Thursday, August 15, 2013

Community Finds You Wherever You Go

Justin and I have been living in intentional community for just over 8 months now.  It's been a beautiful journey full of all the things that make up beautiful journeys--bumps in the road, voluntary and involuntary time taken to stop and "smell the roses," some misdirection and turn-arounds, and great companions along the way.  Definitely a time where we have learned to embody even deeper the lesson that the stories and the journey are much more important than your destination.  And, really, what is a destination but a momentary pit stop on a much larger path?  But, I digress.

For these 8 months, every Thursday night we have had Community Meal, a time when we invite friends and neighbors to come and partake of a home-cooked meal and enjoy fellowship together.  It's a time when we practice giving and receiving hospitality, when we remember the sacred ordinary-ness of gathering around a table together.  In all this time, the only Community Meal we have missed was a Thursday night when we didn't have Community Meal because of the 4th of July.  Until tonight.  In practicing what we preach about taking Sabbath, Justin and I got away for a few days to a Bed and Breakfast out in the Texas Hill Country run by a ministry seeking to provide Sabbath time for ministers (if you are ordained clergy, speak with us--we can hook you up!).  Because of what they had available and our time window for getting away, we realized we were going to have to miss Community Meal.  But, again, practicing what we preach--Sabbath is important, as is allowing that you are not so important to any process that it can't happen without you.  So, away we went.

We have had a great time, particularly enjoying the chance to be real introverts and read all day.  I'm not kidding.  This is the best place EVER to vacation if you're an introvert because it is totally acceptable AND possible to read all day and not be disturbed.  We have had exactly the kind of vacation we needed.  We've finished books, started books, gone antique shopping, set our own schedule, talked when we wanted to talk and been silent when we wanted to be silent.

It also hasn't been lost on us that in going on vacation, we also stepped out of the rhythm of communal life.  We would have to be more intentional about doing morning prayer since it's just the two of us--which we have done--and we would miss the weekly meal that has become so vital and sacred to us.  Interestingly enough, though, there's this thing that happens when you practice something long enough--it moves from an enforced practice to an embodied presence.  I have organ pieces that I have practiced so much, they are part of my hands in a way I can't even begin to explain.

We may be away from our intentional community, but communal intentionality seems to have followed us.  

At breakfast this morning, we met a couple who do ministry with the United Methodist Church in Houston.  What started as polite conversation over breakfast, turned into a 2+ hour time of togetherness swapping stories, letting wisdom flow between us, becoming encouragers and supporters of the various ministry places we find ourselves.  Community happened.  We invited this couple and the chaplains of the B&B to dinner with us tonight, and though the couple wasn't able to come, the chaplains did.  What followed was another 2+ hour conversation in which the potential barriers of age, experience, and denomination melted away, making room for deep communion and companion-ing as we saw how similar our current life situations really are and allowed our stories to bolster and challenge one another.  Community happened.  Community happened, and it happened over food, gathered at a table.  As we gave our bodies life and joy with good sustenance, we opened ourselves to the soul-sustenance we find in community with one another.  

One of the books I've been reading on vacation is Henri Nouwen's With Burning Hearts:  A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life.  As with most things Nouwen-related, I recommend reading the whole thing.  It's worth it.  You just don't get the nuance if you only quote a small portion of it.  But, I'm going to do it anyway.  Nouwen speaks about the encounter the disciples walking the road to Emmaus have with Christ on their journey and in the breaking of bread.  This is what Nouwen says about Communion (both the practice of the Eucharist and the coming together of like minds):

Communion creates community.  Christ, living in them (the disciples), brought them together in a new way.  The Spirit of the risen Christ, which entered them through the eating of bread and drinking of the cup, not only made them recognize Christ himself but also each other as members of a new community of faith.  Communion makes us look at each other and speak to each other, not about the latest news, but about him who walked with us.  

It is both a blessing and a challenge that when you approach creating community with intentionality, there comes a time when it sneaks up on you when you least expect it.  As our eyes are opened and our hearts made ready to receive it, community becomes not a place or event, but an attitude and an awareness.  And praise be that in the goodness and wisdom of the Triune God who lives in constant divine togetherness, the simple act of breaking bread and sharing the cup--eating and drinking--can create a mundane-divine space for our communion to grow.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Love Determinedly

23 years ago today, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, giving persons with disabilities a chance at inclusion and equal opportunities for a full and purposeful life in society.

