So this girl walks into a gym, and…

1.17.12

I was praying on my way to the gym today… just checking in to say hi. And while I’m at it, why not mention my usual prayer requests? Oh boy, am I thankful God is never tired of us coming to Him.

But on my trek to the gym, I was expecting to get a workout, not a lesson from God. I just wanted to hurry up and get my routine in and go home. I was hungry. VERY hungry.

But alas, if I truly believe God’s presence is with me at all times, why wouldn’t I be hearing/experiencing Him in the everyday places?

So after doing some leg work, it was time for some upper body lifts. Lateral machine. Press up over your head, and then bring the weight back down. Feel that burn in your deltoids, baby…

…And listen to God speak to you?

I confess I’ve been feeling pretty anxious again lately.

Luckily, exercise is always a good “go-to” to let out that pent up, unproductive energy and replace it with renewed, fruitful, invigorating energy.

So I’m lifting the machine upwards- boy it’s heavy- and hear this whisper.

“See Melissa,” the voice whispered as I lifted the machine downwards past my ears. 

“This is the burden you’ve been carrying. It’s heavy, isn’t it?”

“What, God?”  I inquire, kinda freaked out, yet encouraged by the fact that this kind of God stuff happens to people all the time. 

“When you press upwards like that, that’s the stuff you can choose to give to me. If you want to. It’s heavy, I know, literally quite heavy, but I’m using it right now to show you that when you give things over to me, I already know, already understand that they are heavy burdens. It doesn’t ‘feel good’ necessarily to lift them over to me. But those endorphins you will feel after you complete your set of laterals… they are nothing compared to the sweet surrender you’ll experience if you trust me fully.”

I push through my third rep. Lift up-give to God, bring the bar back down to starting position, that’s the burden… Rep 5- lift up; Give it, give it all. All the way up. You know who you’re giving it to. And down. Lift down- it’s heavy, isn’t it?

This is what you have been carrying around inside of you… What, you don’t like it? It’s hard? It hurts? Come back to me,” the whisper echoed.

Rep 6- “ok, God, I am giving it to you, I am reaching upward. But it still hurts.”

“ I know. Your muscles get strong on this machine, and your trust muscles get strong too, as you take the heavy stuff and bring it to me. I’m sorry to say, but your shoulders, no matter how many reps you do, will never be strong enough to carry the burdens of this world, or rather, any burden you’re facing without me.”

“Good,” I think, as I cringe at the thought of any more weight on my shoulders.

“But God, it’s just as heavy when I’m lifting up as when I’m bringing it back down, holding onto it. Shouldn’t it get easier as I lift up towards you?”

“I know. You see, I call you to trust me with the ‘heavy things.’ Things that are hard. That you can’t do on your own strength, at least not past one set.”

“So this heaviness I still feel, even as I surrender to you, is ok?”

“Yes, my child. It’s ok. Just because I’m God doesn’t mean I don’t understand how heavy, how valued, how many emotions stand behind whatever you are giving me. It’s going to hurt as you surrender to me. But afterwards, just like this workout, when you finish, you will be satisfied. Physically, your body will be stronger because of this sweaty, lift-until-you-feel-your-legs-are-going-to-fall-off workout. And spiritually- when you finish giving over these objects, emotions, people, places, circumstances, and things over to my control, I will send you my spirit to give you a peace that never would have occurred had you still held onto these things, grappling with them, controlling them, hiding them, or even trying to ignore them completely in the process.”

Hmmm.

On the tenth rep, I literally didn’t know if I would be able to press the weight all the way to the top (I was going for maximum weight). Pushing hard, making weird “garhhhh” kind of faces, teeth gritting, arms shaking, unsure whether to inhale or exhale, keep my eyes open or closed, I make that last rep reach the top all the way above my head. This time, I gave the things I was carrying over to God (maybe that’s why that last rep was so much harder). I had some serious doubts as to whether I could complete that last rep, but sure enough, somehow I was able to.

I walked onto the next machine. The truth of what God revealed to me (through an inanimate weight machine in the middle of a well-frequented fitness club) was something I knew I needed to take seriously. But I didn’t think I could handle God “speaking” through another fitness machine that night. The lat machine was enough. Start speaking to me at the ab machine, God, and I might disregard everything I thought I heard and reason that I was dehydrated and delusioned.     Kidding. 🙂

All of this makes me smile. I just love these everyday God moments, where we don’t expect to hear from him, where we’re just going about our day, not expecting to find God in our commute to work, the line at the grocery store, or at the weight machine where you’re working your… tail off.

But those are often my favorite God moments. Church is great, and marveling creation, even better, but I relish in his presence even more in the ordinary places because I know that he truly is with me; beside me; never out of reach, just like he said he would be. After all, he’s God, so why can’t he communicate whenever, wherever, and however he wants to?

So today, I am thankful for God-in-the-everyday. For choosing to speak to me in my daily surroundings. He reminds me that he’s never far, and that I’m not the only one going about my day here. Tonight, as I close my eyes and begin to drift, I wonder where we will converse tomorrow and where my next lesson will occur. I’m not sure where, not sure how, but I do know that it will be in the ordinary and it will be beautiful.

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12 Mantras for 2012

12 Mantras for 2012

 1) Say the serenity prayer every day. And mean it.

