Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Keep Growing!

My wonderful husband makes me coffee each day before he leaves for work (and before I wake up.) So, every morning I have a few minutes to sit and stare out the kitchen window while I wait for the microwave to heat up my coffee. As I look out the window, I see all the trees and brush growing on our mostly wild property. In particular, I see a tree just outside the back fence that I have come to think of as “my” tree, because I see it as symbolizing my life with a chronic illness.

Several years ago, we had a terrible ice storm, which coated all of our trees. The ice was so heavy that the younger, thinner trees bent over with the weight of it. After the ice melted, all the trees gradually returned to their normal upright position over the next few days, with the exception of this one, which has remained bowed over ever since. Somehow, it was so damaged by the ice that it was never able to spring back. For years, I would look at it and think that maybe it would eventually get back to the way it was, but it has never happened. However this year, I noticed something that is absolutely amazing: at the top of the arc, new growth has appeared, reaching straight up! It’s as if the tree has realized it’s never going to unbend, so it better start growing upward in the only way it can - from its new “top!” It’s just getting on with its purpose in life as best it can, which is to grow up toward the sky.

And that’s what got me thinking about the parallel to my own life. Over thirteen years ago I was “bent over” by an illness. Most people would have recovered normally from it, and gone back to “standing upright” (full health.) But I never did. I’ve remained “bent over” (chronically ill) all these years. I was too damaged by the illness to go back to normal. BUT, even though I’m bent over, I’m still growing! I’m growing out from my illness! Just because I’m chronically ill, doesn’t mean my purpose in life is over! I’m still sick, but my life still has meaning. I can still grow. It’s not the growth I would have wanted, but it’s still growth. 

And the alternative can also be seen in this photo: off to the right you can see a tree that snapped off because of the weight of the ice. That could have been “my” tree. It would have been easy for me to just give up on my life and dreams, because of my illness. All of my hopes and plans were dashed. I could have just snapped in two. But I didn’t. I decided that even though I’m bent over, even though I’m not like a “normal” healthy person, I wouldn’t give up. I chose to keep growing, just as “my” tree has!

Maybe life has left you “bent over” too. Maybe you thought that you could never grow again, because of the damage caused. But that tree is living proof that you can keep growing, keep living. I see it every day, and it reminds me the God can create good out of any situation, any life - no matter how broken. If that tree can do it, so can I. And so can you!

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Peace That Passes Understanding

All Christians are familiar with Philippians 4:7 which reads:
“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” 

That’s the King James translation. Other translations are even more expressive:
  • And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [NASB]
  • And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [NIV]
  • Then you will experience God's peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [New Living Translation]
I have always loved the idea behind this verse, even as a little girl. It spoke of the “bigness” of God, and of God’s amazing power - that we could have peace even when it didn’t make sense to. I believe that at various times in my life I experienced that peace. But now, I am living in that peace. 

Allow me to explain.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or you know me personally, you know that I’m chronically ill, and have been ill for over 13 years, now. Prior to that, I was a hard-core amateur athlete, and I had a rewarding career that I loved. But because of the illness, I had to give all that up. In fact, I had to give up everything - even going to church - because I just didn’t have the energy to do so. As the years passed and I never got better (despite many prayers and many doctor visits), I obviously struggled to find my way in this new life I had. I eventually came to the point where I placed all my trust in God, because I knew that God is good and God is love. I didn’t understand why God didn’t heal me, but I still trusted that God could make something good come out of even something as negative as a chronic illness. It’s been a long journey, with many, many ups and downs, but here I am 13 years later, and I am at peace. And this peace doesn’t seem to be going away! Even on my worst days, there is still this underlying feeling of peace and contentment. 

