“The Point at Which a Family Starts”

Another beautiful piece from my writer friend Amber Cadenas as she tackles the meaning of family with beautiful poignant truth.  http://amber-beautifulrubbish.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-point-at-which-family-starts.html#.VEbmsfnF-1T

“And so, with the questions coming not long into this story of marriage – But when are you going to start a family? – I squirm inside, protesting. But don’t you see? We already have.”

Photo: Amber Cadenas

Photo: Amber Cadenas

“It is not children who make a family a Family. It is people, loving each other, in abundance and in lack, in sickness and in health, in desire and in struggle, till death do us part.”

If you enjoy reading about spirituality, grace, and finding God in everyday experiences, be sure to check out her Facebook page for updates.

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

“I. Choose. You.” Brief Thoughts on Marriage From An Unmarried Feminist

hands k and b

Photo: MO, 2013

“I wonder what I’m locking myself into,” a friend shared recently when we were talking about marriage. I laughed an understanding laugh, because I got it. “Yeah! It’s hard for me to imagine seeing the same person over and over again every day and night. ‘Aw man, you again?'” I (half-jokingly) shared. A natural introvert, I annoy even myself sometimes. A partner is bound to get annoyed at me, too, and hey, that’s ok.
It’s just that the closer I get toward the possibility of marriage, the more I seem to take a step back from it. Critique it. Question it. Recognize its historical and political roots that have nothing to do with love and everything to do with legality. And I haven’t thought about marriage the same way since reading things like Commited by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which I learned about things like “coverture” for the first time.

But lately, I’m recognizing the cyncism with which I view something that’s inheritently good and beautiful, allowing myself to ponder the beauty of marriage too. I’ve been watching, studying, inspecting long-standing couples who’ve been through adversity. Who experienced beautiful things that wouldn’t have been possible had they caved when things got hard. Had they given up before seeing the redemption and beauty part of the story. Because whether a relationship ends or is unending, every story can experience the kind of resolve that makes you wander out to a lake all by yourself, sit on a log, and tear up at the thought, “I know the journey is hard. But it is good too.”

I experience that kind of beauty and resolve when I think about the first couple most of us can observe firsthand in our own lives: our parents. Of all the memories of my parents that I treasure most, the moments that stand out the most viscerally come from four weeks in October 2013 when my mom was in the ICU. She was protesting that she wanted to go home, tired of the hospital. And instead of pushing against her resistance, my dad took out a comb, sat down on her bed, and gingerly started brushing her hair. He made small talk with my sister and I while the sun shone through opened window blinds. Later on that hospital visit, he pulled out a picture of the two of them when they were engaged and showed it me. They were high school sweethearts, and their picture captured what it means to be “young and in love.” As things in the hospital worsened, my dad sat by her bedside three times a day to do nothing but simply be next to her. Those moments in the hospital are precious to me. My parents’ marriage hasn’t been easy. I do not think their story is mine to tell. But I do know that there have been many beautiful memories and laughs that didn’t seem possible in periods of challenge several years ago.

When I look at my grandmother and grandfather arm-in-arm in photos taken of them in places all across the world, I experience similar beauty when I look at their smiles. Smiles that say, “things haven’t been easy. But I am for you, and you, for me, and together, we make a choice… I. Choose. You.” I think of the last wedding I attended of two friends whose love has taken them through every shade of emotion possible. There’s just something different in these couples. Because these couples want to give out of their utmost.

Perhaps this is what I’m most amazed by. The every day choices that married couples willingly make to affirm their commitment to one another; to look someone in the eye everyday and say, unwaveringly, “I choose you.” For years, Evangelical Christians tried to tell me “a woman is supposed to submit to her husband, who is the leader of the home.” That imbalance of power always made me cringe in fear of watching my identity disappear. Some other Christians I know use the world “yield,” which sat a little better in my (very independent) heart. Because the kind of “yielding” they described was irrespective of gender. It’s one person yielding to another’s needs or requests as much as you can because you love them. Because everyday, you want to find ways to say through your actions, “I. Choose. You.” And after the arguement—the one over something stupid, and the one that really wasn’t; the one that required the two of you to make life-changing decisions—- after those kinds of fights, to return again in love: “I. still. choose. you.” The other partner does the same exact thing. It’s not tit-for-tat. It’s not some assignment where everyone gives and takes in methodic equality, each paying the other back in detailed increments like credit card statements. No. It’s more like loan forgiveness. It’s sincerely wanting to do all you can for someone you love so much. You still can have your most imminent needs be met and your preferences preferred while all the time doing this giving over and lending to and loving sacrificially.

