Midnight Conversations by the Lake

Photo: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

Photo: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

A young woman sits down on a log by the lake at sunset. All quiets down like a halcyon decrescendo. Birds fly into their nests. The colors in the sky fade to those pinky-purpley colors that you have a mere ten minutes to catch before they’re gone. And now the sun’s final curvature has sunk beneath the edge of the horizon. It’s been a long year full of hard challenges and changes. But she is all alone out here and takes advantage of this one-on-one time with the evening stars. She looks up to the Heavens and whispers out loud in a trembling voice, “Are you there?” Silence. Crickets- literally crickets. “What did you expect, you fool?” She tells herself angrily, crestfallen hands covering a face warm with tears. “What do you even want from me, anyway!?” She implores the night sky, burnt out, unsure if she even has the energy to give whatever the universe would request should the universe answer back. She shakes her clenched fists indignantly at the darkness until she notices the soft, glowing moon. An urge from inside causes her to want to release her hands, open her palms, in tune with the warm summer breeze blowing between her fingers. A soft, warm, steady presence enters in.

“It’s me,” the presence whispers. “The same me who’s been here all along. All this time I’ve been begging you to lift your gaze my way, but instead you’ve buried it in your job, you’ve buried it in your calendar, in ticking clocks and reminders. In to-do lists, in fears, in worries, and in a fog that I’ve been trying to get you out of. And so that’s why we’re here. Here out in the open. Where the moon and stars are your only light; where soft breezes blow against tall grasses. I’ve been trying to get your attention and it seems as though this would be the only way.”

“And so you want to know what I want from you, my love? I’ll tell you what I want.

I want for you to start by telling me that you’ll look up at the stars once in a while when you get caught up in your worries and fears about the future. Then tell me how you can possibly feel trapped when the sky is so open, so free?

Tell me you will let yourself fall in love without fear or hesitation.

Tell me you’ll do all the things you’d want to do if you didn’t feel afraid.

Tell me you’ll stop saying how much you hate when others see you cry, sometimes. Because it can unconsciously give others the permission they never needed to feel the most visceral of life’s emotions.

Tell me you’ll be the one to tell all your friends and family what you love about them and thank them for what they’ve taught you- and that you won’t wait for them to do so first. Because some people aren’t used to expressing their truest feelings and your honesty can help them open up the parts of their souls that always wanted to come through into the atmosphere, no longer bound in prison’s cobwebs.

Tell me when you mess up in public or stumble over words that you won’t beat yourself up and remember that in the process, you alleviate others’ fears of messing up publicly because they’ll see it wasn’t so bad and recognize that none of us are perfect.

Tell me that you will believe in the power of doing these things once the sun’s come up, that you’ll believe this conversation actually happened. That you won’t step into tomorrow the same way you did all those hard exhausting days before.

That’s all I want for right now. I know we’ll be back to this place one day soon, my love. Find each other at the crossroads of depleted resolve just before it meets with the intersection of grace and beauty. Or perhaps we’ll find each other out here by the lake in the daytime, at sunrise. You’ll see how all of this mess, all of the hard turns, all of the question marks had to happen. You’ll see how strong you became, how open your heart has swelled, and feel proud of your journey- that you lived the question marks in order to find their sweet exclamations; that they really did create a path, not just a cornered maze with no way out. And when we meet again by the water, you can tell me how well you think you did. And I will take you by both your hands, look you in the eye and say I love you. Because no matter how knotty and twisted the arrival, surely goodness and mercy will follow…

Photo: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

Photo: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

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Ashes of Hope: My Love of Lent but Not of Murder on a Cross (PLUS 40 Days of Sustainability coming soon)

Even the winter won’t last forever. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able, Sowing the seeds in the soil.
Even the darkness cannot disarm us. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
-Audrey Assad

Easter is what many would argue to be the quintessential turning point of the Christian faith. The crux. The climax of the story. The thing that you must be able to articulate into carefully formed sentences depicting your belief, as though words and theology solely define your spirituality and very existence. Perhaps from all of this lies the basis for the trite messages that I, along with so many others, have heard about the Christian faith. “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus paid the debt.” “Jesus stood in your place and died for you so that you might have life.”

And if those words bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away, nor discredit them.

It’s just not the Jesus I’ve come to know, face-to-face in my human spiritual struggle. 

