The Stories We Tell (or Don’t)

Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.

Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.

12 years in. 12 years out.

Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.

For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.

So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.

Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”

I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.

There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.


Small, Faithful Minority

candle_in_the_darkEvery man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loathe to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “The Cost of Discipleship”

And then Jesus spoke to the disciples saying: Go forth and become the majority. Build for yourself a great nation. Create laws and ordinances to ensure that all of the nation obeys the precepts of that you, as the church, shall create. And those that do not obey or seem a threat, you shall punish, ostracize, and ban them. And I shall pour forth blessings upon that nation and they shall inherit the earth.

Wait… What?!  That’s not at all how scripture reads. Jesus came into this world 2017 years ago and we’re still fighting petty moral battles, much as the religious authorities were during biblical times. Why? Because we human beings are a damn stubborn bunch. We are also social creatures and thus, we seek safety in numbers. We prefer to be surrounded by like-minded people, with similar goals and aspirations. As American Christians, whether we admit it openly or not, we hope to secure our moral authority through attaining a majority rule. Somewhere a notion has arisen that we must establish a Christian nation. Is that really what Jesus taught? I don’t know about you but as a follower of Jesus, I don’t go to bed at night reciting the Pledge of Allegiance nor do I awake in the morning to meditate on the Bill of Rights.

Jesus told the disciples that they are salt and they are light. The kingdom of God is a tiny seed and a small bit of yeast. God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. Those who are blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness (note that says desire, not enforce), the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers (again, not enforcers) and the persecuted. Do any of those sound like a majority?

One uses a bit of salt to flavor the whole dish. If the whole dish were salt, it would be inedible. One lights a lamp to light a dark room. If the whole room were filled with flame, everything would be burned. Mustard seeds need room to grow into large bushes. Planted in a clump, the plants would be stunted, and likely not survive. Yeast alone cannot produce bread. It must be a tiny portion mixed into the dough.

It can be hard when the darkness becomes powerful and we begin to feel overwhelmed to remember that we were never told to subdue or conquer the darkness. Our calling is to stand against the darkness and we may fail at times. And when that minority feels impossibly small, we must remember that Jesus started, not with a conquering army, but with a wandering band of 12 average men who brought the flickering light of hope into a dark world. You can look around for the secure religious majority or you can decide with your eyes fixed solely on Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbors. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you. Defend the widow and orphan. You are light that holds back the darkness and gives hope to the people in darkness around you. Or not. Your choice.


Lent of Little Things

Lent of Little Things

noteThe last two weeks, Lent has taken an interesting turn. What started out with anger, tears, and revisiting old trust issues has led to a series of little moments that feel like something I can’t quite name. Reassurance? Affirmation?  Those both have connotations that don’t quite fit but I guess they’ll have to do.

It started when a friend had the opportunity to hear William Paul Young speak. I’ve read The Shack at least 20 times and it has become a part of me. But because of that, I could never quite bring myself to pick up either of Young’s other two books which followed it. If his other books didn’t bring me to the depths to which The Shack brought me, I would be heartbroken. It was risk I had decided not to take. All that over a book. I know, it sounds a wee bit dramatic but The Shack found its way into my hands at precisely the right time and every time I read it, something new reaches me. Now I was hearing about Young’s latest work, Eve. In spite of my reluctance, I was intrigued enough to buy it. By the fifth page, I was hooked and I didn’t so much read as I inhaled it in a matter of three days.

I am alone.

I am nobody.

I don’t belong here.

Why didn’t God protect me?

It is incredibly disquieting to read a fictional character’s story and find yourself reading your own darkest doubts and questions. The main character’s whipsawing thoughts and emotions so closely echoed my own that I often felt as though I was looking into a mirror of my soul.

After reading Eve, I had two little things cross my path. Neither of them would mean a darn thing to anybody else. First, I walked into work after having finished the book and the first thing I saw was an Oprah magazine on the table. In big black letters on the cover were the words, “You are not alone.” Of all the things in the room, that was the one thing that caught my eye when I walked in the door. It felt like a hand on my shoulder.

