The Crisis of Quiet

Chicago does not lend itself to quiet moments.  Most of the time horns are honking, people are shouting across a crowded street and an airplane is flying overhead to land at one of the airports in the near vicinity.  Quiet never comes.

This morning I was walking to my usual bus stop in the heart of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood that is more little than Italy these days.  As I was about to cross the street, a siren became audible from a few blocks away.  Another delightful symphony produced by city life.  At first, the cars and pedestrians around me were hesitant but continued to their destinations knowing that they still had moments before they would have to stop to let this ambulance pass.

As the flashing emergency vehicle approached the intersection that I was standing at, a rare thing happened. Everything, everyone stopped.  I had always seen this happen, obviously, since the law requires you to stop at the sound or sight of such a vehicle, but I never noticed the quiet that results.  Now I’m not talking about actual quiet, since the blaring siren was loud enough to urge the woman next to me to hide her ears beneath her hands trying to produce a type of faux-earplug.

The quiet that surrounded us at that intersection was the quiet of a crisis.

I have only experienced a few crises in my life, but they all produce that same still yet acute quiet that I saw on the corner this morning.  Cars came to a halt, people walking on the streets instinctively stopped their movement and looked at the approaching vehicle, the world for a second became completely centered around this ambulance.  Centered around this symbol of unrest, of emergency.

Such a quiet is not peaceful for it stirs within you a worry for the outcome, a desperation for resolution, and an anticipation of its passing.  Crisis in life can come as an unexpected death, the recurrence of an illness, the dissolution of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the questioning of your own purpose.  Crisis can look different, but crisis always results in the same.  A chaotic quiet.

A quiet that is self-centered, survival focused.  One of my crises was my own acceptance of my on-going battle with anxiety and depression.  For months, my life was like that scene at the intersection.  Nothing else moved or mattered except my sickness. No one existed except myself in relation to this crisis.  Everyone and everything revolved around navigating around my own crisis.  But see, unlike the ambulance that speeds quickly past freeing the surrounding world to return to its noise and routine, crisis feels like a slow motion switch has been hit and you are waiting, watching, hoping that the ambulance passes next week, next month, next year.

Crisis is an unbearable quiet that demands not only your attention but your entire world. As I was waiting this morning, thinking about this idea, though, I became encouraged in a way that only a person not experiencing such a crisis at the moment can.  I was encouraged by the passing of such quiet and the world resuming to its own rhythm and pace.  For it always does.

Yet during a crisis you can’t see that.  You spend most of your energy reorganizing your life around this crisis that you get to the point where you can’t even imagine losing that quiet in your life. You begin to love the self-focused quiet. But that quiet fades. And you return to a more aware world where things happen that are good and bad but that are, in the end, bigger than yourself.  And you find equilibrium within the noise once more.

We must remember that equilibrium when crisis is far away.  We must learn to live in this noise without the fear of yet another pause of crisis.  We must learn that crisis is not a permanent state, but it is, just like the ambulance, just a passing moment of stillness, of navigation, and of quiet.

Such an idea reminded me of one of my favorite songs, Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell.  As you listen to this song and read the lyrics, remember that life changes, it is fleeting, it is filled with both noise and quiet.  But what this song reminds us of most importantly is that you are not alone in this silence. All around are other people preparing for crisis, in their own crisis, or emerging from a crisis.  We must take heart.


Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell posted on youtube by GregLaswellMusic.

Life Around a Table: Part Four

“These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Come to the table.”  Two simple sentences that transformed my understanding and practice of the sacred communion.  Transformed from a simple wafer and mini shot glass full of grape juice passed from pew to pew on oddly-shaped, stackable, saucers into a tangible experience, a communal gathering and a transcendent reality.  A reality, lived and partaken in around a table that calls us into a dysfunctional family, an on-going justice, and, for me most importantly, an inclusive community.

Before hearing those two sentences, my thoughts of this sacrament were wholly separate from my life outside of Sunday mornings.  But these statements made sense to me.  These statements reminded me of the warm, intense, and often challenging times that I experienced around a number of different tables. Tables around which I was welcomed, invited, nourished, and accepted regardless of my imperfections or differences. Hence, why I decided to write this blog series about such experiences in hopes to explain both my fear and my love of this particular Communion table.

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My Nana’s Table

“These are the gifts of God…” Nana knew that everything on her table from the food people enjoyed to the imported china was a gift.  She intimately knew what it meant to have nothing but through this knowledge she learned how to cherish every good thing.  She prepared her food as if it was a spiritual exercise and for her it was.  For what she knew even more than the gifts of such precious physical nourishment was the irreplaceable gift of those around the table through which her soul was nourished.

