Tuesday, January 31, 2012

T.S. Tuesday: Why I am Pro-Choice

“If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, then you must accept the terms it offers you.” T.S. Eliot

In the spring of 2006, the terms of my life were turned upside down. Life gave me anger. Anger at injustice and poverty and the overall suckiness of a broken world. After what I’d seen, I thought I had no choice.

I thought I had no choice but to wallow, to lash out, to leave the church that was complicit in the complacency that allows injustice.

But in the midst of this anger, I ever-so-painfully learned something. I discovered that faith and hope and love can be chosen. Not only can but must.

I learned this because I was choosing precisely the opposite: not to have faith, not to have hope, not to have love.

It seems like something you can't choose. You're either a glass-is-half-empty or glass-is-half-full type of person and there's nothing you can do about it. But that's not true.

You can choose hope.

I can choose hope.

There’s a part I didn’t choose: the suffering that I witnessed. The policies and politics that have been in place in Latin America long before I was born. The terms the world offers me.

But I can choose my response.

This weekend I had the immense privilege of being a part of something hopeful. I saw the fruit of choosing to love and serve and engage that has been years in the making.

This weekend I helped host an event at my church that highlighted many of the world’s injustices: poverty, environmental degradation, sex trafficking, and the obligation of the church to respond in awareness and compassion.

I heard testimonies of men and women in my church who have chosen to do something. Who have chosen love for our neighbor. Who have chosen faith in the redemptive work of a loving God. Who have chosen hope.

Planting a tree is an act of hope. Making a donation to a poverty fighting organization is an act of hope. Befriending our brothers and sisters who live outside here in San Diego is an act of hope. Delivering furniture to a newly relocated refugee family is an act of hope.

I am grateful to be a part of a church whose heart beats for justice. Whose heart beats for hope.

I can’t even express the humble awe I feel that God would use me to share this hope with others.

That God would use me to give people the chance to get involved in His work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and caring for the poor. That, years later, I would be working from within the church to reverse the complacency and disengagement that led me to leave in the first place.

I don’t mean this to sound like I’m tooting my own horn. I type these words in amazement that I am here. That I am leading. That the guilt and pain and anger that once engulfed me has been driven out by love. That the drive for justice and redemption grows stronger not weaker as I choose to engage a broken church and a broken world.

I am grateful for the strength I am given to impose my own hopeful terms upon life.

Most of all, I am grateful for the Hope that chose me.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bend and Stack

I'm in. I want it and I want it real bad. I want a life stacked on joy. A life built on rejoicing. A life graced with gratitude.

But how?

As I grapple with what I know of this joy stacking equation, this unempty-moment-living, I'm struck by a recurring posture of both the head and the heart: bending.

There is the stacking, the adding up of joy and gifts. But there is also the bending.

The bending of heads in prayer. The bending down to notice. The bent posture of a humble heart.

You can't have joy without humility. I think I really believe that.

Joy requires the humility to relinquish cynicism. The humility to seek prayer. The humility to seek help (I am learning this one oh-so-richly right now).

I recently rediscovered this audacious prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that speaks to the paradox of this bend-your-heart-in-humility-and-you-will-be-lifted-up-with-joy. This paradox of our faith.

He prays,
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

In case you missed it the first time, "For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life."

It is in this humility, this bending low of ourselves and our priorities and our vindication, that we find God. It is in humility that we find ourselves gifted with the call to participate in the ministry of Jesus. It is in humility that we can sow love and heal nations and bring life.

It is in humility that we stack up joy.

And so today I give you the best new dance move in my spiritual repertoire: the bend and stack.

While I'm pretty sure it won't win me back an ex-boyfriend, I am certain I want to cultivate the kind of heart bending that leads to joy stacking.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stacking Up Joy

Psalm 73:23
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.

I knew God was going to speak.

I knew he had a message. A promise. An image.

And sure enough, he did.

"Someone is running in the dark, past all of these closed doors. But God rushes in and takes your hand; suddenly you are running with him in the light—free," she said.

I knew the image was for me.

I know the light has been promised. The joy will be forthcoming. The twirls and running and sensation of grass springing beneath my toes will be a reality.

I don't doubt it.