2) Quality, not quantity…In all areas of life, be it relationships or workouts.

3) Learn about and participate in microfinance.

4) “Remove the muzzle.” Kick the voices out of my head that don’t belong- the voices that told me what to believe, who or what is “right” or “wrong,” how I should vote (ha!), what my “gender role” is, what my marriage, children, and career should all look like; all of the voices that told me the words, language, and syntax I should use to express my faith but never encouraged me to speak or think for myself, what God might actually be trying to teach me. Expunge all of the voices that declared things in life within the context of black and white and left no room for grey (or red, or yellow, or robin’s egg blue, for that matter); that demand we must have an answer for every question, rather than learning to love the questions themselves. To all of those voices, I bid you adieu. You’ve had occupancy in mind for far too long and now it’s time for redemptive freedom and restoration. May God bless you on your journey with peace and grace. To God’s voice, to whom I am a fallen, loved image bearer, to your sweet whispers or your fervent stand-up-to-action roar, I welcome you in with urgency and immediacy and gratitude.

5) Be present in every moment, no matter how exciting/dull/menial/uncommon/ordinary this moment is.

6) Go to at least one peaceful protest/rally.

7) Accept that living with your heart on your sleeve will get you hurt, but it’s the only way to truly live.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.
            If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,
you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.
     Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries;
avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
           But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change.
 It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” –C.S. Lewis

8) Play with my hair less. Maybe then I can stop having a need to run out to Target for dry shampoo.

9) Sing. Often. Don’t worry about what other people think of your voice. We all have one, even the “voiceless;” it’s just that some voices aren’t heard. Make your life sing to change that. Give way to songs of freedom completely incapable of being taken away from you. Sing it out. Sing loud. Sing to the tapestry of life and energy God has blessed you with.

10) Blow on wishies every chance I get.

 11) See myself as an equal in all relationships.

12) Embrace turning 25. Do not fear the full spectrum of human life that lie ahead of you, with all of its unknowns. I haven’t been promised a cradle-to-the-grave itinerary, so I will stop asking for one. Instead I’ll remember what I have been promised: a future and a hope. Unclench your fists. Unlock your knees. Open wide your heart, your ears, your eyes, your jaw, and your hands…Because the rest is all uncharted…

I’m done here.

Let’s live.

Storms. Blessings. ((Up With the Birds))

I’ve heard it said that, “you’re either going in to storm, in a storm, or coming out of a storm.” I get that. I believe it. I’ve experienced it. Whether you look at the weather, the Bible, or your own personal experiences, we know that life will present us its own trials and conflicts for growth and no one is exempt. Good times don’t last forever, because we need change, a shift in routine, conflict to shape us and mold us into the people we are capable of becoming. Storms and deserts shape you… if you let them. In those moments, you develop your “trust muscles” towards God, you learn to depend on Him, and you are changed by your desert experience.
So, yes, I know this to be true.

But I got thinking.

What if the opposite was also true?

“You’re either approaching a blessing, experiencing a blessing, or going to experience a blessing.”

Does that work?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not living to “be blessed.” Rather, I’m trying to live to be a blessing and also to appreciate the constant blessings in my life, the everyday breath we breathe, people who love us and who we love, laughter, God’s constant presence…

But, for just a moment, I decided to relinquish the voices in my head that tell me “no, no, no, Melissa; you’re not supposed to think like that. That’s not what God would want-” aka- all the “don’t think for yourself” kind of voices. I waved them out of my mind, if only for a moment, like a fly swatter, saying “just shoo for a minute, will ya?” and thought about it without the dogma of needing to impress others with the shooting darts of “this verse” or “that verse” and embraced my faith from my own free thinking thoughts and experiences of God.

So I’m just merely thinking, reflecting, as Coldplay’s “Up with the birds” plays on in the background of my car.

I totally believe the storm thing. But sometimes I just simply need some encouragement; to know that something good will happen. Some optimism to remind me that life is not just about storms and valleys… storms and valleys… deserts, desert experiences. Suffering. Suffer much… as I think the church has soooo deeply ingrained (at times, “drilled” I think would be much more appropriate) in my head.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think life is all about blessings and I don’t believe in the “prosperity gospel.” I don’t ask God for tons of money (but do ask for enough to get by) and refuse to buy a Cadillac and mega home and say, “look what God has blessed me with!!!” while millions go hungry and homeless tonight.

But I think it’s ok to point out that God’s blessings will come. That there is hope. Optimism. Because we serve a god who uses all things for good. I’m learning to get rid of the harsh religious voices that try to ensnare my thought life, telling me what I’m supposed to think and say and feel and do. And I’m learning just to be me. The child of God, with a sound mind, body, and spirit, that God made. And in the process, I am reminded that it’s ok to delight in blessings. Seriously— it’s ok. Can you imagine giving your best friend a present, watch her sheepishly open it, and squeak out, “uh, thanks!?” and stuff whatever the gift was right back in the box and quickly move onto other things? I’m learning, or rather re-learning, that God is a great giver. The New Year’s Day rainbow that appeared in the sky above my neighborhood. A giver of a “future and a hope,” even when I can’t figure out what the heck it is I’m supposed to be doing with my life some days. Incredible, ridiculous, ab-workout kind of laughter like tonight’s dinner with new and old friends.