The second moment came in my bioethics class when I was assigned reading a declaration from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two lines in it suddenly brought up a question I’d long since stopped asking. Unasked questions have a nasty way of hanging around like shadows no light can reach. Now it showed up again but in a different light. I’ll be spending time to look at it again with fresh eyes. It felt like I hadn’t been forgotten, even when I had given up.

Lent this year has been about little things. Lists. Seeing things in new ways that can’t be unseen. A good conversation. An unexpected book. A few lines of text. After all up the upheaval of this past year, I wasn’t up to anything big or dramatic. And it’s taken me all the way to Palm Sunday to figure out that God knew that better than I did. So He showed up in the little things. All I had to do was pay attention.

On Darkness and Rainbows

Over the course of the past ten days this nation has faced two major events, the horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and the Supreme Court decision declaring marriage equality as a civil right.

When the news on the shooting first broke, I didn’t know the history of Emanuel AME Church or that it was called Mother Emanuel. It was awful enough to me that someone would sit and pray with folks for an hour then stand up and shoot them because of the color of their skin. I’d like to think I’m not so naive as to think that racism in this country is no longer a prevalent issue but attacking people in church just doesn’t happen in the U.S. in 2015. But it did and the more I read, the more it broke my heart that such evil was done to this community that has faced hatred so many times in the past. The darkness that I feel can only be a pale shadow of what they feel. I wonder how we can still be so backwards as to judge people by the color of their skin. Have we learned nothing? I am frustrated, angry, and sad that such insidious evil lurks in this country and I feel powerless to combat it on my own. I have tried to remind myself that I have raised my children to see people for who they are and not for anything else. This is how we change the world. But it is a slow process and on June 17, 2015 it felt far too slow. I watched President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Pinckney and cried. If you haven’t watched it in it’s entirety, you should. It is powerful.

Nine days later, the Supreme Court of the United States reached the landmark decision declaring marriage equality to be a civil right. Members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters erupted with joy. Those who see the decision as a threat to the traditional and/or biblical definition of marriage expressed a myriad of emotions ranging from dismay to outrage. One of my usual online debating opponents went so far as to post the picture of the White House lit up with a rainbow and call for the three days of darkness to descend. I understand not everyone supports the idea of same-sex marriage but to call for the Apocalypse seems a bit extreme. I have too many friends and family members who have waited for their relationships to be considered valid to be anything but thrilled by this ruling. The language of the ruling clearly states that First Amendment rights of religions to continue to object to same-sex marriage will be protected and that is also important. I’ve spent far too much time online arguing and celebrating in the last 36 hours. Although for once no one has told me I’m going to hell.  We have so far to go in the realm of civil rights but we have come too far to give up hope. What I saw yesterday on the faces of so many couples was exactly that, hope.

These ten days have been a time of darkness and of rainbows, of despair and of hope. As a nation, may we pay attention and learn well. Grace often finds us in the darkness.

white house

When Doors Become Walls





As a part of my class in American Music, I was required to attend a concert in the school chapel. I’ve wandered past the chapel a few times but had yet to actually set foot inside. Why? No big spiritual issues there. I have to be on the other side of campus for my classes. And…well… I could never quite figure out where the door was, even from four feet away in broad daylight.  Yeah, I know how weird that sounds but it’s the honest truth. It’s a beautiful building with floor-to-ceiling panels of glass and wood, but no obvious door.

Thursday night, I headed across campus. It was dark, cold and starting to mist as I walked towards the chapel for the concert. I could see others through the windows but still had no idea how to get inside. So as I walked, I slowed down, hoping some other more savvy soul would arrive ahead of me and demonstrate the means of entrance.  I saw a young man in a hoodie and jeans wander near the building and turn away. Cue the unsettling feeling of deja vu. I found myself walking through one of my most disturbing watcher dreams.  As I got close enough, someone finally went up to the wall and disappeared so I figured I had to be close to a door. It wasn’t until I was two feet away that it became obvious that what had appeared to be a solid wall was in fact a door. Modern architecture at its finest.

Triumphant, I found a seat in the vestibule where the concert was to be held. I snagged my usual back corner of the room where I feel somewhat safe and hidden. I settled in and listened as other students arrived. From the conversations going on around me, most of the students had no idea how to get into the building and, like me, had waited outside in the dark and the cold, watching for someone to show them how to get inside. I also heard another very common theme, one I’ve heard all semester in my classes and communal gathering spaces.