But I can't feel it. Right now--even after prayer upon prayer--I don't feel the joy and I can't see the light. Not yet.

But I don't doubt it.

The one thing I know is that I won't fake it. There is a time when I would have faked it, so hard it would almost tear me apart.

But today I will not fake it. The God who promises me light is smart enough to know that I'm not there yet. He's patient enough to give me the grace to grapple. To say, God I don't feel this joy that you talk about. I trust it is coming. I pray for the strength to ask for it.

I feel it fragments. In moments. In glimpses and hand squeezes and heads bowed and tears pricking.

But this picture of overwhelming light and sun and freedom--I don't feel it yet.

I love the image of stacking up truths. I like the idea of the addition, the stacking, the summation of experiences and truths and ideas.

But lately I've been challenged on this mindset. For what good is truth without love or joy?

I could stack up sad, pathetic truths for days.

1. The world is a place of deep pain and intolerable suffering.
2. God doesn’t always answer prayer.
3. People I love get sick, trapped in destructive patterns, move away, move out of my life.
4. I can't seem to get ahead of this curve of depression and burnout.

…..Etc. etc. until I can't get out of bed.

But where does this get me?

This keeps me in the dark, sprinting, heaving past closed doors.

There is another truth I can choose to see: the light wins.

God grabs my hand and sets me free.

Will I build my life around the darkness or will I build my life around the joy?

In One Thousand Gifts Ann Voskamp writes, "Do not disdain the small. The whole of life - even the hard - is made up of the minute parts, and if I miss the infinitesimals, I miss the whole ... There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things. It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing. The moments add up."

The moments add up.
The joy adds up.

I want a life stacked on joy.

God, I ask for the courage and discipline to choose to see the good. To unclench my fearful fists so you can take my hand.

Even in the darkness--in the not yet--I can stack these moments. I will stack the little joy and I will build my life on your promises:

Aly, you will grow. I will comfort you. I will restore your joy. I love you.

I thank you for the glimpses. The fragments. That which I see in part that will one day be given to me in whole.

I thank you God for the hope of most this amazing joy. Please guide me with your counsel and take me to your glory. Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

T.S. Tuesday: Thankful Thievery


"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." T.S. Eliot

Today, at the bequest of T.S. Eliot, I am stealing one of my favorite poems (of a different author) to share with you.

by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake
and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Unempty Moments

I can't remember anything but her underwear.

I can't remember the day or even which convalescent facility we were in. I can't remember what my mom was telling me or what I was wearing.

What I can remember is her underwear. They were big, literally granny panties. Soft cotton. Conservative white and new baby pink. No lace or ruffles.

I can remember how they folded softly in my mom's hands. She caressed them absentmindedly as she spoke.

We were moving my grandmother into a new facility.

We were in the repeat-the-same-question-every-five-minutes stage of her dementia, not yet to the frantic wheelchair racing or the evergreen season of suspicion. She hadn't yet looked desperately into my eyes and asked if I could find her mother.

But still, we were scared, my mom and I. Missing the mother and grandmother we once knew. The woman who remembered her legendary spaghetti and meatballs recipe and walked loops around her apartment complex with friends bearing names like Petey or Marge.

The fear hung silent between us as we unpacked her clothes, a few books, some pictures of toothy grandchildren for her bedside table.

Henri Nouwen talks about patience as one of the cornerstones of the compassionate life; impatience the deterrent that keeps us tapping our feet, checking our watches, and missing the glory of God.

By this point in the story, (like you I venture to presume) I should have been tapping my feet, checking my watch and writing off another summer afternoon as "empty, useless, meaningless."

But I didn't.

The counterpoint to impatience, Nouwen describes another rendering of time when we experience the moment as "full, rich, and pregnant." When "somehow we know that in this moment everything is contained: the beginning, the middle, and the end; the past, the present and the future; the sorrow and the joy; the expectation and the realization; the searching and the finding."

This was one of these moments. Watching my mom delicately fold my grandmother's underwear. In this moment I was gripped by the thought that love need be nothing more than this simple, intimate act.

It became an unempty moment.* A moment I didn't want to get away from. A moment filled with the glory of God.