The Jesus I’ve come to know didn’t die at the hands of a blood-thirsty, vampire-like God who needs to see someone murdered in order to forgive people. The Jesus I’ve come to know, and the God to whom he points, is a rebel. A revolutionary who challenged the privileged and elevated the marginalized. Who spoke out of turn, unafraid to make people think harder about themselves and the world around them. Who taught us to slow down long enough from our exhausted minds to “look at the birds and flowers,” and to be a visionary in whatever issue your culture is facing.
Direct from the mouth of this revolutionary contains the most gripping parts of the Eastertide story, in my experience. The pieces that I rarely heard pastors and Bible study leaders quote. The part where Jesus, our supposed role model, screams up at God, “My God, My God, Why have you screwed me like this?”  Because that’s life, that’s reality. That’s the affirmation I look for when I’m stuck in the mud and mire and all around me are hope-depleted apertures crying out for just a flick of mercy from a kind and loving God, begging for auspices that come from this Divine Light. And to hear Jesus utter these same words gives me confidence that I am in good company when I am in the thick of the squall and my once blithe heart feels incapable of coming back to me. When I’m a low that low, that’s when I know I’m only a few steps out from mercy. Because we, like Jesus, get to experience the surge of joy that is the resurrection, ashes of hope that sing of redemption.

I think these ashes of hope are what the soul longs for. Beyond a good love story, a good hope story. To know that all of our troubles will not be squandered, but used for fodder to keep these tales of beauty-from-pain alive. To give us the fortitude to know, anchored in our core, that it doesn’t matter what comes our way, for it won’t last forever. But the feelings of hope and the aftermath of beauty will hit us so viscerally that we tear up at the thought, “I didn’t know life could be this good.”

This is why I haven’t given up on Lent or Easter, despite some of my theological wrestlings and frustrations with the traditional teachings of this spiritual season. Lent draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. A 40 day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring. During those 40 days, shoots on trees develop, buds blossom to form magnolia flowers- my absolute favorite tree on this planet that reminds me there is no cold that cannot be endured to eventually give way to life. The sun graces us for 2.5 minutes longer each day, until we’ve accumulated some 177.5 minutes of additional daylight come Easter evening, thanks, largely in part, to Daylight Savings Time. (Can you tell yet that spring is my favorite season and consumes many of my thoughts?)

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Copyright MO 2013

And so I don’t know where your heart is this season. Maybe it’s hiding in guilt and shame, underneath a veil of many coverings, because you feel it has gone so far awry from any sort of “straight and narrow.” Maybe your heart is parched, longing for a bit of this hope story. Or maybe your heart abounds in a joy so full, that it might cry droplets of gratitude onto baby seedlings that will soon lean their faces toward the sun for the first time. But one thing I do know, as we forge into spring, is that all around you, life begs your soul to awaken, and if it cannot awaken on its own, let its colours take you to places unknown until hope uncovers and your soul sees vibrant hues ablaze in beauty.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over the hill and see what you find there
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
-Mumford and Sons

    

Coming tomorrow: My 40 Day Sustainability Plan- Come observe Lent through environmental social justice

A Long December (And There’s Reason to Believe.)

It’s been a shitty day, a shitty week… Hell, it’s been a shitty year,” a friend shared with me recently. “I’m just ready for a new year, a fresh start,” a patient solemnly disclosed to me. Isn’t it easy to … Continue reading

Toilet Paper on Our Shoes (and other thoughts on brokenness and healing)