So. Storms. Blessings. I think they coincide- and mix together in a catalytic beauty, ordained by God.

I know about storms. But today, I’m going to keep my head up and remember the blessings that God produces… ‘cause good things are coming our way. 🙂

Tell My Wife I Love Her… She Knows.

1.09.11
                     “Tell my wife I love her…
                                                                    …she knows.”

It was a mid June night, in a stadium packed with some 68,000 people, all clapping and singing and dancing and even blowing bubbles to undeniably the best band in the world, U2 (that’s my only personal bias in this writing. I promise.) Each song got me imagining new ways in which God’s Kingdom can come to Earth; each word sung opened that space in my heart capable for holding and dispensing more love; each song a proclamation that love conquers evil, grace over karma, life over death. Oh what a beautiful night it was.

But what really got me during the concert was a video of Captain Mark Kelly on the videotron, up there in space.  Bono asked, “What would such a man say from 200 million miles high? Where borders disappear, cities connect in a web of lights, and the conflicts of the world are silent?”  Kelly responded, “Looking forward to coming home. Tell my wife I love her very much… she knows,” as Bono and the boys cascaded into “Beautiful Day.” The song ended melodramatically, with Bono echoing sincerely deep choirs of, “Tell my wife I love her very much; she kno-ooo—ooows.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23FrP6qNoxY)

•••

Fast forward to January 8, 2012. Gabby Giffords started off yesterday’s one year Tucson shooting remembrance by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I cannot watch the clip without getting teary-eyed. Two ten-year-olds then proceeded to tell their memories of best friend Christina Taylor-Green, a nine year old, born on September 11th, who was killed that day. The girls said Christina, “wanted to help others, make a difference in school, and put others first.” Other speakers shared stories, and church bells rang at the exact timing of last year’s shooting. Mark Kelly expressed, “There’s a reality that life is unpredictable, and that even in the best of times, our cherished friends, the good, the caring, the innocent among us, the closest and dearest people we know, can be taken from us.” As I’m watching and reading about the remembrance, I recall back to that concert in June. Tell my wife I love her very much; she knows…

I think back to the part of the concert where Bono talked about the world, that swirling blue ball, interconnected by city lights, where conflicts and wars silenced. I think about that view, from far above, where the colors literally bleed into one. My heart aches for that world. The Kingdom Come. I think about the six lives that were needlessly lost in the Tucson shooting, the love between Mark and Gabby, a love strong enough to stand at the bedside of your wife who can barely speak your name, then the courage to fly up into space, having to leave this person behind for some time. And then I think about the strength Gabby exuded as she’s re-learned how to talk, how to walk, and the courage it took as she made a visit back to that place where the awful incident occurred. All of this feels very emotional, very spiritual to me, as I imagine what it must have been like to have been there on that day.

I then think of God looking over our world, holding together broken bodies, broken souls, comforting slowly healing wounds, and clinging each child of His/Hers so tight. I think of times in my life of complete confusion, times of fear, and times of change, not having any easy answers, but somehow entirely convinced that God was present, right there with me, beside me, breathing hope into my heart. And with that hope, I then think of times where God was still present, this time awing and filling me with wonder. I think of runs through wooded trails, dazzling sunsets and remember the night my dad took me by the shoulder, pointed to the milky way, as we both paused, completely “wow-ed” by such creation. I think of laughter with roommates, sweet “just popped in to say hi” neighborhood conversations, and all of the people God puts in our lives to show us and guide us the way. I marvel at the beauty of creation and what it means to simply be alive and simply wiggle my toes and fingers and experience God’s desire to draw us into His story, His arms, His voice, as if to say,
Tell my children I love them very much…”
                                                                        Yes.   …We know.

http://abcnews.go.com/US/gabrielle-giffords-tucson-marks-anniversary-shooting/story?id=15312010
http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0112/71207.html

Auld Lang Syne

New Years Day.

                        Should old acquaintance be forgot,
                        and never brought to mind?
                   Should old acquaintance be forgot,
                              and old lang syne?

 I found myself humming along to the familiar New Year’s tune of Auld Lang Syne. It dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what I was singing, but I did know that when singing this tune, hope and pace warm my heart and I like it. It turns out to be an old Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. “Auld Lang Syne” translates to something along the lines of “days gone by,” or “for auld lang syne” = “for the sake of old times.”

The song became popularized at New Years in the late 1920s and is sung in variations throughout the world for many beginning and ending occasions, such as graduations, weddings and funerals.

Burns begins by asking, is it right, is it ok, that old times be forgotten?

Quite honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to forget certain old times. I’ll never forget my first day of kindergarten (and playing with a snoopy puzzle on the rug), graduating high school (and feeling like the world was suddenly about to get a whole lot bigger); most people don’t forget their first kiss (I won’t tell you about mine). I’ll never forget jumping off a Baltimore County bridge on graduation night in my cap and gown with college friends as our bodies splashed into the cold early summer water. I’ll never forget my Dad’s loving embrace after my first car wreck, where my fear of disappointing him was washed away completely as he hugged me in close and wiped my tears. I will never forget the moments where I can’t quite capture in words, but undoubtedly know in my core that I have tasted heaven on Earth, in the form of children singing “Jesus Loves Me” in an orphanage in Africa. I won’t forget the time my grandmother turned 90 and being surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles from all over the U.S. and her contagious joy, saying, “you don’t even get credit around [our retirement community] until you turn 90.” And I’m quite sure I won’t forget New Years Day 2012, when I walked out of my front door to be greeted by a double rainbow, end to end, after an afternoon rain shower passed. A rainbow is beautiful anywhere, but it was even more beautiful to me in that moment, in the inner city, on the first day of a New Year, each section of rainbow shouting, “ROY-G-BIV.”