In my dating experiences, I’ve come to find that this “yielding” is the hardest part. I’ve discovered how selfish I can be. How much I want to ensure that I, as a feminist female, am heard by my partner, a man. How reluctant I am to provide deference because I can think back to an entire history of humankind in which women have been deferential to men. And the terrible repercussions of unreciprocal deference speak for themselves. But it’s a lonely road when your only reason not to give to someone is because they’re of a gender that’s historically been the recipient of privilege. It’s a lonely road when you try to stratify independence and intimacy, instead of accepting the harmonious synergy of interdependence and partnership. A love that doesn’t bend as much as it breaks doesn’t create an inspiring story. No beauty. No real love, anyway.

Real love is found when women and men are allies. When we’re for each other, not against each other. When we forgive the thorny path of past actions and inactions throughout the centuries that both genders have done to oppress or diminish the other- because we both have. I’ve always known this in my head, but it wasn’t until my first serious relationship came and went that I realized my heart is sluggish on my contribution towards being an ally. Heck, it wasn’t until my first serious relationship that I even noticed how all this gender stuff plays itself out.

So one day, when I’ve processed this stuff, developed a framework of feminism that’s empowering for both genders-because that’s what true feminism does-, and stopped being afraid of the commitment and unknowns that marriage entails, I plan for these words to be read aloud at my wedding. More clear than any passage of scripture I’ve read, more real than any marriage book that’s been written, it encompasses to me what “I Choose You” means:

“I will give you this, my love, and I will not bargain or barter any longer. I will love you, as sure as God has loved me. I will discover what I can discover and though you remain a mystery, save God’s own knowledge, what I disclose of you I will keep in the warmest chamber of my heart, the very chamber where God has stowed Himself in me. And I will do this to my death, and to death it may bring me. I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God. I will stop expecting your love, demanding your love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love. I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again. God risked Herself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Her, unto us.” -Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (God as female emphasis my own, not author’s)

But until that day, I’ll practice this giving over, in all of my relationships with people I love. And though at times it feels unnatural, I know there’s no other way to look someone in the eye to say “I choose you” with sincerity.

“I. Choose. You.”
It’s a beckoning, hard call.
I dare to say it’s impossible.
But all around me, I see couples who are willing to do the impossible.
I hope I can live up to it.

One of my favorite couples that inspires me to love well: Anastasia and Joe June 2013

One of my favorite couples who inspire me to love well: Anastasia and Joe
June 2013

For the Moments I Disappointment Myself (We Begin Again in Love)

IMG_2623

Copyright MO 2014

Recently, I’ve been catching myself reflecting on my actions, attitudes, and behavior with disappointment and disgust. I’m the one who, at 18 years old, vowed never to live my life out of step with my values, who vowed to always live with passion and bring life into the world. Because I knew what it was like to almost lose it after falling asleep at the wheel, totaling my car one July evening shortly after graduating high school. I glanced heavenward in prayer that dark night, my soul in chaotic communion with God, claiming with ardor that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, and love it, and love others,” I declared, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.

So when I have days like today, days where I’m so aware of my slights, my transgressions, missed opportunities for sincerely listening to and loving those around me… when I’m acutely attuned to the cloudy mind I’m allowing myself to get sucked into, instead of opening it to the beautiful mess and joy around me, I celebrate one of the greatest strengths that life has to offer: its elasticity. The supple forgiveness it offers to simply begin again. And again. And again and again until the time clock of our individual lifespan wears thin. That whole “it’s never too late to be the person you wish to become” thing. Yes. I celebrate that people forgive. And I also celebrate that in order to truly drink in the forgiveness of others, I must also forgive myself. I must learn— though it’s ok to forget and re-learn over and over again— to return the next day with eyes opened wide, glance looking forward or upward, not down in crestfallen shame. And sure as winter, I will repeat this cycle countless times, but the observing, learning, and practicing piece of forgiveness makes it possible to begin again.

It’s moments like these when I’m reminded of a closing prayer we once read when I visited a Unitarian Universalist Church:

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For losing sight of our unity,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness,
we forgive ourselves and each other;

we begin again in love.

-Robert Eller-Isaacs

I look out the window at the moon singing to the night sky and snowy hills and valleys below. Tomorrow, every color known to humankind will show up again, somewhere. People who cried yesterday will laugh today. A lonely wander will find solace in the smile of another stranger. And I, too, will rise anew to begin again in love.

