false, but my God is real.” Which leads us right to, “Your religion is false, but my religion is real.”

It becomes a beauty contest. We lower the Unnameable to the level of all the other gods, and then we are left to argue that our God is the only real god.

But what if, instead, the Unnameable is wholly other (or even Holy Other)? Not the One True God on a crowded playing field of false gods, but the creator of everything, who is above everything, who cannot be explained, or grasped, not by the title “God”, or even “The Very Best God”.

If the Unnameable is not a god, not even a God, and if aligning your life with the mission of the Unameable is not a religion but is instead the purpose of all life, well, that can cause problems too. This kind of thinking will not be popular with those who are in the God and religion business.

I’ve made no secret of the influence our friend Bruxy Cavey has had on my thinking in this regard. I’m in agreement with Bruxy when he says that Jesus came to teach us how to live and to shut down religion. (Of course I’m using the word religion in the negative sense, defining it, as Bruxy does, as any system of rules, rituals or regulations that we use to try and “get right” with God.) To me a natural consequence of discarding the religion box is the notion that the god box cannot be far behind. A deity requires a context within which the deity is situated, understood, and worshipped. In other words, a deity requires a religion. Get rid of the notion of religion, and our understanding of God must change. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that without the restrictions of religion our understanding of God is free to change, to evolve. I’m not sure Bruxy would go this far, but hey… he’s the one who got me started on this path! Is this heresy? Most definitely. Blasphemy? I don’t believe so.

As humanity continues to evolve, our understanding of the Unnameable must evolve to.

In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle talks about the church having a rummage sale every 500 years or so, and I agree completely. The thing is, I think it’s our view of the Unnameable, and not just our idea of church, that is changing at these points of inflection, and causing such turmoil.

When you start to think this way, examples appear all over, including in scripture.

Jonah is one of my favorite biblical prophets. We could spend a lot of time looking at his story—I happen to think he was a wonderfully flawed, bigoted son of a gun—but I want to make another point here. What if the Jonah story was meant, among many other things, to mark that God could no longer be contained in the box that said God only cared about the Jews?

Fast forward to Jesus. What if Jesus was God busting out of the box that said to follow God was to keep the Law? “You have heard it said… But I say…” Sounds like a major point of change to me.

Reality Check Time: As much as I’d like to think that we have broken the Unnameable out of the box, I can’t. As I said earlier, our understanding of God is undergoing evolution, which is an ongoing process. At best what we are doing is moving the Unnameable from one box into another. But if the new box is bigger than the old, we are moving in the right direction, and our understanding of God can continue to expand.

In a polytheistic world the Unnameable had to present as a god—yes, the One True God—but a god nonetheless. I wonder if we are still stuck in that place.

I also wonder how the Unnameable would choose to unveil in an atheistic world.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More on Truth

Each day I am acutely aware that, if I had to use one word to describe my intention, that word is truth. Often not easy to seek, to learn, or to heed, truth is critical to the journey of contentment.

My reflection today is thinking about how many of us live our life as if it were black and white.
Fit it in a box first, then I will try to understand it. Because life is neat, it all fits into one box or another. If it didn't, that would mean I could never absolutely understand it. It would mean I can't control it. But that certainly isn't true, therefore this box theory is infallible.

Truth is the fullness of life. It means admitting that life actually doesn't fit in neat little boxes. It means admitting you don't have a fraction of the control over it that you think you do. And, that means you can actually just let it go...let it be. You don't have to understand it or control it or even be afraid of it. This is how the truth will set you free.

My Choice
Jaimi Kercher | June, 2010

I choose Truth.

I choose to love myself for all that I am

I choose Growth
      And Freedom
           And Awareness
                And Compassion

I choose to be conscious
      Involved
           To Live

I choose Truth.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Burn and Re-Growth

A couple of months ago, as I was driving south on Highway 101 in the heart of Santa Barbara, I was drawn to the hills of the front-country above Montecito. Our winter was unusually blessed with ample rain fall, and in the late afternoon light of that day it occurred to me just how green those hills were.