7 years ago today, I got a call from a man I greatly respected asking me to go to dinner with him...

5 years ago today, I married that man, wheelchair and all...

Today, I reflect in beautiful astonishment at God's loving mischief.

Everyone always says that the day you get married is the day you love your spouse the least.  Not that you don't love them at that time, but that you learn how love grows, changes, and deepens over your years together.  I believe this deeply, but I also think that time has a way of helping you reinterpret what you didn't already know. I love my husband passionately.  He is my best friend, soul mate, supporter, protector, comic relief, writing/teaching partner, and road trip buddy.  I am his wife, friend, confidant, sounding board, and caregiver. Everyday of the last 5 years, in some capacity or another, I have acted as his eyes, feet, hands, and strength. There are days I am called to love my husband by setting aside the needs of my own body to stand in the gap and act as a bridge between his inabilities and the flow of life. I may love Justin passionately, but the last 5 years have taught me lessons in how to love determinedly.

We all choose how we are going to love another in the face of obstacles. Some choose to love in spite of, other because of, but we choose to love in the midst of. Today, this is what I celebrate. I celebrate the sleepless nights, broken down van, tumbles and falls, hospital experiences, spilled drinks, gouged walls, extra laundry, and sore muscles. These are the Ebenezer stones marking our way in the journey of learning to love with God. These are worthy of celebration.

I remember a young 19 year old woman who accepted an invitation 7 years ago. She couldn't have understood what it means to love determinedly. But she did make a choice to give this guy on the other line a chance. She chose to see a man sitting in a wheelchair rather than a wheelchair-bound man. She took a chance that God works in mysterious and mischievous ways. She was right, and I am forever thankful.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What if I can't?

"God, what if I can't?"

I feel like this is a question I ask quite often. I'll find myself facing a particularly arduous task or a difficult day or just the prospect of getting out of bed, and out it pops. I really sat back and took notice of this query today, and I noticed a few things I thought I'd write down.

1. This question assumes God desires for me to go somewhere, do something, or be generally active in my day. Though I may feel like I cannot do whatever the task or thing is in front of me, it assumes that my response to God is not stagnant, but a call to action or engagement with my surroundings.

2. This question shows me that one of my greatest fears is the inability to do what is asked of me. I don't know if anyone else out there is like that or not, but it hits me that "can't" is very different from "won't" or "don't." For me, to "can't" is to fail, to be weak, to be less than acceptable.

3. Despite the consistency with which I ask this question, the answer is constant. It is the panacea to my fear, the balm to my broken admittance that I'm just not capable. God says, "I Can." I Can in you, I Can through you, I Can with you. 

Whatever questions we ask, whatever internal roadblocks would make stagnant waters look better than flowing rivers of life, may we remember that God--who always is when we are not and always can when we cannot--offers the answer to our questions in God's very presence.  It is not an answer we earn or an answer which is withheld from all but the privileged few.  It is an answer freely offered and generously given to all places, all peoples, all walks of life. As our hidden places whisper of our inadequacy, may we know ourselves to be God's precious children in our very dependence on the "Can-ness" of God.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Barbacoa and Empanadas

The smell is heavenly and earthy.  Heavenly, if that's what it can be called, with the scent of cinnamon, sugar, and fresh dough.  Earthy with the aroma of slow cooked meat, vegetables freshly washed, humanity and food packed together in a place not quite big enough for all that it holds.  It is a smell full of vitality--it is the smell of living people, my neighbors.  

The sight is overwhelming.  People and color and food and people and baskets and food and people... People who do not look like me...but they smile like me, smell their fruit like me, stand indecisively in front of the pastries like me.  Here I see my neighbors.  

The sounds are chaotic.  Clicking, rolling, banging, yelling, shouting, greeting, crying, words rapidly fired in a language I don't understand.  The language of people working, playing, struggling, rejoicing.  The language of my neighbor.