I keep running into these moments, like a giant rock that I continually trip over. Maybe you know those moments. When it’s just you, alone somewhere with your thoughts. Perhaps it’s nighttime and you’re driving back home and it’s just you, the car, a bumpy road, and God. And the light that was once green has now transcended from yellow to red. So you’re sitting there stuck at the red light, going nowhere, and it’s just you, these thoughts, the feel of the steering wheel, and this ominous presence in your car with you, speaking through the windshield, or next to you, or through a crack in the window, oh, I don’t know. And you can’t run, you can’t hide anywhere; you’re exposed. Your running and distracting and avoiding and fearing are called out. You can’t resort back to your usual mechanisms of escape because it’s just you, stopped at the red light of sameness or change.
It’s as if you have no other choice but to face the music of your life soundtrack. And it’s a CD mix you’ve never heard before, so you don’t know which songs are the fast tracks, and which ones are melancholy. And as the next track begins playing, you realize the music is a sad and somber tune and all you wish is for the next song to be of joy and merriment because life is short, damn it, and shouldn’t we be living in carpe diem every moment? So you try and focus on the things that make you happy and get you thinking “it’s all good,” “it won’t be so bad,” and you minimize that it’s about to get hard. But then this snowball from the past comes flying in your face and all you can feel is its wet sting as it slides down your face and into your coat, slowly melting frozen snowflakes onto your chest like butter on toast. Trying to tell you that spring will never come until you deal with whatever it is you have to deal with. Oh sure. Things change. The next day you’ll wake up and you won’t be alone again and you can go back to distracting yourself with friends and people and tasks and to-do lists. Spring will come anyway, because seasons change and evolve. But the degree to which we fully enjoy each of these things, unfettered, comes from our willingness to throw away the toilet paper dragging from our shoes. Maybe you’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice the paper trail from your soles, which the whole world can see bright as day. And maybe, just maybe, there might be one tender-hearted person who pulls you aside, alone, privately, safely, waking you up to the toilet paper on your shoe, without embarrassing you or belittling you either. Because we all have had toilet paper on our shoes before and we all have monsters in our closets that sometimes like to reappear. I mean, it’s not about the toilet paper. It’s those conversation that say, “Hey, I’ve noticed something about you.” And someone asks you if you’re really happy and you just let out a confused cry. And that’s ok. That’s enough for that moment.

Inside each of us lies an innate longing for everything to be ok. And anything we can latch onto to show us that things are going to look up, get better, be ok… we cling to, perhaps for comfort, perhaps as futile attempts to block out change. To hold on when we should really let go. Sometimes I just want more than a verse that states, “but I’ve given you a future and hope.” I need more than that. I need to see, oh how I want to see. Oh how I want more assurance. Because everything inside of me screams, begs, demands for everything to be ok. And the longer I can’t see how it’s all going to be ok if I make this decision, or if that happpens, or if this occurs, the more I pine for assurance, signs, and control. Because everything seems so out of my control sometimes and quite frankly God,  sometimes it seems like you’re up there doing nothing.

And so some days, we find ourselves in Churches or other places of worship. I wonder sometimes, for every service I went to at that megachurch back in college, or at that Bible study event filled with a bunch of people smiling, talking about praying, and Evangelizing, and all that joy-in-the-Lord-is-our-strength stuff… was just a show. A bunch of BS. A bunch of people, but certainly not all, who were too afraid to speak of the monsters in their closets, the toilet paper on their shoes. A bunch of people who walk around “happy,” but deep down feel far from the abundant life to which we’re invited. A secretly empty population walking around just hoping to emulate a veneer of “the good Christian.” No. That would be a tragedy. My, my I don’t think we were ever created for the pretending and the “everything’s fine,” and the pity-filled, “Oh I’ll pray for you-s.” We were never meant to, perhaps, smile at every single worship service. What we were made for is community, authentic community. We were invited in, promised with, the opportunity to be a part of a community that says we’ll share our bread and our cup and your tears and my tears and together, we’ll taste something so rich and beautiful, we won’t understand why we ever used to settle for less– the excessive smiling and covering up of pain and doubt.

I know I can be a cynic, but I do know that not everyone of these circles are pretentious. And maybe all those people I saw were joyful and happy in the Lord. Maybe every single one of them was. Maybe.

I just wish I had more influences in my life then like I do now where we sit down at lunch and cry in front of each other. And talk about what depression meds we’ve been on. Where we admit that we too aren’t so sure about the messages we’ve been reiterated about hell or gender or any of those things that Jesus doesn’t really talk a whole lot about. And then where we get really excited and creative about all the ways in which we can find new ways to love, which Jesus talks a whole lot about. More people who go to counseling too and we laugh about how crazy we can be. More one on one conversations in which the two of us admit that we actually have no idea where we’re going with life right now or where this journey is taking us. More people who knew that Jesus could be worshipped on top of a hay bale as you and a friend live out his words to “learn from the birds” as they migrate Southbound, in strength and beauty, letting out a few drops of poo too. Lucky them; they don’t have to worry about the toilet paper-shoe part.