You may remember that Santa Barbara was plagued by a series of disastrous fires within just one year between 2008 and 2009. The July 2008 Gap Fire torched the front-country of Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, and thankfully left little damage to homes or other structures. But that sigh of relief was cut short when the Tea Fire lit up the hills above Montecito in November 2008, when 200 families lost their homes. Six months later, in May 2009, the city watched in helpless horror as the Jesusita fire consumed the area between the previous two fires, burning an additional 90 homes to the ground and leaving the entire vista of the Santa Barbara hillside lifeless and without color. It was devastating.

The whole city mourned - with a population of under 100,000 everyone knew someone who had lost their home. As a community, we faced the devastation wondering how we would ever recover. The signature, mountainous backdrop of Santa Barbara lay dull, colorless and dead.

On this particular day in late April, however, it wasn't just the green of the hills that attracted my attention, it was the contrast of different colors of green. In the distance were the familiar dense and dark tones of the foothills, but in the foreground was a bright, vibrant, and almost neon-looking green. It stood out from the background, and as an avid hiker, I found myself thinking "I want to go explore there!" The newness of the color and rebirth of the landscape was far more inviting than its familiar background. Suddenly, the front-country I know like the back of my hand is a whole new place to explore.

Thus is the cycle of life. Burn has to happen to allow for regrowth...for new opportunity. It is all a part of the dynamism and movement of life, in perfect harmony with the divine. In this epiphany, I began to imagine the regrowth already taking shape in my own life. And, in shifting my focus to the green that is peaking its way up amidst the colorless landscape, I realize just how much I have to be grateful for in all of this. And I'm realizing how much I have learned, how much I have grown, and how many aspects of my life are such a blessing in this time. I have surrendered myself to time, anxiously anticipating the "end" of my grief. But the newness I already recognize inside of me is a reminder of how much I have already overcome. I am reminded that, despite the grief, I remain the same vibrant woman with a unique taste for life I have always been; yet I've never been so aware of those things that make up who I am:

Beautiful.
Confident.
Passionate.
Sensual.
Committed.
Hopeful.
Faithful and Faith-Driven.
Loyal.
Intelligent.
Funny.
Charismatic.
Joyful.
Moved.
Intentional.
Deep.

These are the things that define me. Not my job, not my house, not my finances or any of my stuff. And, definitely not my grief, which happens to be a by-product of my intention and ability to love freely and deeply.

Without the burn I never would have had the space to acknowledge these things. How many more truths are there to uncover in this space, separated from comfort and monotony and false security?

Summer is here, and restoration is in progress in Santa Barbara. Not just the landscape, but residents are beginning to rebuild and reconnect with their home and grounding that has hung in ambiguity and transition for over a year. We are going to get through this. No, we already have gotten through this.

With summer comes my once-a-week hikes with a fun group of local folks connected through friends, work, Facebook...you name it. I've lead these hikes for six years now, but this is by far the best year and the most beautiful I have seen these trails. Regrowth. Renewal. It is all an adventure.

Jesusita fire, hours after it sparked at Inspiration Point (a popular hiking destination).


Within days, the Jesusita fire had consumed the foothills immediately above Santa Barbara; nearly 60% of the population was evacuated. The hot spot to the right in this photo is Rattlesnake Canyon, another one of our favorite hiking destinations.


Trail to Inspiration Point, May 2010.


A beautiful display of flowers near Inspiration Point.


View from Inspiration Point, close to ground zero for the Jesusita Fire. Two years ago there was so much thick chaparral you had to stand on your tippy toes to really get a glimpse of the view. This is by far the most beautiful trip I've taken up to Inspiration Point!



Hiking Cold Springs, West Fork trail in the fog, May 2010. More flowers, more adventure!

I look at this landscape, rejuvinated and reminded of the inherent goodness of my journey. Just think...had I not been willing to face the discomfort of the loss I've experienced in the last year, I would have missed out on all these flowers. To everything, there is a season and a purpose. I love that exploring Santa Barbara's brand new front country reminds me of that.
Flames and smoke climbed out of every window
And disappeared with everything that you held dear
But you shed not a single tear
For the things that you didn't need
'Cause you knew you were finally free...

~Death Cab for Cutie, Your Heart is an Empty Room

Friday, May 14, 2010

Lessons Learned from Pine

I've landed back in the States. "Home", as it were, though any sense of place continues to hang in ambiguity. Back in the real world, I am desperate to remember what I've learned about leaning on grace and holding peace in all circumstances. Going far away for a fresh perspective was crucial, but I am reminded that the circumstances I face are nearer and stronger at home. I am challenged to hold on to this perspective and continue to allow it to unfold as I look adversity in the eyes.