As a person who took five years of French as a foreign language, I am absolutely at a loss in a Latin American grocery store.  My limited vocabulary and my white skin absolutely set me apart, not to mention my husband was also with me, making us even more conspicuous with his electric wheelchair.  Yet, as I walked into the Fiesta just a couple miles from our house, there was something in the air, something…real.  The store was clean, but it was not immaculate.  It was packed to the brim with food, not carefully manicured to present everything “just so.”  There were glorious smells coming out of the panaderia, and you had to be willing to wait quite a bit to get what you wanted because everyone getting their pastries had to scrunch into a very small space. But take my words for it, the cream cheese empanada was worth the wait!  Though there were national brands of products, I learned that if I wanted the cheap stuff, I was going to have to get a brand I had never heard of before and probably couldn’t pronounce.  But that’s ok.  It was worth it.

Then, we went to the cafeteria-style restaurant squeezed in a space not much bigger than some dorm rooms I've seen.  The tortillas were fresh, the food was simmering...and no one spoke English.  The only name of anything I recognized was "Barbacoa."  And it looked gooood.  So in my best effort I looked at the woman and asked "Barbaco?"  She proceeded to ask me questions that I couldn't begin to understand.  And we just looked at one another, lost, perhaps a bit frustrated, probably both wondering why I was there in the first place.  Was I crazy to come into a place that was not my own?  Thankfully, the one worker who could translate caught on to what was happening, came over and helped.  All the tension left my body, and I knew it was going to be ok.  (By the way, the Barbacoa was excellent!)

I did not go to Fiesta to make the experience fit my expectations.  No, the point of going was to start learning what it means to be a part of this neighborhood.  As a white female, I have a choice to ignore my surroundings and go elsewhere to shop for groceries.  But, to ignore the life of my neighbor is the very opposite of real hospitality.  As Ana Maria Pineda expresses, “When it is most fully realized, hospitality not only welcomes strangers; it also recognizes their holiness.” 
For a recent class assignment, I was asked to define hospitality.  My definition of hospitality is twofold: 
1. to recognize the holiness in the stranger 
2. to respond to the stranger’s holiness with full engagement  

This kind of hospitality requires an openness to encounter God constantly.  God cannot be put in a box that only opens when it is convenient to me.  The Triune God must be the Dancer swirling around all of life, encompassing the big and the little on the dance floor of Earth.  I must be on the dance floor with God.  But, I must also recognize that you--the person I meet on the street, the friend I embrace in passing, the child I call by name—are also created to dance.  Then and only then, can I—can we—extend a hand, step out in faith, and join in the Creator’s Dance as partners.  There will be stepping on toes, bumping into each other, and awkward moments of deciding who leads and who follows.  This is part of the reality of dance, and therefore the reality of hospitality.  It’s messy, rough, and real.  It encounters the grit of the human condition, the joy of the human spirit, the struggle of human existence, and the wonder of human life, and says “Welcome home!”  In  the opening of doors and extending of hands, I imagine that the welcomed and the welcomer both hear the quiet voice of the Partner saying, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

In our hospitality, we live the Kingdom of God, opening its doors to the stranger and inviting them in the journey, in the dance, in the grand welcoming of Christ.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Uduhenzagire, mana!
Turaguhimbazaa, mana!

(Bless us, O God!
We need You!
We love You!
We worship You, God!)

As a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, the music of the global Church is an integral (and now expected) part of my course of study.  In our very first class session with Dr. Hawn, we started learning to sing the faith in Swahili, Shona, Zulu, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.  Thus, when I received the opportunity to serve as a Music and Worship Intern for New Day Upendo, a micro-community meeting at  and engaging with an apartment complex in Dallas where many African refugees are placed upon arrival to the United States, I felt like I was going in with an advantage. Sure, there would be things to learn, but hey, I already know 10+ songs in a variety of African languages, and  we could at least start there while I build relationship and learn from what they've been singing.  

Well, I learned a couple things very quickly: 
1. There are a few songs that seem to have traversed the African continent and have probably been translated into almost every language.  Just because you know that song in Shona (Zimbabwe), does not mean they use the same words in Kenya.  

2. A lot of what I had been exposed to is either in Shona or Zulu (South Africa).  The majority of the people I serve are not from Zimbabwe or South Africa.  If I wanted to sing something and have it understood, it was time to learn songs in Swahili and/or translate songs into Swahili.  Not being a Swahili speaker (let's face it, I'm not a great Swahili singer), I often find myself running up to my friend Peter and asking, "How do you say 'always' in Swahili?"  [If I ever go to Africa, I may not be able to say much, but I've got "Daima tunaomba (Always, we pray)" and "Hakuna Mungu kama wewe (There's no one like Jesus)" down!]