Sometimes, in my looking back on old memories on New Year’s day, with its perfect mix of looking back and looking ahead, I’m reminded of Ferris Beuller’s wise words, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Sounds so cliché, but when we realize life’s fragility and how years and years go by, we must treasure the memories, and then make many, many more, because life doesn’t stop when the picture goes in the frame, but rather, needs to constantly be explored, trampled upon, danced upon, cart-wheeled upon, and “whooped up!” because the story is being written and I don’t want to read dull pages, scratching my head, wondering, “gee, where was I?”

∙∙∙∙∙∙∙

There is something persistently optimistic, daring, to me about beginning a new year. It truly feels like a gift, a gift to be alive another year, a gift to have had a whole year of life with which to learn, to grow, to stretch, to love, to be loved, to cry, to comfort another, to be comforted, to boldly and collectively face the wide spectrum of the human experience and to embrace it, rather than run from it.

 So today, may you drink a cup of kindness, and pour several teacups more, until they overflow, and share them with everyone you meet. May you hold someone closely and refer to them as “my dear,” and feel the softness of skin in your embrace or breathe in the scent of their body. May you know the hand of a friend is never far away. May your toasts and cheers and clinks of glasses bind up past regret or bittersweet let goings, and tie you closer to new unforgettables: of friends, of love, of laughter, of glimpses of Heaven on Earth and the face of your Maker in the most unexpected of places.
 Happy New Year.

Here’s to life.
                        

82 Christmas Parading Cop Cars

I’m driving back home after a run, noticing the persistent knot of anxiety in my stomach for the 97th time. I find myself thinking about this twenty something stage of life and how, from a billion different angles, people, places, and things are changing rapidly, like the wind, and I feel like a little wishie dandelion in a big field wondering why I’m no longer yellow, hoping I don’t get mistaken for a weed, and also hoping my seeds won’t scatter away at once. But I am not a dandelion, I am a human. Driving in a car. Getting closer to my neighborhood, I say my constant prayer to ask God to keep me safe again just one more time.

I know.

Some people are pros at living life, shining their little light in the inner city, just like anywhere else.

I myself am a scared, fearful, constantly awed, diversity-loving, naïve city dweller.

So bear with me.

I’m getting closer to my house, knowing my beloved and ever-patient roommate had left for Christmas break and unless I decided to find a friend to stay with, I’d be spending the night in the hood, alone, with no one else in the house. I started crying, realizing that until moving, I never had placed myself in situations where my safety had crossed my mind. I know. You’re probably sick of hearing me cry or me writing about crying or telling these stories. I’m sorry. As pathetic as it may sound, I was crying. It started raining (of course) and it was dark (fits with the story, right?). I made a right turn to get onto my one way street and noticed two pulled over police cars with their lights on, flashing. Of course. I peered in my rear view to see if I could make out anything going on. Realizing my eyes we no longer on the road, I snapped out of it before I could hit a parked car. ((Turns out that later on that night, I would find out through a neighbor that they were there investigating a double shooting. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. ))

I find a spot outside my house, park the car, and step out, sighing, “God, I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” feeling discouraged and in need of direction, trying to ignore my own cynicism and fears that often ensnare me into the Kingdom of Me. I don’t mean to keep arriving there. I start off in the Kingdom of God and suddenly I find myself at a bread and breakfast all-inclusive stay at the Kingdom of Me. I’m done. I want out.

I walk to my doorstep, steady rain falling, and notice cop cars pulling on to my street, sirens blaring. Above are two police helicopters swirling shining spotlights in irregular patterns. One, two, three, four, five police cars. I’m already crying, but now the tears were really coming as I begin to quiver at the thought of what could be going on. This must be bad. This has to be bad. Six, seven, eight, nine. Given the numerous cop cars and an influx of neighbors opening their doors to see what’s going on, I am scared, wondering what on Earth could be happening. I am shaking and cold and have snot spread in every direction on my face (I am not a clean crier). Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen police cars. I want to pray but I don’t have words. Fourteen, fifteen…firetruck.

Firetruck!?

IS THAT SANTA CLAUS!!!??????

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” a classic voice shouts from the window, waving to the neighbors.

“Look, Santa,” I hear one of my neighbors call out to her children, urging them to come outside.

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two and a… MEGAPHONE?

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!”” kids shout from the megaphone, hands out the backseat window, waving.

Twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine mostly smiling police officers, occasionally waving to the crowds on the street.

I am still crying. And shaking. And now smiling and laughing, laughing so hard my stomach feels like it’s doing crunches. Thirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty three, thirty four, thirty five, thirty six, thirty seven, thirty eight, thirty nine. I am smiling at the heavens, feeling the steady rain meet my face like long-time old friends embracing one another in an airport. The moment is so… holy… so joyful.

