How Long?

Advent is an invitation to plunge into the deep, dark waters of our worst world, knowing that when we re-surface for air we will encounter the hopeful, hovering Spirit of God. For when we dive into the depths of our worst world, we reach a critical point at which our chocolate and pageants no longer satiate our longing for hope – and we are liberated by this realization. Indeed, the light of true hope is found in the midst of darkness.     – Christina Cleveland (Check out her incredible Advent post here!)

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Advent has always been my favorite season of the church year. There’s something about the anticipation, the preparation for the grand celebration that is Christmas, and the good news that it all brings. My favorite Advent memories fill me with warmth: baking Christmas cookies, decorating the tree, lighting the Advent wreath, counting down the days with chocolate-filled Advent calendars, listening to Christmas music, preparing for the Sunday School Christmas program, shopping for those perfect gifts. While I cherish these traditions and love the sense of community they bring, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been crucially missing what is perhaps the most meaningful part of the Advent season: the recognition of the world’s devastating brokenness and the consequential deep longing for redemption, for the presence of Emmanuel, God with us. Suddenly this year, in the wake of Ferguson and on a more personal level as I find myself immersed in the lives of my brothers and sisters experiencing poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, and mental illness, Advent seems to carry so much more weight. This year, I am longing for hope as well as a chance to lament, and each verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel carries with it a desperate longing, a yearning for light and liberation. A yearning that leaves me asking, “How long?”

How long until the cruel effects of racism are merely sobering memories discussed in history books? How long until we live in a world where children are no longer homeless? How long until people suffering from mental illness are able to find the help and support they need, without the fear of stigma and isolation? How long until we can be freed of the traps of the consumerism and greed that drive our daily choices, even at the expense of others? How long until violence no longer frequents our homes, schools, and streets? How long until the harsh realities of sexism no longer result in domestic abuse, education and income inequality, and even the murdering of young girls around the world? How long until the LGBTQ community feels welcome and loved in our churches and in our homes? How long until we finally decide that enough is enough, that God’s love and grace really does extend to all people and that all of us share in the responsibility of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth, right here, right now?

With these questions in mind, let us all join together as we await the coming of our Emmanuel. But, even in our waiting, let us not be afraid to be called into action. After all, “What does the Lord require of [us]? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” Especially now, in this season of Advent, as we enter into the darkness and boldly embrace the Light that is found within.

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Enough.

“When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak. That is true healing.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen

 

 “Alex, child of God, you are enough.”

These words were written to me by a dear friend and mentor in a lovely note of encouragement a couple of years ago. Words so simple, yet so hard for me to even begin to comprehend.

You. Are. Enough.

Some days I catch myself starting to believe this. Those are the days I feel completely in my element, showered in love, and surrounded by the people I care about most. Most days, however, the little voice constantly whispering words of discouragement breaks through a little bit too loudly.

“Wow, an A-? You could have done better.”

“You’re only involved in how many campus organizations? Couldn’t you find time for just one more? It will make your resume so much more impressive.”

“Spending this year as a full-time volunteer I see. Only one year? If you were really passionate about service, you would probably do another year or two at least. Or maybe you should really redirect your goals to involve full-time social work. That would show you truly care.”

“You don’t have your life figured out by now? It’s November. You should probably catch up on those grad school applications.”

“If you just applied yourself, you would really be going to school to study law or medicine. Or at least get your doctorate in psychology.”

“Shouldn’t you be giving a little more of yourself every day at work? Just think, if you could only work one-on-one with a few more of those kiddos or if only you could have found a few more resources for that family…”

“You haven’t been very social this evening. You should probably start being a better community member for your housemates.”

“You should be a better friend/family member. When’s the last time you called so-and-so?”

“You should work out more.”

“If only you practiced the piano a little more often, you could be really good instead of just mediocre.”

“If only you wrote about more interesting things, more people would read your blog…”

“You should really be more outgoing. Or more thoughtful. Or more focused on other people’s problems. Or less sassy. Or more sassy. Or…”

Enough.

Even when my days are full, when I find myself running from one activity to the next, when I have spread myself as thin as I possibly can manage to stretch, I still get caught up in this cycle of inadequacy. I convince myself that no matter what I have done that day, that hour, that minute, it wasn’t quite enough. I could have done more. I could have said more. I could have listened more. The good things I said or did or even tried my best to do somehow don’t quite count at the end of the day. Instead I am left with a lengthy list of all the things that I could have done, but, for whatever reason, didn’t.  I am noticing this tendency manifesting itself even deeper as of late. Every day at work, I am faced with an incredible amount of need, and in comparison to that need, what I have to offer seems so small. Some days I have plenty of energy, love, and determination to share. Others, it takes nearly all I have just to show up.