I’m grateful for all of the people in my life who’ve shed away their false layers, remaining open and transparent, as if secretly giving me permission to drop by guard and do the same. I’m grateful for these moments of brokenness in which God stops me, has my complete attention because I’m now shivering and crying alone in my room. “Why do you cause such tears to fall from my eyes and why this pain in my heart!?” I implore You. Though hard to recognize in the moment, I know it’s possible to choose to perceive these tears as a gift. I know Your words to be true when you hold my hand and whisper back, “Because I love you. And there is something good to come from this mess, but you won’t be able to see it yet.”  Some pains are just a part of this world; events that God never intended, but will warmly hold your hand and cry with you, yes, that’s His/Her hands embracing you. There are those other pains that grow- the consequences of our own actions or in-actions- and God looks you in the eye, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “My child. Is this the only way you’ll slow down? Is this the only way I can gain your full attention before you hurt yourself even more?” And S/He swoops and breathes hope into our breaking hearts that things won’t always be this way. I just can’t expect to see these moments disappear if I don’t start dealing with the broken pieces I’ve tried to hide under my bed, or under my seat, or in my private thought life that no one but God can access. It’s as if S/he enters in, and takes you by the hand, and says, “Well go on now!” Cry. Mourn. Confess. Forgive. Heal. But refuse to sucumb to the notion that you’ll never get through this,” whatever the “this” happens to be at that moment.

Brokenness is a powerful tool for change. Even though as a kid in middle school youth group, I would sing, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for,” I would never ask for it to happen to me, willingly. But every time it does, I am always amazed at how God uses it to reveal something new about who S/He is, who I am, and where I still harbor my insecurities. God uses it to show us we’re stronger than we think we are if we would just face whatever it is that won’t stop pestering and festering.

And so tonight my candlelight is still burning. And I’m still feeling a bit of that brokenness and confusion about where and when this mess will intersect with beauty, but I do know this: I am not as alone as I initially felt I was. We have a God that will keep us from the lie we’re alone in those times of brokenness and healing. There is a God who can create something good out of something so hard, or ugly, or untimely, or even as trivial and embarrassing as toilet paper on our shoes.

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A Love Letter From God In The Midst of Confusion ((Part II))

Just some words of peace and love that I imagine God whispers in our ears in the mist of confusion or change. You are that Dear Child of God.

 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot
       

Dear Child of God,

Together, you and I have journeyed these times through and through. Every time it seems as though you face a new intersection, it’s tempting to think you’ll be alone, but let me assure you, you will never be truly alone. I will be with you always and I will send you love and kindness through the people around you. I promise. Choose to encourage yourself in the moments of un-joy that I am orchestrating things you just have no idea about yet. Yes, I will have beautiful new opportunities ahead of you.

I know it’s tempting to avoid and ignore feelings of pain, confusion, discomfort, anxiety. But there’s something bigger here, if you dare to look deeper in your bravest moment. I hope you can look back on my faithfulness and realize that every time you run away instead of facing the uncertainty of things unknown, you lose out on an opportunity for growth. There’s something here for you. Look again. Too big? Too scary? Gently lift the covers away from your face while I hold your hand. Child, while I wipe away the exhaustion from your face and plant a tender kiss on your forehead, I pray you’ll free your tarried mind from the burden of “why.” I can see the road ahead. You cannot. I know that frustrates you. But when you free yourself from the burden of having to have it all figured out now, have all the “whys” answered, you create space for my peace to enter in. It yearns to have room in your heart, your chest, your eyes, your smile, your soul. But inside of you, it’s crowded with the “why’s” and the secret fears that I already know of. There’s no room in the inn of your heart but I will find a way to make room to slip into your soul, through the cracks of your despondency as I melt your fears away like the wax from your midnight burning candle flickering in your dark room right now. I’ve come to bring light to your darkness. Let me in.

I know you’re afraid of rejection, of not being accepted by the people you meet. That your task-oriented, introverted personality tempts you to avoid investing in deep relationships. I assure you. Be yourself. I will give you new experiences of my love as you meet new people, find friends of freedom that you’ve been longing for. But you need community. And I want to show myself faithful to you in this arena. So leave the house. Put the keys in the ignition. Go meet someone new and get lost in their story. It will help shape or touch yours, anyway. Each of you have something to teach the world. When you’re feeling lost or confused or feel as though you can barely figure out how to make peace with the changes coming your away, check in on a friend and realize that they’re probably going through some of these same things too. Choose to be in it together. There’s going to be days that hurt, break, make you cry out in the dark. So speak gently to one another. Speak love to one another. Speak hope to one another. Speak of the strength with which I clothe you.