These two lessons were really just the pre-requisites for the real course I was about to learn in what I will call "the hospitality of song."  But, more on that in a moment.  As I was starting to feel comfortable with translating and learning songs, and mixing the languages we sang in our gatherings, we had two women and their children start coming to New Day just a few days after their arrival in the United States.  These dear women speak very little Swahili, even less English, and their dominant language is Kinyarwanda.  Thankfully, we have a few people in our community who can understand and translate between English and Kinyarwanda, but this language barrier has at times provided a new challenge for many of us.  One particular evening, we did not have anyone in the room capable of translating the lesson into Kinyarwanda, and a man walks in who heard us singing and wanted to see what was going on.  None of us had seen him before, but in he walked, and he turned out to be a fluent speaker of both English and Kinyarwanda.  He was willing to translate for the women, and even participated in the discussion himself.  It was such a beautiful moment of seeing God provide.

As a leader of song, I now have the challenge of finding songs in Kinyarwanda, which absolutely is not going to happen by looking at publications in the United States.  I mean, let's face it, Swahili is at least an option on Google Translate, Kinyarwanda isn't.  So, Peter starts experimenting with adding Kinyarwanda to some of the songs we sing.  Then, last week, Peter remembered a song he learned in Kinyarwanda, the song that I posted at the top.  After spending a week singing the song at any opportunity--in the car, the shower, while shelving books (quietly)--I taught the song to the community yesterday.  Somewhere along the way as I learned and became familiar with the song, it also seeped into my spiritual bones.  It started to gain meaning beyond what the words actually say.  Then, to hear all of us, people of many languages, ages, experiences, and cultures,  come together and sing in a language few are familiar with so that we could sing in solidarity with our was beautiful.  I realized in that moment and upon reflection that they shared something with me of such worth I can barely describe it.  They shared with me the language of their heart, and they let me take it in as my own heart song. I was presented by Peter and these women a song that Means deeply, and in teaching it to me, they offered me the hospitality of song.  They invited me into their musical and linguistic home, and continue to allow me to stay a while to rest, to learn, to grow, to cry, to shout, to be. I am speechless and overwhelmed at the depth of such hospitality.  Praise be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

When Our Gifts Abuse Us

I've had this topic on my heart and in my head for a long time.  I know it probably sounds pretty dark, and I'm really not intending to write anything terribly emotional, but I feel like this is something we don't talk about enough.  Whether you're a musician, a pastor, a day laborer, a scholar, or none of the above:
What happens when your gifts are used to hurt you?
Now, let me define this a little.  When I say gifts, in this instance I mean the intrinsic qualities that every person has that makes them good at one thing or another and the purpose to which the talent/gift is used.  This could mean being good at playing the piano, but on a deeper level, it means having a gift and desire to play the piano for the purpose of praising God.  It could mean being a gifted speaker, but it more means being able to speak in such a way that you connect with other people and bring them closer to the Creator.  So, it's not just being good at a particular activity, but it's being gifted to do a certain thing well for the greater glory and benefit of God's kingdom.  Hence, even though it's not something you can get a degree for or earn medals in, listening, for example, is a gift that some people have and other do not, and it can do much to communicate love and acceptance to another person in Christ's name. 