Now, don’t misunderstand me - I still have days when the unfairness of it all hits me hard, and I feel angry and depressed. But even in the midst of those difficult emotions, I am somehow at peace; I don’t feel consumed by the dark feelings - they’re there, I acknowledge them, I feel them, but they don’t seem to outweigh the peace in the depth of my soul. It’s really quite incomprehensible, if you look at it logically! I mean, seriously, just think: I lost a job I loved (which also meant a loss of over half of our family income), I lost my sports that practically defined who I thought I was as a person, I lost my church, I lost my volunteer activities, I lost almost all of my other hobbies and interests. I have lost SO much! And on top of the loss, I feel terrible, physically. Every single day. No matter how long I sleep, I never wake up refreshed. I feel like I have the flu 24/7/365. And yet I have peace.

It truly does surpass comprehension and understanding!

All I can say is, it’s God. This peace is not of my own making. My natural tendency is to worry and to overthink things. But somehow in the midst of this incredibly difficult life, I have peace. When I gave up my need to control things, when I put my trust fully in God, the peace that passes understanding arrived! And it looks as though it’s here to stay. I certainly hope so!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I've Got This!

It’s now two days from the inauguration as president of the US a man who is a proven liar, a proven sexual predator, a proven misogynist, bigot, and xenophobe. A man who is trying to reduce the freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, not to mention freedom of speech.  A man who was endorsed by the KKK and Nazis, who has appointed a self-avowed white supremacist to his staff. A man whose candidacy and election has torn the fetters off of the dark side of our country,  causing an eruption of hate crimes unprecedented in our history. On top of this, we have a GOP led Congress attempting to repeal the ACA (with no replacement in sight), and with plans to gut the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, and to remove funding from Planned Parenthood (the latter in the name of being “pro life” - completely ignoring the fact that abortions are at an all time low, due to the availability of birth control, which Planned Parenthood provides!) The governmental checks and balances that our founding fathers created are all out of whack, with the GOP in control of Congress, the White House, and due to their refusal to let President Obama to appoint someone to the vacant spot on the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court. And they have demonstrated a complete disregard for the welfare of anyone in this country who is not white and rich. How are we to live in such a country - a country that looks more and more like pre-WWII Germany? How do we do this?

It’s so very easy to look at all of this and fall into despair and hopelessness. I have to admit, I was in that pit for a while after the election. I just didn’t see what I could do to combat all the evil i was seeing in our country. But I have crawled and scratched and pulled myself out of that pit for a variety of reasons. First, I donated money to groups that are fighting for people’s rights (for a list of such organizations see this earlier blog post.) I also made a conscious effort to be aware of all the people and groups that are rising up and taking action, instead of just focusing on the negative. And I prayed, of course.

Through all of this, what I have come to understand about myself is that my whole life has molded me into someone who is made for such a time as this. Let me explain. From a very young age I considered myself an athlete. i got into running track in grade school, and continued throughout junior high, high school and college. I also added cross country and basketball, which meant I was in training throughout the entire school year. And after college, I spent years playing soccer and softball, and then got into bicycle racing. This means that I know how to work hard. I know how to work with others to accomplish a goal. I know how to face adversity and keep trying. I know how to look at something that seems impossible, yet go for it anyway. I know how to fight! I was not the fastest runner on my team in high school, but my coach put me on the anchor leg of the relay because I would never, ever give up! So for the majority of my life, I have had these lessons of perseverance and tenacity ingrained in my very soul.

And then 13 years ago I got sick and became chronically ill. As my life slowly became constricted and lessened due to my physical limitations, I learned to stay positive in the face of this loss. I learned to not give into despair and hopelessness, in spite of living with an illness that has no cure, one that has left me completely disabled and mostly housebound, taking away the things I loved to do. I learned to face a life that I didn’t want, that was unfair, that was so freaking hard! The lessons I learned from a lifetime of athletics translated perfectly to facing a life with a chronic illness.

And, guess what? These are the same traits that I need to live in such a time as this! I know how to fight a seemingly hopeless battle. I know how to not give into hopelessness and despair, despite what life throws at you. I know how to work with others to achieve a goal. I know how to live in a country ruled by Nazi oligarchs! My whole life has prepared me for this!