This morning, I was reminded of a poem I wrote a year ago - at the very beginning of this journey. I sat outside of my tent after a night of camping in the snow and found myself meditating on a single pine tree, contemplating its existence and resilience. Somehow, remembering it this morning has restored hope and strength in my heart. I am realizing how many of the tree's secrets that have already been revealed to me in just one year...how I am being formed and shaped to be more and more like a pine tree.

The Tree
Jaimi Kercher | March, 2009

Firm
It stands in solidarity
Weathered
But unwavering
Strong
Yet agile
To accommodate the slightest breeze
To the brute force of a winter snowstorm

Silent
Seemingly unaffected
Constant
Yet ever changing
Inanimate
Yet full of life
Adapting to the needs of seasons
Acknowledging the importance of change

Being
Unaware of self
Of individualism
Yet aware of its ecosystem
Delicate
And essential
To all things in perfect balance
To the chaos that ultimately becomes truth

Relentless
Ignorant in choice
Unfaltering
And ever-growing
Evergreen
With burden and without
Incognizant of its ability to fail
Therefore unscathed by the fear of failure

O, to be a tree
To be firmly rooted in the soil of the earth
To persevere without fear
To endure without doubt
And to exhibit life even in the most treacherous of conditions
      In Faith
          In Trust
              In Love
                  In Confidence

That must be God’s wish for us all

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Movement, Perfectionism, and other Reflections from Kenya

On Sunday, I shared an 8-hour, nail biting bus trip from Amboseli National Park back to Mombasa in Kenya with a new friend, Brian McLaren. Brian is a pastor and author of many books that are controversial in many Christian communities. Most notably, in my head, he is the author of the book "Everything Must Change", which subsequently changed everything for me (no pun intended).

We were part of a group of seven other participants from the Amahoro Gathering who had gone on Safari as an extension of the conversation around Christ, Community and Creation. All but Brian and I had flights to catch from Mombasa to Nairobi on Sunday, and when those in the group realized they were so close to Nairobi already they made arrangements to skip the 8 hour drive back to Mombasa and share a bus that would take them directly to the Nairobi airport.

I don't believe that the trip back to Mombasa with just Brian and I was by coincidence. Here was someone I deeply admire for helping me come to a perception of Jesus that is more aligned with my interpretation of a benevolent and just God. Yet, I've been somewhat intimidated by him, failing completely to introduce myself or talk to him in South Africa last year. I certainly wouldn't dare to discuss theology or ask questions in front of the pastors, bible scholars, and theologians dominating the Amahoro Gathering. But, with just the two of us and 8 hours on the road, I felt more than comfortable asking "stupid" questions.

Brian said a lot of thought-provoking and interesting things. But I am still processing and deeply moved by his idea that God's perfectionism isn't ecstatic, it is dynamic. I love this concept in that it leaves plenty of room to grow and continually discover. Even as I write this I am realizing its alignment with my suspicion that absolute truth is actually nonexistent. Just as every day new species are documented on land and in the sea, there are infinite truths yet to be unfolded in mankind's journey on Earth. I think this is a concept even an atheist can relate to. Who can deny that each day there is something new to be experienced, discovered, and learned?

For a perfectionist, I cannot tell you how freeing this concept of dynamism is. It completely changes my perception of what it means to be perfect. It means perfection is not something to be achieved, but is happening around me every day...iteratively...dynamically. It means I can let go of the concept of euphoria - the expectation that I would reach ecstatic contentment once everything is "perfect". God's world is ever-changing, ever-moving, and ever-growing. To expect absolute operates against the organic and dynamic nature of creation.

My only question, then, is why our little human brains are programmed to think in terms of finite. Why do we seek out euphoria (ecstasy) instead of receiving the peace presently available to us in all circumstances? This mystery of the human psyche is why advertising is so effective. "Buy this and your joy will be complete." We want to be in that rocking chair - in flannel pajamas, next to a roaring fire on a snowy day, our golden retriever napping at our feet - because, in that image, we've reached ecstatic perfection. If I could only find myself in that scene, my troubles would melt away. My circumstances, my history, my identity - none of these things matter in those flannel pajamas. How can we believe such a lie? I cannot even begin to comprehend the way we are wired.