While taking a forced self-care day on Monday (as I was suffering from what I now affectionately call “The Sinus Infection from Hell”), I was confronted with the realization that even if I stayed in bed all day, just that one day, and didn’t talk to anyone, the world would in fact keep spinning. I had to admit that no one would suffer any permanent damage from my temporary disappearance from society. I could actually sit still long enough to rest and to heal, and everything (and everyone) would be okay. And for a moment, just a moment, I was able to silence the voice that insisted that I keep pushing forward, doing more, being more, and living up to my own impossible standards.

It was while I was sitting in my bed, forcing myself to be still, and reading an excellent book that I came across the words of Henri J. M. Noumen (written at the top of this post.) The words washed over me, offering a fresh perspective and much-needed new life.  It was after reading those words that I vowed, yet again, to start practicing granting myself grace. Grace in my weaknesses. Grace in my imperfections. Grace for the moments that the burdens of the world are simply too much for me to bear. Grace that will allow me to live freely among all of the other beautifully broken people. And hopefully in the act of granting myself grace, others can also feel free to do the same. And then maybe together, we can learn to accept ourselves in the midst of our own brokenness. And that will be enough.

 

 

 

Thank You, Leymah Gbowee!

Some days the most life-giving moments come to us in the form of service, conversation, and compassionate human interaction.  Other days, life is restored to us simply through the gift of listening, through the moments when we allow ourselves to venture deep inside the experiences of another to soak up some of the wisdom that is to be found there. Today, I was given the gift of much-needed hope and restoration from Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, via live stream on Concordia’s campus. Ms. Gbowee’s story is enough to inspire anybody. An international leader for women’s rights and a renowned peace activist, her life speaks boldly of empowerment, passion, and incredible perseverance.

Thank you, Ms. Gbowee for sharing your voice, your leadership, and your wisdom with the world. Thank you for pushing us to be better global citizens. Thank you for challenging us to see the humanity in our neighbors, all of our neighbors, and to treat others with the love and compassion we have come to expect for ourselves. Thank you for the reminder that “change never starts big” and that we are all called to join in the daily work for peace and justice.

Thank you also for calling us out as people of faith. You asked, “How can you have faith, live faith, without taking action, when the world around us is screaming out?” and “With all the faith we have, when are we going to use it for action?” Thank you for not shying away from the hard questions and for inviting people of all faiths to come together for the empowerment of those who need our love the most.

And thank you for speaking with more than just words. Thank you for being a living example of someone who is dedicated to social justice, compassion, and equality for all people. And thank you for reminding us that it is not always easy, but that we all share in this responsibility.

So, dear friends, let’s rise to this challenge by taking seriously Ms. Gbowee’s reminder that change happens one step at a time. Let us also remember that in order to inspire global peace and justice, we must not forget the dire need for peace and justice in our own nation. Let us resist the temptation to turn our heads and hearts away from the men, women, and children in our own communities suffering from the devastating effects of poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. Let us not ignore the very real structures of racism and sexism that are still way to prevalent right here in the United States.

This can be a terrifying challenge because once we open our eyes to the realities of suffering in our own communities, there is no turning back. Without a doubt, we have an overwhelming task in front of us. However, I think the good news is that we are not called to tackle all of the world’s problems on our own. Hand in hand, one step at a time, we really can make a difference. As Ms. Gbowee so beautifully shared with us tonight, “Change is not in the grand things. It is in the little act of kindness that leaves a mark on one person that gives them hope in humanity.” The time is long overdue. Let’s embark on this change together.

Power-Walking Through Labyrinths and Attempts at Vocational Discernment–With a Little Bit of Sass

Labyrinth “You really have so much time. You honestly don’t need to know what you’re going to do with the rest of    your life right now.”

I have been offered this phrase and variations of it probably a million times in the past month by co-workers, housemates, friends, trusted mentors, random folks who I have found myself spilling my life story to at Urban Servant Corps fundraisers… the list goes on. And I almost always respond with something like, “Yeah, I know. And I really have a lot of options because I have a lot of interests, so it’s a pretty good problem to have. And it’s exciting. I mean, I think I would probably be bored if I had it all figured out right now.”