Chickens, Snow Days & Ubuntu: What Clucking Hens Taught me About Love + Attachment

I can’t stop thinking about them; their cuddly little bodies and jovial clucks. While the weekdays can often slip away, one of my favorite ways to mark a no-work weekday snow day is to take a stroll up the street to an urban farm in my neighborhood and play with them. The minutes pass by leisurely, a slow drift from morning snow to calm evening walks under falling flakes, shining like miniature sugar cookies against the street lights. Somewhere in between those morning and evening hours, I take pictures of them like these:

IMG_0150IMG_0169chicken face

They’re chickens. But not just chickens. They’re Barred Rock, Leghorns, Orpingtons, and Black Chochins. They’re not just breeds, but have names, nicknames. Belle. Scratch. Buddy.

I’ve always wanted to go vegetarian and have done so in small bits and spurts. But after reading an article in Christianity Today this past October about Lamppost Farm, which provides chicken killing demonstrations in order to teach people about the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, my decision to go vegetarian was re-affirmed.

“One by one, the birds are hung by their feet on a backboard of metal sheeting with wood bracers, where their throats are cut and bled out. Next, the limp birds are scalded in 150-degree water before visiting the de-featherer, then the stainless-steel cleaning table. There, the feet, head, organs, lungs, and trachea are removed, in that order. The next bird does not die as gracefully. I make the cut more quickly, drawing the knife deeply through the throat in a single back-and-forth, like a violin bow. But when I release her, she flaps wildly for a moment in spasms that don’t seem involuntary. So violent is the reaction that the chicken actually kicks loose one of her legs from the holding prongs, and I must refasten her. Then, she’s still.  ‘It’s disturbing,’ [a participant says]. “It’s supposed to be,” [the farmer says]. “We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.”

The fact that this group kills living creatures—creatures God created, mind you— in an attempt to show people that God loves us crushes my heart as I scratch my head, wondering, once again, “Have we missed the point of faith?” That people can disregard life and kill it in the name of God is beyond me. All of this left me feeling that I am no longer detached from the killing process that goes into eating meat. I now know, graphically, what a murderous process it is.

IMG_0135So since reading that article, I’ve been spending some with these chicken lovelies and my life has not been the same. Cuddled in the nook of my arm, this beautiful hen, softly cooing, pulls my heart, ears, and eyes in closer. The chickens taught me that we can choose to keep things close or far away. But if you are brave enough, and willing enough, to get really close instead of passively, comfortably at a distance from the unknown, things will change, will become real. Become visceral. You will be changed and you won’t be able to look at things the same way.

Because you chose to get close.

The closer I am to these creatures, the more I want to love them, hold them, see their inherent worth and dignity as a living creature, and do everything in my power to protect their life and well-being.

And isn’t that the way it goes with everything? The closer we get towards what we don’t understand, the more compassion we feel for others.

The closer we get towards poverty, the more we understand why not everyone can simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”
The closer we get towards people from sexual orientations other than heterosexual, the more we realize how unjust it is that these fellow sisters and brothers are denied 1,138 rights that heterosexual couples are freely granted.
The more we choose to center our lives around loving our neighbors and living sustainably, the more we reject capitalism and living solely for ourselves.
The more we leave our houses and two car garages, the more we interact with the world around us. As Jack Kerouac once said,

“The closer you get to real matter, rock, air, fire, and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

The more spiritual the world is, the more we are willing to sacrifice a car ride for a bicycle ride, and light switches for natural light. We become close enough to crave the sanctuary that the trees and humming rivers provide and see God far beyond steeples and pews, into everything the daylight and moonlight touches.
The more we get to know the names, life experiences, faces, joys, struggles, and dreams of someone from a religion other than our own, the more we come to recognize that we come from the same God, and we now see no divisions, just a flowing river of love pouring from my heart to your heart and everyone else’s heart in between.

Yes, outside, everyday, are people, places, and animals that invite us into holy, intimate connection. Into what many South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, call “ubuntu-” the concept that we teach each other how to be human. That I cannot become human without your humanness, for we learn how to become moving, walking, talking people from each other. “You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains. “
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

The birds of the air, the waters of the sea, and even these adorable warbles of chickens with thick feathers and skinny legs have something to teach us. The invitation is waiting. The world opens up wide as you expand your heart in the spirit of closeness, togetherness, ubuntu, attachment, and learning.

Namaste.

The God in me greets the God in you.