Forty, forty one. Yes, I’m still counting. The cars are still coming, sirens flashing, some sounding, some with smiling officers, others looking just about as confused as myself (especially the police officer driving a Harford County police car… something tells me this county cop has never seen something quite like this before either. There’s a first time for everything :))

Fifty. Sixty. Seventy. I kid you not. I believe the final count was 82 (I was having a hard time keeping track because all my soul wanted to do was look up at the sky, and let my tears and my smile sing praises to the Lord because my mouth and brain could not put together a single word.)

Just when you think you can’t take one more evil, one more injustice in this world, when you feel incapable of dealing with one more fear, ask one more “what if,” face one more worry, drone one more repeated prayer over and over again for the same thing, God will do something. He will do something to sustain you, something to embrace you. He will do something comical like send 82 Christmas-parading cop cars onto your street just to make you smile and laugh in a way that only God could do. He will find a way to make it possible for you to retain hope in your heart, and whisper,keep going. I. Love. You.” I am wet from rain and tears and all I want to do is dance in the rain, dance in the middle of the street with reckless abandon, arms out open, spinning and singing, and hug each and every neighbor outside, renewed with faith, hope, and love.

But I have snot on my face. Perhaps I should shower before thinking of exchanging hugs.

I draw in one more breath of the surprisingly warm winter air and whisper back to God, “I love you too” and head inside.

On a Cold Winter’s Night That was so Deep

December 16, 2011
It was Friday night and I took in a breath, smiling, as we were driving around to Coldplay on the way to running Christmas errands. You know those Friday nights, where the moon is out, stars-are-shining kinds of nights that give you that “God-it’s-good-to-be-alive” feeling.

And then it shifted.

Flashing lights in Baltimore City are not an uncommon sight. But this time, there were three police cars pulled over and a silent ambulance, lights still flashing. I held in my breath, nervously taking a closer look. In the middle of the adjacent street was a man, lying on his side, not moving. A couple of officers stood over him. A crowd gathered on the sidewalk.

Brian and I were probably behind a red light, looking at this scene for less than a minute. But it felt long, drawn out, like a thick fog of stagnant barrenness surrounding the streets and air. Laughter turned to solemness, like a train derailing, catching its passengers off guard, trying to keep them stuck in that moment. Flashbacks of kids on my block showing me a bullet came to my mind. I saw scenes of conflict and yelling that I’ve observed in neighboring streets. The essence of depravity, as though God himself in heaven was crying, stretching out his arm to rescue, saying, “no, this cannot be, this is not what I have intended for my people.” Perhaps the only thing you can do in such moments is instinctively pray. So we prayed. Prayed for peace. Prayed for reconciliation between whatever and whomever led up to that man lying in the street. We prayed for this city, that God would shed that redeeming love upon in scandalous grace that only a father up above could provide.

We were quiet for a little while.

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say after you pass by a scene like that.

The green light forced us to move on. We ran some Christmas errands and strolled through the city to dazzle over Christmas lights. But for some reason, my mind kept drifting back to the man in the street. I didn’t know why; I knew this kind of stuff happens in the city. But this wouldn’t leave my mind. Perhaps it was because it was Christmastime, and I’m used to seeing people exchange in acts of good cheer, but instead, this exchange felt dismal. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, but it felt like that scene was trying to take over, wanting to steal away the joy, the peace, the love that this season so beautifully epitomizes.

We drove home and stepped inside. Slowly, gently, God began showing me what he had to say about that scene that wouldn’t leave my mind.

I began to cry. I stopped fighting to keep the ears from spilling over the corners of my eyes, and let them fall down like rain. I didn’t have to pretend that one could be completely numb to violence, or homelessness, or poverty.

I didn’t have to pretend that I wasn’t scared. I didn’t have to play that game of shoulder-shrugging complacency or ignorance.

I felt it full force. And grieved.

I grieved over the depravity of this world. I grieved over the 193 needless homicides this city experienced this year. I grieved over the fact that perhaps if those men in conflict had grown up their whole life with positive role models guiding them, encouraging them, challenging them, and most importantly, doing life alongside them in a way that lifts up, allowing each individual to remember that we all have so very much to live for; perhaps then things could have been different that night. I grieved over the voices that all too often get stuck in our minds, voices that negate self-worth, that tell us to give up trying, that tell us things can’t change.

No. Surely that’s not what we were created to believe.

I grieved over all the ways in which The Church has directly and indirectly expressed who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “right,” and who is “wrong.” I grieved because I think it is possible for The Church to be synonymous with love, but right now, unfortunately, words such as “judgmental” and “fragmented” can be painstakingly accurate too. I’m sure you can envision such an image or news story right now. Missing the point completely, I am crushed when the world is presented with an incomplete Gospel of the One who loved us before we were born, who says that there is no condemnation for His children.

I grieved harder as I looked inward at myself. I mean, not just a surface check, but a guttural check inside all of those little parts of myself that no one sees, the parts that store my own layers of contempt and self-centeredness. The part that acknowledges how quick I am to dismiss those who don’t see my perspective, the part who still doesn’t love others with a completely unconditional love (like Christ), and who still holds my purse tight when walking around the inner city, because, after all,“they” could be trying to steal, “they” might have a gun, or “they” might otherwise harm me (see the self-centeredness and assumption making?). I grieved over just how stubborn and cynical I’d become over the past few years. I grieved over evil. I grieved because it is still here and present in this world, trying to take life out of our years. I grieved that after living in the inner city, I couldn’t deny the reality of racial polarization and that there is still much work to do if we want to see races completely reconciled one to another. I grieved over ignorance and apathy. That there are voices out there that get us caught up in things that don’t matter, distracted from our purpose. That demean us. That demean others.