A little fun on our way out of Amboseli National Park.

--

Monday was an incredible day. After a dive, a drink at the swim-up bar, snorkeling, and conversation with more friends I found myself laying in the sun watching the low clouds roll over the Indian Ocean. In that moment, I realized I had never felt so close to God. I have a Facebook friend, Jed, who sometimes updates his status with "Gone soul searching...in a place so close to God you can almost look him in the eyes". That's what it felt like. I found "euphoria" in the form of gentle peace. It was held in balance with my joy and grief (which has continued to be present during this trip). But, in that moment, I was overcome with the freedom to relinquish all control over my circumstances.

God is at work. Always moving, always shaping, always with purpose. He is working in my life, still sculpting and carefully examining and using every imperfection in my clay. And he is at work in the lives of the people I love and mourn for...in a way that I cannot even begin to understand but can only be positive of the movement and shaping in those lives as well. He has a plan and a purpose laid out for everyone, and while I may or may not get to be a part of them, I find great comfort in knowing this when I take the time to fully acknowledge and consider it.

And I am positive God is working on the reconciliation, healing, and closure I so desperately am seeking in this time of transition. I only find weakness when I attempt to guess or make assumptions about what that looks like. I get distracted by needing to know, and become overwhelmed with the onset of that obsession. But, I am learning to hold all things in peaceful ambiguity, absent of the expectation of "needing" to know. But, to be honest, there are only brief moments when I can comfortably hang in that balance. The rest of the time I am aware of my weakness in humanity. It gets even more complicated when I realize the importance of receiving grace when I become aware of my weaknesses.

What a blessing Kenya has been to me -- so many gifts from God, even in the midst of such turbulent emotions. I have held grief with joy, tears with laughter, and resentment with forgiveness in such a dynamic dance these last 10 days. I am living out an awareness of "...the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:23). The dynamism of life...a pot continuously sculpted but never fired...a work made perfect in its constant incompleteness.

Though my trip to Kenya is drawing to a close, this journey is far from over. God grant me the strength and wisdom to receive peace in ambiguity and to be intentional and present in all circumstances.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Drina

This morning my host, Martin, and driver, Ali, met me at the Mombasa Continental Resort to begin our 2 hour journey (38 kilometers on rough and busy roads) to Kambe. On our way out of town, Martin brought me into a supermarket where we purchased a "food basket" as he called it (though it was a whole lot of food with no basket). After our purchase of rice, sugar, cooking oil, laundry and personal soap, maize flour, and a packet of candy, we drove out of Mombasa and ascended a very bumpy road up to the countryside.

I had applied for this visit back in February, which currently feels like an age ago. There really was no hemming or hawing - no decision to be made. I knew I was going to be in Mombasa and when Drina wrote to me last fall and mentioned her visit to an aunt in Mombasa there was no doubt that my presence here was no coincidence. I can think back now to when the representative from Compassion International came into our church and laid out about a hundred child sponsorship cards on the table from all over the world. I felt moved to become a sponsor, and I remember studying those cards one by one trying to figure out how one decides between all those children. But Drina stood out for me, inexplicably. As I skimmed the cards on the table my eyes kept falling back on her, so I picked it up and filled out the form and the rest is history.

I had no idea at that point, two years ago now, the journey I would find myself on today. How could I know that I would be called to quit my job a year later and my heart would be drawn to Africa? I never could have guessed that my call to Africa would land me at Amahoro Africa in South Africa in 2009, without even fully understanding what this gathering of friends, African leaders, and lovers of the mercy and justice of Jesus was all about. I didn't know, at the time I chose Drina, that I would find myself with a permanent attachment to Africa, and that the Amahoro Gathering would be held just 38 Kilometers from her home in 2010.

Can you listen to this and deny that something divine is in motion here?