Thinking of this image of my Nana’s joy in preparing her table brings a new depth to the image of Jesus around the table at his final meal.  A meal with imminent importance and unimaginable finality.  Yet this meal was most likely seen as a rather ordinary Passover celebration to those others around the table.  Many meals had been shared between Jesus and his apostles, many blessings and most likely they didn’t realize the extreme importance of this final meal.

Thinking about this, though, I wonder if part of that was because Jesus was present this meal in the same way he had been present his entire relationship with them.  I imagine that Jesus saw each meal, each gathering around a table as a important ritual.  One where those present found nourishment both in body and in soul.

This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he broke the bread before them.  My body is for you.  My body is broken for you.  I am for you.  I live and I will die for you.  Through me the spiritual is made tangible, as tangible as this bread.  And just as I have shown you complete sacrificial love and selfless giving, you too must sacrifice and give in order to nourish your souls and through that refresh in them my spirit.

That’s what I see when I partake of this sacred gift: a more perfect version of how my Nana cared for her table and those around it with an unassuming, selfless offering of her love and soul.  When the meal was complete, she would sit silently, lovingly and be nourished by the love shared through the breaking of bread.  For as we partake of the gifts of God around the table, our souls and bodies are meant to be nourished both by the sacrificial love of the incarnate God but also that same love alive in all those around us that are welcomed at the table.

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My Family’s Table

“…for the people of God…” My family never really agrees on much.  Maybe a sports team here and there but often any table with all of us around it carries only a mere semblance of harmony.  In fact, shallow table conversations between my family members often carry the depth of past wrongdoings, painful words, or disappointing choices that are present in most significant relationships.  And yet the table remains our table and we are welcomed however we are.

Hearing “…for the people of God…” for the first time in reference to communion frightened me.  Ringing in my ears were the arguments from each side of the never-ending debate among churches, sects, denominations, or religions over who God’s “people” really are.  ‘Yeah, because, yah know, sure they are Christians or spiritual people or humans, but obviously we are the real Christians…you know, the enlightened truth-telling ones.  And, let me tell you, what a burden that is…’  Does that illustrate my fear well enough?

In the midst of my minor panic attack over the complicated debate my mind had just witnessed,I returned to Jesus around a table with his disciples, his family.  Something that had always seemed significant to me when I heard this story is when Jesus points out that one of the men around this sacred, communal table would betray him and another would deny him.  In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus even says “one who is eating with me” will betray me.  Someone around this celebration table.

But Jesus goes on to break the bread and share such a meal with the man that will go out and betray him later that night.  This is a meal for the people of God. So what does it mean for our communion sacrament that even a denier and a betrayer shared in this gathering? What does it mean for our communion practice that even after this betrayal was announced, Jesus chose not to withhold the nourishment of this meal and blessing from this man?

I think that it means that this act must offer individuals hope and mercy, even if they are not ready to accept or fully understand it.  I think it means that the definition of “the people of God” must be all that are called to the table.  I think it means that even though my family is not the perfect family and is sometimes not even the family I wish they could be, they are always my family.  The mess and the resentments,  the hurts and the apologies, the uncomfortable silences and the inaudible whispers do not change the transcendent power of belonging to a family.

If we had to make amends, confess our sins, and right our wrongs before gathering around our table and receiving nourishment, then we would never come to the table.  I think this is the beauty of the communion table.  We trust in the sacrificial love of that it represents to be real and present regardless of our own heart and wrongs.  Our imperfections, our mess could never decrease the spiritual presence and power of this sacred meal.

While this meal did not reconcile Judas to his community or change his decision to betray Jesus, it presented him with the mercy of still being a part of this gathering and the choice to seek reconciliation through the love experienced around the table.  Sometimes I choose to not forgive my family members, I choose to intentionally hurt them, or I choose to disassociate myself with them. In those moments I reject the opportunity or the moment to create reconciliation. But sometimes I ignore the burning pride within me and ask for help or forgiveness.  Sometimes I choose the reconciliation against all human odds and it’s in those moments that I see importance of always being welcomed at the table just as I am in that moment.  For only at the table am I present to the hope of possible redemption within my messy existence.

