Making a way out of no way.

John Lewis was an American hero. His whole life was a testament to fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better, more egalitarian place even in the most dire of circumstances. Today, he is laid to rest, but he left us words, every one ringing with truth, to give us light and help us find our way without him:

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

“Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

May his words hold true in our hearts, and let us live up to the example he set. Let us go forward in the spirit of peace with everlasting love as our guide. Let this be our solemn vow. Now is the time.

Coincidence?

So much of life feels like it is beyond our ability to understand. Philosophers and theologians can argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether our futures are predestined. Or, even, whether God is dead, or, for that matter, ever lived, or, if alive, plays any hand in the events of the day.

Where is God when we suffer or when the whole world suffers? Is there any comfort in the argument that suffering happens because God gives us free will so has to let the natural consequences of things we’ve set in motion happen? That just kind of sucks, particularly when we are the well-behaved kids kept in at recess because of the misbehavior of some lone miscreant. What kind of global sense of the divine is that? Where is the comfort?

And, yet, there are moments, aren’t there? Moments when things fall into place, and we see the interconnection of living things, and feel lost in the mystery but at home there, too? Moments that sweep us into awe and gratitude and marvel? Moments where we can see the divine in the creation? In each other? Moments when we wonder how we got so lucky to be here, now, in this place and time, with these former strangers now beloved, with this life to live and all the options that offers?

We can look back at our lives and recognize the little junction points when we took a turn or met someone who became precious to us. A coincidence that we were both there in that same place and time. A coincidence that we got to talking and felt a connection, so kept talking, until that stranger became now a friend. Or a coincidence that led us to make a choice that brought us on a path to greater insight, understanding, and communion. What explains that? Those little coincidences that led us to the lives we have?

Lenny Duncan calls those coincidences ‘God staying anonymous’, and perhaps that is comforting. Perhaps the notion of a benevolent God putting people and experiences in our path to lead us forward gives us a sense of hope. Perhaps that is God working to draw us close. Perhaps it is our job to keep those flames of hope burning.

Duncan explains: “Church, I love you because you are the answer to the question ‘Is God real?’ You are the resounding yes thundering in our hearts. You are the triumphant roar affirming that God is real, powerful, and still able to perform miracles, here and now. In this time in our history, when the world seems like it is on the precipice, you are the gentle hymn that will pull us back from the abyss. You, Church, are the resounding call the entire world is bending its ear to hear as the first straining notes float over the mountaintop. You are slowly beginning to look at these hard truths, more and more each day. You are the dance of providence that lays itself out as series of coincidences, bringing even the least likely into communion with the divine. But we know coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous. It’s our job to point out that God is the agent of change we all experience.”

And in any crisis, there will be people who step up out of a sense of the greater good and many of those suffering will tell you that God was there with them in that suffering, not from afar as if on a cloud looking down, but right there in their very fiber, in their own breath and the beating of their heart. God with us. Emmanuel. Not just in the coincidences, though certainly there, but in it all. And even when things are well beyond our comprehension and the complexities of the universe and even our own lives confound us, that is comforting. Emmanuel.

Hold on.

Is your life all ups, no downs? Do you ever feel a need to make it look like it is? Maybe to pretend the rough stuff doesn’t exist or put on a big smile to cover a broken heart? Do you ever feel like there must be something wrong with your faith if your life is going badly?

Truth is, shit happens. To the best, most faithful of people. Life’s struggles can feel overwhelming. You can get to the point where you simply cannot see how someone could think and feel the way they do. You can lose hope.

At times like these you need to breathe deep and get yourself to a quiet place. And it sure would do no harm, and maybe a whole lot of good, to read a poem like this:

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Barry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And the good news is, you can read this poem, and your soul will calm without even being in that place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. The words of a good poem are like magic. They can heal you and still the churning waters of your soul. And they can help you remember the ‘day-blind stars waiting with their light’, because, yes, we cannot see the stars in the daytime, but they are there. Shining.

May you rest in the grace of the world and find peace.

Even this.

It’s easy to be grateful for the good things. But … everything? What about the fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness? What about the loss and persecution? What about the things that challenge our life and morality and soul? What of these?

Yes. All. Even these things that most pain us or make us worry. It is in these times we draw on something deeper than ourselves and grow. These are the times that cause us to reach out to others and embrace community. These are the depths we can survive and use that survival to offer hope to others.