So today, I arrived at a small church and school house in Kambe, where I was met by a littlegirl in a beautiful flowered dress that I recognized as 9-year old Drina. The paperwork I received from the field office warned about proper etiquette in terms of showing affection, but I instantly forgot when I saw her, drawing her near to me in a big hug (much to her surprise, I might add). She was accompanied by her mother in a turquoise dress, both ladies smiling and welcoming as they walked me into the office. There, I was met by the Pastor and the team that is leading the project in Kambe - the accountant, health worker, social worker, and so on. For the first hour they shared with me the specifics of the project - where my money has been going and the affect they've had on that particular community in terms of health, education, spiritual encouragement, and economic responsibility. This was, perhaps, a room full of some of the most passionate (and compassionate) people I have ever met.

After the business introduction to the project, we drove to Drina's home (where she lives with her Mother and sister). Drina carried my camera bag into her home (she wanted to help me), and walked me through the rooms of the temporary structure made of dried mud and wooden scaffolding. A chicken meandered by as I photographed the family in Drina and Sharon's bedroom, and I stepped awkardly on the rough, dirt floors of that 3 bedroom (probably 300 square feet) structure. Afterwards, Drina and Sharon took me outside to show me the goat my birthday money had purchased for Drina last year. I gave him a good pat on the head, amazed that I was experiencing first hand the fruits of a measly $25 check.

Drina and I talked - she told me how she likes to play and that her favorite game is football (soccer). She enjoys English as her favorite subject in school, and her marks are fairly good (she is in the 80th percentile). She is very shy, and when I asked her a question directly she would answer in a very low whisper that I never was able to discern. Soon, we discovered she was much more willing to answer in her native tongue of Swahili and the two of us enjoyed more conversation via the translation of my host Martin.

Mostly, though, Drina held on to my camera. I had set it up for her to use as simply as possible, and she snapped away hundreds of photographs while we met in her home. When she grows up she wants to be a police woman or a doctor...but now we all suspect she may want to be a journalist! She was very proud of her photographs, and so smart! She figured out how to play them back and would occasionally stop photographing to run me through the latest "slide show" of her work.

I am not one of those people who is good with words. I never know what to say, especially to someone who lives in such a completely different world than me. But, what I can do, is share in the international language of passion. My passion is photography...it's storytelling. I had two cameras there, and Drina and I bonded over our individual photographic perspectives of our story together. It was moving.

I brought many gifts (probably too many), and one was a stack of photographs I had put together of close family and friends. I was amazed by her memory (and that of her sister's). As I began to lay out the photographs, the girls exclaimed together "Kako!" when they saw the photograph of my aunt Kako. Then, they saw the picture of my mom and brother and giggled as they said "Casey", making it evident that they felt a kinship not only with me but with my family. If there is anything I've learned it is I need to send more photos! There are so many important people in my life, and they were happy today to meet the rest of the family (Dad, Jolene, Linda, Bart, the cousins and kids), as well as some close friends (Kelly, Jen, and the Santa Barbara crew on our recent snowshoeing trip in Mammoth). In return, I was given a gift of beautiful fabrics and a hand-woven shopping basket, which I will cherish always! I also have come back to my hotel with two coconuts and a bag of sweet oranges that I am so disappointed cannot accompany me on my journey back to the U.S. tomorrow.

As their mother shared photographs with me of Drina and Sharon as children, Drina undid my braid and she and her sister played with my hair. We ate together in that home, a meal of rice and chicken in coconut milk (delicious, by the way!) Every once in a while I would catch Drina looking at me, and every once in a while she would catch me looking at her. We were bonded by our curiosity of each other.

I was sad our time together had to come to an end. What could I say to Drina and her family? Could I hug her long enough and hard enough to feel fulfilled in letting her know what a blessing she is to me? How can I love her more? I wanted to stay there with them on their new plot of land. I wanted to help the family build a permanent structure and harvest the maize they had planted. How does anyone just walk away from that? And, let me tell you, though there is clearly poverty, I am talking about how one walks away from the hope in the midst of that poverty. I can't see past the shy smile on Drina's face, the way their mother adores her children and wants only the best, and how they are supported in a community where they are loved by so many. I get to love them, too...it just seems unfair its from so far away!

As a child, my family sponsored a little boy in Ethiopia named Vincent. I remember writing Vincent letters and passing his photograph in the hallway of our home. Somehow, though, I was disconnected from Vincent. The same way I've been disconnected from Drina these last two years. But Drina is real, Vincent is real (I wonder where Vincent is these days). Drina will always, always hold a special place in my heart. I will carry her smile, gentle kindness, and somewhat silly demeanor with me always.