To this day, this afternoon represents a rupture for me. A rupture that signaled not a fracture, but a deepening. A deepening love for my grandmother. A deepening respect for my mom. And a deepening gratitude for every humdrum moment-turned-miracle I had left with both of them, together in one room, folding underwear, in an unempty moment.


***

*Precious moments was already trademarked.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Rupture Behind the Reason

“The rupture of our religious surfaces can be extremely valuable.” Frederick Ruf, Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion.

In my spiritual writing class we’ve been discussing the religious value of rupture, fracture, misfortune, suffering. Of forced disorientation to stimulate growth, learning, and an awareness of a new more real reality.

Of breaking through the surface to something deeper, something dangerous, something delicious.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, “Acid” wonderfully recounted in Bewildered Travel, she comes across an image “that she simply cannot assimilate—something, in fact, that burns instead of dazzles.”

She describes this something, this rupture, as a “bead of acid” that she carries with her for all of her days, forever changed.

Below is my bead of acid, my religious rupture, my reason for being who I am today.

***

February 2006, Managua, Nicaragua

Plastic smoldered and filled the air in a hazy smokescreen that seared my eyes and bit at my nostrils in the city dump of Managua, Nicaragua. Skeletal cows munched on the aluminum cans that children searched all day for in the city dump. This was their home, their school, their playground. Our yellow school bus heaved and rattled into the dump. We pressed our faces against the hot window panes, peering out into the ocean of refuse. When we realized where we were, our faces dropped, eyes averted and laughing silenced. One man lifted his dark, gnarled hand to brush the sweat from his furrowed brow. Our bus grinded to a halt and the door creaked open. Trevor, one of our program facilitators poked his head out and yelled something to the man in broken Spanish.

Did he mind speaking to us for a minute? Did he mind sharing his story with us?

The man carefully stepped over the debris, clambering his way to the open bus door. He moved through the sea of trash like an experienced sailor. Like he’d long since lost his land legs. We wore fresh skirts and smoothed slacks. The old man glanced down at his modest t-shirt, sweat stained and torn. We wanted to know what his life was like. How was he surviving? What did he think about God? Parched and at a loss for words, the man swallowed a few times, his tongue wetting his chapped lips, gums, and the few teeth he had. Then he told us the only thing he knew.

Dios ha bendecido a mi familia.” “God has blessed my family,” he said. “God is good. Before this garbage dump we were on the streets, and that was worse. God has provided, and God is good.”

Trevor thanked him for sharing and handed him a cold, dripping water bottle. He greedily grabbed the fresh water, and the condensation formed tiny rivulets in the deep, cracked creases of his craggy palms—living water in a thirsty, barren land, fresh water in a sulfuric sea. God is good.

Blessed? The last time I checked, my definition of blessed did not include the privilege of sorting through trash and watching your children inhale toxic fumes on a daily basis. I thought being blessed meant you were an American, lived a life of privilege, and received a college education.

***

This is why I have spent the last four years working for a non-profit organization (seriously check them out) that empowers rural families to restore their land, raise their incomes, and learn to thrive BEFORE they end up desperate, at a city dump. Why I still struggle with the word blessed. Why I’m still working through what it means to see God at work in this unjust world.

***

The next day we visited a Catholic church that was beautifully decorated with colorful murals portraying the Stations of the Cross. The images were vibrant and tantalizing, unlike any religious paintings I’d ever seen. But the biggest difference was Jesus. Their Jesus wasn’t white. Their Jesus didn’t look just like me—he looked just like they did, with dark skin, calloused hands, and the numbness of poverty in his eyes. I got the feeling that their Jesus wasn’t too concerned with whether or not I had a “ring by spring” or six pack abs. I got the feeling that their Jesus didn’t try to spiritualize their poverty or look the other way. Their Jesus was oppressed, an outcast forgotten and scorned by society, just like them.

I could no longer live like God was the God of the rich, the white, the educated, and the fashionable. I could no longer live like God sympathized with my struggle to feel successful, beautiful, and well-liked more than he sympathized with the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the poor.

***

“The rupture of our religious surfaces can be extremely valuable.”

Yes, but it hurts like hell.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

T.S. Tuesday: To Care or not to Care?

"Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still." ~T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

I am a recovering perfectionist, or so I’d like to think. More often than not, I’m recovering from the ramifications of perfectionism instead of overcoming perfectionism itself. Most of the time, I’m recovering from a bruised ego and a worn out soul.