So, yeah, I’m not giving up. I may not be able to change the country on my own, but if we go down, I’ll go down fighting! On my deathbed, I’ll be able to say I fought the good fight. I ran the race so as to win. I stood up for the oppressed, I spoke for the helpless, I fought for the rights of my brothers and sisters. I know how to do this. I’ve got this!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Conflicted Advent

Advent and Christmas are my favorite seasons. Growing up, our family observed Advent with a wreath, with candles we lit each night, and prayers and hymns before dinner. We didn’t put up our tree until Christmas Eve, because it wasn’t Christmas yet! It made the actual arrival of Christmas Day even more special. I fondly remember going to the 11:00pm Christmas Eve service at Church, and when the service was over, everyone got to finally say “Merry Christmas!” because it was finally Christmas! 
So, now, as an adult, I keep many of the same traditions. We have an Advent wreath for our dining room table, though we don’t always light the candles, and we don't say any special Advent prayers before dinner. But I use Advent devotionals during my quiet time in the morning, and there is just a kind of warmth in my heart during this time of year. We also don’t put up our tree until the 24th, and we leave it up for the 12 days of Christmas, taking it down on January 6. During the whole month of Advent and the 12 days of Christmas, I love thinking about and meditating on what it means to say, “Emmanuel - God with us!” It’s just the best time of the year for me, what with fond memories, and my own spiritual practices.

But…this year, 2016, it is hard to feel joyful, hard to feel the hope of Emmanuel. In the US, Donald Trump was elected president (despite losing the popular vote by 2.7 million votes) and the fall-out has been an unprecedented rise in hate crimes committed against Jews, Muslims, and people of color - many such crimes being explicitly committed in Trump’s name. Trump’s staff and cabinet picks are full of avowed racists (though they prefer the term “alt-right”) and Islamophobes. His administration is talking about slashing Medicare and Social Security, and gutting the Affordable Care Act. It’s as if all the progress this country made in the last 8 years is going to be undone in 6 months. American Muslims and gays are going to lose their civil rights, and the poor and economically marginalized are going to be thrown to the wolves. And in the face of all this, I’m supposed to sing “Joy to the world”??

Well, yes, exactly. Think about when and where Jesus was born. Israel was an occupied country, ruled over by a puppet of the Roman Empire who was a dictator and a despot. Jews had no rights, and a Roman soldier could demand of them that they carry his load, or that they give him the very coats off their backs. They were taxed without any say in the government. Furthermore, Jesus’ parents were essentially homeless at the time of his birth, having been forced by the occupying government to return to Joseph’s ancestral land in order to be counted in a census. In the midst of this, the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth, announcing “good news” and “peace on Earth.” Surely the shepherds had to be thinking, “Peace on Earth? Yeah, right!” 

God chose a very dark time and place to send the Messiah and remind us that God is “with us” - that the very presence of God is within us and among us, that God is on our side and not against us. And now, given our political climate, what better time to hope for the coming of one who will bring Light and Life, and a peace that “passes understanding”? And I’m not talking about some kind of second coming, here. And I’m not talking about remembering the physical coming of a baby 2000 years ago. I’m talking about the very real presence of God that is among us, here and now - for we know that wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, then God is there. (Matt. 18:20) We also know that “whoever loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7) The Good News 2000 years ago, that God is with us and therefore we can know hope and peace, is still the Good News today. So, maybe it’s not really a “conflicted” Advent for me, after all. It’s just Advent, as it was 2000 years ago, so it is today: In Jesus, we can know hope, we can know peace, we can know that God is truly with us!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

For Such A Time As This

Note: This post is mostly directed at my Christian brothers and sisters. I know that there are those with different beliefs, or no belief at all, who are also called to be kind, compassionate, and loving, but I specifically want to address those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

You who know Christ - awaken! You who follow Jesus of Nazareth - come alive! You have been fed and nurtured over the years. You know the Gospel. You (try to) live the Gospel. You believe God is Love, that God is Light, and the Darkness cannot overwhelm the Light. You have fought many spiritual battles. You have been victorious, and you have failed, yet you still trust God.  You have been bruised and beaten, yet you have not been crushed! You have emerged from your trials wiser and stronger! And now - now that we see hatred and bigotry rising in our country; now that we see the highest office in our land filled by someone who speaks hatred, racism, and lies; now that we see the Darkness rising - now is our time. We were born for such a time as this.