While this suggestion in particular is a controversial one, it is one that I hold strongly to because I believe that if one is never welcomed or accepted at the communion table, the sacred gathering, the experience of sacrificial love, one would never see the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, let alone choose such spiritual hopes.  Judas was given the vision, the opportunity for reconciliation and even though he chose not to embrace it, he was still radically welcomed at this communion, celebration table.

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My Community’s Table

“Come to the table.”  An announcement that, in my Amate House community, could mean a variety of different gatherings from an actual meal to a house meeting to a skit video-taping.  But such an announcement never failed to invite us all to gather together after long, exhausting days at our individual volunteer placements.  A repeated invitation to be refreshed and remember each other.

Another reason why these words, “Come to the table,” uttered by a pastor at LaSalle Street Church before communion one Sunday, still echo within my mind is that they were accompanied by a movement by the congregation to approach the alter.  While I had been to many churches where the congregation approach the front of the church to receive the elements, never had I seen it done quite like this.  Instead of individually receiving the bread and the wine and then moving quietly back to your seat, we stood in a line probably ten or so people long and we each partook of the meal, waited for each other to be finished, and then the individual that gave us the bread and wine blessed us saying, “Go now in peace to love and serve the world.”

Come to the table.  Come to the table together to be nourished.  Come to the table together to be nourished so that you are reminded that you are not alone.  So that you are reminded that you have a community.  So that you are reminded that you do not bear the burdens of injustice, disappointment and pain on your weak, frail shoulders.  So that you are reminded that people that may not even know you are united in love to you through this table.

Amate House taught me more about the communion table than any church service or minister could teach me.  My community taught me how to come to the table without fear that I would destroy the bonds of our community with my own struggles and mistakes.  My community taught me how to come to the table daily despite my desire to isolate myself and bear the burden on my own.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I could finally be nourished instead of worrying about nourishing others.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I would have the courage and strength to face the next work day full of injustice.

I came to the communion table every night around my Amate House table for I was surrounded by sacrificial love, offered the opportunity for reconciliation with others and redemption of my own story, and reminded of the presence of a community around me.

No wonder Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  For only through being surrounded by a community, by being nourished along side someone that is as desperate for nourishment as you are, by celebrating small mercies around a table, would even the son of God, Jesus, have been ready to endure future suffering.  Suffering increases our desire to be alone but it increases our need to be with each other.  We come together weekly, daily, hourly, to remind each other that we are safe to take risks even if we fail, suffer, or make a fool of ourselves because we are sure of the community waiting to celebrate with us regardless of the result.

Communion must be about nourishment for both body and soul, but it must always be an act of unity and community.  Only around the table, any loving community table, can I muster the strength to do the work of justice every day.  And on the days that I’m unable to see the hope and promise of redemption, the community that gathers with me at the table is living proof of the reality of this promise.  We must always respond to the call of community, which we most frequently hear during this call to communion, but is also present around other tables.  Responding to the call means giving up the crushing weight of the whole burden to instead carry your portion arm in arm with the person next to you.

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I have not explained nearly half of my thoughts about this all important topic, but I have given you a glimpse into the tables of my life and how they inform my understanding of communion.  May we never forget that despite our beautiful, human imperfections the power and the sanctity of this communal meal never changes.  Each gathering brings a new experience, insight, and understanding.  And through this we are changed by it.

“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God.  Come to the table.”


If you missed this blog series, you can find the other posts here:
https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/09/life-around-a-table-part-three/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/07/life-around-a-table-part-two/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

Picture from: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Life Around A Table: Part Two

17056_568427814026_8232112_n-1“Who wants to pray?,” my mom proclaims as the five of us scurry to the dinner table.  Usually that question was answered with averting eyes and silent hopes that she wouldn’t call on any of us to bless the food before us on the table.  The uncomfortable silence was often broken by Heath’s inner duty, as the oldest Carter child, to take the burden for us, even though we all knew he really loved doing it.  After the prayer, you couldn’t blink without missing the food being devoured before your eyes.

I blame this Carter habit on my inability to actually chew my food.  With two older brothers, it was eat fast or don’t eat at all.  So this survival technique has followed me into my adult years.  Throughout the constant food-shoveling, we would often go around the table and talk about the highs and lows of our days in an attempt to have everyone’s voice be heard.  This tradition, though, would often devolve into a argument about how long everyone got to explain all the details of their day, thanks to Ashley’s tendency to dominant the conversation with every minute detail, and whether “the end of this dinner” could count as one of our highs.