BUT.

That’s. Not. How. The. Story. Ends.

That’s not how the story ends.

Dozens of times, I’ve heard the Bible described as something like, “the divinely inspired word of God.” I get that. But I can no longer concede to say the things that I’ve been spoon-fed to say. Instead, I find the Bible …difficult. It’s challenging; it’s beautiful. It’s simple; it’s confusing. I read things that make me angry and never want to open another page again. I read things that seem so unlike the God I know. Then I read things so beautiful that leave me amazed and feeling connected to something that has sustained and enriched millions of lives over the course of hundreds of years. I read of a redemption that can cover every wrong, of a companion, a guide, a friend, who desires nothing more than to journey life with you… or rather, you with Him. To come, as you are, and experience a kind of Kingdom incomparable to this world, but desperate to be experienced in the here and now.

I stop crying; I see it now. Faith, hope and love. Love of God, love of others. We can stop there and leave the rest out. I don’t care anymore. I was drawn to Christ and came back to the message that I can always, always come back to time and time again: love God, love others. That hope entered this world innocent… as innocent as a child in a manger. That hope entered this world naked, comforted by swaddling cloth to keep warm… and I too need to let myself “be naked” and vulnerable and allow others into my heart and life to show God’s love for me through their warmth, their love, their embrace and acceptance in both my weakest and my strongest moments.

Evil never stopped that hope, that joy, that comfort from coming into this world. And evil will never stop what is to come. Evil did not have the last word that Friday night. Evil didn’t win. It never will. Hope won. Love conquered. It always will. Undeterred and more drawn into this redemptive, unable-to-be-stopped kind of love, I knew God had the final say that night and always will. And that final say when we meet with our Creator will be, “welcome home, my child” with music, dancing, and song.

And just then, a familiar tune popped in my head. …On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…. Noel, noel, the soft angelic murmurs sang.

It was a cold winter’s night.
And it was deep.

And just like in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago, hope was still very much alive.

Thoughts on Change

6.28.11

I recently moved to inner city Baltimore and moving day spurred up some emotions within me about change. This is a little snapshot of what I feel like God is teaching me about change.

•••

I’ve often heard that God is unchanging. Which is a good thing. But I’ve come to believe that while this is true, we also serve a God who knows change. No one stays in a flood when there’s an ark to carry you. No one stays in exile when you’ve got your God calling you out of slavery. No one stays a baby, born in a stable…

Take a look outside. Flowers need pruning. Rain needs to come to water gardens, fill oceans, and satisfy thirst to every living creature. All things must change, all things must grow. Our Savior knew that. Our Savior did not stop changing culture through radical love of all people -even the love of enemies- despite questioning commentary from the people around him. He didn’t stop touching Lepers, who would never have otherwise experienced the uplifting gift of touch just because of pointed-finger rule keepers. In fact, Jesus came to bring about change, despite the opposition he faced. When his days were closing in, Our Savior did not give up in the garden of Gethsemane. Our Savior did not stop when people mocked him and spat on him. No public dismay, nor disapproval, nor pain would change his plans nor thwart him. He pressed on; he moved forward. Though doom and death faced him, Sunday came, and a new beginning arose. None of this would have happened; the climax of the story would have occurred had our Savior not pursued the plans and dreams God had put on his heart. And if Jesus, the redeemer of the world, can go through change- pretty drastic change-, then so can I, then so can we.

Change is like a double-edged sword: I don’t like it, but it’s the very thing that moves me, that escalates me, that God uses to grow me. When it comes to that impelling moment of impending change, God reminds me it’s time. It’s time to move. It’s time to move forward. It’s time to know that the days ahead are going to come, regardless of whether I resist them or embrace them.

It’s not easy. Change is never easy. Maybe because most change isn’t meant to be about ease or convenience; change is meant to be about growth. Change is looking on the other side of the mountain, up high, from the top, knowing you would have never seen this incredible view had you stayed where you were, had you never began your climb. Change is GOOD. Change elevates us. Without change, we become trapped. Trapped to our surroundings, trapped to familiarity. We don’t grow; we become stagnant, stuck, indifferent.

Are there changes going on in your life? Could it be time to make a change? No matter how big or small, Jesus is present. If it’s not time for change, are you staying in your circumstance out of fear? Out of comfort, out of familiarity? Jesus can carry you to the next destination. Let change move you. Let change grow you. Be a part of what God is doing and don’t resist it. Throw your hands up in the air if you have to, and say, “God, I don’t get it.” Tell Him and tell Him and tell Him over and over again if you have to; but know that this doesn’t change who He is and what He can do with an open and willing heart. Be open. Be willing. Be present.

                                                  Forget about what’s happened;
                                                don’t keep going over old history.
                                                         Be alert, be present.
                                            I’m about to do something brand-new.
                                              It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?”

                                     -Isaiah 43:16-21 (excerpt) –The Message

Here, now.