Now is our time to do more good, to do more acts of kindness, to show more compassion, to love more. We know just what to do in dark times: to follow ever more closely the example given to us in the words and life of Jesus. To love the outcast, to love the poor, to have compassion on the downtrodden, to preach the Good News that everyone - everyone - is loved by God and is worthy of our love and concern. 

We know that in Christ there is “no Jew, no Gentile, no male, no female.” That means there is no “other” - no Muslim, no immigrant, no refugee, no gay, no straight, no American, no black, no white. There is only - only - children of God. There is not even an enemy, despite what politicians might tell you. For in Christ, we are called to love our enemies, which thereby imbues them with that very same Love that God has given us, and which no longer makes them our enemies, but our brothers and sisters.

We know all this because we have been recipients of this love all our lives. We know this because it has been imparted into our very souls by the Holy Spirit. We have been led to this time, here and now. We have been fed, taught, and nurtured this through all our years (be they many or few) and now we have the strength and power to act in this Love. For such a time as this.

It is easy to see the darkness all around us and give in to despair and hopelessness. But God is a god of hope! God’s very nature is one of love and rebirth. If we say we believe in God and that we follow Jesus, then we must hope, we must love. And we are empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit, breathing life and love and hope into our hearts and minds, so that we can share that love and hope with others. It is not our strength, but God’s. 

It is not easy to stand against the Darkness with your one feeble little candle. But that candle has the power to dispel the Darkness, and to give hope to those whose candles have gone out. If others see your candle, they are encouraged to let their own light shine. First there is one candle, then two, then three, then four, five, ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand! And the Darkness cannot stand against that Light.

So let your light shine! Love extravagantly, as you have been loved! Give extravagantly, as you have been given to! For surely, you were born for such a time as this.

***If you are looking for organizations to donate to or volunteer with, see my previous post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Do We Do Now?

These are dark times in the USA. Donald Trump has been elected president, despite the fact that Hilary Clinton garnered over 2 million more votes (thanks Electoral College!) In the wake of his election, hate crimes - most explicitly done in his name - have skyrocketed. They are occurring everywhere, even here in Spokane, where I live. Trump has appointed a man, Steve Bannon, whose media empire is the “voice of the alt-right” (his own words) and his nominee for Attorney General was once deemed “too racist” to serve as a judge. Muslims, people of color, the LGBTQI community, all are living in fear for their safety, their civil rights, their very lives. Trump has hinted to the journalism community that he wants to be portrayed positively, and for them to not report on the negative side of his presidency. This is how fascism begins. I truly fear for my country, for my neighbors, for my friends, for the world. 

In light of all this, what is a person to do? It’s easy to look at it all and feel overwhelmed by the darkness. But we are not helpless. We are not alone. There are millions of people who oppose Trump and his racist, bigoted ways. We can definitely make a difference, and it can be quite simple.

First of all, do not remain silent in the face of hate crimes. This kind of stuff cannot ever be considered normal for our society. Prior to Trump, these people hid under the bushes, rightly ashamed of their thoughts and actions. For them, they see his election as giving them the stamp of approval and empowering them to act on their heinous views. We must always - ALWAYS - speak out against such acts. Silence implies consent. Speak out!

We must oppose any government attempt to restrict or diminish the civil rights of our fellow citizens. Registering Muslims, deporting or rounding them up must be vigorously opposed at every step. We cannot make the same mistake we did during WWII, when millions of Japanese Americans lost their homes and businesses as they were arrested and incarcerated in internment camps. The government will try to couch these actions in patriotic terms: “For the good of the nation” or “For our national security.” But these are just attempts to sweeten what is a heinous and very un-American act. We cannot fall for such lies.