My family table.  This is where I spent 18 years of my daily life and this is the place that continues to always offer me an open seat no matter where life leads.  The Carter table never promised to be peaceful or quiet or even enjoyable, but we were always promised a seat.  Often the table is where we would hash out the latest sibling argument or more likely sat in an unbearable silence as we all shot death glares at each other across the table.  No words were necessary because everyone knew what we were thinking.

Our table was the center of our holidays and our celebrations.  And even as my brothers left our house for college, it remained the central meeting point, the war room, the game center, and the reminder that no matter where everyone’s life took them, we could all return to this table.  While it would be nice to be able to say that I learned the best manners, the most mature ways of dealing with conflict, and the best practices in handling a board game defeat, that would definitely be distorting the truth.

It was common for table conversation to be interrupted by a thunderous sound, which we soon deduce had come from the behind of one of the Carter men.  This deduction would then lead to complaints and proclamations that the offender must spend five or ten minutes in the bathroom for his crime and in hopes to prevent a future offense from occurring in the general vicinity.  Family game time would begin with Ashley’s typical speech about abhorring games and leaving the area in order to avoid being forced to join in on a round of Taboo or Scategories.  I’m convinced, though, that it all stems from an embarrassing round of Scategories when he proudly announced his answer for “A Four Letter Word” and it happened to be one letter too many.  Then, of course, family game time would necessarily end in tears, shouts, and accusations of cheating.  Yet somehow we continued to gather around and play together.

My family’s table taught me that I can be myself, no matter what that looks like at the moment.  I’m still accepted if I’m playing the role of the bratty youngest sibling tattling on my older brothers, if I’m mad about my assigned weekly chores, or if I spend the whole time gloating about my recent victory in Taboo or a good report card from school.  I am always welcome at the table.

My family’s table was the picture of dysfunction and brokenness, but we always found a way to celebrate.  We were able to bring our genuine, authentic selves into communion with one another with the reassuring knowledge that, in the end, we are family so we have to deal with each other.  This table was the one place that we could all take off the roles that we often portrayed to the outside world and be our ugly, manipulative but extremely awesome selves.  The end result was we all knew we were pretty messed up but we accepted each other and worked to love each other in the best ways we could each day.  There was no fear of rejection, no pretense of perfection and no desire for winning the other over, because we were family.

I learned to embrace the mess that I often rejected in the rest of my life.  I learned the practice of constant forgiveness and reconciliation.  And I learned that even if we are angry, hurt or depressed we can still come to the table, shovel food into our mouths for nourishment and know that we can be exactly the messed up and disappointing people we often are.


If you missed the first post of this blog series, you can find it here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

Life Around a Table: Part One

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“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course.  And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers.   I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.

Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident.  My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.

After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor.  The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day.  And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.

Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.

While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special.  She made it special.  We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table.  She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.

For my Nana, her table was communion.  It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important.  She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.

For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty.  Everyone was royalty for these moments.

I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women.  Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives.  In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.

More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important.  Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal.  And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved.  We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.

Maya Angelou: Songs of Freedom


“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is, was and will forever be a unbreakable prophet. She spoke of the day when the “caged bird’s song” would burst open the iron gate that rendered its wings useless dreams. She sang the song of freedom when only captivity and despair seemed present. She was a prophet of song, of verse, of life.

Poetry is more than writing. More than putting pen to paper and hoping for the best. The best of poets, like Angelou, know how to speak into the rhythm of the world, to beckon the human spirit and to call that spirit beyond this present moment to a possible future. Angelou was a poet with both her word and her life.

She spoke of a freedom that surpassed the physical chains that bound so many. A freedom of the mind, the spirit, the essence of humanity. I will never forget the moment I read Angelou’s quote above, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She knew the goal of every artist, poet, writer, human–to be completely and utterly known.

Such is not an easy task. For to be known one must bear one’s soul for another waiting in helpless silence to hear a response. Most of us never make it to that silence. Fear keeps us living within constant noise so that we are seen through every medium possible, but never truly known. Maya Angelou lived in that silence, recklessly unleashing her soul for her own soul’s freedom.

She lived in the silence of a tomorrow where ever “caged bird” not only sang the dream of freedom but flew in its life-giving wind. May we all seek that silence for the memory of Angelou and for the future for which she so deeply lived her life. A silence that speaks of human vulnerability, acceptance and a told, heard, and known story.

Thank you, Maya Angelou, for singing, dancing, celebrating, persevering and living your freedom story. Not only was your soul unchained by your story and your voice, but, through your life and your work, you helped create a freedom story for so many of us.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. May her freedom song continue to tell our unending human story.