I would like to take this moment to announce that I am a liar. I do not find this process of life discernment to be simply “exciting.” “Anxiety-inducing,” “frustrating,” and “confusing” maybe. (Okay and maybe a little bit exciting too…) but to say that I am skipping along loving every moment of this whole vocational discernment business would simply not be true. In fact, the inner psychologist in me would like to take a moment to point out that my primary defense mechanisms include over-enthusiasm and seemingly over- the-top cheerfulness in the face of less than appealing circumstances. (And yes, I am aware that these are not any of Freud’s defined defense mechanisms. As an imaginary psychologist, I took the liberty of making up a couple of others.) So, basically, the moral of the story is that my planning, list-making, over-achieving, future-oriented brain does not like not having a clue about what my life might look like less than a year from now.

Whether I can blame cultural influences or hereditary predisposition, I have found that I work best when I have a concrete goal to work toward or a defined project I can create. I thrive when I have a long to-do list and get a thrill out of checking things off and seeing projects completed (especially when the eternal perfectionist in me can see that I have completed these projects successfully. And probably a little above and beyond what the assignment description originally stated.)  Although I have been challenged in a hundred different ways since moving to Denver, I have to admit that my lack of concrete, long-term plans is a bit unnerving. Do I want to stay in Denver? Maybe. Do I want to move back closer to home? Kind of, yes. Do I want to go to grad school? Probably. What kind of grad school? Umm… this question is more complicated than one might think. Do I want to just pack up and travel the world? Absolutely. (How does one secure their own show on the Travel Channel anyway??) Psychology? Ministry? Social work? Full-time coffee tasting? I honestly have no idea anymore.

A couple of weeks ago for a faith reflection activity, two USC volunteers set up a prayer labyrinth in the living room. We were given time to walk slowly through the labyrinth and take time to pray, reflect, or to simply breathe. Now, I don’t know if you have ever walked a labyrinth before, but the general idea is to walk slowly to the center of the labyrinth where you are encouraged to stop for a time of reflection. When you are ready, you begin to walk slowly back out of the labyrinth, taking the same path that you took to the center. One can spend their time in the labyrinth engaging in structured prayer, simply meditating on a single word or thought, reflecting on life and recent experiences, or, for the more free-spirited folk, allowing one’s unstructured thoughts to guide their labyrinth walking experience.

Second confession of this post: I am not a good labyrinth walker.

Many of you may know that I am a power-walker. Walking slowly (or gracefully) has never one of my gifts. Maybe it’s because I’m a little bit on the shorter side, so I always feel the need to walk twice as fast to keep up with those around me. Maybe it is my psychological need to always be on a mission. Maybe I just like to walk fast. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, power walking is not an ideal practice while walking through a labyrinth, especially a small, living room-sized labyrinth. I had to force myself to slow down. To take one small step at a time and to breathe with each step. Heel to toe. Breathe. Heel to toe. Breathe. Heel to toe. Breathe. All the way to the center. And then all the way back out.

At first, I was frustrated. I was frustrated with myself for not being able to walk slowly enough to allow myself to reflect and then frustrated with myself for being frustrated that I was too focused on trying to walk slowly that I couldn’t really reflect on whatever I was supposed to be reflecting on, and then finally frustrated with the whole labyrinth walking practice in general. However, as I moved toward the center of the labyrinth, my breathing and slow, carefully paced steps started to seem more natural. Somewhere along the way, I stopped worrying about what to reflect on and simply let my breathing take over, finally surrendering to the fact that maybe simply allowing myself to exist in the present moment was enough. For those fifteen minutes, it became enough for me just to exist, to allow my thoughts to take me wherever they wanted to, and to be present with my fellow labyrinth walkers without saying a word.

In a society so focused on personal achievements, the number of academic credentials listed after one’s name, and one’s amount of fame and prestige, maybe we could all do with a little lesson in labyrinth walking. (Or maybe I just need to start taking my own advice.) Perhaps, sometimes, it is enough to simply be. To breathe deeply, to live fully in the present moment, engaging with those around us and enjoying the simple pleasures of life—the crisp autumn leaves, the smell of the rain or freshly mown grass, the soothing sound of an acoustic guitar or classical piano. I am definitely not saying that setting personal goals is a bad thing (I still think this is very important for a number of reasons), but I do think that there is incredible beauty to be found fully engaging in the here and now. As uncomfortable as it may be, I am convinced that there is something sacred about the messiness and uncertainty of the present, even in the midst of the process of discernment. And I’m learning, day-by-day, to grant myself enough grace to accept that I am not an exception to this rule.  Maybe I too am enough in the midst of my messiness, confusion, and current lack of over-commitment and lengthy to-do lists. And maybe, just maybe, I really don’t have to have it all figured out.

Peace to you all! ❤

Alex