6.12.11

I was about to start a run yesterday, when I noticed the most beautiful, free-fluttering, yellow butterfly. I peered closer, lifting my leg towards my back to stretch, and pause long enough to notice the black and fellow fur, completely covering what used to be caterpillar, but now has blossomed into this spotted-winged creature.

Being still, like I was in that moment, is hard for me. I don’t know very often how to be present. It’s something that I talk about- being passionate, being fully alive, not missing your life. Maybe I should stick to following my own advice. Nevertheless, it’s something I’m working on and something God is trying to teach me, through many experiences and people.

One of them is my youth pastor, whom I met with last week, and I bought a copy of her beautiful new book, “Unhaling.” The last chapter is titled, “be here now.”

Be here now. Be here now.

The words mull over and over and swirl around my brain, as my feet take to the pebbled trail. “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BE HERE NOW!!!” I shout out to God, tears mingling with sweat. “My grant position ends in April; I have no idea where my career is going; I don’t know exactly which grad program I should go into… everything feels like it’s changing…… And why, God, WHY, for the life of me can’t I stop thinking about Africa, I trip I’ve been on nearly FOUR years ago?! And why can’t a day go by without me thinking of HIV, and images of orphans, and girls being trafficked and sold into sex slavery, and unbearable poverty. WHY ARE YOU BOTHERING ME WITH THIS STUFF, GOD!!!?” I shout indignantly as my feet hit the pavement harder.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I pick up my pace. Bikers, runners, joggers, and walkers smile at me. But I can’t smile back. My 19-year-old self would have gladly smiled at a fly, but I didn’t feel like smiling at anyone in that moment. And I feared depression has awakened from its nap and once again reared its ugly head, like a hissing snake, slithering in the darkness through a crack in an unlocked door. I quickly slam the door shut, but fear its hissing, mocking voice will come out again.

Be here now.
Be here now.

A red, red cardinal stretches its wings, moving from the path into the shaded branches of the trees.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Squirrels hang upside-down above me, tip-toeing along tree branches, exposing their white bellies.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Bono whispers, then SHOUTS through my headphones, of a journey of running, crawling, scaling these city walls… when, “DAMN IT!!” I mutter out loud. My iPod died, battery gone. Embarrassed, I pray no one has heard me, as I notice little kids with training wheels biking around me. I fear their parents are secretly glaring at me, wondering what my problem is, and successfully avoid eye contact with anyone.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Now that silence has officially overtaken my headphones, I can hear birds chattering to each other in trees along the path, like neighbors across the street catching up over gardening and trash day.

I can now hear cyclers’ dinging bike bells, warning me that they’re about to pass and I envision myself on my next triathlon. This one will be a half ironman and I visualize myself swimming, biking, and running my way through those 70.3 miles.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I watch as a young girl feels the peddling sensation of her knees going up, down, up, down, her dad smiling behind her, as she tries to bike without training wheels for the first time. They’re smiling and laughing and he is not letting go.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My feet hit the pavement harder. I look ahead. About 20 feet in front of me to my left is a deer trotting merrily along the path. “Bambi?” I think out loud, as it leaps over the grass down to the water for a cool drink.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My feet are moving faster now and my tears have stopped and sweat is pouring down my face.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My finish line is getting closer. My chest is pounding. My toenail, bruised and falling off, screams at me.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I lengthen my stride, pumping my arms as swiftly as I can and cross my finish line. Overcome with a mix of sheer exhaustion and endorphins, I pause to catch my breath. I look up to the sky and feel sunlight touch my face, knowing, deep in my heart, that I have just spent the past seven miles with my wonderful Father in Heaven. My spirit, enmeshed with His, in an intimate holy embrace.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I stretch my hands out to my Maker, and, for the first time, I smile.

“You are here now,” says God. “You are my child.

And,

I

LOVE

YOU.”

And I walk to the car, heart rate now steady, smiling, here now.

Lessons Learned in Running a Marathon

During my freshman year of college, I heard this talk at church based on a book called “The Dream Giver.” The gist of the story is that God has put dreams on each of our hearts, and through taking the courage to pursue those dreams, and facing any and all necessary conflict, God will not only change us in the process, but use our dreams to serve His purposes to change the world.

I remember walking back to campus that sunny Sunday afternoon with my friends, all jazzed up about the dreams that were filling up my heart, fresh blood filling my veins. And I started writing down dream after dream, some small, and some big, some common and some less common, and I created what has become known to me as my bucketlist.

In fact, if you hang around me long enough, you’re bound to hear me sporadically get inspired by an idea and I’ll shout out loud, “aw man, that’s going on my bucketlist!” (and as a side note, if you ever want to check it out, just come over and use my bathroom. It’s taped to the wall next to my mirror so that every day I am reminded of what I’m living for and, most importantly, who I’m striving to live for.)

Anyway, as you probably guessed by the title of this, a marathon was on that list. I didn’t really know what the greater purposes were behind that dream back when I wrote it on the list in 2006, but I couldn’t shake the fact that I just had to do one before I died.

So back in the spring of 2010, a few friends and teammates from college were doing the Baltimore Marathon and I knew that was my cue. At the time, I was reading this book called “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by my favorite author Donald Miller (if you’re looking for a book that will get you up off of your… chair… I highly suggest you read this). In it, he says, “…humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and fear, otherwise the story will never happen.” The day I read that was the day I clicked “register now.” The story was happening. No more thinking, no more dreaming, no more “one day…” DOING.