What a touching, yet surreal experience...


Looking at Drina's file with the social worker.


Lovely Drina.


On the path to her house.


The family in the room Drina shares with her sister Sharon.


Drina's Kitchen.


My birthday goat!


One of Drina's photos. Pretty good if you ask me!


Looking at photos of my family and friends.


My gifts.


Toothbrush holder (there is no bathroom and no sink).


Drina and I, as photographed by Drina.


Self Portrait.


Lunch as prepared by Mama (I didn't write down her name, but I'll get it. Sorry Mama!!).


Drina in front of her home.


On our way back to the car.


Drina and I at our final goodbye.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Correlating Conservation and Social Justice

Today our speaker, Colin Jackson, energetically and thoughtfully described the importance of environmental preservation in the fight against social injustice. I imagine it is a controversial topic to bring to the table in a room full of people who are faced with enormous social issues every day, like poverty, violence and HIV/AIDS. How can people in these circumstances even fathom concepts of environmental responsibility when they are blinded by the basic needs of hunger, safety, and health? It's the typical "forest through the trees" scenario, and Colin suggests that tending to our environmental responsibilities actually tackles many social issues from the top-down.

I remember thinking about this last year in Burundi as we drove by pile after pile of trash (mostly consisting of plastic bottles) and witnessed the drastic change in the color of the waters where the streams flowing from Bujumbura meet Lake Tanganyika. As someone who has grown to become quite conscious and intentional when it comes to recycling (and, specifically the use of plastic bottles), every bottle of water I consumed in Burundi broke my heart because I was well-aware of where it would end up. But, at the time, I felt the same sort of apathy towards environmental responsibility in a country that faces so much poverty and an intense history of violence. Hearing Colin speak this morning has rerouted that thinking...it has opened my eyes to the idea of looking at all crises as a whole - swirling social, environmental and political issues in one glass to gain a better understanding of how these issues are intertwined and feed into and out of one another.

Colin is alive with passion for his cause, and it is a passion I deeply connect with. I have walked away energetic and affirmed by my particular connection with nature. I didn't realize it until this morning, but I think I have been struggling with the concept of "service to others" for several years, and particularly for the last year since I stepped into this journey. I felt called into the battle of social responsibility and fighting injustices, but I am a fairly anti-social person. I have dabbled in humanitarian efforts, finding some fruits but not finding place. But, I so identified with Colin's passion this morning that my eyes have been opened to a new path to explore in this journey...a path I've already been on but hadn't ever thought of connecting environmental responsibility to social responsibility. It never even occurred to me to consider that these things are, actually, one in the same.

After Colin spoke, we mingled around tea and snacks. A woman I had met yesterday morning, Eunice, had asked me last night if she could look at some of my photographs, so I had brought one of my calendars into the conference room to give to her. It seemed like a simple gift to me - one I've given hundreds of times to friends in the US and have always been met with a smile, a thank you, and a "nice job"! But I didn't anticipate the look on Eunice's face when I handed it to her.

She held it in her hand and I sat next to her as she was comprehending that this calendar was not only the photographs of mine she had asked to see, but a gift for her to keep. We sat together as she tore open the shrink wrap, touching the cover and flipping it over with the same sort of awe. Then, month-by-month, she intentionally and carefully turned the pages, staring in wonder at the images and asking questions about every one. We sat there for at least 20 minutes, and by the time we got to May I began to anticipate her questions. With every page she turned I had the opportunity to share some wonders of nature with Eunice - like how the rocks in Sedona are red because of the iron in their chemical makeup, and how the Rocky Mountains divide the center of my country, and how the rivers flow in opposite directions from the Continental Divide. When she flipped to December (my favorite photograph in the Calendar of Bryce Canyon National Park), I was describing the makeup and fragility of the Hutus (rock formations) in the canyon. I explained that the landscape had come to be due to years of weathering by the elements.

"So, this was not sculpted by someone?" she asked. I started to repeat what I had just said about the weathering and stopped short when I looked in her eyes.

"Well, it was sculpted by God!" I replied. With that, she broke out into a laughter together with her friend who had joined us and was looking on. Later, Eunice would also inform me that she loves calendars and collects them at every chance she gets. I am touched and moved by her gratitude for a gesture that was so simple in my mind when I had the thought to give it to her.