Such as a Spring Songbird

Such as a spring songbird bellowing its notes from above
but hiding its form in the tops of the maple tree.
A long winter has burst forth into a fervent spring
providing a dense protection for a spring songbird.

Such as a spring songbird desperately hoping to be heard
but fearing to be seen, to be noticed, to be known.
In just a flit such beauty escapes the searching eyes from below
giving the solitary spring songbird a moment’s refuge.

Such as a spring songbird repeating its uniquely perfect call
but forgetting to first notice the beings around it.
Its hopeful voice breathes depth into the newly warmed air
meeting a passerby’s ear with sweet, seductive melodies.

Such as a spring songbird beckoning every gaze upward
but lacking the courage to leave its security, its place.
From above it peers down full of doubt, full of wonder
thinking only that not anyone cares to hear its soulful song.

Courageously Forward: Isaiah Turns Seven

I catch my breath as I brace for a loving, yet abrupt impact.  A bundle of energy, joy, and excitement hurdles through the air with startling determination.  Such determination is expected from a grown man in combat or a mother protecting her young children.  But as I look in front of me I only see a young boy sprinting, as gracefully as a seven year old can, towards my vulnerable frame.  Before I know it, he’s in my arms giving me the biggest strangle-of-a-hug I have experienced in my 23 years of life.  He hugs me every time like I am never going to see him again.  He hugs ever ounce of love out of his small body into my heart.  And I know that I have the most special nephew in the world. ImageIsaiah turned seven this week.  It’s hard for me to believe that I have been blessed with over three years of hugs from this little guy. And they have never run out.  For seven years, Isaiah has lived his life just like he gives his hugs.  He runs at whatever or whoever is in front of him throwing caution, and often safety, to the wind to show his love and his trust in himself and unending hope in this world that whatever happens he will be alright, he will survive, he will fly.  Isaiah does not worry about the “what-ifs,” the negative voices around him, or even his possible failure, because in his mind he is a super hero.  ImageAnd he is a superhero. He has survived.  He has made it through every challenge with resilience and strength.  Before the age of three, Isaiah had been in eight foster homes throughout Chicago.  But courageously forward, this boy overcame.  Isaiah’s adoption was finalized in court last summer and followed immediately by a trip to this boy’s favorite restaurant, Francesca’s, for some delicious calamari (yes, he has good taste).  It hasn’t been easy, though.  Many nights have been filled with tears, anger and frustration working through the complexities of Isaiah and his experience, but if anything is true about this little boy it is that he does not move forward slowly. His high energy, somewhat short attention span, and courageous attitude makes him always move forward in leaps, bounds, and karate kicks. 

ImageAnd as Isaiah moves forward, tackling any obstacles that try to get in his way, he thrives.  Whether it is being an amazing older brother to two rambunctious boys or reading chapter books for hours at a time, Isaiah just seems to live a superhero life every day.  My life will never be the same now because he has taught me hope.  Not that wistful wish in a sea of pessimism which is often equated with hope.  No, Isaiah teaches me that kind of “I’m gonna run as fast as I can, take risks, and love intensely because I know I can survive anything” hope. A super hero hope.  For with each Isaiah hug, you can be confident that he understands the importance of tangible hope.  A hope that changes everything.  A hope you have to brace yourself for. 

Happy Birthday, Isaiah!

I Walk, I Do Not Run for Justice

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I walk, I do not run for justice
Oh how I wish I could fly.
Soar above the despair.
Yet, the burden is too heavy.

This load, this crushing weight
My own, my brothers’, my sisters’
Forces me to take slow, heavy steps
Forward, always forward

But I fall, often I fall
For justice is not perfection
It is a devastatingly human desire
Full of lust, envy and failure

So I walk, I do not run for justice
For each human failure
accepted, noticed, loved
Makes the steps easier, the burden lighter.

My stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters
Their stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters

For how can I run?
When millions struggle to simply stand
Under these structural burdens
For only my privilege lets me run.

But if I run, I stand atop these burdens
Freely, swiftly
Pursuing a lofty end of justice
While adding more weight to these burdens

So I choose to walk, to carry this weight
Not run above it, adding to it
For a justice, sustainable
For a healing, universal.

May we walk, not run for justice
Noticing people, dreams, failures along our way
Building community that chooses to carry this unbearable weight
Understanding our privilege to even dream about simply running.

Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers.  I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season.  I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate. 

The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)

Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center.   As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile.   After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.

Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.

Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.