We must oppose any government attempt to deny entry to any immigrant based solely on their religion. The Syrian refugees are fleeing a hell-hole of a war zone. They are not Islamic terrorists. The US already has one of the strictest vetting policy for immigrants. It has kept us safe so far, and will continue to do so. But America was built on the very idea of opening her arms to refugees and immigrants. Our Statue of Liberty proclaims this in no uncertain terms, and our history shows this to be true. Unless you are a member of a Native American tribe, you are here because your ancestors immigrated to this country, perhaps by force, but they immigrated here, nonetheless. All that we have accomplished as a nation was accomplished by immigrants and refugees. To close our borders is to deny who we are as a nation - to deny the very principles upon which this nation was founded.

Most importantly, we must act to counter the tenor of hate and fear that has been unleashed and fed by Trump’s campaign and election. It is so easy to see the hatred in other people and to react with more hatred and revulsion. But as Martin Luther King, Jr famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” And Jesus Christ taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. So, if we are to conquer the hatred we must respond only with love. We must seek to understand why someone is acting out in hate. Most often, their hatred is based on some kind of fear, and that fear is almost always unfounded, though they don’t see it that way. But if we can understand the fear that is driving the hate, we can see them as our brothers and sisters, and not the enemy. For as surely as we think of them as “them”, as something “other”, then we will have failed to respond in love.

I want to live in such a way that peace and love are not just motivating factors, but are the bedrock, the foundation of who I am as a person. I want to live a life full of grace - grace received by God, grace given unto myself, and grace given to those I meet. I want my life to be a mirror to the mystery of the relationship of the Trinity, played out in my relationship with other humans. The three “persons” of the Trinity are in an eternal dance of interdependence. When I can live in such a way that I know and feel my interconnectedness with everyone else, then there is no “other” - there is only “us.” In this way, I recognize the brokenness of those who are currently expressing hatred and bigotry, and therefore do not seek to overpower them, but to come alongside them, and help them find their interconnectedness to others. When we truly understand that we are all connected, and that what hurts you also hurts me, then we act in such a way to ensure that all people are valuable, all people are worthy, all people deserve our protection and our love.

How do we do this in every day life? For me, it is the daily interactions with people I meet - the clerks in the grocery store, the people at the post office, those that I am in line with somewhere. In the past, as an introvert, i would pretty much ignore these people. The interactions with clerks never involved eye contact, never involved conversation other than the most minimal required by social convention. Now, as hard as it is for me because it is not my natural tendency, I look these people in the eye. I respond enthusiastically with any greeting. I look for something to compliment them on - their hair, their jewelry, a tattoo - some way to make a human connection, and to make them feel good about themselves. I could be the one who gives them a compliment all day long. I’m not doing anything “phony” - this is actually being quite real, acknowledging our interconnectedness and our interdependence. It doesn’t get more real than connecting with another human being. 

And it doesn’t have to stop there, with simple conversation. Pay for the order in the car behind you next time you go through the drive-through for coffee or fast food. Pay for someone’s dinner at a restaurant. Buy a take-out lunch and give it to that pan-handler on the street corner. Or buy them a cup of coffee on a cold day. Give them a pair of socks, or gloves. I guarantee that those small things will completely change the day for that person - and change your day, too. When we give to others, we also receive something - we receive a changed heart, a heart that is not so alone and isolated. We rediscover our interconnectedness. This is the very core of what it means to live fully human, fully aware.

Each small act of love - for that is what this is - acts as a counter to the violence and hatred in the world. Imagine the change in our country if every one of us went out of our way to put a smile on a stranger’s face. If only HALF of us did this, it would be amazing! These are small things that can have a great impact. Not only does the recipient feel blessed, not only do you feel better, but you feel less helpless in the face of the hatred and violence sweeping our country. This is something tangible you can do to counter all the negativity.