If you know me and have ever owned one of my calendars, you will know that I have always explained that my passion and purpose for photography is to bring the outside world to others who would otherwise not know it. I walked away from my conversation with Eunice purely energized...it was in exact sync with my intention as a photographer. Exploring those sights together with Eunice was like a dream come true.

All this to say that I am opening my heart to learning more about how my passions are actually connected to the God's plan in his kingdom. I am realizing I don't have to come up with new passions to connect more intentionally and completely to humankind in a way that can truly make a difference.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Questioning Hope

"If you would be a real seeker of truth, it is necessary at least once in your life to doubt all things."
~René Descartes

As was true in my visit to Africa last year, I am finding myself challenged in my theology. I look around the room and see hundreds of faithful believers confident in the biblical message of a God that loves and desires peace and salvation. Here, God is truth and the only light and way towards a brighter tomorrow. But, being overwhelmed by the ongoing issues that are raised and the violence and grief that ravages this continent, I can't help but hold doubt of that concept.

But, when I attempt to break free from a particular theology or ideology, I am still left with the irrefutable passion for social responsibility. Whether on a path lead by the scriptures or with a secular heart that desires global transformation for greater responsibility, one cannot escape the resulting awareness of brokenness in the world and of individuals around us. Holding these realities alongside my own grief is proving to be very difficult for me today. I can't avoid the temptation to compare and contrast, to feel guilty in my grief because it is so small in comparison to the horrors that many cultures - especially African cultures - experience every day.

To commit yourself to social responsibility is to open yourself up to the weight of the world. In seeking out justice, truth, and peace one becomes immediately aware of the ubiquitous injustices, lies, and violence that plague this planet. The choice becomes continuing on out of hope and faith, or giving up and returning to our isolated lives which are "just fine". In moments of weakness, for whatever the cause, it is so tempting to surrender to that isolation. I've thought of this recently in my own struggles, feeling sometimes like it was so much easier to live the lie. But, once truth has been revealed and your eyes have been opened to these things, I've learned its impossible to reverse the impact and squeeze back into the mindset of before. The realities of this world and my impact will always be in the forefront of my mind.

And so, even in my weakness, I have to choose hope and faith over isolation and remorse. It's the only mechanism by which I can move forward and continue to strive for something greater. I find myself at a crossroads, a particular decision point in which my choices have been reduced to faith or freeze. And, I simply can't freeze. I've come too far and endured too much.

So, as I look around at those who appear strong-hearted in their faith, I can't help but wonder if perhaps it is the same decision-point that carries their momentum. I can't help but wonder, in their own personal times of weakness when they are overcome by the grief they face, if they sometimes question the presence of God in the midst of it. We're all human, so I suspect the question lingers for all of us. But, I also suspect that it is that question which drives the answers.

I actually believe this is what it means to be a seeker of truth...to constantly hold these questions in careful balance and accepting the confirmations -- and the fallacies -- we face along the way.

The Breakdown of Self Preservation

I am back in Africa, and back for my second year at the Amahoro Africa Gathering. This year, a conversation is taking place on Christ, Creation, and Community.

One of the things that struck me as Dennis Tongoi spoke this morning is a theme I had already been contemplating -- the idea that God so loves the world. It has dawned on me that this concept may be very difficult to fully grasp and comprehend in contrast to a general biblical perspective that the "world" is evil. The idea that the world is evil is perhaps at the foundation of why many Christians focus their eyes on death (bliss in heaven) instead of life (consumed by sin). But there it is, in the most famous of all scriptures, God loves the world we live in...in the present...today.

We are also made aware for God's love for all things, a phrase repeated countless times in the scriptures. Dennis suggested that we tend to live out our faith with the intention of personal gain. If I follow my faith, God will give me the desires of my heart. If I serve the poor, I will earn God's favor and blessing. If I save more souls, my rewards will be stored up for me in heaven. He called this "Photo Album Faith" - like having a group photo taken and immediately seeking yourself out in the image when you get the proofs. But, the photo was never about you, it was about the group and the circumstances that brought you together. God's love is carefully weaved among all things - every man, woman, child, tree, cloud, and all elements of creation in that photograph. Each individual, while loved intimately by God, also serves an ultimate purpose in his or her community and in the world.