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

Communion: Is it About Sexuality or Love?

This past weekend was the first time I experienced someone looking me in the eye, stating that they wouldn’t partake in communion with me.
Why?

Because of my views on homosexuality.

Is that what communion’s all about?

Clinking miniature plastic shot glasses with pre-filled grape juice as an “amen” to deeming what’s “abominable” in the eyes of God? A meal to lambaste a group of people who are “unnatural” and “cannot procreate?” Is communion all about reminding people that “‘they’ choose their own sexuality,” while you negate to mention that you didn’t choose yours? Does the act of communing only involve eating and drinking and doing life with people just like you, who think like you, who hate the ‘sins’ that you hate, who interpret scripture the way you interpret scripture, who vote the same way you vote?

Is that what communion is all about?

If that’s your version of gathering around the table, I’ll take a pass. Instead, I’ll go to the open field of freedom, where we sit in a circle, Kumbaya style, and each share the same cup and the same bread and say a glorious “Amen” to our maker, celebrating the imago dei in us all. We may not agree on everything and we each are passionate about different things, but together we create beauty and peace. Some of us are married; some of us aren’t. Yes, some of us like men; some of us like women; some of us don’t know; and, really, we don’t care either way. Because together, we know what we do care about: loving God and loving people. And anything we can do to advance the Kingdom of God- that Kingdom- we’ll do.

Because the last I checked, communion was about all of us being invited to the banquet table. Celebrating the Jesus who loves us as people first. People who feel pushed aside. People who are lonely. People who are searching for just one person to say, “Let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone.” People who love him. People who don’t. The world called them “prostitutes,” “tax collectors,” “Pharisees,” “sinners,” “adherent disciples,” “disciples-soon-to-be-betrayers.” The question is, though, Who would Jesus say he ate with? How did Jesus see each person he dined with? Does God see the prostitute? Or as author Shane Claiborne learned from a friend who was an atheist, “Jesus never talked to a prostitute because he didn’t see a prostitute. He just saw a child of God he was madly in love with.”

Realizing the beauty behind his friend’s words, Shane continues, “When we have new eyes, we can look into the eyes of those we don’t even like and see the One we love. We can see God’s image in everyone we encounter. As Henri Nouwen puts it, ‘In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face, and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain, their smile is my smile.’ We are made of the same dust. We cry the same tears. No one is beyond redemption. And we are free to imagine a revolution that sets both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (The Irresistible Revolution, pg. 266)

It’s easy now to see, in this light, how beautiful our God is and how precious we each are one to another, one to the world, one to our beloved Maker. Oh sure, it’s easy to point out the dissension, the arguing, the “righting,” and “wronging.” But when you take a second glance, when you uncover our fears, dismantle our pride, and each reach out our hands, we discover the love that Jesus sees when he looks into each child’s eyes and whispers directly from God, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”

If I can see what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about.
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasing the wind while the pendulum swings
‘Cause we can talk and debate ’till we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that He’s coming to save
And meanwhile we sit just like we don’t have give a sh*t about
Fifty thousand people who are dying today

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 who’s 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. Yes, thank you, for truly we are made in the image of our Creator, equally loved, equally bringing gifts to this world.

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

The ‘Stay Away, Come Close’ Paradox and How it Looks Something Like Letting Love In.

I was in the front seat of my friend’s car earlier today, wrapped up in one of those conversations where you don’t realize that you’ve been sitting there, in the dark, car in park, for an hour, together contemplating all of the idiosyncrasies of life. We mused about our relationships and the “come close, stay faraway” phenomenon that some people find themselves regrettably emulating at some point in their lives. Maybe you know that I’m talking about. That dynamic where you’re close with someone, and long to be even closer. So you let them in. And it’s beautiful. But there’s a part of you that’s scared, so scared, so you send “step back” signals.
I think there’s this component of our humanness that desperately craves closeness, intimacy, to be known, loved, and accepted, and for everything to be alright— even amazing, like waving your hands in the air, screaming, hair blown back by velocity on amusement park rides— that crashes into the part of ourselves that fights pain, fights changes, fights hurt and loss and namely, wants to protect ourselves from everything and anything scary, unknown, and potentially pain-inducing.
Have you ever witnessed that “come close, stay faraway” factor?

Bruce Springsteen ponders it in “Secret Garden.”

She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away.