As a person currently training to be a musician/minister/church leader, I have become very aware recently of how our gifts--given to us to bring glory to God--are sometimes used and exploited by other people to bring harm to me, the bearer of the gift.  I know this may not be everyone's situation, but I know one of my gifts is a tender heart.  Yet, there are people in my life who see my tenderness as a weakness, and direct their hurtful words and action at me to bring my heart pain.  Or, there are those who see a person gifted at listening, and proceed to place on that person numerous mental and emotional burdens without reciprocating love back to their neighbor.  I'm sure the list could continue on all the ways our gifts can be exploited by other to bring us pain, but I'd like to get to the question at hand: 
What is a healthy response? 
Unforunately, I don't have an authoritative answer for this question.  I still struggle with it on an almost daily basis.  However, I think the place to start lies in learning to set boundaries.  Allowing others to hurt me through my gifts means that I have not set limits in relating to this person regarding how I will or will not be treated.  Sometimes we do not realize when someone mistreats us through our gifts until we are in the thick of it, but that is no reason to allow such behavior to continue. This also requires that re-orient our ideas of what it means to love another person.  Loving my neighbor does not require me to stop loving myself.  In fact, I contend that my ability to acknowledge and encourage dignity in another corresponds directly to the dignity I afford myself.  If I lose my own dignity and identity in order to love another person, then I have not loved them at all.  Rather, I have aided and abetted a continuation of destructive and abusive behavior.  Yet, in setting relational boundaries, I create situations which diffuse manipulation by honestly expressing how I wish to be treated.  In the process, I also set an example for what healthy Christian love looks like.  Let us remember that Christ gave up everything for us except His identity.  Even in the face of the worst of human abuse and destruction, Christ redeemed us by remaining who He is.  Jesus did not love the world by transforming into the political leader the Jews desired, nor did He succumb to the desire others had to cloister Him away when opposition to His prophetic teachings grew.  Yes, Christ could have been a brilliant political liberator, but that wasn't His purpose.  Yes, Christ could have easily escaped suffering and death, but His identity lay not in preserving His own life, but in dying and rising again, that we might have life through the Suffering Servant, God Incarnate.  

In our imitation of Christ's love for God and love for neighbor, may we find the wisdom to use our gifts well with a strength of purpose and identity that only comes from God's guidance.  Then, may those who abuse see that true love communicates dignity and respect of self and of neighbor. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Taking Care of Caregivers

I simultaneously made a statement and asked a question this morning that are difficult for me to admit to but important to acknowledge:
Today, I'm tired of caregiving.
When is someone going to take care of me?

It's very difficult for me to admit to these thoughts, but being vulnerable in this instance, I hope, will bring to light what it means to attend to caregivers and their families, and what it means to do it well.  On a day where I feel done-in, tired, weak, and empty, it can be tempting to say that taking care of a caregiver means taking away the burden of care.  But, not only is it unrealistic to believe someone will ride in on a white horse equipped with the muscles to lift, a gentle touch to bathe and dress, and the kindness to give dignity at all times and in all circumstances--it's also not true to the redemptive work of Christ.  Caring for the caregiver is not about removing the physical burden, partly because sharing in the labor is only temporary and fails to address the deeper source of pain and weariness. (Though, trust me, any help is greatly appreciated!)  Plus, the physical requirements on any caregiver, especially when the recipient of care is a family member, are only a portion of one's emptying out on the behalf of the other.  There are emotions, good or bad, that are associated with doing for another person what people can typically do for themselves.  Then, there are the emotions of attachment between the caregive-ee and the caregiver, because no matter how healthily you handle the relationship, you have a situation where one person depends on another to help with the most mundane and necessary things for a dignified existence.  All of this can turn into the perfect storm when the needs of the person you care for call for more of yourself than you have to give.  Hence, mornings when I wake up despairing whether relief will ever come.

So, I must ask myself, what does caring for Lisa the Caregiver look like?  If I were to paint a picture of what caring for caregivers looks like, I would ask you to picture a place where people gather to be honest, not only with their words but also with their bodies.  A place where it is safe to be weary and quiet.  A place where it is safe to be stressed and anxious.  A place where weeping and wailing are accepted as much as silent tears or joyful smiles.  A place where an embrace lasts a long time and the look of someone who chooses to stand alongside you communicates as powerfully as a sermon.  A place that is calm, a place that is full of life, a place where love is communicated in the sharing of food and the contents of our hearts.  A place where the call to "Comfort, comfort ye my people..." means a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual in-breaking of mutual care and support. 

Most of all, I desire a place that fights the isolation of caregiving not with noise and activity, but with full and honest acknowledgement of me, with all my struggles, burdens, cares, joys, concerns, and passions.  I am more than a caregiver, but caregiving pervades my life in ways few other situations in life can.  There is only rest, only rejuvenation, only real care when me as caregiver and me as me are acknowledged, fully received and allowed to live in the tension that is inherent to my situation.  I don't want life to be fixed--I want it to be received, embraced, and encountered with tenderness and honesty.   

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."  Matthew 11:28-30