At the risk of sounding like one those ridiculous job interview farces where the candidate arrogantly clucks out weaknesses that no one in their right mind would call weaknesses, “I try too hard. I care too much,” (eye roll please) the truth is, I try too hard and I care too much. About the wrong things.

I try too hard in the wrong things. I care too much about the wrong things.

How I look in a bathing suit. How many hits I get on my blog. If the guy I met at the party is going to friend me on Facebook.

But it’s deeper routed than that. It’s more than being distracted by the trivial. It’s being driven by the tyrannical. The tyrannical need to perform, to do, to complete, to accomplish.

I have trouble caring and not caring. I have trouble sitting still.

I want meaningful rest and meaningful work. I want to care about the right things and not care about the wrong things.

How do I get there?

I can force myself to sit still, physically. But how do I get my mind to rest?

How do I silence the biting guilt that courses through me, gnawing at me to be more loving, more engaged, more connected?

How do I engage in alone time when I don’t really feel the freedom to be alone? When I’m haunted with the need to be productive?

I’m so reluctant to sit, still and defenseless, with my longing and desire, to not try to fix myself, to let the Holy Spirit do its mysterious recreating in my soul.

A burden lifts when I realize I don’t have to do it, and, in fact, I cannot do it all. I can live in ways that promote health and peace in my life, but it is not up to me to heal or fill my heart. Only God can do that. He’s done it before and I can trust him to do it again. God is love.

And so today I ask you, God, for purpose, meaning, and connection. I want to stop drifting in and out of my days disconnected and unexamined. I want to really feel for and connect with people. I want empathy that moves me to compassion. I want to care about things, people, issues. I want my heart to break for the things that break your heart. I want to be living an intentional, purposeful, love-filled life. I want to share myself with others. I want to receive what others have to share with me. I want to feel joy. I want to be fulfilled. I want to know that I’m not wasting my time. I want to choose love. When the choice comes to zone out or just “get through,” when the choice comes to get irritated by the little things, I want to choose love and connection.

I can’t do this on my own—I’ve tried.

Please grant me rest from striving and doing. Please touch the places in my heart that drive me to achieve, to initiate, to do do do.

Please teach me to care and not to care. Teach me to sit still.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Prosperity Gospel We Should Be Living


I used to slam up against a prosperity gospel that promised me that if I commit my life to following Christ, goodness and mercy and joy would surely follow.

I didn’t buy it.

And then one morning. In the dark night of my love story. After doughnuts and bulletin passing and a stream of breathless “Good-morning-welcome-to-Coast-s,” the words transformed, the world shifted. That all-familiar, oft repeated phrase,

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever and ever and ever Amen.”

Slowly at first. A question. A nuance. An emphasis. Where before I had only seen goodness and mercy and good outcomes and answered prayers and false hope, I now saw a new word. A new focus. Bold and brazen.

Follow.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. Follow me.

Follow me?

The dictionary definition of follow is, as follows:

1. Go or come after (a person or thing proceeding ahead); move or travel behind: "she went back into the house, and Ben followed her."

2. Go after (someone) in order to observe or monitor.

Surely goodness and mercy will COME AFTER me. Not be given to me. Not be indebted to me. But come after me. In my wake.

Who then is the bringer?

I am.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.

I am called to be this peddler of good things, this exemplar of righteousness.

Come again?

Could it be that following Jesus is less about the goodness of life’s outcomes and more about the goodness that we bring, that we carry, that follows us for all to see?

That sounds like a lot of pressure. That sounds like things could get real legalistic real quick.

But it’s not just up to me.

Perhaps as followers of Jesus we are heirs to a journey of growth and refinement that cultivates holy, loving qualities within us. Perhaps the promise is not for happiness and success and a house and a car and 2.5 children, but for fruitfulness.

This can be prosperity, too.

Not the kind of prosperity that aces tests and rains down riches, but the prosperity of a life well valued, a life well lived. A life that where goodness and mercy spring up in its wake.

A prosperity of caring for our brothers and sisters. A prosperity in seeing the gifts this world has to offer. A prosperity in bringing joy and defending the weak.