Gratitude forces a perspective shift. From despair to hope. From loss to possibility. From chaos to peace.

Even now, even this, even here. Be grateful.

Get dirty

The daffodils are coming. Planted last fall–before the snow, before the holidays, before the pandemic– they are starting to poke up. Soon they will be blooming everywhere adding cheer to the lives of whomever might see them.

A garden is a microcosm of life. Seasons of vibrance and beauty fall away into a frozen landscape seemingly devoid of color. But then, maybe when you’ve almost forgotten, there is blossoming and rebirth.

Gardeners and children know something that many of us have forgotten: there is joy in the dirt.

Literally.

It turns out, “Prozac may not be the only way to get rid of your serious blues. Soil microbes have been found to have similar effects on the brain and are without side effects and chemical dependency potential.”

Studies show the benefits gardeners and children will swear by of playing in the dirt are actually based on science.

It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.

So go ahead. Get dirty.

Brave and afraid at the same time

In this interview, Brené Brown discusses the complexity of emotions we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social isolation. Her words bring comfort and solace to all of us, but particularly those of us raised to believe that only positive emotions should be felt or expressed.

These are tough times. And it’s particularly difficult because this is not an emergency you have to gear up for and get through; it’s a slow burn. As she says:

“Normally, in order to get through a crisis, you know, our bodies are built to respond with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, a lot of super coping surge. And then the waters recede or the fires are out or, you know, the crisis ends and we slog our way through kind of cleanup and trying to find our new normal. But we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it’s going to out- it’s going to outpace us. And I think we are hitting that moment where we are weary in our bones. We are physically tired. We, you know, anxiety, uncertainty take a lot out of us physically. I think, you know, we’re on Zoom calls. I don’t know what happened. Like, I work a lot to begin with, but I feel like I’m on Zoom calls from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. You know, and then we’ve got toddlers crawling up our backs and partners trying to, you know, tell us to be quiet. They’re also are being called. And we’re tired. And I’ll tell you, the other thing that’s exhausting; that we are not acknowledging – again as a collective – is grief.”

And the grief is perhaps more extensive than any we’ve felt before. It’s grieving a loss of everything that was normal to us. Brown explains, “Well, I think it’s a very difficult position we’re in right now because I think we are both grieving the loss of normal and grieving the ordinary moments that make the touchstones for our lives. We’re grieving the loss of those at the very same time we’re having to find and settle into a new normal. And those two things are very difficult to do. At the same time, not mutually exclusive, but as close as it gets without being mutually exclusive. So there’s grief, I think. Grief is the loss of normal.”

And it is ok to experience that grief and mourn those losses. We are vulnerable, and there is no shame in acknowledging that:

“To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic, is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day. And the thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it’s not weakness. It’s the foundation and the birthplace of courage. There is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure. And so, you know, I’ve asked 10000 people that this question, starting with special forces military: give me an example of courage in your life that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And in probably 15 thousand people at this point, not one person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability. So we need to dispel that mess and we need to acknowledge we are in a lot of vulnerability right now. That means we can be our best, bravest selves or we can be our worst selves, and I think the thing about choosing to be our most courageous selves is having to understand this is another method to style that most of us know we’re taught growing up that we’re either brave or afraid, that the truth is we can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. Most of us are in these moments today.”

We can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. We can be strong in our vulnerability. And, even though we are living a new normal, we can choose how we show up there.

A lullaby for these times.

Picture a fussy baby, afraid to fall asleep, but then comforted in his mother’s arms by her lilting lullaby, her breath soft against his face, her song sweet to his ears.

Who among us can’t, at times, relate to that child? The future seems particularly uncertain. Worry disrupts sleep. Anxiety weakens our resolve.

There is something about a lullaby, though, the soft tones, the repetitive melody, the gentleness of the presentation, that can help soothe and relax, comfort and reassure us. The sweet song can reach into our long past baby consciousness and help us rest.

Take a minute to enjoy this beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s Goodnight, My Angel, by Social Dissonance with soloist Ryan Nagelmann. May it help you find peace.

To pray.

In a grieving, struggling world, we pray. Full of humility, we fall to our knees. Gobsmacked by the fragility of life and the interconnectedness of all creation, we lift our eyes to the Lord and join voices around the world to offer thanks, plead for mercy, and reach for hope.

Never before has it been more obvious that we belong to each other and are all in this together.

Choosing joy.

Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.

In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.  What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.