“I know I should have been in here by now but…”

“I keep thinking about coming but…”

“I feel so stupid for not coming but…”

“I used to go to church and I want to go back to but…”

And all of those sentences ended with the same words: I don’t know how.

The theme of the concert was anti-bullying with songs and testimony from members of the choir. There wasn’t a dry eye to be seen by the end. A moment before the music started, the young man in the hoodie slipped inside. He kept his baseball cap pulled low and his hood pulled up over it. He slid into the last seat in the back corner opposite mine looking as if, given the opportunity, he would have liked to turn himself invisible. He was out the door at the end before the final notes had died away. I wondered if anyone even noticed him. He came in alone and he left alone.  It was then that I wondered why campus ministry hadn’t gone out of their way to make themselves visible, accessible and inviting.

How many more like him wandered close to the chapel and then drifted away, retreating into the darkness?  How many wander outside in the dark and cold, looking for a way in but see walls instead of doors?  How many are looking through the windows at those on the inside?  And how many on the inside mistake transparency for openness?

I don’t know how.

Other than children under a certain age, we can’t drag people kicking and screaming into church. Church leaders of all denominations see the fall off in attendance and a growing number of people, young and not-so-young, who are giving up on church. All we can do is show them there is a way in and trust that they will be drawn inside.

I don’t know how.

But if we  Christians truly want to be a beacon in this world, we must first acknowledge that people wander into our midst all the time and then wander back out into the darkness without ever being seen. And if they go back out into that darkness still feeling that they don’t know how, chances are, they won’t be back.  What’s more frightening is that that they may eventually give up trying to find a way in.

So long as doors remain walls and transparency remains a poor substitute for true openness, my awful watcher dream of the man in the hoodie banging on the church doors until his hands are broken and bloody continues to be a reality for many hurting people.

I don’t know how.

Showing people a way in is one thing.  Showing them how to be on the inside is another.

It can be done. I’ve seen it in my own dating church experience. I’ve spent some Sunday mornings at a small Evangelical Lutheran church and they go out of their way to eliminate I don’t know how.  As I walked up the sidewalk, the door opened for me.  A program with all of the responses, song numbers, readings along with the order of the entire service was placed in my hand. People intentionally go out of their way to introduce themselves. And throughout the entire service, the pastor announced the songs, the prayers and the pages on which they can be found. At Communion, the pastor and the ushers made a point of telling people that everyone is welcome at the table and instructions on how to receive were in that program they had handed me as I entered. Every service is conducted as if no one in the pews knows what comes next. I’m sure the regulars there know the Apostles Creed is in the back of the hymnal but as a newbie, it’s nice to hear it rather than fumbling awkwardly, trying to keep up. When the service is over, there is one way out and that is through the hands of the pastor herself.  She is easily one of the most gracious women I’ve ever met. While I still bail before coffee, I know if I stayed, I would be welcomed warmly. And I will stay eventually.  It just feels right to be in a place where anyone and everyone is welcome. Not just as a banner slogan, but in practice.



Ahhhhh the first day of Daylight Savings Time. Nothing like a nice quiet Sunday morning to soak up an extra hour of sleep under the warm toasty electric blanket. So why am I standing on a beach at 6:10 a.m. when it’s just barely light, windy and maybe 30 degrees?! Because there was a solar eclipse at sunrise this morning and I really, really wanted to see it. So there I was in sandals no less because tying sneakers would take too long this morning.

I got to the beach a few minutes before the best viewing time. It was there. It was magnificent. It was breathtaking and brilliant and it was awesome. It’s just that, well… I couldn’t see it. There were clouds and even though they’d lifted from the horizon, they still blocked the sun from view. There was one bright slit of light that peeked through the clouds. I knew exactly where that eclipse was happening and yet even with knowing when and where to look, I missed it. It was beyond the sight of my limited vantage point.

So after spending twenty minutes chatting with a couple of friends who were crazy enough to join me for a beach-at-dawn freeze fest, I gave up. The eclipse had come and gone. I headed off for my usual breakfast haunt. From the warmth of my car I watched the sunlight blaze from behind the clouds, lighting them up in purples and golds and casting a pink reflection on the water.