But you don’t have to stop there, either! You can make a donation to the organizations that are standing against racism and bigotry, such as the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. You could donate to a local homeless shelter, or the YWCA. You could donate to a myriad of programs supporting the current protests and Standing Rock. You could sponsor a child with Compassion International. You could donate to your local center for LGBTQI youth. You could donate to World Relief or other organizations helping refugees and immigrants.

And, then, if you really want to go all out in “being the change you want to see in the world,” you can volunteer. Volunteer at your local school or library or community center. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Volunteer at the YWCA, or a woman’s shelter, or a food bank. Volunteer with an organization that helps refugees. I would particularly like to encourage you to volunteer somewhere out of your comfort zone. Volunteer with a group that helps people with whom you normally have no contact. Expose yourself to people of different economic strata, or of a different culture or background. The more we can see that all people are the same underneath, the less likely we will be to fear or hate them.

To help you find an organization to donate to or volunteer with, here are a couple of lists.

For people who live in or near Spokane, WA:

National/International organizations and charities:

If each of us donated just $25 dollars to a couple of these organizations, think of the positive results! If only one in ten of us volunteered somewhere, think of the impact! And if we ALL were simply to be kind to others, to go out of our way to brighten someone’s day, just think how our communities would change! This is what will make America great again - an America that cares about every single person. Won’t you join me?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stranger in a Strange Land

I feel like a stranger in my own country. Racist and misogynistic hate crimes are proliferating throughout the US, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to President. The KKK and American Nazi party are celebrating, because they feel that they now have a friend in the White House. And Trump just appointed a white supremacist to be his chief of staff, so they are probably right. Not only that, but his other appointees are calling for a new House Un-American Activities Committee, just as during the McCarthy era, and Trump has declared that he plans to “round up” all undocumented immigrants and incarcerate them, and he plans to force all Muslims to register with the government, both of which sound suspiciously like what Hitler did to the Jews. It was for the “good of the nation” Hitler told his citizens, just as Trump is telling us.

How can this be happening? Did no one pay attention during history class in high school? I feel like the British must have felt during the Nazi bombings - under siege in my own country. But it’s not some external enemy that is attacking us, but it is our own government. The GOP now control both the White House and Congress, and their plans are going to set our country back by decades: rescind the Affordable Care Act, dismantle or severely cripple Social Security and Medicare, remove environmental protections and limits on drilling and mining, stop investing in alternative/sustainable energy sources, remove civil rights from the LGBTQI community, etc. Just as we were on the brink of becoming a better nation, with guaranteed health benefits like the rest of the civilized world and civil rights for all, we are now faced with at least 4 years of destruction.

And I feel so helpless. My gay friends are in fear of losing their marriages, and in fear of their very lives. My female Muslim friends are afraid to wear the hijab in public, and also fear for their lives and the lives of their children. My Black friends are also in fear for their lives. I am in fear of losing my Social Security Disability benefits, as are other disabled people I know. Other friends are now going to be unable to retire, because they will need to keep working in order to afford health care. How does any of this make America “great” again??

I used to believe that the majority of Americans were good, decent people, and that there were just a few “crazies” out there who hated minorities. I now fear that the “crazies” are in the majority. At the very least, the good and decent people who voted for Trump were willing to excuse his racism and bigotry in favor of his economic plans or his (supposed) pro-life stance. They basically looked at a bigot and said, “Well, that’s ok - he’s going to fix the economy.” And that may even be worse than the overt racism of the KKK. This is a racism that says economic plans are of more importance than human rights. And that is truly terrifying, because now these people will go along with whatever Trump does, because they’ve already decided they can ignore his racism and bigotry. So they will keep on ignoring it. Meanwhile, Trump is leading our country down the very same path that Hitler did in pre-war Germany.

No, I no longer recognize my America. And I no longer feel safe in this new America.