I have had many conversations around the philosophy that all things humans do or say is always motivated by self-gain. Even as we serve the poor, contribute financially to various causes, or help a coworker thrive in their career, the end result is that we feel good about ourselves. For many Christians, saving souls or simply sharing the gospel is done on the premise of some pending reward in the afterlife. In my personal story, undertaking difficult and radical change was only made possible by the expectation that it will ultimately lead to a richer, more satisfying life.

I don't know of any way to deny this theory of self-motivation. What I do know, however, is that we should not use that theory as a way to rationalize actions that will hurt ourselves or others more than they will help. We cannot focus on or give into self-motivation as a means to justify actions we are called to take but don't really want to. Even if we are aware of our personal gain in any situation, we should never allow it to distract our true intention and desire to act out of selflessness and care for others.

We have a responsibility to our communities and all of creation...to make the right decisions at work, in our relationships, and in our family. Caring for one another is the ultimate measure of self-satisfaction. If joy is brought to me through witnessing the joy in others - especially if I helped them to seek and find that joy - then it is win-win.

My challenge in this is to step outside the preservation of self and make intentional choices that consider all things in my environment and community. Because the fruition of God's plan is dependent on community, I cannot succumb to isolation in search of healing. My present struggles are marked with a need for community -- not only to allow others to walk with me in my grief but to intentionally and proactively walk beside and encourage others despite my grief. I suspect the latter is of the utmost importance.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Humility of Gratitude

I had originally filled this space with a description of the emotional roller coaster I've been on these last eight months. It dawned on me upon reading it that it was more a stream of conscious processing than a palatable story of my journey. In its stead, I'd like to, simply, summarize what I have learned:

The truth shall set you free.

"Truth" is perceived as positive, but we often forget that sometimes truth can be painful to hear or difficult to face. We often will go to great lengths to protect ourselves from the truth, including lying to ourselves and destroying relationships by lying to the people we love the most as a result. Looking at truth in this light, can you see how it might impede our freedom? Refusing to deal with some truths face to face leaves behind a path of destruction and stunts our ability to seek out and experience healing and necessary growth. Insisting on believing a lie creates patterns that keep us from attaining our goals or finding true fulfillment in our lives.

I refused to believe many truths for many months (many years for that matter), and the healing I so desperately needed from the decisions of last year was minimized in my rational efforts to "move on". For the past couple of months, I have stood up against the tendency to make myself move on. I want to be free, and freedom is found only in facing - and dealing with - difficult truths. Only in coming to terms with truths about myself and truths about others can I extend the grace and forgiveness to myself and those who have hurt me. I feel, wholeheartedly, that forgiveness and grace is where my healing will actually come to fruition. But it is a process, and it requires time, intention, and commitment. There are no shortcuts, I realize that now.

So, guess what - I am still sad. Sometimes really, really sad. But my ability to breath it in, let it process, and breath it out has been instrumental in helping me to see the ways in which I am happy. Sometimes, really, really happy. I've stopped lying to myself (or at least I'm trying to) which means I'm painfully forced to take responsibility for my own actions. But there is a divine strength in my life that is allowing me to bear that burden and dripping hope back into my life a little more each day. I thought the truth would be unbearable, but I closed my eyes and jumped anyway. I don't know why I'm surprised that, while sad, it's tolerable and actually sometimes enlightening.

So, I am grateful for the pain. Do you hear that? Grateful. If I don't feel it I'm not learning anything. If I'm not introspective I'm not able to take the necessary time to pave the way to new relationships that are founded in truth and strengthened in honesty. Being aware of humility and gratitude in my tears is a very strange feeling, but proof every day that this Faith Experiment of mine is far from over.

Also, being grateful for sadness has made me more aware than ever of those times when I am happy. Just as I have brief moments of sorrow, I have found myself basking more and more in brief moments of acceptance (and sometimes even joy). I am blessed! With this mustard seed, hope, passion, and excitement are slowly being restored.

Tomorrow, I journey back to Africa (well, it was supposed to be today but that is another story). I head back to where I originally found the strength and closure I needed to move onto my life. This year I go in gratitude, seeking connection, community, and healing.