And so since that fateful day back in April, I started learning some lessons. Some things I learned pretty quickly. Besides learning right away that 26.2 miles is a LONG distance, I also learned that…

-When you go for a run, don’t lock your car keys in the car unless you want to wait an hour for triple A to show up

-My toenails will probably continue to fall off every other year

-Don’t run past McDonalds after eating ice-cream for dinner… that won’t feel too good.

And I’m continuing to learn stuff. For one, I’ve been trying for three years to race for HopeSprings, a non-profit HIV ministry here in Baltimore. The Baltimore-Towson metropolitan area ranked second in AIDS cases in 2006. This organization was created out of the fact that the church has the call to love and engage in the culture around us. Since my involvement in the ministry in 2008, God has changed my life by showing me His incredible love and grace and beauty that HopeSprings so beautifully epitomizes. After several months of planning, and brainstorming, and dreaming, this year it will happen. You can look for it on the website soon (www.hopesprings.org). This will be an opportunity to race for a purpose and change your life and others’ in the process.

I’m learning, or rather re-learning the practice of discipline. As a division 1 swimmer at Towson, I honestly thought I had that part covered. But staying motivated when you have 40-plus girls cheering each other on and a coach who won’t let you get away with skipping a workout and a championship title to defend looked a whole lot different then training mostly by myself for a race with no potential consequences if I didn’t end up “succeeding.”

But most importantly, I have learned that it’s easy to sign up for the things in life that have little to no risk. Anyone can do that. But to live a life worth telling stories about… for that you have to DO HARD THINGS. It’s my new motto now. DO HARD THINGS. When I’m trying to decide whether or not I should do something, I now have this filter where I ask myself, “will this be hard?…” “Yes.” “Good. Then it will be worth it.”

Hard things allow us to grow. Hard things take us outside of the safe confines and familiarity of our comfort zone. Hard things move us from sitting to standing, from dreaming to doing, from complacency to action.

Through my training and racing, I was reminded by how much better off we all are when we connect to each other, when we spur each other on, when we team alongside each other do life together. The first time my boyfriend and I went running together (in the rain nonetheless), I quickly realized that if I was going to keep running with him, I’d have some catching up to do. Literally. Besides the fact that he’s faster than me, he’s also a good 6-7 inches taller than me. I mean, we’ll be walking somewhere and I’ll either powerwalk to keep up with him or let out a friendly, “Brian!” and he’ll smile patiently as we adjust to each other’s strides. By the time we’re a mile in, we’re on different paces and I’m chugging along with my iPod, knowing he’ll be there at the finish line, as if to be saying, “come on, you can do this. We’re in this together.” And so that’s how it would go. We’d run and at the last stretched of my run, I would muster up all the energy left within me and there would be this awesome person just yearning to reach out and give a high five.

It’s kind of how it is with my dad too. For 58 years old (sorry Dad!), he still has so much kick in him that I really have to push myself to end a run by his side. Though I can probably one-up-him on distance now-a-days, this man ran alongside me every since I could remember, always with patience, always with endurance, always with heart.

Similarly, I was going on a run (by myself this time) around my neighborhood back in the fall. And I was about halfway through my run when I looked across the street and there was this man looking straight at me with his hands in the air giving me two giant thumbs up, smiling. And so I took off running. Those last two miles, I was running off of sheer adrenaline and encouragement. I mean, it’s as if God himself put this guy there, along my running route, to give me the motivation and encouragement I needed to bang out those last two miles.

Growing up in the Christian faith, there’s this verse I came across that’s kept me going through many practices and meets. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3). And so I’d be in the water envisioning the “great cloud of witnesses”- people who have inspired me and encouraged me to keep at it-having seen the dividends of hard work paid off.

And when I find myself short on faith, short on energy, going through the hard stuff, the conflict of life, I go back over the scenes of joy of seeing it all pay off, that moment when you’re reminded that every single step was all a part of the journey.

And so I saw a man bring me back to that point, back to that point where we see just why we all need to keep spurring each other on. That we can’t do it on our own. That even if we could do it on our own, it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable. That no one is alone. And it sounds so simple- spur each other on. Encourage each other. Each of us is going to have a time in our life when we are going to want to lay it on the ground, toss it in the trash, hang up the towel, and give up. But giving up is easy. Keeping together takes work.

On the day of the marathon, I was reminded of this again at mile 23. There was this man next to me, paralyzed from the waist down, using a seated bike to race through those 26.2 miles. And I watched him churn his arms as if to say no one is excluded from this “great race.” And I saw young women wearing t-shirts with names on the back of people who’ve passed away that they were running for, all the while Sara Groves shouting to me through my iPod of all the saints who’ve gone before

At some point, I realized that we’re ALL running this race, but it’s up to us to decide who and what we’ll run for and how we’ll get to where we’re going and when. That time will lapse regardless of whether or not you are pursuing your dreams and we might as well risk something big, something beautiful, or else we will die with unfulfilled dreams and unexplored possibilities. That life without such risks or dreams will result in living boring stories. And I think we are all made to want to live some daring stories. And if nothing else, next time you’re out in the neighborhood, give someone two thumbs up and send them along their way.