I know you’re trying to figure out where I’m leading you. I know it might seem like the steps you have to take are a giant waste of time. Just be faithful to the journey. Don’t get too caught up in it. Just go, one step at time. That a girl (that a boy). See, it’s bright and beautiful out there, isn’t it? I promise not to waste your years. The only moments you waste are those when you step away from Me and get distracted by your discontentment but sit there, on your floor, too afraid to try something different, to make a change. I see where you’re trying. I honor all tries, attempts at trying, successes and failures. Pick up your bones and shake the dust of your feet, child. Your shoes have some walking to do! To new places, to new faces, to the things I’ve put on your heart, if only you’d be courageous enough to follow through.

So go listen to that still small voice in your heart, whatever it’s telling you. Maybe it’s time to take another stab at your studies. Or go grab your bike and get on the open road. Or take that flight. Or meet up with that new friend you’re fond of. Or apply for that new position that keeps resurfacing in your mind. And when all of your life and career and relationships and choices seem to jumble into mass confusion, wanting your full attention, don’t forget to head outside and take a look up at my Pleiades. You know the Big Dipper looks awfully close to the kite you flew last spring. Trace its outlines with your finger toward the sky. Feel the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. My hands crafted these lights out here, and now, as you finish tracing the shapes of the stars in the air, pull those hands in close to your heart, for I am holding them.

I’m here.hampton beach

I’m here.

I love you, all of you, every day.

Your Maker

The Juxtaposition of Death and Life. (Church on a Bike)

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.
I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.
It was Church, on a bike.
I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.
A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.
Life.
Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.
Life.
My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.
All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Suckiness. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.
May our eyes be opened while we pedal and climb around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.
May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.
May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.
May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.
And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

The Peace House

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There’s a street in Baltimore where incandescent lights, flags, Christmas trees made out of recycled bicycle tires, and lit up crabs brighten cold December nights as people gather together year after year. Some hold hands, others push strollers, but each meander down the sidewalks with a sense of lifted spirit and joy, a little twinkle of hope somehow rising within them like the sun, undismayed and resolute, shining even if it’s going to be a cloudy day. Now in its 65th year, residents of W. 34th Street in Hampden, Baltimore put on a dazzling Christmas light display, multi-colored lights strung from one side of the street to the other unite neighbors in cheer as a “labor of love.” People from all over the world gather to check out this earnest display. Residents of each house on the block participate to emanate joy and unity, even though for them, this means a hike in their BGE bill, crowded streets with even more limited parking, and people roaming your street until all hours of the evening.

Each resident allows visitors to come up on to their porches and many leave out guestbooks for people to sign, noting that they delight over seeing where people have traveled from. I made my way down this street for an annual pilgrimage yesterday, just a short walk away from my house. I confess I began the evening with a slightly heavy heart exacerbated by too many conversations and images in the past week centered around gun violence or gloomy media portrayals of the fiscal cliff. I had just come from work, where I sat down with a man who had withered down to no more than 100 pounds, hospitalized from an opportunistic infection stemming from an HIV diagnosis. The holidays fast approaching, he whispered softly that his family doesn’t speak to each other. My heart broke. But this man had such a heavenly spirit in him, and warmed my heart with his resiliency, perseverance, and strength to keep hope alive for one more day. Needless to say, the presence of lights, people holding hands, arms draped around each other’s, smiling for pictures, made my heart grow warm on a chilling, windy evening. Of all the houses I visited that night, one stands out the most:
The Peace House. If you go to this neighborhood, it will be halfway down on your right. You can’t miss it. It’s the lawn with this emblazoned on the grass, welcoming you in:

IMG_1160I climbed up the steps and approached a table on the porch with a note from the house owners, Elaine and Ed. They describe the joy of living on this block, being able to mark a holiday season characterized by hope, goodwill, merriment, and joy. “Family and friends come together and peace seems possible. Whether it be a bright smile or the shiny eyes of a child or the kindness people show to one another, peace is all around.” They then invite each guest to write in a notebook what their vision of peace looks like, encouraging people to sign their name and mention where they’re from. Some of the comments in the book were funny, like “peace signs and pizza” and others were more serious, talking about being at peace within one’s soul to intentionally commit to bringing peace in interactions with each person one comes in contact with. Choked up, I continued to look around the porch. Pieces of fabric with “peace” written in over a dozen languages garnered the top of the porch like paper chain decorations. Dozens of rectangular flags criss-crossed above our heads: colored fabric with yin-yangs, the Star of David, the Celtic Cross, and other peace symbols. “Pray for peace” banners and rainbow “peace” pennants blew gently in the wind. “We can be the change we wish to see” emblem stitchery and a “Coexist” sticker (with the Islamic IMG_1181Star and Crescent, peace sign, the Jewish Star of David, and Christian cross) displayed to usher in the observance of peace as not only possible, but already occurring in this world. Also adorning the porch was a “world peace” display with newspaper footage of individual leaders who have stood for peace, containing images of faces such as Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, and Mohandas Gandhi, reminding each of us to take a stand for peace with whatever that looks like in our own creativity and passion.

It was beautiful, and just the reminder the world needs to hear more and more each day.

But perhaps what grabs me most about The Peace House is that when this couple moved here, the Peace House, as we know it, did not exist, but rather, what transpired came from the creativity, beauty, and imagination of their souls. Sometimes, we are met by doubters, by naysayers, by collective media and acts of violence that try to usurp beauty and harmony with discordance and chaos. But every day, we have a choice to make: to go along with the cynics or intentionally create acts of peace, beauty, and love for as many to experience as possible. The Peace House gave me hope that no matter what the news stories might say, or whatever the political or religious divides exist in the world, there are still places in which hope and peace and optimism dwell. That there are still compassionate people who want nothing more than to see the world engaged in love; people who don’t just pray prayers (though prayer may certainly be a part of the process), but actively, deliberately create safe places for peace to blossom. The type of place that offers a downhearted or weary wanderer just a little bit of hope, as if to say, “Don’t let your candle burn out just yet.”

Standing there on that porch, surrounded by words and phrases of such beauty, including a Christmas tree adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, and a banner crosshatched with “peace” in several languages, I knew, irrevocably, that peace can still be found and that even those who say peace on Earth is mere fallacy are welcomed in too, here at The Peace House, here in this world, where we can be active facilitators of peace, reconcilers of wrongs, through our homes, our relationships, our souls, and whenever we feel we cannot find it, that is where we must create it. Yes. We have to make peacehouses. We have to sing songs not just for our own ears, but together, whether on street corners in December or through rolled down windows in the spring time, laughing over off-key renditions of whatever catchy song plays from your radio at that moment. We have to speak and say a hearty, “hello!” to strangers, not waiting to speak only if spoken to.

Because there is more peace to be experienced on this Earth. We need only to get outside of our own microcosms of regularity and normalcy to create something more compelling, more inviting. And together, we will collectively taste shalom, pax, la paz, whirled peas, on Earth as in Heaven, this holiday season and always.

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HIV/AIDS & Faith, Hope, Love in Baltimore, Africa and Beyond

I want to tell you a little story about HIV, AIDS and faith, hope and love in Baltimore City, (where I spend the majority of my days), and beyond. I won’t lay any heavy facts or staggering statistics on you, although I am grateful to those who have spent their time, energy, and giftings on disseminating surveillance and research data to contribute toward preventing, treating, and ending this pandemic. Instead, I want to share about some of the people I’ve met along the way who’ve touched my life and paint a picture of what it looks like for us to hold hands in red today, gathered as one. 

Let’s begin with faith then, shall we? In 2008, I began my leap into HIV/AIDS advocacy after a trip to Africa the year prior. While in Mahalapye, Botswana, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and learned much from our trip leader about all things Africa, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic. With a smile, she said, “We’re grateful for our friends in the US who are able to give us our medicines when you pay your taxes.” She was referring to PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, enacted by Former President George W. Bush in 2003, a government program that, among other things, funds Anti-Retroviral Therapy (commonly known as ART, ARVs, or HAART) for people living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. (Domestically, this takes place through the government-funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP)) I was touched to see America perceived so positively in an international setting. If we’re honest, we haven’t always shown love towards all people, especially those who are poor or vulnerable with our finances and actions as a country, but, like the faith based community, who sometimes gets associated with words such as “judgment” “hatred” and “intolerance,” as a country and as people of faith, as people of no faith, and as people of other countries, we know that there is much good being done around the world, by many hands, by many faces, in the realm of HIV/AIDS. I implore you to consider the passionate faith based efforts of organizations like HopeSprings. Founded in 2006 by two Baltimore City Churches of differing denominations, this organization has trained hundreds of volunteers, of which I am just one, who serve as HIV Certified Testing Counselors, HIV educators, mentors, and teachers of life-skills to men and women as we build bridges between God and God’s incredible love for all people— positive, negative, status unknown, gay, straight, black, white, doesn’t matter. God sees us all and loves us the same.