Similarly, Goo Goo Dolls begs for the soul of another to open the door of their heart with love in “Let Love In:”
You’re the only one I ever believed in
The answer that could never be found
The moment you decided to let love in
Now I’m banging on the door of an angel
The end of fear is where we begin
The moment we decided to let love in.

U2 seemed to have similar sentiments in their 1993 hit “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” Bono created the song for the movie “Faraway, So Close,” sharing that “the film was about angels who want to be human and who want to be on Earth. But to do so they have to become mortal. That was a great image to play with – the impossibility of wanting something like this, and then the cost of having it.”1 I mirror that with the “stay close, don’t get too close” theme of love costing something: crossing into the unknown and in doing so, facing your own vulnerability. And that’s a scary thing.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even 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.”

I think we’re all a little bit scared of letting one another in. Into all those little cracks and crevices of our soul that are properly seated in the classroom, hands clasped, praying not be called upon. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries have merit. We can’t let everything, or everyone, into our souls. Some influences aren’t the ones we need to grow. Some things in this world will defile and break down our souls. Like a peephole on a door, it’s healthy to choose your influences and who you will surround yourself with.
I just wonder about the times in which we pushed something or someone out when we should have brought them in.
I wonder how many times we missed out on love- any love- agape, romantic, friendship- because we were too scared of having our heart opened, exposed, fully letting in the light of another.
I wonder how many conversations we’ve accumulated in which we settled for safe by responding to “how are you?” with trite replies of “good” when every part of us knows we’re not good. So we quickly progress to stale topics, like the weather, all the while depriving our souls of deepness and wonder and intimacy.
I wonder how many of us will reach some ripe old age with questions about our families left unanswered because we were too afraid to ask about the skeletons in our closets or the dirty laundry or the elephants in the room or the mess that feels too knotty until, in our bravest moments, we gather the courage to unknot the tangles to realize that when we put the pieces back together again, it can be even more beautiful than when we first started.

So our souls fight to trust Him/Her and we take a chance here, go for a risk there, holding God’s hand, perhaps, I wonder, content with splashing around in the baby pool because even with swimmies, we’re too scared to try the big pool and so we’re splashing and getting our toes wet, all the while hearing the joyful, playful shouts of friends or strangers dunking each other in the big pool, diving and doing handstands and checking out the ocean… and while every thing in our soul shouts, “you’re big enough,” “you’re brave enough,” “go play,” “go try,” “there’s room out there for you too,” we resist it and lament in our kiddie pools, smiling when the jets pour in just a little more water for our ankles to become wet.

What are we so afraid of? Of getting hurt? Of getting let down? Sometimes, for me at least, yes. But what makes me think my feeble “stop sign” hand is what will protect me from the precarious position of human life and emotion? I’m beginning, more and more, to think that every time I hold out my hand to guard, to protect, to control the outcome or not get hurt or not experience pain or change, or actively contribute to my growth moving from the known into the unknown, I have to start to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. Do we want to look back on life and realize that all of our guarded moments never actually protected us at all? Can we accept that living with your heart on your sleeve may get you hurt, but it’s the only way to truly live, to truly feel, to truly heal, to truly “be real” with another human being?

I know we’ve tasted the opposite, too. You know that soul-to-soul connection with that friend, with that lover, with that mentor? Where it’s you and them and the two of you realize there’s so much more going on here than we can fathom. And that by opening ourselves up to the truth, our questions, the things we’ve been wondering, we are greeted not in word or whisper but by a taste of the soul,  as if our hearts are whispering to each other, “See, isn’t this beautiful?”

I had one of those connections the other day with my dad. We were biking and I was talking to him about stuff from childhood, asking questions I never thought to ask, and learning things I never knew about our family. This is the beautiful connection that happens when we cross over and enter into each other’s stories, but not the finished part, rather the unexpurgated story that’s raw and real and human.

I don’t know what all this letting love in and being vulnerable stuff looks like, and I’m tempted to cast this whole thing off as being overly emotional as I once again stay up too late, writing this, pondering life and spirituality and the rings upon rings of circled skin that compose my fingerprint. But I think we’re onto something. Onto something with the whole letting-love-in-thing… starting with letting God’s love in and as that takes a hold of our heart over and over again, like the daily tide washing over the shore, we’ll discover the beauty and the holy ground that’s only possible when we, too, recognize that
the only way to see again
                            is to let love in.

Have you ever found yourself in the “Stay Away, Come Close” phenomenon? What was that experience like? How do these experiences intertwine spiritually, emotionally, in our relationships, in our friendships?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stay_(Faraway,_So_Close!)