It occurred to me that I should be writing. It was quiet. I was wide awake. I had a whole day ahead of me with little that required any immediate attention. But I made no move to pick up the pen and notebook next to me. I know darn good and well where the next chapter of my novel takes me. There’s a great deal of darkness in it, and although it’s a work of fiction, it’s still a darkness I’m all too familiar with already. I experience what I write as I write it. You have to understand that as I recap this morning for you, I’m in wool socks, jeans and a hoodie, shivering despite sitting in front of a heating vent and sipping a hot cup of tea. So to write this chapter will take me back into places I don’t want to revisit. But…

There’s always a ‘But’ … But I came out the other side of that dark place. The whole time God was there working, beyond the sight of my limited vantage point. He was magnificent. He was breathtaking and brilliant and awesome. It’s just that, well… I couldn’t see it. In fact, there were times I wasn’t even sure He was there at all. And now…

And now, I know He’s there and always was there. To step back into that space, especially in such a limited scope shouldn’t scare me anywhere near as much as it does. I’m afraid of losing my improved but still limited vantage point. But there may well be a new one on the other side of the pages. Only one way to find out, I guess.

Tiny Stitches

Anyone who knows me will tell you, I often say, “Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine.”

And yet I can sit for hours upon hours with a needle in hand and stitch beautiful patterns. Well, I could. I haven’t for almost six years now. First it was my eyes and then my hands that wouldn’t cooperate. I got so frustrated that I gave up. I miss it far more than I could ever put into words, which is saying something because words are kind of my thing.

My favorite embroidery piece hangs in my mother’s living room. I stitched it on fine Irish linen with the best thread I could find. I spent close to $200 on the materials at a time when I caught hell for even buying a bottle of nail polish for myself. I was at the darkest point in my life when I started working on it. I’d screamed for God to help me and when I realized He was suddenly right there with me…I froze. I didn’t really expect Him to care. For the next couple of months, I wasn’t exactly talking to God but I wasn’t exactly not talking to Him to either. I sort of tolerated Him being around. Yeah, I know how arrogant that sounds. It wasn’t really arrogance. It was fear. I mean… What if He left?

Like I said, it was a dark place to be in.

But when I had my needle in my hand and that linen spread out on my lap, the darkness wasn’t quite so dark. After the first ten stitches, I fell into a rhythm. I didn’t think about anything. I counted without even knowing it and I lost myself in the tiny spaces between threads. Somehow, when I got lost in the stitches, it was okay that God was watching over my shoulder. After awhile, I actually liked that He was right there with me while I worked because I just couldn’t handle His closeness when I wasn’t working. I’d freeze like a deer in the headlights.

It took me six months to finish that project and I typically worked on it for four hours a day, some days more. I did the math once. It’s close to 70,000 stitches. By hand. One stitch at a time. It was a lot of time spent with God at a time when I really needed to trust Him and I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

I picked up a new pattern today. It’s not quite as intricate as what I used to do and I’ll be lucky if I can work on it for more than thirty minutes a day. I’ll probably end up patching my weaker eye so the pattern grid doesn’t make me go cross-eyed. Hopefully my temperamental fingers will cooperate. I don’t know what made me decide to try and pick up a needle again now but I did. Maybe I’m not quite ready to let the RA take this away from me. Not yet damn it! Maybe I need some time to get lost in the threads with God watching over my shoulder.

One thing I learned about embroidery: Before you can even make the first stitch, you have to find the absolute center of the fabric. You always work your way out from the center. It never quite works out if you don’t. It takes a very long time and lot of work before the pattern really takes any shape. Sometimes you screw it up. Royally screw it up. So you throw your scissors across the room and you cry a little. Then you tell yourself, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” You rip out a few hundred tiny little stitches and rework that section again. But when it’s done, it’s always beautiful and it’s worth every single stitch it took to finish it. Kind of like life I guess.

The other thing I learned: Looking at that piece, most people see four brightly colored birds. I still see those 70,000 stitches. I’m the only one who can still find all the mistakes. More than that, I’m the only one who even looks for the mistakes.