HopeSprings partners with JACQUES Initiative as well as dozens of churches in the Baltimore City area once yearly to conduct 1,000 HIV tests in one day in a city-wide event known as City Uprising. This is all volunteer led. Doesn’t cost the city a dime, except for their role in supplying test kits that they have already allocated for. For an individual who receives the often times alarming news that day that he or she is “preliminary positive,” (meaning that their HIV rapid test has shown up positive, but their diagnosis needs to be confirmed with a blood test), they are welcomed into the warm touch of hand from people who care, from people who want to walk through pain or fear together, from people eager to connect you to an service you may need, from people eager for you to recognize the imago dei (the Image of God) that is in you— in each of us, positive, negative, or whose statuses are unknown. During this year’s City Uprising event, I noticed this sweet man sitting in a corner of a room receive his testing results and as he gingerly repeated in English and Spanish, “Thank you, God, thank you God,” my heart swelled with hope for a future world without HIV.

Now that we’ve considered faith, let’s take a look at hope. Hope is what has kept people with CD4 cell counts of 2 holding on long enough to see their CD4 count rise to 500 as they began taking HIV medication, known as antiretrovirals. (CD4 cells, also known as T-Cells are a part of the body’s immune system to fight off illness and disease.) Hope is what kept a woman I met in 2010 who spoke at the Baltimore City World AIDS Day Celebration from being a self-ascribed “homeless junkie eating out of trashcans” into an inspiring woman who brings joy to everyone she meets with her contagious smile, persistent HIV advocacy, and hugs. Hope is when we look at Cambodia, who has literally reversed the direction of HIV in their country, down to a prevalence rate of 0.5% . “Getting to zero,” (a popular phrase in HIV/AIDS advocacy) is a real, definitive possibility for Cambodia in our lifetime.  Hope is what a person I spoke with yesterday still had in their heart, despite first learning about their HIV diagnosis one month ago, at which point this person was already AIDS-defined with a CD4 count of 111. “I want to meet with my doctor and get on that one pill a day (Atripla). I need this and I’m ready,” this person shared. This person has a bright, limitless future ahead of them and I think they are just starting to taste and believe that to be true.

Armed with faith and hope, next let’s explore love. Love is what illuminated in the darkened huddle of an HIV/AIDS support group that I had the privilege of attending with 10 other women from Women Who Stand, a Baltimore-based women’s advocacy group under the auspices of World Relief. Women with smiles as bright as stars talked about the challenges of caring for families and keeping up with daily life and still, somehow making time to take care of someone very important: themselves. Many women feel competing needs of caring for their families that make it harder for them to keep up with consistent HIV care. This, however, can be changed by promoting the equal sharing of caregiving responsibilities between women and men and making efforts to improve Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 3: Promote gender equality and empower women. Love is what brought people who are black, white, Christian, Muslim, urban, suburban, gay, straight, transgender together around the Christmas tree at the Baltimore Washington Monument on December 1, 2010 for a candlelit vigil with red glowsticks. Love is what brought people together on Rash Field on October 9, 2010 to attempt to organize the world’s largest human red ribbon, leaving each of us in awe about how easy it is for strangers to come together and lay differences aside to come together on so important an issue. Love was walking through an HIV ribbon labyrinth and then communing over a holiday meal together last December not as black people, white people, poor people, rich people, gay people, straight people, but as sisters and brothers who support JACQUES Initiative in a variety of ways—volunteers, advocates, supporters, clients, prayers, hopers, wishers, doers. People, no more, but certainly, no less.

So…
Faith.
Hope.
Love.
Amidst HIV in a sea of red today and everyday.

Happy World AIDS Day.

B'More Aware Red Ribbon Event, October 2012 B’More Aware Red Ribbon Event, October 2012

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. 🙂

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.