A prosperity of being followed by goodness and mercy because of a life-giving relationship with the One we follow.

Now that’s a prosperity gospel I can get behind.

*The image at the top of this post is the handiwork of my wonderfully creative brother, Cameron Lewis. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why am I here?

I’ve started taking a spiritual writing class. It must be good because it’s already spurred a million blog ideas and an existential crisis with just one assignment: why am I here?

Not why-do-people-exist or what-is-the-meaning-of-life, but why am I HERE at this juncture in my life. At this computer in this house with these roommates waiting to drive this freeway into this job to do these tasks.

One answer is this:

February 2006, San Jose, Costa Rica

In class I usually sat in the back, jammed against my neighbor in the filled-to-capacity classroom. There were strange wooden pillars inconveniently placed throughout the room, forcing us to cram together in clumps. Our professor, Don Mike, would pace back and forth like a lion waiting to go in for the kill. His sporadic mumblings sounded like growls and soon he would be roaring. My jaw would clench as my heart pounded. He would reduce my beliefs and upbringing to egocentric self-validation. A means of exclusion. Judgment. My faith was offensive, a stench in the nostrils of the Almighty God. A darkened city on a hill. The tasteless salt of the earth. The hypocritical light of the world. The hair on my arms would stand up and it would feel like I’d swallowed a car battery. If anyone, he’d be the one to know when the church was being ineffective; he used to be a Catholic priest.

He would be panting by now; his gruff voice would crack as he condemned American Christianity and everything it stands for. I felt personally attacked as he recounted the horrors of conquest-driven, smallpox-bearing missionaries and money scamming “Gospel of Wealth” televangelists. The blood of every person killed or exploited in the name of God since the dawn of time would stick in the crevices of my guilty hands.

By this point, the pulsating vein in the middle of his scrunched forehead looked ready to burst. I would forget that he coined himself a “recovering Catholic.” I would forget that he did not hold a monopoly on truth. And while I hated him and everything he was saying, I still began to believe that maybe I was the enemy.

***

That’s part of it. That’s part of why I’m here. Writing this blog. Working at this nonprofit that serves the rural poor. Thinking these thoughts.

It’s the why of a life built around overcoming a stigma that my faith is self-serving, self-fulfilling, self-consuming. It’s a why of a life working to not be the world's enemy, the poor's enemy, my own enemy.

It’s not the whole why and it’s not the whole story. But it’s a part. It’s not the best part or the most redeeming part or healthy part.

I’m reminded of a quote by Henri Nouwen (honestly, when am I not?) in Compassion:

"Action as the way of the compassionate life is a difficult discipline precisely because we are so in need of recognition and acceptance… But even setting up a relief program, feeding the hungry, and assisting the sick could be more an expression of our own need than of God's call.

But let us not be too moralistic about it: We can never claim pure motives, and it is better to act with and for those who suffer than to wait until we have our own needs completely under control."

Today, HERE, I am grateful to drive into a job that acts with and for those who suffer and for a God that is using my needs, my why’s, my unclean motives, to accomplish His call.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

T.S. Tuesday: The Lost and Found Pile of My Faith

“There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again.” T.S. Eliot, East Coker*

God answers prayer. Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I lose this. Sometimes I find this. Then I lose it again. Daily I fight to recover what has been lost.

Today, this post, is a fight to recover and reaffirm my childlike faith.

As Ann Voskamp said in the chapter in One Thousand Gifts that I just read, “I confess, even after all that I’ve seen and tasted and touched, I do scoff.”

After I, Aly Lewis, have seen and tasted and touched and felt that the Lord is good, I still scoff. I scoff at my cheesiness in writing “childlike faith,” I scoff at this blog and my prayers seeking answers, I scoff at my lists of gifts and my love letters to myself.

But I have seen and tasted and touched and felt that the Lord is good. And I will not let my scoffing get the best of me. Instead I will keep writing, keep praying, and keep saying, 'Thank you, Love, for being good.'

***

*I promise I will one day venture out of the Four Quartets, but as long as I keep rediscovering nuggets of wisdom within these four pieces, Four Quartets it is. Please show your discontent by sending me wonderfully aged, used copies of additional T.S. Eliot compilations. Otherwise, I will take your silence as consent.